US Federal Reserve

Down and out in Davos

Davos is likely to be unlike any gone before it. Lucky for the globalist elitists who like to rug up in mink collar lined Moncler down jackets, Trump won’t be there to verbal them over their blatant double standards. Ironically the fact he isn’t going is more evidence of their inability to self reflect rather than the other way around. Trump is hardly an eloquent mouthpiece at the best of times but his words and stance around nationalism resonate far wider than the €200 Chateau Briande chewing wealthy will be prepared to admit at Davos.

France. As the Gilets Jaune (Yellow Vest) movement rolls into week 9, where has the media been reporting it? Macron would normally attend the Davos mob as “the poster child” but he can’t because of the domestic situation. Should he show up to hug his globalist chums, the chaos at home would exacerbate. This is no small matter for the proponents of world government. We shouldn’t forget Marine LePen is polling higher than Macron. Nor should we overlook the fact she won 35% of the 2nd round vote, twice the level ever seen in the anti-EU Front National’s history.

Germany isn’t much better. Although Frau Merkel will be in Davos. Despite stepping down from the rotting carcass her policies have turned her party into, she’ll be fawned over at the matriarch. Deutschland, the paragon of the EU’s economic chest beating, saw industrial production plunge 4.7% in November, its worst showing since the GFC. The fastest rising party in Germany, the anti-immigrant AfD, whose chairman was bashed to within an inch of his life, plans to be far more open about jettisoning the EU going forward. Yet more anti-globalist forces at the gate.

Italy has felt the wrath of EU meddling in ratifying its latest budget. Despite 60% of the country voting in eurosceptic parties last year, the EU is still pushing its weight around via the ECB. Italians are far from pleased with Brussels. Many of her banks in the south are carrying nose bleed territory bad debts which make them technically insolvent. Italians want out.

Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic have openly rejected globalism and any shaming from the Bullies from Brussels has only led to bigger majorities handed to them by their citizens.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has made it clear that illegal immigration is not for them, no matter how much UN global compacts or EU directives want to encourage it. Why else would he appoint a member of the anti-immigrant FPO as the minister for that portfolio?

PM Rutte of The Netherlands lost seats in the last election, mainly to Geert Wilders’ anti immigrant PVV. The socialist parties were all but annihilated.

UK PM Theresa May is looking on shaky ground to pass her version of Brexit through the Commons. Even Jaguar’s woes in China are supposedly the fault of Brexit. Even the iconic brand’s UK sales are up 76% since 2013. Surely it’s macroeconomic headwinds not leaving the EU that is driving this. Despite all the scare stories from the BoE, the people aren’t buying it. The UK has its highest ever petition signed to get parliament to vote for “No Deal”. So much for the expert’s advice!?

There is a groundswell movement the establishment continues to ignore. Famous economists giving fire side chats to out of touch journalists don’t convince the people who aren’t living these utopian dreams espoused from Davos.

Davos seems a bit like an Oscars gathering. The audience they are appealing to are increasingly looking the other way and tuning out. It matters not whether some believe we need to show more compassion and embrace global cooperation. The people in charge of selling it could not muck up the messaging and execution of said plans if they had a mandate to do so.

Davos 2019 may well see its proclamations become little more than rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. We’ve been so overdue an economic correction and the little bigoted people increasingly trying to protect their own interests are already telling us they’re knee deep in recession already. At the same time they’re sick of their leaders legislating against them for supposed intolerance.

Maybe France is the globalist canary in the coal mine. Macron’s police force is already being asked to step it up a notch against the protestors. He need be wary of the police switching sides which would be a cataclysmic blow for globalism. Bring it on.

A worm has turned on Apple

Apple guided Q1 revenue around $84bn vs earlier guidance of $89-93bn. Consensus unsurprisingly pegged itself to the middle of the initial estimate. How original and staying ahead of the curve? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that pulling disclosure of handset sales was the precursor. It wasn’t so long ago that the US Federal Reserve ended disclosure of its balance sheet movements. Ahead of the GFC, Ben Bernanke pulled reporting of M3 money supply right before the GFC.

