#CalPERS

Ford downgraded to junk

This week, Ford Motor Co’s credit rating was downgraded by Moody’s to junk. $84bn worth of debt now no longer investment grade. It will be the first of many Fortune 500s to fall foul to this reality. In 2008, there was around $800bn of BBB status credit. That number exceeds $3.186 trillion today.

CM has long argued that the credit cycle would be the undoing of the economy. For too long, corporates binged on easy money, caring little for credit ratings because the interest spreads between AAA and BBB were so negligible. The market ignored risk and companies went hell for leather issuing new debt to fu buybacks to artificially prop up weak earnings to give the illusion of growth.

Sadly this problem is likely to cause widespread sell offs by companies/investors which must stick to products (as woefully yielding as they may be) with an investment grade, exacerbating the problem of refinancing debt close to maturity. The thinking during easy credit times was simple – refinancing could be done with low interest rates because there was no alternative.

This is problematic for three reasons:

1) under the Obama era, much of the newly issued debt was short term meaning $8.4 trillion arrives for refinancing in the next 2.5 years, crowding out the corporate market.

2) more than 50% of US corporates are one notch above junk status. Refinancing will not be a simple affair.

3) more and more investment grade debt will be driven to zero or even negative yields as a result further exacerbating the problems for insurance companies and pension funds dealing with massive unfunded liabilities.

Last year, in relation to unfunded liabilities at US public pension funds, CM wrote,

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).”

This is just California, which in the last 8 years has seen a 2.62-fold jump in the gap between liabilities and state total expenditures.

Unfunded liabilities per household. In California’s case, the 2017 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.

Switching to Illinois, we have a case study on what happens when pension funds go pear shaped.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.”

Therefore Ford’s downgrade to junk will have the effect of repricing over a decade of misplaced central bank policy across all markets. The dominos are only beginning to fall. The market can absorb Ford’s downgrade but not if it has to deal with the panic of dozens like it.

CM has long been warning of GE. Despite being the world’s largest stock in 2000, it is 1/5 the size today, trades in negative equity, wasted $45bn on share buybacks in 2015/16 and were it be classified as junk would increase the pile of junk by 10% on its own. Broadcom and American Tower are other monsters ready to be hurled onto the ratings scrap heap.

Buy Gold. The US Fed will likely embark on QE. It requires an act of Congress to approve the purchase of equities but don’t be surprised if this becomes a reality when markets plunge.

This will be the reset of asset prices which has been long overdue thanks to almost two decades of manipulation by authorities. It has 1929 written all over it. Not 2008.

Cate Faehrmann plays investor for a day

Investment managers have difficult jobs. They have to forecast a whole plethora of variables from global economic growth, currencies, commodity prices and micro level corporate industries. If governments can provide ironclad policy certainty, investment choices become relatively easier. Unfortunately, perfect information detracts from performance because things get priced almost instantaneously.

It might be nice that 415 funds all call for a ratification of Paris Climate Accord (which means nothing in practice as the US isn’t a signatory and its emissions have fallen while China is a signatory and emissions continue to rise) but truth be told,  it sounds what is commonly termed in financial circles as “talking one’s book.” NSW Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann pretends to understand finance in her latest piece.

While these 415 firms might represent $32 trillion in assets under management (AUM), the truth is not all of those funds are spoken for in terms of climate-related investments. Investment advisors by their very nature have very diverse client bases. They cover basic low-risk pension (i.e. stable income) funds all the way to riskier return profiles for clients that want more exposure to certain themes or countries. If clients aren’t interested in buying climate funds, the asset managers don’t gather fees. Pretty simple.

Much of the fund industry has focused on ESG (environment, social responsibility & governance) since its inception in 2005. ESG represents around $20 trillion of global AUM, or 25% of total professionally managed funds. Therefore the other 75% of monies are deployed without this in mind. In reality, this is done because investment managers must hunt for the best returns, not those which sacrifice profitability for virtue. If NAB offered you a 10% 1-yr deposit and no solar panels on the HQ roof and Westpac offered a 1% 1-yr deposit because it did, would you invest in the latter based on its ecomentalism?

Let’s take the world’s largest public pension fund (2 million members), California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) which is a cosignatory to this demand for climate action. Apart from the fact that this $380bn fund has been so poorly managed (marked to market unfunded liabilities are c.US$1 trillion), its portfolio consists of widespread ownership of met coal, petroleum and other mining assets. It owns bonds in fossil-fuel producing nations such as Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Saudi Arabia as well as highly environmentally unfriendly aluminium smelters in the world’s biggest polluter, China. So there goes the rhetoric of “demanding” Paris is ratified, that we shift to a low carbon economy and we force companies to report their carbon commitments.

