Epidemics, Economic Growth and Stock-market Performance – An Historical Perspective

Epidemics, Economic Growth and Stock-market Performance – An Historical Perspective

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Macro Letter – No 127 – 13-03-2020

Epidemics, Economic Growth and Stock-market Performance – An Historical Perspective

  • As the COVID-19 pandemic gathers momentum, history offers too few data points
  • The Spanish Flu is the nearest comparison – similarities are matched by differences
  • Clinical trials have started, but the rise in new cases is slowing in China already
  • Global economic growth will suffer, but monetary and fiscal stimulus should support stocks

As I write this article I am conscious that the Coronavirus is a very real and global tragedy. In all that follows I do not wish to detract from the dreadful human cost of this disaster in any way.

Putting the current pandemic in perspective, according to a 2017 estimate from the US Center for Disease Control, in a normal year, seasonal flu kills 291,000 to 646,000 globally. By contrast, the fatality rate for coronavirus seems to have stabilised at around 3.6% of those diagnosed. Of course, a more heartening figure of 0.79% can be found in South Korea which has tested almost 10 times more of its population than other country:-

Testing for COVID-19 - 9-3-2020 - Worldometer.com

Source: Worldometer.com

Suffice to say the current statistics are still confusing at best, but they are all we have to work with.

In a recent interview Dr Soumaya Swaminathan of the World Health Organisation (WHO) provided some insights (emphasis is mine): –

Of 44,000 Wuhan patients 80% had very mild symptoms, 15% of cases are severe and 5% critical. In terms of transmission rates, the R0 is still just an estimate of between 2 and 3 – in other words for every carrier between two and three people are infected.

…Two drugs, an antiretroviral called Lopinavir-ritonavir and an experimental drug used in the treatment of Ebola – Remdesivir, manufactured by Gilead (GILD) – are being tested in China where more than 80 clinical trials are already underway. The development of an effective vaccine it several months away. 

It was reported today (11-3-2020) that Gilead has begun trails with US nationals and signed a deal with the US military.

Market Impact

Given the continued lack of clarity about COVID-19 in terms of numbers infected and numbers suffering, it may seem futile to attempt to gauge the potential economic impact of the current Coronavirus outbreak. History, however, may be able to provide some guidance to investors who might otherwise be tempted to liquidate and hibernate, especially after the dramatic decline this week in the wake of Saudi Arabia’s decision to turn its back on the OPEC cartel.

In order to begin this assessment, there are a vast array of factors which need to be considered. Here are just a few: –

  1. Speed of spread – higher in urban areas due to population density
  2. Urban versus rural population – generally a function of GDP per capita
  3. Likelihood of a cure or vaccine – the majority of estimates range from three months to a year (hopefully it was be sooner)
  4. Health of demographic cohorts by country – a function of average age and GDP per capita
  5. Average income – also a function of GDP per capita
  6. Extent of healthcare coverage – generally a function of GDP (although European welfare arrangements are more developed than those of the US)

Each of these factors are complex and warrant an essay to themselves. Suffice to say, the economic impact is already becoming evident. Schools, factories and offices are closing. Those workers that can are beginning to work remotely. At the extreme, entire cities, towns and countries are being subjected to lock-downs. In these conditions, economic activity inevitably suffers, this is a supply and demand shock combined. The price of crude oil has already responded, encouraged by the actions of Saudi Arabia, it has collapsed. Transportation activity has been substantially reduced. Economic indicators from China point to a pronounced contraction in 2020 GDP growth. Will the pattern seen in China be repeated elsewhere? Are the nascent indications of a resumption of economic activity now evident in China a reliable indication of the speed of recovery to be expected elsewhere? The jury is still out.

For G20 countries the effect of the 2008/2009 financial crisis still lingers. According to a BIS report more than 12% of developed nation firms generate too little income to cover their interest payments. Meanwhile, at the individual level, the Federal Reserve estimates that more than 10% of American adults would be unable to meet a $400 unexpected expense, equivalent to around two days’ work at average earnings. There is concern among governments that people may start to hoard cash if the crisis deepens.

