Rating Agencies

Tale of the gold coin chocolate & a warning for Tesla Disciples

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It hadn’t really hit until going back to read the conditions of Musk’s new executive compensation package but the first thing that struck me was the risk of the old adage of paying too much attention to the share price. The collection of all 12 tranches for CEO Elon Musk only kicks in when his company hits $650bn in market cap. The first thing to pop in the head was that of Japanese mobile phone retailer Hikari Tsushin back during the tech bubble. The rather eccentric CEO Yasumitsu Shigeta had gold coin chocolates made embossed with “Hikari Tsushin: Target Market Cap Y100 trillion.” One could only conclude he believed in his own BS.

It was at that moment where the only thing that crossed the mind was ‘this spells trouble’. There were magazines like Forbes touting how Shigeta was one of the richest men in the world and analysts fell hook, line and sinker for this unrealistic dream forecasting he’d be #1 before long. The only rational conclusion for the Contrarian Marketplace was to tell them that “bet he won’t be in the top 100 next year.”  Low and behold the tech bubble collapsed and Hikari Tsushin – that believed it was worth 2x the market cap of then highest valued corporation in the world, General Electric – fell over 95%.

While Musk may not yet have printed target market cap $650bn gold coin chocolates, what the incentives are saying to the market is that his company needs to be worth more than Daimler, BMW, VW, GM, Ford, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Renault, Fiat-Chrysler Ferrari and Porsche combined. Just read that last sentence again. Do investors honestly believe that Tesla which consistently misses and is going up against companies that have been in the game for decades, seen brutal cycles, invest multiples more in technology and forgotten more than they remembered will somehow all become slaves to a company which has no technological advantages whatsoever?

Once again, this compensation package screams of gold coin chocolates in mentality. Instead of running the business and letting the share price do the talking, the mindset is focused on launching convertibles into space and distracting investors from increasingly dreadful financial results which eventually must come full circle if the results continue to miss. Broader Tesla report here.

Plunging credit quality more troubling than market rout

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The Dow plunged 1175 points (-4.6%) overnight. 4.6% is a lot and yes 4-digit drops optically look worse but off the higher base we get higher (record) point drops. One thing to contemplate in a rising bond yield market is corporate credit quality. Since 2006 the average credit ratings for US corporates issued by the big agencies have seen the number of top rated (to the left) fall while those with deteriorating grades (to the right) soar. That’s right, the 4 categories before “junk” have risen sharply. After many years of virtually free money many corporations have let the waistline grow. When refinancing comes around just how will credit ratings influence the new spreads of corporates who’ve shifted to the right?

The IMF highlighted in 2017  that US companies have added $7.8t in debt & other liabilities since 2010. The ability to cover interest payments is now at the weakest level since 2008 crisis.

This despite near full employment, record level equity markets and every other word of encouragement from our politicians.

However if this is the state of the corporate sector at arguably the sweet spot of the economic cycle CM shudders to think the state of potential bankruptcies that will come when the cycle truly takes a turn for the worse. This is a very bad sign.

Gold Coin vs Bitcoin – just go on a crypto blog and invite a fatwah by criticizing it

The Bitcoin debate rages again. I’ve been asked more times by friends about whether to buy Bitcoin in the last 3 months than I care to remember. This video is about as telling as it gets about understanding raw value. At the moment Bitcoin pricing is as random as a Lotto ball dispenser although only higher numbers are being drawn for now (despite the 20% flash crash yesterday, shows panic is a server outage away). My answer to them is I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole but everyone’s risk is their own. I answered along the lines below.

As a contrarian investor, this video warms my heart. When everyone seems to love something it tends to be a sign that ‘greater fool theory’ is alive and kicking. The video shows a woman unwilling to trade a stick of gum for a 1oz gold coin. If there was ever a better example of mean reversion, this must be it. Mark Dice did a similar video with people asking if they wanted a Hershey’s chocolate bar or a silver bar. Everyone chose the Hershey’s! While I am sure the response on Wall Street would elicit a different response it shows how few people understand the value of barbarous old relics.

The biggest issue with Bitcoin or any other crypto is that it is mined in cyber space. Do you ever wonder why you need to update your Norton anti-virus software every other day? Yes because some criminals are phishing/hacking your data trying to rob you blind. That’s just the amateur cowboy stuff by the way.

Gold needs to be dug out of the ground with considerable effort. The thing that spooks me about crypto (without trying to sound conspiracy theorist) is that state actors (most top end computer science grads in China end up working in the country’s cyber warfare teams), hackers or criminal minds (did you know 70% of top end computer science grads in Russia end up working for the mob (directly or indirectly) the value of coins in the system could be instantaneously wiped out at the stroke of a key. We’ve had small hiccups ($280m) only last week. So as much as the ‘security’ of these crypto currencies is often sold as bulletproof, none of them are ‘cyberproof’. Just like your home software, crypto at every stage has to constantly update its protection to prevent vulnerabilities and it is naive to think it can keep a 100% safety record.

It only takes one serious hack to bring most if not all the crypto down as vulnerable. In order for Auric Goldfinger to crush prices in Gold he’d need to smelt lead bars and paint them, were any left over from the pail and brush used on Jill Masterson. Gold is one currency that governments often threaten to confiscate (India springs to mind). Imagine if North Korea turns Bitcoin into the state currency?