It is frightening that some members of our political class believe that investment managers which collaborate in groupthink are worthy of listening to. On the contrary, the performance of many must be sub par. It is a sad reality that 80% of large-cap fund managers fail to outperform the index on a regular basis. So praying for governments to backstop investments they deployed capital into shows more desperation than innovation.

Maybe we should think of Adani as a classic example of investment at work. While Annastacia Palaszczuk’s government is backflipping on the Adani Carmichael coal mine after the electoral drubbing handed out to federal colleagues, the voluntary infrastructure tax is a cynical way to try to make the project less financially viable. After 8 years of ridiculous and onerous environmental approvals, Adani probably think it only needs to wait til October 2020 when an election will wipe out Queensland Labor from government and the infrastructure tax will be repealed soon after.

CM has long held that the non-ESG names are the place to invest. Most of the auto-pilot, brain dead, virtue signalling group think money has been poured into ESG. All non-ESG companies care about is profitability, not focusing on all the soft cuddly things they do displayed on the corporate lobby TV screens on a loop. Sadly when markets inevitably implode, investors always seek safe havens to limit the damage. As so much money is collectively invested together, so the bigger the stampede to the relatively attractive values provided by the stocks that have been cast aside by “woke” investors.

You won’t believe how California will help us save the planet this time!

At some point, Californians will end up with a list that tells them what they can do which will be shorter than what they can’t. The Democrat controlled state is banning those single use shampoo and body soap containers. The reason being that too much of this plastic waste ends up where it shouldn’t. So instead of encouraging more sensible disposal, let’s just ban it!

How ironic that at the World Economic Forum of all groups said with regards to plastic,

Many environmental activists are calling for a ban on plastics. However, the very properties that make plastic so dangerous – its durability and long lifespan – also make it a great asset. A material that will not die or be destroyed for five hundred years is valuable. We can reuse it almost endlessly. The problem is not plastic itself. The problem is using it irresponsibly….

…A material that can be constantly recycled is a great help to ecology and the economy, especially when the human population is growing rapidly and our lifestyle demands are increasing exponentially. The solution is not to ban plastic, but to ensure that it is used responsibly and recycled properly.”

Bingo!

Once again leftist governments think more regulation, rather than punishing irresponsibility is the answer.

Like all those who praised the banning of plastic shopping bags as being environmentally ‘woke’ when the facts reveal the opposite. Not to mention that we have to go aisle 7 to substitute the plastic shopping bags for plastic waste bin liners. Maybe our Sulo wheelie bins should be made of cardboard?

CM wrote,

In 2006 the UK Environment Agency did a study on the effectiveness of alternative packaging solutions to HDPE (conventional plastic bags) in terms of lowering environmental impact. It said,

The paper, LDPE, non-woven PP and cotton bags should be reused at least 3, 4, 11 and 131 times respectively to ensure that they have lower [impact] than conventional HDPE carrier bags that are not reused.”

So if conventional biodegradable plastic shopping bags are used to throw out garbage that means 6, 8, 22 and 262 days.

While we’re at it, do people realize that the majority of take away wax-lined coffee cups aren’t recycled even though you can feel good about yourself when disposing of it in the right bin? How many people elect to have their brew poured into a ceramic cup? Look next time – hardly any! The cost to recycle the 500 billion (and rising) coffee cups consumed annually is so astronomical (it is hard to separate the wax that stops the cup disintegrating because of the energy intensity involved to do so) that over 90% end up in landfill. No one talks about that 300 million tons of virgin paper used to make these cups! How many of us give it one thought when we need a shot of caffeine? Right?! Although Starbucks is trialing a 5p latte levy for those that elect to use a paper cup.

All this ban has done has inconvenience people. 60% of mismanaged plastic waste was from East Asia (i.e. China), 11% from South Asia; 9% from sub-Saharan Africa; 8% from MENA; 7% from LatAm; 3% from Europe and 0.9% from North America.

Instead of accepting Americans are 5% of the population and 0.9% of mismanaged plastic waste globally, Californians, at 12% of the US population, would ceteris paribus, be responsible for 0.1% of mismanaged plastic waste! Banning hotel shampoo bottles might lower it to 0.099%?

Way to go California! Your genius knows no bounds! A word of advice. Probably better to focus on the $1 trillion plus unfunded liability in your state pension system.

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

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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).

 

Pension blackhole widens

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CM has been saying for quite some time that the US public pension system is a runaway train running out of track. It seems Zerohedge today confirms many of those same trends. The ratcheting down of return targets by ridiculously small amounts because to actuarially mark-to-market to reality is too scary to contemplate.

To quote the article,

CalSTRS is making the bold move to drop its future goal to… 7%…And CalPERS is ratcheting down its return goals in steps to… wait for it, 7% by 2021.

with interest rates near their lowest levels in human history, it’s been difficult for these pensions to generate a suitable return without taking on more and more risk.

