It’s not me, it’s you

This week one of the German banks (starts with “D” and ends with “eutsche Bank”) decided to enlighten us with their insight into Fed’s communication policy and transparency. One of their “analysts” has plotted the size of the Fed’s balance sheet against the number of words in FOMC statements. This person has also decided it would be useful to do a regression and inform us that R^2 is very high. There also was an arrow to show joint direction. Reluctantly, I will paste this chart below.

deutsche

 

And before anyone starts saying I don’t have a sense of humour, let me assure you I get the wit here. Additionally, I will not spend time explaining how absolutely retarded from the econometric point of view this is (on at least five levels).

When I moaned about it on twitter I got a few replies including one that says that the chart is “provocative”. Presumably because it points out the fact that the communication policy of the FOMC has been somewhat imperfect. In fact, this sort of criticism is often used against many other central banks, particularly after they’ve depleted traditional monetary policy tools.

I profoundly disagree with such opinions and here’s why.

The world is not exactly a carbon copy of any Macroeconomics 101 course. In fact, it is a pretty screwed up place with tons of opinions and research floating around simultaneously wrestling with burgeoning financial markets which themselves have become increasingly more random. Sure, occasionally there are chaps who make careers on calling some things right but then it quickly emerges they were one trick ponies (Roubini, Paulson, Taleb, Schiff, Whitney to name a few). And the private sector does reward being right so you can bet that many MANY people in banks, asset managers or hedge funds (including yours truly) are throwing a lot of resources at the problem of forecasting. With average results at best. So if the private sector has significant issues despite using an enormous amount of resources then why wouldn’t the public sector suffer from the same problem?

Pretty much no policy maker has never lived through anything resembling what we’re dealing with at the moment. Comparisons to the Great Depression and Japan have their significant shortcomings too. The system is extremely complicated and I am beginning to think that the whole economic analysis has hit a stumbling block similar to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in physics. Perhaps we could calculate the trajectory of the global economy going forward but we would pretty much have to rebuild the whole world in some other place and watch it. Or, if that comparison doesn’t speak to you then maybe let’s use the Bitcoin example – the cost of mining (electricity) has now exceeded the benefits. So we end up with a combination of intuition and luck, unfortunately.

What has been the response of the central banks? Well, they’ve opened up. They started revealing all sorts of (dirty) secrets. It started even before the crisis with all sorts of fan charts. I remember very well when Poland was introducing its own Inflation Projection. The NBP spent considerable amount of time to inform people that this wasn’t a forecast but a projection. In other words, it was a work of a (pretty crappy) econometric model, which the central bank was filling with all the data it found relevant. And obviously, as the data changed, so did the outcomes of the model.

Same kind of thing happened to the forward guidance. Flawed concept as it is, it was misinterpreted from the very beginning. Yes, there were pretty silly thresholds but they were merely a reflection of what the central bank thought at the time. Plus they were always accompanied by phrases like “at least until” orunless” to demonstrate they were very soft. Anyway, the clue is in the name (“forward guidance“). Here’s a short clip to that effect:

And guess what? It turned out things have changed and central banks reacted as they saw fit. The classic example was the decision not to start tapering in September. But for some reason, people started screaming that this means the Fed has lost the credibility. Sure, the Fed has lost the credibility rather than those who came up with the cretenic #septaper hashtag in the first place. The same kind of thing happened with #dectaper and again, the Fed’s communication policy was to blame. Ok, feel free to argue that the FOMC made a series of mistakes in their assessment of the economy but for crying out loud do not say their communication policy was incorrect because that just goes against any logic.

I have this rule when analysing central bankers’ comments. When they talk about current month’s decision, I listen no matter what – after all, they are the ones pulling the trigger. When they talk about what they think they will do in the next 1-3 months, I take that into consideration when doing forecasts. And if they talk about anything beyond the next three months I just go to make myself a coffee. Sure, it might be interesting to read what they say but the disclaimer here is simple: They.Don’t.Know.

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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.

 

Has Britain finally cornered itself?

After a week of travelling I came back to see that Moody’s has finally pulled the trigger on the country where I currently reside. This is such a non-story that it feels stupid to even mention but I suppose it will be making headlines for a little while longer. And this is a very good thing.

Before I start, however, I would like to thank the British government for conducting a massive social experiment, which will be used in decades to come as a proof that a tight fiscal/loose monetary policy mix does not work in an environment of a liquidity trap. We sort of knew that from the theory anyway but now we have plenty of data to base that on.

Secondly, I will be referring to my favourite IS/LM model. If you want to read more about it, a very good tutorial can be found here.

So… Let’s assume for a second that the Osborne/Cameron duo is capable of taking a stop-loss on their policy. I know it is a heroic assumption when discussing any politicians but why not…

When looking at record low cost of borrowing, a severely depressed economy and a central bank that does not even pretend anymore to be independent or targeting inflation the recipe should probably be to spend more. In the standard IS/LM model an increase in government spending over taxes (i.e. boosting the deficit) pushes the IS curve to the right. Thus, both the output level and the level of interest rate will increase. Consequently, the exchange rate should appreciate as capital flows to the country in question. This in turn leads to widening of the trade deficit. Ideally, the government would want the Bank of England to step in and limit the increase in interest rates (a.k.a. QE) so that the currency does not appreciate. And, as I mentioned before, the BoE is more than willing to do so.

