The ECB fired its “bazooka” today, cutting official rates more into negative territory, increasing QE by another €20bln per month, expanding the range of assets the central bank can buy to now include corporate bonds, and creating a new 4-year program whereby the ECB will loan long-term money to banks at rates that could be negative (based on bank credit extended to corporate and personal borrowers).
My point today is not to opine on the power or wisdom of these policy moves. The main thing I want to observe is this: the inflation market is pricing in what amounts to success for global central banks, with consumer inflation averaging something between 1 and 2 percent per year for the next decade (a bit lower in Japan; a bit higher in the UK). Not only are inflation swaps prices much lower than would be expected from a pure monetarists’ standpoint – but options prices are also very low. The chart below (source: Enduring Investments) shows normalized volatilities over the last five years for a 10-year, 2% year-over-year inflation cap. That is, every year you take a look and see if inflation was over 2%. If it was, then the owner of this option is paid the difference between actual inflation and 2%; if it was not, the owner gets zero. So you get to look ten times at whether inflation has gotten above 2%, and get paid each time it has.
The chart shows that whatever inflation is expected to be, the price to cover the risk that inflation is actually somewhat higher is very low. So, not only is inflation expected to be low, but it is expected to be not volatile either.
Look, we’re talking about bazookas, helicopters…does something not seem right about pricing in very little risk of screwing up?
Whether you believe my thesis in my freshly-released book What’s Wrong With Money? that the likely course of inflation over the next few years is higher and potentially much higher, or you agree with those who think deflation is imminent, shouldn’t we agree that bazookas introduce volatility?
Central banks are attempting to do something that has never been done. Shouldn’t we at least be a teensy bit nervous, as they line up to perform the first-ever quintuple-lutz, that no one has ever landed one before? That no one has ever landed a commercial passenger jet on an aircraft carrier?
Uncertainty is supposed to lower asset values, all else being equal. So even if you think stocks at these levels are “fair,” in an environment with earnings and interest rates where they are now and projected earnings following a certain path, an increase in the volatility of those outcomes should lower the clearing price of those assets since the buyer of the asset (which has positive value) is also assuming the volatility (which has a negative value).
But the market also says that uncertainty right now is low. Yes, the VIX is well off its lows and seems to suggest greater short-term uncertainty (see chart below, source Bloomberg) – but I would argue that the long-term volatility of the economic fundamentals has rarely been this high.
Supposedly you can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd, but we also have never tried to do it. There’s a reason we haven’t tried to do it!
But the Fed, and the rest of the world’s central banks, are not only roller skating in a buffalo herd – the world’s markets seem to be suggesting that investors are sure they’re going to succeed. Regardless of whether you’re optimistic about the outcome, I would argue it’s nearly impossible to be both optimistic and highly confident!
 This means something to options traders but can be glossed over by non-options traders. Essentially the point is that you can’t use a regular Black-Scholes model to price options if the strike and/or the forward can have a negative value!
 #1 on Amazon in “Economic Inflation,” thanks largely to all of you!
A reader pointed out to me today a piece by Amy Higgins and Randal Verbrugge on the Cleveland Fed’s website entitled “Is a Nonseasonally Adjusted Median CPI a Useful Signal of Trend Inflation?” I will let readers draw their own conclusions about the new measure that Higgins and Verbrugge are proposing, but I wanted to point out the research because I often cite Median CPI as the best way to look at the central tendency of inflation (what the researchers call “trend inflation”) and this article confirms and reinforces that point of view.
And it is worth looking, therefore, at the recent movements in Median CPI. Yes, I know you’ve seen this over and over from me, but take a look anyway (chart is sourced from Bloomberg).
I don’t believe for a second that the FOMC is unaware of this picture; nor, however, do I believe they really care equally about inflation and growth. The talk right now is moderately hawkish, and with growth fair and inflation heading higher it is time to withdraw reserves. Indeed, it is long past time. As I have said for a while, the time to withdraw reserves was roughly when the Fed was busy implementing their last QE. Also note that I am not saying “raise rates,” since raising rates is an effect of withdrawing reserves and it is the withdrawal of reserves, not the raising of rates, that matters.
Practically speaking, since growth is slowing, the Fed is now back in a pickle of its own making. Inflation is clearly heading higher; growth is probably heading lower. If the FOMC had a balanced mandate (inflation and employment equal) then they would probably be at a neutral rate right now, so that would argue for tightening. But the FOMC has nothing remotely close to a balanced mandate. Against all evidence that monetary policy can affect inflation but not growth, the Fed is totally biased to act to support growth. The bankers believe that slow growth solves the inflation problem, so they should fight recession and just worry about inflation when growth gets “too hot.” Therefore, I currently do not expect the Fed to tighten in December.
