Saturday, 17 December 2016

Macro and Credit - Tantalizing takeoffs

"When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it." -  Henry Ford
Watching at the dizzying summits reached by US stock market indices with the Dow flirting with 20,000 on the back of the Trump rally, as we move towards the final days of 2016, with a continuation of US Treasuries getting pummeled, when it comes to selecting our title analogy, we decided to go for a vintage flying analogy this time around, "Tantalizing takeoffs" being the nickname for the 50th Beechcraft AT-11 Kansan AT-11 built in 1941 and being currently the oldest flying. The AT-11 was setup as a smaller version of the B-17 Flying Fortress or B-24 Liberator. This provided a simulated training environment similar to the full sized bombers. While in the past we have used as well a reference to aircrafts, particularly in our long 2013 post "The Coffin Corner", which is the altitude at or near which a fast fixed-wing aircraft's stall speed is equal to the critical Mach number, at a given gross weight and G-force loading. At this altitude the airplane becomes nearly impossible to keep in stable flight:
"We found most interesting that the "Coffin Corner" is also known as the "Q Corner" given that in our post "The Night of The Yield Hunter" we argued that what the great Irving Fisher told us in his book "The money illusion" was that what mattered most was the velocity of money as per the equation MV=PQ. Velocity is the real sign that your real economy is alive and well. While "Q" is the designation for dynamic pressure in our aeronautic analogy, Q in the equation is real GDP and seeing the US GDP print at 2.5% instead of 3%, we wonder if the central banks current angle of "attack" is not leading to a significant reduction in "economic" stability, as well as a decrease in control effectiveness as indicated by the lack of output from the credit transmission mechanism to the real economy.
In similar fashion to Chuck Yeager, Alan Greenspan made mistakes after mistakes, and central bankers do not understand that negative real rates always lead to a collapse in velocity and a structural decline in Q, namely economic growth rate! Maybe our central bankers like Chuck Yeager, just ‘sense’ how economies act or work.
We believe our Central Bankers are over-confident like Chuck Yeager was, leading to his December 1963 crash. Central Bankers do not understand stability and aerodynamics..." - source Macronomics, April 2013.
On a side note the latest decisions from the ECB amounts to us as clear confirmation of that indeed Mario Draghi is clearly affected by "the spun-glass theory of the mind" given that he stated that “uncertainty prevails everywhere,”

The current melt-up dynamics reminds us what we indicated back in January 2012 in our conversation "Bayesian thoughts" when we quoted Dr. Constantin Gurdgiev, from his post entitled "Great Moderation or Great Delusion":

"when investors "infer the persistence of low volatility from empirical evidence" (in other words when knowledge is imperfect and there is a probabilistic scenario under which the moderation can be permanent, then "Bayesian learning can deliver a strong rise in asset prices by up to 80%. Moreover, the end of the low volatility period leads to a strong and sudden crash in prices." 
Are we entering the final melt-up for asset prices, or is really the much vaunted "reflationary story" playing out in earnest? Or is it simply a case of "Information cascades playing out again as they are often seen in financial markets where they can feed speculation and create cumulative and excessive price moves, either for the whole market (market bubble...)? We wonder.

In this week's conversation we would like to look again at some Emerging Markets vulnerabilities given the recent hike by the FED and the continued pressure stemming from "Mack the Knife" aka King Dollar + positive real US interest rates. 

  • Macro and Credit -  Emerging Markets, from convexity to concavity?
  • Final chart - In recent years rising yields have been followed by declining breakevens and real rates.

  • Macro and Credit -  Emerging Markets, from convexity to concavity?

