Sunday, 14 October 2018

Macro and Credit - Under the Volcano

"A democracy is a volcano which conceals the fiery materials of its own destruction. These will produce an eruption and carry desolation in their way." -  Fisher Ames, American statesman


Looking at the large wobbles experienced in financial markets this week, leaving many pundits wondering if we had attained "The Amstrong limit" and trying to figure out if it was the start of something much larger at play, when it came to selecting this week's title analogy, we decided to steer back towards literature this time around. "Under the Volcano" is a famous1947 novel by English writer Malcom Lowry. The novel tells the story of Geoffrey Firmin, an alcoholic British consul in the small Mexican town of Quauhnahuac, on the Day of the Dead, 2 November 1938. When it comes to QE and alcoholism, we reminded ourselves our September conversation "The Korsakoff syndrome" being an amnestic disorder caused by thiamine deficiency (Vitamin B) associated with prolonged ingestion of alcohol (or QE...some might argue). But what is of interest to us in our chosen analogy, is that this great novel of the 20th century has 12 chapters and the following 11 chapters beside the first introductory chapter happen in a single day. In similar fashion one could posit that the credit clock has 12 hours. In his novel Lowry alludes to Goethe's Faust as well as references to Charles Baudelaire's les Fleurs du Mal. We also used similar reference to Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal back in December 2011 in our conversation "The Generous Gambler" and in 2014 in our conversation "Sympathy for the Devil":
"The greatest trick European central bankers ever pulled was to convince the world that default risk didn't exist" - Macronomics.
Throughout Malcom Lowry's novel the number 7 appears, in similar fashion, we are seeing many signs reminiscent in the current credit cycle of the year 2007 or even with 1987 (the DJIA topped in '87 at 2700) given today we have both dividends and buybacks paid out in excess of operating cash flow.  Both are being funded with debt accumulation exactly as it was the case in the year 2007. Also, one may argue that somewhat, European bond investors made a "Faustian bargain" with Mario Draghi aka our "generous gambler" but we ramble again. 


In this week's conversation, we would like to look at once again where we stand in the credit cycle and ask ourselves how long until we see it definitely running.

Synopsis:
  • Macro and Credit -  What's under the "credit" volcano?
  • Final chart - Large standard deviation moves, the "market" volcano is becoming more "active"


  • Macro and Credit -  What's under the "credit" volcano?
As we pointed out in our most recent conversation, the latest quarterly Fed Senior Loan Officers Opinion Survey (SLOOs) continues to indicate overall support for credit markets yet the market feels more and more complacent à la 2007 we think:
- graph source Macrobond

The most predictive variable for default rates remains credit availability and if credit availability in US dollar terms vanishes, it could portend surging defaults down the line. The Fed quarterly SLOO survey reflects the ability of medium sized enterprises (annual sales greater than $50mn) to get funding from regional banks. Since HY issuers fit this criterion, this survey is also well correlated with their ability to tap the bank lending market. The SLOOS report does a much better job of estimating defaults when they are being driven by a systemic factor, such as a turn in business cycle or an all-encompassing macro event. Credit always leads equities in our book.

Credit investors look at the CDS roll. The most recent roll into the new contracts was in September, the new “on-the-run” benchmark series. The current steepness of CDS curves is a headwind for anyone “bearish” on credit and wanting to express it through CDS products. Too costly right now:
Graph source Edward Casey - Bloomberg

Yet, there is no doubt rising “dispersion” which in effect means that credit investors are becoming more discerning when it comes to their selection process of various issuers’ profile. This we think is another sign of a late credit cycle.

To illustrate further the deterioration in the credit cycle overall picture, one could look at European High Yield and in particular Consumers and Cyclicals as shown in the below chart by DataGrapple on the 9th of October:
“It was a mixed session with BTPs, stocks and rates sending contradicting signals throughout the day. In credit, there was a constant theme though, as investors sold risk on higher beta auto and autopart related names. The sector has been heavy for a couple of days, a phenomenon that was pinned down to the upcoming EU environment ministers meeting to discuss emission caps, which is widely expected to result in a push for a more ambitious set of rules. It culminated this morning in a proper battering of TTMTIN (Jaguar Land Rover Automotive Plc) which saw its 5-year risk premium marked 45bps wider at the open. This aggressive move followed the September sales numbers reported by the company. The year-on-year decline amounts to 12.3%, as strong sales for new models were offset by weakness in China where demand dropped 46.2% on the back of import duty changes and continued trade tensions. This came exactly a month after Ralf Speth, the CEO, warned that a hard Brexit would cost the company £1.2Bln a year and would wipe out its profits. The company also confirmed the two-week temporary closure of its Solihull factory, which employs almost a quarter of the group’s workforce in the UK. Some profit taking on short risk positions eventually emerged at the end of the session and limited the widening of TTMTN’s 5-year risk premium to 28bps at 485bps, but the negative trend of the past nine months which is obvious on the above grapple shows no sign of abating and is in fact gathering momentum since the roll.” – source DataGrapple
With rising dispersion, and global trade deceleration and the effects of the trade war narrative, we are already seeing cyclicals underperforming. 

In similar fashion to 2007, when default rates are low, credit investors believe that stability is the norm, and start piling up on leverage or CLOs with lack of covenants such as Cov-lite loans as per the below chart from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, indicative of aggressive issuance:
- graph source Bank of America Merrill Lynch

What is of interest to us, regardless of the "liquidity" issues many pundits have been talking to about in relation to mutual funds and the strong growth in passive management through ETFs in recent years has been the rapid growth of the private debt market in this very long credit cycle.

On this subject we read with interest Bank of America Merrill Lynch High Yield Strategy note from the 12th of October entitled "The Next Credit Cycle - Scenarios for HY, Loans, and Private Debt":
"Private debt, the fastest growing segment in US credit
By its very nature, the private debt market is more difficult to analyze as most deals never get included in any widely followed indexes or make it into otherwise publicly reported portfolios. Even estimating the size of this market is a challenge, and we had to go about it backwards, by starting with known overall corporate debt stack and removing otherwise known and attributable pieces. We think, the market is somewhere between $400-$700bn in size, and it was the fastest growing segment of US credit, including bonds, bank and non-bank loans, over the past five years.
This report outline our understanding of structure, major investor types, growth, sector composition, leverage and covenant trends, key risks and mitigating factors of the private debt space. We find this asset to feature many hallmarks of a classic new hot market, which often results in unsustainable growth trajectories leading to eventual corrections, required to stabilize the market at longer-term sustainable levels. This report is also part of our broader take on US lending landscape that we published in collaboration with our banks and asset managers equity research and economics teams.
Loan covenants are the defining feature of this cycle
The syndicated leveraged loans continued to attract investor interest since the GFC, as their investment thesis (significant yield pickup coupled with no interest-rate sensitivity) remains appealing to many. As a result, the leveraged loan market has grown by 19% in the last two years, 44% in the last five, and doubled in the last ten. Strong demand forces asset managers have to compete for new deal allocations on both pricing and structures. Coupons are getting squeezed, leverage pushed up, and covenants dropped. And while tight pricing and elevated leverage are expected side-effects at this stage of the cycle, the degree of covenant deterioration has reached new levels in recent years, well beyond the outdated “cov-lite” label.
The next credit cycle: modeling potential credit losses
We bring all our knowledge of the three segments of leveraged finance – HY, loans, and private debt – in one place by running side-by-side credit loss models for three distinct scenarios: consensus middle-of-the-road, mild recession and a full-scale recession. Our interest primarily focuses on the last one as it helps us better understand the downside scenario and help us make more informed risk management decisions.
Key takeaways
We estimate the next credit cycle, when it happens, could bring credit losses to the extent of 2x of expected annual yield income in high yield and leveraged loans, and 1.3x in private debt. Investors could also experience temporary mark-to-market losses of up to 5x of their annual income. To put this downside risk into perspective, it would take a 325bps increase in yield to wipe out 2 years of yield income in HY, given the 4yr duration of this asset class. In other words, a 150bps increase in Treasury yields coupled with a 150bps widening in spreads is less damaging than a cyclical turn. While we do not believe the next credit cycle turn is imminent, this evidence improves our confidence in the existing positioning recommendation to begin underweighting lowest quality segments of the market in favor of higher quality segments." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
As per the above executive summary from their very interesting report, we do agree that the next credit cycle downturn is not imminent, yet we see rising M&A activity and rising dispersion as additional indicators of how late the credit cycle is. The summer drift for Emerging Markets has created some additional dispersion this time between EM High Yield and US High Yield as per the below chart from Bank of America Merrill Lynch:
- source Bank of America Merrill Lynch

Both rising oil prices and strong earnings have been very supportive of US High Yield so far.

