Quick update on China ahead of the FOMC meeting…

Ahead of the FOMC meeting this week, I thought a quick update on China would be useful to review the major data on a global macro perspective.

Over the past few years, Chinese slowdown has massively impacted commodity prices, which are still ‘trying’ to find a bottom according to the late analysis I read. The chart below shows the historical moves of the Bloomberg Commodity Index (BCOM), a broadly diversified commodity price index (22 commodity futures in seven different sectors) that I like to watch quite a bit. As you can see it, the index has been trading below the 2009 lows since the beginning of the year and is now approaching the 2002 levels.

Commodity

(Source: Financial Times)

If we look at Iron Ore monthly prices for instance (see chart below), we can see that the commodity has lost more than three times its value since its high in February 2011. It fell from 187.18 (US Dollars per Dry Metric Ton) at that time to 56.40 (for the September 2015 Futures contract). There has been a few topics on the table that could have describe this drop – US rising rates and Dollar strength, Grexit fear, Oversupply issues – however the decrease in Chinese growth and productivity are the most important factors to the commodity market in general.

Iron Ore

(Source: indexmundi website)

How fast is China slowing?

First of all, if we look at the country’s annual growth rate over the past five years, China GDP decreased from approximately 12% in early 2010 to 7% in the last Q2 update. And looking at the major’s institution forecasts (IMF, World Bank, see below), it is more than likely that we are going to see lower and lower figures in the next few years, and therefore constantly weigh on export-driven economies. Based on the forecasts below, we are looking at a 5.5%-6% annual growth rate in 3 to 5 years.

ChinaGDP

(Source: knoema website)

Salaries increase in China, a secular change?

For decades, China has mostly been competitive based on its cheap labour and low-cost raw materials, and has been profitable based on its export-driven economy combined with an ‘undervalued’ exchange rate. However, with wages and transportation costs on the rise, the country’s economic projection has changed and I don’t know if the rest of the World is yet prepared for it. According to some financial analyst experts, compare to the mid-2000 levels, China needs twice the amount of Capital or Debt to create a 1-percent growth today.

Based on the International Labour Organization’s 2014 Wage report for the Asia Pacific published at the end of the first quarter of this year, Asia annual growth in real wages has been outperforming the global average over the past decade (6.0% vs. 2.0% in 2013). And East Asia (driven by China) reported at 7.1% increase in 2013, therefore indicating a growing consumer spending power. And between 1998 and 2010, the average annual growth rate of real wages were approximately 13.8% (Carsten A Holtz, 2014). Since 2010, real wages have grown by 9%, outperforming productivity which has grown by 6-7%, therefore reflecting negative signs about the economy.

Availability of a large pool of labour combined with low production costs have been one of the major pros of China, however the constant increase in labour costs will narrow the difference in manufacturing costs between China and a developed economy (such as the US) to a degree that is almost negligible.

As a result, no hike in September…

My view goes for a neutral FOMC statement this week, but no hikes from the Fed based on the weak current market’s conditions. If we look at it, we have more and more EM countries facing a currency crisis (Brazil, Russia, Malaysia…), low oil prices affecting highly leveraged US Shale oil companies, US debt ceiling ‘threat’ at the end of the month, China selling its USD FX reserves, US equities showing a sign of fatigue… These are all negative elements that the US policymakers will take into account at the September meeting (16th / 17th of September). The upside for currencies such as the Euro, the Swiss or the Sterling pound will be quite limited until the release of the FOMC Statement, however we could see some Dollar weakness in case of a status quo.

June rate hike? What Yellen (and the Fed) faces…

I have to admit that by just looking at the government bond yields (see appendix), I am asking myself a lot of questions about the stability of the economy and the financial markets. However, one particular point that matters the most is the Fed’s June rate hike.

Therefore, this article aims to give an update on the four major risks that can lift-off the central bank’s monetary policy decision for later this year, which are the following topics:

  • China slowdown
  • Dollar strength
  • Oil prices
  • Grexit: Greece and all its 2015 payments
  1. China Slowdown

It is clear that commodity prices have dropped dramatically over the past year based on a lower than expected Chinese growth (i.e. global demand). If we look at the last figures, analysts expect China to grow by approximately 7% in 2015, down from the last 7.5% projection (in late 2014). Last week, we saw that the economic output grew 7% YoY in the three months of 2015, down from 7.3% in Q4 last year and now standing at its slowest rate in six years. What really concerns me is that I read several times the word ‘approximately’ in analysts predictions of China 2015 growth, this means that we could see an actual lower than 7% figure, especially in the middle of this geopolitical war.

In the housing market, it looks like the economy is experiencing a sort of ‘real’ correction: if we look at on of Chinese Housing Market ‘benchmark’ – China 70-city Home price change – the last report showed that house prices decreased 6.1% YoY in March, its eighth negative print in a row and the biggest drop in history.

It is hard to believe that after a 15tr USD increase in total Chinese Bank assets since September 2008, the economy is still struggling to achieve a healthy growth. The obvious response from Beijing officials was to cut its Reserve Requirements Ratio by 1% to 18.5% (last one was a 50bp cut in early February), ‘flooding the market’ with liquidity and participating – like the rest of the World – to this massive monetary stimulus.

What the PoBC cut a sort of ‘preparation’ to the Fed’s action?

Maybe I know too little about the Chinese economy (and history), but it is curious too see that some financial experts have a totally different interpretation of China.

For instance, in the last discussion that I had with a (very) experienced economist, I asked him ‘Where do you see the most interesting opportunities at the moment for medium term investments?’

He answered me: ‘Well, there are three countries you should invest in: China, China and China!’ He started his quick analysis about the massive internal migration of young new dwellers moving from rural to towns and cities (between 10 and 20 million each year according to NBS). Chinese major cities will host approximately 60% of the country’s total population (permanent urban residents) by 2020 (slightly above 50% now), therefore playing in favor of Chinese Fixed assets, companies’ valuation,… However, I was asking myself: ‘What about work conditions and salary increase? We learned from the last GFC that you can’t reach a sustainable economy with a divergence between median annual incomes and home prices. In addition, you can’t build a strong economy based on speculative stories and artificial growth (look at the Spanish situation now after the correction in the housing market).

Moreover, this scenario was based on a strong assumption that relations between China and the US remain stable (i.e. no pressure from the West to abolish the exchange rate peg). This is clearly not obvious, especially in this new (sort of) Cold War between East and West. If we look at the US Treasury website, we can see that China has reduced its US Treasuries by 50bn USD over the past year (its US holdings stand at 1.224Tr USD as of February). If this trend continues, pressure from US officials to drop the peg will be more and more a serious debate.

Besides that digression, it seems that we are going to see some downward revision in China, which will obviously be a persistent topic at the next FOMC statements.

  1. Dollar strength

The topic that I love to discuss is the Dollar strength. Described as the most crowded trade of the year, it is clear that a constant strengthening greenback will be problematic for the US economy, especially now that the Fed has stepped out of the bond market. Even though we saw a sharp reduction of the government’s deficit in the last two fiscal years (the annual US budget deficit fell from 1.1tr USD for FY12 to 483bn USD for FY2014 as you can see it in the chart below – equivalent to 2.8% of the country’s GDP), the US still runs large current account deficits (coming from consistent trade deficits) which forces them to rely on external funding.

USdeficit

(Source: WSJ)

A strong dollar wouldn’t help to ‘redress’ the balance of trade (i.e. exports are less competitive), and will obviously decline companies’ sales and reduce the economic output. Pessimist Atlanta Fed forecast a zero-percent growth for the first three months of this year, down from 1.9% in early February. The market is more bullish anticipating a 1.4% rise.

The July Fed Funds Futures implied rate is at 15bp, while September and December are trading at 21bp and 34.5bp respectively. From that perspective, I will opt for a September move (vs. June).

  1. Oil prices

As you know, oil prices fell sharply in the second half of last year, bringing to an end a four-year period of stability around $105 per barrel. If we look back at prices’ history since the early 80s, there has been four other relevant declines prior to this one:

  • Increase in oil supply and change in OPEC policy (1985-86)
  • US recessions after the S&L crisis in 1990-1
  • The Asian crisis of 1997
  • The Great Financial Crisis 2007 – 2008

Today, the causes of the Sharp Drop could be explained by multiple factors: a change in OPEC policy objectives (no intervention from Saudi Arabia in the last OPEC meeting on November 27th last year), increasing production (US Production of Crude Oil now stands above 9ml barrel/day, up from 5ml 7 years ago post GFC), receding geopolitical concerns about supply disruptions in the Middle East and between Russia and Ukraine, a sinking global demand and a US dollar appreciation. It is hard to define which of these factors was the most important, however I would say the expansion of oil output in North American due to the US Shale revolution (and Canada oil sands) and a declining global demand both weighed on oil prices.

