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Tempest in a Microsecond

April 1, 2014 3 comments

News flash! High-frequency trading (HFT) is happening!

The “60 Minutes” piece on HFT that aired this weekend ensured that now, finally, everyone has heard of HFT. Even “60 Minutes” has now heard of it, four years after the Flash Crash and more than a decade after it began. Apparently the FBI is now suddenly concerned over this “latest blemish.”

Again, this is hardly new. Here is the record of Google search activity of the term “high frequency trading.”

Capture

So why is it that, for years, most of the world knew about HFT and yet no one did anything about it?? According to author Michael Lewis, the stock market is rigged! There should be an uproar (at least, there should be if you are selling a book). Why has there been no uproar previously?

To put it simply: this is a crime where it isn’t clear anyone is being hurt, Lewis’s panicky declaration notwithstanding. Except, that is, other high-frequency traders, who have fought over the tiny fractions of a penny so hard that the incidence of HFT is actually in decline. Let’s be clear about what HFT is, because there seems to be some misunderstanding (one commentator I saw summarized it as “the big banks buy the stock and then the retail investor buys it 5%-10% higher.” This would be a problem, if that’s what was happening. But it isn’t. The high frequency traders are playing for fractions of a penny. And the person they are stepping in front of may be your buy order, or it may be the offer you just bought from – if you ever see fills like $20.5999 when the offer was $20.60, then you were injured to the tune of minus 1/100 of a cent per share. The whole notion of HFT is to be in and out of a position in milliseconds, which basically limits expected profits to a fraction of the bid/offer. And when there are lots of high frequency traders crossing signals? Then the bid/offer narrows. That’s not a loss to you – it’s a gain.

High frequency traders aren’t just buying and pushing markets up. They are buying and selling nearly-instantly, scalping fractions of pennies. From all that we know, they have no net effect on prices. Indeed, from all that we know, both the beneficial aspects and the negative aspects remain unproven (see “What Do We Know About High Frequency Trading?” from Charles Jones of the Columbia Business School.

So, if you’re being ripped off, it’s far more likely that you’re being ripped off by commissions than that you’re being ripped off by the robots.

But let’s suppose that the robots do push prices up 5% higher than they would otherwise be. Either that’s the right price to pay…in which case they made the market more efficient by pushing it nearer to fair value…or it’s the wrong price to pay, in which case the only way they win is by selling it to someone who pays too much. If that’s you, then the robots aren’t the problem – you are. Stop giving them a greater fool to sell to, and they will lose money.

Now, this is all good advertising for another concept, which needs to be stated often to individual investors but probably could be said in a nicer way than “you’re getting ripped off by robots”: yes, the market is full of very, very smart people. And yet, on average returns cannot be above-average! This means that if you don’t know everything there is to know about TSLA and you buy it anyway, then you can be sure you will still own it, or be still buying it, when the smart guys decide it is time to sell it to you. They don’t have to have inside information to beat you – they just have to know more than you about the company, about valuations, about how it should be valued, and so on. This is why I very rarely buy individual equities. I am an expert in some things, but I don’t know everything there is to know about TSLA. I am the sucker at that table.

Long-time readers will know that I am no apologist for Wall Street. I spent plenty of time on that side of the phone, and I have seen the warts even though I also know that there are lots of good, honest people in the business. The biggest problems with Wall Street are (a) those good, honest people aren’t always fully competent, (b) the big banks are too big, so that when you get weak competence and very weak oversight combined with occasional dishonesty, there can be serious damage done, (c) there is not a strong enough culture at many firms of “client first;” although that doesn’t mean the culture is “me first,” it means the client’s needs sometimes are forgotten, and finally (d) the Street is not particularly creative when it comes to new product development.

And I don’t really like the algo traders and the movement of the business to have more robots in charge. But look, this trend (not necessarily HFT but automated trading) is what you get when you start regulating the heck out of the humans. Which do you want? Kill the robots, and you need more of those dastardly humans. Remove the humans, and those lightning-quick robots might trade in front of you. Choose. In both cases, you will be victimized less if you (a) trade large and liquid indices, not individual equities, and (b) trade infrequently.

The far bigger problem in my mind is the opacity, still, of bond trading and the very large bid/offer spreads that retail investors pay to buy or sell ordinary Treasury bonds that trade in large size – often billions – on tiny fractions of 1% of price. Think of it: in equities, with or without HFT you will get a better price for a 100-lot than for a 1,000,000-lot. But in bonds, you will get a vastly better price for a billion than for a thousand. Now that is where a retail investor should get angry.

A Curve Ball

I saw a story on MarketWatch on Monday which declared that the “Treasurys most sensitive to rising interest rates” had been ditched by investors while those investors instead were “gobbling up longer-term securities,” causing the curve to reach its flattest level since 2009. I thought that was interesting, since an inverted yield curve is a valuable indicator of potential recession.[1]

However, the MarketWatch article concerns the slope between the 5-year and 30-year Treasuries (see chart, source Bloomberg).

5y30y

Ordinarily, I watch the 2y-10y spread rather than the 5y-30y spread, because the 2-year rate is more responsive to near-term adjustments in Fed policy and the 10y note is more liquid than the 30y bond. And that spread hasn’t done anything of particular note (see chart, source Bloomberg).
2s10s

Obviously, the charts look similar, and as you can tell in both cases a flat or inverted curve is a precursor to recession. But I think in this case it may well make sense to look at the 5y-30y spread, as MarketWatch implicitly suggests. The 2-year note, which normally responds rapidly to changes in Fed policy, may not do so as much in this cycle because when the Fed starts to attempt to increase overnight interest rates, it is going to find it difficult to do. The 2-year note, which ordinarily impounds the expected tightening of monetary policy, must now also incorporate the fact that with trillions of dollars in excess reserves, overnight rates cannot be easily increased by the Fed except by increasing interest on excess reserves (IOER). Accordingly, as the Fed continues to tighten policy – first, by decreasing QE3 and then by trying to mop up the excess reserves – short rates themselves may not rise.

