A safe place to hide – inflation and the bond markets

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Macro Letter – No 91 – 16-02-2018

A safe place to hide – inflation and the bond markets

  • US bond yields have risen from historic lows, they should rise further, they may not
  • The Federal Reserve is beginning to reduce its balance sheet other CBs continue QE
  • US bonds may still be a safe haven but a hawkish Fed makes short duration vulnerable
  • Short dated UK Gilts make be a safe place to hide, come the correction in stocks

US Bonds

I used to think if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the president or the pope or a .400 baseball hitter. But now I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody – James Carville 1993

Back in the May 1981 US official interest rates hit 20% for the third time in 14 months, the yield on US 10yr Treasury Bond yields lagged somewhat and only reached their zenith in September of that year, at 15.82%. In those days the 30yr Bond was the global bellwether for fixed income securities; its yield high was only 15.20%, the US yield curve was inverted and America languished in the depths of a deep recession.

More than a decade later in 1993 James Carville, then advisor to President Bill Clinton, was still in awe of the power of the bond market. But is that still the case today? Back then, inflation was the genie which had escaped from the bottle with the demise of the Bretton Woods agreement. Meanwhile, Paul Volker, then Chairman of the Federal Reserve was putting into practice what William McChesney Martin, one of his predecessors, had only talked about, namely taking away the punch bowl. Here, for those who are unfamiliar with the speech, is an extract; it was delivered, by Martin, to the New York Bankers Association on 19th October 1955:-

If we fail to apply the brakes sufficiently and in time, of course, we shall go over the cliff. If businessmen, bankers, your contemporaries in the business and financial world, stay on the sidelines, concerned only with making profits, letting the Government bear all of the responsibility and the burden of guidance of the economy, we shall surely fail. … In the field of monetary and credit policy, precautionary action to prevent inflationary excesses is bound to have some onerous effects–if it did not it would be ineffective and futile. Those who have the task of making such policy don’t expect you to applaud. The Federal Reserve, as one writer put it, after the recent increase in the discount rate, is in the position of the chaperone who has ordered the punch bowl removed just when the party was really warming up.

Back in the October 1955 the Discount rate was 2.30% and the 10yr yield was 2.88%. The economy had just emerged from a recession and would not embark on its next downturn until mid-1957.

Today the US yield curve is also unusually flat, especially by comparison with the inflationary era of the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s. In some ways, however, (barring the inflationary blip in 1951-52) it looks similar to the 1950’s. Here is a chart showing the 10yr yield (blue – LHS) and US inflation (dotted – RHS):-

US Inflation and 10yr bond yield 1950 to 1973

Source: Trading Economics

I believe that in order to protect the asset markets (by which I mean, principally, stocks and real estate) the Federal Reserve (charged as it is with the twin, but not mutually exclusive, objectives of full-employment and stable prices) may decide to focus on economic growth and domestic harmony at the expense of a modicum of, above target, inflation. When Fed Chairman, Martin, talked of removing the punch bowl back in 1955, inflation had already subsided from nearly 10% – mild deflation was actually working its way through the US economy.

Central Bank balance sheets

Today there are several profound differences with the 1950’s, not least, the percentage of the US bond market which is held by Central Banks. As the chart below shows, Central Banks balance sheet expansion continues, at least, at the global level: it now stands at $14.6trn:-

CB_Balance_Sheets_-_Yardeni

Source: Haver Analytics, Yardeni Research

Like the Fed, the BoJ and ECB have been purchasing their own obligations, by contrast the PBoC’s modus operandi is rather different. The largest holders of US public debt (principally T-Bonds and T-Bills) are foreign institutions. Here is the breakdown as at the end of 2016:-

US_debt_ownership_Dec_2016

Source: US Treasury

As of November 2017 China has the largest holding of US debt – US$1.2trn (a combination of the PBoC and state owned enterprises), followed by Japan -US$1.1trn, made up of both private and public pension fund investments. It is not in the interests of China or Japan to allow a collapse in the US bond market, nor is it in the interests of the US government; their ability borrow at historically low yields during the last few years has not encouraged the national debt to decline, nor the budget to balance.

Bond Markets in Europe and Japan

The BoJ continues its policy of yield curve control – targeting a 10bp yield on 10yr JGBs. Its balance sheet now stands at US$4.8trn, slightly behind the ECB and PBoC which are vying for supremacy mustering US$5.5trn apiece. Thanks to the persistence of the BoJ, JGB yields have remained between zero and 10bp since November 2016. As of December 2017 the BoJ owned 46.2% of the total issuance. The ECB, by contrast, holds a mere 19.2% of Eurozone debt.

Another feature of the Eurozone bond market, during the last couple of years, has been the continued convergence in yields between the core and periphery. The chart below shows the evolution of the yield of 10yr Greek Government Bonds (LHS) and German Bunds (RHS). The spread is now at almost its lowest level ever. This may be a reflection of the improved performance of the Greek economy but it is more likely to be driven by fixed income investors continued quest for yield:-

Germany vs Greece 10yr yields

Source: Trading Economics

By contrast with Greece (where yields have fallen) and Germany (where they are on the rise) 10yr Italian BTPs and Spanish Bonos have remained broadly unchanged, whilst French OATs have seen yields rise in sympathy with Germany. Hopes of a Eurobond backed by the EU, to replace the obligations of peripheral nation states, whilst vehemently denied in official circles, appears to remain high.

