Central Bank balance sheet adjustment – a path to enlightenment?


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:-


 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:-


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:-


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:-


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:-


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:-


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.

Is the “flight to quality” effect breaking down?


Macro letter – No 61 – 16-09-2016

Is the “flight to quality” effect breaking down?

  • 54% of government bonds offered negative yields at the end of August
  • Corporate bond spreads did not widen during last week’s decline in government bonds
  • Since July the dividend yield on the S&P500 has been higher than the yield on US 30yr bonds
  • In a ZIRP to NIRP world the “capital” risk of government bonds may be under-estimated

Back in 2010 I switched out of fixed income securities. I was much too early! Fortunately I had other investments which allowed me to benefit from the extraordinary rally in government bonds, driven by the central bank quantitative easing (QE) policies.

In the aftermath of Brexit the total outstanding amount of bonds with negative yields hit $13trln – that still leaves $32trln which offer a positive return. This is alarming nonetheless, according to this 10th July article from ZeroHedge, a 1% rise in yields would equate to a mark-to-market loss of $2.4trln. The chart below shows the capital impact of a 1% yield change for different categories of bonds:-


Source: ZeroHedge

Looked at another way, the table above suggests that the downside risk of holding US Treasuries, in the event of a 1% rise in yields, is 2.8 times greater than holding Investment Grade corporate bonds.

Corporate bonds, even of investment grade, traditionally exhibit less liquidity and greater credit risk, but, in the current, ultra-low interest rate, environment, the “capital” risk associated with government bonds is substantially higher. It can be argued that the “free-float” of government bonds has been reduced by central bank buying. A paper from the IMF – Government Bonds and Their Investors: What Are the Facts and Do They Matter? provides a fascinating insight into government bond holdings by investor type. The central bank with the largest percentage holding is the Bank of England (BoE) 19.7% followed by the Federal Reserve (Fed) 11.5% and the Bank of Japan (BoJ) 8.3% – although the Japanese Post Office, with 29%, must be taken into account as well. The impact of central bank buying on secondary market liquidity may be greater, however, since the central banks have principally been accumulating “on the run” issues.

Since 2008, financial markets in general, and government bond markets in particular, have been driven by central bank policy. Fear about tightening of monetary conditions, therefore, has more impact than ever before. Traditionally, when the stock market falls suddenly, the price of government bonds rises – this is the “flight to quality” effect. It also leads to a widening of the spread between “risk-free” assets and those carrying greater credit and liquidity risk. As the table above indicates, however, today the “capital” risk associated with holding government securities, relative to higher yielding bonds has increased substantially. This is both as a result of low, or negative, yields and reduced liquidity resulting from central bank asset purchases. These factors are offsetting the traditional “flight to quality” effect.

Last Friday, government bond yields increased around the world amid concerns about Fed tightening later this month – or later this year. The table below shows the change in 10yr to 30yrs Gilt yields together with a selection of Sterling denominated corporate bonds. I have chosen to focus on the UK because the BoE announced on August 4th that they intend to purchase £10bln of Investment Grade corporate bonds as part of their Asset Purchase Programme. Spreads between Corporates and Gilts narrowed since early August, although shorter maturities benefitted most.

Issuer Maturity Yield Gilt yield Spread over Gilts Corporate Change 7th to 12th Gilts change 7th to 12th
Barclays Bank Plc 2026 3.52 0.865 2.655 0.19 0.18
A2Dominion 2026 2.938 0.865 2.073 0.03 0.18
Sncf 2027 1.652 0.865 0.787 0.18 0.18
EDF 2027 1.9 0.865 1.035 0.19 0.18
National Grid Co Plc 2028 1.523 0.865 0.658 0.19 0.18
Italy (Republic of) 2028 2.891 0.865 2.026 0.17 0.18
Kreditanstalt fuer Wiederaufbau 2028 1.187 0.865 0.322 0.18 0.18
EIB 2028 1.347 0.865 0.482 0.18 0.18
BT 2028 1.976 0.865 1.111 0.2 0.18
General Elec Cap Corp 2028 1.674 0.865 0.809 0.2 0.18
Severn Trent 2029 1.869 1.248 0.621 0.19 0.18
Tesco Plc 2029 4.476 1.248 3.228 0.2 0.18
Procter & Gamble Co 2030 1.683 1.248 0.435 0.2 0.18
RWE Finance Bv 2030 3.046 1.248 1.798 0.17 0.22
Citigroup Inc 2030 2.367 1.248 1.119 0.2 0.22
Wal-mart Stores 2030 1.825 1.248 0.577 0.2 0.22
EDF 2031 2.459 1.248 1.211 0.22 0.22
GE 2031 1.778 1.248 0.53 0.21 0.22
Enterprise Inns plc 2031 6.382 1.248 5.134 0.03 0.22
Prudential Finance Bv 2031 3.574 1.248 2.326 0.19 0.22
EIB 2032 1.407 1.248 0.159 0.2 0.22
Kreditanstalt fuer Wiederaufbau 2032 1.311 1.248 0.063 0.19 0.22
Vodafone Group PLC 2032 2.887 1.248 1.639 0.24 0.22
Tesco Plc 2033 4.824 1.248 3.576 0.21 0.22
GE 2033 1.88 1.248 0.632 0.21 0.22
Proctor & Gamble 2033 1.786 1.248 0.538 0.2 0.22
HSBC Bank Plc 2033 3.485 1.248 2.237 0.21 0.22
Wessex Water 2033 2.114 1.248 0.866 0.19 0.22
Nestle 2033 0.899 1.248 -0.349 0.16 0.22
Glaxo 2033 1.927 1.248 0.679 0.2 0.22
Segro PLC 2035 2.512 1.401 1.111 0.19 0.22
Walmart 2035 2.028 1.401 0.627 0.2 0.22
Aviva Plc 2036 3.979 1.401 2.578 0.18 0.22
General Electric 2037 2.325 1.401 0.924 0.23 0.22
Lcr Financial Plc 2038 1.762 1.401 0.361 0.2 0.22
EIB 2039 1.64 1.401 0.239 0.2 0.22
Lloyds TSB 2040 2.693 1.495 1.198 0.2 0.22
GE 2040 2.114 1.495 0.619 0.2 0.22
Direct Line 2042 6.738 1.495 5.243 0.06 0.22
Barclays Bank Plc 2049 3.706 1.4 2.306 0.1 0.22

Source: Fixed Income Investor, Investing.com

The spread between international issuers such as Nestle – which, being Swiss, trades at a discount to Gilts – narrowed, however, higher yielding names, such as Direct Line, did likewise.

For comparison the table below – using the issues in bold from the table above – shows the change between the 22nd and 23rd June – pre and post-Brexit:-

Maturity Gilts 22-6 Corporate 22-6 Gilts 23-6 Corporate 23-6 Issuer Spread 22-6 Spread 23-6 Spread change
10y 1.314 4.18 1.396 4.68 Barclays 2.866 3.284 0.418
15y 1.879 3.86 1.96 3.88 Vodafone 1.981 1.92 -0.061
20y 2.065 4.76 2.124 4.78 Aviva 2.695 2.656 -0.039
25y 2.137 3.42 2.195 3.43 Lloyds 1.283 1.235 -0.048
30y 2.149 4.21 2.229 4.23 Barclays 2.061 2.001 -0.06

Source: Fixed Income Investor, Investing.com

Apart from a sharp increase in the yield on the 10yr Barclays issue (the 30yr did not react in the same manner) the spread between Gilts and corporates narrowed over the Brexit debacle too. This might be because bid/offer spreads in the corporate market became excessively wide – Gilts would have become the only realistic means of hedging – but the closing prices of the corporate names should have reflected mid-market yields.

If the “safe-haven” of Gilts has lost its lustre where should one invest? With patience and in higher yielding bonds – is one answer. Here is another from Ben Lord of M&G’s Bond Vigilantes – The BoE and ECB render the US bond market the only game in town:-

…The ultra-long conventional gilt has returned a staggering 52% this year. Since the result of the referendum became clear, the bond’s price has increased by 20%, and in the couple of weeks since Mark Carney announced the Bank of England’s stimulus package, the bond’s price has risen by a further 13%.

…the 2068 index-linked gilt, which has seen its price rise by 57% year-to-date, by 35% since the vote to exit Europe, and by 18% since further quantitative easing was announced by the central bank. Interestingly, too, the superior price action of the index-linked bond has occurred not as a result of rising inflation or expectations of inflation; instead it has been in spite of significantly falling inflation expectations so far this year. The driver of the outperformance is solely due to the much longer duration of the linker. Its duration is 19 years longer than the nominal 2068 gilt, by virtue of its much lower coupon!

When you buy a corporate bond you don’t just buy exposure to government bond yields, you also buy exposure to credit risk, reflected in the credit spread. The sterling investment grade sector has a duration of almost 10 years, so you are taking exposure to the 10 year gilt, which has a yield today of circa 0.5%. If we divide the yield by the bond’s duration, we get a breakeven yield number, or the yield rise that an investor can tolerate before they would be better off in cash. At the moment, as set out above, the yield rise that an investor in a 10 year gilt (with 9 year’s duration) can tolerate is around 6 basis points (0.5% / 9 years duration). Given that gilt yields are at all-time lows, so is the yield rise an investor can take before they would be better off in cash.

We can perform the same analysis on credit spreads: if the average credit spread for sterling investment grade credit is 200 basis points and the average duration of the market is 10 years, then an investor can tolerate spread widening of 20 basis points before they would be better off in cash. When we combine both of these breakeven figures, we have the yield rise, in basis points, that an investor in the average corporate bond or index can take before they should have been in cash.

With very low gilt yields and credit spreads that are being supported by coming central bank buying, accommodative policy and low defaults, and a benign consumption environment, it is no surprise that corporate bond yield breakevens are at the lowest level we have gathered data for. It is for these same reasons that the typical in-built hedge characteristic of a corporate bond or fund is at such low levels. Traditionally, if the economy is strong then credit spreads tighten whilst government bond yields sell off, such as in 2006 and 2007. And if the economy enters recession, then credit spreads widen and risk free government bond yields rally, such as seen in 2008 and 2009.

With the Bank of England buying gilts and soon to start buying corporate bonds, with the aim of loosening financial conditions and providing a stimulus to the economy as we work through the uncertain Brexit process and outcome, low corporate bond breakevens are to be expected. But with Treasury yields at extreme high levels out of gilts, and with the Fed not buying government bonds or corporate bonds at the moment, my focus is firmly on the attractive relative valuation of the US corporate bond market.

