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"Nobody trusts anyone in authority today. It is one of the main features of our age. Wherever you look, there are lying politicians, crooked bankers, corrupt police officers, cheating journalists and double-dealing media barons, sinister children's entertainers, rotten and greedy energy companies, and out-of-control security services." - Adam Curtis
Watching with interest the trade war escalation with Mexico, leading to de-escalation, triggering more volatility in already jittery markets, in conjunction with more dovishness expectations from Central Banks, and with the prospect of the introduction of the so-called “mini-BOT” scheme, named after Italy’s Treasury bills in Italy, when it came to selecting our title analogy in continuation to our previous Chinese game of "Banqi" reference, we decided to go for the Italian game of the "Numbers Game". The numbers game, also known as the numbers racket, the Italian lottery, or the daily number, is a form of illegal gambling or illegal lottery played mostly in poor and working class neighborhoods in the United States, wherein a bettor attempts to pick three digits to match those that will be randomly drawn the following day. For many years the "number" has been the last three digits of "the handle", the amount race track bettors placed on race day at a major racetrack, published in racing journals and major newspapers in New York. 

What we find of interest, before we enter our usual "Macro and Credit" musing is that closely related is a policy, known as the policy racket, or the policy game. 

There is more to our title that meet the eye given Peter Navarro wrote in 1984 (the famous "dystopian" year) a book entitled "The Policy Game: How Special Interests and Ideologues Are Stealing America". 

Peter Navarro being Trump's top trade adviser we find it interesting in the light of the current trade war developments to look more closely at his change of views as put forward by AXIOS in June 2018 in their article entitled "Peter Navarro's radical transformation":
"People think of Peter Navarro, the top White House trade adviser, as President Trump’s mind-meld on tariffs — the most hardline protectionist in the White House. But Navarro used to preach very different ideas in his early career as an economist.
The bottom line: In his 1984 book, "The Policy Game: How Special Interests and Ideologues are Stealing America," that's no longer in print — Axios got a copy from a university library — Navarro sounds a lot like the very administration officials he's sparred with on trade policy. And he argues that tariffs will inevitably send the global economy into crisis.
We asked Navarro what prompted the radical change in his views, and he explained how he went from a free trader to an economic nationalist. In response to "The Policy Game," specifically, Navarro told Axios:
It borders on the comical that Axios would spend so much time on a book written 34 years ago and completely ignore the insights of my later works like the 2006 Coming China Wars, the 2011 Death By China, and the 2015 Crouching Tiger.  Together, these books explain at length why the globalist Ricardian free trade model is broken and urgently needs fixing in the name of both the economic and national security of the United States.
— Peter Navarro
From the book...
"The clear danger of this trend [protectionism] is an all-out global trade war; for when one country excludes others from its markets, the other countries inevitably retaliate with their own trade barriers. And as history has painfully taught, once protectionist wars begin, the likely result is a deadly and well-nigh unstoppable downward spiral by the entire world economy.
If the world is, in fact, sucked into this spiral, enormous gains from trade will be sacrificed. While such a sacrifice might save some jobs in sheltered domestic industries, it will destroy as many or more in other home industries, particularly those that rely heavily on export trade. At the same time, consumers will pay tens of billions of dollars more in higher prices for a much more limited selection of goods. Sacrificed, too, on the altar of protectionism will be the very heart of an international world order that since World War II has successfully changed the aggressive struggle among nations for world resources and markets into a peaceful economic competition rather than a confrontational political or military one."— "The Policy Game," pg. 55
There are multiple passages in "Policy Game" that directly argue against Navarro's current positions. Navarro's go-to argument defending the White House's trade moves has been national security. In a June New York Times op-ed, he wrote:
"President Trump reserves the right to defend those industries critical to our own national security. To do this, the United States has imposed tariffs on aluminum and steel imports. While critics may question how these metal tariffs can be imposed in the name of national security on allies and neighbors like Canada, they miss the fundamental point: These tariffs are not aimed at any one country. They are a defensive measure to ensure the domestic viability of two of the most important industries necessary for United States military and civilian production at times of crisis so that the United States can defend itself as well as its allies."
But Navarro's own book topples that argument as well:
"On the benefit side, protectionism within certain basic industries like autos, steel, and electronics helps to create and sustain an industrial base that, in times of war or national peril, can be shifted to defense purposes, However, this national security argument — and the existence of any benefits resulting from protecting these industries — can be legitimately called into question for several reasons.
First, the existence of any sizable benefits rests on the assumption that import competition in our defense-related industries would not only reduce the size of these industries but also shrink them to the point where they would be too small to support our defense needs. The threshold of danger is a matter of some dispute. How big, after all, do our auto, steel, or electronics industries have to be to keep our borders safe? In spite of this uncertainty, few analysts would argue that import competition is likely to push a nation with as large and mature an industrial base as ours anywhere close to that threshold.
Second, it is highly possible that our defense capability might actually be enhanced — not damaged — by import competition. Without the umbrella of protectionism, our defense-related industries would be forced to operate at lowest cost, engage in more research and development, aggressively innovate to stay one step ahead of the competition, and modernize their plants at a faster pace. Thus, while import competition might shrink these industries, they would be leaner, tougher, more efficient, and more modern and in all likelihood outperform a bigger and inefficient (protected) version of those same industries.
On the national security cost side, the major effect of protectionism is to threaten the stability of the international economic order through a global trade war..."
— "The Policy Game," pg. 82
Navarro lauded the impact of tariffs on saving American jobs in a May op-ed in USA Today, writing:
"There can be no better way to make America — and American manufacturing — great again than to start to rebuild those communities of America most harmed by the forces of globalization. These new facilities will stand as shining testimony to the success of tough trade actions, smart tax policies and targeted worker-training programs."
But he warned against the harmful longer-run effects of tariffs on jobs in his 1984 book:
"American protectionism threatens employment and profits in the export-dependent nexus because it invites retaliation from our trading partners ...
From these direct and indirect effects, it is clear that over time, the major benefits of protectionism — more jobs and higher profits — are largely and perhaps completely offset by a reduction in jobs and profits in export and linkage industries and in those industries vulnerable to the 'end run.' Therefore, the argument that protectionism serves as a jobs and income assistance program must be discounted."
— "The Policy Game," pg. 79-80
And Navarro has emphasized that tariffs won't hurt American consumers, saying on CBS' "Face the Nation" in March that the Trump administration's moves' effect on the prices of consumer goods will be "negligible to nothing."
In 1984, Navarro held a very different view:
"The biggest losers in the protectionist policy game are consumers. Even here. however, 'consumers' do not constitute a monolith, for there are several different consumer categories.
Bearing the greatest burden of protectionism are American retail shoppers who pay over $70 billion annually in higher prices (and reduced consumption) for products ranging from autos, bicycles, and color TVs to shoes, shirts, and cutlery."
— "The Policy Game," pg. 65
We find it very interesting given we already discussed the trend of "de-globalization" in this blog on numerous occasions, particularly again in January 2018 in our post entitled "The Twain-Laird Duel":
"In numerous conversations we have mused around the rise of populism in conjunction with protectionism, which represents clearly a negative headwind for global trade and is therefore bullish gold. The rhetoric of the new US administration has gathered steam and there are already mounting pressure to that effect. Furthermore, in our recent conversation "Bracket creep", which describes the process by which inflation pushes wages and salaries into higher tax brackets, leading to a fiscal drag situation, we indicated that with declining productivity and quality with wages pressure building up, this could mean companies, in order to maintain their profit margins would need to increase their prices. Protectionism, in our view, is inherently inflationary in nature. To preserve corporate margins, output prices will need to rise, that simple, and it is already happening.
Productivity in the US has been eviscerated. We feel we are increasingly moving from cooperation to "non-cooperation", a sort of "deglobalization". " - source Macronomics, January 2018
It is a theme we approached in January 2015 in our conversation "The Pigou effect" when we quoted the books The Trap and The Response from Sir James Goldsmith published in 1993 and 1994. Hedge Fund manager Crispin Odey given in an interview with Nils Pratley in the UK newspaper The Guardian on the 20th of February 2015:
“1994 is when we were all slathering about the idea of a world economy, and what it is going to do as we open up,” says Odey.

“And Goldsmith basically says: ‘Hey, be careful about this because it is fine to have trade between peoples who have the same lifestyles and cost structures and everything else. But, actually, if you encourage companies to relocate and put their factories in the cheapest place and sell to the most expensive, you in the end destroy the communities that you come from. And there will come a point where the productivity gains from the cheapest also decline, at which point you have a real problem on your hands’ – And we are kind of there.” - source The Guardian
Sir Jimmy Goldsmith's great 1994 interview following the publication of his book "The Trap" which was eerily prescient. He violently criticizes the GATT and the curse of globalization as denounced as well by the great French economist (and scientist) Maurice Allais.

In response to the critics, Sir Jimmy Goldsmith wrote a lengthy but great thoughtful reply called "The Response" (link provided):

"Hindley would prefer to reduce earnings substantially rather than 'block trade'. In other words, he would prefer to sacrifice the well-being of the nation rather than his free-trade ideology. He has forgotten that the purpose of the economy is to serve society, not the other way round. A successful economy increases wages, employment and social stability. Reducing wages is a sign of failure. There is no glory in competing in a worldwide race to lower the standard of living of one's own nation. " Sir Jimmy Goldsmith
Real wage growth has been the Fed's greatest headache and probably the absence of it has been of the main reasons behind President Trump's election.

For those wondering what comes next, as discussed in January 2018, weak dollar policy is a natural extension of protectionist policies. FX policy should not be ignored in trade policy. They go hand in hand as a reminder.

We indicated in January 2017 in our conversation "The Woozle effect" the following:
"If indeed the US administration is serious on getting a tough stance on global trade then obviously, this will be bullish gold but the big Woozle effect is that it will be as well negative on the US dollar." - source Macronomics, January 2017
This we think has the potential to happen in the coming week/months provided there is no deal between China and the United States. The trajectory of real yields matter when it comes to gold.

In this week's conversation, we would like to look at a potential turn in the credit cycle, given the very weak tone coming from the latest US employment report and nonfarm payrolls coming at 75 K on a back of the blunt use of tariffs as economic policy which is already neutering gains from tax cuts.

Synopsis:
  • Macro and Credit - Tariffs as a blunt instrument of economic policy? Handle with care.
  • Final charts - Fed it taking it "easy" not "easing" yet.

  • Macro and Credit - Tariffs as a blunt instrument of economic policy? Handle with care.
On the question of the "misuse" of tariffs as economic policy we read with interest the latest article on Asia Times from our esteemed former colleague David P. Goldman in his article from the 7th of June entitled "How I nailed the May payroll bust":
"Today’s data is a warning to the Trump Administration about the misuse of tariffs as a blunt instrument of economic policy.  The uncertainty generated by the threats to global supply chains from China to Mexico discourages capital investment. The tariffs already in place have taken back almost the whole of Trump’s $930 tax cut for the average American family, according to research by the New York Federal Reserve. That explains why retail sales are growing just 1% a year in real terms.
America’s growth spurt during the past two years has been Donald Trump’s great success. Tax cuts and deregulation (as well as the promise of more deregulation) revived the animal spirits of small business and produced an employment boom. But the president’s reliance on tariffs threatens to undo his good work, and prejudice his chances for re-election in 2020.
Paradoxically, the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad payroll report is very good news for equities. It will strengthen the position of those among Trump’s counselors who have warned him that tariff wars are bad news for the economy. Sadly, the equity market depends more on how the president reacts to economic news than on the economic news itself." - source David P. Goldman, Asia Times
Already the trade war rhetoric is taking its toll on employment levels with US automakers coming under pressure recently. From China to the U.K., Germany, Canada and the U.S., companies have announced at least 38,000 job cuts in the past six months. Auto demand is increasingly becoming collateral damage when it comes to the ongoing tensions between the United States and China. As we pointed out in our last conversation, Germany is greatly exposed to the rising tensions. This can be ascertained by the latest industrial production print for April falling by 1.9%, the most since August 2014 and four times more than expected. 

As well, inflation expectations have been trending down, particularly in Europe with oil prices down 22% since its April high and as we stated before, where oil prices go, so does US High Yield and in particular the Energy sector as per the below chart from Bank of America Merrill Lynch for the month to date returns for May 2019, with CCCs being highly exposed to oil prices woes (Energy sector = 20.4% of face value, 15.1% of market value):
- source Bank of America Merrill Lynch


As the trade war intensifies, this doesn't bode well for both CAPEX and employment levels. Leaders from G20 countries will convene in Osaka on June 28 and 29 and markets are hoping for a deal between China and the United States.

In a context of weakening macro data on top of exogenous factors such as rising geopolitical tensions, no wonder the Fed has adopted a more dovish stance leading to market pundits expecting significant cuts to come during the summer hence the significant bounce we are currently seeing on the back as well of the end of the most recent true "Mexican standoff".

But what about the inverted yield curve and the potential for a recession ahead of us, one might rightly ask. On this subject we read with interest Nomura's take from their Japan Navigator note number 826 from the 3rd of June entitled "Inverted yield curve in UST market and monetary policy conduct":
"Many FOMC members have indicated that they would allow inflation rates in the 2.0-2.5% range during an economic recovery, but they are not willing to use average inflation rates from the past to constrain future policy conduct. They have also stated that monetary policy should not be used to pop asset bubbles. We believe that this question of whether the Fed should tolerate an inverted yield curve in the UST market will be a critical subtextual theme (discussed below). However, we believe that Fed Chair Jerome Powell and other mainstream Fed officials do not buy into this idea.
We expect the US-China trade dispute to reach the next stage between 4 June and the G20 meeting on 28 June, where Presidents Trump and Xi could meet. We sense that with every day that passes, markets become more convinced that an agreement between the two countries will prove difficult and a fourth round of US tariffs is on the way. Nevertheless, semiconductor stocks, which are more likely to be directly influenced, began to halt their fall this week, which suggests that the market has priced this scenario in to a considerable degree.

We do not think that a fourth round of tariffs alone would have an impact sufficient to trigger a global economic downturn. Moreover, judging from the actions of Chinese policymakers, they seem to have determined that weakening RMB would represent a risk for China as well (due to capital flight), and there are no signs that they will guide RMB to weaker levels. Unlike many economists, we believe that if negotiations essentially break down and the US goes ahead with more tariffs, China will beef up its subsidies to export companies rather than taking measures aimed at expanding domestic demand, and in this case the damage to China and the global economy would be lower than a simple estimate premised on a reduction in Chinese exports and other countries serving as substitutes. This is because Chinese companies would absorb most of the hit from tariffs and continue to export goods. No matter how much China bolsters domestic demand measures, it is difficult to paint a growth strategy for China’s economy that does not depend on US markets. Moreover, from a US perspective, it is easier to play up a “success” if tariff revenue increases and Chinese companies, rather than US consumers, are forced to bear the load. This kind of scenario suggests a high risk that US rates, which have priced in an economic downturn, will rise. This upturn could occur when the US government officially announces a fourth round. At this point, we expect EM currencies and equities as well as USD/JPY and Japanese equities to rebound, so investors should prepare for this scenario.
If the Fed cuts rates to correct inverted yield curve, it would essentially be trying to fix a problem it created itself
The Fed’s dovish members, centered on Vice Chair Clarida, view an inverted yield curve in the UST market as an important sign presaging an economic downturn, and advocate policy conduct that would avoid such an inversion. In fact, if we look at the three economic cycles since 1980, the yield curve inverted, with yields on 3m Treasury bills higher than 10yr UST yields, followed by an economic downturn (Figure 2).
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Macronomics by Martin T. - 2w ago
"Life is not always like chess. Just because you have the king surrounded, don't think he is not capable of hurting you." - Ron Livingston
Looking at the results in the European elections promising more turmoil ahead between Italy and the European Commission, on top of the continuation of the trade war narrative between China and the United States (which has started to impact business confidence on top of EPS it seems), when it came to selecting our title analogy we reminded ourselves of the Chinese game of Banqi, also known as "Dark Chess" or "Blind Chess". Banqi is a two player Chinese board game played on a 4X8 grid. 

Most games last between ten and twenty minutes, but advanced games can go on for an hour or more. While Banqi is a social game usually played for fun rather than serious competition, it seems to us that the current confrontation between the United States and China is getting more serious by the day. In the game of Banqi, the game ends when a player cannot move, and that player is the loser. Most often, the game is lost because all of a player’s pieces have been captured and so he has no pieces to move. 

However, it is possible for one player to surround all of the other player’s remaining pieces in a manner that makes it impossible for them to move. It is worth noting that a stalemate threat occurs when one player forces an endless cycle of moves. In a typical stalemate, the instigator repeatedly attacks, but cannot capture, an enemy piece. The legality of stalemating varies by culture: 
  • Some players consider stalemate illegal. This is consistent with the rules of Chinese Chess, which require the instigator to cease the continual attack, else the victim wins.
  • Some players consider stalemate a legal strategy. The ability to instigate a stalemate in an otherwise losing game is one of the ways that skill can overcome luck, since the victim must accept either a drawn game or the loss of a piece. Handling a stalemate situation requires skill for the winning player, as well — the necessity of heading off a potential stalemate adds spice to an otherwise overwhelming victory. And deciding whether you can still win, even without that piece, requires great expertise.

When it comes to the game of Banqi and the BREXIT situation leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Theresa May, it is worth noting that in the Chinese game of Banqi a player may simply resign if the game seems lopsided. Also in the game of Banqi, some players derive pleasure from making it as difficult as possible for the opponent to actually coerce the win. Others make a game of seeing how many opposing pieces they can capture before their demise. Some just resign when defeat becomes evident, and start a new game. but we ramble again...

In this week's conversation, we would like to look at the escalating trade war and what it entails in terms of positioning and growth outlook

Synopsis:
  • Macro and Credit - China versus the United States? A numbers game
  • Final charts - Take it IG (Investment Grade), Japan's got your back...

  • Macro and Credit - China versus the United States? A numbers game
As we argued in our last conversation, it seems to us that China and the United States are heading towards the famous "infamous" Thucydides Trap", namely the rise of Athens and the fear it instilled in Sparta.

