Truly sickening US Public Pensions data


Following on from the earlier post and our 2016 report on the black hole in US state public pension unfunded liabilities, we have updated the figures to 2016. It is hard to know where to start without chills. The current state of US public pension funds represents the love child of Kathy Bates in Misery and Freddie Krueger. Actuarial accounting allows for pension funds to appear far prettier than they are in reality. For instance the actuarial deficit in public pension funds is a ‘mere’ $1.47 trillion. However using realistic returns data (marking-to-market(M-2-M)) that explodes to $6.74 trillion, 4.6-fold higher.  This is a traffic accident waiting to happen. US Pension Tracker illustrates the changes in the charts presented.

Before we get stuck in, we note that the gross pension deficits do not arrive at once. Naturally it is a balance of contributions from existing employees and achieving long term growth rates that can fund retirees while sustaining future obligations. CM notes that the problems could well get worse with such huge unfunded liabilities coinciding with bubbles in most asset classes. Unlike private sector pension funds, the states have an unwritten obligation to step up and fill the gap. However as we will soon see, M-2-M unfunded liabilities outstrip state government expenditures by huge amounts.

From a layman’s perspective, either taxes go up, public services get culled or pensioners are asked politely to take a substantial haircut to their retirement. Apart from the drastic changes that would be required in lifestyles, the economic slowdown that would ensue would have knock on effects with state revenue collection further exacerbating a terrible situation.

CM will use California as the benchmark. Our studies compare 2016 with 2008.

The chart above shows the M-2-M 2016 unfunded liability per household. In California’s case, the 2016 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.

The following chart shows the growth rate in M-2-M pension liabilities to total state expenditure. In California’s case that equates to 3.2x in those 8 years.


Sadly it gets worse when we look at the impact on current total state expenditures these deficits comprise. For California the gap is c.6x what the state spends on constituents.


Then taking it further,  in the last 8 years California has seen a 2.62-fold jump in the gap between liabilities and state total expenditures.


This is a ticking time bomb. Moreover it is only the pensions for the public sector. We have already seen raids on particular state pension funds with some looking to retire early merely to cash out before there is nothing left. Take this example in Illinois.

Sadly 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.”


To highlight the pressure such states/cities could face, this is a frightening example of how the tax base can evaporate before one’s eyes putting even more pressure on bail outs.

This problem is going to get catastrophically worse with the state of bloated asset markets with puny returns. Looking at how it has been handled in the past Detroit, Michigan gives some flavor. 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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Plunging credit quality more troubling than market rout


The Dow plunged 1175 points (-4.6%) overnight. 4.6% is a lot and yes 4-digit drops optically look worse but off the higher base we get higher (record) point drops. One thing to contemplate in a rising bond yield market is corporate credit quality. Since 2006 the average credit ratings for US corporates issued by the big agencies have seen the number of top rated (to the left) fall while those with deteriorating grades (to the right) soar. That’s right, the 4 categories before “junk” have risen sharply. After many years of virtually free money many corporations have let the waistline grow. When refinancing comes around just how will credit ratings influence the new spreads of corporates who’ve shifted to the right?

The IMF highlighted in 2017  that US companies have added $7.8t in debt & other liabilities since 2010. The ability to cover interest payments is now at the weakest level since 2008 crisis.

This despite near full employment, record level equity markets and every other word of encouragement from our politicians.

However if this is the state of the corporate sector at arguably the sweet spot of the economic cycle CM shudders to think the state of potential bankruptcies that will come when the cycle truly takes a turn for the worse. This is a very bad sign.

“Bitcoin Bubble” the #1 searched item on Contrarian Marketplace – the Taxi Driver’s blog


The only thing more dangerous than “Bitcoin Bubble” being the most searched item on this Contrarian Marketplace (CM) blog this month is whether I am tempted to buy it on the basis that in doing so I will call the top. Indeed Bit-coiners should be paying me (in gold please) I never make such a move.

