Reserve in Reverse

Fallen Emperor?

 

With almost two thirds of global equity markets represented by the US, the fall in the dollar so far this year is quite dramatic, and for many investments, more important than the underlying asset.

UK retail investors are especially exposed to this, as although Jeremy Hunt (UK Chancellor) may not notice it, the US is where most UK investors went, when his party’s policies ensured the twenty-year stagnation in UK equity prices.

While Sunak continues to pump up wage inflation, which he claims, “won’t cause inflation, raise taxes or increase borrowings” Has he ever sounded more transparently daft? Sterling, knowing bare faced lies well enough, then simply drifts higher. Markets know such folly in wage negotiation can only lead to inflation and higher interest rates.

We noted back in the spring, in our reference to “dollar danger” that this trade (sell dollar, buy sterling) had started to matter, and we began looking for those hedged options, and to reduce dollar exposure. To a  degree this turned out to be the right call, but in reality, the rate of climb of the NASDAQ, far exceeded the rate of the fall in the dollar.

While sadly the other way round, a lot of resource and energy positions fell because of weaker demand and the extra supply and stockpile drawdowns, which high prices will always produce. But that decline was then amplified by the falling dollar, as most commodities are priced in dollars. So, a lot of ‘safe’ havens (with high yields) turn out to have been unsafe again.

The impact of currency on inflation

Currency also has inflation impacts. Traditionally if the pound strengthens by 20%, then UK input prices fall 20%. The latest twelve-month range is from USD1.03 to USD1.31 now, a 28% rise in sterling.

In a lot of the inflation data, this is amplified by a similar 30% fall in energy, from $116 to $74 a barrel for crude over a year. In short, a massive reversal in the double price shock of last year. In fairness this is what Sunak had been banking on, and why the ‘greedflation’ meme is able to spread. But while that effect is indeed there, other policy errors clearly override and mask it.

 

A Barrier to the Fed.

In the US we expect the converse, rising inflation from the falling currency, maybe that is creeping through, but not identified as such, just yet, as price falls from supply chains clearing lead the way, but it is in there.

Finally, of course, this time, the dire performance of the FTSE is probably related to the same FX effect on overseas earnings assumptions. Plus, the odd mix of forecast data and historic numbers that we see increasingly and idiosyncratically used just in the UK. If the banks forecast a recession, regardless of that recession’s absence, they will raise loan loss reserves, and cut profits, even if the reserves never get used.

Meanwhile, UK property companies are now doing the same, valuing collapsing asset values on the basis of the expected recession, and not on actual trades. So, if you have an index with heavy exposures to stocks, that half look back, half reflect forward fears, it will usually be cheaper than the one based on reality.

 

Why so Insipid?

OK, so why is the dollar weak? Well, if we knew that, we would be FX traders. But funk and the Fed’s ‘front foot’ posture are the best answers we have, and both seem likely to be transient too.

If the world is saying don’t buy dollars, either from fear of the pandemic or Russian tank attacks or bank failures, that’s the funk. As confidence resumes and US equity valuations look more grotesque, the sheep venture further up the hill and out to sea. To buy in Europe or Japan, they must sell dollars.

The VIX, in case you were not watching, has Smaug like, resumed its long-tailed slumber, amidst a pile of lucre.

a graph showing market volatility

From Yahoo Finance CBOE Volatility Index

 

So as the four horsemen head back to the stables, the dollar suffers a loss.

The Fed was also into inflation fighting early; it revived the moribund bond markets, enticed European savers with positive nominal rates, (a pretty low-down trick, to grab market share) and announced the end of collective regal garment denial policies. But having started and then had muscular policies, it must end sooner, and perhaps at a lower level. So that too leads to a sell off in the dollar.

 

Where do we go instead?

So where do investors go instead?

In general, it is either to corporate debt, or other sovereigns. Japan is not playing, the Euro maybe fun, but not so much if Germany is getting back to normal sanity and balancing the books again. So, the cluster of highly indebted Western European issuers are next.

