Open Market Operations
With Fed officials a laughing stock (both inside and outside the realm of FOMC minutes), Bank of Japan officials ever-watching eyes, and ECB officials in both self-congratulatory (Draghi) and worryingly concerned on downgrades (Nowotny), the world's central bankers appear, if nothing else, convinced that all can be solved with the printing of some paper (and perhaps a measure of harsh words for those naughty spendaholic politicians). The dramatic rise in central bank balance sheets and just-as-dramatic fall in asset quality constraints for collateral are just two of the items that UBS's economist Larry Hatheway considers as he asks (and answers) the critical question of just how safe are central banks. As he sees bloated balance sheets relative to capital and the impact when 'stuff happens', he discusses why the Eurozone is different (no central fiscal authority backstopping it) and notes it is less the fear of large losses interfering with liquidity provision directly but the more massive (and explicit) intrusion of politics into the 'independent' heart of central banking that creates the most angst. While he worries for the end of central bank independence (most specifically in Europe), we remind ourselves of the light veil that exists currently between the two and that the tooth fairy and santa don't have citizen-suppressing printing presses.
When one has $2.9 trillion in costless AUM (because if the cost is breached, one just doubles down, especially if one prints the money), it is not all that surprising to generate $77 billion in profits in one year (think of the hubris emanating from that particular year end letter), or even $385 billion in profits in the past 10 years. Yet it is still a stunning number considering the rest of the $2 trillion hedge fund industry lost about 10% in 2011. Which is why we all bow down to what is without doubt the world's most lucrative and profitable generator of P&L in history: the Federal Reserve, which for the second year in a row has printed (pun intended) over $70 billion in profits. And who is the lucky LP? Why the US Treasury of course, which for the second year in a row will pocket all the proceeds from PM Ben's immaculate trading perfection. Of course, there is one caveat for this spotless performance sheet: what happens when Fed interest expense surpasses interest income? But why worry - everyone tells us this can never happen, so it obviously can never happen...
SocGen explains why the €490 billion LTRO number is misleading and why, net of rolls, the actual new liquidity is about 60% lower. In other news, don't forget to add €210 billion in net "assets" to the ECB's already record balance sheet of €2.494 trillion, bringing it to a fresh new record of €2.7 trillion, or $3.5 trillion. At what point will the market start asking questions of the world's most insolvent Frankfurt-based hedge fund (which has repeatedly said it refuses to print cash to cover capital shortfalls) we wonder.
At this point it is clear that there is no single person in America, and possibly the planet who can influence markets as much as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. The president may have more overall power (possibly) but in terms of moving markets for weeks at a time, that power primarily belongs to Mr. Bernanke. An unelected official with almost total control over the “board” he chairs. Some have argued whether the Fed should even exist. Peter Tchir doesn’t go that far (it is beyond his scope), and it is understandable why the Fed needs some independence. But we don’t understand why Bernanke isn’t accountable or why there aren’t limits.
We believe that the issue of primary dealer status – the role of the primary dealers, the significance of foreign firms and their importance in the primary dealer process, versus domestic US firms – needs to be examined. It needs to be aired publically.
Yesterday, Barclays' Ben Powell of macro sales sent out the following note to clients, which referenced a as of then unconfirmed report in the China Securities Journal: "China putting 1Tr RMB into its banks?? Very positive no? The attached bloomberg story suggests that China may inject >Tr1 Yuan into its banks deposits before the end of the year. This is a meaningful number vs the Tr7.5 RMB that the banks are expected to lend in 2011 as a whole. So what? 2 things. Most obviously this is cheap liquidity to Chinese banks that should see SHIBOR continue to fall and banks shares to rise. And secondly more broadly this would seem to suggest (again) that the rumours of easing are true. This will add fuel to the soft landing argument that I have been pushing. Remain long Chinese banks on very simple easing + bearishness = up thesis." Granted the Barclays spin was to go long China (incidentally just in time for the biggest drop in the Chinese market since October 20), but the real take home here is that China is now actively pumping money to bail out its own banks once again! And not just token money - €158.2 bilion. So how much money will be left to fund the European bailout which is oh so contingent on Chinese generosity? The short answer? Pretty much nothing, as confirmed by the fact that today's €3 billion EFSF deal was underbid and the underwriters were left holding about €500 million of the total issue. As usual, good luck Europe with your multifunctional Swiss EFSF Army knife.
We are all quite aware of the fact that heightened volatility has become a short term norm in the financial markets as of late. Not surprisingly, we’re seeing the same thing in a number of recent economic surveys. The most current poster child example being the Philly Fed survey that has shown us historic month over month whipsaw movement over the last few months. Movement measured in standard deviation parameters has been breathtaking. All part of a “new normal” in volatility? For now, yes. But over the very short term economic surveys and stats have been taking a back seat in driving investor behavior and decision making in deference to the “promise” of ever more money printing. Of course this time the central bank wizardry will happen across the pond, although the US Fed is also now back to carrying out it’s own modest permanent open market operations (money printing) relatively quietly, but consistently, as of late. Although over the short term “money makes the world go ‘round”, we need to remember that historic money printing in the US in recent years only acted to offset asset value contraction in the financial sector and did not lead to macro credit cycle acceleration engendering meaningful aggregate demand and GDP expansion. And we should expect a Euro money printing experience to be different? Seriously?
