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.

Late Cycle Signals and Yield Curve Dynamics

 

“Everything turns in circles and spirals with the cosmic heart until infinity. Everything has a vibration that spirals inward or outward — and everything turns together in the same direction at the same time. This vibration keeps going: it becomes born and expands or closes and destructs — only to repeat the cycle again in opposite current. Like a lotus, it opens or closes, dies and is born again. Such is also the story of the sun and moon, of me and you. Nothing truly dies. All energy simply transforms.” – Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem by Suzy Kassem

 

“We say that flowers return every spring, but that is a lie. It is true that the world is renewed. It is also true that that renewal comes at a price, for even if the flower grows from an ancient vine, the flowers of spring are themselves new to the world, untried and untested.

 

The flower that wilted last year is gone. Petals once fallen are fallen forever. Flowers do not return in the spring, rather they are replaced. It is in this difference between returned and replaced that the price of renewal is paid.

 

And as it is for spring flowers, so it is for us.” – The Price of Spring by Daniel Abraham

 

“There are constant cycles in history. There is loss, but it is always followed by regeneration. The tales of our elders who remember such cycles are very important to us now.” – Carmen Agra Deedy

 

Late Cycle Signals

 

Each business cycle is unique. Certain patterns, however, have tended to repeat across business cycles with the ebbs and flows in the level of economic activity.

The late stage of the business cycle is often characterised by an overheated economy, restrictive monetary policy, tight credit markets, low unemployment rates and peaking corporate profit margins.  These are not the types of signals that form part of our discussion on the late cycle this week. Instead we focus on behavioural clues from the financial services and investment management sector that signal that we may have potentially entered the late stage of the business cycle – often the most rewarding, but also the most precarious, phase of bull market for investors.

 

1. Liquidity events for investors in ride hailing services companies

 

Few opportunities have captured the imagination of venture capital investors over the last decade as the one represented by ride hailing services companies such as Uber, Lyft, Didi Chuxing and Grab.

 

 

 

  • Didi Chuxing, China’s equivalent to Uber and valued at US dollars 56 billion during its last fundraising, is the most valuable start-up on the Mainland and counts Apple, Softbank and Uber amongst its shareholders. The start-up is estimated to have raised US dollars 20.6 billion in funding over 17 rounds of financing.

 

  • Southeast Asia’s leading ride hailing services company, Grab, was valued at over US dollars 10 billion in a fundraising round in June this year and has received US dollars 1 billion in funding from Toyota.

 

With such eye-popping valuations it should come as no surprise that most, if not all, of the leading ride hailing companies the world over are weighing up potential liquidity events, be it an initial public offering or a trade sale to larger competitors or strategic investors. The investors in these companies are undoubtedly eager to convert their paper profits into realised gains in the form of cold hard cash.

 

  • Lyft has hired JP Morgan to lead its IPO and is aiming to beat its much larger rival, Uber, in becoming the first ride hailing services company to be publicly listed

 

  • Uber has reportedly received proposals from Wall Street valuing the company as high as US dollars 120 billion – almost 67 per cent higher than the valuation at its last round of fundraising

 

  • Didi Chuxing is reportedly weighing up the possibility of a public offering in 2019

 

  • Careem Networks, the Middle East’s leading ride hailing services company, and Uber are rumoured to be in talks for a possible merger or an outright acquisition of the Middle Eastern business by Uber. Careem was valued at US dollars 1 billion during a fundraising round in December 2016. Bloomberg reported in September that the acquisition of Careem by Uber would value it between US dollars 2 to 2.5 billion – a 100 to 150 per cent increase in less than 24 months.

 

In 2007, The Blackstone Group, the leading alternative asset management firm, successfully listed on the New York Stock Exchange, selling a 12.3 per cent stake in return for  US dollars 4.13 billion. Blackstone’s listing was, at the time, the largest US IPO since 2002.

Although Blackstone was able to successfully list, many of its rivals – including Apollo Global Management, Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts and the Carlyle Group – missed the opportunity to float ahead of the global financial crisis and had to shelve their plans and wait for a more conducive environment.

We worry that a similar fate awaits the riding hailing services industry, where it becomes a case of one IPO and done and the remaining companies’ plans are delayed by an abrupt end to the current iteration of the US equity bull market.

