Category Archives: Retirement

Extreme Crazy

I was going to say Peak Crazy, but we all know things can always get crazier. Some things that spring to mind.

Political craziness: Mob violence on left and right, blatant defiance of federal law by city politicians, attempts to rewrite or at least deny history, demonization of Trump, Putin and anybody associated with them, and so on. Immigration in Europe – it’s that 4.7 kids per woman in Africa that nobody dares to talk about. Not to mention the crazy fat kid.

Fiscal craziness: Federal funding of runaway price increases, notably in university tuition, prescription drugs but also many other subsidized goods and services. Gross under-funding of state and local pension schemes even under ludicrous assumptions about future returns.

Monetary craziness: Central banks threatening to tighten but pumping away, consumer credit at record highs in US and elsewhere (Canada, that’s you I’m talking about with highest household debt in the world), government deficits keep growing. Subprime crdiet still gowing while defaults rise. Most of all, ICOs. People pouring money into blockchain-based tokens. Really?

Market craziness: Housing bubbles in China, Canada, Australia, UK and some US cities. Massive (record) risky speculation in many markets – short vol, long crude for example. Setups (risk parity) similar to portfolio insurance (remember 1987?).

I could go on. But I won’t. I’m just grumbling while I wait.

Illinois And The Tsunami

Apparently the standoff between Governor Rauner and Speaker Madigan continues. As it should. Madigan’s willingness to dispense unfunded largesse to his supporters is largely responsible for the state’s financial woes. Today also the state was ordered by a Federal court to pay its backlog of Medicaid bills, which will be interesting as the state is already cash flow negative.

However the biggest issue is the unfunded state employee pension obligations. This article from Bloomberg contains a nice graphic ostensibly showing the funding levels of most states (no data for California? Really? just check this blog)

These reported funding levels are a cruel joke. These funds continue to assume 7-8% returns, despite the fact that they have not achieved them for years. Just look at the column showing the decline in funding ratio from 2014 to 2015. Not only are the assumptions high, but they are for long-term averages, so that they adjust future return estimates higher to compensate for below-average realized returns. John Hussman’s work shows more or less zero returns for the next 12 years, with the high likelihood that there will be a major drawdown in that period. Drawdowns are lethal to pension funds because the payment of benefits continues, sapping the capital base and making recovery to previous levels nearly impossible.

Pension funds used to invest in bonds. The trustees would meet once a quarter, review the actuarial forecast of liabilities and approve adjustment of the laddered bond portfolio’s maturities to exactly meet the liability schedule. Then there would be lunch and golf. The future returns would be locked in and the contributions needed to fund the bond portfolio would be obtained from the sponsor. Everyone got to sleep at night.

Then Wall Street decided that pension funds had a lot of money, and not enough was being siphoned off into Wall Street pockets. So the sales force went out, armed with charts showing that stocks had historically offered higher returns than bonds. Higher returns mean that less contributions would be needed, so fund sponsors bought the pitch. Yes, stocks have offered higher returns but for a reason – much higher risk. Well, we’ll just assume a long-term average return and surely it will average out. GLWT.

Hubris

Janet Yellen today:

“Will I say there will never, ever be another financial crisis? No, probably that would be going too far. But I do think we’re much safer and I hope that it will not be in our lifetimes and I don’t believe it will.”

Seriously? If nothing else, the coming pension tsunami virtually guarantees it. It is truly scary that this powerful person seems to live in an alternate universe.

GLWT.

Alas, No DUSY

After the last bubble ate their 401(k)s, it seems that quite a few people deserted the stock market and started speculating in old cars. I say old cars instead of classic cars, because in the process of creating yet another bubble the definition of classic became, shall we say, broader. Pretty much any piece of junk that had wheels, or had wheels at some point in the past, became classic. But the buyers loved them – shiny, you know – and felt they understood the values much better than those of the pieces of companies whose names they barely knew.

In addition to the consequent elasticity of supply, old cars earn no income and their value is only what someone will pay for them. A pure speculation, like gold, of course, with the only real utility being conspicuous display. There are funds that speculate in cars, but so far I have not seen any ETFs.

