Saturday 19 January 2019

Macro and Credit - Alprazolam

"Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength." - Charles Spurgeon British clergyman

Watching with interest the historical defeat of Prime Minister Theresa May relating to Brexit, in conjunction with the Chinese central bank injecting a net 560 billion yuan ($83 billion) into the Chinese banking system, the highest ever recorded for a single day given the weakening tone of the economy, when it came to selecting our title analogy we decided to go for a medical reference to "Alprazolam". "Alprazolam", also the trade name for Xanax among others, is the most commonly used benzodiazepine in short term management of anxiety disorders, specifically panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder. It seems to us that the Chinese authorities have decided to act decisively on the very weak tone taken on their economy and the slowdown in global trade and its impact. Due to concern about "misuse", some strategists like us would not recommend "Aprazolam" as an initial treatment for panic disorder such as the MSCI China index down 23% over the past year. With the University of Michigan’s consumer confidence index falling to a more than two-year low of 90.7 in January, down from 98.3 in December, and well below expectations of 97.5, we wonder if our quote above is correct in asserting that anxiety does indeed empties today of its strength, namely consumer confidence. After all, clinical studies have shown that the effectiveness of Alprazolam is limited to 4 months for anxiety disorders but we ramble again...

In this week's conversation, we would like to look at the rising cost of attrition on the global economy, with the continuation of the stalemate in Brexit, US vs China trade/tech war, yellow jackets in France and of course the government shutdown in the United States. While Alprazolam has brought some solace to the December angst for investors, it remains to be seen how long the effect will last on the recovering "patients".

  • Macro and Credit - Does A for attrition equate R for recession?
  • Final charts -  Mind the liquidity shock...

  • Macro and Credit - Does A for attrition equate R for recession?
As we indicated in our previous conversations, "Bad News" has been the new "Good News" at least for asset prices in general and high beta in particular, the rally seen so far this year appears to us as more of a respite than a secular change to the overall picture. 

We indicated more downside risk at least from a European perspective and we continue to have a very negative view on France given the continuation of the unrest and the "yellow jackets" movement not giving any respite to president Macron. 

In our conversation "The European crisis: The Greatest Show on Earth", we indicated:
"When it comes to credit conditions in Europe, not only do we closely monitor the ECB lending surveys, we also monitor on a monthly basis the “Association Française des Trésoriers d’Entreprise” (French Corporate Treasurers Association) surveys."
In the AFTE latest survey, there is now a clear trend in the deterioration in their operating cash situation showing up:
- source AFTE

The situation for French corporate treasures when it comes to cash flows from operations is deteriorating to a level close to 2012-2013 follow the Euro crisis. This we think, warrants close monitoring, given we think that the ongoing "attrition warfare" between the French government and the "yellow jackets" is taking its toll on the French economy as a whole, which as we reminded you last week is very much "services" orientated relative to other countries of the European Union (80% for France vs 76% of GDP on average).

On this "attrition" subject we read with interest Bank of America Merrill Lynch's take from their Cause and Effect note from the 18th of January entitled "Investing in the age of the attrition game":
"Attrition bites in Europe
The “yellow vest” protest in France, which has resulted in the “worst riots since 1968” is now its 9th week. Not only it has shown no sign of ending, the number of demonstrators rebounded sharply over the past two weeks (Chart 6).

What began as a protest against fuel hikes has morphed into a broader movement of discontent with the government. President Macron has so far has refused to restore the wealth tax, one of the key demands of the protesters. This could turn into another war of attrition, especially with the fast approach of the EU parliamentary elections (May 23-26). French consumer confidence has tumbled sharply and is approaching levels reached during the Eurozone crisis (Chart 7).

The slowdown within the Eurozone is spreading. Both Italy and Germany are already in a recession (“the “R” club is recruiting”, January 11). For Italy, despite the passage of the 2019 budget bill, our European economics team has observed that the busy electoral calendar and decrees (not least those implementing pension reform and an income support scheme) could challenge the current ruling majority in the first half of the year. In Spain, a new far right party is emerging and the government lacks parliamentary support to pass a 2019 budget. The latest manufacturing PMI surveys show that new orders for Germany, France, Italy and Spain, the four largest economies in the Eurozone, were all below 50 (contractionary) in December, the first time in four years (Chart 8).