 

 

2. INVESCO to buy OppenheimerFunds

 

INVESCO, the independent investment company headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, this week agreed to buy rival Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance’s OppenheimerFunds unit for US dollars 5.7 billion. According to the Wall Street Journal:

“Invesco will pay for the deal with 81.9 million common shares and another $4 billion in preferred shares, making MassMutual the firm’s largest stockholder. Including OppenheimerFunds, Invesco will manage more than $1.2 trillion in assets.”

In the summer of 2009, BlackRock acquired Barclays Global Investors, including its highly coveted iShares franchise, for US dollars 13.5 billion and created a combined entity with, at the time, approximately US dollars 2.7 trillion of assets under management.

BlackRock’s timing was impeccable: a near decade long equity bull market ensued and, even more importantly for BlackRock, the company put itself in the prime position to reap the rewards of the rise of passive investing.

The rationale for the OppenheimerFunds acquisition according to the Wall Street Journal paraphrasing INVESCO CEO Martin Flanagan is to: “strengthen Invesco’s position in some businesses that have been proven resilient to the move toward passive investing, including international and emerging-markets stock funds.”

We are curious to see if INVESCO’s decision today turns out to be as flawed as BlackRock’s decision in 2009 was impeccable.

 

3. Middle market alternative asset managers selling stakes

 

In recent years, seemingly successful, mid-sized alternative asset management firms have started selling equity stakes to their much larger, more established competitors such as Neuberger Berman, The Blackstone Group and the Carlyle Group.

Dyal Capital, a unit of Neuberger Berman, has closed 30 or more transactions acquiring stakes in alternative asset managers over the last 2 to 3 years, including a strategic investment into Silver Lake Partners. Dyal presently manages three funds with US dollars 9 billion in assets under management and is set to complete fundraising over 5 billion for a fourth fund.

The most recent of such sales comes from New Mountain Capital, which manages private equity, public equity and credit funds with more than US dollars 20 billion in assets under management. The company has reportedly sold a 9 per cent stake to Blackstone Strategic Capital Holdings.

We wonder: what are the chances that highly successful private equity and alternative investment firms would sell their stakes at anything but close to peak valuations?

 

Yield Curve Dynamics

 

Given that we have discussed late cycle signals above, we wanted to touch upon the historical dynamics of the Treasury yield curve when it has either gone (i) from inverted to flat or (ii) from flat to positively slopping.

Prior to sharing our findings, we wanted to share some analysis for the period starting 1959 and ending 1984 from Interest Rates, the Markets, and the New Financial World (1985) by Henry Kaufman:

 

“If the risk in investing in the long market is still great immediately following the point of maximum inversion, when does the long market offer the best opportunity? To answer this question, it is necessary to examine the swings in the U.S. Government securities yield curve during the past quarter century.

These swings are:

 

  1. from extreme negative (short rates above long) to flat
  2. from flat to extreme positive (long rates above short)
  3. from extreme positive to flat
  4. from flat to extreme negative

 

The results are as follows:

 

1. When the yield curve for government securities swung from extreme negative to flat, long yields actually increased with one exception – the 1980 cycle. In one of these cycles, there was greater rise in long yields than in short rates. In all other instances, however, short rates fell while long yields rose.

 

2. When the yield curve moved from flat to extreme positive, with long yields going above short, in all cycles long yields fell in conjunction with a more sizable drop in short rates.

 

3. The swing from extreme positive to flat can be quite dangerous in the long bond sector. In the four complete cycles… yield increases average 104 basis points for long-term issues, ranging from 40 to 220 basis points.

 

4. The most dangerous period of all for investors in long bonds, however, occurs when the yield curve moves from flat to extremely negative, with short rates moving up above long.”

 

Interestingly, the period around the time of publishing of Mr Kaufman’s book was the exception for how the long end of the curve reacted when the yield curve went from extreme negative to flat. And Mr Kaufman speculated in his book if the long-running bond bear market was over or not. With the benefit of hindsight we know that the bond bear market had indeed ended during the early 1980s.

For the period from 1980 till date and with respect to cycles where the yield curve went either (i) from inverted to flat or (ii) from flat to positively slopping, we make the following observations (based on the yield differential between 2 and 10 year Treasury securities):

 

  1. 1980 – 1982: the yield curve went from extreme negative to flat with both short and long rates declining. Short rates declined faster than long rates.

 

  1. 1988 – 1992: from flat to extreme positive with both short and long rates declining. Short rates declined faster than long rates.

