Rate cuts were unnecessary in a shutdown economy

Introduction

As a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic and the potential catastrophic impact on the global economy, the Fed slashed interest rate to zero in March after four years of effort to increase its benchmark rate. In addition, it has also increased drastically the size of its balance in order to prevent the whole market from collapsing; the Fed’s balance sheet is now expecting to grow to USD 8/9 trillion by the end of the year, twice more than the high reached in October 2014. Even though there is no question that the whole economy was healthier this time than prior to the Great Financial Crisis and that the Fed’s interventions and liquidity injections were timely and mandatory to save the whole market, we believe that the rate cuts were unnecessary.

A slowing economy pre-virus

As we know, the US economy peaked in the last quarter of 2018 and was already considerably slowing down in 2019 due to the high uncertainty in the market (Brexit, followed by the China-US trade war). Figure 1 (left frame) shows the global and US manufacturing PMI overlaid with the US 10Y yield. After the global economy peaked in Q4 2017, the outperformance of the US relative to the rest of the World in 2018 led to a rising USD and a rising 10Y yield, but eventually the slowdown of the US economic growth brought the long-end of the Treasury curve to the downside.

In addition, the sharp sell-off in equities in Q4 2018 (nearly 20 percent from peak to trough) reversed the Fed’s policy guidance with the famous ‘Powell pivot’ from ‘a long way from neutral’ in October 2018 to ‘appropriate stance in January 2019. Policymakers even cut rate three times in the second half of 2019 in order to stimulate demand after the 2Y10Y yield curve inverted in August.

Figure 1

RR1Source: Eikon Reuters, Bloomberg

Hence, the reversal in global central banks’ policy (from global tightening to global easing) combined with the significant increase in global liquidity led to a sharp recovery in stocks, with the SP500 recording one of its best year in the past 30 years (figure 2, right frame). However, the 2020 events generated a global panic and equities sold off aggressively in February/ March amid concerns of the global supply shock will soon spill over demand. Did the Fed increase volatility at first by just cutting interest rates to zero? Even though we understand that policymakers globally wanted to quickly reassure markets by hinting participants that it will not let the whole market fail, there has been very few debates on whether rate cuts are useful in a shutdown economy. In theory, rate cuts should decrease the incentives to save and increase demand for credit and the incentives to consume. We think that the massive liquidity injections would have been enough this time to halt the global panic and that policymakers should have save the little room left in the benchmark rate for later (i.e. when the economy reopens). In addition, we believe that the aggressive rate cuts may have increased price volatility in March; figure 2 (right frame) shows that stocks tend to sell rapidly in when Fed cut rates aggressively.

Figure 2

RR2Source: Eikon Reuters

US shadow rate to hit -5 percent in 2020

Even though some economists have been speculating that the Fed will adopt a negative interest rate policy (NIRP) in the coming months as a response of the Covid-19 crisis, we are not convinced of that and we think that policymakers will first wait and see if the massive liquidity injections will be enough to stimulate the economy. Figure 3 shows the historical path of the Fed Funds rate since 1960, including the ‘shadow rate’ based on Wu-Xia calculations (2015),a tool that researchers have proposed in recent years to estimate how low would the benchmark rate be had the the Fed not used unconventional monetary policy.

This time, the shadow rate is expected to fall down to -5% by the end of the year, 2 percent lower than the -3 percent low reached in the third quarter of 2014 (due to QE3), which should in theory represents a massive stimulus for the economy.

Figure 3

Source: Eikon Reuters, Wu-Xia (2015)

Key economic measures such as r-star have become less relevant in the past cycle

Unlike most of the central banks, the Fed follows a triple mandate when conducting its monetary policy, which is to achieve the following goals: maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates. In addition, policymakers have tried to estimate the dynamics of the (unobservable) neutral rate of interest, r-star, which can be defined as the interest rate that supports the economy at maximum employment while keeping stable prices. Figure 4 (left frame) shows the relationship between r* (estimated by Holston et al. (2017)) and the implied Fed Funds rate (including the shadow rate). Policymakers’ have usually immediately been reacting by lowering the FFR when the r-star was starting to decrease due to an economic shock / recession.

We do not have the recent Q1 updates for r-star, but it is fair to say that it will decrease drastically, which would support the argument of a lower FFR. However, the Fed should just have increased the size of its balance sheet this time (which would have lowered the shadow rate) while keeping extra room for FFR intervention in the coming months when economies reopen.

In addition, we can also see that the relationship between the implied FFR and the US saving rate has broken down in the past cycle (figure 4, right frame). Before 2008, lower FFR was usually leading to a lower saving rate in the following 2 to 3 years (lower rates decrease the incentive to save and should increase the incentive to consume). However, since 2009, while interest rates reached the lower bound and even decreased if we look at the shadow rate, the saving rate has increased. The saving rate could actually go even higher given the uncertainty that households will face post lockdown.

Figure 4

RR4

Source : EIkon Reuters, Holston et al. (2017), Wu-Xia (2015)

In short, more rates cuts are useless in a shutdown economy; policymakers should leave some room for later in case of a ‘Wsss – shape’ recovery.

 

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.

Some Yen Charts…

In the past few months, investors have been questioning the Yen’s status of safe haven as the currency has constantly been depreciating in the past year despite the elevated uncertainty. The first surprising chart is the divergence between USDJPY and Gold prices (in USD terms). Figure 1 (left frame) shows that after co-moving strongly for 7 years, the USDJPY exchange rate decoupled from Gold (in USD terms). While Gold prices have been constantly soaring in the past year, and especially in recent weeks over growing concerns around Covid-19, USDJPY has remained steady oscillating around 109. In addition, we also noticed a significant divergence between USDJPY and US 10Y Treasury yield. Even though currencies have a variety of short-term drivers, the 10Y US-Japan interest rate differential has been one of the popular ones in the past cycle. As long-term interest rates in Japan have been trading around 0 percent in the past few years after the BoJ decided to keep the yield on 10-year Japanese government debt around zero percent, we just look at the US 10Y yield. Interestingly, demand for US Treasuries has been very strong in the past few weeks, leading to a sharp fall in the US 10Y yield to below 1 percent, while the move on the Japanese yen was more moderate (figure 1, right frame). Has the Yen lost his popularity in periods of market stress?

Figure 1

fig1

Source: Eikon Reuters

First of all, even though the US Treasuries have been considered as the ultimate safe haven in the past 30 years, which explain the success of risk parity strategies during that period, the Japanese Yen remains the preferred currencies in the G10 space in periods of elevated price volatility. For instance, figure 2 shows that the Yen tends to appreciates strongly when VIX starts to surge; in the past 30 years, the JPY has averaged 44bps in monthly returns against the USD when the VIX was trading above 20, nearly four times more than the other traditional safe CHF (Swiss Franc).

Figure 2

fig2

Source: Eikon Reuters, RR Calculations

Secondly it is important to know that the Yen is usually sensitive to the dynamics of the stock market and tends to appreciate in periods of equity sell-offs. Figure 3 (left frame) illustrates perfectly this example and shows a great co-movement between our favourite cross AUDJPY (also known as the proxy for carry trade) and the SP500. We can also see the strong relationship between USDJPY and Japanese equities in figure 3 (right frame); a cheaper currency is usually associated with higher equities in Japan (‘Pavlovian’ response).

Figure 3

fig3Source: Eikon Reuters

Hence, we do not think that the Yen has lost its status of safe haven and we saw last week that it has responded pretty well to the global equity sell-off, appreciating by nearly 5 figures against the greenback. In addition, to the exception of the US Dollar, the Yen has been strengthening in the past two years against most of the popular crosses such as EUR, GBP, AUD and CAD. Figure 4 (left frame) shows that the EURJPY and GBPJPY exchange rates have depreciated by 12% and 10%, respectively, since the start of 2018. We can also notice that the AUDJPY exchange rate has been constantly weakening amid elevated uncertainty, pricing in further weakness in global (ex-US) equities (figure 4, right frame). Is the AUDJPY actually right about the ‘fair value’ of equities.

Figure 4

fig4

Source: Eikon Reuters

Figure 5 shows that the USDJPY exchange rate has been also nicely co-moving with the digital safe: Bitcoin. In the past 3 years, strength in the crypto market has been associated with JPY appreciation. Even though the relationship is pretty new, it will be interesting to see if both assets (JPY and Bitcoin) continue to receive support if price volatility remains high.

Don’t lose faith on the Yen, not now!

Figure 5

fig5

Source: Eikon Reuters

Great Chart: CEO confidence vs. consumer sentiment surveys

In the past two years, the elevated economic and political uncertainty in addition to the lagged effect of quantitative tightening have significantly weakened growth expectations and as a consequence increased demand for safe assets such as the US Dollar and US Treasuries. While the situation seems to have improved slightly in the past 6 months on the back of aggressive rate cuts from central banks globally, business surveys are still pricing in further deterioration in the US economy. For instance, the ISM manufacturing PMI hit a low of 47.2 in December 2019, diverging significantly from the 50-percent threshold that separates growth from contraction. CEO confidence also dropped to its lowest level in a decade and is currently pricing a much higher probability of recession than other popular indicators. On the other hand, consumer confidence indicators have remained strong in the US as consumption remains solid (real PCE expenditure has been averaging 2.5% in the past few quarters).

How long can that divergence persist until US consumer sentiment starts to fade away? This great chart shows that the CEO confidence survey has acted as a good 12-month leading indicator of consumer confidence (University of Michigan) since 1980. We can notice that top executives in the US are currently pricing a significant deterioration in consumer sentiment for the next 12 months to come. However, some divergences occurred in the past, particularly in the late 1990s when CEO confidence started to fall drastically in 1998 and 1999, but consumer confidence was constantly rising during that period mainly due to the tremendous rise in equities that was inflating household wealth. Even though we are concerned about the deterioration of those business surveys, we may continue to see a divergence within the next twelve months between business and consumer confidence surveys as equities keep reaching new all-time highs and interest rates remain ‘too low’ relative to the current pace of nominal GDP growth in the US.

Chart. US CEO Confidence (12M Lead) vs. Consumer Confidence (Source: Eikon Reuters)

CEOconf

Great Chart: USD REER vs. VEU/SPY

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

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

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

 

FX positioning ahead of the September FOMC meeting

As of today, most market participants are getting prepared [and positioned] for the FOMC meeting on September 20/21st in order to see if policymakers stick with their Jackson-Hole hints, therefore we think it is a good time to share our current FX positioning.

Fed’s meeting: hike or no-hike?

We think that one important point investors were trying to figure out the last Jackson Hole Summit last week was to know if US policymakers were considering starting [again] their monetary policy tightening cycle after a [almost] 1-year halt. If we look at the FedWatch Tool available in CME Group website, the probability of a 25bps rate hike in September stands now at 18% based on a 30-day Fed Fund futures price of 99.58 (current contract October 2016, implied rate is 42bps).

CME.png

(Source: CME Group)

In addition, if we look at the Eurodollar futures market, the December Contract trades at 99.08, meaning the market is pricing a 1% US Dollar rate by the end of the year. We can clearly notice that the market expects some action coming from US policymakers within the next few months. However, recent macroeconomic data have shown signs of deterioration in the US that could potentially put the rate hike on hold for another few months. Following last week disappointing manufacturing ISM data that came out at 49.4 below its expansion level (50), ISM Service dropped to 51.4, its lowest number since February 2010 and has been dramatically declining since mid-2015. We strongly believe that there are both important indicators to watch, especially when they are flirting with the expansion/recession 50-level. We can see in the chart below that the ISM manufacturing PMI (white line) tracks really ‘well’ the US Real GDP (Annual YoY, yellow line), and as equity markets tend to do poorly in periods of recession we can say that the ISM Manufacturing / Services can potentially predict sharp drawdowns in equities.

Chart 1. ISM – blue and white – and Real US GDP Annual YoY – yellow line (Source: Bloomberg)

ISM_US.JPG

Another disappointment came from the Job market with Non-Farm Payrolls dropping back below the 200K level (it came out at 151K for August vs. 180K expected) and slower earnings growth (average hourly earnings increased by 2.4% YoY in August, lower than the previous month’s annual pace of 2.7%).

This accumulation of poor macro figures halted the US Dollar gains we saw during the J-Hole Summit and it seems that the market is starting to become more reluctant to a rate hike in September. The Dollar Index (DXY) is trading back below 95 and the 10-year rate is on its way to hit its mid-August 1.50% support (currently trades at 1.54%). What is interesting to analyse is which currency will benefit most from this new Dollar Weakness episode.

FX positioning

USDJPY: After hitting a high of 104.32 on Friday, the pair is once again poised to retest its 100 psychological support in the next few days. This is clearly a nightmare for Abe and Kuroda as the Yen has strengthen by almost 20% since its high last June (125.85). If we have a look at the chart below, the trend looks clearly bearish at the moment and longs should consider putting a tight top at 105. we would stay short USDJPY as we don’t see any aggressive response from the BoJ until the next MP meeting on September 21st.

Chart 2. USDJPY candlesticks (Source: Bloomberg)

EURUSD: Another interesting move today is the EURUSD 100-SMA break out, the pair is currently trading at 1.1240 and remains on its one-year range 1.05 – 1.15. As a few articles pointed out recently, the ECB has been active in the market since March 2015 and has purchased over 1 trillion government and corporate bonds. The balance sheet total assets now totals 3.3 trillion Euros (versus 4 trillion EUR for the Fed), an indicator to watch as further easing announced by Draghi will tend to weigh on the Euro in the long run. The ECB meets in Frankfurt on Thursday and the market expect an extension of the asset purchases beyond March 2017 (by 6 to 9 months). We don’t see a further rate cut (to -0.5%) or a boost in the asset purchase program for the moment, therefore we don’t think we will see a lot of volatility in the coming days. we wouldn’t take an important position in the Euro, however we can see EURUSD trading above 1.13 by Thursday noon.

Chart 3. EURUSD and Fibonacci retracements (Source: Bloomberg)

Another important factor EU policymakers will have to deal with in the future is lower growth and inflation expectations. The 2017 GDP growth expectation decreased to 1.20% (vs. 1.70% in the beginning of the year) and the 5y/5y forward inflation expectation rate is still far below the 2-percent target (it stands currently at 1.66% according to FRED).

Sterling Pound: New Trend, New Friend? The currency that raised traders’ interest over the past couple of weeks has been the British pound as it was considered oversold according to many market participants. Cable is up 5% since its August low (1.2866) and is approaching its 1.35 resistance. We would try to short some as we think many traders will try to lock in their profit soon which could slow down the Pound appetite in the next few days. If 1.35 doesn’t hold, then it may be interesting to play to break out with a new target at 1.3600.

Chart 4. GBPUSD and its 1.35 resistance (Source: Bloomberg)

GBP.JPG

We would short some (GBPUSD) with a tight stop loss at 1.3520 and a target at 1.3350. No action expected from the BoE on September 15th, Carney is giving the UK markets some ‘digestion’ time after the recent action (rate cut + QE).

USDCHF: For the Swissie, our analysis stands close to the Yen’s one, and therefore we think the Swiss Franc strength could continue in the coming days. we like 0.96 as a first ‘shy’ target, and we would look at the 0.9550 level if the situation remains similar (poor macro and quiet vol) in the short term.

AUDUSD: Australia, as many other commodity countries (Canada, New Zealand), remains in a difficult situation as the deterioration of the terms of trade will tend to force RBA policymakers to move towards a ZIRP policy. However, lower rates will continue to inflate housing prices, which continue to grow at a two-digit rate. According to CoreLogic, house prices averaged 10-percent growth over the past year, with Sydney and Melbourne up 13% and 13.9%, respectively. Australian citizens are now leverage more than ever; the Household debt-to-GDP increased from 70% in the beginning of the century to 125% in Q4 2015 (see chart below). This is clearly unsustainable over the long-run, which obviously deprives policymakers to lower rates too ‘quickly’ to counter disinflation. As expected, the RBA left its cash rate steady at 1.50% today, which will play in favor of the Aussie in the next couple of weeks. One interesting point as well is that the Aussie didn’t react to an interest rate cut on August 2nd, something that Governor Glenn Stevens will have to study in case policymakers want to weaken the currency. There is still room on the upside for AUDUSD, first level stands at 0.7750.

Australia.png

(Source: Trading Economics)

Chinese Yuan: The Renminbi has been pretty shy over the past two month, USDCNH has been ranging between 6.62 and 6.72. The onshore – offshore spread is now close to zero as you can see it on the chart below (chart on the bottom). We don’t see any volatility rising in the next few weeks, therefore we wouldn’t build a position in that particular currency.

Chart 5. CNY – CNH spread analysis (Source: Bloomberg)

CNH spread.JPG

 To conclude, we think that we are going to see further dollar weakness ahead of the FOMC September meeting as practitioners will start to [re]consider a rate hike this time, especially if fundamentals keep being poor in the near future.

Eyes on Yellen (and global macro)

As we are getting close to the FOMC statement release, we were reading some articles over the past couple of days to understand the recent spike in volatility. Whether it is coming from a ‘Brexit’ fear scenario, widening spreads between core and peripheral countries in the Eurozone (German 10Y Bund now trading negative at -0.5bps), disappointing news coming from US policymakers this evening or more probably from something that we don’t know, we came across some interesting data.

First of all, we would like to introduce an indicator that is getting more and more popular these days: Goldman’s Current Activity Indicator (CAI). This indicator gives a more accurate reflection of the nation’s GDP and can be used in near real-time due to its intra-month updates. It incorporates 56 indicators, and showed a 1-percent drop in May to 1.2% due to poor figures in the labor market and ISM manufacturing data (see chart below).

Chart 1. Goldman CAI (Source: Bloomberg)

The implied probability of a rate hike tonight is less than 2% according to the CME Group FedWatch, and stands only at 22.5% for the July meeting. If we have a look at the Fed Dot Plot’s function in Bloomberg, we can see that the implied FF rates curve has decreased (purple line) compare to where it was after the last FOMC meeting (red line), meaning that the market is very reluctant to a rate hike in the US.

Chart 2. US Feds Dot Plot vs. Implied FF rates (Source: Bloomberg)

June hike, why not?

Many people have tried to convince me of a ‘no June hike’ scenario, however we try to understand why it isn’t a good moment for Yellen to tighten. Oil (WTI CL1) recovered sharply from its mid-February lows ($26/bbl) and now trades slightly below $48 (decreasing the default rate of the US high-yield companies), the US Dollar has been very quiet over the past 18 months (therefore not hurting the US companies’ earnings), the SP500 index is still trading above 2000, the unemployment rate stands at 4.7% (at Full employment) and the Core CPI index came in at 2.1% YoY in April.

However, it seems that US policymakers may have some other issues in mind: is it Eurozone and its collapsing banking sector, Brexit fear (i.e. no action until the referendum is released), CNY series of devaluation or Japanese sluggish market (i.e. JPY strength)?

The negative yield storm

According to a Fitch analysis, the amount of global sovereign debt trading with negative yields surpassed 10tr USD in May, with now the German 10Y Bund trading at -0.5%bps. According to DB research (see chart below), the German 10Y yield is the ‘simple indicator of a broken financial system’ and joins the pessimism in the banks’ strategy department. It seems that there has never been so much pessimism concerning the market’s outlook (12 months) coming from the sell-side research; do the sell-side firms now agree with the smart money managers (Carl Icahn, Stan Druckenmiller, Geroge Soros..)?

Chart 3. German 10Y Bund yield (Source: DB)

10Y bund DB.jpg

ECB Bazooka

In addition, thanks to the ECB’s QE (and CSPP program), there are 16% of Europe’s IG Corporate Bonds’ yield trading in negative territory, which represents roughly 440bn Euros out of the outstanding 2.8tr Euros according to Tradeweb data. If this situation remains, sovereign bonds will trade even more negative in the coming months, bringing more investors in the US where the 10Y stands at 1.61% and the 30Y at 2.40%. If we look at the yield curve, we can see that the curve flattened over the past year can investors could expect potentially LT US rates to decrease to lower levels if the extreme MP divergence continues, which can increase the value of Gold to 1,300 USD per ounce.

Chart 4. US Yield Curve (Flattened over the past year)

USIYC.png

(Source: Bloomberg)

Poor European equities (and Banks)

However, it seems that the situation is still very poor for European equities, Eurostoxx 50 is down almost 10% since the beginning of June, led by the big banks trading at record lows (Deutsche Bank at €13.3 a share, Credit Suisse at €11.70 a share). The situation is clearly concerning when it comes to banks in Europe, and until we haven’t restructured and/or deleveraged these banks, systemic risk will endure, leaving equities flat (despite 80bn Euros of money printing each month). Maybe Yellen is concerned about the European banks?

Brexit?

Another issue that could explain a status quo tonight could be the rising fear of a Brexit scenario. According to the Brexit poll tracker, leave has gained ground over the closing stages, (with 47% of polls for ‘Brexit’ vs. 44% for ‘Bremain’). This new development sent back the pound to 1.41 against the US Dollar, and we could potentially see further Cable weakness toward 1.40 in the coming days ahead of the results. Many people see a Brexit scenario very probable, raising the financial and contagions risks and the longer-term impact on global growth. It didn’t stop the 10Y UK Gilt yield to crater (now trading at 1.12%, vs. 1.6% in May), however a Brexit surprise could continue to send the 5Y CDS to new highs (see below).

Figure 1.  FT’s Brexit poll tracker (Source: Financial Times)

Brexit.JPG

Chart 5. UK 5Y CDS (Source: Bloomberg)

5YCDSUK.JPG

CNY devaluation: a problem for US policymakers?

Eventually, another problem is the CNY devaluation we saw since the beginning of April. The Chinese Yuan now stands now at its highest level since February 2011 against the greenback (USDCNY trading at around 6.60). we are sure the Fed won’t mention it in its FOMC statement, but this could also be a reason for not tightening tonight.

Conclusion: a rate hike is still possible tonight

To conclude, we are a bit skeptical why the market is so reluctant for a rate hike this evening, and we still think there is a chance of a 25bps hike based on the current market situation. We don’t believe that a the terrible NFP print (38K in May) could change the US policymakers’ decision. Moreover, even though we saw a bit of volatility in the past week (VIX spiked to 22 yesterday), equities are still trading well above 2,000 (SP500 trading at 2,082 at the moment) and the market may not be in the same situation in July or September.

Quick review of the Chinese Yuan history

Back in November 2014, we wrote a quick summary of our favorite currency: the Japanese Yen. It was a very useful exercise for me first of all, and we hope it provided interesting information for our readers.

We think this time an interesting story of a particular currency that we tend to watch every morning is the Chinese Yuan or ‘Renminbi’. The difference between the two names: the Yuan is the name of a unit of the renminbi currency (i.e. you can say that a slice of pizza cost 10 Yuan, but not 10 renminbi.

The ‘Dark’ Beginnings… 

The Renminbi, which literately means ‘people’s money’, is the official currency of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It was first issued on December 1st, 1948 by the PBoC, Public’s Bank of China, the country’s central bank. The bank was established on the same date under the Chinese Communist Party ruled by the Chairman Mao Zedong (also known as the founding father of the PRC). China experienced a massive monetary inflation between 1937 and 1945 (end of WWII) in order to fund the war with Japan. Studies showed that between 70 and 80 percent of the annual expenditures were covered by fresh printed money during that period. Therefore, the country suffered from a Great Inflation in the same years that was reflected on the exchange rate. Here are some figures (coming from the work of Richard M. Ebeling, the Great Chinese Inflation, 2010):

  • In June 1937, one US dollar was traded at 3.41 against the Yuan
  • By December 1961, the exchange rate of USDCNY rose to 18.93 in the black market
  • At the end of WWII, the Yuan depreciated dramatically to 1,222 (vs. the greenback)
  • In May 1949, USDCNY reached a dramatic 23,280,000

In the 1950s, the Chinese economy was so cut off from the rest of the world that it is difficult to find data on a potential meaningful exchange rate. All the information we have so far is that a second issuance of Renminbi took place in 1955 and replaced the first one at a rate of one new CNY to 10,000 old CNY.

The World Bank published an annual average middle exchange rate for US Dollar to Chinese Yuan since 1960. Between 1960 and 1971, one US dollar was worth 2.4618 Chinese Yuan, which makes me believe that China was ‘also part of’ the Bretton Woods agreements (we are speculating on that information based on the ‘pegged’ exchange rate). Then, after the Nixon ‘shock’, the exchange rate started to depreciate and reached a low of 1.8578 in 1977 before starting to soar to 2.40 in 1980.

The 1980s reform and RMB Devaluation:

With China’s economic reform in the 1980s, the Yuan started to become a more easily traded currency (exchange rate was therefore more realistic), thus data became public. The following historical exchange rates are based on Bloomberg (ticker: CNY BGN Curncy).

Starting with a grossly overvalued exchange rate in 1980, the Chinese Yuan experience a series of devaluation until the late 1990s until the Chinese authority settled the rate 8.27 CNY/USD.

As you can see it on chart 1, the rise of the US Dollar under the Reagan Administration (as a consequence of the Fed rising interest rate to 20% to counter inflation coming from the second oil shock) pushed the USDCNY exchange rate  from 1.65 to roughly 3.00 in September 1985 (before the Plaza Accord on September 22nd). In contrast, the real exchange rate was more much stable and remained virtually constant between 1981 and 1985 (during this period, the Renminbi was pegged to a back a basket of internationally traded currencies weighted according to their importance of China’s trade).

Between 1987 and the end of 1990, the Chinese Yuan was relatively pegged to the US Dollar, with a 26% Yuan devaluation that took place in the last quarter of 1989. However, these devaluations were not sufficient with the emergence of a black market pricing a much higher USDCNY exchange rate (i.e. cheaper Yuan currency against the US Dollar). Therefore, the ‘unofficial’ floating rate (a swap market rate) has constantly driven the ‘official’ rate (nominal rate on chart 1) until the massive devaluation of 1994 (and the official and ‘unofficial’ rates were eventually unified).

1995: The start of a new regime

One the two rates were unified, the Chinese currency was pegged to the US Dollar from 1995 to 2005 at an exchange rate of 8.28 Yuan per US Dollar. Therefore, the PBoC was ready to intervene (i.e. buy or sell Yuan) in the market to keep that rate steady. This policy was combined with a policy of restricting international capital flows, where the citizens were not allowed to convert savings into US dollars, Japanese Yen or British pound.

In consequence, the low exchange rate lead to political issues between US and China as many studies concluded that the Chinese Yuan was an undervalued currency. Exports were growing dramatically in China (see appendix 1), from 160 million US dollars in 1995 to 600 million dollars in 2005 according to the General Administration of Customs. The economic modernization, cheap labour costs in addition to a more ‘transparent’ exchange rate led to a surge in Foreign Direct Investment during the 1990s and 2000s. The economy average an average annual growth rate of 9-10% between 1995 and 2005 (appendix 2).

China’s economic growth and trade liberalization led to a sharp expansion in US/China commercial ties, and a constantly increasing US trade deficit with China. If we look at table 1, the US trade balance deficit widened from USD 10.4bn to USD 201.6bn in 2005, damaging the US economy. There are many reasons why China could have resisted from international pressures to maintain it peg during that period, but the two main ones that come to our mind is that China was mostly financing the US deficit (i.e. purchasing US Treasuries) and the US manufacturing was benefiting from cheap labour costs for goods produced in China.

The 2005 peg removal

Eventually, the PBoC removed the peg on July 21st 2005 and allowed a first one time appreciation of 2.1%, pushing the dollar down to 8.11 CNY. From there, China allowed its currency to float within a range determined in a relation to a basket of currencies (authorities told the world that it ran a ‘managed floating exchange rate regime based on market supply and demand with reference to a basket of currencies’). The basked was dominated by its main trading partners – US Dollar, Euro, Japanese Yen and South Korean Won – with a smaller proportion of other currencies (GBP, AUD, RUB, CAD, THB and SGD). Until Q3 2008, USDCNY fell roughly 18% before the reintroduction of a de facto peg during the financial crisis from 2008 to mid-2010 at around 6.80 Yuan per dollar.

June 2010: A return to the daily trading band limit:

In June 2010, after a two-year peg, China allowed once again USDCNY to trade within a 0.5% band (daily limit for appreciation or depreciation of the CNY against the USD) amidst major pressure from international trade partners. The Yuan’s trading band was then widened to 1 percent in April 2012, which led to further appreciation of CNY (USDCNY fell another 11.60% to reach a low of 6.01 in January 2014).

The Yuan crisis in Q1 2014

In the start of 2014, we saw a little Yuan crisis with USDCNY erasing most of its Jun-2012 / Jan-2014 fall (62% roughly if we look at chart 2). There are many stories that could describe this sudden CNY collapse:

  • the PBoC willingness to join the global currency war and enhance export
  • the carry trade unwinds from structured products build on the hypothesis that the Yuan will appreciate continuously (FX Target Redemption Forward story for instance)
  • other thought that the PBoC was paving ‘the way for further liberalization of the Yuan exchange rate’

We think the carry trade unwinds is the most appropriate based on the one-way market positioning concerning the Yuan before that crisis. Products were structured by banks on the hypothesis that the Chinese Yuan will constantly rise against the USD until it eventually reached its ‘fair value’ which was estimated between 5 and 5.5 at that time (BEER, FEER fair value models). We know that carry trade currencies tend to depreciate gradually during some period so that carry traders could benefit from the interest rate differentials, however the risk-off aversion (i.e. carry unwind) is sudden and very drastic.

In mid-March 2014, the PBoC widened the range to 2 percent (allowing the exchange rate to rise or fall 2 percent from a daily midpoint rate that the central bank sets each morning). Until the August 11 devaluation that occurred the following year, the Chinese Yuan oscillated at around 6.20 against the Dollar.

August Devaluation

On August 11th, the PBoC suddenly allowed the Yuan to depreciate by nearly 2% against the USD, its largest devaluation in the past two decades amid slower economic growth and a depressed highly-volatile stock market. As you can see it on Chart 3, the Shanghai Shenzhen Index (CSI 300) started to enter into a bear market in June 2015 after it reached a high of 5,380. In the beginning of August 2015, the market was almost down 2,000 pts. and the fear of a ‘Chinese bubble collapse’ raised concerns over global investors. A second PBoC move was done the consecutive day and pushed the total devaluation to nearly 4 percent (from 6.21 to 6.44 USDCNY, see chart 4).

Watch the CNY – CNH spread

As China has been opening up its economy to the RoW (Rest of the World) since the late 2000s, the officials’ goal was to internationalize its currency to the market to settle trade and financial transactions. As you know, the CNY – or on-shore Yuan – is not allowed outside of China and is only convertible in the current account (i.e. trade) and not in the capital account (i.e. for investments and banking flows). Thus was born the CNH in 2009 – offshore Renminbi – which circulates in offshore markets such as Hong Kong (China Mainland Hub). Since then, there has been a rapid expansion of offshore clearing centres in financial cities like London or Frankfurt and the RMB has begun direct currency trading against the Euro, GBP, NZD in addition to USD, JPY or AUD.

The important criteria of the CNH is that it is allowed to float freely with no restrictions on cross border trade settlements, therefore we usually like to watch the CNY – CNH spread just to see the divergence sometimes that happens in the market (See chart 5). In the beginning of the year 2016, we saw a massive divergence between USDCNY and USDCNH, with the offshore Yuan (CNH) was depreciating at a much faster pace than the on-shore Yuan (CNY). On January 6th, the spread reached 14 figures, with USDCNY trading at 6.55 and USDCNH at 6.69. Eventually, the situation stabilized and the two exchange rates converged.

We think that by looking at the spread between the two rates, you can gauge the market’s perception toward the currency and its confidence in the PBoC’s policies.

Will the Yuan continue to weaken in the near term?

It has been a few years now that a group of investors have been watching closely China, especially its highly-leverage banking system. Over the past decade, China has expanded its credit market from 5tr USD to 35 trillion USD; for an economy of roughly 10tr USD, the banks’ total-assets-to-GDP ratio stands at 350%. China is massively exposed to the housing market, which represents roughly 15 percent of the country’s GDP (it was 5% in the US before GFC). Therefore, if the housing market halts or starts to decline (which it has already according to some housing market index), the country could be exposed to a non-performing loans cycle and therefore would be forced to recap its banking system, pushing the PBoC to increase its balance sheet. As China doesn’t offer short positions in equities (not very common from our knowledge) and no structured products or derivatives to short the housing market, people are positioned in the currency, expecting a ten to twenty percent depreciation. This scenario could bring the currency USDCNH somewhere between 7 and 8.

Chart 1. Historical USDCNY exchange rates (Source: Bloomberg)

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Chart 2. The 2014 USDCNY ‘crisis’ (Source: Bloomberg)

Chart 3. CSI 300 Index (Source: Bloomberg)

Chart 4. China CNY devaluation – August 11th

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Chart 5. CNY – CNH spread (Source: Bloomberg)

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Appendix 1. Exports (Source: Trading Economics)

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Appendix 2. Growth (Source: Trading Economics)

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Table 1. US trade with China (US ITCD)

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