Risky Borrowing Is Making a Comeback, but Banks Are on the Sideline

New and untested players, some backed by Wall Street, have helped borrowers pile up billions in loans. What could go wrong?

By Matt Phillips


A decade after reckless home lending nearly destroyed the financial system, the business of making risky loans is back.

This time the money is bypassing the traditional, and heavily regulated, banking system and flowing through a growing network of businesses that stepped in to provide loans to parts of the economy that banks abandoned after 2008.

It’s called shadow banking, and it is a key source of the credit that drives the American economy. With almost $15 trillion in assets, the shadow-banking sector in the United States is roughly the same size as the entire banking system of Britain, the world’s fifth-largest economy.

In certain areas — including mortgages, auto lending and some business loans — shadow banks have eclipsed traditional banks, which have spent much of the last decade pulling back on lending in the face of stricter regulatory standards aimed at keeping them out of trouble.  
But new problems arise when the industry depends on lenders that compete aggressively, operate with less of a cushion against losses and have fewer regulations to keep them from taking on too much risk. Recently, a chorus of industry officials and policymakers — including the Federal Reserve chair, Jerome H. Powell, last month — have started to signal that they’re watching the growth of riskier lending by these non-banks.
“We decided to regulate the banks, hoping for a more stable financial system, which doesn’t take as many risks,” said Amit Seru, a professor of finance at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “Where the banks retreated, shadow banks stepped in.”

Safe as houses

With roughly 50 million residential properties, and $10 trillion in amassed debt, the American mortgage market is the largest source of consumer lending on earth.

Lately, that lending is coming from companies like Quicken Loans, loanDepot and Caliber Home Loans. Between 2009 and 2018, the share of mortgage loans made by these businesses and others like them soared from 9 percent to more than 52 percent, according to Inside Mortgage Finance, a trade publication.



Is this a good thing? If you’re trying to buy a home, probably. These lenders are competitive and willing to lend to borrowers with slightly lower credit scores or higher levels of debt compared to their income.

They also have invested in some sophisticated technology. Just ask Andrew Downey, a 24-year-old marketing manager in New Jersey who is buying a two-bedroom condo. To finance the purchase, he plugged his information into LendingTree.com, and Quicken Loans, the largest non-bank mortgage lender by loans originated, called him almost immediately.
“I’m not even exaggerating,” he said. “I think they called me like 10 or 15 seconds after my information was in there.”

Quicken eventually offered him a rate of 3.875 percent with 15 percent down on a conventional 30-year fixed-rate mortgage of roughly $185,000. Eventually he found an even better offer, 3.625 percent, from the California-based lender PennyMac, also not a bank.

“I really didn’t reach out to any banks,” said Mr. Downey, who expects to close on his condo in Union, N.J., this month.

The downside of all this? Because these entities aren’t regulated like banks, it’s unclear how much capital — the cushion of non-borrowed money the companies operate with — they have.

If they don’t have enough, it makes them less able to survive a significant slide in the economy and the housing market.

While they don’t have a nationwide regulator that ensures safety and soundness like banks do, the non-banks say that they are monitored by a range of government entities, from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to state regulators.

They also follow guidelines from the government-sponsored entities that are intended to support homeownership, like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which buy their loans.

“Our mission, I think, is to lend to people properly and responsibly, following the guidelines established by the particular agency that we’re selling mortgages to,” said Jay Farner, chief executive of Quicken Loans.

Risky business loans

It’s not just mortgages. Wall Street has revived and revamped the pre-crisis financial assembly line that packaged together risky loans and turned those bundles into seemingly safe investments.

This time, the assembly line is pumping out something called collateralized loan obligations, or C.L.O.s. These are essentially a kind of bond cobbled together from packages of loans — known as leveraged loans — made to companies that are already pretty heavily in debt. These jumbles of loans are then chopped up and structured, so that investors can choose the risks they’re willing to take and the returns they’re aiming for.

If that sounds somewhat familiar, it might be because a similar system of securitization of subprime mortgages went haywire during the housing bust, saddling some investors with heavy losses from instruments they didn’t understand.

If investors have any concerns about a replay in the C.L.O. market, they’re hiding it fairly well.

Money has poured in over the last few years as the Federal Reserve lifted interest rates. (C.L.O.s buy mostly loans with floating interest rates, which fare better than most fixed-rate bonds when interest rates rise.)
























Still, there are plenty of people who think that C.L.O.s and the leveraged loans that they buy are a potential trouble spot that bears watching.

For one thing, those loans are increasingly made without the kinds of protections that restrict activities like paying out dividends to owners, or taking out additional borrowing, without a lender’s approval.

