Bull market breather or beginning of the end?

Bull market breather or beginning of the end?

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Macro Letter – No 87 – 24-11-2017

Bull market breather or beginning of the end?

  • Stock markets have generally taken a breather during November
  • High yield and corporate bond yields have risen, but from record lows
  • Since April, the Interest Rate Swap yield curve has flattened far less than Treasuries
  • Global economic growth forecasts continued to be revised higher

Stock markets have finally taken a breather over the last fortnight, although the S&P 500 has made a new, marginal, high this week. Cause for concern has been growing, however, in the bond markets where 2yr US bonds have seen a stately rise in yields. The chart below shows the constant maturity 2yr (blue) and 10yr (red) Treasury Note since January 2016:-

2yr - 10yr Treasury Jan 2016 to present

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

The flattening of the yield curve has led many commentators to predict an imminent recession. Looking beyond the Treasury market, however, the picture looks rather different. The next chart shows the spread of Moody’s Aaa and Baa corporate bond yields over 10yr Treasuries:-

Moodys Aaa and Baa Corps spread over 10yr Bond

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, Moody’s

Spreads have continued to tighten despite the rise in short-term rates. In absolute terms their yields have risen since the beginning of November but this is from record lows. The High Yield Index (purple) shows this more clearly in the chart below:-

Moody Aaa and Baa plus ML HY since Jan 2016

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, Moody’s, Merrill Lynch

A similar spike in yields was evident in November 2016. I believe, in both cases, this may be due to position squaring ahead of the Thanksgiving holidays and the inevitable decline in liquidity typical of December trading. There are differences between 2016 and this year, however, the strength of the high-yield bond bull market was even more pronounced last year but Treasury 2yr Note yields had only bottomed in July, it was too soon to predict a bear market and the Federal Reserve were assuming a less hawkish stance. This year the rising yield of 2yr Notes has been more clear-cut, which may encourage further liquidation over the next few weeks, however, with economic growth forecasts being revised higher, rating agencies have upgraded many corporate issuers. Credit quality appears to be improving even as official interest rates rise and the US Treasury yield curve flattens.

In Macro Letter – No 74 – 07-04-2017 – US 30yr Swaps have yielded less than Treasuries since 2008 – does it matter? I examined the evolution of the interest rate swap (IRS) market over the last few years. I’ve updated the table showing the spread between T-Bonds and IRS across maturities:-

Spread_spreads_April_vs_Nov_2016

Source: Investing.com, The Financials.com

At the 10yr maturity the differential between IRS and Treasuries has barely changed, but elsewhere along the yield curve, compression has occurred, with maturities of less than 10 years narrowing whilst the 30yr IRS negative spread has also compressed, from nearly 40 basis points below Treasuries to just 20 basis points today. In other words, the flattening of the IRS yield curve has been much less dramatic than that of the Treasury yield curve – 2yr/30yr IRS has flattening by 36 basis points since early April, whilst 2yr/30yr Treasuries has flattened by 76 basis points over the same period.

It is important to note that while the IRS curve has been flattening less rapidly it still remains flatter than the Treasury curve (IRS 2’s/30’s = 0.67% Treasury 2’s/30’s = 1.00%). One interpretation is that the IRS curve has been reflecting the weakness of economic growth for a protracted period while the Treasury curve has been artificially steepened by the zero interest rate policy of the Federal Reserve.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

Many commentators have pointed to the flattening of the Treasury yield curve as evidence of an imminent recession, the IRS curve, however, has flattened by far less, partly because it was flatter to begin with. Perhaps the IRS curve reflects the lower trend growth of the US economy since the great recession. An alternative explanation is that it is a response to investment flows and changes in the regulatory regime (as discussed in Macro letter – No74). One thing appears clear, the combination of unconventional central bank policies, such as quantitative easing (QE) and the relentless, investor ‘quest for yield’ over the last decade has distorted the normal signalling power of the bond market.

Economic growth forecasts continue to be revised upwards, prompting central banks to begin reducing the quantum of QE in aggregate. Corporate earnings have generally been rising, credit quality improving. We are nearer the end of the bull market than the beginning, but it is much too soon to predict the end, on the basis of the recent rise in corporate bond yields.

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Linear Talk – Macro Roundup for September 2017

Linear Talk – Macro Roundup for September 2017

TRANSCRIPT

Linear Talk – Macro Roundup – 17th October 2017

Financial market liquidity returned after the thin trading which is typical of August. Stocks and crude oil were higher and the US$ made new lows. But a number of individual markets are noteworthy.

Stocks

The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq 100 both achieved record highs last month (2519 and 6013 respectively). In the case of the S&P this is the sixth straight month of higher closes, even as flow of funds data indicates a rotation into international equity markets.

The Eurostoxx 50 took comfort from the US move, closing the month at its high (3595) yet it remains below the level seen in May (3667) tempered, no doubt, by the strength of the Euro.

German Elections, showing a rise in support for the nationalist AfD and the prospect of an unconstitutional independence referendum in Catalonia, made little impression on European equity markets. The DAX also closed at its high (12,829) but, it too, failed to breach its record for the year of 12,952 witnessed in June.

Spain’s IBEX 35 was more susceptible to the political fracas in its north eastern region, but with other markets rising, it traded in a narrow range, closing at 10,382 on the eve of the referendum, having actually begun the month lower, at 10,329.

