Sometimes being a value investor, amid overvalued (and ever more so) markets, feels a bit like being a Stark in Westeros. The analogy will be lost on you if you do not follow Game of Thrones, but the Starks hold the largest of the sub-kingdoms in Westeros. This kingdom also happens to be the coldest, and the sober Starks are always reminding people that “Winter is coming.”
I should observe that winter in Westeros is a much more serious affair than it is around here; it comes at odd intervals but can last for years. So being prepared for winter is really important. However, getting people to prepare for winter during the long “summer” is very difficult.
Sound familiar? The thing to keep in mind is that the Starks are always right, eventually, and they’re the ones who come through the winter in the best shape. Such is the case with value investors. (Some people might prefer calling value investors who are bearish on stocks right now “Chicken Littles” but I prefer being compared to Ned Stark, thanks. Although both of them have been known to lose their heads on occasion.)
Fortunately, it does not appear that winter is coming to the U.S. very soon. Friday’s Employment report was strong, despite the beginnings of downsizing in the oil and gas extraction businesses. The chart below shows the Baker Hughes oil and gas rig count, which is falling at a rate every bit as fast as it did in the credit crisis.
Yet, the U.S. economy as a whole generated 267,000 new jobs last month, which was above expectations. It is unlikely that this pace will continue, since the extraction (and related industry) jobs will be a drag. But in 2008, this happened when every other industry was being squeezed, and in the current case other industries are being squeezed by the strong dollar, but only mildly so. I think this will actually serve to increase the labor force participation rate, which has been in a downtrend for a long time – because laid-off oil workers will still be in the labor force looking for work, while other jobs will be getting filled by (sometimes) discouraged workers coming off the sidelines. So we may well see the Unemployment Rate rise even as jobs growth remains reasonable, even if less robust than the most recent figures.
Winter, though, is still coming.
In the near-term, winter is coming to Europe. Unusually, it is moving from the south to the north because Greece appears to be finally heading for the denouement that has been utterly unavoidable from the beginning. I wrote this in June 2012 (and I wasn’t the only one saying such things – the only real question has been how long it would take before the Greeks decided they’d had enough of sacrifice to hold together the Eurozone for the elites):
Greece will still leave the Euro. Government or no government, austerity or no austerity – the fiscal math simply doesn’t make sense unless Europe wants to pay for Greece forever. In principle, the Greeks can dig themselves out of trouble if they work harder, retire later, pay more taxes, and receive fewer government services. I do believe that people can change, and a society can change, under pressure of crisis. Remember Rosie the Riveter? But the question is whether they can change, whether they will change, do they even want to change, if the benefit of the change flows not to Greece’s people but to the behemoth European institutions that have lent money to Greece?
If a person declares bankruptcy, and the judge declares that he must pay all of his wages for the next thirty years, after deducting enough for food and shelter, to the creditors…do you think that person is going to go looking for a 60-hour workweek?
Am I sure that Greece is going to leave the Euro in a week, or a month, or a year? Not at all. The institutional self-preservation meme is very strong and I am always amazed at how long it takes obvious imperatives to actually happen. But I am quite confident that Greece will eventually leave the Euro, and it does seem as if parties on all sides of the negotiating table are coming to that conclusion as well.
One question that authorities have had to come to peace with first was whether Grexit is really Armageddon. I have argued that default and an exit from the Euro is not bad for Greece, at least when compared to a multi-year depression.
And it’s probably not even horrible for Europe, or the world at large, at least compared to the credit crisis, despite all protestations that this would be “Lehman squared.” Again, this is old news and as I lay out the reasoning here there is no reason to repeat myself.
But it won’t be a positive thing. And it is likely to bring on “winter,” economically. Helpfully, the world’s central banks not only remain in easing mode but are increasing the dovishness of their stance, with the ECB foremost among the central banks that are priming the pumps again. M2 money growth in the Eurozone was up to 4.5% y/y in December (latest data available), with the highest quarter-over-quarter growth rate (8.3%, annualized) in money since the end of 2008! Meanwhile the Fed, while it is no longer adding to reserves, is still watching the money supply grow at 6% y/y with no good way to stop it. For all the talk about the FOMC hiking rates by mid-year, I think the probable rise in the Unemployment Rate discussed above, plus the weak inflation readings (with the notable exception of Median CPI), plus the fact that all other central banks are easing and likely to continue doing so, plus the probability of turbulence in Europe, makes it very unlikely that this Committee, with a very dovish makeup, will be tightening any time soon.
