Rating Agencies

Wizard of Lies

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Another film that shoots the lights out. HBO casts DeNiro as Bernie Madoff who plays the role brilliantly. It is a tragic tale. Not just to those that lost $65bn (although one would think if those that made $100s of millions one might expect they’d be a bit better at risk management) to a fraudster but more importantly the suicide of his eldest son and the death from cancer of his younger son before he passed. While one doesn’t feel any sympathy for Madoff it is a well portrayed rendition of how he created his Ponzi scheme and duped the regulators for so long. Madoff turns 80 on April 29.

Shipping industry needs to save ITSELF before it has any chance of saving the PLANET

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Yet more eco-mentalism being celebrated by the UN International Maritime Organisation (IMO) with little thought to the very economics that has crippled shipping companies for so long. Shipping companies need to save themselves before bothering to save the planet.  Although the back slapping for the supposed “watershed agreement” (their words) will be achieved by 2050. The most pressing global issue of our times and these metal hulks which burn the ugliest, dirtiest and cheapest fuel (bunker) available have 32 years to get there. Perhaps the irony is that bankruptcy might take half the ships out of service meaning the emissions target could be hit decades earlier. A brief look at history.

It wasn’t so long ago that Korea’s largest container transporter Hanjin Shipping declared bankruptcy.  The above chart shows the daily shipping rates for the industry which remain tepid for the past decade. The problem with the shipping industry is the fleet. Ships are not built overnight. Surging order books and limited capacity meant that as the pre GFC global trade boom was taking place, many shipping companies were paying over the odds without cost ceilings on major raw material inputs (like steel). This meant that ships were arriving at customer docks well after the cycle had peaked at prices that were 3x market prices because of the inflated materials.

The pricing market was looking grim in 2016. CM wrote, “These are the latest prices in 2016 vs the 5 year average by type. New LNG, grain and oil carriers etc are holding up but the used market is being slaughtered. Ships are generally bought with a 25-yr service span at the very least. Global seaborne trade growth has shrunk from 6%+ growth in 2011 to less than 2% now.”

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According to Weber’s Week 4 report, VLCC rates for the route from the Arabian Gulf to China dropped to $10,925 per day on January 26 from $18,389 per day on January 19, which represents a 40% fall week-over-week. The average rate for all VLCC routes dropped to $13,179 per day from $19,974 per day on January 19. The current rates are 67% lower year-over-year.

Clarkson’s note 2010 build Capesize rates have fallen from $20,000/day 6 months ago to less than $3,900/day as of April 2018. 84K CBM LPG carriers have fallen from over $800,000/mth in April 2016 to $542,000/mth today.

Take a look at the financials of global leader Maersk. It recorded $US27.1bn of revenue in 2012 but only $24bn in 2017. Yet profitability slumped from $2.1bn to a paltry $25mn. Maersk carries around $34 billion in deferred tax loss carry forwards. That is the extent of the ‘financial baggage’ it still carries. The three major Japanese shipping companies have had a hell of a hit to profitability in recent years. See below.

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If the volume of goods transported by sea increases 3% every year, the volume in 40 years will be 3.3 times today’s volume. To cut total CO2 emissions in half by 2050, CO2 emissions per ton-mile need to fall by 85%. NYK is looking at the following ship that will cut emissions by 69% in 2030.

If the shipping industry is not fixed through market forces it will be difficult to repair the profitability and balance sheets that would allow the companies to invest in more eco friendly vessels. Bankruptcies are mergers are needed to streamline the sector.

According to Clarksons, the global fleet of all types of commercial shipping is 50% larger than it was before the GFC despite the World Trade Organization saying growth in global trade has crept up from $14.3 trillion in 2007 to $15.46tn in 2016 (+8%). Scrapping rates have fallen 40% since 2012 but since 2017 have risen moderately, appealing to owners with too much tonnage on their hands.

The International Chamber for Shipping’s secretary general Peter Hinchliffe said, “This is a ground-breaking agreement — a Paris agreement for shipping — that sets a very high level of ambition for the future reduction of carbon dioxide emissions…We are confident this will give the shipping industry the clear signal it needs to get on with the job of developing zero carbon dioxide fuels so that the entire sector will be in a position to decarbonise completely.”

What a wonderfully naive plan. At least the IMO can feel warm and fuzzy despite so many headwinds ahead of an industry still in structural distress.

Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing trends in the US surging

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The Chapter 11 bankruptcy trends in the US have been picking up in the last 4 years. While well off the highs of the months and years of the GFC and years following it, the absolute numbers of filings has exceeded the levels leading up to the crisis in 2007/8.

