Liquidity is plentiful when you don't care about it and scarce when you need it most
With NIRP having turned traditional risk-free assets into guaranteed losers, investors have poured more than $9 billion into junk bond ETFs YTD, and while common sense dictates that buying at the top of an epic HY bubble just ahead of a rate hike cycle and against a backdrop characterized by disappearing liquidity in the secondary market for corporate credit is a fool's errand, most investors feel they have little choice.
"They're buying the yield and they think 'Oh, bonds are going to go up,' but when they start coming down, there's going to be a great run to the exits and at least in 2008 you had a bit of a safety net with the prop desks at banks, but now with the Volcker rule you can't even depend on that."
Holidays in Europe and Asia left things quiet overnight after some traders used the last day of April to frontrun the old "sell in May and go away" market adage. Market closures also kept the Chinese day trading hordes from using a tiny beat on the official manufacturing PMI print as an excuse to pile more money into the country's equity mania, while Japanese shares ended mostly unchanged as investors fret over when the BoJ will deliver the next shot of monetary heroin. In the US we'll get a look at ISM manufacturing and the latest read on consumer confidence as we head into the weekend.
The current equities bull run seems unstoppable. No amount of geopolitical concerns, Greek default fears, rate hikes, US dollar strength, crude oil price volatility, Russian sanctions or whatever else you can think of can put a dent on it. Perhaps we should take a step back and try to understand what is driving this strength. OK, we know that central banks continue to spike the punchbowl, but what is the actual transmission mechanism that directs all this liquidity into equities – as opposed to commodities for instance, which continue to struggle?
While pricing right on the When Issued screws, or 0.540%, tied for the lowest high yield since October 2014, today's $26 billion auction of 2 Year paper was nothing to write home about. From a low Bid to Cover, which at 3.30 was down from March's 3.457%, and the lowest of 2015, to a slide in the Indirect bid to only 38.1%, also the lowest for 2015, to the highest Dealer take down of 2015, with commercial banks left with 47.8% of the short-end issue, there was not much demand for the paper which pays a 0.50% cash coupon and which matures on April 30, 2017.
"Where are the defaults?" UBS asks, referring to the highly leveraged US shale complex. "They're coming," is the answer, as current bond prices assume oil prices in the 60s and 70s.
Despite goldilocks (to use a financial market cliche) conditions characterized by the interplay between yield-starved investors, rock-bottom borrowing costs, and companies’ propensity to leverage their balance sheet in order to inflate earnings and underwrite their stock price, at least one leading indicator is flashing red.
Financial engineering is one of the worst ills perpetuated by the Fed’s regime of cheap debt and money market subsidies for speculation. And these deformations are turbo-charged by the tax code which creates a powerful bias toward loading capital structures with tax deductible debt, and to delivering returns as lightly taxed capital gains rather than ordinary income. In fact, stock buybacks and LBOs are the bastard offspring of the IRS and Federal Reserve.
"In some instances, malfunctioning algorithms have interfered with market functioning, inundating trading venues with message traffic or creating sharp, short-lived spikes in prices as a result of other algorithms responding to the initial erroneous order flow."... "If liquidity is as bad as it is now, what’s going to happen when things really get adverse?” said Richard Schlanger, who co-manages about $30 billion in bonds as vice president at Pioneer Investments in Boston.
"A slow start to the week has become customary, as Monday appears to have become the new Friday," Barclays says, noting that the humans simply aren't trading in a credit market where opportunities are scarce. Meanwhile, the robots do not rest, and on the Monday they simultaneously decide that some random data point or unduly hawkish/dovish soundbite out of an FOMC voter is cause for all the algos to chase down the same rabbit hole sending ripples through a fixed income market devoid of any real liquidity, the humans will be in for a rude awakening when they get to work on Tuesday morning.
Yesterday's 10 Year auction was impressive, but one can't say the same about the just concluded, and final for the week, 30 Year reopening auction of Cusip RK6 which saw a whopping tail 3 bps to the 2.567% When Issued, when the the High Yield priced at 2.597% (still, about 8 bps tighter than the March 30 auction). The main driver of this subpar demand was not the Bid to Cover ratio, which while very low in historical terms was unchanged from last month at 2.18%, but the collapse in the Direct bid, which took down just 7%, the first single digits Direct take down since May of 2014, and the lowest overall since the 4.9% in March of 2013. However, the Direct slack was more than eagerly sopped up by foreign central banks which took down a near record 51.3%, just shy of the all time high of 53.2%. Dealers were left with 41.8%.
Anyone wondering what the bond market thinks about the prospects of an imminent rate hike need but look at the high yield of the just concluded 3 Year auction, which saw a yield of only 0.865%, pricing through the 0.87% when issued, and the lowest since March of 2014. While one can barely see it on the chart below, the Bid to Cover was a fraction lower compared to March, at 3.252 down from the 3.330 TTM average. Completing the internal picture was an Indirect take down of 49.4% which was in line with recent auctions and solidly above the 12 month moving average of 37.6, while Dealers took 1% less than in March, at 39.5% of the final allotment, leaving Directs with 11.1% of the auction.
There are times when not only truth is stranger than fiction, but also, when serendipity coincides with moments that are branded into the pages of history where they become the allegory of the times. Sometimes its hard to judge or pick just one. Reason being they’ll seemingly come one right after another instead of that just one, almost surreal, moment. There’s no better illustration of these than the dreaded “front page magazine cover” proclaiming not only that the good times are here; but rather, the far more important underlying premise: they’re here to stay and will only get better! All the while insinuating – to worry about anything is a fool’s errand. i.e., “everything is awesome!”