Wednesday 11 February 2015

Credit - While My Guitar Gently Weeps

"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." - Mark Twain

Looking with interest at the latest surge in the US 10 year yield to 1.94% in conjunction with the "improved" employment picture in the US as well as the fall to record low level of 1986 for the Baltic Dry index to 559, we remembered one of our favorite song from the Beatles "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" recorded in 1968 for our title analogy. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" was ranked no. 136 on Rolling Stone '​s list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time", no. 7 on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time, and no. 10 on their list of The Beatles 100 Greatest Songs.

As far as the above Mark Twain quote goes, it's indeed what we know for sure when it comes to global economic growth which is of concern to us, regardless of the supposedly "deflation escape velocity" reached by the US economy and its latest Nonfarm Payroll figures. We still sit tightly in the deflationary camp for the time being and remain extremely cautious about the risk posed by the velocity in the rise of the US dollar.

The Baltic Dry Index indicative that all is not good in global economic growth - graph source Bloomberg:
"Baltic Dry Index down to levels not seen since 1986" - source Bloomberg
You might therefore be wondering why we have used such a title as an analogy. Georges Harrison's musical masterpiece had an initial incantation, which we think, resonates well with the current investment environment and global central banks meddling in asset prices:
"I look at the trouble and see that it's raging,
While my guitar gently weeps.
As I'm sitting here, doing nothing but ageing,
Still, my guitar gently weeps."
There was as well an unused line in the very beginning of his initial writing which was eventually omitted:
"The problems you sow, are the troubles you're reaping,
Still, my guitar gently weeps."

And when it comes to QE and Central Banks, an early acoustic guitar and organ demo of the famous song had a slightly different third verse which we find interesting for the sake of our analogy with our central banks "money" games:
"I look from the wings at the play you are staging,
While my guitar gently weeps.
As I'm sitting here, doing nothing but ageing,
Still, my guitar gently weeps."
In 2004, Harrison was inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" was played in tribute by Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood, Steve Ferrone, Marc Mann, and Dhani Harrison, and concluding with arguably one of the most  memorable guitar solo by fellow inductee Prince but we ramble again.

In this conversation we will re-assess current trends and "rotations" and "look at the trouble" to see if it is indeed "raging" while our guitar gently weeps as well as musing around the impact QE has had in Europe so far.

  • Lower expected returns and higher expected volatility
  • "Great rotation" not from bonds to equities but, from US equities to European equities in early 2015
  • European equities lift-off akin to the move seen on the Nikkei  (hedged) in 2013but with less firepower!
  • Rising divergence between volatility and credit spreads in Europe

  • Lower expected returns and higher expected volatility

When it comes to the outlook for returns, we agree with Nomura's latest Strategic Outlook note from the 6th of February 2015, namely that we are going to see lower expected returns and higher expected volatility. We also share their concern on the US economy. We think it is more fragile than currently assumed:
"A common view is that the US economy is in good shape – effectively immobile against a stronger USD or lower energy prices or low productivity. With most of the rest of the world (ex Brazil) loosening monetary conditions (FX and rates) another view is emerging that EM growth will recover. And the ECB’s QE announcement should, it is argued, hedge downside inflation and hence growth risks in the euro area. These views rest squarely on the assumption that the US will not and never has slowed down from above trend growth without the intervention of the Fed via tight monetary policy. In contrast we see increasing evidence that the US profit cycle is in fact maturing rapidly and that profit growth is likely to disappoint through H1. If this is the case then slower capex and employment follow – regardless of the Fed. This would constitute a major surprise to global forecasts that are more clustered than they have been since 2007.
Given the starting point for inflation this scenario would generate further upside pressure on real yields across the curve. How risk aversion would respond is critical to predicting the outcomes for returns. By contrast the bullish growth scenario would, we think, lead to a rapid repricing of Fed hikes back toward June given the stage of the US cycle. Our unpalatable strategic conclusions are that growth estimates for H2 will probably need to come down, that real yields or nominal yields are going back up under most scenarios, and that risk aversion will continue to trend higher." - source Nomura
While we have taken the proverbial "beating" on our ETF ZROZ long duration exposure losing 7% since the 30th of January, we are sticking with our position, given our lower entry level in the trade (we have also exposure to a long term macro short term trade offsetting the short term pain via ETF YCS, being short JPY for disclosing purposes...). The recent widening in US Treasuries make a good entry point for those who missed out, we indeed, expect, the data in the US, from a contrarian perspective to be weaker than previously expected, regardless of the most recent NFP.
On that specific point we would like to point out to Reorient Group's latest note on a US premature rate hike from the 8th of February 2015:
"Individual components of the employment report are at odds with other data. One of the fastest-growing components of employment, for example, was construction, with total head-counts up 5.5% year-on-year as of January. Construction spending adjusted for the construction Producer Price Index was flat year-on-year. Either the spending numbers were wrong (but unlikely because construction activity is easily counted) or the employment numbers are suspect."
 - source Reorient Group

