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Should we trust ratings agencies on US state credit?


The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission concluded in 2011 that “the global financial crisis could not have happened without the ‘Big Three’ agencies – Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch which allowed the ongoing trading of bad debt which they gave their highest ratings to despite over three trillion dollars of mortgage loans to homebuyers with bad credit and undocumented incomes.” The table above tabulates the deterioration in US corporate credit ratings since 2006. The ratings agencies have applied their trade far more diligently.

As written earlier in the week, US state public pensions are running into horrific headwinds. Unfunded pension liabilities are running at over double the level of 2008. With asset bubbles in stocks, bonds and property it is hard to see how plugging the gap (running at over 2x (California is 6x) the total tax take of individual states) in the event of a market correction is remotely realistic. However taking a look at the progression of US states’ credit ratings one would think that there is nothing to worry about. Even during GFC, very few states took a hit. See below.


Looking at the trends of many states since 2000, many have run surpluses so the credit ratings do not appear extreme. It is interesting to flip through the charts of each state and see the trajectory of revenue collection. A mixed bag is putting it lightly. Whether the rebuild after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, since 2008 revenue collection in Louisiana has drifted.


Looking through S&P’s own research at the end of last year it included an obvious reference.

U.S. state and local governments can use pension obligation bonds (POBs) to address the unfunded portion of their pension liabilities. In certain cases, POBs can be an affordable tool to lower unfunded pension liabilities. But along with the issuance of POBs comes risk. The circumstances that surround an issuance of POBs, as well as the new debt itself, could have implications for the issuer’s creditworthiness. S&P Global Ratings views POB issuance in environments of fiscal distress or as a mechanism for short-term budget relief as a negative credit factor.”

Perhaps the agencies have learnt a painful lesson and trying to stay as close to being behind the curve as possible. It doesn’t seem like public pensions are being factored at levels other than their actuarial values. Marked-to-market values would undoubtedly impact these credit ratings.

As mentioned in the previous piece on public pensions, a state like Alaska has public pension unfunded liabilities equal to $145,000 per household, treble the 2008 figure. It is 3.5x annual tax collections. The state’s per capita operating budget of $13,728 per person is way above the national average of $6,826 per person. Alaska relies on oil taxes to finance most of its operating budget, so a sudden drop in oil prices caused tax revenues to sharply decline. The EIA’s outlook doesn’t look promising in restoring those fortunes in any scenario. So S&P may have cut Alaska two places from AAA in 2015 to AA in 2017.


While pension liabilities aren’t all due at once, the last 8 years have shown how quickly they can fester. It wasn’t so long ago that several Rhode Island public pension funds reluctantly agreed to a 40% haircut, later retirement ages and higher contributions with a larger component shifted from defined benefits to defined contributions raising the risk of market forces exerting negative outcomes on the pension fund.

In 2017, despite a ‘robust’ economy, 22 states faced revenue shortfalls. More states faced mid-year revenue shortfalls in the last fiscal year than in any year since 2010, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.


Pew Charitable Trust (PCT) notes in FY2015 federal dollars as a share of state revenue increased in a majority of states (29). Health care grants have been the main driver of this. FY2015 was the 3rd highest percentage of federal grants to states since 1961.


By state we can see which states got the heftiest federal grants. Most states with higher federal shares expanded their Medicaid programs under Obamacare (ACA) and got their first full year of grants under the expanded program in FY2015.


PCT also wrote “At the close of fiscal year 2017, total balances in states’ general fund budgets—including rainy day funds—could run government operations for a median of 29.3 days, still less than the median of 41.3 days in fiscal 2007…North Dakota recorded the largest drop in the number of days’ worth of expenses held in reserves after drawing down almost its entire savings to cover a budget gap caused by low oil prices. It held just 5.4 days’ worth of expenditures in its rainy day fund at the end of fiscal 2017 compared with 69.4 days in the preceding year… 11 states anticipate withdrawing from rainy day funds under budget plans enacted for fiscal 2018


Looking at the revenue trends of certain states, the level of collection has been either flat or on the wane since 2010 for around 26 states. As an aside, 23 of them voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. The three that didn’t were Maine, NJ and Illinois.

