Great Chart: US Yield Curves: 5Y30Y vs. 3M10Y

On Friday (March 22nd), the disappointing German PMIs led to little sell-off in global equities and a rise in risk-off assets such as government bonds and safe-haven currencies (i.e. JPY, CHF). For the past month, we have been warning that the elevated uncertainty in addition to the low level of global yields were challenging the healthiness of the equity recovery since the beginning of the year. Moreover, fundamentals have been fairly weak overall (in the US, China and even in the Euro area), with leading economic indicators diverging from equities’ performance. For instance, many indicators have been pricing in a slowdown in the US economic activity, however the SP500 index is up approximately 14 percent year-to-date and trading 100pts short from its all-time highs reached in the end of September last year.

With the German 10Y yield falling in the negative territory, the amount of debt trading below 0 percent reached $10tr, up $2tr since the beginning of the year. In addition, the divergence between the 3M10Y and 5Y30Y yield curved have continued; while the 3M10Y turned negative (gaining all the market’s attention), the 5Y30Y has been trending higher in recent months, up 40bps to 66bps in the past 6 months. In this great chart, we can notice an interesting observation: each time the 5Y30Y has started to steepen before the end of the economic cycle, the 3M10Y followed the move 6 months later. We know that the critical moment of the business cycle is when the yield curve is starting to steepen dramatically. Hence, should we worry about the steepening of the 5Y30Y?

Chart. 3M10Y vs. 5Y30Y (6M Lead) – Source: Eikon Reuters

US yield

Why have reserves fallen so dramatically since 2014?

The introduction of QE in order to re-instaure financial stability first and then bring back appetite for risky assets has led to an incredible expansion of the central banks’ balance sheet. For instance, the Fed’s total assets increased from roughly $900bn in the summer of 2008 to $4.5tr in 2015 after several rounds of monetary stimulus (see recap of QE history here). The purchase of those financial securities (Treasuries and MBS) through commercial banks led to a significant increase in reserves held at the Fed, which soared from a negligible amount prior the crisis to a high of $2.8tr in August 2014.

Then in October 2017, the Fed began Quantitative Tightening (QT), which consists in unwinding those massive portfolios and normalizing monetary policy. Since then, the Fed’s total assets balance has declined by roughly $500bn to $4tr, of which $2.2tr of Treasuries and $1.6tr of MBS. However, on the liability side, we noticed a strong reduction of reserves by approximately $1.2tr since their highs (current reserve balances of $1.6tr). Why have reserves fallen so dramatically since 2014?

The chart on the left shows the different components of the Fed’s balance sheet liabilities. While the excess reserves are down by $1.2tr, the currency in circulation and the Treasury balances have increased by $423bn and $291bn, respectively. The other smaller liabilities are foreign currency holdings and the reverse repurchase agreements (reverse repos, RRPs), which are roughly flat since 2014. Therefore, the increase in currency outstanding and Treasury balances accounted for $714bn, which confirms that the remainder is associated with the shrinkage of the Fed’s asset holdings (i.e. $500bn).

Reverse repos and Monetary Base

Even though the dollar amount of reverse repos is roughly at the same level where it was in 2014 (USD 250bn), an interesting observation arises when we look at the times series of the monetary base and reverse repos (figure 1, right frame). The monetary base, which is the sum of the currency in circulation and reserve balances, fell from $4.1tr in August 2014 to $3.4tr in January 2017 although the Fed had not started its QT process (assets were steady at $4.5tr). The fall in reserves was partly offset by an increase in reverse repos, which soared from $230bn to $520bn during the same period. This means that the Fed was already tightening its monetary policy back then by draining the banking system of the reserves it had created. The monetary base was reduced as the Fed was lending out its bonds in exchange for the reserves that the bond purchases created (transactions called reverse repos). Banks reserves are therefore temporarily reduced, replaced by ‘reverse repurchase agreements’.