Japanese and European economic growth, which has surprised on the upside over the past year, needs to prove itself more than purely cyclical. Both regions are reliant on the relative strength of US the economic recovery, together with the continued structural expansion of China and India. The jury is out on whether either Japan or the EU can achieve economic terminal velocity without strong export markets for their goods and services.

The one country in the European area which is behaving differently is the UK; yields have risen but, it stands apart from the rest of the Eurozone; UK Gilts dance to a different tune. Uncertainty about Brexit caused Sterling to decline, especially against the Euro, import prices rose in response, pushing inflation higher. 10yr Gilt yields bottomed in August 2016 at 50bp. Since then they have risen to 1.64% – this is still some distance from the highs of January 2014 when they tested 3.09%. 2yr Gilts are different matter, with a current yield of 71bp they are 63bp from their lows but just 22bp away from the 2014 high of 93bp.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

From a personal investment perspective, I have been out of the bond markets since 2013. My reasoning (which proved expensive) was that the real-yields on the majority of markets was already extremely negative and the notional yields were uncomfortably close to zero. Of course these markets went much, much further than I had anticipated. Now I am tempted by the idea of reallocating, despite yields being lower than they were when I exited previously. Inflation in the US is 2.1%, in the Euro Area it is 1.3% whilst in Japan it is still just 1%.

As a defensive investment one should look for short duration bonds, but in the US this brings the investor into conflict with the hawkish policy stance of the Fed; that is, what my friend Ben Hunt of Epsilon Theory dubs, the Inflation Narrative. For a contrary view this Kansas City Fed paper may be of interest – Has the Anchoring of Inflation Expectations Changed in the United States during the Past Decade?

In Japan yields are still too near the zero bound to be enticing. In Germany you need to need to go all the way out to 6yr maturity Bunds before you receive a positive yield. There is an alternative to consider – 2yr Gilts:-

united-kingdom-2-year-note-yield - 5yr

Source: Trading Economics

UK inflation is running at 3% – that puts it well above the BoE target of 2%. Rate increases are anticipated. 2yr Gilt yields have recently followed the course steered by the US and Germany, taking out the highs last seen in December 2015, however, if (although I really mean when) a substantial stock market correction occurs, 2yr Gilt yields have the attraction of being near the top of their five year range – unlike 2yr Schatz which are nearer the bottom of theirs. 2yr Gilts will benefit from a slowdown in Europe and any uncertainty surrounding Brexit. The BoE will be caught between the need to quell inflation and the needs of the economy as a whole. 2yr Gilts also offer the best roll-down on the UK yield curve. The 1yr maturity yields 49bp, whilst the 3yr yields 83bp.

With inflation fears are on the rise, especially in the US and UK, 2yr Gilts make for an uncomfortable investment today, however, they are a serious contender as a safe place to hide, come the real stock market correction.

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The risk of a correction in the equity bull market

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Macro Letter – No 89 – 19-01-2018

The risk of a correction in the equity bull market

  • Rising commodity prices, including oil, are feeding through to PPI
  • Unemployment data suggests wages may begin to rise faster
  • Federal Reserve tightening will continue, other Central Banks may follow
  • The bull market will be nine years old in March, the second longest in history

Since March 2009, the US stock market has been trending broadly higher. If we can continue to make new highs, or at least, not correct to the downside by more than 20%, until August of this year it will be the longest equity bull-market in US history.

The optimists continue to extrapolate from the unexpected strength of 2017 and predict another year of asset increases, but by many metrics the market is expensive and the risks of a significant correction are become more pronounced.

Equity volatility has been consistently low for the longest period in 60 years. Technical traders are, of course, long the market, but, due to the low level of the VIX, their stop-loss orders are unusually close the current market price. A small correction may trigger a violent flight to the safety of cash.

Meanwhile in Japan, after more than two decades of under-performance, the stock market has begun to play catch-up with its developed nation counterparts. Japanese stock valuation is not cheap, however, as the table below, which is sorted by the CAPE ratio, reveals:-

Star_Capital_-_Equity_Valuations_31-12-2017

Source: Star Capital

Global economic growth surprised on the upside last year. For the first time since the great financial crisis, it appears that the Central Bankers experiment in balance sheet expansion has spilt over into the real-economy.

An alternative explanation is provided in this article – Is Stimulus Responsible for the Recent Improved Trends in the U.S. and Japan? – by Dent Researchhere are some selected highlights:-

Since central banks began their B.S. back in 2001, when the Bank of Japan first began Quantitative Easing efforts, I’ve warned that it wouldn’t be enough… that none of them would be able to commit to the vast sums of money they’d ultimately need to prevent the Economic Winter Season – and its accompanying deflation – from rolling over us.

