Pension Reform Showdown: Will the U.S. Follow France’s Bold Retirement Age Changes?
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Today, French President Emmanuel Macron took a bold step by raising the legal retirement age in his country from 62 to 64, bypassing parliament and potentially setting his government up for a vote of no confidence. The unpopular pension reform, Macron says, is necessary to address the financial deficits caused by pandemic spending and the European energy crisis.
With the U.S. watching closely, could France’s pension reform serve as a blueprint for future changes to Social Security?
I don’t envy Macron for making this tough call. The people of France enjoy one of the most generous pension systems in the European Union (EU). According to 2020 data, France spent a jaw-dropping 14.7% of its GDP on pensions alone.
However, the sustainability of this pension system is being threatened by demographic changes. The Western European country also has one of the highest life expectancies in the world, and the expected years in retirement have increased considerably. French men were expected to spend 23.5 years in retirement on average, second only to men in Luxembourg, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). For women, that number rose to 27.1 years.
Like other high-income countries, particularly those in Europe, France’s birth rate has steadily dropped over the years, guaranteeing there will be fewer workers to support a rapidly aging population. In 2021, there were 10.5 births in France per 1,000 people, down from 13.2 births 30 years earlier.
Social Security in the Crosshairs?
No doubt U.S. lawmakers are keeping a close eye on the political fallout from France’s retirement reform. If the widespread strikes and marches are any indication, the future of Macron’s government appears to be in jeopardy.
The truth is that the U.S. may be facing a similar reckoning, and investors and savers need to be prepared. Sixty-six million Americans currently receive monthly benefits from Social Security, which, if nothing changes, is expected to be insolvent by 2035 at the latest.
Take a look below at the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) projections of mandatory entitlement spending. By 2032, Social Security will represent nearly 6% of U.S. GDP, up from around 5% today.
Major health care programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, will account for an even greater chunk of the economy as older Americans continue to make up a larger share of the total population.
The more reasonable changes under consideration are raising the retirement age, possibly as high as 70, and increasing the amount of annual wages subject to the Social Security payroll tax.
Other options include privatization, which, of course, carries investment risk. In 2022, corporate retirement plans in the U.S. recorded a loss of 19%, underperforming public plans, which fell 17%, according to Pension & Investments. A year earlier, public plans returned 18%, two and a half times more than corporate plans did.
Only 15% of Americans Contribute to an IRA
The big takeaway here is that I don’t believe it’s wise or prudent to assume that Social Security, in its present form, will be there for you when you retire. It’s time for Americans to take a greater role in their own retirement planning.
That may prove to be more challenging than expected. I was surprised to learn that very few American households contribute to a traditional or Roth IRA.
According to findings by the Investment Company Institute (ICI), a dismal 15% participated in 2022, marking the highest annual rate in 15 years’ worth of data. Twenty-six percent of households owned an IRA but didn’t contribute. Alarmingly, 59% of households don’t own an IRA at all.
By taking a more hands-on approach to retirement planning, Americans can better prepare themselves for a financially secure future, reducing their dependence on Social Security and avoiding potential risks associated with changes to the system.
Not everyone knows where to start, however, and that’s why we created the ABC Investment Plan. With just a small initial investment and an affordable monthly contribution, you can begin investing in our funds. The ABC Investment Plan is an automatic investment plan that uses the advantages of dollar-cost averaging—a technique that lets you invest a fixed amount in a specific investment at regular intervals—together with financial discipline to help you work toward your financial goals.
- The major market indices finished mixed this week. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 0.15%. The S&P 500 Stock Index rose 1.42%, while the Nasdaq Composite climbed 4.41%. The Russell 2000 small capitalization index lost 2.64% this week.
- The Hang Seng Composite gained 1.60% this week; while Taiwan was down 0.47%, and the KOSPI rose 0.05%.
- The 10-year Treasury bond yield fell 28 basis points to 3.419%.
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Airlines and Shipping
- The best performing airline stock for the week was Embraer, up 5.1%. Since the announcement of China’s reopening in early January, domestic flights have recovered to around 90% of the 2019 average, but international travel has edged up to only 23%. Dragged down by a tepid recovery in outbound travel, total daily flights have stabilized at 84% of the pre-pandemic level.
- After pulling back during the first two months of 2023, the Evercore ISI Shipping Company Survey increased from 66.8 to 75.8 in the latest release. The index has surged 14.5 points over the past two weeks, returning to its highest level since December 2022.
