"Every wave, regardless of how high and forceful it crests, must eventually collapse within itself." - Stefan Zweig (1881-1942)
While chuckling about the gullibility of some investors pundits who were somewhat surprised by the Bank of Japan's latest move in implementing Negative Interest Rate Policy (NIRP), given as per the SNB move in 2015, they should know by now that central bankers always lie, we reminded ourselves The Third Wave experiment when thinking about our title analogy. While you might be already wondering why our title is the Ninth Wave and not the Third Wave experiment, it is fairly easy to explain.
The Third Wave experiment was conducted by school history teacher Ron Jones during the first week of April 1967 in Palo Alto in California in order to explain to his students how the German population came to accept the actions of the Nazi regime during World War II. Jones started a movement called "The Third Wave" and told his students that the movement aimed to eliminate democracy (in our central banks case: "interest paid"). Jones on the fourth day of the experiment (in similar fashion to current central banks' experiments with QEs and NIRP) quickly decided to terminate the movement because it was slipping out of his control. The experiment was all about explaining the rise of fascism. In our current environment, our central banker "deities" are indeed experimenting with some form of "fascism" with their intent in imposing "financial repression" and discipline to the markets, we think.
So, why our title?
Jones based the name of his movement, "The Third Wave", on the supposed fact that the third in a series of waves is the strongest, an erroneous version of an actual sailing tradition that every ninth wave is the largest, hence our chosen title.
But back in November 2011 we discussed a particular type of rogue wave called the three sisters that sank the Big Fitz - SS Edmund Fitzgerald, an analogy used by Grant Williams in one of John Mauldin's Outside the Box letter:
"In fact, we could go further into the analogy relating to the "three sisters" rogue waves that sank SS Edmund Fitzgerald - Big Fitz, given we are witnessing three sisters rogue waves in our European crisis, namely: Wave number 1 - Financial crisis Wave, number 2 - Sovereign crisis, Wave number 3 - Currency crisis. In relation to our previous post, the Peregrine soliton, being an analytic solution to the nonlinear Schrödinger equation (which was proposed by Howell Peregrine in 1983), it is "an attractive hypothesis to explain the formation of those waves which have a high amplitude and may appear from nowhere and disappear without a trace" - source Wikipedia." - Macronomics - 15th of November 2011
We voiced our concerns in June 2013 on the risk of a rapid surging US dollar would cause with the tapering stance of the Fed on Emerging Markets in our conversation "Singin' in the Rain":
"Why are we feeling rather nervous?
If the Fed starts draining liquidity, some "big whales" might turn up belly up. Could it be Chinese banks defaulting? Emerging Markets countries defaulting as well due to lack of access to US dollars? It is a possibility we fathom." - Macronomics - June 2013
At the time, we stated that we were in an early stage of a dollar surge.
Back in December 2014 in our conversation, "The QE MacGuffin", we added:
"The situation we are seeing today with major depreciation in EM currencies is eerily similar to the situation of 1998, with both China and Japan at the center of the turmoil."
What is of interest of course is that indeed the Third Wave experiment analogy has been somewhat validated by Goldman Sachs in a recent research report as per below chart:
Source: Goldman Sachs
This ties up nicely with our "reverse osmosis" theory we mentioned again in our previous conversation "Under pressure" (This global macro hypothesis was first described in our August 2013 conversation "Osmotic pressure").
But if the sailing tradition that every ninth wave is the largest is true, then again, our chosen title is the correct one.
The Ninth Wave happens to be as well a splendid painting from 1850 by Russian Armenian marine painter Ivan Aivazovsky. Overall, our title refers to the nautical tradition that waves grow larger and larger in a series up to the largest wave, the ninth wave, at which point the series starts again. This of course goes with our earlier quote from Stefan Zweig. Zweig's quote does ring eerily familiar with the reckless abandon in which central bankers of the world are engineering the biggest bond bubble (or wave) ever seen, and the Ninth Wave might eventually turn out to be Wave 3 squared result but we ramble again...
In this week's conversation, we will once again reiterate our advice to start playing "defense" in credit and move higher into the capital structure and in the ratings spectrum. We will also look at the debilitating global growth outlook as well.