The likely onset of some winter will not help hold down inflation, however. Upward pressures remain, and the fact that the ECB is now running the pumps makes higher prices more likely. Yes, we care about money supply growth in Europe: the chart below shows the M2 growth of the US and Europe combined, against core CPI in the US. The fit is actually better than with US CPI alone.
Now, some markets are priced for winter and some are not. We think that real interest rates in Europe are far too low compared to real rates in the US, and stock prices in the US are too high compared to stock prices in Europe. The first chart below shows the spread of 10-year real rates in the US minus Europe (showing US yields are high compared to European yields); the second chart shows the ratio of the S&P 500 to the Eurostoxx 50.
You can see in the latter chart that the out-performance of the S&P has proceeded since 2009, while the under-performance of US inflation-linked bonds has only happened since 2012, so these are not simply two ways of looking at the same trade. In both cases, these deviations are quite extreme. But the European economy and the US economy are not completely independent of one another; weak European growth affects US corporate entities and vice-versa, and as I suggest above the growth of European money supply tends to affect US inflation as well. We think that (institutional) investors should buy TIPS and sell European linkers, and also buy European stocks against US stocks. By doing both of these things, the exposure to currency flows or general trends in global equity market pricing is lessened. (Institutional investors interested in how we would weight such a trade should contact us.)
 As another example, take the shrinking of Wall Street. It was obvious after 2008 that it had to happen; only recently, however, as banks and dealers have been forced to become more and more like utilities have we started to see layoffs while stocks are rising, which is very unusual. But Wall Street defended the bloated structures of the past for more than six years!
Money: How Much Deflation is Enough?
Once again, we see that the cure for all of the world’s ills is quantitative easing. Since there is apparently no downside to QE, it is a shame that we didn’t figure this out earlier. The S&P could have been at 200,000, rather than just 2,000, if only governments and central banks had figured out a century ago that running large deficits, combined with having a central bank purchase large amounts of that debt in the open market, was the key to rallying assets without limit.
That paragraph is obviously tongue-in-cheek, but on a narrow time-scale it really looks like it is true. The Fed pursued quantitative easing with no yet-obvious downside, and stocks blasted off to heights rarely seen before; the Bank of Japan’s QE has added 94% to the Nikkei in the slightly more than two years since Abe was elected; and today’s announcement by the ECB of a full-scale QE program boosted share values by 1-2% from Europe to the United States.
The ECB’s program, to be sure, was above expectations. Rather than the €50bln per month that had been mooted over the last couple of days with little currency-market reaction, the ECB pledged €60bln. And they promised to continue until September 2016, making the total value of QE around €1.1 trillion. (That’s about $1.3 trillion at today’s exchange rate, but of course if it works then it will be much less than $1.3 trillion at the September 2016 exchange rate). To be sure, a central bank always has the prerogative to change its mind, but on the risks of a sudden change in policy please see “Swiss National Bank”. It really is remarkable that Draghi was able to drag the Bundesbank kicking and screaming into this policy choice, and it is certain to end the threat of primary deflation in Europe just as it did in the U.S. and in Japan. It will likely also have similar effects on growth, which is to say “next to nothing.” But in Europe, deflation risks stemming from slow money growth had been a risk (see chart, source Bloomberg).
Interestingly, y/y money growth had already been accelerating as of late last year – the ECB releases M2 with a very long lag – but this puts the dot on the exclamation point. The ECB has said “enough!” There will be no core deflation in Europe.
Commodities: How Much Deflation is Enough?
Last week, in “Commodities Re-Thunk” and “Little Update on Commodities Re-Thunk”, I presented the results of using a generalization of the Erb & Harvey approach to forecast expected long-term real returns for commodities. It occurred to me that, since I have previously played with long-term real equity returns, and we have the real yield on 10-year TIPS as well, that it would be interesting to see if using these figures might produce a useful strategy for switching between assets (which doesn’t change the fact that I am a long-term investor; this is still based on long-term values. We merely want to put our assets in whatever offers the best long term value at the moment so as to maximize our expected long-term return).
