The Hawks Have Not Left the Building

 

“Difficulties are meant to rouse, not discourage. The human spirit is to grow strong by conflict.” – William Ellery Channing

 

“Very few negotiations are begun and concluded in the same sitting. It’s really rare. In fact, if you sit down and actually complete your negotiation in one sitting, you left stuff on the table.” – Christopher Voss

 

The Hawks Have Not Left the Building

 

A “typical feature of conflicts is that […] the intergroup conflict tends to be exacerbated and perpetuated by intragroup conflicts: by internal conflicts within each of the two contending parties. Even when there is growing interest on both sides in finding a way out of the conflict, movement toward negotiations is hampered by conflicts between the “doves” and the “hawks” –or the “moderates” and “extremists” –within each community”.  So wrote Herbert C. Kelman, the Richard Clarke Professor of Social Ethics, Emeritus at Harvard University, in Coalitions Across Conflict Lines: The Interplay of Conflicts and Between the Israeli and Palestinian Communities.

 

Kelman – renowned for his work in the Middle East and efforts to bring Israel and Palestine closer towards the goal of achieving peace in the Middle East – identifies, in the paper he authored in 1993, the “relationship between intergroup and intragroup conflict” as a key hurdle towards building coalitions across conflict lines. According to Kelman, “doves on the two sides and hawks on the two sides have common interests”. The hawks, unlike the doves, can pursue their interests without the need to coordinate with their counterparts on the opposing side. The hawks simply “by engaging in provocative actions or making threatening statements” reaffirm the enemy’s worst fears and embolden the hawks on the opposing side. The doves, on the other hand, “tend to be preoccupied with how their words will sound, and how their actions will look, at home, and with the immediate political consequences of what they say and do.” Therefore, the doves tend to take a more measured approach in communicating their views and underplay their side’s willingness to negotiate – the kind of behaviour that plays right into the hands of the hawks and reduces the effectiveness of the doves

 

Kelman’s recommendation to increase the chances of resolving a conflict by means of negotiation is to facilitate greater coordination between the doves on the opposing sides and minimise the involvement of the hawks.

 

The lessons from Professor Kelman’s work, we think, are highly relevant today. His insights provide a framework for determining the possibility of success in each round of negotiations between the US and China in resolving the on-going trade dispute.

 

Subsequent to the working dinner between President Trump and President Xi in Buenos Aires following the G20 summit, the headlines have focused on the temporary ceasefire in the trade dispute. President Trump has pledged to suspend the increase in tariffs on US dollars 200 billion of Chinese imports that was to go into effect on 1 January 2019 for a period of up to 90 days. In return President Xi has pledged that China will buy more US goods, ban exports of the opioid drug, and offered to reconsider the Qualcomm-NXP merger that failed to receive regulatory approval in China earlier in the year.

 

The three-month period, before the suspension of the tariff increase lapses, provides the two-sides a window of opportunity to initiate a new round of talks to tackle some of the more sensitive issues surrounding the trade dispute, including ownership and access to technology and intellectual property.

 

Despite the announcements lacking details, capital markets have reacted positively to the news of the temporary ceasefire and the Chinese yuan, on Monday, posted its largest single day gain since February 2016.

 

We are not surprised by the bare bones nature of the agreement following the meeting between President Trump and President Xi. The last minute inclusion of Peter Navarro, White House trade policy adviser and prominent China hawk, to the list of guests attending the working dinner was, at least to us, a clear signal that meaningful progress on trade relations during the meeting was unlikely. After all, Mr Navarro’s role in the Trump Administration, as The Atlantic puts it, is “to shepherd Trump’s more extreme ideas into reality, ensuring that the president’s convictions are not weakened as officials translate them from bully-pulpit shouts to negotiated legalese. He is the madman behind Trump’s “madman theory” approach to trade policy, there to make enemies and allies alike believe that the president can and will do anything to make America great again.”

 

Moreover, we do not expect a breakthrough in negotiations to materialise during the next round of talks between Washington and Beijing before the suspension of the increase in tariffs lapses. As long as hawks such as Peter Navarro and Robert E. Lighthizer continue to have President Trump’s ear our view is unlikely to change. If, however, the dovish members of the Trump Administration, such as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Director of the National Economic Council Lawrence Kudlow, begin to take control of proceedings we would become much more hopeful of a positive resolution to the trade dispute.

 

For now, we see the temporary agreement between the two sides as providing much needed short-term respite for China. More importantly, we see President Trump’s offer of a temporary ceasefire without President Xi offering any concessions on sensitive issues, such as industrial policy, state funded subsidies and intellectual property rights, to be a symptom of the short-termism that seemingly besets democratically elected leaders without exception. Had the US equity capital markets not faltered recently and / or the Republicans not lost control of the House of Representatives, it is unlikely, we think, that President Trump would have been as acquiescent.