That is, people waiting for a curve inversion of 3m bills or 2-year notes to 10-year notes to signal the next recession are going to be late in reacting. The curve cannot invert, at least from 3-month or 2-year Treasuries to longer Treasuries, when the Fed is pinning short rates at zero. But it is possible that the curve could invert from 5-year notes, and I will be paying more attention than usual to that possibility now.

——-
Along with yesterday’s article I should have included the following chart (source: Bloomberg).

prch

This is a chart of the Mortgage Bankers’ Association Purchase index, and it illustrates that mortgage origination activity for the purpose of purchasing, rather than refinancing, a home has remained quite low ever since the bubble initially burst. This speaks again to my point from that article: the Fed’s purchases of MBS did not result in a surge in home-buying activity. There has been plenty of refi business, but the Fed didn’t need to buy MBS to cause an uptick in refi activity – they only needed to force interest rates generally lower (I concede that, early on, they were concerned about the MBS basis, but that hasn’t been an issue for several years).

But refinancing doesn’t increase home prices. New buying activity does, and the data seem to suggest that the marginal price here is being set by the cash buyer, whom the Fed’s MBS purchase program did nothing to help.

So the Fed’s buying of MBS did not do what it said it would do. In the event, all that it did was to remove risky securities from the market so that investors seeking risk were pushed into riskier securities (read: stocks). Was that its true purpose? Who knows…but what I am sure of is that the Fed didn’t do this for the avowed purpose of causing the one result they actually got: reducing negative convexity in the market.

And, in general, I find it disingenuous that the Fed claims credit for one clearly-unintended consequence, while disavowing all of the other unintended consequences, many of which haven’t yet been seen since the policy hasn’t ended.


 

[1]However, be clear on this: an inverted yield curve, specifically from the 3-month bill to the 10-year note, is highly predictive of a recession. But the opposite is not true. That is, you do not need an inverted curve to get a recession.

We’re the Government, and We’re Here to Help

March 24, 2014 1 comment

Today’s article will be brief (some might say blessedly so). The topic is the publication of an article on the NY Fed’s blog entitled “Convexity Event Risks in a Rising Interest Rate Environment.”

Long-time readers may recall that I wrote an article last year, with 10-year notes at 2.12%, called “Bonds and the ‘Convexity Trade’,” in which I commented that “the bond market is very vulnerable to a convexity trade to higher yields…the recent move to new high yields for the last 12 months could trigger such a phenomenon. If it does, then we will see 10-year note rates above 3% in fairly short order.” Within a few weeks, 10-year note yields hit 2.60% and eventually topped out at 3%.

Now, the Fed tells me that this selloff was “more gradual and therefore inconsistent with a sell-off driven primarily by convexity hedging.” I suppose in a way I can agree. The sell-off was primarily driven by the fact that the Fed had abused the hell out of the bond market and pushed it to unsustainable levels. But I don’t think that’s what they’re saying.

Indeed, the Fed is actually claiming credit for the fact that the selloff was only 140bps. You see, the reason that we didn’t get a convexity-based selloff – or at least, we only got the one, and not the one I was really concerned about, on a push over 3% – is because the Fed had bought so many mortgage-backed securities that there weren’t enough current-coupon MBS left to cause a debacle!

How wonderfully serendipitous it is that even the most egregious failures of the Federal Reserve turn out to benefit society in heretofore unexpected ways. You will recall that one of the main reasons given by the Federal Reserve to purchase mortgages in the first place was to help unfreeze the mortgage market, and to provoke additional mortgage origination. In that, it evidently failed, for if it had succeeded then the total amount of negative convexity in public hands would not have changed very dramatically. In fact, it would have been worse since the new origination would have been current coupons and replacing higher coupons.

The real reason that the convexity-spurred selloff wasn’t worse isn’t because the Fed had taken all of the current coupon MBS out of the market, but because the Fed continued to buy even in the move to higher yields. A negative-convexity selloff has two parts: the increased demand for hedging, and the decreased supply of counterparties to take the other side as the ball gets rolling. In this case, one big buyer remained, which emboldened dealers who knew they wouldn’t be stuck “holding the bag.” That is the reason that the selloff was “only” 140bps and not worse.

However, the observation that the Fed’s policy was a failure, as it did not stimulate vast amounts of new mortgage activity, remains. It is true that there is less negative convexity in the mortgage market than there would otherwise have been in the absence of Fed buying. But that’s an indictment, not exoneration.

Ex-Communication Policy

March 19, 2014 6 comments

Well, I guess it would be hard to have a clearer sign that investors are over their skis than to have the Fed drop the portion of their communique that was most-binding – in a move that was fully anticipated by almost everyone and telegraphed ahead of time by NY Fed President Dudley – and watch markets decline anyway.

To be sure, the stock market didn’t exactly plunge, but bonds took a serious hit and TIPS were smacked even worse. TIPS were mainly under pressure because there is an auction scheduled for tomorrow and it was dangerous to set up prior to the Fed meeting, not because there was something secretly hawkish about the Fed’s statement. Indeed, they took pains to say that “a highly accommodative stance of monetary policy remains appropriate,” and apparently they desire for policy to remain highly accommodative for longer relative to the unemployment threshold than they had previously expressed.

