Fed raising the stakes

On my blog, I have tended to focus on monetary policy issues. Indeed the previous post from February 2014 was ominously titled “The sum of all tightenings” (now that I just read it, it turned out not to be a completely bonkers story). Today, too, I will focus on monetary policy, albeit from a more theoretical standpoint.

A few years after the crisis, some economists were pondering the idea of raising the inflation target. Most famously, a paper by Olivier Blanchard from 2010 suggests that the CPI target should be moved from 2 to 4% (short summary here). There was also an interesting paper from Laurence Ball four years later advocating the same thing. I remember at the time that the idea was ridiculed by “street” economists and strategists with the reasoning going along the lines of “yeah right, you can’t even meet your current target so good luck with a higher one”. Even the policy heavyweights like Ben Bernanke dismissed the idea back then and we simply moved on.

Those of you who follow the markets will be aware that last week Janet Yellen somewhat surprisingly said that the question of raising the inflation target is critical (a nice FT story here). Again, the idea was quickly dismissed, eg by Martin Wolf. In fact, I chuckled to see this familiar argument from the FT View, which entirely misses the point. Again.

But the Fed should not be distracted from the theoretical benefits of changing the goal while it has consistently failed to reach the current one.

In fact, before going into the crux of my argument let’s sort out this flawed observation of missing the inflation target. Below is the chart of the core CPI and PCE in the US in the last five years:

fredgraph (1)

The core PCE has fluctuated around 1.5% and core CPI, while more volatile, has been around 2% for most of the time (except 2015). If someone thinks that from the economic agents’ point of view this is sufficiently far from the target to warrant making fun of the monetary authority then they are mistaken (and that would hold even if we weren’t exiting from the biggest forced deleveraging of a generation). For the purposes of this post, I will therefore assume that the Fed has been fairly close to its inflation target and it has certainly not been a failure of the policy. If you disagree with this, you might as well stop reading. Also, please bear in mind that this argument is about the Fed and the Fed only (not the ECB or the BoJ, whose inflation credentials are considerably worse).

Back to the main story, though. Former Governor of the National Bank of Poland Marek Belka was asked several years ago during a meeting with investors in London whether he thought it made sense to lower the inflation target in order to adjust to ever-low inflation prints. He seemed shocked at the suggestion and replied asking why anyone would want a tighter monetary policy at this juncture? Most people in the room didn’t get his point so he went on explaining that lowering inflation target by 1pp is tantamount to a promise that real rates would be durably higher by this amount. In other words, the central bank would have to hike interest rates faster than otherwise. Seems simple but for many this still isn’t straightforward. For some reason, the discussion didn’t move to raising inflation target back then.

Assuming the Fed is a credible central bank (and if it isn’t then I am not sure which one is…), there is a possibility that the inflation target gets moved to 4%. In the short to medium term it would be similar to letting inflation run a little bit hot after years of low growth, which the Fed wants to allow anyway but in the long run it would be a significant change. This would mean that the Fed commits to not tightening monetary policy as aggressively as it otherwise would. Would people believe it? Sure they would!

Now, the problem these days is reflexivity of markets. For example, Fed hikes interest rates, dollar strengthens, Fed needs to refrain from hiking. All this sometimes happens at a breath-taking pace. Also, we must not forget the Fed’s dual mandate, given that we seem to be at full employment. Therefore, it is safe to assume at the moment that the Fed will continue chugging along with rate hikes for the foreseeable future. Slowly but surely.

There is a significant problem here, which the Fed seems to have identified (judging by recent comments from Dudley) – so far the slow and predictable pace of hiking interest rates has not led to any significant tightening of monetary conditions as stocks continued rallying, spreads tightened and the curve flattened. This very much resembles the pre-crisis Greenspan’s conundrum era. The Fed hikes but the market eases thus leading to significant build-up in leverage until things go really ugly. So hiking rates, while appropriate, may prove deathly in the long run given how vast the financial markets have become.

What if we raise the inflation target simultaneously then? As mentioned above, this gives the signal to people that the Fed won’t be hiking rates as fast as it otherwise would. That said, given where monetary conditions are, some additional rate hikes would still be likely. So far it sounds similar to what we have had to date. But the important distinction is that – taking Fed’s credibility for granted – markets would need to start pricing in more inflation premium to the long end of the curve. This would offset the dreaded flattening pressure, which has made people so worried lately. Note that if the curve isn’t flattening then (among others):

  • the appreciating pressure on the USD is smaller than otherwise;
  • investors are not pushed out of fixed income assets into riskier investments (see insurance companies);
  • the banking sector stays buoyant.

