#CSR

Forget the return “ON” your money. Just look to the return “OF” it

CM knew a lot of passive indices existed but not to this crazy extent. Probably explains why there is so much stupid money tied up in me too commoditised investment products. 4 years ago CM wrote a piece on the dangers of ETFs (especially leveraged)  and passive products in a downturn. These products predominantly follow the market, not lead it. So if these products end up stampeding toward the exits in a market meltdown, the extent will be amplified, especially those levered funds potentially making market panic look worse than it really might otherwise be. Don’t be surprised to see the mainstream media sensationalise the size of any falls in the market.

According to Bloomberg, 770,000 benchmark indexes were scrapped globally in 2019…however  2.96 million indexes remain around the world, according to a new report from the Index Industry Association…There are an estimated 630,000 stocks that trade globally, including c.2,800 stocks on the NYSE and c. 3,330 on NASDAQ or 5x as many indices as there are securities globally.

CM wrote back in October 2015,

ETFs are hitting the market faster than the dim-sum trolley can circle the banquet hall. Charles Schwab, in the 12 months to July 2015, saw a 130-fold preference of ETF over mutual funds given their relative simplicity, cost and transparency….

…ETFs, despite increasing levels of sophistication, have brought about higher levels of market volatility. Studies have shown that a one standard deviation move of S&P500 ETF ownership as a percentage of total outstanding shares carries 21% excess intraday volatility. Regulators are also realising that limit up/down rules are exacerbating risk pricing and are seeking to revise as early as October 2015. In less liquid markets excess volatility has proved to be 54% higher with ETFs than the actual underlying indices. As more bearish market activity has arrived since August 2015 we investigate how ETFs may impact given a large part of recent existence has been under more favourable conditions…

CEO Larry Fink of Blackrock, the world’s largest ETF creator, has made it clear that
leveraged ETFs (at present 1.2% of total ETF AUM) have the potential to “blow up the whole industry one day.” The argument is that the underlying assets that provide the leverage (which tend to have less liquidity) could cause losses very quickly in volatile markets. To put this in perspective we looked at the Direxion Daily Fin Bull 3x (FAS) 3x leverage of the Russell 1000 Financial Services Index. As illustrated in the following chart FAS in volatile markets tends to overshoot aggressively

…The point Mr Fink is driving at is more obvious with the following chart which shows in volatile markets, the average daily return is closer to 10x (in both directions) than the 3x it is seeking to offer. This is post any market meltdown. On a daily basis, the minimum and maximum has ended up being -1756x to 1483x of the index return, albeit those extremes driven by the law of small numbers of the return of the underlying index. Which suggests that in a nasty downturn the ETF performance of the leveraged plays could be well outside the expectations of the holders.”

CM has said for many years, where CDOs and CDSs required the intelligence of a mystical hermit atop a mountain in the Himalayas to understand the complexities, ETFs are the complete opposite. Super easy to understand which inadvertently causes complacency. Unfortunately, as much as they might try to do as written on the tin, the reality could well turn out to be the exact opposite.

Hence CM continues to believe that stocks with low levels of corporate social responsibility (CSR) scores like tobacco companies such s Philip Morris, JT and Imperial Tobacco, as well as gold/silver bullion,  look the places to be invested. Cash won’t necessarily be king because the banks are already in a world of pain that hasn’t even truly started yet. Aussie banks look like screaming shorts at these levels. The easiest way for the plebs – without access to a prime broker – to do this is to buy put options on individual bank names. Out of the money options are dirt cheap.

Banks

Forget the return ONyour money. Just look to the returnOFit.

NB, none of this constitutes investment advice. It is a reflection of where CM is invested only. 

 

What are banned but addicted vapers going to smoke now?

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Tobacco companies fall foul of most ESG (environment/social/governance)/CSR (corporate social responsibility) measures. Good. Give that so much money is already loaded into corporations that focus on financial virtue signalling, tobacco companies remain forgotten. They look a great mean reversion trade.

British American Tobacco (BTI) is trading at $36 almost half the level of two years ago. Now at 1.02x book value and a 7.3% yield.

Philip Morris Int’l (PM) is at $72.60, down from $122.90 in 2017. A 6.4% dividend yield.

Imperial Brands (IMBBY) at $26.73 down from $55.55 in 2016. A 9.2% yield.

JT is less than half its 2016 number trading at $21.44. A 6.45% yield.

Philip Morris doesn’t have a vaping business but it appears with all these bans in NY etc that nicotine-addicted vapers will switch back to the old school.

Old habits die hard and cigarette smoking is pretty inelastic. Even in bonkers $40 a packet Australia, the ABS records men continued to be more likely than women to smoke daily (16.5% compared to 11.1%). Rates for both men and women have declined since 1995 when 27.3% of men and 20.3% of women smoked daily. However, these rates have remained similar since 2014-15 (16.9% for men and 12.1% for women). Therefore taxes haven’t killed off the habit.

