Tuesday 29 May 2018

Macro and Credit - White noise

"The real man smiles in trouble, gathers strength from distress, and grows brave by reflection." -Thomas Paine

Watching with interest, the return of volatility and consequent rise in Italian Government bond yields, in conjunction with trouble brewing yet again in Spain, following the continuous pressure and Turkey and other Emerging Markets, when it came to selecting our title analogy we decided to go for a signal processing analogy namely "White noise". In signal processing, white noise is a random signal having equal intensity at different frequencies, giving it a constant power spectral density. The term is used, with this or similar meanings, in many scientific and technical disciplines, such as physics, acoustic engineering, telecommunications, and statistical forecasting. White noise refers to a statistical model for signals and signal sources, rather than to any specific signal. White noise draws its name from white light, although light that appears white generally does not have a flat power spectral density over the visible band. White noise is as well interesting thanks to its statistical properties. Being uncorrelated in time does not restrict the values a signal can take. Any distribution of values is possible and even a binary signal such as the ones currently being given by European Peripheral bond markets (risk-off). In statistics and econometrics one often assumes that an observed series of data values is the sum of a series of values generated by a deterministic linear process, depending on certain independent (explanatory) variables, and on a series of random noise values. Then regression analysis is used to infer the parameters of the model process from the observed data, e.g. by ordinary least squares, and to test the null hypothesis that each of the parameters is zero against the alternative hypothesis that it is non-zero. Hypothesis testing typically assumes that the noise values are mutually uncorrelated with zero mean and have the same Gaussian probability distribution – in other words, that the noise is white. If there is non-zero correlation between the noise values underlying different observations then the estimated model parameters are still unbiased, but estimates of their uncertainties (such as confidence intervals) will be biased (not accurate on average). This is also true if the noise is heteroskedastic – that is, if it has different variances for different data points. While causation of Emerging Markets sell-off can be attributed to  "Mack the Knife" aka rising US dollar and positive US real rates, it doesn't imply correlation with the sudden surge in Italian government bond yields, following the rise of a so called "populist" government at the helm of Italy. It is not that Italian issues went away, it is that there were just hiding in plain sight thanks to the strong support of the ECB with its QE program. Now that a less accommodative government has been elected in Italy, the status quo of the sustainability of the European project and European debt are being questioned again. The constant power spectral density of the ECB's QE is fading, hence the aforementioned reduction in the "White noise" and stability in European yields we think. We recently argued the following on our Twitter account: 
"Both rising US dollar and Gold may mean we have entered a period where non-yielding assets are preferable to assets such as some sovereign debts promising a yield yet future size of payment and or return of principal are starting to become "questionable". - source Macronomics, 24th of May.
As the central banks put is fading, what basically has been hiding in plain sight, has been the sustainability of the European project. Investors are therefore moving back into assessing the "return of capital" rather than the "return on capital". It seems to us that the "White noise" which in effect had hidden the reality of "risk" thanks to volatility being repressed thanks to central banking meddling is indeed making somewhat a comeback to center stage yet again given the recent bout of volatility seen on Italian bond prices and yields. When it comes to Italy's latest political turmoil we have to confide that we are not surprised whatsoever. We warned about this playing out exactly last year during our interview on "Futures Radio Show" hosted by Anthony Crudele:
"The biggest risk in Europe is still Italy because the growth is not there" - source Macronomics, May 2017 on Futures Radio Show.
On the anniversary of us voicing our concerns on Italy in this week's conversation, we would like to look at debt sustainability with rising rates as well as the risk of deceleration we are seeing in global growth as of late. 

  • Macro and Credit -  Solvency of the issuer ultimately determines allocation of capital 
  • Final chart - Decline in PMI's doesn't bode well for the US bond bears

  • Macro and Credit -  Solvency of the issuer ultimately determines allocation of capital 
The latest ructions in both Emerging Markets and Italian Government bond yields are a reminder that once "White noise" starts to dissipate with QT and a fading central banks put, then indeed solvency issues can return with a vengeance, such is the case with Turkey and fears on Italian debt sustainability. It is a subject we already touched in a long conversation we had back in September 2011 in our post "The curious case of the disappearance of the risk-free interest rate and impact on Modern Portolio Theory and more!". In this conversation we quoted the work of Dr Jochen Felsenheimer, prior to set up "assénagon" and now with XAIA Asset Management, was previously head of the Credit Strategy and Structured Credit Research team at Unicredit and co-author of the book "Active Credit Portfolio Management:
"Competing systems between countries in a world of globalisation and fully integrated capital markets restrict a country's room for manoeuvre in that mobile factors of production seek out the state infrastructure which give them the best possible reward. The state can only counter the migration of workers and relocation of whole production sites with economic measures, for example the creation of an effective infrastructure (e.g. education) or tax incentives. Accordingly, a government's outgoings - and also its income - are not just determined by domestic economic developments, but also by other countries' economic strategies. Countries are in competition with each other - just like companies. And this is particularly true within a currency union, which is fully reflected in the different tax policies of the individual member states." - Dr Jochen Felsenheimer.
At the time we added that the name of the current game was maintaining, at all cost, rates as low as possible, to avoid government bankruptcies hence the ECB's QE. Dr Jochen Felsenheimer which we quoted at the time also made the following comments in the letter we quoted extensively in our conversation in 2011:
 "In terms of global competing systems, we can view countries like companies. The difference is that they only refinance through debt. Even if this refinancing option does not appear unattractive in view of the low interest rate, even cheap money has to be paid back sometimes. And that is exactly what is becoming increasingly unlikely." - Dr Jochen Felsenheimer
The ECB has been able to provide protection against a run, alas temporarily. While the ECB acted as a lender of last resort, doing so exacerbated political tensions and is not a lasting solution as we can see unfolding right now in Italy. 