 

 

Liquidity Relief

 

In June in The Great Unwind and the Two Most Important Prices in the World we wrote:

 

“In the 362 months between end of May 1988 and today there have only been 81 months during which both the US 10-year treasury yield and the oil price have been above their respective 48-month moving averages – that is less than a quarter of the time.

 

Over the course of the last thirty years, the longest duration the two prices have concurrently been above their respective 48-month moving averages is the 25 month period between September 2005 and October 2007. Since May 1988, the two prices have only been above their respective 48-month moving averages for 5 or more consecutive months on only four other occasions: between (1) April and October 1996; (2) January and May 1995; (3) October 1999 and August 2000; and (4) July 2013 and August 2014.

 

Notably, annual global GDP growth has been negative on exactly five occasions since 1988 as well: 1997, 1998, 2001, 2009, and 2015. The squeeze due to sustainably high US interest rates and oil prices on the global economy is very real.”

 

We have updated the charts we presented alongside the above remarks and provide them below. (The periods during which both the US 10-year treasury yield and the oil price have been above their respective 48-month moving averages are shaded in grey in the two charts below.)

 

US 10-Year Treasury Yield10YSource: Bloomberg

 

West Texas Intermediate Crude (US dollars per barrel) WTISource: Bloomberg

 

The sharp drop in oil prices in recent weeks ended the 10 month streak of the 10-year Treasury yields and oil prices concurrently trading above their respective 48-month moving averages.

 

The recent drop in oil prices has coincided with the Fed weighing up the possibility of changing its policy guidance language. Several members of the Fed have suggested, according to the minutes of the FOMC’s November policy meeting, a “transition to statement language that [places] greater emphasis on the evaluation of incoming data in assessing the economic and policy outlook”. If the drop in oil prices sustains the data is likely soften and compel the Fed to dial back its hawkishness. With the base effects from the Trump Tax Cut also likely to recede in 2019, there is a distinct possibility that the Fed’s policy will be far less hawkish in 2019 than it has been over the course of 2018.

 

Lower (or range bound oil prices) and a more dovish Fed (even at the margin) are the conditions under which oil importing emerging markets tend to thrive. Although it is still too early to be sure, if oil prices fail to recover in the coming few months and the Fed is forced into a more dovish stance due to softer data, 2019 might just be the year to once again be long emerging markets.

 

 

This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed.

Financial Misery and the Flattening Yield Curve

 

“Every day is a bank account, and time is our currency. No one is rich, no one is poor, we’ve got 24 hours each.” – Christopher Rice, bestselling author

 

“He tried to read an elementary economics text; it bored him past endurance, it was like listening to somebody interminably recounting a long and stupid dream. He could not force himself to understand how banks functioned and so forth, because all the operations of capitalism were as meaningless to him as the rites of a primitive religion, as barbaric, as elaborate, and as unnecessary. In a human sacrifice to deity there might be at least a mistaken and terrible beauty; in the rites of the moneychangers, where greed, laziness, and envy were assumed to move all men’s acts, even the terrible became banal.” – Excerpt from The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

 

“A bank is a place that will lend you money if you can prove that you don’t need it.” – Bob Hope

 

Before we get to the update, just a quick comment on the New York Times op-ed “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration” written by a hitherto anonymous member of the Trump Administration, which we suspect many of you have already read. Our reaction to the piece is that an “elite” politician issuing an editorial in a highbrow broadsheet and talking of resistance against the President is far more likely to stoke populism than to weaken it. Moreover, as angry as President Trump may appear to be about the editorial on television, it gives him just the kind of ammunition he needs to drum up the “us against them” rhetoric and rouse his core supporters to turn up to vote during the forthcoming mid-term elections.

Moving swiftly on, this week we write about US financials.

 

Financials have not had a great year so far. The MSCI US Financials Index is up less than one per cent year-to-date, tracking almost 7 per cent below the performance of the S&P500 Index. While the equivalent financials indices for Japan and Europe are both down more than 11 per cent year to date.

At the beginning of the year, investors and the analyst community appeared to be positive on the prospects for the financial sector. And who can blame them? The Trump Tax Plan had made it through Congress, the global economy was experiencing synchronised growth, progress was being made on slashing the onerous regulations that had been placed on the sector in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, and banks’ net interest margins were poised to expand with the Fed expected to continue on its path of rate hikes.

 

So what happened?

We think US financials’ under performance can in large part be explained by the flattening of the US yield curve, which in turn can result in shrinking net interest margins and thus declining earnings. The long-end of the US yield curve has remained stubbornly in place, for example 30-year yields still have not breached 3.25 per cent, and all the while the Fed has continued to hike interest rates and pushed up the short-end of the curve.

