Pension

Japanese consumer confidence waning as consumption tax hike starts tomorrow

Japan consumer confidence.png

As the 10% consumption tax rate kicks in from October 1 in Japan from the current 8%, it is worth reflecting on the sorry state of consumer confidence. We are back below 2014 levels. While the sales of Japanese rugby jerseys and huge consumption of beer by gaijin at the Rugby World Cup may provide a brief respite, the trend remains distinctly negative.

Note that consumption tax has been the biggest portion of government revenue since 2014 and is on track to be 37% of the total in 2019, followed by individuals and the lazy corporate sector. Japan’s small-medium enterprises (SMEs) are the backbone of employment, comprising 70% of the labour force and 97% of all corporations. Yet 70% of SMEs pay no tax at all.

From an individual level, the top 0.7% of earners in Japan pay 30% of the tax bill, up from 20% in 1974. The bottom 50% have seen their tax contribution fall from 10% to around 2.8%. The top 8% pay around three-quarters of the total.

With Japan running a ¥100 trillion (US$1tn) national budget, the Ministry of Finance needs to sell ¥40 trillion (US$400bn) every year to plug the budget deficit.  The hope is that the consumption tax will lower the dependence on having to debt finance to such extremes.

More public pension roadkill ahead

CM has been writing about the public pensions crisis in the US for years. This chart only serves to highlight that the problem doesn’t seem to be getting any better. It seems in Illinois, 200 of the 650 public pension funds out there have more beneficiaries than active workers contributing to the fund. By 2021 this is expected to be half of all public pension funds in Illinois.

ZeroHedge noted,

The value of all future pension promises to be paid out to public safety workers totalled just $320 million in 2005. By 2017, that number had jumped to nearly $600 million. That’s a jump of over 80% or more than three times the pace of inflation.

It’s the main reason why taxpayer contributions can’t keep up with pension costs. Pols are doing nothing to control the growth of promises to be paid, sticking taxpayers with ever-increasing costs and ratcheting up the likelihood the pension plans will fail…

… In 1987, municipalities owed a total of $2.6 billion in benefits earned to active and retired public safety workers across the state. Today, that number has jumped to more than $23 billion. That’s a jump of nearly nine times.”

Don’t forget what the Illinois Police Dept did several years back. IN June 2017 CM wrote,

“Sadly the Illinois Police Pension is rapidly approaching the point of being unable to service its pension members and a taxpayer bailout looks unlikely given the State of Illinois’ mulling bankruptcy. Local Government Information Services (LGIS) wroteAt the end of 2020, LGIS estimates that the Policemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago will have less than $150 million in assets to pay $928 million promised to 14,133 retirees the following year…Fund assets will fall from $3.2 billion at the end of 2015 to $1.4 billion at the end of 2018, $751 million at the end of 2019, and $143 million at the end of 2020, according to LGIS…LGIS analyzed 12 years of the fund’s mandated financial filings with the Illinois Department of Insurance (DOI), which regulates public pension funds. It found that– without taxpayer subsidies and the ability to use active employee contributions to pay current retirees, a practice that is illegal in the private sector– the fund would have already run completely dry, in 2015…The Chicago police pension fund held $3.2 billion in assets in 2003. It shelled out $3.8 billion more in benefits to retired police officers than it generated in investment returns between 2003 and 2015…Over that span, the fund paid out $6.9 billion and earned $3.0 billion, paying an additional $134 million in fees to investment managers.”

What have the police been doing? Retiring early and cashing in their pensions to avoid the inevitable.

The problem for Illinois is that a taxpayer-funded bailout is all but impossible. The State of Illinois ranked worst in the Fed study on unfunded liabilities.  The unfunded pension liability is around 24% of state GDP. In 2000 the unfunded gap to state revenue was 30% and in 2013 was 124% in 2013. Chicago City Wire adds that the police fund isn’t the only one in trouble.

“Chicago’s Teachers Union Pension Fund is $10.1 billion in debt. Its two municipal worker funds owe $11.2 billion and its fire department fund owes $3.5 billion…All will require taxpayer bailouts if they are going to pay retirees going into the next decade…Put in perspective, the City of Chicago’s property tax levy was $1.36 billion in 2017…Paying for retirees “as we go,” which will prove the only option once funds run dry, will require almost quadrupling city property tax bills…Last year, it would have required more than $4 billion in revenue– including $1 billion for City of Chicago workers, $1.5 billion for teachers, and $1.5 billion for retired police officers and firefighters.”

