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The power of duration: a contemporary example

In last year’s Panoramic: The Power of Duration, I used the experience of the US bond market in 1994 to examine the impact that duration can have in a time of sharply rising yields. By way of a quick refresher: in 1994, an improving economy spurred the Fed to increase interest rates multiple times, leading to a period that came to be known as the great bond massacre.

I frequently use this example to demonstrate the importance of managing interest rate risk in fixed income markets today. In an investment grade corporate bond fund with no currency positions, yield movements (and hence the fund’s duration) will overshadow moves in credit spreads. In other words you can be the best stock picker in the world but if you get your duration call wrong, all that good work will be undone.

We now have a contemporary example of the effects of higher yields on different fixed income asset classes. In May last year Ben Bernanke, then Chairman of the Fed, gave a speech in which he mentioned that the Bank’s Board of Governors may begin to think about reducing the level of assets it was purchasing each month through its QE programme. From this point until the end of 2013, 10 year US Treasuries and 10 year gilts both sold off by around 100bps.

US UK and German 10 year yields

How did this 1% rise in yields affect fixed income investments? Well, as the chart below shows, it really depended on the inherent duration of each asset class. Using indices as a proxy for the various asset classes, we can see that those with higher durations (represented by the orange bars) performed poorly relative to their short duration corporate counterparts, which actually delivered a positive return (represented by the green bars).

The importance of duration

While this is true for both the US dollar and sterling markets, longer dated European indices didn’t perform as poorly over the period. There’s a simple reason for this – bunds have been decoupling from gilts and Treasuries, due to the increasing likelihood that the eurozone may be looking at its own form of monetary stimulus in the months to come.  As a result, the yield on the 10-year bund rose by only 0.5% in the second half of 2013.

Whatever your view on if, when, and how sharply monetary policy will be tightened, fixed income investors should always be mindful of their exposure to duration at both a bond and fund level.

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Opportunities in Spanish ABS

As fund managers it’s our job to take risk when and where we are being paid (preferably overpaid) to do so. One area where I feel that this is currently the case is European residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS), particularly Spanish RMBS.

It’s fairly easy to find senior Spanish RMBS trading as much as 100bps wide of equivalent covered bonds at the moment. The collateral in these deals was originated by the same banks as in the covereds, they return the principal over a comparable time horizon, and contain features that will be beneficial to investors if the Spanish housing market begins to weaken again.

The chart below shows this relationship nicely. Here we have plotted (minus the names of the individual bonds) short-dated covered bonds issued by three Spanish banks and what we consider to be similar quality senior RMBS. The pickup I mentioned earlier is clearly evident in the 2.5-5yr maturity/weighted-average life area:

Spanish RMBS blog

The main reason for this discrepancy is regulation. Financial regulators have deemed RMBS to be more risky than covered bonds and they therefore require banks and insurance companies to hold more capital on their balance sheets to compensate.

While I appreciate that covered bonds give investors dual recourse and that covered bond legislation in Spain is strong, I’m not sure how much the extra senior unsecured claim in a failed Spanish bank would actually be worth. Hence in general I prefer to hold a senior note in an RMBS deal where we have good visibility of the collateral, and which includes structural provisions that mean senior note holders potentially get their capital back sooner if the housing market deteriorates.

The ECB apparently takes the same view as the regulators and charges anyone wishing to use RMBS as collateral for repo transactions more than they do for covered bonds. They apply a haircut of 10% to RMBS but only 4.5-6% to covered bonds for investment grade quality instruments, assuming a five to seven year maturity. What I’m really saying is that I disagree with the regulators, and therefore see this as an opportunity to generate a higher return for a similar level of risk.

Interestingly the Bank of England applies the same haircut of 12-15% to both short-dated RMBS and covered bonds. The spread difference exists here too – albeit with both markets trading considerably tighter – which I think shows that it’s the regulation that is really skewing these markets.

I’m not arguing that investing in the Spanish mortgage market is without risk. But I do believe that investors who, like us, don’t repo their bonds or need to hold capital against them can and should take advantage of these kinds of unintended regulatory consequences.

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Technical support for Euro IG; around 4% of the market set to mature this month

Benjamin Franklin said that death and taxes were the only inevitabilities in life. I’d like to add the discussion of the January effect to his list. Every year I receive at least one piece of commentary telling me that January is always a good month for risk assets (we’re far from innocent ourselves – see here).