 

Why has the long-end not moved?

There are countless reasons given for the flattening of the yield curve. Many of them point to the track record of a flattening and / or inverted yield curve front running a recession and thus conclude with expectations of an imminent recession.

The Fed and its regional banks are divided over the issue. In a note issued by the Fed in June, Don’t Fear the Yield Curve, the authors conclude that the “the near-term forward spread is highly significant; all else being equal, when it falls from its mean level by one standard deviation (about 80 basis points) the probability of recession increases by 35 percentage points. In contrast, the estimated effect of the competing long-term spread on the probability of recession is economically small and not statistically different from zero.”

Atlanta Fed President, Mr Raphael Bostic, and his colleagues on the other hand see “Any inversion of any sort is a sure fire sign of a recession”. While the San Francisco Fed notes that “[T]he recent evolution of the yield curve suggests that recession risk might be rising. Still, the flattening yield curve provides no sign of an impending recession”.

Colour us biased but we think the flattening of the yield curve is less to do with subdued inflation expectations or deteriorating economic prospects in the US and far more to do with (1) taxation and (2) a higher oil price.

US companies have a window of opportunity to benefit from an added tax break this year by maximising their pension contributions. Pension contributions made through mid-September of this year can be deducted from income on tax returns being filed for 2017 — when the U.S. corporate tax rate was still 35 per cent as compared to the 21 per cent in 2018. This one-time incentive has encouraged US corporations to bring forward pension plan contributions. New York based Wolfe Research estimates that defined-benefit plan contributions by companies in the Russell 3000 Index may exceed US dollars 90 billion by the mid-September cut-off – US dollars 81 billion higher than their contributions last year.

US Companies making pension plan contributions through mid-September and deducting them from the prior year’s tax return is not new. The difference this year is the tax rate cut and the financial incentive it provides for pulling contributions forward.

Given that a significant portion of assets in most pension plans are invested in long-dated US Treasury securities, the pulled forward contributions have increased demand for 10- and 30-year treasuries and pushed down long-term yields.

Higher oil prices, we think, have also contributed to a flattening of the yield curve.

Oil exporting nations have long been a stable source of demand for US Treasury securities but remained largely absent from the market between late 2014 through 2017 due to the sharp drop in oil prices in late 2014. During this time these nations, particularly those with currencies pegged to the US dollar, have taken drastic steps to cut back government expenditures and restructure their economies to better cope with lower oil prices.

With WTI prices above the price of US dollars 65 per barrel many of the oil exporting nations are now generating surpluses. These surpluses in turn are being recycled into US Treasury securities. The resurgence of this long-standing buyer of US Treasury securities has added to the demand for treasuries and subdued long-term yields.

 

Investment Perspective

 

A question we have been recently asked is: Can the US equity bull market continue with the banking sector continuing to under perform?

Our response is to wait to see how the yield curve evolves after the accelerated demand for treasuries from pension funds goes away. Till then it is very difficult to make a definitive call and for now we consider it prudent to add short positions in individual financials stocks as a portfolio hedge to our overall US equities allocation while also avoiding long positions in the sector.

We have identified three financials stocks that we consider as strong candidates to short.

 

Synovus Financial Corp $SNV 

 

SNV

 

Western Alliance Bancorp $WAL

 

WAL 

Eaton Vance Corp $EV

 

EV

 

 This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed. 

Don’t wait for the US Dollar Rally, its Already Happened

 

“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” – Dr Seuss

 

“Republicans are for both the man and the dollar, but in case of conflict the man before the dollar.” – Abraham Lincoln

 

“Dark economic clouds are dissipating into an emerging blue sky of opportunity.” – Rick Perry

 

According to the minutes of the Fed’s June meeting, released on Thursday, some companies indicated they had already “scaled back or postponed” plans for capital spending due to “uncertainty over trade policy”. The minutes added: “Contacts in the steel and aluminum industries expected higher prices as a result of the tariffs on these products but had not planned any new investments to increase capacity. Conditions in the agricultural sector reportedly improved somewhat, but contacts were concerned about the effect of potentially higher tariffs on their exports.”

Despite the concerns around tariffs, the minutes also revealed that the Fed remained committed to its policy of gradual rate hikes and raising the fed funds rate to its long-run estimate (or even higher): “Participants generally judged that…it would likely to be appropriate to continue gradually raising the target rate for the federal-funds rate to a setting that was at or somewhat above their estimates of its longer-run level by 2019 or 2020”.

The somewhat hawkish monetary policy stance of the Fed combined with (i) expectations of continued portfolio flows into the US due to the interest rate differentials between the US and non-US developed markets, (ii) fears of the Trump Administration’s trade policies causing an emerging markets crisis, and (iii) the somewhat esoteric risk of ‘dollar shortage’ have led many to conclude that the US dollar is headed higher, much higher.

