Japan responds

As we have noted in our written material several times since the Chinese authorities buckled last August under the weight of enormous domestic capital outflows, when China accounts for approximately 20% of your exports and 25% of your imports you have to respond… and respond the Bank of Japan did. Initially by suggesting the imposition of capital controls in China and now with firm action by a shift to negative interest rates.

The Bank of Japan has set itself the target of 2% inflation – despite QE amounting to 15% of GDP annually that has left them holding 26% of the stock of outstanding Japanese government debt (up from just 7% in early 2013). Japanese core inflation (Inflation excluding food and tax effects) still stands at a meagre 0.1%.

What’s going wrong?

Well, quite simply, that QE doesn’t work in Japan in the way you might argue it works elsewhere.

Here’s the picture:

Firstly, injections of monetary liquidity – through asset purchases – are offset entirely by a decline in the velocity of circulation of money – in short, more money does less, leaving you where you started.

2016.1.29.JapanResponds

Secondly, the liquidity injected simply ends up in the “current account” at the Bank of Japan – that is to say, banks hold the cash in the form of mountainous reserves at the central bank.

The level of current account deposits at the Bank of Japan stands at a mind-boggling Yen 253 trillion (up 42% y/y) – that is approximately half of GDP.

2016.1.29.JapanResponds2

The Japanese system is incomparably awash with liquidity and one strong product of that has been a sharply weaker yen (the effect on equity prices and subsequent wealth effect on consumption – the transmission channel for QE in the USA – is negligible when Japanese households have just 10% of their assets in equities versus 53% in cash). The channel through which Japanese QE works – and Japanese QE is on a scale that dwarves that in any other country besides China (where state-approved bank balance sheet expansion effectively replicates QE) – is through an explicit policy to drive the yen down and thereby import some inflation whilst giving Japanese exporters a bit of a boost.

However, along come the Chinese in the middle of the largest credit bubble in history and throw a “spanner in the works” with a weaker yuan.

The yen has appreciated approximately 12% against the yuan since last August. That hurts. It hurts a lot and is a substantial headwind for Japanese QE.

The only thing to do, according to the Bank of Japan right now, is make interest rates negative and force that Yen 253 trillion of liquidity out into the economy via bank lending.

Why? Because the appreciation of the yen is pushing inflation the wrong way, if left unchallenged Japan will slip back into core deflation very quickly.

Core inflation responds with about a ten month lag to the exchange rate.

2016.1.29.JapanResponds3

Moreover, the exchange rate impacts the output gap (gap between actual and potential output) and that also drives inflation.

An appreciating exchange rate turns the output gap negative and that pushes down on inflation.

2016.1.29.JapanResponds4

So, easy to see why the Bank of Japan responded. They said it was to encourage banks to lend those reserves, but we know better.

It’s just the first little warning shot in an open currency fight with the Chinese.

With the yuan under severe pressure as a consequence of persistent and ongoing domestic capital flight, and a devaluation of 20%+ extremely likely, it’s just the start. The Bank of Japan will, in due course, be stepping up its bond purchases and pushing rates further into negative territory in a determined – and ultimately successful – effort to drive the yen down sharply.

More fuel to the global deflationary fire.

 

MONOGRAM CAPITAL MANAGEMENT

Severe Stress

We have written at length, and in great detail, over the last nine months about the stresses in the Chinese banking system and the threat to both Chinese and global stability.

As if more proof were needed the following chart, showing the volume of interbank lending in China, illustrates the extent of the pressure on a banking system that is enormously over-extended in an economy that is overleveraged and with extreme overvaluation in equities, real estate, and increasingly, government bonds (10 year government bonds currently yielding less than one percentage point more than US 10 year government bonds).

Yes, in November 2015 (latest data) Chinese interbank lending hit Yuan 8769 billion (or Yuan 8.8 trillion, about $1.4 trillion)

2016.1.07.severestress

In year on year terms the level of lending has exploded.

2016.1.07.severestress2

Now, interbank lending has typically been a way for Chinese banks to get around PBOC (People’s Bank of China) restrictions on balance sheet growth and leverage (loans can be made via other banks and are off balance sheet and circumvent loan/deposit ratio limits and capital requirements). The PBOC has tried on several occasions to address this loophole in the structure of regulations to little or no effect.