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Here we put 2006/7/8 alongside 2016/17/18. The average monthly bankruptcy filings were around 355 in 2006 moving to 429 in 2007 and then 718 in 2008. If we looked at the data in the 12 months prior to the quarter leading into Lehman’s collapse, bankruptcies averaged 463/month. The ultimate carnage peaked out at 1,049 in 2009 (1,377 in Apr 2009). For 2016, 2017 and 2018 (annualized) we get 454, 480 and 521 respectively.

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Bankruptcy filings tend to be seasonal and often show peaks in April when tax season coincides with businesses.

However the %-age spike in bankruptcies in 2008 ahead of Lehman’s downfall was 46%. In the latest recorded month from the American Bankruptcy Institute (ABI) was 81%. This March 2018 spike is the second highest since the GFC hit. April figures will be interesting if we get another lift on that figure. Not even seasonality can explain away the differences. The trends seem clear.

Thinking logically, we are at the end of the generous credit cycle. Interest rates are heading north thanks to a less accommodating Fed. Naturally ‘weaker’ companies will have more trouble in refinancing under such environments. The lowering of corporate taxes would seem to be a boon, but with loss making businesses it becomes harder to exercise tax loss carry forwards.

We’ve already started to see GFC levels of credit card delinquency at the sub-prime end of town. Sub-prime auto loan makers seeking bankruptcy protection have surged too.

Fitch, which rates auto-loan ABS said the 60+ day delinquency rate of subprime auto loans has now risen to 5.8%, up from 5.2% a year ago, and up from 3.8% in February 2014 to the highest rate since Oct 1996, exceeding even GFC levels.

growing number of car loans in the US are being pushed further down the repayment line as much as 84 months. In the new car market the percentage of 73-84-month loans is 33.8%, triple the level of 2009. Even 10% of 2010 model year bangers are being bought on 84 month term loans. The US ended 2016 with c.$1.2 trillion in outstanding auto loan debt, up 9%YoY and 13% above the pre-crisis peak in 2005.

The irony here is that sub-prime auto loan makers expanded lending because new technology allowed these companies to to remotely shut down and repossess vehicles of owners who were late on payments. That game only lasts so long before it forms its own Ponzi scheme.

Throw skittish financial markets, geopolitical instability and the mother of all refinancings coming the US Treasury’s way it is not to hard to see bankruptcies pick up from here.

Do as I say not as I do

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Tesla’s senior VP of engineering Doug Field has been selling down his stake in the company despite suggesting he’s  insulted by those shorting the stock. Field has sold over $6.5mn in stock since Sep 2015, selling $500k worth in recent months according to filings. Surely any company that has signed off on an incentive package triggered at a $650bn market cap (12x today) would be nuts to sell any of the stock now. Will Musk’s April Fool’s joke about Tesla’s bankruptcy actually become a self fulfilling prophecy? Be careful why you wish for!

Tesla’s Autopilot beta testing means customers are crash test dummies

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Back in April 2016, we wrote about the dangerous legal ramifications facing Tesla due to its overzealous promotion of the auto-pilot function. What people tend to forget is the issues surrounding liability. An insurance company often covers a driver with respect to accidents – wet road, poor visibility or being hit by another driver. The insurer covers that type of damage. Yet the death of a Tesla driver in California last week was found to have had the auto pilot function on. Why should an insurer pay for damages that result from willful negligence promoted by the manufacturer itself? This is a design fault. Moreover how could Elon Musk’s legal team not suggest that he refrain from such promotion? Accidents as a result of Tesla’s auto pilot are becoming so numerous that it is hard to fathom why people put so much faith in the system, as this video highlights. They are willingly becoming crash test dummies.

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Tesla’s own website notes, “Build upon Enhanced Autopilot and order Full Self-Driving Capability on your Tesla. This doubles the number of active cameras from four to eight, enabling full self-driving in almost all circumstances, at what we believe will be a probability of safety at least twice as good as the average human driver. The system is designed to be able to conduct short and long distance trips with no action required by the person in the driver’s seat.”

The video on the autopilot webpage highlighting the autopilot function on the makes no reference to ensure drivers pay attention to the road even when the system is in use. Sounds to me like the ambulance chasers have plenty of ammunition to launch a class action. It only cost Toyota $1.2bn for the runaway accelerator issue. For a company deeply in debt with such heavy losses, rising interest rates, falling credit rating and senior departures, Tesla should be careful not to get carried away with signaling the virtues of systems that are clearly flawed.

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Deja vu?

