The Pension Fund Apocalypse
This is the first of two articles about negative real interest rates.
This is the first of two articles about negative real interest rates.
Macro Letter – No 120 – 13-09-2019
Uncertainty and the countdown to the US presidential elections
These are just a few of the news stories which drove financial markets during the summer: –
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: –
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.
As you may have seen elsewhere I have recently been invited to contribute to AIER. This article was first published in June.
AIER also operate the Bastiat Society, a global network of business professionals committed to advancing free trade, individual freedom, and responsible governance. To find a chapter near you please click on the link below: –
Macro Letter – No 119 – 23-08-2019
Chinese currency manipulation – Trump’s petard
According to the US President, the Chinese are an official currency manipulator. Given that they have never relaxed their exchange controls, one must regard Trump’s statement as rhetoric or ignorance. One hopes it is the former.
Sino-US relations have now moved into a new phase, however, on August 5th, after another round of abortive trade discussions, the US Treasury officially designated China a currency manipulator too. This was the first such outburst from the US Treasury in 25 years. One has to question their motivation, as recently as last year the PBoC was intervening to stem the fall in their currency against the US$, hardly an uncharitable act towards the American people. As the Economist – The Trump administration labels China a currency manipulator – described the situation earlier this month (the emphasis is mine): –
After the Trump administration’s announcement of tariffs on August 1st added extra pressure towards devaluation, it seems that the PBOC chose to let market forces work. The policymaker most obviously intervening to push the yuan down against the dollar is Mr Trump himself.
China does not meet the IMF definition of a ‘currency manipulator’ but the US Treasury position is more nuanced. CFR – Is China Manipulating Its Currency? Explains, although they do not see much advantage to the US: –
Legally speaking, the issue of whether China meets the standard for manipulation set out in U.S. law is complex. The 2015 Trade Enforcement Act sets out three criteria a country must meet to be tagged a manipulator: a bilateral surplus with the United States, an overall current account surplus, and one-sided intervention in the foreign-exchange market to suppress the value of its currency. The Treasury Department’s most recent report [PDF] concluded that China only met the bilateral surplus criterion.
But the 1988 Omnibus Foreign Trade and Competiveness Act [PDF] has a different definition of manipulation, saying it can emerge either from action to “[impede] effective balance of payments adjustments” or action to “[gain an] unfair competitive advantage in international trade.” The United States is likely to argue that the recent depreciation was intended to give Chinese exports an edge. China would counter that it has no obligation to resist market pressures pushing the yuan down when the United States implements tariffs that hurt China’s exports.
In the past (2003-2013) China has intervened aggressively to stem the rise of its currency, since then it has intervened in the opposite direction, to the benefit of the US. Earlier this month it briefly appeared to withdrawn from the foreign exchange market, allowing the markets to set their own level based on perceptions of risk. As the Peterson Institute – Trump’s Attack on China’s Currency Policy – puts it: –
This depreciation is due to market forces: Trump’s tariffs push the dollar up against all currencies, the Chinese currency weakens as a result of the trade hit, and China will undoubtedly lower its interest rates to counter that slowdown. There is no evidence that China has sold renminbi for dollars to overtly push its exchange rate down.
Since the inflammatory pop above 7 Yuan to the US$, China has sought to calm frayed nerves, indicating that it wishes to maintain the US$ exchange rate at around current levels: nonetheless, a pre-US election sabre has been rattled.
Speculation about the next move by the Trump administration is, as always, rife, but the consensus suggests the ‘currency manipulator’ label may be used to justify an escalation of US tariffs on Chinese goods. In this new scenario, every tariff increase by the US, will precipitate a decline in the Yuan; it will be a zero-sum game, except for the US importer who will have to foot the bill for the tariffs or pass them on to the consumer. Either a weaker Yuan will mitigate their effect or the tariffs will bite, leading to either a slowdown in consumption or higher prices, or possibly both.
Barring a weaker Yuan, this sequence of events could also threaten the independence of the Federal Reserve. The central bank will be torn between the opposing policies required to meet the dual mandate of price stability and full employment. In the worst case, prices will be rise as employment falls.