- Credit - Time to play defense on any "relief" rally
- US Investment Grade Credit - Why you want to "front-run" Mrs. Watanabe
- Macro - Growth outlook? It's weaker than you think
- Final chart - Why a flatter yield curve is not good for the financial sector
- Credit - Time to play defense on any "relief" rally
As we pointed out recently, half the High Yield universe by market value today trades at 310 bps, while the other half is at 1,050 bps. While the distressed list has a disproportionate representation of commodities (33%), this dispersion doesn't bode well for US High Yield, given default and distress ratios are increasing, even outside commodities.
We commented recently that the higher the "distressed glut", the lower will be the recovery rate. Also, the number of distressed bonds is rising in Europe and of course our favorite "CCC credit canary" issuance levels has plummeted. When it comes to issuance levels and US High yield, year-to-date issuance is down by -16.3%, according to SIFMA.
While looking more into issuance levels, we looked at the data provided by Dealogic through the blog Credit Market Daily from Dr. Suki Mann, former UBS European Credit Market Strategist. When one looks at High Yield corporate bond issuance, one can clearly see that the issuance levels, given the market gyrations have fallen from the proverbial cliff in January:
Graph Source: creditmarketdaily.com
As we repeatedly pointed out in our missives, like any behavioral psychologist, we tend to focus on the process rather than on the content. Whereas every pundit and their dog focus these days on the correlation of oil and the relationship with equities, and fathom on a potential rebound of both, we prefer to stick to what we are seeing which is the evident deterioration in the broader credit picture and the implication for equities. The "process" is playing out we think. While yes we can expect indeed a short-term "Keynesian" rebound, we do remain medium- to long-term "Austrian" bearish and cautious in the grand scheme of things.
For instance, we reacquainted ourselves with what is happening in the securitization world as of late, reading through Bank of America Merrill Lynch's latest Securitization Weekly. We particularly read with attention their latest note from the 29th of January:
"Overview - Things are bad, at risk of getting worse
The bounce in oil should provide some near term upside/relief in securitized products (SP) credit, but will it last? Financial stress receded this week, but it is unprecedented for the Fed to be tightening at current elevated levels. As cheap as SP credit has gotten, we think additional downside risks are too high; stay long duration in agency MBS.
Last week, we compared the price pattern of ABX, the subprime index, back in 2007- 2009 with oil in 2014-2016 (Chart 1).
Our interest in oil stems from the correlation between securitized products credit prices and oil over the past year , as well as the correlation between oil and inflation breakevens, which underlies our recommendation to buy long duration agency MBS.
The ABX-oil comparison last week suggested to us that oil had the potential to decline down to the low 20s by March-April of this year. Naturally, oil rallied this week on that analysis, as news of some potential tightening of supply hit the market. Our experience with ABX tells us that these types of rallies are not unusual within the context of precipitous price declines and that fading the oil rally most likely makes sense. Given the correlations cited above, this suggests that selling or at least fully hedging riskier securitized products credit also makes. If oil goes lower, prices on mezzanine risk transfer, CMBS and CLOs are also likely to go lower, even though they are already at the cheapest levels in recent history.
To make matters worse, and to heighten the potential for some chaotic price declines, there is the matter of Fed policy. As we discuss next, given elevated levels of financial stress, we think the Fed's decision to start tightening monetary policy in December created significant risks for financial markets. This week's decision provided little indication to us that this risk will meaningfully alter policy decisions going forward. This suggests to us that downside risks for securitized products credit remain elevated, even after significant price declines in recent weeks and months.
This week's rally in oil prices may be a precursor of some near term strength for mezzanine risk transfer, CLOs and CMBS, subject to the constraints mentioned above. We recommend either reducing or hedging exposures into such strength and moving up in quality to high quality, short spread duration sectors such as auto ABS. Meanwhile, we continue to recommend long duration agency MBS, with an added emphasis on prepayment protected stories with the 10yr yield dropping below 2.0%
Global financial stress on the rise
In Chart 5, we focus on the rise in financial stress since mid-2014, and show the 50-, 100- and 200-day moving averages.
