When the tide goes out we learn who has been swimming without clothes

The Lucky Country tends to lack the entrepreneurial spirit.

The reasons behind this are many, my personal view is that it’s a function of the incentives in the economy; for four decades, Australians have been rewarded by investing in property or working in industries relating to it.

The corollary to this is that there’s been few reasons and rewards for investing one’s cash or pension into stocks, shares, bonds and non-property assets.

Some people have won bigly in this environment. Fair play to them, they followed the cues and were rewarded accordingly.

Mark Bouris is one such big winner. In the 1990s he made his fortune in the mortgage finance business and has continued to go from strength to strength ever since.

The danger of viewing this type of success from a distance is believing that it is a) due to the unique and mercurial skills of the winner and, b) that it is repeatable across industries and markets or indeed, time.

In other words, just because Mark made a large fortune from real estate in a market where everyone made small fortune from real estate, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he can continue to make money in different areas or even in his area of expertise.

Today will be interesting, therefore; Yellow Brick Road shares suspended after trading close.

Bill’s Opinion

In a rising market, everyone is a genius.

Mark Bouris’ Yellow Brick Road might be having some innocent difficulties with the regular filing requirements.

On the other hand, 18 months into a property price downturn and an environment of tighter lending, one company has to be the first major casualty.

On verra.

Responsible borrowing

Australia is on a bank-bashing roll currently. As the market (and by that we mean property market – really the only important market in the Dutch Diseased country) rose solidly over the previous decades, the national psyche shifted to one where the expectation of continued growth became pervasive.

To a certain extent, that’s a rational position to take; if everybody, lending institutions and central banks included, is predicting a double digit rise next year there’s wisdom in listening to them.

There’s a similar theory about “technical analysis” of stock charts, that it might not be based on any underlying science but, because everybody believes in “support lines” and “double tops”, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

However, trees don’t grow to the sky and no market moves in a straight line.

More importantly, if you’re going to make a bet, any bet, you better bloody well know that you can live with the wrong result should it occur.

Westpac has been hit with the first class action against one of the big four since the banking royal commission’s final report earlier this month.

Lead plaintiff Michelle Tate told a media conference in Brisbane on Thursday she and her husband Ian were ruined after the bank lent them more than $1.8 million across five properties, despite the family having just one income.

Ms Tate said Westpac trusted a loan broker who provided information about her family’s financial position, and did not independently verify the situation. She said her family would now lose all of their properties save for a block of land.

Wait, what?

They bought their first home in 2008 but decided to invest in a further three in 2013 and 2014 while Mrs Tate was a full-time mum, all funded through Westpac loans they locked in as interest only and secured against their first property.

Are you insane?

Maurice Blackburn Principal lawyer Ben Slade said Westpac was “required to comply with strict obligations which are specifically designed to protect consumers from irresponsible lending and the risk of financial hardship”.

“This case will seek to prove that Westpac failed to comply with these obligations and that this failure caused substantial losses for many consumers,” he said.

That highlighted claim reminds me of the regrettable line we all mistakenly say once in our lives;

“Honey, does this dress make my bum look fat?”

“No dear, your bum makes your bum look fat”.

Bill’s Opinion

Michelle Tate and her husband knew exactly what they were doing when then went all in on property. It was a one way bet they couldn’t lose.

Blaming the bank that lent you the money in the hope of compensation is an understandable tactic and a common coping mechanism rather than coming to terms with one’s own stupidity and greed.

But you were still stupid and greedy and you absolutely knew what you were doing.

Write down the NBN? Write the whole thing off

We’ve spoken before on the utter disaster that is Australia’s National Broadband Network and how it was unlikely to ever achieve its stated goal and also cost significantly more than budgeted.

Well, things just got a whole lot worse for the beleaguered Australian taxpayer as it would seem reality is starting to rudely impose itself on the business model, such that it is: The NBN will need to write off a huge chunk of value, if that’s even possible now.

Crikey (in the vernacular), who ever could have predicted that?

Oh yes, everyone.

From the article:

It is self-evident that you can’t write $20 billion off a $10 billion (or less) equity base.

Ya reckon?

Rue made the point that when people called for a write-down, what they were actually calling for was a dramatic reduction in wholesale prices. It’s a mechanism, not the objective.

There are alternatives to a write-down that could lower wholesale prices, although they would involve heavy costs for government.

