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What Is The BoJ Up To With Its QQE? What Else Can It Do? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Thursday, 22 September 2016 07:57

On September 21st there were two central bank meetings, the Fed and the Bank of Japan, both closely watched but both garnering very little expectations.

The Fed was expected to do nothing and to signal a December rate hike, which it did. The market reaction was positive, not because this was unexpectedly good news but because investors had taken risk off the table, despite having no big expectations for this FOMC. Some of these investors put capital back to work in the anti-climax. The buying, although relatively muted was indiscriminate as investors bought equities, credit, duration, oil and gold.

The BoJ was perhaps even more closely watched and with similarly low expectations. Investors had expected the review to justify current efforts and recommend more negative interest rates. They also expected a targeted effort to steepen the long end of the JPY yield curve. What the BoJ delivered was a promise to raise inflation expectations, perhaps beyond 2%, to be flexible about its bond buying, to maintain a cap on the 10 year JGB yield and an effort to steepen the yield curve. It was a lacklustre package, maybe even a disappointing one. The initial reaction was a rise in equities and a fall in JPY. It is too early to tell where they go from here but if the market was unimpressed by the BoJ’s negative rate debut in January it is hardly going to be impressed this time.

One view is that the BoJ’s lack of determination is a sign that the government should shoulder some of the burden. The Prime Minister has publicly welcomed the “new policy” and will “coordinate closely with the BoJ to accelerate Abenomics.” Quite how new the policy is and how Abenomics is to be accelerated remains to be seen. As long as rates and JPY do not rise too quickly or far, the economy appears to have a chance to muddle on, and there are some signs of material progress in Abenomics’ Third Arrow. Economic immigration, for example, has been growing as regulations have been relaxed and businesses begun to hire foreigners.

On current demographics and reasonable growth forecasts, Japan will not be able to repay its national debt in the foreseeable future. It has already amended its 2016 debt issuance by  3.7% or +60 billion USD, paltry, but a start.

It needs to keep issuing debt. The debt must be bought by private investors, such as the private commercial banks. The BoJ will then buy the seasoned bonds from these private investors. It could buy the bonds directly from the government but this would merely finance the fiscal deficits, which would be direct debt monetization or helicopter money, which is apparently frightening and illegal. Passing through private hands has an advantage. It is Chinook helicopter money, two rotors. First, it still monetizes the national debt, indirectly but effectively. But second, it generates a profit for the initial buyers, and thus puts money in their pockets. Now, if bond yields decline continuously, this generates a capital gain for the investor, but is not sustainable since eventually you get to negative rates at long maturities and undermine the entire savings, banking and insurance industry. A more sustainable strategy is to steepen the yield curve, particularly at long maturities. In February 2016, investors who held on to 20 year JGBs for 5 years say, would have made 1.5% p.a., on top of a 0.5% - 1% coupon just from the rolldown. This ROA is quite substantial given current interest rates. For a bank which can leverage the position, and since JGBs consumer zero capital, the impact on ROE is significant. This works best at long maturities as duration multiplies the roll down which is otherwise too small at shorter maturities. By September the yield curve has flattened so that the same trade would earn 0.95% p.a. This strategy only works with a steep yield curve.

There are a couple of loose ends to this strategy. At some point the national debt will simply get too big. One way of addressing this issue is for a selective debt forgiveness whereby the BoJ converts its holdings of JGBs to zero coupon perpetuals. Or cancels them altogether.

This just leaves the persistent strength of JPY. This is troublesome for an export economy like Japan. When the BoJ cut rates into negative space in January, JPY weakened for less than 24 hours before appreciating some 16% to September. One way would be for the government or the BoJ to buy USD and USD assets such as US treasuries.

This strategy supports the following measures:

BoJ keeps buying JGBs in secondary market. Check

BoJ keeps the yield curve steep. Check.

BoJ keeps short rates low, perhaps further into negative space. Maybe.

BoJ converts debt to perpetual zeros or cancels its JGBs. Maybe.

Japan government increases issue of JGBs. Check.

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 22 September 2016 08:02
 
Inflection: Central Banks at Crossroads PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Wednesday, 14 September 2016 04:24

Inflection:

From the rhetoric it is apparent that the Fed wants to raise rates, the question is not if, but when. The ECB's recent inaction and signals point to a pause and a possible rethink about QE. The BoJ is currently assessing the efficacy of current QE and has already surprised the market by its hawkish inaction in the face of weak data.

PMI data have been consistently strong globally with the exception of Japan and recently in the US. Japan is slowing but less severely and the US data is a single data point in a robust trend.

Recent musing by the financial elite have been leaning towards fiscal policy.


1. Are the world's central banks near or at the point of inflection in super low rates?

The Fed is clearly at the inflection point. The question for the Fed is not if, but how quickly rates will be raised. The options are between slow and super slow. The UST market is unlikely to be complacent.

The BoJ is likely to be at an inflection but is it between holding and handing the responsibility to fiscal policy, or is it to accelerate monetary easing towards further unconventional measures such as debt forgiveness? Economic data while indicating continued deterioration are slowing in their descent presenting the risk that the BoJ may maintain status quo or even cut back stimulus. Or, if fiscal policy is expanded, the BoJ may deem it unnecessary to increase its efforts. Interest rates can be cut further or QE expanded but current efforts have not been effective and more of the same is unlikely to be helpful. The only shock and awe policy left is to cancel some of its holdings of JGBs effectively monetizing legacy debt. Politically and culturally, this is unlikely.

The ECB is reviewing the effectiveness of its QE program. On recent cyclical data, the ECB may conclude it has done enough. The Eurozone does not have fiscal union and fiscal policy will be decided at the national level although Brussels will have influence though the Maastricht conditions. Politically, Europe has less scope for fiscal policy, and even less for a concerted effort.


2. Has monetary policy reached its limits?

The question is moot in the US for now, although a prudent Fed would at least academically consider its options should the economy slip back into recession.

The BOJ is likely at its limits. It already owns a third of the national debt and is struggling to find assets to buy. It's NIRP has resulted in a rise in deposits. Economic data remains weak although the pace of decline has slowed. More data are required to be certain but the current evidence is that monetary policy has had limited impact.

The ECB is likely close to limits. Negative interest rates have led to limited cash hoarding, including by corporates. The asset allocation of the QE has been politically constrained resulting in the capital flowing to where it is needed less, Germany and France, instead of the periphery. The ECB is unlike to be able to increase the scale of QE although it could make further progress by moving asset allocation away from the capital key.


3. Will fiscal policy be deployed and to what extent?

In the US this is academic. Politically also, it will depend on the future composition of Congress, the Senate  and who occupies the White House.

In Japan, fiscal policy engaged now will only be another salvo in a series which has seen the national debt swell to 2.5X of GDP. However, given the BoJ's recent demeanour and Abe's control of Upper and Lower Houses, fiscal policy cannot be ruled out.

Politics will make fiscal policy difficult to approve in Europe. Germany can afford it but doesn't need it. France might but probably can't and peripheral Europe almost certainly cannot afford it but might need it most. The political uncertainty in Europe makes this a difficult call.


4. Asset prices are very sensitive to the base curves. Equities are cheap relative to binds but otherwise expensive. IG spreads are reasonable to cheap and HY spreads are reasonable. The problem reduces to developing a view around base curves.

 

USD.

Short end is very sensitive to Fed funds. Long end is more sensitive to inflation. Long end will find less upward pressure from risk of fiscal policy.

 

JPY.

Japan is already engaged in fiscal policy albeit not in a determined way. This would normally exert upward pressure on yields.  Much will depend on the BoJ's review of QE due 21 September. The results could be a) mission accomplished, b) QE didn't work, more needs to be done, and c) QE didn't work, a new approach is needed. I'd a) then JGB yields will likely rise as will JPY, if b) JGB yields will likely fall as will JPY. The last scenario is the most interesting but unpredictable. A debt cancellation is the most likely strategy left and is one which allows Japan to raise more debt and spend more. On its own, c) should drive yields lower with JPY, however, c) is also an enabler of an acceleration in fiscal policy which would drive JGB yields higher.

 

EUR.

The system wide PMIs indicate a cyclical recovery in the Eurozone which should signal a success of policy to the ECB. The recovery, however, is not evenly distributed. The recovery in Spain is threatened by politics, the recovery in Italy by politics and specific issues in its banking system. France is in a very slow recovery with high political risk. Germany could do without any monetary or fiscal support. A tailored monetary solution is difficult given the single currency and the adherence to the capital key in QE allocation. A targeted solution would be to get off the capital key or engage national level fiscal policy.

The above would likely be neutral to positive for the EUR. Yields would react at national levels. If the ECB gets off the capital key, peripheral bonds will outperform. If national level fiscal policy is implemented, peripheral and core bonds will likely sell off. If both policies are implemented bunds suffer most.

 

Bank capital.

Bank capital spreads are mostly impacted by regulation and credit quality. They are, however, not immune to volatility in the base curves.

Rising rates will improve bank profitability. However, banks have significant exposure to sovereign bonds and could face losses if bonds sell off. The first order consequence is an improvement in the profit outlook for banks. Banks are generally more profitable in a higher yield and steeper yield curve environment. This is well highlighted by the relatively high short term correlation between government bond curves, yields and bank stocks

Rising rates may provide some volatility and a buying opportunity.

 

Loans.

Loans carry very little duration, particularly as LIBOR rises above the LIBOR floor, typically 1%.  Higher rates may put pressure generally on corporate balance sheets through higher debt service and refinancing costs. The inflection point may introduce volatility to the loan market which could be a good buying opportunity.

 

IG.

IG spreads have compressed considerably in the short term and while in the longer term they may be cheap, in the short term the momentum from a duration sell off will likely carry IG with it. Buying opportunity if duration hedged.

 

HY.

Same technicals as IG. HY could be more resilient as duration element is smaller and credit fundamentals remain robust.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 14 September 2016 05:41
 
Japan. Will The BoJ Ease? How Big Is The Fiscal Package? What Else Can Japan Do? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Thursday, 28 July 2016 07:39

Observations:

The BoJ’s discount rate, 9% in 1980 has fallen steadily to 0.3%. The 10 year JGB yield has dropped consistently from 8% in 1990 to -0.28%.

The BoJ’s asset purchase programs have seen its balance sheet grow from 110 trillion JPY in 2010 to 436 trillion JPY expanding at 30% per annum.