Demographics and numerous other cycles, in my studied opinion, would ultimately overwhelm central bank efforts…

Are such high levels of artificial stimulus more important than demographic trends in spending, workforce growth, and productivity, which clearly dominated in the real economy before QE? Is global stimulus finally taking hold and are we on the verge of 3% to 4% growth again?…Fundamentals should still mean something in our economy…

And my Generational Spending Wave (immigration-adjusted births on a 46-year lag), which predicted the unprecedented boom from 1983 to 2007, as well as Japan’s longer-term crash of the 1990s forward, does point to improving trends in 2016 and 2017 assuming the peak spending has edged to 47 up for the Gen-Xers.

The declining births of the Gen-X generation (1962 – 1975) caused the slowdown in growth from 2008 forward after the Baby Boom peaked in late 2007, right on cue. But there was a brief, sharp surge in Gen-X births in 1969 and 1970. Forty-seven years later, there was a bump… right in 2016/17…

US Gets Short-lived - Dent Research

Source: Dent Research

The next wave down bottoms between 2020 and 2022 and doesn’t turn up strongly until 2025. The worst year of demographic decline should be 2019.

Japan has had a similar, albeit larger, surge in demographics against a longer-term downtrend.

Its Millennial generation brought an end to its demographic decline in spending in 2003. But the trends didn’t turn up more strongly until 2014, and now that they have, it’ll only last through 2020 before turning down dramatically again for decades…

Japan Gets Millennial Surge - Dent Research

Source: Dent Research

Prime Minister Abe is being credited with turning around Japan with his extreme acceleration in QE and his “three arrows” back in 2013. All that certainly would have an impact, but I don’t believe that’s what is most responsible for the improving trends. Rather, demographics is the key here as well, and this blip Japan is enjoying won’t last for more than three years!..

If demographics does still matter more, we should start to feel the power of demographics in the U.S. as we move into 2018.

If our economy starts to weaken for no obvious reason, and despite the new tax reform free lunch, then we will know that demographics still matter…

A different view of the risks facing equity investors in 2018 is provided by Louis-Vincent Gave of Gavekal, care of Mauldin Economics – Questions for the Coming Yearhe begins with Bitcoin:

…a recent Bloomberg article noted that 40% of bitcoins are owned by around 1,000 or so individuals who mostly reside in the greater San Francisco Bay area (the early adopters). Sitting in Asia, it feels as if at least another 40% must be Chinese investors (looking to skirt capital controls), and Korean and Japanese momentum traders. After all, the general rule of thumb in Asia is that when things go up, investors should buy more.

Asia’s fondness for chasing rising asset prices means that it tends to have the best bubbles. To this day, nothing has topped the late 1980s Taiwanese bubble, although perhaps, left to its own devices, the bitcoin bubble may take on a truly Asian flavor and outstrip them all? Already in Japan, some 1mn individuals are thought to day-trade bitcoins, while 300,000 shops reportedly have the capacity to accept them for payment. In South Korea, which accounts for about 20% of daily volume in bitcoin and has three of the largest exchanges, bitcoin futures have now been banned. For its part, Korea’s justice ministry is considering legislation that would ban payments in bitcoin all together.

At the very least, it sounds like the Bank of Korea’s recent 25bp interest rate hike was not enough to tame Korean animal spirits. So will the unfolding bitcoin bubble trigger a change of policy from the BoK and, much more importantly, from the Bank of Japan in 2018?

 Mr Gave then goes on to highlight the risks he perceives as under-priced for 2018, starting with the Bank of Japan:-

In recent years, the BoJ has been the most aggressive central bank, causing government bond yields to stay anchored close to zero across the curve, while acting as a “buyer of last resort” for equities by scooping up roughly three quarters of Japanese ETF shares. Yet, while equities have loved this intervention, Japanese insurers and banks have had a tougher time. Indeed, a chorus of voices is now calling for the BoJ to let the long end of the yield curve rise, if only to stop regional banks hitting the wall.

Japanese_banks_in_the_wars_-_Gavekal

Source: Gavekal/Macrobond

So could the BoJ tighten monetary policy in 2018? This may be more of an open question than the market assumes. Indeed, the “short yen” trade is popular on the premise that the BoJ will be the last central bank to stop quantitative easing. But what if this isn’t the case?

The author then switches to highlight the pros and cons. It’s the cons which interest me:-

  • PPI is around 3%
  • The banks need a steeper yield curve to survive
  • The trade surplus is positive once again
  • The US administration has been pressuring Japan to encourage the Yen to rise

I doubt the risk of BoJ tightening is very great – they made the mistake of tightening too early on previous occasions to their cost. In any case, raising short-term rates will more likely lead to a yield curve inversion making the banks position even worse. The trade surplus remains small and the Yen remains remarkably strong by long-term comparisons.

This brings us to the author’s next key risk (which, given Gavekal’s deflationist credentials, is all the more remarkable) that inflation will surprise on the upside:-

Migrant workers are no longer pouring into Chinese cities. With about 60% of China’s citizens now living in urban areas, urbanization growth was always bound to slow. Combine that with China’s aging population and the fact that a rising share of rural residents are over 40 (and so less likely to move), and it seems clear that the deflationary pressure arising from China’s urban migration is set to abate.

