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CM on Sky

https://www.skynews.com.au/details/_6102427118001

CM appeared on Sky News to discuss the situation with our banks, the potential risks from the recommendations of the Hayne Royal Commission and the issue of mortgage stress.

Westpac reported a 40% increase in home repossessions

Mortgages Westpac

Don’t get CM wrong – this is still the law of small numbers.  Westpac reported this week that it repossessed another 162 properties in the latest fiscal year.  That is a 40% increase. While it is but a dribble compared to the 100,000s of total loans outstanding it is none-the-less a harbinger of things to come. Westpac made clear, “the main driver of the increase has been the softening economic conditions and low wages growth.”

The current status of 90-day+ delinquencies has been rising over time. As have 30-day +. While nothing alarming, the current economic backdrop should give absolutely no confidence that an improvement in conditions is around the corner. We are not at the beginning of the end, but at the end of the beginning.

Former President Ronald Reagan once said of the three phases of government, “if it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving regulate it. If it stops moving, subsidize it.” How is that relevant to the banks?

We have already had the government fold and attach a special bank tax on the Big 4. Phase 1 done. Now we are in the middle of phase 2 which is where knee-jerk responses to the Hayne Banking Royal Commission (HBRC) where banks will be on the hook for the loans they make. That is a recipe for disaster that could bring on phase 3 – bailouts.

Sound extreme? How is a bank supposed to make a proper risk assessment of a customer’s employability in years to come? Can they predict with any degree of accuracy on the stability of candidates who come for loans? The only outcome is to cut the loan amount to such conservative levels that the underlying purpose gets diluted in the process and prospective home buyers have to lower expectations. Not many banks will look positively at taking several loans on the same property with different institutions. That won’t work. SO loan growth will shrink, putting pressure on the property market.

What is the flip side? Given property prices in Sydney hover at 13x income (by the way, Tokyo Metro was 15x income at the peak of its property bubble), restrictions on further lending against loan books that are on average 63% stuffed with mortgages (Japan was 41.2% at the peak) won’t be helpful. A property slowdown is the last thing mortgage holders and banks need.

While equity continues to rise at Aussie banks, the equity to outstanding mortgages has gone down since 2007 i.e. leverage is up. If banks saw their average property portfolios drop by more than 20% many would be staring at a negative equity scenario. Yet, it won’t be just mortgage owners that we need to worry about. Business loans could well go pear-shaped as the onset of higher unemployment could see a sharp increase in delinquencies through a business slowdown. A concertina effect occurs. More people lose their job and a vicious circle ensues. It isn’t rocket science.

Of course, Australia possesses the ‘boy who cried wolf‘ mentality over the housing market. Yet it is exactly this type of complacency that paves a dangerous path to poor policy prescriptions.

In Japan’s property bubble aftermath, 40% of the value of loans went bang. 17% of GDP. $1.1 trillion went up in smoke. It took more than 10 years to clean up the mess and the aftershocks remain. Accounting trickery around the real value of loans on the balance sheet can hide the problems for a period but revenue tends to unravel such tales. 181 banks and building societies went bust. The rest were forced into mergers, received bailouts or were nationalised. Now the Japanese government is a perpetual debt slave, having to raise $400bn per annum in debt just to fill the portion of the $1 trillion budget that tax collections can’t fill.

The problem  Japan’s banks faced was simple.  If a neighbour’s $2m home was repossessed through mortgage stress and the bank fire sold it for $1.4m, the bank needed to mark to market the value of the loan portfolio for that area by similar amounts. In doing so, a once healthy balance sheet started to look anything but. Extrapolate that across multiple suburbs and things look nauseating quickly.

This is where Aussie banks are headed. This time there is no China to save us like in 2009. Unemployment rates in Australia never went above 6% after the GFC in 2008/9, unlike the US which went to 10%. We weathered that storm thanks to a monster surplus left by the Howard government, which we no longer have.

Sadly China has had 18 months of consecutive double-digit car sales decline. Two regional Chinese banks have folded in the last 3-4 months. China isn’t a saviour.

Nor is the US. While the S&P500 might celebrate new highs, aggregate corporate profitability hasn’t risen since 2012. The market has been fuelled by debt-driven buybacks. We now have 50% of US corporates rated BBB because of the distortions created by crazed central bank monetary policy, up from 30%. Parker Hannifin’s latest order book shows that customer activity is falling at a faster pace.

