Low yield, no yield, negative yield – Buy now but don’t forget to sell

Low yield, no yield, negative yield – Buy now but don’t forget to sell

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Macro Letter – No 118 – 12-06-2019

Low yield, no yield, negative yield – Buy now but don’t forget to sell

  • The amount of negative yielding fixed securities has hit a new record
  • The Federal Reserve and the ECB are expected to resume easing of interest rates
  • Secondary market liquidity for many fixed income securities is dying
  • Outstanding debt is setting all-time highs

To many onlookers, since the great financial crisis, the world of fixed income securities has become an alien landscape. Yields on government bonds have fallen steadily across all developed markets. As the chart below reveals, there is now a record US$13trln+ of negative yielding fixed income paper, most of it issued by the governments’ of Switzerland, Japan and the Eurozone: –

Bloomberg - Negative Yield - 21st June 2019

Source: Bloomberg  

The percentage of Eurozone government bonds with negative yields is now well above 50% (Eur4.3trln) and more than 35% trades with yields which are more negative than the ECB deposit rate (-0,40%). If one adds in investment grade corporates the total amount of negative yielding bonds rises to Eur5.3trln. Earlier this month, German 10yr Bund yields dipped below the deposit rate for the first time, amid expectations that the ECB will cut rates by another 10 basis points, perhaps as early as September.

The idea that one should make a long-term investment in an asset which will, cumulatively, return less at the end of the investment period, seems nonsensical, except in a deflationary environment. With most central banks committed to an inflation target of around 2%, the Chinese proverb, ‘we live in interesting times,’ springs to mind, yet, negative yielding government bonds are now ‘normal times’ whilst, to the normal fixed income investor, they are anything but interesting. As Keynes famously observed, ‘Markets can remain irrational longer than I can remain solvent.’ Do not fight this trend, yields will probably turn more negative, especially if the ECB cuts rates and a global recession arrives regardless.

Today, government and investment grade corporate debt has been joined by a baker’s dozen of short-dated high yield Euro names. This article from IFR – ‘High-yield’ bonds turn negative – explains: –

About 2% of the euro high-yield universe is now negative yielding, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

That percentage would rise to 10% if average yields fall by a further 35bp, said Barnaby Martin, European credit strategist at the bank.

He said the first signs of negative yielding high-yield bonds emerged about two weeks ago in the wake of Mario Draghi’s speech in Sintra where the ECB president hinted at a further dose of bond buying via the central bank’s corporate sector purchase programme. There are now more than 10 high-yield bonds in negative territory…

The move to negative yields for European high-yield credits is unprecedented; it didn’t even happen in 2016 when the ECB began its bond buying programme.

During Q4, 2018, credit spreads widened (and stock markets declined) amid expectations of further Federal Reserve tightening and an end to ECB QE. Now, stoked by fears of a global recession, rate expectation have reversed. The Fed are likely to ease, perhaps as early as this month. The ECB, under their new broom, Christine Lagarde, is expected to embrace further QE. The corporate sector purchase program (CSPP) which commenced in June 2016, already holds Eur177.8bln of corporate bonds, but increased corporate purchases seem likely; it is estimated that the ECB holds between 25% and 30% of the outstanding Eurozone government bond in issue, near to its self-imposed ceiling of 33%. Whilst the amount in issues is less, the central bank has more flexibility with Supranational and Euro denominated non-EZ Sovereigns (50%) and greater still with corporates (70%). In this benign interest rate environment, a continued compression of credit spreads is to be expected.

Yield compression has been evident in Eurozone government bonds for decades, but now a change in relationship is starting become evident. Even if the ECB does not increase the range of corporate bonds it purchases, its influence, like the rising tide, will float all ships. Bund yields are likely to remain most negative and the government obligations of Greece, the least, but, somewhere between these two poles, corporate bonds will begin to assume the mantle of the ‘nearly risk-free.’ With many Euro denominated high-yield issues trading below the yield offered for comparable maturity Italian BTPs, certain high-yield corporate credit is a de facto alternative to poorer quality government paper.

The chart below is a snap-shot of the 3m to 3yr Eurozone yield curve. The solid blue line shows the yield of AAA rated bonds, the dotted line, an average of all bonds: –

Eurozone AAA bond Yields vs All Bonds - ECB

Source: ECB

It is interesting to note that the yield on AAA bonds, with a maturity of less than two years, steadily becomes less negative, whilst the aggregated yield of all bonds continues to decline.

The broader high-yield market still offers positive yield but the Eurozone is likely to be the domicile of choice for new issuers, since Euro high-yield now trades at increasingly lower yields than the more liquid US market, the liquidity tail is wagging the dog: –

US vs EZ HY - Bloomberg

Source: Bloomberg, Barclays

The yield compression within the Eurozone has been more dramatic but it has been mirrored by the US where the spread between BBB and BB narrowed to a 12 year low of 60 basis points this month.

Wither away the dealers?