Finally, imagine that these two forces, ie rate hikes and an increased inflation target get supplemented by offloading of the balance sheet. What the Fed would then achieve would be bearish steepening of the curve, which in my opinion is the necessary condition for us to finally move on from the aftermath of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. And if that happens, discussions about the US fiscal stimulus and tax cuts would probably be met by questions like “Donald who?!?” or “Who cares?”. This is because the economic impact of gradual bear steepening of the curve driven by a higher inflation target would trump (sic!) everything else.

*It’s been more than three years since I last posted. I don’t suppose it will take me another three years to write the next one but one should not assume that hereby the regular service resumes.

**I do realise that I made some short-cuts in reasoning above but this is a blog post from an anonymous bloke who sits in Warsaw and comments on the Fed policy, rather than a peer-reviewed paper in Journal of Applied Economics 🙂

Can’t fade, won’t chase

I have previously been saying that it would appear that the global cycle is turning (growth wise). Or at least so the consensus has it. On the one hand, this should feel exciting. After all, we will be finally able to do the opposite of whatever it was that we have been doing during the cycle that is allegedly ending. On the other hand, however, it is obviously terribly difficult to catch the right moment to do so (some will tell you this is when you should use options but unlike some fat-tail loving people I actually find options pretty expensive, for the most part. But I digress).

Let me give you two examples.

Firstly, there are strong indications that the fixed income is in the bear market. And modus operandi in any bear market is to sell into any rallies. So, we should simply be short any bonds and/or paid in rates. And I am generally on board with this strategy, except it is so remarkably costly. Curves are exceptionally steep and going short bonds means that we have to be prepared for oftentimes monstrous roll-down working against us. You think US 10y ends the year at 3.40-3.50%? Well, I have bad news for you – this means you should actually buy them! This was completely different when yields were falling. Sure, there always were more or less significant pullbacks but the carry was always with you. I had a look at the attribution of 2013 P&L from J.P. Morgan’s GBI-EM Global Diversified index today. Turns out that if you put your money into EM debt last year and kept it, you would’ve lost 6.33% due to the change in price (i.e. yield going up) but you would’ve made 6.31% (sic!) in coupons. Almost flat in the annus horribilis for EM debt! On top of that of course you would’ve lost 9% on the FX but that’s beside the point.

Making money in the fixed income bear market is remarkably difficult: even if you get the broad macro story spot on, you really need to catch small moves and close the position quickly. You don’t want to chase the market after it’s sold off but you won’t fade the move either as it goes against the big trend.

The second example I wanted to give is the USD/EM story. Let’s assume for a second that the USD will appreciate from here on in. I don’t particularly subscribe to that view but clearly the first days of 2014 have challenged me quite a bit. The broad USD strengthening is usually consistent with poor performance of EMFX. And boy, there are plenty of reasons to be short some emerging currencies! For example, those of you who follow me on twitter (@barnejek) may have noticed I haven’t been particularly appreciative of the behaviour of the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey. To quote one of my friends, from the macroeconomic point of view Turkey does appear to be an “unmitigated disaster”. The recent move in USD/TRY is not only consistent with the global USD strengthening but also completely in line with the fundamentals (and no, politics is just a side show). Unless the central bank starts hiking interest rates, I don’t see that trend changing anytime soon.

So basically even with short periods of global risk-on, fading the move in USD/TRY is out of the question (for me). But at the same time, we cannot neglect that the move in the lira over the last few weeks has been eye-watering and putting a new position on here is brave especially that it costs not insignificant carry. It’s ok if you’ve had it on because there’s a significant P&L cushion behind you but then I am of the opinion that it really doesn’t matter what a particular position has done – I think one needs to constantly reassess all positions and if you have something that you wouldn’t necessarily put on at any given point in time if you hadn’t had it, just close it! *2 minute interlude to re-read that last sentence to see what I actually had in mind*

But I didn’t mean to make this post about Turkey and how screwed up the balance of payments situation and short term external… (see? I wanted to do it again :-).

All in all, it is very unfortunate that genuine intellectual excitement of something possibly changing quite dramatically is coupled by immense frustration of not being able to put all the trades one would feel comfortable with. I can’t fade the moves, but won’t chase them either. Or was it vice versa…?

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):
    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.

