Central Bank balance sheet adjustment – a path to enlightenment?

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Macro Letter – No 79 – 16-6-2017

Central Bank balance sheet adjustment – a path to enlightenment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Central_Bank_Balance_Sheets_-_Yardeni_May_2017

 Source: Yardeni Research, Haver Analytics

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

China FX reserves and stocks 2014 - 2017

Source: Trading Economics

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

An historical perspective

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

Federal_Reserve_Balance_Sheet_-_History_-_St_Louis

Source: Federal Reserve, Haver Analytics

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

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

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

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

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

BoE_Balance_Sheet_to_GDP_since_1701_-_BoE_and_FRED

Source: Federal Reserve, Bank of England

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

UK-equities-1700-2012 Stockmarket Almanac

Source: The Stock Almanac

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adjustment without tightening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commercial_Bank_Loan_Creation_US

Source: Federal Reserve, Zero Hedge

The global perspective

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

Fulcrum_Projections_for_tapering

Source: FT, Fulcrum Asset Management

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

Fulcrum CB Liquidity Injections - March 2017 forecast

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

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

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

Fulcrum Estimates of CB Balance sheets - March 2017 

Source: Haver Analytics, Fulcrum Asset Management

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

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

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

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

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

centralbankbalancesheetgdpratios

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

Source: National Inflation Association

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

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

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

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

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

Is the “flight to quality” effect breaking down?

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Macro letter – No 61 – 16-09-2016

Is the “flight to quality” effect breaking down?

  • 54% of government bonds offered negative yields at the end of August
  • Corporate bond spreads did not widen during last week’s decline in government bonds
  • Since July the dividend yield on the S&P500 has been higher than the yield on US 30yr bonds
  • In a ZIRP to NIRP world the “capital” risk of government bonds may be under-estimated

Back in 2010 I switched out of fixed income securities. I was much too early! Fortunately I had other investments which allowed me to benefit from the extraordinary rally in government bonds, driven by the central bank quantitative easing (QE) policies.

In the aftermath of Brexit the total outstanding amount of bonds with negative yields hit $13trln – that still leaves $32trln which offer a positive return. This is alarming nonetheless, according to this 10th July article from ZeroHedge, a 1% rise in yields would equate to a mark-to-market loss of $2.4trln. The chart below shows the capital impact of a 1% yield change for different categories of bonds:-

zerohedge_-_100bp_move_in_yields

Source: ZeroHedge

Looked at another way, the table above suggests that the downside risk of holding US Treasuries, in the event of a 1% rise in yields, is 2.8 times greater than holding Investment Grade corporate bonds.

Corporate bonds, even of investment grade, traditionally exhibit less liquidity and greater credit risk, but, in the current, ultra-low interest rate, environment, the “capital” risk associated with government bonds is substantially higher. It can be argued that the “free-float” of government bonds has been reduced by central bank buying. A paper from the IMF – Government Bonds and Their Investors: What Are the Facts and Do They Matter? provides a fascinating insight into government bond holdings by investor type. The central bank with the largest percentage holding is the Bank of England (BoE) 19.7% followed by the Federal Reserve (Fed) 11.5% and the Bank of Japan (BoJ) 8.3% – although the Japanese Post Office, with 29%, must be taken into account as well. The impact of central bank buying on secondary market liquidity may be greater, however, since the central banks have principally been accumulating “on the run” issues.

Since 2008, financial markets in general, and government bond markets in particular, have been driven by central bank policy. Fear about tightening of monetary conditions, therefore, has more impact than ever before. Traditionally, when the stock market falls suddenly, the price of government bonds rises – this is the “flight to quality” effect. It also leads to a widening of the spread between “risk-free” assets and those carrying greater credit and liquidity risk. As the table above indicates, however, today the “capital” risk associated with holding government securities, relative to higher yielding bonds has increased substantially. This is both as a result of low, or negative, yields and reduced liquidity resulting from central bank asset purchases. These factors are offsetting the traditional “flight to quality” effect.

Last Friday, government bond yields increased around the world amid concerns about Fed tightening later this month – or later this year. The table below shows the change in 10yr to 30yrs Gilt yields together with a selection of Sterling denominated corporate bonds. I have chosen to focus on the UK because the BoE announced on August 4th that they intend to purchase £10bln of Investment Grade corporate bonds as part of their Asset Purchase Programme. Spreads between Corporates and Gilts narrowed since early August, although shorter maturities benefitted most.

Issuer Maturity Yield Gilt yield Spread over Gilts Corporate Change 7th to 12th Gilts change 7th to 12th
Barclays Bank Plc 2026 3.52 0.865 2.655 0.19 0.18
A2Dominion 2026 2.938 0.865 2.073 0.03 0.18
Sncf 2027 1.652 0.865 0.787 0.18 0.18
EDF 2027 1.9 0.865 1.035 0.19 0.18
National Grid Co Plc 2028 1.523 0.865 0.658 0.19 0.18
Italy (Republic of) 2028 2.891 0.865 2.026 0.17 0.18
Kreditanstalt fuer Wiederaufbau 2028 1.187 0.865 0.322 0.18 0.18
EIB 2028 1.347 0.865 0.482 0.18 0.18
BT 2028 1.976 0.865 1.111 0.2 0.18
General Elec Cap Corp 2028 1.674 0.865 0.809 0.2 0.18
Severn Trent 2029 1.869 1.248 0.621 0.19 0.18
Tesco Plc 2029 4.476 1.248 3.228 0.2 0.18
Procter & Gamble Co 2030 1.683 1.248 0.435 0.2 0.18
RWE Finance Bv 2030 3.046 1.248 1.798 0.17 0.22
Citigroup Inc 2030 2.367 1.248 1.119 0.2 0.22
Wal-mart Stores 2030 1.825 1.248 0.577 0.2 0.22
EDF 2031 2.459 1.248 1.211 0.22 0.22
GE 2031 1.778 1.248 0.53 0.21 0.22
Enterprise Inns plc 2031 6.382 1.248 5.134 0.03 0.22
Prudential Finance Bv 2031 3.574 1.248 2.326 0.19 0.22
EIB 2032 1.407 1.248 0.159 0.2 0.22
Kreditanstalt fuer Wiederaufbau 2032 1.311 1.248 0.063 0.19 0.22
Vodafone Group PLC 2032 2.887 1.248 1.639 0.24 0.22
Tesco Plc 2033 4.824 1.248 3.576 0.21 0.22
GE 2033 1.88 1.248 0.632 0.21 0.22
Proctor & Gamble 2033 1.786 1.248 0.538 0.2 0.22
HSBC Bank Plc 2033 3.485 1.248 2.237 0.21 0.22
Wessex Water 2033 2.114 1.248 0.866 0.19 0.22
Nestle 2033 0.899 1.248 -0.349 0.16 0.22
Glaxo 2033 1.927 1.248 0.679 0.2 0.22
Segro PLC 2035 2.512 1.401 1.111 0.19 0.22
Walmart 2035 2.028 1.401 0.627 0.2 0.22
Aviva Plc 2036 3.979 1.401 2.578 0.18 0.22
General Electric 2037 2.325 1.401 0.924 0.23 0.22
Lcr Financial Plc 2038 1.762 1.401 0.361 0.2 0.22
EIB 2039 1.64 1.401 0.239 0.2 0.22
Lloyds TSB 2040 2.693 1.495 1.198 0.2 0.22
GE 2040 2.114 1.495 0.619 0.2 0.22
Direct Line 2042 6.738 1.495 5.243 0.06 0.22
Barclays Bank Plc 2049 3.706 1.4 2.306 0.1 0.22

Source: Fixed Income Investor, Investing.com

The spread between international issuers such as Nestle – which, being Swiss, trades at a discount to Gilts – narrowed, however, higher yielding names, such as Direct Line, did likewise.

For comparison the table below – using the issues in bold from the table above – shows the change between the 22nd and 23rd June – pre and post-Brexit:-

Maturity Gilts 22-6 Corporate 22-6 Gilts 23-6 Corporate 23-6 Issuer Spread 22-6 Spread 23-6 Spread change
10y 1.314 4.18 1.396 4.68 Barclays 2.866 3.284 0.418
15y 1.879 3.86 1.96 3.88 Vodafone 1.981 1.92 -0.061
20y 2.065 4.76 2.124 4.78 Aviva 2.695 2.656 -0.039
25y 2.137 3.42 2.195 3.43 Lloyds 1.283 1.235 -0.048
30y 2.149 4.21 2.229 4.23 Barclays 2.061 2.001 -0.06

Source: Fixed Income Investor, Investing.com

Apart from a sharp increase in the yield on the 10yr Barclays issue (the 30yr did not react in the same manner) the spread between Gilts and corporates narrowed over the Brexit debacle too. This might be because bid/offer spreads in the corporate market became excessively wide – Gilts would have become the only realistic means of hedging – but the closing prices of the corporate names should have reflected mid-market yields.

If the “safe-haven” of Gilts has lost its lustre where should one invest? With patience and in higher yielding bonds – is one answer. Here is another from Ben Lord of M&G’s Bond Vigilantes – The BoE and ECB render the US bond market the only game in town:-

…The ultra-long conventional gilt has returned a staggering 52% this year. Since the result of the referendum became clear, the bond’s price has increased by 20%, and in the couple of weeks since Mark Carney announced the Bank of England’s stimulus package, the bond’s price has risen by a further 13%.

…the 2068 index-linked gilt, which has seen its price rise by 57% year-to-date, by 35% since the vote to exit Europe, and by 18% since further quantitative easing was announced by the central bank. Interestingly, too, the superior price action of the index-linked bond has occurred not as a result of rising inflation or expectations of inflation; instead it has been in spite of significantly falling inflation expectations so far this year. The driver of the outperformance is solely due to the much longer duration of the linker. Its duration is 19 years longer than the nominal 2068 gilt, by virtue of its much lower coupon!

When you buy a corporate bond you don’t just buy exposure to government bond yields, you also buy exposure to credit risk, reflected in the credit spread. The sterling investment grade sector has a duration of almost 10 years, so you are taking exposure to the 10 year gilt, which has a yield today of circa 0.5%. If we divide the yield by the bond’s duration, we get a breakeven yield number, or the yield rise that an investor can tolerate before they would be better off in cash. At the moment, as set out above, the yield rise that an investor in a 10 year gilt (with 9 year’s duration) can tolerate is around 6 basis points (0.5% / 9 years duration). Given that gilt yields are at all-time lows, so is the yield rise an investor can take before they would be better off in cash.

We can perform the same analysis on credit spreads: if the average credit spread for sterling investment grade credit is 200 basis points and the average duration of the market is 10 years, then an investor can tolerate spread widening of 20 basis points before they would be better off in cash. When we combine both of these breakeven figures, we have the yield rise, in basis points, that an investor in the average corporate bond or index can take before they should have been in cash.

With very low gilt yields and credit spreads that are being supported by coming central bank buying, accommodative policy and low defaults, and a benign consumption environment, it is no surprise that corporate bond yield breakevens are at the lowest level we have gathered data for. It is for these same reasons that the typical in-built hedge characteristic of a corporate bond or fund is at such low levels. Traditionally, if the economy is strong then credit spreads tighten whilst government bond yields sell off, such as in 2006 and 2007. And if the economy enters recession, then credit spreads widen and risk free government bond yields rally, such as seen in 2008 and 2009.

With the Bank of England buying gilts and soon to start buying corporate bonds, with the aim of loosening financial conditions and providing a stimulus to the economy as we work through the uncertain Brexit process and outcome, low corporate bond breakevens are to be expected. But with Treasury yields at extreme high levels out of gilts, and with the Fed not buying government bonds or corporate bonds at the moment, my focus is firmly on the attractive relative valuation of the US corporate bond market.

The table below shows a small subset of liquid US corporate bonds, showing the yield change between the 7th and 12th September:-

Issuer Issue Yield Maturity Change 7th to 12th Spread Rating
Home Depot HD 2.125 9/15/26 c26 2.388 10y 0.17 0.72 A2
Toronto Dominion TD 3.625 9/15/31 c 3.605 15y 0.04 1.93 A3
Oracle ORCL 4.000 7/15/46 c46 3.927 20y 0.14 1.54 A1
Microsoft MSFT 3.700 8/8/46 c46 3.712 20y 0.13 1.32 Aaa
Southern Company SO 3.950 10/1/46 c46 3.973 20y 0.18 1.58 Baa2
Home Depot HD 3.500 9/15/56 c56 3.705 20y 0.19 1.31 A2
US Treasury US10yr 1.67 10y 0.13 N/A AAA
US Treasury US30y 2.39 30y 0.16 N/A AAA

Source: Market Axess, Investing.com

Except for Canadian issuer Toronto Dominion, yields moved broadly in tandem with the T-Bond market. The spread between US corporates and T-Bonds may well narrow once the Fed gains a mandate to buy corporate securities, but, should Fed negotiations with Congress prove protracted, the cost of FX hedging may negate much of the benefit for UK or European investors.

What is apparent, is that the “flight to quality” effect is diminished even in the more liquid and higher yielding US market.

The total market capitalisation of the UK corporate bond market is relatively small at £285bln, the US market is around $4.5trln and Europe is between the two at Eur1.5trln. The European Central Bank (ECB) began its Corporate Sector Purchase Programme (CSPP) earlier this summer but delegated the responsibility to the individual National Banks.

Between 8th June and 15th July Europe’s central banks purchased Eur10.43bln across 458 issues. The average position was Eur22.8mln but details of actual holdings are undisclosed. They bought 12 issues of Deutsche Bahn (DBHN) 11 of Telefonica (TEF) and 10 issues of BMW (BMW) but total exposures are unknown. However, as the Bond Vigilantes -Which corporate bonds has the ECB been buying? point out, around 36% of all bonds eligible for the CSPP were trading with negative yields. This was in mid-July, since then 10y Bunds have fallen from -012% to, a stellar, +0.3%, whilst Europe’s central banks have acquired a further Eur6.71bln of corporates in August, taking the mark-to-market total to Eur19.92bln. The chart below shows the breakdown of purchases by country and industry sector at the 18th July:-

which-corporate-bonds-ecb3

Source: M&G Investments, ECB, Bloomberg

Here is the BIS data for total outstanding financial and non-financial debt as at the end of 2015:-

Country US$ Blns
France 2053
Spain 1822
Netherlands 1635
Germany 1541
Italy 1023
Luxembourg 858
Denmark 586

Source: BIS

In terms of CSPP holdings, Germany appears over-represented, Spain and the Netherlands under-represented. The “devil”, as they say, is in the “detail” – and a detailed breakdown by issuer, issue and size of holding, has not been published. The limited information is certainly insufficient for traders to draw any clear conclusions about which issues to buy or sell. As Wolfgang Bauer, the author of the M&G article, concludes:-

But as tempting as it may be to draw conclusions regarding over- and underweights and thus to anticipate the ECB’s future buying activity, we have to acknowledge that we are simply lacking data. Trying to “front run” the ECB is therefore a highly difficult, if not impossible task.

 Conclusions and investment opportunities

Back in May the Wall Street Journal published the table below, showing the change in the portfolio mix required to maintain a 7.5% return between 1995 and 2015:-

Source: Wall Street Journal, Callan Associates

The risk metric they employ is volatility, which in turn is derived from the daily mark-to-market price. Private Equity and Real-Estate come out well on this measure but are demonstrably less liquid. However, this table also misses the point made at the beginning of this letter – that “risk-free” assets are encumbered with much higher “capital” risk in a ZIRP to NIRP world. The lower level of volatility associated with bond markets disguises an asymmetric downside risk in the event of yield “normalisation”.

Dividends

Corporates with strong cash flows and rising earnings are incentivised to issue debt either for investment or to buy back their own stock; thankfully, not all corporates and leveraging their balance sheets. Dividend yields are around the highest they have been this century:-

dididend-yld-sandp

Source: Multpl.com

Meanwhile US Treasury Bond yields hit their lowest ever in July. Below is a sample of just a few higher yielding S&P500 stocks:-

Stock Ticker Price P/E Beta EPS DPS Payout Ratio Yield
At&t T 39.97 17.3 0.56 2.3 1.92 83 4.72
Target TGT 68.94 12.8 0.35 5.4 2.4 44 3.46
Coca-cola KO 42.28 24.3 0.73 1.7 1.4 80 3.24
Mcdonalds MCD 114.73 22.1 0.61 5.2 3.56 69 3.07
Procter & Gamble PG 87.05 23.6 0.66 3.7 2.68 73 3.03
Kimberly-clark KMB 122.39 22.8 0.61 5.4 3.68 68 2.98
Pepsico PEP 104.59 29.5 0.61 3.6 3.01 85 2.84
Wal-mart Stores WMT 71.46 15.4 0.4 4.6 2 43 2.78
Johnson & Johnson JNJ 117.61 22.1 0.43 5.3 3.2 60 2.69

Source: TopYield.nl

The average beta of the names above is 0.55 – given that the S&P500 has an historic volatility of around 15%, this portfolio would have a volatility of 8.25% and an average dividend yield of 3.2%. This is not a recommendation to buy an equally weighted portfolio of these stocks, merely an observation about the attractiveness of returns from dividends.

