Greece is back in the spotlight amid renewed fears of a break-up of the Euro as the Syriza party show a 3.1% lead over the incumbent New Democracy in the latest Rass opinion poll – 4thJanuary. The average of the last 20 polls – dating back to 15th December shows Syriza with a lead of 4.74% capturing 31.9% of the vote.
These election concerns have become elevated since the publication of an article in Der Spiegel Grexit Grumblings: Germany Open to Possible Greek Euro Zone Exit -suggesting that German Chancellor Merkel is now of the opinion that the Eurozone (EZ) can survive without Greece. Whilst Steffen Seibert – Merkle’s press spokesman – has since stated that the “political leadership” isn’t working on blueprints for a Greek exit, the idea that Greece might be “let go” has captured the imagination of the markets.
A very different view, of the potential damage a Greek exit might cause to the EZ, is expressed by Market Watch – Greek euro exit would be ‘Lehman Brothers squared’: economistquoting Barry Eichengreen, speaking at the American Economic Association conference, who described a Greek exit from the Euro:-
In the short run, it would be Lehman Brothers squared.
Writing at the end of last month the Economist – The euro’s next crisis described the expectation of a Syriza win in the forthcoming elections:-
In its policies Syriza represents, at best, uncertainty and contradiction and at worst reckless populism. On the one hand Mr Tsipras has recanted from his one-time hostility to Greece’s euro membership and toned down his more extravagant promises. Yet, on the other, he still thinks he can tear up the conditions imposed by Greece’s creditors in exchange for two successive bail-outs. His reasoning is partly that the economy is at last recovering and Greece is now running a primary budget surplus (ie, before interest payments); and partly that the rest of the euro zone will simply give in as they have before. On both counts he is being reckless.
In theory a growing economy and a primary surplus may help a country repudiate its debts because it is no longer dependent on capital inflows.
The complexity of the political situation in Greece is such that the outcome of the election, scheduled for 25th January, will, almost certainly, be a coalition. Syriza might form an alliance with the ultra-right wing Golden Dawn who have polled an average of 6.49% in the last 20 opinion polls, who are also anti-Austerity, but they would be uncomfortable bedfellows in most other respects. Another option might be the Communist Party of Greece who have polled 5.8% during the same period. I believe the more important development for the financial markets during the last week has been the change of tone in Germany.
The European bond markets have taken heed, marking down Greek bonds whilst other peripheral countries have seen record low 10 year yields. 10 year Bunds have also marched inexorably upwards. European stock markets, by contrast, have been somewhat rattled by the Euro Break-up spectre’s return to the feast. It may be argued that they are also reacting to concerns about collapsing oil prices, the geo-political stand-off with Russia, the continued slow-down in China and other emerging markets and general expectations of lower global growth. In the last few sessions many stock markets have rallied strongly, mainly on hopes of aggressive ECB intervention.
Unlike the Economist, who are concerned about EZ contagion, Brookings – A Greek Crisis but not a Euro Crisis – sees a Euro break-up as a low probability:-
A couple of years ago the prospect of a Syriza-led government caused serious tremors in European markets because of the fear that an extremely bad outcome in Greece was possible, such as its exit from the Euro system, and that this would create contagion effects in Portugal and other weaker nations. Fortunately, Europe is in a much better situation now to withstand problems in Greece and to avoid serious ramifications for other struggling member states. The worst of the crisis is over in the weak nations and the system as a whole is better geared to support those countries if another wave of market fears arise.
It is quite unlikely that Greece will end up falling out of the Euro system and no other outcome would have much of a contagion effect within Europe. Even if Greece did exit the Euro, there is now a strong possibility that the damage could be confined largely to Greece, since no other nation now appears likely to exit, even in a crisis.
Neither Syriza nor the Greek public (according to every poll) wants to pull out of the Euro system and they have massive economic incentives to avoid such an outcome, since the transition would almost certainly plunge Greece back into severe recession, if not outright depression. So, a withdrawal would have to be the result of a series of major miscalculations by Syriza and its European partners. This is not out of the question, but the probability is very low, since there would be multiple decision points at which the two sides could walk back from an impending exit.
I think The Guardian – Angela Merkel issues New Year’s warning over rightwing Pegida group – provides an insight into the subtle change in Germany’s stance:-
German chancellor Angela Merkel in a New Year’s address deplored the rise of a rightwing populist movement, saying its leaders have “prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts”.
In her strongest comments yet on the so-called Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida), she spoke of demonstrators shouting “we are the people”, co-opting a slogan from the rallies that led up to the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago.
“But what they really mean is: you are not one of us, because of your skin colour or your religion,” Merkel said, according to a pre-released copy of a televised speech she was to due to deliver to the nation on Wednesday evening.
“So I say to all those who go to such demonstrations: do not follow those who have called the rallies. Because all too often they have prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts.”
Concern about domestic politics in Germany and rising support for the ultra right-wing Pegida party makes the prospect of allowing Greece to leave the Euro look like the lesser of two evils. Yet a Greek exit and default on its Euro denominated obligations would destabilise the European banking system leading to a spate of deleveraging across the continent. In order to avert this outcome, German law makers have already begun to soften their “hard-line” approach, extending the olive branch of a potential renegotiation of the terms and maturity of outstanding Greek debt with whoever wins the forthcoming election. I envisage a combination of debt forgiveness, maturity extension and restructuring of interest payments – perish the thought that there be a sovereign default.
Last month the BIS – Financial stability risks: old and new caused alarm when it estimated non-domestic US$ denominated debt of non-banks to be in the region of $9trln:-
Total outstanding US dollar-denominated debt of non-banks located outside the United States now stands at more than $9 trillion, having grown from $6 trillion at the beginning of 2010. The largest increase has been in corporate bonds issued by emerging market firms responding to the surge in demand by yield-hungry fixed income investors.
Within the EZ the quest for yield has been no less rabid, added to which, risk models assume zero currency risk for EZ financial institutions that hold obligations issued in Euro’s. The preferred trade for many European banks has been to purchase their domestic sovereign bonds because of the low capital requirements under Basel II. Allowing banks to borrow short and lend long has been tacit government policy for alleviating bank balance sheet shortfalls, globally, in every crisis since the great moderation, if not before. The recent rise in Greek bond yields is therefore a concern.
An additional concern is that the Greek government bond yield curve has inverted dramatically in the past month. The three year yields have risen most precipitously. This is a problem for banks which borrowed in the medium maturity range in order to lend longer. Fortunately most banks borrow at very much shorter maturity, nonetheless the curve inversion represents a red flag : –
Over the same period Portuguese government bonds have, so far, experienced little contagion:-
Greece received Euro 245bln in bail-outs from the Troika; if they should default, the remaining EZ 17 governments will have to pick up the cost. Here is the breakdown of state guarantees under the European Financial Stability Facility:-
||Guarantee Commitments Eur Mlns
Assuming the worst case scenario of a complete default – which seems unlikely even given the par less state of Greek finances – this would put Italy on the hook for Eur 43bln, Spain for Eur 28.5bln, Portugal for Eur 6bln and Ireland for Eur 3.8bln.
The major European Financial Institutions may have learned their lesson, about over-investing in the highest yielding sovereign bonds, during the 2010/2011 crisis – according to an FTinterview with JP Morgan Cazenove, exposure is “limited” – but domestic Greek banks are exposed. The interconnectedness of European bank exposures are still difficult to gauge due to the lack of a full “Banking Union”. Added to which, where will these cash-strapped governments find the money needed to meet this magnitude of shortfall?
The ECBs response
In an interview with Handelsblatt last week, ECB president Mario Draghi reiterated the bank’s commitment to expand their balance sheet from Eur2 trln to Eur3 trln if conditions require it. Given that Eurostat published a flash estimate of Euro area inflation for December this week at -0.2% vs +0.3% in November, I expect the ECB to find conditions requiring a balance sheet expansion sooner rather than later. Reuters – ECB considering three approaches to QE – quotes the Dutch newspaper Het Financieele Dagbad expecting one of three actions:-
…one option officials are considering is to pump liquidity into the financial system by having the ECB itself buy government bonds in a quantity proportionate to the given member state’s shareholding in the central bank.
A second option is for the ECB to buy only triple-A rated government bonds, driving their yields down to zero or into negative territory. The hope is that this would push investors into buying riskier sovereign and corporate debt.
The third option is similar to the first, but national central banks would do the buying, meaning that the risk would “in principle” remain with the country in question, the paper said.