But, returning to the subject of loose covenants aka Cov-lite loans we read with interest Bank of America Merrill Lynch's take:
"Loan covenants are an epitome of this cycle
The syndicated leveraged loans continued to attract investor interest in the last few years, as their investment thesis (significant yield pickup coupled with no interest-rate sensitivity) remains appealing to many. As a result, the leveraged loan market has grown by 19% in the last two years, 44% in the last five, and doubled in the last ten. Both syndicated loan and CLO issuance is hitting new records (Figure 8).

With strong demand for loans in recent years, asset managers have to compete for new deal allocations primarily on two scales: pricing and structures. Coupons are getting squeezed, leverage pushed up, and covenants dropped.
CLOs are in a particularly sensitive spot, where their ability to compete on pricing and leverage is limited as they have to make math work over the cost of funding and adhere to minimum rating constraints. As a result, some managers could be more inclined to compete by accepting looser investor protections for the same price and leverage.
A typical CLO ramp-up period includes a warehousing stage that could last for about six months. During this stage, new loans are being acquired as a collateral for the future CLO deal, and an equity investor in a warehouse facility carries the risk of market conditions moving against them during this ramp-up period. Therefore, equity investors are incentivized to close the ramp-up period as soon as possible.
This pressure is counterbalanced by established time windows on CLO warehousing facilities, which arguably allow managers some flexibility to bypass on deals they view as particularly unattractive. The choice of a CLO manager could depend on how quickly such manager is expected to complete this stage. There is a premium associated with well-established managers. In some cases, CLO manager and equity investor are the same entity.
Pressure to ramp up a portfolio for future CLO at the time of record CLO issuance volumes puts some managers in a position where they are forced to compete on the strength of investor protections for a given level of credit risk/coupon.
Retail funds also contribute to excess demand for loan product as they continue to see inflows. YTD 2018, loan funds are seeing a 10% inflow, compared to a 9% outflow from HY funds. Loan funds have higher tolerance towards lower quality (B2/B3) paper compared to CLOs.
While there are some natural limits on how aggressive they can be on pricing (via pricing floor on their liabilities), there are no immediate consequences to accepting looser covenants. During the period when default rates are low (like today), the impact from looser covenants through lower loan recoveries is negligible. This would likely change, once default rate increase in the next credit cycle.
Key risks in continued deterioration of investor protections
Strong competition in the new CLO/loan asset management space in the last few years led to deterioration in key investor protections, such as restricted payments, asset sales, EBITDA add-backs, and incremental debt capacity.
These covenants are critically important to recovery in case of default, as they are capable of directly affecting the pool of assets available to creditors in bankruptcy, and the extent of creditors’ ability to establish claim over it vs. unsecured and equity investors.
Loan recoveries, defined as post-default trading prices, averaged a relatively high 65% since 2007 as a function a large proportion of loans recover near-par in restructuring. Tight covenant packages helped them achieve stronger controls over asset pools in bankruptcy or other distressed resolution.
This may change in the next cycle as key covenants have been eroded in recent years. Assuming the proportion of near-par recoveries is cut in half, average first lien loan recovery rate could drop to low-50s%. For example, on a $1.1tn loan market size with 15% peak default rate and 15% undershoot in recovery (50% vs 65% historical) this is an equivalent of $25bn of capital being permanently wiped out purely as a function of poor covenants. The next credit cycle is likely to bring some very poor recovery prints in certain most aggressive capital structures. We discuss various scenarios for defaults/recoveries later in this report.
Covenants are particularly weak in the broadly syndicated loan market, where the competition for new deal allocations is high. The private/direct lending space has also seen some deterioration in investor protections, but to a lesser extent than what we have seen in the syndicated transactions.
Key mitigating factors
Not all loans lacking covenants carry the same risk of low recovery. “Cov-lite” is not a new term, as it was coined at the end of last credit cycle, in 2006-2007, when a growing number of new loans were coming in without a maintenance covenant. In such cases,  issuers were not required to adhere to leverage tests once the loan was issued. We have long found this particular covenant mundane, as the experience of multiple breached maintenance covenants has demonstrated that lenders generally reserved their right to declare technical default, and instead chose to provide waivers for a fee.
Post-Global Financial Crisis, the number of such “cov-lites” has grown to the vast majority of new leveraged loans by around 2013, so again, not a new development. In a sense, the “cov-lite” misnomer is an unfortunate label that muddies the waters of a real problem for the next credit cycle, which is epitomized by the new structures lacking other key covenants.
(Definitions of certain key covenants: Structural subordination: Protection against lien dilution or structural subordination for existing lenders. Restricted payments: Protection against cash leakage and value transfers that depletes value of associated collateral. Debt Incurrence: Protection against issuers leveraging up or paying other debt holders at the detriment of existing lenders. Investments: Protection against issuer taking on risky investments through carve-outs and builder baskets. Asset sales: Protection for lenders to enable them to benefit from asset sale proceeds and excess cash flows.) - Source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
As far as aggressive indicators are concerned we have yet to see an equivalent surge into LBOs we did in the previous credit cycle as a percentage of market size as per the below chart from Bank of America Merrill Lynch:
- source Bank of America Merrill Lynch


Given the deterioration in credit quality overall, as we have stated in numerous of our previous conversations we expect lower recovery values during the next downturn.

On the subject of what is "Under the Volcano" credit wise and what could possibly happen in terms of credit losses during the next downturn, in their report Bank of America Merrill Lynch does an interesting analysis:
"The next credit cycle: sensitivity analysis
In this section, we take three major asset classes under our coverage: HY, syndicated loans and private debt, describe their current pricing in fundamentals, and run three scenarios for the future (Figure 10).

The first scenario is base-case, consensus, middle of the road: the current economic trajectory persists, the Fed delivers on its dot plot estimates, and credit losses stay relatively modest, even for the floating rate instruments.
The second scenario, is the stressed case, which resembles a full scale recessionary environment, with earnings dropping 30% and the Fed being forced to cut rates back to zero. This is a scenario we pay most attention to in an attempt to properly manage a risk budget in coming years. The third scenario (shown in greyed-out columns next to stressed, is designed to represent a modest recession with better outcomes. Think of an energy experience in 2014-2015, perhaps a touch heavier or lasting a few months longer.
Note that while we show HY and syndicated loan spaces in two separate columns, the reality of the situation is that these spaces are not mutually exclusive as some issuers are present in both markets. With this limitation in mind, we think of this attribution as being defined by issuers that are predominantly HY or predominantly loans. We believe that such representation, while imperfect, allows us to more properly model the capital structure behavior of these otherwise distinct asset classes.
 Scenario #1: +100bp move in LIBOR, “average” loss ratesThis section is the base-case for the next couple of years, implies the macro environment remains broadly supportive and the Fed achieves its longer-term dot plot forecast. We note the following dynamics in our analysis:
  • The impact on issuer fundamentals here is visible in changing coupons to the extent they are floating, and interest coverage ratios (ICRs) change in response to coupons.
  • ICRs get somewhat problematic in syndicated loans and private debt space, but they remain generally manageable and comfortably above 2x.
  • Leverage here is assumed to be unchanged, even though one could reasonably expect both earnings and debt to grow, somewhat out of sync with each other, over the next few years in a scenario where the Fed is able to deliver four more rate hikes. We did not aim to make this exercise about our judgment on those two imperfectly synchronized growth rates, and decided to leave leverage assumption unchanged in pursuit of simplicity and clarity of more consequential arguments that follow.
  • We think some moderate credit losses could come out of this scenario, but unlikely to mark a turn in credit cycle more broadly. Such incremental moderate credit losses are more likely to surface in the syndicated loan and private debt spaces, where capital structures are predominantly floating rate.
  • Importantly, we do not view this scenario as being directly linked to the next substantial pickup in credit losses. This is not how the cycle ends.
Scenario #2: a full-scale recession
The key component of our sensitivity analysis is designed to define a full-scale recessionary experience.
  • We assume earnings decline 30% (normal recessionary range 30-40%), Fed cuts rate down to zero and Libor bottoms out at 0.50%, leverage/ICR ratios respond accordingly as functions of unchanged debt levels, lower earnings and somewhat lower interest expenses, to the extent of their floating nature.
  • Given these changes in issuer fundamentals, leverage would be likely to increase to 6.7xin HY, 8.6x in syndicated loans, and 7.5x in private debt.