Government bonds offer little or no return if held to maturity – it is a traders market. For as long as central banks keep buying, bond prices will be supported, but, since the velocity of the circulation of money keeps falling, central banks are likely to adopt more unconventional policies in an attempt to transmit stimulus to the real economy. If the BoJ, BoE and ECB are any guide, this will lead them (Fed included) to increase purchases of corporate bonds and even common stock.

Bond bear-market?

Predicting the end of the bond bull-market is not my intention, but if central banks should fail in their unconventional attempts at stimulus, or if their mandates are withdrawn, what has gone up the most (government bonds) is likely to fall farthest. At some point, the value of owning “risk-free” assets will reassert itself, but I do not think a 1% rise in yields will be sufficient. High yielding stocks from companies with good dividend cover, low betas and solid cash flows, will weather the coming storm. These stocks may suffer substantial corrections, but their businesses will remain intact. When the bond bubble finally bursts “risky” assets may be safer than conventional wisdom suggests. The breakdown in the “flight to quality” effect is just one more indicator that the rules of engagement are changing.

Drowning in debt

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Macro Letter – No 60 – 02-09-2016

Drowning in debt

  • Central Banks are moving from quantitative to qualitative easing
  • The spread between Investment Grade and Government bond yields is narrowing
  • Issuing corporate debt rather than equity has never been so attractive
  • Corporate leverage is rising, share buy-backs continue but investment remains weak

I was always

Far out at sea

And not waving

But drowning

Stevie Smith

During August the financial markets have been relatively quiet, however, the Bank of England (BoE) cut interest rates on 4th and added Investment Grade Corporate bonds to their Asset Purchase Programme. The following day Vodafone (VOD) issued a 40yr bond yielding 3% – a week earlier they had issued a 33yr bond yielding 3.4%.

Meanwhile, at Jackson Hole the Kansas City Federal Reserve Symposium discussed a paper by Professor Jeremy Stein – a member Federal Reserve board member between 2012 and 2014 – and two other Harvard professors entitled The Federal Reserve Balance Sheet as a Financial Stability Tool – in which the authors argue that the Fed should maintain its balance sheet at around $4.5trln but that it “should use its balance sheet to lean against private-sector maturity transformation.” In layman’s terms this is a “call to arms” encouraging the Fed to seek approval from the US government to allow the purchase a much wider range of corporate securities. It would appear that the limits of central bank omnipotence have yet to be reached. The Bank of Japan has already begun to discover the unforeseen effect that negative interest rate policy has on the velocity of the circulation of money – it collapses. Now central bankers, who’s credibility has begun to be questioned in some quarters of late, are considering the wider use of “qualitative” measures.

As Bastiat has taught us, that which is seen from these policies is a reduction in the cost of borrowing for “investment grade” corporations. What is not seen, so clearly, is the incentive corporates have to borrow, not to invest, but to buy back their own stock. Perhaps I am being unfair, but, in a world which is drowning in debt, central bankers seem to think that the over-indebted are not “drowning” but “waving”.

One of the most cherished ideas, promulgated upon an unsuspecting world, is the concept of using fiscal and monetary stimulus to offset cyclical economic downturns. The aim of these “popular” policies is to soften the blow of economic slowdowns – all highly laudable provided the “punch bowl” is withdrawn during the cyclical recovery.

So much for business cycles: but what about the impact these policies may have on structural changes in economic performance relating to supply and demand for factors of production, such as labour, fixed assets or basic materials? I’m thinking here about the impact, especially, of technology and demographics.

Firstly, the cyclical stimulus extended during the downturn is seldom withdrawn during the upturn and secondly, long term structural changes in economies are seldom considered by governments, since these changes evolve over decades or generations, rather than the span of a single parliament. This is an essential weakness in the democratic process which has stifled economic growth for centuries. This excellent paper from Carmen M. Reinhart, Vincent R. Reinhart, and Kenneth S. Rogoff – The Journal of Economic Perspectives – Volume 26 – No 3 – Summer 2012 – Public Debt Overhangs: Advanced Economy Episodes Since 1800 makes this weakness abundantly clear.

The authors expand on their earlier research, this time looking at the impact of excessive public debt overhang on economic growth. They take as their “line in the sand” the point where the government debt to nominal GDP ratio remains above 90% for more than five years. They identify 26 episodes, 20 of which lasted more than a decade – the average was 23 years. It is worth noting that more than one third of these episodes occurred without interest rates rising above normal levels.

In 23 of the 26 episodes, over the 211 year sample, the pace of economic growth was lowered from 3.5% to 2.3% – in other words GDP was reduced by roughly one third. The long term secular impact of high debt and lower growth needs to be weighed against the short-term benefits of Keynesian stimulus. A lowering of the GDP growth rate of 1.2% for 23 years is equivalent to a 24.25% reduction in the potential size of the economy at the end of the debt overhang period – a tall price for any economy to pay.

The authors briefly examine the other types of outstanding debt, in order to arrive at what they dub “the quadruple debt overhang problem”, namely, private debt, external debt (and its associated currency risks) and the “actuarial” debt implicit in “unfunded” pension schemes and medical insurance programmes. This data is hard to untangle but the authors state:-

…the overall magnitude of the debt burdens facing the advanced economies as a group is in many dimensions without precedent. The interaction between the different types of debt overhang is extremely complex and poorly understood, but it is surely of great potential importance.

The 22 developed economies in their sample are now burdened with debt to GDP ratios above the levels seen in the aftermath of WWII. Their 48 emerging market counterparts had their epiphany in the debt crisis of the mid 1980’s, since when they have assumed a certain sobriety of character. This shows up even more glaringly in the divergence since 1986 in the public, plus private, external debt. In developed countries it has risen from around 75% of GDP to more than 250% whilst emerging economies external debt has fallen from a broadly similar 75% to less than 50% today. Governments, often bailout private external debt holders in order to protect the stability of their currencies.

Private domestic credit is another measure of total indebtedness which the authors analyse. For the 48 emerging economies this has remained constant at around 40% of GDP since the mid-1980s whilst in the developed 22 it has risen from 50% in the 1950’s to above 150% today. Since the bursting of the technology stock bubble in 2000 this trend has accelerated but the authors point out that these increases are often caused by cross border capital inflows.

The rise in the debt to GDP ratio may come from a slowing in growth rather than an increase in government debt but the correlation between rising debt and slowing GDP rises dramatically as the ratio exceeds 90%.

The authors draw the following conclusions:-

…First, once a public debt overhang has lasted five years, it is likely to last 10 years or much more (unless the debt was caused by a war that ends).

…it is quite possible to have a “no drama” public debt overhang, which doesn’t involve a rise in real interest rates or a financial crisis. Indeed, in 11 of our 26 public debt overhang episodes, real interest rates were on average comparable, or lower, than at other times.

…Another line of reasoning for dismissing concerns about public debt overhangs is the view that causality mostly runs from growth to debt. However, we discussed a body of evidence which argues runs from growth to debt. However, we discussed a body of evidence which argues that causality does indeed run from the public debt overhang to slower growth. There are counterexamples where a public debt overhang was accompanied by rapid growth, like the immediate period after World War II for the United States and United Kingdom, but these exceptions to the typical pattern do not seem to be the most relevant parallels for the modern world economy.

…The pathway to containing and reducing public debt will require a change that is sustained over the middle and the long term. However, the evidence, as we read it, casts doubt on the view that soaring government debt does not matter when markets (and official players, notably central banks) seem willing to absorb it at low interest rates—as is the case for now.

The Methadone of the Markets

The bull market in fixed income securities began in the early 1980’s. The price of “risk free” assets has always had a significant influence on the valuation of equities but, since the advent of quantitative easing, the principle driver of performance has become the level of interest rates. As the yield on fixed income securities has inexorably declined the spread between the dividend and bond yield has returned to positive territory after many years of inversion.

Companies with growing earnings from their operations can finance more cheaply than at any time in history. Provided they can sustain their growth, their bonds should, theoretically, begin to trade at a discount to government bonds. This would probably have happened before now had the central banks not embarked on quantitative easing revolving around the purchase of government bonds at already artificially inflated prices. The rules on capital weighting which favour “risk free” assets and regulations requiring pension funds and other financial institutions to hold minimum levels of “risk free” assets has further distorted the marketplace.

The unfunded government pension schemes of developed nations are at the mercy of the demographic headwind of a smaller working age population supporting a growing legion of retirees. Added to which, breakthroughs in medical science suggest that actuarial expectations of life expectancy may once again be underestimated.

