Monday, 29 September 2014

Is art a good investment?

“Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion.“- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Miss Mai Pham Ngoc, founder of Art&Heritage LTD in collaboration with Macronomics

Is art a good investment?

The question in itself seems legitimate at first, but, in order to answer more precisely the question asked one has to reduce art to a simple investment instrument. Art could be therefore easily comparable to other financial investment instruments such as bonds or equities based on financial analysis, its performance, rate of return, and other measures, when it really isn’t a simple investment. 

Art is first and foremost an “emotional” investment we think.

Based on this clearer definition one can relate more easily to our above quote from German philosopher Hegel whose lectures on Aesthetics are regarded by many as one of the greatest aesthetic theories to have been produced since Aristotle.

Indeed, how can one achieve “financial” success in building up an art collection without passion? All great collectors share a common trait, a strong passion for the art works they are attracted to.

Why do these collectors see value in art works we do not see? 

Maybe Hegel was right when he came to defining why art was such an “emotional investment”: “The beauty of art is beauty born of the spirit and born again, and the higher the spirit and its productions stand above nature and its phenomena, the higher too is the beauty of art above that of nature. Indeed, considered formally [i.e. no matter what it says], even a useless notion that enters a man’s head is higher than any product of nature, because in such a notion spirituality and freedom are always presented.” - Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

No great collection, in private hands or displayed in museums was ever achieved without passion, making art itself a separate asset class of its own.

But how do you value art?

How can one understand that since 1985 until 2012, the AMR Art 100 index has provided an average annual return of 10 percent when in the same period the MSCI world has only returned an average annual return of 5.9 percent as reported in a study made by ArtAssure - Art Market Analysis 2013?
- source ArtAssure - Art Market Analysis 2013

Why in recent auctions new records have been broken? What makes the art market so different than a bond, or a company stock?

First, the use of fine art is an effective diversification tool as art is removed from the capital structure of the economy. Put it simply, Art is an insiders’ market driven by limited supply and the demand is strongly correlated to economic expansion of a country.

Growing global wealth and the emergence of new private and institutional buyers is leading a strong
demand for the “emotional” asset class. 

One of the chief reason behind record auction prices for the high end market of art is due to new buyers from Emerging Markets boosting prices for postwar and contemporary artists as the works are perceived as strong investments.

Second, think of art somewhat as “venture” capital investment in the sense that insiders, the ones investing in the primary market of the new “venture” have the highest probability of making much more significant “exponential” returns than the ones investing in the secondary market during an IPO

Why is so and why this comparison relates to the art market? 

Art follows a power law. In statistics, a power law is a functional relationship between two quantities, where one quantity varies as a power of another. For instance the primary market price for a work of art will be less for a large series or works of art than for a unique work of similar size, medium, and appearance by a specific artist. 

Once art passes out of the hands of the “insiders”, its commercial value is determined by the principle of supply and demand, but it can be “influenced” by the artist’s primary dealer in the sense that many art galleries will participate to some auctions to sustain the price level of the artist they represent, in similar fashion banks can sustain a share price for a certain period of time following an IPO. 

When we hear of “great price variations” in the art market, it seems to us that the behavior of the prices in the art market is similar to what can be seen in the complex options financial markets and difficult to value “American” options (An option that can be exercised anytime during its life). Since investors have the freedom to exercise their “American options” at any point during the life of the contract, they are more valuable than European options, which can only be exercised at maturity. In similar fashion a video on can suddenly attract millions of views, in the art markets, the price of the work of art can vary very significantly upwards at any time due to an artist becoming mainstream or suddenly “fashionable”. But, the prices of contemporary artists can fall significantly as well as seen in 2008. It  can make it difficult for some art funds with tie-up clauses to realize timely their gains. Art remains an unpredictable “emotional investment”, subject to changes in trends and fashion.

How does one invest?

So, how does one invest? Demanding outside counsel and expertise is a necessity because of the very particular nature of the market and its different segments as well as the common risk of forgery. 
Either you are passionate enough to become your own expert (many top collectors end up being experts), or you rely on external art experts to help you build up a long-term collection. Such curating services are generally provided to ultra-high net worth individuals (UHNWI) who often rely on their own curators to manage and build-up their collections. The continuation of the on-going economic crisis has led to an accentuation towards tangible assets such as gold, real estate and works of art. Wealthy individuals hold an estimated US $4 trillion in “treasure/emotional assets”, an average 9.6% of their total net worth according to the World Wealth Report 2012 from Cap Gemini and RBC Wealth Management and Barclays Wealth. 

What we are seeing is the development a new trend « art and investment » which is pushing for complimentary services to be added to existing services provided by wealth management companies, private banks, as well as law firms, specialized or not. Furthermore, the development of internet based auction solutions backed by the growing number of “big data”providers from specialized art internet companies is adding more traceability and efficiencies to the growing art market. 

It is also worth pointing out that the higher returns of the art market also come with lower volatility. While the AMR Art 100 has an annual volatility rate of 12 percent from 1985 until 2012, the MSCI World Index had a volatility rate of 16 percent as indicated by the study made by ArtAssure - Art Market Analysis 2013

Counter-intuitively, this illiquid market is prone to less volatility. The upcoming opening of a port franc in Luxemburg as well as the commercial agreements between Asia and Luxembourg will no doubt sustain even more the buoyant activity in the art market with new money in Asia chasing old money in Europe. The art market throughout the history of mankind has always tend to follow money. When it comes to long-term trends, Asia-Pacific (ex Japan) is expected to be the second-wealthiest region in 2014, and the wealthiest by 2018 but that is another story (we highly recommend reading Angus Maddison's book Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030 AD, Essays in Macro-Economic History).

The art market, a fast growing segment

No doubt that the art market is a very fast growing segment of Global Private Financial Wealth Management. According to a recent survey conducted by the BCG (BCG Riding a Wave of Growth, June 2014 report), Global Private Financial Wealth grew by 14.6% in 2013 to reach a total of US $152 trillion with the fastest growth coming from Asia. The number of HNWI is on the rise and as an illustration, of the rise in Chinese art, in 2002 not a single Chinese artist was in the list of the top 100 contemporary artists. 10 years on, you find 45 and the overall turnover in China for the contemporary Art Market represented 25.6% of the global turnover.

To conclude, art is no doubt an “emotional investment” but, with proper counsel and advice, it remains a resilient allocation tool in wealth management. It can allow you to build long-term wealth with lesser commotions than in the stock market in addition to providing you with the pleasure of owning an aesthetics’ mean, more precisely, an object produced by the science of sensation, of feeling as postulated by Hegel.

For more on this subject and in relation to outside counsel and expertise services available you can contact Miss Mai Pham Ngoc at the following e-mail address:

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Credit - Wall of Voodoo

"It is enough that the people know there was an election. The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything." - Joseph Stalin

Apologies dear readers for the lack of posting recently but, we have been enjoying some R&R, giving us plenty of time to catch up with family and friends as well as keeping an curious eye on the series of eventful news that made the headline such as French former president Sarkozy's return to politics (or the return of the comeback kid) and of course the results of the much feared Scottish referendum (hence our tongue-in-cheek quote from above). But, regarding our latest chosen title, you might wonder why we have chosen such a reference. One of our good friends and fellow "Macronomics" blogger and reader really enjoyed our most recent musical reference and challenged us to come up with some more. We felt obliged to comply with his request and decided to steer towards American New Wave 80s group Wall of Voodoo, known for their 1983 hit "Mexican Radio". Of course as always, there is indeed a dual reference in our chosen title given the 80s saw as well the emergence of "voodoo economics" also called Reaganomics, commonly associated with supply-side economics, leading to a rapid surge in the US dollar, the Latin American crisis and the infamous market crash of 1987. The four pillars of this policy were as follows: reduction of the growth of government spending, reduction of the federal income tax and capital gains tax, reduction of government regulation, and tightening of the money supply in order to reduce inflation.

