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US airlines tell China to take a hike over Taiwan

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Despite the immediate and characteristic folding by in-your-face virtue signaling Qantas and other airlines to remove the word “Taiwan” from the airline in-flight magazines and websites, American airline leaders have decided to tell China to go take a jump saying it is a matter for governments, not airlines to discuss such foreign policy matters. Full credit to China for pushing the boundaries of how powerful the rest of the world thinks it is by the speed of which they roll over and play dead. It doesn’t take much to envisage when the Chinese authorities start to demand ‘real’ things. While leaders in Australia mock the activities of Xi in the Pacific or the Maldives by the irrelevance of the size of free trade agreements to China, they completely overlook the strategic importance of the naval ports China is linking together across the globe.

Of course trivial demands to change maps in inflight magazines on the surface is a backhanded way for the Chinese to prioritize landing slots but the action below the waves is clear. Start with tiny demands and ratchet up the volume and see where the breaking point is. Authoritarian rule at its finest. Where have we seen this before?

Sadly the principle lost on many is that those nations/airlines that “stand for nothing, fall for anything

Alternative for Sweden (AfS) is established

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It seems that several members of the conservative anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats (SD) have splintered to form the Alternative for Sweden (AfS) (video here). The party was founded a few weeks ago by Gustav Kasselstrand, a former member of the SD which saw its support slip to 14.8% in November 2017, compared to 18.4% percent in June, according to the Swedish Statistics Office. Although in March 2018, Sentio poll has the SD at 23% (from 21.9%), a Demoskop poll at 18.6% (15.4% in Feb) and SiFo poll at 15.9%.

The government, comprised of the Social Democrats and Greens, had a 36.4% approval rating, compared with 35.6% in the June poll. The AfS thinks that the SD has become too compromising and see the fall in the polls as reason to break away and follow in the footsteps of the rise and rise of Germany’s AfD.

SD party leader Jimmie Åkesson said in Feb 2018 that the party is its own worst enemy…“Our biggest problem is that we have not been able to build real credibility...”
going on to say it was uncertain whether SD would benefit from “…moving further to the right on immigration issues because parties like the Social Democrats and Moderates have snatched our politics within the area [just like Rutte in The Netherlands adopting policies of Geert Wilder’s Freedom Party at the Dutch election last year]…The next term of office will be crucial for us to establish ourselves as a government alternative…We must compromise and be pragmatic

Even at its current level of support, the Sweden Democrats would still have enough seats to block either the centre-left or centre-right blocs from forming government after the upcoming September 2018 election.

The SD saw surging support several years ago on what they saw was politically correct limp-wristed responses to growing migrant crime. In Malmo, Deputy Police Commissioner Mats Karlsson said in response to multiple explosions that occur in the city on a regular basis, “Our dilemma is that we can never guarantee anything for sure. Evidently there are individuals who have hand grenades and they often resort to violence over things that may seem very banal to you or I – a conflict over an ex-girlfriend or a little brother wanting to outperform his big brother…It’s bad enough when they use guns, because they’ve got such poor aim, but grenades are really worrying. They have a 360-degree reach.”

As CM has made the point for years, whether one likes the direction of right wing politics or not, yet more nationalist parties are feeling the seeds of discontent within their own constituencies and offering a platform to parties that don’t seem to be listening. On Sept 9th, Swedes will get their democratic say. Austria, Germany, Holland, Italy, The Netherlands and France have all seen large shifts toward anti-immigrant/eurosceptic parties in recent elections. It isn’t a coincidence with the EU at the helm.

Should we trust ratings agencies on US state credit?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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?

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Crime in Japan – Breakdown of the Nuclear Family

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CM – Crime in Japan – Breakdown of the Nuclear Family

Following on from pensioner crime in Japan, this eye-opening report on the breakdown of traditional families points to a future unlike what many may not fathom. The link above contains the full report with a short summary can be found below.

Did you know that 25% of all marriages in Japan are couples that marry due to unplanned pregnancies? In Okinawa that rate is 42.4% Did you also know that 25% of all households with children in Japan are single-parent? The perception of the dutiful wife getting up at 4am to make breakfast for her samurai salaryman husband are virtually non-existent and half of divorces happen in age groups 55 years old and above. 25% of divorces occur in the 65yo+ cohort. The government changed the law in 2007 entitling wives to up to half of their ex-husband’s pension. Still the trend was rising sharply even before its introduction. Mrs Watanabe has had enough of her salaryman and wants out.

Domestic violence (DV) is seeing a very sharp upturn in Japan. Between 2010 and 2014, victims of DV have soared 60.6% against women and 650.1% against men. Most cases (over 60%) of DV were marital related. Recognizing the growing problem, The police have even developed a new category of DV which defines a divorced couple who are living under the same roof. Economic conditions for some families has become so tight that the stress of living with someone they do not want to be with now gets its own category, scoring over 6,000 cases alone in 2014.

Between 2010 and 2014, total reported stalking cases surged 36.6% to 24,837. 50% of stalking incidents recorded were related to partners (including former partners).

The Ministry for Health, Labor & Welfare (MHLW) has 208 child consultation centres which fielded over 88,000 cases in 2014, a 20.5%YoY increase or 22x the level of 20 years ago. Despite a 2.4x jump in social workers inside these child consultation centres over the last two decades they can’t keep up with the demand. The Japan National Police Agency (JNPA) statistics show a sharp jump in arrests for child abuse, 80% being due to physical violence causing injury. In 2013, 36 abused children died with 16 of them under 1 year old. Police note that child abuse is being driven by the breakdown in traditional family, unemployment and poverty, stats which we showed earlier to be rising steadily.

