Industrial

Tesla – when the plug is pulled on subsidies

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It seems that the removal of generous electric vehicle (EV) subsidies in Denmark shows the true colours of those willing to buy a car in order to signal their willingness to save the planet. While Musk has been one of the most effective rent seekers around, it seems that if consumers aren’t given massive tax breaks they aren’t as committed to ostentatious gestures of climate abatement. In Q1 2017 alone it seems that Danish sales of EVs plummeted 60%YoY. In 2015 Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen announced the gradual phasing out of subsidies on electric cars, citing government austerity and evening up the market. Tesla’s sales fell from 2,738 units in 2015 to just 176 in 2016. The irony of the Tesla is that it is priced in luxury car territory meaning that taxes from the less fortunate end up subsidizing the wealthy who can afford it!

Naturally if internal combustion engines (which by the way are becoming more efficient by the years as new standards are introduced) are taxed the same as EVs then it is clear they’d sell many more. Do not be fooled – car makers have not heavily committed to EVs for a very good reason – brand DNA. That is why we see so many ‘hybrids’ which allows the benefits of battery power linked to the drivetrain, which outside of design is the biggest differentiator between brands.

While many automakers missed the luxury EV bus, Tesla has opened their eyes. The three things the major auto makers possess which Tesla doesn’t are

1) Production skill – much of the battle is won on efficiency grounds. Companies like Toyota have had decades to perfect production efficiency and have coined almost every manufacturing technique used today – Just in Time, kanban and kaizen to name three.

2) Distribution – the existing automakers have been well ahead of the curve when it comes to sales points. Of course some argue that there is no real need for dealers anymore, although recalls, services (consumables such as brakes) and showrooms are none-the-less a necessity.

3) Technology – The idea that incumbent auto makers have not been investing in EV is ridiculous. Recall Toyota took a sizable stake in Tesla many years ago. Presumably the Toyota tech boffins were sent in to evaluate the technology at Tesla and returned with a prognosis negative. Toyota sold Tesla because the technology curve was too low. Toyota invests around $8bn in just hybrid technology alone per annum. Tesla spent $830mn last year as a group across all products. A ten fold budget on top of decades of investment in all available avenues of planet saving technology gives a substantial advantage.

Tesla is a wonderful tale of hope but it rings of all the hype that surrounded Ballard Power in fuel cells in the early 2000s. Ballard is worth 1% of its peak. As governments around the world address overbloated budgets, trimming incentives for EVs makes for easy savings. Now we have a good indicator one of the electric shock that happens when the plug is pulled on subsidies.

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The McTurnbull Burger – 2017 budget that says ‘waistline be damned!’

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Remember the Big Mac jingo? “Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles,  onions on a sesame seed bun?”  Well the 2017 budget From the Coalition might as well be called the super sized McTurnbull Burger. Two all thief parties, special porkies, levies, fees, spun on a $600bn dollar bomb. While the government needed to introduce a vegan budget of lentils, tofu and alfalfa to get the country’s nutrition properly sorted they’ve said waistline be damned. Morgan Spurlock couldn’t keep up with this super sized meal. As my wise sage Stu told me last week, “About as well-timed as Mining Super Profits tax – ding ding ding – top of the banking cycle just called by inept bureaucrats”

If people wanted a tax and spend party they’d have voted Labor. In a desperate attempt to supersize the meal they’ve made of the economy since Turnbull took office the debt ceiling will be raised. Wage growth has slowed for the past 5 years from 4% to under 2% according to the RBA. Throw higher Medicare on top why not?!. Cost of living is soaring. So let’s look at the extra calories they’ll inevitably load on the taxpayer.

1) Let’s tax the big 4 banks. That’ll work. What will they do as responsible shareholder owned organizations? Pass those costs straight on to the tapped out borrower where 1/3 mortgagees already under strain and 25% odd have less than a month of buffer savings. NAB already jacked interest only loans 50bps.

2) allowing retirees to park $300,000 tax free into super if they downsize their empty nest. Wow! So sell your $5mn waterfront property so you can park $300k tax free into superannuation. Can see those Mosmanites queue up to move to Punchbowl to retire. Hopefully the $1mn fibro former council shack the Punchbowl pensioner flips will mean they can move to a $500,000 demountable in Casula in order to free up the property market for the first home buyer who is getting stung with higher interest rates, .

