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Wolfgang Bauer

Drifting apart: The decoupling of USD and EUR credit spreads

The decoupling of European and U.S. yields has been one of the key bond market themes in 2014 and therefore a much-discussed topic in our blog and elsewhere. Over the past two and a half months, however, a second type of transatlantic decoupling has emerged, this time with regards to credit spreads.

Let’s first have a look at the relative year-to-date (YTD) performance of USD and EUR investment grade (IG) credit. Both data series in the chart below were rebased, i.e., set to a common starting value of 100. With some minor exceptions, spread levels of both indices have been tending downwards fairly consistently over the year until late July. From this point onwards, a decoupling has been taking place. Whereas EUR IG asset swap (ASW) spreads have further tightened, USD IG ASW spreads have significantly widened.

EUR vs. USD IG Credit Spreads

Considering the divergent economic momentum over the past months, this development seems at first glance somewhat counterintuitive. The economic recovery in the U.S has been notable with 2.6% real GDP growth (Q2 2014, yoy) and a remarkable decline in unemployment rate from 10% (Oct. 2009) to 5.9% (Sep. 2014). In contrast, the Eurozone’s economy has been fairly stagnant with an anaemic real GDP growth of 0.7% (Q2 2014, yoy) and a persistently high unemployment rate of 11.5% (Aug. 2014). Against this backdrop, one might expect that U.S. corporations are in a much better position in terms of growth and profitability prospects than their European competitors, and should therefore be in general less risky bond issuers. Investors should in turn demand higher risk premiums for EUR IG credit. Therefore, USD spreads should have tightened relative to EUR spreads. So why is it exactly the other way round? Why have EUR IG spreads outperformed USD IG spreads over the past two and a half months?

First of all, from a methodological point of view, one could argue that European bond issuers suffering severely from the economic malaise have probably been downgraded into high yield territory by now, and thus cannot adversely affect IG index credit spreads. Apart from this technical side note, three reasons come to mind:

  1. Different central bank policies, adjusted in response to the deepening economic divergence between the U.S and the Eurozone, and their effects on refinancing costs must be taken into consideration. The Federal Reserve is about to exit Quantitative Easing (QE) and is widely expected to hike rates next year, whereas the European Central Bank (ECB) is currently in the process expanding its balance sheet and will most likely keep interest rates close to the zero bound for the foreseeable future. Going forward, U.S. companies might face higher refinancing costs relative to their European peers. To put it the other way round, an increasingly accommodative ECB is likely to keep refinancing for EUR issuers easy and thus keep corporate default rates at ultra-low levels. Therefore, EUR IG credit spreads are permanently suppressed.
  2. Central bank intervention has a strong effect on liquidity in corporate bond markets, too. When a central bank engages into QE, which the ECB is currently doing one way or another, investors are to a certain degree crowded out of (nearly) risk-free assets and forced into riskier assets, such as corporate bonds. More investors rushing into corporate bond markets increase trading activity and thus liquidity there. Therefore, the illiquidity premium embedded in credit spreads should drop. In contrast, if a central bank, like the Fed now, winds down QE, corporate bond liquidity is expected to fall and thus higher illiquidity premiums trigger credit spread widening.
  3. Another argument addresses supply side effects. According to Morgan Stanley Research, global EUR IG bond net issuance has been significantly lower than global USD IG net issuance since August (EUR 21.8 bn vs. USD 135.7 bn, respectively). On a YTD basis, EUR IG credit has in fact been in net redemption territory (maturities exceeding new issuance!) of EUR 2.3 bn, compared to a strong USD IG net issuance of USD 490.3 bn. Hence, EUR IG credit has been in short supply, effectively adding a scarcity premium to EUR bond prices, which in turn has caused spread compression.

Now let’s add some more granularity by decomposing the overall index credit spread levels into individual sector spreads. The chart below shows YTD ranges of ASW spreads for USD IG corporate bond sectors (ML Level 3). All bars are subdivided into four sections, which we refer to in the following as quartiles, each of which containing 25% of the YTD spread readings. Dots and diamonds mark current sector spreads (14 Oct.) and spread levels at the start of the decoupling (24 Jul.), respectively.

Sector Breakdown of USD IG Credit

It is striking that over the past two and a half months all USD IG sector spreads have widened. In the vast majority of cases, spread levels have risen from 1st quartile values near the bottom end of the YTD ranges right into 3rd or even 4th quartile positions. The spread widening has been particularly pronounced for sectors which have recently experienced an elevated level of event risk in the form of actual or rumoured M&A activity (namely healthcare, energy and telecommunications). This leads to another important point: It becomes more and more clear that the U.S. economy has entered a new phase of the business cycle, whereas Europe is still well behind the curve. American companies are increasingly taking on balance sheet risk, for example in the form of M&A, to pursue growth opportunities. Consequently, fixed income investors demand a spread premium for USD IG credit to be adequately compensated for this additional risk exposure.

In terms of EUR IG credit, the picture is more nuanced. Credit spreads of certain sectors have widened (e.g., retail, leisure and insurance) while others have tightened (e.g., healthcare, financial services and telecommunications). This pattern, or rather the absence of a clear pattern, suggests that there are sector-specific factors overlaying the more general reasons listed above. Let’s focus on financials, for example. Banking and financial services credit spreads have substantially tightened and are currently deep in the first quartile of their YTD ranges. This is in very good agreement with a supportive ECB and reduced refinancing costs, which are a particularly important concern for financial bond issuers. In contrast, the already high insurance credit spread has widened into the 4th quartile. One explanation for this contrarian behaviour would be that lingering uncertainties around the approaching implementation of the Solvency II Directive, which selectively affect the European insurance companies, simply eclipse favourable central bank policies and supply side dynamics.