The enormous increase in interbank lending can only mean the following: the banking system is creaking under the strain of capital flight and tightening domestic liquidity conditions and that bad loans must be piling up at an alarming rate.

How should banks respond to this sort of scenario? Well, look at US banks after the subprime crisis. US banks reduced their credit market debt outstanding by approximately $3 trillion between the end of 2008 and the end of 2015. They reduced debt to add approximately $1 trillion in equity. Eminently sensible – swap debt for equity and deleverage.

What have Chinese banks actually done? Well, step forward anyone who wants Chinese bank equity… I don’t see a crowd. So, the Chinese response has been to increase bank leverage (when they are talking about deleveraging the system). Extremely worrying.

Consider that the balance sheet of Chinese depository corporations (“banks”) is $31 trillion, or three times Chinese GDP, and has quadrupled since the global credit crisis began in 2008. There you begin to see just how important Chinese banks are – they have a balance sheet equivalent to 30% of global GDP. Moreover, they are very inefficient lenders. In the last four quarters alone they expanded their balance sheets by $4.3 trillion when Chinese GDP grew just $0.5 trillion… which means just one thing, lots and lots of bad/non-performing loans in the pipeline.

And, for all those who think the Chinese can use their $3.3 trillion in foreign reserves to bail out the banks, perhaps the following information might be helpful. Assuming just 20% of Chinese bank assets are non-performing at peak (and that number is very, very modest by historical Chinese standards) and with a 50% recovery rate, you write off $3 trillion for the banks (0.2 * $31 trillion = $6.2 trillion and 0.5 * $6.2 trillion = $3.1 trillion). A relatively benign credit event cleans out PBOC reserves (assuming there is no further flight). If you think those FX reserves give the PBOC ample firepower to hold up their banking system then you are possibly guilty of wishful thinking and blind optimism.

Keeping to the USD peg, keeping real rates high enough to stem the capital outflow, deleveraging the financial system and keeping the economy motoring? These are impossibly incompatible objectives. Only one way out (as we highlighted many months back) – a significant decline in the Yuan (20% plus) that exports all of China’s problems to Japan and the West in a deflationary tsunami.

 

MONOGRAM CAPITAL MANAGEMENT

A little goes a long way

On the face of it, a 25 basis point (bp) increase in the US federal funds rate (the interest rate at which banks trade their excess reserves) looks pretty benign and inconsequential. Janet Yellen appeared to play down the consequences, but any student of economics knows that a little bit of tightening can go a long way under extreme circumstances.

Unfortunately, these are extreme circumstances and, in combination with liquidity developments outside the US, the US Fed just tightened global liquidity conditions very aggressively.

The first chart shows the relationship between the monetary base (under the control of the Fed: notes and coins + required bank reserves + excess bank reserves) and the short term interest rate.

On the vertical axis is the interest rate and on the horizontal axis something economists call the “liquidity preference”, which is simply the amount of monetary base per unit of GDP (or, in other words, how much “money” supports each dollar of gross domestic product).

  • At very low levels of interest rates the opportunity cost of holding money becomes trivial/near zero and so more money is willingly held.
  • At very high levels of interest rates the opportunity cost of holding money is very punitive so less money is willingly held.

Money moves faster around the economy (works harder) when interest rates are high and more slowly around the economy (works less hard) when interest rates are low.

2015.12.17.alittlegoesalongway

Where are we now?

Well, unfortunately for the Fed, we are out at the far right of the chart with rates near 0 and liquidity preference at a record 22/23 cents per dollar of GDP.

So what?

Well, as we noted, money works harder when interest rates go up so for the Fed to actually tighten monetary policy they need to remove liquidity (“monetary base”) from the system. Otherwise, paradoxically, by raising rates they will have eased monetary policy (made money work harder).

How much liquidity do they need to remove?

Well, let’s look at the chart. A 25 bp short rate implies liquidity preference (money/GDP) about 30% below the current level, around 16 cents from 22/23 cents per dollar.

Given that excess bank reserves held at the Fed are $2.58 trillion, or 65% of the total monetary base, it would imply that the Fed needs to remove around $800 billion in liquidity from the system.