Crime in Japan is a problem that will not simply disappear with the evolving mix of aging demographics, poverty, unemployment, underemployment and economic stagnation. We note that the previous jump in Japanese crime started in 1997 and ran to a peak in 2003. Unemployment was a factor. In the crime boom of 2010-2016, we note that the unemployment rate has fallen but it masks disturbing trends in lower paid part-time work which is putting families under financial stress.

There is the smell of fear in the workplace. In the period 2002 to 2013, labour disputes almost trebled. Bullying and harassment (which are obviously less palatable for companies to have floating in the public domain) as a percent of total disputes has ballooned from 5.8% to almost 20% over the same period.

Another dilemma in the data is the employment referrals by government unemployment agencies for middle or advanced aged staff (45yo+) which shows that around 25% of them end up with work in a fixed term capacity of more than 4 months.

Ironically active retraining of inmates to help them find new careers after release occurs in prison. Why isn’t more being spent on finding ways to redeploy those out of prison? The idea that any job will do is a recipe for failure and cannot be relied upon as a sustainable program. Most vocational training by Hello Work, the government unemployment insurance agency, is broad and non-specific. Any specific job training will be ‘paid for’ which ultimately is limited to an unemployed person’s financial status and confidence a job will be attainable at the end of it.

Why winning matters

In a world that is sliding down the slippery slope of participation prizes and everyone is a winner, Ducati MotoGP rider Andrea Dovisioso proved why winning isn’t a bad thing (watch the video) and why competition breeds success and overwhelming joy to the victor. Since joining the MotoGP class in 2011, Dovi had only won 2 races til last season. This year he has won 5. He had been in positions to win in the past but misfortune (usually being wiped out by other riders) has stifled any shot at the title.

Today he was up against championship leader Marc Marquez who is without a doubt the toughest rider to face on a last lap. The word “give 150%” doesn’t even begin to describe his riding style.He rides that bike like he stole it.  Even in the pouring rain with no real safety aids in braking or traction control, Dovi managed to outbrake Marquez in a risky move that (literally) stuck.

Now these bikes way 157kg and have 270hp. These two riders are 1&2. Dovi is smelling the championship that he’s not attained (Marquez already 3) and had to risk it to stay in the hunt. So under intense pressure he produced a diamond and spoke of utter grit. No knees taken. No politics. Just a win that defied the odds. The satisfaction that came with his win could be felt by the crowd and even those who support others congratulated him.

So whenever I hear of read of participation medals given to all these kids in sports events I wonder what lessons are we teaching them about the real world which is nothing like this. Wrapping kids in cotton wool is pointless. The daughter of a friend said she was told after winning three races in a row would she mind not winning again in the following races to give the other kids a chance. Is it any wonder we have a generation of self entitled kids who expect to get a good paying job without having to “earn it”. Dovi if you manage to beat the best over the final three races then we’ll know you earned it and deservedly so.

Most US voters don’t want to pay for climate abatement

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Rasmussen Reports note “US voters tend to agree the Paris Climate accord would have led to increased energy costs, and most remain unwilling to pay much, if anything, more to fight global warming…41% of Likely U.S. Voters think the accord’s requirement that the United States reduce fossil fuel emissions by nearly 30% by 2025 would increase energy costs…20% believe the requirement would decrease the cost of energy, while 23% say it would have no impact…16%..are not sure.”

As the Turnbull government toys around with a 42% renewable target by 2030 from 16% today, it wants us to believe that power prices will fall. It is a farcical pipe dream. We have a good yardstick for renewables known as South Australia. It has the highest electricity prices, frequent blackouts and has to build a gas fired back up plant and is mulling a battery storage facility for $600mn odd. Oh and the jobs creation baloney of renewables can be seen here. Businesses are pulling out of South Australia because of the energy farce. Who can blame them?

Tesla proves autonomous vehicles have a LONG way to go

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I’m not a believer in autonomously driven vehicles. This idea that a computer, if pre programmed, can outsmart a human. Sure, the raft of new safety features (auto brake assist) and lane assist control etc can help in situations when people cruising at brain dead slow speeds are busy texting and checking FB. Yet, there is a point where these systems are dangerous. I have driven cars with them and there have been times where the car outputs are the exact opposite of my inputs. It is unsettling and downright dangerous so I tend to switch these aids off. This excerpt from the Tesla Owners forum on FB shows how the latest and greatest auto-pilot function is flummoxed by such a simple situation. Read on.

Found a bug in 8.1 the hard way. Ruined two rims after 15 minutes of use.
That’s what happened yesterday: I started the AP on a smaller street with a sidewalk with a curb on the right. There was no line on the street next to the curb, but a line for bicycles on the sidewalk. The AP then suddenly pulled right, as it was irritated by the line on the sidewalk and ignored the curb. The rims touched the curb before I was able to react, even though I had my hands at the steering wheel…I already posted this in a German group yesterday and some people told me they had the same situation, but were able to react before it was too late.”

The idea that people put complete faith in auto-pilot systems is a worry. By the same token more advanced systems are supposed to use inbuilt algorithms to determine whether to swerve away from the kid on a BMX bike doing skids on the sidewalks toward the edge of the kerb braking as late as he dares and an old lady on a crossing 5 meters further on. The system may choose to sacrifice you the driver, err sorry passenger. While there is no doubt autonomous systems will continue to get better, would you prefer your airline pilot to be limited to a computer software program only or would you prefer a human in the cockpit who can assess the situation in real time?

Maybe I’m too analog. A fuddy-duddy that refuses to accept the future. I don’t think I’m alone but one day more people will grow tired of an app-driven existence. Life will become too boring and they’ll soul search for more tactile experiences. I was tinkering in the garage on my bikes fitting new parts, tyres, cleaning chains and doing oil changes. There is a something to be said about zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. I was completely at peace after completing these analog tasks because it requires a focus that can’t be found in a 15 second swipe of an app.