By Bob Hoye
By Doug Noland
Credit Bubble Bulletin: Q1: Sure Bets That Weren’t
An intriguing first quarter. The year began with bullish exuberance for the Trump policy agenda. With the GOP finally in control of Washington, there was now little in the way of healthcare reform, tax cuts/reform, infrastructure spending and a full-court press against regulation. As Q1 drew to a close, by most accounts our new Executive Branch is a mess – the old Washington swamp as stinky a morass as ever. And, in spite of it all, the global bull market marched on undeterred. Everyone’s still dancing. From my perspective, there’s confirmation that the risk market rally has been more about rampant global liquidity excess and speculative Market Dynamics than prospects for U.S. policy change.
It’s not as if market developments unfolded as anticipated. Key “Trump trades” stumbled – longs and shorts across various markets. The overly Crowded king dollar faltered, with the Dollar Index down 2.0% during Q1. The Mexican peso reversed course and ended the quarter up 10.6% versus the dollar, at the top of the global currency leaderboard. The Japanese yen – another popular short and a key funding instrument for global carry trades – jumped 5% . China’s renminbi gained 0.84% versus the dollar. WSJ headline: “A Soaring Dollar and Falling Yuan: The Sure Bets That Weren’t”
Shorting Treasuries was another Trump Trade Sure Bet That Wasn’t. And while 10-year yields jumped to a high of 2.63% on March 13, yields ended the quarter down six bps from yearend to 2.39%. Despite a less dovish Fed, a hike pushed forward to March, and even talk of shrinking the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet – bond yields were notably sticky. Corporate debt enjoyed a solid quarter. Investment grade bonds (LQD) gained 1.2% during the quarter, with high-yield (HYG) returning 2.3%.
The S&P500 gained 5.5% during Q1. And while most were positioned bullishly, I suspect many hedge funds (and fund managers generally) will be disappointed with Q1 performance. There was considerable Trump Trade enthusiasm for the higher beta small caps and broader market. Badly lagging the S&P500, it took a 2.3% rise in the final week of the quarter to see the small cap Russell 2000 rise 2.1% in Q1. The mid caps (MID) were only somewhat better, rising 3.6%.
Technology stocks had been low on the list of Trump Trades going into the quarter, perhaps helping to explain a gangbuster Q1 in the markets. The popular QQQ ETF (Nasdaq100) returned 12.0% during Q1. The Morgan Stanley High Tech index rose 13.5%, and the Semiconductors jumped 11.6%. The Biotechs (BTK) surged 16.0%.
A Trump Trade darling entering 2017, the financials struggled during Q1. March’s 4.0% decline reduced the bank stocks’ (BKX) Q1 gain to an unimpressive 0.3%. Somewhat lagging the S&P500, the broker/dealers (XBD) posted a 5.4% Q1 advance. The NYSE Financial Index gained 3.7%, while the Nasdaq Bank Index dropped 3.1%.
King dollar bullishness had investors underweight the emerging markets (EM) going into 2017. A weakening dollar coupled with huge January Chinese Credit growth helped spur a decent EM short squeeze. Outperformance then attracted the performance-chasing Crowd. By the end of March, EM (EEM up 12.5%) had enjoyed the best quarter in five years (from FT).
By Joseph Calhoun of Alhambra
There is no change to the risk budget this month. For the moderate risk investor, the allocation between risk assets and bonds is unchanged at 50/50.
The Fed spent the last month forward guiding the market to the rate hike they implemented today. Interest rates, real and nominal, moved up in anticipation of a more aggressive Fed rate hiking cycle. Post meeting, a lot of the rise came out of the market. Nominal and real 10 year Treasury rates dropped by an identical 11 basis points on the day. Rates fell at the short end too as the yield curve shifted lower but didn’t flatten significantly. The market was looking for a big change in the Fed’s growth and inflation expectations and the dots basically didn’t move. Long term growth expectations are still 1.8-2.0% and inflation expectations were unchanged at 2.0% on the PCE deflator.
Just as or maybe more important was the emphasis in the statement on its “symmetric” inflation target. Rather than say, as they did in the last statement, that inflation was expected to “rise to 2% over the medium term”, the Fed now says “inflation will stabilize around 2%”. I know it seems like a minor change but what it means is that the Fed isn’t going to get too excited if the inflation rate goes above 2% for a period of time. They further emphasized the point by saying:
The stance of monetary policy remains accommodative, thereby supporting some further strengthening in labor market conditions and a return to 2 percent inflation.