Of all the arguments for the US dollar bull case we consider the portfolio flows into the US to be the most pertinent to the direction of the greenback.

According to analysis conducted by the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) “all net foreign demand for ‘safe’ US assets from 1990 to 2014 came from the world’s central banks”. And that “For most of the past 25 years, net foreign demand for long-term U.S. debt securities has increased in line with the growth in global dollar reserves.”  What the CFR has described are quite simply the symptoms of the petrodollar system that has been in existence since 1974.

Cumulative US Current Account Deficit vs. Global Foreign Exchange Holdings1aSources: Council on Foreign Relations, International Monetary Fund, Bureau of Economic Analysis

 

In recent years, however, global US dollar reserves have declined – driven by the drop in the price of oil in late 2014 which forced the likes of Norges Bank, the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency, and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority to draw down on reserves to make up for the shortfall in state oil revenues – yet the portfolio flows into the US continued unabated.

Using US Treasury data on major foreign holders of Treasury securities as a proxy for foreign central banks’ US Treasury holdings and comparing it to the cumulative US Treasury securities issuance (net), it is evident that in recent years foreign central banks have been either unable or unwilling to finance the US external deficit.

Cumulative US Marketable Treasury Issuance (Net) vs. US Treasury Major Foreign Holdings1Sources: US Treasury, Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association

 

Instead, the US has been able to fund its external deficit through the sale of assets (such as Treasuries, corporate bonds and agency debt) to large, yield-starved institutional investors (mainly pension funds and life insurers) in Europe, Japan and other parts of Asia. The growing participation of foreign institutional investors can be seen through the growing gap between total foreign Treasury holdings versus the holdings of foreign central banks.

US Treasury Total Foreign Holdings vs. US Treasury Major Foreign Holdings2Source: US Treasury

 

Before going ahead and outlining our bearish US dollar thesis, we want to take a step back to understand how and why the US was able to finance its external deficit, particularly between 2015 and 2017, despite the absence of inflows from its traditional sources of funding and without a significant increase in its cost of financing. This understanding is the key to the framework that shapes our expectations for the US dollar going forward.

We start with Japan. In April 2013, the Bank of Japan (BoJ) unveiled a radical monetary stimulus package to inject approximately US dollars 1.4 trillion into the Japanese economy in less than two years. The aim of the massive burst of stimulus was to almost double the monetary base and to lift inflation expectations.

In October 2014, Governor Haruhiko Kuroda shocked financial markets once again by announcing that the BoJ would be increasing its monthly purchases of Japanese government bonds from yen 50 trillion to yen 80 trillion. And just for good measure the BoJ also decided to triple its monthly purchases of exchange traded funds (ETFs) and real estate investment trusts (REITs).

Staying true to form and unwilling to admit defeat in the fight for inflation the BoJ also went as far as introducing negative interest rates. Effective February 2016, the BoJ started charging 0.1 per cent on excess reserves.

Next, we turn to Europe. In June 2014, Señor Mario Draghi announced that the European Central Bank (ECB) had taken the decision to cut the interest rate on the deposit facility to -0.1 per cent. By March 2016, the ECB had cut its deposit facility rate three more times to take it to -0.4 per cent. In March 2015, the ECB also began purchasing euro 60 billion of bonds under quantitative easing. The bond purchases were increased to euro 80 billion in March 2016.

In response to the unconventional measures taken by the BoJ and the ECB, long-term interest rates in Japan and Europe proceeded to fall to historically low levels, which prompted Japanese and European purchases of foreign bonds to accelerate. It is estimated that from 2014 through 2017 Japanese and Eurozone institutional investors and financial institutions purchased approximately US dollar 2 trillion in foreign bonds (net). During the same period, selling of European fixed income by foreigners also picked up.

As the US dollar index ($DXY) is heavily skewed by movements in EURUSD and USDJPY, the outflows from Japan and Europe into the US were, in our opinion, the primary drivers of the US dollar rally that started in mid-2014.

US Dollar Index3Source: Bloomberg

 

In 2014 with Japanese and European outflows accelerating and oil prices still high, the US benefited from petrodollar, European and Japanese inflows simultaneously. These flows combined pushed US Treasury yields lower and the US dollar sharply higher. The strong flows into the US represented an untenable situation and something had to give – the global economy under the prevailing petrodollar system is simply not structured to withstand a strong US dollar and high oil prices concurrently. In this instance, with the ECB and BoJ staunchly committed to their unorthodox monetary policies, oil prices crashed and the petrodollar flows into the US quickly started to reverse.

Notably, the US dollar rally stalled and Treasury yields formed a local minimum soon after the drop in oil prices.

