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.
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.
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.
 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.
 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?
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.
Indeed, 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.
Trading, and to some extent investing, is all about knowing when markets are moving with the wisdom of the crowds and when they’re moving with the madness of the crowds. In recent years, there has seemed to be much more madness than wisdom (a statement which can probably be generalized beyond the financial markets themselves, come to think of it). Where do we stand now?
I think a recent letter by John Hussman of Hussman Strategic Advisors, entitled “An Open Letter to the FOMC: Recognizing the Valuation Bubble In Equities,” is worth reading. Hussman is far from the only person, nor even the most august or influential investor, questioning the valuation of equities at the moment. Our own valuation models have had the projected 10-year compounded real return of equities below 3% for several years, and below 2% since late April. For a time, that may have been sustainable because of the overall low level of real rates, but since the summertime rates selloff the expected equity premium has been below 1.5% per annum, compounded – and is now below 1% (see Chart, source Enduring Investments).
Hussman shows a number of other ways of looking at the data, all of which suggest that equity prices are unsustainable in the long run. But what really caught my eye was the section “Textbook speculative features”, where he cites none other than Didier Sornette. Sornette wrote a terrific book called Why Stock Markets Crash: Critical Events in Complex Financial Systems, in which he argues that markets at increased risk of failure demonstrate certain regular characteristics. There is now a considerable literature on non-linear dynamics in complex systems, including Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen by Mark Buchanan and Paul Ormerod’s Why Most Things Fail: Evolution, Extinction and Economics . But Sornette’s book is one of the better balances between accessibility to the non-mathematician and utility to the financial practitioner. But Hussman is the first investor I’ve seen to publicly apply Sornette’s method to imply a point of singularity to markets in real time. While the time of ‘breakage’ of the markets cannot be assessed with any more, and probably less, confidence than one can predict a precise time that a certain material will break under load – and Hussman, it should be noted, “emphatically” does not lay out an explicit time path for prices – his assessment puts Sornette dates between mid-December and January.
Hussman, like me, is clearly of the belief that we are well beyond the wisdom of crowds, into the madness thereof.
One might reasonably ask “what could cause such a crash to happen?” My pat response is that I don’t know what will trigger such a crash, but the cause would be the extremely high valuations. The trigger and the cause are separate discussions. I can imagine a number of possibilities, including something as innocuous as a bad “catch-up” CPI print or two that produces a resurgence of taper talk or an ill-considered remark from Janet Yellen. But speculating on a specific trigger event is madness in itself. Again, the cause is valuations that imply poor equity returns over the long term; of the many paths that lead to poor long-term returns, some include really bad short-term returns and then moderate or even good returns thereafter.
I find this thought process of Hussman’s interesting because it seems consonant with another notion: that the effectiveness of QE might be approaching zero asymptotically as well. That is, if each increment of QE is producing smaller and smaller improvements in the variables of interest (depending who you are, that might mean equity prices, long-term interest rates, bank lending, unemployment, etc), then at some point the ability of QE to sustain highly speculative valuations goes away and we’re left with the coyote-running-over-the-cliff scenario. Some Fed officials have been expressing opinions about the declining efficacy of QE, and Janet Yellen comes to office on February 2nd. I suspect the market is likely to test her very early.
None of this means that stocks cannot go straight up from here for much longer. There’s absolutely nothing to keep stock prices from doubling or tripling from here, except the rationality of investors. And as Mackay said, “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” Guessing at the date on which the crowd will toggle back from “madness” to “wisdom” is inherently difficult. What is interesting about the Sornette work, via Hussman, is that it circles a high-risk period on the calendar.
For two days in a row now, I’ve discussed other people’s views. On Wednesday or Thursday, I’ll share my own thoughts – about the possible effects of Obamacare on measured Medical Care inflation.
