Industrial

GEzus Priced super far?

US Corp prof.pngIt is not rocket science. Generally higher interest rates lead to lower profitability. The chart above shows that quarterly pre-tax US profitability is struggling. We took the liberty of comparing the profitability since 1980 and correlating it to what Moody’s Baa rated corporate bond effective 10yr yields. An R-squared of almost 90% was returned.

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With the Fed moving toward a tightening cycle, we note that the spreads of Baa 10yrs to the FFR has yet to climb out of its hole. During GFC it peaked at 8.82%. It is now around 3%.

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Why not use the Aaa spread instead? Well we could do that but looking over the last decade the average corporate debt rating profile looks like this. We have seen a massive deterioration in credit ratings. If we look at the corporate profitability with Baa interest rates over the past decade, correlation climbs even higher.

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Corporate America binged on cheap credit over the last decade and given the spreads to Aaa ranked corporate bonds were relatively small, it was a no brainer. In 2015, GE’s then-CEO Jeff Immelt said he was willing to add as much as $20 billion of additional debt to grow, even if it meant lower bond grades. We can see that the spread today is a measly 0.77%. Way off the 3.38% differential at the time of GFC. Still nearly 50% of corporate debt is rated at the nasty end.

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We shouldn’t forget that the US Government is also drunk on debt, much of it arriving at a store near you. $1.5 trillion in US Treasuries needs refinancing this year and $8.4tn over the next 3.5 years. Couple that with a Japan & China pulling back on UST purchases and the Fed itself promising to taper its balance sheet. So as an investor, would you prefer the safety of government debt or take a punt on paper next to junk heading into a tightening cycle?

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In any event, the 4.64% 10yr Baa corporate bond effective yield is half what it was at the time of GFC. Yet, what will profitability look like when the relative attractiveness of US Treasuries competes with a deteriorating corporate sector in terms of profitability or balance sheet?

Take GE as an example. Apart from all of the horror news of potential dividend cuts, bargain basement divestments and a CEO giving vague timelines on a turnaround in its energy business things do not bode well. Furthermore many overlook the fact that GE has $18.7bn of negative equity. Selling that dog of an insurance business will need to go for pennies in the dollar. There is no premium likely. GE had a AAA rating but lost it in March 2009. Even at AA- the risk is likely to the downside.

Take GE’s interest cover. This supposed financial juggernaut which was at the time of GFC the world’s largest market cap company now trades with a -0.17x interest coverage ratio. In FY2013 it was 13.8x. The ratio of debt to earnings, has surged from 1.5 in 2013 to 3.7 today. It has $42bn in debt due in 2020 for refinancing.

By 2020, what will the interest rate differentials be? There seems to be some blind faith in GE’s new CEO John Flannery’s ability to turn around the company. Yet he is staring at the peak of the aerospace cycle where any slowdown could hurt the spares business not to mention the high fixed cost nature of new engines under development. In a weird way, GE is suffering these terrible ratios at the top of the cycle rather than the bottom. Asset fire sales to patch that gaping hole in the balance sheet. Looks like a $4 stock not a $14 one.

Tesla Elongates Fight against ‘unfair’ media

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CM totally sympathizes with clickbait media cycle. Tesla CEO Elon Musk railed at the negative coverage surrounding the company in recent times. The memories are clearly short. The media is generally effusive with praise of Tesla. How most newspapers and magazines fawn over Musk! Dan Primack made this point well:

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Edmunds has also written a damning review of the Model 3 announcing how many problems the car has faced since it was bought.

Some things from the Edmunds long term test were as follows:

The most annoying of those issues was a repeated, uncontrollable increase in stereo volume, sometimes when we weren’t even in the car. Basically, the stereo would suddenly go to full volume without explanation. This and other issues are cataloged from our notes below:

• Would not recognize keycard in or on the console and hence would not go into gear. It did, however, unlock the car. Workaround was to force quit the app and restart the app. Then it would allow the choice of Drive or Reverse.

• The backup camera screen did not appear when reversing.

• Nav screen going haywire: zooming, scrolling, pinching, pixelating all at once.

• Audio system turning on by itself at full volume.

• Audio display randomly moving up and down the screen without any command from a human.

• Audio system came on and went to full volume all by itself while the car was off, locked and unoccupied. I heard it from 100 yards away. “Who is that joker playing his stereo so loud I can hear it from here?” Oh, it’s Elon. I turned it down, but it kept wavering up and down as I started driving, working against my repeated attempts to dial it down. Then it blasted all the way to maximum. My ears are still ringing two hours later. Fixed after reboot. Not sure about hearing damage.

