Thursday, 11 May 2017

Macro and Credit - Another Brick in the Wall

"Success is having to worry about every damn thing in the world, except money." -  Johnny Cash
Looking with interest at the elections of new French president maverick Macron, in effect putting another brick in the wall of worry, hence our title analogy, we reminded ourselves of Pink Floyd's 1979 rock opera with "Another Brick in the Wall being the title of three songs set to the variations of the same basic theme:  subtitled Part 1 (working title "Reminiscing"), Part 2 (working title "Education"), and Part 3 (working title "Drugs"). Part 2 was in fact a protest song which somewhat resonates clearly with the rise of populism in general leading to Brexit and Trump's election, whereas the results so far in 2017, seems to be the reverse of what has been playing out in Financial markets in 2016 where we had a dismal first part of the year and political surprises in the second part of 2016 in conjunction with a very significant rally in all things beta in the second part of 2016. 2017 so far has seen significant records being broken for equities indices, tighter credit spreads, and record low vix, which many pundits punting towards "complacency". In our previous conversations, we have indicated that while we did remain short-term "Keynesian" when it comes to our "risk-on" feeling, hence our reduction in both our gold miners exposure and duration exposure, we believe that the second part of 2017 could play as a reverse of the second part of 2016.

In this week's conversation we would like to look at a trade which has been put forward by many pundits including Jeffrey Gundlach of DoubleLine Capital, which is the case for EM equities versus the S&P 500 from an allocation and macro point of view.

  • Macro and Credit - Emerging Markets vs S&P 500, the old versus the new or the new versus the old?
  • Final chart - Weak loan demand tends to be associated with high volatility

  • Macro and Credit - Emerging Markets vs S&P 500, the old versus the new or the new versus the old?
While many pundits have been mesmerizing at the record low level touched recently by the "fear index" VIX, we reminded ourselves a previous conversation from 2013 entitled "Long dated volatilities: a regime change". As we posited back in 2013, it seems we are clearly back in the low regime of 2004-2007, and credit spreads as of late are also a reminder of the tightness in credit we experienced firsthand in our banking days at the time. Back in our old conversation we made some interesting comments relating to Emerging Markets and volatility which, we think, from a macro perspective are still extremely valid:
"Financial liberalization, for instance in Emerging Markets, has been a good way to attract foreign investments. It has often led to a rise in volatility given investors had been reaping in the process higher daily return rates. When equity market becomes more open, there are increases in stock return volatility (on the subject see the study realised by Vuong Thanh Long, Department of Economic Development and Policies at the Vietnam Development Forum - Tokyo Presentation - August 2007).

Regime switches also lead to potentially large consequences for investors' optimal portfolio choice hence the importance of the subject." - source Macronomics, January 2013.
We also mentioned at the time that different regimes corresponds to period of high and low volatility, and long and bull market periods in conjunction with the credit cycle. At the time of our previous post we also indicated that the importance of regime change was paramount to asset allocation given:
"The relation between the investor horizon of a buy-and-hold strategy and the optimal portfolio varies considerably from one regime to the other.
  • For example, in a bear regime, stocks are less favored and short-term investors allocate a smaller part of their portfolio to stocks. 
  • On the contrary, in the longer run, there is a high probability to switch to a better regime and long-term investors dedicate a larger part of their portfolio to stocks. 
  • In a bear regime the share allocated to stocks increases with the investor’s horizon." 
- source The Princeton Club of New-York, 27th of April 2012, EDHEC-PRINCETON Institutional Money Management Conference.
Also we mentioned at the time that retail investors had been net sellers of stocks since 2007. Yet, in recent years, it seems many have returned using ETFs as an investment vehicle of choice, shunning active management to passive management in the process.

Returning to the very subject of our conversation, there is indeed a case being made which so far year-to-date has been validated performance wise to go long EM equities versus the S&P 500. As a reminder, since the inception of the MSCI EM index back in 1988, the MSCI EM / S&P 500 ratio has experienced two significant boom/bust cycles:

Arguably there has been a significant growing gap between both indices since 2014, while the S&P 500 has been no doubt racing ahead:
- source

With the benefit of hindsight, we can summarize those two cycles in the following way:

Cycle 1 (1988-1999)
  • Boom phase (EM outperforming between 1988 and 1996): With the disappearance of the Eastern Bloc, Second and Third World countries were bound to join the First World, and mankind would reach Fukuyama’s “End of history” (1992). Trade barriers fell, stable governments became the norm, and EMs became an investible asset class. The first EM boom culminated with the 1997 Asian crisis.
  • Bust phase (S&P outperforming between 1996 and 1999): As EMs were still suffering from the aftermath of the crisis, US equities were led by the first tech bubble.

