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Population Distribution. Labour Mobility. Storage and Transport of Labour PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Wednesday, 16 April 2014 23:41

Current economic wisdom is that geographical labour mobility is an almost unqualified positive and an inalienable right. This should not go unquestioned.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 16 April 2014 23:47
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Inequality and Injustice. Bad Moon Rising PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Wednesday, 19 March 2014 05:11

Inequality has decreased globally, yet this aggregate phenomenon hides a more disturbing picture. As countries have become less unequal, the distribution of wealth and income within countries has become more unequal. If the material and commercial motivation for conflict between nations has receded between nations, it has certainly risen within each country.

Last Updated on Monday, 24 March 2014 03:00
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Singapore Economic Growth and Population. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Monday, 03 March 2014 00:25

 

One of the commonly accepted models of economic growth is one where economic growth is determined by capital accumulation, innovation and growth of the labour force. The growth of the labour force quickly translates into growth of the population and particular age groups which are regarded as particularly productive. This is all fine, if you can grow the population without bound. The weakness of this assumption is most apparent in the case of small islands. Singapore is a good example. Progressive immigration policy has helped growth not just in population growth but also in capital accumulation and innovation. Lately, however, the limits of immigration have been tested. The storage and transport of labour has become difficult. Incumbents have come to regard further increases in population very negatively. The government, on account of the last election’s poor result, has begun to listen to the people, to an extent. They have tightened immigration policy in sympathy to the people’s preferences. These measures are not sufficient. If the government is serious about avoiding and reversing the momentum of overpopulation, it must cut back on the creation of storage of labour. This it has not done. One can only speculate that a longer term strategy still pursues rising immigration but that an interim solution has been formulated to manage the people’s expectations. Here is how one such plan could work:

  1. The people regard the country as over populated and register their objections.
  2. The authorities tighten immigration rules to slow population growth.
  3. The authorities continue to increase population storage by land sales and the approval of building permits, etc.
  4. The stock of housing increases.
  5. The authorities can then at a later stage present a housing oversupply to the people.
  6. They authorities can present also a strategy for preventing a crash in housing prices by allowing more immigration thus increasing the demand for housing.

Thus, it would have been possible to achieve the desired population growth to sustain economic growth with the acquiescence of the people. It is a clever gambit but it fails to address the limitations faced by the island state. Population cannot be grown without bound anywhere let alone on a small island. New goals and new strategies need to be established towards a more viable society. We can only hope that the authorities have the vision to see this.

 

Last Updated on Tuesday, 04 March 2014 02:02
 
EM Bonds and USD. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Monday, 27 January 2014 02:07

Barely are we into the end of January 2014 and the emerging market debt markets are once again showing signs if weakness.

  1. Emerging markets are suffering from a slow down in exports relative to imports relative to the US and other developed markets. This is a long term trend stemming from a technology deficit.

  1. The supply of hard currencies, USD and EUR will be constrained. This will raise the effective short term interest rates for these currencies, LIBOR and other benchmarks notwithstanding. This is likely to also drive currency appreciation.

  1. The demand for emerging market debt cannot be taken in isolation. The real money investor will want to minimize or at least manage FX risk. The high yield of an Indonesian government bond or a Brazilian government bond needs to be taken in the context of either FX volatility or the cost of hedging such FX volatility.

  1. The cost of hedging the FX volatility is the short term interest rate of the currency of the respective bond. An important metric for assessing the economics of an emerging market sovereign bond is therefore the spread between the yield of the bond and the  short term interest rate. Ceteris paribus, in particular ignoring inflation expectations, the flatter the yield curve, the worse the economics of owning the bond. For example, a 10 yr Brazilian government bond yields 11% but costs 10.75% to finance. A 10 year US treasury yields 2.8% but costs 30 basis points to finance. In addition, given that US treasuries are good collateral in the repo market, a 10 yr can in practice be financed at circa 6 basis points.

  1. With Basel 3 and Solvency 2, US treasuries capital treatment and declining issuance could make them the surprise outperformer this year.

 

 
QE Taper. For Real? Fed Interest Rate Policy. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Thursday, 09 January 2014 06:55

 

QE Taper, for real?

  • The Fed is reducing UST purchases from 45 billion USD to 40 billion USD per month, a 11.1% reduction. It is reducing Agency MBS purchases from 40 billion USD to 35 billion USD, a -12.5% reduction.
  • US treasury issuance is shrinking at roughly 18% YOY due to an increase in tax receipts as the US economy recovers. Agency MBS issuance is also slowing, by about 30% YOY as banks underwriting standards have tightened and asset quality has improved to the extent that banks are willing to retain mortgages on balance sheet.
  • This implies that despite spending fewer dollars on buying bonds, the US Fed is buying up an increasing proportion of new issuance. This is hardly tapering.