The concept of "solvency" is very sensitive to the government’s cost of funding (Turkey), and therefore to swings in market confidence.  A government with even a very large level of debt can appear entirely solvent if funded cheaply enough, which is the case for various European countries we think. There is no reassurance that solvent government will always be kept liquid, forget "leverage", end of the day in credit markets "liquidity" matters and we should all know by now that "liquidity" is indeed a "coward". We commented at the time in 2011 that liquidity, matters, because the major implication of the disappearance of risk-free interest rates is that it weakens in the process the quality of the "fiscal backstop" enjoyed by banks, particularly in peripheral countries which have extensively played the "carry trade". Therefore the sovereign/banks nexus has not been reduced by the ECB's actions, on the contrary. Net Interest Margins (NIM) for peripheral banks has been replaced by "carry trades" thanks to the ECB. There is a direct relationship between the credit quality of the government and the cost and availability of bank funding. You probably understand more our Twitter quote from above regarding the risk for the "return of principal" when it comes to some sovereign debt which again are starting to become "questionable" hence the "repricing" for some Emerging Markets and Italy as well.

If indeed we are moving towards a repricing of risk on the back of "solvency" issues it is because the "risk-free" status of some European government bonds is coming back into center stage. We can see it in the credit markets as pointed out by Bank of America Merrill Lynch European Credit Strategist note from the 24th of May entitled "Corporates safer than governments":
"The not so dolce vita
2017 was a year of “buy the dip” galore in Euro credit markets. Few of the risks that bubbled to the surface last year caused spreads to sell-off for any notable length of time. In fact, the longest consecutive streak of spread widening in 2017 was a mere 3 days (Aug 9th – 11th). What held the market together so well? The constant stream of retail investor inflows into European credit (IG inflows in 49 out of 52 weeks).
This year, however, it’s been more of an uphill struggle for spreads. “Buy the dip” behaviour has been decidedly absent whenever risks have weighed on the market (note that spreads widened for 7 consecutive days in March). And new issuance continues to knock secondary bonds, something that was rarely seen last year.
What happened to TINA (There Is No Alternative)?
What’s changed, then, from 2017 to now? Simply, that the retail inflows in Europe have been much more muted over the last few months…and these were the “glue” of the credit market last year. What about TINA…and the reach for yield? We think the Euro credit inflow story is partly being disrupted by the attractive rates of return available on “cash” proxies in the US market. As Chart 1 shows, given the cheapening in the frontend of the US fixed-income market, US bill yields now offer more attractive returns for investors than the dividend yields on US stocks – something that has not been the case for over a decade.

Accordingly, we think some European retail inflows may be leaking into the US market at the moment, especially given the recent USD strength.
QE…and a classic liquidity trap?
But we don’t think this dynamic will stymie the inflow story forever. In fact, we remain confident that retail inflows into European credit funds will pick up steam over the weeks ahead.
As Chart 2 shows, domestic savings rates across major Euro Area countries have been rising noticeably of late, while declining in other countries such as the US and UK. Even with all the restorative work that Draghi and the ECB have done, European consumers’ penchant for conservatism and saving has not moderated.

In a classic “liquidity trap” scenario, we wonder whether low/negative rates in the Euro Area may simply be encouraging a greater effort by consumers to save for the future (and note that the Fed and BoE never cut rates below zero).
Whatever the driver, more money is being saved in Europe, and yet the prospect of material rate increases by the ECB remains a distant thing: the market has pushed back lately on rate hike expectations, with cumulative ECB depo hikes of 40bp now seen in over 2yrs time.
In this respect, Draghi is still fighting a “war on cash” in Europe. We believe this was the pre-eminent reason retail inflows into credit were so consistent last year…and we believe that this story is far from over.
The not so Dolce Vita
The ructions in Italy have contributed to another dose of high-grade spread widening over the last week: 8bp for high-grade and almost 20bp for high-yield. Testament to the weaker inflows at present, the move in credit is larger than that seen last March, pre the French Presidential election. Back then, the market was also on tenterhooks given Marine Le Pen’s manifesto pledge to redenominate France’s debt stock into a new currency, and to hold a referendum on EU membership.
5% of high-grade
For now, the ink isn’t yet dry on Italy’s first populist government – there are still the hurdles of designating a Prime Minister (at the time of writing), the President’s “blessing” on the government programme, and confidence votes in the Italian parliament. But assuming a 5-Star/Lega coalition government takes power, is this a source of systemic risk for Euro credit? We think not for the high-grade market. While Italy has a larger outstanding stock of sovereign debt than France, the picture is much different when it comes to high-grade. In fact, Italian IG credit represents just 5.4% of the market now…and that number continues to shrink as Italian corporates remain focused on deleveraging.

Where systemic risk from Italy may be of greater concern is in high-yield, as Italian credit represents 17% of ICE BofAML’s Euro high-yield index (we elaborate more on this here).
The plunge protection team
And true to form, the sell-off in the corporate bonds over the last week has been a much shallower version of what historically one would have expected to see. Chart 4 shows corporate bond spreads for peripheral financials versus 10yr BTP spreads.

They have been well correlated since early 2011. But credit spreads have moved much less over the last week than the move in BTPs would imply (and see here for a similar picture for Itraxx Main).
Populism…for real
The Le Pen populism experience quickly came and went for credit markets last year. Her insistence on drastic ideas such as “Frexit” appeared to stymie her support heading into the first round of the French Presidential elections. Her policies did not resonate with a French electorate that were broadly in favour of the EU and its institutions.
But political uncertainty, and populist sentiment in Italy, is likely to have longevity in our view. The hallmarks of populism – voter frustration and wealth inequality – are clear to see. Strong and stable governments have not been a hallmark of Italian politics since the proclamation of the Italian Republic in 1946: the country has had 65 governments.
The hallmarks of populism
Although the Italian economy has returned to growth over the last few years the magnitude of the recovery is still tepid. The IMF forecast Italy to grow at 1.5% this year, one of the lowest growth rates among Advanced Economies (the UK’s projected growth rate is 1.6% this year and Japan is forecast to grow at just 1.2%, according to the IMF).
In fact, the Italian electorate has seen little in the way of wealth gains since the creation of the Eurozone. Chart 5 shows GDP per capita trends for Italy and Germany. While GDP per capita is much higher in Germany, for Italy it remains marginally below where it was upon the creation of the Euro.

According to Eurostat, almost 29% of the Italian population were at risk of poverty or social exclusion in 2015 (and almost 34% of children were at risk). Hence the Citizenship Income mentioned in the 5-Star/Lega Government Contract.
Successive governments, of late, have focused on the fiscal side of the economy with less emphasis on structural reforms to unlock Italy’s growth potential. This has hindered private entrepreneurialism and the expansion of the corporate sector. As Chart 6 shows, Italy still has a large number of SMEs (and “micro firms”) making up its industrial base.
Sluggish long-term investment has partly contributed to this state of affairs. As Chart 7 highlights, capex intensity in Italy remains well below the levels seen between 2000- 2005, while the capex recovery has been a lot healthier in France and Germany.
A vibrant banking sector – that supports SME lending – is of course a prerequisite for greater levels of credit growth in Italy. And while Italian banks have made a lot of progress in reducing their NPLs recently (especially over the last few quarters), Chart 8 shows that there is still work to be done.