The next Fed tightening (let us pretend for a moment that the taper is not a tightening – it obviously is, but let’s pretend that we’re only talking about overnight interest rates) was never tied to a calendar, and it would be ridiculous to do so. But it seems that maybe some investors had fallen in love with the idea that the Fed would keep rates at zero throughout 2015 regardless of how strong or how weak the economy was at that time, so that when the Fed’s members projected that rates might reach 1% by the end of 2015 – be still, my heart! – these investors had a conniption.

Now, I fully expect the Fed to tighten too little, and too late. I also expect that economic growth will be sufficiently weak that we won’t see interest rates rise in 2015 despite inflation readings that will be borderline problematic at that time. But that view is predicated on my view of the economy and my assessment of the FOMC members’ spines, not on something they said. You should largely ignore any Fed communication unless it regards the very next meeting. They don’t know any better than you do what the economy is going to be doing by then. If they did, they would only need one meeting a year rather than eight. Focus on what the economy is likely to be doing, and you’ll probably be right more often than they are.

Arguably, this was not the right theory when the Fed was simply pinning rates far from the free-market level, but as the Fed’s boot comes off the market’s throat we can start acting like investors again rather than a blind, sycophantic robot army of CNBC-watching stock-buying machines.

Now, I said above that “the stock market didn’t exactly plunge,” and that is true. On the statement, it dropped a mere 0.3% or so. The market later set back as much as 1%, with bonds taking additional damage, when Chairman Yellen said that “considerable period” (as in “a considerable period between the end of QE and the first rate increase) might mean six months.

Does that tell you anything about the staying power of equity investors, that a nuance of six months rather than, say, nine or twelve months of low rates, causes the market to spill 1%? There are a lot of people in the market today who don’t look to own companies, but rather look to rent them. And a short-term rental, at that, and even then only because they are renting them with money borrowed cheaply. For the market’s exquisite rally to unravel, we don’t need the Fed to actually raise rates; we need markets to begin to discount higher rates. And this, they seem to be doing. Watch carefully if 10-year TIPS rates get back above 0.80% – the December peak – and look for higher ground if those real yields exceed 1%. We’re at 0.60% right now.

Stocks will probably bounce over the next few days as Fed speakers try and downplay the importance of the statement and of Yellen’s press conference remarks (rhetorical question: how effective is a communication strategy if you have to re-explain what you were communicating)? If they do not bounce, that ought also to be taken as a bad sign. Of course, I continue to believe that there are many more paths leading to bad outcomes for equities (and bonds!) than there are paths leading to good outcomes. Meanwhile, commodity markets were roughly unchanged in aggregate today…

Do Floating-Rate Notes (FRNs) Protect Against Inflation?

February 1, 2014 Leave a comment

Since the Treasury this week auctioned floating-rate notes (FRNs) for the first time, it seems that it is probably the right time for a brief discussion of whether FRNs protect against inflation.

The short answer is that FRNs protect against inflation slightly more than fixed-rate bonds, but not nearly as well as true TIPS-style bonds. This also goes, incidentally, for CPI-linked floaters that pay back par at maturity.

However, there are a number of advisors who advocate FRNs as an inflation hedge; my purpose here is to illustrate why this is not correct.

There are reasonable-sounding arguments to be made about the utility of FRNs as an inflation hedge. Where central bankers employ a Taylor-Rule-based approach, it is plausible to argue that short rates ought to be made to track inflation fairly explicitly, and even to outperform when inflation is rising as policymakers seek to establish positive real rates. And indeed, history shows this to be the case as LIBOR tracks CPI with some reasonable fidelity (the correlation between month-end 3m Libor and contemporaneous Y/Y CPI is 0.59 since 1985, see chart below, data sourced from Bloomberg).

liborcpi

It bears noting that the correlation of Libor with forward-looking inflation is not as strong, but these are still reasonable correlations for financial markets.

The correlation between inflation and T-Bills has a much longer history, and a higher correlation (0.69) as a result of tracking well through the ‘80s inflation (see chart below, source Bloomberg and Economagic.com).

tbillscpi

And, of course, the contemporaneous correlation of CPI to itself, if we are thinking about CPI-linked bonds, is 1.0 although the more-relevant correlation, given the lags involved with the way CPI floaters are structured, of last year’s CPI to next year’s CPI is only 0.63.

Still, these are good correlations, and might lead you to argue that FRNs are likely good hedges for inflation. Simulations of LIBOR-based bonds compared to inflation outcomes also appear to support the conclusion that these bonds are suitable alternatives to inflation-linked bonds (ILBs) like TIPS. I simulated the performance of two 10-year bonds:

Bond 1: Pays 1y Libor+100, 10y swaps at 2.5%.

Bond 2: Pays an annual TIPS-style coupon of 1.5%, with expected inflation at 2.0%.

Note that both bonds have an a priori expected nominal return of 3.5%, and an a priori expected real return of 1.5%.

I generated 250 random paths for inflation and correlated LIBOR outcomes. I took normalized inflation volatility to be 1.0%, in line with current markets for 10-year caps, and normalized LIBOR volatility to be 1.0% (about 6.25bp/day but it doesn’t make sense to be less than inflation, if LIBOR isn’t pegged anyway) with a correlation of 0.7, with means of 2% for expected inflation and 2.5% for expected LIBOR and no memory. For each path, I calculated the IRR of both bonds, and the results of this simulation are shown in the chart below.

nominalcorrs

You can see that the simulation produced a chart that seems to suggest that the nominal internal rates of return of nominal bonds and of inflation-linked bonds (like TIPS) are highly correlated, with a mean of about 3.5% in each case and a correlation of about 0.7 (which is the same as an r-squared, indicated on the chart, of 0.49).