Short term interest rates, low for how long? The market expects rates to be kept low till 2015. Its possible that rates may be kept low for even longer. Why?

  • Its possible that all that bond buying by the Fed was to maintain a respectable bid to cover ratio at auction, and not to reflate the economy. Why? Surely the Fed would understand that banks lend out of capital and not liquidity and all the LSAPs would do is liquefy the financial system, not provide it with capital.
  • Treasury relied on the Fed to keep yields low so that it could refinance itself cheaply.
  • The Fed balance sheet, at 4 trillion USD has reached critical limits making general prices potentially unstable. The Fed needed to find a less risky means of refinancing Treasury.
  • This month, Jan 2014, will see the inaugural issue of Treasury FRNs (floating rate notes). Treasury needs to fund itself longer than the T Bills market. It intends to issue 2 and 3 year paper. It understands that investors will only provide longer term financing if they do not have to take on duration risk. FRNs are ideal for both lender and borrower.
  • This provides the Fed with a cheaper and less risky way of suppressing Treasury’s interest expense. The Fed only needs to keep short rates floored at zero.
  • The risk to this strategy is that whereas fixed rate debt can be inflated away, floating rate debt becomes more expensive under inflation as rates react to inflation expectations.
  • Under the above thesis, interest rates will be kept low for another 3 years or more. Unless inflation perks up.

What about long rates?

  • Inflation expectations are one of the important determinants of UST yields. US inflation numbers are low. The headline number is 1.2%, down from 1.8% a year ago. Core inflation, which excludes volatile and transitory items such as food and energy are at 1.7%, down from 1.9% a year ago. Considering that shelter is a large item in the CPI, and US housing and mortgage rates are rising, we should expect to see much slower inflation in the larger cash flow items (that is ex owner equivalent rent, which is not a cash flow item.) CPI ex shelter has fallen from 1.4% a year ago, to 1.0% today. Again, a 4% 10 year UST yield is not a foregone conclusion.
  • However, given that the US Fed is a large buyer of treasuries, the eventual withdrawal of QE is likely to steepen the term structure.
  • Take note of the US trade balance which has been recovering quite steadily. US manufacturing is rebounding, an ageing population is consuming more services and less goods, more production is being re-shored and shale gas and fracking technology is reducing reliance on energy imports mean that the US will export less USD, less exported USD will mean less demand for US treasuries, implying a steepening of the term structure.

Food for thought…

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 09 January 2014 07:53
 
Wait Worry PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Monday, 30 December 2013 02:59

Complacency

We began 2012 utterly dejected. Apart from the US, most regions from Europe to Asia to Latin America faced slowing growth. That said central bank pump priming managed to sustain global equity markets and 2012 turned out to be a good year for risk assets despite some mid year volatility. We began 2013 optimistic on the back of momentum in risk assets. As 2013 unfolded in became clear that the US real economy was actually improving and this helped to dampen volatility as the US equity market climbed steadily. In the latter half of 2013, the European economy began to signs of recovery driving their equity markets higher. Emerging markets fared less with slowing growth and rising inflation. Signs that the US Fed might slow down its large scale asset purchases added fuel to the fire and drove volatility there. Japan continued to confound the skeptics adding real economic progress to the improved sentiment. And even China appeared to recover from its apparent risk of a hard landing. Taken together, there is little to fear in the world of investing today. This is a thing to fear.

The risk of QE and its gradual withdrawal are significant. So far investors are pretty sanguine and some even interpret QE tapering as a sign of strength in the US economy and thus a positive development for equities, albeit less positive for fixed income. Depending on why US equities were bought up, there is a risk that the taper could be more damaging than expected. If for example, equities were bought as a claim on future production to hedge against future inflation, then higher discount rates further along the term structure could reprice equities making them more expensive than previously thought.

The other risk of QE is that we really don’t know what asset prices look like without it. Short rates are artificially low, but the arbitrary nature of the setting of short rates is something we have come to live with. That QE has been extended across the term structure means that the shape of the yield curve absent QE is also unknown, and the shape of the curve is a somewhat important factor in signaling economic growth and shaping asset pricing. Quite worryingly, we have come to rely on QE and embrace it as a reality in our investment strategy.

Like the consensus, we expect the world to be less globalized and that trade growth while positive will slow in the wake of the underground trade war that has been waged invisibly these last 5 years. However, there will be an impact on the leveraged shipping finance industry which is supported primarily by European banks. This could be another source of volatility in store for markets in the near future. A lot depends not only on the asset side of balance sheets but also on the liabilities. Some investments are simply not robust against rising interest rates.