Current estimates of the increased cost of tariffs to the US economy are in the region of 10%, yet during the past year the Yuan has already declined from 6.3 to 7 (11%). As the chart below shows, a move back towards 8 Yuan to the US$ cannot be ruled out, enough to significantly eclipse the impact of US tariffs to date: –
Source: Trading Economics
Conclusions and investment opportunities
In the run-up to the November 2020 presidential election, US foreign policy towards China is likely to remain confrontational. China, as always, has the ability to play the long game, although the political tensions evident in Hong Kong may highjack even their gradualist agenda. Either way, the Yuan is liable to weaken, pressurising other Asian currencies to follow suit. The US$ may appear relatively strong of late but, as the chart below shows, it is more than 50% below its 1980’s peak: –
Source: Trading Economics
A move above the 2016 highs at 103 would see the US$ Index push towards the early 2000’s highs at 120.
The US bond yield curve has been steadily inverting, a harbinger, some say, of a recession. The other interpretation is that US official rates are much too high. Relative to other developed nations US Treasury yields certainly offer value. I expect the Fed to cut rates and, if inflation rises above the 2% level, expect them to point to tariff increases as a one-off inflation effect. They will choose to target full-employment over price stability.
Barring a catastrophe in Hong Kong, followed a US military response (neither of which can be entirely ruled out) any risk-off weakening of stocks, offers a buying opportunity. Further down the road, when US 10yr bond yields turn negative, stocks will trade on significantly higher multiples.
Macro Letter – No 118 – 12-06-2019
Low yield, no yield, negative yield – Buy now but don’t forget to sell
To many onlookers, since the great financial crisis, the world of fixed income securities has become an alien landscape. Yields on government bonds have fallen steadily across all developed markets. As the chart below reveals, there is now a record US$13trln+ of negative yielding fixed income paper, most of it issued by the governments’ of Switzerland, Japan and the Eurozone: –
The percentage of Eurozone government bonds with negative yields is now well above 50% (Eur4.3trln) and more than 35% trades with yields which are more negative than the ECB deposit rate (-0,40%). If one adds in investment grade corporates the total amount of negative yielding bonds rises to Eur5.3trln. Earlier this month, German 10yr Bund yields dipped below the deposit rate for the first time, amid expectations that the ECB will cut rates by another 10 basis points, perhaps as early as September.
The idea that one should make a long-term investment in an asset which will, cumulatively, return less at the end of the investment period, seems nonsensical, except in a deflationary environment. With most central banks committed to an inflation target of around 2%, the Chinese proverb, ‘we live in interesting times,’ springs to mind, yet, negative yielding government bonds are now ‘normal times’ whilst, to the normal fixed income investor, they are anything but interesting. As Keynes famously observed, ‘Markets can remain irrational longer than I can remain solvent.’ Do not fight this trend, yields will probably turn more negative, especially if the ECB cuts rates and a global recession arrives regardless.
Today, government and investment grade corporate debt has been joined by a baker’s dozen of short-dated high yield Euro names. This article from IFR – ‘High-yield’ bonds turn negative – explains: –
About 2% of the euro high-yield universe is now negative yielding, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
That percentage would rise to 10% if average yields fall by a further 35bp, said Barnaby Martin, European credit strategist at the bank.
He said the first signs of negative yielding high-yield bonds emerged about two weeks ago in the wake of Mario Draghi’s speech in Sintra where the ECB president hinted at a further dose of bond buying via the central bank’s corporate sector purchase programme. There are now more than 10 high-yield bonds in negative territory…
The move to negative yields for European high-yield credits is unprecedented; it didn’t even happen in 2016 when the ECB began its bond buying programme.
