Global Real Estate and the end of QE – Is it time to be afraid?

Global Real Estate and the end of QE – Is it time to be afraid?

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Macro Letter – No 86 – 03-11-2017

Global Real Estate and the end of QE – Is it time to be afraid?

  • Rising interest rates and higher bond yields are here to stay
  • Real estate prices seem not to be affected by higher finance costs
  • Household debt continues to rise especially in advanced economies
  • Real estate supply remains constrained and demand continues to grow

During the past two months two of the world’s leading central banks have begun the process of unwinding or, at least, tapering the quantitative easing which was first initiated after the great financial recession of 2008/2009. The Federal Reserve FOMC statement for September and their Addendum to the Policy Normalization Principles and Plans from June contain the details of the US bank’s policy change. The ECB Monetary policy decision from last week explains the European position.

Whilst the Federal Reserve is reducing its balance sheet by allowing US treasury holdings to mature, the US government has already breached its debt ceiling and will need to issue new bonds. The pace of US money supply growth is unlikely to be reversed. Nonetheless, 10yr US bond yields have risen from a low of 1.35% in July 2016 to more than 2.6% earlier this year. They currently yield around 2.4%. Over the same period 2yr US bond yields have risen from 0.49% to a new high, this week, of 1.60% – their highest since October 2008.

Back in April I wrote about the anomaly in the US interest rate swaps market – US 30yr Swaps have yielded less than Treasuries since 2008 – does it matter? What is interesting to note, in relation to global real estate, is that the 10yr Swap spread over US Treasuries (which is currently negative) has remained stable at -8bp during the recent rise in yields. Normally as interest rates on government bonds declines credit spreads tighten – as rates rise these spreads widen. So far, this has not come to pass.

In the US, mortgages are, predominantly, long-term and fixed rate. US 30yr mortgage rates has also risen since July 2016 – from 2.09% to 3.18% at the end of December. Since then rates have moderated, they now stand at 2.89%, approximately 1% above US 30yr bonds. The chart below shows the spread since July 2016:-

30yr_Mortgage_-_Bond_Spread_July_2016_to_October_2

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

Apart from the aberration during the US presidential elections the spread between 30yr US Treasuries and 30yr Mortgages has been steadily narrowing despite the tightening of short term interest rates and the increase in yields across the maturity spectrum.

Mortgage finance costs have increased since July 2016 but by less than 50bp. What impact has this had on real estate prices? The chart below shows the S&P Case-Shiller House Price Index since 2006, the increase in mortgage rates has failed to slow the rise in prices. The year on year increase is currently running at 5.6% and forecasters predict this rate to increase to 5.8% when September data is released:-

SandP_Shiller_Case_House_Price_Index_-_2006-2017_Q

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, S&P Case-Shiller

At the global level house prices have not taken out their pre-crisis highs, as this chart from the IMF reveals:-

globalhousepriceindex_lg

Source: IMF, BIS, ECB, Federal Reserve, Savills

The latest IMF – Global Housing Watch – report for Q2 2017 is sanguine. They take comfort from the broad range of macroprudential measures which have been introduced during the past decade.

The IMF go on to examine house price increases on a country by country basis:-

housepricesaroundtheworld_lg

Source: IMF, BIS, ECB, Federal Reserve, Savills, Sinyl Real Estate

The OECD – Focus on house priceslooks at a variety of different metrics including changes in real house prices: the OECD average is more of less where it was in 2010 having dipped during 2011/2012 – here is breakdown across a selection of regions. Please note the charts are rather historic they stop at January 2014:-

OECD Real Estate charts 2010 -2014

Source: OECD

The continued fall in Japanese prices is not entirely surprising but the steady decline of the Euro area is significant.

