Bull market breather or beginning of the end?

Bull market breather or beginning of the end?

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Macro Letter – No 87 – 24-11-2017

Bull market breather or beginning of the end?

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

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

2yr - 10yr Treasury Jan 2016 to present

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

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

Moodys Aaa and Baa Corps spread over 10yr Bond

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

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

Moody Aaa and Baa plus ML HY since Jan 2016

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

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

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

Spread_spreads_April_vs_Nov_2016

Source: Investing.com, The Financials.com

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

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

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

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

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

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Global Real Estate and the end of QE – Is it time to be afraid?

Global Real Estate and the end of QE – Is it time to be afraid?

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Macro Letter – No 86 – 03-11-2017

Global Real Estate and the end of QE – Is it time to be afraid?

  • Rising interest rates and higher bond yields are here to stay
  • Real estate prices seem not to be affected by higher finance costs
  • Household debt continues to rise especially in advanced economies
  • Real estate supply remains constrained and demand continues to grow

During the past two months two of the world’s leading central banks have begun the process of unwinding or, at least, tapering the quantitative easing which was first initiated after the great financial recession of 2008/2009. The Federal Reserve FOMC statement for September and their Addendum to the Policy Normalization Principles and Plans from June contain the details of the US bank’s policy change. The ECB Monetary policy decision from last week explains the European position.

Whilst the Federal Reserve is reducing its balance sheet by allowing US treasury holdings to mature, the US government has already breached its debt ceiling and will need to issue new bonds. The pace of US money supply growth is unlikely to be reversed. Nonetheless, 10yr US bond yields have risen from a low of 1.35% in July 2016 to more than 2.6% earlier this year. They currently yield around 2.4%. Over the same period 2yr US bond yields have risen from 0.49% to a new high, this week, of 1.60% – their highest since October 2008.

Back in April I wrote about the anomaly in the US interest rate swaps market – US 30yr Swaps have yielded less than Treasuries since 2008 – does it matter? What is interesting to note, in relation to global real estate, is that the 10yr Swap spread over US Treasuries (which is currently negative) has remained stable at -8bp during the recent rise in yields. Normally as interest rates on government bonds declines credit spreads tighten – as rates rise these spreads widen. So far, this has not come to pass.

In the US, mortgages are, predominantly, long-term and fixed rate. US 30yr mortgage rates has also risen since July 2016 – from 2.09% to 3.18% at the end of December. Since then rates have moderated, they now stand at 2.89%, approximately 1% above US 30yr bonds. The chart below shows the spread since July 2016:-

30yr_Mortgage_-_Bond_Spread_July_2016_to_October_2

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

Apart from the aberration during the US presidential elections the spread between 30yr US Treasuries and 30yr Mortgages has been steadily narrowing despite the tightening of short term interest rates and the increase in yields across the maturity spectrum.

Mortgage finance costs have increased since July 2016 but by less than 50bp. What impact has this had on real estate prices? The chart below shows the S&P Case-Shiller House Price Index since 2006, the increase in mortgage rates has failed to slow the rise in prices. The year on year increase is currently running at 5.6% and forecasters predict this rate to increase to 5.8% when September data is released:-

SandP_Shiller_Case_House_Price_Index_-_2006-2017_Q

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, S&P Case-Shiller

At the global level house prices have not taken out their pre-crisis highs, as this chart from the IMF reveals:-

globalhousepriceindex_lg

Source: IMF, BIS, ECB, Federal Reserve, Savills

The latest IMF – Global Housing Watch – report for Q2 2017 is sanguine. They take comfort from the broad range of macroprudential measures which have been introduced during the past decade.

The IMF go on to examine house price increases on a country by country basis:-

housepricesaroundtheworld_lg

Source: IMF, BIS, ECB, Federal Reserve, Savills, Sinyl Real Estate

The OECD – Focus on house priceslooks at a variety of different metrics including changes in real house prices: the OECD average is more of less where it was in 2010 having dipped during 2011/2012 – here is breakdown across a selection of regions. Please note the charts are rather historic they stop at January 2014:-

OECD Real Estate charts 2010 -2014

Source: OECD

The continued fall in Japanese prices is not entirely surprising but the steady decline of the Euro area is significant.

