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  • Writer's pictureMike V.

February Synopsis

Updated: Mar 8, 2019

Bloomberg: Marchionne Gets $54 Million in Pay and Perks for Year He Died

About $42 million of Marchionne’s haul came from 2.8 million shares granted. He also was paid a $5.2 million bonus for 2017, and $2.3 million in salary. The board set a $14 million target compensation for 2019 for Marchionne’s successor, Mike Manley, including salary, bonus and restricted stock worth $10 million. Compared with Marchionne, Manley’s pay is more in line with the typical executive compensation programs at firms in the U.S. and Western Europe: a salary, a bigger target bonus and a significantly larger equity award. Car-industry executive pay has been the subject of unprecedented coverage in the months since the arrest of fallen Renault SA and Nissan Motor Co. executive Carlos Ghosn. The longtime leader of the French and Japanese automakers averaged about $15 million in reported annual compensation from the two companies in the years leading up to his arrest in 2018. Prosecutors have alleged about $70 million in deferred pay and benefits for Ghosn was concealed. He has denied the charges.

Bloomberg: Central Banks Are the Only Game in Town

Just since December 2018, central banks have collectively injected as much as $500 billion of liquidity to stabilize economic conditions. The U.S. Federal Reserve has put interest rate increases on hold and is contemplating a halt to its balance-sheet reduction plan. Other central banks have taken similar actions, fueling a new phase of the “everything bubble” as markets careen from December’s indiscriminate selling to January’s indiscriminate buying.

The monetary onslaught appears a reaction to financial factors -- falling equity markets, increased volatility -- and weakening of economic activity. If they heeded the rule, central banks would act only as lenders of last resort in times of financial crisis, lending without limit to solvent firms against good collateral at high rates. Instead, they’ve become lenders of first resort, expected to step in at any sign of problems. U.S. central bankers are currently debating whether quantitative-easing programs should be used purely in emergency situations or more routinely. It’s possible that central banks may be forced to make another U-turn to reduce the risk of reflating asset price bubbles and overheating economies. This flip-flop would be destabilizing and affect decisionmakers’ credibility. Lowering the cost of money and increasing liquidity may reduce rather than boost economic activity. This problem is compounded when low interest rates encourage investors to look to shares for income; that forces companies to increase dividends or buy back stock, frequently by reducing their workforce to improve earnings and cash flow. Lower rates reduce the incomes of retirees and thus their spending power. They also increase the funding gap of pension plans, which will lead to a reduction in benefits. With investment yields low, investors have to set aside additional savings for future needs, shrinking their disposable income. If consumers then borrow more to finance routine consumption, debt levels will rise.

Central bank actions are already an implicit acknowledgement that rising debt levels are unsustainable at higher rates and under tighter liquidity conditions. In the U.S., a record 7 million Americans are 90 days or more behind on their auto-loan payments, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York -- a significant signal of distress among low-income groups who typically prioritize such payments.

Printing money was always going to be easier than withdrawing it later. In effect, central banks are boxed into a situation where they can’t normalize policy and must maintain low rates and abundant liquidity, lest they destabilize fragile stock markets and spur and disinflation. This state of “infinite QE” risks miscalculations and major policy errors. If central banks are, as is now fashionable to state, the only game in town, then the game is lost.

Reuters: FCA to invest $4.5 billion in Michigan plants for new Jeep SUV models

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV said on Tuesday it will invest $4.5 billion in five plants to build new models of Jeeps, hoping to bolster the brand so it can compete more effectively in the lucrative market for large SUVs. The plants will also create 6,500 jobs in Michigan, Fiat Chrysler said in an announcement, around three months after GM announced it would not allocate new products to five plants in North America that mostly produce less-popular sedan models. FCA’s plans include turning an engine plant in Detroit into an assembly plant. The company has also reversed a decision to shift production of heavy-duty trucks from Mexico to Michigan in 2020, freeing up the Michigan facility to produce Jeep models. The automaker said the plans included investments to enable three Michigan plants to produce hybrid and fully-electric Jeep models. FCA plans to start construction on the new Detroit facility in the third quarter of 2019 and to start production of a new three-row SUV by the end of 2020, followed by a revamped version of the Grand Cherokee in the first half of 2021. The automaker will also start production of its Wagoneer model and the Grand Wagoneer, a new three-row luxury SUV, at a plant in Warren in the first half of 2021. Early last year, FCA had said it would move heavy-duty truck production to that plant, but it will now remain in the company’s Saltillo, Mexico, plant.