 Reduced excess capacity in China is real: from restrictions on coal mines, to the shuttering of shipyards and steel mills, Xi Jinping’s supply-side reforms have bitten. At the very least, some 10mn industrial workers have lost their jobs since Xi’s took office (note: there are roughly 12.5m manufacturing workers in the US today!).

Chinas_decelerating_urbanisation_-_Gavekal

Source: Gavekal/Macrobond

Total_labor_market_in_China_-_Gavekal

Source: Gavekal/Macrobond

To say that most “excess investment” China unleashed with its 2015-16 monetary and regulatory policy stimulus went into domestic real estate is only a mild exaggeration. Very little went into manufacturing capacity, which may explain why the price of goods exports from China has, after a five-year period, shown signs of breaking out on the upside. Another part of the puzzle is that Chinese producer prices are also rising, so it is perhaps not surprising that export prices have followed suit. The point is, if China’s export prices do rise in a concerted manner, it will happen when inflation data in the likes of Japan, the US and Germany are moving northward…

China_PPI_-_Gavekal

Source: Gavekal/Macrobond

Global_Inflation_-_Gavekal

Source: Gavekal/Macrobond

…The real reason I worry about inflation today is that inflation has the potential to seriously disrupt the happy policy status quo that has underpinned markets since the February 2016 Shanghai G20 meeting.

Mr Gave recalls the Plaza and Louvre accords of 1985 and ‘87, reminding us that the subsequent rise in bond yields in the summer of 1987 brought the 1980’s stock market bubble to an abrupt halt.

…for the past 18 months, I have espoused the idea that, after a big rise in foreign exchange uncertainty – triggered mostly by China with its summer 2015 devaluation, but also by Japan and its talk of helicopter money, and by the violent devaluation of the euro that followed the eurozone crisis – the big financial powers acted to calm foreign exchange markets after the February 2016 meeting of the G20 in Shanghai.

…as in the post-Louvre accord quarters, risk assets have broadly rallied hard. It’s all felt wonderful, if not quite as care-free as the mid-1980s. And as long as we live under this Shanghai accord, perhaps we should not look a gift horse in the mouth and continue to pile on risk?

This brings me to the nagging worry of “what if the Shanghai agreement comes to a brutal end as in 1987?”

Again the author is at pains to point out that, for the bubble to burst an inflation hawk is required. A Central Bank needs to assume the mantle of the Bundesbank of yesteryear. He anticipates it will be the PBoC:-

…(let’s face it: the last two upswings in global growth, namely 2009 and 2016, were triggered by China more than the US). Indeed, the People’s Bank of China may well be the new Bundesbank for the simple reason that most technocrats roaming the halls of power in Beijing were brought up in the Marxist church. And the first tenet of the Marxist faith is that historical events are shaped by economic forces, with inflation being the most powerful of these. From Marx’s perspective, Louis XVI would have kept his head, and his throne, had it not been for rapid food price inflation the years that preceded the French Revolution. And for a Chinese technocrat, the Tiananmen uprising of 1989 only happened because food price inflation was running at above 20%. For this reason, the one central bank that can be counted on to be decently hawkish against rising inflation, or at least more hawkish then others, is the PBoC.

Mr Gave foresees inflation delivering a potential a triple punch; lower valuations for asset markets, followed by tighter monetary and fiscal policy in China, which will then trigger an incendiary end to the unofficial ‘Shanghai Agreement’. In 1987 it was German Bunds which offered the safe haven, short-dated RMB bonds may be their counterpart in the ensuing crisis.

This brings our author to the vexed question of the way in which the Federal Reserve will respond. The consensus view is that it will be business as usual after the handover from Yellen to Powell, but what if it’s not?

…imagine a parallel universe, such that within a few months of being sworn in, Powell faces a US economy where:-

Unemployment is close to record lows and government debt stands at record highs, yet the federal government embarks on an oddly timed fiscal stimulus through across-the-board tax cuts.

Shortly afterwards, the government further compounds this stimulus with a large infrastructure spending bill.

As inflationary pressures intensify around the world (partly due to this US stimulus), the PBoC, BoJ and ECB adopt more hawkish positions than have been discounted by the market.

The unexpected tightening by non-US central banks leads other currencies higher, and the US dollar lower.

The combination of low interest rates, expansionary fiscal policy and a weaker dollar causes the US economy to properly overheat, forcing the Fed to tighten more aggressively than expected.

Gave proposes four scenarios:-

  1. More of the same – along the lines of the current forecasts and ‘dot-plot’
  2. A huge US fiscal stimulus forcing more aggressive tightening
  3. An unexpected ‘shock’ either economic or geopolitical, leading to renewed QE
  4. The Fed tightens but inflation accelerates and the rest of the world’s Central Banks tighten more than expected

…In the first two scenarios, the US dollar will likely rise, either a little, or a lot. In the latter two scenarios, the dollar would likely be very weak. So if this analysis is broadly correct, shorting the dollar should be a good “tail risk” policy. If the global economy rolls over and/or a shock appears, the dollar will weaken. And if global nominal GDP growth accelerates further from here, the dollar will also likely weaken. Being long the dollar is a bet that the current investment environment is sustained.