Similarly historic data is contained in the chart below which ranks countries by Price to Income and Price to Rent. Portugal, Germany, South Korea and Japan remain inexpensive by these measures, whilst Belgium, New Zealand, Canada, Norway and Australia remain expensive. The UK market also appears inflated but the decline in Sterling may be a supportive factor: international capital is flowing into the UK after the devaluation:-

Real Estate P-E and P-R chart OECD

Source: OECD

Bringing the data up to date is the Knight Frank’s global house price index, for Q2 2017. The table below is sorted by real return:-

Real_Estate_Real_Return_Q2_2017_Knight_Frank

Source: Knight Frank, Trading Economics

There is a saying in the real estate market, ‘all property is local’. Prices vary from region to region, from street to street, however, the data above paints a picture of a global real estate market which has performed strongly in response to the lowering of interest rates. As the table below illustrates, the percentage of countries recording positive annual price changes is now at 89%, well above the levels of 2007, when interest rates were higher:-

Real_Estate_Price_Change_-_Knight_Frank

Source: Knight Frank

The low interest rate environment has stimulated a rise in household debt, especially in advanced economies. The IMF – Global Financial Stability Report October 2017 makes sombre reading:-

Although finance is generally believed to contribute to long-term economic growth, recent studies have shown that the growth benefits start declining when aggregate leverage is high. At business cycle frequencies, new empirical studies—as well as the recent experience from the global financial crisis—have shown that increases in private sector credit, including household debt, may raise the likelihood of a financial crisis and could lead to lower growth.

These two charts show the rising trend globally but the relatively undemanding levels of indebtedness typical of the Emerging Market countries:-

IMF_Household_Debt_to_GDP_ratios_-_Advanced_Econom

Source: IMF

IMF_Household_Debt_to_GDP_ratios_-_Emerging_Econom

Source: IMF

As long ago at February 2015 – McKinsey – Debt and (not too much) deleveraging – sounded the warning knell:-

Seven years after the bursting of a global credit bubble resulted in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, debt continues to grow. In fact, rather than reducing indebtedness, or deleveraging, all major economies today have higher levels of borrowing relative to GDP than they did in 2007. Global debt in these years has grown by $57 trillion, raising the ratio of debt to GDP by 17 percentage points.

According to the Institute of International Finance Q2 2017 global debt report – debt hit a new all-time high of $217 trln (327% of global GDP) with China leading the way:-

iif china debt to GDP

Source: IIF

Household debt is growing in China but from a relatively low base, it is as the IMF observe, the advanced economies where households are becoming addicted to low interest rates and cheap finance.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

Economist Global House prices

Source: The Economist

The chart above shows a few of the winners since 1980. The real estate market remains sanguine, trusting that the end of QE will be a gradual process. Although as a recent article by Frank Shostak – Can gradual interest rate tightening prevent shocks? reminds us, ‘…there is no such thing as “shock-free” monetary policy’:-

Can a gradual tightening prevent an economic bust?

Since monetary growth, whether expected or unexpected, gives rise to the redirection of real savings it means that any monetary tightening slows down this redirection. Various economic activities, which sprang-up on the back of strong monetary pumping, because of a tighter monetary stance get now less real funding. This in turn means that these activities are given less support and run the risk of being liquidated.  It is the liquidation of these activities what an economic bust is all about.

Obviously, then, the tighter monetary stance by the Fed must put pressure on various false activities, or various artificial forms of life. Hence, the tighter the Fed gets the slower the pace of redirection of real savings will be, which in turn means that more liquidation of various false activities will take place. In the words of Ludwig von Mises,

‘The boom brought about by the banks’ policy of extending credit must necessarily end sooner or later. Unless they are willing to let their policy completely destroy the monetary and credit system, the banks themselves must cut it short before the catastrophe occurs. The longer the period of credit expansion and the longer the banks delay in changing their policy, the worse will be the consequences of the malinvestments and of the inordinate speculation characterizing the boom; and as a result the longer will be the period of depression and the more uncertain the date of recovery and return to normal economic activity.’

Consequently, the view that the Fed can lift interest rates without any disruption doesn’t hold water. Obviously if the pool of real savings is still expanding then this may mitigate the severity of the bust. However, given the reckless monetary policies of the US central bank it is quite likely that the US economy may already has a stagnant or perhaps a declining pool of real savings. This in turn runs the risk of the US economy falling into a severe economic slump.