3) Australia has a property bubble. The Reserve Bank has recently had an epiphany where they’re afraid to raise rates to crash the housing market and they can’t cut because they’ll fire it up more. Allowing creative superannuation deposit schemes (max $30,000 per person & $15k/year) to help with a deposit only doubles down on encouraging first home buyers to get levered up at the top of the market using a system designed to build a safety net for retirement. When governments start abusing sensible policies in ways it was never designed for then look out for trouble down the line. This doesn’t help first home buyers it just pushes up the hurdle to enter.

4) Australia’s credit rating is on the block. Australia’s main banks are 40% wholesale financed meaning they have to go out into the market unlike Japanese banks which are almost 100% funded by their depositors. Aussie banks could see a rise in their cost of funds which the RBA could do little to avoid. That will put a huge dent in the retail consumption figures.

5) speaking of credit cards. Have people noticed that average credit card limits have not budged in 7 years. If banks are confident in the ability of consumers to repay debt, they’d let out the limits to encourage them to splash out! Not so – see here for more details.

6) Infrastructure – I live in the land of big infrastructure. Jobs creation schemes which mostly never recover the costs – especially regional rail. The Sydney-Melbourne bullet train makes absolute sense. We only need look at the submarines to know that waste will be a reality.

7) small business – tax concessions of $20,000 not much to write home about. Small businesses thrive on a robust economy which is unlikely to occur given the backdrop. Once again this budget is based on rosy assumptions and you can bet your bottom dollar Australia won’t be back in surplus by 2021.

Some  media are talking of Turnbull & Morrison stealing the thunder of the Labor Party, providing a budget more akin to their platform. Sadly I disagree that this legitimizes Turnbull. It totally alienates his base, what is left of it. Tax the rich, give to the poor. Moreover voters see through the veneer. The stench of the Coalition is so on the nose that without ditching Turnbull they have no chance of keeping office. Labor is not much better and One Nation and other independents will hoover up disaffected voters by effectively letting the others dance around the petty identity political correctness nonsense.

In the end the McTurnbull Burger meal will look like the usual finished product which resembles nothing like the picture you see on the menu. A flattened combination of squished mush, soggy over-salted fries and a large Coke where the cup is 90% ice. Yep, the Coalition has spat between your buns too. This is a meal that won’t get voters queuing up for more. Well at least we know Turnbull remembers that smiles and selfies are free after all ‘he’s lovin’ it‘! After all virtue signaling is all that matters. All this to arrest some shoddy poll numbers which will unlikely last more than one week.

Why don’t firms hire staff like they’d choose a heart surgeon?

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How many times have I heard over my career senior management talk incessantly about the need for new blood yet when it comes to doing anything about it with regards to new hires 99% of the time  the safe cookie cutter is favoured over the left field choice. It is ever more so the truth in the post GFC world. Managers seem afraid to take calculated risks because the left-field candidate may jeopardize their own positions if he/she fails.

As an example managers in finance often fall foul of hiring exclusively within the industry. The level of inferiority complex can be so overwhelming that they fawn at the idea a Goldman Sachs employee will work for them for some ridiculous sum. Invariably they forget that Goldman hires duds too and usually those that get cast off are in that bucket. If you are properly good, there is no incentive to leave Goldman as the salaries, opportunities and product capabilities are too wonderful vs peers.

Yet many financial firms set upon trying to change the firm into a wannabe Goldman Sachs. They forget that their clients can already deal with Goldman directly should they feel the urge. Why on earth would they choose to deal with a wannabe copy? Surely each firm has a unique selling property that is of value to clients. Why not invest and promote that rather than overlook the talent within. Who honestly values flattery? Besides, there are so many cautionary tales with hiring ex-bulge bracket employees who are so used to being spoon fed every possible product line that they struggle immensely when they are required to actually put elbow grease into the job. It is uncanny.

Some firms occasionally hire from outside the industry with huge success. Instead of financial analysts pontificating about a stock, someone who has worked within the industry has a far better feel for cycles, internal decision processes and strategy that formulates under different points in the cycle. Clients glean that value. They couldn’t care less about the stock target or valuation metrics because that ultimately is the investor’s job. Besides the history of brokers behind the curve is etched in stone. Unique context and perspective trumps commoditization every time.

