Italy and the repricing of European government debt

In the Long Run - small colour logo

Macro Letter – No 98 – 08-06-2018

Italy and the repricing of European government debt

  • The yield spread between 10yr BTPs and Bunds widened 114bp in May
  • Populist and anti-EU politics were the catalyst for this repricing of risk
  • Spain, Portugal and Greece all saw yields increase as Bund yields declined
  • The ECB policy of OMT should help to avoid a repeat of 2011/2012

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. I will freely admit that this has led me to make a number of investment mistakes, although these have generally been sins of omission rather than actual investment losses. The Italian political situation and the sharp rise in Italian bond yields it precipitated, last week, is, therefore, some justification for an investor like myself, one who has not held any fixed income securities since 2010.

An excellent overview of the Italian political situation is contained in the latest essay from John Mauldin of  Mauldin Economics – From the Front Line – The Italian Trigger:-

Italy had been without a government since its March 4 election, which yielded a hung parliament with no party or coalition holding a majority. The Five Star Movement and Lega Nord finally reached a deal, to most everyone’s surprise since those two parties, while both broadly populist, have some big differences. Nonetheless, they found enough common ground to propose a cabinet to President Sergio Mattarella.

Italian presidents are generally seen as rubberstamp figureheads. They really aren’t supposed to insert themselves into the process. Yet Mattarella unexpectedly rejected the coalition’s proposed finance minister, 81-year-old economist Paolo Savona, on the grounds Savona had previously opposed Italy’s eurozone membership. This enraged Five Star and Lega Nord, who then ended their plans to form a government and threatened to impeach Mattarella.

The whole article is well worth reading and goes on to look at debt from a global perspective. John anticipates what he calls, ‘The Great Reset,’ when the reckoning for the excessive levels of debt arrives.

Returning to the repricing of Eurozone (EZ) debt last month, those readers who have followed my market commentaries since the 1990’s, might recall an article I penned about the convergence of European government bond yields in the period preceding the introduction of the Euro. At that juncture (1998) excepting Greece, every bond market, whose government was about to adopt the Euro, was trading at a narrower credit spread to 10yr German bunds than the yield differential between the highest and lowest credit in the US municipal bond market. The widest differential in the muni-market at that time was 110bp. It was between Alabama and California – remember this was prior to the bursting of the Tech bubble.

In my article I warned about the risk of a significant repricing of European credit spreads once the honeymoon period of the single currency had ended. I had to wait more than a decade, but in 2010/2011 it looked as if I might be vindicated – this column is not entitled In the Long Run without just cause – then what one might dub the Madness of Crowds of Central Bankers intervened, saved the EZ and consigned my cautionary oracles, on the perils of the quest for yield, to the dustbin of history.

In the intervening period, since 2011, I have watched European yields inexorably converge and absolute yields turn negative, in several EZ countries, with a temerity which smacks of permanence. I have also arrived at a new conclusion about the limits of credit risk within a currency union: that they are governed by fiat in much the same manner as currencies. As long as the market believes that Mr Draghi will do, ‘…whatever it takes,’ investors will be enticed by relatively small yield enhancements.

Let me elaborate on this newly-minted theory by way of an example. Back in March 2012, Greek 10yr yields reached 41.77% at that moment German 10yr yields were a mere 2.08%. The risk of contagion was steadily growing, as other peripheral EZ bond markets declined. Greece, in and of itself, was and remains, a small percentage of EZ GDP, but, as Portuguese and Spanish bonds began to follow the lead of Greece, the fear at the ECB – and even at the Bundesbank – was that Italy might succumb to contagion. Due to its size, the Italian bond market, was then, and remains today, the elephant in the room.

During the course of last month, European bond markets diverged. The table below shows the change in 10yr yields between 1st and 31st May:-

EZ 10yr yield change May 2018

Source: Investing.com

A certain degree of contagion is evident, although the PIGS have lost an ‘I’ as Irish Gilts have escaped the pejorative acronym.