We can thus conclude that the popular view that gradual transparent monetary policies will allow the Fed to tighten its stance without any disruptions is based on erroneous ideas. There is no such thing as a “shock-free” monetary policy any more than a monetary expansion can ever be truly neutral to the market.

Regardless of policy transparency once a tighter monetary stance is introduced, it sets in motion an economic bust. The severity of the bust is conditioned by the length and magnitude of the previous loose monetary stance and the state of the pool of real savings.

If world stock markets catch a cold central banks will provide assistance – though not perhaps to the same degree as they did last time around. If, however, the real estate market begins to unravel the impact on consumption – and therefore on the real economy – will be much more dramatic. Central bankers will act in concert and with determination. If the problem is malinvestment due to artificially low interest rates, then further QE and a return to the zero bound will not cure the malady: but this discussion is for another time.

What does quantitative tightening – QT – mean for real estate? In many urban areas, the increasing price of real estate is a function of geography and the limitations of infrastructure. Shortages of supply are difficult (and in some cases impossible) to alleviate; it is unlikely, for example, that planning consent would be granted to develop Central Park in Manhattan or Hyde Park in London.

Higher interest rates and weakness in household earnings growth will temper the rise in property prices. If the markets run scared it may even lead to a brief correction. More likely, transactional activity will diminish. A price collapse to the degree we witnessed in 2008/2009 is unlikely to recur. Those markets which have risen most may exhibit a greater propensity to decline, but the combination of steady long term demand and supply constraints, will, if you’ll pardon the pun, underpin global real estate.

Linear Talk – Macro Roundup for September 2017

Linear Talk – Macro Roundup for September 2017

TRANSCRIPT

Linear Talk – Macro Roundup – 17th October 2017

Financial market liquidity returned after the thin trading which is typical of August. Stocks and crude oil were higher and the US$ made new lows. But a number of individual markets are noteworthy.

Stocks

The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq 100 both achieved record highs last month (2519 and 6013 respectively). In the case of the S&P this is the sixth straight month of higher closes, even as flow of funds data indicates a rotation into international equity markets.

The Eurostoxx 50 took comfort from the US move, closing the month at its high (3595) yet it remains below the level seen in May (3667) tempered, no doubt, by the strength of the Euro.

German Elections, showing a rise in support for the nationalist AfD and the prospect of an unconstitutional independence referendum in Catalonia, made little impression on European equity markets. The DAX also closed at its high (12,829) but, it too, failed to breach its record for the year of 12,952 witnessed in June.

Spain’s IBEX 35 was more susceptible to the political fracas in its north eastern region, but with other markets rising, it traded in a narrow range, closing at 10,382 on the eve of the referendum, having actually begun the month lower, at 10,329.

The Japanese Nikkei 225 remained well supported but still failed to breach resistance, making a high of 20,481 on the 18th. It has since taken out the old high. This move is supported by stronger economic data and revised growth forecasts from the IMF (released after month end).

Currencies

Currency markets have been dominated by the weakness of the US$ since January. Last month was no exception. The US$ Index made a new low for the year at 90.99 on the 8th but swiftly recovered, testing 93.80 on the 28th. Technically, this low breached the 50% correction of the move from the May 2014 low of 78.93 to the January 2017 high of 103.81. Further support should be found at 88.43 (61.8% retracement) but price action in EURUSD suggests that we may be about to see a reversal of trend.

EURUSD made a new high for the year at 1.2094 on the 8th, amid rumours of ECB intervention. By month end it had weakened, testing 1.1721 on 28th. This has created a technical ‘outside month’ – a higher high and lower low than the previous month. For this pattern to be negated EURUSD must trade back above 1.2094.

EURGBP also witnessed a sharp correction the initial Sterling weakness which was a feature of the summer months. From an opening high of 0.9235 Sterling steadily strengthened to close at 0.8819. Nonetheless, Sterling remains weaker against the Euro than in 2013, amid fears of a ‘No Deal’ on Brexit and continued expectations of an economic slowdown due to the political uncertainty of that exit.

Bonds

US 10yr Treasuries made a new low yield for the year at 2.02% on 8th. This is the lowest yield since the November 2016 election, however, expectations of another rate hike and the announcement of a planned balance sheet reduction schedule from the Federal Reserve, tempered the enthusiasm of the bond bulls. By month end, yields had risen 32bp to close at 2.34%.

