After World War II, there were a lot of pension funds in Europe that were fully funded, but they were pressured to hold a lot of government debt. There was a lot of inflation, and the value of all those assets fell. Those pension funds couldn't honor their promises to the people." - Edward C. Prescott, American economist and Nobel Prize winner in Economics.
Looking at the technical "relief rally" in all things "beta" including US High Yield thanks to the tone down in the geopolitical narrative but with the pickup of the trade war rhetoric between the United States and China, when it came to selecting our title post analogy, we reminded ourselves of the "Golden Rule." The Golden Rule (which can be considered a law of reciprocity in various religions) is the principle of treating others as one would wish to be treated. It is a maxim found in most religions and cultures:
- One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself (positive or directive form).
- One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated (negative or prohibitive form).
- What you wish upon others, you wish upon yourself (empathic or responsive form).
The concept occurs in some form or another in nearly every religion and ethical tradition and is often considered as the central tenet of "Christian ethics." It can also be explained from the perspectives of psychology, philosophy, sociology, human evolution, and of course economics - hence our reference in relation to growing trade tensions.
In this week's conversation, we would like to look again at where we are within the credit cycles, given as we pointed out in recent musings cracks have started to show in some parts and everyone is asking oneself when the downturn is, given the relentless flattening of the US yield curve.
- Macro and Credit - Have we reached the end of the credit cycle yet?
- Final charts - The return of Macro to the forefront thanks to higher interest rates
- Macro and Credit - Have we reached the end of the credit cycle yet?
We have been discussing at length like many various pundits about the credit cycle and the fact that it was slowly but surely turning thanks to the Fed's change of narrative. We even posited that the Fed is the credit cycle in one of our musings. Back in October in our conversation "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" we indicated that for a "bear market" to materialize, you would indeed need a return of the Big Bad Wolf aka "inflation." With the continuing surge in oil prices in conjunction with commodities prices, we also pointed out as well in this prior conversation that credit cycles die because too much debt has been raised and therefore it remains to be seen if rising "inflation expectations" could indeed be the match that lights the ignite the explosion of the credit bubble hence the importance of gauging where we stand in this credit cycle. The increasing trade war narrative has proven in the first quarter to be "bullish" gold as we anticipated thanks to the "Golden Rule" being put forward between the United States and China. Following years of financial repression, the house of straw of the short-vol pigs was blown off by the explosion of volatility following the Fed's decision to put a lower strike on its "put" for asset prices, which had been a deliberate part of their move in recent years. We have become increasingly wary of the situation of the US consumer hence us adopting more scrutiny on the rising price at the gas pump with an already strained US consumer balance sheet, thanks to rising rents and healthcare and slowly rising wages with dwindling savings and rising usage of credit cards to maintain the lifestyle.
So, one might rightly ask oneself, when does it all end given that as per the below recent Bloomberg chart, displaying US Economic Surprise indexes for both hard data and soft data trending lower:
- source Bloomberg
Many wonder if this time it will be different with the continuing flattening of the US yield curve. On this subject we read with interest Bank of America Merrill Lynch's Securitized Products Strategy Weekly note from the 20th of April. First here is the summary of their findings:
This time is different: late cycle mortgage lending, higher rates, and a flatter curve
This week's yield curve flattening, to a post-crisis low of 43 bps on the 2yr-10yr spread, is raising concerns that the current cycle is coming to an end and recession is now on the not too distant horizon. It's more than 9 years since the stock market low of March 2009, so it is clearly late in the cycle. However, we continue to believe that this cycle has at least a couple of more years before it ends and credit spreads, along with securitized products spreads (see "Bullish for Q2" for corporate-securitized products correlation discussion), widen materially.
In fact, although the path for spreads will be bumpier than what was seen in 2017, we think there is potential for spreads to tighten further in Q2 and beyond. As discussed last week, we think the 10yr breakeven inflation rate is likely to head higher in Q2, moving above 2.20% or even 2.30%, as oil experiences upward seasonal pressure. Given correlations, we see this as good news for securitized products spreads. (This week's jump to an intraday high of 2.19% on the breakeven rate suggested that 2.20%-2.30% is not a particularly aggressive target.)