Before heading into the "nitty gritty" of the trade war implications from a market perspective we would like to point out towards the astute analysis of  our former esteemed colleague David Goldman's recent post in Asia Times from the 26th of May entitled "The Chinese tortoise and the American hare":
"China is outspending the US in quantum computing, including $11 billion to build a single research facility in Hefei. By contrast, the US allocated $1.2 billion for quantum computing over the next five years. Overall, federal development funding in the US has fallen from 0.78% of GDP in 1988 to 0.39% in 2016.

China remains behind the US in most key areas of technology, but it is catching up fast. In the last several years China has
  • Landed a probe on dark side of moon;
  • Developed successful quantum communication via satellite;
  • Built a 2,000-kilometer quantum communication network between Beijing and Shanghai;
  • Built missiles that can blind American satellites;
  • Developed surface-to-ship missiles that can destroy any vessel within hundreds of miles of its coast; and
  • Built some of the world’s fastest supercomputers.
China’s investment in education parallels its investment in high-tech industry. Today China graduates four times as many STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) bachelor’s degrees as the US, and twice as many doctoral degrees, and China continues to gain. A third of Chinese students major in engineering, vs 7% in the US. Eighty percent of US doctoral candidates in computer science and electrical engineering are foreign students, of whom Chinese are the largest contingent. Most return to China. The best US universities have trained top-level faculty for Chinese universities. American STEM graduate programs reported a sharp fall in foreign applications starting in 2017, partly because Chinese students no longer have to come to the US for world-class education.
China’s household consumption has risen 17-fold since 1986 and its GDP in US dollars has risen 35-fold. China has moved 550 million people from countryside to city in only 40 years, the equivalent of Europe’s population from the Urals to the Atlantic. China has built the equivalent of all the cities in Europe to house the new urban dwellers, as well as 80,000 miles (nearly 130,000 kilometers) of superhighway and 18,000 miles (29,000km) of high-speed trains.
China’s debt-to-GDP ratio stands at 253% (47% government, households 50%, corporate 155%). That is about the same as America’s 248% (98% to government, households 77%, corporate 74%). The high corporate debt number is due to the fact that state-owned enterprises fund a great deal of infrastructure building with debt that is counted as corporate rather than government. China’s debt problem is no worse than ours." - source David P. Goldman, Asia Times
On a side note, one of the main reasons we are so negative on our home country France, is the continuous fall in education standards and the very poor level of basic economics grasp, which will lead to even more "socialism" rest assured.

But, returning to the core subject of China versus the United States, it is indeed a numbers game in this "Banqi" confrontation as highlighted by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their Global Liquid Markets Weekly note from the 20th of May entitled "Is the trade war just about trade?":
"Is the trade war just about trade?
Economically, America is not as great as it used to be...
Greatness is a relative concept, measured often against oneself but also against others. In that regard, America has facilitated the rise of China by turning free trade into a global public good. Yet trade theory suggests that hegemons can maximize their income by applying optimal tariffs under certain conditions. The astonishing irruption of China in global commerce following her entry in the WTO has deeply transformed the global economy. For starters, America’s share of global trade has rolled down for two decades to make room for a rapid rise in Chinese exports and imports (Chart 1).

Importantly, China’s economy is now close to (in USD) or even bigger (in PPP) than America’s, depending how you measure it (Chart 2).

In economic terms, China is the rising power and the global hegemon is finally starting to feel the heat. We have looked into the issues further and found that several historical conflicts between an established and a rising power were preceded by major trade disputes.
 ...as incomes have stagnated in the past decades...
It has taken some time, and a major shift in domestic politics, for US foreign and trade policy to catch up with the geopolitical challenges of a rising China. Following the Global Financial Crisis, Washington had too many problems to focus on China’s growth. Plus the Chinese were the driving force behind global GDP and debt creation after 2008 (Exhibit 1) in a world hungry for growth.

The European sovereign debt crises of 2011 and 2012 made Chinese economic activity an even more important pillar of the world economy. Neither the US nor other world leaders had the appetite or the domestic support to confront China’s trade practices back then. But now the paradigm has changed. Incomes have been stagnant in real terms in the US for decades and voters are demanding a different course for policy (Chart 3).

In contrast to that, Chinese real incomes and wages have been rising at one of the fastest rates in the world for five decades now. In that sense, Chinese policymakers and business leaders seem to have delivered for their people what democratically elected politicians in the West have not.
...but it still leads the world in trade and profits...
In our view, America is also experiencing a renaissance of its own at the moment. Buoyant equity markets, the longest economic expansion in history, and the lowest unemployment rate in 48 years have emboldened US policy makers to tackle China. One key issue that has captivated voters is the narrative that American workers’ income is going overseas. This world view largely ignores the effects of technology. But in politics perception is reality. So the ongoing breakdown of global supply chains is just the start of a long trend, in our view. In any case, America’s economic power is still unmatched. Even if followed by China, the US still produces the vast amount of corporate profits in the world. No other country comes close (Chart 4.).

Similarly, the US leads the world by share of global trade ahead of China, with Germany in a relatively close third position (Chart 5).
...and has become energy independent in the past year
In some ways, President Trump has picked a good time to start his trade battle: America is in a position of strength and there is bipartisan consensus that China is getting too close for comfort. Another important point to understand is the structure in the foreign trade balances of both China and the US. Energy has been a crucial driver of foreign policy decisions in Washington for a long time. The new angle here is that America’s reliance on foreign energy has drastically reversed in the past ten years (Chart 6), opening the door to a renewed battery of sanctions and tariffs against US foes.

Energy  independence has also given Washington the confidence that the US economy will be roughly insulated from global oil price swings. Meanwhile, China’s foreign fuel dependency has increased in USD terms as the economy expanded (Chart 7), creating a major Achilles heel for the rising power.
China’s fast growth was fueled by America’s imports...
China’s spectacular economic ascendance can be traced to a number of factors. Massive domestic savings and huge capital accumulation, coupled with rapid urbanization and fast rising exports, have all been key drivers of China´s growth. Policy makers in China have also been exceptionally adept at implementing multi decade plans and building infrastructure at a staggering speed. Why is the White House so focused on China? In part, America’s current account balance has been the mirror of China’s for the last 20 years (Chart 8).

But even as America has improved its trade balances with the rest of the world helped by an energy renaissance, the annual US trade deficit with China has worsened from 84bn in 2000 to 420bn at present. As such, the drop in US energy imports was replaced with manufactured imports from China in the past decade (Chart 9.).

No one in Washington seemed to notice until voters sent a loud and clear message.
...as well as by its technology and intellectual property...
For most of its history, China has forced foreign companies to transfer technology by setting up Chinese-controlled joint ventures in its domestic market. These rules, coupled  with the promise of access to one of the world’s largest domestic markets, encouraged US corporations to transfer technology and turn a blind eye on intellectual property rights violations. Partly as a result of that, China has caught up with the US in terms of patents applications per head in the past decade (Chart 10).

True, China is only filing about half the patent applications per head that America delivers, but given its population size, China is now the world leader in total patent applications (Chart 11).

This extraordinary surge in patent applications has surely risen eyebrows in DC.
 ...but also by enormous foreign commodity purchases
Another crucial factor for China is its dependency on foreign raw materials. China is the world’s largest commodity importer and this dependency is reflected in the relative weight of raw materials in its goods imports (Chart 12).

For example, China is the world’s largest importer of oil, coal, iron ore, copper and soybeans. This massive dependency on foreign raw materials has become a growing weakness. This is particularly true now that China’s strategic competitor has become the largest producer of energy in the world. In contrast, China does not import many services from around the world, neither in the financial or telecommunications sectors (Chart 13.).
The rise of China has created a strategic competitor...
China’s growth has been fueled by a huge surge in manufacturing exports and a very large increase in raw material imports. But contrary to the market’s perception, China’s dependency on international trade has been dropping as a share of GDP (Chart 14).
Since we have established that Chinese export growth in the past two decades was very strong, it follows that the falling export dependency is largely the result of China’s GDP growing so quickly. As such, China’s reliance of foreign trade today is only somewhat larger than America’s. Note that the US enjoys one of the lowest foreign trade dependencies as a share of GDP in the G20, only slightly above after Argentina and Brazil (Chart 15).

This means that both the US and China could be labelled large, closed economies in international trade jargon. Germany would be on the opposite end of this spectrum. In practical terms, this relatively low trade dependency suggests that a protracted trade war would not likely have devastating consequences for neither China nor the US. Unlike Germany, both have large, deep domestic markets they can rely upon.
...that is constrained by a very different set of rules
China’s policies have encouraged the rapid development of manufacturing at home. As a result, Chinese exports are primarily concentrated in the manufacturing goods sector (Chart 16).
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"In waking a tiger, use a long stick." -  Mao Zedong

Watching with interest the collapse of the China trade deal with the US triggering the return of much muted volatility, as the fear of the "sell in May" motto settles in, given the rising tensions between the two powers, when it came to selecting our title analogy, we decided to go for a literary analogy,  "The Lady, or the Tiger?". It is a much-anthologized short story written by Frank R. Stockton for publication in the magazine The Century in 1882. 

The short story takes place in a land ruled by a semi-barbaric king. Some of the king's ideas are progressive, but others cause people to suffer. One of the king's innovations is the use of a public trial by ordeal as an agent of poetic justice, with guilt or innocence decided by the result of chance. A person accused of a crime is brought into a public arena and must choose one of two doors. Behind one door is a lady whom the king has deemed an appropriate match for the accused; behind the other is a fierce, hungry tiger. Both doors are heavily soundproofed to prevent the accused from hearing what is behind each one. If he chooses the door with the lady behind it, he is innocent and must immediately marry her, but if he chooses the door with the tiger behind it, he is deemed guilty and is immediately devoured by it.

The king learns that his daughter has a lover, a handsome and brave youth who is of lower status than the princess, and has him imprisoned to await trial. By the time that day comes, the princess has used her influence to learn the positions of the lady and the tiger behind the two doors. She has also discovered that the lady is someone whom she hates, thinking her to be a rival for the affections of the accused. When he looks to the princess for help, she discreetly indicates the door on his right, which he opens.

The outcome of this choice is not revealed. Instead, the narrator departs from the story to summarize the princess's state of mind and her thoughts about directing the accused to one fate or the other, as she will lose him to either death or marriage. She contemplates the pros and cons of each option, though notably considering the lady more. "And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door – the lady, or the tiger?"

Obviously for those who remember our June 2018 conversation "Prometheus Unbound", we argued the following:
"It seems more and more probable that the United States and China cannot escape the Thucydides Trap being the theory proposed by Graham Allison former director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for policy and plans in 2015 who postulates that war between a rising power and an established power is inevitable:
"It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable." Thucydides from "The History of the Peloponnesian War"  
- source Macronomics June 2016
Also, in our September 2018 conversation "White Tiger" we indicated that maverick hedge fund manager Ray Dalio came to a similar prognosis in his musing entitled "A Path to War" on the 19th of September. With our chosen title, we reminded ourselves that "The Lady, or the Tiger?" has entered the English language as an allegorical expression, a shorthand indication or signifier, for a problem that is unsolvable and we are not even talking again about BREXIT here...

In this week's conversation, we would like to look at Financials Conditions, given we recently took a look at the latest quarterly Fed Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey.

Synopsis:
  • Macro and Credit - Financial Conditions? It's a "Slow grind"
  • Final charts - The credit market cycle is very well correlated to the macro cycle.
  • Macro and Credit - Financial Conditions? It's a "Slow grind"
Back in February, in our conversation "Cryoseism" we indicated the following in relation to the SLOOs:
"We think we will probably have to wait until April/May for the next SLOOS to confirm (or not) the clear tightening of financial conditions. If confirmed, that would not bode well for the 2020 U.S. economic outlook so think about reducing high beta cyclicals. Also, the deterioration of financial conditions are indicative of a future rise in the default rate and will therefore weight on significantly on high beta and evidently US High Yield." - source Macronomics, February 2019
The latest publication of the SLOOs point towards a slowly but surely turning credit cycle. Yet, with the most recent easing stance of the stance, there are indeed clear signs of slow deterioration. With around 8.1% of credit-card balances held by people aged 18 to 29 being delinquent by 90 days or more in the first quarter of the year, the highest share since the first quarter of 2011, we believe it is essential to monitor going forward any weakness coming from the Fed's SLOOs.

On the subject of SLOOs we read with interest Bank of America Merrill Lynch's take from their Credit Strategist Note from the 12th of May entitled "BBBonvexity in IG":
"April Senior Loan Officer Survey: Back to easing 
Not surprisingly, given the sharp decline in uncertainties this year, as the Fed abandoned the rate hiking cycle/QT and the US economy not going into recession any time soon, banks are now back to easing lending standards for large and medium sized firms (neutral for small firms). The Fed’s fresh April senior loan officer survey released today also showed continued weak demand across the board for C&I, CRE, residential mortgage, auto and credit card loans. In addition, the April survey added special questions on foreign exposure with a moderate fraction of banks expecting deteriorating loan quality from current levels over the remainder of 2019. C&I and CRE loans
A net 4.2% of banks reported easing lending standards for large/medium C&I loans in April, a reversal from a net 2.8% reporting tightening standards in January, while lending standards for small C&I loans were unchanged in the April survey after a net 4.3% of banks reported tighter lending standards in January (Figure 20).

At the same time, the net share of banks reporting tighter standards on CRE loans declined to 10.8% in April from 12.3% in January. Please note that the CRE value reported here is the average for the three separate questions on loans for construction and land development, loans secured by nonfarm nonresidential structures, and loans secured by multifamily residential structures. 
Loan demand continued to weaken as the net shares of banks reporting weaker large/medium, small C&I and CRE loan demand increased to 16.9%, 10.3% and 16.9% in April, respectively, from 8.3%, 10.1% and 11.0% in January (Figure 21).
Mortgages 
Net 3.2% and 4.6% of banks returned to easing lending standards for GSE-eligible and QM-jumbo mortgage loans in the April survey, respectively, following net unchanged standards for GSE-eligible mortgages and 1.6% of banks reporting tighter standards for QM-Jumbo loans in the January (Figure 22).

At the same time, the net share reporting weaker demand for GSE-eligible and QM-Jumbo mortgages declined to 17.5% and 12.3% in April, respectively, from net 41.0% and 31.7% in January (Figure 23). 
Consumer loans 
Net 15.2% and 1.8% of banks reported tightening lending standards for credit card and auto loans according to the fresh April survey. This compares to net 6.4% and 1.9% of banks tightening lending standards on credit card loans and auto loans in the prior January survey (Figure 24).

Meanwhile, the net shares of banks reporting weaker demand for auto and credit card loans declined to 6.8% and 1.8% in April, respectively, from 17.4% and 18.2% in January (Figure 25). 
- source Bank of America Merrill Lynch

Overall, there is tepid loan growth on the back of rising delinquencies, not only from the younger generation but, as well for older generations. Delinquency rates are trending up again, and not just for younger consumers. The report found that seriously delinquent credit card balances have also risen for consumers aged 50–69. For borrowers aged 50–59 and 60–69, the 90-day delinquency rate increased by nearly 100 basis points each. It is indeed a "slow grinding" process when it comes to financial conditions. 

Tracking financial conditions is paramount when it comes to assessing "credit availability. The very strong rally seen in credit in general and high yield in particular, even in Europe where macro data has been very disappointing in the first part of the year. Clearly the rally in European High Yield has been based not on fundamentals but mostly due to strong "technicals" such as issuance levels overall. 

We would like to reiterate what we discussed earlier in 2018 in our conversation "Buckling" in when it comes to our views for credit markets at the time:
"As long as growth and inflation doesn't run not too hot, the goldilocks environment could continue to hold for some months provided, as we mentioned above there is no exogenous factor from a geopolitical point of view coming into play which would trigger an acceleration in oil prices. " - source Macronomics, February 2018.

Unfortunately, as of late, we have seen plenty of deterioration from a geopolitical point of view such as the unresolved trade war between the United States and China, or rising tensions with Iran hence the heightened volatility seen so far, in some way validating somewhat the "sell in may" narrative.

While the rally in high beta has been significant, in our most recent musings we have been advocating favoring a rotation into quality (Investment Grade) over quantity (High Yield). Since the beginning of the year the feeble retail crowd has been rotating at least in the high beta space from leveraged loans to US High Yield.

From the same Bank of America Merrill Lynch's Credit Strategist Note from the 12th of May entitled "BBBonvexity in IG" the "defensive" rotation has been confirmed:
"Outflows from risk 
US mutual fund and ETF investors sold stocks and high yield and bought high grade and munis following the recent pickup in volatility. Hence over the past week ending on March 8th investors redeemed $13.71bn from stocks – the biggest outflow since the week of March 20th. A week earlier stocks instead saw a small $0.36bn inflow. On the other hand buying of bonds increased to $3.85bn from $2.12bn (Figure 26), as stronger inflows to high grade, government bonds and munis more than offset outflows from high yield and leveraged loans.

 
Inflows to high grade accelerated to $3.10bn from $2.47bn. The increase was entirely driven by inflows to short-term high grade rising to $0.92bn from $0.30bn. Flows ex. short-term remained unchanged at $2.17bn. Inflows to high grade funds declined to $1.98bn from $2.97bn, while ETF flows turned positive with a $1.12bn inflow this past week after a $0.50bn outflow in the prior week (Figure 27).

Flows also improved for munis (to +$1.31bn from +$0.92bn) and government bonds (to +$0.04bn from -$1.54bn). On the other hand high yield reported a $0.28bn outflow after a flat reading a week earlier, while outflows from loans accelerated to $0.21bn from $0.17bn. For global EM bonds inflows declined to $1.03bn from $2.36bn. Finally money markets had a $16.32bn inflow this past week and a $13.83bn inflow in the prior week." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
The most recent heightened volatility, at least in credit markets, is more due to exogenous factors than solely fundamentals such as financial conditions, given that what we are seeing so far is much more akin to a "slow grind" than a complete change in the narrative and the turn in the credit cycle. 

From a "flow" perspective, we continue to monitor the appetite in particular of Japanese investors, which remain very supportive in particular of US credit markets. As we commented in numerous conversations, they have decided to add on more credit risk on a unhedged basis. We therefore think that FX volatility should be monitor closely and in particular any move in the US dollar against the Japanese yen for instance.