Where the viral epidemic began, in China, the Purchasing Managers Index for February was the lowest since the series began in 2004. According to China Beige Book’s flash survey for February, 31% of companies were still closed and many of those that have reopened lacked staff or materials. Other estimates suggest that between 40% and 50% of the China’s truck fleet remains idle – those essential materials are unlikely to be delivered anytime soon. This supply-shock slowdown has inevitably fuelled expectations of an actual contraction in the size of the Chinese economy, the first shrinkage since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976: –

China PMI

Source: Trading Economics

Everywhere GDP forecasts are being revised lower: –

Economist GDP revisions from Q4 2019 to Q1 2020 OECD

Source: Economist

Policy Response

For the world’s governments there are essentially three policy responses: –

  1. Provision of credit via banks and money markets – central banks are doing what they can
  2. Aid to corporates to meet fixed costs, such as rent and tax bills
  3. Protection of workers by subsidising wage costs

Central banks are limited in their ability to lend directly to firms, meanwhile the banking system, petrified by the recent widening of credit spreads for sub-investment grade debt, is likely to become a bottleneck. It will take more than gentle persuasion to force banks to lend new funds and reschedule existing non-performing loans. Other aid to corporates and individuals requires varying degrees of fiscal stimulus. Governments need to act quickly (today’s UK budget is an indication of the largesse to follow) it would also help if there were a coordinated global policy response.

The Peterson Institute – Designing an effective US policy response to coronavirus make the following suggestions: –

A first step is to lock in adequate public funding. In 2014, emergency funding of about $5.4 billion was provided to fight the Ebola outbreak. Much more than that should be provided today, given the apparently greater transmissibility of COVID-19 and the fact that it has already appeared in many locations around the United States and more than 60 countries around the globe.

…A classic recession involves a shortfall of demand relative to supply. In that more ordinary situation, economic policymakers know how to help fill in the missing demand. But this case is more complicated because it involves negative hits to both supply and demand.

No one knows how serious the economic damage from COVID-19 will be, so a key challenge is to design a fiscal countermeasure that clicks on when it’s needed and clicks off when it’s not. One approach that would fit that description would be to move immediately to pre-position a temporary cut in the payroll taxes that fund the Social Security and Medicare programs…

The final suggestion is a US-centric proposal, it is different from the income tax cut alluded to by President Trump and will directly benefit lower-income families, since healthcare costs will be a larger proportion of their after tax income. The authors’ propose a similar mechanism to click in when the unemployment rates rises and click off when re-employment kicks back in.

The table below shows actions taken by 4th March: –

Government response to COVID-19

Source: Economist

It is worth mentioning that Hong Kong, still reeling from the civil unrest of last year, has pressed ahead with ‘helicopter money’ sending cheques to every tax payer. This approach may be more widely adopted elsewhere over the coming weeks.

The Spanish Flu

In an attempt to find an historical parallel for the current Corona outbreak, there are only two episodes which are broadly similar, the Black Death of 1347 to 1351 and the Spanish Flu of 1918 to 1919. Data from the middle ages is difficult to extrapolate but it is thought that the Plague wiped out between 20% and 40% of Europe’s population. The world population is estimated to have fallen from 475mnl to between 350mln and 375mln. The world economy shrank, but, if data for England is any guide, per capita economic activity increased and the economic wellbeing of the average individual improved. For more on this topic I would recommend a working paper from the Federal Trade Commission – The English Economy Following the Black Death by Judith R. Gelman -1982.

The Spanish Flu of 1918 was the next global pandemic. It began in August of 1918, three month prior to the end of the First World War, and, by the time it had ended, in March of 1919, it had infected 500mln out of a global population of 1.8bln. The fatality rate was high, 40mln people lost their lives. Following the war, which cost almost 20mln lives, the combined loss of life was similar in absolute terms to the Black Death although in percentage terms the fatality rate was only 2%.

An excellent assessment of the Spanish epidemic can be found in the Economic Effects of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic – Thomas A. Garrett – Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis – 2007 – here are some key findings: –

The possibility of a worldwide influenza pandemic… is of growing concern for many countries around the globe. The World Bank estimates that a global influenza pandemic would cost the world economy $800 billion and kill tens-of-millions of people. Researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculate that deaths in the United States could reach 207,000 and the initial cost to the economy could approach $166 billion, or roughly 1.5 percent of the GDP. Longrun costs are expected to be much greater. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services paints a more dire picture—up to 1.9 million dead in the United States and initial economic costs near $200 billion.