You might wonder where we are going with our analogy but we see many similarities in the US economic situation under Reaganomics with some of the economic results triggered by both the Obama administration and the expansionary monetary policies of the Fed of today. In similar fashion to the Reagan era, political pressure indeed favored stimulus resulting in an expansion of the money supply. Also, under Reagan the public debt rose from 26% to GDP in 1980 to 41% of GDP by 1988, a roughly three fold increase. The unemployment rate under Reagan rose from 7% in 1980 to 10.8% in 1982, and then declined to 5.4% in 1988. Of course during the current Obama administration, the recovery has been less than formidable in the job creation space. The rate of growth of real GDP under Reagan averaged 3.05% with real median median family income growing by $4000 during the "Voodoo" period which has not been the case presently. During the Reagan administration, federal receipts grew from $618 billion to $991 billion (an increase of 60%); while outlays grew from $746 billion to $1144 billion (an increase of 53%).

For comparative purposes we looked at the receipts and deficits under both administration as published by the US Office of Management and Budget:
- source Macronomics - Office of Management and Budget

What is interesting in the above table for both "Reaganomics" and "Obanomics" have been the increases in tax receipts under both administrations in conjunction. But, there has been a rapid decline in the budget deficit in the case of the Obama administration, whereas, under Reagan, the deficit was roughly stable. In both cases there was a rapid surge in public debt.

As we pointed out in our last conversation, we are getting increasingly concerned on the potential impact the velocity in the rise of the US dollar could have on "exposed" Emerging Markets sovereign and corporates in particular in Latin America:
"External funding requirements of EM economies remain heavily skewed to USD denominated funding."

Therefore in this week conversation we will look again at the increasing risks posed by the velocity in the surge of the US dollar which could lead to wave number three namely a currency crisis (as a reminder):
"We expect a "regime change" in FX volatility as well. In fact we voiced our concern with the impact the end of tapering would have in terms of dollar liquidity in June 2013 in our conversation "Singin' in the Rain":
"If the Fed starts draining liquidity, some "big whales" might turn up belly up. Could it be Chinese banks defaulting? Emerging Markets countries defaulting as well due to lack of access to US dollars?"
We will also look at US High Yield which is becoming increasingly a crowded traded and is losing its appeal.

Given Wall of Voodoo's hit was 1983's Mexican Radio, we find it amusing that it followed the debt crisis of 1982 which was the most serious in Latin America's history. The contraction of world trade in 1981 followed the rise in interest rates in both the United States and Europe in 1979.  Today we are seeing another fall in commodities prices (iron ore, copper, oil, etc). In August 1982, Finance Minister Jesus Silva-Herzog declared Mexico would no longer be able to service its debt:
"I'm on a mexican radio. I'm on a Mexican - whoah - radio

I dial it in and tune the station
They talk about the U.S. inflation
I understand just a little
No comprende, it's a riddle" - Source Wall of Voodoo - Mexican Radio lyrics extract

From our perspective and given never before in the post-Bretton Woods era of floating exchange rates had the trade-weighted ICE dollar index risen for 10 consecutive weeks as it did in the most recent 10 weeks ending on Friday, we are indeed thinking about the "Wall of Voodoo", namely the risk of a currency crisis due to dollar scarcity which could trigger a "new wave" of defaults à la 80s fashion hence our chosen title.

The evolution of the ICE index, known by its ticker DXY and based on a weighted basket of six other currencies – the euro, yen, sterling, Swiss franc, Swedish krona and Canadian dollar - graph source Bloomberg:

And the long view on the DXY - graph source Bloomberg:
The DXY index was founded in 1973, when the Bretton Woods system formally ended, and it has been reweighted only once, to make room for the introduction of the euro in 1999.

As indicated by Société Générale in their latest Multi-Asset Portfolio review, the US Dollar is indeed striking back:
"The Federal Reserve is clearly indicating that an exit from the zero-rate policy could materialise before mid-year 2015. Another effect of the market pricing the Federal Reserve monetary policy outlook is a reinforced US dollar. The rise in short-term rates this year supported the dollar across the board. This was visible in USD/JPY, and in particular in EUR/USD, helped by the dovish ECB." - source Société Générale

Of course what it appears to us to be the upcoming change in the markets is a "regime change" in the volatility space and most particularly in the FX space. If the European markets continue its "Japanification" process, one can expect indeed an increasing rise in currency volatility as witnessed during Japan's deflation episode leading USD/JPY to become one of the most volatile currency pair in the Forex space.

We think the low volatility regime is indeed coming to an end and while it can be ascertained from the FX and Rates space, it has yet to translate into the equity sphere. Rest assured it will happen. On that note we do agree with Société Générale's take from their latest note:
"There is no contagion into equity markets yet. We expect the market pricing of the Fed tightening to be the trigger for putting equity volatility regime under pressure.
We expect the move to accelerate in equities as well as some point as the market prices in US tightening"
- source Société Générale

Of course the regime change and our "Wall of Voodoo" as the song goes, means that we are indeed dialing in and tuning to the "Mexican radio", meaning that as far as the US household income/corporate margin tradeoff is concerned, we think going forward US equities will start feeling the heat ("The Heat is On" is yet another 80s hit from the 1984 American film Beverly Hills Cop but we ramble again). In terms of the "Wall of Voodoo" we previously stated that our biggest concern was indeed the "profit cliff", a subject we discussed back in 2012 in our conversation "The Omnipotence paradox":
"Moving on to the subject of the risk of the "Profits Cliff", we believe the biggest risk is indeed not coming from the "Fiscal Cliff" but in fact from the "Profits Cliff". The increase productivity efforts which led to employment reduction following the financial crisis means that companies overall have reached in the US what we would call "Peak Margins". In that context they remain extremely sensitive to revised guidance and earnings outlook as we moved towards 2013. As we discussed in June in "River of No Returns", 56.5% of discretionary stock have a Beta greater than 1.1 and consensus for 2013 were the highest in discretionary stocks. We quoted Morgan Stanley's research note at the time of this conversation: "Earnings, like trees, don't grow to the sky"."

On that specific subject of US corporate profit margin, this is further illustrated by Nomura in their latest Global Equity Strategy note from the 19th of September entitled "Take my punchbowl away please":
"US household income/corporate margin tradeoff. However, falling unemployment and rising US wage inflation would also begin to erode historically high US corporate profit margins (Figure 9). 
With this, the pace of US earnings upgrades would almost certainly slow from the standout 7.0% YTD pace noted above. Thus our preliminary end-2015 S&P 500 index target (of 2,200) implies “only” single-digit upside next year – meaning ironically the best way to play the rise in US household incomes and consumption may be through non-US markets with high export-intensity to the US consumer." - source Nomura

From a "valuation" point of view, the underloved European markets appears to us more attractive from a contrarian approach than the US markets currently. When it comes to Emerging Markets equity exposure, our preferences continue to go towards Emerging Asia.

Given credit investors are anticipatory in nature, in 2008-2009, credit spreads started to rise well in advance (9 months) of the eventual risk of defaults, bringing us to our second subject of our post being the rapidly fading attractiveness of US High Yield.

On that subject, we agree with Bank of America Merrill Lynch recent take on the subject of default from their latest  High Yield Wire note from the 23rd of September entitled "The next default wave: Slow and Low":
Default wave to resemble late ‘90s, early ‘00s
"We believe the next default cycle is likely to resemble that of the late 1990s and early 2000s, marked by two waves and in acute sectors. We envision a scenario where current distressed firms cause the default rate to rise in 2015 which, when coupled with a rise in treasury yields, leads to a retail driven downturn in high yield bonds and a further unwillingness to lend to stretched corporates in 2016. This combination of events does not freeze capital markets, but rather creates a slow drain of liquidity from corporate issuers that were able to get financing from 2010-2014. Additionally, with stringent rules around bank lending standards, significant existing covenant-lite issuance, and what we believe will be an increase in the size and scope of non-regulated lenders, the turn of this credit cycle may be one that in many ways is unlike any we have seen before. In particular, we envision an environment that is characterized by a lower default rate but an increased numberof what we call ‘zombie companies’." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch

In this note they also added the following:
"Generally speaking, defaults don’t pick up while interest rates are increasing (notwithstanding the first round of defaults in the late 1990s – a topic we’ll discuss more below). Given the fact that the economy was already headed in a downward trajectory during past cycles, the Fed typically has already started cutting rates and treasury yields have declined by the time defaults increase substantially.
Party like its 1999
This situation could bear some resemblance to what we expect to see in 2015 and 2016. In the below chart we see that in 1999 defaults of stressed names caused the default rate of the overall market to increase. 
Despite a subsequent drop in the default rate of these issuers, however, the overall default rate remained modestly elevated at about 5.5% for 2 years before picking up again substantially in 2001. What is extraordinary about this period is that the defaults of distressed companies didn’t immediately lead to a spike in the overall default rate like during the last crisis. This is in large part because the overall economy was strong; the initial spike was caused by companies already in trouble, while the slow bleed that followed was due to shaky balance sheets after an aggressive telecom infrastructure build during the mid-1990s.
Contrast this default pattern with what we expect to see over the next two years. The distressed defaults of the 1990s could be today’s well known troubled retail names, rather than the worst-off CLECs, and are likely to fall into bankruptcy despite strong economic growth. The effect of the increase in defaults will likely be met at first with an air of inevitability. After all, most investors now expect that RadioShack, Sears, JC Penny and others will experience serious headwinds as going concerns in the relatively near future. To this end, we believe the first couple of defaults are unlikely to shake the market substantially. However, we do fear that as 2 bankruptcies turns to 3, and 3 to 4, that the headlines of the events will begin to scare retail investors in particular. Although this process may take 6, 9 or even 12 months, as the default rate begins to tick higher, rates begin to increase and total returns are lackluster, we believe retail investors will begin to put pressure on high yield, affecting both the secondary and primary marketsAs mentioned above, we don’t believe this potential weakness leads to a rash of defaults and expect non-retail investors to support the market at first. However, we also believe fatigue will eventually set in as large institutions become more discerning of the new issue market. As 2015 turns to 2016, rates are higher and retail is less interested in the asset class as the carry trade slowly unwinds itself, we believe the institutional buyer base will be less willing to lend or extend credit to companies that haven’t shown a clear ability to grow or generate positive free cash flow. In particular first-time issuers or those issuers that first came to market over the last several years could represent a problem during this time. We are most concerned with CLEC-type companies: those issuers who have recently come to market with little to no financial information available, no Wall Street analyst coverage, and negative free-cash flow.
In our view, it is a combination of events that will lead to the increase in defaults, and a first sign among them is the response of retail investors to deteriorating credit quality. This summer’s selloff, in our view, provides an interesting case study of the impact retail can have to the market"

We agree with the above and the recent turmoil surrounding UK issuer Phone4U highlight the risk of rapid of decline in high yields prices in the market in conjunction with low recovery rate that can be ascertained from this particular example. In the case of Phone4U, BC Partners, the private equity owner of the business had GBP 480 million of senior bonds outstanding maturing in 2018 issued by Phone4U Finance. These senior bonds in a matter of days fell from par to around 10 to 15 pence in the pound highlighting the very low recovery of the senior bonds. When it comes to subordinated bondholders of PIK-toggle note issued by Phosphorus Holdco, they face the risk of total wipe-out. So much for picking 600 bps more than the senior in the first place...

While visiting friends and family in Paris, we had an interesting lunch with a French friend who appears to be a corporate LBO originator banker. While the French model is different than in the US in the sense that French banks retain some of the risk on the balance sheet rather than originate and distribute like some of their US counterparts do, he confirmed to us the firmness of the market and the appetite for risk. For instance whereas some banks are refusing some leveraged deals, the current ZIRP environment is indeed pushing deals being done by non-regulated lenders with investors clearly going outside their comfort zone and disregarding the risks presented by some deals having zero equity buffers in the first place.

On that particular note, Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their High Yield note highlight a significant rise in the role played by non-regulated lenders in the Cov-lite space:
"Zombie Apocalypse: Cov-lite and non-regulated lenders
We have written in the past about cov-lite issuance and the fact that cov-lite loans have a lower cumulative default rate than traditional loans as the ability to have financial flexibility seems to help during times of distress. However, given new Fed and OCC letters to the large, regulated US investment banks about their lending practices and restrictions on leverage (in particular, those issuers with leveraged greater than 6x), we believe cov-lite issuance could prove to be a problem in years to come as new deals are pushed off to non-regulated lenders. We envision an environment where stressed companies turn to non-regulated entities to complete deals that would traditionally be underwritten by the large investment banks. Many of these deals may be small club deals arranged by private equity firms or hedge funds. Others may be loan to own deals while yet more may be fully syndicated to investors. However, we believe these lenders are likely to be more predatory than their regulated counterparts- potentially layering more debt than the business model can withstand or with higher rates than would otherwise be desirable. PE firms currently have over $400bn2 in dry powder and have shown their willingness and desire to build capital market franchises while boutique shops outside of the purview of the Fed and OCC have increased substantially. In fact, according to league tables from Bloomberg, in 2007 41 companies underwrote leveraged loan deals while year-to-date 87 different firms have underwritten deals. Of the 87 different firms, a large number fall outside the
scope of the OCC and the Fed. For example, Jeffries and KKR are two firms that combined have underwritten more than $10bn in leveraged loans so far in 2014 and S&P Capital IQ LCD estimate that 83% of total middle market volume was from non-bank lenders in 2013, up from 71% in 2011.
Our fear is that as more non-regulated lenders extend increasing amounts of credit to risky borrowers, existing debt holders are likely to come out on the bottom given current loose covenants. We note in Chart 10 that as a percentage of market size, 50% of all loan issuance was cov-lite over the last 12 months.
Where this could prove to be a problem is as borrowers who issued loans in the last several years need to come back to the market, non-regulated lenders may have the ability to hurt existing holders of the debt by being a lender of last resort. We see this potential as a consequence of higher rates, lower retail and institutional demand given quality and return concerns, and increased bank regulation. This is yet another reason why the default rate may not increase dramatically over the next couple of years while zombie companies displace defaulted entities." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch

Of course the "Wall of Voodoo" and our rising concerns US High Yield wise being less and less appealing comes from the rise in first time issuers and the decrease in both credit quality and transparency when it comes to company fundamentals as highlighted by Bank of America Merrill Lynch:
"First concern, first time issuers
Since 2009 over 600 companies have issued debt for the first time. Though in isolation we don’t think this is a cause for alarm, when coupled with the decrease in quality and coupon of these issuers relative to past periods as well as the lack of transparency surrounding company fundamentals, we believe these issuers can be the driving force behind a long, slow beginning to the next default wave. Chart 11 below shows that the average rating of first time issuers has decreased relative to all new issues over the last couple of years (the higher the numeric rating, the worse the quality) 

while Chart 12 highlights the drop in coupon of first time issuers relative to all new issues.
Even more dramatic is to look at the decrease in first time issuer’s coupons relative to the increase in numeric rating in Chart 13. 
As the quality of first time issuers has declined so has coupon, a phenomenon that is inconsistent with any other period over the last decade. What is most concerning about all of these statistics is that the number of issuers that have a history of financial statements available (in Bloomberg) at the time of their issuance has plummeted (Chart 14). 
This suggests to us that investors have not been able to perform the necessary homework to justify lending to many of these companies. So far in 2014, just 8% of all first time issuers have financial statements in Bloomberg prior to issuance.
Within our set of first time issuers we further breakdown the cohort by rating. Our findings suggest that CCC first time issuers have been pricing tight to all triple C new issue paper while the market currently demands a premium for first time single B and double B issuers (Chart 11). The low coupons of first time CCC issuers bode well for the immediate future of these companies. The lower interest expenses, in our view, will further prolong the credit cycle until the first wave of highly distressed companies noted above realize their eventual demise. However, as investors become more critical of lending terms and as rates increase throughout 2015, we also believe such low financing could prove detrimental when these companies need to refinance existing debt in 2016 and 2017 from given what appears to be relatively weak credit fundamentals." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch

Of course we were way in advance in sounding a warning on that subject in our conversation "The False Alarm" in October 2013 where we stated:
"If we take CCC Default Rate Cyclicality as an early indicative of a shorter credit cycle, then it is the rating bucket to watch going forward
Why the CCC bucket? Because there has been this time around a very high percentage of CCC rated issuers accessing the primary market in High Yield.
A rise in defaults would likely be the consequences of a deterioration in credit availability. Credit ratings are in fact a lagging indicator." - source Macronomics

We were indeed right in our 2013 assertion as it was validated by Bank of America Merrill Lynch's note:
"Deteriorating fundamentals of first time issuers
Based on the information we do have about first time issuers, we are also concerned about their fundamentals. Free cash flow among first time issuers is seems to be very poor. Over 40% (66 out of 162) of all first time issuers since the crisis where we have data have negative free cash flow. Filtering on this universe, we see 15 of these issuers are currently rated triple C, all but one has been issued since 2010 and 13 of the 15 are Energy names. 43 of the issuers with negative free cash flow are rated single B, and of these issuers, 21 are energy names. While we believe many of these first time issuers will be targets for M&A in 2015 we also believe that many will find it difficult to survive rising rates, heightened fundamental scrutiny and tighter bank regulations.
However, first time issuers are not our only concern when it comes to new issuance as the entire new issue market has become lower quality based on fundamentals. For example, since 2004 net leverage for all new issues has increased to nearly 5x, well above the average leverage of our index of 3.8x.
Additionally, triple C issuance has increased substantially since the crisis, as the last 12 months of CCC issuance is equal to nearly 50% of all the CCC issuance currently outstanding. What worries us is that in a period where rates rise and credit quality concerns are more at the fore of investors’ minds, that many of these issuers will find it difficult to tap the bond market." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch

So we will re-iterate our 2013 advice for credit investors, watch CCC default rate going forward. Because it matters, more and more.

