Turning Japanese

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The Fed’s response to COVID will zombify corporate America for a generation

Written June 21, 2020

In “The L-Shaped Recovery“, we predicted that a combination of demand destruction, job market uncertainty, rising debt, and a shift in consumer behavior would hinder the economy from achieving a rapid recovery from the COVID pandemic.

Since that writing, the Fed has taken the unprecedented step of intervening directly in support of the credit markets, producing a spectacular V-shaped rebound in the financial markets. But as we all know, the market is not the economy.

The economic template that the current public health crisis is most often compared to is the Great Depression of the 1930s, but a more instructive precedent for what the future holds might be that of Japan, which is still trying to shake off the effects of the financial market bubble that popped in 1989.

To put the excesses of 1980s Japan in context, it was said that the 280 acres of land within the walls of the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo was worth more than the entire state of California. At the time, this became the benchmark against which all other insane real estate and lending valuations were linked. When it inevitably crashed, Japan, Inc. tried borrowing their way out of trouble. More than 30 years later, and after racking up an eye-watering debt-to-GDP ratio of 279%, they’re still trying to find a way out.

In Japan, bankruptcy is not seen as a financial tool deployed to clear the decks of bad debt but rather as a cultural stain, one of humiliation and loss of face. So corporate Japan, and the country itself, stumbles onward like a zombie, burdened by mountains of legacy debt, unable to reap the benefits of innovation that leaner balance sheets would enable. This interminable trap is so ubiquitous that it even has its own name: Japanification.

Unfortunately, the Fed is headed down a similar path. Not only by backstopping the credit markets but by actively pushing prices higher, the Fed has allowed almost every corporation access to cheap money. It may be necessary, but just like the never-ending policy of quantitative easing destroyed the price discovery function in the equity markets, the unintended consequence of credit intervention is doing the same to the bond market. Normally where good corporate governance is rewarded and bad decisions are punished, everybody now gets a trophy.

In my day job as an editor for a financial news service, I spend a large portion of my time reading press releases from companies tapping into an almost unlimited supply of liquidity in the credit markets, with most of it going to refinance revolving bank debt incurred during the pandemic. Borrowing is literally exploding.

While this widespread refi effort is tactically beneficial in the near term to bridge the gap in cash flow created by the virus lockdown, the long term risk is that it will allow bad capacity to remain on the books, keeping unproductive companies alive and leaving little room for innovation and for fresh entities to thrive.

Corporate America was already running record levels of debt and leverage before the pandemic hit. Half of the investment-grade bond market is precariously rated BBB, just one notch above junk. Wide-scale bankruptcies and credit downgrades are indeed a systemic threat in a weakened economy, and it is forcing the Fed’s hand to prevent the entire system from snowballing downhill and out of control. But, like Japan, the unintended consequence of today’s policies will be a debt burden that will take years, if not decades, to climb out from under.

In a note to clients last week, Bridgewater Associates’ Ray Dalio warned of a “lost decade” for the equity markets as profit margins get squeezed by debt servicing costs. See here https://bloom.bg/3hMBVtC.

We tend to agree and would use this recent rebound in financial markets to reduce risk exposure while sticking with core long positions in the US dollar, short-term treasuries, and gold.

Debt explosion (courtesy Federal reserve bank of St. Louis)
Sharp rise in unproductive debt (courtesy Deutsche Bank)

China: Red Flag Rising

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Despite a quick reopening, a crack in the Chinese currency suggests things are about to get worse for the world’s second-largest economy.

Written May 24, 2020

The Chinese yuan finished last week near its lowest level in more than a decade as investors began to bet with their feet, heading for the exits over concern that the country is compounding its economic problems with geopolitical moves that are already generating widespread condemnation and even greater uncertainty.

The post-pandemic economic landscape presents a test for the regime that has long prided itself in delivering on an unspoken bargain where one-party rule is tolerated in exchange for consistent economic growth.

However, a sure tell that the government’s grip is slipping was its failure to set an economic growth target for the upcoming year during last week’s National People’s Congress, the annual planning meeting of the Chinese Communist Party. It might seem like an insignificant detail, but for the first time since it began providing GDP estimates in 1990 the central body declined to be bound by a projection that it may not be able to meet. It is a big deal, and the obvious conclusion is that the economy on the mainland is worse than it outwardly appears.

China’s recalcitrance in dealing with COVID-19 has also turned global public opinion against it. As a result, doing business with the Chinese in the future is going to come under much more scrutiny than in the past.

Despite the allure of 1.4 billion potential consumers, it now won’t be so easy to turn a blind eye to the tilted playing field China has erected to their advantage, as much of the world has done since China’s inclusion into the World Trade Organization in 2001.

The U.S. Senate took the first step last week by passing a bill by a 100-0 margin requiring Chinese firms to adhere to American accounting standards or risk being delisted from our exchanges, also a big deal. Other measures will follow.

The pandemic exposed many countries’ over-reliance on Chinese manufacturing and is forcing most to reconsider basing their supply chains elsewhere. Japan even earmarked part of its economic stimulus fund specifically to help its manufacturers shift production out of China.

The bottom line is, the rules of international trade are being rewritten and China is not going to like the changes.

Further complicating matters, China is lashing out at the west’s insistence on an investigation into the origins and handling of the virus. Within the space of a few weeks they’ve made moves to block certain Australian exports, threatened to cut off the supply of critical pharmaceutical ingredients to the U.S., and imposed their own national security laws on Hong Kong. So much for the idea of “one country, two systems” that was the founding principle agreed to by both parties when the British turned Hong Kong over to China in 1997 and that has allowed the former colony to thrive as an international financial center.

Not content to stop there, the Chinese navy is scheduled to begin live-fire military exercises later this month as part of an amphibious assault training operation on an island controlled by Taiwan. As the Wall St. Journal asked in a May 21 op-ed titled “China Moves on Hong Kong”, is Taiwan next?

At the risk of stating the obvious, political isolation from global trading partners can only be seen as a negative for the economy.

Plan A for Chinese authorities to counteract these economic headwinds is with traditional fiscal and monetary stimulus, along with a heavy dose of infrastructure spending. But the effectiveness of that approach is questionable as the country is already swimming in overcapacity, and debt. It’s the demand side of the equation that is lacking.

Plan B would be a devaluation of the currency, which the market is beginning to sniff out. In theory, this would spur demand by making Chinese-produced goods more competitively priced. In reality, it would propel the dollar higher, unleashing a deflationary wave on a world already under enormous pressure from falling prices.

The Fed and other central banks have done an impressive job of rescuing the credit and equity markets from the depths of the pandemic panic in March, but a Chinese devaluation would slam the lid on any hopes of reflating the global economy.

Our core portfolio positions remain long of the US dollar, front-end treasuries, and gold.

Stall Speed

The Fed’s foot is on the gas but the economy is losing altitude

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Investors have gone all-in on the bet that the Fed and its central banking colleagues abroad will be successful in turning around a slowing global economy. The melt-up in the S&P since early last month is like Wall Street’s version of pushing your chips to the middle of the table. It’s not really surprising seeing that in October the Fed, the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank and the People’s Bank of China all expanded their balance sheets for the first time in more than two years, giving the markets a massive shot of adrenaline.

As far as actual economic results, there aren’t many green shoots to be found around the world. Last week the U.S. reported unimpressive Industrial Production and Retail Sales numbers, dragging the Atlanta Fed’s widely watched U.S. GDP tracking model down to just a 0.4% pace for the current quarter. See https://bit.ly/2r3ifvH. China also had poor production and sales results. Japan’s economy is growing at only 0.2% and Germany just barely avoided recession with a 0.1% growth rate. Not an encouraging picture.

Given all the monetary firepower that the central banks have deployed over the past decade, they don’t have much to show for it. But the thing that sticks out to us, and the real threat to the global economy is pictured in the chart below. Despite the appearance of policy success as reflected by rising equity prices, corporate bond defaults are actually increasing. If the policy was working, that wouldn’t be happening.

The Fed can’t stop the deterioration in credit. Chart courtesy S&P.

We have written extensively on the danger that a deteriorating credit sector poses for policymakers. (See Time to BBBe Careful). Recently the IMF raised a red flag on the state of U.S. corporate risk-taking and declining leveraged loan quality. See https://bit.ly/35m9DPL. They ominously predict that in the event of an economic downturn “corporate debt at risk of default would rise to $19 trillion, or nearly 40 percent of the total debt in eight major economies.” Yes, that’s trillion with a ‘T’. The IMF also noted that “surges in financial risk-taking usually precede economic downturns.

To say that this is potentially a massive problem is the understatement of the year. The market, in this case the corporate bond market, has officially become the economy. An explosion in global debt pushed by extreme central bank policies since the 2008 recession is a burden that steals from future growth, meaning that a simple economic slowdown carries not just cyclical but systemic risks of default. It is the Fed’s greatest nightmare. And they can’t allow it to happen.

Rather than seeing the Fed’s actions for what they are, an act of disaster prevention for the credit markets, many investors are taking the dynamic of falling rates as a cue to pile into riskier trades. There’s an unshakable faith that the Fed will allow no harm to come to them. It seems like a misreading of macro conditions to us, and an unwise strategy after a 10 year-long bull run, but for now the market obviously disagrees.

It’s gotten so crazy that even one of the world’s largest mutual fund companies is urging baby-boomers to lay off the stocks. According to Fidelity Investments, more than one-third of boomers (born 1944-1964, and entering retirement) have a greater than 70% allocation to equities, and one-in-ten were invested entirely in stocks. See https://bloom.bg/2pxjvXu. This has disaster written all over it when the market eventually turns.

We’ve long said that some enormous trading opportunities will present themselves at that point when the markets lose faith in the Fed and realize that current policies will fail to stop the rot. We’re not there yet, but it’s getting close. In the meantime take the market rally as a gift to raise cash, and stay long the front end rate complex.

Powell Plays for Time

The Fed’s unspoken hope is that lower rates will keep the credit market from crumbling.

Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

July 15, 2019

Something doesn’t add up. Last week the Fed chairman Jerome Powell went before Congress to say that while the economy remains on “solid footing” it might need some assistance in the form of lower interest rates. It was barely six months ago when he was using similar language to advocate for higher rates. It makes no sense to pitch for easier monetary policy amid a hot labor market and record highs stock prices, but that’s exactly what Powell did.

The Fed chairman referred to economic headwinds blowing toward the US from abroad due to weakening global growth and disruptions in international trade. These pressures are real but hardly justifies the abrupt U-turn in Fed policy this year. It has to be something more than that.

Although Powell didn’t address it directly, the simplest explanation is growing concern over the state of the credit markets. As we wrote in “BBBe careful” one of the unintended consequences of easy money policies has been the explosion in debt, especially among weaker credits (lower-rated companies.) Despite a decade of massive monetary stimulus, the aggregate corporate credit profile has fallen well short of growth trends in the economy. In fact, half of the $5 trillion investment-grade bond universe is now rated just BBB, one notch above junk status.

It’s an understatement to say that this is an accident waiting to happen. It is quite literally a cliff edge, where even a handful of ratings downgrades could quickly create a feedback loop of forced liquidation by funds that are prohibited from owning junk, spreading outward and turning a simple economic slowdown to into a financial crisis.

The only option the Fed has is to play for time, massaging investor sentiment with the prospect of lower rates, maintaining ample liquidity and hoping (!) that growth will recover enough to feed through to corporate balance sheets. But considering that the current expansionary cycle is now already the oldest on record the odds are against it. Second-quarter corporate reporting season begins this week and will give us a look at whether the Fed-inspired exuberance in equities is matched by actual earnings.

Don’t underestimate the downside potential for interest rates. The Fed knows the credit market is the monster in the closet and is preemptively setting the stage for rate cuts despite the lack of any significant stress on the system. They are teed up to ease quickly and aggressively at the first outward sign of trouble. Whether the Fed has enough ammunition to alter the outcome under that scenario remains to be seen but given that the starting point on this next rate-cutting cycle begins with a policy rate at just 2.4%, we have our doubts. There is not much room between here and zero.

In April, we recommended owning short (2-3 year) treasuries. See “The dollar and deflation“. It’s still the best trade on the board and has much more to go.

HYG, the high-yield bond ETF. Despite a lot of heavy lifting from the Fed the bounces are getting smaller.

FX Set to Tighten Screws on Dollar Debtors

May 31,2019

The US dollar yesterday closed at new highs for 2019, and at its best level in two years. It remains a safe haven destination in times of declining global growth and a weak investment climate made worse by seemingly unending trade disputes. The most recent move to impose tariffs on Mexican imports is proof that President Trump is not shy about using this tactic to advance policy. See https://reut.rs/2HLiYYc . Who would be surprised if Europe wasn’t the next target? If this is to be the new normal, traders are quickly coming to realize that many markets are not priced for it.

Two questions here are, can the dollar go higher and what is the impact? The answers are 1) yes and 2) not good.

FX, by nature, is all relative. Outside of the Swiss franc and the Japanese yen which also provide safe havens, there aren’t many currencies that you’d rather own than the dollar right now. Fundamentally, a 2% yield, deep liquidity, and a growing economy look pretty good compared to the mess in most other regions of the world. And export-dependent blocs like Asia-Pacific, Europe, and Latin America really have no choice but to weaken their own currencies to compensate for the hit to their economies from reduced trade.

Technically, the price action in the dollar is extremely bullish. In the short-term, the dollar index (DXY) continues to advance in a positive pattern of higher highs and higher lows. The long-term setup could see the DXY back at the 2002 highs, more than 20% higher from here.

The downside of dollar strength is that it’s likely to accompany, and even thrive on stress in the financial markets. The big dump in commodities benchmarks like copper and oil this week are signs that investors see this coming and are hunkering down. As we’ve written here before, the Achilles heel of the broader marketplace is the credit sector. See “Time to BBBe Careful .” A higher USD would squeeze leveraged dollar debtors, including many banking systems abroad, who are massively and negatively exposed. With half of the investment grade bond market rated BBB and hovering just one notch above junk status, a move up in the dollar could be the trigger that sets those dominoes falling and makes a credit meltdown our next black swan event.

Us Dollar Index

Markets Hit the Panic Button

May 29, 2019

It’s already been a big week for red flags in the bond market after the Fed’s most reliable recession indicator, an inversion in the US Treasury 3 month-10 year spread, led a rush to the safe havens of sovereign debt. See https://bit.ly/2BRqa4l . Yields are down everywhere, even hitting record lows in both Australia and New Zealand as negative effects of slowing growth and the US-China trade war intensifies and broadens. Globally almost $13 trillion of bonds now trade at a negative yield, meaning you have to pay the issuer for the privilege of owning them. Nuts, but a sign that investors are becoming more concerned with the return of capital rather than the return on capital. See https://bit.ly/2Wd91M1 .

The panic is starting to spread to the equity and credit sectors as two of the markets’ worst fears come into view. As we have noted repeatedly here, the possibility of 1) a higher dollar and/or 2) corporate credit downgrades remain the greatest threats for 2019 because of the destructive potential that both outcomes hold for a global financial system leveraged up on dollar debt. See “Rates Headed South for the Summer” and “Time to BBBe Careful“. These are the pain trades that central banks will find hard to mitigate and action in the bond markets is telling investors that they should indeed be worried.

.The benchmark 10yr Treasury yield and the S&P. Stocks ‘catching down’ to the message from the bond market.

Time to BBBe Careful

May 27, 2019

One of the unintended consequences of the Fed’s policy over the last ten years was the explosion in USD-based borrowing and the inevitable deterioration in credit quality whenever easy money is on offer.  While this is not exactly new news, half of the $5 trillion investment grade bond market is now rated BBB, just one step up from junk. (See https://on.mktw.net/2MaGX7m .) Even if you don’t know anything about finance that statistic should be alarming, and easy to imagine what happens when these borrowers start to get squeezed. The implications are enormous. The obvious threat to the markets from here is one which a combination of slower growth and tighter financial conditions imposed by international trade tensions, weak investment, and declining dollar liquidity triggers rating downgrades, forcing the selling of newly-relegated junk credit as it becomes ineligible for inclusion in investment grade bond indices. Investors would inevitably turn to more liquid equity markets to hedge exposure, creating a negative feedback loop (or “doom loop”) of risk reduction and lower prices across asset classes.

The downgrading of General Electric debt last October brought the issue of corporate debt into sharper focus and was a factor in the broad market selloff late in the year. The plight of the formerly-iconic blue-chip name is providing a preview of what could happen on a wider scale and we’d be foolish not to take heed. (See https://on.mktw.net/2wuGIcZ and https://cnb.cx/2FWFlI9 .) Dallas Fed president Robert Kaplan underscored this concern recently by saying that he’s more worried about businesses than consumers being the “front end” of the next economic downturn. He’s right.

The lasting impact of trade disruptions and a stronger dollar is still an unknown for macroeconomic and credit trends but almost certainly underappreciated is the sheer volume of investment grade debt perched on the edge of descent into junk. Credit spreads have widened in the past month as global growth slows, weighing on stocks and forcing investors into the safe haven of treasuries. The high-yield bond sector will be calling the tune that the markets dance to for the foreseeable future and ETFs like HYG or JNK are good benchmarks to keep tabs on the state of play in the sector. BBBe careful out there.