During Q4, 2018, credit spreads widened (and stock markets declined) amid expectations of further Federal Reserve tightening and an end to ECB QE. Now, stoked by fears of a global recession, rate expectation have reversed. The Fed are likely to ease, perhaps as early as this month. The ECB, under their new broom, Christine Lagarde, is expected to embrace further QE. The corporate sector purchase program (CSPP) which commenced in June 2016, already holds Eur177.8bln of corporate bonds, but increased corporate purchases seem likely; it is estimated that the ECB holds between 25% and 30% of the outstanding Eurozone government bond in issue, near to its self-imposed ceiling of 33%. Whilst the amount in issues is less, the central bank has more flexibility with Supranational and Euro denominated non-EZ Sovereigns (50%) and greater still with corporates (70%). In this benign interest rate environment, a continued compression of credit spreads is to be expected.
Yield compression has been evident in Eurozone government bonds for decades, but now a change in relationship is starting become evident. Even if the ECB does not increase the range of corporate bonds it purchases, its influence, like the rising tide, will float all ships. Bund yields are likely to remain most negative and the government obligations of Greece, the least, but, somewhere between these two poles, corporate bonds will begin to assume the mantle of the ‘nearly risk-free.’ With many Euro denominated high-yield issues trading below the yield offered for comparable maturity Italian BTPs, certain high-yield corporate credit is a de facto alternative to poorer quality government paper.
The chart below is a snap-shot of the 3m to 3yr Eurozone yield curve. The solid blue line shows the yield of AAA rated bonds, the dotted line, an average of all bonds: –
It is interesting to note that the yield on AAA bonds, with a maturity of less than two years, steadily becomes less negative, whilst the aggregated yield of all bonds continues to decline.
The broader high-yield market still offers positive yield but the Eurozone is likely to be the domicile of choice for new issuers, since Euro high-yield now trades at increasingly lower yields than the more liquid US market, the liquidity tail is wagging the dog: –
Source: Bloomberg, Barclays
The yield compression within the Eurozone has been more dramatic but it has been mirrored by the US where the spread between BBB and BB narrowed to a 12 year low of 60 basis points this month.
Wither away the dealers?
Forgotten, amid the inexorable bond rally, is dealer liquidity, yet it is essential, especially when investors rush for the exit simultaneously. For corporate bond market-makers and brokers the impact of QE has been painful. If the ECB is a buyer of a bond (and they pre-announce their intentions) then the market is guaranteed to rise. Liquidity is stifled in a game of devil take the hindmost. Alas, non-eligible issues, which the ECB does not deign to buy, find few natural buyers, so few institutions can justify purchases when credit default risk remains under-priced and in many cases the yield to maturity is negative.
An additional deterrent is the cost of holding an inventory of fixed income securities. Capital requirements for other than AAA government paper have increased since 2009. More damaging still is the negative carry across a wide range of instruments. In this environment, liquidity is bound to be impaired. The danger is that the underlying integrity of fixed income markets has been permanently impaired, without effective price intermediation there is limited price discovery: and without price discovery there is a real danger that there will be no firm, ‘dealable’ prices when they are needed most.
In this article from Bloomberg – A Lehman Survivor Is Prepping for the Next Credit Downturn – the interviewee, Pilar Gomez-Bravo of MFS Investment Management, discusses the problem of default risk in terms of terms of opacity (the emphasis is mine): –
Over a third of private high-yield companies in Europe, for example, restrict access to financial data in some way, according to Bloomberg analysis earlier this year. Buyers should receive extra compensation for firms that curb access to earnings with password-protected sites, according to Gomez-Bravo.
Borrowers still have the upper hand in the U.S. and Europe. Thank cheap-money policies and low defaults. Speculation the European Central Bank is preparing for another round of quantitative easing is spurring the rally — and masking fragile balance sheets.
Borrowers still have the upper hand indeed, earlier this month Italy issued a Eur3bln tranche of its 2.8% coupon 50yr BTP; there were Eur17bln of bids from around 200 institutions (bid/cover 5.66, yield 2.877%). German institutions bought 35% of the issue, UK investors 22%. The high bid/cover ratio is not that surprising, only 1% of Euro denominated investment grade paper yields more than 2%.
