The Self-righting Ship – Debt, Inflation and the Credit Cycle

The Self-righting Ship – Debt, Inflation and the Credit Cycle

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Macro Letter – No 105 – 23-11-18

The Self-righting Ship – Debt, Inflation and the Credit Cycle

recovery_saltaire

Source: Stromness Lifeboat

  • Rising bond yields may already have tempered economic growth
  • Global stocks are in a corrective phase but not a bear-market
  • With oil prices under pressure inflation expectations have moderated

The first self-righting vessel was a life-boat, designed in 1789. It needed to be able to weather the most extreme conditions and its eventual introduction (in the 1840’s) transformed the business of recuse at sea forever. The current level of debt, especially in the developed economies, seems to be acting rather like the self-righting ship. As economic growth accelerates and labour markets tighten, central banks gradually tighten monetary conditions in expectation of inflation. As short-term rates increase, bond yields follow, but, unlike the pattern seen in the higher interest rate era of the 1970’s and 1980’s, the effect of higher bond yields quickly leads to a tempering of credit demand.

Some commentators will rightly observe that this phenomenon has always existed, but, at the risk of saying this time it’s different, the level at which higher bond yields act as a break on credit expansion are much lower today in most developed markets.

When in doubt, look to Japan

For central bankers, Japan is the petri dish in which all unconventional monetary policies are tested. Even today, QQE – Quantitative and Qualitative Easing – is only seriously being undertaken in Japan. The Qualitative element, involving the provision of permanent capital by the Bank of Japan (BoJ) through their purchases of common stocks (at present, still, indirectly via ETFs), remains avant garde even by the unorthodox standards of our times.

Recently the BoJ has hinted that it may abandon another of its unconventional monetary policies – yield curve control. This is the operation whereby the bank maintains rates for 10yr maturity JGBs in a range of between zero and 10 basis point – the range is implied rather than disclosed – by the purchase of a large percentage of all new Japanese Treasury issuance, they also intervene in the secondary market. During the past two decades, any attempt, on the part of the BoJ, to reverse monetary easing has prompted a rise in the value of the Yen and a downturn in economic growth, this time, however, might be different – did I use that most dangerous of terms again? It is a long time since Japanese banks were able to function in a normal manner, by which I mean borrowing short and lending long. The yield curve is almost flat and any JGBs with maturities shorter than 10 years tend to trade with negative yields in the secondary market.

Japanese banks were not heavily involved in the boom of the mid-2000’s and therefore weathered the 2008 crisis relatively well. Investing abroad has been challenging due to the continuous rise in the value of the Yen, but during the last few years the Japanese currency has begun to trade in a broad range rather than appreciating inexorably.

In the non-financial sector a number of heavily indebted companies continue to limp on, living beyond their useful life on a debt-fuelled last hurrah. Elsewhere, however, Japan has a number of world class companies trading at reasonable multiples to earnings. If the BoJ allows rates to rise the zombie corporations will finally exit the gene pool and new entrepreneurs will be able to fill the gap created in the marketplace more cheaply and to the benefit of the beleaguered Japanese consumer. My optimism about a sea-change at the BoJ may well prove misplaced. Forsaking an inflation target and offering Japanese savers positive real-interest rates is an heretically old-fashioned idea.

Whilst for Japan, total debt consists mainly of government obligations, for the rest of the developed world, the distribution is broader. Corporate and consumer borrowing forms a much larger share of the total sum. Giving the historically low level of interest rates in most developed economies today, even a moderate rise in interest rates has an immediate impact. Whereas, in the 1990’s, an increase from 5% to 10% mortgage rates represented a doubling payments by the mortgagee, today a move from 2% to 4% has the same impact.

