Public Service

Trudeau channels the Griswolds

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Remember Chevy Chase in European Vacation attempting to be savvy, cool and fashionable by dressing like the Italians but it going so horribly wrong?  Well Canadian PM Justin Trudeau has tried to instill his sense of being culturally in touch by dressing his family as Indians. Even the Indians think it’s a bit much. Perhaps Indian PM Modi should return the favour and dress like a lumberjack provided he can get his axe through customs on his next visit to Canada. Typical patronizing liberal trying to show us all his grasp on diversity and cultural appropriation. When Trudeau swings through Japan will he wear a samurai outfit resplendent with a chonmage top knot? What an embarrassment!

We thought the cardboard cut outs of himself distributed to Canadian embassies was a joke. This ratchets it multiple levels. Can’t wait for Candice Bergen to shred him over his Indian clothing choices in coming sessions of Canadian parliament.

Should we trust ratings agencies on US state credit?

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The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission concluded in 2011 that “the global financial crisis could not have happened without the ‘Big Three’ agencies – Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch which allowed the ongoing trading of bad debt which they gave their highest ratings to despite over three trillion dollars of mortgage loans to homebuyers with bad credit and undocumented incomes.” The table above tabulates the deterioration in US corporate credit ratings since 2006. The ratings agencies have applied their trade far more diligently.

As written earlier in the week, US state public pensions are running into horrific headwinds. Unfunded pension liabilities are running at over double the level of 2008. With asset bubbles in stocks, bonds and property it is hard to see how plugging the gap (running at over 2x (California is 6x) the total tax take of individual states) in the event of a market correction is remotely realistic. However taking a look at the progression of US states’ credit ratings one would think that there is nothing to worry about. Even during GFC, very few states took a hit. See below.

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Looking at the trends of many states since 2000, many have run surpluses so the credit ratings do not appear extreme. It is interesting to flip through the charts of each state and see the trajectory of revenue collection. A mixed bag is putting it lightly. Whether the rebuild after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, since 2008 revenue collection in Louisiana has drifted.

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Looking through S&P’s own research at the end of last year it included an obvious reference.

U.S. state and local governments can use pension obligation bonds (POBs) to address the unfunded portion of their pension liabilities. In certain cases, POBs can be an affordable tool to lower unfunded pension liabilities. But along with the issuance of POBs comes risk. The circumstances that surround an issuance of POBs, as well as the new debt itself, could have implications for the issuer’s creditworthiness. S&P Global Ratings views POB issuance in environments of fiscal distress or as a mechanism for short-term budget relief as a negative credit factor.”

Perhaps the agencies have learnt a painful lesson and trying to stay as close to being behind the curve as possible. It doesn’t seem like public pensions are being factored at levels other than their actuarial values. Marked-to-market values would undoubtedly impact these credit ratings.

As mentioned in the previous piece on public pensions, a state like Alaska has public pension unfunded liabilities equal to $145,000 per household, treble the 2008 figure. It is 3.5x annual tax collections. The state’s per capita operating budget of $13,728 per person is way above the national average of $6,826 per person. Alaska relies on oil taxes to finance most of its operating budget, so a sudden drop in oil prices caused tax revenues to sharply decline. The EIA’s outlook doesn’t look promising in restoring those fortunes in any scenario. So S&P may have cut Alaska two places from AAA in 2015 to AA in 2017.

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While pension liabilities aren’t all due at once, the last 8 years have shown how quickly they can fester. It wasn’t so long ago that several Rhode Island public pension funds reluctantly agreed to a 40% haircut, later retirement ages and higher contributions with a larger component shifted from defined benefits to defined contributions raising the risk of market forces exerting negative outcomes on the pension fund.

In 2017, despite a ‘robust’ economy, 22 states faced revenue shortfalls. More states faced mid-year revenue shortfalls in the last fiscal year than in any year since 2010, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.

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Pew Charitable Trust (PCT) notes in FY2015 federal dollars as a share of state revenue increased in a majority of states (29). Health care grants have been the main driver of this. FY2015 was the 3rd highest percentage of federal grants to states since 1961.

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By state we can see which states got the heftiest federal grants. Most states with higher federal shares expanded their Medicaid programs under Obamacare (ACA) and got their first full year of grants under the expanded program in FY2015.