I guess we have to add to the list of uncomfortable comparisons to 1999’s equity mania the Twitter IPO. A widely-known company with no earnings…and no visible way to produce any revenues of note, much less earnings…went public and promptly doubled. Hedge funds which were able to get in on the IPO allocation cheered this nice kick to their performance numbers, and the backers of the now-$25bln-company are surely elated. But the rest of us have got to be thinking about Pets.com.
It was an article by Hussman Funds (ht rich t) that got me thinking more deeply about these comparisons. Although the article was referred to me partly because of the insightful comments about the Phillips Curve, which echo similar comments I have made in the past, I kept reading to the end as I usually do when trapped in a Hussman article! While there are a number of us (including Hussman, Grantham, Arnott, e.g.) who have been concerned for a while about equity market valuations since we use similar metrics, I really haven’t been terribly concerned about the possibility of an imminent and steep market decline for a while, though I think returns from these levels over the next decade will be close to flat in real terms as they were after the 1999 peak. However, Hussman had me thinking about this.
I do think that there is one key difference from 1999, and that is that not everyone is talking about stocks. That is, not yet…the Twitter IPO might get us there – on Fox Business News today a young talking head (who was no more than 10 years old in 1999) made sure that viewers were informed that anyone could buy Twitter, just by calling their broker. (Not just anyone, though, could get in at the IPO price…a point the cub reporter neglected to mention).
The counter-argument to “is this a 1999 set-up?” takes two forms. The less-sophisticated form is “nuh-uh”, although usually said in a slightly more elaborate way that implies the questioner is a mindless, not to mention soulless, Communist who isn’t getting enough loving at home. The more-sophisticated argument is worth considering, but isn’t particularly soothing to me. This hypothesis is that this isn’t 1999, it’s 1997, before the parabolic blow-off and with lots of room left to run. It wasn’t as if there was any lack of skepticism about the stock market’s levels (which, sweetly, we considered lofty at the time):
“Is it possible that there is something fundamentally new about this current period that would warrant such complacency? Yes, it is possible. Markets may have become more efficient, competition is more global, and information technology has doubtless enhanced the stability of business operations. But, regrettably, history is strewn with visions of such “new eras” that, in the end, have proven to be a mirage. In short, history counsels caution.” – Alan Greenspan, February 26th, 1997
The bubble, of course, did not pop in 1997. It popped in 1999, after Greenspan had abandoned his prior skepticism (in late 1998, as he came to believe that “I do not claim that all market behavior is a rational response to changes in the real world. But most of it must be. For, were it otherwise, the relatively stable economic environments that have been evident among the major industrial countries over the generations would not be possible”). Between 1997 and 1999, there was plenty of time for investors to make money, and as long as they realized they were taking money for the future and got out before 2000…alas, very few of them did.
But, speaking from experience, the 1997-1999 period was very lonely. While investors who gradually sold their long positions out in 1998 and 1999 did much better than the ones they were selling to, they were also very unpopular at cocktail parties. The bearish analysts were put on the street, begging for tuppence. Which, considering that most of them were in the United States, was also unsuccessful.
The 1999 bubble…and the later property bubble…also did not burst until the Fed was actually tightening policy. It is on this point that many bullish arguments depend, but it is a weak one I believe. To be sure, there is no chance that the Fed will be tightening policy any time soon. The taper is not going to happen until 2014Q2 at the earliest, and I think it will take until later in 2014, when inflation figures will become uncomfortable, before they will start pulling back on QE. Some observers believe it will be much later. A Wall Street Journal article on Wednesday detailed a recent research paper written by the head of the monetary affairs division at the Fed; it argued that it may make sense for the Fed to lower its Unemployment Rate threshold and said that “an ‘optimal’ policy might keep rates near zero as late as 2017.”
The activist Fed continues to be one of the biggest risks to the market and the economy. As a trader, I know that 90% of trading is just sitting there, waiting for the ‘fat pitch’ you can do something about. It boggles my mind that a central banker doesn’t sit around at least that much, considering that they know even less about the complexities of the global economy than I know about the complexities of the market. And, unlike the global economy, the market doesn’t fight back when I act on it.