In Germany 10yr Bund yields followed a similar trajectory to the US. Making a low of 0.29% on 8th only to increase to 0.52% by 28th. Increasing support for the AfD in the election, was largely ignored.

A trade which has been evident during 2017 has been the convergence of core and peripheral European bond yields. The larger markets such as Italy and Spain have mostly mirrored the price action of Bunds, their spreads widening moderately in the process. The yield on Portuguese and Greek bonds, by contrast has declined substantially, although there was a slight widening during September. Greek 10yr bonds, which yielded 8.05% at the end of January, closed the month at 5.67%. Over the same period 10yr Bunds have seen yields rise by 6bp.

UK 10yr Gilts also had an interesting month. From a low of 0.97% on 7th they reached 1.42% on 28th amid concerns about Brexit, the recent weakness in Sterling (which appears to have been temporarily reversed) and expectations that Bank of England Governor, Carney, will raise UK interest rates for the first time since June 2007. It is tempting to conceive that either the rise in Gilt yields or the recent rise in Sterling is wrong, these trends might both continue. Long Sterling and Short Gilts might be a trade worthy of consideration.

Commodities

Perhaps anticipating the IMF – World Economic Outlook – October update, in which they revised their world growth forecasts for 2017 and 2018 upwards, the price of Brent Crude rallied to a new high for the year on 26th – $59.49/bbl. Aside from expectations of an increase in demand, the effect of two hurricanes in the US and a strengthening of resolve on the part of OPEC to limit production, may be contribution factors.

Copper also hit a new high for the year, trading $3.16/lb on 4th. Technically, however, it made an outside month (higher high and lower low than August) a break above $3.16/lb will negate this bearish formation. I remain concerned that Chinese growth during 2017 has been front-loaded. Industrial metal markets may well consolidate, with a vengeance, before deciding whether increased demand is seasonal or structural.

 

European Bonds – warning knell or cause for celebration?

European Bonds – warning knell or cause for celebration?

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Macro Letter – No 85 – 13-10-2017

European Bonds – warning knell or cause for celebration?

  • Greek bonds have been the best performer in the Eurozone year to date
  • IMF austerity is still in place but there are hopes they will relent
  • Portuguese bonds have also rallied since March whilst Spanish Bonos declined
  • German Bund yields are up 28bps since January heralding an end to ECB QE

Writing, as government bond yields for peripheral European markets peaked in Macro Letter – No 73 – 24-03-2017 – Can a multi-speed European Union evolve? I felt that another Eurozone crisis could not be ruled out:-

The ECB would almost certainly like to taper its quantitative easing, especially in light of the current tightening by the US. It reduced its monthly purchases from Eur 80bln per month to Eur 60bln in December but financial markets only permitted Mr Draghi to escape unscathed because he extended the duration of the programme from March to December 2017. Further reductions in purchases may cause European government bond spreads to diverge dramatically. Since the beginning of the year 10yr BTPs have moved from 166bp over 10yr German Bunds to 2.11% – this spread has more than doubled since January 2016.

Was I simply wrong or just horribly premature, only time will tell? The December end of the asset purchase programme is growing inexorably closer. So far, however, despite a rise in the popularity of AfD in Germany, the Eurozone seems to have maintained its equanimity. The Euro has not weakened but strengthened, European growth has improved (to +2.3% in Q2) and European stock markets have risen. But, perhaps, the most interesting development has occurred in European bond markets. Even as the Federal Reserve has raised short term interest rates, announcing the beginning of balance sheet reduction, and the ECB has continued to prepare the markets for an end to QE, peripheral bonds in Europe have seen a substantial decline in yields: and their respective spreads against the core German Bund have narrowed even further. Is this a sign of a more cohesive Europe and can the trend continue?

To begin here is a chart of the Greek 10yr and the German 10yr since January, the Bund yield is on the Left Hand Scale and the Greek 10yr Bond on the Right:-

Greece vs Germany 10yr yield 2017

Source: Trading Economics

The table below looks at a selection of peripheral European markets together with the major international bond markets. Switzerland, which has the lowest 10yr yield of all, has been included for good measure. The table is arranged by change in yield:-

Bond_yields_Jan_vs_October_2017 (1)

Source: Investing.com

This year’s clear winners are Greece and Portugal – the latter was upgraded to ‘investment grade’ by S&P in September. It is interesting to note that despite its low absolute yield Irish Gilts have continued to converge towards Bunds, whilst BTPs and Bonos, which yield considerably more, have been tentatively unnerved by the prospect of an end to ECB largesse.