The issue of “monetary financing” – forbidden under Article 123 of the Lisbon Treaty – has still to be resolved, so Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) in respect of EZ government bonds are still not a viable policy option. That leaves Covered bonds – a market of Eur 2.6trln of which only around Eur 600bln are eligible for the ECB to purchase – and Asset Backed Securities (ABS) with around Eur 400bln of eligible securities. These markets are simply not sufficiently liquid for the ECB to expand its balance sheet by Eur 1trln. In 2009 they managed to purchase Eur 60bln of Covered bonds but only succeeded in purchasing Eur 16.9bln of the second tranche – the bank had committed to purchase up to Eur 40bln.
Since its inception in July 2009 the ECB have purchased just shy of Eur 108bln of Covered bonds and ABS: –
||Total Eur Mlns
|Covered Bonds 1
|Covered Bonds 2
|Covered Bonds 3
|* Original purchase Eur 60bln
These amounts are a drop in the ocean. If the ECB is not permitted to purchase government bonds what other options does it have? I believe the alternative is to follow the lead set by the Bank of Japan (BoJ) in purchasing corporate bonds and common stocks. To date the BoJ has only indulged in relatively minor “qualitative” easing; the ECB has an opportunity to by-pass the fragmented European banking system and provide finance and permanent capital directly to the European corporate sector.
Over the past year German stocks has been relatively stable whilst Greek equities, since the end of Q2, have declined. Assuming Greece does not vote to leave the Euro, Greek and other peripheral European stocks will benefit if the ECB should embark on its own brand of Qualitative and Quantitative Easing (QQE):-
Source: Bloomberg Note: Blue = Athens SE Composite Purple = DAX
It is important to make a caveat at this juncture. The qualitative component of the BoJ QQE programme has been derisory in comparison to their buying of JGBs; added to which, whilst the socialisation of the European corporate sector is hardly political anathema to many European politicians it is a long way from “lending at a penal rate in exchange for good collateral” – the traditional function of a central bank in times of crisis.
Conclusion and investment opportunities
European Government Bonds
Whilst the most likely political outcome is a relaxation of Article 123 of the Lisbon Treaty, allowing the ECB, or the national Central Bank’s to purchase EZ sovereign bonds, much of the favourable impact on government bond yields is already reflected in the price. 10 year JGBs – after decades of BoJ buying – yield 30bp, German Bunds – without the support of the ECB – yield 46bp. Aside from Greek bonds, peripheral members of the EZ have seen their bond yields decline over the past month. If the ECB announce OMT I believe the bond rally will be short-lived.
Given the high correlation between stocks markets in general and developed country stock markets in particular, it is dangerous to view Europe in isolation. The US market is struggling with a rising US$ and collapsing oil price. These factors have undermined confidence in the short-term. The US market is also looking to the Europe, since a further slowdown in Europe, combined with weakness in emerging markets act as a drag on US growth prospects. On a relative value basis European stocks are moderately expensive. The driver of performance, as it has been since 2008, will be central bank policy. A 50% increase in the size of the ECB balance sheet will be supportive for European stocks, as I have mentioned in previous posts, Ireland is my preferred investment, with a bias towards the real-estate sector.
Whilst the EUR/USD rate continues to decline the Nominal Effective Exchange Rate as calculated by the ECB, currently at 98, is around the middle of its range (81 – 114) since the inception of the currency and still some way above the recent lows seen in July 2012 when it reached 94. The October 2000 low of 81 is far away.
If a currency war is about to break-out between the major trading nations, the Euro doesn’t look like the principal culprit. I expect the Euro to continue to decline, except, perhaps against the JPY. Against the GBP a short EUR exposure will be less volatile but it will exhibit a more political dimension since the UK is a natural safe haven when an EZ crisis is brewing.
2014 ended with two ominous developments: the strength of the US dollar and a collapse in key commodity prices.
It is tempting to view both events as one, but the continuing fall in oil prices through December reveals they are sequential: first there was a greater preference for dollars compared with other currencies and this still persists, followed by a developing preference for all but the weakest currencies at the expense of raw materials and energy. These are two steps on a path that should logically lead to a global slump.
Dollar strength was the first warning that things were amiss, leading to higher interest rates in many of the emerging economies as their central banks sought to control investment outflows. Since this followed a prolonged period of credit expansion these countries appear to be entering the bust phase of the credit-driven boom-and-bust cycle; so for them, 2015 at a minimum will see a slump in economic activity as the accumulated malinvestments from the past are unwound. According to the IMF database, emerging market and developing economies at current prices account for total GDP of over $30 trillion, compared with advanced economies’ GDP totalling $47 trillion. It is clear that a slump in the former will have serious repercussions for the latter.
As the reserve currency the dollar is central to the exchange value of all other currencies. This is despite attempts by China and Russia to trade without it. Furthermore and because of this dependency, the global economy has become more geared to the dollar over the years because it has expanded relative to the US. In 2000, the US was one-third of global GDP; today it is about one-fifth.
The second development, falling energy and commodity prices, while initially driven by the same factors as dollar strength, confirms the growing likelihood of a global slump. If falling prices were entirely due to increased supply of the commodities involved, we could rejoice. However, while there has been some increase in energy and commodity supply the message is clear, and that is demand at current prices has unexpectedly declined, and prices are now trying to find a new equilibrium. And because we are considering world demand, this development is being missed or misread by economists who lack a global perspective.
The price of oil has approximately halved in the last six months. The fall has been attributed variously to the west trying to bankrupt Russia, or to Saudi Arabia driving American shale production out of business. This misses the bigger picture: according to BP’s Statistical Review 2014, at the beginning of last year world oil consumption comfortably exceeded supply, 91.3million barrels per day compared with 86.8. This indicates that something fundamental changed in 2014 to collapse the price, and that something can only be a sudden fall in demand in the second half.
Iron ore prices have also halved over the last six months, but other key commodities, such as copper which fell by only 11% over the period, appear to have not yet adjusted to the emerging markets slump. This complies with business cycle theory, because in the early stages of a slump businesses remain committed to their capital investment plans in the vain hope that conditions will improve. This being the case, the collapse in demand for energy can be expected to deepen and spread to other industrial raw materials as manufacturers throw in the towel and their investment plans are finally abandoned.
Therefore the economic background to the financial outlook for the global economy is not encouraging. Nor was it at the beginning of 2014, when it was obviously going to be a difficult year. The difference a year on is that the concerns about the future are more crystallised. This time last year I wrote that we were heading towards a second (to Lehman) and unexpected financial and currency crisis that could happen at any time. I only modify that to say the crisis has indeed begun and it has much further to go this year. This is the background against which we must briefly consider some of the other major currencies, and precious metals.
Japan and the yen
The complacency about Japan in the economic and investment communities is astonishing. Japan is committed to a scale of monetary inflation that if continued can only end up destroying the yen. The Bank of Japan is now financing the equivalent of twice the government deficit (¥41 trillion) by issuing new currency, some of which is being used to buy Japanese equity ETFs and property REITs. By these means pricing in bond, equity and commercial property markets has become irrelevant. “Abenomics” is about financing the government and managing the markets under the Keynesian cover of stimulating both the economy and animal spirits. In fact, with over ¥1.2 quadrillion of public sector debt the government is caught in a debt trap from which it sees no escape other than bluff. And since Abenomics was first embarked upon two years ago, the yen has fallen from 75 to the US dollar to 120, or 37%.
Instead of learning the lessons of previous hyperinflations, mainstream economists fall for the official line and ignore the facts. The facts are simple: Japan is a welfare state with an increasing and unsustainable ratio of retirees to tax-paying workers. She is the leading advanced nation on a debt path the other welfare nations are closely following. Consensus forecasts that the Japanese economy will be stimulated into recovery in 2015 are wide of the mark: instead she is destroying her currency and private sector wealth with it.
Eurozone and the euro
In the short-term the Eurozone is being revisited by its Greek problem. Whether or not the next Greek government backs off from confronting the other Eurozone members and the ECB remains to be seen. The problems for the Eurozone lie considerably deeper than Greece, made worse by politicians who have been reluctant to use the time bought by the ECB to address the structural difficulties of the 19 Eurozone members. The result is the stronger northern bloc (Germany, Netherlands, Finland and Luxembourg) is being crippled by the burden of the Mediterranean states plus Portugal plus France. And Germany and Finland have suffered the further blow of losing valuable export business from Russia.
In the coming months the Eurozone will likely face gas shortages from Russia through the trans-Ukrainian pipeline, and price deflation driven by energy and other commodity prices. Price deflation spurs two further points to consider, one false and the other true: lower prices are deemed to be recessionary (false), and falling prices increase the burden of real debt (true). The consequence is that the ECB will seek ways to expand money supply aggressively to stop the Eurozone from drifting into an economic crisis. In short, the Eurozone will likely develop its own version of Abenomics, the principal difference being the Eurozone’s timeline is behind Japan’s.
