What I make of it all

I have given a friend a task lately to come up with a consistent theory explaining recent moves in markets. I said it could be a conspiracy theory, a preposterous theory or any-other-theory as long as it provides a consistent explanation of recent moves. His reply was “people are selling what they were very long of” but then he reflected and said that it wouldn’t be consistent with the equity rally.

While I do not aspire to give you a comprehensive explanation, I think I have one that at least I feel comfortable with. But let’s start with a snapshot of what’s going on:

  • USTs are selling off.
  • Inflation keeps surprising to the downside.
  • USD is not really rallying (except against the yen).
  • US equities are generally supported.
  • Credit is wider but not spectacularly so.
  • Implied vols are creeping higher.
  • EM bonds are under tremendous pressure and currencies are weakening.
  • Commodities had come off but have sort-of stabilised lately.

Now, it may well be the case that we’re simply experiencing a risk-off period, although I’m not sure equity and commodities markets would agree with that fully. Neither is the UST sell-off the first thing that springs to mind when discussing the dreaded risk-off.

A theory, which is a bit closer to my heart is what Paul Krugman put in his blog today but again the USD is not really rallying. Alternatively, stuff like the Mexican peso shouldn’t be under so much pressure in such a scenario, I reckon.

I see two main forces driving the market at the moment. The first one is the Bank of Japan. In my post Eddie Vedder and the Japanese carry from April 13 (USD/JPY approaching 100 ) I was being skeptical about the whole concept of yen being used to fund stuff elsewhere saying that the Japanese will probably find plenty of opportunities locally if they believe in Abenomics. However, I did also say that if anything they’d go for bonds in the US, which are looking considerably better than other global bonds on a currency-hedged basis. Similarly, if a Japanese investor wants to bet on the yen decline, then they should keep it simple and do USD/JPY rather than, say, AUD/JPY. And this is a very important point because whenever USDJPY jumps 1%, it pushes the USD index higher by almost 0.15%, thus creating the impression that the risk is off because the USD strengthens. Therefore, the previous correlation of “yen lower, risk higher” does not work like a charm anymore.

But then, if it’s just a localised intervention in USD/JPY, which has very little to do with the fundamentals in the US of A then perhaps it is safe to assume that some investors have been skewing their own USD index by buying a bit more USD against the JPY and selling the greenback against the EUR? I will explain in a second why.

A global bond investor, which has a WGBI index as a benchmark (that’s representative of around 3-4trn USD in AUM) has 23 countries to choose from. These include the bond behemoths like US, Germany, Japan or Italy but also smaller markets, mostly in Europe. And the way this investor looks at the world at the moment is as follows.

  • She just heard from Ben Bernanke that the Fed might start limiting bond purchases. Granted, this will still be an expansion of the balance sheet but at a slower pace. The investor in question will be reassured that this is not a policy mistake but rather the response to recent data when, e.g. looking at the tax receipts data (chart below):
    us_taxes
    The chart shows the annual rate of receipts of the federal government. Not only have we surpassed the pre-crisis highs in terms of revenues but also corporate income taxes are looking very healthy. And no, they are below the 2007 highs not because Apple is avoiding taxes or something but because there is a lot of tax credits originating from the crisis to work through.
  • The investor then looks at emerging markets (Mexico, Poland, Malaysia and South Africa are representing EMs in the WGBI index) and thinks that there is no way these are going to withstand the UST sell-off. Anyone who thinks otherwise is in a dreamworld in my opinion. There’s also the argument of positioning, which is very heavy.
  • Then the investor looks at her global growth/inflation forecasts and sees this big black hole between the Urals and the Atlantic Ocean, which is at a brink of deflation and already in a recession. As much as such a scenario for Europe would’ve been considered a disaster 2-3 years ago, it is now a fact of life. Please see my post Systemic ain’t what it used to be for a more detailed explanation. Suffice to say that if you have reasons to believe Bernanke when he says he will “taper” then you also should believe Mario Draghi when he says that he is prepared to do whatever it takes.
  • Meanwhile, there is a significant risk of a currency war breaking out in Asia. Yesterday the Japanese told their Korean colleagues to go and… do something about the won rather than whine over the yen depreciation. Not exactly a fantastic environment for investing in bonds over there, either.
  • So if you are a fixed-income dedicated investor then there’s really pretty much one place to be – European debt markets. To be sure, trends change and it can be reversed but if you believe in the global growth/reflation trade then probably shorting BTPs or SPGBs is not the first thing to do. In fact, under such a scenario I can very much imagine peripheral spreads tightening massively, particularly in Italy, which has now officially ceased to be a fiscal troublemaker.
  • In such a scenario EUR rallies, EGBs outperform and emerging markets closely tied to the EU (Poland, Hungary etc.) perform better than those linked to the US (Mexico). All that has indeed taken place.

