Central Bank balance sheet adjustment – a path to enlightenment?

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Macro Letter – No 79 – 16-6-2017

Central Bank balance sheet adjustment – a path to enlightenment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Central_Bank_Balance_Sheets_-_Yardeni_May_2017

 Source: Yardeni Research, Haver Analytics

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

China FX reserves and stocks 2014 - 2017

Source: Trading Economics

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

An historical perspective

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

Federal_Reserve_Balance_Sheet_-_History_-_St_Louis

Source: Federal Reserve, Haver Analytics

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

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

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

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

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

BoE_Balance_Sheet_to_GDP_since_1701_-_BoE_and_FRED

Source: Federal Reserve, Bank of England

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

UK-equities-1700-2012 Stockmarket Almanac

Source: The Stock Almanac

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adjustment without tightening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commercial_Bank_Loan_Creation_US

Source: Federal Reserve, Zero Hedge

The global perspective

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

Fulcrum_Projections_for_tapering

Source: FT, Fulcrum Asset Management

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

Fulcrum CB Liquidity Injections - March 2017 forecast

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

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

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

Fulcrum Estimates of CB Balance sheets - March 2017 

Source: Haver Analytics, Fulcrum Asset Management

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

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

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

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

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

centralbankbalancesheetgdpratios

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

Source: National Inflation Association

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

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

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

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

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

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US 30yr Swaps have yielded less than Treasuries since 2008 – does it matter?

US 30yr Swaps have yielded less than Treasuries since 2008 – does it matter?

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Macro Letter – No 74 – 07-04-2017

US 30yr Swaps have yielded less than Treasuries since 2008 – does it matter?

  • With 30yr Swap yields below T-bond yields arbitrage should be possible
  • Higher capital requirements have increased the cost of holding T-bonds
  • Central clearing has reduced counterparty risk for investors in swaps
  • Maintaining swap market liquidity will be a critical role for Central Banks in the next crisis

Global investors are drawn to US fixed income markets, among other reasons, because of the depth of liquidity. The long term investor, wishing to match assets against liabilities would traditionally purchase US Treasury bonds (T-bonds). This pattern of investment has not changed, but the yield on longer dated Treasuries has become structurally higher than the yield on interest rate swaps (IRS).

In a normally functioning market the lowest yield for a given maturity is usually the yield on government bonds – the so called risk free rate – however, regulatory and monetary policy changes have undermined this relationship.

Writing in March 2016 for Forbes, Darrell Duffie of Stanford University – Why Are Big Banks Offering Less Liquidity To Bond Markets?  described the part of the story which relates to the repo market:-

The new Supplementary Leverage Ratio (SLR) rule changes everything for the repo market. For the largest U.S. banks, the SLR, meant to backstop risk-adjusted capital requirements, now requires 6% capital for all assets, regardless of their risk. For a typical large dealer bank, the SLR is a binding constraint and therefore pushes up the bank’s required equity for a $100 million repo trade by as much as for any other new position of the same gross size, for example a risky real estate loan of $100 million. This means that the bank’s required profit on a repo trade must be in the vicinity of the profit on a risky real estate loan in order for the repo trade to be viable for shareholder value maximization. That profit hurdle has become almost prohibitive for repo intermediation, so banks are providing dramatically less liquidity to the repo market. As a result, the spread between repo rates paid by non-banks and by banks has roughly tripled. The three-month treasury-secured repo rates paid by non-bank dealers are now even higher than three-month unsecured borrowing rates paid by banks, a significant market distortion. Trade volume in the bank-to-non-bank dealer market for U.S. government securities repo is less than half of 2012 levels.

Other factors that are distorting the Bond/Swap relationship include tighter macro prudential regulation and reduced dealer balance sheet capacity. Another factor is the activities of companies issuing debt.

Companies exchange floating rates of interest for fixed rates. When a company sells fixed-rate debt, it can use a swap to offset the payment of a bond coupon and pay a lower floating rate. Heavy corporate issuance can depress the spread between swaps and bonds. This can be exacerbated when dealers are swamped by sales of T-bonds. A combination of heavy company issuance being swapped and higher dealer inventories of Treasury debt, might explain why swap spreads turn negative over shorter periods.

Back in 2015, when the 10yr spread turned sharply negative, Deutsche Bank estimated that the long term fair value for swaps was 3bp higher than the same maturity T-bond. But negative spreads have continued. A side effect has been to raise the cost of US government financing, but Federal Reserve buying has probably more than compensated for this.

The declining volume of transactions in the repo market is one factor, the declining liquidity in the T-bond market is another. The quantitative easing policies of the Federal Reserve have lowered yields but they have also lowered liquidity of benchmark issues.

The final factor to consider is the demand for leveraged investment. One solution to the problem of matching assets versus liabilities is to leverage one’s investment in order to generate the requisite yield. This does, however, dramatically increase the risk profile of one’s portfolio. The easiest market in which to leverage a fixed income investment remains the IRS market but, as a white paper published last May – PNC – Why are swap rates trading below US Treasury Rates? highlights, the cost of leverage in the swap market has, if anything, increased more than in the bond repo market:-

The regulatory requirement for central clearing of most interest rate swaps (except for swaps with commercial end users) has removed counterparty risk from such swap contracts. Regulatory hedging costs and balance sheet constraints have also come into effect over the past few years. These rules have significantly reduced the market-making activity of swap dealers and increased the cost of leverage for such dealers. This is evidenced in the repo rates versus the Overnight Interest Swap* (OIS) basis widening. This basis widening strips rate expectations (OIS) from the pure funding premium (repo) rates. Swaps and Treasuries are less connected than in the past. The spread between them is a reflection of the relative demand for securities, which need to be financed, versus derivatives, which do not.

*The LIBOR-OIS Spread: The difference between LIBOR and OIS is called the LIBOR-OIS Spread and is deemed to be the health taking into consideration risk and liquidity. (An Overnight Index Swap (OIS) is a swap where the floating payments are based on the overnight Federal Funds Rate.)