Sterling now ticks those boxes, plenty of debt, liquid market, no fear of rate cuts for a while, irresponsible borrowing, what is not to like?

 

For How Long

When does that end? Well, the funk has ended. You can see how the SVB failure caused a dip in the spring, but now the curve looks upward again. Although fear can come back at any time, as could some good news for the UK on inflation.  However even the sharp drop the energy/exchange rate effects will cause soon, leave UK base rates well south of UK inflation rates.

So, every bit of good news for the Fed, is bad news if you hold US stocks here.

How high and how fast does sterling go?

Well, it has a bit of a tailwind, moves like any other market in fits and starts, but could well go a bit more in our view. Oddly the FTSE would be a hedge (of sorts).

 

 


A RIGHT OLD TONKIN

About Influence – American and Russian, mediated by the Chinese

So, to start with what does worry us: That is the slide to a hot war with the powerful Eastern autocracies, fueled by the EU with Napoleonic tendencies, an old man in the White House and a curious sense of ‘crusades’ with no consequences.

For those with long memories of American imperialism, the latest drama even fits neatly as a modern Gulf of Tonkin, a key moment in the slide to war. In that case (south of Hanoi) the clash was naval not aerial but was still notable as one directly between the warring parties and not just their local proxies.

While elsewhere the pieces move, China can not let Russia fail, nor descend into chaos, their long-shared border must stay intact and secure. They no more want the US there than the Russians do. The first step after his confirmation as ruler for life, by Xi, was indeed to go to Moscow.

And the bitter battles in the Middle East of Persian against Arab, Sunni against Shia have cooled abruptly, under Chinese influence. The world once more understands that the US is the threat to peace and stability, not just their fractious neighbours.

For Biden it is an easy fight, the Pentagon so far has played a blinder, what can go wrong? While, for now, France is Europe, no other large state has anything like their stability, Italy is led by the unspeakable, Germany has free market liberals in a bizarre ruling alliance with Greens, Spain is wrapped in its own forthcoming general election, the UK both distinctly detached and under a caretaker government.

The UK budget said nothing, incidentally.

Main influences in France.

Poster photographed in france last week by charles gillams

While the left in France, as the above photograph shows, are very alive to Macron’s ambitions, to add more territory to the EU, arrange more protectionism for French goods and to suck the labour force out of adjacent states to serve the Inner Empire. Just like Bonaparte tried (and failed) to do, with dire consequences for the French nation.

For all that, the domestic fracas in France (which makes our own strikes look rather tame) was inevitable. Raising (by not a lot) the pension age from 62 to 64, against our own 67 looks small, but it was a clear campaign pledge.

The absence of any minor party wishing to self-destruct, by supporting it in the French legislature, is no great surprise either. So, he has implemented it by decree and Macron has dared the opposition to now either remove his prime ministerial nominee, or shut up.

 

Banking On Nothing

So, what of markets? Well, the end of SVB is no great loss, it had several policies that had to implode if rates rose, especially on the lending side. It was painfully ‘woke’; I can tell you more about the Board Members sexual orientation, gender and ethnicity than their banking experience, the former just creeps into the end of their latest Annual Report, the latter was invisible to me.

SVB’s long list of ESG triumphs and poses (and it is long) at no point included not going bust. It did commit an extra $5billion to climate change lending, which I guess has all gone up in smoke now. Still apart from all being fired, the bank insolvent, the remnants rescued by the hated Washington mob, under investigation by the DoJ, all the rest of their “G” was superb, and so, so, cool.

I don’t see Credit Suisse as a danger, although it may be in danger. It has had an appalling run of misfortunes, with musical chairs at the top, but it remains a cornerstone of Swiss identity. To let it fold would be highly damaging and cause shockwaves in derivatives markets.

 

Influence on the markets

So, I do understand the Friday sell off (who wants to be weekend long with regulators on the loose). And we do understand markets needed to go down, after the big October bounce, indeed it was a key reason for our building up over 33% cash or near cash at the previous month end. We knew the winter rally was fake.

