There is no mystery to the “headwinds” that continue to plague and mystify monetary policymakers. The global economy is not pulled into re-recession by some unseen magical force, conspiring against the good-natured efforts of central bankers. Instead, the very thing central banks aspire to is the exact poison that alludes their attention. Conventional economics will continue to believe and empirically “prove” that the theory of the neutrality of money is valid, giving them, in their minds, unrestricted ability to intervene and manipulate over any short-term period (though it is getting harder to argue that these emergency measures are “short-term” nearly five years into their continued existence). The occurrence of panic in 2008 and the unresolved and unremoved barriers to recovery in the years since, however, fully attest to nonneutrality, an ongoing form of empirical proof that their models will never be able to refute. And we are all condemned by it.
I am fairly certain the answer to why Bernanke isn’t increasing inflation when his former self and former colleagues say he should be is actually nothing to do with domestic politics, and everything to do with international politics. Most of the pro-Fed blogosphere seems to live in denial of the fact that America is massively in debt to external creditors — all of whom are frustrated at getting near-zero yields (they can’t just flip bonds to the Fed balance sheet like the hedge funds) — and their views matter, very simply because the reality of China and other creditors ceasing to buy debt would be untenable. Why else would the Treasury have thrown a carrot by upgrading the Chinese government to primary dealer status (the first such deal in history), cutting Wall Street’s bond flippers out of the deal?
Falling interest rates are a feature of our current monetary regime, so central that any look at a graph of 10-year Treasury yields shows that it is a ratchet (and a racket, but that is a topic for another day!). There are corrections, but over 31 years the rate of interest has been falling too steadily and for too long to be the product of random chance. It is a salient, if not the central fact, of life in the irredeemable US dollar system. Irving Fisher, writing about falling prices (I shall address the connection between falling prices and falling interest rates in a forthcoming paper) proposed a paradox: “The more the debtors pay, the more they owe.” Debtors slowly pay down their debts and reduce the principle owed. This would reduce the NPV of their debts in a normal environment. But in a falling-interest-rate environment, the NPV of outstanding debt is rising due to the falling interest rate at a pace much faster than it is falling due to debtors’ payments. The debtors are on a treadmill and they are going backwards at an accelerating rate. How apropos is Fisher’s eloquent sentence summarizing the problem!
Strength is fading. Parity is visible. Reform is the only option. European markets are tumbling and the euro has slipped to record lows against several major currencies. The market is in reaction mode responding Spain and Greece in the headlines.
It has been a tempestuous week where good is bad, worse is better, but European news is to be sold. Here is your one stop summary of all the notable bullish and bearish events in the past seven days.
With 'safe-haven' yields at extreme lows (and negative in some cases), there is sense in 'reaching for yield' but - obviously - any increase in yield implies an increase in risk (and just because it is called a 'bond' doesn't mean its safer than an 'equity'). By way of example, moving to investment grade credit is the 'strategy du jour' of many asset allocators - "a little more yield and it's still IG after all." However, while this is a decent safety strategy overall - in a diversified and actively managed credit book, falling for the easy route of buying the liquid IG bond ETF LQD may run some into problems - no matter how much its 'price' tracks Treasuries. The last month has seen LQD experience a 7-sigma rally and it stands at multi-month rich levels to its intrinsic value (which implicitly places technical bids in the cash market). What worries us the most about LQD specifically is, we suspect retail investors who are piling in are unaware of the exposures within the portfolio of bonds. LQD is 24.3% weighted in financials - the very same Libor-rigging, beached-whale, NIM-compressing financials that are anything but 'risk-free'. As a reminder, an old adage from credit portfolio management, "the loss from losers far exceeds the gains from winners" and at these levels of price (and therefore yield) there is a lot of convexity in that risk-reward. Understanding the credit risk you are taking is key.
What's Ben gonna do?
We are saved. No, we are doomed. The reaction to the much-heralded agreement to bailout Spain's banks is not good. Spanish bond yields are at their post-Euro highs at 7.21%, Spanish bond spreads (and 5Y CDS) are trading at 600bps as Valencia calls for its bailout, Montoro denies, then admits that indeed they are part of the fiasco. Spain's front-end is very weak with 3Y back over 6% with the entire curve at its flattest in 6 months. Italy is also cracking wider with the short-end getting crushed (2Y +42bps at 3.9%) - exactly where all that LTRO collateral is being held (more ECB margin calls?). While Italy's has reverted back to a zero basis to CDS, Spain has continued to see its bonds underperform CDS dramatically - which in the case of Greece and Portugal was the litmus test for a market switchijng from muddle-through to pending PSI as trust in CDS triggers reduces. Meanwhile, Germany's 2Y rate hits a record low below -6bps. Spain's IBEX is down almost 4% (but Italy's MIB worse) as EURUSD cracks below 1.22 once again. European financial credit (senior and sub) are getting cruyshed and it appears that broadly speaking equitieas are starting to catch up to the reality in credit markets - though have a long way to go. S&P 500 e-mini futures are down ove 9 pts from the close (and over 15pts from yesterday's highs). Europe's VIX is snapping 10% higher after capitulating al la US VIX but remains dramatically rich to crediot still.