Similarly historic data is contained in the chart below which ranks countries by Price to Income and Price to Rent. Portugal, Germany, South Korea and Japan remain inexpensive by these measures, whilst Belgium, New Zealand, Canada, Norway and Australia remain expensive. The UK market also appears inflated but the decline in Sterling may be a supportive factor: international capital is flowing into the UK after the devaluation:-

Real Estate P-E and P-R chart OECD

Source: OECD

Bringing the data up to date is the Knight Frank’s global house price index, for Q2 2017. The table below is sorted by real return:-

Real_Estate_Real_Return_Q2_2017_Knight_Frank

Source: Knight Frank, Trading Economics

There is a saying in the real estate market, ‘all property is local’. Prices vary from region to region, from street to street, however, the data above paints a picture of a global real estate market which has performed strongly in response to the lowering of interest rates. As the table below illustrates, the percentage of countries recording positive annual price changes is now at 89%, well above the levels of 2007, when interest rates were higher:-

Real_Estate_Price_Change_-_Knight_Frank

Source: Knight Frank

The low interest rate environment has stimulated a rise in household debt, especially in advanced economies. The IMF – Global Financial Stability Report October 2017 makes sombre reading:-

Although finance is generally believed to contribute to long-term economic growth, recent studies have shown that the growth benefits start declining when aggregate leverage is high. At business cycle frequencies, new empirical studies—as well as the recent experience from the global financial crisis—have shown that increases in private sector credit, including household debt, may raise the likelihood of a financial crisis and could lead to lower growth.

These two charts show the rising trend globally but the relatively undemanding levels of indebtedness typical of the Emerging Market countries:-

IMF_Household_Debt_to_GDP_ratios_-_Advanced_Econom

Source: IMF

IMF_Household_Debt_to_GDP_ratios_-_Emerging_Econom

Source: IMF

As long ago at February 2015 – McKinsey – Debt and (not too much) deleveraging – sounded the warning knell:-

Seven years after the bursting of a global credit bubble resulted in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, debt continues to grow. In fact, rather than reducing indebtedness, or deleveraging, all major economies today have higher levels of borrowing relative to GDP than they did in 2007. Global debt in these years has grown by $57 trillion, raising the ratio of debt to GDP by 17 percentage points.

According to the Institute of International Finance Q2 2017 global debt report – debt hit a new all-time high of $217 trln (327% of global GDP) with China leading the way:-

iif china debt to GDP

Source: IIF

Household debt is growing in China but from a relatively low base, it is as the IMF observe, the advanced economies where households are becoming addicted to low interest rates and cheap finance.

Conclusions and investment opportunities

Economist Global House prices

Source: The Economist

The chart above shows a few of the winners since 1980. The real estate market remains sanguine, trusting that the end of QE will be a gradual process. Although as a recent article by Frank Shostak – Can gradual interest rate tightening prevent shocks? reminds us, ‘…there is no such thing as “shock-free” monetary policy’:-

Can a gradual tightening prevent an economic bust?

Since monetary growth, whether expected or unexpected, gives rise to the redirection of real savings it means that any monetary tightening slows down this redirection. Various economic activities, which sprang-up on the back of strong monetary pumping, because of a tighter monetary stance get now less real funding. This in turn means that these activities are given less support and run the risk of being liquidated.  It is the liquidation of these activities what an economic bust is all about.

Obviously, then, the tighter monetary stance by the Fed must put pressure on various false activities, or various artificial forms of life. Hence, the tighter the Fed gets the slower the pace of redirection of real savings will be, which in turn means that more liquidation of various false activities will take place. In the words of Ludwig von Mises,

‘The boom brought about by the banks’ policy of extending credit must necessarily end sooner or later. Unless they are willing to let their policy completely destroy the monetary and credit system, the banks themselves must cut it short before the catastrophe occurs. The longer the period of credit expansion and the longer the banks delay in changing their policy, the worse will be the consequences of the malinvestments and of the inordinate speculation characterizing the boom; and as a result the longer will be the period of depression and the more uncertain the date of recovery and return to normal economic activity.’

Consequently, the view that the Fed can lift interest rates without any disruption doesn’t hold water. Obviously if the pool of real savings is still expanding then this may mitigate the severity of the bust. However, given the reckless monetary policies of the US central bank it is quite likely that the US economy may already has a stagnant or perhaps a declining pool of real savings. This in turn runs the risk of the US economy falling into a severe economic slump.

We can thus conclude that the popular view that gradual transparent monetary policies will allow the Fed to tighten its stance without any disruptions is based on erroneous ideas. There is no such thing as a “shock-free” monetary policy any more than a monetary expansion can ever be truly neutral to the market.

Regardless of policy transparency once a tighter monetary stance is introduced, it sets in motion an economic bust. The severity of the bust is conditioned by the length and magnitude of the previous loose monetary stance and the state of the pool of real savings.