Bloomberg: Self-Driving Cars Might Kill Auto Insurance as We Know It

Without humans to cause accidents, 90% of risk is removed. Insurers are scrambling to prepare. Dan Peate, a venture capitalist and entrepreneur in Southern California, was thinking of buying a Tesla Model X a few years ago—until he called his insurance company and found out how much his premiums would rise. “They quoted me $10,000 a year,” Peate recalled.

Peate, 40, previously started a company called Hixme, a provider of group health insurance. Now, he wanted to launch a firm specializing in insurance for vehicles with automated-driving modes (and eventually, fully autonomous cars). His experience with the insurer of his old-fashioned, non-driverless car only confirmed the need. When underwriters and actuaries price insurance on a new type of risk, Peate said, they charge more because they don’t have enough data. With so few Model Xs on the road, its safety record was, at best, opaque. But Tesla Inc. and other carmakers collect reams of data on their vehicles’ operation to improve automation. Peate said he realized “we can get large amounts of data across entire fleets and be able to underwrite without having to wait for years of data” from accidents after they’ve happened. It also enables an insurer to cut premiums for drivers the more they engage autonomous driving.

On Jan. 30, Peate announced the creation of Avinew, with $5 million in seed funding led by Crosscut Ventures. Its insurance product will monitor drivers’ use of autonomous features on cars made by companies including Tesla, Nissan, Ford and Cadillac, determining discounts based on how the feature is used. Avinew has agreements with most manufacturers and is working to tie up the rest, Peate said, allowing it to access driving data once a customer gives it permission. Deloitte, in its 2019 insurance outlook report, saw this coming. “The rise of connectivity … has generated a massive amount of real-time data and turned the insurer’s relationship with policyholders from static and transactional to dynamic and interactive.” Avinew said it expects to be writing policies later this year in select states. “This comes up in every strategic conversation,” said Michelle Krause, senior managing director in Accenture’s insurance client service group. The major carriers “are very focused on understanding the technology behind [automation] and what opportunities are available for them.”

Krause’s group, with research from the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, published a report in 2017 forecasting trouble for insurers as automation becomes more widespread. Premiums could drop by 12.5 percent of the total market by 2035, the authors found, and while new insurance product lines centered on autonomous vehicles will offset some of the loss, declining premium revenue will eventually outpace gains. As automation reaches levels 4 and 5—fully autonomous capability with the option for a human driver to take over, and fully autonomous with no human involvement, respectively—insurance is going to change dramatically.

Policies that protect products will become more widespread, while mobility as a service, Keith said, will mean we’ll want to “insure our safety as a passenger” as well. Without a driver, there’s no driver to insure. Nationwide thinks the smoothest road ahead will be one on which insurers and automakers each have a hand on the wheel. “We’re working to build deeper relationships with car manufacturers,” Scharn said.

Monsanto's Roundup Weed Killer Found In Top Beer And Wine Brands

A new report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG)

Glyphosate is one of the most widely used herbicides and is the active ingredient in Roundup. The toxic chemical kills plants and is linked to cancer in humans by the World Health Organization. Sutter Home Merlot had the highest concentrations of glyphosate of all 20 brands, at 51 ppb. Beringer Estates Moscato and Barefoot Cabernet Sauvignon had slightly smaller levels of the chemical. “When you’re having a beer or a glass of wine, the last thing you want to think about is that it includes a potentially dangerous pesticide,” said U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s Kara Cook-Schultz, who authored the study.