I would like to spend a second on the EUR here. In one of my recent discussions with long-term investors an interesting theme started taking shape – what if Europe is about to experience what Japan had experienced in the last two decades but in a very short period of time, say 1-2 years? The current account is very positive, the appetite for debt is relatively strong and domestic demand will stay very sluggish but at the same the ECB won’t go “full monty” on printing. Unless it is forced to do so, of course, like it recently happened in Japan. What if the balance of payments forces coupled by the fact that virtually every major trading partner of the Eurozone is printing money push EUR to some ridiculously high levels before the pressure on the ECB is so strong that it can’t resist it anymore? So yes, the EUR would eventually crash but there would be a lot of stop losses beforehand.

I will be very honest – I am really struggling to get a good feel on the market at the moment. There are bond markets that I still like a lot, e.g. Italy, CEE or Russia but I think one needs to have something to offset the long rates exposure (my suggestion – Turkey). I generally think emerging markets in the EU should outperform Latam and Asia due to proximity to the deflationary vortex but moves have been quite brutal there, too. On the FX, if what I wrote is correct then the theme from the beginning of the year, i.e. being long EUR/MXN, EUR/RUB or EUR/MYR should work out really nicely.

And yes, I know this post would’ve been nice to have two weeks ago but this is what I make of it all anyway.

What the central bank giveth, only the central bank taketh away

When I first started working at a bank they told me to do liquidity forecasts for the money market desk. It was a relatively simple, yet educational exercise. I would look at a given month and put together a table of cash inflows to and outflows from the system. For example, when there would be a bond redemption or a coupon payment, it would mean an increase in liquidity. Conversely, if the finance ministry were to issue bonds, it would drain some money from the system. These were just daily moves in liquidity but they were absolutely key for the money market rates. Believe me, you don’t want to make a mistake when doing that…

But the thing is that this was just forecasting of changes in maturity of money in the system. After all, the mere fact that the finance ministry pays out a coupon doesn’t mean that there is more money in the system. The finance ministry cannot print money so they would simply move it from their account to the accounts of bond holders. On that day overnight rates would normally drop but the system would balance itself quite quickly.

Fast forward to more interesting (aka post-Lehman) times. The central banks around the world have been printing money at a spectacular pace and many agree (myself included) that quite a few of developed economies are in the liquidity trap. Naturally, the increase in central banks’ balance sheets has led to a significant build up in excess liquidity, which – as we know all too well – usually ends up back at the central bank’s deposit facility. This is beginning to raise concerns in both developed and emerging economies. Let me give you three examples from recent weeks in the European Union (in order of appearance):

  • Hungary’s central bank is planning to limit banks’ access to the two-week NBH bills (open market operations). More details can be found here. NBH Governor Matolcsy is quite angry that the central bank needs to pay banks for the liquidity they park in this facility. He is pointing in the direction of foreign banks (I explained the mechanism in the post entitled The Invisible Carry), but we can assume this will eventually be extended.
  • Last week, Mario Draghi said the central bank was open to negative rates on the deposit facility.
  • This week, Nationa Bank of Poland’s Governor Marek Belka said that banks had too easy lives because they were parking PLN140bn using weekly open market operations and earning the repo rate without any problems.

Many commentators and indeed the central bankers themselves have been mentioning that the idea behind those measures is to make the banks lend more. It is often claimed that the liquidity in the banking system should be helping the economy recover, instead of making banks money. But this is a very simplistic approach to how banks operate.

Let’s say that a banking system has excess liquidity of 1,000bn (never mind how it got to that state). This money is kept at the central bank in weekly open market operations and earns 0.05%. Let’s then assume that the central bank slashes this rate to -1%. What happens?

Some banks may conclude that using the central bank is not a very smart thing to do anymore and will go and buy, say, 3-month TBills. But who will they buy them from? Finance ministry? Ok, but then what will the finance ministry do with the money it gets from the bank? It will pay teachers’ salaries (among others, of course). What will the teachers do? They will keep it on their bank accounts, which means the money will have returned to the system and we’re back at square one, but with one happy finance minister who just sold some TBills.

Other banks will conclude that maybe they will take the money they’d normally put at the central bank, swap it into another currency, eg the USD and buy some USD-denominated assets with it. The price of USD in the swap market will increase (and the price of the local currency will decline) but ultimately the money won’t disappear and will return to the central bank. The process will, however, lower fx swap rates.

Perhaps there will be one bank whose CEO will feel patriotic and will want to lend money to “hard-working entrepreneurs up and down the country”. Why the decline of deposit rate by 105bp would persuade her to do that is beyond me, but we can make such an assumption. So if this bank lends some money for the new investment project, then the company in question will spend the money and the money will… come back to the system! At the end of the day, there will still be 1,000bn sitting with the central bank. Just at a different price.

I don’t question the fact that such a move will persuade banks to search for higher-yielding assets, ie loans but what I’m trying to explain is that the liquidity in the banking system is like a hot potato. The central bank controls how much money there is in the system (using various ways, eg printing money, changing the reserve requirement etc) and the market only needs to decide the price of this money. The only way that lowering rates to the negative territory impacts the amount of cash in the system is because the central bank will be returning 99% of the money placed in it back to banks. But then which of the major central banks could even contemplate shrinking its balance sheet at the time when the global economy remains exceptionally fragile?