Despite technological advances in medicine and greater health coverage throughout the 20th century, deaths from a modern-day influenza pandemic are also likely to be related to race, income and place of residence.

The Spanish-flu was different from COVID-19 in that the highest mortality was among those aged 18 to 40 years and was often found among those with the strongest immune systems.

Garrett goes on to assess the economic impact with the aid stories from newspapers and the limited amount of previously published (and some unpublished) research. National statistics on unemployment and economic activity had yet to be compiled, but the simultaneous supply and demand shocks were broadly similar to the patterns we are witnessing today.

…One research paper examines the immediate (short-run) effect of influenza mortalities on manufacturing wages in U.S. cities and states for the period 1914 to 1919. The testable hypothesis of the paper is that

influenza mortalities had a direct impact on wage rates in the manufacturing sector in U.S. cities and states during and immediately after the 1918 influenza. The hypothesis is based on a simple economic model of the labor market: A decrease in the supply of manufacturing workers that resulted from influenza mortalities would have had the initial effect of reducing manufacturing labor supply, increasing the marginal product of labor and capital per worker, and thus increasing real wages. In the short term, labor immobility across cities and states is likely to have prevented wage equalization across the states, and a substitution away from relatively more expensive labor to capital is unlikely to have occurred.

The empirical results support the hypothesis: Cities and states having greater influenza mortalities experienced a greater increase in manufacturing wage growth over the period 1914 to 1919.

Another study explored state income growth for the decade after the influenza pandemic using a similar methodology. In their unpublished manuscript, the authors argue that states that experienced larger numbers of influenza deaths per capita would have experienced higher rates of growth in per capita income after the pandemic. Essentially, states with higher influenza mortality rates would have had a greater increase in capital per worker, and thus output per worker and higher incomes after the pandemic. Using state-level personal income estimates for 1919-1921 and 1930, the authors do find a positive and statistically significant relationship between state-wide influenza mortality rates and subsequent state per capita income growth.

Aside from wages, however the author concludes: –

…Most of the evidence indicates that the economic effects of the 1918 influenza pandemic were short-term. Many businesses, especially those in the service and entertainment industries, suffered double-digit losses in revenue. Other businesses that specialized in health care products experienced an increase in revenues.

How did financial markets react? The chart below shows the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the period from 1918 to 1923. The shaded areas indicate recessions: –

dow-jones- 1918 to 1923 Macrotrends

Source: Macrotrends

When reinvested dividends are included, the total return of the Dow Jones Industrial Average in 1918 was 10.5%, despite influenza wiping out 0.4% of the US population. Fears about a slowdown in economic activity, resulting from the end of WWI, were the underlying cause of the brief recession which coincided with the pandemic, the stock market had already reacted, dipping around 10% earlier in the year. The subsequent recession of 1920 had other causes.

As is evident from the chart below, the newly created (1913) Federal Reserve felt no compunction to cut interest rates: –

fredgraph

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

US 10 year Treasury Bonds simply reflected the actions of the Federal Reserve: –

US Bonds Jan 1918 to Dec 1919

Source: ECB

One is forced to concede, financial markets behaved in a very different manner 100 years ago, but they may yet have something to teach us about the global impact of a pandemic – that it is an economic interruption rather than a permanent impediment to progress.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

Whilst there are similarities between the Spanish Flu of 1918 and the COVID-19 pandemic of today, there are also profound differences. Urban areas, for example, are expected to suffer higher fatalities than rural areas today. In 1919 only 51% of the population of the US was urban, today it is above 80%. Population density has also increased three-fold over the last century, if 500mln were infected in 2018/2019 then the comparable figure today would be 1.5bln. Changes in the ease of transportation mean that the spread of a pandemic will be much more rapid today than in the first quarter of the 20th century. Tempering this gloom, for many people, communications have transformed the nature of work. Many aspect of business can now be transacted remotely. Unlike in 1918 self-isolation will not bring commerce to a standstill.