The US stock market as bellwether for global growth

Last month US stocks suffered a sharp correction. The rise had been driven by technology and it was fears of a slowdown in the technology sector that precipitated the rout. Part of the concern also related to US T-Bonds as they breached 3% yields – a level German Bund investors can only dream of. Elsewhere stock markets have been in corrective (0 – 20%) or bear-market (20% or more) territory for some time. I wrote about this decoupling in Macro Letter – No 101 – 31-08-2018 – Divergent – the breakdown of stock market correlations, temp or perm? Now the divergence might be about to reverse. US stocks have yet to correct, whilst China and its vassals have already reacted to the change in global growth expectations. Globally, stocks have performed well for almost a decade: –

MSCI World

Source: MSCI and Yardeni

The next decade may see a prolonged period of range trading. After 10 years, during which momentum investing has paid handsomely, value investing may be the way to navigate the next.

Along with stocks, oil prices have fallen, despite geopolitical tensions. The Baker Hughes rig count reached 888 this week, the highest since early 2015. With WTI still above $60/bbl, the number of active rigs is likely to continue growing.

US 10yr bond yields have already moderated (down to 3.06% versus their high of 3.26%) and stocks have regained some composure after the sudden repricing of last month. The ship has self-righted for the present but the forecast remains turbulent.     

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Not waving but drowning – Stocks, debt and inflation?

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Macro Letter – No 103 – 26-10-2018

Not waving but drowning – Stocks, debt and inflation?

  • The US stock market is close to being in a corrective phase -10% off its highs
  • Global debt has passed $63trln – well above the levels on 2007
  • Interest rates are still historically low, especially given the point in the economic cycle
  • Predictions of a bear-market may be premature, but the headwinds are building

The recent decline in the US stock market, after the longest bull-market in history, has prompted many commentators to focus on the negative factors which could sow the seeds of the next recession. Among the main concerns is the inexorable rise in debt since the great financial recession (GFR) of 2008. According to May 2018 data from the IMF, global debt now stands at $63trln, with emerging economy debt expansion, over the last decade, more than offsetting the marking time among developed nations. The IMF – Global Debt Database: Methodology and Sources WP/18/111 – looks at the topic in more detail.

The title of this week’s Macro letter comes from the poet Stevie Smith: –

I was much further out than you thought

And not waving but drowning.

It seems an appropriate metaphor for valuation and leverage in asset markets. In 2013 Thomas Pickety published ‘Capital in the 21st Century’ in which he observed that income inequality was rising due to the higher return on unearned income relative to labour. He and his co-authors gathering together one of the longest historical data-set on interest rates and wages – an incredible achievement. Their conclusion was that the average return on capital had been roughly 5% over the very long run.

This is not the place to argue about the pros and cons of Pickety’s conclusions, suffice to say that, during the last 50 years, inflation indices have tended to understate what most of us regard as our own personal inflation rate, whilst the yield offered by government bonds has been insufficient to match the increase in our cost of living. The real rate of return on capital has diminished in the inflationary, modern era. Looked at from another perspective, our current fiat money and taxation system encourages borrowing rather than lending, both by households, corporates, for whom repayment is still an objective: and governments, for whom it is not.

Financial innovation and deregulation has helped to oil the wheels of industry, making it easier to service or reschedule debt today than in the past. The depth of secondary capital markets has made it easier to raise debt (and indeed equity) capital than at any time in history. These financial markets are underpinned by central banks which control interest rates. Since the GFR interest rates have been held at exceptionally low levels, helping to stimulate credit growth, however, that which is not seen, as Bastiat might have put it, is the effect that this credit expansion has had on the global economy. It has led to a vast misallocation of capital. Companies which would, in an unencumbered interest rate environment, have been forced into liquidation, are still able to borrow and continue operating; their inferior products flood the market place crowding out the market for new innovative products. New companies are confronted by unfair competition from incumbent firms. Where there should be a gap in the market, it simply does not exist. At a national and international level, productivity slows and the trend rate of GDP growth declines.

We are too far out at sea and have been for decades. Markets are never permitted to clear, during economic downturns, because the short-term pain of recessions is alleviated by the rapid lowering of official interest rates, prolonging the misallocation of capital and encouraging new borrowing via debt – often simply to retire equity capital and increase leverage. The price of money should be a determinant of the value of an investment, but when interest rates are held at an artificially low rate for a protracted period, the outcome is massively sub-optimal. Equity is replaced by debt, leverage increases, zombie companies limp on and, notwithstanding the number of technology start-ups seen during the past decade, innovation is crushed before it has even begun.