Forbes: GM Collaboration With Blockchain Startup Spring Labs

The auto will join the Spring Founding Industry Partners Program to work with Spring Labs as it develops its blockchain products, the first of which are expected to launch in the first half of 2019. “We came together with the view that we could develop a series of use cases that would match some of GM core business priorities as a lender” Spring Labs CEO Adam Jiwan. This isn’t GM’s first foray into blockchain: it joined Hyperledger, a group working to develop open-source blockchain technologies for businesses that also counts IBM, J.P. Morgan, and FedEx among its members, in late 2017. For GM Officer Mike Kanarios, the partnership with Spring Labs was a natural fit as GM continues to dive into blockchain. “We believe that they have the most momentum in this space,” Kanarios says. The startup is developing a protocol that will allow companies to securely exchange and verify sensitive information, like a customer’s credit history. Jiwan says this could help both lending and non-lending institutions share information about customer identities without compromising customer privacy, making it easier for everyone to identify fraudulent actors. Kanarios thinks that Spring Labs’ protocol will help GM combat synthetic identity fraud, which occurs when a fraudster uses both real and fake identification information to create a new identity and make purchases. Fraud like this costs GM millions of dollars per year in both losses of inventory and prevention costs, and Kanarios says a blockchain-based identity verification program could be a “better, faster, and cheaper system” than the lender’s current processes. The implications of the protocol in the auto sector, however, may go beyond just lending. Jiwan imagines future use cases like blockchain-based registries and payments systems for shared vehicle contracts, for example. David Treat, a managing director and global blockchain lead at Accenture, says the use of blockchain in general in the auto industry could extend to everything from insurance to traffic control and city planning to self-driving cars and AI, making driving safer, more secure, and more efficient. "All three of those outcomes are hugely benefited by the right kinds of shared data,” Treat says. Like Accenture, GM is a member of the Mobility Open Blockchain Initiative (MOBI), a group dedicated to exploring applications of blockchain like these. BMW, Ford, and Groupe Renault are also members.

Morgan Stanley: “Get ready for flying cars” auto analyst

A widely followed auto analyst at Morgan Stanley told clients that "electrified, autonomous vertical takeoff and landing vehicles," or flying cars, are gaining traction.

Adam Jonas investors ought to consider the future of flying cars — without naming individual companies' stocks that could benefit from such a development.

At least four automakers or aerospace companies, including Boeing, have tested autonomous flying cars. The company said last month it had completed its first such test flight.

"If you're bullish on autonomous cars, it's time to start looking at autonomous aircraft — that is, flying cars." That's what Adam Jonas, an auto analyst at Morgan Stanley better known for his views of landlocked vehicles than flying ones, told clients in a new note, "Get Ready For Flying Cars," examining the likelihood that we could see flying cars before long. While the concept is one Jonas has advised investors on before, he offered a new timeline for how he thinks it could play out. "This is not a far-fetched idea," Jonas wrote in a note dated February 1. "Military drones have been around for years, and now electrified, autonomous vertical takeoff and landing vehicles (VTOLs) are gaining traction." Indeed, at least four automakers or aerospace companies, including Boeing and its rival Airbus, have tested autonomous flying cars. Boeing said last month that it had completed its first such test flight.

Jonas pointed to a few factors to bolster his view: drone package delivery is already in active testing, and NASA launched an initiative to encourage urban air mobility's development late last year. Plus, "major aerospace and defense companies are investing in such fields as helicopter ride-hauling services and electric — that means quieter — choppers."

Fidelity sued for Kickbacks in 401(k) plans

Fidelity pockets tens of millions of dollars a year from kickbacks, at the expense of its retirement clients. Fidelity Investments has been sued by 401(k)-plan participants for accepting "secret payments" from retirement-plan business partners, allowing it to reap large profits at the expense of its customers' retirement savings. Pay-to-play at Fidelity required mutual funds and other investment products offered through its FundsNetwork platform to make "kickback" payments if the revenue-sharing payments they made to Fidelity fell below a certain level. Fidelity makes tens of millions of dollars per year from the payments, which are not disclosed and are "deceptively characterized" to retirement-plan clients. The payments harm retirement savers by increasing the costs of the mutual funds. "The receipt of such payments places Fidelity in a conflicted position in which the interests of its retirement plan customers can be and are sacrificed in the interest of Fidelity earning greater profits through the receipt of such payments," Andre Wong. Fidelity started requiring mutual funds to pay these kickbacks to make up for the decline in revenue as a result of the increased use of low cost ETFs, which pay little to no revenue sharing to the record keeper.

Barron’s: 20 Years of Zero% Interest Rates

Happy anniversary!

