#QE

An Abysmal 7

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As of March 28th 2019, the St Louis Federal Reserve updated the status of pre-tax US corporate profitability (ex inventory adjustments). It clearly shows that since 2012 they have tracked sideways. Despite the lowest sustained interest rate environment since WWII, US profitability has drizzled over the last 7 years. Is it any wonder Trump was calling for more QE?

Drinking the UnKool-Aid

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It appears President Trump has been bullying the US Federal Reserve to drop rates by 1% and get them to reopen the spigots on QE. What he is failing to grasp is that businesses invest because they see a cycle, not because interest rates fall.

Trump tweeted,

China is adding great stimulus to its economy while at the same time keeping interest rates low. Our Federal Reserve has incessantly lifted interest rates, even though inflation is very low, and instituted a very big dose of quantitative tightening. We have the potential to go…up like a rocket if we did some lowering of rates, like one point, and some quantitative easing. Yes, we are doing very well at 3.2% GDP, but with our wonderfully low inflation, we could be setting major records &, at the same time, make our National Debt start to look small!

This is a frightening proposal. Rates are at 2.25~2.50%. Although it masks a more important reality. Can Trump avoid a market calamity ahead of the next election? The real engine of the economy is slowing.

Despite the headline US GDP print of 3.2%, consumer spending and business investment slumped to the lowest levels under his presidency. Business investment spending was dominated by “intellectual capital” (soft) which is a pretty hard metric to put a reliable number next to. Equipment and structures (hard) contribution to business investment was near as makes no difference zero. Personal consumption of durable goods slumped to their lowest reading since 2011. Wholesale inventories (ex-autos/petroleum) surged ahead of sales.

Trump might argue China is adding stimulus. He is right. China’s Aggregate Financing (approximately system Credit growth less government borrowings) jumped 2.860 billion yuan, or $427 billion – during the 31 days of March ($13.8bn/day or $5.0 Trillion annualised (a Japanese GDP)). This was 55% above estimates and a full 80% ahead of March 2018. This pump priming added 8% to the Chinese stock indices but since then the market has been rolling off.

The world does not need more debt to be inflated away to get us out of the current mess we are in. A recession is inevitable. To put it into context, the world, since GFC, has added $140 trillion in debt for a grand total of $20 trillion in global GDP growth. That is right. $7 of debt only got us $1 of GDP. So if the Fed acquiesces President Trump he will probably get even worse metrics.

Then again perhaps we can take the words of a venture capitalist, Chamath Palihapitiya, who said on CNBC that “central banks have created an environment where major downturns and expansions are almost impossible.” It is statements like this that almost guarantee that central banks have lost control. Central banks have one role – ensure that markets maintain “confidence”. Powell’s latest move to cut rates after such a shallow peak tells us that “confidence” is waning. 

Debunking Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)

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While the Dow & S&P500 indices grind back higher thanks to the US Fed chickening out on a rate rise in because the economy can’t handle it, many people still overlook the fact that core US profitability has tracked sideways since 2012. 6 years of next to nada. Sure one can boost profits by adding back unrealistic  “inventory adjustments” but the reality is plain and simple. If you search for inventory adjusted earnings they’re still marginally growing but there in lies the point. Real profits aren’t.

Record buybacks fueled by cheap debt is the cause for ‘flattered’ earnings. No growth in E  just falls in S.  EPS growth can look spectacular if you ignore 50% of US corporates have BBB credit ratings or worse.

The latest lexicon is “modern monetary theory” (MMT). The idea that the central banks just manipulate markets in perpetuity. Austerity is no longer needed. Central banks print money and extinguish debts the same way. Seriously why bother with taxation? The question is if it is meant to be a sure winner, why aren’t we all living in 5 bedroom mansions with a Mercedes Benz and a Porsche in the driveway? Why not a helicopter?

Logically if central banks can buy our way out of this debt ridden hellhole, why is growth so anemic? Why is European GDP being cut back? Why is German industrial production at its worst level since 2009? Why does Salvini want to jail the Italian central bankers? Why does the Yellow Vest movement in France carry on for its 15th consecutive week? If MMT works why would the EU care if the UK leaves with No Deal? MMT can solve everything for unelected bureaucrats in theory. Even £39bn can be printed

Last year the US Fed announced it had stopped reporting its balance sheet activity. In 2006 it stopped reporting M3 money supply. Curious timing when inside 2 years the world was flung into the worst recession since 1929. Transparency is now a danger for authorities.