So start underweighting the rubbish in your portfolio that has a penchant for banning plastic straws in the staff canteen to those corporates that allow yourself the opportunity to kill you!

Let’s not forget that governments aren’t going to terminate the monster taxes from this either, especially that so many national and state budgets around the world are looking seriously sick.

The depression we have to have

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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.

Why Gerry Harvey’s comments on diversity obsessed companies speak more about our superannuation fund managers

Harvey Norman is currently valued at over $5.1bn, which is c.4x the combined value of Myer and David Jones. Good on Gerry Harvey for getting stuck into the stupidity of diversity quota obsessed boards. He is right. Why are certain funds requesting Harvey Norman hit these soft and irrelevant targets adopted by David Jones & Myer so they can invest under their self imposed ESG guidelines? Surely any company’s performance (assuming they aren’t illegally exploiting child labour) should be all that matters to shareholders? If it works without this gender balance nonsense why fight to change a winning formula?

If anyone is ever fortunate enough to meet Gerry Harvey’s wife, Katie Page (the CEO), it isn’t hard to work out that her gender wasn’t a selection criteria. Fistfuls of competence were. She gets it and not for one fleeting second could anyone ever get the idea that she plays up to the gender card. An utterly pleasant, generous and intelligent individual.

If Gerry Harvey & Katie Page thought Harvey Norman shareholders’ best interests were served by an all female board it would done so based on skill and ability to add value. The gender wouldn’t even be a factor.

Have you noticed why Harvey Norman hasn’t followed the group think pervading all the other companies who pulled their adverts off the Alan Jones Breakfast Show? Because Harvey Norman doesn’t pretend to judge the personal political beliefs of its customers. They only wish to provide the best possible goods that meet market demand, not chase imaginary pixies in the quest to morally preen. However it perfectly describes the decision making processes inside less competent boards when they blindly follow the herd rather than independently validate scenarios based on data, relevance and common sense. We now know over 40 companies didn’t.

The only diversity required is that of thought – not gender, race, sexual preference or religion. However don’t be surprised to see locals run Harvey Norman’s overseas businesses – driven by the fact they understand local conditions better than a helicoptered expat.

Maybe it is high time these superannuation funds actually decide to do some homework on the companies they invest in. To drop this focus on nanny-state driven diversity targets and actually look at the companies themselves as “businesses”.

CM guarantees that the companies that focus on this socially constructed diversity balance nonsense will severely underperform when tough times approach. Because decisive leadership in a crisis can be found with leaders like Katie Page, not with those companies that put everything else but ability as the key selection criteria.

The bigger concern down the line will be that these CSR/ESG and equality obsessed fund managers will have parked so much money in the wrong names that the retirements of millions of Aussies will be severely crimped by this muck. Let there be no mistake – super holders will not thank these woke investors for chasing irrelevant internal constructs over viable businesses when reality dawns that they have much less than they anticipated for retirement. Maybe that is what CM should have said to the ATO when he set up his SMSF.

Greta Thunberg’s Brilliant Minds speech

What troubles CM is that the soon to be Dr Thunberg (she will be given an honorary doctorate from the University of Mons in Belgium) will be abused even more by those pushing the climate change narrative. She is the perfect human shield to the divisive machine that lurks begins her. It is hard to criticize a movement when the face is a child.

She faces either nothing happening with the climate and being exposed as brainwashed. Or the policies she espouses will lead to such a miserable existence that life will be even more terrible than it is now.

This is not to criticize Thunberg per se. She is undoubtedly a very brave girl to face world leaders and celebrities with such scripted messages.

Here is the transcript of Greta Thunberg’s Brilliant Minds speech. The socialist imprints are all over the language. Especially when the 16-yo tells the audience they are simply “uninformed.” Watch out for the coming “carbon budget” which will mean you have to turn vegan, stop flying and take on your moral duty to stop spending other’s carbon credits!!

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Around the year 2030, we will be in a position where we probably set off an irreversible chain reaction beyond human control, that will most likely lead to the end of our civilization as we know it.


That is unless, in that time, permanent and unprecedented changes in all aspects of industrialized society have taken place. Including a reduction of our CO2 emissions by at least 50%.

And please note that these calculations are depending on inventions that have not yet been invented at scale.

Furthermore, these scientific calculations do not include most unforeseen tipping points and feedback loops.

Nor do these calculations include already locked in warming hidden by toxic air pollution. Nor the aspect of equity, which is absolutely necessary to make the Paris Agreement work on a global scale.

And these calculations are not opinions or wild guesses.
These projections are backed up by scientific facts, concluded by all nations through the IPCC.