I am not alone in worrying about the integrity of the bond markets in the event of another crisis, last September ESMA – Liquidity in EU fixed income markets – Risk indicators and EU evidence concluded: –
Episodes of short-term volatility and liquidity stress across several markets over the past few years have increased concerns about the worsening of secondary market liquidity, in particular in the fixed income segment…
…our findings show that market liquidity has been relatively ample in the sovereign segment, potentially also due to the effects of supportive economic policies over more recent years. This is different from our findings in the corporate bond market, where in recent years we did not find systematic and significant drop in market liquidity but we observed episodes of decreasing market liquidity when market conditions deteriorated…
We find that in the sovereign bond segment, bonds that have a benchmark status and are characterised by larger outstanding amounts tend to be more liquid while market volatility is negatively related to market liquidity. Outstanding amounts are the main bond-level drivers in the corporate bond segment…
With reference to corporate bond markets, the sensitivity of bond liquidity to bond-specific and market factors is larger when financial markets are under stress. In particular, bonds characterised by more volatile market liquidity are found to be more vulnerable in periods of market stress. This empirical result is consistent with the market liquidity indicators developed for corporate bonds pointing at episodes of decreasing market liquidity when wider market conditions deteriorate.
ESMA steer clear of discussing negative yields and their impact on the profitability of market-making, but the BIS annual economic report, published last month, has no such qualms (the emphasis is mine): –
Household debt has reached new historical peaks in a number of economies that were not at the heart of the GFC, and house price growth has in many cases stalled. For a group of advanced small open economies, average household debt amounted to 101% of GDP in late 2018, over 20 percentage points above the pre-crisis level… Moreover, household debt service ratios, capturing households’ principal and interest payments in relation to income, remained above historical averages despite very low interest rates…
…corporate leverage remained close to historical highs in many regions. In the United States in particular, the ratio of debt to earnings in listed firms was above the previous peak in the early 2000s. Leverage in emerging Asia was still higher, albeit below the level immediately preceding the 1990s crisis. Lending to leveraged firms – i.e. those borrowing in either high-yield bond or leveraged loan markets – has become sizeable. In 2018, leveraged loan issuance amounted to more than half of global publicly disclosed loan issuance loans excluding credit lines.
… following a long-term decline in credit quality since 2000, the share of issuers with the lowest investment grade rating (including financial firms) has risen from around 14% to 45% in Europe and from 29% to 36% in the United States. Given widespread investment grade mandates, a further drop in ratings during an economic slowdown could lead investors to shed large amounts of bonds quickly. As mutual funds and other institutional investors have increased their holdings of lower-rated debt, mark-to-market losses could result in fire sales and reduce credit availability. The share of bonds with the lowest investment grade rating in investment grade corporate bond mutual fund portfolios has risen, from 22% in Europe and 25% in the United States in 2010 to around 45% in each region.
How financial conditions might respond depends also on how exposed banks are to collateralised loan obligations (CLOs). Banks originate more than half of leveraged loans and hold a significant share of the least risky tranches of CLOs. Of these holdings, US, Japanese and European banks account for around 60%, 30% and 10%, respectively…
…the concentration of exposures in a small number of banks may result in pockets of vulnerability. CLO-related losses could reveal that the search-for-yield environment has led to an underpricing and mismanagement of risks…
In the euro area, the deterioration of the growth outlook was more evident, and so was its adverse impact on an already fragile banking sector. Price-to-book ratios fell further from already depressed levels, reflecting increasing concerns about banks’ health…
Unfortunately, bank profitability has been lacklustre. In fact, as measured, for instance, by return-on-assets, average profitability across banks in a number of advanced economies is substantially lower than in the early 2000s. Within this group, US banks have performed considerably better than those in the euro area, the United Kingdom and Japan…
…persistently low interest rates and low growth reduce profits. Compressed term premia depress banks’ interest rate margins from maturity transformation. Low growth curtails new loans and increases the share of non-performing ones. Therefore, should growth decline and interest rates continue to remain low following the pause in monetary policy normalisation, banks’ profitability could come under further pressure.
Conclusion and investment opportunities
Back in 2006, when commodity investing, as part of a diversified portfolio, was taking the pension fund market by storm, I gave a series of speeches in which I beseeched fund managers to consider carefully before investing in commodities, an asset class which had for more than 150 years exhibited a negative expected real return.