 

  1. 2000 – 2003: from inverted to flat and then to extreme positive with both short and long rates declining. Short rates declined faster than long rates.

 

  1. 2005 – 2010: from flat to extreme positive with both short and long rates declining. Short rates declined faster than long rates.

 

In recent weeks we have witnessed the yield curve correct its flattening trend due to a sell-off at the long-end. The yield curve has steepened due to higher long-term yields – a phenomena last witnessed in the 1970s. These are still early days and the recent sell-off at the long-end may be nothing more than a blip. If, however, the yield curve continues to steepen due to increasing long-term yields it would be an ominous sign for bond bulls.

Much like Mr Kaufman speculated that the bond bear market may have ended in the early 1980s, the recent shifts in the Treasury yield curve and the forthcoming supply of US Treasury securities have us wondering if the multi-decade bond bull market is over.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trade Wars: Clearing the Way for a War of Attrition

 

“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” – Leo Tolstoy

 

“The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him.” – Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

 

“Only an idiot tries to fight a war on two fronts, and only a madman tries to fight one on three.” – David Eddings, American novelist

 

A few updates relating to themes and topics we have written about in the recent past before we get to this week’s piece.

1. Two out of three companies we highlighted as potential value plays in Searching for Value in Retail in June have now announced that they are evaluating opportunities to go private.

The most recent of the announcements comes from Barnes & Noble $BKS which said on Wednesday that it is reviewing several offers to take the bookstore chain private. We are not surprised by this development and had expected as much when we wrote the following in June:

“Trading at a price to consensus forward earnings of around 10x and with a market capitalisation of under US dollars 500 million, $BKS remains a potential target for even the smallest of activist investors or private equity funds.”

The other company we discussed in the same piece was GameStop $GME, which at the start of September announced that it is engaged in discussions with third parties regarding a possible transaction to take the company private.

 

2. Following-up on Trucking: High Freight Rates and Record Truck Orders, orders for Class 8 semi-trucks increased 92 per cent year-over-year in September. Last month capped the highest ever recorded quarterly sales of big rigs in North America.

American trucking companies continue to struggle with tight capacity at the same time demand from the freight market remains strong.

We continue to play this theme through a long position in Allison Transmission $ALSN.

 

3. When the tech bubble popped at the start of the millennium, between 2001 and 2003, the S&P 500 and the NASDAQ 100 indices declined by 31.3 and 57.9 per cent on a total return basis, respectively. During the same period, Cameco Corporation $CCJ, the world’s largest uranium miner by market capitalisation, went up by more than 40 per cent.

Yesterday, as we witnessed global equity markets sell-off in response to (depending on who you ask) (i) tightening central bank policies and rising yields raising concerns about economic growth prospects, (ii) the accelerating sell-off in bond markets, or (iii) news that China secretly hacked the world’s leading tech companies, including Amazon and Apple, $CCJ closed up 5 per cent on the day.

Maybe history as Mark Twain said rhymes, maybe it is nothing, or just maybe it is one more sign of the increasing awareness of the nascent bull market underway in uranium.

CCJ.PNG

 

4. With the recent sell-off in the bond market, long-term Treasury yields have surged. Yields on the ten-year treasuries rose as high as 3.23 per cent on Wednesday, recording their highest level since 2011.

Does this level in yields make the long-end of the curve attractive for investors to start to re-allocate some equity exposure to long-term Treasury bonds? We think not.

Our thinking is driven by the following passage from Henry Kaufman’s book Interest Rates, the Markets, and the New Financial World in which he considers, in 1985, the possibility that the secular bond bear market may have come to an end:

“[T]wo credit market developments force me to be somewhat uncertain about the secular trend of long-term rates. One is the near-term performance of institutional investors, who in the restructured markets of recent decades generally will not commit funds when long when short rates are rising. The other development is the continued large supply of intermediate and long-term Governments that is likely to be forthcoming during the next period of monetary restraint. There is a fair chance that long yields will stay below their secular peaks, but the certainty of such an event would be greatly advanced with a sharp slowing of U.S. Government bond issuance and with the emergence of intermediate and long-term investment decisions by portfolio managers.”

 

In August this year, the US Treasury announced increases to its issuance of bonds in response to the US government’s rising deficit. This is the very opposite of what Mr Kaufman saw as a catalyst for declining long-term yields in 1985. Moreover, this increased issuance is baked in without the passing of President Trump’s infrastructure spending plan, which has been temporarily shelved. We suspect that Mr Trump’s infrastructure spending ambitions are likely to return to the fore following the upcoming mid-term elections. If an infrastructure spending bill of the scale Mr Trump has alluded to in the past come to pass, US Treasury bond issuance is only likely to further accelerate.