Ways out of debt

There are a number of solutions other than fiscal austerity. For example, increasing the pensionable age steadily towards the average life expectancy. This may sound extreme but in January 1909, when the pension was first introduced in the UK, the pensionable age was 70 years and life expectancy was 50 years for men and 53.5 for women. The latest ONS data shows male life expectancy at 79 years whilst for females it is 82.8 years. The pensionable age for women has now risen to 63 years and will be brought in line with men (65 years) by 2018. There is still a long way to go, by 2030 the NHS estimate the male average will be 85.7 years, with females living an average of 87.6 years. Meanwhile the pensionable age will reach 68 years by 2028. In other words, the current, deeply unpopular, proposed increase in the pensionable age is barely keeping pace with the projected increase in life expectancy.

Another solution which would help to reduce the level of public debt is a structural policy of capping government spending at less than 40% of GDP. This could be relaxed to less than 50% during recessions as a temporary counter-cyclical measure. UK GDP averaged 2.47% since 1953 – if government spending only increased slightly less than 1% per annum we could steadily reduce the public sector debt burden towards a manageable 30% level over the next 40 years, after all, as recently as 2005 the ratio of government debt to GDP was at 38%. The chart below of the Rahn Curve shows the optimal ratio of government debt to GDP. Once government spending exceeds 15% it acts as a drag on the potential growth of an economy:-

1DFA0969D85ED690F4E4B05858404992

Source: The Heritage Foundation, Peter Brimelow

The interest paid on corporate debt and bank loans is tax deductible which creates an incentive to issue debt rather than equity. It is difficult to change this situation but mandating that equity may only be retired from after-tax profits would encourage leverage for investment purposes rather than to artificially enhance the return on equity. The chart below shows the decline in net domestic investment in the US despite historically low interest rates:-

fredgraph (1)

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

The next chart shows the level of share buybacks and the performance of the S&P500:-

SP-500-Buybacks-Versus-Stock-Index-768x577

Source: Dent Research, S&P, Haver Analytics, Barclays Research, Business Insider

Household debt is predominantly in the form of mortgages. In most developed countries a shortage of housing stock, due to planning restrictions, has encouraged individuals to speculate in the real estate market. In fact BoE Chief Economist Andy Haldane was quoted in The Sunday Times – Property is a better bet than pensions, says gold-plated Bank guru stating that pensions were complex and housing was a better investment:-

As long as we continue not to build anything like as many houses in this country as we need to … we will see what we’ve had for the better part of a generation, which is house prices relentlessly heading north.

The solution is planning reform. This will reduce house price inflation but it will not reduce the level of mortgage debt, however, once housing ceases to be a “one way bet” the attraction of leveraged speculation in property will diminish.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

The underlying problem which caused the great recession of 2009/2010 was excessive debt. The policy response has been to throw petrol on the fire. The first phase of unconventional monetary policy – reducing official interest rates towards zero – has more or less run its course. The next phase – qualitative easing – is now under way. This will start with corporate bonds and proceed to other securities ending up with common stock. Credit spreads will continue to narrow even if government bond yields rise. There will, of course, be episodes of panic when “safe haven” government bonds outperform but this will be temporary and the spread widening will present a buying opportunity.

The UK Investment Grade bond market is relatively small at £285bln and liquidity is therefore less robust than for Euro or US$ denominated issues but there is a £10bln “put” beneath the market. Other initiatives will be forthcoming from the central banks. Their actions will continue to be the dominant factor influencing asset prices in general.

The Scotian experiment and European fragmentation

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Macro Letter – No 21 – 10-10-2014

The Scotian experiment and European fragmentation

  • Scotland voted to remain part of the Union but the devolution debate doesn’t end there
  • Further European integration risks breaking the European Union
  • Economic growth in the UK and Eurozone will be damaged by long-term uncertainty

The Scottish decision to remain part of the Union, by such a slim margin – 55% to 45% on an 85% turnout – caught me by surprise. On reflection it should not have been unexpected – it was as much about the “hearts” as the “minds” of the Scottish electorate. Now that the dust has settled, I wonder what this vote means for the United Kingdom and for other regions of Europe.

In this month’s issue of The World Today, Chatham House – A result that resolves little Malcolm Chambers – Research Director at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) made the following observations: –

The Scottish referendum was supposed to settle the UK’s constitutional uncertainties, but the result has raised more questions than it answers. How Britain addresses the devolution issue and the question mark over its commitment to Europe will shape perceptions of its ability to wield influence and hard power abroad for years to come.

Britain’s 2010 National Security Strategy, published shortly after the coalition government took office, was entitled ‘A Strong Britain in an Age of Uncertainty’. It made no mention of the two existential challenges – the possible secession of Scotland from the United Kingdom, and the risk of a British withdrawal from the European Union. Yet either event would be a fundamental transformation in the very nature of the British state, with profound impact on its foreign and security policy.

The article goes on to discuss the promises made to Scotland by Westminster’s political elite, from all the main parties, which may now create the conditions for eventual independence: –

Devolution max could have a similar effect, making the final step from ‘devo-max’ to ‘indy-light’ appear less traumatic, even as it still allows Westminster to be blamed for any ills that remain. If a further referendum is to be avoided five or ten years from now, it will not be enough to make constitutional changes.

Prime Minister Cameron took the opportunity to raise the issue of Scottish MPs voting on English issues; whilst this was politically expedient, it sows the seeds for regional calls for devolution of power to the poorer areas of Britain: –

Yet growing awareness of the constitutional imbalances created by devolution to Scotland – and, to a lesser extent, to Wales and Northern Ireland – is creating a series of shockwaves that will not dissipate easily. The UK, as a result, could now see a long period of constitutional experimentation and controversy, with profound effects on the governance of the country as a whole.

Chambers then turns to investigate the “European Question”. Here he sees a parallel between the UKs relationship with the EU and the Scottish desire for independence: –

Britain’s relationship with the European Union is similar, in important respects, to Scotland’s position in the United Kingdom. It has a special financial arrangement, involving a rebate of most of its net contribution, that is not available to other member states. It retains its own currency and border controls, and has a permanent exemption from the common currency and passport-free travel to which other states have agreed. As in Scotland, there is strong political pressure for the UK to be allowed special treatment in further areas, such as immigration controls. In both cases, attempts to construct ‘variable geometry’ governance frameworks are made more difficult by the asymmetry in size between the opting-out nation and the political union as a whole.

From the Brussels’ perspective the issue of devolution is not just restricted to the “Sceptred Isle”: –

While the nature of the Britain’s constitutional crises is unique, they are part of a wider crisis of European politics. Over the past five years, the eurozone has faced successive crises as it has sought to find a way to reconcile vast differences in economic interest and viewpoint between its member states. Relations between Germany and the southern states have worsened as the former takes on a more openly hegemonic role.

Without further significant sharing of political sovereignty – for example through a banking union – the risk that one or more member states could leave the eurozone will remain very substantial. Yet further political integration could bring its own challenges, with powerful nationalistic parties in northern Europe already pushing against those who argue that all the answers must come from Brussels. One of the reasons that Britain’s European allies were so worried about the Scotland vote was precisely their concern as to the example that a Yes vote could have sent to separatist movements in Spain, Belgium, Italy or Bosnia. This concern will not have been entirely dissipated, both because of the precedent set by London’s willingness to hold the vote, and by the closeness of the margin.

In conclusion Chambers states: –

It is still far from likely that the United Kingdom will perish, or that it will abandon its commitment to the European Union. But the possibility of one or both of these separations taking place seems set to be a central part of British politics for a decade or more.

The impact on Sterling

Sterling is still some way below its longer-term average on a trade weighted basis as this chart of the Sterling Effective Exchange Rate (ERI) Index shows, however, it’s worth noting that the average between 1994 and 2013 is around 90: –

GBP Effective Exchange rate - BoE

Source: Bank of England

Uncertainty always undermines the stability of ones currency and the Scottish referendum was no different, although its impact proved relatively minor. In a recent speech, Bank of England – The economic impact of sterling’s recent moves: more than a midsummer night’s dream – Kristin Forbes – MPC member, downplayed what could have been a dramatic decline in the value of the GBP:-

There has been some volatility in sterling recently, especially around the time of the Scottish referendum, but sterling is currently only 1% weaker than its recent peak in July 2014.