I actually have a feeling that we won’t be worrying about those Unemployment thresholds, either the old ones or the ones proposed in that paper. As I wrote late last month, the expansion is getting a bit long in the tooth and I would not be surprised to see another recession looming in 2014. I don’t have any reason for that outlook other than the calendar, but sometimes these reasons become obvious only in hindsight.
In any event, though, I wouldn’t wait around for the Fed to be tightening. It isn’t overnight funding rates that I would worry about, but longer-term interest rates, and there has already been a warning shot fired that indicates the Fed is not wholly in control of those rates.
So, it may be too early to be out of equities. Maybe even a lot too early. But one thing I am sure of is that it isn’t too late. It is the latter condition, not the former, that is the most damaging to one’s financial position.
Everyone expected markets to provide a lot of late-day volatility today, and so they did. The Fed apparently doesn’t mind surprising the market with a non-consensus outcome when that surprise gooses stocks and bonds higher. Here are some (fairly unstructured) thoughts about today’s declaration from the Fed that there will be no “taper” in its QE program yet:
- This has nothing to do with the fact that there was a minor wiggle in the Employment data, some weakness in Retail Sales, and some other disappointments this month. If that is now the standard…that the Fed plans to expand its balance sheet without bound as long as growth is not smashing the cover off the ball, then we are truly lost for QE will never, ever end. This month’s numbers were all within the normal variation for economic data, which do in fact vary even when the underlying economy is not. The old standard was “ameliorate a deep recession.” Then Greenspan turned that to “resist even a mild recession.” And now, is the standard “robust growth no matter what the long-term cost?” I don’t think so, and so I reject the notion that the failure to begin the taper has anything to do with the growth numbers.
- Similarly, the inflation numbers cannot be the reason. Core inflation is now rising, and the Fed has previously recognized that some of the decline in inflation has been due to transient effects of the sequester. Median inflation has remained steady at 2.1%, which is basically the Fed’s long-term target. The cost of 10-year deflation floors in the market are at the lowest level since they began to trade in 2009 (see chart, source Bloomberg and BGC Partners – the price is in up-front basis points). So it isn’t a lingering fear of deflation that has the Fed concerned.
- The Fed speakers over the last month have had ample opportunity to shoot down the idea that taper would start at this meeting, which has been the consensus for a long time. None of them did so, implying that the Fed was comfortable with that consensus. But something changed in the last few days, and that is that the odds-on next Fed Chairman went from being Larry Summers to being Janet Yellen, who happened to be in the meeting today. Does this change the dynamic? Absolutely, since one reason Bernanke has started thinking and talking about tapering is so as to leave as clean a slate as possible so that the next Chairman wouldn’t have to start his term by tightening (sorry, I mean “reducing accommodation”) and scaring asset markets. Once Summers withdrew his name, Yellen’s vote got automatically much more important and the urgency to start the taper much less (since Yellen doesn’t believe there are any important costs to QE). Indeed, in his post-meeting presser Bernanke noted that the “first step” on a taper is “possible this year.” That is far to the dovish side of what the Street was expecting, but consistent with the notion that Yellen’s opinion will carry a heavy weight unless someone else is appointed to the post.
- Yellen said last June that the Fed’s objective is a quick return to full employment, and that Fed action might be justified “to insure against adverse shocks [emphasis mine],” or even if the Fed concludes that the recovery “is unlikely to proceed at a satisfactory pace.” So, perhaps I need to reconsider my point #1 above. Maybe that is the standard now.
- If in fact QE has no cost, then there is no reason to ever stop it. In fact, it should be accelerated. Most Fed officials seem recently to be coming to the realization that there is highly unlikely to be a costless economic remedy, even if they are not sure what the costs are or think they can be contained. Those people clearly have no voice any more, even though it appeared that those views in the last few months were gaining currency (no pun intended, since the dollar dropped to the lowest level since February after the announcement today – a Fed that was edging however slowly to being more-hawkish than average was good for the dollar; a weak, more-dovish than average central bank will be worse for the dollar all else equal). This is pedal-to-the-metal time.