Optically US states seem to be able to justify the credit ratings above. Debt levels aren’t high for most. Average state debt is around 4% of annual income. Deficits do not seem out of control. However marking-to-market the extent of public pension unfunded liabilities makes current debt levels look mere rounding errors.

Considering stock, bond and property bubbles are cruising at unsustainably high levels, any market routs will only make the current state of unfunded liabilities blow out to even worse levels. The knock on effects for pensioners such as those taking a 40% haircut in Rhode Island at this stage in the cycle can only feasibly brace themselves for further declines. This is a ticking time bomb. More states will need to address the public pension crisis.

A national government shelling out c.$500bn in interest payments on its own debt in a rising rate environment coupled with a central bank paring back its balance sheet limits the options on the table. Moral hazard is back on the table folks. Is it any wonder that Blackstone has increased its short positions to $22 billion?


Truly sickening US Public Pensions data


Following on from the earlier post and our 2016 report on the black hole in US state public pension unfunded liabilities, we have updated the figures to 2016. It is hard to know where to start without chills. The current state of US public pension funds represents the love child of Kathy Bates in Misery and Freddie Krueger. Actuarial accounting allows for pension funds to appear far prettier than they are in reality. For instance the actuarial deficit in public pension funds is a ‘mere’ $1.47 trillion. However using realistic returns data (marking-to-market(M-2-M)) that explodes to $6.74 trillion, 4.6-fold higher.  This is a traffic accident waiting to happen. US Pension Tracker illustrates the changes in the charts presented.

Before we get stuck in, we note that the gross pension deficits do not arrive at once. Naturally it is a balance of contributions from existing employees and achieving long term growth rates that can fund retirees while sustaining future obligations. CM notes that the problems could well get worse with such huge unfunded liabilities coinciding with bubbles in most asset classes. Unlike private sector pension funds, the states have an unwritten obligation to step up and fill the gap. However as we will soon see, M-2-M unfunded liabilities outstrip state government expenditures by huge amounts.

From a layman’s perspective, either taxes go up, public services get culled or pensioners are asked politely to take a substantial haircut to their retirement. Apart from the drastic changes that would be required in lifestyles, the economic slowdown that would ensue would have knock on effects with state revenue collection further exacerbating a terrible situation.

CM will use California as the benchmark. Our studies compare 2016 with 2008.

The chart above shows the M-2-M 2016 unfunded liability per household. In California’s case, the 2016 figure is $122,121. In 2008 this figure was only $36,159. In 8 years the gap has ballooned 3.38x. Every single state in America with the exception of Arizona has seen a deterioration.

The following chart shows the growth rate in M-2-M pension liabilities to total state expenditure. In California’s case that equates to 3.2x in those 8 years.


Sadly it gets worse when we look at the impact on current total state expenditures these deficits comprise. For California the gap is c.6x what the state spends on constituents.


Then taking it further,  in the last 8 years California has seen a 2.62-fold jump in the gap between liabilities and state total expenditures.


This is a ticking time bomb. Moreover it is only the pensions for the public sector. We have already seen raids on particular state pension funds with some looking to retire early merely to cash out before there is nothing left. Take this example in Illinois.

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 yearFund 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.”


To highlight the pressure such states/cities could face, this is a frightening example of how the tax base can evaporate before one’s eyes putting even more pressure on bail outs.

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.

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Tesla’s FY2017 – cashflow stunts bigger than a roadster in orbit


No beating around the bush. Tesla’s cash-flow situation resembles that of One.Tel in Australia before it became insolvent. Rocketing financing and investing cash-flow with troubled operating cash which in Tesla’s case was flattered by some accounting trickery.  The Q4 2017 earnings release spoke of fairies and magic pixie dust for the most part. Q1 deliveries to date look to undershoot.  Once again a promise to hit production of 2,500 Tesla Model 3s by the end of Q1 and 5,000 a week by end of Q2 2018 (i.e. 6 months away). Note that Tesla had about 860 undelivered Model 3 cars at the end of Q4. That is a high ratio given 1550 were shipped in Q4.

