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Finance

Is Default On The Table?

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Congress’s debate over the debt ceiling has raised fears of a government shutdown, and, sure as night follows day, such a prospect has inspired still greater fears of default. At least that is the story presently circulating in both the financial and the daily media round. It happens every few years when the nation’s outstanding debt approaches an admittedly arbitrary legal limit and Washington goes through agonies over the prospect. There can be no denying that theoretically default is possible. Practically speaking, however, it has never been a real possibility. Nor is it one today. Even in an extended government shutdown, Washington has resources that will allow it to meet its principal and interest payments in full and on time.

At base is Congress’s understanding how important it is for the government to meet these obligations. Washington has always prioritized payments on its debt and always will because, behind the daily childishness that typifies the capital, both the House and the Senate know that the stability of the government, the financial system, and hence on the economy depends on the federal government’s reputation as a reliable credit. In the 234 years since Alexander Hamilton established the reliability of federal debt as the lynchpin of the country’s financial system, Washington has never missed an interest or principal payment, even in the most trying times — the Great Depression, for instance, the Civil War, or the Second World War. It is not likely to give way now because of a Congressional impasse.

Apart from this powerful fact, Washington has several means to meet its obligations even if Congress balks for a while at raising the debt ceiling. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen all but admitted this recently when, after first engaging in needlessly inflammatory remarks, she admitted that the Treasury has enough cash on hand to meet its obligations through June. Five months might not seem like a lot in the grand scheme of things, but no debt debate has ever lasted that long, and it provides considerable wiggle room before Congress can arrive at a more lasting resolution of the matter.

Even if in a few months, the nation’s outstanding debt abuts the limit, Washington can reallocate funds from one presumably less vital activity to other more vital activities, such as making good on its interest obligations. Politicians will argue endlessly about what is essential. In the past, they have decided that they can close national parks, for instance, and furlough thousands of federal administrative personnel to have the cash to pay interest on the debt and also to make Social Security payments. Some citizens are inconvenienced, and some suffer hardship, but when Congress reaches a compromise on raising the debt ceiling, as it inevitably does and will, services are restored, and the furloughed workers receive back pay.

Simple arithmetic also takes some of the edge off worries. If the Treasury issues debt to pay off a maturing bond, which incidentally is the way it proceeds generally, the outstanding amount of debt does not increase in the least. The maturing debt decreases the amount of debt outstanding, while the new debt issued to pay off the old bonds brings the total back up to where it was. On this basis, there is no difficulty making good on principal payments at least, even if the nation finds itself up against a legal debt limit.

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Another possibility, though never before used, is to tap the Federal Reserve’s (Fed’s) huge portfolio of Treasury debt. According to the Fed’s own accounting, it holds some $5.2 trillion in Treasury debt. That is almost a full year of federal spending. In a pinch, the Fed could simply forgive all or some of this debt. That might seem like a drastic move, but since for practical purposes the Fed is part of the federal government, such an act would amount to little more than moving money from one pocket to another. Ultimately, such a use of these funds could have inflationary effects, but that is a separate matter from default.

If the history is any guide, and it should be, Washington will not likely need to resort to such extreme measures. The longest such problems have persisted can be measured in weeks rather than months. The sequence of events is always the same. The kabuki play goes like this: The Treasury secretary – whether Republican or Democrat – points out the debt ceiling constraint and attaches some ominous language around what will happen if the ceiling is not lifted immediately. Secretary Yellen has already delivered these, her lines in the drama. Media outlets enlarge on the fears expressed by the secretary. That part of the play is presently being enacted. Holdouts in Congress refuse to compromise. Once, however, the political winds make it plain who will get the blame for the disruption, Congress quickly manages a “bipartisan” compromise that lifts the ceiling before the need for extreme measures much less default. That is the likely path over the next few weeks.

Finance

The Calculus Behind The ESG Battle Between The White House And Capitol Hill

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When President Biden used his first veto (less than 60 days after his party no longer controlled both houses of Congress), the media reported on the event with much fanfare. That it had to do with a very narrow subject didn’t matter. But was all the chest pumping justified? Could it be that the issue was already moot even before Congress passed the joint resolution that inspired the veto?

On Wednesday, March 1, 2023, the Senate voted 50-46 to overturn the Department of Labor’s new Fiduciary Rule. This new Rule was to replace a similar Rule promulgated by the DOL under the Trump administration. At issue was the application of ESG criteria by ERISA fiduciaries to retirement plan investments.

What does ESG stand for?

“ESG stands for environmental, social, and governance,” says Andrew Poreda, VP and ESG senior research analyst at Sage Advisory Services in Austin, Texas. “ESG factors are non-financial (yet important) factors that are critical to the success of a corporation or entity.”

