State of the Markets #74 – Colin Lloyd

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State of the Markets #74 – Colin Lloyd

Please click on the link below to listen to my recent podcast interview with Tim Price and Paul Rodriguez.

https://anchor.fm/stateofthemarkets/episodes/74-Colin-LLoyd-e8sr4m

 

To listen to other SOTM podcasts please click here

Leveraged Loans – History Rhyming?

Leveraged Loans – History Rhyming?

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Macro Letter – No 123 – 29-11-2019

Leveraged Loans – History Rhyming?

  • Despite three Federal Reserve rate cuts, leveraged loan credit quality is rapidly declining
  • Covenant-lite issues now account for more than 80% of US$ issues
  • CLO managers, among others, may need to sell, but few buyers are evident

For those of you who have not read Michael Lewis’s, The Big Short, the great financial crisis of 2008/2009 was caused by too much debt. The sector which precipitated the great unravelling was the US mortgage market and the particular instrument of mass destruction was the collateralised debt obligation, a security that turned out to be far from secure.

Today, more than a decade on from the crisis, interest rates are close to historic lows throughout much of the developed world. The problem of too much debt has been solved with even more debt. The nature of the debt has changed, so too has the make-up of debtors and creditors, but the very low level of interest rates, when compared to 2008, means that small changes in interest rates have a greater impact the price of credit.

Here is a hypothetical example, to explain the changed relationship between interest rates and credit. Back in 2008 a corporate borrower might have raised capital by issuing debt paying 6%, today the same institution can borrow at 3%. This means they can double the amount of capital raised by debt financing without any change in their annual interest bill. Put another way, apart from the repayment of the principal, which can usually be rolled over, the cost of debt financing has halved over the course of the decade. Firms can raise capital by issuing equity or debt, but, as interest rates decline, debt has become cheaper than equity finance.

In the example above, however, assuming the corporation chooses to double its borrowings, it becomes twice as sensitive to changes in interest rates. A rise from 3% to 4% increases its interest payments by one third, whereas, previously, a rise from 6% to 7% amounted to an increase of just one sixth.

So much for the borrower, but what about the lender? Bonds and other interest bearing securities are generally purchased by investors who need to secure a stable, long-term, stream of fixed income. As interest rates fall they are faced with a dilemma, either accept a lower return or embrace greater risk of default to achieve the same income. At the heart of the financial crisis was the illusion of the free lunch. By securitising a diversified portfolio of high-risk debt, the individual default risk was supposed to be ameliorated. The supposition was that non-correlated investments would remain non-correlated. There is a saying in financial markets, ‘during a crisis, correlations all rise to one.’ In other words, diversification seldom works when you really need it because during a crisis every investor wants the same thing, namely liquidity. Even if the default risk remains unchanged, the market liquidity risk contrives to wipe the investor out.

An alternative to a fixed-income security, which may be especially attractive in a rising interest rate environment (remember the Fed was tightening for a while prior to 2019), is a floating-rate investment. In theory, as short-term interest rates rise the investor can reinvest at more attractive rates. If the yield curve is essentially flat, floating rate investments will produce similar income streams to longer maturity investments, but they will be less sensitive to systemic market risk because they have shorter duration. In theory, credit risk should be easier to manage.

What’s new?

More than ten years into the recovery, we are witnessing one of the longest equity bull-markets in history, but it has been driven almost entirely by falling interest rates. The bond market has also been in a bull-trend, one which commenced in the early 1980’s. For investors, who cannot stomach the uncertainty of the equity market, the fixed income market is a viable alternative, however, as government bond yields have collapsed, income-yielding investments have been increasingly hard to find. With fixed income losing its lustre, credit products have sought to fill the void. Floating-rate leveraged loans, often repackaged as a collateralised loan obligation (CLO), are proving a popular alternative source of income.

The typical CLO is a floating-rate tradable security backed by a pool of, usually, first-lien loans. Often these are the debt of corporations with poor credit ratings, such as the finance used by private equity firms to facilitate leveraged buyouts. On their own, many of these loans rank on the margins of investment grade but, by bundling them together with better rated paper, CLO managers transform base metal into gold. The CLO manager does not stop there, going on to dole out tranches, with different credit risks, to investors with differing risk appetites. There are two general types of tranche; debt tranches, which pay interest and carry a credit rating from an independent agency, and equity tranches, which give the purchaser ownership in the event of the sale of the underlying loans. CLOs are hard to value, they are actively managed meaning their risk profile is in a constant state of flux.

CLOs are not new instruments and studies have shown that they are subject to lower defaults than corporate bonds. This is unsurprising since the portfolios are diversified across many businesses, whilst corporate bonds are the debt of a single issuer. CLO issuers argue that corporations are audited unlike the liar loans of the sub-prime mortgage debacle and that banks have passed ‘first loss’ risk on to third parties. I am not convinced this will save them from a general collapse in confidence. Auditors can be deceived and the owners of the ‘first loss’ exposure will need to hedge. CLOs may be diversified across multiple industry sectors but the market price of the underlying loans will remain highly dependent on that most transitory of factors, liquidity.

Where are we now?

Enough of the theory, in practice many CLOs are turning toxic. According to an October article in the American Banker –  A $40 billion pile of leveraged loans is battered by big lossesthe loans of more than 50 companies have seen their prices decline by more than 10%. The slowing economy appears to be the culprit, credit rating agencies are, as always, reactive rather than proactive, so the risk that many CLOs may soon cease to be investment grade is prompting further selling, despite the absence of actual credit downgrades. The table below shows magnitude of the problem as at the beginning of last month: –

Leveraged Loans

Source: Bloomberg

It is generally agreed that the notional outstanding issuance of US$ leveraged loans is around $1.2trln, of which some $660bln (55%) are held in CLOs, however, a recent estimate from the Bank of England – How large is the leveraged loan market? suggests that the figure is closer to $1.8trln. The authors go on to state: –

We estimate that there is more than US$2.2 trillion in leveraged loans outstanding worldwide. This is larger than the most commonly cited estimate and comparable to US subprime before the crisis.