An astonishingly large percentage of fixed income securities are exhibiting similar properties today. My advice, then for commodities and today, for fixed income securities, is this, ‘By all means buy, but remember, this is a trading asset, its long-term expected return is negative; in other words, please, don’t forget to sell.’
Macro Letter – No 117 – 28-06-2019
Interest Rates, Global Value Chains and Bank Reserve Requirements
In a recent speech, Hyun Song Shin, Head of Research at the BIS, discussed – What is behind the recent slowdown? The speech focused on the weakening of global value chains (GVC’s) in manufactured goods. The manufacturing sector is critical, since it accounts for 70% of global merchandise trade: –
During the heyday of globalisation in the late 1980s and 1990s, trade grew at twice the pace of GDP. In turn, trade growth in manufactured goods was driven by the growing importance of multinational firms and the development of GVCs that knit together the production activity of firms around the world.
The chart below reveals the transformation of the world economy over the past 17 years: –
Source: BIS, X Li, B Meng and Z Wang, “Recent patterns of global production and GVC participation”, in D Dollar (ed), Global Value Chain Development Report 2019, World Trade Organization et al.
Hyun’s next chart tracks the sharp reversal in the relationship between world trade and GDP growth as a result of the Great Financial Crisis (GFC): –
Sources: IMF, World Economic Outlook; World Trade Organization; Datastream; national data; BIS calculations
The important point, highlighted by Hyun, is that the retrenchment in trade occurred almost a decade before the trade war began. China, growing at 6% plus, has captured an increasing share of global trade at the expense of the developed nations, most notably the US. Europe went through a similar transition during the second half of the 19th century, as the US transformed from an agrarian to an industrial society.
Returning to the present, supporting GVCs is capital intensive. Historically low interest rates have allowed these chains to flourish, but the recent reversal of interest rate policy by the Federal Reserve has caused structural cracks to emerge in the edifice. The BIS describes the situation for multi-national manufacturing firms in this way (the emphasis is mine): –
…firms enmeshed in global value chains could be compared to jugglers with many balls in the air at the same time. Long and intricate GVCs have many balls in the air, necessitating greater financial resources to knit the production process together. More accommodative financial conditions then act like weaker gravity for the juggler, who can throw many more balls into the air, including large balls that represent intermediate goods with large embedded value. However, when the shadow price of credit rises, the juggler has a more difficult time keeping all the balls in the air at once.
When financial conditions tighten, very long and elaborate GVCs will no longer be viable economically. A rationalisation of supply chains through “on-shoring” and “re-shoring” of activity towards domestic suppliers, or to suppliers that are closer geographically, will help reduce the credit costs of supporting long GVCs.
It is interesting to note the use of the phrase ‘shadow price of credit,’ this suggests that concern about the intermediation process by which changes in the ‘risk-free’ rate disseminate into the real-economy. In a 2014 study, the BIS Committee on the Global Financial System (CGFS) found that 65% of world trade is still financed through ‘open account financing’ or through the buyer paying in advance. For GVC’s, short-term US interest rates matter, especially when 80% of trade finance is still transacted in the US$. Even when rates reached their nadir, banks were reluctant to lend at such favourable terms as they had prior to the GFC. The recent rise in short-term interest rates has supported the US$, accelerating the reversal in the trade to GDP ratio.
A closer investigation of bank lending since the GFC reveals structural weakness in the intermediation process. Since 2009, at the same time as interest rates fell, bank capital requirements rose. The impact of this fiscal offsetting of monetary accommodation can be seen most clearly in the global collapse the velocity of circulation of money supply: –
Source: Tom Drake, National Data, Macrobond
The mechanism by which credit reaches the real economy has been choked. Banks have gradually repaired their balance sheets, but the absurd incentives, such as the inducement to purchase zero risk-weighted government debt rather than lending to corporates, have been given fresh impetus through a combination of structurally higher capital requirements and lower interest rates.