BoJ ownership of JGBs rose from 9% in 2010 to 34% today. It owns 55% of Japan’s ETFs and about 1.6% of the listed market capitalization. The BoJ’s current plan involves buying 3 trillion JPY of ETFs per year. The GPIF owns about 5% of market cap.

Japan’s national debt to GDP ratio has increased steadily from 50% in 1980 to 251%. The annual rate of increase is only 4.5% but it has been increasingly almost monotonically for the last 36 years.

Inflation is still negative and not showing signs of any revival. Growth has slipped from 1.8% in Q3 2015 to 0.1% Q1 2016. Sentiment and confidence indicators are showing more weakness.

Since the imposition of negative interest rates on excess reserves JPY has strengthened from 120 to 100. It trades at circa 105 today. Also, bank deposits at the central bank have reportedly risen 20% since.

Expectations:

On July 29, the BoJ meets. Various analysts assign a significant probability to some kind of increase in QE in the form of increased asset purchases from the current rate of 80 trillion JPY p.a. as well as a rate cut from the current -0.10%.

On the fiscal front, the government has announced an eagerly awaited 28 trillion JPY stimulus package. The details as to how much will be spent when, how much will be direct (expenditure) and how much indirect (tax), and how much are existing and how much are is additional, are still not available. Rumours suggest that the direct spending portion will be small with the bulk of the package in the form of loans and subsidies.

So far the market has regarded the BoJ and the fiscal package with caution. JPY and JGBs have rallied while the Nikkei has come off.

The BoJ has a track record of disappointing the markets and expectations have become increasingly uncertain. The lack of details in the announcement of the fiscal package have also left the market sceptical.

Thoughts:

While the Prime Minister’s advisers have spoken about ‘helicopter money’, technically Monetized Fiscal Policy (MFP), Mr Kuroda has said that there was “no need or possibility” of doing it. Given that ‘helicopter money’ requires close coordination between the Ministry of Finance and the BoJ, Mr Kuroda’s thoughts should be taken at face value. No ‘helicopter money.’

Monetized Fiscal Policy is likely to be ineffective in the long run and would introduce too many new and innovative problems anyway.

A sizeable fiscal package will in any case need to be financed and given the pace of the BoJ’s QQE, it will effectively be indistinguishable from MFP. The difference is a mere technicality where under QQE the bonds are passed through private sector intermediaries and under MFP the BoJ faces the state directly. Never underestimate the propensity of public servants for pedantry when they practice to obfuscate.

In the long run, the demographics of Japan will likely prove insurmountable. And in any case, the Keynesian view of the long run is probably true. In the short term Japan needs an infusion of confidence which would involve a rising equity market, stable, positive interest rates and bond yields, and a stable currency. A monotonically decreasing currency is too high a price to pay for a rising equity market. A modest recovery in inflation is also necessary.

Adding an outsized fiscal program to the currently loose monetary policy will likely stabilize interest rates and bond yields, put a floor under inflation and give a boost to demand. QQE will be needed not only to moderate any rise in yields but to finance the budget deficit and roll over the national debt. The size of the package will need to surprise the market to be effective.

The above solution is sufficiently conventional for the BoJ and the government. It provides temporary respite, but it will not address the underlying issues in the Japanese economy.

More innovative solutions:

If we are allowed to speculate, we might consider some less conventional cures for the slow growth and weak inflation. More money, debt and spending can boost demand temporarily and even give the economy sufficient momentum for the appearance of escape velocity. However, it results in chronic dependency and ultimately, policy fatigue.

In the long run, amputation could be better than analgesic. Bankruptcy law needs to be upgraded, in particular Corporation Reorganization Law, which prolongs resolution, needs to be aligned to the Civil Rehabilitation Law (equivalent to US chapter 11.) Interest rates need to be normalized and put back up to cull unprofitable enterprise and excess capacity. Negative rates cannot persist for long without detrimental impact on the banking and insurance sector. Japan also needs to encourage immigration and labour mobility to better match labour to land, capital and technology. The stock of national debt held by the BoJ could be written down.

Last Updated on Thursday, 28 July 2016 08:01
 
ECB LTRO. QE Lite But More Effective. Is European Demand For Credit Bottoming? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Wednesday, 20 July 2016 00:28

In December 2011 the ECB embarked on its first 3 year LTRO, or long term refinancing operations. This is basically a secured credit line available to banks posting eligible collateral. LTRO 1 was a great success raising 489 billion EUR which the banks used to purchase sovereign bonds and unwind inter Euro area current account imbalances. LTRO 2 was 529 billion EUR. These initial LTROs were unconditional except for collateral quality. The proceeds were used in the end to buy zero risk weighted assets, sovereigns, and helped Euro area governments to refinance at a time when the bonds markets threatened to close to them. At the same time it allowed banks to borrow cheaply and buy higher yielding assets that consumed little to no capital.

The later TLTROs carried conditions, namely that the banks would be limited to borrowing up to a proportion of their loans to the private sector. The purpose of these conditions was to spur private sector lending. Take up of TLTROs has been slow because for one, the capital consumption of private sector loans is high and so the cost of lending is less impacted by the cheap financing afforded by the TLTROs, and two, private sector demand for credit has been weak.

When the ECB announced QE in early 2016, it also initiated TLTRO II, similar to TLTRO I but with cheaper financing rates, again subject to conditions. Now take up has been very strong, 399 billion at the first auction on June 24. If the high take up is a sign that bank lending is about to accelerate and that demand for credit is rebounding, this would be good news for the Eurozone economy. There are reasons for caution. The TLTRO II auction was opened June 23, the day of the UK EU Referendum. It is very possible that the large take up of LTRO II.1 was simply a risk management reaction to a highly uncertain situation and banks wanted to raise as much liquidity they could.

We are seeing an easing of lending standards and some pick-up in demand for credit from households and businesses but it remains to be seen if this can be sustained. We are a long way from a general releveraging of the economy, which might tilt the balance in favour of equity from debt.

 
If... PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Thursday, 14 July 2016 06:11

If I told you that it was a good idea to buy a negative yielding bond because I thought the yield would get more negative, thus paying for the potential of a future capital gain, you would probably think I was mad. Or seriously dependent on a greater fool. Or bought an option.

If I told you that I would borrow in the bond market to fund dividends which I could not afford to pay out of cash flow or profits, you would probably think me a fool or a fraud.

If I told you I would borrow in the bond market to buy back my shares because funding was cheap and I didn't know what else to do you might reasonably question my leadership qualities.

If I told you I would borrow to buy out my competitors you might question my judgment, and if you were the regulator you would certainly question the systemic competitive implications.

If I told you that stocks were cheap relative to sovereign bonds and interest rates despite slowing earnings growth and high absolute valuations you might ask how closely I monitored the bond market.

If I told you I would cut rates even into negative territory to spur lending you might reasonably ask me who wanted to borrow.

If I told you I was making banks safer by asking them to hold more capital, and apply better risk models, you might ask me how I expected them to lend.

If I told you I was going to apply more fiscal stimulus to revive our slowing economy you might ask me how I was going to pay for it.

If I told you I would buy more sovereign bonds, you might ask me where I was getting the money. Well, why do you suppose I might need to issue more sovereign bonds?

 

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 14 July 2016 06:22
 
Is Immigration Good For An Economy? How Is This Good For The Global Economy? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Thursday, 14 July 2016 01:52

Immigration is topical in the wake of the UK EU Referendum. In fact, slowing growth has led to increasing unhappiness over immigration the world over. Yet economists insist that immigration is a good thing for an economy. Is this true? According to a 2014 OECD report, migrants account for 47% of the increase in the work force in the US, and 70% in Europe over the past 10 years, fill important niches in fast growing as well as declining sectors of the economy, are better educated than retiring cohorts, and contribute to labour market flexibility. They also contribute more in taxes and social security than they receive in benefits. Because they contribute to the growth of the labour force, immigrants contribute to the growth potential as well as the realized growth of an economy.

The fortunes of donor countries is less clear. Remittances are a substantial part of developing countries’ GDP. Remittances reduce poverty and fund investment, counts as a credit in the balance of payments and increases the standard of living and reduce inequality between countries. On the other hand, emigration leads to a brain drain from developing countries. Over time, migrants accumulate skills which they can repatriate to their home countries increasing the knowledge base of these donor countries.

For the global economy, net immigration is of course absurd. When economists talk about immigration being good what they hopefully means is that a redistribution or relocation of labour is beneficial. Beneficial for whom is another matter. Let us take an optimistic view and assume that it is good for both destination and source countries for the above reasons. Immigration is good because it moves the global economy towards a better geographical alignment between resources, capital and labour. The distribution of the benefits might not be equitable and it is reasonable to expect that in the short term, the macroeconomic benefits accrue to the destination countries. It is hoped that a reverse osmosis occurs at some stage which compensates for the initial asymmetry of benefits.

The state of the world is never static but hypothetically, if labour was optimally distributed geographically, then immigration could no longer improve growth or productivity. What is important for the immigration argument is not net immigration for any single country or region, but the minimization of friction in labour mobility. And then again the question of for whom this is beneficial emerges. It is remarkable that in most economic commentary and literature immigration is referred to instead of two way labour mobility.

Last Updated on Thursday, 14 July 2016 01:54
 
Why the UK Cannot Leave the EU. Say No To Brexit. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Wednesday, 22 June 2016 03:27

We can't leave the EU, not yet. The EU remains a flawed union but not a broken one, and quite clearly, the rationale for joining it in the first place was to ensure it was a failed union. As the Cabinet Secretary has said before, we've fought with the French against the Germans, the Germans against the French, the French and the Germans against the Russians and with the Germans, French and Spanish against everybody else... It might have been a roaring success. Well, not quite. The union still stands and the job is not yet done.

To really undermine the union would involve joining the currency union but the costs would be too high, so the next best is to remain in the EU and prise it apart with British exceptionalism. In this respect, the task is yet unfinished. But, we are getting closer. There is certainly more fighting today, unfortunately it’s the Germans against the Germans, the French against the French and the Spanish against the Spanish. And most unfortunately we've got Britons fighting Britons, specifically the Tories against the Tories, Labour against Labour and the UKIP against any form of sense. The only country which isn't fighting itself is Russia. They've got their hands full fighting anti-money laundering authorities everywhere just to find a suitable custodian for their assets.

