A world of debt – where are the risks?

A world of debt – where are the risks?

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Macro Letter – No 108 – 18-01-2019

A world of debt – where are the risks?

  • Private debt has been the main source of rising debt to GDP ratios since 2008
  • Advanced economies have led the trend
  • Emerging market debt increases have been dominated by China
  • Credit spreads are a key indicator to watch in 2019

Since the financial crisis of 2008/2009 global debt has increased to reach a new all-time high. This trend has been documented before in articles such as the 2014 paper from the International Center for Monetary and Banking Studies – Deleveraging? What deleveraging? The IMF have also been built a global picture of the combined impact of private and public debt. In a recent publication – New Data on Global Debt – IMF – the authors make some interesting observations: –

Global debt has reached an all-time high of $184 trillion in nominal terms, the equivalent of 225 percent of GDP in 2017. On average, the world’s debt now exceeds $86,000 in per capita terms, which is more than 2½ times the average income per-capita.

The most indebted economies in the world are also the richer ones. You can explore this more in the interactive chart below. The top three borrowers in the world—the United States, China, and Japan—account for more than half of global debt, exceeding their share of global output.

The private sector’s debt has tripled since 1950. This makes it the driving force behind global debt. Another change since the global financial crisis has been the rise in private debt in emerging markets, led by China, overtaking advanced economies. At the other end of the spectrum, private debt has remained very low in low-income developing countries.

Global public debt, on the other hand, has experienced a reversal of sorts. After a steady decline up to the mid-1970s, public debt has gone up since, with advanced economies at the helm and, of late, followed by emerging and low-income developing countries.

The recent picture suggests that the old world order, dominated by advanced economies, may be changing. For investors, this is an important consideration. Total debt in 2017 had exceeded the previous all-time high by more than 11%, however, the global debt to GDP ratio fell by 1.5% between 2016 and 2017, led by developed nations.

Setting aside the absolute level of interest rates, which have finally begun to rise from multi-year lows, it makes sense for rapidly aging, developed economies, to begin reducing their absolute level of debt, unfortunately, given that unfunded pension liabilities and the escalating cost of government healthcare provision are not included in the data, the IMF are only be portraying a partial picture of the state of developed economy obligations.

For emerging markets, the trauma of the 1998 Asian Crisis has finally waned. In the decade since the great financial recession of 2008 emerging economies, led by China, have increased their borrowing. This is clearly indicated in the chart below: –


Source: IMF

The decline in the global debt to GDP ratio in 2017 is probably related to the change in Federal Reserve policy; the largest proportion of global debt is still raised in US$. Rather like the front-loaded US growth which transpired due the threat of tariff increases on US imports, I suspect, debt issuance spiked in expectation of a reversal of quantitative easing and an end to ultra-low US interest rates.

The IMF goes on to show the breakdown of debt by country, separating them into three groups; advanced economies, emerging markets and low income countries. The outlier is China, an emerging market with a debt to GDP ratio comparable to that of an advanced economy. The table below may be difficult to read (an interactive one is available on the IMF website): –

imf chart of debt by country december 2018

Source: IMF

At 81%, China’s private debt is much greater than its public debt, meanwhile its debt to GDP ratio is 254% – comparable with the US (256%). Fortunately, the majority of Chinese private debt is denominated in local currency. Advanced economies have higher debt to GDP ratios but their government debt ratios are relatively modest, excepting Japan. The Economist – Economists reconsider how much governments can borrow – provides food for thought on this subject.

Excluding China, emerging markets and low income countries have relatively similar levels of debt relative to GDP. In general, the preponderance of government debt in lower ratio countries reflects the lack of access to capital markets for private sector borrowers.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

Setting aside China, which, given its control on capital flows and foreign exchange reserves is hard to predict, the greatest risk to world financial markets appears to be from the private debt of advanced economies.