Some financial (and other) professionals have such checkered histories that one wonders how on earth they get rehired. If companies viewed their hiring decisions as akin to selecting a heart surgeon for a life threatening operation, many of these people would never make the cut (no pun intended) given the body count from previous poor execution. Yet many firms continue to put quacks in their ‘surgeries’ with expected disastrous results. Generally hiring managers run interference on these bad choices to cover their own mistakes.

Many HR surveys (including Harvard) show that bad hires end up costing way more than the salary when the cost of onboarding is included. Not only do companies potentially have to foot the cost of a headhunter (25-30% of salary is a standard fee) , what follows is poorer output, the potential for incumbent employees to become disgruntled at the new hire’s lack of ability and most worryingly an increase in dissatisfied customers. If they land a toxic employee that can damage team productivity to such an extent the best performers will seek challenges elsewhere.

So in a world that is getting harder and harder to succeed in, on what basis does conventional thinking bring anything to the table but more of the same? What does hiring a competitor do other than bring similar tactics? In fact, the more telling question is if they were knocking the lights out their success would permeate within their current employer. Unseating happy employees requires dynamite way over and above what they can probably afford.  What hirers often forget is the extent to which internal human capital plays a part. How awful does one’s human capital creation have to be to consider jumping ship?

That is where the left field choice comes into its own when hiring. A person genuinely looking for career change may well be doing it because they’ve tired of several decades of the same industry. They’ll likely come full of fresh ideas, out of the box solutions and lessons from a completely different background with the passion of a new graduate.

Many companies fail to adapt because the stupid questions don’t get asked by the incumbent staff for fear of ridicule. Yet someone eager to learn may ask the most basic of questions and ask “does it work?” One company I consult had a new boss join from HQ and he questioned why staff had meetings on such trivial matters? One staff member said “we’ve been doing it for 15 years!” When the boss said “does it work?” all replied ‘not really”. Yet they offered little in the way of proposals to change what was broken.

In a sense I see many businesses that operate in status quo mode where change if ever happens on a trivial or traumatic basis not through consistent due diligence and proactive leadership.

Think of it like asking an elderly person “if you had one more day to live what would you do?” “Well I’d play golf, take my wife to an expensive dinner and drive a Ferrari” If you asked Athenia”why don’t you do it now” the response would be “well I’m not dead yet!”

Look at the successful businesses around the world today and invariably the corporate culture is likely to be open and flexible. Bosses are prepared to hire people more qualified than them because they want to learn. Show me a company where inferior staff are hired to protect a manager and I’ll show you a dud business.

Which then goes back to the most important ingredient in a tech savvy smartphone world. Analog relationships. Look at the latest recruitment sites which ask candidates to fill in fields where a computer will sift through algorithms to screen. These systems remove the most important skill in selecting good candidates – gut feel. A good recruiter can understand a client’s needs far better than a computer. Besides if a computer is searching for terms fixated on what you’ve done and not what you want to do it will screen you out every time. What a wasted opportunity!

Human nature is uncanny. Risk taking is inevitable but instead of most people becoming  victims of change only a mere few will end up being agents of it and there will be no second guessing who dares wins! So instead of screening for the textbook definition of identity based diversity how about focus on diversity of thought!

 

How the other half is doing in America

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A few years back the US Federal Reserve did a survey which revealed 47% of Americans couldn’t raise $400 cash in an emergency without selling something. Do you recall Marco Rubio in the GOP primaries harping about knowing families who live “paycheck to paycheck”  Well the bad news keeps rolling in.  Northwestern Mutual has pointed out that 45% of Americans spend up to half of their monthly take home pay on (mostly credit card) debt service alone….which, again, excludes mortgage debt.

The study went on to show that 40% of that credit card debt was frivolous discretionary spending (which they claimed was the biggest source of their problems) but only 20% were able to make minimum monthly payments.  In short don’t be surprised to see defaults, bankruptcies and moral hazard rear its ugly head. Now we see a run on a Canadian mortgage lender. Does the poverty rate of 25% across EU vs 20% pre Lehman collapse raise red flags? Does sharply growing public sector employment across the majority of OECD  countries since GFC not strike you as failed economic policy? Does 1/3rd of Aussies saying 3mths of continuous unemployment would lead to an inability to repay their debts? How the 65yo+ demographic is the largest prisoner cohort in Japan because poverty levels are climbing. Yes pensioners are breaking Into jail.