We acknowledge the tightness of spreads, but we caution against being too early to position for major spread widening in the near future. Although we see tightening potential for spreads, due to the tightness of spreads, we maintain our neutral view for securitized products.
We compare this cycle to the last cycle on two fronts:
First, and more broadly, we consider metrics such as the 2yr-10yr spread, the BofAML Global Financial Stress Indicator and the BofAML Liquidity Stress Indicator: all three indicators suggest little imminent stress. We see the current period as similar to May 2005. As a reminder, that was 2 years before credit spreads began to widen and over 3 years before full blown crisis and recession. Given the slow pace of monetary policy tightening in this cycle, we think the risk is that this cycle takes longer to end than the last one did when at a comparable point on the metrics just mentioned.
Second, and more specific to mortgages, we compare today's mortgage lending environment to what was seen in the pre-crisis period and in the aftermath of the massive 2003 refi wave. The changes are dramatic. Non-bank lenders' market presence is on the rise while banks are retreating; another refi wave has ended but primary secondary spreads are generous relative to 2005; most importantly, there is little to no evidence of a meaningful shift to the risky mortgage lending practices that precipitated the 2008 crisis. At a minimum, this cycle has a notable absence of the primary driver of what caused the crisis in the last cycle. If there is a trigger event for another broader downturn, it will have to come from a sector other than mortgages and housing. Perhaps it will be the corporate sector or the government sector but we would not dismiss the economic robustness derived from an exceptionally healthy mortgage market. Again, we think the risk is that years of healthy and disciplined mortgage lending prolongs this economic cycle." -source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
We would have to agree, if indeed there is a trigger event for another broader downturn, then indeed, this time it will be different in the sense that it won't be coming from the housing sector and the mortgage markets. Many like ourselves are pointing out towards the excess leverage building up in the corporate sector thanks to a credit binge tied up to ZIRP and NIRP policies and credit markets. If US High Yield can be seen as being relatively expensive then European High Yield is a base case definition of what "expensive" can be defined as. We are closely monitoring fund flows, given as of late there has been some rotation from credit funds towards government bonds funds as described by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their Follow the Flow note from the 20th of April entitled "Trade wars flows":
Rising geopolitical risk is pushing more money into govies
Over the past couple of months government bond funds in Europe have recorded sizable inflows. We think trade wars and rising geopolitical risk has been translated into deflationary pressures that feed primarily into a bid for "risk free" assets. IG fund flows in Europe have been slower to improve because of the trade uncertainties. However, inflows into Euro only IG funds over the last week were nonetheless positive.
Over the past week…
High grade fund flows were negative over last week after two weeks of inflows. While the breakdown by currency shows a marginally positive number for the euro-focussed funds, the dollar ones have driven the overall trend. Monthly data also were negative for a second month, March figures show.
High yield funds continued to record outflows (23rd consecutive week), and similarly the monthly data also displayed a fifth consecutive month of outflows. Looking into the domicile breakdown, US and Globally-focussed funds have recorded outflows, while the European-focussed funds flow was slightly positive. Note that this was the first week of inflows into euro-focused funds after 13 weeks of outflows.
Government bond funds recorded their 14th consecutive week of inflows just as the monthly data were rolling on to the fifth consecutive month of positive flows. All in all,
Fixed Income funds flows were on negative territory last week. Monthly data reveal that just like February, March was also characterised by outflows.
European equity funds continued to record outflows for a sixth consecutive week; driving the year-to-date cumulative flows below zero. The trend also transpired on the March number, which was the most negative since August '16." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
While it has been difficult to "Make Duration Great Again" given the recent rise in the 10-year yield in US Treasury Notes, from a contrarian perspective and given the significant short positioning in the long end, there will come a point when fundamentals might reverse the confidence in this overstretched positioning which would entail significant short covering. We are not there yet.
Returning on Bank of America Merrill Lynch note on the relationship between a flattening yield curve and credit spreads, here is what they had to say on the subject:
Yield curve flattening and credit spreads
The 2yr-10yr spread narrowed to a post-crisis low of 43 bps this week, raising concerns that the current cycle is coming to an end and recession is on the not too distant horizon. We see the recent flattening of the yield curve as consistent with expectations laid out in our 2018 Year Ahead outlook, published in November 2017. We expect the 2yr-10yr spread to reach zero and turn negative in the first half of 2019, and recession and material credit spread widening to occur 12-18 months later, in other words, mid to late 2020. Given the slow pace of monetary policy tightening in this cycle, we think the risk is that the process takes longer than we expect.