With the window for US companies to benefit from an added tax break this year by maximising their pension contributions now having passed, it will be interesting to see if institutional investors now become reluctant to allocate additional capital to long-dated Treasury bonds due to rising short rates.

The relative flatness of the yield curve, in our opinion, certainly does not warrant taking on the duration risk. At the same time, we do not recommend a short position in long-dated treasuries either – the negative carry is simply too costly at current yields.

 

On to this week’s piece where we discuss the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, the new trade deal between the US, Canada and Mexico that replaces the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, and its implications on the on-going trade dispute between the US and China.

The many months of the will-they-won’t-they circle of negotiations between the US, Canada and Mexico have culminated in the USMCA, which will replace NAFTA. The new deal may not be as transformative as the Trump Administration would have us believe but nonetheless has some important changes. Some of the salient features of the new agreement include:

 

1. Automobiles produced in the trade bloc will only qualify for zero tariffs if at least 75 per cent of their components are manufactured in Mexico, the US, or Canada versus 62.5 per cent under NAFTA.

The increased local component requirement is, we feel, far more to do with limiting indirect, tariff-free imports of Chinese products into the US than it is to do with promoting auto parts production in North America. The latter, we think, is an added benefit as opposed to the Trump Administration’s end goal.

 

2. Also relating to automobiles, the new agreement calls for 40 to 45 per cent of content to be produced by workers earning wages of at least US dollars 16 an hour by the year 2023.

This provision specifically targets the relative cost competitiveness of Mexico and is likely to appease Trump faithfuls hoping for policies aimed at stemming the flow of manufacturing jobs from the US to Mexico.

How this provision will be monitored remains anyone’s guess. Nonetheless, the USMCA, unlike NAFTA, does allow each country to sanction the others for labour violations that impact trade and therefore it may well become that the threat is used to coerce Mexico into complying with the minimum wage requirements.

 

3. Canada will improve the level of access to its dairy market afforded to the US. It will start with a six-month phase-in that allows US producers up to a 3.6 per cent share of the Canadian dairy market, which translates into approximately US dollars 70 million in increased exports for US farmers.

Canada also agreed to eliminate Class 7 – a Canada-wide domestic policy, creating a lower-priced class of industrial milk. The policy made certain categories of locally produced high-protein milk products cheaper than standard milk products from the US.

 

4. The term of a copyright will be increased from 50 years beyond the life of the author to 70 years beyond the life of the author. This amendment particularly benefits pharmaceutical and technology companies in the US. American companies’ investment in research and development far outstrips that made by their Canadian and Mexican peers

Another notable victory for pharmaceuticals is the increased protection for biologics patents from eight years to ten years.

 

5. NAFTA had an indefinite life; the USMCA will expire in 16 years.

The US, Canada and Mexico will formally review the agreement in six years to determine whether an extension beyond 16 years is warranted or not.

 

The successful conclusion of negotiations between the three countries, subject of course to Congressional approval, combined with the trade related truce declared with the European Union in the summer, should be seen as a victory for US Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer.

Earlier this year, in AIG, Robert E. Lighthizer, Made in China 2025, and the Semiconductors Bull Market we wrote (emphasis added):

 

Mr Lighthizer’s primary objectives with respect to US-Sino trade relations are (1) for China to open up its economy – by removing tariffs and ownership limits – for the benefit of Corporate America and (2) to put an end to Chinese practices that erode the competitive advantages enjoyed by US corporations – practices such as forcing technology transfer as a condition for market access.

Mr Lighthizer’s goals are ambitious. They will require time and patience from everyone – including President Trump, Chinese officials, US allies, and investors. For that, he will need to focus Mr Trump’s attention on China. He will not want the President continuing his thus far ad hoc approach to US trade policy. If NAFTA and other trade deals under negotiations with allies such as South Korea are dealt with swiftly, we would take that as a clear signal that Mr Lighthizer is in control of driving US trade policy.

 

Mr Trump and his band of trade warriors and security hawks are now in the clear to focus their attention on China and deal with the threat it poses to the US’s global economic, military and technological leadership.

