Tuesday 24 February 2015

Credit - The Pigou effect

"Nothing is perfect. Life is messy. Relationships are complex. Outcomes are uncertain. People are irrational." - Hugh Mackay, Australian scientist
While continuously following the evolution of the Euro convolution, with the temporary relief of the outcome for a Greece and the high probability of a Grexit in the end, as well as looking at the continuous fall in one of our favorite global demand indicator namely the Baltic Dry Index falling below its 1986 level towards 513 on the 22nd of February, we reminded ourselves for our title analogy of the Pigou effect, which is the stimulation of output and employment caused by increasing consumption due to a rise in real balances of wealth, particularly during deflation. For Arthur Cecil Pigou, real wealth was simply defined as the sum of the money supply and government bonds divided by the price levels. He argued that when an economy was in a liquidity trap, monetary stimulus to increase output could not be used given there is little connection between personal income and money demand. Of course what we find of interest is that if the Pigou effect had been effective, then Japan should have exited deflation much sooner. Pigou, (just like our central bankers of the world today) hypothesized that falling prices would make consumers feel richer (and increase spending, that famous "wealth" effect) but Japanese consumers tended to report that they preferred to delay purchases, expecting that prices would fall further, which of course is exactly what has been happening.
It appears that "The Pigou effect" has been highly criticized as well by MichaƂ Kalecki because: "The adjustment required would increase catastrophically the real value of debts, and would consequently lead to wholesale bankruptcy and a confidence crisis."

But, when it comes to our title analogy and the "Pigou effect", we find it quite amusing that Pigou had been John Maynard Keynes' professor. Pigou's theory is completely flawed as it is based on the hypothesis that there cannot be a prolonged period of overproduction (China) and the artificial life support of "zombie" companies (European banks, Chinese shipping companies, etc). Arguably, the trajectory of the Baltic Dry Index is indeed putting to the test that very assumption from the University of Cambridge professor. It is interesting to note that his student, John Maynard Keynes argued that a drop in aggregate demand could lower both employment and the price level in unison, an occurrence observed in the deflationary depression, which is what we are currently seeing in Europe and what is also coined by some economists the "Keynes effect":
"The effect that changes in the price level have upon goods market spending via changes in interest rates. As prices fall, a given nominal money supply will be associated with a larger real money supply, causing interest rates to fall and in turn causing investment spending on physical capital to increase." - source Wikipedia
Of course both the teacher and the student were wrong, as the former ignored the probability of extended oversupply and the latter implied that insufficient demand in the product market cannot exist forever. The Keynes effect does not occur in a "liquidity trap" according to "Keynesians", which is the result we are seeing in Europe with lack of aggregate demand due to lack of private credit as most European banks as they are constrained by their inherent "lack of capital". It is also particularly due to ZIRP and the Zero Lower Bound Problem. The result of this "liquidity trap" is, for us, self-inflicted. We discussed the issue of "crowding out" of the private sector 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"
In this week's conversation we will take another look at the long term prospect for the European banking sector, as we strongly sit in the deflationary camp. We believe that rates will stay low for longer, particularly in Europe, which is caught in a vicious "japanification" process. We will also reassess some of our earlier views (long US treasuries, long Gold, short JPY), particularly in the light of the increased volatility and the impressive rise in US yields during the month of February which we highlighted in our most conversation.


  • The "crowding out" effect
  • Banks stocks or credit?
  • Banking crisis? Sweden lead the way
  • Why Pigou failed in Japan and why QE is like aspirin? It's the demography stupid!
  • Reassessing some of our earlier views
  • The battle against the deflationary bust looming will not be won by ZIRP and QEs
  • Real wage growth is the Fed's greatest headache
  • Volatility is a buy and will greatly impact negative convexity assets
  • On the fallacy of "Balance accounting" as per Sir James Goldsmith

  • The "crowding out" effect:
The "crowding out" effect we mentioned on numerous conversations pushes yields down further meaning bonds investors are having a field day. Weak demand and ZIRP entices speculations and buy-backs rather than investments and employment. Banks play heavily the carry trade and therefore increase their link to their respective sovereigns while the private sector (SMEs) hasn't been able to easily access credit, leading to a credit crunch in Europe in the last couple of years triggering weaker aggregate demand, surging unemployment, etc.