The answer is yes. Now, I did a more-elegant version of what I am about to show, but the chart below shows the results of switching 100% of your assets between stocks, commodities, and TIPS based on which asset class had the highest expected real yield at a given month-end. Each line is an asset class, except for the blue line which shows the strategy result.
The labels at the top show the asset class that dominated for a long period of time. In 2005 there were a couple of quick crossovers that had little impact, but by and large there were three main periods: from 1999-2005, commodities offered excellent expected real returns; from mid-2005 through early-2008 the strategy would have been primarily in TIPS, and subsequent to that the strategy would have been primarily in equities. Fascinating to me is that the overall strategy does so well even though it would have been invested in equities throughout the crash in 2008. The crash in commodities was worse.
Now what is really interesting is that there is a vertical line at the far right-hand side of the chart. That is because at the end of December, the expected real return to commodities finally exceeded that of equities for the first time in a very long time. For this “selling out” strategy, that means you should be entirely out of stocks and TIPS and entirely in commodities.
As I said, that is the coarse version of this approach. My more-elegant version optimized the portfolio to have a constant expected risk in real terms. It was much less risky as a result (10.5% annualized monthly standard deviation compared to 15.5% for the strategy shown above), had lower turnover, but still sported returns over this period of 9.5% compounded compared to 11.2% for the strategy above. I am not, in other words, suggesting that investors put 100% of their assets in commodities. But this method (along with lots of other signals) is now suggesting that it is time to put more into commodities.
Balls: How Much Deflation is Enough?
Being a football fan, I can’t keep from weighing in on one mystery about deflate-gate (incidentally, why do we need to put ‘gate’ on the end of every scandal? It wasn’t Water-gate, it was the Watergate Hotel that proved Nixon’s undoing. “Gate” is not a modifier). Really, this part isn’t such a mystery but I have seen much commentary on this point: “How did the balls get deflated during the game since they were approved before the game?”
The answer is really simple in the real world: the official picked up one of the balls, said “fine”, and put them back in the bag. He has a million things to do before the championship game and in years of refereeing he has probably never found even one ball out of spec. This sort of error happens everywhere there are low reject rates, and it’s why good quality control is very difficult. (Now, if you fired the ref every time a bad ball got through, you damn betcha those balls would be measured with NASA-like precision – which is perhaps a bad metaphor, since similar issues contributed to the Challenger disaster). The real mystery to me is: if the Patriots truly think they are the better team, why would they cheat, even a little? As with the CHF/EUR cross that we discussed yesterday, the downside is far worse than the gain on the upside.
Or, is it? The NFL will have a chance to establish the cost of recidivism in cheating. Maybe the Patriots were simply betting that the downside “tail” to their risky behavior was fairly short. If the NFL wants to put a stop to nickel-and-dime cheats, it can do that by dropping the hammer here.
The focus over the last few days has clearly been central bank follies. In just the last week:
- The Swiss National Bank (SNB) abruptly stopped trying to hold down the Swiss Franc from rising against the Euro; the currency immediately rose 20% against the continental currency (see chart, source Bloomberg). More on this below.
- The ECB, widely expected to announce the beginnings of QE tomorrow (Jan 22nd), have quietly mooted about the notion of buying approximately €600bln per year, focused on sovereign bonds, and lasting for a minimum of one year. This is greater than most analysts had been expecting, and somewhat open-ended to boot.
- The Bank of Canada announced today a surprise cut in interest rates, because of the decline in oil prices. Unlike the U.S., which would see an oil decline as stimulative and therefore something the central bank would be more inclined to lean against, Canada’s exports are significantly more concentrated in oil so they will tend to respond more directly to disinflation caused by oil prices. This explains the very high correlation between oil prices and the Canadian Dollar (see chart below, source Bloomberg).
Back to the SNB: the 20% spike in the currency provoked an immediate 14% plunge in the Swiss Market Index, and after a few days of volatility the market there is still flirting with those spike lows. The Swiss economy will shortly be back in deflation; the SNB’s addition of vast amounts of Swiss Francs to the monetary system had in recent months caused core inflation in Switzerland to reach the highest levels since 2011: 0.3% (see chart, source Bloomberg).
The good news for Europe, of course, is that the reversal will cause a small amount of inflation in the Eurozone – although probably not enough to notice, at least the sign is right.