- The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved Boeing to resume deliveries of the 787 next week. This comes after the agency temporarily paused deliveries on February 23. According to Reuters, the FAA said that Boeing has addressed concerns related to a data analysis error on the forward pressure bulkhead. Following the recent pause, investors had expressed concern with the uncertainty of delivery resumption timing, fearing an approval could take months. Boeing said this would not impact its annual delivery target or planned production ramp, and this faster-than-expected resolution makes that look much more likely.
- The worst performing airline stock for the week was Hawaiian Holdings, down 16%. According to The Globe and Mail, following the failure to make lease payments, lessor Airborne Capital grounded four of the six aircraft it leases to Flair (total fleet of 19 B 737s). The article also notes that 11 of Flair’s B 737s (including the four seized) were being shopped around by lessors.
- Industry-wide flight hours of the dedicated air cargo fleet globally dropped 4.7% year-over-year in February. This is the eleventh consecutive year-over-year monthly decline. The three-month moving average data revealed an acceleration in the pace of contraction since mid-2022. Activity levels remain 18.3% above pre-pandemic levels, with leading economic indicators continuing to signal demand weakness ahead, against growing air freight capacity.
- United Airlines published an investor update this week, reducing its March quarter outlook to a loss per share of ($0.60) to ($1.00) from earnings per share (EPS) of $0.50 to $1.00, previously. The move was driven by higher fuel, the inclusion of an accrual for its pilot contract, and slightly worse unit revenue on higher capacity. While higher fuel and the labor accrual drive most of the reduction to the March quarter outlook, investors will be focused on unit revenue being light, especially as there was an expected positive update.
- Along with replacing aircraft that reach the new retirement age (24-26 years), Qantas should continue growing capacity at 3.3% per year from fiscal year 2024. The impending fleet renewal should be no surprise; for example, Qantas has already announced Project Winton with Airbus to renew the domestic fleet. However, the scale of new fleet capex is likely to exceed previous cycles.
- SITC continues to expect $200-300 per ton cost advantage versus the market in 2023, partly thanks to its higher percentage of owned capacity, favorable newbuild timing, as well as higher fuel efficiency from new vessels.
- Within the demand channels, both large corporate and small business corporate improved while leisure trends stepped back. Large corporate net sales stepped up to -22.9% versus 2019 on better volumes while small business corporate net sales improved to 20.4% versus 2019 on stronger pricing.
- According to UBS, the highly unionized nature of the European aviation industry means that industrial actions from internal and external staff present a latent risk to airlines, causing significant operational disruptions and increasing costs. There is also the risk of cyber-attacks, which a number of airlines have faced.
- According to JPMorgan, Nippon Yusen’s share price could exhibit weakness in the short term due to the lower dividend rights and expected yield in fiscal year 2023. If the share price falls in reaction to the lower dividend rights, it could then move into a phase of share price formation in anticipation of a bottoming out of cargo movement beginning in June.
- According to UBS, increased climate change awareness negatively impacts air travel demand. This includes short-haul rail substitution risks as more consumers are likely to switch to greener transportation. Greenpeace estimates 34% of the 150 busiest intra-European air routes have over a six-hour train alternative. Low cost, intra-European traffic is likely to be most impacted.
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Luxury Goods and International Markets
- This week Ferrari unveiled a new car model, the Roma Spider, starting at $247,310. This is the first of four supercars the company plans to release this year. The Roma Spider model can reach a top speed of 200 miles per hour and features a 612-horsepower V8 turbo engine. Ferrari is benefiting from wealthy clients being less affected by rising inflation and interest rates.
- China reported a rebound in consumer spending, industrial output, and investments this year after the country removed Covid-related restrictions at the end of the prior year. Retail sales rose 3.5% in January and February compared to the same period last year, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
- MGM China, a hotel and casino operator in Macau, was the best performing S&P Global Luxury stock for the week, gaining 6.5%. Leisure, gaming, and lodging stocks are expected to continue to benefit from the market reopening after the Chinese government ended its zero-Covid policy last year.
- In the United States, retail sales contracted in February by 0.4% to $698 billion, down from a revised $701 billion a month earlier, the Commerce Department said on Wednesday. This was driven by declines in sales at department stores, which dropped by 4%, and at furniture and home furnishing stores. Consumers also cut back on purchases at auto dealers, as well as in restaurants and bars.
- According to the Empire State Manufacturing Survey, business conditions fell to -24.6 in March, down from February’s negative reading of 5.8. The data significantly missed expectations as economists were looking for the index to fall to -7.9.
- Seoul Auction, an auction operator that trades artworks in South Korea, was the worst performing S&P Global Luxury stock for the week, losing 14.03%. Shares plunged 24% month-to-date, erasing all gains from the beginning of this year.