Basing investment decisions purely on seasonal anomalies isn’t a particularly reliable investment process and the sensible investor should take other, more robust information into account when making changes to their portfolio.

The improving economic outlook for Europe and the general lack of pessimism should help the European credit market rally this month. So too should the fact that about €64bn worth of investment grade bonds are set to have matured by the end of the month. I think it rather unlikely that we’ll see enough supply to offset the bonds that are maturing. J.P. Morgan recently publishing a research piece pointing out that gross European investment grade issuance has only ever been higher than €64bn a month on four occasions in the past, and all were prior to 2008.

2014-01 matt blog

J.P. Morgan also point out that January has been on average the month when most issuance takes place throughout the year. The primary market has been true to form since 2014 began but it will need to maintain the pace of the roughly €16bn that was issued in the first week of the year to give investors with maturing bonds somewhere to put their cash.

If net issuance turns out to be negative in January it will be a key technical support that could see Euro investment grade spreads continue to tighten further. It will also give us all another nice data point to talk about come next January.

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A new source of supply in the ABS market

One of the features of the ABS market this year has been the lower levels of primary issuance. That, coupled with increased comfort in the asset class and higher risk/yield appetite has caused spreads to tighten.

Slide1

We have had a few new deals, but 10 months in and new issuance volume is only about half the amount seen in 2012, and just a third of 2011 issuance.

Slide2

What we’ve seen of late, despite the subdued new issuance, is an increase in the number of these securities available in the market. In the not-so-distant past, banks would structure a securitised deal, place some with the market and keep some to pledge to their central bank as collateral for cheap cash.

Now spreads have tightened, and the market feels healthier, some of these issuers are taking the opportunity to wean themselves off the emergency central bank liquidity and are offering the previously retained securities to the public market.

Another dynamic in ABS at the moment is that ratings agency Standard and Poor’s is considering changing its rating methodology for structured securities in the periphery. S&P is considering tightening the six notch universal ratings cap – countries rated AA or above will not be affected, but bonds issued from countries with a rating below AA could be downgraded as they won’t be allowed to be rated as many notches above their sovereign as they were before.

The implication is that securities that get downgraded will become less attractive for banks to pledge as collateral because of the haircuts central banks apply to more risky (lower rated) securities. Our thinking is that southern European issuers will be hit hardest by this change. So unless the ECB loosens its collateral criteria (which it can and has done previously), one would expect to see more of those previously retained deals coming to the market as well.

So whilst we haven’t seen too much in the way of new issuance, it looks like we could be about to see an increasing number of opportunities in the secondary market.

 

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Long term interest rates – the neglected tool in the monetary policy toolbox

I was recently fortunate enough to see a presentation by Phillip Turner from the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) on a paper he published earlier this year. ‘Benign neglect of the long term interest rate’ is a highly informative and interesting piece. In it he argues that after decades of the market determining long term interest rates the “large scale purchases of government bonds have made the long term interest rate key in the monetary policy debate”, and that a policy framework should be implemented around long term rates.

The use of central bank balance sheets isn’t as novel a concept as one might think when they hear (as I did repeatedly over 4 days of conferences and seminars in conjunction with the IMF/world bank annual meetings) QE described as unconventional monetary policy. In fact Keynes argued that central banks should stand ready to buy and sell government bonds as a means of affecting the price of money (the interest rate) from as early as the 1930s. Furthermore, the Thatcher government engaged in “quantitative tightening” as recently as the early 1980s by issuing more long dated gilts than were required to finance government spending. The rationale was that issuing more gilts would drain liquidity, curtail broad money growth and slow inflation more effectively than just increasing the Bank Rate.

Setting policy for longer term interest rates may be new territory for today’s generation of policy makers however it shouldn’t be for some. It’s often forgotten that the Fed actually has a triple, not dual mandate. Along with maximising employment and promoting stable prices they are also charged with providing moderate long term interest rates.

What constitutes a moderate long term interest rate is a matter for debate but the paper makes clear that adjusting the short term rate is not necessarily an effective measure in influencing the 10yr yield.