Apple has lost the entire GDP of Singapore in market cap terms since last September. How many funds are up to the eyeballs in this stock that they believed had endless growth. How soon before it loses another Singapore?

No doubt the iPhone 14S XR limited edition run of 100 million units won’t turn this around.

It is usually around this time in a decayed product cycle that companies launch into random areas they have no expertise in. Watch for M&A deals at silly prices to buy bolt on businesses that bring hopes of growth in a global economy that has maxed out! Cue the goodwill write downs in year 1.

Complacency kills – the ticking time bomb for Aussie banks

クリックすると新しいウィンドウで開きます

In the late 1980s at the peak of the property bubble, the Imperial Palace in Tokyo was worth the equivalent to the entire state of California. Greater Tokyo was worth more than the whole United States. The Japanese used to joke that they had bought up so much of Hawaii that it had effectively become the 48th prefecture of Japan. Japanese nationwide property prices quadrupled in the space of a decade. At the height of the frenzy, Japanese real estate related lending comprised around 41.2% (A$2.5 trillion) of all loans outstanding. N.B. Australian bank mortgage loan books have swelled to 63% (A$1.7 trillion) of total loans.

REpx.png

Sensing the bubble was getting out of control, the Bank of Japan went into a tightening rate cycle (from 2.5% to 6%) to contain it. Unfortunately it led to an implosion in asset markets, most notably housing. From the peak in 1991/2 prices over the next two decades fell 75-80%. Banks were decimated.

In the following two decades, 181 Japanese banks, trust banks and credit unions went bust and the rest were either injected with public funds, forced into mergers or nationalized. The unravelling of asset prices was swift and sudden but the process to deal with it took decades because banks were reluctant to repossess properties for fear of having to mark the other properties (assets) on their balance sheets to current market values. Paying mere fractions of the loan were enough to justify not calling the debt bad. If banks were forced to reflect the truth of their financial health rather than use accounting trickery to keep the loans valued at the inflated levels the loans were made against they would quickly become insolvent. By the end of the crisis, disposal of non-performing loans (NPLs) among all financial institutions exceeded 90 trillion yen (A$1.1 trillion), or 17% of Japanese GDP at the time.

The lessons are no less disturbing for Australia. Don’t be surprised to hear the authorities and local banks champion stress tests as validity that we are safe from any conceivable external shock. The November 2018 Reserve Bank of Australia minutes revealed that the next rate move is likely up but the board is happy to sit on its hands because housing is slowing even at 1.5% cash rates.

With US rates heading higher, our banks are already facing higher funding costs because of our reliance on overseas wholesale markets to fund mortgage lending. Japanese banks have 90%+ funding from domestic deposits. Australia is around 60-70%. Our banks need to go shopping in global markets to get access to capital. Conditions for that can change on a dime. External shocks can see funding costs hit nose bleed levels which are passed onto consumers. When you see the press get into a frenzy over banks passing on more than the rate rises doled out by the RBA, they aren’t just being greedy – a large part is absorbing these higher wholesale funding costs.

What about America? Who could forget former Goldman Sachs CEO and US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson tell us how robust US financial institutions were right before plugging $700 billion to rescue the crumbling system? US banks such as Wells Fargo, Citi and Bank of America (BoA) have been reducing mortgage exposure relative to total loans outstanding. Yet each received $10s of billions in TARP (bail out funds) courtesy of the US taxpayer.

By 2009 the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) had turned over 16% of Bank of America’s residential mortgage portfolio into either NPLs, mortgage payments over 90-day in arrears or impaired (largely from the shonky lending practices of Countrywide (which BoA bought in 2008). Countrywide’s $2.5bn acquisition price turned out to cost BoA shareholders a further $50bn by the end of the clean-up. Who is counting?

Oh no, but Australia is different. Residential property prices in Australia have had a far steadier rise over a longer period – a 5-fold jump over 25 years – meaning our local banks should be less vulnerable to external shocks. There is an element of truth to that, although it breeds complacency.