The Japanese Nikkei 225 remained well supported but still failed to breach resistance, making a high of 20,481 on the 18th. It has since taken out the old high. This move is supported by stronger economic data and revised growth forecasts from the IMF (released after month end).

Currencies

Currency markets have been dominated by the weakness of the US$ since January. Last month was no exception. The US$ Index made a new low for the year at 90.99 on the 8th but swiftly recovered, testing 93.80 on the 28th. Technically, this low breached the 50% correction of the move from the May 2014 low of 78.93 to the January 2017 high of 103.81. Further support should be found at 88.43 (61.8% retracement) but price action in EURUSD suggests that we may be about to see a reversal of trend.

EURUSD made a new high for the year at 1.2094 on the 8th, amid rumours of ECB intervention. By month end it had weakened, testing 1.1721 on 28th. This has created a technical ‘outside month’ – a higher high and lower low than the previous month. For this pattern to be negated EURUSD must trade back above 1.2094.

EURGBP also witnessed a sharp correction the initial Sterling weakness which was a feature of the summer months. From an opening high of 0.9235 Sterling steadily strengthened to close at 0.8819. Nonetheless, Sterling remains weaker against the Euro than in 2013, amid fears of a ‘No Deal’ on Brexit and continued expectations of an economic slowdown due to the political uncertainty of that exit.

Bonds

US 10yr Treasuries made a new low yield for the year at 2.02% on 8th. This is the lowest yield since the November 2016 election, however, expectations of another rate hike and the announcement of a planned balance sheet reduction schedule from the Federal Reserve, tempered the enthusiasm of the bond bulls. By month end, yields had risen 32bp to close at 2.34%.

In Germany 10yr Bund yields followed a similar trajectory to the US. Making a low of 0.29% on 8th only to increase to 0.52% by 28th. Increasing support for the AfD in the election, was largely ignored.

A trade which has been evident during 2017 has been the convergence of core and peripheral European bond yields. The larger markets such as Italy and Spain have mostly mirrored the price action of Bunds, their spreads widening moderately in the process. The yield on Portuguese and Greek bonds, by contrast has declined substantially, although there was a slight widening during September. Greek 10yr bonds, which yielded 8.05% at the end of January, closed the month at 5.67%. Over the same period 10yr Bunds have seen yields rise by 6bp.

UK 10yr Gilts also had an interesting month. From a low of 0.97% on 7th they reached 1.42% on 28th amid concerns about Brexit, the recent weakness in Sterling (which appears to have been temporarily reversed) and expectations that Bank of England Governor, Carney, will raise UK interest rates for the first time since June 2007. It is tempting to conceive that either the rise in Gilt yields or the recent rise in Sterling is wrong, these trends might both continue. Long Sterling and Short Gilts might be a trade worthy of consideration.

Commodities

Perhaps anticipating the IMF – World Economic Outlook – October update, in which they revised their world growth forecasts for 2017 and 2018 upwards, the price of Brent Crude rallied to a new high for the year on 26th – $59.49/bbl. Aside from expectations of an increase in demand, the effect of two hurricanes in the US and a strengthening of resolve on the part of OPEC to limit production, may be contribution factors.

Copper also hit a new high for the year, trading $3.16/lb on 4th. Technically, however, it made an outside month (higher high and lower low than August) a break above $3.16/lb will negate this bearish formation. I remain concerned that Chinese growth during 2017 has been front-loaded. Industrial metal markets may well consolidate, with a vengeance, before deciding whether increased demand is seasonal or structural.

 

Has Bitcoin come of age?

Has Bitcoin come of age?

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Macro Letter – No 81 – 21-07-2017

Has Bitcoin come of age?

  • Bitcoin (BTC) has tripled and then halved since late March
  • Even at BTCUSD 2000 total issuance amounts to $33bln
  • Historic volatility is high (80%) but implied volatility is higher (97%)
  • The introduction of derivatives and an interest rate curve suggest financial deepening

Bitcoin (BTC) came into existence in January 2009. It was not the first ‘cryptocurrecny’ and there are now an estimated 950 competitors, with new ICO’s ‘Initial Coin Offerings’ appearing almost daily.

BTC’s closest rival in terms of coins in circulation is Ethereum (ETH). The chart below shows how these currencies % of total market capitalisations has waxed and waned:-

Cryptocurrency_Market_Cap_-_Coinmarketcap_com

Source: coinmarketcap.com

I want to concentrate on BTC since it remains the market leader with a total circulation of $33bln (reference BTCUSD 2000) whilst the outstanding issuance of its nearest rival ETH is $16bln.

Below is a four month chart of BTCUSD, its price has fallen by almost one third in just over a month:-

Bitcoin_chart_since_March_2017_-_Bitcoincharts_com

Source: Bitcoincharts.com

The recent price action needs to be seen in a broader context. The price has increased from less than BTCUSD 1000 in late March. On April 1st the Japanese authorities officially recognised BTC for the first time: perhaps, this was the catalyst for its spectacular rise.

The subsequent precipitous decline in price may be related to a proposed software change to be introduced on 21st July, known as SegWit, which is discussed in Cryptocurrency Value: Growing Pains or Something More? By Ryan Shea – here’s the rub:-

SegWit2x software, which introduces SegWit while doubling the block size to 2MB, will be released on July 21. More than 80% of the network hash rate has agreed to run the SegWit2x code, which suggests that the solution to increasing bitcoin’s scalability will be enacted smoothly.