US and UK
Japan and the Eurozone account for total GDP of $18.3 trillion, slightly more than the US and added to the emerging and developing economies, gives a total of $48 trillion, or 62% of global GDP for nations leading the world into a slump. So when we consider the prospects for the US and the UK, together producing $20.4 trillion or 26% of the world’s GDP, their prospects are not good either. The UK as a trading nation exposed to the Eurozone has immediate risk, while the US which is not so dependent on international trade, less so.
The foregoing analysis is of the primary economic drivers for 2015 upon which all else will ultimately depend. The risk of a global slump can be called a first order event, while the possibility of a banking crisis, derivatives default or other market dislocation brought on by a slump could be termed a second order event. There is no point in speculating about the possibility and timing of second order events occurring in 2015, because they ultimately depend on the performance of the global economy.
However, when it becomes clear to investors that the global economy is indeed entering a slump, financial and systemic risks are certain to escalate. Judging this escalation by monitoring markets will be difficult because central banks, exchange stability funds and sovereign wealth funds routinely intervene in markets, rendering them misleading as price signals.
Precious metals are the only assets beyond the long-term control of governments. They can distort precious metal markets in the short term by expanding the quantity of derivatives, and there is a body of evidence that these methods have been employed in recent years. But most price distortion today appears to have come from bullion and investment banks who are fully committed to partying in bonds, equities and derivatives, and for which gold is a spoiler. This complacency is bound to be undermined at some point, and a global economic slump is the likely catalyst.
The dangers of ever-inflating currencies are clearly illustrated by the Fiat Money Quantity, which has continued to expand at an alarming rate as shown in the chart below.
FMQ measures the amount of fiat currency issued as a replacement for gold as money, so is a measure of unbacked monetary expansion. At $13.52 trillion last November it is $5.68 trillion above the long-established pre-Lehman crisis growth path, stark evidence of a depreciating currency in monetary terms. Adjusting the price of gold for this depreciation gives a price today the equivalent of $490 in dollars at that time and quantity, so gold has roughly halved in real currency terms since the Lehman crisis.
There is compelling evidence that 2015 will see a global slump in economic activity. This being the case, financial and systemic risks will increase as evidence of the slump accumulates. It can be expected to undermine global equities, property and finally bond markets, which are currently all priced for economic stability. Even though these markets are increasingly controlled by central bank intervention, it is dangerous to assume this will continue to be the case as financial and systemic risks accumulate.
Precious metals are ultimately free from price management by the state. Furthermore, they are the only asset class notably under-priced today, given the enormous increase in the quantity of fiat money since the Lehman crisis.
In short, 2015 is shaping up to be very bad for fiat currencies and very good for gold and silver.
“Sir, John Authers, in Loser’s Game (The Big Read, December 22), could have delved deeply into the flaws in the asset management business as it has evolved in recent decades, rather than accepting the industry’s own terms or focusing on tweaks to “active” management that might improve results..
“Mr Authers could also have challenged the bureaucratic thinking and methods asset management has adopted in the course of chasing its “bogeys”, starting with the Big Ideas.. Then there are the model portfolios, relative-weightings, “style drift”, investment committees, the requirement to be fully invested and so on — all bog down decision-making and most have nothing to do with genuine investing. In adopting these practices the fund management business has created a recipe for mediocrity.
“In investing, it is never a good idea to do what everyone else is doing. Piling into passive index funds during a year of decidedly poor relative results for active managers, and especially after a long period of rising security prices is likely to lead to future disappointment, just as it did in 1999. This leads us to another line of inquiry for Mr Authers: even assuming “beating” an index is worthwhile, why must we do it all of the time? It is a paradox of investment that in order to do well in the long run, you sometimes have to do “poorly” in the short run. You have to accept the fact that often you will not “beat” an index; sometimes you don’t even want to — think of the Nasdaq in 1999, for example..”
– Letter to the FT from Mr. Dennis Butler, December 30, 2014.
A happy new year to all readers.
For historians, there are primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources are the original documents that point to the raw history, like the original Magna Carta, for example. Secondary sources are effectively historical derivatives – they incorporate interpretation and analysis. In financial markets, the equivalent of primary sources are prices – the only raw data that speak unequivocally of what occurred by way of financial exchange between buyer and seller. Everything else amounts to interpretation and analysis, and must by definition be regarded as subjective. So-called fundamentals, therefore, are subjective. There is the price – and everything else is essentially chatter.
It says much for the quality and depth of our mainstream media that one of the most insightful and thought-provoking pieces of social and cultural analysis of the last year came in the form of a 5 minute essay within a satirical news review of 2014. The piece in question was by the cult documentary maker Adam Curtis and you can watch it here. The following extracts are taken directly from the film:
“So much of the news this year has been hopeless, depressing, and above all, confusing. To which the only response is to say, “oh dear.”
“What this film is going to suggest is that that defeatist response has become a central part of a new system of political control. And to understand how this is happening, you have to look to Russia, to a man called Vladislav Surkov, who is a hero of our time.
“Surkov is one of President Putin’s advisers, and has helped him maintain his power for 15 years, but he has done it in a very new way.
“He came originally from the avant-garde art world, and those who have studied his career, say that what Surkov has done, is to import ideas from conceptual art into the very heart of politics.
“His aim is to undermine people’s perceptions of the world, so they never know what is really happening.
“Surkov turned Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theatre. He sponsored all kinds of groups, from neo-Nazi skinheads to liberal human rights groups. He even backed parties that were opposed to President Putin.
“But the key thing was, that Surkov then let it be known that this was what he was doing, which meant that no-one was sure what was real or fake. As one journalist put it: “It is a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused.”
“A ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it is undefinable..
“But maybe, we have something similar emerging here in Britain. Everything we’re told by journalists and politicians is confusing and contradictory. Of course, there is no Mr. Surkov in charge, but it is an odd, non-linear world that plays into the hands of those in power.
“British troops have come home from Afghanistan, but nobody seems to know whether it was a victory or whether it was a defeat.
“Ageing disk jockeys are prosecuted for crimes they committed decades ago, while practically no one in the City of London is prosecuted for the endless financial crimes that have been revealed there..
“..the real epicentre of this non-linear world is the economy, and the closest we have to our own shape-shifting post-modern politician is [U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer] George Osborne.
“He tells us proudly that the economy is growing, but at the same time, wages are going down.
“He says he is reducing the deficit, but then it is revealed that the deficit is going up.
“But the dark heart of this shape-shifting world is Quantitative Easing. The government is insisting on taking billions of Pounds out of the economy through its austerity programme, yet at the very same time it is pumping billions of Pounds into the economy through Quantitative Easing, the equivalent of 24,000 Pounds for every family in Britain.
“But it gets even more confusing, because the Bank of England has admitted that those billions of Pounds are not going where they are supposed to. A vast majority of that money has actually found its way into the hands of the wealthiest five percent in Britain. It has been described as the biggest transfer of wealth to the rich in recent documented history.
“It could be a huge scandal, comparable to the greedy oligarchs in Russia. A ruthless elite, siphoning off billions in public money. But nobody seems to know.
“It sums up the strange mood of our time, where nothing really makes any coherent sense. We live with a constant vaudeville of contradictory stories that makes it impossible for any real opposition to emerge, because they can’t counter it with any coherent narrative of their own.
“And it means that we as individuals become ever more powerless, unable to challenge anything, because we live in a state of confusion and uncertainty. To which the response is: Oh dear. But that is what they want you to say.”
The start of the New Year is traditionally a time for issuing financial forecasts. But there seems little point in doing so given the impact of widespread financial repression on the price mechanism itself. Are prices real, or fake ? The cornerstone of the market structure is the price of money itself – the interest rate. But interest rates aren’t being set by a free market. Policy rates are being kept artificially low by central banks, while the term structure of interest rates has been hopelessly distorted by monetary policy conducted by those same central banks. Inasmuch as ‘real’ investors are participating in the bond market at all, those institutional investors have no personal skin in the game – they are economic agents with no real accountability for their actions. Other institutional players can be confidently assumed simply to be chasing price momentum – they likely have no ‘view’ on valuation, per se. The world’s bond markets have become a giant Potemkin village – nobody actually lives there.