 

The Big Hack

On Thursday, Bloomberg Businessweek ran a ground breaking story confirming the Trump Administration’s fears relating to Chinese espionage and intellectual property theft. The Big Hack: How China Used a Tiny Chip to Infiltrate U.S. Companies details how Chinese spies hacked some of the leading American technology companies, including the likes of Apple and Amazon, and compromised their supply chains.

Bloomberg’s revelations were swiftly followed by strongly worded denials by Apple and Amazon.

The timing of Bloomberg’s report – coming so soon after the USMCA negotiations were completed successfully – regardless of whether the allegations are true or not is notable.

Coincidentally, also on Thursday, Vice President Pence, in a speech at the Hudson Institute, criticised China on a broad range of issues, from Beijing’s supposed meddling in US elections, unfair trade practices, espionage, and the Belt and Road Initiative.

 

American Corporate Interests

The main hurdle for the Trump Administration in its dispute with China is the US dollars 250 billion invested in China by Corporate America.

We see the recent moves by the Administration in upping the ante on China, by disseminating the theft and espionage narrative through the media and new rounds of tariffs, as a means to provoke Corporate America to begin reengineering its supply chains away from China. Whether this happens, and at what the cost will be, remains to be seen.

 

War of Attrition

We expect US-China tensions to continue to escalate especially as we draw closer to mid-term election. And the Trump Administration to (threaten to) impose higher tariffs and use other economic and non-economic measures to pressurise the Chinese. The only near term reprieves we see from the US side are (i) a resounding defeat for the Republicans in the mid-term elections (not our base case) or (ii) a re-assessment of priorities by the Trump Administration following the elections.

From the Chinese perspective, the short-term impact of tariffs has partially been offset by the ~10 per cent fall in the renminbi’s value against the US dollar since April. A continued depreciation of the renminbi can further offset the impact of tariffs in the short run – for now this is not our base case.

The other alternative for Beijing is to stimulate its economy through infrastructure and housing investment to offset the external shock à la 2009 and 2015. However, given that Xi Jinping highlighted deleveraging as a key policy objective at the 19th National Congress, we expect fiscal stimulus to remain constrained until is absolutely necessary.

For now our base case is for China to continue to buy time with the President Trump and at the same time for it to work on deepening its economic and political ties in Asia, with its allies and the victims of a weaponised dollar.

 

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. 

The Contrarian Quartet (Part II)

“You never bet on the end of the world, that only happens once, and the odds of something that happens once in an eternity are pretty long.” – Art Cashin

“A thing long expected takes the form of the unexpected when at last it comes.” – Mark Twain

This week’s piece is a follow up to last week’s Contrarian Quartet (Part I). We outline the remaining two out of the four opportunities where we find the risk-to-return profile in being contrarian is far more attractive than in following the herd.

Rather fortuitously we decided to delay writing about Italy, the first of the two opportunities we discuss below, to this week as the deterioration in sentiment towards the sustainability of the European Union has accelerated.

Italy

“In investing, what is comfortable is rarely profitable.” – Robert Arnott, chairman and chief executive officer of Research Affiliates

As recently as three weeks ago, investors were disregarding the risks of political turmoil in Italy and lifting the Italian stock market higher. From the start of the year to market close on 7 May, 2018, the FTSE MIB Index generated a total return of 12.2 per cent in US dollar terms versus a measly return of 41 basis points for the MSCI All Cap World Index. Starting 8 May Italian outperformance started to unwind and the year-to-date return for the market, based on live prices as at the time of writing, is now negative. As the cliché goes, stocks take an escalator up and an elevator down.

FTSE MIB IndexFTSE MIB.pngSource: Bloomberg

Investors were first spooked by the two leading populist parties in Italy – the Five Star Movement and the League – moving to form a coalition to run the country. And then by President Sergio Mattarella’s decision to block the formation of a eurosceptic government and selecting Carlo Cottarelli, an International Monetary Fund alumnus, as prime minister-designate, to try to form a new government.

The selection of Mr Cottarelli, who has consistently defended Italy’s membership in the euro and became known as “Mr Scissors” for making cuts to public spending in Italy during Enrico Letta’s brief period as prime minister, has antagonised the populist coalition.  The populists see the selection as a deliberate attempt by President Mattarella to undermine the Italian people’s will as expressed by them in the recent election. Moreover, choosing Mr Cottarelli flies in the face of the coalition’s desire to put eurosceptics in key cabinet positions – as they tried to do by choosing Paolo Savona, the 81-year-old Eurosceptic economist, as their economy minister.