Italian banks continue to have the largest stock of non-performing loans across the European banking space. For more on the structural challenges facing Italy see our economists’ in-depth note here.
Such a backdrop is fertile ground for populist politics. Unlike in France, however, populist narratives are likely to fall on more receptive ears in Italy. As the charts below show, the Italian electorate is much less enamored with the EU than in other Eurozone countries.
Companies safer than governments?
The unknown in all of this will be the ECB. QE has been a powerful tool at controlling spreads and yields in the European fixed-income market over the last few years. But Draghi has not had to buy debt securities when Euro Area member countries have been less committed to fiscal consolidation.
And as Chart 11 shows, the ECB has been almost the only net buyer of Italian sovereign debt over the last 12m. Their impetus remains crucial.
Will higher political uncertainty in Italy alter the balance of the ECB’s asset purchases from here until year-end? Time will tell. However, in the credit market we’ve been struck by the extreme relative value gap that’s opened up between Italian credit and Italian sovereign debt during the last week. Italian credit spreads have held up incredibly well vis-à-vis BTPs, amid the volatility.
Chart 12 shows the volume of French, Italian and Spanish credits that are currently yielding less than their respective, maturity-matched, sovereign debt. Notice for Italy that close to a staggering 90% of credits now yield less than BTPs.

And while in periods of political uncertainty the market has often taken that view that corporates are “safer” than governments, this is by far a historical high for Italy (and for any Eurozone country for that matter). Moreover many Italian companies are actually “domestic” and thus have little in the way of a safety net from foreign revenues.
How has there managed to be such a substantial outperformance of Italian credits over the last few weeks? We believe a large part of this is because the ECB has upped the intensity of its CSPP purchases lately, especially with regards to Italian issuers. This gives us confidence that the ECB remains committed to buying corporate bonds for as long as politically possible. See our recent note for more of our thoughts on CSPP, the “stealth” taper, and the programme’s longevity.
Yet, Chart 12 also suggests that credit investors should tread carefully with respect to Italian credits at present. While corporate credit richness versus government debt can persist, we learnt during the peripheral crisis of 2011-2012 that eventually tight credits will reprice wider vs. govt debt (the best example of this was Telefonica).
As a guide for investors, Tables 1 and 2 at the end of the note highlight which Italian credits trade the richest versus BTPs.
Respect the law
For the last year, the Euro credit market has not had to worry about the risk of Eurozone breakup. That ended last week, as the first draft of the 5-Star/Lega Contratto contained a reference to a Euro exit mechanism. However, in subsequent versions this was removed.
Nonetheless, as the front-page chart highlights, the market still appears nervous with regards to Eurozone break-up risk. Note the spread between 2014 and 2003 sovereign CDS contracts (The ISDA “basis”) remains high for Italy, and has ticked up again for Spain and France lately.
The 2014 sovereign CDS contracts provide greater optionality for protection buyers, relative to the 2003 contracts, both in terms of whether the CDS contracts trigger upon a redenomination event and also in terms of their expected recovery rates.
Know your bond
If redenomination concerns remain, what should credit investors look for in terms of Italian corporate bonds? In the charts below, we run a simple screen from Bloomberg on the governing law of corporate bonds in our high-grade and high-yield indices. Chart 13 shows the analysis by country and Chart 14 shows the analysis by Italian credit sector.

We rank Chart 13 by the country with the highest share of foreign law bonds (to the left) to the lowest share of foreign law bonds (to the right).
For Italy, the Bloomberg screen suggests that just 10% of Italian corporate bonds (IG and HY combined) are domiciled under domestic law (Chart 13). This is a very different situation to last March when around 60% of French corporate bonds were domiciled under domestic law.
While a legal analysis of the redenomination risks of Italian corporate bonds is outside the scope of this note, what we learnt from the Greek crisis in 2011 and 2012 was that investor focus gravitated towards the governing law of bonds (where foreign law bonds were perceived by the market to be more secure)." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Of course, as everyone know and given the latest news on the Italian front, the European technocrats in Brussels have shot themselves in the foot by interfering with Italian democracy which will led to bolster even more anti-european sentiment. In October 2016 in our conversation "Empire Days" we pointed out that the statu quo was falling in Europe and we also reminded ourselves what we discussed in our November 2014 "Chekhov's gun" the 30's model could be the outcome:
"Our take on QE in Europe can be summarized as follows: 
Current European equation: QE + austerity = road to growth disillusion/social tensions, but ironically, still short-term road to heaven for financial assets (goldilocks period for credit)…before the inevitable longer-term violent social wake-up calls (populist parties access to power, rise of protectionism, the 30’s model…). 
“Hopeful” equation: QE + fiscal boost/Investment push/reform mix = better odds of self-sustaining economic model / preservation of social cohesion. Less short-term fuel for financial assets, but a safer road longer-term?
Of course our "Hopeful" equation has a very low probability of success given the "whatever it takes" moment from our "Generous Gambler" aka Mario Draghi which has in some instance "postponed" for some, the urgent need for reforms, as indicated by the complete lack of structural reforms in France thanks to the budgetary benefits coming from lower interest charges in the French budget, once again based on phony growth outlook (+1% for 2015)" - source Macronomics November 2014
It seems to us increasingly probable that we will get to the inevitable longer-term violent social wake-up calls (populist parties access to power, rise of protectionism, the 30’s model…) hence the reason for our title analogy as previous colonial empire days were counted, so are the days of banking empires and political "statu quo" hence our continuous "pre-revolutionary" mindset as we feel there is more political troubles brewing ahead of us." - source Macronomics, October 2016
Obviously the path taken has been the road to growth / disillusion / social tensions and short-term road to heaven for financial assets as well as goldilocks period for credit. Now we are moving towards longer-term violent social wake-up calls in various parts of Europe. 