I have just been on a Bitcoin forum and the insults being hurled at disbelievers has all the hallmarks of Tesla share ownership. It is a religion. Not an investment. I was accused of having no idea on crypto to which I argued 90%+ of those that own it probably don’t either. So having owners in Bitcoin or other cryptos knowing a tiny fraction of the risks means they’ll stampede faster than the servers can process data should ‘bit hit the fan’. One crypto ‘expert’ tried to tell me that artwork has no value as it is not tradable. It is tradable, just illiquid. I argued that the latest sale of DaVinci’s artwork fetched $450mn or 45,000 bitcoin. Storage costs aside over the long run I’ll have a Leonardo thank you!

As Mark Twain said, ”It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

My assessment is that the fascination of those around me about Bitcoin suggests that many of the fan base are punters trading on the greed of others. It has no underlying core value other than those prepared to pay more for it. That indeed is the tenet of all investment but like most manias, the risk/reward ratio can turn on a dime (no pun intended). At some stage the fall out from crypto will be ugly. As financial pundits know

the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent”

The “bigger” point about the FANG sell off

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While the press is waxing lyrical about the unprecedented loss caused by a sell off in FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix & Google) we should note that it overlooks one factor. Before getting to that, to start with the sell off in gross dollar terms it is unsurprising given the already highly inflated value of the base stocks. So if A $500bn market cap Facebook loses 4% it is equivalent to $20bn. On one day FB lost a Fiat Chrysler. It’s math. Let’s not forget that Bitcoin is now worth $165bn but let’s not let that bubble spoil the party.

The problem that faces financial markets is the advent of ETFs. While stupefyingly simple to understand as an investor it is that same simplicity that breeds complacency. ETFs are simple products that enable investors to pay much lower fund management fees to buy easy to understand baskets- whether coal, gold, oil or FANGs. There are 106 ETF products that own Facebook as a Top 15 holding with that averaging between 5% and 10% of the entire fund.

Yet on the way up things are rosy. It is what happens on the downside that has yet to be fully tested. Around two years ago, CM wrote a report which warned of the risk of ETFs on the downside, especially levered ETFs (i.e. you buy a 2x levered FANG fund which means if FANG stocks go up 5% you theoretically get 2x the return for any given move up or down.

However in times of uncertainty (i.e. heightened risk) the options markets that price risk move magnitudes on the downside vs the upside. Meaning for an ETF to replicate what it proclaims on the brochure becomes much more difficult meaning the fund may under or overshoot the promises. Also in certain markets (e.g. US & Japan) where stocks on the exchange have limit up/down rules on the physical stock, should a market crash ensue, the ETF prices on the theoretical values of stocks that may not have opened for trading. What that means is that the ETF may reflect a market that is 10-15% below where it actually eventually opens. Meaning poor ETF buyers get gouged. However the computer algorithms in the ETF end up chasing, not leading the market which in and of itself creates more panic selling further reducing market confidence. Where a market might have traditionally fallen  3% on a given piece of bad news, ETFs tend to react in ways that might cause a market to retreat 6%. Indeed market volatility is amplified by ETFs.

At the moment market behavior is exceedingly complacent about risk. Before GFC highly complex products like CDOs and CDSs were the rage. 99% had next to no clue how they operated but they found their way into the local government investment portfolios of even small country towns in Australia.

ETFs on the other hand are strikingly simple to grasp but that also means we pay far less attention to the risk that goes with them. That is the bigger worry. People complacently thinking their portfolios are safe as houses may wake up one morning wondering why some flash crash has caused Joe and Joanne Public’s retirement nest egg to get decimated.

 

The beauty of honesty

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The above quote is from quirky fund manager Dr Michael Burry MD towards the end of the movie, The Big Short. It says so much of today. One mate who is a very decent asset manager in Australia wrote to his clients, “I realise such may fly in the face of typical adviser recommendations (show me how someone is paid and I’ll show you how they will behave) however, I would rather lose a client than lose a client’s capital.

We share similar views on the state of the global capital markets. We joked about his long message to his investors sounding like Jerry Maguire burning the midnight oil writing the “fewer clients, less money” manifesto which got him sacked.

Now that our world is moving further and further toward automated everything including pre-emptive responses (which I scoffed out the other day about LinkedIn) it is truly refreshing to see this authentic honesty. The irony is that as much as machines are pushing us into ever tighter time windows, humans instinctively carry long term memory whether trauma or positive life events.

May your honesty be paid back in spades when those you saved a bundle recall your genuine gesture.

Kobe Steel’s White Samurai – who might be forced into national service?

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While we are some way off understanding the extent of damage to Kobe Steel, we shouldn’t rule out the inevitable action which could involve a structured rescue of it, a white samurai if you will. Japan’s largest steel company NSSMC (5401) owns 2.95% of the outstanding shares of Kobe Steel. Will we see a motion in several months time as more facts become known for a consortium like the INCJ to team up with NSSMC to turn it into another Hinomaru sunset business? We saw the dying semiconductor industry in Japan get rolled into Elpida (which went bust) and cell phone screen players get merged into Japan Display (still listed) so why would anyone doubt a Hinomaru Steel consortium which would be a forced sense of national duty. While still way too early to surmise we should not ignore such a scenario should Kobe really find itself hoisted by its own petard. Corporate harakiri is the last thing Nippon Sumitomo Steel holders want from a governance perspective

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.