- Brunello Cucinelli, best known for its cashmere products, raised its outlook for 2023, pointing to a strong start for the year. This week the company reported a surge in operating profits for the year to 134.41 million euros ($142.2 million). It also reported 25% organic growth for the year. Analysts are saying that the group can keep gaining market share thanks to a unique brand positioning.
- Luxury goods and international equities bounced on Thursday after the European Central Bank hiked rates by 50 basis points as expected. In addition, sentiment improved among investors after troubled Credit Suisse received $54 billion in liquidity support from the Swiss National Bank.
- The U.S. consumer price index (CPI) declined to 6.0% on a year-over-year basis in the month of February from 6.4% in January. In the Eurozone, prices eased as well. Final inflation for February was reported at 8.5% versus 8.6% in January.
- Next week the Federal Reserve could hike its main rate by 25 basis points to 5.0% from 4.75%. Previously the market expected a 50 basis points hike but after the Silicon Valley Bank collapsed in California and CSFB reported financial trouble, the Fed may decide not to hike as aggressively. If the rate hike is less than previously expected, it could be a clear sign that the central bank is worried about the overall banking sector.
- The war in Europe continues and tensions increased this week after the United States reported that a Russian fighter jet collided with a United States drone in international airspace above the Black Sea, causing the American aircraft to crash. Russia is claiming that it did not hit the drone or fire a missile to shut it down. In addition, Poland is the first NATO country that pledged to send MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine. Slovakia has declared readiness to provide its MiG-29 planes to Kyiv, too.
- According to Barclay’s, Louis Vuitton increased prices on its handbags by 8% last year and this February the company spiked prices by another 3% in France and Japan, passing the higher cost of production to consumers. The broker expects further price increases to take place, mainly in Europe and Japan (not China), but the extent of overall price increases will likely be weaker than last year.
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Energy and Natural Resources
- The best performing commodity for the week was lumber, rising 8.54%, on an unexpected 9.8% climb in February housing starts, reports Bloomberg. According to BMO, the fourth quarter delivered better-than-expected financial results for Canadian oil and gas producers, with the large-cap names generally posting stronger results relative to the SMIDs. Reserve growth for the group was fairly mild in 2022, but inflationary pressures resulted in FD&A costs significantly rising year over year.
- Iron ore rose for a fourth session, with optimism for improved demand in China bolstered by the nation’s approaching peak construction season. The steel-making ingredient has been gaining on expectations of increased restocking as the country looks set to ramp up steel production during the second quarter.
- The price of molybdenum – an essential metal for the ongoing transition to a low-carbon world – has soared to levels above $44 per pound. The impressive rally reflects improved market conditions on the back of increasing demand and supply shortages.
- The worst performing commodity for the week was crude oil, dropping 13.64%, for its worst weekly decline this year. Oil fell as the fallout from the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank — the worst since the 2008 financial crisis — rippled across markets. U.S. authorities are rushing to strengthen confidence in the banking system and prevent contagion, while Goldman Sachs Group scrapped its call for a Federal Reserve interest-rate hike next week due to the turmoil.
- E&P stocks have lagged the broader market and other energy sub-sectors by 9% and 5%, year-to-date. Weaker capital efficiency, as well as a retrenchment in the oil and gas strips, have taken their toll on valuations as the group is now trading at 2023-2024 free cash flow yields of 8.7% and 9.6% (versus 15.0% and 11.6% in December, assuming strip pricing).
- The EIA yesterday released its March Drilling Productivity Report, which contains short-term estimates for oil and natural gas production. December U.S. oil output fell by 300,000 barrels per day to 8.66 million barrels per day, which is 447,000 barrels per day lower than last month’s estimate.
- China announced a draft rule that will allow power traders in China’s Shandong province to get paid for taking electricity as the province’s growing rooftop solar capacity threatens to overwhelm the grid. Shandong, which has abundant wind and solar, appears to be the only provincial spot electricity market that allows negative prices. Negative prices encourage more expensive power generators to switch off, lowering the costs to consumers.
- According to Goldman Sachs, by 2030, China plans to deploy a significant number of wind turbines and solar panels—nearly three times as many as it does today. Batteries and renewable energy sources will be quickly deployed as a result of the increased profit from clean energy. By 2030, solar and wind energy capacity will be 3,300 gigawatts, much above the government’s goal of 1,200 gigawatts. The program is part of China’s plans to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels.