If world stock markets catch a cold central banks will provide assistance – though not perhaps to the same degree as they did last time around. If, however, the real estate market begins to unravel the impact on consumption – and therefore on the real economy – will be much more dramatic. Central bankers will act in concert and with determination. If the problem is malinvestment due to artificially low interest rates, then further QE and a return to the zero bound will not cure the malady: but this discussion is for another time.

What does quantitative tightening – QT – mean for real estate? In many urban areas, the increasing price of real estate is a function of geography and the limitations of infrastructure. Shortages of supply are difficult (and in some cases impossible) to alleviate; it is unlikely, for example, that planning consent would be granted to develop Central Park in Manhattan or Hyde Park in London.

Higher interest rates and weakness in household earnings growth will temper the rise in property prices. If the markets run scared it may even lead to a brief correction. More likely, transactional activity will diminish. A price collapse to the degree we witnessed in 2008/2009 is unlikely to recur. Those markets which have risen most may exhibit a greater propensity to decline, but the combination of steady long term demand and supply constraints, will, if you’ll pardon the pun, underpin global real estate.

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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.

Rising yields and rising correlation in major bond markets – end of cycle or correction?

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Macro Letter – No 36 – 22-05-2015

Rising yields and rising correlation in major bond markets – end of cycle or correction?

  • European bond yields have risen following the lead of US treasuries
  • Yield curves are steepening despite minimal inflation
  • A return to the natural rate of interest seems unlikely
  • Over-indebtedness will stifle GDP growth and yields will fall

Since the beginning of 2015 the world’s largest bond markets have witnessed increasing yields. In the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis many economies decoupled and their government bond markets followed suit. Now correlations are rising once more. The table below, which is a snapshot of prices on Tuesday morning 19th May, looks at a broad range of developed bond markets:-

Bond & Maturity Yield Low Date Change CPI Real yield 10yr-2yr
Australia 2Y 2.035
Australia 5Y 2.305
Australia 10Y 2.92 2.236 March 0.684 1.3 1.62 0.885
Canada 2Y 0.646
Canada 5Y 1.006
Canada 10Y 1.711 1.23 February 0.481 1.2 0.511 1.065
Denmark 2Y -0.299
Denmark 5Y 0.088
Denmark 10Y 0.786 0.075 February 0.711 0.5 0.286 1.085
France 2Y -0.162
France 5Y 0.182
France 10Y 0.832 0.332 April 0.5 0.1 0.732 0.994
Germany 2Y -0.21
Germany 5Y 0.026
Germany 10Y 0.563 0.049 April 0.514 0.5 0.063 0.773
Italy 2Y 0.108
Italy 5Y 0.697
Italy 10Y 1.753 1.041 March 0.712 -0.1 1.853 1.645
Japan 2Y -0.002
Japan 5Y 0.103
Japan 10Y 0.388 0.199 January 0.189 2.3 -1.912 0.39
New Zealand 2Y 3.09
New Zealand 5Y 3.25
New Zealand 10Y 3.74 3.085 January 0.655 0.1 3.64 0.65
Norway 2Y 0.857
Norway 5Y 1.035
Norway 10Y 1.676 1.202 February 0.474 2 -0.324 0.819
Sweden 2Y -0.331
Sweden 5Y 0.169
Sweden 10Y 0.691 0.216 April 0.475 -0.2 0.891 1.022
Switzerland 2Y -0.839
Switzerland 5Y -0.48
Switzerland 10Y -0.003 -0.28 January 0.281 -1.1 1.097 0.836
UK 2Y Yield 0.537
UK 5Y Yield 1.39
UK 10Y Yield 1.892 1.337 January 0.555 -0.1 1.992 1.355
US 2Y Yield 0.565
US 5Y Yield 1.506
US 10Y Yield 2.193 1.63 January 0.563 -0.1 2.293 1.628

Source: Investing.com and Trading Economics

I’ve highlighted some of the data. The highest real 10yr yield is to be found in New Zealand (3.64%) but US T-Bonds lie second. The lowest real yield is evident in Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) however, a quick glance at the shape of the Japanese yield curve suggests that inflation, or perhaps I should say deflation, expectations are firmly anchored at near zero, despite repeated bouts of Abenomic stimulus. Japan has the flattest yield curve. The US curve is second steepest, behind Italy, where the spread between 2yr and 10yr is 164.5bp. Italy has also seen the largest rise in yields since its low back in March, although Danish yields have risen to a similar degree as its non-Euro “safe haven” status has waned.

