Japan: A Loss of faith in Abenomics

As we were currently writing an update on Japan current situation, with a brief introduction to helicopter money [a name that has been running around the street for the couple of weeks now], we would like to share the piece we wrote last month which will give you an overview of the country’s current situation.

Japan: A Loss of faith in Abenomics  (June 13th, 2016)

I. Quick Japanese recap story

A. Japan and the two lost decades

Since the private sector debt bubble burst in the early 1990s, Japan had been stuck in an ‘ugly deflationary deleveraging’ (also called the ‘Lost Two Decades’). For the past two decades, real growth has averaged 1.1% with a persistent deflation of -0.5%. This situation has led to an exponential expansion of the government debt which crossed the one quadrillion yen mark in August 2013 and a debt-to-GDP ratio of 230% (according to Bloomberg index GDDBJAPN Index), the highest in the developed world. To give you an idea, Japan’s debt is larger than the economies of Germany, UK and France combined.

Moreover, if you add in private and corporate debt, total Japanese debt stands at 500% as a share of GDP (vs. 350% in the US).

B. What is Abenomics?

With 10 different FinMin and 7 PrimeMin since 2006, the Japanese economy was desperately in need of a grand strategy. Therefore, the re-elected PM Shinzo Abe announced in December 2012 a suite of measures called Abenomics. His goal was to revive the Japanese economy with the so-called ‘three arrows’:

  1. Massive fiscal stimulus : the government announced in January 2013 that it will spend 10.3tr Yen in order to generate some growth, create about 600,000 jobs and increase the inflation rate.
  2. Quantitative easing : On April 4, the BoJ introduced its QQME ‘quantitative, qualitative monetary easing’ program in order to reach a 2-percent inflation, a program where the central bank will double the size of its monetary base from 138 to 270 trillion years over the next two fiscal years (fiscal year runs from April 1 to March 31 in Japan).
  3. Structural reforms : This is more a LT projects where PM Abe wants to increase Japan’s real economic growth rate to 3% by 2020 (compare to the 1%+ of the last two decades). The LDP party has several targets such as to foster trade, provide excellent education, raise women’s labour participation rate, improve infrastructure exports, reconstruct the Tohoku region. This arrow is more subjective and is not still understood by most of the people.

C. Consequences on the Japanese economy

Most of the effect of this massive stimulus program was reflected in the currency, with USDJPY soaring from the mid 70 range to 125.85 (Green line) in June last year, sending stock (Nikkei 225 – candlesticks) from 8,500 to 21,000, therefore raising hope of a Japanese recovery.

JapNikkei

(Source: Bloomberg)

The massive stimulus program generated some growth and inflation for the first year; as you can see it on the chart below, the inflation rate (Nationwide CPI YoY) hit a high of 3.7% in May 2014 and the economy grew by 1.4% in 2013.

(Source: Trading Economics)

However, this fairy-Abe story came to an end very quickly and was first reflected in the economy and the inflation, then in the Yen strength and equity since June last year. It is hard to believe that after all Abe/Kuroda efforts (i.e. expanding the BoJ balance sheet), we are now back in the same situation with an annual inflation rate at -0.3% and an economy close to entering into its fifth recession since the Great Financial Crisis.

II. What are the issues in Japan?

A. The vicious debt spiral

When it comes to Japan, the first thing to analyse is the country’s debt and fiscal situations. As we can see it on the chart below, Japan has constantly be running large amount of fiscal deficits (7-8% as a share of GDP) since GFC and obviously led to a ballooning debt-to-GDP ratio, which grew from 162% in 2007 to 230% in 2015. In their book This time is different, economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff claimed that rising levels of government debt are associated with much weaker rates of economic growth, indeed negative ones. If debt reaches 90% of GDP or more, the risks of a large negative impact on long term growth become largely significant.

(Source: Trading Economics)

The fact that Japan has never experienced market ‘attacks’ is because most of its debt (95%) is owned internally by major institutional investors (GPIF, Japan Post Bank and more recently the Bank of Japan). However, with now more than one quadrillion yen of public debt, Japan spends 17.6% of its tax and stamp revenues in interest payments (9.9tr Yen of the 57.6tr Yen revenues) as the ministry of finance reported it in their last highlights of the Budget for FY 2016 (see picture 1).

Studies (Moody’s) have shown that countries’ sustainability start to decline sharply if governments use more than 10% of their revenues from tax (and stamp) to cover the interest payments. In addition, the low-yield environment imposed by easy monetary policy run by the BoJ (negative interest rate and QQME purchases at a record high of 80tr Yen of Japanese Government Bonds) have allowed Japan to borrow at a negligible rate: the 5-year yield currently trades at -23bps, the 10-year at -11bps and the 30-year yield is at 33bps (June 1st 2016). In other words, it is free for the Japanese government to borrow in the market.

However, if yields start to rise in the future based on a lack of confidence from Japanese investors and institutions, and consequently Japan starts rolling their bonds with nominal rates of 2 or 3% on the 10Y / 30Y, the default rate will start to rise dramatically. In economics, this is known as the Keynesian debt-end point, when a country starts to spend a major cut of its revenues in debt interest payments.

Picture 1. Japan’s Expenditures and Revenues – FY 2016

JapanFiscal

(Source: FinMin)

Lower taxes, lower revenues: what is the model?

In order to restore a fiscal stability, the government decided to raise its VAT tax from 5%to 8% in April 2014 for the first time in years, with a plan to raise it again in October 2015 (ambitious plan). The result were catastrophic on the economy and Japan entered straight into a recession two quarters after the hike. As a result, officials decided to postpone the second raise (from 8 to 10%) to January 2017.

In recent news, PM Abe mentioned at the G-7 summit in Shima (i.e. hinted) that the second VAT rate hike was potentially going to postponed, perhaps as much as three years, in order to avoid another recession.

More importantly, Abe also pledged several times to follow through with a corporate-tax cut in order to ramp up domestic investment. The current tax rate stands at 32.11%, and the government plans to lower the effective tax rate below 30 percent ‘next year’ (precisely at 29.74%). This view will potentially ‘force’ the companies to use their cash piles for investment on plants and equipment.

It is true that the Japanese rate on corporations is one of the highest in the industrialized countries, however the question is: Can Japan afford to lower its corporate tax rate?  With PM Abe postponing the VAT rate hike as well, the consequence is that we could see higher debt interest payments as a share of revenues, rising the fear of a potentially technical default.

B. Demographics, the shrinking country…

In a recent study, the IMF showed that the population could drop below 100 million by 2048 from 127 million today, and as low as 61 million by 2085. As you can see it in the chart below, Japan population peaked at 128 million and is expected to shrink to 124 million by 2020.

(Source: ZeroHedge)

The country’s fertility rate declined from 4.0 post World War II to 1.38 today, below replacement level, making it difficult for the government to come up with primary surpluses in the next decade. The number of Japanese aged 65 or older has reached a new record of 26.7 percent (of the population); in addition, a third of the population is above 60. This situation has broad and severe implications as fewer workers and less labour will reduce the potential output of the country, making it difficult for Abe to reach a total 20% growth in the next five years. As a reminder, PM Abe announced in September 25th last year that his intention was to raise Japan’s GDP by 100tr Yen by 2021 (i.e. from 500tr to 600tr Yen).

The rising number of retirees will increase the government spending over the years, downgrading the sustainability of the country. Moreover, with less people entering the workforce than the ones leaving (see picture 2), and with the sovereign yield curve negative up to 15Y (i.e. killing pension funds and mutual funds revenues), pensions reforms will be implemented in the medium term, shrinking the consumption rate and therefore also impacting the country’s GDP. The $1.3-trillion GPIF fund (Government Pension Investment Fund), the world’s largest pension funds, saw a 6tr Yen ($54 bn) decline for the fiscal year ending in March, its biggest losses since the Great Financial crisis. Negative interest rate policy run by the BoJ in addition to the massive monetary stimulus program have pushed Japanese institutional investors to increase their exposure to equities. The problem as we saw is that these pension funds (such as the GPIF or Japan Post Bank) are now very sensitive to the recent moves we saw in equity. Since the Nikkei 225 index peaked in the end of June last year (20,952), the Japanese equities are now trading below 17,000, down 20% in almost a year. With these pension funds being very (or over) exposed to equities, it seems that Abe cannot lose his battle versus the Nikkei Index.

Picture 2. Japan demographics change (The Economist)

JapDemogr

C. Poor fundamentals (real wages conundrum, savings, manufacturing PMI)

  • Real wages conundrum: Despite a low unemployment rate at 3.2% (vs. 4.5% back in 2012), real wages (base wages adjusted from inflation) in Japan are sluggish and have been falling constantly since 2010 (see chart below), undermining the purchasing power of households. The optimistic plan to push companies to raise their wages has been constantly delayed or slowed down by the private sector, therefore making it difficult for the economy to sustain inflation, consumption and growth. Even though a lot of people see Japan as an exporter, the main contributor of the country’s GDP comes from consumption (60.7% as a share of GDP).

JapanRealW

  • Savings: After all these years of unlimited money printing (and negative interest rates), we now start to understand that the central bank’s goal is to force also individuals to put their savings into equities as holding cash in the bank doesn’t earn any interest. Despite Japanese banks not passing on the negative carry to their clients, we would have thought that the non-interest bearing account would drive savings down. However, Bank of America ML proved that NIRP policy doesn’t necessarily push savings rate down; with almost €2.6 trillion in negative-yielding debt in Europe, they discovered that savings were going up and not down. Economics studies have told us that negative rates should force people into higher yielding funds or vehicles (stocks for instance) with agents anticipating inflation in the near futures. In reality, BofA claim that ‘ultra-low rates may perversely be driving a greater propensity for consumers to save as retirement income becomes more uncertain’, therefore implying that in period of great uncertainty, nervous people don’t tend to spend but are more keen on saving.

BoARealWage

(Source: BoA)

Japan used to have one of the world’s highest savings rates, but it has constantly been falling from a high of 23.1% (of disposable income) in 1975 and has been oscillating around 0 percent since the turn of the century. However, most of this decline is due to the shrinking number of people in the workforce, however the new generation of workers (willing to take more risk) may be willing in building savings in case of a sluggish growth and the threat of a potential bond crisis.

  • Manufacturing sector is declining: we saw recently that the Nikkei Japan Manufacturing PMI plunged to a 40-month low in April at 47.7 (below its expansion level at 50), its weakest level since the start of Abenomics (See chart below). Economic weakness overseas (mainly coming from China’s slowdown) crashed exports and capital spending; in consequence, the end of the commodity super-cycle decreased demand for mining equipment. Moreover, according to Goldman Sachs research, companies in the western world have been using most of their earnings into dividends and stock buybacks instead of capital expenditure and research and development. Historically, it has been an important driver of long-term growth as capital investment make workers and companies more productive. Japanese companies today have the oldest equipment of the western economies due to the lost decades after the bubble burst in 1989.

(Source: Japan FinMin)

D. International Trade are collapsing

We saw recently in a report from Bloomberg that global trade with Japan has been collapsing over the past three years. As you can see it on the chart below, exports are down 10.1% YoY and imports plummeted by 23.3% YoY (posting their 16th straight YoY drop). Therefore, the result is Japan have been showing trade surplus over the past couple of years (+7.5bn USD in April); looking at the trade balance ‘only’ isn’t enough to determine if the international trade activity is doing. We have the same situation that peripheral countries of the Euro Zone have experienced after the Great Financial Crisis, a recovering trade balance due to a collapse in imports.

In addition, with a Yen 14% stronger versus the US Dollar since June high, it is not going to help exports grow in the next few quarters, and may potentially increase the risk of another recession coming ahead.

ExportsJapan.png

(Source: Bloomberg)

III. Consequence of such measures

A. The BoJ’s hidden shadow

Based on the several issues we mentioned before, it is clear that Japan needed a weaker currency to reboost its economy after more than twenty years of sluggish growth and almost no inflation. Moreover, the fact that the country is located in an area where most of the countries have had an undervalued currency and cheap labour costs has had a major impact on Japanese international trade. However, the problem with running a sort of unlimited money printing strategy has a major dark side. Japan was the first developed economy to cut rates below 1% in January 1996 (chart below) and the first country to try QE in order to stimulate the economy and generate some growth and inflation. According to the BoJ, the total notes and coins in issue have reached 100 trillion Yen, with a 6tr Yen YoY increase in the last year. It is the highest rate in physical notes and coins since 2002, a year when fifty two banks went bankrupt in Japan.

QEJapan

(Source: Horseman Capital Management)

At the end of May 31 2016, the Bank of Japan’s balance sheet totalled 425.7 trillion Yen in assets (red line); government securities accounted for 370.5 trillion Yen. For an economy of roughly 500 trillion Yen, the central balance sheet total-asset-to-GDP ratio stands at 85%, an outstanding number compare to the major economies where the ratio stands between 20 and 30 percent.

In addition, by purchasing 80 trillion of JGBs every year, the BoJ is now the major holder the country’s government bonds with 35%. This ratio is expect to reach 50% by the end of 2017.

 

(Source: Japan Macro Advisors)

The central bank is also purchasing 3.3tr Yen if ETFs and now owns 55% of the country’s ETF according to Bloomberg (see chart below). As the plan doesn’t seem big enough to stimulate Nikkei stocks, market participants speculate that the BoJ will eventually more than double the plan to 7 to 8 trillion Yen. As Bloomberg reported in April, the BoJ is now a ranked as a top 10 holder in more than 200 companies of the Nikkei 225. If the central bank increases its ETF purchases to 7 trillion Yen, Goldman Sachs reported that the BoJ could become the number 1 shareholders in 40 companies, and potentially the top owner in 90 companies with a 13-trillion program.

By purchasing and holding the Exchange-traded stock, the BoJ becomes the holder of the underlying stock; the central bank’s holdings amount to about 1.6% of the total capitalization of all the companies listed in Japan.

ETFJap

JapanHolders

(Source: Bloomberg)

This situation cannot last for too long, otherwise the companies’ valuation will start to be completely detached from the fundamentals. And what happens when the Bank of Japan starts exiting, will those valuations fall? It seems that in Japan, today, only BoJ matters…

B. Distorting the market

First of all, the consequence of running this long period of zero (now negative) interest rate policy in addition to all these QE rounds for the past 20 years have completely crashed the Japanese yield curve. Government bond yields are now negative up to 15Y, the 30Y yield trades at 31bps and the 6-month T-Bills reached a low of -0.31%. This low yield curve is destructive not only for pensions and mutual funds, but also for the bank earnings. It was reported by Moody’s that Japanese regional banks generated a mere 0.28% return on assets in FY2015. In their paper The influence of monetary policy on bank profitability, Borio & al. found that low interest rates and flat term structure tend to erode bank profitability.

MarketBonds

(Source: Bloomberg)

In addition, as the Bank of International Settlements noted, extreme monetary policy divergence between US and Japan rises the costs for Japanese financial institutions to get dollar loans. Historically, cross currency basis swap spreads has been zero but started to fluctuate since the global financial crisis. As you can see it on the chart below, the US dollar premium in FX swap markets widened substantially and reached a record of -120bps in early March. At the moment, it would cost 0.9% a year for a Japanese banks to hold a perfectly hedge (currency and duration risk) 5-year US Treasury Bond.

JapanBasis

(Source: Horseman Capital Management)

Fixed income investors are starting to front run Kuroda and are purchasing bonds not based on the creditworthiness of the companies but on pure speculation that the BoJ will purchase them. With investors today in desperate need for yields, inflows in the high-yield (i.e. risky) market has been rising over the past few years. The problem those high-yield companies could face in the next few years is if interest rates start to rise, a run on those yield funds could push a lot of companies into bankruptcies.