Note: the relationship between interest rates and liquidity (the size of the Fed’s balance sheet) is non-linear. In short, each successive 25 bp of tightening requires less liquidity removal; the liquidity removal is highly front-loaded (this was noted by former Fed Board member Professor Charles Plosser as far back as 2011). So, the first 25 bp is the hardest, requiring the better part of $1 trillion of liquidity removal. The next 25 bp are a further $200 billion (approximately) and so on.

Wow.

Indeed, that’s a lot of liquidity taken out of the system. That must have an impact on market liquidity, asset prices and the US dollar.

However, it gets worse. Look at the drawdown in global foreign exchange reserves (essentially, capital leaving the emerging markets).

2015.12.17.alittlegoesalongway2

Emerging markets are losing liquidity at an almost unprecedented rate just at the point where the US Fed is likely to be taking the best part of $1 trillion out of the system – global liquidity conditions are tightening severely.

As always, we will observe and respond as/when/if the Fed follows the path.

 

MONOGRAM CAPITAL MANAGEMENT

Less than meets the eye…

When is policy easing not much of policy easing? In China.

The Chinese cut the prime rate and the reserve requirement for banks last week by 0.25% and 0.5% respectively.

That brings the rate cut to 1.25% for the year and the reserves requirement cut to 2.5%.

On face value, this is quite an aggressive move after a 2% devaluation in the exchange rate a few months ago.

However, in our view, there is far less to the easing than meets the eye.

Here’s why:

The deposit base of Chinese financial institutions is approximately $20 trillion. Up to the end of September, the reserve ratio (RR) cut will have released about $407 billion of liquidity into the system. This combined with an incremental $105 billion coming from last week’s cut gives a year-to-date injection of approximately $512 billion.

However, as the following chart (October’s reserve data is not yet available, this data only goes through end of September and thus does not include the impact of last week’s RR cut) shows, in the period through the end of September the central bank lost $329 billion of foreign exchange reserves as capital flowed out of the country.

2015.29.10.Lessthanmeetstheeye

A loss of reserves represents a loss of domestic liquidity that must be offset against the RR cut to see the proper extent of liquidity injections from the central bank. Quite clearly, in the first nine months of the year 80% of the People’s Bank of China’s (PBOC) liquidity injections from RR cuts flowed straight out of the door; just about $80 billion of liquidity appears to have been injected net from a relatively swift policy easing. That amount is actually irrelevant in a $10 trillion economy under such banking system stress. It is almost certain that reserves declined again in October, probably offsetting more than half of that month’s RR liquidity release.

Moreover, with the GDP deflator and the negative producer price inflation, the nominal prime lending rate has not declined at a pace to even match the price deflation, leaving real lending rates higher than they were at the start of the year.

In addition, despite the devaluation, the real effective exchange rate is also higher over the last twelve months and since the beginning of the year.

All in all, less than meets the eye when you look at the true nature of Chinese monetary policy. Higher real rates, a higher effective exchange rate and a trivial increase in domestic liquidity. Why might that be so?

Well one reason, perhaps, is that the PBOC is trying to fight two fires with one extinguisher. The capital outflow puts downward pressure on the yuan such that the PBOC must defend it if it is to maintain the dollar currency peg. It needs high real interest rates to hold capital in, but the consequence of higher real interest rates for horribly leveraged domestic corporates on wafer thin (if any) margins are painful. It appears that the rate cuts and the RR cuts are intended to show willingness to support the economy under stress without also compromising the peg.

As always, something must give. Will the Chinese allow the system to fail for the sake of the peg? No, we don’t think so. It reinforces our view that the yuan will be devalued significantly in coming quarters. The paradox is that the more they cut rates… the faster capital flows away, the greater the pressure on the peg and the greater the stress in the system that necessitates even more RR cuts. It’s a vicious cycle where cuts necessitate more cuts; easier to let the yuan weaken.

Of course, when you get almost 30% of your imports from China, and their currency weakens, the Japanese will come under increasing pressure for an even more aggressive QE stance to show that they are doing something, anything, to address a deflation storm heading their way. A weaker yuan also implies a weaker yen.

MONOGRAM CAPITAL MANAGEMENT

Deflation and the Fed… what would Greenspan say?

