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The UK electoral cycle is alive and kicking

Yesterday’s UK Budget had one major surprise, the relaxation of rules regarding drawing down your pension. This means that from April 2015 you can draw down your pension pot in one go, to do with it as you wish. This policy move chimes with the coalition’s beliefs that one should take responsibility over one’s own finances. However, like all political decisions there may well be an ulterior motive behind the timing of this decision.

We talked previously about why a dovish central banker appointment at the Bank of England was politically expedient two years ahead of the May 2015 election. The current government had its last opportunity yesterday to add a last feel-good give away Budget to enhance the economy and its own electoral prospects. At first glance, what has it achieved with its surprise change in pension policy?

It has potentially released a huge wave of spending commencing April 2015. This will obviously make people feel wealthy as the cash literally becomes theirs as opposed to being locked away for a rainy day. The economic effect looks as though it would be too late to boost the economy ahead of the 2015 general election. However it is highly likely that the forthcoming pension pot release will be taken into account. Holidays would be booked ahead of the windfall, cars could be purchased, redecorating done, and Christmas presents bought as the promise of money tomorrow means you can run down saving and consume today. This pension release scheme will spur growth in the UK ahead of the election.

The particular neat trick of this policy change is that it is a giveaway Budget measure at no cost. This is because it is not the government giving away money, but it is simply giving people access to their own money. Fiscal stimulus at no cost, combined with low rates and a strong government sponsored housing market means the UK will continue to have a relatively strong economy.

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Europe’s debt/GDP levels are worse today than during the Euro crisis. So why are bond yields falling?

Two and a half years ago, there was a real fear in the marketplace that the euro would not survive. It appeared unlikely that Greece would be able to remain in the Eurozone and that some of the larger distressed economies like Italy and Spain may follow them out. High levels of government debt, unemployment and a banking system creaking under all this pressure did not bode well for the future. The mere possibility of a Eurozone nation leaving triggered massive volatility in asset markets from government bonds to equities, as investors grappled with the consequences of such an event occurring.

Of course, the bearish forecast for Europe did not eventuate. Perceptions had shifted significantly from the darkest days of the euro crisis. Politicians and central bankers have shown significant determination in keeping the euro intact, despite often only acting at the darkest hour. In markets, confidence returned after ECB President Mario Draghi’s now famous “whatever it takes” comment and it had a real effect on government bond yields with spreads over German bunds collapsing across the Eurozone.

Unfortunately for European government bond investors, the Eurozone could re-emerge as a source of risk. The reason is, since 2011 European government and economic fundamentals have generally gotten worse and not better.

2014-02 blog

When we look at the above table – which measure fundamental indicators like total investment, the unemployment rate and gross levels of government debt to GDP from 2011 and compares it to now – we can see a lot more red (which indicates a deterioration) than green (which indicates an improvement). Yet what is striking is that apart from Germany and the Netherlands who have seen their 10 year government bond yields increase slightly, all other European nations have seen their yields fall. This is not what we would expect to see given that various metrics like GDP, the unemployment rate, output gap and government debt to GDP are actually worse now than they were at the height of the Eurozone crisis.

I can see three main reasons why yields have fallen across the Eurozone despite a worsening in the economic statistics. The first is that confidence has returned and the credit risk premium demanded by bond investors has fallen. Investors in European bonds now believe that default risk has fallen from the dark days of 2011, despite a general worsening in conditions which would imply higher – and not lower – default risk. When Draghi said the ECB would do “whatever it takes”, the market believed him.

Secondly, the inflation risk premium that investors demand has collapsed as Eurozone inflation has collapsed. Low inflation in the Eurozone is largely the result of painful internal devaluation, high unemployment and government austerity. Countries like Ireland, Portugal and Greece are feeling this the most, having experienced deflation over the last couple of years. As we can see in the table, austerity has meant that budget deficits have improved across the Eurozone, but this has also resulted in deflationary forces becoming more pronounced. Lower European inflation means higher real yields, and this has contributed to nominal yields falling or remaining low in Eurozone government bonds. However, the danger for the periphery is that lower inflation implies lower nominal growth rates, and this means even greater pressure on the Eurozone periphery’s huge debt burdens. Markets should react to lower nominal growth rates by questioning these counties’ solvency, pushing bond yields higher.

