Category Archives: Investing

Huge New Prop under the Stock Market is a One-Time Affair, by Wolf Richter

The biggest buyers in the stock market are corporations buying their own overvalued shares. From Wolf Richter at wolfstreet.com:

Crash insurance with an expiration date. But its working while it lasts.

In May, with great and perfectly orchestrated fanfare, US corporations announced plans to buy back $173.6 billion of their own shares sometime in the future. It was the largest monthly buyback announcement ever. And some of the announcements were expertly timed to overcome operational debacles.

The record amount of share repurchase announcements was due “in large part” to the changes in the corporate tax law, according to TrimTabs, which gathered the data.

This report was released when the digital ink was still drying on my musings about the FANGMAN stocks – Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google’s parent Alphabet, Microsoft, Apple, and Nvidia – that are so immensely overvalued that Goldman Sachs considered it necessary to come out with a note explaining that, based on fundamentals, they’re actually not in a bubble, which I had some fun pooh-pooing.

Some of the FANGMAN stocks are massive share buyback queens, such as Apple and Microsoft. Others are bottomless cash-sinkholes, such as junk-rated Netflix, which has to constantly raise new money, either by selling more shares or selling debt, so that it has more fuel to burn through, and it doesn’t have a dime to buy back its own shares.

That $173.6 billion in share repurchase plans includes the record-breaking mega-announcement from Apple that it would buy back $100 billion of its own shares. Here are the top five that account for $134.3 billion, or 77% of the total:

  • Apple: $100 billion
  • Micron: $10 billion
  • Qualcomm: $8.8 billion
  • Adobe: $8.0 billion
  • T-Mobile: $7.5 billion

To put that May total of $173.6 billion – these are just announcements of planned repurchases sometime in the future that may never fully transpire – into perspective: In Q1, total actual share buybacks reported by the S&P 500 companies amounted to $178 billion, an all-time record. That averages out to “only” $59.3 billion a month on average, compared to the announcements in May of $173.6 billion.

To continue reading: Huge New Prop under the Stock Market is a One-Time Affair

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Three critical lessons from Europe’s recent mini-meltdown, by Simon Black

Italy illustrates the important, and disturbing, interlinkages in the global financial system. From Simon Black at sovereignman.com:

Trying to trace the origins of the latest political crisis in Italy is like… well… trying to trace the origins of the decline of the Roman Empire.

There simply is no good starting point.

You can’t talk about the decline of Rome without a lengthy discussion of how destructive Diocletian’s Edict on Wages and Prices was in the early 4th century.

But you’d have to go further back than that and discuss all the lunatic emperors preceding him, all the way back to Caligula.

But you can’t talk about Caligula without bringing up the effects of the civil war between Octavian and Marc Antony… which was a direct result of the previous civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompeius Magnus.

Before long you’ve gone back in time more than 500 years trying to figure out why the Roman Empire collapsed.

Modern Italy isn’t so different. After all, this is a country so unstable that it’s had 64 governments in the seven decades since the end of World War II, averaging a new government every 14 months.

That has to be some kind of world record.

And to accurately diagnose how Italy ended up in such dire financial and political turmoil, you’d have to go back a -very- long way.

But for the sake of brevity, we’ll just go back to March. Italy held elections, and the “5-Star Movement” political party won the most seats… but not a clear majority.

This required them to establish a coalition with other political parties, which took weeks of haggling and negotiating.

But finally the 5-Star Movement was able to hammer out a deal and present a formal plan to Italy’s head of state, President Sergio Mattarella.

The President of Italy is almost purely a ceremonial role, like the Queen of England. But he does have the authority to reject key government appointments, including Prime Minister and Finance Minister.

And that’s exactly what he did– specifically opposing the nominee for Finance Minister, an economist named Paolo Savona.

Savona is a huge critic of the euro, and President Mattarella thought him too dangerous for the post.

Again, while the origins are more complicated than that, this is the basic plotline behind the most recent crisis.

Late Thursday night the Italian government announced a compromise, supposedly bringing an end to the uncertainty.

But to me, none of that matters. What I find -really- important is what an enormous impact this soap opera had across the world. And I think there are three critical lessons to take away:

1) On the day that the finance minster was rejected, financial markets worldwide tanked.

To continue reading: Three critical lessons from Europe’s recent mini-meltdown

America’s long-term challenge #2: the looming retirement crisis, by Simon Black

Many people have saved very little for their retirements, but of course they have nothing to worry about. The government will take care of them. From Simon Black at sovereignman.com:

Last week, the financial services giant Northwestern Mutual released new data showing that 1 in 3 Americans has less than $5,000 in retirement savings.

