“Not Clear What That Means”

By Doug Noland

Credit Bubble Bulletin: “Not Clear What That Means”

November 15 – Bloomberg (Nishant Kumar and Suzy Waite): “Hedge-fund manager David Einhorn said the problems that caused the global financial crisis a decade ago still haven’t been resolved. ‘Have we learned our lesson? It depends what the lesson was…’ Einhorn said he identified several issues at the time of the crisis, including the fact that institutions that could have gone under were deemed too big to fail. The scarcity of major credit-rating agencies was and remains a factor, Einhorn said, while problems in the derivatives market ‘could have been dealt with differently.’ And in the ‘so-called structured-credit market, risk was transferred, but not really being transferred, and not properly valued.’ ‘If you took all of the obvious problems from the financial crisis, we kind of solved none of them,’ Einhorn said… Instead, the world ‘went the bailout route.’ ‘We sweep as much under the rug as we can and move on as quickly as we can,’ he said.”

October 12 – ANSA: “European Central Bank President Mario Draghi defended quantitative easing at a conference with former Fed chief Ben Bernanke, saying the policy had helped create seven million jobs in four years. Bernanke chided the idea that QE distorted the markets, saying ‘It’s not clear what that means’.”

Once you provide a benefit it’s just very difficult to take it way. This sure seems to have become a bigger and more complex issue than it had been in the past. Taking away benefits is certainly front and center in contentious Washington with tax and healthcare reform. It is fundamental to the dilemma confronting central bankers these days.

As I read David Einhorn’s above analysis, my thoughts returned to Ben Bernanke’s comment last month regarding distorted markets: “It’s Not Clear What That Means.” Einhorn attended one of those paid dinners with Bernanke back in 2014, and then shared thoughts on Bloomberg television: “I got to ask him all these questions that had been on my mind for a very long period of time. And then on the other side, it was, like, sort of frightening, because the answers weren’t any better than I thought that they might be.” A successful hedge fund manager such a Mr. Einhorn is keen to decipher market distortions. Dr. Bernanke was keen to benefit markets – to inflate them.

During the mortgage finance Bubble period, I often referred to “The Moneyness of Credit” and “Wall Street Alchemy.” Various risk intermediation processes were basically transforming endless (increasingly) risky loans into perceived safe and liquid money-like instruments. Throughout history, insatiable demand for money created great power and peril. I can’t conceptualize a more far-reaching market distortion than conferring money attributes to risky financial instruments. Pandora’s Box. For a while now, I’ve been astounded that the Federal Reserve has no issue with epic market distortions.

Fannie and Freddie were on the hook for insuring Trillions of mortgage securities. These GSEs essentially had no reserves or equity in the event of a significant downturn, a fact that had no bearing whatsoever on the safe haven pricing of their perceived money-like securities. Insurers of Credit were on the hook for Trillions, with minimal reserves. So, investors held (and leveraged) Trillions of “AAA” with little concern for losses or illiquid trading. Meanwhile, there was the gargantuan derivatives marketplace thriving on the assumption of liquid and continuous markets, despite hundreds of years of market history replete with recurring bouts of illiquidity and dislocation.

There were as well myriad variations of cheap market “insurance” readily available, bolstering risk-taking with the misperception that risks (equities, Credit, interest-rates, etc.) could always be easily hedged. And so long as Credit expanded rapidly (risky loans into “money”), the economy boomed and markets inflated, the pricing for market insurance remained low (or went lower).

As Einhorn stated, “risk was transferred, but not really being transferred, and not properly valued.” It amounted to a historic market Bubble distortion. Underlying risks were being grossly distorted and mispriced in the marketplace. Distortions fostered a massive expansion of risky Credit and untenable financial intermediation – a powerful boom and bust dynamic that culminated in a crash. Amazingly, catastrophic market distortions evolved gradually enough over years so to barely garnered attention. Can’t worry about risk when there’s easy “money” to amass.

Central bankers learned the wrong lessons from that modern-day market crisis. The post-crisis focus was on traditional lending and bank capital. As the thinking goes, so long as banks avoid reckless lending and remain well-capitalized, the risk of a repeat crisis remains negligible. Central banks did come to appreciate the risk of institutional Too Big to Fail, but again the solution was additional bank capital. Market distortions behind the Bubble and crash didn’t even enter into the discussion. Indeed, the Fed moved aggressively to reflate market prices, employing various measures that specifically manipulated market perceptions, prices and dynamics. There was no recognition that this course would elevate the entire structure of global market Bubbles to Too Big to Fail.

“Moneyness of Credit” evolved into the “Moneyness of Risk Assets.” It moved so far beyond Fannie, Freddie, and Wall Street structured finance distorting perceptions of risk in mortgage securities. The Federal Reserve and global central bankers turned to brazenly distorting risk perceptions throughout equities, corporate Credit, sovereign debt, EM and the rest. Slash rates and force savers into the risk asset marketplace. Inject new “money” into the securities markets and guarantee liquid, continuous and levitated markets. Who wouldn’t write flood insurance during a predetermined drought? And then, why not reach for risk, speculate and leverage with prices rising and market insurance remaining so cheap? History’s Greatest Market Distortions.

The VIX ended Friday’s session at 11.43, only somewhat above recent historic lows. The Fed is only a few weeks from what will likely be its fifth “tightening” move of this cycle. And with rather conspicuous market excesses facing a tightening cycle, why does market insurance remain so cheap? For one, markets assume that central bankers will not actually impose a tightening of market or financial conditions. Second, the greater risk asset Bubbles inflate the more confident the markets become that central bankers have no alternative than to backstop market liquidity and prices.