In our view, the greatest risk facing Europe is that the slowing economy fuels further populist discontent, creating a vicious circle." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
The numerous "attrition wars" being fought on a global scale are indeed clear headwinds regardless of the latest injection of "Alprazolam". As we indicated in our previous conversation "Respite",

"As we stated in various conversations including our last, we tend to behave like any good behavioral psychologist in the sense that we would rather focus on the flows than on the stock. On that note we continue to monitor very closely fund flows when it comes to the validation of the recent "Respite" seen in the market and it is not a case of confirmation bias from our side. 
We think that a continued surge in oil prices will be supportive to US High Yield. As well, any additional weakness in the US dollar will support an outperformance of selected Emerging Markets. Sure we might be short term "Keynesian" but overall, at this stage of the cycle we do remain cautiously medium-term "Austrian". 
A flattening curve in our book is not positive for banks and cyclicals such as housing and autos have already turned.  Also as briefly pointed out, a sustained shutdown is likely to be another drag on US growth which will therefore push the Fed's hand further into "dovish" territory". In that context, and if inflows return into credit markets, then high beta credit as well as Investment Grade could continue to thrive in the near term given Fed Chair Powell indicated in the latest FOMC minutes a willingness to be patient with future rate hikes. 4Q US GDP might disappoint we think." - source Macronomics, January 2019
We also discussed in our conversation the importance of the return of "macro" and the need to "monitor" fund flows for any signs of stabilization in "credit markets" as well as the need to track oil prices relative to US High Yield given its exposure.

Flow wise, Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their Follow The Flow note from the 18th of January entitled "Just a bounce?" question the most recent positive tone in financial markets given the weakening mood coming out from the macro data:
"Light positioning and known-unknowns
This year started on a positive note. Despite further weakness on the macroeconomic data front across the globe (more here), risk assets have staged a strong bounce higher. This is not because everything is in the price and we already know that macro is slowing and that the synchronised recovery has turned to a synchronized slowdown. It is the fact that positioning has been very light at the end of last year and thus cash balances have been put to work in January. With slower primary and tighter spreads last week it feels that the outflow trend is slowing down. However we are skeptical for how long markets can keep ignoring the continuing deterioration in macro. We feel this rally will not last, and thus we would use this bounce higher to reduce risk.

Over the past week…
High grade funds suffered another outflow, making this the 23rd week of outflows over the past 24 weeks. However, this week’s outflow is the smallest observed over that period. High yield funds recorded another outflow, the 16th in a row, but also the smallest in a while. Looking into the domicile breakdown, Globally-focused funds recorded the lion's share of outflows while US-focused funds outflow was more moderate. Actually Europe-focused funds have recorded small inflow, the first in 15wks.
Government bond funds recorded a small outflow this week. Meanwhile, Money Market funds recorded an outflow as risk assets moved higher. All in all, Fixed Income funds recorded an inflow, the second in a row.
European equity funds recorded another outflow this week, the 19th consecutive one. During the past 45 weeks, equity funds experienced 44 weeks of outflows.
Global EM debt funds continued to record inflows, the second weekly one. This confirms the improving trend observed recently as a dovish Fed has weakened the dollar. Commodity funds recorded another (albeit marginal) inflow, the 6th in a row.
On the duration front, short-term IG funds led the negative trend by far. Mid-term funds saw a small outflow while long-term funds experienced a decent inflow, continuing the recent trend of strength on the back-end of the curve." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
We agree with Bank of America Merrill Lynch that, the significant rally in high beta should entice you to become more "defensive" and favor "quality" (rating) over "quantity" (yield). In the ongoing attrition game, it is more a question of capital preservation than capital appreciation we think.

Moving back to the "attrition game" and Bank of America Merrill Lynch's note from their Cause and Effect from the 18th of January entitled "Investing in the age of the attrition game", regardless of the positive liquidity injection from the PBOC and dovish tilt of the Fed, earnings as well are slowing down and there is more risk to US consumer confidence with the shutdown:
"Shutdown raises trade war risk
What does a destabilizing gridlock in Washington mean for the US-China trade war? Given the peril of fighting two battles at the same time, it seems reasonable to assume that the incentive for Trump to close a deal with China sooner than later has gone up. The fact that he has been talking up the prospect of a deal with China in recent weeks (“I think we’re going to be able to do a deal with China,” January 14) is consistent with this hypothesis. The market has taken these upbeat remarks at face value and has been driving up EM assets, the main casualties of the US-China trade war last year.
However, it takes two to tango. Trump’s loss of full control of Congress may be viewed by Beijing as justifying a less conciliatory stance. With the shutdown in Washington and growing expectations that the Mueller report will be out soon, Beijing may decide that it is not in a hurry to close a deal. Trump set a precedent by agreeing to a 3-month extension for the next round of US tariff. Beijing might think that the Americans could be forced into giving another extension if there is no deal by March 1.
The recent US slowdown could be giving China another reason to wait. Despite the reductions in reserve requirements to decade lows (Chart 3), Chinese credit growth has so far shown no signs of picking up (Chart 4).

