China: Red Flag Rising

Photo by Alejandro Luengo on Unsplash

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

Photo by Richard R Schünemann on Unsplash

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.

VIX Cheap as Impeachment Threat Grows

Markets too complacent in face of political turmoil

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Written September 24, 2019

Despite a lack of facts, Washington has been consumed by accusations that President Trump acted improperly in a phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, with many claiming that it qualifies as an impeachable offense.  That conclusion may or may not be true.  More will be known after acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire addresses the whistleblower complaint that sparked the controversy before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday, September 26.

Odds for Trump’s impeachment spiked yesterday on the betting market Predictit to 57%, the highest level this year.  This matches a growing number within the Democrat caucus that believe the president should be removed.

At the same time, the S&P is trading about 1% from record highs and the broad market’s primary fear gauge, the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX Index), is near the lower end of its range.  In short, a picture of complacency.

It’s hard to see how these two conditions are mutually compatible for very long.  One side is wrong.

The hallmark of the Trump presidency has been a bull market in stocks, and any threat to his tenure would almost certainly inject a level of uncertainty that would be reflected through lower prices. While it is unknown if he will be impeached, that outcome and any potential negative fallout in the equity markets presents the more favorable risk/reward trading profile. The bet is that the markets are currently underpricing the disruption and volatility that such an event would produce.

Even though the VIX appears subdued, price action is positive.  Since spring, the VIX has been tracing out a classically bullish pattern of higher highs and higher lows (see chart below).  As long as each prior low print holds, in this case, the September 19 low of 13.30, pullbacks are buying opportunities.

Chart courtesy Bianco Research, LLC
VIX Index. Long side an excellent risk/reward profile.

Enjoy the Party but Dance Near the Door

Reason to be skeptical of the latest central bank reflation trade

Photo by Filios Sazeides on Unsplash

The title of this piece refers to an old cautionary Wall Street cliche that describes a trader’s dilemma where the price action says one thing but his gut warns him that something is not quite right, and to not get too complacent. This is an apt description of the current state of play over the past few days. Markets are reacting optimistically to a potential trade deal with China and the prospect of supportive policy intervention by the major central banks, most of which involves creating more debt. Besides possible rate cuts by the Fed, BOJ, and ECB, China unleashed another huge credit impulse, see https://bit.ly/2kAGnTz, South Korea has enacted a massive fiscal spending program, see https://on.ft.com/2ZBihGx and the Germans are exploring ways to circumvent current limits on debt issuance, see https://reut.rs/2kDcsKl. That’s a lot of stimuli. No wonder the markets like it.

However, this collective panic among the policy crowd in the face of slowing economic growth doesn’t offer any new ideas other than to throw more money at a situation that previous waves of cash have failed to fix. Most investors now realize that after a decade of extreme monetary policies, excessive debt is becoming the problem, not the answer. It’s the reason why large parts of the world are trapped in a deflationary malaise. Not only will piling on more debt not work, but it will also make the eventual reckoning even more painful.

Since early this year we have focused on several trends: slowing global growth, falling rates, and a stronger dollar. A continuation of these generally-bearish themes, along with the pressure that it exerts on the vulnerable corporate credit and emerging market sectors, is still our base scenario.

Nevertheless stocks, yields, credit, and commodities have all caught a bid in recent days. The dollar is offered. With good reason, investors still strongly believe that the central banks can affect outcomes and that a safety net is firmly in place under the markets. One of our favorite risk sentiment canaries, the Canadian dollar, impressively held support at USDCAD 1.3400 (see chart below.) This is a sign that a broader recovery in the marketplace in the near-term is not only possible but likely.

Longer-term, the prospect of a global economy that is weakened by over-indebtedness and unable to maintain sustainable growth without the repeated intervention of central banks is a frightening prospect, and remains our primary concern. The big danger in our future will come at that point when investors lose faith in central bankers’ ability to keep the markets propped up. We’re not there yet but that re-set in valuations will be the trade of a lifetime…and not in a good way. Will it be next month, or next year, or five years from now? Nobody knows. So in the meantime enjoy this latest bull party but remember to dance near the door.

USD/CAD. The Canadian dollar (CAD) is a reliable indicator of global risk sentiment. Stronger CAD is bullish for asset prices.
US dollar index (DXY). Fails to break out higher, also bullish for asset prices, especially emerging markets.
Benchmark US 10yr Yield. Bottom in for now as broad risk sentiment recovers.

Pushing on a String

Lower rates may not bail out the economy this time around

Photo by Tara Evans on Unsplash

June 29, 2019

Looking back on the best performance for the S&P in the month of June since 1938 reveals a familiar pattern: economy shows signs of slowing, earnings outlooks decline, equity market stumbles, Fed rushes in with the promise of easier policy, market rallies to new record (again)…problem solved. Completely predictable, and almost comical at this point. There aren’t many people left that think that the Fed’s real mandate of fostering maximum employment and price stability hasn’t taken a back seat to maintain the appearance that everything’s fine through higher stock prices.

How many times can they keep running the same play? Right now investors still seem willing to believe that the Fed can extend the business cycle forever, but it does beg the question of whether the economy and the markets are even viable without support from the central bank.

The big issue in front of us is whether another round of rate cuts can rescue the economy? It might. But the next big trade is going to be recognizing that tipping point if and when the markets and economy fail to respond.

Next month the current expansion will become the oldest on record. Investors need to start worrying about the marginal effectiveness of any potential rate cuts this late in the cycle, especially now that yields globally are already at rock bottom. Lower rates almost certainly aren’t the answer to a system choking on debt from the past decade of easy money, but apparently, that won’t keep policymakers from offering it up again. The minute the markets realize that the Fed and other central banks are shooting blanks the entire game changes.

Which is why housing data is worth paying attention to. Over the past week, a series of reports on pending, existing and new home sales showed a continuation of weaker year-over-year trends despite the stimulus normally associated with declining mortgage rates. It might be an early and important sign that aside from the raging bull market in equities, demand in the economy is slipping and becoming inelastic to the level of rates. See https://cnb.cx/2IHmcfT . So even if the Fed embarks on another round of rate cuts they may find themselves pushing on a string.

New Home Sales (blue) and 30 year mortgage rate (green and inverted). Chart courtesy Zerohedge.

‘Jaws’ Could Take a Bite Out of Markets

Stocks and bonds both can’t be right on the economy

Photo by Clint Patterson on Unsplash

June 24, 2019

Wall Street has coined a term for the opposing economic messages being sent by the bond and stock markets: Jaws. Look at a simple chart (below) with the S&P overlayed on the benchmark 10 year Treasury note and you’ll see what I mean.

It refers to the yawning gap that began to widen early this year as a function of sharply higher equity prices and collapsing bond yields. One side suggests a boom and the other signals recession. Describing it is the easy part, guessing how it turns out is not. Both can’t be right.

The image of “jaws” also infers a danger to investors from a trap created by conflicting narratives that will inevitably snap shut, in this case as the macroeconomic state of play becomes clearer. But from which direction will the jaws close and who is most at risk? Will the economy take off or hit a wall? Will bond yields rise or will stocks succumb? We don’t know yet. Presently, both markets trade well and with the confidence that they represent the winning side.

Jaws is a reaction to 1) slower growth and 2) the Fed’s anticipated response. There’s no doubt that the global economy has been knocked off it’s footing by disruptions in international trade. In the US, it also suffers from old age. Next month the current expansion, that began in June 2009, will officially become the longest on record. Bond yields have fallen sharply as the possibility of a recession appears on the horizon, accelerated by these and other headwinds created by sub-par economic activity worldwide.

On the other hand, equity markets have enjoyed an impressive recovery since the Fed called off plans for tighter monetary policy back in January. The S&P spiked to fresh record highs last week after Fed chairman Powell went a step further and all but promised to begin cutting rates again. See https://bloom.bg/2WLgykO .

As I see it, the risk inherent in the jaws trade is that the prosperity projected by the equity markets is becoming more illusory, when in reality the economy and the markets are only viable when the Fed is backstopping them. All-time highs in stocks seem strangely disconnected from the expectation that more than half of the sectors in the S&P 500 are set to report negative growth in this current quarter.

In the last 50 years, only a quarter of all recessions were averted by easier monetary policy. Investors feeling confident that Chairman Powell has their backs may be overestimating the capabilities of the Fed to sustain a business cycle that is already past its sell-by-date.

JAWS. Competing outlooks from stocks and bonds.

Fed Set to Join Race to The Bottom on Rates

Increasingly negative yields in Europe and Japan weigh heavily on Fed policy

June 19, 2019

Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash

Five years ago this month the European Central Bank made the desperate move of imposing negative interest rates in an attempt to spur growth and generate price inflation. It didn’t work. Economic activity on the continent now is barely noticeable, the banks are teetering and market-based inflation expectations are the weakest on record.

European bond yields are literally collapsing in a panic after European Central Bank president Mario Draghi revealed his latest prescription for growth: do more of the same. Because current policy obviously isn’t extreme enough the ECB thinks even deeper negative rates will certainly do the trick. Genius. Yesterday the benchmark 10yr German bund traded at -0.32 bps and similar yields in Poland, Sweden and France hit zero for the first time in history. Negative yielding bonds worldwide, mostly in Europe, now total about $12 trillion. What’s the goal here? How are banks ever supposed to profitably lend money with such a distorted yield structure? It has long been suspected, but today’s events confirmed that Draghi and the ECB are officially out of ideas. Europe is toast.

A similar experiment in Japan also failed miserably. The widely touted “shock and awe” scheme by the Bank of Japan in January 2016 also included a move to negative rates, which in theory was supposed to boost the economy by discouraging saving and encouraging spending. It didn’t turn out that way and the country remains trapped in a decades-long deflationary decline. A recent Reuters report claims that BOJ insiders knew immediately that the move to negative rates was a mistake. Despite the fact that they have nothing to show for it after three and a half years, the policy is still in place. See https://reut.rs/2Il0Sww .

This should be a lesson to all investors as the Fed stands poised to begin another rate cutting program of its own, possibly as soon as next month. While it’s becoming apparent that what ails the economy is moving beyond the reach of traditional policy remedies, central bankers like Mr. Draghi and Mr. Kuroda (of the Bank of Japan) are still fighting the last war. We assume that the Fed would never follow their lead and take US rates negative but who knows? The Japanese and the Europeans probably never thought they’d end up in their current predicaments either.

The last Fed easing cycle started in 2006 with an overnight rate of 5.25% before falling to 0% by 2008. This time around, if rates are eased again, the starting point will be less than half that, at only 2.4%. If the Fed feels compelled to ease policy every time the equity market gets in trouble, we’ll be at that zero threshold soon enough. In fact, some astute Fed observers think that chairman Powell’s recent reference to the downside limit on policy as being defined by the “effective lower bound” rather than a “zero lower bound” cracks the door for rates below zero. We’ll see.

Predictably, stocks are loving the possibility of lower rates but are we somehow supposed to feel good about all of this? It ignores the reason why an easier policy is back on the table in the first place. How long can we play the “bad news is good news” game before bad news actually becomes bad news?

As I wrote last week in Aussie-Yen: Currency Canary Keels Over, either growth needs to accelerate or there has to be a reset lower in the financial markets. The contrasting messages coming from the bond and equity sectors are as stretched as at any time in recent memory (see chart below.) One side will ultimately win out, but the waning influence of the central banks definitely poses a risk for growth.

Massive divergence: The S&P and the benchmark US 10yr Yield

Bonds and Commodities are the Unwanted Guests at the Equity Party

Bond yields and commodity prices see a much different outcome than stocks.

June 10, 2019

Have you noticed that issues the Fed cares about are conditional and dependent on whether the stock market is going up or down? When the market is rising things like trade wars and weak price trends, while worthy of mention, are still considered “transitory” events. More annoying than scary. On the other hand, when the market is falling these same factors are considered full-blown threats to the economy.

Market action in the month of May and the Fed’s response is a good example of the latter. Even though the S&P had dropped nearly 8% from all-time highs, it was still up 9% on the year when Fed chairman Powell hit the panic button on June 4 saying the Fed was ready to act “as appropriate” to counter growing protectionist threats to the economy. See https://cnb.cx/2WaWNi5. Wink, wink. That’s all the markets needed to hear to launch six straight days of vertical ascent. Forget about why the Fed might be considering rate cuts: collapsing inflation expectations, potentially impaired corporate earnings or deteriorating credit, the fact that they are is all that matters. The playbook for equities remains the same as it has for the past decade: the bad news is (still) good news. As renown economist John Maynard Keynes once said, “the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent”. So true.

But several reliable macroeconomic benchmarks don’t seem to be playing along. While stocks rip higher, bond yields and prices for copper and oil have barely budged off their lows. It appears that the economic outlook projected by the fixed income and commodity sectors is quite a bit less optimistic than what is expected in the equity space. The conflicting message between these two worlds might be temporary and meaningless or it could be something worth paying attention to.

At some point, the marginal utility of repeated deployments of the Fed put will begin to decline. I have no idea if that time is near but subtle market divergences like these will be the first sign that the game may be over. Therefore I will be paying attention.

Two diverging outcomes: the S&P and 10yr Yields

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.