As we stated in our 2013 conversation, we have continued to dance to "Wall of Voodoo" and their "Mexican Radio", but we have been quietly moving closer towards the exit door.

On a final note, we leave you with Société Générale's latest take on US High Yield being more and more in the over-valuation territory. Given the difference in terms of cycle as displayed in our last conversation, we do prefer European credit to that effect but, that is another story...

"In the simplest terms, inflation occurs when there's too much money in the system. On the flip side, deflation occurs when there are too few dollars in circulation." - Robert Kiyosaki, American author.

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Credit - Sympathy for the Devil

"The greatest trick European central bankers ever pulled was to convince the world that default risk didn't exist" - Macronomics.

Looking with interest Spain issuing a 50 year bond with a 4% coupon, in conjunction with the latest raft of the decisions taken by our "Generous Gambler" aka Mario Draghi being a very crafty poker player no doubt in the steps of his July 2012 OMT bluff triggering a continuation in the weakness of the Euro versus the US dollar, we decided this week to venture towards a musical analogy in picking up our chosen title. Sympathy for the Devil is a song by The Rolling Stones which first appeared in 1968. 
In a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone, Jagger said: "I think that was taken from an old idea of Baudelaire's, I think, but I could be wrong. Sometimes when I look at my Baudelaire books, I can't see it in there. But it was an idea I got from French writing. And I just took a couple of lines and expanded on it. I wrote it as sort of like a Bob Dylan song." 

Mick Jagger wasn't wrong. As one knows, the "Devil is in the details" and if Mick Jagger had taken a closer look to his Baudelaire books he would have noticed that his inspiration indeed came from this great text from Charles Baudelaire called the "Generous Gambler" we have used in the past as a title for a post. This poem appears to be the 29th poem of Charles Baudelaire masterpiece Spleen de Paris from 1869 (an interesting anagram with 1968 we think):
"My dear brothers, never forget, when you hear the progress of enlightenment vaunted, that the devil's best trick is to persuade you that he doesn't exist!" - Charles Baudelaire - The Generous Gambler
We previously pointed out in our conversation "Complacency" back in November 2011 that this seminal work from Baudelaire also inspired the scenarists of the great 1995 movie Usual Suspects:
"The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world he didn't exist" - Roger "Verbal" Kint- The Usual Suspects

Of course as our earlier quote goes, we could not resist using Baudelaire's work as an inspiration as well but we ramble again.

In this week's conversation we will look at why European banks deleveraging has much further to go (hence the much commented latest round of ECB decisions taken to support the banks in Europe in the process) as well as the credit clock and the on-going fast releveraging in the US corporate sector which we touch briefly in our previously published Chart of the Day and our fear in a US dollar rising too fast for some Emerging Markets (EM).

Whereas investors have indeed been mesmerized by Mario Draghi with his "Whatever it takes" and "Believe me it will be enough" moments, it is no surprise to us to see an acceleration in the continuation in yield compression, going negative for some, in the European government space. 

Investors have indeed Sympathy for the Devil we think, as they continue to pile up with much abandon and more and more getting "carried away" in their insatiable hunt for yield. In that sense Baudelaire's 1869 poem rings eerily familiar with the current investment situation in the sense that investors have been giving our "Generous Gambler" the benefit of the doubt (OMT - and now full blown QE) and shown their sympathy and their blind beliefs in "implicit" guarantees, rather than "explicit" (such as the German Constitution as we argued in various conversations):
"If it hadn't been for the fear of humiliating myself before such a grand assembly, I would willingly have fallen at the feet of this generous gambler, to thank him for his unheard of munificence. But little by little, after I left him, incurable mistrust returned to my breast. I no longer dared to believe in such prodigious good fortune, and, as I went to bed, saying my prayers out of the remnants of imbecilic habit, I said, half-asleep: "My God! Lord, my God! Please make the devil keep his word!" 

But as years have gone by in the European tragedy, we have become somewhat immunised from our great magician's spells. Many investors have indeed shown the greatest sympathy in respect to piling up on European Government Debt in the process, while banks have been shedding assets leading to outright credit contractions leading in the past two years European banks to cut their lending to businesses by about 8.5 per cent as reported by Matthew C Klein in FT Alphaville in his article "How to spend it: ECB bond-buying edition"  adding the following comment: "a remarkable development considering what has happened to credit spreads since Mario Draghi pledged to do “whatever it takes” to save the currency union"

For us, it isn't remarkable, as we have always stipulated in this blog that LTRO 1 and 2 in conjunction with the fateful EBA decision pushing banks to reach a Core Tier 1 ratio of 9% precipitated the recession and the credit crunch in peripheral countries more significantly. For us it amounted to "Money for Nothing" we argued at the time given the lack of transmission to the real economy. It looks to us the 8.5% credit contraction validates our take and the crowding out of the private sector we discussed in prior conversation "Tokyo Drift" being the latest:
Indeed, declining peripheral yields have not transferred to peripheral private sector funding due to "crowding out" which we discussed a year ago in our conversation "Fears for Tears":
One of main reason of the relative calm in the European government bond market has been the "crowding out" of the private sector.
"Although, the intention of European politicians has been to severe the link between banks and sovereigns, in fact what they have effectively done in relation to bank lending in Europe is "crowding out" the private sector. Peripheral banks have in effect become the "preferred lender" of peripheral governments
It is fairly simple, in effect while the deleveraging runs unabated for European banks, most European banks have been playing the carry trade and in effect boosting their sovereign holdings by 30% since 2011 to record"

We also commented at the time:
"Yes, we all know that Mario Draghi's OMT "nuclear deterrent" has yet to be tested. But what we are concerned about is, as we indicated in our conversation "Cloud Nine", is the lack of credit growth in peripheral countries which are most likely to be exacerbated by the upcoming AQR 
As a reminder: AQR = Asset Quality Review, planned for 1st Quarter 2014 as a prelude to the ECB becoming the Single Supervisor for large euro area banks in 2H 2014. The AQR's intent is to review banks challenged loan portfolios and the need for capital increase.
"Until the AQR is completed and capital shortfalls identified and remedied, you cannot expect a significant pick up in lending." 

The issue of course is that the deleveraging in the European banking space has a very long way to go as indicated by this Loan-to-deposit ratios chart coming from McKinsey's Working Paper on +Risk number 56 entitled "Risk in emerging markets" published in June 2014:
-source McKinsey

The scale in the deleveraging can be ascertained from the chart above with a reduction of 58% in the US and 31% in the United Kingdom. 

In regards to the capital structure, in comparison to Europe, the United States have increased much rapidly their capital levels than their European counterparts as displayed in the below chart from the same McKinsey report:
-source McKinsey

US banks have increased their capital basis by 57% since 2007 until 2012 while Western European banks by only 37% on the same period.
While investors boast sympathy for our "Generous Gambler", some German economists do not seem to show much sympathy given that at the end of July the German Constitutional court received yet another challenge, this time around the European Banking Union. It has not been reported as much by financial pundits but, a group of professors in Germany has filed a complaint claiming the European Banking Union has no legal basis in the EU treaties as reported by EurActiv on the 29th of July:
 "European banking union constitutes a violation of fundamental rights, said professor of finance and economic policy at the Technische Universität Berlin Markus C. Kerber, in a statement for the German newspaper "Welt am Sonntag".