If anyone thinks record high asset prices is a reflection on our collective wealth think again. The worst thing about this bubble is that it is the accumulation of three massive bubbles that never cleared. Sadly this one will pop like one of those game shows with a balloon full of  stinky slime.

Are you telling me you wouldn’t accept $400,000/hr?

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It is not often I write about Obama in positive terms but this time I must. $400,000 for a one hour speech to Wall Street is the price they’re willing to pay. If you’re reading this, throw away your prejudices and political affiliation and ask yourself point blank “if I was offered $400k as a speaking fee, would I take it?” I’m guessing most of you would. You can call Obama a sell out or whatever for speaking to those he despised but he is not dissimilar to any other world leader cashing in on the speaker’s circuit. Bill Clinton must be beside himself at being 50% off Obama’s rates or is that there is a bubble in public speaking?

Democrat Senator Elizabeth Warren was outraged at how Obama could be so out of touch with battlers. What a shame the Democrats didn’t figure out the mass increase in poverty, welfare and wealth divide over his 8 years, not to mention previous administrations.  The signs have been there for ages.

The sad fact is that being POTUS gives a huge wealth of opportunities, whether it be wakebording behind Sir Richard Branson’s mega yacht in the Bahamas or generous pay packets after dinner speeches after office.

Why would an investment bank pay $400,000 for Obama? Simple. The bank gets to invite all the top drawer C-level management clients which hopefully leads to multi million dollar transactions.

We can bitch and moan at the levels of hypocrisy or acccept that centuries if not millennia of business practice has been done this way. Influence is everything. Relationships are everything. It’s not what you know but who you know.  Surely kings in ancient times were showered with presents and favours by local lords pressing for greater influence to dominate other lords. In some cultures marrying one’s offspring off to more influential circles was deliberate attempt to gain favour. The Clinton Foundation made an industry out of pay-for-play. Why are we surprised?

I’ll be the first to argue that the gap between the haves and have nots has reached unsustainable levels but do not expect that Obama will worry about that. What worries me is we have a system where too many ‘have nots’ are living like ‘haves’ (e.g. Australia’s housing boom where mortgage debt:GDP is 180%) in this low interest rate world meaning risk is priced at next to nothing when in reality  it should come with a high visibility vest and flashing LEDs warning of its toxicity, flammability and volatility.

How is the imbalance redressed? That is not an overnight affair. With poverty levels around the world at all time highs, debt at record levels, deficits at unsustainable levels and public service jobs growing to hide the fact the establishment has lost control of a supertanker which is ablaze the reset will actually put a growing number of people into this harsh reality. From that we’ll have our hand forced. It will be ugly.

So I ask the question again. If you were offered $400,000 to speak for the sake of protecting your family would you do it? Of course you would but then the most common line I use for people looking for investment  returns is simple – “stop worrying about the return ON your money but the return OF it.”

The best way to insult women is to enforce gender quotas

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What is it with the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and the plan to enforce gender quotas for private businesses bidding on government projects? What an insult to women. To imply that somehow women are so lacking in quality, intelligence or skill to be selected on their own merit that this quango needs to step up and address gender imbalance. Furthermore it suggests that men are clearly biased in their hiring policies. One of my best bosses was female. She now runs her own company in the UK and is connected better than almost anyone I know. She has never wilted in the face of a man’s world and has a work ethic that would put almost anyone to shame. She has made it by herself without the need for state sponsored free kicks. What is it with the interview  process now that we need to put gender or sexual orientation ahead of ability? Surely any rational company tries to hire the best possible candidate regardless.

I run a business where 50% of my staff are women. Nothing to do with gender but ability. I even pay them more than me. However as an independent business it survives on the ability to execute and I base all hires on that premise. I don’t care if they are LGBT, Muslim, Christian or atheist. Why is the AHRC trying to dictate who I hire for my business? Surely tax payers want the best return on their money so if my business can provide it why should my hiring practices be brought into question? All of a sudden my firm’s profitability may be impacted by having to hire less talented people to fill a pointless quota.