A number of factors have driven yields higher. In the Eurozone (EZ) concern about a Greek exit initially stimulated a “flight to safety” in government securities – other than Greek government bonds – this spilled over into Swiss Confederation bonds. Switzerland remains the ultimate “safe haven”. As yields in the EZ declined to record lows, capital also flowed into EZ stocks. At the same time economic data began to turn more positive, prompted further flows into equities. The last EZ bond markets to turn lower were France and Germany, last month.

Outside the EZ, the US economy has seen mixed data but GDP growth remains steady. Expectations of Federal Reserve rate increases, whilst still some way off (current consensus January 2016) weigh on the T-Bond market. A rebound in crude oil and weakening of the US$ TWI since its highs in early March have also seen an unwinding of bullish US$ and US Treasury exposures.

Stock markets have so far paid little heed to the bond markets. The S&P500 made new highs this week. Canada, Japan, Germany and the UK all made highs in April whilst the Australian ASX retouched its March highs during the month. Even New Zealand, with the second flattest yield curve and structurally higher real interest rate curve, is less than 4% off its all-time highs.

Inflation expectations and real returns

Earlier this week saw the publication of this first part of a two part article about inflation expectations from the NY Fed – FRBNY DSGE Model Forecast–April 2015:-

The top panel in the chart below presents quarterly forecasts for real output growth and the core PCE inflation rate over the 2014-17 horizon. These forecasts were produced on April 9 using data released through 2014:Q4, augmented for 2015:Q1 with a “nowcast” for GDP growth, core PCE inflation, and growth in total hours, and 2015:Q1 observations for financial variables. The reason for using nowcasts is that the model is estimated on National Income and Product Accounts data, which are only available with a lag. Nowcasts incorporate up-to-date information, and this tends to improve short-run forecasts, as shown here. The black line represents released data, the red line is the forecast, and the shaded areas mark the uncertainty associated with our forecasts at 50, 60, 70, 80, and 90 percent probability intervals. Output growth and inflation are expressed in quarter-to-quarter percentage annualized rates. 

NY Fed PCE GDP forecasts

Source: NY Fed

The FRBNY DSGE forecast for output growth is slightly stronger than it was in our earlier blog post which used data ending in July 2014. This difference is highlighted in the bottom left panel of the chart, which compares current (solid line) and September (dashed line) forecasts. The model projects the economy to grow 1.9 percent in 2015 (Q4/Q4), 2.1 percent in 2016 and 2.2 percent in 2017. The headwinds that slowed down the economy in the aftermath of the financial crisis are finally abating. This is reflected in the model-implied “natural” level of output and the “natural” rate of interest, which are defined as the counterfactual level of output and interest rate that would obtain in an ideal economy where nominal rigidities, markup (or cost-push) shocks, and financial frictions are absent. Estimates of the recent natural level of output show a more rapid growth as the headwinds facing the economy are fading. As we will discuss at length in our next post, the natural rate of interest is finally increasing toward positive ranges, after having been negative for the entire post-Great Recession period.  The recovery has been relatively slow, however, with economic activity remaining below its natural level since the end of 2008 and projected to remain so throughout the forecast horizon. The model thus predicts a very gradual closing of the output gap, measured as the percentage deviation of actual output from natural output (although there is much uncertainty about the gap forecast). This output gap, along with its forecast, is shown in the next chart. 

NY Fed Output Gap

Source: NY Fed

…In conclusion, the FRBNY DSGE model continues to predict a gradual recovery in economic activity with a slow return of inflation toward the FOMC’s long-run target of 2 percent, as the negative effect of the Great Recession dissipates. This forecast remains surrounded by significant uncertainty, with the risks slightly skewed to the downside for output growth because of the constraint on policy imposed by the zero lower bound. 

