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“Creative Destruction” or Just “Destruction?”

“Creative Destruction” or Just “Destruction?”

Under the effects of the Pandemic, consumers and businesses grapple with their own “Reset.”

This is the transcript of my podcast last Sunday, THE WOLF STREET REPORT.

We’ve got the weirdest economy ever. A disputed number of people lost their jobs early on in the Pandemic, with figures ranging from 22 million to 33 million people who lost their jobs, depending on whether we looked at the monthly jobs report or the number of people having filed for unemployment.

Since then, millions of people have been hired back by restaurants, gyms, hotels, and other enterprises that had shut down. This was followed – and that’s the phase we’re in now – by more layoffs but further up the corporate chain, with higher-paying jobs now getting axed. Initial unemployment claims of newly laid-off workers have remained horribly high, at over 800,000 a week, and have risen recently.

But wait… at the same time that this jobs fiasco is playing out, retail sales – so that’s goods bought online and in stores – after plunging in March and April have spiked to record highs.

This does not include services such as insurance, airline tickets, hotel bookings, rent, healthcare, etc.  And we know that airline passenger revenue at Delta, for example, has collapsed by 83% from a year ago in the third quarter, according to Delta’s quarterly earnings report. Many hotels remain closed.

In August, spending by Americans on services was still 7.4% below a year ago. And spending on services is the largest part of consumer spending.

But they plowed record amounts of money into buying goods, such as electronics, appliances, cars, bicycles, exercise equipment, and the like. According to government data, the amount that Americans spent on durable goods in August spiked by 12% from February, just before the Pandemic.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Extend-and-Pretend Caused Bankruptcies to Plunge in Germany, France, Spain. Now Central Banks Tell Banks to Prepare for Bankruptcy Surge

Extend-and-Pretend Caused Bankruptcies to Plunge in Germany, France, Spain. Now Central Banks Tell Banks to Prepare for Bankruptcy Surge

The “second wave,” if prolonged, could cause bad loans to almost triple, to €1.4 trillion, says the ECB.

German banks need to prepare themselves for a sharp spike in corporate bankruptcies early next year, the Bundesbank warned this week in its 2020 Financial Stability Review. It anticipates around 6,000 insolvencies in the first quarter of 2021. While this would be a little lower than at the peak quarter of the Global Financial Crisis, the Bundesbank cautioned that it “cannot rule out that … a lot more companies will go bankrupt than is currently expected.”

Although Germany is in the grip of its worst economic contraction since World War 2, fewer insolvencies have been filed this year compared to 2019. This is the result of the weird bailout-and-stimulus economy, and includes these factors:

  • Banks’ broad application of forbearance measures, which has given businesses extra financial leeway;
  • The roll out of state-backed emergency loans and grants for struggling businesses, large and small, which forms the backbone of the country’s €1.3 trillion (so far) stimulus program;
  • Germany’s “Kurzarbeit” social insurance program, which enables employers to reduce their employees’ working hours instead of laying them off, picking up government subsidies in the process.
  • And most importantly, the temporary suspension of bankruptcy-declaration requirements.

Helped along by these measures, the number of firms declaring insolvency in Germany fell 6.2% to 9,006 in the first half of this year from the same period last year, trending at their lowest level in 25 years, even as the economy shrinks at its fastest rate in over 70 years.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The Great American Oil & Gas Massacre: Bankruptcies Hit New Milestone as Bigger Companies Let Go

The Great American Oil & Gas Massacre: Bankruptcies Hit New Milestone as Bigger Companies Let Go

The American Oil Boom Was Where Money Went to Die.

The amount of secured and unsecured debts, such as loans and bonds, listed in bankruptcy filings in the third quarter by US oil and gas companies, at $34 billion, pushed the total oil-and-gas bankruptcy debt for 2020 to $89 billion, according to data compiled by law firm Haynes and Boone. And this nine-month total already surpassed the full-year total of oil-bust year 2016.

These are predominately exploration and production companies (E&P) and oilfield services companies (OFS) but also include some “midstream” companies (they gather, transport, process, and store oil and natural gas).

In mid-2014, the price of crude-oil benchmark WTI, which had been over $100 a barrel, started plunging. The companies involved in fracking couldn’t even generate positive cash flows at $100 a barrel. And as prices plunged, all heck broke loose. Creditors and equity investors, after drinking the Kool-Aid for years, suddenly got scared, and new money dried up to service the old money. A slew of bankruptcies ensued among the smaller players, reaching a high in 2016. And people thought that was it, the oil bust was over, and new money started pouring back into the sector.