Note in ZeroHedge today one Chinese official, Pan Gongsheng, a deputy governor of the People’s Bank of China predicts “that bitcoin will die of a grand theft, a hack into the blockchain technology behind the cryptocurrency or a collective ban by global governments.” This is consistent to what CM has been saying.


Gold Coin vs Bitcoin – just go on a crypto blog and invite a fatwah by criticizing it

The Bitcoin debate rages again. I’ve been asked more times by friends about whether to buy Bitcoin in the last 3 months than I care to remember. This video is about as telling as it gets about understanding raw value. At the moment Bitcoin pricing is as random as a Lotto ball dispenser although only higher numbers are being drawn for now (despite the 20% flash crash yesterday, shows panic is a server outage away). My answer to them is I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole but everyone’s risk is their own. I answered along the lines below.

As a contrarian investor, this video warms my heart. When everyone seems to love something it tends to be a sign that ‘greater fool theory’ is alive and kicking. The video shows a woman unwilling to trade a stick of gum for a 1oz gold coin. If there was ever a better example of mean reversion, this must be it. Mark Dice did a similar video with people asking if they wanted a Hershey’s chocolate bar or a silver bar. Everyone chose the Hershey’s! While I am sure the response on Wall Street would elicit a different response it shows how few people understand the value of barbarous old relics.

The biggest issue with Bitcoin or any other crypto is that it is mined in cyber space. Do you ever wonder why you need to update your Norton anti-virus software every other day? Yes because some criminals are phishing/hacking your data trying to rob you blind. That’s just the amateur cowboy stuff by the way.

Gold needs to be dug out of the ground with considerable effort. The thing that spooks me about crypto (without trying to sound conspiracy theorist) is that state actors (most top end computer science grads in China end up working in the country’s cyber warfare teams), hackers or criminal minds (did you know 70% of top end computer science grads in Russia end up working for the mob (directly or indirectly) the value of coins in the system could be instantaneously wiped out at the stroke of a key. We’ve had small hiccups ($280m) only last week. So as much as the ‘security’ of these crypto currencies is often sold as bulletproof, none of them are ‘cyberproof’. Just like your home software, crypto at every stage has to constantly update its protection to prevent vulnerabilities and it is naive to think it can keep a 100% safety record.

It only takes one serious hack to bring most if not all the crypto down as vulnerable. In order for Auric Goldfinger to crush prices in Gold he’d need to smelt lead bars and paint them, were any left over from the pail and brush used on Jill Masterson. Gold is one currency that governments often threaten to confiscate (India springs to mind). Imagine if North Korea turns Bitcoin into the state currency?

I have just been on a Bitcoin forum and the insults being hurled at disbelievers has all the hallmarks of Tesla share ownership. It is a religion. Not an investment. I was accused of having no idea on crypto to which I argued 90%+ of those that own it probably don’t either. So having owners in Bitcoin or other cryptos knowing a tiny fraction of the risks means they’ll stampede faster than the servers can process data should ‘bit hit the fan’. One crypto ‘expert’ tried to tell me that artwork has no value as it is not tradable. It is tradable, just illiquid. I argued that the latest sale of DaVinci’s artwork fetched $450mn or 45,000 bitcoin. Storage costs aside over the long run I’ll have a Leonardo thank you!

As Mark Twain 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.”