September 24, 2015

For those of us that have been around a while, and can remember, back in May 2003 (in the aftermath of the burst of the greatest equity market bubble since 1929) Alan Greenspan, then Federal Reserve Board Chairman said the following:

  • “We at the Federal Reserve recognize that deflation is a possibility. Even though we perceive the risks as minor, the potential consequences are very substantial and could be quite negative”  (Alan Greenspan, Congressional Testimony, May 2003)

At the time, this came as something of a bombshell, for the Chairman of the Fed even to entertain the possibility of deflation was quite a surprise to markets.

We thought it might be interesting to look at the parallels between today’s US inflation picture and that of the Spring of 2003. The comparison is quite striking.

We looked at 180 individual line items in the total Consumer Price Index (CPI) and the 106 line items that pretty much make up the Core CPI:

  • The chart shows that currently 43% of the individual core inflation items are in annual deflation, that compares to 48% in the Spring of 2003 and 45% in late 2010
  • The annual core inflation rate is currently 1.8% versus 1.5% in 2003
  • We are currently seeing the same breadth of core deflation that we saw at the bottom of the cycles post 2000 and 2009 bear market crashes

2015.24.09.DeflationandFedGreenspan

We then looked at how annual core inflation for the 106 sub-components had changed over the last 6 and 12 months to see if there was any clear trend:

  • In the Spring of 2003 about 60% of the components had seen year/year inflation decline in the previous 6 and 12 months (a clear downward trend) compared to about 50% today

2015.24.09.DeflationandFedGreenspan2

Interestingly, in 2003 we saw:

  • 48% of core inflation components in deflation and 60% with a clear downward trend

In 2015 we see:

  • 43% in annual deflation and 53% with a clear downward trend

Our thought is then, “What is so different?”

Greenspan was worried about deflation and yet now Janet Yellen appears to be itching to tighten. (Growth was strongly accelerating in 2003/4 and has been stuck at 2.5 – 3.0% in the last year or more, so that can’t be the reason).

Could it be the fabled “tightness of labour markets” argument, the so-called “Phillips curve” fed to generations of economics students purporting to link labour markets to inflation? (Along the way, countless economists seem to have lost sight of the fact that A. W. Phillips’ famous 1958 paper was titled “The Relation between Unemployment and the Rate of Change of Money Wage Rates in the United Kingdom, 1861-1957” and said nothing about unemployment and consumer price inflation).

Well, here is the relationship between the US unemployment rate level and US average hourly earnings over the last 50 years:

  • Clearly, even to an untrained eye, there isn’t one. A lower unemployment rate does not push up wage inflation…
  • There is, truly, nothing in the historical data to show that a lower unemployment rate (a “tighter labour market”) implies faster wage inflation (or, for that matter, faster price inflation)
  • Look at it with lags, as changes, whatever way you like, the “tight labour market/higher inflation” thesis cannot be substantiated… another case, to paraphrase our hero Thomas Huxley, of “a beautiful theory and ugly facts colliding”

2015.24.09.DeflationandFedGreenspan3

Conclusion:

  • If Greenspan was worried about deflation in 2003, why does Yellen not share the same concern (especially with the Chinese banking system in the state it is in and a Yuan devaluation on the way)? Would Greenspan be considering another round of QE here? We are inclined to think it would be foremost in his mind if he were still Fed Chairman.
  • Tight labour markets/faster inflation concerns just cannot be substantiated by the data; that is no reason to tighten.
  • US consumer inflation is determined exogenously (outside the control of the Fed) by the vast global overhang of global supply. Inflation in assets, inflation in balance sheets and surging debt are endogenous (inside the control of the Fed). They should tighten to address the latter and lay to rest old ghosts of Phillips curves. God forbid we get more QE, the consequences will be even worse when the rebalancing and re-pricing of risk takes place…
  • Because Central bankers are raised to believe that consumer price inflation is the target variable, they completely missed the consequences of inflation in asset prices and balance sheets in the last two cycles (confusing a positive supply shock from Chinese over-investment and low shop inflation with a miraculous surge in underlying productivity growth and hence trend GDP growth) and risk making the same mistake again…

 

MONOGRAM CAPITAL MANAGEMENT

It is the US… again!

May 8, 2015

The last two weeks in financial markets have been somewhat of a rollercoaster, with bonds, stocks and the US Dollar selling off in unison, wiping out several hundred billion dollars off global wealth in a matter of days. European bonds took a severe beating, which, as explained in one of our previous blogs, was inevitable considering that a large proportion of them were trading at prices that guaranteed a loss at maturity.