We really enjoyed our friend Kevin Muir latest excellent musing on Italian woes on his blog The Macro Tourist. He made some very interesting points in his must read note and we really enjoyed his bar-fighting economics analogy:
"Total French, Italian and Spanish assets are multiples of German assets. Italian Government BTPs are almost 400 billion and there are another 200 billion of other Italian debt securities. 600 billion represents almost 20% of German GDP. And that’s only Italy. What are the chances that an Ital-exit is confined to one nation?
Remember back to the 1930s. Nations that devalued early and aggressively generally did better economically during the ensuing depression - I like to call this bar-fighting economics - hit first and hit hard.
The ECB’s balance sheet expansion has put Germany in an extremely difficult place. They cannot afford to cut back on the expansion for fear of another Euro-crisis, yet the more QE they do, they more Germany is on the hook.
I hate to break it to Germany, but it’s even worse than it looks.
Don’t forget that ECB balance sheet expansion is only one the methods that imbalances within the European Union are stabilized. There is another potentially even more scary mechanism that occurs behind the scenes without much fanfare. Although the ECB is Europe’s Central Bank, each member nation still has their own Central Bank. Since monetary policy is set for the Union as a whole, there are times when capital leaves one European nation in favour of another. Individual Central Banks cannot raise rates to counter these flows, so the ECB stands in as an intermediary.
Let’s say capital flees Italy and heads to Germany, to facilitate the flows, the Italian Central Bank borrows money from the ECB while the German Central Bank deposits excess reserves with the GDP, thus allowing it all to balance. The individual country net borrowing/lending amounts are known as Target 2 Reserves." - source  The Macro Tourist, Kevin Muir
Target 2 issues have been a subject which has been well documented and discussed by many financial pundits. We won't delve more into this subject. But, as pointed out by Kevin Muir in his very interesting note, as a creditor Italy and being a very large one, Italy is in a much better position than the arrogant technocrats in Brussels think it is. In our book, it is always very dangerous to have a wounded animal cornered, it's a recipe for trouble. The latest European blunder thanks to the Italian president most likely instructed by Brussels to muddle with the elections result will likely lead to a more nefarious outcome down the line. Charles Gave on French blog "Institut des Libertés" made some very interesting comments when it comes to Italy's macro position:

  • Italy now runs a current account surplus of 3.5% of GDP, 
  • Italy has a primary surplus of 2 % of GDP, 
  • Italy has extended the duration of its debt in the last few years and so is less vulnerable to a rise in long rates, 
  • 72% of Italian debt is now owned by Italian entities
There has never been a better time for Italy to quit the euro. Come the autumn a fresh euro crisis is possible." - source Institut des Libertés - Charles Gave

Another expression we could propose relating to the excellent bar-fighting economics analogy from Kevin Muir and Target 2 would be as follows:
 "He who leaves the bar early doesn't pick up the bar tab" - source Macronomics
It is always about first mover advantage anyway, hence our previous positive stance on Brexit from a macro perspective when everyone and their dog were predicting a calamitous fall in growth following the outcome of the referendum.

When it comes to credit and Italian troubles, European High Yield needs to be underweight as it is at risk as pointed out by UBS in their Global Macro Strategy note from the 23rd of May entitled "How big a risk to EUR, credit and stocks":
"Credit: HY more exposed than IG to Italian stress
Italy is a risk but more so for HY cash vs. IG, in our view, where the Italian exposure is about 20% vs. 5%. As long as the risk of Italy challenging the integrity of Eurozone remains low (i.e. higher risk premium but no crisis scenario), we think the disruption in credit should remain mostly contained to Italian corps.
In a scenario of modest additional stress (c. 40bps BTP spread widening), we estimate that EUR IG and HY should widen 5-10bps and 25-30bps respectively from here, based on our fair value models and the recent performance. Our models are based on multi-linear regressions which also take into account other factors such as global growth, credit risk and conditions, as well as the ECB's CSPP.
In fact, peripheral spread widening of 30-40bps is likely the threshold when the relationship between corporate credit and peripheral spreads becomes non-linear, in our view (see Figure 5 and Figure 6). This is the threshold beyond which Italian risk should also affect EUR corporate credit markets more significantly outside of Italian issuers.
Given the uncertainties, we shift our preference for EUR HY vs. IG to neutral and prefer exposure to HY via its CDS index (Xover) which has a much lower Italian exposure at 7%. We recommend investors underweight Italian corps in IG and HY financials (largely Italian banks) and move up the HY curve from single B names to BB non-fins." - source UBS
We have recommended in our recent musings to reduce your beta exposure and to adopt a more defensive stance. If high beta is a risk and you don't like volatility, then again you are much better-off favoring non-financials over financials and you should probably maintain very low exposure to subordinated debt from peripheral financial issuers. At our former shop, a large European Asset Manager we recommended launching a Euro Corporate Bond Funds ex Financials. While the fund unfortunately did not gathered much attention AUM wise, performance wise it has been very good thanks to its low volatility profile and solid credit management. It is still boasting 4 stars according to Morningstar most recent ranking. Should Italian woes escalate high beta exposure will be hit much more, particularly financials. In that instance, for a long term credit investor, having less exposure to financials makes much more sense and we are not even discussing recovery values at this stage.  

Don't ask us about our opinion on having exposure to European banks equities again, because you will get the same answer from us. From a risk-reward perspective and long term investment prospect, it's just doesn't make sense whatsoever to get exposed to them regardless of the cheap book value argument put forward by some snake-oil sell-side salesman. You have been much more rewarded by sticking to credit exposure on European banks, rather than equities in Europe. End of the rant.

As well, we also pointed out in recent conversations that US cash had made a return into the allocation tool box and given the rise in political uncertainties and volatility, one should think about rising its cash level for protective measure. Cash can be "king" particularly with rising US yields and a strengthening US dollar marking the return of "Mack the Knife". Gold continue with it's safe harbor status. As we indicated in our earlier quoted tweet, both the dollar and gold can rise when we move in a situation where investors are moving from being more concerned about "return of capital". One would also be wise to seek refuge again in the Swiss franc (CHF) we think particularly versus the Euro (EUR). As well, a short covering on 10 year US Treasury Notes could be in the making (in size...). Watch that space because we think long end is enticing even zero coupon 25 years plus (ETF ZROZ) should we see an acceleration in the "risk-off" environment.

