China 10Y Yield vs. Copper Prices

In the past year, we have seen that commodity prices have been constantly reaching new highs despite the significant slowdown in global growth. Part of the slowdown has been coming from the sharp deceleration in Chinese economic activity amid the ‘zero-Covid’ policy that has been strongly weighing on growth expectations. As a result, China ‘fundamental’ indicators, which have historically strongly co-moved with commodity prices, have been significantly diverging from commodity indexes since early 2021 (China indicators show that the economy peaked in February 2021).

For instance, this chart shows that while market uncertainty has kept China 10Y yield close to historical lows, copper prices keep reaching new highs (China represents 50% of the demand for copper).

Two major reasons explaining that divergence are:

  1. Global supply chain disruptions (Covid disruptions, ‘natural disaster’ disruption i.e. South American droughts, and more recently the Ukraine war ‘shock).
  2. Investment narrative, with investors seeking for ‘inflation hedges’ with inflationary pressures soaring globally. Historically, commodities have been the best ‘inflation-hedge’ (particularly oil and nat gas).

Figure 2. China 10Y yield vs. copper prices

Source: Bloomberg

The question now is: can the divergence persist if inflation is peaking and is now expected to slowly but gradually decelerate?

US Inflation vs. Biden’s Approval Rating (Interesting, But Incomplete…)

The chart below (which has been circulating around in recent weeks/months) shows the dynamics of President Biden’s approval rating vs. US CPI inflation in the past year. Even though there have been multiple factors driving the popularity of US Presidents over time, we can agree that the surge in inflation has been one of the major factors behind the sharp fall in Biden’s approval rating in the past twelve months (from 54% in February 2021 to 43% in latest polls).

Source: Bloomberg, fivethirtyeight.com

It is an interesting chart, though it is incomplete. US inflation will remain one of the major themes in markets for 2022 as inflationary pressures are likely to stay elevated longer than what policymakers previously anticipated. Therefore, the Fed will come under tremendous political pressure this year to tighten aggressively to ‘accelerate’ the convergence of inflation back towards its target.

Will Biden’s popularity surge back above the 50% threshold if inflation falls as the Fed tightens?

US politicians must not forget the ‘wealth effect’ factor and the importance of the dynamics of equities in the medium term. An aggressive tightening is likely to weigh on risky assets in the coming year after experiencing a tremendous rally in the past two years following the Covid19 shock. Hence, the impact of inflation Biden’s approval needs to be conditioned on equity market’s performance.

Is it better to have a 7%+ inflation and trending markets or 3% inflation and equities down 25%?

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

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: 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: GBPUSD vs. FTSE 100

As we are closely approaching our 1.40 target for Cable (here), we chose an interesting chart this week that shows a scatter plot of the UK equity market (FTSE 100) with GBPUSD exchange rate, using a weekly frequency since January 2009.  Even though the relationship is not as clear as for Japan Equities and USDJPY (here), we can still observe a negative ‘Pavlovian‘ relationship where a cheaper currency usually implies higher equities. For instance, the British pound was massively sold post referendum (June 2016) on the back of an elevated political and economic uncertainty, high volatility and negative investors’ sentiment. Cable plunged from 1.44 a week before Brexit vote to reach a low of roughly 1.20 in October 2016 before starting its recovery in the first quarter of 2017.

One interesting observation is in the equity market; even though the FTSE 100 sold from 7,000 in April 2015 to 5,700 in February 2016 prior the event (as Cable), the post-Brexit rounds of Sterling depreciation played in favor of UK equities. However, over the past few months, the situation recovered in the UK, both the uncertainty and the volatility eased. If we look at the Economic and Political Uncertainty index, a monthly series based on newspaper coverage developed by Baker, Bloom and Davis, it is down from almost 1,200 (summer 2016) to 200, its prior Brexit average, bringing Cable’s 1M ATM implied volatility from 19 to 7.85 (here). At the same time, the 3-month 25 Delta Risk Reversal is back into the positive territory (from -6 in June / July 2016), meaning that the implied volatility on calls is more expensive than puts (here).

