Saturday, April 22, 2017

22/4/17: Two Regimes of Whistle-Blower Protection


“Corporate fraud is a major challenge in both developing and advanced economies, and employee whistle-blowers play an important role in uncovering it.” A truism that is, despite being quite obvious, has been a subject of too little research to-date. One recent study by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (2014), found that the average loss to organisations experiencing fraud that occurs due to financial statement fraud, asset misappropriation, and corruption is estimated losses from impact of corporate fraud globally at around $3.7 trillion. Such estimates are, of course, only remotely accurate. The Global Fraud Report" (2016) showed that 75% of surveyed senior executives stated that their company was a fraud victim in the previous year and in 81% of those cases, at least one company insider was involved, with a large share of such perpetrators (36%) coming from the ranks of company senior or middle management.

Beyond aggregate losses, whistleblowers are significantly important to detection of fraud cases. A 2010 study showed that whistleblowers have been responsible for some 17 percent of fraud discoveries over the period of 1996-2004 for fraud occurrences amongst the large U.S. corporations. And, according to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (2014), “employees were the source in 49% of tips leading to the detection of fraud”.


In line with this and other evidence on the impact of fraud-induced economic and social costs, whistleblower protection has been promoted and advanced across a range of countries and institutional frameworks in recent years. An even more glaring gap in our empirical knowledge arises when we attempt to analyse the extent to which such protection has been effective in creating the right legal and operational conditions for whistleblowers to be able to provide our societies with improved information disclosure and corporate governance and regulatory enforcement.

Somewhat filling the latter research gap, a recent working paper, titled “Whistle-Blower Protection: Theory and Experimental Evidence” by Lydia Mechtenberg, Gerd Muehlheusser, and Andreas Roider (CESIFO WORKING PAPER NO. 6394, March 2017) performed “a theory-guided lab experiment in which we analyze the impact of introducing whistle-blower protection. In particular, we compare different legal regimes (“belief-based" versus “fact-based") with respect to their effects on employers' misbehavior, employees' truthful and fraudulent reports, prosecutors' investigations, and employers' retaliation.”

In basic terms, there are two key approaches to structuring whistleblowers protection: belief-based regime (with “less stringent requirements for granting protection to whistle-blowers”) and fact-based regime (with greater hurdles of proof required from whistleblowers in order to avail of the legal protection). The authors’ “results suggest that the latter lead to better outcomes in terms of reporting behavior and deterrence.” The reason is that “when protection is relatively easy to (obtain as under belief-based regimes), fraudulent claims [by whistleblowers] indeed become a prevalent issue. This reduces the informativeness of reports to which prosecutors respond with a lower propensity to investigate. As a consequence, the introduction of such whistle-blower protection schemes might not lead to the intended reduction of misbehavior. In contrast, these effects are mitigated under a fact-based regime where the requirements for protection are more stringent.”

In a sense, the model and the argument behind it is pretty straight forward and intuitive. However, the conclusions are far reaching, given that recent U.S. and UK direction in advancing whistleblowers protection has been in favour of belief-based systems, while european ‘continental’ tradition has been to support fact-based thresholds. As authors do note, we need more rigorous empirical analysis of the effectiveness of two regimes in delivering meaningful discoveries of fraud, while accounting for false cases of disclosures; analysis that captures financial, economic, institutional and social benefits of the former, and costs of the latter.

Friday, April 21, 2017

21/4/17: Any evidence that immigrants are undermining welfare of the natives?


Given current debates surrounding the impact of migrant labour on native (and previously arriving migrants) wages, jobs security, career prospects and other major motivations behind a wide range of migration regimes reforms proposed across a number of countries, including the U.S., it is worth revisiting research done by Giovanni Peri of University of California, Davis, USA, and IZA, Germany back in 2014.

Titled “Do immigrant workers depress the wages of native workers?” and published by IZA World of Labor 2014: 42 in May 2014, https://wol.iza.org/articles/do-immigrant-workers-depress-the-wages-of-native-workers/long, the paper reviews 27 original studies published between 1982 and 2013, covering the topic of immigration impact on wages of the natives. Chart below summarises:


In the above, the “values report the effects of a 1 percentage point increase in the share of immigrants in a labor market (whether a city, state, country, or a skill group within one of these areas) on the average wage of native workers in the same market.