The economic impact will also be felt more rapidly. Supply chains have been optimised for efficiency, they lack resilience. Central banks have already begun to cut interest rates (where they can) and provide liquidity. Governments have picked up the gauntlet with a range of fiscal measures including tax cuts and benefit payments.

Many commentators are calling the COVID-19 pandemic a Black Swan event, yet SARS (2003), H1N1 (2009), and MERS (2012) preceded this outbreak. Predictions that just such an event would occur have been circulating for more than a decade.

Financial markets have behaved predictably. The oil price has collapsed as Saudi Arabia has broken with the OPEC cartel, stocks have fallen (especially those related to oil) and government bonds have rallied. Gold, which saw significant inflows during the last few years, has vacillated as holders have liquidated to meet commitments elsewhere even as new buyers have embraced the time-honoured ‘safe haven.’ Looking ahead, we do not know how long this pandemic will last nor how widespread it will become. The two prior pandemics of a similar stature provide little useful guidance, the Spanish Flu lasted seven months, the Black Death, by contrast, spread over more than four years and was still flaring up into the 17th century.

Expectations of a cure and a vaccine remain a matter of conjecture, but epidemiologists suggest that within a year we will have a viable solution. At the time of writing (Wednesday 11th March) the total number of infections has reached 120,588, there have been 4,365 deaths while 66,894 patients have recovered – a 55.47% recovery rate, although the Chinese recovery rate has been steadily rising and now stands at 76.22%. The global fatality rate is 3.62%, whilst individual country fatality rates range from Italy at 6.22% to South Korea (where 210,000 people have been tested – ten times the per capita global average) at a heartening 0.79%. The WHO still expect the fatality rate to stabilise at around 1% which implies that 99% should eventually recover.

Whilst a larger correction in stocks should not be ruled out, the relative lack of selling pressure suggests that investors are prepared to reappraise their estimates of what price to earnings they will accept – remember interest rates have been cut and will probably be cut again. Where rates can be lowered no further, quantitative easing (including the purchase of stocks) and fiscal stimulus will aim to preserve value.

The historical evidence of the Spanish Flu suggests this pandemic will be short-lived. The recent market correction may prove sufficient but, with only two data points in more than 600 years, it is unwise to assume that it will not be different this time. Defensive equity strategies which focus on long-term value have been out of favour for more than a decade. Good companies with strong balance sheets and low levels of debt are well placed to weather any protracted disruption. They may also benefit from rotation out of index funds. When markets stabilise, the reduced level of interest rates will see a renewed wave of capital pouring into stocks. The only question today is whether there will be another correction or whether now is the time to buy.

When the facts change

When the facts change

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Macro Letter – No 126 – 14-02-2020

When the facts change

  • The coronavirus is a human tragedy, but the markets remain sanguine
  • A slowing of global growth is already factored into market expectations
  • Further central bank easing is expected to calm any market fears
  • A pick up in import price inflation has been discounted before it arrives

My title is the first part of JM Keynes famous remark, ‘When the facts change, I change my mind.’ This phrase has been nagging at my conscience ever since the Coronavirus epidemic began to engulf China and send shockwaves around the world. From an investment perspective, have the facts changed? Financial markets have certainly behaved in a predictable manner. Government bonds rallied and stocks declined. Then the market caught its breath and stocks recovered. There have, of course been exceptions, while the S&P 500 has made new highs, those companies and sectors most likely to be effected by the viral outbreak have been hardest hit.

Is the impact of Covid-19 going to be seen in economic data? Absolutely. Will economic growth slow? Yes, though it will be felt most in Wuhan and the Hubei region, a region estimated to account for 4.5% in Chinese GDP and 7% of autopart manufacture. The impact will be less pronounced in other parts of the world, although Korea’s Hyundai has already ceased vehicle production at its factories due to a lack of Chinese car parts.