The question boils down to one of basic sanity. All assets are priced relative to others. It’s why an identical house with a view in a nice neighborhood trades at a relatively higher price than one in a outer suburban back lot. The market attributes extra value even if the actual dwelling is a carbon copy. It is why currencies in banana republics trade by appointment and inflation remains astronomical. Investors don’t trust their ability to repay debts unless given extremely favorable terms. Market forces at work.

To put the shoe on the other foot, if all countries adopted MMT why bother buying bonds for retirement? The interest is merely backed by a printing press. Best consume 100% and save zero. The government has moved beyond moral hazard and hopes no one will notice

Take a look at Japan. It has $10 trillion in outstanding debt which is 2x its economy. The Bank of Japan owns 60% of that paper bought through a printing press. The market for JGBs is so manipulated that several Japanese mega banks have handed back their trading licenses because it has become worthless to be on that exchange. The BoJ thinks it can make whatever prices it chooses. The ultimate aim is to convert all of the outstanding debt into a zero coupon perpetual bond with a minor ‘administration’ fee in order to assign some value to it. To the layman, a zero coupon perpetual means you get no interest on the money you lend and the borrower is technically never required to pay the borrowed amount back. Such loans are made by parents to their children, not central banks to politicians (although one could be forgiven to think their behaviour is child like).

Yet the backdrop remains the same. Consumers are tapped out in many countries. Lulled by a low interest rates forever mentality, even minute rises to stem inflation (real is different to reported) hurt. My credit card company constantly sends emails to offer to transfer balances at 9% as opposed to the 20% they can charge if I don’t pay in full.

APRA recently relented on interest only mortgages after demanding it be tightened to prevent a housing bubble getting bigger. Now mortgage holders hope the RBA cuts rates to ease their pain.

Like most new fads, MMT can’t remove the ultimate dilemma that Milton Friedman told us half a century ago. Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. One can’t hope that putting money in the hands of everyone can be sustainable.

The one lesson that we should have learnt from GFC was that living at the expense of the future has rapidly diminishing returns. All we did was double down on that stupidity.

Do we think it normal that Sydney house prices  trade at levels the Japanese property bubble did in the late 1980s? Do we realize that we hold as much mortgage debt than Japanese banks did for a population 5x our size? Do we think that our banks are adequately stress tested? When an economy like ours has avoided recession for a quarter century, it builds complacency.

MMT is nothing more than a figment of the imagination. It preys on the idea that we won’t notice if we can’t see it. Unfortunately behind the scenes, the real economy can’t sustain the distortions. The French make the best modern day example of  a growing number of Main Streeters struggling  to make ends meet.

Central banks monkeying around with MMT smacks of all the same hubris of the past. It is experimental at best and reckless at worst. Markets can be manipulated for as long as confidence can be sustained. Lose the market’s trust and all of a sudden no amount of modern day jargon  can overcome what economists have known for millennia.

If you flood a global economy with cash at 5x the rate the economy can feasibly grow then it will ultimately require bigger and bigger hits to get the same bang before the jig is up. It’s a Ponzi scheme. Bernie Madoff got 120 years jail. Why not the central bankers?

So what is the best asset out there? Gold. It can’t be printed. It requires effort to discover it and dig it out of the ground. Of course the barbouros relic deserves to be consigned to the dustbin of history. If that were so Fort Knox might as well leave the gate open. The more it is hated only makes this contrarian investor want it more.

Why discontinue?

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This is a chart of the change in the US Fed balance sheet, a series that has just been discontinued. Is this because the Fed is about to step up its activity and offering wider disclosure on tapering activity might spook markets? Given that 72% of the growth in S&P earnings has been driven by buybacks since 2012, it stands to reason the market is not exactly providing the type of confidence inducing organic lift the index reflects. Bank of America revealed that “net buying of Tech sector in the 1H was entirely buyback-driven.” 