For example, an estimated effect of 0.1 means that a 1 percentage point increase in immigrants in a labor market raises the average wage paid to native workers in that labor market by 0.1 percentage point. These studies used a variety of reduced-form estimation and structural estimation methods; all the estimates were converted into the elasticity described here.”

Here’s the summary of Peri’s findings and conclusions:



21/4/17: Millennials, Property ‘Ladders’ and Defaults


In a recent report, titled “Beyond the Bricks: The meaning of home”, HSBC lauded the virtues of the millennials in actively pursuing purchases of homes. Mind you - keep in mind the official definition of the millennials as someone born  1981 and 1998, or 28-36 years of age (the age when one is normally quite likely to acquire a mortgage and their first property).

So here are the HSBC stats:


As the above clearly shows, there is quite a range of variation across the geographies in terms of millennials propensity to purchase a house. However, two things jump out:

  1. Current generation is well behind the baby boomers (when the same age groups are taken for comparatives) in terms of home ownership in all advanced economies; and
  2. Millennials are finding it harder to purchase homes in the countries where homeownership is seen as the basic first step on the investment and savings ladder to the upper middle class (USA, Canada, UK and Australia).


All of which suggests that the millennials are severely lagging previous generations in terms of both savings and investment. This is especially true as the issues relating to preferences (as opposed to affordability) are clearly not at play here (see the gap between ‘ownership’ and intent to own).

That point - made above - concerning the lack of evidence that millennials are not purchasing homes because their preferences might have shifted in favour of renting and way from owning is also supported by a sky-high proportions of millennials who go to such lengths as borrow from parents and live with parents to save for the deposit on the house:


Now, normally, I would not spend so much time talking about property-related surveys by the banks. But here’s what is of added interest here. Recent evidence suggests that millennials are quite different to previous generations in terms of their willingness to default on loans. Watch U.S. car loans (https://www.ft.com/content/0f17d002-f3c1-11e6-8758-6876151821a6 and https://www.experian.com/blogs/insights/2017/02/auto-loan-delinquencies-extending-beyond-subprime-consumers/) going South and the millennials are behind the trend (http://newsroom.transunion.com/transunion-auto-loan-growth-driven-by-millennial-originations-auto-delinquencies-remain-stable) on the origination side and now on the default side too (http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2017-04-13/ubs-explains-whos-behind-surging-subprime-delinquencies-hint-rhymes-perennials).

Which, paired with the HSBC analysis that shows significant financial strains the millennials took on in an attempt to jump onto the homeownership ‘ladder’, suggests that we might be heading not only into another wave of high risk borrowing for property purchases, but that this time around, such borrowings are befalling and increasingly older cohort of first-time buyers (leaving them less time to recover from any adverse shock) and an increasingly willing to default cohort of first-time buyers (meaning they will shit some of the burden of default onto the banks, faster and more resolutely than the baby boomers before them). Of course, never pay any attention to the reality is the motto for the financial sector, where FHA mortgages drawdowns by the car loans and student loans defaulting millennials (https://debtorprotectors.com/lawyer/2017/04/06/Student-Loan-Debt/Student-Loan-Defaults-Rising,-Millions-Not-Making-Payments_bl29267.htm) are hitting all time highs (http://www.heraldtribune.com/news/20170326/kenneth-r-harney-why-millennials-are-flocking-to-fha-mortgages)

Good luck having a sturdy enough umbrella for that moment when that proverbial hits the fan… Or you can always hedge that risk by shorting the millennials' favourite Snapchat... no, wait...

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

18/4/17: S&P500 Concentration Risk Impact


Recently I posted on FactSet data relating earnings within S&P500 across U.S. vs global markets, commenting on the inherent risk of low degree sales/revenues base diversification present across a range of S&P500 companies and industries. The original post is provided here.

