Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Macro and Credit - Cryoseism

"Praise out of season, or tactlessly bestowed, can freeze the heart as much as blame." -  Pearl S. Buck
Watching with interest the weakening tone in February in credit markets following the stellar month of January, in conjunction with confirmation of a global slowdown, and with no resolution in sight between China and the United States in relation to their trade spat, and also with the weaker tone for financial conditions coming out of the quarterly Fed Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey (SLOOs), when it came to selecting our title analogy, given the lower than usual temperature experienced in various part of the world including ours, we decided to go for "Cryoseism". "Cryoseism" also known as an ice quake or a frost quake, is a seismic event that may be caused by a sudden cracking action in frozen soil or rock saturated with water or ice. As water drains into the ground (liquidity in asset markets), it may eventually freeze and expand under colder temperatures (global growth and trade deceleration), putting stress on its surroundings. This stress builds up until relieved explosively in the form of a cryoseism. Cryoseisms are often mistaken for minor intraplate earthquakes.  Initial indications may appear similar to those of an earthquake with tremors, vibrations, ground cracking and related noises such as thundering or booming sounds. Cryoseisms can, however, be distinguished from earthquakes through meteorological and geological conditions. Cryoseisms can have an intensity of up to VI on the Modified Mercalli Scale. Furthermore, cryoseisms often exhibit high intensity in a very localized area (such as leveraged loans) in the immediate proximity of the epicenter, as compared to the widespread effects of an earthquake. Due to lower-frequency vibrations of cryoseisms, some seismic monitoring stations may not record their occurrence. Although cryoseisms release less energy than most tectonic events, they can still cause damage or significant changes to an affected area. There are four main precursors for a frost quake cryoseism event to occur: (1) a region must be susceptible to cold air masses, (2) the ground must undergo saturation from thaw or liquid precipitation prior to an intruding cold air mass, (3) most frost quakes are associated with minor snow cover on the ground without a significant amount of snow to insulate the ground (i.e., less than 6 inches), and (4) a rapid temperature drop (global trade) from approximately freezing to near or below zero degrees Fahrenheit, which ordinarily occurred on a timescale of 16 to 48 hours.

In this week's conversation, we would like to look at what the latest Fed's quarterly Senior Loan Officer Opinion survey means for credit in general and high yield/high beta in particular. 

  • Macro and Credit - This recent rally is not on solid ground
  • Final chart - Credit pinball - Same player shoots again?

  • Macro and Credit - This recent rally is not on solid ground
In our most recent conversation, we pointed out to the cautious tone from investors, urging CFOs in the US to take the "deleveraging" route given the continuous rise of the cost of capital, which appears to be somewhat validated by the latest Fed Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey (SLOOs). The Fed’s latest SLOOs points towards tightening financial conditions: "demand for loans to businesses reportedly weakened."  But, we think we will probably have to wait until April/May for the next SLOOS to confirm (or not) the clear tightening of financial conditions. If confirmed, that would not bode well for the 2020 U.S. economic outlook so think about reducing high beta cyclicals. Also, the deterioration of financial conditions are indicative of a future rise in the default rate and will therefore weight on significantly on high beta and evidently US High Yield.

In our early January conversation "Respite", we pointed out to our 2018 call, namely that analyst estimates were way too optimistic when it comes to earnings for 2019. If indeed Europe is a clear case of Cryoseism, with so much liquidity injected and not very much to show for macro wise in terms of growth outlook making it a very bad grade for the confidence tricksters at the helm of the ECB vaunting in recent days the great success of QE, the savage earnings revision pace we have seen so far clearly show the recent rally is not on solid ground. On the subject of earnings revision we read with interest Morgan Stanley's take from their US Equity Strategy Weekly Warm Up from the 11th of February entitled "Earnings Recession Is Here":
"Earnings expectations for 2019 have fallen sharply, but consensus still embeds a material reacceleration in 2H19. History tells us to expect further downward revisions, higher volatility and a drag on prices. We lower our base case 2019 S&P 500 EPS growth forecast to 1%.
Our earnings recession call is playing out even faster than we expected. When we made our call for a greater than 50% chance of an earnings recession this year, we thought it might take a bit longer for the evidence to build. On the back of a large downward revisions cycle during 4Q earnings season, it's becoming more clear. Consensus numbers have already baked in no growth for 1H19 (1Q projected growth is actually negative) with a hockey stick assumed in 2H19 that brings the full year growth estimate to ~5%.
History says be skeptical of the inflection forecast. The projected y/y EPS growth in 4Q19 is ~9.5%. This compares to an average projected rate of growth of 1% over 1Q - 3Q19, an inflection of ~8.5%. Since the early 00s, we have seen this kind of inflection happen a few times, but these inflections were all related to 1) comping against negative or slower EPS growth or 2) tax cuts mechanically lifting the growth rate. Neither of those forces are at play this year. In fact, it's the opposite making the achievability of these estimates even more unlikely.
When consensus is embedding an inflection further out, downward revisions, some drag on price returns and higher volatility are all to be expected. We examined what tends to happen when consensus embeds a big jump in growth 4 quarters out compared to the next three quarters. We found that the numbers for all 4 quarters ahead tend to fall but the growth quarter tends to fall the most. If current estimates move in line with history, we could see a full year decline of ~3.5% in S&P earnings. There is a wide range of potential outcomes though, so today we only take our base case forecast down to 1% y/y growth. We also found that equity returns can still be positive in this environment, but they will likely be weaker than they otherwise would have been and the odds of outright price declines are substantially elevated. Whether prices move higher or lower, volatility tends to rise meaningfully., with average year ahead price volatility realizing ~5% more than the full period average.
Lowering our earnings forecast. On the back of this work, we lower our Base Case 2019 S&P 500 EPS growth forecast to 1% from 4.3%. While our earnings numbers are coming down, our bull, base, and bear case year end price targets remain unchanged as a lower rate environment provides support for year end target multiples. The bottom line--our base case year end target of 2750 is a lot less exciting than it was a month ago." - source Morgan Stanley
In their executive summary of their interesting note Morgan Stanley indicates the velocity in the earnings revisions as of late. This rapid move clearly shows that the euphoria seen in January where anything high beta rallied hard is not on solid ground. Debt-financed buybacks after all fell to 14% of the total among US companies at the end of last year, the lowest level since 2009 according to JP Morgan data. Buybacks since 2012 has been an important "pillar" in terms of support to US equities in recent years thanks to multiple expansion rest assured.

On top of that there are an increasing percentage of companies with negative earnings: S&P 500 - 7%; Nasdaq - 47%; Russell 3000 - 28%; Russell 2000 - 37%. For us, "high beta" is very "junky". If fundamentals are deteriorating such as global trade and global growth and earnings revisions are "savage" then regardless of central banks' u-turn, it isn't enough we think to provide the same support we saw in recent years and quarters. The cavalry was indeed late after the December massacre, but the overall macro picture ain't rosy.

Given the velocity in earnings revision/recession Morgan Stanley have drastically revised their outlook according to their note:
"Earnings Recession Is Here; Adjusted EPS Forecast Lower
With 4Q18 results season nearing completion we have been taking a closer look at 2019 guidance. Downward revisions have come even faster and steeper than we expected and the full year earnings growth number now sits just above 5% with a material upward acceleration projected in the 4th quarter of the year. At the start of a downward revisions cycle, history tells us not to count on that kind of upward inflection.
On the back of the recent downward revisions, we lower our earnings forecasts for 2019 as we think it is becoming increasingly clear we are in the midst of the earnings recession we called for in our year ahead outlook. Specifically, we are adjusting our 2019 EPS growth number down to 1% (from 4.25%) while noting that despite support from buyback accretion and a weaker dollar by year end, risks skew to the downside. We make minor changes to our 2020 growth assumptions and bull/bear case earnings estimates as well. Our revised forecasts are shown in Exhibit 1.

