Tag Archives: credit crisis

Powell Just Signaled That The Next Crisis Is Here

Housing and auto sales appear to have hit a wall over the last 8-12 weeks.  To be sure, online holiday sales jumped significantly year over year, but brick-n-mortar sales were flat. The problem there:  e-commerce is only about 10% of total retail sales.  We won’t know until January how retail sales fared this holiday season.  I know that, away from Wall Street carnival barkers, the retail industry is braced for disappointing holiday sales this year.

A subscriber asked my opinion on how and when a stock market collapse might play out. Here’s my response: “With the degree to which Central Banks now intervene in the markets, it’s very difficult if not impossible to make timing predictions. I would argue that, on a real inflation-adjusted GDP basis, the economy never recovered from 2008. I’m not alone in that assessment. A global economic decline likely started in 2008 but has been covered up by the extreme amount of money printed and credit created.

It’s really more of a question of when will the markets reflect or catch up to the underlying real fundamentals? We’re seeing the reality reflected in the extreme divergence in wealth and income between the upper 1% and the rest. In fact, the median middle class household has gone backwards economically since 2008. That fact is reflected in the decline of real average wages and the record level of household debt taken on in order for these households to pretend like they are at least been running place.”

The steep drop in housing and auto sales are signaling that the average household is up to its eyeballs in debt. Auto and credit card delinquency rates are starting to climb rapidly. Subprime auto debt delinquencies rates now exceed the delinquency rates in 2008/2009.

The Truth is in the details – Despite the large number of jobs supposedly created in October and YTD, the wage withholding data published by the Treasury does not support the number of new jobs as claimed by the Government. YTD wage-earner tax withholding has increased only 0.1% from 2017. This number is what it is. It would be difficult to manipulate. Despite the Trump tax cut, which really provided just a marginal benefit to wage-earners and thus only a slight negative effect on wage-earner tax withholding, the 0.1% increase is well below what should have been the growth rate in wage withholding given the alleged growth in wages and jobs. Also, most of the alleged jobs created in October were the product of the highly questionable “birth/death model” used to estimate the number of businesses opened and closed during the month. The point here is that true unemployment, notwithstanding the Labor Force Participation Rate, is much higher than the Government would like us to believe.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell signaled today that the well-telegraphed December rate hike is likely the last in this cycle of rate-hikes, though he intimates the possibility of one hike in 2019. More likely, by the time the first FOMC meeting rolls around in 2019, the economy will be in a tail-spin, with debt and derivative bombs detonating. And it’s a good bet Trump will be looking to sign an Executive Order abolishing the Fed and giving the Treasury the authority to print money. The $3.3 billion pension bailout proposal circulating Congress will morph into $30 billion and then $300 billion proposal. 2008 redux. If you’re long the stock market, enjoy this short-squeeze bounce while it lasts…

Could GE’s Slow Collapse Ignite A Financial Crisis?

Will GE be the proverbial “black swan?” – It had come to my attention that General Electric was locked out of the commercial paper market three weeks ago after Moody’s downgraded GE’s short term credit rating to a ratings level (P-2) that prevents prime money market funds from investing in commercial paper. Commercial paper (CP) is an important source of short term, low-cost, liquid funding for large companies. At one point, GE was one of the largest users of CP funding. As recently as Q2 this year, 14.3% of GE’s debt consisted of CP. Now GE will have to resort to using its bank revolving credit to fund its short term liquidity needs, which is considerably more expensive than using CP.

Moody’s rationale for the downgrade was that, “the adverse impact on GE’s cash flows from the deteriorating performance of the Power business will be considerable and could last some time.” Keep in mind that the ratings agencies, especially Moody’s, are typically reluctant to downgrade highly regarded companies and almost always understate or underestimate the severity of problems faced by a company whose fundamentals are rapidly deteriorating.

As an example, Moody’s had Enron rated as investment grade until just a few days before Enron filed bankruptcy. At the beginning of November 2001, Moody’s had Enron rated at Baa1. This is three notices above a non-investment grade rating (Ba1 for Moody’s and BB+ for S&P). Currently Moody’s and S&P have GE’s long term debt rated Baa1/BBB+. In the bond market, however, GE bonds are trading almost at junk bond yields.

Once a company that relies on cheap short-term funding is locked out of the commercial paper market, it more often than not precedes the rapid financial demise of that company. Because GE is GE, it may not be rapid, but I would bet GE is on the ropes financially and could go down eventually. GE’s CEO was on CNBC two weeks ago on a Monday proclaiming that the Company’s number one priority is to bring “leverage levels down” using asset sales. One asset GE is said to be considering selling is its aviation unit, which is considered its crown jewel. This is the classic signal that a company is struggling to stay solvent – i.e. burning furniture to keep the lights on and heat the house. It’s not a bad bet that GE might file chapter 11 – or even Chapter 7 liquidation – in the next 18-24 months (maybe sooner).

I wanted to discuss this situation because I opined on Twitter recently that a sell-off in GE’s stock below $5 could trigger an avalanche of selling in the stock market. Just as significant, an event in which a company like GE is shut off from commercial paper funding is the type of “pebble” that is tossed onto an unstable financial system and starts a credit market crisis. The downgrade of GE’s short term funding rating is a reflection of rising and widespread systemic instability and the general financial deterioration of corporate America. I predict that we’ll start to hear more about GE’s collapsing operational and financial condition and we’ll start to see a lot more companies head down the same path as GE.

Note:  The above commentary is an excerpt from the November 18th Short Seller’s Journal.  Since then, GE’s stock price has dropped another 5.5%.  I had recommended shorting GE at $30 in the January 29, 2017 issue of SSJ.  GE’s tangible net worth (book value minus goodwill + intangibles) is negative $31.3 billion.

GE also has a $28.7 billion+ underfunded pension obligation. It is by far the largest underfunded pension in corporate America.  I say “$28.7 billion+” because I’m certain that if an independent auditor plowed through the pension fund assets and liabilities, it would discover that the assets are overstated and the liabilities (future beneficiary payouts) are understated.

In other words, GE’s balance sheet is the equivalent of financial Fukushima.  The previous CEO borrowed $6 billion to cover pension payments through 2020. This is like throwing napalm on a gasoline fire.