Back in 2013 we expressed our concern regarding the impact a dollar squeeze of epic proportion would have on Emerging Markets in our conversation "Singin' in the Rain":
"Why are we feeling rather nervous?
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
Also back in December last year we indicated a macro convex trade to think about for 2016 relating to a potential devaluation of the HKD which won the "best prediction" from Saxo Bank community in their Outrageous Predictions for 2016. We made our call for a break in the HKD currency peg as per our September conversation and made additional points made last year in our conversation "Cinderella's golden carriage". In February in our conversation "The disappearance of MS München", we also looked out the Yuan hedge fund attack through the lenses of the Nash Equilibrium Concept :
"When it comes to the risk of a currency crisis breaking and the Yuan devaluation happening, as posited by the Nash Equilibrium Concept, it all depends on the willingness of the speculators rather than the fundamentals as the Yuan attacks could indeed become a self-fulfilling prophecy in the making." - source Macronomics, February 2016
While obviously our prediction was too outrageous for 2016, we do think that the HKD peg will once again come under pressure in 2017. On that very subject we read with interest Bank of America Merrill Lynch Asia FI and FX Strategy Viewpoint note from the 15th of December entitled "HKD to be challenged in 2017":
"HKD under pressure again
The HKD is under depreciation pressure again. We believe investors’ recent positions were based more on speculative than on fundamental reasons. These positions may be supported by the increase in the US Federal Reserve’s rate hike expectations for 2017. There is a risk of a pullback in USD/HKD forward points and HKD rates if RMB depreciation expectations stabilise over the coming weeks and investors take profit.
Brace the outflows
We believe 2017 will be a year of outflows from Hong Kong. The current account surplus is expected to decrease while capital outflows accelerate. That would cause Hong Kong to draw down its foreign exchange reserves.
Weaker FX, higher rates
Outflows, a slowdown of CNH-HKD conversion, and a declining aggregate balance will shape the HKD market next year. We forecast USD/HKD to rise to 7.80 and 3M HIBOR to rise to 1.50% by end-2017. We are biased to pay USD/HKD forward points and biased to pay front-end HKD rates." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
As we pointed out back in November in our conversation "When Prophecy Fails", when it comes to currency attacks it is more about the resolve of the speculators than the fundamentals:
"It seems to us that speculators, so far has not been able to "hunt" together or at least one of them, did not believe enough in the success of the attack to break the HKD peg. It all depends on the willingness of the speculators rather than the fundamentals for a currency attack to succeed we think." - source Macronomics, November 2016
As pointed out by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their note, we are seeing a repeat of last year brief attack on the HKD:
"The HKD is under depreciation pressure again. Investors have recently long USD, short HKD forward outright, which has pushed up USD/HKD forward points to its highest level since early 2016. HKD rates have consequently increased and the 3M Hong Kong Interbank Offered Rate (HIBOR) fixing jumped over 10bps (Chart 1).
Both speculative and fundamental reasons related to Mainland China supported the recent market movement (Exhibit 1):
The correlation between the HKD and CNH broke down in 3Q: while the RMB continued to depreciate, the HKD was stable (Chart 2). 

But the strong economic links and the growing impact of China on Hong Kong’s interest rates suggest insufficient risk premium was priced into the HKD. So even if Hong Kong’s currency board is credible, which is our base case not least because it has withstood multiple tests in the past, interest in the market to hedge against tail risks persists.
The HKD is also sometimes used as a proxy for the CNH. Proxies for the CNH are attractive when the associated carry costs on shorting the CNH are high (Chart 3).

But provided Hong Kong’s currency board does not change, we believe the potential gains from shorting the HKD as a proxy for the CNH are ultimately limited. In our view, trades based on this rationale are vulnerable to being unwound in the short term.
Hong Kong has started to experience outflows so far this year: in 1H 2016, Hong Kong recorded outflows equivalent to -0.9% of GDP. As such, there are already signs that the HKD will be under fundamental depreciation pressure. We believe the outflow theme in Hong Kong will be much more pronounced in 2017 than in 2016, especially since the US Federal Reserve raised its policy rate for the second time after the global financial crisis in December.
We believe recent positions were based more on speculative than on fundamental reasons, based on the timing of the move.
Speculative depreciation pressure on the HKD picked up after concerns over the RMB increased due to:
• China’s low FX reserve numbers in November
• Reports of curbs on capital outflows from China
• Growing uncertainty over the US-China trade relationship
These speculative pressures may persist in the near-term after the US Federal Reserve raised its Federal Funds rate projections from two hikes to three hikes in 2017. A broad USD rally could raise concerns over capital outflows from China and, ultimately, raise RMB depreciation expectations: we showed that broad USD strength and an increase in policy uncertainty raise capital outflows from China by Chinese investors.
But we also point out that Hong Kong’s 2Q balance of payments (BoP) data have been available since September 2016 and so we think the outflow theme was not the main driver behind the recent move.
As such, there is a risk of long USD, short HKD forward outright positions based on speculative reasons being unwound if the RMB depreciation expectations stabilise over the coming weeks and investors take profit." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
While clearly the current pressure on the HKD is based on rising speculations, obviously, the amount of currency reserves is a crucial parameter. The accumulation of reserves by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA), make the current speculative move difficult to sustain.