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PCT also wrote “At the close of fiscal year 2017, total balances in states’ general fund budgets—including rainy day funds—could run government operations for a median of 29.3 days, still less than the median of 41.3 days in fiscal 2007…North Dakota recorded the largest drop in the number of days’ worth of expenses held in reserves after drawing down almost its entire savings to cover a budget gap caused by low oil prices. It held just 5.4 days’ worth of expenditures in its rainy day fund at the end of fiscal 2017 compared with 69.4 days in the preceding year… 11 states anticipate withdrawing from rainy day funds under budget plans enacted for fiscal 2018

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Looking at the revenue trends of certain states, the level of collection has been either flat or on the wane since 2010 for around 26 states. As an aside, 23 of them voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. The three that didn’t were Maine, NJ and Illinois.

Optically US states seem to be able to justify the credit ratings above. Debt levels aren’t high for most. Average state debt is around 4% of annual income. Deficits do not seem out of control. However marking-to-market the extent of public pension unfunded liabilities makes current debt levels look mere rounding errors.

Considering stock, bond and property bubbles are cruising at unsustainably high levels, any market routs will only make the current state of unfunded liabilities blow out to even worse levels. The knock on effects for pensioners such as those taking a 40% haircut in Rhode Island at this stage in the cycle can only feasibly brace themselves for further declines. This is a ticking time bomb. More states will need to address the public pension crisis.

A national government shelling out c.$500bn in interest payments on its own debt in a rising rate environment coupled with a central bank paring back its balance sheet limits the options on the table. Moral hazard is back on the table folks. Is it any wonder that Blackstone has increased its short positions to $22 billion?

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Truly sickening US Public Pensions data

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Following on from the earlier post and our 2016 report on the black hole in US state public pension unfunded liabilities, we have updated the figures to 2016. It is hard to know where to start without chills. The current state of US public pension funds represents the love child of Kathy Bates in Misery and Freddie Krueger. Actuarial accounting allows for pension funds to appear far prettier than they are in reality. For instance the actuarial deficit in public pension funds is a ‘mere’ $1.47 trillion. However using realistic returns data (marking-to-market(M-2-M)) that explodes to $6.74 trillion, 4.6-fold higher.  This is a traffic accident waiting to happen. US Pension Tracker illustrates the changes in the charts presented.

Before we get stuck in, we note that the gross pension deficits do not arrive at once. Naturally it is a balance of contributions from existing employees and achieving long term growth rates that can fund retirees while sustaining future obligations. CM notes that the problems could well get worse with such huge unfunded liabilities coinciding with bubbles in most asset classes. Unlike private sector pension funds, the states have an unwritten obligation to step up and fill the gap. However as we will soon see, M-2-M unfunded liabilities outstrip state government expenditures by huge amounts.

From a layman’s perspective, either taxes go up, public services get culled or pensioners are asked politely to take a substantial haircut to their retirement. Apart from the drastic changes that would be required in lifestyles, the economic slowdown that would ensue would have knock on effects with state revenue collection further exacerbating a terrible situation.

CM will use California as the benchmark. Our studies compare 2016 with 2008.

The chart above shows the M-2-M 2016 unfunded liability per household. In California’s case, the 2016 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.

The following chart shows the growth rate in M-2-M pension liabilities to total state expenditure. In California’s case that equates to 3.2x in those 8 years.

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Sadly it gets worse when we look at the impact on current total state expenditures these deficits comprise. For California the gap is c.6x what the state spends on constituents.

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Then taking it further,  in the last 8 years California has seen a 2.62-fold jump in the gap between liabilities and state total expenditures.

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This is a ticking time bomb. Moreover it is only the pensions for the public sector. We have already seen raids on particular state pension funds with some looking to retire early merely to cash out before there is nothing left. Take this example in Illinois.

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) 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.”

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To highlight the pressure such states/cities could face, this is a frightening example of how the tax base can evaporate before one’s eyes putting even more pressure on bail outs.

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 flavor. 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.

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The $6.7 trillion US public pension black hole

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Zerohedge published this report today on the $1.2 trillion public pension black hole in America. Time to update the latest stats of a report CM wrote in August 2016 on the very same topic. Here is betting things have only got worse.  Taking California Public Employees Retirement Scheme (CalPERS). In 2014 market pension debt per household was $77,000. In 2016 it hit $122,000. In 2008 it was only $36,000. US Pension Tracker reports that the 2016 marked-to-market figure of the total US public pension deficit is $6.734 trillion vs actuarial basis of $1.467 trillion.

If only politicians put as much energy into policy as they do in the bedroom

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Everywhere we turn, social media is tagging another politician who can’t keep “it” behind closed zippers. It is nothing new. While not condoning extra-marital affairs, the media seems more intent on reporting infidelity in nauseating  detail than things that actually matter on the policy front. Growing deficits, unsustainable household debt, eye-popping unfunded pension and healthcare liabilities should be front and centre but the mainstream media (feeding junkies on social media) thinks it gets more mileage by pointing out bedroom antics. Who needs steamy soap operas with expensive stars? Politicians literally offer the best “bang” for the buck going for networks and media outlets. It is endless clickbait. We are also to blame for feeding this nonsense.