The Peterson Institute – Quantity Theory of Money Redux? Will Inflation Be the Legacy of Quantitative Easing? Examines the classical monetarist argument that QE will eventually lead to inflation, this is their conclusion:-

On balance, the risk of severe inflation resulting from the buildup of the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve in association with quantitative easing seems low. To begin with, the US economy has not experienced inflation driven by excessive money expansion since at least the mid-1980s. Indeed, the rising demand for money, as the opportunity cost of holding money fell with lower inflation, has meant that over the past three decades there has been a tendency for faster money growth(relative to real GDP) to be associated with lower rather than higher inflation. The supply-focused quantity theory of money broke down. The pattern associating rapid money growth with low inflation since the mid-1980s would require a sharp reversal for money supply to become the proximate cause of inflation. In the meantime, it seems fair to say that in the United States inflation is determined by labor market and product market tightness (in the Phillips curve tradition), and that the opposing proposition that “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon” (Friedman’s summary of the quantity theory) does not hold in a narrow sense relating to money supply.

A second important phenomenon is that inflation has remained low despite a large buildup in the Fed’s balance sheet not because the velocity of broad money has collapsed, but because the money multiplier has done so. Because of a large increase in excess bank reserves equal to nearly three-fourths of the increase in the Federal Reserve’s total assets, the usual money multiplier (inverse of the reserve requirement ratio) no longer holds. Broad money was 14 times the money base in 2007; by end-2014 it was only 4 times the money base.

A third observation is that arguably this same phenomenon could pose a risk of inflationary money expansion when and if banks start to draw down excess reserves.

Fourth, the principal implication for policy purposes is that the Federal Reserve will need to be particularly adept in avoiding any inflationary pressures that might develop from the unwinding of large excess bank reserves as more normal monetary conditions return. The Fed has clearly given considerable attention to this task and at present plans to use higher interest rates on excess reserves as needed to control such pressures. Indeed, the authority to pay interest on reserves is what will enable the Fed to raise rates when necessary, because otherwise an incipient rise in the short-term interest rate would quickly be choked off as banks ran down excess reserves to take advantage of the higher interest rates.

Fifth, because quantitative easing constitutes navigating in uncharted waters, there is some non-zero probability that inflation could nevertheless still be the consequence of potential money supply expansion resulting from QE.

The key element in their assessment is the “multiplier effect”, bank reserve requirements have increased globally since 2008, QE has merely offset the tightening of credit conditions, but in the process it has crowded out the private sector – which is where real-GDP growth is generated.

A more deflationary view of the current environment is provided in the quarterly letter from Hoisington Asset Management, here are Lacy Hunt’s six characteristics of highly over-indebted nations:-

1. Transitory upturns in economic growth, inflation and high-grade bond yields cannot be sustained because debt is too much of a constraint on economic activity.

2. Due to inherently weak aggregate demand, economies are subject to structural downturns without the typical cyclical pressures such as rising interest rates, inflation and exhaustion of pent-up demand.

3. Deterioration in productivity is not inflationary but just another symptom of the controlling debt influence.

4. Monetary policy is ineffectual, if not a net negative.

5. Inflation falls dramatically, increasing the risk of deflation.

6. Treasury bond yields fall to extremely low levels.

…Many assume that economies can only contract in response to cyclical pressures like rising interest rates and inflation, fiscal restraint, over-accumulation of inventories, or the stock of consumer and corporate capital goods. This idea is valid when debt levels are normal but becomes problematic when debt is excessively high.

Large parts of Europe contracted last year for the third time in the past four years as interest rates and inflation plummeted. The Japanese economy has turned down numerous times over the past twenty years while interest rates were low. Indeed, this has happened so often that nominal GDP in Japan is currently unchanged for the past twenty-three years. This is confirmation that after a prolonged period of taking on excessive debt additional debt becomes counterproductive.

…Falling productivity does not cause faster inflation. The weaker output per hour is a consequence of the over-indebtedness as much as the other five characteristics mentioned above. Productivity is a complex variable impacted by many cyclical and structural influences. Productivity declines during recessions and declines sharply in deep ones.

…Monetary policy impacts the overall economy in two areas – price effects and quantity effects. Price effects, or changes in short-term interest rates, are no longer available because rates are near the zero bound. This is a result of repeated quantitative easing by central banks. It is an attempt to lift overly indebted economies by encouraging more borrowing via low interest rates, thus causing even greater indebtedness.

Quantity effects also don’t work when debt levels are excessive. In a non-debt constrained economy, central banks have the capacity, with lags, to exercise control over money and velocity. However, when the debt overhang is excessive, they lose control over both money and velocity. Central banks can expand the monetary base, but this has little or no impact on money growth.

