#unfundedliabilities

More public pension roadkill ahead

CM has been writing about the public pensions crisis in the US for years. This chart only serves to highlight that the problem doesn’t seem to be getting any better. It seems in Illinois, 200 of the 650 public pension funds out there have more beneficiaries than active workers contributing to the fund. By 2021 this is expected to be half of all public pension funds in Illinois.

ZeroHedge noted,

The value of all future pension promises to be paid out to public safety workers totalled just $320 million in 2005. By 2017, that number had jumped to nearly $600 million. That’s a jump of over 80% or more than three times the pace of inflation.

It’s the main reason why taxpayer contributions can’t keep up with pension costs. Pols are doing nothing to control the growth of promises to be paid, sticking taxpayers with ever-increasing costs and ratcheting up the likelihood the pension plans will fail…

… In 1987, municipalities owed a total of $2.6 billion in benefits earned to active and retired public safety workers across the state. Today, that number has jumped to more than $23 billion. That’s a jump of nearly nine times.”

Don’t forget what the Illinois Police Dept did several years back. IN June 2017 CM wrote,

“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) wroteAt 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 year…Fund 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.”

What have the police been doing? Retiring early and cashing in their pensions to avoid the inevitable.

The problem for Illinois is that a taxpayer-funded bailout is all but impossible. The State of Illinois ranked worst in the Fed study on unfunded liabilities.  The unfunded pension liability is around 24% of state GDP. In 2000 the unfunded gap to state revenue was 30% and in 2013 was 124% in 2013. Chicago City Wire adds that the police fund isn’t the only one in trouble.

“Chicago’s Teachers Union Pension Fund is $10.1 billion in debt. Its two municipal worker funds owe $11.2 billion and its fire department fund owes $3.5 billion…All will require taxpayer bailouts if they are going to pay retirees going into the next decade…Put in perspective, the City of Chicago’s property tax levy was $1.36 billion in 2017…Paying for retirees “as we go,” which will prove the only option once funds run dry, will require almost quadrupling city property tax bills…Last year, it would have required more than $4 billion in revenue– including $1 billion for City of Chicago workers, $1.5 billion for teachers, and $1.5 billion for retired police officers and firefighters.”

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 flavour. 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.

In order for states and local municipalities to overcome such gaps, they must reorganise the terms. It could be a simple task of telling retiree John Smith that his $75,000 annuity promised decades ago is now $25,000 as the alternative could be even worse if the terms are not accepted. Think of all the consumption knock-on effects of this. I doubt many Americans will accept that hands down, leading to class actions and even more turmoil.

Did CM mention gold?

Joe Nation’s Pension Tracker is a really good website to look at the actuarial setting of pensions against the marked-to-market unfunded liabilities. Have a stiff drink handy before you open up.

The Grim Repo

What a surprise to see markets show little reaction to the negative repo (repurchase agreements) market in the past week. So much nonchalance and complacency remain in financial markets. It is as if there is this false belief that the authorities can keep the ship afloat with magical modern monetary theory. Not a chance. The tipping points in the financial markets are quantum levels bigger than any that Sir David Attenborough could conjure up in his wildest pessimistic dreams. If we want to cut carbon emissions, the coming economic slump will take care of that.

On average there are $1 trillion of overnight repo transactions every day, collateralised with US Treasuries. Yet many missed that the repo market seized up late last week. Medium-term repos surged from the normal band of around 2.00~2.25% to around 5.25% on Monday. Some repo rates hit 10% on Tuesday.

Essentially what this said was that a bank must have seen that it was worth borrowing at an 8% premium overnight in return for pledging ‘risk-free’ US Treasuries at 2%. In any event, it allowed that particular bank to survive for another day. Banks use the repo market to fund the loans they issue and finance trades that are executed. It is like an institutional pawn shop.

Looking at it another way, why weren’t other banks willing to lend and take an 8% risk-free trade? A look at the global bank’s share price action would suggest that these bedrock financial institutions that grease the wheels of the economy are not in good shape. We just pretend they are. We look at the short term performance but ignore the deterioration in underlying balance sheets. The Aussie banks are future crash test dummies given the huge leverage to mortgages. As CM has been saying for years, the Big 4 risk whole or part nationalisation.

This recent repo action is reminiscent of that before the GFC. The Fed stepped in with $75bn liquidity per day to stabilise markets by bringing rates into the target range. The question is whether the repo action is a short-term aberration or the start of a longer-term quasi QE programme which turns into a full-blown QE programme.

The easiest way to look at the repo market action is to say the private markets are struggling to be self-funding, requiring central bank intervention. Bank of America believes the Fed may have to buy upwards of $400bn of securities to back the repo market this year alone.  This is another canary in the coal mine.