Forgotten, amid the inexorable bond rally, is dealer liquidity, yet it is essential, especially when investors rush for the exit simultaneously. For corporate bond market-makers and brokers the impact of QE has been painful. If the ECB is a buyer of a bond (and they pre-announce their intentions) then the market is guaranteed to rise. Liquidity is stifled in a game of devil take the hindmost. Alas, non-eligible issues, which the ECB does not deign to buy, find few natural buyers, so few institutions can justify purchases when credit default risk remains under-priced and in many cases the yield to maturity is negative.

An additional deterrent is the cost of holding an inventory of fixed income securities. Capital requirements for other than AAA government paper have increased since 2009. More damaging still is the negative carry across a wide range of instruments. In this environment, liquidity is bound to be impaired. The danger is that the underlying integrity of fixed income markets has been permanently impaired, without effective price intermediation there is limited price discovery: and without price discovery there is a real danger that there will be no firm, ‘dealable’ prices when they are needed most.

In this article from Bloomberg – A Lehman Survivor Is Prepping for the Next Credit Downturn – the interviewee, Pilar Gomez-Bravo of MFS Investment Management, discusses the problem of default risk in terms of terms of opacity (the emphasis is mine): –

Over a third of private high-yield companies in Europe, for example, restrict access to financial data in some way, according to Bloomberg analysis earlier this year. Buyers should receive extra compensation for firms that curb access to earnings with password-protected sites, according to Gomez-Bravo.

Borrowers still have the upper hand in the U.S. and Europe. Thank cheap-money policies and low defaults. Speculation the European Central Bank is preparing for another round of quantitative easing is spurring the rally — and masking fragile balance sheets.

Borrowers still have the upper hand indeed, earlier this month Italy issued a Eur3bln tranche of its 2.8% coupon 50yr BTP; there were Eur17bln of bids from around 200 institutions (bid/cover 5.66, yield 2.877%). German institutions bought 35% of the issue, UK investors 22%. The high bid/cover ratio is not that surprising, only 1% of Euro denominated investment grade paper yields more than 2%.

I am not alone in worrying about the integrity of the bond markets in the event of another crisis, last September ESMA –  Liquidity in EU fixed income markets – Risk indicators and EU evidence concluded: –

Episodes of short-term volatility and liquidity stress across several markets over the past few years have increased concerns about the worsening of secondary market liquidity, in particular in the fixed income segment…

…our findings show that market liquidity has been relatively ample in the sovereign segment, potentially also due to the effects of supportive economic policies over more recent years. This is different from our findings in the corporate bond market, where in recent years we did not find systematic and significant drop in market liquidity but we observed episodes of decreasing market liquidity when market conditions deteriorated…

We find that in the sovereign bond segment, bonds that have a benchmark status and are characterised by larger outstanding amounts tend to be more liquid while market volatility is negatively related to market liquidity. Outstanding amounts are the main bond-level drivers in the corporate bond segment…

With reference to corporate bond markets, the sensitivity of bond liquidity to bond-specific and market factors is larger when financial markets are under stress. In particular, bonds characterised by more volatile market liquidity are found to be more vulnerable in periods of market stress. This empirical result is consistent with the market liquidity indicators developed for corporate bonds pointing at episodes of decreasing market liquidity when wider market conditions deteriorate.

ESMA steer clear of discussing negative yields and their impact on the profitability of market-making, but the BIS annual economic report, published last month, has no such qualms (the emphasis is mine): –

Household debt has reached new historical peaks in a number of economies that were not at the heart of the GFC, and house price growth has in many cases stalled. For a group of advanced small open economies, average household debt amounted to 101% of GDP in late 2018, over 20 percentage points above the pre-crisis level… Moreover, household debt service ratios, capturing households’ principal and interest payments in relation to income, remained above historical averages despite very low interest rates…

…corporate leverage remained close to historical highs in many regions. In the United States in particular, the ratio of debt to earnings in listed firms was above the previous peak in the early 2000s. Leverage in emerging Asia was still higher, albeit below the level immediately preceding the 1990s crisis. Lending to leveraged firms – i.e. those borrowing in either high-yield bond or leveraged loan markets – has become sizeable. In 2018, leveraged loan issuance amounted to more than half of global publicly disclosed loan issuance loans excluding credit lines.

… following a long-term decline in credit quality since 2000, the share of issuers with the lowest investment grade rating (including financial firms) has risen from around 14% to 45% in Europe and from 29% to 36% in the United States. Given widespread investment grade mandates, a further drop in ratings during an economic slowdown could lead investors to shed large amounts of bonds quickly. As mutual funds and other institutional investors have increased their holdings of lower-rated debt, mark-to-market losses could result in fire sales and reduce credit availability. The share of bonds with the lowest investment grade rating in investment grade corporate bond mutual fund portfolios has risen, from 22% in Europe and 25% in the United States in 2010 to around 45% in each region.