The heavy issuance of debt in 2013 is also disturbing, almost like a last hurrah. As a rule of thumb, it is always good to be a reluctant lender, and thus to prefer securities companies are less willing to issue and to not prefer securities companies are more willing to issue. Overzealous lending is leading to a resurgence of covenant-lite issuance, now some 60% versus a mere 30% in 2007. Some companies have become, to an extent, passthru’s whereby their senior unsecured issuance is being used to fund dividends and payouts to other parts of the capital structure.

Pooling vehicles generally increase systemic risk. The rise of mutual funds and the return of CDOs and CLOs in the US add to instability in markets. The state of the art in risk management is backward looking. Any risk metric that aims to provide not only amplitude but timing of risk events must fail at one, or both. We believe that the estimation of timing of risk events is futile and advocate estimating the amplitude of risk events. We advocate a Gini Coefficient methodology for dealing with liability based risk.

A related risk is the large scale adoption of a small number of standardized risk models. Blackrock’s Alladin system stands out as an example. As more small, independent, boutique investment managers and traders outsource risk measurement to more standardized risk systems such as Alladin, investor behavior becomes more correlated and less independent. This violates the necessary conditions for convergence in many central limit theorems used in the same risk systems and could lead to highly leptokurtic markets.

 
Bank Regulation. Another Way PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Monday, 16 December 2013 01:18

 

The Volcker Rule, Basel 3. Dodd-Franck and all the rules and regulations will not help banking stability until banks are allowed to fail. As long as banks are not allowed to fail, managers will continue to be engage in willful or ignorant risky behavior.

Too much regulation also sacrifices efficiency.

The way to ensure a balance between stability and efficiency is to regulate in a different way.

 

  • No bailouts. Period. No lenders of last resort.
  • Regulate standards of disclosure in financial reporting to ensure transparency and clarity.
  • Encourage linear and not convex alignment of managers' rewards and losses to the institution's fortunes.

 

If a bank is too opaque, or too complex in its conduct of business and in its financial reporting, or if managers have too convex a call on its profits, investors and savers will direct funding away from them starving them of equity and debt capital, and deposits.

It is a remarkable state of the industry that savers and investors can no longer rely on bank management to act in good faith. The need for more regulation is simply a restatement of this hypothesis. If one believes that this new level of regulation is necessary, they must also accept the hypothesis.

 

Last Updated on Monday, 16 December 2013 01:20
 
US monetary and fiscal policy 2014 - 2017 PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Monday, 18 November 2013 06:23

 

US monetary and fiscal policy 2014 – 2017.

I believe it is inevitable that QE tapering will happen. This is driven by the need to control the growth, and one day shrink, the Fed’s balance sheet which is currently at 4 trillion USD and growing. The dangers of maintaining a balance sheet of this size are high. Any pick up in the velocity of money could cause nominal output to surge and capacity may not be able to expand as quickly. That said a reverse repo facility may mitigate much of this risk by being able to remove excess liquidity from the system very quickly. The other risk is that an unconventional policy tool has now been used quite some time with limited impact on the real economy and the Fed needs somehow to reset at least one of its policy tools in case another crisis should follow. Since QE had limited impact on the real economy, it has had significant impact on asset prices, the impact on the real economy of its gradual withdrawal should be orderly. Based on these considerations, I would say the risk of QE tapering is moderate and acceptable and the Fed will do it fairly soon.

The market has erroneously linked short term interest rates to QE tapering. QE is an attempt to monetize debt and to control the mid and back end of the curve, not the front where the Fed already has good control. A number of things suggest that the Fed will maintain its low interest rate policy for another 3 years at least (that is into 2017.)

Now there has been some talk of optimal control theory which is of limited use. Control theory is a methodology and tells us little about the actual path of interest rates or the intentions of policy makers. What the rhetoric and the introduction of control theory do is to widen the spectrum of potential determinants of monetary policy beyond inflation and growth. The definition of the Loss Function can include everything from traditional measures such as inflation and growth, but can also include multiple objectives such as unemployment, distribution of wealth, and even softer targets.