Thirdly, the other main reason that peripheral yields have converged is that there are genuine signs of rebalancing, as indicated by improving current account balances and falling unit labour costs. The majority of Eurozone nations are now running a current account surplus, including Spain, Portugal, and Ireland. Despite being locked into the single exchange rate which is arguably way too high for these countries, global competitiveness has improved and exports have increased.

There are good reasons the euro will survive. However, it is important to question whether the market is charging a high enough credit risk premium given the challenges that continue to face the Eurozone. Increasingly, bond investors need to assess the risks of deflation in Europe as well. Arguably a lot of good news is priced in to government bond markets at the moment, and we remain hesitant to lend to those European countries displaying weaker financial metrics at this point in the cycle. With the IMF recently finding “no evidence of any particular debt threshold above which medium-term growth prospects are dramatically compromised”, it suggests that there are many more important things to bond investors than the public debt/GDP ratio (like credit growth, labour markets and inflation). Public debt/GDP ratios are what investors have been fixated on since the financial crisis, but they are a lazy and incomplete way of assessing the risks in government bond markets.

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China’s investment/GDP ratio soars to a totally unsustainable 54.4%. Be afraid.

Once upon a time, Western opinion leaders found themselves both impressed and frightened by the extraordinary growth rates achieved by a set of Eastern economies. Although those economies were still substantially poorer and smaller than those of the West, the speed with which they had transformed themselves from peasant societies into industrial powerhouses, their continuing ability to achieve growth rates several times higher than the advanced nations, and their increasing ability to challenge or even surpass American and European technology in certain areas seemed to call into question the dominance not only of Western power but of Western ideology. The leaders of those nations did not share our faith in free markets of unlimited civil liberties. They asserted with increasing self-confidence that their system was superior: societies that accepted strong, even authoritarian governments and were willing to limit individual liberties in the interest of the common good, take charge of their economies, and sacrifice short-run consumer interests for the sake of long-run growth would eventually outperform the increasingly chaotic societies of the West. And a growing minority of Western intellectuals agreed.

The gap between Western and Eastern economic performance eventually became a political issue. The Democrats recaptured the White House under the leadership of a young, energetic new president who pledged to “get the country moving again” – a pledge that, to him and his closest advisers, meant accelerating America’s economic growth to meet the Eastern challenge.

The passage is the opening to the highly readable and hugely influential 1994 paper The Myth of Asia’s Miracle. The period referenced is the early 1960s, the dynamic president was John F. Kennedy (read Bill Clinton), and the rapidly growing Eastern economies were the Soviet Union and its satellite nations (read East Asia). Author Paul Krugman took on the prevalent East Asian euphoria by drawing disturbing parallels between the unsustainable way that the Asian Tigers were managing to generate supersonic growth, and how the recently obsolete Soviet Union had also once achieved seemingly miraculous growth rates. Krugman’s paper gained widespread attention at the time (even more so post the 1997 Asian crisis), and succeeded in refocusing attention on the concept of productivity. It mattered not what the growth rate was, but how it was achieved.

To explain this and briefly summarise, consider what actually drives economic growth. Growth accounting shows that GDP per capita growth comes from two main sources; inputs and efficiency. The ‘inputs’ can be split into labour (e.g. growth in employment) and capital (e.g. the accumulation of physical capital stock such as machines and buildings). But long term, sustained per capita economic growth tends to come not from increases in the ‘inputs’, but from increases in efficiency, of which the main driver is technological progress. Nobel Laureate Robert Solow showed in his seminal 1956 paper that technological progress had accounted for 80% of US per capita growth between 1909 and 1949, although more recent studies have suggested a still substantial figure of more like 45-55% thereafter.