- TIPS got a lot more expensive today, with the 10-year rallying 20bps to 0.475% and breakevens up 4.5bps one day before the Treasury auctions another slug of them. The auction ought still to go well, because caution has been thrown to the wind by our beloved central bankers. This is also good for commodities, and they rose today led by precious and industrial metals. Is it good for equities? Well…
- Equity analysts are like puppies. They completely forget what happened 5 minutes ago and every experience is brand new. There is never any context. So stocks shot higher today, with the S&P gaining 1.2%, because of the dovish Fed and lower interest rates. But over the last few months, as the taper grew closer and interest rates shot higher, all equities did was move to new highs. So, higher interest rates and a (relatively) hawkish Fed doesn’t hurt stock prices, but lower interest rates and a dovish Fed helps them? This may be why the Fed thinks that buying bonds keeps interest rates low and selling bonds doesn’t raise them. It’s a strange market-based notion of a perpetual motion machine. For goodness’ sake, let’s crank interest rates down 200bps, back up 200bps, down 200bps, and keep doing that and the stock market will be at 1,000,000 before you know it. Prosperity! But in fact it is probably more like a bicycle pump. Pushing down inflates the tire, pulling up doesn’t deflate it. It seems costless. However, if you keep doing that, eventually the tire will pop.
- Speaking of the perpetual motion machine, I enjoyed this little gem from the FOMC statement:
The Committee is maintaining its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its holdings of agency debt and agency mortgage-backed securities in agency mortgage-backed securities and of rolling over maturing Treasury securities at auction. Taken together, these actions should maintain downward pressure on longer-term interest rates, support mortgage markets, and help to make broader financial conditions more accommodative…
Really? It hasn’t worked recently. Lest they forget: the taper hadn’t started yet, but until today it was busy being discounted in the bond market. I don’t expect that merely continuing to buy bonds into the SOMA will push rates much lower again. We all know that this game ends, and we know how it ends. With 10-year notes at 2.70% I wouldn’t be selling them, but I also wouldn’t expect a massive rally to unfold. I would hold long positions in September and October, because those are the right months in which to hold bonds (especially with debt ceiling fight #2, Syria, Italy’s government disintegrating, and Germany’s election), but if the market gave me 2.45% to sell, I would sell.
 Note, though, that no person who has ever held the office of Fed Vice-Chairman has later been appointed to be Chairman…although Donald Kohn, since he was Vice-Chairman from 2006-2010, would also represent a departure from this same tradition. However, he was not in the room.
When I remark, from time to time, that I think the Fed has made a mistake in increasing transparency of its deliberations and actions, people occasionally look at me as if I had come out opposed to motherhood or apple pie. But my point is that transparency is good if it permanently decreases risk…but it doesn’t.
What matters is how market actors respond to increased transparency. It is much like the old debate about whether football players ought to wear helmets. It is clear that helmets decrease the likelihood of brain damage in any given collision, compared to the un-helmeted rider in an identical collision. But it is also clear that as helmets have gotten better and better, football players have played faster and faster, with more abandon, and lead with their heads a lot more than they did when all they had was a leather cap. The net effect is indeterminate.
In markets, increased transparency from a central bank or regulator leads to increased leverage in a very direct way. The central bank’s dial is for transparency, but the investor’s dial is for risk appetite and when the central bank turns its dial it does not change the investor’s risk preferences. The result is that increasing transparency, which decreases the risk at any given leverage and at any particular moment, leads to higher levels of leverage, which lowers the tolerance for error. And, as we have seen, central banks and regulators are quite prone to error.
In an interesting way, this is tied into the volume question. The chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows rolling 250-trading-day volume for the NYSE in billions of shares. As has been well-documented, market volumes have been steadily declining for years.