Forward guidance is another new policy tool which has been added to Large Scale Asset Purchases. Again there is little content in forward guidance. With interest rates at their lower bound, and the Fed’s balance sheet at acutely inflated levels, it seems that new and innovative ways of controlling the mid to back end of the term structure need to be found, and that forward guidance is a ‘cheap’ way of achieving this as the costs and risks are low. There are non-financial costs and risks, however, as it requires that the Fed is fairly accurate with its forecasts, and that the Fed’s credibility can be maintained. Choice and judgment are crucial in a complex and leveraged system as optimal control solutions are not unique, they yield a continuum of solutions, and the probability is high for boom and bust trajectories. The widespread adoption of forward guidance among the world’s central banks is somewhat troubling. On the one hand, if realized state variables deviate sufficiently from forecasts, central banks may lose credibility and the efficacy of forward guidance may be impaired, and on the other, such loss of credibility may lead to a more structural decline in central banks as influencers in the economy which is possibly a positive outcome.

For unclear and unspecified reasons, forward guidance and optimal control seem to imply to the market low interest rates for the next 3 years. I agree with this conclusion but present a simpler, cynical and causal explanation for my expectation. The clues to this expectation come not from the US Federal Reserve but from the US Treasury. The introduction of Floating Rate Note (FRN) issuance by the US Treasury supports the view of low interest rates for longer. As a borrower, the US Treasury has to provide investors or lenders with terms which are favorable to them in order to attract their capital. Investors are duration risk averse and seek low duration instruments. The US Treasury would like to finance itself over a longer term without steepening the term structure, and with the US Fed moderating its asset purchases, such funding terms may not be achievable. Funding itself with FRNs is useful in that it provides the US Treasury with longer term financing while providing investors with a low duration investment. The typical coupon for an FRN resets every quarter to some fixed level over the 3 month USD LIBOR or some other similar benchmark. For the US Treasury to maintain a manageable debt service profile, the US Federal reserve has to maintain short interest rates at close to zero. This is a cheaper funding strategy than longer maturity fixed coupon issuance that has to be monetized by the Fed via LSAPs.

What are some of the implications?

Short term interest rates will be kept low for some 3 years or so. The rest of the term structure will be determined less by LSAP but by market forces. Longer maturity volatility will rise, and yield levels are very likely to rise as well.

Conditions conducive to carry trades will arise. This will favor banks and deposit taking institutions. Hedge funds may also capitalize on this.

Implications for highly leveraged companies are complicated. Capital intensive industries will struggle with ongoing funding. In the current period, bond buybacks are accretive, however, over the longer run, this encourages consolidation over growth. Share buybacks will be more expensive as well, so expect a slowdown in volumes.

Increased yields and yield volatility will have real economy impact. Increased yields will discourage issuance and at least make it more expensive to finance with longer dated debt. Businesses may choose to issue more floating rate debt. On the demand side, increased yield volatility will cause investors to demand higher rates of compensation.

It is difficult to guess where the yield curve will settle without central bank large scale asset purchases. One of the more damaging consequences of QE has been to impair the allocative and productive signaling properties of the yield curve.

 

Last Updated on Tuesday, 19 November 2013 03:08
 
China In Transition. Outlook for the Chinese Economy. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Saturday, 09 November 2013 01:42

Despite strong economic growth, Chinese equities have been derating over the past few years. There are technical reasons for the underperformance, mostly due to regulation and the nature of the investor base, which are mostly domestic retail investors.  Still, this does not explain the cheap valuations in offshore listings of Chinese companies.

The current structure of the Chinese economy is unbalanced with an over reliance on investment and exports. These features are not bad in and of themselves, however, when globalization is being slowed down or rolled back, when capital is scarce and when trade policy becomes more contentious, such over reliance becomes a weakness.

China is embarking on a rational if unpopular and short-term painful reorganization of its economy. Some of this reform is being forced upon it but it is in line with the long-term objectives of Chinese. Fortunately, China is in many respects still a centrally planned economy, the sovereign balance sheet is healthy, the workforce is diligent and productive, households are thrifty, and the urbanization cycle still has far to run. Standing against China is rampant corruption, domination of State Owned Enterprise in industry, and complexity of regulation and administration. These issues are currently being addressed by the government. Still, there is much left to do.

Last Updated on Saturday, 09 November 2013 02:08
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Why the Fed is Issuing Floating Rate Notes. Floating Rate Strategy. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Thursday, 07 November 2013 10:43

Treasury is reducing issuance of T bills. At the same time they are starting issuance of 2 - 3 year FRNs. Why?

There is a strong consensus among investors that rates will rise and therefore they should reduce duration. As a result they are buying shorter and shorter maturities.

This trend is hurting Treasury's ability to issue notes and bonds. The only way Treasury can issue outside of a year is to offer a short duration, long maturity instrument. Enter the FRN.

Now, in order for Treasury to control debt service the Fed Funds Rate will have to be kept at 0.25% for much longer since the FRN's coupons are benchmarked to short rates.