Nor is Europe. German industrial production is at 10-year lows. The prospects for any EU recovery is looking glib. Risk mispricing is insane with Greek bond spreads only 1.8% higher than German bunds.

What this means is that 28 years of unfettered economic growth in Australia is coming to an end and the excesses built in an economy that believes its own BS is going to leave a lot of people naked when the tide goes out.

The Australian government needs to focus on more deregulation, tax and structural reforms. Our record-high energy prices, ridiculous labour costs and overbearing red-tape are absolutely none of the ingredients that will help us in a downturn. We need to be competitive and we simply aren’t. Virtue signalling won’t help voters when the whole edifice crumbles.

All a low-interest rate environment has done is pull forward consumption. It seems the RBA only possesses a hammer in the tool kit which is why it treats everything as a nail. It is time to come to terms with the fact that further cuts to the official cash rate and the prospect of QE will do nothing to ward off the inevitable.

Pain is coming, but the prospects of an orderly exit are so far off the mark they are in another postcode. Roll your eyes at the stress tests. Stress tests are put together on the presumption that all of the stars align. Sadly, in times of panic, human nature causes knee-jerk responses which put even more pressure.

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The Aussie banks have passed their best period. While short term news flow, such as a China trade deal, might give a short term boost, the structural time bomb sits on the balance sheet and while we may not get a carbon copy of the Japanese crisis, our Big 4 should start to look far more like the rest of the global banks – truly sick. The HBRC will see that it becomes way worse than it ever needed to be.

Complacency kills.

You want Aussie Banks in your retirement fund far less than their advisory services

This is while things are still supposedly good for our banks. CM has written on the pickle Aussie banks find themselves for a year or so. Their relative value compared to banks such as Deutsche, Commerz or RBS is astonishing. So many global banks are worth 90% less than in 2007 while ours keep whistling Dixie. Mean reversion will hit hard and the complacency still baked into these supertankers is immense. Aussie banks could well be worth 90% less by the time this is all over. Forget the stress tests – meaningless – as they need pretty much all stars to align to be remotely accurate and markets in times of panic seldom play to script. Don’t be surprised if these banks require a taxpayer bailout in time.

With more interest rate cuts planned and inevitable QE down the line from the RBA, think of it more as a time banks must make considerable efforts to deleverage. Should banks consider a benign central bank as a virtue, they should seriously think again. People and businesses invest because they see a cycle, not because interest rates are low. Further cuts won’t make a difference.

In short, sell the Aussie banks. The impacts from the Hayne RC will only have adverse outcomes for the banks at a time they need maximum flexibility in order to be able to right the ship. Sadly, such outcomes are highly unlikely. Governments tend to be the most accurate contrarian indicators when it comes to introducing business stifling policy measures at a time, the industry can least afford it.

Maybe former President Reagan had it right when he said, “If it moves tax it. If it keeps moving regulate it. If it stops moving, subsidize it.” The government has already completed the first phase and in the midst of finishing up on the second…

Sell your Aussie banks. Headlines, like the above, will be regarded as extremely positive in the next 12 months.

Those selfish evil banks?

As is the case with nearly every rate cut, the media stirs up the fact that most of the major Aussie banks haven’t passed on the full 0.25% rate cut. As one can see from the RBA chart above, net interest margins are at the lowest level in 20 years. The banks, as much money as they might be making, are doing it very tough. What people often overlook is the fact that Aussie banks are 40% funded by the wholesale markets, meaning they need the benevolence of foreign and domestic institutions to buy their paper to lend. With a softening Aussie dollar that puts added pressure on funding margins.

Banks

We’ve written about this in previous dispatches. Aussie banks are in a far more precarious situation than we are often told. Global banks have already felt it. We are getting to the stage where we follow them into the morass.

As much as bashing banks has become a sport after the Royal Commission, bullying them into cutting rates by the full extent is actually making their position even weaker. The last thing Australia needs, on top of the ridiculous regulation set to follow the RC, is to force them to operate to the rule of the mob. Personal responsibility is what governments should be drumming home, not saddling the banks with more hoops. If people don’t like their bank that lent them millions for a home loan, switch banks! It is your choice.

The Grim Repo

What a surprise to see markets show little reaction to the negative repo (repurchase agreements) market in the past week. So much nonchalance and complacency remain in financial markets. It is as if there is this false belief that the authorities can keep the ship afloat with magical modern monetary theory. Not a chance. The tipping points in the financial markets are quantum levels bigger than any that Sir David Attenborough could conjure up in his wildest pessimistic dreams. If we want to cut carbon emissions, the coming economic slump will take care of that.