Following the financial crisis of 2008, corporate credit spreads narrowed, but not by as much as one might have anticipated, as interest rates tended towards the zero bound. The inexorable quest for yield appears to have been matched by equally enthusiastic issuance. The yield-quest also prompted the launch of a plethora of private debt investment products, offering enticing returns in exchange for illiquidity. An even more sinister trend has been the return of many of the products which exacerbated the financial crisis of 2008 – renamed, repackaged and repurposed. These investments lack liquidity and many are leveraged in order to achieve acceptable rates of return.

The chart below shows the 10yr maturity Corporate Baa spread versus US Treasuries since March 2007: –

baa 10yr spread 2007 to 2019

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

The Baa spread has widened since its low of 1.58% in January 2018, but, at 2.46%, it is still only halfway between the low of 2018 and the high of February 2016 (3.6%).

The High Yield Bond spread experienced a more dramatic reaction into the close of 2018, but, since the beginning of January, appears to have regained its composure. The chart shows the period since September 2015: –

high yield spread 10yr 2016 to 2019

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

Nonetheless, this looks more like a technical break-out. The spread may narrow to retest the break of 4% seen on November 15th, but the move looks impulsive. A return to the 3.25% – 3.75% range will be needed to quell market fears of an imminent full-blown credit-crunch.

If the next crisis does emanate from the private debt markets, governments will still be in a position to intervene; the last decade has taught us to accept negative government bond yields as a normal circumstance. Demographic trends have even led long dated interest rate swaps to trade even lower than risk-free assets.

A decade after the financial crisis, markets are fragile and, with an ever increasing percentage of capital market transactions dictated by non-bank liquidity providers, liquidity is ever more transitory. Credit spreads have often been the leading indicator of recessions, they may not provide the whole picture this time, but we should watch them closely during 2019.

Emerging Market Sensitivity to US Monetary Policy – What does the Fed think?

Emerging Market Sensitivity to US Monetary Policy – What does the Fed think?

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Macro Letter – No 107 – 04-01-2019

Emerging Market Sensitivity to US Monetary Policy – What does the Fed think?

  • Emerging market currencies have suffered from US interest rate increases
  • The Dallas Fed proposes reserve/GDP ratio as a simple indicator of stress
  • If tightening is nearly complete their may be buying opportunities in EM stocks

In Macro Letter – No 96 – 04-05-2018 – Is the US exporting a recession? I speculated on whether US tightening of monetary policy and the reversal of QE was causing more difficulty for emerging markets – and even perhaps Europe – than it was for the domestic US economy. I was therefore delighted to receive an update on 9th December from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, entitled, Reserve Adequacy Explains Emerging-Market Sensitivity to U.S. Monetary Policy. The authors, J. Scott Davis, Dan Crowley and Michael Morris, remind readers that Past-Chairman Greenspan made the following observations after the Asian crisis of 1997/98: –

In a 1999 speech to the World Bank, Greenspan summarized the rule stating “that countries should manage their external assets and liabilities in such a way that they are always able to live without new foreign borrowing for up to one year.

Personally I find the choice of one year to be a conveniently arbitrary time period, but the remark was probably more concerned with prudence, after the event, than an attempt to model the sudden-stop over time. It also ties in with the generally agreed definition of a country’s short-term debt, that which has to be repaid or rolled over within a year.

The authors go on to discuss reserve balances: –

Reserves are a safety net to guard against currency instability when major advanced economy central banks tighten policy.