So of the four asset classes to which we allocate, three of them offer at least some protection against the material depradations and endless price distortions of the State. ‘Value’ listed equities give us exposure to the source of all fundamental wealth – the actions of the honest entrepreneur. Systematic trend-following funds are the closest thing we can find to truly uncorrelated investments – and we note how 2014 saw a welcome return to form. The monetary metals, gold and silver, give us Stateless money that cannot be printed on demand by the debt-addicted. We are slowly coming to appreciate the counsel of a friend who suggested that the merit of gold lies not in its price so much as in its ownership. What matters is that you own it. (It also matters why.) Which leaves debt. Objectively high quality debt – a small market and getting smaller by the day.
The practice of sensible investment becomes difficult when our secondary information sources (“fundamentals”) are inherently subjective. It becomes almost impossible when our primary information sources (prices) can’t be trusted because they have politicians’ paw-prints all over them. “Nothing really makes any coherent sense.. We live with a constant vaudeville of contradictory stories.. We live in a state of confusion and uncertainty.” If the pursuit of certainty is absurd, the only rational conclusion is to acknowledge the doubt, and invest accordingly.
According to the ECB’s Bank Lending Survey for October banks eased their credit standards in the last quarter, while their risk perceptions increased.
This apparent contradiction suggests that the 137 banks surveyed were at the margin competing for lower-quality business, hardly the sign of a healthy lending market. Furthermore, the detail showed enterprises were cutting borrowing for fixed investment sharply and required more working capital instead to finance inventories and perhaps to cover trading losses.
This survey follows bank lending statistics since the banking crisis to mid-2014, which are shown in the chart below (Source: ECB).
It is likely that some of the contraction in bank lending has been replaced with bond finance by the larger credit-worthy corporations, and Eurozone banks have also preferred buying sovereign bonds. Meanwhile, the Eurozone economy obviously faces a deepening crisis.
There are some global systemically important banks (G-SIBs) based in the Eurozone, and this week the Financial Stability Board (FSB) published a consultation document on G-SIBs’ capital ratios in connection with the bail-in procedures to be considered at the G20 meeting this weekend. The timing is not helpful for the ECB, because the FSB’s principle recommendation is that G-SIBs’ Tier 1 and 2 capital should as a minimum be double the Basel III level. This gives operational leverage of between 5 and 6.25 times risk-weighted assets, compared with up to 12.5 times under Basel III.
The FSB expects the required capital increase to be satisfied mostly by the issue of qualifying debt instruments, so the G-SIBs will not have to tap equity markets. However, since Eurozone G-SIBs are faced with issuing bonds at higher interest rates than the returns on sovereign debt, they will be tempted to scale back their balance sheets instead. Meanwhile bank depositors should note they are no longer at the head of the creditors’ queue when their bank goes bust, which could affect the non-G-SIB banks with higher capital ratios.
If G-SIBs can be de-geared without triggering a bank lending crisis the world of finance should eventually be a safer place: that’s the intention. Unfortunately, a bail-in of a large bank is unlikely to work in practice, because if an important bank does go to the wall, without the limitless government backing of a bail-out, money-markets will almost certainly fail to function in its wake and the crisis could rapidly become systemic.
Meanwhile, it might appear that the ECB is a powerless bystander watching a train-wreck in the making. Businesses in the Eurozone appear to only want to borrow to survive, as we can see from the October Bank Lending Survey. Key banks are now being told to halve their balance sheet gearing, encouraging a further reduction in bank credit. Normally a central bank would respond by increasing the quantity of narrow money, which the ECB is trying to do despite the legal hurdles in its founding constitution.
However, it is becoming apparent that the ECB’s intention to increase its balance sheet by up to €1 trillion may not be nearly enough, given that the FSB’s proposals look like giving an added spin to contraction of bank credit in the Eurozone.
Spring 2010: A gradual recovery
Autumn 2010: A gradual and uneven recovery
Spring 2011: European recovery maintains momentum amid new risks
Autumn 2011: A recovery in distress
Spring 2012: Towards a slow recovery
Autumn 2012: Sailing through rough waters
Winter 2012: Gradually overcoming headwinds
Spring 2013: Adjustment continues
Autumn 2013: Gradual recovery, external risks
Winter 2013: Recovery gaining ground
Spring 2014: Growth becoming broader-based
Autumn 2014: Slow recovery with very low inflation.. ”
European Commission economic headlines, as highlighted by Jason Karaian of Quartz, in ‘How to talk about a European recovery that never arrives’.
“Well we know where we’re going
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowing
But we can’t say what we’ve seen
And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out
We’re on a road to nowhere..”
‘Road to nowhere’ by Talking Heads.
In 1975, Charles Ellis, the founder of Greenwich Associates, wrote one of the most powerful and memorable metaphors in the history of finance. Simon Ramo had previously studied the strategy of one particular sport in ‘Extraordinary tennis for the ordinary tennis player’. Ellis went on to adapt Ramo’s study to describe the practical business of investing. His essay is titled ‘The loser’s game’, which in his view is what the ‘sport’ of investing had become by the time he wrote it. His thesis runs as follows. Whereas the game of tennis is won by professionals, the game of investing is ‘lost’ by professionals and amateurs alike. Whereas professional sportspeople win their matches through natural talent honed by long practice, investors tend to lose (in relative, if not necessarily absolute terms) through unforced errors. Success in investing, in other words, comes not from over-reach, in straining to make the winning shot, but simply through the avoidance of easy errors.
Ellis was making another point. As far back as the 1970s, investment managers were not beating the market; rather, the market was beating them. This was a mathematical inevitability given the over-crowded nature of the institutional fund marketplace, the fact that every buyer requires a seller, and the impact of management fees on returns from an index. Ben W. Heineman, Jr. and Stephen Davis for the Yale School of Management asked in their report of October 2011, ‘Are institutional investors part of the problem or part of the solution ?’ By their analysis, in 1987, some 12 years after Ellis’ earlier piece, institutional investors accounted for the ownership of 46.6% of the top 1000 listed companies in the US. By 2009 that figure had risen to 73%. That percentage is itself likely understated because it takes no account of the role of hedge funds. Also by 2009 the US institutional landscape contained more than 700,000 pension funds; 8,600 mutual funds (almost all of whom were not mutual funds in the strict sense of the term, but rather for-profit entities); 7,900 insurance companies; and 6,800 hedge funds.
Perhaps the most pernicious characteristic of active fund management is the tendency towards benchmarking (whether closet or overt). Being assessed relative to the performance of an equity or bond benchmark effectively guarantees (post the impact of fees) the institutional manager’s inability to outperform that benchmark – but does ensure that in bear markets, index-benchmarked funds are more or less guaranteed to lose money for their investors. In equity fund management the malign impact of benchmarking is bad enough; in bond fund management the malign impact of ‘market capitalisation’ benchmarking is disastrous from the get-go. Since a capitalisation benchmark assigns the heaviest weightings in a bond index to the largest bond markets by asset size, and since the largest bond markets by asset size represent the most heavily indebted issuers – whether sovereign or corporate – a bond-indexed manager is compelled to have the highest exposure to the most heavily indebted issuers. All things equal, therefore, it is likely that the bond index-tracking manager is by definition heavily exposed to objectively poor quality (because most heavily indebted) credits.
There is now a grave risk that an overzealous commitment to benchmarking is about to lead hundreds of billions of dollars of invested capital off a cliff. Why ? To begin with, trillions of dollars’ worth of equities and bonds now sport prices that can no longer be trusted in any way, having been roundly boosted, squeezed, coaxed and manipulated for the dubious ends of quantitative easing. The most important characteristic of any investment is the price at which it is bought, which will ultimately determine whether that investment falls into the camp of ‘success’ or ‘failure’. At some point, enough elephantine funds will come to appreciate that the assets they have been so blithely accumulating may end up being vulnerable to the last bid – or lack thereof – on an exchange. When a sufficient number of elephants start charging inelegantly towards the door, not all of them will make it through unscathed. Corporate bonds, in particular, thanks to heightened regulatory oversight, are not so much a wonderland of infinite liquidity, but an accident in the secondary market waiting to happen. We recall words we last heard in the dark days of 2008:
“When you’re a distressed seller of an illiquid asset in a market panic, it’s not even like being in a crowded theatre that’s on fire. It’s like being in a crowded theatre that’s on fire and the only way you can get out is by persuading somebody outside to swap places with you.”
The second reason we may soon see a true bonfire of inanities is that benchmarked government bond investors have chosen collectively to lose their minds (or the capital of their end investors). They have stampeded into an asset class historically and euphemistically referred to as “risk free” which is actually fraught with rising credit risk and systemic inflation risk – inflation, perversely, being the only solution to the debt mountain that will enable the debt culture to persist in any form. (Sufficient economic growth for ongoing debt service we now consider impossible, certainly within the context of the euro zone; any major act of default or debt repudiation, in a debt-based monetary system, is the equivalent of Armageddon.) As Japan has just demonstrated, whatever deflationary tendencies are experienced in the indebted western economies will be met with ever greater inflationary impulses. The beatings will continue until morale improves – and until bondholders have been largely destroyed. When will the elephants start thinking about banking profits and shuffling nervously towards the door ?