So job not done, please Remain where you are and resume fighting for what you believe in.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 22 June 2016 05:28
 
Investment Outlook June 2016. Ahead ot Brexit. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Wednesday, 15 June 2016 08:03

China growth is also stabilizing but this has a cost in credit creation. The natural growth rate is slower in the new regime but the government cannot allow the economy to function there. As a result it is overstimulating the economy with side effects in commodities and real estate. These sectors will be very sensitive to Chinese policy and timing these markets will be quite difficult.

Japan is back in a difficult position. The sales tax has been postponed but this will not be sufficient. An outsized fiscal package is likely but this will only worsen the balance sheet. The BoJ will be drafted into more debt monetization. If the inflation target is to be achieved, another round of concerted fiscal and monetary policy will be needed.

The US economy is fundamentally on sound footing and we expect a pick-up in growth as spreads have stabilized. We also note that the manufacturing sector appears to have completed its pivot to a domestic audience. The poor employment number in May was an indication of a skills mismatch and not weakness in the economy. Wages are holding up, quits rates have recovered, initial claims have been subdued. Manufacturing PMI has been over 50 for 3 months now.

Oil prices have done very well this year. Oversupply peaked in January and has receded a little. At these levels we are seeing now a 3rd week of increasing rig counts. Oil prices should not rise any more from here. At these levels, however, HY defaults will still rise although the headline correlation will be reduced.

FOMC: Fed could not have moved even if it wanted to. The Fed’s control is the Fed funds rate but the real economy funds itself at market rates. Sell offs lead to spread widening and de facto tightening. Is a rate hike on July 27? It all depends on the market price of credit. If markets are well behaved, the Fed can act, if they are not, then the Fed cannot act.

The EU referendum is on the agenda. The polls have Leave in the lead by 43 to 42. The bookmakers have Remain in the lead by 65 to 35. We believe the bookmakers. Polls pick up what people want to do but bookmakers pick up what people intend to do. Negative voting has been prevalent in recent elections which have led to inaccurate polls.

Europe also looks to have been stabilized by the ECB but growth is fragile. A Brexit is going to hurt the EU. The UK is 17% of EU exports but the force of sentiment will have more immediate impact and could derail the recovery. We expect the impact on Europe could be greater than the impact on the UK. The UK economy is relatively strong compared with the EU and better able to absorb the shock of disengagement. If sterling weakens more, it could improve the UK’s competitiveness. If the euro is also weak, and there are reasons to expect this, Europe may benefit also. This might achieve what QE could not, which was to weaken the euro.

Peripheral spreads will widen on Brexit but France and Germany and the ECB will most definitely move to strengthen the union. This would see peripheral spreads snap back quickly.

Liquidity is low in the summer and we have a number of events including EU referendum, Spanish elections, Republican and Democratic conventions, Japan upper house election, and the run up to the US presidential election.

Equity valuations are high. Apart from the US, fundamentals are still fragile. Credit spreads are tight. Sovereign yields are too low. The margin for error is very small. There will be some who hope the financial press can keep the Brexit flame alive, and even hope for Brexit, to bring markets lower. At current prices there are few opportunities and one almost needs to shake the tree.

Is Brexit a globally systemic event?

  • How immediate is the problem? 2 year holiday.
  • Contagion risk? European problem. Could escalate. EU exports to UK 17%. UK exports to EU, 45%. Exports to ROTW should not be affected. UK is 2.36% of world GDP. EU ex UK is 13% of world GDP. UK is not part of Eurozone. Not part of TARGET2.
  • Sentiment risk? High in the short term.

For those with a high cash holding it is time to add some risk, pre EU referendum.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 15 June 2016 08:07
 
Market Outlook 2016. Where To Invest in 2016/2017. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Wednesday, 08 June 2016 00:50

It is now difficult to see more than 10 seconds into the future. What was chosen for a laugh as a blog title has become a reality. Central banks have led the markets if not the economy for the last 8 years out of crisis and are now losing some credibility and control. A quick survey finds weak but positive growth across most countries with the exception of Brazil and Russia in 2016, and positive growth across all countries in 2017. It also finds inflation mercifully low, and positive, even in Japan and the Eurozone. This does not appear to be a dire environment. However, aggregate data hide less tractable problems. If the averages are poor and the inequality is acutely high, it means that the majority of the population are experiencing declining wealth. Mercifully, inflation has been low.

It is always a difficult time to invest. In the 90s we fretted about inflation which in the end failed to materialize. We inflated a tech boom bubble which burst. We inflated a housing bubble which burst. And since then we’ve been led by the nose by central banks cleaning up the debris of the last bust while trying to strengthen the financial system which proved not so robust and simultaneously trying to spur economic growth which sputtered in no small part because of those very efforts at financial market reform.

The US economy is out of the woods and on a stable path of positive if rather tepid growth. The European economy is not far behind. The inefficiencies of the Euro are something they will live with regardless but so much liquidity is bound to spur some growth. China was actually first to lead with unconventional policy. It saw external demand shut down in 2008 and continue to fade as countries engaged in trade war. China is arguably ahead of the cycle in terms of policy, priming the pump quickly, smoothing the downturn, then tightening prematurely, hopefully not a lesson for the Fed, and finding itself needing to turn on the taps again. Japan is perhaps way ahead of everyone else. Demographically, Japan is the future. We can only hope that it is not also the future in terms of economics and policy.

Policy has targeted an arbitrary rate of growth and in doing so introduced more imbalances which drive delayed oscillations in market prices. At the micro level we already observe that asset prices can deviate from fundamental value for longer and gyrate more substantially as they converge to intrinsic value. Long duration assets are all the more risky in that there is no deadline for convergence. Finite and shorter maturity assets are not immune to volatility. Policy, sentiment and capital flows are the prime determinants of price discovery. Markets fail to bring convergence to intrinsic value quickly and efficiently.

There are several reasons for this. In the past, relative prices were brought into equilibrium or no-arbitrage pricing by traders or groups of traders who traded across capital structures. Most of this capital took the form of bank proprietary trading desks. With Basel III, Dodd-Frank and the Volcker Rule, the capital dedicated to these activities has shriveled. Some of these traders have sought new homes in hedge funds. However, the scale of capital in hedge funds pale in comparison with the practically bottomless pits of capital commanded by prop desks in the past.

In the search for yield, retail investors, through their regulated and sanitized vehicles like mutual funds and ETFs have ventured into markets normally traded by professional investors. The herd mentality and the artificial liquidity created by retail capital has led to more momentum driven markets where undervaluation soon becomes overvaluation and overvaluation becomes undervaluation in a cyclical and volatile fashion. Prop traders accustomed to leveraging small, predictable deviations now face large, unpredictable deviations, and in their hedge fund formats, face prime brokers who cannot extend the scale of leverage they are accustomed too, or the valuation forbearance of the investment banks of old. Therefore, they struggle. This is the new market, at least for now.

One could play the long game, identify good businesses and invest for the long term. To do this, one needs not only to be right, but one needs stability of capital and the faith of investors. With the current uncertainty, investor loyalty is understandably in short supply. Uncertainty is high. When economic growth is low, small deviations can lead to negative readings. The acute inequality of wealth is slowly translating into the feeling of injustice, and society seems heavy with social tension. Between political factions there is more civil war than inter party conflict. Policy has been deployed bearing such low marginal fruit that it has taken extreme efforts to have any effect. The risks of unforeseen side effects proportionate to the scale of the effort, not the effect, are high.

The inescapable reality is that markets have become more volatile and fickle. The patient investor can take advantage of this volatility but this can often be a test of stoic patience. Markets like this also require the investor to be more informed, even if they are outsourcing their investing decisions lest they make mistakes in their capital allocation plans. For investors who need to be invested many opportunities remain, and some very good ones at that. Investors should be careful not to overreach in their thirst for yield. However, there are areas of the market which remain beyond the reach of retail capital and other hot money and where price discovery remains linked to fundamentals. Some of these markets are the way they are because of legacy issues from the 2008 financial crisis, some even performed well through those periods but through guilt by association will not be revisited even by some institutional investors. Under-owned, under-researched, misunderstood assets represent good opportunities. But even here, markets may not be sufficient to bring price discovery; patience, and duration matching of capital, is necessary.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 08 June 2016 00:52
 
Singapore 2.0. Singapore Economy In A Rut. Policy Has Run Out Of Ideas. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Monday, 30 May 2016 01:39

The Singapore economy is in a bit of a rut. A space constrained, population constrained economy like Singapore needs to look to unconventional economic models for growth. It cannot target population growth, capital accumulation and technological innovation without bound. Population growth meets space constraints and population density issues sooner or later. By all accounts, it already has. Capital accumulation faces fewer limitations but by far it is technological innovation that will liberate Singapore’s economic growth from conventional constraints.

Population constraints imply domestic demand and output constraints. Singapore has to supply the world in a scalable and dematerialized fashion. This is even more so given that the world is evidently engaged in a trade war which is impacting material goods far more so than services.

Beyond using or being associated with innovation, Singapore needs to be generating innovation. Whether Singaporean’s or immigrants or indeed transients generate the innovation is immaterial as long as the innovation is retained as Singaporean intellectual property.

Singapore needs to become a centre for research and development. It needs to be a central node in the global knowledge economy. This means it needs world class schools and research facilities. Red tape and over-regulation are the mortal enemies of innovation. Rules and regulations have to be streamlined to encourage innovation.

One area of potential development is financial technology. At one end of the spectrum is the cutting edge technology which the industry expects to disrupt the current financial system by changing how customers, counterparties, debtors, creditors, and regulators interact in the financial market place. This is so-called Fintech, which is highly topical. The other area of financial innovation is a slightly older technology that though useful has been demonized by the 2008 financial crisis.

Singapore is privileged to have two sovereign wealth funds with considerable financial firepower. One of them, Temasek Holdings, has significant investments in banks such as DBS, a national champion with Asian regional reach and services from investment banking to retail and consumer banking as well as wealth management. As the Western world struggles to regulate their banks and insurers in the aftermath of 2008, Singapore’s relative resilience emerging from that crisis is an opportunity to go back where others failed and salvage valuable technology. It has the opportunity to work around Basel III and demonstrate its weaknesses by reviving securitization and structured finance and making a success of these technologies.

