US Federal Reserve

The $6.7 trillion US public pension black hole


Zerohedge published this report today on the $1.2 trillion public pension black hole in America. Time to update the latest stats of a report CM wrote in August 2016 on the very same topic. Here is betting things have only got worse.  Taking California Public Employees Retirement Scheme (CalPERS). In 2014 market pension debt per household was $77,000. In 2016 it hit $122,000. In 2008 it was only $36,000. US Pension Tracker reports that the 2016 marked-to-market figure of the total US public pension deficit is $6.734 trillion vs actuarial basis of $1.467 trillion.

Plunging credit quality more troubling than market rout


The Dow plunged 1175 points (-4.6%) overnight. 4.6% is a lot and yes 4-digit drops optically look worse but off the higher base we get higher (record) point drops. One thing to contemplate in a rising bond yield market is corporate credit quality. Since 2006 the average credit ratings for US corporates issued by the big agencies have seen the number of top rated (to the left) fall while those with deteriorating grades (to the right) soar. That’s right, the 4 categories before “junk” have risen sharply. After many years of virtually free money many corporations have let the waistline grow. When refinancing comes around just how will credit ratings influence the new spreads of corporates who’ve shifted to the right?

The IMF highlighted in 2017  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.

This 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 CM shudders to think the state of potential bankruptcies that will come when the cycle truly takes a turn for the worse. This is a very bad sign.

Madoff wasn’t so long ago


It was just over 9 years ago that Bernie Madoff pleaded guilty to a Ponzi scheme that cost investors over $65bn. While many happily point fingers at greedy banksters we tend to forget that despite Harry Markopolos, handing the SEC (the US regulator) the details of the case in 1999 on a platter it failed to act. His testimony points directly to the kind of problem that exists with government regulators – no track record in the fields they legislate. In the 9 years prior to Madoff pleading guilty, Markopolos caught him at the $6bn stage. The SEC after multiple investigations turned nothing even with a treasure map provided by Markopolos that someone with markets experience would have discovered in 30 minutes. Throw on all the other scandals (ratings agencies etc) that the SEC failed to capture and it cost taxpayers $700bn.

Willful negligence? I gave a speech at the Japanese financial regulator (FSA) on fraud and insider trading  at the time of the Kobe Steel data scandal. When presented with comparable data with other exchanges the blind eye is no less scandalous. So before hanging the financiers out to dry perhaps people ought to question the regulators whose incompetence and inaction is at fault. If you give a child a box of matches unsupervised then don’t be surprised if the whole house burns down.

Time to “put” some eggs in this basket!


In the everything bubble it is hard to find exposure to ‘relatively’ cheap things. Just a quick glance at the S&P500 index derivatives market one can see that ‘Put’ options (i.e. buying a put option gives the owner the right to sell at a particular strike price) prices are scraping the bottom of the barrel. While the above 2450 strike price (expires on 19 Jan 2018) seems a stretch for an S&P 500 Index showing 2662 (8.7% higher than the above put option) listening to outgoing Fed Chair Janet Yellen in the December FOMC press conference tells us that group think is alive and kicking. At least she admitted that,

The stock market has gone up a great deal this year…asset valuations are elevated….We see ratios in the high end of historical ranges…but Economists are not great at knowing what the right valuations are…we don’t have a terrific track record

Whatever the ultimate timing is of the impending pullback in asset bubbles, the downside will be extra ugly, especially now with so much market behaviour driven by robots with algorithms that have not been thoroughly tested in bear markets.  Time to own some longer dated put options me thinks. #MPGA (Make puts great again)

This can’t wait


John Mauldin has written an informative piece entitled “this can’t wait” which sums up a lot of pieces I’ve written on the sickening state of public pension unfunded liabilities and the debt super cycle that is facing us. While Mauldin is trying to sell his investment services on the back of this, I wasn’t when I wrote mine. Public service announcement? Maybe but the stats of the black holes we face in pensions and central bank QE which has failed to boost money velocity will bite. Hard. There will be no “I told you so” glory because almost everyone will lose big.

Even if people want to criticize me for being a perma-bear there is no harm in being aware of what is likely coming.

Bitcoin now on prime time Japanese variety TV


The picture above is of Tetsuro Degawa, a Japanese comedian who does his best to show himself to have little intelligence. On prime time TV tonite he was talking about Bitcoin. The sign to the right partially says “can you understand Bitcoin in 5 minutes?” 

Japanese TV audiences generally gasp at new information so Bitcoin was a subject of great interest. Still one wonders if Degawa is presenting on the crypto currency that we’re one stage away from the taxi driver giving tips.

Today, Bitcoin is trading over $15,000 up another 13% today alone. Apparently Warren Buffett has disclosed Berkshire Hathaway has bought some too.

In 20 years in financial markets I cannot work out how something backed by nothing other than greed in a market that is not regulated and highly vulnerable to cyber terrorism continues to sucker more people in.

Tulip mania may be removed as the bubble yardstick before long. As one of my experienced private wealth managers likes to say, “I have difficulty fathoming the “no euphoria this time” view.”

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.