To apply it across industries is also kind of ridiculous. Looking at the table above I would imagine that the AHRC would view Education & Training and Healthcare & Social Assistance, two areas women totally dominate, as fair game. If men were to protest at the  gap in those industries they’d be laughed out of the AHRC offices.

88% of men employed in construction is likely down to the nature of the industry. Chippies, sparkies or brickies tend to be male. It isn’t due to sexism or discrimination rather, once would imagine, interest. Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins on the other hand has told the federal government to take “disruptive action’’ to enforce gender quotas.

Contractors would have to prove that they have “gender-balanced shortlists’’ for job ­interviews. “This means that the gender balance in the organisation would be 40 per cent men and 40 per cent women, with the remaining 20 per cent unallocated to allow for flexibility,’’ Ms Jenkins said.

However we live in a victimhood culture these days meaning we must pander to making everyone a winner regardless of whether they’ve actually made an effort. Every successful woman I’ve ever met got to where she is through her own talent, intelligence and ability.

Is it any wonder the natives are restless? Part time employment is growing too fast

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The alarm bells keep jangling. I remember reporting on why I thought Trump would win the presidency more than12 months before the fact. The employment situation defied the stats which the Democrats continually congratulated themselves over. Yet beneath that poverty was at all time highs, people on food stamps had grown 12mn since 2008 (to 46mn) and the number of people working more than one job was a record 8mn. The gap between the haves and have nots just kept getting bigger.

Stratfor wrote in the similar outcome in Europe today,

About six in ten jobs in the European Union today are full-time permanent positions. But jobs offered under part-time and temporary contracts account for an increasing share of total employment. In 2003, well before Europe’s economic crisis, 15 percent of workers in the European Union were employed under part-time contracts. By 2015, that had risen to 19 percent. During the same period, temporary contracts rose from 9 percent of total employment to 11 percent. Temporary jobs offer less security than even part-time permanent ones. They often come with lower salaries and fewer training and career advancement opportunities, making it harder for workers to access credit, plan their consumption decisions or qualify for unemployment benefits.”

One other glaring stat that sent shockwaves was the sharp increase in public sector employment. Even Germany saw public service jobs expand from 9% in 2001 to over 16% in 2013. Every EU country with the exception of France (ironically) exhibits the same state built employment market which masks the disastrous economic stewardship since GFC. Please refer to page 13 of this report for graphic.

Stratfor goes on to say,

“Job security is also tied to workers’ overall satisfaction. Since the start of the 2008 crisis, many Europeans have been forced to accept temporary contracts or permanent part-time jobs when they would rather work on a full-time, permanent basis. In many cases, the part-time or temporary contracts do not offer a path to full-time work. In some countries, low salaries also put the working poor at risk of falling into poverty. Jobs that do not offer much security can be found almost everywhere in the European Union, but they are particularly prevalent in the south, such as Greece, Spain and Portugal, where the unemployment crisis was more severe and the economic recovery more fragile. In addition, the structure of the economy in Southern Europe is more conducive to the creation of such precarious jobs.”

Whether one likes it or not the appeal of Le Pen in France is not a mere lurch to xenophobia. If you rationally listen to her platform outside her stance against Islam she makes salient points on policy that will make citizens feel safer about their economic future. The UK Labour Party totally misread Brexit and now face total wipeout on June 8. Like we know from many recent polls they are prone to enormous swings. The Twitter correlations of Trump, Brexit, Trudeau picked the winner. Le Pen is way in front although growth in followers since yesterday puts Melenchon top with Fillon second. Le Pen’s growth came in 3rd. However Facebook following puts Le Pen over 400,000 clear of her nearest rival, Melenchon.

The weird trend in global politics is that traditional party lines are fraying. The Aussie Liberal Party which I’ve supported religiously since I could vote no longer represents me. People are growing tired of empty promises or politicians that swing toward a stance to capture a wave when it contradicts previous policy. Le Pen, like Pauline Hanson speaks a consistent language. Whether one thinks certain policies are bigoted, racist or un-PC is irrelevant to a growing number. They want results not platitudes. These voters are prepared to sacrifice some unpalatable views in return for someone they feel they can trust in matters most important to them – put simply financial security.

If the world economy was ticking along so nicely we wouldn’t see the likes of Le Pen, Hanson or Trump. The reality is simple, when they draw the curtains each morning they see approaching storm clouds get closer and closer not the blue sky they crave.