The West’s experience with Shadow Banking began well, was overdone by Wall Street and ended in disaster. Through this all Asia was such a late adopter that it had not the opportunity to overextend the technology to disastrous end. There is not the political and cultural baggage surrounding structured finance in Asia to prevent it being revived in an improved form for the good of all. Where Basel III is highly restrictive, the Shadow Banking system can be a useful conduit to direct savings to investments more efficiently than a banking system hobbled by overly reactive regulation. The world has sufficient potential economic growth left in it, and central banks the means to finance it, but the plumbing is broken.

Singapore’s SWFs have the capital to capitalize innovative credit structures to enable economic growth, not just in Singapore but in Asia. It has banking relationships which in can draw upon to provide the intellectual basis. One example would be to encourage a bank like Standard Chartered to engage its credit underwriting machinery without consuming balance sheet. Standard Chartered’s new boss is an old hand at leveraged finance and is well placed to turn Standard Chartered’s investment bank into a tranched credit manufacturer. Temasek could very well sponsor such activity and anchor the equity of such investment vehicles. DBS could be similarly engaged. Both banks could become examples of how banks can work hand in hand with shadow banks in a capital efficient, profitable and regulation-compliant fashion directing capital where it needs to go and pricing risk appropriately.

If done properly, Singapore could reap a Wimbledon Effect, at least in Asia, reintroducing a technology there that went out of fashion in the West for not entirely good reasons, and which can do a lot of good in bank capital constrained regions.

If and when Singapore decides to go down these roads the institutions leading the way will need to have appropriate leadership. CEOs and CIOs will need to be familiar with these technologies. Generalists briefed by specialists only to approve or validate the specialists’ decisions and recommendations will not do. These armies will need to be led by battle scarred fighting men and not HQ bound generals.

The SWFs will have a much wider responsibility. Not only must they generate sufficient returns for the nation to augment the budget, they must actively and aggressively drive development both of industry and nation. They must shamelessly attract expertise with capital and latitude, they must attract coinvestment both financial and strategic and they must create a brand which can extend beyond the shores of this tiny island. This brand will stand for integrity, transparency, efficiency, innovation and excellence. It must demonstrate a new model for countries constrained by size and resources, that once again a small force can achieve more than a big one. Its going to take some leverage.

 
Negative Interest Rates. Not Much To Be Positive About. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Monday, 09 May 2016 02:37

Global economic growth has been slow and inflation has been stubbornly low despite efforts by central banks to raise them. The first round of unconventional policy involved central banks buying bonds and other assets and increasing their balance sheets. The strategy has only been moderately successful and is probably at the point of diminishing marginal returns. Therefore, an alternative unconventional policy had to be implemented: negative interest rates.

It is hoped that negative interest rates would encourage more credit creation to spur growth and inflation. What central banks would prefer markets to focus on less is the expected impact on currencies lest they are accused of waging currency trade war. Negative rates might also encourage investors further up the risk spectrum to taking more risk and reducing borrowing costs across a wider swathe of the economy.

There are a number of problems, however, with negative interest rates. First of all, it assumes that the problem stems from weak supply of credit. Low equilibrium interest rates are indicative of poor demand for credit, not deficient supply. Lowering the cost of credit is of limited impact in raising the demand for credit which depends more on the available unlevered returns in asset markets today, which looks quite meagre, as well as the prospects of paying down debt in the future. If economic prospects are poor, increasing the supply and lowering the cost of credit is unlikely to spur lending.

Negative rates are also confounded by banking regulation. Central banks and regulators have two conflicting missions for banks, make more loans and take less risk. Banking regulation highlights the fact that banks lend not out of liquidity but out of capital, and therefore the calculus for increasing the supply of credit is not entirely the cost of the bank’s credit but the cost of its capital as well. Cutting rates into negative territory helps with one part of the equation but is nullified by the other. Negative rates pay banks to borrow from central banks and to lend cheaply to borrowers. However, the type of borrowers central banks would like banks to lend to are small, medium enterprises, businesses too small to access bond markets. Unfortunately, loans to these types of borrowers consumer more capital under Basel III regulation. Banks have to apportion more capital against these loans which makes the cost of capital more relevant to the bank than cost of liquidity, which carries the negative interest rates. Cost of capital is a more comprehensive measure of how much it costs to make a loan and this is not directly addressed by simply cutting interest rates below zero.

Meanwhile, negative interest rates have some less desirable side effects. For one, it encourages cash hoarding. While individuals might be expected to engage in cash hoarding it was instructive to see Munich Re, one of Europe’s largest reinsurance companies engaging in storing physical cash in vaults. Negative interest rates could, perversely, result in a shrinking of the money supply.

Negative interest rates are damaging to the savings industry, in particular insurance and pensions. Insurance companies have long term liabilities which have to be funded. With ultra low interest rates and low asset returns, assets maturing face a lower expected return. Most insurance liabilities, however, are not benchmarked to interest rates and many have a guaranteed floor on returns. Negative rates threaten the long term solvency of the insurance industry. The same calculus applies to pensions, especially defined benefit schemes which guarantee a certain level of payouts unrelated to the returns generated by their assets.

A more insidious way that negative interest rates undermines the economy is that interest rates represent a hurdle for investments as well as a tide for the economy to swim against. A certain level of interest rates is also useful in eroding excess capacity and euthanizing unviable businesses. Human enterprise thrives on hardship to innovate and evolve. Nothing destabilizes like a tide from the rear. It is the life support that keeps inefficient businesses alive, maintains excess capacity and ultimately weakens the economy as a whole.

 
Central Banks And What They Can Do For Us. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Monday, 14 March 2016 08:40

Policy:

In December, the ECB extended QE from September 2016 to March 2017. Markets did not think it was sufficient, spreads between peripheral bonds and bunds widened, the EUR strengthened and equity markets sold off.

In late January the BoJ cut rates into negative territory and was rewarded with a stronger JPY and weaker equity markets, and the equivalent of a coronary in its money markets. Fortunately, not all was lost and JGBs rallied.

Last week the ECB was given a second chance to demonstrate determination and did so by cutting rates, increasing QE by 33%, including non-financial corporate IG to the shopping basket, and another dose of TLROs. Markets were skeptical at first but seem to be warming to the measures. This is the 3rd trading day after the announcement and markets are buoyant so only time will tell.

Tomorrow, the BoJ will announce its policy decisions. It is hard to see what it can do to boost markets. Evidently it can do nothing for the economy.

On Wednesday the Fed announces its decisions and publishes an update on the dot plot. The American economy is robust despite being in a shallow, temporary and controlled slowdown. On domestic data alone, a data dependent Fed would raise rates. The Fed is, however, unwilling to unnerve investors since their behavior impacts market interest rates and credit spreads and is therefore a Fed control variable. The Fed has not signaled strongly that it will act and therefore will likely delay the rate hike into the summer. Hopefully, the USD will be sufficiently weak, equities sufficiently buoyant and spreads sufficiently tight for the Fed to play catch up.

At some stage all these central banks are going to have to start thinking about what they can do for the real economy.

Last Updated on Monday, 14 March 2016 23:11
 
What will the ECB do March 10, 2016 PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Tuesday, 08 March 2016 07:49

The Eurozone economy has weakened in 2016 slipping into deflation with both manufacturing and services PMIs turning south in January and February. After disappointing the market in December 2015 with a mere 6 month extension of the existing QE the ECB will be expected to do more to spur demand and head off deflation.

The market will expect the following:

  1. 20 basis point rate cut to take the deposit rate to -0.5%.

  2. Additional 10 billion EUR monthly budget for bond purchases.

  3. Program extension from Mar 2017 to Sep 2017

  4. Additional TLTRO

What might not be effective:

  1. A rate cut is not likely to be effective. The problem is not willingness to lend but willingness to borrow. Banks will not be able to pass on the lower rates while incurring costs on their reserves on deposit. They might well raise interest rates to make up for the additional costs.

  2. The bond purchases are allocated according to the capital key which means 25.6% of the budget goes to German bunds, 20.1% to OATs, 17.5% to Italian bonds and 12.6% to Spanish bonds. Deflation is worst in Italy, Spain and France. Germany has zero price growth. The money is not going to where it is needed most.

  3. TLRO take up has been disappointing.

  4. Most of what the ECB can do, the market expects the ECB to do. There is no latitude for shock and awe left.

What might the ECB do to surprise the market?

  1. Moving away from the capital key and allocating the budget to the countries which need stimulus most and trying to bring rate convergence between countries’ bond yields could be more effective and would be taken positively by the market.

  2. Currently the ECB buys 8% of the budgeted bond purchases, while the National Central Banks buy a further 12% under a risk sharing program. The other 80% is not commingled and each NCB bears the default risk of their own government’s bonds. The ECB could make all purchases risk-shared. This would pull peripheral and core spreads together bringing down interest rates in Italy, Spain and Portugal.

  3. Removing limits on buying debt yielding less than the deposit rate. If the ECB cuts rates by 20 basis points, this point would be academic.

What might get in the way?

  1. On Feb 25, 2016, Jens Weidmann, President of the Bundesbank, argued that his Eurozone counterparts are putting too much emphasis on recent weak data. The Bundesbank’s own prognosis for the Eurozone economy was less gloomy. This could be a signal that the Bundesbank, the largest capital contributor to the ECB, is unwilling to do more.

  2. Draghi himself might decide that doing more of the same is not rational given that the initial program has not been effective. As long as the ECB was strenuously fighting deflation, governments would be less inclined to pursue fundamental reform.

Speculation.

  1. If the ECB simply meets market expectations, it is likely the market will be disappointed.

  2. The ECB has little room to surprise the market since the market is expecting a lot.

  3. Draghi may, if he so chooses, openly speculate about going off the capital key, or commingling the NCB’s risk, to present the Bundesbank a fait accompli at the Apr 21 meeting.

Trades:

  1. The EUR is fundamentally weak,  recent strength being related to the risk of a disappointing ECB announcement. The EUR remains a good short, however, the degree of uncertainty surrounding the Mar 10 ECB meeting recommends moderating this exposure.

  2. Under TARGET2, countries are essentially risk-shared and as such peripheral bonds should trade tighter to German and French government bonds. Convergence trades are still rational. Again the uncertainty around the possible outcomes leads us to defer this trade until we have more visibility.

