recession

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.

Educating the Educated on Education in America

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I read a load of barbs hurled at new Secretary for Education, Betsy DeVos. Much of it was labeled at her wealthy background and the fact that neither she nor her kids had spent time in the public education system to have a clue about the ‘real world’. Some of it related to her like of charter schools. The funny thing is you don’t need to dig far to work out the problems are decades old. While it is easy to point fingers at DeVos, we only need look at a survey taken by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in the US back in January of 1993 to see successive administrations have dropped the ball. Poverty, alcoholism, student apathy and absenteeism were cited as big problems in secondary public schools. Lack of a parent was also high on the agenda.

Broken homes and poverty seem to be a big issue. The report said, “Besides lack of parent involvement, the school problems viewed as serious by at least 10 percent of public school teachers included student apathy, poverty, student absenteeism, student disrespect for teachers, parental alcoholism and/or drug abuse, and student tardiness. Behaviors and attitudes of students were more likely to be seen as problematic by teachers at the secondary level than by teachers at the elementary level. Parent alcoholism, on the other hand, was described as “serious” as often by elementary teachers as by secondary teachers and poverty was described as “serious” more often by elementary teachers. “

img_0262Scrolling forward to 2014, approximately 20 percent of school-age children were in families living in poverty. The percentage of school-age children living in poverty ranged across the United States from 12 percent in Maryland to 29 percent in Mississippi. The map below shows the aggressive skew between the north and south with regards to relative poverty according to NCES

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When looking at ethnicity, the skew was also telling. The chart below highlights the change in poverty levels among various races/ethnicities between 2009 and 2014. GFC made a dent in almost every category. In 2014, approximately 15.3 million, or 21 percent, of all children under the age of 18 were in families living in poverty; this population includes the 10.7 million school-age 5- to 17-year-olds  and 4.6 million children under age 5 living in poverty.

Going another level we see that broken households seem to be relatively correlated. NCES highlights the extent of single parent households. You’ll notice that the totals exceed 100% in certain categories but this is down to double counting.

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Switching gears to free lunches at school for poverty stricken students. The percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) under the National School Lunch Program provides a proxy measure for the concentration of low-income students within a school. Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those from families with incomes that are between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals. In this indicator, public schools (including both traditional and charter) are divided into categories by FRPL eligibility. High-poverty schools are defined as public schools where more than 75.0 percent of the students are eligible for FRPL, and mid-high poverty schools are those schools where 50.1 to 75.0 percent of the students are eligible for FRPL. Low-poverty schools are defined as public schools where 25.0 percent or less of the students are eligible for FRPL, and mid-low poverty schools are those schools where 25.1 to 50.0 percent of the students are eligible for FRPL. In school year 2012–13, some 21 percent of public school students attended low-poverty schools, and 24 percent of public school students attended high-poverty schools.

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The US Dept of Education has celebrated higher graduation rates as an achievement but according to the American Psychological Association, “poor (bottom 20 percent of all family incomes) students were five times more likely to drop out of high school than high-income (top 20 percent of all family incomes) students…Family poverty is associated with a number of adverse conditions — high mobility and homelessness; hunger and food insecurity; parents who are in jail or absent; domestic violence; drug abuse and other problems — known as “toxic stressors” because they are severe, sustained and not buffered by supportive relationships…Community poverty also matters. Some neighborhoods, particularly those with high concentrations of African-Americans, are communities of concentrated disadvantage with extremely high levels of joblessness, family instability, poor health, substance abuse, poverty, welfare dependency and crime”

The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, collects test results from 65 countries for its rankings, which come out every three years. The latest results, from 2012, showed:

“In mathematics, 29 nations and other jurisdictions outperformed the United States by a statistically significant margin, up from 23 three years ago,” reports Education Week. “In science, 22 education systems scored above the U.S. average, up from 18 in 2009.”

In reading, 19 other locales scored higher than U.S. students — a jump from nine in 2009, when the last assessment was performed.”

So before people rip into DeVos they might do well to analyze the long term economic related problems that feed into education. Poverty has never been as high in America with almost 50 million people on food stamps. In 2000 that number was around 17mn. It is not a question of calling one race dumber than another. Deteriorating economics, the breakdown of families and stable support networks are preventing better outcomes.

The charter school criticisms of DeVos are also out of place. Indeed former US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who served under Obama faced the following criticism which I don’t see raised by DeVos haters,

“The agency’s inspector general issued a scathing report in 2012 that found deficiencies in how the department handled federal grants to charter schools between 2008 and 2011″ – in other words, during Duncan’s watch.

A recent report from the Center for Popular Democracy and the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS) uncovered over $200 million in “alleged and confirmed financial fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement” committed by charter schools around the country.because  much of the fraud “will go undetected because the federal government, the states, and local charter authorizers lack the oversight necessary to detect the fraud.”

With such a dreadful trajectory in scholastic achievement in part due to decades of poorly planned education policy not to mention growing poverty and economic hardship is it any wonder. Before questioning DeVos and her intentions, perhaps when looking at these so called deeply educated byproducts of the public sector that know better than her, they might look at what hasn’t been achieved in so long. It most certainly won’t be to chuck more money at the problem. One has to wonder that the plight of schools in impoverished areas is to secure high quality teachers willing to forgo their safety and try to reverse long standing trends that were highlighted by the NCES surveys in 1993.

Throwing stones at DeVos because of her wealth is hardly the way forward. Economic revival will be a vital tenet of that recovery but at the same time, the highly indebted world pushing on a string with multiple asset bubbles hardly sets the scene for a quick fix. Is it any wonder Trump was voted in – decades of negligence by former administrations who will now reap the risks of ill-thought out policy which protected the establishment at the expense of the plebs.

SNAP! Crackle Pop! The sorry affair of food stamps in the US

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Food stamps or its euphemism, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), has grown to ridiculous levels. Since the Global Financial Crisis, the number on SNAP has blown out from 28mn to 44mn. Perhaps more telling is seeing it in charts across many counties, cities and states. Once again the stupidity of central banks since the collapse of the tech bubble is plain to see – all it has done has increase the divide between haves and have nots which has made America a larger welfare state.

I’ll let the charts speak for themselves but once again is it any wonder a growing number voted against an establishment who have delivered more misery. Perhaps there is a growing number of impoverished Americans who have grown tired of ‘freebies’. I recall the CEO of Dollar General mentioning on a conference call that on a visit to one of his stores people on food stamps came to him crying at the specials offered by the store manager because that was the only way their family could get by. No wonder they voted for anything but the status quo.

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