For a more nuanced explanation, the publication, last month by Urban J. Jermann of the Wharton School, of a paper entitled – Negative Swap Spreads and Limited Arbitrage – is most insightful. Here are his conclusions based on the results of his arbitrage model:-

Negative swap spreads are inconsistent with an arbitrage-free environment. In reality, arbitrage is not costless. I have presented a model where specialized dealers trade swaps and bonds of different maturities. Costs for holding bonds can put a price wedge between bonds and swaps. I show a limiting case with very high bond holding costs, expected swap spreads should be negative. In this case, no term premium is required to price swaps, and this results in a significantly lower fixed swap rate. As a function of the level of bond holding costs, the model can move between this benchmark and the arbitrage-free case. The quantitative analysis of the model shows that under plausible holding costs, expected swap spreads are consistent with the values observed since 2008. Demand effects would operate in the model but are not explicitly required for these results.

My model can capture relatively rich interest rate dynamics. Conditional on the short rate, the model predicts a negative link between the term spread and the swap spread. The paper has presented some empirical evidence consistent with this property.

The chart below, which covers the period from 1999 up to Q3 2015, shows the evolution before and after the Great Financial Crisis. It is worth noting that the absolute yield may be an influence on this relationship too: as yields have risen in the past year, 30yr swap spreads have become less negative, 5yr and 10yr spreads have reverted to positive territory:-

US Swap Spreads Zero Hedge Goldman Sachs

Source: ZeroHedge, Goldman Sachs

This table shows the current rates and spreads (6-4-2017):-

Bond_-_Swap_Spread_6-4-17

Source: Investing.com, The Financials.com

Conclusion and investment opportunity

The term “Risk-Free Rate” has always been suspect to my mind. As an investor, one seeks the highest return for the lowest risk. How different investors define risk varies of course, but, in public markets, illiquidity is usually high on the list of risks for which an investor would wish to be paid. If longer dated US T-bonds trade at a structurally higher yield than IRS’s, it is partly because they are perceived to lack their once vaunted liquidity. Dealers hold lower inventories of bonds, repo volumes have collapsed and central counterparty clearing of swaps has vastly reduced the counterparty risks of these, derivative, instruments. Added to this, as Jermann points out in his paper, frictional costs and uncertainty, about capital requirements and funding availability, make arbitrage between swaps and T-bonds far less clear cut.

When the German bond market collapsed during the unification crisis of the late 1980’s, it was Bund futures rather than Bunds which were preferred by traders. They offered liquidity and central counterparty clearing: and they did not require a repurchase agreement to set up the trade.

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

At its heart, the Great Financial Crisis revolved around a drying up of liquidity in multiple financial markets simultaneously. Tightening of regulation and increases in capital requirements since the crisis has permanently reduced liquidity in many of these markets. Meanwhile, increasingly sophisticated technology has increased the speed at which liquidity provision can be withdrawn.

It behoves the Federal Reserve to become an active participant in the IRS market. Control of the swap market is likely to be the key to maintaining market stability, come the next crisis. IRS’s, replete with their leveraged investors, have assumed the mantle which was once the preserve of the US Treasury market.

In previous crises the “flight to quality” effect was substantial, in the next, with such a small free float of actively traded T-bonds, which are not already owned by the Federal Reserve, the effect is likely to be much greater. The latest FOMC Minutes suggest the Fed may turn its attention towards reducing the size of its balance sheet but the timing is still unclear and the first asset disposals are likely to be Mortgage Backed Securities rather than T-bonds.

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

Equity valuation in a de-globalising world

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Macro Letter – No 68 – 13-01-2017

Equity valuation in a de-globalising world

  • The Federal Reserve will raise rates in the coming year
  • The positive Yield Gap will vanish but equity markets should still rise
  • After an eight year bull market equities are vulnerable to negative shocks
  • A value based investment approach is to be favoured even in the current environment

In this Macro Letter I review stock market valuation. I conclude with some general recommendations but the main purpose of my letter is to investigate different methods of valuation and consider the benefits and dangers of diversification. I begin by looking at the US market and the prospects for the US economy. Then I turn to global equity markets, where I consider the benefits and perils of diversification into Frontier stocks. I go on to review global industry sectors, before returning to examine the long term value to be found in developed markets. I finish by looking at the recent outperformance of Value versus Growth.

US Stocks and the Yield Gap

The Equity bull market is entering its eighth year and for US stocks this is the second longest bull-market since WWII – the longest being, between 1987 and 2000. The current bull-market has differed from the 1987-2000 period in that interest rates have fallen throughout the period. Bond yields have also declined to historically low levels. The Yield Gap – the premium of dividend yields over bond yields – which had been inverted since the mid-1950’s, turned positive once more. The chart below shows the yield of the S&P500 and 10yr T-Bonds since 1900:-

yield-gap-in-a-longer-term-context-jpeg

Source: Reuters

What this chart shows most clearly is that the return to a positive Yield Gap has been a function of falling bond yields rather than any substantial rise in dividend pay-out.

The chart below looks at the relationships between the Yield Gap and the real return on US 10yr Treasuries and S&P500 dividends since 1930 – I have used the Implicit Price Deflator as the measure of inflation:-

us_yield_gap_-_real_bond_yld_-_real_div_yld

Source: Multpl, St Louis Federal Reserve

The decline in the real dividend yield was a response to rising inflation from the late 1950’s onwards. The return to a positive Yield Gap has been a recent phenomenon. The average Yield Gap since 1900 is -0.51%, since 1930 it has been -1.17%. It has been below its long-run average at -0.37% since 2008. The executive officers of US corporations will continue to favour share buy-backs over increased dividends – I do not expect dividend yields to keep pace with any pick-up in inflation in the near-term, but, share buy-backs will continue to support stocks in general.