How financial conditions might respond depends also on how exposed banks are to collateralised loan obligations (CLOs). Banks originate more than half of leveraged loans and hold a significant share of the least risky tranches of CLOs. Of these holdings, US, Japanese and European banks account for around 60%, 30% and 10%, respectively…

…the concentration of exposures in a small number of banks may result in pockets of vulnerability. CLO-related losses could reveal that the search-for-yield environment has led to an underpricing and mismanagement of risks…

In the euro area, the deterioration of the growth outlook was more evident, and so was its adverse impact on an already fragile banking sector. Price-to-book ratios fell further from already depressed levels, reflecting increasing concerns about banks’ health…

Unfortunately, bank profitability has been lacklustre. In fact, as measured, for instance, by return-on-assets, average profitability across banks in a number of advanced economies is substantially lower than in the early 2000s. Within this group, US banks have performed considerably better than those in the euro area, the United Kingdom and Japan…

…persistently low interest rates and low growth reduce profits. Compressed term premia depress banks’ interest rate margins from maturity transformation. Low growth curtails new loans and increases the share of non-performing ones. Therefore, should growth decline and interest rates continue to remain low following the pause in monetary policy normalisation, banks’ profitability could come under further pressure.

Conclusion and investment opportunities

Back in 2006, when commodity investing, as part of a diversified portfolio, was taking the pension fund market by storm, I gave a series of speeches in which I beseeched fund managers to consider carefully before investing in commodities, an asset class which had for more than 150 years exhibited a negative expected real return.

An astonishingly large percentage of fixed income securities are exhibiting similar properties today. My advice, then for commodities and today, for fixed income securities, is this, ‘By all means buy, but remember, this is a trading asset, its long-term expected return is negative; in other words, please, don’t forget to sell.’

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A world of debt – where are the risks?

A world of debt – where are the risks?

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Macro Letter – No 108 – 18-01-2019

A world of debt – where are the risks?

  • Private debt has been the main source of rising debt to GDP ratios since 2008
  • Advanced economies have led the trend
  • Emerging market debt increases have been dominated by China
  • Credit spreads are a key indicator to watch in 2019

Since the financial crisis of 2008/2009 global debt has increased to reach a new all-time high. This trend has been documented before in articles such as the 2014 paper from the International Center for Monetary and Banking Studies – Deleveraging? What deleveraging? The IMF have also been built a global picture of the combined impact of private and public debt. In a recent publication – New Data on Global Debt – IMF – the authors make some interesting observations: –

Global debt has reached an all-time high of $184 trillion in nominal terms, the equivalent of 225 percent of GDP in 2017. On average, the world’s debt now exceeds $86,000 in per capita terms, which is more than 2½ times the average income per-capita.

The most indebted economies in the world are also the richer ones. You can explore this more in the interactive chart below. The top three borrowers in the world—the United States, China, and Japan—account for more than half of global debt, exceeding their share of global output.

The private sector’s debt has tripled since 1950. This makes it the driving force behind global debt. Another change since the global financial crisis has been the rise in private debt in emerging markets, led by China, overtaking advanced economies. At the other end of the spectrum, private debt has remained very low in low-income developing countries.

Global public debt, on the other hand, has experienced a reversal of sorts. After a steady decline up to the mid-1970s, public debt has gone up since, with advanced economies at the helm and, of late, followed by emerging and low-income developing countries.

The recent picture suggests that the old world order, dominated by advanced economies, may be changing. For investors, this is an important consideration. Total debt in 2017 had exceeded the previous all-time high by more than 11%, however, the global debt to GDP ratio fell by 1.5% between 2016 and 2017, led by developed nations.

Setting aside the absolute level of interest rates, which have finally begun to rise from multi-year lows, it makes sense for rapidly aging, developed economies, to begin reducing their absolute level of debt, unfortunately, given that unfunded pension liabilities and the escalating cost of government healthcare provision are not included in the data, the IMF are only be portraying a partial picture of the state of developed economy obligations.

For emerging markets, the trauma of the 1998 Asian Crisis has finally waned. In the decade since the great financial recession of 2008 emerging economies, led by China, have increased their borrowing. This is clearly indicated in the chart below: –

eng-december-26-global-debt-1

Source: IMF

The decline in the global debt to GDP ratio in 2017 is probably related to the change in Federal Reserve policy; the largest proportion of global debt is still raised in US$. Rather like the front-loaded US growth which transpired due the threat of tariff increases on US imports, I suspect, debt issuance spiked in expectation of a reversal of quantitative easing and an end to ultra-low US interest rates.

The IMF goes on to show the breakdown of debt by country, separating them into three groups; advanced economies, emerging markets and low income countries. The outlier is China, an emerging market with a debt to GDP ratio comparable to that of an advanced economy. The table below may be difficult to read (an interactive one is available on the IMF website): –

imf chart of debt by country december 2018

Source: IMF

At 81%, China’s private debt is much greater than its public debt, meanwhile its debt to GDP ratio is 254% – comparable with the US (256%). Fortunately, the majority of Chinese private debt is denominated in local currency. Advanced economies have higher debt to GDP ratios but their government debt ratios are relatively modest, excepting Japan. The Economist – Economists reconsider how much governments can borrow – provides food for thought on this subject.

Excluding China, emerging markets and low income countries have relatively similar levels of debt relative to GDP. In general, the preponderance of government debt in lower ratio countries reflects the lack of access to capital markets for private sector borrowers.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

Setting aside China, which, given its control on capital flows and foreign exchange reserves is hard to predict, the greatest risk to world financial markets appears to be from the private debt of advanced economies.