Let’s now have a look at the situation from another angle. I have been going through he Bank of England’s quarterly reports in reference to trade (which can be found here) and I have found two interesting charts. The first one looks at episodes of rapid moves in the British pound and the impact on the trade balance:

gbp_trade

The relationship is pretty strong, which is why many people are calling for debasing of the sterling, particularly after G20 gave a pale-green light to such activities for countries, which are effectively in a liquidity trap.

The second chart shows why debasing of the sterling makes an awful lot of sense. It shows two measures of the International Investment Position – the standard one (i.e. with FDIs at book value) and what I would call a “market” one (i.e. with FDIs at market value).

uk_niip

You can see that the UK is looking quite a bit better if you take into account the actual values of FDIs. I would suggest that the recent rally in global equity prices has at least kept the blue line in the positive territory. This essentially means that GBP devaluation not only boosts the terms of trade but also makes the UK richer. Not very many countries are in such a pleasant situation (think of many emerging economies with significant external debt).

Again, weakening of the sterling does seem to be a very appealing strategy for the authorities. There is, however, one important problem – GBP devaluation is unlikely to bring extra revenues to the government and could actually make the fiscal position a bit worse. Here’s why – devaluing one’s currency and narrowing of a current account deficit means that the country’s savings are increasing in relative terms to investments. Granted, this may well have to happen considering a huge stock of private debt but this is not desirable from the growth point of view. On top of that, the J-curve effect dictates that the initial impact of currency devaluation will be actually adverse.

What I am trying to say is that while GBP devaluation has a lot of positive sides, it will probably not work on its own because it will further depress domestic demand thus putting a strain of public finances.

Therefore, I do believe that Britain has finally cornered itself into a situation where there is overwhelming evidence that Mr Osborne should really start spending. He should also assume that Mr Carney will not let that spending lead to appreciation of Real Effective Exchange Rate (a bit more on that mechanism in one of my previous posts entitled “Be careful what you target or am I in the right church?“). That is to say that the Bank of England will keep nominal and real rates very low. In my opinion this is the only rational way of the situation that we’re currently in. Then again, I am assuming the impossible here, i.e. that the politicians know what the stop-loss is.

How to trade this? I don’t normally trade anything related to the UK (except GBP/PLN) but I would assume that any sell-offs in Gilts should be used as an opportunity to buy. As far as the sterling is concerned, the fact that exports outside of the eurozone are now bigger than to the eurozone, EUR/GBP is a cross that doesn’t make that much sense. I would very much prefer the cable, or better yet selling the sterling against EM currencies as this is where the adjustment in trade balances will have to come from.

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.

Very efficient markets

As I was browsing through my bookmarks, I found this very old article from The Economist: Dismal science, dismal sentence. This, surreal at first glance, court case still comes back to me when anyone mentions the Efficient Markets Hypothesis.

In recent days two blogs that I like to read posted about the subject (The Money Illusion and Noahpinion). Both posts are well worth a read as they provide a few nice examples, which at face value are actually quite compelling.

But the problem with this theory is not so much its assumptions or implications but the way it has been tested. The most common tests include plotting performance of a large sample of portfolio managers against the performance of the stock index and concluding that – after accounting for management fees – the community does not beat the index. This obviously is very convenient for the guys at Vanguard etc but at the same time it is very illogical.

Let’s take an example of a market where we have only ten investors. All of them will be trading between themselves and if you think of it – there will be equal amount of longs and shorts in the market. Therefore, it is not difficult to conclude that these investors will on average have the same return as the market itself. When I think of it like that, it reminds me (in some aspects) of the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle. In physics, by measuring properties you change them. In finance, the measurement and the property in question are exactly the same thing. To cut the long story short, people trying to prove the Efficient Markets Hypothesis invariably arrive at the conclusion that the market cannot beat itself. Big deal!

This is not to say that the market is inefficient. I find it to be efficient most of the time (even if it stops me out). That said there are a lot of people who really take the EMH to the extreme, just like the judge in the article from the Economist. They conclude that there is no point giving anyone money to manage as the cost will definitely make it suboptimal to buying an index.

I don’t directly manage money but I know a lot of people who do. And the most impressive individuals, who happen to have pretty high Sharpe ratios and limited drawdowns  all have similar characteristics. Firstly, they don’t start the day with “it’s going to be a risk-on day, let’s buy 200m AUD”. This Coffey-esque approach to investing is both ridiculous and pathetic. Instead, they usually have a whole bunch of uncorrelated trades and quite rigorous risk management. Directional, Hail-Mary trades are very seldom and fully controlled. These guys tend to beat the market.

Actually, scratch that last sentence. They don’t beat the market. They generate returns which are not depending on the market direction. Therefore, comparing them to returns achieved by the broad market is pointless.

So while the EMH is quite compelling and serves as a good baseline for analysis, testing it and drawing conclusions about performance of the aggregate industry is very much self-contradicting.