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.

Here comes summer – Did you sell in May?

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Macro Letter – No 56 – 10-06-2016

Here comes summer – Did you sell in May?

  • Are Central Bankers approaching the limit of their power?
  • Individual stock volatility is reaching extremes relative to the indices
  • When dispersion of stock returns is high the risk relative to reward also rises
  • Some hedge fund strategies offer long-term benefits in this environment

This week’s letter is a departure from my normal format. Enclosed is a commentary on the prospects for the financial markets from my friend Allan Rogers whom I have been fortunate enough to know since the early 1990’s. Latterly the CIO of Loews Corporation’s Continental Assurance, Allan was a proprietary trader at Bankers Trust when the bank was in its heyday. Here is the note he kindly sent me on 14th May:-

Summer 2016 features a rising wave of frustration and voter antipathy toward most governing bodies and central banks, with good reason.  Ballot box dynamics threaten numerous incumbent government officials.  Demographic aging phenomena, technological innovation and minimum wage adjustments combine to thwart cyclical labor market improvement.  As post-war economic models fail to anticipate these rapid market adjustments, Central Banks cling desperately to their Milton Friedman monetary theory and Keynesian fiscal assumptions, relying on their imaginations, luck, and prayer to launch wave after wave of novel liquidity infusions.  So far, no good.  In their haste to revive growth after the financial crisis, they have handcuffed the dealer liquidity providers with ill-conceived regulations that endanger the liquidity network plumbing whenever expectations shift abruptly.  We have devolved into a nightmare of ZIRP, NIRP, QE, and God knows what’s next.  But, rather than wring our hands over this dilemma, let’s contemplate sensible portfolio management strategy for a few minutes.

As discussed last year, foreign exchange currency reserves still exceed $14 trillion.  Their potential deployment for economic stimulus remains intact.  Sovereign wealth funds, mostly invested in equity proxies, provide additional support for equity markets.  Central Banks are squeezing private investors as they desperately acquire dominant portions of the most liquid segments of risk-free(?) sovereign debt, corporate debt in Europe, and ETF’s and equities in Asia.  As a result, P/E ratios are elevated and yields bear little relationship to economic fundamentals.  As the political outlook befuddles the experts and aggravates voters, portfolio managers, facing new accountability regulations and third-quarter restrictions on Money Market Funds, need to become even more tactical in their asset allocation until clarity on Trump/Clinton, Brexit, etc. emerges later this year.  Until then, counter-trading the price action makes the most sense.  Even the hedge funds and private equity managers are struggling to perform in this turbulence as previous experience appears to provide useful insights.  The erratic price action reminds me of the late 1970’s when thirty years of fixed rates were followed by the oil price shocks that ushered in the Volcker era. Desperate pension funds and insurance companies might applaud such a development now as their yield assumptions fall 100’s of basis points short of any hope of meeting their forward liabilities.  In a market where the Yen and Euro rally despite explicit efforts to devalue them, one might surmise that their appreciation is only driven by the final unwinding of the massive Yen-carry trade by hedge funds facing redemptions after disappointing performance.

Amid all the chaos, do not expect central banks to abandon their printing presses. Syrian immigration issues in Europe and Trumpian nationalism will retard global trade and risk a replay of more intense competitive devaluation.  When we do reach the point of exhaustion for monetary stimulus, central banks have NO exit strategy. Bond markets will break down abruptly, but until then, US Treasuries should out-perform all other sovereigns. 10 year notes may well flirt with 1% as NIRP experimentation continues. Debates about the number of Fed “tightening” moves are irrelevant. The outlook, going forward, is all about liquidity management.  Although gold has rallied sharply so far this year, I suggest owning some gold, although one should heed the cautious brilliance of Stan Druckenmiller in conceivably buying a more significant percentage.

In this climate, equity markets offer the most promising net returns, IF one is willing to trade them actively.  “Buy and Hold” is a death wish. For over ten years, opportunistic equity traders have encountered volatile, but profitable equity markets. As we sit close to record high prices and valuations, why now? Amid illiquid markets, individual equities experience incredible price volatility despite the tame VIX market. The table below details the price ranges of the Dow Jones Industrials over the previous 52 weeks. If a money manager budgets an annual return of 7-8%, as many pension funds do, then opportunistic trading of these large-cap, blue chips makes achievement of those returns possible. Incremental usage of options and dividends sweeten the results.  But, you must trade these ranges, or, only buy weakness. I know this runs counter to indexing and most notions of prudent investment, but look at the table and draw your own conclusions. Incidentally, these ranges are not atypical, even in years where the averages experience only modest annual changes.

Stock  52 wk low 52 wk high 52 wk range % change
AAPL 89.47 132.97 43 48
AXP 50.27 81.92 31 63
BA 102.1 150.58 48 47
CAT 56.36 89.62 33 59
CSCO 22.46 29.9 7 33
CVX 69.58 109.3 40 57
DD 47.11 75.72 28 61
DIS 86.25 122.08 37 42
GE 19.37 32.05 12 65
GS 139.05 218.77 80 57
HD 97.17 137.82 40 42
IBM 116.9 174.44 57 49
INTC 24.87 35.59 11 43
JNJ 81.79 115 33 41
JPM 50.07 70.61 20 41
KO 36.56 47.13 10 29
MCD 87.5 131.96 44 51
MMM 134 171.27 37 28
MRK 45.69 61.7 16 35
MSFT 39.72 56.85 17 43
NKE 47.25 68.19 21 44
PFE 28.25 36.46 8 29
PG 65.02 83.87 19 29
TRV 95.21 118.28 23 24
UNH 95 135.11 40 42
UTX 83.39 119.66 36 43
V 60 81.73 22 36
VZ 38.06 54.49 16 43
WMT 56.3 79.94 24 42
XOM 66.55 90 23 35
         
Average       43
         
DIA 150.57 183.35 32 22
SPY 181.02 213.78 33 18

 

Source: Yahoo Finance

These data observations, while hardly profound, illustrate the range of possibility for trading profit, even in the largest stocks. Notice that the average price range of individual equities is more than twice the range of the large-cap averages, as reflected in their ETF’s. If you need to earn 8% per annum and the average Dow Industrial offers a 43% annual trading range, you don’t need to channel Jesse Livermore to achieve your objective. These results do not include dividends or option writing benefits.

This series of macro letters is entitled “In the Long Run” so you may, quite reasonably assume that I have “sold out”. I have not, but Allan, highlights the essence of the dilemma facing long-term investors looking ahead. During the past eight years interest rates have fallen in several countries to the lowest levels since records began. Being long government bonds below ones own rate of inflation (and there are few people whose living costs genuinely rise as slowly at RPI, HICP etc.) is irrational, since your real return will be negative – switching to “risker” assets makes sense.

With the Fed expected to tighten, if not this month then very soon, and other central banks contemplating how they may unwind the QE experiment, it seems likely that government yields may rise, credit spreads widen and equities decline.  As Mark Twain once proclaimed, “History doesn’t repeat but it rhymes” the aforementioned scenario occurred in January and February – this spooked central bankers who promptly enacted the secret “Shanghai Accord”. The next round of “risk off” will be different.

Strategies not Asset Classes

It is well documented that the average “long only” portfolio manager underperforms the benchmark over time. Unconstrained investing, either of a “long only” absolute return type or “long/short” makes sense, but make sure your expectations are realistic. Assets such as commodities have a structurally negative real-return, even if they can perform strongly on a cyclical basis. Even “risk free” government bonds can suffer restructuring or be subject to default.

Alternative investments may provide a solution but many liquid alternative strategies (by which I mean Hedge Funds) are highly correlated to equity or fixed income indices, although they offer similar returns with substantially lower volatility. Others, are either negatively or non-correlated. For example, the discipline of the short biased manager is undervalued, given that they actively bet against the long term trend of the stock market. As an addition to a portfolio they can offer a form of active risk management. At the end of April the Barclay Hedge – Equity Short Bias Index was +3.37% YTD whilst the Equity Long Biased Index was still languishing at -1.85%; that is 1.52% of Alpha if the general market is your index.

Two other strategies worth maintaining an exposure to are Global Macro and Managed Futures. Global Macro incorporates the widest array of approaches and exposures – at the index level it is unsurprising that it rarely does well, choose carefully and keep the faith. Managed futures is also diverse but there is still a concentration on systematic momentum and trend following strategies which provide negative correlation during equity bear markets and non-correlation during other periods. It also has the advantage that you can, usually, discover the investment process prior to investment. If style drift should subsequently occur this is your signal to redeem; otherwise you should not need to intervene. It can be a remarkably light touch investment.

I could describe a number of other strategies which have merit in the current market conditions but in the interests of brevity I will close with a recent assessment of the three main risks to financial markets according to Gavekal’s Anatoly Kelestsky:-

  • The June 23 “Brexit” vote in the UK
  • US elections on November 7th
  • German elections in mid-2017

Allan Rogers sees this as a traders market whilst ex-Dallas Fed President – Richard Fisher, speaking at the Mauldin SIC event last month, described his portfolio positioning as “Fetal”. Perhaps this year, more than most, the old adage “Sell in May and go away, return again St Leger’s day” (2nd October) may be apposite.

Quantitative to qualitative – is unelected nationalisation next?

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Macro Letter – No 52 – 08-04-2016

Quantitative to qualitative – is unelected nationalisation next?

  • Negative interest rates are reducing the velocity of circulation
  • Qualitative easing is on the rise
  • Liquidity in government bond markets continues to decline
  • A lack of liquidity in equity markets will be next

Last year, in a paper entitled The Stock Market Crash Really Did Cause the Great Recession – Roger Farmer of UCLA argued that the collapse in the stock market was the cause of the Great Recession:-

In November of 2008 the Federal Reserve more than doubled the monetary base from eight hundred billion dollars in October to more than two trillion dollars in December: And over the course of 2009 the Fed purchased eight hundred billion dollars worth of mortgage backed securities. According to the animal spirits explanation of the recession (Farmer, 2010a, 2012a,b, 2013a), these Federal Reserve interventions in the asset markets were a significant factor in engineering the stock market recovery.

The animal spirits theory provides a causal chain that connects movements in the stock market with subsequent changes in the unemployment rate. If this theory is correct, the path of unemployment depicted in Figure 8 is an accurate forecast of what would have occurred in the absence of Federal Reserve intervention. These results support the claim, in the title of this paper, that the stock market crash of 2008 really did cause the Great Recession.

Central banks (CBs) around the globe appear to concur with his view. Their response to the Great Recession has been the provision of abundant liquidity – via quantitative easing – at ever lower rates of interest. They appear to believe that the recovery has been muted due to the inadequate quantity of accommodation and, as rates drift below zero, its targeting.

The Federal Reserve (Fed) was the first to recognise this problem, buying mortgages as well as Treasuries, perhaps guided by the US Treasury’s implementation of TARP in October 2008. The Fed was fortunate in being unencumbered by the political grid-lock which faced the European Central Bank (ECB). They acted, aggressively and rapidly, hoping to avoid the policy mistakes of the Bank of Japan (BoJ). The US has managed to put the great recession behind it. But at what cost? Only time will tell.

Other major CBs were not so decisive or lucky. In the immediate aftermath of the sub-prime crisis the Swiss Franc (CHF) rose – a typical “safe-haven” reaction. The SNB hung on grimly as the CHF appreciated, especially against the EUR, but eventually succumbed to “the peg” in September 2011 after the Eurozone (EZ) suffered its first summer of discontent. It was almost a year later before ECB President Draghi uttered his famous “Whatever it takes” speech on 26th July 2012.

Since 2012 government bond yields in the EZ, Switzerland, Japan and the UK have fallen further. In the US yields recovered until the end of 2013 but have fallen once more as international institutions seek yield wherever they can.

By 2013 CBs had begun to buy assets other than government bonds as a monetary exercise, in the hope of simulating economic growth. Even common stock became a target, since they were faced with the same dilemma as other investors – the need for yield.

In late April 2013 Bloomberg – Central Banks Load Up on Equities observed:-

Central banks, guardians of the world’s $11 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves, are buying stocks in record amounts as falling bond yields push even risk-averse investors toward equities.

In a survey of 60 central bankers…23 percent said they own shares or plan to buy them. The Bank of Japan, holder of the second-biggest reserves, said April 4 it will more than double investments in equity exchange-traded funds to 3.5 trillion yen ($35.2 billion) by 2014. The Bank of Israel bought stocks for the first time last year while the Swiss National Bank and the Czech National Bank have boosted their holdings to at least 10 percent of reserves.

…The SNB allocated 82 percent of its 438 billion Swiss francs ($463 billion) in reserves to government bonds in the fourth quarter, according to data on its website. Of those securities, 78 percent had the top, AAA credit grade and 17 percent were rated AA.

…The survey of 60 central bankers, overseeing a combined $6.7 trillion, found that low bond returns had prompted almost half to take on more risk. Fourteen said they had already invested in equities or would do so within five years.

…Even so, 70 percent of the central bankers in the survey indicated that equities are “beyond the pale.”

the SNB has allocated about 12 percent of assets to passive funds tracking equity indexes. The Bank of Israel has spent about 3 percent of its $77 billion reserves on U.S. stocks.

…the BOJ announced plans to put more of its $1.2 trillion of reserves into exchange-traded funds this month as it doubled its stimulus program to help reflate the economy. The Bank of Korea began buying Chinese shares last year, increasing its equity investments to about $18.6 billion, or 5.7 percent of the total, up from 5.4 percent in 2011. China’s foreign-exchange regulator said in January it has sought “innovative use” of its $3.4 trillion in assets, the world’s biggest reserves, without specifying a strategy for investing in shares.

Reserves have increased at a slower pace since 2012, but the top 50 countries still accounted for $11.4trln, according to the latest CIA Factbook estimates. The real growth has been in emerging and developing countries – according to IMF data, since 2000, in the wake of the Asian crisis, their reserves grew from $700bln to above $8trln.

By June 2014 the Financial Times – Beware central banks’ share-buying sprees was sounding the alarm:-

An eye-catching report this week said that “a cluster of central banking investors has become major players on world equity markets”. An important driver was revenues foregone on bond portfolios.

Put together by the Official Monetary and Financial Institutions Forum, which brings together secretive and normally conservative central bankers, the report’s conclusions have authority. Some equity buying was in central banks’ capacity as, in effect, sovereign wealth fund managers. China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange, which has $3.9tn under management, has become the world’s largest public sector holder of equities.

The boundary, however, with monetary policy making is not always clear. According to the Omfif report, China’s central bank itself “has been buying minority equity stakes in important European companies”.

…Central bank purchases of shares are not new. The Dutch central bank has invested in equities for decades. The benchmark for its €1.4bn portfolio is the MSCI global developed markets index.

The Italian, Swiss and Danish central banks also own equities. Across Europe, central banks face pressures from cash-strapped governments to boost income. As presumably cautious and wise investors, they have also been put in charge of managing sovereign wealth funds – Norway’s, for instance.

…the Hong Kong Monetary Authority launched a large-scale stock market intervention in 1998, splashing out about $15bn – and ended up making a profit. Since the Asian financial crisis of that year, official reserves have expanded massively – far beyond what might be needed in future financial crises or justified by trade flows.

The article goes on to state that CB transparency is needed and that it should be made clear whether the actions are monetary policy or investment activity. Equities are generally more volatile than bonds – losses could lead to political backlash, or worse still, undermine the prudent reputation of the CB itself.

Here is an example of just such an event, from July last year, as described by Zero Hedge – The Swiss National Bank Is Long $94 Billion In Stocks, Reports Record Loss Equal To 7% Of Swiss GDP:-

…17%, or CHF91 ($94 billion) of the foreign currency investments and CHF bond investments assets held on the SNB’s balance sheet are foreign stocks…

In other words, the SNB holds 15% of Switzerland’s GDP in equities!

Zero Hedge goes on to remonstrate against the lack of transparency of other CBs equity investment balances – in particular the Fed.

The ECB, perhaps due to its multitude of masters, appears reluctant to follow the lead of the SNB. In March 2015 it achieved some success by announcing that it would buy Belgian, French, Italian and Spanish bonds, under its QE plan, in addition to those of, higher rated, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. EZ Yield compression followed with Italy and Spain benefitting most.

The leading exponent of this “new monetary alchemy” is the BoJ. In an October 2015 report from Bloomberg – Owning Half of Japan’s ETF Market Might Not Be Enough for Kuroda the author states:-

With 3 trillion yen ($25 billion) a year in existing firepower, the BOJ has accumulated an ETF stash that accounted for 52 percent of the entire market at the end of September, figures from Tokyo’s stock exchange show.

…Japan’s central bank began buying ETFs in 2010 to spur more trading and promote “more risk-taking activity in the overall economy.” Governor Haruhiko Kuroda expanded the program in April 2013 and again last October.

BoJ ETF holdings - October 2015 - Bloomberg

Source: Bloomberg, TSE

More ETFs can be created to redress the balance, or the BoJ may embark on the purchase of individual stocks. They announced a small increase in ETF purchases in December, focused on physical and human capital firms – also advising that shares they bought from distressed financial institutions in 2002 will be sold (very gradually) at the rate of JPY 300bln per annum over the next decade. At the end of January the BoJ decided to adopt negative interest rate policy (NIRP) rather than expand ETF and bond purchases – this saw the Nikkei hit its lowest level since October 2014 whilst the JYP shed more than 8% against the US$. I anticipate that they will soon increase their purchases of ETFs or stocks once more. The NIRP decision was half-hearted and BoJ concerns, about corporates and individuals resorting to cash stashed in safes, may prove well founded – So it begins…Negative Interest rates Trickle Down in Japan – Mises.org discusses this matter in greater detail.

In early March the ECB acted with intent, CNBC – ECB pulls out all the stops, cuts rates and expands QE takes up the story:-

…the ECB announced on Thursday that it had cut its main refinancing rate to 0.0 percent and its deposit rate to minus-0.4 percent.

“While very low or even negative inflation rates are unavoidable over the next few months as a result of movement in oil prices, it is crucial to avoid second-round effects,” Draghi said in his regular media conference after the ECB statement.

The bank also extended its monthly asset purchases to 80 billion euros ($87 billion), to take effect in April.

…the ECB will add corporate bonds to the assets it can buy — specifically, investment grade euro-denominated bonds issued by non-bank corporations. These purchases will start towards end of the first half of 2016.

…the bank will launch a new series of four targeted longer-term refinancing operations (TLTROs) with maturities of four years, starting in June.

The Communique from the G20 meeting in Shanghai alluded to the need for increased international cooperation, but it appears that a sub-rosa agreement may have been reached to insure the Chinese did not devalue the RMB – in return for a cessation of monetary tightening by the Fed.

In an unusually transparent move, a report appeared on March 31st on Reuters – China forex regulator buys $4.2 bln in stocks via new platform:-

Buttonwood Investment Platform Ltd, 100 percent owned by the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE), and Buttonwood’s two fully-owned subsidiaries, have bought shares in a total of 13 listed companies, the newspaper reported, citing top 10 shareholder lists in the companies latest earnings reports.

Shanghai Securities News said the investments are part of SAFE’s strategy to diversify investment channels for the country’s massive foreign exchange reserves.

Recent earnings filings show Buttonwood is among the top 10 shareholders of Bank of China, Bank of Communications , Shanghai Pudong Development Bank , Everbright Securities and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

The major CBs are beginning to embrace the idea of providing capital to corporates via bond or stock purchases. With next to no yield available from government bonds, corporate securities appear attractive, especially when one has the ability to expand ones balance sheet, seemingly, without limit.

The CBs are unlikely to buy when the market is strong but will provide liquidity in distressed markets. Once they have purchased securities the “free-float” will be almost permanently reduced. The lack of, what might be termed, “trading liquidity”, which has been evident in government bond markets, is likely to spill over into those corporate bonds and ETFs where the CBs hold a significant percentage. In the UK, under our takeover code, a 30% holding in a stock would obligate the holder to make an offer for the company – the 52% of outstanding ETFs held by the BoJ already seems excessive.

The ECB has plenty of government, agency and corporate bonds to purchase, before it moves on to provide permanent equity capital. The BoE and the Fed are subject to less deflationary forces; they will be the last guests to arrive at the “closet nationalisation” party. The party, nonetheless, is getting underway. Larger companies will benefit to a much greater extent than smaller listed or unlisted corporations because the CBs want to appear to be “indiscriminate” buyers of stock.

As the pool of available bonds and stocks starts to dry up, trading liquidity will decline – markets will become more erratic and volatile. Of greater concern in economic terms, malinvestment will increase; interest rates no longer provide signals about the value of projects.

For stocks, higher earning multiples are achievable due to the rising demand for equities from desperate investors with no viable “yield” alternative. CBs are unelected stewards on whom elected governments rely with increasing ease. For notionally independent CBs to purchase common stock is de facto nationalisation. The economic cost of an artificially inflated stock market is difficult to measure in conventional terms, but its promotion of wealth inequality through the sustaining of asset bubbles will do further damage to the fabric of society.

Will Nigeria be forced to devalue the naira?

Will Nigeria be forced to devalue the naira?

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Macro Letter – No 50 – 26-02-2016

Will Nigeria be forced to devalue the naira?

  • The Nigerian government met the World Bank to discuss its deficit – loan pending
  • The Bank of Nigeria cut rates in November – bond prices suggest further cuts are imminent
  • Foreign Exchange controls tightened further in December
  • President Buhari states he won’t “kill the naira”

I last wrote about Nigeria back in early June – Nigeria and South Africa – what are their prospects for growth and investment? My favoured investment was long Nigerian bonds – then trading around 13.7%. They rose above 16% as naira exchange controls tightened. Here is a chart showing what happened next:-

nigeria-government-bond-yield

Source: Trading Economics, Central Bank of Nigeria

The catalyst for lower yields was an unexpected interest rate cut by the Central Bank of Nigeria. This is how it was reported by Reuters back on 25th November:-

Nigeria’s central bank cut benchmark interest rate to 11 percent from 13 percent on Tuesday, its first reduction in the cost of borrowing in more than six years.

…The stock market, which has the second-biggest weighting after Kuwait on the MSCI frontier market index , erased seven days of losses to climb to 27,662 points following the rate cut. The index has fallen 20.4 percent so far this year.

“On the back of the reduction in policy rates … investors are reconsidering investment in the equities market to earn higher return,” said Ayodeji Ebo, head of research at Afrinvest. “We anticipate further moderation in bond yields.”

He expected stocks in the industrial sector such as Dangote Cement and Lafarge Africa to gain from the liquidity surge as infrastructure projects boom. Ebo said the rate cut may hurt bank earnings as consumer firms reel from dollar shortages.

Yield on the most liquid 5-year bond fell 264 basis points to a five-year low of 7 percent while the benchmark 20-year bond closed 150 basis points down at 10.8 percent on Wednesday, traders said.

Bond yields had traded above 11 percent across maturities prior to Tuesday’s rate decision, with the 2034 bond trading at 12.30 percent.

The central bank has been injecting cash into the banking system since October in a bid to help the economy. Banking system credit stood at 290 billion naira ($1.5 bln) as of Wednesday, keeping overnight rates as low as 0.5 percent .

…The rate cut also weakened the naira on the unofficial market, which fell 0.8 percent to 242 to the dollar. The currency is pegged at 197 naira on the official market.

Non-deliverable currency forwards, a derivative product used to hedge against future exchange rate moves, indicated markets expected the naira’s exchange rate at 235.56 to the dollar in 12 months’ time – the strongest level in five months – and compared to 245.25 at Tuesday’s close

“Our economists still believe a devaluation will happen in a couple of quarters but I think they have had opportunities,” said Luis Costa, head of CEEMEA debt and FX strategy at Citi.

Here is a chart showing the naira spot and three month forward rate – a good surrogate for the differential between the official and black market rate:-

Naira spot vs forwards

Source: Bloomberg

December saw a further tightening of exchange controls, the FT – Capital controls curtail spending of Nigeria’s jet set elaborates:-

Nigeria’s central bank introduced currency controls last spring as the naira came under pressure after the collapse in the price of oil, the country’s main export and the lifeblood of its economy.

As well as in effect banning imports of goods from rice to steel pipes to protect dwindling foreign exchange reserves, the central bank has also enforced spending limits on foreign currency-denominated Nigerian bank cards, much to the chagrin of Nigeria’s well-heeled travellers. These are needed, it says, to curb black market activity such as “arbitraging”: when a customer turns a quick profit by withdrawing foreign exchange from an overseas ATM to sell on the black market back home.

Another less publicised aim of the controls, according to one senior official, is to limit the flight of billions of dollars suspected to have been fraudulently obtained and then hoarded in cash by business people and officials under the former government of Goodluck Jonathan.

Last month, the central bank extended the policy by banning the use of naira-denominated debit cards altogether for overseas transactions or withdrawals. The central bank has said it will not lift the restrictions until foreign reserves, which have fallen to $29bn from $34.5bn a year ago, are restored.

There is speculation among economists about the true level of foreign exchange reserves – suffice to say $29bln is regarded as an overestimate.

The January Central Bank of Nigeria Communiqué looked back to the rate cut in November but left rates unchanged, here are some of the highlights:-

Output

…Domestic output growth in 2015 remained moderate. According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), real GDP grew by 2.84 per cent in the third quarter of 2015, almost half a percentage point higher than the 2.35 per cent recorded in the second quarter. However, third quarter expansion remained substantially below the 3.96 and 6.23 per cent in the first quarter of 2015 and corresponding period of 2014, respectively. The major impetus to growth continued to come from the non-oil sector which grew by 3.05 per cent compared with the growth of 3.46 per cent posted in the preceding quarter. The major drivers of expansion in the non-oil sector were Services, Agriculture and Trade.

…The economy is expected to continue on its growth path in the first quarter 2016, albeit less robust than in the corresponding period of 2015. This expectation is predicated on the current low global oil price trend which is projected to hold low over the medium-to long term, and with attendant implications for government revenue and foreign exchange earnings. Other downside risks to growth in 2016 include: capital flow reversal, high lending rates, sluggish credit to private sector and bearish trends in the equities market.

Prices

…Core inflation declined for the third consecutive month to 8.70 per cent in November and December from 8.74 per cent in October 2015, while food inflation inched up to 10.32 per cent from 10.13 and 10.2 per cent over the same period.

Monetary, Credit and Financial Markets Developments

Broad money supply (M2) rose by 5.90 per cent in December 2015, over the level at end-December 2014, although below the growth benchmark of 15.24 per cent for 2015. Net domestic credit (NDC) grew by 12.13 per cent in the same period, but remained below the provisional benchmark of 29.30 per cent for 2015. Growth in aggregate credit reflected mainly growth in credit to the Federal Government by 151.56 per cent in December 2015 compared with 145.74 per cent in the corresponding period of 2014. The renewed increase in credit to government may be partly attributable to increased government borrowing to implement the 2015 supplementary budget.

Committee’s Considerations

The Committee observed that the last episode of low oil prices in 2005 lasted for a maximum period of 8 months. However, the current episode of lower oil prices is projected to remain over a very long period.

At the end of January, President Buhari stated that he would not “kill the naira” – this prompted some commentators to question the independence of the central bank. It also suggests that foreign exchange controls will remain in place, despite pressure from the IMF for their removal.

Conclusion and Investment Opportunities

Whilst foreign exchange controls remain in place it is difficult to access the Nigerian markets: stubbornly high inflation remains a concern which these controls will only exacerbate – see chart below:-

nigeria-inflation-cpi

Source: Trading Economics, Nigerian Statistics Bureau

In this, high inflation, environment, it is difficult to envisage much further upside for government bonds. If you have been long I would take profit before the currency comes under renewed pressure. On 21st January Nigeria’s finance minister Kemi Adeosun announced that the government would borrow $5bln from international agencies to plug the shortfall in tax receipts, she has since then been in talks with the AfDB and the World Bank – after all, oil represents 95% of exports and more than two thirds of government revenue.

Stocks have fallen by more than 45% since their July 2014 highs, but further devaluation looks likely. The non-oil sector will outperform in the current environment but should the central bank “throw in the towel” it will be the energy sector which benefits in the short-term. According to Knoema, Nigerian oil production offshore is around $30/bbl whilst the smaller on-shore production is nearer $15/bbl. Other estimates suggest that only 16% of Nigerian oil reserves are worth exploiting at prices below $40/bbl. A 20% to 40% decline in the naira will reduce the break-even immediately. I remain side-lined until the valuation of the naira has been resolved.

As for the naira – a prolonged period of low oil prices will see the three month forward rate return towards NGNUSD 250 – a break towards 280 could represent a capitulation point. I believe this offers value, being 40% above the official rate. Will it happen? Yes, I think so.

Have technological advances offset the reduction in capital allocated to financial markets trading?

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Macro Letter – No 45 – 06-11-2015

Have technological advances offset the reduction in capital allocated to financial markets trading?

  • Increases in capital requirements have curtailed financial institutions trading
  • Improved execution, clearing and settlement has reduced frictions in transactions
  • Faster real-time risk management systems have enhanced the efficiency of capital
  • On-line services have democratized market access

Liquidity in financial markets means different things to different participants. A sharp increase in trading volume is no guarantee that liquidity will persist. Before buying (or selling) any financial instrument the first thing one should ask is “how easy will it be to liquidate my exposure?” This question was at the heart of a recent paper by the UK Government – The future of computer trading in financial markets – 2012here are some of the highlights:-

…The Project has found that some of the commonly held negative perceptions surrounding HFT are not supported by the available evidence and, indeed, that HFT may have modestly improved the functioning of markets in some respects. However, it is believed that policy makers are justified in being concerned about the possible effects of HFT on instability in financial markets.

There will be increasing availability of substantially cheaper computing power, particularly through cloud computing: those who embrace this technology will benefit from faster and more intelligent trading systems in particular.

Special purpose silicon chips will gain ground from conventional computers: the increased speed will provide an important competitive edge through better and faster simulation and analysis, and within transaction systems.

Computer-designed and computer-optimised robot traders could become more prevalent: in time, they could replace algorithms designed and refined by people, posing new challenges for understanding their effects on financial markets and for their regulation.

Opportunities will continue to open up for small and medium-sized firms offering ‘middleware’ technology components, driving further changes in market structure: such components can be purchased and plugged together to form trading systems which were previously the preserve of much larger institutions.

The extent to which different markets embrace new technology will critically affect their competitiveness and therefore their position globally: The new technologies mean that major trading systems can exist almost anywhere. Emerging economies may come to challenge the long-established historical dominance of major European and US cities as global hubs for financial markets if the former capitalise faster on the technologies and the opportunities presented.

The new technologies will continue to have profound implications for the workforce required to service markets, both in terms of numbers employed in specific jobs, and the skills required: Machines can increasingly undertake a range of jobs for less cost, with fewer errors and at much greater speed. As a result, for example, the number of traders engaged in on-the-spot execution of orders has fallen sharply in recent years, and is likely to continue to fall further in the future. However, the mix of human and robot traders is likely to continue for some time, although this will be affected by other important factors, such as future regulation.

Markets are already ‘socio-technical’ systems, combining human and robot participants. Understanding and managing these systems to prevent undesirable behaviour in both humans and robots will be key to ensuring effective regulation…

While the effect of CBT (Computer Based Trading) on market quality is controversial, the evidence available to this Project suggests that CBT has several beneficial effects on markets, notably:

liquidity, as measured by bid-ask spreads and other metrics, has improved;

transaction costs have fallen for both retail and institutional traders, mostly due to changes in trading market structure, which are related closely to the development of HFT in particular;

market prices have become more efficient, consistent with the hypothesis that CBT links markets and thereby facilitates price discovery.

While overall liquidity has improved, there appears to be greater potential for periodic illiquidity: The nature of market making has changed, with high frequency traders now providing the bulk of such activity in both futures and equities. However, unlike designated specialists, high frequency traders typically operate with little capital, hold small inventory positions and have no obligations to provide liquidity during periods of market stress. These factors, together with the ultra-fast speed of trading, create the potential for periodic illiquidity. The US Flash Crash and other more recent smaller events illustrate this increased potential for illiquidity.

…Three main mechanisms that may lead to instabilities and which involve CBT are:

nonlinear sensitivities to change, where small changes can have very large effects, not least through feedback loops;

incomplete information in CBT environments where some agents in the market have more, or more accurate, knowledge than others and where few events are common knowledge;

internal ‘endogenous’ risks based on feedback loops within the system.

The crux of the issue is whether market-makers have been replaced by traders. This trend is not new. On the LSE the transition occurred at “Big Bang” in October 1986. The LSE was catching up with the US deregulation which prompted the formation of NASDAQ in 1971.

Electronic trading, once permitted, soon eclipsed the open-outcry of futures pits and traditional practices of stock exchange floors. Transactions became cheaper, audit trails, more accurate and error incidence declined. Commission rates fell, bid/offer spreads narrowed, volumes increased, in an, almost, entirely virtuous circle.

The final development which was needed to insure liquidity, was the evolution of an efficient repurchase market for securities – sadly this market-place remains remarkably opaque. Nonetheless, the perceived need for designated market-makers, with an obligation to make a two-way price, has diminished. It has been replaced by proprietary trading firms, which forgo the privileges of the market-maker – principally lower fees or preferential access to supply – for the flexibility to abstain from providing liquidity at their own discretion.

In the late 1990’s I remember a conversation with a partner at NYSE Specialist – Foster, Marks & Natoli – he had joined the firm in 1953 and sold his business to Spear, Leeds Kellogg in 1994. He told me that during his career he estimated the amount of capital relative to size of the trading portfolio had declined by a factor of five times.

Since the mid-1990’s stock market volumes have increased dramatically as the chart below shows:-

NYSEvolume

Source: NYSE

The recommendations of the UK Government report include:-

European authorities, working together, and with financial practitioners and academics, should assess (using evidence-based analysis) and introduce mechanisms for managing and modifying the potential adverse side-effects of CBT and HFT.

Coordination of regulatory measures between markets is important and needs to take place at two levels: Regulatory constraints involving CBT in particular need to be introduced in a coordinated manner across all markets where there are strong linkages.

Regulatory measures for market control must also be undertaken in a systematic global fashion to achieve in full the objectives they are directed at. A joint initiative from a European Office of Financial Research and the US Office of Financial Research (OFR), with the involvement of other international markets, could be one option for delivering such global coordination.

Legislators and regulators need to encourage good practice and behaviour in the finance and software engineering industries. This clearly involves the need to discourage behaviour in which increasingly risky situations are regarded as acceptable, particularly when failure does not appear as an immediate result.

Standards should play a larger role. Legislators and regulators should consider implementing accurate, high resolution, synchronised timestamps because this could act as a key enabling tool for analysis of financial markets. Clearly it could be useful to determine the extent to which common gateway technology standards could enable regulators and customers to connect to multiple markets more easily, making more effective market surveillance a possibility.

In the longer term, there is a strong case to learn lessons from other safety-critical industries, and to use these to inform the effective management of systemic risk in financial systems. For example, high-integrity engineering practices developed in the aerospace industry could be adopted to help create safer automated financial systems.

Making surveillance of financial markets easier…The development of software for automated forensic analysis of adverse/extreme market events would provide valuable assistance for regulators engaged in surveillance of markets. This would help to address the increasing difficulty that people have in investigating events

At no point do they suggest that all market participants – especially those with principal or spread risk – be required to increase their capital. This will always remain an option. An alternative solution, the reinstatement of designated market-makers with obligations and privileges, is also absent from the report – this may prove to be a mistake.

An example of technological emancipation

In this paper, Review of Development Finance – The impact of technological improvements on developing financial markets: The case of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange – Q3 – 2013 – the authors investigate how the adoption of the SETS trading platform transformed the volume traded on the JSE:-

The adoption of the SETS trading platform was supposed to represent a watershed moment in the history of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. The JSE is more liquid after SETS. The JSE has nearly doubled its trading activity (volume), trading is cheaper, and there are more trades at JSE after SETS.

Overall, average daily returns are higher. We posit that this is mainly because the returns are increased to the levels demanded for the associated risk. With the new trading platform, it would also be expected that there would be improvements in market efficiency. Higher numbers of investors, more listed companies, faster trading and more trade (evidenced with trading activity and liquidity), all would imply more market efficiency. Contrary to our expectations, however, market-wide and individual-level stock returns are still somewhat predictable; this is a clear violation of market efficiency.

If market participants had been required to increase their capital in line with the increased volume, the transformation would have been far less dramatic. This is not to say that increased trading volume equates to increased risk. Technology has improved access, traders are able to liquidate positions more easily, most of the time, due to improved technology. At any point in the trading day they may hold the same open position size, but by turning over their positions more frequently they may be able to increase their return on capital (and risk) employed.

Federal Reserve concern

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York – Introduction to a series on Liquidity published eleven articles on different aspects of liquidity during the last three months, here are some of the highlights:-

Has U.S. Treasury Market Liquidity Deteriorated? …it might be that liquidity concerns reflect anxiety about future liquidity conditions, with a possible imbalance between liquidity supply and demand. On the demand side, the share of Treasuries owned by mutual funds, which may demand daily liquidity, has increased. On the supply side, the primary dealers have pared their financing activities sharply since the crisis and shown no growth in their gross positions despite the sharp increase in Treasury debt outstanding.

This seems to ignore the effect of QE on the “free-float” of T-Bonds. The chart below shows the growth of the Federal Reserve holdings during the last decade:-

T-Bonds at the Fed - St Louis Fed

Source: St Louis Federal Reserve

Liquidity during Flash Events…all three events exhibited strained liquidity conditions during periods of extreme price volatility but the Treasury market event arguably exhibited a greater degree of price continuity, consistent with descriptions of the flash rally as “slow-moving.”

Unlike the FX and equity market, the US government still appoint primary dealers who have privileged access to the issuer. This probably explains much of the improved price continuity.

High-Frequency Cross-Market Trading in U.S. Treasury Markets. Cross-market trading by now accounts for a significant portion of trading in Treasury instruments in both the cash and futures markets. This reflects improvements in trading technology that allow for high-frequency trading within and across platforms. In particular, nearly simultaneous trading between the cash and futures platforms now accounts for up to 20 percent of cash market activity on many days. Market participants often presume that price discovery happens in Treasury futures. However, our findings show that this is not always the case: Although futures usually lead cash, the reverse is also often true. Therefore, from a price discovery point of view, the two markets can effectively be seen as one.

For many years the T-Bond future was regarded as the most liquid market and was therefore the preferred means of liquidation in times of stress. The most extreme example I have witnessed was in the German bond market during re-unification (1988). The Bund future was the most liquid market in which to lay off risk. As a result, Bund futures traded more than 10 bps cheap to cash and cash Bunds offered a yield premium of 13bps to bank Schuldschein – unsecured promissory notes.

The introduction of electronic trading in T-Bond cash markets has created competing pools of liquidity which should be additive in times of stress. The increasing use of Central Counter Party (CCP) clearing has allowed new market participants to operate with a smaller capital base.

This evolution has also been sweeping through the Interest Rate Swap market, reducing pressure on the T-Bond futures market further still.

The Evolution of Workups in the U.S. Treasury Securities Market. The workup is a unique feature of the interdealer cash Treasury market. Over time, the details of the workup have changed in response to changing market conditions, with the abandonment of the private phase and the shortening of the default duration to 3 seconds. While some market participants may consider it an anachronism, given the increased trading activity in benchmark Treasuries and the tight link to the extremely liquid Treasury futures market, the workup has not only remained an important feature of the interdealer market; it has actually grown in importance, now accounting for almost two-thirds of trading volume in the benchmark ten-year Treasury note.

On the Frankfurt stock exchange each Bund issue is “fixed” at around 13:00 daily. This process creates a liquidity concentration. A similar “clearing” process occurs at the end of LME rings. For spread traders, the ability to “lean” against a relatively un-volatile market – such as during a workup – whilst making an aggressive market in the correspondingly more volatile companion, represents an enhanced trading opportunity. One side of the potential spread price is provided “risk-free”.

What’s Driving Dealer Balance Sheet Stagnation? …The growing role of electronic trading has likely narrowed bid-ask spreads and reduced dealers’ profits from intermediating customer order flow, causing dealers to step back from making markets and reducing their need for large balance sheets. The changing competitive landscape of market making, as manifested by the entry of nondealer firms since the early 2000s, may therefore also play a role in the post-crisis dealer balance sheet dynamics.  …The picture that emerges is that post-crisis dealer asset growth represents the confluence of several issues. Our findings suggest that business-cycle factors (the hangover from the housing boom and bust and subsequent risk aversion) and secular trends (electronification and competitive entry) should be considered alongside tighter regulation in explaining stagnating dealer balance sheets. 

I refer back to my conversation with Mr Foster, the NYSE Specialist; in asset markets – equities and to a lesser extent bonds – as volume increases during a bull-market, the number of market participants increases. In this environment “liquidity providers” trade more frequently with the same capital base. Subsequently, as volatility declines – provided trading volume is maintained – these liquidity providers increase their trading size in order to maintain the same return on capital. When the bear-market arrives, the new participants, who arrived during the bull-market, liquidate. The remaining “liquidity providers” – those that haven’t exited the gene pool – are left passing the parcel among themselves as the return on capital declines precipitously (the chart, some way below, shows this evolution quite clearly).

Has U.S. Corporate Bond Market Liquidity Deteriorated? …price-based liquidity measures—bid-ask spreads and price impact—are very low by historical standards, indicating ample liquidity in corporate bond markets. This is a remarkable finding, given that dealer ownership of corporate bonds has declined markedly as dealers have shifted from a “principal” to an “agency” model of trading. These findings suggest a shift in market structure, in which liquidity provision is not exclusively provided by dealers but also by other market participants, including hedge funds and high-frequency-trading firms.

Given the “quest for yield” and the reduction in T-Bond supply due to QE, this shift in market structure is unsurprising, however the relatively illiquid nature of the Corporate bond repo market means much of the activity is based around “carry” returns. Participants are cognizant of the dangers of swift reversals of sentiment in carry trading.

Has Liquidity Risk in the Corporate Bond Market Increased? …We measure market liquidity risk by counting the frequency of large day-to-day increases in illiquidity and price volatility, where “large” is defined relative to measures of recent liquidity and volatility changes (details are described here). We refer to the illiquidity jumps as “liquidity risk” and to the volatility jumps as “vol-of-vol.” Counting the number of such jumps in an eighteen-month trailing window shows that liquidity risk and vol-of-vol have declined substantially from crisis levels…

…Current metrics indicate ample levels of liquidity in the corporate bond market, and liquidity risk in the corporate bond market seems to have actually declined in recent years. This is in contrast to liquidity risk in equity and Treasury markets…

The Fed methodology is contained in a four page paper A Note on Measuring Illiquidity Jumps. It may be of interest to those with an interest in exotic option pricing. I’m not convinced that I agree with their conclusions about Liquidity Risk – it is difficult to measure that which is unseen.

Has Liquidity Risk in the Treasury and Equity Markets Increased? …While current levels of liquidity appear similar to those observed before the crisis, sudden spikes in illiquidity—like the equity market flash crash of 2010, the recent equity market volatility on August 24, and the flash rally in Treasury yields on October 15, 2014—seem to have become more common. Such spikes in illiquidity tend to coincide with spikes in option-implied volatility, in both equity and Treasury markets…

…we refer to these liquidity jumps as “liquidity risk” and volatility jumps as “vol-of-vol.” Counting the number of such jumps in an eighteen-month trailing window reveals a recent uptick in liquidity risk and vol-of-vol, and confirms the link between them… The evidence that liquidity risk in equities and Treasuries is elevated contrasts with our earlier post, which found no such increase for corporate bonds.

Our findings suggest a trade-off between liquidity levels and liquidity risk: while equity and Treasury markets have been highly liquid in recent years, liquidity risk appears elevated. This change has gone hand in hand with an apparent increase in the vol-of-vol of asset prices, so that illiquidity spikes seem to coincide with volatility spikes. Our findings further suggest that the increase in liquidity risk is more likely attributable to changes in market structure and competition than dealer balance sheet regulations, since the latter would also have caused corporate bond liquidity risk to rise. Moreover, evidence from option markets suggests that this seeming rise in liquidity risk is not reflected in the price of volatility.

Market liquidity in a given market is never constant, the trading volume may remain the same but the market participants, wholly different. In the 1980’s Japanese institutions were a significant influence on the US bond market, today it is the Federal Reserve. Changes, such as minimum price increments and exchange trading hours are significant; the list of factors is long and ever changing. The increase in Liquidity Risk has as much to do with the increase in systematic trading and the relative consistency of approach these traders take to risk management. These traders and their methods have become increasingly prevalent. Whilst cognizant of skewness they see the world through a Gaussian lense. They measure strategy success by Sharpe and Sortino ratio, assessing it by the minute or the hour and being “flat” by market close.

Changes in the Returns to Market Making. We show estimated returns to market making to be at historically low levels—a finding that seems inconsistent with market analysts’ argument that higher capital requirements have reduced market liquidity. The picture that emerges from our analysis is of a change in the risk-sharing arrangement among trading institutions. We uncover a compression in expected returns to market making in the corporate bond market, where dealers remain the predominant market makers, as well as the equity market, where dealers are less important. The compression of market making returns may be tied to competitive pressures, with high-frequency trading competition being important in the equity market.

High-Frequency Equity Market-Making Returns and VIX

Source: Reuters, Haver Analytics

The chart above looks at one minute reversals on the Dow. As long ago as 2003, the HFT customers I dealt with were operating on sub-second reversal time horizons. Nonetheless, the pattern of profitability may be broadly similar.

Redemption Risk of Bond Mutual Funds and Dealer Positioning. Mutual funds’ share of corporate bond ownership has increased sharply in recent years, while dealers’ share has declined substantially. Because mutual funds are subject to redemption risk, this shift in ownership patterns raises the concern that redemption risk might have increased. However, we find no evidence that the net flow volatility of bond funds has increased. Likewise, we uncover no evidence of contrarian behavior by dealers relative to bond fund flows. Therefore, even if we do observe large mutual fund redemptions in the future, our evidence does not suggest that reduced dealer positions will exacerbate the effects on corporate bond pricing and liquidity.

Since the Mutual Fund “Late Trading” scandal of 2003, arbitrage operators have maintained a low-profile. The “flight-to-quality” properties of T-Bonds should also mean mass-redemption is a much lower probability – “mass-subscription” is a higher risk.

The Liquidity Mirage. While low-latency cross-market trading has undoubtedly led to more consistent pricing of Treasury securities and derivatives, there is strong evidence that it has also resulted in a more complex and dynamic nature of market liquidity. Under the new market structure, it has arguably become more challenging for large investors to accurately assess available liquidity based on displayed market depth across venues. The striking cross-market patterns in trading and order book changes suggest that quote modifications/cancellations by high-frequency market makers rather than preemptive aggressive trading are an important contributing factor to the liquidity mirage phenomenon.

In the days of open-outcry trading on futures exchanges “local” traders would frequently cancel and replace bids and offers. These participants were visible, their reliability, or otherwise, was known to the market-place. In an electronic order book there is less transparency. Algorithmic trading solutions have developed, over the last twenty years, to enable efficient execution in this more opaque environment.

“Cost plus” pricing for equity and futures execution is still quite rare outside the HFT world but it has had a dramatic influence on stock market micro-structure and liquidity since the 1990’s.

In a recent speech by Minouche Shafik of the Bank of England – Dealing with change: Liquidity in evolving market structuressuggested that the changes in liquidity are a natural process:-

The reduction in the relative size of dealer balance sheets may also be a natural process of evolution as the market-making industry matures and emphasis is placed on using its warehousing capacity efficiently rather holding lots of inventory. Market making wouldn’t be the first industry to go through such a change: Just In Time management swept through manufacturing in the 70s and 80s with its focus on minimising waste, eliminating inventories, and quickly responding to changing market demand. More recently, supermarkets have reversed their once relentless expansion of retail space, and started moving away from inventory-intensive hypermarkets toward smaller retail units.

Indeed, moving toward smaller in-store inventories is not the only parallel between retailing and market making: both have also been dramatically changed by innovation. Just as the rise of internet shopping has given consumers access to a broader choice of shops and much easier means of price comparison, so has electronic trading facilitated new ways of matching buyers and sellers in financial markets, and added to the data generally available for price discovery.

The Deputy Governor goes on to remind us that the BoE acted as Market-Maker of Last Resort during the last crisis and would do so again.

Conclusion – Financial markets – for the benefit of whom

Financial markets evolve to allow investors to provide capital in exchange for a financial reward. Technology has increased the speed and reliability of market access whilst reducing the cost, however these benefits change the underlying structure of markets, be it co-location of servers in the last decade or block-chain technology in the next.

Politicians seek to encourage long-term investment; high frequency trading is a very short-term investment strategy indeed, but without short-term investors – shall we call them speculators – the ability to transfer of capital is severely impaired. Even the most jaundiced politician will admit, speculators are a necessary evil.

Innovation has democratized financial markets, it has enabled individual investors to create complex portfolios and implement strategies which were once the preserve of hedge funds and investment banks, however the experience has not been an unmitigated success, in the process it purportedly enabled one man from Hounslow to wipe $750bln off the value of the US stock market in May 2010. That this was possible defies credulity for many; I believe it indicates how technology has more than offset the decline in capital allocated to financial market trading, nonetheless, when it comes to financial market liquidity, I concur with Deputy Governor Shakif – “caveat emptor”.

Brazil – Good buy or Goodbye?

400dpiLogo

Macro Letter – No 43 – 09-10-2015

Brazil – Good buy or Goodbye?

  • The Bovespa is down 35% in US$ terms this year
  • Government bond yields are back to levels last seen during the crisis of 2009
  • The BRL has declined by 45% against the US$ during 2015
  • Bond agency downgrades and government inaction exacerbate the sense of crisis

When I last gave a speech about the Brazilian economy and stock market prospects, back in March 2014, I was optimistic. During the summer of that year the Bovespa rallied, USDBRL improved and Brazilian government bond yields declined, but by early September these nascent trends had lost momentum. The table lower shows the evolution:-

Market 28-Mar 29-Aug 28-Dec 05-Oct
Bovespa 50415 61288 48512 47033
10yr Bond 12.8 11.21 12.33 15.23
USDBRL 2.27 2.23 2.69 3.92

Source: Investing.com

The charts below show these markets over the last 10 years:-

brazil-stock-market 10 yr - Trading Economics

Source: Trading Economics

brazil-government-bond-yield 10yr - Trading Economics

Source: Trading Economics

brazil-currency 10yr - Trading Economics

Source: Trading Economics

For good measure, and since Brazil’s economy is sensitive to the price of commodities here is the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index over the same period:-

GSCI 10 yr

Source:Barchart.com

It is worth remembering that, despite the importance of commodities – and Coffee made fresh lows for the year in September – the largest contributor to Brazilian GDP is services (67%).

During the second half of 2014, inflation remained broadly stable at around 6.75%, but, as the BRL weakened, inflation picked up sharply forcing the Bank of Brazil to raise interest rates, meanwhile the government primary budget surplus evaporated:-

Brazil Budget Balance Inflation and Policy Rate - Economist

Source: Economist

This 2nd September Economist article – Brazilian waxing and waning – sums up the range of negative forces besetting the Brazilian economy:-

In the past few years Brazil’s economy has disappointed. It grew by 2.2% a year, on average, during President Dilma Rousseff’s first term in office in 2011-­14, a slower rate of growth than in most of its neighbours, let alone in places like China or India. Last year GDP barely grew at all. It contracted by 1.6% in the first quarter, compared to the same period last year, and is expected to shrink by as much as 2% in 2015. Household consumption registered the first drop, year-on-year, since Ms Rousseff’s left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) came to power in 2003. At the same time, public spending has surged. In 2014, as Ms Rousseff sought re-­election, the budget deficit doubled to 6.75% of GDP. For the first time since 1997 the government failed to set aside any money to pay back creditors. Its planned primary surplus, which excludes interest owed on debt, of 1.8% of GDP ended up being a 0.6% deficit. Brazil’s gross government debt of 62% may look piffling compared to Greece’s 175% or Japan’s 227%. But Brazil’s high interest rates of around 13% make borrowing costlier to service.

…As the government loosened fiscal policy, the Central Bank prematurely slashed its benchmark interest rate in 2011-­12. This pushed up inflation, which is now above the bank’s self­-imposed upper limit of 6.5%, and way above its 4.5% target. The interest-rate cut has since been reversed. On June 3rd the Bank’s monetary policy-makers raised the rate once more, boosting it to 13.75%, more than a percentage point higher than before the decision to cut.

…In the past ten years wages in the private sector have grown faster than GDP (public­-sector workers have done even better). That allowed consumers to borrow more, which encouraged still more spending. Now the virtuous circle is turning vicious. Real wages have been falling since March, compared to a year earlier, mainly because Brazilian workers’ productivity never justified the earlier rises.

…unemployment, which has long been falling and dipped below 5% for most of 2014, increased to 6.4% in April. Economists expect it to reach 8% this year.

…the government is cutting spending on unemployment insurance (which had risen even when the jobless rate was falling) and on other benefits. Taxes, including fuel duty, are going up. So, too, are bills for water and electricity.

…Consumer confidence has fallen to its lowest level since Fundação Getulio Vargas, a business school, began tracking it in 2005. The government has no money to boost investment. Petrobras, the state-­controlled oil giant and Brazil’s biggest investor, is in the midst of a corruption scandal that has paralysed spending: the forgone investment may reduce GDP growth this year by one percentage point. It is hard to see where growth will come from. 

Worst of all, Ms Rousseff’s policy levers are jammed. She cannot loosen fiscal policy without precipitating a downgrade of Brazil’s credit rating. In fact, her hawkish finance minister, Joaquim Levy, has slashed 70 billion reais off the discretionary spending planned for this year (on top of the modest welfare reforms). Nor can the Central Bank ease monetary policy. That would once again undermine its credibility—and weaken the currency. A depreciating real, which is oscillating around a 10-year low, pushes up inflation; it also makes Brazil’s $230 billion dollar-denominated debt dearer by the day.

This chart, courtesy of the Peterson Institute, highlights the relative predicament facing Brazil’s government:-

EM debt and tax balance - IMF

Source: IMF

On September 9th – one week after the Economist article was published – S&P cut Brazil’s bond rating to BB+ – this is “Junk Bond” status. It followed Moody’s downgrade to Baa3 on August 11th. There seems little reason to “Buy Brazil”, but it is when markets look most dire that one should pay the most attention.

In May 2015 I wrote about the prospects for Brazil and Russia here – once again, I was anticipating the rebound in commodity prices coming to the aid of these commodity exporters – yet again, I was premature. The economic slowdown in China continues, commodity exporting countries remain under pressure and, from a technical perspective, the GSCI appears to be heading back to test the 2009 lows.

My conclusions about Brazilian Real-Estate have become slightly more negative since May. The recent increase in domestic inflation, combined with a rise in unemployment, makes rental yields – ranging from 4 to 6% – less attractive. Real yields have grown more negative whilst rental arrears and defaults rise.

Government bonds also lack their previous allure; short term rates rose again from 13.75% to 14.25% at the end of July. Back in March 2014 the SELIC rate was 10.75% whilst 10yr government bonds yielded 12.80% – 205bp of positive carry. Today the yield pick-up is worth a mere 48bp. My analysis of value, back in May, was based on the expectation that the currency had weakened sufficiently and commodity markets were forming a bottom – both these expectations proved erroneous. Since the currency has weakened further, corporate bonds are likely to come under additional pressure due to the large outstanding US$ issuance:-

EM Bonds - USD Exposures - Bloomberg

Source: Bloomberg and Strategas Research Partners

The IMF – May 2015 Brazil – selected report 15/122 – suggests that the situation is not quite so dire as the table above suggests, nonetheless, I would expect to see a rise in the number of high-profile defaults over the coming months:-

Petrobras accounts for some 13.5 percent of total NFC FX debt. It hedged 70 percent of its FX exposure through both domestic and global derivative markets despite ample FX income.9

Other exporting companies account for 36 percent of FX debt.

Non-exporting companies with at least 80 percent of their FX debt hedged in domestic derivatives markets account for 17 percent of FX debt.

Non-exporting companies (both foreign-owned and domestic firms) with hedge for less than 80 percent of their exposures account for 33.5 percent of NFC FX debt,10 or about 10 percent of total debt (Financial Stability Report, September 2014).

The solitary ray of hope has been the Bovespa, it is substantially lower than in May though not far from where it ended 2014. The table below looks at the CAPE – Cyclically Adjusted Price Earnings Ratio, PE, PC – Price to Cashflow, PB – Price to Book, PS – Price to Sales and DY – Dividend Yield:-

Country CAPE PE PC PB PS DY
Russia 4.8 8.8 3.7 0.8 0.7 4.30%
Hungary 7.9 23.4 4.1 1 0.5 2.50%
Brazil 8.2 19.4 5.8 1.3 1.1 3.70%
Poland 10.3 14.1 9.5 1.3 0.8 3.40%
Turkey 10.3 11 8 1.4 1 3.40%
Czech 10.7 14.3 6.2 1.4 1.1 6.10%
Korea (South) 12.2 12.9 6.3 1 0.6 1.40%
China 13.8 6.2 4.1 0.9 0.6 4.90%
Malaysia 15.6 16.1 10.8 1.7 1.9 3.40%
Thailand 15.7 17 10 2 0.9 3.20%
Indonesia 17 17.9 12.3 3.1 2.2 2.60%
Israel 17.4 16.5 11.1 1.8 1.4 2.80%
Taiwan 17.8 11.5 7.3 1.7 0.9 4.10%
India 18.5 21.5 13.7 2.6 1.5 1.50%
South Africa 19.2 14.6 8.5 2.2 1.3 3.60%
Mexico 21.2 26.9 11.9 2.6 1.5 1.90%
Philippines 22.3 19.5 12.7 2.4 2 1.90%

Source: Starcapital.de

I’ve ranked these markets by CAPE to look at valuation from a longer-term perspective. Remember, however, the Bovespa index has only a 14% exposure to Energy and 14% to Commodities; domestic consumption will drive growth for many Brazilian companies – the consumer is likely to be in cyclical retreat as wages and benefits fall. Exporters should thrive due to the currency devaluation but for the broader index these effects will take time to manifest themselves in higher stock prices. My longer-term enthusiasm from May remains undimmed, but I was clearly too early calling the bottom. With China still slowing, the headwinds facing Brazil have yet to fully abate.

Emerging markets in general, are under pressure. Back in January 2014 the World Bank Global Economic Prospects stated:-

…if markets react sharply to the continued tapering, then capital flows to developing countries could decrease by as much as 80 percent, destabilizing current account balances, leading to disorderly depreciations of regional currencies, and quite possibly, increasing imported inflation.

They estimated that 60% of all capital flows to emerging markets, since the financial crisis, have been a by-product of QE.

The IMF – WEO – Financial Stability Report – October 2015 – reviews the situation:-

Corporate debt in emerging market economies has risen significantly during the past decade. The corporate debt of nonfinancial firms across major emerging market economies increased from about $4 trillion in 2004 to well over $18 trillion in 2014. The average emerging market corporate debt-to-GDP ratio has also grown by 26 percentage points in the same period, but with notable heterogeneity across countries.

EM Debt to GDP now stands at roughly 70%.

The Institute of International Finance estimate that investors sold $40bln of EM assets during Q3 2015. Brazil topped their list for asset outflows in Q3 – a 27% decline – closely followed by Indonesia and China:-

The marked decline in EM bond and equity in fund allocations amounted to some 80% of the drop seen during the worst of the taper tantrum in Q2 2013. This has left fund allocations to EM bonds and equities nearly 1.5 percentage points below end-June levels–at just 11%, EM allocations are at their lowest since early 2009. The decline in global investors’ appetite for emerging market stocks has been particularly striking, with EM equity funds suffering more than EM bond funds. Large fund outflows, falling asset prices and marked losses in EM currencies against the U.S. dollar have all contributed to lower allocations.

The IIF go on to state that this year EM countries will witness a capital outflow of $541bln for 2015 vs a net inflow of $32bln for 2014. These are the first EM outflows since 1988.

No way out?

In a recent Bloomberg Op-Ed – The Anatomy of Brazil’s Financial Meltdown – Mohamed El-Erian proposes official “Circuit-Breakers” to stop the vicious cycle. Peterson InstituteA Non-Circuit Breaker Agenda for Brazil – disagree:-

What are the options for Brazil? With interest rates at 14.25 percent, there is unfortunately little room for further rate hikes. With short-term domestic rates at these levels and global interest rates at close to zero, one would be hard pressed to argue that remedies used in the 1990s—specifically abrupt interest rate hikes of a high order of magnitude—would make a big impact on reversing capital outflows. If market pressures continue unabated and exchange interventions are ineffective, Brazil might well need to resort to capital controls. A further credit downgrade might follow, and the stage would be set for the type of inevitable crash that many economists imagined they would no longer see. While a crisis cannot be fully avoided—arguably, it is already happening—the government could still take some action to instill confidence. A strong commitment to prudent fiscal management over the medium term might help attenuate market turbulence even if the government’s hands are tied in the short run by political dysfunction. Instituting debt limits as discussed above would be a good start; Poland’s experience is testament to how fiscal credibility can be enhanced through their adoption. In Brazil’s case, debt limits have an additional advantage: They would send the right medium-term signals without being as overtly unpopular as the other measures and reforms the country desperately needs.

“Circuit-Breaker” policy proposals and the spectre of capital controls are unlikely to stem capital flight in the near-term, but with EM exposures already back to 2009 levels, I believe we’re nearer the end than the beginning of the repatriation process.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

For investment to return to Brazil, repatriation of existing investment needs to run its course, corporate bond defaults need to peak and begin to improve, unemployment needs to rise and then begin to decline and the government needs to prove it has the resolve to adhere to a policy of real austerity.

Currency

The BRL is the weakest it has been in more than 20 years, it last approached these levels back in October 2002. Foreign Exchange reserves remain high, I would expect the markets to test the central bank’s resolve. Further currency weakness certainly cannot be ruled out.

Bonds

The full impact of recent currency weakness on Brazilian US$ denominated bonds has yet to run its course. Default rates should rise, the Serasa Experian Corporate Default Index rose 13.3% in the period January to August 2015, meanwhile, corporate delinquencies for the month were 16.1% higher than in August 2014.

Stocks

According to Blackrock investors outflows from EM ETFs in September exceeded $3.2bln, albeit, sentiment has improved over the past week. The chart below shows EM stock market performance for the year to 6th October, Brazil has suffered more than every country except Greece:-

EM Stocks in USD - 2015

Source: Reuters

For the contrarian investor this may present an opportunity to buy – personally, I would prefer to see some indication of government resolve to tackle the countries difficult domestic economic issues first. Next year Brazil will host the Olympic Games – this is an opportunity to push through unpopular policies and showcase all the reasons to invest in Brazil. It is always darkest before the light – I shall be watching closely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What are the bond markets telling us about inflation, recession and the path of central bank policy?

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Macro Letter – No 41 – 11-09-2015

What are the bond markets telling us about inflation, recession and the path of central bank policy?

  • Since January US Government bond yields have risen across the yield curve
  • Corporate bond yields have risen more rapidly as stock markets have retreated
  • China, Canada and Mexico have seen their currencies weaken against the US$

For several years some commentators have been concerned that the Federal Reserve is behind the curve and needs to tighten interest rates before inflation returns. To date, inflation – by which I refer narrowly to CPI – has remained subdued. The recent recovery in the US economy and improvement in the condition of the labour market has seen expectations of rate increases grow and bond market yields have risen in response. In this letter I want to examine whether the rise in yields is in expectation of a Fed rate increase, fears about the return of inflation or the potential onset of a recession for which the Federal Reserve and its acolytes around the globe are ill-equipped to manage.

Below is a table showing the change in yields since the beginning of February. Moody Baa rating is the lowest investment grade bond. Whilst the widening of spreads is consistent with the general increase in T-Bond yields, the yield on Baa bonds has risen by 30bp more than Moody BB – High Yield, sub-investment grade. This could be the beginning of an institutional reallocation of risk away from the corporate sector.

Bond       Spread over T-Bonds    
08-Sep 02-Feb Change 08-Sep 02-Feb Change
10yr US T-Bond 2.19 1.65 0.54 N/A N/A N/A
Baa Corporate 5.28 4.29 0.99 3.09 2.64 0.45
BB Corporate 5.55 4.86 0.69 3.36 3.21 0.15

 

Source: Ycharts and Investing.com

The chart below shows the evolution of Baa bond yields over the last two years:-

FRED Baa Corporate bond yield 2013-2015

Source: St Louis Federal Reserve

The increase in the cost of financing for the corporate sector is slight but the trend, especially since May, is clear.