While our earnings numbers are coming down, our bull, base, and bear case price targets remain unchanged as a lower rate environment provides modest support for year end target multiples. With a more dovish Fed and our Interest Rate Strategy colleagues now projecting a year end 10Y UST yield of 2.45%, we revisit our Equity Risk Premium / 10Y yield matrix (Exhibit 2).

We highlight our target range of ~15 - 16.5x forward PE for the S&P. Our range below has a diagonal tilt as we believe lower yields will be accompanied by higher uncertainty on growth leading to a higher ERP while higher yields may reflect a more optimistic outlook on growth, allowing for ERP compression.
Don't Count on a 4Q19 Inflection in EPS Growth
We are increasingly convinced that consensus earnings expectations for 2019 have further to fall and that the optimistic uptick currently baked into 4Q19 estimates is unlikely to happen. A modest further decline in earnings will deliver the earnings recession we called for. Equity returns can still be positive in this environment, but they will likely be weaker than they otherwise would have been and the odds of outright price declines are substantially elevated. Whether prices move higher or lower, volatility will likely rise meaningfully. So in essence, we are still looking at a bumpy, range bound market at the index level and think investors should continue to try and take advantage of the swings in price in both directions.
The Market Needs a 4Q19 Growth Inflection To Support Full Year EPS Growth
In our year ahead outlook we argued that 2019 had a greater than 50% probability of seeing an earnings recession defined very simply as two consecutive quarters of negative y/y earnings growth. Following a steep downward revisions cycle over the last few months, consensus forecasts are quickly getting there. From the end of November, earnings growth expectation on the S&P fell from ~9% to their current level of around 5%. With an expectation of negative y/y growth in 1Q19 and very marginal growth in 2Q19, the mid-single digit full year number embeds a heavy ramp up of earnings growth in the back half of the year, and in 4Q19 in particular (Exhibit 3).

Importantly, since consensus bottom-up numbers are really just a reflection of company guidance this earnings slowdown could have real knock-on effects to corporate behavior like spending and hiring which then puts further pressure on growth.
Furthermore, company managements tend to be an optimistic group. As such, we're not surprised they are calling for a trough in 1Q. However, we would advise against taking too much comfort in these calls for a trough in 1Q19 of the down cycle from the same people who didn't see it coming in the first place. In addition to a trough in 1Q, consensus estimates are now forecasting a big second half inflection in growth.
Anything is possible, but we have little confidence in such an inflection given sharply falling top line growth and disappointing margins in the face of very difficult comparisons for the rest of this year
. If we accept that an earnings recession is here, the key questions are how deep will it be and how long will it last? Again, it's hard to know, but we can look to history for some context on how expectations for a large upward inflection in earnings usually play out." - source Morgan Stanley
Again, analysts going into 2019 have been way too optimistic when it comes to earnings. A usual trend but given the amount of liquidity injected into the system by central banks no wonder we are seeing growing risks of "cryoseism" in 2019. Volatility is firmly back.

As we stated before, where oil prices goes, so does US High Yield and in particular the CCC ratings bucket given its exposure to the Energy sector. No wonder Energy rallied strongly over the month of January:
- graph source Bank of America Merrill Lynch (click to enlarge)

In its January 2019 Senior Loan Officer Survey, the Fed said that a net positive percentage of domestic banks reported increasing the premiums charged on loans to large and middle-market firms. Historically, this tends to be a reliable signal of a pending recession. Both the supply and demand for household and business credit is either slowing or contracting. This is yet another "Cryoseism" sign that the epic high beta rally seen during the month of January is not on solid ground. So sure the rally in US High Yield has been very significant but, if indeed financial conditions continue to deteriorate, it doesn't bode well for the asset class down the line.

As we mentioned on numerous conversations, like any good behavioral psychologist we tend to focus more on flows than on stocks. We stated as well at the end of the year that for a rebound in credit markets, fund flows need to see some stabilization the latest dovish tilt from central banks globally have enabled such a bounce as indicated by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their Follow The Flow report from the 8th of February entitled "Reaching for yield":
"Equities record first inflow, HY inflow surpass $1bn
Dovish central banks globally have instigated a risk assets rally. The reach for yield is back amid lower government bond yields. Inflows into high-yield funds have strengthened over the past weeks and equity funds recorded their first inflow in a while as light positioning has become a tailwind for the asset class.
Over the past week…
High grade funds flopped back to negative territory. Last week’s outflow reversed part of the inflow from week ago, ending a two week streak of inflows. However, the outflow was driven by one single fund and removing it would result into a $1.1bn inflow. High yield funds on the other hand continued to see stronger inflows w-o-w.
We note that last week’s inflow was the largest since September last year. Looking into the domicile breakdown, US-focused funds recorded the lion's share of the inflow, while Europe-focused funds recorded a more moderate inflow. Note that the inflows into global-focused funds were marginal.
Government bond funds recorded a decent inflow this week; the third in a row. Money Market funds recorded a strong inflow last week. All in all, Fixed Income funds recorded another inflow, though the pace has slowed down w-o-w.
For a change European equity funds recorded their first inflow after 21 consecutive weeks of outflows. Note that during this period total outflows reached $45bn.

Global EM debt funds continued to record inflows, the fifth weekly one. Note that last week’s inflow was the strongest since July 2016. Dovish Fed and lower dollar has become a tailwind for the asset class recently. Commodity funds recorded another inflow, the ninth in a row.
On the duration front, we find that the belly underperformed recording the vast majority of the outflow last week. Long-term and shot-term IG funds also recorded outflows last week, but to a lesser extent." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
A dovish Fed in conjunction with lower rate volatility have led to Emerging Markets benefiting from the return of the "carry" trade.

Given that bad news has become good news again during the month of January, given the dovish tilt taken by most central banks, high beta has come back to the forefront thanks to the central banking cavalry. 2019 has clearly started on a very strong tone as indicated by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their European Credit Strategist note from the 8th of February entitled "Play it again Sam":
"As the expression goes…it’s always darkest before dawn. Year-to-date, high-grade spreads have rallied 18bp and high-yield has tightened by 72bp in Europe. These are impressive moves. For the investment-grade market, 2019 is shaping up to be one of the best ever starts to a year outside of 2012 – a time when the ECB’s life-saving LTROs energised a huge rally across the market.
An epic central bank “blink”
In 2018, only 13% of assets across the globe posted positive total returns…and only 9% of assets managed to outperform US 3m Libor. Jump to 2019 and the picture couldn’t be different. As Chart 1 shows, 98% of assets across the globe have positive total returns so far this year (the second best outcome since 1990).

The clearest instigator for such a bullish reversal, in our view, is that central banks are now undergoing one epic reversal in their monetary policy stance. In 2019, the Fed has already pivoted to being on-hold, the ECB has moved the balance of risks to the downside, Australia has stopped hiking and India has delivered a surprise rate cut.
When the most important central bank in the world changes tack, others must follow…or risk unwanted currency appreciation. True to form, as Chart 2 shows, the number of global central bank rate cuts over the last 6m is now greater than the number of central bank rate hikes (although the picture is less dramatic when excluding Argentina).

And when central banks flip-flop, so do markets. With interest rate vol at record lows now in Europe, this means a green light for carry trades and a return of the thirst for yield.
Cash spreads can still squeeze…but watch out for March indigestion
In credit land, the Street looks particularly offside in this tightening move, reflective of low inventory levels. And with earnings blackout still in place, cash bonds could still squeeze tighter in the short term (especially non-financials). We think the real challenge for the credit market will emerge in March, given that supply is seasonally highest then (14% of yearly issuance). A €50bn+ month of supply, for instance, could herald a return of big new issue premiums and widening pressure on secondary spreads.
Hubris 101– it never ends well
We’ve seen this central bank movie too many times in the past, though, to forget that markets always overshoot amid a yield grab. And that’s exactly what we worry about this time. After all, 30yr Bund yields at 72bp, 5y5y Euro inflation swaps at 1.48% (the lowest since Nov ’16) and rising BTP spreads signal the market’s doubt over the efficacy of another dose of monetary support, in our view.
Our concern is that Euro credit spreads are now increasingly dislocated from European economic data, and at best are pricing-in a Euro Area recovery that may take longer to materialise than the consensus thinks.
Chart 3 shows that European high-yield spreads have closely tracked the Eurozone manufacturing PMI New Orders index over the last 20yrs (72% correlation of levels, since mid-98).