However, it is also possible that the hard fork required to increase the block size leads to a bifurcation of bitcoin into two separate currencies –something that would unquestionably trigger a sharp price correction by undermining the bitcoin brand. (The key date by which a split can be avoided is August 1 when BIP148 activates – this represents the last opportunity for miners to accept Segwit2x and thereby avoid a chain split resulting in the creation of two parallel bitcoins.)

There have been victories and defeats during the evolution of BTC, as it has evolved from an obscure novelty to a serious contender for investors seeking a store of value. The price volatility reflects these uncertainties but it is not demonstrably different from the volatility seen in several commodity markets.

Financial deepening

For a security, commodity or a currency to gain credence, among financial market operators, it needs to offer a store of value, liquidity and convertibility. If can achieve these attributes it should have collateral value, by which I mean, BTC should be capable of being borrowed or lent. This is already happening. Some cryptocurrency exchanges are offering a rate of interest on term deposits and others offer the opportunity for holders of BTC to lend their currency to traders who wish to borrow it, primarily to sell the currency short. Whilst there is not really a ‘risk-free rate’ for BTC an interest rate term structure is beginning to emerge as the table below, derived from a number of exchanges, shows:-

Bitcoin_Interest_Rates_-_July_2017

There may well be other exchanges offering a variety of differing interest rates. but this, I hope, provides a snapshot of the current environment.

The other aspect of financial deepening which will help BTC come of age is the development of a derivatives market. I believe the arrival of exchanges for BTC futures and options is a very positive signal.

The futures exchanges include Okex, CryptoFacilties, BitMEX, BitVC, Coinut and Deribit which also offers options – there may be several others. Today (Monday 17th July) I have taken some snap shots of the futures and options pricing from Deribit.

With the BTCUSD spot price at 2027, the July future (expiration 28th July) traded at a discount of $12 ($2015) this is known in futures parlance as a backwardation. The September contract (expiration 29th September) was, by contrast, trading at a premium, or contango ($2070). Because of high demand from leveraged traders to borrow US$ to buy BTC the forward/futures price of BTCUSD normally trades at a premium (contango). The current environment is unusual, the forced liquidation which has fuelled the recent collapse in the price has led to, what is likely to be a temporary, backwardation. John Jansen – CEO of Deribit – explained the anomaly during a recent interview:-

…when the market is bullish, US$ interest rates spike up and BTC interest rates go down: uses want to borrow USD to buy BTC. In other words, short USD and go long BTC…there is an overall tendency for speculators to be long, therefore, the arbitrage traders are short BTC (lending out their USD) or short the future. USD interest rates are, therefore, normally higher than BTC rates which explains the contango in BTCUSD futures prices.

…on BTC platforms, annualized interest rates on US$ are on average maybe 20%…which would imply that the future should trade at a 20% annualized contango. Arbitrage traders take the other side of the trade…but get paid for their trouble.

Over time I expect the BTC market to become more efficient and the natural relationship for BTC futures should (other things equal) eventually become a small backwardation, reflecting the 1.5% differential between lower US$ and higher BTC interest rates. There are a number of arbitrage opportunities for those who want to dig deeper, but remember credit risk, both in terms of counterparties and exchanges, together with risks surrounding convertibility are nuanced. It may not be the free-lunch you perceive it to be.

This brings me to the BTC option market. The prices in the table below are again from Deribit:-

Deribit_-_Bitcoin_Options_prices_-_17-7-2017_-_Spo (1)

Source: Deribit

I regret the resolution this table is less than I’d like but it shows some important features. Firstly, implied volatility is trading at a substantial premium to historic volatility. The chart below shows the evolution of historic volatility and the BTC price over the last three months:-

Bitcion_price_and_vol_3month_-_Deribit

Source: Deribit

The July option series expires on 28th but the mid-market implied volatility for the September 29th expiration is not significantly lower – implied call volatility stands at 97%, for puts it is 85%. At this stage in the development of the BTC options market, I suspect the majority of the buyers are speculative traders rather than desperate hedgers, but option market-makers are wise to build in a margin of safety given the tendency of the underlying market price to gap lower or higher: delta and gamma hedging is challenging with these price swings. The bid/offer spreads on the options are also wide, another reflection of the nascent nature of the marketplace.

A final measure of immaturity – or perhaps I should say, opportunity – which the option market reveals, may be found in the shape of the volatility surface. The chart below is extrapolated from the mid-market implied volatilities in the table above:-

Bitcoin_Options_Vol_Smile_-_Deribit

Source: Deribit

In a liquid options market one would normally expect the lowest implied volatility to be at-the-money – around the $2000 strike price. In the chart above the nadir of volatility is around the $1900 strike, a level breached briefly last weekend.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

Cryptocurrencies have captured the imagination of many new participants, from geeks to gold bugs, but, as BTC achieves greater legitimacy, the market will deepen and mature. The adoption of scalable technology to deal with the exponential increases in trading volume is a part of this process. The acceptance of distributed ledger technology across other parts of the financial services sector will also be supportive.