In her conclusion she points to the appreciation of the GBP since the Great Recession and cautions those who fail to anticipate the negative inflationary consequences of a weaker exchange rate: –

Where sterling’s recent moves may have had the greatest economic impact is on prices and inflation. A “top down” analysis estimating the pass-through from exchange rate movements to prices suggests that the lagged effect of sterling’s appreciation during 2013 and early 2014 may have acted as a powerful dampening effect on inflation. Although model simulations may be overestimating the magnitude of the effect, sterling’s past moves have reduced the risk of inflation increasing sharply, despite the strong growth in employment and the overall economy.

This dampening effect of sterling’s past appreciation, however, will peak at the end of 2014 and then begin to fade. As a result, it is becoming increasingly important to monitor trends in domestically-generated inflation – and especially unit labour costs – so that monetary policy can be adjusted appropriately and also be allowed to work through the economy with its own set of lags. Unfortunately, understanding recent trends in the domestic component of inflation – especially the slow growth in wages – has been challenging. A “bottom up” analysis of inflation that focuses on current measures of domestically-generated inflation (which attempt to minimize the dampening effect of sterling’s moves) show price pressures that are well contained and little evidence of imminent inflationary risks.

These “bottom up” indicators present a very different story then the “top down” estimates of inflation after adjusting for sterling’s recent appreciation. Has sterling’s appreciation had less of a dampening effect on prices than has traditionally occurred – perhaps due to structural changes in the UK or global economy? Or are the measures of domestic inflation understating current inflationary risks – perhaps due to the long lags before timely data is available? To answer these questions, it is critically important to monitor measures of prospective inflation to determine the appropriate path for monetary policy.

If concern about political devolution of power to the regions, at the expense of the power-house of the UK’s South East, and expectation of rising Euro-scepticism, are destined to be the pre-eminent political issues for the next decade, then an appreciation in the value of Sterling is likely to be tempered. Since the UK economy is closely integrated to Europe this persistent undervaluation will be less obvious in the GBP/EUR exchange rate but hopes of the trade weighted value of GBP rising like the USD due to structurally stronger growth will be muted.

In the aftermath of the referendum RUSI – Never the Same Again – What the Referendum Means for the UK and the Worldobserved:-

Having, for the first time, looked at what a ‘yes’ vote might mean for them, private investors and businesses are now more sensitised than ever before to the risks that a further referendum could pose. If some of them were to begin to hedge their bets accordingly, there could be a risk of an extended period of underinvestment in Scotland, with serious consequences for its prosperity.

Better together?

The campaign slogan of the Westminster elite was “Better Together” but, setting aside the rhetoric of power hungry politicians, what are the pros and cons of devolution versus Union? Writing ahead of the referendum Adam Posen of the Peterson Institute – The Huge Costs of Scotland Getting Small made a valiant case for continued integration: –

When is it ever a good idea for a small nation to set up on its own? Leaving aside cases of colonization and outright oppression, there is little good reason ever to shrink on the world scene by leaving a larger unit. The internal politics of democracies always get better deals for regions within them than small sovereigns can elicit from identity-ignoring market forces. The few small nations that did gain in welfare by seceding from transnational entities are those that escaped failed autocratic systems. The Baltic countries escaping the former Soviet Union’s dominance can be seen in this light. But setting out on your own is only beneficial when the system left behind has directly constrained your nation’s human potential. Whatever else, that cannot be said of the current Scottish situation in the United Kingdom.

It is a fact of life in today’s world that a small economy on its own is always buffeted by the forces of the global economy more than a region within a larger union. Even well-run small states like Singapore and Estonia are subject to huge swings in their economy resulting from capricious capital flows in and out. These swings disrupt employment, investment, and competitiveness via real exchange rate fluctuations. More important, small economies are fundamentally undiversified because of their small scale, and they risk their specializations falling out of favor in world markets. Events beyond their control can overwhelm the small nation’s high value-added industries, no matter how good it is at those things, be they oil extraction or banking or whisky distilling. Scottish independence in form will instead mean increased vulnerability in fact, because, inherently, smaller means more exposure when the markets turn—and turn they will.

…The economic debate over independence has tended to focus on the one-time transfer costs: setting up a new government administration, apportioning the accumulated public debt, grabbing as much oil as possible. But these issues are of minimal importance, however one chooses to measure them, compared to the ongoing costs of permanently greater insecurity to households and businesses. Even if an independent Scotland were to start out with the Scottish National Party (SNP) fantasy of relatively low public debt and a relatively high share of remaining oil revenues, it would have to save more, pay higher interest rates, and keep more space in its budget for self-insurance, hampered by a narrow tax base, in order to cope with the vicissitudes of the global economy on its own.

When one looks at the economic austerity foisted on the population of Greece and at the hopeless prospects much of the unemployed youth of Europe I wonder whether there is an alternative to the “integrationist” approach.

Looking for an answer I went back to the forging of the United Kingdom. This is how John Lancaster describes the events which led to the Act of Union in 1707:-

During the 17th century, Scottish investors had noticed with envy the gigantic profits being made in trade with Asia and Africa by the English charter companies, especially the East India Company. They decided that they wanted a piece of the action and in 1694 set up the Company of Scotland, which in 1695 was granted a monopoly of Scottish trade with Africa, Asia and the Americas. The Company then bet its shirt on a new colony in Darien – that’s Panama to us – and lost. The resulting crash is estimated to have wiped out a quarter of the liquid assets in the country, and was a powerful force in impelling Scotland towards the 1707 Act of Union with its larger and better capitalised neighbour to the south. The Act of Union offered compensation to shareholders who had been cleaned out by the collapse of the Company; a body called the Equivalent Society was set up to look after their interests. It was the Equivalent Society, renamed the Equivalent Company, which a couple of decades later decided to move into banking, and was incorporated as the Royal Bank of Scotland. In other words, RBS had its origins in a failed speculation, a bail-out, and a financial crash so big it helped destroy Scotland’s status as a separate nation.”

The above passage, taken from Lancaster’s 2009 book It’s Finished, is quoted near the opening of a recent article by Tim Price – Let’s Stick Together in which he refers to Leopold Kohr – The Breakdown of Nations. The forward by Kirkpatrick Sale describes the problem of size when nation building: –

What matters in the affairs of a nation, just as in the affairs of a building, say, is the size of the unit. A building is too big when it can no longer provide its dwellers with the services they expect – running water, waste disposal, heat, electricity, elevators and the like – without these taking up so much room that there is not enough left over for living space, a phenomenon that actually begins to happen in a building over about ninety or a hundred floors. A nation becomes too big when it can no longer provide its citizens with the services they expect – defence, roads, post, health, coins, courts and the like – without amassing such complex institutions and bureaucracies that they actually end up preventing the very ends they are intending to achieve, a phenomenon that is now commonplace in the modern industrialized world. It is not the character of the building or the nation that matters, nor is it the virtue of the agents or leaders that matters, but rather the size of the unit: even saints asked to administer a building of 400 floors or a nation of 200 million people would find the job impossible.

Kohr grew up in a small village which may have helped him to recognise one of the intrinsic weaknesses of democracy: that it works best on a small scale.

Taking this theme further and applying it to an independent Scotland, John Butler – From bravery to prosperity: A six-year plan to make Scotland the wealthiest Anglosphere region of all makes the case for a smaller more flexible approach. Here is an abbreviated version of his six point plan:-

Debt Repayment

The Scots’ legendary bravery is equalled by legendary parsimony, the first essential element of success. There is no growth without investment and no sustainable investment without savings. It stands to reason that you aren’t a parsimonious society if you carry around a massive, accumulating national debt. Debt service is also a drag on future growth. Thus if the Scots want to prosper long-term, they are going to need to pay down their share of the UK national debt.

Tax Reduction

There are several policies that would quickly create an investment boom. Most important, Scotland should do better than celtic rival Ireland, with a low corporate tax rate, and abolish the corporate income tax altogether. Yes, you read that right: The effective corporate income tax in many countries now approaches zero anyway, due to all manner of creative cross-border accounting.

Human Capital

Developing human capital, at which the Scots excelled in the 19th century, is the third element. Consider which industries are most likely to relocate to Scotland: Those requiring neither natural resources nor extensive industrial infrastructure, that is, those comprised primarily of human capital. Although financial services comes to mind, there is tremendous overcapacity in this area in England and Ireland, including in unproductive yet risky activities, so that is better left to the English and Irish for now. Better would be to concentrate on health care, for example, an industry faced with soaring costs and stifling regulation in much of the world.

Scotland could, inside of six years, become the world’s premier desination for so-called ‘healthcare tourism’. Scotland lies directly under some of the world’s busiest airline routes, an ideal location.

Sound Banking

A fourth essential element to success is to implement Scottish Enlightenment principles for sound banking. This is of utmost importance due to the potential monetary and financial instability of the UK and much of the broader Anglosphere.