Turner argues that it may be more efficient to alter the average maturity of the outstanding government bonds – those not held by the central bank – through open market operations. The BIS has calculated that shortening the average maturity by one year will lead to a 1% reduction in the yield on a 10 year note. Essentially the message is that the longer the average maturity of the outstanding debt the tighter the policy.

The inherent irony of lowering long term rates to stimulate the economy is that it reduces the incentives for banks to perform their socially useful function of maturity transformation – borrowing short and lending long. The lower long term interest rates the less of an incentive banks have to lend further out along the yield curve. The graph below shows that the term premium in the US 10yr has been negative for a large part of this decade.

Negative term premium is a disincentive to lending

However I believe that tougher regulation (larger capital buffers), increased litigation costs and a general de-levering of the economy will restrict the level of bank lending regardless of how steep the yield curve is.

This chart shows the maturity distribution of bonds held by the Fed.

Maturity distribution of Fed Treasury holdings

I’ve calculated that the average maturity of all Treasuries in issue is roughly 6 years, whilst the average of those on the Fed’s balance sheet is about 10 years. Operation Twist was a conscious effort by the fed to lower long run yields and they are still buying bonds at the long end. Given that factors other than the steepness of the yield curve are driving bank lending perhaps the Fed should be buying fewer Treasuries with 7-10 years to maturity in favour of even more longer dated ones. Also if and when they decide to sell their holdings they should consider this (and the on-going) analysis on the wider implications of altering the average maturity of the Treasury free float.

There are plenty of other interesting observations and questions raised in the paper so I recommend reading the whole thing…..especially if your job involves managing a central bank balance sheet.

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Panoramic: The Power of Duration

The early summer surge in bond yields will have focused the minds of many investors on the allocation of assets in their portfolios, particularly their fixed income holdings.

The largest risk to a domestic currency fixed income portfolio is duration. When investors discuss duration they are more often than not referring to a bond or portfolio’s sensitivity to changes in interest rates. Corporate bonds however also carry credit spread duration – the sensitivity of prices to moves in credit spreads (the market price of default risk).

Exposure to interest rate risk and credit risk should be considered independently within a portfolio. Clearly the desirable proportion of each depends heavily on the economic environment and future expectations of moves in interest rates.

I believe that the US economy and, to a lesser extent, the UK economy are improving and at some point interest rates will begin to move closer to their (significantly higher) long-term averages. We may still be a way off from central banks tightening monetary policy, but they will when they believe their economies are healthy enough to withstand it. Since a healthier economy increases the probability of tightening sooner, and is positive for the corporate sector, one should endeavour to gain exposure to credit risk premiums while limiting exposure to higher future interest rates.

In the latest version of our Panoramic series I examine the US bond market sell-off of 1994 to see what we can learn from the historical experience. Additionally, I analyse the power of duration and its importance to fixed income investors during a bond market sell-off.

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Higher mortgage delinquencies not necessarily bad for all RMBS

Moody’s, the credit rating agency, published a report a few days ago on the asset backed securities market. One section of the report has attracted some media attention – it details the agency’s thoughts on UK interest-only residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS).

Moody’s reaches the fairly unsurprising conclusion that when interest rates start rising in the UK delinquencies on interest-only mortgages will pick up. They go on to say that this effect will be greater in the non-conforming sector than in the prime segment of the market. This makes sense, as borrowers who have an impaired credit history usually fall into the non-conforming bucket and are therefore, on average, more likely to have trouble paying their mortgages than those who qualify as prime borrowers.

This isn’t as bad for RMBS deals that are backed by interest-only mortgages as one might think. A large proportion of RMBS deals are structured with features that protect investors in the more senior notes to the detriment of those who own the more junior ones. A variety of trigger levels are usually built into the deals which amongst other things reference delinquencies and credit enhancement. If these triggers are hit, cash flows are diverted to the most senior tranche of notes, bringing forward their maturity date and increasing their yield.

A deal I have been looking at recently is 95% backed by interest-only mortgages and has a trigger when 7.5% or more of the mortgages are more than three months in arrears. Delinquencies are currently much lower than that but if they did breach the 7.5% level the deal would switch from paying pro-rata to sequential. This means that any excess cash that is generated through repossessions or borrowers re-mortgaging will all be paid to the lenders at the top of the stack instead of being shared by all the note holders. An increase in interest rates and delinquencies would in this instance clearly be of benefit to the senior notes.