On the subject of Japanese flows we read with interest Nomura's Matsuzawa Morning Report from the 16th of May entitled "Banks hold off on foreign bond investment, while lifers continue to shift to credit":
"While the stock market remains unstable, the credit market was solid globally. In this respect, there were no signs that the market is looking to price in an economic downturn, and in fact it seems to be looking for the right time and catalyst to return to a risk-on flow. We expect Japanese investors to continue shifting out of government bonds to credit both in Japan and overseas. The April International Transactions in Securities data showed that lifers bought foreign bonds in line with levels in typical years, but we see this as a surprise given the drop in foreign yields and flattening along the curve. We believe this is reflected in the gradual, ongoing widening in USD/JPY and EUR/JPY basis since the start of the fiscal year (Figure 1).

By taking credit risk, they are trying to cover currency hedging costs, in our view. 

The International Transactions in Securities data for the week of 6 May, released this morning, showed that Japanese investors were net buyers of foreign bonds at only JPY20.8bn (Figure 2).

Given that they were net sellers in the previous two weeks, they remain cautious. In the week of 6 May, foreign yields fell sharply in response to President Trump’s tweets, but Japanese investors do not yet seem to be trading on the issue of the US-China trade conflict. However, we believe that banks’ short-term trading, not the aforementioned lifers, are primarily responsible for this trend. Banks were net sellers throughout April, and seem to be seeking to lock in profits in the near term. Foreign investors’ net buying of yen bonds remains high, at JPY553.5bn. In addition to the drop in foreign yields (currently, 10yr Bund yields are materially below 10yr JGB yields), widening currency basis also seems to support this trend." - source Nomura
"Bondzilla" the NIRP monster is still very much supportive of global allocation into fixed income and particularly in credit markets given the current levels of Japanese JGB yields and the German Bund 10 year yield.

This is what we recommended in our April conversation "Easy Come, Easy Go":
"As we indicated on numerous occasions, the cycle is slowly but surely turning and rising dispersion among issuers is a sign that you need to be not only more discerning in your issuer selection process but also more defensive in your allocation process. This also means paring back equities in favor of bonds and you will get support from your Japanese friends rest assured." - source Macronomics, April 2019
As we stated in our most recent conversation, Investment Grade is as well a far less volatile proposal and as indicated by Nomura, the stock market remains unstable whereas the credit market continues to be solid globally. Sure the trend in the SLOOs is not very positive with rising delinquencies and interest rates levels on credit cards for the US consumer, but, we do not think the credit cycle has finally turned as per our final chart below.

  • Final charts - The credit market cycle is very well correlated to the macro cycle.
After all our blog has been dealing with "Macro" and "Credit" since 2009, and there is a reason for this which can be resumed in the title of our final chapter in this conversation. The credit market cycle follows very closely the macro cycle. Our final chart comes from Bank of America Merrill Lynch's Credit Derivatives Strategist note from the 15th of May entitled "Keep calm and carry (on)" and displays the relationship between the credit cycle and the macro cycle:
"The cycle of risk assets 
The credit market cycle is very well correlated to the macro cycle. As the chart below illustrates, a weakening economic backdrop is typically associated with wider spreads and a weakening market trend. To the contrary, when the economic cycle recovers spreads tend to tighten and market trends to improve.
The cycle of “ratings” beta 
The macro cycle is not only a great tool to assess credit spread trends, but also a tool to track the cycle of “ratings” beta (chart 6). We define “ratings” beta as the slope between the monthly total return observed in high-yield vs. that in high-grade credit market (rolling twelve months). We then present in the chart below the trend of that beta (slope of returns) via a z-score analysis (12m z-score). When the macroeconomic backdrop improves and bounces from the lows, investors can realise higher (than average) betas in the high-yield market.
The cycle of “subordination” beta 
Last but not least, the macroeconomic data cycle is also valuable to assess the trends seen in subs vs. senior bonds space. Using the typical pair of IG corporate hybrids vs. senior non-financial senior bonds, to capture subordination premium trends, one can observe similar patterns between the macro cycle and the “subordination” beta cycle. When the..
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"Fear and euphoria are dominant forces, and fear is many multiples the size of euphoria. Bubbles go up very slowly as euphoria builds. Then fear hits, and it comes down very sharply. When I started to look at that, I was sort of intellectually shocked. Contagion is the critical phenomenon which causes the thing to fall apart." - Alan Greenspan

Looking at the very strong rally experienced so far this year in the high beta space nearly erasing the pain inflicted in the final quarter in 2018, when it came to selecting our title analogy, we reminded ourselves about "Dysphoria" being a profound state of unease or dissatisfaction. In a psychiatric context, dysphoria may accompany depression, anxiety, or agitation, whereas the opposite state of mind is known as "Euphoria". As well, this post is a continuation of our November 2016 conversation "From Utopia to Dystopia and back", given the continuing reversal of the 1960s utopian revolutionary spirit towards a more populist and conservative political approach globally which we think will materialize even more in the upcoming European elections next month. But, from our much appreciated behavioral psychologist approach to macro and credit perspectives, we reminded ourselves the wise words of our friend Paul Buigues in his 2013 post "Long-Term Corporate Credit Returns":
"Even for a rolling investor (whose returns are also driven by mark-to-market spread moves), initial spreads explain nearly half of 5yr forward returns." - Paul Buigues, 2013
Returns are related to starting valuations and are more volatile during transitional states  regimes, this is a very important point for credit investors we think going forward: 

"Benjamin Graham’s famous allegory of a “Mr. Market” who alternates between periods of depression and euphoria applies especially well to corporate credit investors. In addition to having a bipolar disorder, corporate credit investors are afflicted by a severe case of myopia, as they focus on current default rates, rather than trying to estimate realistic future default rates.
As a consequence, spreads themselves are a very good indicator of long-term forward returns, for both static and rolling investors."  - Paul Buigues, 2013
Also, "dysphoric and euphoric" moves in markets are regular features we think in late cycles:
"Spreads moves between June 2007 and October 2008 (from 250bp to 2000bp in just 16 months) were a great illustration of this manic-depressive behaviour (which can also be related to Minsky’s model of the credit cycle). " - Paul Buigues, 2013
Another great illustration of this manic-depressive behaviour from credit investors was the very significant rally in high beta credit during the second part of 2016 and in particular in the CCC bucket in US High Yield thanks to its exposure to the energy sector and to the rebound seen in oil prices at the time.



In this week's conversation, we would like to look at the start of the deleveraging in US corporate credit and what it entails, a subject we already approached in January 2019 in our conversation "The Zeigarnik effect" as well as in April 2012 in our conversation "Deleveraging - Bad for equities but good for credit assets".

Synopsis:
  • Macro and Credit - Under reconstruction
  • Final chart - In the short term, clearly a dovish Fed marks a return of "Goldilocks" for credit markets

  • Macro and Credit - Under reconstruction
Given "Deleveraging" is generally bad for equities, but good for credit assets, one might wonder if indeed credit might in the near term start outperforming credit with CFOs become more defensive of their balance sheet. This would of course lead to less support to some US equities with reduced buybacks and even dividend cuts in some instances. Obviously buybacks have been highly supportive of the ongoing rally seen in US equities over the years thanks to multiple expansion. When companies turn conservative and start reducing debt, credit holders benefit and equity holders lose out, that simple.

An illustration of the above was pointed out by Lisa Abramowicz from Bloomberg on the 24th of April relating to AT&T:
"What's good for AT&T's bond investors is bad for its stock holders. The company is losing subscribers as it cuts debt, leading to a stock slump. Its bonds, however, are soaring." - source Bloomberg
This is exactly the risks we highlighted back in January 2019 in our conversation "The Zeigarnik effect"
"If there is indeed a slowly but surely rise in the cost of capital, yet at more tepid pace thanks to the latest dovish tone from the Fed, then indeed, this could be more supportive for credit, if companies choose the deleveraging route in the US to defend their credit ratings. In this kind of scenario, it would be more "bond" friendly than "equity" friendly from a dividend perspective we think." - source Macronomics, January 2019
While the rally in high betas have been very significant so far this year with even the CCC bucket for US High Yield delivering around 8.8% return YTD, flows points towards "quality" (Investment Grade) over "quantity" (US High Yield) it seems as indicated by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their Follow The Flow report from the 26th of April entitled "Reaching for quality yield":
"IG funds flows continue uninterrupted
Another week of the same it seems. Fixed income investors continue reaching for “quality yield” via high-grade paper, while reducing risk in the government bond market. With government bond yields still close to the lows, it comes as no surprise to us that investors are looking to source non-negative yielding instruments. At the same time the lack of clarity on global growth is deterring investors from adding risk in equities.
Over the past week…
High grade funds saw an inflow for an eighth week in a row, extending the longest streak of inflows since 2017. We note that the slower pace w-o-w could be attributed to the short week due to the Easter holidays. Should we adjust this week’s inflow (for only three business days) it is almost at the same level as the inflow seen a week ago.

High yield funds recorded an inflow last week, the third in a row. Looking into the domicile breakdown, European-focused funds recorded the bulk of the inflow followed by Globally-focused funds. US-focused funds saw an outflow.
Government bond funds registered an outflow for the second week in a row. We note that the pace (despite the short week) has more than doubled w-o-w. Money Market funds recorded a sizable outflow last week, the second largest ever recorded. All in all, Fixed Income funds enjoyed their sixteenth consecutive week of inflows.
European equity funds continued to record outflows; the eleventh in a row. Note that over the past 59 weeks the asset class has recorded only two weeks of inflows.
Global EM debt funds recorded a small outflow, only the second this year, reflecting the appreciation of the USD over the past couple of weeks. Commodity funds saw an outflow last week, the third in 2019.
On the duration front, even though there were inflows across the curve, mid-term IG funds saw the bulk of the inflow." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Back in early April in our conversation "Easy Come, Easy Go", we pointed out to the return of "Bondzilla" the NIRP monster and the returning appetite from Japan's Government Pension Investment Fund GPIF and their friends Lifers, shedding hedging and adding more credit risk in their allocation process. Therefore it is not a surprised to us to see an increase in allocation to Investment Grade credit in terms of fund flows.

The appetite for foreign bonds for Japanese Lifers is indicated by Nomura in their Matsuzawa Morning Report from the 23rd of April entitled "Pension funds continue to build portfolios premised on an economic downturn":
"Lifers continued to buy super-long JGBs at relatively high levels in March. Buying generally tends to increase in January-March, but the fact that they are continuing to buy even as yields drop significantly, suggests that their shift to other assets such as foreign bonds is not sufficient. Four of the nine major lifers had released their FY19 investment plans as of yesterday. They are divided on Japanese bond investments, with two lifers intending to increase and two planning to reduce Japanese bonds. Compared with last year, they are not in favor of hedged foreign bonds (particularly USTs). They mention shifting instead to unhedged foreign bonds and, even among foreign assets, moving out of government bonds to credit and alternative investments, but it is not clear how far these can go as substitutions. Most of the lifers forecast USD/JPY rates around 108-110 at end-FY19, with all expecting rates to be about the same as at present or JPY somewhat stronger. The lifers predict 10yr UST yields in a 2.30-2.70% range, anticipating neither a rate hike nor a rate cut. Given these projections for the overseas environment, we believe lifers are unlikely to reduce the amounts left idle in Japan for lack of other options compared with FY18, but they could increase these amounts." - source Nomura
To repeat ourselves, like in 2004-2006 Fed rate hiking cycle, Japanese investors had the option of either increasing exposure to lower rated credit instruments outside Japan or taking on currency risk. During that last cycle they lowered the ratio of currency hedged investments to take on more credit risk.

Also something to take note is that as dispersion is rising (which is a late cycle feature) some investors are playing it more "defensive" hence the reach for "quality". As well as pointed out by another Nomura Matsuzawa Morning Report from the 25th of April entitled "Flows return from EMs to US", it is worth noting what is happening in Emerging Markets credit wise:
"Overseas markets were risk-off overall on Wednesday. While flows were concentrated in the US, it looked to us like money was being pulled out of EMs. In the FX market, DXY increased significantly for a second day and USD/JPY reached the 112 range. At the same time, JPY was strong across the board in cross pairs, indicating that the market’s risk sentiment is weak—emblematic of unfavorable USD strength. EM currencies were also weak. Germany’s IFO came in below forecast, forcing investors to unwind their trades made hastily on the premise of Europe’s economic recovery. This makes sense to us, but we do find it interesting that Australia’s weak CPI not only triggered an AUD sell-off, but devolved into a risk-off flow that spilled over into EM and Japanese markets as well. It seems to us that market sentiment on EMs and resource-rich countries is beginning to deteriorate, so that even a small factor causes a major response in the market.
The CDS spread in EMs widened relatively significantly and reached the highest level since 3 January (Figure 2).

However, spreads on other instruments that act like canaries in a coal mine for the credit market, such as US high-yield bonds and European financial institutions’ subordinated bonds, are relatively stable, which leads us to surmise that these wide spreads can be attributed to an issue specific to EMs (supply/demand? fundamentals?) rather than to a risk-off flow in the entire credit market. In terms of supply/demand, we believe hedge funds locked in profits during the EM rally in January- March and are timing their return to the US to coincide with US companies’ strong earnings results. We see few factors that would prolong and deepen this flow, unlike the flows returning to the US due to the intensification of the US-China trade dispute last year. In terms of fundamentals, Chinese policymakers’ moves toward a more neutral policy stance could be having an impact. Yesterday, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) injected liquidity via a targeted medium-term lending facility (see the 24 April edition of Asia Insights). This is seen as an alternative to lowering the reserve requirement ratio, and after this supply was announced, additional easing expectations declined, causing short-term rates (SHIBOR) to rise and Chinese equities to fall. If the PBoC were to rush into a more hawkish stance at this point, we believe risk-off flows in EMs would intensify. In any case, during Japan’s 10-day holiday to mark the imperial succession, we expect EMs to be the focus. In addition to Japan’s holiday, China will have its May Day holiday on 1-3 May, and this could restrain the market’s movements. In addition, the release of China’s manufacturing PMI on 30 April could change economic sentiment.
Ironically, the concentration of flows in the US as economic conditions there improve has pushed down US bond yields as well, and the market reflects higher Fed rate cut expectations. In fact, Japanese investors seem to be playing a role in this, and the International Transactions in Securities released this morning show that they were major net buyers of foreign bonds for a second straight week in the most recent week for which data is available (week of 15 April; Figure 1).

Expectations for a Fed rate cut by end-2019 rose to 63% (56% on the previous day). Given that US economic sentiment has improved since April, it seems strange to us that a rate cut in 2019 should be part of the market’s main scenario, but as noted above, this can also be seen as a sign that investors are preparing for a credit event stemming from EMs during Japan and China’s national holidays. However, in this case, US bond yields would have room for a reactionary rollback once this period has passed without event." - source Nomura 
The overseas support from Japanese investors to US credit markets should not be underestimated. They provide significant support to US credit markets hence the importance of tracking their investment and flows from a credit and macro perspective. as per the chart below from Nomura FX Insights report from the 24th of April entitled "Lifers still look for foreign assets":
- source Nomura

This is chart we think is very important we think from an allocation perspective as explained by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their Credit Market Strategist note from the 18th of April entitled "Party like it's 2016":
"Party like it’s 2016
During the years 2015-2017 foreigners and bond funds/ETFs bought all net supply of US corporate bonds (Figure 1), creating excess demand and driving spreads much tighter starting in February 2016.

Then in 2018 the Fed engineered a disorderly rate hiking cycle and a yield shock, as they were the only major central bank hiking and at the same engaged in QT. As a result, the corporate bond market lost the foreign buyer and inflows to bond funds/ETFs plummeted – hence the big 112bps increase in corporate yields during 2018 was necessary in order to attract other buyers, specifically pension funds (the majority of which state and local).
Given the Fed’s capitulation on monetary policy tightening this year we think 2019 will look much like 2016 as far as corporate bond demand goes, with foreigners and bond funds/ETFs once again buying all net supply. While the outlook for demand this year thus is similar to 2016, we expect ~$250bn less net supply ($100bn less gross supply, $150bn more maturities). Hence, we are unable to escape thinking that demand-supply technicals will remain positive and supportive for spreads for a while. Just like in 2016, although spreads this time are tighter so the rally cannot continue as long (Figure 2).
2019 vs. 2016
Foreign buying – as reflected in negative net-dealer-to-affiliate volumes – has been running very strong this year at a pace matching what we saw in 2016 YtD (Figure 3).

Given that peak weakness in 2016 was on February 11, i.e. later in the year than the January 3rd wides this time, not surprisingly inflows to IG bond funds and ETFs are running well ahead of 2016’s pace YtD (Figure 4).

However, on adjusting for the difference in timing within each year clearly inflows this year following the wides is ramping up much faster that we saw following peak spreads in 2016. Finally gross new issuance is running at the exact same pace this year YtD as in 2016 (Figure 5).

For 2016 we originally forecast about $1.2tr of supply and ended up getting almost $100bn more ($1.289bn). For 2019 we are also forecasting about $1.2tr, and with the decline in yields and wide open markets, clearly the risk this year is again to the upside relative to our forecast first published in a very different environment in 4Q18. Should we again get about $100bn up upside, keep in mind that net supply will still be down $150bn this year due to more maturities." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Indeed, we could see a continuation of the "melt-up" at least in credit markets thanks to the strong technical support in conjunction with overseas interest from the likes of Japanese investors.

But, returning to our main story of "Deleveraging" by CFOs, this we think could provide even more support to credit markets and translate into more "sucker punches" à la AT&T as illustrated earlier in our conversation. This would favor even more credit investors over equities investors we think. So, yes we are "bullish" credit. On that very subject of "Deleveraging by CFOs, we read with great interest Bank of America Merrill Lynch's take in their Credit/Equity Strategy note from the 22nd of April entitled "The Age of Balance Sheet Repair":
"A formula for growth in a low-growth environment
Low growth, low interest rates and low equity valuations in recent years have pushed US corporations to search for new drivers of financial performance. Many of them gravitated to a formula of tapping their balance sheet capacity to issue cheap debt and fund M&A and share buybacks. In only the last five years, companies repurchased $2.7trln of shares, paid $3.3trln in dividends, all while increasing their debt by $2.5trln. For some perspective, their combined capex budgets stood at $9.6trln during this time.
About 30% of EPS..
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"In every battle there comes a time when both sides consider themselves beaten, then he who continues the attack wins." -  Ulysses S. Grant

Watching with interest the lingering Brexit saga playing on in conjunction with the much commented trade war between China and the United States, when it came to selecting our title analogy, we decided to go for yet another poker card game reference (previous ones being "Poker tilt", "Le Chiffre", "Optimal bluffing", the "Donk bet", to name a few in no particular order). In the game of poker, the "Showdown" is a situation when, if more than one player remains after the last betting round, remaining players expose and compare their hands to determine the winner or winners. To win any part of a pot if more than one player has a hand, a player must show all of his cards face up on the table, whether they were used in the final hand played or not. Cards speak for themselves: the actual value of a player's hand prevails in the event a player mis-states the value of his hand. Because exposing a losing hand gives information to an opponent, players may be reluctant to expose their hands until after their opponents have done so and will muck their losing hands without exposing them. Robert's Rules of Poker state that the last player to take aggressive action by a bet or raise is the first to show the hand - unless everyone checks (or is all-in) on the last round of betting, then the first player to the left of the dealer button is the first to show the hand. 