Roughly 80 percent of the leveraged loan market lacks such protections, up from less than 10 percent more than a decade ago. That means lenders will be less protected if defaults pick up steam.

For now, such defaults remain quite low. But there are early indications that when the economy eventually does slow, and defaults increase, investors who expect to be protected by the collateral on their loan could be in for a nasty surprise.

In recent weeks, warnings about the market for C.L.O.s and leveraged loans have been multiplying. Last month, Mr. Powell said the Fed was closely monitoring the buildup of risky business debt, and the ratings agency Moody’s noted this month that a record number of companies borrowing in the loan markets had received highly speculative ratings that reflected “fragile business models and a high degree of financial risk.”

Small, subjective loans

Leveraged loans are risky, but some companies are seen as even too rickety, or too small, to borrow in that market.  

Not to worry. There’s a place for them to turn as well, and they’re called Business Development Companies, or B.D.C.s.
They’ve been around since the 1980s, after Congress changed the laws to encourage lending to small and midsize companies that couldn’t get funding from banks.

But B.D.C.s aren’t charities. They’re essentially a kind of investment fund.

And they appeal to investors because of the high interest rates they charge.

Their borrowers are companies like Pelican Products, a maker of cellphone and protective cases in California, which paid an interest rate of 10.23 percent to its B.D.C. lender, a rate that reflects its high risk and low credit ratings.

For investors, an added appeal is that the B.D.C.s don’t have to pay corporate taxes as long as they pay 90 percent of their income to shareholders. Shareholders eventually pay tax on that income, but in a tax-deferred retirement account like an individual retirement account, the structure can amplify gains over time.

So, naturally, B.D.C. assets have grown fast, jumping from roughly $10 billion in 2005 to more than $100 billion last year, according to data from Wells Fargo Securities and Refinitiv, a financial data provider.



Some analysts argue that risks embedded in B.D.C.s also can be hard to understand. Because B.D.C.s own loans in small companies that aren’t always widely held or traded, there are often no public market prices available to use to benchmark the fund’s investments.

B.D.C.s have also been increasing leverage to bolster returns. It means they’re using more borrowed money, to make these loans to high-risk borrowers. That strategy can supercharge returns during good times, but it can also make losses that much deeper when things take a turn for the worse.

8 Reasons a Huge Gold Mania Is About to Begin

by Nick Giambruno




An epic gold bull market is on the menu for 2019.

I'm not talking about a garden-variety cyclical gold bull market, but rather one of the biggest gold manias in history.

This gold mania will be riding the wave of an incredibly powerful trend... the re-monetization of gold.

The last time the international monetary system experienced a paradigm shift of this magnitude was in 1971.

Then, the dollar price of gold skyrocketed over 2,300%.

It shot from $35 per ounce to a high of $850 in 1980. Gold mining stocks did even better.

Today, gold is still bouncing around its lows. Gold mining stocks are still very cheap. I expect returns to be at least as great as they were during the last paradigm shift.

So let's get right into it, starting with the first four catalysts that will send gold prices higher…

No. 1: Basel III Moves Gold Closer to Officially Being Money Again

The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) is located in Basel, Switzerland. It's often referred to as "the bank of central banks." Its members consist of 60 central banks from the world's largest economies.

It facilitates transactions – notably gold transactions – between central banks, the biggest players in the gold market.

The BIS also issues Basel Accords, or a set of recommendations for regulations that set the standards for the global banking industry.

On April 1, 2019, Basel III went into effect around the world.

Buried among what was mostly confusing jargon was something of huge significance for gold:

A 0% risk weight will apply to (i) cash owned and held at the bank or in transit; and (ii) gold bullion held at the bank or held in another bank on an allocated basis, to the extent the gold bullion assets are backed by gold bullion liabilities.

What this means in plain English is that gold's official role in the international monetary system has been upgraded for the first time in decades.

Banks can now consider physical gold they hold, in certain circumstances, as a 0% risk asset. Previously, gold was considered riskier and most of the time could not be classified in this way. Basel III rules are making gold more attractive.

Central bankers and mainstream economists have ridiculed gold for going on 50 years now.

They've tried to downplay its role in favor of fiat currencies like the U.S. dollar. They've tried to trick people into believing it isn't important.

The fact is gold is real money... a form of money that is far superior to rapidly depreciating paper currencies. This is why central bankers don't want to acknowledge how important it is.

And this is precisely why Basel III is important. It signifies the start of a reversal in attitude and policy.

Basel III is giving gold more official recognition in the international financial system. It represents a step towards the re-monetization of gold... and the recognition of this powerful trend in motion.