Now, FactSet have provided another illustration of the 'concentration risk' within the S&P500 by mapping earnings and revenues growth across two sets of S&P500 companies: those with more than 50% of earnings coming from outside the U.S. and those with less than 50% of earnings coming from the global markets.


The chart is pretty striking. More globally diversified S&P constituents (green bars) are posting vastly faster rates of growth in earnings and a notably faster growth in revenues than S&P500 constituents with less than 50% share of revenues from outside the U.S (light blue bars).

Impact of the concentration risk illustrated. Now, can we have an ETF for that?..

Sunday, April 16, 2017

15/4/17: Swift & Digital Money: Cybersecurity Questions


Swift, the interbank clearance system, has been the Constantinople of the financial world's fortresses for some time now. Last year, writing in the International Banker (see link here), I referenced one cybersecurity incident that involved Swift-linked banks, and came close to Swift itself, although it did not breach Swift own systems. The response from Swift was prompt, pointing out that there has never been a cybersecurity breach at Swift.

Well, it appears that the fortress is no more. Latest reports suggest that NSA (a state actor in cybersecurity world) has successfully breached Swift firewalls. Details are here:
http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-cyber-swift-idUSKBN17H0NX.

From financial services and economy perspective, this is huge. Take a macro view: for years we have been told that cash and physical gold and silver are not safe. And for years this argument has been juxtaposed by the alleged 'safety' of digital money (not the Bitcoin and other cryptos, which the Governments loath and are keen on declaring 'unsafe', but state-run Central-Banks-operated digital money). The very notion of e-finance or digital finance rests on the basic tenet of infallibility of Swift. That infallibility is now gone. Welcome to the brave new world where the Governments promise you safe digital money in exchange for privacy and liquidity, while delivering a holes-ridden dingy of a system that can and will be fully compromised by the various states' actors and private hackers.

Come here, doggie, doggie! Have a treat...

Saturday, April 15, 2017

15/4/17: Naughty and Not Very Nice: French Presidential Hopefuls


A neat summary (ignore polls numbers at the top - these are dated) of political platforms behind the key Presidential election candidates in France:




15/4/17: Unconventional monetary policies: a warning


Just as the Fed (and now with some grumbling on the horizon, possibly soon, ECB) tightens the rates, the legacy of the monetary adventurism that swept across both advanced and developing economies since 2007-2008 remains a towering rock, hard to climb, impossible to shift.

Back in July last year, Claudio Borio, of the BIS, with a co-author Anna Zabai authored a paper titled “Unconventional monetary policies: a re-appraisal” that attempts to gauge at least one slope of the monetarist mountain.

In it, the authors “explore the effectiveness and balance of benefits and costs of so-called “unconventional” monetary policy measures extensively implemented in the wake of the financial crisis: balance sheet policies (commonly termed “quantitative easing”), forward guidance and negative policy rates”.

The authors reach three main conclusions:

  1. “there is ample evidence that, to varying degrees, these measures have succeeded in influencing financial conditions even though their ultimate impact on output and inflation is harder to pin down”. Which is sort of like telling a patient that instead of a cataract surgery he got a lobotomy, but now that he is awake and out of the coma, everything is fine. Why? Because the monetary policy was not supposed to trigger financial conditions improvements. It was supposed to deploy such improvements in order to secure real economic gains.
  2. “the balance of the benefits and costs is likely to deteriorate over time”. Which means that the full cost of the monetary adventurism will be greater that the currently visible distortions suggest. And it will be long run.
  3. “the measures are generally best regarded as exceptional, for use in very specific circumstances. Whether this will turn out to be the case, however, is doubtful at best and depends on more fundamental features of monetary policy frameworks”. Wait, what? Ah, here it is explained somewhat better: “They were supposed to be exceptional and temporary – hence the term “unconventional”. They risk becoming standard and permanent, as the boundaries of the unconventional are stretched day after day.”