Sector Breakdown of EUR IG Credit

So what are the implications of spread decoupling on the relative attractiveness of USD vs. EUR IG credit? Well, the situation resembles the old Treasuries vs. Bunds debate; it ultimately comes down to the question whether one considers the current decoupling trend sustainable or not. If one genuinely believes that the divergence in terms of economic recovery, central bank policy and credit supply continues to progress, the case in favour of EUR IG credit could easily be made. The prospect of further EUR IG spread tightening, and hence capital appreciation, would outweigh lower spread and yield levels. We have in general preferred USD IG credit for quite a while now, precisely because of the higher average spreads compared to EUR IG credit, even when taking the cross-currency basis into account. Although the decoupling has certainly not worked in our favour in recent times, it has simultaneously strengthened the relative value argument. We are now obtaining an even bigger spread pick-up when investing in USD vs. EUR IG bonds than two and a half months ago. The currently low absolute level of EUR IG spreads makes the upside potential appear rather limited going forward. Finally, the global nature of corporate bond markets is likely to prevent an ever-increasing decoupling. If EUR IG spreads continue to fall relative to USD IG spreads, companies worldwide would try to minimise their borrowing costs by issuing EUR instead of USD denominated bonds. This trend would reverse current supply side imbalances and thus counteract the decoupling.


It’s the taking part that counts: why Europe’s labour market might be stronger than we’d thought

We saw further evidence of the strengthening US labour market on Friday. In September, 248,000 new jobs were added and the unemployment rate fell below 6% for the first time in six years. Headline unemployment rates in Europe, by contrast, have been more dismal, with the latest numbers coming in at 11.5% across the Eurozone for August.

Less encouraging for the US was the participation rate falling to its lowest level since 1978. The participation rate measures the number of people either employed or actively looking for work as a share of the working-age population. One really has to look at both the unemployment and the participation rates together as they give a fuller feel of what’s going on. Take this, admittedly, extreme example: an economy could look like it has full employment (zero unemployment), but if its participation rate is zero, no one is actually working.

The falling US participation rate has been widely discussed as it is one of the measures that Janet Yellen, the Chair of the Federal Reserve, has consistently pointed to when answering questions on the strength of the US economy. It may be happening for a whole host of reasons, including discouraged workers giving up their job search, some opting for early retirement, or others choosing to stay in – or return to – some form of education. Participation rates in Europe however have had less airtime, so I am grateful to Erik Nielsen of Unicredit for highlighting the situation there.

So, in Europe, while unemployment numbers make for pretty sober reading, the participation rate itself has been on a generally upward trajectory. This is true for both core and peripheral Europe (see chart), so it’s not just a case of German data masking lacklustre numbers elsewhere. Again, the reasons for this are diverse, but may include a greater proportion of women joining the labour force in recent years, and an increase in the pension age in some countries.


To assess the true situation in various countries and the relative progress each has made, we have held their participation rates constant at their 2000 levels and plotted how the subsequent unemployment data would have looked if the number of people in the workforce had remained at the same levels as at the turn of the century.

As the charts below show, the results are illuminating. Headline unemployment in Italy was running at 12.5% at the end of 2013 (the latest reading available), but once the 2000 participation rate is applied this falls to 8.7%, a fall of some 3.8 percentage points. The same is true for Spain, where the difference is a mighty 13.3%. In the US (where we have more recent data) , in sharp contrast, the current headline level of 5.9% unemployment actually rises to 12.5% when the 2000 participation rate is applied.




I was rather surprised to see the extent of this divergence and that the US is actually in a worse position relative to where it was in 1999 than peripheral Europe. I remain unconvinced as to whether the Eurozone is entering a period of stronger growth or whether its economy will actually come to resemble that of Japan. But these charts definitely move me closer towards the former.


Exceptional measures: Eurozone yields to stay low for quite some time

Richard recently wrote about the exceptional times in bond markets. Despite bond yields at multi-century lows and central banks across the developed world undertaking massive balance sheet expansions the global recovery remains uneven.

Whilst the macro data in the US and UK continues to point to a decent if unspectacular recovery, the same cannot be said for the Eurozone. Indeed finding data to be overly optimistic about is no easy task. Both consumer and business confidence indicators continue to point to a subdued recovery; parts of Europe are technically back in recession and inflation readings continues to disappoint to the downside. The most recent CPI reading came in at a mere 0.4%, German breakevens currently price five year inflation at 0.6% and longer term expectations have shown signs of questioning the ECB’s ability to deliver on the inflation mandate.

Recognising the sheer size of the Eurozone banking system remains key to understanding the challenge Eurozone policymakers face. With a banking system over three times larger than the US (relative to GDP); significantly higher non-performing loans and massive pressure to deleverage as shown in the first chart below, it is unsurprising that the so called transmission mechanism appears damaged. The failure to pump credit into the Eurozone economy, especially into the periphery, continues to weigh on funding costs for SMEs & promote exceptionally high levels of unemployment. These are only now beginning to stabilise at elevated levels as shown in the second chart below.

Banks have started the deleveraging process

Peripheral Europe

With previous demands for austerity in Europe preventing economies from running counter-cyclical fiscal policies and uneven progress in structural reform, the onus continues to fall on monetary policy and the ECB. And yet for a variety of reasons the response has fallen considerably short of that from the FED, BoE & BoJ, who have been happy to expand their balance sheets considerably.

Balance Sheets

The result has been, an overvalued Euro, imported disinflation and a lack of investment. Having offered re-financing cuts, forward guidance, massive liquidity in the form of the LTRO & TLTRO, the ECB will ultimately be forced to follow other central banks in undertaking broad asset purchases.

Whilst these broad asset purchases or QE are unlikely to be unveiled today, they are the only likely means in the near term, of ensuring that the banking system in Europe is able to extend significantly more credit to the real economy. This in turn should help to raise inflation expectations, boost potential growth and allow the ECB to fulfil its mandate.

In Europe exceptional times call for exceptional measures. The ECB isn’t done, even if certain members will have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the QE party. I expect European bond yields to stay low for quite some time.


UKAR – the biggest mortgage lender you’ve never heard of

U.K. Asset Resolution (UKAR) was established in late 2010 as a holding company for Bradford & Bingley (B&B) and the part of Northern Rock that was to remain in public ownership (NRAM).  Unlike other rescued institutions – RBS and Lloyds – whose progress we are kept well abreast of in the media, UKAR has flown under the radar somewhat. To give an idea of scale of the rescue; despite neither entity issuing a mortgage since 2008, UKAR is still the 7th largest mortgage lender in the UK today with a balance sheet of £74bn. About a third of assets on UKARs balance sheet are the legacy securitised RMBS deals of the two firms; B&B’s Aire Valley and the Granite complex from Northern Rock. A further 26% and 22% of assets are unencumbered mortgages and covered bonds respectively.