The stress periods are seen as somewhat episodic, with stress rapidly elevating, and then subsiding, moving more or less back to the trend line defined by the 200-day moving average, which itself is steadily trending higher. The daily peak for the last two years was seen recently on January 20, and stress appears to now be subsiding, probably moving back to the 200-day moving average over the near term. Declining financial stress should be good for financial assets over the near term, including securitized products mezzanine credit. It probably will also give the Fed more comfort in hiking rates in March. This is where we see potential for additional downside in securitized products.
Consider the 2007-2009 experience for financial stress. Chart 6 shows a similar view to the ABX-oil view in Chart 1, benchmarking 2014-2016 versus 2007-2009.
The current cycle, where the January 20 peak was 0.65, appears benign relative to the super stressed levels of late 2008, when the GFSI hit a peak level of 3.01, almost 5x the current level. But just a week before the September 15, 2008 (the start of the global financial crisis), and for the prior year for that matter, the GFSI registered levels near 0.60, or right at about current levels. We have little reason to anticipate a shock to the financial system on the order of the financial disruptions during the GFC. But we think it is important to recognize that the pre-GFC financial stress is comparable to today's levels, suggesting system vulnerability to shocks or policy errors.
It is in this context that we view the Fed's tightening of monetary policy as very risky for financial assets. As Chart 7 shows, in 2007, with comparable levels of financial stress, the Fed was aggressively easing, not tightening; now, the Fed is tightening.
Tightening may be the correct policy for the Fed's economic mandate, but that doesn't mean financial assets will approve. Moreover, what makes matters more disconcerting for us this time is that, given the change in the political climate relative to the financial sector since 2008, it seems unlikely that there would be a strong (if any) policy response to financial system stress. The days of the Fed put, which arguably has been in effect since October 1987, appear to be over."
To get some sense of what might accompany higher levels of financial stress, we look at the relationship between oil and the GFSI over the past two years in Chart 8.
We actually show the inverse of oil, so oil in the 20-25 range corresponds to an inverse in the 0.4-0.5 range. Very roughly, Chart 8 suggests that if oil drops down to the 20-25 range, the GFSI could head up the 1.0 vicinity. This was the stress level last seen in 2011, which was "solved" by QE3. Would QE4 come in response to a return to comparable levels of financial stress? It's possible, but given the recent track record, the Fed seems more likely to keep moving in the opposite direction of tightening. This scenario is not likely to be a good one for securitized products credit, in our view."- source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
While we agree with most of the points made by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their note, while reading their interesting note a graph caught our attention, reminiscent of the heyday of 2007, namely the price action in both ABX prices and CMBX prices:
Source: Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Given all of the above, we strongly advocate selling "high beta" into strength and moving towards a more defensive position such as long duration and US high quality Investment Grade "domestically" exposed credit and/or very long dated US treasuries (30 years) or playing it via ETF ZROZ (for retail players).
If you want more compelling "arguments" validating our defensive stance, we strongly recommend you read the latest note from Bahl & Gaynor - "It's not what you own that kills you… it's what you owe"
So, moving on to why US high quality Investment Grade credit is a good defensive play? Because of attractiveness from a relative value perspective versus Europe and as well from a flow perspective. The implementation of NIRP by the Bank of Japan will induce more foreign bonds buying by the Japanese Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF) as well as Mrs. Watanabe (analogy for the retail investors) through their Toshin funds. These external source of flows will induce more "financial repression" on European government yield curves, pushing most likely in the first place German Bund and French OATs more towards negative territory à la Swiss yield curve, now negative up to the 10-year tenor.
As per Bank of America Merrill Lynch Credit Market Strategist note from the 29th of January entitled, "The great rotation into US credit", we agree with the points they are making:
"After the ECB meeting last week, and US data and BoJ this week, we think that the widening yield differential between US and foreign fixed income will re-ignite foreign demand, as US corporate bonds look increasingly relatively attractive (Figure 6).
Apart from the effects of US data strength, a lot of this relative re-pricing happened because actual and expected foreign monetary policy easing tends to widen yield differentials with US Treasuries (Figure 7).
Obviously, it may take a little time before yield sensitive foreign investors transition from the initial stage of finding the new lower absolute yields unattractive, to appreciating that US corporate credit now looks much more attractive on a relative yield basis, and increase their buying (Figure 8).