 
Central Banks And The Limits Of QE. Fiscal Policy In The Wings. Leaning Left. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Friday, 19 February 2016 06:01

Beware negative interest rates. The intention of central banks imposing negative rates upon an economy is to stimulate growth. But if 10 years of falling rates have done little to stimulate demand, 7 of those at close to zero interest rates, why would negative rates encourage more demand? Taken in the extreme, negative interest rates will encourage owners of money to change the relationship with their depository institutions from one of debtor to custodian. The result would be a withdrawal of money from the money market into a custodian network. There will of course be custody expenses but these are limited and such expenses are, at least for now, beyond the influence of central banks. Negative interest rates could therefore trigger a contraction of the money supply which would maintain the zero bound in market rates of interest while liquidity would overflow out of the money markets. The provision of liquidity to the system will have become waterboarding.

The FOMC meets March 16, the ECB March 10, the BoJ March 15. Confidence in central banks is waning resulting in more volatility surrounding signals they send whether hawkish or dovish. It certainly appears that central banks have reached the limits of policy and that efforts to boost growth will have to be even more innovative, if in fact growth needs boosting. Given the dogmatic pursuit of growth apparently beyond the natural metabolic rate of the global economy, it would not be surprising if fiscal policy were engaged.

In some ways, fiscal policy will be more effective than monetary policy. For all the magnitude of QE, it only supplies credit to the economy, it does not directly increase demand. QE policies assume that there is always demand for credit, but this is clearly not the case. If governments insist on pushing the economy towards a higher target growth rate, in the absence of private demand, it may have to spend. It cannot finance this spending out of taxes as that would sterilize the fiscal expansion. Instead, government would need to run a deficit and monetize it. When economists speak about ‘helicopter cash’, this is what they mean.

There is another way, which is to tax and spend, but to do it in a tax neutral and redistributive way. Imagine a wealth tax of 100% for all wealth over 100m USD. Put aside the practicalities and politics of such a tax for a moment and see what can be done with this. By one estimate (by Boston Consulting Group), this wealth totals 10 trillion USD, basically equal to the current nominal annual output of China. The marginal propensity to consume of these ultra-high net worth people is presumably quite low. Imagine if this, expropriation, to put it candidly, were ‘spent’ by distributing it to the bottom tenth of the global population, a group of households who could not save their income because they might be living below the poverty line, the boost to global output would be substantial. This is an absurd limiting case of course, but it illustrates the cost of inequality.

Economic orthodoxy will not easily relax the need for fiscal rectitude and austerity. Monetary policy has clearly hit a wall. Fiscal policy will eventually need to be engaged, and again, I qualify that this is if we target growth at a level beyond the natural metabolic rate of the real economy. Then countries will begin to tax and spend. Around the world, the people have already signaled their political choices, and it leans that way. Perhaps the masses know something the economists don’t.

 
Understanding China and How To Invest There. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Wednesday, 03 February 2016 02:45

China’s growth is evidently slowing and investors are concerned. China is the second largest economy in the world, and it is a manufacturing hub importing commodities and intermediate goods and exporting finished goods. More recently, China has extended its connectivity beyond trade in material goods but has sought participation in and sometimes led the establishment of significant clubs in the international arena. The establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the inclusion of the RMB in the IMF Special Drawing Rights are examples of how China seeks to engage and be part of the world. However, it is feared that its current and future position makes it a nexus for economic and financial contagion. To understand the potential for this it is useful to understand why China is slowing and if that rate of deceleration is a cause of concern or not.

Since 2008, the world has been in a Cold War in trade. As countries exhausted domestic consumption, their financial markets stopped funding business investment and their governments exhausted reserves in rescuing their banking and financial systems, trade became the only viable source of growth. A currency war was fought under the cover of financial system desperation’ it continues in fits and starts today. Weak economic data has become a relief as it justifies more monetary analgesic and currency debasement. New battlefronts have opened in the form of re-shoring in the case of Western economies previously happy to outsource manufacturing to foreign shores. The evidence lies in the stagnation of global trade since 2012. For an economy designed to export like China, a trade war is damaging. Exports as a share of GDP have fallen from 36% in 2006 to 22.6% at the end of 2014.

A related theme is the balance between manufacturing and services in the economy. Globally, services are growing whereas manufacturing is in decline. This is another consequence of the Cold War in trade. Manufacturing is more export sensitive than services so as global trade slows more than global growth, manufacturing must slow relative to services. This is a phenomenon measured from Asia to Europe to the US. As manufacturing capacity is re-shored, countries like China must experience a surge in excess capacity, even if GDP does not actually shrink. In the case of China, because manufacturing was the larger contributor to output, its relative weakness translates into weakness in aggregate growth.

It is illuminating of the culture that the shift from investment and exports to consumption and services is portrayed as an intentional strategy when fact it is a phenomenon which China cannot avoid.

Then there is the matter of simple mathematics. Economies are expected to grow exponentially even though this is not realistic. Economists expect constant growth rates or use this as the basis of their calculations even when they don’t expect constant growth rates. When growth rates are high, the path of nominal GDP levels, not growth, is exponential. When growth rates are lower, constant growth rates approximate linear growth in the level of nominal GDP. Technically, the higher powers of the polynomial can be ignored when the growth rate is small, and the linear component is sufficient to capture the growth. When China’s GDP was 3.5 trillion USD, it was easy to grow at 10% per annum. China’s GDP is some 11 trillion USD in nominal terms. If China adds 700 billion USD of nominal output every year, that is it grows linearly, growth this year, 2016, would be 6.4% and growth in 2017 would be 6.0%.

While China’s slowdown is understandable, it cannot and will not simply passively accept its fate. China recognizes that as the world evolves it too needs to keep up with it. It has to address a number of issues.

As China opens up as it evolves it has to adopt international standards and norms consistent with a free and enlightened society. The complexity of managing an economy without arbitrary control over the populace is risky both economically as well as socially. To diversify its risk, the Chinese Communist Party recognizes that rule of party poses to itself an existential risk, a risk which can be mitigated by embracing rule of law. This is already well underway as evidenced by the focus on the constitution and the anti-corruption campaign.

China is engaging the world by joining and creating economic and political coalitions such as the AIIB. It continues to engage in trade as buyer even if its export competitiveness has been eroded. China’s adventures in the South China Sea are most probably a device to appease the nationalists at home who tend to have a bit of a persecution complex and see China’s engagement in the context of weakness.

China is spending more on R&D than ever before and has overtaken the US, Japan and Germany in terms of patents filed. Not all of this frantic patent filing will be productive but China is reacting to the charge that it has a poor record of generating intellectual property and is more adept at stealing it or buying it.

Change has direct monetary as well as opportunity cost. Rebalancing an investment and industrial heavy economy to consumption and services is costs in growth. China has stated that it wishes to maintain growth near current levels, impossible without central bank largesse. The PBOC has been busy providing liquidity to the economy to compensate for the slowdown associated with restructuring costs. We have seen the debt accumulation post 2008 as China first reacted to the new reality in international trade. This will continue. The PBOC, however, knows it can only deal with one problem at a time and it has chosen to allow debt to pile up, as it must, but tackle the more immediate issue of debt service. Enter targeted open market operations and debt restructurings, particularly of local government debt, to reduce the debt burden on the more indebted corners of the economy, the local governments and SOEs. At the same time it is directing credit towards SMEs and households. Unlike developed world central banks who pull 2, maybe 3 levers, interest rates, size of balance sheet and maturity schedule of balance sheet assets, the PBOC has many more levers and behaves like a creditor committee working to maintain the going concern of its massive economy.

China is full of opportunity but it has never rewarded the macro investor who buys equity index exposure, not for long anyway. Investing in China requires an understanding of businesses, their prospects, the behavior of management and of the government who continues to direct capital where it is needed and siphon it away from where it isn’t. China is a stock pickers market but fundamentals are but one small part of the analysis. Policy, frustratingly opaque and seemingly arbitrary, play an important part also, in determining price discovery in this fascinating market.

 
Fiction. Ten Seconds Into Our Future. The Journey Home PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Thursday, 22 September 2016 00:40

One day in the future, the world has nearly depleted its resources. Natural resources have been over-mined, agricultural land over-farmed, the seas over-fished and over-farmed. A surge of population growth in the developing world has led to over-population and overcrowding in cities, while some areas face neglect and become under-populated. Parts of the world become dumping grounds for industrial and energy (read nuclear) waste. These areas become permanently uninhabitable.

The rise of robotics and artificial intelligence is a significant factor in exacerbating inequality through mass unemployment and a rising share of output accruing to owners of capital. Inequality of wealth within countries gives way to social tensions and domestic secular terrorism and limited civil war. Countries turn inwards and escalate an existing economic and trade war. In some cases, these turn into full martial conflict.

The complete depletion of resources forces some countries to surrender to others in order to survive. Eventually there is peace, but the scarcity problem persists. A united Earth begins to search a new home, a new planet on which to settle. One is found some 200 light years away. Analysis indicates a resource rich world with an atmosphere and gravity similar to Earth’s, not only capable of supporting, but on current evidence, actually supporting life. Unfortunately, this includes intelligent, humanoid life.

An analysis of animal behaviour suggests that the optimal approach is invasion. Spacecraft are built to not only transport the human population of Earth to the new planet but provisions are made for combat and conquest. Fortunately, the evidence is that the population of the new planet, dubbed, KoHo, is relatively technologically primitive and easy prey.

50 years of preparation later, Earth is evacuated and the first transports are launched, destination KoHo. A 400 year journey begins. The period begins in peaceful cooperation but soon, civil strife ensues, on account of inequality and segregation by wealth and social status. A revolutionary, left wing faction develops commanding some 20% of the fleet and population. War erupts lasting 100 years. The war ends in the destruction of the revolutionaries and some 50% of the fleet and population.

The surviving population rebuilds and continues their journey to KoHo. Upon entering the KoHo system, there are initially difficulties in locating the planet KoHo. When the planet is finally identified, landing parties find an abandoned planet devoid of life or resources.

Archaeological studies indicate that a humanoid species lived on KoHo and, similar to humans, ruled the planet at the top of the food chain, using its intelligence and technology to dominate the planet.