Cycle 2 (1999-Now)
  • Boom phase (EM outperforming between 1999 and 2011): Following the tech crash 2000, investors turned away from the new economy. The term itself became used derisively, as the tangible economy came back with a vengeance, introducing new investment themes: the commodities super cycle, stagflation, the Hubbert peak, etc.
  • Bust phase (S&P outperforming since 2011): In the early 2010s, the new economy finally started to become a reality, capitalizing on the huge infrastructure investments that were made during the first tech bubble. At the same time, new technologies (fracking, clean tech, electric cars…) made the developed world less dependent on energy and raw materials.

To sum up, EMs vs. S&P is not a merely a bet on global growth but put it simply a sectorial bet:
  • MSCI EMs returns are dominated by old economy industries, commodity- and more generally stuff-producing companies. EM equities are a bet on scarcity and inflation.
  • S&P 500 returns are dominated by the new economy: tech, platform companies, business services etc. The S&P is a bet on innovation, deflation and creative destruction.
One might argue that EMs are not pure old economy with the significant weight of Samsung and Tencent for example. But, one might also opine that Korea and Taiwan are not really truly Emerging Markets anymore. Though our simplified interpretation doesn't match the truly "old economy", you get our point when it comes to the sectorial bias.

After its nearly 60% correction since its 2011 heights, there are currently several factors at play indicating that we could be at the beginning of a third cycle in the MSCI EM / S&P ratio.

The CRB Industrial Metals Equity Index (CRBIX Index) has had a significant rally since January 2016:

Following the same trend until recently, there were some indications that there was somewhat a revival in the Chinese materials sector:
- source
(Correlation 0.909, R2 = 0.826, 228 months in sample).

But given our premises that EM being a sectorial bet, still dominated by old economy industries, commodity and more generally stuff-producing companies, EM does indeed appear to be a bet on scarcity and inflation. With Chinese PPI slowing down, one might rightly ask, what's the overall picture if we take into account Chinese Iron Ore spot prices?
- source
(Correlation 0.907, R2 = 0.823, 72 months in sample).

Clearly Iron Ore spot prices are very volatile particularly given the recent clamp down on the famous Wealth Management Products (WMP) by the Chinese government but also reflects a tightening in Chinese financial conditions as well.

After all, weaker commodity prices was reflected in the latest data out of China given the  producer price index (PPI) slowed more than expected in April, falling to a year-on-year pace of 6.4% from 7.6% in March.

Regarding commodities themselves, Dr. Copper, (the PhD in economics) is something we would like to look at to get some cues on this sectorial premise of ours:
- source
(Correlation 0.896, R2 = 0.802, 228 months in sample).

Australia’s terms of trade is also an interesting indicator of MSCI EM/ S&P ratio, due to Australia’s heavy reliance on commodities:
- source
(Correlation 0.932, R2 = 0.869, 228 months in sample).

After all, we are seeing tighter liquidity from China in its moves to rein in leverage which could potentially weigh on economic growth as it is attempting a "controlled demolition" of the shadow banking bubble which was let loose.

Regarding inflation, the recent increase in inflation expectations hasn’t yet been factored in by the MSCI EM vs. S&P ratio:
- source
(Correlation 0.859, R2 = 0.737, 132 months in sample).

Additionally, Chinese devaluation fears, which roiled world markets during the summer of 2015, have substantially receded since the beginning of the year:
- source
(Correlation -0.869, R2 = 0.741, 36 months in sample).

Yet the pullback in TIPS inflation "breakeven" rates with US 5 year breakeven rates trending lower have shown that the "Trumpflation" trade has been cooling as of late. Though the recent weakness in precious metals with silver getting spanked daily can be attributed to a gradual rise in real rates we think, another manifestation of Gibson's paradox as a reminder:
"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 a 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 getting close to 3% before receding, then of course, gold prices went down as a consequence of the interest rate impact." - source Macronomics
On a side note, there has never been an episode in history when Gibson's paradox failed to operate. The real interest rate is the most important macro factor for gold prices. Also the relationship between the gold price and TIPS (or “real”) yields is strong and consistent. Gold and TIPS both offer insurance against “unexpected” (big and discontinuous) jumps in inflation. The price of gold normally falls along with the price of TIPS (which means that TIPS yields rise). So to conclude our side note, gold and gold miners are not the best hedge at the moment given the negative correlation with real rates. This is clearly illustrated in the below chart from Deutsche Bank European Equity Outlook note from the 11th of May:
- source Deutsche Bank

So far in 2017, the outperformance continues to play out in favor of EM as per the chart below displaying the S&P 500 performance relative to iShares MSCI EM:

- source Bloomberg

Flow wise commodities funds according to the latest Follow the Flow note from Bank of America Merrill Lynch have seen their eighth week of inflows, however showing signs of slowing down with gold and oil prices moving lower recently. We think most of the ongoing correction in the commodity complex is tied up to the "controlled demolition" of WMP led by China. Emerging market equities have historical strong correlation to commodities, yet, investors have continued pushing emerging market equites higher.

