Shareholders

Where money talks

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If there was one thing that could be transplanted into Japanese business culture it would be the Chinese practice of “there is a price for everything”. So often do we see sensible deals slip thru the cracks involving  Japanese corporates based on petty rigidities which serve no other purpose but to scuttle their own long term fortunes. Just 6 hours in HK and already it smells of business opportunity. Clear skies too.

2018 – no more space for multiple ‘elephants’ in the room

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The Contrarian Marketplace wishes everyone a Happy New Year and prosperous 2018.

As oft the case people are busy making new year’s resolutions. CM mission doesn’t change. It aims to further energize the spirit of enquiry. To be the maverick voice that will not be silenced. We live in a world where we need to become comfortable being uncomfortable. We can no longer hide behind group think Because we feel it is dangerous to challenge consensus views. CM won’t buckle to identity politics, victimhood or social justice.

However that will never exclude us from criticism and we welcome feedback to improve the offering. We will not take The Guardian approach of refusing to acknowledge the content might be the problem when appealing for readers to ‘donate’. CM is self funded. It will remain so because it never wishes to be beholden to others to peddle tailored messages to keep the lights on.  If CM doesn’t survive on its own merits then it dies through market forces.

In 2017, Brandon Tatum showed what impact a Tucson, Arizona police officer can have on today’s media. His videos have gone viral (50mn+ views) on topics from the NFL, BLM to anti-Trump protests. He is now working for the Conservative Tribune such has been his impact. He speaks in cold hard truths. One doesn’t have to agree with what he says but he makes compelling arguments. No accolades from the journalist associations to self congratulate. As we used to say at high school sports competitions- “look at the scoreboard.”

CM started two years ago to challenge conventional thinking on all manner of topics.  It was born out of a growing realization that the mainstream media on both sides of the fence was too biased. Investigative journalism has all but disappeared, replaced with clickbait headlines and little more than biased piffle for what can only loosely be described as content. It seems that journalists are paid on the number of shares or likes rather than the quality of input.  As Ariana Huffington once said, “I’ve long said that those of us in the media have provided too many autopsies of what went wrong and not enough biopsies.”

2017 has been a continuation of the ridiculous pandering to political correctness and our lawmakers seem even more determined to avoid censure from social media, somehow thinking it speaks for the majority. Gender neutral toilets, removing statues and same-sex marriage take priority to the oncoming fiscal/monetary train wreck and a fracturing geopolitical landscape. It is almost as if our elected leaders have the blinkers on.

2018 is shaping up to be one that our political class is ill prepared for. Out of one’s depth is not a harsh enough criticism. Too many governments (including conservatives) are running up the national credit card trying to bribe bewildered constituents into tolerating more of their nonsense. However at some point, appeasement will not work because government’s can’t economically afford it.

Silent voices are increasingly pushing back. Traditional parties are seeing their constituents abandoning them. Australia’s conservative Liberal Party is Exhibit A. It is no longer a party true to its core. After the Turnbull coup it has taken its constituents for mugs but they have left in droves. While the Libs champion superior leadership, how is it One Nation has taken a huge bite out of it’s support base? It doesn’t add up and its this sense of denial that guarantees they’ll be destroyed at the next election.

Look at the growth in nationalist parties in Austria, France, The Netherlands, Germany, Italy and even America. While they may not have outright majorities in every case the reality is that all of these parties surged in the most recent elections. Mainstream parties can mark it down as a one-off or ‘they’ll be back’ mentality but this time is different. Take Trump. His GOP hate him almost as much as the Democrats. While the mainstream media ties itself into knots over the relevance of well done steak and tomato ketchup to running a country or the fact he paid millions in tax, his brand of political incorrectness is refreshing.

Sure his words are vulgar at times and Obama knocks the sports off him for eloquence or as a nice guy but we are in a world of ruthless people. The geopolitical landscape is rapidly changing. The last US administration allowed a free-for-all for nations such as China and Russia to roam free on the global landscape. Russia’s actions in the Ukraine, Syria and Iran or China building man made military bases in contested Asia-Pac waters have filled a vacuum vacated by the US. We should be glad that we have a Trump who is putting his foot down that things have changed.

While Trump’s use of ‘Rocketman’ to describe North Korea’s leader may seem juvenile, China hasn’t fully worked him out. They stroked his ego by allowing him to be the first President to dine in the Forbidden City after his rhetoric saying that if they don’t deal with Kim he will. The resumption of Chinese oil trading with North Korea in full defiance of UN sanctions tells two things. China thinks the UN is a waste of space and it is testing Trump’s resolve to carry out his threats to take care of business with minor provocations. China’s military is nowhere a match for the US so this could backfire badly if they miscalculate. This will escalate again in 2018.