Another measure of the state of the economy is the breakeven expected inflation rate. This metric is derived from the differential between 10-Year Treasury Constant Maturity Securities and 10-Year Treasury Inflation-Indexed Constant Maturity Securities:-

FRED Breakeven Inflation rate 2007-2015

Source: St Louis Federal Reserve

By this measure inflation expectations are near their lowest levels since 2010. It looks as if the bond markets are doing the Federal Reserve’s work for it. Added to which the July minutes of the FOMC stated:-

The risks to the forecast for real GDP and inflation were seen as tilted to the downside, reflecting the staff’s assessment that neither monetary nor fiscal policy was well positioned to help the economy withstand substantial adverse shocks.

This is hardly hiking rhetoric.

The International perspective

The table below looks at the largest importers into the US and their contribution to the US trade deficit as at December 2014:-

Country/Region Imports Deficit
China $467bln $343bln
EU $418bln $142bln
Canada $348bln $35bln
Mexico $294bln $54bln
Japan $134bln $68bln

Source: US Census Bureau

The TWI US$ Index shows a rather different picture to the US$ Index chart I posted last month, it has strengthened against its major trading partners steadily since it lows in July 2011; after a brief correction, during the first half of 2015, the trend has been re-established and shows no signs of abating:-

FRED USD TWI 2008-2015

Source: St Louis Federal Reserve

A closer inspection of the performance of the Loonie (CAD) and Peso (MXN) reveals an additional source of disinflation:-

CAD and MXN vs USD 2yr

Source: Yahoo Finance

Focus Economics – After dismal performance in May, exports and imports increase in June – investigates the bifurcated impact of lower oil prices and a weaker currency on the prospects for the Mexican economy:-

Looking at the headline numbers, exports increased 1.2% year-on-year in June, which pushed overseas sales to USD 33.8 billion. The monthly expansion contrasted the dismal 8.8% contraction registered in May. June’s expansion stemmed mainly from a solid increase in non-oil exports (+6.8% yoy). Conversely, oil exports registered another bleak plunge (-41.0% yoy).

Should the U.S. economy continue to recover and the Mexican peso weaken, growth in Mexico’s overseas sales is likely to continue improving in the coming months.

Mexico’s gains have to some extent been at the expense of Canada as this August 2015 article from the Fraser Institute – Canada faces increased competition in U.S. market – explains:-

There are several possible explanations of the cessation of real export growth to the U.S. One is the slow growth of the U.S. economy over much of the period from 2000-2014, particularly during and following the Great Recession of 2008. Slower real growth of U.S. incomes can be expected to reduce the growth of demand for all types of goods including imports from Canada.

A second possible explanation is the appreciation of the Canadian dollar over much of the time period. For example, the Canadian dollar increased from an all-time low value of US$.6179 on Jan. 21, 2002 to an all-time high value of US$1.1030 on Nov. 7, 2007. It then depreciated modestly to a value of US$.9414 by Jan. 1, 2014.

A third possible explanation is the higher costs to shippers (and ultimately to U.S. importers) associated with tighter border security procedures implemented by U.S. authorities after 9/11.

Perhaps a more troubling and longer-lasting explanation is Canada’s loss of U.S. market share to rival exporters. For example, Canada’s share of total U.S. imports of motor vehicles and parts decreased by almost 12 percentage points from 2000 through 2013, while Mexico’s share increased by eight percentage points. Canada lost market share (particularly to China) in electrical machinery and even in its traditionally strong wood and paper products sectors.

There is fundamentally only one robust way for Canadian exporters to reverse the recent trend of market share loss to rivals. Namely, Canadian manufacturers must improve upon their very disappointing productivity performance over the past few decades—both absolutely and relatively to producers in other countries. Labour productivity in Canada grew by only 1.4 per cent annually over the period 1980-2011. By contrast, it grew at a 2.2 per cent annual rate in the U.S. Even worse, multifactor productivity—basically a measure of technological change in an economy—did not grow at all over that period in Canada.

With an election due on 19th October, the Canadian election campaign is focused on the weakness of the domestic economy and measures to stimulate growth. While energy prices struggle to rise, non-energy exports are likely to be a policy priority. After rate cuts in January and July, the Bank of Canada left rates unchanged this week, but with an election looming this is hardly a surprise.

China, as I mentioned in my last post here, unpegged its currency last month. Official economic forecasts remain robust but, as economic consultants Fathom Consulting pointed out in this July article for Thomson Reuters – Alpha Now – China a tale of two economies – there are many signs of a slowing of economic activity, except in the data:-

With its usual efficiency, China’s National Bureau of Statistics released its 2015 Q2 growth estimate earlier this week. Reportedly, GDP rose by 7.0% in the four quarters to Q2. We remain sceptical about the accuracy of China’s GDP data, and the speed with which they are compiled. Our own measure of economic activity — the China Momentum Indicator — suggests the current pace of growth is nearer 3.0%.

…although policymakers are reluctant to admit that China has slowed dramatically, the recent onslaught of measures aimed at stimulating the economy surely hints at their discomfort. While these measures may temporarily alleviate the downward pressure, they do very little to resolve China’s long standing problems of excess capacity, non-performing loans and perennially weak household consumption.

Accordingly, as China tries out the full range of its policy levers, we believe that eventually it will resort to exchange rate depreciation. Its recent heavy-handed intervention in the domestic stock market has demonstrated afresh its disregard for financial reform.

The chart below is the Fathom Consulting – China Momentum Indicator – note the increasing divergence with official GDP data:-

Fathom_Consulting_China_Momentum_Indicator

Source: Fathom Consulting/Thomson Reuters

A comparison between international government bonds also provides support for those who argue Fed policy should remain on hold:-

Government Bonds 2yr 2yr Change 5yr 5yr Change 10yr 10yr Change 30yr 30yr Change
08-Sep 02-Feb 08-Sep 02-Feb 08-Sep 02-Feb 08-Sep 02-Feb
US 0.74 0.47 0.27 1.52 1.17 0.35 2.19 1.65 0.54 2.96 2.23 0.73
Canada 0.45 0.39 0.06 0.79 0.61 0.18 1.48 1.25 0.23 2.24 1.83 0.41
Mexico 5.01* 4.13* 0.88 5.29 4.89 0.4 6.15 5.41 0.74 6.81 6.1 0.71
Germany -0.22 -0.19 -0.03 0.05 -0.04 0.09 0.68 0.32 0.36 1.44 0.9 0.54
Japan 0.02 0.04 -0.02 0.07 0.09 -0.02 0.37 0.34 0.03 1.41 1.31 0.1
China 2.59 3.22 -0.63 3.2 3.45 -0.25 3.37 3.53 -0.16 3.88 4.04 -0.16

*Mexico 3yr Bonds

Source: Investing.com

Canada and Mexico have both witnessed rising yields as their currencies declined, whilst Germany (a surrogate for the EU) and Japan have seen a marginal fall in shorter maturities but an increase for maturities of 10 years or more. China, with a still slowing economy and aided by PBoC policy, has lower yields across all maturities. Mexican inflation – the highest of these trading partners – was last recorded at 2.59% whilst core inflation was 2.31%. The 2yr/10yr curve for both Mexico and Canada, at just over 100bps, is flatter than the US at 145bp. The Chinese curve is flatter still.

A final, if somewhat tangential, article which provides evidence of a lack of inflationary pressure comes from this fascinating post by Stephen Duneier of Bija Advisors – Doctoring Deflation – in which he looks at the crisis in healthcare and predicts that computer power will radically reduce costs globally:-

The future of medical diagnosis is about to experience a radical shift. The same pocket sized computer which now holds the power to beat any human being at the game of chess, will soon be used to diagnose medical ailments and prescribe actions to follow, far more cheaply and with a whole lot more accuracy.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

The bond yield curves of America’s main import partners have steepened in train with the US – Canada being an exception – whilst stock markets are unchanged or lower over the same period – February to September. Corporate bond spreads have widened, especially the bottom of the investment grade category. Corporate earnings have exceeded expectations, as they so often do – see this paper by Jim Liew et al of John Hopkins for more on this topic – but by a negligible margin.

The FOMC has already expressed concern about the momentum of GDP growth, commodity prices remain under pressure, China has unpegged and the US$ TWI has reached new highs. This suggests to me, that inflation is not a risk, disinflationary forces are growing – especially driven by the commodity sector. Major central banks are unlikely to tighten but corporate bond yields may rise further.

Currencies

Remain long US$ especially against resource based currencies, but be careful of current account surplus countries which may see flight to quality flows in the event of “risk off” panic.

Stocks

At the risk of stating what any “value” investor should always look for, seek out firms with strong cash-flow, low leverage, earnings growth and comfortable dividend cover. In addition, in the current environment, avoid commodity sensitive stocks, especially in oil, coal, iron and steel.

Bonds

US T-Bonds will benefit from a strengthening US$, if the FOMC delay tightening this will favour shorter maturities. An early FOMC tightening, after initial weakness, will be a catalyst for capital repatriation – US T-Bonds will fare better in this scenario too. Bunds and JGBs are likely to witness similar reactions but, longer term, both their currencies and yields are less attractive.

Rising yields and rising correlation in major bond markets – end of cycle or correction?

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Macro Letter – No 36 – 22-05-2015

Rising yields and rising correlation in major bond markets – end of cycle or correction?

  • European bond yields have risen following the lead of US treasuries
  • Yield curves are steepening despite minimal inflation
  • A return to the natural rate of interest seems unlikely
  • Over-indebtedness will stifle GDP growth and yields will fall

Since the beginning of 2015 the world’s largest bond markets have witnessed increasing yields. In the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis many economies decoupled and their government bond markets followed suit. Now correlations are rising once more. The table below, which is a snapshot of prices on Tuesday morning 19th May, looks at a broad range of developed bond markets:-

Bond & Maturity Yield Low Date Change CPI Real yield 10yr-2yr
Australia 2Y 2.035
Australia 5Y 2.305
Australia 10Y 2.92 2.236 March 0.684 1.3 1.62 0.885
Canada 2Y 0.646
Canada 5Y 1.006
Canada 10Y 1.711 1.23 February 0.481 1.2 0.511 1.065
Denmark 2Y -0.299
Denmark 5Y 0.088
Denmark 10Y 0.786 0.075 February 0.711 0.5 0.286 1.085
France 2Y -0.162
France 5Y 0.182
France 10Y 0.832 0.332 April 0.5 0.1 0.732 0.994
Germany 2Y -0.21
Germany 5Y 0.026
Germany 10Y 0.563 0.049 April 0.514 0.5 0.063 0.773
Italy 2Y 0.108
Italy 5Y 0.697
Italy 10Y 1.753 1.041 March 0.712 -0.1 1.853 1.645
Japan 2Y -0.002
Japan 5Y 0.103
Japan 10Y 0.388 0.199 January 0.189 2.3 -1.912 0.39
New Zealand 2Y 3.09
New Zealand 5Y 3.25
New Zealand 10Y 3.74 3.085 January 0.655 0.1 3.64 0.65
Norway 2Y 0.857
Norway 5Y 1.035
Norway 10Y 1.676 1.202 February 0.474 2 -0.324 0.819
Sweden 2Y -0.331
Sweden 5Y 0.169
Sweden 10Y 0.691 0.216 April 0.475 -0.2 0.891 1.022
Switzerland 2Y -0.839
Switzerland 5Y -0.48
Switzerland 10Y -0.003 -0.28 January 0.281 -1.1 1.097 0.836
UK 2Y Yield 0.537
UK 5Y Yield 1.39
UK 10Y Yield 1.892 1.337 January 0.555 -0.1 1.992 1.355
US 2Y Yield 0.565
US 5Y Yield 1.506
US 10Y Yield 2.193 1.63 January 0.563 -0.1 2.293 1.628

Source: Investing.com and Trading Economics

I’ve highlighted some of the data. The highest real 10yr yield is to be found in New Zealand (3.64%) but US T-Bonds lie second. The lowest real yield is evident in Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) however, a quick glance at the shape of the Japanese yield curve suggests that inflation, or perhaps I should say deflation, expectations are firmly anchored at near zero, despite repeated bouts of Abenomic stimulus. Japan has the flattest yield curve. The US curve is second steepest, behind Italy, where the spread between 2yr and 10yr is 164.5bp. Italy has also seen the largest rise in yields since its low back in March, although Danish yields have risen to a similar degree as its non-Euro “safe haven” status has waned.

A number of factors have driven yields higher. In the Eurozone (EZ) concern about a Greek exit initially stimulated a “flight to safety” in government securities – other than Greek government bonds – this spilled over into Swiss Confederation bonds. Switzerland remains the ultimate “safe haven”. As yields in the EZ declined to record lows, capital also flowed into EZ stocks. At the same time economic data began to turn more positive, prompted further flows into equities. The last EZ bond markets to turn lower were France and Germany, last month.

Outside the EZ, the US economy has seen mixed data but GDP growth remains steady. Expectations of Federal Reserve rate increases, whilst still some way off (current consensus January 2016) weigh on the T-Bond market. A rebound in crude oil and weakening of the US$ TWI since its highs in early March have also seen an unwinding of bullish US$ and US Treasury exposures.

Stock markets have so far paid little heed to the bond markets. The S&P500 made new highs this week. Canada, Japan, Germany and the UK all made highs in April whilst the Australian ASX retouched its March highs during the month. Even New Zealand, with the second flattest yield curve and structurally higher real interest rate curve, is less than 4% off its all-time highs.

Inflation expectations and real returns

Earlier this week saw the publication of this first part of a two part article about inflation expectations from the NY Fed – FRBNY DSGE Model Forecast–April 2015:-

The top panel in the chart below presents quarterly forecasts for real output growth and the core PCE inflation rate over the 2014-17 horizon. These forecasts were produced on April 9 using data released through 2014:Q4, augmented for 2015:Q1 with a “nowcast” for GDP growth, core PCE inflation, and growth in total hours, and 2015:Q1 observations for financial variables. The reason for using nowcasts is that the model is estimated on National Income and Product Accounts data, which are only available with a lag. Nowcasts incorporate up-to-date information, and this tends to improve short-run forecasts, as shown here. The black line represents released data, the red line is the forecast, and the shaded areas mark the uncertainty associated with our forecasts at 50, 60, 70, 80, and 90 percent probability intervals. Output growth and inflation are expressed in quarter-to-quarter percentage annualized rates. 

NY Fed PCE GDP forecasts

Source: NY Fed

The FRBNY DSGE forecast for output growth is slightly stronger than it was in our earlier blog post which used data ending in July 2014. This difference is highlighted in the bottom left panel of the chart, which compares current (solid line) and September (dashed line) forecasts. The model projects the economy to grow 1.9 percent in 2015 (Q4/Q4), 2.1 percent in 2016 and 2.2 percent in 2017. The headwinds that slowed down the economy in the aftermath of the financial crisis are finally abating. This is reflected in the model-implied “natural” level of output and the “natural” rate of interest, which are defined as the counterfactual level of output and interest rate that would obtain in an ideal economy where nominal rigidities, markup (or cost-push) shocks, and financial frictions are absent. Estimates of the recent natural level of output show a more rapid growth as the headwinds facing the economy are fading. As we will discuss at length in our next post, the natural rate of interest is finally increasing toward positive ranges, after having been negative for the entire post-Great Recession period.  The recovery has been relatively slow, however, with economic activity remaining below its natural level since the end of 2008 and projected to remain so throughout the forecast horizon. The model thus predicts a very gradual closing of the output gap, measured as the percentage deviation of actual output from natural output (although there is much uncertainty about the gap forecast). This output gap, along with its forecast, is shown in the next chart. 

NY Fed Output Gap

Source: NY Fed

…In conclusion, the FRBNY DSGE model continues to predict a gradual recovery in economic activity with a slow return of inflation toward the FOMC’s long-run target of 2 percent, as the negative effect of the Great Recession dissipates. This forecast remains surrounded by significant uncertainty, with the risks slightly skewed to the downside for output growth because of the constraint on policy imposed by the zero lower bound. 

The Peterson Institute – Quantity Theory of Money Redux? Will Inflation Be the Legacy of Quantitative Easing? Examines the classical monetarist argument that QE will eventually lead to inflation, this is their conclusion:-

On balance, the risk of severe inflation resulting from the buildup of the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve in association with quantitative easing seems low. To begin with, the US economy has not experienced inflation driven by excessive money expansion since at least the mid-1980s. Indeed, the rising demand for money, as the opportunity cost of holding money fell with lower inflation, has meant that over the past three decades there has been a tendency for faster money growth(relative to real GDP) to be associated with lower rather than higher inflation. The supply-focused quantity theory of money broke down. The pattern associating rapid money growth with low inflation since the mid-1980s would require a sharp reversal for money supply to become the proximate cause of inflation. In the meantime, it seems fair to say that in the United States inflation is determined by labor market and product market tightness (in the Phillips curve tradition), and that the opposing proposition that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon” (Friedman’s summary of the quantity theory) does not hold in a narrow sense relating to money supply.