The final risk which the author assesses is the impact of rising oil prices. It has often been said that a rise in the price of oil is a tax on consumption. Louis-Vincent Gave gives us an excellent worked example:-

assume that the world consumes 100mn barrels of oil a day…Then further assume that about 100 days of inventory is kept “in the system”… if the price of oil is US$60/bbl, then oil inventories will immobilize around US$600bn in working capital. But if the price drops to US$40/bbl, then the working capital needs of the broader energy industry drops by US$200bn.

The chart below shows the decline in true money supply:-

Excess_liquidity_is_slowing_-_Gavekal

Source: Gavekal/Macrobond

The Baker Hughes US oil rig count jumped last week from 742 to 752 but it is still below the highs of last August and far below the 1609 count of October 2014. The break-even oil price for US producers is shown in the chart below:-

Oil_Breakevens_-_Geopolitical_Futures

Source: Geopolitical Futures

If the global price of oil were entirely dependent on the marginal US producer, there would be little need to worry but the World Rig Count has also been slow to respond and Non-US producers are unable to bring additional rigs on-line as quickly, in response to price rises, as their US counterparts:-

Baker_Hughes_World_Rig_Count_10_years

Source: Baker Hughes

An additional concern for the oil price is the lack of capital investment over recent years. Many of the recent fracking wells in the US are depleting more rapidly. This once dynamic sector may have become less capable of reacting to the recent price increase. I’m not convinced, but a structurally higher oil price is a risk to consider.

Conclusion and investment opportunities

As Keynes famously said, ‘The markets can remain irrational longer than I can remain solvent.’ Global equity markets have commenced the year with gusto, but, after the second longest bull-market in history, it makes sense to be cautious. Growth stocks and Index tracking funds were the poster children of 2017. This year a more defensive approach is warranted, if only on the basis that lightening seldom strikes twice in the same place. Inflation may not become broad-based but industrial metals prices and freight rates have been rising since 2016. Oil has now broken out on the upside, monetary tightening and balance sheet reduction as the watch words of the leading Central Banks – even if most have failed to act thus far – these actions compel one to tread carefully.

A traditional value-based approach to stocks should be adopted. Japan may continue to play catch up with its developed nation peers – the demographic up-tick, mentioned by Dent research, suggests that the recent breakout may be sustained. The Federal Reserve is leading the reversal of the QE experiment, so the US stock market is probably most vulnerable, but the high correlations between global stock markets means that, if the US stock market catches a cold, the rest of the world is unlikely to avoid infection.

High-yield bonds have been the alternative to stocks for investors seeking income for several years. Direct lending and Private Debt funds have raised a record amount of assets in the past couple of years. If the stock market declines, credit spreads will widen and liquidity will diminish. In the US, short dated government bond yields have been rising steadily and yield curves have been flattening, nonetheless, high grade floating rate notes and T-Bills may be the only place to hide, especially if inflation should rise even as stocks collapse.

There will be a major stock market correction at some point, there always is. When, is still in doubt, but we are nearer the end of the bull-market than the beginning. Technical analysis suggests that one must remain long, but in the current low volatility environment it makes sense to use a trailing stop-loss to manage the potential downside risk. Many traders are adopting a similar strategy and the exit will be crowded when you reach the door. Expect slippage on your stop-loss, it’s a price worth paying to capture the second longest bull-market in history.

 

Bull market breather or beginning of the end?

Bull market breather or beginning of the end?

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Macro Letter – No 87 – 24-11-2017

Bull market breather or beginning of the end?

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

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

2yr - 10yr Treasury Jan 2016 to present

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

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

Moodys Aaa and Baa Corps spread over 10yr Bond

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

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

Moody Aaa and Baa plus ML HY since Jan 2016

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

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

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

Spread_spreads_April_vs_Nov_2016

Source: Investing.com, The Financials.com

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

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

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

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

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

Central Bank balance sheet adjustment – a path to enlightenment?

400dpiLogo

Macro Letter – No 79 – 16-6-2017

Central Bank balance sheet adjustment – a path to enlightenment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Central_Bank_Balance_Sheets_-_Yardeni_May_2017

 Source: Yardeni Research, Haver Analytics

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

China FX reserves and stocks 2014 - 2017

Source: Trading Economics

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

An historical perspective

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

Federal_Reserve_Balance_Sheet_-_History_-_St_Louis

Source: Federal Reserve, Haver Analytics

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

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

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

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

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

BoE_Balance_Sheet_to_GDP_since_1701_-_BoE_and_FRED

Source: Federal Reserve, Bank of England

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

UK-equities-1700-2012 Stockmarket Almanac

Source: The Stock Almanac

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adjustment without tightening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commercial_Bank_Loan_Creation_US

Source: Federal Reserve, Zero Hedge

The global perspective

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

Fulcrum_Projections_for_tapering

Source: FT, Fulcrum Asset Management

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

Fulcrum CB Liquidity Injections - March 2017 forecast

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

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

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

Fulcrum Estimates of CB Balance sheets - March 2017 

Source: Haver Analytics, Fulcrum Asset Management

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

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

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

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

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

centralbankbalancesheetgdpratios

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

Source: National Inflation Association

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

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

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

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

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

Is there any value in the government bond markets?