Will there be a longer-term impact on the global supply chain and will this affect stock and bond prices? These are more difficult questions to answer. Global supply chains have been shortening ever since the financial crisis, the Sino-US trade war has merely added fresh impetus to the process. As for financial markets, stock prices around the world declined in January but those markets farthest from the epicentre of the outbreak have since recovered in some cases making new all-time highs. The longer-term impact remains unclear. Why? Because the performance of the stock market over the last decade has been driven almost entirely by the direction of interest rates, whilst economic growth, since the financial crisis, has been anaemic at best. As rates have fallen and central banks have purchased bonds, so bond yields have declined making stocks look relatively more attractive. Some central banks have even bought stocks to add to their cache of bonds, but I digress.

Returning to my title, from an investment perspective, have the facts changed? Global economic growth will undoubtedly take a hit, estimates of 0.1% to 0.2% fall in 2020 already abound. In order to mitigate this downturn, central banks will cut rates – where they can – and buy progressively longer-dated and less desirable bonds as they work their way along the maturity spectrum and down the credit-structure. Eventually they will emulate the policy of the Japanese and the Swiss, by purchasing common stocks. In China, where the purse strings have been kept tight during the past year, the PBoC has already ridden to the rescue, flooding the domestic banking system with $173bln of additional liquidity; it seems, the process of saving the stock market from the dismal vicissitudes of a global economic slow-down has already begun.

Growth down, profits down, stocks up? It sounds absurd but that is the gerrymandered nature of the current marketplace. It is comforting to know, the central banks will not have to face the music alone, they can rely upon the usual allies, as they endeavour to keep the everything bubble aloft. Which allies? The corporate executives of publically listed companies. Faced with the dilemma of expanding capital expenditure in the teeth of an economic slowdown – which might turn into a recession – the leaders of publically listed corporations can be relied upon to do the honourable thing, pay themselves in stock options and buyback more stock.

At some point this global Ponzi scheme will inflect, exhaust, implode, but until that moment arrives, it would be unwise to step off the gravy-train. The difficulty of staying aboard, of course, is the same one as always, the markets climb a wall of fear. If there is any good news amid the tragic Covid-19 pandemic, it is that the January correction has prompted some of the weaker hands in the stock market to fold. When markets consolidate on a high plateau, should they then turn down, the patient investor may be afforded time to exit. This price action is vastly preferable to the hyperbolic rise, followed by the sharp decline, an altogether more cathartic and less agreeable dénouement.

Other Themes and Menes

As those of you who have been reading my letters for a while will know, I have been bullish on the US equity market for several years. That has worked well. I have also been bullish on emerging markets in general – and Asia in particular – over a similar number of years. A less rewarding investment. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have been more tactical.

Looking ahead, Asian economies will continue to grow, but their stock markets may disappoint due to the uncertainty of the US administrations trade agenda. The US will continue to benefit from low interest rates and technological investment, together with buy-backs, mergers and privatisations. Elsewhere, I see opportunity within Europe, as governments spend on green infrastructure and other climate conscious projects. ESG investing gains more advocates daily. Socially responsible institutions will garner assets from socially responsible investors, while socially responsible governments will award contracts to those companies whose behaviour is ethically sound. It is a virtuous circle of morally commendable, albeit not necessarily economically logical, behaviour.

The UK lags behind Europe on environmental issues, but support for business and three years of deferred capital investment makes it an appealing destination for investment, as I explained last December in The Beginning of the End of Uncertainty for the UK.

Conclusions

Returning once more to my title, the facts always change but, unless the Covid-19 pandemic should escalate dramatically, the broad investment themes appear largely unchanged. Central banks still weld awesome power to drive asset prices, although this increasingly fails to feed through to the real economy. The chart below shows the diminishing power of the credit multiplier effect – Japan began their monetary experiment roughly a decade earlier than the rest of the developed world: –

Credit Multiplier

Source: Allianz/Refinitiv

Like an addictive drug, the more the monetary stimulus, the more the patient needs in order to achieve the same high. The direct financial effect of lower interest rates is a lowering of bond yields; lower yields spur capital flows into higher yielding credit instruments and equities. However, low rates also signal an official fear of recession, this in turn prompts a reticence to lend on the part of banking intermediaries, the real-economy remains cut off from the credit fix it needs. Asset prices keep rising, economic growth keeps stalling; the rich get richer and the poor get deeper into debt. Breaking the market addiction to cheap credit is key to unravelling this colossal misallocation of resources, a trend which has been in train since the 1980’s, if not before. The prospect of reserving course on subsidised credit is politically unpalatable, asset owners, especially indebted ones, will suffer greatly if interest rates should rise, they will vote accordingly. The alternative is more of the same profligate policy mix which has suspended reality for the past decade. From an investment perspective, the facts have not yet changed and I have yet to change my mind.

