recession

$450m for a painting? Maybe but 5 of the top 10 traded artists are now all Chinese!

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While one of Leonardo DaVinci’s pictures might have gone under the hammer for a record $450m (50% more than the previous record) last week,  the TEFAF Art Market Report 2017 shows that Chinese artists occupied 5 of the top 10 traded artists. Zhang Daqian traded almost as much as Pablo Picasso. Admittedly Picasso sales were down 50%YoY but even still the art market has continued to surge in an asset bubble everywhere world.

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So even since the heady days leading into the GFC art related exports are 100% higher than the post Lehman collapse shock and almost 50% higher than the previous peak. Imports showed a similar trend.

Art is usually unique. One offs. Trading of such pieces is also very sporadic. It is rare that a Monet or Chagall gets flipped inside a few weeks.

Perhaps the art world report’s best picture was this one. The political stage and how it will impact the art world?

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Surely art’s crowing glories often come from tortured minds which sees artists lop off their ears, smear themselves in excrement or provide more excuses to take illicit substances to come out with the next masterpieces. Interesting how a US Presidency can impact US based art dealers. Although the data would show otherwise.

Then again as much as the total value is trading higher in the art world, according to Artnet, the average prices have been trending down since 2015. The overall picture is one of general prices having peaked during July 2015 and by the start of 2016, they were back to the level seen at the beginning of 2014. Over 2016 prices have fallen to the level they were at between 2014 and 2015, roughly 15% higher than the market trough in November 2012, and still 6.25% higher than ve-years ago.

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Recall when the Japanese were snapping up Van Gogh & Monet’s during the bubble period. Has the art world sent a subliminal message?

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A long report but one full of surprising trends.

Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (by country)

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In an ever growing world of haves vs have nots, Elliman has released an interesting update on the statues of global wealth and where it is likely to head over the next decade. It suggests North America has 73,100 UNHWIs at an average of $100mn each or $7.31 trillion. To put that in perspective 73,100 North Americans have as much wealth as Japan & France’s annual output combined. Over the next decade they expect 22,700 to join the ranks.

Europe has 49,650 UHNWI also at the magical $100mn mark (presumably the cut off for UHNWI or the equivalent of Japan.

Asia is growing like mad with $4.84 trillion split up by 46,000 or $105mn average. In a decade there are forecast to be 88,000 UHNWIs in Asia.

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I am not sure what the World Bank was smoking when coming up with the coming forecasts I’ve rthe next decade but the figures smel fishy.  Then it all comes down to this chart.

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1) Political uncertainty? Everywhere you look – Trump, Brexit, Catalonia, Australia, France, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, The Netherlands, Hungary, Poland etc etc

2) Potential fall in asset values – looks a very high chance of that. Current asset bubbles are almost everywhere – bonds, equities, real estate etc

3) Rising taxes – maybe not the US or Canada (if you follow the scrutiny over Finance Minister Morneau), but elsewhere taxes and or costs of living for the masses are rising

4) Capital controls – China, India etc

5) Rising interest rates – well the US tax cuts should by rights send interest rates creeping higher. A recent report showed 57% of Aussies couldn’t afford an extra $100/month in mortgage – a given if banks are forced to raise lending rates due to higher funding costs (40% is wholesale finance – the mere fact the US is raising rates will only knock on to Aus and other markets).

Surely asset prices at record levels and all of the other risk factors seemingly bumping into one another…

So while UHNWIs probably weather almost any storm, perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves that the $100mn threshold might get lowered to $50m. It reminds me of a global mega cap PM who just before GFC had resplendent on his header “nothing under $50bn market cap”. Post GFC that became $25bn then eventually $14bn…at which point I suggested he change the header entirely.

I had an amusing discourse on LinkedIn about crypto currencies. The opposing view was that this is a new paradigm (just like before GFC) and it would continue to rise ( I assume he owns bit coins). He suggested it was like a promissory note in an electronic form so has a long history dating back millennia. I suggested that gold needs to be dug out of the ground – there is no other way. Crypto has huge risk factors because it is ultimately mined in cyber space. State actors or hackers can ruin a crypto overnight. There have already been hacking incidents that undermine the safety factor. It does’t take a conspiracy theory to conjure that up. To which he then argued if it all goes pear shaped, bitcoin was a more flexible currency. Even food would be better than gold. To which I suggested that a border guard who is offering passage is probably already being fed and given food is a perishable item that gold would probably buy a ticket to freedom more readily as human nature can adapt hunger far more easily in the fight for survival. I haven’t heard his response yet.