As a first step, Scotland should forbid any bank from conducting business in Scotland if they receive any direct financial assistance from the Bank of England or from the UK government. In turn, Scotland should make clear to Westminster that Scottish residents will not contribute to any taxpayer bail out of any UK financial institution. No ‘lender of last resort’ function will exist for financial activities in Scotland, unless such action, if formally requested by a bank, is approved by the Scots in a referendum. (Taxpayers are always on the hook for bailouts one way or the other; why not make this explicit?)

Self-Reliance

The fifth element reaches particularly deep into Scottish history: Self-Reliance. Peoples that inhabit relatively inhospitable or infertile lands tend to establish cultures with self-reliance at the core. No, this does not make them culturally backward, but it does tend to contribute to a distrust of foreign or central authority. The Scots, while brave, were frequently disunited in their opposition to English rule, something that had unfortunate consequences for many, not just William Wallace.

Scottish Presbyterianism

Finally, there is the sixth element: the collective cultural traditions of Scottish Presbyterianism. There are few religions in the world that hold not only faith, but hard work, thrift and charity in such high regard as that of traditional Presbyterianism. Yes, as with most all Europeans, the Scots have become more secular in recent decades. But the same could be said of the Germans, who nevertheless cling to their own, solid Protestant work ethic and associated legal and moral anti-corruption traditions.

To be fair to Adam Posen of the Peterson Institute, none of the arguments for a non-integrated Scotland solve the problems of vulnerability to external shocks. The crux of the issue is whether a larger, more integrated unit, is more effective than a smaller more flexible one.

The Politics of Empires

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”  Lord Acton – 1834-1902.

Throughout history successful nations have grown through expansion and integration. The process is cyclical, however, and success sows the seeds of its own demise. Europe emerged from the dark ages to conquer much of the known world. Since then it has imploded during two world wars and may now be embarking on a further wave of integration. Or, perhaps, this is the last attempt to assimilate a multitude of disparate cultures before the “long withdrawing breath” into smaller, more dynamic, self-reliant units.

In the opening chapter of Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” he says:-

…but it was reserved for Augustus (who became Caesar in BC 44) to relinquish the ambitious design of subduing the whole earth and to introduce a spirit of moderation into the public councils.

However, I believe the seeds of destruction, which eventually created the conditions for the establishment of A NEW Europe, stem from Diocletian’s introduction of the Tetrarchy in AD 284. It divided the Roman Empire in four regions.

Diocletian’s son, Constantine attempted to slow this fragmentation by adopting Christianity as the official religion of the empire, however, his decision to move the seat of government from Rome to Byzantium in AD 324 set the stage for the final schism into the Eastern and Western Empires which occurred in AD395 on the demise of Theodosius.

The Western Empire sustained continuous assaults from Vandals, Alans, Suebis and Visigoths leading to the second sack of Rome in AD 410 by Alaric. The Western Empire finally collapsed in AD 476 when the Germanic Roman general Odoacer deposed the last emperor, Romulus . Europe had descended into a “dark age” of constant wars between rival tribes. The sole pan-European administrative organization after the fall of the Western Empire was the Catholic Church, which adopted the remnants of its infrastructure.

The creation of the Europe we recognise today began with the conversion to Christianity of Clovis – King of the Franks – in AD 498, but it was not until the re-uniting of the Frankish kingdoms in AD 751 under Pepin The Short and the subsequent appointment of his son Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in AD 800 that the idea of a Christian “Western Europe” began to emerge. When viewed from this long historical perspective the current development of the EU is still in its infancy.

In the East, Constantinople remained the administrative center of the Byzantine Empire. Under Emperor Justinian in AD 526 the Empire expanded. Challenges from the Lombards in AD 568 saw the loss of Northern Italy, but the rise of Islam after AD 623 proved a more terminal event. Although Byzantium went into decline, due to many assailants – not least the Western Empire – it limped on until 1453 when it to finally succumbed to the Ottoman Turks.

Why the history lesson? The spark of the industrial revolution was kindled in Europe. It developed out of the chaotic collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the warring between a plethora of tribes and the rise of independent city states. It was built on the fragmented polity of petty fiefdoms and the desire to trade despite national borders and political restrictions on the movement of labour and goods. The renaissance began in Italy where the competition between small city states stimulated “animal spirits”. The flowering of art and culture that this democratisation of prosperity set in motion goes some way to support the idea that “small is beautiful”.

During the dark ages the concept of “Nationhood” was fluid, as exemplified by the Dukes of Normandy’s fealty after 1066 to the King of France, but only in respect of their French domains. As nation states began to coalesce international trade developed further. Nations waxed and waned, alliances were made and broken but no single nation succeeded in dominating the whole region. Demographic growth encouraged voyages of discovery. Colonisation followed, and finally the conditions were propitious for the birth of the industrial revolution from which we continue to benefit today.

These processes were gradual, running their course over many generations. I believe Europe is now fragmenting once more; painful for our own time but filled with promise for future generations. Calls for self-government from many regions within the EU will increase. The more Brussels attempts to make its citizens feel European the more its citizens will yearn for self-determination.

This trend will be driven by a number of factors aside from the declining effectiveness of central government. Bruegal – The Economics of big cities articulates one of these economic paradoxes, how globalisation has made the world more local: –

Local economies in the age of globalization

Enrico Moretti writes that the growing divergence between cities with a well-educated labor force and innovative employers and the rest of world points to one of the most intriguing paradoxes of our age: our global economy is becoming increasingly local. At the same time that goods and information travel at faster and faster speeds to all corners of the globe, we are witnessing an inverse gravitational pull toward certain key urban centers. We live in a world where economic success depends more than ever on location. Despite all the hype about exploding connectivity and the death of distance, economic research shows that cities are not just a collection of individuals but are complex, interrelated environments that foster the generation of new ideas and new ways of doing business.

Enrico Moretti writes that, historically, there have always been prosperous communities and struggling communities. But the difference was small until the 1980’s. The sheer size of the geographical differences within a country is now staggering, often exceeding the differences between countries. The mounting economic divide between American communities – arguably one of the most important developments in the history of the United States of the past half a century – is not an accident, but reflects a structural change in the American economy. Sixty years ago, the best predictor of a community’s economic success was physical capital. With the shift from traditional manufacturing to innovation and knowledge, the best predictor of a community’s economic success is human capital.

Human Capital may be defined as “the skills, knowledge, and experience possessed by an individual or population”. In the internet age this resource can be located almost anywhere and need not be isolated due to email, telephone or video conference technology, however, the advantages of physical proximity and social interaction favour cities.

Another, and related, issue is the increasingly disruptive effect of technology on employment. Bruegal – 54% of EU jobs at risk of computerisationhighlights one of the greatest economic challenges to the social fabric of the EU, but this is a global phenomenon: –

Based on a European application of Frey & Osborne (2013)’s data on the probability of job automation across occupations, the proportion of the EU work force predicted to be impacted significantly by advances in technology over the coming decades ranges from the mid-40% range (similar to the US) up to well over 60%.

Those authors expect that key technological advances – particular in machine learning, artificial intelligence, and mobile robotics – will impact primarily upon low-wage, low-skill sectors traditionally immune from automation. As such, based on our application it is unsurprising that wealthy, northern EU countries are projected to be less affected than their peripheral neighbours.

European governments are caught between the competing needs of an aging population and a younger generation who have little prospect of finding gainful full-time employment. Meanwhile city workers are paying for the regions where unemployment is highest. The tension between “wealth makers” and “wealth takers” are destined to increase.

Conclusion

Scotland voted to remain part of the Union. The Independence campaign was ill prepared failing to consider such issues as what currency they would use or how they would avoid a run on their banking system. The next time the Scots vote – and there will be a next time – I believe they will leave the Union because these questions will have been addressed. Other regions around the UK and Europe have taken note – the spirit of devolution is abroad. Prosperous regions, such as Catalunya and Northern Italy – Padania as it is sometimes called – crave independence from their poorer neighbours. Poorer regions resent the straight jacket of a single currency – be it the GBP for regions like the North East of England or the EUR for Greece and Portugal. To the poorer regions, the flexibility of a floating exchange rate is beguiling; as the EU stumbles through an era of debt laden low growth devolution pressures will increase.

For the GBP and EUR the Scottish “No” vote will fail to diminish the potential for social and political tension. The value of these currencies will reflect that uncertainty. Longer-term foreign direct investment will be lower. This will place an additional burden on EU budgets. A larger percentage of central government spending will be directed to regions where calls for devolution are highest rather than to economically productive projects in more prosperous areas.

European and UK equities are likely to under-perform in this environment whilst the increased indebtedness of EU governments is likely to increase their real borrowing costs.