  • Under these prevailing leverage conditions, we argue the default rates could hit 10% in HY (normal recessionary range 8-12%), meaningfully higher level of 14% in loans, and 12% in private debt.
  • The HY bond market has an established track record of peak default rates over three independent credit cycles, with a normal recessionary peak level of 8-12%. We thus argue for a middle-of-the-road type of default experience here in the next credit cycle.
  • Such track record is materially less reliable in syndicated loans, where the 2001-2002 cycle arrived when the asset class was in its infancy, and the 2008-2009 was arguably softened by the extraordinary policy response  aimed specifically at banks and structured finance products, although not directly CLOs.
  • Our argument for a 14% default rate rests on our understanding of substantial growth rates that were witnessed here in recent years, coupled with the higher leverage measures relative to other related asset classes. Leverage in the syndicate loan market could hit 8.6x under a moderate assumption of a 30% drop in EBITDAs.
  • Private debt space has no meaningful track record in previous credit cycles as the asset class has grown to its present size only in the past few years, although its early origins are traceable to the previous decade. We thus rely our 12% default rate assumption here primarily on its leverage measures, which are assumed to be (but not always directly observable) around 5x-5.5x, in between HY and syndicated loans.

• We also assume recovery rates of 35% in HY, 60% in loans and private debt. Recovery rates here are defined as trading prices shortly after the event of default. This measure differs from ultimate recovery, which is the payout on the other side of a restructuring process.
  • Syndicate loan recoveries are penalized as a function of three factors: poor investor protections/covenants and poor tangible asset coverage in sectors most exposed to syndicated loans (technology, services, and retail). We do give the loan market a benefit for the fact that its structure is now materially less exposed to mark-to-market instruments, thus limiting the extent of fire sales that took place in 2008-2009.
  • A 60% recovery assumption in private debt, is a very rough estimate, given absence of verifiable historical track records and extremely low liquidity. Paradoxically, the latter could be viewed as a benefit, as absence of any practical ability to trade out of a position could arguably prevent many private loans from ever being “marked-to-market” in a restructuring process. We aim to approach this question more holistically however, essentially making an argument that if an independent expert were to make a bona-fide assessment of such loan’s true market value in a distressed situation, he/she must have applied an additional discount for illiquidity.
  • While we heard a wide range of opinions on this particular aspect of our scenario analysis from various experts in this subject matter we felt that at the end of the day, inability to trade cannot be reasonably argued to increase intrinsic value, even if it does make its determination less transparent.
• Permanent credit losses are defined as the peak default rate times expected duration of the cycle (we assume 2 years) times (1 minus recovery rate).
  • We also calculate temporary mark-to-market losses based on assumed low print in secondary market prices of 65c in HY, 70c loans, and 60c in private debt. Naturally the confidence in these assumptions must be taken in consideration with expected depth of liquidity.
  • We separate between permanent and temporary loss here in an effort to highlight the fact that the latter is not crystalized unless an investor sells at that low print, although everyone is taken for a ride to that level. The permanent loss is unavoidable if a portfolio is exposed to an instrument in question.
  • We estimate permanent losses to be roughly 2x the current annual income generated in HY and syndicated loans and 1.3x in private debt. Temporary losses are estimated at 4-5x the annual income level.
  • To put it another way, investors stand to wipe out 4-5 years of their income if a recessionary scenario described above were to materialize in this exact form, although a material portion of that is likely to be recaptured in a subsequent upswing. They are also likely to never recover 2 years of their current income, assuming a passive benchmark exposure to HY/loans and 1.3 years to private debt.
 Scenarios #3: a mild/short recession
  • Highlighted in grey next to each scenario, we are also showing less stressed scenarios, to give readers a better sense of the range of likely outcomes. We think of these more- and less-stressed scenarios as equally likely to materialize over the next few years, dependent on currently unknown circumstances of the next downturn.
  • We also give the private debt a greater benefit of the doubt that recoveries there could be materially better in such less stressed scenario, function of lower leverage and better covenant protections in that space.
  • The key takeaway here is that temporary losses could be limited to 3 years of income in HY/loans and 2 years in private debt. Permanent losses could claim 1.5yrs, 1yrs, and 0.6x yrs respectively.
  • In a more optimistic scenario, we assume somewhat lower credit losses in loans and private debt. Default rates are assumed at 10% in this less stressed scenario, while recoveries are at 70% in syndicated loans and 75% in private debt (credit given for patient institutional capital, and better structured deals vs syndicated loans)." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
We do expect on our side, to repeat ourselves, lower recoveries into the next downturn given "Under the Volcano", there is we think the "liquidity illusion" which is an important factor to take into account in such a scenario analysis and exercise. Anyone who has been through the credit market turmoil of 2007/2008 will tell you that liquidity is a coward and often "bids" are "by appointment only" in such instances.

This is of course a concern which is as well highlighted in Bank of America Merrill Lynch's long interesting report:
"Constrained liquidity as a factor in our analysis
Liquidity has generally been a constraining factor throughout the history of leveraged finance markets. HY bond and leveraged loans have rarely provided investors with particularly deep secondary trading markets – at least, if one’s point of reference is determined by experienced in large cap equities, higher-quality bonds, FX, or commodities.
In the past, there were episodes when lev fin liquidity was relatively good, as was the case in 2006-2007. Additionally, throughout history, there were selected large capital structures that often had deep two-sided markets. Rarely do experienced leveraged finance investors expect deep liquidity to last over considerable time or encompass a considerable number of issuers in this market.
The topic of liquidity in the leveraged finance space has emerged as an issue of particular concern to credit investors, particularly after the Global Financial Crisis. After all, dealers curtailed their market-making activities as a result of both new regulations (capital requirements and the Volcker Rule, the latter which we detail later this section), as well as changes to dealer risk appetite and policies. The days of multi-billion dollar inventories of HY bonds on bank balance sheets came to an end shortly after 2008.
In recent years, aggregate dealer inventories in HY rarely exceed $5bn. This $5bn stand against a $1.3tn market by size and against $6-8bn of average trading volume it generates in a given day.
These facts lead to concerns that while the liquidity situation appears sustainable in times of inflows into the asset class, it may be easily disrupted in times of market stress and significant investor withdrawals. Additionally, if liquidity can be described as limited in HY bonds, and perhaps even more constrained in broadly syndicated loans, it is may be nonexistent in smaller middle-market and private debt spaces, where the whole tranches are often held in only a handful of accounts.
We generally share these concerns and agree with the argument that the next credit cycle will present an important test to the stability of leveraged finance market’s trading infrastructure. The key point here is to remember that while the AUM (assets under management) in funds promising investors daily liquidity gas grown by hundreds of billions of dollars in recent years, the dealer balance sheets went the other way and compressed to a significant extent. With all these reservations in mind, we do not count ourselves among doomsayers that predict a severe dislocation in corporate credit as a result of liquidity constraints.

As we introduced this topic above, we started with a description of the secondary market that has been perennially illiquid with exceptions due to unusually lax risk management episodes or unusually well traded cap structures. Seasoned investors who have participated in this market over several credit cycles understand its liquidity constrains on the DNA level.
The fact that dealers have stepped back has been balanced with the fact of new trading venues, counterparties, and instruments emerging to fill the void.

There are several competing electronic trading platforms in credit space today that did not exist prior to the financial crisis. Hedge funds and other opportunistic investor types are counting themselves among active market makers and they have stepped in during the recent episodes of market volatility with firm bids. Portfolio instruments such as ETFs, total return swaps, and options now complement CDX (credit default swap) indexes in allowing investors to transfer risk more efficiently.
Will the bid-ask spreads widen meaningfully in the next stress episode? Of course they will. Will the market necessarily malfunction in that scenario? Not necessarily. Recent deep stress volatility events such as Dec 2015 (a small distressed fund failing), Jun 2016 (Brexit), Nov 2016 (Trump election), and Jan 2017 (VIX fund failures) have proven that the leveraged finance markets continued to operate. In fact one could argue that all these episodes rewarded those who had the discipline, the risk budget, and the market sense to step in and take advantage of those temporary dislocations. We count ourselves among those who believe in this argument." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
We are no perma bears or doomsayers per se but, for us, liquidity in credit markets is a concern, particularly given record issuance levels in recent years also in private credit markets. The GAM fund meltdown during the summer is illustrative of our concerns. 

Growth in issuance is a problem also highlighted by Morgan Stanley in their Corporate Credit Research note from the 5th of October entitled "The Nature of the BBBeast":
"BBB IG debt outstanding has grown significantly in this cycle, a story most IG credit investors know quite well. For example, at ~$2.5 trillion outstanding, BBB par has increased 227% since the beginning of 2009.