Hold on one second, sunshine…. heavy costs for whom?

The government? Nope, don’t think so. The government only has money for one of the following reasons:

1. Taxes paid by citizens (yes, that includes corporation tax – who do you think buys their goods and services?)

2. Borrowing on behalf of the public….which will be repaid by, yep, taxes

Read this with that in mind:

If the federal government were to cash out the $7.4 billion of subscriber payments and buy out the lease agreement, it would effectively inject more than $20 billion of value into NBN Co by carving those payments from its cost base and boosting its cash flows.

The substantial change in its economics would enable NBN Co to pass through the savings to retailers without damaging its ability to generate a positive IRR.

Or, in English; if the government spent more money it would make the NBN company seem like it was less of a turd.

Bill’s Opinion

The lesson every generation of voters always has to learn the hard way is, if you really want to fuck something up, and I mean really fuck something up and stay fucked up for a bloody long time, get the government to do it.

Because of/despite Brexit (delete where appropriate)

From the BBC (Brexit Blocking Corporation), comes this tale of woe and personal disasters.

British nationals who have retired to EU countries may no longer have their healthcare costs covered by the NHS in the event of a no-deal Brexit and many are considering returning home, reports Vishala Sri-Pathma.

Why’s that?

Currently expat pensioners can get treatment reimbursed by the NHS under an EU-wide deal

Ah, yes that would be a problem.

How does it currently work?

Pensioners who have paid in to the UK’s national insurance system for the qualifying number of years benefit from the S1 reciprocal healthcare rules if they retire in EU/EEA countries or Switzerland.

What’s the revenue flow for that arrangement, one wonders? How much is charged each way, who runs the deficit?

The system currently saves the NHS about £450m a year. In 2017, a senior health department official told a parliamentary select committee that Spain charges an average of £2,300 for every pensioner it treats, compared with £4,500 charged by the NHS.

I though the NHS was “the envy of the world“? Are we now saying it’s twice as expensive for the same outcome?

Why on earth hasn’t Britain started running hospital tourism cruises to Santander and saved a fortune?

Yet there are no guarantees that this arrangement will continue under the Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposals to protect the rights of EU citizens, including the 1.2 million Britons living elsewhere in the EU.

Frankly, nobody has a clue what bloody deal will be implemented on March 29th, least of all the incompetent idiots negotiating it.

The UK government is currently advising expat Brits in the EU to register for access to healthcare in the EU/EEA country they live in, as some residents may need to be a long-term resident or to pay social security contributions to access free or discounted healthcare.

Good advice.

Of course, even better advice is; whenever you reside in a new country long enough to qualify for citizenship, seriously consider it as an option, given that taxation and immigration are the most frequently amended laws.

Residents of Spain, take note.

Another consideration is to plan for changes in laws. The European reciprocal arrangement for healthcare has only been in existence for about 15 years. Anyone emigrating for a retirement in Asia from Europe would budget for healthcare insurance, in contrast.

Another blow to the British in Spain has been the falling value of the pound. “It’s (Brexit) costing me great amounts of money in my pocket,” one bowler says as he lines up the balls for the next game. “I’d like to sees the exchange rate to go back to what it was six years ago – but that’s wishful thinking.”

Let’s fact check that shall we?

How long has the pound been in decline and is it really due to Brexit?

It’s currently sitting around $1.29, so unless the Forex markets knew about the Brexit vote result back in 2010, there’s not much about the exchange rate one can blame on Brexit.

If your retirement financial plan is underwater after a negative 10% exchange rate change, consider the possibility you weren’t ready to retire.

But possibly the best quote in the whole article is this:

“When I voted to leave I didn’t think it would change anything,” says Yvonne Stone

Good grief.

Bill’s Opinion

On verra. On verra.

Special pleaders gonna plead specially

For those not following the Australian economy (and judging by the readership statistics of this blog, that’s most of you), there’s some huge fun to be had in observing the logical knots people are currently tying for themselves.

 

The problem is that the Reserve Bank of Australia has again, not lowered interest rates. The last time the RBA moved rates was in August 2016, down from 1.75 to 1.5%.

 

I have a real job, i.e. I’m not an economist, so whether or not the RBA is taking the correct course of action is not really something I’m qualified to comment on. However, I am able to spot blatant special pleading when I see it:

 

The “Kouk is lining himself up for a job as an advisor in the next Federal government, assuming the current incumbents lose the election. This is likely to be a nice final job before his retirement. An ongoing house price crash in the two biggest cities of Australia will make this semi-retirement gig far more stressful than he’d appreciate.