The rules for the new single supervisory mechanism "represent the first step towards unprecedented German taxpayer liability for banks outside national banking supervision", Kerber said. According to the economic law expert, European banking supervision can only be introduced if changes are made to the EU treaties.

Kerber is not alone. He stands alongside numerous critics from the Europolis Group who are convinced that the German government and Bundestag have disregarded the responsibility for integration while dealing with Brussels' plans for a banking union.

The group has decided to lodge a complaint before Germany's constitutional court against the underlying legal regulation as well as the law ratifying the transfer of bank supervision to the European Central Bank (ECB).

Announcing the group's decision on Sunday (27 July) in Berlin, Kerber also accused German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble of deceiving the public regarding the risks of banking union.

The complainants announced their intention to extend the constitutional complaint as soon as the regulation on the Single Resolution Mechanism (SRM) and its corresponding bank resolution fund take effect.

Starting in November, the new single supervisory mechanism will fall within the remit of the European Central Bank (ECB). It is a central component of banking union.

“We consider the banking union constitutional,” the German Finance Ministry explained, adding its legal basis was thoroughly assessed with the constitutional department.

The ministry said Germany did not feel the EU Treaty's internal market article [Article 127(6) TFEU], on its own, was sufficient for the union, as the Commission proposed. As a result, an additional agreement was made among the member states.

Kerber has been a strict opponent of EU bailout policy from the start. "The worst is yet to come", he warned in May 2012, predicting an imminent collapse of the eurozone. At the time, he called for the introduction of second currency in parallel to the euro called the "Guldenmark".

In March 2014, the German constitutional court finally gave the green light to the euro area bailout package, rejecting numerous complaints against the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). Kerber was among the official complainants at the time." - source EurActiv Germany

As we indicated in our conversation "Eastern promises" on the 9th of June 2012 we continue to think Germany could be the prime suspect in triggering a breakup:
"We think the breakup of the European Union could be triggered by Germany, in similar fashion to the demise of the 15 State-Ruble zone in 1994 which was triggered by Russia, its most powerful member which could lead to a smaller European zone. It has been our thoughts which we previously expressed."

Keep in mind that Angela Merkel while only appearing to be making material sacrifices has managed to keep Germany's liabilities unchanged so far.

Moving back to credit and the lack of private credit to the real economy which has been plaguing the much vaunted "recovery", disintermediation in Europe has accelerated in Europe where asset managers and private investors are picking up the direct lending baton from banks which in many instances have been in retreat due to lack of capital therefore balance sheet constrained. 

In last week Chart of the Day focusing on the difference between US High Yield and US we indicated the following:
"In Europe, the situation is different, where the explosion in growth in the High Yield market comes from substitution from corporate loans to bond issuance due to the disintermediation on the back of bank deleveraging (which by the way is way behind the US). Existing loans in Europe are getting refinanced therefore via new High Yield issuance in the bond market, which implies that there is no significant releveraging as seen in the US so far."

An illustration of the direct lending trend business in Europe can be ascertained by the increase in loans origination to mid-cap corporates and the hiring taking place in that space, with Paris based asset manager Tikehau hiring for its direct lending business veteran banker Nathalie Bleuven former deputy head of the mid-cap LBO and corporate acquisition from Societe Generale, While large corporates in Europe do not have issues with loan syndication or directly taping the market through the bond market, there has been a rise in the European markets of new entrants in terms of issuance to the bond market. European corporates depended to around 85% to the loan market in 2011, with bond issuance only representing 15%.  Europe has a very large banking sector relative to GDP. The aggregate balance sheet of euro area banks is around 270% of GDP, whereas in the US, where capital markets are deeper, it is only around 70% of GDP. A deleveraging banking sector implies lower credit supply, which is problematic and explains therefore the lack of recovery in the European economy. Of course the ECB is aware of the size of the problem as indicated by the speech given by  Yves Mersch, Member of the Executive Board of the ECB, in a keynote speech entitled "Finance in an environment of downsizing banks" given at the Shanghai Forum in May 2014:
"In terms of location, the cost of and access to finance in the euro area remains strongly based on national conditions. For example, the average cost of borrowing for non-financial firms in Portugal is more than 5% per year, whereas the equivalent for French firms is around 2% per year.

One would imagine in this situation that a Portuguese firm would seek out a French bank, but the euro area banking market does not facilitate such arbitrage. Direct cross-border loans to firms account for just 7.5% of total loans to firms. And local affiliates of foreign banks represent on average only around 20% of national markets, and much less in larger countries. Thus, firms depend heavily on the health of their domestic banks.

Moreover, while corporate bond issuance has partially substituted for bank lending, it is strongly concentrated in non-distressed countries where there has been no decrease in the net flow of bank loans. The net issuance of debt securities, quoted shares and bank loans in non-distressed countries was plus €66 billion in 2013, whereas it was minus €93 billion in distressed countries.

Of course, in principle firms from distressed countries can issue securities in non-distressed countries. In practice, however, it is legally complicated due to issues of different governing law, especially when securities are traded along a chain of financial intermediaries.

This analysis points to two missing pieces in the euro area financial market: lack of retail banking integration and lack of capital market integration.

The low level of retail banking integration reflects several factors, but diverging approaches to supervision and resolution are certainly among them. For one, the persistence of national borders in a European financial market has in the past created compliance costs and reduced the synergies of banking integration. A European Commission survey in 2005 found that opaque supervisory approval procedures were a major deterrent to cross-border banking M&As. [4]

Moreover, national considerations may have reinforced the fragmentation of retail markets during the crisis. For example, some commentators have argued that supervisors erected de facto “internal capital controls” within the euro area, which restricted the flow of funds between banks and within cross-border banks.

A similar pattern can be observed in how national authorities in the euro area have dealt with failing banks. In general, non-viable banks were merged with other national banks, rather than being wound down or broken up and sold off. Thus, what could have been an opportunity to increase foreign competition in domestic markets, and indeed to work through the crisis more quickly, in some cases ended up increasing national concentration. To give a comparison with the US, the FDIC has resolved around 500 banks since 2008, mainly by selling parts of banks to other banks, whereas the equivalent figure for the euro area is around 50.

All this suggests that the move towards a genuine Banking Union in the euro area could help create the conditions for deeper retail banking integration. A Single Supervisory Mechanism (SSM) should lead to harmonisation of rules and standards, and also remove distortions created by national borders. And a Single Resolution Mechanism (SRM) should ensure that banks are resolved from a European perspective and according to least-cost principles, which should in principle open the door for cross-border resolution strategies.

In this way, even though the banking sector on aggregate is downsizing, credit allocation across the euro area may become more efficient. Banking Union is key part in ensuring that location becomes a diminishing factor in access to bank finance.

While Europe is and will remain a bank-based economy, adding the second missing piece of the euro area financial market – deeper capital market integration – is key to ensure that firms in all jurisdictions can use capital markets as a “spare tyre” when banks are not lending – and not only those in larger countries with more developed bond markets. Within a single currency area, there is no reason in principle why firms should not be able to tap a European pool of savings. What prevents this in practice, however, is regulatory heterogeneity across the euro area." - source ECB

A recent example of a firm tapping a large European pool of savings has been the recent set up of Banque PSA Finance (the banking arm of French automobile constructor) in Belgium attracted by the very large pool of short term deposits of around €250 billion euros.

There is indeed in Europe a growing shadow-banking on the back of bank deleveraging as illustrated by asset managers like Tikehau and Banque PSA Finance growing implantations. This is also illustrated in Mr Mersch speech given in May 2014:
"The size of this “shadow banking” system – which in my view is a misleading term – has increased considerably in the euro area since the crisis, rising by almost 20% since 2008. It has also taken on a greater role in financing the real economy. At end-2013, outstanding amounts of loans from euro area non-bank financial intermediaries to euro area non-financial firms amounted to €1.2 trillion. But the key challenge from a policy perspective is to ensure that these funds make their way to the most credit-starved SMEs." - source ECB

Most credit-starved SMEs are relying more and more on non-traditional players such as asset managers in providing much needed financing.