So, how well have they been using our tax money? And, are we likely to receive a return on our cash?

We met with management last week and they laid out their broad strategy going forward. They told us they are very focused on trying to help those able to refinance their mortgages elsewhere at a better rate. They also detailed how processes for collections and dealing with arrears have improved. This trend can be observed below, as the number of borrowers in the two securitised deals who haven’t made a mortgage payment for over 3 months has decreased significantly.

UKAR – borrowers in 3+ months arrears have declined significantly

More specifically, UKAR has a three pronged strategy for dealing with each of the three groups of assets (RMBS, unencumbered mortgages and covered bonds):

  • RMBS deals – has a strategy of tendering for notes that represent expensive financing
  • Unencumbered mortgages – sell off loan portfolios to third parties who wish to securitise them
  • Covered bonds – shortening the maturities through liability management exercises

Along with lowering arrears, UKAR has been successful in achieving these objectives whilst turning a decent profit. Clearly this profit is where we as tax payers (or the government) extracts value. Unlike the cases of RBS and Lloyds in which the government took an equity position, here they fully nationalised the institutions and extended a loan. Last tax year UKAR paid back £5.1bn of debt and £1.1bn in interest, fees and taxes to the government.

One further, slightly more technical point to note is the RMBS structures have hit a non-asset trigger. The trigger specifies that the notes issued out of UKAR have to be paid back sequentially – in order of seniority – until the whole deal is paid off. At this point there will be a slice of equity that will become available to the Treasury, roughly £8bn in total.

So, yes, I do think that they are doing a good job of looking after the tax payers’ investment. I also think commercial liability management exercises and portfolio whole loan sales will continue to maximise value. And of course, helping to keep people in their houses is a pretty good deal as well.


Stamping down on foreign flows into UK property could be sterling suicide

So now we know what the Bank of England intends to do about the UK’s housing market, a market that Governor Carney has previously referred to as the biggest risk to financial stability and therefore to the economic expansion (the IMF and the EC had similar warnings).The answer, in short, is not much at the moment – while Carney is not “happy” with the buoyant UK housing market, he is willing to “tolerate” it.

Before wondering what to do – and what not to do – about the housing market, it’s worth asking whether the UK housing market is in a bubble. It’s not as crazy a question as you might think – in real terms (i.e. adjusting for inflation), UK house prices rose by just +1.2% per annum from 1974 to the end of 2013, and by 2.2% per annum from 1974 to the end of 2007. It was the early noughties when things got crazy, as UK real house prices saw double digit returns in four consecutive years from 2001-2004 – strip out these years, and UK real house price growth has actually been negative in the last four decades*. But even including 2001-04, if you consider that the UK’s productivity growth since the mid 1970s has averaged about 1% per annum, and that UK population growth has averaged 0.3% per annum over this period, then small positive real house price growth doesn’t appear hugely alarming.

That said, 40 year average price changes don’t tell the whole story. The performance of the housing market in the past year is remarkable – UK house prices were up 11.1% in nominal terms in the year to May according to Nationwide, which is still a long way short of the 2001-04 bubble years, but is the fastest pace since then. Meanwhile data from the ONS shows that nominal London house prices rocketed 18.7% in the year to April. These rates of growth are well in excess of inflation, and well in excess of wage growth.

What is causing the recent jump higher in house prices? By definition the answer is an excess demand versus a lack of supply, although almost all commentary on the UK housing market seems to focus primarily on the latter rather than the former. Public debate about UK housing has been strongly influenced by then MPC member Kate Barker’s government commissioned 2004 review of housing supply, where she argued that ‘the long-term upward trend in house prices and recent problems of affordability are the clearest manifestations of a housing shortage in the UK’, and that the UK needed to build up to 260,000 new homes per year to meet demand. In the decade since the report was published, less than half this figure has been built, suggesting a shortfall of 1 million houses has accumulated.

But is the spike in house prices really all down to supply? As Fathom Consulting have pointed out, if there was a housing shortage then why haven’t real rent costs jumped higher? The chart below plots nominal wage growth versus UK rent costs back to 2001 – rent costs were actually increasing at a slower pace than wages pre-2008, and have only been running fractionally above wage growth more recently. If there was a supply shortage, then we would expect to see real rent costs increasing quite sharply as people become forced to spend more on housing as a percentage of their income, but this isn’t the case.


The next chart suggests that the pick-up in house prices that began last year is much more likely (as always) to have had more to do with demand, namely lower mortgage rates and easy mortgage availability. The left hand chart is from the Bank of England’s recent Financial Stability Report, and shows the loan to income ratio on new mortgages advanced for house purchase. Around 10% of new mortgagees are now borrowing at a loan to income ratio at or in excess of 4.5 times income. Over half of home buyers are now having to borrow at 3+ times income, which is a ratio about 5 times higher than immediately before the UK housing market crash of the early 1990s. It’s striking how closely correlated loan to income ratios (left chart) are with house prices (right chart). It suggests that limiting loan to income ratios will also serve to limit house price appreciation, although the correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causation. It could be that a jump higher in house prices forces buyers to take on more debt, since only additional debt will make it possible to get onto the bottom rung of the housing ladder**.


The other growing source of demand for UK property is likely to be overseas investors. When sterling collapsed post the 2008 crisis, the assumption was that the UK would see an export-led recovery thanks to a huge improvement in its competitive position. Unfortunately, this didn’t really happen, because the UK’s big export – financial services – was in little demand post crisis. UK exports did initially pick up, but today are only 10% higher than at their peak in 2008, and have moved sideways since 2011. Spain’s exports, in contrast, are almost 30% above 2008 levels in euro terms, despite the euro strengthening against sterling over the period.