…In periods of extreme over-indebtedness Treasury bond yields can fall to exceptionally low levels and remain there for extended periods. This pattern is consistent with the Fisher equation that states the nominal risk-free bond yield equals the real yield plus expected inflation (i=r+E*). Expected inflation may be slow to adjust to reality, but the historical record indicates that the adjustment inevitably occurs.

The Fisher equation can be rearranged algebraically so that the real yield is equal to the nominal yield minus expected inflation (r=i–E*). Understanding this is critical in determining how unleveraged investors fare. Suppose that this process ultimately reduces the bond yield to 1.5% and expected inflation falls to -1%. In this situation the real yield would be 2.5%. The investor would receive the 1.5% coupon but the coupon income would be supplemented since the dollars received will have a greater purchasing power. A 1.5% nominal yield with real income lift might turn out to be an excellent return in a deflationary environment. Contrarily, earnings growth is problematic in deflation. Businesses must cut expenses faster than the prices of goods or services fall.

Hunt goes on to predict that yields may rise but this presents an opportunity to buy rather than signalling the end of the bond bull market.

A slightly contrasting view is expressed by Bill Gross in Janus Capital – Investment Outlook:-

Because of this stunted growth, zero based interest rates, and our difficulty in escaping an ongoing debt crisis, the “sense of an ending” could not be much clearer for asset markets. Where can a negative yielding Euroland bond market go once it reaches (–25) basis points? Minus 50? Perhaps, but then at some point, common sense must acknowledge that savers will no longer be willing to exchange cash Euros for bonds and investment will wither. Funny how bonds were labeled “certificates of confiscation” back in the early 1980’s when yields were 14%. What should we call them now? Likewise, all other financial asset prices are inextricably linked to global yields which discount future cash flows, resulting in an Everest asset price peak which has been successfully scaled, but allows for little additional climbing. Look at it this way: If 3 trillion dollars of negatively yielding Euroland bonds are used as the basis for discounting future earnings streams, then how much higher can Euroland (Japanese, UK, U.S) P/E’s go? Once an investor has discounted all future cash flows at 0% nominal and perhaps (–2%) real, the only way to climb up a yet undiscovered Everest is for earnings growth to accelerate above historical norms. Get down off this peak, that F. Scott Fitzgerald once described as a “Mountain as big as the Ritz.” Maybe not to sea level, but get down. Credit based oxygen is running out.

But what should this rational investor do? Breathe deeply as the noose is tightened at the top of the gallows? Well no, asset prices may be past 70 in “market years”, but savoring the remaining choices in terms of reward / risk remains essential. Yet if yields are too low, credit spreads too tight, and P/E ratios too high, what portfolio or set of ideas can lead to a restful, unconscious evening ‘twixt 9 and 5 AM? That is where an unconstrained portfolio and an unconstrained mindset comes in handy. 35 years of an asset bull market tends to ingrain a certain way of doing things in almost all asset managers. Since capital gains have dominated historical returns, investment managers tend to focus on areas where capital gains seem most probable. They fail to consider that mildly levered income as opposed to capital gains will likely be the favored risk / reward alternative. They forget that Sharpe / information ratios which have long served as the report card for an investor’s alpha generating skills were partially just a function of asset bull markets. Active asset managers as well, conveniently forget that their (my) industry has failed to reduce fees as a percentage of assets which have multiplied by at least a factor of 20 since 1981. They believe therefore, that they and their industry deserve to be 20 times richer because of their skill or better yet, their introduction of confusing and sometimes destructive quantitative technologies and derivatives that led to Lehman and the Great Recession.

Hogwash. This is all ending. The successful portfolio manager for the next 35 years will be one that refocuses on the possibility of periodic negative annual returns and miniscule Sharpe ratios and who employs defensive choices that can be mildly levered to exceed cash returns, if only by 300 to 400 basis points. My recent view of a German Bund short is one such example. At 0%, the cost of carry is just that, and the inevitable return to 1 or 2% yields becomes a high probability, which will lead to a 15% “capital gain” over an uncertain period of time. I wish to still be active in say 2020 to see how this ends. As it is, in 2015, I merely have a sense of an ending, a secular bull market ending with a whimper, not a bang. But if so, like death, only the timing is in doubt. Because of this sense, however, I have unrest, increasingly a great unrest. You should as well.