As global interest rates have declined the leveraged loan market has more than doubled in size since its post crisis low of $497bln in 2010. Being mostly floating-rate structures, enthusiasm for US$ loans accelerated further in the wake of Federal Reserve (Fed) tightening of short-term rates. This excess demand has undermined quality, it is estimated that around 80% of US$ and 90% of Euro issues are covenant-lite – in other words they have little detailed financial information, often relying on the EBITDA adjustments calculated by the executives of the corporations issuing the loans. Those loans  not held by CLOs sit on the balance sheet of banks, insurance companies and pension funds together with mutual funds and ETFs. Several more recent issues, failing to find a home, sit on the balance sheets of the underwriting banks.

Here is a chart showing the evolution of the leveraged loan market over the last decade: –

CLOs

Source: BIS

Whilst the troubled loans in the first table above amount to less than 4% of the total outstanding issuance, there appears to be a sea-change in sentiment as rating agencies begin to downgrade some issues to CCC – a notch below investment grade. This grade deflation is important because most CLO’s are not permitted to hold more than 7.5% of CCC rated loans in their portfolios. Some estimates suggest that 29% of leveraged loans are rated just one notch above CCC. Moody’s officially admits that 40% of junk-debt issuers rate B3 and lower. S&P announced that the number of issuers rated B- or lower, referred to as ‘weakest links’, rose from 243 in August to 263 in September, the highest figure recorded since 2009 when they peaked at 300. S&P go on to note that in the largest industry sector, consumer products, downgrades continue to outpace upgrades.

As the right-hand of the two charts above reveals, the debt multiple to earnings of corporate loans is at an all-time high. Not only has the number of issuer downgrades risen but the number of issuers has also increased dramatically. At the end of 2010 there were 658 corporate issuers, by October 2019 the number of issuers had swelled 56% to 1025.

The credit spread between BB and the Leveraged Loan Index has been widening throughout the year despite three rate reductions from the Fed: –

Lev Loans spreads

Source: Morgan Stanley, FTSE

Q4 2018 saw a sharp decline in prices as the effect of previous Fed tightening finally took its toll. Then the Fed changed tack, higher grade credit recovered but the Leveraged Loan Index never followed suit.

Despite a small inflow into leveraged loan ETFs in September, the natural buyers of sub-investment grade paper have been unnaturally absent of late. Leveraged loan mutual funds have seen steady investment outflows for almost a year.

The inexperience of the new issuers is matched by the inexperience of the investor base. According to data from Prequin, between 2013 and 2017 a total of 322 funds made direct lending investments of which 71 had never entered the market before, during the previous five year only 85 funds had made investments of which just 19 were novices.

Inexperienced investors often move as one and this is evident in the recent absence of liquidity. The lack of willing buyers also highlights another weakness of the leveraged loan market, a lack of transparency. Many of the loans are issued by private companies, information about their financial health is therefore only available to existing holders of their equity or debt. Few existing holders are inclined to add to their exposure in the current environment. New purchasers are proving reticence to fly blind, as a result liquidity is evaporating further just at the moment it is most needed.

If the credit ratings of leveraged loans deteriorate further, contagion may spill over into the high-yield bond market. Whilst the outstanding issuance of high-yield bonds has been relatively stable, the ownership, traditionally insurers and pension funds, has been swelled by mutual fund investors and holders of ETFs. These latter investors prize liquidity more highly than longer-term institutions: the overall high-yield investor base has become less stable.

Inevitably, commentators are beginning to draw parallels with mortgage and CDO crisis. The table below, from the Bank of England report, compares leveraged loans today with sub-prime mortgages in 2006: –

how-large-is-the-leveraged-loan-market-chart-a

Source: Bank of England

The comparisons are disquieting, the issuers and underlying assets of the leveraged loan market may be more diversified than the mortgages of 2006, but, with interest rates substantially lower today, the sensitivity of the entire market, to a widening of credit spreads, is considerably greater.

The systemic risks posed by a meltdown in the CLO market is not lost on the BIS, page 11 of the latest BIS Quarterly Review – Structured finance then and now: a comparison of CDOs and CLOs observes: –

…the deteriorating credit quality of CLOs’ underlying assets; the opacity of indirect exposures; the high concentration of banks’ direct holdings; and the uncertain resilience of senior tranches, which depend crucially on the correlation of losses among underlying loans.

These are all factors to watch closely. The authors’ remain sanguine, however, pointing out that CLOs are generally less complex than CDOs, containing little credit default swap or resecuritisation exposure. They also note that CLOs are less frequently used as collateral in repurchase agreements rendering them less likely to be funded by short-term capital. This last aspect is a double-edge sword, if a security has a liquid repo market it can easily be borrowed and lent. A liquid repo market allows additional leverage but it also permits short-sellers to provide essential liquidity during a buyers strike, in the absence of short-sellers there may be no one to provide liquidity at all.

In terms of counterparties, the table below shows which institutions have the largest exposure to leveraged loans: –

BOE CLO heat map

Source: Bank of England

Bank exposure is preeminent but the flow from CLOs will strain bank balance sheets, especially given the lack of repo market liquidity.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

The CLO and leveraged loan market has the capacity to destabilise the broader financial markets. Rate cuts from the Fed have been insufficient to support prices and economic headwinds look set to test the underlying businesses in the next couple of years. A further slashing of rates and balance sheet expansion by the Fed may be sufficient to stave off a 2008 redux but the warning signs are flashing amber. Total financial market leverage is well below the levels that preceded the financial crisis of 2008, but as Mark Twain is purported to have said, ‘History doesn’t repeat but it rhymes.’