Sterling depreciation may not have resulted in a surge in exports of UK goods and services, but it does appear to have led to a pick-up in a new kind of export – London’s housing stock. Savills, an estate agent, estimates that overseas equity into just prime London residential property was above £7bn in 2012, and presumably it was higher still in 2013. Overseas buyers have always been involved in London property thanks to market transparency, liquidity, political stability, a clear rule of law, decent education, and low taxes versus countries such as France or Spain, but the 2012 inflows were twice the amount seen in 2008 or 2009, and about a third higher than in 2006.

It’s easy to see why overseas buyers have taken a shine to UK property from the chart below. British houses feel far from cheap in local currency terms, but they look considerably cheaper from the perspective of all the traditional foreign buyers, with the exception of Russians. From the perspective of Chinese investors, London house prices are still 17.5% below their 2007 highs when measured in Chinese Yuan.


The Bank of England’s strategy for reducing domestic demand for UK housing via macro-prudential measures such as limiting loan-to-income ratios should be the primary way to tackle the destabilising effects of housing related indebtedness, and the Bank of England arguably could have done more. Stemming foreign flows into the UK housing market is much more attractive politically, but could be very unwise.

Data from last week showed that the UK’s current account deficit improved slightly in Q1 2014, but Q4 2013 was downwardly revised to 5.7% of GDP and Q3 2013 to 5.9%, a worrying new record. Of the so-called ‘Fragile 5’ emerging market countries, only Turkey had a bigger deficit in Q4.

A current account deficit is a broader measure of a country’s trade balance. The UK’s large deficit can be attributed to various factors (e.g. a sustained trade deficit, a deteriorating income balance which may partly reflect an increase in foreign companies taking over British companies, and sustained budget deficits), but generally speaking a chronic current account deficit is indicative of competitiveness problems. The chart below shows that a large and deteriorating UK current account balance has historically preceded a sterling crisis, where a sharp depreciation in sterling subsequently restored the UK’s competitiveness, and hence its current account balance. If you consider that foreigners buying new build houses in London is little different to foreigners mass buying Scotch Whiskey in terms of its effects on the national accounts, then proposals to tax foreign buyers of London property is the equivalent to taxing your own exports! Not a very clever thing to do with such a precarious current account balance. Note that taxing exports is considerably worse than protectionism, which typically involves taxing imports.


Macro prudential controls are a positive step and should help curb some of the local mortgage excess that has built up over the last couple of years. However, those pointing to supply-side factors as the primary reason for higher prices aren’t viewing the whole picture. UK property is cheap from an overseas perspective and will likely remain in demand to foreign buyers looking for solid returns in a low-yielding world. And beware the clamour of calls to stem foreign inflows into the UK housing market, which is turning into one of the UKs most in-demand exports. Of course, if macro prudential measures fail to take some of the heat out of the market, the Bank of England could always raise interest rates (if only they could remember how to….)

*This is calculated using UK RPI and the UK Nationwide House Price Index. Given there are methodological issues with both RPI and Nationwide data, it’s worth treating the calculation slightly cautiously – for example, UK RPI has averaged 0.9% higher than UK CPI since 1989, so real house prices appreciation is an additional 0.9% p.a. on a CPI basis.

**The recent nudge higher in both house prices and the move higher in first time buyer loan to income ratios is likely to have been assisted by the help to buy scheme (or the ‘help to sell scheme’, as we called it at the time), although given that as at the end of May, only 7313 houses were sold under the scheme with the total value of mortgages supported by the scheme at £1bn, there are other forces at play.


Why aren’t bund yields negative again?

Whether or not you believe that the ECB moves to full government bond purchase quantitative easing this week (and the market overwhelmingly says that it’s only a remote possibility) the fact that German bund yields at the 2 year maturity remain positive is a bit surprising. The 2 year bund currently yields 0.05%, lower than the 0.2% it started the year at, but higher than you might have expected given that a) they have traded at negative yields in 2012 and 2013 and b) that the market’s most likely expected outcome for Thursday’s meeting is for a cut in the ECB’s deposit rate to a negative level.

The chart below shows that in the second half of 2012, and again in the middle of 2013, the 2 year bund yield was negative (i.e. you would expect a negative nominal total return if you bought the bond at the prevailing market price and held it to maturity), hitting a low of -0.1% in July 2012.

2y bund yields chart

Obviously in 2012 in particular, the threat of a Eurozone breakup was at its height. Peripheral bond spreads had hit their widest levels (5 year Spanish CDS traded at over 600 bps in July 2012), and Target2 balances showed that in August 2012 German banks had taken Euro 750 billion of “safe haven” deposits from the rest of the euro area countries (mostly from Spain and Italy). So although the ECB refinancing rate was at 0.75% in July 2012 compared with 0.25% today, the demand for German government assets rather than peripheral government assets drove the prices of short dated bunds to levels which produced negative yields.

This time though, whilst the threat of a euro area breakup is much lower – Spanish CDS now trades at 80 bps versus the 600 bps in 2012 – the prospect of negative deposit rates from the ECB might produce different dynamics which might have implications for short dated government bonds. The market expects that the ECB will set a negative deposit rate, charging banks 0.1% to deposit money with it. Denmark successfully tried this in 2012 in an attempt to discourage speculators as money flowed into Denmark out of the euro area. Whilst the ECB refinancing rate is likely to remain positive, the cut in deposit rates might have significant implications for money market funds. David Owen of Jefferies says that there is Euro 843 billion sitting in money market funds in the euro area, equivalent to 8.5% of GDP. But what happens to this money if rates turn negative? In 2012, when the ECB cut its deposit rate to zero, several money market fund managers closed or restricted access to their money market funds (including JPM, BlackRock, Goldman Sachs – see FT article here). Many money market funds around the world guarantee, or at least imply, a constant or positive net asset value (NAV) – this is obviously not possible in a negative rate environment, so funds close, at least to new money. And if you are an investor why would you put cash into a money market fund, taking credit risk from the assets held by the vehicle, when you could own a “risk free” bund with a positive yield?

So whilst full blown QE may well be months off, if it ever happens, and whilst Draghi’s “whatever it takes” statement means that euro area breakup risk is normalising credit risk and banking system imbalances, the huge amount of money held in money market funds that either wants to find positive yields, or is forced to find positive yields by fund closures, makes it a puzzle as to why the 2 year bund yield is still above zero.