Is there any value in the government bond markets?

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Macro Letter – Supplemental – No 4 – 12-5-2017

Is there any value in the government bond markets?

  • Since 2008 US 10yr T-bond yields have fallen from more than 5% to less than 2%
  • German 10yr Bunds yields have fallen even further from 4.5% to less than zero
  • With Central Bank inflation targets of 2% many bond markets offer little or no real return
  • In developed markets the inverse yield gap between dividend and bond has disappeared

Since the end of the great financial recession, bond yields in developed countries have fallen to historic lows. The bull market in stocks which began in March 2009, has been driven, more than any other factor, by the fall in the yield of government bonds.

With the Federal Reserve now increasing interest rates, investors are faced with a dilemma. If they own bonds already, should they continue to remain invested? Inflation is reasonable subdued and commodity prices have weakened recently as economic growth expectations have moderated once more. If investors own stocks they need to be watching the progress of the bond market: bonds drove stocks up, it is likely they will drive them back down as well.

The table below looks at the relative valuation between stocks and bonds in the major equity markets. The table (second item below) is ranked by the final column, DY-BY – Dividend Yield – Bond Yield, sometimes referred to as the yield gap. During most of the last fifty years the yield gap has been inverse, in other words dividend yields have been lower than bond yields, the chart directly below shows the pattern for the S&P500 and US 10yr government bonds going back to 1900:-

Chart-2-the-reverse-yield-gap-in-a-longer-term-con

Source: Newton Investment Management

Bonds_versus_Equities

Source: StarCapital, Investing.com, Trading Economics

The CAPE – Cyclically Adjusted Price Earnings Ratio and Dividend Yield Data is from the end of March, bond yields were taken on Monday morning 8th May, so these are not direct comparisons. The first thing to notice is that an inverse yield gap tends to be associated with countries which have higher inflation. This is logical, an equity investment ought to offer the investor an inflation hedge, a fixed income investor, by contrast, is naturally hedged against deflation.

Looking at the table in more detail, Turkey tops the list, with an excess return, for owning bonds rather than stocks, of more than 7%, yet with inflation running at a higher rate than the bond yield, the case for investment (based simple on this data) is not compelling – Turkish bonds offer a negative real yield. Brazil offers a more interesting prospect. The real bond yield is close to 6% whilst the Bovespa real dividend yield is negative.

Some weeks ago in Low cost manufacturing in Asia – The Mighty Five – MITI VI looked more closely at India and Indonesia. For the international bond investor it is important to remember currency risk:-

Currency_changes_MITI_V (1)

Source: Trading Economics, World Bank

If past performance is any guide to future returns, and all investment advisors disclaim this, then you should factor in between 2% and 4% per annum for a decline in the value of the capital invested in Indian and Indonesian bonds over the long run. This is not to suggest that there is no value in Indian or Indonesian bonds, merely that an investor must first decide about the currency risk. A 7% yield over ten years may appear attractive but if the value of the asset falls by a third, as has been the case in India during the past decade, this may not necessarily suffice.

Looking at the first table again, the relationship between bond yields in the Eurozone has been distorted by the actions of the ECB, nonetheless the real dividend yield for Finnish stocks at 3.2% is noteworthy, whilst Finnish bonds are not. Greek 10yr bonds are testing their lowest levels since August 2014 this week (5.61%) which is a long way from their highs of 2012 when yields briefly breached 40% during the Eurozone crisis. Emmanuel Macron’s election as France’s new President certainly helped but the German’s continue to baulk at issuing Eurobonds to bail out their profligate neighbours.

Conclusion and Investment Opportunity

Returning to the investor’s dilemma. Stocks and bonds are both historically expensive. They have been driven higher by a combination of monetary and quantitative easing by Central Banks and subdued inflation. For long-term investors such as pension funds, which need to invest in fixed income securities to match liabilities, the task is Herculean, precious few developed markets offer a real yield at all and none offer sufficient yield to match those pension liabilities.

During the bull-market these long-term investors actively increased the duration of their portfolios whilst at the same time the coupons on new issues fell steadily: new issues have a longer duration as well. It would seem sensible to shorten portfolio duration until one remembers that the Federal Reserve are scheduled to increase short term interest rates again in June. Short rates, in this scenario will rise faster than long-term rates. Where can the fixed income portfolio manager seek shelter?

Emerging market bonds offer limited liquidity since their markets are much smaller than those of the US and Europe. They offer the investor higher returns, but expose them to heady cocktail of currency risk, credit risk and the kind of geopolitical risk that ultra-long dated developed country bonds do not.