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Interesting chart from ZeroHedge pointing out the similarities in two equity market corrections that we’ve seen in the past – 1929 and 1987 – vs today. Gluskin Sheff Chief Economist Dave Rosenberg tweeted at the start of March 2018,

Hmmm. Let’s see. Tariffs. Sharp bond selloff. Weak dollar policy. Massive twin deficits. New Fed Chairman. Cyclical inflationary pressures. Overvalued stock markets. Heightened volatility. Sounds eerily familiar (from someone who started his career on October 19th, 1987!).”

Several weeks ago CM wrote,

Perhaps the scariest claim in his report is a survey that showed 75% of asset managers have not experienced the tech bubble collapse in 2000. So their only reference point is one where central banks manipulated the outcome in 2007/8. S&P fell around 56% peak to trough.

“…Hickey cites an interview with Paul Tudor Jones who said that the new Fed Chairman Powell has a situation not unlike “General George Custer before the battle of the Little Bighorn” (aka Custer’s Last Stand). He spoke of $1.5 trillion in US Treasuries requiring refinancing this year. CM wrote that $8.4 trillion required refinancing in 4 years. In any event, with the Fed tapering (i.e. selling their bonds) couple with China and Japan feeling less willing to step up to the plate he conservatively sees 10yr rates hit 3.75% (now 2.8%) and 30 years rise above 4.5%. Now if we tally the $65 trillion public, private and corporate (worst average credit ratings in a decade) debt load in America and overlay that with a rising interest rate market things will get nasty. Not to mention the $9 trillion shortfall in public pensions…

Look at the state of delinquencies in consumer debt among all commercial banks. $36.4 billion or 1% of the $3.854 trillion in outstanding consumer debt, ex mortgages and student debt.

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Last week CM wrote on the blow up in credit card delinquency,

The St Louis Fed shows delinquency rates on credit cards among the smaller banks (above). Presumably the smaller banks have to chase less credit worthy customers because they lack the ultimate battleship marketing cannons of the bigger financial instititutions. We’re back at times worse than the highest levels seen during GFC. Among all banks, we are still away off the $40bn of delinqient credit card debts we’re back at levels higher than those before Lehman’s brought financial markets to a grinding halt.

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It looks as though index options look dirt cheap relative to other asset classes. Out of the money short dated put options are trading at cents in the dollar. CM has invested in these products in recent months. With a market looking sicker by the day, risk on has yet to rattle cages of the option markets. A lot of cheap pick up in buying put options providing an easy way to short the market. Gold is also waking up.

Just how far behind the curve is the Fed?

As the Fed raised its Fed Funds Rate to 1.5~1.75% overnight, one has to question just how far behind is it? 3M Libor rates have surged from 0.5% in 2016, c.1% at the start of 2017 to 2.27% today, the highest levels since 2008.  Normally Libor minus Overnight Index Swap (OIS) rates don’t diverge so much without causing a credit issue. The gap is effectively the market price over and above the risk free rate. At the time of the GFC, the Libor-OIS spread hit 3.5%, with 1% being the detonator level. While it is currently at 0.54% spread, it has risen consecutively for the last 32 sessions.

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As Libor drives corporate credit recycling, with corporate debt piles approaching record highs and average credit ratings the worst they’ve been in over a decade (chart below depicts Top tier as AAA and bottom tier as BBB-) we could see the Libor-OIS spread keep expanding.

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What could be causing this? If we think logically the US Treasury has to refinance $1.5 trillion over the next 12 months and $8.4 trillion over the next 4 years. Add to that a Fed looking at quantative tapering and a less eager Japan and China as buyers of US$ federal debt then the corporate will undoubtedly get crowded out. The demands for refinancing are not being met with the supply of funds.

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Of note, the St Louis Fed reports the YoY increase in inflation reported by the CPI in the US in Feb 2018 was 2.3%. The 10yr breakeven inflation rate is around 2.08%. CPI ex food items is still at 1.9%. In any event the US remains in a negative real yield environment.

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The Fed can bang on all it wants about healthy growth, full employment but the depth of problems stored up is getting worse. $9 trillion in unfunded public pension liabilities, $67 trillion in combined public, private and corporate debt…

…many are recently talking of the huge pent-up profit boost to banks which have had such compressed spreads for so long. Indeed that all makes absolute sense from a theoretical (and to date practical) reasoning but banks like those in Australia up to their gills in mortgage debt, rising spreads have far nastier implications for blowing up balance sheets than boosting P&L accounts.

In a sense it is almost futile to call central banks as being behind the curve. The failure to take the harsh medicine of almost two decades ago is gathering momentum in so far as there is not much can left to kick down the road.