Deflating the deflation myth

There is currently a huge economic fear of deflation. This fear is basically built on the following three pillars.

First, that deflation would result in consumers delaying any purchases of goods and services as they will be cheaper tomorrow than they are today. Secondly, that debt will become unsustainable for borrowers as the debt will not be inflated away, creating defaults, recession and further deflation. And finally, that monetary policy will no longer be effective as interest rates have hit the zero bound, once again resulting in a deflationary spiral.

The first point is an example of economic theory not translating into economic practice. Individuals are not perfectly rational on timing when to buy discretionary goods. For example, people will borrow at a high interest rate to consume goods now that they could consume later at a cheaper price. One can also see how individuals constantly purchase discretionary consumer goods that are going to be cheaper and better quality in the future (for example: computers, phones, and televisions). Therefore the argument that deflation stops purchases does not hold up in the real world.

The second point that borrowers will go bust is also wrong. We have had a huge period of disinflation over the last 30 years in the G7 due to technological advances and globalisation. Yet individuals and corporates have not defaulted as their future earnings disappointed due to lower than expected inflation.

The third point that monetary policy becomes unworkable with negative inflation is harder to explore, as there are few recent real world examples. In a deflationary world, real interest rates will likely be positive which would limit the stimulatory effects of monetary policy. This is problematic, as monetary policy loses its potency at both the zero bound and if inflation is very high. This makes the job of targeting a particular inflation rate (normally 2%) much more difficult.

What should the central bank do if there is naturally low deflation, perhaps due to technological progress and globalisation? One response could be to head this off by running very loose monetary policy to stop the economy experiencing deflation, meaning the central bank would attempt to move GDP growth up from trend to hit an inflation goal. Consequences of this loose monetary policy may include a large increase in investment or an overly tight labour market. Such a policy stance would have dangers in itself, as we saw post 2001. Interest rates that were too low contributed to a credit bubble that exploded in 2008.

Price levels need to adjust relative to each other to allow the marketplace to move resources, innovate, and attempt to allocate labour and capital efficiently. We are used to this happening in a positive inflation world. If naturally good deflation is being generated maybe authorities should welcome a world of zero inflation or deflation if it is accompanied by acceptable economic growth. Central banks need to take into account real world inflationary and deflationary trends that are not a monetary phenomenon and set their policies around that. Central bankers should be as relaxed undershooting their inflation target as they are about overshooting.

Under certain circumstances central banks should be prepared to permit deflation. This includes an environment with a naturally deflating price level and acceptable economic growth. By accepting deflation, central banks may generate a more stable and efficient economic outcome in the long run.


The M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey – Q4 2013

The M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey for November shows that consumers in all countries surveyed expect inflation to rise from current levels in both one and five years’ time. In the UK, short-term inflation expectations fell over the quarter to 2.8%, following recent downward pressure on UK CPI. It may also suggest that the shock from recent increases in utility bills may be fading. Over five years, however, inflation is once again expected to rise to 3.0%, suggesting expectations for future inflation remain well anchored above the Bank of England’s (BoE) CPI target of 2.0%. We did not see the same spike in inflation expectations as in other recent inflation expectations surveys such as the Bank of England’s own survey, possibly as ours is more recent and was conducted between November 22-25.

In Europe, all countries surveyed with the exception of Switzerland, expect inflation to be equal to or higher than the European Central Bank’s (ECB) CPI target of 2.0% on both a one- and five-year ahead basis. All European Monetary Union (EMU) countries expect inflation to be higher in both one and five years than it is currently, while only two countries – Spain and Switzerland – anticipate it being less than 3.0% in 5 years’ time.

Comparing the results with those from earlier surveys reveals a number of noteworthy observations. Inflation expectations for one year ahead have fallen in all surveyed EMU countries since the start of 2013. This is unsurprising given the weak macroeconomic environment and the fact that commodity prices have declined by roughly 5.6% in the past three months. Consumers have also benefitted from a stronger euro, which has gained around 6.6% over the past year on a real effective exchange rate (REER) basis. Notably, short-term inflation expectations in France, Spain and Italy are now running well above their current inflation rates.

Survey respondents in Hong Kong show no signs of moderating their inflation expectations, which remain at a high level of 5.0% and 5.5% over one and five years, respectively. In Singapore, inflation expectations over one year are double current inflation (2%) whilst the five-year reading remains stable at 5.0%, as it has done throughout the course of 2013.

The findings and data from our November survey, which polled over 8,500 consumers internationally, is available in our latest report here or via @inflationsurvey on Twitter.


Eurozone inflation surprises to the downside. ECB will grudgingly be forced to cut rates.

Last week saw year-on-year core inflation in the euro area fall from just over 1% in September to a two year low of 0.7% in October (see chart). Such a level is entirely inconsistent with the ECB’s definition of price stability as inflation “below but close to 2%”, and will likely be met with a downward revision to medium term inflation prospects and with it an ECB rate cut later this year.


The ECB will no doubt have monitored the recent steady appreciation of the euro (see chart), which has effectively acted as a tightening of policy and will likely have a disproportionately negative effect on the periphery. Coupled with the latest inflation data, the strengthening of the euro will no doubt increase calls from the doves on the Governing Council (who should be acutely aware of the rising risks of a Japanese-style deflationary trap) to run a more stimulative policy.


With little evidence of upward pressure on German wages, the internal devaluation required within the eurozone to facilitate a more competitive and balanced economic area has also been dealt a blow. Richard recently noted an improvement in euro area funding costs, and with it a stabilisation of broader economic data. However, this is from a very low base and the challenges that Europe continues to face should not be underestimated. Both unemployment and SME funding costs remain stubbornly high in the periphery and non-performing loans continue to move in the wrong direction (see chart). The ECB understandably wants to maintain pressure on politicians to deliver on structural reforms, and no doubt some harbour fears of leaving fewer policy tools at their disposal once they cut rates towards zero, but the risks of medium term inflation expectations becoming unanchored to the downside should be a wakeup call and a call to action!



Will the Fed push EM over the edge?