A workable solution is to consider credit and geopolitical risk at the outset and then actively manage the currency risk, or sub-contract this to an overlay manager. Sell long duration, low yielding developed country bonds and buy a diversified basket of emerging market bonds offering acceptable real return and, given that in many emerging markets corporate bonds offer lower credit risk than their respective government bond market, buy a carefully considered selection of liquid corporate names too. Sadly, many pension fund managers will not be permitted to make this type of investment for fiduciary reasons.

In answer to the original question in my title? Yes, I do believe there is still value in the government bond markets, but, given the absence of liquidity in many of the less developed markets – which are the ones offering identifiable value – the portfolio manager must be prepared to actively hedge using liquid markets to avoid a forced liquidation – currency hedging is one aspect of the strategy but the judicious use of interest rate swaps and options is a further refinement managers should consider.

This strategy shortens the duration of the bond portfolio because, not only purchase bonds with a shorter maturity, but also ones with a higher coupon. Actively managing currency risk (or delegating this role to a specialist currency overlay operator) whilst not entirely mitigating foreign exchange exposures, substantially reduces them.

Emerging market equities may well offer the best long run return, but a portfolio of emerging market bonds, with positive rather than negative real-yields, is far more compelling than continuously extending duration among the obligations of the governments of the developed world.

Trumped or Stumped? The tax cut, the debt ceiling and riding the gravy train

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Macro Letter – No 76 – 05-05-2017

Trumped or Stumped? The tax cut, the debt ceiling and riding the gravy train

  • A corporate tax cut from 35% to 15% will cost US$200bln/annum
  • A Border Adjustment Tax could raise US$100bln/annum
  • The boost to GDP growth is unlikely to generate sufficient tax receipts to bridge the gap
  • Without fiscal austerity, total US debt is likely to rise under Trump as it did under Reagan

 

“Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!”

Donald J. Trump

The current US debt ceiling is set at $19.8trln. Debt levels are already close to that level and special accounting measures have already been implemented by the US Treasury. This year alone total federal expenditures will be $3.7trln – leaving a tax shortfall of $559bln. Meanwhile, last week, Treasury Secretary, Mnuchin announced the long awaited tax cut plan. It included a proposal to reduce the US corporate tax rate to 15% from the current level of 35%. This, it is estimated by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, will increase the government deficit by $5.5trln over the next decade.

The Trump administrations other spending plans remain on the agenda, including $1trln for infrastructure, $54bln for the military and – assuming the Mexican’s can’t pay and won’t pay – $10bln for the Southern Border Wall.

How can this possibly add up? Through spending cuts, is the simple answer. Cuts have already been made to the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency, Inland Revenue Service and Department of Education but around 65% of government expenditure, in areas such as welfare and healthcare, have been ring-fenced – they will remain off-limits. Balancing the books is going to be an awesome conjuring trick.

Even by the more conservative estimates of the Tax Foundation, the proposed tax cut will cost $2.2trln over the next 10 years. They estimate economic growth would increase by 0.4% as a result of the tax reduction, but point out that +0.9% annual GDP growth is required to offset the estimated decline in tax revenues. The sums do not appear to balance.

The chart below looks at US investment as a percentage of GDP going back to 1950, the era of Reaganomics (1981-1989) when the last substantial tax cuts occurred, suggests that the positive impact of tax reduction on economic growth, if Art Laffer is correct, may be, to borrow a phrase from Milton Friedman, long and variable:-

Investment_to_GDP_-_Economist_BEA

Source: The Economist, BEA

The Cato Institute – Lessons from the Reagan Tax Cuts which was published at this week, makes a number of observations (see below) but this chart, showing the GDP growth in the Reagan and Obama recessions, is instructive:-

ReaganVsObamaCumulGDPthru20quarters - Cato

Source: Cato Institute

One may argue that the Reagan period was an era of much higher inflation and therefore dispute the real-GDP growth differential, but the Cato Institute produce further evidence to support their argument, that tax cuts boost economic growth. Here are some of the highlights:-

Lesson #1: Lower Tax Rates Can Boost Growth

We can draw some conclusions by looking at how low-tax economies such as Singapore and Hong Kong outperform the United States. Or we can compare growth in the United States with the economic stagnation in high-tax Europe.

hk-sing-usa-growth_Maddison_Cato

Source: Maddison, Cato

We can also compare growth during the Reagan years with the economic malaise of the 1970s.

Moreover, there’s lots of academic evidence showing that lower tax rates lead to better economic performance

The bottom line is that people respond to incentives. When tax rates climb, there’s more “deadweight loss” in the economy. So when tax rates fall, output increases.

Lesson #2: Some Tax Cuts “Pay for Themselves”

The key insight of the Laffer Curve is not that tax cuts are self-financing. Instead, the lesson is simply that certain tax cuts (i.e., lower marginal rates on productive behavior) lead to more economic activity. Which is another way of saying that certain tax cuts lead to more taxable income.

1980-88-laffer_Tax_returns

Source: Cato 

It’s then an empirical issue to assess the level of revenue feedback.

In the vast majority of the cases, the revenue feedback caused by more taxable income isn’t enough to offset the revenue loss associated with lower tax rates. However, we do have very strong evidence that upper-income taxpayers actually paid more to the IRS because of the Reagan tax cuts.