At the peaks of the previous crisis, Irish 10yr Gilts made a yield high of 14.61% in July 2011, at which point their spread versus 10yr Bunds was 11.34%. When Italy entered her own period of distress, in November of that year, the highest 10yr BTP yield recorded was 7.51% and the spread over Germany reached 5.13%. By the time Greek 10yr yields reached their zenith, in March 2012, German yields were already lower and Irish and Italian spreads had begun to narrow.

During the course of last month the interest rate differential between 10yr Bunds and their Irish, Greek and Italian counterparts widened by 41, 100 and 114bp respectively. Italian 10yr yields closed at 4.25% over Bunds, less than 100bp from their 2011 crisis highs. With absolute yields significantly lower today (German 10yr yields were 2.38% in November 2011 they ended May 2018 at 36bp) the absolute percentage return differential is even higher than during the 2011 period. At 2.72% BTPs offer a return which is 7.5 times greater than 10yr Bunds. Back in 2011 the 7.51% yield was a little over three times the return available from 10yr Bunds.

I am forced to believe the reaction of the BTP market has been excessive and that spreads will narrow during the next few months. If I am incorrect in my expectation, it will fall to Mr Draghi to intervene. The Outright Monetary Transactions – OMT – policy of the ECB allows it to purchase a basket of European government bonds on a GDP weighted basis. If another crisis appears immanent they could adjust this policy to duration weight their purchases. It would then permit them to buy a larger proportion of the higher yielding, higher coupon bonds of the southern periphery. There would, no doubt, be complaints from those countries that practice greater fiscal rectitude, but the policy shift could be justified on investment grounds. If the default risk of all members of the EZ is equal due to the political will of the European Commission, then it makes sense from an investment perspective for the ECB to purchase higher yielding bonds if they have the same credit risk. A new incarnation of the Draghi Put could be implemented without too many objections from Frankfurt.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

I doubt we will see a repeat of the 2011/2012 period. Lightening seldom strikes twice in the same way. The ECB will continue with its QE programme and this will ensure that EZ government bond yields remain at artificially low levels for the foreseeable future.

Unusually, I have an actionable trade idea: caveat emptor! I believe the recent widening of the 10yr Italian BTP/Spanish Bonos spread has been excessive. If there is bond market contagion, as a result of the political situation in Italy, Bonos yields may have difficulty defying gravity. If the Italian political environment should improve, the over-sold BTP market should rebound. If the ECB are forced to act to avert a new EZ crisis by increasing OMT or implementing a duration weighted approach to QE, Italy should benefit more than Spain until the yield differential narrows.

Advertisements
Is the US exporting a recession?

Is the US exporting a recession?

In the Long Run - small colour logo

Macro Letter – No 96 – 04-05-2018

Is the US exporting a recession?

  • The Federal Reserve continue to raise rates as S&P earnings beat estimates
  • The ECB and BoJ maintain QE
  • Globally, corporations rely on US$ financing, nonetheless
  • Signs of a slowdown in growth are clearer outside the US

After last week’s ECB meeting, Mario Draghi gave the usual press conference. He confirmed the continuance of stimulus and mentioned the moderation in the rate of growth and below-target inflation. He also referred to the steady expansion in money supply. When it came to the Q&A he revealed rather more:-

It’s quite clear that since our last meeting, broadly all countries experienced, to different extents of course, some moderation in growth or some loss of momentum. When we look at the indicators that showed significant, sharp declines, we see that, first of all, the fact that all countries reported means that this loss of momentum is pretty broad across countries.

It’s also broad across sectors because when we look at the indicators, it’s both hard and soft survey-based indicators. Sharp declines were experienced by PMI, almost all sectors, in retail, sales, manufacturing, services, in construction. Then we had declines in industrial production, in capital goods production. The PMI in exports orders also declined. Also we had declines in national business and confidence indicators.

I quote this passage out of context because the entire answer was more nuanced. My reason? To highlight the difference between the situation in the EU and the US. In Europe, money supply (M3) is growing at 4.3% yet inflation (HICP) is a mere 1.3%. Meanwhile in the US, inflation (CPI) is running at 2.4% and money supply (M2) is hovering a fraction above 2%. Here is a chart of Eurozone M3 since 1999:-

EU M3 Money Supply

Source: Eurostat

The recent weakening of momentum is a concern, but the absolute level is consistent with a continued expansion.