Following the financial crisis of 2008, corporate credit spreads narrowed, but not by as much as one might have anticipated, as interest rates tended towards the zero bound. The inexorable quest for yield appears to have been matched by equally enthusiastic issuance. The yield-quest also prompted the launch of a plethora of private debt investment products, offering enticing returns in exchange for illiquidity. An even more sinister trend has been the return of many of the products which exacerbated the financial crisis of 2008 – renamed, repackaged and repurposed. These investments lack liquidity and many are leveraged in order to achieve acceptable rates of return.

The chart below shows the 10yr maturity Corporate Baa spread versus US Treasuries since March 2007: –

baa 10yr spread 2007 to 2019

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

The Baa spread has widened since its low of 1.58% in January 2018, but, at 2.46%, it is still only halfway between the low of 2018 and the high of February 2016 (3.6%).

The High Yield Bond spread experienced a more dramatic reaction into the close of 2018, but, since the beginning of January, appears to have regained its composure. The chart shows the period since September 2015: –

high yield spread 10yr 2016 to 2019

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

Nonetheless, this looks more like a technical break-out. The spread may narrow to retest the break of 4% seen on November 15th, but the move looks impulsive. A return to the 3.25% – 3.75% range will be needed to quell market fears of an imminent full-blown credit-crunch.

If the next crisis does emanate from the private debt markets, governments will still be in a position to intervene; the last decade has taught us to accept negative government bond yields as a normal circumstance. Demographic trends have even led long dated interest rate swaps to trade even lower than risk-free assets.

A decade after the financial crisis, markets are fragile and, with an ever increasing percentage of capital market transactions dictated by non-bank liquidity providers, liquidity is ever more transitory. Credit spreads have often been the leading indicator of recessions, they may not provide the whole picture this time, but we should watch them closely during 2019.

Bull market breather or beginning of the end?

Bull market breather or beginning of the end?

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Macro Letter – No 87 – 24-11-2017

Bull market breather or beginning of the end?

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

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

2yr - 10yr Treasury Jan 2016 to present

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

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

Moodys Aaa and Baa Corps spread over 10yr Bond

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

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

Moody Aaa and Baa plus ML HY since Jan 2016

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

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

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

Spread_spreads_April_vs_Nov_2016

Source: Investing.com, The Financials.com

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

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

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

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

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

How the collapse in energy prices will affect US Growth and Inflation and what that means for stocks

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Macro Letter – No 26 – 19-12-2014

How the collapse in energy prices will affect US Growth and Inflation and what that means for stocks

  • Oil prices have fallen by more than 40% in H2 2014
  • Inflation expectations will be lowered further
  • US Growth should be higher longer-term
  • Near-term, contagion from the “energy bust” is under estimated by the market

 

With the recent collapse in the price of crude oil it seems appropriate to review the forecasts for inflation and growth in the US. Earlier this week, during an interview with CNBC, Bill Gross – ex-CIO of PIMCO – suggested that US growth would be around 2% going forward rather than the 3% to 4% seen in the recent past. The Atlanta Fed – Now GDP forecast for Q4 2014 was revised up to +2.2% from +2.1% on 11th December. This is higher than the Conference Board – Q4 GDP forecast of 2.0% from 10th December, here is their commentary:-

The U.S. growth momentum may pause in the fourth quarter, due to some special circumstances. The outlook for early 2015 shows some upside beyond the 2.5 percent pace. And this is despite continued slow economic growth around the world and a rise in the value of the dollar. The biggest disappointment right now is business spending on equipment which is slowing from an average pace of 11 percent over the past two quarters. But if final demand picks up as expected, business investment might also gain some momentum. One key driver of demand is continued improvement in the labor market. Job growth has been solid for the past year and the signal from the latest reading on The Conference Board Employment Trends Index™ (ETI) is that it will continue at least over the very near term. In fact, continued employment gains are likely to lead to better gains in wages in the first half of 2015. Job and income growth may provide some moderately positive momentum for the housing market. Low gasoline prices will also further support household spending. Finally, very low interest rates, at both the short and long end of the yield spectrum help consumers and businesses. The strengthening of domestic growth is intensifying pressures to increase the base interest rate, but speed and trajectory remain important questions.

There is a brief mention of the fall in gasoline prices and hopes for increased domestic demand driven by a better quality of jobs. Thus far official expectations have failed to shift significantly in response to the fall in oil. If the price remains depressed I expect these forecasts to change. The geographic make-up of US growth is quite skewed. The map below shows the breakdown of GDP growth by state in 2013:-

US GDP by State 2013

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis

The predominant feature of many high growth states is strength of their energy sector. One state which has been a major engine of US employment growth in absolute terms, since the Great Recession, is Texas. In 2013 Texas jobs growth slowed from 3.3% to 2.5%. In percentage terms, it slipped into third place behind the stellar growth seen in North Dakota and Florida. Florida is an interesting indication of the process by which the drivers of growth are gradually switching away from the energy related impetus seen over the past few years. This article from the Dallas Fed – Texas to Remain a Top State for Job Growth in 2014 looks more closely at some nascent growth trends:-

Oil- and gas-producing states—leaders in the early years of the U.S. recovery—no longer predominated. This reflects the energy sector’s slowing expansion, although two states with the strongest shale activity, Texas and North Dakota, remained near the top. Meanwhile, several Sunbelt states hit hard by the housing crisis—Florida, Georgia and Arizona, for instance—are beginning to bounce back. In these states, employment remains significantly below the prerecession peak; in Texas, it is significantly above.