You can see the permanence emerging in the trends (either continuously expanding or flat) when it comes to simply looking at the Central Banks’ balance sheets:


And the trend in terms of instrumentation:

The above two charts and the rest of Borio-Zabai analysis simply paints a picture of a sugar addicted kid who locked himself in a candy store. Good luck depriving him of that ‘just the last one, honest, ma!’ candy…

15/4/17: Thick Mud of Inflationary Expectations


The fortunes of U.S. and euro area inflation expectations are changing and changing fast. I recently wrote about the need for taking a more defensive stance in structuring investors' portfolios when it comes to dealing with potential inflation risk (see the post linked here), and I also noted the continued build up in inflationary momentum in the case of euro area (see the post linked here).

Of course, the current momentum comes off the weak levels of inflation, so the monetary policy remains largely cautious for the U.S. Fed and accommodative for the ECB:

More to the point, long term expectations with respect to inflation remain still below 1.7-1.8 percent for the euro area, despite rising above 2 percent for the U.S. And the dynamics of expectations are trending down:

In fact, last week, the Fed's consumer survey showed U.S. consumers expecting 2.7% inflation compared to 3% in last month's survey, for both one-year-ahead and three-years-ahead expectations. But to complicate the matters:

  • Euro area counterpart survey, released at the end of March, showed european households' inflationary expectations surging to a four-year high and actual inflation exceeding the ECB's 2 percent target for the first time (February reading came in at 2.1 percent, although the number was primarily driven by a jump in energy prices), and
  • In the U.S. survey, median inflation uncertainty (a reflection of the uncertainty regarding future inflation outcomes) declined at the one-year but increased at the three-year ahead horizon.
Confused? When it comes to inflationary pressures forward, things appear to be relatively subdued in the shorter term in the U.S. and much more subdued in the euro area. Except for one small matter at hand: as the chart above illustrates, a swing from 1.72 percent to above 2.35 percent for the U.S. inflation forward expectations by markets participants can take just a month in the uncertain and volatile markets when ambiguity around the underlying economic and policy fundamentals increases. Inflation expectations dynamics are almost as volatile in the euro area.

Which, in simple terms, means three things:

  1. From 'academic' point of view, we are in the world of uncertainty when it comes to inflationary pressures, not in the world of risk, which suggests that 'business as usual' for investors in terms of expecting moderate inflation and monetary accommodation to continue should be avoided;
  2. From immediate investor perspective: don't panic, yet; and 
  3. From more passive investor point of view: be prepared not to panic when everyone else starts panicking at last.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

12/4/17: European Economic Uncertainty Moderated in 1Q 2017


European Policy Uncertainty Index, an indicator of economic policy risks perception based on media references, has posted a significant moderation in the risk environment in the first quarter of 2017, falling from the 4Q 2016 average of 307.75 to 1Q 2017 average of 265.42, with the decline driven primarily by moderating uncertainty in the UK and Italy, against rising uncertainty in France and Spain. Germany's economic policy risks remained largely in line with 4Q 2016 readings. Despite the moderation, overall European policy uncertainty index in 1Q 2017 was still ahead of the levels recorded in 1Q 2016 (221.76).

  • German economic policy uncertainty index averaged 247.19 in 1Q 2017, up on 239.57 in 4Q 2016, but down on the 12-months peak of 331.78 in 3Q 2016. However, German economic uncertainty remained above 1Q 2016 level of 192.15.
  • Italian economic policy uncertainty index was running at 108.52 in 1Q 2017, down significantly from 157.31 reading in 4Q 2016 which also marked the peak for 12 months trailing period. Italian uncertainty index finished 1Q 2017 at virtually identical levels as in 1Q 2016 (106.92).
  • UK economic policy uncertainty index was down sharply at 411.04 in 1Q 2017 from 609.78 in 4Q 2016, with 3Q 2016 marking the local (12 months trailing) peak at 800.14. Nonetheless, in 1Q 2017, the UK index remained well above 1Q 2016 reading of 347.11.
  • French economic policy uncertainty rose sharply in 1Q 2017 to 454.65 from 371.16 in 4Q 2016. Latest quarterly average is the highest in the 12 months trailing period and is well above 273.05 reading for 1Q 2016.
  • Spain's economic policy uncertainty index moderated from 179.80 in 4Q 2016 to 137.78 in 1Q 2017, with the latest reading being the lowest over the five recent quarters. A year ago, the index stood at 209.12.