In closing isn’t it ironic that Bitcoin is now split into two. The oxymornically named Bitcoin Gold is set to be mined by more people with less powerful machines, therefore decentralizing the network further and opening it up to a wider user base. Presumably less powerful machines means fewer safeguards too although it will be sold as impervious to outsiders. Of course the idea is to widen the adoption rate to broaden appeal. Everyone I know who owns Bitcoin can never admit to its short comings. Whenever anything feels to be good to be true, it generally is. Crypto has all the hallmarks of a fiat currency if I am not mistaken? While central banks can print furiously, they will never compete with a hacker who can digitally create units out of thin air. Fool’s Gold perhaps? I’ll stick to the real stuff. I’ll take 5,000 years of history over 10 years any day of the week.

Illinois Police Pension can’t protect or serve – it is going bust

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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 year…Fund 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.”

The public pension black hole in America is an alarming issue.  In the piece, “The Public Pension Black Hole” it was plain to see the problems of unfunded state pensions is rife across America. Take California- “The US Federal Reserve (Fed) reported in 2013 that the State of California had an official unfunded pension liability status equivalent to 43% of state revenue. However, if marked-to- market with realistic discount rates we estimate that it is equivalent to 300% of state revenue or 7x greater. Going back to 2000, California had an unfunded liability less than 11% of tax collections. As a percent of GDP it has grown from 2% to 9.7% based on official figures. If our estimate is correct, the mark-to market reality is that California’s unfunded state pension (i.e. for public servants only) is around 18% of state GDP!”

The problem for Illinois is that a taxpayer funded bailout is all but impossible. The State of Illinois ranked worst in the Fed study on unfunded liabilities.  The unfunded pension liability is around 24% of state GDP. In 2000 the unfunded gap to state revenue was 30% and in 2013 was 124% in 2013. Chicago City Wire adds that the police fund isn’t the only one in trouble.

“Chicago’s Teachers Union Pension Fund is $10.1 billion in debt. Its two municipal worker funds owe $11.2 billion and its fire department fund owes $3.5 billion…All will require taxpayer bailouts if they are going to pay retirees going into the next decade…Put in perspective, the City of Chicago’s property tax levy was $1.36 billion in 2017…Paying for retirees “as we go,” which will prove the only option once funds run dry, will require almost quadrupling city property tax bills…Last year, it would have required more than $4 billion in revenue– including $1 billion for City of Chicago workers, $1.5 billion for teachers, and $1.5 billion for retired police officers and fire fighters.”

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.

In order for states and local municipalities to overcome such gaps, they must reorganise the terms. It could be a simple task of telling retiree John Smith that his $75,000 annuity promised decades ago is now $25,000 as the alternative could be even worse if the terms are not accepted. Think of all the consumption knock on effects of this. I doubt many Americans will accept that hands down, leading to class actions and even more turmoil.

 

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.

Trump’s tax cuts – how much does corporate America pay? You’ll be surprised by the necessary evil

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How can Trump cut taxes to 15%? For those greedy corporates! Interestingly when one deep dives into the data two things emerge. One is that in 2016 net corporate tax receipts fell to around $444bn. Second US corporate taxes have slumped from 6% of GDP in the 1960s to around 2.4% of GDP today. Income tax and payroll taxes make up around 65% of the tax that fills the Treasury Department’s coffers. Of the $2.2 trillion that the government gets through squeezing us, they splurge around $3.6 trillion (see below).  Since the tech bubble collapse, the budget deficit has becoming a gaping chasm. It is a massive hole to fill.

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Naturally people scream that giving corporates massive tax breaks is obscene. What they tend to forget is that US corporations hide an obscene amount of taxable revenue (some estimate around $500bn p.a.) overseas. Apple’s €13bn tax bill fight in the EU should spring to mind. In any event we should look at corporate tax in the US that brings in around $444bn p.a. Slashing tax rates does not automatically imply that the $444bn will fall to $200bn. Looking at corporate profitability before tax one wonders are businesses really struggling? Pre-tax profits are hovering at around $2.2 trillion.