On average there are $1 trillion of overnight repo transactions every day, collateralised with US Treasuries. Yet many missed that the repo market seized up late last week. Medium-term repos surged from the normal band of around 2.00~2.25% to around 5.25% on Monday. Some repo rates hit 10% on Tuesday.

Essentially what this said was that a bank must have seen that it was worth borrowing at an 8% premium overnight in return for pledging ‘risk-free’ US Treasuries at 2%. In any event, it allowed that particular bank to survive for another day. Banks use the repo market to fund the loans they issue and finance trades that are executed. It is like an institutional pawn shop.

Looking at it another way, why weren’t other banks willing to lend and take an 8% risk-free trade? A look at the global bank’s share price action would suggest that these bedrock financial institutions that grease the wheels of the economy are not in good shape. We just pretend they are. We look at the short term performance but ignore the deterioration in underlying balance sheets. The Aussie banks are future crash test dummies given the huge leverage to mortgages. As CM has been saying for years, the Big 4 risk whole or part nationalisation.

This recent repo action is reminiscent of that before the GFC. The Fed stepped in with $75bn liquidity per day to stabilise markets by bringing rates into the target range. The question is whether the repo action is a short-term aberration or the start of a longer-term quasi QE programme which turns into a full-blown QE programme.

The easiest way to look at the repo market action is to say the private markets are struggling to be self-funding, requiring central bank intervention. Bank of America believes the Fed may have to buy upwards of $400bn of securities to back the repo market this year alone.  This is another canary in the coal mine.

CM wrote a long piece back in July 2016 titled, “Dire Straits for Central Bankers.” In that report, we described how the velocity of money in the system was continuing to drift. As of now, central banks have printed the equivalent of $140 trillion since 2008 but have only managed to eke out $20 trillion in GDP growth. That is $7 of debt only generates $1 of GDP equivalent.

This is the problem. Companies are struggling to grow. US aggregate after-tax profits have gone sideways since 2012. We have been lulled into a false sense of security by virtue of aggressive share buyback programs that flatter EPS, despite the anaemic trend.

Despite the asset bubbles in stocks, bonds and property, pension funds, especially public sector retirement schemes, are at risk of insolvency given the unrealistic return assumptions and nose bleed levels of unfunded liabilities in the trillions.

Also worthy of note is the daily turnover of the gold derivatives market which has hit $280bn in recent months, or 850x daily mine production. This will put a lot more pressure on the gold physical market and also to those ETFs that have promissory notes against gold, as opposed to having it properly allocated.

We live in a world of $300 trillion of debt, $1.5 quadrillion in derivatives – until this is expunged and we start again, the global economy will struggle. That will also require the “asset” values to be similarly wiped out. Equity markets will plunge 90-95% relative to gold. That suggests a 1929 style great depression. The debt bubble is too big. Central banks have lost control.

Buy Gold.

Banker Buster?

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Before the GFC in 2008, bank shares across the globe were flying. Financial engineering promised a new paradigm of wealth creation and abundant profitability. They were unstoppable.

However 12 years later, many banks look mere shadows of their former selves. We are told by our political class to believe that our economies are robust and that a low-interest rate environment will keep things tickety-boo indefinitely. After all the wheels of the economy have always been greased by the financial sector.

If that were true, why does Europe’s largest economy have two of its major banks more than 90% off the peak? Commerz has shrunk so far that it has been thrown out of the DAX. Surely, Japan’s banks should be prospering under Abenomics so why are the shares between 65% and 80% below 2007 levels?

Ahh, but take a look at those Aussie beauties! How is it they have bucked the global trend? How can Commonwealth Bank be worth 6x Deutsche Bank?

Although we shouldn’t look at the Aussie banks with rose-tinted glasses they have mortgage debt up to the eyeballs. Mortgages to total loans exceed 62% in Australia. The next is daylight, followed by Norway at 40%. Japanese banks, before the bubble collapsed, were in the 40% range. CM wrote a comparo here. There is a real risk that these Aussie banks will require bailouts if the housing market craps out. It carries so many similarities to Japan and when anyone ever mentions stress tests – start running for the hills.

If you own Aussie banks in your superannuation portfolio, it is high time you dumped them. Franked dividends might be an ample reason to hold them, but things in finance turn on a dime and this time Australia doesn’t have a China to rescue us like it did in 2008-09. More details contained in the link in the paragraph above.