From a technical perspective the price of BTC has corrected by around 50% – since March it has risen from under $1000 to $3000 and is now back around $2000 (Monday 17th July). In absolute terms it has fallen by just over one third. This is a healthy price correction, typical of the price action witnessed from time to time in more liquid and established commodity markets: US Natural Gas springs to mind.

As an investment, the argument for holding BTC is more tenuous. It is a currency with no government or central bank to underwrite its value, however, the expansion of the BTC monetary base is strictly controlled, making it more like a hard currency, such as we had during the Bretton Woods era, as opposed to the endlessly debased fiat currencies we are inveigled to consider of value today.

Currencies have no implicit yield but BTCUSD currently offers a theoretical positive carry of around 1.5%. As mentioned above, this relationship is currently distorted by the demand to borrow US$ to buy BTC by leveraged traders. Any investment in an asset which has no earnings and pays no dividend/coupon/interest must by its nature be a trading asset. However, strategies such as high frequency, robotic, liquidity provision and long term, trend following, are among a number of exciting trading opportunities for the active BTC operator.

The fundamentals driving BTC investment revolve around: investor distrust in fiat currencies, loathing of government intervention in asset markets and belief in the tenability of cryptocurrencies as a lasting store of value both from a technical and regulatory perspective. These fundamental drivers of valuation have, in the past and will in the future, cause sudden repricing’s. Outside of these seismic episodes, the price of BTC will be driven by capital flows. With liquid currency pairs like EURUSD, the economic fundamentals of both geographic regions are of equal importance. This is unlikely to be the case for BTC for the foreseeable future. BTC volatility eclipses the majority of its developed currency peers; its true value, whilst it is becoming gradually clearer, will remain ephemeral for some time to come.

The gritty potential of Fire Ice – Saviour or Scourge?

The gritty potential of Fire Ice – Saviour or Scourge?

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Macro Letter – No 80 – 30-06-2017

The gritty potential of Fire Ice – Saviour or Scourge?

  • Estimates of Methane Hydrate reserves vary from 10,000 to 100,000 TCF
  • 100,000 TCF of Methane Hydrate could meet global gas demand for 800 years
  • Cost of extraction is currently above $20/mln BTUs but may soon fall rapidly
  • Japan METI estimate production costs falling to $7/mln BTUs over the next 20 years

On June 6th Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) announced the Resumption of the Gas Production Test under the Second Offshore Methane Hydrate Production Test this is what they said:-

Concerning the second offshore methane hydrate production test, since May 4, 2017, ANRE has been advancing a gas production test in the offshore sea area along Atsumi Peninsula to Shima Peninsula (Daini Atsumi Knoll) using the Deep Sea Drilling Vessel “Chikyu.” However, on May 15, 2017, it decided to suspend the test due to a significant amount of sand entering a gas production well.

In response, ANRE advanced an operation for switching the gas production wells from the first one to the second one for which a different preventive measure against sand entry is in place. Following this effort, on May 31, 2017, it began a depressurization operation and, on June 5, 2017, confirmed the production of gas.

Sand flowing into the well samples has been a gritty problem for the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy – ANRE since 2013. They continue to invest because Japan relies on imports for the majority of its energy needs, especially since the reduction in nuclear capacity after the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011. It has been in the vanguard of research into the commercial extraction of Methane Hydrate or ‘Fire Ice’ as it is more prosaically known.

Methane hydrates are solid ice-like crystals formed from a mixture of methane and water at specific pressure in the deep ocean or at low temperature closer to the surface in permafrost. For a primer on Methane Hydrate and its potential, this November 2012 article from the EIA – Potential of gas hydrates is great, but practical development is far off – may be instructive but a picture is worth a thousand words:-

Methane Hydrate diagram - EIA

Source: US Department of Energy

During the last two months there have been some important developments. Firstly the successful extraction of gas by the Japanese, albeit, they have run into the problem of sand getting into the pipes again, which poses an environmental risk. Secondly China has successfully extracted gas from Methane Hydrate deposits in the South China Sea. This article from the BBC – China claims breakthrough in mining ‘flammable ice’ provides more detail. The Chinese began investment in Fire Ice back in 2006, committing $100mln, not far behind the investment commitments of Japan.

Japan and China are not alone in possessing Methane Hydrate deposits. The map below, which was produced by the US Geological Survey, shows the global distribution of deposits:-

Methane_Hydrate_deposits_-_USGS_-_2011

Source: US Geological Survey

For countries such as Japan, South Korea and India, Methane Hydrate could transform their circumstances, especially in terms of energy security.

Estimates of global reserves of Methane Hydrate range from 10,000 to 100,000trln cubic feet (TCF). In 2015 the global demand for natural gas was 124bln cubic feet. Even at the lower estimate that is 80 years of global supply at current rates of consumption. This could be a game changer for the energy industry.

The challenge is to extract Methane Hydrate efficiently and competitively. Oceanic deposits are normally found at depths of around 1500 metres. Even estimating the size of deposits is difficult in these locations. Alaskan and Siberian permafrost reserves are more easily assessed.

Japan has spent $179mln on research and development but last week METI announced that they would now work in partnership with the US and India. The Nikkei – Japan joining with US, India to tap undersea ‘fire ice’ described it in these terms, the emphasis is mine:-

Under the new plan, Japan will end its lone efforts and pursue cooperation with others. The country has been spending tens of millions of yen per day on its tests. By working with other nations, it seeks to reduce the cost.

