Flight to Safety
The first signs are emerging that the cult-like status given to the world's central bankers is starting to wane, with significant market implications.
We are astounded with the number of people saying that the Fed didn't say anything new. These people must be living in Borneo and far out into the jungle. The Fed came out and said as clearly as any Fed has ever said; "We are going to unwind the trade." Yes, sure, there was the usual huff and puff about a change in market conditions could change our viewpoint but that is not relevant. What was relevant is that the Fed stated and quite clearly that, "The party is over." Because we live in a global economy we will now also get impacted by China and Europe. The flow of money had protected our shores but now we will be exposed and the recession in Europe and the growth rate in China, probably around a real 3.5%-4.0%, is going to come bouncing into America. Liquidity has been the one and only god and the Fed has now told you that this god is going to close up shop.
Whether by intent or good fortune, gold's plunge in the last few days has reduced its appeal as a store of wealth and spurred the more central-planner-biased view that the US Dollar is the 'safest' place to deposit your hard-earned after-tax wealth. However, as Cypriots learned the hard way, trust in the entire system depends on the counterparty (in the case of bank deposits, you are implicitly lending your money for no return to a highly-leveraged entity) covered by an FIDC guarantee. As the following infographic makes very clear, that level of trust is remarkable when the reality is that gold is an asset without any counterparty risk and without any implied risk.
With every modestly positive datapoint being desperately clung to, now that even Goldman's Hatzius has once more thrown in the economic towel after proclaiming an economic renaissance in late 2012 just like he did in late 2010 only to issue a mea culpa a few months later (and just as we predicted - post coming up shortly), the key prerogative is to ignore the elephant in the room. That, of course, is that the JPY 1 quadrillion bond market had to be halted for the second day in a row as the Japanese capital markets are fast becoming a very big and sad joke. The resulting flight to safety from Japanese investors, who sense that their own bond market is on the verge of breaking down completely, has managed to send French and Belgian bonds to record lows, the Spanish 2 Year to sub 2%, the German 6 month bill negative in the primary market, the US 10/30 year constantly bid and so on. The immediate result is that the bond-equity disconnect continues to diverge until one day we may get negative 10 Year rates coupled with an all time high stock market. Gotta love the fake New Normal market, in which the Japanese penny stock market was up another 2.8% to well over 13,000 even as the Shanghai Composite plumbs ever redder territory for 2013 on fears the birdflu contagion will hurt the already struggling economy even more.
In one of a few early hints that Europe might surprise the world with its Cyprus bailout, on February 10th the Financial Times leaked the content of a secret EU memo. It reported that bank depositor haircuts were among three options being considered to reduce bailout costs. And the memo also warned ominously that “such drastic action could restart contagion in eurozone financial markets.” Clearly, policymakers decided to take their chances. And now we’re living through the contagion that the memo’s authors predicted. But what exactly does that mean? Sure, we can see volatility in asset prices, but how long will it last? Some pundits say it’ll blow over like a late afternoon shower on an otherwise sunny day. I disagree. I’ll suggest there’s more to it than rising market volatility and that we should take a closer look at the meaning of contagion. I’ll argue there are three different types at work today: vanilla contagion, latent contagion and stealth contagion. And when you add up the three effects, Cyprus will have a bigger global impact than many expect.
Most investors are nervous now and need to hold things together to include the Fed meeting announcement Wednesday. If bulls are lucky they’ll get their Turnaround Tuesday.
While the equity markets inch back to their 'safe' place of de minimus volumes and slow leakage higher, it seems real money is flooding into the safety of Switzerland (and gold). Swiss 2Y rates are testing back into negative territory once again and have dropped (on demand) their most since August 2012.
According to “Economics 101”, quantitative easing, on the heroic scale we have witnessed thus far, should already have led to rampant if not hyper inflation. That it hasn’t is down to the continuing decline in the velocity of circulation of money. In simple terms the banks aren’t lending (compared with the amount of money available to them), but instead are punting on financial assets, which is where “inflation” is ending up and benefitting their balance sheets. Markets generally front run the economy, but if, as many folk believe, including our commentator above, that quantitative easing has been a failure from the start, then why are equity markets indicating an upturn in economic activity? At the end of the day, if the central banks continue to believe they have no other option than money printing and you can put up with the volatility, it’s all aboard the equity train. Bond yields won’t rise much either; if at all. The gold price should give some indication of whether this strategy is working or not, but that is a market that is far easier to rig than sovereign debt – the Germans seem to think so as they contemplate repatriating some of their bullion held by other central banks.