The majority of the increase in BBB debt stems from net issuance ($1.2 trillion), followed by downgraded debt ($745 billion). Notably, the growth in BBB debt outstanding is not being skewed by a single sector or a small part of the market. Yes, large issuers have grown significantly. For example, the top 25 non-financial BBB names have a total of $685 billion in index debt (up from $257 billion in 1Q09). But the number of BBB issuers has also increased by 60% since 2009, while all sectors have increased BBB debt, large and small companies alike. In other words, the increase has been broad-based across the market.
So what does this mean big picture? Credit cycles are always different from one to the next. But a consistent rule of thumb over time that we live by when looking for problems down the line: Follow the debt growth. Very simply, applying to the current cycle, we think BBBs will be one (of a few) stress points when the cycle does turn. Downgrade activity will likely be meaningful. And when thinking about other markets that could feel the effect, remember the BBB part of the IG index is now ~2.5x as large as the entire HY index.
The good news is that this is not a story for today, in that ratings downgrades tend to lag the market. In other words, the big wave of downgrades will likely not come until credit spreads are much wider than they are right now, which will take time to play out. But more importantly, valuations are pricing in very few fundamental risks, in our view, with the BBB/A spread basis still near cycle tights. Hence we remain up-in-quality." - source Morgan Stanley
As central banks are pulling back, “macro” driven markets are no doubt making a return and credit indices such as Itraxx Main Europe and CDX IG and High Yield in the US are useful tool to hedge rising “liquidity” risk coming from credit markets when next downturn will show up.

Finally, for our final chart, as we pointed out during in previous conversations, 2018 displayed larger and larger standard deviations move, typical as well of late cycle behavior in conjunction with rising dispersion. 



  • Final chart - Large standard deviation moves, the "market" volcano is becoming more "active"

The latest bout of volatility wasn't that much of a surprise, it was a conjunction of several factors such as fast rising real rates, a more aggressive tone from the Fed in general and Powell in particular. Whereas the February event was the equivalent for the house of straw of the short-vol pigs of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, vaporizing in an instant large players of the short-volatility complex, the latest event was mostly a tremor, geopolitical risks aside. We do not yet see credit spreads turning decisively, nonetheless the deteriorating trend for cyclicals in conjunction with trade deceleration outside the United States warrants close attention we think. Our final chart comes from Morgan Stanley's Cross-Asset Dispatches note from the 11th of October entitled " FAQ After a Large Decline":
"Large moves are still happening more often: 
This remains true; 2018 is still on pace for some of the highest frequency of 3-sigma moves post-crisis. Liquidity remains poor.
What happened?
We think that recent moves are about several factors colliding around the 3.20% level for 10-year Treasuries, rather than a simple case of 'higher rates are bad for risk'. Those factors? A break of a 5-year+ real yield range, compression of the US equity ERP above 3.25% and very stretched performance of value versus growth (see Cross-Asset Dispatches: Are Rising Rates a Problem? October 7, 2018).
How unusual was this move?
The overall move for S&P 500 wasn't that extreme versus what we saw over the last several years but yesterday was the worst day for the NASDAQ in almost seven years. More broadly, this was also one of the worst days for growth globally. The value outperformance was even more pronounced outside the US as European value posted the best one-day performance versus growth post-crisis.
Positioning – it is light, but in pain: 
2018 has been a hard year (see Easier Financial Conditions, Still a Tough Year, September 23, 2018). The last five days have only confirmed this, bringing losses to one of the last bastions of strong performance and concentrated positioning – growth/tech. Investors have been hit hard by recent price action, which makes us less optimistic than we'd otherwise be about overall positioning indicators looking quite light.
2018, unfortunately, seems to be a year where every asset class has a turn in the barrel.
The Fed 'put' remains out-of-the-money: 
We also do not expect much help for policymakers, at least not yet. US inflation and unemployment remain in a very different place than under Chairs Yellen and Bernanke. As of late September, the Chicago Fed's Adjusted Financial Conditions Index was still easier year on year (in a tightening cycle, we think that the Fed would want this tightening). And we think that the Federal Reserve strongly values its independence; comments by the administration are unlikely to have an impact." - source Morgan Stanley
Sure, things are brewing "under the volcano à la 2007", one might opine, and of course geopolitical events continues to be known unknowns, yet the US still appear for the time being as much stronger magnet for global capital than Europe for instances as per the significant amount of outflows seen in recent weeks. It is again a case of "Dissymmetry of lift" we think, yet, the latest signs of global liquidity withdrawal are showing again dispersion such as rotation from growth to value, and investors turning more defensive in some instances given we are entering the latest innings of this long credit cycle but, we are repeating ourselves again...


"Hope of ill gain is the beginning of loss." - Democritus
Stay tuned !

Monday, 1 October 2018

Macro and Credit - The Armstrong limit

"Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering." - Saint Augustine



Watching with interest the Japanese Nikkei index touching its highest level in 27 years at 24,245.76 points, with US stock indices having rallied strongly against the rest of the world during this year, and closing towards new highs, when it came to selecting our title analogy we decided to go for another aeronautic analogy "The Armstrong limit". The Armstrong limit also called the Armstrong's line is a measure of altitude above which atmospheric pressure is sufficiently low that water boils at the normal temperature of the human body. Humans cannot survive above the Armstrong limit in an unpressurized environment. Above earth, this begins at 18-19 km (59,000-62,000 feet) above sea level. The term is named after United States Air Force General Harry George Armstrong who was the first to recognize this phenomenon. Commercial jetliners are required to maintain cabin pressurization at a cabin altitude of not greater than 2400 m (8,000 feet). The Armstrong limit describes the altitude associated with an objective, precisely defined natural phenomenon: the vapor pressure of body-temperature water.  Back in August in our conversation the "Dissymmetry of lift", we discussed our Quantitative Tightening (QT) amounted to reducing global liquidity and tightening global financial conditions overall as well as less airflow to maintain growth (we are already seeing signs in Europe).  When it comes to airflow and liquidity relating to equity indices we touched in this subject in two previous conversations: "The Coffin corner" in April 2013, the other being "The Vortex Ring" in May 2014. When it comes to our analogy and our reference to the Nikkei and US equity indices we remember clearly that the Nikkei hit its all-time high on 29 December 1989, during the peak of the Japanese asset price bubble, when it reached an intra-day high of 38,957.44, before closing at 38,915.87, having grown six fold during the decade. Sure the S&P 500 has grown six fold during the decade since the collapse of Lehman Brothers but it's within 1% of its all time high. One question investors are starting to ask themselves is what is the "Armstrong limit" for US equities? Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their recent The Flow Show note from the 27th of September entitled "Jay stalking" have two very interesting charts when it comes to equity allocation from Global Wealth and Investment Management (GWIM) into equities and cash allocation levels:
- source Bank of America Merrill Lynch

One might indeed wonder what level is the "Armstrong limit" before boiling point we think...


In this week's conversation, we would like to look at once again at the US consumer which seems to be increasingly relying on his credit card as well as other signs that warrants monitoring at this stage in the cycle.

Synopsis:
  • Macro and Credit -  What's the Armstrong limit for the US consumer's confidence?
  • Final charts - The "profit" illusion

  • Macro and Credit -  What's the Armstrong limit for the US consumer's confidence?
In continuation to our last conversation, we think it is essential for the US growth outlook and forward earnings to continue to focus on the state of the US consumer. After all, the first on the line in any case of trade war escalation is the US consumer who gets the price increase passed onto by corporations facing a surge in costs. With the US consumer confidence index climbing to 138.4 in September from 134.7 in August, the highest since September 2000 we are wondering if it is the absolute Armstrong limit.

On this question we read with interest Wells Fargo's take from their US Consumer Confidence note from the 25th of September:
"In the past 51 years, only 11 times has confidence been higher than it is today. Said differently, roughly 98% of the time confidence is lower than it is now. That’s good news for the consumer, but for how long?
Remember the Sock Puppet Commercials?
The last time consumer confidence was as high as it is today was in the year 2000. A number of financial and economic indicators from that era are similar to where they are today. The stock market was soaring to all-time record highs, the unemployment rate was below 4% and the economy was in its 10th year of uninterrupted expansion. Then, as now, there were few people seeing an end in sight.


While we still think the current expansion has room to run, we would be remiss not to make note of just how rare a thing it is to see confidence at these lofty levels. Only in 11 individual months since 1967 have we seen confidence higher than it is today. Nine of those months were in the year 2000. The other two were in 1999. This is the thin air of the high peaks.