Property loans in Australia as at September 2018 total A$1.653 trillion. 82% of those loans are made by the Big 4 banks. Interest only loans are around $500 billion of that. As a percentage of total loans outstanding in Australia, mortgages make up 65%. The next is daylight, followed by Norway at around 40%. US banks have cut overall property exposures and Japanese banks are now in the early teens. Post GFC, US banks have ratcheted back mortgage exposure. They have diversified their earnings through investment banking and other areas. You can see this below.

REEx

The advent of interest only loans has helped pushed property prices higher. NAB notes in its latest filing that 29% of its mortgage loan book is in interest-only form. The RBA expects $120 billion of interest only loans resetting to principal & interest (P&I) each year to 2020 which will hike monthly mortgage repayments to jump 30-40%. If investors were up to the gills in interest only mortgage repayments, adding one third to the bill will not be helpful. This is before we have even faced a bump in wholesale finance rates due to market instability. Look at the way that GE – once the world’s largest company in 2000 – is being trashed by the credit markets as they seek to reprice the risk attached to the $111bn in debt after a credit downgrade. This is a canary in the coalmine issue.

We also need to consider what constitutes a bubble in property. Sensibly, affordability makes the strongest argument. At the height of the bubble, the average central Tokyo property value was around 18.2x income. Broadening this out to greater Tokyo metropolitan area this was around 15x. This figure today is around 5x. Making arguments that ever higher levels of migration will keep property buoyant is not a sound argument as affordability affects them too.

Back in 2007, Sydney house prices were 8x income. In 2017 Demographia stated average housing (excluding apartment) prices are in the 13-14x range. The Australian Bureau of Statistics notes that 80% of people live in houses and 20% on apartments. Only Hong Kong at 19x beats Sydney for dizzy property prices.

In 2018, Australia’s GDP is likely to be around A$1.75 trillion. Our total lending by the banks is approximately $2.64 trillion which is 150% of GDP. At the height of the Japanese bubble, total bank lending as a whole only reached 106%. Mortgages alone in Australia are near as makes no difference 100% of GDP.

Balance sheets are but snapshots in time. If we look at our current bank exposure to mortgages, it is easy for analysts to paint rosy pictures. Banks’ shareholder equity has quadrupled in the past 16 years. Prosperity and record bank profits should give us comfort. Or should it? We need to understand that the underlying tenets of the Australian economy are completely different to that of a decade ago.

At the time of Global Financial Crisis (GFC) Australia’s economy was lucky to get away broadly unscathed. We carried no national government debt and were able to use a $50 billion surplus to prime the economy through that period of turmoil. Many countries were not so lucky. Our fiscal stewardship leading up to the crisis allowed economic growth to remain in positive territory soon after. Now we have $600 billion debt and charging the national credit card with all of the promises so aggressively that we should expect $1 trillion of debt in the not too distant future.

Australian banks are highly leveraged to the mortgage market. It should come as no surprise. In Westpac’s full year 2018 balance sheet, the company claims around A$710 billion in assets as “loans”. Of that amount, according to the latest APRA data, A$411 billion of lending is ‘real estate’ related. Total equity for the bank is A$64.6 billion. So equity as a percentage of property loans is just shy of 16%. If Australia had a nationwide property collapse (we have not had one for three decades) then it is possible that the banks would face significant headwinds.

What that basically says is if Westpac suffered a 16% decline in the value of its entire property loan book then it would at least on paper appear in negative equity, or liabilities would be larger than assets. Recall in 2009 that BoA had over 16% of its residential loan portfolio which went bad. It can happen. CommBank is at a similar level. ANZ and NAB are in the 20% range before such a hypothetical situation would be triggered. See the chart below. Note how the US banks stung by the GFC have bolstered balance sheets

RESHREL.png

Of course the scenario of a housing collapse would imply that a growing number of borrowers would have to find themselves under mortgage stress and default on payments. It also depends on the portfolio of the properties and when those loans were written. If the majority of loans were made 10 years ago at 40% lower theoretical prices than today then there is lower risk to solvency for the bank if it foreclosed and dumped the property.

Although if we look at the growth in loans since 2009, the Australian banks have been making hay while the sun shines. As it stands, the likes of Westpac and CommBank each have extended mortgage loans to Aussies to nearly as much as BoA has to Americans. That said the American banks, so stung by the GFC, have become far more prudent in managing their affairs.

REGrowth.png

It goes without saying that keeping one’s job is helpful in paying the mortgage. If you were a two income family and one of you lost your job, it is likely that dining out, taking fancy overseas holidays, buying new cars (which have been awful this year) and so on will go on the backburner. Should those actions swell to a wider number of mortgage holders, the economic slowdown will exacerbate in a downward spiral. Even your local coffee store may be forced to close because $4 is just cash you and others might not be able to spend. Boarded up High Streets were everywhere in America and Europe post GFC.

UnempvHPI.png

The following chart shows the negative correlation between housing prices and unemployment rates. US unemployment doubled to 10% when Lehman collapsed. Housing prices took heavy hits as defaults jumped. It is not rocket science.

AusUnempHPI.png

On the other hand, Australia’s unemployment curve remained below 6% for around two decades. Even with GFC, jobless numbers never got out of hand. Our housing prices only suffered a mild dip.

We can argue that a sub-prime style mortgage crisis is highly unlikely. But it does not rule the risk out completely. To have that, mortgage holders would need to be in arrears on monthly payments, their houses would need to be in negative equity and banks would be required to take asset devaluations.

An ME Bank survey in Australia found only 46% 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.

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.”

Do you know how many homes NAB has under repossession on its books at the latest filing? Around 277. Yes, Two hundred and seventy seven. Out of 100,000s. Recall BoA had 16% of its loan portfolio go bang in 2008?

If we think about it logically, examining the ratio of total assets to shareholder equity (i.e. leverage), the Aussie banks maintain higher levels than the US banks listed below did in 2008. Were total asset values to suddenly drop 7% or more ceteris paribus, Aussie banks would slide into a negative equity position and require injection.

TASE.png

Human nature is conditioned to panic when crisis hits. Sadly many of our middle management class have never experienced recession. They are in for a rude shock. As for depositors note that you should be focused on the return “of” your money, not the return “on” it.

As Mark Twain once 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!

 

 

How many canaries in the coalmine do we need?

SAAR.png

CM has said for ages that President Trump risks being hoisted by his own petard if he continues to attribute the stock market to his leadership. It works both ways. Stock markets are suffering. Suck it up.

GM has announced it is pulling the plug on over 14,000 US workers (8,000 white collar, 3,300 blue-collar workers in Canada and another 2,600 in the US) and potentially closing  5 plants. Is this a surprise? The chart above shows the % year over year change of US car sales. It has been stepping down clearly since GFC. In September this year GM’s sales slumped 19% in before falling 5.5% in October. The brutal storm activity is unlikely to help November either.

This quote will live to haunt in the coming downturn – CEO Mary Barra said the company doesn’t predict an economic downturn any time soon and is making the cuts “to get in front of it while the company is strong and while the economy is strong,

50% of US corporations have a credit rating of BBB or less. We are at the sharp end of massive government sector recapitalization crowding out and companies with dodgy balance sheets (that have levered up to conduct massive buybacks to flatter EPS masking anemic earnings growth) won’t be given the same tight interest rate margin spreads come the next refinancing. Await the implosion.

Rising interest rates don’t help and credit markets wait like vultures over the likes of GE which is having a reality check over its $115bn of debt, negative equity and troubled restructuring. Credit rating downgrade have booted it from some funds so the stock is in the cross hairs. If it had any sense it would file for Chapter 11 to buy breathing space.

If you want to put some perspective on it, GE’s market cap in 2000 was $592bn and now is $65.8bn. Tesla is now worth $56bn.