The table below shows a small subset of liquid US corporate bonds, showing the yield change between the 7th and 12th September:-

Issuer Issue Yield Maturity Change 7th to 12th Spread Rating
Home Depot HD 2.125 9/15/26 c26 2.388 10y 0.17 0.72 A2
Toronto Dominion TD 3.625 9/15/31 c 3.605 15y 0.04 1.93 A3
Oracle ORCL 4.000 7/15/46 c46 3.927 20y 0.14 1.54 A1
Microsoft MSFT 3.700 8/8/46 c46 3.712 20y 0.13 1.32 Aaa
Southern Company SO 3.950 10/1/46 c46 3.973 20y 0.18 1.58 Baa2
Home Depot HD 3.500 9/15/56 c56 3.705 20y 0.19 1.31 A2
US Treasury US10yr 1.67 10y 0.13 N/A AAA
US Treasury US30y 2.39 30y 0.16 N/A AAA

Source: Market Axess, Investing.com

Except for Canadian issuer Toronto Dominion, yields moved broadly in tandem with the T-Bond market. The spread between US corporates and T-Bonds may well narrow once the Fed gains a mandate to buy corporate securities, but, should Fed negotiations with Congress prove protracted, the cost of FX hedging may negate much of the benefit for UK or European investors.

What is apparent, is that the “flight to quality” effect is diminished even in the more liquid and higher yielding US market.

The total market capitalisation of the UK corporate bond market is relatively small at £285bln, the US market is around $4.5trln and Europe is between the two at Eur1.5trln. The European Central Bank (ECB) began its Corporate Sector Purchase Programme (CSPP) earlier this summer but delegated the responsibility to the individual National Banks.

Between 8th June and 15th July Europe’s central banks purchased Eur10.43bln across 458 issues. The average position was Eur22.8mln but details of actual holdings are undisclosed. They bought 12 issues of Deutsche Bahn (DBHN) 11 of Telefonica (TEF) and 10 issues of BMW (BMW) but total exposures are unknown. However, as the Bond Vigilantes -Which corporate bonds has the ECB been buying? point out, around 36% of all bonds eligible for the CSPP were trading with negative yields. This was in mid-July, since then 10y Bunds have fallen from -012% to, a stellar, +0.3%, whilst Europe’s central banks have acquired a further Eur6.71bln of corporates in August, taking the mark-to-market total to Eur19.92bln. The chart below shows the breakdown of purchases by country and industry sector at the 18th July:-


Source: M&G Investments, ECB, Bloomberg

Here is the BIS data for total outstanding financial and non-financial debt as at the end of 2015:-

Country US$ Blns
France 2053
Spain 1822
Netherlands 1635
Germany 1541
Italy 1023
Luxembourg 858
Denmark 586

Source: BIS

In terms of CSPP holdings, Germany appears over-represented, Spain and the Netherlands under-represented. The “devil”, as they say, is in the “detail” – and a detailed breakdown by issuer, issue and size of holding, has not been published. The limited information is certainly insufficient for traders to draw any clear conclusions about which issues to buy or sell. As Wolfgang Bauer, the author of the M&G article, concludes:-

But as tempting as it may be to draw conclusions regarding over- and underweights and thus to anticipate the ECB’s future buying activity, we have to acknowledge that we are simply lacking data. Trying to “front run” the ECB is therefore a highly difficult, if not impossible task.

 Conclusions and investment opportunities

Back in May the Wall Street Journal published the table below, showing the change in the portfolio mix required to maintain a 7.5% return between 1995 and 2015:-

Source: Wall Street Journal, Callan Associates

The risk metric they employ is volatility, which in turn is derived from the daily mark-to-market price. Private Equity and Real-Estate come out well on this measure but are demonstrably less liquid. However, this table also misses the point made at the beginning of this letter – that “risk-free” assets are encumbered with much higher “capital” risk in a ZIRP to NIRP world. The lower level of volatility associated with bond markets disguises an asymmetric downside risk in the event of yield “normalisation”.


Corporates with strong cash flows and rising earnings are incentivised to issue debt either for investment or to buy back their own stock; thankfully, not all corporates and leveraging their balance sheets. Dividend yields are around the highest they have been this century:-


Source: Multpl.com

Meanwhile US Treasury Bond yields hit their lowest ever in July. Below is a sample of just a few higher yielding S&P500 stocks:-

Stock Ticker Price P/E Beta EPS DPS Payout Ratio Yield
At&t T 39.97 17.3 0.56 2.3 1.92 83 4.72
Target TGT 68.94 12.8 0.35 5.4 2.4 44 3.46
Coca-cola KO 42.28 24.3 0.73 1.7 1.4 80 3.24
Mcdonalds MCD 114.73 22.1 0.61 5.2 3.56 69 3.07
Procter & Gamble PG 87.05 23.6 0.66 3.7 2.68 73 3.03
Kimberly-clark KMB 122.39 22.8 0.61 5.4 3.68 68 2.98
Pepsico PEP 104.59 29.5 0.61 3.6 3.01 85 2.84
Wal-mart Stores WMT 71.46 15.4 0.4 4.6 2 43 2.78
Johnson & Johnson JNJ 117.61 22.1 0.43 5.3 3.2 60 2.69

Source: TopYield.nl

The average beta of the names above is 0.55 – given that the S&P500 has an historic volatility of around 15%, this portfolio would have a volatility of 8.25% and an average dividend yield of 3.2%. This is not a recommendation to buy an equally weighted portfolio of these stocks, merely an observation about the attractiveness of returns from dividends.

Government bonds offer little or no return if held to maturity – it is a traders market. For as long as central banks keep buying, bond prices will be supported, but, since the velocity of the circulation of money keeps falling, central banks are likely to adopt more unconventional policies in an attempt to transmit stimulus to the real economy. If the BoJ, BoE and ECB are any guide, this will lead them (Fed included) to increase purchases of corporate bonds and even common stock.

Bond bear-market?

Predicting the end of the bond bull-market is not my intention, but if central banks should fail in their unconventional attempts at stimulus, or if their mandates are withdrawn, what has gone up the most (government bonds) is likely to fall farthest. At some point, the value of owning “risk-free” assets will reassert itself, but I do not think a 1% rise in yields will be sufficient. High yielding stocks from companies with good dividend cover, low betas and solid cash flows, will weather the coming storm. These stocks may suffer substantial corrections, but their businesses will remain intact. When the bond bubble finally bursts “risky” assets may be safer than conventional wisdom suggests. The breakdown in the “flight to quality” effect is just one more indicator that the rules of engagement are changing.

Quantitative to qualitative – is unelected nationalisation next?


Macro Letter – No 52 – 08-04-2016

Quantitative to qualitative – is unelected nationalisation next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BoJ ETF holdings - October 2015 - Bloomberg

Source: Bloomberg, TSE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions and investment opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

Central Banks – Ah Aaaaahhh! – Saviours of the Universe?


Macro Letter – No 48 – 29-01-2016

Central Banks – Ah Aaaaahhh! – Saviours of the Universe?


Copryright: Universal Pictures

  • Freight rates have fallen below 2008 levels
  • With the oil price below $30 many US producers are unprofitable
  • The Fed has tightened but global QE gathers pace
  • Chinese stimulus is fighting domestic strong headwinds

Just in case you’re not familiar with it here is a You Tube video of the famous Queen song. It is seven years since the Great Financial Crisis; major stock markets are still relatively close to their highs and major government bond yields remain near historic lows. If another crisis is about to engulf the developed world, do the central banks (CBs) have the means to avert catastrophe once again? Here are some of the factors which may help us to reach a conclusion.

Freight Rates

Last week I was asked to comment of the prospects for commodity prices, especially energy. Setting aside the geo-politics of oil production, I looked at the Baltic Dry Index (BDI) which has been plumbing fresh depths this year – 337 (28/1/16) down from August 2015 highs of 1200. Back in May 2008 it touched 11,440 – only to plummet to 715 by November of the same year. How helpful is the BDI at predicting the direction of the economy? Not very – as this 2009 article from Business Insider – Shipping Rates Are Lousy For Predicting The Economy – points out. Nonetheless, the weakness in freight rates is indicative of an inherent lack of demand for goods. The chart below is from an article published by Zero Hedge at the beginning of January – they quote research from Deutsche Bank.

BDI_-_1985_-_2016 (4)

Source: Zerohedge

A “Perfect Storm Is Coming” Deutsche Warns As Baltic Dry Falls To New Record Low:

…a “perfect storm” is brewing in the dry bulk industry, as year-end improvements in rates failed to materialize, which indicates a looming surge in bankruptcies.

The improvement in dry bulk rates we expected into year-end has not materialized.

…we believe a number of dry bulk companies are contemplating asset sales to raise liquidity, lower daily cash burn, and reduce capital commitments. The glut of “for sale” tonnage has negative implications for asset and equity values. More critically, it can easily lead to breaches in loan-to-value covenants at many dry bulk companies, shortening the cash runway and likely necessitating additional dilutive actions.

Dry bulk companies generally have enough cash for the next 1yr or so, but most are not well positioned for another leg down in asset values.


The slowing and rebalancing of the Chinese economy may be having a significant impact on global trade flows. Here is a recent article on the subject from Mauldin Economics – China’s Year of the Monkees:-

China isn’t the only reason markets got off to a terrible start this month, but it is definitely a big factor (at least psychologically). Between impractical circuit breakers, weaker economic data, stronger capital controls, and renewed currency confusion, China has investors everywhere scratching their heads.

When we focused on China back in August (see “When China Stopped Acting Chinese”), my best sources said the Chinese economy was on a much better footing than its stock market, which was in utter chaos. While the manufacturing sector was clearly in a slump, the services sector was pulling more than its fair share of the GDP load. Those same sources have new data now, which leads them to quite different conclusions.

…Now, it may well be the case that China’s economy is faltering, but its GDP data is not the best evidence.

…To whom can we turn for reliable data? My go-to source is Leland Miller and company at the China Beige Book.

…China Beige Book started collecting data in 2010. For the entire time since then, the Chinese economy has been in what Leland calls “stable deceleration.” Slowing down, but in an orderly way that has generally avoided anything resembling crisis. 

…China Beige Book noticed in mid-2014 that Chinese businesses had changed their behavior. Instead of responding to slower growth by doubling down and building more capacity, they did the rational thing (at least from a Western point of view): they curbed capital investment and hoarded cash. With Beijing still injecting cash that businesses refused to spend, the liquidity that flowed into Chinese stocks produced the massive rally that peaked in mid-2015. It also allowed money to begin to flow offshore in larger amounts. I mean really massively larger amounts.

Dealing with a Different China

China Beige Book’s fourth-quarter report revealed a rude interruption to the positive “stable deceleration” trend. Their observers in cities all over that vast country reported weakness in every sector of the economy. Capital expenditures dropped sharply; there were signs of price deflation and labor market weakness; and both manufacturing and service activity slowed markedly.

That last point deserves some comment. China experts everywhere tell us the country is transitioning from manufacturing for export to supplying consumer-driven services. So if both manufacturing and service activity are slowing, is that transition still happening?

The answer might be “yes” if manufacturing were decelerating faster than services. For this purpose, relative growth is what counts. Unfortunately, manufacturing is slowing while service activity is not picking up all the slack. That’s not the combination we want to see.