One thing for certain, when it comes to Hong Kong and its vulnerability with their currency board matching the path of the Fed with rate hikes is clearly its real estate market. On that matter we read with interest Deutsche Bank's Hong Kong Property note from the 16th of December entitled "Risk of falling off the edge":
"Every 25bps rate hike would push up mortgage payments by about 2.4%
By looking at the sensitivity of residential affordability in Hong Kong to mortgage rate hikes, every 25bps increase in mortgage rates would translate into an approximate 2.4% increase in monthly mortgage payments or to push down residential affordability (i.e. increasing the debt-servicing ratio) by about two percentage points. Conversely, residential property prices would need to fall by about 2.4% in order to maintain the debt-servicing ratio at the current 68%. By assuming Hong Kong will follow the 75bps rate hike expectation in the US in 2017, residential prices would need to fall by 7.2%. Alongside our expectation of a 3% decline in median household income, we anticipate an 11% decline in Hong Kong residential prices in 2017. If mortgage rates are to normalize to the level of 2005/06 at about 5.75%, residential prices would need to fall by 28% from current levels.
Liquidity conditions look ample for now, although downside risks are rising
Liquidity conditions remain ample in Hong Kong so far, with a stable monetary base, currency lying in strong side convertibility and composite interest rates remaining low. However, the recent surge in interbank rates in HK has led to some concerns about the need to lift the Prime rate in HK. We believe that the near-term spike in interbank rates could be a reflection of expectations of higher rates, potential liquidity outflow and HIBOR finally catching up with USD LIBOR.
Although the large banks have signaled that the Prime rate will remain unchanged, we believe there is a risk that HK banks may need to move the Prime lending rate upward if: 1) HIBOR continues the upward shift that led to increasing the proportion of mortgage loans moving to capped rate Prime loans, 2) a strong liquidity outflow leads to higher deposit funding costs for large banks, and 3) there is much weaker/reversal of system deposit growth, with more signs of a tightening of loan-to-deposit ratios.

- source Deutsche Bank

So overall while our outrageous predictions seems difficult to materialize, the pressure on HKMA to intervene again in 2017 will rise again and if indeed there is vulnerability somewhere, then it might be smarter to "short" some Hong Kong real estate players rather than betting for now the demise of the currency peg.