Moving back to "solvency" risk and sustainability of debt, namely "return of capital", as pointed out corporate credit in many instances could be "safer" than "sovereign" risk. Back in our conversation  "The curious case of the disappearance of the risk-free interest rate and impact on Modern Portolio Theory and more!" we quoted again Dr Jochen Felsenheimer on macro and credit (our focus):
"In the end, all investors face the same problem - the whole world is a credit investment. And it is difficult to negotiate this problem with the classical theory of economics. Short selling bans, Eurobonds and ratings agency bashing will not provide a remedy here either." - Dr Jochen Felsenheimer
We added at the time that confidence is the name of the game and the perception of the risk-free interest rates, namely a solvency issue is at the heart of the ongoing issues. This brings us to the trajectory of European debt in general and Italy in particular. On this very subject we read Deutsche Bank's Euroland Strategy note from the 25th of May entitled "Pricing debt (un)sustainability" with great interest:
"Default risk pricing and bond relative value
Rising concerns over Italy’s debt sustainability can also be seen in the spreads between high coupon and low coupon bonds on the BTP curve. Over periods of stress, high coupon bonds which typically trade at a higher cash price tend to underperform lower coupon neighbours. One potential explanation for this is the risk that upon a hypothetical default the recovery rate will be based on the par value of the bond rather than the cash price an investor paid. Related to this, lower coupon, more recently issued bonds are also more likely to have CAC clauses compared to neighbours issued pre-2013.
Moreover, in times of stress participants seeking to release cash (for example insurers or pension funds with broad portfolios) might prefer to reduce holdings of higher price bonds (high coupon). Finally, even in normal times higher cash bonds may trade at a slight discount, reflecting the lower liquidity in some of these issues.
This effect is apparent in the charts below showing the positive correlations of z-spread (left) and yield differentials (right) between high and low coupon bond pairs and the IT-DE 10Y spread (which proxies for market pricing of BTP risk). As the BTP Bund spread has widened, high cash bonds across the curve (but particularly from 10Y+) have underperformed.
The non-linear dynamics of some of the bond pairs as spreads have widened are noteworthy. At the the 30Y point, the 44s-47s spread had remained elevated into the latest stress, with the 44s only beginning to underperform after the initial widening move. This may partially reflect the relatively large maturity gap between the two bonds, with 10s30s flattening at first outweighing the high cash price/low cash price effect on the bond spread.
- source Deutsche Bank

From a convexity perspective we find it very amusing that "yield hogs" when facing "redenomination/restructuring risk" see their high coupon bonds underperforming lower coupon neighbours, or to put it simply when non-linearity delivers a sucker punch to greedy investors...

While the "risk-off" mentality is prevailing thanks to Italian woes, confidence matters when it comes to "solvency" and debt "sustainability" yet, given the overstretched positioning in US Treasury Notes, if there is a continuation of troubles in European bond markets, then again, it will be interesting to see what our Japanese friends will do when it comes to their bond allocation. Our final chart deal with the current slowdown in the global economy which represents for us a clear threat to the US bond bears current positioning.

  • Final chart - Decline in PMI's doesn't bode well for the US bond bears
While we have been reluctant so far to dip our toes back into the long end of the US yield curve, given the most recent surge in European woes and extreme short positioning, we think there is a potential for a violent short covering move. Our final chart comes from CITI Global Economic and Strategy Outlook note from the 23rd of May and displays the decline from recent peak in Manufacturing PMI pointing towards a slowdown:
There is more evidence that global economic growth is slowing. Some of the drags are likely temporary, such as some payback from unusually fast growth in H2 2017 (e.g. real retail sales in the US grew by 8% annualized in Q4), and adverse weather impacts across Western Europe, Japan and the US, while the positive effects of fiscal stimulus in the US will ramp up over the course of the year. But declining business sentiment, some tightening of financial conditions and the rise in oil prices are likely to have a more persistent (if moderate) dampening effect on global growth, notably on moderating momentum in business capex (Figure 2)." - source CITI
As far as White Noise is concerned, being uncorrelated in time does not restrict the values a signal can take (Italy back in crisis mode + slowing global economic growth). Any distribution of values is possible and even a binary signal such as the ones currently being given by European Peripheral bond markets (risk-off) can makes confidence turn on a dime. For financial markets as well as consumers, end of the day "confidence matters" for credit growth. Have we reached peak consumer confidence?

"What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. " - Thomas Paine
Stay tuned!

Monday 21 May 2018

Macro and Credit - The recurrence theorem

"Some things never change - there will be another crisis, and its impact will be felt by the financial markets." - Jamie Dimon

Looking at the elevated volatility in Emerging Markets in conjunction with continued outflows and pressure on the asset class, on the back of rising US yields and a strengthening US dollar marking the return of "Mack the Knife", with losses not limited to the currencies but with Emerging Markets Yields continuing surging throughout, when it came to selecting our title analogy we reacquainted ourselves with French mathematician Henri Poincaré's 1890 recurrence theorem building on the previous work of fellow mathematician Simeon Poisson. In mechanics, Poincaré recurrence theorem states that an initial state or configuration of a mechanical system, subjected to conserved forces, will reoccur again in the course of the time evolution of the system. The commonly used example to explain the theorem is that if one inserts a partition in a box, pumps out all the air molecules on one side, then opens the partition, the recurrence theorem states that if one waits long enough that all of the molecules will eventually recongregate in their original half of the box. The theorem is often found mixed up with the second law of thermodynamics to the effect that some will loosely argue that there exists a very small probability that an isolated system will reconfigure to a more ordered state (thus effecting an entropy decrease).The theorem is commonly discussed in the context of dynamical systems and statistical mechanics. When it comes to pressure and outflows, as we mused in our last conversation, one would argue that continued capital outflows pressure is contained until it isn't. 

In this week's conversation, we would like to look at the return of "Mack the Knife" in conjunction with rising oil prices and what it entails. 