Perhaps that is what is meant by “moving with the times?” While we’re all told on one hand how we must behave and talk without causing offense in the new world, the thirst for reporting/sharing secrets from the bedroom seems to tell the real story of the sorry state of journalism. Our level of “being out of touch” has never been higher. We’d be well advised to wake up to the warning signs ahead. Sadly it will be too late when reality finally dawns. Watch social justice issues like climate change and identity politics slide to the very bottom as people realize prioritizing such nonsense doesn’t pay the mortgage or feed a family.

In recent times, Australian Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has been in the spotlight for getting a staffer pregnant. How he chooses to conduct his private life is his (and her) business alone. Indeed another dysfunctional family is born. The main problem seems more about giving high paying jobs  on the taxpayers’ purse to his lover with the tacit approval of the PM. If the timeline is true then the actions by the Deputy PM were unethical to be sure and no amount of song and dance to defend it will find a comforting ear. Allegations of expense abuse only adds to the growing list of reasons to ditch mainstream parties.

Consenting adults should bear personal responsibility. It is not a question of Joyce’s infidelity but politicians (not limited to himself) taking taxpayers for mugs is an issue. Joyce only recently won back his seat of New England in an expensive by-election. At the time he must have been hoping his lover’s bun could stay in the oven.

If anything the manner in which our political class is handling this scandal only re-enforces the abysmal level of moral authority our government has. Even before Joyce’s issues came to light.

Prior to this fiasco we voted in a near as makes no difference hung parliament with a feral Senate. In recent times we’ve had by-elections over dual citizenship (still it did violate the constitution although PM Turnbull preempting the High Court’s ruling was daft), the Dastyari scandal with respect to leaking secrets to China or Foreign Minister Julie Bishop frittering away multi millions in aid dollars without any due diligence on the back of pop-star Rihanna’s Twitter account.

We are being run by clowns (not limited to Australia mind you) who clearly put their own survival above all else. Despite the polls showing a clear and present danger of the incumbent government being turfed out at the next election there seems to be a level of complacency within the Coalition’s ranks that believes that being less worse than the opposition is somehow virtuous and believing a self created myth that disenchanted voters will somehow reelect them again.

Infidelity doesn’t reflect well for politicians preaching family values. However  it would be fair to say that many voters would turn a blind eye to these indiscretions if those same bureaucrats would exercise the same amount of vigor in putting through sensible policy (that betters their constituents) as they do between the sheets.

Perhaps the media should be doing more biopsies on things that truly matter. That way there will be fewer autopsies. As it stands delving into the privacy of others seems far more important to ratings.

Gutter press or smutter press?

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Gutter press. No other word for it. One would expect better from The NY Times. Still why not make a baseless claim for the heck of it should it help paint a narrative? Indeed the Stormy Daniels $130,000 shut-up money story would have legs if she produced the ‘deposit slip’ and the contract which any media outlet would  pay “any price” to insure against any litigation for her breach of it.

Think of the $100s of millions media outlets have spent on tying to take the President down. Whether Russiagate which CNN’s own Van Jones called a “nothing burger” for ratings or MSNBC’’s Rachel Maddow who made that  embarrassing “we got his tax returns!” gaffe. Every celebrity event (Grammy’s, Oscars or Golden Globes) has become more about blasting Trump than blowing wind up the back sides of their own Hollywood hypocrites who blatantly turned a blind eye to all of the sexual misconduct that has gone on for decades in their own industry. Where is the outrage over that? Even career feminist Germaine Greer said that if one opened their legs for a movie role they “consented”.

Indeed if Trump frolicked with Stormy Daniels it appears it was consensual on the basis of the rumours. It is not condoning it but look at all the petty behaviour of Clinton post the election still crying to her elitist buddies in sympathy for losing to a man, who less than a week after the grab p*ssygate scandal, stared down the barrel of a camera to 100s of millions of viewers in the second debate to say “no one respects women more than I do” If indeed it was an election issue, voters overlooked it to boot the establishment. Case closed

Still the one-eyed NY Times has to make baseless read acrosses on Melania’s actions being about her acting in a huff over her husband’s supposed infidelity. Make no mistake had she cheated on her husband the mainstream media would celebrate it and chalk it down for a win for their side. They’d get panels of feminists talking about how his behaviour brought it on and how he deserved it for being a chauvinist pig.