S&P 500 forecasts for 2017

What does this mean for the return on the S&P 500 in 2017? According to Bloomberg, the consensus forecast is for a rise of 4% but the range of forecasts is a rather narrow +1.3% to +8.3%. As at the close on 11th January we were already up 1.6% from the 30th December close.

Corporate earnings continue to rise although the pace of increase has moderated. Factset Earning Insight – January 6th – makes the following observations:-

Earnings Growth: For Q4 2016, the estimated earnings growth rate for the S&P 500 is 3.0%. If the index reports earnings growth for Q4, it will mark the first time the index has seen year-over-year growth in earnings for two consecutive quarters since Q4 2014 and Q1 2015.

Earnings Revisions: On September 30, the estimated earnings growth rate for Q4 2016 was 5.2%. Ten of the eleven sectors have lower growth rates today (compared to September 30) due to downward revisions to earnings estimates, led by the Materials sector.

Earnings Guidance: For Q4 2016, 77 S&P 500 companies have issued negative EPS guidance and 34 S&P 500 companies have issued positive EPS guidance.

Valuation: The forward 12-month P/E ratio for the S&P 500 is 17.1. This P/E ratio is above the 5-year average (15.1) and the 10-year average (14.4).

Earnings Scorecard: As of today (with 4% of the companies in the S&P 500 reporting actual results for Q4 2016), 73% of S&P 500 companies have beat the mean EPS estimate and 36% of S&P 500 companies have beat the mean sales estimate.

…For Q1 2017, analysts are projecting earnings growth of 11.0% and revenue growth of 7.9%.

For Q2 2017, analysts are projecting earnings growth of 10.5% and revenue growth of 6.0%.

For all of 2017, analysts are projecting earnings growth of 11.5% and revenue growth of 5.9%.

…At the sector level, the Energy (33.2) sector has the highest forward 12-month P/E ratio, while the Telecom Services (14.2) and Financials (14.2) sectors have the lowest forward 12-month P/E ratios. Nine sectors have forward 12-month P/E ratios that are above their 10-year averages, led by the Energy (33.2 vs. 17.9) sector. One sector (Telecom Services) has a forward 12-month P/E ratio that is below the 10-year average (14.2 vs. 14.6).

Other indicators, which should be supportive for the US economy, include the ISM – PMI Index which is closely correlated to the business cycle. It came in at 54. 7 the highest since November 2014. Here is a 10 year chart:-

united-states-business-confidence-10yr

Source: Trading Economics, Institute for Supply Management

A shorter-term indicator for the US economy is the Citigroup Economic Surprise Index – CESI. The chart below suggests that the surprise caused by Trump’s presidential victory is still gathering momentum:-

citi_cesi_index_-_january_2017_-_yardeni

Source: Yardeni, Citigroup

With both the ISM and the CESI indices rising, even the most bearish of macro-economist is likely to be “sceptically positive” on the US economy and this should be supportive for the US stock market.

Global Stocks

I have focussed on the US stock market because of the close correlation between the US and other major stock markets around the world.

As the world becomes less globalised, or as one moves away from the major stock markets, the diversification benefits of a global portfolio, such as the one Andrew Craig describes in his book “How to Own the World”, becomes more enticing. Andrew recommends diversification by asset class, but even a diversified equity portfolio – without the addition of bonds, commodities, real-estate and infrastructure – can offer an enhanced Sharpe Ratio. The table below looks at the three year monthly correlations of emerging and frontier stock markets with a correlation of less than 0.40 to the US market:-

Country Correlations < 0.40 to US stocks – 36 months
Malawi -0.12
Iraq -0.12
Panama -0.01
Cambodia 0.00
Rwanda 0.01
Venezuela 0.01
Uganda 0.01
Trinidad and Tobago 0.02
Tunisia 0.02
Botswana 0.07
Mauritius 0.07
Tanzania 0.08
Palestine 0.09
Laos 0.09
Ghana 0.10
Zambia 0.10
Peru 0.11
Bahrain 0.13
Jordan 0.15
Cote D’Ivoire 0.15
Sri Lanka 0.16
Argentina 0.17
Nigeria 0.17
Qatar 0.21
Kenya 0.21
Pakistan 0.24
Jamaica 0.24
Oman 0.25
Colombia 0.27
Saudi Arabia 0.31
Kuwait 0.36
China 0.37
Bermuda 0.38
Egypt 0.38
Vietnam 0.39

Source: Investment Frontier

Many of these stock markets are illiquid or suffer from investment restrictions: but here you will find some of the fastest growing economies in the world. These correlations look beguilingly low but remember that during broad-based market declines short-term correlations tend to rise – the illusory nature of liquidity drives this process. The price of a financial asset is driven by investment flows, cognitive behavioural biases drive investment decisions. Herd instinct rises dramatically when fear replaces greed.

Industry Sectors

The major stock markets also offer opportunities. Looking globally by industry sector there are some attractive longer-term value propositions. The table below ranks the major markets by sector as at 30th December 2016. The sectors have been sorted by trailing P/E ratio (mining and alternative energy P/E data is absent but by other measures mining is relatively cheap):-