Eddie Vedder and the Japanese carry

Just like everyone else in the financial markets over the last week or so I have become the world-famous specialist on Japanese flows (!)*. I have heard a lot of more or less plausible stories and when I was trying to digest all the noise, I couldn’t help but think about “Nothing As It Seems” by Pearl Jam:

Occupations overthrown, a whisper through a megaphone
It’s nothing as it seems, the little that he needs, it’s home
The little that he sees, is nothing he concedes, it’s home
And all that he frees, a little bittersweet, it’s home
It’s nothing as it seems, the little that you see, it’s home…

Jeff Ament, Pearl Jam

I am not certain what is going to happen with the wall of money that is seemingly coming from Japan, but I know that there’s a remarkable amount of superficial analysis, which I would like to comment on.

1. The Japanese carry trade will continue as the BoJ prints more.

According to estimates by Daiwa net issuance of JGBs after stripping BoJ purchases will be -26trn yen. This is around 5% of GDP, which is a pretty monstrous amount. This naturally makes people’s imagination go into overdrive, particularly as we’re talking about the country with decent carry-trading history. But there is one problem with such an approach. Carry trade was Japan’s response to the lack of returns in the local market. Bond yields have been ridiculously low and the stock exchange was still suffering as zombie-banks kept dragging it (and the economy) lower. Now, do you think this situation has not changed even a bit? We may be agreeing or disagreeing with what the BoJ is doing but investors (particularly retail) could be excused for e.g. thinking that the Nikkei will double this year. This is particularly the case as what the BoJ seems to have orchestrated is a fantastic opportunity for the Japanese banks to cash in on their available-for-sale JGB portfolios. So answer yourself this question – is it so entirely obvious that Mrs Watanabe continues buying AUDJPY (annual yield of 3.2%), ZARJPY (annual yield 5.4%) or MXNJPY (annual yield 4%)? Granted, these and many other currencies will continue to constitute a very important part of the Japanese investment portfolio but pretending that the investment backdrop in Japan has not changed is naive in my opinion.

2. The big yen move has only just begun.

Currently various forecasters are trying to come up with the most bearish view for the yen. I have already seen 120/USD but admittedly I do not pay much attention to that stuff. But try to think who has so far made money on the yen debasement? If you don’t know then try to get a hold of the HSBC hedge fund report to see that the vast majority of macro funds have caught at least a part of this move. And because selling the yen is seemingly such a no-brainer**, not being in the trade is a big career-risk for many. In some sense, macro hedge funds cannot afford to miss another leg in the yen move (if there is one). But in the greater scheme of things this is just noise. Don’t forget that the Japanese economy has just become at least 30% cheaper. And we are talking about a bunch of historically deadly innovative companies who have managed to keep their place in the global market place against all odds.

Goldman has recently produced a study showing that the country with the most similar exports composition to Japan’s is… Germany. It is already very much visible it the underperformance of the DAX, in my opinion. Personally I prefer Mercedes over Toyota but at a 25% discount I know I would change my mind.

My thinking is as follows: if this yen depreciation and the crowding out of the Japanese banks from the JGB market is persistent then Japan has every chance to become the champion of the global trade again. And if so, why on earth would I be buying GBPJPY or AUDJPY?

Let me give you another example: If you have been selling the yen and buying the South African rand consistently in the last five years then only last week did you break even on your average spot level. Sure, you got some coupons in between but it cannot be ruled out that investors who have been buying the ZAR against the JPY will just take this as an opportunity to close the position after being bailed out by the BoJ.

3. Banks will invest abroad.

This bit I find preposterous. I have mentioned above that banks may have just been given a lifeline by the BoJ and they will be able to off-load their available for-sale portfolios at a significant profit. What they do with the cash next is anyone’s guess but banks are not really in the business of punting on currency markets with their balance sheets. Believe it or not but even when GS recommends buying EURUSD, it’s not like Goldman’s treasury shifts all its money to Europe. Banks operate in the “LIBOR+” world. They are happy to take exposure to foreign bonds but it is usually done on an asset swap basis. Below are a few bonds that I just looked up on Bloomberg and how they compare when swapped to JPY.

  • T 2 02/15/23                                     78bp
  • SAGB6.75 03/31/21 #R208       68bp
  • MBONO6.5 06/09/22                    68bp
  • POLGB 4 10/25/23                          10bp
  • TURKGB8.5 09/14/22                   36bp

As you can see those differences are not huge and definitely not big enough to make emerging markets irresistible. Additionally, there’s a perverse effect of what’s been going on in the JGB market lately. The chart below shows a crude calculation of VaR for 10y JGB futures since 2000.


A chart of the yield volatility is looking even scarier, which – paradoxically – could bring the Japanese banks into a risk-reduction mode as no one can bear such wild swings of the profit and loss account. And adding Brazilian assets to the portfolio doesn’t help much.