A second important phenomenon is that inflation has remained low despite a large buildup in the Fed’s balance sheet not because the velocity of broad money has collapsed, but because the money multiplier has done so. Because of a large increase in excess bank reserves equal to nearly three-fourths of the increase in the Federal Reserve’s total assets, the usual money multiplier (inverse of the reserve requirement ratio) no longer holds. Broad money was 14 times the money base in 2007; by end-2014 it was only 4 times the money base.

A third observation is that arguably this same phenomenon could pose a risk of inflationary money expansion when and if banks start to draw down excess reserves.

Fourth, the principal implication for policy purposes is that the Federal Reserve will need to be particularly adept in avoiding any inflationary pressures that might develop from the unwinding of large excess bank reserves as more normal monetary conditions return. The Fed has clearly given considerable attention to this task and at present plans to use higher interest rates on excess reserves as needed to control such pressures. Indeed, the authority to pay interest on reserves is what will enable the Fed to raise rates when necessary, because otherwise an incipient rise in the short-term interest rate would quickly be choked off as banks ran down excess reserves to take advantage of the higher interest rates.

Fifth, because quantitative easing constitutes navigating in uncharted waters, there is some non-zero probability that inflation could nevertheless still be the consequence of potential money supply expansion resulting from QE.

The key element in their assessment is the “multiplier effect”, bank reserve requirements have increased globally since 2008, QE has merely offset the tightening of credit conditions, but in the process it has crowded out the private sector – which is where real-GDP growth is generated.

A more deflationary view of the current environment is provided in the quarterly letter from Hoisington Asset Management, here are Lacy Hunt’s six characteristics of highly over-indebted nations:-

1. Transitory upturns in economic growth, inflation and high-grade bond yields cannot be sustained because debt is too much of a constraint on economic activity.

2. Due to inherently weak aggregate demand, economies are subject to structural downturns without the typical cyclical pressures such as rising interest rates, inflation and exhaustion of pent-up demand.

3. Deterioration in productivity is not inflationary but just another symptom of the controlling debt influence.

4. Monetary policy is ineffectual, if not a net negative.

5. Inflation falls dramatically, increasing the risk of deflation.

6. Treasury bond yields fall to extremely low levels.

…Many assume that economies can only contract in response to cyclical pressures like rising interest rates and inflation, fiscal restraint, over-accumulation of inventories, or the stock of consumer and corporate capital goods. This idea is valid when debt levels are normal but becomes problematic when debt is excessively high.

Large parts of Europe contracted last year for the third time in the past four years as interest rates and inflation plummeted. The Japanese economy has turned down numerous times over the past twenty years while interest rates were low. Indeed, this has happened so often that nominal GDP in Japan is currently unchanged for the past twenty-three years. This is confirmation that after a prolonged period of taking on excessive debt additional debt becomes counterproductive.

…Falling productivity does not cause faster inflation. The weaker output per hour is a consequence of the over-indebtedness as much as the other five characteristics mentioned above. Productivity is a complex variable impacted by many cyclical and structural influences. Productivity declines during recessions and declines sharply in deep ones.

…Monetary policy impacts the overall economy in two areas – price effects and quantity effects. Price effects, or changes in short-term interest rates, are no longer available because rates are near the zero bound. This is a result of repeated quantitative easing by central banks. It is an attempt to lift overly indebted economies by encouraging more borrowing via low interest rates, thus causing even greater indebtedness.

Quantity effects also don’t work when debt levels are excessive. In a non-debt constrained economy, central banks have the capacity, with lags, to exercise control over money and velocity. However, when the debt overhang is excessive, they lose control over both money and velocity. Central banks can expand the monetary base, but this has little or no impact on money growth.

…In periods of extreme over-indebtedness Treasury bond yields can fall to exceptionally low levels and remain there for extended periods. This pattern is consistent with the Fisher equation that states the nominal risk-free bond yield equals the real yield plus expected inflation (i=r+E*). Expected inflation may be slow to adjust to reality, but the historical record indicates that the adjustment inevitably occurs.

The Fisher equation can be rearranged algebraically so that the real yield is equal to the nominal yield minus expected inflation (r=i–E*). Understanding this is critical in determining how unleveraged investors fare. Suppose that this process ultimately reduces the bond yield to 1.5% and expected inflation falls to -1%. In this situation the real yield would be 2.5%. The investor would receive the 1.5% coupon but the coupon income would be supplemented since the dollars received will have a greater purchasing power. A 1.5% nominal yield with real income lift might turn out to be an excellent return in a deflationary environment. Contrarily, earnings growth is problematic in deflation. Businesses must cut expenses faster than the prices of goods or services fall.

Hunt goes on to predict that yields may rise but this presents an opportunity to buy rather than signalling the end of the bond bull market.

A slightly contrasting view is expressed by Bill Gross in Janus Capital – Investment Outlook:-

Because of this stunted growth, zero based interest rates, and our difficulty in escaping an ongoing debt crisis, the “sense of an ending” could not be much clearer for asset markets. Where can a negative yielding Euroland bond market go once it reaches (–25) basis points? Minus 50? Perhaps, but then at some point, common sense must acknowledge that savers will no longer be willing to exchange cash Euros for bonds and investment will wither. Funny how bonds were labeled “certificates of confiscation” back in the early 1980’s when yields were 14%. What should we call them now? Likewise, all other financial asset prices are inextricably linked to global yields which discount future cash flows, resulting in an Everest asset price peak which has been successfully scaled, but allows for little additional climbing. Look at it this way: If 3 trillion dollars of negatively yielding Euroland bonds are used as the basis for discounting future earnings streams, then how much higher can Euroland (Japanese, UK, U.S) P/E’s go? Once an investor has discounted all future cash flows at 0% nominal and perhaps (–2%) real, the only way to climb up a yet undiscovered Everest is for earnings growth to accelerate above historical norms. Get down off this peak, that F. Scott Fitzgerald once described as a “Mountain as big as the Ritz.” Maybe not to sea level, but get down. Credit based oxygen is running out.

But what should this rational investor do? Breathe deeply as the noose is tightened at the top of the gallows? Well no, asset prices may be past 70 in “market years”, but savoring the remaining choices in terms of reward / risk remains essential. Yet if yields are too low, credit spreads too tight, and P/E ratios too high, what portfolio or set of ideas can lead to a restful, unconscious evening ‘twixt 9 and 5 AM? That is where an unconstrained portfolio and an unconstrained mindset comes in handy. 35 years of an asset bull market tends to ingrain a certain way of doing things in almost all asset managers. Since capital gains have dominated historical returns, investment managers tend to focus on areas where capital gains seem most probable. They fail to consider that mildly levered income as opposed to capital gains will likely be the favored risk / reward alternative. They forget that Sharpe / information ratios which have long served as the report card for an investor’s alpha generating skills were partially just a function of asset bull markets. Active asset managers as well, conveniently forget that their (my) industry has failed to reduce fees as a percentage of assets which have multiplied by at least a factor of 20 since 1981. They believe therefore, that they and their industry deserve to be 20 times richer because of their skill or better yet, their introduction of confusing and sometimes destructive quantitative technologies and derivatives that led to Lehman and the Great Recession.

Hogwash. This is all ending. The successful portfolio manager for the next 35 years will be one that refocuses on the possibility of periodic negative annual returns and miniscule Sharpe ratios and who employs defensive choices that can be mildly levered to exceed cash returns, if only by 300 to 400 basis points. My recent view of a German Bund short is one such example. At 0%, the cost of carry is just that, and the inevitable return to 1 or 2% yields becomes a high probability, which will lead to a 15% “capital gain” over an uncertain period of time. I wish to still be active in say 2020 to see how this ends. As it is, in 2015, I merely have a sense of an ending, a secular bull market ending with a whimper, not a bang. But if so, like death, only the timing is in doubt. Because of this sense, however, I have unrest, increasingly a great unrest. You should as well.

I believe the world’s major central banks still have the capacity to provide support, should the bond and stock markets collapse, by the effective “quasi-nationalisation” of assets – both equity and fixed income, but I foresee a point where there is a public challenge to the legality of this activity as it crowds out the private sector. I also expect that investors will eventually realise that income generating assets must offer a real-return regardless of potential capital appreciation.

In aggregate, trading is a zero-sum game – except for the broker – investing, by contrast, is about generating long-term income. In a deflationary environment a government bond, should it prove to be risk-free, may offer good value even at next to the zero bound, but, for less fortunate bond holders, default risk needs to be compensated. What is a fair price for lending money to a grateful government? The Minneapolis Fed – Sovereign Default: The Role of Expectations takes a fresh approach to some of these issues. Thomas Piketty – Capital in the 21st Century suggests 5% is the long-term average return on investment, based on his extensive historical research – the link is to a Pdf presentation from 2014, which is easier than reading the 700 page book. Given developed nation governments propensity to run budget deficits, this seems a reasonable return. The only government offering close to 5% is New Zealand at 3.74%. Ironically, their Debt to GDP ratio is only 36% and they have run a small budget surplus for most of the last 40 years.

If risk premia are not permitted to return towards their long-run average, I envisage liquidity disappearing from bond and stock markets as public institutions – namely central banks – acquire the majority of bond issues and the free-float in “strategically important” stocks. Crowdfunding and microfinance may fill some of the gap and capital will flow to growing economies as the world order changes, but liquidity in the world’s largest capital markets may be in short supply. Fortunately, this somewhat apocalyptic view is a while away.

Bond yields may rise, but not significantly above 5%, at which juncture their respective economies will stall due to over-indebtedness – in reality I think it unlikely they will get anywhere near this level until pricing power in product markets returns. The FRBSF – Mortgaging the Future? Investigates the extraordinary expansion in credit since WWII and among their conclusions is the observation that the real estate sector has far greater impact on the economy than in the past. Of course the absolute return to savers is likely to remain pitiful, as this video, from the March conference of the Global Interdependence Centre – Policies for the Post Crisis Era, makes clear; Chris Whalen’s presentation starts around 4 minutes in and lasts for 10 minutes. It’s well worth considering his opinion that, for the world economy to function properly, interest rates need to rise and credit formation to rebound, lest the “wheel of circulation” – as originally described by Adam Smith – grind to an inexorable halt.

For most of the major Central banks, intervention will be undertaken if yield increases are deemed to be detrimental to the mortgage market, and, as bond yields then trend lower, stocks will rise.

At what rate will they intervene? The NY Fed recently commented on “the natural rate of interest” is this article – Why Are Interest Rates So Low?:-

In conclusion, the low level of interest rates experienced since 2008 is largely attributable to a reduction in the natural rate of interest, which reflects cautious behavior on the part of households and firms. Monetary policy has largely accommodated the decline in the natural rate of interest, in order to mitigate the adverse effects of the crisis, but the zero lower bound on interest rates has imposed a constraint on the ability of interest rate policy to stabilize the economy. Looking ahead, we expect these headwinds to continue to abate, and the natural rate of interest to return closer to historical levels.

This is somewhat at odds with thier DSGE forecast. Consensus indicates the natural rate of interest to be around 3% which equates to a nominal rate of 5% assuming an inflation target of 2%. The original concept of the natural rate of interest was introduced in 1898 by Knut Wicksell, it’s a slippery customer:-

…it is not a high or low rate of interest in the absolute sense which must be regarded as influencing the demand for raw materials, labour, and land or other productive resources, and so indirectly as determining the movement of prices. The causality factor is the current rate of interest on loans as compared to [the natural rate].

In the shorter term I do not believe bond investors will suffer too catastrophically. I’m indebted to Garth Friesen – III Capital Management –for the excellent charts below:-

Barclay bond index vs SandP - III Capital Management

Source: III Capital Management

You can read his assessment of the current situation in this article – Silencing the Roar of the Bond Bear. In the past 25 years the largest negative quarterly return from the Barclays bond index was -2.9%, that was back in 1994 when the Fed tightened interest rates abruptly, causing stocks and bonds to collapse in tandem. The next chart highlights the benefits of diversification, generally bonds flip when stocks flop:-

SandP vs Barclays Bond index 25 yr -III Cap Man

Source: III Capital Management

Conclusion and investment opportunities

If inflation is likely to remain subdued due to the excessive debt overhang, then the recent rise in bond prices is simply a correction. How far will this correction go or has it already run its course?

I could analyse each market, apply an array of technical analysis and establish a set of individual forecasts but I believe it is better to view these markets through the lens of the JGB market. Japan has been struggling with bouts of deflation since the 1990’s. Whilst most other nations – Switzerland being a notable exception – have only recently witnessed widespread falling prices, the evolution of inflation expectations are likely to follow a similar course.

japan-inflation-cpi

Source: Trading Economics and Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs

japan-government-bond-yield

Source: Trading Economics and Japanese Treasury

japan-interest-rate

Source: Trading Economics and Bank of Japan

As the Japanese stock market collapsed after 1989 inflation declined rapidly. JGBs, influenced by the rate tightening of the US Fed, suffered a rise in yields in 1994 but then declined once more – after all, the price index was now negative. Inflation witnessed a brief rebound ahead of the Asian Financial Crisis of 1998. The Bank of Japan (BoJ) left short term interest rates on hold and JGB yields declined again as the Asian Crisis gathered momentum.

Between 2000 and 2005 Japan struggled with mild deflation, despite expansionary monetary and fiscal policies. At the risk of being vilified for wild generalisation, this is the point where the other bond markets are now. The charts below cover the period 2001-2007, after the bursting of the US Technology Bubble and prior to the Sub-Prime collapse:-

japan-government-bond-yield 2001-2007

Source: Trading Economics and Japanese Treasury

japan-stock-market 2001-2007

Source: Trading Economics and Tokyo Stock Exchange

japan-currency 2001-2007

Source: Trading Economics

The table below extrapolates the corrections and counter-corrections of the JGB in the chart above and compares them to the German Bund and the US Treasury 10 year maturities:-

JGB 10yr Rise/Fall Change Bund 10yr Rise/Fall   Change US T-Bond 10yr Rise/Fall   Change
Range in bp BP % Equivalent bp BP % Equivalent bp BP %
55 – 185* 130* 236* 5 – 80* 75* 1500* 138 – 304* 166* 120*
185 – 120* -65* -35* 80 – 52 -28 35 304 – 163* -141* -46*
120 – 195* 75* 63* 52 – 85 33 63 163 – 266 103 63
195 – 160* -35* -18* 85 – 70 -15 -18 266 – 218 -48 -18
160 – 190* 30* 19* 70 – 83 13 19 218 –   259 41 19

*These figures are actual outcomes

Source: Investing.com and Tokyo Stock Exchange

I am taking the US T-Bond low (1.38%) of July 2012 to be the current nadir. It may now be embarking on a third corrective wave, if you believe in Elliott Wave theory, which could see yields rise toward 3% once more. The Bund correction, from 80bp to 55bp by 19th May, was probably too swift, meaning the market may break above 0.80% before yields decline again.

The price cycles in each of these markets are unlikely to tally either in duration or magnitude, but, after a capitulation in Europe, in which 10yr Bund yield almost turned negative, even the most ardent fixed income protagonists have been unable to justify remaining fully invested – we have now entered a corrective period. A 130bp rebound would take Bunds just above the 61.8% retracement of the recent decline (1.35%). This scale of correction would clear out the majority of weak hands.

Without inflation, growth prospects for the EZ will continue to rely on the benevolence of the ECB who announced additional QE measures earlier this week. Benoît Cœuré, Member of the Executive Board of the ECB, gave this speech on Monday – How binding is the zero lower bound?

Since 2007 JGB yields had marched steadily lower until this January; without some form of resolution of the over indebtedness of developed nations, yields will remain well below what used to be regarded as the natural rate of interest. 3% is likely to cap yields on 10yr US T-Bonds, Bunds will struggle to get above 2%. JGBs are more difficult to predict, but attempts at reflation are likely to fail whilst debt remains so high relative to GDP. The Japanese government cannot afford a doubling or tripling of its interest bill.

