Citi's Shocking Admission: "There Is A Growing Fear Among Central Bankers They've Lost Control"

Earlier we showed a variation on a VIX chart from Citi's Hans Lorenzen which, if it doesn't impress, or scare you, then nothing probably will.

However, leaving readers unimpressed - and unscared - will not satisfy Lorenzen, which is why the credit strategist who works together with the godfather of rational doom, Matt King, and has been warning for weeks that now is the time to sell credit, unloads in one of the more effusive missives of dripping negativity to hit during this holiday week when one after another equity sellside analyst has been desperate to outgun each other with their ridiculous 2018 year end S&P forecasts.

And while Lorenzen touches on many things, at its core, his warning is straight out of Shumpeter: the longer nothing changes, the greater the crash will ultimately be, a topic which DB's Aleksandar Kocic dissected over the summer, even defining an entirely new term in the process: metastability.

 

So without further ado, here is Lorenzen explaining why "embellishing the status quo will be the market’s undoing.

Ultimately, extreme valuations, the lack of risk premia, and a lack of responsiveness to tail risks are merely symptoms. The real question is what the skewed incentive structure resulting from that backstop has done to the fabric of markets after so many years. To our minds the answer is that trades and strategies which explicitly or implicitly rely on the low-vol environment continuing, are becoming more and more ubiquitous.

 

Realised historic vol is de facto an exogenous input to much of the risk management framework that underpins modern finance. With lookbacks extending a few years, an extended period of market stability reduces VaR measures and improves Sharpe ratios. Both allow / encourage investors to take more risk – driving valuations higher and vol lower still, creating a self-reinforcing dynamic. Intuitively, returns should follow flows – money is deployed and the asset price goes up. But in the real world the causation works the other way.

What this means in real-world terms:

Long periods of one-way markets breed survivor biases. The fund manager with lots of beta outperforms, the cautious fund manager underperforms. Either the latter gets on the bandwagon or soon enough outflows from the fund will ensue. Over time, fewer and fewer “critics of the regime” are left standing.

 

In an asset class where the upside is constrained, like in credit, that dynamic is further reinforced by the fact that a fund manager has to take more and more beta relative to benchmark in order to sustain the level of excess carry that will merely cover costs. The lack of volatility and the super high correlations between credits and the index (Figure 24), leave precious little scope for alpha (Figure 25).

Here we can add another piece to the short vol conundrum, because the closer spreads get to the lower bound, the more explicitly being long credit in itself becomes a short-vol position. With less and less upside remaining, owning credit risk become a question of generating a small amount of carry (or premium) for taking future downside risk – essentially, akin to selling a put option.

Meanwhile, as spreads collapse, as dol implied and realized vol, we are all “happily” ignoring that more risk is being issued into the market than ever before (Figure 26) and that the credit quality of the market keeps slipping – for the first time ever the market cap of the BBBs is about to overtake the rest of the € IG index (Figure 27).

What happens next should be familiar from the last financial crisis: the infamous step up in risk:

When the conventional asset class of choice no longer offers a “decent” return potential, money looks to the next one on the quality spectrum for a pickup. IG funds holding BBs and AT1. DM funds buying EM debt. European and Asian funds holding more and more $ fixed income. Corporates moving their liquidity from money markets to short-dated IG credit funds. Mandate creep in the investment criteria. Even synthetic structured credit is making something of a comeback. The list of tourist trades goes on and on. Most of these too are predicated on the status quo - if volatility and risk premia were to rise, retrenchment back towards the original / natural asset allocation would be swift and uncompromising.

And then, one day, the market will finally discount that the central banks are no longer set to injection trillions in liquidity: that's the moment the public finally begins to admit the emperor is not wearing any clothes.

You could rightly argue that many of these factors are generic to every bull market. The fact that volatility clusters is exactly because of these (and other) selfreinforcing dynamics. But the implicit ceiling on vol / cap on downside from the central bank backstops has, in our view, allowed them to run for much, much longer than would have been possible in a market operating on its own devices.

 

You could argue that there is nothing to worry about as long as fundamentals remain strong. But those looking at the economic data, corporate earnings or leverage trends to indicate the next turn in markets are looking in the wrong place, if you ask us. Over the last 50 years, only 2 out of 19 corrections in US credit were led by a recession. 12 had no overlap with a  recession at all. In half the corrections, there wasn’t even a discernible turn in the leading economic indicator beforehand. Plainly, there is a long history of market corrections being triggered by other factors than fundamentals – Black Monday in 1987 and the correlation crisis in 2005 are two obvious examples.

Still, judging by the current state of the market, Citi writes that traders "evidently don’t expect a sharp market correction to happen tomorrow."

While the probability of a next-day loss still feels quite low there is an obvious temptation to stay invested a little bit longer for professional investors, tasked not with delivering a return of money, but a return on money and with high frequency. The process of judging that near-term probability manifests itself in the frenzied search for “triggers”. Surely, if one could just get a slightly better call on the next trigger, then it’d be possible to get out just in time before everyone else jams the exit? We don’t dismiss the importance of triggers. Indeed,  when you look back at the last fifty years, nearly every major correction in credit can be associated with a triggering event (Figure 28). With hindsight everything is easy.