And that’s another big problem with pensions – their investment returns are totally unrealistic.

Most pension funds require a minimum annual return of about 8% a year to cover their future liabilities.

But that 8% is really difficult to generate today, especially if you’re buying bonds (which is the largest asset for most pensions). So pensions are allocating more capital to riskier assets like stocks and private equity.”

Pension Sinkhole

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The pension problem that many in the US face is no laughing matter. ‘Tis but a scratch is how many (especially state run) pension funds continue to view their predicament outwardly. Internally they must be panicking. Actuarial accounting is a wonderful thing. Tweak a few assumptions and immediately wash away a deep deficit. To put this in perspective the California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS) lost around 2% of its funds in 2015/16. The fund assumes 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. Furthermore suggesting the use of a more realistic 4% rate of return. CalPERS has an unfunded liability of $412bn (or the equivalent of 3 years’ worth of state revenue). California collects $138bn in taxes annually in a $2.3 trillion economy (around the size of Italy). With over-inflated asset markets and increasingly negative returns on highly rated paper, the growth in unfunded liabilities is even more concerning as any market correction (likely to be severe given such blatant manipulation to date). If the correction is huge it will push the unfunded portion to even more dizzying levels.

According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report from 2015, the average household income of someone older than age 75 is $34,097 and their average expenses are around $34,382. Despite such austerity, a pension collapse would literally kill off the ability to live a bare bones existence.

Years of poor investments have stuffed South Carolina’s government pension plans with a massive funding gap. The plans serve about 550,000 (11%) of residents, and the shortfall of $24.1 billion is more than 3x Palmetto State’s annual budget.

Rewind to 2008. The municipality of Vallejo, California filed for bankruptcy. It wasn’t just the evil bankers that caused financial markets to collapse resulting in tax revenues shrivelling. Sadly, the city of Vallejo was living high on the hog. Bloated pensions and fat cat salaries for public servants ruled by stubborn unions created a scenario where it could not bail water fast enough when the crash hit.

The police captain was paid over US$300,000 while his lieutenants were on c.US$250,000. The average fire fighter took home US$170,000. The police and firefighters pay and conditions sucked up three-quarters of the budget much more than the 55-60% of most municipalities. That $80mn budget suddenly faced a $17mn black hole.

The city was forced to fire 40% of its 260 police officers and told its residents to be judicious with calling 911. Crime rates soared above the state average.

Vallejo did not sort its pension obligations to CalPERS during its bankruptcy negotiations which ended up becoming its largest budget hole by a considerable margin. Even in 2011 when the city came out of bankruptcy the pension time bomb ticked away. Moreover, the declaration of bankruptcy prevented access to bond financing making budget gap filling even more complicated.

Fast forward to 2016, the anaemic (and slowing) economic growth around the world is putting stress on pension funds ability to payout retirees and fund future pensions. Pension funds set “return targets” which actuaries calculate to ensure the fund stays solvent. However, pension funds need to be diversified with a mixture of cash, bonds and equities. With equities reaching more outlandish valuations and bonds moving further into negative yield territory (capital appreciating at least) pension fund returns are undershooting. When pension funds undershoot then the unfunded liabilities keep growing. As more baby boomers retire the more outflows are putting more pressure on the unfunded portions.

San Bernardino, California also filed for bankruptcy after GFC carrying $140mn in unfunded pension liabilities including $50mn in debt it had to raise to fill the pension hole. Yes! It was borrowing money to plug a pension hole. Sort of like buying groceries on the credit card you can’t pay off.

Take Detroit, Michigan. 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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Scroll forward to 2013 and this is how it looks. 2017 would look even more terrible.

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Do people then rely on Social Security? Well, according to the 2016 Social Security Trustees report it shows at the current rate the Social Security’s combined retirement and disability trust funds will be empty by 2034. The trustees estimate that the 75-year shortfall is $11.4 trillion in NPV terms. Good luck filling that.

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Your virtue signaling is writing cheques your pension can’t cash

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Isn’t it interesting that California lawmakers are trying to push through legislation that will ban its state pension funds already deep in crisis to virtue signal? Assembly Bill 946 from Assemblymen Phil Ting and Eduardo Garcia and Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher would require the California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS) to liquidate any investments in companies that helped build the US-Mexico wall. The latest Stanford University study reveals CalPERS unfunded liability is around $1 trillion. What we do know is that California collects around $138bn in tax revenue annually. While all that unfunded liability doesn’t need to be matched immediately it equates to over 7 years in dollar terms. One would expect companies that won contracts to build the wall would make sound investments (many cement stocks have reacted already) but for politicians it is better to put tokenism ahead of trying to build a reinforcement structure to stop the financial dam from bursting.