As an aside, the reluctance of the Bonos to narrow versus BTPs (it closed to 41bp on 4th October) even in the face of calls for Catalonian independence, appears to indicate a united Spain for some while yet. Don’t shoot the messenger I’m only telling you what the markets are saying; in matters of politics they can be as wrong as anyone.

Where now for European bonds?

A good place to start when attempted to divine where the European bond markets may be heading is by considering the outcome of the German election. Wolfgang Bauer of M&G Bond Vigilantes – Angela Merkel’s Pyrrhic victory – writing at the end of last month, prior to the Catalan vote, takes up the story:-

Populism is back with a vengeance

One of the most striking election results is certainly the strong performance of the right-wing nationalist AfD (12.6%). Not only is the party entering the German Bundestag for the first time but the AfD is going to become the third largest faction in parliament. If the grand coalition is continued – which can’t be ruled out entirely at this point – the AfD would de facto become the opposition leader. While this is certainly noteworthy, to say the least, the direct political implications are likely to be minimal. None of the other parties is going to form a coalition with them and AfD members of parliament are likely to be treated as political pariahs. We have seen this happening in German state parliaments many times before.

However, I think there might be two important indirect consequences of the AfD’s electoral success. First, within Germany the pressure on Merkel, not least from her own party, with regards to policy changes is going to build up. For obvious reasons, preventing the rise of a right-wing nationalist movement has been a central dogma in German politics. That’s out of the window now after the AfD’s double digits score last night – on Merkel’s watch. In the past, she has been willing to revise long-held positions (on nuclear power, the minimum wage, same sex marriage etc.) when she felt that sentiment amongst voters was shifting. In order to prise back votes from the AfD she might change tack again, possibly turning more conservative, with a stricter stance on migration, EU centralisation and so on.

Secondly, the success of the AfD at the ballot box might challenge the prevailing narrative, particularly since the Dutch and French elections, that anti-EU populism is on the decline. This could have implications for markets, which arguably have become somewhat complacent in this regard. The Euro, which has been going from strength to strength in recent months, might get under pressure. Compressed peripheral risk premiums for government and corporate bonds might widen again, considering that there are more political events on the horizon, namely the Catalan independence referendum as well as elections in Austria and Italy.

This sounds remarkably like my letter from March. Was it simply that I got my timing wrong or are we both out of kilter with the markets?

The chart below shows the steady decline in unemployment across Europe:-

European Unemployment - BNP Paribas

Source: BNP Paribas Asset Management, Datastream

The rate of economic expansion in European is increasing and measures of the popularity of the Eurozone look robust. Nathalie Benatia of BNP Paribas – Yes, Europe is indeed back puts it like this:-

…take some time to look at this chart from the European Commission’s latest ‘Standard Eurobarometer’, which was released in July 2017 and is based on field surveys done two months earlier, just after the French presidential election, an event that shook the world (or, at least, the French government bond market). Suffice it to say that citizens of eurozone countries have never been so fond of the single currency.

EZ survey July 2017

Source: European Commission, Eurobarometer Spring 2017, Public Opinion in the European Union, BNP Paribas Asset Management

The political headwinds, which I clearly misjudged in March, are in favour of a continued convergence of Eurozone bonds. Italy and Spain offer some yield enhancement but Portugal and Greece, despite a spectacular performance year to date, still offer more value. The table below shows the yield for each market at the end of November 2009 (when European yield convergence was at its recent zenith) and the situation today. The final column shows the differential between the spreads:-

Euro_Bond_spreads_2009_versus_2017

Source: Investing.com

Only Irish Gilts look overpriced on this metric. Personally I do not believe the yield differentials exhibited in 2009 were justified: but the market has been proving me wrong since long before the introduction of the Euro in 1999. Some of you may remember my 1996 article on the difference between US municipal bond yields and pre-Euro government bond yields of those nations joining the Euro. I feared for the German tax payer then – I still do now.