In an unencumbered market with near price stability, as was the case prior to the recent inflationary, fiat currency era, I suspect, the rate of return on capital would be approximately 5%. On that point, Pickety and I are in general agreement. Today, markets are as far from unencumbered as they have been at any time since the breakdown of the Bretton Woods agreement in 1971.

Wither the stock market?

With US 10yr bond yields now above 3%, stocks are becoming less attractive, but until real-yields on bonds reach at least 3% they still offer little value – US CPI was at 2.9% as recently as August. Meanwhile higher oil prices, import tariffs and wage inflation all bode ill for US inflation. Nonetheless, demand for US Treasuries remains robust while real-yields, even using the 2.3% CPI data for September, are still exceptionally low by historic standards. See the chart below which traces the US CPI (LHS) and US 10yr yields (RHS) since 1971. Equities remain a better bet from a total return perspective: –

united-states-inflation-cpi 1970 to 2018

Source: Trading Economics

What could change sentiment, among other factors, is a dramatic rise in the US$, an escalation in the trade-war with China, or a further increase in the price of oil. From a technical perspective the recent weakness in stocks looks likely to continue. A test of the February lows may be seen before the year has run its course. Already around ¾ of the stocks in the S&P 500 have suffered a 10% plus correction – this decline is broad-based.

Many international markets have already moved into bear territory (declining more than 20% from their highs) but the expression, ‘when the US sneezes the world catches a cold,’ implies that these markets may fall less steeply, in a US stock downturn, but they will be hard-pressed to ignore the direction of the US equity market.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

Rumours abound of another US tax cut. Federal Reserve Chairman, Powell, has been openly criticised by President Trump; whilst this may not cause the FOMC to reverse their tightening, they will want to avoid going down in history as the committee that precipitated an end to Federal Reserve independence.

There is a greater than 50% chance that the S&P 500 will decline further. Wednesday’s low was 2652. The largest one month correction this year is still that which occurred in February (303 points). We are not far away, however, a move below 2637 will fuel fears. I believe it is a breakdown through the February low, of 2533, which will prompt a more aggressive global move out of risk assets. The narrower Dow Jones Industrials has actually broken to new lows for the year and the NASDAQ suffered its largest one day decline in seven years this week.

A close below 2352 for the S&P 500 would constitute a 20% correction – a technical bear-market. If the market retraces to the 2016 low (1810) the correction will be 38% – did someone say, ‘Fibonacci’ – if we reach that point the US Treasury yield curve will probably be close to an inversion: and from a very low level of absolute rates. Last week the FRBSF – The Slope of the Yield Curve and the Near-Term Outlook – analysed the recession predicting power of the shape of the yield curve, they appear unconcerned at present, but then the current slope is more than 80bp positive.

If the stock correction reaches the 2016 lows, a rapid reversal of Federal Reserve policy will be required to avoid accusations that the Fed deliberately engineered the disaster. I envisage the Fed calling upon other central banks to render assistance via another concert party of quantitative, perhaps backed up by qualitative, easing.

At this point, I believe the US stock market is consolidating, an immanent crash is not on the horizon. The GFR is still too fresh in our collective minds for history to repeat. Longer term, however, the situation looks dire – history may not repeat but it tends to rhyme. Among the principal problems back in 2008 was an excess of debt, today the level of indebtedness is even greater…

We are much further out than we thought,

And not waving but drowning.

Canary in the coal-mine – Emerging market contagion

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Macro Letter – No 100 – 13-07-2018

Canary in the coal-mine – Emerging market contagion

  • Emerging market currencies, bonds and stocks have weakened
  • Fears about the impact of US tariffs have been felt here most clearly
  • The risk to Europe and Japan is significant
  • Turkey may be the key market to watch

As US interest rates continue to normalise and US tariffs begin to bite, a number of emerging markets (EM’s) have come under pressure. Of course, the largest market to exhibit signs of stress is China, the MSCI China Index is down 7% since mid-June, whilst the RMB has also weakened against the US$ by more than 6% since its April low. Will contagion spread to developed markets and, if so, which country might be the ‘carrier’?

