Monday, 17 April 2017

Macro and Credit - Narrative paradigm

"The first step towards philosophy is incredulity." - Denis Diderot, French philosopher

Watching with interest hard data becoming softer with the latest weak US CPI (-0.3%) and disappointing retail sales falling by 0.2% (0.1% fall expected), when it came to choosing our title analogy we reminded ourselves of the Narrative paradigm, a theory proposed by 20th century scholar Walter Fisher. It stipulates that all meaningful communication is a form of storytelling or reporting of events. It promotes the belief that humans are story tellers and listeners and are more persuaded by a good story than by good argument. Because of this, human beings experience and comprehend life and financial markets as a series of ongoing narratives, each with its own conflicts, characters, beginning, middle, and end. In his theory Walter Fisher believed that all forms of communication that appears to our reason are best viewed as stories shaped by history, culture, and character. The ways in which financial pundits and the Fed have been selling us the "Trumpflation" and "recovery" story justifying the hikes in interest rates have more to do with telling a credible story than it does in producing evidence or constructing a logical argument we would argue, hence our chosen title. These pundits, like the Fed are essentially storytellers and each individual chooses the ones that match his or her values and beliefs. Obviously, the test of the narrative rationality is based on the probability, coherence, and fidelity of the stories that underpin the immediate investment decisions to be made. Unfortunately, these "Jedi tricks" do not function well with us. We must confess that we never bought the strong dollar narrative story that everyone piled into. As of late, the latest raft of hard US macro data has pushed us to revisit a US long duration exposure. It seems to us that US GDP for Q1 2017 is going to be most likely more disappointing than Q1 2016, therefore we have gone with the narrative rationality of MDGA (Make Duration Great Again) from a tactical perspective but we ramble again...

In this week's conversation we would like to look at 

  • Macro and Credit - Foreign bonds allocation - Are the Japanese back in town?
  • Final charts - Credit, the only easy day was yesterday...

  • Macro and Credit - Foreign bonds allocation - Are the Japanese back in town?
At the end of March in our conversation "Outflow boundary", we argued that it was important to focus on what our Japanese friends such as GPIF, Lifers and Mrs Watanabe were doing in terms of foreign bonds allocations.  At the time we also added:
"The weakness seen since the beginning of the year has reduced the cost of dollar funding, and with US policy in turmoil in conjunction with prospects for slower US growth than anticipated, there is a chance to "make duration great again" we think in the current "Outflow boundary" environment" - source Macronomics, March 2017
We also note that our tactical bullish US long bonds allocation since our recent post was validated:
"Now, if US long bonds yields such as 30 years continue receding, then indeed our contrarian stance of once again dipping our toes in long duration exposure (ETF ZROZ - TLT) and adding to Investment Grade credit with higher duration as well could be tactically enticing. We are watching closely the 3% level on the 30 year." - source Macronomics, March 2017
With the 30 year US bonds now at a yield of 2.89% supported mostly by geopolitical woes in conjunction with recent weaknesses in hard data such as CPI and retail sales. As we pointed out in our recent musings including our most recent one, we were eagerly anticipating a return of the Japanese investment crowd in US Treasuries and US credit thanks to an improving cross-currency basis. We also highlighted last week that European domiciled accounts had been front-running the Japanese investment crowd, which has now entered its new fiscal year. The big question one might ask in the current "Narrative paradigm" is as follows: are the Japanese back in town when it comes to their foreign bonds purchases?

One clear trend seen in recent years has been Bank of Japan's QE programme between December 2012 and June 2016 which has enticed large inflows into the US bond markets as displayed in Nomura FX Insights note from the 10th of April entitled "Where has the ECB QE Money gone":
- source Nomura

Is this time going to be different? We wonder. There is currently a clear avoidance in terms of allocation by the Japanese investment crowd for French Government bonds given the looming French elections. There is as well prevailing uncertainties from the new US administration when it comes to fiscal policies. What appears to be the case is that the current level of uncertainties is clearly slowing the return of the Japanese crowd this time around.

Also, the recent bout or "risk-off" with USD/JPY trading through the significant 110 level is somewhat probably dampening the velocity in the return of this specific investment crowd. On this subject we read with interest Bank of America Merrill Lynch Liquid Insight note from the 13th of April entitled "New fiscal year, new flow":
"New fiscal year, new flow
Japan entered the new fiscal year this month. Last week, we argued JPY strength may be overdone and that the USD/JPY’s medium-term uptrend has not ended despite a near-term possibility of further technical sell off through 110 where we stop out (Is JPY strength justified? 105 first or 117? 07 April 2017). In our view, global risk events may not fully explain the extent of JPY strength, and flow dynamics could have been behind the JPY strength. With new data from the balance of payment statistics, we argue the demand/supply balance of USD/JPY should be improving especially after an eventful April.
Japanese money in the new fiscal year
We have seen a notable slowdown in foreign securities purchases by Japanese investors since the US election in November (Chart of the day).

The slowdown probably reflects position unwinding among bank accounts and a wait-and-see stance among the Japanese real money community amid a volatile Treasury market in the final months of the Japanese fiscal year (Chart 1-Chart 2).

Banks could continue to unwind Treasuries, but it would involve little FX impact as they usually fund these investments in the USD, unlike real money accounts we discuss below.
Lifers – more USD buying
There is a seasonality of increased foreign bond purchases by insurance accounts during the early part of Japanese fiscal year. This year, we observe (1) rising yields in the JGB’s super long sector, but still at a relatively low level; (2) lower FX hedge cost; and (3) higher US yields, and (4) a lower USD/JPY (Chart 4).