The concept isn’t entirely new. A similar philosophy called “Socially Responsible Investing” (“SRI”) emerged as a favorite among activists in the 1980s. It primarily targeted institutional investments in South Africa.

Going further back, religious organizations have practiced this form of exclusionary investing for quite some time. For example, it’s not unusual to see portfolios for church groups prohibit investments in “sin” stocks (alcohol, tobacco, and gambling) or stocks in the defense industry.

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Why is ESG important?

If ESG is just an SRI rose by another name, why has it suddenly become the center of such controversy? In short, it’s because it’s a little hard to define, and when it’s defined, it seems to run contrary to fiduciary practices.

Lawrence (Larry) Starr, of Cornerstone Retirement, Inc./Qualified Plan Consultants in West Springfield, Massachusetts, says, “There is no way to mandate something that is so poorly defined and differs widely in application from company to company and from investor to investor.”

As one of those investors, however, it’s critical you understand how other investors view ESG for the same reason it’s important for value investors to understand how growth investors think and vice versa.

“ESG is data that can provide a more complete picture of how a company operates beyond financial analysis alone,” says Bud Sturmak, the head of impact investing and a partner at Perigon Wealth Management in New York City. “ESG analysis helps to better understand a company’s overall stability, its opportunity to create shareholder value, and its exposure to critical business risks. ESG data can help inform sound investment decisions and allow you to tailor your portfolio to reflect your personal values.”

What is the main focus of ESG?

Starr says the primary reason ESG exists is “to provide ‘socially conscious’ investors with guidance as to a company’s attention to these (not well-defined) subjects.”

Again, if you look at things from the point of view of proponents, ESG, no matter how ill-defined up close, has a sincere intention when looking at it from the 30,000-foot level.

“The main purpose of ESG investing is to reward good corporate citizenship and encourage companies to act responsibly by allocating capital to companies that share the investor’s values,” says Rob Reilly, a member of the finance faculty at the Providence College School of Business and an investment consultant at North Atlantic Investment Partners in Boston. “Environmental criteria consider how a company deals with environmental risks and natural resource management, including corporate policies addressing climate change. Social criteria evaluate how a company manages relationships with customers, suppliers, employees, and the communities where they operate. Governance deals with a company’s leadership, board of director diversity, internal controls, executive pay, audits, and shareholder rights.”

This broad objective can have multiple tactics. How do these varying approaches impact the definition of ESG?

“This depends on one’s perspective,” says Matthew Eickman, national retirement practice leader at Qualified Plan Advisors in Omaha. “At a binary level, it’s either to invest in companies in an effort to support or advance social and environmental agendas, or it’s to invest in companies whose commitment to environmental, social, and/or governance issues situates the companies to perform well in the future.”

This confusion can lead some to question the real aim of ESG.

“It is a Machiavellian and subversive attempt by ESG woke proponents to seize and control how boards of directors in America run their company on ESG goals rather than profit and loss goals,” says Terry Morgan, President of OK401k in Oklahoma City.

What did the President and Congress hope to achieve by their actions?

Given the passion ESG generates on both sides, is it any surprise that it has become a political hot potato? And when something becomes a political hot potato, you need to guard against hyperbole.

“First, it should be noted that there is a disconnect between what the bill does and what some politicians are claiming it does,” says Poreda. “The intent of Congress’s joint resolution appears to be aimed at preventing retirement plans from investing in strategies that are aimed at pushing political and ideological agenda (e.g., ESG strategies are seen as being aligned with climate activism and ‘woke’ agendas).”

Indeed, it could be that both proponents and opponents of ESG may not have read the fine print of either the Trump or Biden Rules.

In a post published in the Harvard Law School Forum, Max M. Schanzenbach (Northwestern Pritzker School of Law), and Robert H. Sitkoff (Harvard Law School) wrote, “Much of the confusion that the 2022 Biden Rule endorses ESG investing, and that the 2020 Trump Rule opposed it, traces to the original proposals for those rules. The Biden Proposal favored ESG factors by deeming them ‘often’ required by fiduciary duty. The Trump Proposal disfavored ESG factors by subjecting them to enhanced fiduciary scrutiny. However, following the notice-and-comment period, the Department significantly revised those proposals before finalization. Neither final rule singled out ESG investing for favored or disfavored treatment. The final Trump Rule did not use the term ‘ESG.’ The regulatory text of the final Biden Rule refers once to ESG investing, but only to state that ESG factors ‘may’ be ‘relevant to a risk and return analysis,’ depending ‘on the individual facts and circumstances.’ This statement is true for all investment factors, ESG or otherwise.”

Certainly, political leaders possess the legal literacy to discern this similarity. Why, then, did we have all the fireworks surrounding the Joint Resolution?