We agree with the above, that all is not what it seems and it demands a more inquisitive mind when it comes to taking the data at "face value".

  • "Great rotation not from bonds to equities but, from US equities to European equities in early 2015

From an allocation point of view, what we find of great interest has been the continued inflows into the bond sphere (59 straight weeks of inflows to Investment grade bond funds with $8.7bn) as indicated by Bank of America Merrill Lynch's Follow the Flow note from the 5th of February entitled "The Bond Capitulation":
"On Flows and Markets
Bond is Back: massive inflows to bond funds ($21bn – 7th largest weekly inflow on record – Chart 1); outflows from equity funds ($7bn).

Gold is Back: largest 3-week inflows ($3.8bn) to precious metals funds since
Aug’11 (Chart 2).

Europe is Back: 4th consecutive week of equity inflows to Europe (Chart 5); contrasts with outflows from US/EM/Japan.
EM Debt is Back (at least for a week): 1st inflows in 9 weeks to EM debt funds ($0.9bn).
Risk Resilience: best explained by ECB & Sentiment (risk has rallied since BAML Bull and Bear Index flashed "buy" on Jan 7th…US HY 1.8%, SPX 3.0%, ACWI 5.4%, WTI 5.5%, SX5E 9.1% (all $-terms).
Risk Resilience: note also significant weekly inflows to bonds and/or gold in past 15 years (i.e. moments of “fear”) have unsurprisingly proved decent entry points into stocks (Chart 4).

- source Bank of America Merrill Lynch

In relation to Bank of America Merrill Lynch and its "Great Rotation" story, it seems that, courtesy of the ECB unleashing a QE of its own, the great rotation has clearly been from US equities into European equities it seems with $4.3bn of inflows for a 4 straight week, whereas the US saw $9.9bn of outflows for a 5 straight week. European assets seems to be a large beneficiary from the ECB's promises to deliver a QE of its own as indicated once more by Bank of America Merrill Lynch's Follow the Flow note from the 6th of February 2015 entitled "Income mania":
"Biggest inflows ever into European assets
Fund flows highlight the chronic shortage of yield in Europe. Last week saw the greatest ever total inflow into European assets (chart 2). 
The reach for yield was in full effect across high-grade and high-yield credit, government bonds, money market funds, equities and commodity funds, according to EPFR. In terms of notable trends:
• Money-market inflows were the 4th highest ever.
• European equity inflows were the 6th biggest ever.
• Inflows into government bond funds were the 3rd largest ever.
• Inflows into all fixed-income funds were the 2nd biggest ever.
• High-grade credit flows were the 8th largest, since data began.
All in all, aggregate risk-on flows in to European assets were huge: almost $40bn!" - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
At the same time and on a monthly basis, the S and P 500 saw during the month of January $28bn of outflows and equating to 15% of AUM according to Morgan Stanley. In fact, the biggest monthly outflow ever:
- graph source Bloomberg / Morgan Stanley

Also, investors continue to pile into the yield trade as the search for income runs unabated.