Figure 1. Fed liabilities, monetary base and reverse repos (Source: FRED)

Repo Fed

Great Chart: USD REER vs. VEU/SPY

An interesting observation arises when we plot the annual change in the US Dollar with the relative performance of US vs. World (ex-US) equities. As you can notice it in the chart, the World (ex-US) equity market tends to outperform the US market when the US Dollar is weakening. For instance, the US Dollar (USD REER) performance in 2018 led to  an outperformance of US equites (SPY) over World (VEU) up to 20% before the last quarter.

In addition, this chart shows that the annual change in the USD tends to mean revert over time, fluctuating between -10 and +10 percent. Hence, investors could not only benefit from playing the range on the greenback, but also speculate on equity relative performance between US and non-US stocks. As we expect the US Dollar to weaken through the course of the year, this could lead to a significant performance of the world (ex-US) equities. A weaker USD also eases the pressure in the EM corporate bond market, which is heavily USD-denominated, and therefore loosens financial conditions.

Chart. USD REER vs. US / World (ex-US) equities – YoY Change

 

Is it time to go long UK financial assets?

Last year, there were worries that the continued depreciation of the British pound was going to increase inflationary pressure in the UK economy and therefore force policymakers to start a hawkish tightening cycle. With uncertainty still significantly elevated, demand for Gilts would keep UK LT years at low levels and many analysts predicted a potential ‘yield curve inversion’ as one of the main outcomes for this year.

However, over the past few months, the fall in oil prices in addition to the 12M lagged currency ‘effect’ have been pressuring inflation expectations to the downside. Our model, which incorporates the annual change in currency and oil prices as two key inputs, has been predicting a correction in future inflation prints in the UK (figure 1, left frame). Therefore, with the short-term implied yield curves Dec19 Mar19 and Dec20 Dec19 trading at 19.5bps and 15bps, respectively, the market expects slightly less than two hikes by the end of 2020 (figure 1, right frame). This leaves policymakers more flexibility concerning their interest rate normalization policy after warning that Brexit uncertainty ‘intensified considerably’ in the end of last year.

Figure 1

Inflation model

Source: Eikon Reuters, RR

Mixed signs from leading indicators and surveys

As for many developed countries, industrial production has contracted significantly in the few couple of months of 2018, down 1.5% YoY in November. However, we can notice that our leading indicator recently ticked up and therefore is pricing a stabilization in the UK business activity (figure 2, left frame). It is still too early to switch our forecast to positive and therefore the next few data points will be important to watch in order to take a fundamental view on UK financial assets. On the other hand, the CFO survey from Deloitte is standing at 2016 critical levels, as CFOs expect uncertainty to impact business spending and lower hiring in the medium term.

Figure 2

Leading

Source: Eikon Reuters,

Uncertainty and firms’ investments

Empirical studies from the Bank of England found significant negative relationship between uncertainty and firm’s investments. For instance, Melolinna et al. (2018) found that the uncertainty, along with the cost of capital and macroeconomic fundamentals, has been an important driver of investment. The authors measure the uncertainty at a firm-specific level, which is the daily volatility in individual stock prices that cannot be explained by general market variation (CAPM model). Figure 3 (left frame) shows negative co-movement between uncertainty (HFM) and the UK business investment.

In another study, Smietanka et al. (2018) look at the macroeconomic uncertainty, which looks at the dispersion in surveys of professional forecasters. Figure 3 (right frame) also demonstrates a negative relationship between uncertainty (U) and the level of investment (dash line is a fitted line based on post-2008 sample).

Figure 3

Mel

Source: Melolinna et al. (2018), Smietanka et al. (2018)

Interesting risk premia for the long-run

Hence, the elevated uncertainty, combined with low consumption growth (consumption growth decreased from 0.9% annual prior the financial crisis to 0.3% post-Brexit) and a sluggish growth in the housing market are all going to weigh on the 3 to 6-month outlook, which may be reflected in asset prices. However, fundamentals in the UK have not deteriorated as in some of the European countries (i.e. France), and therefore we could expect an outperformance of UK assets relative to European ones. Figure 4 (left frame shows that the UK stock market appears cheap relative to the US and Europe.

Figure 4

Excess liquidity

Source: Bloomberg, Eikon Reuters, RR

What does it mean for the pound?