To begin to answer these questions we need to investigate this year’s casualties. Argentina is an obvious candidate. Other troubled countries include Brazil, Egypt and Turkey. In each case, government debt has exacerbated instability, as each country’s currency came under pressure. Other measures of instability include budget and trade deficits.

In an effort to narrow the breadth of this Macro Letter, I will confine my analysis to those countries with twin government and current account deficits. In the table which follow, the countries are sorted by percentage of world GDP. The colour coding reflects the latest MSCI categorisation; yellow, denotes a fully-fledged EM, white, equals a standard EM, green, is on the secondary list and blue is reserved for those countries which are so ‘frontier’ in nature as not to be currently assessed by MSCI: –

EM Debt and GDP

Source: Trading Economics, Investing.com, IMF, World Bank

For the purposes of this analysis, the larger the EM as a percentage of world GDP and the higher its investment rating, the more likely it is to act as a catalyst for contagion. Whilst this is a simplistic approach, it represents a useful the starting point.

Back in 2005, in a futile attempt to control the profligacy of European governments, the European Commission introduced the Stability and Growth Pact. It established at maximum debt to GDP ratio of 60% and budget deficit ceiling of 3%, to be applied to all members of the Eurozone. If applied to the EM’s listed above, the budget deficit constraint could probably be relaxed: these are, generally, faster growing economies. The ratio of debt to GDP should, however, be capped at a lower percentage. The government debt overhang weighs more heavily on smaller economies, especially ones where the percentage of international investors tends to be higher. Capital flight is a greater risk for EM’s than for developed economies, which are insulated by a larger pool of domestic investors.

Looking at the table again, from a financial stability perspective, the percentage of non-domestic debt to GDP, is critical. A sudden growth stop, followed by capital flight, usually precipitates a collapse in the currency. External debt can prove toxic, even if it represents only a small percentage of GDP, since the default risk associated with a collapsing currency leads to a rapid rise in yields, prompting further capital flight – this is a viscous circle, not easily broken. The Latin American debt crisis of the 1980’s was one of the more poignant examples of this pattern. Unsurprisingly, in the table above, the percentage of external debt to GDP grows as the economies become smaller, although there is a slight bias for South American countries to continue to borrow abroad. Perhaps a function of their proximity to the US capital markets. Interestingly, by comparison with developed nations, the debt to GDP ratios in most of these EM countries is relatively modest: a sad indictment of the effectiveness of QE as a policy to strengthen the world financial system – but I digress.

Our next concern ought to be the trade balance. Given the impact that US tariffs are likely to have on export nations, both emerging and developed, it is overly simplistic to look, merely, at EM country exports to the US. EM exports to Europe, Japan and China are also likely to be vulnerable, as US tariffs are enforced. Chile and Mexico currently run trade surpluses, but, since their largest trading partner is the US, they still remain exposed.

This brings us to the second table which looks at inflation, interest rates, 10yr bond yields, currencies and stock market performance: –

EM Markets and Inflation

Source: Trading Economics, Investing.com, IMF, World Bank

In addition to its absolute level, the trend of inflation is also an important factor to consider. India has seen a moderate increase since 2017, but price increases appear steady not scary. Brazil has seen a recent rebound after the significant moderation which followed the 2016 spike. Mexican inflation has moderated since late 2017, posing little cause for concern. Indonesian price rises are at the lower end of their post Asian crisis range. Turkey, however, is an entirely different matter. It inflation is at its highest since 2004 and has broken to multiyear highs in the last two months. Inflation trends exert a strong influence on interest rate expectations and Turkish 10yr yields have risen by more than 5% this year, whilst it currency has fallen further than any in this group, barring the Argentinian Peso. For comparison, the Brazilian Real is the third weakest, followed, at some distance, by the Indian Rupee.

India, Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia may be among the largest economies in this ‘contagion risk’ group, but Turkey, given its geographic proximity to the EU may be the linchpin.

Is Turkey the canary?

The recent Turkish elections gave President Erdogan an increased majority. His strengthened mandate does not entirely remove geopolitical risk, but it simplifies our analysis of the country from an economic perspective. Short-term interest rates are 17.75%, the second highest in the group, behind Argentina. The yield curve is inverted: and both the currency and stock market have fared poorly YTD. Over the last 20 years, Turkish GDP has averaged slightly less than 5%, but this figure is skewed by three sharp recessions (‘98, ‘01 and ‘08). The recent trend has been volatile but solid. 10yr bond yields, by contrast, have been influenced by a more than doubling of short-term interest rates, in defence of the Turkish Lira. This aggressive action, by their central bank, makes the economy vulnerable to an implosion of growth, as credit conditions deteriorate rapidly.

Conclusion and investment opportunities

In Macro Letter – No 96 – 04-05-2018 – Is the US exporting a recession? I concluded in respect of Europe that: –

…the [stock] market has failed to rise substantially on a positive slew of earnings news. This may be because there is a more important factor driving sentiment: the direction of US rates. It certainly appears to have engendered a revival of the US$. It rallied last month having been in a downtrend since January 2017 despite a steadily tightening Federal Reserve. For EURUSD the move from 1.10 to 1.25 appears to have taken its toll. On the basis of the CESI chart, above, if Wall Street sneezes, the Eurozone might catch pneumonia.

Over the past few months EM currencies have declined, their bond yields have increased and their stock markets have generally fallen. In respect of tariffs, President Trump has done what he promised. Markets, like Mexico and Chile, reacted early and seem to have stabilised. Argentina had its own internal issues with which to contend. The Indian economy continues its rapid expansion, despite higher oil prices and US tariffs. It is Turkey that appears to be the weakest link, but this may be as much a function of the actions of its central bank.

If, over the next few months, the Turkish Lira stabilises and official rates moderate, the wider economy may avoid recession. Whilst much commentary concerning EM risks will focus on the fortunes of China, it is still a relatively closed, command economy: and, therefore, difficult to predict. It will be at least as useful to focus on the fortunes of Turkey. It may give advanced warning, like the canary in the coal-mine, which makes it my leading indicator of choice.

 

 

Where in the world? Hunting for value in the bond market

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Macro Letter – No 99 – 22-06-2018

Where in the world? Hunting for value in the bond market

  • Few government bond markets offer a positive real return
  • Those that do tend to have high associated currency risk
  • Active management of fixed income portfolios is the only real solution
  • Italy is the only G7 country offering a real-yield greater than 1.5%

In my last Macro Letter – Italy and the repricing of European government debt – I said: –

I have never been a great advocate of long-term investment in fixed income securities, not in a world of artificially low official inflation indices and fiat currencies. Given the de minimis real rate of return I regard them as trading assets.

Suffice to say, I received a barrage of advice from some of my good friends who have worked in the fixed income markets for the majority of their careers. I felt I had perhaps been flippant in dismissing an entire asset class without so much as a qualm. In this letter I distil an analysis of more than one hundred markets around the world into a short list of markets which may be worthy of further analysis.

To begin with I organised countries by their most recent inflation rate, then I added their short term interest rate and finally, where I was able to find reliable information, a 10 year yield for the government bond of each country. I then calculated the real interest rate, real yield and shape of the yield curve.

At this point I applied three criteria, firstly that the real yield should be greater than 1.5%, second, that the real interest rate should also exceed that level: and finally, that the yield curve should be more than 2% positive. These measures are not entirely arbitrary. A real return of 1.5% is below the long-run average (1.7%) for fixed income securities in the US since 1900, though not by much. For an analysis of the data, this article from Observations and Notes is informative – U.S. 10-Year Treasury Note Real Return History: –

As you might have expected, the real returns earned were consistently below the initial coupon rate. The only exceptions occur around the time of the Great Depression. During this period, because of deflation, the value of some or all of the yearly interest payments was often higher than the original coupon rate, increasing the yield. (For more on this important period see The 1929 Stock Market Crash Revisited)

While the average coupon rate/nominal return was 4.9%, the average real return was only1.7%. Not surprisingly, the 3.2% difference between the two is the average inflation experienced for the century.

