It is a pure coincidence that following the previous report of stern condemnation of traditional ECB QE in the form of Large Scale Asset Purchases (LSAP) by the Bundesbank, we should follow it up with the latest analysis by Chris Wood of CLSA's famous Greed and Loathing newsletter, in which the noted skeptic does an about face on his existing short European financial trade and covers such exposure, while observing the much-discussed major shift in ECB liquidity provisioning as the catalyst. As he says, "the main reason to do [cover the Euro short fin trade] is the potential for a benign interlude provided by the ECB’s increasingly aggressive liquidity support for the European banking system." And while his trade reco may or may not be right (if we were betting people we would put our money on the latter), what is interesting is the basis for the material change in exposure which to Wood is explained simply by the dramatic shift in the ECB approach toward monetary generosity, courtesy of the arrival of ex-Goldmanite Mario Draghi. The basis is the first noted here massive surge in the European balance sheet (Figure 2) which while not engaging in prima facie monetization, has done so via indirect channels, in the form of an LTRO, which is basically a 1%, 3-year loan, but more importantly, a balance sheet expansion which while having failed to increase the velocity of money in any way (with all of the LTRO and then some now having been redeposited back at the ECB as reporter earlier), has at least fooled the market for the time being that any sub 3 Year debt is "safe" as seen by Figure 1.
And since it has worked once, in the eyes of central planners it should work again, until it fails. Which it naturally will, just like the first LTRO iteration from 2008. But first, it will be expanded to a very ludicrous level, which will lead to the one outcome that Germany wants more than any other - send the euro plunging (remember - the primary correlation of 2012 is the ratio of ECB to FED assets), at least until the Fed steps right back into the currency devaluation fray, which it likely will as soon as March. So just how large will the next LTRO be? "Market talk is focusing on an even bigger amount to be borrowed at the next 3-year longer-term refinancing operation (LTRO) due on 29 February. GREED & fear has heard guesstimates of up to €1tn!" That's right - it is possible that in its quanto monetary diarrhea (but at least it's not printing, so the Bundesbank will be delighted), the ECB is about to increase its balance sheet from €2.7 trillion to € €3.7 trillion, or a €1.7 trillion ($2.2 trillion) expansion in 8 months! And gold is where again?
Chris Wood explains:
By creating a massive incentive for European banks to buy their government’s debt issuance up to three years maturity, the new ECB leader Mario Draghi is clearly seeking to get control over the direction of Eurozone government bond yields. The dramatic decline in Eurozone bond yields up to three years suggests he is getting some traction (see Figure 1). It is also the case that absolute-return investors may be tempted to “front run” coming bond auctions if they think the ECB policy is working. On this point, market talk is focusing on an even bigger amount to be borrowed at the next 3-year longer-term refinancing operation (LTRO) due on 29 February. GREED & fear has heard guesstimates of up to €1tn!
The result is an exploding balance sheet controlled, of course, by an ex-Goldmanite, which can only be halted by Germany, but why when the EUR is crashing, keeping the German export economy vibrant.
True, the above upbeat mood can be undermined in a second by a word from Berlin indicating that Germany does not approve of Draghi’s only too evident easing intentions. It is also the case that criticism is already coming from Germany about the latest draft of the fiscal compact which contains a derisory lack of “teeth” in terms of actual measures to enforce good fiscal behaviour. Still Draghi’s responsibility is monetary policy not fiscal policy. And based on GREED & fear’s observations thus far, it is clear that former investment banker Draghi is a smooth if not slick operator who is adept at saying one thing and doing another. He will also understand that the goal of monetary easing will be undermined if it arouses German opposition. For that reason investors should assume for now that he will have the political skills to keep the Germans onside. Meanwhile, for the moment it is politically correct in Berlin to keep the banking system liquid via ECB extension of credit courtesy of dramatically relaxed collateral standards, even if it is not yet “PC” to monetise Eurozone government debt outright.
The resulting backdoor quanto easing in Eurozone is clear from the recent surge in the ECB’s balance sheet relative to the Fed’s. Thus, the ECB’s total assets have risen by 38% from €1.94tn on 1 July 2011 to €2.69tn on 6 January 2012. While the Fed’s total assets have risen by only 1% from US$2.87tn to US$2.9tn since July 2011 (see Figure 2).
There are two investment conclusions to draw from this. First, investors should assume a continuing weakening in the euro. On this point, one of the key developments so far this year is a decoupling of the euro from risk currencies such as the Aussie dollar (see Figure 3). Second, the likelihood of a significant weakening in the euro creates the clear potential for European stock markets to outperform the S&P500 this year, given the benefits to European exporters of a weaker currency. Meanwhile, one reason GREED & fear is convinced the euro will head lower is based on the view that Draghi will be quite ready to cut rates to zero if inflation data in Europe can justify such easing. Right now the money markets are discounting only a 25bp cut this year.
Clearly, all of the above does not mean that Eurozone crisis is over. There are plenty of potential landmines, for example the continuing negotiation on the Greek debt restructuring. GREED & fear also still believes that market pressure will ultimately force a more concrete fiscal union as a quid pro quo for more outright monetisation. Still with the highly flexible Draghi at the helm, and with the usual want-to-be-bullish New Year sentiment, it is too risky to keep on the recommended hedge since the risk at this juncture is all of the gains made are wiped out by a violent bear market rally.
More importantly to fans of sound currency, the bottom line is that between the ECB (assuming it does proceed with a €1 trillion LTRO), and the Fed (assuming it does go ahead and launch a $600 billion minimum (and as much as $1 trillion) QE3 as every bank expects by June), the global balance sheet will have increased by nearly $3 trillion since July, even as gold has actually declined in price. And if anyone needs the final clue as to what is going on, an increase in the US debt ceiling to $16.4 trillion which is expected to pass imminently, would mean that by simple correlation a fair value for the yellow metal would be just under $2000 per ounce.
So going back to the first paragraph: "And gold is where again?"