Something else China Beige Book noticed last quarter: both business and consumer loan volume did not grow in response to lower interest rates. That’s an important change, and probably not a good one. It means monetary stimulus from Beijing can’t save the day this time. Leland thinks fiscal stimulus isn’t likely to help, either. Like other governments and their central banks, China is running out of economic ammunition.

Mauldin goes on to discuss the devaluation of the RMB – which I also discussed in my last letter – Is the ascension of the RMB to the SDR basket more than merely symbolic? The RMB has been closely pegged to the US$ since 1978 though with more latitude since 2005, this has meant a steady appreciation in its currency relative to many of its emerging market trading partners. Now, as China begins to move towards full convertibility, the RMB will begin to float more freely. Here is a five year chart of the Indian Rupee and the CNY vs the US$:-

INR vs RMB - Yahoo

Source: Yahoo finance

The Chinese currency could sink significantly should their government deem it necessary, however, expectations of a collapse of growth in China may be premature as this article from the Peterson Institute – The Price of Oil, China, and Stock Market Herding – indicates:-

A collapse of growth in China would indeed be a world changing event. But there is just no evidence of such a collapse. At most there is suggestive evidence of a mild slowdown, and even that is far from certain. The mechanical effects of such a mild decrease on the US economy should, by all accounts, and all the models we have, be limited. Trade channels are limited (US exports to China represent less than 2 percent of GDP), and so are financial linkages. The main effect of a slowdown in China would be through lower commodity prices, which should help rather than hurt the United States.

Peterson go on to suggest:-

Maybe we should not believe the market commentaries. Maybe it was neither oil nor China. Maybe what we are seeing is a delayed reaction to the slowdown in the world economy, a slowdown that has now gone on for a few years. While there has been no significant news in the last two weeks, maybe markets are only realizing that growth in emerging markets will be lower for a long time, that growth in advanced economies will be unexciting. Maybe…

I think the explanation is largely elsewhere. I believe that to a large extent, herding is at play. If other investors sell, it must be because they know something you do not know. Thus, you should sell, and you do, and so down go stock prices. Why now? Perhaps because we have entered a period of higher uncertainty. The world economy, at the start of 2016, is a genuinely confusing place. Political uncertainty at home and geopolitical uncertainty abroad are both high. The Fed has entered a new regime. The ability of the Chinese government to control its economy is in question. In that environment, in the stock market just as in the presidential election campaign, it is easier for the bears to win the argument, for stock markets to fall, and, on the political front, for fearmongers to gain popularity.

They are honest enough to admit that economics won’t provide the answers.

Energy Prices

The June 2015 BP – Statistical Review of World Energy – made the following comments:-

Global primary energy consumption increased by just 0.9% in 2014, a marked deceleration over 2013 (+2.0%) and well below the 10-year average of 2.1%. Growth in 2014 slowed for every fuel other than nuclear power, which was also the only fuel to grow at an above-average rate. Growth was significantly below the 10-year average for Asia Pacific, Europe & Eurasia, and South & Central America. Oil remained the world’s leading fuel, with 32.6% of global energy consumption, but lost market share for the fifteenth consecutive year.

Although emerging economies continued to dominate the growth in global energy consumption, growth in these countries (+2.4%) was well below its 10-year average of 4.2%. China (+2.6%) and India (+7.1%) recorded the largest national increments to global energy consumption. OECD consumption fell by 0.9%, which was a larger fall than the recent historical average. A second consecutive year of robust US growth (+1.2%) was more than offset by declines in energy consumption in the EU (-3.9%) and Japan (-3.0%). The fall in EU energy consumption was the second-largest percentage decline on record (exceeded only in the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2009).

The FT – The world energy outlook in five charts – looked at five charts from the IEA World Energy Outlook – November 2015:-


Source: IEA

With 315m of its population expected to live in urban areas by 2040, and its manufacturing base expanding, India is forecast to account for quarter of global energy demand growth by 2040, up from about 6 per cent currently.


Source: IEA

Oil demand in India is expected to increase by more than in any other country to about 10m barrels per day (bpd). The country is also forecast to become the world’s largest coal importer in five years. But India is also expected to rely on solar and wind power to have a 40 per cent share of non-fossil fuel capacity by 2030.


Source: IEA

China’s total energy demand is set to nearly double that of the US by 2040. But a structural shift in the Asian country away from investment-led growth to domestic-demand based economy will “mean that 85 per cent less energy is required to generate each unit of future economic growth than was the case in the past 25 years.”


Source: IEA

US shale oil production is expected to “stumble” in the short term, but rise as oil price recovers. However the IEA does not expect crude oil to reach $80 a barrel until 2020, under its “central scenario”. The chart shows that if prices out to 2020 remain under $60 per barrel, production will decline sharply.


Source: IEA

Renewables are set to overtake coal to become the largest source of power by 2030. The share of coal in the production of electricity will fall from 41 per cent to 30 per cent by 2040, while renewables will account for more than half the increase in electricity generation by then.

The cost of solar energy continues to fall and is now set to “eclipse” natural gas, as this article from Seeking Alpha by Siddharth Dalal – Falling Solar Costs: End Of Natural Gas Is Near? Explains:-

A gas turbine power plant uses 11,371 Btu/kWh. The current price utilities are paying per Btu of natural gas are $3.23/1000 cubic feet. 1000 cubic feet of natural gas have 1,020,000 BTUs. So $3.23 for 90kWh. That translates to 3.59c/kWh in fuel costs alone.

A combined cycle power plant uses 7667 Btu/kWh, which translates to 2.42c/kWh.

Adding in operating and maintenance costs, we get 4.11c/kWh for gas turbines and 3.3c/kWh for combined cycle power plants. This still doesn’t include any construction costs.

…The average solar PPA is likely to go under 4c/kWh next year. Note that this is the total cost that the utility pays and includes all costs.

And the trend puts total solar PPA costs under gas turbine fuel costs and competitive with combined cycle plant total operating costs next year.

At this point it becomes a no brainer for a utility to buy cheap solar PPAs compared to building their own gas power plants.

The only problem here is that gas plants are dispatchable, while solar is not. This is a problem that is easily solved by batteries. So utilities would be better served by spending capex on batteries as opposed to any kind of gas plant, especially anything for peak generation.

The influence of the oil price, whilst diminishing, still dominates. In the near term the importance of the oil price on financial market prices will relate to the breakeven cost of production for companies involved in oil exploration. Oil companies have shelved more than $400bln of planned investment since 2014. The FT – US junk-rated energy debt hits two-decade lowtakes up the story:-

US-High Yield - Thompson Reuters

Source: Thomson Reuters Datastream, FT

The average high-yield energy bond has slid to just 56 cents on the dollar, below levels touched during the financial crisis in 2008-09, as investors brace for a wave of bankruptcies.

…The US shale revolution which sent the country’s oil production soaring from 2009 to 2015 was led by small and midsized companies that typically borrowed to finance their growth. They sold $241bn worth of bonds during 2007-15 and many are now struggling under the debts they took on.

Very few US shale oil developments can be profitable with crude at about $30 a barrel, industry executives and advisers say. Production costs in shale have fallen as much as 40 per cent, but that has not been enough to keep pace with the decline in oil prices.

…On Friday, Moody’s placed 120 oil and gas companies on review for downgrade, including 69 in the US.

…The yield on the Bank of America Merrill Lynch US energy high-yield index has climbed to the highest level since the index was created, rising to 19.3 per cent last week, surpassing the 17 per cent peak hit in late 2008.

More than half of junk-rated energy groups in the US have fallen into distress territory, where bond yields rise more than 1,000 basis points above their benchmark Treasury counterpart, according to S&P.

All other things equal, the price of oil is unlikely to rally much from these levels, but, outside the US, geo-political risks exist which may create an upward bias. Many Middle Eastern countries have made assumptions about the oil price in their estimates of tax receipts. Saudi Arabia has responded to lower revenues by radical cuts in public spending and privatisations – including a proposed IPO for Saudi Aramco. As The Guardian – Saudi Aramco privatisation plans shock oil sector – explains, it will certainly be difficult to value – market capitalisation estimates range from $1trln to $10trln.

Outright energy company bankruptcies are likely to be relatively subdued, unless interest rates rise dramatically – these companies locked in extremely attractive borrowing rates and their bankers will prefer to renegotiate payment schedules rather than write off the loans completely. New issuance, however, will be a rare phenomenon.


“We don’t want technology simply because it’s dazzling. We want it, create it and support it because it improves people’s lives.”

These words were uttered by Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, at Davos last week. The commodity markets have been dealing with technology since the rise of Sumer. The Manhattan Institutes – SHALE 2.0 Technology and the Coming Big-Data Revolution in America’s Shale Oil Fields highlights some examples which go a long way to explaining the downward trajectory in oil prices over the last 18 months – emphasis is mine:-

John Shaw, chair of Harvard’s Earth and Planetary Sciences Department, recently observed: “It’s fair to say we’re not at the end of this [shale] era, we’re at the very beginning.” He is precisely correct. In recent years, the technology deployed in America’s shale fields has advanced more rapidly than in any other segment of the energy industry. Shale 2.0 promises to ultimately yield break-even costs of $5–$20 per barrel—in the same range as Saudi Arabia’s vaunted low-cost fields.

…Compared with 1986—the last time the world was oversupplied with oil—there are now 2 billion more people living on earth, the world economy is $30 trillion bigger, and 30 million more barrels of oil are consumed daily. The current 33 billion-barrel annual global appetite for crude will undoubtedly rise in coming decades. Considering that fluctuations in supply of 1–2 MMbd can swing global oil prices, the infusion of 4 MMbd from U.S. shale did to petroleum prices precisely what would be expected in cyclical markets with huge underlying productive capacity.

Shipbuilding has also benefitted from technological advances in a variety of areas, not just fuel efficiency. This article (please excuse the author’s English) from Marine Insight – 7 Technologies That Can Change The Future of Shipbuilding – highlights several, I’ve chosen five:-

3-D Printing Technology:…Recently, NSWC Carderock made a fabricated model of the hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) using its 3-D printer, first uploading CAD drawings of ship model in it. Further developments in this process can lead the industry to use this technique to build complex geometries of ship like bulbous bow easily. The prospect of using 3-D printers to seek quick replacement of ship’s part for repairing purpose is also being investigated. The Economist claims use this technology to be the “Third Industrial Revolution“.

Shipbuilding Robotics: Recent trends suggest that the shipbuilding industry is recognizing robotics as a driver of efficiency along with a method to prevent workers from doing dangerous tasks such as welding. The shortage of skilled labour is also one of the reasons to look upon robotics. Robots can carry out welding, blasting, painting, heavy lifting and other tasks in shipyards.