As we mentioned it in our latest FX Weekly, the British pound got strong support when it fell below the 1.25 level against the US dollar, therefore we think that buying Cable below that support could offer interesting returns for longer-term investors. As we expect the US dollar to weaken within the next 12 months (in our base scenario), currencies such as the euro and the pound could offset some of the USD weakness.

As we can see it in Figure 5, Cable is currently flirting with the 1.29 level, which corresponds to the 61.8% Fibo retracement of the 1.1975 – 1.4350 range and the 100-day SMA. A breakout of this area could lead us to the next retracement at 1.32. However, GBP may stabilize in the short term and therefore we think it could be interesting to play the crosses (long EURGBP and short GBPJPY). In addition, we can notice an interesting observation in figure 6, which shows the strong co-movement between GBPJPY and the world (ex-US) equities; we usually tend to look at AUDJPY as a proxy for risk-on / risk-off environment. Therefore, GBP could also be impacted by a small consolidation in the stock market.  

Figure 5

Cable

Source: Eikon Reuters

Figure 6

GBP and VEU

Source: Eikon Reuters

Can the SKEW/VIX predict market corrections?

Over the past few years, we have developed a series of indicators of market complacency in order to prevent investors of a sudden spike in price volatility after a long period of calm. One of them looks at the divergence between the Economic Policy Uncertainty EPU index (Baker et al., 2016), a measure of economic uncertainty based on newspaper coverage frequency, and the VIX. Figure 1 (right frame) shows that over the past few years, the EPU index has been displaying a much higher risk level that would be inferred from the options market. Some also watch the activity in the TED spread, which has been distorted since the financial crisis due to a tightening up of regulations and changes in money market funds (figure 1, right frame), and notice when it starts to stir.

Figure 1

Fig1 New

Source: Eikon Reuters

An interesting one looks at the behavior of the SKEW index relative to the VIX. As we previously mentioned, since the crash of October 1987 (Black Monday, DJ down 22.6%), investors have realized that S&P500 tail risk (returns that are under 2 or more standard deviations below the mean) is significantly greater than under a log-normal distribution. Therefore, the ‘skew’ measures the perceived tail risk of the market via the pricing of OTM options. A rise in skew indicates that ‘crash protection’ is in demand among institutional investors. A ‘low VIX/high skew’ combination says that the market is complacent, however the ‘big players’ perceive far more tail risk than usually. Therefore, a surprise increase in realized volatility may not be too far away.

Figure 2 shows the times series of the VIX, the SKEW and the weekly change in the SP500. As you can see, a sustain period of falling VIX and rising SKEW is generally followed by a sharp spike in implied volatility. For instance, while the VIX was approaching the 10 level in the summer of 2014, the SKEW index had been on a rise in the year preceding that period, rising from 113 in July 2013 to 146 in September 2014. In addition, the Fed stepped out of the bond market in October 2014 (end of QE3) and therefore exacerbated investors’ concern on the market. We then saw huge moves in both equities and bonds in the middle of that month and the 18-month period that followed was basically a flat equity market with some significant drawdowns (October 2014, August 2015 and December 2015 / January 2016). The second period we highlighted was in 2016 / 2017, which was marked by an extremely low volatility and a rising SKEW. We saw that things reverted drastically in the February VIX-termination event. Following this event, we eventually had another period of falling VIX and rising SKEW in the next months before the October sell-off. We can notice in the chart that the SKEW does not stay above the 150 threshold for too long, hence a VIX trading at around 12 and a SKEW at 150 were last summer were indicating a potential market turmoil.

Figure 2

Fig2 New (1)

Source: Eikon Reuters

The SKEW/VIX behavior does not predict a market correction all the time (i.e. the SKEW had been falling for months prior the August 2015 sell-off), however we think that investors should remain cautious when the SKEW starts to rise above 140 and the VIX remains low. While a falling VIX would push investors to increase their leverage (target vol strategies or risk parity funds), we think that looking at the two variables for portfolio construction could help reduce the potential drawdowns.