Beijing might have eased monetary policy even more aggressively last year if it weren’t for the fact that rate hikes by the Fed was pushing down the renminbi (Chart 5).

A much weaker renminbi might have further complicated the US-China negotiation. The fact that the Washington shutdown is increasing the chance of a Fed pause, giving China a wider window to ease policy, could also reduce the urgency for Beijing to close a deal with Trump." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Unless there is a rapid resolution between the United States and China on the trade/tech war narrative which has led to a significant rally in Emerging Markets so far this year on the back of a weaker US dollar, then indeed there is a high probability that the effect of the "Alprazolam" will fade and the bounce experienced so far could end rapidly and abruptly.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch added the following in their report:
"Market implications
Developments over the past two months suggest to us that political risks are rising.
This puts us at odds with current market consensus.
The contrast between our views and those of consensus is giving us confidence in our investment thesis for 2019:
The USD is vulnerable. We view the escalation of the gridlock risk in Washington as posing the greatest risk to the decoupling trade and to the USD. We are soon approaching a key support level that, if broken, will usher in further USD weakness (USD topped and target reached, but is this it? January 16). We like selling the USD especially against the JPY and the CHF. The EUR has been unable to capitalize on the USD’s retracement this year, reflecting concerns about the growth outlook for the Eurozone. If Eurozone political tension continues unabated, we may have to revisit our bullish EUR/USD forecasts.
EM rally won’t last forever. EM is rallying on Trump’s upbeat comments on the prospect of a trade deal with China. We think the risk of a no deal by March 1 is higher than expected. We also think that the inability of the EUR to gain against the USD will limit the room for further gains in commodity prices and EM. We think EM investors should not wait too long before taking some money off the table. We continue to believe that in 2019 investors need to think strategically but act tactically.
US rates vol looks cheap. Rates vol has fallen sharply year-to-date as risky assets stabilized (Chart 9).

We see the sell-off as possibly overdone given the binary nature of the political risks we highlighted in this report and the increasingly binary decision the Fed is facing. The worsening supply-demand dynamics as we head into possibly debt ceiling crisis #2 will likely provide strong support to rates vol." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Any spike in rates volatility would obviously be negative for asset prices given carry players, risk-parity investors and other pundits love one thing, and that's low rates volatility. Any return of volatility on the aforementioned would definitely trigger another bout in "risk-off" rest assured.

How convinced are we with the strong rally seen so far from the December "oversold" situation? Not very much, we would argue. Sure, we have seen a welcome respite with the central banking cavalry arriving late, once again to an already damaged macro situation. Given the amount of known "unknowns" and the weaker tone in the overall macro picture, yes bad news are good news again for asset prices, but, we do think that buying some protection to the downside with potential bouts of volatility is a wise move.

