Public Service

Comey testimony proves media can’t stop playing the man rather than the ball

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Comey admitted in his testimony that he was never pressured by Trump to end any investigations. Damn and blast. The media has done another collective Rachel Maddow “we’ve got his tax returns” backfire. So insistent on trying to seek revenge they forgot the old Chinese proverb, “before setting out on revenge, first dig two graves.” So eager are they to play the man they overlook basic check sheets to find balance. Trump may well be a loose cannon at times but the media is the pot still calling the kettle black.

While I long argued Trump would win the election I’ve been an advocate of trying to seek balance to the one sided argument against him. It doesn’t mean I think he is ideal.  I disagree with many (not all) things he has done and petty things (like his attitude to Merkel) are certainly not fitting the most powerful office in the world. Trump derangement syndrome is none-the-less real. The media attack dogs never seek to do moral equivalence with their beloved Obama over the same supposed crimes of leaking sensitive info or whatever. I do think Trump is Turnbull-esque in lacking judgement as well as constant cabinet reshuffles but the most twisted irony is that financial markets would seem to want him there using any wobble on the back of an impeachment scenario as an excuse rather than admit the hyper asset bubble blown for 8 years.

The mainstream media now preys on clickbait. Thinking the number of clicks, likes and shares are endorsements and can replace quality content (as much as they self appraise it’s high value added factual). In fact the revenue numbers of media outlets who continually rant  is telling. Fairfax in Australia has had two rounds of layoffs in the space of 12 months and The Guardian is openly begging for donations.

The media is surely going to keep launching salvo after salvo to try get him out of office. As stupid as they keep suggesting the ‘orange baffoon” is he keeps getting their measure. I issue a caution though. The deplorables that voted him in want him to get on with the job. With all these distractions the quest that they hope will get them under the “have not” hole is pushed further into the future. Getting an impeachment to stick and force a resignation is not high on a have not’s priority list. They need help as I argued at the time of the election. Whether Trump can provide it is a moot point but they voted for change and the “haves” ought to be careful how they indirectly impact the “have nots”

The screaming, carrying on and promoting blood sport may end up creating proper civil unrest. It’s simmering but the media as usual is oblivious to it all. In any event the last thing the world needs is instability in the world’s largest economy at this point in a peaking cycle.

Dick Turpin Turnbull will chase away foreign capital

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I was asked by a client this week on what I thought of Australia’s political climate. I said to him, “if you asked me 15-20 years ago I’d safely argue that it was the only country in the region which could boast incredibly stable government, sensible economic policy and a safe place to park your money. Today I can’t say with hand on heart that this is the Australia you are investing in today. What I will say is that you should keep your powder dry because it will become a ‘pound shop’ in the not too distant future with a weaker currency, higher rates and fire sale asset prices.”

He asked if I could elaborate. I replied “we have had 5 prime  ministers in almost as many years. Before that we never saw anything like that. Our political climate is vile and volatile. We now have a government that is seeking to put in place knowingly unsound policies to arrest poll declines rather than try to fix an out of control deficit. What they are failing to see is that bashing big banks (especially for a conservative Coalition government) out of the blue chases off investment (Alan Joyce and Don Argua are right about that). Foreign investors must wonder whether they may fall foul of knee-jerk regulations and decide the risk is not worth it. So in answer to your question the current climate is going to offer some fantastic opportunities down the line because all of the political turmoil will eventually force change and buying into the market leading into that will be your best bet.”

So with our Dick Turpin highwayman robber at the helm we invite unwelcome flight of capital. If you want to create jobs, growth, stability and invite foreign investment you do so by providing a platform that supports it. It isn’t won by bashing industry, cranking up public spending and hiking taxes. It is done by making yourself the safest place to invest and all the while that happens the risk falls meaning capital is not only cheaper but more abundant. This isn’t trickle down economics but sound policy. Sadly talking of net debt isn’t going to save this government and what is worse Opposition leader Bill Shorten wants to outspend a budget that makes the Sultan of Brunei’s giveaways look like Venezuelan austerity measures.

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.

The French voted for their interests, not yours!

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One of the persistent memes, posts and social media commentaries I’ve read in the last few days on Macron’s win feature ‘thank you France’,  ‘you’ve spared another Trump’ or similar prose. The fact that some feel compelled to write in such ways speaks volumes to their self-assessed sense of shared intellectual superiority despite not being citizens. The French democratically elected Macron. Not the foreigner. The end. It is not our moral duty to tell the French or any other country’s citizens how to vote. You can be assured those that voted for him had their own interests in mind, not yours when they cast their ballot. Do you think the Brits thought for a second they might upset the Americans if they didn’t follow Obama’s wise words of ‘Remain‘ leading into Brexit? Not a chance in hell. In fact his comments saw ‘Leave’ polling surge. Do you think the 10.6mn French that voted for Le Pen were thinking of those in Athens, Madrid or Brussels as the ticked her name? Even those French that voted for Macron would roll their eyes in frustration if you butchered their language in your polite attempt to communicate in pidgin-French. So thanking them would be viewed as a VTFF moment.

We shouldn’t forget that 25% of French voters didn’t bother showing up, probably because neither choice fitted their bill.  So Macron’s 66% could actually be less than 50% of total voters. Maybe Le Pen’s 34% was much higher if those non-voters were held at gunpoint? Perhaps lower? We won’t know but only the French get to decide. Our pontifications mean little to the French. If I decide to vote for One Nation or cast a donkey vote in the next Aussie federal election I would not care a jot what anyone else thought. I wouldn’t care for threats of defriending which was a common occurrence during the lead up to the US election. My vote is for me, not you. Your vote is yours not mine. I have no obligation to give you my vote. You have no obligation to vote for my choice.

Listen to the recent protests about rescinding the voting rights of the elderly because they supposedly sold out their grandkids. Name one time your grandparents deliberately acted against your well being? Ice cream and chocolates are excluded. Although that is evidence of blind love so intentionally in your favour. We can take it to the bank that the elderly were acting and will always act, using their multiple decades of experience, in the best interests of their family’s economic and financial future. They haven’t suffered a bout of Alzheimer’s and sought to elect someone that will punish them.

To suggest the French result is a defeat for populism and the far-right couldn’t be more wishful thinking if it tried.  As written several days back I argued it was a massive win for Le Pen, in fact so much so that if Macron is just Hollande-lite that 2022 could be a Le Pen victory. Doubling her father’s achievement is no mean feat. 10.6mn rejecting the EU should be a massive red flag. However in 2022 the French will line up at the ballot box and vote with the party or candidate that will best represent them. They’ll care not for your posturing and posts telling them how to vote.

For a man that plays the EU anthem over La Marseillaise should tell us something about the next 5 years. The 34% will likely be ignored. Potentially a slug of the 25% that didn’t vote may be neglected as well. I won’t be surprised when you write ‘WTF France?’, ‘how could you be so stupid France?‘ If Macron doesn’t look after enough of his citizens they’ll eventually gang up and fire him. Perhaps there is the folly in your tidings of praise – sitting in your comfortable study tapping away salutations missing the plight of the have nots continuing unabated. Thanks for nothing!

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.”

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.