- According to Bank of America, as electric vehicle (EV) penetration rates have risen from 1.6% five years ago to 10% in 2022, lithium producers have managed to deliver more lithium in 2022 than anticipated in each of the three years prior. The bank is squaring off three different supply scenarios with lithium demand, based on BofA’s EV penetration rate of 40% by 2030.
- Goldman now expects steel prices to normalize throughout the second half of 2023, as supply (from volume ramp from new and idled capacity, and increasing imports) catches up to demand, before settling back at its unchanged, long-term, through-cycle price forecast of $700 per ton HRC in 2024.
- Lithium carbonate refiners in China are seeing their margins squeezed as the price of their end product has fallen to $50,000 a metric ton or by 40% since its November 2022 highs, (yet the price of their lithium source material, spodumene remains elevated at around $5,000 a ton). Lithium carbonate refineries are now coming online in Australia, where most of the spodumene is mined, keeping the market tight.
- According to a report by UBS AG, China’s efforts to ramp up lithium extraction could see it account for a third of world supply by the middle of the decade. Bloomberg reported that the bank expects Chinese controlled mines, including those projects in Africa, could raise output to 705,000 tons by 2025, from 194,000 tons in 2022. This leap in production would raise China’s share of lithium processing to 32% of global supply, up from 24% last year.
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Bitcoin and Digital Assets
- Of the cryptocurrencies tracked by CoinMarketCap, the best performer for the week was Conflux, rising 123.05%.
- The central Bank of the UAE and the Reserve Bank of India signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate on central bank digital currencies and explore interoperability between the two currencies, reports Bloomberg. The bank’s activities will include jointly conducting “proof-of-concept and pilot(s) of bilateral CBDC bridge to facilitate cross-border CBDC transactions of remittances and trade,” the announcement said.
- Bitcoin is on course for one of its biggest weekly gains of recent years, bolstered by wagers on eventual cuts in interest rates, as the token rides out convulsion in the banking sector. Bitcoin is up 21% since Monday. It’s had a weekly jump of at least that much only 10 times over the past five years, writes Bloomberg.
- Of the cryptocurrencies tracked by CoinMarketCap, the worst performing for the week was Maker, down 4.84%.
- The Blockchain Association, a prominent crypto trade group that boasts members such as Circle Internet Financial LLC and Kraken, said that it’s digging into allegations that the digital-asset firms are being booted from the U.S. banking system. This includes instances of banks supposedly closing existing accounts or refusing to open new ones, writes Bloomberg.
- A clash involving disgruntled Coinbase Global customers will give the U.S. Supreme Court its first taste of the world of cryptocurrency, foreshadowing future cases that could help define the industry. The justices will hear arguments from Coinbase’s efforts to push two lawsuits into arbitration. The joint cases come as higher-stakes fights work their way toward the court, shaping the rights of customers and companies alike, writes Bloomberg.
- A group of investors has set out to raise $100 million for a Bitcoin-focused fund, even as implosions and scandals rock the crypto world. Dubbed the Bitcoin Opportunity Fund, the investment vehicle caters to high-net worth investors looking to diversify into the world’s largest cryptocurrency, writes Bloomberg.
- Deribit, the largest Bitcoin and Ether options exchange, plans to launch futures contracts to facilitate Bitcoin volatility trading, writes Bloomberg. The futures can help traders with portfolio hedging, risk management, alpha generation and exploiting market volatility.
- Institutional clients of Coinbase have been contacted by the firm about plans to potentially set up a new crypto-trading platform overseas. The talks with market makers and investment firms touched on the possibility of establishing an alternative venue for global clients, writes Bloomberg.
- Circle’s stablecoin needed about 36 hours to repair its peg with the dollar amid a liquidity panic, reports Bloomberg. Anxious crypto traders began selling USDC so quickly that it lost its peg to the dollar, falling below 85 cents. By Sunday night the token had largely recovered as the market reacted to Circle’s statement that it would cover any potential shortfalls and the promise by the government to make all bank depositors whole, writes Bloomberg.
- Binance Holdings is suspending deposit and withdrawal services via bank transfers and card payments for UK customers after its local banking partner stopped providing support for transactions in British pounds. Paysafe said it would stop providing one of its products to Binance customers in the UK citing local regulators’ approach to crypto assets, writes Bloomberg.
- Crypto miner Marathon Digital Holdings said it posted a $687 million loss in 2022 because of the more than 60% drop in the price of Bitcoin and soaring energy costs. The company found accounting errors in its annual report after the firm received comments from the U.S. SEC, writes Bloomberg.
