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?

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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.

Be careful what you target or am I in the right church?

So the G20 damp squib is behind us and while many commentators will say that it has given a “pale green” light for the likes of the BoJ to keep devaluing their currencies, I think the whole discussion is somewhat flawed.
Here’s why.
Devaluing one’s way out of trouble seems to be a very convenient solution to most crises. It’s as if producing and selling stuff to other nations was the ultimate reason to live. But devaluation can have many different forms, which some people find confusing.
To explain that let’s actually look at something that hasn’t been discussed for a while, i.e. revaluations and real convergence. It is quite common sense that small, open economies tend to converge to income levels of their richer trade partners. The mechanism usually works through significant inflow of know-how followed by a boost in productivity, particularly in the tradable goods segment. Subsequently, the Balassa-Samuelson effect kicks in and we have a generalised increase in the price level. Usually this is accompanied by appreciation of the currency. Both those factors – higher inflation and a stronger currency – lead to appreciation of the Real Effective Exchange Rate. We have seen such a mechanism in a lot of emerging economies, e.g. in Central and Eastern Europe after the EU entry in 2004.
Note that the two factors at play (nominal exchange rate and inflation) are interchangeable and work together to balance the system. In other words, if for some reason inflation in the country in question is artificially depressed, the nominal exchange rate will move more.
Now let’s go back to devaluations. There are two broad reasons why a country would like to weaken its currency:
1) to boost exports,
2) to increase the money supply.
This distinction matters because without that how could we explain behaviour of such countries as Japan, Switzerland, Czech Republic or Israel? These economies have traditionally excelled at exports due to superior growth rates in productivity in the tradable goods sector. Yet, those countries have engaged in significant operations in the foreign exchange market in recent years (or threatened to do so). Note, however, that in each and every case it was preceded by bringing interest rates close to zero. Therefore, we should conclude that FX operations were just an extension of monetary policy after traditional ways (i.e. interest rate cuts) have been depleted. As a result, saying that these central bank have engaged in currency wars is pretty daft, in my opinion.
Now, there is a group of countries, which probably would like to see their currencies weaken to improve the competitiveness. However, if this is an objective then we must discuss the real exchange rate. And the standard economic theory dictates that it can only be done via increase in government savings.
Let’s take the most recent example of a country, which seems to be trying to pursue such a goal. The Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey has been stressing the importance of the REER lately. They even outright threatened that they would intervene in the FX market should the 120 level be broken. There is a fundamental flaw in this logic, though.
To start with, Turkey is a country with a very high current account deficit, which basically means that its domestic savings are relatively low. By extension, consumption is fairly high thus keeping inflation rather elevated. In such an environment, selling the lira (TRY) makes very little sense as it will most likely boost inflation even further, offsetting the paper (aka nominal) gains. This brings us to a paradox that higher inflation leads to higher REER thus necessitating monetary policy easing. In my home country of Poland we have a saying that “they can hear a bell toll, they just don’t know at which church”. Similarly here – the CBRT has correctly identified the problem of having to boost competitiveness but they have chosen a dangerous approach.
Instead, the government should increase its savings even more than it already has to bring total domestic savings higher, thus increasing competitiveness. This way, it can avoid persistently high inflation and current account deficits.
This is not to say that such a recipe is great for everyone. It would’ve been good for, say, Spain before the crisis but now the focus should be more on the nominal side of the equation. Such examples could be multiplied.
But what I’m trying to say is beware of people talking about currency wars any time they see a central bank intervening in the FX market because you will miss the important distinction between the nominal and the real sides of things.
And policymakers, be careful what you target because you can end up at a wrong church.

PS. I wrote this post on “yet another on time Ryanair flight” so there are no links or anything. I will try to update those tomorrow with a few interesting articles on the subject.