Panics in financial markets always show up unannounced, which makes it all the more interesting to understand ex-post what triggered these brutal moves. Friends of MONOGRAM have heard us mention many times that in essence, this is all about the US. The US drives capital and sentiment, and are therefore more often than not the culprit behind volatility bouts. All major crises in the last 30 years have started in the United States: the 2008 Lehman debacle, the 2000 Tech bubble, the 1998 LTCM bailout, and the 1987 market crash.

This time around, two factors seem to have been the catalyst behind the coordinated retreat in assets markets. First, a couple of fixed-income investment luminaries, Bill Gross of Janus Capital and Jeffrey Gundlach of DoubleLine Capital (who incidentally are both American), have been vocal about the inflated valuation of European sovereign bonds. Gross going on to call long-dated German bonds “the short of a lifetime”. This means that betting on these bonds going down is effectively almost a sure bet, the closest thing to free money.

Secondly, the US economy is going through a bit of a soft patch. This should in theory be favourable to bonds, and perhaps not so good for equities, but both asset classes have gone down. Why? Mostly because the US Federal Reserve said that this would not change its perception of the overall upwards trajectory of the US economy, and therefore it would not change its plan to tighten monetary conditions by the end of the year.

But perhaps the Federal Reserve is wrong. Perhaps the US, which has been expanding modestly over the last 6 years, is starting to turn the corner for the worst. This of course, would be supportive to bonds, although interest rates are so low that upside here is limited. This would also be a headwind to stock market performance, not only in the US, but also in Europe; and this is even if European economies finally break out of the stagnation world it has been living in for years.

Why is that? Because the US economy actually has a much larger influence on the fate of developed markets than the local economies themselves.  This means that what matters most to the performance of say, UK stocks, is not so much whether the UK is in recession or not, but whether the US is in recession or not.

To show this, we look at the performance of 5 local markets on a quarterly basis, selecting only the quarters when (i) the US was in recession, but not the local markets, and (ii) local economies were in recession, but not the US. Our sample includes France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK. Going back to 1992, our findings are crystal clear. The simple average annualised performance of local markets when we observe:

  • Local expansion and US recession is -22.0%
  • Local recession and US expansion is 13.1%.
1992 – 2015 Annualised Local Markets Performance
US recession France expansion -25%
US recession Spain expansion -13%
US recession UK expansion -21%
US recession Germany expansion -30%
US recession Italy expansion -20%
US expansion France recession 21%
US expansion Spain recession -1%
US expansion UK recession 21%
US expansion Germany recession 20%
US expansion Italy recession 5%

In light of these results, it is certainly worth keeping a very close eye on the fundamental US dynamic- and hope that the Federal Reserve is right. As former US President Bill Clinton once famously said- “It is (about) the economy, stupid”. That is right, it is about the economy … of the US.

MONOGRAM CAPITAL MANAGEMENT

Asian borrowers in trouble

March 13, 2015

With the US dollar trading close to a 12-year high, over-leveraged Emerging Market currencies look very vulnerable. This is because Emerging Market financial assets (read debt levels) have approximately doubled since 2008. Asian countries in particular have pilled foreign debt at an accelerating pace with the year-on-year debt growth for the Asian block now reaching 35%.

From the perspective of an Asian investor, leverage makes sense. Borrowing large amounts of money in a depreciating currency means less capital to pay back at maturity. And low interest rates (US rates have been close to zero for 6 years) make for negligible interest payments. Asian countries have gorged on this bonanza and the jury is out as to whether this is going to result in a painful indigestion.

The moment of truth might be near. The US dollar is powering ahead as the US Federal Reserve (the “Fed”) has indicated that its next monetary policy move will be restrictive, not accommodative. The Fed is remarkably lonely here as 9 countries have lowered their main interest rate since the beginning of the year already.  Yesterday again, the Korean Central Bank reduced its key rate to a historical low of 1.75% and the Chinese are considering a similar move. With comparatively fewer dollars and more of other currencies in the system, the value of the greenback has to go up.  This is exactly what is happening, and this is happening quick- the USD trades 10% higher than at the end of 2014.

