Italy and the repricing of European government debt

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Macro Letter – No 98 – 08-06-2018

Italy and the repricing of European government debt

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

I have never been a great advocate of long-term investment in fixed income securities, not in a world of artificially low official inflation indices and fiat currencies. Given the de minimis real rate of return I regard them as trading assets. I will freely admit that this has led me to make a number of investment mistakes, although these have generally been sins of omission rather than actual investment losses. The Italian political situation and the sharp rise in Italian bond yields it precipitated, last week, is, therefore, some justification for an investor like myself, one who has not held any fixed income securities since 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EZ 10yr yield change May 2018

Source: Investing.com

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

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

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

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

Conclusions and investment opportunities

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

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

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European Bonds – warning knell or cause for celebration?

European Bonds – warning knell or cause for celebration?

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Macro Letter – No 85 – 13-10-2017

European Bonds – warning knell or cause for celebration?

  • Greek bonds have been the best performer in the Eurozone year to date
  • IMF austerity is still in place but there are hopes they will relent
  • Portuguese bonds have also rallied since March whilst Spanish Bonos declined
  • German Bund yields are up 28bps since January heralding an end to ECB QE

Writing, as government bond yields for peripheral European markets peaked in Macro Letter – No 73 – 24-03-2017 – Can a multi-speed European Union evolve? I felt that another Eurozone crisis could not be ruled out:-

The ECB would almost certainly like to taper its quantitative easing, especially in light of the current tightening by the US. It reduced its monthly purchases from Eur 80bln per month to Eur 60bln in December but financial markets only permitted Mr Draghi to escape unscathed because he extended the duration of the programme from March to December 2017. Further reductions in purchases may cause European government bond spreads to diverge dramatically. Since the beginning of the year 10yr BTPs have moved from 166bp over 10yr German Bunds to 2.11% – this spread has more than doubled since January 2016.

Was I simply wrong or just horribly premature, only time will tell? The December end of the asset purchase programme is growing inexorably closer. So far, however, despite a rise in the popularity of AfD in Germany, the Eurozone seems to have maintained its equanimity. The Euro has not weakened but strengthened, European growth has improved (to +2.3% in Q2) and European stock markets have risen. But, perhaps, the most interesting development has occurred in European bond markets. Even as the Federal Reserve has raised short term interest rates, announcing the beginning of balance sheet reduction, and the ECB has continued to prepare the markets for an end to QE, peripheral bonds in Europe have seen a substantial decline in yields: and their respective spreads against the core German Bund have narrowed even further. Is this a sign of a more cohesive Europe and can the trend continue?

To begin here is a chart of the Greek 10yr and the German 10yr since January, the Bund yield is on the Left Hand Scale and the Greek 10yr Bond on the Right:-

Greece vs Germany 10yr yield 2017

Source: Trading Economics

The table below looks at a selection of peripheral European markets together with the major international bond markets. Switzerland, which has the lowest 10yr yield of all, has been included for good measure. The table is arranged by change in yield:-

Bond_yields_Jan_vs_October_2017 (1)

Source: Investing.com

This year’s clear winners are Greece and Portugal – the latter was upgraded to ‘investment grade’ by S&P in September. It is interesting to note that despite its low absolute yield Irish Gilts have continued to converge towards Bunds, whilst BTPs and Bonos, which yield considerably more, have been tentatively unnerved by the prospect of an end to ECB largesse.

As an aside, the reluctance of the Bonos to narrow versus BTPs (it closed to 41bp on 4th October) even in the face of calls for Catalonian independence, appears to indicate a united Spain for some while yet. Don’t shoot the messenger I’m only telling you what the markets are saying; in matters of politics they can be as wrong as anyone.

Where now for European bonds?