No. 2: Central Banks Are Buying Record Amounts of Gold

Countries are treating gold as money for the first time in generations...

In 2010, something remarkable happened. Central banks changed from being net sellers of gold to net buyers of gold. Remember, central banks are by far the biggest actors in the global gold market.

This trend has only accelerated since...

The World Gold Council reports that in 2018, central banks bought a record 651 tonnes of gold. This is the highest level of net purchases since 1971 when Nixon closed the gold window.

And it's a 75% increase from 2017.




Russia Was the Biggest Buyer


Russia's gold reserves have quadrupled in the last decade, making it the fifth-largest holder of gold in the world.

Last year, Russia notably dumped nearly $100 billion worth of U.S. Treasuries, and, according to the World Gold Council, replaced much of it with gold.

If this trend continues, and I expect that it will, Russia will soon become the third-largest gold holder in the world.




A major reason for Russia's gold purchases is to reduce its reliance on the U.S. dollar and exposure to U.S. financial sanctions.

It is providing a template for others to do the same, using gold as money.

For example, in 2016, news broke that Turkey and Iran were engaged in a "gas for gold" plan.

Iran is under U.S. sanctions. Through the plan, Turkey can pay for gas imported from Iran with gold.

Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and others are proving they don't need the U.S. dollar. They are conducting business and settling trade with gold shipments, which aren't under the control of the U.S. government.

This is how gold will benefit from the U.S. government using the dollar as a financial weapon.

No. 3: Oil for Gold- China's Golden Alternative

In 2017, when tensions with North Korea were rising, Trump's Treasury secretary threatened to kick China out of the U.S. dollar system if it didn't crack down on North Korea.

If the threat had been carried out, it would have been the financial equivalent of dropping a nuclear bomb on Beijing.

Without access to dollars, China would struggle to import oil and engage in international trade.

Its economy would come to a grinding halt.

China would rather not depend on an adversary like this. This is one of the main reasons it created what I call the "Golden Alternative."

Last year, the Shanghai International Energy Exchange launched a crude oil futures contract denominated in Chinese yuan. For the first time in the post-World War II era, it will allow for large oil transactions outside of the U.S. dollar.

Of course, most oil producers don't want a large reserve of yuan.

That's why China has explicitly linked the crude futures contract with the ability to convert yuan into physical gold – without touching the Chinese government's official reserves – through gold exchanges in Shanghai and Hong Kong. (Shanghai is already the world's largest physical gold market.)

Bottom line, China's Golden Alternative will allow oil producers to sell oil for gold and completely bypass any restrictions, regulations, or sanctions of the U.S. financial system.

With China's Golden Alternative, a lot of oil money is going to flow into yuan and gold instead of dollars and Treasuries.

CNBC estimates that the amount of redirected oil money will eventually hit $600-$800 billion. Much of this will flow into the gold market, which itself is only $170 billion.




Consider this...

China is the world's largest importer of oil.

So far this year, China has imported an average of around 9.8 million barrels of oil per day.

This number is expected to grow at least 10% per year.

Right now, oil is hovering around $60 per barrel. That means China is spending around $588 million per day to import oil.

Gold is currently priced around $1,330 an ounce.

That means every day, China is importing oil worth over 442,105 ounces of gold.

If we're conservative and assume that just half of Chinese imports will be purchased in gold soon, it translates into increased demand of more than 80 million ounces per year – or more than 70% of gold's annual production.

This shift hasn't been priced into the gold price. When it happens, the increased demand for gold from China's Golden Alternative is going to shock the gold market.

The bottom line is, China's Golden Alternative is a big step towards gold's re-monetization.

No. 4: The Fed's Dramatic Capitulation

In the wake of the 2008 crash, the Federal Reserve instituted several emergency measures. The chairman at the time, Bernanke, promised Congress they would be temporary.

This included money-printing programs euphemistically called "quantitative easing" (QE).

Through QE, the Fed created $3.7 trillion out of thin air.

That newly created money was used to buy mainly government bonds, which sat on the Fed's bloated balance sheet.

The Fed also brought interest rates to the lowest levels in U.S. history. The Fed artificially brought rates down to 0% and kept them there for over six years.

Capitalism's Most Important Price

Remember, interest rates are simply the price of borrowing money (debt). They have an enormous impact on banks, the real estate market, and the auto industry, among others.

In 2016, the Fed began its attempt to "normalize" its monetary policy by raising interest rates and reducing the size of its balance sheet to more historically normal levels. By doing so, the Fed was reversing the emergency measures put in place after the 2008 crisis.

Interest rates have risen from 0% to around 2.5%, and the Fed has drained over $500 billion from its balance sheet, or about 11% from its peak.