This problem is going to get catastrophically worse with the state of bloated asset markets with puny returns. Looking at how it has been handled in the past Detroit, Michigan gives some flavour. It declared bankruptcy around this time three years ago. Its pension and healthcare obligations total north of US$10bn or 4x its annual budget. Accumulated deficits are 7x larger than collections. Dr. Wayne Winegarden of George Mason University wrote that in 2011 half of those occupying the city’s 305,000 properties didn’t pay tax. Almost 80,000 were unoccupied meaning no revenue in the door. Over the three years post the GFC Detroit’s population plunged from 1.8mn to 700,000 putting even more pressure on the shrinking tax base.

In order for states and local municipalities to overcome such gaps, they must reorganise the terms. It could be a simple task of telling retiree John Smith that his $75,000 annuity promised decades ago is now $25,000 as the alternative could be even worse if the terms are not accepted. Think of all the consumption knock-on effects of this. I doubt many Americans will accept that hands down, leading to class actions and even more turmoil.

Did CM mention gold?

Joe Nation’s Pension Tracker is a really good website to look at the actuarial setting of pensions against the marked-to-market unfunded liabilities. Have a stiff drink handy before you open up.

The Grim Repo

What a surprise to see markets show little reaction to the negative repo (repurchase agreements) market in the past week. So much nonchalance and complacency remain in financial markets. It is as if there is this false belief that the authorities can keep the ship afloat with magical modern monetary theory. Not a chance. The tipping points in the financial markets are quantum levels bigger than any that Sir David Attenborough could conjure up in his wildest pessimistic dreams. If we want to cut carbon emissions, the coming economic slump will take care of that.

On average there are $1 trillion of overnight repo transactions every day, collateralised with US Treasuries. Yet many missed that the repo market seized up late last week. Medium-term repos surged from the normal band of around 2.00~2.25% to around 5.25% on Monday. Some repo rates hit 10% on Tuesday.

Essentially what this said was that a bank must have seen that it was worth borrowing at an 8% premium overnight in return for pledging ‘risk-free’ US Treasuries at 2%. In any event, it allowed that particular bank to survive for another day. Banks use the repo market to fund the loans they issue and finance trades that are executed. It is like an institutional pawn shop.

Looking at it another way, why weren’t other banks willing to lend and take an 8% risk-free trade? A look at the global bank’s share price action would suggest that these bedrock financial institutions that grease the wheels of the economy are not in good shape. We just pretend they are. We look at the short term performance but ignore the deterioration in underlying balance sheets. The Aussie banks are future crash test dummies given the huge leverage to mortgages. As CM has been saying for years, the Big 4 risk whole or part nationalisation.

This recent repo action is reminiscent of that before the GFC. The Fed stepped in with $75bn liquidity per day to stabilise markets by bringing rates into the target range. The question is whether the repo action is a short-term aberration or the start of a longer-term quasi QE programme which turns into a full-blown QE programme.

The easiest way to look at the repo market action is to say the private markets are struggling to be self-funding, requiring central bank intervention. Bank of America believes the Fed may have to buy upwards of $400bn of securities to back the repo market this year alone.  This is another canary in the coal mine.

CM wrote a long piece back in July 2016 titled, “Dire Straits for Central Bankers.” In that report, we described how the velocity of money in the system was continuing to drift. As of now, central banks have printed the equivalent of $140 trillion since 2008 but have only managed to eke out $20 trillion in GDP growth. That is $7 of debt only generates $1 of GDP equivalent.

This is the problem. Companies are struggling to grow. US aggregate after-tax profits have gone sideways since 2012. We have been lulled into a false sense of security by virtue of aggressive share buyback programs that flatter EPS, despite the anaemic trend.

Despite the asset bubbles in stocks, bonds and property, pension funds, especially public sector retirement schemes, are at risk of insolvency given the unrealistic return assumptions and nose bleed levels of unfunded liabilities in the trillions.

Also worthy of note is the daily turnover of the gold derivatives market which has hit $280bn in recent months, or 850x daily mine production. This will put a lot more pressure on the gold physical market and also to those ETFs that have promissory notes against gold, as opposed to having it properly allocated.

We live in a world of $300 trillion of debt, $1.5 quadrillion in derivatives – until this is expunged and we start again, the global economy will struggle. That will also require the “asset” values to be similarly wiped out. Equity markets will plunge 90-95% relative to gold. That suggests a 1929 style great depression. The debt bubble is too big. Central banks have lost control.

Buy Gold.

You have a choice how to burn your superannuation

Signals like this make CM smile. In what is already a crowded trade, on what basis is it worth shoving more struggling retirement dollars into over valued virtue signaling companies with dim prospects in the coming cycle? Better off rolling tobacco in $5 bills and setting it alight.

As CM wrote last week, tobacco companies (amongst the least ethical) have chronically underperformed and in a market fighting with macro contagion risk, high-yielding stocks that are despised make a lot of sense when money comes looking for mean reversion.

British American Tobacco (BTI) is trading at $36.29 almost half the level of two years ago. Now at 1.02x book value and a 7.3% yield.