What all the language changes mean is the Fed isn’t really shifting to a more hawkish stance and that rate hikes will not be coming fast and furious this year. The dot plot indicates the Fed still expects two more hikes this year. The market was starting to price in four (today’s plus two more) and that had to come out of the market after the meeting. This was the most dovish rate hike in the history of rate hikes. Greenspan’s old conundrum was that long term rates weren’t rising as the Fed hiked. The conundrum today is that even short term rates aren’t rising as the Fed hikes. Two year note yields are right back to where they were after the December rate hike.
The post-FOMC moves today were very beneficial for our allocation. Obviously, the move in bonds was beneficial as we are overweight bonds in our moderate risk portfolio. We also have more duration in our bond allocation than most firms; we are much more wary of credit risk than duration risk. The indirect consequence of today’s meeting was felt in currency and commodity markets which was also beneficial. The dollar index fell hard after the announcement as the difference in growth expectations between the US and Europe continue to narrow. That pushed gold and other commodities higher along with commodity sector stocks, all of which are represented in our portfolio.
Overall, our indicators haven’t changed enough to warrant any changes to the allocation. The yield curve sits in the middle of its historic range, providing us with little guidance. Credit spreads narrowed, then started widening again and finished up a bit wider than the last update. But it wasn’t enough to trigger any action. Earnings were up in Q4 and may even be able to get a third consecutive quarter of improvement in Q1 but stock prices have once again outpaced actual earnings growth. In other words, valuations in the US are still sky high. As I’ve stated many times over the last couple of years, ex-US stocks are much cheaper and that is still true. Momentum isn’t telling us a lot either, certainly nothing that warrants a change in allocation.
Of all virtues to which we must ultimately aspire, forgiveness demands the most of our souls. In our naivety, we may fancy ourselves man or woman enough to absolve those who have wronged us. But far too often, we find our pool of grace has run dry. So deeply burdened are we by our emotions that grace to us is lost. How many of us have the strength of resolve to let bygones be gone for good? Those of the cloth recognize the damage self-inflicted scars sear into our souls as they seek to guide us through life’s most difficult journeys. They pray for our deliverance from a painful inner turmoil and with it the peace only forgiveness can convey.
None who have ever heard Don Henley’s The Heart of the Matter could be blamed for thinking divine inspiration itself came down from the heavens to spawn those longing lyrics. But it isn’t just the words that scorch their way into your memory, it’s Henley’s tone, the raw pain that pierces every time you’re caught off guard by the mournful ballad released in 1989. Henley sings of our feeble struggle as no other, grasping for our collective release in humility. “The more I know, the less I understand. All the things I thought I’d figured out, I have to learn again.” In the end, Henley hands down the cruelest of convictions: If you truly want to vanquish your demons, you must find the strength within to forgive.
Astute policymakers might be saying a few prayers of their own on fixed income investors’ behalves. The explosion in corporate bond issuance since credit markets unfroze in the aftermath of the financial crisis is nothing short of epic. Some issuers have been emboldened by the cheap cost of credit associated with their sturdy credit ratings. Those with less than stellar credit have been prodded by equally emboldened investors gasping for yield as they would an oasis in a desert. Forgiveness, it would seem, will be required of bond holders, possibly sooner than most of us imagine.
For whatever reason, we remain in a world acutely focused on credit ratings. It’s as if the mortgage market never ballooned to massive proportions and imploded under its own weight. In eerie echoes of the subprime mania, investors indulge on the comfort food of pristine credit ratings despite what’s staring them in the face – a credit market that’s become so obese as to threaten its own cardiac moment. It may take you by surprise, but the U.S. corporate bond market has more than doubled in the space of eight years. Consider that at year end 2008, high yield and investment grade bonds plus leveraged loans equaled $3.5 trillion. Today we’re staring down the barrel of an $8.1 trillion market.
The age-old question is, and remains: Does size matter?
Earlier this morning, I noted that the March (get it?) higher in US 2Y yields looks pretty amusing if you plot it against near record low German 2Y yields.
Indeed, as noted here on numerous occasions, there’s a push-pull dynamic between the US and Germany when it comes to global rates. Have a look:
Of course Schatz yields have blown out since hitting record lows late last week. Indeed, between hawkish Fed commentary, what counts as “upbeat” Trump messaging, and, importantly, rising inflation in Germany…
Willie Mays, Duke Snider and Ken Griffey, Jr.
It’s no secret that these bigger than life baseball players are all Hall of Fame legends. But what about Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels? Or the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen or Carlos Gomez of the Texas Rangers? What do all six of these greats have in common?
If you guessed that none of them were pitchers, you would definitely be on to something. If you’ve really been doing your homework in the preseason, you would patiently explain that all six were “complete ballplayers,” with above-average capabilities in hitting, hitting for power, fielding, throwing and running. If you wanted to show off, you could elaborate that each has at least three qualified recorded data points in one season in each of the five areas rendering them “five-tool players.” These are the well-rounded players of field scouts’ dreams.