A good place to start when attempted to divine where the European bond markets may be heading is by considering the outcome of the German election. Wolfgang Bauer of M&G Bond Vigilantes – Angela Merkel’s Pyrrhic victory – writing at the end of last month, prior to the Catalan vote, takes up the story:-

Populism is back with a vengeance

One of the most striking election results is certainly the strong performance of the right-wing nationalist AfD (12.6%). Not only is the party entering the German Bundestag for the first time but the AfD is going to become the third largest faction in parliament. If the grand coalition is continued – which can’t be ruled out entirely at this point – the AfD would de facto become the opposition leader. While this is certainly noteworthy, to say the least, the direct political implications are likely to be minimal. None of the other parties is going to form a coalition with them and AfD members of parliament are likely to be treated as political pariahs. We have seen this happening in German state parliaments many times before.

However, I think there might be two important indirect consequences of the AfD’s electoral success. First, within Germany the pressure on Merkel, not least from her own party, with regards to policy changes is going to build up. For obvious reasons, preventing the rise of a right-wing nationalist movement has been a central dogma in German politics. That’s out of the window now after the AfD’s double digits score last night – on Merkel’s watch. In the past, she has been willing to revise long-held positions (on nuclear power, the minimum wage, same sex marriage etc.) when she felt that sentiment amongst voters was shifting. In order to prise back votes from the AfD she might change tack again, possibly turning more conservative, with a stricter stance on migration, EU centralisation and so on.

Secondly, the success of the AfD at the ballot box might challenge the prevailing narrative, particularly since the Dutch and French elections, that anti-EU populism is on the decline. This could have implications for markets, which arguably have become somewhat complacent in this regard. The Euro, which has been going from strength to strength in recent months, might get under pressure. Compressed peripheral risk premiums for government and corporate bonds might widen again, considering that there are more political events on the horizon, namely the Catalan independence referendum as well as elections in Austria and Italy.

This sounds remarkably like my letter from March. Was it simply that I got my timing wrong or are we both out of kilter with the markets?

The chart below shows the steady decline in unemployment across Europe:-

European Unemployment - BNP Paribas

Source: BNP Paribas Asset Management, Datastream

The rate of economic expansion in European is increasing and measures of the popularity of the Eurozone look robust. Nathalie Benatia of BNP Paribas – Yes, Europe is indeed back puts it like this:-

…take some time to look at this chart from the European Commission’s latest ‘Standard Eurobarometer’, which was released in July 2017 and is based on field surveys done two months earlier, just after the French presidential election, an event that shook the world (or, at least, the French government bond market). Suffice it to say that citizens of eurozone countries have never been so fond of the single currency.

EZ survey July 2017

Source: European Commission, Eurobarometer Spring 2017, Public Opinion in the European Union, BNP Paribas Asset Management

The political headwinds, which I clearly misjudged in March, are in favour of a continued convergence of Eurozone bonds. Italy and Spain offer some yield enhancement but Portugal and Greece, despite a spectacular performance year to date, still offer more value. The table below shows the yield for each market at the end of November 2009 (when European yield convergence was at its recent zenith) and the situation today. The final column shows the differential between the spreads:-

Euro_Bond_spreads_2009_versus_2017

Source: Investing.com

Only Irish Gilts look overpriced on this metric. Personally I do not believe the yield differentials exhibited in 2009 were justified: but the market has been proving me wrong since long before the introduction of the Euro in 1999. Some of you may remember my 1996 article on the difference between US municipal bond yields and pre-Euro government bond yields of those nations joining the Euro. I feared for the German tax payer then – I still do now.

I expect the yield on Bunds to slowly rise as the ECB follows the lead of the Federal Reserve, but this does not mean that higher yielding European bond markets will necessarily follow suit. I continue to look for opportunities to buy Bonos versus BTPs if the approach parity but I feel I have missed the best of the Greek convergence trade for this year. Hopes that the IMF will desist in their demands for continued austerity has buoyed Greek bonds for some while. The majority of this anticipated good news is probably already in the price. If you are long Greek bonds then Irish Gilts might offer a potential hedge against the return of a Eurozone crisis, although the differential in volatility between the two markets will make this an uncomfortable trade in the meanwhile.

Back in March I expected European bond yields to rise and spreads between the periphery and the core to widen, I certainly got that wrong. Now convergence is back in fashion, at least for the smaller markets, but Europe’s political will remains fragile. The party’s in full swing, but don’t be the last to leave.