"For other nations, utopia is a blessed past never to be recovered; for Americans it is just beyond the horizon."
- Henry A. Kissinger
Hearing about the passing of Cuban leader and revolutionary Fidel Castro, also an accessory ambassador to the Rolex brand, and given the continuous rise in government bonds yields, while thinking about what should be our title analogy, we thought about the current situation. Our current situation entails, we think, a reversal of the 1960s utopian revolutionary spirit towards a more populist and conservative political approach globally. Also, it seems as of late that there has been somewhat, since the Trump election, an opposite movement in the financial sphere from financial dystopia aka financial repression from our central bankers towards utopia aka a surge in inflation expectations leading to large rotations from bonds to equities and rising "real yields". Also, another reason from our chosen title is the recent UK bill requiring internet firms to store web histories for every Briton's online activity.
The most famous examples of "Dystopian societies" have appeared in two very famous books such as 1984 by George Orwell and, of course, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Dystopias are often portrayed by dehumanization, totalitarian governments, environmental disasters or other characteristics associated with cataclysmic declines in societies. Dystopia is an antonym for Utopia after all, used by John Stuart Mill in one of his parliamentary speeches in 1868. Dystopias are often filled with pessimistic views of the ruling class or a government which has been brutal or uncaring. It often leads to the population seeking to enact change within their society, hence the rise in what is called by many "populism". What is important, we think, from our title's perspective is that financial repression goes hand in hand with dystopia given that the economic structures of dystopian societies oppose centrally planned economy and state capitalism versus a free market economy. One could infer that central banks' meddling with interest rates with ZIRP, NIRP and other tools is akin to a dystopian approach also called financial repression. Right now we think that on the political side, clearly, the pessimistic views of the ruling class has led to upsetting the outcomes of various elections this year such as Brexit and the US election thanks to "optimism bias" from the ruling class.
So all in all, Utopia has led to political Dystopias, creating we think inflationary expectations for now and therefore leading to euphoria in equities or what former Fed supremo Alan Greenspan would call "irrational exuberance" when effectively, it is entirely rational given market pundits expect less "financial repression" to materialize in the near future but we ramble again...
In this week's conversation, we would like to look at what to expect in 2017 from an allocation perspective, while since our last conversation there has been some sort of stabilization in the rise of "Mack the Knife" aka King Dollar + positive real US interest rates, it appears to us that the first part of 2017 could get complicated.
- Macro and Credit - Erring on the wider side
- Final chart - Gold could shine again after the Fed
- Macro and Credit - Erring on the wider side
As we have pointed out in recent musings, credit investors, since the sell-off in early 2016, did not only extend their credit exposure but, also their duration exposure, which as of late has been a punishing proposal thanks to convexity particularly for the low coupon/long duration investment grade crowd. While total returns have still been surprisingly strong in the second part of 2016, particularly in High Yield in both Europe and the US, the "beta" players should be more cautious going forward.
We think that the Goldilocks period for credit supported by a low rate volatility regime has definitely turned and slowly but surely the cost of capital is rising.
For instance, in the US while the latest Senior Loan Officer Opinion Surveys (SLOOs) has pointed to an overall easing picture as of late as per our previous conversation, in the US, Commercial Real Estate is already pointing towards tightening financial conditions as indicated by Morgan Stanley in their CRE Tracker note from the 18th of November:
"CRE Lending Standards Tighten For the Fifth Straight Quarter in 3Q16
•The Federal Reserve's Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey showed CRE lending standards continued to tighten in 3Q16, marking the fifth straight quarter of net tightening.
•Overall, standards tightened at a stable pace, with 29.5% reporting net tightening compared to 31.3% in 2Q16. Large banks have been tightening more than other banks, but the 3Q16 release shows that large banks' tightening pace has slightly slowed.
•Tightening has been most pronounced in multifamily loans, and in 3Q16 other banks upped their tightening pace in this category.
•Loan demand continues to strengthen but has decelerated quarter-over-quarter: only 5.8% reported a net increase in demand compared to 12.0% in 2Q16. Demand is stronger for construction loans relative to the other two types.
•Our studies have shown that tightening lending standards and/or decreasing loan demand tend to lead to declining CRE property prices.