LNG Fueled engines

…In the LNG engines, CO2 emission is reduced by 20-25% as compared to diesel engines, NOX emissions are cut by almost 92%, while SOX and particulates emissions are almost completely eliminated.

…Besides being an environmental friendly fuel, LNG is also cheaper than diesel, which helps the ship to save significant amount of money over time.

…Solar & Wind Powered Ships:

…The world’s largest solar powered ship named ‘Turanor’ is a 100 metric ton catamaran which motored around the world without using any fuel and is currently being used as a research vessel. Though exclusive solar or wind powered ships look commercially and practically not viable today, they can’t be ruled out of future use with more technical advancements.

Recently, many technologies have come which support the big ships to reduce fuel consumption by utilizing solar panels or rigid sails. A device named Energy Sail (patent pending) has been developed by Eco Marine Power will help the ships to extract power from wind and sun so as to reduce fuel costs and emission of greenhouse gases. It is exclusively designed for shipping and can be fitted to wide variety of vessels from oil carrier to patrol ships.

Buckypaper: Buckypaper is a thin sheet made up of carbon nanotubes (CNT). Each CNT is 50,000 thinner than human air. Comparing with the conventional shipbuilding material (i.e. steel), buckypaper is 1/10th the weight of steel but potentially 500 times stronger in strength  and 2 times harder than diamond when its sheets are compiled to form a composite. The vessel built from this lighter material would require less fuel, hence increasing energy efficiency. It is corrosion resistant and flame retardant which could prevent fire on ships. A research has already been initiated for the use of buckypaper as a construction material of a future aeroplane. So, a similar trend can’t be ruled out in case of shipbuilding.

Shipping has always been a cyclical business, driven by global demand for freight on the one hand and improvements in technology on the other. The cost of production continues to fall, old inventory rapidly becomes uncompetitive and obsolete. The other factor effecting the cycle is the cost of finance; this is true also of energy exploration and development. Which brings us to the actions of the CBs.

The central role of the central banks

Had $100 per barrel oil encouraged a rise in consumer price inflation in the major economies, it might have been appropriate for their CBs to raise interest rates, however, high levels of debt kept inflation subdued. The “unintended consequences” or, perhaps we should say “collateral damage” of allowing interest rates to remain unrealistically low, is overinvestment. The BIS – Self-oriented monetary policy, global financial markets and excess volatility of international capital flows – looks at the effect developed country CB policy – specifically the Federal Reserve – has had on emerging markets:-

A major policy question arising from these events is whether US monetary policy imparts a global ‘externality’ through spillover effects on world capital flows, credit growth and asset prices. Many policy makers in emerging markets (e.g. Rajan, 2014) have argued that the US Federal Reserve should adjust its monetary policy decisions to take account of the excess sensitivity of international capital flows to US policy. This criticism questions the view that a ‘self-oriented’ monetary policy based on inflation targeting principles represents an efficient mechanism for the world monetary system (e.g. Obstfeld and Rogoff, 2002), without the need for any cross-country coordination of policies.

…Our results indicate that the simple prescriptions about the benefits of flexible exchange rates and inflation targeting are very unlikely to hold in a global financial environment dominated by the currency and policy of a large financial centre, such as the current situation with the US dollar and US monetary policy. Our preliminary analysis does suggest however that an optimal monetary policy can substantially improve the workings of the international system, even in the absence of direct intervention in capital markets through macro-prudential policies or capital controls. Moreover, under the specific assumptions maintained in this paper, this outcome can still be consistent with national independence in policy, or in other words, a system of ‘self-oriented’ monetary policy making.

Whether CBs should consider the international implications of their actions is not a new subject, but this Cobden Centre article by Alisdair Macleod – Why the Fed Will Never Succeed – suggests that the Fed should be mandated to accept a broader role:-

That the Fed thinks it is only responsible to the American people for its actions when they affect all nations is an abrogation of its duty as issuer of the reserve currency to the rest of the world, and it is therefore not surprising that the new kids on the block, such as China, Russia and their Asian friends, are laying plans to gain independence from the dollar-dominated system. The absence of comment from other central banks in the advanced nations on this important subject should also worry us, because they appear to be acting as mute supporters for the Fed’s group-think.

This is the context in which we need to clarify the effects of the Fed’s monetary policy. The fundamental question is actually far broader than whether or not the Fed should be raising rates: rather, should the Fed be managing interest rates at all? Before we can answer this question, we have to understand the relationship between credit and the business cycle.

There are two types of economic activity, one that correctly anticipates consumer demand and is successful, and one that fails to do so. In free markets the failures are closed down quickly, and the scarce economic resources tied up in them are redeployed towards more successful activities. A sound-money economy quickly eliminates business errors, so this self-cleansing action ensures there is no build-up of malinvestments and the associated debt that goes with it.

When there is stimulus from monetary inflation, it is inevitable that the strict discipline of genuine profitability that should guide all commercial enterprises takes a back seat. Easy money and interest rates lowered to stimulate demand distort perceptions of risk, over-values financial assets, and encourages businesses to take on projects that are not genuinely profitable. Furthermore, the owners of failing businesses find it possible to run up more debts, rather than face commercial reality. The result is a growing accumulation of malinvestments whose liquidation is deferred into the future.

Macleod goes on to discuss the Cantillon effect, at what point we are in the Credit Cycle and why the Fed decided to raise rates now:-

We must put ourselves in the Fed’s shoes to try to understand why it has raised rates. It has seen the official unemployment rate decline for a prolonged period, and more recently energy and commodity prices have fallen sharply. Assuming it believes government unemployment figures, as well as the GDP and its deflator, the Fed is likely to think the economy has at least stabilised and is fundamentally healthy. That being the case, it will take the view the business cycle has turned. Note, business cycle, not credit-driven business cycle: the Fed doesn’t accept monetary policy is responsible for cyclical phenomena. Therefore, demand for energy and commodities is expected to increase on a one or two-year view, so inflation can be expected to pick up towards the 2% target, particularly when the falls in commodity and energy prices drop out of the back-end of the inflation numbers. Note again, inflation is thought to be a demand-for-goods phenomenon, not a monetary phenomenon, though according to the Fed, monetary policy can be used to stimulate or control it.

Unfortunately, the evidence from multiple surveys is that after nine years since the Lehman crisis the state of the economy remains suppressed while debt has continued to increase, so this cycle is not in the normal pattern. It is clear from the evidence that the American economy, in common with the European and Japanese, is overburdened by the accumulation of malinvestments and associated debt. Furthermore, nine years of wealth attrition through monetary inflation (as described above) has reduced the purchasing power of the average consumer’s earnings significantly in real terms. So instead of a phase of sustainable growth, it is likely America has arrived at a point where the economy can no longer bear the depredations of further “monetary stimulus”. It is also increasingly clear that a relatively small rise in the general interest rate level will bring on the next crisis.

So what will the Fed – and, for that matter, other major CBs – do? I look back to the crisis of 2008/2009 – one of the unique aspects of this period was the coordinated action of the big five: the Fed, ECB, BoJ, BoE and SNB. In 1987 the Fed was the “saviour of the universe”. Their actions became so transparent in the years that followed, that the phase “Greenspan Put” was coined to describe the way the Fed saved stock market investors and corporate creditors. CEPR – Deleveraging? What deleveraging? which I have quoted from in previous letters, is an excellent introduction to the unintended consequences of CB largesse.

Since 2009 economic growth has remained sluggish; this has occurred despite historically low interest rates – it’s not unreasonable to surmise that the massive overhang of debt, globally, is weighing on both demand pull inflation and economic growth. Stock buy-backs have been rife and the long inverted relationship between dividend yields and government bond yields has reversed. Paying higher dividends may be consistent with diversifying a company’s investor base but buying back stock suggests a lack of imagination by the “C” Suite. Or perhaps these executives are uncomfortable investing when interest rates are artificially low.

I believe the vast majority of the rise in stock markets since 2009 has been the result of CB policy, therefore the Fed rate increase is highly significant. The actions of the other CBs – and here I would include the PBoC alongside the big five – is also of significant importance. Whilst the Fed has tightened the ECB and the PBoC continue to ease. The Fed appears determined to raise rates again, but the other CBs are likely to neutralise the overall effect. Currency markets will take the majority of the strain, as they have been for the last couple of years.

A collapse in equity markets will puncture confidence and this will undermine growth prospects globally. Whilst some of the malinvestments of the last seven years will be unwound, I expect CBs to provide further support. The BoJ is currently the only CB with an overt policy of “qualitative easing” – by which I mean the purchasing of common stock – I fully expect the other CBs to follow to adopt a similar approach. For some radical ideas on this subject this paper by Professor Roger Farmer – Qualitative Easing: How it Works and Why it Matters – which was presented at the St Louis Federal Reserve conference in 2012 – makes interesting reading.

Investment opportunities

In comparison to Europe– especially Germany – the US economy is relatively immune to the weakness of China. This is already being reflected in both the currency and stocks markets. The trend is likely to continue. In the emerging market arena Brazil still looks sickly and the plummeting price of oil isn’t helping, meanwhile India should be a beneficiary of cheaper oil. Some High yield non-energy bonds are likely to be “tarred” (pardon the pun) with the energy brush. Meanwhile, from an international perspective the US$ remains robust even as the US$ Index approaches resistance at 100.


Source: Marketwatch

An Autumn Reassessment – Will the fallout from China favour equities, bonds or the US Dollar?


Macro Letter – No 40 – 28-08-2015

An Autumn Reassessment – Will the fallout from China favour equities, bonds or the US Dollar?

  • The FOMC rate increase may be delayed
  • An equity market correction is technically overdue
  • Long duration bonds offer defensive value
  • The US$ should out-perform after the “risk-off” phase has run its course

It had been a typical summer market until the past fortnight. Major markets had been range bound, pending the widely-anticipated rate increase from the FOMC and the prospect of similar, though less assured, action from the BoE. The ECB, of course, has been preoccupied with the next Greek bailout, whilst EU politicians wrestle with the life and death implications of the migrant crisis.

What seems to have changed market sentiment was the PBoC’s decision to engineer a 3% devaluation in the value of the RMB against the US$. This move acted as a catalyst for global markets, commentators seizing on the news as evidence that the Chinese administration has lost control of its rapidly slowing economy. As to what China should do next, opinion is divided between those who think any conciliatory gesture is a sign of weakness and those who believe the administration must act swiftly and with purpose, to avoid an inexorable and potentially catastrophic deterioration in economic conditions. The PBoC reduced interest rates again on Wednesday by 25bp – 1yr Lending Rate to 4.6% and 1yr Deposit Rate to 1.75% – they also reduced the Reserve Ratio requirement from 18.5% to 18%. This is not exactly dramatic but it leaves them with the flexibility to act again should the situation worsen.

Markets, especially equities, have become more volatile. The largest bond markets have rallied as equities have fallen. This is entirely normal; that the move has occurred during August, when liquidity is low, has, perhaps, conspired to exacerbate the move – technical traders will await confirmation when new lows are seen in equity markets during normal liquidity conditions.