The burning question is, what level of reserves is necessary to insure the stability of one’s currency? The authors suggest that this should be the following equation: –

FX reserves – Short-term foreign-currency denominated external debt + current account deficit

Their solution is to observe daily changes in the interest rate spread between the Corporate Emerging Market Bond Index (CEMBI) and 12 month Fed Fund Futures. To relate this to the level of central bank reserves an ‘interaction term’ is constructed which describes to relationship between reserve levels and credit spreads. An iterative process arrives at a level of reserves relative to a countries GDP. One may argue about the flaws in this simple model, however, it arrives at the conclusion that a 7.1% central bank currency reserve adequacy to GDP ratio is the inflection point: –

To that end, a range of possible threshold values is tested—from reserve adequacy of -10 percent of GDP to 20 percent of GDP. The threshold value most supported is 7.1 percent of GDP. When reserve adequacy is less than that, the sensitivity of the CEMBI spread to changes in fed funds futures is proportional to a country’s reserve adequacy, with the CEMBI spread becoming more sensitive as reserve adequacy declines. Reserve adequacy above 7.1 percent doesn’t much affect CEMBI sensitivity to expectations of U.S. monetary policy— sensitivity is similar whether reserve adequacy is 9 percent or 29 percent.

The chart below shows the level of reserves for selected EM countries since 2010, the colour coding shows in red those countries with reserves less than 7.1% of GDP and in blue those above the threshold: –

heat map of reserve to gdp ratio

Sources: International Monetary Fund; Bank for International Settlements; World Bank; Haver Analytics

China has maintained extremely high reserves despite maintaining fairly tight currency controls. The table above shows PBoC reserves gently declining but they remain well above the 7.1% inflection point.

Observations and recommendations

The Fed model is elegantly simple, it would be interesting to investigate its applicability to smaller developed economies; I imagine a similar pattern may be observed, although the reserve requirement inflection point might be lower, a reflection of the depth of their domestic capital markets. I also wonder about the effect of the absolute level of interest rates and the interest rate differential between one country and its reserve currency comparator – not all emerging markets peg themselves to the US$.

This study could also be applied to frontier economies although it may not necessarily be so effective in measuring risk when the statistical basis of GDP and other statistical measurements is suspect – consider the recent upward revisions of the economic size of countries such as Nigeria and Ghana. This paper from World Economics – Measuring GDP in Africa – March 2016 – has more detail.

As part of an initial screening of EM markets for potential risk, the central bank reserve to GDP ratio is easy to calculate. It will not reveal the exact timing of a currency depreciation but it is an excellent sanity check when one is tempted, for other reasons, to invest.

Last year Turkey and Argentina both saw a sudden depreciation, but, with the Federal Reserve now indicating that its tightening phase may have run its course, now is the time to look for value even among the casualties of the Fed. India is, of course, my long-term EM of choice, but as a shorter-term, speculative, recovery trade Turkish or Argentine bonds are worthy of consideration. With inverted curves, shorter duration bonds are their own reward. Argentine 4yr bonds spiked to yield 36% in November and currently offer a 33% yield. Turkish 1yr bonds are even more beguiling, they spiked to a yield of 32% in October but still offer a 22% return. Momentum still favours a short exposure so there is time to take advantage of these elevated returns.

Divergent – the breakdown of stock market correlations, temp or perm?

Divergent – the breakdown of stock market correlations, temp or perm?

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Macro Letter – No 101 – 31-08-2018

Divergent – the breakdown of stock market correlations, temp or perm?

  • Emerging market stocks have stabilised, helped by the strength of US equities
  • Rising emerging market bond yields are beginning to attract investor attention
  • US tariffs and domestic tax cuts support US economic growth
  • US$ strength is dampening US inflation, doing the work of the Federal Reserve

To begin delving into the recent out-performance of the US stock market relative to its international peers, we need to reflect on the global fiscal and monetary response to the last crisis. After the great financial recession of 2008/2009, the main driver of stock market performance was the combined reduction of interest rates by the world’s largest central banks. When rate cuts failed to stimulate sufficient economic growth – and conscious of the failure of monetary largesse to stimulate the Japanese economy – the Federal Reserve embarked on successive rounds of ‘experimental’ quantitative easing. The US government also played its part, introducing the Troubled Asset Relief Program – TARP. Despite these substantial interventions, the velocity of circulation of money supply plummeted: and, although it had met elements of its dual-mandate (stable prices and full employment), the Fed remained concerned that whilst unemployment declined, average earnings stubbornly refused to rise.