Clearly the SNB had identified that trying to keep the Swissy weak while the ECB was about to add hundreds of billions of Euro to the system was a losing battle. In the long history of central bank FX price controls, we see failures more often than successes, especially when the exchange-rate control is trying to repress a natural trend.
But the point of my article today is not to discuss the SNB move nor the effect of it on local or global inflation. The point of my article is to highlight the fact that the sudden movement in the market has caused several currency brokers (including FXCM, Alpari Ltd., and Global Brokers NZ Ltd.) to declare insolvency and at least two hedge funds, COMAC Global Macro Fund and Everest Capital’s Global Fund, to close. More to the point, I want to highlight that fact and ask: what in God’s name were they doing?
Let’s review. In order to lose a lot of money in this trade, you need to be short the Swiss Franc against the Euro. Let’s analyze the potential risks and rewards of this trade. The good news is that the SNB is going your way, adding billions of Swissy to the market. The bad news is that if they win, it is likely to be a begrudging movement in the market – the underlying fundamentals, after all, were heavily the other direction which is why the SNB was forced to intervene – and if they lose, as they ultimately did, it is almost certainly going to be a sudden snap in the other direction since the only major seller of Swiss was exiting. Folks, this is like when a commodity market goes limit-bid, because everyone wants to buy at the market’s maximum allowable move and no one wants to sell. When that market is opened for trading again, it is very likely to continue to move in that direction hard. See the chart below (source: Bloomberg) of one of my favorite examples, the early-1993 rally in Lumber futures after a very strong housing number. The market was limit-up for weeks, most of the time without trading. If you were short, you were carried out.
Of course, there was at least a rationale for being short lumber in early 1993. No one knew that there was about to be a huge housing number. There’s very little rationale to being short Swiss Francs here that I can fathom. This is a classic short-options trade. If you win, you make a tiny amount. If you lose, then you blow up. If you do that with a tiny amount of money, and make lots of small bets that are not only uncorrelated but will be uncorrelated in a crisis (it is unclear how one does this), then it can be a reasonable strategy. But how this is a smart strategy in this case escapes me. And as a broker, I would not allow my margining system to take the incredibly low volatility in the Euro/Swiss cross as a sign that even lower margins are appropriate. VaR here is obviously useless because the distribution of possible returns is not even remotely normal. Again, as a broker I am short options: I might make a tiny amount from customer trading or carry on their cash positions; or I might be left holding the bag when the margin balances held by customers prove to be too little and they walk away.
And I suppose the bottom line is this: you cannot know for certain that your broker or hedge fund manager is being wise about this sort of thing. But you sure as heck need to ask.
While we wait for our Employment Report tomorrow, there is plenty of excitement overseas.
The dollar continued to strengthen today, with the dollar index reaching the highest level since the middle of last year (see chart, source Bloomberg).
As with the rest of the dollar’s strengthening move, it was really not any of our own doing. The dollar is simply, and I suspect very temporarily, the best house in a bad neighborhood right now. In the UK, the Scots are about to vote for independence, or not, but it will be a close vote regardless. In Japan, the Yen is weakening again as the Bank of Japan continues to ease and Kuroda continues to jawbone against his currency.
In Europe this morning, the ECB surprised many observers by cutting its benchmark rate to the low, low rate of just 5 basis points (0.05%), and lowered the deposit rate to -0.2%…meaning that if a bank wants to leave money sitting at the ECB, it is forced to pay the ECB to hold it. A negative deposit rate is akin to the Fed setting interest on excess reserves at a negative figure, something that makes great sense if the point of quantitative easing is to get money into the economy. In the Fed’s case, it turns out that the real point was to de-lever the banks forcibly, so it didn’t care that the reserves were sitting inert, but in the ECB’s case they would really like to see inflation higher (core inflation for the whole Eurozone is under 1%) so it is important that any increase in the balance sheet of the central bank is reflected in actual currency in circulation.
Right now, the negative deposit rate isn’t so important since the ECB holds negligible deposits. But the negative deposit rate was step one; step two is to gin up the quantitative easing again. ECB President Draghi had promised several months ago to do so with ‘targeted LTRO’, and today he delivered by saying that the ECB has decided to begin TLTRO in October. The ECB will “purchase a broad portfolio of simple and transparent securities” even though some observers have noted that there aren’t a lot of asset-backed securities in the market to buy (but trust Wall Street on this: if there is a buyer of a few hundred billion Euros’ worth of such securities, those securities will be issued. Wall Street isn’t good at everything, but they’re darn good at finding ways to satisfy a motivated, huge buyer. (See “subprime MBS”).