Until the US election in November 2020 is past, equity markets should remain supported. Government bond yields are unlikely to rise and, should signs of economic weakness materialise, may plumb new lows. Credit spread widening, however, even as government bond yields decline, is a pattern which will become more prevalent as the cash-flow implications of floating-rate borrowing instil some much needed sobriety into the market for leveraged loans. With interest rates close to historic lows credit markets are, once again, the weakest link.

Fragility – what the US money-market squeeze means for the future

Fragility – what the US money-market squeeze means for the future

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Macro Letter – No 122 – 18-10-2019

Fragility – what the US money-market squeeze means for the future

  • Last month’s squeeze in overnight domestic US$ funding rattled markets
  • The Fed responded rapidly but the problem has been growing for some time
  • Market fragility stems from problems in the transmission mechanism

At the end of October the Federal Reserve are expected to announce the details of their latest balance sheet expansion, this will follow the FOMC meeting. Fed watchers estimate the central bank will buy between $250bln and $330bln of Treasury bills in their effort to provide sufficient reserves to keep the benchmark Effective Federal Funds Rate (EFFR) within its target range. The allocation of liquidity is unlikely to be even, but the Fed has indicated that it will purchase $60bln/month and that they will continue until at least Q2 2020. They are making an unequivocal statement. Let us not forget that it is the traditional function of a central bank, to lend freely against good collateral. The fact that estimates do not exceed $330bln is due to perception that the Fed will not wish the markets to regard these money-market operations as tantamount to QE.

The markets are feverish with speculation, some commentators calling it a further round of QE, despite official statements to the contrary. The money-markets have been unsettled ever since the cash-crunch which occurred in mid-September. For once I concur with the Fed, that this is the management of liquidity via market operations, it is entirely different from the structural effect of longer-term asset purchases. George Selgin of the Cato Institute has coined the acronym SOAP – Supplementary Organic Asset Purchases – nonetheless, this additional liquidity has the effect of expanding the Fed balance sheet and expanding the monetary base. Perception will be all.

Spikes in overnight lending rates are not unusual, especially around tax payment dates, what is unsettling is the challenge the Fed has encountered trying to keep the EFFR within the Fed Funds target range for several days after the initial squeeze. The implementation of SOAP (or whatever they choose to call it) undoubtedly amounts to a further easing of conditions. The Fed may manage expectations by slowly the pace of easing in official rates, after all, what is the point in lowering official rates only to have your good intentions high-jacked by the money-market?

The chart below shows the Fed Fund Effective Rate over the last year (you will note the spike during September): –

Fed Effective Rate - 1yr

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of New York

At the same time the Secured Overnight Funding Rate (SOFR) spiked more wildly: –

SOFR YTD

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of New York

It is important to note that, while the EFFR squeezed higher, SOFR actually spiked more than the chart above indicates, rising from 2.19% to 9% on September 17th. The following day the Fed increased its holdings of Repos from $20bln to $53bln, it also officially cut the Fed Funds target rate by 25bp to 1.75%. On Wednesday 18th the Fed Repo balance rose again to $75bln, by Monday 23rd those balances had reached $105bln.

There are numerous theories about the stubbornness of money-market rates to moderate. Daniel Lacalle writing for Mises – The Repo Crisis Shows the Damage Done by Central Bank Policies – observes: –

What the Repo Market Crisis shows us is that liquidity is substantially lower than what the Federal Reserve believes, that fear of contagion and rising risk are evident in the weakest link of the financial repression machine (the overnight market) and, more importantly, that liquidity providers probably have significantly more leverage than many expected.

In summary, the ongoing — and likely to return — burst in the repo market is telling us that risk and debt accumulation are much higher than estimated. Central banks believed they could create a Tsunami of liquidity and manage the waves. However, like those children’s toys where you press one block and another one rises, the repo market is showing us a symptom of debt saturation and massive risk accumulation.

…what financial institutions and investors have hoarded in recent years, high-risk, low-return assets, is more dangerous than many of us believed.

A different opinion about the root of the Repo problem is provided by Alasdair Macleod, also writing for Mises – The Ghosts of Failed Banks Have Returned: –

The reason for its failure has little to do with, as some commentators have suggested, a general liquidity shortage. That argument is challenged by the increase in the Fed’s reverse repos from $230bn in October 2018 to $325bn on 18 September, which would not have been implemented if there was a general shortage of liquidity. Rather, it appears to be a systemic problem; another Northern Rock, but far larger. Today we call such an event a black swan.

The author goes on to suggest that a large non-US bank may be the cause of the issue. Inevitably Deutsche Bank’s name is mentioned.

I believe the issue stems from a number of different factors. Firstly, the Fed is far more central to the banking system today, especially since they elected to pay interest on bank deposits. Secondly, the banks have been wary of lending to corporates, or to one another, they are therefore more beholden to the Fed. Finally, the void created by the banks refusing, or being unable, to lend to the real economy has been filled by private capital, provided by hedge funds, money market funds and synthetic ETFs – these latter instruments have balances in excess of $4trln.

These new sources of funding cannot access the SOFR market directly, they must intermediate with the 24 broker-dealers with whom the Fed transact open market operations. Any hint of a bank being in difficulty will see these shadow-bankers move assets from that institution rapidly, causing the institution concerned (if it can) to make a dash for the Repo market and the succour of the Fed.