Kind of reminds CM of the day Bernanke’s Fed announced it would no longer report M3 money supply a year before the financial markets headed into the GFC. CM estimated on p.4 of a report several years ago that M3 money supply by 2018 on constant long-term growth rates would turn into around $35 trillion from the $10 trillion at the time it was discontinued.

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Nothing to see here? Throw a deteriorating fixed income market with fewer buyers and corporates that have binged on cheap credit to fuel buybacks, it doesn’t look like the stuff dreams are made of. The chart below shows that quarterly pre-tax US profitability is struggling since 2011. Earnings (E) are not doing so well. It is by the grace of falling number of traded shares (S) that makes the EPS look flattering.

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We took the liberty of comparing corporate 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.

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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.

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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 (but now hide the results of) its balance sheet. So as an investor, would you prefer the relative safety of government debt or take a punt on paper next to junk heading into a tightening cycle?

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Discontinuation of series always carries a sense of deep cynicism for its true intention. It is not an onerous data set to cull. Sure we can fossick around and try to find it hidden in the archives of the Fed website but the idea is that they probably don’t want to publicise how much more they intend to flog.

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!

$8.4 trillion of the $21 trillion in US debt matures in 4 years. What could possibly go wrong?

E0F20948-4A5A-48F1-B8AF-06FA92EBAC7AWith a US Fed openly stating it is looking to prune its bloated balance sheet by around $2 trillion, it seems that $8.4 trillion of that debt held by the public matures within the next 4 years according to the US Treasury. To that end, debt maturing in the next 10 years totals $12.233 trillion. It needs to be ‘rolled over’. The national debt pile has jumped $1 trillion in the last 6 months. After the GFC and an overly accommodative central bank, the Treasury took advantage of this free money. Under President Obama, the debt doubled. That’s right, debt in his 8 years equaled that of the previous 43 administrations combined. Most of it was short term meaning the mop up operation starts earlier.

While there is little doubt this $8.4 trillion will be recycled, the question is at what price. With rising rates and a Fed back-pedaling one would expect the interest bill can only lift. At the moment the US federal government pays around $457 billion p.a. in interest alone. Average interest rates rose for the first time since 2006. Were average rates to climb back to 2007 levels then the interest bill alone would surpass $1 trillion.

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This global aversion to tightening belts continues. Many US corporations have taken the same approach to their balance sheets as the government as pointed out in the previous example on GE. Lever up and be damned with the credit rating as the spreads have been almost irrelevant to higher rated paper. It has been a financially credible decision to lower WACC and increase ROE provided one didn’t lose control and overdose on free money. However the relatively short duration on corporate debt is facing a similar refinancing cliff as the US government.

All this cumulative debt needing refinancing while credit ratings are on average the worst they’ve ever been in a rising interest rate environment coupled with a bubble in bonds while a growing number of these levered consumer and industrial stocks have negative equity. What could possibly go wrong?

Do we see the Fed reverse its decision and embark on more QE? Indeed to do such a thing would tank the dollar and send the yen back towards the 70s to the US$. Interesting times ahead. Throw on the $7 trillion shortfall in state public pension liabilities and watch the fire from the other side of the river. Finally some university think tank has come out saying that wiping out the $1.5 trillion in student debt would be ‘stimulatory’ to the economy adding 1.5 million jobs. What a world we live in when we get to walk away from responsibility and accountability.

Should we trust ratings agencies on US state credit?

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The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission concluded in 2011 that “the global financial crisis could not have happened without the ‘Big Three’ agencies – Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch which allowed the ongoing trading of bad debt which they gave their highest ratings to despite over three trillion dollars of mortgage loans to homebuyers with bad credit and undocumented incomes.” The table above tabulates the deterioration in US corporate credit ratings since 2006. The ratings agencies have applied their trade far more diligently.

As written earlier in the week, US state public pensions are running into horrific headwinds. Unfunded pension liabilities are running at over double the level of 2008. With asset bubbles in stocks, bonds and property it is hard to see how plugging the gap (running at over 2x (California is 6x) the total tax take of individual states) in the event of a market correction is remotely realistic. However taking a look at the progression of US states’ credit ratings one would think that there is nothing to worry about. Even during GFC, very few states took a hit. See below.