In similar fashion to Japan, government bonds have replaced private sector lending on European banks' balance sheet. The comparison between Japan and Europe in terms of "evergreening" bad loans (extend and pretend that is, such as "shipping loans" for instance) and impaired financial sector can be ascertained from German bank Berenberg's note entitled "Turning Japanese...we really think so" published on the 10th of February.
"Policy responses – lessons not learned: In terms of fixing the banking system (the need to recapitalise banks rapidly and early on) and monetary policy (the need for shock and awe), European policy makers appear to be aware of, but have not taken on board, the lessons from Japan or the US in the 1930s. Perhaps, like their Japanese peers before them, they believe the economy is facing cyclical not structural challenges, or maybe they are concerned about their reputations or wish to prevent panic. But to be clear: fixing the European banking system remains unresolved and will remain so until hidden loan losses are dealt with.
Interest rates will be lower for longer than anyone is prepared for: Deflationary forces arising from the balance sheet recession will see loose monetary policy
persist for another 10-15 years. For European banks, the implications are clear.
o Balance sheet structures to transform: Private sector deleveraging, continuing fiscal deficits and tightening regulation will make balance sheets smaller, drive the loan-deposit ratio below 100%, see (sovereign) fixed income assets double their share of bank assets, and lead to ever increasing equity-to-assets ratios.
Non-performing loan (NPL) ratios may yet double as they did in Japan following the onset of deflation.
o Balance sheet profitability to decline: Flat yield curves close to the zero bound and a substitution of private sector loans with sovereign bonds will push the net interest margin lower for many years to come. Combined with elevated loan losses, returns on assets (RoAs) will remain at half the levels of the precrisis, golden age.
Share price and valuation parallels offer no support: The parallels with Japan have also held at a share price and valuation level, and suggest that there remains considerable relative downside to come (30-40%?) for European banks." - source Berenberg
Japan and the "crowding out" effect as illustrated by Berenberg in their lengthy note:
- source Berenberg

  • Banks stocks or credit?
As we have stated on numerous occasions, when it comes to European banks, you are better off sticking to credit (for now) than with equities given the amount of "deleveraging" that still needs to happen in Europe. This can also be ascertained by the comparison in terms of returns for banks between Japan and Europe as highlighted by Berenberg in their great note:

"Given the continuing poor disclosure of loan quality by the European banks, we cannot say for certain what the capital deficit really is. However, history consistently shows that at the end of a 60-70 year debt cycle when an extended balance sheet recession takes hold, there are substantial hidden loan losses. But at some point, in the face of continuing weak nominal economic growth, banks must move from forbearance to foreclosure within their loan books and thus crystallise the loan losses." - source Berenberg
This support our long standing views expressed in our post "Peripheral Banks, Kneecap Recap, Kneecap Recap":
"First bond tenders, then we will probably see debt to equity swaps for weaker peripheral banks with no access to term funding, leading to significant losses for subordinate bondholders as well as dilution for shareholders in the process." - Macronomics - 20th of November 2011.
The extend and pretend game of hidden losses has been of course been supported by both LTROs and by now the much anticipated ECB QE.  So, forget about "dead cat bounces" in European banks share prices, as Japanese history has shown, pain is here to stay for shareholders as illustrated as well clearly by Berenberg:

"In Figure 29 we compare the relative performance of banks against the market in Europe and the US with that of Japan (with the Europe/US data rebased by 11 years to map the timescale of Japan). The good news is that the material relative underperformance of Eurozone, UK and US banks matches that of Japan both in terms of scale and duration. The bad news, however, is that the worst is not over. Japanese banks staged a three-year rally on the back of the restructuring of the banking system driven by the 2002 Takenaka plan (which forced the recognition of NPLs and the recapitalisation of banks). However, the underperformance resumed over the last eight years and Japanese banks are now at close to their 40-year+ relative lows. With Europe yet to achieve closure on balance sheet uncertainty (ie achieve a successful restructuring of the banking system) and with flat yield curves at the zero bound squeezing net interest margins, European banks are likely to continue to grind lower relative to the market. Further, as we show in Figure 30, banks do not like QE. In Japan and the US, banks underperformed during episodes of QE (QE flattens yield curves thus squeezing net interest margins and also signals an environment of low nominal growth which is negative for asset quality)."
- source Berenberg
  • Banking crisis? Sweden lead the way
When it comes to the outperformance of "Nordics" share prices versus Japanese banks as displayed above it can be very simply explained. Sweden decided to tackle head on the issues of its ailing banking sector on numerous occasions. Sweden has a good firsthand experience of financial crisis unlike Europeans. 
Sweden suffered through a banking crisis in the early 1990s and then again in 2008 and 2009. It chose to inject capital into struggling banks only in return for equity to avoid raising deficits and burdening taxpayers. The government in 2008 set up a financial stability fund by charging banks an annual fee and enacted various crisis-management measures including a bank guarantee program to help support lending.
The fund will grow to 2.5 percent of gross domestic product by 2023 and stood at 35 billion kronor ($5.2 billion) at the end of 2010, including shares in Nordea Bank AB, according to the Swedish National Debt Office. 