Chart 1 and Exhibit 1 provide some perspective on this view.
Chart 1 shows that today's 2yr-10yr spread level of roughly 45 bps was observed in May 2005. We also see that today's asset swap spread of roughly 300 bps on the ICE BofAML High Yield Index (H0A0) is comparable to the index spread in May 2005. (We use this high yield index for our securitized products discussion just because it allows us to make the longer term comparison.) The takeaway from this chart is that it took approximately two years for the curve to first fully flatten and then re-steepen. Similarly, it took approximately two years before credit spreads finished tightening, reaching a tight of 185 bps (over 100 bps tighter than the May 2005 level!), and began cyclical widening.
This is the primary basis for our view that material spread widening in the current cycle won't occur until at least approximately mid-2020. In other words, we place a heavy weight on the yield curve as an indicator of where we are in the credit cycle. The first significant event that we would need to see for us to become more cautious on spreads is to have the curve fully flatten or invert. But even then, the 2005-2007 experience tells us that it could take over a year after flattening or inversion occurs before spreads materially widen.
Exhibit 1 shows a view of yield curve movements relative to the Fed Funds rate, along with rough projections. The primary observation for this cycle relative to the last cycle is that the Fed is tightening at about half the rate of the last cycle. Given this, we think the risk for this cycle is that the flattening and re-steepening/spread widening process takes longer than the last cycle.
Yield curve flattening and financial and liquidity stress indicators
Chart 2 and Chart 3 provide an additional view of today's world relative to 2005, using the BofAML Global Financial Stress IndicatorTM and the BofAML Liquidity Stress IndicatorTM.
Both Global Financial Stress and Liquidity Stress are negative (indicating below average risk), have been trending lower since early 2016, and are currently comparable to the levels of May 2005. Both indicators moved up substantially only when the yield curve re-steepened in late 2007. Our takeaway here is that the low levels on the Stress Indicators are confirming our view that a 2yr-10yr spread of roughly 50 bps is not necessarily indicating imminent stress. In other words, there is still ample monetary policy accommodation.
Mortgage lending in this cycle: low-risk lending and the rise of non-bank lenders
While broad macro developments are currently similar to 2005, the mortgage market, arguably the trigger of the 2008 recession and crisis, is very different. In particular, mortgage market risk is far lower today than it was 13 years ago. To at least partly understand pre-crisis developments in mortgage lending, it's useful to recall the role played by the massive 2003 refinancing wave.
Chart 4 shows the MBA refinancing index along with the primary-secondary spread back to 2000.
In some respects, the great refi wave of 2003 was the genesis of the mortgage crisis that followed. Lending capacity rapidly expanded to respond to the opportunity presented in 2003: refinancing volumes were unprecedented and margins, as measured by the primary-secondary spread (30yr mortgage rate-FNMA MBS current coupon yield) that peaked at 60 bps, were relatively attractive. When mortgage rates moved higher in 2004, refinancing volumes - and margins - collapsed. With massive capacity and minimal volume/margin in higher quality lending, the industry turned to higher margin, riskier lending as the alternative; we'll come back to that in a moment.
But first, fast forward to 2018 in Chart 4 After years of low interest rates in the post crisis period, most that could refinance have refinanced: the MBA refi index is now at the lowest levels of the millennium. Chart 5 shows that purchase lending activity is on the rise, although it is still well below the levels of the pre-crisis era.
Going back to the primary-secondary spread in Chart 4, although it's declined in recent years, we see a still relatively high margin on this low volume lending activity: currently about 75 bps, well above the levels of the pre-crisis period. The margin suggests no need to stretch on lending standards, but the volumes suggest that bankers have to work hard to get their share of the pie.
Next, consider some of the changes that have taken place or are underway.
Chart 6 and Chart 7 show the composition of lending in 2005 and 2017, respectively.