Plugged into a mean-variance optimization routine, the allocation to one or the other will be largely influenced by the correlation of the particular bond returns with other parts of the investor’s portfolio. It should also be noted that the LIBOR-based bond may be more liquid in some cases than the TIPS-style bond, and that there may be opportunities for credit alpha if the analyst can select issuers that are trading at spreads which more than compensate for expected default losses.

The analysis so far certainly appears to validate the hypothesis that LIBOR bonds are nearly-equivalent inflation hedges, and perhaps even superior in certain ways, to explicitly indexed bonds. The simulation seems to suggest that LIBOR bonds should behave quite similarly to inflation-linked bonds. Since we know that inflation-linked bonds are good inflation hedges, it follows (or does it?) that FRNs are good inflation hedges, and so they are a reasonable substitute for TIPS. Right?

However, we are missing a crucial part of the story. Investors do not, in fact, seek to maximize nominal returns subject to limiting nominal risks, but rather seek to maximize real return subject to limiting real risks.[1]

If we run the same simulation, but this time calculate the Real IRRs, rather than the nominal IRRs, a very different picture emerges. It is summarized in the chart below.

realirrs

The simulation produced the assumed equivalent average real returns of 1.5% for both the LIBOR bond and the TIPS-style bond. But the real story here is the relative variance. The TIPS-style bond had zero variance around the expected return, while the LIBOR bond had a non-zero variance. When these characteristics are fed into a mean-variance optimizer, the TIPS-style bond is likely to completely dominate the LIBOR bond as long as the investor isn’t risk-seeking. This significantly raises the hurdle for the expected return required if an investor is going to include LIBOR-based bonds in an inflation-aware portfolio.

So what is happening here? The problem is that while the coupons in this case are both roughly inflation-protected, since LIBOR (it is assumed) is highly correlated to inflation, there is a serious difference in the value of the capital returned at the maturity of the bond. In one case, the principal is fully inflation-protected: if there has been 25% inflation, then the inflation-linked bond will return $125 on an initial $100 investment. But the LIBOR-based bond in this case, and in all other cases, returns only $100. That $100 is worth, in real terms, a widely varying amount (I should note that the only reason the real IRR of the LIBOR-based bond is as constrained as it appears to be in this simulation is because I gave the process no memory – that is, I can’t get a 5% compounded inflation rate, but will usually get something close to the 2% assumed figure. So, in reality, the performance in real terms of a LIBOR bond is going to be even more variable than this simulation suggests.

The resolution of the conundrum is, therefore, this: if you have a floating rate annuity, with no terminal value, then that is passably decent protection for an inflation-linked annuity. But as soon as you add the principal paid at maturity, the TIPS-style bond dominates a similar LIBOR bond. “Hooray! I got a 15% coupon! Boo! That means my principal is worth 15% less!”

The moral of the story is that if your advisor doesn’t understand this nuance, they don’t understand how inflation operates on nominal values in an investor’s portfolio. I am sorry if that sounds harsh, but what is even worse than the fact that so many advisors don’t know this is that many of those advisors don’t know that they don’t know it!


[1] N.b. Of course, they seek to maximize after-tax real returns and risks, but since the tax treatments of ILBs and Libor floaters are essentially identical we can abstract from this detail.

Shots Fired

January 29, 2014 8 comments

This isn’t the first time that stocks have corrected, even if it is the first time that they have corrected by as much as 4% in a long while. I point out that rather obvious fact because I want to be cautious not to suggest that equities are guaranteed to continue lower for a while. Yes, I have noted often that the market is overvalued and in December put the 10-year expected real return for stocks at only 1.54%. Earlier in that month, I pointed out and remarked on Hussman’s observation that the methods of Didier Sornette suggested a market “singularity” between mid-December and January. And, earlier this month, I followed up earlier statements in which I said I would be negative on stocks when momentum turned and added that I would sell new lows below the lows of the week of January 17th.

But none of that is a forecast of an imminent decline of appreciable magnitude, and I want to be clear of that. The high levels of valuation make any decline potentially dangerous since the levels that will attract serious value investors are so far away. But that is not tantamount to forecasting a waterfall decline, which I have not done and will not do. How does one forecast animal spirits? And that is exactly what a waterfall decline is all about. Yes, there may be precipitating events, but these are rarely known in prospect. Sure, stocks fell sharply after Bear Stearns in the summer of 2007 liquidated two mortgage-backed funds, but stocks reached new highs in October 2007. What happened in mid-October 2007 to trigger the top? Here is a crisis timeline assembled by the St. Louis Fed. There is basically nothing in October 2007. Similarly, as Bob Shiller has documented, at the time of the 1987 crash there was no talk whatsoever about portfolio insurance. The explanation came later. How about March 2000, the high on the Nasdaq (although the S&P 500 didn’t top until September)?

What two of these episodes – 2000 and 2007 – have in common is that valuations were stretched, but I think it’s important to note that there was no obvious precipitating factor at the time. It wasn’t until well into the stock market debacle in 2007-08 that it became obvious (even to Bernanke!) that the subprime crisis wasn’t just a subprime crisis.[1]

Here is my message, then: when you hear shots fired, it isn’t the best idea to wait around to figure out why people are shooting before you put your head down. Because as the saying goes: if the enemy is in range, so are you.

