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!

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