Complacency kills – the ticking time bomb for Aussie banks


In the late 1980s at the peak of the property bubble, the Imperial Palace in Tokyo was worth the equivalent to the entire state of California. Greater Tokyo was worth more than the whole United States. The Japanese used to joke that they had bought up so much of Hawaii that it had effectively become the 48th prefecture of Japan. Japanese nationwide property prices quadrupled in the space of a decade. At the height of the 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 63% (A$1.7 trillion) of total loans.


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. Don’t be surprised to hear the authorities and local banks champion stress tests as validity that we are safe from any conceivable external shock. The November 2018 Reserve Bank of Australia minutes revealed that the next rate move is likely up but the board is happy to sit on its hands because housing is slowing even at 1.5% cash rates.

With US rates heading higher, our banks are already facing higher funding costs because of our reliance on overseas wholesale markets to fund mortgage lending. 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.

What about America? Who could forget former Goldman Sachs CEO and US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson tell us how robust US financial institutions were right before plugging $700 billion to rescue the crumbling system? US banks such as Wells Fargo, Citi and Bank of America (BoA) have been reducing mortgage exposure relative to total loans outstanding. Yet each received $10s of billions in TARP (bail out funds) courtesy of the US taxpayer.

By 2009 the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) had turned over 16% of Bank of America’s residential mortgage portfolio into either NPLs, mortgage payments over 90-day in arrears or impaired (largely from the shonky lending practices of Countrywide (which BoA bought in 2008). Countrywide’s $2.5bn acquisition price turned out to cost BoA shareholders a further $50bn by the end of the clean-up. Who is counting?

Oh no, but Australia is different. Residential property prices in Australia have had a far steadier rise over a longer period – a 5-fold jump over 25 years – meaning our local banks should be less vulnerable to external shocks. There is an element of truth to that, although it breeds complacency.

Property loans in Australia as at September 2018 total A$1.653 trillion. 82% of those loans are made by the Big 4 banks. Interest only loans are around $500 billion of that. 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. You can see this below.


The advent of interest only loans has helped pushed property prices higher. NAB notes in its latest filing that 29% of its mortgage loan book is in interest-only form. The RBA expects $120 billion of interest only loans resetting to principal & interest (P&I) each year to 2020 which will hike monthly mortgage repayments to jump 30-40%. If investors were up to the gills in interest only mortgage repayments, adding one third to the bill will not be helpful. This is before we have even faced a bump in wholesale finance rates due to market instability. Look at the way that GE – once the world’s largest company in 2000 – is being trashed by the credit markets as they seek to reprice the risk attached to the $111bn in debt after a credit downgrade. This is a canary in the coalmine issue.

We also need to consider what constitutes a bubble in property. Sensibly, affordability makes the strongest argument. At the height of the bubble, the average central Tokyo property value was around 18.2x income. Broadening this out to greater Tokyo metropolitan area this was around 15x. This figure today is around 5x. Making arguments that ever higher levels of migration will keep property buoyant is not a sound argument as affordability affects them too.

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

In 2018, Australia’s GDP is likely to be around A$1.75 trillion. Our total lending by the banks is 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.

Balance sheets are but snapshots in time. If we look at our current bank exposure to mortgages, it is easy for analysts to paint rosy pictures. Banks’ shareholder equity has quadrupled in the past 16 years. Prosperity and record bank profits should give us comfort. Or should it? We need to understand that the underlying tenets of the Australian economy are completely different to that of a decade ago.

At the time of Global Financial Crisis (GFC) Australia’s economy was lucky to get away broadly unscathed. We carried no national government debt and were able to use a $50 billion surplus to prime the economy through that period of turmoil. Many countries were not so lucky. Our fiscal stewardship leading up to the crisis allowed economic growth to remain in positive territory soon after. Now we have $600 billion debt and charging the national credit card with all of the promises so aggressively that we should expect $1 trillion of debt in the not too distant future.

Australian banks are highly leveraged to the mortgage market. It should come as no surprise. In Westpac’s full year 2018 balance sheet, the company claims around A$710 billion in assets as “loans”. Of that amount, according to the latest APRA data, A$411 billion of lending is ‘real estate’ related. Total equity for the bank is A$64.6 billion. So equity as a percentage of property loans is just shy of 16%. If Australia had a nationwide property collapse (we have not had one for three decades) then it is possible that the banks would face significant headwinds.

