I like to think of myself as a measured optimist, and as I review the financial and economic press, some numbers naturally capture my imagination and fuel that optimism. Here are five statistics that don't fall into that category.
1. Whale watching
On May 18, the Financial Times reported:
In November 2010, even the British Bankers' Association, a lobbying group, explicitly noted the scale of the CIO's activities in a warning on the fragility of the UK mortgage market. "[The JPMorgan chief investment office] has taken more than 13bn pounds (or 45 per cent) of the total amount of UK RMBS [residential-mortgage-backed securities] that has been placed with investors since the market reopened in October 2009," the BBA said.
For the past 10 days or so, JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) has been in hot water over multibillion-dollar losses on structured corporate credit products attributable to its chief investment office. These massive losses are the result of massive positions, but the preceding quote suggests the CIO was already a "whale" in other markets, too -- and has been for some time. The problem with being a whale is that once you're beached, there's never enough liquidity to save you -- as JPMorgan is now discovering at great cost.
2. Bad Education
On May 15 the Financial Times had this to say: "In 1990, [California] spent twice as much on its universities as its prisons. Now it spends almost twice as much on prisons."
Talk about a trend in the wrong direction! My guess is that this dramatic reversal can only be explained by two worrisome trends. First, prisons' "enrollment" rates are increasing faster than those of universities. Second, the cost per prisoner is increasing faster than the cost per student. Presumably, investing in education produces a positive return for society. As for money spent keeping citizens behind bars, given the rates of recidivism, it's much harder to make that argument.
3. SIFI horror
On May 17 Fitch Ratings estimated that, as of the end of 2011, the 29 global, systemically important financial institutions, or G-SIFIs -- which as a group represent $47 trillion in total assets -- might need to raise roughly $566 billion in common equity in order to satisfy new Basel III capital rules. This represents a 23% increase relative to these institutions' aggregate common equity of $2.5 trillion.
This is another one for U.S. bank stock investors. These numbers get to the heart of why five of the six U.S. G-SIFIs -- Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) , Citigroup (NYSE: C ) , Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) , JPMorgan Chase, and Morgan Stanley -- have persistently traded below book value over the past twelve months. There is tremendous uncertainty regarding the ultimate impact of more stringent capital rules on long-term profitability. What is known is that the effect won't be positive: Lower leverage implies lower returns on equity (which, in turn, imply lower book value multiples).
On the bright side, as Warren Buffett recently noted at Berkshire Hathaway's Annual Meeting, U.S. banks are in much better shape than their European counterparts. As the latter institutions are forced to continue reducing the size of their balance sheets -- and thus their activity -- to meet higher capital requirements, this will put further pressure on a regional economy already struggling with the economics of austerity. While the full implementation of the new Basel III capital rules doesn't take effect until the end of 2018, the trend is clear.
4. How about the 99.9%?
According to the May 15 Financial Times, "In the last full business cycle, between 2002 and 2007, the top 1 per cent captured almost two-thirds of the rise in incomes, while the top 0.1 per cent captured more than a third."
Americans are generally prepared to tolerate higher levels of income inequality than Europeans or the Japanese. However, one needn't be a rabid collectivist to think that the distribution of income these numbers hint at might be problematic.
5. An acreage bubble?
Lastly, from a report in the May 16 Financial Times: "For the first time since the Kansas Fed started tracking the ups and downs of farmland prices in the Plains region in the late 1970s, the costs have grown by 20 per cent in two consecutive years. The Kansas Fed said prices for non-irrigated land rose 25 per cent in the first quarter compared with the same period of 2011, while irrigated cropland surged 32 per cent, the biggest year-on-year jump in history."
As we continue to deal with the consequences of the collapse of the housing bubble, these numbers certainly merit some arched eyebrows. The article from which I lifted that excerpt correctly notes that there are some explanations for the rise in farmland prices, including the inflation of food and crop prices. Furthermore, it appears debt is not fueling the rise in farmland prices, as credit demand from the farming sector is at its lowest level since 2004.
All the same, I did not find the following quote from a banker in northeast Kansas very reassuring: "There is more liquidity in the farm sector than I have seen in my 30 years as a banker." As far as I know, there is no ETF related to U.S. farmland, but I suppose if you're anticipating a collapse in farmland values, you could always short or buy puts on agricultural-equipment manufacturer Deere (NYSE: DE ) . (Note: This isn't a recommendation!)
Any thoughts on these numbers? Let me know in the comment section below.