Moreover, this increase in core or median inflation is happening in most major economies (with the notable exception of the UK, where it was nearing 4% in 2011 but has gradually come back to around 1%). This is in contrast to the conventional wisdom being propagated that inflation is falling everywhere. Consider the chart below, which is of core Japanese CPI (with the effect of the one-off tax increase in 2014 smoothed out).
Core inflation in Japan is the highest it has been in more than 17 years. Seventeen years. Tell me again how the BOJ’s money printing is having no effect? It is having no effect on growth, but it is doing what we would expect it to do on inflation.
Eurozone inflation is rising less impressively (see chart), but still rising. But then, the ECB has been less aggressive on monetary policy than either the US or Japan. Still, Europe is not, as the popular press would have you believe, flirting with deflation.
All of these economies are only flirting with deflation if you include energy quotes (these pictures may be worse if we had median CPI rather than core CPI for these economies). Now, energy quotes matter, just as much when they are going down as when they are going up, but it is a separate question whether including energy is at all helpful for predicting future inflation. And the answer is, as the Higgins and Verbrugge point out: no, it really isn’t. We are entering a period with weakening growth and strengthening inflation.
This should be “fun.”
Let us all grab the reins on the dollar. Yes, it is true: the buck is up some 25% from a year ago, and at the highest level in more than a decade. After retracing recently, the dollar index has been chugging higher again although it has yet to penetrate recent highs. But put this all into context. In the early 1980s, the dollar index exceeded 160 before dropping nearly by half. A subsequent rally into the early 2000s was a 50% rally from the lows and took the index to 120. This latest rally is a clear third place, but also a distant third place (see chart, source Bloomberg).
We can probably draw some instruction from reviewing these past circumstances. The rally of the early 1980s was launched by the aggressively hawkish monetary policy of Paul Volcker, who vowed to rein in inflation by restraining money growth. He succeeded, and took core inflation from nearly 14% in 1980 (with the dollar index at 85) down to 4.5% in 1985 (with the dollar index at 160). If you make a thing, in this case dollars, more scarce, its price rises. An optimistic press wrote about the “Superdollar” and the return of that signature American optimism.
Well, one out of two isn’t bad. The dollar soon slipped back, as other central banks instituted similar monetary restraint and the relative advantage to the greenback faded. It bounced around until the late 1990s, when Congress attacked the federal deficit – actually turning it into a surplus in the late 1990s. The dollar rallied fairly steadily from 1995 until topping out between late 2000 and early 2002, thanks to aggressive easing action from the Fed which took the Fed Funds target rate from 6.5% to 1.0%.
But it is important to remember that with currencies, it is all relative. If everyone is easing or everyone is tightening, then there shouldn’t be much in the way of relative currency movements. Thus, even though the Fed has spent most of the last seven years doing quantitative easing, the dollar hasn’t done much on net because everyone else is doing so as well. All currencies should be cheapening relative to real assets (and are, with respect to real estate, but not so much with commodities…for reasons that make little sense to me), but not relative to one another.
But recently, the dollar has outperformed because the investing community collectively perceived a divergence in monetary policies in the offing. While Japan and Europe have been ramping their QE higher, the Fed has ended its QE and at least some people expect them to raise rates soon. If it were to actually happen that money growth in Japan and Europe continued to accelerate while it slowed in the U.S., then it makes perfect sense that the dollar should appreciate. That is happening a little: the chart below (source: Bloomberg) shows that in the most recent data, European M2 money growth exceeded US M2 money growth (as well as UK and Japan M2 money growth) for the first time since 2008. Look at that spike on the red line in the chart below!
On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be anything dramatic happening on that chart, with all growth rates between 3.5% and 6.1%. And, honestly, I think investors have it generally wrong in thinking that if the Fed hikes US interest rates, money growth should slow and overall monetary conditions should tighten. Quite the contrary: I believe that with enormous excess reserves in place, rising interest rates will only spur bank interest in lending, and money growth will not slow but may even increase. But in any event, dollars are not about to become more scarce. The Fed doesn’t need to do any more QE; the vast quantities of excess reserves act as a reservoir of future money.
I have been surprised by the dollar’s rally, but unless something changes in a more serious way I don’t expect the rally to end up resembling the two prior periods of extended dollar strength.
The defining characteristics of the markets these days seem to include:
- Central bank liquidity matters; central government mistakes do not.
- Central bank liquidity matters; economic growth numbers do not.
- Central bank liquidity matters; market illiquidity does not.
- Central bank liquidity matters; and so does the dollar (but that’s just a manifestation of the fact that central bank liquidity matters).