Alas, this bubble is now popping. Entirely predictable, of course. I am a little disappointed that now the time has passed and the DUSY ETF may never appear. I confess I like old cars as much as the next guy, although I don’t own any nor plan to I do follow an auction site “Bring A Trailer.” It is amazing that the conviction remains that it is essential to buy cars “before the price moves out of sight,” even though the same cars frequently re-appear on the site at prices lower than their previous sales.

Pension Tsunami Sighted

NY Teamsters Pension Fund becomes first to run out of money.

Oh, and after the close the API announced that crude and product inventories continue to set new records. Not to worry, speculative buying continues. GLWT.

 

DROP kills

The Dallas Police and Fire Pension System is mired in political conflict and facing insolvency, due to a combination of poor investment decisions and generous DROP plans. Just like the ones in California that have not yet hit the wall.

Calpers Whiffs

Calpers, the largest US pension fund, just reported its results for last fiscal year, ended June 30. Its investment return for the year was 0.6%, down from the previous year’s 2.4%. And this with a bull market in both stocks and bonds, to say nothing of California real estate.

This is a disaster that isn’t waiting to happen – it is well underway, right in front of our eyes. I’ve beaten the drum of its under-funding in the past, so I’m not going to bother again. In addition to its history of corruption, it is well known for being an obnoxious and left-wing activist shareholder, but this isn’t helping the 1.7 million employees and beneficiaries. The labor unions who choose Calpers’ directors assume that they can take what they want from the public wallet, so they choose activism over savvy, but at some point they’re going to be regretting that choice.

Heart’s Desire

Well markets got what they wanted today when both the BoE and the ECB indicated that they would be doing “more” – in the case, QE – over the summer.

The Fed did its bit after the close yesterday by authorizing the big banks (except Deutsche Bank, which is probably doomed anyway) to buy back their shares. Of course, they all promptly announced massive buybacks, which they will fund by borrowing from one another thus piling on more debt.

So the debt bubble gets bigger, the banks get worse, the pension funds struggle, the economy slowly dies and it goes on and on. It is becoming farcical.

It is the last day of June, the second quarter and the first half. So much window dressing and manipulation to manage reporting is going on. Notably the (record) Treasury shorts just slammed the bonds as they appeared to be running away to the upside and that wouldn’t look good.

One Big Worldwide Bubble

This interview with Milton Berg encapsulates pretty much everything you need to know.

Must watch. Then watch again, take notes. Very well done, although nothing new in terms of what I think. Treasuries will be a safe haven, although there will be a bear market in corporate, state and municipal bonds due to credit impairment.

Chicago and Illinois

Union-supported Democrats have ruled the roost in the city and state, Obama’s base, for many years. The cost of that union support is now coming due. Chicago’s so-called net pension liability to its Municipal Employees’ Annuity and Benefit Fund soared to $18.6 billion by the end of 2015 from $7.1 billion a year earlier, according to its annual report. The fund, one of Chicago’s four pensions, serves some 70,000 workers and retirees. The increase will add to what had been an unfunded liability estimated at $20 billion. These estimates are vastly optimistic because they continue to assume a level of portfolio return that simply isn’t going to happen, see John Hussman’s work. Obviously, there is no way the city can make up this shortfall, so unions are working to pass a bailout from Illinois state taxpayers through the legislature.

Illinois state workers are the highest paid in the nation, even ahead of California when adjusted for cost of living. Yet, despite the fact that Illinois is for all practical purposes insolvent, the AFSCME* union demands four-year raises ranging from 11.5 to 29 percent, overtime after 37.5 hours of work per week, five weeks of vacation and enhanced health care coverage.

AFSCME workers already get platinum healthcare benefits that would make nearly everyone in the country green with envy. Median AFSCME worker salaries increased more than 40 percent from 2005 to 2014, reaching more than $62,800. During that same period, median private-sector earnings in Illinois remained virtually flat. But they are still not satisfied. Now the union is working overtime to remove Gov. Bruce Rauner – who actually represents taxpayers’ interests – from labor contract negotiations. The union supports House Bill 580, which would strip the governor of his ability to negotiate. AFSCME wants the current contract dealings turned over to unelected arbitrators who are likelier to decide in the union’s favor.

See any problem here?

* AFSCME is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees