US Federal Reserve

Repossession by remote

IMG_0175

A growing number of car loans in the US are being pushed further down the repayment line as much as 84 months. In the new car market the percentage of 73-84-month loans is 33.8%, triple the level of 2009. Even 10% of 2010 model year bangers are being bought on 84 month term loans. The US ended 2016 with c.$1.2 trillion in outstanding auto loan debt, up 9%YoY and 13% above the pre-crisis peak in 2005.

Why is this happening? Mortgage regulations tightened after 2008 to prevent financial lenders from writing predatory loans, especially sub prime. Auto lending attracts far less scrutiny. Hence the following table looks like it does with respect to outstanding accounts on loans

IMG_0176.PNG

Sub Prime auto loans, at all time records, make up 25% of the total. Devices installed in cars let collection agencies repossess vehicles by remote when the borrower falls behind on repayment. This lowers risk and allows these long dated loan products to thrive. Average subprime auto loans carry 10% p.a. interest rates. More than 6 million American consumers are at least 90 days late on their car loan repayments, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

While it is true that $1.2 trillion auto loan book pales into insignificance versus the $10 trillion in mortgage debt at the time of the GFC, a slowdown in auto sales (happening now) isn’t helpful. The auto industry directly and indirectly employs c. 10% of the workforce and slowing new and used car sales will just put more pressure on prices further lifting the risk of repossessions

It is worth reminding ourselves the following.

Last month the Fed published its 2016 update on household financial wellbeing. To sum up:

“44%. This is actually an improvement on the 2015 survey that said 47% of Americans can’t raise $400 in an emergency without selling something. The consistency is the frightening part. The survey in 2013 showed 50% were under the $400 pressure line. Of the group that could not raise the cash, 45% said they would go further in debt and use a credit card to pay It off over time. while 25% would borrow from friends or family, 27% would forgo the emergency while the balance would turn to selling items or using a payday loan to get by. The report also noted just under a quarter of adults are not able to pay all of their current month’s bills in full while 25% reported skipping medical treatments due to the high cost in the prior year. Additionally, 28% of adults who haven’t retired yet reported to being largely unprepared, indicating no retirement savings or pension whatsoever. Welcome to a gigantic problem ahead. Not to mention the massive unfunded liabilities in the public pension system which in certain cases has seen staff retire early so they can get a lump sum before it folds.”

If only this perpetual debt cycle could be stopped via remote. Someone else’s problem one would suggest.

44% of Americans can’t raise $400 in an emergency. It is actually an improvement

IMG_0673.PNG

44%. This is actually an improvement on the 2015 survey that said 47% of Americans can’t raise $400 in an emergency without selling something. The consistency is the frightening part. The survey in 2013 showed 50% were under the $400 pressure line. Of the group that could not raise the cash, 45% said they would go further in debt and use a credit card to pay It off over time. while 25% would borrow from friends or family, 27% would forgo the emergency while the balance would turn to selling items or using a payday loan to get by. The report also noted just under a quarter of adults are not able to pay all of their current month’s bills in full while 25% reported skipping medical treatments due to the high cost in the prior year. Additionally, 28% of adults who haven’t retired yet reported to being largely unprepared, indicating no retirement savings or pension whatsoever. Welcome to a gigantic problem ahead. Not to mention the massive unfunded liabilities in the public pension system which in certain cases has seen staff retire early so they can get a lump sum before it folds.

How the other half is doing in America

IMG_9749.JPG

A few years back the US Federal Reserve did a survey which revealed 47% of Americans couldn’t raise $400 cash in an emergency without selling something. Do you recall Marco Rubio in the GOP primaries harping about knowing families who live “paycheck to paycheck”  Well the bad news keeps rolling in.  Northwestern Mutual has pointed out that 45% of Americans spend up to half of their monthly take home pay on (mostly credit card) debt service alone….which, again, excludes mortgage debt.

The study went on to show that 40% of that credit card debt was frivolous discretionary spending (which they claimed was the biggest source of their problems) but only 20% were able to make minimum monthly payments.  In short don’t be surprised to see defaults, bankruptcies and moral hazard rear its ugly head. Now we see a run on a Canadian mortgage lender. Does the poverty rate of 25% across EU vs 20% pre Lehman collapse raise red flags? Does sharply growing public sector employment across the majority of OECD  countries since GFC not strike you as failed economic policy? Does 1/3rd of Aussies saying 3mths of continuous unemployment would lead to an inability to repay their debts? How the 65yo+ demographic is the largest prisoner cohort in Japan because poverty levels are climbing. Yes pensioners are breaking Into jail.

If anyone thinks record high asset prices is a reflection on our collective wealth think again. The worst thing about this bubble is that it is the accumulation of three massive bubbles that never cleared. Sadly this one will pop like one of those game shows with a balloon full of  stinky slime.

Not capitalism with warts but socialism with beauty spots

IMG_9700.JPG

I was fortunate enough to attend an LDP function last night where Deputy PM and Minister of Finance Taro Aso spoke. The audience was largely retirees in their 60s-80s in the Yokohama area who in part likely came for the hotel buffet. I was the only foreigner to attend among 1,000 guests. Aso truthfully described the difference between Japan and the West. Talking of how many foreign politicians can’t understand how Japan can have so many vending machines because in their countries they’d be vandalized  for their cash. Aso’s bigger point was made around deflation and how Japan is coping far better than most of the West, especially the EU. While there is a sense of celebrating an own goal, the biggest mistake made by the West in its analysis of the ‘lost two decades’ in Japan has been its unique society. Only in Japan could a population withstand two decades of hardship. Shared grief.