 

 

The “Doc” was recently the “Chief Economist” (whatever that means; how many do they have to employ to need a chief?) at Domain, the only profitable arm of Fairfax…. until it was sold off. He was fired last year and is now pitching himself as “Chief Economist” of a company called My Property Market. The website of this esteemed company is still under construction, but I’m sure it’ll be finished soon. After all, they’ve got at least one employee now….. 

 

One imagines the Doc is personally very heavily invested in property.

One of the unusual quirks of the Australian property market is that there is a tax incentive to run your investment properties at a slight revenue loss.

There are, of course, two minor problems with this; firstly, you’re accepting an operating loss today in the hope of a capital gain tomorrow, and secondly, the tax benefit only works while you’re drawing a salary or other income at a level that attracts the higher marginal tax rates to offset the negative gearing. Amateur property investors who get fired from their regular job are clobbered with a double whammy, in other words. Ouch.

Bill’s Opinion

 

In the words of Upton Sinclair,

 

 It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

 

Westpac’s Diversity and Inclusion Officer writes…

…about banking and house prices. One wonders how that got past the Corporate Affairs twinkies.

Obviously we’re being facetious, Brian isn’t really the Head of LGBTQI123& non-TERF Advocacy (not that you’d know it to look at what he seems to spend most of his time focusing on).

No, he’s the CEO of Westpac

Which means, on balance, the article is even more worrying.

Why?

Ask yourself a question; when the CEO of the 2nd biggest bank decides to write a blog post explaining that the property market isn’t crashing, that the bank is sound and they are still open for business, does that make you feel great comfort and security?

Or, do you think to yourself, “why is he telling me this, why wouldn’t everything be fine, what does he know that I don’t?

Bill’s Opinion

The lady doth protest too much, methinks

It’s highly unlikely any of the major Australian banks are going to be in trouble any time soon. However, the prime candidate if one does hit hard times would be the one with the largest exposure to interest only investment loans and a top of the market (2007) acquisition of a competitor that they never got round to integrating and realising economies of scale….

Golgafrincham “Ark Buzzfeed”

… “I mean, I couldn’t help noticing,” said Ford, also taking a sip, “the bodies. In the hold.”

“Bodies?” said the Captain in surprise.

Ford paused and thought to himself. Never take anything for granted, he thought. Could it be that the Captain doesn’t know he’s got fifteen million dead bodies on his ship?

The Captain was nodding cheerfully at him. He also appeared to be playing with a rubber duck.

Ford looked around. Number Two was staring at him in the mirror, but only for an instant: his eyes were constantly on the move. The first officer was just standing there holding the drinks tray and smiling benignly.

“Bodies?” said the Captain again.

Ford licked his lips.

“Yes,” he said, “All those dead telephone sanitizers and account executives, you know, down in the hold.”

The Captain stared at him. Suddenly he threw back his head and laughed.

“Oh they’re not dead,” he said, “Good Lord no, no they’re frozen. They’re going to be revived.”

Ford did something he very rarely did. He blinked.

Arthur seemed to come out of a trance.

“You mean you’ve got a hold full of frozen hairdressers?” he said.

“Oh yes,” said the Captain, “Millions of them. Hairdressers, tired TV producers, insurance salesmen, personnel officers, security guards, public relations executives, management consultants, you name them. We’re going to colonize another planet.”

Ford wobbled very slightly.

“Exciting isn’t it?” said the Captain.

“What, with that lot?” said Arthur.

“Ah, now don’t misunderstand me,” said the Captain, “we’re just one of the ships in the Ark Fleet. We’re the ‘B’ Ark you see. Sorry, could I just ask you to run a bit more hot water for me?”

Arthur obliged, and a cascade of pink frothy water swirled around the bath. The Captain let out a sigh of pleasure.

“Thank you so much my dear fellow. Do help yourselves to more drinks of course.”

Ford tossed down his drink, took the bottle from the first officer’s tray and refilled his glass to the top.

“What,” he said, “is a ‘B’ Ark?”

“This is,” said the Captain, and swished the foamy water around joyfully with the duck.

“Yes,” said Ford, “but …”

“Well what happened you see was,” said the Captain, “our planet, the world from which we have come, was, so to speak, doomed.”