As far as European banks are concerned, regardless of the European Banking Union, AQR and other shenanigans, we agree with Berenberg's take on the triviality of the AQR adjustments:
"The triviality of the AQR adjustments was the most damning in our view. It is simply not credible that at the end of a 60-70 year debt cycle and after seven years of near nonexistent economic growth that the adjustment to Non-Performing Exposures equalled just 62bp of total assets. Charitably, this could be blamed on IFRS and its requirement to only identify losses on an “incurred” basis rather than expected one (indeed, rephrasing the critique given IFRS only allows provisioning on an incurred basis and given the adjustments were so trivial, it must imply that the ECB acquiesced in covering up the scale of hidden losses in banks’ balance sheets). Indeed, as Hoshi and Kashyap wrote presciently in October 2013, the European authorities “appear to be hesitant to admit to the size of the problems facing the banks” perhaps out of fear of triggering a panic.
In short, until there is true clarity in the value of European banks’ assets, then the value of the equity is highly uncertain, making European banks uninvestable. In our view, what Europe needs to do, and what happened in Japan, is to force banks to dispose of a material proportion of their non-performing loans. As shown in Figure 36, NPLs were over-valued for in excess of a decade.
Such forced disposals should help achieve price discovery around the true value of bank assets. And in turn, this should pave the way to achieving confidence around the capital bases of the European banks." - source Berenberg
  • Why Pigou failed in Japan and why QE is like aspirin? It's the demography stupid!
In relation to our title the "Pigou effect" and central banks' intervention leading to a "liquidity trap therefore neutralizing the "Keynes effect" , Japan is clear illustration of the failure of the "wealth effect" of Pigou's proposal as pointed out by Berenberg:
"In Japan, where the burden was shifted early on from monetary to fiscal policy, a Catch-22 is emerging. The Japanese government cannot afford to allow rates to rise, yet keeping rates low risks increasing distortions in the economy through the mispricing of risk. It has been estimated that a 2ppt increase in average bond yields would require almost all tax revenues to be used to service the government’s debt. Thus QE and the monetisation of the national debt must continue in size (apparently the Bank of Japan purchases the majority of all new debt traded) until the Bank of Japan owns most of the government’s debt. But if the quantity of something is increased and demand is constant then the price must fall, ie the yen must weaken further (and Japan exports deflation).
As noted in the previous section, abundant liquidity and low interest rates squeezed net interest income for Japanese banks (two-thirds of the revenues for a typical bank). This arose through two effects. Ample liquidity and a lack of private sector demand for credit meant that the Japanese banks materially increased their holdings of government bonds (with typically lower yields than private sector loans). Secondly, low interest rates and QE flattened the yield curve, reducing the benefit of the maturity transformation.
Markets are rejoicing that the ECB is finally following the Bank of Japan and other central banks in embracing QE. But what if, as Kiyohiko Nishimura observed (the former deputy governor of the Bank of Japan), the problems facing Europe and Japan are driven by a demographic not financial cycle. He has noted that in Europe and Japan, as well as the UK and US, crises have almost always coincided with a decrease in the ratio of the working-age population to the non-working age population":
- source Berenberg
 You probably better understand now much better our long standing deflationary stance and lack of "appetite" for European banks stocks (we are more credit guys anyway...). It's the demography stupid! Beside's that we have pointed out in our conversation "Stimulant psychosis:
"Rentiers seek and prefer deflation - European QE to benefit US Investment Grade credit investors. Rentiers seek and prefer deflation. They prefer conservative government policies of balanced budgets and deflationary conditions, even at the expense of economic growth, capital accumulation and high levels of employment."
Both the master Pigou and the student Keynes have inadvertently grant unprecedented capital gains to rentiers in the form of exorbitant bond price! Exorbitant bond prices? How about Portuguese 10 year bonds at 2.13% trading briefly below US 10 year bonds?