We'll have to see what hits the fan this week.
It was fun while the Liesman rumormill lasted:
- Italy CDS +12 bps to 460
- Spain CDS + 8 bps to 375
- Portugal CDS + 10 bps to 1,110
- Ireland CDS + 18 bps to 736
- Greece CDS: Many points upfront but running joke
And in other news Germany just barely auctioned off E5 billion in 5 year bonds (Bobls) at the lowest Bid To Cover since the inception of the Euro.
You are being lied to. There is currently more than sufficient evidence that indicates that we are either in, or about to be in, a recession. The last time I made that statement was in December of 2007. In December of 2008 the National Bureau of Economic Research stated that we were correct. I don't make statements like that lightly and, honestly, I hope I am wrong as this is a horrible time for the economy to relapse. However, the reason that I bring this up is that there have been numerous analysts and economists stating that the economy cannot be going into recession due to the spread between various sets of interest rates. (For the purpose of this report we will focus on the spread between the 1-year Treasury bond and the 10-year Treasury note.) Historically speaking they would be correct and I will explain why.
The Fed has been reduced to promoting politically expedient "solutions" in the face of a moribund global economy suffering from persistent and intractable unemployment.
The ECB's new bond purchases are not being sterilized like last year. In fact, just the opposite.
The Fed just announced that going forward it will proceed with reverse repo series every two months. The reason? "The operations have been designed to have no material impact on the availability of reserves or on market rates. Specifically, the aggregate amount of outstanding reverse repo transactions will be very small relative to the level of excess reserves, and the transactions will be conducted at current market rates." With liquidity already being very scarce courtesy of the FDIC assessment, of Europe wreaking havoc with money markets, of repos pulling out of the market at a record pace, of O/N General Collateral trading with the same volatility as the S&P, this will surely have no impact at all on anything, just like all other centrally planned, and carefully thought through actions.
One of the key catalysts for Wednesday's market rout which originated in Europe came following news that Chinese banks had cut down on their credit lines to Europe, which highlighted the key threat to the European banking system: access to liquidity. The Chinese reaction is merely a symptom of a much deeper underlying ailment: the increasing lack of counterparty confidence across various funding markets, both traditional and shadow, which has continued to accelerate over the past week, a development summarized effectively by the latest report in the International Financing Review which uses some powerful words (of the type that European bureaucrats hate) to explain where Europe stands right now: "credit taps run dry for European lenders, setting scene for liquidity crisis." For those strapped for time the take home message is that: "with bond markets shut and investors unwilling to buy asset-backed securities, the repo market – for some banks the sole remaining source of private funding – has become the most recent tap to run dry, with some investment banks pulling credit lines worth tens of billions of euros in recent weeks." This is very disturbing as with liquidity windows shut, Europe's bank have no recourse on how to roll the €4.8 trillion in wholesale and interbank funding which expires in the next two years. End result: the only recourse is the ECB, which unlike the Fed, is not suited to be a lender of last resort and has been morphing into that role over the past year kicking and screaming. And when that fails, there are the Fed's liquidity swap lines. Too bad that the liabilities in the European banking system are orders of magnitude bigger than in the US, and should this liquidity crisis transform into its next and more virulent phase, even the Fed will find it does not have enough capital to prevent a worldwide short squeeze on the world's carry trade funding currency (once known as the reserve currency).
Markets witnessed forex intervention from Japan overnight to curb the strength in JPY, which together with further monetary easing by the BoJ weighed upon the currency across the board, and observed USD/JPY to gain around 300 pips since the initial intervention. In other forex news, strength in the USD-Index weighed upon EUR/USD and GBP/USD as well as commodity-linked currencies, whereas the NZD came under further pressure after New Zealand's finance minister said that strength in NZD is a headwind for the economy. Elsewhere, European equities traded lower in early trade, however did come off their earlier lows after some analysts pointed out that the ECB may reactivate its Securities Market Programme (SMP), which also helped the Eurozone peripheral 10-year government bond yield spreads to narrow. In other news, the BoE kept its benchmark interest rate and asset purchase target unchanged at 0.50% and GBP 200bln respectively as expected, whereas the ECB left its key interest rate unchanged at 1.50% as expected. Moving into the North American open, markets look ahead to the ECB's press-conference following its rate decision to gaze into future policy-direction of the central bank. US jobless claims data is also scheduled for later in the session, whereas in fixed income there is another Fed's Outright Treasury Coupon Purchase operation in the maturity range of Feb'17-Jul'18, with a purchase target of USD 2.75-3.5bln.