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…?

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This time is different. No, really!

The phrase “this time is different” doesn’t usually spark very positive reactions. But I don’t care because there’s one thing about the market these days that makes me think that something is strange when compared to previous bond market sell-offs.

If you follow me on twitter you will have noticed that lately I have been talking a lot about asset swaps (ASW). This is a pretty technical concept but I will try to be as straightforward as possible.

If you are still reading this then you probably know that in the fixed income market we have two broad groups of instruments – cash bonds and swaps. In theory, their yields (prices) should be moving more or less in a parallel fashion because they are interest rates instruments. In other words, you can bet on interest rates going lower by either buying bonds or receiving interest rate swaps (IRS). The difference between those two instruments is called the asset swap and it tends to move for the following main reasons:

  • Buying bonds requires balance sheet and IRS is an off-balance sheet instrument.
  • Buying government bonds creates exposure against the issuer (sovereign) while IRS is a contract between two counterparties (e.g. banks).
  • Supply of bonds is limited while IRS can be created out of thin air.
  • Government bonds are a stream of cash flows (coupons) while IRS is an exchange of fixed against floating rate (e.g. LIBOR).

I have learnt to pay a close attention to moves in ASWs, just like I very closely monitor moves in cross currency basis because they can reveal pretty significant market developments. An ASW can tighten, i.e. bond outperforms the swap (e.g. bond yields drops by 10bp and IRS for the same maturity by 7bp) or widen. In core markets, tightening of ASW has been historically connected with higher aversion to risk. When problems arise, investors would very much rather own, say, US Treasuries than have a contract with a bank to exchange some cash flows. Chart below shows the 10y ASW (the higher the number, the more expensive the bond vs swap) in the US against the EMBIG spread. As you can see, the correlation is pretty significant.

asw_embig

Now, what happens in developed markets does not usually work the same way in emerging markets. Indeed, periods of risk aversion were generally associated with significant widening of ASW in emerging markets. The rationale is simple – let’s dump emerging bonds because the credit risk is going up. Having an interest exposure via a swap with JP Morgan becomes more valuable than buying government bonds of governments of Mexico, Hungary or Malaysia. Simple heuristic.

And this brings me to the “this time is different” proposition. As you may have noticed we are experiencing the end of days for government bond markets. Well, we’re not really but people like Bill Gross want to make you think like that. EPFR data is showing significant outflows from bond funds investing in emerging government bond markets. The last time we saw such big outflows was in September 2011. However, unlike in September 2011 when ASW totally exploded, in the recent weeks EM ASWs have actually tightened and considerably so. Just to give you an example – ASW in the 10y segment of the South African government bonds are at the tightest level they’ve ever been. South Africa – the country whose economy is in a downfall, whose currency has sold off dramatically and where the social tensions are at levels unseen in years. To be sure, the bonds have sold off too but nowhere near as much as IRS.

I can find a few explanations for that but the most important conclusion is that real money investors (so asset managers rather than hedge funds) have not been selling government bond markets to a large extent. They have sold some and shifted others to more defensive places, they probably hedged their currency exposures but they have not sold their bonds. Why? Perhaps because they don’t believe Bill Gross, thinking the scare will pass (this argument seems to be supported by Pawel Morski in one of his latest posts). Or perhaps because they know the market is not able to absorb the potential flow anyway.

At the same time, the hedge funds seem to be willing to exploit the recent change in the global mood and are pushing IRS higher. This then stops out model accounts (CTAs, aka the scum of the earth), which had been running humongous receiver positions in bellies of various curves assuming the Fed would stay put forever (or at least 3-5 years). Meanwhile, it seems like the tide has turned a bit and the convexity of the US curve is shifting. That’s why I was pointing out earlier today this tweet from Business Insider’s Matt Boesler:

All in all, I don’t want to make this post too technical but this is the first EM bond “crisis” since I have been in the industry when local bonds in emerging markets have so far been outperforming IRS and ASW have been tightening. And while I think I understand the reasons behind that this is not a sustainable situation, in my opinion. In fact, I strongly believe that something has to give – either the real money guys are in a denial or the hedge funds have jumped on the tapering bandwagon too early. Either way, the EM curves are pricing something that is almost impossible to come true, in my view.

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.