If there is a side pot, players involved in the side pot should show their hands before anyone who is all-in for only the main pot. To speed up the game, a player holding a probable winner is encouraged to show the hand without delay (Brexit comes to our mind). Any player who has been dealt in may request to see any hand that is eligible to participate in the showdown, even if the hand has been mucked. This option is generally only used when a player suspects collusion or some other sort of cheating by other players. When the privilege is abused by a player (i.e. the player does not suspect cheating, but asks to see the cards just to get insight on another player's style or betting patterns), he may be warned by the dealer, or even removed from the table. There has been a recent trend in public cardroom rules to limit the ability of players to request to see mucked losing hands at the showdown. One would probably think a similar rule should be applied to Brexit negotiations but we ramble again...

In this week's conversation, we would like to look at US consumption and consumers, following the significant rally in the high beta segment of asset classes as we believe monitoring the state of the US Consumer in the coming months will be paramount. 

Synopsis:
  • Macro and Credit - Secular stagnation or secular strangulation? 
  • Final charts - Yes, Europe is turning Japanese

  • Macro and Credit - Secular stagnation or secular strangulation? 

With U.S. consumer prices increasing by the most in 14 months in March to 1.9% thanks to Energy prices climbing by 3.5% and accounting for about 60% of the increase, in conjunction with The University of Michigan’s preliminary consumer sentiment survey falling to 96.9 in April, from 98.4 the previous month, one might wonder what is the state of the US consumer.

On a side note, given the recent rise of the MMT crowd we read with interest Dr Lacy Hunt's take in his latest 1st Quarter review. We highly recommend you read it, for those of you in the "Deflationista" camp. The Keynesian camp might be somewhat part of the "Inflationista" camp given their preference for 2% inflation and beliefs in the much antiquated "Phillips curve" (we have said enough on this subject on this very blog). It seems to us the MMT crowd, as rightly pointed out by Dr Lacy Hunt, could make us all fall into the "hyperinflationista" camp with their monetary prowess and "promises".

As well we have seen many recent conversations surrounding the fact that in many instances in Developed Markets (DM) the "middle-class" has been hollowed out. This has been discussed at length by the OECD in their recent paper entitled "Under Pressure: The Squeezed Middle Class".

Back in December 2014, in our conversation "The QE MacGuffin" we pointed out the following Societe General's take from their FX outlook on central banks meddling:
"It’s broken, and they don’t know how to fix it. It is remarkable that after so many years of super easy monetary policy, the global economy still feels wobbly. On the positive side the US continues to recover and the lower oil price will provide a boost to global growth in H1 2015. Yet the growth multipliers seem to be much weaker still than they have been historically, highlighting a lack of confidence, be it because of post-crisis hysteresis, the demographic shock, the excessive levels of non-financial debt, etc.‘Secular stagnation’ is the buzz word. The theory encompasses two ideas: 1) potential growth has dropped; 2) there is a global excess of supply, or a chronic lack of demand. If true, the implications are clear. First, excess supply creates global disinflation forces. Second, to fight lowflation and to help demand meet supply at full employment, central banks may need to run exceptionally easy monetary policy ‘forever’. In other words, real short-term rates need to remain very low, if not negative.
Life below zero. At the ZLB, central banks do what they know: they print money. But such policy seems to follow a law of diminishing marginal returns. It has worked well for the US, because the Fed had a first-mover advantage, and the support from pro-growth fiscal policy and a swift clean-up of the household and bank balance sheet. The BoJ and ECB aren’t as lucky. Let’s consider three transmission channels: 1) The portfolio channel. By pushing yields lower, central banks force investors into riskier assets, boosting their prices. But trees don’t grow to the sky. And the wealth effect on spending is constrained by high private and public debt. 2) The latter also gravely impairs the lending channel. And with yields already so low, it’s questionable what sovereign QE can now achieve. 3) The FX channel. This is where the currency war starts, as central banks try to weaken their currency to boost exports and import inflation. It however is a zero-sum game that won’t boost world growth.-The battle to win market shares highlights a fierce competitive environment, which tends to depress global inflation. Adding insult to injury, oversupply in commodities, especially oil and agriculture, currently add to the deflationary pressure. That leads central banks to get ever bolder, when instead they’d need to be more creative (e.g. a bolder ABS plan from the ECB would be far more effective than covered and government bond purchases) and get proper support from governments (fiscal policy, structural reforms)."  -source Societe Generale
High inflationary environments allow corporations to inflate away their nominal debt as their assets (and revenues) grow with inflation, leading to lower default rates but, low inflation environments, like the one we’ve had for the past 25 years, tend to be ones where defaults can spike." source Macronomics, December 2014
The central banking "Showdown" is still going on we think. The "Global Savings Glut" (GSG), has been put forward by many defenders of Keynesian policies. 

We would like to add a couple of comments to the above  relating to the GSG theory put forward by former Fed president Ben Bernanke relating the reasons for the Great Financial Crisis (GFC). Once again we would like to quote our February 2016 conversation "The disappearance of MS München" on this subject:
"The "Savings Glut" view of economists such as Ben Bernanke and Paul Krugman needs to be vigorously rebuked. This incorrect view which was put forward to attempt to explain the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) by the main culprits was challenged by economists at the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), particularly in one paper by Claudio Borio entitled "The financial cycle and macroeconomics: What have we learnt?":
"The core objection to this view is that it arguably conflates “financing” with “saving” –two notions that coincide only in non-monetary economies. Financing is a gross cash-flow concept, and denotes access to purchasing power in the form of an accepted settlement medium (money), including through borrowing. Saving, as defined in the national accounts, is simply income (output) not consumed. Expenditures require financing, not saving. The expression “wall of saving” is, in fact, misleading: saving is more like a “hole” in aggregate expenditures – the hole that makes room for investment to take place. … In fact, the link between saving and credit is very loose. For instance, we saw earlier that during financial booms the credit-to-GDP gap tends to rise substantially. This means that the net change in the credit stock exceeds income by a considerable margin, and hence saving by an even larger one, as saving is only a small portion of that income." - source BIS paper, December 2012
Their paper argues that it was unrestrained extensions of credit and the related creation of money that caused the problem which could have been avoided if interest rates had not been set too low for too long through a "wicksellian" approach dear to Charles Gave from Gavekal Research.
Borio claims that the problem was that bank regulators did nothing to control the credit booms in the financial sector, which they could have done. We know how that ended before." - source Macronomics, February 2016
Indeed, conflating financing and savings is the main issue when it comes to the GSG theory. But, returning to the wise note of Dr Lacy Hunt, he puts another nail in the coffin of this "Savings Glut" theory put forward by Dr Ben Bernanke:
"Secular stagnation is basically the rebirth of the over-saving theory. However, after WWII the U.S. balanced the budget, contrary to Keynes’s recommendation, and the economy boomed, permitting the U.S. to rebuild and open U.S. markets to the world’s exporters. What Keynes missed is that the national saving rate averaged over 10% during WWII, and the U.S. had a strong balance sheet. The private sector drew down their saving, and this propelled the economy higher. In 2018, the national saving rate was 3%, less than half the long-term average since 1929 and one-fifth the level of 1945. There is no excess saving to be drawn down (Chart 5)."
- source Hoisington, Dr Lacy Hunt

Given the worrying trend for the middle-class in DM countries, you probably understand by now our chosen title of "Secular strangulation". For instance the "yellow jackets" (gilets jaunes) movement in France is an illustration of the fear of downgrade for many middle-class families which have been eviscerated by continuous fiscal pressure over the years. End of our parenthesis on the GSG.

Returning to the paramount subject of the state of the US consumer, with the volte-face made by the Fed, mortgages rates have fallen in sympathy giving some much needed respite to the US housing market. Existing-home sales climbed nearly 12% in February from the month before, reaching an annual rate of 5.5 million, according to the National Association of Realtors, which attributed the growth partly to interest rates. Of course lower interest rates for home mortgages buoy the housing market. In 19 weeks since November, the rate on a 30-year mortgage dropped from 4.94% to 4.06%, the most rapid decline since 2008. But, given "Shelter" comprises 40% of the Consumer Price Index, we might see some erratic readings in the coming months. 

As illustrated recently by Bloomberg, an excess of 7 million Americans were at least three months behind on their car payments at the end of 2018:
- graph source Bloomberg

Given the rapid deterioration in financial conjunctions in conjunction with housing headwinds thanks to rising mortgages rates in the final quarter in 2018, we think that this conjunction of factors on top of falling equity prices managed to spook enough the Fed to generate the aforementioned volte-face.

Obviously this welcome respite has managed to trigger an incredible rally for high beta thanks to global dovishness from central banks overall. Yet, we do think that the current housing bounce we are seeing is only temporary and providing some short term relief to the US consumer increasingly using revolving credit aka it's credit card to maintain his consumption. On top of that, rising oil prices might be good news for US High Yield but, should gas prices continue to surge, it might start again to become a slight headwind for US consumers. This would point to overall weaker growth for the remainder of 2019 in the United States we think.

When it comes to the US Housing situation we read with interest Bank of America Merrill Lynch's take from their Housing Watch note from the 12th of April entitled "A brief housing pop":
"Get ready for some good data…for now
All signs are pointing toward a short term boost to housing activity following a difficult end to last year. At the end of last year, mortgage rates were the highest since early 2011, the stock market was selling off and confidence in the economy was declining. Prospective homebuyers sat on the sidelines, uncertain about their future finances and concerned about affordability.
It has all changed since then. Mortgage rates have tumbled, returning to levels last seen in January 2018, the stock market has recovered and confidence has returned. If buyers were hesitant last year, this environment has lured them back into the housing market. Indeed, mortgage purchase applications have climbed, pending home sales have improved and existing home sales in February were very strong. Survey measures, including our own proprietary survey, show more favorable perceptions around housing with people noting that buying conditions have improved (Chart 2, Chart 3).


Similarly, homebuilders feel more confident with the NAHB housing index improving and realtor confidence surveys ticking higher. In our last housing watch in January, we argued that we would see a “brief period of stronger housing data.” We are doubling down on that view and now revising up forecasts for home sales in 2Q (Table 1).

Why are we looking for just a short-term boost to home sales rather than a more persistent recovery? Importantly, affordability challenges still remain. While the drop in mortgage rates provides a jolt to housing, housing is still overvalued given the strong rise in prices over the past several years (Chart 4). In addition, we see evidence that existing home sales have reached an equilibrium level based on the historical relationship between sales and the labor force. Of the people in the work-force, we are
at a historically “normal” rate of existing home sales (Chart 5).

There are greater opportunities for new home sales than for existing given that the recovery for new construction has been lackluster. Builders have been shifting away from the high-end of the market where inventory is higher toward the more affordable part where there is still incremental demand. This can be seen through the average size of a new single family home slipping lower and a drop in new homes sold over $300,000
(Chart 7, Chart 8).

Of course, housing dynamics are going to differ by region. A good way of understanding the relative strength or weakness in housing conditions is to track migration.

We find that people continue to leave Northeast, the Midwest and the California to move to Texas, Colorado as well as other areas in the West and South." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Given affordability is stretched, we agree with Bank of America Merrill Lynch, namely that the recent fall in mortgage rates is only providing some short term respite. When it comes to Main Street  it has had a much better record when it comes to calling a housing market top in the US than Wall Street. If you want a good indicator of the deterioration of the credit cycle, we encourage you to track the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index given the proportion of consumers stating that now is a good time to sell a house has been steadily rising in recent quarters. Just a thought. Main Street was 2 years ahead of the 2008 Great Financial Crisis (GFC) as a reminder. Housing activity is leading overall economic activity, housing being a sensitive cyclical sector.

The big question was that rising interest rates were starting to choke the US consumer hence the dovish tilt from the Fed following the horrific final quarter of 2018. 

On the state of the US consumer we read with interest Wells Fargo's take from their note from the 2nd of April entitled "U.S. Recession? How Do We Count the Ways?":
"Are Consumer Finances in Good Shape?
Household leverage generally, and mortgage debt specifically, was at the epicenter of the last downturn. Although the severe repercussions of consumers getting over-extended a decade ago may still be fresh in the minds of borrowers, lenders and regulators, overall household leverage has fallen substantially over the past decade (Figure 1). As Mark Twain said, however, history does not repeat, but it often rhymes. Are there other areas in consumer balance sheets that pose a risk to the economy from an extensive build up in debt and deterioration in lending standards?
While mortgage debt has fallen over the past decade, Figure 1 also shows that leverage of other types of consumer debt, including autos, credit cards, and student loans, is at an all-time high.

 - Source: Federal Reserve Board and Wells Fargo Securities
Yet unlike housing debt in the 2000s, the increase has not been exponential. Leverage for consumer credit is also only a quarter of the size of housing-related leverage at the..
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"There are many harsh lessons to be learned from the gambling experience, but the harshest one of all is the difference between having Fun and being Smart." - Hunter S. Thompson
Looking at the return of the "D" trade, "D" for "Deflation" that is with the return of the strong "bid" for bonds, marking the return of the duration trade on the back of "goldilocks" for "Investment Grade" which we foresaw, pushing more inflows into fixed income relative to equities, when it came to selecting our title analogy, we decided to go for a cinematic analogy "Easy Come, Easy Go". It is a 1947 movie directed by John Farrow, who won the Academy Award for Best Writing/Best Screenplay for Around the World in Eighty Days and in 1942, and was nominated as Best Director for Wake Island. "Easy Come, Easy Go" is the story about Martin Donovan, a compulsive gambler. His gambling habits leave him constantly broke and under arrest from a gambling-house raid. He places bets as well for the tenants of his boardinghouse, who lose their money and ability to pay the rent. Martin, came upon a sunken treasure but his philosophy is "easy come, easy go," promptly squanders all the loot. Looking at the various iterations of QE and the return to more dovishness from central bankers around the world, which lead no doubt to rise of so called "populism" with the asset owners having a field day, particularly the renters through the bond markets, over "Main Street", it is clear to us that the "treasured" support provided by central bankers to politicians has been all but "squandered". For example, French politicians have done meaningless structural reforms leading to unsustainable taxation creating the rise of the "yellow jackets" movement hence our pre-revolutionary stance. As we say in France, c'est la vie.  As in the move, with Martin's daughter Connie not knowing what else to do, she tries to solve her dad's debts by taking bets on a horse race. In similar fashion, central bankers have decided to add more dovishness on more debt, resulting in even more debt being created. Caveat creditor but we ramble again...

In this week's conversation, we would like to look at the return of Bondzilla the NIRP monster made in Japan given Japan's Government Pension Investment Fund GPIF is likely to come back strongly to the Fixed Income party.

Synopsis:
  • Macro and Credit -  Once again the money is flowing "uphill" where all the "fun" is namely the bond market.
  • Final charts - The deflation play is back in town

  • Macro and Credit -  Once again the money is flowing "uphill" where all the "fun" is namely the bond market.
In our most recent conversation we pointed out again that we advocated our readers to go for quality (Investment Grade) rather than quantity high yield given rising dispersion. To repeat ourselves, we continue to view rising dispersion as a sign of cracks in credit markets and not as a sign of overall strength. You have to become much more selective we think in the issuer profile selection process.

"Bondzilla" the NIRP monster which we indicated on numerous occasions has been "made in Japan" as we pointed out again in our most recent conversation. We also indicated as well:
Back in July 2016 in our conversation "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" we indicated that "Bondzilla" the NIRP monster was more and more made in Japan due to the important allocations to foreign bonds from the Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF) as well as other Lifers in conjunction with Mrs Watanabe through Uridashi and Toshin funds (Double Deckers) being an important carry player. In the global reach for "yield" and in terms of "dollar" allocation, Japanese investors have been very significant hence the importance of monitoring the flows from an allocation perspective.
Not only Japanese Lifers have a strong appetite for US credit, but retail investors such as Mrs Watanabe, in the popular Toshin funds, which are foreign currency denominated and as well as Uridashi bonds (Double Deckers), the US dollar has been a growing allocation currency wise in recent years so watch also that space.
For Japanese investors increasing purchases in foreign credit markets has been an option. Like in 2004-2006 Fed rate hiking cycle, Japanese investors had the option of either increasing exposure to lower rated credit instruments outside Japan or taking on currency risk. During that last cycle they lowered the ratio of currency hedged investments to take on more credit risk. " - source Macronomics, March 2019
"Bondzilla" the NIRP monster should not be underestimated in our macro allocation book. On this particular point we read with interest Nomura's FX Insights note from the 29th of March entitled "GPIF: sustained aggressive foreign buying more likely":
"Annual plan for new FY unveiled
The Government Pension Investment Fund’s (GPIF) annual plan for the new fiscal year suggests the fund can manage its portfolio more flexibly. This should allow the fund to continue purchasing foreign bonds aggressively, while reducing exposure to negative yielding domestic bonds. This shift is also likely to lead a higher share of foreign bonds in the updated target portfolio, which will be announced by end-March 2020. Given the significant size of the GPIF’s AUM, this flexible stance will be crucial for Japan’s financial market and yen-crosses. We expect pension funds’ foreign bond purchases to support yen-crosses during the new fiscal year.
The GPIF announced its annual plan for the new fiscal year. In the annual plan, the GPIF noted that it will manage its portfolio according to the basic portfolio, as usual. However, the GPIF added two important points for its portfolio strategy in the new fiscal year, in relation to the allowable range of the target portfolio.
First, the GPIF repeated that automatically reinvesting redemptions from exposure to domestic bonds may not be appropriate in the current market environment. Thus, for now, the fund will manage its domestic bond portfolio more flexibly in relation to the allowable range. The fund will maintain the total amount of domestic bonds and cash within the allowable range of domestic bonds (25-45%). The GPIF has already announced the temporary deviation in domestic bond exposures from the allowable range last September and thus, this point is not entirely new (see “Equity flows supporting yen-crosses”, 26 September 2018). However, flexibility has now been extended into the new fiscal year that commences next week, and the fund can continue to reduce exposure to domestic bonds for a longer amount of time.
Second, the GPIF added a new sentence, stating: “the fund will examine the application of allowable range for asset classes as necessary, as the fund is formulating its new target portfolio (Figure 1).