Meanwhile, central bankers continue to waltz effetely in the policy vacuum left by politicians. As Paul Singer of Elliott Management recently wrote,
“Either out of ideology or incompetence, all major developed governments have given up (did they ever really try?) attempting to use solid, fundamental policies to create sustainable, strong growth in output, incomes, innovation, entrepreneurship and good jobs. The policies that are needed (in the areas of tax, regulatory, labour, education and training, energy, rule of law, and trade) are not unknown, nor are they too complicated for even the most simple-minded politician to understand. But in most developed countries, there is and has been complete policy paralysis on the growth-generation side, as elected officials have delegated the entirety of the task to central bankers.”
And as Singer fairly points out, whether as workers, consumers or investors, we inhabit a world of “fake growth, fake money, fake jobs, fake stability, fake inflation numbers”.
Top down macro-economic analysis is all well and good, but in an investment world beset by such profound fakery, only bottom-up analysis can offer anything approaching tangible value. In the words of one Asian fund manager,
“The owner of a[n Asian] biscuit company doesn’t sit fretting about Portuguese debt but worries about selling more biscuits than the guy down the road.”
So there is hope of a sort for the survival of true capitalism, albeit from Asian biscuit makers. Perhaps even from the shares of biscuit makers in Europe – at the right price.
“Sir, Your headline “Fed’s grand experiment draws to a close” (FT.com, October 29) combines ignorance of what quantitative easing is with insouciance as to its potential effects – both of these mistakes being perennial features of FT coverage of QE. The “experiment”, as you call it, is not at an end; it is, with the purchases now ending, at its height. Only when the Fed starts selling the securities it has purchased back into the market will the US’s QE begin its withdrawal from that height; only when the last purchased security has been sold back into the market, or allowed to expire with consequent permanent expansion of the money supply, will the “grand experiment” (I would prefer that you called it “reckless gamble”) be at its end.
“Only at that point will we even start to see the results – on interest rates, on securities prices, on the economy. The outcome, as has so often been the case with such Keynesian experiments, is unlikely to be pretty.”
The other potential cause of a sell-off in markets is through a central bank mistake. Some think the liquidity created by QE will eventually leak into higher inflation, but there is no sign of this as yet. More likely is a decline into deflation which would lead to financial distress as debts become more difficult to repay.
“If that does show signs of happening, then we may indeed get to see QE4 rolled out. Daddy might have let go of the market’s hand for the moment but he’s still close by.”
Strange things are happening in the bond market. Few of them are stranger than the reports that a French fund management colleague of Bill Gross (formerly of Pimco) took such exception to public excoriation from his stamp-collecting associate that he quit the business to sell croques monsieur from a food truck. According to the Wall Street Journal, Gross told Jeremie Banet in front of Pimco’s entire investment committee that, “I never understand what you’re saying. Ever.” With those credentials, M. Banet is clearly supremely qualified to become the next chairman of the Federal Reserve. As it is, he elected to return to his job managing an inflation-linked bond portfolio.
He has his work cut out. Consider the sort of volatility that the 10 year US Treasury bond – the closest thing the financial world has to a “risk-free rate” – experienced on 15th October (below).
Intra-day yield, 10 year US Treasury bond, 15th October 2014
Source: Bloomberg LLP
Having begun the day sporting a 2.2% yield, the 10 year note during the trading session experienced an extraordinary surge in price that took its yield down briefly towards 1.85%. Later in the same session the buying abated, and the bond closed with a yield of roughly 2.14%. During the same trading session, equity markets sold off aggressively (the UK’s FTSE 100 index, for example, closed down almost 3% on the day). What accounts for such melodrama ?
Analyst Russell Napier takes up the story:
“There it was — a real market come and gone in half an hour, like a pregnant panda at Edinburgh zoo. What did it mean and what should you do? You should pay attention to what happens to the direction of prices when volumes surge and markets work. When the veil is lifted, pay attention to what you see beneath. Last Wednesday, in the space of half an hour of active trading, the Treasury market had one of its most rapid rises ever recorded and equities fell sharply.
“There is a very simple lesson that when the markets finally break through the manipulation they move to price in deflation and not inflation. This is key because it means financial repression has failed. Such repression requires the artificial depression of interest rates but, crucially, it must be paired with boosting inflation above such rates. On October 15th 2014, if only for a few short minutes, market forces broke out and the failure of central bankers was briefly evident.”
These days, you don’t tend to hear the words ‘failure’ and ‘central bankers’ in the same sentence (unless the topic happens to be Zimbabwe). But perhaps the omniscience and omnipotence of central bankers is somewhat overstated. On October 29th, the US Federal Reserve followed a long-rehearsed script and announced that it had “decided to conclude its asset purchase program [also known as QE] this month.”
So now stock and bond markets will have to look after themselves, so to speak. The Economist’s Buttonwood columnist described it as “Letting go of Daddy’s hand”. That coinage nicely speaks to the juvenilisation to which markets have been reduced during six long years of financial repression, unprecedented central bank asset purchases, and the official manipulation of interest rates. Only the asset purchases have abated (for now): the financial repression, one way or another, will go on.
Whether the asset purchases have really disappeared, or merely been suspended, will be a function of how risk markets behave over the coming months and years. We would not be in the least surprised to see petulant markets rewarded with yet more infusions of sweets.
Yet some still associate QE with success. The Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, or his sub-editor, reckon that central bankers deserve a medal for saving society. He dismisses any scepticism as “hard money bluster”. Economist David Howden, on the other hand, can see somewhat further than the end of his own nose:
“One of the true marks of a great economist is an ability to see past the obvious outcomes and into the veiled results of policies. Friedrich Bastiat’s great essay on “that which is seen, and that which is not seen” provides a cautionary parable that disastrous analyses result when people don’t bother looking further than the immediate results of an action.
“Nowhere is this lesson more instructive than with the Fed’s QE policies of the past 6 years.
“Consider the Austrian business cycle theory. The nub of the theory is that changes in the money market have broader results on the greater economy. In its most succinct form, when a central bank pushes interest rates lower than they should be (by buying assets, for example), the greater economy gets distorted. Some of these distortions are immediately apparent, as consumers buy more goods and everyone takes on more debt as a result of lower interest rates. Some of the distortions are not immediately apparent. The investment decision of firms gets skewed as interest rates no longer reflect savings preferences, and the whole economy becomes fragile over time as erroneous investments add up (what Mises coined “malinvestments”).
“When a financial crisis or economic recession hits, it’s almost never because of some event that apparently happened at the same time. The crisis of 2008 did not occur because of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. It happened because the whole financial system and greater economy were fragile following years of cheap credit at the hands of the Greenspan Fed. If anything, Lehman was a result of this and a great (if unfortunate) example of the type of bad business decisions firms are lured into by loose money. It wasn’t the cause of the troubles but a result of them. And if Lehman didn’t go under to spark the credit crunch, some other fragile financial institution would have.
“The Great Depression is a similar case in point. It wasn’t the stock market crash in 1929 that “created” the Great Depression. It was a decade of loose money policies by the Fed that created a shaky economy. Again, if anything the stock market crash was the result of stock prices being too buoyant and in need of a repricing to reflect economic fundamentals. Just like today, stocks rose to such storied heights as a result of cheap credit, not because of the seemingly “great” investments funded by it.
“The Fed has lowered interest rates since July 2006. We have just come off the period with the most rapid and extreme increase in the money supply ever recorded in American history. The seeds of the next Austrian business cycle have been sown. In fact, they are probably especially fertile seeds when one considers that the monetary policy has been so loose by historical standards. Just as cheap credit of the 1920s beget the Great Depression, that of the 1990s beget the dot-com bust and that of the mid-2000s beget the crisis of 2008, this most recent period will also give birth to a financial crisis.”
Although our crystal ball is no more polished than anyone else’s, our fundamental views are clear. Bonds are already grotesquely expensive, yet may get more so (we’re not investing in “the usual suspects” so we don’t much care). Most stock markets are pricey – but in a world beset by QE (and prospects for more, in Europe and Asia) which prices can we really trust ? By a process of logic, elimination and deduction, out of the major asset classes, only quality listed businesses trading at or ideally well below a fair assessment of their intrinsic worth offer any semblance of value or attractiveness. Pretty much everything else amounts to nothing more than paper, prone to arbitrary gusts from some very powerful, and very windy, bureaucrats. We note also that former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, no doubt looking to polish his legacy, managed to front-run the Fed’s QE announcement by pointing to the merits of gold within a government-controlled, fiat currency system. Strange days indeed.