But then came Phase 2 of the Great American Oil-and-Gas Bust in late-2018, with the price of WTI in the futures market eventually collapsing briefly to minus $37 a barrel in April 2020. In recent weeks, WTI has been hovering around $40 a barrel, at which the US oil industry is still burning millions of barrels of cash per day, so to speak:

The total number of oil-and-gas bankruptcies so far this year, at 88 filings, remains a lot lower than the 141 filings in 2016. Back then, scores of small companies were shaken out. Now the bigger ones with multi-billion-dollar debts are letting go as the crisis is working up the ladder.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

 

What’s Behind the Fed’s Project to Send Free Money to People Directly?

What’s Behind the Fed’s Project to Send Free Money to People Directly?

A lump-sum payment in digital dollars for all Americans during a recession or to raise inflation, as an alternative to QE and negative interest rates, which have failed.

By Wolf Richter. This is the transcript of my podcast last Sunday, THE WOLF STREET REPORT. You can listen to it on YouTube or download it wherever you get your podcasts.

There is a lot of discussion suddenly about a Federal Reserve project to make direct payments to households during an economic crisis. In March, legislation was proposed in the House and in the Senate to authorize the Fed to do this.

At the beginning of August, two former Fed officials floated a trial balloon of this type of operation with some specifics as to how it would work and how it would be accounted for on the Fed’s balance sheet.

And now, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Loretta Mester, gave a speech on the modernization of the decades-old, slow, and cumbersome payment systems we have in the United States. The Fed has been working on this modernization since long before the Pandemic. And near the end of that speech, she said that the Fed was looking into ways in which it could make direct and instant payments to every American, even those that don’t have bank accounts.

So free money for all Americans. This is very different from the stimulus checks because the government had to borrow the money that it sent to consumers. The Fed would just create the money and send it to consumers. And this is getting pretty serious now.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

What Does the Fed See Heading at Big Banks? Blocks Share-Buybacks, Slaps on Dividend Caps Due to “Economic Uncertainty” and “Cushion Against Loan Losses”

What Does the Fed See Heading at Big Banks? Blocks Share-Buybacks, Slaps on Dividend Caps Due to “Economic Uncertainty” and “Cushion Against Loan Losses”

My Big-Four Bank Index already got crushed back to 2004 level.

After the stock market closed today, the Federal Reserve announced that “in light of the economic uncertainty,” and to provide “a cushion against loan losses,” and to support lending, it would extend for another quarter, so through December 31, the blanket prohibition on share buybacks by large banks (banks with over $100 billion in assets). For the same reasons, it would also cap dividend payments tied to a formula based on recent income.

The Fed said that according to a stress test and additional analysis, whose results were released in June, “all large banks were sufficiently capitalized” to deal with the fallout from the Pandemic.

But it appears that the Fed now thinks the banks need to be even more sufficiently capitalized, so to speak, to deal with whatever may be coming at them. And the Fed will conduct another stress test later this year.

Many banks had voluntarily halted share buybacks in March as all heck was breaking loose. In June, following the release of the stress test results, the Fed imposed the buyback prohibition for the third quarter, now extended through the fourth quarter.

So, let’s put it this way: As far as the Fed is concerned, this crisis is not a blip, and banks need to be prepared for what’s coming at them. The large banks have already set aside billions of dollars each to deal with the fallout on their loan books. But apparently, the Fed thinks there’s more to come.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

What’s to Be Done Now with All These Zombie Companies?

What’s to Be Done Now with All These Zombie Companies?

Saving the Zombies in Europe.

Europe’s zombie firms are multiplying like never before. In Germany, one of the few European economies that has weathered the virus crisis reasonably well, an estimated 550,000 firms — roughly one-sixth of the total — could already be classified as “zombies”, according to research by the credit agency Creditreform. It’s a similar story in Switzerland.

Zombie firms are over-leveraged, high-risk companies with a business model that is not remotely self-sustaining, since they need to constantly raise fresh money from new creditors to pay off existing creditors. According to the Bank for International Settlements’ definition, they are unable to cover debt servicing costs with their EBIT (earnings before interest and taxes) over an extended period.

The number of zombie companies has been rising across Europe and the Anglosphere — due to of two main factors:

  • Central banks’ easy money forever policies, which brought interest rates down to such low levels that even firms with a reasonable chance of default have been able to continue issuing debt at serviceable rates. Many large zombie firms have also been bailed out, in some cases more than once. Spanish green energy giant Abengoa has been bailed out three times in five years.
  • The tendency of poorly capitalized banks to continually roll over or restructure bad loans. This is particularly prevalent in parts of the Eurozone where banks are especially weak, such as Italy.