Industry Sector PE PC PB PS DY
Real Est Serv 11.2 14.9 1 2.2 2.70%
Auto 12.1 5.7 1.4 0.6 2.50%
Banks 13.8 9.6 1.1 3.30%
Life Insur 14.2 6.4 1.1 0.7 3.00%
Electricity 14.9 5.6 1.3 1.1 4.00%
Forest & Paper 15.1 7.1 1.6 0.9 2.90%
Nonlife Ins 16.2 10.4 1.3 1 2.40%
Financial Serv 16.7 13.8 1.8 2.3 2.20%
Telecom (fxd) 17.5 5.5 2.3 1.4 4.20%
Travel & Leisure 17.6 9.1 2.9 1.4 2.10%
Tech HW & Equ 18.3 10.7 3 1.8 2.30%
Chemicals 18.8 10.1 2.4 1.3 2.60%
Household Gds 18.8 15 2.8 1.7 2.40%
Gen Ind 19 11.3 1.9 1.1 2.40%
REITs 20.4 16.7 1.7 7.7 4.50%
Construction 20.9 11.4 1.9 0.9 2.10%
Telecom (mob) 21.4 5.6 1.9 1.5 3.30%
Tobacco 21.5 21.1 9.8 4.9 3.60%
Media 21.6 10.9 2.9 2 2.10%
Food Retail 21.6 10.2 2.8 0.4 2.00%
Eltro & Elect Equ 21.7 12.2 2.2 1 1.70%
Pharma & Bio 22.4 16.3 3.4 3.5 2.30%
Food Prod 23.2 14.3 2.6 1.2 2.20%
Healthcare 23.7 13.1 3.2 1.4 1.10%
Leisure Gds 23.9 8.4 2 1.1 1.20%
Inds Transport 23.9 10.4 2.5 1.3 2.50%
Aero & Def 23.9 14.9 5 1.3 2.10%
Inds Eng 24.6 12.4 2.5 1.1 2.00%
Personal Gds 24.7 16.8 4.3 2 2.00%
Gen Retail 25.8 14 4.2 1 1.70%
Support Serv 26.4 11.9 2.8 1.1 1.90%
Beverages 27 14.9 4.2 2.4 2.70%
SW & Comp Serv 27.3 15.9 4.5 3.8 1.10%
Oil Service 73.9 11.8 1.9 1.7 3.70%
Oil&Gas Prod 116.9 8.2 1.4 1 3.10%
Inds Metal 165.7 7.7 1.1 0.7 2.40%
Mining 8.9 1.6 1.5 1.90%
Alt Energy 10.5 1.7 0.9 1.20%

Source: Star Capital

A number of sectors have been out of favour since 2008 and may remain so in 2017 but it is useful to know where under-performance can be found.

Developed Market Opportunities

At a country level there is better long-term valuation to be found outside the US, even among the developed countries. Here is Star Capital’s 10 to 15 year total annual return forecast for the major markets and regions:-

Country CAPE Forecast PB Forecast ø Forecast
Italy 12.7 9.10% 1.2 10.40% 9.70%
Spain 11.7 9.70% 1.4 8.80% 9.30%
United Kingdom 14.8 8.00% 1.8 7.20% 7.60%
France 18.3 6.60% 1.6 8.10% 7.30%
Australia 16.8 7.10% 2 6.60% 6.90%
Germany 18.6 6.40% 1.8 7.40% 6.90%
Japan 24.9 4.40% 1.3 9.40% 6.90%
Netherlands 19.8 6.00% 1.8 7.20% 6.60%
Canada 20.5 5.70% 1.9 6.90% 6.30%
Sweden 20.6 5.70% 2.1 6.20% 5.90%
Switzerland 21.5 5.40% 2.4 5.30% 5.30%
United States 26.4 4.00% 2.9 4.10% 4.00%
Emerging Markets 14 8.40% 1.6 7.90% 8.20%
Developed Europe 16.6 7.20% 1.8 7.40% 7.30%
World AC 20.8 5.60% 2 6.70% 6.20%
Developed Markets 21.9 5.30% 2 6.50% 5.90%

Source: Star Capital, Bloomberg, Reuters

I have sorted this data based on Star Capital’s composite annual return forecast. The first three countries, Italy, Spain and the UK, all face uncertainty linked to the future of the EU. Interestingly Switzerland offers better long-term returns than the US – with considerably less currency risk for the international investor.

Value Investing

Since the financial crisis in 2008 through to 2015 Growth stocks outperformed Value stocks. I predict a sea-change. The fathers of Value Investing, Ben Graham and David Dodd first published Securities Analysis in 1934. Towards the end of his career Graham opined (emphasis is mine):-

I am no longer an advocate of elaborate techniques of security analysis in order to find superior value opportunities. This was a rewarding activity, say, 40 years ago, when our textbook “Graham and Dodd” was first published; but the situation has changed a great deal since then. In the old days any well-trained security analyst could do a good professional job of selecting undervalued issues through detailed studies; but in the light of the enormous amount of research now being carried on, I doubt whether in most cases such extensive efforts will generate sufficiently superior selections to justify their cost. To that very limited extent, I’m on the side of the “efficient market” school of thought now generally accepted by the professors.

As we embrace the “Big Data” era, the cost of analysing vast amounts of data will collapse, whilst, at the same time, the amount of available data will grow exponentially. I believe we are at the dawn of a new age for Value Investing where the quantitative analysis of a vast array of qualitative factors will allow investors to defy the Efficient Market Hypothesis, even if we cannot satisfactorily refute Eugene Fama’s premise. In 2016, for the first time in seven years, Value beat Growth across all major categories:-

value_outperformance_of_growth_2016

Source: MSCI, Bloomberg

Value stocks tend to exhibit higher volatility than growth stocks, but volatility is only one aspect of risk: buying Value offers long-term protection, especially during an economic downturn. According to Bloomberg’s Nir Kaissar, Value has consistently underperformed Growth since the financial crisis except in US Small Cap’s – his article – Value Investing Hits Back – is insightful.

Conclusion and Investment Opportunities

When I first began investing in stocks the one of the general rules was to buy when the P/E ratio was below 10 and sell when it rose above 20. Today, of the world’s major stock markets, only Russia and China offer single digit P/Es – low ratios are a structural feature of these markets. I wrote about Russia last month in – Russia – Will the Bear come in from the cold? My conclusion was that one should be cautiously optimistic:-

The Russian stock market has already factored in much of the positive economic and political news. The OPEC deal took shape in a series of well publicised stages. The “Trump Effect” is unlikely to be as significant as some commentators hope. The ending of sanctions is the one factor which could act as a positive price shock, however, the Russian economy has suffered a severe recession and now appears to be recovering of its own accord.