So if we are to stay below the 1,5 degrees of warming limit, which is still possible within the laws of physics, we need to change almost everything. We need to start living within the planetary boundaries. This will be a drastic change for many, but not for most.

Because most of the world’s population is already living within the planetary boundaries. It is a minority who are not. 

The richest 10% of the world’s population emits about half of our emissions of greenhouse gases. The richest 1% emits more than the poorest 50%.

And this is not about glorifying poverty, this is about the laws of physics and the remaining amount of greenhouse gases that we can still emit into the atmosphere to be in line with the Paris agreement.

It is not people in countries like Mozambique, Bangladesh or Colombia who are most responsible for this crisis. It is mostly down to people like you here in the audience.

Entrepreneurs, celebrities, politicians, business leaders. People who have a lot of power.
People who consume enormous amounts of stuff. Who often fly around the world, sometimes in private jets.

Your individual carbon footprints are in some cases the equivalent of whole villages.

But the worst part I think is that you are normalizing this extreme lifestyle. Because people look up to you. You are the role models, you are setting the standards. People aspire to be like you.

About 100 companies emit approximately 71% of our total emissions of CO2. And yes I know, we need a system change rather than individual change. But you can not have one without the other.

If you look through history all the big changes in society have been started by people at the grassroots level. No system change can come without pressure from large groups of individuals.

And no, I don’t blame you. I know you are not acting like this because you are stupid. You are not ruining the biosphere and future living conditions for all species because you are evil. At least I hope not. I know that almost everyone of you are simply uninformed. Just like the rest of the world’s population.

I know that you here in the audience didn’t travel here to see a sixteen-year-old girl who says strange and uncomfortable things.

But you know what? We need to dare to be uncomfortable. We need to be brave enough to say and do things that may not increase our profit or our popularity. Because otherwise, we won’t stand a chance.

We need to start thinking outside the box. To acknowledge that we don’t have all the solutions to the climate and ecological crises yet unless those solutions mean that we simply stop doing certain things.

We need to accept that the market and new technologies will not solve everything for us. We need to admit our common failure. And then we need to act, while there’s still time

At meetings like these, you love to listen to entrepreneurs, new ideas and new inventions. But when it comes to the climate crisis the time for those magic new inventions has just about come and gone.

And even though we most certainly need to embrace every bit of new clean technology – we can no longer look away from the obvious fact that we also need to change our behaviour. Some more than others.

The theme of this year’s Brilliant Minds conference is “Fluxability Quotient”. It’s what the organizers call “a symphony of big-picture thinking”.
Well, here is some big-picture thinking for you.

If you regularly fly around the world, eat meat and dairy and are living a high carbon lifestyle then that means you have used up countless of people’s remaining carbon budgets. Carbon budgets that they will need in their everyday life, for generations to come.

And if that wasn’t enough, those whose carbon budgets we are stealing are the ones least responsible and the ones who are going to be affected the most by this crisis.

According to climate scientist Kevin Anderson, if the richest 10% of the world’s population would lower their emissions to that of the average citizen of the European Union, then the world’s emissions of CO2 would be cut by about one third.

I think we can safely say that everyone in this room belongs to that 10%. Including me.

Everyone and everything needs to change. But the bigger your platform, the bigger your responsibility. The bigger your carbon footprint, the bigger your moral duty.

To make the changes required we need role models and leaders. People like you. I am certain that most of you sitting here will have the wisdom, the courage and the common sense to take a few steps back. To see the full picture. To make the sacrifices that are necessary. And to become the leaders we need you to be.

The question is, will you do it in time?

Future generations are counting on you. Don’t let us down.

Sustainable air travel will require extra sick bags

Air France-KLM is looking to fund the Dutch Delft University of Technology to explore a flying wing design known as the Flying V, where passengers will sit.

Boeing dabbled with the idea in 2007 but scrapped it as it likely worked out passengers sitting out toward the wingtips would be thrown around like rag dolls in turbulent weather. Anyone who has tried to drink hot coffee during rough weather will know how even sitting toward the centre of the plane causes it to swish about, mostly in the saucer. A wing aisle seat would mean one would wear it.

Better to save shareholders’ funds Air France/KLM. Prototyping this “sustainable aircraft” might do wonders for its CSR signaling but has it considered that it must include the environmental footprint of extra sick bags and all those nasty chemicals required to clean up the mess of those who suffer motion sickness but didn’t make it in time?

Perhaps Mother Nature has given us all tips on air travel. There are many passenger jets shaped like birds. Yet no birds shaped like the Delft University of Technology design…

If Air France/KLM is so worried about the environment the best thing to do would be to close down operations.

The Virgin Group CEO Josh Bayliss said,

“It’s definitely true that right now every one of us should think hard about whether or not we need to take a flight.”

Close the airline if it means so much to save the planet.