But I don’t see this as much more. Retest of the S&P 500 October low? It should not be. I take a lot of heart from bitcoin soaring (63% YTD); if liquidity was short, that would not have happened.

But for all that, I don’t like March in financial markets, too much is uncertain. So, this is more a time for cautious adding, rather than hard buying, but if we get to Easter (and hoping to be wrong on the Tonkin analogy) it does seem a better prospect.

Nor do I see how the various central banks can justify a pause in rate rises, at this point, but nor will they go in hard, that would be folly.

This Fed has made enough mistakes already.

 

 


A graph showing the bullwhip effect on markets, to illustrate an article by Charles Gillams on bond markets and the bullwhip effect

Bonds and Bullwhips

What are bonds for? Not always what you think. And the whiplash of the economy, (the bullwhip effect on all markets) makes recession both inevitable and meaningless.

Corporate bonds vs government bonds

So, to compare bonds - a corporate bond is issued to fund a project to produce a return greater than the interest and principal, and then pay the lender back. Much of the value lies in the assessment of how reliable that redemption is. Some of it is also whether the bond is cheaper or more expensive than a similar one, some of it is who is allowed to hold that bond.

But value lies in redemption, especially at the shorter end.

So, on that basis, what are government bonds? Well, they are there to achieve other objectives, seldom involving either redemption or a cash positive lifetime. It is largely accepted that they are a funding device to load debt upon future taxpayers, who luckily can’t vote. And the price of the bond is just what investors will pay for it. 

Market rigging

Governments will therefore try to directly rig the market, to avoid paying too much interest, by for instance, mandating all investors and especially pension funds should hold gilts, their debts, on the gloriously fake grounds that they are “safe”. Well, just remember this year’s disastrous collapse, down by a quarter at the long end, with plenty of volatility too, ‘safe’ they are not. But the regulators and professional bodies still peddle versions of the old homily about the percentage of bonds in a portfolio should equal your age.

They can also apparently use the rate of bond interest to control inflation (so they say), so raising it (and devaluing bonds) if inflation rises, albeit the causes of inflation have little to do with the bonds (or bond investors). Then most marvellous of all, they can rig the price by easing and tightening their ‘quantitatives’ at will. Although no one is quite sure what a quantitative is, or indeed where it lives.

So, the government bond market turns out to be pretty much whatever you want it to be. To be contrasted with the weird and feckless equity, whose value can be, pretty much whatever you want it to be. Or indeed bitcoin, whose value….

A difference of degree granted, but less clearly one of substance. Rigged markets in any asset, make us nervous, and all markets are increasingly manipulated, to some degree.

What of bullwhips and earthquakes?

Well, both show a declining sinusoidal wave, that ripples prettily along and disappears. Whether it is the globe scratching its toe itch in Tierra del Fuego, or an irritated ear in Reykjavik, it is very jumpy. Where you stand now can be higher or lower than yesterday; it is erratic, chock full of faults, and crucially, not smooth and cyclical.

So, measuring whether you are higher or lower than last week’s datum matters little, if your fields have vanished into the sea, or indeed your sea has become a field.

So it is with recessions, after the shock we have had, being up or down two quarters in a row is trivial. Indeed, as that slick whipping wave races by, we will certainly be both.

Do changes in the Government bond markets matter?

And trying to decide whether the gyrations in the government bond market have any relevance to the level of the economy when the whole structure is bucking around, is slightly crazy. Nor are yesterday’s maps going to be of any use.

That is even assuming that the price of bonds has any relationship to anything except how little governments want to pay for their exorbitant debts. While I have not even mentioned the wealthy autocracies involved in the same game.

And that’s the market muddle we are in. The US Central Bank is playing old style economics, using the interest rate to control inflation - hang the cost of debt, that’s a problem for Congress.

But the UK and European Central Banks are playing new style, because they fear that the usual medicine will be disastrous for their rather sickly patients.

