Posts tagged ‘bonds’
It is almost four months since Donald Trump won the US presidency but the shockwaves from his victory still reverberate. Coverage of supposed scandals, protests and presidential Tweets have continued to abound. Those who were delighted by November’s result, so polling suggests, remain so; those who reverted to hysteria continue their frenzy. Amid all the drama it is perhaps an odd expression to pick, but: Amercian politics has found an equilibrium.
Assumptions about the US economy have also become entrenched. It has long been obvious that a Trump presidency would be inflationary and the bond market reacted to the result accordingly: on the day of the election the ten-year Treasury yielded 1.85%, but by the end of November had hit 2.4%. It has stayed firmly in a range of 2.3%-2.6% ever since. The dollar likewise strengthened sharply after the election and has comfortably held its range against other major currencies. Eurodollar rates moved from pricing in two Fed hikes by the end of this year to pricing in three, and have held that view right up to the present.
While American politics has become energized, however – by the ambition of the new incumbent and the vitriol of his critics – financial opinion has become complacent. While markets and observers have in many cases settled on a static view, the ground since the election has shifted. Look away from fixed income and the currency, and towards risk markets and the data and this is easily clarified.
The US stock market found a secure range after the election, but only for a time. Last month it smashed it. From meandering around the 2,250 level throughout December-January the S&P 500 broke 2,300 in early February and 2,400 less than a month later. The index has now risen by more than 6% since the beginning of the year, comfortably beating other major bourses around the world.
It is not just the stock market that is optimistic, and setting new records. Consumer confidence hit a new high this week, eclipsing the levels reached prior to the credit crunch and threatening to visit territory last occupied during the go-go boom of the later 1990s. This is of a picture with earlier data on retail sales, showing the fastest annual rate of growth (+5.6% in January) since the early stages of the recovery in 2010-11, and buoyant numbers on existing home sales, which have reached a pitch last seen before the credit crunch in 2007. (Bear in mind that mortgage costs have actually been increasing at the same time, pushed up by higher long-term interest rates.)
Industrial indicators have strengthened too. Purchasing manager activity surveys out this week for both manufacturing and service sectors continued their sharp rise. The rotary rig count released last Friday showed that US oil production has continued to recover even though the price of crude has been no better than stable since December. Again, this is consistent with earlier data such as the NFIB survey of smaller firms and the “Philly Fed” report on the national outlook for business, both of which have been rocketing up, in the latter case to a 33-year high.
If one tries very hard to find them there are more equivocal releases. Monthly variability on jobs data, for instance, has been weak in some instances; then again, the broader context is one of effectively full employment, and short-term moves from 4.6% to 4.7% in the headline jobless rate are neither here nor there.
More seriously, while vague expectations of higher inflation have been priced in since November, underlying price indicators have started to move. Import price inflation, which had been negative since mid-2014, flattened out to +0.2% in election month and has since hit +3.7% (year to January). The price components of PMI surveys have also risen. Public statements from various Fed presidents and board governors has been preparing markets for a hike this month which leaves ample scope for those three rises this year, and more.
Put all the pieces together and it seems more and more obvious that there is no longer any broad backdrop of bad economic news, whatever one’s views of American politics. The credit crunch hit housing and the banking sector – all recovered. The oil price collapse hit the shale business – recovering nicely. A strong dollar dampened activity – that effect has fallen away.
On the other hand, sentiment and output indicators are on the up. The economy is at full employment. The core rate of CPI inflation has already been running above 2% for more than a year and in January posted its fastest monthly increase since 2006.
The US economy is catching fire. This will make a novel change from the sclerotic pace of recovery we have seen there to date. The question is: are markets properly discounting the eventual need to put the fire out?
The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency apparently “wiped out more than $1 trillion across global bond markets“, as reported by Reuters earlier in the week. The inflationary nature of his policies has not, after all, gone unnoticed. Bond markets have digested new information and responded rationally, by falling in price so as to offer investors the prospect of higher real returns. Yes, the politics have tinged the reporting – as with the economic consequences of the UK’s decision to leave the EU. But surely the picture is clear: an event has occurred, markets have responded efficiently and their response is cause for concern.