As an investor I require a positive expected real return with the minimum of risk, therefore if short term interest rates offer a real return of more than 1.5% I will incline to favour a floating rate rather than a fixed rate investment. Students of von Mises and Rothbard may beg to differ perhaps; for those of you who are unfamiliar with the Austrian view of the shape of the yield curve in an unhampered market, this article by Frank Shostak – How to Interpret the Shape of the Yield Curve provides an excellent primer. Markets are not unhampered and Central Banks, at the behest of their respective governments, have, since the dawn of the modern state, had an incentive to artificially lower short-term interest rates: and, latterly, rates across the entire maturity spectrum. For more on this subject (6,000 words) I refer you to my essay for the Cobden Centre – A History of Fractional Reserve Banking – the link will take you to part one, click here for part two.

Back to this week’s analysis. I am only interested in buying 10yr government bonds of credit worthy countries, where I can obtain a real yield on 10yr maturity which exceeds 1.5%, but I also require a positive yield curve of 2%. As you may observe in the table below, my original list of 100 countries diminishes rapidly: –

Real Bond yields 1.5 and 2 percent curve

Source: Investing.com, Trading Economics, WorldBondMarkets.com

Five members of this list have negative real interest rates – Italy (the only G7 country) included. Despite the recent prolonged period of negative rates, this situation is not normal. Once rates eventually normalise, either the yield curve will flatten or 10yr yields will rise. Setting aside geopolitical risks, as a non-domicile investor, do I really want to hold the obligations of nations whose short-term real interest rates are less than 1.5%? Probably not.

Thus, I arrive at my final cut. Those markets where short-term real interest rates exceed 1.5% and the yield curve is 2% positive. Only nine countries make it onto the table and, perhaps a testament to their governments ability to raise finance, not a single developed economy makes the grade: –

REal Bond yields 1.5 and 2 pecent curve and 1.5 real IR

Source: Investing.com, Trading Economics, WorldBondMarkets.com

There are a couple of caveats. The Ukrainian 10yr yield is derived, I therefore doubt its accuracy. 3yr Ukrainian bonds yield 16.83% and the yield curve is mildly inverted relative to official short-term rates. Brazilian bonds might look tempting, but it is important to remember that its currency, the Real, has declined by 14% against the US$ since January. The Indonesian Rupiah has been more stable, losing less than 3% this year, but, seen in the context of the move since 2012, during which time the currency has lost 35% of its purchasing power, Indonesian bonds cannot but considered ‘risk-free’. I could go on – each of these markets has lesser or greater currency risk.

I recant. For the long term investor there are bond markets which are worth consideration, but, setting aside access, liquidity and the uncertainty of exchange controls, they all require active currency management, which will inevitably reduce the expected return, due to factors such as the negative carry entailed in hedging.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

Investing in bond markets should be approached from a fundamental or technical perspective using strategies such as value or momentum. Since February 2012 Greek 10yr yields have fallen from a high of 41.77% to a low of 3.63%, although from the July 2014 low of 5.47% they rose to 19.44% in July 2015, before falling to recent lows in January of this year. For a trend following strategy, this move has presented abundant opportunity – it increases further if the strategy allows the investor to be short as well as long. Compare Greek bonds with Japanese 10yr JGBs which, over the same period, have fallen in yield from 1.02 in January 2012 to a low of -0.29% in July 2016. That is still a clear trend, although the current BoJ policy of yield curve control have created a roughly 10bp straight-jacket beyond which the central bank is committed to intervene. The value investor can still buy at zero and sell at 10bp – if you trust the resolve of the BoJ – it is likely to be profitable.

The idea of buying bonds and holding them to maturity may be profitable on occasion, but active management is the only logical approach in the current global environment, especially if one hopes to achieve acceptable real returns.