Taken from this article - BBC

And US stock markets are using that funny old, discredited, yield curve to predict a recession that is by their definition (two down quarters in a row) inevitable, but ignoring the COVID earthquake which has upended all our old data and assumptions, simply because we have never had one like that before. The curse of econometrics is that we can only predict the future if it resembles the past.

EU stock markets

Meanwhile European stock markets have understood rates are not going up much more, because the EU would prefer to rig the market, so investors think they must have avoided a recession, which is equally a delusion.

And underneath all that is the great big chunk of molten sludge at the core, the vast irredeemable mass of government debt, where real yields are apparently staying submerged everywhere.

So wise men can select from all of that to predict that markets in debt and equity are going to go up a lot or down a lot, really as you wish. And they may all be right, at least somewhere on the globe.

Our own choices

But we still see no point in holding state debt, nor much in holding cash for too long. Corporate debt and equities, especially equities with a real value that you can figure out, maybe. We look at ones without state interference rigging the price, and with an ability to raise prices to hold margins, and which have a dividend yield. Those, we think, may still be attractive.       

And we are not alone, many markets and stock prices bottomed out in October and are steadily inching up. Our own MonograM momentum models (both in the USD and GBP versions, a rarity this year) have triggered a re-entry into equites, and for once in a while, not US ones.

Something is shifting under our feet. So next year at least, is very unlikely to be like this year.

When we next write the calendar will have changed and no doubt many rate rises will have happened. But we doubt if the big themes will change much.

In the meantime, Seasons Greetings and a prosperous New Year, to all our readers.


Into Broad, Sunlit Uplands?

This week has included a major but baffling fixed interest event in London. And we include some thoughts on the novelty of a conservative prime minister for the Conservative party - but first, the shape of the coming recession.

Who Survives in the Coming Recession?

It may help to see this recession, as just the reversal of the COVID boom, paid for with debt and deeply inflationary; in which case what should it look like? The ultimate aim will be to unlock labour markets, where we said (in our newsletter of 20-3-21) that COVID would do most harm.

Unlike traded goods or commodities or liquid assets, there is no simple snap back available without pain, because labour pricing is inflexible downwards. Indeed organised labour has worked hard to embed that inflexibility, notably in minimum wage laws, and the crippling of the hated gig economy.

Certain capital assets too are stranded and inflexible, but probably not most commercial (or residential) rents. Large single purpose buildings may be vulnerable and we feel, so is quite a lot of owner occupied residential property, whereby recent unearned gains will now need reversing.

Labour costs have two available paths. Either the 40% of working age adults who have now withdrawn from the labour market must (in some measure) return. It is their ongoing withdrawal post COVID that has hurt most. While COVID has also created (mainly in the public sector) a lot of extra staffing that is hard to step back from, especially in healthcare, which further depletes the available labour pool, and must also be reversed. Reducing labour taxes also helps.

Possible business failures

If not, there may instead need to be widespread private sector business failures. The third option, a speeding up of capital investment to substitute for labour, has somehow failed to be either fast enough or effective enough. It seems just too hard for businesses to predict demand paths, to commit to such expenditure. Cap ex is all about confidence, which is absent.

How then to measure if this labour reset finally happens? Well it looks as if job creation will need to go into reverse, with a net two quarters (at least) of contraction. There are plenty of businesses to fail, speculative and derivative loss making tech for a start, retailers of goods who over extended in the supply chain inspired boom, service sector spaces, where the current surge has drawn in capacity well in excess of long run demand, will all get hit.

As will everyday businesses, that have net margins that can’t withstand the double figure interest rates demanded of sub prime (i.e. now most SME) borrowers.       

Paint that template over where the most savage equity falls have already happened, it fits quite well. But it is by no means universal, if IP, not labour matters, or labour can be off-shored, it is in a better place.

Although as jobs disappear, so the strain reaches further into total consumption and demand.

Fixed or Floating.