At this juncture, we think it is very important to look back on how the "Global Credit Channel Clock" operates, as designed by our good friend Cyril Castelli from Rcube Global Asset Management:
Whereas Europe sits more closely towards the lower right quadrant, it is increasingly clear that the US is showing increasing leverage in the corporate space, indicating a move towards the higher quadrant on the left of the Global Credit Channel Clock we think. What we have been seeing is indeed a flattening yield curve in the US with re-leveraging courtesy of buy-backs financed by debt issuance which is the point we made in last week Chart of the Day.

The continuation in the stability in credit spreads particularly in the High Yield space depends in the continuation of low fundamental default risk. On that subject, leverage matters and as shown in CITI Research Credit Strategy report entitled "Wider or Tighter recently published, the evolution of the median leverage ratio in the US warrants close monitoring we think:
"We calculated leverage for two baskets of names — the overall IG universe updated quarterly since ’06, and for a basket comprised of credits that held an IG rating at any time since ‘06 (to capture falling angels). Either way, it doesn’t look good."
Who is Levering Up?
Pretty much everybody. We calculate leverage for the IG universe today and three years ago (leverage ratio on the Y axis, names on the X axis and ordered from most to least levered). In gross and net terms there has basically been a parallel shift upward.
In theory and all else equal, a company that buys its own shares will boost its EPS, but unfortunately its default risk is likely to rise as well. This may not be good for share price. But in practice this is not necessarily true, since factors such as QE can drive default risk as much as company-specific actions." - source CITI Research

What of course is still supportive in the US fixed income space is the total net supply which hasn't quenched the fierce appetite for yield as displayed by CITI in their note:
"Net supply in the overall bond market has been well below the longer-term average in recent years ($1.4 tn vs. $1.8 tn), a trend we expect to remain in place in the near-term." - source CITI Research

More interestingly CITI Research highlighted an important point when it comes to traditional investors reaching for yield outside their comfort zone:
"In credit we have seen two way capital flows in the wake of QE; for example, corporate treasuries have increased HG exposure at the expense of Treasuries, but HG has lost capital to HY as traditional HG investors added HY risk. In essence, non-traditional capital entered, traditional capital left. Perhaps market segments that haven’t experienced two-way flows may be most vulnerable."
- source CITI Research

In continuation to us voicing our concerns of a potential currency crisis thanks to dollar scarcity in our conversation "The European Catharsis" we remind ourselves the following:
"We expect a "regime change" in FX volatility as well. In fact we voiced our concern with the impact the end of tapering would have in terms of dollar liquidity in June 2013 in our conversation "Singin' in the Rain":
"If the Fed starts draining liquidity, some "big whales" might turn up belly up. Could it be Chinese banks defaulting? Emerging Markets countries defaulting as well due to lack of access to US dollars?

It is a possibility we fathom." - Macronomics, June 2013 

At risk in the LATAM region in the near term is Venezuela which saw its foreign currency reserves fall to an 11-year low of about $20 billion last month. Venezuela and its state-owned oil PDVSA has to make a $5.3 billion in bond payments in October. The country may find itself running out of cash to service debt as soon as next year as foreign reserves continue their downward trajectory to an 11-year low and oil prices continue to fall. When Chavez took over Venezuela oil giant PDVSA employed 51,000 people and produced 63 barrels per employee per day. 15 years later, PDVSA employs 140,000 people and the production per employee has fallen to 20 barrels per day per employee, meaning the country is envisaging importing oil from Algeria according to Reuters.

According to Bloomberg, the country earns about $70 billion a year from oil exports, with total debt service equal to about 25 percent of that amount.

Another candidate prime for "default risk monitoring" is in the High Yield corporate space in Brazil. Back in February 2013 in our conversation "The surge in the Brazilian real versus the US dollar marks the return of the "Double-Decker" funds" we indicated the following:
Brazilian companies have sold the most junk bond on record since May 2011 last Month according to Boris Korby from Bloomberg in his article - Junk Bond Frenzy Poised to Spill Into February: Brazil Credit from the 1st of February:
"Brazilian companies led by Banco do Brasil SA sold the most junk debt since May 2011 last month as unprecedented global demand for high-risk securities enabled the neediest borrowers to chop their financing costs. State-owned Banco do Brasil sold $2 billion of junior subordinated perpetual bonds rated BB by Standard &Poor’s in the nation’s second-largest high-yield sale on record, pacing $4.25 billion of speculative-grade offerings in January. Junk- bond issuance accounted for 81 percent of Brazil’s corporate debt sales, versus 34 percent globally and 18 percent in the country last year, data compiled by Bloomberg show." -source Bloomberg

The reason Brazil High Yield is at risk and US High Yield by contagion is as follows, as indicated by Fitch in their August 2013 note entitled "U.S. High Yield Sensitive to Emerging Market Defaults":
"EM dollar denominated issues total $116.5 billion, or close to 10% of U.S. high yield market volume. The EM total is up from just $65 billion at the end of 2010 with $43.3 billion issued since January 2012. 
The $116.5 billion includes some large issuers that are in distress, including Brazilian oil company OGX (Issuer Default Rating CCC, Negative Outlook, $3.6 billion in bonds).

The largest country concentration in this group is Brazil ($30 billion), followed by Mexico ($16.3 billion) and China ($14.4 billion). The industry makeup of these issues befits their EM source with infrastructure-related and financial bonds representing most outstanding volume. The top sectors include energy ($27.7 billion), banking and finance ($18.0 billion), telecommunication ($11.2 billion), real estate ($11.1 billion) and building and materials ($8.5 billion). The cyclical nature of the industry mix adds to their vulnerability if growth stalls.

The par weighted average recovery rate on the EM issues has been 36.9% of par to date. With the exception of one bond, the affected issues were all unsecured. Of the $116.5 billion in EM bonds currently outstanding, an estimated $95.2 billion is unsecured." - source FITCH

Given Brazilian growth is clearly stalling with Brazil's GDP shranking 0.6% in the second quarter from the previous three months, and first-quarter data was revised to a 0.2% contraction, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics with a growth forecast of 0.48% this year and 1.10% next year, we would indeed watch closely the LATAM space in the coming months.

On a final note given our concerns in relation to a rising US dollar for local EM "players" who have attracted the yield "tourists", we leave you with some Morgan Stanley graphs and comments from their recent FX pulse note entitled "Don't fight the ECB" showing that Low US bond yields have indeed been driven by capital inflows:
"As the Fed has reduced its monthly security purchases, falling US bond yields in an environment of rising local economic activity are the result of US capital inflows. Once US capital demand increases at a faster pace than the increase of global savings into the US, US bond yields should increase. This is when the USD rally should broaden out.
There are direct and indirect effects to observe. Rising USD funding costs will increase the cost of existing USD debt and via the higher USD push the valuation of USD debt higher in local currency terms. Where currencies are still pegged against the USD, the translation into local currency debt funding costs is one to one. But, even where currency pegs have weakened over recent years; USD rates are providing reference indications for local rates. Within pegged or quasi-pegged environments the cost-increasing effect on local debt from rising USD funding costs is most significant. Most Asian and other EM economies fall into this category.

This is simply a function of the external funding requirements of EM economies, which remain heavily skewed to USD denominated funding. 

Exhibit 11 shows current borrowing via tradable bonds issued by EM governments broken down by currency denomination; and shows that with exception of the CEE region, USD-denominated debt dominates. Borrowing by individuals and corporates broken down by FX denomination is also important in assessing FX sensitivity to rate market volatility – however, such data is not available for all currencies under our coverage. That said, we think government borrowing provides a good enough proxy.
- source Morgan Stanley

While we indeed have "Sympathy for the Devil" given the extent of European woes, when it comes to EM dollar sensitivity and a rising US dollar risk, we do indeed find the "Usual Suspects".

"You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time." - Abraham Lincoln

Stay tuned!

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Chart of the Day - US High Yield issuance and debt outstanding

"Resilience is all about being able to overcome the unexpected. Sustainability is about survival. The goal of resilience is to thrive." - Jamais Cascio, American writer

We came across a very interesting note from UBS - Macro Keys entitled "Is the surge in US high yield issuance sustainable?"
The Chart of the Day comes from this UBS report  and display US High Yield issuance and debt outstanding (bn):
- source UBS

We often hear about strong balance sheets of US corporates and their "cash" levels as the second main driver (after the Fed) for the current low volatility environment. It is indeed the case but, one must not forget about the on-going massive releveraging taking place, notably to fund buybacks via debt issuance.