CM wrote a long piece back in July 2016 titled, “Dire Straits for Central Bankers.” In that report, we described how the velocity of money in the system was continuing to drift. As of now, central banks have printed the equivalent of $140 trillion since 2008 but have only managed to eke out $20 trillion in GDP growth. That is $7 of debt only generates $1 of GDP equivalent.

This is the problem. Companies are struggling to grow. US aggregate after-tax profits have gone sideways since 2012. We have been lulled into a false sense of security by virtue of aggressive share buyback programs that flatter EPS, despite the anaemic trend.

Despite the asset bubbles in stocks, bonds and property, pension funds, especially public sector retirement schemes, are at risk of insolvency given the unrealistic return assumptions and nose bleed levels of unfunded liabilities in the trillions.

Also worthy of note is the daily turnover of the gold derivatives market which has hit $280bn in recent months, or 850x daily mine production. This will put a lot more pressure on the gold physical market and also to those ETFs that have promissory notes against gold, as opposed to having it properly allocated.

We live in a world of $300 trillion of debt, $1.5 quadrillion in derivatives – until this is expunged and we start again, the global economy will struggle. That will also require the “asset” values to be similarly wiped out. Equity markets will plunge 90-95% relative to gold. That suggests a 1929 style great depression. The debt bubble is too big. Central banks have lost control.

Buy Gold.

Cate Faehrmann plays investor for a day

Investment managers have difficult jobs. They have to forecast a whole plethora of variables from global economic growth, currencies, commodity prices and micro level corporate industries. If governments can provide ironclad policy certainty, investment choices become relatively easier. Unfortunately, perfect information detracts from performance because things get priced almost instantaneously.

It might be nice that 415 funds all call for a ratification of Paris Climate Accord (which means nothing in practice as the US isn’t a signatory and its emissions have fallen while China is a signatory and emissions continue to rise) but truth be told,  it sounds what is commonly termed in financial circles as “talking one’s book.” NSW Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann pretends to understand finance in her latest piece.

While these 415 firms might represent $32 trillion in assets under management (AUM), the truth is not all of those funds are spoken for in terms of climate-related investments. Investment advisors by their very nature have very diverse client bases. They cover basic low-risk pension (i.e. stable income) funds all the way to riskier return profiles for clients that want more exposure to certain themes or countries. If clients aren’t interested in buying climate funds, the asset managers don’t gather fees. Pretty simple.

Much of the fund industry has focused on ESG (environment, social responsibility & governance) since its inception in 2005. ESG represents around $20 trillion of global AUM, or 25% of total professionally managed funds. Therefore the other 75% of monies are deployed without this in mind. In reality, this is done because investment managers must hunt for the best returns, not those which sacrifice profitability for virtue. If NAB offered you a 10% 1-yr deposit and no solar panels on the HQ roof and Westpac offered a 1% 1-yr deposit because it did, would you invest in the latter based on its ecomentalism?

Let’s take the world’s largest public pension fund (2 million members), California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) which is a cosignatory to this demand for climate action. Apart from the fact that this $380bn fund has been so poorly managed (marked to market unfunded liabilities are c.US$1 trillion), its portfolio consists of widespread ownership of met coal, petroleum and other mining assets. It owns bonds in fossil-fuel producing nations such as Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Saudi Arabia as well as highly environmentally unfriendly aluminium smelters in the world’s biggest polluter, China. So there goes the rhetoric of “demanding” Paris is ratified, that we shift to a low carbon economy and we force companies to report their carbon commitments.

It is frightening that some members of our political class believe that investment managers which collaborate in groupthink are worthy of listening to. On the contrary, the performance of many must be sub par. It is a sad reality that 80% of large-cap fund managers fail to outperform the index on a regular basis. So praying for governments to backstop investments they deployed capital into shows more desperation than innovation.

Maybe we should think of Adani as a classic example of investment at work. While Annastacia Palaszczuk’s government is backflipping on the Adani Carmichael coal mine after the electoral drubbing handed out to federal colleagues, the voluntary infrastructure tax is a cynical way to try to make the project less financially viable. After 8 years of ridiculous and onerous environmental approvals, Adani probably think it only needs to wait til October 2020 when an election will wipe out Queensland Labor from government and the infrastructure tax will be repealed soon after.

CM has long held that the non-ESG names are the place to invest. Most of the auto-pilot, brain dead, virtue signalling group think money has been poured into ESG. All non-ESG companies care about is profitability, not focusing on all the soft cuddly things they do displayed on the corporate lobby TV screens on a loop. Sadly when markets inevitably implode, investors always seek safe havens to limit the damage. As so much money is collectively invested together, so the bigger the stampede to the relatively attractive values provided by the stocks that have been cast aside by “woke” investors.