Just do as I say, don’t do as I do

One of the oh-so-many unintended consequences of what we’ve seen in the market for the last five years is the widespread belief that no matter what happens policy makers are in almost full control of the events. Moreover, we seem to be more willing to take their word for granted rather than analyse what they’re actually doing (which reminds me of this old Genesis song, hence also the title of the post).

Think of it.

  • If the US growth numbers turn sour, who do we think can come to save the day? Either the government with the fiscal package or, more recently, the Fed with some sort of money printing magic wand.
  • When a eurozone country gets into trouble, all the research says “if only the Troika was there to help them” or “if only Mario Draghi was not on vacation and said something about whatever it takes”.
  • Similarly, if the day of reckoning comes in India after years of screwing up the fiscal situation and very little progress on boosting competitiveness to sort out the current account (yes, that does matter), all we want is the RBI to tighten the liquidity situation to go back to normal.
  • Or when Turkey pushes the current account deficit and short term external debt to levels previously unseen in the emerging markets universe, simultaneously pumping up credit growth to very high levels and keeping negative real rates, all the JP Morgan research wishes for is for Governor Basci to sound hawkish to make it all go away. Indeed, they hiked the upper end of the interest rates corridor today and people are very happy even though it really means nothing.
  • In Egypt where the fiscal situation is completely unsustainable and people are rioting at the time when FX reserves are being depleted at a Formula I pace, many people think that the Gulf states or the IMF or some other Santa Claus can come and save the day with a simple loan. If only the government asked for it…
  • Finally, when the Governor of the National Bank of Poland categorically says that policy easing has finished at 2.5% and that he is sending a strong signal to the economy that the worst is over and therefore the economy can grow again, the market immediately takes it as a gospel even though it does sound an awful lot like my favourite Baron Munchhausen.

Trust me, I do have many more examples of when we either wish for or treat policy makers’ decisions as the ultimate solutions. Whereas if you think of it, many times it is a very twisted logic, which a friendly portfolio manager summarised as “when we turn left, a road to the left will appear”.

It didn’t use to be like this. Our faith in policy makers’ ability to reverse the course of the market has proven correct in many cases (see whatever it takes) but I think that oftentimes it’s just a reflection of the laziness of the market. After all, it’s much easier to buy bonds in Slovenia or Italy because the ECB says it will defend them rather than to look into the fundamentals. Or it’s much easier to buy the Turkish lira because the CBRT says it is hawkish rather than to think whether it’s actually true (NB it most definitely isn’t, in my opinion).

I am not denying the fact that the policy makers control developments in the very short term no matter how much you disagree with them but we need to be very careful when extrapolating that. I strongly believe that there are still things which are beyond fixing and that sometimes it really is too late. The following points are not necessarily things I am convinced about but I think you can make such counterarguments to the propositions I presented above:

  • Fed saving the day – what if the US is in the classical liquidity trap in which case without a strong fiscal stimulus you will get nowhere via QE?
  • Draghi doing whatever it takes – what if the EMU debt is actually not sustainable, in which case it’s just a matter of time before dominoes start falling? (ok, I actually don’t really agree with this one but Nouriel, Nassim and Zero would probably make that point; Also, “Zero” is the first name of Mr Hedge, right?).
  • RBI saving the rupee by squeezing front end rates to 8% – what if the awful policy mix of the recent years actually requires long term yields to increase considerably to attract any sort of interest from international investors?
  • CBRT rescuing the lira – what if we are ahead of a proper old-school funding crisis in which case the current account deficit will need to be closed in a disorderly fashion triggering a massive increase in interest rates and a huge recession?
  • Egypt bail out – what if the cost of saving Egypt is too high for anyone to bear and the country actually is unable to sustainably fund the fiscal deficit, particularly in the local market?
  • Poland recovering – what if the excessively tight monetary and fiscal policies have durably lowered the potential growth rate in Poland turning it into a country more resembling the Czech Republic (i.e. with very high savings rate and no domestic demand)?