The idea of this quintessential, albeit exceedingly rare player, harkens to another picture of perfection – the bond market. After peaking above 15 percent in 1981, the yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury fell in July of last year to a record low of 1.36 percent. That there is what we call the rally of a lifetime. A major contributor to the mountains of wealth that bonds have generated include the venerable inflation-fighting of one Paul Volcker. The three subsequent boom and bust cycles, largely engineered by Volcker’s successors at the Federal Reserve, each made their own contribution and brought greater and greater degrees of intervention to bear on the market and helped push yields lower and lower. In bondland, that translates to prices soaring higher and higher.
Over the years, the castigators were cast aside time and again. As for the few with steel constitutions, who quickly drew parallels between Japan’s intrusions and those of the Federal Reserve, let’s just say they can retire and rest in peace. They bought 30-year Treasury Strips and buried them, giving new meaning to the beauty of buy and hold. To keep the analogy alive, let’s say that at that juncture, the bond market was a four-tool player.
But then suddenly, last summer, something gave way.
Since July, the conventional wisdom has held that bond yields have finally troughed, bringing a denouement to the 35-year bull run. Of course, those comprising the consensus collided in arriving at their conclusions.
Market technicians, aka the chart-meisters, provide the simplest explanation. In 2016, the 10-year yield sunk below 2015’s low of 1.64 percent and rose above its high of 2.50 percent. Technicians refer to such boomerang behavior in short spaces of time as “outside events” that mark the beginning of the end of a cycle.
VaR shocks. Taper tantrums.
I talk about such things a lot. And with good reason.
Investors have a discernible tendency to dismiss discussions of cross-asset correlations as if the subject should be confined to jet propulsion laboratories. All the while, these very same investors fail to see the connection between cross-asset correlations and the simplest of simple investing concepts: the 60/40 stock-bond portfolio.
If you understand why a 60/40 stock-bond portfolio works, then you’re a fan of negative stock/bond return correlations or, alternatively, positive rates/stock correlations. You just didn’t know it.
One of the most reliable market dynamics since the late 90s is the negative stock/bond return correlation.
Indeed, the last several months (i.e. the post-election period) have shown, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you need this correlation to be negative in a rising rate environment.
The main concern here is simple: if rates rise to far, too fast, equities may interpret that as a risk-off signal. If that happens, you get a positive stock/bond return correlation or, alternatively, a negative rates/stock correlation. Then everything sells off at the same time.
For more on this, consider the following out earlier this month from Moody’s.
The February 1 FOMC meeting minutes noted two interrelated developments. First, the narrowing by “corporate bond spreads for both investment- and speculative-grade firms” to widths that “were near the bottom of their ranges of the past several years.” Secondly, some FOMC members were struck by how “the low level of implied volatility in equity markets appeared inconsistent with the considerable uncertainty attending the outlook for such policy initiatives.”
Thus, some high-ranking Fed officials sense that market participants are excessively confident in the timely implementation of policy changes that boost after-tax profits. And they may be right, according to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s recent comment that corporate tax reform legislation may not be passed until August 2017 at the earliest. The ongoing delay at remedying the Affordable Care Act warns of a possibly even longer wait for corporate tax reform and other fiscal stimulus measures.
Treasury bond yields declined in quick response to the increased likelihood of a longer wait for fiscal stimulus. Lower benchmark yields will lessen the equity market’s negative response to any downwardly revised outlook for after-tax profits. Provided that profits avoid a replay of their year-to-year contraction of the five quarters ended Q2-2016 and that interest rates do not jump, a deeper than -5% drop by the market value of US common stock should be avoided.
The importance of interest rates to a richly priced and supremely confident equity market cannot be overstated. In fact, the rationale for an unduly low VIX index found in the FOMC’s latest minutes contained a glaring error of omission. Inexplicably, no mention was made of how expectations of a mild and thus manageable rise by interest rates have helped to reduce the equity market’s perception of downside risk. An unexpectedly severe firming of Fed policy would doubtless send the VIX index higher in a hurry.
Celery and raspberry? Marathon miles of Sudoku and crossword puzzles? Extra reps at the gym? Binge away.
‘Tis the season after the season, that other most wonderful time of the year when it’s a challenge to get a machine at the gym and resolutions are resolute, at least until February or a more intriguing deal comes along. What better way to make amends for that huge holiday hangover that crescendos with so many a New Year’s Eve bash?
Some of us chose to ring in 2017 in a substantially more subdued manner that nevertheless entailed binging of a decidedly different derivation. Enter Netflix. Yours truly must confess that closet claustrophobia was the culprit in keeping this one indoors coveting the control, confining the choices to richly royal romps. It all started innocently enough, with a recommendation to catch The Crown, which has just won a Golden Globe. The devolution that followed began in Italy, with Medici, stopped over in France, with Versailles, and round tripped back to England, with the epic saga that kicked off the modern day, small screen genre, The Tudors. At some point hallucinations began to give the impression that all the series’ stars had British accents. Wait, they actually did.