Texas is vulnerable, as are other energy rich US states, due to the weakness in the price of oil, however, Texas is also reliant on trade with Mexico for more than half of its exports. The down-turn in Mexican growth due to the weaker oil price, is an additional headwind for the “lone star” state.

You might expect this to be cause for some relief on the part of Richard Fisher – President of the Dallas Fed, yet, writing in mid-October in the Dallas Fed – Economic Letter – he remained, consistently hawkish on the prospects for inflation:-

The point is not that wage growth has been worrisomely high (it hasn’t been) or that we’re in imminent danger of a wage-price spiral (we likely aren’t). Rather, there’s nothing in the behavior of wage inflation over the course of the recovery to suggest that the unemploy­ment rate has been sending misleading signals about our progress toward full employment. A secondary point—a cau­tion, really—is that when trying to draw inferences about labor-market slack from the behavior of wages, it’s important to recognize that wage inflation’s response to slack is both nonlinear and delayed.

…Do we keep the accelerator pedal to the floor right up to the point where we reach our destination? Or do we ease up as we near our goal? The answer depends on an assessment of the costs of possibly delaying achievement of our objectives versus the costs of overshoot­ing those objectives. Proponents of a patient approach to removing accom­modation emphasize the risk of having to backtrack on policy, should either real growth or inflation expectations falter. On the other hand, Fed policymakers successfully “tapped the brakes” in the middle of three of our longest economic expansions (in the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s), slowing—but not ending—the unemployment rate’s decline. By com­parison, there are no instances where the Fed has successfully eased the unem­ployment rate upward after having first overshot full employment: When the economy goes into reverse, it has a pro­nounced tendency to lurch backward all the way into recession.

The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco – The Risks to the Inflation Outlook – November 17th – has a rather different view of the risks of inflation:-

Although inflation is currently low, some commentators fear that continued highly accommodative monetary policy may lead to a surge in inflation. However, projections that account for the different policy tools used by the Federal Reserve suggest that inflation will remain low in the near future. Moreover, the relative odds of low inflation outweigh those of high inflation, which is the opposite of historical projections. An important factor continuing to hold down inflation is the persistent effects of the financial crisis.

The chart below shows the wide range of PCE forecasts, interestingly the IMF WEO forecast is 1.8% for 2015:-

PCE Inflation projection - FRBSF

Source: FRBSF

The author goes on to conclude:-

Overall, this Letter suggests that inflation is not expected to surge in the near future. According to this model, the risks to the inflation outlook remain tilted to the downside. The financial crisis disrupted the credit market, leading to lower investment and underutilization of resources in the economy, causing slower growth, which in turn put downward pressure on inflation. My analysis suggests that these effects from the crisis explain a substantial part of the outlook for inflation. Monetary policy has played a stabilizing role in the recent past, preventing inflation from falling further below its 2% target. Moreover, the analysis suggests that monetary policy is not contributing to the risk of inflation being above the median projection in the near future.

The risk of high inflation in the next one to two years remains very low by historical standards. The analysis suggests that the factors keeping inflation low are expected to be transitory. However, differences between projected and realized inflation in the recent past suggest that those factors may in reality be more persistent than implied by the model.

It would appear that even before the recent decline in the price of oil the Fed was not expecting a significant increase in inflationary pressure. What should they do in the current environment where the US$ continues to appreciate against its major trading partners and if the price of oil remains at or below $60/barrel? These are one-off external price shocks which are a boon to the consumer, however they make exports uncompetitive and undermine the longer term attractiveness of investment in the domestic energy sector. IHS Global Insight produced the following forecast for the Wall Street Journal earlier this month:-

US_Pricing_Power_and_Oil_-_IHS_Global_Insight_WSJ

Source: IHS Global Insight and WSJ

My concerns are two-fold; firstly, what if the oil price rebounds? The latest IEA report noted that global demand for oil increased 0.75% between 2013 and 2014 and is running 3.6% above the average level of the last five years (2009 – 2013) this leaves additional supply as the main culprit of the oil price decline. With oil at $60/barrel it is becoming uneconomic to extract oil from many of the new concessions – over-supply may swiftly be reversed. Secondly, the unbridled boon to the wider economy of a lower oil price is likely to be deferred by the process of rebalancing the economy away from an excessive reliance on the energy sector. In an excellent paper in their Power and Growth Initiative series, the Manhattan Institute – Where The Jobs Are: Small Businesses Unleash Energy Employment Boom– February 2014 conclude:-

According to a recent poll from the Washington Post Miller Center, American workers’ anxiety over jobs is at a four-decade record high. Meanwhile, the hydrocarbon sector’s contributions to America’s job picture and the role of its small businesses in keeping the nation out of a long recession are not widely recognized. Another recent survey found that only 16 percent of people know that an oil & gas boom has increased U.S. energy production—collaterally creating jobs both directly and indirectly.