US 10-Year Treasury Yield4Source: Bloomberg

 

Next, we turn to China. On 11 August 2015, China, under pressure from the Chinese stock market turmoil that started in June 2015, declines in the euro and the Japanese yen exchange rates and a slowing economy, carried out the biggest devaluation of its currency in over two decades by fixing the yuan 1.9 per cent lower.  The Chinese move caught capital markets by surprise, sending commodity prices and global equity markets sharply lower and US government bonds higher.

In January 2016, China shocked capital markets once again by setting the official midpoint rate on the yuan 0.5 per cent weaker than the day before, which took the currency to its lowest since March 2011. The move in all likelihood was prompted by the US dollar 108 billion drop in Chinese reserves in December 2015 – the highest monthly drop on record.

In addition to China’s botched attempts of devaluing the yuan, Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign also contributed to private capital fleeing from China and into the US and other so called safe havens.

China Estimated Capital Outflows5Source: Bloomberg

 

The late Walter Wriston, former CEO and Chairman of Citicorp, once said: “Capital goes where it is welcome and stays where it is well treated.” With the trifecta of negative interests in Europe and Japan, China’s botched devaluation effort and the uncertainty created by Brexit, capital became unwelcome in the very largest economies outside the US and fled to the relative safety of the US. And it is this unique combination, we think, that enabled the US to continue funding its external deficit from 2014 through 2017 without a meaningful rise in Treasury yields.

Moreover, in the absence of positive petrodollar flows, we suspect that were it not for the flight to safety driven by fears over China and Brexit, long-term Treasury yields could well have bottomed in early 2015.

 

Investment Perspective

 

  1. Foreign central banks show a higher propensity to buy US assets in a weakening US dollar environment

 

Using US Treasury data on major foreign holders of Treasury securities as a proxy for foreign central banks’ US Treasury holdings, we find that foreign central banks, outside of periods of high levels of economic uncertainty, have shown a higher propensity to buy US Treasury securities during phases of US dollar weakness as compared to during phases of US dollar strength.

Year-over-Year Change in Major Foreign Holdings of Treasury Securities and the US Trade Weighted Broad Dollar Index 6Sources: US Treasury, Bloomberg

 

The bias of foreign central banks, to prefer buying Treasury securities when the US dollar is weakening, is not a difficult one to accept. Nations, especially those with export oriented economies, do not want to see their currencies rise sharply against the US dollar as an appreciating currency reduces their relative competitiveness. Therefore, to limit any appreciation resulting from a declining US dollar, foreign central banks are likely to sell local currency assets to buy US dollar assets. However, in a rising US dollar environment, most foreign central banks also do not want a sharp depreciation of their currency as this could destabilise their local economies and prompt capital outflows. And as such, in a rising US dollar environment, foreign central banks are likely to prefer selling US dollar assets to purchase local currency assets.

 

  1. European and Japanese US treasury Holdings have started to decline

 

European and Japanese US Treasury Holding 7Source: US Treasury

 

The ECB has already scaled back monthly bond purchases to euro 30 billion and has outlined plans to end its massive stimulus program by the end of this year. While BoJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda in a testimony to the Japanese parliament in April revealed that internal discussions were on going at the BoJ on how to begin to withdraw from its bond buying program.

In anticipation of these developments and the increased possibility of incurring losses on principal due to rising US inflation expectations, it is likely that European and Japanese institutional investors and financial institutions have scaled back purchases of US dollar assets and even started reducing their allocations to US fixed income.

 

  1. Positive correlation between US dollar and oil prices

 

One of the surprises thrown up by the markets this year is the increasingly positive correlation between the US dollar and the price of oil. While the correlation may prove to be fleeting, we think there have been two fundamental shifts in the oil and US dollar dynamic that should see higher oil prices supporting the US dollar, as opposed to the historical relationship of a strengthening US dollar pressuring oil prices.

The first shift is that with WTI prices north of US dollar 65 per barrel, the fiscal health of many of the oil exporting nations improves and some even begin to generate surpluses that they can recycle into US Treasury securities. And as oil prices move higher, a disproportionality higher amount of the proceeds from the sale of oil are likely to be recycled back into US assets. This dynamic appears to have played out to a degree during the first four months of the year with the US Treasury securities holdings of the likes of Saudi Arabia increasing. (It is not easy to track this accurately as a number of the oil exporting nations also use custodial accounts in other jurisdictions to make buy and sell their US Treasury holdings.)

WTI Crude vs. US Dollar Index8Source: Bloomberg

 

The second shift is that the US economy no longer has the same relationship it historically had with oil prices. The rise of shale oil means that higher oil prices now allow a number of US regions to grow quickly and drive US economic growth and job creation. Moreover, the US, on a net basis, spends much less on oil (as a percentage of GDP) than it has done historically. So while the consumers may take a hit from rising oil prices, barring a sharp move higher, the overall US economy is better positioned to handle (and possibly benefit from) gradually rising oil prices.