- source Morgan Stanley
While we have tracked our US CCC credit canary issuance levels as an indication that the credit cycle was slowly but surely turning, the above indications from the US CRE markets is clearly showing that the Fed is about to hike in a weakening environment, should they decide to fulfill market expectations in December. Obviously, while the market is clearly anticipating their move and has already started a significant rotation from bonds towards equities, the move from Dystopia to Utopia and Euphoria will have clear implications for credit spreads in 2017, and should obviously push them wider we think.
This thematic is clearly as well the scenario being put forward by most of the sell-side crowd when it comes to their 2017 outlook for credit. For instance, we read with interest Morgan Stanley's take on the macro backdrop for credit for the US entitled, "From Cubs to Bears":
"We are cautious on US credit for 2017: Across the spectrum, credit markets will likely finish 2016 with the best returns in many years - certainly better than we anticipated. If we had to boil the rally from February-October down into two factors, we think the recovery in oil/energy explains the first half, and the massive global reach for yield driven by low rates and easy central bank liquidity explains the second. In our view, fundamental risks are still very elevated, and while sentiment has become bullish around the impact of a Trump presidency, any way we look at it, credit is moving out of the 'sweet spot'. Specifically, the days of ultra-low rates, ultra-low volatility, and ultra-easy Fed policy are in the rear-view mirror. All while valuations are considerably richer than this time last year - not a great setup for 2017.
More specifically, our cautious call on US credit is based on three key points, which we expand on in the first section below:
- A less benign environment: We would not underestimate the impact central banks have had on markets. Now, eight years into a cycle, we expect inflation to rise, the Fed to hike quicker, and the dollar to break out. Fiscal stimulus helps growth, but there are clear offsets, like tighter financial conditions. This is a backdrop where mistakes are more likely and costly.
- Fundamentals are weak, late-cycle risks have risen, and the Fed could push us to the edge quicker: Markets anticipate defaults one year in advance. Lower defaults in 2017 are in the price. Rising defaults in 2018 are not.
- Credit is priced for a benign environment as far as the eye can see: IG spreads adjusted for leverage and HY default-adjusted spreads have rarely been tighter. In addition, higher Treasury yields make the 'reach for yield' argument for US credit much less compelling.
Adding everything up, we do not think this is the point in the cycle to reach for yield, and most of our recommendations are up-in-quality as a result. And we note that better growth does not always equal better returns. In the second half of cycles, negative excess return years come more frequently than you might expect, and we expect to see one in 2017.
Moving Out of the Macro 'Sweet Spot'
The US economic environment is becoming less supportive of credit markets. Our economists forecast US GDP to grow at 1.9% in 2017, 0.3pp higher than the baseline, given our expectations around fiscal stimulus. Why not a bigger number? First, it is important to remember that the underlying headwinds to growth that have driven a subpar expansion for eight years have not gone away just because Trump was elected. Second, our economists assume that a material tightening in financial conditions offsets some of the benefits of fiscal stimulus. For example, we now expect the Fed to hike twice in 2017 and three times in 2018, the dollar to rally by 6%, and 10Y Treasury yields to hit 2.75% in 3Q, (2.50% at year-end), very different from our prior forecasts of low rates and ultra-accommodative Fed policy. These risks may rise further later in 2017, if markets begin to worry that Yellen will be replaced with a much more hawkish Fed chair. Third, right now investors seem to be focused on all the benefits from stimulus, but downplaying the risks to Trump's policies that were so concerning in the run-up to the election. It doesn't take much for sentiment to swing back in the other direction or for current lofty expectations around fiscal stimulus to disappoint.
Either way, there is much greater potential variability around our forecasts, given all of the unknowns. For example, in our bear case where we assume Trump takes a hard line on trade, GDP growth is hit by 0.6pp, even assuming material tax cuts and infrastructure spending.
~2% growth by itself is manageable, but unlike earlier in this cycle, the Fed is not adding stimulus, but instead withdrawing liquidity. And remember, even with fiscal stimulus, the Fed is still tightening into a much more anemic growth environment than in past rate hike cycles (Exhibit 3), significantly later in the cycle, and with profits growing considerably slower.