FX Cross-Currency Basis Swaps and Hedging Costs

One interesting topic in the FX market that has been closely studied by both academics and practitioners over the past decade is the violation of the covered interest parity (CIP). CIP is a textbook no-arbitrage condition that states that interest rate differential between two currencies should equal the differential between the forward and spot exchange rates. In other words, in discrete time, we have the following condition:

Where S is the spot exchange rate, F is the forward exchange rate, i is the domestic interest rate and i* is the foreign currency interest rate. The problem is that the above equation has held since the Great Financial Crisis; as it started to become more expensive to borrow US Dollars against most currencies during periods of stress, the cross-currency basis swap (CCBS) has been diverging from zero for the Euro, the British pound and the Japanese Yen. Figure 1 (left frame) shows the evolution of the 3-month CCBS for the three currencies (against the USD) since 2012.

Low interest rates combined with the significant divergence in unconventional monetary policies run by the BoJ and ECB over the years has put pressure on the exchange rates and the CCBS, and therefore has increased the hedging costs for Euro and Japanese investors. The current rate on the US 10Y Treasuries (3.15%) looks certainly very interesting for unhedged international investors (relative to domestic bonds such as in the Euro area or Japan), however changes drastically when we adjust for hedging costs. Figure 2 represents the cash-flows that occur at the start, during the term and at maturity when a Euro investor (A) enters a cross currency basis swap. As you can see, each quarter A pays the 3M USD Libor and receives the 3M Euribor and the basis. Hence, the more negative is the basis, the higher the hedging cost. With the 3M Euribor at -0.316%, the 3M CCBS at -44bps and the 3M Libor USD at 2.61%, the current return on a FX-hedged 10Y US Treasuries is negative (-20bps). Figure 1 (right frame) shows that despite the rise in US yields since the middle 2016, it has been falling for Euro and JPY investors after adjusting for FX hedging costs. A UK investor would get an annual return of 1.35%, which is 15bps below he can get in holding a 10Y Gilt.

Figure 1

Fig1.PNG

Source: Eikon Reuters

 

Figure 2

Fig2.png

Source: BIS

 

Great Chart: AUDJPY vs. EM equities

Prior the Financial Crisis, the carry trade strategy in the currency market was perceived to be a profitable and generated significant returns for traders seeking for yields. In the appendix A, we show the performance of the carry strategy between 1975 and 2008, along with the performance of equities and fixed income according to a 2008 publication from JP Morgan. We can notice that the funded carry strategy, which invested equally in three currencies with the highest yields funded by borrowing from the three currencies with the lowest yields, outperformed both fixed income and equity returns during that period. According to JPM calculations, if you invested $1 in 1975 in each of the strategy, the initial investment in funded carry grew to $84.16 in early 2008 (vs. $15.25 in fixed income and $51.74 in equities), whilst experiencing volatility levels between those two assets.

However, the situation changed abruptly during the financial crisis when the carry currencies (i.e. AUD) plummeted and funding curries (i.e. JPY) experienced significant appreciation. For instance, if we take the AUDJPY exchange rate as a proxy of the traditional G10 carry trade, we can see in Appendix B that the strategy followed the same pattern as the (US) equity market and hence experienced a sharp correction between July 2008 and March 2009 (AUDJPY was down 45%). Since then, many investors have considered the carry trade strategy to be a risk-on strategy, exhibiting strong co-movements with DM equity markets (hence poor for diversification) and described it as a ‘gradual appreciation punctuated by sudden crashes’ type of behavior (the famous quote: ‘going up by the stairs, and coming down by the elevator’). It is quite usual for an EU/US global macro trader or investor to watch the overnight Yen developments to see if anything major happened in Japan or China for example (strong Yen appreciation usually means bearish macro news for equities).

Even though the co-movement between AUDJPY and US equities (SP500) has been inexistent over the past 5 years, an interesting observation emerges when we overlay the AUDJPY exchange rate with EM equities. As you can see it on the chart, EM equities have moved in tandem with the ‘carry’ exchange rate; the 3M daily realized correlation stands now at 92%. AUDJPY is almost down 10 figures (i.e. 12%) since mid-January, and traded below 79 earlier this month, its lowest level in two years. We will see if the correlation persists in the months to come and if a rebound in the Aussie (or Yen weakness) will benefit to EM equities, which are down more than 25% since January highs.

Chart: AUDJPY vs. EM Equities (Source: Eikon Reuters)

AUDJPY EM.PNG

Appendix A: Carry Strategy vs. Equities and FI (Source: JP Morgan)Carry.PNG

Appendix B: AUDJPY vs. SP500 (Eikon Reuters)AUDJPY 2008.PNG

How long will the UK equity market hold?

With an expected annual real growth of 1.5% in 2018 according to the general consensus, the UK economy switched from the top DM performer in 2014 to bottom 2 in 2018, the second lowest growing country after Japan (1.2%).  Uncertainty around Brexit is still weighing on the economic outlook, which is pushing the Bank of England to keep a loose monetary policy and use different tools to counter a potential downturn. As a result of the referendum, policymakers announced in August 2016 a GBP 70bn expansion of the central bank’s balance sheet, purchasing GBP 60bn of government bonds (Gilts) and GBP 10bn of corporate bonds. In addition, the BoE also provided GBP 127bn of cheap loans (TFS drawings) to banks through the Term Funding Scheme (TFS), a 4-year funding at the BoE Base Rate plus a fee to the banks requiring them to lend into the real economy (an equivalent to the LTROs in the Euro area). Therefore, if we combine the three outstanding amounts together (figure 1, left frame), the BoE balance sheet’s total assets currently stand at GBP 572bn, or roughly 28% of UK’s GDP. In addition, UK policymakers kept the Official Bank rate at low levels and have slowly started a tightening cycle (figure 1, right frame)The base rate currently stands at 0.75%, and market participants are pricing in 1 to 2 hikes by the end of 2019, with the Short-Sterling Dec19 futures contract trading at 98.85 (1.15% implied rate).

Figure 1

Fig1.PNG

Source: Bank of England, Eikon Reuters

Even though the headline inflation in the UK is running at 2.5%, significantly helped by Sterling weakness following the referendum and the recovery in energy prices, policymakers are in a difficult position as the economic activity seems to be slowing down according to the fundamentals. Our leading economic indicator, which is built using a combination of survey and price data as inputs, is pricing a slowdown in industrial production within the next 6 months. Therefore, using the industrial production as a proxy of the UK’s economy activity, the real GDP annual growth could be actually be lower than the 1.5% expected for 2018.

Inflation should remain high according to our 6-month forecasting model, averaging an annual growth (CPI) of 2.5%/3% for the rest of the year, therefore nominal GDP in the UK should average 4% (which is far significantly higher than the 1.5% 10Y yield). Overall, political uncertainty around Brexit and the Trade war in addition to slowing fundamentals should limit growth expectations to the upside in the medium term and therefore should be reflected in the real and financial economy.

Figure 2

Fig2

Source: Eikon Reuters, RR

Another interesting observation is the dramatic decrease in excess liquidity, computed as the difference between the annual growth of real M1 (CPI adjusted) and annual growth in industrial production. According to many empirical studies, an increase in excess liquidity should benefit to the risky assets such as the stock market. As you can see it in figure 3 (left frame), excess liquidity has significantly decreased from 10.15% in August 2016 to 0.51% in June 2018 and therefore could weigh on UK equities in the medium term. In figure 3 (right frame), we use excess liquidity as a 6M leading indicator that we overlay with the annual performance of UK financials (using Eikon Reuters Total Return Index), a sector which is usually considered to act as a barometer of the country’s economy. We can clearly notice that financials tend to perform badly in periods of decelerating excess liquidity.

Figure 3

Fig3.PNG

Source: Eikon Reuters, RR

With the 10-year on Gilts trading slightly below 1.5% and an equity market up 1,500 points since Brexit (trading at 7,630 and 230pts away from the all-time high reached on May 21st), the British pound was the main asset that suffered from the Brexit vote. Cable plummeted from 1.4750 in early May 2016 to hit a low of 1.20 in October 2016 (its lowest level since 1985) before starting its recovery to 1.44 on the back of a US Dollar weakness in 2017. This year, Sterling is once again under pressure since the start of the Dollar rally in April, down 16 figures and currently trading below 1.29. Market sentiment is extremely bearish, with speculative investors net short -72.3K contracts according to the CFTC (August 21st CoT report). In figure 4 (left frame), we can notice that the 33K increase in longs was offset by the massive increase in shorts from -82.4K to -140.4K (-58K) over the past month. We think there is still room for GBP weakness in the next three months to come ahead of Brexit negotiations, but the premium and the convexity on shorting the pound at these levels are not that interesting in our opinion.