- Gunman kills 14 in Denver shooting at "Batman" movie (Reuters)
- Full retard meets Math for Retards: Spain Insists $15 Billion Aid Need for Regions Won’t Swell Debt (Bloomberg)
- World braced for new food crisis (FT)
- Banks in Libor probe consider group settlement (Reuters)
- U.S. banks haunted by mortgage demons that won't go away (Reuters)
- Ireland Bulldozes Ghost Estate in Life After Real Estate Bubble (Bloomberg)
- China will not relax property control policies (China Daily)
- Russia, China veto U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria (Reuters)
- Kim to reform North Korean economy after purge (Reuters)
The world's largest hedge fund is not as sanguine about the hope that remains in the markets today. The firm's founder, Ray Dalio, who has written extensively on the good, bad, and ugly of deleveragings, sounds a rather concerned note in his latest quarterly letter to investors as the "developed world remains mired in the deleveraging phase of the long-term debt cycle" and has spread to the emerging world "through diminished capital flows which have weakened their growth rates and undermined asset prices". Between China, Europe, and the US, which he discusses in detail, he sees the lack of global private sector credit creation leaving the world's economies highly reliant on government support through monetary and fiscal stimulation. The breadth of this slowdown creates a dangerous dynamic because, given the inter-connectedness of economies and capital flows, one country's decline tends to reinforce another's, making a self-reinforcing global decline more likely and a reversal more difficult to produce. After discounting a relatively imminent return to normalcy in early 2011, markets are now pricing in a meaningful deleveraging for an extended period of time, including negative real earnings growth, negative real yields, high defaults and sustained lower levels of commodity prices. Lastly he believes the common-wisdom - that the Germans and the ECB will save the day - is misplaced.
Despite all the pats on the back from fellow EU political members and reassurances that all will be well with political reforms, 10Y Spanish bond spreads (the additional risk over German bunds that investors demand before lending money to Spain) just hit all-time record highs. At over 580bps, we are now we well above the pre-Euro era highs (remember focus on spread not yield since Bund rates were so different back then - though current yields remain above the 7% Maginot Line of unsustainability). Spain 10Y bond spreads are now 40bps wide of pre-Summit peak levels and 130bps wider than post-Summit kneejerk reaction lows. But look at stocks and we know all is fixed in Europe...
China has proposed to broaden trading of precious metals in its local market in order to help China become a "major gold trading centre" (see News). The Wall Street Journal was briefed about China's plans by "a person involved with the matter." The paper reports that "the move could increase liquidity and help Beijing gain stronger pricing power for key commodities like gold". China is the largest consumer and now the largest producer of gold in the world and has aspirations to become a major gold trading center on a par with London and New York. China is also the fifth largest holder of gold reserves in the world after the U.S., Germany, France, Italy. Chinese officials have spoken of China’s aspirations to have gold reserves as large as the U.S. in order to help position the yuan or renminbi as a global reserve currency. Indeed, it would be only natural for China to aspire to have their currency become the global reserve currency in the long term. In the longer term, being a major gold trading center would make China a more powerful financial and economic player and indeed could allow them to influence commodity and other important market prices. Indeed, Reuters reported that becoming a major gold trading center "would boost the country's clout in setting global prices".
- U.S drought wilts crops as officials pray for rain (Reuters)
- Obama backs aid for drought farmers (FT)
- Greek leaders identify two-thirds of spending cuts (FT)
- Central bankers eyeing whether Libor needs scrapping (Reuters)
- Markets Face a Life Sentence of Hard Libor (WSJ)
- World Bank chief warns no region immune to Europe crisis (Reuters)
- China big four banks' new loans double in early July (Reuters)
- Nokia Loss Widens as Smartphone Sales Slump (WSJ)
- Bundesbank Expected To Buy Australian Dollars In 3Q (WSJ)
Instead of sticking to selling short-term, LTRO covered debt, Spain was so desperate to show it has capital markets access that this morning it tried selling bond due 2014, 2017 and 2019 with a maximum issuance target of €3 billion. It failed to not only meet the target, but to price the €1.074 billion in bonds due 2017 at anything less than an all time high (6.459%) as a result sending the entire curve blowing out wider, and the 10 Year above the critical 7% threshold again, for the first time since the June Euro summit, whose only function was to give a positive return for the fiscal year to such US pension funds as Calpers and New Year. In summary: Spain sold 2.98 billion euros of short- to medium-term government bonds on Thursday in a sale at which borrowing costs rose and demand fell. The average yield at a sale of 1.07 billion euros of five-year bonds rose to 6.46 percent compared with 6.07 percent at the previous auction of the debt last month. Investors' bids were worth 2.1 times the amount offered for the five-year paper versus 3.4 times at the last auction, and 2.9 times for the seven-year bond. The average yield at the seven-year sale rose to 6.7 percent from 4.83 percent.
There was yet another European Union summit at the end of June, which (like all the others) was little more than bluff. Read the official communiqué and you will discover that there were some fine words and intentions, but not a lot actually happened. The big news in this is the implication the ECB will, in time, be able to stand behind the Eurozone banks because it will accept responsibility for them. This is probably why the markets rallied on the announcement, but it turned out to be another dead cat lacking the elastic potential energy necessary to bounce. Meanwhile, Germany, meant to be the back-stop for this lunacy, is losing patience. It has become clear that the agreements that arose out of the June summit were not agreements at all. The questions arises: How can the Eurozone stay together, and if not, how quickly is it likely to start disintegrating? And where does the exchange rate for the euro fit in all this?