And, although it may not end up being a full-fledged firefight, shots are being fired, mere days before Janet Yellen takes the helm of the Fed officially (which may be ominous since Fed Chairmen are traditionally tested by markets early in their tenure). Last night, Turkey was forced to crank up money rates by about 450bps, depending which rate you look at. When Argentina was having currency issues, it wasn’t surprising – when you have runaway inflation, even if you declare inflation to be something else, the currency generally gets hit eventually. And Russia’s central bank was established only in 1990. But Turkey, about 65% larger in GDP terms than Argentina, is relatively modern economically and has a central bank that was established in the 1930s and has been learning lessons basically in parallel with our Fed since the early 1980s. Heck, it’s almost a member of the EU. So when that central bank starts cranking up rates to defend the currency, I take note. It may well mean nothing, but since global economics has been somewhat dull for the last year or so (and that’s a good thing), it stands out as something different.

What was not different today was the Fed’s statement, compared to its prior statement. The FOMC decided to continue the taper, down to “only” $65bln in purchases monthly now. This was never really in question. It would have been incredibly shocking if the Fed had paused tapering because of a mild ripple in global equity markets. The only real surprise was actually on the hawkish side, as Minnesota Fed President Kocherlakota did not dissent in favor of maintaining unchanged (or increased) stimulus – something he has been agitating for recently. Don’t get too used to the Fed being on the hawkish side of expectations, however. As noted above, Dr. Yellen takes the helm starting next week.

The Treasury held its first auction of floating rate notes (FRNs) today, and the auction was highly successful. And why should they not be? They are T-bill credits that reset to the T-bill rate quarterly, plus 4.5bps. In the next few days I will post an article explaining, however, why floating rate notes don’t provide “inflation protection;” there has been a lot of misinformation about that point, and while I explained why this isn’t true in a post from May 2012 when the concept of the FRN program was first mooted, it is worth reiterating in more detail.

So we now have a new class of securities. Why? What constituency was not being sufficiently served by the existing roster of 1-month, 3-month, 6-month, and 1-year TBills, and 2 year notes?

I will ask another “why” question. Why is the President proposing the “myRA” program, which is essentially a way to push savings bonds (the basics of the program is that if you sign up and meet certain income requirements, the government will give you the splendid opportunity to put your money in an account that returns a low, guaranteed rate of interest). This is absolutely nothing new. You can already set up an account with http://www.TreasuryDirect.gov and have your employer make a payroll direct deposit to that account. And there’s no income maximum, and no requirement to ever roll it into an IRA. Yes, it’s true – with Treasury Direct, you will have to pay federal taxes on the interest, but the target audience for the myRA program is not likely to be paying much in the way of taxes so that’s pretty small beer.[2]

The answer to the “why” in both cases is that the Treasury, noticing that one regular trillion-dollar buyer of its debt is leaving the trough, is looking rather urgently for new buyers. FRNs, and a new way to push Treasuries on middle-class America.

Interest rates have declined since year-end, partly because equities have been weak, partly because some growth indicators have been weak recently, and partly because the carry on long Treasury securities is positively terrific. But the Treasury is advertising fairly loudly that they are concerned about whether they’ll be able to raise enough money, at “reasonable” rates, through conventional auctions. Both of these “innovations” cause interest payments to be pegged at the very short end of the curve, where the Fed has pledged to control interest rates for now, but I think interest rates will rise eventually.

Probably not, however, while the bullets fly.


[1] In a note to Natixis clients on December 4th, 2007, entitled “Tragedy of the Commons,” I commented that “M2 has grown only at a 4.4% annual rate over the last 13 weeks, and that’s egregiously too little considering the credit mess (not just subprime, as I am sure my readers are aware, but Alt-A and Prime mortgages, auto loans and credit cards too),” but the idea that the crisis was broader than subprime wasn’t the general consensus at the time by any means. Incidentally, in that same article I said “We have not entered a recession with core inflation this low in many decades, and this recession looks to be a doozy. I believe that by late 2008 we will be confronting the possibility of deflation once again. And, as in the last episode, the Fed will face a stark choice: if short rates don’t get to zero before inflation gets to zero, the Fed loses as they will never be able to get short rates negative,” which I mention since some people think I have always been bullish on inflation.

[2] I wonder how the money is treated for purposes of the debt ceiling. If the Treasury is no longer able to issue debt, then surely it won’t be able to do what amounts to issuing debt in the “myRA” program? So if they hit the debt ceiling, does interest on the account go to zero?

Imagining the Unimaginable

January 21, 2014 6 comments

Last week I met and spoke with some bright minds at a big reinsurance company, who were sampling some views on inflation. Among the questions, however, were ones concerning my views on nominal interest rates, to which they are more directly exposed.

Since I was a rates strategist long before I was an inflation specialist, I do have some opinions on the matter.

Early this month, I wrote an article asking “which consensuses are worth fading?” in which I noted that of all of the “consensus” views, I am most sanguine about the view that interest rates will rise over the course of this year. Now, there are lots of ways that this view can be derailed. For example, there are a lot of concerns about a slowdown in China and what that might mean for global growth. There are other land mines, such as the risk of a default of Puerto Rico, which could send investors scurrying for at least a short time into nominal bonds. And, of course, we are not out of the woods ourselves, and a dovish Chairman Yellen (if in fact she turns out to be as dovish as we all expect) could easily stop or reverse the taper even though that does not seem to be the plan at the moment according to the Wall Street Journal’s Jon Hilsenrath.

But abstracting from the chance that a metaphorical meteor might strike the earth and ruin all of our plans, what are the chances of somewhat higher rates, or drastically higher rates? In my mind, the chances of these different outcomes derive from the types of causes that could provoke them.