Macleod suggests other factors which might have contributed to the SOFR squeeze, including: –

…Chinese groups are shedding $40bn in global assets… domestic funding requirements faced by Saudi Arabia in the wake of the attack on her oil refining facilities, almost certainly being covered by the sale of dollar balances in New York.

…with $307.9bn withdrawn in the year to July, foreign withdrawals appear to be a more widespread problem than exposed by current events.

Enough of speculation, the official explanation is contained in this article from the Chicago Fed – Understanding recent fluctuations in short-term interest rates: –

Two developments in mid-September put stress on overnight funding markets. First, quarterly tax payments for corporations and some individuals were due on September 16. Over a period of a few days, these taxpayers took more than $100 billion out of bank and money market mutual fund accounts and sent the money to the U.S. Treasury. Second, the Treasury increased its long-term debt by $54 billion by paying off maturing securities and issuing a larger quantity of new ones. (A reduction in short-term Treasury bills outstanding partly offset the increase in long-term debt.) Buyers of the new debt paid for it by withdrawing money from bank and money market accounts. Combined with the tax payments, the debt issuance reduced the amount of cash in the financial system.

At the same time as liquidity was diminishing, the Treasury debt issuance caused financial institutions to need more liquidity. A substantial share of newly issued Treasury debt is typically purchased by securities dealers, who then gradually sell the bonds to their customers. Dealers finance their bond inventories by using the bonds as collateral for overnight loans in the repo market. The major lenders of cash in that market include banks and money market funds—the very institutions that had less cash on hand as a result of taxpayers’ and bond buyers’ payments to the Treasury.

With more borrowers chasing a reduced supply of funding in the repo market, repo interest rates began to rise on September 16 and then soared on the morning of September 17, reaching as high as 9% in some transactions—on a day when the FOMC was targeting a range of 2% to 2.25% for the fed funds rate.

Pressures in the repo market then spilled over to other markets, such as fed funds, as lenders in those markets now had the option to chase the high returns available in the repo market. In addition, when banks experience large outflows as a result of tax payments or Treasury issuance, they may seek to make up the money by borrowing overnight in the fed funds and other markets, putting additional pressure on rates there. The fed funds rate reached 2.25%, the top of the FOMC’s target range, on September 16 and 2.30% on September 17.

Here, is a chart showing the change in SOFR and EFFR over the last five years (you will notice that on none of these charts does the transaction struck at 9% ever appear – perhaps they do not want to frighten the horses): –

SOFR and EFFR

Source: Chicago Federal Reserve Bank

In their discussion of how the Fed responded (on September 17th) to the squeeze the authors point out: –

…the (Fed) Desk offered $75 billion in repos, primary dealers bid for only $53 billion. On the margin, this meant that primary dealers were forgoing the opportunity to borrow at the operation’s minimum bid rate of 2.1% and lend money into repo markets that were still trading at much higher rates. This outcome suggests that there could be some limits to primary dealers’ willingness to redistribute funding to the broader market.

They suggest that this may be a function of the level of leverage already in the banking system. By September 19th the Fed were compelled to lower the interest rate on excess reserves – IOER. Finally the relationship between EFFR and SOFR returned to its normal range.

According to the authors the Fed have learnt from their hysteresis that adjustments to the IOER are also critical to control of money-markets, repo operations may not be sufficient in isolation. The chart below shows the spread between SOFR and IOER: –

IOER - SOFR

Source: Chicago Federal Reserve Bank

This is how the Fed describes the evolution of the relationship (the emphasis is mine): –

When the repo rate is below the interest rate on reserves, as it generally was from 2015 through March 2018, the supply of liquidity is so great that Treasury securities are very easy to finance and have a lower effective overnight yield than reserves. From March 2018 through March 2019, repo rates were generally very close to the interest rate on reserves. Then, beginning in the second quarter of 2019, repo rates ticked above the interest rate on reserves. Around the same time, money market rates started to exhibit slightly more upward pressure near tax payment deadlines. Most recently, just before the volatility in mid-September, the spread between SOFR and IOER on September 13 was the highest yet on the business day before a tax date in the period since the FOMC began normalizing monetary policy in late 2015.

This confirms my suspicion that since the financial crisis the Fed (and central banks in general) have become far more central to the smooth functioning of the financial markets. Actions such as QE are clear, the function of the lender of last resort is less so. Professor Perry Mehrling’s – The New Lombard Street (published in 2010 the wake of the financial crisis) discusses the changed role of the Fed in detail, it is well worth re-reading.

Conclusions

I normally end my newsletters with an investment proposal. This time my advice is of a different nature. During the financial crisis central banks saved the global financial system, but, as last month’s’ SOFR Squeeze makes clear, the patient is still on life support. The solution to too much debt has been the reduction of interest rates, but, because lower rates make debt financing easier, this has led to an even greater system-wide burden of debt. In the process the role of the central bank has become far more pivotal. They have reaped what they sowed, the financial markets still function, but they remain inherently fragile. If the Fed analysis of the reasons for the price spike are correct, a relatively small imbalance may, on another occasion, derail the entire market.

The advice? Batten down the hatches, maintain excess liquidity and prepare for the next stress-test of the overnight lending market.

Value, Momentum and Carry – Is it time for equity investors to switch?

Value, Momentum and Carry – Is it time for equity investors to switch?

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Macro Letter – No 121 – 04-10-2019

Value, Momentum and Carry – Is it time for equity investors to switch?

  • Index tracking and growth funds have outperformed value managers for several years
  • Last month value was resurgent, but will it last?
  • In the long run, value has offered a better risk adjusted return
  • The long-term expected return from growth stocks remains hard to assess

Value, momentum and carry are the three principal means of extracting return from any investment. They may be described in other ways but these are really the only games in town. I was reminded of this during the last month as value based equity managers witnessed a resurgence of performance whilst index tracking products generally suffered. Is this a sea-change or merely a case of what goes up must come back down?