America’s future, of course, is not exclusively associated with hydrocarbons or energy in general. Over the long term, innovation and new technologies across all sectors of the economy will revitalize the nation and create a new cycle of job growth, almost certainly in unexpected ways. But the depth and magnitude of job destruction from the Great Recession means that creating jobs in the near-term is vital. As former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers and Harvard professor Martin Feldstein recently wrote: “The United States certainly needs a new strategy to increase economic growth and employment. The U.S. growth rate has fallen to less than 2%, and total employment is a smaller share of the population now than it was five years ago.”

In a new report evaluating five “game changers” for growth, the McKinsey Global Institute concluded that the hydrocarbon sector has the greatest potential for increasing the U.S. GDP and adding jobs—with an impact twice as great as big data by 2020. McKinsey forecasts that the expanding shale production can add nearly $700 billion to the GDP and almost 2 million jobs over the next six years.

Other analysts looking out over 15 years see 3–4 million more jobs that could come from accelerating domestic hydrocarbon energy production. Even these forecasts underestimate what would be possible in a political environment that embraced growth-centric policies.

In November 2013, President Obama delivered a speech in Ohio on jobs and the benefits from greater domestic energy production. The president highlighted the role of improved energy efficiency and alternative fuels. But as the facts show, no part of the U.S. economy has had as dramatic an impact on short-term job creation as the small businesses at the core of the American oil & gas boom. And much more can be done.

A recent report by Deutsche Bank – Sinking Oil May Push Energy Sector to the Brink – estimated that of $2.8trln annual US private investment, $1.6trln is spent on equipment and software and $700bln on non-residential construction. Of the equipment and software sector, 25-30% is investment in industrial equipment for energy, utilities and agriculture. Non-residential construction is 30% energy related. With oil below $60/barrel much of that private investment will be postponed or cancelled. That could amount to a reduction in private investment of $500bln in 2015. This process is already underway; according to Reuters, new oil permits plummeted 40% in November.

Since 2007 shale producing states have added 1.36mln jobs whilst the non-shale states have shed 424,000 jobs. The table below shows the scale of employment within the energy sector for key states:-

State Hydro-carbon jobs 000’s
Texas 1800
California 780
Oklahoma 350
Louisiana 340
Pennsylvania 330
New York 300
Illinois 290
Florida 280
Ohio 260
Colorado 210
Virginia 190
Michigan 180
Kentucky 170
West Virginia 170
Georgia 160
New Jersey 150

Source: Manhattan Institute

This chart from Zero Hedge shows the evolution of the US jobs market in shale vs non-shale terms since 2008:-

Jobs in shale ve non-shale - Zero Hedge BLS

Source: Zero Hedge and BLS

2015 will see a correction in this trend, not just because investment stalls, but also as a result of defaults in the high-yield bond market.

Junk Bonds and Bank Loans

It is estimated that around 17% of the High-yield bond market in the US is energy related.  The chart below is from Zero Hedge, it shows the evolution of high yield bonds over the last four years. The OAS is the option adjusted spread between High Yield Energy bonds and US Treasury bonds:-

Energy_High_Yield_-_zero_hedge

Source: Zero Hedge and Bloomberg

Deutsche Bank strategists Oleg Melentyev and Daniel Sorid estimate that, with oil at $60/barrel, the default rate on B and CCC rated bonds could be as high as 30%. Whilst this is bad news for investors it is also bad news for banks which have thrived on the securitisation of these bonds. The yield expansion seen in the chart above suggests there is a liquidity short-fall at work here – perhaps the Fed will intervene.

As a result of the growth in the US energy sector, banks have become more actively involved in the energy markets. Here the scale of their derivative exposure may become a systemic risk to the financial sector. When oil was trading at its recent highs back in July the total open speculative futures contracts stood at 4mln: that is four times the number seen back in 2010. The banks will also be exposed to the derivatives market as a result of the loans they have made to commodity trading companies – some of whom may struggle to meet margin calls. Bad loan provisions will reduce the credit available to the rest of the economy. This will dampen growth prospects even as lower energy prices help the consumer.

The US Treasury Bond yield curve has also “twisted” over the past month, with maturities of five years and beyond falling but shorter maturities moving slightly higher:-

Maturity 17-Nov 17-Dec Change
2yr 0.504 0.565 0.061
3yr 0.952 1.005 0.053
5yr 1.607 1.534 -0.073
7yr 2.019 1.863 -0.156
10yr 2.317 2.078 -0.239

Source: Investing.com

On the 15th October, at the depths of the stock market correction, 2yr Notes yielded 0.308% whilst 10yr Notes yielded 2.07%. Since then the 2yr/10yr curve has flattened by 25bp. I believe this price move, in the short end of the market, is being driven by expectations that the Fed will move to “normalise” policy rates in the next 12 months. Governor Yellen’s change of emphasis in this weeks FOMC statement – from “considerable time” to “patient” – has been perceived by market pundits as evidence of more imminent rate increases. An additional factor driving short term interest rates higher is the tightening of credit conditions connected to the falling oil price.