One day, this world had nearly depleted its resources. Natural resources had been over-mined, agricultural land over-farmed, the seas over-fished and over-farmed. A surge of population growth had led to over-population and overcrowding in cities, while some areas faced neglect and became under-populated. Parts of the planet became dumping grounds for toxic industrial and energy waste. These areas became permanently uninhabitable…

A solution had to be found. Fortunately, a living, breathing planet was found, a blue planet some 200 light years away…

Last Updated on Thursday, 22 September 2016 00:43
 
Adding Fiscal Policy To Monetary Policy, QE and ZIRP. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Wednesday, 03 August 2016 05:11

Monetary policy has likely reached the limits of usefulness, not necessarily the limits of efficacy. The efficacy of monetary policy was questionable in the first place. Multiple QE programs and low interest rates have managed to inflate assets but not to spur the economy as much as was hoped.

Monetary policy is but one class of tools available to encourage growth, fiscal policy being the other. Without fiscal stimulus, monetary policy has to work doubly hard and faces leakage in terms of risk of asset price bubbles, unequal distribution of benefits, disinflation due to increased capacity, and downward pressure on interest rates. Fiscal policy will not mitigate all of these side effects but it could reverse some of the unequal distribution of benefits and put a floor under market interest rates.

Why has fiscal policy not been engaged so far?

  • Many countries’ national debt is high in relation to GDP, many on account of financial sector bailouts in the crisis of 2008.

  • Austerity followed as economic orthodoxy. The Eurozone, for example, has strict guidelines on state budgets.

  • Operating both monetary and fiscal easing carries high inflation risk as output is boosted to potential and could overshoot. By operating monetary policy first, excess capacity is allowed to build before fiscal policy is applied to raise capacity utilization.

  • Fiscal policy is politically charged and requires strong government to obtain approvals.

  • Cost of debt is another factor. Leading with monetary policy results in lower cost of debt for governments if they subsequently raise spending and seek to finance it in the bond markets.

 


Are we likely to see a shift towards fiscal policy?

  • Japan has periodically engaged in fiscal stimulus which has seen its national debt climb from 0.5X GDP in the 1980s to over 2.5X today. Just days ago, the Abe government announced a 28 trillion JPY fiscal package.

  • Japan was able to do this as the Abe government, already with a super-majority in the lower house had recently won a super-majority in the upper house, was unchallenged in the Diet.

  • BoJ’s QQE and negative interest rate policy had taken 10 year JGB yields from 1.66% in 2008 to -0.29% just a week ago. Cost of debt is very low.

  • Japan needs reflationary policy to revive its economy. Recent data has shown Japan sliding back from the recovery from the first dose of Abenomics.

 

Does Europe need fiscal stimulus, and if it did, could it become a reality?

  • The European economy is still on track with the recovery triggered since the LTRO operations of late 2011. PMI data point to the durability of this recovery.

  • The risks to the recovery are Brexit, both directly and indirectly should it trigger more divisions, security, which could embolden nationalists and Eurosceptics seeking to close Europe and restrict freedom of movement, and a long list of local events, such as the impending Italian legislative referendum, which could escalate and spread into more, threatening the integrity of the union.

  • Even if there was cause for fiscal stimulus, Europe has strict guidelines regarding budget deficits. While these limits have often been broken, they have not been intentionally breached as part of a deliberate spending campaign. Eurozone national debt to GDP is still elevated having risen from a low 65% in 2007 to 92% in late 2014; it has receded to 90.7%, still a very high level.

  • While monetary policy is coordinated by the ECB, the lack of fiscal union would mean that fiscal plans are domestic affairs. Coordination would be difficult and depend significantly on the strength of the individual member states’ governments and their ability to approve such programs. Assuming each member state budgets towards their own situation, they would find monetary policy calibrated to the collective and not to their own circumstances.

  • That said, the ECB too has followed a similar path as the BoJ in QE and negative interest rate policy resulting in conditions conducive to debt financing fiscal deficits.


What are the consequences of adding fiscal policy to monetary policy?

  • Monetary policy has dual impact on inflation. On the one hand lower rates spur activity, or at least facilitate activity and in that respect spurs inflation. On the other hand, low interest rates encourage over investment and over capacity which have more durable deflationary pressure. Fiscal policy mitigates this by addressing directly the demand deficiency and is therefore inflationary.

  • On its own, QE and NIRP lower interest rates across the term structure. The application of fiscal stimulus increases the demand for money and bids up yields across the term structure.

  • Fiscal stimulus is likely to cause currency appreciation as interest rates rise. The impact on trade is less predictable given the number of distortionary trade pacts in force and the protectionist biases in the current environment. At this stage it is likely to be neutral.

  • Fiscal deficits are a prime example of kicking the can down the road as the expenditure will need to be financed and financed with long term debt. Given that most countries are running historically high debt to GDP ratios, the assumption of more debt could be destabilizing at some point. This could lead to sharper interest rates and weaker currencies.

  • The crowding out of the private sector is a particular risk given that monetary policy has already exposed weak private investment and demand.

  • The biggest risk is not one resulting directly from fiscal or monetary policy but the slippery slope that all analgesic solutions pose. We have witnessed how easy it is to embark on QE and rate cutting policies and how difficult it is to wean economies off such policies. The same will apply to fiscal policy. What it implies is that governments will continue to apply policies which provide short term relief but which may not treat the underlying cause of slow growth, and that the only way such policies are withdrawn is not when they are no longer needed, but when governments can no longer sustain them.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 03 August 2016 05:14
 
What is Helicopter Money, WIll It Work and What Are The Risks? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Wednesday, 27 July 2016 01:56

What is Helicopter Money?

There is still much confusion over what exactly ‘helicopter money’ means. In 1969, Milton Friedman coined the term in an extreme example to illustrate a point.

“Let us suppose now that one day a helicopter flies over this community and drops an additional $1,000 in bills from the sky, which is, of course, hastily collected by members of the community. Let us suppose further that everyone is convinced that this is a unique event which will never be repeated." (Milton Friedman, “The Optimum Quantity of Money,” 1969)

In practical terms, helicopter money would require the central bank or some other branch of government to with the authority to create money, to fund the national debt precisely through the creation of money; debt monetization. As such a more precise name for ‘helicopter money’ is Monetized Fiscal Policy (MFP).

What is the difference between QE and MFP?

In QE, the central bank buys government bonds from private investors who had bought the bonds, ultimately from the government. In MFP, the central bank buys bonds from the government. The difference seems almost academic.

So far, QE has been undertaken in the US, UK and Eurozone without deliberately targeting a budget deficit. To the contrary, countries undertaking QE have tended to at least attempt fiscal responsibility. From a prudential management viewpoint this is sound policy but from an economic growth viewpoint this is somewhat self-defeating. When the problem is not undersupply of credit but deficient demand, monetary policy drives interest rates down with low impact on growth. This has been supported by data.

MFP involves operating a fiscal deficit, either in the form of tax cuts or investment spending which is subsequently funded by the central bank. The stimulus effect comes not from lowering interest rates and providing credit or liquidity, but in directly augmenting demand. Output rises directly as a result of the fiscal expansion. Whether or not the capital infusion circulates or gets saved is a separate matter. If the economy is facing deficient private demand it may take some time for inflationary effects to spur private demand.

What are the risks of MFP?

A distinction is often made between debt financed and money financed fiscal policy. This distinction is a very fine one and is not well defined. Proponents of MFP prefer to think of the debt purchased by the central bank as permanent, or written off. The central bank not only buys the bonds of the government but that debt is either perpetual or the central bank promises to maintain its balance sheet through refinancing these bonds in perpetuity. The accounting pedant would consider this debt outstanding and not written off, but that it had a perpetual buyer of last resort. In effect the central bank becomes the lender of last resort to the state, as much as a lender of last resort to the commercial banks. There are risks associated with this role.

We have seen how difficult it has been to wean an economy off QE. The Fed is the least accommodating of the major central banks yet its balance sheet has not shrunk since 2014 despite an end to its asset purchase program. The Fed continues to maintain a 4.5 trillion USD balance sheet by reinvesting coupons and maturing principal.

We have seen also how difficult it is to wean economies off low interest rates. The Fed had planned on a gentle path of rate hikes as early as mid 2015. It has managed one rate hike Dec 2015. The next one may come before Godot. Targeting unusually low interest rates distorts the single most important price in the economy, the price of money, leading to misallocation of resources, and encouraging overcapacity which may ultimately be disinflationary while impairing the profitability and solvency of the banking and insurance industry.

There is a tangible risk that MFP once implemented is accelerated. The experiences of QE and ZIRP have shown the economy’s propensity for chronic dependence on analgesics. Since the central bank acts as lender of last resort to the state, accelerations of MPF can damage confidence and lead to a run on the assets and currency of the country.

How should the money be spent? This is a difficult question in the best of times. Most developed world economies could do with infrastructure upgrades. Better funding of medical and social insurance programs would be welcome. However, public spending is to a great extent a political matter, less so an economic one. The risk that spending is inefficient and does not make a sufficient return on investment, not to the state alone but to society, is high. Also, fiscal spending tends to be sticky upwards, meaning that it is later difficult to cut back when MFP is no longer required. In fact it would increase the probability that MFP once begun would be perpetual.

Tax cuts are another channel for MPF. Here too, the consideration will likely be more political than economic. Given the explicitly unnatural nature of permanently financing a tax rebate by monetization, the design of MFP specific tax structure will likely be highly politicized and contentious.

Unanswered questions following MFP

Since the central bank is the lender of last resort to the state it is reasonable to ask what is the capital position of the central bank, how liquid and solvent is the central bank.

What is the balance sheet of the country? What are its assets and liabilities? Is it well defined?

What happens if the central bank’s accounts were consolidated into the country’s balance sheet?

Last Updated on Wednesday, 27 July 2016 01:59
 
Final Act For Falling Bond Yields and Interest Rates? QE + Fiscal Policy. Helicopter Moiney. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Monday, 18 July 2016 01:58

We have seen how effective QE can be. Not very. Not for Main Street at least. For Wall Street, QE has depressed bond yields and helped to camouflage the overvaluation of paper assets supporting them at inefficient levels for too long. More than that, the effectiveness of QE is wearing out like an over prescribed antibiotic. Now the global economy is still growing, not fast, but still growing. The US economy is in rude health. But the progression of inequality coupled with paltry growth means that the mass of the population is actually experiencing falling standards of living, even as aggregate data show improvement.