A joint trial with the U.S. to produce methane hydrate on land in the state of Alaska is expected to begin as early as next year. Test production with India off that country’s east coast may also kick off in 2018.

The new blueprint will define methane hydrate as an alternative to liquefied natural gas. Based on the assumption that Japan will be paying $11 to $12 per 1 million British thermal units of LNG in the 2030s to 2050s, the plan will set the target production cost for methane hydrate over the period at $6 to $7.

In the shorter term METI hope to increase daily production from around 20,000 cubic metres/day to around 56,000 cubic metres/day which they believe will bring the cost of extraction down to $16/mln BTUs. That is still three times the price of liquid natural gas (LNG).

Here is the latest FERC estimate of landed LNG prices/mln BTUs:-

LNG_prices_-_May_17_FERC

Source: Waterborne Energy, Inc, FERC

You might be forgiven for wondering why the Japanese, despite being the world’s largest importer of LNG, are bothering with Methane Hydrate, but this chart from BP shows the evolution of Natural Gas prices over the last two decades:-

bp-statsreview

Source: BP

Japan was squeezed by rising fuel costs between 2009 and 2012 only to be confronted by the Yen weakening from USDJPY 80 to USDJPY 120 from 2012 to 2014. If Abenomics succeeds and the Yen embarks upon a structural decline, domestically extracted Methane Hydrate may be a saviour.

Cooperating internationally also makes sense for Japan. The US launched a national research and development programme in 1982. They have deep water pilot projects off the coast of South Carolina and in the Gulf of Mexico as well as in the permafrost of the Alaska North Slope.

Technical challenges

As deep sea drilling technology advances the cost of extraction should start to decline but as this 2014 BBC article – Methane hydrate: Dirty fuel or energy saviour? explains, there are a number of risks:-

Quite apart from reaching them at the bottom of deep ocean shelves, not to mention operating at low temperatures and extremely high pressure, there is the potentially serious issue of destabilising the seabed, which can lead to submarine landslides.

A greater potential threat is methane escape. Extracting the gas from a localised area of hydrates does not present too many difficulties, but preventing the breakdown of hydrates and subsequent release of methane in surrounding structures is more difficult.

And escaping methane has serious consequences for global warming – recent studies suggest the gas is 30 times more damaging than CO2.

Given the long term scale of the potential reward, it may seem surprising that the Japanese have only invested $179mln to date, however these projects have been entirely government funded.  Commercial operators are waiting for clarification of the cost of extraction and size of viable reserves before entering the fray. Most analysts suggest commercial production is unlikely before 2025. With the price of Natural Gas depressed, development may be delayed further but in the longer term Methane Hydrate will become a major global source of energy. Like the fracking revolution of the past decade, it is only a matter of when.

The history of fracking can be traced back to 1862 and the first patent was filed in 1865. In the case of Fire Ice, I do not believe we will have to wait that long. Deep sea mining and drilling technologies are advancing quickly in several different arenas. The currently depressed price of LNG is only one factor holding back the development process.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

Predicting the timing of technological breakthroughs is futile, however, the US energy sector is currently witnessing a resurgence in profitability. In their June 16th bulletin, FactSet Research estimated that Q2 profits for the S&P500 will rise 6.5%. They go on to highlight the sector which has led the field, Energy, the emphasis is mine:-

At the sector level, nine sectors are projected to report year-over-year growth in earnings for the quarter. However, the Energy sector is projected to report the highest earnings growth of all eleven sectors at 401%.

This sector is also expected to be the largest contributor to earnings growth for the S&P 500 for Q2 2017. If the Energy sector is excluded, the estimated earnings growth rate for the index for Q2 2017 would fall to 3.6% from 6.5%.

The price of Brent Crude Oil has been falling but the previous investment in technology combined with some aggressive cost cutting in the recent past has been the driving force behind this spectacular increase in Energy Sector profitability. Between 2014 and 2016 Energy Sector capital expenditure fell nearly 40%. I expect a rebound in capex over the next couple of years. It may be too soon for this to spill over to commercial investment in Methane Hydrate, but developments in Japan and China during the past two months suggest a breakthrough may be imminent. The next phase of investment may be about to begin.

Central Bank balance sheet adjustment – a path to enlightenment?

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Macro Letter – No 79 – 16-6-2017

Central Bank balance sheet adjustment – a path to enlightenment?

  • The balance sheets of the big four Central Banks reached $18.4trln last month
  • The Federal Reserve will commence balance sheet adjustment later this year
  • The PBoC has been in the vanguard, its experience since 2015 has been mixed
  • Data for the UK suggests an exit from QE need not precipitate a stock market crash

The Federal Reserve (Fed) is about to embark on a reversal of the Quantitative Easing (QE) which it first began in November 2008. Here is the 14th June Federal Reserve Press Release – FOMC issues addendum to the Policy Normalization Principles and Plans. This is the important part:-

For payments of principal that the Federal Reserve receives from maturing Treasury securities, the Committee anticipates that the cap will be $6 billion per month initially and will increase in steps of $6 billion at three-month intervals over 12 months until it reaches $30 billion per month.

For payments of principal that the Federal Reserve receives from its holdings of agency debt and mortgage-backed securities, the Committee anticipates that the cap will be $4 billion per month initially and will increase in steps of $4 billion at three-month intervals over 12 months until it reaches $20 billion per month.