We’ve been very worried about emerging markets for a couple of years, initially because of surging portfolio flows, better prospects for the US dollar and historically tight valuations (see The new Big Short – EM debt, not so safe, Sep 2011). But increasingly recently our concern has been driven by deteriorating EM fundamentals (see Why we love the US dollar, and worry about EM currencies, Jan 2013). A combination of miscommunicated and misconstrued Fed speak in May brought things to a head, and EM debt crashed in May to July (see EM debt funds hit by record daily outflow – is this a tremor, or is this ‘The Big One’? Jun 2013), although the asset class has since recovered roughly half of the losses. So where are we at now?

First up, fund flow data. Outflows from EM debt funds abated in July and August, briefly turned into inflows in mid September immediately following the non-tapering decision, but have since broadly returned to outflows (see chart below). Outflows from EM debt funds since May 23rd have been a very chunky $28bn, over $3bn of which have come since September 23rd.

However, as explained in the blog comment from June, EPFR’s now much-quoted fund flow data only apply to mutual funds, and while you get an idea of what the picture looks like, it’s only a small part of the picture. Just to emphasise this point, it has now become apparent that a significant part of the EMFX sell was probably due to central banks. The IMF’s quarterly Cofer database, which provides (limited) data on reserves’ currency composition, stated that advanced economy central banks’ holdings of “other currencies” fell by a whopping $27bn in Q2, where much of this ‘other’ bucket is likely to have been liquid EM currencies. Maybe half of this fall was driven by valuation effects, but half was probably dumping of EM FX reserves. Limitations of the EPFR data are also apparent given that there has been a slow bleed from EMD mutual funds this month, but that doesn’t really tally with market pricing given that EM debt and EM FX have been edging higher in October. An increase in risk appetite among EMD fund managers could account for this differential, although it’s more likely that institutional investors and other investors have been net buyers.


A relative stabilisation in fund flows doesn’t mean that planet EM is fine again. The recent IMF/World Bank meetings had a heavy EM focus, which followed on from the negative tone towards EM in the latest editions of the IMF’s flagship World Economic Outlook and Global Financial Stability Report (GFSR). The IMF again voiced concerns about the magnitude of the EM portfolio flows, and the chart below suggests that flows have deviated substantially from what the IMF believes is a gentle trend upwards in investors’ allocation to EM. A reversal of recent years’ inflows back towards the long term trend level would cause considerable pain, and while $28bn of outflows since May 23rd may sound like a lot, this is only equivalent to the inflows in the year up to May 23rd, let alone the inflows from the preceding years. As explained in Chapter 1 of the GFSR, which is highly recommended reading, foreign investors have crowded into local emerging markets but market liquidity has deteriorated, making an exit more difficult.


What now for EM debt? Your outlook will likely depend on how you weight and assess the different performance drivers for the asset class. There has been a heated debate in recent years on whether emerging market portfolio flows are driven primarily by so called ‘push factors’ (eg QE and associated negative developed country real interest rates pushing capital into countries where rates are higher), or whether flows are driven by ‘pull factors’ (eg domestic factors such as reforms or financial liberalisation). EM countries have tended to argue that push factors dominate, with Brazilian Finance Minister Mantega going as far as to accuse G3 policymakers of currency manipulation, while Fed Chairman Bernanke and future Chairman (Chairperson?) Yellen have argued that EM countries should let their currencies appreciate, although a recent Federal Reserve paper highlights both push and pull factors.

Number crunching from the IMF suggests that it is the EM policy makers who have the stronger arguments. In April’s GFSR, the IMF’s bond pricing model indicated that stimulative US monetary policy and lower global risk (itself partly attributable to the actions of advanced economy central banks) together accounted for virtually all of the 400 basis point reduction in hard currency sovereign debt from Dec 2008-Dec 2012, as measured by JP Morgan EMBI Global Index. Meanwhile, external factors were found to have accounted for about two thirds of the EM local currency yield tightening over this period. ‘Push factors’ therefore appear to dominate ‘pull factors’, something I agree with and have previously alluded to.

The relevance of external factors shouldn’t be a major surprise for EM investors given that the arguments are not remotely new. Roubini and Frankel have previously argued that macroeconomic policies in industrialised countries have always had an enormous effect on emerging markets. Easy monetary policy and a low global cost of capital in developed countries (as measured by low real interest rates) in the 1970s meant that developing countries found it easy to finance their large current account deficits, but the US monetary contraction of 1980-2 pushed up nominal and real interest rates, helping to precipitate the international debt crisis of the 1980s. In the early 1990s, interest rates in the US and other industrialised countries were once again low; investors looked around for places to earn higher returns, and rediscovered emerging markets. Mexico received large portfolio inflows, enabling it to finance its large current account deficit, but the Fed’s 1994 rate hikes and subsequent higher real interest rates caused a reversal of the flows and gave rise to the Tequila Crisis.

High real interest rates were maintained through the mid 1990s, the US dollar strengthened. Countries pegged to the US dollar lost competitiveness, saw external vulnerabilities grow and in 1997 we had the Asian financial crisis. In 1998, Russia succumbed to an artificially high fixed exchange rate, chronic fiscal deficits and low commodity prices (which were perhaps due in part to the high developed country real interest rates). A loosening of US monetary policy in the second half of 1998 alleviated the pressure on EM countries, but a sharp tightening in US monetary policy in 1999-2000 was arguably the final nail in the coffin for Argentina, and only IMF intervention prevented the burial of the rest of Latin America. The low US real interest rates/yields that have been in place ever since 2001-02 and particularly since 2009, together with the weak US dollar, have sparked not only large, but also uniquely sustained, portfolio flows into EM. [This is of course a gross simplification of the crises of the last 30 years, and there were also numerous domestic factors that explained why some countries were hit much harder than others, but it's difficult to dispute that US monetary policy has played a major role in the direction of capital flows on aggregate].