The Beginning of the End of Uncertainty for the UK

The Beginning of the End of Uncertainty for the UK

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Macro Letter – No 124 – 20-12-2019

The Beginning of the End of Uncertainty for the UK

  • The UK election result was a clear mandate for Brexit
  • A UK/EU free-trade agreement may not be ready by December 2020
  • Uncertainty remains but real economic progress can now begin

For traders and investors in financial markets, risk and reward are two sides of a single coin. There are, of course, exceptions and geopolitical risk is one of them. The difficulty with geopolitical risk is that it is really geopolitical uncertainty. As Frank Knight observed back in 1921 in Risk, Uncertainty and Profitrisk is can be measured and forecast, uncertainty, cannot: –

Uncertainty must be taken in a sense radically distinct from the familiar notion of Risk, from which it has never been properly separated…. The essential fact is that ‘risk’ means in some cases a quantity susceptible of measurement, while at other times it is something distinctly not of this character; and there are far-reaching and crucial differences in the bearings of the phenomena depending on which of the two is really present and operating…. It will appear that a measurable uncertainty, or ‘risk’ proper, as we shall use the term, is so far different from an unmeasurable one that it is not in effect an uncertainty at all.

I have kept this in mind throughout my investing career and it is for this reason that I have avoided investing in the UK stock market since the Brexit referendum. The uncertainty surrounding Brexit has not disappeared, but I now have sufficient confidence in the decisiveness of the incumbent administration to believe that progress can at last be made. To judge by the immediate reaction of financial markets in the wake of the UK election result, I am not alone in my optimism.

To begin, here is a chart of G7 GDP since Q2 2016: –

GDP comparison since 2016

Source: OECD

The UK has fared better than Japan and Italy but its momentum has diminished relative to the remainder of G7.

A more nuanced view of the relative underperformance of the UK is revealed by comparison with Eurozone growth. The chart below, which starts in 2014, shows the switch from UK outperformance to underperformance which began even before the Brexit referendum in mid-2016: –

GDP UK v EU

Source: Eurostat, Full Fact

Whilst there are many factors which have contributed to this change in the UK growth rate, the principal factor has been uncertainty relating to Brexit.

Of course, the direct impact of the Brexit referendum was felt by Sterling. The chart below shows the (Trade-weighted) Sterling Effective Exchange Rate since 2016: –

Sterling Effective Exchange Rate since 2016

Source: Bank of England

The rise since August 2019 appears to predict the outcome of the election, but the currency still has far to rise if it is to return to pre-financial crisis levels, as this 20 year chart reveals: –

Sterling Effective Exchange Rate since 2000

Source: Bank of England

The strong upward momentum which began in 2012 was swiftly terminated by the political morass which culminated in the UK referendum. The unexpected outcome of the 2016 Brexit vote only served to exacerbate the malaise.

The weakness of Sterling merely accelerated the deterioration in the UK terms of trade. The UK has run a continuous trade deficit since 1998 but, as the chart below reveals, the deficit has become structural: –

UK Trade Balance

Source: ONS

Any significant imbalance in trade makes an economy sensitive to changes in the value of its currency. The fall in Sterling since 2016 has had a knock on effect on the rate of UK inflation: –

united-kingdom-inflation-cpi since 2016

Source: ONS, Trading Economics

Viewed from a 10 year perspective, the reversal is even more pronounced. UK interest rates would probably have been substantially lower during the last four years had it not been for the uncertainty surrounding Brexit: –

united-kingdom-inflation-cpi since 2010

Source: ONS, Trading Economics

Is optimism now justified?