Looked at over a rather longer time horizon, here is a chart of US M2 since 1900:-

M2 since 1900 - Hoisington

Source: Hoisington Asset Management, Federal Reserve

The letters A, B, C, D denote the only occasions, during the last 118 years, when a decline in the expansion (or, during the 1930’s, contraction) of M2 did not lead to a recession. 17 out of 21 is a quite compelling record.

Another concern for markets is the flatness of the US yield curve. Here is the 2yr – 10yr yield differential since 1990:-

US 2yr - 10yr Factset Mauldin

Source: Factset, Mauldin Economics

More importantly, for international borrowers, the 6-month LIBOR rate has risen by more than 60 basis points since the start of the year (from 1.8% to 2.5%) whilst 30yr Swap rates have increased by only 40 basis points (2.6% to 3%). The 10yr – 30yr Swap curve is now practically flat.

Also worthy of comment, as US Treasury yields have risen, the relationship between Bonds and Swaps has begun to normalise – 30yr T-Bond yields are only 40 basis points above their level of January and roughly at the same level as in the spring of last year. In April 2017 I wrote in Macro Letter – No 74 – US 30yr Swaps have yielded less than Treasuries since 2008 – does it matter?:-

Today the IRS market increasingly determines the cost of finance, during the next crisis IRS yields may rise or fall by substantially more than the same maturity of US T-bond, but that is because they are the most liquid instruments and are only indirectly supported by the Central Bank.

It looks like I may have to eat my words, here is the Bond vs Swap table revisited:-

Evolution_of_T-Bond_and_IRS_Spreads_-_investing_co_002

Source: Investing.com, Interestrateswaps.com, BBA

What is evident is that the Bond/Swap inversion in the longer maturities has closed substantially even as shorter maturity spreads have narrowed. Federal Reserve policy has been the dominate factor.

Why is it, however, that the effect of higher US rates is, seemingly, felt more poignantly in Europe than the US? Does this bring us back to protectionism? Perhaps, but in less contentious terms, the US has run a capital account surplus for many years. Outside the US investment is closely tied to LIBOR financing costs, these have remained higher, except in the longest maturities, and these rates have risen most precipitously this year. Looked at another way, the higher interest rate policies of the Federal Reserve, despite the continued largesse of other central banks, is exporting the next recession to the rest of the world.

I ended Macro Letter – No 74 back in April 2017 – saying:-

Meanwhile, although interest rates have risen from historic lows they remain far below their long run average. Pension funds and other long-term investors still require 7% or more in annualised returns in order to meet their liabilities. They are being forced to continuously increase their investment risk and many have chosen to use the swap market. The next crisis is likely to see an even more pronounced unravelling than in 2008/2009. The unravelling may not happen for some while but the stresses are likely to be focused on the IRS market.

One year on, cracks in the capital markets edifice are beginning to become more evident. GDP growth has started to rollover in the US, Eurozone and Japan. Yields are still relatively low but the absolute increase in rates for shorter maturities (e.g. the near doubling of US 2yr yields from 1.25% to 2.5% in a single year) is guaranteed to take its toll on corporate interest servicing costs. US capital markets are the envy of the world. They are deep and allow borrowers to finance far into the future. The rest of the world is forced to borrow at shorter tenors. A three basis point narrowing of 5yr spreads between Swaps and Bonds is hardly compensation for the near 1% increase in interest rates, or, put in starker terms, a 46% increase in absolute borrowing costs.