 

  1. As Trump has upped the trade war rhetoric, current account surpluses are being directed away from reserve accumulation

 

Nations, such as Taiwan and the People’s Republic of Korea, that run significant current account surpluses with the US have started to re-direct surpluses away from reserve accumulation (i.e. buying US assets) in fear of being designated as currency manipulators by the US Treasury. The surpluses are instead being funnelled into pension plans and other entitlement programs.

 

  1. To fund its twin deficits, the US will need a weaker dollar and higher oil prices

 

In recent years, the US current account deficit has ranged from between 2 and 3 per cent of GDP.

US Current Account Balance (% of GDP)9Source: Bloomberg

 

With the successful passing of the Trump tax plan by Congress in December, the US Treasury’s net revenues are estimated to decrease by US dollar 1.5 trillion over the next decade. While the increase in government expenditure agreed in the Bipartisan Budget Act in early February is expected to add a further US dollar 300 billion to the deficit over the next two years. The combined effects of these two packages, based on JP Morgan’s estimates, will result in an increase in the budget deficit from 3.4 per cent in 2017 to 5.4 per cent in 2019. This implies that the US Treasury will have to significantly boost security issuance.

Some of the increased security issuance will be mopped by US based institutional investors – especially if long-term yields continue to rise. US pension plans, in particular, have room to increase their bond allocations.

US Pension Fund Asset Allocation Evolution (2007 to 2017) 10Source: Willis Tower Watson

 

Despite the potential demand from US based institutional investors, the US will still require foreign participation in Treasury security auctions and markets to be able to funds its deficits. At a time when European and Japanese flows into US Treasuries are retreating, emerging market nations scrambling to support their currencies by selling US dollar assets is not a scenario conducive to the US attracting foreign capital to its markets. Especially if President Trump and his band of trade warriors keep upping the ante in a bid to level the playing field in global trade.

Our view is that, pre-mid-term election posturing aside, the Trump Administration wants a weaker dollar and higher oil prices so that the petrodollars keep flowing into US dollar assets to be able to follow through on the spending and tax cuts that form part of their ambitious stimulus packages. And we suspect that Mr Trump and his band of the not so merry men will look to talk down the US dollar post the mid-term elections.

 

 

This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed.

The Great Unwind and the Two Most Important Prices in the World

“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” – Walden by Henry David Thoreau

 “The way to crush the bourgeoisie is to grind them between the millstones of taxation and inflation.” – Vladimir Lenin

“There are only three ways to meet the unpaid bills of a nation. The first is taxation. The second is repudiation. The third is inflation.” – Herbert Hoover

The Federal Reserve for the better part of a decade has been engaged in the business of suppressing interest rates through the use of easy monetary policies and quantitative easing. For US bond market participants all the Fed’s policies entailing interest rate suppression meant that there was a perpetual bid for US treasury bonds and it was always at the best possible price. The Fed has recently embarked on the journey toward unwinding the suppression of interest rates through the process of quantitative tightening. QT has US bond market participants worried that there will be a perpetual offer of US treasury bonds at the worst possible price.

The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and Russia have, since late 2016, taken steps to prop up the price of oil by aggressively cutting output. With a history of mistrust amongst OPEC and non-OPEC producers and a lackadaisical approach to production discipline, oil market participants did not immediately reward oil producers with higher oil prices in the way bond market participants rewarded the Fed with immediately higher bond prices / lower yields. It took demonstrable commitment to the production quotas by the oil producing nations for oil market participants to gain the confidence to bid up prices. And just as confidence started to peak, Russia and Saudi Arabia signalled that they are willing to roll back the production cuts.

Arguably the US dollar and oil are the two most important ‘commodities’ in the world. One lubricates the global financial system and the other fuels everything else. Barring a toppling of the US dollar hegemony or a scientific breakthrough increasing the conversion efficiency of other sources of energy, the importance of these commodities is unlikely to diminish. Hence, the US (long-term) interest rates and the oil price are the two most important prices in the world. The global economy cannot enjoy a synchronised upturn in an environment of sustainably higher US interest rates and a high price of oil.

In the 362 months between end of May 1988 and today there have only been 81 months during which both the US 10-year treasury yield and the oil price have been above their respective 48-month moving averages – that is less than a quarter of the time. (These periods are shaded in grey in the two charts below.)