Has anything changed in China?    

The Chinese economy has been rebalancing since 2012 – this article from Michael Pettis – Rebalancing and long term growth – from September 2013 provides an excellent insight. The process still has a number of years to run. Meanwhile, pegging the RMB to the US$ has made China uncompetitive in certain export markets. Other countries have filled the void, Mexico, for example, now appears to have a competitive advantage in terms of labour costs whilst transportation costs are definitely in its favour when meeting demand for goods from the US. This April 2013 article from the Financial Times – Mexican labour: cheaper than China elaborates:-


Source: BofA Merrill Lynch

China’s economy continues to slow, a lower RMB is not unexpected but how are the major economies faring under these conditions?

US growth and lower oil prices?

I recently wrote about the US economy – US Growth and employment – can the boon of cheap energy eclipse the collapse of energy investment? My conclusion was that US stock earnings were improving. The majority of Q2 earnings reports have been released and the improvement is broad-based. This article from Pictet – US and Europe Q2 Earnings Results: positive surprises but no game changer which was published last week, looks at both the US and Europe:-

US earnings: strong profit margins and strong financials

Almost all S&P500 (456) companies published their Q2 results. At the sales level, 46% of companies beat their estimates; meanwhile, the corresponding number was 54% at the net profit level. Companies beat their sales and net profit estimates by 1.2% and 2.2% respectively, thus demonstrating strong cost control. Financials were big contributors as sales and net profit surprises came out at +0.5% and 1.5% respectively excluding this sector. Banks (37% of financials) beat sales estimates by 9% sales surprises and 8.4% at the net profit level. This sector’s hit ratio was especially impressive with 92% of reporting companies ahead of the street estimates. Oil and gas companies, which suffered from very large downgrades in 2015, reported earnings in line with expectations. Sales of material-related sectors (basic resources, chemicals, construction materials) suffered from the decline in global commodity prices, but those companies were able to post better than expected net profits. While positive, these numbers were not sufficient to alter the general US earnings picture. Thus the 2015 expected growth remains anaemic at 1.6% for the whole S&P500 and at 9.1% excluding the oil sector.

Q2 GDP came out at 2.3% vs forecasts of 2.6%, nonetheless, this was robust enough to raise expectations of a September rate increase from the FOMC.

European growth – lower oil a benefit?

The European Q2 reporting season is still in train, however, roughly half the earnings reports have now been published; here’s Pictet’s commentary:-

European earnings: positive surprises, strong banks but no substantial currency impact

A little more than half of Stoxx Europe 600 constituents published their numbers. Sales and net earnings surprises came out at 4% and 4.3% respectively. Excluding financials, the beat was less impressive with 0.8% at the sales level and 2.7% at the net income level. Banks had a strong quarter on the back of a rebound in loan volumes and improvements in some peripheral economies. This sector’s published sales and net income were thus 33% and 11% higher respectively than estimates. One of the key questions going into the earnings season was whether the very weak euro would boost European earnings. Unfortunately, this element failed to impact Q2 earning in a meaningful way. Investors counting on the weaker currency to boost European companies’ profit margins were clearly disappointed as this process remains very gradual. Thus, European corporates’ profit margins remain well below their US counterparts (11% versus 15%).

The weakness of the oil price doesn’t appear to have had a significant impact on European growth. This video from Bruegel – The impact of the oil price on the EU economy from early June, suggests that the benefit of lower energy prices may still feed through to the wider European economy, however they conclude that the weakening of prices for industrial materials supports the view that the driver of lower oil prices is a weakening in the global economy rather than the result of a positive supply shock. The views expressed by Lutz Kilian, Professor of Economics at the University of Michigan, are particularly worth considering – he sees the oil price decline as being a marginal benefit to the global economy at best.

When attempting to gain a sense of how economic conditions are changing, I find it useful to visit a country or region. The UK appears to be in reasonably rude health by this measure, however, mainland Europe has been buffeted by another Greek crisis during the last few months, so my visit to Spain, this summer, provided a useful opportunity for observation. The country seems more prosperous than last year – albeit I visited a different province – despite the lingering problems of excess debt and the overhang of housing stock. The informal economy, always more flexible than its regulated relation, seems to be thriving, but most of the seasonal workers are non-Spanish – mainly of North African descent. This suggests that the economic adjustment process has not yet run its course – unemployment benefits are still sufficiently generous to make menial work unattractive, whilst unemployment remains stubbornly high:-

spain-unemployment- youth unemployment rate

Source: Trading Economics

Euro area youth unemployment remains stubbornly high at 22% – down from 24% in 2013 but well above the average for the period prior to the 2008 financial crisis (15%).

If structural reforms are working, Greece should be leading the adjustment process. Wages should be falling and, as the country regains competitiveness, and employment opportunities should rise:-

greece-german unemployment-rate

Source: Trading Economics

The chart above shows Greek vs German unemployment since the introduction of the Euro in 1999. Germany always had structurally lower unemployment and a much smaller “black economy”. During the early part of the 2000’s it suffered from a lack of competitiveness whilst other Eurozone countries benefitted from the introduction of the Euro. Between 2003 and 2005 Germany introduced the Hartz labour reforms. Whilst average earnings in Germany remained stagnant its economic competitiveness dramatically improved.

During the same period Greek wages increased substantially, the Greek government issued a vast swathe of debt and unemployment fell marginally – until the 2008 crisis. Since 2013 the adjustment process has begun to reduce unemployment, yet, with youth unemployment (see chart below) still above 50% and migrants arriving by the thousands, this summer, it appears as though the economic adjustment process has barely begun:-

greece-german youth-unemployment-rate

Source: Trading Economics

Japan – has Abenomics failed?

Japanese Q2 GDP was -1.6% y/y, Q1 was revised to an annualised +4.5% from 3.9% – itself a revision from 2.4%, so there may be room for some improvement in subsequent revisions. The weakness was blamed on lower exports to the US and China – despite policies designed to depreciate the JYP – and a weather related lack of domestic demand. The IMF – Conference Call from 23rd July urged greater efforts to stimulate growth by means of “third arrow” structural reform:-

In terms of the outlook for growth, we project growth at 0.8 percent in 2015 and 1.2 percent in 2016, and potential growth over the medium term under current policies we estimate to be about 0.6 percent. Although this near-term growth forecast looks modest, we would like to emphasize that it is above potential and, therefore, we think that the output gap will be closing by early 2017.

Still, we need to emphasize that the risks are on the downside, including from external developments, weaker growth in the United States and China, and global financial turbulence that could lead to safe haven appreciation of the yen, which would take the wind out of the recovery to some degree.

The key domestic risks include weaker than expected real wage growth in the short term and weak domestic demand and incomplete fiscal and structural reforms over the medium term. These scenarios could result in stagnation or stagflation and trigger a jump in JGB yields.


Conclusions and investment opportunities

I want to start by reviewing the markets; here are three charts comparing equities vs 10yr government bonds – for the Eurozone I’ve used German Bunds as a surrogate:-

Dow - T-Bond 2008-2015

Source: Trading Economics

Eurostoxx - Bunds - 2008-2015

Source: Trading Economics

Nikkei - JGB 2008-2015

Source: Trading Economics

With the exception of the Dow – and its pattern is similar on the S&P500 – the uptrend in stocks hasn’t been broken, nonetheless, a significant stock market correction is overdue. Below is a 10 year monthly chart for the S&P500:-

S&P500 10yr

Source: Barchart.com

US Stocks

Looking at the chart above, a retest of the November 2007 highs (1545) would not be unreasonable – I would certainly view this as a buying opportunity from a shorter term trading perspective. A break of the October 2014 low (1821) may presage a move towards this level, but for the moment I remain neutral. This is a change to my position earlier this year, when I had become more positive on the prospects for US stocks – earnings may have improved, but the recent price action suggests doubts are growing about the ability of US corporates to deliver sufficient multi-year growth to justify the current price-multiples in the face of potential central bank rate increases.

US Bonds

T-Bonds have been a short term beneficiary of “flight to quality” flows. A more gradual move lower in stocks will favour Treasuries but FOMC rate increases will lead to curve-flattening and may completely counter this effect. Should the FOMC relent – and the markets may well test their mettle – it will be a reactive, rather than a proactive move. The market will perceive the rate increases as merely postponed. Longer duration bonds will be less susceptible to the vagaries of the stock market and will offer a more attractive yield by way of recompense when a new tightening cycle begin in earnest.

Europe and Japan – stocks and bonds

Since the recent stock market decline and bond market rally are a reaction to the exogenous impact of China’s economic fortunes, I expect correlation between the major markets to increase – whither the US so goes the world.

The US$ – conundrum

Finally, I feel compelled to mention the recent price action of the US$ Index:-

US Dollar Index

Source: Barchart.com

Having been the beneficiary of significant inflows over the past two years, the US$ has weakened versus its main trading partners since the beginning of 2015, however, the value of the US$ has been artificially reduced over multiple years by the pegging of emerging market currencies to the world’s reserve currency – especially the Chinese RMB. The initial reaction to the RMB devaluation on 12th August was a weakening of the US$ as “risk” trades were unwound. The market correction this week has seen a continuation of this process. Once the deleveraging and risk-off phase has run its course – which may take some weeks – fundamental factors should favour the US$. The FOMC is still more likely to raise rates before other major central banks, whilst concern about the relative fragility of the economies of emerging markets, Japan and Europe all favour a renewed strengthening of the US$.

Swiss National Bank policy and its implications for currencies, assets and central banking


Macro Letter – No 29 – 06-02-2015

Swiss National Bank policy and its implications for currencies, assets and central banking

  • The SNB unpegged from the Euro and sustained balance sheet losses, they will survive
  • The Euro has been helped lower but rumours of a new SNB target are rife
  • The long run appreciation of the Swiss Franc (CHF) is structural and accelerating, the Swiss economy will adjust
  • If G7 central bank balance sheets expanded to Swiss levels, relative to GDP, QE would triple

On Thursday 15th January the Swiss National Bank (SNB) finally, and unexpectedly, threw in the towel and ceased their foreign exchange intervention to maintain a pegged rate of EURCHF 1.20. The cap was introduced in September 2011 after a 28% appreciation in the CHF since the beginning of the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) – from 1.68 to 1.20. After plumbing the depths of 0.85 the EURCHF rate settled at 0.99 – around 18% higher in a single day. This is a huge one day move for a G10 currency and has inflicted collateral damage on leveraged traders, their brokers and those who borrowed in CHF to finance asset purchases in other currencies. Citibank estimates that is has also cost the SNB CHF 60bln. Here is a 10 year chart of EURCHF: –


Source: Bigcharts.com

The Swiss SMI stock Index declined from 9259 to 8400 (-9.2%) whilst the German DAX Index rose from 9933 to 10,032 (+1.1%). Swiss and German bond yields headed lower. Swiss bonds now exhibit negative nominal yields out to 15 years – the table below is from Wednesday 4th February:-

Maturity Yield
1 week -1.35
1 month -1.65
2 month -1.55
3 month -1.4
6 month -1.38
1 year -1.11
2 year -0.823
3 year -0.768
4 year -0.632
5 year -0.505
6 year -0.419
7 year -0.305
8 year -0.257
9 year -0.181
10 year -0.111
15 year -0.024
20 year 0.196


Source: Investing.com

Swiss inflation is running at -0.3% so the real-yields are fractionally better due to the mild deflation seen in the past couple of months. I expect this deflation to deepen and persist.