4. Asset managers, insurance companies and pension funds will invest abroad.

Yes they will. The same way as they have in the past. Well, maybe with a bit bigger size but it’s far from being certain at the moment. If it’s the yen weakness they’re after then I suppose buying the USD will do (without adding an extra layer of volatility between the USD and some other currency). And if they don’t think the yen weakens much from here then why would they accelerate foreign buying in the first place?

This brings us to the last point I would like to make. As much as in previous years the Japanese investments abroad were driven by expectations of superior returns outside of the country, we are now talking about the expected yen weakness. In my opinion this changes the structure of investors taking advantage of the move and I believe that it will be the foreigners shorting the yen, rather than the locals. This, at least in the near term, makes it a tactical, rather than a structural trade.

So these were my views on the whole situation. I don’t have any concrete recommendations this time but I just don’t like how one-sided the discussion has become. And if I’m wrong then… well… listening to Eddie Vedder while writing this post definitely made it worth my while.

* not sure how to stress that I am being ironic, but I have noticed that subtitled movies on Sky have (!) at the end of sarcastic sentences.

** I have always thought that no-brainers are for people without brains but somehow this definition hasn’t become mainstream.

Central banks, exit strategies and space travels

Sometimes the best analysis of current conditions can be found in research written at a time when such conditions seemed only theoretical. This is because people writing about them have no hidden agenda and usually do it out of sheer intellectual curiosity. I have recently come across one such example when I was trying to figure out what the nature of the Fed/BoE/BoJ/ECB exit strategy will be. Whenever it may come, that is.

Here’s the link to the research entitled “The role of central bank capital revisited” published in September 2004 by the ECB. Interestingly, the paper was written by gentlemen with very German-sounding names (Ulrich Bindseil, Andres Manzanares and Benedict Weller). It reminds me of another ECB paper which in 2009 discussed “Withdrawal and expulsion from the EU and EMU” written by a Greek (Phoebus Athanassiou), but I digress.

I encourage you to take a minute and read at least the non-technical summary of this paper. Below are a few interesting quotes:

  • It is shown that a temporary shock creating negative capital and a loss-making situation is always reversed in the long run with the central bank returning to profitability and a positive level of capital.
  • However, a central bank with a loss-making balance sheet structure would in this context still able to conduct its monetary policy in a responsible way, even with a negative long-term profitability outlook.
  • Positive capital seems to remain a key tool to ensure that independent central bankers always concentrate on price stability in their monetary policy decisions.

The last one is a widely accepted notion but the former two can make you go “hmmmm”. Additionally, further in the paper the authors mention a key feature: “If there were no separation between the central bank and the government, the capital of the central bank is obviously irrelevant since one then has to consider only the aggregate capital of the State (including the central bank and the government).

The authors also mention that if a central bank has a negative capital then “The markets will have reasons to anticipate less stability-oriented behaviour of the central bank, which drives up inflationary expectations.” This catapults us straight to the current situation.

It would be remarkably difficult to argue that the BoE, BoJ or even the Fed are fully independent. Sure, they are not parts of their respective governments nor do they report to politicians (directly) but independence is illusion. This is particularly the case considering that they own the lion’s share of their local government bond markets, which many commentators perceive as a situation without an obvious exit. But let’s try and assume the unthinkable…

Imagine that efforts of the Federal Reserve eventually lead to some sort of stabilisation of growth, albeit at a low level. Assuming a fast growth rate is a bit too audacious even for me… Now surely this will raise the question of the Fed’s exit strategy. We can reasonably assume that the minute the market gets a sniff of selling of the Fed’s UST portfolio, things can get nasty. Granted, the Fed is wary of those risks and will try to minimise the impact but at the end of the day it will be a classical “more sellers than buyers” situation. As a side comment, it is entirely possible that the Fed starts with what one of my friends called Operation Untwist, i.e. selling the back end to buy short-maturity papers. This is bound to hit the central bank’s profitability. And so what?

Let’s say that the Fed adheres to the mark-to-market principles. Every bond that it sells makes the unsold portfolio look more and more under-water (all other things equal). Depending on how big the move in yields is, we can assume that the capital would be wiped out relatively quickly. The authors of the aforementioned article indicate that such a situation would “drive up inflationary expectations”. Now, hang on a minute – isn’t it what many central bankers are dreaming about? Wouldn’t that in the end increase velocity of money giving an additional boost to the economy?

The IMF analysed central banks’ losses too and concluded that if the central bank “goes bankrupt”, the risk of dollarisation of the economy increases sharply. I would agree with that when we talk about countries like Nicaragua or Egypt. But surely not in the US. It is remarkably difficult to imagine why would the Americans start preferring any other currency than the USD just because the Fed made some losses on its UST portfolio (and please don’t say “gold”). I admit that this is a slippery slope but a very important consideration at the moment is the liquidity trap and there are no easy ways out of it as many countries have painfully discovered lately (see my previous post “Has Britain finally cornered itself?“).