New Order indices are a more forward-looking, and relevant, indicator in our view. But note that this index is still falling and is now far below the 50 recessionary threshold (47.8). Yet, with the market having rallied strongly year-to-date, our regressions point to Euro high-grade spreads being roughly 20bp too tight, and Euro high-yield spreads a more concerning ~200bp too tight.
Credit spreads are likely discounting a revival in the Eurozone cycle. Our economists expect Euro Area data to begin rebounding as we approach 2H ‘19. But the point is we’re not there yet…and the data flow thus far – especially industrial production – suggests that the Euro Area rebound may, if anything, take longer to materialize.
As an open economy, the Eurozone needs a thriving global economy to grow strongly. Germany, in particular, is exposed to non-European export markets. And given how Germany is integrated into other European countries’ supply chains, German weakness means a broader spill-over to Eurozone growth. But the external environment has been very unfriendly to Germany of late. Chart 4 shows how non-Euro Area trade has faded, with trade wars and China’s slowdown being culprits.

Weaker non-EZ trade means less of a buffer for the Eurozone to counter rising political uncertainties.
That means Euro credit markets need to see two things pretty soon to justify today’s spreads: firstly a US-China trade “agreement”, and secondly signs that China’s stimulatory efforts are finally paying dividends (and supporting broader Asian growth).
  • While a US-China trade compromise is our base case, it’s not yet clear whether the US administration has moved on from their concerns over European car imports. On this front, investors should keep an eye on the US Department of Commerce’s Section 232 report on the national security threat of motor vehicle and auto part imports. Bad news here would weigh further on global trade volumes to the detriment of the Eurozone.
  • While China has engaged in a number of stimulatory measures lately (RRR cuts, tax cuts for small businesses and a perpetual bond-for-bill swap), credit growth dynamics have yet to materially rise. Chart 5 shows that the ratio of China Total Social Financing to China M2 remains subdued, for instance.

  • And importantly, while US and Euro credit markets have seen a material tightening in 2019, (high-grade) credit spreads in China remain elevated.
QE Infinity, and the real meaning of “pushing on a string”
The dovish leanings of policy makers this year have been manna for financial markets. For over a decade, central banks have been able to cajole asset prices higher with their repeated interventions. In fact, Chart 7 shows how effective the ECB has been since 2009 in propping up sentiment: growth in the ECB’s balance sheet has always been enough to counter spikes in European policy uncertainty.

But after ~$11tr. in central bank balance sheet growth since The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) (using the “big 4”), the limits of monetary policy are being reached. Central banks have much less capacity to effect economic change this time around. 
Chart 8, for instance, shows where interest rates would be if central banks repeated their post-Lehman easing cycle, from today.

Understandably, some of the numbers would be far out of the realms of possibility. Hungarian interest rates, for instance, would drop to -10%, Eurozone deposit rates would fall to -4% and US interest rates would be heavily in negative territory (-2.5%).
Moreover, as the expression “pushing on a string” reflects, successive rounds of stimulus over the last decade look to have produced incrementally less economic growth, we think.
In Chart 9, we show what has happened historically to (1) global GDP momentum; and (2) global debt-to-GDP levels, in periods when global central bank balance sheets have expanded notably. Since 2006, we find five such periods.

Since then, however, periods of central bank balance sheet expansion look to have produced a much weaker impulse to the global economy.
  • The second round of stimulus post-GFC (‘10/’11) was followed by a decline (-0.9%) in the OECD Lead Indicator, which was driven by strong deleveraging (-9pp in the global debt/GDP ratio),
  • And the short, but visible increase in global central bank balance sheets between late ’17 and early ’18 was not even enough to propel growth upwards: the OECD Global Lead Indicator fell by 0.3% over the following 12m.
In summary, we caution that markets should not get carried away by central banks’ newfound dovishness. After so much support already, and with $58tr. of global debt being added since the GFC, recreating the impact of past support now looks much tougher for central banks." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
We agree with Bank of America Merrill Lynch, "carry on" but do not get "carried away". If financial conditions will gradually continue to tighten as per the latest SLOOs, there is more potential for "Cryoseism". No matter how much liquidity has been injected by central banks, the massive issuance in credit markets in recent years have led to the illusion of "liquidity". For this illusion, you just have to check the secondary market in credit markets to gauge its depth. The next quarterly SLOOs will be paramount as per our final chart below.

  • Final chart - Credit pinball - Same player shoots again?
Are we seeing yet another case à la second part of 2016 which saw a significant rally in credit markets and in particular in high beta US high yield thanks to the recovery in oil prices and a more dovish tone from central banks? One might wonder. Our final chart comes from Bank of America Merrill Lynch's Credit Market Strategist note from the 8th of February entitled "Happy New Year, welcome back" and displays the SLOOs versus US Investment Grade corporate spread. Is this a similar situation to the early recession fears of 2016 or is this time different? We wonder:
"Lather, rinse, repeat
Back in late 2015/early 2016 US recession fears were overblown as investors extrapolated from weak manufacturing data a high recession risk. This exact same scenario played out late 2018/very early 2019 as markets forgot that the manufacturing sector is only 17% of the US economy and the remainder is strong (see: Fool me once, fool me twice). Back then the Fed’s senior loan officer survey showed in response a shift toward tightening lending standards. The same thing is understandably happening this time as the survey period for the fresh Fed survey was the last half of December, which represented the height of recession fears (Figure 7). Like back in 2016, as recession fears are proven wrong, this will pass and banks will once again go through a period of loosening lending standards well before the next downturn. For banks the problem is a lack of loan demand, as the cost of debt has increased materially. Absent recession that means banks will soon be back to loosening standards and undercutting yields in the corporate bond market in order to gain business." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Earnings were decent but the outlook is deteriorating fast. Also financial conditions seems to be tightening, We have seen stabilization in fund flows but this rally is not on solid grounds particularly with weakening buy-backs as CFOs are urged to become more defensive by investors of their balance sheet. You have been warned. It is still capital preservation time. Carry on but don't get carried away...

"Sometimes the early bird gets the worm, but sometimes the early bird gets frozen to death." - Myron Scholes

Stay tuned ! 

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Macro and Credit - The Zeigarnik effect

"Both poker and investing are games of incomplete information. You have a certain set of facts and you are looking for situations where you have an edge, whether the edge is psychological or statistical." -  David Einhorn

Looking with interest at the continuation of the rally in both equities and credit, including the high beta space while looking at the continuation in worsening macro data coming out of Europe, when it came to selecting our title analogy, thanks our fondness for behavioral psychology, we decided to go for the "Zeigarnik" effect given most investors are focusing these days on the uncompleted task of the Fed's balance sheet reduction. In psychology, the "Zeignarnik effect" states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. In Gestalt psychology, the Zeigarnik effect has been used to demonstrate the general presence of Gestalt phenomena: not just appearing as perceptual effects, but also present in cognition. If a task is interrupted, the reduction of tension is impeded. Through continuous tension, the content is made more easily accessible, and can be easily remembered. The Zeigarnik effect suggests that students who suspend their study, during which they do unrelated activities (such as studying unrelated subjects or playing games), will remember material better than students who complete study sessions without a break (McKinney 1935; Zeigarnik, 1927). The results of the study of the "Zeigarnik effect" suggest that a desire to complete a task can cause it to be retained in a person’s memory until it has been completed, and that the finality of its completion enables the process of forgetting it to take place. In similar fashion the desire of the Fed to complete its balance sheet reduction could generate we think, a "Zeigarnik effect" in investors mind. After all it seems to us that the Fed's balance sheet contraction is more influential on assets prices than rates hike, hence the importance of the "Zeigarnik effect" but we ramble again...