I expect the yield on Bunds to slowly rise as the ECB follows the lead of the Federal Reserve, but this does not mean that higher yielding European bond markets will necessarily follow suit. I continue to look for opportunities to buy Bonos versus BTPs if the approach parity but I feel I have missed the best of the Greek convergence trade for this year. Hopes that the IMF will desist in their demands for continued austerity has buoyed Greek bonds for some while. The majority of this anticipated good news is probably already in the price. If you are long Greek bonds then Irish Gilts might offer a potential hedge against the return of a Eurozone crisis, although the differential in volatility between the two markets will make this an uncomfortable trade in the meanwhile.

Back in March I expected European bond yields to rise and spreads between the periphery and the core to widen, I certainly got that wrong. Now convergence is back in fashion, at least for the smaller markets, but Europe’s political will remains fragile. The party’s in full swing, but don’t be the last to leave.

Trade and Protectionism post globalisation

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Macro Letter – No 78 – 02-06-2017

Trade and protectionism post globalisation

  • Protectionism is on the increase among developed nations
  • The benefits of free-trade have been most evident in developing countries
  • Short-term effects on financial markets may be reversed in the long run
  • The net impact on global growth will be negative

The success of free-trade and globalisation has been a boon for less developed countries but, to judge by the behaviour of the developed world electorate of late, this has been at the expense of the poorer and less well educated peoples of the developed nations. Income inequality in the west has been a focus of considerable debate among economists. The “Elephant Chart” below being but one personification of this trend:-

world-bank-economist-real-income-growth-1988-2008

Source: Economist, World Bank

If the graph looks familiar it’s because I last discussed this topic back in November 2016 in – Protectionism: which countries have room for fiscal expansion? This is what I said about the chart at that time:-

What this chart reveals is that people earning between the 70th and 90th percentile have seen considerably less increase in income relative to their poor (and richer) peers. I imagine a similar chart up-dated to 2016 will show an even more pronounced decline in the fortunes of the lower paid workers of G7.

The unforeseen consequence to this incredible achievement – bringing so many of the world’s poor out of absolute poverty – has been to alienate many of the developed world’s poorer paid citizens. They have borne the brunt of globalisation without participating in much, if any, of the benefit.

It can be argued that this chart is not a fair representation of the reality in the west. This excellent video by Johan Norberg – Dead Wrong – The Elephant Graph – makes some important observations but, as a portfolio manager, friend of mine reminded me recently, when considering human action one should not focus on absolute change in economic circumstances, but relative change. What did he I mean by this? Well, let’s take income inequality. The rich are getting richer and the poor are…getting richer less quickly.

In the dismal science, as Carlyle once dubbed economics, we often take a half-empty view of the world. Take real average income. Since 2008 people have become worse-off as the chart below for the UK shows:-

wages-inflation

Source: Economicshelp.org

However, in the long-run we have become better-off for generations. What really drives prosperity, by which I mean our quality of life, is productivity gains: our ability to harness technology to improve the production of goods and services.

Financial markets are said to be driven by fear and greed. Society in general is also driven by these factors but there is an additional driver: envy. Any politician who ignores the power of envy, inevitably truncates his or her career.

The gauntlet was thrown down recently by the new US administration: their focus was on those countries with trade surpluses with the US. Accusations of trade and currency manipulation play well to the disenfranchised American voter.

Well before the arrival of the new US President, however, a degree of rebalancing had already begun to occur when China adopted policies to increase domestic consumption back in 2012. A recent white paper entitled – Is the Global Economy Rebalancing? By Focus Economics – looks at the three countries with the largest persistent current account surpluses: China, Germany and Japan. As they comment in their introduction, a current account surplus may be derived by many different means:-

Decades of conflicting perspectives over the causes and effects of global trade imbalances have been thrust back into the spotlight in recent months by Donald Trump’s brazen criticism of almost every country with a significant current account surplus with the U.S. His controversial accusation that big exporter countries are deliberately weakening their currencies to gain a competitive advantage taps into an issue that has perplexed and divided economists and policymakers ever since the mid-1990s. At that time, countries such as the U.S. were starting to build up large current account deficits, while others such as China, Germany and Japan were accumulating large surpluses.

Put simply, a country’s current account balance measures the difference between how much it spends and makes abroad. Trade in goods usually—but not always—accounts for most of the current account, while the other components are trade in services, income from foreign investment and employment (known as ‘primary income’), and transfer payments such as foreign aid and remittances (known as ‘secondary income’).

