#timebomb

Pension blackhole widens

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CM has been saying for quite some time that the US public pension system is a runaway train running out of track. It seems Zerohedge today confirms many of those same trends. The ratcheting down of return targets by ridiculously small amounts because to actuarially mark-to-market to reality is too scary to contemplate.

To quote the article,

CalSTRS is making the bold move to drop its future goal to… 7%…And CalPERS is ratcheting down its return goals in steps to… wait for it, 7% by 2021.

with interest rates near their lowest levels in human history, it’s been difficult for these pensions to generate a suitable return without taking on more and more risk.

And that’s another big problem with pensions – their investment returns are totally unrealistic.

Most pension funds require a minimum annual return of about 8% a year to cover their future liabilities.

But that 8% is really difficult to generate today, especially if you’re buying bonds (which is the largest asset for most pensions). So pensions are allocating more capital to riskier assets like stocks and private equity.”

If the status quo is so good why would we vote out the incumbents?

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Almost everywhere we look, we’re told by the political class how good our lot is. Our blessed Aussie PM told us, “It has never been a better time to be an Australian.” Boosted asset prices, low unemployment and tepid inflation gives the illusion of real wealth for everyone. As an electorate, if all of that were true, why wouldn’t we be going out of our way to make sure the status quo gets voted back in with similar if not greater majorities? As it stands, more and more incumbent parties are hanging on by their finger nails, being forced to create alliances to stay in power rather than stick to the principles their parties were founded on. The irony is that these grand coalitions are formed on the tenets of ignorant ‘un-populism.’

The latest election cycle shows us that a growing number of people aren’t buying mediocrity. They’re sick of incumbent politicians ignoring them. The current crop of leaders seem to think that being less worse than the opposition is a virtue to be proud of. Yet poverty levels continue to rise and wealth is not trickling down to the masses. Even rising state entitlements have a finite life and the electorate knows it. Being married to the government is not seen as a desirable strategy long term. Deficits keep rising and look increasingly hard to pay down.

Searching through the St Louis Fed database, civilian employment under Obama managed to grow 2.5% on pre-crash levels. So the US loaded up on $9 trillion in short term debt to create 4 million net new jobs. That works out at $2.25 million per worker. Hardly an achievement. Yet despite that economic growth has dithered at the lowest post recession rates ever. As much as we might want to celebrate record low unemployment these are not proud statistics. The quality of jobs keeps going down. $8.4 trillion of this federal debt load needs to be refinanced inside 4 years. $12.3 trillion inside 10 years. While politicians can call the average voter stupid, the daily struggles of the average punter shows how out of touch the law makers are. This was the grand mistake made by Clinton. While she hung out with her elite mates at $1,000 plate dinners in Democrat strongholds in LA, NY and Chicago expecting a coronation, Trump hit the little people and had crowds flocking to see him.

While Trump’s trade tariffs seem daft on the face of it, it was done for the forgotten people who voted for him. He is not concerned about the consequences. That’s the point. So much of his platform appears abhorrent but he is the only politician in danger of being raked over coals for keeping his promises. That’s why he was elected. The status quo had failed to deliver over decades. 80% of the population didn’t benefit from the asset bubble post GFC. The 1% took 42% of those gains. The average Joe and Joanne see this. While they might not fully comprehend it they know enough to see their situation is not much better.

Take a look at Trudeau’s India debacle. Apart from the embarrassing wardrobe saga, the bigger problems came when he blamed the Indians for letting a known terrorist attend a state dinner. The Indians, unsurprisingly, were most unhappy at the accusation. Many look to Trudeau as the posterchild of the left, pushing peoplekind. Telling Canadians that he will convert returning ISIS fighters with haiku poetry, podcasts and comparing them to Italian migrants at the end of WW2 is utterly preposterous to his constituents. Telling his veterans they’re asking for too much flies in the face of love of one’s country. No wonder his popularity continues to dive. His speech to the UN – where he rattled off how Canada was ticking all the UN diversity boxes – was only a quarter full. Not even his own liberal mates rallied to show unity in numbers. It was telling that virtue signalling is all about appearing to do good rather than doing it.  Yet the day before Trudeau presented, Trump spoke of America First and the audience was packed. They might have hated every word that dripped from his tongue but they didn’t miss it for the world. It is hard talk. Not carefully prepared politically correct nonsense.

Take the recent European elections. Germany gave Merkel the worst ever performance of the CDU post WW2. The SPD was even worse. The anti-immigrant AfD stormed to 16%. Is it any wonder that when Merkel’s misguided altruism  showed up on Election Day even she finally conceded we have a problem with “no go zones”. Some may wish to look at the Merkel miracle of growth and low unemployment but the public service in Germany has exploded from 9% pre 2008 crash to 16% today. Not private sector growth but public sector.

The Italian election showed over 60% of the vote went to eurosceptic parties. While volatility has always been a feature of Italian politics, this results showed the discontent underbelly of Italy which has seen poverty jump 50% to one third of the population since Lehman collapsed. While M5S said it wouldn’t form a coalition, all bets are off if it tied up with League. There are plenty of overlaps on the party platforms but the M5S would have to insist on the PM role. The EU would go into a tailspin on such news.

Austria voted in a wunderkind who put the right wing anti immigrant FPO in charge of immigration. Holland saw Wilders claw more seats. Nationalist Marine LePen in France doubled the number of seats ever attained by the Front National. Even Macron is changing his spots looking to introduce national service and take a harder line against migrant crime.