In this week's conversation, we would like to look at the state of credit markets and US in particular given the significant rise in leverage in recent years versus Europe, as well as the state of the US consumer. 

  • Macro and Credit - R is for "recession" and D is for "deleveraging". 
  • Final charts - Central banks to markets: let's be friends again...

  • Macro and Credit - R is for "recession" and D is for "deleveraging". 
The central banking cavalry came late to the rescue with both the Fed and the PBOC coming to support risk assets in general and high beta in particular. Given the even weaker tone coming out of Europe we think it won't take long until we see more support coming from the ECB particularly given the grim growth outlook for the likes of Italy and its continuing ailing financial sector. Given that the European Banking Union remain "unfinished business", it is we think another case of "Zeigarnik effect" as the "doom loop" aka the nexus between the sovereign and the banks is yet to be meaningfully addressed. 

In our previous conversation we pointed out to the more pronounced slowdown affecting Europe including France as well. With French Services PMI at 47.5 in January, at the lowest level in the last 4 years versus 49 in December it doesn't bode well for French GDP going forward:
- graph source Bloomberg

This is what we had to say about France in our last conversation about France:
"The situation for French corporate treasures when it comes to cash flows from operations is deteriorating to a level close to 2012-2013 follow the Euro crisis. This we think, warrants close monitoring, given we think that the ongoing "attrition warfare" between the French government and the "yellow jackets" is taking its toll on the French economy as a whole, which as we reminded you last week is very much "services" orientated relative to other countries of the European Union (80% for France vs 76% of GDP on average)." - source Macronomics January 2019
Sure there is global weaker tone when it comes to macro data, but it is no doubt more pronounced in some places and in Europe in particular hence our concerns and the use of the dreaded "R" word, "R" for recession when it comes to Europe, with Germany coming close to it recently.

But, the latest dovish tone from the Fed is very supportive for high beta, bearish US dollar, bullish Emerging Markets equities, bullish gold and gold stocks as well.

With global "easing" on its way back, following investors fears of a policy mistakes and with a Fed more S&P 500 dependent thanks to the wealth effect, credit could see a return of "goldilocks" thanks to low rates volatility. 

The "R" word has been rising as of late thanks to the global deceleration in global trade on top of a flattening yield curve, but when it comes to credit markets in general and US credit markets in particular, it seems that the "D" word, "D" for deleveraging is staging a comeback as indicated by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their Situation Room note from the 29th of January entitled "The (soft) floor on credit fundamentals":
"The (soft) floor on credit fundamentals
Our view is that large capital structures in the corporate bond market will go to great length to defend their IG ratings as it could become prohibitively expensive to operate in high yield. That (soft) floor on fundamentals remains one of the reasons we are overweight BBB-rated names. We make a couple of timely observations. First, although the situation remains evolving, we note that General Electric – the 6th largest BBB-rated issuer - is now again trading like the BBB-rated name it currently is, which is a remarkable turnaround after trading in line with BB-rated names during its weakest period last October/November (Figure 1).

Second, when Verizon – the second largest BBB - reported earnings this morning they managed to disappoint and the stock declined more than 3%. However with the company’s emphasis on deleveraging credit investors where not disappointed as spreads tightened about 2bps. AT&T – the largest BBB – was downgraded to BBB-flat in June last year. We would argue that for very large issuers BBB-flat is effectively the floor on ratings, as with further downgrades Fallen Angel risk would be too high for many investors. Since June 30, 2018 – when AT&T became BBB-flat rated in the indices – credit spreads in the Telecom sector, which is dominated by Verizon and AT&T, have tightened 12bps even as the overall IG market widened 10bps (Figure 2).

While we appreciate the longer term challenges to the Telecom industry from technological change, for the next several years we are comforted by relatively stable cash flows and the financial flexibility to support BBB ratings afforded by high dividend yields in the 4.5%-6.6% range. Hence our overweight stance on the Telecom sector." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
If there is indeed a slowly but surely rise in the cost of capital, yet at more tepid pace thanks to the latest dovish tone from the Fed, then indeed, this could be more supportive for credit, if companies choose the deleveraging route in the US to defend their credit ratings. In this kind of scenario, it would be more "bond" friendly than "equity" friendly from a dividend perspective we think.

In addition to a potential "D" for deleveraging story playing out for the US, Europe as well could also see a more defensive balance sheet stance coming from CFOs given the weakening growth outlook more pronounced on European shores. On that very subject we read some interesting additional points made by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their note mentioned above:
"Credit Strategy/Equity Strategy: Who are the refi “losers”?
From the era of hubris… to the reality check
Between 2012 and 2017, European corporates basked in ever-declining debt costs, thanks to unprecedented support from the ECB. The result was a steady boost to Earnings Per Share estimates. Buoyant credit markets thus led equity markets higher. But now the tables have turned, and the equity market should be prepared for a reversal of this symbiotic relationship. European credit spreads have doubled over the last year and companies are finding that they must now pay large concessions on bond deals to attract the requisite demand. Moreover, bond refinancing is a pressing need for a number of companies that failed to term-out their debt maturities during the good times. We think that credit markets now signal that EPS downgrades lie ahead.
A walk into the future - who are the refinancing "losers"?
Table 1 screens for European issuers that could see the greatest EPS downgrades from refinancing their 1-5yr debt. Based on today's credit landscape, we calculate EPS hits of up to 4%. Which names tend to be captured by our screen? Those with plenty of frontend debt still, and those where credit markets have already priced-in steep credit curves.

While Table 1 highlights a variety of names, reflecting these mix of themes, (peripheral) utilities, autos, industrials and telecoms feature prominently. And while there may be mitigants to EPS hits for utilities (regulatory regimes) and autos (financial debt), if debt costs continue to rise in Europe, these sectors would be impacted in other ways.
The canary in the credit mine for stocks
At the height of ECB QE, interest costs for European companies had dropped to 20yr lows. However, interest expenses returning to pre-QE levels will likely become a reality, and will be a further headwind to an already slowing profit cycle. EPS Revision Ratios have been trending down since 2017, when credit spreads turned, and our top-down profit cycle model is predicting 0% EPS growth this year. While operational leverage is undoubtedly the key profitability driver, a 100bps rise in interest costs could lead to a ~2% hit to European EPS. Our strategic view on equity styles and sectors is to focus on quality companies with higher profitability and lower leverage - names that we think will be less vulnerable to rising interest cost and widening credit spreads.
Defend the debt…not the dividend
Companies manage to shareholders, not bondholders. That is the unspoken rule. But we believe that this narrative may no longer hold in today's world of tougher debt rollovers. Equity investors should be prepared for companies to "defend" their debt more than their dividend going forward. Equity investors should therefore be mindful of companies with a high quantum of front-end bonds, and with high dividend payout ratios.
Who are the refi "winners" still?
The silver lining for equity investors is that while debt costs are rising everywhere, some companies have been relatively slow to refinance their bonds over the last few years, and are thus paying higher-than-market coupons on their existing debt. When refinancing time comes, we believe these companies (Table 2) will likely see a small EPS boost.
- source Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Whereas 2018 was not a good vintage for European stocks, then indeed there might be more additional pain for some equities holders should CFOs in Europe as well embrace a more defensive balance sheet stance, though, leverage in Europe has been creeping up at a much slower pace with the exception of France, being the outlier when it comes to corporate credit leverage overall.