The euphoria is not limited to the consumer sector. The ISM manufacturing index is at its highest level since 2004 and the NFIB Small Business Optimism Index, an indicator of small business confidence, is at its highest level on records that date back to 1974. The fact that these measures are at record highs does not preclude them from going higher, but one characteristic that they all share is a tendency to peak before a slowdown.
No Time Like the Present
There is an interesting dynamic going on between consumers’ assessment of the present situation, compared to expectations for the future. As seen in the middle chart, the present situation measure is running well ahead; in the prior cycle there was a similar divergence late in the cycle.
Some Things That Are Different From 2000
The below chart plots consumer confidence alongside both retail sales (ex-autos) and real income growth on a per-capita basis. Here we see something that Fed policymakers have been wringing their hands over throughout this cycle, which is: if the labor market is so hot, how come income growth is so tepid?


That slower income growth tempers our enthusiasm for the ability of consumer spending to sustain growth indefinitely. We will get the latest read on this when the personal income and spending numbers hit the wire on Friday of this week.
I Don’t Know Why I Go to Extremes
For now, the surge in retail sales cannot be denied and we would be foolish to bet against the consumer with such a solid backdrop for consumer confidence. The official write-up that accompanied the release stated that “Consumers’ assessment of current conditions remains extremely favorable, bolstered by a strong economy.” We would not disagree, but what takes the shine off the apple for us is that extremes, by definition, imply “reaching a high, or the highest degree.” If this is the extreme, there is nowhere to go but down." - source Wells Fargo
With US Personal Income rising 0.3% in August, slightly less than expected (0.4%) last Friday, then indeed slower income growth should indeed temper slightly your enthusiasm we think.

As a reminder from last week's conversation, and as per the below Macrobond chart, the University of Michigan Consumer Confidence turning points tend to coincide with significant S&P 500 12 months return. It is worth remembering this from an Armstrong limit perspective:
- graph source Macrobond (click to enlarge)

Also, keep that in mind when looking at the significant rise of the S&P 500, because we think that we are in the melt-up "euphoria" phase and have yet to touch the "Armstrong limit":
- graph source Macrobond (click to enlarge)


Or you could also ask yourself as well what is the "Armstrong limit" when it comes to the S&P 500 Profit Margins in this long in the tooth credit cycle:
- graph source Macrobond (click to enlarge)

You could as well ask yourselves when will we reach "peak" M&A, which is also a sign you generally see in late credit cycles:
- graph source Macrobond (click to enlarge)

In last week's conversation, "White Tiger" we indicated that although everyone is focusing on the flattening of the yield curve, from an inflationary expectations perspective we worry a lot for asset prices about a spike in oil prices if we do get geopolitical flares up in November between the United States and Iran:
"The issue of course for the stretched US consumer would be if Core PCE inflation continues to pick up slightly faster than core CPI if healthcare service price inflation accelerates while rent inflation gradually slows. This upside risk to healthcare prices and expected further labor market tightening, one could expect core PCE inflation to rise further, not to mention the issue with gas prices at the pump should oil prices continue as well to trend up. Remember that the acceleration of inflation is a dangerous match when it comes to lighting up/bursting asset bubbles." - source Macronomics, September 2018
So for us, from an Armstrong limit perspective, we are closely watching the evolution of oil prices:
- graph source Macrobond

An inflation spike is very much on our radar. Oil has extended its gains after the longest quarterly rally in a decade thanks to a slowdown in American drilling as well as supply concerns. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have discussed market stability yet it seems there are some questions relating to spare capacity with traders highlighting a potential surge towards $100 a barrel at some point. 

From an Armstrong limit perspective relating to the state of the US consumer, oil prices matter because not only retail has been sustained by the rise in credit card use but housing is seeing headwinds already thanks to rising mortgage rates. The issue at hand is the size of energy costs for the US consumer relative to his consumer spending. On that subject we read with interest Wells Fargo's take from their note from the 28th of September entitled "What Good is a Bigger Paycheck if it All Goes to Gas Money?":
"Wages and salaries posted the largest monthly increase since January, but increasingly higher gas prices and other energy costs are commanding a larger share of consumer spending.
Income Gets Boost from Wages
Personal income increased 0.3% in August, which was a bit shy of the 0.4% that had been expected by the consensus.

More than two thirds of the increase was due to the fact wages and salaries notched a solid 0.5% gain. That was the best monthly increase since January and the latest indication that the hot job market is at last translating into meaningful improvement in wages.
Personal interest income, which comprises less than a tenth of overall income, was down for the second straight month and was in fact the only category of personal income that declined during the period.
Energy Costs Taking up Larger Share of Consumer Spending
Despite the slightly softer print on the income side, spending did not disappoint with the 0.3% pick-up in outlays, matching the consensus expectation. The fact that wages and salaries drove much of the increase explains why the saving rate was able to remain unchanged at 6.6%.

Consumer durable goods outlays slipped 0.1%, but every other major category of spending was either flat or positive to varying degrees. Echoing one of the themes from the August retail sales report in which gas stations reported faster sales than other types of stores, the biggest category gainer in terms of price was energy goods and services, up 1.9% on the month. This category includes spending on gasoline but also includes energy goods delivered to the home through utilities like electricity and natural gas. The takeaway is that higher energy prices in August might have been holding back spending in other categories. Excluding food and energy, spending was flat in August.
Inflation Dynamics
People are not suddenly buying a lot more gasoline. Prices, of course, are largely to blame. The energy prices category within the price indices has seen double-digit percentage gains in each of the past four months. Mercifully for consumers, prices for durable goods have also been lower in each of those past four months, ameliorating the impact of higher energy prices. The headline measure for the personal consumption expenditures deflator, the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge, slowed slightly to 2.2% from 2.3% on a year-over-year basis in July.

Existing tariffs on a variety of imports totaled roughly $100 billion in August; with this week’s additional tariffs on $200 billion going into effect, the price effects for consumers might become more tangible. The nation’s largest retailer this week warned that it might be forced to charge higher prices.
In its statement earlier this week, the Federal Reserve noted that “inflation on a 12-month basis is expected to move up in coming months” before eventually stabilizing near the Fed’s 2% target rate." - source Wells Fargo
Tariffs and rising gas prices do not bode well for the euphoric US consumer we think in the near future. Sure US equities, consumer confidence and even US High Yield have had a very good run in 2018 (CCCs have outperformed higher quality by a wide margin: +5.6% of excess returns) in comparison to the rest of the world, so it's highly likely that the "risk-on" euphoric mood will continue given financial conditions are still fairly accommodative (as per the most recent Fed SLOOs), but we think that 2019 could start becoming much more challenging as QT accelerates and depending on the Fed's hiking path as we are officially out of negative real rates for now.

In continuation to our “macro” long conversation “The Money illusion”, where we concluded that liquidity is a coward and where we repeated what we indicated back in June 2015 from our conversation "The Third Punic War", bear markets for US equities generally coincide with a significant tick up in core inflation, given the amount of buybacks since with the issuance of debt in many instances in our final charts below, we are wondering if there could be as well a "profit illusion" when it comes to the US markets.


  • Final charts - The "profit" illusion
Sure, liquidity is a coward and as many have pointed out, with dwindling inventories on banks balance sheet and the very significant rise in corporate debt issuance in credit markets, one can indeed ask if "liquidity" is an illusion. On the question of the "profit illusion" our final charts come from our esteemed former colleague David P. Goldman who now writes in Asia Times and ask if buybacks are creating the illusion of profit in his article from the 28th of September entitled "Something strange is happening with US corporate profits":
"Are companies creating the illusion of higher profits through stock buybacks? 
It was reported earlier this week that S&P 500 companies bought back a record US$189 billion of their own shares in the first quarter of this year. The buybacks make results look better than they really are, as The Wall Street Journal reported.
The charts below show that raw, unadjusted US corporate profits actually FELL year on year, and corporates are creating the illusion of higher profits by buying back shares.
This is the rawest, simplest measure of profits, before tax and inventory/capital consumption adjustments, which are model driven. This is basically what corporations report on their income tax, and it doesn’t look terribly strong.
Are profits rising or falling? 
- source Asia Times - David P. Goldman

One could contend that the boiling frog which is a fable describing a frog being slowly boiled alive, could be related to the Armstrong Limit looking at the altitude reached by equities and some valuation metrics. As a reminder, the premise of the fable is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for our inability or unwillingness to react to or be aware of sinister threats that arise gradually rather than suddenly such as the markets we are seeing one could argue. Though some would add that "thermoregulation" by changing location is a fundamentally necessary survival strategy for frogs and other ectotherms, rendering the legend a "myth". From an Armstrong Limit perspective, we certainly hope that some investors have their "g-suits" on given the lofty levels reached in some instances. Also we do not know yet what is the Fed's own "Armstrong limit" in their current hiking path but we ramble again...


"There can be no rise in the value of labour without a fall of profits." -  David Ricardo


Stay tuned !