For the trader there is plenty of opportunity with yields ranges of 200 to 300bp, but beware of the void of liquidity that results from the absence of free-float. Rising bond correlation, rising yields and the lack of a “dealer of last resort” create dangers of their own.

Broken BRICs – Can Brazil and Russia rebound?

400dpiLogo

Macro Letter – No 35 – 08-05-2015

Broken BRICs – Can Brazil and Russia rebound?

  • The economies of Brazil and Russia will contract in 2015
  • Their divergence with China and India is structural
  • Economic reform is needed to stimulate long term growth
  • Stocks and bonds will continue to benefit from currency depreciation

When Jim O’Neill, then CIO of GSAM, coined the BRIC collective in 2001, to describe the largest of the emerging market economies, each country was growing strongly, however, O’Neill was the first to acknowledge the significant differences between these disparate countries in terms of their character. Since the Great Recession the economic fortunes of each country has been mixed, but, whilst the relative strength of China and India has continued, Brazil and Russia might be accused of imitating Icarus.

Economic Backdrop

In order to evaluate the prospects for Brazil and Russia it is worth reviewing the unique aspects of, and differences between, each economy.

According to the IMF April 2015 WEO, Brazil is ranked eighth largest by GDP and seventh largest by GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity. Russia was ranked tenth and sixth respectively. Between 2000 and 2012 Brazilian economic growth averaged 5%, yet this year, according to the IMF, the economy is forecast to contract by 1%. The forecast for Latin America combined is +0.6%. For Russia the commodity boom helped GDP rise 7% per annum between 2000 and 2008, but with international sanctions continuing to bite, this year’s GDP is expected to be 3.8% lower.

Brazil’s service sector is the largest component of GDP at 67%, followed by the industry,27% and agriculture, 5.5%. The labour force is around 101mln, of which 10% is engaged in agriculture, 19% in industry and 71% in services. Russia by contrast is more reliant on energy and other natural resources. In 2012[update] oil and gas accounted for 16% of GDP, 52% of federal budget revenues and more than 70% of total exports. As of 2012 agriculture accounted for 4.4% of GDP, industry 37.6% and services 58%. The labour force is somewhat smaller at 76mln (2015).

The Harvard Atlas of Economic Complexity 2012 ranks Brazil 56th and Russia 47th. The table below shows the divergence in IMF forecasts since January. During the period October 2014 and February 2015 the Rouble (RUB) declined by 30% whilst the Brazilian Real (BRL) fell only 9%:-

Country GDP GDP Forecast Forecast Jan-14 Jan-14
2013 2014 2015 2016 2015 2016
Brazil 2.7 0.1 -1 1 -1.3 -0.5
Russia 1.3 0.6 -3.8 -1.1 -0.8 -0.1

Source: IMF WEO April 2015

On March 14th the Bank of Russia published its three year economic forecast: it was decidedly rosy. This was how the Peterson Institute – The Incredibly Rosy Forecast of Russia’s Central Bank described it:-

…the Bank of Russia argues that the huge devaluation of the ruble that took place between October 2014 and February 2015 has a minor effect on economic growth. This claim neglects much empirical evidence that sharp devaluations retard investment activity, for two reasons. First, investment technology from abroad becomes more expensive—nearly 80 percent more expensive in the case of Russia. Second, devaluations increase uncertainty in business planning and hence slow down investment in domestic technology as well. Both effects work to depress economic activity in the short term.

…2017 is presented as the year of a strong rebound, as a result of cyclical macroeconomic forces. In particular, says the Bank of Russia, growth will reach 5.5 to 6.3 percent that year. It is true that the economy was already slowing down in 2012, before last year’s sanctions and devaluation. It is also true that the average business cycle globally has historically lasted about six years. But this is no ordinary cycle—sanctions are likely to play a bigger role than the Bank of Russia cares to admit. The main reason is their effect on the banking sector, where credit activity is already substantially curtailed, and may be curtailed even further once corporate eurobonds start coming due later this year. The devaluation has exacerbated the credit crunch as interest rates spiked in early 2015 to over 20 to 25 percent for business loans. These effects point in one direction: a prolonged recession.

Finally, the Russian government is reducing public investment in infrastructure in this year’s budget to try and cut overall expenditure by about 10 percent. This cutback is going to dampen growth because the multiplier on infrastructure investment is highest among all public expenditures. The Bank of Russia seems to have forgotten to account for this elementary fact of life.

Overall, the economic picture may end up being quite different from what the Bank of Russia forecasts. Instead of economic growth of –3.5 to –4 percent in 2015, –1 to –1.6 percent in 2016, and 5.5 to 6.3 percent in 2017, it may be closer to –6 to –7 percent in 2015, –3 to –4 percent in 2016, and zero growth in 2017. This scenario is worth contemplating, as it would mean that the reserve fund that the government uses to finance its deficit may be fully depleted in this period. What then?

The table below compares a range of other indicators for the two economies:-

Indicator Brazil     Russia    
  Last Reference Previous Last Reference Previous
Interest Rate 13.25% Apr-15 12.75 12.50% Apr-15 14
Government Bond 10Y 12.90% May-15 10.71% May-15
Stock Market YTD* 14.70% May-15 23.20% May-15
GDP per capita $5,823 Dec-13 5730 $6,923 Dec-13 6849
Unemployment Rate 6.20% Mar-15 5.9 5.90% Mar-15 5.8
Inflation Rate – Annual 8.13% Mar-15 7.7 16.90% Mar-15 16.7
PPI – Annual 2.27% Jan-15 2.15 13% Mar-15 9.5
Balance of Trade $491mln Apr-15 458 $13,600mln Mar-15 13597
Current Account -$5,736mln Mar-15 -6879 $23,542mln Feb-15 15389
Current Account/GDP -4.17% Dec-14 -3.66 1.56% Dec-13 3.6
External Debt $348bln Nov-14 338 $559bln Feb-15 597
FDI $4,263mln Mar-15 2769 -$1,144mln Aug-14 12131
Capital Flows $7,570mln Feb-15 10826 -$43,071mln Nov-14 -10260
Gold Reserves 67.2t Nov-14 67.2 1,208t Nov-14 1150
Crude Oil Output ,000’s 2,497bpd Dec-14 2358 10,197bpd Dec-14 10173
Government Debt/GDP 58.91% Dec-14 56.8 13.41% Dec-13 12.74
Industrial Production -9.10% Feb-15 -5.2 -0.60% Mar-15 -1.6
Capacity Utilization 79.70% Feb-15 80.9 59.85% Mar-15 62.04
Consumer Confidence** 99 Apr-15 100 -32 Feb-15 -18
Retail Sales YoY -3.10% Feb-15 0.5 -8.70% Mar-15 -7.7
Gasoline Prices $1.04/litre Mar-15 1.16 $0.68/litre Apr-15 0.61
Corporate Tax Rate 34% Jan-14 34 20% Jan-15 20
Income Tax Rate 27.50% Jan-14 27.5 13% Jan-15 13
Sales Tax Rate 19% Jan-14 19 18% Jan-15 18
*Bovespa = Brazil
*Micex = Russia
** Consumer confidence in Brazil – 100 = neutral, Consumer confidence in Russia – 0 = neutral

Source: Trading Economics and Investing.com

From this table it is worth highlighting a number of factors; firstly interest rates. Rates continue to rise in Brazil despite the relatively benign inflation rate. The rise in the Russian, Micex stock index has been much stronger than that of the Brazilian, Bovespa, partly this is due to the larger fall in the value of the RUB and partly due to the recent recovery in the oil price. PPI inflation in Brazil remains broadly benign, especially in comparison with 2014, whilst in Russia it is stubbornly high – making last week’s rate cut all the more surprising.

Brazilian industrial production continues to decline, a trend it has been struggling to reverse, yet capacity utilisation remains relatively high. Russian industrial production never rebounded as swiftly from the 2008 crisis but has remained in positive territory for the last few years despite the geo-political situation. Remembering that one of Russia’s largest industries is arms manufacture – the country ranks third by military expenditure globally behind China and US – this may not be entirely surprising.

Of more concern for Brazil, is the structural nature of its current account deficit, since the advent of the Great Recession. This combination of deficit and inflation prompted Morgan Stanley, back in 2013, to label Brazil one of the “Fragile Five” alone side India, Indonesia, South Africa and Turkey. Russia, by contrast, has run a surplus for almost the entire period since the Asian crisis of 1998.

The Government debt to GDP ratio in Russia has risen slightly but the experience of the Asian crisis appears to have been taken on board. Added to which, the sanctions regime means Russia is cut off from international capital markets. In Brazil the ratio is not high in comparison with many developed nations but the ratio has been rising since 2011 and looks set to match the 2010 high of 60.9 next year if spending is not curtailed.

A final observation concerns gold reserves. Brazil has relatively little, although they did increase in January 2013 after a prolonged period at very low levels. Russia has taken a different approach, since 2008 its reserves have tripled from less than 400t to more than 1,200t today. There have been suggestions that this is a prelude to Russia adopting a “hard currency” standard in the face of continuous debasement of fiat currencies by developed nation central banks, but that is beyond the remit of this essay.

Are the BRICs broken?

In an article published in July 2014 by Bruegal – Is the BRIC rise over? Jim O’Neill discusses the future with reference to the establishment of a joint development bank:-

Some observers believed that the whole notion of a grouping of Brazil, Russia, India and China never made any sound sense because beyond having a lot of people, they didn’t share anything else in common. In particular, two are democracies, and two are not, obviously, China and Russia.  Similarly, two are major commodity producers, Brazil and Russia, the other two, not. And their levels of wealth are quite different, with Brazil and Russia well above $10,000, China around $ 7-8 k, and India less than $ 2k per head.  And the sceptic would follow all of this by saying, the only reason why Brazil and Russia grew so well in the past decade was simply due to a persistent boom in commodity prices, and once that finished, as appears to be the case now, then their economies would lose their shine, as indeed appears to be the case.  Throw in that China would inevitably be caught by its own significant challenges at some point, which the doubters would say, is now, then all is left is India, and if it weren’t for the election of Modi recently, there has not been a lot to justify structural optimism about that country recently.

…I do believe each of Brazil and Russia have got some challenges to face, that they are not yet confronting, which at the core is to reduce their dependency to the commodity cycle, and while there are many differences between them, they do both need to become more competitive and entrepreneurial outside of commodities and to boost private sector investment.

The development has caused much political jawboning but I suspect its impact will be small in the near-term.

Looking again at the figures for capital flows, Brazil appeared to be in better shape, but Russian FDI has been positive in every quarter since 2008 until the most recent outflow in Q3 2014.

Consumer confidence in Brazil has remained more robust, possibly this is due to innate Latin optimism but it may be partly in expectation of the forthcoming Olympics. The games will take place in Rio, reminding us of the high urbanisation rates in Brazil, 85.4%. This is not dissimilar to Russia at 73.9% but substantially higher than China 54.4% and India 32.4%. Interestingly US urbanisation is 81.4% – but US GDP per capita is significantly higher.

Russia

The Peterson Institute – Russia’s Economic Situation Is Worse than It May Appear from early December 2014 painted a gloomy picture of the prospects:-

The Russian economy suffers from three severe blows: ever worsening structural policies, financial sanctions from the West, and a falling oil price. 

…Russia is experiencing large capital outflows, expected to reach $120 billion. Because of Western financial sanctions, they are set to continue. The large outflows erupted in March as investors anticipated financial sanctions, which hit in July and in effect have closed financial markets to Russia. No significant international financial institution dares to take the legal risk of lending Russia money today. 

Not wishing to be left out of the rhetoric on Russia’s demise, in late December the ECFR – What will be the consequences of the Russian currency crisis?:-

The watershed moment was the imposition of the third round of Western sanctions, which cut Russian companies off from the world’s financial markets. Along with falling oil prices (a key market factor), this caused market players to reassess the risks. Before the introduction of sanctions, the ratio of external debt to foreign exchange reserves (at 1.4) was not particularly worrying. But the fact that companies could no longer refinance their debt on external markets necessitated a rethink. It became clear that, with export revenues falling because of lower oil prices, companies would accumulate excess currency in their accounts. The supply of currency in the market from exporters (many of whom also had large debts) declined sharply, while demand from the debtor companies increased.

In October 2014 the Central Bank was forced to spend another $26 billion to support the rouble. After that, preserving the country’s reserves became the priority, so in November, the bank’s intervention fell to $10 billion. So everything was in place for a currency crisis and this is why the Russian Minister for the Economy called it “the perfect storm”. The storm was only halted by a sharp increase in the Central Bank’s interest rate and by informal pressure on companies that brought about a speedy decline in foreign exchange trading.

…So the double devaluation of the rouble will be felt in rising price and shrinking consumption. According to the Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy, this will add at least 10–12 percentage points to normal inflation, which will reach 15-20 percent. Import substitution options are relatively limited: large-scale import substitution would require significant investment and, at the moment, the resources for this are not there. And a fall in consumption (as a result of the falling purchasing power of households) will cause a decline in production.

According to the Central Bank’s December forecast, GDP in 2015 may fall by 4.5–4.8 percent. This is what the bank calls a “stress scenario”, and it assumes that the oil price will stay at $60 a barrel and Western sanctions will remain in place. In fact, this scenario seems to be the most realistic; any other scenario would involve either the lifting of sanctions or a rise in the oil price to $80 or even $100.

The dismal theme was inevitably taken up by CFR – The Russian Crisis: Early Days in early January:-

The most likely trigger for a future crisis resides in the financial sector. December’s $2 billion bailout of Trust Bank, coupled with news of large and potentially open-ended support for VTB Bank and Gazprombank, highlight the rapidly escalating costs of the crisis for the financial sector as state banks and energy companies face high dollar-denominated debt payments and falling revenues. Rising bad loans, falling equity values, and soaring foreign-currency debt are devastating balance sheets. As foreign banks pull back their support, the combination of sanctions, oil prices, and rising nonperforming loans is creating a toxic mix for Russian banks. So far, a crisis has been deferred by the belief that the central bank can and will fully stand behind the banking system. If any doubt creeps in about the strength of that commitment, a run will quickly materialize.

…Sanctions are a force multiplier. Western sanctions have taken away the usual buffers—such as foreign borrowing and expanding trade—that Russia relies on to insulate its economy from an oil shock. Over the past several months, Western banks have cut their relationships and pulled back on lending, creating severe domestic market pressures. The financial system has fragmented. Meanwhile, trade and investment have dropped sharply. These forces limit the capacity of the Russian economy to adjust to any shock. Russia could have weathered an oil shock or sanctions alone, but not both together.

…Measured by the severity of recent market moves, Russia is in crisis. But from a broader perspective, a comprehensive economic and financial crisis would cause a far greater degree of financial distress for the Russian people. Companies would find working capital unavailable; interest rates of 17 percent (or higher) and exchange rate depreciation would cause a spike in import prices; and capital expenditure would crater. All this would generate sharp increases in unemployment and a far greater fall in gross domestic product (GDP) than we have seen so far.

Chatham House – Troubled Times Stagnation, Sanctions and the Prospects for Economic Reform in Russia – published at the end of February, goes into more depth, concluding:-

Over the past three decades, a precipitous drop in oil prices (and a concomitant sharp reduction in rents) has resulted in economic reforms being undertaken in Russia. Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika emerged after the fall in oil prices in 1986. Putin’s earlier, more liberal economic policies were carried out after oil dropped to close to $10 a barrel in 1999. And Dmitri Medvedev’s modernization agenda was strongest in the aftermath of the global recession of 2008–09.

Unfortunately, the prospects for a similar surge in economic reform in Russia today are less good. The unfavourable geopolitical environment threatens to change the trajectory of political and economic development in Russia for the worse. By boosting factions within Russia’s policy elite who favour increased state control and less integration with the global economy, poor relations with the West threaten to reduce the prospects for a market-oriented turn in economic policy. As a result, the prevailing system of political economy that is in such urgent need of transformation may in fact be preserved in a more ossified form. Instead of responding to adversity through openness, Russia may take the historically well-trodden path of using a threatening international environment to justify centralization and international isolation in order to strengthen the existing ruling elite.

Thus, while Western sanctions were not necessarily intended to strengthen statist factions within Russia and force the country away from the global economy, this may prove to be an unintended but important outcome. Consequently, Russia appears to be locked into a path of economic policy inertia, as powerful constituencies that benefit from the existing system are strengthened by the showdown with the West. While Russia may have ‘won’ Crimea, and may even succeed in ensuring that Ukraine is not ‘won’ by the West, the price of victory may be a deterioration in long-term prospects for socioeconomic development.