We pointed out in our previous conversations that corporate treasurers in France were becoming more cautious given the deterioration they were seeing in their operating cash flows and slowdown in activity. We could therefore see more dividend cuts coming from French local players, if indeed CFOs adopt a more credit friendly approach when it comes to their balance sheet. The French "leverage" is highlighted in the below Barclays chart from their European Equity and Credit Strategy report from the 30th of January entitled "How worried should we be about Credit?":
- source Barclays

In relation to the European situation we read with interest Bank of America Merrill Lynch's Credit/Equity Strategy note from the 29th of January entitled "Who are the refi losers":
"Canary in the credit mine for stocks
The end of all-time lows on interest charges, as QE ends Since the inception of ECB QE in 2015, corporate borrowing costs have been falling up until 2017, when we saw the Euro cost of debt drop to all-time lows (Chart 5).

With ECB QE coming to an end, we have seen widening corporate credit spreads amid a widespread economic downturn and trade tensions. In periods of declining macro conditions, although safe-haven government bond yields tend to fall amid expectations of looser monetary policy, corporate credit spreads tend to widen due to the perception of rising default risks.
Interest expenses returning to pre-QE levels becomes especially important when EPS Revision Ratios in Europe have been trending down since May ’17 (chart 6) and our topdown earnings model predicts 0% EPS growth in Europe over the next 12 months (chart 7).

Unsurprisingly, investors are increasingly demanding that companies preserve cash to pay down debt rather than spend it on dividends or capex (chart 8).
We prefer more defensive High Quality names with lower relative quantities of frontend debt (or flatter credit curves). These are names that are less likely to see a hit to EPS from future debt refinancing, we think. Also similar to the list, we are strategically overweight the Food & Beverages equity sector in Europe.
European stocks dropped 18% last year, peak-to-trough, but have recovered the majority of December’s losses this year. Recent Fed action has clearly brought short-term relief, but so far has failed to generate large inflows back into Euro corporate credit. The key question is whether we can see a repeat of 2016, when the Fed took a long pause – and helped credit markets. However, in Europe, we think the ECB are unlikely to be able to offer new big stimulus, given the political constraints of QE.
We would note that equities have 88% correlation with credit spreads. But credit markets can also serve as useful leading indicators for equity investors. Large declines in EUR HY credit spreads have reliably signaled major troughs in equities in the past. With global growth in question, central banks are the only game in town (chart 9).

The credit market-equity market nexus
Note as well, that our analysis shows that a rise in European high-yield spreads of 100bp leads to an approximate 2% hit to market EPS in Europe (from the current levels). Given that our top-down model for European earnings suggests 0% EPS growth in 2019, we think that this is quite a meaningful number." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
If indeed the Fed's dovish pattern has been more positive for US equity holders including the high beta space, we do agree with Bank of America Merrill Lynch that, in Europe, the story might play out differently, with equities benefiting less from the ECB than credit markets overall. With slowing growth we continue to dislike European banks equities. From a credit perspective, it is more on a case by case basis we think but we would rather own selected credit from European banks than their stocks as far as we are concerned regardless of the high beta/cheap valuation put forward by some pundits or "confidence men" out there. 

So does it mean a return for "goldilocks" for credit? Sure they are many external factors such as Brexit and other geopolitical factors that come into play but, given the Fed has been in the driving seat in the most recent "risk-on" mood, there is a potential for a continuation of the rebound but probably not as significant as the one we saw during the second part of 2016 thanks to the rally in oil prices. We have touched this subject before on numerous occasions but when it come to a sustained rally for US High Yield, oil prices do matter a lot given the exposure to the Energy sector. 

With a notable slowdown in global growth on the back of rising angst surrounding the outcome of the trade war between the United States and China, with central banks coming to the rescue there is indeed a potential for credit to continue to perform on the back of the stabilization of fund flows in the asset class. In relation to US corporate credit's potential for pushing the United States into recession, as we stated before, earnings will be essential in 2019. On this subject we read with interest UBS's take from their Global Macro Strategy note from the 28th of January entitled "Credit Perspectives - US Corporate Credit - What we worry about and what we don't":
"While US growth is coming lower, rest of the world growth is still falling even quicker. Much as we think that at the aggregate level there are mitigating factors that imply US corporate debt won't itself lead to a US recession, there seems to be little doubt higher leverage means the US economy is more vulnerable to a profits slowdown, even one that has its origin abroad. The lack of willingness and ability from China to give a major stimulus this time has compromised growth both in Asia and Europe. Given that Asia has been a big driver of the demand for both tech and energy, key sectors for the US LL and HY markets, a slowdown here could have a big impact on US spreads. Energy issuers are still amongst the most vulnerable, even if the breakeven price for shale has fallen to USD 40-50 per barrel on WTI (Figure 24).

At those levels HY energy spreads could rise to 800-1000bps, we estimate. For the IG space, the big risk is European financials, to which US financials display a very tight correlation (Figure 25), and which have widened but less than would have been expected in the face of a sharp growth slowdown in Europe.

However, the decline in credit market liquidity means a sign of relative calm should not be read as a signal of health. Things could change dramatically with a few downgrades, or an uptick in NPLs." - source UBS
Given the significant rally in European credit since the inception of QE in Europe and with the ECB purchasing directly corporate credit, should a new TLTRO materialize in the coming months to continue to support the European financial sector, we do not think the upside will be as significant as seen before. We do have to agree with UBS namely that the "Zeigarnik effect" of our "generous gamblers" will probably be less potent than previously in engineering a significant rebound in credit markets à la 2016.

Moving back to the subject of earnings and risk-on/Goldilocks, we think there is limited upside in 2019 and we did warn in 2018, that when it came to earnings estimates, analysts were being overly optimistic in their outlook. December has clearly set the tone for vicious EPS revisions and cuts in many instances. If indeed CFOs become much more defensive of their balance sheet, then we could see more dividend cuts in 2019, which would be more credit positive, no wonder we suggested to seek higher quality in US Investment Grade versus high beta credit, performance wise, it has been more supportive to play quality (ratings) over quantity (high beta/yield) as highlighted in the below charts from Bank of America Merrill Lynch from their Credit Market Strategist note from the 25th of January entitled "High grades to IG":
"High grades to IG
While equities and high yield ended this week roughly flat (Figure 1) the strong rally in investment grade continued with credit spreads tightening at a roughly 5bps weekly pace (Figure 2).

This makes sense as the key economic data release this week – Jobless Claims – at the best level since the 1960s (Figure 3) confirms recession risk remains remote. Moreover, the Fed remains clearly on hold for an extended period of time (Figure 4) on the negative GDP impacts of tighter financial conditions and uncertainties surrounding trade war and the government shutdown.

For IG, the material decline in rate hiking risks in reaction to just some tenths cuts to economic growth is a good tradeoff. Being relatively more sensitive to economic growth for high yield and equities the tradeoff is a bit different.
The most likely scenario for how this year plays out, in our view, is continued improvement in the macro – US government reopens, Brexit resolves, US–China relations de-escalate and the US economy continues to grow above trend. As financial conditions ease this environment eventually puts the Fed in a position to resume its rate hiking cycle – probably sometime in the middle part of the year – which is going to be a more formidable challenge for IG. For now, we expect tighter credit spreads – although obviously the first big step has already been taken – but over time IG outperformance fades and turns to underperformance. We remain overweight IG corporate bonds." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
So yes, clearly, there is room for slightly more tightening with the Fed's dovish tilt and lack of interest rates volatility with falling inflation expectations. In terms of upside, it is a question of not having "great expectations" and being very selective hence the return of global macro and active management at this stage of the cycle with continued rising dispersion. 

Our final charts below clearly highlight the importance of central banks and in particular the Fed in driving asset prices, with its balance sheet policy reduction being the most important factor at play when it comes to the "Zeigarnik effect".