Some of those things sound less plausible than others but I guess the message is that don’t let the policy makers whisper the reality and pull the wool over your eyes. Granted, they can and should impact your trading decisions in the short-run but if the brightest and best-paid minds working in the financial industry are having problems with forecasting what is going to happen in the marketplace then how can you assume that people who – for the most part – are politicians constantly make the best possible decisions?

I am back and so is the balance of payments

As we get a breather in the indiscriminate sell-off, I think it is a good time to consider what it is that actually drives the faith of various emerging markets.

Naturally, the easiest explanation currently is “tapering”, which is something I’ve been trying to fight for the last several weeks among the investors that I speak to. Alas, the power of the front page of FT or WSJ saying “EM is doomed as Fed tightens (sic!) the policy” is difficult to overcome. What is particularly worrying is that this sort of über-lazy argumentation is very often used by fairly young traders. The reason why it worries me is that those guys will at some stage be responsible for the way the market behaves and that spells all sorts of issues, especially when it comes to concentration of views and positions.

The “reasoning” is as follows.

A financial tsunami is coming because the Fed will taper. Therefore let’s try to look for another crisis of similar sort. Oh, we don’t need to look too far back as we’ve got 2008. Brilliant! So which position would’ve made me a billionaire back then? Shorting the EUR, receiving the xccy basis in anything-USD, selling all emerging markets, particularly CEE and a few more. So why don’t I do it again as “this time is different” never works. – Risk meeting at a macro fund

I honestly can’t tell you how much I hate such an approach. Probably as much as popular it has become. Meanwhile, people are forgetting the simple, transparent approach to looking at various countries, ie the balance of payments. Everything you need to know is there, particularly in emerging markets.

You want examples? Ok, a few recent things:

– Turkey. It is selling off not because of some protests or handling thereof by the government. It is selling off because the market has realised that the current account and it’s funding is not sustainable at the current level of rates. And this process started before the infamous Bernanke speech. The only way to tackle that is by adjusting the main culprit, ie the monetary policy. Not the currency. It is very common to confuse currency depreciation with the balance of payments adjustment. Therefore the correct trade in my opinion is ratesa/bonds rather than FX. With or without the taper.

– Egypt. Again, the balance of payments will tell you that the country was going to go bust even before the whole Morsi debacle started. Why is the current account so bad? Because the fiscal policy is too lax (subsidies etc). Will FX depreciation help? Nope, it might actually worsen things. Either way, what’s going on in Egypt has very little to do with Ben or protests.

– Hungary. It’s not selling off. How come? Debt stock is huge, after all. That’s irrelevant. The balance of payments is looking ironclad and that’s why the HUF is strong like a bison. Bernanke or not.

– Eurozone. How many people have lost their shirt on shorting the euro in the last couple of years. “The euro needs to crash to help the periphery” has been such a lovely slogan. But look at eurozone’s balance of payments. It is looking spectacular both on the current account side and on the funding component. Even the intra-EMU BoP is not bad (as represented by, pardon Lorcan, shrinking Target2 balances). And this is why the euro is not crashing. Sure, Bernanke’s testimonies could create some volatility but the “macro investors” should take a step back and see how poorly shorting the euro has worked and maybe rethink their approach.

– China. Here the situation is trickier because at face value the current account and financial account don’t seem to be problematic. But there’s a third component to the balance of payments, ie fx reserves. Equally important as the other two as it determines the level of liquidity in the local banking system (the central bank by accumulating reserves pumps in more local currency), which can then create all sorts of issues, including the unprecedented growth in credit/GDP. And this is why the Shibor market has become so unstable.

I could multiply those examples but the point is that it is my profound conviction that in most cases the analysis of the balance of payments will help you both ask the right questions and get you the right answers. This is also the place where policy mistakes are laid bare.

Therefore, stop trying to guess whether the market misinterprets Ben Bernanke in one or another way because – as the last few weeks have shown – this will stop you out of positions unless you are the luckiest trader alive (in which case sit back, relax, you’re all set). But go back to the basics. Have a look at the balance of payments and this will help you get above the monkeys who trade Bloomberg headlines and are proud when they’ve guessed whether it was a risk on or a risk off day.

