Rating Agencies

The irresponsibility of socially responsible investing

United Nations Sustainable Development Logo

Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) has been heavily pushed by members of the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors (ACSI) for a while now. Apart from cynically cashing in on the generally higher fees generated by these “woke” funds, the returns have been nothing much to write home about. As Milton Friedman once said, “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.

If we look at YTD, 1 or 10-year performance all of the SRI portfolios as indicated by published performance (listed on their websites) of local ACSI members, they have “underperformed” the benchmark index. One outperformed in the 5-year category. Hardly anything to crow about. So as much as they might feel warm and fuzzy for turning these funds into virtue-signalling investment vehicles, the outcomes for the monies entrusted to them is far from ideal. While investors should bear ultimate responsibility for where they deploy retirement funds, do they realise how much money they are torching by believing in this nonsense?

So why do these funds try to bully top-performing companies to conform to their irrelevant ideals which on the face of it do not appear to be working? If one reads through the fine print, many superannuation administrators pat themselves on the back that they are aligning portfolios to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). If one wants to champion best in class ethics, the UN is the last place anyone should look. Just look at the unethical scandal that occurred at UNAIDS. 

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out what these SDGs are – eliminating hunger, wiping out poverty, promoting gender equality, good health, clean water and sanitation, affordable clean energy etc. All wonderful things in and of themselves, but surely if the market agrees with them,  shouldn’t share prices reflect that?

Friedman spoke of free-market economics, “Well, first of all, tell me: Is there some society you know that doesn’t run on greed? You think Russia doesn’t run on greed? You think China doesn’t run on greed? What is greed? Of course, none of us are greedy, it’s only the other fellow who’s greedy. The world runs on individuals pursuing their separate interests. The great achievements of civilization have not come from government bureaus [including the UN]. Einstein didn’t construct his theory under order from a bureaucrat. Henry Ford didn’t revolutionize the automobile industry that way. In the only cases in which the masses have escaped from the kind of grinding poverty you’re talking about, the only cases in recorded history, are where they have had capitalism and largely free trade. If you want to know where the masses are worse off, worst off, it’s exactly in the kinds of societies that depart from that. So that the record of history is absolutely crystal clear, that there is no alternative way so far discovered of improving the lot of the ordinary people that can hold a candle to the productive activities that are unleashed by the free-enterprise system.

In Australia,  it would seem that many high performing companies, that aren’t ‘compliant as they should be‘, are being pressured to increase diversity, women on boards and all manner of meaningless benchmarks preached by the ACSI and its members.

Take the 30% Club which pushes to have 30% women on boards. While this started in the UK in 2010, it has spread across multiple jurisdictions including Australia. The 30% Club emphatically quotes from a McKinsey study,  “Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams are 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile.” What this study doesn’t say is that the bottom quartile of companies maybe just poorly run, in spite of the genitalia of the board.

Don’t mistake the most important point to be made. If a board is best served by all women, you won’t hear a peep from investors if they can produce the best results. As soon as we start to try to enforce gender quotas, performance becomes predicated on chromosomes rather than capability. What next? Ensure fair representation of LGBT on boards? Religions? Races? Disabilities? Where does it stop when all that matters is ability that produces performance?

Take a look at the disaster that has befallen PG&E in recent times. In the interests of pandering to all these irrelevant SDGs, it can tell you the exact breakdown of the diversity of its workforce but can’t tell you the status of much of its infrastructure, some which have been directly responsible for the devastating wildfires in California. The company was forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Did diversity help shareholders? If one’s house is on fire, do we worry about identity? Or who has the skillsets to put out the blaze the fastest? QED.

Yet our woke investors keep pushing these trends. IFM Investors waxes lyrical about its climate change, 30% Club and carbon disclosure project. Good for it. It has a choice. It should live by the sword and die by it. If that is what it wishes to focus on why not allow the free market to; a) decide whether superannuation holders want to deploy funds in such a manner and b) let corporates decide if SRI is good for their businesses.

Yet, the latest push by these socialist fund administrators is to ensure that companies conform to the ‘Modern Slavery Act.’ Are these people for real? Who are they to try to enforce federal law? Talk about self-imposed authority. It is a safe bet that 99%+ corporates listed on the ASX behave are compliant in this regard because if not the punitive outcomes will be severe.

Moreover, if some of these funds own stocks like Tesla in their international portfolios, perhaps they might consider such a hip and trendy investment has an indirect connection to child-slave labour in DR Congo where 70% of the world’s cobalt is mined to go into the Li-ion batteries.