Conclusion and investment opportunities

How is the rise in borrowing costs impacting the US stock market? Volatility is back, but earnings are robust. Factset – S&P 500 Earnings Season Update: April 27, 2018 – described it thus:-

To date, 53% of the companies in the S&P 500 have reported actual results for Q1 2018. In terms of earnings, more companies are reporting actual EPS above estimates (79%) compared to the five-year average. If 79% is the final percentage for the quarter, it will mark the highest percentage of S&P 500 companies reporting actual EPS above estimates since FactSet began tracking this metric in Q3 2008. In aggregate, companies are reporting earnings that are 9.1% above the estimates, which is also above the five-year average. In terms of sales, more companies (74%) are reporting actual sales above estimates compared to the five-year average. In aggregate, companies are reporting sales that are 1.7% above estimates, which is also above the five-year average. If 1.7% is the final percentage for the quarter, it will mark the largest revenue surprise percentage since FactSet began tracking this metric in Q3 2008.

… The blended (combines actual results for companies that have reported and estimated results for companies that have yet to report), year-over-year earnings growth rate for the first quarter is 23.2% today, which is higher than the earnings growth rate of 18.5% last week. Positive earnings surprises reported by companies in multiple sectors (led by the Information Technology sector) were responsible for the increase in the earnings growth rate for the index during the past week. All 11 sectors are reporting year-over-year earnings growth. Nine sectors are reporting double-digit earnings growth, led by the Energy, Materials, Information Technology, and Financials sectors.

We are more than halfway through Q1 earnings (I’m writing this letter on Wednesday 2nd May). Results have generally been above forecast and now the Fed seems conscious that they must not be too hasty to reverse the effects of both zero rates and QE. Added to which, while US stocks have been languishing mid-range, European stocks have recently broken out of their recent ranges to the upside, despite discouraging economic data.

The US stock market looks less expensive than it did in January 2017, when I wrote Macro Letter – 68 – Equity valuation in a de-globalising world. Then I was looking for stock markets with a low correlation to the US: they were (and remain) hard to find.

Other indicators to watch which exert a strong influence on stocks include the US PMI Index – last at 54.8 up from 54.2 in March. Above 50 there is little cause for concern. For the Eurozone it is even higher at 55.2, whilst throughout G20 no economy is recording a PMI below 50.

The chart below shows the Citigroup Economic Surprises Index (blue) vs the S&P500 Forward P/E estimates (red):-

Citi Economic Surprises vs SandP - Yardeni 27-4-18

Source: Yardeni Research, S&P, Thompson Reuters, Citigroup

Economic surprises remain positive rather than negative for the US. In the Eurozone it is quite another matter:-

Citigroup Economic Surprises Index - Eurozone

Source: Bloomberg, Citigroup

A number of economic indicators are pointing to a slowdown, yet US stocks are beating estimates. To judge from price action, the market appears to be unimpressed by earnings. I am reminded of the old adage, ‘When all the buyers are in the market it’s time to sell.’ From a technical perspective it makes sense to be patient, but the 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.

Are we nearly there yet? Employment, interest rates and inflation

In the Long Run - small colour logo

Macro Letter – No 92 – 09-03-2018

Are we nearly there yet? Employment, interest rates and inflation

  • Rising interest rates and inflation are spooking financial markets
  • Unemployment data suggests that labour markets are tight
  • Central Banks will have to respond to a collapse in the three asset bubbles

There are two factors, above all others, which are spooking asset markets at present, inflation and interest rates. The former is impossible to measure with any degree of certainty – for inflation is in the eye of the beholder – and the latter is divergent depending on whether you look at the US or Japan – with Europe caught somewhere between the two extremes. In this Macro Letter I want to investigate the long term, demand-pull, inflation risk and consider what might happen if stocks, bonds and real estate all collapse in tandem.

It is reasonable to assume that US rates will rise this year, that UK rates might follow and that the ECB (probably) and BoJ (almost certainly) will remain on the side-lines. An additional worry for export oriented countries, such as Japan and Germany, is the protectionist agenda of the current US administration. If their exports collapse, GDP growth is likely to slow in its wake. The rhetoric of retaliation will be in the air.

For international asset markets, the prospect of higher US interest rates and protectionism, spells lower growth, weakness in employment and a lowering of demand-pull inflationary pressure. Although protectionism will cause prices of certain goods to rise – use that aluminium foil sparingly, baste instead – the overall effect on employment is likely to be swift.