As we have mentioned here before, there are lots of excuses for lower market volumes on the major exchanges, and probably many of those excuses are part of the answer. But we can no longer simply attribute this to the movement of volumes to “dark pools.” There is simply less going on in the markets, whether in rates or in equities. Ask the dealers. Dodd-Frank and the Volcker Rule are simply decimating volumes. And this is not just bad for dealers, it is bad for everyone.
When a trade happens, there is information revealed. Indeed, in some markets a meaningful proportion of the volume transacted is between dealers who are testing the market to get more information. More trades means that there are more quanta of information. More quanta of information produces more confidence in prices. More confidence in prices means more support for the current prices, and more de facto liquidity.
Think of it this way. If a bond has never traded, and two counterparties come together to trade some at a price of 103, what is your estimate of the true market for another trade? Is it one tick around 103? If so, then you are displaying almost outrageous overconfidence – one data point between two counterparties, about whose motivations you know precisely nothing, tells you almost zero about what the true market (by which I mean, the prices at which you could buy, for an offer, or sell, for a bid, a typical-sized transaction) is, and even less about what the support market (by which I mean the prices at which you could transact in substantially larger sizes) is. And so bid/offer spreads, whether quoted on-screen or over-the-counter from a dealer in the security, must be wider since the market-maker just doesn’t know as much as he would if volumes were higher – and, more to the point, the market must be wider because the client who initiates the trade is likely to know more than the market-maker does about the right price. This is because the market-maker must make a market whether or not he knows the fair price, but the buyer or seller doesn’t have to trade unless he/she believes the fair price is outside of the quoted range. Of course, that’s where the information comes from: if the offer is lifted, it means someone is saying “I think the fair price is higher than your offer,” and that is information.
I mention this today for several reasons. First, because it has been a while since I showed the NYSE volumes chart in a while. Second, because there was an article on Bloomberg today entitled “Professor Who Helped Pop Junk Bubble Says Trace Slows Trade” which ties transparency to diminished volumes. To the extent that Trace produces true transparency and reduces the need for “testing” trades, it is a good thing…but then we should see tighter spreads for size, and while the study is suggestive it isn’t conclusive on this point. More interestingly, the professor in question also made the point that “less trading may hurt investors if, instead of reducing ‘noise’ from the market, the reduction slows how quickly new information alters prices.” And this point is also key:
”…if the decrease in trading activity is the result of dealers’ unwillingness to hold inventory, transparency will have caused a reduction in the range of investing opportunities. That is, even if a decline in price dispersion reflects a decrease in transaction costs, the concomitant decrease in trading activity could reflect an increased cost of transacting due to the inability to complete trades.”
So transparency, it seems, is not an unalloyed positive like apple pie. But lower trading volumes, which are partly the result of transparency (and partly the result of poorly-conceived rules like Dodd-Frank, the Volcker Rule, and Basel III), are very probably bad for everyone. This doesn’t just affect hedge funds. Markets which are deep and liquid are much less prone to sudden price breaks. With the US equity market still floating near the highs despite rapid increases in nominal and real interest rates and worst-ever outflows from ETFs last month, this is a point that may be more than academic at the moment.
 However, no one disputes that the faster game is a lot more fun to watch. What I suspect has happened is that the introduction of hard-sided helmets probably increased injuries until players essentially reached maximum speed/recklessness, after which point the further improvements in helmet design probably started to make the game safer again. But it is really hard to prove that.
I am disinclined to take victory laps when most people are losing money, but the recovery in commodities prices over the last week at the same time that bond and equity prices are both declining is a taste of success for my view that has been rare enough lately. That is, of course, the burden that a contrarian investor bears: to be wrong when everyone else is having fun, and to be right when no one wants to go out and celebrate. In fact, if you find yourself sharing your successes too often with other people who are having the same successes, I would submit you should be wary.
