Gold

Waking up to a horror of our own creation

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Some will say I am a pessimist. I’d prefer to be called an optimist with experience. At only age 16 (in 1987) I realized the destructive power financial markets had on the family home. Those memories were etched permanently. We weren’t homeless or singing for our supper but things sure weren’t like they use to be. It taught me much about risk and thinking all points of view rather than blindly following the crowd. That just because you were told something by authority it didn’t mean it was necessarily true. It was to critically assess everthing without question.

In 1999, as an industrials analyst in Europe during the raging tech bubble, we were as popular as a kick in the teeth. We were ignored for being old economy. That our stocks deserved to trade at deep discounts to the ‘new economy’ tech companies, no thanks to our relatively poor asset turnover and tepid growth rates. The truest sign of the impending collapse of the tech bubble actually came from sell-side tech analysts quitting their grossly overpaid investment bank salaries for optically eye-watering stock options at the very tech corporations they rated. So engrossed in the untold riches that awaited them they abandoned their judgement and ended up holding worthless scrip. Just like the people who bought a house at the peak of the bubble telling others at a dinner party how they got in ‘early’ and the boom was ahead of them, not behind.

It was so blindingly obvious that the tech bubble would collapse. Every five seconds a 21 year old with a computer had somehow found some internet miracle for a service we never knew we needed. The IPO gravy train was insane. One of my biggest clients said that he was seeing 5 new IPO opportunities every single day for months on end. Mobile phone retailers like Hikari Tsushin in Japan were trading at such ridiculous valuations that the CEO at the time lost himself in the euphoria and printed gold coin chocolates with ‘Target market cap: Y100 trillion.’ The train wreck was inevitable. Greed was a forgone conclusion.

So the tech bubble collapsed under the weight of reality which started the most reckless central bank policy prescriptions ever. Supposedly learning from the mistakes of the post bubble collapse in Japan, then Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan turned on the free money spigots. Instead of allowing the free market to adjust and cauterize the systemic imbalances, he threw caution to the wind and poured gasoline on a raging fire. Programs like ‘Keep America Rolling’ which tried to reboot the auto industry meant cheaper and longer lease loans kept sucking consumption forward. That has been the problem. We’ve been living at the expense of the future for nigh on two decades.

Back in 2001, many laughed me out of court for arguing Greenspan would go down in history as one of the most hated central bankers. At the time prevailing sentiment indeed made me look completely stupid. How could I, a stockbroker, know more than Alan Greenspan? It was not a matter of relative educations between me and the Fed Chairman, rather seeing clearly he was playing god with financial markets.  The Congressional Banking Committee hung off his every word like giddy teenagers with a crush on a pop idol. Ron Paul once set on Greenspan during one of the testimonies only to have the rest of the committee turn on him for embarrassing the newly knighted ‘Maestro.’ It was nauseating to watch. Times seemed too good so how dare Paul question a central bank chief who openly said, “I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

We all remember the horrors of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the ensuing Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in September 2008. The nuclear implosions in credit markets had already begun well before this as mortgage defaults screamed. The 7 years of binge investment since the tech bubble collapse meant we never cleansed the wounds. We would undoubtedly be in far better shape had we taken the pain. Yet confusing products like CDOs and CDSs wound their way into the investment portfolios of local country towns in Australia. The punch bowl had duped even local hicks to think they were with the times as any other savvy investor. To turn that on its head, such was the snow job that people who had no business being involved in such investment products were dealing in it.

So Wall St was bailed out by Main St. Yet instead of learning the lessons of the tech bubble collapse and GFC our authorities doubled down on the madness that led to these problems in the first place. Central banks launched QE programs to buy toxic garbage and lower interest rates to get us dragging forward even more consumption. The printing presses were on full speed. Yet what have we bought?

Now we have exchange traded funds (ETFs). Super simple to understand products. While one needed a Field’s Medal in Mathematics to understand the calculations of a CDO or CDS, the ETF is child’s play. Sadly that will only create complacency. We have not really had a chance to see how robots trade in a proper downturn. ETFs follow markets, not lead them. So if the market sells off, the ETF is rapidly trying to keep up. Studies done on ETFs (especially leveraged products) in bear markets shows how they amplify market reactions not mitigate them. So expect to see robots add to the calamity.

Since GFC we’ve had the worst post recession recovery in history. We have asset bubbles in bonds, stocks and property. The Obama Administration doubled the debt pile of the previous 43 presidents in 8 years. Much of it was raised on a short term basis. This year alone, $1.5 trillion must be refinanced.  A total of $8.4 trillion must be refinanced inside the next 4 years. That excludes the funding required for current budget deficits which are growing despite a ‘growing economy’. That excludes the corporate refinancing schedule. Many companies went out of their way to laden the balance sheet in cheap debt. In the process the average corporate credit rating is at its worst levels in a decade. Which means in a market where credit markets are starting to price risk accordingly we also face a Fed openly saying it is tapering its balance sheet and the Chinese and Japanese looking to cut back on US Treasury purchases. Bond spreads like Libor-OIS are already reflecting that pain.