But then, the stock market tanked...

The S&P 500 peaked at 2,930 in late September 2018. By late December, it had crashed over 19% and appeared to be headed sharply lower.

It was the worst December in stock market history, except for December 1931, which was during the Great Depression.

That spooked the Fed into its most abrupt change in monetary policy in recent history.

Instead of normalizing monetary policy and removing the so-called "temporary" and "emergency" measures in place since 2008 – as it had long planned to do – the Fed capitulated.

Earlier this year, the Fed announced it would not raise interest rates in 2019.

The Fed also announced it would phase out its balance sheet reduction program in the fall.

Previously, the Fed was slowly winding down its balance sheet by about $30 billion a month. At such a snail's pace, it would have taken the Fed over 10 years to drain its balance sheet back to its pre-crisis normal level.

Hooked on Easy Money

This whole charade is indicative of how utterly dependent the U.S. economy has become on artificially low interest rates and easy money.

If the Fed couldn't normalize interest rates when the debt was $22 trillion, how is it ever going to raise rates when the debt is $30 trillion or higher?

The Fed couldn't shrink a $4.5 trillion balance sheet. How is it going to shrink, say, a $10 trillion balance sheet or higher?

The answer is it can't and won't. It's impossible for the U.S. government to normalize interest rates with an abnormal amount of debt. The Fed is trapped.

After nearly six years of 0% interest rates, the U.S. economy is hooked on the heroin of easy money. It can't even tolerate a modest reduction in the Fed's balance sheet and 2.5% interest rates, still far below historical averages.

In other words, this monetary tightening cycle is over. The next move is a return to QE and 0%, and perhaps negative, interest rates. These moves would, of course, weaken the dollar and be good for gold.

By flipping from tightening to signaling future easing, the Fed has turned a major headwind for the gold market into a tailwind.

(Stay tuned for part 2.)

China’s Property Developers Have a 1.25 Billion-Square-Meter Problem

Real-estate giants have become overly reliant on funding from sales of houses they haven’t built

By Mike Bird





China’s real-estate developers are selling more unbuilt properties than they’re finishing—a lot more. When starts and completions move back toward one another, as they must eventually, the sector will feel the squeeze.

Property starts in China always outnumber completions, but in the past 12 months it has been by a factor of nearly 2.5—wider than at any time but 2010-11, following the stimulus spree China launched against the global financial crisis. The gap comes to 1.25 billion square meters.

In the 12 months through March, over 85% of residential-property sales were for future delivery, a record high. Presales are a key source of funds for highly leveraged developers, which get direct access to the cash—unlike in other countries, where much of it would be held in escrow until completion. This funding, essentially a form of debt, will dry up if the gap between starts and completions narrows.

There is no sign of immediate weakness in sales and starts. Indeed, if Beijing attempts to lift the economy with a credit boost it would likely feed into the property market—offering more time to developers, though also increasing their obligations.

Developers’ reliance on presales was demonstrated last September, when a Bloomberg report that a single province was merely considering a ban sparked a fall of more than 5% for Country Garden Holdings Co., a major developer.


Before you build it, they will buy. Photo: china stringer network/Reuters


Developers’ growth has been relentless. China Evergrande Groupreported sales of 561.9 billion Hong Kong dollars (US$72 billion) in 2018, more than triple its 2015 sales. But the sectors’ shares have performed erratically, leaving the CSI 300 Real Estate Index basically where it was at the end of 2015.

When the gap between completions and starts has narrowed in the past, as from late 2014 to early 2016, some developers have come under acute pressure. Kaisa Group Holdingsbecame the first property company to default on offshore dollar debt.

A less frothy presales market isn’t the only threat to developers. High levels of short-term dollar debt mean the companies are exposed both to any tightening in U.S. financial conditions and any further decline in the yuan.

A wobble in the financial health of Chinese developers would in turn hit the Asian junk-bond market. Almost half the region’s dollar high-yield bonds were issued by Chinese property companies, up from roughly a 10th a decade ago.

It may be some time off, but at some point the Chinese real-estate industry will hit a rough patch as funding becomes scarcer. A narrowing in the near-record gap between starts and completions could be one trigger. Investors would be wise to keep an eye on it.


The Mixed Blessing Of Falling Birth Rates

by John Rubino


 
The developed world is doing something unprecedented: It’s no longer reproducing. That’s great for the environment and very good for the work and housing prospects of the relative handful of kids that are being born (since fewer workers mean rising pay and fewer households mean cheaper real estate). But it’s bad for retirees who will have their benefits slashed when there are too few workers to support them.