This is presumably because wealthier taxpayers have much greater ability to control the timing, level, and composition of their income.

Lesson #3: Reagan Put the United States on a Path to Fiscal Balance

I already explained above why it is wrong to blame the Reagan tax cuts for the recession-driven deficits of the early 1980s. Indeed, I suspect most leftists privately agree with that assessment.

cbo-1990-deficit-forecast_CBO_Cato 

Source: CBO, Cato

But there’s still a widespread belief that Reagan’s tax policy put the United States on an unsustainable fiscal path.

Yet the Congressional Budget Office, as Reagan left office in early 1989, projected that budget deficits, which had been consistently shrinking as a share of GDP, would continue to shrink if Reagan’s policies were left in place.

Moreover, the deficit was falling because government spending was projected to grow slower than the private sector, which is the key to good fiscal policy.

The Border Tax

One of the ways the Trump administration intend to balance the books is through the imposition of border taxes. They may become embroiled in the quagmire of legal challenges, that they are in contravention of World Trade Organisation rules, but I shall leave that topic for another time.

This February 2017 article from the Peterson Institute – PIIE Debates Border Adjustment Tax is an excellent primer on the pros and cons of this controversial policy proposal. The Peterson conference delegates did manage to concur that the corporate tax rate should be lower – the Trump proposal would merely bring the rate in line with the current level of corporate tax in Germany. The delegates also agreed that some form of ad valorem tax should be introduced to make up the tax shortfall, although they accepted that this would directly encroach on individual State taxation systems. Peterson’s Adam Posen raised the valid concern that VAT tends to fall most heavily upon the poorest in society, thus increasing income inequality still further. Adjusting the tax system is always fraught with dangers.

At the heart of the Peterson debate was the impact a Border Adjustment Tax (BAT) would have on US businesses:-

Figure 1 below shows net exports to total trade in a sector, relative to how labor intensive the sector is. The size of the bubbles reflects the size of total trade in the sector. Two things are important: (1) Most industries are net importers, thus they believe they will be forced to raise prices under the proposal. (2) The industries that will gain the most—those with a relatively high labor cost share and positive net exports—are largely absent in the United States. The aerospace industry is the lone exception. This breakdown implies that many more big lobbies will be against the BAT than in favor.

Impact of BAT - BLS, Census Bureau

Source: BLS, US Census Bureau

BAT revenues are estimated to be around $100bln per annum, about half the cost of the corporate tax cut, using the more conservative Tax Foundation estimate, however, this assumes that the trade deficit remains unchanged in response to the imposition of BAT. Whilst some countries will see their currencies decline versus the US$ the recent plight of the Mexican Peso begs caution. It depreciated from USDMXN 18.2 to 21 versus the US$ in the aftermath of the US election but has since recovered to around USDMXN 19.

Financial Market Response and Investment Opportunities

The table below shows the level of the US$ Index, S&P500 Stock Index and the US 10yr Government Bond Yield on elections week and yesterday:-

US_Markets_pre-post_Trump (1)

Source: Investing.com

It is worth noting that the US$ Index initially strengthened into the end of 2016, testing 104. It has subsequently moderated. 10yr bond yields also rose sharply, reaching 2.64%, but have since consolidated. It is the US stock market, which continues to achieve new all-time highs, which maintains faith in the pro-business credentials of the new administration.

The US bond market is dogged by the twin concerns of the fiscal profligacy of the government on the one hand and the hawkish intentions of the Federal Reserve, determined to normalise interest rates whilst they still can, on the other.

US GDP growth moderated in Q1. Commodity prices for staples, such as Iron Ore, Copper and Oil have diminished, as Chinese demand has waned of late. Meanwhile rising purchasing managers indices seem to be correlating with a rise in inventories. Personal income continues to growth slowly and personal savings has remains subdued, household debt to GDP is rising slightly but it remains well below the levels seen early in the decade. Consumers are unlikely to increase spending dramatically until they are more confident about long-term employment prospects. I wrote, last month about the impact of technology on jobs, in – Will technology change the prospects for emerging market growth?    The impact on developed market employment will also be profound, but, I believe, it is also influencing the consumers’ response to higher prices. As prices rise, demand will fall. Central Banks should not target an inflation rate because it distorts the efficient working of the economy, but wage inflation, about which they are inclined to obsess, is likely to be subdued for a protracted period – years rather than months – by the effects of new technology.

Where does this leave stocks and bonds? Bond yields may rise if the US government deficit explodes: and a significant increase in bond yields will inevitably detract from the allure of the stock market. For the present, however, we continue to make new highs in stocks – the Nasdaq finally breached its, dot-com induced, 2000 highs at the end of April, after sixteen years – S&P500 valuations are high (a PE of 23 times and a CAPE of 27 times earnings) and yet “Buy American, Hire American” is a compelling slogan. As an international firm, hoping to continue selling your products to the United States, it makes sense to invest there. Pro-business US economic policy will continue to drive US stocks: the words of Pink Floyd spring to mind…we call it riding the gravy train.