Lately, the talk of helicopter money has been gaining volume. The practical deployment of helicopter money is fiscal deficit spending funded not by tax but by debt monetization, in other words, QE. So far QE has been less effective probably because it was an attempt to clap with one hand. At last, this failure may be addressed. This may solve some issues and get the economy growing faster, hopefully to compensate for the rising inequality so that the masses may be raised out of their financial stagnation. However, there are a few minor side effects. The national debt will gro. Fiscal policy funded by tax is neutral and ineffective. Deficits will have to be increased. QE will have to continue. Just because it had limited impact in the absence of fiscal policy doesn’t mean we can stop now. Private investors have been happy to join their central banks in funding their governments, but only because there was some semblance of fiscal responsibility. Abandoning fiscal responsibility might result in an investor revolt meaning a backstop financier has to be found. Enter, again, the central banks. Bond yields may rise. Loose money sinks interest rates but loose budgets raises them. The loss of private investment demand will likely put a floor under interest rates. Central banks will have to be careful to not allow financing costs to rise too quickly increasing debt service for the government and for corporates. Bond yields are likely to stop falling, how quickly they will rise depends on the determination for further QE and the risk of investor revolt. Given how indebted countries are to begin with, central banks will likely be very careful to cap debt service for their masters.

Helicopters are usually the sign of a last ditch attempt. Hopefully this is not the case here.

Last Updated on Monday, 18 July 2016 02:00
 
How To Encourage Electric Vehicle Proliferation PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Thursday, 14 July 2016 05:35

Electric vehicles need a little help. It’s no use each manufacturer pursuing their own thing. For EVs to really take off what is needed is agreement on standards.

  1. Batteries should be standardized or at least modularized.

  2. Charging takes too long. Battery swapping is better than car charging.

  3. Batteries should be modular so that more power can be added simply by adding more batteries.

  4. Replace petrol stations and charging points with battery points. Battery dispensers provide battery exchanges so depleted batteries can be swapped for fully charged batteries for a fee.

  5. Battery dispensers take up little space and can be ubiquitous and distributed.

  6. Returned depleted batteries are charged and recirculated.

  7. Cars can choose if they wish to run with one battery or two or several depending on their needs. Cars can be designed with varying maximum battery capacities.

Last Updated on Thursday, 14 July 2016 05:42
 
Central Banks Long Term Systemic Risk. More Harm Than Good? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Tuesday, 12 July 2016 05:03

Central Banks. Long Term Systemic Risk.

The history of central banks is interesting. The world’s first was Sweden’s Riksbank, the phoenix rising from the ashes of Stockholms Banco, a private concern which leveraged itself into insolvency. The second was the Bank of England, technically, an off-sovereign balance sheet funding vehicle created expressly to monetize debt which no private investor would underwrite, the national debt of the UK. The US Federal Reserve system is in fact the 3rd incarnation of central bank in the US, the first two having passed amid turbulent times, stock market and banking crises and periodic recessions. It seems that central banks were born as a fix to situations of acute economic and financial stress. Their appropriateness under non-stress conditions, and indeed their contribution to subsequent stress situations should be questioned.

Should central banks be targeting inflation and growth in the first place?

Given the natural endowments of land, labour, capital and knowledge in an economy, and given the organizational structure of that economy, there exists a natural potential growth rate. Unfortunately it is not possible to estimate with any accuracy what that growth rate is. Central banks, where they do attempt to encourage growth, work towards an implicit or explicit target growth rate, which is this unobservable potential growth rate. Given that it is unobservable and that estimates are unreliable, the probability that policy is appropriately calibrated is low.

Most central banks pursue an objective of price stability, and some have explicit inflation targets. The appropriate or desired level of inflation is not well defined. Instead, central banks seem to be advised by past traumatic experiences of inflation which tend to be the result of loss of confidence or patently ill-advised policy, rather than naturally overheating economies. Likewise, current wisdom about deflation is colored by the Japanese experience of the last quarter of a century. Inflation is an aggregate measure prone to errors in specification. Is deflation due to deficient demand or to innovation and productivity? Is inflation due to real economic constraints or to monetary and financial factors? It is impossible to resolve these questions within a single measure. Inflation targeting is complicated and confounded by these issues.

Is active monetary policy useful?

The economy is a dynamic system which is the amalgamation of multiple dynamic markets. Even if it was possible to resolve monetary policy for a single market, and I argue that we cannot, it is difficult to resolve monetary policy across this aggregation of markets. Input and output markets may lead and lag each other with significant phase differences. Which market should policy be aimed at?

Each market is dynamic and dynamic systems confound policy. The complexity of the economy is such that central banks can only guess at how they work. Without a comprehensive knowledge of the inner workings of the economy, monetary policy is vulnerable to mistakes. In a static system with stochastic parameters, policy has unpredictable results. In a dynamic system with stochastic parameters, policy is even more unpredictable. A dynamic system can be characterised as having a certain quantity of energy within it. Policy, whether in the short term it is countercyclical or not, adds energy to the system, while the longer term counter or pro cyclicality of the policy is unknown. The energy is not dissipated but is accumulated and can manifest itself pro-cyclically in the future.

One topical example of how a dynamic system confounds policy is the concept of moral hazard. Each time a financial crisis occurs, the threat of contagion and recession prompts central banks to cut interest rates, or more recently, to ease counter-cyclical prudential regulation. The asymmetrical reaction to losses and falling asset prices increases the risk taking culture in the economy, not diminishes it.

Is current regulation effective?

In an effort to prevent a repeat performance of 2008/2009 where taxpayers had to rescue an overleveraged, overly risked banking system, central banks and regulators have required banks to hold more capital and to restructure their capital structures to be more robust for the protection of taxpayers and depositors. In many ways, bankruptcy codes in the developed world are sufficiently defined to deal with bank insolvencies. However, the political implications of bailing in deposits necessitated a different approach. In some way, shape or form, it was necessary to subordinate senior unsecured claims to deposits. To further protect depositors and taxpayers, banks have been required to raise more capital in the form of equity and contingent capital. There has been less pressure to realize losses and correctly classify non-performing assets. The speed of rehabilitation has varied from country to country.

Regulation of a fractional reserve banking system has always been a balance between efficiency and stability. Following a crisis, it is fully expected that regulation should lean towards stability. More capital and a clarification of the capital structure of banks is a sensible route to greater stability. The price of this stability, however, is efficiency. At a time when central banks are trying to spur growth and credit creation, this leads to contradictory signals to banks. On the one hand they are required to be more conservative, and on the other they are encouraged to lend.

One example of this dilemma is the 2011 ECB LTROs which were used by the commercial banks not to make new loans to the private sector but which encouraged banks to buy low capital consuming national sovereign debt. Subsequent LTROs were aimed at spurring private sector lending and carried conditions encouraging this. These LTROs have tended to be much less enthusiastically received given the capital requirements.

One side effect of the new Basel III capital rules has been a significant reduction in bond market liquidity as banks reduced inventory now deemed too expensive to hold. At the same time, central bank policy depressed interest rates encouraged businesses with access to bond markets to greatly increase issuance, and thus balance sheet leverage. By depressing short term interest rates, central banks have been successful in encouraging investors to assume more risk and lower yields to meet the supply of debt issuance. Retail mutual funds and ETFs have been an important channel for matching demand and supply of bonds.

As is often the case, regulation in one area forces capital elsewhere. In this case, the shadow banking system, the debt capital markets, have replaced the banks as a repository of wealth. Risk has been redistributed and not diminished.

Are current debt levels a significant risk?

Debt financing for non-investment purposes, such as for consumption and purchase of primary residence is not productive. This is not to say that it is not a good thing. Non investment debt allows consumers to temporally redistribute their consumption. A successful consumption strategy requires that the consumer is able to fund the debt, and to repay it when it comes due, at which time current consumption must fall. Since the financial crisis of 2008, households have reduced debt levels and debt service has fallen as interest rates have fallen. Households may one day increase leverage once again, however, they may be more circumspect in the next cycle while lenders will also face tighter capital constraints.

Assumption of debt for investment purposes is a legitimate use. In this case it is important that the investment generates sufficient return to repay the interest and the principal. The interest rate is not only a cost but an important hurdle rate to investment. The higher the interest rate, the higher the hurdle rate, and the more selective the capital allocation decision needs to be. Artificially low interest rates therefore encourage overinvestment, overcapacity, disinflation, and misallocation of capital.

Government debt has grown substantially since the global financial crisis of 2008. As interest rates and bond yields fell over a three decade period, governments have found increasing debt levels easier to service and thus issued more debt. In the wake of the 2008 crisis, bailouts of the banking sector by governments led to a surge in public debt levels. In the US the federal public debt as a percentage of GDP has risen from 30% in the early 1980s to 65% in 2007 and then to 105% in 2016. External demand from international reserves of USD funded by trade deficits, low capital requirements for financial institutions, a savings glut, asymmetrical interest rate policy responses to recessions and market volatility, benign inflation and most latterly, QE, have kept debt service declining and allowed governments to continually roll over, refinance, and increase their borrowing over these three decades.

As long as governments and corporates can continue to refinance cheaply, current debt levels are a risk unlikely to materialize. Threats to this dynamic include loss of foreign demand in the case of deficit countries, inability of current holders to maintain positions, rising inflation, or a loss of confidence for whatever reason. Slower moving phenomena may get us to any of these points such as slow growth leading to political or social instability, slow growth leading to poorer cash flow and inability to pay down debt, and ill-advised policy leading to runs on currencies.

Given the current balance of risks it is unlikely that any central bank would intentionally raise interest rates significantly under the best of circumstances. Under the current uncertainty, the prospect of raising interest rates is low barring a currency crisis (and hence defense), or runaway inflation, (usually a case of loss of confidence.) The most significant realistic risk is therefore a crisis of confidence leading to currency stress and a loss of internal and external purchasing power.

Market pricing.

Asset prices have been artificially inflated due to central bank intervention. Assets are valued on a relative, not absolute basis. Equity and bond valuations which may look high in isolation look reasonable when compared to sovereign yields. Low discount rates also inflate discounted cash flows leading to higher valuation multiples and higher prices. The response of central banks to any market distress also encourages excessive risk taking which artificially supports markets. The corollary of this is that all types of asset prices have become highly dependent on sovereign term structures. Correlations between assets have risen due to dependence on a proxy asset, sovereign bonds.

With central bank intervention suppressing volatility, the observed market price of risk is depressed. It is unsurprising that there should be an excess demand for risk and an over accumulation of the stock of risk. The difference between the efficient market price of risk and the current market price of risk is unobservable, however, a protracted suppression of market risk is itself a risky strategy. Eventual price discovery may be turbulent and disruptive. It may also be difficult to reduce the intervention since the amount of risk has risen under the regime.