In the West, when it all goes to the dogs people will run as far away from the implosion as they can. Moral hazard is the order of the day. Make someone else pay. I recall the tale of a friend who had bought a condo in a ski resort in Yuzawa, Niigata Prefecture for around $20,000 off a family who had paid $800,000 for it during the bubble. They religiously paid off the loan as a form of moral obligation. In Japan, bankruptcy is seen as failure. A bankruptcy record is hung around one’s neck forever. In America, bankruptcy is seen as a badge of honor in some circles for someone pursuing the American Dream and in the next credit cycle, financial institutions will forgive the infraction, albeit at a slightly higher risk premium.

The point Aso was making was on the money. Japan is different. It is a society based on values. While the West may frown on the Japanese taking on a 250% debt: GDP ratio to allow the air to slowly leak out of a balloon, the society demands it. Despite all of the studies I’ve read on financial resurrection from deflation in the West I can safely say ‘society’ is the seemingly most overlooked yet most relevant part of the equation. As the game of convenient lies mount up from the mouths of politicians, a growing number of people are realizing that failure to act will lead to unpleasant truths. Economic cycles can only be toyed with to a point until trust leaves the system. The Japanese are indeed the most capable people on the planet to embrace change. It may take a tragedy, shock or disaster to force true action but one can be rest assured the people will unite in common purpose while the West go out of their way to look after themselves at the expense of all others.

Japan is not capitalism with warts but socialism with beauty spots. With the coming global financial train wreck approaching Japan is the best place to be.

IMG_9694.JPG

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

IMG_0497

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.

IMG_0499.JPG

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.

IMG_0501

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.

IMG_0503.JPG

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.

IMG_0504.JPG

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

IMG_2448

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.

IMG_0523.PNG

Reserve Bank of Australia in a Hurt Locker of its own making

IMG_0458

The comments made by the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) today take some beating. The AFR wrote, “The [RBA] signalled that it is in no mood to deliver official rate hikes to cool the market amid fears the heavily leveraged household sector would react badly to higher borrowing costs at a time of sluggish wages growth.” Two things are obvious. The RBA finally admits it has a bubble on its hands yet it is so out of control that lowering rates would exacerbate the situation. The most dire prediction I can think of is the risk posed to Aussie banks – part of whole nationalization. We can talk about theoretical stress tests TIL the cows come home but in the real world Aussie banks source 40-50% of their funding from wholesale markets not savings. With a rising rate environment in the US, growing risks of a local sovereign credit downgrade and the most unstable period of politics in Aussie history the upside risk on funding costs is unhinged. Aussie banks balance sheets are saddled with 60% mortgage debt. Housing prices in Sydney are 12x income vs 7x leading up to the GFC in 2008.

It is almost impossible to topple the group think that pervades the US Federal Reserve, ECB or BoJ but the RBA has joined in. Almost a year ago I finally put to paper what I’d argued for years – central banks had lost the plot. Endless printing with less and less impact to show for it. Just asset bubble creation. The RBA is somehow surprised by the bleeding obvious.

Australia has 4 of the top 10 most expensive property markets globally. No other country has anything close. The US has two. Sheer common sense would tell you it is unsustainable. Now we have governments like Victoria thinking they’ll solve the first homebuyer conundrum by removing stamp duty under $600,000 and giving an interest free grant for 25% of the value of the property. I think Premier Daniel Andrews may have indeed called the top of the property market in the space of two weeks. You can take it to the bank (no pun intended) that when governments get deeply involved in markets they must be channeling Ronald Reagan who said, “If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. If it stops moving, subsidize it.”

Searching for more data points, note that the Australian Bureau of Statistics has not updated the people working multiple jobs data since 2009. If one looks at the US data, those working two jobs or more is at an all time high as people struggle to get by. Look back to Australia and note that electricity prices have doubled in a decade, health insurance is up another 20% this year alone (my own experience).

Sifting through the Reserve Bank of Australia’s statistics section I stumbled over an interesting selection on credit cards. It is quite detailed. After cutting, dicing and slicing the data I noted that financial institutions are perhaps hiding their hand with respect to confidence in consumers. Aussies have around 16.6mn credit cards in service yet since 2010 average credit card limits have stayed stagnant. Normally if wages are rising and confidence is booming credit card companies can up the limit and feel confident of being repaid. Other data suggests that Aussies aren’t going overboard on nudging the limit but could it be that with 180% household debt to GDP ratios that household budgets are stretched. Average cash withdrawals and debit card usage don’t explain away the gap but to me this is telling of how tapped out the average Aussie punter is. 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.”

What we can be assured of is if we get a housing collapse, Australia’s economy will implode in such a way that these numbers may end up being conservative given the knock on effects of the rapid drop in consumption that would follow causing unemployment to surge. Don’t be surprised if some Aussie banks require a bail out.

The RBA has lost credibility. The Aussie housing market has depended on it for confidence but comments like those made here are evidence that it is chained to an unexploded bomb