A Bank of America report from July posits that the UK accounts for a staggering one third of all zombie companies in Europe. They represent 20% of all companies in the U.K, up four percentage points since March, according to a new paper by the conservative think tank Onward. In the two hardest-hit sectors — accommodation and food services, and arts, entertainment and recreation — the proportion of zombie firms has soared by 9 and 11 percentage points respectively, to 23% and 26%.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Have You Noticed How Push-Back Against Powell-Fed’s Actions Is Getting Louder in the Mainstream Media, from NPR to CNBC?

Have You Noticed How Push-Back Against Powell-Fed’s Actions Is Getting Louder in the Mainstream Media, from NPR to CNBC?

Still a lot of fawning coverage, but big dissenters are now given prominent spots, and loaded questions are used to politely hammer Powell into telling obvious nonsense.

This is an interesting turn of events, in a world of Fed-fawning mainstream media. In one version, the push-back takes the form of loaded questions about asset bubbles and wealth inequality caused by the Fed’s asset purchases.

Fed Chair Jerome Powell then answers, following what looks like a script because these loaded questions are now being thrown at him regularly. He admits that the Fed’s policies have increased asset prices, then says the Fed as a matter of policy doesn’t comment on asset prices, and hence cannot comment on asset bubbles, but then assiduously denies that this increased wealth of the asset holders, which he admits the Fed has engineered, widened the wealth inequality to the majority of Americans who hold no or nearly no assets, and who got shafted by the Fed. It’s like getting pushed on live TV into saying that, yes, indeed, two plus two equals three!

This happened many times, most notably during the July 29 FOMC press conference when a Bloomberg reporter pushed Powell on that (transcript of my podcast on the Fed’s role in wealth inequality); and during the interview with NPR which aired on September 4, when he was pushed on both, asset bubbles and wealth inequality.

In another version, the push-back in the mainstream media takes more accusatory forms expressed with exasperation and dotted with exclamation marks.

In early August, notable push-backers were former president of the New York Fed William Dudley and Bloomberg News which carried and promoted his editorial.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

“Prolonged Period of Risk to Institutional and Retail Investors of Further – Possibly Significant – Market Corrections”

“Prolonged Period of Risk to Institutional and Retail Investors of Further – Possibly Significant – Market Corrections”

European Market Regulator flags big issues, including the “decoupling of financial market performance and underlying economic activity.”

The European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) warned of a “prolonged period of risk to institutional and retail investors of further – possibly significant – market corrections and very high risks” across its jurisdiction.

“Of particular concern” is the sustainability of the recent market rebound and the potential impact of another broad market sell-off on EU corporates and their credit quality, as well as on credit institutions.

The “decoupling of financial market performance and underlying economic activity” — the worst economic crisis in a lifetime — is raising serious questions about “the sustainability of the market rebound,” ESMA says in its Trends, Risks and Vulnerabilities Report of 2020.

Beyond the immediate risks posed by a second wave of infections, other external events, such as Brexit or trade tensions between the US and China, could further destabilize fragile market conditions in the near term.

From a long-term perspective, the crisis is likely to affect economic activity permanently, “owing to lasting unemployment or structural changes, which might have an impact on future earnings.” The increase in private and public sector debt could also give rise to solvency and sustainability issues.

In corporate bond markets, spreads have narrowed but they remain well above pre-crisis levels, owing to heightened credit risk and underlying vulnerabilities related to high corporate leverage. There was also a wide divergence across sectors and asset classes in April and May. Across non-financials, the automotive sector suffered the largest decline, followed by the energy sector.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The Zombie Companies Are Coming

The Zombie Companies Are Coming

Easy money is a curse for capitalism.

Through the first half of August – which is normally a quiet period for the bond market in the US – a total of $56 billion in junk bonds and leveraged loans were issued by junk-rated companies, according to S&P Global. That was nearly 50% higher than the prior records for the same period in 2012 and 2016, and more than double the amount issued in the entire month of August last year.

The Fed’s announcement on March 23rd that it would start buying corporate bonds and bond ETFs set off a huge rally in the bond market, including in the junk-bond market.

The rally started before the Fed ever actually bought the first bond. And then the Fed hardly bought anything by Fed standards. Through the end of July, it bought just $12 billion in corporate bonds and bond ETFs, including a minuscule $1.1 billion in junk bond ETFs. It’s not even a rounding error on its $7-trillion mountain of assets.

But the announcement was enough to trigger the biggest junk-debt chase in the shortest amount of time the world has likely ever seen. And it kept the zombies walking, and it generated a whole new generation of zombies too.