While the company claims a cash balance of $3.4bn which many will pop champagne corks over, Tesla has accrued liabilities, accounts payable and customer deposits totaling $4.975bn at quarter end. This also excludes the $608mn in extra ‘residual value guarantees’ on the books YoY.

The company expects to break even during the year. However with gross automotive margins about to suck up the Model 3 in larger numbers that will take some doing despite claims it can do 25% vs the existing line-up’s 18% range. As at January, Q1 sales in the US are at 2016 levels and European registrations are down around 14% in aggregate across Norway, Holland, Italy, Belgium, Sweden, Austria and Switzerland. Lots can change but it doesn’t read well to kick off 2018’s challenge to break even at an operating level. The Model 3 is on average two-thirds cheaper than the average selling price on existing products so to even hold margins constant will take the mother of all cost cutting all the meanwhile facing new competition over 2018 which will weigh on pricing.

Interesting within the operating cash-flow statement is a term “Changes in operating assets and liabilities,net of effect of business combinations” which shows a quarter on quarter swing of $746.8m pushing net operating cash to +$509mn achieving a new quarterly record. This was achieved mainly by improved collection of receivables (believable), inventory reduction of finished vehicles (were incomplete vehicles that left the factory to parking lots yet to be delivered due to a lack of parts counted?), improved working capital from the ramp of Model 3, and growth in customer deposits (this was only  $168m QoQ vs expectations of $400m) from Semi and Roadsters that were announced with fanfare during Q4. Cash burn appeared lower because the company included customer deposits for the upcoming Semi and Roadster in its operating CF. That is slightly deceiving because deposits aren’t supposed to be drawn from current operations. The Roadster is supposed to be ready by 2020. This seems odd.

Tesla wrote “Despite the delays that we experienced in our production ramp, Model 3 net reservations remained stable in Q4.” Strange there was no mention of progress on Roadster and Semi orders in Q4. Was the $250,000 deposit within 10 days for the Founder series Roadster a bit steep? Truck orders seem around 600-700 at this stage and at $5,000 a deposit, generously speaking $3,500,000 isn’t a swing. As mentioned earlier the +$168m in customer deposits could only reflect how poorly orders for those vehicles are tracking such is the need to avoid talking about them in the statement (surely something to crow about) other than projected performance stats.

Capital expenditures in 2018 are projected to be slightly more than 2017 according to the statement. Tesla also mentioned “quarterly operating income should turn sustainably positive at some point in 2018.” That is a hugely optimistic target for the company which has failed so many times to deliver on promises. As CM always argues, the ‘cult’ following of Tesla is a dangerous vixen which can keep the ‘dream’ floating in orbit when reality is that “Nevada, we have a problem”.

The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent. The 3% bounce in the shares reflects that blind optimism. Our study shows that even if it made margins similar to mainstream makers it is grossly overvalued.

The “bigger” point about the FANG sell off


While the press is waxing lyrical about the unprecedented loss caused by a sell off in FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix & Google) we should note that it overlooks one factor. Before getting to that, to start with the sell off in gross dollar terms it is unsurprising given the already highly inflated value of the base stocks. So if A $500bn market cap Facebook loses 4% it is equivalent to $20bn. On one day FB lost a Fiat Chrysler. It’s math. Let’s not forget that Bitcoin is now worth $165bn but let’s not let that bubble spoil the party.

The problem that faces financial markets is the advent of ETFs. While stupefyingly simple to understand as an investor it is that same simplicity that breeds complacency. ETFs are simple products that enable investors to pay much lower fund management fees to buy easy to understand baskets- whether coal, gold, oil or FANGs. There are 106 ETF products that own Facebook as a Top 15 holding with that averaging between 5% and 10% of the entire fund.

Yet on the way up things are rosy. It is what happens on the downside that has yet to be fully tested. Around two years ago, CM wrote a report which warned of the risk of ETFs on the downside, especially levered ETFs (i.e. you buy a 2x levered FANG fund which means if FANG stocks go up 5% you theoretically get 2x the return for any given move up or down.