What that basically says is if Westpac suffered a 16% decline in the value of its entire property loan book then it would at least on paper appear in negative equity, or liabilities would be larger than assets. Recall in 2009 that BoA had over 16% of its residential loan portfolio which went bad. It can happen. CommBank is at a similar level. ANZ and NAB are in the 20% range before such a hypothetical situation would be triggered. See the chart below. Note how the US banks stung by the GFC have bolstered balance sheets


Of course the scenario of a housing collapse would imply that a growing number of borrowers would have to find themselves under mortgage stress and default on payments. It also depends on the portfolio of the properties and when those loans were written. If the majority of loans were made 10 years ago at 40% lower theoretical prices than today then there is lower risk to solvency for the bank if it foreclosed and dumped the property.

Although if we look at the growth in loans since 2009, the Australian banks have been making hay while the sun shines. As it stands, the likes of Westpac and CommBank each have extended mortgage loans to Aussies to nearly as much as BoA has to Americans. That said the American banks, so stung by the GFC, have become far more prudent in managing their affairs.


It goes without saying that keeping one’s job is helpful in paying the mortgage. If you were a two income family and one of you lost your job, it is likely that dining out, taking fancy overseas holidays, buying new cars (which have been awful this year) and so on will go on the backburner. Should those actions swell to a wider number of mortgage holders, the economic slowdown will exacerbate in a downward spiral. Even your local coffee store may be forced to close because $4 is just cash you and others might not be able to spend. Boarded up High Streets were everywhere in America and Europe post GFC.


The following chart shows the negative correlation between housing prices and unemployment rates. US unemployment doubled to 10% when Lehman collapsed. Housing prices took heavy hits as defaults jumped. It is not rocket science.


On the other hand, Australia’s unemployment curve remained below 6% for around two decades. Even with GFC, jobless numbers never got out of hand. Our housing prices only suffered a mild dip.

We can argue that a sub-prime style mortgage crisis is highly unlikely. But it does not rule the risk out completely. To have that, mortgage holders would need to be in arrears on monthly payments, their houses would need to be in negative equity and banks would be required to take asset devaluations.

An ME Bank survey in Australia found only 46% of households were able to save each month. Just 32 per cent could raise $3000 in an emergency and 50 per cent aren’t confident of meeting their obligations if unemployed for three months.

According to Digital Finance Analytics, “there are around 650,000 households in Australia experiencing some form of mortgage stress. If rates were to rise 150 basis points the number of Australians in mortgage stress would rise to approximately 930,000 and if rates rose 300 basis points the number would rise to 1.1 million – or more than a third of all mortgages. A 300 basis point rise would take the cash rate to 4.5 per cent, still lower than the 4.75 per cent for most of 2011.”

Do you know how many homes NAB has under repossession on its books at the latest filing? Around 277. Yes, Two hundred and seventy seven. Out of 100,000s. Recall BoA had 16% of its loan portfolio go bang in 2008?

If we think about it logically, examining the ratio of total assets to shareholder equity (i.e. leverage), the Aussie banks maintain higher levels than the US banks listed below did in 2008. Were total asset values to suddenly drop 7% or more ceteris paribus, Aussie banks would slide into a negative equity position and require injection.


Human nature is conditioned to panic when crisis hits. Sadly many of our middle management class have never experienced recession. They are in for a rude shock. As for depositors note that you should be focused on the return “of” your money, not the return “on” it.

As Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so!



How many canaries in the coalmine do we need?


CM has said for ages that President Trump risks being hoisted by his own petard if he continues to attribute the stock market to his leadership. It works both ways. Stock markets are suffering. Suck it up.

GM has announced it is pulling the plug on over 14,000 US workers (8,000 white collar, 3,300 blue-collar workers in Canada and another 2,600 in the US) and potentially closing  5 plants. Is this a surprise? The chart above shows the % year over year change of US car sales. It has been stepping down clearly since GFC. In September this year GM’s sales slumped 19% in before falling 5.5% in October. The brutal storm activity is unlikely to help November either.

