In A World Artificially Priced To Perfection, The Imperfections Appear

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From Guy Haselmann of ScotiaBank

Mini-Contagion

The US economy has shown some hints of improvement, but overall it is plodding along at a pace that is neither strong nor awful. Most economists expect momentum to improve slowly to a 3% GDP growth pace in 2014, and something slightly above that in 2015. These forecasts are probably the best-case scenario. Therefore, they have asymmetrical skew to the down side. Due to crowded positions, valuations priced to perfection, and a confluence of global economic headwinds, the riskiest financial assets also have downside distribution skews of potential outcomes.

The most visible worry for investors is coming out of China, as Beijing and the PBoC attempt to tame growing imbalances and a dangerous credit boom. Recent defaults and sharp drops in many industrial commodity prices are not random events, but rather intricately connected to official plans for economic transformation. Premier Li said people should be prepared for bond and financial product defaults. In addition, PBoC announced plans for full interest rate liberalization by 2016. These changes are necessary in order for the Chinese government to pursue its ultimate goal of the Renminbi someday becoming a reserve currency.

Beijing maintains tight capital account controls. In recent months, the PBoC has expressed concerns about ‘hot money’ inflow. Total fund inflows amounted to approximately $500 billion in 2013. Officials who are trying to liberalize markets have not liked the perceived one-way bet on the Renminbi. One of the most popular (levered) trades has been to borrow in Yen and invest the proceeds in Renminbi. The trade made  sense, because the investor earned the large interest rate differential, while also benefiting from what had appeared to be the governmentally-controlled direction of each currency (Yuan stronger, Yen weaker).

One factor that may have prompted Beijing’s forceful currency move was anger at the Japanese who have driven their currency down 25% on a trade weighted basis. Their angst has likely been heightened by the fact that the US has refrained from any criticism of Japan’s policy. Recently, elevated geo-political uncertainties with Russia and EM, means that the Yen’s status as a safe haven has been putting upward pressure on the Yen. Thus, both currencies are moving the wrong way, further decimating investor yen-carry trades.

The changes being implemented to China’s economic development model are changing the behavior of State Owned Enterprises and local banks. Fewer loans are available, and loan refinancings, if available, require worse terms. Chronic overcapacity is now combining with slowing economic growth to increase debt servicing problems. Cross-guarantees risk a series of chain defaults which could then hit key supply chains.

Overcapacity is partially being blamed for plunging prices in copper, iron, cement, aluminum, solar panels and coal. Real asset collateral for trade finance arrangements ‘gone bad’ have resulted in further downward price pressures.

Lower prices and the drop in demand for key commodities products have proven to be disruptive not just for speculators, but for emerging markets in particular. The mini-contagion already appears to be leaving its mark on financial markets and the global economy.

In the past, during signs of economic weakness, the Chinese government was quick to authorize new large infrastructure projects or encourage new credit creation, but this time, those options are not desirable by officials as they are much riskier options at this point.

China, Japan and the US are the three largest economies in the world. Each country is currently in the midst of highly-significant policy maneuvers. The Fed is bringing QE to an end. China is dealing with the credit bubble issues outlined above. Japan is lifting its consumption tax from 5% to 8%. Japan’s hike in 1997 from 3% to 5% pushed the economy into a recession. In addition, Russian sanctions could magnify and potentially take a large bite out of global economic growth.

Portfolios will need to adapt to this changing environment. Just about everyone is anticipating higher Treasury yields. Most PM’s are short duration. However, the term premium is falling quickly. The technical chart looks outstanding on the long end. Macro factors are also beginning to align. I believe the next 50bps in the 30year (yield) is shaping up to be a move toward lower (not higher) yields. Portfolios are ill-prepared.

“The only thing I knew how to do was to keep on keeping on.” – Bob Dylan