Baron Münchhausen and spreads in Europe

Hieronymus Carl Friedrich von Münchhausen is known for telling the story that he pulled himself (and the horse he was sitting on) out of the swamp by his own hair.

This reference was the first thing that came to my mind after seeing this and this post on Paul Krugman’s blog. After the whole bunch of swearwords, that is.

In the first one he argues that France has finally joined the club of ultra-sovereign countries, i.e. countries who can do whatever they please and yet get away with it because bond yields remain remarkably low. The second one uses “research” material from VoxEU entitled Panic-driven austerity in the Eurozone and its implications. There are five charts in it which I would like to discuss before circling back to Krugman’s thesis about French bonds.

Chart 1. Austerity measures and spreads in 2011.

 

degrauwe_fig1

 

In this chart the author argues that the higher the spread, the bigger the austerity that was subsequently applied. Well if it isn’t remarkable – so they’re telling us the higher the increase in credit spread in 2011, the bigger the adjustment had to be? Brilliant. But let’s say it’s an introductory statement just to warm us up.

Chart 2. Change in spreads vs. initial spreads

degrauwe_fig2

Now this is epic. The Baron Münchhausen argument. It basically says that the the higher the initial spread, the bigger the subsequent decline. A few things about that. Firstly, absent of a total collapse of the eurozone, how else should this chart look like? Secondly, using the same weight for the spread on tiny Portugal and Greece as Spain or Italy is just skewing the results. Thirdly, I don’t think that using the decline in percentage points as dependent variable is kosher because spreads can’t go negative and so 50bp for France is something completely different to 50bp for Portugal. Finally, I seriously wonder if the fit would be so bombastic if they removed Portugal and Greece – those dots at the beginning seem close to the best-fit line but I have a sneaky feeling that this is mostly because of the scale.

Chart 3. Change in debt-to-GDP ratio vs. spreads since 2012Q2

degrauwe_fig3

 

First of all, this is just plain wrong from the econometric point of view. What is this -0.6747 factor in the equation? It means that if there is no change in debt/GDP then spread will fall on average by 67bp. So 10 years of unchanged debt and spread falls by almost 700bp? No, friends, such results should be deemed “inconclusive” and there shouldn’t be any downward sloping line here. But if you want the line then have a look what it would imply if debt levels fell. Spreads would increase… Brilliant. Finally, assuming no lags or anything is just ridiculous.

Figure 4. Austerity and GDP growth 2011-2012  <– this one I actually have no problems with. Stating the obvious, but so be it.

Figure 5. Austerity and increases in debt-to-GDP ratios

degrauwe_fig5

 

This one says that austerity increases debt to GDP. A lot has been said on the subject and in the short run it is very difficult to argue with that. One could make an argument that without austerity debt/GDP would’ve increased even more because of super-high borrowing costs but let’s not go there here.

Wait a second though. So if austerity increases debt to GDP and we “know” from (ridiculous) Chart 3 that higher debt to GDP is associated with a decline in credit spread then isn’t austerity leading to lower spreads? Alternatively, if we interpret Chart 3 as the lack of relationship then shouldn’t we also conclude that austerity has no impact on credit spreads?

If the author’s only intention was to show that the ECB was instrumental in narrowing the spreads then fair enough. But the analysis provided is weak to say the least.

And this brings us back to Paul Krugman. Because if he believes in what De Grauwe wrote, i.e. that the reduction in spreads was the function of how high the spreads went in the first place then why has France rallied so much? Similarly, why would it rally if austerity worsens things so much?

Oh, I know why. Blame the markets (both ways).

First De Grauwe:

Since the start of the debt crisis financial markets have provided wrong signals; led by fear and panic, they pushed the spreads to artificially high levels and forced cash-strapped nations into intense austerity that produced great suffering.