Monday, 24 September 2018

Macro and Credit - White Tiger

"Earnings don't move the overall market; it's the Federal Reserve Board... focus on the central banks, and focus on the movement of liquidity... most people in the market are looking for earnings and conventional measures. It's liquidity that moves markets." - Stanley Druckenmiller


Watching with interest the trade war between the United States and China ratcheting up with Beijing cancelling its plans to send two delegations to Washington, given the season of fall is upon us, when it came to selecting our title analogy, we decided to go for "White Tiger". The White Tiger is one of the four symbols of the Chines constellations. It is sometimes called the White Tiger of the West and represents the West in terms of direction as well as the autumn season.  It has been said that the white tiger only appeared when the emperor ruled with absolute virtue, or if there was peace throughout the world. Obviously for those who remember our June conversation "Prometheus Unbound", we argued the following:
"It seems more and more probable that the United States and China cannot escape the Thucydides Trap being the theory proposed by Graham Allison former director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for policy and plans in 2015 who postulates that war between a rising power and an established power is inevitable:
- source Macronomics June 2016 
"It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable." Thucydides from "The History of the Peloponnesian War" -
In similar fashion, more recently maverick hedge fund manager Ray Dalio came to a similar prognosis in his recent musing entitled "A Path to War" on the 19th of September:
"The economic/geopolitical cycle of economic conflicts leading to military conflicts both within and between emerging powerful countries and established powerful countries is obvious to anyone who studies history.  It’s been well-described by historians, though those historians typically have more of a geopolitical perspective and less of an economic/market perspective than I do.  In either case, it is well-recognized as classic by historians.  The following sentence describes it as I see it in a nutshell:
When 1) within countries there are economic conflicts between the rich/capitalist/political right and the poor/proletariat/political left that lead to conflicts that result in populist, autocratic, nationalistic, and militaristic leaders coming to power, while at the same time, 2) between countries there are conflicts arising among comparably strong economic and military powers, the relationships between economics and politics become especially intertwined—and the probabilities of disruptive conflicts (e.g., wars) become much higher than normal.
In other words economic rivalries within and between countries often lead to fighting in order to establish which entities are most powerful.  In these periods, we have war economies, and after them, markets, economies, and geopolitics all experience the hang-over effects.  What happens during wars and as a result of wars have huge effects on which currencies, which debts, which equities, and which economies are worth what, and more profoundly, on the whole social-political fabric.  At the most big-picture level, the periods of war are followed by periods of peace in which the dominant power/powers get to set the rules because no one can fight them.  That continues until the cycle begins again (because of a rival power emerging).
Appreciating this big economic/geopolitical cycle that drives the ascendancies and declines of empires and their reserve currencies requires taking a much longer (250-year) time frame, which I will touch on briefly here and in more detail in a future report.
Typically, though not always, at times of economic rivalry, emotions run high, firebrand populist leaders who prefer antagonistic paths are elected or come to power, and wars occur.  However, that is not always the case.  History has shown that through time, there are two broad types of relationships, and that what occurs depends on which type of relationship exists.  The two types of relationships are:
a) Cooperative-competitive relationships in which the parties take into consideration what’s really important to the other and try to give it to them in exchange for what they most want.  In this type of win-win relationship, there are often tough negotiations that are done with respect and consideration, like two friendly merchants in a bazaar or two friendly teams on the field.
b) Mutually threatening relationships in which the parties think about how they can harm the other and exchange painful acts in the hope of forcing the other into a position of fear so that they will give in.  In this type of lose-lose relationship, they interact through “war” rather than through “negotiation.”
Either side can force the second path (threatening war, lose-lose) onto the other side, but it takes both sides to go down the cooperative, win-win path.  Both sides will inevitably follow the same approach.
In the back of the minds of all parties, regardless of which path they choose, should be their relative powers.  In the first case, each party should realize what the other could force on them and appreciate the quality of the exchange without getting too pushy, while in the second case, the parties should realize that power will be defined by the relative abilities of the parties to endure pain as much as their relative abilities to inflict it.  When it isn’t clear exactly how much power either side has to reward and punish the other side because there are many untested ways, the first path is the safer way.  On the other hand, the second way will certainly make clear—through the hell of war—which party is dominant and which one will have to be submissive.  That is why, after wars, there are typically extended periods of peace with the dominant country setting the rules and other countries following them for the time it takes for the cycle to happen all over again." - source Ray Dalio
Because the color white of the Wu Xing theory also represents the west, the white tiger became a mythological guardian of the West on the mythological compass. The White Tiger is as well considered in China as the ruler of the Autumn and the governor of the metallic elementals (hint for you gold bugs out there...) but we ramble again. Will the age of reason disappear with the White Tiger? We wonder.

In this week's conversation, we would like to look at the gradual path towards recession in the US and how does the credit cycle will end.

Synopsis:
  • Macro and Credit - Credit cycles die of "old age". 
  • Final chart - Hey Fed, NAIRU this!

  • Macro and Credit - Credit cycles die of "old age". 
While many pundits have been focusing on the continuation of the flattening of the yield curve, as we pointed out in our most recent conversation again, credit cycles die because too much debt has been raised. What the most recent Fed quarterly survey Senior Loan Officers Opinion Survey (SLOOs) tells us is that financial conditions remain very benign still. Yet, no one can ignore the hiking path followed by the Fed and that already some part of the economy such as housing are already feeling the heat and the gradual tightening noose of financial conditions. 

From a "White Tiger" perspective, a full-blown trade war between China and the United States would push US companies to pass on prices increases onto the US consumer. Any acceleration in inflation would lead to the Fed to be more aggressive with its hiking stance. The rhetoric of Fed members in recent week has become decisively more “hawkish”.

First question we are asking ourselves is when does the US consumer gets "maxed out"? We are already seeing credit card usage surging as well as the return of housing equity extraction thanks to the return of HELOC. On this subject we read with interest Wells Fargo Economics Group note from the 18th of September entitled "Consumer outlook in a rising rate environment":
"Executive Summary
Conventional wisdom has it that rising interest rates are bad for consumer spending because swelling financing costs put a squeeze on a household’s capacity for other outlays. What if conventional wisdom is wrong? Our analysis finds that a rising interest rate environment does not immediately snuff out consumer spending growth.
As the current expansion stretches further into its tenth year, the economy is on track to eclipse the expansion of the 1990s as the longest on record. In this report we consider the outlook for consumer spending against this backdrop of a record-setting expansion and consider how long the good times will last. Our base-case scenario, spelled out in this special report, anticipates a modest pick-up in consumer spending, at least in the near term. Eventually, like all good things, the longest economic expansion on record will come to an end and consumer spending will come back down with it. That will likely occur alongside financial conditions that warrant rate cuts by the Fed. The precise timing of these events is tough to get right, but by signaling this drop-off in activity in late 2020, we are essentially saying that while the end of the party is not imminent, no cycle lasts forever.

- Source Bloomberg LP, The Conference Board, University of Michigan and Wells Fargo Securities

As per the below Macrobond chart, the University of Michigan Consumer Confidence turning points tend to coincide with significant S&P 500 12 months return:
- source Macrobond (click to enlarge).



Before we go into more details of Wells Fargo's note, there are a couple of points we would like to make. Despite decreasing significantly from its peak prior to the Great Recession, household debt still remains quite elevated, stabilizing around 77%. Also back in March in our long conversation "Intermezzo", when it comes to consumer credit, as pointed out by famous French economist Frédéric Bastiat, there is always what you see and what you don't see. We pointed out the following from Deutsche Bank's State of the US Consumer report from the 26th of February entitled "Robust Consumer with Pro-cyclical and Seasonal Tailwinds on the Horizon":
"Items to watch
Lower income consumers are more levered than they appear: The aggregate deleveraging post-crisis has largely benefited from mortgage leverage sitting at its lowest level since 2001. However, other consumer leverage (card, student, auto, and personal) continues to grind higher into 2018 and is now at all time highs (~26%). Excluding disposable income for the Top 5% income bracket of US consumers, consumer debt levels are closer to 43% of adjusted disposable income—almost double the reported measure of ~26%. The latest triennial Fed Survey of Consumer Finances highlights this dynamic, with the bottom 40% income households running at ~50% non-mortgage DTI, which is ~10% more than LT averages.
The subprime/low income consumer is stretched: Sluggish wage growth and rising healthcare and rent expenses as a percentage of income (non-debt obligations near 25 year highs) among lower income households have stretched subprime consumers as they look to augment rising expenses with debt. 
Banks have met this increased demand by providing deeper credit access to subprime (increased participation, especially for cards), leading to higher leverage and an increased severity risk of loss as delinquencies start to diverge for lower quality consumers. Like DTI, adjusting debt payment burdens to exclude the top 10% income brackets almost doubles the reported Fed figure (9.6% PTI vs. 5.8% reported PTI by the Fed).
Socio-economic divide driving credit cycle: While aggregate consumer fundamentals remain robust, subprime consumers are seeing rising delinquencies and losses starting to normalize much faster than other credit tiers: +90-day DQs within subprime cards have rose+300bps Y/Y in 3Q17 vs. only~30bps on average for near prime/prime borrowers. ~45% of Americans would have difficulty paying a surprise medical bill of ~$500 (Kaiser Foundation), while ~50% of US consumers live paycheck to paycheck (FITB). Taken all together, a disconnect between the lower credit tier borrowers and the economic cycle is starting to emerge." - source Deutsche Bank
The issue of course for the stretched US consumer would be if Core PCE inflation continues to pick up slightly faster than core CPI if healthcare service price inflation accelerates while rent inflation gradually slows. This upside risk to healthcare prices and expected further labor market tightening, one could expect core PCE inflation to rise further, not to mention the issue with gas prices at the pump should oil prices continue as well to trend up. Remember that the acceleration of inflation is a dangerous match when it comes to lighting up/bursting asset bubbles.