True, it is unlikely they would be very aggressive in unhedged foreign bond investments as investors would balance across JGBs, hedged foreign bonds, and unhedged foreign bonds. For now, the USD/JPY at 110 may not attract strong demand, but we believe the USD demand will increase in the next few months once we go through April full of risk events or if we get renewed optimism for the US tax reform.
Trust accounts – market stabilizer
Trust accounts continued to sell rising assets and buy falling assets last quarter as the GPIF portfolio has presumably been close to its target for some time (Chart 5).

Going forward, a traditional risk-off market, as we currently observe, would likely be met by selling of domestic bonds (and potentially foreign bonds) and buying of domestic and foreign equities by pension funds. Reflation trade would be met by selling of foreign and domestic equities and buying of foreign bonds (and potentially domestic bonds) by pension funds.
Exporters’ hedging
Another source of the earlier USD/JPY weakness may have to do with Japanese exporters’ hedging activity into the fiscal year-end. Japan’s trade balance has been rising in light of stable oil prices and rising real exports (Chart 7).

There is a possibility the final months of the fiscal year generated additional USD selling.
As FY17 starts, we think corporate hedging should be more orderly, unlike last year. According to the BoJ’s tankan survey, large manufacturers had assumed an average USD/JPY rate of 117.5 heading into FY16, while the year actually opened at 112s, which led to a severe USD selling pressure last April, in our view (Revisiting the dollar’s 100 yen scenario 07 April 2016). This year, corporates assume an average USD/JPY rate of 108.4 (Chart 8).

Though this may suggest some near-term pressure, the assumption itself seems conservative, in our view. While the improving trade balance may support the JPY over the medium-term at margin, we believe corporate USD selling will be spread out and less intense this year." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Whereas the Narrative paradigm has been so far seen in renewed optimism for US tax reform, the latest raft of hard data makes us wonder how many weeks before we seen again "Bondzilla" the Japanese NIRP monster's appetite return. Our current stance, given the weaker tone in both geopolitical rising tensions in conjunction with a much softer tone in hard data, has pushed us, was we indicated earlier on in our conversation to play the duration game again, in effect front-running the Japanese investment crowd before they are back in town, yet this time around in 2017 with a delay we think. On that point we agree with Bank of America Merrill Lynch's conclusions:
"Flow in the new fiscal year will likely put widening pressure on JPYUSD basis but the magnitude will be less this time
As highlighted above (and here), lifers are expected to start investing in foreign bond markets after the French election, but in the early part of the Japanese fiscal year. Lifers’ outward flow usually pushes JPYUSD basis wider as they try to hedge FX risk. This will likely be no different this time, but we expect the widening pressure will be less and it would be difficult to see JPYUSD basis go wider to last year’s level. At the current level of USDJPY, lifers will be more open to keep their foreign bonds unhedged and some of the contributing factors to the tightening of USDJPY basis since the start of the year are structural." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
No doubt the Lifers will come into play in terms of their foreign bonds allocations, and this will also have some impact in the already volatile USDJPY currency pair. What is of interest of course, when it comes to the "Narrative paradigm" is that there are already early signs of the Japanese investment crowd dipping their toes back into foreign bonds as indicated by UBS in the Global Rates Strategy note from the 10th of April entitled "What Japanese Investors Are Buying":
"French bonds overtake US Treasuries as main force behind Japanese selling Japanese investors' post-US presidential election trend of considerable net selling of overseas bonds continues. Weekly flow data underscores how Japanese investors sold ~¥5.4 trillion of foreign bonds from the time of the election to the end of Mar-17.
Today's more granular data release of which individual sovereign bond markets were bought and sold in Feb-17 highlights that French bonds have overtaken US Treasuries as the main force behind the overall selling pressure. This suggests that political risks as of February overshadowed the increasingly attractive currency-hedged pick-up over JGBs offered by French bonds. Separately, we note that the last week of Mar-17 saw the largest net purchases of overseas bonds in six months. However, as this follows the typical pattern around Japan fiscal year-end (.Figure 4), we would caution interpreting this as a sign of a sustainable rebound in Japanese demand for overseas bonds.
 - source UBS

While, yes it might be seen as too early to embrace yet the "Narrative paradigm", in the light of the recent weakness in both the US dollar and hard macro data, we would rather be a little bit early and start tactically adding at least on the long end of US Treasuries, rather than wait for additional signs from the Japanese investor crowd. Some says fortune favors the brave, we would posit that in most occasions it favors the bold contrarian but we ramble again here.

Finally, for our final charts below, as we posited in previous conversations, when it comes to the situation in credit and in particular in 2017, we would rather go for US credit, given it seems to us that Euro High Yield is "priced to perfection" and when it comes to US High Yield we closely follow what oil prices are doing and much less sanguine than we were back at the end of 2015. Yes, the credit cycle seems to be turning, but, it is slowly turning.

  • Final charts - Credit, the only easy day was yesterday...
Whereas the second part of 2016 saw a very significant rally in general for US High Yield and in particular for the US energy sector, the rally so far this year has been significant as well, making us wonder if there is any "juice" left given the performance so far. Yet something we would agree with Barclays from their Global Strategy Chart book from the 10th of April is that when it comes to credit we would favor US Investment Grade over Euro Investment Grade. On top of that agreement we also think that, when it comes to credit overall, the only easy day was yesterday:
"Credit was strong in 2016n but easy gains likely behind us" - source Barclays
As we pointed out, foreign demand remains key to not only US credit but as well for US Treasuries, so overall, let's see if indeed the Japanese Investment crowd and Bondzilla the NIRP monster find again their appetite while the "Narrative paradigm" surrounding the "Trumpflation" story fades away.

"Skepticism is a virtue in history as well as in philosophy." -  Napoleon Bonaparte

Stay tuned!

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