The Committee also anticipates that the caps will remain in place once they reach their respective maximums so that the Federal Reserve’s securities holdings will continue to decline in a gradual and predictable manner until the Committee judges that the Federal Reserve is holding no more securities than necessary to implement monetary policy efficiently and effectively.

On the basis of their press release, the Fed balance sheet will shrink until it is nearer $2.5trln versus $4.4trln today. If they stick to their schedule that should take until the end of 2021.

The Fed is likely to be followed by the other major Central Banks (CBs) in due course. Their combined deleveraging is unlikely to go unnoticed in financial markets. What are the likely implications for bonds and stocks?

To begin here are a series of charts which tell the story of the Central Bankers’ response to the Great Recession:-

Central_Bank_Balance_Sheets_-_Yardeni_May_2017

 Source: Yardeni Research, Haver Analytics

Since 2008 the balance sheets of the four major CBs have grown from around $6.5trln to $18.4trln. In the case of the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), a reduction began in 2015. This took the form of a decline in its foreign exchange reserves in order to support the weakening RMB exchange rate against the US$. The next chart shows the path of Chinese FX reserves and the Shanghai Stock index since the beginning of 2014. Lagged response or coincidence? Your call:-

China FX reserves and stocks 2014 - 2017

Source: Trading Economics

At a global level, the PBoC balance sheet reduction has been more than offset by the expansion of the balance sheets of the Bank of Japan (BoJ) and European Central Bank (ECB), however, a synchronous balance sheet contraction by all the major CBs is likely to be of considerable concern to financial market participants globally.

An historical perspective

Have CB balance sheets ever been as large as they are today? Indeed they have. The chart below which terminates in 2011, shows the evolution of the Fed balance sheet since its inception in 1913:-

Federal_Reserve_Balance_Sheet_-_History_-_St_Louis

Source: Federal Reserve, Haver Analytics

The increase in the size of the Fed balance sheet during the period of the Great Depression and WWII was related to a number of factors including: gold inflows, what Friedman and Schwartz termed “precautionary demand” for reserves by commercial banks, lack of alternative assets, changes in reserve requirements, expansion of income and war financing.

For a detailed review of all these factors, this paper from 2016 – How was the Quantitative Easing Program of the 1930s Unwound? By Matthew Jaremski and Gabriel Mathy – makes fascinating reading, here’s the abstract:-

Outside of the recent past, excess reserves have only concerned policymakers in one other period: The Great Depression of the 1930s. This historical episode thus provides the only guidance about the Fed’s current predicament of how to unwind from the extensive Quantitative Easing program. Excess reserves in the 1930s were never actively unwound through a reduction in the monetary base. Nominal economic growth swelled required reserves while an exogenous reduction in monetary gold inflows due to war embargoes in Europe allowed banks to naturally reduce their excess reserves. Excess reserves fell rapidly in 1941 and would have unwound fully even without the entry of the United States into World War II. As such, policy tightening was at no point necessary and likely was even responsible for the 1937-1938 recession.

During the period from April 1937 to April 1938 the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell from 194 to 100. Monetarists, such as Friedman, blamed the recession on a tightening of money supply in 1936 and 1937. I don’t believe Friedman’s censure is lost on the FOMC today: past Fed Chair, Ben Bernanke, is regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on the causes and policy errors of the Great Depression.

But is the size of a CB balance sheet a determinant of the direction of the stock market? A richer data set is to be found care of the Bank of England (BoE). They provide balance sheet data going back to 1694, although the chart below, care of FRED, starts in 1701:-

BoE_Balance_Sheet_to_GDP_since_1701_-_BoE_and_FRED

Source: Federal Reserve, Bank of England

The BoE really only became a CB, in the sense we might recognise today, as a result of the Banking Act of 1844 which granted it a monopoly on the issuance of bank notes. The chart below shows the performance of the FT-All Share Index since 1700 (please ignore the reference to the Pontifical change, this was the only chart, offering a sufficiently long history, which I was able to discover in the public domain):-

UK-equities-1700-2012 Stockmarket Almanac

Source: The Stock Almanac

The first crisis to test the Bank’s resolve was the panic of 1857. During this period the UK stock market barely changed whilst the BoE balance sheet expanded by 21% between 1857 and 1859 to reach 10.5% of GDP: one might, however, argue that its actions were supportive.

The next crisis, the recession of 1867, was precipitated by the end of the American Civil War and, of more importance to the financial system, the demise of Overund and Gurney, “the Bankers Bank”, which was declared insolvent in 1866. Perhaps surprisingly, the stock market remained relatively calm and the BoE balance sheet expanded at a more modest 20% over the two years to 1858.

Financial markets became a little more interconnected during the Panic of 1873. This commenced with the “Gründerzeit” or “Founders” crash on the Vienna Stock Exchange. It sent shockwaves around the world. The UK stock market declined by 31% between 1873 and 1878. The BoE may have exacerbated the decline, its balance sheet contracted by 14% between 1873 and 1875. Thereafter the trend reversed, with an expansion of 30% over the next four years.

I am doubtful about the BoE balance sheet contraction between 1873 and 1875 being a policy mistake. 1873 was in fact the beginning of the period known as the Long Depression. It lasted until 1896. Nine years before the end of this 20 year depression the stock market bottomed (1887). It then rose by 74% over the next 11 years.

