2020 onwards: struggling economy, more QE?

In the past cycle, central banks have been constantly intervening in the market to counter the strong disinflationary force coming from the 3D: Debt, Demographics, Disruption. Figure 1 shows that between the beginning of 2008 and early 2020, the assets from the major 5 central banks grew steadily by a annual pace of $1.25tr per year, for a total of $15tr in 12 years.

As a response to the Covid19 shock, central banks just printed more in order to prevent the economies from falling into a deflationary depression, which resulted in a 7-trillion-dollar increase in central banks’ assets in the past 8 months. The titanic liquidity injections resulted in a significant rebound in equities, especially in the US with the SP500 trading over 100 points above its February high.

With most of the European economies entering a second lockdown, and restrictions also expected to be announced in the US (as the elections are now over), governments will again run aggressive fiscal policies and extend the furlough schemes in order to avoid the rise of social unrest, which will result in more money printing from central banks in the coming months.

Is it as simple as this: the worst the economy gets, the better it is for stocks as it will result in more liquidity injections?

Image
Source: Eikon Reuters, RR calculations

Steeper yield curve or stronger US Dollar?

In the past few months, we argued that the rise in uncertainty over inflation expectations and economic output will certainly levitate the term premium and therefore steepen the 2Y10Y yield curve. For instance, figure 1 (left frame) shows that the US 10Y term premium has historically strongly co-moved with the unemployment rate and that the deterioration in the job market amid strict lockdown measures could lead to higher long term yields. Figure 1 (right frame) shows that the sharp yield curve ‘steepener’ that occurs prior or during economic recessions is mainly coming from the dramatic rise in the term premium.

Even though we do not expect the 2Y10 yield curve to dramatically steepen as during the Great Financial Crisis (by 3 percent), we still see a higher retracement on the 2Y10Y towards 1% (currently trading slightly below 70bps).

Figure 1

Source: NY Fed, Eikon Reuters

At the same time, we are also bullish on the US Dollar as a hedge against rising uncertainty over a range of macro events (US elections, Brexit, new lockdowns imposed by governments…). In the past 18 months, it is interesting to see that a cheaper US Dollar has usually coincided with higher equities (SP500) and vice versa (figure 2); therefore, we think that being long the US Dollar at current levels offer investors a good hedge against a sudden reversal in equities.

Figure 2

Source: Eikon Reuters

However, the question now is: can the US Dollar appreciate as the yield curve continues to steepen? Figure 3 shows an interesting relationship between the greenback and the 2Y10Y in the past 15 years; a steeper yield curve has generally been associated with a cheaper US Dollar and not a stronger USD.

Figure 3

Source: Eikon Reuters

Great Chart: Bitcoin vs. FANG+ stocks

Since the start of the year, we saw that the dramatic liquidity injections from central banks to prevent the economies from falling into a global deflationary depression has led to a sharp depreciation of most of the currencies, especially against assets with limited supply such as Gold, Silver and Bitcoin. The liquidity also generated a strong rebound in risky assets such as equities, reinforcing the trend on the mega-cap growth stocks (FAAMN companies). The NYSE FANG+ index, which provides exposure to 10 of today’s highly-traded tech giants, is now trading nearly 50% higher than its February peak, which has massively contributed to the recovery in the SP500.

In the past few months, we have noticed an interesting observation: it seems that the Fed (and other central banks) interventions have led to one ‘global trade’ as a significant amount of assets have strongly co-moved together in 2020. This chart shows the strong relationship between Bitcoin prices and the FANG+ index; a few weeks ago, cheaper equities due to the rise in uncertainty over US elections and the lack of stimulus has led to also lower Bitcoin prices. Are ‘Bitcoin bulls’ really hedged against a sudden reversal in equities?

Source: Eikon Reuters

Go long the US Dollar as a hedge against rising uncertainty

In the past few weeks, US equities have shown some signs of ‘fatigue’ amid rising uncertainty over US elections and the lack of stimulus from both the Fed and the government. Most of the rise in risky assets such as equities in the past few months has been mainly attributed to the massive liquidity injections from major institutions to avoid economies from falling into a deflationary depression.

It is interesting to see that in the past year, a cheaper US Dollar has been mainly associated with stronger US equities, especially since the pandemic (figure 1). Hence, the ‘close elections’ may certainly lead to a choppy equity market in the last quarter of 2020 and therefore should result in a strong demand for safe assets such as the USD. We think that going long the Dollar could offer a good hedge against a new round of equity selloff in the coming weeks.

Figure 1

Source: Eikon Reuters

In addition, long the USD remains a contrarian trade as the ‘short Dollar trade’ is still very crowded (figure 1). We are confident that the US Dollar will remain strong if price volatility rises in the near term, especially against risk-on currencies such as the British pound or the Australian Dollar.

Figure 2

Source: CFTC

Silver: Mind the June correction!