Thomas Jordan – Chairman of the governing board of the SNB – made the following statement at a press conference which accompanied the SNB decision:-

Discontinuation of the minimum exchange rate

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) has decided to discontinue the minimum exchange rate of CHF 1.20 per euro with immediate effect and to cease foreign currency purchases associated with enforcing it. The minimum exchange rate was introduced during a period of exceptional overvaluation of the Swiss franc and an extremely high level of uncertainty on the financial markets. This exceptional and temporary measure protected the Swiss economy from serious harm. While the Swiss franc is still high, the overvaluation has decreased as a whole since the introduction of the minimum exchange rate. The economy was able to take advantage of this phase to adjust to the new situation. Recently, divergences between the monetary policies of the major currency areas have increased significantly – a trend that is likely to become even more pronounced. The euro has depreciated substantially against the US dollar and this, in turn, has caused the Swiss franc to weaken against the US dollar. In these circumstances, the SNB has concluded that enforcing and maintaining the minimum exchange rate for the Swiss franc against the euro is no longer justified.

Interest rate lowered

At the same time as discontinuing the minimum exchange rate, the SNB will be lowering the interest rate for balances held on sight deposit accounts to –0.75% from 22 January. The exemption thresholds remain unchanged. Further lowering the interest rate makes Swiss-franc investments considerably less attractive and will mitigate the effects of the decision to discontinue the minimum exchange rate. The target range for the three-month Libor is being lowered by 0.5 percentage points to between –1.25% and –0.25%.

Outlook for inflation and the economy

The inflation outlook for Switzerland is low. In December we presented a conditional inflation forecast, which predicts inflation of –0.1% for this year. Since this forecast was published, the oil price has once again fallen significantly, which will further dampen the inflation outlook for a time. However, lower oil prices will stimulate growth globally, and this will influence economic developments in Switzerland positively. Swiss franc exchange rate movements also impact inflation and the economic situation.

The SNB remains committed to its mandate of ensuring medium-term price stability while taking account of economic developments. In concluding, let me emphasise that the SNB will continue to take account of the exchange rate situation in formulating its monetary policy in future. If necessary, it will therefore remain active in the foreign exchange market to influence monetary conditions.

On Tuesday 27th January the CHF fell marginally after SNB Vice President Jean-Pierre Danthine told Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger – Die Presse war voller Spekulationen, that the SNB remains ready to intervene in the currency market. One comment worthy of consideration, with apologies for the “google-translate”, is:-

Q. Does the SNB did not develop a new monetary policy? Just as Denmark, which has tied its currency to the euro in 30 years? Or as Singapore, which manages its currency based on a trade-weighted basket of currencies?

A. Denmark is the euro zone financially and politically closer than Switzerland. The binding to Europe is a long standing. Means that this solution is for Switzerland hardly considered. The arrangement of Singapore is worthy of consideration. But what is decisive is the long-term. Apart from Switzerland and other small and open economies such as Sweden and Norway are done well over the years with a flexible exchange rate.

Rumours of a new unofficial corridor of EURCHF 1.05-1.10 are now circulating – strikingly similar to the level reached prior to the September 2011 peg.

Breaking the Bank

Another rumour to have surfaced after the currency move was that the SNB had become concerned about the size of their balance sheet relative to Swiss GDP. The chart below is from 2013 but it shows the relative scale of SNB QE:-

Central Bank Balance-of-percentage-GDP - source SNB

Source: SNB and snbchf.com

Estimates of the loss sustained by the SNB, due to the appreciation of the CHF, vary, but, rather like countries, central banks don’t tend to “go bust”. The Economist – Broke but never Bust takes up the subject (my emphasis in bold):-

…For one thing central banks are far bigger. Between 2006 and 2014 central-bank balance-sheets in the G7 jumped from $3.4 trillion to $10.5 trillion, or from 10% to 25% of GDP. And the assets they hold have changed. The SNB, aiming to protect Swiss exporters from an appreciating currency, has built up a huge stock of euros, bought with newly created francs.

…Bonds that paid 5% or more ten years ago now yield nothing, and other investments have performed badly (the SNB was stung by a drop in the value of gold in 2013 and cut its dividend to zero). Concerned that its euro holdings might lose value the SNB shocked markets on January 15th by abruptly ending its euro-buying spree.

…With capital of €95 billion supporting a €2.2 trillion balance-sheet, the Eurosystem (the ECB and the national banks that stand behind it) is 23 times levered; a loss of 4% would wipe out its equity. Since two central banks have suffered devastating crunches recently (Tajikistan in 2007, Zimbabwe in 2009) the standard logic seems to apply: capital-eroding losses must be avoided.

But the worries are overdone. For one thing central banks are healthier than they appear. On top of its equity, the Eurosystem holds €330 billion in additional reserves. These funds are designed to absorb losses as assets change in value. Even if the ECB were to buy all available Greek debt—around €50 billion—and Greece were to default, the system would lose just 15% of these reserves; its capital would not be touched.

And even if a central bank’s equity were wiped out it would not go bust in the way high-street lenders do. With liabilities outweighing its assets it might seem unable to pay all its creditors. But even bust central banks retain a priceless asset: the power to print money. Customers’ deposits are a claim on domestic currency, something the bank can create at will. Only central banks that borrow heavily in foreign currencies they cannot mint (as in Tajikistan) or in failing states (Zimbabwe) get into deep trouble.

The Economist goes on to highlight the risk that going “cap in hand” to their finance ministries will weaken central banks’ “independence” and might prove inflationary. In the current environment inflation would be a nice problem for the SNB, or, for that matter, the ECB or BoJ to have. As for the limits of central bank balance sheet expansion, the SNB – at 80% of GDP – have blazed a trail for their larger peers to follow.

Is it the money supply?

A further unofficial explanation of the SNB move concerns the unusually large expansion of Swiss money supply since the GFC. In early January an article from snbchf.comThe Risks on the Rising SNB Money Supply discussed how the SNB might be thinking (my emphasis): –

Since the financial crisis central banks in developed nations increased their balance sheets. The leading one was the American Federal Reserve that increased the monetary base (“narrow money”), followed by the Bank of Japan and recently the ECB. Only partially the extension of narrow money had an effect on banks’ money supply, so called “broad money”. For the Swiss, however, the rising money supply concerns both narrow and broad money. Broad money in Switzerland rises as strong as it did in Spain or Ireland before the financial crisis.

They go on to discuss the global effects of QE:-

…The SNB had the choice between a stronger currency and, secondly, an excessive appreciation of the Swiss assets.  With the introduction of the euro floor, it opted for the second alternative and increased its monetary base massively in order to absorb foreign currency inflows. Implicitly the central bank helped to push up asset prices even further. Hence it was rather foreign demand for Swiss assets that helped to increase the demand for credit and money in the real economy.

…The SNB printed a lot of money especially in the years before and just after the euro introduction until 2003, to weaken the franc and the “presumed slow” Swiss growth. The money increase, however, did not affect credit growth more than it should have: investors preferred other countries to Switzerland to buy assets. Finally the central bank increased interest rates a bit and reduced money supply between 2006 and 2008. Be aware that in 2006/2007 there is a statistical effect with the inclusion of “Raiffeisen” group banks into M3. Since 2009, things have changed M3 is rising with an average of 7.7% per year, while before 2009 it was 3% per year. Banking lending to the private sector is increasing by 3.9% per year while it was 1.7% between 1995 and 2005.

…Since April 2014, money supply M3 has suddenly stopped at around 940 billion CHF. Before it had increased by 80 bln. CHF per year from 626 bln. in each year since 2008.  We explained before that Fed’s QE translated in higher lending in dollars, dollars that found their way into emerging markets. The same thing happens in Switzerland with newly created Swiss francs. Not all of them remained in the Swiss economy, but they were loaned out to clients from Emerging Markets. Hence the second risk does not directly concerns the Swiss economy and the euro, but the relationship between its banks and emerging markets and the risks of a strong franc for banks’ balance sheets.


Here is a chart of M3 and bank lending in Switzerland, the annotation is from snbchf.com:-


Source: SNB and snbchf.com

The SNBs decision to unpeg seems a brutal way to impose discipline on the domestic lending market and an unusual way to test increased bank capital requirements, however, I believe this was the least bad time to escape from the corner into which they had boxed themselves. The recent fall in M3 should put some upward pressure on the CHF – until growth slows and reverses the process.

The SNB said this about money supply and bank lending in their Q4 2014 Quarterly Bulletin (my emphasis):-

Growth in money supply driven by lending

The expansion of the money supply witnessed since the beginning of the financial and economic crisis is mainly attributable to bank lending. An examination of components of the M3 monetary aggregate and its balance sheet counterparts, based on the consolidated balance sheet of the banking sector, shows that approximately 70% of the increase in the M3 monetary aggregate between October 2008 and October 2014 (CHF 311 billion) was attributable to the increase in domestic Swiss franc lending (CHF 216 billion). The remaining 30% of the M3 increase was due in part to households and companies switching their portfolio holdings from securities and foreign exchange into Swiss franc sight deposits.

Stable mortgage lending growth in the third quarter

In the third quarter of 2014 – as in the previous quarter – banks’ mortgage claims, which make up four-fifths of all domestic bank lending, were up 3.8% year-on-year. Mortgage lending growth thus continued to slow, as it has for some time now, despite the fact that mortgage rates have fallen to a historic low. A breakdown by borrower shows that the growth slowdown has taken place in mortgage lending to households as well as companies.

This slower growth in mortgage lending may be attributed to various measures taken since 2012 to restrain the banks’ appetite for risk and strengthen their resilience. These include the banks’ own self-regulation measures, which subject mortgage lending to stricter minimum requirements. Moreover, at the request of the SNB, the Federal Council activated the countercyclical capital buffer in 2013 and increased it this year. This obliges the banks to back their mortgage loans on residential property with additional capital. The SNB’s bank lending survey also indicates that lending standards have been tightened and demand for loans among households and companies has declined.

…Growing ratio of bank lending to GDP

The strong growth in bank lending recorded in recent years is reflected in the ratio of bank loans to nominal GDP. After a sharp rise in the 1980s, this ratio remained largely unchanged until mid-2008. Since the onset of the financial and economic crisis, it has increased again substantially. This increase suggests that banks’ lending activities have supported aggregate demand. However, strong lending growth also entails risks for financial stability. In the past, excessive growth in lending has often been the root cause of later difficulties in the banking industry.