This quote will live to haunt in the coming downturn – CEO Mary Barra said the company doesn’t predict an economic downturn any time soon and is making the cuts “to get in front of it while the company is strong and while the economy is strong,

50% of US corporations have a credit rating of BBB or less. We are at the sharp end of massive government sector recapitalization crowding out and companies with dodgy balance sheets (that have levered up to conduct massive buybacks to flatter EPS masking anemic earnings growth) won’t be given the same tight interest rate margin spreads come the next refinancing. Await the implosion.

Rising interest rates don’t help and credit markets wait like vultures over the likes of GE which is having a reality check over its $115bn of debt, negative equity and troubled restructuring. Credit rating downgrade have booted it from some funds so the stock is in the cross hairs. If it had any sense it would file for Chapter 11 to buy breathing space.

If you want to put some perspective on it, GE’s market cap in 2000 was $592bn and now is $65.8bn. Tesla is now worth $56bn.

GM is yet another canary in the coalmine




What have both these stocks have in common? Apple & GE have both held the title for world’s largest stock by market capitalisation at one point in time. GE was worth $594bn at its peak during the tech bubble. Apple has been valued at over $1 trillion this year but is at $921bn as of today. The irony of over the last 7 days Apple has lost more market cap than GE is worth, two times over. How the mighty have fallen.

Why didn’t GE use the $45bn in buybacks to take care of the $31bn negative equity?


After GE’s monster $22bn goodwill impairment charge, the company remains in negative equity to the tune of $31.3bn. $79.2bn in goodwill remains on the balance sheet with $31.5bn in shareholders equity and $16.4bn in non-controlling interests. To think GE spent $45bn on buy backs over 2015 & 2016. Imagine if the company had used those funds to shore up the balance sheet and go back to positive equity?

While the kitchen sinking of GE Power should be deemed a positive (although somewhat expected) it is interesting to see the reaction to the shares (-9%) which flirted with April 2009 lows. Cutting the 1 cent dividend from 12 cents in the grand scheme of things was optics.

Although the goodwill charge is a non cash item on the balance sheet, she is clearly not in a position to deal with the rest of the goodwill just yet.

The brand new CEO has done the right thing to restructure the former largest company in the world but he has drawn attention to the most gangrenous wound that needs to be cauterized.

It is still a rough ride from here for an industrial stock at the top of the megacycle to have such a dreadful balance sheet.




Flannery departs GE. Market rewards +14% in pre-market


General Electric (GE) shares have been a dreadful investment. The company, which trades in negative equity is indicated c.14% higher in trade after CEO John Flannery stepped down inside one year on the job. Lawrence Culp replaces him as Chairman & CEO.

Losing Flannery will look to add about $14bn to GE’s value. Keeping Musk will look to add $7.1bn to Tesla’s value today. A tale of two CEOs. The power or losing one to that of keeping one.

GE’s Angolan Kwanza exposure


Sell-side analysts rarely read through the fine print of an annual report. Hidden away in the prose, one can find some pretty eye-opening paragraphs. From GE’s 2017 Annual Report,

“As of December 31, 2017, we held the U.S. dollar equivalent of $0.6 billion of cash in Angolan kwanza. As there is no liquid derivatives market for this currency, we have used Angolan kwanza to purchase $0.4 billion equivalent bonds issued by the central bank in Angola (Banco Nacional de Angola) with various maturities through 2020 to mitigate the related currency devaluation exposure risk. The bonds are denominated in Angolan kwanza as U.S. dollar equivalents, so that, upon payment of periodic interest and principal upon maturity, payment is made in Angolan kwanza, equivalent to the respective U.S. dollars at the then-current exchange rate.”

On that basis the marked to market figure is actually another $250mn hole in 2017. One wonders what the exchange rate will be in 2020? Furthermore at what level will Travelex or Thomas Cook exchange that for? It would be safe to assume the ‘bid/offer’ spread will be horrendous. GE might find it more useful to run a Nigerian mail scam to hedge the expected losses. For a company as large as GE, potentially losing $850mn should look like a rounding error unless the company is bleeding as the monster is. GE took a pretax charge of $201mn on its Venezuela operations.

We shouldn’t forget that “GE provides implicit and explicit support to GE Capital through commitments, capital contributions and operating support. As previously discussed, GE debt assumed from GE Capital in connection with the merger of GE Capital into GE was $47.1 billion and GE guaranteed $44.0 billion of GE Capital debt at December 31, 2017. See Note 23 to the consolidated financial statements for additional information about the eliminations of intercompany transactions between GE and GE Capital.