What I think discussions like the ones taking place in Europe will lead to is significant re-pricing of interbank rates (BOR-OIS spreads could decline massively as banks start passing on the potato) and an increased demand for government or quasi-government bonds by banks’ assets and liabilities management desks (ALMs). Perhaps this is the point of the whole exercise. Then again, isn’t it yet another version of crowding out and actually forcing banks to play the carry in government bond markets? Hard to see how that should please politicians but perhaps this is the only path to rejuvenate the credit action. I really don’t like growth implications of such a process. Unless of course the ultimate beneficiaries, ie the governments, use the extra demand for their papers to increase public spending… But I will spare you, Dear Reader, yet another discussion about consequences of austerity. There’s this chap in the US who does that several times a day.

 

Forget Apple, Slovenia was the real deal

All that matters for the US media is the stock market. Just take a look at the TOP category in Bloomberg or tune into CNBC for… well… as long as you can bear it. And of course many put the “=” sign between the US equities and Apple. Therefore, last week’s premier issue of Apple bonds grabbed all the headlines. Granted, it was a bond, not a stock but it’s Apple so it can still rule the global economic reports. But honestly, in the greater scheme of things this issue had really zero relevance for anything. Yeah, probably the PIMCOs of the world decided to park some cash there expecting that high outstanding value would boost liquidity in the secondary market. Plus, there were some comments about Apple’s tax bill but that’s about it.

I think something considerably more important happened in the small European country of Slovenia.

slovenia_apple

After several days of roadshowing, the troubled Slovenia decided to open books for 5 and 10y bonds on Tuesday (30 April). Given that in the previous weeks peripheral bond markets rallied like mad, it wasn’t too heroic to assume that the book-building would be quite quick. Indeed, in the early afternoon books exceeded USD10bn (I guess Slovenia wanted to sell something around 2-3bn) and then reached a quarter of what Apple managed to get in its book building. If I were to take a cheap shot I would say that Slovenia’s GDP is almost 10 times smaller than Apple’s market capitalisation* but I won’t.

And then the lightning struck. Moody’s informed the government of an impending downgrade, which has led to a subsequent suspension of the whole issuance process. I honesty can’t recall the last time a rating agency would do such a thing after the roadshow and during book-building but that’s beside the point. That evening, Moody’s (which already was the most bearish agency on Slovenia) downgraded the country by two notches to junk AND maintained the negative outlook. This created a whopping four-notch difference between them and both Fitch and S&P (A-). The justification of the decision was appalling. Particularly the point about “uncertain funding prospects”. I actually do understand why Moody’s did what it did – they must have assumed that the Dijsselbloem Rule (a.k.a. The Template) means that Slovenia will fall down at the first stumbling point. But they weren’t brave enough to put that in writing and instead chose a set of phony arguments.

Anyway, May 1st followed and the book reopened for bids only on Thursday. In the meantime, it was interesting to see what happened in the secondary market: the existing Sloven22 USD bonds got given on Tuesday at 99.00, they were sold just below 98.00 on Wednesday and by the time the books restarted they were firmly on their way towards par. I know markets don’t care about ratings these days but this was a pretty extreme vote of no-confidence for Moody’s.

I took advantage of the fact that May 1st is a holiday across Europe and had a few meetings with fund managers here in London. All of them were telling me the same thing, i.e. that they hope that the downgrade would cheapen the deal by at least 10bp. They “hoped” but didn’t really think that would happen. This sharply contrasts with some analysts’ comments who said that the downgrade could cost Slovenia around 100bp (i.e. from 6 to 7% in yield). Imagine that – some people seriously thought Slovenia would have to pay more than Rwanda (no disrespect, of course).

Then the big day came – books reopened, bids were even stronger than during the first attempt and Slovenia sold 3.5bn worth of 5 and 10y bonds. On Friday, the new Sloven23s traded up by more than 4 points, which means yield fell by more than 50bp from the 6% the government paid. A fairy tale ending.

So why do I think this event was so important? Because it shows how different the perception of European sovereign risk is. I wrote a few times about it (see here and here) partly making fun of people who thought that Slovenia would be the next Cyprus. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that Slovenia is out of the woods yet. In fact, the 3.5bn cash injection could make the government less eager to push for necessary reforms (for details, do check an excellent summary of a great paper by @GoodRichWatts which can be found here). But the emotional reaction to the Cyprus debacle was ridiculed by the market. In other words, just because something happened in one part of the Eurozone, it doesn’t mean that there will be an impending domino effect, or an outright tsunami.

Perhaps issues from both Apple and Slovenia have only proved that investors will buy anything that yields. But I strongly believe that in the case of Slovenia we got something much more important in terms of where the crisis in the Eurozone is headed. If you want to be short Europe, feel free to do that but better check whether your story holds first and don’t count on panic spreading quickly.

* Comparing a country’s GDP with a company’s market capitalisation is ridiculous, though because one is flow and the other one is stock. But this sort of comparison is what would get me quoted on Bloomberg so I couldn’t resist. For the record, if you wanted to compare a country’s GDP to anything from the corporate finance world it should rather be sales, in which case Slovenia is a third of Apple.