10-year rates at 4% by year end – To get 10-year rates to approach 4% (a level last touched in 2010 and not seen on a closing basis since before the crisis in 2008) doesn’t require a miracle. The Fed is in taper mode, and there reportedly remains a pocket of ‘negative convexity’ that could turn a mild selloff into a major selloff if interest rates rise towards 3.25%. It was the ‘convexity trade’ that helped fuel the move in 10-year notes to 3% last year (see my comment about that here) from 1.65% in May, and another convexity-triggered selloff could easily cause rates to reach 4% at some point this year. Of course, that would still be an interesting technical development, since it would be the largest deviation above the log-channel lower in rates that has been in force for more than thirty years (see chart, source Bloomberg).

channel

10-year rates at 5% by year end – Five percent 10-year rates seems outlandishly far away, and we haven’t seen them since 2007, but we should recognize that this is roughly a neutral nominal rate. If real growth is expected to be 2.75% on average over time, and inflation is expected to be around 2.25%, then r + i = 5%. If the Fed is normalizing policy, is it really that much of a reach to get normal market rates? I don’t see 5% as being outrageous. However, realistically I would have to say that there will be a lot of friction between here and there, by which I mean that as interest rates rise, investors will find them increasingly attractive and will rotate from equities to bonds. That will make a 200bp selloff somewhat difficult, in my view. But against this, we need to keep in the backs of our minds the possibility that the Federal Reserve could choose to start selling securities from its portfolio at some point; while the Fed professes to be relying on its reverse repo facility to be able to drain liquidity as needed, that’s only plausible if they need to drain relatively small amounts of liquidity (tens or scores of billions). As rates approach 5%, losses in the Fed’s SOMA portfolio will be large enough that it will be technically impossible for it to fully drain all of the reserves they have added – and will be a political football, no matter how the Fed chooses to account for a mark-to-market loss (see my article from a year ago on this topic here and a follow-up article with additional issues here). I am not making any predictions about what the Fed will do or not do when rates start to rise past 4%; I only point out that there will be a lot of zeroes involved and that tends to affect decision-making. A move to 5% isn’t, in short, completely crazy although I don’t think we’ll get there.

10-year rates at 8% by year end – How can you get really ugly outcomes, like 8% nominal rates (which we haven’t seen since 1991)? This is outside the realm of forecasting. A 500bp move in a year is roughly a 4-5 standard deviation event. In the post-WWII period we have never had a 500bp move on a year-end to year-end basis. In fact, we have never had 10-year rates move more than 400bps in a 12-month period. So, this is really outside of the range of outcomes one could reasonably expect in a normal world.

This is, of course, not a normal world. But it is non-normal because weird departures from normality happen stochastically and, when they do, the distribution we draw market outcomes from is unknown. Put another way: for rates to rise to 8% in a year would take something really crazy. So, we can’t make predictions, but we can play with entertaining suppositions and I will do that in a moment. But before I do, I just want to make very clear that guessing how rates would come unglued and get to 8% in 12 months is, since it relies on a chaotic break, probably unknowable in advance. We can, though, test the limits of imagination to see if we can come up with a plausible scenario in which such an outcome would not be impossible.

And here is where inflation, and specifically inflation expectations, come in. The dynamics of nominal interest rates imply that at low levels of nominal rates, movements are caused mostly by changes in real rates (thus the high beta of TIPS at low rates) while at high levels of nominal rates, movements are caused mostly by changes in inflation expectations.

Suppose that inflation expectations can be characterized as “multi-equilibrium,” meaning that they are mean-reverting within some ranges but then can jump to a new equilibrium when expectations become “unanchored.” I’m not particularly enamored of that notion, because it has been used to conceal of a lot of bad econometrics, but let’s just suppose it’s possible that inflation expectations can both anchor, and become unanchored. We could hypothesize, for example, that consumers (and investors) don’t encode “1.987% inflation” or “3.5093% inflation” or “6.421% inflation,” but rather “low inflation,” which means anything where inflation doesn’t enter into daily consideration, or “medium inflation” (which is where inflation considerations cannot be overlooked), or “high inflation” (which is where inflation considerations are the prime concern).

If that describes the way that inflation expectations behave – and I think it is fair to say that, at least, it is the way that financial journalists behave – then it’s plausible to say that inflation expectations might move very rapidly from a distribution centered around, say, 2% to one centered around 5%. And that, in turn, could trigger a very sharp move in nominal rates. If that happened, it could plausibly be worse than historical precedents if only because the system is far, far more leveraged now than it was in the late 1970s, when we last saw a sharp ramp-up in expectations.

Again, none of the foregoing is a forecast per se, but a statement of possibilities. I expect nominal rates will at some point this year (probably in late Q3) approach 4%, and I think there’s a measurable chance that things could get ugly enough, in an environment where Wall Street dealers are discouraged from providing liquidity by leaning against the flow, to push rates towards 5%. I don’t really think that’s very likely, though. And I think it’s quite unlikely that rates could approach 8% this year, or even next year. But if you’re thinking about tail risks – and you should be – it’s less important that it may happen than that it can happen. The point is not to try and look for the signals that this particular scenario is unfolding; by the very nature of such a chaotic move, it is very unlikely that we’ll correctly guess in advance what will actually cause it. But, if we can imagine a not-wickedly-outlandish scenario in which this outcome can be achieved, then it means the unimaginable is no longer unimaginable. It is possible, and the next question is whether it is worth hedging against that tail risk.

A Payrolls Report that Matters Again

January 9, 2014 7 comments

Tomorrow’s Employment Report offers something it hasn’t offered in a very long time: the chance to actually influence the course of monetary policy, and therefore markets.

Now that the taper has started, its continuation and/or acceleration is very “data dependent.” While many members of the FOMC are expecting for the taper to be completely finished by the middle of this year (according to the minutes released yesterday), investors understand that view is contingent on continued growth and improvement. This is the first Payrolls number in a very long time that could plausibly influence ones’ view of the likely near-term course of policy.

