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.