With an equity market closing at 7,730 on Friday and Cable at 1.3850 (flirting with the 1.39), we are curious to see if the relationship will continue this year. Hence the question is: will the Footsie break its 8,000 psychological resistance while Cable continues its momentum?

Our view is that the Bank of England may surprise the market in 2018 concerning its interest rate path. With the December 2019 short-sterling futures contract trading at 98.88 (i.e. implied rate of 1.12 by the end of 2019), market participants are currently pricing in two hikes for the next couple of years. We think that three to four hikes is more appropriate to the current economic climate, and policymakers may send a signal in the February update of its inflation forecasts, triggering some moves in the short-term interest rate market. We think that a potential move in the forward IR curves will benefit to the Sterling pound, however equities may struggle to reach new highs and break above the 8,000 level.

Chart: Cable vs. FTSE 100 (Source: Reuters Eikon)

Great Chart: Gold vs. US 5Y Real Yield

We showed in many of our charts that 2017 was the year where some of the strong correlations between assets classes broke down. We showed USDJPY vs. TOPIX (here, here), Cable (here) and EURUSD (here) vs. the 2Y and 10Y interest rate differentials, and this week we chose to overlay Gold prices with 5Y US real interest rates. As we explained it in our study on Gold (here), the relationship between Gold and US [real] rates is easy to understand. The precious metal is a non interest-bearing asset, meaning that a typical investor doesn’t get any cash-flow from owning it (unlike dividends for stocks and coupons for bonds), and has usually a storage cost associated with it. Therefore, the forward curve of the ‘currency of the last resort’ (Jeffrey Currie) is usually upward sloping, in other words Gold market is in contango, with the forward price equal to the following:

Reg.PNG

Hence, if real interest rates start to rise, a rational investor would prefer to reallocate his wealth to either US Treasuries or Treasury Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS) and receive coupons rather than keeping a long position in a commodity that has a ‘negative carry’.

As you can see it on the chart, Gold prices (in US Dollars) and the 5Y TIPS real yield have shown some strong co-movements over the past 5 years, until the summer of 2017 when the two times series diverged. If we would follow recent moves on the market, the late surge in Gold prices (currently trading at 1,340 $/ounce) would imply a 50 to 60 bps decrease in US real interest rates (note that if we regress the change in Gold prices on the change in the 5Y real yield using weekly data since 2013, we find that a 1% increase in real yields lead to an 8.7% depreciation in Gold prices). And lower real rates would either come from higher inflation expectations or lower nominal interest rates. With the 5Y5Y forward inflation swap currently trading at 2.11% and up 30bps over the past 6 months, core inflation and core PCE YoY rates at 1.8% and 1.5% slightly moving to the upside, and oil prices still trending higher with WTI front month contract trading at $64.5, there is room for higher inflation prints coming ahead. However, if the two curves were to converge in the short term, the [sharp] move would come from either [lower] Gold prices or [lower] Treasury rates.

Our view is that the divergence will persist in the beginning of 2018, with inflation remaining steady / slightly increasing and US interest rates failing to break new highs on the long end of the curve (5Y and 10Y). The main reason for that is that we think market’s confidence on the Fed’s 4 or plus hikes will slow down in the coming months on the back of lower-than expected fundamental, depriving the yield curve from steepening too much.

Chart: Gold prices vs. US 5Y TIPS (inv.) (Source: Reuters Eikon) 

WeeklyGold.PNG

 

Retracing the US Dollar Q4 rise…

An important topic that has been making the headline over the past few weeks is the new surge of the US Dollar (vis-à-vis the major currencies) in the last quarter of 2016. Since its Obama Rise peak that occurred in mid-March 2015 (after a 25% appreciation), the US Dollar has been ranging against most of the major currencies (except the British pound due to political uncertainty and post-Brexit effect in June, and more recently the Mexican peso). The main reason for that long period of stagnation, in my opinion, was a shift in expectations of monetary policy in the US. After the Fed stepped out of the Bond Market (on October 28th 2014), market’s participants have been mainly focusing on the short-end of the curve, questioning themselves if the Fed was going to start a tightening monetary policy cycle. We saw a hike in December 2015 (25bps), which was immediately halted due to the market sell-off that followed afterwards (13% drawdown in US equities, 20% in Europe and Japan…). Therefore, the implied probability of a second hike in 2016 crashed, which was confirmed by the 7 FOMC meetings that followed (i.e. status quo).

Then, interest in the US Dollar started to emerge again in Q4 2016; the greenback experienced a 8%+ appreciation between October 1st and its December high of 13.65 (28th) according to the DXY index (Chart 1). There are a number of explanations to that recent surge: market was gradually pricing in a rate hike for the December meeting, political uncertainty rising in Europe or Infinite QE in Japan to protect the yield curve. All these stories make sense to explain the Dollar appreciation, therefore let’s retrace the important events that occurred in the last quarter of 2016.

Chart 1. US Dollar index in 2015-2016 (Source: Bloomberg)

usdollarhis

  1. Higher inflation and a positive post-Trump effect

First of all, the rebound in oil prices relieved pressure on energy-related companies [that have been falling one by one, applying to Chapter 11 bankruptcy] and had a positive effect on expected inflation. The price of a barrel has doubled since its February’s low of $26 and is currently trading slightly below $54 (Chart 2, red line) and obviously relieved US policymakers’ inflation anxiety. The 5Y5Y inflation swap forward (Chart 2, white line) stands now at 2.42%, higher than the 1.80% recorded last June. As a consequence, US long-term yields followed the move and the 10-year Treasury yield surged from a low of 1.36% reached in July last year to 2.44% today. With the unemployment rate below 5% and a Q3 GDP growth of 3.5% (annual QoQ), it seems inflation had been the main concern of the Fed’s officials in order to start tightening [again].

Therefore, on December 14th, US policymakers decide to raise the federal funds rate by 25bps to 0.5%-0.75% [and the discount rate from 1% to 1.25%], repeating a gradual policy path plan with three potential hikes in 2017. Even though it was considered to be the most ‘priced in’ hike of any Fed meeting ever, it pushed the implied rates to the upside with the current OIS (Chart 3, purple line) trading almost 1 percent above the OIS at the September meeting (Chart 3, red line). This change in implied rates was reflected in the Dollar appreciation.

Chart 2. US inflation overlaid with Oil Prices and US 10-year yield (Source: Bloomberg)

inflationus

Chart 3. Fed’s dot plot and implied rates (Source: Bloomberg)

FedPlot.JPG

We were not very surprised when the Fed officials announced the rate hike, however we were wondering if we would have seen such optimism if equity markets ‘followed’ the global bond sell-off after the election (Trump effect). The positive US equity market reaction to Trump’s victory also comforted US policymakers for the December’s hike; we strongly believe that the decision would have been much harder if they had to deal with a sudden equity sell-off. Instead, the SP500 reached new record highs (2,277) last months.

One explanation of this development is based on investors’ expectation of an expansionary fiscal policy that will boost economic growth and inflation in the future, which are usually positive news for equities and negative news for bonds in theory (see Four Quadrants matrix – image 1).

Image 1. The ‘Four Quadrants’ framework (Source: Gavekal Research)

  Quandrant.png

   2. Political uncertainty rising in Europe, the rigger of many ‘forgotten’ problems

A popular trade that was running in the last quarter of 2016 was to be long the Italian-German 10-year spread ahead of the Italian referendum that occurred on December 4th. Market was pricing a potential rejection (55% chance), leading to an increase in political uncertainty in Europe, rising spreads between periphery and core and weakening the Euro.

If we look at Chart 4, we can see that the spike in the Italian 10-year yield (Chart 4, white line) could explain the Euro weakness (hence, USD strength). While the 10-year yield increased from 1.20% to 2.20% in two months (October and November), EURUSD (Chart 4, red line, inverted) went down 7 figures and reached a new low of 1.0350 post-referendum (59.1% of voters rejected the reform bill, which was followed immediately by PM Renzi’s resignation).

Even though yields have been decreasing over the past month (the 10-year now standing at 1.73%), political uncertainty could be the trigger of the two ‘delayed’  and ‘forgotten’ issues [or Black Swans] in Europe: the weak banking system and the Sovereign debt crisis. Not only Italy (in this case) cannot survive with higher yields (the country has 2.34 trillion EUR of outstanding debt – 132.6% of GDP – which needs to be rolled with low yields), but a sell-off in equities will increase the percentage of NPLs and potentially forced their banks to bail-in their depositors. The failure of Monte Paschi di Siena’s plan to raise 5-billion euros in capital from the market was ‘solved’ by a Nationalization (the bank’s third bailout). It was announced that the government will own at least 75% of the common equity after the bank is nationalized, a rescue that will cost the Italian government (i.e. taxpayers) about 6.6bn Euros according to the ECB (4.6bn Euros are needed to meet capital requirements and 2bn Euros to compensate the retail bondholders).

Therefore, We strongly believe that we will hear other similar stories in the year to come, as Italy is not the only country facing non-performing loans (NPLs) issues that affect the banking sector. Therefore, political uncertainty in Europe will weigh on the single currency and increase investors’ interest to the US Dollar.

Chart 4. Italian 10-year yield versus EURUSD (inv.) (Source: Bloomberg)

ItalyandEuro.JPG

   3. The weakness in the Japanese Yen

In Japan, the BoJ introduced the ‘Yield Control’ operation in order to stabilize the steepness of the JGB yield curve, offering to buy an unlimited amount of debt at fixed yields to prevent a significant surge in rates. This is kind of a puzzle, as Japan Officials cannot afford higher yields [as many indebted developed nations], however too-low yields impact revenues of the banking system and the pension / mutual funds.

We don’t think the particular surge in USDJPY was explained by this new ‘BoJ Operation’ and We prefer to say that the Yen depreciation was a result of a Risk-on effect post-US election result in addition to the recent spike in US yields. USDJPY (Chart 5, candlesticks) trades above 117 and equities (Chart 5, red line) are above the 19,000 level for the first time since September 2015; and you can see how the increase in US yields (Chart 5, blue line) is ‘responsible’ to the Yen weakness.

The question now is to know if the late Q4 Yen weakness will persist in early 2017, with USDJPY pair attracting more and more momentum investors looking to hit the 125 resistance. We know historically that the [positive] trend on the USDJPY can halt [and reverse] very quickly if investors are suddenly skeptical about the global macro situation (Fed delaying its 2017 hike path, China liquidity issues or rising yields in peripheral European countries). On the top of that, if market starts to price in inflation in 2017, will the BoJ be able to counter a JGB tantrum and keep the 10-year JGB yield at around 0%?

One important thing about this recent Yen weakness though is that it allows the Japanese government to buy time in order to implement new reforms and increase productivity. If you remember well, Abe stated in September 2015 his 20% increase in Japan GDP in the medium term (increase from 500tr to 600tr Yen in 5 years).

Chart 5. USDJPY, Nikkei 225 and US 10-year yield (Source: Bloomberg)

OverallJapan.JPG

   4. The Chinese Yuan devaluation

Another currency that has been making the headlines is the Chinese Yuan. Over the past year, the Chinese Yuan has shed roughly 7 percent of its value against the greenback (Chart 6, USDCNY in candlesticks). At the same FX reserves (Chart 6, blue line) have been shrinking; reserves plunged by $69.1bn to $3.05tr in November (most in 10 months), bringing the reduction in the stockpile to almost USD 1tr from a record $4 trillion reach in June 2014. As Horseman Capital noted in their article on China (Is China running out of money?), if FX reserves continue to plummet and the PBoC wants to maintain control of the exchange rate, Chinese officials will face some difficult choices. One option would be to raise interest rates (the benchmark one-year lending rate stands currently at 4.35%) in order to reduce outflows and attract interest in the Yuan (high interest rate differential vs. the other countries). This would have a negative effect on the country’s growth outlook, which is already concerning the developed economies due to the high levels of corporate debt and overheated property markets. Another option would be to reduce the holding of deposits by cutting the reserve requirement rate (RRR) which stands currently at 17%. We can see in Chart 7 that the Asset-Liabilities spread (represented by Foreign Currency Assets and Deposits from Other banks) has narrowed drastically over the past year, therefore cutting the reserve rates for banks could be a temporary solution for the PBoC. The problem of the second option is that it will continue to weaken the Chinese Yuan vis-à-vis the US Dollar, which could increase political tensions between US and China.

Interestingly, an asset that has [sort-of] tracked the USDCNY move this year is the Bitcoin (Chart 6, red line) , which raised from $400 in January last year to over $1,000 today. The cryptocurrency was described as the ‘good’ instrument to circumvent capital control in China in periods of large capital outflows like today. Like gold, Bitcoin is readily available in China and can be sold for foreign currencies without problems and therefore have attracted a lot of buyers over the past year.

Chart 6. USDCNY, Bitcoin and Chinese FX reserves (Source: Bloomberg)

Chart 7. PBoC Balance Sheet (Source: Horseman Capital)

PBoCBaS.JPG

To conclude, there are several factors explaining the US Dollar strength in the last quarter of 2016, and it looks like the trend should continue in early 2017 (extreme monetary policy divergence to persist in 2017, black swan events coming from Europe, difficulties of Chinese officials to deal with the capital outflows…). However its trend cannot persist indefinitely as we know that it will eventually have negative effect on the US economy in the long term. For instance, we know that a strong dollar hurts US companies’ earnings, which is already a problem if we look at the 12-month forward earnings (Chart 8, green line). In addition, if long-term interest rates increase persistently in the future (breaking through the 3-percent level seen in the 2013 taper tantrum), the US could face a budget crisis: how is the government going to fund its budget deficit [which is expected to grow over USD 1 trillion again under Trump presidency] if China and other central banks are liquidating US Paper at record pace?

Chart 8. SP500 overlaid with 12-month forward earnings (Source: Bloomberg)

ForwardEarnings.JPG

Japan: Flirting with Helicopter Money

As we already mentioned in a few articles, the Yen strength over the past year was going to be a problem somehow for PM Abe and the BoJ. After reaching a high of 125.86 in the beginning of June last year, USDJPY has entered into a bearish trend since last summer [2015] with the Yen constantly appreciating on the back of disappointments coming from the BoJ (i.e. no more QE expansion). The pair reached a low of 99 post-Brexit, down by 21.3% from peak to trough, sending the equities down below 15,000 (a 30% drawdown from June high of 21,000). The plunge in the stock market was directly reflected in the performance of the Japanese pension and mutual funds; for instance, the USD 1.4 trillion GPIF lost more than USD 50bn for the 12 months through March 2016 (end of the fiscal year). The Fund, as the graph shows below (Source: GPIF) , has been selling its JGBs to the BoJ over the past few years due to Abenomics (the allocation declined from 67.4% in 2011 to 37.8% in 2015) and has mainly been increasing its allocation in domestic and international stocks. With more than USD 13 trillion of sovereign bonds trading at a negative yield – the Japan Yield Curve negative up to 15 years – you clearly understand why we am always saying that Abe and the BoJ cannot lose against the equity market.

A the situation was getting even worse post-Brexit, with the Yen about to retest its key 100-level against the US Dollar, the Yen weakness halted suddenly on rumours of potential ‘Helicopter Money’ on the agenda.

It started when Reuters reported that former Fed chairman Bernanke was going to meet PM Abe and BoJ Kuroda in Tokyo to discuss Brexit and BoJ’s current negative interest rate policy. However, market participants started to price in a new move from the BoJ – i.e. Helicopter Money, a term coined by American economist Milton Friedman in 1969. In his paper ‘The Optimum Quantity of Money’, he wrote:

‘Let us suppose now that one day a helicopter flies over this community and drops an additional $1,000 in bills from the sky, which is, of course, hastily collected by members of the community. Let us suppose further that everyone is convinced that this is a unique event which will never be repeated.’

In short, Helicopter Money is a way of stimulate the economy and generate some inflation by directly transferring money to the nation’s citizens. This money, as a contrary of refinancing operations or QE, will never be reimbursed.

Buy the rumors, sell the fact?

The effect on the currency was immediate, and USDJPY soared from 100 to [almost] 107 in the past 12 years, levitating equities as you can see it on the chart below (SP500 in yellow line overlaid with USDJPY candlesticks). It was confirmed that on the week ending July 15th, the Yen had his biggest drop in the 21st century. The SP500 index reached its all-time high of 2,175 today and in our opinion, the Yen weakness is the best explanation to equities testing new highs in the US.

(Source: Bloomberg)

Talking with Bernanke: Conversations and Rumors

As the meeting was held in private, we don’t have any detail on the conversation. On common sense, you would first think that the discussion would be on the potential BoJ retreat from the market as its figures are starting to be really concerning (35% of JGBs ownership, 55% of the country’s ETF, 85% total-assets-to-GDP ratio). It is clear that the BoJ cannot continue the 80-trillion-yen program forever, and from what we see in Japan [markets or fundamentals], the effectiveness of monetary policy is gone.

However, it looks to me that market participants are convinced that the BoJ will act further, which is to say adopt a new measure. This was clearly reflected in the currency move we saw, and they [better] come with something in the near future if Japan officials don’t want to see a Yen at 95 against the greenback. The next monetary policy meeting is on July 29th, an event to watch.

Introducing Helicopter Money

We run into a series of really nice and interesting articles over the past couple of weeks, and we will first start by introducing this chart from Jefferies that summarizes the different schemes of Helicopter Money very well.

chopper money schematic

We were only aware of the first scheme, where the central bank directly sends money to the households or directly underwrites JGBs. However, as Goldman noted, the second popular scheme would be to convert all the JGBs purchased by the BoJ on the secondary market into zero-coupon perpetual bonds. When you think that a quarter of Japan revenues from tax (and stamps) are used to service debt with the BoJ running out of inventories (i.e. JGBs) to buy, the second scheme makes a lot of sense in fact.

The other part that Goldman covered was on the legal and historical side. As the picture below (Source: Jefferies) shows you, Article 5 of Japan’s Public Finance Law ‘prohibits the BoJ from underwriting any public bonds’. However, under special circumstances, the BoJ may act so within limits approved by a Diet resolution. In other words, the BoJ can underwrite public bonds. The only problem is once Helicopter Money is adopted, it is difficult to stop it. Japan already ‘experienced helicopter money’ in the 1930s after it abandoned the gold standard on December 13th 1931. It first devalued the Yen by 40% in 1932 and 1933, and then engaged in large government deficit spending to stimulate its economy; it was called the Takahashi fiscal expansion (Japan FinMin, Takahashi Korekiyo, also referred as the Japanese ‘Keynes’). As Mark Metzler described in Lever of Empire: The International Gold Standard and the Crisis of Liberalism in Prewar Japan (2006), ‘increased government spending was funded by direct creation of money by the BoJ’.

helicopter primer 2

It was not until 1935 that inflation start rising, and the expansionary policies of Takahashi’s successor after the FinMin assassination in 1936 led the country to a balance of payments crisis and hyper-inflation.

‘Be careful what you wish for’.

In our opinion, as central banks shouldn’t be too focus on the currency, an interesting way of stimulating an economy would be by transferring money directly to citizens’ account. The BoJ could put a maturity date to the money they transfer (i.e. the citizen has one year maximum to spend the money he received), and ‘obliged’ their citizens to spend it on Japanese goods, therefore stimulating the internal demand and eventually leading to a positive feedback loop.

The announcement of additional measures from Japan in the near future should continue to weigh on the Yen, and USDJPY could easily re-reach 110 quite quickly if rumors become more and more real.

Macro 1: Japan and Abenomics

We kick these series of macro updates by an analysis on Japan’s current situation. As you can see it on the chart below, the Nikkei index plummeted 14.50% since December’s high, hitting a low of 16,017 last week (20% drawdown from peak to trough). If we look at the chart below, it seems we entered a bear market in Japan and market participants could still consider the recent spike as quick oversold recovery.

Nikkei

(Source: Bloomberg)

The Yen also reacted to this market headwinds and USDJPY was pushed down to 116 last Wednesday (its August support). One thing that surprises me and captivates me at the same time is the correlation’s strength between all asset classes. For instance, if we look at the chart below shows the moves of Oil (WTI Feb16 contract in yellow) and the SP500 Index (Green line). The amount of pressure that the commodity decline has caused to the overall market is excessive and has put a lot of nations in trouble.

Yen and Rest.jpg

(Source: Bloomberg)

If we have a look at fundamentals, Japan seems to be in a liquidity trap. The BoJ’s balance sheet total asset has surged by 143% [to JPY386tr] since December 2012 and the central bank is currently purchasing 80tr Yen of JGBs every month. It’s has been almost three years that Japan is engaged into a massive stimulus programme, which hasn’t had the expected effect. GDP grew modestly by 0.3% QoQ in the third quarter (avoiding a quintuple-dip recession after a first estimate of -0.2%) and the core inflation rate increased 0.10% YoY in November of 2015, ending a 3-month deflation period but still far from the 2-percent target set by Abe and Kuroda. It is hard to believe that after all the effort (mostly money printing), the situation hasn’t changed much. The question is ‘what would happen if the equity market falls to lower levels and the Yen appreciated further?’ What are Japan’s options?

GDP.png

Inflation

(Source: Trading economics)

We remember one article we read last October from Alhambra Investment Partners, which was talking about the Japanese QE. The chart below reviews all the QEs implemented since the GFC and how the BoJ reacted each time it had a difficult macro situation (i.e. low inflation, stagnating equities, zero-growth…). As you can see, Japan has constantly increase its QE size little by little until Abe was elected In December 2012 and went all-in by starting its QQME stimulus on April 3rd 2013. As Ray Dalio said in many interviews (when he talks about the Fed), the effect of QE diminishes if credit spreads are already close to zero (and asset prices already ‘inflated’), therefore additional measures will constantly be less effective than in the past (‘central banks have the power to tighten, but very little power to ease’). We believe this is exactly where Japan stands at the moment, giving Abe (and Kuroda and Aso) a harsh time.

QEJapan.PNG

(Source: Alhambra Investment Partners)

Another BoJ’s important indicator is the Japanese workers’ real wages, which went back into the negative territory, declining 0.4% YoY in November and marking the first fall since June 2015 according to the Ministry of Finance. Despite PM Abe’s hard work pushing companies to increase wages in order to fuel household consumption, household spending dropped by 2.9% in November and has been contracting most of the months over the past 2 years.

HouseholdSpending.PNG

(Source: Trading economics)

With a debt-to-GDP ratio sitting at 230%, one chart we liked that was published in a Bloomberg post showed the ‘growing dominance’ of the BoJ. The central bank held 30.3% of the country’s sovereign debt (as of September 2015), more than any investor class. For instance, the chart below shows the evolution of the holdings of both the BoJ and Financial Institutions (ex. Insurers); at  the start of the QQME, BoJ holdings were 13.2% vs. 42.4% for Financial Institutions. How long can this story continue?

Holdings.PNG

(Source: Bloomberg)