Corporate yield differential between USD and EUR
While at the time of writing our index system had not updated for Friday's market movements post the BoJ, as of yesterday (1/28) US and EUR 10-year corporate bonds yielded 4.10% and 1.94%, respectively, for a yield differential of 2.16% - up from 1.98% last week:
Post-BoJ Japanese corporate bond yields and spreads
Due to a favorable time zone our Japanese corporate bond index has in fact updated for the post-BoJ Friday session. We see that in reaction to BoJ negative interest rates, yields declined 6 bps to 0.25% while spreads widened 1 bp to 29 bps (Figure 11).
In our experience Japanese investors have been heavy buyers of US corporate bonds since 2012 - initially mostly on a currency hedged basis but increasingly unhedged. Clearly we expect more buying, especially after the April 1st start of the new fiscal year in Japan. However, today's -7.5bps move in the cross currency basis swap initial negates the additional yield advantage to US credit created by the BoJ's action." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
If you want to somewhat "front-run" the GPIF and Mrs. Watanabe, increasing allocation to US domestically exposed high quality Investment Grade credit makes sense as per Bank of America Merrill Lynch's note:
"US strength, global weakness.
Our preliminary analysis of the 4Q earnings reporting season for US HG companies shows little evidence that the US economy is going into recession. Specifically for global high grade companies that derive more than 50% of revenue from abroad we are tracking -5% earnings growth for 4Q, a small deterioration from the actual reported number of -2% in 3Q. However, for domestic companies without foreign revenue earnings growth is tracking +8% in 4Q, which is strong even if down a bit from +10% in 3Q. In terms of topline growth, we are tracking -5% for the global companies and +8% for their domestic counterparts - both numbers virtually unchanged from 3Q." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Whereas we disagree with Bank of America Merrill Lynch's US economy views, we believe that the US economy is weaker than what meets the eyes and that their economists suffer from an "optimism bias" we think (more on this in our third bullet point), nonetheless high quality domestic issuers are definitely credit wise a more "defensive" play.
When it comes to following the flow and once again on why we focus on the process rather than the content, you have to "follow the flow" and when it comes to the implementation of NIRP, think clearly about the "implications".
- US Investment Grade Credit - Why you want to "front-run" Mrs. Watanabe
Back in March 2015 in our conversation, "Information cascade", we stressed on the importance of following what the Japanese investors were doing in terms of flows:
"Go with the flow:
One should closely watch Japan's GPIF (Government Pension Investment Fund) and its $1.26 trillion firepower. Key investor types such as insurance companies, pension funds and toshin companies have been significant net buyers of foreign assets." - source Macronomics, March 2015
One should therefore not be surprised of the latest actions of the Bank of Japan in implementing NIRP which has already been implemented in various European countries and enforced as well by the ECB. As a reminder from last year conversation, this is the definition of "Information cascade":
"An information (or informational) cascade occurs when a person observes the actions of others and then - despite possible contradictions in his/her own private information signals - engages in the same acts. A cascade develops, then, when people "abandon their own information in favor of inferences based on earlier people's actions"." - source Wikipedia
The Bank of Japan has merely engaged in the same acts as others. "Information cascade" is a trait of behavioral economics. You get our point when we state that we behave like behavioral psychologist when analyzing market trends and central banks "behavior".
When it comes to Mrs. Watanabe, Toshin funds are significant players and you want to track what they are doing, particularly in regards to the so-called "Uridashi" funds. The Japanese levered "Uridashi" funds (also called "Double-Deckers") used to have the Brazilian Real as their preferred speculative currency. Created in 2009, these levered Japanese products now account for more than 15 percent of the world's eighth-largest mutual-fund market and funds tied to the real accounted previously for 46 percent of double-decker funds in 2009 with close to a record 80% in 2010 and now down to only 22.8%.
As our global macro "reverse osmosis" theory has been playing out, so has been the allocation to the US dollar in selection-type Toshin as per Nomura JPY Flow Monitor report from the 15th of January 2016:
"We expect toshin momentum to remain strong in 2016, as suggested by the recent recovery. The maximum amount of risky asset investment under NISA per year has been raised since the beginning of the year. Risky asset investment via NISA tends to be especially strong in January, which will support toshin momentum in the near future. Risk sentiment among retail investors remains the key driver of toshin momentum too, and the latest Nomura Individual Investor Survey suggests a further recovery in retail investors' appetite for risk assets. The survey also shows a strong preference for USD among foreign currencies, suggesting retail investors are likely to be dip buyers of USD assets via toshins.