In April 2014, the GPIF stated that it would flexibly manage its portfolio in relation to the allowance rage, as it started reviewing its target portfolio for the next medium-term plan (see “GPIF: Time for whale-watching”, 4 December 2018). Owing to the increased flexibility, the fund could begin investing in equities and foreign bonds before it announced the new target portfolio in October 2014. Although the communique this year differs from five years ago, this additional comment could provide the fund with more opportunity to manage the portfolio more flexibly in the new fiscal year.
We think these statements are significant for Japan’s financial market and yen-crosses this year. As of end-December, the share of domestic bonds had declined to 28.2%, closer to the lower bound of the current allowable range (25%, Figure 2).

In contrast, the share of foreign bonds increased to 17.4%, closer to the upper range of the current allowable range (19%). The fund has recently been purchasing foreign bonds aggressively, as it likely judges negative-yielding domestic bonds as unattractive (Figure 3). Historically, the pace of foreign bond purchases in Q4 last year was at the highest pace (see “Three important JPY flow stories”, 1 March 2019). Without the two additional points above, the GPIF would need to start liquidating foreign bonds, while accumulating exposures to domestic bonds again.

However, as the fund can manage its portfolio more flexibly in the new fiscal year, it should be able to continue purchasing foreign bonds, even if the share exceeds the upper limit (19%).
As the BOJ’s negative rate policy will be extended further, in our view, we think it would be reasonable for the GPIF to continue reducing the fund’s exposure to domestic bonds, while shifting into foreign bonds. At the moment, both domestic and foreign equity shares central of the GPIF’s target portfolio are at 25%, but the central target for foreign bonds is just 15%. Thus, there is room for the fund to further shift from domestic bonds into foreign bonds.
The GPIF will release its new basic portfolio by end-March 2020, while the announcement could take place by end-2019. We see a strong probability that the GPIF would raise the share of foreign bonds then, and its flow could lead to JPY selling.
As of end-December, total AUM managed by the GPIF was at JPY151.4trn (USD1.4trn), and 5% portfolio shift into foreign bonds could generate JPY7.6trn (USD65-70bn) of JPY selling.
In comparison with 2014, market interest in the GPIF portfolio change seems much lower (Figure 4).

Nonetheless, we believe the annual plan released today shows the fund’s investment in foreign bonds will remain significant this year, and the diversification should support cross-yens well (Figure 5).
- source Nomura

So, from an allocation perspective, you probably want to "front run" the GPIF and its lifers friend, given they play "Easy come, Easy Go" particularly well in adding US dollar credit exposure we think.

When it comes to flows, and all the "fun" going into the bond market, it is already happening as per Bank of America Merrill Lynch's note from the 29th of March entitled "Bonds over stocks":
"Dovish central banks revive the bond market
As global central banks continue on their dovish path, more money is flowing into credit and fixed income funds more broadly.

It feels that this trend is here to stay amid low inflation and lack of growth in Europe, and continued political headwinds (Brexit, trade wars). As macroeconomic data trends are bottoming out and central banks continue to remain dovish, we think that credit gap wider risks are limited.
Over the past week…

High grade funds recorded an inflow for the fourth week in a row, albeit at a slower pace than last week. However we note that one fund suffered an outflow of almost $1bn. Should we adjust for that the inflow would have been more than $2.7bn.
High yield funds enjoyed their fifth consecutive week of inflow. Looking into the domicile breakdown, Global-focused funds gathered half of the inflows, with the other half favouring US-focused funds more than European-focused funds.
Government bond funds saw inflows for a second straight week, while the pace has been ticking up over the past couple of weeks. Money Market funds recorded an outflow last week, the strongest over the last five weeks. All in all, Fixed Income funds enjoyed another week of strong inflows.
European equity funds continued to record outflows; the seventh in a row. Note that the pace of outflows shows no sign of slowing down.
Global EM debt funds recorded their fifth consecutive week of inflows. Note that last weekly inflow was the largest in seven weeks. Commodity funds saw another inflow last week, the fourteenth over the past sixteen weeks.
On the duration front, short-term IG funds underperformed whilst mid and long-term IG funds recorded strong inflows amid a broader reach for yield trend." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Follow the flow as they say, but follow Japan when it comes to credit markets exposure, given that they are no small players when it comes to global allocation.

So should you play "defense" allocation wise or continue to go "all in"? On that very subject we read with interest Morgan Stanley's Cross Asset Dispatches note from the 31st of March entitled "Improving the Cycle Indicator – Countdown to Downturn":
"Cycle inflection argues for more cautious portfolio tilt – pare back exposure in US stocks and HY, add allocation to US duration, RoW stocks
But just because a shift in our cycle indicator is imminent, it doesn't mean that broad asset rotation needs to occur now:
Looking at the optimal allocation for the ACWI/USD Agg porfolio, we find that weighting between global equities and bonds doesn't really change materially until a downturn starts. However, rotation within asset classes occurs throughout expansion and into the cycle turn – for example, US equities see weighting fall throughout expansion in favour of RoW stocks, and fixed income portfolios rotate towards long-duration away from intermediate maturities over the same time. In other words, downturn may trigger the broad cross asset allocation, but investors should still look to tilt more defensive within asset classes throughout expansion.
What would this defensive tilt look like? Examining the optimal allocations for: i) USD Agg/ACWI; ii) Multi-asset; and iii) USD Agg portfolios through various cycles over the past 30 years, using realised next one-year returns, these shifts need to occur for a more defensive positioning:
  • Pare back equity risk, especially US versus RoW: Optimal weight to stocks tends to fall from expansion to downturn as stocks go from seeing a boost in returns to a drag.
  • Reduce US HY to max underweight: Allocation to lower-quality (BBB and HY) corporates typically collapses in expansion, given the unattractive returns profile; downturn only sees performance deteriorate further, taking HY (and BBB) to its lowest weighting in the cycle.
  • Tilt towards long-duration in late-cycle, add cash: UST and cash combined have the largest allocation in downturn.

These are largely in line with our current recommendations, based on our cross-asset allocation framework of which the cycle indicator forms one of the three pillars, along with long-run fair value models and short-run expectations from our strategy colleagues.

With long-run capital market assumptions which are below average for most assets, unenthusiastic 12-month forecasts from our strategists and a cycle model that's about to turn, we reiterate our stance to be EW in stocks, with a preference for ex-US equities, EW in bonds, with a tilt towards USTs, and UW in credit, in particular low-quality corporates. For investors looking for late-cycle hedges, we also recommend vol trades like buying credit puts, USDJPY puts and long Eurostoxx calls versus S&P calls to take advantage of dislocations in the vol space." - source Morgan Stanley.
Of course everyone is looking at the inverted US yield curve as a good predictor of a downturn to show up and markets are already pricing rates cut from the Fed. From a lower volatility positioning, it makes sense to be overweight US Investment Grade and adding duration and somewhat reduce exposure to US High Yield. In Europe, when it comes to financials, credit continues to benefit from the ECB support, financial equities, not so much, regardless of the price to book narrative put forward by many sell-side pundits. We continue to dislike financials equities and rather play exposure through credit markets, even high beta offers better value. 

But what about the cycle? Is it already turning in the US given the inversion of the US yield curve? On that specific point Morgan Stanley in their note pointed out the following:
"New cycle indicator, still same old cycle (for now)
Our revamped US cycle indicator suggests that the market is still in expansion. But our model also says there's a high chance (~70%) of a shift to downturn within the next 12 months.
Our market cycle indicators are a central part of our cross-asset framework, launched with our initiation of coverage nearly five years ago. While prior builds have served us well over this time, generally pointing to continued cycle expansion amid bouts of volatility, we have looked to continually improve these indicators. This is the latest iteration.
The main changes to the methodology revolve around index composition, weighting system and the way we systematically categorise cycle phases, relying on breadth of change across metrics instead of moving averages. The result is, in our view, an improved cycle indicator which can better flag turns in real time, with greater confidence and less lag. Currently, the revised US cycle indicator ('v2019') ( Exhibit 22 ) points to continued expansion, driven by many key macro indicators being above-trend ( Exhibit 23 ).


…but a market cycle peak is imminent
We don't think that this expansion can be sustained for long:
Exhibit 26 shows our real-time downturn probability gauge, which estimates the chance of our cycle model inflecting to downturn from expansion within the next 12 months, based on historical experience.

What this chart suggests is that, given the level of the cycle indicator, the chance of a shift to downturn over the next 12 months is elevated at close to 70%, up from ~60% from end-2017 when we last checked up on the cycle.
What's been behind this prediction? The strong unbroken run of improving data over the last year has been the main 'culprit':
Since April 2010, we've not had a six-month period where a majority of the components of the cycle indicator were not improving; it is, to our knowledge, the longest streak in history ( Exhibit 27 ).

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"For the merchant, even honesty is a financial speculation." - Charles Baudelaire
Watching with interest the Fed's additional dovishness with the continuation in the rally in high beta and in particular credit, marking the return of "goldilocks at least for this asset class, when it came to selecting our title analogy, given the potential stagflationary outcome thanks to the Fed being S&P500 dependent, we decided to go for "Inflationism". "Inflationism" is a heterodox economic, fiscal, or monetary policy, that predicts that a substantial level of inflation is harmless, desirable or even advantageous. Similarly, inflationist economists advocate for an inflationist policy. The contemporary Post-Keynesian monetary economic school of Neo-Chartalism, advocates government deficit spending to yield full employment, is attacked as inflationist, with critics arguing that such deficit spending inevitably leads to hyperinflation. Neo-Chartalists reject this charge, such as in the title of the Neo-Chartalist organization the Center for Full Employment and Price Stability. Also, a related argument is by Chartalists, who argue that nations who issue debt denominated in their own fiat currency need never default, because they can print money to pay off the debt similar to what we are hearing these days from the MMT supporters. Chartalists note, however, that printing money without matching it with taxation (to recover money and prevent the money supply from growing) can result in inflation if pursued beyond the point of full employment, and Chartalists generally do not argue for inflation. It also worth noting that Keynes described the inflation and economic stagnation gripping Europe in his book The Economic Consequences of the Peace. Keynes wrote:

"Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the Capitalist System was to debauch the currency. By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this method they not only confiscate, but they confiscate arbitrarily; and, while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some." [...]
"Lenin was certainly right. There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency. The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose." 

Keynes explicitly pointed out the relationship between governments printing money and inflation:
"The inflationism of the currency systems of Europe has proceeded to extraordinary lengths. The various belligerent Governments, unable, or too timid or too short-sighted to secure from loans or taxes the resources they required, have printed notes for the balance." 
The direct result of inflation is a transfer of wealth from creditors to debtors – the creditors receive less in real terms than they would have before, while the debtors pay less, assuming that the debts would in fact have been repaid, and not defaulted on. Formally, this is a de facto debt restructuring, with reduction of the real value of principle, and may benefit creditors if it results in the debts being serviced (paid in part), rather than defaulted on. In a context of "Japanification", the carry trade is back on and credit markets will definitely benefit from the global dovishness from central bankers. In  that context, we would tend to agree with our former esteemed colleague David Goldman's recent post in Asia Times from the 20th of March entitled "Fearing slower growth, Fed says no rate hikes this year":
"Markets expected forbearance from the Federal Reserve, but the US central bank Wednesday leaned further towards monetary ease than the optimists expected. The Fed envisions no change in interest rates until sometime in 2020, and not at all if the economy weakens further. It won’t reduce the $4 trillion securities portfolio it built up through so-called quantitative easing.
This is a market that rewards cowardice – holdings of stable income-earning assets like credit and real estate – more than it rewards bravery. I continue to believe that carry will be king in 2019 as the Fed keeps interest rates low." - source David Goldman, Asia Times
This is clearly a market favoring "coupon clipping" we think but we ramble again.

In this week's conversation, we would like to look at the growing "stagflation" risks, which have been on this very blog a scenario we highlighted could happen.

Synopsis:
  • Macro and Credit -  The return of the "yield" hogs in the Chinese year of the pig
  • Final charts - Oh my God they killed Macro volatility again!

  • Macro and Credit -  The return of the "yield" hogs in the Chinese year of the pig
In our previous conversation we highlighted the fact that "Deleveraging" and Deflation were good for credit markets. As expected, the additional dovish tone from the Fed is leading towards a reach for yield across credit. We also indicated that as long as interest rates volatility was remaining muted, it would be hard to be negative on credit markets. Given last Tuesday, Merrill Lynch's Move index, which tracks implied volatility on one-month Treasury bill options fell to a reading of 43.68, the lowest since the index’s inception in 1988, no surprise to see a continuation of the rally in high beta credit.

Rentiers seek and prefer deflation and fixed income investors continue to benefit from central bankers accommodative stance in that context. This definitely doesn't put us into the perma bear camp but more into the "realistic" camp we think hence our "japanification" stance.

Looking at the latest data coming out of Europe in general and Germany in particular, with Eurozone Manufacturing PMI coming at 47.6 vs 49.5 expected and previously at 49.3, no wonder the 10 year German bund is going again negative. As well, France Services PMI fell to 48.7 from 50.2 and expectations of 50.6 and Manufacturing PMI declined to 49.8 from 51.5 clearly pointing towards recession for the Eurozone.

Global dovishness has indeed favored the return of the "yield" hogs as indicated by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their Follow The Flow note from the 22nd of March entitled "Bond mania":
"Dovish central banks and uncertainty favour quality
The epic U-turn in central banks’ stance, the round of fresh stimulus from the ECB and most recently the announced end of quantitative tightening from the Fed, have spurred a global search for yields that mainly benefited fixed income securities.
As flows pour into fixed income funds in 2019, outflows from equity funds have gathered pace, spurred by a macro picture that keeps deteriorating in Europe as shown by the below-45 print in German manufacturing PMI.

Over the past week…
High grade funds recorded an inflow for the third week in a row, with the pace of inflows ticking up. High yield funds enjoyed their fourth consecutive week of inflow. Looking into the domicile breakdown, Global-focused funds gathered half of the flows, with the other half evenly shared between US- and European-focused funds.
Government bond funds saw inflows following two weeks of outflows.
Money Market funds recorded an outflow last week, reversing a two-week streak of inflows.
All in all, Fixed Income enjoyed strong weekly inflows, the second largest print since 2004 and the best 12-week streak since 2017.
European equity funds continued to record a weekly outflow for the sixth consecutive week, whilst the pace of outflows remains strong relative to historical standards.
Global EM debt funds recorded four straight weeks of inflows. Commodity funds saw an inflow last week, the tenth over the last twelve weeks.
On the duration front, long-term IG funds were the laggards as short- and mid-term IG funds recorded inflows." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Back in March 2016 in our conversation "The Pollyanna principle" when it comes to "japanification" and the attractiveness of credit markets in a central banking dovishness context we wrote the following:
"The issue at stake we have discussed on numerous occasions is that many of these Southern Europe banking institutions are capital constrained and cannot increase their lending capacity until the NPLs issues have been resolved!
Maximizing the funding via TLTRO2 in no way helps SME credit availability. The deleveraging has well is an on-going  exercise. What the new ECB funding does is slow down the deleveraging but in no way provides sufficient resolution to the "stock". NPLs are a"stock" variable but, Aggregate Demand (AD) and credit growth are ultimately "flow" variables. Until the ECB understands this simple concept, the "japanification" process will endure hence our "Unobtainium" analogy of last week:
"Unobtainium" situation. The new money flows downhill where the fun is: to the bond market. Bond speculators are having a field day and now credit speculators are joining the party with both hand" - source Macronomics, March 2016
This means of course that thanks to the Bank of Japan and the ECB, we believe that the rally in credit has more room to go and that both central banks will again not be the benefactors of the "real economy".
One thing for sure, by applying the Pollyanna principle, we think that Investment Grade Credit will benefit strongly and that we will see large inflows into the asset class as per our final point and chart, for SMEs where not too sure..." - source Macronomics, March 2016.
If "Japanification" is still the trade "du jour" then, obviously, credit markets will benefit from it as we posited in our previous conversation. The new TLTRO might not do wonders for the European economy given many banks are still "capital" constrained due to still large legacy assets sitting on their balance sheets in the form of nonperforming loans, but, from a credit investors point of view, they will continue to enjoy the "bond" party rest assured.

This is what we suggested in our previous conversation:
"An allocation to credit rather than equities for these weaker players would seem prone to less "repricing" risk should buybacks dwindle and some dividends start to be cut in some instances." - Macronomics, March 2019
Clearly global growth deceleration is favoring the "D" word for "Deflation", therefore the D trade is back on and US long bonds are enjoying the bond party as well, not only the German bund. Gold miners and gold as well are benefiting as well again from the growing negative yielding "Bondzilla" the NIRP monster.

We have also recently advocated our readers to go for quality (Investment Grade) rather than quantity high yield given rising dispersion. We continue to view rising dispersion as a sign of cracks in credit markets and not as a sign of overall strength.

On that note we read with interest Bank of America Merrill Lynch's take from their High Yield Strategy note from the 15th of March entitled "Eliminate the Impossible":
"The last on our list of recent positive developments is some improvement in pricing of illiquid HY cap structures (Figure 1).