  • Final charts - Central banks to markets: let's be friends again...
With the most recent dovish tilt coming out of the US Federal Reserve, no surprise "risk-on" lives on. It is all about after all a question of "growth sensitive assets" as indicated in our final charts from Bank of America Merrill Lynch The Inquirer note from the 30th of January entitled "Wanted: Monetary easing, not Verbal flexibility":
All indicators point to weak global growth, and suggest EASING monetary policy
1) Only 5 out of 38 economies are seeing rising OECD leading economic indicators (LEI). The net proportion of countries with rising LEI is in the bottom decile of its history since 1988. 2) The world's monetary base shrunk 1.7% YoY in November, only the sixth time since 1980. All prior five occurrences of a shrinking monetary base were associated with recessions in Asia/emerging markets, and ALL were eventually associated with global monetary easing. The Fed's plan to "watch paint dry" and shrink its balance sheet by USD50bn/month this year, is likely to shrink the global real monetary base by 5% YoY by end-2019. Global central banks are implying a massive rise in the money multiplier to counteract this, and/or a rise in monetary velocity to keep nominal GDP growth humming. We think these assumptions are heroic. 3) The global 1m earnings revisions at 0.5 (i.e. for every upward revision there are two downward revisions) is in its bottom decile. 4) Asset prices that have an opinion on global growth (Dr Copper, Dr Sotheby's, Dr. Halliburton etc.) are in their lowest decile. Again, prior instances of such analyst pessimism and weak asset prices were followed by monetary easing. Policymakers seem to be flexible, and the markets like this flexibility if data weakens. Next stop easing?" - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Given the "Zeignarnik effect" states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks, it seems that markets are more than happy to remember an incomplete balance sheet reduction from the Fed at this stage but, we ramble again...

"An educated person is one who has learned that information almost always turns out to be at best incomplete and very often false, misleading, fictitious, mendacious - just dead wrong." - Russell Baker, American journalist.

Stay tuned!

Saturday, 19 January 2019

Macro and Credit - Alprazolam

"Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength." - Charles Spurgeon British clergyman

Watching with interest the historical defeat of Prime Minister Theresa May relating to Brexit, in conjunction with the Chinese central bank injecting a net 560 billion yuan ($83 billion) into the Chinese banking system, the highest ever recorded for a single day given the weakening tone of the economy, when it came to selecting our title analogy we decided to go for a medical reference to "Alprazolam". "Alprazolam", also the trade name for Xanax among others, is the most commonly used benzodiazepine in short term management of anxiety disorders, specifically panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder. It seems to us that the Chinese authorities have decided to act decisively on the very weak tone taken on their economy and the slowdown in global trade and its impact. Due to concern about "misuse", some strategists like us would not recommend "Aprazolam" as an initial treatment for panic disorder such as the MSCI China index down 23% over the past year. With the University of Michigan’s consumer confidence index falling to a more than two-year low of 90.7 in January, down from 98.3 in December, and well below expectations of 97.5, we wonder if our quote above is correct in asserting that anxiety does indeed empties today of its strength, namely consumer confidence. After all, clinical studies have shown that the effectiveness of Alprazolam is limited to 4 months for anxiety disorders but we ramble again...

In this week's conversation, we would like to look at the rising cost of attrition on the global economy, with the continuation of the stalemate in Brexit, US vs China trade/tech war, yellow jackets in France and of course the government shutdown in the United States. While Alprazolam has brought some solace to the December angst for investors, it remains to be seen how long the effect will last on the recovering "patients".

  • Macro and Credit - Does A for attrition equate R for recession?
  • Final charts -  Mind the liquidity shock...

  • Macro and Credit - Does A for attrition equate R for recession?
As we indicated in our previous conversations, "Bad News" has been the new "Good News" at least for asset prices in general and high beta in particular, the rally seen so far this year appears to us as more of a respite than a secular change to the overall picture. 

We indicated more downside risk at least from a European perspective and we continue to have a very negative view on France given the continuation of the unrest and the "yellow jackets" movement not giving any respite to president Macron. 

In our conversation "The European crisis: The Greatest Show on Earth", we indicated:
"When it comes to credit conditions in Europe, not only do we closely monitor the ECB lending surveys, we also monitor on a monthly basis the “Association Française des Trésoriers d’Entreprise” (French Corporate Treasurers Association) surveys."
In the AFTE latest survey, there is now a clear trend in the deterioration in their operating cash situation showing up:
- source AFTE

The situation for French corporate treasures when it comes to cash flows from operations is deteriorating to a level close to 2012-2013 follow the Euro crisis. This we think, warrants close monitoring, given we think that the ongoing "attrition warfare" between the French government and the "yellow jackets" is taking its toll on the French economy as a whole, which as we reminded you last week is very much "services" orientated relative to other countries of the European Union (80% for France vs 76% of GDP on average).

On this "attrition" subject we read with interest Bank of America Merrill Lynch's take from their Cause and Effect note from the 18th of January entitled "Investing in the age of the attrition game":
"Attrition bites in Europe
The “yellow vest” protest in France, which has resulted in the “worst riots since 1968” is now its 9th week. Not only it has shown no sign of ending, the number of demonstrators rebounded sharply over the past two weeks (Chart 6).

What began as a protest against fuel hikes has morphed into a broader movement of discontent with the government. President Macron has so far has refused to restore the wealth tax, one of the key demands of the protesters. This could turn into another war of attrition, especially with the fast approach of the EU parliamentary elections (May 23-26). French consumer confidence has tumbled sharply and is approaching levels reached during the Eurozone crisis (Chart 7).

The slowdown within the Eurozone is spreading. Both Italy and Germany are already in a recession (“the “R” club is recruiting”, January 11). For Italy, despite the passage of the 2019 budget bill, our European economics team has observed that the busy electoral calendar and decrees (not least those implementing pension reform and an income support scheme) could challenge the current ruling majority in the first half of the year. In Spain, a new far right party is emerging and the government lacks parliamentary support to pass a 2019 budget. The latest manufacturing PMI surveys show that new orders for Germany, France, Italy and Spain, the four largest economies in the Eurozone, were all below 50 (contractionary) in December, the first time in four years (Chart 8).

In our view, the greatest risk facing Europe is that the slowing economy fuels further populist discontent, creating a vicious circle." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
The numerous "attrition wars" being fought on a global scale are indeed clear headwinds regardless of the latest injection of "Alprazolam". As we indicated in our previous conversation "Respite",

"As we stated in various conversations including our last, we tend to behave like any good behavioral psychologist in the sense that we would rather focus on the flows than on the stock. On that note we continue to monitor very closely fund flows when it comes to the validation of the recent "Respite" seen in the market and it is not a case of confirmation bias from our side. 
We think that a continued surge in oil prices will be supportive to US High Yield. As well, any additional weakness in the US dollar will support an outperformance of selected Emerging Markets. Sure we might be short term "Keynesian" but overall, at this stage of the cycle we do remain cautiously medium-term "Austrian". 
A flattening curve in our book is not positive for banks and cyclicals such as housing and autos have already turned.  Also as briefly pointed out, a sustained shutdown is likely to be another drag on US growth which will therefore push the Fed's hand further into "dovish" territory". In that context, and if inflows return into credit markets, then high beta credit as well as Investment Grade could continue to thrive in the near term given Fed Chair Powell indicated in the latest FOMC minutes a willingness to be patient with future rate hikes. 4Q US GDP might disappoint we think." - source Macronomics, January 2019
We also discussed in our conversation the importance of the return of "macro" and the need to "monitor" fund flows for any signs of stabilization in "credit markets" as well as the need to track oil prices relative to US High Yield given its exposure.