There is one absolute truth in finance. In good times, any mug CEO can be successful. It is only when markets turn sour that the “quality” of decent management is truly appreciated in how they successfully manage to mitigate risk in an ugly downturn. In a difficult market climate, only the fittest survive and if companies have strayed off the reservation to appeal to investors, it will soon become self-evident in the results.

As we stare at the precipice of a potentially deep global recession, the previous paragraph will be all that matters. Because those corporates too busy hitting diversity targets, installing genderless bathrooms and ensuring they have double-checked all employees have complied with Earth Hour will be slaughtered when markets take a pounding.

These SDG focused funds will soon see that they are part of one giant herd and as performance starts to suffer in this crowded trade, the stampede toward the exit will reveal just how irresponsible the push to ram through such irrelevant metrics at the very companies who caved in was.

As a contrarian investor, the best investments will be in exactly those companies that shun(ned) this foolhardy exercise and forged a path in the spirit of Milton Friedman. Afterall they understood what it really means to be “free to choose.” So back up the truck in tobacco, mining and fossil fuel stocks on any pullback. After all, mean reversion will see these stocks outperform if nothing else.

Don’t forget Harvey Norman (HVN). How could it be that the company is worth 4x the combined value of Myer and David Jones, the latter two businesses focused on pleasing the United Nations rather than customers?  Hmmm.

Isn’t that the ultimate ready reckoner for these SDG funds? The market is always right. If the performance of the funds deployed isn’t making the grade, don’t attempt to force the best of breed to comply to your self imposed standards. Embrace companies that follow their lead. Not the other way around. It begs the question, what on earth are people who should believe in free markets doing to thwart it functioning efficiently?

Perhaps investors have the clearest indication of socialist activism by the very requirement to join the club. “ACSI drives strong ESG performance in companies in which our members invest because ESG creates long-term value…We use our collective impact to influence companies and financial markets in the interests of our members as long-term investors…Commitment to these beliefs is a pre-requisite for membership of ACSI.

Never has it been a more sound decision to set up an SMSF.

Westpac reported a 40% increase in home repossessions

Mortgages Westpac

Don’t get CM wrong – this is still the law of small numbers.  Westpac reported this week that it repossessed another 162 properties in the latest fiscal year.  That is a 40% increase. While it is but a dribble compared to the 100,000s of total loans outstanding it is none-the-less a harbinger of things to come. Westpac made clear, “the main driver of the increase has been the softening economic conditions and low wages growth.”

The current status of 90-day+ delinquencies has been rising over time. As have 30-day +. While nothing alarming, the current economic backdrop should give absolutely no confidence that an improvement in conditions is around the corner. We are not at the beginning of the end, but at the end of the beginning.

Former President Ronald Reagan once said of the three phases of government, “if it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving regulate it. If it stops moving, subsidize it.” How is that relevant to the banks?

We have already had the government fold and attach a special bank tax on the Big 4. Phase 1 done. Now we are in the middle of phase 2 which is where knee-jerk responses to the Hayne Banking Royal Commission (HBRC) where banks will be on the hook for the loans they make. That is a recipe for disaster that could bring on phase 3 – bailouts.

Sound extreme? How is a bank supposed to make a proper risk assessment of a customer’s employability in years to come? Can they predict with any degree of accuracy on the stability of candidates who come for loans? The only outcome is to cut the loan amount to such conservative levels that the underlying purpose gets diluted in the process and prospective home buyers have to lower expectations. Not many banks will look positively at taking several loans on the same property with different institutions. That won’t work. SO loan growth will shrink, putting pressure on the property market.

What is the flip side? Given property prices in Sydney hover at 13x income (by the way, Tokyo Metro was 15x income at the peak of its property bubble), restrictions on further lending against loan books that are on average 63% stuffed with mortgages (Japan was 41.2% at the peak) won’t be helpful. A property slowdown is the last thing mortgage holders and banks need.

While equity continues to rise at Aussie banks, the equity to outstanding mortgages has gone down since 2007 i.e. leverage is up. If banks saw their average property portfolios drop by more than 20% many would be staring at a negative equity scenario. Yet, it won’t be just mortgage owners that we need to worry about. Business loans could well go pear-shaped as the onset of higher unemployment could see a sharp increase in delinquencies through a business slowdown. A concertina effect occurs. More people lose their job and a vicious circle ensues. It isn’t rocket science.

Of course, Australia possesses the ‘boy who cried wolf‘ mentality over the housing market. Yet it is exactly this type of complacency that paves a dangerous path to poor policy prescriptions.

