traditional pension plans in the US: trouble ahead

the basics

Corporate pension plans of one type or another have been around in the US since the late nineteenth century.  In their simplest form, they offer specified payments in retirement to company workers who meet criteria spelled out in advance.  Since 1974, these plans have been subject to federal regulation under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) which sets out standards companies must comply with.

Although pension plans are an obligation of the firm, companies don’t ordinarily keep on hand in the plan today enough money to meet all future obligations.  Instead, they (or outside actuarial firms they hire) make intricate calculations of what future payments are likely to be and when they are likely to occur.  Then, using the investment returns that on average they believe their investment managers can achieve, they figure out how much must be in the plan right now to fund expected obligations.

open secrets, sort of

–We know professional analysts have a hard time forecasting what will happen even one year ahead.  What does this say about forecasts that claim to look decades into the future?

–Most traditional pension plans have less in the till today than actuarial calculations say they need.

–The return assumptions used are typically, let’s say, heroic.

public sector workers

The uncertainty inherent in what I’ve just written is why most publicly traded US companies have long since switched from traditional pension plans, where the corporation has responsibility for the risk of miscalculation, to 401ks, where the employee bears it.

There still are significant numbers of traditional pension plans, however.  They’re in the public sector.

dealing with underfunding

To my mind, a substantial reason for the popularity of hedge funds over the past fifteen years or so has been their claim of superior performance as far as the eye can see.  The director of an underfunded pension plan knows that his story is not going to end well as things stand now.  He has two choices:  ask his boss, the governor/legislature, for instance, to fix the problem by allocating (a ton of) more money to the plan; or he can find managers who can consistently exceed the returns the actuaries assume and gradually close the funding gap that way.  Not wanting to be the bearers of bad news, directors have by and large chosen door #2.

the actuarial assumptions

Adding to the woes of pension plan directors, the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS), a leader in the public pension plan sphere, has begun to call into question the assumption that it can churn out average annual gains of +7.5%.

The surprise here, if any, is that CalPERS has finally decided to deal with this chronic problem.

More tomorrow.

 

 

 

US corporate tax reform (ii)

There are likely to be losers from corporate income tax reform.  They’re likely to be of two types:

–companies that currently have sweetheart tax deals, which, as things stand now (meaning:  subject to the success of intensive lobbying), will go away as part of reform.  A related group is multinationals who’ve twisted their corporate structures into pretzels to locate taxable income outside the US

–companies making losses currently and/or that have unused tax-loss carryforwards.  The value of those unused losses will likely be reduced by a lot.  This is a somewhat more complicated issue than it seems.  In their reports to public shareholders, money-losing firms can use anticipated future tax benefits to reduce the size of current losses.  The ins-and-outs of this are only important in isolated cases, so I’ll just say that for such firms book value is likely overstated

Another potential consequence of tax reform is that investors may begin to take a harder look at tax-related items on the income and cash flow statements.  Could markets will begin to apply a discount to the stocks of firms that use gimmicks to depress their tax rate?  Thinking some what more broadly, it may mean the markets will take a dimmer view of other sorts of financial engineering (share buybacks are what I personally hope for).  It might also be that companies themselves will reemphasize operation experience rather than financial sleight of hand when choosing their CEOs.

US corporate tax reform

 why look at the corporate tax rate?

As I’ve mentioned on occasion in other posts, one of the features of today’s US stock market is that it seems to pay no attention at all to the rate at which publicly traded companies pay tax.  All that counts is (after-tax) eps and eps growth.

A generation ago, when I entered the market, the opposite was the case.  Acting on the assumption that a company couldn’t sustain a super-low tax rate for a long time, analysts scrupulously adjusted, or “normalized,” a company’s tax rate, usually to the statutory maximum.  Of course, it has turned out that some firms–and some industries–have been able to maintain a sub-par tax rate for far longer than anyone imagined possible back then.

the US tax system

There are two main issues with the current US corporate tax system, as I see it.  The statutory rate of 35% is very high in comparison with the world average of around 20%.  So, if there isn’t a crucial reason to locate here, the US is financially a bad place for a company to have operations.  Also, politically savvy industries–oil and gas drilling, for example–have been able to lobby for special breaks that make the tax code unduly complex and the amount that the IRS collects less than it should be.

reform likely

President-elect Trump is promising to address this issue by lowering the federal corporate tax rate to perhaps 15%.  Implied, but not yet stated, is that the tax code will also be simplified by wiping out special exemptions for certain industries.  There seems to be widespread support for both parts of such reform.  So it seems to me that the effort, which has always previously been derailed by special interests, has a good chance to succeed.

market consequences

This means, though, that for the first time in a long while, analysts will be scrutinizing company financials to try to separate winners from losers.

potential winners

The obvious winners are firms that have large amounts of US taxable income and that pay cash taxes at the full 35% rate.  The pharmaceutical industry is one.  No surprise that most of the tax inversions of the recent past have been in pharma.