“Unfortunately, this issue has become politicized and certain politicians believed these factors were being taken into account to achieve political rather than financial goals,” says Robert Lowe, a partner (through his professional corporation) of Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP in Los Angeles.

Clearly, there is no consensus on the meaning of ESG. Perhaps, given there are multiple ideas concerning the definition of “ESG,” it’s only natural that the reasons behind the various maneuverings might also be divergent.

“Different supporters of the vetoed proposal had different intents,” says Albert Feuer of the Law Offices of Albert Feuer in Forest Hills, New York. “Many supporters believe risk return analysis should be subordinated to ESG factors that are not called ESG factors, such as investing in United States fossil fuel ventures to preserve jobs in those ventures even if they have poor risk-return profiles. These same supporters criticize ESG advocates of the divestment fossil fuel investments, which the regulation prohibits absent a showing that these investments will be replaced by those with a better risk-return profile. Other supporters have little confidence in financial analysts and free markets. They believe ESG factors are inherently bad and thus fiduciaries should be prohibited from considering them absent compelling evidence that in a particular situation, such factors would improve the risk-return profile of an investment.”

Marcia S. Wagner, Esq., president/founder of The Wagner Law Group in Boston, Massachusetts, in a Forbes.com interview, said that President Biden faced pressure from his own party. Starr agrees. He says Biden had no choice but “to bow to his far-left constituency, especially since he just approved major drilling for oil in Alaska. This gives him a countervailing argument to show he hasn’t abandoned his ‘progressive’ policies completely.”

In the end, you could have easily predicted the actions by all actors in the dance between the joint resolution and the veto.

“This was a foregone conclusion,” says Eickman. “Biden knew he couldn’t appear weak on this, even if he may not view the DOL regulation as having nearly the impact as Congress had suggested with its votes.”

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Deutsche Bank Should Disclose Its Current Liquidity Levels To Investors

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Investors’ fear about the financial health of banks globally was palpable today. As they swarm bank after bank, Deutsche Bank was next on their list. They pummeled Deutsche Bank’s stocks and bonds. And the price for protection against a Deutsche Bank’s bond default rose significantly as evidenced in the credit derivatives market.

Nothing new, in particular, came out about Deutsche Bank today. It is not as if market participants only discovered today that Deutsche Bank has a long history of weak risk controls and a list of scandals rivaling Credit Suisse. Every time that there have been scandals about Deutsche Bank’s poor risk management, the stock falls, but eventually investors seem to just shrug their shoulders and move on. Yet, when you look at the stock over a much longer period of time, investors have been showing their discontent with the beleaguered bank for over a decade. Deutsche Bank has never recovered from its high on April 1, 2007. In fact, the stock has fallen almost 95% since then.

Liquidity Risk Is Key

What investors should be monitoring for all banks is how liquid they are, that, is whether they can pay all their obligations when they come due. It is difficult, if not impossible to know, how liquid Deutsche Bank is right now. Banks are only required to disclose financial and risk information on a quarterly basis. By the time, market participants get this information, it is already old.

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According to Deutsche Bank’s Basel III Pillar III Risk Disclosures, as of the end of December 2022, Deutsche Bank’s Liquidity Coverage Ratio was 135%, higher than the minimum requirement of 100%. The figure tells us that at that end of 2022, Deutsche Bank had enough high-quality liquid assets such as cash, money market instruments, and unencumbered investment grade bonds, to cover net cash outflows in periods of stress. That figure has declined by 7% from 2018 when it was at 145%.

In the U.S., as a stand-alone entity, Deutsche Bank’s Liquidity Coverage Ratio at the end of December 2022 was 141%. Banks are not required to disclose this ratio more frequently, so no one outside of Deutsche Bank knows what the LCR is today.

Unlike Silicon Valley Bank, Deutsche Bank has a diversity of funding sources such as retail and corporate deposits from different geographies, short-term and medium-term credit lines, as well as access to wholesale funding. Stable sources of funding are always important, especially right now.

In comparison to its globally systemically important bank (G-SIBs) peers in Europe at the end of 2022, however, Deutsche Bank did not have as high a percent of liquid assets as a percent of total assets. It appears to be less liquid than Barclays, UBS, Société Générale, Credit Suisse, or HSBC HBA . Deutsche Bank’s LCR and Net Stable Funding Ratio, a measure of funding stability for a twelve-month period, are also both lower than most European banks in that peer group.

As of today, the global rating agencies had Deutsche Bank in the A – BBB+ range which is considered investment grade, and the outlook is stable or positive. The very nature of processes that have to be abided by ratings analysts means that market participants always move faster to exhibit what they think of any company.