When it comes to Asia and vulnerabilities, clearly China comes to mind particularly given its rapid credit expansion and the potential for a trade war to flare up with the new US administration. In relation to China being concerning, we read with interest Deutsche Bank take in their Asia Local Markets Weekly note from the 16th of December entitled "Jamais vu":
"Fed & AsiaFor all of the Draghi like nuances, Yellen (& the Fed) sounded and acted hawkish this week. And for once, it looks like the market has no choice but to chase the dots, which are moving away (and up).
For Asia, that should mean,
  • Policy divergence will get more acutely in focus in 2017. The market is pricing in slightly over 60bp of tightening by the Fed next year - and still below the dots - but at best one rate hike anywhere in Asia. Indeed, DB Economics, and most of consensus forecasts, do not think even this modest amount of tightening will be realized. FX is then the natural outlet for this divergence in policy outlooks. And like we have been arguing, not just in the high yielders which run the risk of capital reversal - or more likely, no fresh inflows - but also in the low yielders, and ones which also map to the trade/geopolitical policy narrative of the incoming US administration (think Korea, think Taiwan)
  • China in particular has some tough policy choices to make here. The Fed tailwind to the dollar will only make these choices harder for the Chinese. Either allow a significant re-pricing of the RMB complex (and take the risk of an unstable cobweb pattern), or burn down reserves (and take the 'credit' hit on the sovereign), or shut the capital gates down even tighter. Likely that they will opt for a mix of the lot. Importantly, though, none of these options look supportive of the liquidity or rates complex - offshore and (increasingly) onshore. Overnight CNH rates are trading at 12%; trading in key bond futures has been halted for the first time; and local press (Caixin) is reporting of big banks suspending lending to non-financial institutions. The move up in inflation only makes the rates re-set story in China that much more compelling to own.
  • The local stories will likely define the axis of differentiation in 2017. The dollar move will probably take most of the Asia currency and rates complex with it, to begin with. But the local stories will likely define where on the dollar smile each market ends up next year - be it the policy choices the central banks make (rates, FX, regulatory), or the headwind from political noise (Korea, Malaysia, India)." - source Deutsche Bank
Obviously until "Mack the Knife" aka King Dollar + positive real US interest rates ongoing rampage stops, there is more pain to come for some Emerging Markets players in 2017. Yet, we think that the movement has been too rapid on both the US dollar and interest rates and have yet to be meaningfully confirmed by US fundamentals. While the EM fund flows hemorrhage has stabilized, at least for equities, it remains to be seen how long the resiliency will remain with a continuation of rising yields and we agree with Deutsche Bank's comments from their note:
"US equity bullishness has likely helped arrest outflows from Asia
The buoyancy in US equities – despite the large repricing in US yields – and the softness in vol indicators like VIX has helped contribute to a general resilience in risk. After close to $10bn of outflows from Asian equities in November, the outflows have stopped, although money has not really returned. Again we remain skeptical on the durability of this calm. The correlation of Asian equities to US stocks has been falling since the election and indeed with the US less likely to share the spoils of growth with the world, a decorrelation in returns should widen. Moreover, January has been seasonally weak for US equities for the last three years, which suggests a correction could lie ahead. Chinese equities have also been under strain given the rates market developments, with Asia straddling the divergence.
The market has not been as focused on the potential negative Trump dynamics for Asia from trade, geopolitics, and widening policy divergence 
The market has primarily focused in this first-round on the fiscal implications of a Trump administration, and the re-pricing of growth and inflation expectations. The other side of the coin – of potential protectionist and geopolitical disruption – has been harder to price given large outstanding uncertainties about Trump’s approach off the campaign trail. Once Trump actually assumes office in January, this uncertainty should fade, with a need to take a formal stance on issues like labeling China a currency manipulator, imposition of tariffs and the bargaining chips in play from the One China Policy to North Korea. There has also been outsized focus on the divergence theme between US versus Europe and Japan, but this is equally pertinent for Asia where markets have been in a multi-year easing mindset driven by disinflation, poorer demographics, sensitive credit cycles, and little external lift. If, as DB Economics believes, there is little appetite and ability in Asia to follow the Fed, rate differentials are going to impose pressure on Asian FX. On the other hand, if markets begin to price rate hikes, then unwind of duration stories and debt outflows from the region could be equally painful.
The market has been fighting the “major” battles
With dramatic moves in major G10 currency pairs like USD/JPY, EUR/USD, and in US rates, it is quite likely that macro positioning has been concentrated on trading these bigger themes and breaks. Indeed, even as JPY shorts were being added last week (on the IMM), investors were believed to be squaring back on KRW shorts. However as price action in the majors gets more stretched, the market should begin to look for catch-up trades and mis-pricings elsewhere.
End of year and idiosyncratic effects may have helped slowed moves
While market illiquidity into year-end could have exaggerated negative price action, there are other yearend forces which could have helped. There has been little fresh supply of debt in local markets which should have helped with bond technicals. Similarly, on the debt side, major asset allocation decisions are likely to be taken only in the New Year. Issuance calendars will start up afresh in January, when demand-supply mismatches would be more acutely felt. Central banks  may have also been more active in supplying dollars to manage FX weakness, given greater sensitivity to year-end closing levels. In individual markets like  Indonesia, inflows related to tax amnesty repatriation are likely helping contain the moves. In Malaysia, the wind down of the NDF market, and the immediate provision of greater exporter supply may have helped, but we estimate that significant hedges from real money, equity, and banks could be transitioning onshore in the coming months as offshore hedges roll off. Current account surpluses in much of North Asia are seasonally stronger around year-end, but dip significantly in Q1, with Chinese New Year inactivity, and with holiday export orders behind them
In sum, we are unconvinced that regional FX resilience can last, and would be positioning for a catch-up move higher in USD/Asia into the New Year. We continue to concentrate our USD longs against North Asian pairs that would be most exposed to any worsening in Chinese stress, fallout from a US equity market correction, a negative shift in the regional trade/geopolitical order, and where currencies have relatively poorer seasonality at the start of the year." - source Deutsche Bank
As we posited in our recent musing, the biggest "known unknown" remains the political stance of the US administration relating to trade with China. From our perspective, 2017, will continue, as per 2016 to offer renewed volatility on the back of political uncertainties given the new year will have plenty of political events, ensuring therefore an increase in volatility and large standard deviation moves like we have been used so far this year. Overall "Mack the Knife" will continue to weight on global financial conditions, particularly in EM where there has been a significant amount of US dollar denominated debt issued in recent years. As pointed out as well by Deutsche Bank, the pressure of the US dollar and rising rates will put further pressure on Chinese financial conditions:
"Risk of further capital measures remains high.
In response to the ongoing RMB weakness, driven in part by the divergence in US-China monetary policy, China has again introduced a series of capital measures particularly on RMB cross-border flows (see Trying Times for RMB, 7 December 2016). However, with outflows not abating and as RMB depreciation pressure continues to build, the risk of more such controls remains high, which are likely to drive further tightening in offshore RMB liquidity.