In their January 2018 publication – Structural changes in banking after the crisis – the BIS examines how credit intermediation has changed (the emphasis is mine): –
The crisis revealed substantial weaknesses in the banking system and the prudential framework, which had led to excessive lending and risk-taking unsupported by adequate capital and liquidity buffers…
There is no clear evidence of systematic and long-lasting retrenchment of banks from credit intermediation. The severity of the crisis was not uniform across banks and systems. Weaker banks cut back credit more strongly, and riskier borrowers saw their access to credit more tightly curtailed. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis the response of policymakers and bank managers was also differentiated across systems, with some moving more decisively than others to address the problems revealed. Bank credit has since grown relative to GDP in most jurisdictions, but has not returned to pre-crisis highs in the most affected countries, reflecting necessary deleveraging and the unwinding of pre-crisis excesses. While disentangling demand and supply drivers remains a challenging exercise, the evidence gathered by the Working Group does not point to systematic change in the willingness of banks to lend locally. In line with the objectives of post-crisis reforms, lenders have become more sensitive to risk and more discriminating across borrowers…
The last two sentences appear to contradict, but measuring of loan quality from without is always a challenge. The authors’ continue to perceive credit quality and intermediation, through a glass darkly (once again, the emphasis is mine): –
If anything, the shift towards commercial banking activities suggests that banks are putting more emphasis on lending than trading activities. Still, given the range of changes in the banking sector over the past decade, policymakers should remain attentive to potential unintended “gaps” in credit to the real economy. Legacy asset quality problems can be an obstacle to credit growth. Excessive pre-crisis credit growth left a legacy of problem assets, especially high levels of NPLs, which continue to distort the allocation of fresh credit in several countries…
Persistently high NPLs are likely to lead to greater ultimate losses, impede credit growth and distort credit reallocation, potentially incentivising banks to take on more risk….
Again, the evidence seems to be contradictory. What is different between the cyclical patterns of the past and the current state of affairs? The tried and tested central bank solution to previous crises, stretching all the way back to the 1930’s, if not before, is to cut short-term interest rates – regardless of the level of inflation. The yield curve steepens sharply and banks rapidly repair their balance sheets by borrowing short-term and lending long-term. In the wake of the GFC, however, rates declined yet the economy failed to respond to the stimulus, at least in part, because the central banks accommodative actions were being negated by the tightening of regulatory conditions. Collectively the central banks and the national regulators were robbing Peter to pay Paul. The result (please pardon my emphasis once more): –
Post-crisis bank profitability has remained subdued. This reflects many factors, including bank-specific drivers (eg business model choices), cyclical macroeconomic drivers (eg low growth and interest rates) and structural drivers that will have a more persistent impact. An example of this latter group includes regulatory reforms that have implied lower leverage and the curbing of certain higher risk activities, and a reduction of implicit subsidies for large or systemically important banks…
…all else constant, lower leverage and reduced risk-taking should reduce return on equity. Sluggish revenues have dampened profits and, combined with low interest rates, may have contributed to the slower progress made by some banks in dealing with legacy problem assets…
Sufficient levels of capital are needed for banks to deal with unexpected shocks, and low profitability can weaken banks’ ability to maintain sufficient buffers. Banks that lack a steady stream of earnings to repair their capital base after an unexpected loss will have to rely on fresh equity issuance. Yet, markets are usually an expensive source of capital for banks, when accessed under duress….
In this scenario banks have an incentive to extend and reschedule zombie loans in order to avoid right-downs. Companies which should have been forced into administration linger on, banks’ ability to make new loans is curtailed and new ventures are starved of cash.
The BIS go on to make a number of suggestions in order to deal with low bank profitability and the problem of non-performing legacy assets: –
If overcapacity is a key driver of low profitability, institutional barriers to mergers must be reviewed and exit regimes applied. If the problem lies with legacy assets (such as NPLs), these should be fully addressed, which might entail a dialogue between prudential authorities and other policymakers (eg those in charge of mechanisms dealing with insolvency)…
The exit of financial institutions might be politically costly in the short run, but may pay off in the longer term through more stable banking systems, sounder lending and better allocation of resources. The implicit subsidisation of non-viable business models might have lower short-term costs but could lead to resource misallocation. Similarly, any assessment of consolidation trends needs to take into account potential trade-offs between efficiency and stability, as well as examine the nature and impact of barriers to exit for less profitable banks.