A current account surplus or deficit is not necessarily in and of itself a good or bad thing, since a number of considerations must be factored in—for example, in the case of deficit countries, whether they make a return on their investments that exceeds the costs of funding them. A large current account surplus can be considered a desirable sign of an efficient and competitive economy if it comprises a positive trade balance generated by market forces. And yet such competitiveness can also be falsely created to an extent by policy decisions (e.g. a deliberate currency weakening), or may alternatively be a sign of overly weak domestic demand in a highly productive country. Therein lies the crux of the controversy, or at least one of many. 

Global imbalances were a critically important contributing factor to the financial crisis, although they did not in themselves cause it. Even if the precise nature of that connection has sparked different interpretations, there is at least more or less agreement on the fundamentals of the part played by trade relations between the U.S. and China, the two countries traditionally responsible for the lion’s share of global imbalances. Credit-fueled growth in the U.S. encouraged consumers to spend more, including on products originating in China, thereby further increasing the U.S. trade deficit with China and prompting China to “recycle” the dollars gained by buying U.S. assets (mostly Treasury notes). This, in turn, helped to keep U.S. interest rates low, encouraging ever greater bank lending, which pushed up housing prices, caused a subprime mortgage crisis and ultimately ended in a nasty deleveraging process.

Services and investment balances can be difficult to measure accurately; trade data is easier to calculate. Here are the three current account surplus countries in terms of their trade balances:-

china-balance-of-trade

Source: Trading Economics, Chinese General Administration of Customs

Interestingly, China’s trade balance has declined despite the recent devaluation in the value of the Yuan versus the US$.

germany-balance-of-trade

Source: Trading Economics, German Federal Statistics Office

The relative weakness of the Euro seems to have underpinned German exports. On this basis, the weakening of the Euro, resulting from the Brexit vote, has been an economic boon!

japan-balance-of-trade

Source: Trading Economics, Japanese Ministry of Finance

The Abenomics policy of the three arrows whilst it has succeeded in weakening the value of the Yen, has done little to stem its steadily deteriorating trade balance. The Yen has risen ever since the ending of Bretton Woods, it behoves Japanese companies to invest aboard. The relative strength of the current account is the result of Japanese investment abroad.

Trade data is not without its flaws, even in a brand dominated business such as automobiles the origin of manufacture can turn out to be less obvious than it might at first appear. According to the Kogod – Made in America Auto Index 2016 – at 81% the Honda Accord ranks fifth out of all automobiles, in terms of the absolute percentage of an entire vehicle which is built in the USA, well above the level of many Ford and General Motors vehicles.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

The financial markets will react differently in each country to the headwinds of de-globalisation and the rise of protectionism. The US, however, presents an opportunity to examine the outcome for a largest economy in the world.

The US currency’s initial reaction to the Trump election win was a significant rise. The US$ Index rallied from 97.34 on the eve of the election to test 103.81 at the beginning of January. Since then, as the absolute power, or lack thereof, of the new president has become apparent, the US$ Index has retraced the entire move. Protectionism on the basis of this analysis is likely to be UD$ positive. In the long run protectionist policies act as a drag on economic growth. The USA has the largest absolute trade deficit. Lower global economic growth will either lead to a rise in the US trade deficit or a strengthening of the US$, or, perhaps, a combination of the two.

Interest rates and bonds may be less affected by the strength of the US currency in a protectionist scenario, but domestic wage inflation is likely to increase in the medium term, especially if border controls are tightened further, closing off the flow of immigrant workers.

US stocks should initially benefit from the reduction in competition derived from a protectionist agenda but in the process the long run competitiveness of these firms will be undermined. The continual breaching to new highs which has been evident in the S&P 500 (and recently, the Nasdaq) is at least partially due to expectation of the agenda of the new administration. These policies include the lowering of corporation tax rates (from 35% to 15%) to bring them in line with Germany, infrastructure spending (in the order of $1trln) and protectionist pressure to “Buy American, Hire American”. Short term the market is still rising but valuations are becoming stretched by many metrics, as I said recently in Trumped or Stumped? The tax cut, the debt ceiling and riding the gravy train:-

Pro-business US economic policy will continue to drive US stocks: the words of Pink Floyd spring to mind…we call it riding the gravy train.