Will this happen soon and will it be possible to measure? I think it is already happening but, given the very long-term nature of the fragmentation of nations, it will be difficult to measure except during constitutional crises. The shorter-term business cycles will still exist. Trading and investment opportunities will continue to arise. For the investor, however, it is essential to be aware of the risks and rewards which this fragmentation process will present.

Whither the UK – From Tantalus to Sisyphus?

400dpiLogo.

Macro Letter – No 4 – 31-01-2014

Whither the UK – From Tantalus to Sisyphus?

It has been a long time since I have reviewed the UK economy and the prospects for our financial markets but the recent spate of positive economic news deserves investigation.

Sterling

To begin I have enclosed a chart of GBP/USD. You will notice that despite a significant strengthening of GBP, in line with the improving economic data, we still have a distance to travel before returning to the pre-Northern Rock range. The near-term trend looks clear but a comprehensive break above 1.70 is required for confirmation.

 

GBP-USD FX 10yr - source fxtop.com

GBP/USD FX 10yr – source fxtop.com

 

To understand why GP/USD may return to its pre-crisis range one needs to consider why it has been languishing in purgatory since 2008/2009. Partly this is due to the size of the UK financial services sector, where regulatory headwinds remain fierce, and partly the direction of long-term interest rates globally. Here is a chart of 10 year Gilt yields:-

10yr Gilt yield - 10yr Monthly - source investorsintelliegence.com Stockcube Research Ltd.

10yr Gilt yield – 10yr Monthly – source investorsintelligence.com Stockcube Research Ltd

Of course short and long term interest rates have declined in most countries since the Great Recession but traditionally GBP was a “carry-currency” due to our structurally higher inflation rates. The “sea-change” in interest rate differentials has seen the “carry-trader” depart this sceptre isle. There are a number of other factors including the arrival of a coalition government in 2010, a significant decline in the UK housing market and a collapse in the UK export sector, despite the precipitous decline of sterling against its trading partners. Financial services went out of fashion and North Sea oil and gas production took an unfortunate nose-dived simultaneously.

The chart below showing the GBP Trade-Weighted Index is from Ashraf Laidi . It is a couple of years old but it’s still valid, the annotation is his:-

GBP Trade Weighted Index - 1990 - 2013 - source AshrafLaidi 

Source – AshrafLaidi.com

Gilts

Looking  at the chart of 10 year Gilt yields above, you will notice that yields bottomed in mid-2012 whilst GBP/USD took until 2013 to begin its recovery. The external factor driving Gilt yields to their nadir was the Eurozone crisis, however, since Draghi’s “whatever it takes” speech (July 26th 2012) Gilt yields have begun to normalise in a similar manner to the US. Meanwhile Eurozone rates have converged lower and German 10 year Bund rates have remained relatively low.

Looking ahead it is not unreasonable to expect Gilt yields to go higher, but, with GBP rising and inflation falling this is likely to be a gradual process; added to which the Bank of England (BoE) have been softening their tone on prospective interest rate increases.

Here’s a quote from MPC member Ben Broadbent speaking at the LSE on 17th January: –

The final and more general point is to caution against inferring too much about future growth from its current composition. Of course there’s a risk the recovery could falter. But, if it does, it will probably be because of more fundamental problems – a failure of productivity to respond to stronger demand, for example, or continuing stagnation in the euro area – not any imbalance in expenditure or income per se. These are outcomes, not determinants, of the economic cycle. As we shall see, they are poor predictors of future growth.

http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Pages/news/2014/024.aspx

On 23rd January Ian McCafferty reiterated the MPC’s position on rates: –

…the MPC sees no immediate need to increase interest rates, even if unemployment reaches 7% in the near future.

McCafferty goes on to discuss capital expenditure which, along with productivity growth, has been weak during the early stages of the recovery.

http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Pages/news/2014/027.aspx

Also on 23rd January MPC memberPaul Fisher, after explaining why the BoE allowed inflation to remain above target for so long, went on to opine: –

We are very conscious that the headwinds have not gone away: much of Europe and some other parts of the world continue to struggle for sustained growth; fiscal consolidation in the UK (and elsewhere) is likely to continue for a while to come; and the financial sector still needs some rebuilding. Indeed, the official production and construction data released earlier this month were rather disappointing, reminding us that strong growth from here on is by no means guaranteed.

http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Pages/news/2014/028.aspx

Fisher goes on to explain that unemployment, and the composition of employment, are key metrics in their thought process. The whole speech is also a fascinating insight into the MPCs approach and their ideas on forward guidance.

BoE Governor – Mark Carney addressed the CBI at Davos on 24th January: he discussed the UK economy and the need to reach “escape velocity”: –

After the Great Moderation and the Great Recession, there are several reasons why it will be years before any superlatives are attached to this recovery.

First, for all the talk of austerity and deleveraging, the aggregate debt burdens of advanced economies have actually increased; with their total non-financial sector debt rising by 25% relative to GDP since 2007. Balance sheet repair in the public and private sectors will exert a persistent drag on major economies for some time.

Second, the need to rebalance demand from deficit to surplus countries endures. Given the adjustment pressures on the former, without progress on rebalancing, robust and sustainable global growth will remain an aspiration.

Third, confidence, while improved, remains subdued. Recognising that the end isn’t nigh is far from marking the normalisation of business and consumer sentiment. Given past shocks and modest prospects, business investment in particular remains hesitant across the advanced world. On balance, corporations remain more focused on reducing operating expenditures than increasing capital expenditures.

… Nevertheless, it appears that the recovery will need to be sustained for a period before productivity gains can resume in earnest. The latest data show that more than a quarter of a million jobs were created in a three-month period – the biggest increase since records began in 1971. As a result, unemployment seems to be falling at a pace that will reach our 7% threshold materially earlier than we had expected.

Crucially, unemployment remains above the level that is likely to be consistent with maintaining inflation at the target in the medium term. It is not just that nearly three quarters of a million more people are out of work than before the crisis; another three quarters of a million more people are involuntarily working part time.

The effect of this slack in the labour market is evident in wage inflation, which is at around 1% so that, even with weak productivity, unit labour cost growth remains below 2%.

http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Pages/speeches/2014/705.aspx

All of these comments concerning lack of productivity growth, elevated levels of unemployment, growth of part-time employment, lack of capital expenditure and international headwinds from the Eurozone, suggest that interest rates will stay low and the BoE will risk above target inflation to insure the economic recovery broadens and deepens. In this environment I see Gilts remaining in a relatively narrow range, even if inflation ticks higher once more.

Politics

On 29th January, Mark Carney spoke in Edinburgh on The economics of currency unions. The full speech is here: –

http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Documents/speeches/2014/speech706.pdf

He attempted to be deliberately non-political – to judge by the press comment afterwards he failed – but it is a timely reminder that Scotland will vote on whether they remain in the Union on 18th September. The uncertainty surrounding the possible break-up of the Union and one what economic terms is another factor which will temper a broader based recovery.

Other political clouds on the horizon include the European Parliament elections (22nd to 25th May) where nationalist parties are expected to gain significant ground.

Equities

The FTSE100 has performed strongly since the beginning of 2013, in line with other developed country stock markets. The large dose of QE delivered by the BoE has underpinned this trend, but, now that the economy has regained some upward momentum, many commentators are becoming doubtful about the prospects for UK stocks – after all, lower interest rates are one of the most powerful drivers of equity market performance.

Firstly, I believe UK-centric stock momentum is increasing, but a number of external factors will be supportive of the UK equity market: –

  1. China has announced a rebalancing of their economy towards domestic consumption, even if this is at the expense of headline GDP growth. This makes inward foreign investment into China less attractive – I expect capital to flow back to UK and USA.
  2. Japan is attempting to deliver economic growth through what PM Abe has dubbed the “Three Arrows” policy, this has already seen a significant decline in the JPY and a new “quasi-carry trade” is being driven but expectation of relative government spending. The US has begun to taper (another $10bln just this week) and the UK might follow suit at some point this year, but Japan will continue with QE.
  3. Emerging markets have already started to react to the changed policy of the Federal Reserve: India, beginning last year, Argentina, South Africa and Turkey, have seen their currencies depreciate and respond with higher interest rates since the start of the year. Emerging market bonds have, needless the say, fallen sharply, prompting international investors to liquidate some of their investments. The reversal of more than a decade of Capital flows to emerging markets will support developed country currencies, especially those, like the UK, with Capital account surpluses.

Secondly, UK Exports have remained resilient despite the strengthening of sterling.