My assessment is that the fascination of those around me about Bitcoin suggests that many of the fan base are punters trading on the greed of others. It has no underlying core value other than those prepared to pay more for it. That indeed is the tenet of all investment but like most manias, the risk/reward ratio can turn on a dime (no pun intended). At some stage the fall out from crypto will be ugly. As financial pundits know

the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent”

Thoughts for the day – Group think, crypto and taxi drivers


It is important to challenge convention. I have had countless questions from people on bitcoin and crypto lately. Sort of reminded me of the above. Perhaps the golden rule of investing doesn’t lie in complex models and sci-fi scenario analysis but the simple question of whenever an overwhelming majority think something is great, it is time to take the opposing view and vice versa. I haven’t been in a taxi yet to confirm Bitcoin is overdone. As I put it – gold needs to be dug out of the ground with effort. The thing that spooks me about crypto (without trying to sound conspiracy theorist) is that state actors (most top end computer science grads in China end up working in the country’s cyber warfare teams), hackers or criminal minds (did you know 70% of top end computer science grads in Russia end up working for the mob (directly or indirectly) the value of coins in the system could be instantaneously wiped out at the stroke of a key. We’ve had small hiccups ($280m) only last week. So as much as the ‘security’ of these crypto currencies is often sold as bulletproof, none of them are ‘cyberproof’.

Think of why your Norton, Kaspersky or Trend Micro anti-virus software requires constant upgrading to prevent new threats trying to exploit new vulnerabilities in systems. We need only go back to the Stuxnet virus of 2010 which was installed inside computers controlling uranium centrifuges in Iran. The operators had no idea. The software told the brain of the centrifuges to spin at multiples faster than design spec could handle all the while the computer interface of the operators showed everything normal. After a while the machines melted down causing the complete destruction of the centrifuges which were controlled from a remote location.

So much in life is simple. Yet we have lawyers writing confusing sentences that carry on for pages and pages, politicians complicating simple tasks, oil companies trying to convince us their additives are superior to others and so on. The reality is we just have to ask ourselves that one question from Mark Twain,

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.

I’ll stick with my instincts rather than fall for a Harvard study because it is from Harvard


Harvard University is without question one of the top schools globally. It has an enviable reputation and having that on one’s CV is hardly a hinderance. It is a status symbol.  In a discussion over global warming an individual was trying to legitimize climate alarmism by citing a Harvard University study. Harvard by the way is ranked top 5 worldwide in Environmental Science. The study as it turns out had been funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), a US government agency responsible for allocating 24% of science funding that had been raked over the coals by the US Senate for gross mismanagement, fraud and waste. The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope” paper from 2011 documented some of the misappropriation of funds as follows,

An $80,000 study on why the same teams always dominate March Madness”, a “$315,000 study suggesting playing FarmVille on Facebook helps adults develop and maintain relationships”, a study costing “$1 million for an analysis of how quickly parents respond to trendy baby names”, a study costing “$50,000 to produce and publicize amateur songs about science, including a rap called “Money 4 Drugz,” and a misleading song titled “Biogas is a Gas, Gas, Gas”;” a study costing”$2 million to figure out that people who often post pictures on the internet from the same location at the same time are usually friends”; and “$581,000 on whether online dating site users are racist”.Ineffective management examples, cited in the report, included “ineffective contracting”, “$1.7 billion in unspent funds sitting in expired, undisbursed grant accounts”, “at least $3 million in excessive travel funds”, “a lack of accountability or program metrics to evaluate expenditures” and “inappropriate staff behavior including porn surfing and Jello wrestling and skinny-dipping at NSF-operated facilities in Antarctica”.

It is often a tactic to cite supposedly credible bodies to legitimize and seek to win an argument. However at what point do we view Harvard’s stance on climate change as balanced? On Harvard’s own climate change page it is littered with a predetermined view. It is not to doubt the intelligence of the professors and scientists within the university but intelligence and ethics do not have to be mutually inclusive especially when it comes to procuring funds.

One has to wonder that the  NSF, which dispenses 24% of all university grants (some $7bn) is best positioned to fulfill this role given its past. As the Harvard climate page reveals there does not seem to be much attention paid to the alternate view. The offshoot of that is if the NSF wants to get ‘green policy’ outcomes, best pour funds into those schools that will help give the results they’re after.