“Sir, The next financial apocalypse is imminent. I know this to be true because the House & Home section in FT Weekend is now assuming the epic proportions last seen before the great crash. Twenty-four pages chock full of adverts for mansions and wicker tea-trays for $1,000. You’re all mad.
Sell everything and run for your lives.”
- Letter to the FT from Matt Long, Seilh, France, 3rd October 2014.
“Investors unfortunately face enormous pressure—both real pressure from their anxious clients and their consultants and imagined pressure emanating from their own adrenaline, ego and fear—to deliver strong near-term results. Even though this pressure greatly distracts investors from a long-term orientation and may, in fact, be anathema to good long-term performance, there is no easy way to reduce it. Human nature involves the extremes of investor emotion—both greed and fear—in the moment; it is hard for most people to overcome and act in opposition to their emotions. Also, most investors tend to project near-term trends—both favourable and adverse—indefinitely into the future. Ironically, it is this very short-term pressure to produce—this gun to the head of everyone—that encourages excessive risk taking which manifests itself in several ways: a fully invested posture at all times; for many, the use of significant and even extreme leverage; and a market-centric orientation that makes it difficult to stand apart from the crowd and take a long-term perspective.”
- Seth Klarman, Presentation to MIT, October 2007.
“At first, the pendulum was swinging towards infinite interest, threatening the dollar with hyperinflation. Right now the pendulum is swinging to the other extreme, to zero interest, spelling hyper-deflation. This is just as damaging to producers as the swing towards infinite interest was in the early 1980’s. It is impossible to predict whether one or the other extreme in the swinging of the wrecking ball will bring about the world economy’s collapse. Hyperinflation and hyper-deflation are just two different forms of the same phenomenon: credit collapse. Arguing which of the two forms will dominate is futile: it blurs the focus of inquiry and frustrates efforts to avoid disaster.”
- Professor Antal Fekete, ‘Monetary Economics 101: The real bills doctrine of Adam Smith. Lecture 10: The Revolt of Quality’.
“Low interest rate policy has the following grave consequences:
- Normally conservative investors are increasingly under duress and due to the outlook for interest rates remaining low for a long time, are taking on excessive risk. This leads to capital misallocation and the formation of bubbles.
- The sweet poison of low interest rates and easy money therefore leads to massive asset price inflation (stocks, art, real estate).
- Through carry trades, interest rates that are structurally too low in the industrialized nations lead to asset bubbles and contagion effects in emerging markets.
- A structural weakening of financial markets, as reckless behaviour of market participants is fostered (moral hazard).
- A change in human behaviour patterns, due to continually declining purchasing power. While thrift is slowly but surely transmogrified into a relic of the past, taking on debt becomes rational.
- The acquisition of personal wealth becomes gradually more difficult.
- The importance of money as a medium of exchange and a unit of account increases in importance relative to its role as a store of value.
- Incentives for fiscal probity decline. Central banks have bought time for governments. Large deficits appear less problematic, there is no incentive to implement reform, resp. consolidate public finances in a sustainable manner.
- The emergence of zombie-banks and zombie-companies. Very low interest rates prevent the healthy process of creative destruction. Zero interest rate policy makes it possible for companies with low profitability to survive, similar to Japan in the 1990s. Banks are enabled to nigh endlessly roll over potentially delinquent loans and consequently lower their write-offs.
- Unjust redistribution (Cantillon effect): the effect describes the fact that newly created money is neither uniformly nor simultaneously distributed in the population. Monetary expansion is therefore never neutral. There is a permanent transfer of wealth from later to earlier receivers of new money.”
- Ronald-Peter Stöferle, from ‘In Gold We Trust 2014 – Extended Version’, Incrementum AG.
The commentary will have its next outing on Monday 27th October.
“When sorrows come,” wrote Shakespeare, “they come not single spies, but in battalions.” Jeremy Warner for the Daily Telegraph identifies ten of them. His ‘ten biggest threats to the global economy’ comprise:
- Geopolitical risk;
- The threat of oil and gas price spikes;
- A hard landing in China;
- Normalisation of monetary policy in the Anglo-Saxon economies;
- Euro zone deflation;
- ‘Secular stagnation’;
- The size of the debt overhang;
- Complacent markets;
- House price bubbles;
- Ageing populations.
Other than making the fair observation that stock markets (for example) are not entirely correlated to economic performance – an observation for which euro zone equity investors must surely be hugely grateful – we offer the following response.
- Geopolitical risk, like the poor, will always be with us.
- Yes, the prices for oil and natural gas could spike, but as things stand WTI crude futures have fallen by over 15% from their June highs, in spite of the clear geopolitical problems. And the US fracking revolution, in combination with fast-improving fundamentals for solar power, may turn out to be a secular (and disinflationary) game-changer for energy prices.
- China, however, is tougher to dismiss. If we had any meaningful exposure to Chinese equity or debt we would be more concerned. But we don’t, so we aren’t.
- Five of Jeremy Warner’s ‘threats’ are inextricably linked. The pending normalisation of monetary policy in the UK and US clearly threatens the integrity of the credit markets. It’s worth asking whether either central bank could possibly afford to let interest rates rise. This begets a follow-on question: could the markets afford to let the central banks off the hook ? Could we, in other words, finally see the return of the long absent and much desired bond market vigilantes ? That monetary policy rates are so low is a function of the growing prospect of euro zone deflation (less of a threat to solvent consumers, but deadly for heavily indebted governments). Absent a capitulation by the Bundesbank to Draghi’s hopes or intentions for full-blown QE, it’s difficult to see how the policy log-jam gets resolved. But since all German government paper out to three years now offers a negative yield, it’s difficult to see why any euro zone debt is worth buying today for risk-conscious investors. Cash is probably preferable and gives optionality into the bargain. ‘Secular stagnation’ is now a fair definition of the euro zone’s economic prospects. But all things lead back to Warner’s point 7: the size of the debt overhang. Since this was never addressed in the immediate aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, it’s hardly a surprise to see its poison continue to drip onto all things financial. And since the policy response has been to slash rates and keep them at multi-century lows, it’s hardly a surprise to see property prices in the ascendant.
- Complacent markets ? Check. But stocks have lost a lot of their nerve over the last week. Not before time.
- Ageing populations ? Yes, but this problem has been widely discussed in the investment community over the past two decades – it simply isn’t new news.
We saw one particularly eye-catching chart last week, via Grant Williams, comparing the leverage ratios of major US financial institutions over recent years (shown below).
Source: Grant Williams, ‘Things that make you go Hmmm…’
The Fed’s leverage ratio (total assets to capital) now stands at just under 80x. That compares with Lehman Brothers’ leverage ratio, just before it went bankrupt, of just under 30x. Sometimes a picture really does paint a thousand words. And this, again, brings us back to the defining problem of our time, as we see it: too much debt in the system, and simply not enough ideas about how to bring it down – other than through inflationism, and even that doesn’t seem to be working quite yet.
In a recent interview with Jim Grant, Sprott Global questioned the famed interest rate observer about the likely outlook for bonds:
“What would a bear market in bonds look like? Would it be accompanied by a bear market in the stocks?
“Well, we have a pretty good historical record of what a bear market in bonds would look like. We had one in modern history, from 1946 to 1981. We had 25 years’ worth of persistently – if not steadily – rising interest rates, and falling bond prices. It began with only around a quarter of a percent on long-dates US Treasuries, and ended with about 15% on long-dated US Treasuries. That’s one historical beacon. I think that the difference today might be that the movement up in yield, and down in price, might be more violent than it was during the first ten years of the bear market beginning in about 1946. Then, it took about ten years for yields to advance even 100 basis points, if I remember correctly. One difference today is the nature of the bond market. It is increasingly illiquid and it is a market in which investors – many investors – have the right to enter a sales ticket, and to expect their money within a day. So I’m not sure what a bear market would look like, but I think that it would be characterized at first by a lot of people rushing through a very narrow gate. I think problems with illiquidity would surface in the corporate debt markets. One of the unintended consequences of the financial reforms that followed the sorrows of 2007 to 2009 is that dealers who used to hold a lot of corporate debt in inventories no longer do so. If interest rates began to rise and people wanted out, I think that the corporate debt market would encounter a lot of ‘air pockets’ and a lot of very discontinuous action to the downside.”
We like that phrase “a lot of very discontinuous action to the downside”. Grant was also asked if it was possible for the Fed to lose control of the bond market:
“Absolutely, it could. The Fed does not control events for the most part. Events certainly will end up controlling the Fed. To answer your question – yeah. I think the Fed can and will lose control of the bond market.”