What of fixed income? Well we took the view early this year that you can’t stand in the way of an avalanche, unless you hope to surf it. So we kept clear, and still are.

Source : this page

It was a very well attended fixed income conference in London this week, so credit is clearly back into portfolios, big time. My worry was the Table Mountain (or Brecon Beacons or Grand Canyon) graphs. All of which were steep sided, but flat topped, and on all of which, just now, is the exact point when lungs bursting, you climb the last butte, to see a vast sunlight upland.

Really? Why? No idea, but somehow the collective belief is rates top out circa 4% and then fall.

Certainly not if they mirror the inflation path (see above), that gap is now vast twixt interest rates and inflation; it will close - it has to. However we see more rises, not a near term peak and also far slower falls, than the market does. Reason? It is labour inflation that now drives it, and it won’t roll over soon.

Unless that is, the rate rises so far have done real damage and rates are then cut to mitigate a severe recession. If that’s the expectation (and it may be) you really don’t want equities at all, not even energy, the year’s bright spot.

So the question is, are high yield bonds now cheap?

Well yes, and quite attractive; defaults at the rate now implied, are unheard of. But if that odd plateau graph of rates is wrong, everything has yet to get even cheaper. That’s the rub. And that is why, for now, bar floating rate, secured, we are still not going into credit. And also because global interest rates must eventually align, so the dollar’s ongoing strength is a bad sign, as that will have to reverse too. This makes dollar assets themselves now dangerous.

The same dilemma is true for equities, yes, high quality, mid-size companies look cheap, the FTSE 250 is down some 20% in a year, almost as bad as the NASDAQ, whereas the FTSE 100 is modestly up (a distinction shared only with the Nifty 50). But again, we thought that value was emerging in the summer, but sadly not so; the market still sees a viscous earnings contraction ahead.  

Which brings us back to employment, either it must fall, or participation must rise, and I fear we expect a fall, which seems more likely. This cycle, in the all important labour markets, still feels a long way from done.

New Broom

As for Truss, well talk of growth at the inept and hidebound Treasury is a nice change. As is that of getting the country working (spot on). This is core free market stuff. Has she the votes? Pretty sure she has, it was odd for the left wing of the party to eject Boris, who his actions showed was one of theirs. To unseat another leader would guarantee oblivion, so they must back her.

Worrying about fiscal rectitude, for a two year government, seems oddly implausible too. Yet she still fell prey to the old belief that governments (and higher tax) solve everything with her energy package, least of all can that solve demand based inflation. That is for Central Banks to do, and as ever, they are getting no help from the rest of government.    

Does this suggest a big US rate hike this week? Not sure, we are much more seeing the end point as rather higher, than faster near term rises. We kind of think the Fed has made their point already.


a map of russian oil pipelines with pictures of pipes super imposed on it - in house collage - illustration for an article by charles gillams - he who pays the piper

He who pays the piper

A very strange quarter: the FTSE100 was up, in sterling terms the S&P 500 was up, and the Russian Rouble ended where it was just before the Russian invasion. Short term dollar interest rates are nicely positive at last.

So where is the problem?

UK policy changes – could we finally be leading in economic policy?

Well, at long last the UK Chancellor has finally realised that just throwing money at inflation has one clear outcome: more inflation. This is tough lesson learnt back in the 1970’s and seemingly since forgotten.

If true it is a turning point and we predicted that it must always come sooner for the UK, if it persists in staying out of the Euro, than for bulkier continental currencies. Sunak also seems miraculously to be finally tackling some long overdue, multi-parliament, structural taxation issues, a rare sign of political maturity.

Whether he can hold the line against an increasingly dimwitted set of MPs and a media who constantly bay for more fuel to be added to the inflationary fire is unclear, but at least he has had the courage to step out into the unknown night, not cower by his warming bonfire of magic myths.