Let’s begin with some charts from today’s Wall Street Journal. The first shows women waiting longer to have kids, with the average age for first birth rising from 21 in 1968 to 26 today:

birth rates by child


The second shows the result, which is plunging birth rates among younger age groups:


birth rates by age



This is due to a few (admittedly somewhat contradictory) things. First, college-educated women tend to make more money, which raises the opportunity cost of starting a family. Second, soaring student debt for those same college graduates makes work more necessary and the added expense of kids more terrifying. Third, the rise of the gig economy makes Millennial finances more precarious than for any other post-Depression generation, leading many to feel too overwhelmed to even consider starting a family. Fourth, kids are obnoxious (sorry, that’s just me venting about some hopefully very temporary family stuff).

Add it all up, and Americans (along with Japanese, Germans, and Italians) are having too few kids to replace their existing populations.

Immigration will no doubt take up some of the resulting slack, but not all of it because new arrivals soon adopt their host country’s breeding attitude. In the US, for instance, Hispanic birth rates are falling faster than for non-Hispanics.

Hispanic birth rates


Falling birth rates seem to be the new normal, with shrinking populations not far behind. In a wildly overcrowded world (watch the following video if you doubt the truth of this) …





… fewer humans solve a lot of problems. But why write about this trend in a gloom-and-doom finance blog? Because of the impact of falling working-age populations on the global financial system. The only way for Millennials to pay for Boomers’ Social Security and Medicare would be for the latter to confiscate 90% of the former’s paychecks. That won’t happen, so something else has to, most likely massive benefit cuts via hidden inflation.

In other words, we aggressively depreciate the dollar (and euro and yen) while raising retirement benefits by some fraction of that rate, thus stiffing retirees in a way that many won’t notice, at least for a while.

The side effect of this purposeful inflation will be a massive shift of capital out of financial assets like government bonds that depend for their value on the stability of the underlying currency, and into real assets like oil wells, farmland and precious metals which governments can’t create with a mouse click. So buy gold, sit back and enjoy the show.

Canada pension plan chief warns over illiquid private assets   
It is hard to sell the private stuff in a downturn, says Mark Machin of CPPIB

 Jennifer Thompson in London

    
Mark Machin: private assets were among the top performers for CPPIB (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
 

The head of one of the world’s biggest retirement funds has warned that investors are becoming too exposed to private assets whose liquidity could prove a problem in the event of a downturn.

Institutional investors such as pension funds have increased exposure to assets such as infrastructure, real estate and private equity in the quest for better returns at a time of record-low interest rates.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with private assets or private equity [but] it's very hard to sell the private stuff in a downturn,” said Mark Machin, chief executive of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board which oversees C$392bn ($291bn) in assets. “My warning is you have to be really careful on how much you load up.”

About half of the Toronto group’s assets are invested privately, a heavy weighting with which Mr Machin is comfortable.

Private assets were among the top performers for CPPIB as it reported annual results for the year ending in March. Private equity in companies based in developed markets outside Canada was the best-performing asset class, with a gross return of 18 per cent compared with 16 per cent the previous year. Infrastructure returned 14 per cent compared with 15.2 per cent the previous year.

In common with other Canadian pension funds, CPPIB is known for being a proponent of “direct investment”, where it bypasses intermediaries to make deals or buyouts. Recent investments include about $750m in Aqua America, a US water company.

CPPIB is also part of a consortium led by private equity firms Apax and Warburg Pincus that plans to return Inmarsat, Britain’s largest satellite company, to private ownership in a deal that values the group at about $6bn including debt.

Overall, CPPIB reported a dip in annual returns after a rocky period for global markets towards the end of 2018. It posted a net return of 8.95 per cent for 2018-19, down from 11.6 per cent the previous year.

Mr Machin had previously warned of lower returns, saying the prospect of double-digit returns year on year was “too optimistic”. He said it was a good result but added that renewed trade tension between Washington and Beijing was causing uncertainty.

“You’ve got rising geopolitical tensions that are very difficult to price,” he said. “The tension between the number one and number two economies doesn’t help anybody.

“We’re probably going to see rising volatility and less robust returns from here.”

Mr Machin's total pay for the year rose 10 per cent to C$5.76m, including deferred awards.

Assets at CPPIB rose C$35.9bn. Much of this was derived from profits generated by the fund’s investment activities, with C$3.9bn coming from contributions made by pension savers. The group’s overall assets rose 10 per cent year on year. Fees paid to external investment managers fell C$152m to C$1.59bn because of lower performance fees.

CPPIB was formed 20 years ago to build a reserve fund to support the Canada Pension Plan, the country’s largest retirement fund with 20m contributors and beneficiaries.