Going Negative

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Debt deflation starts the U.S. on a path to negative interest rates

Written May 10, 2020

Last week, for the first time in the country‚Äôs history, the financial markets began discounting the possibility of negative interest rate policy.  

On Thursday, the December Fed Funds futures contract settled above par (100.00), implying that traders have moved beyond talking in the abstract about negative interest rates and started betting with real money that the Federal Reserve will be forced by events into crossing a line they’ve long insisted they would not step over. 

Japan, Europe, Switzerland, Sweden, and Denmark currently have negative interest rates, policy legacies left over from fighting the last recession in 2008. The theory was that people would be so repulsed by having to pay a bank to hold their money that they would gladly spend it instead, stimulating the economy in the process. It hasn’t exactly worked out that way.

Rather than driving consumer demand, negative interest rates have resulted in a minefield of unintended consequences. Besides the lack of confidence it conveys to the public on behalf of impotent policymakers, it has clogged the banking system and perverted the lending process.

Count us among those who previously thought there was little chance that the Fed would follow the rate policies of its Japanese and European counterparts. But as we recently wrote in “The L-Shaped Recovery“, the pandemic has exposed and accelerated the threat of debt deflation that could end up triggering waves of bankruptcies.

The deflationary scenario was brought into stark relief after we recently came across a chart overlaying the Economic Cycle Research Institute’s Weekly Leading Index (WLI) with the US consumer price index (see below). As the name suggests, the WLI anticipates economic activity 2 to 3 quarters in the future. If the correlation with the CPI holds, it means prices could begin dropping later this summer.

Just as the value of debt falls in real terms in an inflationary environment, it rises in deflationary times. The problem is compounded by declining cash flows as a result of weak economic activity, making it harder to service that debt and potentially creating a serious problem for highly leveraged economies like ours.

The other moving part in the relationship between debt and deflation is the U.S. dollar. If the Fed’s policy rate is anchored at zero and market yields can’t keep pace with falling prices for goods and services, real yields (the nominal yield minus the rate of inflation) will rise, driving the dollar higher and depressing the price of imports domestically and commodities globally. As we said in “The Biggest Trade in the World“, “the risk to the broader economy is that a stronger dollar triggers a doom loop of debt deflation, where slower global growth causes the dollar to rise and a stronger dollar, in turn, depresses prices and causes growth to slow.”

As has been the case with every rate cut in this cycle, the market will lead the way for the Fed’s next move. And given the risk that rising real yields could pose to the prospects for a recovery, investors are concluding that the Fed may have no choice but to take rates negative.

Besides being long-time proponents of the U.S. dollar and front-end treasuries as core investment themes, we recently recommended adding a position in physical gold. Gold may be subject to bouts of selling if the dollar continues to rise, as many traders still reflexively see the two as inversely correlated. But because there doesn’t seem to be any limit on central bank money printing, gold will shine as the ultimate store of value in a world of increasingly negative interest rates.

Economic Cycle Research Institute Weekly Leading Index vs US Consumer Price Index. Chart courtesy of Real Vision.
December 2020 Fed funds Futures, trading above 100 for the first time ever and implying negative policy rates in the U.S.

The Biggest Trade in the World

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The largest position in the history of the financial markets is about to get squeezed.

Written April 27th, 2020

Successful traders are always asking themselves two questions in the course of analyzing markets: 1) given a set of known inputs, are markets behaving as expected? and 2) if not, why not?

Since the COVID-19 pandemic crashed the world’s financial markets last month, central banks have responded with extraordinary measures to stabilize markets and prop up their respective economies.

For its part, the Fed has undertaken policies on a scale unprecedented in the history of finance, radically expanding their balance sheet and going so far as lending directly to municipalities and buying junk bond ETFs in the open market. Essentially printing money, but on steroids.

The equity markets have responded favorably, much as one would expect given the deluge of liquidity. It’s a reflexive response conditioned by a decade of the Fed propping up asset prices every time the markets stumbled. Will it last? Nobody knows.

However, the part of this scenario that is not going according to plan is potentially the most consequential for the financial markets. The US dollar needs to weaken. Big time. For a global economy staring at a tsunami of deflation, it is the most critical element to achieving a durable reflation of commodities and equity prices and restoring confidence in many regions of the world, especially the emerging markets.

This is not lost on central bank officials. In fact, if you were asked to come up with a policy to destroy your own currency, moves by the Fed and the Treasury over the past month to explode the federal deficit would be it.

The speculative trading community initially took the cue. According to CFTC data, the specs began shorting the dollar in the middle of March as rates went to zero and the money printing presses began working overtime.

But since then, not only hasn’t the dollar gone down, it is higher instead.

The latest study by the Bank for International Settlements estimates the world’s short position in the dollar at about $13 trillion, much of it based on dollar debt held by offshore banks and corporations, representing the largest aggregate position in the financial markets by far.

Currency swap facilities instituted and expanded by the Federal Reserve with the intention of ensuring these entities access to dollar funding helped settle the markets late last month, but the currency’s appreciation since then is a sure sign that it won’t be enough. For many of these foreign corporations, swap lines are of little value if their respective central banks don’t have sufficient reserves to swap or US Treasury securities to pledge as collateral.

Also, printing trillions won’t do much good if there is no turnover, or velocity, of that money due to the collapse in business activity. It just ends up in the vaults of institutions that don’t need it, crowding out the weaker borrowers.

Against all expectations, the steady grind higher in the dollar in recent weeks is a red flag that this massive short trade is about to get squeezed.

The implications will be felt everywhere. The risk to the broader economy is that a stronger dollar triggers a doom loop of debt deflation, where slower global growth causes the dollar to rise and a stronger dollar, in turn, depresses prices and causes growth to slow.

As we’ve been recommending for more than a year, stick with long positions in the dollar and front-end treasuries. In our last piece “The L-Shaped Recovery“, we suggested adding physical gold and taking advantage of near-term strength in equities to reduce exposure. If the dollar starts to accelerate, things could get ugly. Quickly. And despite the Fed’s insistence on not taking interest rates negative, it’s not impossible that this will end up being their next move.

US Dollar Index (DXY)

The L-shaped recovery

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Investors blindsided by the virus shouldn’t compound their problems by thinking that things will immediately return to normal once it passes.

It’s hard to predict the outcome of unprecedented events because, by definition, they’ve never happened before and handicapping them is nearly impossible. The models used by scientists to justify a complete shutdown of the global economy to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus may turn out to be off by a factor of ten, or more. It’s not meant as an indictment of them but an acknowledgment that like most investors trying to navigate the markets, they haven’t done this before either. At least not on this scale.

For that same reason, we should be skeptical of forecasts of a swift rebound once the virus passes. Just like how faulty data skews computer models, those calls seem to grossly underestimate the potential long-term damage to consumer confidence, supply chains, and the rejection of globalism in general. Garbage in, garbage out.

We were warning all of last year that markets were in an increasingly precarious position. See “Stall Speed“, “Tipping Point” and “Powell Plays for Time“. A decade of excessive monetary stimulus provided by the major central banks since the last recession in 2009 had all but destroyed the price discovery function of markets and dulled investors to signs of trouble. Record equity prices as a result of the Fed’s guiding hand and abundant liquidity obscured unsustainable debt burdens, slowing economic growth, declining corporate earnings and deteriorating credit quality. Many believed, and likely still do, in the Fed’s ability to extend the business cycle forever and revive the 11-year old bull market. To us the contradiction is nuts but as the old saying goes, the markets can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.

The virus exposed some serious vulnerabilities of the global economy, most notably the level of debt. As a result, we think that the economic adjustment to new societal norms and changes in consumption behaviors will take longer to play out than most of us can conceive.

Government officials and other commentators who are pushing a narrative of a V-shaped economic recovery are wrong on two basic assumptions.

1) It ignores the global debt dynamic, and the possibility that this event represented a tipping point long in the making. An unintended consequence of quantitative easing programs was companies taking advantage of cheap money to buy back their own stock and pay dividends rather than investing in their businesses. That’s now over, especially for any entity accepting federal assistance. And it should be.

Despite low rates and lots of government cash on offer, corporations will be forced to de-leverage their balance sheets to align with a new economic reality, which will come at the expense of capital spending, investment, and employment. Borrowing and refinancing costs could also rise as many companies suffer rating downgrades or find access to funds restricted by wary lenders. Businesses operating on thin margins, even large corporations, may not survive. If they do they are likely to run mean and lean for years to come rather than re-staff their employee ranks.

2) The claim of pent-up demand is ludicrous. Consumers are in shock. If you weren’t worried about your job before, you sure as hell are now. Just because your job might have survived the initial wave of layoffs it doesn’t mean it won’t get eliminated as the fallout ripples through the economy. Free government handouts will keep the lights on but don’t fool yourself into thinking that it is stimulative.

Rent payments that got waived in April are going to have to be paid in full in May or June, in addition to the current amount due. Credit card interest will continue to accrue. Most mortgages have been securitized, making it impossible to extend the terms and simply add missed payments onto the back end of the loan. Sure, you can defer several months’ payments but the bank is going to want all that back in a lump sum sometime this summer. And if you skipped eating out ten times or missed three haircuts while on lockdown, you’re not going to then go order ten meals when the curfew is lifted.

To steal a term from former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, there are still too many unknown unknowns right now. To conclude that things will return to pre-virus normal is fantasy.

Many of us grew up hearing stories about the Great Depression of the 1930s. Unemployment then peaked at around 25%, and it affected spending habits for two generations. People hoarded, they saved. Like my parents and their parents before them, they never let go of that mindset.

Governments and central banks are literally throwing money at both the markets and at citizens alike in an effort to stop the bleeding, but for the reasons stated above it may not be enough. Don’t confuse liquidity with solvency. The Fed might be able to address the former, but for many, the latter is still very much a risk.

One big positive for the economy is the resilience of the American consumer. The labor force is more flexible, means of communication and transportation more efficient and capital markets more dynamic than it was last century. Technology helps society to adapt to changing conditions almost instantaneously. In large measures, people can now work and shop from home. The shutdown may actually open our eyes to better and more efficient ways of conducting our day-to-day lives.

While nobody could have forecast the COVID-19 virus, at this time last year we recommended being long of the U.S. dollar and front-end treasuries as a play on slowing global growth. We still like those positions but would urge readers to consider adding physical gold to their portfolios and use this rebound in stocks to reduce risk exposure. In the months and years ahead, many countries will be making moves to weaken their currencies (i.e. printing money) to stimulate their economies and regain an advantage in international trade. Gold is the flip-side of the depreciating fiat money coin.

So when William Devane appears on your TV urging you to buy precious metals as a hedge against “unstable governments printing paper money”, know that he may be on to something.

US Dollar Index (DXY)
US 2yr Treasury Yield