UK Exports - 10 yr - source tradingeconomics and ONS

Source – tradingeconomics.com

I have some caveats concerning UK equities however; banking and financial services firms are still under pressure due to regulatory change – a new report from United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCAD) shows the UK falling to second place behind the USA; down more than 20% from its peak only seven years ago. The European Commission has just announced plans to stop all proprietary trading by Banks by 2017 – whilst this is likely to be challenged by UK, France and Germany it will lead to the postponement of any expansion plans in this area.  Another sector which is under pressure is mining or commodity firms which are still suffering from the downturn in prices in 2013 – this tallies with my short-term concerns about emerging markets.

UK House Prices

A number of commentators have suggested that the recent strength of the UK economy has been largely driven by increased debt, especially mortgages. Government schemes such as “funding for lending” actively encouraged UK banks to lend more aggressively despite their balance sheet constraints.

MPC member David Mills, in a speech to the Dallas Federal Reserve, discussed housing last November:-

That problem with using monetary policy to stabilise the housing market would be acute if housing markets were overheating when the wider economy was not and consumer price inflation was low even though house price inflation was high.

…High leverage is at the heart of problems in housing market. Monetary policy and macro prudential policy can influence leverage. But more fundamentally, use of outside equity might be a way of permanently bringing down reliance upon debt financing.

http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Pages/news/2013/132.aspx

In other words the BoE is unlikely to be concerned about house price inflation and will use macroprudential measures rather than interest rates to stem its rise should it occur in isolation. This is clearly good for property but, in anticipation of the “Macroprudential Stick” other asset classes, such as equities, may benefit by association.

The housing market is finally recovering from the bottom up as the following chart makes clear: –

First Time Buyers as percentage of home loans - source Council for Mortgage Lenders

Source – Council for Mortgage Lenders

First time buyers have returned, perhaps because banks are more amenable about loan to value ratios but also because real house prices are well off their highs: –

 Real House Prices since 1975 - source Nationwide Building Society

Real House Prices since 1975 – source Nationwide Building Society

House price momentum appears to have turned higher once more – this chart, from MarketOracle.co.uk, uses data to November 2013:-

UK house prices and annual momentumn-Dec-2013 - source Market Oracle.com and Halifax

Source – MarketOracle.co.uk and Halifax

The December 2013 report from the Land Registry, published on 29th January, shows continued improvement: –

http://www.landregistry.gov.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/71192/HPIReport20140122.pdf

Independent forecasts for UK property are strongly positive, here is a recent sampling:-

CBRE 17% Rise by 2018 Commercial property consultants

OBR 20% Rise by end of 2018

Knight Frank24% rise by end of 2018 – Retail property specialists

Savills25% rise by end of 2018 – Retail property specialists

Why so strong? Because interest rates are low and therefore housing is relatively affordable. Here is one of my favourite measures of housing affordability from Moneystepper.com:-

UK mortgage to income ratio - source moneystepper.com

UK Mortgage payment to income ratio – source Moneystepper.com

The author uses the Nationwide House Price Index, the BoE base rate plus 2% and the ONS after-tax income data.

For a more detailed investigation of the UK property market here is their post from November 2013, it’s the second of three articles:-

http://moneystepper.com/financial-planning/housing-bubble-uk-2/

Why Tantalus to Sisyphus?

Almost everything I’ve written so far has been positive for the UK economy and neutral or positive for UK markets. After unprecedented actions by the BoE, the “Tantalus Phase” appears to be over; growth that was just out of reach is now within our grasp, however, ahead of us lies the “Sisyphus Phase” where we have to pay the piper.

To begin with I want to look at money supply growth. Here is the Ratio of M4 to M0 from BoE data: –

Ratio M4 to M0 - source Bank of England

Ratio of M4 to M0 – source Bank of England – John Phelan

An excellent article by John Phelan written for the Cobden Centre analyses this development in more detail: –

http://www.cobdencentre.org/2014/01/britains-inflationary-outlook

Since March 2009 Britain’s monetary base, also known as narrow money or M0, has increased by 321%. We can see that the majority of this is in the form of increased bank reserves, up 642% since March 2009.

This is just what we’d expect to see following the Bank of England’s Quantitative Easing, where the Bank creates new money and uses it to purchase bonds from banks – that new money becomes bank reserves. Those banks have sat on that money (not using it as a basis for new credit creation and feeding into M4) which is why, while narrow (M0) money has exploded, broad (M4) money has barely budged, increasing by just 7.4% since March 2009.

This relative restraint in M4 growth explains the relative restraint in inflation. There is no great mystery as to why banks which have just seen their assets tank and ravage their balance sheets should want to hold more reserves. The key question is what happens next.

A paper published in December 2013 by European Commission – The flow of credit in the UK economy and the availability of financing to the corporate sector – looks in more detail at the problem of the transmission of credit:-

http://ec.europa.eu/economy_finance/publications/economic_paper/2013/pdf/ecp509_en.pdf

They conclude on an optimistic note: –

The flow of credit in the UK economy may be close to turning a corner in connection with recent improvements in the macroeconomic outturns and outlook, and as banks finish adapting to a new regulatory environment. Improving access to finance for firms and SMEs is set to remain a crucial element for driving the desirable rebalancing of the UK economy, fomenting investment and fostering the reallocation of resources to the most productive sectors of the economy throughout the on-going recovery.

The BoE – Corporate Credit Conditions Survey – Q4 2013 – released earlier this month, also suggests this process is starting to happen:-

Overall credit availability to the corporate sector was reported to have increased significantly in 2013 Q4; lenders have now reported an increase in availability for five consecutive quarters. Lenders cited market share objectives, competition from capital markets and an improvement in the economic outlook as factors that had contributed significantly to the increase in availability. All these factors were expected to contribute significantly to availability in 2014 Q1.

http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/publications/Documents/other/monetary/ccs/creditconditionssurvey140108.pdf

Against this back-drop of improving conditions, however, it is important to realise that the combination of UK public and private sector debt is the second largest of any developed country on the planet relative to GDP – only Japan carries a greater burden. Academic research has shown that when the ratio of debt to GDP exceeds 260% to 275% this tends to act as a drag on economic growth.

The chart below is from 2012 but the situation has not improved.

 Total Debt to GDP ratios - source DailyMail

Total Debt to GDP – source DailyMail – January 2012

UK Household debt is now at a record £1.43trln, although, it has fallen from 167% of income to 140% since 2008.

At some point in the future we will have a “reckoning” – probably when broad-based inflation begins to rise once more. Interest rates will rise dramatically to control credit growth. What the catalyst will be is difficult to say – a breakup of the Eurozone could lead to a collapse of GBP, the next major leg of a commodity super-cycle turbo-charged by the collapse of the Saudi regime – it’s best not to speculate, but, perhaps the longer term factor most likely to re-ignite the inflationary potential of the “great debasement” is demographic.

As the “Baby-boomers” finish retiring and downsizing the next leg of the demographic cycle will begin, with increased spending and consumption. When these “new-boomers” eclipse the “old-boomers” inflation will regain its power to decimate the value of money whilst at the same time asset prices will collapse under a deluge of foreclosures and debt default. The Sisyphian task will be to reduce the debt against the rising tide of servicing costs. But when will the next “Baby Boom” arrive?

Here is a fascinating chart from the ONS:-

UK Baby boom - source ONS

UK Baby boom – source Office of National Statistics

According to ONS data, UK population growth to mid-2011 was the highest in 40 years. They predict that, should this trend continue, the UK will have the largest population of any country in Europe by 2050. Recent CML data shows the average age of first time house buyers to be 29/30 years. I therefore anticipate a “mini-baby boom” effect kicking in between 2015 and 2020, followed by a 10 year decline. From 2030 this pattern will reverse; by 2040 the next significant inflation wave will be in full swing.

This weekCharles Goodhart, speaking at the LSE predicted that “The Next Crisis” – which was the title of his speech – will occur around 2025/2026. Here’s the podcast, he starts his argument around 10 minutes in and make the case for 17 year cycles. Hence 2025/26 will see the next UK crisis which, he believes, will be more severe than the recent downturn due to a greater concentration on lending to the property sector, exacerbated by the regulatory curtailment of investment banking activity in favour of more traditional bank lending: –

http://www.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=2219

My expectation is that during the remainder of this decade demographic forces will be somewhat supportive of inflation but attempts to deleverage UK debt after 2020 will have more deflationary consequences.

Conclusion

Sterling looks well placed to move back into its pre-crisis range. Gilts are caught between inflationary and deflationary forces and should remain range-bound. UK Equities are likely to benefit from inward capital flows and UK property looks better than ever – barring a significant change in UK planning laws, this is my preferred UK asset class for 2014, and probably beyond.