Longer maturity Treasuries, meanwhile, are witnessing a slight “flight to quality” as fixed income portfolio managers switch out of High Yield into US government securities even at slightly negative real yields. According to an article in the Financial Times – Fall in oil price threatens high-yield bonds – 7th December $40bln was withdrawn from US High Yield mutual fund market between May and October. I expect this process to gather pace and breed contagion with other markets where the “carry trade” has been bolstered by leveraged investment flows.

Where next for stocks?

The New York Fed – Business Leaders Survey showed that, despite easing energy costs and benign inflation, business leaders expectations are not particularly robust:-

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s December 2014 Business Leaders Survey indicates that activity in the region’s service sector expanded modestly. The survey’s headline business activity index fell ten points to 7.8, indicating a slower pace of growth than in November. The business climate index inched down two points to -7.8, suggesting that on balance, respondents continued to view the business climate as worse than normal. The employment index climbed three points to 16.3, pointing to solid gains in employment, while the wages index drifted down five points to 25.6. After declining sharply last month, the prices paid index climbed four points to 42.2, indicating a slight pickup in the pace of input price increases, while the prices received index fell eight points to its lowest level in two years, at 5.4, pointing to a slowing of selling price increases. The current capital spending index declined ten points to 10.1, while the index for future capital spending rose six points to 25.0. Indexes for the six-month outlook for business activity and employment fell noticeably from last month, suggesting that firms were less optimistic about future conditions.

Set against this rather negative report from the Fed, is this upbeat assessment of the longer-term prospects for US manufacturing from the Peterson Institute – The US Manufacturing Base:

Four Signs of Strength it makes a compelling case for an industrial renaissance in the US. The four signs are:-

  1. US manufacturing output growth
  2. US manufacturing competitive performance relative to other sectors of the US economy
  3. US manufacturing productivity growth relative to other countries
  4. New evidence on outward expansion by US multinational corporations and economic activity by those same firms at home

Another factor supporting the stock market over the last few years has been the steady increase in dividends and share buybacks. According to Birinyi Associates, US corporations bought back $338.3bln of stock in H1 2014 – the most in any six month period since 2007. Here are some of the bigger names; although they account for less than half the H1 total:-

Name Ticker Buyback $blns
Apple APPL 32.9
IBM IBM 19.5
Exxon Mobil XOM 13.2
Pfizer PFE 10.9
Cisco CSCO 9.9
Oracle ORCL 9.8
Home Depot HD 7.6
Wells Fargo WFC 7.5
Microsoft MSFT 7.3
Qualcomm QCOM 6.7
Walt Disney DIS 6.5
Goldman Sachs GS 6.4

Source: Barclays and Wall Street Journal

Share buybacks are running at around twice their long run average and dividends have increased by 12% in the past year. On average, companies spend around 85% of their profits on dividends and share repurchases. This October 6th article from Bloomberg – S&P 500 Companies Spend 95% of Profits on Buybacks, Payouts goes into greater detail, but this particular section caught my eye:-

CEOs have increased the proportion of cash flow allocated to stock buybacks to more than 30 percent, almost double where it was in 2002, data from Barclays show. During the same period, the portion used for capital spending has fallen to about 40 percent from more than 50 percent.

The reluctance to raise capital investment has left companies with the oldest plants and equipment in almost 60 years. The average age of fixed assets reached 22 years in 2013, the highest level since 1956, according to annual data compiled by the Commerce Department.

I am cynical about share buybacks. If they are running at twice the average pace this suggests, firstly, that the “C suite” are more interested in their share options than their shareholders and, secondly, that they are still uncomfortable making capital expenditure decisions due to an utter lack of imagination and/or uncertainty about the political and economic outlook. Either way, this behaviour is not a positive long-term phenomenon. I hope it is mainly a response to the unorthodox policies of the Fed: and that there will be a resurgence in investment spending once interest rates normalise. This might also arrive sooner than expected due to a collapse in inflation rather than a rise in official rates.

The US economy will benefit from lower energy prices in the long term but the rebalancing away from the energy sector is likely to take time, during which the stock market will have difficulty moving higher. For the first time since 2008, the risks are on the downside as we head into 2015. Sector rotation is certainly going to feature prominently next year.

Last weeks National Association of Manufacturers – Monday Economic Report – 8th December 2014 shows the optimism of the manufacturing sector:-

Business leaders continue to reflect optimism about the coming months, with 91.2 percent of survey respondents saying they are either somewhat or very positive about their own company’s outlook. Moreover, manufacturers predict growth of 4.5 percent in sales and 2.1 percent in employment over the next 12 months, with both experiencing the strongest pace in at least two years. 

These findings were largely consistent with other indicators released last week. Most notably, the U.S. economy added 321,000 nonfarm payroll employees on net in November. This was well above the consensus estimate, and it was the fastest monthly pace since April 2011. Hiring in the manufacturing sector was also strong, with 28,000 new workers during the month. Since January, manufacturers have hired almost 15,000 workers on average each month, or 740,000 total since the end of 2009. In other news, manufacturing construction spending was also up sharply, increasing 3.4 percent in October and a whopping 23.0 percent year-over-year. 