It’s starting to feel like Groundhog Day. Soaring US real and nominal yields from May through to August were accompanied by an EM rout. The tentative rally in EM over the last month has been accompanied by lower US real and nominal yields. Correlation does not imply causation, but investors should probably be concerned by the potential for US nominal and real yields to move higher as easy monetary policy is unwound. The date for the great monetary policy unwind is being pushed back, with consensus now for US QE tapering in March 2014, and if anything I’d expect it to be pushed back further given that it is hard to see how we’re going to avoid a rerun of the recent US political farce early next year. But this should only be a postponement of US monetary tightening, not a cancellation.

This year has been painful for EM, but it has been more a ‘spasmodic stall’ in capital flows rather than a fully fledged ‘sudden stop’. If, or perhaps when, the day of reckoning finally comes and US monetary policy is tightened, EM investors should be very concerned with EM countries’ growing vulnerability to portfolio outflows and ‘sudden stops’. [Guillermo Calvo coined the phrase 'sudden stop', and he and Carmen Reinhart have written extensively on the phenomenon, eg see 'When Capital Inflows Come to a Sudden Stop: Consequences and Policy Options (2000)']

History suggests that a good old fashioned ‘sudden stop’ would be accompanied by banking and particularly currency crises in a number of countries. There are numerous variables you can use to assess external vulnerabilities, and many people have been busy doing precisely that since May (eg see the Economist or a writeup on a piece from Nomura). In January I highlighted some of the lead indicators of EM crises regularly cited in the academic literature, namely measures of FX reserves, real effective exchange rates, credit growth, GDP and current account balances.

To be fair, a few of these crisis indicators are pointing to a slight improvement. Most notably, FX reserves are on the rise again – JP Morgan has highlighted that FX reserves of a basket of EM countries excluding China fell by $40bn between April and July, but that decline was fully reversed through August and September, even accounting for the fall in the US dollar (which pushes up the USD value of non-USD holdings).

Currencies of a number of EM countries have seen a sizeable and much needed nominal adjustment, although it’s important to highlight that while nominal exchange rates have fallen, the fact that inflation rates tend to be a lot higher in EM than in DM means that real exchange rates have dropped only perhaps 5% on average, which still leaves the majority of EM currencies looking overvalued and in need of significant further adjustment. In particular, Brazil has much further to go to unwind some of the huge appreciation of 2003-2011. Venezuela looks in serious trouble, which is what you expect given it is trying to maintain a peg to the US dollar at the same time as its official inflation rate has soared to 49.4% (Venezuela’s FX reserves have halved in five years, and are at the lowest levels since 2004).


However some of these lead indicators are just as worrying as they were in January. While the rapid credit growth rates of 2009-2012 have eased a little in most countries, perhaps partly on the back of weaker portfolio flows, there’s no evidence of deleveraging. Indeed, China is as addicted to its credit bubble as ever, while Turkish credit growth is inexplicably re-accelerating. The charts below put China’s credit bubble into perspective, where the increase in China’s private debt/GDP ratio since 2008 is bigger than the US’ and the UK’s credit bubbles in the years running up to 2008, and China’s total debt/GDP ratio is approaching Japan’s ratio in 1988. A banking crisis in China at some point looks inevitable. Although a banking crisis will put a dent in China’s GDP growth, it shouldn’t be catastrophic for the economy in light of existing capital controls and high domestic savings (these savings will just be used to plug the holes in banks’ balance sheets). The pain will likely be felt more in China’s key trade partners, particularly in those most reliant on China’s surging and unsustainable investment levels, and of those, particularly the countries with growing external vulnerabilities (see If China’s economy rebalances and growth slows, as it surely must, then who’s screwed? Mar 2013).


And probably the biggest concern is the rapidly deteriorating current account balances for almost all EM countries, where a country’s current account is essentially a broad measure of its trade balance. If you look through historical financial crises, large and/or sustained current account deficits are a feature that appears time and time again. Current account deficits were a feature of the LatAm debt crisis of the early 1980s, the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) crisis in 1992-3, Mexico in 1994, Asia in 1997, (arguably) Russia in 1998, Argentina and LatAm generally in 1999-02, Eastern Europe and many developed countries in the run up to 2008, and the Eurozone periphery (2010-?). Current account deficits are not by themselves necessarily ‘bad’ since by definition a current account deficit in one country must be balanced by a current account surplus elsewhere, and a country ought to be running a current account deficit and therefore attracting foreign capital if it has a young population and superior investment prospects. Foreign investors will willingly fund a current account deficit if they expect their investment will result in future surpluses, but no country is able to run a current account deficit (which is the same as accumulating foreign debt) indefinitely – if foreigners see a deficit as unsustainable then a currency crisis is likely. Maybe Mongolia’s or Mozambique’s current account deficits of almost 40% last year can be justified by the high expected returns from the huge mining/energy investment in the countries. Or maybe not.

But consistently large deficits, or rapidly deteriorating current account balances, can be indicative that things aren’t quite right, and that’s how many EM countries look to me today. Morgan Stanley coined the catchy term the ‘fragile five‘ to describe the large EM countries with the most obvious external imbalances (Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil, Turkey and India), and this is a term I gather those countries understandably aren’t overly impressed with (BRICS sounded so much nicer…). Unfortunately the list of fragile EM countries runs considerably longer than just these five countries.

The chart below highlights a select bunch of EM countries that are running current account surpluses and deficits. Some countries look OK – the Philippines and Korea appear to be in healthy positions on this measure with stable surpluses. Hungary has moved from running a large deficit to a small surplus, although Hungary needs to run sustained surpluses to make up for the period of very large deficits pre 2009*.

Almost all the other surplus countries have seen fairly spectacular declines in their current account surpluses. Malaysia’s surplus has plummeted from 18% of GDP in Q1 2009 to 4.6% in Q2 2013, while Russia, which is regularly cited as being among the least externally vulnerable EM countries, has seen its current account surplus steadily decline from over 10% in 2006 down to 2.3% in Q2 this year, a number last seen in Q2 1997, a year before it defaulted. Russia’s deteriorating current account is all the more alarming given that the historically high oil price should be resulting in large surpluses. Financing even a small current account deficit (which by definition would need financing from abroad) could cause Russia serious problems, and a lower oil price could also result in grave fiscal stresses given that the breakeven oil price needed to balance Russia’s budget has soared from $50-55/ barrel to about $118/ barrel in the last five years.