• Audio page leaping up and down rapidly like the up-caret button to expand the source menu was being played with by a kid who ate too much candy. Concurrent with the volume problem above. Same reboot.

• Icons on the map screen flickering.

• The passenger vanity mirror fell off completely. Installed and held on only by double-sided tape. Reinstalled by pressing really hard on the mirror.

• The screen went completely dark on startup, no music or operation. Restarted the car. The screen worked; the backup camera did not.

• The car will not shift into Drive or Reverse upon startup. “Vehicle Systems Are Powering Up. Shift Into D or R After Message Clears.” Have to wait for it to power up. A loud click comes from the rear of the car as if a drive shaft is engaging and the message on the screen goes away.

• The car displays a new message: “Cannot Maintain Vehicle Power. Car May Stop Driving or Shut Down.” No shutdowns yet, but keeping an eye out.

• With 170 miles of range, the car displays a “Regenerative Braking Limited” message. Plenty of available space to store regen power. Logged the issue, then reset the screen with a reboot. The message has not displayed since.

• While the car was parked, the passenger sun visor was left down and the mirror fell out. Pressed back into place. Hoping it won’t fall out again.

While no one should expect reliability to be at levels of mainstream manufacturers that have been at it for decades longer, quality remains a big issue for Tesla. For Musk to slam the media will only lead to responses as this.

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Singapore Airlines wins whichever way the peace talks go

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June 12. Kim & Trump meet in Singapore. How the North Korean dictator will look in utter awe at how a city state of 5.6mn can build such a vibrant and prosperous economy with no resources of any kind other than grit, perseverance and common sense pro-business policy. The splendor of the skyline, architecture and cleanliness. Singapore will also get billions of people tuned in to the hours of global press coverage and news reruns. Surely Anderson Cooper will prop in front of the Merlion or Marina Bay Sands to convey the live coverage. How can Singapore Airlines not win from this global media freebie for tourism. One would imagine the place they sit down and talk will become a cult fixture for people to say they went to the spot where history was made.

Yet Singapore didn’t win the contest as a fluke. It has shown itself to be the outstanding beacon of independence in the region. Mongolia was a long shot and Switzerland would have caused poor old Kim to take a fuel stop. Let’s hope we get a peaceful resolution and maybe then we see Trump’s approval rating surge beyond the latest reading of 51% (Rasmussen). Ignore the noise around the midterms in Nov 2018. Iran is a separate issue and scrapping that deal was an election promise.

If only Elon Musk could summon institutional questions

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Elon Musk has apparently terminated the question of a Bernstein analyst ((followed by the rest of the institutional queue) on the basis of it being “uncool”. He said, “We’re going to YouTube [for retail investors]. These questions are so dry. They’re killing me!” If only the Tesla CEO could summon the right type of questions that deflected criticism of the company as easily as maneuvering a parked Model S from a tight parking spot.

While he urged non-believers to sell the stock, there is little to be gained pushing a line of  opacity for a company with production issues, continuing losses and $10.6bn in debt. Earnings results are not about having fun but for investors/analysts to probe and qualify assumptions in the interest of making rational investment decisions.

CM has made constant reference to Musk’s amazing ability to sell. He is coming up to the pointy end of having to deliver. There are countless distractions which perculate below the surface – copyright infringement trial launched by Nikola Motor, the NTSB autopilot probe, countless resignations and recent calls to cut the staff canteen cookies. By blowing off the main investor pool that feeds him, the question of CEO capability becomes a bigger factor than the dreadful earnings themselves.

There is no better disinfectant than sunlight but Musk continues to deflect. Cash flow continues to decline  The production shutdown in April will thump Q2 earnings, not to mention the capex spend should rise plus the write off of equipment that has proven to be surplus to requirements. Here he is talking of 10,000 units a week down the line to fill the hearts of the faithful followers. Perhaps his comments about not needing to raise capital are best addressed by the fact he’s raised 7x since that statement.

Today’s results meeting is more telling in that snake oil salesman tactics of talking up the situation was replaced by silence and stonewalling. Telling.

Who will get the Nobel Peace Prize for helping end the Korean War – Kim, Moon & Xi or Trump?

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Will President Donald Trump be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for getting Kim & Moon to the peace table? It is unlikely in so far as the Norwegian Nobel Committee would fear the full weight of international opinion (aka mainstream media) for doing so. Surely they wouldn’t risk making a mockery of such a coveted award? Then again a one Barack Obama was handed one less than 9 months into his first term on the stated basis of a noble quest for the Holy Grail of world peace rather than anything actually achieved. In 2016 alone, the Obama administration dropped 26,171 bombs on enemies. Not bad for a serial appeaser. A Nobel prize has even been awarded to a multi billion dollar embezzling terrorist of a self appointed authority, so Kim Jong-un is in with a shot.