In closing, Milton Friedman said it best with respect to the ability of central banks to control outcomes,

“… we are in danger of assigning to monetary policy a larger role than it can perform, in danger of asking it to accomplish tasks that it cannot achieve, and as a result, in danger of preventing it from making the contribution that it is capable of making.

 

The depression we have to have

Image result for milton friedman quotes

In his 1967 presidential address to the American Economic Association, Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman said, “… we are in danger of assigning to monetary policy a larger role than it can perform, in danger of asking it to accomplish tasks that it cannot achieve, and as a result, in danger of preventing it from making the contribution that it is capable of making.

What we are witnessing today is not capitalism. While socialists around the world scream for equality and point to the evils of capitalism, the real truth is that they are shaking pitchforks at the political class who are experimenting with economic and monetary concoctions that absolutely defy the tenets of free markets. As my learned credit analyst and friend, Jonathan Rochford, rightly points out, central banks have applied “their monetary policy hammer to problems that need a screwdriver.

Never has there been so much manipulation to keep this sinking global ship afloat. Manipulation is the complete antithesis to capitalism.  Yet our leaders and central banks think firing more cheap credit tranquillizers will somehow get us out of this mess. IT. WILL. NOT.

BONDS

As of August 15th, 2019, the sum of negative-yielding debt exceeds $16.4 trillion. That is to say, 30% of outstanding government debt sits in this category. Every single government bond issued by Germany, The Netherlands, Finland and Denmark are now negative-yielding. Germany just announced a 30-yr auction with a zero-interest coupon.

Unfortunately, insurance companies and pension funds are large scale buyers of bonds and negative interest rates don’t exactly serve their purposes. Therefore the hunt for positive yield (that ticks the right credit rating boxes) means the pickings continue to get slimmer.

Put simply to buy a bond with a negative yield, means that the cost of the bond held to maturity is more than the sum of all the coupons due and the receipt of face value combined. It also says clearly that controlling the extent of the loss of one’s money is preferable to sticking to strategies in other asset classes (e.g. property, equities) where TINA (there is no alternative) is the rule of thumb.

CM believes that there is a far bigger issue investors should focus on is the return “of” their money, not the return “on” it.

Rochford continues,

Central banks have hoped that extraordinary monetary policy would kick start economic growth, but they have instead only created asset price growth. In applying their monetary policy hammer to problems that need a screwdriver they have created the preconditions for the next and possibly greater financial crisis. The outworkings of many years of malinvestment are now starting to show with increasing regularity.

Argentina’s heavily oversubscribed issuance of 100-year bonds in 2017 was considered insane by many debt market participants at the time. The crash to below 50% of face value this month and request for maturity extensions is no surprise for a country that has a long rap sheet of sovereign defaults. Greece’s ten-year bond yield below 2% is another example of sovereign debt insanity…

…There have been three regional bank failures in China in the last three months, likely an early warning of the bad debt crisis brewing in China’s banks and debt markets. Europe’s banks aren’t in much better shape, there’s still a cohort of weak banks in Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain that haven’t fixed their problems that first surfaced a decade ago. Deutsche Bank is both fundamentally weak and the world’s most systemically important bank, a highly dangerous combination.”

What about equity markets?

EQUITIES

We only need look at the number record number of IPOs in 2018 where over 80% launched with negative earnings, you know, just like what happened in 2000 when the tech bubble collapsed.

Have people paid attention to the fact that aggregate US after-tax corporate earnings have been FLAT since 2012? That is 7 long years of tracking sideways. Where is this economic miracle that is spoken of?

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The only reason the markets have continued to remain excited is the generous share buyback regimes among many corporates which have flattered earnings per share (EPS). The “E” hasn’t grown. It is just that “S” has fallen. Credit spreads between AAA and BBB rated corporate paper has been so narrow that over 50% of US corporates now have a BBB or worse credit rating. Now credit spreads between top and bottom investment-grade bonds remain ridiculously tight. At some stage, investors will demand an appropriate spread to account for market “risk.”

Axios noted that for 2019, IT companies are again on pace to spend the most on stock buybacks this year, as the total looks set to pass 2018’s $1.085 trillion record total. Pretty easy to keep markets in the clouds with cheap credit fuelling expensive buybacks. Harley-Davidson is another household name which suffers from strategy decay yet deploys more cash to share buybacks instead of revitalising its core franchise. Harley delinquencies are at a 9-yr high.

Companies like GE embarked on a $45bn share buyback program despite a balance sheet which still reveals considerable negative equity. GE was the largest company in the world in 2000 and now trades at 20% of that value almost 20 years later.