Given the antagonist nature of the President’s selection, Mr Cottarelli is highly unlikely to win a vote of confidence in parliament. Italy, in all likelihood, will have to hold a new set of elections in the autumn. And the next election has inextricably become about Italy’s membership in the euro. The worry is that the populists will use the bitterness from President Mattarella’s actions to rally their voters and emerge even stronger after the new elections.

Investors have been selling-off all things Italy in apprehension. Most drastically, the yield spreads between Italian and German government debt has blown out.

Italian vs. German 10 Year Government Bond Yield SpreadYield SpreadSource: Bloomberg

This is not the reaction President Mattarella was expecting, we suspect.

While we acknowledge that political risk in Europe is back in vogue, we consider the probability of an Italian exit to be low and with the caveat that Señor Draghi keeps the monetary spigots up and running we see even less risk of financial contagion spreading through Europe.

Consider the state of Italian sovereign debt today versus that at the height of the Euro Crisis. Foreign-ownership of Italian sovereign debt is down from 41 per cent in 2010 to 32 per cent today, with non-European investors holding a paltry 5 per cent. At the same time, Italy’s debt servicing costs as a percentage of GDP are at their lowest level since the euro was instituted – this of course is largely down to the ECB’s benevolence.

The Italian economy has been humming along quite nicely with first quarter GDP year-over-year growth of 1.4 per cent. Italy is also running a primary fiscal surplus and the fiscal deficit for 2017 was just 2.3 per cent of GDP and is likely to fall below 2.0 per cent in 2018.

The possibility of a fiscal blow-out due to extortionate spending by the populist coalition, if it is elected in the next elections, is also highly improbable. Since 2012, the Italian constitution mandates the balanced budget law and the president has the power to veto any decision that is not in adherence with this law. We are almost certain that a Europhile like President Mattarella will not hesitate in exercising the veto should the need arise.

Lastly, there are clear ideological differences between the two coalition parties and it is likely that such differences will be severely tested in the run up to the elections and, if they are elected, by the highly bureaucratic legislative system in Italy.  We suspect that the differing ideologies will impair the populist coalition’s ability to implement policies, which in turn will severely test its survival.

For these reasons we consider the drastic widening of the yield spread in Italian debt relative to German debt to be somewhat unwarranted. Despite this and given where absolute yields are in Europe, we do not think investors should have any sovereign or corporate bond exposure in Europe.

We also think it might still be a bit early to add broad based exposure to Italian stocks. Although selectively we are starting to see opportunities in high quality Italian companies, which we will be monitoring closely for potential entry points.

Where we see the greatest opportunity is to go long the euro relative to the US dollar. We think the current sell-off in the euro is sowing the seeds for the next down leg in the US dollar. The political uncertainty has facilitated the unwinding of bullish euro and bearish US dollar positioning. We suspect positioning will quickly become, if it has not already, very bearish in the euro and bullish in the US dollar. Overly bearish positioning is in our minds a necessary condition for the euro to re-assert its bullish trend.


US Long Dated Treasuries

GS US Financial Conditions Index versus US 30 Year Treasury YieldsGS US FCI vs 30YSource: Bloomberg

In The Convergence of US and Chinese Bond Markets we wrote:

“The shifting secular trend does not, however, warrant shorting US treasuries. The last secular US bond bear market lasted thirty-five years and can be sub-divided into thirteen parts: seven major price declines and six bear market rallies. Moreover, even though short-term interest rates bottomed around 1941, long-term bond yields continued to decline till 1946. We would not be overly surprised if a similar dynamic played out once again, with short-term rates bottoming in 2015 and long-term bond yields bottoming several years after.”

While we remain secular bears on US government bonds, we think long dated US treasuries currently offer a tactical opportunity on the long-side. US financial conditions have started to tighten after the easing induced by the enactment of the Trump tax plan – for instance US companies pre-funded their pension schemes to benefit from the higher tax rate in 2017 and contributed to the easing in financial conditions – is beginning to wear off and the reality of higher rates and higher oil prices squeezes system-wide liquidity. As demonstrated in the above chart, as financial conditions tighten, long-term bond yields tend to decline shortly after. Add to this the near record levels of short positioning in long-dated treasuries by non-commercials and you have a recipe for sharp rally in long-dated US treasuries.

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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