It is worth noting that the commodities rally has not been led by energy, despite the terrible violence in Egypt which threatens, again, to ignite a spark in the region. Today, the rise in commodities was led by gold and grains; yesterday by cows and copper (well, livestock and industrials).
I don’t think that this is because of a sudden epiphany about inflation. In fact, although breakevens have been recovering from the oversold condition in June (more on that in a moment), the inflation data today did nothing to persuade inflation investors that more protection is needed. I gave some thoughts about the CPI report earlier today in this post, but suffice it to say that it was not an upside surprise. (And yet, there are starting to appear more-frequent smart articles on inflation risks. I commend this article by Allan Meltzer to you as being unusually clear-eyed.)
And commodities are not moving higher because of renewed enthusiasm about growth, I don’t think. Today economic bell cow Wal-Mart cut its profit forecast because higher taxes are causing shoppers to be more conservative (perhaps in more ways that one). And, while today’s Initial Claims figure was good news (320k versus expectations for 335k), weakness was seen in Industrial Production (flat, with downward revisions, versus expectations for +0.3%) and both Empire Manufacturing and Philly Fed came in slightly weaker than expectations. None of this is apocalyptic, but neither is it cause for elation about domestic or global growth prospects.
While the nascent commodity rally makes me personally feel warm and fuzzy, the more-momentous move is in what is happening to interest rates. And here I need to recognize that until very recently, I thought that bonds would follow the typical pattern of a convexity-exacerbated selloff: after a rapid decline, the market would consolidate for a few weeks and then recover once the overhang had cleared. I’ve seen it aplenty in the past, and that was the model I was operating on.
But I believe rates are heading higher. Although the overhang from the prior convexity selloff has probably been distributed, there is a new problem as illustrated by the news today about Bridgewater’s “All Weather” fund. The All-Weather Fund is an example of a “risk parity” strategy in which, in simplified form, “low-volatility” strategies are levered up to have the same natural volatility as “high volatility” strategies. The problem is that levering up an asset class with a poor risk-adjusted return, as fixed-income is now, doesn’t improve returns or risks of the portfolio at large. The -8% return of the AWF in Q2 illustrates that point, and makes clear to anyone who bought the great marketing of “risk parity” strategies that they probably have much more rate risk than they want (although according to the Bloomberg article linked to above, Bridgewater “hadn’t fully grasped the interest-rate sensitivity” of being long 70% of net assets in inflation-linked bonds and another 48% in nominal bonds. I do hope that’s a mis-quote).
The unwinding of some of that rate risk (Bloomberg called the panicky dumping of a relatively cheap asset class, TIPS, into the teeth of a retail and convexity-led selloff “patching” the risk) helped TIPS bellyflop in May and June, and to the extent that institutional investors wake up and reduce their levered long bets on fixed income we might see lower prices much sooner than I expected across the entire spectrum of fixed-income. Indeed, without the Fed or highly levered buyers, it’s not entirely clear what the fair clearing price might be for the Treasury’s debt. I was at one time optimistic that we would get a bounce to lower yields after a period of consolidation, but this news is potentially a game-changer. Although the seasonal patterns favor buying bonds in August and early September, the potential downside is much worse than the potential upside.
Ah, it is so nice to be in this illiquid period right before quarter-end, when interested parties can easily ramp up prices to where they need them to be in order to get good end-of-period marks. One would think this game would diminish somewhat, given the crusades against the LIBOR and possibly FX price-setting conspiracies, but there’s no conspiracy here. There’s no need for investors and dealers to discuss putting the stock market up; everyone knows it happens and everyone knows why. The hedgies who flush microcaps higher because they can ought to be stopped, but there’s no way to stop the general tendency, especially when you have very clear indications of when that trade is supposed to begin…such as when Fed officials show up and start chanting “stocks shouldn’t go down!” in unison.