Here Citi has some advice: don't look for triggers; instead focus on the big picture.

We are sceptical that hunting for the next trigger is worth the effort. If a trigger seems obvious, then it’s probably obvious to everyone and chances are it will be too late. Triggers are often latent – the long-term problem is obvious, but it is ignored until suddenly it explodes without much warning (think the Greek sovereign debt crisis). Multiple factors often have to  combine to create a triggering event – the GFC wasn’t just about sub-prime, it was about excessive leverage, inadequate regulation, unchecked financial innovation, misaligned rating methodologies, inadequate backstops and a host of other things. The last couple of years have seen several widely peddled “triggering events” crystallise with remarkably little shake out.

So what about the big picture? Here one can argue that in recent years the market simply wasn’t vulnerable with so much central bank money behind it. However, Lorenzen believes that "2018 is different." As we see it, it is now increasingly vulnerable to a mid-cycle, “technical” correction, based on what we have discussed above:

  • Central bank asset purchases are set to be the smallest in a decade (Figure 29). A $1tn of incremental demand versus 2017 is needed from private sources.
  • At least in the US, the opportunity cost of not being invested in credit (i.e. the yield differential to 3m LIBOR) is likely to be the smallest since 2007.
  • The perception of a backstop has facilitated a multitude of trades and strategies that are contingent on a low level of volatility in an increasingly crowded space. Now that backstop is moving “out the money”.
  • Vol is near historic lows and has been so for longer than ever before. More risk than ever before is being issued into a credit market where spreads, on a like-forlike basis, are close to the 2007 tights and where breakevens are wafer thin.

Lorenzen then branches into some chaos theory for good measure:

In the context of a self-reinforcing, herding market, the pivot point where the marginal investor is indifferent between putting more money back into risk assets and holding cash instead is fluid. But when the herd suddenly changes direction, the result is a sharp non-linear shift in asset prices. That is a problem not only for us  trying to call the market, but also for central bankers trying to remove policy accommodation at the right pace without setting off a chain reaction – especially because the longer current market dynamics run, the more energy will eventually be released.

And while not intended to be a conclusion, or even a punchline, the next line from the Citi strategist should scare the living daylights out of anyone: it is a direct admission that central bankers have now lost control.

That seems to be a growing fear among a number of central bankers that we have spoken to recently. In our experience, they too are somewhat baffled by the lack of volatility and concerned about the lack of response to negative headlines.... Our guess is that sooner or later in the process of retrenchment they will end up going too far – though that will only be obvious with hindsight.

Frankly, that's about the scariest admission from one of the world's biggest banks that we have read in a long time.

* * *

As for how this period of cataclysmic metastability ends, here is Lorenzen's dire conclusion:

In a fairy tale, turning points come suddenly and unexpectedly. Everything that has long been taken for granted is suddenly in pieces. In that sense markets are not all that different. People have gotten used to the paradigm that has been built up since the Great Financial Crisis. It has been tested on several occasions – 2011, 2012 and 2015 – and on each occasion central banks have overcome the challenge, thus ultimately reinforcing the regime.

 

The emperor in Andersen’s story was only able to parade around naked because the social norms, customs, conventions and vested interests that had built up over time were so strong that even the blatantly obvious was better left unspoken.

 

Similarly, the low risk premia, the low level of volatility, the lack of responsiveness to tail risk and spillover of systemic events, the reluctance to sell etc. to us are all indications that the market now has an almost Pavlovian response to central bank liquidity. The mere thought of it is enough to still leave us salivating, even when it is patently in the process of being turned off. Yes, excess liquidity will remain in the system even after central bank net asset purchases fall to zero, but as we have argued, if that money has chosen to stay out of the securities  market now, then why should it seamlessly come flowing in at these valuations when the backstop is moving out the money?

 

While our conviction in the exact timing and magnitude of the paradigm shift is admittedly low – hence the deliberately very wide range in the scenario forecasts – it is unwavering  when it comes to the broader point that central bank asset purchases will remain the key driver of markets. Exactly because trades and strategies have been built up around an assumption of the status quo, we fear that the inflection point, if / when it comes will be anything but smooth and linear. Indeed, the longer we remain in the current paradigm, the greater the chance that it  ends up being both sharp and painful.

 

One of our favourite quotes pertains as much to markets as it does to economics:

 

“In economics, things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they  happen faster than you thought they could.”

    ? Rudiger Dornbusch

 

Surely, that is a sentiment which the emperor who had his vanity and pride shattered so abruptly from the least likely angle would recognise all too well?

We end with one of our favorite pictures: the one we call Yellen's moment of epiphany haw it all ends.

No wonder the Fed chair can't wait to get the hell out...