The junk-bond ETFs the Fed dabbled in hold junk-bonds issued by companies that have been taken over by Private Equity firms in leveraged buyouts, where the acquired company itself borrows the money to pay for its own acquisition. Leveraged buyouts produced the first big wave of bankruptcies among retailers that started years before the Pandemic, and included Toys R Us, now liquidated.

The junk bond ETFs that the Fed has bought hold these types of bonds, including bonds by PetSmart, which was taken over in a leveraged buyout by private-equity firm, BC Partners.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

THE WOLF STREET REPORT: The Zombie Companies Are Coming

THE WOLF STREET REPORT: The Zombie Companies Are Coming

“Easy money is a curse for capitalism.” You can also find the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and others.

Shell’s Colossal Miscalculation in 2011 of Today’s LNG Price: Largest-Ever $12-$17-Billion “Floating Facility” Shut Down, Months After Shipping First LNG. Done in by Long Price Collapse

Shell’s Colossal Miscalculation in 2011 of Today’s LNG Price: Largest-Ever $12-$17-Billion “Floating Facility” Shut Down, Months After Shipping First LNG. Done in by Long Price Collapse

Built to profit from sky-high LNG Prices in Japan. Sunk by surging US LNG Exports, multi-year collapse in LNG prices, global LNG glut.

The Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami in March 2011 triggered a series of events at the Fukushima power plant that led to catastrophic meltdowns in three of its six reactors, which led Japan to take the remaining of its 54 operating reactors offline, as a new regulatory and safety regime was established for reactors to come back on line. This caused a mad scramble to switch to other forms of power generation, including power plants fired by natural gas, which Japan has to import as liquefied natural gas (LNG), which triggered a blistering spike in LNG prices that caused all kinds of enormous long-term investments to be commenced around the world, including in the US and in Australia, in order to export super-lucrative LNG into booming Asian demand.

But in 2014, the price of LNG started sinking, and in 2015, it plunged, and those investments became huge money pits – including perhaps the largest of them all, Shell’s floating LNG-factory, the Prelude FLNG, at a length of 1,600 feet, the largest floating facility ever built, and at an undisclosed cost estimated to have been in the range between $12 billion and $17 billion, now languishing off the coast of Australia (the red hull is the Prelude, the smaller ship in front of it is a huge LNG tanker; image by Shell):

In April 2014, the average spot price of LNG at arrival in Japan was $18.30 per million Btu, according to Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI). This is as far as its data series goes back.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Turkey’s 2nd Financial & Currency Crisis in 2 Years Blossoms. Heavily Invested European Banks Look for Exit. But Not the Most Exposed Bank

Turkey’s 2nd Financial & Currency Crisis in 2 Years Blossoms. Heavily Invested European Banks Look for Exit. But Not the Most Exposed Bank

Big Gamble that was hot for years has gone sour after Turkish lira’s plunge and surge of defaults on bank debts denominated in foreign currency.

As the Turkish lira logged fresh record lows against both the dollar and the euro on Friday, and is now down 19% this year against the dollar, attention is turning once again to the potential risks facing lenders. They include a handful of very big Eurozone banks that are heavily exposed to Turkey’s economy via large amounts in loans — much of it in euros — through banks they acquired in Turkey. And the strains are beginning to replay those of the last currency/financial crisis in 2018.

When the Money Runs Out…

Subordinate bonds of Turkiye Garanti Bankasi AS, which is majority owned by Spanish lender BBVA, together with two other local banks — Turkiye Is Bankasi AS and Akbank TAS — are trading at distressed levels (yields of over 10 percentage points above U.S. Treasuries), even though the banks are still profitable and said to be highly capitalized. This is an indication of the amount of confidence investors have in the ability of these companies to repay their obligations.

Three weeks ago, when the lira was trading within a tight band against the dollar — the result of the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey (CBRT) pegging the lira to the dollar by burning through billions of dollars of already depleted foreign-exchange reserves and dollars borrowed from Turkish banks — no corporate bonds in Turkey were trading at these levels. Now that the CBRT has stopped propping up the lira, which has since fallen 7% against the dollar, the average risk premium demanded by investors to hold dollar-denominated notes of Turkish businesses has soared.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Dollar’s Purchasing Power Drops to Lowest Ever. Inflation Heats Up, as Fed Wants, After Simultaneous Supply & Demand Shocks

Dollar’s Purchasing Power Drops to Lowest Ever. Inflation Heats Up, as Fed Wants, After Simultaneous Supply & Demand Shocks

“We’re not even thinking about thinking about” slowing the decline of the dollar’s purchasing power — and thereby labor’s purchasing power.