US 10-Year Treasury Yield10Y YieldSource: Bloomberg

West Texas Intermediate Crude (US dollars per barrel)

WTISource: Bloomberg

Over the course of the last thirty years, the longest duration the two prices have concurrently been above their respective 48-month moving averages is the 25 month period between September 2005 and October 2007. Since May 1988, the two prices have only been above their respective 48-month moving averages for 5 or more consecutive months on only four other occasions: between (1) April and October 1996; (2) January and May 1995; (3) October 1999 and August 2000; and (4) July 2013 and August 2014.

Notably, annual global GDP growth has been negative on exactly five occasions since 1988 as well: 1997, 1998, 2001, 2009, and 2015. The squeeze due to sustainably high US interest rates and oil prices on the global economy is very real.

Global GDP Growth Year-over-Year (Current US dollars)

global GDP

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis


On 13 June, 2018 President Donald Trump tweeted:

“Oil prices are too high, OPEC is at it again. Not good!”

And today, nine days later, OPEC and non-OPEC nations (read: Saudi Arabia and Russia) obliged by announcing that OPEC members will raise output by at least 700,000 barrel per day, with non-OPEC nations expected to add a further 300,000 barrels per day in output.

Iran may accuse other oil exporting nations of being bullied by President Trump but we think it is their pragmatic acceptance that the global economy cannot withstand higher oil prices that has facilitated the deal amongst them. (Of course we do not deny that a part of the motivation behind increasing output is bound to be Saudi Arabia wanting to return the favour to Mr Trump for re-imposing sanctions on Iran.)


Last week the Fed raised the Fed funds target rate by 25 basis points to a range between 1.75 per cent and 2 per cent. At the same time it also increased the interest rate on excess reserves (IOER) – the interest the Fed pays on money placed by commercial banks with the central bank – by 20 basis points to 1.95 per cent. The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) also raised its median 2018 policy rate projection from 3 hikes to 4.

With the Fed forging ahead with interest rate increases it may seem that it is the Fed and not OPEC that may squeeze global liquidity and cause the next financial crisis. While that may ultimately prove to be the case, the change in the policy rate projection from 3 to 4 hikes is not as significant as the headlines may suggest – the increase is due to one policymaker moving their dot from 3 or below to 4 or above. Jay Powell, we think, will continue the policy of gradualism championed by his predecessors Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen. After all, the Chairman of the Fed, we suspect, oh so desires not to be caught in the cross hairs of a Trump tweet.

 

Investment Perspective

 

Given our presently bullish stance on equity markets, the following is the chart we continue to follow most closely (one can replace the Russell 1000 Index with the S&P500 or the MSCI ACWI indices should one so wish):

Russell 1000 IndexRussell 100Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

If the shaded area on the far right continues to expand – i.e. the US 10-year treasury yield and oil price concurrently remain above their respective 48-month moving averages – we would begin to dial back our equity exposure and hedge any remaining equity exposure through other asset classes.

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This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed. 

Oil: Opportunities Arising from Infrastructure Bottlenecks

“Allow yourself to stand back to see the obvious before stepping forward to look beyond” – Adrian McGinn

“The fact is, America needs energy and new energy infrastructure, and the Keystone XL pipeline will help us achieve that with good stewardship.” – John Henry Hoeven III, is an American politician serving as the senior United States Senator from North Dakota

“Is it in our national interest to overheat the planet? That’s the question Obama faces in deciding whether to approve Keystone XL, a 2,000-mile-long pipeline that will bring 500,000 barrels of tar-sand oil from Canada to oil refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.” – Jeff Goodell, American author and contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine

“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure” – Goodhart’s Law

A concept that frequently occurs in the study of thermodynamics – the branch of physics concerned with heat and temperature and their relation to other forms of energy – is that of irreversible processes.  An irreversible process is a process once initiated cannot return the system, within which it occurs, or its surroundings back to their original state without the expenditure of additional energy. For example, a car driven uphill does not give back the gasoline it burnt going uphill as it comes back down the hill. There are many factors that make processes irreversible – friction being the most common.

In the world of commerce when a supply- or demand-side shock occurs in a particular industry, it sets into motion a series of irreversible processes that have far reaching consequences not only within the industry which the shock occurs but for adjacent and related industries as well. The commodity complex, more so than most other industries, is typified by regular occurrences of supply- and demand-side shocks.

When a positive demand- or supply-side shock occurs for a certain commodity, the immediate impact is felt in the price of said commodity. As the price of said commodity re-rates, the net present values and prospective returns from investing in new production capacities for the commodity obviously improve. Once return prospects start to cross certain arbitrary thresholds – be it cost of capital, target internal rate of return, or a positive net present value – the investment case for the new production capacities strengthens. In response to the strengthening investment case a new capital formation cycle starts to take root and the amount of capital employed within the industry begins to increase, in turn impacting both supply-side dynamics within the industry and the demand-side dynamics within other supporting industries.