Another dynamic to be aware of is when the mortgages backing the deal were originated. Mortgages taken out closer to the peak of the credit bubble in 2007 are generally of a lower quality because lending standards were weaker and borrowers generally have less equity in their property. As a result, these mortgagees have less of an incentive to keep paying their mortgage each month.

Holders of junior notes in later vintage deals should definitely be worried by the prospect of higher interest rates in the future. Senior note holders – whilst remaining attentive to movements in the market – should be fairly comfortable with the credit quality of their bonds, even in a climate of higher interest rates.

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Funding for Lending – has the scheme achieved its goals?

As has been widely reported, last week the Bank of England and HM Treasury extended their Funding for Lending Scheme (FLS). The FLS was originally launched in July last year with the intention of stimulating lending in the real (non-financial) economy. Under this scheme a bank or building society borrows UK Treasury Bills and hands over eligible assets as collateral. The fee they are charged (effectively the interest rate) and the amount they can borrow are determined by how much they have increased their lending. The bank or building society can then either repo their T-Bills for cash or, more cheaply/likely, just use them to replace cash in their liquidity buffer. The more they lend the more they can borrow at the lower rate.

The BoE and HM Treasury have hailed the scheme as a success. But on what measure?

Today we received news that mortgage approvals had another weak month in March, increasing only slightly to 53,500. Mortgage approvals have been flat at around 50,000 per month since early 2010 and, considering last week’s extension to the programme incentivises SME lending more, it doesn’t look like the cheaper funding has spurred the desired increase in lending.

UK mortgage approvals chart

Further, with the average mortgage rate in the UK at around 4% and banks able to borrow at what the Bank of England estimates to be 0.75%, the lower rates clearly aren’t being passed on to the man on the street either. Assuming banks’ net interest margins aren’t the measure on which this programme is judged I think it’s fair to say it hasn’t been a huge success.

Unless that is, you happen to be an investor in asset backed securities. The UK Residential Mortgage Backed Securities (RMBS) market has rallied significantly since the FLS was first announced. Granted, most risk assets have rallied since last summer – partly down to Mario Draghi’s now famous speech – but I think that the UK RMBS sector has had an extra boost from the FLS.

Rather than issue RMBS, the banks and building societies have preferred to pledge their mortgage stock with the FLS which has provided a technical support for the market. The graph below shows the spread on an index of short dated, AAA, UK prime mortgage deals. As you can see they began their rally last summer and have been hovering around 50bps since the autumn. The lack of supply – we haven’t had a new public deal since last November – has certainly been supportive for spreads.

UK Prime RMBS chart

The Bank of England and the Treasury claim that the scheme has been a success mainly on the grounds that things would have been worse without it. Clearly we’ll never know. Whether things are better or not the FLS appears to have done almost exactly the opposite of what it set out to do. It was established to provide support to the non-financial sector, but as far as I can tell, to date it has actually made the financial sector marginally healthier and better off.

 

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HY default rates showing the divergence in the Eurozone

2012 was not a good year for peripheral European defaults in the high yield market. Spain’s default rate doubled from 7% to 14%, while Italy’s went from 5.7% to 9.5%. Clearly, that the Spanish and Italian economies are under stress is not news, but what I thought was interesting though was that German defaults have continued to fall. It is important to point out that this is not just the public high yield market, it also includes private bank loans and it has been those that account for the majority of the defaults.

As the chart below shows, in 2010 Germany had the highest level of defaults of the three countries but over the subsequent years the situation there has improved. The opposite has been the case in the periphery with last year’s jump in defaults looking particularly worrisome.

High yield default rates showing Eurozone divergence

We have been speaking for a while about the strain that operating under inappropriate policies puts on an economy, and this looks like empirical evidence of just that. Italy and Spain need looser monetary policy and less constrictive fiscal policies. In a pre-euro world these countries would have had full control of these policy tools, been able to devalue their currencies, relieve some of the strain and increase the competitiveness of their economies. This is not an option open to them now (short of leaving the euro) and I can see no way the situation will improve anytime soon. Even with Mario Draghi and the ECB willing to do whatever it takes to save the euro, the only outcome I can see for the next few years is the strong getting stronger and the weak getting weaker.