Despite some encouraging changes and some moderation, economic policy uncertainty remains highly elevated across the European economy as shown in the chart and highlighted in the chart below:
Of the Big 4 European economies, only Italy shows more recent trends consistent with decline in uncertainty relative to 2012-2015 period and this moderation is rather fragile. In every other big European economy, economic uncertainty is higher during 2016-present period than in any other period on record. 

12/4/17: German Economy Forecasts 2017-2018


The latest joint economic forecast for German economy is out and, in line with what Eurocoin has been signalling recently (see post here), the forecast upgrades outlook for Euro area's largest economy.

Here's the release, with some commentary added: Germany's "aggregate production capacities are now likely to have slightly exceeded their normal utilisation levels. However, cyclical dynamics remain low compared to earlier periods of recoveries, as consumption expenditures, which do not exhibit strong fluctuations, have been the main driving force so far. In addition, net migration increases potential output, counteracting a stronger capacity tightening."

  • German GDP) is expected to expand by 1.5% (1.8% adjusted for calendar effects) in 2017 and 1.8% in 2018
  • Unemployment is expected to fall to 6.1% in 2016, to 5.7% in 2017 and 5.4% in 2018 
  • "Inflation is expected to increase markedly over the forecast horizon. After an increase in consumer prices of only 0.5% in 2016, the inflation rate is expected to rise to 1.8% in 2017 and 1.7% in 2018". This would be consistent with the ECB starting to raise rates in late 2017 and continuing to hike into 2018. The forecast does not cover interest rates policy timing, but does state that "In the euro area, the institutes do not expect interest rates to rise during the forecast period. However, bond purchases are likely to be phased out next year." In my view, this position is not consistent with forecast inflation and growth dynamics.
  • "The public budget surplus will reduce only modestly. Public finances are slightly stimulating economic activity in the current year and are cyclically neutral in the year ahead." In simple terms, Germany will run budget surpluses in both 2017 and 2018, with cumulative surpluses around EUR36.6 billion over these two years, against a cumulative surplus of EUR44.6 billion in 2015 and 2016.
  • Current account surpluses are expected to remain above EUR250 billion per annum in 2017 and 2018, with cumulative current account surpluses for these two years forecast at EUR508 billion against EUR521 billion surpluses in 2015-2016.

Slight re-acceleration in both budgetary surplus and current account surplus over 2017-2018 will provide a very small amount of room for growth in imports and capital investment out of Germany to the rest of the euro area. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

11/4/17: S&P 500 Concentration Risk


Concentration risk is a concept that comes from banking. In simple terms, concentration risk reflects the extent to which bank's assets (loans) are distributed across the borrowers. Take an example of a bank which has 10 large borrowers with equivalent size loans extended to them. In this case, each borrower accounts for 10 percent of the bank total assets and bank's concentration ratio is 10% or 0.1. Now, suppose that another bank has 5 borrowers with equivalent loans. For the second bank, the concentration ratio is 0.2 or 20%. Concentration risk (exposure to a limited number of borrowers) is obviously higher in the latter bank than in the former.

Despite coming from banking, the concept of concentration risk applies to other organisations and sectors. For example, take suppliers of components to large companies, like Apple. For many of these suppliers, Apple represents the source of much of their revenues and, thus, they are exposed to the concentration risk. See this recent article for examples.

For sectors, as opposed to individual organisations, concentration risk relates to the distribution of sector earnings. And the latest FactSet report from April 7, 2017 shows just how concentrated the geographical distributions of earnings for S&P 500 are:


In summary:

  • With exception of Information Technology, not a single sector in the S&P 500 has aggregate revenues exposure to the U.S. market that is below 50%;
  • Seven out of 11 sectors covered within S&P 500 have exposure concentration to the U.S. market in excess of 70%; and
  • On the aggregate, 70% of revenues for the entire S&P 500 arise from within the U.S. markets.
In simple terms, S&P 500 is extremely vulnerable to the fortunes of the U.S. economy. Or put differently, there is a woeful lack of economic / revenue sources diversification in the S&P 500 companies.