This only confirms what I've already expected, that regardless of QE tapering or not tapering, the FFR will be kept low for multiple years. 

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A few questions PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Friday, 25 October 2013 01:33

 

Our system of politics and economics is very much a product of history, so much so that some basic questions about fairness and efficiency remain unresolved.

 

Why is income taxed more vigorously than capital gains? Why are the gains from gambling not taxed more aggressively?

 

In a meritocracy, what is to be done with under performers? More importantly, in a meritocracy, how should underperformance which is due to bad luck, or indeed outperformance which is due to good luck to be considered? Is the outcome more important than the route?

 

Does a sovereign country expect to repay its debts within a finite time period, by which is meant, achieve a net cash financial position?

 

A prudent way to run a business is to increase its equity over time. How should a business plan its capital structure? Should a business plan to achieve a net cash position within a finite time period?

 

A prudent householder should plan to accumulate equity over time while it is productive and to build an asset base to provide for retirement. Is it prudent to draw down equity during the retirement phase and if so how should it plan to do so? If a generation within a household is deceased with a positive equity, how much discretion should the deceased have (through their wills), over the distribution of the excess equity?

 

Last Updated on Friday, 25 October 2013 01:37
 
How the US Treasury Can Avoid Default Regardless of the Actions of Politicians PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Thursday, 03 October 2013 23:38

Treasury will want to ensure no default regardless of the actions of the politicians. There are a couple of ways out.

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The Regulation of Banks, the Shadow Banking System and implications for Alpha Investment Strategies PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Friday, 27 September 2013 03:15

 

Since the financial crisis of 2008 it was patently clear that regulators would begin to regulate banks as utilities. Since then there has been a steady and gradual reanimation of the Glass-Steagall act, albeit not in a single legislation; this in a series of fragmented but correlated measures including Basel 3, Solvency 2, Dodd-Frank and the Volcker Rule. Henceforth, banks will be focused on their role as conduits and intermediaries of credit and funding and step away from principal activities and risk taking. Banks will be going back to basics, as it were. This wave of banking system reform is likely to be gradual and sustained, providing interesting investment opportunities. The complexity, multi jurisdictional, multi regional nature of current banking regulation will make a quick repeal such as was done to Glass Steagall, difficult and highly unlikely. The trend to greater regulation is therefore expected to be protracted and long lasting.

Last Updated on Friday, 27 September 2013 03:42
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Bullish Europe Risk Assets PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Wednesday, 18 September 2013 01:04

 

We began to be bullish US equities 14 Oct 2011. On 13 Jan 2012, we called a buy on Europe across all risk assets on the back of the ECB’s unprecedented 3 year repo facility. This was a bit early and required the investor to sit through quite a lot of volatility. Some would have folded in May 2012 on the adverse price movements, but it turned out to be a profitable trade after all.

We continue to like the US and Europe. US equities, while still attractive on the back of a recovery are no longer as cheap as they were a couple of years ago, and are also more advanced in the profit cycle. While we continue to maintain exposure to the US, we now turn our attention to Europe, an under-represented exposure in many investors’ portfolios.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 18 September 2013 01:12
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Confusing and Conflicting Signals. Contamination by QE. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Tuesday, 10 September 2013 00:18

Its all rather confusing. But not any more so than usual. Things are always confusing in the present and clear in the past. What is confusing today, are the number and strength of the conflicting signals. We therefore consider, in broad summary, the bull and bear cases for general conditions. 

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Risk. Capital. Conventional Asset Allocation is Inadequate. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Thursday, 27 March 2014 07:45

It is almost elementary to professional investors that when investment decisions are made, the appropriate sizing of the investment is based on the quantity of risk that is taken and not the quantity of capital. This has a parallel in the Sharpe Ratio measurement of investment performance. Returns are only useful in the context of the risk associated in obtaining them. Similarly, returns are obtained at a price, which is risk. To obtain returns, one should allocate risk and not capital.

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Divergence Between US Equities and US Treasuries PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Tuesday, 18 March 2014 01:52

The divergence between the US treasury market and US equities can be accounted for.

  1. US treasury yields are held down because.
    1. Floating rate note issuance is expected to be circa 180 billion USD. This will substitute away some of the fixed coupon issuance. This means less supply of fixed coupons.
    2. Tax receipts are up which will also slow the issuance of treasuries.
    3. Major trading partners such as China and Japan are seeing a reduction of trade surpluses or an increase in trade deficits implying slowing supply of USD offshore and thus weaker demand for treasuries.