As a reminder, we noted in February that most of the rally to that point had been concentrated in large, liquid, higher-quality cap structures, i.e., relatively easy investments. Bonds in the opposite corner of the market remained largely bidless. This may have started to change in the last couple of weeks, as we are beginning to see some early signs of positive price momentum in that corner of the market. It remains modest so far, offsetting about one-third of the extent of the initial decline, but it nonetheless represents important progress.
Shifting gears to the other side of this equation, other factors that underpinned our recent defensive positioning remained largely unchanged or have even deteriorated further.
Key among them is the degree of dispersion in the overall HY market and in CCCs that refuses to show any signs of improvement. To the contrary, its current readings are below year-end as well as both month-ends since then. The dispersion index measures the proportion of all bonds that are trading close to the index level (+/-100bps for overall HY and +/-400bps for CCCs). The rationale behind this measure is that dispersion tends to be low at times of high investor confidence and risk appetite and drops significantly as credit conditions tighten as buyers remain cognizant of risks and differentiate strongly between relatively stronger and weaker names (Figure 2).

About one-third of all CCCs continue to trade at distressed levels, whereas for most of last year that proportion stood at 20% or below. This outcome suggest that investors remain cautious in reaching for credit risk among the names that otherwise would have the highest upside from here if a low-default scenario were to play out in coming months.
Note that reopening in the CCC new issue market has done little so far to alleviate concerns surrounding these two real-time indicators (dispersion and distress). Perhaps, the newly minted CCCs are yet again viewed as carrying relatively stronger credit profiles compared to the rest of that space, although any comps here are particularly challenging given the highly idiosyncratic nature of this segment. In addition, the B3/below segment in leveraged loans also experienced a sharp slowdown around yearend and has only recovered modestly since then. The latest-3mo pace of activity here is running at less than one-fifth of its peak levels reached in the middle of last year.
Lastly, Moody’s has reported 17 global HY defaults in the first two months of 2019, of which 12 were among US issuers. These counts are the highest over the past year and compare to an average of 2.7 default events per month in the second half of 2018." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Obviously their defensive position has been vindicated by the most recent weakness we have seen in the high beta space, with equities as well in the first line of the volatility hence our more positive stance on credit relative to equities as per our previous conversation for those who follow us regularly.

When it comes to the support for credit markets, namely "Bondzilla" the NIRP monster which we indicated on numerous occasions has been "made in Japan".

Back in July 2016 in our conversation "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" we indicated that "Bondzilla" the NIRP monster was more and more made in Japan due to the important allocations to foreign bonds from the Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF) as well as other Lifers in conjunction with Mrs Watanabe through Uridashi and Toshin funds (Double Deckers) being an important carry player. In the global reach for "yield" and in terms of "dollar" allocation, Japanese investors have been very significant hence the importance of monitoring the flows from an allocation perspective. On this very subject we read another Bank of America Merrill Lynch's take in their Situation Room note from the 14th of March entitled "Japan 101":
"Japan 101
It is hard to imagine any country more transparent with investment flows than Japan. Hence, we know from the Japan Ministry of Finance’s weekly Data on securities investment abroad for medium and long term bonds as of March 8th that purchases are off to the strongest start to the year (¥5.76tr ) since 2012 (where the number was only slightly higher). This translates into $52bn of buying YtD, a dramatic change from sales of $6bn and $33bn during the same periods in 2018 and 2017 (Figure 1), respectively, and one of the key reasons the US corporate bond markets has been so strong this year, in our view.

Going forward, we can expect Japanese selling in a narrow window around fiscal year-end (March 31), where they tend to repatriate money (Figure 2).

It is also a straightforward assumption that Japanese purchases of foreign bonds accelerate in the new fiscal year starting April 1st, as seasonally about 75% of buying tends to take place in fiscal 1H, 25% in 2H.
EUR bonds and JGBs for life
Of course, this Ministry of Finance data covers all foreign bonds – not just US corporate ones. Luckily, Japanese lifers update on their investment plans twice a year – our most recent update is in the section “JGBs for life” in here: Situation Room 24 October 2018, which contained detailed plans for 2H of the Japanese Fiscal year (runs April 1-March 31). Clearly, heading into the first part of 4Q18 USD hedging costs had increased so much that they planned to shift hedged buying away from USD, into EUR – likely in a mix of European core corporate and sovereign bonds. Also, with rising rates and 30-Situation Room | 14 March 2019 3 year JGB yields already at 90bps+, they were getting ready to shift back into local government bonds as well. Of course, they planned to continue investing on a currency unhedged basis in the US.
Who let the doves out?
However, we suspect these plans had changed dramatically to favor much more US corporate bonds on a hedged basis by early this year as 1) market expectations for Fed rate hikes collapsed dovishly from about three over the following year heading into 4Q18 to none and 2) local 30-year JGB alternatives had plummeted as well to the 60bps range - far from the 100bps needed. Of course, they likely remained sizable buyers of EUR bonds, but probably less than originally planned.
While it is helpful that dollar hedging costs have come down somewhat over the past several months, as Libor-OIS tightened materially, that is not the main driver of increasing Japanese buying of US corporate bonds. We see this as US corporate yields have declined by roughly the same amount as dollar hedging costs (Figure 3), leaving yields after hedging relatively unchanged.

Instead, the main driver is the Fed’s dovish capitulation. The most common dollar hedging strategy for foreign investors involves a maturity mismatch with the underlying assets, as they roll short term – such as 3-month – forward fx rates. The cost of such strategy is driven by the difference between short term interbank rates, which in turn is driven mainly to relative monetary policy rates.
In early 4Q18 the Fed was the only major central bank hiking rates (3x priced in in 12months), as the BOJ and ECB were on hold. Foreign investors buying US corporate bonds rationally expected to be rolling into prohibitively expensive dollar hedges in 2019, leaving expected future yields after hedging costs on par with 90bps for 30-year JGBs (Figure 4).

Hence, US corporate bonds looked unattractive to Japanese investors. However, that all changed as markets priced out future rate hikes, and Japanese investors could thus have confidence dollar hedging costs would not increase. By the beginning of this year, Japanese investors could expect to keep, for example, 1.8% for dollar hedged 10-year BBB rated US corporate bonds, which compared very favorably to just 0.7% for 30-year JGBs.
Here to stay
We expect healthy Japanese and other foreign buying of US corporate bonds – which this year was always a key ingredient in our bullish call on spreads - to continue to help drive tightening for quite some time. Right now, the global corporate bond market – and USD is the biggest and most liquid chunk of that – is basically the only option for foreign investors. This changes when 1) valuations become unattractive – which will likely take a long time (Figure 4), 2) the market starts pricing in Fed rate hikes – which is not any time soon, or 3) US recession risk becomes too high – which should be years away, in our view." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Not only Japanese Lifers have a strong appetite for US credit, but retail investors..
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"Luck is believing you're lucky." - Tennessee Williams


While enjoying a much needed short break from blogging, hence our uncommon silence, we still managed to follow the macro news such as February’s anemic 20,000 new jobs creation in the United States from the latest nonfarm payroll report (when 180 K was expected). With global negative yielding bonds increasing by $509Billion in the last three-day trading to $7.437 trillion, given the global weaker tone in the growth outlook, no wonder the D word for "deflation" fears has staged a comeback. Given the recent dovish tone taken by our "Generous Gambler" Mario Draghi we also like to call "Le Chiffre", and that we do have "Sympathy for the Devil" because as we said on numerous occasions, "The greatest trick European central bankers ever pulled was to convince the world that default risk didn't exist", so, when it came to selecting our title analogy, we decided to go for both a great literature reference and another card game reference. "The Queen of Spades" is a short story by Alexander Pushkin about human avarice and was written in the autumn of 1833 and was first published in 1834. The story was also the basis of an opera by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1890. It tells the story of Hermann, an ethnic German, who is an officer of the engineers in the Imperial Russian Army. He constantly watches the other officers gamble, but never plays himself. One night, Tomsky tells a story about his grandmother, an elderly countess. Many years ago, in France, she lost a fortune at the card game of faro, and then won it back with the secret of the three winning cards, which she learned from the notorious Count of St. Germain. Hermann becomes obsessed with obtaining the secret:
"The countess (who is now 87 years old) has a young ward, Lizavyeta Ivanovna. Hermann sends love letters to Lizavyeta, and persuades her to let him into the house. There Hermann accosts the countess, demanding the secret. She first tells him that story was a joke, but Hermann refuses to believe her. He repeats his demands, but she does not speak. He draws a pistol and threatens her, and the old lady dies of fright. Hermann then flees to the apartment of Lizavyeta in the same building. There he confesses to have killed the countess by fright with his pistol. He defends himself by saying that the pistol was not loaded. He escapes from the house with the aid of Lizavyeta, who is disgusted to learn that his professions of love were a mask for greed. 
Hermann attends the funeral of the countess, and is terrified to see the countess open her eyes in the coffin and look at him. Later that night, the ghost of the countess appears. The ghost names the secret three cards (three, seven, ace), tells him he must play just once each night and then orders him to marry Lizavyeta. Hermann takes his entire savings to Chekalinsky's salon, where wealthy men gamble at faro for high stakes. On the first night, he bets it all on the three and wins. On the second night, he wins on the seven. On the third night, he bets on the ace — but when cards are shown, he finds he has bet on the Queen of Spades, rather than the ace, and loses everything. When the Queen appears to wink at him, he is astonished by her remarkable resemblance to the old countess, and flees in terror. In a short conclusion, Pushkin writes that Lizavyeta marries the son of the Countess' former steward, a state official who makes a good salary. Hermann, however, goes mad and is committed to an asylum. He is installed in Room 17 at the Obuhov hospital; he answers no questions, but merely mutters with unusual rapidity: "Three, seven, ace! Three, seven, queen!" " - source Wikipedia
The card game of faro also plays an important role in Pushkin's story. The game is played by having a player bet on a winning card. The dealer then begins turning over cards, burning the first (known as 'soda') to his left. The second card is placed face up to his right; this is the first winning card. The third card is placed face up in the left pile, as a losing card. The dealer continues turning over cards, alternating piles until the bet has been won or lost. A reading of The Queen of Spades holds that the story reveals the Russian stereotype of the German, one who is cold and calculating person bent on accumulating wealth (Germans increasing savings at the expense of consumption, which depresses economic activity), one might wonder if indeed the "uber" mercantile policies followed by Germany versus the rest of the world in general and its European peers in particular such as France and Italy will eventually spell its downfall, but we ramble again. After all Pushkin’s Queen of Spades is an "eternal" tale of gambling and avarice, such as the current financial markets we see in front of our very own eyes.


In this week's conversation, we would like to look at the additional dovishness coming from the ECB which we think in Europe will continue to reward more actively the financial sector credit markets over equities. 


Synopsis:
  • Macro and Credit -  Betting on the ace in European Rent-seeking credit markets
  • Final charts - ECB rates on Japanese path

  • Macro and Credit -  Betting on the ace in European Rent-seeking credit markets
Given our "Generous Gambler" aka Mario Draghi known as Le Chiffre fired his "Chekhov's gun" and unleashed QE in Europe, the consequences have been fairly simple. We have long been declaring that in that case credit would outperform equities when it comes to financials which is what we posited in January 2015 in our conversation "Stimulant psychosis":
"Rentiers seek and prefer deflation - European QE to benefit credit investors:
"In similar fashion to what we wrote about Japan in general and credit versus equities in particular in our April 2012 conversation "Deleveraging - Bad for equities but good for credit assets":
"Financial credit may be the next big opportunity
The build-up of corporate leverage in the 2000s was confined to financials which, unlike other corporates, had escaped unscarred from the 2001 experience. However, this changed in 2008. Judging by the experience of G3 (US, EU, Japan) non-financial corporates, there should be significant deleveraging in banks going forward. Indeed, regulatory pressures are also pushing in that direction. All else being equal, this should be bullish for financial credit." - source Nomura
Given the performance of European financial credit over equities, we are not surprised. On this very blog we have been advocating favoring exposure to credit markets when it comes to financials in Europe because of the "Japanification" process facing Europe. The recent dovish tone from "Le Chiffre" still at the head of the ECB is a reminder. The new TLTRO will continue to favor rent-seeking investors but probably less strongly than during the last decade following the Great Financial Crisis (GFC).

On that note we read with interest Bank of America Merrill Lynch The European Credit Strategist note from the 8th of March entitled "A decade of hubris":
"A decade of hubris
A decade ago, on March 12th 2009, European credit markets were on their knees, and companies faced extinction. But of course, the Armageddon never came, and years of exceptional monetary support from global central banks instead ignited a decade of significant returns across credit. Secular “winners” in the post-GFC era have been LT2 banks (102% cumulative total returns), transport (71% total returns), media (67%) and tech (66%). The “losers” on the other hand, have been healthcare (60%), energy (58%), autos (51%), and senior banks (48%). Secular contrarians would buy the “losers” as a catch-up trade. In fact, senior banks should reap the benefits of yesterday’s TLTRO announcement from Mr Draghi.
10yrs ago, on March 12th 2009, European credit markets were on their knees. High-grade spreads had peaked at 403bp (high-yield at 2147bp in mid-Dec ’08) and companies faced extinction…with spreads implying default rates of 7% for high-grade and 40% for high-yield. Years of exceptional monetary support from global central banks instead ignited a decade of phenomenal returns across the corporate bond market (chart 1).
Secular “winners” in the post-GFC era have been LT2 banks (102% cumulative total returns), transport (71% total returns), media (67% total returns) and tech (66% total returns).
The “losers” on the other hand, have been healthcare (60%), energy (58%) given oil price ructions, autos (51%) given trade tensions, and senior banks (48%) partly given the emergence of TLAC.
Secular contrarians would buy the “losers” going forward, as a catch-up play. In fact, senior banks should reap the benefits of yesterday’s TLTRO announcement from Mr Draghi – as historically has been the case (see our “who wins” under a TLTRO analysis)." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
From a Macro and Credit perspective, as posited by our Friend Paul Buigues in his 2013 post "Long-Term Corporate Credit Returns":
"Even for a rolling investor (whose returns are also driven by mark-to-market spread moves), initial spreads explain nearly half of 5yr forward returns." - Paul Buigues, 2013
As concluded as well in this previous 2013 by our friend Paul:
"Benjamin Graham’s famous allegory of a “Mr. Market” who alternates between periods of depression and euphoria applies especially well to corporate credit investors. In addition to having a bipolar disorder, corporate credit investors are afflicted by a severe case of myopia, as they focus on current default rates, rather than trying to estimate realistic future default rates.
As a consequence, spreads themselves are a very good indicator of long-term forward returns, for both static and rolling investors."  - Paul Buigues, 2013
Do not focus solely on the current low default rates when assessing forward credit risk. Trying to estimate realistic future default rates matter particularly when there are more and more signs showing that the cycle is slowly but surely turning in both CRE and consumer credit. Fed hiking cycles and tighter bank lending standards have historically been preconditions for recessions. By tracking the quarterly Senior Loan Officers Surveys (SLOOs) published by the Fed you can have a good view into credit conditions. As we told you recently, next publication of the SLOOs will be essential in assessing credit conditions. Please also note that jobless claims are one of the best indicators of a regime shift, because they generally start to rise about a year before the economy enters a recession. 

But if "D" is for "Deflation", then again, looking at the growing concerns from credit investors about US companies' leverage, the biggest risk, for equities is a slowdown in buybacks and a cut in CAPEX spending and dividends for some companies to address leverage issues put forward by many investors. This would make credit more favorable than equities from an allocation perspective due to "Japanification" concerns.

Some might be expecting the Queen of Spades and a return to "goldilocks" when it comes to credit markets, yet we think you shouldn't expect a continuation of such a strong rally in high beta we have seen so far this year given the macro backdrop regardless of the strong dovishness playing out.