What Deutsche Bank should be doing right now is disclosing granular information about its current liquidity levels, sources of funding, and capital ratios. That certainly would give market participants a good idea of how the bank stands. No one had banking chaos on their bingo card at the end of 2022. So why should we be relying on financial information from then? In this environment, opacity only unnerves market participants even more.

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Does Greed Drive Deutsche Bank And Other Banks Not To File Suspicious Activity Reports?

Deutsche Bank Needs Serious Laundering

Deutsche and Other Scandal-Plagued Banks Should Learn From Novartis, Tenneco, And Volkswagen

Possible Trump Deutsche Bank Fraud Raises Serious Questions

Measure U.S. Banks Credit Exposure to Deutsche Bank Now

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Finance

It’s Time For Some Serious Railroad Regulation

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There are times that news coverage seems like an ongoing recreation of the Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore movie 50 First Dates. Bad things happen and are then forgotten. Something happens again and rarely is it treated like an ongoing story. The public, other than those directly involved, also forgets and doesn’t press for closer coverage.

A current example is the railroad industry. Take the disastrous accident in East Palestine, Ohio that happened on just before 9p.m. on February 3, 2023. About 50 out of 149 cars derailed, according to ABC News. Out of the cars that went off the rails, 11 carried hazardous waste, including vinyl chloride, ethyl acrylate, and isobutylene. The last two are highly toxic and potentially carcinogenic.

Then came the mandatory evacuation, first within a one-mile radius, then two. Officials conducted a controlled burn of the substances, which turned into a heavy cloud. Eventually, the officials said that air and water samples were deemed safe. Except, the EPA found the chemicals in streams near the derailment site.

Later, large amounts of aquatic life would be found dead, even though officials had kept saying that everything was fine. Thousands of cubic yards of contaminated soil and millions of gallons of liquid waste have been collected. The State of Ohio has filed a lawsuit against Norfolk Southern NSC .

Back on February 21, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg sent a letter to the rail line. One part of the multi-page paper: “Major derailments in the past have been followed by calls for reform – and by vigorous resistance by your industry to increased safety measures. This must change.”

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Yes, it must. But while an extreme issue, this isn’t the only rail accident that takes place in a year. In fact, there are literally thousands of varying degrees. Here’s a chart from the Department of Transportation:

In the latest year for which there is available data, 2021, 8,096 accidents occurred. Again, that could mean anything. But it does include 747 total fatalities and 4,647 injuries. Of those, 11 deaths and 2,577 injuries were of employees. Outside of grade crossings, where most of the troubles occur, there were 1,626 train accidents.

Total incidents in 2020 were 7,785. In 2019, 9,747; 9,682 in 2018; and 9,497 in 2017.

Shifting from such dangers and outcomes for a moment, think back to the impending rail strike in the fall of 2022. Many of the union workers were, and probably still are, deeply angry. Money was an issue, but the big holdup had been around attendance, sick time and scheduling. People get badly hurt working on rail lines and they need time to recover and get medical help. But rail companies, including BNSF Railway Company, owned by Berkshire Hathaway BRK.B with carefully avuncular Warren Buffett, don’t want to spend money on more staff.

No good crying poor. For perspective, the median value for all industries is 7.9%. The heights the railroad industry reaches are the fifth highest of any industry, only exceeded by money center banks (the really big ones), non-bank financial services, regional banks, and entertainment software. Look at “pre-tax, pre-stock compensation operating margin” numbers—before paying taxes or large stock grants. From that view, tobacco is at the top at 44.7%. And second highest? Railroads with their 42.4%.

If you look at the data only from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, employee injuries and fatalities have been falling since at least 2000.

In large part because the companies keep cutting back staff. In October 2000, there were 220,200 railroad transportation workers. By October 2022, the number was 142,300. Over the same period, the number of hauled containers and trailers went from 782,694 to 1,129,125, up 40%.

They could easily afford more workers. Better technology. Additional safety measures. And still make carloads of cash. But they don’t and clearly won’t.

The executive branch has to step in. So does Congress. When last they did, though, it was to side with the owners because of concern that a strike would shake supply chain logistics. Railroads transportation account for about 28% of freight transportation in the U.S., according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

However, there’s another factor as well. As an OpenSecrets.org analysis shows, the rail industry spend $653.5 million on government lobbying over the last 10 years, “with the biggest splurges occurring between 2008 and 2012 where the industry lobbied an act aiming to enforce antitrust laws on the freight railroad industry.” The lobbying expenses in 2022 were only $24.6 million, the lowest annual amount, adjusted for inflation, in more than two decades. (Check the link to see the article for many more details.)

Profits and spending on political leverage—money is the key and people, whether employees or citizens who are in the wrong place at the wrong time, are eventually sacrificial.

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