You may notice some commonality about the four defining characteristics as I have enumerated them above. I will add that this commonality – that seemingly only central bank liquidity operations matter these days – is also the reason that I haven’t been writing as much these last days, weeks, and months. As someone who has watched the Fed for a long time, I might have a decent guess as to when the Fed might change course…but probably no better than many other watchers. (Moreover, as I have said before, whether the Fed actually hikes rates or not probably doesn’t matter either as long as there is adequate liquidity, which is a question independent at the moment from rates. Refer again to the four characteristics.)
Let us take these one at a time.
Central bank mistakes don’t matter as much as the question of whether central banks are adding enough liquidity. Exhibit A is the fact that 10-year yields are negative in Switzerland, under 1% in France, Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands, and under 1.60% in (get this) Italy, Spain, and Portugal. This is despite the fact that Greece is likely to leave the Euro either sooner or later, provoking existential questions about whether Italy, Spain, Portugal, and maybe France can also remain in the Eurozone. We can debate whether “likely to leave the Euro” means 20% chance or 80% chance, but if the chance is not negligible – and it certainly looks to be something more than negligible – then it is incredible that the Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish yields are all so low. Yes, it’s largely because of the ECB. Quod erat demonstrandum.
Economic growth numbers do not matter as much as central bank profligacy. The Citigroup Economic Surprise index for the US just fell below -50 for the first time since 2012 (see chart, source Bloomberg).
Now, weaker-than-expected data spelled bad news for stocks in 2008, 2010, and 2011, but not since then. I wonder why? Right: central bank liquidity trumps. Quod erat demonstrandum.
Recently, I have read a fair amount about increasingly-frequent bouts of illiquidity in various markets. The US TIPS market has comfortably more than a trillion dollars’ worth of outstanding issues, but has been whipsawed unmercifully over the last week and a half (after, it should be said, a hellacious rebound from the outrageous selloff in H2 of last year – see chart of 10-year breakevens, source Bloomberg). But that market is not alone by any stretch of the imagination. Energy markets, individual stock names and the stock market generally, and the list goes on.
It isn’t that there has been dramatic volatility – volatility happens. It’s that the effective bid/offer spreads have been widening and the amount of securities that can be moved on the bid and offer has been declining (to say it another way, the real market for size has been widening, or the cost of liquidity has been rising). This in itself is not surprising: some pundits, myself included, predicted five years ago that instituting the Volcker Rule, and other elements of Dodd-Frank that tended to decrease the risk budgets of market liquidity-makers, would diminish market liquidity. (See here, here, and here for some examples of my own statements on the matter). But the other prediction, that markets would fall as a result of the diminished market liquidity – less-liquid stocks for example routinely trade at lower P/E ratios all else being equal – has proven incorrect. Why? I would suggest the central bank’s provision of extraordinary monetary liquidity has helped keep markets elevated despite thinning liquidity. Quod erat demonstrandum.
So what is there to write about? Well, I could talk about the dollar, which at +25% from last June is starting to be in the realm of interesting. But this too is just another manifestation of central bank shenanigans – specifically, the notion that every central bank is being easier than our Federal Reserve. So it comes back to the same thing.
So all roads lead to the question of central bank liquidity provision. This primal single-note drum-beat is, if nothing else, exquisitely boring. But boring isn’t as annoying as the fact that it’s also wrong. The Fed isn’t being any more hawkish this year than it was last year. The growth in the money supply – which is the only metric of significance in the WYSIWYG world of monetary policy – is pretty much at the same level it has been for three years: about 6.0%-6.5% growth year/year (see chart, source Enduring Investments). That’s also exactly where UK M2 growth has been. Japanese money growth, while a lot healthier at 3.5% than it was at 2%, is still not doing anything dramatic despite all of the talk of BOJ money printing (color me surprised, by the way).
About the only interesting move in money growth has been in the EZ, which is where observers have been the most skeptical. One year ago, M2 growth in the Eurozone was 2.5%; as of January 2015, it was 5.6%.
The weakness in the Euro, in short, makes sense. The supply of Euros is increasing relative to the former growth trajectories, compared to USD, GBP, and JPY. Increase the relative supply; decrease the price. But the dollar’s strength against the rest of the world does not make so much sense. The supply of dollars is still rising at 6.5% per year, and moreover nothing that the Fed is proposing to do with rates is likely to affect the rate of increase in the supply of dollars.
At the end of the day, then, characteristic #4 I listed at the beginning of this article is wrong. It’s the perception of central bank liquidity, and not the liquidity itself, that matters to currencies. And that’s why I think the dollar’s run is going to come to an abrupt end, unless M2 growth inexplicably slows. How soon that run will end I have no idea, but it seems out of bounds to me. At least, if actual central bank liquidity is what matters…and for everything else in the securities markets, it seems to.
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.