Near-term impact

Whilst US bond yields rise, European bond yields may fail to follow, or even decline, if export growth collapses. Stocks in the US, by contrast, may be buoyed by tax cuts and the short-term windfall effect of tariff barriers. The high correlation between equity markets and the international nature of multinational corporations, means global stocks may remain levitated a while longer. The momentum of recent economic growth may lead to increased employment and higher wages in the near-term – and this might even spur demand for a while – but the spectre of inflation at the feast, will loom like a hawk.

Longer-term effects

But is inflation really going to be a structural problem? In an attempt to answer this we must delve into the murky waters of the employment data. As a starting point, at what juncture can we be confident that the US and other countries at or near to full-employment? Let us start by looking at the labour force participation rate. It is a difficult measure to interpret. As the table below shows, in the US and Japan the trend has been downward whilst the UK and the EU are hitting record highs:-

Labor_Force_Participation_Rates

Source: Trading Economics

One possible reason for this divergence between the EU and the US/Japan is that the upward trend in European labour participation has been, at least partially, the result of an inexorable reduction in the scope and scale of the social safety net throughout the region.

More generally, since the Great Recession of 2008/2009 a number of employment trends have been evident across most developed countries. Firstly, many people have moved from full-time to part-time employment. Others have switched from employment to self-employment. In both cases these trends have exerted downward pressure on earnings. What little growth in earnings there has been, has mainly emanated from the public sector, but rising government deficits make this source of wage growth unsustainable in the long run.

The Record of Meeting of the CAC and Federal Reserve Board of Governors – published last November, stated the following in relation to US employment:-

The data indicate that despite the drop in unemployment, there has not been an increase in the number of quality jobs—those that pay enough to cover expenses and enable workers to save for the future. The 2017 Scorecard reports that one in four jobs in the U.S. is in a low-wage occupation, which means that at the median salary, these jobs pay below the poverty threshold for a family of four. For the first time, the 2017 Scorecard includes a measure of income volatility that shows that one in five households has significant income fluctuations from month to month. The percentage varies by state, from a low of 14.7 percent of households in Virginia to a stunning 29.8 percent of households in Wyoming. In addition, 40 percent of those experiencing volatility reported struggling to pay their bills at least once in the last year because of these income fluctuations. These two factors contribute significantly to the fact that almost 37 percent of U.S. households, and 51 percent of households of color, live in the financial red zone of “liquid asset poverty.” This means that they do not have enough liquid savings to replace income at the poverty level for three months if their main source of income is disrupted, such as from job loss or illness. This level of financial insecurity has profound implications for the security of households, and for the overall economic growth of the nation.

Another trend that has been evident is the increase in the number of people no longer seeking employment. Setting aside those who, for health related reasons, have exited the employment pool, early retirement has been one of the main factors swelling the ranks of the previously employable. For this growing cohort, inflation never went away. In particular, inflation in healthcare has been one of the main sources of increases in the price level over the past decade.

At the opposite end of the working age spectrum, education is another factor which has reduced the participation rate. It has also exerted downward pressure on wages; as more students enrol in higher education in order to gain, hopefully, better paid employment, the increased supply of graduates insures that the economic value of a degree diminishes. Whilst a number of corporations have begun to offer apprenticeships or in-work degree qualifications, in order to address the skill gap between what is being taught and what these firms require from their employees, the overall impact of increased demand for higher education has been to reduce the participation rate.

For a detailed assessment of the situation in the US, this paper from the Kansas City Federal Reserve – Why Are Prime-Age Men Vanishing from the Labor Force? provides some additional and fascinating insights. Here is the author’s conclusion:-

Over the past two decades, the nonparticipation rate among primeage men rose from 8.2 percent to 11.4 percent. This article shows that the nonparticipation rate increased the most for men in the 25–34 age group and for men with a high school degree, some college, or an associate’s degree. In 1996, the most common situation prime-age men reported during their nonparticipation was a disability or illness, while the least common situation was retirement. While the share of primeage men reporting a disability or illness as their situation during nonparticipation declined by 2016, this share still accounted for nearly half of all nonparticipating prime-age men. This result is in line with Krueger’s (2016) finding, as many of these men with a disability or illness are likely suffering from daily pain and using prescription painkillers.