As in the case of Brexit, however, the political element seems to have cost some observers their perspective. Starting with the obvious: only part of that $1trn comes from the US itself. And bond markets have been weakening for some time: Mr Trump’s election only accelerated the process. Referring to the BofA Merrill Lynch US Treasury Index, the full market value of US government bonds climbed to a peak of $9,729bn on the 8th of July, when the ten year bond yield reached a record low of 1.36%. By 8 November, before there was any indication of the surprise election result, this value had already fallen to $9,507bn. As of yesterday, the number was $9,296bn. So most of the fall since the summer preceded the new president entirely.
More broadly the invocation of a “Trump thump” is a symptom of the behavioural concept known as anchoring. We had become very used to both the recent level of bond yields and the pace of their rise before the election, so the sudden change shocked us into thinking that something anomalous had occurred: in this case, a dramatic change in policy direction arising from the victory of a candidate from left field.
This is at best a partially misleading analysis. Inflationary pressure has been mounting – and disinflationary forces have been receding – for some time. Look at the prices of base metals and freight and global activity seems to have been picking up over the second half of this year too. What is strange – perhaps – is that bond yields remained at record lows for such a long time. Putting it unkindly, bond markets have often seemed to care much more about the last ten weeks than the next ten years. There is a case to be made that the so-called “thump” was no more than a catalyst to their ongoing recovery from inertia.
Time for some more context. Yes, the US 30-year yield has risen by its fastest pace since at least 2009, putting on 40bp in four trading sessions starting last Wednesday week. But it has since spent the whole of this week hovering around the 3% mark. The initial spike was unusually volatile, but taking a slightly longer view the 30-year yield has now risen by about 1% in total since its July low – and did exactly the same thing over a similar period in H1 2015.
Look at current pricing in absolute terms and 3% is not even a high number. Trump has only managed to thump the 30-year Treasury yield back up to where it ended last year. It is almost exactly in line with its five-year average. And this is still miles below the 5.3% it posted on the cusp of the credit crunch (21 July 2007).
From another angle, a 3% return for thirty years looks plausible in real terms if we focus on the most recent American CPI data (last in at +1.6%). But long run expectations according to the University of Michigan survey are closer to +3%, and the 21st-century average prior to the Great Recession was +2.8%. On that basis the election result has only delivered US investors a prospective 30-year real return of 0.0-0.2%. In fact if one really wanted to get bearish on bonds one might observe that these levels of inflation would, not so very long ago, have been regarded as unachievably benign in any kind of growth-positive environment for the US economy. That is why the bond market has been able to rally to new highs year, after year, after year since inflation peaked at 15% in 1980.
So from a politically detached perspective, perhaps we should forget about Mr Trump’s impact on the US bond market. Fundamentally speaking he has taken the stage as accomplice, not assassin.
What we oughtn’t to do, of course, is forget about the possible impact of bond markets . . .
This week saw headlines appear about the possibility of another debt crisis in Greece. A multi-billion loan repayment to the ECB is due this summer; the European Commission and the IMF – the other two members of the “troika” governing the bailout arrangement – are divided on the scale of deficit reduction required to allow funds to be released; and in the meantime the country has just gone out on a general strike today in protest at any further “austerity”.
It feels, rather sadly, just like old times.
Yet things have changed in Greece since the pandemonium over her original bailout and debt restructuring. The governing leftist coalition, Syriza, has learned through bitter experience that it really does have no option but to comply with its creditors’ requests. And while books will doubtless continue to be written on the fiscal consolidation undergone by western countries since the Great Recession it is undeniable that Greece has been getting on with the job: the budget deficit there, as a proportion of GDP, has been falling from its 2009 peak of -15.2% at almost twice the pace at which it had grown during the course of Greece’s eurozone membership up to that point. This has had the effect of containing the national debt to GDP ratio, which while eye-wateringly high (177% for 2015) has fallen since 2014 despite the suffering brought about as a result of the Greek government’s hubris a year ago. Indeed, take out the effect of the debt restructuring in 2012 and last year’s fall in this ratio was the first since 2007.