In Japan’s property bubble aftermath, 40% of the value of loans went bang. 17% of GDP. $1.1 trillion went up in smoke. It took more than 10 years to clean up the mess and the aftershocks remain. Accounting trickery around the real value of loans on the balance sheet can hide the problems for a period but revenue tends to unravel such tales. 181 banks and building societies went bust. The rest were forced into mergers, received bailouts or were nationalised. Now the Japanese government is a perpetual debt slave, having to raise $400bn per annum in debt just to fill the portion of the $1 trillion budget that tax collections can’t fill.

The problem  Japan’s banks faced was simple.  If a neighbour’s $2m home was repossessed through mortgage stress and the bank fire sold it for $1.4m, the bank needed to mark to market the value of the loan portfolio for that area by similar amounts. In doing so, a once healthy balance sheet started to look anything but. Extrapolate that across multiple suburbs and things look nauseating quickly.

This is where Aussie banks are headed. This time there is no China to save us like in 2009. Unemployment rates in Australia never went above 6% after the GFC in 2008/9, unlike the US which went to 10%. We weathered that storm thanks to a monster surplus left by the Howard government, which we no longer have.

Sadly China has had 18 months of consecutive double-digit car sales decline. Two regional Chinese banks have folded in the last 3-4 months. China isn’t a saviour.

Nor is the US. While the S&P500 might celebrate new highs, aggregate corporate profitability hasn’t risen since 2012. The market has been fuelled by debt-driven buybacks. We now have 50% of US corporates rated BBB because of the distortions created by crazed central bank monetary policy, up from 30%. Parker Hannifin’s latest order book shows that customer activity is falling at a faster pace.

Nor is Europe. German industrial production is at 10-year lows. The prospects for any EU recovery is looking glib. Risk mispricing is insane with Greek bond spreads only 1.8% higher than German bunds.

What this means is that 28 years of unfettered economic growth in Australia is coming to an end and the excesses built in an economy that believes its own BS is going to leave a lot of people naked when the tide goes out.

The Australian government needs to focus on more deregulation, tax and structural reforms. Our record-high energy prices, ridiculous labour costs and overbearing red-tape are absolutely none of the ingredients that will help us in a downturn. We need to be competitive and we simply aren’t. Virtue signalling won’t help voters when the whole edifice crumbles.

All a low-interest rate environment has done is pull forward consumption. It seems the RBA only possesses a hammer in the tool kit which is why it treats everything as a nail. It is time to come to terms with the fact that further cuts to the official cash rate and the prospect of QE will do nothing to ward off the inevitable.

Pain is coming, but the prospects of an orderly exit are so far off the mark they are in another postcode. Roll your eyes at the stress tests. Stress tests are put together on the presumption that all of the stars align. Sadly, in times of panic, human nature causes knee-jerk responses which put even more pressure.

Banks.png

The Aussie banks have passed their best period. While short term news flow, such as a China trade deal, might give a short term boost, the structural time bomb sits on the balance sheet and while we may not get a carbon copy of the Japanese crisis, our Big 4 should start to look far more like the rest of the global banks – truly sick. The HBRC will see that it becomes way worse than it ever needed to be.

Complacency kills.

Tesla is good at digging holes

Tesla shares have rebounded from the $180s so CEO Elon Musk has come out of the woodwork suggesting mining might be on the agenda to lock in its future battery supply.

Tesla might be adept at digging financial holes for itself but we shouldn’t think that will turn it into an efficient miner.

Just typical Musk banter.

Ding dong the switch is dead

Morgan Stanley has finally lowered its bearish scenario on Tesla from $97 to $10. CM wrote in October 2017 that the shares based on production of 500,000 vehicles was worth no more than $28 (refer to report page 5). That was based on rosy scenarios. Sadly CM thinks Tesla will be bought for a song by the Chinese. Maybe $4.20 a share instead of $420 “funding secured” levels.

The stock breached $200 yesterday for the first time since late 2016.

Morgan Stanley analyst, Adam Jonas, has still kept its base case scenario at $230 per share. His bull case is $391.

Where is the conviction? To drop a bear case target by 90% must surely mean the base case is far lower than presently assumed.

Jonas must assume the bear case is actually the base case. Sell side brokers love to hide behind scenario analysis to cop out having to get off the fence. His compliance department probably prevents him from realizing $10 is his true heart.

Tesla was always playing in a market that it had no prior experience. It is not to say the products didn’t have promise. The problem was the execution. Too much senior management turnover, missed targets, poor quality and too many Tweets from Musk.