I argue that a decline in the demand for middle-skill workers accounts for most of the decline in participation among prime-age men. In addition, I find that the decline in participation is unlikely to reverse if current conditions hold. In 2016, the share of nonparticipating prime-age men who stayed out of the labor force in the subsequent month was 83.8 percent. Moreover, less than 15 percent of nonparticipating prime-age men reported that they wanted a job. Together, this evidence suggests nonparticipating prime-age men are less likely to return to the labor force at the moment.

The stark increase in prime-age men’s nonparticipation may be the result of a vicious cycle. Skills demanded in the labor market are rapidly changing, and automation has rendered the skills of many less-educated workers obsolete. This lack of job opportunities, in turn, may lead to depression and illness among displaced workers, and these health conditions may become further barriers to their employment. Ending this vicious cycle—and avoiding further increases in the nonparticipation rate among prime-age men—may require equipping workers with the new skills employers are demanding in the face of rapid technological advancements.

For an even more nuanced interpretation of the disconnect between corporate profits and worker compensation this essay by Jonathan Tepper of Varient Perception – Why American Workers Aren’t Getting A Raise: An Economic Detective Story – is even more compelling:-

Rising industrial concentration is a powerful reason why profits don’t mean revert and a powerful explanation for the imbalance between corporations and workers. Workers in many industries have fewer choices of employer, and when industries are monopolists or oligopolists, they have significant market power versus their employees.

The role of high industrial concentration on inequality is now becoming clear from dozens recent academic studies. Work by The Economist found that over the fifteen-year period from 1997 to 2012 two-thirds of American industries were more concentrated in the hands of a few firms. In 2015, Jonathan Baker and Steven Salop found that “market power contributes to the development and perpetuation of inequality.”

One of the most comprehensive overviews available of increasing industrial concentration shows that we have seen a collapse in the number of publicly listed companies and a shift in power towards big companies. Gustavo Grullon, Yelena Larkin, and Roni Michaely have documented how despite a much larger economy, we have seen the number of listed firms fall by half, and many industries now have only a few big players. There is a strong and direct correlation between how few players there are in an industry and how high corporate profits are.

Tepper goes on to discuss monopolies and monopsonies. At the heart of the issue is the zombie company phenomenon. With interest rates at artificially low levels, companies which should have been liquidated have survived. Others have used their access to finance, gained from many years of negotiation with their bankers, to buy out their competitors. If interest rates were correctly priced this would not have been possible – these zombie corporations would have gone to the wall. I wrote a rather long two part essay on this subject in 2016 for the Cobden Centre – A history of Fractional Reserve Banking – or why interest rates are the most important influence on stock market valuations? This is about the long-run even by my standards but I commend it to those of you with an interest in economic history. Here is a brief quote from part 2:-

…This might seem incendiary but, let us assume that the rate of interest at which the UK government has been able to borrow is a mere 300bp below the rate it should have been for the last 322 years – around 4% rather than 7%. What does this mean for corporate financing?

There are two forces at work: a lower than “natural” risk free rate, which should make it possible for corporates to borrow more cheaply than under unfettered conditions. They can take on new projects which would be unprofitable under normal conditions, artificially prolonging economic booms. The other effect is to allow the government to crowd out private sector borrowing, especially during economic downturns, where government borrowing increases at the same time that corporate profitability suffers. The impact on corporate interest rates of these two effects is, to some extent, self-negating. In the long run, excessive government borrowing permanently reduces the economic capacity of the country, by the degree to which government investment is less economically productive than private investment.

To recap, more people are remaining in education, more people are working freelance or part-time and more people are choosing to retire early. The appreciation of the stock, bond and property markets has certainly helped those who are asset rich, choose to exit the ranks of the employable, but, I suspect, in many cases this is only because asset prices have been rising for the past decade. Pension annuity rates appear to have hit all-time lows, a reckoning for asset markets is overdue.

What happens come the next bust and beyond?