In 2005, 54% of production was ARMs, 36% was "expanded credit," and 43% was government/conventional. In 2017, the composition shifted to 12% ARMs, 2% "expanded credit," and 80% government/conventional lending. Clearly, the post-crisis regulatory changes and financial penalties associated with pre-crisis lending practices have changed lending behavior to higher credit quality.
Table 1 shows a lending and servicing snapshot for 2017, including YOY changes. Bank lenders experienced above-average declines in lending volumes in 2017 while a number of the top 10 non-bank lenders actually experienced growth in originations.
On servicing, the shift away from the banks to the non-banks is even more pronounced. Bank servicing portfolios declined in aggregate while non-banks experienced double-digit or even higher growth rates. Banks are conceding market share.
Overall, while the post-crisis refinancing lending opportunity has passed, and non-bank lenders are increasing their presence in the market, lending standards remain strong. The Urban Institute aggregate measure of the risk of loans closed shows that although credit risk has been rising in recent years, especially in the GSE segment, it remains well below pre-crisis levels (Chart 8).
If there is a trigger for the next crisis or even mild recession, we do not see it coming from the mortgage market. Similar to the indications from the Global Financial Stress and Liquidity Stress Indicators, there are no indications of current stress potential coming from the mortgage market." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
We would like to make a couple of remarks on the above. The shift to non-bank eg the "Shadow banking" has been significant. Banks have been less active in that space. Banks under higher regulatory pressure and oversight have reduced their activity and focused mainly on the higher quality segment of the mortgage market. Also following the housing bust, US Homeownership Rates have come down significantly from a peak of 68%, meaning US households could less afford buying a new home and have resorted to renting. Both Healthcare and rents now take a large chunk of the average American household income on a monthly basis. So, overall mortgage activity has become more muted for large banks. As always, there is risk you see and what you don't see to paraphrase Bastiat. It works as well for the US Mortgage market as indicated by the Brookings Institute in their article from the 8th of March entitled "The mortgage market risk no one's talking about, plus a proposal to redesign the system":
Nonbank mortgage originators and servicers-i.e. independent mortgage companies that are not subsidiaries of a bank or a bank holding company-are subject to far greater liquidity risks but are less regulated than bank-lenders and servicers. As of 2016, non-bank financial institutions originated close to 50 percent of all mortgages and 75 percent of mortgages with explicit government backing.
The research also suggests that mortgages originated by nonbanks are of lower credit quality than those originated by banks, making nonbank lenders more vulnerable to delinquencies triggered by a fall in house prices through the higher costs of servicing delinquent loans. A larger fraction of nonbank originations are insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) or Department of Veterans Affairs (NASDAQ:VA), which tend to be more likely to default than other types. Among mortgages in Ginnie Mae pools, the data indicate that mortgages originated by nonbanks are twice as likely as bank-originated mortgages to be two or more months delinquent." -source Brookings
Basically, as a reference to Nassim Taleb's latest book, banks have less skin in the game today in the mortgage market than they used to. So if housing is less the issue than in the prior cycle, then what is and what should we watch for when it comes to assessing the state of the credit cycles?
On this matter we read with interest UBS Global Macro Note "Credit Perspectives - Caution or Carry?" from the 19th of April in particular relating to the more advanced stage in the US of the credit cycle:
Q: Where are we in the US credit cycle?
The US credit cycle is later-stage, but unlikely to end in 2018. Later-stage credit indicators are present. Corporate leverage is very high, covenant protections are very loose, lower-income consumer balance sheets are weak, and NYSE margin debt is elevated. But the market trades off changes in conditions, not levels. To this point, we do not see an inflection to suggest the credit cycle is turning. Our latest credit-recession model pegs the probability of a downturn at 5% through Q4'18. Corporate EBITDA growth is running at 5-8% Y/Y, enough to keep leverage and interest coverage from deteriorating. Lending standards and defaults are only tightening and rising, respectively, in select pockets, and the scale of tightening is not enough to engineer broad stress. Last, but not least, a quick shot to growth from significant fiscal stimulus in 2018 should keep the cycle supported.
Q: How will demand for US corporate credit evolve?