Eventually the US economy began to grow and, after almost a decade, the Federal Reserve, cautiously attempted to reverse the temporary, emergency measures it had been forced to adopt. It was helped by the election of a new president who, during his election campaign, had pledged to cut taxes and impose tariffs on imported goods which he believed were being dumped on the US market.

Europe and Japan, meanwhile, struggled to gain economic traction, the overhang of debt more than offsetting the even lower level of interest rates in these markets. Emerging markets, which had recovered from the crisis of 1998 but adopted fiscal rectitude in the process, now resorted to debt in order to maintain growth. They had room to manoeuvre, having deleveraged for more than a decade, but the spectre of a trade war with the US has made them vulnerable to any strengthening of the reserve currency. They need to raise interest rates, by more than is required to control domestic inflation, in order to defend against capital flight.

In light of these developments, the recent divergence between developed and emerging markets – and especially the outperformance of US stocks – is understandable. US rates are rising, elsewhere in developed markets they are generally not; added to which, US tariffs are biting, especially in mercantilist economies which have relied, for so many years, on exporting to the ‘buyer of last resort’ – namely the US. Nonetheless, the chart below shows that divergence has occurred quite frequently over the past 15 years, this phenomenon is likely to be temporary: –

MSCI Developed vs MSCI EM 24-8-2018 Yardeni Research

Source: MSCI, Yardeni Research

Another factor is at work, which benefits US stocks, the outperformance of the technology sector. As finance costs have fallen, to levels never witnessed in recorded history, it has become easier for zombie companies to survive, crowding out more favourable investment opportunities, but it has also allowed, technology companies, with no expectation of near-term positive earnings, to continue raising capital and servicing their debts for far longer than during the tech-bubble of the 1990’s; added to which, the most successful technology companies, which evolved in the aftermath of the bursting of the tech bubble, have come to dominate their niches, often, globally. Cheap capital has helped prolong their market dominance.

Finally, capital flows have played a significant part. As emerging market stocks came under pressure, international asset managers were quick to redeem. These assets, repatriated most often to the US, need to be reallocated: US stocks have been an obvious destination, supported by a business-friendly administration, tax cuts and tariff barriers to international competition. These factors may be short-term but so is the stock holding period of the average investment manager.

Among the most important questions to consider looking ahead over the next five years are these: –

  1. Will US tariffs start to have a negative impact on US inflation, economic growth and employment?
  2. Will the US$ continue to rise? And, if so, will commodity prices suffer, forcing the Federal Reserve to reverse its tightening as import price inflation collapses?
  3. Will the collapse in the value of the Turkish Lira and the Argentine Peso prompt further competitive devaluation of other emerging market currencies?

In answer to the first question, I believe it will take a considerable amount of time for employment and economic growth to be affected, provided that consumer and business confidence remains strong. Inflation will rise unless the US$ rises faster.

Which brings us to the second question. With higher interest rates and broad-based economic growth, primed by a tax cut and tariffs barriers, I expect the US$ to be well supported. Unemployment maybe at a record low, but the quality of employment remains poor. The Gig economy offers workers flexibility, but at the cost of earning potential. Inflation in raw materials will continued to be tempered by a lack of purchasing power among the vastly expanded ranks of the temporarily and cheaply employed.

Switching to the question of contagion. I believe the ramifications of the recent collapse in the value of the Turkish Lira will spread, but only to vulnerable countries; trade deficit countries will be the beneficiaries as import prices fall (see the table at the end of this letter for a recent snapshot of the impact since mid-July).