As long as cash flows and margins stay on current levels, the rising gross debt levels on balance sheets do not affect ratios such as Debt/Ebitda as per the below graph from the same UBS report:
- source UBS

But, should the US experience a strong economic slowdown, you have to remember that this high level of debt can back and haunt you, particularly in the High Yield segment as in the period 2002-2003.

As a rough estimate, the US High Yield market is as big as it has ever been (superior to 1 trillion $) as per the Chart of the Day above! 

In Europe, the situation is different, where the explosion in growth in the High Yield market comes from substitution from corporate loans to bond issuance due to the disintermediation on the back of bank deleveraging (which by the way is way behind the US). Existing loans in Europe are getting refinanced therefore via new High Yield issuance in the bond market, which implies that there is no significant releveraging as seen in the US so far.

So enjoy the "carry" trade but don't get "carried" away as US corporate leveraging has been on the increase due to buybacks, as shown by US equities rising strongly courtesy of multiple expansion in many instances. 

We agree with UBS' concluding remarks in the sense that liquidity challenges in the High Yield space will indeed ultimately be tested should the market turn South at some point:
"In concluding, in the short run, it is possible that US corporate earnings could climb moderately, sustaining the HY market. However, over the long run, predictions for further increases would seem to be predicated on irrational expectations. We continue to believe that the corporate profit cycle is more advanced than the economic cycle, and, in turn, the fundamental underpinnings of the HY market are rather precarious. Credit investors care principally about the evolution of leverage, i.e., the outlook for profits and debt. If corporate profits prove resilient, then debt issuance will continue at will – likely resulting in an increase, albeit modest, in corporate leverage. However, if – or shall we say when – corporate profits turn lower, the increase in corporate leverage will be more pronounced, and the ability to service that debt will become a burden. The impact on issuance is less clear cut; if profits modestly decline, supply could remain frothy as companies turn to financial engineering to boost earnings. However, if the drop is severe enough, capital market conditions may deteriorate and issuance could adjust lower. Historically, credit spreads also react to large shifts in corporate leverage – quite abruptly as one would expect (Figure 4). 
And, as we wrote back in August 3, the risk is that a severe downturn in credit fundamentals sparks a real panic in the US high yield market, which will likely trigger an exodus from non-institutional and crossover investors. Then, and only then, will we know the true extent of the high yield bond market's liquidity challenges." - source UBS

"The first rule of sustainability is to align with natural forces, or at least not try to defy them." - Paul Hawken, American environmentalist.

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Credit - The European Catharsis

"We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light." - Plato

Looking at the continuation in yield compression in the European government bond space, in conjunction with the deliquescence of French political parties with the Socialist party risking outright implosion with François Hollande shifting towards "Macron-nomics" (Emmanuel Macron being a young  former investment banker and new French minister for the economy), we reminded ourselves for our chosen title of the definition of the Aristotelian "Catharsis", the dramatic art that describes the effect of tragedy. The German philosopher, dramatist, publicist and art critic Gotthold Ephraim Lessing translated "Catharsis as a purification, an experience that brings pity and fear into their proper balance: "In real life," he explained, "men are sometimes too much addicted to pity or fear, sometimes too little; tragedy brings them back to a virtuous and happy mean." Tragedy is then a corrective; through watching tragedy, the audience learns how to feel these emotions at proper levels.

In similar fashion we would argue that in real life, European politicians have been sometimes too much addicted to debt and popularity, indeed, one would hope that the European tragedy unfolding would bring them to more virtuous and happy mean, but, hearing the departing French minister of the economy Montebourg blaming entirely French woes on the implementation of "austerity", we thought this week's chosen title was appropriate given "Catharsis" can apply to both tragedy as well as comedy. Given, purgation and purification, used in previous centuries are still the common interpretations of catharsis and still in wide use today, we wonder when the purgation and purification of the European debt market will happen via "restructuring"? We reminded ourselves as well our January 2012 conversation "The European Overdiagnosis" where our friends from Rcube Global Asset Management pointed out the inherent flaws of the European currency construct when discussing "The likelihood of a Euro Breakup": "By eliminating currency crises, which were common until the mid-1990s (and at the same time preventing evil “speculators” from making billions on them), the Euro built an economic crisis of far larger proportions. Once again, economics provides a good illustration of the old proverb “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

In this week's conversation we will look at the prospect for the continuation of the performance of credit and the continuation in the contrarian tactical trade, namely being long European equities (playing the rebound or when "bad economic" news is "good market" news...) and short the Euro.

While Europe continues to go through "Catharsis" as indicated by the latest raft of economic data pointing to weaker growth, European credit continued to post strong performances so far in 2014 with Total Return for Investment Grade Credit at 6.5% and High Yield slightly behind at 5.5%. Talking about "Credit Bubble", Investment Grade did reach last week it's lowest historical yield at 1.55% validating our 2012 conversation "Deleveraging - Bad for equities but good for credit assets"but we ramble again...

The latest flows of funds indicate as reported by Deutsche Bank on the 1st of September in their report entitled "Investors return back to European equities on hopes of (private) QE":
"European funds attract solid inflows on hopes of (private) QE: A week after the Jackson Hole symposium, Total equity funds recorded the 3rd consecutive week of inflows (+0.1% as % of NAV), led by solid flows into Western European and Emerging Asia equity funds.
Following a stack of disappointing economic data releases in Europe over the last few weeks and subsequent outflows thereafter, Western Europe equity funds rebounded strongly with solid inflows (+0.2%, highest inflows in 11 weeks) in anticipation of a possible (private) QE announcement during this week’s ECB meeting. DB’s economists are bringing forward the timing of the announcement of private QE (ABS purchasing) to 4th Sep’14, though admitting it’s a very close call. They expect it not to be a generic QE with government bond purchases and expect ABS purchasing would act as a complement to the already announced TLTRO. What to make out of this?
Observing flows returning back to Europe, we think investors would play this trade mostly via ETFs (Europe ETFs had +0.4% of inflows last week). A basket of common names constituent to the ES50 and the DAX30 could benefit overproportionally as 1) these indices are by far the two largest targets to invest the region via ETFs and 2) where the share of equity held by ETFs is particularly pronounced for these names. This basket’s outperformance in Europe correlates well with flows (top below chart)."
- source Deutsche Bank

Another important point from Deutsche Bank's note relates to ETF flows becoming an increasingly important indicator:
"ETF flow has become an increasingly important driver of stock returns over the past years as the share of equity held by ETFs has gone up significantly. In case of the DAX, this share has increased to 6.2% from 0% 10-years ago (Figure 1)."
The two largest ETFs to invest Europe based on AuMs are those on the ES50 + DAX30.

Hence, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched assuming that stocks constituent to both benchmarks could benefit/suffer over-proportionally depending on flow in and out of these vehicles. Figure 2 highlights the blend of stocks constituent to both indices.
We can show that ever since the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) hit markets and ETFs became common tools to implement (rather short-term oriented) market views, flows into Western European ETF funds correlate well with this basket’s outperformance in Europe, based on market cap weights (Figure 3).
The basket P/E ratio trades at a 20% premium to Europe (Stoxx600) and at a 10% discount using P/B (Figure 4). 
Since the basket comprises Financials as well as Industrials, we consider the P/B ratio as more meaningful in this context since Financials are generally valued over their book value of equity rather than earnings.
Should the money flow return to Europe (predominantly via ETFs) once positive economic surprises come through as implied by our credit impulse framework, we think the recent pull-back (and subsequent underperformance of the basket) should be seen as an attractive entry point." source Deutsche Bank

In similar fashion to Deutsche Bank our good friends at Rcube Global Asset Management in their latest note entitled "Is Europe's situation so bad that it is good?", posit the following:
"Global equities have reached a strong resistance level, sentiment is frothy (EM and US), breadth is poor, bearish technical divergence abound; all this makes a larger correction likely. This would create a great buying opportunity for European equities for a year end and H2 2015 rally. The periphery and banks should be the clear winners".