This is how the USDRUB has performed during the last 12 months, the first interest rate cut (from 17% to 15% took place on 30th January, the RUB fell 3% on the day to around USDRUB 70, since then the RUB has appreciated to around USDRUB 55-55:-

USDRUB 1yr

Source: Yahoo Finance

What caused the RUB to return from the brink was a recovery in the oil price and a slight improvement in the politics of the Ukraine. The Minsk II Agreement, whilst only partially observed, has curtailed an escalation of the Ukrainian civil war. Capital outflows which were $77bln in Q4 2014 slowed to $32bln in Q1 2015. Ironically, the rebound in the currency and appreciation in the Micex index will probably delay the necessary structural reforms which are needed to reinvigorate the economy.

Brazil

At the end of February the Economist – Brazil – In a quagmiredescribed the challenges facing President Rousseff’s weak government:-

Brazil’s economy is in a mess, with far bigger problems than the government will admit or investors seem to register. The torpid stagnation into which it fell in 2013 is becoming a full-blown—and probably prolonged—recession, as high inflation squeezes wages and consumers’ debt payments rise (see article). Investment, already down by 8% from a year ago, could fall much further. A vast corruption scandal at Petrobras, the state-controlled oil giant, has ensnared several of the country’s biggest construction firms and paralysed capital spending in swathes of the economy, at least until the prosecutors and auditors have done their work. The real has fallen by 30% against the dollar since May 2013: a necessary shift, but one that adds to the burden of the $40 billion in foreign debt owed by Brazilian companies that falls due this year.

…Ideally, Brazil would offset this fiscal squeeze with looser monetary policy. But because of the country’s hyperinflationary past, as well as more recent mistakes—the Central Bank bent to the president’s will, ignored its inflation target and foolishly slashed its benchmark rate in 2011-12—the room for manoeuvre today is limited. With inflation still above its target, the Central Bank cannot cut its benchmark rate from today’s level of 12.25% without risking further loss of credibility and sapping investor confidence. A fiscal squeeze and high interest rates spell pain for Brazilian firms and households and a slower return to growth.

Yet the president’s weakness is also an opportunity—and for Mr Levy in particular. He is now indispensable. He should build bridges to Mr Cunha, while making it clear that if Congress tries to extract a budgetary price for its support, that will lead to cuts elsewhere. The recovery of fiscal responsibility must be lasting for business confidence and investment to return. But the sooner the fiscal adjustment sticks, the sooner the Central Bank can start cutting interest rates.

More is needed for Brazil to return to rapid and sustained growth. It may be too much to expect Ms Rousseff to overhaul the archaic labour laws that have helped to throttle productivity, but she should at least try to simplify taxes and cut mindless red tape. There are tentative signs that the government will scale back industrial policy and encourage more international trade in what remains an over-protected economy.

Brazil is not the only member of the BRICS quintet of large emerging economies to be in trouble. Russia’s economy, in particular, has been battered by war, sanctions and dependence on oil. For all its problems, Brazil is not in as big a mess as Russia. It has a large and diversified private sector and robust democratic institutions. But its woes go deeper than many realise. The time to put them right is now.

Earlier this week the Peterson Institute – The Rescue of Brazil summed up the current situation:-

The Brazilian economy has all the characteristics of a country under the tutelage of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) program. The list of its economic imbalances is endless: a rampant current account deficit in excess of 4 percent of GDP, an exchange rate that has long been overvalued but that has collapsed in just a few months, a public debt ratio to GDP in a rapid upward trend, a fiscal deficit of over 6 percent of GDP despite a high tax burden, an annual inflation rate of nearly 8 percent that has unanchored inflation expectations, an accelerated growth of wages well above their very low productivity. The scandal of the oil company Petrobras, the latest in a long series of political corruption scandals, is the straw that could break the back of investors’ patience, the tolerance of Brazilian citizens, and the stamina of the world’s seventh largest economy. The Petrobras scandal has far-reaching ramifications throughout the economy and society, paralyzing activity and collapsing both business and consumer confidence to unprecedented levels. The mass street demonstrations of recent weeks are the most graphic example of this dissatisfaction.

In another Op-ed Peterson – Brazil’s Investment: A Maze in One’s Own Navel the authors point to the relatively closed nature of the Brazilian economy for the lack of international investment:-

Consider the most common explanations for why Brazil’s investment rate shows persistent apathy: Excessive taxes levied on businesses discourage fixed capital formation; poor infrastructure—including ongoing problems in the energy sector—increases production costs; high wages relative to worker productivity weigh on firms, hampering investment; an opaque business environment characterized by obsolete and excessive licensing requirements reduce firms’ incentives to invest; an institutional environment marked by subsidized lending that favors certain firms over others misallocates scarce domestic savings; “state capitalism” and excessive government intervention crowd out the private sector. Evidently, all of these reasons have a role in explaining investment inertia. But, importantly, they are all homegrown.

Perhaps Brazil’s sclerotic investment has something to do with its long-standing lack of openness. It is no mystery that Brazil is one of the most closed economies in the world according to any metric that one chooses to gauge the degree of openness. It is no coincidence that this is also the most striking difference between Brazil and its emerging-market peers: Brazil is more closed than Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Chile; all members of the Pacific Alliance, their growth rates are higher than Brazil’s. Brazil is also less open than India, China, Turkey, and South Africa.

There is an extensive academic and empirical literature on the relationship between investment and openness (see, for example, the Peterson Institute’s video on trade and investment). Several research papers show that the more open an economy is to international trade, the more foreign direct investment it receives. The more foreign direct investment it receives, the greater the availability of resources for domestic investment. Competition is also crucial: Economies that are more open induce greater competition between local and foreign firms, creating incentives for innovation and investment by domestic companies.

Unfortunately, Brazil is still fairly close-minded when it comes to these issues. Fears of losing market share and the old litany of “selling the country to foreigners” still dominate the national debate.

The weakening of the BRL has continued for rather longer than the decline in the RUB, perhaps as a result of the Petrobras “Car Wash” scandal, but a modicum of stability has been regained since early April, as the chart below shows:-

USDBRL 1yr

Source: Yahoo Finance

Commodity correlation

Both Brazil and Russia are large commodity exporters. The table below is for 2011 but a clear picture emerges:-

Commodity Russia Brazil
Oil & Products $190bln $22bln
Iron Ore & Products $19bln $54bln

Source: CIA Factbook

Platts reported that Iron Ore prices (62% Fe Iron Ore Index) had risen since the end of April to $57.75/dmt CFR North China, up $2.25 on 4th May. It is probably too soon to confirm that Iron Ore prices have bottomed but with oil prices now significantly higher ($60/bbl) since their lows ($45/bbl) seen in March. Copper has also begun to rise – perhaps in response to the performance of the Chinese stock market – rising from lows of less than $2.50/lb in January to $2.94/lb this week.

The chart below shows the relative performance of the CRB Index and the GSCI Index which has a heavier weighting to energy:-

GSCI and CRB 1 yr

Source: FT

The general recovery in commodity prices is still nascent but it is supportive for both Brazil and Russia in the near term. Both countries have benefitted from devaluation relative to their export partners as this table illustrates:-

Russia Exports Brazil Exports
Netherlands 10.70% China 17%
Germany 8.20% United States 11.10%
China 6.80% Argentina 7.40%
Italy 5.50% Netherlands 6.20%
Ukraine 5%
Turkey 4.90%
Belarus 4.10%
Japan 4.00%

Source: CIA Factbook

Asset prices and investment opportunities

Real Estate

Russian real estate prices have been subdued during the last few years, but the underlying market has been active. The lack of price appreciation is due to a massive increase in house building. 912,000 new homes were built in 2013 – the highest number since 1989. Prices are lower in 10 out 46 regions, however, this new supply should be viewed in the context of the housing bubble which drove prices higher by 436% between 2000 and 2007:-

russia-house-prices-2

Source: Global Property Guide

Brazilian property, by contrast, has risen in price. In inflation adjusted terms, prices increased 7.6% in 2013, although these increases are less than those seen during 2011/2012. Rio continues to outperform (+15.2% vs +13.9% nationally) and the forthcoming Olympics should support prices into 2016:-

brazil-house-prices-1

Source: Global Property Guide

Neither of these markets present obvious opportunities. Brazilian prices are likely to moderate in response to higher interest rates whilst increased Russian supply will hang over the market for the foreseeable future. The rental yields in the table are somewhat out of date but clearly offer a less attractive income than government bonds:-

BRAZIL November 16th 2013
SAO PAULO – Apartments
Property Size Yield
80 sq. m. 5.68%
120 sq. m. 4.71%
200 sq. m. 6.15%
350 sq. m. 6.23%
RIO DE JANEIRO -Apartments
60 sq. m. 4.40%
90 sq. m. 3.82%
120 sq. m. 3.91%
200 sq. m. 4.89%
RUSSIA June 24th 2014
MOSCOW – Apartments
Property Size Yield
75 sq. m. 3.84%
120 sq. m. 3.22%
160 sq. m. 3.07%
275 sq. m. 3.42%
ST. PETERSBURG – Apartments
60 sq. m. 6.20%
120 sq. m. 4.36%
175 sq. m. 3.46%

Source: Global Property Guide

Stocks

The chart below compares the performance of Micex and the Bovespa indices over the past year. The devaluation of the RUB has been greater than that of the BRL – this accounts for the majority of the divergence:-

MICEX vs BOVESPA 1yr

Source: FT

Looking more closely at the components of the two indices there is a marked energy and commodity bias, the table below looks at the largest stocks, representing roughly 80% of each index:-

Ticker Stock Weight Sector Free-float
GAZP GAZPROM 15 Energy 46%
SBER Sberbank 14.01 Financial Services 48%
LKOH ОАО “LUKOIL” 13.97 Energy 57%
ROSN Rosneft 5.84 Energy 15%
URKA Uralkali 5.19 Commodity 45%
GMKN “OJSC “MMC “NORILSK NICKEL” 4.79 Commodity 24%
NVTK JSC “NOVATEK” 3.93 Energy 18%
SNGS Surgutneftegas 3.49 Energy 25%
RTKM Rostelecom 3.03 Telecomm 43%
TATN TATNEFT 3.01 Energy 32%
VTBR JSC VTB Bank 2.97 Financial Services 25%
MGNT OJSC “Magnit” 2.22 Commodity 24%
TRNFP Transneft, Pref 2.21 Energy 100%
TOTAL WEIGHTING 79.66
Ticker Stock Weight Sector
ITUB4 ITAUUNIBANCO 10.764 Financial Services
BBDC4 BRADESCO 8.2 Financial Services
ABEV3 AMBEV S/A 7.368 Brewing
PETR4 PETROBRAS 6.045 Energy
PETR3 PETROBRAS 4.416 Energy
VALE5 VALE 3.971 Commodity
BRFS3 BRF SA 3.741 Commodity
VALE3 VALE 3.558 Commodity
ITSA4 ITAUSA 3.433 Financial Services
CIEL3 CIELO 3.37 Financial Services
JBSS3 JBS 2.705 Commodity
UGPA3 ULTRAPAR 2.487 Energy
BBSE3 BBSEGURIDADE 2.47 Financial Services
BVMF3 BMFBOVESPA 2.393 Financial Services
BBAS3 BRASIL 2.344 Financial Services
EMBR3 EMBRAER 1.823 Aerospace
VIVT4 TELEF BRASIL 1.733 Telecomm
PCAR4 P.ACUCAR-CBD 1.663 Retail
KROT3 KROTON 1.49 Support Services
CCRO3 CCR SA 1.48 Transport
BBDC3 BRADESCO 1.445 Financial Services
LREN3 LOJAS RENNER 1.364 Retail
CMIG4 CEMIG 1.207 Energy
CRUZ3 SOUZA CRUZ 1.027 Tobacco
TOTAL WEIGHTING 80.497

Source: Moscow Exchange and BMF Bovespa

The Russian index is clearly more exposed to energy, 48% and commodities, 12%, than the Brazilian index, where the weightings are 14 % each for energy and commodities. It is important to note that the Bovespa index adjusts for the “free-float” for each stock whilst Micex does not, however under Micex rules no stock may account for more than 15% of the index. The free-float adjusted weight of energy and commodities is therefore 18% and 4% respectively.

On the basis of this analysis, currency fluctuation has been the predominant influence on stock market returns, followed by energy and commodity prices. The PE ratios of Micex and Bovespa at roughly 8 times, are undemanding but neither the economic nor the political situation in either country is conducive to long term growth. I expect both markets to continue to recover, although Micex will probably fair best. Longer term, economic reform is required to raise the structural rate of growth.

Although not mentioned in any of the articles quoted above, Russian demographics are unfavourable as this article from Yale University – Russian Demographics: The Perfect Storm – makes clear:-

One measure of an economically secure homeland is women’s willingness to raise children with the expectation of opportunities for good health, education and livelihoods. On that front, Russia confronts a perfect storm – as fertility rates plummeted to 1.2 births per women in the late 1990s and now stand at 1.7 births per women. “Russia’s population will most likely decline in the coming decades, perhaps reaching an eventual size in 2100 that’s similar to its 1950 level of around 100 million,” write demographers Joseph Chamie and Barry Mirkin. The country has high mortality rates due to elevated rates of smoking, alcohol consumption and obesity. Investment on healthcare is low. Over the next decade, Russia’s labor force is expected to shrink by about 15 percent. Other countries with low fertility rates turn to immigration to pick up the slack. While immigrants make up about 8 percent of Russia’s population, the nation has a reputation for nationalism and xenophobia, and fertility rates are even lower in neighboring Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania, all possible sources of immigration.

Brazil has better demographic prospects in the near term, but its population growth is now not much above the world average and by 2050 it too will be entering a demographic “Götterdämmerung” of declining population. A freer, more open economy is the most efficient method of deflecting the effects of the long term demographic deficits – stock markets reflect this in their risk premiums.

Bonds

Brazilian government bonds offer a real return after adjusting for inflation (10 yr real-yield 4.77%) however, as this March 2015 article from Forbes – With Currency In Gutter And Bad News Galore, Brazil Bonds A Buy makes clear, there are significant risks:-

…the major headwinds against Brazil are domestic. The fact that China is slowing down is no longer a fright factor. What keeps investors up at night is the possibility of Brazil losing its investment grade.  But last month, Standard & Poor’s credit analysts were in Brasilia and left saying that a downgrade to junk was unlikely.

There is the risk of impeachment and the resignation of Finance Minister Joaquim Levy, but that is already priced into the market with local interest rate futures trading over 14.35% compared to the actual benchmark rate of 12.75%.  Moreover, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff and the resignation of Levy are worse case scenarios with low probabilities. Worries over energy rationing have subsided.

I believe Brazilian bonds offer good value, even at these levels, the central banks has taken a draconian approach to inflation and the BRL has recovered some of the ground it lost during the last year. Exports to the US should improve and signs of a recovery in European growth will benefit the BRL further.

Russian government bonds look less compelling – with headline inflation at 16.9% and 10 yr yields of only 10.71% one might be inclined to avoid them on the grounds on negative real yield – but a case can be made for lower inflation and a resurgence in the value of the RUB as this article from RT – Russia’s ‘junk’ bonds paying off handsomely suggests:-

“It’s very simple advice. Bonds are much more attractive than a year ago. Risks related to the ruble have subsided, inflation is likely to moderate, the BoP (Balance of Payments) and budget situation look reasonably strong and that is why the outlook is quite favorable,” Vladimir Kolychev, Chief Economist for Russia at VTB Capital

“Unless geopolitics interferes, we forecast Russian rates are likely to repeat Hungary’s three-year bull market run in the years ahead,” Bank of America’s head of emerging EMEA economics David Hauner

In a March 11 note, Russia’s Goldman Sachs analysts wrote “Russian bonds are both cyclically and structurally under-priced,” in a big part due devaluation expectations of the ruble stabilizing.

I remain less convinced about the value of Russian bonds but with a low debt to GDP ratio they may perform well.

Here are the recent price charts for 10 year maturities:-

russia-government-bond-yield

Source: Trading Economics

brazil-government-bond-yield

Source: Trading Economics

As inflation declines in both countries their bond markets will continue to rise in expectation of further central bank rate cuts. This will also support stocks but bonds will lead the rally, especially if future growth in Brazil or Russia should disappoint.