Thankfully, at some point, bowl games snapped the spell and reality rudely reared its redemptive head before anyone’s else’s head rolled (those royals were a bloodthirsty lot!). Sleep and sanity followed.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of borrowers of almost every stripe these days. For those tapping the fixed income markets, the borrowing bingefest is conspicuous in its constancy. Not only did global bond issuance top $6.6 trillion last year, a fresh record, sales are off to a galloping start thus far in January.
In the lead are corporate bond sales, which accounted for $3.6 trillion of last year’s super sales. To not be outdone, investors ran a full out sprint in the new year’s first trading week, “shattering,” not breaking records, in the words of New Albion Partners’ Brian Reynolds. In the first three trading days of the year alone, investors bought $56 billion of new corporate bonds. Some context in the context of what’s been one record-breaking year after another in issuance:
“An average month in recent years would see investors buy about $130 billion of corporate bonds,” noted Reynolds. “Investors just bought more than 40 percent of that monthly average in just three trading days!”
For those of you who have ever had the pleasure of a good, long visit with Reynolds, he is anything but prone to using exclamation points. (!)
Copper Leads The Way Lower for Bond Yields
December 29, 2016
Just a week ago, China was facing a banking system crisis that necessitated an injection of 375 billion yuan ($53 billion) into the money market, and that was after the prior week’s injection of 250 billion yuan ($36 billion). But now, after Christmas has passed, the crisis seems to be abating. That is good news for bond prices worldwide, including in the U.S.
And the resolution was foretold by copper prices, which is the really cool part of this.
This week’s chart compares spot copper prices to the yield on the Chinese 10-year government bond. There is an obvious correlation, which is nice to know, but that is not what is interesting. Finding two data series which behave exactly like each other is terribly boring. There is no insight there. The fun comes when there are two data series that are almost the same, but one is slightly different, and that one gives insights about the other.
Such is the case with copper versus Chinese bond yields. It is also the case with gold prices measured in euros versus dollars, for example. When the two series disagree, one is the expert about where both are headed. Such is the case with copper prices foretelling moves in Chinese bond yields.
Most of the time, the two move together. But occasionally they disagree, as is the case just recently with copper prices refusing to confirm the higher Chinese bond yields. That was a tell that the Chinese bond rate blowoff was nearing an end.
If China’s yield melt-up is really all done, as copper suggests, then so should be the same melt-up in U.S. 10-year yields.
The two countries’ bond yields tend to dance the same dance steps, more or less. The U.S. 10-year yield has danced a little bit farther on this recent up move than China’s did. Accordingly, it has farther to fall back again on the reversal.
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|Sep 24, 2010
Gold Priced In Euros Pointing Downward
|Dec 10, 2016
Bonds and Gold in Unusual Correlation
|Nov 17, 2016
The quantitative fact, and not the story, is what matters: stocks now no longer offer an expectation of return in excess of the risk-free return
It hasn’t happened yet, but it is about to.
Not since just before the financial crisis has the expected 10-year real return from stocks been below the 10-year TIPS yield. But with TIPS selling off and stocks rallying, the numbers are virtually the same: both stocks, and TIPS, have an expected real return of about 0.70% per annum for the next 10 years.
A quick word about my method is appropriate because some analysts will consider this spread to already be negative. I use a method similar to that used by Arnott, Grantham, and other well-known ‘value’ investors: I add the dividend yield for equities to an estimate of long-run real economic growth, and then assume that cyclical multiples pull two-thirds of the way back to the long-run value, over ten years. (By comparison, Grantham assumes that multiples fully mean-revert, over seven years, so he will see stocks as even more expensive than I do – but the important point is that the method doesn’t change over time).
Somewhat trickier is the calculation of 10-year real yields before 1997, when TIPS were first issued. But we have a way to do that as well – a method much better than the old-fashioned approach of taking current ten-year yields and subtracting trailing 1-year inflation (used by many notables, including such names as Fama). That only matters because the chart I am about to show goes back to 1956, and so I know someone would ask where I got 10 year real yields prior to 1997.
The chart below (Source: Enduring Investments) shows the “real equity premium” – the expected real return of stocks, compared to the true risk-free asset at a 10-year horizon: 10-year TIPS.
The good news is that in this sense, stocks are not as expensive relatively as they were in the late 1990s, nor as expensive (although much closer) relatively as they were prior to the global financial crisis. Nor even as they were (although even closer) just prior to the 1987 stock market crash. Yay.