It was 20 years ago today that the Bank of Japan first cut interest rates to zero percent—the so-called Zero Interest Rate Policy—setting a precedent for aggressive monetary policy in the U.S. and Europe during their own financial crises years later. Has the policy been effective? Even with the benefit of hindsight, three of the world’s major economies—Europe, the U.S., and Japan—haven’t exited from it. While the U.S. has raised rates seven times in two years, it is expected to pause for most of this year, leaving the federal-funds rate at 2.25%-2.5%. European and Japanese interest rates are still below zero. Without fiscal discipline the government lost control of public spending, inviting hyperinflation in the world’s second-biggest economy. For economic historians Japan is really a fascinating case. If you took a snapshot of the nation’s finances and demographics today with no previous knowledge of the country’s journey over the last 30 years since its asset bubble burst, you would wonder how the country isn’t in a constant crisis. Debt to GDP is the highest in the developed world at 236%. The BoJ holds around 43% of all government bonds and 15% of Japan stock ETFs. Prices in Japan are also virtually identical to where they were 20 years ago. Japan is an example of how long a crisis can be averted for under extreme manipulation of policy.

Baby Boomers To Push US Health Spending To $6 Trillion By 2027

The projected uptick in Medicare spending comes at a critical time in U.S. health policy. There are more than 10,000 Americans turning 65 and aging into Medicare every day. The annual report from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Office of the Actuary shows health spending will grow an average of 5.5% annually from 2018 to 2017. That growth will be faster than the projected 4.7% annual increase in gross domestic product from 2018 to 2017. By 2027, nearly half of U.S. health spending, or 47%, will be financed by federal, state and local governments as baby boomers age into Medicare, which will remain a key driver of overall healthcare outlays. In 2017, federal, state and local governments financed 45% of national health spending.

Bloomberg: First U.S. Pension Funds Goes Long Crypto

Morgan Creek Digital has scored the first investment in the crypto asset universe from a U.S. pension fund. Two pension plans in Fairfax County, Virginia are anchor investors in a new venture-capital fund. Other investors include an insurance company, a university endowment and a private foundation, said Morgan Creek Digital founder Anthony Pompliano.

Many institutional investors, which crypto enthusiasts believe will be drawn to digital assets because of their volatility and potential out-sized gains. The Virginia pension funds join institutions that invest in the crypto world, including Yale University, the second-largest endowment in higher education that invested in a digital assets fund last year. Fairfax County Retirement Systems manages three separate defined benefit plans, two of which invested in the Morgan Creek Digital fund. Katherine Molnar, chief investment officer of one of the funds, said in a statement that blockchain technology, which was first developed to record the movement of Bitcoin, is an “emerging opportunity” that offers an “attractive asymmetric return profile.’’ Pompliano said his new fund is structured like a traditional venture capital fund that will invest in the equity of companies in the blockchain and digital assets industry. The fund will also hold a in liquid cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin. “There’s a belief in the institutional world that if the industry will be around for a long time, it will be very valuable,’’ Pompliano said. “The smart money is not distracted by price but looks at the long-term trends, and believes they’re investing on innovation as a great way to deliver risk-mitigated returns.’’ Cryptocurrencies are not correlated to traditional assets, giving investors unique exposures.

American millennials are saddled with more than $1 trillion in debt

Millennials in the US aged between 18 and 29 had debts exceeding $1 trillion at the end of 2018. The vast majority of the debts were in the form of student loans, a growing problem for young people. It's the highest debt exposure for this age bracket since late 2007. According to figures from the New York Federal Reserve Consumer Credit Panel, millennials aged between 19 and 29 had student loan debts exceed $1 trillion at the end of 2018. Student loans have become a contentious sector of the market, and saw a record $166 billion in delinquencies in the fourth quarter of 2018. Figures suggest that around 40% of outstanding debts will default by 2023. Mortgage debt makes up the vast majority of overall consumer debt, but it’s not growing nearly as fast as student loan debt. Since 2009, mortgage debt increased 3.2% while student loan debt grew 102%, according to Bloomberg. Missing student loan payments could complicate the prospects of getting a mortgage in the future.

Wells Fargo Solution to Legal Woes, Charge More

Wells Fargo is hitting clients with a new annual fee on accounts that is roughly six basis points — equal to $590 per year on the average client with $1 million in advisory assets — according to current advisers.

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