Negative interest rates have become common. France, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Netherlands and Sweden have negative 5 year bond yields. Intended to spur credit circulation negative interest rates are threatening the profitability and solvency of the banks and insurance industry not to mention pensions. Assets returns are reduced while liabilities are amplified. In extreme cases, negative interest rates can lead to a reduced money supply, some insurers have begun to hoard physical cash in vaults, and can perversely push up the cost of credit. Negative interest rates are an unnatural state and price of money. Again, if the price of money is suppressed, it will theoretically be under supplied and over demanded. The fact that it is under demanded is partly an ominous sign, and partly the result of monetary policy and banking regulation being at odds.

Practical matters:

- Central banks should not blindly target inflation and growth since they don’t know what long term potential inflation and growth rates are. They should instead target full labour employment, if they are to do anything at all.

- Central banks should arguably not even attempt monetary policy since the results are highly uncertain at best. Market solutions should be sought. Central banks should retain a regulatory role.

- Regulation is moving in the right direction but should avoid political influence. Retail money should be well protected but there is no substitute for educating the investing public and providing them the flexibility to choose.

- Regulation of the shadow banking system should be light touch and focused on transparency rather than limited access.

- There is too much debt. It is not a problem now because low interest rates have kept debt service in check but the global economy cannot tolerate higher interest rates.

- Central banks are keeping interest rates too low for too long. They will find it hard to raise rates because they do not know how markets will react or if the economy can refinance itself otherwise.

- Negative interest rates are unnatural and will denude the pension, bank and insurance industries. Rates can not only not be cut further but cannot be sustained at current negative levels for too long.

 

 

 


Last Updated on Tuesday, 12 July 2016 05:06
 
Asset Allocation To Active Managers PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Thursday, 16 June 2016 00:29

Asset Allocation to Active Managers.

 

 

 

 

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 16 June 2016 00:30
 
Brexit. Inaccurate Polls. Long Term Consequences. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Tuesday, 14 June 2016 00:26

The latest Yougov poll on the EU referendum has the 42% voting to Remain, 43% voting to Leave and 11% undecided. The result in any case will be unpredictable because the voting intentions are not driven by commercial interests but by political, social and emotional ones, and the material consequences of leaving the EU are to a great extent, unknown. Bookmakers odds paint a different picture with odds of exit at mid-30s percent. One explanation is that the polls reflect what people want to do, whereas the odds reflect what people realistically intend to do. Opinion polls have become more inconsistent as negative voting has become prevalent. If this thesis is true then the UK will vote to remain in the EU.

Depending on how acute the fear of Brexit becomes before June 23 and the extent of damage in the markets and sterling, the rebound could be significant. The bond markets have been fairly resilient even controlling for the compensating impact of duration. Last week, Euro investment grade outperformed euro sovereigns although investment grade did also outperform high yield. The commencement of the ECB’s corporate securities purchase program had some impact on the euro IG market. The euro leveraged loan market lagged with a flat performance. As we approach June 23, don’t expect credit markets to remain resolute. They will likely also experience volatility.

Notwithstanding the bookmakers’ odds favoring Remain, the situation is very volatile and a geopolitical or security event could easily overturn the odds in an instant. Even without an event, the words and actions of the players in the theatre could spark market volatility as well.

The consequences of Brexit are difficult to quantify. The UK is the EU’s single largest destination for exports representing 17% of the total while the EU accounts for 45% of UK exports. The UK runs a goods trade deficit (-66 billion GBP) against the EU but a trade surplus (+10 billion GBP) in services. For both sides, the rationale for a trade agreement is therefore strong, however, a liberal agreement on services may be more difficult to obtain. The impact on sovereignty will depend on the UK’s intentions regarding maintaining trade access and could involve retaining compliance with the majority of EU legislation while losing the ability to influence its formulation. Trade access would also mean continuing to contribute to the EU budget. Broadly, the UK can leave the EU for reasons of budget contributions, sovereignty, immigration and benefits arbitrage, but it would have to forego trade access. To obtain trade access it would have to reinstate contributions to the budget, compliance with EU legislation, open its borders and provide access to benefits. This would be analogous to a switch from a contractual telephony plan to a pay-as-you-go plan. Complete replication will neither be desired nor achievable. The EU will want to discourage other members of the EU from leaving and would have to impose costs upon the UK to set an example.

Any analysis will be inadequate because only the instantaneous effects are the least bit predictable. The impact on sovereignty, trade, immigration and politics will vary as each agent’s behavior evolves in reaction to the actions of other agents. In the best case, one could hope that the UK economy is sufficiently flexible that the new degrees of freedom are used wisely and growth is enhanced. In a more sober scenario, the event of Brexit is a Y2K event, a non-event, where an omnibus relationship is replaced with a series of specific ones which largely replicate the pre Brexit status quo. In the worst case, the UK either cannot or will not negotiate to reinstate trade access and goes down the path of trade war to the detriment of both the UK and the EU. Given the already fragile economic condition of Europe, this is a scenario they can ill afford and the region plunges into a protracted recession. In a scenario which is hard to classify as good or bad, the UK example emboldens other members to leave the EU which ultimately threatens the Eurozone and the single currency is abandoned.

The reaction functions of players in this game are non-linear. But the range of our vision allows us only to extrapolate.

It is unlikely that the UK will vote to leave the European Union.

If it does, the consequences will be short term instability and long term gain on both sides simply based on the adaptability and resourcefulness of humans.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 15 June 2016 08:06
 
US Labour Market. The long and short view. What the weak May Non Farm Payroll numbers mean. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Monday, 06 June 2016 22:35

Below are a series of pictures depicting the US labor market. We highlight a number of points.

  1. The weak payroll numbers in May are significant in that

    1. they were well below even the lower bound estimates,

    2. prior month numbers were revised down significantly,

    3. temporary non-farm payrolls were also below estimates,

    4. there were no special mitigating factors

  1. Average hourly earnings and quits rates remain in an uptrend indicating a tight labour market.

  2. Falling participation rates can be explained by factors other than economic growth such as increased school and post graduate enrolment and the better health of new cohorts in the over 55 segment. We do not see falling participation as evidence of a weak economy.

  1. While the non-manufacturing PMI has weakened recently it remains above 50 (52.9) and the manufacturing PMI has turned over 50 in the last 3 months. Recession risk is low.

  2. We conclude that the labour market is at an inflexion point and is failing to adjust quickly enough to the evolving economy and that the May number is not a sign of a weak economy.

  3. The Fed is likely to look beyond the weak May data in their assessment of the economy. We maintain our outlook for a July rate hike. Our initial thesis for not expecting June was based not on the economy but rather the UK EU referendum due Jun 23, just 1 week after the Jun 15 FOMC.

With the exception of the 1990s, whenever labor productivity fell, unemployment fell. This is consistent with a model where labor’s share of output increases to compensate from lower labor productivity when technology could not pick up the slack. The 1990s was the era of the PC and internet which led to higher productivity even as unemployment fell.

The fall in labour participation is not a post 2008 phenomenon, it is a post 2000 phenomenon. The largest falls have been in the 16-19 year segment, presumable due to higher school enrolment. Post 2008, we have also seen declines in the 20-24 year segment with smaller declines in the 25-54 year segment. The falloff in the 20-24 year segment could be due to increased enrolment in post graduate education which was particularly popular in the post dotcom bust years. The 55+ segment has seen participation increase, presumably due to healthier populations. The trend of falling participation rates can therefore be explained mainly by demographic and non-economic factors ruling out the hypothesis of a weak economy.

The latest non-farm payroll numbers were quite poor, at 38K they fell below the lowest professional estimate of 90K and far below the average 160K. Taken as a percentage of the total labor force the number does not look better.

Two areas of strength, albeit not too much of it. One is the quits rate which is steadily climbing, although it has yet to reclaim the levels pre 2008. Quits rates are consistent with a tight labour market. Second is average hourly earnings which continues to recover. It also has yet to reclaim pre 2008.

 

Charts data source: Bloomberg and BLS

Last Updated on Wednesday, 08 June 2016 03:44
 
Quantitative Easing Explained. And Anti Social Economics. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Friday, 27 May 2016 00:40

Every so often the free market fails to sort itself out and the economy grows more slowly than it should, according to the economists, bankers and investors. Measures need to be taken to spur economic growth so that it can run at its potential again. Having lowered interest rates to zero or close to zero with less than spectacular results on economic growth, central banks turned to unconventional monetary policy, also known as quantitative easing. Purists define QE as the expansion of the central bank’s balance sheet through the purchase of assets funded by, well, funded by the creation of money, a talent and right exclusive to central banks. Basically, governments borrow by issuing bonds, which to a point private investors become leery off due to the usually parlous state of the finances of governments wont to engage in such innovative practices. At this point the country’s central bank buys these bonds thus lending to its own government. The government. Fine distinctions have been made about whether central banks are lending to their own governments, which is seen rightly as debt monetization, and buying bonds in the secondary market from private investors thus injecting money into the economy which it is hoped will circulate and stimulate demand. The reality is that the private investors holding government bonds are hardly borrowing from the central bank by selling them their bonds, and experience has shown that the money thus injected gets saved or hoarded somewhere, usually back on the said central bank’s balance sheet. The velocity of money falls almost precisely to compensate for the liquidity injection and demand and output hardly budge. There is a physical analogy in all this.


Now that 8 years of QE have failed to produce the spectacular recoveries in economic growth expected, governments are beginning to toy with the idea of fiscal easing. The problem with fiscal easing is that it involves a government spending to boost the economy, in effect replacing private demand with government demand. Monetary easing it was hoped, would spur demand by placing money in the hands of businesses and households in the hope that it would spur demand but it’s easier to lead a horse to water than to make it drink. Fiscal easing is a bit like leading your horse to water and then leading by example and taking great swigs yourself. There is no guarantee that the horse will drink. A case in point is Japan which has engaged in QE and fiscal easing and seem its national debt surge to 2.5X annual output. At the current G7 meeting in Japan you can sense the government once again tilting towards fiscal easing. In April 2017 there is a scheduled sales tax hike. The options before the government are to scrap the tax hike or to go ahead with it and sterilize it with a big fiscal package. There is a physical analogy in all this.