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There is a whiff of Poland about Trump’s plan. Poland faced similar corporate tax avoidance issues but in 2004 introduced sensible taxation reform which cured the problem. To lure tax avoiders/evaders from their lairs, Polish athorities introduced a flat business tax (19%) and its impacts were so favourable that the government saw a 50% increase in income reported by those corporates in higher tax brackets before the change and a 50% increase in reported income from individuals that fell into upper income tax brackets. In 2009 income tax rates at the top were slashed from 40% to 32% Despite this income tax receipts jumped 17%. Since 2004 tax receipts soared 56.4%. It clearly proved that lowering taxes created much higher tax compliance. There was a psychological factor at play – the cut ‘encouraged’ honesty.

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When breaking down the tax take by the Polish government we see that all levels of tax collection rose. Consumption, corporate, personal income and other tax categories jumped  45% or more.

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So there is method to the madness. Talks of a $2 trillion deficit that will need to be funded if it goes ahead is not based on reasoned economics if the Polish example is anything to go by. Besides we live in such a debt-fueled world now that central banks will just print the gap if others won’t step in and buy it. So this is a risk Trump sees worth taking. Lower taxes, encourage US corporates to repatriate income abroad, create jobs and get small business (50% of employment in America) to expand and create a virtuous circle. Whether he can pass these taxes through remains to be seen. What we can say is that corporate taxes are a measly % of GDP and total tax take compared to income and payroll taxes. However if US corporates aren’t encouraged to build at home then it is harder to squeeze the workforce for the bulk of the revenue pie. Pretty simple really and there is actually very little to lose. So quit the angry ‘evil corporates’ tag line and change it to ‘necessary evil.’

A reminder of credit ratings and ability to pay – both awful

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An astute market’s person sent me an interesting chart (above) from the IMF highlighting 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. When looking at credit ratings for US companies over the last decade, the deterioration has been marked. For all of the turbo charged low interest rate environment set by central banks, the ‘real’ state of corporate financial health on aggregate continues to worsen 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 I shudder to think the state of potential bankruptcies that will come when the cycle takes a turn for the worse. This is a very bad sign.

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New cars for 40% off

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Looking for a new car? This maybe last year’s model but it’s new and 40% off. I recall seeing such lunatic deals the last time we headed for a collapse in auto sales. Mac Haik Ford in Houston is practically giving it away.  Even some of the 2017 models are getting chunky discounts.

Jim Glover Chevy near Arkansas River is also trying to shift 2016 metal. Why buy used when a 2016 new Malibu is $7,000 off?

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Chrysler is also chucking discounts left, right and centre. Northwest Dodge Houston is taking $14,000 off new Rams.

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ZeroHedge wrote:

If GM piles on incentives at this rate three months in a row, it would spend nearly $4 billion on incentives, in just that quarter, just in the US alone. How much dough is that for GM? In Q1 2015, GM reported global net income of $2.0 billion. In Q1 2015, it reported global net income of $0.9 billion. These incentives can eat an automaker’s lunch in no time. And they did in the years before the industry collapsed during the Great Recession.”

The National Automotive Dealer Association (NADA), a division of JD Power wrote,

Manufacturers dialed up incentive spending 18% last month to help reduce new vehicle inventory levels that are at a decade-plus high.”

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The NADA Used Car Guide’s “seasonally adjusted used vehicle price index fell for the eighth straight month, declining 3.8% from January to 110.1. The drop was by far the worst recorded for any month since November 2008 as the result of a recession-related 5.6% tumble. February’s index gure was also 8% below February 2016’s 119.4 result and marked the index’s lowest level since September 2010.”

WolfStreet noted “Used vehicle wholesale prices determine the value of the collateral for $1.11 trillion in auto loans that have boomed on higher prices, higher unit sales, longer maturities (the average hit a new record of 66.5 months in Q4), and higher loan-to-value ratios (negative equity)”

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It doesn’t bode well.