Although low oil prices (and other commodities) is seen as a sort of stimulus for consumers by analysts, I am very confident that it is also the explanation of the late decrease in inflation expectations in all the Western countries. The table below shows you the Consumer Price Index of the major economies:

Country

March

July

US

-0.10%

2.00%

UK

-0.10%

0.40%

EZ

0.00%

1.60%

Japan

2.2% (February)

3.40%

Even the 5y/5y forward swap rate, what central banks watch as an indication of inflation expectations, has fallen to unprecedented sub-2 percent levels in the US, which is going to be problematic as Yellen and (most of) the Fed’s Board have considered that it is time for monetary policy tightening – the so-called neutrality.

In addition, low oil prices could also be a burden for all the high leveraged shale oil companies in the US. The chart below (source Bloomberg) gives us a quick idea of where oil prices have to stand so that shale companies are (at least) breakeven. According to the sell side research, breakeven prices for US shale oil are within the $60-$65 window. WTI May futures contract is still trading below those figures at a shy $56.

ShaleBreakeven

(Source: Bloomberg)

  1. Grexit and the contagion effect

With the 10-year yield now trading at 13% (and the 2Y at 29%), it is clear that the market is anticipating disappointing negotiations between the new Greek party and the Troika. There are lots of good articles that came out lately about Greek’s situation, but that could easily be summarize by the chart below. This clearly shows that there are going to be a lot of meetings with European officials before the Summer, and the Tsipras government will have to innovate its list of reforms in order to free up funds and service its short-term obligations.

GreeceInSHort

(Source: IMF)

What’s next then? Let’s assume Greece makes it way through the summer (the two 3bn+ payments to the ECB) without catching a cold, this is only the 2015 chart and there are plenty of more years to come. No borrowing from the financial market and an unstoppable increasing debt (see article Pocketful of Miracles). A situation that could only deteriorate in my opinion…

In the latest news, Bloomberg reported that the Greek government issued a legislative act yesterday that requires public sector entities to transfer idle cash reserves to Bank of Greece (i.e. capital controls) as the country is willing to serve its next €1bn debt obligations to the IMF next month.

To conclude, we may see a symbolic 25bp hike at the June FOMC meeting, however I am certain that we are far from the so-called long-run neutrality rate of 3.5%-4%. If the weak global macro environment persists in the medium term, we are constantly going to see downward revision in the Fed’s dot plot.

Appendix: Government bond yields

BondYields

Pocketful of Miracles…

It is sure that things are not easy negotiating with its ‘partners’ as time goes on. As Latin poet Publilius Syrus once said ‘A small debt produces a debtor; a large one, an enemy’. In this article, we are interested to see where the negotiations will go within the next few days.

First, let’s review quickly what is going on with Greek’s liabilities.

GreekDebt

(Source: Bloomberg)

The pie chart above shows us who ‘owns’ Greece’s public debt. According to the country’s Statistical Authority, Greece’s total public debt amounted €315.5bn  at the end of the third quarter of last year, which corresponds to roughly 180% as a share of the country’s GDP. As you can see it, the EFSF, the EZ temporary crisis-fighting fund, lent the country €141.8bn (which represents 45% of it) and the current weighted average maturity is 32.38 years with the last payment due in August 2053 according to the fund’s website. As you may have heard at the end of last year, the Board of Directors of the EFSF decided to grant Greece a two-month technical extension. The program will end on February 28th instead of December 31st last year. As a result, the remaining amount available (1.8bn Euros, which will raise the total amount to 143.6bn Euros) could still be disbursed to Greece (in need of assistance) until the end of this month.

Another major ‘creditor’ of Greek’s debt is the ECB, as a result of the Security Markets Programme (SMP), which currently owns about €27bn (i.e. represents 40% of the €67.5bn marketable debt outstanding). However, whereas EFSF loans where principal payments don’t start until 2023, Greek is set to pay 6.7bn Euros held to the ECB this summer (20 July: €3.5bn, 20 August: €3.2bn).

Eventually, the IMF is also an important creditor with 25 billion Euros according to the fund’s website, maturing currently. IMF loans in February and March are €3.5bn. As a reminder, the IMF’s policy is to never restructure its loan.

Therefore, if we add up the Greek Loan Facility (Bilateral Loans), the ECB holdings, the EFSF loans and the outstanding IMF credit, we get 246.7bn Euros, that is to say 78.2% of the total public debt. How convincing will the new Tsipras government be ‘against’ those figures?

It has been a rough start for Greece: the country’s news has been making the headlines since (and before) the election of the new government (January 25th). PM Tsipras has made it clear that Greek debt is unsustainable, condemning the country to a state of perpetual economic recession and deflation, and is trying to negotiate a write off with its debt creditors. In addition to that, he unveiled last Sunday plans to undo several austerity measures: gradually increasing the minimum wage, dropping the recent property tax and promised the retirement age wouldn’t be change (anymore).

However, this will be the tricky part of the deal – asking for a write off while easing austerity measures – as they don’t (or never) come together usually. Negotiate a debt write off, press for a relaxation of economic austerity, avoid a bank run, and on the top of that, maintain a political stability. It is interesting to see that investors are considering political risks once again after more than two years of main attention to the ECB and its programs and promises.

However, as many of you, we would agree that the market is underestimating the consequences of a Grexit clearly, not only the costs, but also contagion to other ‘weak’ peripheral economies (i.e. Portugal). What would happen to the Euro if the spread between peripheral and core yields (good sovereign risk indicator) starts to rise once again (like in early 2012)?

Quick view on EURUSD:

EURUSD broke its small resistance at 1.1350 yesterday after a quiet week, and seems on its way to retest the 1.1500 level. We saw earlier this morning that EZ grew by 0.3% in the last quarter of 2014, meaning that the 19-bloc economy grew by 0.9% during 2014, better than the 0.8% expected (see details in Appendix). However, Greek FinMin is making the headlines this morning: ‘Haircut preferable to loan extension’, which is obviously ‘capping the pair on the topside. A good entry level would be above 1.1460 (if it makes it up there), with a stop above for 1.1530 and a take profit at 1.1300. You can also play the bigger range, setting your stop above 1.1650 and take profit at 1.1200. However, we wouldn’t recommend to be too ‘greedy’ ahead of the Eurogroup meeting on Monday.

Otherwise, we stay strongly bearish on the Euro in the long term (vs. USD and GBP), as growth, monetary policy divergence, Grexit contagion, geopolitical tensions will clearly weigh on the single currency.

Appendix

EZGDP

(Source: EuroStat)

Watch the correlations…

As EURCHF is barely moving, trading within a 60-pip range (1.2120 – 1.2180) over the past month and a half, EURUSD and USDCHF continues to trade almost ‘perfectly inversely’. Over the past the 18 months, the correlation between the two pairs stands at -97%. The ECB’s May conference followed by the introduction of a package of ‘easing’ measures from ECB policymakers have triggered a Dollar Strength environment. As you can see it on the chart below, EURUSD (black bar) is down 6.5 figures while USDCHF (orange bar) is now trading almost 4 figures higher at 0.9075.

In addition, the 6 consecutive NFP prints above the 200K level and a better-than-expected GDP print (Q2 GDP first estimate came in at 4.0%) played in favour of the US Dollar over the past few months. Yellen sounded quite hawkish at her last testimony in front of the Congress, and it seems that US policymakers have regained some confidence concerning their ST monetary policy (according to the July FOMC meeting).

However, it didn’t take too long to see weak figures again. Yesterday, Mortgage applications fell 2.7% in the week ended August 8. The smoothed 4-week moving average is now back to September 2000 levels despite lower Mortgage rates (30-year Mortgage Rate is now stands at 4.35%, down from 4.7% in January). Moreover, we saw slightly later that retail sales missed expectations for the third month in a row with an unchanged flat print in July (vs. expectations of a 0.2% rise and down from the 1.5% growth rate seen in March). With retail sales accounting for one third of consumer spending in the US, the IMF cut once again (end of July) its 2014 growth forecast from 2.0% to 1.7% after the National Retail Federation cut its 2014 retail sales growth outlook from 4.1% to 3.6% (Winter blamed).

If we have a look at the chart below, we can see that the US Dollar has been stable since the beginning of August. We are pretty much bearish on the Euro based on poor fundamentals (Q2 GDP first estimates disappoints again and came in at 0.0%) and aggressive ECB easing; our EURUSD medium term target (H2 2014) stands at 1.3000, which corresponds to July 2013 levels. Investors could potentially fly to the Swissie in the middle of this high-pressure geopolitical environment. We think that EURCHF is on its ‘slow’ way to test the 1.2000 SNB once again. Therefore, with a EURUSD target at 1.3000 and EURCHF at 1.2000, it gives us a USDCHF MT target at 0.9200.

CHF(1)

(Source: Reuters)