There were also tentative signs of recuperation on the broader economic front too. The European Commission’s spring economic forecast was published on Tuesday and the expected contraction in Greek GDP this year was revised down from -0.7% to -0.3%. (Growth of +2.7% is projected for 2017.) The slow turnaround in employment might have halted for now, stuck between 24%-25% over the nine months to January, but with growth beginning to return again this should continue to tick down – and remains below the peak of 28% reached three years ago.
In the meantime, bond markets in Greece and elsewhere on the eurozone periphery are not showing any sign of panic. Ten year Greek government paper is trading down towards its lows for the year to date (just over 8% at present), well short of the over 11% reached during February’s market-wide funk. Italian and Spanish bonds have been priced around the 1.5% mark in recent weeks, just like ten year gilts.
It is worth reflecting that five short years ago – when many respected commentators were confidently predicting the demise of the euro – this was unthinkable. Greece might have been in the headlines again but there is absolutely no contagion in evidence today. Today, markets are not even bothering to try taking on Mr Draghi and his “bazooka”.
It is also worth reflecting that economic growth in the eurozone as a whole is projected at +1.6% this year and +1.7% next – a breakneck pace compared to the average rate of +0.9% over the last 15 years. And talking of headlines, it drew some attention last week when data emerged to show that the zone’s GDP had finally surpassed its pre-Great Recession peak in real terms. Numbers out last month showed its deficit falling as a percentage of GDP for the sixth consecutive year in 2015 to -2.1%, and confirmed that total debt to GDP peaked a year earlier. The unemployment rate might already have dropped back below 10% this month for the first time since April 2011.
There are political risks ahead for Europe but to say that the eurozone as a whole has moved on from the debt crisis is beginning to look like an understatement. It is to be hoped that Greece manages to continue her recuperation. If she does so the “European debt crisis” will soon be history.
Economically speaking there has been little drama or excitement in the UK over recent months. While markets agonized over Greece, and then China, and subsequently the Fed, the British economy quietly kept on going. There have been no growth surprises in either direction; no change to the Bank of England’s guidance or rhetoric on interest rates; no unexpected outcomes in the labour market, or price indices, or activity indicators. The PMI survey for September showed a bit of weakening in output. And Mark Carney did have some diverting things to say about topics other than monetary policy (climate change for instance). But all in all, it has been an uneventful time.
Nonetheless the UK markets are of key importance to British investors and do not always reflect goings on in the economy, to say the least. So while the economy might not invite too much scrutiny just at the moment, here is a summary of conditions across the major UK asset classes.
Starting with property, the residential market rally that took off in 2013-14 continued into this year but has abated somewhat. Government data showed a 5% increase in house prices in the twelve months to August, down from a 12% annual rate in the early autumn of last year. Valuations are mixed: the simple average earnings to average house price measure suggests the market is red hot but on this measure that has been true since 2004. Using a measure of mortgage affordability (which takes account of interest rates) the market is priced fairly: the ratio of average mortgage payments to average earnings is almost exactly in line with the average since 1976.
The commercial property market has been having a jollier time of things, with the Investment Property Databank All Property total return index up 15% over the twelve months to September. Again, the valuation picture is mixed. Rental yields have fallen sharply over the last couple of years and are about as low as they were at the peak of the late 1980s boom (though still a little way off the lows seen before the Great Recession). On the other hand, the rate of capital growth has not been as aggressive as in previous rallies and there is some distance before the market surpasses its 2007 peak.
Staying at the riskier end of the spectrum the equity market has been picking up nicely in recent days. The FTSE 100 has risen by 5% so far this month and is now 8% above the low it marked towards the end of August – though remains 10% below the record set back in April. There has been pressure on earnings from currency and commodity effects this year so the improvement in valuation since then has actually been rather muted: the forward p/e ratio has risen from 14x to 16x, which looks toppy against a ten year average of 12x. At the same time, however, the dividend yield has risen from 3.5% at the end of last year to 3.9% today (the ten year average is 3.6%).
Talking of yields, the gilt market has barely shifted from where it began the year. All the key maturities – two year, five year, ten year, thirty year – as well as the ultra longs are within 10bp of where they ended 2014. There is one exception: the ultra long end of the index-linked market has rallied, with the yield on the 0 3/8% 2068 linker down 16bp to an uncompelling -0.8% in real terms. The ten year conventional gilt yield stands at 1.8%.