My premise over the last few years has been that the influence of central banks, in reducing interest rates to zero or below, has been the overwhelming driver of return for all asset classes. The stellar performance of government bonds has percolated through the credit markets and into stocks. Lower interest rates has also made financing easier, buoying the price of real-estate.

Traditionally, in the equity markets, investment has been allocated to stocks which offer growth or income, yet with interest rates falling everywhere, dividend yields offer as much or more than bonds, making them attractive, however, growth stocks, often entirely bereft of earnings, become more attractive as financing costs approach zero. In this environment, with asset management fees under increasing pressure, it is not surprising to observe fund investors accessing the stock market by the cheapest possible means, namely ETFs and index tracking funds.

During the last month, there was a change in mood within the stock market. Volatility within individual stocks remains relatively high, amid the geo-political and economic uncertainty, but value based active managers saw a relative resurgence, after several years in the wilderness. This may be merely a short-term correction driven more by a rotation out of the top performing stocks, but it could herald a sea-change. The rising tide of ever lower interest rates, which has floated all ships, may not have turned, but it is at the stand, value, rather than momentum, may be the best means of extracting return in the run up to the US presidential elections.

A review of recent market commentary helps to put this idea in perspective. Firstly, there is the case for growth stocks, eloquently argued by Jack Neele at Robeco – Buying cheap is an expensive business: –

One of the most frequent questions I have been asked in recent years concerns valuation. My focus on long-term growth trends in consumer spending and the companies that can benefit from these often leads me to stocks with high absolute and relative valuations. Stocks of companies with sustainability practices that give them a competitive edge, global brand strength and superior growth prospects are rewarded with an above-average price-earnings ratio.

It is only logical that clients ask questions about high valuations. To start with, you have the well-known value effect. This is the principle that, in the long term, value stocks – adjusted for risk – generate better returns that their growth counterparts. Empirical research has been carried out on this, over long periods, and the effect has been observed in both developed and emerging markets. So if investors want to swim against the tide, they need to have good reasons for doing so.

f226feaceadbe054cd0a2a9c19c06082_buying-cheap-fig1_tcm17-20864_639x0

Source: Robeco, MSCI

In addition, there are – understandably – few investors who tell their clients they have the market’s most expensive stocks in their portfolio. Buying cheap stocks is seen as prudent: a sign of due care. However, if we zoom in on the last ten years, there seems to have been a structural change since the financial crisis. Cheap stocks have done much less well and significantly lagged growth stocks.

e918dbcd886cb734f02aff26c491667f_buying-cheap-fig-2_tcm17-20865_639x0

Source: Robeco, MSCI

Nevertheless, holding expensive stocks is often deemed speculative or reckless. This is partly because in the financial industry the words ‘expensive’ and ‘overvalued’ are often confused, despite their significant differences. There are many investors who have simply discarded Amazon shares as ‘much too expensive’ in the last ten years. But in that same period, Amazon is up more than 2000%. While the stock might have been expensive ten years ago, with hindsight it certainly wasn’t overvalued.

The same applies for ‘cheap’ and ‘undervalued’. Stocks with a low price-earnings ratio, price-to-book ratio or high dividend yield are classified as cheap, but that doesn’t mean they are undervalued. Companies in the oil and gas, telecommunications, automotive, banking or commodities sectors have belonged to this category for decades. But often it is the stocks of these companies that structurally lag the broader market. Cheap, yes. Undervalued, no.

The author goes on to admit that he is a trend follower – although he actually says trend investor – aside from momentum, he makes two other arguments for growth stocks, firstly low interest rates and secondly the continued march of technology, suggesting that investors have become much better at evaluating intangible assets. The trend away from older industries has been in train for many decades but Neele points out that since 1990 the total Industry sector weighting in the S&P Index has fallen from 34.9% to 17.3% whilst Technology has risen from 5.9% to 15.6%.

If the developed world is going to continue ageing and interest rates remain low, technology is, more than ever, the answer to greatest challenges facing mankind. Why, therefore, should one contemplate switching from momentum to value?

A more quantitative approach to the current environment looks at the volatility of individual stocks relative to the main indices. I am indebted to my good friend Allan Rogers for his analysis of the S&P 100 constituents over the past year: –

OEF, the ETF tracking the S&P 100, increased very modestly during the period from 9/21/2018 to 9/20/2019.  It rose from 130.47 to 132.60, a gain of 1.63%.  During the 52 weeks, it ranged between 104.23 and 134.33, a range of 28.9% during a period where the VIX rarely exceeded 20%.  Despite the inclusion of an additional 400 companies, SPY, the ETF tracking the S&P 500, experienced a comparable range of 29.5%, calculated by dividing the 52 week high of 302.63 by the 52 week low of 233.76.  SPY rose by 2.2% during that 52 week period.  Why is this significant?  Before reading on, pause and make your own estimate of the average 52 week range for the individual stocks in the S&P 100.  15%?  25%?  The average 52 week price range for the components was 49%.  The smallest range was 18%.  The largest range was 134%.  For a portfolio manager tasked with attempting to generate a return of 7% per annum, the 100 largest company stocks offer potential profit of seven times the target return if one engages in active trading.  Credit risk would appear to be de minimus for this group of companies.  This phenomenon highlights remarkable inefficiency in stock market liquidity.

This analysis is not in the public domain, however, please contact me if you would like to engage with the author.

