Friday, April 17, 2009

Daily Economics 17/04/09: GGP & A dead cat bounce?

An open letter in Irish Times: here
Some of you have questioned my logic (sanity) in calling for nationalization of Irish banks. Here is a simple reason that does not involve economic theory. After the mini-Budget, it became all too apparent that Mr Lenihan and his boss are hell-bent on doing two things:
  1. destroying the private economy in this country, and
  2. using - without any restraint - our (public) money to prop up their power base (public sector unions, developers and banks).
I have less of a problem with the last two targets - at the very least, they are not subtracting from the real economic activity as our public sector unions do. But, following Ronald Regan's dictum (hat tip to M.E.S), if we have to give them public money, we must take the deeds.

My son, and your children - including those yet to be conceived or adopted, you, me, all of us working in the private sector are going to pay for NAMA. Inevitably! But I would like to get at least an IOU in return. Why? I do not trust this Government (and the opposition) to actually repay me my cash. If NAMA is a success, I would like my tax money back with interest, not for it to stash returns on my cash into another piggy-bank fund for public sector pensions and payoffs. If it is a failure, I would like to own the remaining pieces, not let it rest with Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan who will be able to liquidate these NAMA assets to, you've guessed it, payoff their public sector cronies.

I would also like the shareholders and bondholders in banks to take a hit - over the years they placidly supported the disastrous decisions being made by their banks boards. Now, if my cash were to be used to undo their reckless complacency, they should be taken out altogether (in the case of shareholders) and be forced to pay up to the recapitalization and clean up levels (in the case of bondholders). The latter can be squeezed via a special one-off bond tax or via a direct cut in their coupon payments.

The only way to achieve this return of money to that taxpayers is via a voucher-style disbursal of the banks assets to the households. And this requires first a nationalization. Done...

GGP - the end of a lengthy saga and the start of a new chapter in defaults
At least one of the followers to this blog will know that back in the summer 2008 I wrote a quick note on GGP, valuing the fund at the time to be worth 'asymptotically zero' on the back of a belief that (a) its debt levels and maturity structure were beyond any repair, (b) its most recent $14bn acquisition, financed exclusively by the debt, was an act of suicide, (c) its management team did not know what they were doing over the last three years of operations, and (d) that the commercial real estate troubles cycle was not over, and that it will indeed come back full circle.

Apart from finally seeing the straw giant of REITs collapse under its own weight, today's bankruptcy filing by GGP tells me that the (d) part is now in full swing.
This is timely as it is likely this time around to coincide with the peaking of the Alt-A mortgages refinancing, which, in my view, will drive US housing markets deeper into trouble. The question is what will Obama administration do about the new wave of households defaults, especially since this wave is not about sub-prime lending, but about ordinary American families taking a hit.

What is even more worrisome from my point of view is that the new wave of housing/ commercial property collapse will inevitably stress financials. This is tricky for a fragile economy hanging to the ledge created by the recent 6-weeks rally.

Just imagine for a second what dumping of some 158 GGP-owned shopping malls across the US might do to commercial property values there at the time when the market for commercial transactions is virtually non-existent. An idea that Simon Property Group - the largest US REIT still standing - will pick up some of GGPs properties is hardly a point worth considering. Simon is not exactly in a rude health itself and its tenants are suffering. With 158 new properties being in fire sale under Chapter 11 filing and another 42 GGP-owned properties waiting to be sold off as well, what can happen to retail malls yields other than a steep fall off? Prices will follow.

US Consumer Sentiment
improved from 57.3 in March to 61.9 - a level that is still below the Consumer Sentiment reading of 70.3 recorded prior to the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Alkl of the improvement was pretty much already priced into market valuations. The index of consumer expectations rose from 53.5 in march to 58.9 in April perfectly in line with the current sentiment reading.

So good news then? Not really. Look at the sentiment underlying fundamentals:
  • Unemployment: in March, Michigan again scored the highest jobless rate of 12.6% and the state is dependent on consumer-driven activity (autos). Next came Oregon, 12.1%; South Carolina, 11.4%; California, 11.2% (all-time record for the state); North Carolina, 10.8% (another all-time record for the state); Rhode Island, 10.5%; Nevada, 10.4%; and Indiana, 10.0%. All of these states are either manufacturing centres or sources of soft business investment products (e.g software) - in other words, many of the states are the leading indicators of an upturn. Nine other states and the District of Columbia recorded unemployment at or above 9.0%. So unemployment is not the cause of a bounce in consumer confidence;
  • Equity markets: sustained bear rally is now settling into a gently declining trend, but in general, there have been some gains here. So stock market is one of the potential causes for a bounce in consumer sentiment, but it is a shaky ground for a sustained hope for consumer confidence pick up;
  • Housing markets: some stabilization here over time, until yesterday's disastrous figures on new construction. It looks like the builders in the US have finally figured out (with a 12mo plus delay) that they have too much stuff on their hands already. SO housing markets are hardly a sustainable underpinning for consumer confidence;
  • Personal income: personal after-tax income is falling and will continue to do so. We know that Federal taxes are rising only at the upper margin, so it is local taxes (and in particular local property taxes) and state taxes that are driving declines in personal disposable income. Either way, this is not a support base for confidence;
  • Inflation: or rather deflation - with still positive near-zero interest rates, the US is far from gaining new borrowing cycle momentum, so while deflation is a net positive for consumers, positive interest rates are net negative - these cancel each other and we have no gain on support for confidence boost here.
What this really says is that fundamentally, the current bounce in Consumer Confidence is not justifiable - i.e it is a dead cat bounce. This is why the markets reaction has been relatively mild to now. QED...

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