Many (but not all) current account deficit countries are looking grimmer still. A number of countries are seeing current account deficits as large or larger than they have historically experienced immediately preceding their previous financial crises. Turkey has long had a very large current account deficit, and while it has improved from almost 10% of GDP in 2011 to 6.6% in Q2 this year, the central bank’s reluctance to hike rates in response to a renewed credit bubble suggests this will again deteriorate. Despite the sharp drop in the rand, South Africa’s economic data has not improved – its current account deficit was 6.5% of GDP, and Q3 is likely to be very weak given the awful trade data in July and August. I continue to think South Africa should be rated junk, as argued in a blog from last year (the modelled 10% drop in the rand actually turned out to be overly optimistic!). India’s chronic twin deficits have been well documented – its current account deteriorated sharply in recent years, hitting a record 5.4% in Q4 2012 and with only a marginal improvement seen since then. As previously highlighted, Indonesia’s current account is now back to where it was in Q2 1997, immediately before the outbreak of the Asian financial crisis. Thailand’s previously large current account surplus has moved into deficit. Latin American countries tend to run reasonable sized deficits (as they generally should, given their stage of development), although Brazil and Chile have moved right into the danger zone.**


Another concern is contagion risk. If the Fed does tighten monetary policy next year, investors withdraw from EM en masse and capital flows back to the US, and/or China blows up and takes EM down with it, then an EM crisis this time around could look very different to previous ones. EM crises have historically been regional in nature – the international debt crisis of the early 1980s is a possible exception, but even then it was Latin America that bore the brunt. The big difference this time around is that a material portion of the portfolio flows are from dedicated global EM funds and large ‘Total Return’ style global bond strategies, as opposed to flows from banks. If these funds withdraw from EM countries, or to be more precise, if the end investors in these funds liquidate their holdings in the funds, then the funds will be forced sellers of not only the countries that may be in trouble at that point in time, but will also be forced sellers of those countries that aren’t necessarily in trouble. In fact, in a time of crisis, they may only be able to sell down the better quality more liquid positions such as Mexico in order to meet redemptions. So if a crisis does develop then you’ll probably see a correlation of close to one across EM countries. And not just between EM countries – the fate of, say, Ireland, may now be tied to that of Ukraine, Ghana, Mexico, and Malaysia.

That’s the rather lengthy ‘story’ for emerging markets, but what about the most important thing – valuations? In June I concluded that following the sharp sell-off, EM debt offered better value than a few months before, and it therefore made sense to be less bearish on an asset class that we have long argued has been in a bubble (but that didn’t mean I was bullish). As mentioned above, EMD has now recovered roughly half the sharp losses of May and June, but given very little has fundamentally changed over the period, it makes sense to be more concerned about valuations again.

The charts below illustrate the yield spread pick up over US Treasuries on hard currency (as shown by the JPM EMBI Global spread) and EM local currency (as shown by 10 year yields on Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico). Even though a number of EM macroeconomic indicators are at or approaching historical crisis levels, spreads on hard currency EM debt are not far off the tights (although at least you are exposed to the US dollar, whose valuation I like). EM local currency yields are also offering an unspectacular yield pick up over US treasuries, but here you have to contend with a lot of EM currencies with arguably shaky valuations, and you additionally face the risk of some countries being forced to run pro-cyclical monetary policy (i.e. EM central banks hiking rates in the face of weakening domestic demand in order to prevent a disorderly FX sell-off , the result of which sees local currency bond yields rising, as seen recently in Brazil, India, Indonesia).


So rising EM external vulnerabilities, combined with what are now fairly unattractive valuations, means that EM debt could potentially be teetering over the edge. Would the Fed give EM the final shove though?

On the one hand, while US domestic demand was considerably stronger in the 1990s than today, it’s interesting that during the really bad EM crises in 1997 & 1998, US GDP didn’t wobble at all, not remotely. US GDP was 5% in 1998, the strongest year since 1984, and 1997 saw the US economy grow at a not too shabby 4.4%. The Fed Funds rate didn’t budge at all in 1997 through the Asian crisis, and it wasn’t until after the Russian crisis in September 1998 that the Fed cut interest rates from 5.5% to 5.25% (and then again in October and November down to 4.75%), although this was a combination of domestic and foreign factors. Rates were actually back at 5.5% by November 1999 and continued higher to 6.5% by May 2000.

On the other hand, EM countries now account for about half of global GDP, so a direct hit to EM could loop quickly back to the US. This is something that the Federal Reserve has become acutely aware of in recent months (in case they weren’t already) given the extreme moves in EM asset prices. And in both the June and September press conferences, Bernanke was keen to stress that the Fed has lots of economists whose sole job is to assess the global impact of US monetary policy, and what’s good for the US economy is good for EM. That said, if US growth hits 3% next year, which is possible, it’s tricky to see how the Fed won’t start tightening monetary policy regardless of what EM is up to.

But the deteriorating EM current accounts may mean that at least a few EM countries won’t have to wait for a push from the Fed; they may topple over by themselves. A deteriorating current account deficit means that a country needs to attract ever increasing capital from abroad to fund this deficit. If developed countries’ appeal as investment destinations improves at the same time that a country such as South Africa’s appeal is deteriorating due to deteriorating economic fundamentals or other domestic factors, then investors will begin to question the sustainability of the deficits, resulting in a balance of payments crisis. EM investors need to be compensated for these risks in the form of higher yields, but in the majority of cases, yields do not appear sufficiently high, which therefore makes me more bearish on EM debt valuations.

*A current account deficit is an annual ‘flow’ number; Hungary’s ‘stock’ still looks ugly thanks to years of deficits, as shown by its Net International Investment Position. Hungary’s current account surplus is one of the few things Hungary has going for it. For more see previous blog.

** I’m still slightly baffled as to why Mexico HASN’T had a credit bubble given the huge portfolio inflows, the relative strength of its banking sector and a very steep yield curve, and it remains a favoured EM play (see Mexico – a rare EM country that we love from Feb 2012, although I’d downgrade ‘love’ to ‘like’ now given the massive inflows of the last 18 months and less attractive valuations versus its EM peers).

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