Corporate bonds have similarly had a dull time of things, at least in the investment grade arena where widening spreads have seen total returns of about 0.5% according to the Bank of America Merrill Lynch family of indices. High yield has done better: spreads are about where they were at the start of 2015 so there has been relatively little capital impact on income return (the total return on the sterling high yield index stands at 4% for the year to date). In valuation terms credit spreads are much higher than they were in the years preceding the 2007 crunch but not very compelling against average levels given the scale of the collapse at that time. Using the Markit iTraxx Europe index as a benchmark the price of investment grade credit is just over 80bp today, up from a pre-crisis low of 20bp but somewhat below a ten year average of 90bp.
There is nothing much to say about cash with base rate stuck at 0.5% for the last six and a half years, though the worst performing assets of all are to be found in the commodity space. The near Brent crude oil future has rallied from the new bottom it reached in August (by some 14% in fact), but is still worth less than half what it was before the crash last year. The economic and market consensus is for very limited improvement over the coming months and with supply still materially stronger than demand there seems little reason to argue with this. There would also appear to be the will in some important quarters for oil to stay cheap: Saudi Arabia alone increased daily production by just over one million barrels during the first seven months of this year.
Precious metals have had a better time of things too lately and both gold and silver are trading very near the levels at which they began the year. Still, gold at $1183 an ounce remains expensive relative to inflation-adjusted 30 and 40 year averages of $793 and $825, even though that price is almost 40% below the $1900 reached at the peak of the bubble.
At this point we have departed from strictly British assets of course but that, at least, is all the key bases covered!
It has not been the easiest of years for UK investors and readers will have noted that this blog sees continued volatility ahead. But there are always opportunities amid uncertainty. Time will tell if we are able to find them out.
The ongoing drama over Greece continues to monopolise the financial world’s attention. We will probably find out how it ends – for the time being – in a day or two. In the meantime it has been easy to lose sight both of other potential sources of political risk and of the macro and market undercurrents which as rational investors we of course believe will come to dominate in the end.
Political risk is a difficult measure to quantify and a shock, by definition, cannot be planned for. However we have had some horrible reminders today that terrorism is grievously on the rise. This morning it was the attack on a factory in France; then a bombing in Tunisia; and a suicide attack on a Kuwaiti mosque during Friday prayers. These acts have all been claimed or inspired by the Islamic State.
The growing confidence and appeal of IS became glaringly obvious at the time of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity in Paris. Concerns have mounted since at the numbers of Muslims in European and other “western” countries who have tried to join IS in the Middle East, and who it is feared have been returning to shed blood in their homelands thereafter. And competition between IS and Al-Qaeda has been escalating in an attempt to establish leadership of global jihad. The rise of terrorism and the occurrence of any attack is lamentable but it is this last point which poses the risk to markets: something on the scale of the Bishopsgate bombing of 1993 or the 9/11 attacks eight years later has become a strategic goal for terror.
Meanwhile, the collapse of peace talks over Yemen last week has seen renewed Saudi bombardment of the country as the civil war there grinds on: the war doubles as a proxy conflict between the Saudis and Iran. Internal Yemeni rivalry between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State is a complicating factor, as is the US drone campaign there against the former (though this is supposed to have been suspended in recent months). Elsewhere, negotiations continue to secure a commitment from Iran that she will not become a nuclear power; there is little encouragement to date that their objective will be achieved. In other words, the perpetual powder keg which is the Middle East has been getting even more alarming this year.
It seems reasonable to conclude that the risk of short-term setbacks to risk assets has increased in 2015. But what of the underlying fundamentals?
Here the picture is more mixed, which is to say, more positive overall. Attempts have been made to portray some of the major equity markets as dangerously overvalued but they do not stand up to balanced scrutiny. The economic outlook has disappointed in some places – most conspicuously in the US – and improved in others, such as in Europe, where even the threat of a Greek default has not noticeably dented confidence this month.
One area which has seen some movement this quarter has been the safe haven bond markets. There has been a marked sell off. The ten year gilt yield has risen by 60bp, the ten year US Treasury yield is almost 50bp higher and the ten year German bund yield is up by 70bp, having reached a low of 0.075% as recently as April. Upward moves in interest rates from the Federal Reserve, and with more of a local impact the Bank of England, have been drawing nearer for some time. The futures markets are currently pricing in a 25bp hike from both towards the end of the year. By then the disinflationary impact of last year’s fall in the price of crude oil will have unwound completely. Indeed, should the price rise between now and December then energy will become a source of inflation again.