On the subject of "complacency" in the current market set up, we read with interest Bank of America Merrill Lynch's take from their High Yield Strategy note from the 8th of March entitled "Complacency Breeds Opportunity":
"Rebound loses momentum as unresolved risks resurface
Risk assets continued to struggle this week, as there appeared to be few takers interested in holding, let alone adding risk at current levels. For the HY market, the invisible wall demarcating poor value appeared to be somewhere around 400bps on the OAS scale, as the asset class has been oscillating around these levels for three weeks now, unable to meaningfully break through this barrier. The liquid benchmarks have been going nowhere for even longer, with HYG currently trading half a point away from its closing levels on Jan 30th, the day of the Fed meeting that marked the policy pivot. So what stands in the way of better risk appetite here? We think two key factors: high asset prices and unresolved risks. We have written extensively in recent weeks about high prices/tight spreads being the most important hurdle that would make it difficult for HY to continue to show outsized performance. Simply put, strong bids for HY usually don’t come at three-handle spreads.
The second set of factors describing the risk backdrop has improved materially since Q4, and it unquestionably helped market sentiment earlier this year. The list was in fact unusually long in late 2018 – ranging from trade talks falling apart to the US government shutdown to European economies slowing to the Fed potentially making a policy mistake to oil prices falling sharply to large IG issuers losing investor confidence to EPS growth slowing to financial conditions tightening. Given the length of this list and the potential severity of some of these issues, it is little surprise that even a modest pullback in those concerns created a powerful backdrop for improving risk appetite.
But that is all history; now is the time to reassess these risks and get a better sense – with the benefit of hindsight and all the new information we have learned since then – what we got wrong back in Q4 and how much room there is for new mistakes at this point.
We think some of these risks have, in fact, been largely addressed. For example, the US government has been reopened and we think the latest experience has taught both sides of the political spectrum not to go there again, reducing the probability of a repeat occurrence. The chance of a serious Fed policy mistake – never high to begin with, in our opinion – has been reduced to effectively zero. Oil prices are no longer falling; and while we do not claim to possess a particular skill to forecast this volatile commodity, we find sufficient comfort in a simplistic thinking that it has less room to go lower from $55 than it had from $75.
The rest of risks on our list have also subsided, but we would stop short of calling them addressed. For example, all signs continue to point toward some sort of a trade agreement to be signed between the US and China in coming weeks, which should have a limited market impact at this point given that it has been well telegraphed. We remain doubtful that this event resolves most residual concerns about trade, however. Europe appears to be next on the “to-do” list for trade talks, with auto imports likely presented as a threat to US national security, as our economists describe here.
Assuming European negotiations end with some form of an agreement, an eventual outcome we have little doubt in, the larger question remains whether we can expect trade flows to return to their pre-2018 levels on the other side of all this. We have doubts that an average corporate executive committee planning the location of strategic supply chain elements for coming years is comfortable assuming most trade frictions will be resolved by then. A rational decision here should err on the side of caution by postponing/reducing cross-border investments.
On the other side of all this, the US trade deficit increased to $620bn in 2018, up 25% since the Trump administration made its reduction a key focus. It is hard to describe this outcome as a surprise if one takes into account the expected likely response functions on the other side of each trade channel. What were the chances of foreign consumers becoming more interested in US products in this environment? Not far from zero. Could the nominal signing agreements with China and/or Europe change this attitude in foreseeable future? Unlikely.
The slowdown in Europe is another risk that rose in Q4 but was subsequently swept under the rug of a tactical market rebound. The ECB has reminded us of that risk earlier on Thursday, by slashing its growth estimates, postponing its intentions to begin normalizing rates later this year, and reintroducing new measures of policy support (TLTROs). None of this should be particularly surprising, as Barnaby Martin, our European credit strategist, has been discussing these expectations for weeks now (for full details of his latest views on EU credit, see here). One of the key arguments he makes is still not fully appreciated by consensus, in our opinion: even if Presidents Trump and Xi sign a trade deal, and China agrees to buy more of US goods – a widely expected outcome – shouldn’t this also imply they will have to buy less elsewhere? And if so, isn’t Europe poorly positioned along this particular geopolitical scale? We think the consensus view of trade disruption as a non-risk is still failing to connect these important dots.
The risk of IG issuers losing investor confidence has receded as well, with several key names in the BBB space announcing strong measures in response to the market wakeup call they received in Q4. Their intentions are ranging from suspension of share buybacks to dividend cuts to asset sales, with proceeds promised to be directed toward debt reduction. This change of heart potentially represents great news for bondholders in each particular cap structure in question. What the market may be overlooking here is the aggregate impact of all these measures, i.e., if all large BBBs decide to delever simultaneously, what would that mean for their aggregate capex spending, earnings growth, and M&A appetite?
Our estimates suggest that gross share buybacks may have been responsible for up to a half of cumulative EPS growth of many of these issuers over the past five years. Such a contribution must be smaller going forward, assuming BBB issuers maintain their deleveraging discipline. So EPS growth – currently standing at +12% yoy for all S&P 1,500 issuers (large + small caps) – is poised to come under pressure going forward from at least three sides: tax reform comps turning into a headwind, fewer share buybacks, and slower global macro.
The last risk on the list from Q4 – tightening in financial conditions – has naturally improved since year-end; however, it remains elevated by the standards of last year when HY spreads were pushing into low-300s. As we discussed last week, cracks remain visible, particularly in the CCC space, where one-third of all names still trade at distressed levels and the extent of dispersion (proximity to average index levels) has actually increased since year-end. Wider dispersion implies less reliable risk appetite, as the rebound so far has only increased the gap between potential winners and losers.
Taking all of the above arguments into account, we think that while various risks culminated in late 2018 and have been addressed or reduced in recent weeks, some of them still remain in place. The most important among them are disruptions to trade  flows coupled with deleveraging among the largest IG names and tax reform coming out of yoy comps, all leading to negative earnings impacts. We think many investors remained complacent about these interconnected risks, and – until most recently – were willing to hold risk despite high asset prices. This behavior may have started to change over the past couple of weeks, but it remains largely in place.
Complacency on the part of other investors creates opportunity for those who share our view of the world. We think these issues are likely to resurface in coming weeks and months, and when they do, more appropriate pricing of risks should reestablish itself. We think this potential path is inconsistent with HY spreads going deeply into the three handles, and as such we continue to advocate an underweight position with an eye toward more significant levels of risk reduction if spreads were to grind tighter. Importantly, we think HY is likely to generate meaningful negative excess returns at some point in coming weeks and months from current levels, although we find it impractical to try to pinpoint the exact turning point.
Our default rate indicator continues to produce 5.25% issuer and 4.25% par estimates over the next 12 months. We realize this is an out-of-consensus view, and as such we continue to constantly question our confidence level around it. It remains firm so far, with all the improvement in risk appetite earlier in the year captured by model inputs. 
Importantly, we advise our readers to think about this model estimate more in terms of its directional view and the order of magnitude, rather than a simple point on a scale. The critical argument here is not whether the par number happens to be 4.25% or 3.75%, but rather that the lows in defaults for this credit cycle are most likely behind us, a legacy of 2018, and that future credit losses are likely to be meaningfully higher.
The risk taking mentality in leveraged credit must therefore undergo a significant change, particularly at current tight spread levels. We recommend continued up-inquality positioning coupled with increased cash balances at these levels. We will be looking to redeploy this capital at more attractive levels in the future." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
We agree with Bank of America Merrill Lynch that going forward, fewer share buybacks, and slower global macro will weigh more on equities than credit and given the recent direction taken by US Treasury notes, long dated Investment Grade credit should benefit as well from the most recent move. 


As we stated before if it's D for "Deflation" and "Deleveraging", then it's good for credit markets in a "Japanese" fashion. So all in all yield "hogs" will benefit more in this Chinese year of the pig relative to equities we think. Dovish tone by central banks equals reach for yield again across credit, that simple.

When it comes to the validation in playing defense recent fund flows points towards a reach for quality (Investment Grade) over quantity (High Yield) as indicated by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their Situation Room note from the 7th of March entitled "Monetary stimulus vs. global weakness":
"Outflow from risk
Inflows..
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Macronomics by Martin T. - 4M ago
"Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it." - Mark Twain
Looking at the continuation of the rally seen in January, with markets being more oblivious to macro data given the return of the central banking support narrative, when it came to selecting our title analogy we decided to go for Greek mythology and the reference to the underground river of the underworld named "Lethe". The river of "Lethe" was one of the five rivers of the underworld of Hades. Also known as the Ameles potamos (river of unmindfulness), the Lethe flowed around the cave of Hypnos and through the Underworld, where all those who drank from it experienced complete forgetfulness. 

In similar fashion, every investors drinking again from the "river of liquidity" provided by central banks including the large infusion from China's PBOC are experiencing complete forgetfulness given the significant rise in anything high beta such as small caps in the US up 18%, Emerging Markets up 10% (EEM) and US high yield up by 6% (HYG) to name a few. In Classical Greek, the word lethe (λήθη) literally means "oblivion", "forgetfulness", or "concealment". It is related to the Greek word for "truth", aletheia (ἀλήθεια), which through the privative alpha literally means "un-forgetfulness" or "un-concealment". While the privative "alpha" might means "un-forgetfulness", the on-going rally is purely of one of "high beta" given the return of the "carry" trade thanks to low rate volatility and global central banking dovishness. 

In Greek mythology, the shades of the dead were required to drink the waters of the Lethe in order to forget their earthly life. In the Aeneid, Virgil (VI.703-751) writes that it is only when the dead have had their memories erased by the Lethe that they may be reincarnated. One might wonder given the global surge of zombie companies from China to Japan, including the United States and Europe, if indeed the central banking Lethe river will enable them to become reincarnated but we ramble again...

In this week's conversation, we would like to look at the state of the credit cycle through the lens of the much discussed auto loan sector in the US.


Synopsis:
  • Macro and Credit - The road to oblivion?
  • Final chart - It's not only central banks, buybacks got your back...

  • Macro and Credit - The road to oblivion?

Given the definition of "oblivion" is a state in which you do not notice what is happening around you (very weak global macro data), usually because you are sleeping or very drunk (thanks to central banks being reluctant in removing the credit punch bowl), we wonder how long the return of "goldilocks" will last following the baby bear market we saw during the fourth quarter of 2018. 

Sure it’s  a great start  in 2019, yet, the slowdown we are seeing is real with US December retail sales down -1.2% against a consensus of +0.1%, or the fall in US manufacturing output with motor vehicles posting their biggest fall since 2009. As we pointed out in previous conversations, global growth has been slowing and Korea, being a good "proxy" for global trade, has seen recently unemployment surging to 4.4%.

No wonder given the on-going US versus China trade spat, and with global growth decelerating that China has decided to doubling down on leverage with its financial institutions making a record 3.3 trillion yuan of new loans, the most in any month back to at least 1992 when the data began. The slowdown in Chinese car sales as well has been significant. Passenger vehicle wholesales fell 17.7 percent year-on-year, the biggest drop since the market began to contract in the middle of last year, while retail sales had their eighth consecutive monthly decline, industry groups  reported this week.

No surprise the "D" for "Deflation" trade is back on. We are back to $11tln of bonds globally with a negative yield according to the WSJ. The rise has been significant according to David Rosenberg. is up 16% since October. So yes TINA (There Is No Alternative) is back on the menu and gold is as well rising in sympathy with everything else thanks to the "Lethe" river flowing again.

If retail sales are indeed weakening and delinquencies on US auto loans are rising and with existing home sales coming in well below expectations at a 4.94 million annual rate, then the Fed's latest FOMC dovish comments appears for some pundits warranted. The sustained rebound in oil prices has been supportive of US high yield in particular and high beta in general.

While investors took another bath into the central banking river of "Lethe", when it comes to credit in general and the US consumer in particular, we do see cracks forming up into the narrative as the credit cycle is gently but slowly turning as we argued last week looking at the next Fed's quarterly Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey (SLOOs) will be paramount. If some parts of Europe are stalling and in some instances falling into recession, when it comes to the US, we have a case of deceleration. After all "recessions" are "deflationary" in nature, and most central banks have been powerless in anchoring solidly inflation expectations. 

When it comes to the state of credit for US consumers given its important weight in US GDP, we read with interest the US PIRG report published on the 13th of February relating to auto loans and entitled "The Hidden Costs of Risky Auto Loans to Consumers and Our Communities":
"The loosening of auto credit after the Great Recession has contributed to rising indebtedness for cars, increased car ownership and reductions in transit use.
  • Auto lending rebounded from the Great Recession in part because of low interest rates (fueled by the Federal Reserve Board’s policy of quantitative easing) and a perception by lenders that auto loans had held up better than mortgages during the financial crisis. As one hedge fund manager noted in a 2017 interview with The Financial Times, during the recession, “consumers tended to default on their house first, credit card second and car third.”
  • A 2014 report by the Federal Reserve found that a consumer’s perception of interest rate trends had as strong an effect on the decision of when to buy a car as more expected factors like unemployment and income.
  • Low-income borrowers are particularly sensitive to changes in loan maturity according to a 2007 study, suggesting that the longer loan terms of recent years may have been an important spur for the rapid rise in auto loans to low-income households.
  • A 2018 study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, tied the fall in transit ridership in Southern California to increased vehicle availability, possibly supported by cheap auto financing.
The rise in automobile debt since the Great Recession leaves millions of Americans financially vulnerable — especially in the event of an economic downturn.

  • Americans are carrying car loans for longer periods of time. Of all auto loans issued in the first two quarters of 2017, 42 percent carried a term of six years or longer, compared to just 26 percent in 2009. Longer repayment terms increase the total cost of buying an automobile and extend the amount of time consumers spend “underwater” — owing more on their vehicles than they are worth.
  • Many car buyers “roll over” the unpaid portion of a car loan into a loan on a new vehicle, increasing their financial vulnerability in the event of job loss or other crisis of household finances. At the end of 2017, almost a third of all traded-in vehicles carried negative equity, with these vehicles being underwater by an average of $5,100.
  • The increase in higher-cost “subprime” loans has extended auto ownership to many households with low credit scores but has also left many of them deeply vulnerable to high interest rates and predatory practices. In 2016, lending to borrowers with subprime and deep subprime credit scores made up as much as 26 percent of all auto loans originated.
  • Auto lenders — and especially subprime lenders — have engaged in a variety of predatory, abusive and discriminatory practices that enhance consumers’ vulnerability, including:
  • Providing incomplete or confusing information about the terms of the loan, including interest rates.
  • Making loans to people without the ability to repay.
  • Discriminatory markups of loans that result in African-American and Hispanic borrowers paying more for auto loans.
  • Pushing expensive “add-ons” such as insurance products, extended warranties and overpriced vehicle options, the cost of which is added to a consumer’s loan.
  • Engaging in abusive collection and repossession tactics once a consumer’s loan has become past due.

- source US PIRG, February 2019


In similar fashion to the predatory practices leading to the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) and tied up tiosubprime loans we can find many similarities in auto lending. One could argue that the depreciation value of the collateral is even more rapid than for housing and probably less "senior" when it comes the recovery value potential. 

As we pointed out in October 2017 in our conversation "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?", credit cycles die because too much debt has been raised:
"When it comes to credit and in particular the credit cycle, the growth of private credit matters a lot. If indeed there are signs that the US consumer is getting "maxed out", then there is a chance the credit cycle will turn in earnest, because of too much debt being raised as well for the US consumer. But for now financial conditions are pretty loose. For the credit music to stop, a return of the Big Bad Wolf aka inflation would end the rally still going strong towards eleven in true Spinal Tap fashion." - Macronomics, October 2017 
This is why on this very blog we follow very closely financial conditions and the Fed's quarterly SLOOs as well a fund flows. 

Returning to US PIRG report we also think it is very important to look at what has been happening in the auto loans sector:

  • "7% of auto loans are 3+ months delinquent . Auto loan delinquencies climbed to $9 billion in 2018. 
  • Transportation is the second-leading expenditure for American households, behind only housing. Approximately one hour of the average American’s working day is spent earning the money needed to pay for the transportation that enables them to get to work in the first place.
  • Americans owed $1.26 trillion on auto loans in the third quarter of 2018, an increase of 75 percent since the end of 2009.
  • The amount of auto loans outstanding is equivalent to 5.5 percent of GDP — a higher level than at any time in history other than the period between the 2001 and 2007 recessions." - source US PIRG, February 2019
Given that the auto industry is notoriously cyclical,  and that the production of motor vehicles and parts dropped 8.8 percent in January, the steepest decline since May 2009 you might want to start paying attention, particularly when consumer spending is down 1.2% which is the biggest drop since 2009.

On the subject of the severity of rising delinquencies in the US auto loan sector, we read with interest Wells Fargo's Economics Group Weekly Economic and Financial Commentary from the 22nd of February:
"Canary in the Camry?
Seven million Americans are seriously delinquent on their auto loans, according to the New York Fed. The current number of borrowers 90 days behind on their auto loan payments vastly exceeds the maximum reached in the height of the last recession. With wage growth picking up and job growth still incredibly strong, is this a harbinger of widespread financial distress or something more benign?
Due to the centrality of cars to the economic and personal stability of so many, consumers typically prioritize auto loan payments over other liabilities—even mortgage or credit card debt. Thus, a growing number of consumers transitioning into delinquency on their auto loans can be an indicator of significant financial distress. Yet, this alarming number of delinquent borrowers is to a large extent simply a consequence of an increase in the magnitude of the auto loan market. Lenders originated a record $584 billion of auto loans in 2018, increasingly to prime borrowers, who still comprise a much larger share of outstanding debt than subprime borrowers. The portion of vehicle purchases financed by debt has remained stable, and the flow into serious delinquency in Q4 only reached 2.4%. Still, this marks a noticeable deterioration in performance—this is up from the 2012 cycle low of 1.5%, and is concentrated among the young and the subprime. While the headline of seven million may not indicate a systematic threat, it can offer clues into where financial hardship is the most acute." - source Wells Fargo
Could that be the reason for restaurant sales declining in four of the past five months and at a pace we haven't seen in the last 25 years? We wonder.

If credit quality in the US has been deteriorating particularly in Investment Grade credit with a large part of the market close to the high yield frontier in the BBB segment, in similar fashion when it comes with auto loans and as posited on numerous occasions on this very blog we do expect recovery rates to be much lower in the next downturn. On the subject of the trend for recovery rates for auto loans, we read with interest Bank of America Merrill Lynch ABS Weekly note from the 23rd of February entitled "Spreads stall heading into SFIG":
"Consumer Portfolio Services, Inc (CPSS or CPS) - sponsor of $2.3bn in subprime auto loan ABS; lender with an auto loan portfolio of $2.4bn
Management continues to believe competition is aggressive. CPSS implemented a new credit underwriting scorecard mid last year, which lead to better quality originations.
The company’s originations grew in 2018 relative to 2019, which led to 2% growth in the company’s managed portfolio. Management indicated that incremental originations in 4Q18 were driven by turndowns from banks and other lenders.

The thirty day delinquency rate for the company’s managed portfolio was 12.35% at the end of 4Q18, up 254bp YoY. The net charge off rate for the quarter was 7.19%, down 5bp YoY. Management attributed higher delinquencies to lower portfolio growth and denominator effect. Net losses for the full year were 7.74% compared to 7.68% in all of 2017. Recoveries declined 170bp YoY to 33%. Management said unemployment is the primary driver of performance, and the employment picture is strong today.

The company’s total blended cost for on-balance sheet ABS debt 4.25% in 4Q18 compared to 3.82% for the 4Q17. Management noted that EU risk retention impacted the company’s January ABS transaction." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
To repeat ourselves, credit cycles die because too much debt has been raised. Given the Fed has shown its weak hand as it is clearly "S&P500 dependent", the latest dovish tilt from the Fed will encourage more aggressive issuance as the competition is ratcheting up in the weakest segment of consumer lending. So all in all the "Lethe" liquidity river is flowing strong with many pundits oblivious to cracks forming into the credit narrative. We think that in the ongoing high beta rally, it is more and more important to play the capital preservation game, meaning one should start reducing in earnest the "illiquid stuff" such as the now "famous infamous" leveraged loans regardless of their recent "strong" performance.

For now, investors have dipped again into "Lethe" hence the return of the "goldilocks" narrative following a short bear market during the final quarter of 2018. Bad news have been good news again thanks to the dovish tone embraced by central banks globally but, we remain very cautious when it comes to equities given the velocity in revised earnings. In that context, playing defense by favoring credit markets, including Investment Grade appear to us more favorable as the rally in equities has been very significant and potentially overstretched as many pundits are placing their hope on a trade deal being made between China and the United States. Sure "goldilocks is back but we are cautious given the late stage of the credit cycle. On that point we agree with Morgan Stanley from their CIO Brief from the 21st of February:
"The Trouble with ‘Goldilocks’The Goldilocks narrative has reappeared: inflationary pressures have receded, giving central banks cause to pause on policy tightening; global growth is slowing, but not enough to be truly concerning; and investors are increasingly optimistic about US-China trade. However, we think that investors should be skeptical of the Goldilocks narrative, as fundamental data is weak and earnings are challenged.
We are not looking to add exposure, and have reduced some emerging market beta into strength. We remain short the broad USD and overweight international over US equities." - source Morgan Stanley.
A dovish Fed in that context make selected Emerging Markets still enticing, yet from an allocation perspective, dispersion for both equities and credit markets have been rising. So, you need to be much more discerning in 2019 when it comes to your stock/credit picking skills.