  • Macro and Credit - US yields - It's getting real!
  • Final chart - US core CPI tends to rise in the two years leading up to a recession

  • Macro and Credit - US yields - It's getting real!
While US 10yr Real Yields are a key macro driver, the US dollar so far in 2018 has dramatically diverge from yields. "Mack the Knife" aka the King Dollar also known as the Greenback in conjunction with US real interest rates swinging in positive territory has recently put some pressure on gold prices marking the return of the Gibson paradox which we mused about in our October 2013 conversation:
"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 getting close to 3% before receding, then of course, gold prices went down as a consequence of the interest rate impact." - Macronomics
With the start of an unwind in global carry trade,  "Mack the Knife" aka King Dollar is making a murderous ballad on the EM tourists and carry players alike. Back in July 2015 in our conversation "Mack the Knife" we indicated the following as well:
"More liquidity = greater economic instability once QE ends for Emerging Markets. If our theory is right and osmosis continues and becomes excessive the cell will eventually burst, in our case defaults for some over-exposed dollar debt corporates and sovereigns alike will spike." - source Macronomics, July 2015
The question for continued pressure on Emerging Markets when it comes to "Mack the Knife" is are we beginning to see a reconnect between the US dollar and yields? The jury is still out there. Rising Breakevens tend to be negative for the US dollar. Also what matters for US equities given they have remained relatively spared so far would be a meaningful widening in credit spreads. This would be accompanied of course by higher volatility.

Right now, as we pointed out last week, dispersion is the name of the game in both credit and Emerging Markets with the usual suspects and weaker players getting the proverbial trouncing as of late such as Turkey and Argentina. We also indicated recently that the continuous rise of volatility in Emerging Markets would lead to additional outflows given the Hedge Funds were the first to reduce their beta exposure. Some investors might follow suit and follow a similar pattern of "derisking" it seems. On the subject of continuous volatility on EM assets we read with interest Barclays take from their Emerging Markets Weekly note from the 17th of May entitled "Shaken and stirred":
"Volatility in EM assets remains elevated. As 10y UST yields have moved further above 3% and the USD has resumed its strengthening trend, total returns in EM assets have taken a further hit – which in turn continues to weigh on flows: YTD returns in EM credit and EM local markets now stand at -3.7% and -2.4%, respectively (Bloomberg Barclays USD EM Agg and EM local-ccy government bond indices), while EM dedicated bond and equity funds had their worst week of outflows last week since the volatility spike in February (see EM flows: Outflows materialize, 11 May 2018). Economic data has hardly helped to improve sentiment, with weaker European and Chinese activity data feeding concerns about weakening global growth momentum.
The market’s focus remains firmly on those countries with external vulnerabilities and financing needs, especially Turkey and Argentina. Even though current account balances can only provide a partial reflection of external positions and vulnerabilities, there has been an interestingly clear correlation between current account dynamics (changes, rather than levels) and asset performance both in EM credit (Figure 1) and local markets (Figure 2).

Although we have argued in the past that aggregate vulnerabilities have improved in EMs since the 2013 ‘taper tantrum’, they have deteriorated over the past year (see the EM Quarterly Outlook: The going gets tougher, 27 March 2018). Furthermore, the confluence of Fed balance sheet reduction, increased UST issuance, effect of US tax law changes on the repatriation of offshore USDs alongside a wider US CA deficit has implied a potentially more challenging capital flow environment for EM.
As the flow environment for financing in international markets has become more difficult, countries’ plans (or necessity) to tap primary markets have also been in the spotlight. While EM sovereign Eurobond supply has run at a record pace in January to April, recent issuance volumes have fallen short of expectations (including the recent Ghana and South Africa bond issues). We would interpret the latter point as a market positive, however. Given the frontloading of issuance in Q1, there are few countries with sizeable issuance needs for the remainder of 2018. Based on our updated supply expectations for individual countries shown in Figure 4, we now expect an additional USD 41bn of supply in 2018.

Given that c.USD104bn has been issued YTD already, this would result in 2018 full-year supply of USD155bn. In this context, we think there is an interesting divergence between Turkey and Argentina: Argentinean authorities have indicated that they do not want to issue any more in international markets in 2018. Remaining financing needs for this year are c.USD5bn on our estimates, which could potentially be covered by an initial disbursement of the requested IMF programme, or by local currency issuance. In contrast, Turkey’s fiscal measures (including this week’s announcement to reduce the special consumption tax on fuel products) will likely keep incentives to raise financing in international markets in place, even in a less receptive market.
Supply-redemption dynamics in EM credit are not the only silver lining for markets. While recent China data has been weak, we see signs of a shift in priorities towards growth, with deleveraging de-emphasised (see China: Softer FAI and retail sales; signs of pro-growth priority and trade tension de-escalation, 15 May 2018). This should in turn support commodities and while well-supported oil and commodity prices have not been able to prevent the sell-off in EM assets, they should at least provide some fertile ground for differentiation.
With regard to oil prices, Venezuela’s election on Sunday 20 May may be of particular importance (see The ship is taking on water, 15 May 2018). Even if President Maduro is reelected, against a backdrop of the main opposition parties boycotting the process and the government’s control over the electoral system, the vote could still be a catalyst for fractures within the regime. Meanwhile, Venezuela oil exports have been disrupted, amid legal action against PDVSA and a broader decline of oil production – one of the likely drivers of the recent increase in oil prices, in addition to US sanctions on Iran.
EM oil exporters naturally benefit from the surge in oil prices. In Iraq, however, this is overshadowed by uncertainties following last week’s legislative elections (and we recommend switching out of Iraq and into Angola and Gabon in our top trade recommendations this week). Full results are yet to be announced but the partial count indicates a clear defeat of current PM al-Abadi favouring cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who has called for the end of corruption and opposed both the US and Iran. The emergence of the Saeroun and Fateh coalition as winners would complicate political negotiations to form a coalition government and it is still unclear whether PM Abadi will be able to secure a second mandate. Ultimately, we believe coalition talks may be protracted, adding uncertainty to the outlook, also with respect to the IMF talks to finalise the third review under the three-year Stand-By Arrangement. The 2018 budget and transfers to the semi-independent region have represented contentious issues which could be exacerbated by negotiations between Kurdish political parties and Baghdad over government formation." - source Barclays
When it comes to "dispersion" we continue to view favorably Russian local bonds in that context, thanks to the support of oil prices on the ruble and central bank easing that will continue.  On the subject of "dispersion" and weaker players in the EM space, we read with interest UBS take from their EM Equity Strategy note from the 18th of May 2018 entitled "This is not a 'Crisis': It is Rising Yields + a Strong $":
"The central story here, in our view, is that the recent 'less friendly' global market environment has allowed investors to 'pick away' at some of the weaker EM stories, especially via FX (Figure 5 below), as the dollar has continued to rebound. These are the EMs that typically do well when the dollar is weak, as the 'carry trade' holds sway. In the face of recent dollar strength, the result has been significant localized EM FX weakness (Figure 6).
Further, several of these so-called 'weaker' markets have also faced idiosyncratic domestic concerns:
  • Turkey (-25% in USD, year-to-date): fears over central bank independence, concerns around monetary policy, widening current account deficit;
  • Brazil (+1.7%): weaker than expected economic recovery, uncertainty ahead of the October elections;
  • India (-6.8%): higher oil prices and higher inflation with residual concerns over whether Prime Minister Modi's BJP will be re-elected in 2019;
  • Indonesia (-16.7%): current account worries and a slow policy response by the Bank of Indonesia;
  • The Philippines (-12.6%): domestic overheating.
To this list, we could add South Africa (-6.3% year-to-date, on a minor hangover from the euphoria of Ramaphosa's elevation to the presidency as the market begins to understand the substantial policy challenges ahead) and Mexico (also - 6.3%, as the July 1st 'first-past-the-post' Presidential election approaches with a shift to the left seeming almost inevitable now).
Further, the dramatic weakness of financial markets in Argentina in recent weeks has added to the sense of 'crisis' in emerging markets, even though technically (from an equity perspective) the country is still, for now anyway, in the MSCI Frontier index. MSCI Argentina is down just over 25% so far this year, almost entirely due to the plunge in the peso (from ARS/USD18.35 to 24.40), which has forced a double-digit rise in interest rates to 40%.
However, the major theme of this report is that, in our view, this is far from being an EM 'crisis'. Several EM equity markets continue to do well such as China, by far the biggest EM with a weight of over 31% in the EM benchmark (+5.1% year-to-date, aided by a resilient CNY, even as other EM currencies have fallen sharply), Taiwan (+2.2%), Russia (+4.1%, which has become a relative 'safe haven' again recently as Brent oil prices hover close to $80/bbl) and parts of the ASEAN and Andean regions, notably Colombia (+10.8%) and Peru (+7.7%).
As with the equity markets, the dramatic differences in currency performance across EM so far this year are very clear from Figure 6.
By de-composing the drivers of 2018 total returns in individual markets in Figure 7 below, we partly combine the results from the two previous charts. The blue bars below show the contributions of currency movements to total returns; these are significantly negative for many markets, especially Turkey, Brazil, Russia, India, Poland and the Philippines.