As we have written on innumerable prior occasions, we wholeheartedly agree. Geopolitics, energy prices, demographics – all interesting ‘what if’ parlour games. But what will drive pretty much all asset markets over the near, medium and longer term is almost entirely down to how credit markets behave. The fundamentals, clearly, are utterly shocking. The implications for investors are, in our view, clear. And as a wise investor once observed, if you’re going to panic, panic early.
“There are two ways of learning how to ride a fractious horse; one is to get on him and learn by actual practice how each motion and trick may be best met; the other is to sit on a fence and watch the beast a while, and then retire to the house and at leisure figure out the best way of overcoming his jumps and kicks. The latter system is the safest; but the former, on the whole, turns out the larger proportion of good riders. It is very much the same in learning to ride a flying machine; if you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds, but if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.”
“So, too, for the stock market. It is easy to study stock tables in solitude from the comfort of your office and declare the market efficient. Or you can be a full-time investor for a number of years and, if your eyes are open, learn that it is not. As with the Wrights, the burden of proof is somehow made to fall on the practitioner to demonstrate that he or she has accomplished something the so-called experts said could not be done (and even he may find himself explained away as aberrational). Almost none of the burden seems to fall on the armchair academics, who cling to their theories even in the face of strong evidence that they are wrong.”
Days of miracle and wonder in the bond markets.. but not necessarily in any good way. Last week we highlighted the seeming anomaly that even as there has never been so much debt in the history of the world, it has also never been so expensive. Between 2000 and 2013, the value of outstanding tradeable debt rose from $33 trillion to $100 trillion, according to research from Incrementum AG. (Over the same period, total equity market capitalisation rose “merely” from $49 trillion to $66 trillion.) Although we would suggest there is now no semblance of traditional value in conventional government debt whatsoever, it could yet get more expensive still.
Albert Edwards of SocGen deserves some credit for maintaining his ‘Ice Age’ thesis over a sustained period of widespread scepticism from other market participants. He summarises it as follows:
“First, that the West would drift ever closer to outright deflation, following Japan’s template a decade earlier. And second, financial markets would adjust in the same way as in Japan. Government bonds would re-rate in absolute and relative terms compared to equities, which would also de-rate in absolute terms..
“Another associated element of the Ice Age we also saw in Japan is that with each cyclical upturn, equity investors have assumed with child-like innocence that central banks have somehow ‘fixed’ the problem and we were back in a self-sustaining recovery. These hopes would only be crushed as the next cyclical downturn took inflation, bond yields and equity valuations to new destructive lows. In the Ice Age, hope is the biggest enemy..
“Investors are beginning to see how impotent the Fed and ECB’s efforts are to prevent deflation. And as the scales lift from their eyes, equity, credit and other risk assets trading at extraordinarily high valuations will take their next Ice Age stride towards the final denouement.”
It is certainly staggering that even after expanding its balance sheet by $3.5 trillion, the Fed has been unable to trigger visible price inflation in anything other than financial assets. One dreads to contemplate the scale of the altogether less visible private sector deleveraging that has cancelled it out. One notes that while bonds are behaving precisely in line with the Ice Age thesis, stock markets – by and large – are not quite following the plot. But there were signs last week that they may finally have got a copy of the script.
The tragedy of our times, unfolding slowly but surely via ever-lower bond yields, is that there is a vacuum at the heart of the political process where bold action – not least to grasp the debt nettle – should reside. Since nature abhors the vacuum, central bankers have filled it. They say that to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a central banker facing the prospect of outright deflation, the answer to everything is the printing of ex nihilo money and the manipulation of financial asset prices. The by-product of these malign trends is that it makes rational investment and asset allocation, indeed more narrowly the pursuit of real capital preservation, impossible.
Since the integrity of the debt (and currency) markets is clearly at risk, we have long sought alternatives that offer much diminished credit and counterparty risk. The time-honoured alternative has been gold. As the chart below (via Nick Laird) shows, between 2000 and 2011, gold
tracked the expansion in US debt pretty handily. In 2008 and then in 2011/2012 gold became overextended relative to US debt. Beginning in 2013 gold then decoupled in the opposite direction. As things stand today, if one expects that relationship to resume – and we do – then gold looks anomalously cheap relative to the gross level of US debt, which clearly is not going to contract any time soon.
A second rationale for holding gold takes into account the balance sheet expansion of the broader universe of central banks:
If one accepts that gold is not merely an industrial commodity but an alternative form of money (and central banks clearly do, or they would not be holding it in the form of reserves), than it clearly makes sense to favour a money whose supply is growing at 1.5% per annum over monies whose supply is growing at between 8% and 20% per annum. It then merely comes down to biding one’s time and waiting for Albert Edwards’ “final denouement” (or simply the next phase of the global financial crisis that never really went away).
Two recent tweets from George Cooper on the topic of bond investing are also worthy of republication here:
“The combination of indexing / rating agencies and syndication means that collectively the investment industry does not provide effective discipline to borrowers.”
This is a clear example of market failure brought about by institutional fund managers and the consultants that “guide” their institutional investor clients. There is simply no punishment for ill-disciplined government borrowers (i.e., all of them). To put it another way, where have the bond vigilantes gone ? And,
“The best thing the ECB could do here is state clearly that it has reached the limit of monetary policy and the rest is up to politicians.”
It is not as if politicians asleep at the wheel have gone entirely unnoticed. Two high-profile reports have been published this year drawing attention to the debt problems gnawing away at the economic vitality of the West. Perhaps the most damning response to date has come from the euro zone’s pre-eminent political cynic, Jean-Claude Juncker:
“We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”
No discussion of the bond market could possibly be complete without a brief mention of the defenestration of the so-called ‘Bond King’, Bill Gross, from Pimco. For the benefit of anyone living under a rock these past weeks, the manager of the world’s largest bond fund jumped ship before he could be shoved overboard. Pimco’s owners, Allianz, must surely regret having allowed so much power to be centralised in the form of one single ‘star’ manager. In a messy transfer that nobody came out of well, Janus Capital announced that Bill Gross would be joining to run a start-up bond fund, before he had even announced his resignation from Pimco (but then Janus was a two-faced god). This was deliriously tacky behaviour from within a normally staid backwater of the financial markets. Some financial media reported this as a ‘David vs Goliath’ story; in reality it is anything but. The story can be more accurately summarised as ‘Bond fund manager leaves gigantic asset gatherer for other gigantic asset gatherer’ (Janus Capital’s $178 billion in client capital being hardly small potatoes). This is barely about asset management in the truest, aspirational sense of the phrase. This writer recalls the giddy marketing of a particularly new economy-oriented growth vehicle called the ‘Janus Twenty’ fund in the UK back in 2000. Between March 2000 and September 2001, that particular growth vehicle lost 63% of its value. Faddish opportunism is clearly still alive and well. This gross behaviour may mark a market top for bonds, but probably not. But it’s difficult to shake off the suspicion that navigating the bond markets profitably over the coming months will require almost supernatural powers in second-guessing both central banks and one’s peers – especially if doing so on an indexed basis. For what it’s worth this is a game we won’t even bother playing. Our pursuit of the rational alternative – compelling deep value in equity markets – continues.
“Sir, So Ed Miliband “forgot” to mention the deficit. This from a man who was a key member of the team that ran up a massive structural debt pile when the UK should have been enjoying a cyclical surplus. He was part of a Labour administration that took the UK economy to the brink of effective bankruptcy. Yet less than five years on, as we still struggle to deal with the toxic mess that he and his colleagues left behind, he “forgot” to mention it. This surely ranks alongside “the dog ate my homework” for feeble and unbelievable excuses for non-performance of basic required tasks.”
“Politicians and diapers have one thing in common. They should both be changed regularly, and for the same reason.”
It should be striking that government bonds, in nominal terms, have never been this expensive in history, even as there have never been so many of them. The laws of supply and demand would seem to have been repealed. How could this state of affairs have come about ? We think the answer is three-fold:
The bond market is clearly not perfectly efficient.
Bond yields are being manipulated by central banks through a deliberate policy of financial repression (and QE, of course).
Many bond fund managers may be unaware, or unconcerned, that the benchmarks against which they choose to be assessed are illogical and irrational.