“The West will never allow a Russian collapse.” Then, after the LTCM bailout and the “committee to save the world,” the powers that be would surely not allow a crisis in 1999. Then it was “Washington will never allow a housing bust.” Later it was 2008 as the “100-year flood.” Global central bankers will simply not tolerate another crisis. And it is always these types of pervasive market misperceptions that ensure far-reaching distortions – risk-taking, lending, speculating, leveraging, investing, etc. – that inevitably ensure problematic market “adjustments.”

One of the Capitalism’s great virtues is the capacity for a well-functioning pricing mechanism to promote self-adjustment and self-correction. And I would argue that the pricing of finance is absolutely critical to system adjustment and sustainability. Increasing demands for finance should induce higher borrowing costs that work to temper demand. But the proliferation of non-traditional non-bank and market-based finance essentially generates unlimited supply. It may have been subtle, though consequences were earth-shattering.

With Wall Street intermediation leading the charge, the mortgage finance Bubble period experienced a huge surge in demand for Credit accommodated at declining borrowing costs. This was transformative particularly for home and securities price inflation dynamics, where rising asset prices generally tend to incite heightened speculative demand. The critical pricing mechanisms that promote self-adjustment and correction became inoperable.

There is a special place in market hell for long-term price distortions. Given sufficient time, an enterprising Wall Street will ensure a proliferation of new products and strategies meant to profit from upward price trends and ingrained market perceptions. As central banks punished savers and “helped” the markets with low rates, QE and liquidity assurances, The Street ensured an onslaught of enticing new investment vehicles and approaches. Why not just buy a corporate Credit ETF instead of holding zero-rate deposits or T-bills? Of course it’s perfectly rational to own equities index ETFs, especially with central bankers ensuring underperformance by active managers conscious of risk. And after a number of years, with markets booming and economies humming along, don’t fundamentals beckon for participating in the junk bond ETF bonanza?

From my perspective, there are two key areas where central banker-induced market distortions have been precariously exacerbated by (fed and fed by) structural developments. First, the perception of “moneyness” has spurred Trillions of flows into the ETF complex. Indeed, the perception of safety and liquidity has created a structural vulnerability to a destabilizing reversal of flows. Everyone perceives they can easily – and almost instantaneously – get out of the market with a couple mouse clicks. And in a rehash of Wall Street Alchemy, hundreds of billions (Trillions?) of illiquid securities have been intermediated through the ETF complex – transformed into perceived liquid ETF shares. This has been a particularly momentous development for corporate Credit and critical as well for mid- and small cap equities.

A second perilous structural development has been within the Wild West of Derivatives. The perception that there are no limits to what central bankers will do to bolster the markets has fostered an explosion of derivative strategies – variations of writing market protection or “selling flood insurance during a drought”. The availability of cheap risk protection became fundamental to financial excess on a systemic basis.

I would add, as well, that over the years a powerful interplay has evolved between the ETF complex and derivatives markets. The perception of highly liquid ETF shares – especially in corporate Credit and liquidity-challenged equities – has been integral to “dynamic” derivative hedging strategies. Why not leverage in corporate Credit and outperforming small cap stocks when cheap derivative protection is so readily available? Better yet, why not leverage a “diversified” portfolio of multiple asset classes (i.e. “risk parity”)? And, likewise, why not garner easy returns from selling such insurance on the low-probability of a market decline? After all, liquid markets in ETF shares are available for shorting in the unlikely event the seller of market protection decides to hedge risk.

November 17 – CNBC (Jeff Cox): “Though stock market prices have held up in November, investors generally are running from risk at a near-record pace. Judging from the flow of money out of high-yield bonds, investors are getting increasingly leery of a market that continues to hover around record levels, despite a handful of rough trading sessions in November and a rocky start Friday. Funds that track junk bonds saw $6.8 billion of outflows over the past week through Wednesday, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch. That’s the third-highest on record.”

Just a very interesting week in the markets. There was a Risk Off feel to junk bond flows. Risk aversion also appeared to be gaining some momentum early in the week. The S&P500 fell to a two-week low in early-Wednesday trading, confirmed by a safe haven bid to Treasuries. Equities then rallied sharply Thursday, in what appeared a habitual final jam prior to option expiration (conveniently crushing the value of puts). For the week, the safe haven yen gained 1.1%, while the euro increased 1.1% and the Swiss franc rose 0.7%. Gold gained 1.5%. The Treasury yield curve flattened notably, with two-year yields up seven bps and ten-year yields down five bps (62 bps spread a 10-year low).

There were other dynamics not necessarily inconsistent with incipient Risk Off. The small caps rallied 1.2% this week. There also appeared a squeeze in some of the popularly shorted stocks and sectors. The Retail Sector ETF (XRT) surged 3.9%. Footlocker jumped 34.5% and Abercrombie & Fitch rose 23.8%. And speaking of popular shorts, Mattel jumped 27.8% and Buffalo Wild Wings gained 16.3%.

It would not be extraordinary for a market to succumb to Risk Off at the conclusion of a short squeeze. In the initial phase of Risk Off, the leveraged speculating community pares back both longs and shorts. The upward bias on popular short positions fuels disappointing performance generally on the short side, spurring short covering, frustration and position adjustments. The market had that kind of feel this week. Definitely some instability beneath the markets’ surface, while complacency generally held sway.

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