During this summer, European equities have indeed been punished due to the significant fall in European inflation expectations as shown as well by our friends in their note:
"European Inflation expectations have crashed this summer. French 3 year breakevens have lost 100 bps since April. This has worried equity investors who punished European equities both on absolute and relative basis
If left unanswered for too long by the ECB, the deflation scare could clearly trigger more selling pressure, this would be we think a major opportunity to play both a rebound on absolute terms and a catch up with US stocks from a relative perspective. When met with action by the European central bank, the European and US liquidity environment will look very different (QE ending in the US, starting in Europe; Monetary tightening in the US, Negative interest rates in Europe, EURUSD weakness).
In the very short term, the gap that has opened up between inflation expectations and equity prices is such that if deflation fear persist, the selloff could be more severe, or it is also possible that financial markets stress will be the trigger for the ECB to act, in which case lower equity prices are likely before the rebound set up gets clearer. In the past this is exactly what happened. Inflation expectations following a market shock would melt, prompting a response from the central bank. Hence this is why inflation expectations are such a good contrarian explanatory factor equities forward returns.
As the back test below shows, the lower the forward inflation rate, the higher the Stoxx 600 forward returns. This clearly makes the decision process harder this time around since there has not been any correction in equities following the crash in breakevens. This is explained by the high hopes over Quantitative easing by the ECB, the lower inflation expectations are falling the higher are the hopes for QE, and its positive impact on equities.

As explained below, in the medium term we strongly believe that European equities are going higher. So this is only a question of timing.

Our Equity model for European equities is sending its stronger buy signal since just after the 1987 crash

Valuations according to our methodology are the cheapest since March 2009 thanks to the yield meltdown
- source Rcube Global Asset Management

Where we slightly disagree with our friends is that should QE materialise banks should be the clear winners. We'd rather hold bank debt than bank equities given the upcoming AQR which should highlight the capital needs of some European banks. Given banks' stocks are a leverage play on the economy and looking at the weakening economic growth outlook, we would rather hold bank senior debt than their stocks from an investor point of view. We will in another post touch again on the European banking situation rest assured.

In similar fashion to Deutsche Bank and our friends at Rcube, Barclays as well on the 2nd of September also added to the contrarian views of a possible tactical rebound in European equities in their note entitled "Don't exit Europe":
"Recent trends suggest we are near a turning point for continental European equities.
While the poor performance of Continental European equities since May owes something to the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the main cause is more fundamental.
Negative data surprises have now reached an extreme relative to those in the US with underperformance to match. History suggests such episodes have been turning points.
The weakening in the Euro should help revenue and earnings growth, while there is evidence that bottom-up earnings estimates are responding to a solid Q2 reporting season and no doubt the weaker Euro.
While we have cut our forecast for earnings growth in Continental Europe to 10% in 2014, this should accelerate to 17% in 2015. Both forecasts are slightly above the bottom-up consensus.
There is an increasing chance the ECB will ease monetary policy further with full blown QE becoming more likely. Such a move would represent a major regime change and echoes some past experiences such as the major ERM realignments of the early 1990s.
Finally, Europe’s underperformance has not been confined to domestically focused stocks. Several globally focused sectors such as Energy, Industrials and Healthcare are trading at multi-year lows compared with their US peers."
- source Barclays

This adds more ammunition to our views expressed in our 19th of August conversation "Thermocline - What lies beneath":
"The lag in European stocks given the very recent negative tone in Europe due to the Russian sanctions have made them much more volatile. Should the "Risk-On" scenario persist in the coming weeks it should lead once again to an outperformance of European stocks versus US stocks."

Of course all eyes are on the ECB and expectations are high the ECB will sooner rather than later unleash a QE of its own. On that matter we agree with Bank of America Merrill Lynch's take from their Liquid Insight note of the 1st of September entitled "Muddle-nomics", that, QE won't happen just yet:
"No QE, yet
Draghi’s speech at Jackson Hole was dovish enough to confirm our view that small scale ABS purchases will take place, very likely before year-end, but not to change our view that QE is unlikely to happen within 12 months (a close call and in contrast to our view that more aggressive action by the ECB is warranted).
For this week’s meeting, we do not rule out smaller measures, such as fine-tuning the upcoming TLTROs or a detailed timeline of how and when ABS purchases could take place, given the need to deliver after the market’s reaction to Draghi’s speech. However, in our view, none of these would change the outlook substantially. The key issue will be to understand how many members of the governing council share Draghi’s latest concerns, particularly since his comments on inflation expectations were not included in the original text posted on the ECB website. We believe Draghi will not be able to convince the governing council to adopt broad-based QE just yet. But we think further disappointments in inflation data could do the trick." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch

We also agree with Bank of America Merrill Lynch when it comes to further yield compression in our "Japanification process":
"Rates: Trade the journey not the destination
The reaction in the rates market will not just be a function of what specific measures the ECB announces, but also the extent to which the ECB lays out the conditions for future action. Even if the market would arguably be disappointed by our central scenario, a dovish press conference would still be possible. We have argued here that rates are not pricing in a significant QE probability. Following the Jackson hole repricing, we would argue this statement generally still holds. We remain constructive European rates and express that by being long duration in the periphery." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch

Moving on to the subject of the Euro, with the on-going "Japanification" process, what appears clear to us is that you can expect significant rise in volatility in the FX space particularly with EUR/USD, in similar fashion you had significant volatility throughout the years in USD/JPY. On that note Mohamed El-Erian's recent comments in the Financial Times in his article "Foreign exchange volatility is the risk to watch" are worth mentioning:
"The biggest threat to investors may come from the foreign exchange market rather than directly from the stretched prices of equity and bond markets. Judging by recent policy and technical signals, the forex market may be about to exit an unusual phase of low volatility." - Mohamed El-Erian - FT.

We expect a "regime change" in FX volatility as well. In fact we voiced our concern with the impact the end of tapering would have in terms of dollar liquidity in June 2013 in our conversation "Singin' in the Rain":
"If the Fed starts draining liquidity, some "big whales" might turn up belly up. Could it be Chinese banks defaulting? Emerging Markets countries defaulting as well due to lack of access to US dollars?

It is a possibility we fathom." - Macronomics, June 2013 

We also reminded ourselves in this particular conversation the following: 
"Back in November 2011, we shared our concerns relating to a particular type of rogue wave three sisters that sank the Big Fitz - SS Edmund Fitzgerald, an analogy used by Grant Williams in one of John Mauldin's Outside the Box letter:
"In fact we could go further into the analogy relating to the "three sisters" rogue waves that sank SS Edmund Fitzgerald - Big Fitz, given we are witnessing three sisters rogue waves in our European crisis, namely:
-Wave number 1 - Financial crisis
-Wave number 2 - Sovereign crisis
-Wave number 3 - Currency crisis
if the dollar goes even more in short supply courtesy of Bernanke's "Tap dancing" with his "Singin' in the Rain", could it mean we will have wave number 3 namely a currency crisis on our hands? We wonder..."

Rest assured that higher real yield on US debt will continue to attract foreign investors towards US Treasuries hence our continued expectations for lower US long term yields. We have made no secret that we have been riding the long duration trade since early January 2014 via ETF ZROZ has a good proxy exposure to long US duration with some success...

When it comes to net USD buying the trend has continued as displayed by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their CFTC FX Futures Watch from the 29th of August entitled "Largest USD longs in a year":
"EUR selling continues; short positioning stretched
Speculators this week sold $1.7bn of EUR contracts, increasing net short positioning to $24.8bn. Speculators have sold $30.5bn of EUR contracts since the dovish ECB meeting in May. Net short EUR positioning is beginning to look stretched (Chart 2). 
Technicals suggest the near term trend is pointing to a maturing decline and a range trade, while our positioning models suggest a medium risk of reversal in the EUR/USD downtrend. - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch

On a final note and from a contrarian point of view, should the ECB disappoint there is potential for some heightened volatility and reversal given the short consensus trade on the Euro we think. What has been driving the move have been flows and QE expectations rather than "fundamentals" which can be seen when one looks at the forward curve at the 5 year point (we look at the 5 year point because for the ECB the five-year forward break-even in five years is certainly one of the important indicator) - table source Bloomberg - EURO/USD Forward Curve:
Flow matters...but the stock of European debt too.

When it comes to our European Catharsis, being the prelude to the European tragedy and the current high expectations of QE we think our final quotes resonate well with our sentiment on European woes and QE:

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it." - Oscar Wilde

Stay tuned!
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