In 2015 a claim was made against Harvard for not disclosing financial conflicts of interest. A press release entitled ‘Clean air and health benefits of clean power plan hinge on key policy decisions’ constituted a gushing praise of a commentary entitled ‘US power plant carbon standards and clean air and health co-benefits’ by Charles T. Driscoll, Jonathan J. Buonocore, Jonathan I. Levy, Kathleen F. Lambert, Dallas Burtraw, Stephen B. Reid, Habibollah Fakhraei & Joel Schwartz, published on May 4, 2015, in Nature Climate Change

The claim (a letter to the Dean) suggested that “two of the co-authors of the commentary, Buonocore and Schwartz, are researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Your press release quotes Buonocore thus: “If EPA sets strong carbon standards, we can expect large public health benefits from cleaner air almost immediately after the standards are implemented.” Indeed, the commentary and the press release constitute little more than thinly-disguised partisan political advocacy for costly proposed EPA regulations supported by the “Democrat” administration but opposed by the Republicans. Harvard has apparently elected to adopt a narrowly partisan, anti-scientific stance…The commentary concludes with the words “Competing financial interests: The authors declare no competing financial interests”. Yet its co-authors have received these grants from the EPA: Driscoll $3,654,609; Levy $9,514,391; Burtraw $1,991,346; and Schwartz (Harvard) $31,176,575. The total is not far shy of $50 million…Would the School please explain why its press release described the commentary in Nature Climate Change by co-authors including these lavishly-funded four as “the first independent, peer-reviewed paper of its kind”? Would the School please explain why Mr Schwartz, a participant in projects grant-funded by the EPA in excess of $31 million, failed to disclose this material financial conflict of interest in the commentary?Would the School please explain the double standard by which Harvard institutions have joined a chorus of public condemnation of Dr Soon, a climate skeptic, for having failed to disclose a conflict of interest that he did not in fact possess, while not only indulging Mr Schwartz, a climate-extremist, when he fails to declare a direct and substantial conflict of interest but also stating that the commentary he co-authored was “independent”?”

While I do not pretend to be a climate scientist by trade or study, fraud is fraud. The supposed beacons of virtue such as NOAA, IPCC, the CRU of the UEA have all been busted for manipulation of data to fit an end cause. The lack of ethics in certain cases has been so profound that had many of these scientists been in financial services they’d have lost licenses, paid multi billion in fines and served jail time. One person commented that too few in financial services have been locked up. I replied name me one scientist busted for fraud and misuse of public funds has seen the inside of a jail cell, much less fined or barred from teaching? The answer – NONE

I don’t need to possess a degree in astrophysics or science to determine poor ethics generally mean the science papers put forward should be viewed with deep skepticism. Yet we’re constantly told that the science is settled. How so? If one has to lie and deceive in order to scare us into action, how can one say that it is legitimate work? In fact I have been at pains to mention that the scrupulous acts of a few only ends up undermining potentially credible work conducted by others. Yet climate change has become a purely political issue and there is no question that sourcing funding dollars is easiest met when supporting alarmism. After all why would people want to throw dollars at skeptics who may come out with an alternative view? Don’t debate it. Some have suggested sceptics are like pedophiles and even more extreme views have suggested jail sentences. When people think that the only way to win the argument is to jail non believers you can be absolutely sure that the data is completely flawed in that it can’t stand on its own as an argument. Hence the manipulation to try to bully the movement onwards. Some Aussie universities (state funded mind you) are refusing a climate think tank being established on their campus for possessing an alternative view. You have to worry if universities, the bedrock of free thinking, are trying to ban it. Then again if kindergarten schools are being taught they are gender fluid and cross dressing is acceptable then you know there is a more sinister movement at work.

It was no surprise that Hurricane Irma has become Trump’s fault. Alarmists drew any data possible to connect Global Warming and hurricane activity despite the IPCC claiming several years back it  has little supportive data to prove it. So expediency is put before principle. Hopefully if no one has seen the IPCC climb down perhaps we can still convince them we can save the planet. All the meantime the IATA forecasts air travel will double in terms of passenger numbers between now and 2030 and SUVs top most vehicle sales in major markets.