The amount of bad press arising from a lack of service centers has driven customers to moan on social media at its amateur approach. The fragile dreams of being an early adopter are being shattered. Cash burn remains high and deliveries remain low. Some pundits think Tesla orders are under real pressure in 2Q 2019.

The recent all share deal with Maxwell Technologies has seen those holders -20% since the transaction a few weeks ago. CM argued how a company with such revolutionary technology could sell itself for all shares in a debt-ridden loss making like Tesla? If the technology was of real value PE funds would have snapped it up or at the very least made a bid in cash. That none was made speaks volumes about what was bought.

All of the arguments hold true in the above link, “Tesla – 30 reasons why Tesla will be a bug on a windshield

Tesla below $200 after a successful cap raise is not a good sign. It’s the faithful slowly tipping out. Await another imaginary Musk-inspired growth engine to be announced shortly to try prop up the stock price. Yet the momentum will continue to sink. The market is losing confidence in Musk. The 1Q results were diabolically bad.

Major holder T Rowe Price has stampeded out the door. The stock is too risky. Musk is a brilliant salesman but he has bitten off more than he can chew.

CM always thought that Toyota selling its Tesla stake was a major sign. Acknowledging that under the hood the company possessed no technology that Toyota didn’t already own.

Watch the free fall. The Tesla stock will be below $100 by the year end.

(CM does not hold Tesla stock)

No, ScoMo!

For a Conservative party to push a subsidy of up to 20% of the value of a property for first time home buyers shows how bereft of policy it is. When Vic Premier Daniel Andrews raised a similar plan in March 2017 CM trashed it.

Think about it. Home prices have started to fall in major capitals because of a lack of demand thanks to astronomical prices and tapped out borrowers. This is before the Royal Commission puts the brakes on lending.

Why provide a subsidy to first home buyers toward the top of a bubble? It is not the role of the taxpayer to subsidize nor insure the downside risk in the event of the owner going into negative equity. What happened to free market economics?

What will this 20% subsidy do? If a couple go house hunting with a budget of $800,000, they will be able to shoot for a $1mn property. It might end up being the same property, pushed up by the desperate buyer thanks to the subsidy creating a false sense of security. So the reality is the taxpayer and the homeowner may end up in the red the day they move in. What a policy!!

Has ScoMo just called the top of the property market?

Aussies pay more tax than Japanese and Shorten wants to raise them higher!

CM is repulsed by the confetti blowing promises being made ahead of May 18. This election is about cost of living to be sure. It is not about climate change and not about resettling refugees. Yet there has to be a limit on the free give away with a growing deficit. Where is the fiscal responsibility? Do politicians run their own household budgets like this? Not in a million years.

Our federal tax receipts are A$430bn this year. Did you know Japan collects $A750bn at the national level? So Aus is 1/5th the population and raises 1/2 the coin of Japan. Having said that the Japanese government must raise A$500bn EVERY YEAR to plug the national deficit! That’s what happens with poor fiscal management. So doing the math including the debt financing, we still raise 31% the revenues than the Japanese on 20% of the population. We might argue our economy is 1/4 Japan’s but we’re following an unsustainable trajectory. It’s insane. How can we tax people more? Yet that is what Shorten will do.

We can debate til the cows come home about how GST is funneled back to the states from federal coffers but we need to wake up to our relative costs! Our budget deficit is c.$600bn yet here we see Labor throw confetti promises around everywhere. $1.18bn in new aid to foreign countries over the next 4 years. PNG spent our aid money on 40 new Maseratis. Shorten pledged $1bn to acquire land to put the VFT in place. Surely the private sector can deal with that. $2bn for a Melbourne metro. We can go on and on.

Everyone seems like a winner until everyone becomes a loser. The sad fact is that we must wake people up to reality. We need to spend smarter, not chuck more money and hope it has impact. Neither government will see a surplus. Take it to the bank. The economic growth projections aren’t there. No matter who wins this election, the global economy is slowing and either party will be handed a basket case of economy controlled by external forces which includes a slowing US and China. It won’t be pretty. The question is who can best manage that? Not Labor. Climate change will be so irrelevant in this downturn.

It gets worse. The Reserve Bank and APRA are asleep at the wheel. Instead of navigating sensible policies to thwart the largest recession we will face in almost 30 years which will decimate housing, both are discussing climate change compliance reporting by corporates. Seriously? It is so telling they are focusing on the wrong message. Have they seen that the world’s central banks have printed $140 trillion in extra debt since 2008 and got $20 trillion extra in GDP. Shockingly poor returns. $7 of debt gets us $1 of GDP.