For the last couple of days, Fed officials have been out in force saying that the “market overreacted.” (Mostly, they mean the bond market, but for many people “the market” equals “stocks” because they think CNBC is about “markets” rather than “stocks”.) Today, New York Fed President Dudley, Fed Governor Powell, and Atlanta Fed President Lockhart pursued the overreaction theory in separate speeches, echoing Minneapolis Fed President Kocherlakota’s sentiment from yesterday. Yes, yes, we all know that everyone else will treat that as a signal to get long again (both stocks and bonds) into quarter-end, but what it really shows is that utter cluelessness of the people in charge at the Fed. Powell said that “Market adjustments since May have been larger than would be justified by any reasonable reassessment of the path of policy.” Well, duh. As I pointed out a while ago – before the real selloff – such a virulent selloff was entirely to be expected at some point due to convexity demands. The most-virulent part of the selloff may have coincided with Bernanke’s statements last week, and that might have triggered some of the convexity selling, but the degree of selloff had nothing to do with the Fed.
Someone should tell these guys that not everything is controlled by the Fed. Sometimes, rates move for other reasons.
To be sure, the Fed is correct about the fact that their communication is helping to cause the volatility. But it isn’t because they haven’t been clear enough, or that what they said was misinterpreted. The problem is too much communication, and making the path of policy (and any inflections in that policy path) crystal clear. When policymakers are opaque about monetary policy, then investors change their opinions stochastically, at random intervals; when policymakers set off a flare for every minor change in the trajectory, all investors change positions simultaneously. Transparency not only doesn’t reduce volatility, it is a prescription for creating volatility.
Clarity on the fiscal and regulatory front, incidentally, is quite different. Volatility in business ventures is high enough already to ensure that entrepreneurs don’t have an incentive to get too far out over their skis no matter how clear the regulatory environment, and decisions made in a business context don’t have the hair-trigger half-life of decisions in financial markets. Uncertainty, when long-term decisions have to be made, impairs that decision-making. But uncertainty is good when decisions are easily reversible and the cause of volatility is that consecutive orders to sell aren’t spread out enough. For stable markets, you want buys and sells to come all jumbled up, rather than all the buys together or all the sells together. For maximum economic growth, you want risk-takers to have the ability to make long-term decisions with confidence.
So while equity markets have rallied as we approach quarter-end, I don’t think this rally will far outlast quarter-end, because there are just too many negatives at the moment for equities – high multiples, rising interest rates, softening global growth, a less-benign regulatory environment etc. The selloff in stocks was never very bad (compared to bonds), because there’s not the same kind of convexity problem in stocks, but it also has a lot further to go than bonds do.
Fixed-income markets have rallied along with stocks, with TIPS leading the way up as they led the way down. The interpretation here is different, because in the case of the bond market we are looking at the well-known phenomenon of convexity selling. My advice for fixed-income investors, from long and painful experience, is this: don’t jump in with both feet yet. These bounces are normal in this kind of flush. It does probably mean we are closer to the end of the flush than to the beginning, but usually you need a period of a couple of weeks of sideways action before you can start to retrace the “convexity selling” damage and get back to something like fair value.
The healing period is necessary because every prospective bond buyer knows (or should know) that there are large trapped sellers out there who are waiting to pitch bonds overboard (at the new, improved levels!) if there is any sign of further market weakness. The rally over the last few days is fast money, doing what they think the news is telling them to do, and they will be back out as quickly as they got in.
We’ll see what happens next week. On the one hand, dealers will have more ability to hold positions (although they’re not supposed to, under the Volcker Rule); on the other hand, quarter end will be past and any inclination to hold off to avoid making a bad situation worse will be past as well. It will still be fairly illiquid, with a half-day on Wednesday, the Independence Day holiday on Thursday, and then Payrolls on Friday. I suspect we will see a resumption of prior trends in fixed-income and equities – although I hasten to add as a reminder that there will eventually be a rally off these rates. I just don’t think we’ve exhausted all of the sellers yet.