However, it seems that the equity market has not been reacting neither to Brexit uncertainty and the recent slowdown in UK fundamentals. Figure 4 (right frame) shows that over the past two years, to the exception of the early 2018 (global) equity sell-off, the Footsie 100 index has been significantly sensitive to a move in Sterling (see more here). For instance, Cable’s weakness starting in mid-April has helped pushed UK equities to hit new all-time highs, with the index soaring from 6,890 On March 26th to 7,860 on May 21st. Even though we may see some further GBP weakness in the months to come that could push UK equities to new highs, we think that current low levels of implied volatility (FTSE 100 VIX is currently trading at 11) offer a good opportunity for investors to hedge against a sudden sell-off within the next 6 months.

Figure 4

Fig4.PNG

Source: Eikon Reuters, CFTC

Great Chart: US ST Yield Curve vs. Cyclical-Defensive Stocks

Lately, the sharp revision of the US annual saving rate (up 1.6% on average since 2010) shifted growth expectations to the upside and lowered the bottom of the unemployment rate for the next few quarters. For instance, Goldman revised its GDP growth to 3% in Q4 (from 2.5% previously) and to 2% for 2019 (vs. 1.75%) and expects the unemployment rate to bottom at 3% in 2020. As a result, some investors are starting to consider that we may see more rate hikes by the Fed than currently expected. With two more hikes priced in for this year and another two to three for 2019, market participants expect the Fed Funds rate to hit [at most] 3.25% by the end of next year, which is more or less in line with the  Fed’s dot plot released at the June meeting (median projection at 3.125% for 2019).

However, we saw that the market is not expecting any more hikes post-2019, which could be interpreted as the end of the tightening cycle by US policymakers. According to the Eurodollar futures market, the December 2019 and December 2020 implied rates are trading equally at 3.06%, which suggests that the US economic outlook is expected to slow down at the end of next year. Hence, an interesting analysis is look at which sectors should perform well within the next 12 to 24 months if we stick with the scenario that economic uncertainty will increase at the end of 2019. A classic strategy looks at the Cyclical vs. the Defensive stocks. The main difference between Cyclical and Defensive stocks is their correlation to the economic cycle; Cyclical stocks tend to do well in periods of economic expansion (relative to Defensive stocks) but tend to experience more losses during recessions. According to empirical research, one of the main aspects that drive Cyclical and Defensive stocks’ performance is the beta of these stocks (also called the market risk premium). As the Defensive stocks are more resilient to an economic downturn, their beta is lower than 1 (resp. higher than 1 for Cyclical stocks).

Therefore, if we take the EuroDollar (ED) Dec19-Dec20 implied rate yield curve as our leading indicator of the business cycle, a flattening yield curve should benefit to the Defensive stocks (vs. Cyclical stocks). However, the chart below tells us a different story (Original Source: Nomura). We looked at the relationship between Cyclical-versus-Defensive sectors and the Dec19-Dec20 ED yield curve since the summer of 2008, and noticed that the two times series have been diverging for the past two years. The yield curve has constantly been flattening during that period, however Cyclical stocks have outperformed Defensive Stocks. We chose Materials, IT and Industrials sectors for the Cyclicals and HealthCare, Telecom and Utilities sectors for the Defensives (Source: Thomson Reuters Total Return Indices), and compute the ratio of the Cyclicals and Defensives new indices (find attached the file).

If you expect the two series to convergence back together, this would imply either a sudden steepening of the yield curve or Cyclicals to underperform Defensives.

Chart: ED Dec19-Dec20 yield curve vs. Cyclical-Defensive stocks (Source: Eikon Retuers)

Sectors vs. YC.PNG

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