These suggestions make abundant sense but that is no guarantee the BIS recommendations will be heeded.
I am also concerned that the authors’ may be overly optimistic about the resilience of the global banking system: –
Compared with the pre-crisis period, banks are better capitalised and have lower exposure to liquidity and funding risks. They have also reduced activities that contributed to the build-up of vulnerabilities, such as exposure to high-risk assets, and excessive counterparty risk through OTC derivatives and repo transactions, among others. That said, given that markets have not yet evolved through a full financial cycle, bank restructuring efforts remain under way. In addition, as many relevant reforms have not yet been fully implemented, it is too early to assess their full effect.
Thankfully the BIS outlook is not entirely rose-tinted, they do acknowledge: –
…some trends in banking systems that we have observed since the crisis, such as the decline in wholesale funding, might be affected by unconventional monetary policy and may not persist. Success in addressing prior problems does not guarantee that banks will be able to respond to future risks…
Problems of bank governance and risk management contributed to the crisis and have been a key focus of reform. Given that the sources of future vulnerabilities are hard to predict, banks need to have robust frameworks of risk governance and management to identify and understand emerging risks and their potential impacts for the firm.
The BIS choose to gloss over the fact that many banks are still far too big to fail. They avoid discussing whether artificially low interest rates and the excessive flatness of yield curves may be contributing to a different breed of systemic risk. Commercial banks are for-profit institutions, higher capital requirements curtail their ability to achieve acceptable returns on capital. The adoption of central counterparties for the largest fixed income market in the world, interest rate swaps, whilst it reduces the risk for individual banking institutions, increases systemic risk for the market as a whole. The default of a systemically important central counterparties could prove catastrophic.
Conclusions and investment opportunities
The logical solution to the problem of the collapse of global value chains is to create an environment in which the credit cycle fluctuates less violently. A gradual normalisation of interest rates is the first step towards redemption. This could be accompanied by the removal of the moral hazard of central bank and government intervention. The reality? The societal pain of such a gargantuan adjustment would be protracted. It would be political suicide for any democratically elected government to commit to such a meaningful rebalancing. The alternative? More of the same. Come the next crisis central banks will intervene, if they fail to avert disaster, governments’ will resort to the fiscal spigot.
US interest rates will converge towards those of Europe and Japan. Higher stock/earnings multiples will be sustainable, leverage will increase, share buy-backs will continue: and the trend rate of economic growth will decline. Economics maybe the dismal science, but this gloomy economic prognosis will be quite marvellous for assets.
Macro Letter – No 116 – 14-06-2019
Gold – is it all that glisters?
In Q4 2018, as stocks declined, gold rallied 8.1% and gold mining stocks 13.7%. It was a prescient reminder of the value of gold as a portfolio diversifier. There have, however, been some other developments both for gold and gold mining stocks which are worthy of closer investigation.
Central bank net purchases of gold reached 651.5 tons in 2018, up 74% from 2017, when 375 tons were bought. The Russian central bank, perhaps fearing US sanctions, sold almost all of its US Treasury bonds to buy 274.3 tons of gold last year. For probably similar reasons, the Turkish central bank bought 51.5 tons, down from the 88 tons purchased the previous year. Other big central bank buyers included Kazakhstan, India, Iraq, Poland and Hungary.
In the first quarter of 2019 central banks purchased a further 145.5 tons, up 68% on Q1 2018. The trend is not new, central bank purchases have been rising since 2009: –
Source: BIS, IMF, GEMS, Reuters
Putting global reserve holdings in perspective, here is the central bank world ranking as at March 2019: –
Source: IMF, Statistica
Despite the substantial buying from central banks the price of gold has been broadly range bound for the past five years.