Even though price volatility has eased significantly across all asset classes amid the massive liquidity injections from central banks, the market could experience another little selloff in the near term due to the rising uncertainty coming forward. In addition, we know that most of the risky assets tend to perform poorly in the ‘summer’ period that runs from May to October.

Although some investors may define silver as a risk off asset, we recently saw that the precious metal has performed very poorly during periods of market stress. We think that silver could experience some weakness in the short run, especially now that we are approaching the month of June. In figure 1, we compute the average performance of silver for every month of the year since 1982; interestingly, June has historically been the worst month with silver falling by nearly 2% on average.  Time to sell and go away?

 Figure 1

Source: Eikon Reuters, RR calculations

One particularity of a safe-haven asset is that it is negatively correlated with the performance of equities during periods of panic and selloffs. For instance, we saw that gold performed strongly in the past two equity selloffs, up 7% in Q4 2018 and 3.5% in Q1 2020 while equities were down by 14% and 20%, respectively. Figure 2 shows that silver did not act as a zero-beta asset and co-moved strongly with equities during the February / March panic. We strongly believe that investors have this chart in mind for the coming months and that a little 10%-15% drawdown in stocks in the near term will certainly lead to a little (bear) consolidation in silver.

Figure 2

Source: Eikon Reuters

Even though some analysts are currently saying that silver looks extremely undervalued relative to gold (gold-silver ratio is still elevated relative to its long-term average), we do not think that the ratio will matter in the near future and we could have another divergence between the two precious metals. Figure 3 (right frame) shows that prior the Covid19 crisis, a surge in gold prices had historically been followed by a surge in silver 3 weeks later since the start of 2015. However, we can notice that the two assets have strongly diverged in the past few months.

Figure 3

Source: Eikon Reuters

In short, stay away from silver in June!

Mind The Rise In The Term Premium!

Introducing the Term Premium

Through the use of economic models, academic research has decomposed the observable long-term bond yields (i.e. US 10Y Treasury bond yield) into the expected path of the real interest rate (r*) and the additional term premium, which is thought as the extra return that investors demand to compensate them for the risk associated with a long-term bond. Using the dominant measure developed by the NY Fed (Adrian et al., 2013), we overlay it with a set of macro and financial variables and look at the pros and cons of a rise in the term premium in the coming months.

Figure 1 shows that the evolution of the US 10Y yield along with the expected r* and the term premium. While we can notice that part of the fall on the 10Y was driven by the decrease in the expected r* from 3.15% to 1.80%, the elevated volatility in the short run was mainly coming from the moves on the Term Premium (TP). The TP hit a historical low of -1.47% on March 9th and is still standing at extreme low level of -1.1%. Many investors had expected the term premium to start rising the US in 2018 and in the first half of 2019, but it surprised most of them by constantly reaching new lows.

Figure 1

fig1Source: NY Fed

Term Premium: a counter-cyclical variable

One important characteristic of the term premium is that it is a counter cyclical variable that tends to rise when the uncertainty around unemployment (or the business cycle) and inflation expectations starts to increase.

Figure 2 (left frame) shows the striking relationship between the unemployment rate and the term premium since 1961. Periods of rising unemployment have been generally associated with a sharp increase in the term premium. Now that we expect the jobless rate to skyrocket following the dismal prints of NFPs and initial claims in recent weeks, could we see a response in the term premium as well?

Figure 2 (right frame) shows another interesting relationship between the US 2Y10Y yield curve and the term premium. We know that the inversion of the yield curve is usually marked by a sharp steepening effect within the next 12 to 24 months as the economy enters a recession. This is referred as a ‘bear steepener’ as the long end of the curve starts rising due to a surge in the term premium. Will the Fed’s emergency measures and QE purchases be enough to deprive the yield curve and term premium from rising significantly in the coming months?

Figure 2

fig2Source: Eikon Reuters

Term Premium vs. inflation expectations

The 2-trillion USD increase in the Fed’s balance sheet as a response of Covid-19 has brought its holding of securities to a new all-time high of $5.85tr. The Fed has recently been buying $625bn of securities each week, which corresponds to an annual pace of $32.5tr and is $25bn more than the entire QE2 run between November 2010 and June 2011. The balance sheet of the Fed is now expected to hit 8 to 9 trillion USD by the end of the year in hopes that it will bring back confidence in the market. Hence, it is fair to raise the following question: will we experience rising inflation in the medium term?

As the term premium is very sensitive to the uncertainty around inflation expectations, it shows an interesting co-movement with the 12-month volatility of the Fed’s balance sheet assets. When interest rates reach the zero bound, central banks run aggressive asset-purchase programs in order to decrease the shadow rate below the neutral rate of interest rate (r*) and stimulate demand and inflation. Figure 3 (left frame) shows that previous periods of rising 12M vol in Fed assets were associated with a short-term increase in the term premium.