Interest rates in the US will rise, though probably not by as much, nor as quickly as the market is currently betting. A value based approach to stock selection offers greater protection and greater return in the long run.

The US stock market continues to rise. The US economy looks set to grow more rapidly in 2017 due to tax cuts and fiscal stimulus, but, for international companies which export to the US, the threat of protectionism is likely to temper enthusiasm for their stocks.

US financial services firms were a big winner after the Trump election result, they should continue to benefit even as interest rates increase – yield curves will steepen, increasing return on capital. US telecommunications stocks have a performed well since the election along with biotechnology – I have no specific view on these industries. Energy stocks have also rallied, perhaps as much on the OPEC deal as the Trump triumph – many new technologies are starting to be implemented by the energy industry but enthusiasm for these stocks may be tempered by a decline in oil prices once the rig count rebounds. The Baker-Hughes Rig Count ended the year at 525 up from a low of 316 in May. The old high of 1,609 was set back in October 2014 – there is plenty of spare capacity which will exert downward pressure on oil prices.

Indian economic growth will outpace China for another year. Despite a weakening Chinese Yuan, Vietnam remains competitive – it is on the cusp of moving from Frontier to Emerging Market status. Indonesia also looks likely to perform well during 2017, GDP forecasts are around 5%; however, Indonesia’s strong reliance on commodity exports makes it more vulnerable than some of its South and East Asian neighbours.

Is the “flight to quality” effect breaking down?

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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:-

zerohedge_-_100bp_move_in_yields

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:-

which-corporate-bonds-ecb3

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”.

Dividends

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:-

dididend-yld-sandp

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.

Drowning in debt

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Macro Letter – No 60 – 02-09-2016

Drowning in debt

  • Central Banks are moving from quantitative to qualitative easing
  • The spread between Investment Grade and Government bond yields is narrowing
  • Issuing corporate debt rather than equity has never been so attractive
  • Corporate leverage is rising, share buy-backs continue but investment remains weak

I was always

Far out at sea

And not waving

But drowning

Stevie Smith

During August the financial markets have been relatively quiet, however, the Bank of England (BoE) cut interest rates on 4th and added Investment Grade Corporate bonds to their Asset Purchase Programme. The following day Vodafone (VOD) issued a 40yr bond yielding 3% – a week earlier they had issued a 33yr bond yielding 3.4%.

Meanwhile, at Jackson Hole the Kansas City Federal Reserve Symposium discussed a paper by Professor Jeremy Stein – a member Federal Reserve board member between 2012 and 2014 – and two other Harvard professors entitled The Federal Reserve Balance Sheet as a Financial Stability Tool – in which the authors argue that the Fed should maintain its balance sheet at around $4.5trln but that it “should use its balance sheet to lean against private-sector maturity transformation.” In layman’s terms this is a “call to arms” encouraging the Fed to seek approval from the US government to allow the purchase a much wider range of corporate securities. It would appear that the limits of central bank omnipotence have yet to be reached. The Bank of Japan has already begun to discover the unforeseen effect that negative interest rate policy has on the velocity of the circulation of money – it collapses. Now central bankers, who’s credibility has begun to be questioned in some quarters of late, are considering the wider use of “qualitative” measures.

As Bastiat has taught us, that which is seen from these policies is a reduction in the cost of borrowing for “investment grade” corporations. What is not seen, so clearly, is the incentive corporates have to borrow, not to invest, but to buy back their own stock. Perhaps I am being unfair, but, in a world which is drowning in debt, central bankers seem to think that the over-indebted are not “drowning” but “waving”.

One of the most cherished ideas, promulgated upon an unsuspecting world, is the concept of using fiscal and monetary stimulus to offset cyclical economic downturns. The aim of these “popular” policies is to soften the blow of economic slowdowns – all highly laudable provided the “punch bowl” is withdrawn during the cyclical recovery.

So much for business cycles: but what about the impact these policies may have on structural changes in economic performance relating to supply and demand for factors of production, such as labour, fixed assets or basic materials? I’m thinking here about the impact, especially, of technology and demographics.

Firstly, the cyclical stimulus extended during the downturn is seldom withdrawn during the upturn and secondly, long term structural changes in economies are seldom considered by governments, since these changes evolve over decades or generations, rather than the span of a single parliament. This is an essential weakness in the democratic process which has stifled economic growth for centuries. This excellent paper from Carmen M. Reinhart, Vincent R. Reinhart, and Kenneth S. Rogoff – The Journal of Economic Perspectives – Volume 26 – No 3 – Summer 2012 – Public Debt Overhangs: Advanced Economy Episodes Since 1800 makes this weakness abundantly clear.

The authors expand on their earlier research, this time looking at the impact of excessive public debt overhang on economic growth. They take as their “line in the sand” the point where the government debt to nominal GDP ratio remains above 90% for more than five years. They identify 26 episodes, 20 of which lasted more than a decade – the average was 23 years. It is worth noting that more than one third of these episodes occurred without interest rates rising above normal levels.

In 23 of the 26 episodes, over the 211 year sample, the pace of economic growth was lowered from 3.5% to 2.3% – in other words GDP was reduced by roughly one third. The long term secular impact of high debt and lower growth needs to be weighed against the short-term benefits of Keynesian stimulus. A lowering of the GDP growth rate of 1.2% for 23 years is equivalent to a 24.25% reduction in the potential size of the economy at the end of the debt overhang period – a tall price for any economy to pay.

The authors briefly examine the other types of outstanding debt, in order to arrive at what they dub “the quadruple debt overhang problem”, namely, private debt, external debt (and its associated currency risks) and the “actuarial” debt implicit in “unfunded” pension schemes and medical insurance programmes. This data is hard to untangle but the authors state:-

…the overall magnitude of the debt burdens facing the advanced economies as a group is in many dimensions without precedent. The interaction between the different types of debt overhang is extremely complex and poorly understood, but it is surely of great potential importance.