It’s an unfortunately familiar story. And Northwestern Mutual’s data is entirely aligned with other research we’ve seen in the past, including our own.

The Federal Reserve’s most recent Survey of Consumer Finances, for example, shows that the median bank balance among US consumers is just $2,900.

And Bank of America’s annual report from last year showed that the average balance per HOUSEHOLD (i.e. -not- per person) was $12,870… which was actually LESS than the average account balance that Bank of America reported in 1997!

On average, the typical US household has less savings today than they did 20 years ago… and almost nothing put away for retirement.

In fact 21% of Americans (based on Northwestern Mutual’s data) have absolutely nothing saved for retirement.

And 33% of Baby Boomers, the generation closest to retirement, have between $0 and $25,000 saved for retirement.

That’s hardly enough savings to last more than a few years… and a major reason why most retirees currently rely on Social Security to meet their monthly living expenses.

According to a Gallup poll from last May, 58% of US retirees said that they rely on Social Security as their major source of income. They simply don’t have enough of their own personal savings stashed away.

But as we’ve discussed many times before, Social Security is rapidly running out of money.

The most recent report from Social Security’s Board of Trustees (which includes the US Secretaries of the Treasury, Labor, and Health & Human Services) tells us that the program’s cost has exceeded its tax revenue since 2010.

Last year this shortfall was $59 billion, 11% worse than in 2016.

And in order to make up the difference and cover this deficit, Social Security has to dip into its trust fund, effectively burning through the program’s savings.

The problem with this approach is that, eventually, these annual deficits will burn through ALL of the program’s savings.

The government knows this; the Board of Trustees even state this in their annual report, projecting that the Social Security trust funds will become fully depleted in 2034.

Sixteen years may seem like a long way off. But we’re talking about retirement here. You’re supposed to think long-term about retirement. And the math simply doesn’t add up.

To continue reading: America’s long-term challenge #2: the looming retirement crisis

Capitalism has new rules. And they’re seriously messed up. By Simon Black

So-called investors throw cash at companies that burn through it and haven’t a clue as to when they might turn a profit. From Simon Black at sovereignman.com:

It was just a month and a half ago that Tesla approved an eye-popping long-term pay package, worth as much as $50 BILLION to founder and CEO Elon Musk.

And on Wednesday afternoon, Tesla held its first corporate earnings call since then.

You’d think that Elon would have been gracious and professional, anxious to demonstrate that the shareholders’ trust in him has been well-placed.

Instead the call was filled with contempt and disrespect, with Elon outright refusing to answer questions that he deemed ‘boring’.

Bear in mind, Tesla’s financial results were gruesome; the company burned through yet another $1.1 billion in cash last quarter. That’s 70% worse than in the same period last year.

Even more problematic, Tesla is losing money at such an unexpectedly fast rate that they’ll likely run out within the next several months.

According to the Wall Street Journal’s analysis, Tesla doesn’t have enough cash to cover its basic debt payments and capital leases due within the next six months.

Needless to say, investors are worried.

The shareholders and analysts on the call kept pressing Elon to explain how the company was going to survive, and how he would turn around Tesla’s notorious production challenges.

But Elon completely dismissed any such questions as “boring”, “bonehead”, and “not cool”.

Pretty amazing.

I mean, this guy was given a potentially $50 billion compensation package just six weeks ago.

So the LEAST he could do was answer his investors’ completely reasonable questions.

But he didn’t. It’s almost as if he deliberately wanted to show as much disrespect as possible to the trust and confidence that shareholders have placed in him.

This is a pretty despicable attitude for any executive to have.

Yet this whole situation is emblematic of what I call ‘the new rules of capitalism.’

And New Rule #1 is: Businesses no longer need to make money.

Tesla is just one of a multitude of high-flying, hot-shot companies whose entire business models are based on burning through cash, managed by executives who don’t care.

WeWork, as we’ve often discussed, is an even more absurd example.

WeWork provides short-term office space to companies around the world, with a whole bunch of interesting perks (including free tequila).

For customers, it’s great. But WeWork loses tons of money providing all those great perks to its customers… which means that investors are ultimately footing the bill.

To continue reading: Capitalism has new rules. And they’re seriously messed up.

The Pension Crisis Is Worse Than You Think, by Lance Roberts

The pension crisis is here, it’s bad, and it will only get worse. From Lance Roberts at realinvestmentadvice.com:

Last year I penned an article discussing the “Unavoidable Pension Crisis.” 

“Currently, many pension funds, like the one in Houston, are scrambling to slightly lower return rates, issue debt, raise taxes or increase contribution limits to fill some of the gaping holes of underfunded liabilities in their plans. The hope is such measures combined with an ongoing bull market, and increased participant contributions, will heal the plans in the future.