But let's return to Wells Fargo's take:
"A Consumer Spending Framework in the Context of Rates
As we would at any time in the business cycle, we consider the macro drivers of consumer behavior. Consumer sentiment and confidence, by about any measure, are at or near high levels last seen around 2001; which, not coincidentally, was in the late stages of that prior long-lasting expansion (Figures 1 & 2). We also look at the purchasing power in consumers’ wallets, be it in the form of personal income, which is at last picking up (albeit in only a modest way) or in access to capital through borrowing, where measures of revolving consumer credit growth indicate a levelling off more recently. Finally, we tally the actual spending numbers reflected in the personal income and spending report and the monthly retail sales numbers, both of which have been on a roll in recent months.
In an effort to better inform a consumer outlook, it is essential to have a framework for thinking about these fundamentals and how households will manage finances at this late stage of the cycle. The trouble with considering this period in the context of what has happened in prior cycles is that for a long stretch in the current cycle, from December 2008 until December 2015, the Federal Reserve maintained a near zero interest rate policy (ZIRP), and at various points during those years was engaged in a broad expansion of the balance sheet through quantitative easing (QE), (Figures 3 & 4).

- source Federal Reserve System and Wells Fargo Securities
The Fed has historically purchased Treasury securities to expand the monetary base, although the monetary policy “medicine” applied during that era, including the purchases of mortgage-backed securities and other assets, had not been tried before, at least not in the United States.
Central bank actions, no doubt, are a factor in the remarkable duration of the current cycle, and on that basis any informed outlook for consumer spending ought to not only consider these macro drivers (like confidence, access to capital and willingness to spend) but to consider them in the context of Fed policy.
To that end, we went back to just before the 1990s expansion began in 1989 and divided the years since into four broad categories based on what the Federal Reserve was doing with monetary policy at the time: (1) lowering the fed funds rate, (2) a “stable” rate environment, (3) raising the fed funds rate and (4) ZIRP with QE.
The date ranges for each of these periods is spelled out in Table 1 below.

Most of the time periods are straightforward, although the one period that might invite critique is that we have characterized the time period from March of 1995 through January 2001 as “stable” (revisit Figure 3).
One could reasonably observe that the fed funds rate actually moved up and down during that nearly six-year stretch. Our argument for calling it “stable” is that this period was essentially from the “mid-cycle” slowdown until the end of that expansion. Admittedly, there were adjustments up and down throughout the period, but from the start of the period to the end, the funds rate finished just 50 basis points higher. Reasonable minds could disagree, but in our view, the idea of thinking of that period as four unique rate cycles would unnecessarily complicate our analysis.
With our various Fed cycle dates established, we looked at our macro drivers for consumer spending through the lens of the Fed policy that was in place at the time. For each interest rate backdrop, we calculated the average levels for various measures of consumer confidence, the average annualized growth rate of personal income, the average net monthly expansion in consumer credit and finally the average annual growth rates of both real personal consumption expenditures and of nominal retail sales.
A key takeaway from our exercise, depicted in Table 2 below, is that measures of consumer fundamentals tend to do best in periods of stable interest rates. Interestingly though, a rising rate environment is almost as good for these same consumer fundamentals.

Perhaps that is not altogether surprising, considering that the Fed is apt to raise rates when the economy is at full employment and inflation is heating up beyond the Fed’s comfort zone. Those factors tend to exist when the economy is doing particularly well or even overheating.
The inverse of that dynamic may explain why the worst rate theme for consumer spending is during periods when the Fed is lowering rates. Personal income and spending as well as nominal retail sales all performed worst during periods when the Fed was cutting rates. Interestingly, the lowering of interest rates does not compel consumers to increase their appetite for credit, at least not immediately. The average net monthly increase in consumer credit came in a distant last during periods when the Fed was actively lowering rates.
2020 Vision
So what sort of Fed policy theme should we consider looking forward? To judge from the Fed’s dot plot, a visual rendering of policymakers’ own forecasts for the fed funds rate, the FOMC is closing in on its neutral rate for fed funds. With most dots clustered around 3.00 to 3.25% and the current fed funds rate at 2.00%, there are only four or five quarter-point rate hikes left to go in the current cycle, barring some change in forward guidance from the Fed (Figure 5).

Our forecast anticipates two more hikes this year and another three next year. After that it stands to reason we would be in a stable rate environment slightly above the neutral rate until the Fed’s understanding of r* changes (favoring another hike) or until conditions warrant a cut. In a separate special report1, we explained our use of an analytical framework we recently developed to inform our view of Fed policy going forward and why we look for the FOMC to raise rates another 125 bps before it cuts rates at the end of 2020.
In forming our outlook for the consumer, we take the findings of our rate-environment study and overlay them with our expectations for Fed policy over the next couple of years. If things play out the way we anticipate, monetary policy is entering an era of transition unlike anything the economy has seen in more than a decade. For a number of factors including the longevity of the cycle, growing fiscal budget imbalances and a potential fallout from the global economy, we indicated in our initial 2020 forecast that by the end of our forecast horizon the Fed would likely begin cutting the fed funds rate.2 A rate-tightening environment is expected to prevail at least through the first part of 2019, which will be followed by a stable rate for another year or so before the Fed begins to signal eventual rate cuts.
For the consumer, this Fed forecast implies a pick-up in the pace of consumer spending in the near term before an eventual slowing the further out we go in the forecast period. Full year PCE growth was 2.5% in 2017. By the time we close the books on the current year, we expect the comparable number for 2018 to pick up to 2.6%, prior to quickening to 2.7% in 2019 and slowing to just 2.2% in 2020 (Figure 6).
- Source: Bloomberg LP, Federal Reserve Board, U.S. Department of Commerce and Wells Fargo Securities
Outlook
Consumers may be better prepared to endure a slowdown than in the past. The saving rate, currently at 6.7%, is rather elevated given the late stage of expansion, while real median household income surpassed its pre-recession peak in 2017. With the unemployment rate currently matching low levels last seen in the late 1960s, there remains little slack in the economy. The labor market is expected to grow increasingly tight, with the unemployment rate trending to as low as 3.3% by 2020. Similarly, inflationary pressures that continue to gradually build over our forecast horizon will put downward pressure on real income gains.
The length of the current expansion is expected to surpass that of the 1990s, taking the title as the longest expansion on record. While monetary policy changes act as signals to markets about the health of the economy and/or concerns about inflation expectations, we must be sensitive to policy movements and their implication for consumer spending. Our initial 2020 forecast expects the Fed to surpass its neutral rate, prior to beginning to cut policy by the end of 2020. With this signal of a slowdown in activity, we are essentially saying that this expansion will eventually draw to a close. The rate cutting environment will act as a last call announcement – and for the consumer sector it serves as a valuable indication for longevity of this expansion." - source Wells Fargo
Whereas we agree with the timing, we disagree with the perceived health of the US consumer, as per the above points illustrated in a previous Deutsche Bank research note. There is more leverage than what can be seen, not only when it comes to the US consumer but as well when it comes to the distorted balance sheets of many US corporates after years of a buy-back binge and a fall in the quality of the overall rating for the Investment Grade category much closer to "junk" than in the previous cycle.