Investors could argue that inflation expectations have been falling if we look at the market-based measures – the USD 5Y5Y inflation swap. Figure 3 (right frame) shows that the 5Y5Y inflation swap is currently trading at a historical low of 1.75%, down from nearly 3% in January 2014. However, we previously saw that inflation swaps have been very sensitive to equity and oil prices in the past cycle; in theory, an oil shock should not impact inflation expectations as better monetary policy readjustments from central banks will offset that shock. Hence, these products represent more the demand for inflation hedges (which decreases when energy prices fall), but do not tell us anything about long-term inflation expectations.

Figure 3

fig3Source: Eikon Reuters

Term premium and free-floating bonds

Certainly, moves on the term premium also depends strongly on the amount of free-floating securities in the market. As central banks keep increasing their balance sheet through the purchase of securities such as government bonds, the amount of free-floating bonds have dramatically been reduced in the past cycle. For instance, it was estimated that large asset-purchase programs in the Euro area have decreased the free float of German government bonds from approximately 40% in 2015 to 3% in early 2020 (figure 4, left frame). Figure 4 (right frame) shows how the relationship between the 10Y Bund term premium and the free float flattened in the past few years; low free float is associated with a flat term premium.

In the US, the amount of free float is much higher due to the large quantity of marketable debt securities (USD 16tr) held by the non residents; non-resident holders (NHR) hold nearly 40% of the US debt. Hence, even though the Fed’s aggressive purchases will reduce the free float in the medium term, there is still the risk of a sudden rise in the term premium in the short run as the economy enters a recession.

Figure 4

fig4

Source: Danske, ECB

To conclude, the risk of higher long-term interest rates in the US is still there in the coming months; even though we do expect long-term rates to eventually go to zero, there is still a high probability to see a little short-term surge in the 10Y -plunge in US Treasury prices (TLT), which would significantly steepen the yield curve coinciding with the drastic rise in unemployment.

Great Chart: G10 policy rate vs. World equities

As more and more regions in developed economies have been put under a dramatic total lockdown amid growing concerns over Covid-19, central banks have started to cut rates aggressively in order to avoid a complete market meltdown. We saw in the previous week that both the Fed and the BoE held emergency meetings and cut rates by 50bps, the most since the Great Financial Crisis, benefiting from their positive benchmark interest rate to act faster than the rest of central banks. Economies already experiencing a NIRP policy (i.e. Sweden, Euro area) will probably implement or expand asset-purchase programmes in order to fight against a significant economic shock and therefore implicitly reduce their ‘shadow rate’, a rate first introduced by Fischer Black (1995) that can measure the effects of QE, to lower levels.

However, it is important to note that a significant reduction in benchmark policy rates globally has been associated with sharp equity sell-offs. This chart shows that in the previous two downturns, the GDP-weighted G10 policy rate was cut by approximately 4 percent and coincided with a global equity sell-off of 45% to 55%. Are we set for a similar story in 2020?

Chart. G10 policy rate vs. World equities (source: Eikon Reuters)

fig4

Great Chart: Gold price vs. Negative-yielding debt

Empirical researchers have demonstrated that gold has had many drivers over the past few decades, but has been mainly influenced by interest rates, inflation trends, the US Dollar, stock prices and central banks reserve policies. Baur and McDermott (2010) also shows that the precious metal plays the of a safe ‘zero-beta’ asset in periods of market stress and equity selloffs. For instance, in the last quarter of 2018, US equities (SP500) fell by 14% while the price of gold in US Dollars was up 7.6%. In the short run, participants usually look at the co-movement between gold price and real interest rate (TIPS) to define a fair value of the precious metal (gold price rises when real yields fall and vice versa).

However, gold has shown a stronger relationship with another variable in recent years: the amount of negative-yielding debt around the world. This chart shows us the striking co-movement between the two times series. After oscillating around USD 8 trillion between the beginning of 2016 and the end of 2018, the amount of negative-yielding debt doubled to nearly USD 17 trillion in the first half of 2019 amid political uncertainty and concerns over global growth, levitating gold prices from $1,280 to $1,525. However, we have noticed that investors’ concern has eased in the past two months, normalising global yields (to the upside), increasing the US 2Y10Y yield curve back to 25bps after turning negative in the end of August, therefore reducing preference for ‘safe’ assets such as bonds. The amount of debt yielding below 0% has dropped significantly since the end of August to USD 11.6 trillion this week, dragging down gold prices to $1,460. We think that market participants have overreacted to the global growth slowdown in the first half of the year and that the rise in leading indicators we have observed in the past three months (i.e. global manufacturing PMI) will continue to push preference for risk-on assets. The amount of negative-yielding debt could easily come back to its 2016-2018 8-trillion-dollar average in the following months, hence emphasising the downward pressure on gold prices. It looks like gold is set to retest the $1,350 – $1,400 support zone in the short run (which used to be its resistance zone before the 2019 rally).

Chart.  Gold price (in USD) vs. amount of negative-yielding debt (tr USD) – Source: Bloomberg, Eikon Reuters.

Gold

 

 

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)

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