This is significant, as I said it was when Draghi first mentioned this back in June. It is significant if they follow through, and at least at this point it appears they mean to do so. Now, Europe still needs to fight against the dampening effect on money velocity that lower interest rates are having, but at least they recognize the need to get M2 money growth above the 2.7% y/y rate it is at presently (which is, itself, above the 1.9% rate of the year ended April). Money growth in Europe is currently the lowest in the world, and – surprise! – deflation is the biggest threat in Europe. Go figure.
How does this affect inflation in the US?
Changes in the global money supply contributes to a global inflation process that underpins inflation rates around the world. The best way to think about the fluctuations in exchange rates, with respect to inflation, is that they allocate global inflation between countries (or, alternatively, you can think of inflation as being “global” plus “idiosyncratic”, where a country’s idiosyncratic inflationary or disinflationary policies affect the domestic inflation rate and the exchange rate with other countries). So, the ECB’s aggressive easing (when it happens) will have two main effects. First, it will tend to push up average inflation globally compared to what it would otherwise have been. Second, it will tend to weaken the Euro and strengthen the dollar so that inflation in Europe should rise relative to US inflation – all else being equal, which of course it is not.
With respect to this latter effect, I need to take pains to point out that it is a small effect, or rather than the relative movements in the currency need to be a lot bigger to be worth worrying about. A stronger dollar, in short, is not going to put much pressure on US inflation to be lower. The chart below (source: Enduring Investments) shows a proxy we use for core commodities inflation, ex-medical, against the broad trade-weighted dollar lagged 9 months.
You can see that core commodities respond broadly to the dollar’s strength or weakness. A 5% rise (decline) in the dollar causes, nine months later, a 1% decline (rise) in core commodities inflation, ex-medical care commodities. Core ex-medical care commodities represents about 18% of the consumption basket, and the dollar’s effect outside of that part of the basket is indeterminate at best, so we can say that a 5% rise in the dollar causes inflation to decline about 0.18%.
In short, don’t waste a lot of time worrying that the 4% rise in the dollar this year will lead to deflation any time soon. Against that 18% of the consumption basket, we have 57% of the basket (core services) inflating at 2.6%, and over half of that consists of primary and owners’ equivalent rents, which are rising at 3.3% and 2.7% respectively and have a lot of upward momentum. Unless the dollar shoots dramatically higher, it should not affect overall prices very much.
I am generally reluctant to call anything a “game changer,” because in a complex global economy with intricately interdependent markets it takes something truly special to change everything. However, I am tempted to attach that appellation to the ECB’s historic action this morning. It probably does not “change the game” per se, but it is very significant.
Feeble money growth in the Eurozone has been a big concern of mine for a while (and I mentioned it as recently as Monday). In our Quarterly Inflation Outlook back in February, we wrote:
“The new best candidate for having a lost decade, now, becomes Europe, as it sports the lowest M2 growth among major economic blocs… It frankly is shocking to us that money supply growth has been so weak and the central bank so lethargic towards this fact even with Draghi at the controls. It was generally thought that Draghi’s election posed a great risk to price stability in Europe… but in the other direction from what the Eurozone is now confronting. There have been murmurings about the possibility of the ECB instituting negative deposit rates and other aggressive stimulations of the money supply, but in the meantime money growth is slipping to well below where it needs to be to stabilize prices. Europe, in our view, is the biggest counterweight to global inflationary dynamics, which is good for the world but bad for Europe.”
All of that changed, in one fell swoop, today. The ECB’s actions were unprecedented, and largely unexpected. First, and somewhat expected, was the body’s decision to implement a negative deposit rate for bank reserves held at the ECB. This is akin to the Fed incorporating a negative rate for Interest on Excess Reserves (IOER). What it does is to actually penalize banks for holding excess reserves.