Due to this subpar recovery, markets have become very dependent on central banks, and when the liquidity spigot turns off, credit has consistently had problems. In fact, over the past two years, the Fed has struggled to get in even one hike a year. We would not dismiss the impact on markets if the Fed has to step on the brakes more quickly, given how much central bank policy may be supporting valuations, given the starting point on growth, and with the US economy much later in a cycle than when the Fed has begun hiking in the past.
In addition, less easy liquidity could become a global theme next year. Our economists expect the ECB to announce tapering at its June meeting, and a shift in the BOJ's 10Y yield target in 4Q17 - very different from the risk-supportive environment from central banks immediately post Brexit.
Lastly, even with this rate rise, the market is still only pricing in ~1.5 hikes in 2017 - thus risks are asymmetric. If growth disappoints, the Fed has little ability to release a verbal dose of monetary stimulus like this past year, when rate hike expectations quickly dropped from 3 to almost 0. Alternatively, if this is the year where inflation starts rising, there is plenty of room for rate hike expectations to rise. In addition, with IG and HY spreads 37 bps and 204 bps tighter vs. when the Fed hiked last December, credit markets also do not have the same shock absorber as last year." - source Morgan Stanley
The last point is particularly true given that the second half rally saw credit investors piling on more duration and more credit risks, meaning more instability in credit markets at the time where "Dystopia" has been fading in financial markets. As we pointed out in our previous conversation, we think the market is trading ahead of itself when it comes to its expectations and utopian beliefs. Like any good behavioral therapist we tend to focus on the process rather than the content and look at credit fundamentals to assess the lateness of the credit cycle.
There is no doubt in our mind that we are moving towards the last inning of the credit cycle, and there has been various signs of exhaustion as of late such as our CCC credit canary issuance indicator or as above tighter lending conditions for CRE which is trading at elevated valuation levels, but on these many points we agree with Morgan Stanley's take that fundamentals are clearly showing signs of deterioration in the credit cycle that warrants caution we think:
"Elevated Fundamental Risks Late in the Cycle
Markets are very late cycle, according to our indicators, and even compared to this time last year, fundamentals are weak. To provide a few examples on the first point: The Fed is expected to continue hiking, and looking at the shadow fed funds rate, has already tightened policy by a similar amount as in past cycles. Lending conditions have tightened (measured by the % of banks tightening C&I, CRE, auto, and now consumer loans), and leverage is very high. Margins, M&A, and auto sales look like they have possibly peaked. In addition, leading economic indicators have rolled over, employment has slowed from the peak in early 2015, and productivity has declined. Along similar lines, looking at our cross-asset team's indicator, the US may have entered the 'Downturn' phase of the cycle earlier this year.
The deterioration in corporate balance sheet quality also indicates elevated cycle risks.
For example, as we show below, leverage is at or near record levels across credit markets. In addition, the leverage increase has been broad-based (outside of financials), and the 'tail' in the market has grown substantially. For example, the highly leveraged tail has doubled since 2011 in high yield (two-thirds of this tail is ex-commodities) and 30% of the IG market is levered over 4x today, compared to only 11% in 2010.
This deterioration in credit quality should not come as a surprise - low rates and ultra-easy liquidity for eight years have had negative side effects. What should be concerning is that, historically, the sharpest rise in leverage tends to occur in recessions when earnings collapse. Hence, the fact that leverage is this high in a growing economy means that it will likely peak at a much higher level than in the past when a downturn finally hits. We would also note that leverage is not the only area of concern, with interest coverage and cash/debt also trending lower in most markets.
In an environment of higher rates and better growth, as markets are seemingly anticipating, could leverage come down? We think it is possible, but unlikely. First, better growth should, if anything, encourage more aggressive corporate behavior, which is why historically, the biggest declines in leverage come after a credit cycle. Second, we would not dismiss the underlying headwinds to a big pickup in earnings at this stage in the expansion, especially if the dollar rallies 6% as we expect. Yes, corporate tax cuts could help, although even there we need to wait for the details - if tax cuts are paid for in part by getting rid of tax preferences and there is a tighter noose around what is considered domestic income, the aggregate benefit may be lower. But bigger picture, weak productivity and rising wages are a few of the many headwinds to profitability that probably aren't going away. Lastly, even if leverage does drop modestly, higher rates are an offset when thinking about future defaults. Ultimately, we think the damage has been done looking at fundamentals, and better growth, higher rates, as well as faster rate hikes if anything, push us to the cycle edge more quickly. We note that the later years in an equity bull market when growth is strong are often not bullish for credit. For example, in 2000, HY excess returns were down 16.3%.