The 22 developed economies in their sample are now burdened with debt to GDP ratios above the levels seen in the aftermath of WWII. Their 48 emerging market counterparts had their epiphany in the debt crisis of the mid 1980’s, since when they have assumed a certain sobriety of character. This shows up even more glaringly in the divergence since 1986 in the public, plus private, external debt. In developed countries it has risen from around 75% of GDP to more than 250% whilst emerging economies external debt has fallen from a broadly similar 75% to less than 50% today. Governments, often bailout private external debt holders in order to protect the stability of their currencies.

Private domestic credit is another measure of total indebtedness which the authors analyse. For the 48 emerging economies this has remained constant at around 40% of GDP since the mid-1980s whilst in the developed 22 it has risen from 50% in the 1950’s to above 150% today. Since the bursting of the technology stock bubble in 2000 this trend has accelerated but the authors point out that these increases are often caused by cross border capital inflows.

The rise in the debt to GDP ratio may come from a slowing in growth rather than an increase in government debt but the correlation between rising debt and slowing GDP rises dramatically as the ratio exceeds 90%.

The authors draw the following conclusions:-

…First, once a public debt overhang has lasted five years, it is likely to last 10 years or much more (unless the debt was caused by a war that ends).

…it is quite possible to have a “no drama” public debt overhang, which doesn’t involve a rise in real interest rates or a financial crisis. Indeed, in 11 of our 26 public debt overhang episodes, real interest rates were on average comparable, or lower, than at other times.

…Another line of reasoning for dismissing concerns about public debt overhangs is the view that causality mostly runs from growth to debt. However, we discussed a body of evidence which argues runs from growth to debt. However, we discussed a body of evidence which argues that causality does indeed run from the public debt overhang to slower growth. There are counterexamples where a public debt overhang was accompanied by rapid growth, like the immediate period after World War II for the United States and United Kingdom, but these exceptions to the typical pattern do not seem to be the most relevant parallels for the modern world economy.

…The pathway to containing and reducing public debt will require a change that is sustained over the middle and the long term. However, the evidence, as we read it, casts doubt on the view that soaring government debt does not matter when markets (and official players, notably central banks) seem willing to absorb it at low interest rates—as is the case for now.

The Methadone of the Markets

The bull market in fixed income securities began in the early 1980’s. The price of “risk free” assets has always had a significant influence on the valuation of equities but, since the advent of quantitative easing, the principle driver of performance has become the level of interest rates. As the yield on fixed income securities has inexorably declined the spread between the dividend and bond yield has returned to positive territory after many years of inversion.

Companies with growing earnings from their operations can finance more cheaply than at any time in history. Provided they can sustain their growth, their bonds should, theoretically, begin to trade at a discount to government bonds. This would probably have happened before now had the central banks not embarked on quantitative easing revolving around the purchase of government bonds at already artificially inflated prices. The rules on capital weighting which favour “risk free” assets and regulations requiring pension funds and other financial institutions to hold minimum levels of “risk free” assets has further distorted the marketplace.

The unfunded government pension schemes of developed nations are at the mercy of the demographic headwind of a smaller working age population supporting a growing legion of retirees. Added to which, breakthroughs in medical science suggest that actuarial expectations of life expectancy may once again be underestimated.

Ways out of debt

There are a number of solutions other than fiscal austerity. For example, increasing the pensionable age steadily towards the average life expectancy. This may sound extreme but in January 1909, when the pension was first introduced in the UK, the pensionable age was 70 years and life expectancy was 50 years for men and 53.5 for women. The latest ONS data shows male life expectancy at 79 years whilst for females it is 82.8 years. The pensionable age for women has now risen to 63 years and will be brought in line with men (65 years) by 2018. There is still a long way to go, by 2030 the NHS estimate the male average will be 85.7 years, with females living an average of 87.6 years. Meanwhile the pensionable age will reach 68 years by 2028. In other words, the current, deeply unpopular, proposed increase in the pensionable age is barely keeping pace with the projected increase in life expectancy.

Another solution which would help to reduce the level of public debt is a structural policy of capping government spending at less than 40% of GDP. This could be relaxed to less than 50% during recessions as a temporary counter-cyclical measure. UK GDP averaged 2.47% since 1953 – if government spending only increased slightly less than 1% per annum we could steadily reduce the public sector debt burden towards a manageable 30% level over the next 40 years, after all, as recently as 2005 the ratio of government debt to GDP was at 38%. The chart below of the Rahn Curve shows the optimal ratio of government debt to GDP. Once government spending exceeds 15% it acts as a drag on the potential growth of an economy:-

1DFA0969D85ED690F4E4B05858404992

Source: The Heritage Foundation, Peter Brimelow

The interest paid on corporate debt and bank loans is tax deductible which creates an incentive to issue debt rather than equity. It is difficult to change this situation but mandating that equity may only be retired from after-tax profits would encourage leverage for investment purposes rather than to artificially enhance the return on equity. The chart below shows the decline in net domestic investment in the US despite historically low interest rates:-

fredgraph (1)

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

The next chart shows the level of share buybacks and the performance of the S&P500:-

SP-500-Buybacks-Versus-Stock-Index-768x577

Source: Dent Research, S&P, Haver Analytics, Barclays Research, Business Insider

Household debt is predominantly in the form of mortgages. In most developed countries a shortage of housing stock, due to planning restrictions, has encouraged individuals to speculate in the real estate market. In fact BoE Chief Economist Andy Haldane was quoted in The Sunday Times – Property is a better bet than pensions, says gold-plated Bank guru stating that pensions were complex and housing was a better investment:-

As long as we continue not to build anything like as many houses in this country as we need to … we will see what we’ve had for the better part of a generation, which is house prices relentlessly heading north.