This is not likely to be the case.

This problem is not something born of the last ‘financial crisis,’ but rather the culmination of 20-plus years of financial mismanagement.

An April 2016 Moody’s analysis pegged the total 75-year unfunded liability for all state and local pension plans at $3.5 trillion. That’s the amount not covered by current fund assets, future expected contributions, and investment returns at assumed rates ranging from 3.7% to 4.1%. Another calculation from the American Enterprise Institute comes up with $5.2 trillion, presuming that long-term bond yields average 2.6%.

With employee contribution requirements extremely low, averaging about 15% of payroll, the need to stretch for higher rates of return have put pensions in a precarious position and increases the underfunded status of pensions.”

But it is actually worse than we originally thought as Aaron Brown recently penned:

“Today, the hard stop is five to 10 years away, within the career plans of current officials.  In the next decade, and probably within five years, some large states are going to face insolvency due to pensions, absent major changes.

If we extrapolate from the past, rather than use promises in the state budget, current employees plus the state will contribute about $25 billion over those seven years, which could provide another few years before the till is empty. But it will also add around $60 billion of future liabilities to current employees.The system probably breaks down before the pension fund gets to zero, for example if assets were to fall below $30 billion while projected future liabilities exceeded $300 billion. Even the most optimistic people would have to admit the situation is unsustainable. This could happen in three years in a bad stock market, or perhaps 10 with good stock returns.But fund assets are so low relative to payouts that good returns aren’t that helpful.

The next phase of public pension reform will likely be touched off by a stock market decline that creates the real possibility of at least one state fund running out of cash within a couple of years. The math says that tax increases and spending cuts cannot do much.

To continue reading: The Pension Crisis Is Worse Than You Think

Running on Empty, by Robert Gore

They dote on their progeny, then bury them alive.

Across the land, public pension and medical funds teeter on the brink of insolvency. You can ignore pending problems until you can’t. For those who prize clarity and realistic thinking, these impossible to ignore crises should be welcomed. They focus attention on an inescapable fact: the world lacks the unencumbered assets and productive capacity to redeem the promises that have been made against them. Somebody’s going to get stiffed.

With war on everyone’s minds, public pension and medical funds delineate inevitable battles lines: governments versus taxpayers, the unproductive versus the productive, the aging versus the young. Those wars are liable to be far more consequential than the ones everyone worries about in places like the Middle East and North Korea.

Nothing calls attention to the absurdity riddling the public pension system quite like the $76,000 monthly pension drawn by Joseph Robertson, an eye surgeon who retired as president of the Oregon Health and Science University last fall.

In the good old days, government employment meant low pay, but job security and a decent pension. Now such sinecures means wages in excess of those paid in the private sector plus pensions that are far more munificent…and job security. For a lucky few like Doctor Robertson, their pensions are a triple 7 jackpot. Oregon calculates pensions based not just on recipients’ government salaries, but what they receive on any non-government gigs they had going on the side. Robertson’s pension is based on his remuneration as university president and what he made operating on eyeballs.

This is what happens when actuarial tables and actual rates of return are discarded in favor of the political power of public employees and their unions, promises that can’t be kept, and taxpayers picking up the tab who have no idea what the final bill will be. Public pension and medical crises bring into sharp relief the writing on the wall: Governments Can’t Deliver.

As Charles Hugh Smith recently noted, public retirement and medical liabilities are increasing so fast that no amount of tax increases can keep up. Long before a 100 percent tax rate turns taxpayers into slaves, raising tax rates becomes counterproductive, yielding less, not more, revenues. One of the nifty things about the public pension and medical crisis is that it’s local. As such, it’s offering real world demonstrations that when local jurisdictions raise rates to fund their pensions, productive people leave.

The poster child is Illinois. The state on down to its smallest political subdivisions—like the town of Harvey—are buried beneath underfunded pensions. Illinois’ courts have ruled pensions are inviolable, which leaves governments facing insolvency with only two options: raise taxes and cut spending.

Harvey was ordered by a court to fund its firefighters’ pension fund, which is only 22 percent funded. The town’s property tax rate is six times the average rate in nearby Indiana, and Harvey is still coming up short. The state is garnishing its tax revenues, and the town has announced 40 public safety employees will be laid off. Why would anyone paying taxes in Harvey stick around for a future of ever-increasing taxes and ever-diminishing public services?

Many don’t, and Harvey and other localities in Illinois, including Chicago, are losing people. Out-migration statistics in Illinois, California, New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, and other net-loser states don’t capture the full scope of the problem. If one productive person moves out while one unproductive person moves in and starts living off state largess, there’s been no net out-migration, but the state suffers a loss (obvious to everyone except those fools and charlatans who will plump for an open-arms and open-wallet approach right up until bankruptcy).