This quantitative approach when approaching the broader topic of factor investing – for a primer Robeco – The Essentials of Factor Investing – is an excellent guide. Many commentators discuss value in relation to investment factors. Last month an article by Olivier d’Assier of Axioma – Has the Factor World Gone Mad and Are We on the Brink of Another Quant Crisis? caught my eye, he begins thus: –

To say that fundamental style factor returns have been unusual this past week would be the understatement of the year—the decade, in fact. As reported in yesterday’s blog post “Momentum Nosedives”, Momentum had a greater-than two standard deviation month-to-date negative return in seven of the eleven markets we track. Conversely, Value, which has been underperforming year-to-date everywhere except Australia and emerging markets, has seen a stronger-than two standard deviation month-to-date positive return in four of those markets. The growth factor also saw a sharp reversal of fortune last week in the US, while leverage had a stronger-than two standard deviation positive return in that market on the hopes for more monetary easing by the Fed.

The author goes on to draw parallels with July 2007, reminding us that after a few weeks of chaotic reversals, the factor relationships returned to trend. This time there is a difference, equities in 2007 were not a yield substitute for bonds, today, they are. Put into the context of geopolitical and economic growth concerns, the author expects lower rates and sees the recent correction in bond yields as corrective rather than structural. As for the recent price action, d’Assier believes this is due to unwinding of exposures, combined with short-term traders buying this year’s losing factors, Value and Dividend Yield, and selling winners such as Momentum and Growth. Incidentally, despite the headline, Axioma does not envisage a quant crisis.

Returning to the broader topic of momentum versus value, a recent article from MSCI – Growth’s recent outperformance was and wasn’t an anomaly – considers whether the last decade represents a structural shift, here is their summary: –

Growth strategies have performed well over the past few years. For investors, an important question is whether the recent performance is an anomaly.

For a growth strategy that simply picks stocks with high growth characteristics, the recent outperformance is out of line with that type of growth strategy’s historical performance.

For a strategy that targets the growth factor while controlling for other factors, the recent outperformance has been in line with its longer historical performance.

The chart below attempts to show the performance of the pure growth factor adjusted for non-growth factors: –

GrowthFactors_Exhibit_2

Source: MSCI

If anything, this chart shows a slightly reduced return from pure growth over the last three years. The authors conclude: –

…to answer whether growth’s recent performance is an anomaly really depends on what we mean by growth. If we mean a simple strategy that selects high-growth stocks, then the recent performance is not representative of that strategy’s long-term historical performance. In this case, we can attribute the recent outperformance relative to the long term to non-growth factors and particular sectors — exposure to which has not been as detrimental recently as it has been over the long run. But for a factor- and sector-controlled growth strategy, the performance is mainly driven by exposure to the growth factor. In this case, the recent outperformance has been in line with the longer-term outperformance.

As I read this I am reminded of a quant hedge fund manager with whom I used to do business back in the early part of the century. He had taken a tried a tested fundamental short-selling strategy and built a market neutral, industry neutral, sector neutral portfolio around it, unfortunately, by the time he had hedged away all these risks, the strategy no longer made any return. What we can probably agree upon is that growth stocks have outperformed income and value not simply because they are growth stocks.

The Case for Value

They say that history is written by the winners, nowhere is this truer than in investment management. Investors move in herds, they want what is hot and not what is not. In a paper published last month by PGIM – Value vs. Growth: The New Bubble – the authors’ made several points, below are edited highlights (the emphasis is mine): –

  1. We have been through an extraordinary period of value factor underperformance over the last 18 months. The only comparable periods over the last 30 years are the Tech Bubble and the GFC.

  2. Historically, we would expect a very sharp reversal of value performance to follow. This was the case in each of the two previous extreme periods.

  3. We tested the drivers of recent value underperformance to see if we are in a “value trap.” Historically, fundamentals have somewhat deteriorated, but prices expected a bigger deterioration, so the bounce-back more than offset the fundamental deterioration. In a value trap environment, we would expect a greater deterioration in fundamentals. In the last 18 months, we have actually seen an improvement in fundamental earnings for value stocks, but a deterioration in pricing. This combination is unprecedented, and signals the opposite of a value trap environment.

  4. …we examined the behavior of corporate insiders… The relative conviction of insiders regarding cheaper stocks is higher than ever, which reinforces our conviction about the magnitude of the performance opportunity from here.

  5. It is never easy to predict what it will take to pop a bubble, but there are multiple scenarios that we envisage as potential catalysts, including both growth and recessionary conditions.

These views echo an August 2019 article by John Pease at GMO – Risk and Premium – A Tale of Value – the author concludes (once again the emphasis is mine): –

Value has underperformed the market in 10 of the last 12 months, including the last 7. Its most recent drawdown began in 2014 and the factor is quite far from its high watermark. The relative return of traditional value has been flat since late 2004. All in all, it has been a harrowing decade for those who have sought cheap stocks, and we have tried to understand why.

We approached this problem by decomposing the factor’s relative returns. The relative growth profile of value has not changed with time; the cheapest half (ex-financials) in the U.S. has continued to undergrow the market, but by no more than what we have come to expect. These companies have also not compromised their quality to keep growth stable, suggesting that any shifts that have occurred in the market have not disproportionately hurt value’s fundamentals.

The offsets to value’s undergrowth, however, have come under pressure. Value’s yield advantage has fallen as the market has become more expensive. The group’s rebalancing – the tendency of cheap companies to see their multiples expand and rotate out of the group while expensive companies see their multiples contract and come into value – is also slower, with behavioral and structural aspects both at play. Though these drivers of relative outperformance have diminished, they still exceed value’s undergrowth by more than 1%, indicating that going forward, cheap stocks (at least as we define them) are likely to reap a decent, albeit smaller, premium.