At MONOGRAM we are staying away from Emerging Market stocks, since a forced de-leveraging caused by a strong dollar will certainly translate into substantial downside in domestic equities. But should the going get tough, these assets will probably trade low enough to present a bargain. Until then, we prefer the safety of the US market.

MONOGRAM CAPITAL MANAGEMENT

Euro capital flight could be good news for North America and the UK

March 12, 2015

This week the European Central Bank started its Quantitative Easing Program (“QE”), which boils down to an attempt to increase the amount of money in circulation while lowering interest rates, thus, on paper, boosting the economic activity of the region. As QE means more Euros in the global system, the Common Currency should underperform its peers. This debasement process has largely been anticipated by financial market operators, who have been selling the Euro and buying European stocks en masse. At time of writing, the Euro is 11% lower than at the beginning of the year, while European stocks are 14% higher.

Meanwhile European corporations as well as households have accumulated large balances of cash since 2008, which sit idle on account rather than being recycled back into the economy for productive usages. This, in turn, is a reflection of various structural effects, including the aging of the European population:  older people generally enjoy higher savings because they have accumulated more wealth than younger people. Increasing inequality also pushes the average savings rate up, as Keynes teaches us that propensity to consume is lower for richer people.

The pressure is mounting on these large cash balances to find a better home than European assets, which become less attractive by the day compared to foreign bonds, stock and real investments. This is because QE means that foreign currencies are likely to increase against the Euro while foreign assets in general, and bonds in particular, generally offer a better yield than domestic ones. Good European “signatures” such as the German government or the best corporations, already borrow at zero percent or even less (“lend us EUR 100, we will give you back EUR 100 in 10 years”), and with a massive new buyer in town these rates have little chance to increase any time soon.

The outflow or European money towards foreign assets (mostly bonds) has started (EUR 300bn over the last three months, net), and is accelerating. Deutsche Bank estimates that no less than a net EUR 10 trillion (yes, EUR 10.000 billion!) should exit the Eurozone by the end of the decade. In practice, this means that for every 10 Euros of wealth created, approximately 1 Euro will be sent abroad.

Where is all this cash going? Mostly to bonds in the US, Canada, and to a lesser extent the UK. Over the long run, this means (even) lower bond yields in these countries, and perhaps higher equity valuations. These jurisdictions are therefore better off for European QE too. In the meantime, investors looking for a bargain should stay clear of European bonds, where the upside is almost inexistent and where currency risk is high.

MONOGRAM CAPITAL MANAGEMENT

Swiss Franc Surge: Do They Know Something We Don’t?

• Franc rise will have massive impact on exports of goods and services which are 66% of Swiss GDP and imports which are 52% of GDP
• Could this be a sign of impending euro quantitative easing on an exceptional scale?

London, 13 January 2015. Paul Marson, chief investment officer of MONOGRAM, comments on the Swiss central bank’s surprise announcement that it has abandoned its currency peg with the euro:
“Today’s announcement is puzzling. Switzerland’s economic situation isn’t that different from September 11, when the peg was bought in to stave off deflation. Core inflation is 0.3% today, and was 0.2% in 2011. Arguably there may be greater demand for Swiss francs from capital flight from Russia, but such a currency rise will have a big impact on Swiss growth and inflation and on company earnings [Swiss companies will largely not have hedged currency exposure, in expectation of a continuing cap].

“With imports 52% of GDP and exports 66% of GDP, the currency really matters in Switzerland – and this will really damage Swiss exporters. Import prices will weaken, once again raising the spectre of deflation and growth is likely to weaken: the very same concerns that the Swiss National Bank (“SNB”) raised in 2011 would appear to apply today.

“Maybe the SNB knows something we don’t? One explanation is the possibility of euro QE on a greater than anticipated scale, perhaps the SNB decided not to fight the ECB and is unwilling to see a further substantial balance sheet expansion (and suffer the practical difficulties that coincide with the eventual unwinding of those positions)? Perhaps ECB quantitative easing has forced the SNB to throw in the towel after a CHF 307 bn (398%) increase in the monetary base since mid-2011? After all that balance sheet expansion, the CHF is stronger, growth little better and deflation risks almost identical: one has to wonder, was it worth it?”

Swiss Franc/ Euro Exchange rate

15.1.2015 Swiss Franc per Euro