Yet our political system has only one pair of rose tinted spectacles where the prescription is 27 years out of date. They are equally as oblivious to the oncoming onslaught where our Aussie banks face a real risk of part of whole nationalization. Their position is as bad as the Japanese ahead of the collapse of their bubble.

Do not be fooled. CM personally believes that the Coalition is not deserved of government but the alternative is even worse. The last thing we need is to rest on that old Aussie saying of “time to give the others a go!” because this is a time when we can least afford change. It will be buyer’s remorse + alpha.

STAY IN YOUR LANE!!!

Since when did the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority (APRA) become an axe on climate change? Next thing we will see is 16yo Greta Thunberg, of school climate strike fame, adorning APRA releases and annual reports. APRA should stay in its lane as the only disaster on the horizon will be self inflicted.

In the AFR today, it was reported that the financial services sector regulator said, “there is no excuse for inaction on climate change, warning there is a high degree of certainty that financial risks will materialize as a result of a warming climate.”

APRA noted that only 1 in 5 companies are meeting voluntary climate risk disclosure targets which are set out by the Task Force in Climate-related Financial Disclosures, a private sector body chaired by none other than global warming alarmist Michael Bloomberg.

What in the world is APRA doing trying to implement guidelines put forward by a body backed by an agenda? Has APRA considered the wealth of literature debunking global warming? The plethora of scandals that have befallen the UNIPCC, NOAA and even our own Bureau of Meteorology! Has it considered the dozens of dud predictions made by the IPCC? The UN climate science body has publicly climbed down from so many alarmist claims, citing no evidence or extremely low confidence. Can APRA put hrs numbers on what global warming might do?

To be honest, APRA should stay in its lane. It follows on from the lunacy spread by the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) on the same topic. The only “high degree of financial risk” will come from their own terrible stewardship of the financial sector.

As CM wrote late last year Australian banks are in a terrible position financially. CM believes there is a high risk that some of Australia’s major banks will end up all or part nationalized when the property market bursts. To quote some excerpts:

In the late 1980s at the peak of the property bubble, the Imperial Palace in Tokyo was worth the equivalent to the entire state of California. Greater Tokyo was worth more than the whole United States. The Japanese used to joke that they had bought up so much of Hawaii that it had effectively become the 48th prefecture of Japan. Japanese nationwide property prices quadrupled in the space of a decade. At the height of the frenzy, Japanese real estate related lending comprised around 41.2% (A$2.5 trillion) of all loans outstanding. N.B. Australian bank mortgage loan books have swelled to 63% (A$1.7 trillion) of total loans

From the peak in 1991/2 property prices over the next two decades fell 75-80%. Banks were decimated.

In the following two decades, 181 Japanese banks, trust banks and credit unions went bust and the rest were either injected with public funds, forced into mergers or nationalized. The unravelling of asset prices was swift and sudden but the process to deal with it took decades because banks were reluctant to repossess properties for fear of having to mark the other properties (assets) on their balance sheets to current market values. Paying mere fractions of the loan were enough to justify not calling the debt bad. If banks were forced to reflect the truth of their financial health rather than use accounting trickery to keep the loans valued at the inflated levels the loans were made against they would quickly become insolvent. By the end of the crisis, disposal of non-performing loans (NPLs) among all financial institutions exceeded 90 trillion yen (A$1.1 trillion), or 17% of Japanese GDP at the time.

In 2018, Australia’s GDP is likely to be around A$1.75 trillion. Our total lending by the banks is approximately $2.64 trillion which is 150% of GDP. At the height of the Japanese bubble, total bank lending as a whole only reached 106%. Mortgages alone in Australia are near as makes no difference 100% of GDP...

…In Westpac’s full-year 2018 balance sheet, the company claims around A$710 billion in assets as “loans”. Of that amount, according to the latest APRA data, A$411 billion of lending is ‘real estate’ related. Total equity for the bank is A$64.6 billion. So equity as a percentage of property loans is just shy of 16%. If Australia had a nationwide property collapse (we have not had one for three decades) then it is possible that the banks would face significant headwinds.

What that basically says is if Westpac suffered a 16% decline in the value of its entire property loan book then it would at least on paper appear in negative equity, or liabilities would be larger than assets. Recall in 2009 that BoA had over 16% of its residential loan portfolio which went bad.

We ought to be extremely worried if our financial regulators are devoting any time to this utter nonsense. It is highly doubtful that APRA could gain any meaningful insights on climate change even if there was 100% compliance with Bloomberg’s diocese. Utterly embarrassing.