  • Reassessing some of our earlier views
Duration - party on Wayne! party on Garth!
While we endured the proverbial battering on our long duration exposure during February (offset somewhat by our short JPY stance), as discussed in our last conversation, the latest raft of weaker than expected US data such as US home resales falling to their lowest level in nine months last month at an annualized rate of 4.82-million units, as well as Industrial companies indicating they would only raise capacity by 1.8 percent in 2015, which is  the smallest increase since 2011, after boosting it 3.1 percent in 2014 according to  the Fed said in its Feb. 18 release on production, reinforce our view that we have probably seen the top of widening move in US yields for the time being. The current levels make it interesting to think about increasing slightly more our own long duration exposure.

Gold - everything that glitters...
In terms of flows, it seems precious metals saw their first outflows of $0.3bn in 5 weeks according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch "The Flow Show" from the 19th of February entitled "Out with the Safe, In with the Risk":
"YTD asset returns: stocks +3.1%, bonds -1.0%, commodities +1.4%, US dollar +4.4%; vol, gold & long duration bonds were the clear Jan “winners”; but risk assets have rallied big in Feb and quietly Treasury yields have jumped sharply (30-year up 50bps in Feb)" - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Our gold and duration calls from our conversation of the 6th of January entitled the "Fright of the Bumblebee" performed well in January and got punished in February:
"In terms of "allocation", we think we are looking more towards the upper left part of the Credit Channel Clock which means:
-a continuation of flattening yield curves,
-being long volatility as we enter a higher volatility regime
-a continued exposure to US long government bonds. Long dated US government bonds from a carry and roll-down perspective continue to be enticing at current levels compared to the "unattractiveness" of the mighty German 10 year bund indicating a clear "japanification" process in Europe.
-adding again some gold exposure in early 2015. We hinted a "put-call parity" strategy early 2014, eg long Gold/long US Treasuries as we argued in our conversation "The Departed", it is going to be working again nicely in the first part of 2015"
The latest US raft of economic data has given some support of the $1200 level. We still remain positive for gold prices, given the lack of clear resolution of the Greek situation in conjunction with geostrategic tensions flaring with interventions looming in the Middle-East and with Ukraine 's economy in complete meltdown.

  • The battle against the deflationary bust looming will not be won by ZIRP and QEs:

Looking at the global economy as a whole, we think the globalization of ZIRP is not reducing the deflationary forces at play but in fact reinforcing them, pushing us towards additional currency war which is reminiscent of the build up towards the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that ensued. On that specific matter we share Dr Lacy Hunt's views and concerns. He is the Executive Vice President of Hoisington Investment Management and gave a month ago a long interview with Gordon T Long on the current economic situation. While gathering our thoughts since our previous conversation, we also took into interest in the wise but gloomy comments from Hedge Fund manager Crispin Odey given in an interview with Nils Pratley in the UK newspaper The Guardian on the 20th of February:
“1994 is when we were all slathering about the idea of a world economy, and what it is going to do as we open up,” says Odey.
“And Goldsmith basically says: ‘Hey, be careful about this because it is fine to have trade between peoples who have the same lifestyles and cost structures and everything else. But, actually, if you encourage companies to relocate and put their factories in the cheapest place and sell to the most expensive, you in the end destroy the communities that you come from. And there will come a point where the productivity gains from the cheapest also decline, at which point you have a real problem on your hands’ – And we are kind of there.” - source The Guardian
This struck a chord with us as it indeed reminded us of Sir Jimmy Goldsmith's great 1994 interview following the publication of his book "The Trap" which was eerily prescient. He violently criticizes the GATT and the curse of globalization as denounced as well by the great French economist (and scientist) Maurice Allais.