Remember 2018 has marked the return of "cash" in your allocation toolbox and it should be used more extensively in 2019 given the risk for even more volatility events than in 2018. Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their High Yield Strategy note from the 18th of January entitled "When Cash Becomes King" makes some compelling arguments about the current tactical rally we are seeing:
"Low-risk yields appear compelling in this macro setup
The rally in leveraged credit has taken a pause in recent sessions, with our DM USD HY index oscillating around 450bps, more or less where it stood a week ago. The same could be said of rates as well, where the 10yr remained range-bound over the past week, spending most of its time around 2.70-2.75%. Even equities exhibited low volatility, by recent standards, with S&P500 moving 10-20pts in most sessions, a sea-change from 80-100pt sessions around year-end.
So, can this be considered an all-clear signal? Perhaps. It undoubtedly adds one reason to think so, although it is hard to make it sound convincing in and of itself. We prefer to rely on more tangible events, something that would not be forgotten tomorrow if volatility were to return.
Among such new developments, we counted the following:
  • China: has responded strongly to apparent signs of weakness in its economy by cutting bank reserve requirements, policy rates, and business taxes. The extent of cuts in reserve requirements now exceeds those witnessed in 2008 and 2015. Business taxes were cut to the tune of $30bn/year; for some perspective US corporate tax cuts of 2017 amounted to $600bn/10yrs, or $60bn/yr for an economy that is 1.5x larger. In other words, very meaningful policy actions out of China.
  • Earnings: banks opened the reporting season with a bang despite notable shortfalls in FICC results; their other businesses appeared to be doing well. Tax-reform bump is likely to begin coming out of numbers only next quarter, and will potentially reach its peak in Q2-Q3 of 2019. So US earnings could stay artificially elevated for a couple more quarters, in our view.
  • Sectors: financials led, while utilities and staples trailed in the whole S&P500 round-trip between Dec 14-Jan 15. The argument goes that financials underperform and defensives outperform into a downturn. And yet the fact that utilities underperformed through a potential PCG bankruptcy does not help the case of this not being a cyclical turn.
On the other side of the ledger, the following reasons support continued caution:
  • China: would probably not be throwing this much stimulus if its economy was performing in an acceptable way. The leadership there must know something we don’t know, in our view.
  • Earnings: our model for US EPS has experienced further deceleration in recent weeks, and points to +6% growth over the next year. While this is not a level consistent with a cyclical downturn, we note that earnings went from 20%+ actual yoy growth rate in Q3, to earlier estimates around +10-12% to +6% today (Figure 1). So the trajectory and the remaining cushion are a concern.

  • Wide IG: with spreads elevated in the IG space, HY looks tight. BBs offer only 100bps premium over BBBs (Figure 2). While not unheard of, we think this is too tight in today’s market environment given the shift in risk sentiment that has occurred over the past several months. Historical relationship between BBBs and BBs implies the latter should be 60bps wider given where the former is, ex PCG.

  • Illiquidity gap: while liquid bonds have rallied and retraced a good chunk of Dec losses, illiquid paper remains marked at discounted levels (Figure 3 and Figure 4). This behavior is inconsistent with a sustainable turn in market sentiment, i.e. investors must become comfortable bidding for illiquid stuff to demonstrate their conviction. Buying HYG does not cut it.

  • High dispersion: only 1/4 of all HY bonds trade within +/-100bps of overall index level; under normal circumstances, 40-50% of them trade this way. High degree of dispersion could be a function of illiquidity gap described above. Regardless of its origin, dispersion tends to increase (percent trading at index levels drops) at times of market downturns. The current levels of dispersion are consistent with 500- 525bps HY spreads and 1,300-1,400bps CCC spreads.
  • Default estimates: With most factors now fully refreshed with Dec levels, the model continues to point towards 5.5% issuer-weighted and 4.25% par-weighted default rates. Such credit losses, if materialized, imply meaningful pickup over realized levels (2.8%) and point towards wider HY spreads (500bp as a risk-neutral level).
While these data points are not yet known, and could change our thinking as they come in, we remain mindful of a scenario where this episode eventually proves itself to be a cyclical turn. As such, we find current HY valuations to be somewhat out of balance, in terms of likely ranges going forward, i.e. we think probability is higher to see spreads in high-500s rather than low-300s; these two are otherwise equal distance away from here. Given this view, we are reducing our model portfolio beta to a modest underweight at this point, which we intend to move towards a more substantial underweight if  spreads continue to grind tighter from current levels.
Think about what you believe are reasonable return expectations from here, and compare them to low-risk alternatives: Libor is at 2.75%, short-duration IG is at 3.70% yield, and short duration BBs are at 5.20%.
In the environment where the next few months carry a reasonable chance of marking the turning point in this credit cycle, we find such yields increasingly attractive. Even if the cycle overcomes all obstacles and rolls on, you can blend-average the above into 3.5-4% portfolio, with a strong likelihood of actually realizing this return, in our view.
So we are probably entering a period of time when cash is becoming king again. HY may end up showing bouts of strong performance during this time, just as it did in early January, and we remain open-minded to tactically shifting our views when opportunities present themselves. We just struggle to see how it could happen from 450bps overall index levels or from 100bps BBs-BBBs differential." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Being underweight high beta is we think indeed a good recommendation at this stage. Stay nimble and get tactical. Buying HYG might not cut it for Bank of America Merrill Lynch from a "liquidity" perspective, but, from our side and as a useful "macro" defensive tool for credit exposure "hedging", we believe synthetic exposure through credit indices such as Itraxx Main Europe 5 year and CDX IG for the lucky few of you benefiting from an ISDA agreement provide sufficient liquidity to sidestep any Investment Grade liquidity concerns. The US equivalent to the European CDS investment Grade index, namely the CDX, does not include banks as a reminder. The Itraxx Main Europe 5 year index is therefore a good "macro" hedge instrument for investment grade exposure to more turmoil with "European" banks, though we do not expect Mario Draghi to rock the ECB boat before his departure and it is highly likely the ECB will provide additional LTRO funding to the ailing banks in the European banking system, some more "Alprazolam", one would opine.