Switzerland’s banking sector is truly multi-national, deposits continue to arrive, despite penal “negative” rates, meanwhile, many CHF bank loans have been made to international clients. The sharp appreciation of the CHF will force the banking sector to make additional provisions for non-performing international loans. Further analysis of the effect of relative money supply growth, between Switzerland and the Eurozone (EZ) on the EURCHF exchange rate, can be found in this post by Frank Shostak – Post Mortem on the Swiss Franc’s Euro-Peg. He makes an interesting “Austrian” case for a weakening of the CHF versus the EUR over-time.

Swiss Francs in the long run

My first ever journey outside the UK was to Switzerland, that was back in 1971 when a pound sterling bought CHF 10.5. The Swiss economy has had to deal with a constantly rising exchange rate ever since. The chart below of the CHF Real Trade-Weighted value shows this most clearly: –


Source: Pictet

This chart only goes up to mid-2013, since then the USDCHF has moved from 0.88 and 0.99 by early January – after the unpegging the rate is near to its mid-point at 0.93. According to the Guardian – What a $7.54 Swiss Big Mac tells us about global currencies – the Swiss currency is now 33% overvalued. Exporters will be hit hard and the financial sector is bound to be damaged by commercial bank lending policies associated with pegging the CHF to a declining EUR. On Monday Bank Julius Baer (BAER.VX) announced plans to cut costs by CHF 100mln, domestic job cuts were also indicated – more institutions are sure to follow their lead. Meanwhile, there are bound to be emerging market borrowers which default. The Swiss economy will slow, exacerbating deflationary forces, but lower prices will improve the purchasing power of the domestic population. Switzerland’s trade balance hit a record high in July 2014 and came close to the same level in November:-


Source: Trading Economics and Swiss Customs

In a recent newsletter – The Swiss Release the Kraken – John Maudlin quoted fellow economist Charles Gave in a tongue in cheek assessment of the SNB’s action:-

They [the SNB] didn’t mind pegging the Swiss franc to the Deutsche mark, but it is becoming more and more obvious that the euro is more a lira than a mark. A clear sign is the decline of the euro against the US dollar.

Mr. Draghi has been trying to talk the euro down for at least a year. This should not come as a surprise. After all, in the old pre-euro days, every time Italy had a problem, the solution was always to devalue.

But the Swiss, not being as smart as the Italians, do not believe in devaluations. You see, in Switzerland they have never believed in the ‘euthanasia of the rentier’, nor have they believed in the Keynesian multiplier of government spending, nor have they accepted that the permanent growth of government spending as a proportion of gross domestic product is a social necessity. The benighted Swiss, just down from their mountains where it was difficult to survive the winters, have a strong Neanderthal bias and have never paid any attention to the luminaries teaching economics in Princeton or Cambridge. Strange as it may seem, they still believe in such queer, outdated notions as sound money, balanced budgets, local democracy, and the need for savings to finance investments. How quaint!

Of course, the Swiss are paying a huge price for their lack of enlightenment. For example, since the move to floating exchange rates in 1971, the Swiss franc has risen from CHF4.3 to the US dollar to CHF0.85 and appreciated from CHF10.5 to the British pound to CHF1.5. Naturally, such a protracted revaluation has destroyed the Swiss industrial base and greatly benefited British producers [not!]. Since 1971, the bilateral ratio of industrial production has gone from 100 to 175…in favor of Switzerland.

And for most of that time Switzerland ran a current account surplus, a balanced budget, and suffered almost no unemployment, all despite the fact that nobody knows the name of a single Swiss politician or central banker (or perhaps because nobody knows a single Swiss politician or central banker, since they have such limited power? And that all these marvelous results come from that one simple fact: their lack of power.)

The last time I looked, the Swiss population had the highest standard of living in the world – another disastrous long-term consequence of not having properly trained economists of the true faith.

Swiss unemployment has been trending higher recently (3.4% in December) and this figure may rise as sectors such as banking and tourism adjust to the new environment, however, this level of unemployment is still enviable by comparison with other developed countries.

The following charts give an excellent insight into the nature of trade in the Swiss economy. Firstly, exports:-


Source: snbchf.com

The importance of the EZ is evident (46.4% excluding UK) however the next chart shows a rather different perspective:-


Source: snbchf.com

The relative importance of the USA is striking – 11% of exports but nearly half of the trade surplus – so too, is the magnitude of the deficit with Germany, in fact, within Europe, only Spain and the UK are export surplus markets.

A closer look at the break-down of Imports and Exports by sector provides an additional dimension:-


Source: snbchf.com

The SNB already highlighted the import of energy as a significant factor – Switzerland’s energy bill is now much lower than it was in July 2014. The export of pharmaceuticals has always been of major importance – many of these products are inherently price inelastic, the rise in the currency will have less impact on Switzerland than it might do on other developed economies.

Conclusion and investment opportunities

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Mark Twain

Contrary to what several commentators have been suggesting, I do not believe the SNB capitulation marks the beginning of the end of central bank omnipotence – they were never that omnipotent in the first place. The size of the SNB balance sheet is also testament to the limits of QE – if the other G7 central banks expand to 80% of GDP the total QE would more than triple from $10.5 trln to $33.6 trln – and what is to say that 80% of GDP is the limit?

Swiss Markets

Switzerland will benefit from a floating currency in the longer term, although the recent abrupt appreciation may lead to a recession – which in turn should reduce upward pressure on the CHF. Criticism of the SNB for creating greater volatility within the Swiss economy is only partially justified, the excessive rise of the CHF effective exchange rate was due to external factors and the SNB felt it needed to be managed, the subsequent rise in the US$ has brought the CHF back to a more realistic level but the current environment of zero interest rate policy adopted by several major central banks has parallels with the conditions seen after the collapse of Bretton Woods.

I believe the SNB anticipates an acceleration in the long term trend rate of appreciation of the CHF. Swiss exports, even to the US, will be impaired but German imports will be cheaper – with a record trade surplus, this is a good time to start the adjustment of market expectations about the value of the CHF going forward. Swiss companies are used to planning within a framework which incorporates a steadily rising value of their currency – now they must anticipate an acceleration in that trend.

The money and bond markets will remain distorted and, in the event of another EZ crisis, the SNB may increase the penalties for access to the “safe-haven” Switzerland represents: and, as indicated, they may intervene again if the capital flows become excessive. 20 year, or longer, Confederation Bonds, alone, offer positive carry, buying call spreads on shorter maturities is a strategy worth considering.

The SMI Index is likely to lag the broader European market, but negative bond yields offer little alternative to stocks and domestic investors will exhibit a renewed cognizance of the risk of foreign currency investments. The SMI Index, at around 8550, is only 7.6% below the level it was trading prior to the SNB announcement. Swiss stocks will undoubtedly benefit from any export led European economic recovery. Meanwhile, the relative strength of the US economy appears in tact – the Philadelphia Fed Leading Indexes for December – released earlier this week – suggest economic expansion in 49 states over the next six months.

Eurozone Markets

The EZ has already been aided by the departure of its strongest “shadow” member; combined with the ECB’s Expanded Asset Purchase Programme (EAPP) this should drive the EUR lower. European stocks have already taken heart, fuelled by the new liquidity and international competitiveness.

European bond spreads continue to compress. Fears of peripheral countries exiting the single currency area will provide volatility but for the major countries – France, Italy and Spain – any weakness is still a buying opportunity, but at these, often negative real-yields, they should be viewed as a “trading” rather than an “investment” asset.

Greece, Germany and the ECB: and what it means for Bonds, Stocks and the Euro


Macro Letter – No 27 – 9-1-2015

Greece, Germany and the ECB and what it means for Bonds, Stocks and the Euro

  • Greek elections this month have rekindled concern about the future of the Euro
  • Germany is beginning to consider the ramifications of a Greek exit from the EMU
  • European bonds – excluding Greece – continue to rise as EUR/USD falls
  • The ECB needs to make good on its promise to do “whatever it takes” 


Greece is back in the spotlight amid renewed fears of a break-up of the Euro as the Syriza party show a 3.1% lead over the incumbent New Democracy in the latest Rass opinion poll – 4th January. The average of the last 20 polls – dating back to 15th December shows Syriza with a lead of 4.74% capturing 31.9% of the vote.

These election concerns have become elevated since the publication of an article in Der Spiegel Grexit Grumblings: Germany Open to Possible Greek Euro Zone Exit -suggesting that German Chancellor Merkel is now of the opinion that the Eurozone (EZ) can survive without Greece. Whilst Steffen Seibert – Merkle’s press spokesman – has since stated that the “political leadership” isn’t working on blueprints for a Greek exit, the idea that Greece might be “let go” has captured the imagination of the markets.

A very different view, of the potential damage a Greek exit might cause to the EZ, is expressed by Market Watch – Greek euro exit would be ‘Lehman Brothers squared’: economist quoting Barry Eichengreen, speaking at the American Economic Association conference, who described a Greek exit from the Euro:-

In the short run, it would be Lehman Brothers squared.

Writing at the end of last month the Economist – The euro’s next crisis described the expectation of a Syriza win in the forthcoming elections:-

In its policies Syriza represents, at best, uncertainty and contradiction and at worst reckless populism. On the one hand Mr Tsipras has recanted from his one-time hostility to Greece’s euro membership and toned down his more extravagant promises. Yet, on the other, he still thinks he can tear up the conditions imposed by Greece’s creditors in exchange for two successive bail-outs. His reasoning is partly that the economy is at last recovering and Greece is now running a primary budget surplus (ie, before interest payments); and partly that the rest of the euro zone will simply give in as they have before. On both counts he is being reckless.

In theory a growing economy and a primary surplus may help a country repudiate its debts because it is no longer dependent on capital inflows.

The complexity of the political situation in Greece is such that the outcome of the election, scheduled for 25th January, will, almost certainly, be a coalition. Syriza might form an alliance with the ultra-right wing Golden Dawn who have polled an average of 6.49% in the last 20 opinion polls, who are also anti-Austerity, but they would be uncomfortable bedfellows in most other respects. Another option might be the Communist Party of Greece who have polled 5.8% during the same period. I believe the more important development for the financial markets during the last week has been the change of tone in Germany.

The European bond markets have taken heed, marking down Greek bonds whilst other peripheral countries have seen record low 10 year yields. 10 year Bunds have also marched inexorably upwards. European stock markets, by contrast, have been somewhat rattled by the Euro Break-up spectre’s return to the feast. It may be argued that they are also reacting to concerns about collapsing oil prices, the geo-political stand-off with Russia, the continued slow-down in China and other emerging markets and general expectations of lower global growth. In the last few sessions many stock markets have rallied strongly, mainly on hopes of aggressive ECB intervention.