Bond markets have a long way to go in many places, including here in the UK, before they start to close the valuation gap with equity. The earnings yield on the FTSE All Share Index is still almost three times the gross redemption yield on the ten year gilt, having averaged 1.8x over the last 20 years and 1.1x in the decade prior to the credit crunch in 2007. To reach those levels again the gilt yield would have to rise to 3.5% or 5.8% from 2.2% today. Furthermore, stock market observers seem pretty convinced that markets will take the early phase of rate hiking in their stride, largely because this is what happened last time. They might well be right – but this is not how things went the time before that (1994 as opposed to 2004) and since rate rises are such a novel idea these days their rediscovery surely poses some measure of risk.
So while the threat of short-term shocks has increased the possible medium-term headwinds from monetary tightening have been blowing closer too. It is doubtful whether most major stock markets are in bubble territory and likely that economic and reported earnings growth have much further to run. But selling on the records rather than buying on the dips appears the more rational approach at this point in time.
The continued negotiations over emergency lending to Greece have been an obvious political risk for some time, and one which increased with the change of government there in January. This week’s leading stories have been dominated by the latest down-to-the-wire developments. The shock deferral of a payment due to the IMF until the end of the month was followed by recriminations between the Greek government and its creditors at the highest political level and the IMF team itself has now stormed off from Brussels in despair: EU Prepares For Worst As Greece Drives Finances To Brink (Bloomberg)
We have already looked at the possible consequences, and certain pain, that would ensue following a Greek sovereign default (The Joy Of Negotiating). In any case an indebted Greece would still require emergency funding of some kind in the aftermath of such a default as the bond market would be closed. Its emergency creditors would likely be exactly the same bunch it is dealing with today, or wild card lenders like Russia or China who on the evidence of previous discussions would require security over the nation’s land or other assets that even Greece’s previous government was unwilling to consider.
The Greek public appears to be more alive to the reality of their situation than their government. According to a poll conducted at the beginning of the month, 47 percent disapprove of its brinkmanship (and 74 percent want Greece to remain in the euro).
Even as time truly begins to run out, however, markets are still relatively sanguine about the possibility of default. Peripheral country bond spreads to Germany have widened a bit but remain below levels reached last summer, before Greece resurfaced as an issue. The euro is 3% up on the month to date. Equity markets have shown some nerves but there have been absolutely no signs of panic in the pricing of haven assets such as US Treasuries or gold. This is nothing more than reasonable: Greece is a small economy (GDP of $242bn in 2013 on World Bank numbers, less than 2% of the eurozone total), so the level of contagion occurring naturally from its collapse would be relatively muted.
Which brings us on to the real tragedy of these negotiations: the effect they are having on Greece. Economic sentiment has withered back towards the level it occupied during the final quarters of the country’s last recession in 2013. The banking system has been weakened – again – by the offshoring of deposits. Another recession is guaranteed. This is doubly disastrous when one considers that the budget deficit last year, at €6.4bn, was its lowest since 2000 and down from a peak of €36.2b in 2009. The country had exited recession, was running a primary surplus, meeting its debt obligations and seeing the number of unemployed decline for the first time since 2008. That has all been thrown away. Only yesterday employment data showed that the economy has gone back to shedding jobs. And in a year when European growth and consumer spending have been picking up notably and the currency is internationally weak, Greece’s key tourism industry might well have been expected to put on its strongest showing since the financial crisis. It would be astounding if the heightened uncertainty and bad press arising from the government’s actions have not turned many of those tourists away now.
The bottom line is that Greece needs its credit lines more than its creditors need to spend time playing games with the Greek government. The question the members of that government ought to be asking themselves, again and again, is: who benefits?
Let us leave the last word to an economist quoted in this post’s first linked article:
“People are really fed up with this,” UniCredit SpA Chief Global Economist Erik Nielsen said in a television interview. “They’ve never seen anything so completely ridiculous, frankly speaking, from a debtor country.”