If inflation rises and Central Banks respond by raising interest rates, bond prices will fall and stocks will have difficulty avoiding the force of gravity. Once bond and stock markets fall, property prices are likely to follow, as the cost of financing mortgages increases. With all the major asset classes in decline, economic growth will slow and unemployment will rise. Meanwhile, the need to work, in order to supplement the reduction in income derived from a, no longer appreciating, pool of assets, will increase, putting downward pressure on average earnings. Here is the most recent wage, inflation and real wage data. For France, Germany and the UK, wages continue to lag behind prices. A 2% inflation target is all very well, just so long as wages can keep up:-

Wages_and_Inflation

Source: Trading Economics

The first place where this trend in lower earnings will become evident is likely to be among freelance and part-time workers – at least they will still have employment. The next casualty will be the fully employed. Corporations will lay-off staff as corporate profit warnings force their hands. Governments will be beseeched to create jobs and, regardless of whether the inflation rate is still rising or not, Central Banks will be implored, cajoled (whatever it takes) to cut interest rates and renew their quest to purchase every asset under the sun.

Wage deflation will, of course, continue, harming those who have no alternative but to work; those who lack sufficient unearned income to survive. Government debt will accelerate, Central Bank balance sheets will balloon and asset prices will eventually recover. Bond yields may even reach new record lows, prompting assets to flow into stocks – the ones Central Banks have not yet purchased as part of their QQE programmes – despite their inflated valuations. Corporate executives will no doubt take the view that interest rates are artificially low and conclude that they can best serve their shareholders by buying back their own stock – accompanied by the occasional special dividend to avoid accusations for impropriety.

As economic growth takes a nose drive, inflation will moderate, providing justification for the pre-emptive rate cutting and balance sheet expanding actions of the Central Banks. Articles will begin to appear, in esteemed journals, talking of a new era of low economic trend growth. Finally, after several years of QE, QQE and whatever the stage beyond that may be – helicopter money anyone? – the world economy will start to grow more rapidly and the labour force participation rate, increase once more. Inflation will start to rise, interest rates will be tightened, bond yields, increase. At this point, stocks will fall and the next downward leg of the economic cycle will have to be averted by renewed QQE and fiscal stimulus. If this is reminiscent of a scene from Groundhog Day, I regret to inform you, it is.

There will be a point at which the financialisation of the global economy and the nationalisation of the stock market can no longer deliver the markets from the deleterious curse of debt, but, sadly, I do not believe that moment has yet arrived. Are we nearly there yet? Not even close.

 

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?

In the Long Run - small colour logo

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.

European Bonds – warning knell or cause for celebration?

European Bonds – warning knell or cause for celebration?

400dpiLogo

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.

Central Bank balance sheet adjustment – a path to enlightenment?

400dpiLogo

Macro Letter – No 79 – 16-6-2017

Central Bank balance sheet adjustment – a path to enlightenment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Central_Bank_Balance_Sheets_-_Yardeni_May_2017

 Source: Yardeni Research, Haver Analytics

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

China FX reserves and stocks 2014 - 2017

Source: Trading Economics

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

An historical perspective

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

Federal_Reserve_Balance_Sheet_-_History_-_St_Louis

Source: Federal Reserve, Haver Analytics

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

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

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

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

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

BoE_Balance_Sheet_to_GDP_since_1701_-_BoE_and_FRED

Source: Federal Reserve, Bank of England

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

UK-equities-1700-2012 Stockmarket Almanac

Source: The Stock Almanac

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adjustment without tightening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commercial_Bank_Loan_Creation_US

Source: Federal Reserve, Zero Hedge

The global perspective

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

Fulcrum_Projections_for_tapering

Source: FT, Fulcrum Asset Management

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

Fulcrum CB Liquidity Injections - March 2017 forecast

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

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

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

Fulcrum Estimates of CB Balance sheets - March 2017 

Source: Haver Analytics, Fulcrum Asset Management

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

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

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

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

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

centralbankbalancesheetgdpratios

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

Source: National Inflation Association

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

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

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

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

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