A supply shock and a demand shock came together during the Pandemic, and it produced chaos in the pricing environment. There was a sudden collapse in demand in some segments of the economy – restaurants, gasoline, jet fuel, for example – and a surge in demand in other segments, such as eating at home, and anything to do with ecommerce, including transportation services focused on it.

These shifts came together with supply-chain interruptions and supply chains that were unprepared for the big shifts, leading to shortages in some parts of the economy – the supply shock. There were empty shelves in stores, while product was piling up with no buyers in other parts of the economy.

The sectors surrounding gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel fuel – oil and gas drilling, equipment manufacturers, transportation services, refineries, etc. – were thrown into turmoil as demand vanished, leading to a total collapse in energy prices. In April, in a bizarre moment in the history of the oil business, the price of the US benchmark crude WTI collapsed to negative -$37 a barrel.

Since then, the price of crude oil has risen sharply (now at positive +$41 a barrel), as demand for gasoline has returned to near-normal while demand for jet fuel remains in collapse-mode, as people are driving to go on vacations, instead of flying, and as business travel is essentially shut down.

As a result, for a few months, all of the inflation data was going haywire, with some prices plunging and others spiking. This is now being worked out of the system.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

No Payment, No Problem: Bizarre New World of Consumer Debt

No Payment, No Problem: Bizarre New World of Consumer Debt

All kinds of weird records are being broken. But it’s scheduled to expire, and then what?

The New York Fed released a doozie of a household credit report. It summarized what individual lenders have been reporting about their own practices: If you can’t make the payments on your mortgage, auto loan, credit card debt, or student loan, just ask for a deferral or forbearance, and you won’t have to make the payments, and the loan won’t count as delinquent if it wasn’t delinquent before. And even if it was delinquent before, you can “cure” a delinquency by getting the loan deferred and modified. No payment, no problem.

Nearly all student loans go into forbearance, delinquencies plunge.

Student loan borrowers were automatically rolled into forbearance under the CARES Act, and even though many students had stopped making payments, delinquency rates plunged because the Department of Education had decided to report as “current” all those loans that are in forbearance, even if they were delinquent. Yup, according to New York Fed data, the delinquency rate of student loan borrowers, though many had stopped making payments, plunged from 10.75% in Q1, to 6.97% in Q2, the lowest since 2007:

Student loan forbearance is available until September 30, and interest is waived until then, instead of being added to the loan. In a blog post, the New York Fed said that 88% of the student-loan borrowers, including private-loan borrowers and  Federal Family Education Loan borrowers, had a “scheduled payment of $0,” meaning that at least 88% of the student loans were in some form of forbearance. Until September 30. And then what?

Delinquent loans are “cured” without catch-up payments.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

US Crude Oil Production Plunged Most Ever, Natural Gas Followed: The Great American Oil & Gas Bust, Phase 2

US Crude Oil Production Plunged Most Ever, Natural Gas Followed: The Great American Oil & Gas Bust, Phase 2  

Precisely what’s needed to end the price collapse. But last time, it wasn’t long before Wall Street liquidity surged back into shale, starting the cycle all over again.

US crude oil production in May plunged by 1.99 million barrels per day, from 12 million b/d in April to 10 million b/d, the largest monthly drop since at least 1980, and the sixth monthly drop in a row, according to the EIA.

This comes after the collapse in demand for transportation fuels – especially gasoline and jet fuel – that started in March and exacerbated the oil glut and a downward spiral of the already depressed prices for crude oil. Amid a torrent of bankruptcy filings by oil-and-gas companies, drillers cut drilling activity and production. This trend restarted last year, after having subsided somewhat following phase 1 of the Great American Oil Bust in 2015-2016, but took on record proportions during the Pandemic. From the peak in November 2019 of 12.86 million b/d, production has now plunged by 22.2%:

In the chart above, note how production doubled between mid-2012 and November 2019, despite the drop in production in 2015-2016.

The chart below shows the the price of benchmark crude oil grade West Texas Intermediate. Note how the price recovery from late 2016 ended in the fall of 2018 and then reversed, as production surged. The price decline bottomed out on April 20, when for a brief period the price of WTI plunged below zero, a bizarre moment in the history of crude oil:

Texas, the state with by far the largest production in the US and the epicenter of the oil-and-gas bankruptcy filings, was also the state with the largest production cuts, in terms of million b/d. Peak production occurred in March 2020 at 5.44 million b/d. By May production had plunged 19% to 4.39 million b/d.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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