However in times of uncertainty (i.e. heightened risk) the options markets that price risk move magnitudes on the downside vs the upside. Meaning for an ETF to replicate what it proclaims on the brochure becomes much more difficult meaning the fund may under or overshoot the promises. Also in certain markets (e.g. US & Japan) where stocks on the exchange have limit up/down rules on the physical stock, should a market crash ensue, the ETF prices on the theoretical values of stocks that may not have opened for trading. What that means is that the ETF may reflect a market that is 10-15% below where it actually eventually opens. Meaning poor ETF buyers get gouged. However the computer algorithms in the ETF end up chasing, not leading the market which in and of itself creates more panic selling further reducing market confidence. Where a market might have traditionally fallen  3% on a given piece of bad news, ETFs tend to react in ways that might cause a market to retreat 6%. Indeed market volatility is amplified by ETFs.

At the moment market behavior is exceedingly complacent about risk. Before GFC highly complex products like CDOs and CDSs were the rage. 99% had next to no clue how they operated but they found their way into the local government investment portfolios of even small country towns in Australia.

ETFs on the other hand are strikingly simple to grasp but that also means we pay far less attention to the risk that goes with them. That is the bigger worry. People complacently thinking their portfolios are safe as houses may wake up one morning wondering why some flash crash has caused Joe and Joanne Public’s retirement nest egg to get decimated.


Houston we have a housing problem


Yes, Australian banks are the most levered to the Home mortgage market. Over 61%. Daylight comes second followed by Norway and Canada. US banks are half the Aussies. Of course any snapshot will tell us that prices are supported by immigration and a robust economy. However when Aussie banks are c.40% exposed to wholesale markets for credit (Japanese banks are around 95% funded by domestic depositors) any turn around in global interest rates means Aussie banks will pay more and eventually be forced to pass it on to tapped out borrowers. The Reserve Bank of Australia kept interest rates flat while tacitly admitting its stuck

A study back in March showed that in Western Australia almost 50% of people with a home loan would be in stress/severe stress if rates jumped 3%. Victoria 42% and bubbly NSW at 38%. I can’t remember bubble Japan property (as dizzy as it got) experienced such stress. A recent ME Bank survey in Australia found only 46 per cent of households were able to save each month. Just 32 per cent could raise $3000 in an emergency and 50 per cent aren’t confident of meeting their obligations if unemployed for three months.

The Weekend AFR reported that according to Digital Finance Analytics, “ there are around 650,000 households in Australia experiencing some form of mortgage stress. If rates were to rise 150 basis points the number of Australians in mortgage stress would rise to approximately 930,000 and if rates rose 300 basis points the number would rise to 1.1 million – or more than a third of all mortgages. A 300 basis point rise would take the cash rate to 4.5 per cent, still lower than the 4.75 per cent for most of 2011.”

The problem for Aussie banks is having so many mortgage loans on their books backed against lofty housing prices means that we could face a situation of zombie lending. The risk is that once the banks mark-to-market the real value of one house that is foreclosed upon the rest of the portfolio then starts to look shady and all of a sudden the loss ratios blow out to unsustainable levels. So for all the negative news flow the banks cop for laying off staff while making billions, note net interest margins continue to fall and when confidence falls out of the housing market, the wholesale finance market will require sizable jumps in risk premiums to compensate. Indulge yourself with the chart pack from the RBA on pages 29 & 30 where net margins are 50% lower than they were in 2000, profitability under pressure, non performing loans starting to rise back toward post GFC levels…call me pessimistic but housing prices to income is at 13x now vs only 7x when GFC bit, how is that safety net working for you?

Some may mock, but there is every chance we see a semi or total nationalization of the Aussie banks at some point in the future. Nobody will love the smell of napalm in the morning but then again when the Vic government is handing out interest free loans to the value of 25% of the house price for first home buyers you know you’re at the wrong point in the cycle. Maybe TARP is just short for tarpaulin.

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


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.

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


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.


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?


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.


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


A long report but one full of surprising trends.