Is the “flight to quality” effect breaking down?


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:-


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,

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,

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,

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:-


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”.


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:-



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


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


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:-


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:-


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?


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?


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 – 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?


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:-


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:-


…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.


…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:-


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?


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:-


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?


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


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

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:-

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%


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.


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.


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.


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.