We expect overall US credit demand to slow, with an up-in-quality bias developing and continued demand for floating-rate product (leveraged loans, IG floaters). Rising USD funding costs are reducing the appeal of US credit to European and Asian investors. These funding costs are now 2.5% for Japanese investors and 2.8% for European investors (3 month FX swaps). With 3 more Fed hikes in 2018, these hedging costs will climb to 3-3.25% by year-end. We do not expect supportive unhedged foreign flows to materialize due to significant US policy uncertainty, higher capital charges on unhedged positions (especially Solvency II), and regulatory pressure (Taiwan). US IG is better positioned than US HY, as current yields of 3.8% should attract some additional domestic insurer and pension interest. Modestly rising credit risk in HY may also divert some flows back into IG. But US HY outflows are likely to continue, given Fed hikes, tight spreads, below average earnings growth, and declining equity valuations of HY-rated companies.
Q: How will Fed hikes impact the US credit cycle?
4 Fed hikes in 2018 will age the credit cycle and create pockets of volatility. The increase in LIBOR is resetting interest rates higher on $3.2tn of US business loans (1/3 of the total stock) and is reducing the appeal of US fixed-income to non-US investors. Higher interest rates are filtering through to US consumer loans; they are raising funding costs for non-bank lenders who utilize floating-rate bank credit to facilitate lower-quality auto and mortgage lending. But in the context of still strong US growth, the cycle has a buffer. Floating-rate leveraged loan issuers have interest coverage ratios still above 3x (EBITDA/Interest expense) and can withstand 3 additional Fed hikes in 2018. A strong job market will keep consumer delinquencies contained to the subprime space. And rising LIBOR is currently a benefit to large US banks, which can still access cheap funding via retail deposits, while receiving a higher interest rate on their loan portfolios.
We prefer US IG over US HY on a total and excess return basis. US HY spreads of 323bps are expensive vs. our blended model estimate of 429bps, while IG spreads are more aligned (105bps current vs. our blended model estimate of 116bps). We have a slight preference for BBB credit, given higher carry, and also that a declining non-US bid will hurt A-rated demand, while domestic demand could support BBBs. In US HY, we maintain our preference for B-rated credit. CCC's are vulnerable given declining equity valuations, while BB HY will struggle with higher duration fears. We prefer US leveraged loans over US high-yield given our call for 6 Fed hikes by 2019, and much stronger demand for loans and CLOs from US and non-US investors alike. By tenor, we prefer 5- 10yr IG, acknowledging slightly better valuations in the short-end than before. We still believe it is too early to position in 1-5yr IG credit, given lower carry, additional Fed hikes and negative repatriation technicals around large buyback/M&A announcements. We are also cautious on 10+ US IG credit, particularly in higher quality names, given very flat curves relative to expectations.
We understand the levels of conditions are weak, but the changes are critical to capturing inflection points. US earnings momentum, lending standards (C&I, consumer), and consumer defaults will be on our radar. The Fed and BOJ will be important. A Fed more tolerant on inflation will boost our view on risky credit; a change in the BOJ's yield target would be a negative for US credit. The resolution of the ATT/TWX antitrust case will also set the tone for future M&A supply.
A cyclical recovery won't be enough to tighten spreads. For US IG, spreads near current levels (105bps) are justified largely by "soft data", in particular strong ISMs. With a fading foreign bid, increasing duration fears and more M&A activity on the horizon, we think IG spreads will widen to 115bps in the near-term. The one positive is that US IG has already cheapened YTD, which will attract domestic investor interest and reduce material downside.
US HY now screens expensive, as spreads at 323bps are inconsistent with both structural credit risks and increased equity volatility. In addition, we believe significant outflows YTD have whittled down cash balances for fund managers. Aggregate fundamentals remain stable, but tenuous at lower ratings, with leverage elevated and interest coverage weak. We expect HY spreads to shift wider to 400bps.
The credit cycle isn't turning yet. Our credit-based recession gauge highlights a 5% chance of recession through Q4'18, far from the 40-50% that signals a red flag. Earnings growth, lending standards, and bank NPL trends are "good enough" to sustain the cycle. However, interest coverage will likely become less favourable as 3 more Fed hikes in '18 and '19 will flow through to $3tn in floating-rate business debt.
