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)

 

Brazil, on the menu of the next FOMC meetings?

With the VIX index trading 10 points lower at 17.08 and a very rangy USDJPY (trading sideways at around 120), we believe there isn’t any new outstanding topic to talk about, therefore we decided that a little article on Brazil could do it ahead of this new week.

Brazil’s summary on a chart

We would like to start this review by first commenting the chart below, representing the key elements that we usually like to watch. As you can see, the SELIC (Blue/White line), Brazil’s central bank (CBB) target rate, stands now at a 9-year high of 14.25%. Since the end of 2012, CBB policymakers have started a tightening cycle and has been forced to maintain it especially over the past 12 months as the currency – Brazilian Real – is collapsing. The real (yellow line) has depreciated by 56% in one year and now trades at 3.76 against the greenback. Looking at the range over the past 9 years, it reached a low of 1.5360 in July 2011 and a high of 4.2480, which represents a 178% devaluation. This aggressive depreciation of the currency has led to inflationary pressures (CPI YoY – green line – printed at 9.5% in September) and the CDS spread 5 year rose from 126bps to 418bps (with a high of 545bps in the end of September).

BrazilSummaryC

(Source: Bloomberg)

Brazil’s dollar-denominated debt…

Clearly, the central bank has been constantly intervening in order to calm investors’ fear of a potential default. Based on a study from the Bank of International Settlement (Working Paper No 483), dollar borrowings in Brazil has reached more than 300 billion dollars (with giant Petrobras holding one third of the shares). Holding a dollar-denominated debt (Loans, debt securities or offshore issuance) means basically that you are short US Dollar. Therefore, if the Brazilian Real keeps depreciating against the US Dollar over the long-term, all these non-financial Brazilian companies will have difficulty in meeting their debt obligations. For instance, the chart below shows the consequence on a Brazilian Company – Petrobras – that holds almost USD100bn of US-denominated debt. Its 5-year CDS spread (White Line) more than doubled over the past 6 months from 390 to 830 bps (with a high of 1025bps in the end of September), the equity price (Yellow line) almost decreased by half of its value and the company’s perpetual 2115 bonds are now trading at 71 cents on the par.

PetrosSitC

(Source: Bloomberg)

Brazil’s fiscal situation

As we are looking at the country’s financial stability, let’s review how the government is handling its budget. Brazil has an on-balance-sheet debt-to-GDP ratio of roughly 65% (as of July 2015), which has been constantly rising over the past 5 years due to the end of the commodity super-cycle. Based on article from the The Economist, the country’s budget deficit was projected to grow to 9% of GDP in 2015, with interest payments reaching an outstanding 8% (as a share of GDP). Higher short term rates to protect the currency and higher long term rates as investors lose confidence on the country’s sustainability, this situation can only deteriorate in my opinion.

(Source: The Economist)

Its projected 2.3% contraction for this year (Brazil has now printed two quarters of negative growth QoQ, -0.7% in Q1 and -1.9% in Q2) has ‘forced’ rating agencies to downgrade its credit rating to junk status (S&P reduced it to BB+ with negative outlook last September). As you understand, the country has now entered in the so-called ‘negative spiral’, which usually leads to a long recessionary period. Economist are already projecting a zero-growth for the year 2016, and this is assuming the country’s institutions respect their debt obligations.

Political instability: Congress and Rousseff divergence

On the top of the current catastrophic situation for this used-to-be prosperous EM country, Brazil faces a political turmoil. President Dilma Rousseff currently faces many enemies in Congress (i.e. Congress blocking budget proposals) which can only worsen the country’s financial stability . For instance, her plan to reinstate a tax on financial transactions last month (38bps levy, known as CPMF) which could have raised 70bn Reals a year in revenue was eventually withdrawn as Congress would never have approved it. We saw on Wednesday that Congress postponed for a fourth time voting on whether to overrule President Rousseff’s vetoes on extra spending. The bills she vetoed would increase public spending by over 100bn real over the next four years. The central bank recorded a primary fiscal result (government budget balance before interest payments of 0.75% of GDP in August, therefore cannot afford to spend more than.

To conclude, both the political and financial situations are to follow closely over the next few months and we will see if the Fed will look at Brazil as an additional threat for the EM crisis.

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

A CB surprise…

After October 15th last year, yesterday was another insane day in the market. We know approximately the impact of a lower (or higher) NFP report on the US dollar or a lower (resp. higher) than expected EZ inflation rate on Euro bonds; however when the surprise comes from a central bank, we saw the consequences…
But first, I am going to have just one quick digression before going for it, concerning the OMT.

OMT is legal

Almost a year ago, the German Federal Constitutional Court (GFCC) found ECB’s OMT bond-buying program illegal and incompatible with EU and German law. Given that the GFCC only has jurisdiction on matters of German domestic law, it decided to leave judgement to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). In his Opinion on Wednesday, the Advocate General Cruz Villalon observed that the program is compatible with the EU Law and that the ‘objectives are in principle legitimate and on consonant with monetary policy’. He added that the program is ‘necessary as well as proportionate in the strict sense, since the ECB does not assume a risk that will necessarily make it vulnerable to insolvency’. As a reminder, the Advocate General’s Opinion is not binding on the Court of Justice. THe judges are now deliberating and the Opinion is expected to reach its judgment by May.

The Euro plummeted by 100 pips to 1.1730 (9-year low) after the news, but came back above 1.1840 on the back of poor US retail sales figures. As a reminder, retail sales dropped 0.9% MoM on Wednesday, the most since June 2012, and missed expectations of a 0.1% decline.

However, the ‘recovery’ didn’t last very long as the single currency is currently trading at 1.1630 against the greenback. How come?

Definitely unexpected…

Yesterday morning, slightly before lunch time (Swiss local time), the Swiss National Bank announced that it was discounting the minimum exchange rate of 1.20 per Euro (that it has been ‘defending’ for the past 3-1/2 years). It also announced that it would go further into NIRP policy, pushing its interest rate on deposit balances to even more negative from -0.25% to -0.75%.

By letting the exchange rate float ‘naturally’, the consequence were brutal and EURCHF, which had been flirting with the 1.20 over the past couple of months, crashed to (less than) 75 cents per Euro, wiping out every single long EURCHF position, before ‘recovering’ to parity (now trading at 1.0140).

EURCHF

USDCHF is now trading around 0.8700 (back from above parity levels, 1.02 to be precise), and EURUSD was sold to 1.1568 before rebounding.

A Stressed Market

The Swiss curve is now trading in the negative territory for all the maturities until 10 years; the swiss market index tumbled to (less than) 8000 (almost 15 drawdown) and then stabilized around 8,400.

US yields are still compressing, with the 5-year, 10-year and 30-year trading at 1.18%, 1.72% and 2.37% respectively. I added a table below that shows the 10-year overall and definitely summaries the current ‘environment’. As you can see, Greece is the only EZ country where yields are trading at astronomic levels on the fear of a Grexit scenario in 10 days (See article here). I like the expression ‘the Japanization of Global Bond yields’ used by some analysts I read.

Capture d’écran 2015-01-16 à 10.35.47

(Source:Bloomberg)

Our favorites, AUDJPY and USDJPY, both reacted to the SNB comments ‘bringing down’ the equity market with them. AUDJPY plunged from (almost) 97 to 95.30 and is now trading at 95.60. USDJPY broke below 116.60 and dropped to 116.28; before that, it reached a daily high of 117.92 during the ‘early’ Asian hours.

The S&P500 index followed the general move and broke the 2,000 level (closing at 1,992), and is now trying to find a new low. Is it going to be a buy-on-dips scenario once again? Clearly, the equity market is ‘swingy’, however I don’t think we are about to enter a bearish momentum yet and I still see some potential on the upside. Therefore, USDJPY should also help the equity market levitate and we should see the pair back to 120.

Discrete poor US fundamentals

Yesterday was also marked by a poor jobless claims report in the US, which was totally forgotten of course but surged to 316K (vs. expectations of 290K). In addition, the Philly Fed, an index measuring changes in business growth, crashed from a 21-year high of 40.2 in November to 6.3 in January (missing expectations of 18.7), the lowest since 2014. I know these figures are quite not relevant for traders and investors, however I do think it is worth noticing it. As a reminder, US inflation rate (watched carefully by US policymakers) decreased from 1.7% to 1.3% in November and is expected to remain at low levels (between 1 and 1.5 percent).