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Looking at the trends of many states since 2000, many have run surpluses so the credit ratings do not appear extreme. It is interesting to flip through the charts of each state and see the trajectory of revenue collection. A mixed bag is putting it lightly. Whether the rebuild after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, since 2008 revenue collection in Louisiana has drifted.

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Looking through S&P’s own research at the end of last year it included an obvious reference.

U.S. state and local governments can use pension obligation bonds (POBs) to address the unfunded portion of their pension liabilities. In certain cases, POBs can be an affordable tool to lower unfunded pension liabilities. But along with the issuance of POBs comes risk. The circumstances that surround an issuance of POBs, as well as the new debt itself, could have implications for the issuer’s creditworthiness. S&P Global Ratings views POB issuance in environments of fiscal distress or as a mechanism for short-term budget relief as a negative credit factor.”

Perhaps the agencies have learnt a painful lesson and trying to stay as close to being behind the curve as possible. It doesn’t seem like public pensions are being factored at levels other than their actuarial values. Marked-to-market values would undoubtedly impact these credit ratings.

As mentioned in the previous piece on public pensions, a state like Alaska has public pension unfunded liabilities equal to $145,000 per household, treble the 2008 figure. It is 3.5x annual tax collections. The state’s per capita operating budget of $13,728 per person is way above the national average of $6,826 per person. Alaska relies on oil taxes to finance most of its operating budget, so a sudden drop in oil prices caused tax revenues to sharply decline. The EIA’s outlook doesn’t look promising in restoring those fortunes in any scenario. So S&P may have cut Alaska two places from AAA in 2015 to AA in 2017.

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While pension liabilities aren’t all due at once, the last 8 years have shown how quickly they can fester. It wasn’t so long ago that several Rhode Island public pension funds reluctantly agreed to a 40% haircut, later retirement ages and higher contributions with a larger component shifted from defined benefits to defined contributions raising the risk of market forces exerting negative outcomes on the pension fund.

In 2017, despite a ‘robust’ economy, 22 states faced revenue shortfalls. More states faced mid-year revenue shortfalls in the last fiscal year than in any year since 2010, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.

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Pew Charitable Trust (PCT) notes in FY2015 federal dollars as a share of state revenue increased in a majority of states (29). Health care grants have been the main driver of this. FY2015 was the 3rd highest percentage of federal grants to states since 1961.

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By state we can see which states got the heftiest federal grants. Most states with higher federal shares expanded their Medicaid programs under Obamacare (ACA) and got their first full year of grants under the expanded program in FY2015.

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PCT also wrote “At the close of fiscal year 2017, total balances in states’ general fund budgets—including rainy day funds—could run government operations for a median of 29.3 days, still less than the median of 41.3 days in fiscal 2007…North Dakota recorded the largest drop in the number of days’ worth of expenses held in reserves after drawing down almost its entire savings to cover a budget gap caused by low oil prices. It held just 5.4 days’ worth of expenditures in its rainy day fund at the end of fiscal 2017 compared with 69.4 days in the preceding year… 11 states anticipate withdrawing from rainy day funds under budget plans enacted for fiscal 2018

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Looking at the revenue trends of certain states, the level of collection has been either flat or on the wane since 2010 for around 26 states. As an aside, 23 of them voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. The three that didn’t were Maine, NJ and Illinois.

Optically US states seem to be able to justify the credit ratings above. Debt levels aren’t high for most. Average state debt is around 4% of annual income. Deficits do not seem out of control. However marking-to-market the extent of public pension unfunded liabilities makes current debt levels look mere rounding errors.

Considering stock, bond and property bubbles are cruising at unsustainably high levels, any market routs will only make the current state of unfunded liabilities blow out to even worse levels. The knock on effects for pensioners such as those taking a 40% haircut in Rhode Island at this stage in the cycle can only feasibly brace themselves for further declines. This is a ticking time bomb. More states will need to address the public pension crisis.

A national government shelling out c.$500bn in interest payments on its own debt in a rising rate environment coupled with a central bank paring back its balance sheet limits the options on the table. Moral hazard is back on the table folks. Is it any wonder that Blackstone has increased its short positions to $22 billion?

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