Will Trump receive any credit (even without a Nobel) for pushing ‘Rocketman/The Fat Kid’ to the negotiating table? Probably not. How come no other administrations were able to achieve something that was relatively easier when the state of the North’s arsenal was considerably less lethal? Kim threatened Guam less than half a year ago. Trump didn’t back down and the North Korean dictator clearly realized from Twitter that the most powerful man in the world wasn’t all bluster. President Xi may well have played a solid hand in pushing Kim to sue for peace negotiations. In the interests of President-for-life Xi, his foe Trump has a maximum 7 years left to meddle. If Korea gets a peace deal, Xi can play hardball on the peninsula if a softer President enters the White House thereafter. Then he can take a stab at Taiwan. Xi can afford to wait.

We should not forget that Kim Jong-Un travelled to China on his first ‘overseas’ visit earlier this year. Best get the approval of a real dictator before progressing. Kim was there to get Beijing’s blessing to ensure North Korean sovereignty come what may so as to maintain the desired geographical buffer to pro-US nations.

Noone said peace isn’t desirable. The question is what price must one pay to get it? There are too many incidents in the past where signing peace treaties with dictatorial regimes have ended in disaster. Hitler/Chamberlain (Munich Agreement), Hitler/Stalin (Pact of Steel), Putin/Merkel/Macron (suggestion of UN in Ukraine), Le Duc Tho/Kissinger (Paris Peace Accords over Vietnam), Xerxes II/Leonidas (Greece) etc.

Will part of the denuclearization ‘deal’ call upon a withdrawal of US Forces from the Korean Peninsula? Would the US go for that? Highly unlikely. Would Moon be so gullible as to suggest a (slow) withdrawal? Of course he has the right to demand a foreign garrison pack up and go home. Trump may have pushed China and NK to act but he’d prefer the status quo than to roll over and vacate the premises. China wins in either scenario. America certainly doesn’t want to pay for the same real estate twice. Some quarters in South Korea must surely want the US military to stay as an insurance policy. Afterall how can one trust someone who comes from a dynasty that kills its own people and assassinates family members? Worryingly Moon looks to have a certain ring of Chamberlain about him.

It was clear that North Korea was dictating the moves at the Winter Olympics. It was South Korea who funded the $3mn in travel costs for the cheer squad. Anything that looked to mock the North Koreans was swiftly dealt with. It spoke volumes about which Korea was calling the shots. Anyone impersonating any other world leader could do so with reckless aplomb. Anything resembling Kim Jong-un  was quickly removed from sight. Tyrannies rarely do humour and sadly not enough democracies defend it. Still it is hardly an encouraging sign for even handed peace talks when one side looks to appease in this way.

Kim Jong-un is smart enough to realize at such a youthful stage in his life that he probably has another 40-50 years left in him. Reunification only works if he is given sanctuary. Idi Amin saw the beauty of a life in exile in Saudi Arabia. If Kim Jong-un can relax in Sichuan Province it maybe a dignified way out. One can bet his ‘some are more equal than others’ inner sanctum would rather the two stay separated. They would stand to lose way more than Kim.  It would be ridiculous to assume that Kim could be a major cog driving a reunification process with such an abysmal human rights record. Name a despot who would willing cede authoritarian rule much less without a deal which would exonerate him from any international criminal court that he would be held accountable for under a functioning democracy?

The South Koreans have had a think tank in Berlin researching the effect of reunification in Germany. The former West is still heavily subsidizing the former East. Depopulation (-15% between 1989 & 2013), unemployment rates (higher today that 1989) and inferior GDP per capita (27% less) are all a feature of the former communist state vs the federal republic over the last three decades.

How easily could South Korea absorb the North? West Germany had a population of 63mn in 1989 vs 16mn in East Germany or 4:1. South Korea has 53mn vs North Korea’s 24mn or 2:1. West Germany had a 2.3x GDP/capita ratio to the East in 1989. South Korea has a 52x GDP/capita ratio to the North. Reunification for Korea isn’t an apples to apples comparison with Germany. While Samsung might relish the prospects of tapping a cheap labour pool to build washing machines, the South would likely face far higher integration costs than the Germans. Even 30 years ago East Germany had a GDP/capita 17x that of North Korea.

In any event the only sure outcome of peace on the Korea Peninsula is that President Trump will get next to zero credit in the media. Wailing about the reckless diplomacy of an unhinged dictator will be the main with a few conceding it was at best a fluke.