Fixed-rate US HY coupons are stable as firms are not yet refinancing into higher rates. For floating rate leveraged-loans, coupon payments have been range bound, as re-pricings and tighter spreads have offset higher LIBOR. But we expect higher interest payments for loan issuers later in 2018, as the Fed hikes 3 more times, and spreads can't tighten as much to offset higher LIBOR.
Despite rising interest costs, floating-rate US loans have resilient enough interest coverage to sustain 3 more Fed hikes in 2018. This dynamic, plus growing demand for floating-rate credit, underlies our preference for US Loans over US HY. 3 additional Fed hikes in 2019 will prove more problematic. This will push loan coverage ratios to low levels (inferior to 3x) for B-rated firms and pressure free cash flow. Earnings growth will need to rise to reduce this future risk.
US leveraged loan supply hit $500bn in 2017, over 50% for M&A and LBOs, and reported 1st lien leverage is 3.9x - the highest on record. EBITDA add-backs averaged 20-21% in 2017, and are averaging 26% for large PE sponsor deals YTD - suggesting leverage is underreported and rising. A conservative view would push average 1st lien leverage closer to 5x on M&A deals.
The non-US bid into US IG credit will slow in 2018. Non-US investors are paying 2.5% (Japan) & 2.8% (Europe) to hedge their US fixed-income allocations. We do not believe foreign investors will remove FX hedges, given broad uncertainty on the trajectory of the US dollar. As the Fed keeps hiking, these costs will rise further and US IG will become less attractive than long-duration sovereign alternatives and even EU IG credit by year-end.
Slower demand is one part of the equation, but we still expect IG supply to be robust in 2018 (+2.5% Y/Y). The M&A pipeline is large, and we expect more issuance could hit the market, conditional on favourable antitrust outcomes which have lowered closing rates. High multiples and still low rates suggest firms will finance with debt. Offshore repatriation may reduce issuance on the margin, but most IG firms do not have significant cash, either overseas or on balance sheets, to utilize.
The savings from corporate tax reform will only modestly delever capital structures, even assuming firms utilize 25% of their tax windfall to pay down debt. More importantly, credit spreads have already priced this; spreads per unit of net leverage are at all-time tights. Bottom-line, earnings growth needs to be much stronger to de-lever capital structures.
HY spreads have remained very resilient. Despite significant outflows in Q1, HY spreads were effectively unchanged. We believe Dec'17 coupon reinvestments and low issuance YTD (-22%) had replenished cash buffers. But given the outflows of Q1'18, cash buffers are low once again. We expect HY spreads to widen more aggressively if volatility picks up anew." - source UBS
As we pointed out recently, rising dispersion means that at the current stage of the credit cycle in the US, credit investors are becoming more discerning in their issuer process selection, meaning overall that active credit manager should continue to outperform as the credit cycle is gradually turning on the back of the Fed continuing its hiking trajectory. Sure, "beta" has rallied hard recently, but, one should think about gradually adopting a more defensive stance by starting to reduce high beta exposure towards safer places. While we pointed out in our conversation "Fandango" that some positioning appears to be stretched such as short the long end of the US yield curve, we don't think yet with have reached the "trigger point" making us bold enough to dip our investing toes into the long end of the US yield curve particularly as we are getting closer to the 3% level on the 10-y Treasury yield. We are certainly watching any signs that would point out that the recent weaknesses seen in hard and soft US data have been temporary or not.
While the "Golden Rule" is being vindicated by the Trump administration for the growing use of trade war measures, boosting gold price in the process, 2018 seems to be marking the return of "Macro" as a strategy following the unfortunate demise of many Hedge Fund players after years of financial repression thanks to lack of cross-asset volatility. As per our last charts below, Global Macro is making a comeback thanks to rising volatility and dispersion across asset classes it seems.