It is also notable how, for most markets, there has been a negative contribution to returns from the P/E ratio, showing the breadth of the de-rating of EM equities so far this year; Peru (given very strong earnings expansion) is a small but truly remarkable example. In the other direction, sharply lower earnings in Greece and Egypt have translated into a significant re-rating in both this year. For EM as a whole, decent earnings growth (+6%) has been fully offset by currency weakness and a lower P/E ratio to leave the 2018 total return close to zero.
'Correction Counter' Update: The Dollar Rears its Head
With the recent minor break of the early-February post-correction low for MSCI GEMs, we update our 'correction counter' from earlier in the year (Figure 8).

The interpretation of this data is more important than the actual figures themselves. In our February report, we noted that the fall in the EM Currency Proxy accounted for a smaller share (14%) of the early 2018 correction in EM equities than its average share (22%) in previous bull market corrections back to 2003. Therefore, one reason, in our view, why the early 2018 correction (-10.2%) was less severe than the average of previous 'bull market corrections' (-17.2%) was the lack of a major USD rally or, alternatively, the resilient behaviour of EM currencies.
This is no longer true, given that the recent action involves more FX weakness in EM, compared to the initial correction. The updated table shows that this FX factor now accounts for much more (28%) of the newly-defined correction (-10.8% to May 5th). Even more tellingly, after EM rallied to an interim peak in mid-March, MSCI GEMs is down 5.6% since then and, with the EM Currency Proxy down by 2.8% over this period, FX weakness has accounted for exactly half of the EM pullback over the past two months. The US dollar has 'reared its ugly head' for EM equities in recent weeks." - source UBS
There goes the murderous propensity of "Mack the Knife" on EM equities. In similar fashion to the recurrence theorem, the US dollar has indeed "reared its ugly" head and reoccurred again in the course of the time evolution of the "financial system" or, to some effect our macro reverse osmosis theory once again playing out as discussed in our recent ramblings. Add to the mix rising oil prices, and if oil stays above $80/bbl (Brent) this will clearly hurt growth in all major net oil importing countries. That's a given.

Moving back to the subject of US yields and real rates, we think they matter a lot for the direction of the US dollar. On this subject Nomura published a very interesting Rates Weekly note on the 18th of May entitled "Did UST sell-off awaken bond vigilantes?":
"10yr Treasuries break 3% with conviction
The 3% level on 10s has been frustrating to break through of late, having failed once in late April and again last week. However, as with all things related to three, the third time is usually a charm as 10yr USTs are now clearly on the other side of 3%.
All along through this process to higher rates we have sensed a great level of investor skepticism about how high rates could go and how long they would stay at higher levels. This is one reason why we are not overly concerned that spec accounts have a historical short in place. For once, as far as we can recall, specs are being proven right; so why cover now unless the economy and/or financial conditions unravel? The bigger risk we think is that those under-hedged and exposed to convexity start paying rates now.
Overall the market seems too dismissive of how high rates could go in this cycle. We think the Fed has conviction and may continue with its quarterly hikes until “something breaks.” Even then, the Fed might have a hard time throttling back if the real economy is doing well but the financial economy suffers a blow that results in lower valuations. Meanwhile, the perfect storm of more UST debt and less foreign buyers may lie ahead.
We explore some drivers that may impact our overall US rates views. Overall we expect duration dynamics to matter more now than the curve; meanwhile spreads and vols will likely have stronger correlations to higher rates and real rates could hold the key ahead.
Even if this sell-off takes a pause, we continue to see 10s moving towards our 3.25% target and are positioned paid on 5y5y US-IRS and in similar conditional expressions.
US rates views update: Still bearish but now real rates hold the directional key
Duration: 3%, besides being a nice round number, has been a hard nut to crack as the last time we crossed this level was during 2013, a year made famous by taper tantrum. For us, a move beyond 3% was always the next logical step as the Fed is hiking rates and shrinking the B/S during a period of decent growth and more UST supply.
The 3% nominal level seems to be all the focus, but in actuality the next big step for US rates is what happens with real rates. Fig. 1 highlights a few regimes for the 10yr real rate vs the real Fed Funds rate (see note for calculation).