Though we are getting concerned for the damage inflicted to earnings in recent months on the back of the trade war narrative and deceleration in global growth, there is no doubt that central banks are back into play and it should not be ignored. Bank of America Merrill Lynch made some interesting comments in their "The Inquirer" note from the 18th of February entitled "Is Global Monetary Reflation here?":
"In the last week, it seems like global central banks have started a possible process of monetary easing, in line with our views (The Inquirer: Planet Earth to Policymakers: Please Reflate 31 December 2018). If so, this would be very positive for Asia/EM stocks.
In the US, Fed governor Lael Brainard raised the possibility of ending balance sheet contraction by year-end 2019, ahead of schedule; in Europe, the possibility of a TLTRO came from Commissioner Benoit Coeure, and China printed a massive January Total Social Financing number, RMB4,640bn from RMB1,590bn in Dec 2018, above market expectations of RMB3,300bn and the BofAML forecast of RMB3,500bn. Global monetary reflation is possibly on the way. As of now, we remain bullish. We expect the world's central banks to reflate monetary policy, a view we have held since late last year.
Paraphrasing Mike Tyson, everyone's got an investment strategy, until they get punched in the face by a shrinking Central Bank Balance Sheet. Monetary and liquidity analysis (different from "fund flows") was popular in financial markets three decades ago. We remember having a standalone research product in the mid-1990s called "Liquidity Analysis" replete with central bank balance sheets, commercial bank entrails, and the net supply and demand for equity. These days, eyes glaze over when we bring up base money growth, money multipliers, and monetary velocity. However, as the last decade has taught us, we should pay attention to this stuff. Our global strategist, Michael Hartnett, has maintained a consistent focus on liquidity and central bank balance sheets
as part of his toolkit.
1) We think the biggest risk to equities in Asia and EMs is the potential mismanagement and premature contraction of central bank balance sheets. Conversely, it is also the most lucrative opportunity. The correlation of EM equities with the major central banks balance sheets is 0.94 in the past three years. World equities have a similar correlation of 0.94 since 2009. Central bank balance sheets are the most important driver of stock prices, in our view, by lowering risk premia, and cutting off deflation risk. The rest is detail, in our view.
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"Praise out of season, or tactlessly bestowed, can freeze the heart as much as blame." -  Pearl S. Buck
Watching with interest the weakening tone in February in credit markets following the stellar month of January, in conjunction with confirmation of a global slowdown, and with no resolution in sight between China and the United States in relation to their trade spat, and also with the weaker tone for financial conditions coming out of the quarterly Fed Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey (SLOOs), when it came to selecting our title analogy, given the lower than usual temperature experienced in various part of the world including ours, we decided to go for "Cryoseism". "Cryoseism" also known as an ice quake or a frost quake, is a seismic event that may be caused by a sudden cracking action in frozen soil or rock saturated with water or ice. As water drains into the ground (liquidity in asset markets), it may eventually freeze and expand under colder temperatures (global growth and trade deceleration), putting stress on its surroundings. This stress builds up until relieved explosively in the form of a cryoseism. Cryoseisms are often mistaken for minor intraplate earthquakes.  Initial indications may appear similar to those of an earthquake with tremors, vibrations, ground cracking and related noises such as thundering or booming sounds. Cryoseisms can, however, be distinguished from earthquakes through meteorological and geological conditions. Cryoseisms can have an intensity of up to VI on the Modified Mercalli Scale. Furthermore, cryoseisms often exhibit high intensity in a very localized area (such as leveraged loans) in the immediate proximity of the epicenter, as compared to the widespread effects of an earthquake. Due to lower-frequency vibrations of cryoseisms, some seismic monitoring stations may not record their occurrence. Although cryoseisms release less energy than most tectonic events, they can still cause damage or significant changes to an affected area. There are four main precursors for a frost quake cryoseism event to occur: (1) a region must be susceptible to cold air masses, (2) the ground must undergo saturation from thaw or liquid precipitation prior to an intruding cold air mass, (3) most frost quakes are associated with minor snow cover on the ground without a significant amount of snow to insulate the ground (i.e., less than 6 inches), and (4) a rapid temperature drop (global trade) from approximately freezing to near or below zero degrees Fahrenheit, which ordinarily occurred on a timescale of 16 to 48 hours.


In this week's conversation, we would like to look at what the latest Fed's quarterly Senior Loan Officer Opinion survey means for credit in general and high yield/high beta in particular. 

Synopsis:
  • Macro and Credit - This recent rally is not on solid ground
  • Final chart - Credit pinball - Same player shoots again?

  • Macro and Credit - This recent rally is not on solid ground
In our most recent conversation, we pointed out to the cautious tone from investors, urging CFOs in the US to take the "deleveraging" route given the continuous rise of the cost of capital, which appears to be somewhat validated by the latest Fed Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey (SLOOs). The Fed’s latest SLOOs points towards tightening financial conditions: "demand for loans to businesses reportedly weakened."  But, we think we will probably have to wait until April/May for the next SLOOS to confirm (or not) the clear tightening of financial conditions. If confirmed, that would not bode well for the 2020 U.S. economic outlook so think about reducing high beta cyclicals. Also, the deterioration of financial conditions are indicative of a future rise in the default rate and will therefore weight on significantly on high beta and evidently US High Yield.

In our early January conversation "Respite", we pointed out to our 2018 call, namely that analyst estimates were way too optimistic when it comes to earnings for 2019. If indeed Europe is a clear case of Cryoseism, with so much liquidity injected and not very much to show for macro wise in terms of growth outlook making it a very bad grade for the confidence tricksters at the helm of the ECB vaunting in recent days the great success of QE, the savage earnings revision pace we have seen so far clearly show the recent rally is not on solid ground. On the subject of earnings revision we read with interest Morgan Stanley's take from their US Equity Strategy Weekly Warm Up from the 11th of February entitled "Earnings Recession Is Here":
"Earnings expectations for 2019 have fallen sharply, but consensus still embeds a material reacceleration in 2H19. History tells us to expect further downward revisions, higher volatility and a drag on prices. We lower our base case 2019 S&P 500 EPS growth forecast to 1%.
Our earnings recession call is playing out even faster than we expected. When we made our call for a greater than 50% chance of an earnings recession this year, we thought it might take a bit longer for the evidence to build. On the back of a large downward revisions cycle during 4Q earnings season, it's becoming more clear. Consensus numbers have already baked in no growth for 1H19 (1Q projected growth is actually negative) with a hockey stick assumed in 2H19 that brings the full year growth estimate to ~5%.
History says be skeptical of the inflection forecast. The projected y/y EPS growth in 4Q19 is ~9.5%. This compares to an average projected rate of growth of 1% over 1Q - 3Q19, an inflection of ~8.5%. Since the early 00s, we have seen this kind of inflection happen a few times, but these inflections were all related to 1) comping against negative or slower EPS growth or 2) tax cuts mechanically lifting the growth rate. Neither of those forces are at play this year. In fact, it's the opposite making the achievability of these estimates even more unlikely.
When consensus is embedding an inflection further out, downward revisions, some drag on price returns and higher volatility are all to be expected. We examined what tends to happen when consensus embeds a big jump in growth 4 quarters out compared to the next three quarters. We found that the numbers for all 4 quarters ahead tend to fall but the growth quarter tends to fall the most. If current estimates move in line with history, we could see a full year decline of ~3.5% in S&P earnings. There is a wide range of potential outcomes though, so today we only take our base case forecast down to 1% y/y growth. We also found that equity returns can still be positive in this environment, but they will likely be weaker than they otherwise would have been and the odds of outright price declines are substantially elevated. Whether prices move higher or lower, volatility tends to rise meaningfully., with average year ahead price volatility realizing ~5% more than the full period average.
Lowering our earnings forecast. On the back of this work, we lower our Base Case 2019 S&P 500 EPS growth forecast to 1% from 4.3%. While our earnings numbers are coming down, our bull, base, and bear case year end price targets remain unchanged as a lower rate environment provides support for year end target multiples. The bottom line--our base case year end target of 2750 is a lot less exciting than it was a month ago." - source Morgan Stanley
In their executive summary of their interesting note Morgan Stanley indicates the velocity in the earnings revisions as of late. This rapid move clearly shows that the euphoria seen in January where anything high beta rallied hard is not on solid ground. Debt-financed buybacks after all fell to 14% of the total among US companies at the end of last year, the lowest level since 2009 according to JP Morgan data. Buybacks since 2012 has been an important "pillar" in terms of support to US equities in recent years thanks to multiple expansion rest assured.

On top of that there are an increasing percentage of companies with negative earnings: S&P 500 - 7%; Nasdaq - 47%; Russell 3000 - 28%; Russell 2000 - 37%. For us, "high beta" is very "junky". If fundamentals are deteriorating such as global trade and global growth and earnings revisions are "savage" then regardless of central banks' u-turn, it isn't enough we think to provide the same support we saw in recent years and quarters. The cavalry was indeed late after the December massacre, but the overall macro picture ain't rosy.

Given the velocity in earnings revision/recession Morgan Stanley have drastically revised their outlook according to their note:
"Earnings Recession Is Here; Adjusted EPS Forecast Lower
With 4Q18 results season nearing completion we have been taking a closer look at 2019 guidance. Downward revisions have come even faster and steeper than we expected and the full year earnings growth number now sits just above 5% with a material upward acceleration projected in the 4th quarter of the year. At the start of a downward revisions cycle, history tells us not to count on that kind of upward inflection.
On the back of the recent downward revisions, we lower our earnings forecasts for 2019 as we think it is becoming increasingly clear we are in the midst of the earnings recession we called for in our year ahead outlook. Specifically, we are adjusting our 2019 EPS growth number down to 1% (from 4.25%) while noting that despite support from buyback accretion and a weaker dollar by year end, risks skew to the downside. We make minor changes to our 2020 growth assumptions and bull/bear case earnings estimates as well. Our revised forecasts are shown in Exhibit 1.


While our earnings numbers are coming down, our bull, base, and bear case price targets remain unchanged as a lower rate environment provides modest support for year end target multiples. With a more dovish Fed and our Interest Rate Strategy colleagues now projecting a year end 10Y UST yield of 2.45%, we revisit our Equity Risk Premium / 10Y yield matrix (Exhibit 2).

We highlight our target range of ~15 - 16.5x forward PE for the S&P. Our range below has a diagonal tilt as we believe lower yields will be accompanied by higher uncertainty on growth leading to a higher ERP while higher yields may reflect a more optimistic outlook on growth, allowing for ERP compression.
Don't Count on a 4Q19 Inflection in EPS Growth
We are increasingly convinced that consensus earnings expectations for 2019 have further to fall and that the optimistic uptick currently baked into 4Q19 estimates is unlikely to happen. A modest further decline in earnings will deliver the earnings recession we called for. Equity returns can still be positive in this environment, but they will likely be weaker than they otherwise would have been and the odds of outright price declines are substantially elevated. Whether prices move higher or lower, volatility will likely rise meaningfully. So in essence, we are still looking at a bumpy, range bound market at the index level and think investors should continue to try and take advantage of the swings in price in both directions.
The Market Needs a 4Q19 Growth Inflection To Support Full Year EPS Growth
In our year ahead outlook we argued that 2019 had a greater than 50% probability of seeing an earnings recession defined very simply as two consecutive quarters of negative y/y earnings growth. Following a steep downward revisions cycle over the last few months, consensus forecasts are quickly getting there. From the end of November, earnings growth expectation on the S&P fell from ~9% to their current level of around 5%. With an expectation of negative y/y growth in 1Q19 and very marginal growth in 2Q19, the mid-single digit full year number embeds a heavy ramp up of earnings growth in the back half of the year, and in 4Q19 in particular (Exhibit 3).

Importantly, since consensus bottom-up numbers are really just a reflection of company guidance this earnings slowdown could have real knock-on effects to corporate behavior like spending and hiring which then puts further pressure on growth.
Furthermore, company managements tend to be an optimistic group. As such, we're not surprised they are calling for a trough in 1Q. However, we would advise against taking too much comfort in these calls for a trough in 1Q19 of the down cycle from the same people who didn't see it coming in the first place. In addition to a trough in 1Q, consensus estimates are now forecasting a big second half inflection in growth.
Anything is possible, but we have little confidence in such an inflection given sharply falling top line growth and disappointing margins in the face of very difficult comparisons for the rest of this year
. If we accept that an earnings recession is here, the key questions are how deep will it be and how long will it last? Again, it's hard to know, but we can look to history for some context on how expectations for a large upward inflection in earnings usually play out." - source Morgan Stanley
Again, analysts going into 2019 have been way too optimistic when it comes to earnings. A usual trend but given the amount of liquidity injected into the system by central banks no wonder we are seeing growing risks of "cryoseism" in 2019. Volatility is firmly back.

As we stated before, where oil prices goes, so does US High Yield and in particular the CCC ratings bucket given its exposure to the Energy sector. No wonder Energy rallied strongly over the month of January:
- graph source Bank of America Merrill Lynch (click to enlarge)

In its January 2019 Senior Loan Officer Survey, the Fed said that a net positive percentage of domestic banks reported increasing the premiums charged on loans to large and middle-market firms. Historically, this tends to be a reliable signal of a pending recession. Both the supply and demand for household and business credit is either slowing or contracting. This is yet another "Cryoseism" sign that the epic high beta rally seen during the month of January is not on solid ground. So sure the rally in US High Yield has been very significant but, if indeed financial conditions continue to deteriorate, it doesn't bode well for the asset class down the line.

As we mentioned on numerous conversations, like any good behavioral psychologist we tend to focus more on flows than on stocks. We stated as well at the end of the year that for a rebound in credit markets, fund flows need to see some stabilization the latest dovish tilt from central banks globally have enabled such a bounce as indicated by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their Follow The Flow report from the 8th of February entitled "Reaching for yield":
"Equities record first inflow, HY inflow surpass $1bn
Dovish central banks globally have instigated a risk assets rally. The reach for yield is back amid lower government bond yields. Inflows into high-yield funds have strengthened over the past weeks and equity funds recorded their first inflow in a while as light positioning has become a tailwind for the asset class.
Over the past week…
High grade funds flopped back to negative territory. Last week’s outflow reversed part of the inflow from week ago, ending a two week streak of inflows. However, the outflow was driven by one single fund and removing it would result into a $1.1bn inflow. High yield funds on the other hand continued to see stronger inflows w-o-w.
We note that last week’s inflow was the largest since September last year. Looking into the domicile breakdown, US-focused funds recorded the lion's share of the inflow, while Europe-focused funds recorded a more moderate inflow. Note that the inflows into global-focused funds were marginal.
Government bond funds recorded a decent inflow this week; the third in a row. Money Market funds recorded a strong inflow last week. All in all, Fixed Income funds recorded another inflow, though the pace has slowed down w-o-w.
For a change European equity funds recorded their first inflow after 21 consecutive weeks of outflows. Note that during this period total outflows reached $45bn.

Global EM debt funds continued to record inflows, the fifth weekly one. Note that last week’s inflow was the strongest since July 2016. Dovish Fed and lower dollar has become a tailwind for the asset class recently. Commodity funds recorded another inflow, the ninth in a row.
On the duration front, we find that the belly underperformed recording the vast majority of the outflow last week. Long-term and shot-term IG funds also recorded outflows last week, but to a lesser extent." - source Bank of America Merrill Lynch
A dovish Fed in conjunction with lower rate volatility have led to Emerging Markets benefiting from the return of the "carry" trade.

Given that bad news has become good news again during the month of January, given the dovish tilt taken by most central banks, high beta has come back to the forefront thanks to the central banking cavalry. 2019 has clearly started on a very strong tone as indicated by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their European Credit Strategist note from the 8th of February entitled "Play it again Sam":
"As the expression goes…it’s always darkest before dawn. Year-to-date, high-grade spreads have rallied 18bp and high-yield has tightened by 72bp in Europe. These are impressive moves. For the investment-grade market, 2019 is shaping up to be one of the best ever starts to a year outside of 2012 – a time when the ECB’s life-saving LTROs energised a huge rally across the market.
An epic central bank “blink”
In 2018, only 13% of assets across the globe posted positive total returns…and only 9% of assets managed to outperform US 3m Libor. Jump to 2019 and the picture couldn’t be different. As Chart 1 shows, 98% of assets across the globe have positive total returns so far this year (the second best outcome since 1990).

The clearest instigator for such a bullish reversal, in our view, is that central banks are now undergoing one epic reversal in their monetary policy stance. In 2019, the Fed has already pivoted to being on-hold, the ECB has moved the balance of risks to the downside, Australia has stopped hiking and India has delivered a surprise rate cut.
When the most important central bank in the world changes tack, others must follow…or risk unwanted currency appreciation. True to form, as Chart 2 shows, the number of global central bank rate cuts over the last 6m is now greater than the number of central bank rate hikes (although the picture is less dramatic when excluding Argentina).

And when central banks flip-flop, so do markets. With interest rate vol at record lows now in Europe, this means a green light for carry trades and a return of the thirst for yield.
Cash spreads can still squeeze…but watch out for March indigestion
In credit land, the Street looks particularly offside in this tightening move, reflective of low inventory levels. And with earnings blackout still in place, cash bonds could still squeeze tighter in the short term (especially non-financials). We think the real challenge for the credit market will emerge in March, given that supply is seasonally highest then (14% of yearly issuance). A €50bn+ month of supply, for instance, could herald a return of big new issue premiums and widening pressure on secondary spreads.
Hubris 101– it never ends well
We’ve seen this central bank movie too many times in the past, though, to forget that markets always overshoot amid a yield grab. And that’s exactly what we worry about this time. After all, 30yr Bund yields at 72bp, 5y5y Euro inflation swaps at 1.48% (the lowest since Nov ’16) and rising BTP spreads signal the market’s doubt over the efficacy of another dose of monetary support, in our view.
Our concern is that Euro credit spreads are now increasingly dislocated from European economic data, and at best are pricing-in a Euro Area recovery that may take longer to materialise than the consensus thinks.
Chart 3 shows that European high-yield spreads have closely tracked the Eurozone..
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