“Doomed?”

“Oh yes. So what everyone thought was, let’s pack the whole population into some giant spaceships and go and settle on another planet.”

Having told this much of his story, he settled back with a satisfied grunt.

“You mean a less doomed one?” prompted Arthur.

“What did you say dear fellow?”

“A less doomed planet. You were going to settle on.”

“Are going to settle on, yes. So it was decided to build three ships, you see, three Arks in Space, and … I’m not boring you am I?”

“No, no,” said Ford firmly, “it’s fascinating.”

“You know it’s delightful,” reflected the Captain, “to have someone else to talk to for a change.”

Number Two’s eyes darted feverishly about the room again and then settled back on the mirror, like a pair of flies briefly distracted from their favourite prey of months old meat.

“Trouble with a long journey like this,” continued the Captain,”is that you end up just talking to yourself a lot, which gets terribly boring because half the time you know what you’re going to say next.”

“Only half the time?” asked Arthur in surprise.

The Captain thought for a moment.

“Yes, about half I’d say. Anyway – where’s the soap?” He fished around and found it.

“Yes, so anyway,” he resumed, “the idea was that into the first ship, the ‘A’ ship, would go all the brilliant leaders, the scientists, the great artists, you know, all the achievers; and into the third, or ‘C’ ship, would go all the people who did the actual work, who made things and did things, and then into the `B’ ship – that’s us – would go everyone else, the middlemen you see.”

He smiled happily at them.

“And we were sent off first,” he concluded, and hummed a little bathing tune.

The little bathing tune, which had been composed for him by one of his world’s most exciting and prolific jingle writer (who was currently asleep in hold thirty-six some nine hundred yards behind them) covered what would otherwise have been an awkward moment of silence. Ford and Arthur shuffled their feet and furiously avoided each other’s eyes.

“Er …” said Arthur after a moment, “what exactly was it that was wrong with your planet then?”

“Oh, it was doomed, as I said,” said the Captain, “Apparently it was going to crash into the sun or something. Or maybe it was that the moon was going to crash into us. Something of the kind. Absolutely terrifying prospect whatever it was.”

“Oh,” said the first officer suddenly, “I thought it was that the planet was going to be invaded by a gigantic swarm of twelve foot piranha bees. Wasn’t that it?”

Number Two span around, eyes ablaze with a cold hard light that only comes with the amount of practise he was prepared to put in.

“That’s not what I was told!” he hissed, “My commanding officer told me that the entire planet was in imminent danger of being eaten by an enormous mutant star goat!”

“Oh really …” said Ford Prefect.

“Yes! A monstrous creature from the pit of hell with scything teeth ten thousand miles long, breath that would boil oceans, claws that could tear continents from their roots, a thousand eyes that burned like the sun, slavering jaws a million miles across, a monster such as you have never … never … ever …”

“And they made sure they sent you lot off first did they?” inquired Arthur.

“Oh yes,” said the Captain, “well everyone said, very nicely I thought, that it was very important for morale to feel that they would be arriving on a planet where they could be sure of a good haircut and where the phones were clean.”

“Oh yes,” agreed Ford, “I can see that would be very important. And the other ships, er … they followed on after you did they?”

For a moment the Captain did not answer. He twisted round in his bath and gazed backwards over the huge bulk of the ship towards the bright galactic centre. He squinted into the inconceivable distance.

“Ah. Well it’s funny you should say that,” he said and allowed himself a slight frown at Ford Prefect, “because curiously enough we haven’t heard a peep out of them since we left five years ago … but they must be behind us somewhere.”

He peered off into the distance again.

Ford peered with him and gave a thoughtful frown.

“Unless of course,” he said softly, “they were eaten by the goat …”

“Ah yes …” said the Captain with a slight hesitancy creeping into his voice, “the goat …” His eyes passed over the solid shapes of the instruments and computers that lined the bridge. They winked away innocently at him. He stared out at the stars, but none of them said a word. He glanced at his first and second officers, but they seemed lost in their own thoughts for a moment. He glanced at Ford Prefect who raised his eyebrows at him.

“It’s a funny thing you know,” said the Captain at last, “but now that I actually come to tell the story to someone else …”

Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Bill’s Opinion

It’s still not safe to click any links on the internet, but this is a start.

Australian banks’ dichotomy

This is not a trick question, but what is the primary purpose of a retail (AKA commercial) bank?

 

Assuming it’s not been nationalised, like RBS and other 2008 basket cases, presumably the main function of a bank is to make money for its owners, i.e. the shareholders. Sure, the corporate mission statement might waffle on about helping customers through the key milestones on their life journey, blah, blah, blah, but if they don’t increase the shareholder’s value, they’re dead.

 

Australian retail banks have performed this task very well over the years. CBA’s share price and dividend history is shown below as an example, the other 3 major banks are not dissimilar;

 

 

That the dividends barely missed a beat following the minor difficulties in the banking world in 2008 is amazing. Of course, this masks a slightly inconvenient fact that they were supported by an implicit government guarantee of a bail out should one be required, allowing investors to remain calm and not rush for the exit like in other jurisdictions.

 

Gifts rarely come without an expectation of a quid pro quo, however. In the Australian case, the banks are expected to “do the right thing” by the public, by which we mean, “help the government”.

 

On the way up, when values are increasing and there’s a wealth effect to the public, or at least those exposed to the upside of property ownership, these two purposes (shareholder value and public service) are reasonably well-aligned.

On the way down, as property values decrease and regular members of the public start to experience financial pressure, the two purposes diverge. If the government of the day would like the bank CEOs to show some forbearance to those in distress or even take a haircut on the margin between borrowing and lending costs, the bank shareholders are going to suffer.

 

What might this mean in the short to medium term?

 

There’s a few factors at play currently which may provide us with an indication of how the next year or two might play out.

 

  1. The Royal Commission in to the financial sector has unearthed some unpleasantness by most major institutions. There will be ramifications for the sector in terms of increased oversight and regulation.
  2. Macroprudential restrictions on lending has resulted in a cooling of the housing market with prices down around 10% from the 2017 peak and perhaps, conservatively, 1 in 10 owner occupier mortgages being in negative equity (more, according to some sources).
  3. A likely change of government in May and the possibility of the removal of some tax breaks for new owners of investment properties.
  4. Costs of borrowing from overseas sources (currently about 60% of mortgage funding) has increased and looks likely to continue to do so, albeit mildly, during 2019.
  5. A halving of the number of foreign (by which we mean Chinese) property investors buying in Australia since the peak in 2014.

 

Predictions are notoriously difficult, especially about the future, but this combination of factors suggest that the decline in values is unlikely to halt during the next 12 months.

Whichever flavour of government is in power, and let’s face it, there’s little difference between the two parties other than one group is more competent at being corrupt than the other, won’t really matter; neither of the major parties are going to enjoy governing during a -15% or perhaps -20% property crash.

The calls to “do something, do anything” are going to become deafening.

The professional economic troll, Stephen Koukoulas, and the “Chief Economist” of My Property Market (i.e. the only employee), Dr. Andrew Wilson, are already flooding social media with pathetic begging of the Reserve Bank to cut rates.

God only knows how many more vested interests will come out of the woodwork over the coming months. 

 

Bill’s Opinion

 

Obviously, the government is going to call in the favours owed. At the very least, banks are going to have to take a hit on margins. The banking regulator, APRA, may find itself under political pressure to ease the responsible lending restrictions that have been put in place and then banks will be “encouraged” to open the spigots again. Friendly State Governments may be under pressure to reverse restrictions on overseas ownership.

 

None, some or all of this might “work”. 

 

Regardless though, shareholders of the banks are going to take one in the chops.

 

Wasn’t this tried once before in one half of Germany?

That this should come from a German politician’s mouth is somewhat ironic.

Spahn, a conservative heavyweight among Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats who recently lost a contest to become the party’s leader, described a knock-on effect of countries attracting doctors from neighboring countries, as is the case with Switzerland taking in German physicians.

That’ll be the “free movement of labour” thing that the EU is so much in favour of then.

Or is the deal that only low skilled labour should be allowed to move so as to keep a downward pressure on domestic wages?

“That cannot be right. We should therefore think about whether we need to create new regulations on the luring away of people with certain professions within the EU, and without fundamentally calling into question the freedom of movement within Europe,” he was quoted as saying.

Bill’s Opinion

The good news is, the Germans have relatively recent experience and understanding on what the solution is to this.

The bad news is, if Trump gets his budget passed, there’ll be a global shortage of workers with the skills to build it for a year or two;