For instance IYR (REITS) had its largest daily inflow ever on the 2nd of February ($900 mln or 12% of AUM) according to Morgan Stanley:
- graph source Bloomberg / Morgan Stanley

We believe the great rotation story in 2015 currently playing out is indeed from US equities towards European equities for the time being and we agree with the following comments from Morgan Stanley:
  • "US investors are loaded up on US risk:  50% of the entire industry ETF flows since 2009 has gone into US equities ($300 bln).
  • The peak in global growth might very well have come in Q1 (US printed 5% GDP in Q3 and Q4 GDP came in 2.6% below the 3% consensus forecast).  Now we have a strong dollar and we are starting to see countries implementing policy stimulus to close the gap in growth." - source Morgan Stanley
So indeed while our guitar is gently weeping, US risk is indeed much less appealing than European risk (Grexit avoided of course...).

Therefore, when it comes to allocation to European equities it is definitely on the "menu du jour" as displayed in Louis Capital Markets Cross Asset Weekly report from the 2nd of January:
"Run Forrest!
No client meeting we have conducted has passed without a question on the relative performance of European equities compared to US equities being posed. European investors are well loaded with European equities as they suffer the classic “home bias”, well known in academic literature. US investors are similarly biased, but the letters Q and E, that recently reared their head in Europe, have broadened their investment universe and a flow of money has poured into European equities. The US ETFs that hedge the currency impact have benefited strongly from this trend as we show in the chart below.
This re-balancing has happened in a context where Wall Street has started to show some signs of weaknesses. We have recently discussed this hypothesis and it seems that US indices have lost their upward momentum (at least, in the short term).
The reversal of the profit trend could be the reason for this weakness. Or perhaps this is simply a profit taking phase, because as we all know these are a regular occurrence in equity markets.
Sarcasm aside, the fact that European equities recorded new highs in this less than favourable context is therefore heroic, because on the profit side there is absolutely nothing new. The charts below illustrate this. We can understand that the impact of the EUR/USD is positive for European companies and negative for US companies, but in the earnings forecasts of analysts there is no change. 

The 2015 EPS of the Eurostoxx50 has been revised down by 2.2% for the sole month of January. 

Although we share the consensual view that the decline of the EUR/USD will support profits of the European index later this year, this 2.2% negative revision is a reminder that on an index level the macroeconomic developments that appear obvious to many investors are not so straightforward when it matters due to its composition/structure.
By sector, the message is consistent with the “currency advantage” as consumer stocks that are quite global have done better than more domestic sectors like utilities or financials. The telecoms sector, with its very strong performance, is the exception in Europe.
However, the difference in performance between the Eurostoxx and the S&P500 since the beginning of the year is broad based and not related to a specific sector. The underperformance of US financials compared to European financials sends a key message here: this is not only a matter of exchange rates.
The herd mentality is strong on equity markets with this run against time to chase European equities that keep a potential for a catch-up if we look at prices. If we look at valuation (without discussing the impact of possible different profit cycles and different profit trend growth) the potential for a catch-up is exhausted. We have updated our table on the valuation of the MSCI EMU if we apply to it the sector composition of the US index. Here, we find a mere 2.2% discount in terms of forward PER.
Last week we started mentioning the valuation aspect of the Europe/US question. To be clear, we stress that profits have to improve significantly to think that European indices can outperform on a sustainable basis its US peers." - source Louis Capital Markets
  • European equities lift-off akin to the move seen on the Nikkei  (hedged) in 2013but with less firepower!

This European lift-off in equities hedged is akin to the move seen in 2013 on the Nikkei hedged complex which provided solid performances for "wise" investors. (we admitted in 2013 that we enjoyed being long Nikkei hedged in Euro). We have repeatedly highlighted the weakness in aggregate demand in the Eurozone. We argued in the past that the growth divergence between US and Europe were due a difference in credit conditions. Unless there is a significant sustained improvement in credit conditions in Europe, we don't think Europe can deliver more stellar returns than Japan did in 2013 while our guitar gently weeps.