More tomorrow.

 

 

more oil production cuts announced

the news

Over the weekend, a group of non-OPEC oil producing countries, including Russia and Mexico, announced they will pare their collective crude oil output by 500,000 daily barrels.  About 60% of the total reduction will come from Russia.

On hearing that, Saudi Arabia said it would reduce its liftings by more than its already-promised 486,000 daily barrels.  The kingdom didn’t specify an amount, however–and the wording of its statement suggests the number will be small.

Nevertheless, the combined declarations have been enough to raise the price of oil in commodity trading by about 5% today, and 10% in total.

To put these figures into perspective, world crude production is around 98 million barrels per day.  So we’re talking about less than a 2% reduction in total output.

for oil producing countries

In one sense, the agreements have already been a financial success for the countries involved.  For most, they’ll reduce future output by, say, 2% and are already receiving 10% more for the 98% they are still selling.  That combination brings in 8% more dollars.

On the other hand, a $50+ price per barrel gives new life to shale oil producers in the US.  All to that that a fracking-friendly administration in Washington and the likelihood is that crude oil output from the US will begin to rise rapidly next year, offsetting at least some of the near-term output reductions now being achieved.

for investors

For us the situation is not so clear.

–Oil exploration and development companies in the US have already risen substantially on the original OPEC cutback announcement

–We’re also only about six weeks away from the beginning of the seasonally weakest part of the year for oil.  Crude oil bought in late January can’t be refined into heating oil and delivered to retail customers before the winter is over.  The driving season doesn’t begin in earnest until April.  So demand for the two principal refined products will be at a low ebb from January – March.  Soft demand usually translates into weaker crude prices.

–At some point, we’ll begin to see US crude output pickup

–The promised output cuts won’t take effect until the new year, so it’s impossible to find countries cheating on their output reduction pledges today.  The history of all commodity cartels tells us, however, that cheating will happen.  And if past is prologue, evidence of cheating will trigger a substantial price decline.

So we can reasonably expect a substantial bump in the crude-can-only-go-up-from-here road shortly.

Although I’m not doing anything at the moment, my reaction to all this is that I’m closer to being a seller of oil exploration firms than a buyer.  If I had a relatively large position (I don’t.  I only own one e&p stock), I’d be trimming it today, with an eye to possibly buying back in late January.

 

 

 

 

Macau and ATM machines

During its days as a Portuguese colony, Macau was reputed to be a key center used by the mainland underworld to launder its ill-gotten gains.  The main laundromat, as it were, was allegedly the  collection of casinos run under a monopoly granted to the Ho family.

After the return of Macau to Chinese rule, the government moved quickly to break the monopoly and to guide the casino industry toward the Las Vegas model through technology transfer by granting casino licenses mainly to prominent US Las gambling operators with a Disney-esque approach to business.

A second political problem threatening the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party began to arise during the last decade as fabulously wealthy political insiders began to flaunt their riches through elaborate, ostentatious gambling jaunts to Macau.  A crackdown ensued, which also served the long-term interests of Macau by strongly redirecting the emphasis of the Macau gambling industry away from high-roller VIPs toward middle class and upper middle class patrons.  This, by the way, follows the development of the gambling market in the US.

During US trading hours yesterday, media reports from Hong Kong surfaced suggesting Beijing was beginning to crack down on middle class gamblers as well as VIPs.  The stories said the daily limit that mainland residents vacationing in Macau are allowed to withdraw from their (renminbi-denominated) bank accounts through a local ATM would be cut in half from–MOP 10,000 ($1300) to MOP 5,000, effective tomorrow.

Given Beijing’s plans for Macau’s economic development, this report made little sense–although, realistically speaking, who knows what Beijing’s day-to-day thoughts are.

The US-traded Macau names immediately dropped by around a tenth in a flattish market.  In today’s Hong Kong trading, Macau gambling stocks fell by 7% or so (expressing about half the negative sentiment in NY)–with the strongest (relative) performance by Ho-controlled SJM.

After the close of Hong Kong trading, mainland authorities “clarified” the initial report, saying that, yes, the per transaction limit on ATM withdrawals by mainlanders in Macau was being cut in half, but that the total daily limit would remain unchanged.  No reason why the clarification took 12 hours to be made.

In early US trading today, Macau-related stocks have made up about a third of their losses from yesterday.

As a holder of Wynn Resorts, Wynn Macau and Galaxy Entertainment, I’m going to sit on my hands.  If I held nothing, I’d be inclined to buy a bit.  My preference would be for the Hong Kong names, however, for two reasons:  the US market is being driven now by dreams of a domestic industrial revival, so foreign casinos aren’t at the top of institutions’ wish lists; and investors who dumped out their Macau holdings in a panic yesterday will be loathe to buy them back at a higher price, at least for a while.