As 13D Research noted, “GE spent roughly $45 billion on share buybacks over 2015 & 2016  despite the shares trading well above today’s levels all the while ignoring the $30 billion+ shortfall in its pensions. Management disclosed in a recent analyst meeting that it would have to borrow to fund a $6 billion contribution to its pension plans next year, as well as chopping capex by 26% in 2018.

As mentioned yesterday, there are some who have faith in the sustained turnaround in medical. Indeed it has seen some top line and margin improvement but management seems more concerned with focusing on cutting costs than pushing innovation. Efficiency drives should be part and parcel of all businesses but one must hope CEO John Flannery has far bigger hopes for its market share leading product line (which GE admits facing pricing pressure in some segments) than trimming the staff canteen cookie tin.

GE remains a risky investment. Flannery has it all to prove and to date his performances have been anything but inspiring. GE feels like a business suffering from the divine franchise syndrome synonymous with former CEO Jack Welch. That dog eat dog culture seems to be biting its own tail.



GEzus Priced super far?

US Corp prof.pngIt is not rocket science. Generally higher interest rates lead to lower profitability. The chart above shows that quarterly pre-tax US profitability is struggling. We took the liberty of comparing the profitability since 1980 and correlating it to what Moody’s Baa rated corporate bond effective 10yr yields. An R-squared of almost 90% was returned.

US Moodys corp

With the Fed moving toward a tightening cycle, we note that the spreads of Baa 10yrs to the FFR has yet to climb out of its hole. During GFC it peaked at 8.82%. It is now around 3%.

US Moodys

Why not use the Aaa spread instead? Well we could do that but looking over the last decade the average corporate debt rating profile looks like this. We have seen a massive deterioration in credit ratings. If we look at the corporate profitability with Baa interest rates over the past decade, correlation climbs even higher.


Corporate America binged on cheap credit over the last decade and given the spreads to Aaa ranked corporate bonds were relatively small, it was a no brainer. In 2015, GE’s then-CEO Jeff Immelt said he was willing to add as much as $20 billion of additional debt to grow, even if it meant lower bond grades. We can see that the spread today is a measly 0.77%. Way off the 3.38% differential at the time of GFC. Still nearly 50% of corporate debt is rated at the nasty end.

US Moodys corp aaa-baa.png

We shouldn’t forget that the US Government is also drunk on debt, much of it arriving at a store near you. $1.5 trillion in US Treasuries needs refinancing this year and $8.4tn over the next 3.5 years. Couple that with a Japan & China pulling back on UST purchases and the Fed itself promising to taper its balance sheet. So as an investor, would you prefer the safety of government debt or take a punt on paper next to junk heading into a tightening cycle?


In any event, the 4.64% 10yr Baa corporate bond effective yield is half what it was at the time of GFC. Yet, what will profitability look like when the relative attractiveness of US Treasuries competes with a deteriorating corporate sector in terms of profitability or balance sheet?

Take GE as an example. Apart from all of the horror news of potential dividend cuts, bargain basement divestments and a CEO giving vague timelines on a turnaround in its energy business things do not bode well. Furthermore many overlook the fact that GE has $18.7bn of negative equity. Selling that dog of an insurance business will need to go for pennies in the dollar. There is no premium likely. GE had a AAA rating but lost it in March 2009. Even at AA- the risk is likely to the downside.

Take GE’s interest cover. This supposed financial juggernaut which was at the time of GFC the world’s largest market cap company now trades with a -0.17x interest coverage ratio. In FY2013 it was 13.8x. The ratio of debt to earnings, has surged from 1.5 in 2013 to 3.7 today. It has $42bn in debt due in 2020 for refinancing.

By 2020, what will the interest rate differentials be? There seems to be some blind faith in GE’s new CEO John Flannery’s ability to turn around the company. Yet he is staring at the peak of the aerospace cycle where any slowdown could hurt the spares business not to mention the high fixed cost nature of new engines under development. In a weird way, GE is suffering these terrible ratios at the top of the cycle rather than the bottom. Asset fire sales to patch that gaping hole in the balance sheet. Looks like a $4 stock not a $14 one.