Conversely, when a negative demand- or supply-side shock occurs for a commodity, existing producers of the capacity start to feel the pain and suffer from declining earnings as the commodity’s price de-rates.  A sharp enough decline in the commodity’s price can lead to marginal producers selling at prices well below their cash cost i.e. cost of production excluding depreciation and amortisation. At this point the capital employed within the industry begins to decline – this can occur in a number of ways including shuttering of supply, bankruptcies, suppliers changing payment terms, or lenders recalling or withholding loans.

The capital cycle set in motion by either demand- or supply-side shocks are difficult to reverse. Once capital starts entering an industry, it continues to flow in until the vast majority of the planned capacity additions are delivered, even if the pricing assumptions that underpinned the original decision making have changed for the worse. The continued flow of capital despite the adverse change in return expectations is due to what Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky call the ‘The Sunk Cost Fallacy’. The sunk cost fallacy is a mistake in reasoning in which decision making is tainted by the investment of capital, effort, or time that has already been made as opposed to being based upon the prospective costs and benefits. It usually takes a shock of epic proportions to alter such a behavioural bias, such as oil falling below US dollar thirty per barrel in 2016 forced OPEC to switch from a strategy of market share maximisation to that of production rationalisation.

In the scenario where capital starts fleeing from an industry even though the sunk cost fallacy may not necessarily drive decision making – unless of course the decision makers have emotionally invested themselves in the negative prospects for the industry – reversing the tide of capital outflows can still be extremely difficult even in the face of improving prospects. This is partly explained by the lingering remnants of the emotional, psychological, or financial trauma that decision makers may have suffered through when the industry went through the negative shock. It often takes a sustained recovery either in terms of length of time or magnitude of price for the trauma to give way to rational decision making.

The turns at which behaviour begins to adjust towards more rational decision making often provide the most profitable trading opportunities.

Investment Perspective

Investing in commodities or equities of commodity producers is not for the fainthearted. Even the most sound investment thesis can be derailed by any number of factors, be it geopolitics, innovation, tax or subsidy reform, cartel-like behaviour, or simply futures markets positioning. Particularly in times of high levels of uncertainty, extreme investor positioning either long or short, or after a sustained move higher or lower in the price of the commodity, investors can be exposed to very high levels of risk. It is at such times that investing in companies that form part of the commodity’s supply chain can be a superior expression of one’s view as opposed to taking a direct exposure in the commodity or its producers.

We think that given the sustained move higher in oil, that has clearly wrong footed many, extreme positioning on the long side in futures markets and impressive revival in US shale oil production, one may be able to better express a medium-term bullish view on oil prices by investing in companies that service the oil and gas industry. Specifically, we consider, at this stage, being long equities of companies with products and services targeted towards oil and gas pipeline infrastructure to represent a more balanced risk-reward trade than simply being long oil or a generic energy ETF.

Brent Crude Oil and WTI Midland Price SpreadBrent WTI Midland Spread.pngSource: Bloomberg

To quote Bloomberg from its article Crude in West Texas Is Cheapest in Three Years Versus Europe:

Oil traders with access to pipelines out of West Texas to export terminals along the Gulf Coast are raking it in from the rapid supply growth in the Permian Basin. The 800,000 barrel-a-day output surge in the past year has outpaced pipeline construction and filled existing lines, pushing prices of the region’s crude to almost $13 a barrel below international benchmark Brent crude, the biggest discount in three years. That’s about double the cost to ship the oil via pipeline and tanker from Texas to Europe, signaling U.S. exports are likely to increase.

The infrastructure bottlenecks pushing down WTI Midland prices relative to Brent Crude prices are the direct consequence of underinvestment in pipeline infrastructure. This underinvestment is the result of either (1) the expectation that oil prices would remain lower for longer or (2) that shale production would not recover even if oil prices recovered. We think the reason is more likely to the former as opposed to the latter.

Oil prices have recovered both in terms of the magnitude and the duration of the recovery to such a degree that investors and decision makers are beginning to overcome the trauma caused by the sharp decline in oil prices between 2014 and 2016. And only now are they starting to invest in pipelines and other oil and gas infrastructure to benefit from the recovery in both oil prices and shale production.  Just as there was inertia in the change in investor attitudes towards oil and oil related investments, there is likely to be inertia – should there be a significant decline in oil prices from current levels – in stopping projects that have started and gone through the first or second rounds of investment.

Companies that manufacture components such as valves, flow management equipment, and industrial grade pumps, that are essential in the development of oil and gas pipeline infrastructure, we think, will be the primary beneficiaries of the recovery in oil and gas infrastructure investment. We also think companies specialising in providing engineering, procurement, construction, and maintenance services for the oil and gas services are also likely to benefit.

We are long Flowserve Corporation $FLS, SPX Flow $FLOW and Fluor Corporation $FLR.

This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed.