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’s 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 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.

Gold
US Dollar Index (DXY)
US 2yr Treasury Yield

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.

Jaws 2

Diverging paths of the economy and the market continues to be a study in contradictions

Photo by Viktor Talashuk on Unsplash

In the weeks since our last comment the major central banks, led by the Fed, have ridden in hard to try and extend the life of what is already the oldest economic expansion in history. A confluence of declining corporate earnings forecasts, weakening industrial and retail activity, and persistent funding shortfalls in dollar-based securities markets has forced the Fed to administer CPR on the financial system. Despite the outwardly calm appearance, the Fed is very nervous, literally throwing money at both the economy and the markets in an effort to prevent a downturn in global growth from metastasizing into another financial crisis. Massive levels of debt and leverage encouraged by profligate central bank policies over the past decade now mean that the normal cycles of the economy…and the inevitable periods of weakness…cannot be allowed to play out naturally without risking a complete meltdown in the financial markets. (See BBBe Careful).

In October alone the Fed restarted their balance sheet expansion, ramped the daily overnight repo financing allocation and cut rates for the third time in four months. It’s a veritable fire hose of liquidity that pumps between $60 and $100 billion per month into the marketplace. It’s also a dead giveaway that everything is not fine. Former Dallas Fed advisor Danielle DiMartino-Booth aptly described the state of play as the Fed trying to “suppress the unknown, that at its best is credit volatility and at its worst systemic risk.”

So far the deluge of liquidity, at least initially, seems to be having the desired effect. Like every other time in the last eleven years that the Fed has fired up another round of quantitative easing, regardless of prevailing economic trends, record highs in the S&P were all but certain to follow. This time is no different. And almost as if the third consecutive quarterly decline in year-on-year corporate earnings don’t matter. The title of our recent piece ‘Liquidity Trumps Fundamentals‘ speaks for itself.

Don’t be fooled by Jay Powell’s attempt at downplaying the need for future rate cuts and reassuring investors that the expansion still has legs. See https://on.wsj.com/2pTHtfE Having to hit the panic button after nearly a decade of policy stimulus is definitely not a position in which anyone on the board of governors thought they would find themselves. It’s becoming abundantly clear that without a major reset in asset prices and a restructuring of the role of the central banks in the markets, rates will never be normalized. The Fed is headed into a policy cul-de-sac from which there is no exit. Like an addict, they’ve hooked the markets on easy money. Make no mistake, the minute stocks stumble, rate cuts will be back on the table. As much as they’d like everyone to believe it, this is no simple mid-cycle policy adjustment. It’s a one way street toward zero interest rates. If there’s a lesson from the past year, it’s that the economy remains vulnerable and that the bull market in equities and credit is not self-sustaining without the Fed’s foot firmly on the gas.

Presumably, corporate CEOs get this. These are the guys making decisions on hiring and capital investment. The latest survey of CEO confidence is shockingly bad and contrasts starkly with optimism among consumers (see charts below). Visually, the surveys are very similar to the chart that became popular several months ago comparing opposing trends in equities and bond yields. Coined with the name “Jaws” it illustrated two major financial benchmarks projecting distinctly different economic outcomes. (See “Jaws” Could Take a Bite Out of Markets). Which indicator is ultimately proven right (bonds or stocks) remains an open question. The two charts below from The Conference Board on confidence reveals a similar contradiction. History shows two things: 1) CEO confidence leads consumer confidence and 2) a sharp deterioration in CEO confidence has immediately preceded each of the last five recessions (the gray shaded areas). But as with the original Jaws chart, which side is ultimately right and how these normally correlated, but currently divergent, trends snap back into line is yet unknown.

Our preference is to bet on the side of history. The heavy dose of hopium from coordinated central bank intervention driving stocks and bond yields higher in the past few weeks will fade in time. It’s another sugar high. We have been long the front end U.S. rate complex for all of 2019 and still see this sector as the most effective play on slowing global growth. The Fed has a trigger finger with respect to cutting rates. Be patient, but the widespread position flush underway in the bond market this week is an excellent opportunity to reload those long positions between now and year-end.

Jaws 2. CEO and Consumer Confidence telling different stories. Shaded areas are recessions. Courtesy Quill Intelligence

Or, expressed another way:

Record discrepancy between corporate and consumer confidence. Shaded areas are recessions. Courtesy Deutsche Bank Global Research
Dec 2021 Eurodollar future. Approaching support.

Liquidity Trumps Fundamentals

Inadequate funding a potential problem for markets

Photo by Robin Spielmann on Unsplash

Written September 26, 2019

Just like the equity market’s general complacency over the uncertainty created by a potential presidential impeachment, it is exhibiting a similar lack of interest in the ongoing liquidity squeeze in short-term funding markets.

A sharp spike in overnight financing rates last week due to a scarcity of bank reserves was initially dismissed as an unexpected confluence of technical factors.  Everything from quarterly tax bills, treasury auction settlements, and principal and interest payments were blamed for draining an unusual amount of money from the system and causing an acute shortage of free reserves.  Overnight rates were said to have traded as high as 10% before the Fed was forced to step in with emergency funds.  The panic passed but the underlying problem hasn’t gone away.  Lots of confusion still hangs over the money markets.  Financing remains tight, enough so that the Fed has had to supplement the system with cash every day since.  This is not normal and the longer it goes on the explanation that it is merely a temporary quirk becomes less credible.

As of now, the consensus opinion is that this problem will fix itself simply by a turn of the calendar past quarter-end (September 30).  That seems to be a big leap of faith.  In a Bloomberg piece today former Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota says that regulatory changes after the 2008 crisis, like more stringent capital and leverage requirements, have restricted the amount of free reserves in the financial system and banks’ willingness to lend those reserves among themselves. See https://bloom.bg/2mGcO3B. None of this was a problem while the Fed was expanding its balance sheet and providing almost limitless liquidity.  Only when the Fed began to shrink its balance sheet a year ago did this unintended consequence emerge. 

The explosion in the issuance of US dollar-based debt, both domestic and foreign, during the previous decade of easy money policies created a massive need to finance that debt.  What has now become obvious is that without additional liquidity provided by the Fed, there just aren’t enough dollars in the system to go around. Kocherlakota notes that “the financial system is acting like it has $1.3 billion in excess reserves rather than the actual $1.3 trillion.”

This means the Fed can forget about any plans they might have had for normalizing interest rates and reducing their balance sheet.  Quite the opposite, it slants the probabilities in the direction of even lower rates. The problem in the money markets is structural and has disrupted one of the financial markets’ most essential functions.  Until they figure out how to fix it, simple liquidity will become an ever-important consideration for investors.  Fundamental investment strategies don’t matter much if they can’t be financed.

The fourth quarter of 2019 will see two issues elevated that were not big considerations in the current quarter: domestic political uncertainty and liquidity uncertainty.  These factors should lead to a general increase in market volatility as well as heightened concern over funding availability. This will almost certainly force banks and asset managers to begin paring back positions for year-end earlier than ever. Additionally, rate cuts at Fed meetings in October (Oct 29-30) and December (Dec 10-11) will be in play as the Fed seeks to offset the slowing economy and keep funding pressures contained. 

The two simplest trade opportunities are 1) long equity volatility such as the VIX (see VIX Cheap as Impeachment Threat Grows) and 2) long Eurodollar interest rate futures, such as the Dec 2021 contract.  Policy rates in the U.S. are on their way to zero and there’s a lot left in this trade.

December 2021 Eurodollar Future

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.

China’s Slowdown Could Mean Big Trouble For Base Metals

Industrial commodities stand on a deflationary cliff edge

Photo by Екатерина Александрова from Pexels

Written September 19, 2019

China’s quasi-capitalist system, where the communist party still retains a degree of control over the economy, leaves the true state of affairs subject to a certain amount of suspicion.  Is the economic data accurate or is it just what they want us to see?

Which is why many investors rely heavily on proxies for Chinese activity to more accurately determine the state of play in their economy.  Base metals widely used in construction and manufacturing, such as copper, steel and iron ore have well-deserved reputations as gauges of economic trends.  They are also all freely traded on financial exchanges, where price discovery and transparency allow them to be used as a check against official statistics put out by the state.

With the exception of oil and gas, China is the world’s largest consumer of most commodities.  According to data compiled by The Visual Capitalist’s Jeff Desjardins, China imports half or more of the world’s production of nickel, copper, and steel (as well as cement and coal), so any changes in behavior in China will have a meaningful impact on prices of those commodities. See https://bit.ly/2KPz9nZ.

Chinese growth has been steadily declining for the past year and a half.  The latest GDP reading for the second quarter of 2019 at 6.2% was the weakest result in twenty-seven years.  For experienced China watchers, 6% has long been considered something of a line in the sand as a minimum level of growth required to keep a sufficient number of people employed and to avoid any dissent against the government from taking root.  Two events this past week suggest that point may soon be at hand.

Underscoring the urgency of the situation, Chinese premier Li Keqiang admitted that it is becoming “very difficult” for China to maintain that crucial 6% growth rate. See https://reut.rs/2lTmjvV.  He must have been tipped off because just 24 hours later it was revealed that in August China’s industrial output fell to a rate of only 4.4%, its weakest showing in 17 years.  And that was before the latest round of trade tariffs were imposed. See https://bit.ly/2lVzL2g.

Not surprisingly, this slowing in growth is weighing on prices in the base metals sector as well as across the commodities complex in general.  One look at a chart of either copper or the broader CRB index shows that like the Chinese economy, commodities are approaching cliff edges of their own (see below).

Legendary trader Raoul Pal calls the current price pattern of the CRB index the most dangerous chart in the world, worrying that a break lower would be a sign of complete deflationary breakdown. China might be the center of this storm but it will have global implications for consumers and policymakers alike. A dire prediction for sure. As forward-looking indicators of this possibility, investors ignore the action in the base metal sector at their peril.

Copper
CRB Core Commodities Index