Overall, the global economy still looks weak, and we saw lately that the World Bank decreased this year’s growth projections to 3% in 2015 (down from 3.4% last June). Major BBs declined their forecasts on oil and expect prices to remain low in the first half of this year. We heard Goldman’s Jeff Currie lately saying that prices of crude oil may fall below the bank’s 6-month forecast of $39 a barrel. Remember the chart I like to watch (oil vs. inflation vs. yields vs. equities).

The next couple of event to watch are of course the ECB meeting on January 22nd, followed by the Greek national elections on January 25 (see below). For the ECB meeting, it is hard to believe that the central bank will do nothing after the SNB’s announcement.

EZrecaps

(Source: MS Research)

The Fed’s 2015 dilemma: Equity market VS Oil prices

Even though the FX market is usually considered as an esoteric asset class, it happens that a lot of opportunities were in currencies last year. I mainly think about the Yen and the Euro, but the chart shows the main currency performances against the Dollar.

CurrenciesvsUSD

(Source: Hard Assets Investors)

We saw a couple of weeks ago that the economy increased at an annual rate of 5 percent according to the third estimates, the highest print since Q3 2003 when GDP rose by an outstanding 6.9.%. In addition, we saw in October that the final numbers for FY2014 federal deficit was $486bn (or 2.8% as a share of GDP), $197bn lower than the $680bn recorded in FY2013 and the lowest deficit since 2008 as you can see it on the chart below.

USDef

(Source: CBO)

On the top of that, the unemployment rate stands at a multi-year low of 5.8%, down 2.1% over the past couple of year. The only scary figures is US debt [like any other country], which now stands at a record high of 18tr+ USD, up 70% under Obama (10.6tr USD back in January 2009).

Another Good Year for equities…

I have to admit that with the Fed’s exit at the end of October, I was a bit anxious on the consequences it could have on the equity market, especially after the several ‘swings’ we saw (January, October). In my article Could we survive without QE (Part II with US yields), I added a chart (S&P 500) where you can see the impact on the equities each time the Fed stepped out of the bond market. Clearly not good.

But it didn’t. And after the 2013 thirty-percent rally, the S&P500 increased by another 11 percent in 2014 [and closed at records 53 times].

It looks to me that there are a lot of positive facts and the Fed can eventually start its tightening cycle. However, the collapse in oil prices will weigh on US policymakers’ decision in my opinion.

I think the question now is: which one will weigh more on US policymakers’ decision to tighten (or not)?

I strongly believe that the two main indicators the central bank is watching are the equity market and oil prices. An increasing equity market tends to have a positive effect on consumer spending (through the wealth effect). As a reminder, consumer spending represents 60 to 70 percent of GDP for most of the well-developed economies.

However, falling oil prices, with now Crude Oil WTI Feb15 Futures trading at $51.80 per barrel, is problematic. First of all, problematic for oil exporters’ countries (i.e. Chart of the Day: Oil Breakeven prices). We saw lately that Saudi Arabia announced that it will face a deficit of $38.6bn in FY2015, its first one since 2011 and the largest in its history (no projected oil price was included in the 2015 budget, but some analysts estimated that the Kingdom is projecting a price of $55-$60 per barrel).

I am just back from Kuwait City where I met a few investors there with a friend of mine (Business Developer in the Middle East), and most of them agreed that there were comfortable with a barrel at $60.

To me, falling oil prices reflect the weakening global demand and real economy effects. With the Chinese economy slowing down (GDP growth rate of 7.3% in Q3 is the slowest in five years), major economies back into recession (Triple-dip recession for Italy and Japan) and rising geopolitical instability, forecasts are constantly reviewed lower and problematic for debt stability [and sustainability]. I like the chart below (Source: ZeroHedge) which clearly explains that oil prices and global demand are moving together. In fact, lower growth projections combined with low oil prices and [scary] low yields are problematic for the Fed.

GlobalChart

(Source: ZeroHedge)

Moreover, falling oil prices is problematic as it will drive US [and global] inflation lower. The inflation rate is slowing in most of the developed economies: in November, UK inflation fell to a 12-year low of 1% in November, EZ policymakers are still working on how to counter rising deflation threat (prices eased to a 5-year low of 0.3%) and US CPI fell at the steepest rate in almost six years to 1.3%. Most of the countries whose central banks target inflation are below their target.

2015: New Board, new doves…

In addition, as you can see it below, the ‘hawks’ members – Fisher and Plosser – are out this year and this could change the tenor of debate within US central bank’s policy-setting committee.

FedBoard

(Source: Deutsche Bank)

Japan and the Yen, where do we stand now?

On October 31st, Governor Kuroda announced that the BoJ will raise (by a 5-4 majority vote) its bond-buying program. We saw the reaction since then; USDJPY soared from 112+ then to 120 (with a high of 121.86 on December 7). Some analysts think that the move was/is exaggerated, but if you put the figures on table, it looks reasonable to me. By announcing that the Bank of Japan will buy between 8 and 12 trillion JPY of JGBs each month, it means that it will purchase the total 10tr Yen of new bonds issued by the Ministry of Finance; in other words, full monetization. As a reminder, the central bank is the largest single holder of JGBs (with 20%+ of the shares), and could end up owing half of the JP bond market within the next 3 to 4 years.

With the country now in a triple-dip recession (GDP contracted by 1.9% in the third quarter) and the inflation rate slowing down for the fourth consecutive month in November (core CPI, which excludes volatile fresh food but include oil products, rose 2.7% in November, down from 2.9% in September and 3% in October), I see just more ‘power’ coming from Japanese policymakers. Elected in December 2012 as Japan PM (the seventh one in the last decade), I am convinced that Abe (and Kuroda/Aso) cannot fail this time and will (and must) continue to go ‘all-in- on his plan. That will mean aggressive easing, therefore constant depreciation of the currency JPY in the MT/LT. Remember the graph I like to watch: Central Bank’s total assets as a percent of the country’s GDP (see article It is all about CBs).

In fact, as many analysts have stated, the hit from the sales tax increase back in April turned out to be bigger than expected. The second one, which was set for October 2015 and would have seen a 2-percent rise to 10 percent, has already been postponed for early 2017 according to Abe’s announcement last month. When will the country work on its budget balance? As a reminder, Japan has been showing a 8%+ budget deficit over the past six years, which rose the level of its debt to a ‘unsustainable’ 230% as a share of GDP.

Another major problem that the third-largest economy will have to deal with in the long term is its population. The chart below (Source: the Economist) shows the evolution of Japan’s population from 1950 to 2055 (forecast). It is aging, and that is terrible news for all the pension or mutual funds as many people from the Japanese workforce will switch from being net savers to net spenders.

20141213_gdc700(Source: the Economist)

With a population of 127 million in 2013, the number of people is expected to fall below 100 million by the middle of this century due to the low birth of rate (total fertility rate of 1.4 in 2013).

In my article last month on the Japanese Yen History, I added a quick ‘technical’ chart and stated that we may see some take profit a 120 and that the pair should stabilize at around that level based on the downtrend line. And each time I have some discussion about the Yen, I always say there are two ways to play it:
– either keep it short (against USD or GBP) for those who are looking for a medium or long term view;
– or buy the pair (USDJPY) on dips if you try to catch nice trends. Don’t try to short it, unless you are really confident and have been doing it for a while. All traders I know are looking for buying opportunities on the pair.

Speaking of that, it looks to me that the core portfolio I have been carrying over the past few months now – Short EUR (1/2) , JPY (1/2) vs. long USD (2/3) and GBP (1/3) – has been quite profitable, and I still believe there is more room. At least, it makes sense on the idea I had about ‘monetary policy divergence’, with the US and UK considering raising rates (no printing/QE) while EZ and Japan aggressively printing with NIRP/ZIRP monetary policies. I will try to write a piece shortly on the Euro while I am working on my 2015 outlook.