At a recent symposium hosted by Aberdeen Standard Asset Management – Emerging Markets: increasing or decreasing risks? they polled delegates about the prospects for emerging markets, these were their findings: –

83% believe risks in EMs are increasing; 17% believe they are decreasing

46% consider rising U.S. interest rates/rising U.S. dollar to be the greatest risk for EMs over the next 12 months; 25% say a slowdown in China is the biggest threat

50% believe Asia offers the best EM opportunities over the next 12 months; 20% consider Latin America to have the greatest potential

64% believe EM bonds offer the best risk-adjusted returns over the next three years; 36% voted for EM equities.

The increase in EM bond yields may be encouraging investors back into fixed income, but as I wrote recently in Macro Letter – No 99 – 22-06-2018 – Where in the world? Hunting for value in the bond market there are a limited number of markets where the 10yr yield offers more than 2% above the base rate and the real-yield is greater than 1.5%. That Turkey has now joined there ranks, with a base rate of 17.75%, inflation at 15.85% and a 10yr government bond yield of 21.03%, should not be regarded as a recommendation to invest. Here is a table looking at the way yields have evolved over the past two months, for a selection of emerging markets, sorted by largest increase in real-yield (for the purposes of this table I’ve ignored the shape of the yield curve): –

EM Real Yield change June to August 2018

Source: Investing.com

Turkish bonds may begin to look good value from a real-yield perspective, but their new government’s approach to the imposition of US tariffs has not been constructive for financial markets: now, sanctions have ensued. With more than half of all Turkish borrowing denominated in foreign currencies, the fortunes of the Lira are unlikely to rebound, bond yields may well rise further too, but Argentina, with inflation at 31% and 10yr (actually it’s a 9yr benchmark bond) yielding 18% there may be cause for hope.

Emerging market currencies have been mixed since July. The Turkish Lira is down another 28%, the Argentinian Peso by 12%, Brazilian Real shed 6.3% and the South African Rand is 5.7% weaker, however the Indonesian Rupiah has declined by just 1.6%. The table below is updated from Macro Letter 100 – 13-07-2018 – Canary in the coal-mine – Emerging market contagion. It shows the performance of currencies and stocks in the period January to mid-July and from mid-July to the 28th August, the countries are arranged by size of economy, largest to smallest: –

EM FX and stocks Jan-Jul and Jul-Aug 2018

Source: Investing.com

It is not unusual to see an emerging stock market rise in response to a collapse in its domestic currency, especially where the country runs a trade surplus with developed countries, but, as the US closes its doors to imports and growth in Europe and Japan stalls, fear could spread. Capital flight may hasten a ‘sudden stop’ sending some of the most vulnerable emerging markets into a sharp and painful recession.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

My prediction of six weeks ago was that Turkey would be the market to watch. Contagion has been evident in the wake of the decline of the Lira and the rise in bond yields, but it has not been widespread. Those countries with twin deficits remain vulnerable. In terms of stock markets Indonesia looks remarkably expensive by many measures, India is not far behind. Russia – and to a lesser extent Turkey – continues to appear cheap… ‘The markets can remain irrational longer than I can remain solvent,’ as Keynes once said.

Emerging market bonds may recover if the Federal Reserve tightening cycle is truncated. This will only occur if the pace of US economic growth slows in 2019 and 2020. Another possibility is that the Trump administration manage to achieve their goal, of fairer trading arrangements with China, Europe and beyond, then the impact of tariffs on emerging market economies may be relatively short-lived. The price action in global stock markets have been divergent recently, but the worst of the contagion may be past. Mexico and the US have made progress on replacing NAFTA. Other countries may acquiesce to the new Trumpian compact.

The bull market in US stocks is now the longest ever recorded, it would be incautious to recommend stocks except for the very long-run at this stage in the cycle. In the near-term emerging market volatility should diminish and over-sold markets are likely to rebound. Medium-term, those countries hardest hit by the recent crisis will languish until the inflationary effects of currency depreciations have fed through. In the Long Run, a number of emerging markets, Turkey included, offer value: they have demographics on their side.