Unlike the Economist, who are concerned about EZ contagion, Brookings – A Greek Crisis but not a Euro Crisis sees a Euro break-up as a low probability:-

A couple of years ago the prospect of a Syriza-led government caused serious tremors in European markets because of the fear that an extremely bad outcome in Greece was possible, such as its exit from the Euro system, and that this would create contagion effects in Portugal and other weaker nations. Fortunately, Europe is in a much better situation now to withstand problems in Greece and to avoid serious ramifications for other struggling member states. The worst of the crisis is over in the weak nations and the system as a whole is better geared to support those countries if another wave of market fears arise.

It is quite unlikely that Greece will end up falling out of the Euro system and no other outcome would have much of a contagion effect within Europe. Even if Greece did exit the Euro, there is now a strong possibility that the damage could be confined largely to Greece, since no other nation now appears likely to exit, even in a crisis.

Neither Syriza nor the Greek public (according to every poll) wants to pull out of the Euro system and they have massive economic incentives to avoid such an outcome, since the transition would almost certainly plunge Greece back into severe recession, if not outright depression. So, a withdrawal would have to be the result of a series of major miscalculations by Syriza and its European partners. This is not out of the question, but the probability is very low, since there would be multiple decision points at which the two sides could walk back from an impending exit.

I think The Guardian – Angela Merkel issues New Year’s warning over rightwing Pegida group – provides an insight into the subtle change in Germany’s stance:-

German chancellor Angela Merkel in a New Year’s address deplored the rise of a rightwing populist movement, saying its leaders have “prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts”.

In her strongest comments yet on the so-called Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida), she spoke of demonstrators shouting “we are the people”, co-opting a slogan from the rallies that led up to the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago.

“But what they really mean is: you are not one of us, because of your skin colour or your religion,” Merkel said, according to a pre-released copy of a televised speech she was to due to deliver to the nation on Wednesday evening.

“So I say to all those who go to such demonstrations: do not follow those who have called the rallies. Because all too often they have prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts.”

Concern about domestic politics in Germany and rising support for the ultra right-wing Pegida party makes the prospect of allowing Greece to leave the Euro look like the lesser of two evils. Yet a Greek exit and default on its Euro denominated obligations would destabilise the European banking system leading to a spate of deleveraging across the continent. In order to avert this outcome, German law makers have already begun to soften their “hard-line” approach, extending the olive branch of a potential renegotiation of the terms and maturity of outstanding Greek debt with whoever wins the forthcoming election. I envisage a combination of debt forgiveness, maturity extension and restructuring of interest payments – perish the thought that there be a sovereign default.

Carry Concern

Last month the BIS – Financial stability risks: old and new caused alarm when it estimated non-domestic US$ denominated debt of non-banks to be in the region of $9trln:-

Total outstanding US dollar-denominated debt of non-banks located outside the United States now stands at more than $9 trillion, having grown from $6 trillion at the beginning of 2010. The largest increase has been in corporate bonds issued by emerging market firms responding to the surge in demand by yield-hungry fixed income investors.

Within the EZ the quest for yield has been no less rabid, added to which, risk models assume zero currency risk for EZ financial institutions that hold obligations issued in Euro’s. The preferred trade for many European banks has been to purchase their domestic sovereign bonds because of the low capital requirements under Basel II. Allowing banks to borrow short and lend long has been tacit government policy for alleviating bank balance sheet shortfalls, globally, in every crisis since the great moderation, if not before. The recent rise in Greek bond yields is therefore a concern.

An additional concern is that the Greek government bond yield curve has inverted dramatically in the past month. The three year yields have risen most precipitously. This is a problem for banks which borrowed in the medium maturity range in order to lend longer. Fortunately most banks borrow at very much shorter maturity, nonetheless the curve inversion represents a red flag : –

Date 3yr 10yr Yield curve
14-Oct 4.31 7.05 2.74
29-Dec 10.14 8.48 -1.66
06-Jan 13.81 9.7 -4.11


Source: Investing.com

Over the same period Portuguese government bonds have, so far, experienced little contagion:-

Date 3yr 10yr Yield curve
14-Oct 1.03 2.56 1.53
29-Dec 1.06 2.75 1.69
06-Jan 0.92 2.56 1.64


Source: Investing.com

EZ Contagion

Greece received Euro 245bln in bail-outs from the Troika; if they should default, the remaining EZ 17 governments will have to pick up the cost. Here is the breakdown of state guarantees under the European Financial Stability Facility:-


Country Guarantee Commitments Eur Mlns Percentage
Austria 21,639.19 2.78%
Belgium 27,031.99 3.47%
Cyprus 1,525.68 0.20%
Estonia 1,994.86 0.26%
Finland 13,974.03 1.79%
France 158,487.53 20.32%
Germany 211,045.90 27.06%
Greece 21,897.74 2.81%
Ireland 12,378.15 1.59%
Italy 139,267.81 17.86%
Luxembourg 1,946.94 0.25%
Malta 704.33 0.09%
Netherlands 44,446.32 5.70%
Portugal 19,507.26 2.50%
Slovakia 7,727.57 0.99%
Slovenia 3,664.30 0.47%
Spain 92,543.56 11.87%
EZ 17 779,783.14 100%

Assuming the worst case scenario of a complete default – which seems unlikely even given the par less state of Greek finances – this would put Italy on the hook for Eur 43bln, Spain for Eur 28.5bln, Portugal for Eur 6bln and Ireland for Eur 3.8bln.

The major European Financial Institutions may have learned their lesson, about over-investing in the highest yielding sovereign bonds, during the 2010/2011 crisis – according to an FT interview with JP Morgan Cazenove, exposure is “limited” – but domestic Greek banks are exposed. The interconnectedness of European bank exposures are still difficult to gauge due to the lack of a full “Banking Union”. Added to which, where will these cash-strapped governments find the money needed to meet this magnitude of shortfall?

The ECBs response

ECB Balance Sheet - Bloomberg

Source: Bloomberg

In an interview with Handelsblatt last week, ECB president Mario Draghi reiterated the bank’s commitment to expand their balance sheet from Eur2 trln to Eur3 trln if conditions require it. Given that Eurostat published a flash estimate of Euro area inflation for December this week at -0.2% vs +0.3% in November, I expect the ECB to find conditions requiring a balance sheet expansion sooner rather than later. Reuters – ECB considering three approaches to QE – quotes the Dutch newspaper Het Financieele Dagbad expecting one of three actions:-

…one option officials are considering is to pump liquidity into the financial system by having the ECB itself buy government bonds in a quantity proportionate to the given member state’s shareholding in the central bank.

A second option is for the ECB to buy only triple-A rated government bonds, driving their yields down to zero or into negative territory. The hope is that this would push investors into buying riskier sovereign and corporate debt.

The third option is similar to the first, but national central banks would do the buying, meaning that the risk would “in principle” remain with the country in question, the paper said.

The issue of “monetary financing” – forbidden under Article 123 of the Lisbon Treaty – has still to be resolved, so Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) in respect of EZ government bonds are still not a viable policy option. That leaves Covered bonds – a market of Eur 2.6trln of which only around Eur 600bln are eligible for the ECB to purchase – and Asset Backed Securities (ABS) with around Eur 400bln of eligible securities. These markets are simply not sufficiently liquid for the ECB to expand its balance sheet by Eur 1trln. In 2009 they managed to purchase Eur 60bln of Covered bonds but only succeeded in purchasing Eur 16.9bln of the second tranche – the bank had committed to purchase up to Eur 40bln.

Since its inception in July 2009 the ECB have purchased just shy of Eur 108bln of Covered bonds and ABS: –

Security Primary Secondary Total Eur Mlns Inception Date
ABS N/A N/A 1,744 21/11/2014
Covered Bonds 1 N/A N/A 28,817 02/07/2009 *
Covered Bonds 2 6015 10375 16,390 03/11/2011
Covered Bonds 3 5245 24387 29,632 20/10/2014
Total 76,583
* Original purchase Eur 60bln

Source: ECB

These amounts are a drop in the ocean. If the ECB is not permitted to purchase government bonds what other options does it have? I believe the alternative is to follow the lead set by the Bank of Japan (BoJ) in purchasing corporate bonds and common stocks. To date the BoJ has only indulged in relatively minor “qualitative” easing; the ECB has an opportunity to by-pass the fragmented European banking system and provide finance and permanent capital directly to the European corporate sector.

Over the past year German stocks has been relatively stable whilst Greek equities, since the end of Q2, have declined. Assuming Greece does not vote to leave the Euro, Greek and other peripheral European stocks will benefit if the ECB should embark on its own brand of Qualitative and Quantitative Easing (QQE):-

Athens_vs_DAX_one_year bloomberg

Source: Bloomberg               Note:      Blue = Athens SE Composite               Purple = DAX

It is important to make a caveat at this juncture. The qualitative component of the BoJ QQE programme has been derisory in comparison to their buying of JGBs; added to which, whilst the socialisation of the European corporate sector is hardly political anathema to many European politicians it is a long way from “lending at a penal rate in exchange for good collateral” – the traditional function of a central bank in times of crisis.

Conclusion and investment opportunities

European Government Bonds

Whilst the most likely political outcome is a relaxation of Article 123 of the Lisbon Treaty, allowing the ECB, or the national Central Bank’s to purchase EZ sovereign bonds, much of the favourable impact on government bond yields is already reflected in the price. 10 year JGBs – after decades of BoJ buying – yield 30bp, German Bunds – without the support of the ECB – yield 46bp. Aside from Greek bonds, peripheral members of the EZ have seen their bond yields decline over the past month. If the ECB announce OMT I believe the bond rally will be short-lived.

European Stocks

Given the high correlation between stocks markets in general and developed country stock markets in particular, it is dangerous to view Europe in isolation. The US market is struggling with a rising US$ and collapsing oil price. These factors have undermined confidence in the short-term. The US market is also looking to the Europe, since a further slowdown in Europe, combined with weakness in emerging markets act as a drag on US growth prospects. On a relative value basis European stocks are moderately expensive. The driver of performance, as it has been since 2008, will be central bank policy. A 50% increase in the size of the ECB balance sheet will be supportive for European stocks, as I have mentioned in previous posts, Ireland is my preferred investment, with a bias towards the real-estate sector.

The Euro

Whilst the EUR/USD rate continues to decline the Nominal Effective Exchange Rate as calculated by the ECB, currently at 98, is around the middle of its range (81 – 114) since the inception of the currency and still some way above the recent lows seen in July 2012 when it reached 94. The October 2000 low of 81 is far away.

If a currency war is about to break-out between the major trading nations, the Euro doesn’t look like the principal culprit. I expect the Euro to continue to decline, except, perhaps against the JPY. Against the GBP a short EUR exposure will be less volatile but it will exhibit a more political dimension since the UK is a natural safe haven when an EZ crisis is brewing.