I don’t think that, in general, investors should pay much attention to this report in December or in January. There is far too much noise, and the seasonal adjustments are much larger than the net underlying change in jobs. Accordingly, your opinion of whether the number is “high” or “low” is really an opinion about whether the seasonal adjustment factors were “low” or “high.” Yes, there is a science to this but what we also know from science is that the rejection of a null hypothesis gets very difficult as the standard deviation around the supposed mean increases. And, for this number and next months’ number, the standard deviation is very high.

That will not prevent markets from trading on the basis of whatever number is reported by the BLS tomorrow. Especially in fixed-income, a figure away from consensus (197k on Payrolls, 7.0% on the Unemployment Rate will likely provoke a big trade. On a strong figure, especially coupled with a decline in the Unemployment Rate below 7%, you can expect bonds to take an absolute hiding. And, although it’s less clear with equities because of the lingering positive momentum from December, I’d expect the same for stocks – a strong number implies the possibility of a quicker taper, less liquidity, and for some investors that will be sufficient sign that it’s time to head for the hills.

I think a “weak” number will help fixed-income, and probably quite a lot, but I am less sure how positive it will be for the equity market.

In any event, welcome back to volatility.

Meanwhile, with commodities in full flight, inflation breakevens are shooting higher. Some of this is merely seasonal – over the last 10 years, January has easily been the best month for breakevens with increases in the 10-year breakeven in 7 of the 10 years with an overall average gain of 15bps – and some of it is due to the reduction of bad carry as December and January roll away, making TIPS relatively more attractive. Ten-year breakevens have risen about 18bps over the last month, which is not inconsistent with the size of those two effects. Still, as the chart below (Source: Bloomberg) shows, 10-year breakevens are back to the highest level since before the summer shellacking.

10ybreaksIndeed, according to a private metric we follow, TIPS are now back almost to fair value (they only very rarely get absolutely rich) compared to nominal bonds. This means that the benefit from being long breakevens at this level solely consists of the value that comes from the market’s mis-evaluating the likelihood of increasing inflation rather than decreasing inflation – that is, a speculation – and no longer gets a “following wind” from the fact that TIPS themselves were cheap outright. I still prefer TIPS to nominal Treasuries, but that’s because I think inflation metrics will increase from here and, along with those metrics, interest in inflation products will recover and push breakevens higher again.

Forecasting Cold to Continue Into Summer?

We are a people of language. The way we talk about a thing affects how we think about it. This is something that behavioral economists are very aware of; and even more so, marketers. There is a reason that portfolio “insurance” was such a popular strategy. Language matters. When we call a market decline a “correction,” we tend to want to buy it; when we call it a “crash” or a “bear market”, we tend to want to sell it.

And so as the “arctic vortex” reaches its cold fingers down from the frozen northland, it is really hard for us to think about economic “overheating.” Even though economic overheating doesn’t lead to inflation, I really believe that it is hard for investors to worry about inflation (the “fire” in the traditional “fire versus ice” economic tightrope that central bankers walk) when it is so. Darn. Cold.

But nevertheless, we can take executive notice of certain details that may suggest, overheating or not, inflation pressures really are building. I have been writing for some time about how the recent rapid rise in housing prices was eventually going to pass through to rents, and although the lag was a couple of months longer than it has historically been, it seems to be finally happening as an article in today’s Wall Street Journal suggests. This is significant for at least two reasons. The first is that housing costs are a very large part of the consumption basket for the average consumer, so any acceleration in those prices can move the otherwise-ponderous core CPI comparatively quickly. The second reason, though, is more important. Over the last couple of years, as housing prices have improbably spiked again and inventories have declined sharply, many observers have pointed out the presence of an institutional element among home purchasers. That is to say that homes have been bought in large numbers not only by individuals, but by investors who saw an inexpensive asset (they sure solved that problem!). And some analysts reasoned that the prevalence of these investors might break the historical connection between rents and home prices, at least in the short run, in the same way that a sudden influx of pension fund money could change the relationship between equity prices and earnings (that is, P/Es).

In the long run, of course, this is unlikely, but to the extent it happens in the short run it could delay the upturn in core inflation for a long time. But recent indications, such as that article referred to above, are that this effect is not as large as some had thought. The substitution effect does work. Higher home prices do cause rents to rise as more potential buyers choose to rent instead. It is a question for econometricians in the next decade whether the institutions had a large and lasting effect, or a short and ephemeral effect, or no effect at all. But what we can begin to say with a bit more confidence is that this influx of investors did not remove the tendency of home prices and rents to move together, with a lag.

On to other matters. The market curve for inflation has remained remarkably static for a long time. It is relatively steep, and perennially seems to forecast benign inflation for the next couple of years before headline inflation becomes slightly less-benign (but still not high) a few years down the road. The chart below (Source: Enduring Investments) shows the first eight years of the inflation swaps curve from today, and one year ago.

zc20132014If that was the only story, I probably wouldn’t bother mentioning it. But inflation swaps settle to headline CPI, like TIPS and other inflation-linked bonds do; however, a fair amount of the volatility in headline inflation comes from movements in energy. This is why policymakers and prognosticators look at core inflation. You cannot directly trade core inflation yet, but we can extract expected energy inflation (implied by other markets) from the implied headline inflation rates and derive “implied core inflation swaps” curves. And here, we find that the relatively static yield curves seen above hide a more interesting story. The chart below (Source: Enduring Investments) shows these two curves as of today, and one year ago.

core20132014At the beginning of 2013, investors has just experienced a 1.94% rise in core prices (November to November, which is the data they would have had at the time), yet anticipated that core inflation would plunge to only 1.22% in 2013. They actually got 1.72% (as of the latest report, so still Nov/Nov). Now, investors are anticipating about 1.8% over the next 12 months – I am abstracting from some lags – but expect that inflation will ultimately not rise as much as they had feared at this time last year.