To add to the farcical care factor for climate change by the masses The Australian noted, “On June 30 2017, after 12 years of “advancing climate change solutions”, the Climate Institute is closing its doors in Australia, a victim of the “I’ll ride with you but won’t pay” industry. You would think that Cate Blanchett, so happy to appear in the institute’s ads, could have taken the hat around her Hollywood A-list mates, such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Bono, Emma Watson and Brad Pitt, to tip in a few hundred thousand a year for the cause….But alas, the caravan has moved on and the greatest moral challenge of our time is now the Trump White House. For celebrities who fly eyebrow groomers to the Oscars, climate change is kinda yesterday. Still, to humour the faithful and to keep the dream alive, the 10th anniversary of Earth Hour was celebrated last Saturday night. You didn’t notice?”

When I was a staunch opponent of Greenspan’s reckless monetary policy in 2001 and said his actions would lead to a financial calamity in 6-7 years, many laughed at me. I bought gold at under $300. People thought I was mad as did the Bank of England. Barbs were frequent – “how could you possibly possess the intelligence of Greenspan? Back in your box!” I was told. Of course as a contrarian by nature, speaking out against pervading group think was met with a constant wave of ever increasing vitriolic criticism. Of course the simplest thing would have been to roll over and join the band wagon but I stuck to my guns. GFC was the result. In all that time, people used to shame my thinking by citing Harvard or other Ivy League studies on new paradigms. Indeed many of the brains behind the CDOs which eventually brought the financial sector to its knees were brainiacs from the Ivy League. In the end my instincts were bang on. Nothing to do with education levels.

The same arguments were hurled at me during Trump’s presidential campaign. Many people defriended me because my data kept showing to me he’d win. I am not American, I can’t vote but casting my own instincts ended up being a no brainer. Not once were credible arguments made to counter why Trump could win. People would post NY Times polls, CNN polls and so forth to legitimize the argument. Then say I was blind, stupid, bigoted, racist and the usual leftist identikit used to demonise a view. Group think is so dangerous. What it is doing is suppressing real views which show up in the polling booth.

Everywhere I read, the media wants to throw Trump to the wolves and run the lunatic, racist white nationalist card. For 9 months now. To be honest I think he will comfortably do two terms because the media has learned nothing and anything he does is vilified. Most Americans aren’t looking to him for spiritual guidance. He is vulgar and his manner is far from conventional and sometimes not very fitting of the office he serves. However he gets no credit for anything. The latest UN sanctions on North Korea are in large part because Trump has told China to get on with it. Trump said on national TV that he wants “China to sort it out and to stop delaying otherwise we’ll do it for you”. Yet the media is drumming WW3 rhetoric.

Same goes for the Paris Accord. What a stroke of genius. Let France, Germany and other nations pick up the tab for their ‘green policy’ madness and make up America’s renewable shortfall. It is kind of ironic that none of these nations ever pick on China, India or Russia which make up 50% of CO2 emissions for their lack of adherence to actually doing meaningful things to abate climate change albeit signatories to the UN accord. I argue it is like NATO in reverse. US pays a way bigger share into NATO, why not collect a refund via other nation’s virtue signalling which actually helps America First by making other nations less competitive. Brilliant.

DACA – many Americans, including 41mn on food stamps, will welcome the removal of illegal immigrants from their country who in their view are siphoning their ability to get out of poverty. DACA to them isn’t about not being compassionate but realizing that a $20 trillion deficit and loading more onto an overcrowded system isn’t helping. Once again regardless of what people think of Trump he had the fewest white voters and largest share of black and Hispanic voters than Romney or McCain. Hardly the result for a white nationalist, racist bigot. At the current rate if the Democrats run Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Hilary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren or any other identity politician against him in 2020 they’ll lose. The mid terms won’t be as bad as many calling. The one midterm already returned a Republican despite massive Hollywood support even ferrying voters to booths.