These reports suggest that accelerating growth in demand and output is beginning to translate into healthier employment and construction figures, with businesses stepping up investments, perhaps as a sign of confidence. This should bode well for manufacturing employment as we move into 2015. In particular, the Institute for Supply Management’s (ISM) manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) remains strong, despite edging marginally lower in November. For instance, the production index has now been 60 or higher, which indicates robust expansionary levels, for seven straight months. Similarly, the new orders index has been 60 or higher for five consecutive months, and the export measure also noted some improvements for the month. 

Speaking of exports, the U.S. trade deficit changed little in October, edging marginally lower from the month before. Still, growth in goods exports was somewhat better than the headline figure suggested, with the value of petroleum exports declining on lower crude oil costs. The good news is that year-to-date manufactured goods exports have increased to each of our top-five trading partners so far this year.

They go on to temper this rosy scenario, which is why I anticipate the interruption to the smooth course of stock market returns during the next year :-

…growth in manufactured goods exports remains sluggish through the first 11 months of 2014, up just 1.1 percent relative to the same time frame in 2013. Not surprisingly, challenges abroad continue to dampen our ability to grow international sales.  New factory orders have declined for the third straight month, a disappointing figure particularly given the strength seen in other measures. In addition, the NAM/IndustryWeek survey noted that the expected pace of exports decelerated once again, mirroring the slow growth in manufactured goods exports noted above.

This week saw the release of revised Industrial Production and Capacity Utilisation data – this was the commentary from the Federal Reserve:-

Industrial production increased 1.3 percent in November after edging up in October; output is now reported to have risen at a faster pace over the period from June through October than previously published. In November, manufacturing output increased 1.1 percent, with widespread gains among industries. The rise in factory output was well above its average monthly pace of 0.3 percent over the previous five months and was its largest gain since February. In November, the output of utilities jumped 5.1 percent, as weather that was colder than usual for the month boosted demand for heating. The index for mining decreased 0.1 percent. At 106.7 percent of its 2007 average, total industrial production in November was 5.2 percent above its year-earlier level. Capacity utilization for the industrial sector increased 0.8 percentage point in November to 80.1 percent, a rate equal to its long-run (1972–2013) average.

This paints a positive picture but, with Capacity Utilisation only returning to its long-run trend rate, I remain concerned that the weakness of the energy sector will undermine the, still nascent, recovery in the broader economy in the near-term.

Conclusion and investment opportunities

The decline in the oil price, if it holds, should have a long-term benign effect on US growth and inflation. In the shorter term, however, the rebalancing of the economy away from the energy sector may take its toll, not just on the energy sector, but also on financial services – both the banks, which have lent the energy companies money, and the investors, who have purchased energy related debt. This will breed contagion with other speculative investment markets – lower quality bonds, small cap growth stocks and leveraged derivative investments of many colours.

Where the US stock market leads it is difficult for the rest of the world not to follow. The table below from March 2008 shows the high degree of monthly correlation of a range of stock indices to the Nasdaq Composite. In a QE determined world, I would expect these correlations to have risen over the last six years: –

Ticker Index Country 10 years 5 years 1 year
^IXIC Nasdaq Composite USA 1 1 1
^GSPC S&P 500 USA 0.8 0.86 0.83
^DWC Wilshire 5000 USA N/A 0.9 0.85
^AORD All Ords Australia 0.64 0.6 0.93
^BVSP Bovespa Brazil 0.62 0.53 0.83
^GSPTSE TSX Canada N/A 0.66 0.83
399300.SZ Shanghai Composite China N/A N/A 0.68
^GDAXI DAX Germany N/A 0.73 0.83
^HSI Hang Seng Hong Kong 0.6 0.54 0.79
^BSESN BSE Sensex India 0.44 0.5 0.75
^N225 Nikkei 225 Japan 0.51 0.49 0.87
^MXX IPC Mexico 0.67 0.56 0.33
RTS.RS RTS Russia N/A N/A 0.53
^KS11 Kospi South Korea 0.57 0.59 0.8
^FTSE FTSE100 UK N/A 0.57 0.87

Source: Timingcube.com

A decline in the S&P 500 will impact other developed markets, especially those reliant on the US for exports. 2015 will be a transitional year if oil prices remain depressed at current levels, yet the longer term benefit of lower energy prices will feed through to a recovery in 2016/2017. A crisis could ensue next year, but, with China, Japan and the EU continuing to provide quantitative and qualitative support, I do not believe the world’s “saviour” central banks are “pushing on a string” just yet. Inflation is likely to fall, global growth will be higher, but US stocks will, at best, mark time in 2015.

In bond markets, credit will generally be re-priced to reflect the increased risk of corporate defaults due to mal-investment in the energy sector. Carry trades will be unwound, favouring government bonds to some degree.

Recently heightened expectations of higher short term interest rates will recede. This should be supportive for the Real-Estate market. With a presidential election due in 2016 both the Democrats and the Republicans will be concocting policies to support house prices, jobs, average wages and the value of 401k’s. After three years of deliberation, the introduction of watered down QRM – Qualified Residential Mortgage – rules in October suggests this process is already in train.

Many investors have been waiting to enter the stock market, fearing that the end of QE would herald a substantial correction. 2015 might provide the opportunity but by 2016 I believe this window will have closed.