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6 degrees of Kevin Bacon, 5 ways to catch a subscriber – consolidation in cable

I’d been feeling pretty pleased with myself since last Saturday – I managed to get Sky TV, broadband and a landline installed in my flat. That was until earlier today, when after discussing some of the recent activity in this sector with our telecoms and media analyst, I was left feeling something of a technology dinosaur.

These three services sold as a single package is called a “triple play” offer. However, I have since discovered that this is so 2010. These days it’s increasingly about “quad play”, whereby consumers access video, broadband and voice services both inside and outside the home. Inside the home is provided by your cable, copper telephone line and/or satellite dish whilst outside connectivity is provided by a mobile network. The most visible example of this business model in the UK comes from Everything Everywhere (EE), mostly due to their……um……interesting adverts featuring Kevin Bacon. EE allows a subscriber to make voice calls, surf the internet and watch video content either at home or on the move via a combined mobile and fixed line broadband connection. Advances in mobile technology (4G) now mean that seamlessly streaming a film in your house on your iPad as you eat breakfast and then on your journey to work should be possible. This is the direction the industry is moving in the UK, with Vodafone, 3 and O2 expected to launch later in the year once they secure the necessary 4G spectrum that is currently being auctioned. In the US and portions of Western Europe it is already there.

So quad-play has a clear consumer proposition, i.e. ubiquitous and fast media consumption and connectivity from a single service provider. But what benefit do the telecom operators derive from this service? Firstly, they hope to stem the revenue declines and customer churn they have experienced over the past few years as a combination of competition and regulation have ground down prices. Secondly, quad play offers them a cost saving opportunity by shifting data traffic off their mobile networks and on to their fixed line infrastructure as fast as possible, either via an in-home WiFi point or a fibre optic link to the network towers outdoors.

Generally speaking, in each country there is an incumbent telecom operator offering both mobile and fixed line services (the UK is an almost unique exception after BT spun off O2). However, there is also a swathe of mobile-only and fixed line-only operators in each market and hence consolidation in the face of this strong industrial logic seems inevitable.

Last Wednesday, press reports suggested that Vodafone is considering acquiring cable operator assets. Two firms seem to be in their crosshairs for now; Kabel Deutschland and ONO (which operate in Germany and Spain, respectively). Both companies’ bonds rallied on the news that they could be taken over by a company with a much stronger balance sheet – they are both high yield whilst Vodafone is solidly investment grade. We think that Kabel Deutschland would be a better fit but either way Vodafone is clearly interested in fixed line assets across Europe. Last year it bought Cable & Wireless Worldwide in the UK and its interest could also stretch to alternative fixed line network operators like Jazztel (Spain), Versatel (Germany) and Fastweb (Italy).

Similarly, Liberty Global, an international cable operator, recently made a bid for UK cable operator Virgin Media. Virgin’s bonds were weaker on the news as LGI is a lower rated entity than Virgin and plans to leverage the business to a level commensurate with its other European cable investments (UnityMedia, UPC, Telenet). LGI already offers triple play services across its extensive European cable footprint but, along with the usual scale and tax synergies, Virgin brings with it significant experience in mobile as well as providing fibre optic connections to other UK operators’ mobile towers.

What can possibly come after quad-play? Internally we refer to what we believe is the next step as “penta-play”. This involves business models where service providers offer quad play delivery and services complemented by ownership of the content being consumed over those networks. The importance of control over content to a network provider was underlined by the US’s largest cable operator Comcast, with its $17bn purchase of the remaining 49% of NBC Universal it did not already own. If you think this is a US aberration, just think what would happen to Sky if it lost the Premiership contract and why BT has recently decided to park its tanks on Sky’s lawn with its recent expansion into Premiership football and rugby.

And after that? Well the regulators will probably demand these vertically integrated behemoths are broken up but that’s another story…. From a consumer’s point of view we think that consolidation and competition, to provide us with all our communication, entertainment and informational needs under one subscription, will eventually lead to lower prices for services previously purchased separately now being provided as a single service bundle. From a bond holder’s point of view the recent activity suggest M&A risk is on the rise with negative and positive impacts depending own whether you sit in the acquirer or the target, the better rated credit or the company with the weaker balance sheet, and your specific bond covenant protections.

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