The solution is planning reform. This will reduce house price inflation but it will not reduce the level of mortgage debt, however, once housing ceases to be a “one way bet” the attraction of leveraged speculation in property will diminish.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

The underlying problem which caused the great recession of 2009/2010 was excessive debt. The policy response has been to throw petrol on the fire. The first phase of unconventional monetary policy – reducing official interest rates towards zero – has more or less run its course. The next phase – qualitative easing – is now under way. This will start with corporate bonds and proceed to other securities ending up with common stock. Credit spreads will continue to narrow even if government bond yields rise. There will, of course, be episodes of panic when “safe haven” government bonds outperform but this will be temporary and the spread widening will present a buying opportunity.

The UK Investment Grade bond market is relatively small at £285bln and liquidity is therefore less robust than for Euro or US$ denominated issues but there is a £10bln “put” beneath the market. Other initiatives will be forthcoming from the central banks. Their actions will continue to be the dominant factor influencing asset prices in general.

US growth – has the windfall of cheap oil arrived or is there a spectre at the feast?

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Macro Letter – No 53 – 22-04-2016

US growth – has the windfall of cheap oil arrived or is there a spectre at the feast?

  • Oil prices have been below $60/bbl since late 2014
  • The benefit of cheaper oil is being felt across the US
  • Without lower oil prices US growth would be significantly lower
  • Increasing levels of debt are stifling the benefits of lower prices

In this letter I want to revisit a topic I last discussed back in June 2015 – Can the boon of cheap energy eclipse the collapse of energy investment? In this article I wrote:-

The impact of the oil price collapse is still feeding through the US economy but, since the most vulnerable states have learnt the lessons of the 1980’s and diversified away from an excessive reliance of on the energy sector, the short-run downturn will be muted whilst the long-run benefits of new technology will be transformative. US oil production at $10/barrel would have sounded ludicrous less than five years ago: today it seems almost plausible.

This week the San Francisco Fed picked up the theme in their FRBSF Economic Letter – The Elusive Boost from Cheap Oil:-

The plunge in oil prices since the middle of 2014 has not translated into a dramatic boost for consumer spending, which has continued to grow moderately. This has been particularly surprising since the sharp drop should free up income for households to use toward other purchases. Lessons from an empirical model of learning suggest that the weak response may reflect that consumers initially viewed cheaper oil as a temporary condition. If oil prices remain low, consumer perceptions could change, which would boost spending.

Given the perceived wisdom of the majority of central banks – that deflation is evil and must be punished – the lack of consumer spending is a perfect example of the validity of the Fed’s inflation targeting policy; except that, as this article suggests, deflations effect on spending is transitory. I could go on to discuss the danger of inflation targeting, arguing that the policy is at odds with millennia of data showing that technology is deflationary, enabling the consumer to pay less and get more. But I’ll save this for another day.

The FRBSF paper looks at the WTI spot and futures price. They suggest that market participants gradually revise their price assumptions in response to new information, concluding:-

The steep decline in oil prices since June 2014 did not translate into a strong boost to consumer spending. While other factors like weak foreign growth and strong dollar appreciation have contributed to this weaker-than-expected response, part of the muted boost from cheaper oil appears to stem from the fact that consumers expected this decline to be temporary. Because of this, households saved rather than spent the gains from lower prices at the pump. However, continued low oil prices could change consumer perceptions, leading them to increase spending as they learn about this greater degree of persistence.

In a related article the Kansas City Fed – Macro Bulletin – The Drag of Energy and Manufacturing on Productivity Growth observes that the changing industry mix away from energy and manufacturing, towards the production of services, has subtracted 0.75% from productivity growth. They attribute this to the strength of the US$ and a decline in manufacturing and mining.

…even if the industry mix stabilizes, the relative rise in services and relative declines in manufacturing and mining are likely to have a persistent negative effect on productivity growth going forward.

The service and finance sector of the economy has a lower economic multiplier than the manufacturing sector, a trend which has been accelerating since 1980. A by-product of the growth in the financial sector has been a massive increase in debt relative to GDP. By some estimates it now requires $3.30 of debt to create $1 of GDP growth. A reduction of $35trln would be needed to get debt to GDP back to 150% – a level considered to be structurally sustainable.

Meanwhile, US corporate profits remain a concern as this chart from PFS group indicates:-

corporate-profits-peak

Source: PFS Group, Bloomberg

The chart below from Peter Tenebrarum – Acting Man looks at whole economy profits – it is perhaps more alarming still:-

saupload_4-whole-economy-profits

Source: Acting Man

With energy input costs falling, the beneficiaries should be non-energy corporates or consumers. Yet wholesale inventories are rising, total business sales seem to have lost momentum and, whilst TMS-2 Money Supply growth remains solid at 8%, it is principally due to commercial and industrial lending.

US oil production has fallen below 9mln bpd versus a peak of 9.6mln. Rig count last week was 351 down three from the previous week but down 383 from the same time last year. Meanwhile the failure of Saudi Arabia to curtail production, limits the potential for the oil market to rally.

From a global perspective, cheap fuel appears to be cushioning the US from economic headwinds in other parts of the world. Employment outside mining and manufacturing is steady, and wages are finally starting to rise. However, the overhang of debt and muted level of house price appreciation has dampened the animal spirits of the US consumer:-

US-house-prices-_Federal_Housing_Finance_Agency

Source: Global Property Guide, Federal Housing Finance Agency

According to the Dallas Fed – Increased Credit Availability, Rising Asset Prices Help Boost Consumer Spendingthe consumer is beginning to emerge:-

A combination of much less household debt, revived access to consumer credit and recovering asset prices have bolstered U.S. consumer spending. This trend will likely continue despite an estimated 50 percent reduction since the mid-2000s of the housing wealth effect— an important amplifier during the boom years.

…Since the Great Recession, the ratio of household debt-to-income has fallen back to about 107 percent, a more sustainable—albeit relatively high—level.

…The wealth-to-income ratio rose from about 530 percent in fourth quarter 2003 to 650 percent in mid-2007 as equity and house prices surged. Not surprisingly, consumer spending also jumped.