Nor is it clear whether he has the clout to unpick the cosy mess created by Theresa May and her childlike energy price fixing, or the ensuing nonsense from Ofgen. This fine-tuned capacity to the point of absurdity, guaranteeing a massive breakdown in the generating buffers, which had been painstakingly installed under a series of Labour governments.

Inflation policy is being taken seriously

But Rishi is trying; to cool inflation you simply must have demand destruction, there is no choice. This type of deep-seated widespread inflation will be hard to quell in any other way. True, areas of it can be contained, but it is hard to hold it all.

He is lucky to be helped by a Bank of England that seems to be serious about its brief, not regard it like Lagarde and Powell, as some kind of political inconvenience, to be wished away in double talk and evasion.

But he’s unlucky in other ways; we noted a while back that China no longer seemed to care about headlong export led growth, or more broadly about access to hard currency. It feels it can invest with and gain from its own currency and avoid importing the monetary excesses of the West. That in turn means it cares less about the endless flows of cheap goods to Europe and the US, and conversely about soaking up those surpluses in luxury goods and services. None of this is good for our inflation.

Meanwhile by eliminating the oddly divergent starting points for the two income taxes, National Insurance and Income Tax, Sunak has opened the way to many benefits. It continues to drop taxpayers out of the system, despite desperate measures by HMRC to suck more in. A key step, and a sign of, for once, a more liberal, more efficient government. Many more steps are needed to unshackle wealth creation, but it is a start. It makes much of the Universal Credit complexity around thresholds also fall away. Most of all it is a step closer to combining the two income taxes.

Politically this is highly desirable, as it strips away the pretence of a low starting rate of taxes on income.

It perhaps even gives an excuse for the otherwise inexplicable step of introducing National Insurance on employees passed retirement age. Given so much of current inflation is due to the mass withdrawal of older workers, another step in that direction looks remarkably stupid, but perhaps it has a higher purpose. It is good to see that the “Amazon” tax as Business Rates should be called, as it gives Amazon such a massive earnings boost, is also clearly still under long term review.

Why has the rouble recovered?

Source : this page on tradingeconomics.

The recovery of the rouble is of course not a market step alone, doubling interest rates, exchange controls and the mass withdrawal of exports to Russia from the West, are part of the story too. But it also shows a turning point. At first the West was so shaken by Russian military attacks, it was prepared to follow its own scorched earth policy, regardless of the harm caused to our own people and employers.

But at some point, the realisation that Ukraine’s army would hold, that Putin’s army was not that good after all, especially up against modern weapons and we start to understand that the further blowing up of our own bridges just raised the ultimate bill. Here are the sanctions we've imposed.

So, it seems it is no longer true that any price is worth paying to help Ukraine or hinder Russia. Clearly, we don’t have to jettison all our principles in dealing with other tyrants, nor one hopes do we need to alienate every piece of remaining goodwill with the rest of the world, by panicked grandstanding.

The mob is still rampant, goaded by an American president for whom no European economic sacrifice is too great.

But maybe it is also time to tell Ukraine that no NATO also means no imminent EU: Brussels has its hands full with its own struggling ex-Soviet states.      

And what about Powell and his policy?

Well, we don’t expect him to hold inflation down with his trivial rate rises, nor politically can he do more than tinker. It seems too that Lagarde at the very least has to get Macron back in, before telling the bitter truth about rates.

So, we feel the bond market has rates where the market would like them to be, in the US, not where they will be set by the Fed anytime soon. And the Euro is now in a very odd place, still with monetary stimulus being applied and with an unstable gap to US interest rates.

So, we may look to be where we were late last year, but in most cases the cracks are now alarmingly wide.

Europe, quite urgently, but the US as well needs a sharp jolt upwards in rates to halt inflation.

Oddly only the UK looks to have spotted the danger, stopped the false COVID ‘economic expansion’, tightened fiscal policy, reformed taxes and raised base rates steadily, towards where they need to be. How unusual.

Long may PartyGate continue if this is the end result.

We will take a break for Easter now, and resume on the 23rd.

If the first quarter is a guide, by then everything will have changed again.