Reversal of RMB internationalisation should tighten
RMB liquidity further. The latest regulations introduced are likely to have accelerated the decline in RMB deposits in the offshore market again, shrinking the overall RMB liquidity pool in the offshore market.
Possible maturing of USD/CNH forwards. 
China earlier this year accumulated a large chuck of short USD forward positions, which are likely to mature in the coming months. If a part of these are allowed to mature, like in August/September, it could well be sufficient to create CNH tightness." - source Deutsche Bank
Whereas for now, convexity rules, be aware that concavity could once again come back to the forefront in early 2017 with markets at the moment continuing the probe again the willingness of the HKMA to defend the peg with additional weakness coming from the RMB and a potential slowing growth outlook for China.

If indeed there is a potential in 2017 for an early "risk-reversal" à la 2016, then again, it looks to us that, from a contrarian perspective the level reach by long US treasuries is starting to become enticing.

  • Final chart - In recent years rising yields have been followed by declining breakevens and real rates.
Whereas gold and gold miners in conjunction with bonds have been on the receiving end of "tantalizing takeoffs" for equities on the back of the US election, our final chart comes from Bank of America Merrill Lynch Securitized Products Strategy Weekly report from the 16th of December shows that in recent years, rising yields have been followed by declining breakevens, which have been therefore followed by declining real rates:

  • The 60 basis point rise in the breakeven rate since late June 2016 is the largest rise of the past 4 years. The unusually large move would seem to have some room to give back some of the recent gains.
  • The past month’s rise in the real rate is the second largest of the past 4 years. Over the 4-year period, sharply rising real rates have been followed by declines in the breakeven rate, which in turn have been followed by declines in the real rate.
"Given the persistence of the patterns in recent years, we think that over the next 4-8 weeks, the odds favor a decline first in the breakeven rate and then in the real rate. Overall, nominal yields are therefore likely to move lower. Given that the nominal rate has risen by 80 basis points over the past month, we would not be surprised to see a 50% retracement over the next 4-8 weeks, which would bring the 10yr yield back to the 2.20% area. Time will tell." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
If indeed, this scenario plays out, then we could see some reversal of Gibson's paradox given Gold price and real interest rates are highly negatively correlated - when rates go down, gold goes up. When real interest rates are below 2%, then you get bull market in gold, but when you get positive real interest rates, which has been the case with the rally we saw in the 10 year US government bond rising fast since the US elections, gold prices went down rapidly as a consequence of the interest rate impact. End of the day the most important factor for gold prices is real interest rates. One thing for sure 2017 will have sufficient political events to offer yet again plenty of risk-reversal opportunities rest assured.

"The political graveyards are full of people who don't respond."- John Glenn, Astronaut
Stay tuned!

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