What might substantiate our third claim ? It would be the festering intellectual plague that bedevils the fund management world known as indexation. Bond indices allocate their largest weights to the most indebted issuers. This is the precise opposite of what any rational bond investor would do – namely, to overweight their portfolio according to those issuers with the highest credit quality (or perhaps, all things being equal, with the highest yields). But bond indices do exactly the opposite. They force any manager witless enough to have fallen victim to them to load up on the most heavily indebted issuers, which currently also happen to offer amongst the puniest nominal yields. As evidence for the prosecution we cite the US Treasury bond market, the world’s largest. The US national debt currently stands at $17.7 trillion. With a ‘T’. Benchmark 10 year Treasuries currently offer a yield to maturity of 2.5%. US consumer price inflation currently stands at 1.7%. (We offer no opinion as to whether US CPI is a fair reflection of US inflation.) On the basis that US “inflation” doesn’t change meaningfully over the next 10 years, US bond investors are going to earn an annualised return just a smidgen above zero percent.
How do US Treasury yields stack up against the longer term trend in interest rates ? The following data are from @Macro_Tourist:
10 year US Treasury yields since 1791
The chart shows the direction of travel for US market rates since independence, given that the Continental Congress defaulted on its debts.
Now it may well be that US Treasury yields have further to fall. As SocGen’s Albert Edwards puts it,
“Our ‘Ice Age’ thesis has long called for sub-1% bond yields and I see this extending to the US and UK in due course.”
As things stand, the trend is with the polar bears. The German bond market has already broken down through the 1% level (10 year Bunds at the time of writing currently trade at 0.98%).
Deutsche Bank Research – specifically Jim Reid, Nick Burns and Seb Barker – recently published an extensive examination of global debt markets (“Bonds: the final bubble frontier ?” – hat tip to Arnaud Gandon of Heptagon Capital). Deutsche’s strategists ask whether bonds constitute the culminating financial bubble after almost two decades of them:
“After the Asian / Russian / LTCM crises of the late 1990s we entered a supercycle of very aggressive policy responses to major global problems. In turn this helped encourage the 2000 equity bubble, the 2007 housing / financial / debt bubble, the 2010-2012 Euro Sovereign crisis and arguably some recent signs of a China credit bubble (a theme we discussed in our 2014 Default Study). At no point have the imbalances been allowed a full free market conclusion. Aggressive intervention has merely pushed the bubble elsewhere. With no obvious areas left to inflate in the private sector, these bubbles have now arguably moved into government and central bank balance sheets with unparalleled intervention and low growth allowing it to coincide with ultra-low bond yields.” [Emphasis ours.]
The French statesman George Clemenceau once commented that war is too important to be left to generals. At this stage in the game one might be tempted to add that monetary policy is far too important to be left to politicians and central bankers. We get by with free markets in all other walks of economic and financial life – why let the price of money itself be dictated by a handful of State-appointed bureaucrats ? We were once told by a fund manager (a Japanese equity manager, to be precise – rare breed that that is now), around the turn of the millennium, that Japan would be the dress rehearsal, and that the rest of the world would be the main event. Again, the volume of the mood music is rising in SocGen’s favour.
We nurse no particular view in relation to how the government bond bubble (for it surely is) plays out – whether yields grind relentlessly lower for some time yet, or whether they burst spectacularly on the back of the overdue return of bond market vigilantes or some other mystical manifestation of long-delayed economic common sense. But Warren Buffett himself once said that,
“If you’ve been playing poker for half an hour and you still don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy.”
The central bank bond market poker game has been in train for a good deal longer than half an hour, and the stakes have never been higher. Sometimes, if you simply can’t fathom the new rules of the game, it’s surely better not to play. So we’re not in the business of chasing US Treasury yields, or Gilt yields, or Bund yields, ever lower – we’ll keep our bond exposure limited to only the highest quality credits yielding the highest possible return. Even then, if Fed tapering does finally dissipate in favour of Fed hiking – stranger things have happened, though we can’t think of any off the top of our head – it will make sense at the appropriate time to eliminate conventional debt instruments from client portfolios almost entirely.
But indexation madness is not limited to the world of bonds. Its malign, unthinking mental slavery has fixed itself upon the equity markets, too. Equity indices, as is widely acknowledged, allocate their largest weights to the largest and most expensive stocks. What’s extraordinary is that even as stock markets have powered ahead, index trackers have enjoyed their highest ever inflows. The latest IMA data show that more UK retail money was put into tracker funds in July than in any other month since records began. We accept the ‘low cost’ aspect of tracker funds and ETFs; we take serious issue with the idea of buying stock markets close to or at their all-time high and being in for any downside ride on a 1:1 basis.
But there is a middle way between the Scylla of bonds at all-time low yields and the Charybdis of stocks at all-time high prices. Value. Seth Klarman of the Baupost Group once wrote as follows:
“Stock market efficiency is an elegant hypothesis that bears quite limited resemblance to the real world. For over half a century, disciples of Benjamin Graham, the intellectual father of value investing, have prospered buying bargains that efficient market theory says should not exist. They take advantage of the short-term, relative performance orientation of other investors. They employ an absolute (not relative) valuation compass, patiently exploiting mispricings while avoiding overpaying for what is popular and trendy. Many are willing to concentrate their exposures, knowing that their few best ideas are better than their hundredth best, and confident in their ability to tell which is which.
“Value investors thrive not by incurring high risk (as financial theory would suggest), but by deliberately avoiding or hedging the risks they identify. While efficient market theorists tell you to calculate the beta of a stock to determine its riskiness, most value investors have never calculated a beta. Efficient market theory advocates moving a portfolio of holdings closer to the efficient frontier. Most value investors have no idea what this is or how they might accomplish such a move. This is because financial market theory may be elegant, but it is not particularly useful in formulating a successful investment strategy.
“If academics espousing the efficient market theory had no influence, their flawed views would make little difference. But, in fact, their thinking is mainstream and millions of investors make their decisions based on the supposition that owning stocks, regardless of valuation and analysis, is safe and reasonable. Academics train hundreds of thousands of students each year, many of whom go to Wall Street and corporate suites espousing these beliefs. Because so many have been taught that outperforming the market is impossible and that stocks are always fairly and efficiently priced, investors have increasingly adopted strategies that eventually will prove both riskier and far less rewarding than they are currently able to comprehend.”
That sounds about right to us. Conventional investing, both in stocks and bonds on an indexed or benchmarked basis, “will prove both riskier and far less rewarding” than many investors are currently able to comprehend.
Last year markets behaved nervously on rumours that QE3 would be tapered; this year we have lived with the fact. It turned out that there has been little or no damage to markets, with bond yields at historic lows and equity markets hitting new highs.
This contrasts with the ending of QE1 and QE2, which were marked by falls in the S&P 500 Index of 9% and 11.6% respectively. Presumably the introduction of twist followed by QE3 was designed at least in part to return financial assets to a rising price trend, and tapering has been consistent with this strategy.
From a monetary point of view there is only a loose correlation between the growth of fiat money as measured by the Fiat Money Quantity, and monthly bond-buying by the Fed. FMQ is unique in that it specifically seeks to measure the quantity of fiat money created on the back of gold originally given to the commercial banks by our forebears in return for money substitutes and deposit guarantees. This gold, in the case of Americans’ forebears, was then handed to the Fed by these commercial banks after the Federal Reserve System was created. Subsequently gold has always been acquired by the Fed in return for fiat dollars. FMQ is therefore the sum of cash plus instant access bank accounts and commercial bank assets held at the Fed.
The chart below shows monthly increases in the Fed’s asset purchases and of changes in FMQ.
The reason I take twice the monthly Fed purchases is that they are recorded twice in FMQ. The chart shows that the creation of fiat money continues without QE. That being the case, QE has less to do with stimulating the economy (which it has failed to do) and is more about funding government borrowing.
Thanks to the Fed’s monetary policies, which have encouraged an increase in demand for US Treasuries, the Federal government no longer has a problem funding its deficit. QE is therefore redundant, and has been since tapering was first mooted. This does not mean that QE is going to be abandoned forever: its re-introduction will depend on the relationship between the government’s borrowing needs and market demand for its debt.
This analysis is confirmed by Japan’s current situation. There, QE coincides with an economy that is deteriorating by the day. One cannot argue that QE has been good for the Japanese economy. The reality behind “abenomics” is that Japan’s government is funding a massive deficit at the same time as savers are drawing down capital to cover their day-to-day living requirements. In short, the funding gap is being covered by printing money. And now the collapsing yen, which is the inevitable consequence of monetary inflation, threatens to expose this folly.
On a final note, there appears to be complacency in capital markets about government deficits. A correction in bond markets will inevitably occur at some point and severely disrupt government fund-raising. If and when this occurs, and given that it is now obvious to everyone that QE does nothing for economic growth, it will be hard to re-introduce it as a disguised funding mechanism for governments without undermining market confidence.