  • Rising divergence between volatility and credit spreads in Europe

From an equity to credit perspective, one of the major impact from the ECB's QE has been the rising divergence between Eurostoxx 50 Put/Volatility versus Credit Spreads. This has been for us quite logical for Investment Grade, less so for High Yield. According to Goldman Sachs the spread between Out of the Money Put options on the Eurostoxx 50 and CDS spreads is at its highest level since 2010, and the yield that can be obtained by selling 70% put on the Eurostoxx 50 is 3 times higher than the Itraxx Main Europe CDS 5 year index (Investment Grade proxy for risk with 125 entities):
- source Goldman Sachs
Furthermore, as we indicated in our conversation relating to the growth divergence between the United States and Europe ("Growth divergence between US and Europe? It's the credit conditions stupid..."), it is all about Stocks versus Flows:
"We mentioned the problem of stocks and flows and the difference between the ECB and the Fed in our conversation "The European issue of circularity", given that while the Fed has been financing "stocks" (mortgages), while the ECB is financing "flows" (deficits). We do not know when European deficits will end, until a clear reduction of the deficits is seen, therefore the ECB liabilities will have to depreciate."

This major difference can already be seen, we think from the behavior of credit versus equities as discussed by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their Credit Derivatives Strategist note from the 6th of February entitled "Catch the basis if you can":
"Central Banks liquidity primarily provides a strong back-stop against funding risks; rather than support earnings, which usually come further down the line. When the Fed announced the first QE program, credit spreads outperformed equities.

On the flip side, the ECB QE announcement has not ignited the same response. This time around credit lagged equities.

One could argue that European credit spreads are already close to the tightest levels in years, and thus should lag post an ECB QE announcement, especially when growth outlook is coming off the lows. At the end of the day the ECB QE is meant to boost growth rather than to reduce funding/default risks, and equity markets have started pricing that.
However, we expected Crossover to follow suit on the strong reaction from equity markets, being a growth proxy in the credit market. We were expecting Main to underperform Crossover in a QE event, also reflecting the same strong growth potential the equity markets are pricing.
However, XO has lagged the risk on move tighter. We think that this was not driven by the lack of yield in credit markets – as government bond yields have continued to rally – but mainly due to the rise of geopolitical risks and the resurfacing of funding risks." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
End of the day, it doesn't matter that European stocks have been racing ahead of fundamentals, from a "quality" and "japanification" perspective, it is still a goldilocks period for Investment Grade credit, particularly in a shift towards a new regime of higher volatility.

On a final note we leave you with Nomura's forecast of stock of assets purchased by central banks as a % of national GDP from their Economics Insights note of the 28th of January 2015 entitled "Comparing ECB QE with BOJ, Fed and BOE programmes:
"• BOJ holdings of JGBs are expected to increase from the equivalent of around 40% of Japanese GDP at the end of 2014 to around 60% of GDP by the end of this year. This compares with “only” 14% of GDP in the case of the Fed and just over 20% of GDP for the BoE.
• ECB purchases of sovereign bonds (just over €40bn a month, allocated according to the capital key) will be equivalent to around 4% of GDP by end-2015. These will have grown to about 7.5% of GDP by end-September 2016 (or around 13% of the total stock or 17% of the targeted stock; the latter referring to the maturity parameters of a remaining maturity of 2 years and a maximum remaining maturity of 30 years at the time of purchase).
• Only the Fed has engaged in macroeconomically significant (measured as a share of GDP) purchases of assets other than Treasuries, buying the equivalent of 10% of US GDP of Agency MBS. We estimate the ECB will maintain private sector asset purchases at around €10bn a month, resulting in purchases equivalent to just 1% of GDP by the end of this year and reaching 2% of GDP by the end of September 2016.
• In conclusion, if one believes in the effectiveness of QE (we don’t), then size probably matters. In this context, there are two considerations: (i) the increase in the stock of purchases is going to be gradual, which implies it is going to take some time for the cumulated size to become meaningful, and (ii) the cumulated expected size of the programme by the end of this year will still be only a third of the size of the Fed and BoE programmes, suggesting that, if you believe in the effectiveness of QE, the ECB’s programme will need to grow much more significantly before it has a macroeconomic impact." - source Nomura
 “It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog.” - Mark Twain
Stay tuned!

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