Assessing credit quality in aggregate, we think the fuel for a default/downgrade cycle is clearly present. And with banks tightening lending standards now across C&I loans (albeit only modestly per the latest survey), CRE, and autos, and no longer easing for consumer lending, this credit cycle is actually playing out as one would expect in a long, slow default wave. Yes, the defaults so far have been predominantly commodity focused, but in our view, it is normal for the problem sector to drive the stress early on.
The key question of course is one of timing - when do default/downgrade risks start to spread beyond commodities in a bigger way? In our view: Sooner than most think. We discuss our default and downgrade expectations in more detail in the forecasts section below. But in short, default rates will likely drop in 2017, which we think is in the price, with the HY energy sector 955bp tighter since the wides in February.
However, according to our numbers, defaults will start rising again in 2018, likely peaking in 2019. Without going into the details, we base our assumptions on the lag between when the indicators we track have turned historically and when defaults have subsequently spiked, as well as the status of those metrics today.
If our estimates are correct, this default wave will last ~4.5 years in total (having begun in 2016), similar to the 1999-2003 cycle. And we think there are logical reasons to assume a prolonged cycle. For example, the prevalence of cov-lite loans and somewhat elevated interest coverage will not make overall default volumes lower, in our view, but could mean defaults take longer to materialize. In addition, if a recession occurs while rates are still generally low, the tailwind of falling yields will not be there this time around, which could slow the bounce off the bottom.
Last and most importantly, if defaults start rising again in 2018, the market should price that in next year. As we show below, years when defaults rise more than 2%, spreads tend to widen by 283 bps on average the year prior, as the market prices in those risks. Or said another way, the fact that defaults will drop in 2017 should have little bearing on spreads in 2017.
As a result, the only way to rationalize today's valuations is to assume a benign default environment for several years, which we believe is a low probability. Looking back in time, we only have one good example of when defaults rose temporarily due to one sector and then subsequently dropped without a near-term recession. That took place in 1986, yet even then, defaults only fell for two years, and subsequently rose into the 1990 recession. Also we would note the Fed was not hiking at the time, but instead cut rates by ~200bp in 1986 to cushion the blow - very different from today." - source Morgan Stanley
Furthermore, a continuation in the rise of "Mack the Knife" aka the US Dollar and real rates, then again US earnings could come under pressure and financial conditions will no doubt get tighter and hedging costs for foreign investors pricier, which could somewhat dampen foreign appetite from the like of the Japanese investor crowd and Lifers in particular, leaving in essence very little room for error when it comes to credit allocation towards the US. Hence, we would favor quality (Investment Grade) and low duration exposure until the dust settle, meaning some sort of stabilization in current yields gyrations from a US allocation perspective.
Obviously, for Europe, in terms of credit, the story is slightly different given the ongoing support from the ECB, but clearly the risk lies more into a rise in political "Dystopia" rather than financial "Utopia" given the on-going deleveraging process of the European banking sector. To that effect, whereas there has been a very significant rally in the European banking sector when it comes to equities as of late in conjunction with the US sector thanks to less "Dystopia" and rising yields, we still favor high quality European financials credit in the current environment. Even European High Yield is more enticing thanks to lower leverage than the US. To illustrate the "japanification" process in Europe and the reduced "credit impulse" largely due to peripheral banks being capital impaired thanks to bloated balance sheets due to nonperforming loans (NPLs), we would like to point out once more to the difference in terms of deleveraging between Europe, the US and Japan when it comes to their respective banking sector as highlighted as well by Morgan Stanley in their European Credit Outlook note from the 28th of November entitled, "As Good As It Gets":
"In our base case, we expect bank credit to outperform non-financials because valuations are less distorted, technicals remain supportive, fundamentals at the system level continue to improve (albeit at a slower pace) and regulatory pressures on the sector are easing. The earnings squeeze on account of negative rates and flat curves is also likely to ease, at least in some parts of the system, on account of recent moves in bond yields. Moreover, the possibility of ECB purchases (while lower now) is still an important source of optionality.