Shipping industry needs to save ITSELF before it has any chance of saving the PLANET

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Yet more eco-mentalism being celebrated by the UN International Maritime Organisation (IMO) with little thought to the very economics that has crippled shipping companies for so long. Shipping companies need to save themselves before bothering to save the planet.  Although the back slapping for the supposed “watershed agreement” (their words) will be achieved by 2050. The most pressing global issue of our times and these metal hulks which burn the ugliest, dirtiest and cheapest fuel (bunker) available have 32 years to get there. Perhaps the irony is that bankruptcy might take half the ships out of service meaning the emissions target could be hit decades earlier. A brief look at history.

It wasn’t so long ago that Korea’s largest container transporter Hanjin Shipping declared bankruptcy.  The above chart shows the daily shipping rates for the industry which remain tepid for the past decade. The problem with the shipping industry is the fleet. Ships are not built overnight. Surging order books and limited capacity meant that as the pre GFC global trade boom was taking place, many shipping companies were paying over the odds without cost ceilings on major raw material inputs (like steel). This meant that ships were arriving at customer docks well after the cycle had peaked at prices that were 3x market prices because of the inflated materials.

The pricing market was looking grim in 2016. CM wrote, “These are the latest prices in 2016 vs the 5 year average by type. New LNG, grain and oil carriers etc are holding up but the used market is being slaughtered. Ships are generally bought with a 25-yr service span at the very least. Global seaborne trade growth has shrunk from 6%+ growth in 2011 to less than 2% now.”

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According to Weber’s Week 4 report, VLCC rates for the route from the Arabian Gulf to China dropped to $10,925 per day on January 26 from $18,389 per day on January 19, which represents a 40% fall week-over-week. The average rate for all VLCC routes dropped to $13,179 per day from $19,974 per day on January 19. The current rates are 67% lower year-over-year.

Clarkson’s note 2010 build Capesize rates have fallen from $20,000/day 6 months ago to less than $3,900/day as of April 2018. 84K CBM LPG carriers have fallen from over $800,000/mth in April 2016 to $542,000/mth today.

Take a look at the financials of global leader Maersk. It recorded $US27.1bn of revenue in 2012 but only $24bn in 2017. Yet profitability slumped from $2.1bn to a paltry $25mn. Maersk carries around $34 billion in deferred tax loss carry forwards. That is the extent of the ‘financial baggage’ it still carries. The three major Japanese shipping companies have had a hell of a hit to profitability in recent years. See below.

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If the volume of goods transported by sea increases 3% every year, the volume in 40 years will be 3.3 times today’s volume. To cut total CO2 emissions in half by 2050, CO2 emissions per ton-mile need to fall by 85%. NYK is looking at the following ship that will cut emissions by 69% in 2030.

If the shipping industry is not fixed through market forces it will be difficult to repair the profitability and balance sheets that would allow the companies to invest in more eco friendly vessels. Bankruptcies are mergers are needed to streamline the sector.

According to Clarksons, the global fleet of all types of commercial shipping is 50% larger than it was before the GFC despite the World Trade Organization saying growth in global trade has crept up from $14.3 trillion in 2007 to $15.46tn in 2016 (+8%). Scrapping rates have fallen 40% since 2012 but since 2017 have risen moderately, appealing to owners with too much tonnage on their hands.

The International Chamber for Shipping’s secretary general Peter Hinchliffe said, “This is a ground-breaking agreement — a Paris agreement for shipping — that sets a very high level of ambition for the future reduction of carbon dioxide emissions…We are confident this will give the shipping industry the clear signal it needs to get on with the job of developing zero carbon dioxide fuels so that the entire sector will be in a position to decarbonise completely.”

What a wonderfully naive plan. At least the IMO can feel warm and fuzzy despite so many headwinds ahead of an industry still in structural distress.

Remington’s (de)faulty trigger

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As many are aware, Remington filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier this year. It would seem odd given that gun sales had trended sharply higher since Obama took office. However Trump’s victory led to lowered risk of tighter gun controls meaning many dealers were stuffed with excess inventory leading up to the election which hit sales for Remington. Added to that, Remington’s high debt load caused it to seek remedial action through the courts to sort the mess. The $620m in debt will be forgiven in place of a $145m injection and shares in the new company. However tied up in the mess are victims filing a class action lawsuit against Remington’s Model 700 which had a design fault that led to unintentional discharge injuring and in some cases killing the owners. Despite the reorganization plan there are calls for the plaintiffs to get 100 percent of their $163 million in claims against Remington.