Given the pressure on Chinese A shares, should you want to play this trade via ETFs we would agree with Bloomberg's take from the video embedded in their article  "Gundlach Says Short the S&P 500 and Buy Emerging Market ETF" from the 9th of May, that you would be better off using IEMG ETF (South Korea and no China A shares) rather than EEM ETF given the ongoing tightening pressure in China. Yet, with KOSPI rallying as well 13.6% and breaking through the 2300 at an all-time high, the rally has been significant but mostly led by Samsung. We continue to believe that overall markets are trading on expectations of structural reforms in many instances (US, France, South Korea, etc.).

In relation to Emerging Markets, if in Macro, demography is destiny, we continue to like the asset class given as shown in the recent Bloomberg graph workforces are still expanding in India, Southeast Asia, Vietnam as well has a very young population and Southeast Asia overall is offering very compelling growth prospects:

- source Bloomberg (H/T Tiho Brkan

On top of that, China's Silk Road initiative with their willingness in expanding towards the West is clearly going to spur in its surroundings economic growth and renewed demand for commodities while China is transitioning its internal imbalances towards consumption rather than domestic fixed asset investments. The long term macroeconomic impact of such endeavor should not be underestimated.

While we still believe in some continuation of "risk-on", yet we could potentially get a pullback, we are closely watching oil, being at the moment the major brick within our wall of worry when it comes to potential credit spreads widening and spillover. We continue to follow closely the credit cycle and the global credit impulse which has shown recently by China and as well from the latest US Fed Senior Loan Officer survey, continues to point towards a slowdown thanks to weaker demand as per our final chart below.

  • Final chart - Weak loan demand tends to be associated with high volatility
While markets have successfully climbed the wall of worry with the French elections angst, we continue to track the slowly but surely eroding credit cycle and credit impulse. The significant performance of risky asset classes and beta in particular since the second part of 2016 in the on-going low volatility regime thanks to central banks meddling, makes us feel a tad more nervous about the continuation of the rally in the second part of the year while we are acutely aware as we wrote recently that the final inning in a credit cycle always is often associated with a final large melt-up.

When it comes to the volatility quandary, we read with interest DataGrapple's take on the subject from their blog post from the 9th of May entitled "Is volatility a thing of the past?":
"Most of the political risk is behind us in Europe. Unless his party shows very poorly during the general election next month, Mr Macron should be in a position to at least form a coalition with the center right. In the UK, there seems to be little doubt that the Conservative will secure a strong majority in Parliament in a few weeks. In Germany, whoever comes on top in the September ballot will be a member of the current ruling coalition. So the main source of uncertainty is Italy where the 5-star movement and its anti-euro stance is leading the poll, but elections should not be held this year. We know that they will take place before May 2018, but their exact date has not been set. With talks around the restructuring of the Greek debt apparently making progress, the euro area should enjoy a period respite. That is the message sent to the market by investors who are selling options, betting on a very low realized volatility up to the September expiry. The implied volatility of options with a strike 10% out of the money are trading sub 40% on all indices for the next 5 expiries." - source DataGrapple.
Have reached peaked complacency? One might wonder. Our final chart comes from Bank of America Merrill Lynch Situation Room note from the 8th of May and displays C&I Loan demand versus the VIX index which clearly shows that often weak credit demand tends to be associated with high volatility which shouldn't be that surprising given we live in a credit based world:
"Senior loan officers vs. VIX
One of the key stories we have been tracking for most of the year is the lack of loan demand in the US across the board. That was apparent in the February Senior Loan Officer Survey as well as subsequently weekly bank asset data from the Fed. Hence not surprisingly today's fresh Sr. Loan Officer Survey showed continued very negative
growth in consumer loan demand as well as deterioration into negative territory for C&I lending. It thus appears that the key post-election story continues - i.e. while optimism is high everybody is in wait-and-see mode pending details on tax reform from the new administration. The longer this lasts the greater the risk of more weakness in hard data. It appears a great contradiction to these circumstances that the VIX closed today at 9.77 - the lowest since December 1993. Weak loan demand tends to be associated with high volatility, not low (Figure 1)."
- source Bank of America Merrill Lynch

If credit conditions are tightening in both China and the US, and we continue to see a weaker tone in the commodities space, it is hard not to start worrying about weaker aggregate demand overall and not only in oil prices. Yet another brick to keep an eye on in your personal wall of worry we think but we ramble again...

"Worry is interest paid on trouble before it comes due." - William Ralph Inge, English clergyman.

Stay tuned!

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