Tag Archives: pension crisis

The Coming Run On Banks And Pensions

“There are folks that are saying you know what, I don’t care, I’m going to lock in my retirement now and get out while I can and fight it as a retiree if they go and change the retiree benefits,” he said.  – Executive Director for the Kentucky Association of State Employees,  Proposed Pension Changes Bring Fears Of State Worker Exodus

The public awareness of the degree to which State pension funds are underfunded has risen considerably over the past year.  It’s a problem that’s easy to hide as long as the economy is growing and State tax receipts grow.  It’s a catastrophe when the economic conditions deteriorate and tax revenue flattens or declines, as is occurring now.

The quote above references a report of a 20% jump in Kentucky State worker retirements in August after it was reported that a consulting group recommended that the State restructure its State pension system.   I personally know a teacher who left her job in order to cash completely out of her State employee pension account in Colorado (Colorado PERA).  She knows the truth.

But the problem with under-funding is significantly worse than reported.  Pensions are run like Ponzi schemes.  As long as the amount of cash coming in to the fund is equal to or exceeds beneficiary payouts, the scheme can continue.   But for years, due to poor investment decisions and Fed monetary policies, beneficiary payouts have been swamping investment returns and fund contributions.

Pension funds have notoriously over-marked their illiquid risky investments and understated their projected actuarial investment returns in order to hide the degree to which they are under-funded.  Most funds currently assume 7% to 8% future rates of return. Unfortunately, the ability to generate returns like that have been impossible with interest rates near zero.

In the quest to compensate for low fixed income returns, pension funds have plowed money into stocks, private equity funds and illiquid and very risky investments,  like subprime auto loan securities and commercial real estate.   Some pension funds have as much as 20% of their assets in private equity.  When the stock market inevitably cracks, it will wipe pensions out.

As an example of pensions over-estimating their future return calculations, the State of Minnesota adjusted the net present value of its future liabilities from 8% down to 4.6% (note:  this is the same as lowering its projected ROR from 8% to 4.6%).   The rate of under-funding went from 20% to 47%.

I can guarantee you with my life that if an independent auditor spent the time required to implement a bona fide market value mark-to-market on that fund’s illiquid assets, the amount of under-funding would likely jump up to at least 70%.  “Bona fide mark-to-market” means, “at what price will you buy this from me now with cash upfront?”

For instance, what is the true market price at which the fund could sell its private equity fund investments?   Harvard is trying to sell $2.5 billion in real estate and private equity investments.   The move was announced in May and there have not been any material updates since then other than a quick press release in early July that an investment fund was looking at the assets offered.  I would suggest that the bid for these assets is either lower than expected or non-existent other than a pennies on the dollar  “option value” bid.

At some point current pension fund beneficiaries are going to seek an upfront cash-out. If enough beneficiaries begin to inquire about this, it could trigger a run on pensions and drastic measures will be implemented to prevent this.

Similarly, per the sleuthing of Wolf Richter, ECB is seeking from the European Commission the authority to implement a moratorium on cash withdrawals from banks at its discretion. The only reason for this is concern over the precarious financial condition of the European banking system.  And it’s not just some cavalier Italian and Spanish banks.  I would suggest that Deutsche Bank, at any given moment, is on the ropes.

But make no mistake. The U.S. banks are in no better condition than their European counter-parts.  If Europe is moving toward enabling the ECB to close the bank windows ahead of an impending financial crisis, the Fed is likely already working on a similar proposal.

All it will take is an extended 10-20% draw-down in the stock market to trigger a massive run on custodial assets – pensions, banks and brokerages.  This includes the IRA’s.  I would suggest that one of the primary motivations behind the Fed/PPT’s  no-longer-invisible hand propping up the stock and fixed income markets is the knowledge of the pandemonium that will ensue if the stock market were allowed to embark on a true price discovery mission.

Like every other attempt throughout history to control the laws of economics and perpetuate Ponzi schemes, the current attempt by Central Banks globally will end with a spectacular collapse.   I would suggest that this is one of the driving forces underlying the repeated failure by the western Central Banks to drive the price of gold lower since mid-December 2015.   I would also suggest that it would be a good idea to keep as little of your wealth as possible tied up in banks and other financial “custodians.” The financial system is one giant “Roach Motel” – you check your money in but eventually you’ll never get it out.

Pension Apocalypse Is Coming

“It’s unequivocal now: We are taking money from the new employees and using it to pay off this liability for the old employees,” said Turner, a Gov. John Hickenlooper appointee. “And some might call that a Ponzi scheme.”Denver Post, 6/27/17

The people in Denver who bother to read the news, especially the ones who are or will be dependent on the Colorado public employees pension fund (PERA), were greeted with a shock Tuesday. PERA is now admitting to be 42% underfunded, down from an alleged 38% underfunding last year. How on earth is it possible for the underfunding of a pension to increase during a period of time when the Dow, S&P 500, Nasdaq and fixed income markets are hitting or are near all-time highs?