I believe the world’s major central banks still have the capacity to provide support, should the bond and stock markets collapse, by the effective “quasi-nationalisation” of assets – both equity and fixed income, but I foresee a point where there is a public challenge to the legality of this activity as it crowds out the private sector. I also expect that investors will eventually realise that income generating assets must offer a real-return regardless of potential capital appreciation.

In aggregate, trading is a zero-sum game – except for the broker – investing, by contrast, is about generating long-term income. In a deflationary environment a government bond, should it prove to be risk-free, may offer good value even at next to the zero bound, but, for less fortunate bond holders, default risk needs to be compensated. What is a fair price for lending money to a grateful government? The Minneapolis Fed – Sovereign Default: The Role of Expectations takes a fresh approach to some of these issues. Thomas Piketty – Capital in the 21st Century suggests 5% is the long-term average return on investment, based on his extensive historical research – the link is to a Pdf presentation from 2014, which is easier than reading the 700 page book. Given developed nation governments propensity to run budget deficits, this seems a reasonable return. The only government offering close to 5% is New Zealand at 3.74%. Ironically, their Debt to GDP ratio is only 36% and they have run a small budget surplus for most of the last 40 years.

If risk premia are not permitted to return towards their long-run average, I envisage liquidity disappearing from bond and stock markets as public institutions – namely central banks – acquire the majority of bond issues and the free-float in “strategically important” stocks. Crowdfunding and microfinance may fill some of the gap and capital will flow to growing economies as the world order changes, but liquidity in the world’s largest capital markets may be in short supply. Fortunately, this somewhat apocalyptic view is a while away.

Bond yields may rise, but not significantly above 5%, at which juncture their respective economies will stall due to over-indebtedness – in reality I think it unlikely they will get anywhere near this level until pricing power in product markets returns. The FRBSF – Mortgaging the Future? Investigates the extraordinary expansion in credit since WWII and among their conclusions is the observation that the real estate sector has far greater impact on the economy than in the past. Of course the absolute return to savers is likely to remain pitiful, as this video, from the March conference of the Global Interdependence Centre – Policies for the Post Crisis Era, makes clear; Chris Whalen’s presentation starts around 4 minutes in and lasts for 10 minutes. It’s well worth considering his opinion that, for the world economy to function properly, interest rates need to rise and credit formation to rebound, lest the “wheel of circulation” – as originally described by Adam Smith – grind to an inexorable halt.

For most of the major Central banks, intervention will be undertaken if yield increases are deemed to be detrimental to the mortgage market, and, as bond yields then trend lower, stocks will rise.

At what rate will they intervene? The NY Fed recently commented on “the natural rate of interest” is this article – Why Are Interest Rates So Low?:-

In conclusion, the low level of interest rates experienced since 2008 is largely attributable to a reduction in the natural rate of interest, which reflects cautious behavior on the part of households and firms. Monetary policy has largely accommodated the decline in the natural rate of interest, in order to mitigate the adverse effects of the crisis, but the zero lower bound on interest rates has imposed a constraint on the ability of interest rate policy to stabilize the economy. Looking ahead, we expect these headwinds to continue to abate, and the natural rate of interest to return closer to historical levels.

This is somewhat at odds with thier DSGE forecast. Consensus indicates the natural rate of interest to be around 3% which equates to a nominal rate of 5% assuming an inflation target of 2%. The original concept of the natural rate of interest was introduced in 1898 by Knut Wicksell, it’s a slippery customer:-

…it is not a high or low rate of interest in the absolute sense which must be regarded as influencing the demand for raw materials, labour, and land or other productive resources, and so indirectly as determining the movement of prices. The causality factor is the current rate of interest on loans as compared to [the natural rate].

In the shorter term I do not believe bond investors will suffer too catastrophically. I’m indebted to Garth Friesen – III Capital Management –for the excellent charts below:-

Barclay bond index vs SandP - III Capital Management

Source: III Capital Management

You can read his assessment of the current situation in this article – Silencing the Roar of the Bond Bear. In the past 25 years the largest negative quarterly return from the Barclays bond index was -2.9%, that was back in 1994 when the Fed tightened interest rates abruptly, causing stocks and bonds to collapse in tandem. The next chart highlights the benefits of diversification, generally bonds flip when stocks flop:-

SandP vs Barclays Bond index 25 yr -III Cap Man

Source: III Capital Management

Conclusion and investment opportunities

If inflation is likely to remain subdued due to the excessive debt overhang, then the recent rise in bond prices is simply a correction. How far will this correction go or has it already run its course?