Yesterday, Citigroup floated the idea that a temporary government shutdown once the full array of debt ceiling extension measures expires some time in mid/late February, is possible, which would also mean the first technical default of the US depending on the prioritization of US debt payments. Now, Politico reports that this idea is rapidly gaining support within the GOP and that "more than half of GOP members are prepare to allow default unless Obama agress to dramatic cuts he has repeatedly said he opposes." It gets better... or worse depending how many ES contracts on is long: "Many more members, including some party leaders, are prepared to shut down the government to make their point. House Speaker John Boehner “may need a shutdown just to get it out of their system,” said a top GOP leadership adviser. “We might need to do that for member-management purposes — so they have an endgame and can show their constituents they’re fighting.”" Of course, at this point not even a US government bankruptcy may send the ES more than one or two ticks lower. After all, there is no risk of anything happening anywhere, any time.
Think the Fed (with its balance sheet amounting to over 20% of US GDP), or the ECB (at 30% of GDP) is bad? Then take a look at the balance sheet of the Swiss National Bank, whose assets now amount to some 75% of Swiss GDP and which has now "literally bet the bank" in the words of the WSJ not once, not twice, but three times in a bid to keep the Swiss Franc - that default flight to safety haven - low, and engaging in what is semi-stealth currency warfare by buying other sovereigns' currencies for over two years now, although he hardly expect the US Treasury to even consider it for inclusion on its list of currency manipulators - after all, "everyone is doing it".
2012 is a year most asset managers would like to forget. With the S&P returning 16% and Russell 2000 up 16.3%, on nothing but multiple expansion in a world where risk has been eliminated despite persistently declining revenues and cash flows, a whopping 88% of hedge funds, as well as some 65% of large-cap core, 80% of large cap value, and 67% of small-cap mutual funds underperformed the market, according to Goldman's David Kostin. The ongoing absolute outperformance of mutual funds over their 2 and 20 fee sucking hedge fund peers is notable, as this is the second or perhaps even third year in a row it has happened. And while the usual excuse that hedge funds are not supposed to beat the market but a benchmark, and generally protect capital from downside risk is valid, it is irrelevant if any downside risk (see ongoing rout in VIX and net position in the VIX futures COT update) is now actively managed by central banks both directly and indirectly, their HF LPs no longer see the world in that way. In fact as Bloomberg Market's February issue summarizes, some 635 hedge funds closed in 2012, 8.5% than a year earlier, despite a far stronger year for the general indices. The reason: LPs and MPs have simply had enough of holding on to underperformers and get swept up in the momentum of performance chasing, and the result is redemption requests into funds who may have had a positive benchmark year, but underperform relative to the S&P for two or more years, which nowadays is the vast majority of funds.
Apparently this is the message that popped up on the Congressional computer system when they were scheduling the last, last, last minute meeting before jumping over the cliff. The techies worked for hours I have heard but to no avail. What is interesting about this is that neither the computer geeks nor the people in charge of our government has any responsible position that is really useful to prevent the failure that is about to take place. The best that can even be hoped for now is some minor change in the rigging which may be heralded as “the fix to fix all fixes” but will be of little importance when considered in the light of day. I think the odds of any grand scheme that will honestly make a difference is equivalent to the value of a toe nail clipper when performing brain surgery.
About a month ago, in the third-quarter report of a Canadian global macro fund, its strategist made the interesting observation that “…Four ideas in particular have caught the fancy of economic policy makers and have been successfully sold to the public…” One of these ideas “…that has taken root, at least among the political and intellectual classes, is that one need not fear fiscal deficits and debt provided one has monetary sovereignty…”. This idea is currently growing, particularly after Obama’s re-election. But it was only after writing our last letter, on the revival of the Chicago Plan (as proposed in an IMF’ working paper), that we realized that the idea is morphing into another one among Keynesians: That because there cannot be a gold-to-US dollar arbitrage like in 1933, governments do indeed have the monetary sovereignty. It is not; and in the process of explaining why, we will also describe the endgame for the current crisis... "…We cannot arbitrage fiat money, but we can repudiate the sovereign debt that backs it! And that repudiation will be the defining moment of this crisis…"
Markets, you see, always live in this “day before” where the bend in the highway never comes, where the path is always straight and fixed and where it is generally thought that nothing of consequence will happen. Then some event takes place, something magical or wonderful or awful occurs and the world is turned on its axis and nothing is ever the same again. We are in danger, “clear and present danger” and the strategy of the “day before” is no longer appropriate. $400 billion has poured into bond funds this year, an all-time record, with yields at depressed levels indicating a quite real flight to safety. The United States lost thirty-six percent of its wealth during the American Financial Crisis and, people or institutions, the song rolls across the landscape, “We won’t get fooled again!”
Today is the 2nd of the long-end UST auctions for the month of November. 16bln 30yrs will be sold to the market at 1pm...largest single DV01 event of the monthly cycle. Can we game the US Govt??