There are two ways for a bank to shed excess reserves. The first way is to sell the reserves to another bank in the interbank market. This doesn’t change anything about the aggregate amount of excess reserves; it just moves those reserves around. In the process, it will push market interest rates negative (since a bank should be willing to take any interest rate that is less negative than what the ECB is charging) and probably increase retail banking fees at the margin (since there is otherwise no way to charge depositors a negative rate). This will weaken banks, but doesn’t increase money growth. The second way a bank can shed excess reserves is to lend money, which increases the reserves it is required to hold and therefore changes the reserves from excess to required. A bank is incentivized to make marginally riskier loans (which lowers its margins due to increased credit losses) because there is a small advantage to using up “expensive” reserves. This also will weaken banks. But, more importantly, it will stimulate money growth and that is what the ECB is aiming for.
If that was all the ECB had done, though, it would not be terribly significant. The utilization of the ECB’s deposit facility is only about €29bln at this writing, which is already near the lowest level since the crisis began (see chart, source Bloomberg).
But the ECB did not stop there. At the press conference after the formal announcement, Draghi unveiled a package of €400bln in “targeted” LTRO, which means that if banks lend the money they acquire through the LTRO then the term of the loan is four years; otherwise it must be paid back in two years. Even more important, the central bank suspended the sterilization of LTRO. “Sterilization” is when the bank soaks up the reserves created by the LTRO. As long as the ECB was sterilizing its quantitative easing, it could not have any impact. It is similar, but more extreme, to what the Fed did in instituting IOER to restrain banks from actually using the reserves created by QE. It never made much sense, but in the ECB’s case there was evidently some concern that doing QE without sterilization was not permitted under the institution’s charter.
Apparently, those concerns have been resolved. But QE without sterilization is meaningful. The ECB is thus not only doing quantitative easing, but is actively taking steps to make sure that the liquidity being added to the system is flushed, rather than leaked, into the transactional money supply.
If the ECB actually follows through on these pledges, then we can expect a rapid turn-around in the region’s money growth, and before long a turn higher in the region’s inflation readings. And, perhaps, not merely for the region: the chart below (source: Bloomberg, Enduring Investments) shows the correlation between core CPI in the US and the average increase in US and Eurozone M2. Currently US M2 is growing at better than 7% over the last year, while Eurozone M2 is 1.9%. Increasing the pace of M2 growth in Europe might well help push US inflation higher – not that it needed any help, as it is already swinging higher.
The renewed determination of the ECB to push prices higher should as a result be good not only for European inflation swaps (10-year inflation swaps were up 2-3bps today, but have a long way to go before they are back to normal levels – see chart, source Bloomberg), but also for US inflation swaps (which were up 1-2bps today).
Finally, if it is true that central bank generosity is what has been underpinning global asset markets, an aggressive ECB might give a bit more life to global equities. Perhaps one more leg. But then again, perhaps not – and when the piper’s tune is over, it could be brutal. It is currently quite dangerous to be dancing to that piper. For my money, I’d rather be long breakevens.
 This is interesting for lots of reasons, but one of them is that the ECB will measure (if I understand correctly) the net lending of the institution, so if that contracts then the loan will be called. But there are lots of reasons for an institution to decrease lending. Some of them, such as a generally weak economic environment or a weak balance sheet of the bank, would be exacerbated by an unwelcome “call” of the loan by the ECB. In the former case it would exacerbate a weak economic situation; in the latter it could accelerate a bank collapse. I may not understand the conditions for the call, but if my understanding is correct then this is a curious wrinkle.
I am beginning to worry about my own complacency. As a person who has been a participant in the fixed-income markets for a long time, I have become quite naturally a very cautious investor. Such caution is a quintessentially fixed-income mindset (although you might not guess that from the way bond people behaved in the run-up to the global financial crisis) – as a bond investor, you are essentially in the position of someone who is short options: taking in small amounts on a regular basis, with an occasional large loss when the credit defaults. A bond investor can greatly improve his performance in the long run relative to an index by merely avoiding the blow-ups. Miss the Enron moment, and you pick up a lot of relative performance. (The same is true of equities, but there is much more upside to being an optimist. The stock market selects for optimists, the bond market for pessimists.)
This is a lesson that many high-yield investors today, chasing near-term carry, seem to have forgotten. But my purpose here isn’t to bash those involved in the global reach for yield. I am merely pointing out that this is how I tend to think. I am always looking for the next disaster that hangs a portfolio with a big negative number. As Prince Humperdinck said in The Princess Bride, “I always think everything could be a trap – which is why I’m still alive.”
And I am starting to worry about my own complacency. I don’t get the feeling that we’re gearing up for Round 2 of the global financial crisis. Something bad, perhaps, but not catastrophic.