I could analyse each market, apply an array of technical analysis and establish a set of individual forecasts but I believe it is better to view these markets through the lens of the JGB market. Japan has been struggling with bouts of deflation since the 1990’s. Whilst most other nations – Switzerland being a notable exception – have only recently witnessed widespread falling prices, the evolution of inflation expectations are likely to follow a similar course.

japan-inflation-cpi

Source: Trading Economics and Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs

japan-government-bond-yield

Source: Trading Economics and Japanese Treasury

japan-interest-rate

Source: Trading Economics and Bank of Japan

As the Japanese stock market collapsed after 1989 inflation declined rapidly. JGBs, influenced by the rate tightening of the US Fed, suffered a rise in yields in 1994 but then declined once more – after all, the price index was now negative. Inflation witnessed a brief rebound ahead of the Asian Financial Crisis of 1998. The Bank of Japan (BoJ) left short term interest rates on hold and JGB yields declined again as the Asian Crisis gathered momentum.

Between 2000 and 2005 Japan struggled with mild deflation, despite expansionary monetary and fiscal policies. At the risk of being vilified for wild generalisation, this is the point where the other bond markets are now. The charts below cover the period 2001-2007, after the bursting of the US Technology Bubble and prior to the Sub-Prime collapse:-

japan-government-bond-yield 2001-2007

Source: Trading Economics and Japanese Treasury

japan-stock-market 2001-2007

Source: Trading Economics and Tokyo Stock Exchange

japan-currency 2001-2007

Source: Trading Economics

The table below extrapolates the corrections and counter-corrections of the JGB in the chart above and compares them to the German Bund and the US Treasury 10 year maturities:-

JGB 10yr Rise/Fall Change Bund 10yr Rise/Fall   Change US T-Bond 10yr Rise/Fall   Change
Range in bp BP % Equivalent bp BP % Equivalent bp BP %
55 – 185* 130* 236* 5 – 80* 75* 1500* 138 – 304* 166* 120*
185 – 120* -65* -35* 80 – 52 -28 35 304 – 163* -141* -46*
120 – 195* 75* 63* 52 – 85 33 63 163 – 266 103 63
195 – 160* -35* -18* 85 – 70 -15 -18 266 – 218 -48 -18
160 – 190* 30* 19* 70 – 83 13 19 218 –   259 41 19

*These figures are actual outcomes

Source: Investing.com and Tokyo Stock Exchange

I am taking the US T-Bond low (1.38%) of July 2012 to be the current nadir. It may now be embarking on a third corrective wave, if you believe in Elliott Wave theory, which could see yields rise toward 3% once more. The Bund correction, from 80bp to 55bp by 19th May, was probably too swift, meaning the market may break above 0.80% before yields decline again.

The price cycles in each of these markets are unlikely to tally either in duration or magnitude, but, after a capitulation in Europe, in which 10yr Bund yield almost turned negative, even the most ardent fixed income protagonists have been unable to justify remaining fully invested – we have now entered a corrective period. A 130bp rebound would take Bunds just above the 61.8% retracement of the recent decline (1.35%). This scale of correction would clear out the majority of weak hands.

Without inflation, growth prospects for the EZ will continue to rely on the benevolence of the ECB who announced additional QE measures earlier this week. Benoît Cœuré, Member of the Executive Board of the ECB, gave this speech on Monday – How binding is the zero lower bound?

Since 2007 JGB yields had marched steadily lower until this January; without some form of resolution of the over indebtedness of developed nations, yields will remain well below what used to be regarded as the natural rate of interest. 3% is likely to cap yields on 10yr US T-Bonds, Bunds will struggle to get above 2%. JGBs are more difficult to predict, but attempts at reflation are likely to fail whilst debt remains so high relative to GDP. The Japanese government cannot afford a doubling or tripling of its interest bill.

For the trader there is plenty of opportunity with yields ranges of 200 to 300bp, but beware of the void of liquidity that results from the absence of free-float. Rising bond correlation, rising yields and the lack of a “dealer of last resort” create dangers of their own.