Then Krugman:

Markets have concluded that the ECB will not, cannot, let France run out of money; without France there is no euro left. So for France the ECB is unambiguously willing to play a proper lender of last resort function, providing

If one wants to make an argument that OMT has led to significant tightening of credit spreads in the eurozone, we really don’t need working papers – a tweet will do. But for crying out loud do not mix austerity with that. Especially as austerity and OMT were completely coincidental. And if you do have to mix austerity into all this then make a little bit of effort to make a consistent and mathematically correct set of arguments. And make up your mind, Mr. Krugman. Either austerity is bad and ultimately keeps debt to GDP high and thus credit risk elevated in which case you need to rethink France. Or austerity sometimes makes sense in which case… well… you need to rethink a hell of a lot of things.

Otherwise your story is not far from what Baron Münchhausen – amusing and entertaining but ultimately ridiculous.

 

But you start to follow the money…

Attention, there are three words generally considered to be offensive used in the following post.

You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the fuck it’s gonna take you

– Det. Lester Freamon

This is a pretty famous quote from The Wire that’s been echoing in my head since last weekend, i.e. after the Cyprus crisis grabbed all the headlines. But unfortunately, unlike in the case of Detective Freamon, it wasn’t because I admired the meticulous and hard work people have been putting into trying to figure out the broad consequences.

Sure, the blogosphere’s reaction last weekend was marvelous and in my opinion helped to stabilise markets this week, but alas it’s not really an event in the eurozone if you can’t draw some explosive (and most of the time daft) parallels. Before we get to those I’d like to say a few words about origins of such a situation.

Haircut of depositors in Cyprus took the market by surprise. And by market I mean investors and traders but also the caste of research professionals whose job is to… well… try and forecast such events. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with being caught off guard from time to time and it’s the reaction to such a surprise that matters. The natural instinct of people who had not predicted what happened in Cyprus is to play it down and suggest to fade any adverse market reaction. The twisted logic here is “had it really been so important, I would’ve surely seen it coming and since I didn’t then it must be unimportant“. I’m sure there’s a name for such a behaviour in psychology but I can’t be bothered to search. In my opinion, this is the most common reaction.

If this first – let’s call it – line of defense fails and the person in question finally acknowledges that the surprising event could turn out to be quite important then another mechanism kicks in: they try and look for potential spillovers. The thinking is more or less that “ok, I may have dropped the ball here but have a look at those cascade effects that the market is missing“. I have been quite appalled to see that happening throughout the most of this week.

It usually starts with some pretty straightforward conclusions. In the case of Cyprus, people began assuming that we will inevitably have a run on the island’s banks and that it could lead to similar developments in Portugal, Spain, Italy or even Ireland. Right, because that’s what the Irish people do…

The next step in this “following the money” process was to figure out whose deposits will be cut in Cyprus. The answer to that seems to be “Russian” (although I would caution against making such a generalisation). This would look something like this…

You guys, let’s try and see how this affects Russia. Oh, here’s one: VTB is one of the most important Russian banks and it also has a subsidiary in Cyprus. Sell, Mortimer, sell! What? VTB bonds have sold off? Well then why don’t we sell bonds issued by VEB. It’s a big state-owned bank and while it has really nothing to do with Cyprus, there’s only a one letter difference to VTB so it’ll do. Oh, and did I just say it’s state owned? Mate, where’s your bid in 50m Russia30s?

Let’s move on. Cyprus is a small, country with problems in the banking system. Those problems partly stem from the immense inflow of dirty money in the past. After the Cypriot financial system reopens whatever is left of it will inevitably flee. What if it goes to Latvia, which is already a popular short-break destination for the Russians and which will soon enter the eurozone itself? (…unfortunately the person explaining to me what would happen next lost me completely and so I can’t follow this particular money trail to the end). By the way, the Latvian authorities had to start swearing that they wouldn’t end up like Cyprus. There’s no smoke without fire, anyone?