GM is yet another canary in the coalmine

 

Crypto schmypto

Bitcoin.png

CM is not a fan of crypto currencies. Apart from the fact they are solely backed by greed (when you buy a share or bar of gold you get ownership of  a physical asset in return) there are too many of the damn things. We have approximately 190 fiat currencies in circulation. Of that only a handful trade. US$, GBP, euro, yen, A$, C$ and RMB. After that liquidity goes out the window. Try getting a good rate from the Travelex currency window on Malaysian ringit. If you invest in illiquid coins the same nasty spreads will ruin any thirst for making a fortune

With crypto currencies, there are over 2,000 variants. Bitcoin is the bellwether. It has a net worth of $94 billion. Only a handful of others trade. Many should have realised that when the Japanese started to get all excited over the craze the gig was up. Japanese variety show comedians were responsible for the promotion almost 12 months ago when Bitcoin was at all time highs. Some companies like Rakuten were offering to pay staff  in crypto in lieu of cash salaries.  Now Bitcoin is languishing at 20% of that value.

Take a look at some of the products being invented to become crypto. LivingOffset is a classic case in point. It used Wikipedia as a source for justifying the validity of its findings in its prospectus.  That settles it then. Who wouldn’t buy an asset backed by Wikipedia research?!?

From LivingOffset – “Global concern about climate change is growing rapidly. Five out of every 10 people now consider climate change to be a serious problem. In Chile and Peru the number is over 75%. Interestingly, 69% of Americans are concerned about global warming [if you believe Huff Post], despite their government’s position. There is no doubt demand for our offering is there, and like Airbnb, we can provide the means and the mechanism for easy participation. In just a few minutes ordinary people can start to make a real and meaningful difference.

In January 2017, IPSOS held a global poll asking what each country’s major problem was and climate change didn’t feature a mention.

Apart from the completely bogus stats on ‘69% of Americans being concerned by global warming, SUV sales remain a solid staple in the US. In fact the most popular car in America is the Ford F-150 pick-up truck where customers rank ‘fuel economy’ #28 in terms of reasons they buy it.

Here was the promise at prospectus time around March 2018. The launch was delayed on the basis there was a need to make it more global in appeal. It supposedly launches this month.

3A80FECC-0F22-4FA1-836C-CA0C53815392.jpeg

Below lists how some of the other crypto currencies performed overnight. This is before heavy handed legislation has come down to regulate the industry. If you look at a crypto kiosk in Shinbashi, Tokyo you’ll likely see a Rolls-Royce parked out front, presumably owned by someone in the Yakuza. As far as money laundering goes, crypto’s are brilliant.

BTC

In an event, crypto currencies are most at the mercy of cyber fraud. Don’t buy the bomb proof guarantees of blockchain. If state agencies want to destroy these markets, they can do it on a whim. Then again there is little need to do so given the numerous events of hackers breaking into crypto exchanges and costing them huge liabilities l. Coincheck in Japan lost $500mn in one day due to a breach.

In short, crypto is little better than betting on a roulette table. If the benchmark crypto is hemorrhaging like this, why put faith in the illiquid stuff being any better? Fiat currencies may not be good stores of value but there are far more sensible places to protect wealth than parking it in products which are underwritten by nothing more than greed.  If you like a flutter by all means throw some loose change into crypto.

CalPERS unfunded pension deficit approaches $1 trillion. Who is counting?

calp.png

California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS) lost around 2% of its funds in 2015/16. The fund assumed an aggressive 7.5% return. Dr. Joe Nation of Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research thinks unfunded liabilities have surged to $150bn from $93bn in the last two years. He suggested the use of a more realistic 4% rate of return last year. At that rate, CalPERS had a market based unfunded liability of $412bn (or the equivalent of 2 years’ worth of California state revenue). At present Nation now thinks the number is just shy of $1 trillion using a 3.25% discount rate. He expects that the 2017 data for CalPERS will be out in a week or so which should give some interesting perspective as to how much deeper the pension hole is for Californian public servants.

N.B. California collects $232bn in state taxes annually in a $2.3 trillion economy (around the size of Italy).

 

When Japan ruled the world

B38CCC79-D6A6-4EF5-B3BF-4B8EF3A4D857.jpeg

30 years ago 32 of the 50 largest corporations by market cap were Japanese. Telco NTT was #1 followed by 4 megabanks. Scroll forward to today and there is only one Japanese corporation that makes the Top 50 cut – Toyota Motor (#35). Now, the top 33 of 50 companies are American – Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Facebook.