The conventional estimate of the wealth effect—the impact of higher household wealth on aggregate consumption—is 3 percent, or $3 in additional spending every year for each $100 increase in wealth.

…Recent research suggests that the spendability, or wealth effect, of liquid financial assets—almost $9 for every $100—is far greater than the effect for illiquid financial assets, which explains why falling equity prices do not generate larger cutbacks in aggregate consumer spending. Other things equal, higher mortgage and consumer debt significantly depress consumer spending.

…The estimated housing wealth effect varies over time and captures the ability of consumers to tap into their housing wealth. It rose steadily from about 1.3 percent in the early 1990s to a peak of about 3.5 percent in the mid- 2000s. It has since halved, to about the same level as that of the mid-1990s. During the subprime and housing booms, rising house prices and housing wealth effects propagated and amplified expansion of consumption and GDP.

During the bust, this mechanism went into reverse. High levels of mortgage debt, falling house prices and a reduced ability to tap housing equity generated greater savings and reduced consumer spending. Fortunately, house prices have recovered, deleveraging has slowed or stopped, and consumer spending is strong, even though the housing wealth effect is only half as large as it was in the mid-2000s.

Countering the positive spin placed on the consumer credit data by the Dallas Fed is a recent interview with  Odysseas Papadimitriou, CEO of CardHub by Financial Sense – Credit Card Debt Levels Reaching Unsustainable Levels:-

In 2015, we accumulated almost $71 billion in new credit card debt. And for the first time since the Great Recession, we broke the $900 billion level in total credit card debt so we are back on track in getting to $1 trillion.

total-consumer-credit-outstanding

Source: Bloomberg, Financial Sense

Another factor which has been holding back the US economy has been the change in the nature of employment. Full-time jobs have been replaced by lower paying part-time roles and the participation rate has been in decline. This may also be changing, but is likely to be limited, as the Kansas City Fed – Flowing into Employment: Implications for the Participation Rate reports:-

After a long stretch of declines, the labor force participation rate has risen in recent months, driven in part by an increase in the share of prime-age people flowing into employment from outside the labor force. So far, this flow has remained largely confined to those with higher educational attainment, suggesting further increases in labor force participation rate could be relatively limited.

…Overall, the scenarios show that while more prime-age people could enter the labor force in the coming years, the cyclical improvement in the overall participation rate may be limited to the extent only those with higher educational attainment flow into employment. In addition, the potential increase in the participation rate could be constrained by other factors such as an increase in the share of prime-age population that reports they are either retired or disabled and a limited pool of people saying they want a job, even if they have not looked recently. Thus, while higher NE flow indicates the prime-age participation rate could increase further, it will likely remain lower than its pre-recession rate.

Conclusion

At the 2015 EIA conference Adrian Cooper of Oxford Economics gave a presentation – The Macroeconomic Impact of Lower Oil Prices – in which he estimated that a $30pb decline in the oil price would add 0.9% to US GDP between 2015 and 2017. If this estimate is correct, lower oil is responsible for more than a quarter of the current US GDP growth. It has softened the decline from 2.9% to 2% seen over the last year.

I would argue that the windfall of lower oil prices has already arrived, it has shown up in the deterioration of the trade balance, the increase in wages versus consumer prices and the nascent rebound in the participation rate. That the impact has not been more dramatic is due to the headwinds on excessive debt and the strength of the US$ TWI – it rose from 103 in September 2014 to a high of 125 in January 2016. After the G20 meeting Shanghai it has retreated to 120.

According to the March 2015 BIS – Oil and debt report, total debt in the Oil and Gas sector increased from $1trln in 2006 to $2.5trln by 2015. The chart below looks at the sectoral breakdown of US Capex up to the end of 2013:-

US CAPEX by sector

Source: Business Insider, Compustat, Goldman Sachs

With 37% allocated to Energy and Materials by 2013 it is likely that the fall in oil prices will act as a drag on a large part of the stock market. Energy and Materials may represent less than 10% of the total but they impact substantially in the financial sector (15.75%).

Notwithstanding the fact that corporate defaults are at the highest level for seven years, financial institutions and their central bank masters will prefer to reschedule. This will act as a drag on new lending and on the profitability of the banking sector.

The table below from McGraw Hill shows the year to date performance of the S&P Spider and the sectoral ETFs. This year Financials are taking the strain whilst Energy has been the top performer – over one year, however, Energy is still the nemesis of the index.

Sector SPDR Fund % Change YTD % Change 1 year
S&P 500 Index 2.86% 0.10%
Consumer Discretionary (XLY) 2.23% 5.05%
Consumer Staples (XLP) 4.16% 6.83%
Energy (XLE) 10.20% -19.16%
Financial Services (XLFS) -2.49% 0.00%
Financials (XLF) -1.22% -2.85%
Health Care (XLV) -1.01% -3.31%
Industrials (XLI) 6.41% -0.07%
Materials (XLB) 8.45% -5.78%
Real Estate (XLRE) 1.98% 0.00%
Technology (XLK) 3.60% 5.19%
Utilities (XLU) 10.74% 7.08%

Source: McGraw Hill

The benefit of lower oil and gas prices will continue, but, until debt levels are reduced, anaemic GDP growth is likely to remain the pattern for the foreseeable future. In Hoisington Investment Management – Economic Review – Q1 2016 – Lacy Hunt makes the following observation:-

The Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan and the People’s Bank of China have been unable to gain traction with their monetary policies…. Excluding off balance sheet liabilities, at year-end the ratio of total public and private debt relative to GDP stood at 350%, 370%, 457% and 615%, for China, the United States, the Eurocurrency zone, and Japan, respectively…

The windfall of cheap oil has arrived, but cheap oil has been eclipsed by the beguiling spectre of cheap debt.

Quantitative to qualitative – is unelected nationalisation next?

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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.