Philip Morris Int’l (PM) is at $71.20, down from $122.90 in 2017. A 6.4% dividend yield.

Imperial Brands (IMBBY) at $26.58 down from $55.55 in 2016. A 9.2% yield.

JT is less than half its 2016 number trading at $21.36. A 6.45% yield.

Philip Morris doesn’t have a vaping business but it appears with all these bans in NY etc that nicotine-addicted vapers will switch back to the old school.

No one will ever invite you to a decent dinner party again if you mention that you have a super fund that is up to the gunnels in woke corporations.

Buy tobacco.

Ford downgraded to junk

This week, Ford Motor Co’s credit rating was downgraded by Moody’s to junk. $84bn worth of debt now no longer investment grade. It will be the first of many Fortune 500s to fall foul to this reality. In 2008, there was around $800bn of BBB status credit. That number exceeds $3.186 trillion today.

CM has long argued that the credit cycle would be the undoing of the economy. For too long, corporates binged on easy money, caring little for credit ratings because the interest spreads between AAA and BBB were so negligible. The market ignored risk and companies went hell for leather issuing new debt to fu buybacks to artificially prop up weak earnings to give the illusion of growth.

Sadly this problem is likely to cause widespread sell offs by companies/investors which must stick to products (as woefully yielding as they may be) with an investment grade, exacerbating the problem of refinancing debt close to maturity. The thinking during easy credit times was simple – refinancing could be done with low interest rates because there was no alternative.

This is problematic for three reasons:

1) under the Obama era, much of the newly issued debt was short term meaning $8.4 trillion arrives for refinancing in the next 2.5 years, crowding out the corporate market.

2) more than 50% of US corporates are one notch above junk status. Refinancing will not be a simple affair.

3) more and more investment grade debt will be driven to zero or even negative yields as a result further exacerbating the problems for insurance companies and pension funds dealing with massive unfunded liabilities.

Last year, in relation to unfunded liabilities at US public pension funds, CM wrote,

California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS) lost around 2% of its funds in 2015/16. The fund assumed an aggressive 7.5% return. Dr. Joe Nation of Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research thinks unfunded liabilities have surged to $150bn from $93bn in the last two years. He suggested the use of a more realistic 4% rate of return last year. At that rate, CalPERS had a market based unfunded liability of $412bn (or the equivalent of 2 years’ worth of California state revenue). At present Nation now thinks the number is just shy of $1 trillion using a 3.25% discount rate. He expects that the 2017 data for CalPERS will be out in a week or so which should give some interesting perspective as to how much deeper the pension hole is for Californian public servants.

N.B. California collects $232bn in state taxes annually in a $2.3 trillion economy (around the size of Italy).”

This is just California, which in the last 8 years has seen a 2.62-fold jump in the gap between liabilities and state total expenditures.

Unfunded liabilities per household. In California’s case, the 2017 figure is $122,121. In 2008 this figure was only $36,159. In 8 years the gap has ballooned 3.38x. Every single state in America with the exception of Arizona has seen a deterioration.

Switching to Illinois, we have a case study on what happens when pension funds go pear shaped.The Illinois Police Pension is rapidly approaching the point of being unable to service its pension members and a taxpayer bailout looks unlikely given the State of Illinois’ mulling bankruptcy.

Local Government Information Services (LGIS) writes, At the end of 2020, LGIS estimates that the Policemen’s Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago will have less than $150 million in assets to pay $928 million promised to 14,133 retirees the following yearFund assets will fall from $3.2 billion at the end of 2015 to $1.4 billion at the end of 2018, $751 million at the end of 2019, and $143 million at the end of 2020, according to LGIS…LGIS analyzed 12 years of the fund’s mandated financial filings with the Illinois Department of Insurance (DOI), which regulates public pension funds. It found that– without taxpayer subsidies and the ability to use active employee contributions to pay current retirees, a practice that is illegal in the private sector– the fund would have already run completely dry, in 2015…The Chicago police pension fund held $3.2 billion in assets in 2003. It shelled out $3.8 billion more in benefits to retired police officers than it generated in investment returns between 2003 and 2015…Over that span, the fund paid out $6.9 billion and earned $3.0 billion, paying an additional $134 million in fees to investment managers.”

Therefore Ford’s downgrade to junk will have the effect of repricing over a decade of misplaced central bank policy across all markets. The dominos are only beginning to fall. The market can absorb Ford’s downgrade but not if it has to deal with the panic of dozens like it.

CM has long been warning of GE. Despite being the world’s largest stock in 2000, it is 1/5 the size today, trades in negative equity, wasted $45bn on share buybacks in 2015/16 and were it be classified as junk would increase the pile of junk by 10% on its own. Broadcom and American Tower are other monsters ready to be hurled onto the ratings scrap heap.