Aside from the trade balance, the charts above are a reflection of the discount financial markets have imposed on the UK. This month’s election justifies a rerating. Whilst the markets have not been overly enamoured with the latest Tory Brexit deal they have been craving certainty. A working majority of 80 allows room for any Conservative dissenters to be quashed. Then there is the ‘Corbyn Factor.’ Promises of widespread nationalisation, without clarity about the price with which private investors would be compensated, did not sit well. Neither did the proposed tax increases required to fuel the £80bln increase in fiscal spending. That threat has now passed.

Finally there was clarification of the nation’s opinion on Brexit itself. Labour lost ground almost everywhere; to Tories and the Brexit party in England and Wales, whilst in Scotland they ceded ground to the SNP.

This summation of the UK situation is an over-simplification, but from a financial market perspective the UK political landscape has improved. Suffice to say, there remain many challenges ahead, not least the Brexit transition period (end 2020) during which a free-trade agreement (FTA) needs to be agreed to avert unnecessary trade disruption. After four years, one might hope there has been behind the scenes preparation and that much of the deal will be a slight amendment to current access arrangements. In reality to complete a deal by year-end 2020 it will have to be an ‘FTA-lite’ affair, which may prove less than satisfactory. A swift trade deal should, nonetheless, reduce uncertainty which is also in the interests of the EU. I remain sceptical, there may be many a slip twixt cup and lip.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

Four years of deferred investment and consumption will now gradually be unleashed. This should bolster Sterling. As the Pound rises inflation should fall. Assuming they do not give up on their inflation target, currency strength should prompt the Bank of England to ease monetary conditions. Gilt yields will decline, forcing investors to seek longer duration bonds or higher credit risk to compensate for the shortfall in returns. Companies will find it easier to issue debt in order to fuel capital expenditure: although I expect it may lead to more share buybacks too. UK equity markets will rise, driven by an improved outlook for inflation, a lowering of interest rates and expectations of stronger economic growth.

For equity investors, this rising tide will float most ships, but not all companies will benefit equally. Those firms which were at risk of nationalisation have been immediate beneficiaries. The chart below tracks their relative underperformance: –

UK Nationalisation Tragets v FTSE 350

Source: Bloomberg, The Economist

A longer term investment opportunity should be found in the FTSE 250. The four year picture is found below (FTSE 100 in blue, FTSE 250 in red): –

FTSE 100 vs 250 - 4yr

Source: AJ Bell

It might appear as if the FTSE 250 has already caught up with the FTSE 100, but this next chart reveals a rather different picture: –

FTSE 100 vs 250 10yr

Source: AJ Bell

The FTSE 250 is much more closely entwined with the fortunes of the domestic UK economy. For the past four years many business plans in the UK have been on hold, awaiting clarity on Brexit. Now that a deal will be done and an FTA with the EU will follow, we may have finally reached the beginning of the end of uncertainty.

Leveraged Loans – History Rhyming?

Leveraged Loans – History Rhyming?

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Macro Letter – No 123 – 29-11-2019

Leveraged Loans – History Rhyming?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s new?

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

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

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

Where are we now?

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

Leveraged Loans

Source: Bloomberg

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

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

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

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

CLOs

Source: BIS

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

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

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

Lev Loans spreads

Source: Morgan Stanley, FTSE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Bank of England

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

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

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

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

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

BOE CLO heat map

Source: Bank of England

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

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

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

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

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

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

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Macro Letter – No 122 – 18-10-2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fed Effective Rate - 1yr

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of New York

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

SOFR YTD

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOFR and EFFR

Source: Chicago Federal Reserve Bank

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

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

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

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

IOER - SOFR

Source: Chicago Federal Reserve Bank

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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Macro Letter – No 121 – 04-10-2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

f226feaceadbe054cd0a2a9c19c06082_buying-cheap-fig1_tcm17-20864_639x0

Source: Robeco, MSCI

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

e918dbcd886cb734f02aff26c491667f_buying-cheap-fig-2_tcm17-20865_639x0

Source: Robeco, MSCI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GrowthFactors_Exhibit_2

Source: MSCI

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

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

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

The Case for Value

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions and investment opportunities

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

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

fredgraph (8)

Source: Federal Reserve

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

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

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

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