The First World War saw the stock market decline, reaching its low in 1917. From juncture it rallied, entirely ignoring the post-war recession of 1919 to 1921. Its momentum was only curtailed by the Great Crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression of 1930-1931.

Part of the blame for the severity of the Great Depression may be levelled at the BoE, its balance sheet expanded by 77% between 1928 and 1929. It then remained relatively stable despite Sterling’s departure from the Gold Standard in 1931 and only began to expand again in 1933 and 1934. Its balance sheet as a percentage of GDP was by this time at its highest since 1844, due to the decline in GDP rather than any determined effort to expand the balance sheet on the part of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street. At the end of 1929 its balance sheet stood at £537mln, by the end of 1934 it had reached £630mln, an increase of just 17% over five traumatic years. The UK stock market, which had bottomed in 1931 – the level it had last traded in 1867 – proceeded to rally for the next five years.

Adjustment without tightening

History, on the basis of the data above, is ambivalent about the impact the size of a CB’s balance sheet has on the financial markets. It is but one of the factors which influences monetary conditions, the others are the availability of credit and its price.

George Selgin described the Fed’s situation clearly in a post earlier this year for The Cato Institute – On Shrinking the Fed’s Balance Sheet. He begins by looking at the Fed pre-2008:-

…the Fed got by with what now seems like a modest-sized balance sheet, the liabilities of which consisted mainly of circulating Federal Reserve notes, supplemented by Treasury and GSE deposit balances and by bank reserve balances only slightly greater than the small amounts needed to meet banks’ legal reserve requirements. Because banks held few excess reserves, it took only modest adjustments to the size of the Fed’s balance sheet, achieved by means of open-market purchases or sales of short-term Treasury securities, to make credit more or less scarce, and thereby achieve the Fed’s immediate policy objectives. Specifically, by altering the supply of bank reserves, the Fed could  influence the federal funds rate — the rate banks paid other banks to borrow reserves overnight — and so keep that rate on target.

Then comes the era of QE – the sea-change into something rich and strange. The purchase of long-term Treasuries and Mortgage Backed Securities is funded using the excess reserves of the commercial banks which are held with the Fed. As Selgin points out this means the Fed can no longer use the federal funds rate to influence short-term interest rates (the emphasis is mine):-

So how does the Fed control credit now? Instead of increasing or reducing the availability of credit by adding to or subtracting from the supply of Fed deposit balances, the Fed now loosens or tightens credit by controlling financial institutions’ demand for such balances using a pair of new monetary control devices. By paying interest on excess reserves (IOER), the Fed rewards banks for keeping balances beyond what they need to meet their legal requirements; and by making overnight reverse repurchase agreements (ON-RRP) with various GSEs and money-market funds, it gets those institutions to lend funds to it.

Between them the IOER rate and the implicit ON-RRP rate define the upper and lower limits, respectively, of an effective federal funds rate target “range,” because most of the limited trading that now goes on in the federal funds market consists of overnight lending by GSEs (and the Federal Home Loan Banks especially), which are not eligible for IOER, to ordinary banks, which are. By raising its administered rates, the Fed encourages other financial institutions to maintain larger balances with it, instead of trading those balances for other interest-earning assets. Monetary tightening thus takes the form of a reduced money multiplier, rather than a reduced monetary base.

Selgin goes on to describe this as Confiscatory Credit Control:-

…Because instead of limiting the overall availability of credit like it did in the past, the Fed now limits the credit available to other prospective borrowers by grabbing more for itself, which it then passes on to the U.S. Treasury and to housing agencies whose securities it purchases.

The good news is that the Fed can adjust its balance sheet with relative ease (emphasis mine):-

It’s only because the Fed has been paying IOER at rates exceeding those on many Treasury securities, and on short-term Treasury securities especially, that banks (especially large domestic and foreign banks) have chosen to hoard reserves. Even today, despite rate increases, the IOER rate of 75 basis points exceeds yields on most Treasury bills.  Were it not for this difference, banks would trade their excess reserves for Treasury securities, causing unwanted Fed balances to be passed around like so many hot-potatoes, and creating new bank deposits in the process. Because more deposits means more required reserves, banks would eventually have no excess reserves to dispose of.

Phasing out ON-RRP, on the other hand, would eliminate the artificial boost that program has been giving to non-bank financial institutions’ demand for Fed balances.

Because phasing out ON-RRP makes more reserves available to banks, while reducing IOER rates reduces banks’ own demand for such reserves, both policies are expansionary. They don’t alter the total supply of Fed balances. Instead they serve to raise the money multiplier by adding to banks’ capacity and willingness to expand their own balance sheets by acquiring non-reserve assets. But this expansionary result is a feature, not a bug: as former Fed Vice Chairman Alan Blinder observed in December 2013, the greater the money multiplier, the more the Fed can shrink its balance sheet without over-tightening. In principle, so long as it sells enough securities, the Fed can reduce its ON-RRP and IOER rates, relative to prevailing market rates, without missing its ultimate policy targets.