Buy Gold. The US Fed will likely embark on QE. It requires an act of Congress to approve the purchase of equities but don’t be surprised if this becomes a reality when markets plunge.

This will be the reset of asset prices which has been long overdue thanks to almost two decades of manipulation by authorities. It has 1929 written all over it. Not 2008.

My Homeless are Your Homeless?

Homeless.png

The phrase, “my home is your home” is enshrined in cultural norms. However, is this applicable to the homeless? A lot of articles are circling around the rising crisis in homelessness in America. According to the terrible statistics of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the overall trend has actually been declining over the last decade. According to the President of Environmental Progress, Michael Shellenberger,

The crisis [in California] is worsening. The number of homeless people in LA increased from 52,765 in 2018 to 58,936. Homelessness increased by 43% and 17% in Alameda County, which includes Oakland, and 17% in San Francisco, respectively. Deaths on the street rose 76% in LA and 75% in Sacramento over the last five years. Murders and rapes involving the homeless increased by 13% and 61% between 2017 and 2018. And 2019 data show that both deaths and homicides are continuing to rise rapidly.

In 2018, the people of California elected Gavin Newsom governor with 62% of the vote and a mandate to take radical action to significantly increase both temporary and permanent housing. He promised 3.5 million new units by 2025, which is 580,000 units per year. And he promised to create a homelessness czar with the power of a cabinet secretary to “focus on prevention, rapid rehousing, mental health and more permanent supportive housing.”

Newsom has not kept his campaign promises and the crisis is worsening. The number of people living outdoors has increased and violence both by and against them has risen by 30% and 37%. In June, the governor let a package of housing reform measures die. In August, he announced would not appoint a homelessness czar. And now the data make clear that less housing will be built this year than in any other year over the last decade.”

While collating statistics on homeless people is a challenge, one has to wonder whether the policies provided by largely Democrat-run states – e.g. California, NY, Washington – to provide ‘free everything’ are creating a marketplace to attract the homeless, hence why numbers in California are swelling while the national total is decreasing.

To flip the argument on its head, sanctuary cities have often spoken about the misguided altruism of their policies with respect to protecting illegal immigrants.

CM wrote back in July,

Remember when Trump said he’d ship illegals to sanctuary cities when Democrats held their resolve over funding border security? Why weren’t sanctuary cities, all publicly open arms about accepting illegal immigrants, instead of baulking at receiving busloads of them? The great irony is that a growing number of illegal immigrants are choosing to move OUT of sanctuary cities. In 2007, 7.7mn (63.1%) lived in the 20 largest sanctuary metros to 6.5mn (60.7%) in 2016 according to Pew. During that time 1.5m illegal immigrants were deported (12.2mn ->10.7mn).”

We can all accept the harsh realities of homelessness and the need to care for them. However, do politicians need to reevaluate how they are dealing with the problem? Solving it is one thing. Creating an environment that attracts caravans of ‘legal citizens’ which might be compounding the problem is another.

Follow the hips, not the lips. The system in California is clearly failing.

Japanese FSA concedes defeat on pensions

Image result for japanese pensioner

So the Japanese Financial Services Agency (FSA) has finally conceded that the pot can’t sustain elderly pensioners and believe that the onus should be pushed back on individuals. Unsurprisingly the natives are upset.

On May 22, the FSA presented a draft report entitled “Asset Formation and Management in an Aging Society” to the Financial Council. This draft report summarizes the ideal form of finances based on a 100-year lifespan but also aims to encourage individuals to form assets on their own of at least ¥20,000,000 (c.US$180,000). It also recommended long-term investment in stocks formed between 30 and 60 years old. After retirement, the premise is to continue working and earn salaries to maintain the asset level.  Sadly by 2060, 40% of the population will be aged over 65! It stands at 28% today.

The focus of this report is on the clear recognition of the limits of public pensions. In the report, there is a statement that “public pensions alone may not reach a satisfactory standard of living“.

For such a greying society, the reality is that once people hit retirement age, they are often let go and rehired on fractions of what they once earned. The idea of retiring gracefully is a complete myth. Hence the increase in pensioner crime and the 50% increase in prison capacity to house the highest cohort in Japanese prisons.

So whenever you hear Western central banks wax lyrical that if worst comes to pass, we just need to follow the Japanese example of low growth and low inflation, you have even more evidence that it simply won’t work. The Japanese have a culture of shared misery in tough times. Western culture sadly does not have that feature.

CM wrote about the dangers of pension shortfalls around the globe. The unfunded liabilities in America just for public pensions alone stands at around $5.2 trillion. Such were the shortfalls in Rhode Island, that the whole structure needed to be revamped with payouts being shed 40% just to stay solvent.

At least Japan has fallen on its sword, re pensions. CM is owed a pension but always set aside the amount owed at zero.