Should we ignore Harry Markopolos, who discovered the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, when he points to the problems within GE? GE management can protest all they like but ultimately the company is not winning the argument if the share price is a barometer.

Valuations are at extreme levels. Beyond Meat trades at 100x revenues. Don’t get CM started on Tesla. A largely loss-making third rate automaker which is trading at outlandish premiums. The blind faith put in charge of a CEO that has lost over 100 senior management members.

Bank of America looked at 20 metrics to evaluate current market levels of the S&P500. 17 of them pointed to excess valuations relative to history including one metric that revealed S&P500 being 90% overvalued on a market cap to GDP ratio. Never mind.

Then witness the push for diversity nonsense inside corporate boardrooms. CM has always believed if a board is best suited to be run by all women based on background, skills and experience, then so be it. That is the best outcome for shareholders. However, to artificially set targets to morally preen will mean absolutely nothing if a sharp downturn exposes a soft underbelly of a lack of crisis management skills. Shareholders and retirees won’t be impressed.

It was laughable to hear superannuation funds ganging up on Harvey Norman last week for not having a diverse enough board. Even though Harvey Norman is thumping the competition which focuses too much on ESG/CSR, the shortcomings of our retirement managers are only too evident. Retirees want returns and their super managers should focus on that, rather than try to push companies to meet their ridiculous self-imposed investment restrictions. Retirees won’t be happy when their superannuation balances are decimated because fund managers wanted to appear socially acceptable at cocktail parties.

PROPERTY

It was only last month that Jyske Bank in Denmark started to offer negative interest mortgages. That is the bank pays interest to the mortgage holders. Of course, the bank is able to source credit below that rate to make a profit however net interest margins for the banks get squeezed globally. What next? Will people be able to sign up to a perpetual negative interest mortgage? Shall we expect a Japan-style multi-generational loan?

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The RBA’s latest chart pack shows net interest margins at the lowest levels for two decades. With the Hayne Banking Royal Commission likely to further crimp on lending growth, we are storing up huge pain in property markets despite the hope that August clearing rates signal a bottom in the short term. Yet more suckers lured in at the top of a shaky economy and financial sector.

Of course, central banks will dance to the tune that all is OK. Until it isn’t.

Don’t forget former US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, said “our financial institutions are strong” right before plugging $700bn worth of TARP money to save many of them from bankruptcy in 2008.

CM has previously investigated the Big 4 Aussie banks who have equity levels that are chronically low levels. Our major banks have such high exposure to mortgages that a severe downturn could potentially lead to part or whole nationalisation. Of course, between signalling the importance of factoring climate change, APRA assures us the stress tests ensure our financial institutions are safe.

Back in 2007, Sydney house prices were 8x income. In 2017 Demographia stated average housing (excluding apartment) prices were in the 13-14x range. The Australian Bureau of Statistics notes that 80% of people live in houses and 20% in apartments. Only Hong Kong at 19x beats Sydney for dizzy property prices. In 2019, expect that price/income rates remain at unsustainable levels.

In 2018, Australia’s GDP was around A$1.75 trillion. Our total lending by the banks was 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. Where there is smoke, there is fire.

At the height of the property bubble 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 64% (A$1.8 trillion) of total loans.

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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. 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. That doesn’t let them off the hook mind you.

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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.

Central banks need a mea culpa moment. We need to move away from manipulating interest rates to muddle through. It isn’t working. At all.

Rochford rightly points out,

Coming off the addiction to monetary policy is going to be painful, but it is the only sustainable course. It is likely that normalising monetary policy will result in a global recession, but this must be accepted as an unavoidable outcome given the disastrous policies of the past. Excessive monetary and fiscal stimulus has pulled consumption forward, the process of unwinding that obviously requires a level of consumption to be pushed backwards.”

Rochford is being conservative (no doubt due to his polite demeanour) in his assessment of a global recession. It is likely that this downturn will make the GFC of 2008 look like a picnic. CM thinks depression is the more apt term. 1929, not 2008. Central banks are rapidly losing what little confidence remains. If the RBA think QE will be a policy option, there is plenty of beta testing to show that it doesn’t work in the long run.

It is time to have the recession/depression we had to have to get the markets to clear. It will be excruciatingly painful but until we face facts, all the manipulation in the world will fail to keep capitalism from doing its job in the end. The longer we wait the worse it will get.

“It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble…..it is what you know to be sure that just ain’t so! – Mark Twain.