The share of US assets in total foreign currency-denominated toshins continued to rise to 58.9% in December from 58.8% the previous month, the highest share since December 2001. US assets held via toshins declined to JPY17.1trn ($143bn), but non-US asset exposure declined more rapidly, especially exposure to EM assets. Interestingly, the share of EUR assets increased to 8.2% from 7.9% the previous month, while outstandings held in EUR-denominated assets inched up to JPY2.4trn ($20bn) from JPY2.3trn. November BoP data showed a recovery in Japanese investment in EUR-denominated securities, and the stabilisation in toshin companies' exposure to EUR assets is worth monitoring, as it may show a gradual recovery in Japanese investors' preference for EUR." - source Nomura.
Of course, the woes of the Brazilian Real have been exacerbated by Mrs. Watanabe and her growing dislike for her preferred carry trade since 2009...
Because GPIF and other large Japanese pension funds as well as retail investors such as Mrs. Watanabe are likely to increase their portfolios into foreign assets, you can expect them to keep shifting their portfolios into foreign assets, meaning more support for US Investment Grade credit, more negative yields in the European Government bonds space with renewed buying thanks to a weaker "USD/JPY" courtesy of NIRP.
Whereas this is our assessment, when it comes to "front-running" the risk appetite of the Japanese crowd, although the "Ninth Wave" painting has warm tones in similar fashion than the upcoming "Japanese" allocation, which reduce the sea's apparent menacing overtones and tone of the market, the "macro" picture overall remains menacing as per our next bullet point.
- Macro - Growth outlook? It's weaker than you think
We think that for "credibility" reasons, the Fed had no choice but to hike in December given the amount spent in its "Forward Guidance" strategy and in doing so has painted itself in a corner. We ended up 2015 stating that 2016 would provide ample opportunities in "risk-reversal" trades. The latest move by the Bank of Japan delivered yet another "sucker punch" to the long JPY crowd. Obviously, should the reverse decide to reverse course in 2016, there will be no doubt potential for significant rallies in "underloved" asset classes such as Emerging Market equities. But, for the time being, the macro picture is telling us, we think that regardless of how some pundits would like to spin it, not only is the credit cycle past "overtime" and getting weaker (hence our earlier recommendations in our conversation) but, don't forget that there is no shame in being long "cash". It is a valid strategy. Particularly given the messages sent by various markets as illustrated recently in Bank of America Merrill Lynch's GEMs Inquirer note from the 28th of January entitled "The Dark Messages of the Markets":
"Mkts consistent with a double digit contraction in EMs EPS
We respect the messages embedded in diverse markets. We highlighted the signals from Dr. Sotheby's (NYSE:BID), Dr. Haliburton (NYSE:HAL), and Dr. Copper, all falling more than 50% from their recent highs - which could reflect weak demand from plutonomists (rich people), energy capex, and Chinese infrastructure - the key drivers of global growth in the past fifteen years.
Additionally, other indicators including transport stocks, the Baltic Dry Index, high yield bond spreads, the KOSPI, cubicle makers, shipping companies, palladium prices, the stock-bond ratio, are all suggesting a severe earnings recession in Asia and emerging markets. How severe? For EMs, USD EPS growth could contract about 15% in 2016. Consensus is at plus 8.4% EPS growth for 2016 for emerging markets (and 6.5% for Asia ex-Japan). (We combine all these growth-sensitive market prices into one indicator to divine EPS growth). Its message is consistent with Nigel Tupper's global earnings revisions index. From these levels, both have been associated with policy easing, not tightening. We remain suspicious of cheerful consensus growth forecasts, which display a persistent upward bias, and are likely to be revised down. The Wu-Xia synthetic Federal funds rate (Bloomberg: WUXIFFRT Index) LEADS EM equities by 18 months, and has been tightening since mid-2014, and the Fed forecasts further tightening by 100 bps this year.