Transgender in the military. I spoke to two dozen US military personnel last month to ask their opinions. The 100% response was, “we think it is inappropriate for the taxpayer to fund sexual reassignment surgery while serving including several years of rehab and ongoing drug therapy…it is taking the p*ss…we serve our country because we love it and we don’t have room to support social experiments to protect freedom!” There was no real issue of transgender per se rather a problem of providing funds in n already tightly allocated budget for such medical expenditure. Several even spoke of the stupidity of LGBT pride day in the armed forces. What has the ability to fight got to do with what goes on in the bedroom? One said “if we had a heterosexual pride day” we’d never hear the end of it.

So when you communicate with the real people you find the truth if you are prepared to listen. The beauty of social media and indeed Google (which happily acts as a Big Brother on what it considers acceptable) is that many people reach for articles they probably haven’t read properly and use them as ways to ram home an argument because they carry a brand name. Harvard is a wonderful institution but as we’ve seen it has run into questions of conflicts of interest.

I happen to think that social media is having the opposite effect on brainwashing to tell the truth. 99.9% of what I see posted has little thought to it. The more people I speak to the more they are ignoring noise. Many people share articles without putting some basis of why they post it. In many cases people are too afraid to face a doxxing or backlash. Bring it on. To me if you post things in the public domain then be prepared to invite criticism. On my site I do not censor, cut off or delete readers. They are free to come and go as they please. I only request they keep profanity to a minimum.

So in summary, the idea that we bow down to venerable institutions to seek guidance is as flawed today as it ever was. I’ll gladly stick to gut instincts because to date they have worked so far. Having said that I should put a disclaimer that was always plastered on financial services product, “Past results are no guarantee of future performance”

Wile E. Coyote market action ahead


One of my former colleagues has a Bloomberg header that reads, “I no longer see the point in pointing out the pointless!” He is spot on. Global markets remind me of Wile E. Coyote holding a severed cliff edge, suspended in animation before inevitably falling to the ground with a thud. We are at that point.

Dow can’t break 20,000 and even taking into account the fact that Christmas and New Year’s took steam out of the market, it was already tired and breathless. VIX is at chronically risk taking levels and would seemingly only have a blow up around the corner. Gold is picking up and the yen is firming. Like it or not, as doomed as the Japanese economy is, everything is relative and the amount of yen kept offshore means that money is repatriated. Ask yourself why every time there is a natural disaster in Japan the yen rallies. The yen dropped from 82/$ to around Y78/$ 6 months later.

The markets have been running on fumes. Even taking out the Trump effect, central bank policy is impotent, the global debt pile continues to rack up and the world is by and large run by wimps not willing to take drastic action. The lack of accountability is staggering. Independent central banks are not a virtue but a vice. For all of the supposed benefits of a free and unleashed central bank maybe it becomes the perfect fall guy for governments to operate in the vacuous, indifferent and soft policy settings they do. Central banks in the reverse can apportion blame on governments for not providing policies that benefit from low interest rate settings. The Fed should be disbanded.

I remain bearish to be sure. Trump can’t right almost two decades of irresponsible corporate, individual and public sector behavior. Perhaps my biggest concern is the risk that governments and central banks become the ones using moral hazard as an exit clause. In that world all bets are off. Don’t think it isn’t been considered. Even Japan’s policy advisors are considering converting the $10 trillion (240%od GDP) debt into zero coupon perpetual debt. It is a polite way of saying that we’ll print the debt away.

As poor old Wile E. Coyote knows too well, it ends in a massive plume of smoke. You can control (manipulate) markets up to a point but eventually relative asset values come to the fore and the premium/discount gap widens to extreme levels. Market confidence is shot to pieces despite what the indices tell us. Don’t be fooled. Meep Meep.