Then there is the tapped out consumer. Unemployment maybe at record lows, yet real wage growth does not appear to be keeping up. The number of people holding down more than one job continues to rebound. The quality of employment is terrible. Poverty continues to remain stubbornly high. There are still three times as many people on food stamps in the US than a decade ago – 41 million people. Public pension unfunded liabilities total $9 trillion. Credit card delinquencies at the sub prime end of town are  back at pre-crisis levels. We could go on and on. Things are terrible out there. Should we be in the least bit surprised that Trump won? Such is the plight of the silent majority, still delinquent after a decade. No wonder Roseanne appeals to so many.

A funny comment was sent by a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, lambasting Trump on his trade policies. He criticized the fact that America had sold its soul for offshoring for decades. Indeed it had but queried that maybe he should be praising Trump for trying to reverse that tide, despite being so late to the party. Where were the other administrations trying to defend America all this time? Stunned silence.

Yet the trends are ominous. If we go back to the tech bubble IPO-a-thon example. We now have crowd funding and crypto currencies. To date we had 190 odd currencies to trade. Of that maybe a handful were liquid – $US, GBP, JPY, $A, Euro etc – yet we are presented with 1,000s of crypto currency choices. Apart from the numerous breaches, blow ups and cyber thefts to date, more and more of these ‘coins’ are awaiting the next fool to gamble away more in the hope of making a quick buck. Cryptos are backed by nothing other than greed. Yet it sort of proves that more believe that they are falling behind enough such they’re prepared to gamble on the biggest lottery in town. One crypto used Wikipedia as a source for its prospectus.

Yet the media remains engrossed on trying to prove whether the president had sex with a porn star a decade ago, genderless bathrooms, bashing the NRA, pushing for laws to curtail free speech, promoting climate change and covering up crime rather than look at reporting on what truly matters – the biggest financial collapse facing us in 90 years.

There is no ‘told you so’ in any of this. The same feelings in the bones of some 30 years ago are back as they were at the time of Greenspan and Lehman. This time can’t be avoided. We have borrowed too much, saved too little and all the while blissfully ignored the warning signs. The faith and confidence in authorities is evaporating. The failed experiment started by Greenspan is coming home to roost. This will be far worse than 1929. Take that to the bank, if it is still in operation because you won’t be concerned about the return on your money but the return of it!

Worst Q2 start for S&P 500 since 1929

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ZeroHedge reported today that the S&P had its worst percentage 2nd quarter start since 1929 overnight. Both the Dow Jones Industrial Average broke below the 200 day moving average before an at the death rally to close above. Plunge Protection Team (PPT)? The broader S&P 500 failed to hold the 200 dma. All feels ominous. Awaiting the dead cat bounce. Short dated out of the money index put options continue to look ridiculously cheap relative to other asset classes. Gold also having a good day. Bitcoin showing its true value sliding below $7.000. Best to remember in a bear market the winner is the one who loses the least.

Some interesting reading

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John Mauldin has put together a few interesting pieces over the weekend. Some of the select quotes from Thoughts from the frontline:

Money Velocity (which CM wrote about in 2016):

velocity of money, which is continuing to fall, as it has for almost 20 years…So it is somewhat disturbing to see velocity now at its lowest point since 1949, and at levels associated with the Great Depression.”

Income Disparity:

Note that it is the 95th percentile of workers that has received the bulk of the increase in wages. The bottom 50% is either down or basically flat since 1979. Even the 70th percentile didn’t do all that well.

Budget Deficits:

Over the last half-century, higher deficits have been associated with recessions. After recessions end, the deficit shrinks, and occasionally we get a surplus. That’s not happening this time. Deficits are growing even without a recession…but in the next recession tax revenues will fall, and spending will increase enough to not only swell the annual deficit but also to add north of $2 trillion to the national debt each year. We’re using up our breathing room, and that will be a problem – sooner or later.

Monetary Policy:

Ominously, you can see from Grant’s labels (In the above chart) with arrows that peak yields tended to correspond with crises. If the current breakout persists, it is probably going to get its own label, and I bet we won’t like it.

Nothing to see here?

 

Truly sickening US Public Pensions data

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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.

1 MKT PER HH DEBT EXP GROWTH

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.

1 MKT PER HH DEBT TAX EXP 2016

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.

1 MKT PER HH DEBT TAX EXP 2016 VS 2008

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.”

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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

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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

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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”