Don’t rule out India’s growing frustrations with China. China’s built a naval port in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota. Recently the Maldives signed a FTA with China which should be ringing alarm bells in Delhi. For the last decade, China has been strengthening its armed (ground and air) forces to India’s north too, including the funding of the upgrade of the 1300km construction of the Karakoram Highway (aka China-Pakistan Friendship Highway). It is no surprise that Russia has been replaced by the US and UK as preferred arms suppliers to India.

As written several days ago, the Middle East seems to be an unstable powder keg. The way the stars are aligning with respects to the death of the former Yemeni President Saleh, the cleaning of the House of Saud, the repudiation of Qatar by the Gulf states and ructions in Iran point to something larger to kick off. Do not be surprised to see Israel and Hezbollah clash again in 2018. It won’t be an Arab Spring. Afterall this is more a shift toward a more direct clash between Sunni and Shia, not just played through proxy wars in Yemen, Syria or Lebanon. One can’t sink Saudi and Emirati naval vessels off Yemen’s coast with Iranian Revolutionary Guard support indefinitely.

These geopolitical problems will only put pressure on global markets which are already overstretched asset bubbles in almost every form – equities, bonds and housing. The realisation that unfunded pensions are likely to wipe out the retirements plans of millions causing even more pressure on economic growth. There is no escaping the fact that the can has been kicked down the road for too long. Whether 2018 is the precise year it unfolds is still a moot point but we are moving ever closer to the impending financial collapse which will be uglier than 1929.

Central banks have no plausible ammunition left to play with. Bloated balance sheets filled with mislabeled toxic assets (liabilities). Record low interest rates offer next to no policy flexibility and tapped out consumers face oblivion if asset prices keel over. A systemic banking collapse is absolutely plausible. No amount of QE will work this time.

Yes, it would be nice to see 2018 trump 2017 for good news (it wouldn’t be hard) but sadly the punch bowl at the party is empty and the hangover won’t be pleasant. No amount of painkillers will let one avoid a throbbing headache which will last a very long time.

Forewarned is forearmed.

Canadian mortgage fraud – Laurentian Abyss(m)al

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Laid up in bed this week with the flu I watched The Hunt for Red October where Sean Connery plays a Russian sub commander with a thick Scottish accent. To rendezvous with the CIA to complete the defection they head to the deep waters of the Laurentian Abyssal, ironically the name of the Canadian bank which has seen the proverbial torpedo hit the propellor.

It seems that Laurentian Bank in Canada has been caught over mortgage fraud, the second lender to do so. Canada’s property prices have trebled since 2000, seeing but a minor blip during GFC. Zerohedge noted,

An audit “identified documentation issues and client misrepresentations” with some mortgages…Laurentian said it will repurchase about C$89 million ($70 million) of those mortgages in the first quarter, or 4.9 percent of such loans sold to the firm….It will buy back an additional C$91 million of mortgages “inadvertently” sold to the firm, also in the first quarter.

The total value of the loans made to the 3rd party was around $1.16bn. Of course the CEO of Laurentian Bank is brushing aside the scale of it.

As we know Home Capital Group, Canada’s largest mortgage lender was busted for mortgage fraud and required a $1.5bn bailout facilitated by the 321,000 Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan (HOOPP) members. Not to worry those emergency loans are backed by the mortgages!! Naturally “safe as houses”

Perhaps in the immortal words of Red October Captain Ramius, “be careful what you shoot at in here…things inside here don’t react well to bullets

Or perhaps in the words of Canadian born Inspector Frank Drebbin, “nothing to see here!”

Tesla – reports of only 345 deliveries of Model 3 in November

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Seems that Tesla has only managed to make 345 Model 3s in November. A far cry from the promises to make 5,000 Model 3s every week by December. At the Q3 results the goal was pushed out til March 2018 at the earliest as “production hell” bites. Note that no single mainstream auto supplier is on Tesla’s deck which tells us how little faith they have in the company. Auto suppliers run on the smell of an oily rag and after so many bad experiences won’t accept dealing with auto makers who may jeopardize their own future. Recall how many auto suppliers almost went to the wall (many were in Chapter 11) after the tech bubble collapse at the turn of the century.

The other news is that Norway is ending Tesla subsidies and Germany has now disqualified Tesla Model S subsidies as the cars breach the €60,000 threshold. Finally a government that thinks it’s not advisable to give the well heeled tax breaks when it’s the battling insurance salesman Manfred from Bremen living paycheck to paycheck whose taxes to register his clapped out 1983 VW Golf diesel pay for it.

The shares have languished and even the hype of the new products and outrageous deposits has not converted into a ramp up. Q4 is likely to be a shocker at this rate. When will the faithful eventually pull the plug? Maybe Tesla should gamble the deposits on Bitcoin to see if they can lever cash flows that way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts for the day – Group think, crypto and taxi drivers

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It is important to challenge convention. I have had countless questions from people on bitcoin and crypto lately. Sort of reminded me of the above. Perhaps the golden rule of investing doesn’t lie in complex models and sci-fi scenario analysis but the simple question of whenever an overwhelming majority think something is great, it is time to take the opposing view and vice versa. I haven’t been in a taxi yet to confirm Bitcoin is overdone. As I put it – gold needs to be dug out of the ground with effort. The thing that spooks me about crypto (without trying to sound conspiracy theorist) is that state actors (most top end computer science grads in China end up working in the country’s cyber warfare teams), hackers or criminal minds (did you know 70% of top end computer science grads in Russia end up working for the mob (directly or indirectly) the value of coins in the system could be instantaneously wiped out at the stroke of a key. We’ve had small hiccups ($280m) only last week. So as much as the ‘security’ of these crypto currencies is often sold as bulletproof, none of them are ‘cyberproof’.

Think of why your Norton, Kaspersky or Trend Micro anti-virus software requires constant upgrading to prevent new threats trying to exploit new vulnerabilities in systems. We need only go back to the Stuxnet virus of 2010 which was installed inside computers controlling uranium centrifuges in Iran. The operators had no idea. The software told the brain of the centrifuges to spin at multiples faster than design spec could handle all the while the computer interface of the operators showed everything normal. After a while the machines melted down causing the complete destruction of the centrifuges which were controlled from a remote location.

So much in life is simple. Yet we have lawyers writing confusing sentences that carry on for pages and pages, politicians complicating simple tasks, oil companies trying to convince us their additives are superior to others and so on. The reality is we just have to ask ourselves that one question from Mark Twain,

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

EU pushes for 40% female representation on company boards

The EU in its infinite wisdom said that it wishes to mandate that company boards achieve a quota of 40% women. Even Germany considers this an overreach (even though its own goal by 2018 is 30%). This EU’s socialist charter to push for affirmative action was challenged in 1981 by Dr Thomas Sowell who completely debunked the myths put forward about the gender pay gap, discrimination and other stereotypes of minimum wage and income inequality. It is truly worth watching the 50 minutes or so of Sowell dispose of lawyer Mrs Pilpell whose weak liberal agenda gets ripped to shreds because is based on a lack of understanding and being loose with facts.

Don’t mistake the position of CM. If based on merit then have 100% female boards should they outqualify men. So assume that boards hit 40% women then what next? Should we hire a minimum percentage of LGBT, minorities, religious groups or disabled people to run companies? Since when should gender, sexual orientation, race, religion or disability be a bigger factor than capability  in running company boards? Shareholders expect one thing – returns. The Sydney Morning Herald wrote a puff piece on those boards without women on them underperforming. CM proved the hypothesis false.

CM wrote with respect to the SMH’s false assertion, “Note that the twenty companies listed in the article have the following 1yr and 3yr relative performance (i.e. vs. ASX 200). Note on an unweighted average over these 1 & 3 year periods, these chauvinistic men’s clubs outperformed the broader index by 22.7% and 89.9% respectively.”

Once again, gender ought to have nothing to do with it. Every ambitious, hard working female that has become truly successful in a man’s world never complained at any disadvantages they may or may not have had. They never played the woman card and I absolutely admire them to this day. One is a mentor some 18 years after we first met. So shouldn’t it be an insult to industrious women like her to see less hungry females given unfair advantages that weren’t earned through individual merit and effort like she had to endure to get there?

Yet such diversity programs designed to remove inherent biases in the system actually create the very discrimination it is designed to stop. All that matters is diversity of thought and if that happens to be women that provide that wisdom sign me up as a shareholder of every corporation that does so on merit. Listen to Dr Sowell – it is truly intelligent stuff. Poor Mrs Pilpell.