  1. US equity markets:
    1. Economic growth remains robust. There was a speed bump due to the harsh winter but this has passed.
    2. Trend growth is not 3% but 2%. Given this, any ‘fail’ of the 3% mark is not a risk of reception but a cyclical slowdown within a global rising trend. Since 2010 GDP YOY has oscillated around 2%, which I regard as the new trend growth rate. Why is trend growth lower today than before? This is not an easy question and there are no definitive answers. One possibility is that credit creation has become impaired. Despite efforts to inflate the monetary base, bank regulation and scarcity of bank capital are constraining credit creation. The 3% average growth rate from 1980 – 2006 was probably boosted by a full 1% due to the early 80’s boom in junk bond issuance, the securitization of debt in the late 1980’s and the surge in securitized and tranched mortgage bonds in the last 15 years. Absent this credit innovation, trend growth would have been 2% as it is now.
    3. Given the above view of a secular recovery, US equities are in a secular bull market. That said, we could be at a cyclical peak given that price levels have run ahead of earnings.
    4. The continuation of the current cyclical bull requires a recovery in corporate investment which has not yet happened. The growth of the past 5 years has been driven by consumption and housing. Corporate profitability is now at a cyclical high and household savings rates have fallen from mid 5’s to low 4’s. While US equities remain fundamentally sound, a continuation of earnings growth now stands on a single pillar, corporate investment. I believe this will happen given the average age of the capital stock…

  1. Conclusion:
    1. I expect the US treasury market to be more resilient than consensus for reasons of demand and supply.
    2. I expect the US equity market to be in the early stages of a secular bull market.
    3. However, I do feel that the US equity market is currently vulnerable as fundamentals have yet to catch up to valuations.

 
Ten Seconds into 2014. More of the same. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Monday, 03 February 2014 06:05

The current volatility in global markets is unremarkable. What is remarkable is the lack of volatility in the past two years. The macro conditions envisaged in mid 2012 continue to hold. For details see:

Investment Strategy In a Crazy World April 2012

To reiterate:

  1. Long term global growth rate has stabilized along a slower growth path, mainly due to moderation in credit creation.
  2. Developed Markets (DM) rebalance towards a neutral trade balance. Emerging Markets (EM) also rebalance towards neutral trade balance. Generally this is the rebalancing of economies towards better balance between investment, consumption and trade.
  3. Aiding the resurgence of exports and manufacturing in DM is an entrenched technological or knowledge advantage.
  4. Trade flows are supportive of USD.
  5. Trade flows are raising true cost of funds for hard currencies.

Inferences:

Last Updated on Monday, 03 February 2014 06:07
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Fed Issues Floating Rate Notes. An Aside on the 30Y UST. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Friday, 24 January 2014 08:59

For the first time in 17 years, the US treasury will issue a new security, a Floating Rate Note. This will become a program of quarterly auctions.  Why are they doing this?

 

  1. How does one get longer term funding at low interest rates? How does one attract investors to longer maturity assets with little or no duration?
  2. How will the US government keep debt service manageable over time despite longer dated liabilities?
    • The answer to 1 above is to issue Floating Rate Notes.
    • The answer to 2 above is to maintain short term interest rates at close to zero for longer. Given that the first issues will be 2 year maturities and coupons will be benchmarked to the 13 week T bill rate, I expect that the US Fed will not be raising interest rates till 2016 at the earliest.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-01-23/u-s-treasury-to-offer-15-billion-in-first-floating-rate-notes.html

On a side note, I expect the long bond (that’s the 30 year US treasury) to outperform. While I don’t like duration in general I don’t think the 10 year will fare as badly as the consensus believes. The 30 year, however, is under-issued, and demand from insurance companies and other real money investors with long term liabilities will keep it well supported. I expect the USD curve will form a hump at the 10 year. I’d be a buyer of the 30 year UST.

On another side note:Time to buy some GLD US. Time to buy some equity volatility. Some cracks are beginning to show.

 
The US Consensus - Equities vs Bonds and QE Taper PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Tuesday, 07 January 2014 08:13

 

There has emerged a clear consensus about the outlook for US asset markets. While I am with the consensus for now, it is good practice to have an eye on the alternative view. With the tapering of QE, it has become established wisdom that equities will outperform bonds. Of course, there are many types of bonds; there are government bonds, municipal bonds, investment grade corporate bonds and high yield bonds. Bank debt, or loans are another debt instrument to consider in the analysis. The consensus view is the following:

  1. The US economy is sufficiently strong that QE can be moderated.
  2. The positive prognosis for the US economy implies the same for US corporate financial performance.
  3. The Fed has announced a moderation in its large scale asset purchases from 85 billion USD a month to 75 billion USD a month, the reduction to be split equally between its agency MBS and US treasury programs.
  4. The reduction in Fed purchases of US treasuries will lift yields at the mid and long end of the USD term structure.
  5. The impact on bonds with any significant duration follows from the above. The relative preference for equities over bonds also follows.

The above consensus relies on some assumptions and interpretations that deserve closer inspection.

  1. The US economy may be sufficiently strong that QE can be moderated. On the other hand, the Fed might be slowing LSAPs for other reasons. It could, for example, regard the size of its balance sheet as a risk to price stability. The Fed has never run a balance sheet of this size before and any pick up in demand or the velocity of money could spark of a rise in nominal output that real output might not be able to keep pace with – inflation. The Fed might have realized that interbank unsecured lending has shrunk and that lending has moved to the secured market – the repo market, and that its LSAPs are reducing the stock of available collateral for use in repo.
  2. The US economy is growing, but its long term trend rate is no longer the 4% it experienced pre 2008, and closer to 2%. The market expects growth to average 3% in 2014, but this would be above the new trend rate. Corporate earnings growth and profit margins at the same time are at a cyclical high. In the last quarter US corporate earnings saw more downward revisions and the current quarter is likely to see further moderation of earnings growth expectations. This will make current valuations, which are not cheap, harder to sustain.
  3. The Fed may have tapered its notional purchases but compared with a year ago, it is buying up an increasing proportion of new issue US treasuries. US treasury issuance is shrinking by about 18% YOY and Agency MBS issuance is shrinking by about 33% YOY. A 5 billion reduction in UST and MBS purchases amounts to a 12.5% reduction. It is not trivial nor a forgone conclusion that the 10 year UST yield is on a one way ride to 4%.
  4. One of the important determinants of UST yields is inflation expectations. US inflation numbers are low. The headline number is 1.2%, down from 1.8% a year ago. Core inflation, which excludes volatile and transitory items such as food and energy are at 1.7%, down from 1.9% a year ago. Considering that shelter is a large item in the CPI, and US housing and mortgage rates are rising, we should expect to see much slower inflation in the larger cash flow items (that is ex owner equivalent rent, which is not a cash flow item.) CPI ex shelter has fallen from 1.4% a year ago, to 1.0% today. Again, a 4% 10 year UST yield is not a foregone conclusion.


I am with the consensus on this one. However, whenever we have a strong consensus, we should be mindful of the alternative view and be particularly watchful for the signs that the consensus is wrong. One of the obvious indicators is price action itself. That’s why traders have a cut loss policy. At the same time we will be watching corporate profitability and economic numbers seeking signs of weakness, while remaining overweight in equities and underweight in duration.

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 09 January 2014 06:41
 
A slightly different style of investing: PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Monday, 30 December 2013 02:59

 

Traditional investing is all about asset allocation based on macro economic outlook and then drilling down to security selection. That’s a bit too fuzzy for my liking. Investing capital should be a more disciplined activity since it puts that capital at risk. The risk should always be well compensated by the prospect of returns. Thus, unless there is a very good reason to invest, capital should not be invested. There is a real cost to not being invested, but this is a relatively more certain cost, being the difference between short term cash rates and inflation. The short term cash rate will depend on the investor’s level of access and short term risk appetite. Deposit rates, LIBOR, or overnight repo rates are good proxies. This cost of not being invested can also be thought of as an option premium paid to not have exposure. It is the option to invest in the current period.

An investment would require a clear and present rationale, an event or a catalyst to justify it. Valuation itself is not sufficient. It is an important factor. Most successful value investors don’t just buy value; they buy value with a catalyst in mind. Sometimes, these investors not only have a catalyst in mind but they are active catalysts themselves. Distressed debt investors are a classic example, where the debt of a distressed business is bought with a view to reorganizing the business and the liabilities of the company in order to unlock value. Merger arbitrage is another example where the takeover code, anti trust regulation and other regulatory legislation drive investments to their fruition or deal-break.

The disciplines of event driven and distressed investing should be applied to traditional investments as well. Tighter definitions of investment rationale should be demanded by investors when they are asked to place capital in harms way.

 

Last Updated on Monday, 30 December 2013 03:01
 
Investment Strategy 2013 Recap and 2014 Outlook PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Friday, 13 December 2013 07:55

Time stamping...

Last Updated on Friday, 13 December 2013 08:20
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Equity and High Yield Risk and QE. Why is QE Not Working for the Real Economy But Inflating Assets? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Monday, 11 November 2013 00:19

Why is QE ineffective in reviving current demand and employment even as it drives up equity and high yield bond markets?

The massively expansionary monetary policies have yielded surprisingly low inflation while inflating asset prices across the globe. Bond yields have compressed and equity markets have surged in the past 5 years. Why is monetary policy ineffective at restoring normal levels of demand and employment? The answer is, because our specification of the set of prices over which monetary policy has domain is incomplete. Money can be spent on more things than just goods and services; it can be spent on claims on future goods and services. This is called saving, and saving is not consumption. A confluence of low interest rates, efforts to create inflation, expectations of high future inflation and efforts to flatten the term structure of interest rates have resulted in inflating the value of assets and not goods and services.

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Ten Seconds Into The Future... A Quick Take on Market and Economic Outlook PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Friday, 08 November 2013 07:25

The world is witnessing renewed economic strength. Generally, fundamentals are strong(er), especially in the developed markets. Policy, however, remains nervous and uncertain and drives financial market volatility. Equities in the performing markets seem fully priced. Credit continues to perform in the face of potentially higher interest rates. What can we make of all this? Let’s do this back to front…

Last Updated on Friday, 08 November 2013 07:29
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Its Time To Wean the Economy Off QE. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Tuesday, 29 October 2013 07:44

With consistent central bank asset purchases, the term structure of interest rates cannot find its natural market clearing level. It is difficult to know if asset bubbles are being inflated or not, and it is hard to tell if the economy is yet on a self sustaining growth path. The only way to tell, to discover the price of things, is to wind down the asset purchase programs. 

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Efficient Markets and Betting Against Market Distortions PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Wednesday, 16 October 2013 23:31

Markets are generally efficient in aggregate and over time. Markets can be inefficient in parts or for periods of time. Do I really believe this? Yes, provided they are proper markets by which I mean that there are sufficiently numerous independent participants, neither of which has sufficient individual influence over pricing.

Last Updated on Monday, 21 October 2013 03:42
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US Debt Ceiling and Probability of Default. Almost Never. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Wednesday, 02 October 2013 02:02

 

Oct 17 is D Day. If the debt ceiling is not raised, there is the possibility of a US default. The consequences are quite catastrophic, to such an extent that it is almost inconceivable that the US treasury will allow it to happen, despite the combined efforts of the Democrats and Republicans. Why is it so inconceivable?

Last Updated on Thursday, 03 October 2013 06:58
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Tactical and Temporary Retreat. Tapering US equity exposure PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Tuesday, 24 September 2013 02:17

 

Good investment and trading practice is that you always have a thesis and the thesis implies certain milestones, and profit and loss levels. If the milestones are not met, and the thesis is unchanged, even if profit targets are met or exceeded, one should reassess the trade, preferably cutting it while the reassessment is taking place.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 24 September 2013 02:22
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Fear Not QE Tapering PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Tuesday, 10 September 2013 00:25

Do not fear QE tapering. Its a good thing.

1. Its a sign of strength, that the economy is able to tolerate tighter monetary conditions.

2. US treasury issuance is falling as a result of improving economic growth and thus tax receipts. If the Fed maintains its purchases as a proportion of issuance, it would have to slow its rate of purchases.

3. By operating QE, the Fed is removing from the market the most ubiquitous, important, and highest quality collateral used in repo agreements. The Fed does not rehpothecate its assets on a large scale ongoing basis, although it has been contemplating a reverse repo facility in its last FOMC meeting. QE therefore reduces the liquidity in the collateralized lending market. Given that LIBOR markets have thinned, since 2008 and then the LIBOR scandal, the repo market is extremely important to global credit and liquidity. QE tapering is positive for repo liquidity. Because collateralized lending, particularly on such short tenures has a highly advantageous risk weighted treatment under Basel 3 capital rules, it is an important source of credit in the current environment.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 10 September 2013 02:07
 
An Alternative Investment Methodology PDF Print E-mail
Written by Burnham Banks   
Wednesday, 04 September 2013 09:32

Is Caterpillar a US company or a Latin American one, or a European one, or an Asian one? Is Santander Spanish, British, or Latin American? Is Alstom French, or Nestle Swiss, or HSBC British, or Chinese? Are any of the large listed Swiss companies Swiss?

When we say equities are cheap and bonds expensive, to which companies do we refer?  Should we compare the equity valuations of large caps with the bond yields of high yield issuers? Could the cheap equity issuers have even cheaper bonds?

The world fears peripheral European banks. How then should an investor regard the securities of the German operations of a Spanish bank? Or the securities of the Swiss operations of a US investment bank? How much did the holder of Lehman International UK bonds get in recovery, 9 cents or a dollar and change?

 

Last Updated on Wednesday, 04 September 2013 23:47
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