Another way to look at this change is to map the implied forward core inflation rates onto the years they would apply to. The chart below (Source: Enduring Investments) does that.

calcore20132014The blue line shows the market’s forecast of core inflation as of January 7th, 2013, year by year. So investors were implicitly saying that core CPI would be 1.22% in 2013, 2.36% in 2014, 2.68% in 2015, 2.87% in 2016, and so on. One year later, the forecast (in red) for 2014 has come down to 1.80%, the forecast for 2015 has declined to 2.20%, the forecast for 2016 has dropped to 2.41%, etcetera.

Has this happened because inflation surprised to the downside in 2013? Hardly. As I just noted, the market “expected” core inflation of 1.22% in 2013 and actually got 1.72%. And yet, investors are pricing higher confidence that inflation will stay low – remaining basically unchanged in 2014 before rising very slowly thereafter – and in fact won’t seriously threaten the Fed’s core mission basically ever.

As I wrote yesterday, we need to tread carefully around consensus. Now, some investors might prefer to be non-consensus by anticipating and investing for deflation in the out years, but taking the whole of the information I look at and model I think the more dangerous break with consensus would be a more-rapid and more-extreme rise in core inflation. I do not think that this economically-cold pricing environment will continue into what is essentially a monetary summer.

Which Consensuses Are Worth Fading?

January 6, 2014 7 comments

A new year is upon us all, and with a five-day work week this week there is no longer any ignoring it. Markets were definitely more lubricated (and traders less so) on Monday than they were last week.

And so, as we return to full alertness, it is time to consider the recent trends and ask ourselves just what is going on. But before we do, I want to remind readers who missed the year-end series of “classics reposted” that they are worth some time to peruse if you still have time in the new year! A quick summary of those posts is here.

The only new data of the new year so far has been the ISM reports (Initial Claims was reported on January 2nd, but ‘Claims in the few weeks around year-end are so noisy that they ought to be simply ignored). The Manufacturing report came out last week, and the survey at 57.0 remains at levels similar to that of early 2011. Today’s Non-Manufacturing ISM was only 53.0, and actually closer to the lows of the last several years (see chart, source Bloomberg).

bothisms

Be careful, though, how you interpret either the “strongest since early 2011” or “nearly as weak as it has been since 2010” readings. The ISM reports don’t measure activity but rather the rate of change of that activity – so higher numbers don’t indicate better growth, but more improvement in growth. Respondents are asked a question that is essentially “are things getting better or worse?” with sub-questions covering new orders, employment, and so on. So a high ISM number may mean that things are growing well, or it may mean that things were looking pretty grim but are now looking up. In either case, of course, we want to see bigger numbers but a high ISM now means more than a high ISM in 2010!

And the internals of the ISM (Manufacturing) report, which came out last week, were positive. For example, the “New Orders” component rose to 64.2, indicating good expectations of forward growth and perhaps giving some hope that the large rise in Q4 inventories may be more intentional inventory accumulation than many thought. In any event, I tend to lean more on the Manufacturing number than the non-Manufacturing number, even though the manufacturing economy is a smaller part of the economy, because there is more history to the former. I am not optimistic that economic growth will surge this year, and indeed I think the chances that we’ve seen the best growth of this cycle are not negligible. But the current readings from the ISMs are encouraging.

Less encouraging is the level of encouragement we are getting.

For example: On a new-year outlook news show last weekend, I saw one guest opine that oil is obviously going to fall further in 2014 because traders are going to see the shale oil boom, the Keystone Pipeline, etcetera and “sell, sell, sell.” Now, a good rule of thumb is that institutional oil traders aren’t hearing about those things for the first time when they hit the weekend news shows. If the news of the shale oil production and the Keystone Pipeline would make them sell…then they have already sold. That doesn’t mean that oil won’t go down, but one reason it will not go down is because of information that all of the professionals had months ago. In fact, if it is just now becoming consensus on news shows that oil could go down, then I suspect that’s a consensus worth fading.

If I had to guess at the consensus view on various asset classes, I’d surmise based on the opinions I’ve been reading and seeing that analysts generally are bullish on equities, bullish-to-neutral on credit, bearish on rates generally, bearish on commodities, bullish on economic growth, and bearish on inflation. In general, it pays well over time to fade the consensus, (although it pays better when it’s a very strong consensus but momentum is fading), so it is reasonable to ask whether the consensus views are vulnerable. So my question is, what are the odds that the consensus prognostication (whatever it is – perhaps some may disagree that these are the consensus views) is wrong on all particulars? I mean, sometimes the dragon wins. I think that it is more likely that they are wrong on all particulars than right on all particulars, but if it is some of each – and that is of course the most probable outcome – I’d say my confidence that the consensus is wrong is, from strongest confidence (most likely the consensus is wrong) to weakest (least likely the consensus is wrong) is:

Inflation (I think it will go up)

Commodities (I think they’ll go up, and downward momentum has ebbed)

Equities (I think they’ll probably go down, but upward momentum remains)

Credit (I suspect spreads will widen but I am not confident of that)

Growth (I think we have a reasonable chance of recession but I don’t see the signs yet)

Rates (they might well go up even though that’s the consensus. In fact, I am probably in the consensus)

I think the biggest question from here, investing-wise, is how the market responds to the year-end moon shot in equities. Does the parachute open or does the rocket come crashing back to earth? Or, I guess, does the rocket’s next stage fire? I am highly sensitive to the fact that a number of smart investors are extremely near-term cautious here, so I am watchfully flat and would look to sell weakness in stocks.

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