Flow wise, Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their Follow The Flow note from the 18th of January entitled "Just a bounce?" question the most recent positive tone in financial markets given the weakening mood coming out from the macro data:
"Light positioning and known-unknowns
This year started on a positive note. Despite further weakness on the macroeconomic data front across the globe (more here), risk assets have staged a strong bounce higher. This is not because everything is in the price and we already know that macro is slowing and that the synchronised recovery has turned to a synchronized slowdown. It is the fact that positioning has been very light at the end of last year and thus cash balances have been put to work in January. With slower primary and tighter spreads last week it feels that the outflow trend is slowing down. However we are skeptical for how long markets can keep ignoring the continuing deterioration in macro. We feel this rally will not last, and thus we would use this bounce higher to reduce risk.

Over the past week…
High grade funds suffered another outflow, making this the 23rd week of outflows over the past 24 weeks. However, this week’s outflow is the smallest observed over that period. High yield funds recorded another outflow, the 16th in a row, but also the smallest in a while. Looking into the domicile breakdown, Globally-focused funds recorded the lion's share of outflows while US-focused funds outflow was more moderate. Actually Europe-focused funds have recorded small inflow, the first in 15wks.
Government bond funds recorded a small outflow this week. Meanwhile, Money Market funds recorded an outflow as risk assets moved higher. All in all, Fixed Income funds recorded an inflow, the second in a row.
European equity funds recorded another outflow this week, the 19th consecutive one. During the past 45 weeks, equity funds experienced 44 weeks of outflows.
Global EM debt funds continued to record inflows, the second weekly one. This confirms the improving trend observed recently as a dovish Fed has weakened the dollar. Commodity funds recorded another (albeit marginal) inflow, the 6th in a row.
On the duration front, short-term IG funds led the negative trend by far. Mid-term funds saw a small outflow while long-term funds experienced a decent inflow, continuing the recent trend of strength on the back-end of the curve." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
We agree with Bank of America Merrill Lynch that, the significant rally in high beta should entice you to become more "defensive" and favor "quality" (rating) over "quantity" (yield). In the ongoing attrition game, it is more a question of capital preservation than capital appreciation we think.

Moving back to the "attrition game" and Bank of America Merrill Lynch's note from their Cause and Effect from the 18th of January entitled "Investing in the age of the attrition game", regardless of the positive liquidity injection from the PBOC and dovish tilt of the Fed, earnings as well are slowing down and there is more risk to US consumer confidence with the shutdown:
"Shutdown raises trade war risk
What does a destabilizing gridlock in Washington mean for the US-China trade war? Given the peril of fighting two battles at the same time, it seems reasonable to assume that the incentive for Trump to close a deal with China sooner than later has gone up. The fact that he has been talking up the prospect of a deal with China in recent weeks (“I think we’re going to be able to do a deal with China,” January 14) is consistent with this hypothesis. The market has taken these upbeat remarks at face value and has been driving up EM assets, the main casualties of the US-China trade war last year.
However, it takes two to tango. Trump’s loss of full control of Congress may be viewed by Beijing as justifying a less conciliatory stance. With the shutdown in Washington and growing expectations that the Mueller report will be out soon, Beijing may decide that it is not in a hurry to close a deal. Trump set a precedent by agreeing to a 3-month extension for the next round of US tariff. Beijing might think that the Americans could be forced into giving another extension if there is no deal by March 1.
The recent US slowdown could be giving China another reason to wait. Despite the reductions in reserve requirements to decade lows (Chart 3), Chinese credit growth has so far shown no signs of picking up (Chart 4).

Beijing might have eased monetary policy even more aggressively last year if it weren’t for the fact that rate hikes by the Fed was pushing down the renminbi (Chart 5).

A much weaker renminbi might have further complicated the US-China negotiation. The fact that the Washington shutdown is increasing the chance of a Fed pause, giving China a wider window to ease policy, could also reduce the urgency for Beijing to close a deal with Trump." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Unless there is a rapid resolution between the United States and China on the trade/tech war narrative which has led to a significant rally in Emerging Markets so far this year on the back of a weaker US dollar, then indeed there is a high probability that the effect of the "Alprazolam" will fade and the bounce experienced so far could end rapidly and abruptly.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch added the following in their report:
"Market implications
Developments over the past two months suggest to us that political risks are rising.
This puts us at odds with current market consensus.
The contrast between our views and those of consensus is giving us confidence in our investment thesis for 2019:
The USD is vulnerable. We view the escalation of the gridlock risk in Washington as posing the greatest risk to the decoupling trade and to the USD. We are soon approaching a key support level that, if broken, will usher in further USD weakness (USD topped and target reached, but is this it? January 16). We like selling the USD especially against the JPY and the CHF. The EUR has been unable to capitalize on the USD’s retracement this year, reflecting concerns about the growth outlook for the Eurozone. If Eurozone political tension continues unabated, we may have to revisit our bullish EUR/USD forecasts.
EM rally won’t last forever. EM is rallying on Trump’s upbeat comments on the prospect of a trade deal with China. We think the risk of a no deal by March 1 is higher than expected. We also think that the inability of the EUR to gain against the USD will limit the room for further gains in commodity prices and EM. We think EM investors should not wait too long before taking some money off the table. We continue to believe that in 2019 investors need to think strategically but act tactically.
US rates vol looks cheap. Rates vol has fallen sharply year-to-date as risky assets stabilized (Chart 9).

We see the sell-off as possibly overdone given the binary nature of the political risks we highlighted in this report and the increasingly binary decision the Fed is facing. The worsening supply-demand dynamics as we head into possibly debt ceiling crisis #2 will likely provide strong support to rates vol." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Any spike in rates volatility would obviously be negative for asset prices given carry players, risk-parity investors and other pundits love one thing, and that's low rates volatility. Any return of volatility on the aforementioned would definitely trigger another bout in "risk-off" rest assured.

How convinced are we with the strong rally seen so far from the December "oversold" situation? Not very much, we would argue. Sure, we have seen a welcome respite with the central banking cavalry arriving late, once again to an already damaged macro situation. Given the amount of known "unknowns" and the weaker tone in the overall macro picture, yes bad news are good news again for asset prices, but, we do think that buying some protection to the downside with potential bouts of volatility is a wise move.

Remember 2018 has marked the return of "cash" in your allocation toolbox and it should be used more extensively in 2019 given the risk for even more volatility events than in 2018. Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their High Yield Strategy note from the 18th of January entitled "When Cash Becomes King" makes some compelling arguments about the current tactical rally we are seeing:
"Low-risk yields appear compelling in this macro setup
The rally in leveraged credit has taken a pause in recent sessions, with our DM USD HY index oscillating around 450bps, more or less where it stood a week ago. The same could be said of rates as well, where the 10yr remained range-bound over the past week, spending most of its time around 2.70-2.75%. Even equities exhibited low volatility, by recent standards, with S&P500 moving 10-20pts in most sessions, a sea-change from 80-100pt sessions around year-end.
So, can this be considered an all-clear signal? Perhaps. It undoubtedly adds one reason to think so, although it is hard to make it sound convincing in and of itself. We prefer to rely on more tangible events, something that would not be forgotten tomorrow if volatility were to return.
Among such new developments, we counted the following:
  • China: has responded strongly to apparent signs of weakness in its economy by cutting bank reserve requirements, policy rates, and business taxes. The extent of cuts in reserve requirements now exceeds those witnessed in 2008 and 2015. Business taxes were cut to the tune of $30bn/year; for some perspective US corporate tax cuts of 2017 amounted to $600bn/10yrs, or $60bn/yr for an economy that is 1.5x larger. In other words, very meaningful policy actions out of China.
  • Earnings: banks opened the reporting season with a bang despite notable shortfalls in FICC results; their other businesses appeared to be doing well. Tax-reform bump is likely to begin coming out of numbers only next quarter, and will potentially reach its peak in Q2-Q3 of 2019. So US earnings could stay artificially elevated for a couple more quarters, in our view.
  • Sectors: financials led, while utilities and staples trailed in the whole S&P500 round-trip between Dec 14-Jan 15. The argument goes that financials underperform and defensives outperform into a downturn. And yet the fact that utilities underperformed through a potential PCG bankruptcy does not help the case of this not being a cyclical turn.
On the other side of the ledger, the following reasons support continued caution:
  • China: would probably not be throwing this much stimulus if its economy was performing in an acceptable way. The leadership there must know something we don’t know, in our view.
  • Earnings: our model for US EPS has experienced further deceleration in recent weeks, and points to +6% growth over the next year. While this is not a level consistent with a cyclical downturn, we note that earnings went from 20%+ actual yoy growth rate in Q3, to earlier estimates around +10-12% to +6% today (Figure 1). So the trajectory and the remaining cushion are a concern.