One of the models that the ECB study introduces spews out a nice chart:


This shows that a central bank’s capital does not have to turn negative to drive inflation a bit higher. Perhaps then we should not be too worried about what happens to the Fed when yields finally rise? Let me make an analogy to the momentum principle and space travels. When a rocket reaches outer space, a good way to boost velocity is to detach a part of the rocket which will essentially push the main chamber further and faster into space. This is pretty well explained here and can be summarised in the following diagram I have nicked:


Sometimes it is good to take a step back to achieve the required effect. Perhaps a central bank incurring some losses while selling its government bond portfolios is a way to go after all…

Misinterpreting the UST sell-off

In my previous post I briefly mentioned the cliche, which is the sell-off in US Treasuries and how many people treat it as the biggest impending risk to their portfolios.

This subject has been recently explored by the IIF in its regular update on capital flows to emerging economies (pdf here). In Box 2 on page 7 you can find an analysis of what happened back in 1994 and let’s just say it isn’t a pleasant read. Many conclude that considering that foreign positioning in EM bond markets is considerably higher, any move in the US curve will be a calamity. Historical evidence makes it difficult to argue with this view but I think some people have not really thought through the whole mechanism.

Consider the following example. In recent days I had a “priviledge” of interviewing a few analysts. When asked about the general market direction they all replied that they were bullish now and bearish later. This is by the way the standard response of a sell-side credit analyst who wants to get his clients to buy but also to sound prudent and risk averse. I was tempted to cut those conversations short very quickly but eventually decided to explore motives of such a novel recommendation. So I asked what would be the trigger for the said bearishness “later”. The answer was the same – a sell-off in USTs and ensuing outflows from emerging markets. I managed to resist quoting Homer Simpson (“Doh!”) and started digging deeper. Note that people I spoke to had an important piece of evidence at their hands, i.e. the recent outflows from hard currency EM debt as reported by the EPFR.

When asked about what sort of levels in USTs they had in mind, the replies varied between 2.30 and 2.50 for the 10yr. Now, let’s stop and think a little about what this really means. The chart below shows the current UST curve along with the 1yr forward one.


As you can see, the market is pricing in a shift up of the UST curve by around 27bp in the 10y. In other words, this means that if you sell the 10y bond here and the yield doesn’t go up by at least 28bp in the next twelve months, you effectively lose money. The forward curve is the quickest and the simplest approximation of the carry of the position. You don’t just have to guess the direction but you also have to beat the forwards.

Disclaimer for geeks: I know that simply subtracting 10y yield from the 1y forward is not exactly the same thing as a carry but it will have to do for the purpose of this post.

If you think that 10y US yields will sell-off by 30bp or so then guess what – the market is already pricing that in and nothing spectacular has happened (yet!). Oh and also, in 2011 the difference between the 1y forward 10y yield and spot 10y yield was at times as high as 50bp.

In my opinion, if 10y yields in the US increase by 30-50bp in the next twelve months or so it will be one of the best things that can happen to emerging markets debt. I strongly believe that such a scenario would lead to further tightening of EM-DM spreads because:

  • it will mean that the world economy has actually picked up but not sufficiently to bring about significant inflationary pressures
  • the US economy will have accelerated but not sufficiently to remove the acommodation or end QE
  • problems in the eurozone would remain contained (if we get a return to the acute phase of the EMU issues, don’t count on the spike in US yields!).

The market is perfectly capable of dealing with a slow increase in US yields. Also, everyone is very well aware of this risk so talking about it is a moot point.

How to trade this? Contrary to what may seem from this post, I am actually quite concerned about a sell-off in USTs, mainly because of the convexity effect related to mortgage papers. It is totally conceivable that one day a huge flow goes through the market and the said 28bp happens in a few hours rather than a year, like the market implies. Therefore, I still think that investors need to be careful about duration in emerging markets, particularly the ones where you see some signs of activity picking up. I would very much rather own short duration debt of high yielding countries (think 3y Ghana) than long duration debt of low yielding countries (think Poland). That being said, given the technical position of many funds, my base case scenario is that a US-induced sell-off in EM debt will be a good opportunity to go long.

Finally, I believe that investors should selectively look for inflation linkers in emerging markets but this is a story for the next post… Meanwhile, check out this recent story from Bloomberg: Bond Traders Whip CPI Angst as India to Hungary Cut Rates.