Moreover, bond market functionality has been deteriorating as many investors are kind of forced to look elsewhere for bonds that are easy to trade (it takes longer to make a given trade). This lack of liquidity creates these sudden risk in volatility as we saw in the beginning of this year. The JPX JGB VIX Index measures the implied volatility of the 10-year JGB futures contract. At the moment, the index trades at 2.2 pts, which means that the market’s estimation of the price fluctuation of 10-year JGB futures over the next 30 days is expected to be 2.2% per annum. In the chart below, we can see that the vol index surged to almost 6 pts in the beginning of the year as a post-reaction of the Negative interest rate policy announced by Kuroda on January 29th. The last time we saw such a move was in April 2013 after the QQME announcement.

ImpliedVol

(Source: Bloomberg)

IV. Our view for the next five years

We strongly believe that the Japanese economy will continue to stagnate in the medium term, pushing or forcing Japanese policymakers to act even more. The nation citizens and the external investors will start to lose faith in Abenomics and therefore the macro tourists (investors that is looking at a short term opportunity) will withdraw their money from the equity market, potentially causing the Yen to appreciate in the beginning. However, in our view, Japan will face the so-called turning point between a currency devaluation and a currency crisis as the BoJ and the government will try all their best to protect the currency from appreciating.

Even though we think that we will sharp moves in the equity or bond markets, we are convinced that the best opportunity relies on the currency. If we look at the USDJPY chart below, despite a 36% depreciation that pushed the pair to 108 from the mid 70 levels, we stand far away from the 360 Yen per Dollar during the Bretton Woods area. We think that Japan needs another 50 to 100 percent currency depreciation to regain more competitiveness, which correspond to levels we saw back in the 1990s.

USDJPY

(Source: Bloomberg)

Since its return to the premiership in December 2012, Shinzo Abe has already become now Japan’s longest-serving prime ministers. However, his second term comes to an end in 2018 and the situation may start to deteriorate, gradually first then suddenly.

Consequently, sluggish growth in addition to a high debt burden and a shrinking population will not tend to push equities or real estate investments higher, raising the probability of a surge in non-performing loans. This is an episode that we already saw in the 90s after the bubble collapsed. We just think this time is different as the currency will not appreciate but depreciate.

Extreme monetary policy divergence to continue in the coming year…

We are conscious that the emergence of a potential crisis in the Japanese bond market will definitely shake the world’s economy as well. However, the depreciation will gradually be driven by an extreme monetary policy divergence coming in the next few quarters. The Federal Reserve chairman Janet Yellen expresses her views that the FOMC committee was ready to hike interest rates in the following months. A first hike was established in December last year after seven years of ZIRP policy run in the US as a response of the global financial crisis. Persistent QE in Japan (versus no money printing in the US since October 2014) in addition to short term interest rate differentials will constantly tend to push the currency USDJPY to higher levels.

In our opinion, there is no structural bids for the Yen anymore; each Yen appreciation that we experience since the announcement of QQME in April 2013 was a reaction to a sudden new risk emerging from the market followed by an investors’ response to ‘What is weak and what is cheap? The Yen’. To that extent, we strongly believe that each time there is an increase in the Yen’s value, it could be a good entry points for the new ones or a good to increase your long position on USDJPY, targeting 150 as a first level.

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.

Ahead of the ECB and Fed meetings: watch the VIX

In this very quiet week, the SP500 is once again ‘playing’ with the 2,100 level and we strongly believe that it could be a perfect time to go short if you think about the upside / downside risk. There are many events coming up starting with the ECB meeting tomorrow and Non-Farm Payrolls on Friday. We guess we could see some volatility coming from these events which could impact equities and the FX market. As we wrote here, we saw that usually EURUSD tends to be positively correlated to sudden rise in volatility. Even though we expect the ECB to keep its rates steady (deposit at -0.4%, refi at 0% and marginal lending facility at 0.25%) with no increase in the current 80-billion-euro QE program, the market may react negatively during Draghi’s conference starting 1.30pm. Once again, the ECB could disappoint, leading to equities sell-off and some Euro appreciation. As you can see it in the chart below, EURUSD has entered in a bearish trend since May 3rd, decreasing by 5 figures until it hit its 200-SMA (yellow line) at 1.11. It has been trading within a 90-pip range over the past 3 days and we expect the currency pair to stay rangy today as well; however we would pay attention to the potential spike we can see tomorrow. The first strong resistance on the upside stands at 1.1250, a breakout could directly lead us towards the 1.1350 – 1.1400 range.

EURUSD

(Source: Bloomberg)

In addition, US non-farm payrolls could disappoint on Friday (Bloomberg survey at 160K) leading to another round of equity sell-off, sending the US 10-year yield back below 1.8% and pushing the Euro to higher levels. If we look back at the beginning-the-year sell-off in the chart below, the SP500 (candlesticks) fell by more than 200pts, the US 10-year (red line) crashed from 2.3% to 1.66% while the Euro (green line) surged by 7 figures to almost 1.14 against the greenback.

SPYields

(Source: Bloomberg)

Another reason to go short US equities at the moment could be a good strategy to hedge yourself against a volatility spike ahead of the FOMC meeting (June 14/15). If we look at the FedWatch Tool developed in the CME website, there is a 22.5% implied probability of a rate hike based on the CME 30-day Fed Funds futures prices.

FedWatch

(Source: CME Group)

However, the odds are higher based on the last few speeches delivered by US policymakers and of course a quiet market. In her 30-minute Q&A session with Greg Mankiw at Harvard on Friday, Fed Chairman Yellen said that the economy was continuing to improve and that a ‘rate hike in coming months may be appropriate’. In ouropinion, we think a June move is appropriate, especially if equities still trade above 2,000 until that meeting. In addition, if we look at the Eurodollar futures market, time deposits denominated in US dollars and held at banks outside of the United States, the June contract trades 99.28 (i.e. the implied rates is at 72bps). Eurodollar contracts are useful to look at as well as they are more liquid than Fed Funds futures.

The only reason we see no rate hike this meeting is if we experience another sharp sell off within the next couple of weeks.

Dollar pause: poor US fundamentals or overall disappointment on more global easing?

Since its high in mid-March last year, the US dollar has ‘stabilized’ vs. overall currencies; if we look at the US Dollar index (Source: Bloomberg, DXY index), it hit a high of 100.40 in March 13th then has been ranging between 92.50 and 100 over the past year. Now the question we have been asking ourselves is‘what is the main reason for this stagnation?’

USDIndex

(Source: Bloomberg) 

We strongly believe that one of the main reasons comes from looser-than-expected FOMC statements and a shift in expectations on more monetary policy tightening in the near future. If we look at the market, Fed Funds futures predict a much lower ST rates in the future compare to the Fed’s dot plot. Looking at the chart below, whereas the Fed officials see rates at around 1% and 2% by the end of 2016 and 2017 respectively, the market (Red line) predicts 50bps and 1%. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the market participants are right, but it looks to me that they are more ‘rational’ based on current market conditions and this spread between the Fed and the market may have created a dollar pause over the past year.

FedPlotvsMarket

(Source: Bloomberg)

The first reason that could explain why the Fed has been holding rates steady since last December would be the poor fundamentals we have seen lately (except for the unemployment rate currently at 4.9%). For instance, US GDP growth rate has been slowing over the past three quarters and came in at 1.4% for the last quarter of 2015 (vs. almost 4% in Q2). If we look at the latest core PCE deflator release (the inflation figure the Fed tracks), the index came in at 1.56% YoY in March, still far below the Fed’s ‘target’ of 2%. In addition, the economic data have been more than disappointing overall, which could explain the recent fly-to-quality and why yields are starting to plunge again (the 10Y YS yield trades currently at 1.8%, while the 30Y is at 2.66%).

Secondly, corporate profits have been plunging and printed a 7.8% fall in Q4 2015, the biggest decline since Q1 2011 (-9.2%) and the fourth decline in the last five quarters. If we look at chart below, we can see that the divergence between the S&P500 index and the 12-month forward earnings doesn’t work for too long and equities tend to be the one moving in general. You can see that in that case, equities are still overvalued based on this analysis and there is more potential downside coming in the future.

SPXFEPS

(Source: ZeroHedge)

The third and most important reason explaining this status quo – i.e. US dollar pause – would be the current global macro situation. Certainly, market participants have been recently disappointed by the recent news coming either from Japan (no additional QE see article) or the Eurozone and the loss of confidence in the ECB. On March 10th, Draghi announced the ECB Bazooka plan, where the officials decided to:

  • cut decrease the deposit refi and marginal lending rates to -0.4%, 0% and 0.25% respectively
  • Increase the QE from 60bn to 80bn Euros per month
  • Implement a four new target LTROs (TLTROs) each with maturity 4years
  • Include investment grade euro-denominated bonds issued by non-bank corporations clong the assets that are eligible for regular purchases

The effect on the market was minor; if we look at the chart below, the Euro increased in value against the greenback (green line) and the equity market stands at the same level since the announcement (Eurostoxx 50 index trading slightly below 3,000).

EUROstoxx

(Source: Bloomberg)

The sales-side research suggest that CBs should consider purchasing equities as well or taxing wealth (Deutsche Bank) as a intermediate step before implementing the Helicopter money strategy.

Despite a recent spike since the beginning of the year mainly driven by the recovery in oil prices (WTI spot increased from 26$ to 43$ per barrel), commodity prices are still trading at their lowest level since 1998 according to the Bloomberg BCOM index (see chart below). China’s (and other EM countries’) slowdown continue to weight on international finance putting a lot of export-driven countries into difficulty (or close to default). We personally believe that this situation will remain in the next 12 to 18 months as the emergence of a credit crisis in the EM market is not too far away.

CommodityPrices

(Source: Bloomberg)

Therefore, we think the global lack of easing will tend to stabilized the US dollar in the medium term; another rate hike from Yellen in one of the next two meetings is sort of priced in by the market, therefore only action from the rest of the world could start to bring interest into the US dollar. we would be careful of going short equities at the moment as USDJPY is very low and a response from the BoJ (more ETFs purchases) is kind of imminent if Kuroda wants to stop this current equity sell off and Yen purchases.

 

 

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

Post FOMC Analysis, Dollar Flash Crashes…

This week has been full of macro events (four central banks meetings – BoJ, Norges Bank, SNB and the Fed), however all eyes were on the FOMC statement that came up yesterday. Dovish stance from Yellen in addition to 2015 forecasts revised on the downside created Dollar ‘Flash Crashes’, with the FX market completely out of control. The US Dollar index was trading around 100 yesterday morning, then went down from 99.50 to 98.00 after the FOMC, and eventually ‘flash-crashed’ after the US close. EURUSD (and Cable) soared by 400 pips (and 500 pips) to 1.1040 (and 1.5160 respectively), USDCHF down 4 figures as well down to 0.9620. The yen was less reactive (which clearly shows the declining Yen Pavlovian response the risk-off environment, USDJPY went down ‘only’ 200 pips to 119.30.

To review the FOMC statement briefly, the Committee revised down all 2015 forecasts since the previous Summary of Economic Projections (SEP) released on December 17 last year. The median dot plot for year end 2015 decreased from 1.125% to 0.625% (down by 50 pips). In addition, looking at the Fed’s dot plot for the year 2016 and 2017, we can see that the median dot for 2016 fell to 1.875% in March (vs. 2.5%) and decline to 3.125% from 3.625% for 2017.

FOMC DOT plot

 (Source: Fed’s website)

Furthermore, if we look at the table below which shows the advance release of the SEP, we can see that the central tendency for GDP this year was decreased to 2.3%-2.7% (from 2.3% – 2.7%), PCE inflation (the inflation measure watched by the Fed as the PCE index covers a wide range of household spending) went down to 0.6% – 0.8%, compared to 1.0% – 1.6% three months ago.

FED Forecasts

(Source: Federal Reserve’s website)

While the Dollar has been recovering all day (especially during Asia, USD index now trades back at 99.40, with EURUSD back down to 1.0660, USDCHF up to 0.9910, Cable down to 1.4740 and USDJPY at 120.80), the market is still a bit ‘stress’ with all core bond yields trading to lower levels (See appendix, Bund at 19bps, US 10Y at 1.95% or UK Gilt at 1.52%) and peripheral EZ bonds trading higher than yesterday’s levels.

As a result, the equity market (S&P500) is back on track after a quick 70-point bear consolidation as I was looking for (see tweet @LFXYvan on Feb 26). If we look at the chart below, we can see that the 100 SMA has acted as a sort of support where the market found some potential buyers-on-dips. Over the past few months, it looks like if the 100 SMA didn’t hold, the 200 SMA was doing the rest of the job (except in mid-October).

SP500

(Source: FXCM)

Even though the equity has lost a bit of ‘power’ since the Fed stepped out of the bond market at the end of October last year (the bear consolidation are becoming more and more recurrent), I still believe there is some potential room on the upside based on yesterday’s comments and readjustments.

I am curious to know how the US policymakers will play the rate hike within the next few months (will there be one in June?), as even if the job market has continued to show some strong figures with a NFP report at 295K in February and an unemployment rate at 5.5% (close to full employment according to economists), there has been a lots a disappointing macro figures. See list below with all the misses in just the past month…

Misses US

 (Source: ZeroHedge)

Earlier today, the SNB left its deposit rate negative at -0.75% and jawboned a bit about the recent CHF appreciation. EURCHF is trading at 1.0550, down 2.5 figures in the past month and potentially ‘hurting’ the Swiss economy (Swiss is also part of the ‘Currency War’ party). Norway unexpectedly left its interest rates unchanged and signalled in its report that another cut was planned to protect the Norwegian economy from the plunge in oil prices. The NOK rocketed against the greenback earlier today, down from 8.37 to 8.07 on this hawkish surprise. As a reminder, Oil (and gas) generate more than 20% of Norway’s output, and the country may be in difficulty if this low-oil-price era persists. Norway may have to ‘tap’ into their sovereign wealth funds – Government Pension Fund Global – (approx. $850bn) in order to support their annual budgets this year. However, the maximum that the government could spend from oil revenue is 4% of the fund (by law).

Otherwise, no surprise from Japan and the BoJ stood firm on Tuesday, leaving its monetary policy unchanged (80tr Yen of asset purchases annually, mostly JGBs), even though policymakers acknowledged that prices might start falling in the coming months. Consumer prices in Japan rose 2.4% YoY in January, the same as the previous two months and down from 3.7% in April last year.

 Appendix: Bonds yields…

BBG

 (Source: Bloomberg)

Could we survive without QE? (Part II with US yields)

Last month, we wrote an article that summarized all the decision made by the US policymakers since GFC and the impacts as soon as the central bank was stepping out of the market (see article Could we survive without QE?)

We concluded that as soon as the Fed was ‘leaving’ the equity market and let it rely on fundamentals only, we saw sharp correction straight afterwards (See chart below: April—July 2010, July – August 2011, September-November 2012).

SP10Oct(1)

(Source: Reuters)

As we are ‘kindly’ approaching the last days of QE with the Fed stepping out of the bond’s market at the end of this month (October 28th), we thought it is a good time to give you an update on the current situation. And Guess what: this time is not different. Since the mid-September high of 2,019.26 (Sep 19th), the S&P 500 is down 7 percent and closed for the second consecutive session below the 200-SMA for the first time since November 2012. And the question we are asking ourself is: how far it could go? We don’t have a specific answer to that, but what we can tell you is that the Fed’s Officials are now realizing their mistake by expressing themselves on their ST monetary policy. Our thoughts have always been that Yellen [& Co.] should have let the market swallow a period without QE before considering raising its ST interest rate. Therefore, we saw at the last minutes (last Wednesday) a different tone, with policymakers suddenly jawboning about the US Dollar Strength (Yes, even the Fed is not comfortable with a strong exchange rate) and the fact that global slowdown could rise risks to US outlook. We expect the tone to remain neutral until the end of the year, therefore capping the appreciation of the US Dollar against all currencies. If the equity market continues to tumble, we think we can even see/hear a couple of dovish statements/conferences as the equity market is one of the most important index (with oil) for US policymakers.

If we have a look at the LT interest rates, the 10-year US yield is now trading at its 18-month low at 2.20%. Clearly, that shows the situation in the market is much more fragile than expected. Moreover, we added a similar chart as the S&P 500 but this time applied to the 10-year yield. We read and heard analysts’ recommendations on yields, and most of them are quiet bearish on Treasuries in the next months to come, targeting a 10-year yield at 3%. However, if we look at the chart below, we can see that each time the Fed stepped back of the bond market, LT yields contracted (March – November 2010, July-September 2011). And it looks like this time is [also] not different with the 10-year yield down 80bps since December’s Taper Announcement.

10Year(1)

(Source: Reuters)

Happy October: End of POMO

As October is the Fed’s POMO – Permanent Open Market Operations – last month (as it is mine in Hambros), we will see how the equity market will deal in a period with no QE. The NY Fed released yesterday its purchase operations for the month of October (as you can see it below), stating that the central bank will buy approximately $10bn worth of Treasury securities on an outright basis.

Starting October 28th (the first day of the next FOMC meeting), the equity bulls will start to rely on fundamentals once again. As we say, will this time be different?

20140830_POMO_0(1)

(Source: NY Fed)

The market has switched to a risk-off mode for the past couple of weeks with the S&P 500 struggling to trade above the 2,000 level. As you can see it on the chart below, the index (purple line)  is down 2.2% from its September’s high of 2,018.21 (Sep 19th) and AUD/JPY (black bar) is back below the 96.00 level (down 2% as well) and has been fluctuating within a 100-pip range for the past week.

 AUDJPY-01Oct(1)

(Source: Reuters)

Earlier this morning, both Germany and UK released a lower than expected manufacturing PMI, coming in at 49.9 (vs 50.3 expected) and 51.6 respectively (vs 52.5 expected). France reported its budget deficit forecasts for the next few years, and the government sees deficit falling to 4.3% of GDP in 2015 (from 4.4% this year), 3.8% in 2016 and eventually somewhere below  the 3% threshold in 2017 (optimistic?).

EUR/USD was little sold this morning after the macro news (1.2584 is today’s low) and is now trading back above the 1.2600 level. Cable hit its 1.6160 support, the 76.4% Fibo retracement of 1.6050 – 1.6526 (as we reported yesterday) before coming back to 1.6200.

GBP01Oct(1)

(Source: Reuters)

This afternoon, the market will watch West fundamentals with Mortgage Applications, ISM Mfg PMI and ADP National Employment  in the US and Canadian PMI. We don’t see any major developments in the FX market as the market is now focused on tomorrow’s ECB meeting and Friday’s NFP.

Could we survive without QE?

As we are approaching the end of QE (the Fed will probably announce a $10bn / $10bn and then 5bn cut in the next three meetings), we thought it is a good time to have a quick recap of the US QE history since the Great Financial Crisis and its impact on the equity market.

QE1 (December 2008 – March 2010): On November 2008, roughly two-and-a-half months after the Lehman Brothers collapse, the FOMC announced that it will purchase up to $600bn in agency MBS and agency debt and on March 18, 2009, Bernanke and its doves announced that the program would be expanded by a further $750bn in purchases of MBS and agency debt and $300bn in T-bonds. At that time, the Fed had approximately $750bn of Treasuries ad MBS on its balance sheet.

QE2 (November 2010 – June 2011): After 9 months of stagnation in the stock market, the FOMC decided to go for another round of quantitative easing on November 2010 and announced that it will purchase $600 bn of LT Treasuries, at a pace of $75bn per month. Stock market started to rallied once again (S&P was up approximately 10%) as by applying this un-conventional monetary policy, the Fed brought interest down to the floor and ‘forced’ investors to move to the stock market in order to receive a more interesting real rate.

Operation Twist (September 2011 – December 2012): While the stock market was plummeting (S&P was down 300 pts to hit 1,075 a few months after the end of QE2), it didn’t too long for the Fed to react and on September 21st 2011, the FOMC announced Operation Twist. In this program, the Committee intended to purchase, by the end of June 2012, $400bn of Treasury securities with remaining maturities of 6 years to 30 years and to sell an equal amount of Treasury securities with remaining maturities of 3 years or less. The main goal was to lower long-term rates in order to stimulate consumer spending and corporate borrowing as growth was judged sluggish by US policymakers at that time. In the middle of 2012, the FOMC downgraded its growth expectations from 3.5% (a year earlier) to 1.9% – 2.4%.

By the end of June 2012, the Fed extended the monetary twist program and said it would purchase another $267bn LT Treasuries by the end of the year, bringing the program up to $667bn.

QE3 (September 2012 – December 2012): With inflation in the US plummeting from 3.9% in September 2011 to 1.4% in July 2012 and credit continuing to contract and still disappointing unemployment figures, the FOMC decided at the September 2012’s meeting (13th) to initiate additional open-ended purchases of residential MBS for an outstanding amount of $40bn every month. Combined with the (approx.) S45bn monthly purchase of US LT Treasuries, the FOMC will increase the central banks’ holdings of LT securities by about $85bn each month, which should ‘put downward pressure on the LT interest rates, support mortgage markets and help to make broader financial conditions more accommodative’ according to the Fed’s statement.

QE4 (December 2012 – December 2013): With Operation Twist coming to an end and US policymakers still judging the recovery as ‘fragile’, the Fed decided to continue to purchase $45bn worth of US LT Treasuries, raising the amount of QE to $85bn on a monthly basis. Its goal at that time was to drive economic activity so that unemployment rate drops to 6.5% (it was standing at 7.7% at that time), as long as inflation remains below 2.5%.

And it went on, that year the Fed increased its balance sheet by a trillion+ dollars, bringing it to a record high of $4trn in December 2013 and which could totally explain the 30% increase in the stock market and the 10% appreciation in the housing sector (Reminder: for the 2013 fiscal year ended Sep. 30th 2013, the US Congressional Budget Office – CBO – announced that the deficit fell drastically to $680bn from $1.087tr in 2012).

QE Taper (December 2013 – ): As the unemployment rate was falling faster than expected in 2013 (down 1% to 6.7% in December 2013), the Fed officials decided to start its QE Taper, announcing that it would scale back its monthly purchases by S10bn each meeting (Auto-pilot strategy). After almost two years of extended QE and with the Fed’s balance sheet up 1.5tr USD (according to FARBAST index), we are now three meetings ahead of the QE exit (last cut expected to be on December’s meeting). The real question now is: would the ZIRP policy on its own be enough to support the equity market (and the housing sector)?

We saw some turbulence back in January this year when the market corrected 5.5 – 6 percent (between mid-Jan and February 3rd) and also in end-July/August where we saw another 4.5-percent correction in the middle of high geopolitical tensions (11.7% of the World is at war according to a DB analysis, see chart at the end). However, it seems that the market has perceived those ‘corrections’ as new buying opportunities and the S&P 500 has been flirting with the 2,000 level for the past week (closed four days out of five above 2,000 over the past week). The index is already up 8.3% since December 31st 2013 close (1,848.36) and we are asking ourself, how far could this go? Especially now that the Fed is now giving us some updates concerning its ST monetary policy, and is potentially considering raising rates (currently at 0 – 0.25%) sometime next year (Q3 seems to be the market’s view). We are going to steal Stanley Drunckenmiller’s sentence: ‘Where does the Fed’s confidence come from?’

Aren’t policymakers supposed to wait a little bit after Taper ends in order to start focusing on its ST interest rate policy?

Even though the rate hike is priced for Q3 next year based on the market’s expectations, we don’t see the point of starting talking about an ‘eventual rate hike’, and especially after the only excuse you had to explain a 2.9% contraction in the first quarter (because there has to be always an explanation) is to blame the weather. In our opinion, US policymakers’ plan sounds a bit ambitious.

Chart: S&P 500 index and QE history

S&PQE(1)

(Source: Reuters)

Another popular chart that we like to look at is the equity market (S&P500 index) overlaid with the Fed’s balance sheet (FARBAST index). As you can see it, it is clear that the Fed’s balance sheet expansion have played in favour of the equity market. Liquidity drives asset price higher and we believe that we are about to hit the high of the asset price inflation we have seen for the past six years…

FEDSP(1)

(Source: Bloomberg)

Appendix

20140725_war2(1)

Quick BoE Minutes review

As expected, the Committee voted unanimously in favour of maintaining both the Official Bank Rate and the stock of purchased assets steady at 0.5% and £375bn respectively. Since Carney’s speech at the Mansion House in the middle of June, the Bank of England will be the first ‘G7’ central bank to experiment a rate hike and the market is pricing it for early 2015 (February according to Reuters’ polls).

The minutes enhanced today the importance the ‘qualitative guidance’ and stated that even though the unemployment rate keeps decreasing at a faster pace than the Committee anticipated (currently at 6.5%, down from 7.6% in August 2013), the ’employment growth over the past year had been concentrated in lower-paid sectors’ which is problematic for the outlook of household spending. For instance, if we have a look at the Average Weakly Earnings (ex bonuses), British workers’ earnings grew by an annual 0.7% in the three months to May, its slowest rate on record.

STIRs and Cable:
If we look at the short-sterling interest rate futures (March15 contract), interest rate traded on LIFFE London, we can see that the implied rate (100-price) increased by 26bps to 1.17% in mid-June before edging back to lower levels (currently trading at 1.03%). The 2-year UK-US spread (see below in red), a popular Cable driver that the market watch since Carney introduced ‘forward guidance’ back in August 2013, peaked at 43.7bps in Mid June and is now trading 8bps lower at 36bps.

UK-spread

(Source: Reuters)

The rise in UK yields based on a hawish BoE tone raised interest for the British pound against the major currencies; short EUR/GBP (monetary policy divergence) and long GBP/USD (based on a macro perspective and BoE being more ‘active’) have been popular trade to hold.

However, Cable has been trending lower for the past couple of weeks and hasn’t managed to break the 1.7200 level last week with the Fed making a move also on its rate policy (Yellen’s Testimony, see article Markets after Yellen). The pair is trading at 1.7050 at the moment and seems on its way to re-test the 1.7000 – 1.7020 area in the short term. Some bids are seen in this area, however we would suggest waiting for 1.6960 – 1.6970 for a buying-on-dips opportunity.

Figures to watch this week:
Tomorrow (July 24): UK Retail Sales, expected to increase by 0.3% MoM in June
Friday (July 25): First Q2 GDP estimate, expected to grow by 0.8% QoQ