To be sure, there are a large number of potential pitfalls facing investors today, and I think market volatilities underestimate their probabilities substantially. We are facing an inflection in policy from the ECB this week, with analysts expecting a substantial additional easing action (and it is overdue, with money growth in Europe down to a feeble 1.9% y/y, near the worst levels of the post-crisis period – see chart, source Bloomberg). Absent a major change in policy, liquidity on the continent is going to become increasingly dear with possible ramifications for the real economy as well as the asset economy.
The Federal Reserve is facing a more-serious policy inflection point, with no agreement amongst FOMC members (as far as I can tell) about how to transition from the end of QE to the eventual tightening. I’ve pointed out before – while many Fed officials were whistling Dixie about how easy it would be to reverse policy – that there is no proven method for raising interest rates with the vast quantity of excess reserves sitting inert on bank balance sheets. Moreover, raising interest rates isn’t the key…restraining money growth is. The key point for markets is simply that there is no plan in place that removes these reserves, which means that interest rates are not likely to respond to Fed desires to see them rise. And, if the Fed uses a brute-force method of raising the interest paid on excess reserves, then rates may rise but we don’t know what will happen to the relative quantities of required and excess reserves (and it is the level of required reserves that actually matter for inflation). It is a thorny problem, and one which the markets aren’t giving enough credit regarding the difficulty thereof.
Valuation levels are high across the board (with the exception of commodity indices). They’re doubly high in stocks, with high multiples on earnings that are themselves high with respect to revenues. And yes, this concerns me. I expect more volatility ahead, and perhaps serious volatility. But the fact that I am just saying “perhaps,” when all of my experience and models say “there is no escape without some bad stuff happening,” means that I am being infected – relative to my usual caution – by the general complacency.
In other words, I am worried that I am not worried enough.
The interesting thing is that equity bulls said during the entire march higher that “it doesn’t matter what the fundamentals are, the Fed is pushing the market higher and spreads tighter.” I still don’t believe that was an inevitable outcome to the Fed’s QE, but the fact is that people believed it and they were correct: that was enough to keep the market going higher. I can’t be comfortable going along with the crowd in that circumstance, but in retrospect it would have been better to abandon the models, throw caution to the wind, and ride along with the fun. And perhaps this regret is one reason for my developing complacency.
But that way lies madness, since the problem is not the ride but the getting out when the ride is over. The Fed is no longer providing QE (or, in any event, QE will shortly end altogether). So what’s the excuse now? It seems to me that everyone is still riding on the fun train, and just watching carefully to see if anyone jumps off. I think the market rally is on very tenuous footing, because if faith in the market’s liquidity goes away, the value anchor is very far from these levels. Yet, part of me is skeptical that a market which hasn’t corrected in more than two years can actually return to those value anchors. I should know better, because the bond-market mindset reminds me that market gains are generally linear while market losses are discontinuous, sloppy, and non-linear. Especially, I ought to be thinking, when market liquidity is so poor thanks to the government’s assault on market makers over the last few years.
I keep wondering if there is one more pulse higher in stocks coming, one more decline in commodities before they begin to catch up with money growth and inflation, one more rally in bonds before they begin to discount a higher inflation path. And this is very possible, because while I worry about my own developing complacency most investors are not concerned about their own.
Complacency or no, insurance is cheap. The low current level of implied volatilities in almost every asset class makes portfolio protection worthwhile, even if it costs a bit of performance to acquire that protection.
Over the past week or two we have seen and heard from the Fed (in the minutes released on Wednesday), the ECB (after their April 3rd meeting), the BOJ (after their April 7th meeting), and the Bank of England (today). Having heard from the “big four,” I think it’s very interesting to compare what they seem to be indicating they will do to what they probably ought to do. (I am actually going to neglect the BOE, since their situation is quite complex at the moment and probably too much for a reasonable-length article).