Whether the real statistics of migrant crime are wholly accurate or not is beside the point. It is increasingly seen as an election issue and more EU countries have had enough. They feel their lot is getting worse and view forking out billions in aid for people to settle here is pennies out of their pocket. If the stats are as the government sugar coats them to be in terms of the prevailing prosperity surely the citizens would overwhelmingly back them. Sadly the opposite is true meaning politicians aren’t selling their “compassion” effectively. Too many examples of gagging the police and muzzling the press have surfaced.

That is the thing. If the economy was rosy and bullish and more people felt secure there is a likelihood they would look at the immigration debate in a more positive light. All they see now is millions flocking to Europe as poverty is on the rise and the economy is on the back foot at ground zero. European EU-28 GDP hasn’t grown since Q4 2015. Despite a quadrupling of ECB assets net jobs created post GFC numbers 4 million, labour force participation remains below the peak. However we should not forget that Romania and Bulgaria joined in Jan 2007 and Croatia in 2013 which would add (at a 50% employment ratio) c.20mn meaning that employment in the EU on a like for like basis as a whole is down 16mn jobs ceteris paribus. Even if only Croatia was included then net jobs creation in EU-28 would be a paltry 2mn, or a smidgen above 1%. Anemic.

Yet the political class still doesn’t seem to be learning, especially the EU. Poland and Hungary have formed a pact to reject proposed quotas on migrants. The EU has failed to address the most important question. The wishes of the migrants themselves. It is one thing for the EU to appeal to voters as saving asylum seekers from war torn lands (when 80% are economic migrants by the EU’s own numbers), it is another to forcibly send them to countries that flat out don’t want them. Ask for a show of hands of asylum seekers looking to stay in Germany or head off to Hungary to settle and the likelihood is 100:0. Trying to make Hungarians or Poles feel guilty for being incompassionate is a price they’re clearly willing to pay with losing EU membership. Would we take kindly to a neighbor telling us how to arrange our furniture in the living room or sign a petition to prevent us building extensions even though it is not even in their way? Of course not. Still wagging fingers in disapproval is only likely to steel their resolve.

Flip to the Southern Hemisphere and Australian politics is also exposing the sordid state of the swamp. 5 PMs in 10 years. Now the Deputy PM has had to resign to the back bench and in a last ditched effort to claim some sort of moral high ground with the staffer he was having an affair with. He claimed he would still look after her even though a paternity test might show the kid wasn’t his. What a grub and a slap in the face for his partner to imply she may have been promiscuous. Once again the popularity of the incumbent parties in Australia continues to sink to all time lows. The Labor Party looks to have the next election in the bag but even then the popularity of the opposition leader is woefully tiny.

While the world seems to be in this state of blissful tranquility on the outside, we needn’t probe too deep before seeing how bad things continue to be on the inside. The little people may not have any financial fire power but at the ballot box they have an equal opportunity to stuff those that aren’t listening. Once again Italy shows us it wants change. Call it populism if you must but it is truly a reflection of just how bad things really are and how little ammunition to deal with any future crises remains. The little people are raising their voices. Best heed their words. It is the same reason why as zero chance as Trump looks in 2020, don’t bet against another 4 years in the White House. If the Dems hope that celebrities that talk of #METOO and gun control (all the while they attend Oscars semi-naked and collect their millions doing action films full of explosions and automatic weapons fire) will sway them to a return to the swamp they’re sorely mistaken.

Italy votes – will it mimic the referendum?

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Remember the 2016 Italian referendum which was to decide on  whether to grant more power to the incumbent party to accelerate decision making? Well it ended up being a vote on ousting then PM Renzi who put his resignation on the ballot if it failed. The split between the yes/no was largely decided by economic condition. The poorer southern regions were distinctly red while a smattering of wealthy areas voted green (yes).

It is kind of telling that the furthest province in the north (Bolzano/Bozen) had the highest YES vote (63.69%) in the country while the Province of Catania (south-east Sicily) had the highest NO vote at 74.56%. Bolzano/Bozen was diligent with a 67.41% turnout vs 57.41% in Catania. It is a rich/poor divide by the looks of things. If you wish to dig into the details look no further than this site for who voted how.

The last poll showed Beppo Grillo’s eurosceptic M5S party leading with 28%. Berlusconi’s centre right Forza Italia alliance with the anti-immigrant The League is expected to get around 29%. The incumbent PD is looking at around 20%.

Since the collapse of Lehman in 2008, Italy has added 3mn to poverty (now 18mn or 29.7% of the population; EU average is 25%) with the unemployment rate above 11%. Since Merkel’s open door policy 600,000 illegal immigrants have flocked to Italy from Libya.

Italy is the 3rd largest economy in Europe and 30% of corporate debt is held by SMEs who can’t even make enough money to repay the interest. The banks have been slow to write off loans on the basis it will eat up the banks’ dwindling capital. It feels so zombie lending a la Japan in the early 1990s but on an even worse scale.

Monte Dei Paschi De Siena, a bank steeped in 540 years of history has 31% NPLs and its shares are 99.9% below the peak in 2007. Even Portugal and Spain have lower levels of NPLs. The IMF suggested that in southern parts of Italy NPLs for corporates is closer to 50%!

However one views the rising wave of nationalism in Europe, Italy will likely follow the pattern of Austria, the UK, Germany, Holland, Poland, Hungary and France. A growing number of European citizens want to be first in line rather than feel they have an EU directed obligation to bow down to political correctness. How else do we explain the AfD’s surge past the SPD?

If the eurosceptic/anti-immigrant patties get up  we shouldn’t be the least surprised. More Europeans want their own countries to be made great again. The house of cards is crumbling.

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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