  • Wide IG: with spreads elevated in the IG space, HY looks tight. BBs offer only 100bps premium over BBBs (Figure 2). While not unheard of, we think this is too tight in today’s market environment given the shift in risk sentiment that has occurred over the past several months. Historical relationship between BBBs and BBs implies the latter should be 60bps wider given where the former is, ex PCG.

  • Illiquidity gap: while liquid bonds have rallied and retraced a good chunk of Dec losses, illiquid paper remains marked at discounted levels (Figure 3 and Figure 4). This behavior is inconsistent with a sustainable turn in market sentiment, i.e. investors must become comfortable bidding for illiquid stuff to demonstrate their conviction. Buying HYG does not cut it.

  • High dispersion: only 1/4 of all HY bonds trade within +/-100bps of overall index level; under normal circumstances, 40-50% of them trade this way. High degree of dispersion could be a function of illiquidity gap described above. Regardless of its origin, dispersion tends to increase (percent trading at index levels drops) at times of market downturns. The current levels of dispersion are consistent with 500- 525bps HY spreads and 1,300-1,400bps CCC spreads.
  • Default estimates: With most factors now fully refreshed with Dec levels, the model continues to point towards 5.5% issuer-weighted and 4.25% par-weighted default rates. Such credit losses, if materialized, imply meaningful pickup over realized levels (2.8%) and point towards wider HY spreads (500bp as a risk-neutral level).
While these data points are not yet known, and could change our thinking as they come in, we remain mindful of a scenario where this episode eventually proves itself to be a cyclical turn. As such, we find current HY valuations to be somewhat out of balance, in terms of likely ranges going forward, i.e. we think probability is higher to see spreads in high-500s rather than low-300s; these two are otherwise equal distance away from here. Given this view, we are reducing our model portfolio beta to a modest underweight at this point, which we intend to move towards a more substantial underweight if  spreads continue to grind tighter from current levels.
Think about what you believe are reasonable return expectations from here, and compare them to low-risk alternatives: Libor is at 2.75%, short-duration IG is at 3.70% yield, and short duration BBs are at 5.20%.
In the environment where the next few months carry a reasonable chance of marking the turning point in this credit cycle, we find such yields increasingly attractive. Even if the cycle overcomes all obstacles and rolls on, you can blend-average the above into 3.5-4% portfolio, with a strong likelihood of actually realizing this return, in our view.
So we are probably entering a period of time when cash is becoming king again. HY may end up showing bouts of strong performance during this time, just as it did in early January, and we remain open-minded to tactically shifting our views when opportunities present themselves. We just struggle to see how it could happen from 450bps overall index levels or from 100bps BBs-BBBs differential." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Being underweight high beta is we think indeed a good recommendation at this stage. Stay nimble and get tactical. Buying HYG might not cut it for Bank of America Merrill Lynch from a "liquidity" perspective, but, from our side and as a useful "macro" defensive tool for credit exposure "hedging", we believe synthetic exposure through credit indices such as Itraxx Main Europe 5 year and CDX IG for the lucky few of you benefiting from an ISDA agreement provide sufficient liquidity to sidestep any Investment Grade liquidity concerns. The US equivalent to the European CDS investment Grade index, namely the CDX, does not include banks as a reminder. The Itraxx Main Europe 5 year index is therefore a good "macro" hedge instrument for investment grade exposure to more turmoil with "European" banks, though we do not expect Mario Draghi to rock the ECB boat before his departure and it is highly likely the ECB will provide additional LTRO funding to the ailing banks in the European banking system, some more "Alprazolam", one would opine.

On that note, if indeed we are back into a "macro" world when it comes to "trading" then, using the rights "macro" instruments such as synthetic credit indices and options on credit indices might provide mitigation to heightened volatility over the course of 2019 and sufficient liquidity if indeed there is a "liquidity shock" when the "Alprazolam" effect will truly fade.

  • Final charts -  Mind the liquidity shock...
While as we pointed out like many pundits that "liquidity" is a concern given how credit markets have swollen in recent years thanks to buybacks supported by very large issuance levels, then looking at the CDS market as a proxy for risk ahead is again warranted as pointed out by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their Credit Derivatives note from the 16th of January entitled "The basis for a correction" with the below chart pointing out to the underperformance of bonds relative to the CDS market:
"Macro data continue to disappoint; we remain cautious
The globally synchronised bullish macro backdrop markets enjoyed in 2017 and the early part of 2018 is now firmly behind us. A year later, European data weakness continues while US strength is losing steam, fairly sharply. Chinese data are not improving either as PMIs are now at recessionary levels.
Despite the somewhat better start to the year for risk assets, we think that volatility will remain a key theme for another year. Large swings and lack of clarity underpin our bearish stance on spreads and beta in the following months; we continue to advise a defensive positioning. The deterioration in macro indicators will keep market sentiment fragile, in our view.
It feels like 2015-16
2018 is likely to be remembered as the worst year since the 2008 crisis. Performance was poor and funds suffered outflows. The performance over the past 12 months resembles that of 2015-16. However, this year started on a much more upbeat note than. 2016. Nonetheless, we are concerned that several factors are reminiscent of the drivers that pushed spreads wider in January and the early part of February 2016. A macro slowdown, lack of inflation in Europe and tightening conditions that risk assets were dealing with back then are still adversely affecting markets.
Gap risks and basis
We also think that CDS is too tight to cash bond spreads and negative basis is supportive for more downside risk in the synthetics space. The “gap” wider risk for the CDS market makes us less comfortable at current levels and, as we see fewer catalysts to reverse this market weakness we would use the recent move tighter as reason to reset shorts, especially by selling receivers to own payers. We also screen for negative basis opportunities.
The globally synchronised bullish macro backdrop markets enjoyed in 2017 and the early part of 2018 is now firmly behind us. A year later, European data weakness continues while US strength is losing steam, fairly sharply. Chinese data are not improving either as PMIs are now at recessionary levels.

Despite the somewhat better start to this year, we think that volatility will remain a key theme in 2019 too. Large swings and lack of clarity underpin our stance to remain bearish spreads and beta in the coming months; we continue to advocate defensive positioning. We expect the deterioration of macro indicators to keep markets sentiment fragile, and until we see the cycle trough, we remain skeptical on how well higher risk/beta pockets will perform." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
So enjoy "Alprazolam" effects while they last as we concluded in similar fashion our previous conversation. Remember that those taking more than 4 mg per day of Alprazolam have an increased potential for dependence. This medication may cause withdrawal symptoms upon abrupt withdrawal or rapid tapering, which in some cases have been known to cause seizures, as well as marked delirium.  The physical dependence and withdrawal syndrome of Alprazolam also add to its addictive nature. Alprazolam is one of the most commonly prescribed and misused benzodiazepines in the United States, benzodiazepines are recreationally the most frequently used pharmaceuticals due to their widespread availability. Alprazolam, along with other benzodiazepines, is often used with other recreational drugs such as QEs but we ramble again...

"A crust eaten in peace is better than a banquet partaken in anxiety." - Aesop
Stay tuned !
View My Stats