On that note, if indeed we are back into a "macro" world when it comes to "trading" then, using the rights "macro" instruments such as synthetic credit indices and options on credit indices might provide mitigation to heightened volatility over the course of 2019 and sufficient liquidity if indeed there is a "liquidity shock" when the "Alprazolam" effect will truly fade.

  • Final charts -  Mind the liquidity shock...
While as we pointed out like many pundits that "liquidity" is a concern given how credit markets have swollen in recent years thanks to buybacks supported by very large issuance levels, then looking at the CDS market as a proxy for risk ahead is again warranted as pointed out by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their Credit Derivatives note from the 16th of January entitled "The basis for a correction" with the below chart pointing out to the underperformance of bonds relative to the CDS market:
"Macro data continue to disappoint; we remain cautious
The globally synchronised bullish macro backdrop markets enjoyed in 2017 and the early part of 2018 is now firmly behind us. A year later, European data weakness continues while US strength is losing steam, fairly sharply. Chinese data are not improving either as PMIs are now at recessionary levels.
Despite the somewhat better start to the year for risk assets, we think that volatility will remain a key theme for another year. Large swings and lack of clarity underpin our bearish stance on spreads and beta in the following months; we continue to advise a defensive positioning. The deterioration in macro indicators will keep market sentiment fragile, in our view.
It feels like 2015-16
2018 is likely to be remembered as the worst year since the 2008 crisis. Performance was poor and funds suffered outflows. The performance over the past 12 months resembles that of 2015-16. However, this year started on a much more upbeat note than. 2016. Nonetheless, we are concerned that several factors are reminiscent of the drivers that pushed spreads wider in January and the early part of February 2016. A macro slowdown, lack of inflation in Europe and tightening conditions that risk assets were dealing with back then are still adversely affecting markets.
Gap risks and basis
We also think that CDS is too tight to cash bond spreads and negative basis is supportive for more downside risk in the synthetics space. The “gap” wider risk for the CDS market makes us less comfortable at current levels and, as we see fewer catalysts to reverse this market weakness we would use the recent move tighter as reason to reset shorts, especially by selling receivers to own payers. We also screen for negative basis opportunities.
The globally synchronised bullish macro backdrop markets enjoyed in 2017 and the early part of 2018 is now firmly behind us. A year later, European data weakness continues while US strength is losing steam, fairly sharply. Chinese data are not improving either as PMIs are now at recessionary levels.

Despite the somewhat better start to this year, we think that volatility will remain a key theme in 2019 too. Large swings and lack of clarity underpin our stance to remain bearish spreads and beta in the coming months; we continue to advocate defensive positioning. We expect the deterioration of macro indicators to keep markets sentiment fragile, and until we see the cycle trough, we remain skeptical on how well higher risk/beta pockets will perform." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
So enjoy "Alprazolam" effects while they last as we concluded in similar fashion our previous conversation. Remember that those taking more than 4 mg per day of Alprazolam have an increased potential for dependence. This medication may cause withdrawal symptoms upon abrupt withdrawal or rapid tapering, which in some cases have been known to cause seizures, as well as marked delirium.  The physical dependence and withdrawal syndrome of Alprazolam also add to its addictive nature. Alprazolam is one of the most commonly prescribed and misused benzodiazepines in the United States, benzodiazepines are recreationally the most frequently used pharmaceuticals due to their widespread availability. Alprazolam, along with other benzodiazepines, is often used with other recreational drugs such as QEs but we ramble again...

"A crust eaten in peace is better than a banquet partaken in anxiety." - Aesop
Stay tuned !

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