This premium has not materialized over the last decade for a simple reason: relative valuations. Value has seen its multiples expand a lot less than the market. This makes sense – because value tends to have significantly lower duration than other equities, a broad risk rally shouldn’t be as favorable to cheap stocks as it should be to their expensive counterparts. And we have had quite a rally.

It isn’t possible to guarantee that the next decade will be kinder to value than the previous one was. The odds would seem to favor it, however. Cheap stocks still provide investors with a premium, allowing them to outperform even if their relative valuations remain low. If relative valuations rise – not an inconceivable event given a long history of mean-reverting discount rates – the ensuing relative returns will be exceptional. And value, after quite the pause, might look valuable again.

A key point in this analysis is that the low interest rate environment has favoured growth over value. Unless the next decade sees a significant normalisation of interest rates, unlikely given the demographic headwinds, growth will continue to benefit, even as momentum strategies falter due to the inability of interest rates to fall significantly below zero (and that is by no means certain either).

These Macro Letters would not be In the Long Run without taking a broader perspective and this July 2019 paper by Antti Ilmanen, Ronen Israel, Tobias J. Moskowitz, Ashwin Thapar, and Franklin Wan of AQR – Do Factor Premia Vary Over Time? A Century of Evidence – fits the bill. The author examine four factors – value, momentum, carry, and defensive (which is essentially a beta neutral or hedged portfolio). Here are their conclusions (the emphasis is mine): –

A century of data across six diverse asset classes provides a rich laboratory to investigate whether canonical asset pricing factor premia vary over time. We examine this question from three perspectives: statistical identification, economic theory, and conditioning information. We find that return premia for value, momentum, carry, and defensive are robust and significant in every asset class over the last century. We show that these premia vary significantly over time. We consider a number of economic mechanisms that may drive this variation and find that part of the variation is driven by overfitting of the original sample periods, but find no evidence that informed trading has altered these premia. Appealing to a variety of macroeconomic asset pricing theories, and armed with a century of global economic shocks, we test a number of potential sources for this variation and find very little. We fail to find reliable or consistent evidence of macroeconomic, business cycle, tail risks, or sentiment driving variation in factor premia, challenging many proposed dynamic asset pricing theories. Finally, we analyze conditioning information to forecast future returns and construct timing models that show evidence of predictability from valuation spreads and inverse volatility. The predictability is even stronger when we impose theoretical restrictions on the timing model and combine information from multiple predictors. The evidence identifies significant conditional return premia from these asset pricing factors. However, trading profits to an implementable factor timing strategy are disappointing once we account for real-world implementation issues and costs.

Our results have important implications for asset pricing theory, shedding light on the existence of conditional premia associated with prominent asset pricing factors across many asset classes. The same asset pricing factors that capture unconditional expected returns also seem to explain conditional expected returns, suggesting that the unconditional and conditional stochastic discount factors may not be that different. The lack of explanatory power for macroeconomic models of asset pricing challenges their usefulness in describing the key empirical factors that describe asset price dynamics. However, imposing economic restrictions on multiple pieces of conditioning information better extracts conditional premia from the data. These results offer new features for future asset pricing models to accommodate.

This paper suggests that, in the long run, broad asset risk premia drive returns in a consistent manner. Macroeconomic and business cycle models, which attempt to forecast asset values based on expectations for economic growth, have a lower predictive value.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

I have often read market commentators railing against the market, complaining that asset prices ignored the economic fundamentals, the research from AQR offers a new insight into what drives asset returns over an extended time horizon. Whilst this does not make macroeconomic analysis obsolete it helps to highlight the paramount importance of factor premia in forecasting asset returns.

Returning to the main thrust of this latter, is this the time to switch from momentum to value? I think the jury is still out, although, as the chart below illustrates, we are near an all-time high for the ratio between net worth and disposable income per person in the US: –

fredgraph (8)

Source: Federal Reserve

This is a cause for concern, it points to severe imbalances within households: it is also a measure of rising income inequality. That stated, many indicators are at unusual levels due to the historically low interest rate environment. Investment flows have been the principal driver of asset returns since the great recession, however, now that central bank interest rates in the majority of developed economies are near zero, it is difficult for investors to envisage a dramatic move into negative territory. Fear about an economic slowdown will see risk free government bond yields become more negative, but the longer-term driver of equity market return is no longer solely based on interest rate expectations. A more defensive approach to equities is likely to be seen if a global recession is immanent. Whether growth stocks prove resurgent or falter in the near-term, technology stocks will continue to gain relative to old economy companies, human ingenuity will continue to benefit mankind. Creative destruction, where inefficient enterprises are replaced by new efficient ones, is occurring despite attempts by central banks to slow its progress.

For the present I remain long the index, I continue to favour momentum over value, but, as was the case when I published – Macro Letter – No 93 back in March 2018, I am tempted to reduce exposure or switch to a value based approach, even at the risk of losing out, but then I remember the words of Ryan Shea in his article Artificial Stupidity: –

…investment success depends upon behaving like the rest of the crowd almost all of the time. Acting rational when everyone else is irrational is a losing trading strategy because market prices are determined by the collective interaction of all participants.

For the active portfolio manager, value factors may offer a better risk reward profile, but, given the individual stock volatility dispersion, a market neutral defensive factor model, along the lines proposed by AQR, may deliver the best risk adjusted return of all.