In the US, the latest surprise – for some people – was the dovish tenor of the FOMC minutes when they were released yesterday. I shake my head in wonder at anyone who has managed to convince themselves that Chairman Yellen is a closet hawk even after years of evidence to the contrary (not least being the fact that she was nominated at all – not since Volcker has any Fed chief with remotely hawkish credentials been nominated to the Chairman’s position). After the FOMC meeting itself, a few weeks ago, TIPS had been clobbered and some (although not me) attributed that to the hawkish tone of the statement and the fact that Yellen had mentioned offhand that a lengthy period of low rates after QE has ended might be something like six months. The Fed is not hawkish at this point in its history; this is not to say that it does not have hawkish members but on the whole it is a dovish institution and I maintain that the Fed will likely tighten too late, and too little. For now, the Fed seems to be trying to make clear that they are concerned about low inflation and not likely to step on the brakes any more than they have.
What ought the Fed to be doing right now? The Fed ought to be tightening. Though growth is not robust, “robust” growth cannot be the standard demanded before starting a tightening of monetary policy, especially when there are tremendous excess reserves. The monetary policy car has no traction with such huge reserves, and the Fed needs to start trying to get control so that when it is time to steer, it can do so. Moreover, with disinflation fears waxing – incredibly – at the FOMC, inflation is in fact heading higher. Median inflation should approach or exceed 3% this year, despite the Fed’s belief that it will be well below 2% for a very long time. In a few months, the fear of disinflation and deflation will seem quaint.
No increase in policy rates is going to be coming any time soon. The Fed will continue to tighten very slowly, by winding down QE and then possibly starting to mop up some of the trillions in extra liquidity. That’s a sine qua non to rates going up, unless the Fed decides to establish a floor with the interest rate on excess reserves and to ship big boxes of money to Wall Street. But the interesting part will be when the Fed starts to mop up that liquidity either by outright bond sales (unlikely) or by some sort of massive reverse repo operation. It will get interesting because this classic tightening maneuver won’t be met with rising short rates – making it clear even to non-Fed-watchers that the Fed has no control over short rates at the moment. Again, I seriously doubt that the Fed will move with alacrity towards a tighter policy, and as it is they are at least a couple of years behind. But even if they do continue to tighten it will take years, not months, for the system to approach a normal state of liquidity.
The ECB talks like it is ready to ease further. ECB President Draghi was perceived as extremely bullish at his post-meeting presser last week, and recently there has been more chatter about negative deposit rates or other ways to increase the money supply.
And they need to do it. Disinflation, and possibly even deflation, actually probably is the threat in Europe, because the ECB has allowed money growth to slow back to the too-slow range that characterized the post-credit-crisis period (see chart, source ECB).
This obvious failure to keep money growth up is one reason for the strength of the Euro since 2012 – while the Fed talks about tightening, but does so in a way that only a dove could love, the ECB talks about easing, but does so in a way that can only appeal to hawks. Currency traders can smell it – European monetary policy may be as poorly managed as US monetary policy is, but holders of a currency prefer when the central bank is printing 2% more every year, rather than 6-8% as in the US. (Which would you prefer, a 2% dilution of your equity ownership, or an 8% dilution?)
The problem for the ECB is that their legal structures have been set up so that, at least officially, they don’t have the same tools for QE that other central banks have. Theoretically, they are prohibited from purchasing government bonds without sterilizing the intervention since that would mean effectively financing member governments. What ought the ECB to do? Well, I suppose it ought to follow its charter, but in a perfect world it is the ECB, and not the BOE or Fed, which would be doing QE. I suppose it will not surprise any reader to discover that I am a cynic, and I suspect that the ECB will at some point conclude that ceasing to sterilize the OMT bond portfolio is somehow allowed, even though practically speaking that would be the same as buying new government bonds without sterilization. We have already found out that in a pinch, the Federal Reserve is willing to be moderately “flexible” when it comes to its legal mandates. It would not surprise me a bit to see the ECB take a similar step. I suspect this will not happen in the next few months, since core European inflation for the year ended February has risen to 1.0% after being as low at 0.7% at year-end, but if that figure doesn’t continue to rise – and there’s no reason I can see that it should – then the ECB may test its flexibility later this year.
In Japan, the Bank of Japan has lifted core inflation to 0.8%, and it will continue to rise. Money supply growth is over 4% y/y, but only just barely. I believe that in Japan, what they profess to want and what they actually will act to secure are one and the same: increased QE, in increasing amounts, until everyone realizes that they are serious, the Yen declines markedly, and deflation is finally banished from the nation.
So in the race for weaker currencies, I suspect Japan will eventually win, with the US placing second and Europe having – annoyingly for its central bank, who would like a weaker currency to spur growth – the strongest unit.