Source: Trading Economics
The absence of a sustained rally suggests that many investors have forsaken the barbarous relic, however, concern that the gold price will collapse have to be tempered by the cost of mining an ounce of gold. Mining costs have increased substantially since the early 2000’s due to increasingly expensive exploration costs and a general decline in ore quality. In the chart below Money Metals Exchange shows Barrick (GOLD) and Newmont (NEM) average cost of production since 2000: –
Source: SRSrocco Report, Kitco
In a July 2018 post for Seeking Alpha – Money Metals Exchange – Never Before Seen Charts: Gold Mining Industry’s Costs Are Higher Than Market Realizes show that the amount of ore needed to produce an ounce of gold at Barrick’s (GOLD) Nevada Goldstrike and Cortez Mines has increased four-fold since 1998: –
Source: SRSrocco Report, Barrick
The market capitalisation of the sector has halved since 2012, leading to understandable consolidation and deleveraging. Gold, however, is an unusual commodity in that its stock is far larger than its annual production. About 3000 tons of gold is mined annually, this is dwarfed by the 190,000 tons that have been mined throughout history according to World Gold Council estimates. Since it has little industrial use, almost all the gold ever mined remains in existence: central bank reserves are a key determinant of its price. Interesting research on the subject of what drives gold prices can be found in this article from the London Bullion Market Association – Do Extraction Costs Drive Gold Prices? They conclude that, due to the large stock relative to production, the price of gold is the principal influence on the mining industry.
The US$ and inflation expectations
The rally in the gold price in 2011-2012 was linked to the Eurozone crisis, the moderation since then has coincided with a recovery in the US Dollar Index. Other factors which traditionally drive gold higher include inflation expectations, these fears have continually failed to materialise whilst the inexorable increase in debt has led some to speculate about a debt deflation spiral; an environment in which gold would not be expected to excel: –
Source: Trading Economics
A different approach to gold valuation is the ratio of the gold price to the total-return index for ten-year US government bonds. This ratio has been moving steadily higher, suggesting a shift to an era of structural inflation, according to Gavekal Research. Other evidence of inflation remains muted, however.
Is gold perfectly priced or do the central banks know something we do not?
A look back at the decade after the end of gold reserve standard is a good starting point. The Bretton Woods agreement collapsed in 1971. In the years that followed currency fluctuations were substantial and the US$ lurched steadily lower: –
Source: Trading Economics
The US$ was so little revered that in 1978 the US Treasury had to issue foreign currency denominated Carter Bonds in Swiss Francs and German Marks, such was the level of distrust in the mighty greenback.
Confidence was finally restored when Paul Volker took the helm of the Federal Reserve. Volker did what his predecessor but three, William McChesney Martin, had only talked about – taking away the punch bowl just as the party got started – he hiked interest rates and managed to subdue inflation: the fiat US$ was back in favour.
Today the US$ is undoubtedly the first reserve currency. In the era of digital money and crypto currencies the barbarous relic has stiff competition. Added to which it is traditionally an unexpected inflation hedge and traditionally affords scant protection in a deflationary environment. Given the global overhang of US$ denominated debt, many believe this is the next challenge to the international order.
Considering the conflagration of factors alluded to above, I believe gold is destined to remain a much watched side-line. Gold mining stocks may fare better, as S&P Global Market Intelligence – Outlook 2019: US$3.9B Increase In Earnings For Majors – explains: –
…rising production in 2019, higher metals prices and lower costs could increase free cash flow by US$1.3 billion, or 19%, year over year. Companies will use this increased cash flow to lower net debt, which is expected to fall 19% year over year in 2019, placing the majors at their lowest level of leverage in five years. The majors have been focusing on returns to shareholders. Higher earnings have led to dividend payouts increasing 103% to US$2.0 billion in 2017 from US$1.0 billion in 2016 and remaining at about US$2.0 billion in 2018.
As for price of gold itself? The attractive fundamentals underpinning mining stocks is likely to cap the upside, whilst continued central bank buying will insure the downside is muzzled too. When I have little fundamental conviction I am inclined to follow the trend. A break to the upside maybe closer, but the long period of price consolidation favours a break to the downside in the event of a global crisis.