Banking on favourable technical and valuations:
Delving into some of the factors listed above, we note that the positive, but subdued, lending impulse has been a favourable set-up for bank credit. It has helped to ease concerns of financial conditions and at the same time has kept the supply technical supportive. As shown in Exhibit 28, net issuance of senior unsecured paper and covered bonds from European banks are barely positive. The need for funding is modest and the avenues are many, with the ECB still an attractive alternative to bond markets. Against this backdrop, we expect senior bank supply to remain muted in 2017. Another important factor that informs our view is regulations. As our bank analysts have been highlighting for some time now (see The Potential for MREL, September 23, 2016), MREL is likely to be supportive for bank debt. They believe that non-preferred senior/'Tier 3' will be the MREL of choice for most banks, increasing structural protection for opco seniors and far lower needs to issue senior debt." - source Morgan Stanley
We hate being "party spoilers" for our equities friend and their "optimism bias" but, in the current deleveraging and "japanification" process, we'd rather go for financials credit wise thanks to the technical support and lower volatility of the asset class compared to equities. No matter how strong the rally has been as of late in equities, for credit there is a caveat, you need to pick your issuer wisely in Europe. Europe is still a story of subdued credit growth given that the liquidity provided by the backstop of the ECB has not meaningfully translated into credit growth for the likes of Portugal and Italy and in no way resolved the Damocles sword hanging over the Italian banking sector and their outsized NPLs issue.
Overall, as "Dystopia" is fading, marking a return of bond volatility, we would be surprised to see a continuation of the strong rally seen in the second part of 2016 for credit markets in 2017. Whereas we have not seen signs of clear stabilization for "Mack the Knife" aka King Dollar + positive real US interest rates, hence our neutral stance for the time being on gold, in our last chart, we would like to point out that gold could shine again following the Fed in December.
- Final chart - Gold could shine again after the Fed
Whereas Gibson's paradox, thanks to "Mack the Knife" has reversed meaningfully during the month of November, we could have a surprise rally after the Fed's decision in December according to our final chart from Deutsche Bank's "Mining Chart of the Week" note from the 25th of November:
"After five of the last eight US interest rate hikes, gold has rallied
The gold price has declined 7% so far in the month to reach a nine-month low on expectations of a US rate hike in December and improved sentiment that recessionary risks are fading with hopes of a Trump-led fiscal stimulus. The precious metal now looks less shiny; but what's next? History teaches us that gold can rally after the Fed has hiked. As we show on this week's chart, since 1976, in five instances out of eight, gold rallied with rising Fed rates.
Reading through the Chart
We find it interesting that even in an environment of flat/rising US GDP growth and rising interest rates, gold can rally - this happened in 1977-78, 1993-95, and 2004-06." - source Deutsche Bank
Whereas investors have been anticipating a lot in terms of US fiscal stimulus from the new Trump administration hence the rise in inflationary expectations and the relapse in financial "Dystopia", which led to the recent "Euphoria" in equities, the biggest unknown remains trade and the posture the new US administration will take. If indeed it raises uncertainty on an already fragile global growth, it could end up being supportive of gold prices again. As a bonus chart we would like to point out Bank of America Merrill Lynch's chart highlighting the relationship between gold and global trade from their Metals Strategist note from the 21st of November:
"Trade is an unknown
Trade, the other cornerstone in US President-elect Trump's plan, has been discussed contentiously. In our view, measures that would restrict global trade would do a lot of damage to economic activity. Against this backdrop, we note that trade has been subdued anyway, and this may not change imminently given developments including a shift in economic activity from DM to EM has run its course for now. Of course, this raises uncertainty over the strength of global growth, which is supportive of gold (Chart 67).
Having said that, we believe a wholesale crackdown on US and global trade cannot be in the interest of the US president elect and we are cautiously optimistic that outright trade wars may not be the core agenda for 2017, so we track developments in this area mostly as a bullish unknown for gold." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Whereas the markets and US voters have so far embraced the utopian idea that the new US Administration could make America great again, it remains to be seen if this state of euphoria is warranted.
"The euphoria around economic booms often obscures the possibility for a bust, which explains why leaders typically miss the warning signs."
- Andrew Ross Sorkin