And finally, my very recent favourite…

There must be a small country in the eurozone, which has some problems with its banks and which we could sell. Hang on, what’s this little thing east of Italy that no one really knows about but occasionally makes some noises in the media? Slovenia! OMG, this is so exciting! Banks in Slovenia have NPLs reaching 20%? Some of them did not meet the ECB stress tests? The government recently collapsed and there’s a risk of an early election? I guess we’ve found a retirement trade. And don’t bother me with details that assets of the Slovenian banking system are only around 135% to GDP or that the total government financing needs for this year are projected by the IMF at 7.7% of GDP (slightly below Germany, Austria or Finland). Who cares that if the IMF’s forecasts are to be believed then Slovenia will meet both fiscal Maastricht criteria next year as it still has debt to GDP below 60%. And also, I’ve never believed in this cyclically-adjusted primary surplus mumbo jumbo…

Right, and when you’re done selling Slovenia, maybe we should look into Slovakia – there’s gotta be some connection!

I have started with a quote by Lester Freamon and I will end with one. Fifth series, episode three (entitled “Not for attribution”):

Shit like this actually goes through your fucking brain?

Guessing the volatility

When you look at celebrity analysts and investors of late, you will have to conclude that we’re dealing with confirmation bias of horrendous proportions.
It is very easy to be permanently bullish, particularly in the equity business and the bears have it tough because in order to be remembered they need to be good at timing. Or at least they have to be able to survive with their call in the media for an extended period. A good example of the former is Mr Paulson and his one-trick subprime pony. As far as the latter is concerned you don’t need to look past Nouriel Roubini who called a completely different crisis (remember the US current account and twin deficits?) a long time before it never-happened and yet has somehow been enshrined as a guru. Sure, there are people who called it right and for right reasons but they’re less present in the media because they are honest enough to admit that sometimes your views are actually going to be a bit more boring than “the end is nigh, sell everything”.
I must say that forecasting bearish scenarios is remarkably tempting. Not only can you stand out in a crowd but the potential payout is humongous. I think many people at some level admire Nassim Taleb despite the fact that he’s ability to make money trading has been grossly exaggerated, to be polite.
So every now and then we hear people who call “wolf” and hope that they 1) appear prudent and 2) cheaply expose themselves to a significant tail risk (which in this case should be called a “tail chance”).
Why am I writing about this? Well, because I’m sick and tired of people pointing out how ridiculously low the VIX is. Yes, the VIX is very low and stable but it has nothing to do with the market perception of risk. Believe me, everyone is aware that this thing can blow and crucify markets. The VIX is low because it gives you carry.
If you’ve ever been trained in the theory of options you may recall the gamma-theta trade-off. This basically means that you own the right to capitalise on movement in the underlying variable and you pay for this right with theta, i.e. time decay. Thus, selling options is simply yet another way of getting carry. I know many of you will find it pretty basic but I still believe it needs stressing.
USTs are probably too expensive, all medium-term risks considered. But so what? Shorting them with cost you a fortune. Same with VIX. Yes, it severely understates the risks but the cost of holding it is not negligible. In fact, it is even higher than just paying for implied volatility. I would argue it’s double that because opportunity cost of buying the VIX is… selling it!
The same applies to FX options and any other instrument. We are in an environment where you have to have pretty damn good reasons not to be in carry-positive trades. At the end of the day fund managers charge, say, 1% and every day that passes by without them clocking the carry brings them closer to dreaded outflows. Unless of course they time their shorts well but for that you really need a little more than “this stuff is at all time lows”.
My (relatively short) experience in the market suggests that on aggregate buying options doesn’t pay off. Otherwise bank option desks would’ve ceased to exist by now. This is very similar to buying car insurance – as a society we get screwed (see insurance companies’ profits) but there’s always a guy who had his car stolen and cashed out.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not calling for being engaged in mindless carry trades. In fact I’ve been spending most of the time lately trying to figure out smart shorts (hence my recent focus on linkers). Buying VIX is definitely not one of them even if it eventually covers one lucky analyst in glory.
Oh yes, didn’t I say I envy all those guys mentioned at the beginning…?

PS. I am in some obscure place on the continent so can’t really do much charting. Will improve that from next week onwards.