And what about the valuations of these funds using realistic mark to market prices for the illiquid assets, like private equity, commercial real estate and OTC derivatives?  Harvard University is about to sell its private equity assets.  My bet is that the value received will be covered up as much as possible.  And we’ll never know where the fund was marked on its books.  But judging of the failure vs. expectations of the SNAP and Blue Apron IPOs, private equity investments are likely over-marked on the books by at least 15-20%. A market to market here would devastate the stated funding levels of every pension fund.

It’s not just Illinois, which is de facto bankrupt, and the Connecticut State pension fund, which is also de facto insolvent.  Nearly every State’s pension fund is severely underfunded, as well as most private funds.

That 42% underfunding for PERA, by the way, makes very generous actuarial assumptions about the assumed rate of return on assets vs. the assumed payouts. Those assumptions have been wrong for at least 20 years and will continue to be wrong. That’s why PERA’s – as well as most every other pension fund – has become more underfunded over the last year.

The quote at the top is from Lynn Turner, who was one of the few competent, if not respected, SEC commissioners in my lifetime. In my view, when politicians and public officials are willing to state the truth about a dire situation in public,  it implies that the situation is on the precipice and they want to be disassociated with it – i.e the rats are jumping ship.  Yesterday the Illinois State Senate minority leader resigned…

I would argue that the one of the primary reasons the Fed is working hard to keep the stock market propped up is because, if the Dow/SPX/Nasdaq were to fall 5-10% for an extended period of time – as in more than a month – the entire U.S. pension Ponzi scheme would blow up and decimate the financial system. It’s a literal black swan in full view.

This is explains the “V” rallies in the stock market when the market abruptly drops 1% on a given day – like Tuesday and Thursday this past week. The fact that the market reversed Wednesday’s overt Fed intervention on Thursday signals the possibility that the Fed is losing control.

Meanwhile, the paper price of gold has once again withstood a vicious overnight attack that began in London and continued when the Comex opened by holding up at the $1240 level and bouncing. This is the fourth time since the so-called Fed attack last week disguised by the fake news as the “fat finger” trade.

The Market Has Its Head Buried Deep In The Sand

Several “black swans” are looming which could inflict a financial nuclear accident on the U.S. markets and financial system.   I say “black swans” in quotes because a limited audience is aware of these issues – potentially catastrophic problems that are curiously ignored by the mainstream financial media and financial markets.

The most immediate problem is the Treasury debt ceiling.  The Treasury is now projected to run out of cash by mid-summer.  Of course, in the spurious manner in which the markets evaluate the next trade, July may as well be a decade away.  My best guess is that the “market” assumes that, after drawn out staging of DC’s version of Kabuki Theatre, Congress will raise the debt ceiling, probably up to $22 trillion.  Then the Fed will extend its highly secretive “swap” operations to foreign “ally” Central Banks (hint:  Belgium and Switzerland) in order to fund the onslaught of Treasury issuance that will ensue.  Problem solved…or is it?

(Note:  Plan B would be another one of Trump’s bewildering Executive Orders removing the debt ceiling.  Plan B is another form of “fiat” currency issuance)

The second “black swan” seen by some but invisible to most is the ongoing collapse the shopping mall business model, erroneously blamed on the combative growth of online retailing.  But when I look at the actual numbers, that argument smells foul.

Is Online Retailing Actually The Cause Of Brick/Mortar Retail Apocalypse?

More than 3,500 stores are scheduled to be shuttered in the next few months. JC Penny,
Macy’s, Sears, Kmart, Crocs, BCBC, Bebe, Abercrombie & Fitch and Guess are some of the
marquee retailing names that will be closing down mall and strip mall stores. The Limited is going out of business and closing down all 250 of its stores.

The demise of the mall “brick and mortar” retail store is popularly attributed to the growth in online retail sales. To be sure, online retailing is eating into the traditional retail sales
distribution mechanism – but not as much as the spin-meisters would have have you believe. At the beginning of 2015, e-commerice sales were about 7% of total retail sales. By the end of 2016, that metric rose to 8.3%. However, looking at the overall numbers reveals that nominal retail sales have increased for both brick/mortar stores and online. In Q4 2015, total nominal retail sales were $1.186 trillion. Brick/mortar was $1.096 trillion and online was 89.7 billion, which was 7.6% of total retail sales. In Q4 2016, total sales were $1.235 trillion with brick/mortar $1.133 trillion and online $102.6 billion, which was 8.3% of total retail sales.