Overall the timing for the end of the credit cycle could indeed be in the region of 2020. This is as well Ray Dalio's most recent view and also Christopher R. Cole, CFA from Artemis Capital Management as per his July  2018 letter entitled “What is water?”:
“When you are a fish swimming in a pond with less and less water, you had best pay attention to the currents. The last decade we’ve seen central banks supply liquidity, providing an artificial bid underneath markets. Now water is being drained from the pond as the Fed, ECB, and Bank of Japan shrink their balance sheets and raise interest rates.Despite this trend, U.S. equities will very likely escape 2018 without a crisis or volatility regime shift because of the one-time wave of corporate liquidity unleashed by tax reform. Expect a crisis to occur between 2019 and 2021 when a drought caused by dust storms of debt refinancing, quantitative tightening, and poor demographics causes liquidity to evaporate.” – Source Christopher R. Cole, CFA from Artemis Capital Management
The whole note written by Christopher R. Cole is worth a read particularly on the subject of passive management and liquidity. His quote from above resonates as well with our opening quote from maverick investor Stanley Druckenmiller.

 As well in his note, Christopher R. Cole indicates when he thinks we will most likely have another crisis on our hands:
“When does this all end? If or when the collective consciousness stops believing growth can be created by money and debt expansion the entire medium will fall apart, otherwise it is totally real… and will continue to be real.
A crisis-level drought in liquidity is coming between 2019 to 2022 marked by a perfect dust storm of unprecedented debt supply, quantitative tightening, and demographic outflows.
Quantitative easing has caused the natural relationship between corporate debt expansion and default rates to break down. U.S. debt is at an all-time high of $14 trillion (45% of GDP) and high yield default rates are near all-time lows at 3.3% (MarketWatch, 13d). This is not sustainable. Years of cheap money has led scores of investors to buy debt at levels that do not reflect credit risk. The poster child is the 2017 issuance of 100-year Argentina bonds (USD denominated) that were oversubscribed 3.6x with a 7.9% yield. It is hard to find a decade where Argentina has not defaulted, much less a century. That medium of bond market demand has already begun to show signs of cracking.” – Source Christopher R. Cole, CFA from Artemis Capital Management
Fiduciary duty anyone? Credit cycles tend to die of old age and too much debt. We have entered the season of the White Tiger we think. Only a few innings left. 


On the current evolution of the credit cycle we read with interest Bank of America Merrill Lynch's take in their High Yield Strategy note from the 21st of September entitled "The Evolution of the Credit Cycle:
"The Evolution of the Credit Cycle
As we continue to study the state of the current credit cycle, the accumulated evidence sides with the argument that it has more room to develop, as long as few more years. Previous cycles have lasted anywhere between 6-8 years, on average, and this observation would make it an unusual development to see the current cycle extend for much longer. However, we also note that more broadly, this economic cycle has been an unusual one in many respects, including how long it took the US GDP to return to trend growth rates, the unemployment to decline, and the inflation to recover. And if those major macroeconomic variables took an unusually long time to return to normal levels, then why should we expect the credit cycle to be an average one?
Away from this argument, we also continue to believe that the commodity episode in 2015-2016 represented a partial cycle in and of itself. Among the most conclusive pieces of evidence in support of this view, we present the charts in Figure 3 for debt growth and Figure 4 for capex.
In both cases, we highlight cyclical turns, as defined by catalyst events as the starting points and subsequent observed peaks in trailing 12mo HY issuer default rates as ending points.
Both graphs suggest that previous cyclical turns have occurred at similar points on each respective line, had similar impact on each measure, and had left them at similar levels after defaults receded. Both graphs also suggest that a cyclical turn at current levels and given their recent trends would be inconsistent with historical experiences going into previous default cycles.
And yet, inconsistent does not imply impossible, particularly in light of trade tariffs that are being threatened and imposed by the Trump Administration. It remains our view that at the end, these policies are unlikely to survive the test of time, however it is difficult to say how much time it would take to prove them wrong and how much damage they could do in the meantime.
The exact timing of cyclical turns is an inherently uncertain exercise and we do not claim to possess superior skills to do so. Instead, our approach relies on using all available data and analytical tools to help us make a judgment on a relatively short next-12mo time horizon, and continue doing so as time progresses and new data becomes available. As such, we made a call that this cycle was unlikely to turn at this point last year. With all the evidence we accumulated since then, we believe this view still holds today.
Our default model continues to suggest low likelihood of a meaningful spike in defaults over the next year, based on its latest inputs. It currently projects a 3.25% issuer weighted rate during this time period, marginally lower than the actual realized 3.41% rate as calculated by Moody’s (Figure 5). A 3.25% issuer default rate would be consistent with 2.0% par-weighted rate. 


How it ends?
In our last year’s outlook on the prospects of this credit cycle, we listed three key risks to its longevity: (1) inflation spike; (2) trade contraction; and (3) sector distress. We think all three remain valid and potent sources of known risks going forward as well. In our judgment, the spike in inflation remains a lower probability risk, followed by trade contraction, somewhat higher on our scale of likely developments, and still inside of a tail risk zone.
A contraction in one of the key industry sectors is a higher probability outcome, in our opinion, albeit not an imminent one. Previously, we published our thoughts on capital allocation trends across various sectors, and identified healthcare as the most overextended sector in terms of the amount of capital raised in recent years.
A higher capital formation could lead to higher capex, higher production capacity, higher supply, lower prices, and an eventual need to remove excess capacity. The latter stage often goes hand in hand with a need to eliminate excess debt that was used to finance excess capex.
Other sectors that we found to be overextended on this scale include autos, utilities, and food producers, although these three are relatively small compared to healthcare.
And at the end of this conversation on risks, we think it is also important to remind ourselves that previous cycles have ended with a surprise event, a “black swan” of sorts, which, by definition, was unexpected by the consensus and meaningful in its impact. We do not see any particular reasons as to why the next one would break out of this mold." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
From our "White Tiger" perspective, an inflation spike is something very much on our radar, hence our close attention to market gyrations in oil prices and geopolitical risk, the famous known unknowns which have been building up recently in world which has decisively moved from cooperation to noncooperation.

As we have stated above, many pundits are focusing on the flattening of the yield curve, from an employment and non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU), Monetary policy conducted typically involves allowing just enough unemployment in the economy to prevent inflation rising above a given target figure, we think the Fed will once again be behind the curve as per our final chart.


  • Final chart - Hey Fed, NAIRU this!
In our previous conversation we discussed the great work of American economist Irving Fisher, in relation to NAIRU,  the concept arose in the wake of the popularity of the Phillips curve which summarized the observed negative correlation between the rate of unemployment and the rate of inflation (measured as annual nominal wage growth of employees) for number of industrialised countries with more or less mixed economies. This correlation (previously seen for the U.S. by Irving Fisher) persuaded some analysts that it was impossible for governments simultaneously to target both arbitrarily low unemployment and price stability, and that, therefore, it was government's role to seek a point on the trade-off between unemployment and inflation which matched a domestic social consensus, the famous dual mandate of the Fed. We won't go into more details about our fondness of the Phillips curve, it's a subject we have discussed on this very blog on many occasions. Our final chart comes from Deutsche Bank's US Economic Perspectives note from the 20th of September entitled "How the Powell Fed can make history" and shows that the Fed has never succeeded in returning unemployment to NAIRU from below without a recession ensuing:
"With unemployment now noticeably below standard measures of its natural level of full employment and likely to tighten further and with wage and price inflation returning to desired levels and likely to continue upward, the Fed has a delicate task on its hands. It needs to begin to close the gap between growth of aggregate demand and aggregate supply in the economy — in other words, to slow and eventually reverse the tightening of the labor market before it risks pushing up inflation and inflation expectations excessively. The question is whether it can do so without pushing the economy into recession and causing unemployment to surge upward, overshooting its natural rate.
Many in the market already see the storm clouds of recession gathering in the distance, a narrative that has found an ally in the flattening yield curve. Talk of a downturn by 2020 is increasingly in vogue and for good reason: a soft landing in unemployment from below NAIRU has never been achieved before. In the modern history of US national economic statistics since the late 1940s, every time the unemployment rate has overshot to the downside, policy firming by the Fed has helped drive the economy into recession (Figure 1).
We think the Powell Fed can make history by achieving the unprecedented outcome of a soft landing from below sans recession." - source Deutsche Bank
Contrary to the elements put forward in this very interesting note, we think that once again this time isn't different. On a final note we thought we had run out of arguments against the cult of the Philipps curve as per our conversation "The Dead Parrot Sketch" back in August 2017, we did read additional arguments against the Phillips curve cult in Saad Filali's take on Seeking Alpha in his article "There Is No Inflation: Too Much Supply, Not Enough Unions", which we found of great interest.  It has been said that the white tiger only appeared when the emperor ruled with absolute virtue, it could be said that the white tiger only appeared when the BIS ruled with absolute virtue as per their very interesting most recent quarterly survey, but we digress...

"Liquidity is oxygen for a financial system." -  Ruth Porat
Stay tuned!
 
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