Uncertainty and the countdown to the US presidential elections

Uncertainty and the countdown to the US presidential elections

In the Long Run - small colour logo

Macro Letter – No 120 – 13-09-2019

Uncertainty and the countdown to the US presidential elections

  • JP Morgan analyse the impact of 14,000 presidential Tweets
  • Gold breaks out to the upside despite US$ strength
  • China backs down slightly over Hong Kong
  • Trump berates Fed Chair and China

These are just a few of the news stories which drove financial markets during the summer: –

VOX – The Volfefe Index, Wall Street’s new way to measure the effects of Trump tweets, explained

DailyFX – Gold Prices Continue to Exhibit Strength Despite the US Dollar Breakout

BBC – Carrie Lam: Hong Kong extradition bill withdrawal backed by China

FT – Trump lashes out at China and US Federal Reserve — as it happened.

For financial markets it is a time of heightened uncertainty. The first two articles are provide a commentary on the way markets are evolving. The impact of social media is rising, with Trump in the vanguard. Geopolitical uncertainty and the prospect of fiscal debasement are, meanwhile, upsetting the normally inverse relationship between the price of gold and the US$.

The next two items are more market specific. The stand-off between the Chinese administration and the people of the semi-autonomous enclave of Hong Kong, prompts concern about the political stability of China, meanwhile the US Commander in Chief persists in undermining the credibility of the notionally independent Federal Reserve and seems unable to resist antagonising the Chinese administration as he raises the stakes in the Sino-US trade war. Financial markets have been understandably unsettled.

Ironically, despite the developments high-lighted above, during August, US bonds witnessed sharp reversals lower, suggesting that geopolitical tensions might have moderated. Since the beginning of September prices have rebounded, perhaps there were simply more sellers than buyers last month. In Europe, by contrast, German bunds reached new all-time highs, only to suffer sharp reversal in the past week. Equity markets responded to the political uncertainty in a more consistent manner, plunging and then recovering during the past month. As the chart below illustrates, there has been increasing debate about the challenge of increased volatility since the end of July: –

VIX Index Daily

Source: Investing.com

Yet, as always, it is not the volatility or even risk which presents a challenge to financial market operators, it is uncertainty. Volatility is a measure derived from the mean and variance of a price. It is a cornerstone of the measurement of financial risk: the key point is that it is measurable. Risk is something we can measure, uncertainty is that which we cannot. This is not a new observation, it was first made in 1921 by Frank Knight – Risk, Uncertainty and Profit.

Returning to the current state of the financial markets, we are witnessing a gradual erosion of belief in the omnipotence of central banks. See Macro Letter’s 48, 79 and 94 for some of my previous views. What has changed? As Keynes might have put it, ‘The facts.’ Central Banks, most notably the Bank of Japan, Swiss National Bank and European Central Bank, have been using zero or negative interest rate policy, in conjunction with balance sheet expansion, in a valiant attempt to stimulate aggregate demand. The experiment has been moderately successful, but the economy, rather like a chronic drug addict, requires an ever increasing fix to reach the same high.

In Macro Letter – No 114 – 10-05-2019 – Debasing the Baseless – Modern Monetary Theory – I discussed the latest scientific justification for debasement. My conclusion: –

The radical ideas contained in MMT are unlikely to be adopted in full, but the idea that fiscal expansion is non-inflationary provides succour to profligate politicians of all stripes. Come the next hint of recession, central banks will embark on even more pronounced quantitative and qualitative easing, safe in the knowledge that, should they fail to reignite their economies, government mandated fiscal expansion will come to their aid. Long-term bond yields will head towards the zero-bound – some are there already. Debt to GDP ratios will no longer trouble finance ministers. If stocks decline, central banks will acquire them: and, in the process, the means of production. This will be justified as the provision of permanent capital. Bonds will rise, stocks will rise, real estate will rise. There will be no inflation, except in the price of assets.

As this recent article from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco – Negative Interest Rates and Inflation Expectations in Japan – indicates, even central bankers are beginning to doubt the efficacy of zero or negative interest rates, albeit, these comments emanate from the FRBSF research department rather than the president’s office. If the official narrative, about the efficacy of zero/negative interest rate policy, is beginning to change, state sponsored fiscal stimulus will have to increase dramatically to fill the vacuum. The methadone of zero rates and almost infinite credit will be difficult to quickly replace, I anticipate widespread financial market dislocation on the road to fiscal nirvana.

In the short run, we are entering a period of transition. Trump may continue to berate the chairman of the Federal Reserve and China, but his room for manoeuvre is limited. He needs Mr Market on his side to win the next election. For Europe and Japan the options are even more constrained. Come the next crisis, I anticipate widespread central bank buying of stocks (in addition to government and corporate bonds) in order to provide liquidity and insure economic stability. The rest of the task will fall to the governments. Non-inflationary fiscal profligacy will be de rigueur – I can see the politicians smiling all the way to the hustings, safe in the knowledge that deflationary forces have awarded them a free-lunch. Someone, someday, will have to pay, of course, but they will be long since retired from public office.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

During the next year, markets will continue to gyrate erratically, driven by the politics of European budgets, Brexit and the Sino-US trade war. These issues will be eclipsed by the twittering of Donald Trump as he seeks to win a second term in office. Looked at cynically, one might argue that Trump’s foreign policy has been deliberately engineered to slow the US economy and hold back the stock market. During the next 14 months, a new nuclear weapons agreement could be forged with Iran, relations with North Korea improved and a trade deal negotiated with China. Whether this geopolitical largesse is truly in the President’s gift remains unclear, but for a maker of deals such as Mr Trump, the prospect must be tantalising.

For the US$, the countdown to the US election remains positive, for stocks, likewise. For the bond market, the next year may be broadly neutral, but given the signs of faltering growth across the globe, it seems unlikely that yields will rise significantly. Economies will see growth slow, leading to an accelerated pace of debt issuance. Bouts of volatility, similar to August or Q4 2018, will become more commonplace. I remain bullish for asset markets, nonetheless.