Valuations not close to cheap in Asia/EMs
Asia ex-Japan is trading at an EV/Net income of 19.9x, compared with an average of 21.7x over past 21 years. This is 0.2 standard deviations below the mean. At market lows, it normally gets to levels around 13x. We would caution against getting too excited by the 1.2x PB in ex-Japan Asia (and EMs) - the ROEs in both region are under pressure, and flattered by a rise in corporate leverage. We need to see a stand-still (or a reversal) of US monetary tightening for us to reassess our negative views. And/or, much better value." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
The question therefore you need to ask yourself is if the Fed is going to eventually "blink" during the course of 2016. Because, as put bluntly in Bank of America Merrill Lynch's note, all the Doctors put together do not point towards a "bullish" outcome for growth:
Source: Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Financial conditions since mid-2014, that's what credit is telling you, that's what oil prices are telling you and that's what the 3 doctors have been telling you. The damage has been done and while we can understand why the FED has decided to defend its "credibility", we all know looking at the lofty valuations touched, that they should have tightened much earlier one rather than boosting further up "asset prices" for the "plutonomists" to paraphrase Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
In our conversation of November 2013 entitled, "Squaring the Circle", we also argued that the performance of Sotheby's, the world's biggest publicly traded auction house was indeed a good leading indicator and has led many global market crises by three to six months. It has proved a timely indicator of potential global stock markets reversal. Whenever its price reached 50 or so with sky high valuations, a reversal has never been far away.
Finally, when it comes to our positioning relative to the US recessionary crowd, we believe that a flattening of the US yield curve is never a good sign, particularly for the US financial sector which has been vaunted by some as a "compelling" buy. We will dispel this belief in our final chart.
- Final chart - Why a flatter yield curve is not good for the financial sector
We have been fairly vocal on our take on the direction that US long bonds would take given our deflationary incline. We have in fact hinted on numerous occasions that we had been increasing our long duration exposure in conjunction with playing the rebound in gold miners (yes, disclosure we are as well, long ABX aka Barrick Gold).
But if the 3 Doctors listed above don't tell you enough about the state of affairs, then, maybe the state of the US yield curve might tell you a little bit more. To that effect, we would like to point out the shape of the yield curve for our final chart extracted from Bank of America Merrill Lynch latest Securitization Weekly from the 29th of January:
"This week gave some indications of what this somewhat bleak view of ours might mean for rates and the yield curve (Chart 9): as of writing, the 10yr stands at 1.94, the lowest level since April 2015, and the 2yr-10yr spread of 115 bps is the lowest since early 2008.
This is consistent with what we are looking for this year and why we have persistently recommended a long duration exposure in agency MBS, down in coupon (DIC) in passthroughs and Zs in CMOs. Following on the above discussion, we still see things as follows: the Fed likely will continue to push up short rates and thereby lower growth expectations, anchoring the back end of yields, and flatten the yield curve even more. The only change from this week is that, with new lows in treasury yields, we emphasize the need to own relatively stable long duration assets." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Yes indeed, flatter is not good. And if, like us, you think that US Financials are the second derivative of an economy, meaning that putting on the "beta play" would only be justified by an acceleration of the growth outlook (loan growth) then, we think, there is nothing compelling in playing the "supposedly" value play in US Financials (When it comes to Europe, you already know our stance, stay out of it).
To complete our rebuttal of the "attractiveness" of US Financials, we would like to point out towards Reorient Group strategist David Goldman's take in their note from the 21st of January entitled "Where to Hide?":
"Underperformance by the banking sector always is a bad sign for markets and the economy; it suggests that the credit mechanism is clogged, with knock-on effects for the rest of the economy. As we observed in our Jan. 18 Week Ahead report, the deterioration of credit conditions and the flattening of the yield curve have left the banks with sharply reduced earning potential. The banks invest more in Treasury securities than in business loans, and the flattening yield curve crushes the differential between their cost of funds and the yield they earn on Treasuries.
Banks' net interest margin is already at the lowest level in history.
Source: Reorient Group
So, before you decide to jump again on the "beta" wagon, think very clearly on how US Financials can be "profitable" in such a deflationary environment and a significant flattening of the yield curve.
There might be at least some solace in US Financials versus European Financials (in particular Deutsche Bank and Italian banks woes), but apart from that, we don't see any "screaming buy" in the former and "zero interest" in the latter.
"Growth is the only evidence of life." - John Henry Newman, British clergyman