Real rates were in a tight range during the last cycle as well, it was only once the Fed was mid-way through its hiking campaign that market real rates began to rise. The past ten years of financial repression (driven by the Fed’s QE and then Global QE) has kept 10yr real rates in a tight range. Just like the 10yr UST was held captive by the taper-tantrum high of 3%, 10yr TIPS have been unable to break and stay above 0.90-1.00% levels. We believe the Fed is on track to deliver many multiple hikes (which could drive real rates higher in the process too).
3%, well specifically the 3.05%, has been a technical level on which markets seem to have been obsessed with. The market cleared that level for the first time on Tuesday this past week and intra-week the 10yr hit an intra-day high of 3.12% before settling into the end of the week around 3.07%. We usually refrain from being super technical, with both what these levels mean and we do not like to be handicapped by chart formations; however markets often pay attention to these wrinkles. Fig. 2 shows that 10s once again broke out of the range and this time term premia is also rising with the move too.

Net net, we believe it will take a serious breakdown in all the trade talks, geopolitical tensions and/or economic data to weaken (where instead our economists are projecting stronger growth and higher inflation ahead) for 10s to start a massive rally now. It is also interesting to see that stocks, although down on the day 10s broke 3%, took it in stride. In Fig. 3 we list the top 3 two-day yield changes in 2018 vs the S&P500 reaction. If stocks do not correct meaningfully, the full UST yield curve should rise as Fed hikes.
Curve: Earlier in the year we opportunistically traded the curve before going neutral on curve spreads in late Q1 (after the last micro-steepening). Recently the sell-off has also coincided with some bear-steepening. We think this is a healthy development that serves as a reminder that the curve is not pre-destined to fully flatten in this cycle, at least not at these yield levels. The Fed is raising rates but also shrinking its bond holdings, at a time when US fiscal stimulus is resulting in a spike in govie issuance. The curve never fully flattened in Japan during its low rate experience (Fig 4).

We argue that we need a higher overall level of rates (and many more Fed hikes) before we go fully flat too.
Spreads: 10yr swap spreads have begun to see a stronger correlation with the level of 10yr USTs in the current cycle, especially since last September (Fig. 5).

In past hiking cycles, 10yr spreads tended to have a positive slope relative to 10yr UST yields. We expect this correlation to be maintained, similar to the dynamics at the end of the ’04-06 cycle. Also with higher yields, 10yr spreads are more likely to widen due to convexity hedging activities from mortgages portfolios. Less need for corporate issuance due to overseas dollar repatriation would also reduce the tightening pressure on belly spreads." - source Nomura
The continued pressure on EMs can only abate if the US dollar finally mark a pause in its recent surge. A toned down trade war rhetoric would obviously continue to be supportive of a rising dollar and support stronger US growth in the process. The trajectory of the US dollar when it comes to the recurrence theorem for EM is essential. Morgan Stanley in their EM Mid-Year Outlook published on the 18th of May reminded us in the below four graphs what to look for when assessing the US dollar in terms of being bearish (their take) or bullish:
"Why USD Is in a Long-Term Bear Market

 - source Haver Analytics, Bloomberg, Macrobond, Morgan Stanley Research

With mid-term elections coming soon in the US, it is clear to US that the administration would not like to rock the boat and therefore would favor "boosting" the US growth narrative. This would entail further gain on both US yields and the US dollar in the near term we think. 

Also of interest when it comes to growth outlook, UBS made an important point in their EM Economic Perspectives note of the 17th of May entitled "EM by the Numbers: Where is EM's growth premium over DM?":
"EM growth spread over DM has fallen close to its lowest decile since 2001
Strong Chinese growth and low US inflation strongly supported EM asset markets over the last two years. But the growth levers have slowly been shifting in the background. Having registered a cycle high in early 2017, EM growth has moderated sequentially since, while DM growth has picked up. The levels were strong enough in both to keep the market uninterested as to how far EM growth was above DM growth. Now, however, sequential EM growth has slowed to 20th percentile of its distribution since 2001, and, more importantly, the premium of EM growth over DM has shrunk to the bottom decile of its historical distribution.
The spread between EM and DM is an important input in the call of relative stock market returns in the two regions. In y/y terms, this spread is now at 15th percentile of its distribution since 2001. In q/q terms this spread has shrunk to the sixth percentile of its historical distribution." - source UBS
Whereas EM equities clearly outperformed DM in 2017, it might be that 2018 could make the reverse with DM outperforming. Reduced carry has obviously been a headwind for EM equities as discussed above. If the US dollar strength can persist then indeed, US equities will continue to outperform EM equities on a relative basis we think.

For our final chart, as we posited in numerous conversation, we have often repeated that for a bear market to materialize, you would need an "inflation" spike as a trigger. 

  • Final chart - US core CPI tends to rise in the two years leading up to a recession
Positive shock to inflation would coincide with a negative shock to growth, leading to higher bond yields and lower equities. Moreover, higher inflation will coincide with lower growth, therefore bonds will not be a good hedge for an equity portfolio. As we pointed out in our conversation "Bracket creep" that bear markets for US equities generally coincide with a significant tick up in core inflation, this the biggest near term concern of markets right now we think. Our final chart comes from CITI Emerging Markets Strategy Weekly note from the 17th of May entitled "Fragile 5 now down to Fragile 2" and shows that US core CPI tends to rise in the two years leading up to a recession:
"US rates with more upside. 
After US CPI release last week we had wondered whether or not the EUR was in a bottoming process. While it had been trading better for a few days, the move higher in US rates has led to renewed USD strength. To be clear, we have been expecting higher US rates based on our belief in late-cycle behavior. Figure 4 shows that core inflation typically rises by 50bp in the last two years of an expansion.

Over the same two-year period, 10-year US Treasury yields tend to go up in the first year before retreating as rate cuts get priced by the market. Higher yields are therefore not surprising to us." - source CITI
If indeed a rising US Core CPI is a leading US recession indicator then again, we would have another demonstration of the recurrence theorem one could argue...

"Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out." -  Anton Chekhov
Stay tuned!

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