In response to the critics, Sir Jimmy Goldsmith wrote a lengthy but great thoughtful reply called "The Response" (link provided):
"Hindley would prefer to reduce earnings substantially rather than 'block trade'. In other words, he would prefer to sacrifice the well-being of the nation rather than his free-trade ideology. He has forgotten that the purpose of the economy is to serve society, not the other way round. A successful economy increases wages, employment and social stability. Reducing wages is a sign of failure. There is no glory in competing in a worldwide race to lower the standard of living of one's own nation. " Sir Jimmy Goldsmith

  • Real wage growth is the Fed's greatest headache

In similar fashion the slack in US real wage growth is the real problem to clearly validate the much vaunted US recovery  according to a University of Wharton article entitled "The Economy Is Coming Back — Why Wages Are Stuck in a Rut" and published on the 23rd of February:
"Despite that one bright moment in the late 1990s, U.S. real average hourly wages haven’t budged much for decades. The U.S. average hourly wage of $20.80 in January 2015 is about the same as that in January 1973, adjusted for inflation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics." - source Wharton University
This is exactly the issue for the US economy as we stated back in July 2014 in our conversation "Perpetual Motion":
"Unless there is an acceleration in real wage growth we cannot yet conclude that the US economy has indeed reached the escape velocity level given the economic "recovery" much vaunted has so far been much slower than expected. But if the economy accelerates and wages finally grow in real terms, the Fed would be forced to tighten more aggressively." - source Macronomics, 22nd of July 2014
Real wage growth, we think is the most important indicator to follow we think from a Fed tightening perspective.

We also indicated at the time:
"Unless there is some acceleration in real wage growth which would counter the debt dynamics and make the marginal-utility-of-debt go positive again (so that the private sector can produce more than its interest payments), we cannot yet conclude that the US economy has indeed reached the escape velocity level." - source Macronomics, 22nd of July 2014

  • Volatility is a buy and will greatly impact negative convexity assets

From a market perspective, we recommended in our first conversation of 2015 that investors needed being long volatility as we enter a higher volatility regime, this is confirmed by the rise in the CVIX index (CVIX index = DB currency implied volatility index: 3 month implied volatility of 9 major currency pairs) as displayed by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their Liquid Insight note from the 23rd of February entitled "Letting the data speak again on G10 FX":
"This is just the beginning
We expect that the year so far is a preview of what will follow. Our year-ahead had argued FX volatility would increase as data dependence replaces forward guidance in monetary policy, ECB and BoJ QE would not be enough to replace Fed QE as boosters of global risk appetite, and oil prices would be lower and more volatile. In the global monetary union with the US we pointed out that loose Fed policy and forward guidance in G10 central banks had killed market volatility and FX correlations with data and fundamentals, and argued volatility and such correlations would come back as Fed QE ends, G10 monetary policies diverge and USD strengthens.
We believe these forces remain valid. We recently argued FX volatility has become the prime driver of global volatility, as central banks react differently to the common oil price shock and some are behaving as if they are in a currency war. The latest FOMC minutes also suggest the Fed is unlikely to continue ignoring the drop in inflation expectations, suggesting the upward USD." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
As a reminder and going forward, the greater the volatility, the greater the disadvantage of owing negative convexity bonds like you find in the High Yield space. In the current low yield environment, both duration and convexity are higher, therefore the price movement lower can be larger!

  •  On the fallacy of Balance accounting as per Sir James Goldsmith

"The idea that accounts must balance, and that inflows must ultimately match outflows, is an accountant's idea.
But there is a fundamental misunderstanding here. If you make a loss, perhaps because you own a business that is trading unprofitably or because you have made a bad investment, you will not get rid of the loss by borrowing the amount needed to pay for it. You will have avoided or postponed a personal liquidity crisis, but you will still be poorer by the amount of the loss. You will also have to pay interest on the loan.
Alternatively, you might sell your house and rent somewhere else to live. You will have used the proceeds of the sale to pay your debts, but you will remain poorer by the value of the house. And in future, you will have to pay rent.
When the Asian countries, as mentioned by the European Commission, invest their 'excess cash' abroad, normally they do so by buying into businesses or by lending money. The latter normally takes the form either of buying government debt or of deposits, say in sterling or dollars, in the banking system. Now consider the position of the nations which, unlike the Asian countries, import more than they export and which, as a result, have a deficit as opposed to an excess of cash.
To finance their deficit, businesses or other assets are sold and debt is issued. This puts them in exactly the same position as an individual who sells his house or borrows money to cover his debts. Such a haemorrhage can last only a limited time before ending in bankruptcy." - Sir Jimmy Goldsmith
Hence the need for central banks to issue more debt to sustain the global financial system...until it doesn't work but that's another story...

Thanks to Global ZIRP and our central bankers we are indeed living on the Planet of the Apes...oh well.
"If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys."- Sir James Goldsmith
Stay tuned!

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