- Final charts - The return of Macro to the forefront thanks to higher interest rates
The final removal of the lid on volatility which has prevailed thanks to the strong central banking narrative has been fading and marked earlier on this year by the explosion of the short-vol pig house of straw that built up during many years. Our final charts come from Bank of America Merrill Lynch from their Global Liquid Markets Weekly note entitled "The gold big bang theory" from the 16th of April 2018 with one of the charts displaying the spike in vix which can be linked to the rising rate environment:
Tighter Fed policy is helping lift OIS and LIBOR
We first argued in September 2017 (see Mind the unwind) that risk assets could suffer as a Fed balance sheet compression added on top of an already steady pace of US interest rate hikes. Six months later, the effects of tighter US monetary policy are starting to become visible in a number of markets and returns across major asset classes are negative for the year. The Fed has already been hiking rates at a steady pace for 9 quarters now (Chart 1).
Looking forward, with a tight labor market backdrop and rising commodity prices, our economics team believes that the Fed will likely complete three more hikes this year. In addition, we believe that Fed balance sheet tapering (see Missing the BEAT) has been an important contributor to the rapid widening in the 3m LIBOR-OIS spread (Chart 2).
In turn, higher interest rates are pushing up vol...
Just like ultra-loose monetary policy was a balm for asset markets, this combination of rising rates and balance sheet tightening could well be having the opposite effect on bond and equity markets. As we have previously explained, rising interest rates tend to put upward pressure on macro volatility (Table 1).
This effect is often lagged but quite persistent, and macro volatility has been on the rise for some time now. In our view (see Forward vol looks cheap to carry as long as you believe markets are late cycle), the spike in the VIX can be partly traced to the rising interest rate environment (Chart 3).
But higher interest rates are not the only source of uncertainty at the moment for global markets.
...as US fiscal policy is entering a slippery slopeIn fact, just as monetary policy has tightened, the US Federal budget deficit is poised to balloon (Table 2) over the coming 24 months.
Our economists have previously argued (see Fiscal injection: round 2), that the US Federal government could face the worst cyclically adjusted fiscal deficit as a 5.1% of GDP in 2019 because of the continuous fiscal stimulus: tax reform, increase in budget caps, and greater infrastructure spending. Less bond demand from the Fed and a tightening interest rate path is meeting looser fiscal policy. And as the Fed stops reinvesting its bond proceeds, the market will have to absorb more US Treasuries (Chart 4).
Recent tax changes have also reduced the demand for dollar commercial paper from US corporates abroad.
Inflation is trending higher helped by oil prices
Of course, the tighter monetary policy path in the US and the normalization of interest rates is informed by the rising inflation pressures across the economy. On the one hand, the decline in the unemployment rate will likely support a steady increase in core inflation (Chart 5).
On the other hand, rising oil prices are already feeding into an increase in headline inflation (Chart 6).
Because we now expect Brent crude oil prices to hit $80/bbl over the coming months (see The ruble drop is bullish for oil) and US job growth is poised to remain steady, the Fed will likely continue to tighten policy.
Naturally, cross-asset info ratios have fallen
Tighter money policy will continue to impact macro volatility. With volatility on the rise, info ratios across major asset classes could well continue to roll over (Chart 7) in the coming months.
In our view, equities and bonds are unlikely to see the stellar rolling Sharpe ratios of the past few years as the Fed continues to drain liquidity. Moreover, we would argue that a tighter US monetary policy outlook is already acting as a drag on asset values. Year to date, cash returns of 0.4% compare favorably to S&P returns of -1.2%, Eurostoxx returns of -2.0%, or 10-year treasury returns of -2.1% (Chart 8).
So is the Fed ready to switch course? Not yet
True, leading indicators such as PMIs remain in positive territory across all major economies and inflation is on the rise. So the Fed is unlikely to change Yellen's preset course for now under the new leadership of Powell. Yet, as money supply around the world continues to roll over on the back of tighter policy, asset returns could struggle (Chart 9).
The market is perhaps right to expect the Fed to hike interest rates roughly as scheduled (Exhibit 1).
But we still believe that escaping zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) will not result in a smooth path for asset markets." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Back in November 2012, in our conversation "Why have Global Macro Hedge Funds underperformed?" we posited that when volatility across all asset classes crashes, global macro strategies tend to suffer on both an absolute and relative basis. If indeed we are moving from a co-operative world to a non-co-operative world based on the Golden Rule in conjunction with a return of volatility then one should be wise to dust up the Global Macro playbook we think...
Monetary policy causes booms and busts." - Edward C. Prescott, American economist and Nobel Prize winner in Economics.