Selgin expands, suggesting that if the Fed decide to announce a fixed schedule for adjustment (which they have) then they may employ another tool from their armoury, the Term Deposit Facility:-

…to the extent that the Fed’s gradual asset sales fail to adequately compensate for a multiplier revival brought about by its scaling-back of ON-RRP and IOER, the Fed can take up the slack by sufficiently raising the return on its Term Deposits.

And the Fed’s federal funds rate target? What happens to that? In the first place, as the Fed scales back on ON-RRP and IOER, by allowing the rates paid through these arrangements to decline relative to short-term Treasury rates, its administered rates will become increasingly irrelevant. The same changes, together with concurrent assets sales, will make the effective federal funds rate more relevant, by reducing banks’ excess reserves and increasing overnight borrowing. While the changes are ongoing, the Fed would continue to post administered rates; but it could also revive its pre-crisis practice of announcing a single-valued effective funds rate target. In time, the latter target could once again be more-or-less precisely met, making it unnecessary for the Fed to continue referring to any target range.

With unemployment falling and economic growth steady the Fed are expected to tighten monetary policy further but the balance sheet adjustment needs to be handled carefully, conditions may look benign but the Fed ultimately holds more of the nation’s deposits than at any time since the end of WWII. Bank lending (last at 1.6%) is anaemic at best, as the chart below makes clear:-

Commercial_Bank_Loan_Creation_US

Source: Federal Reserve, Zero Hedge

The global perspective

The implications of balance sheet adjustment for the US have been discussed in detail but what about the rest of the world? In an FT Article – The end of global QE is fast approaching – Gavyn Davies of Fulcrum Asset Management makes some projections. He sees global QE reaching a plateau next year and then beginning to recede, his estimate for the Fed adjustment is slightly lower than the schedule announced last Wednesday:-

Fulcrum_Projections_for_tapering

Source: FT, Fulcrum Asset Management

He then looks at the previous liquidity injections relative to GDP – don’t forget 2009 saw the world growth decline by -0.8%:-

Fulcrum CB Liquidity Injections - March 2017 forecast

Source: IMF, National Data, Haver Analytics, Fulcrum Asset Management

It is worth noting that the contraction of Emerging Market CB liquidity during 2016 was principally due to the PBoc reducing their foreign exchange reserves. The ECB reduction of 2013 – 2015 looks like a policy mistake which they are now at pains to rectify.

Finally Davies looks at the breakdown by institution. The BoJ continues to expand its balance sheet, rising above 100% of GDP, whilst eventually the ECB begins to adjust as it breaches 40%:-

Fulcrum Estimates of CB Balance sheets - March 2017 

Source: Haver Analytics, Fulcrum Asset Management

I am not as confident as Davies about the ECB’s ability to reverse QE. They were never able to implement a European equivalent of the US Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, which incorporated the Troubled Asset Relief Program – TARP and the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Europe’s banking system remains inherently fragile.

ProPublica – Bailout Costs – gives a breakdown of cost of the US bailout. The policies have proved reasonable successful and at little cost the US tax payer. Since initiation in 2008 outflows have totalled $623.4bln whilst the inflows amount to $708.4bln: a net profit to the US government of $84.9bln. Of course, with $455bln of troubled assets still outstanding, there is still room for disappointment.

The effect of TARP was to unencumber commercial banks. Freed of their NPL’s they were able to provide new credit to the real economy once more. European banks remain saddled with an abundance of NPL’s; her governments have been unable to agree on a path to enlightenment.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

The chart below shows a selection of CB balance sheets as a percentage of GDP. It is up to the end of 2016:-

centralbankbalancesheetgdpratios

SNB: Swiss National Bank, BoC: Bank of Canada, CBC: Central Bank of Taiwan, Riksbank: Swedish National Bank

Source: National Inflation Association

The BoJ has since then expanded its balance sheet to 95.5% and the ECB, to 32%. With the Chinese economy still expanding (6.9% March 2017) the PBoC has seen its ratio fall to 45.4%.

More important than the sheer scale of CB balance sheets, the global expansion has changed the way the world economy works. Combined CB balance sheets ($22trln) equal 21.5% of global GDP ($102.4trln). The assets held are predominantly government and agency bonds. The capital raised by these governments is then invested primarily in the public sector. The private sector has been progressively crowded out of the world economy ever since 2008.

In some ways this crowding out of the private sector is similar to the impact of the New Deal era of 1930’s America. The private sector needs to regain pre-eminence but the transition is likely to be slow and uneven. The tide may be about to turn but the chance for policy mistakes, as flows reverse, is extremely high.

For stock markets the transition to QT – quantitative tightening – may be neutral but the risks are on the downside. For government bond markets there are similar concerns: who will buy the bonds the CBs need to sell? If interest rates normalise will governments be forced to tighten their belts? Will the private sector be in a position to fill the vacuum created by reduced public spending, if they do?

There is an additional risk. Yield curve flattening. Banks borrow short and lend long. When yield curves are positively sloped they can quickly recapitalise their balance sheets: when yield curves are flat, or worse still inverted, they cannot. Increases in reserve requirements have made government bonds much more attractive to hold than other securities or loans. The Commercial Bank Loan Creation chart above may be seen as a warning signal. The mechanism by which CBs foster credit expansion in the real economy is still broken. A tapering or an adjustment of CB balance sheets, combined with a tightening of monetary policy, may have profound unintended consequences which will be magnified by a severe shakeout in over-extended stock and bond markets. Caveat emptor.