As you can see, there was nominal growth for both brick/mortar and online retailers. My point here is that the spin-meisters present the narrative that online retailers are eating alive the brick/mortar retailers. That’s simply not true.   Part of the problem that the total retail sales “pie” is shrinking, especially when analyzing the inflation-adjusted numbers.  I created a graph on from the St. Louis Fed’s “FRED” database that surprised even me (click to enlarge):

The graph above shows the year over year percentage change in nominal (not inflation-adjusted) retail sales on a monthly basis from 1993 (as far back as the retail sales data goes) thru February 2017, ex-restaurant sales, vs. outstanding consumer credit. As you can see, since 1994 the growth in nominal retail sales on a year over year basis has been in a downtrend, while the level of consumer credit outstanding as been in a steady uptrend. Since 2014, the rate of growth in debt has exceeded the rate of growth in retail sales. If we were to adjust the retail sales using just the Government-reported CPI measure of “inflation” retail sales would be outright declining.

The problem with the mall business model is debt.  The mall-anchor retailers who are vacating mall space like cockroaches vacate a kitchen when the light is flipped on have been leveraged to the hilt by the financial engineers who control them who in turn have been enabled by the most permissive Federal Reserve in U.S. history.   Too be sure, online retailing is cutting into the margins of Macy’s, JC Pennies, Sears, Dillards, etc.  But these companies would have no problem “fighting back” if they were not over-leveraged to the eyeballs.

Layer on top of that the leverage employed by the mall REITs and the recipe for a financial crisis larger than the 2008 “big short” mortgage/housing crisis has been created.  To compound this problem, mall owners are now starting to mail in the keys to financially troubled malls:   More mall landlords are choosing to walk away from struggling properties, leaving creditors in the lurch and posing a threat to the values of nearby real estate…[as] some of the largest U.S. landlords are calculating it is more advantageous to hand over ownership to lenders than to attempt to restructure debts on properties with darkening outlooks (LINK).

But it gets worse. I referenced the consumer’s ability to borrow in order to spend money. Economic activity in the United States has relied heavily on an increasing amount of debt issuance for several decades. At some point consumer borrowers reach a point at which they can no longer support taking on more debt, whether in the form of mortgages, auto loans/leases or credit cards. The problem for the U.S. financial system is that there will be widespread defaults on the consumer debt that’s already been issued.   The average U.S. household has “hit a wall” on the amount of debt it can absorb.  This is why restaurant and retail sales are dropping and why auto sales have rolled over.  All three will get worse this year.

This Will Crush The Pensions

Finally, the third “invisible” black swam is the looming pension crisis.  A colleague of mine who works at a pension fund did a study last year in which he concluded that, because of the extreme degree of public pension underfunding, a 10% decline in the stock market for a sustained period – i.e. more than 3 or 4 months – would cause every single public pension fund to blow up.  As he has access to better data than most, he also surmised that the degree of underfunding is 2-3x greater than is publicly acknowledged by the mainstream media (see this article for instance:  Bloomberg claims $1.9 trillion underfunding).

Circling back to the mall/REIT ticking time-bomb, while the Fed can keep the stock market propped up as means of preventing an immediate nuclear melt-down in U.S. pensions (all of which are substantially “maxed-out” in their mandated equities allocation), the collapse of commercial mortgage-back securities (CMBS) will have the affect of launching a nuclear sub-missile directly into the side of the U.S. financial system.

The commercial mortgage market is about $3 trillion, of which about $1 trillion has been packaged into asset-backed securities and stuffed into yield-starved pension funds. Without a doubt, the same degree of fraud of has been used to concoct the various tranches in these CMBS trusts that was employed during the mid-2000’s mortgage/housing bubble, with full cooperation of the ratings agencies then and now.   Just like in 2008, with the derivatives that have been layered into the mix, the embedded leverage in the commercial mortgage/CMBS/REIT model is the financial equivalent of the Fukushima nuclear power plant collapse.

It’s a  matter of time before a lit match hits one of the three lethal powder-kegs described above.  This is why the bank stocks were hit particularly hard last week when the Dow was in the middle of its 8-day losing streak.  Of course, all it took to spike the Dow/SPX higher was a couple of immaterial “consumer confidence” reports in order to reflate the stock market with some “hope.”   Don’t forget, the last time consumer confidence high-ticked was in 1999, right before the tech bubble imploded.

Unfortunately, the next financial catastrophe that is going hit the system, and for which the Fed is helpless to prevent, will make everyone yearn for just the tech bubble or “big short” bubble collapses.   Meanwhile, the stock market and its collective universe of “investors” will continue sticking its head deeper into the sand, oblivious to the sling blade that is swings closer to its neck.

Portions of the above analysis were excerpted from the current Short Seller’s Journal. That issue contained more in-depth data and two short ideas, a mall REIT and retailer that has bubbled up beyond comprehension.   You can learn more about the Short Seller Journal here:   SSJ Weekly Subscription.