Out-migration will get worse for net-loser states as the federal tax limitations on the deductibility of state and local taxes (SALT) kicks in. SALT has been capped at $10,000. After that, the wealthy have to pay the full measure of their high-tax states’ income, property, and sales taxes. The migration is gathering steam. It already costs twice as much to rent self-moving truck services from high-tax Los Angeles to low-tax Dallas as vice versa, and that spread will only widen.

State and local governments, their employees, and those on the dole can’t stop the productive from voting with their feet. The number who leave the US, however, is still a trickle. The federal government’s old age and medical funding problems, orders of magnitude greater than states’ and municipalities’, are no longer looming; they’ve arrived. The government could seal the borders to lock in the productive, but it wouldn’t prevent the slow-motion, but accelerating, catastrophe now underway.

The federal government’s ability to issue virtually unlimited debt and the Federal Reserve debt monetization machine mask the rot, but only create problems far larger than the ones they putatively solve. Low interest rates have destroyed state and local funds’ ability to achieve fairly safe returns, forcing them out on the risk curve to meet their rate of return targets, which are way too high. Underfunded as they are now, bear markets in stocks and bonds would obliterate them.

Encouraged by central bank debt promotion policies, individual, corporate, local, state, and federal debt has reached new records. While low interest rates have ameliorated the debt service burden, even they can’t stymie the toll debt is taking on the economy. Look no farther than real annual GDP growth, which hasn’t hit 3 percent since Bush Jr. was in office. Less growth means less tax revenues, which only exacerbates funding problems.

The older generation is pinning its retirement hopes on a younger generation confronted with huge debt, perpetually rising taxes, a shrinking economy, and dwindling opportunity. That’s not like hoping you can draw to an inside straight, it’s going all in, exchanging your hand for five new cards, and hoping you draw four aces. Good luck with that.

Oldsters like to complain that the youngsters are too preoccupied with gadgets and social media. They wish that were true. The youngsters are already questioning their impending debt servitude. The more perceptive are homing in on their parents’ generation’s self-granted benefits and unrivaled profligacy. You don’t have to search too far on the internet and social media to see the awakening.

Doting parents and grandparents who post their darlings’ every precocious moment and wouldn’t dream of letting them walk a block to school by themselves have no compunction about burying them alive under welfare and warfare state IOUs. In a world riven with conflict, the easiest war to predict is the intergenerational one.

It’s not strictly accurate to say that the state and local public pension and medical funds’ crisis is the canary in the coal mine. It is but one in an aviary of canaries. The fund canary is in extremis and may well be the first to expire; the others will certainly follow. Picture the horror as the adult canaries and their fledglings wage mortal combat for those last few molecules of oxygen.

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Collapse of Cryptocurrencies in Q1: Even the Biggest Crashed 67% to 88%, by Wolf Richter

What goes up a lot can come down a lot. From Wolf Richter at wolfstreet.com:

But nothing goes to heck in a straight line.

I don’t think there has ever been an entire sector that skyrocketed as much and collapsed as quickly as the cryptocurrency space. The skyrocketing phase culminated at the turn of the year. Then the collapse phase set in, with different cryptos choosing different points in time.

It doesn’t help that regulators around the world have caught on to these schemes called initial coin offerings (ICOs), where anyone, even the government of Venezuela, can try to sell homemade digital tokens to the gullible and take their “fiat” money from them and run away with it. There are now 1,596 cryptocurrencies and tokens out there, up from a handful a few years ago. And the gullible are getting cleaned out.

And it doesn’t help that the ways to promote these schemes are being closed off, one after the other.

At the end of January, Facebook announced that, suddenly, “misleading or deceptive ads have no place on Facebook,” and it prohibited ads about ICOs and cryptos.

On March 14, Google announced that it will block ads with “cryptocurrencies and related content,” including ICOs, cryptocurrency exchanges, cryptocurrency wallets, and cryptocurrency trading advice. Its crackdown begins in June.

On March 26, Twitter announced that it would ban ads of ICOs, cryptocurrency exchanges, and cryptocurrency wallet services, unless they are by public companies traded on major stock markets. It will roll out its policy over the next 30 days.

On March 29, MailChimp, a major email mass-distribution service, announced that it will block email promos from businesses that are “involved in any aspect of the sale, transaction, exchange, storage, marketing or production of cryptocurrencies, virtual currencies, and any digital assets related to an Initial Coin Offering.” This broadened and tightened its policy announced in February that promised to shut down any account related to promos of ICOs or blockchain activity.

To continue reading: Collapse of Cryptocurrencies in Q1: Even the Biggest Crashed 67% to 88%