However we shouldn’t point fingers at just the NYT.

Last week The Guardian wrote of Melania Trump: “Seldom seen and even more seldom heard, the former model may not be as popular as her predecessor Michelle Obama, but she is far more popular than her husband. Unfortunately for his Republican administration, she seems to have little interest in using that popularity to do anything of substance with the post.

Well had Tbe Guardian bothered to check, the left has made it clear of how they see her in the public eye. When she went to donate Dr Seuss books for children’s education, the recipient librarian at Cambridgeport School refused to accept the gift, criticizing the Trump administration’s education policies further writing that Seuss’s illustrations are “steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes,” Never did I know as a child that reading about the Cat in a Hat was some conspiracy by my parents to turn me into a hateful bigot. Now it’s all so clear!

The Daily Mail had to settle a $2.9mn lawsuit and issue a full public apology for libel against the First Lady for suggesting she gave more than “modeling services.” What awful slander! Could it be that the press is hardly lining up to champion anything she might host which is of social good? Is trying to be a good mother by not dislocating her son’s education in the early days a crime?

All the jokes from the left thanking immigrants for marrying Trump because Americans wouldn’t do it flies in the face of the very stereotypes they get so easily triggered over. Indeed the racist president married a Slav. Never mind the contradiction.

While the press can speculate over what FLOTUS might be thinking perhaps they should give her advice on the ways they wish her to behave. Should we anticipate Melania Trump’s hashtags on social media championing flaccid and impotent US foreign policy to terrorist groups like Michelle Obama? Mrs Obama is indeed a highly educated person but that doesn’t automatically exclude Mrs Trump from serving the office gracefully and proudly. The Trumps are a power couple

Yes, her husband leaves much to be desired in the manner in which he serves his country. However the scoreboard suggests many of the things he is doing are working. Such is the bias in the press about how world leaders hate him, CBS painfully admitted almost everyone of them lined up for a selfie with POTUS at Davos.

If we look at the last State of the Union address he blew the left out of the water. Even Van Jones admitted he’s going to do 8 years with talk like that. Now he has far more achievements to crow about. So yes, Melania will be there looking a million bucks and her face will speak of how she feels about Stormy Daniels. Storm in a teacup mode like it.

Hottest 5-yr period on record according to NOAA (which was busted for data manipulation)

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IT’S official. The world has just experienced its hottest five-year period in history — and there are no signs of things cooling off.” No signs of cooling off? Even though 2018 has kicked off with huge freezes across Japan, Canada, NY, Florida and parts of Europe. The article went on,

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released climate data that confirmed global average temperatures between 2013 and 2017 made up the hottest five-year period since monitoring began more than 100 years ago…Agencies were split on whether 2017 was the second or third hottest year. NOAA and the Japanese Meterological Agency rated it the third hottest, while NASA, researchers from a nonprofit in Berkeley, California and European forecasters said it was the second hottest.”

It makes for sensational reading but had the authors preaching the global warming faith dug a little deeper they’d discover that NOAA was subpoenaed before Congress after a whistleblower showed that data was being fabricated ahead of the Paris Climate Summit to fit an agenda. According to Dr. John Bates, the recently retired principal scientist at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, the Karl study was used “to discredit the notion of a global warming hiatus and rush to time the publication of the paper to influence national and international deliberations on climate policy.

Chairman of the Commitee on Science, Space & Technology, Lamar Smith said in Feb 2017,

I thank Dr. John Bates for courageously stepping forward to tell the truth about NOAA’s senior officials playing fast and loose with the data in order to meet a politically predetermined conclusion. In the summer of 2015, whistleblowers alerted the Committee that the Karl study was rushed to publication before underlying data issues were resolved to help influence public debate about the so-called Clean Power Plan and upcoming Paris climate conference. Since then, the Committee has attempted to obtain information that would shed further light on these allegations, but was obstructed at every turn by the previous administration’s officials. I repeatedly asked, ‘What does NOAA have to hide?

Indeed. What is there to hide? Surely the global warming data should speak for itself. Anything that requires manipulation to make a point can hardly be “settled” science. Fraud is fraud and it is a shame that climate scientists busted for manipulation are not  jailed. While evil banksters were charged for the devil’s work after GFC why should climate scientists escape the misappropriation of billions in taxpayer dollars based on lies. NOAA refused to hand over emails related to the Karl Study despite being politely asked at first by its boss (i.e. Congress) which was eventually required to subpoena the science body.

Even if you believe in global warming can you honestly look at the fraud taking place with these so called trusted government bodies and take their word for granted despite such lapses in ethics?