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This week gold futures closed at $1,988, up $114.20 per ounce, or 6.06%. Gold stocks, as measured by the NYSE Arca Gold Miners Index, ended the week higher by 11.77%. The S&P/TSX Venture Index came in off 1.10%. The U.S. Trade-Weighted Dollar fell 0.65%.
- The best performing precious metal for the week was silver, up 10.16%, in response to the strong move in gold. Gold rose to a near six-week high, reports Bloomberg, as ongoing market turmoil linked to Credit Suisse Group AG spurred demand for havens. The lender’s bonds slumped on Thursday after initial optimism over the intervention of the Swiss central bank faded, while broader risk assets continued to suffer amid the bearish mood. Gold has surged more than 6% over the past week following the collapse of some U.S. banks, which triggered broader concerns about financial stability, the article continues.
- The volume of rough diamond imports to India in February came in slightly below the five-year average, as it fell by 14% year-over-year (but up 96% month-over-month). In contrast, the value of imports came in close to the five-year average but still down 18% year-over-year, implying that rough prices increased by 5% month-over-month.
- SilverCrest Metals’ commercial production at its Las Chispas mine beat expectations. Adjusted earnings per share (EPS) of $0.09 greatly surpassed consensus of $0.04 and operating cash flow per share was $0.14 per share versus the $0.07 per share consensus. The beat was driven by lower operating expenses as a significant portion of mill feed was previously expensed surface stockpile material.
- The worst performing precious metal for the week was platinum, but still up 1.55%. At Evolution Mining, the Ernest Henry underground mine was impacted by heavy rainfall last week with water entering mine workings. All personnel were removed from the mine. Production at the mine has been suspended. The company estimates it will take roughly six weeks before mining is resumed.
- February continued the trend of physically backed gold ETF outflows. These outflows totaled $1.7 billion in the month as investors reacted to expectations of sustained high interest rates following higher-than-anticipated inflation figures, notably in the U.S. This marked the tenth consecutive month where ETF gold tonnage demand was negative, which is the longest consecutive run of losses since January 2014.
- Northern Star Gold’s production at its Pogo gold mine has stopped due to the failure of a ball mill motor. Repairs are expected to take up to six weeks. Group guidance for fiscal year 2023 is unchanged because the lost production of 20-40,000 ounces gold is expected to fall within the guidance range.
- Whilst much focus has been directed at unit cost inflation, which has run at a CAGR of between 11-15% (depending on the producer) over the past three years, capital expenditure has risen even faster. South African PGM industry capex is likely to top R50 billion in 2023, representing a four-fold increase over the last seven years/ 22% CAGR off the 2016 lows.
- AngloGold Ashanti and Gold Fields have announced a proposed JV to combine operations at Tarkwa and Iduapriem, both in Ghana, to create the largest gold mine in Africa. Under the proposed structure, the JV would be constituted within Gold Fields Ghana, and operated by Gold Fields (AngloGold would contribute 100% of Iduapriem). Excluding the interest to be held by the Government of Ghana, Gold Fields would have a 67% interest in the JV & AngloGold 33%.
- According to Canaccord Genuity, the bond market and gold aren’t buying into the Fed’s increasing hawkishness; since the September 26 peak in the U.S. Dollar Index, the implied Fed terminal rate has risen to 60 basis points, yet long-term yields have fallen since then, and the gold price is up over $250 per ounce. Year-to-date, gold is up 2.4% while the S&P/TSX Gold Index is down 5.0% in U.S. dollar terms.
- Botswana will continue to demand a larger share of diamond output from its Debswana Diamond joint venture with Anglo American’s De Beers, as talks to renew a sales deal continue, Reuters reported, citing Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi.
- Sibanye has announced an incident at its U.S. PGM operations during scheduled non-routine maintenance, which has resulted in damage to the shaft infrastructure at Stillwater West. Sibanye confirms that the shaft infrastructure will require remediation, impacting access to deeper mine levels. As a result, Sibanye has suspended production from Stillwater West for four weeks, with the impact to 2023 production guided at 25-30,000 ounces.
- According to the mining ministry, corporate gold output in Burkina Faso decreased by 13.7% in 2022 compared to a year earlier as a result of the closure of five out of 17 mines, owing to insufficient security. It claimed that industrial output decreased from 66.8 tonnes in 2021 to 57.67 tonnes in 2018, a statistic that does not take into account the nation’s countless artisanal miners. Since gold is the principal export of the landlocked Sahelian country, the drop will have a comparable impact on government revenue and regional income.
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Northern Star Gold
*The above-mentioned indices are not total returns. These returns reflect simple appreciation only and do not reflect dividend reinvestment.
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