Krugman pointed to previous research showing that the Soviet Union’s rapid growth had not been due to efficiency gains. Indeed, the USSR was considerably less efficient than the US, and showed no signs of closing the gap. Soviet growth had been solely due to the ‘inputs’, and input-driven growth has diminishing returns (e.g. there is a finite number of workers you can educate). The USSR’s growth was largely ‘built on perspiration rather than inspiration’.

In a similar way, the Asian Tigers’ rapid growth was due to an ability to mobilise resources. There was no great improvement in efficiency, and no ‘miracle’ – it could be fully explained by the employed share of the population rocketing, education improving dramatically, and an enormous investment in physical capital (in Singapore, investment as a share of output jumped from 11% to more than 40% at its peak). But these were one time changes; they weren’t repeatable.

Fast forward to 21st century China.

There is a perception that China’s rocketing growth rate has always been reliant on heavy investment, but that’s not the case. Investment, or capital formation, has of course been an important driver, but the ‘pre 2008’ China did achieve rapid productivity gains thanks to the rise of the private sector and technological catch-up as the economy slowly began to open its borders.

In the chart below, I’ve looked at how much the world’s biggest economies have invested as a percentage of their GDP, and compared this to the countries’ GDP per capita growth rates. Countries with higher investment rates tend to have higher GDP growth rates and vice versa, which is intuitive and supports the discussion above. Since the 1990s, most (but not all) emerging/developing countries have been positioned towards the top right hand side with higher investment and higher growth rates, and the more advanced economies have typically been towards the bottom left with lower investment and lower growth rates. In one extreme you have China, where investment has averaged over 40% of GDP, and the GDP per capita growth has averaged a phenomenal 9.5%. The fact that China’s growth rate is well above the trend line in the chart is indicative of the productivity gains that China has achieved over the period as a whole on average. The country with the weakest investment rate is the UK.

Slide1

‘Post 2008’ China looks a different animal. Productivity and efficiency seem to be plummeting, where GDP growth is becoming dangerously reliant on the ‘inputs’, namely soaring investment. We’ve all heard about how China’s leaders desire a more sustainable growth model, featuring a rebalancing of China’s economy away from investment and export dependence and towards one that is more reliant on domestic demand and consumer spending (e.g. see the 12th 5 year plan covering 2011-2015 or the Third Plennum). In practice, what we’ve instead consistently seen is an inability or unwillingness to meaningfully reform, where any dip in economic growth has been met with yet another wave of state-sponsored overinvestment. (Jim recently blogged about economist Michael Pettis’ expectation that China long term growth could fall to 3-4%, a view with which I have a lot of sympathy. Please see also If China’s economy rebalances and growth slows, as it really must, then who’s screwed? for an additional analysis of the implications of China’s economic slowdown).

It was widely reported earlier this week that China’s 2013 GDP growth rate fell to a 13 year low of 7.7%, a slowdown that seems to have continued into 2014 with the release of weak PMI manufacturing reading yesterday. But much more alarming is how the makeup of China’s growth has changed: last year investment leapt from 48% of China’s GDP to over 54%, the biggest surge in the ratio since 1993.

The chart below puts China’s problems into perspective. As already demonstrated, there is a strong correlation between different countries’ investment rates and GDP growth rate. There also tends to be a reasonable correlation over time between an individual country’s investment rate and its GDP growth rate (Japan’s experience from 1971-2011 is a good example, as shown previously on this blog). Over time, therefore, a country should be broadly travelling between the bottom left and top right of the chart, with the precise location determined by the country’s economic model, its stage of development and location in the business cycle.

It should be a concern if a country experiences a surge in its investment rate over a number of years, but has little or no accompanying improvement in its GDP growth rate, i.e. the historical time series would appear as a horizontal line in the chart below. This suggests that the investment surge is not productive, and if accompanied by a credit bubble (as is often the case), then the banking sector is at risk (e.g. Ireland and Croatia followed this pattern pre 2008, Indonesia pre 1997).

But it’s more concerning still if there is an investment surge accompanied by a GDP growth rate that is falling. This is where China finds itself, as shown by the red arrow.

Part of China’s growth rate decline is likely to be explained by declining labour productivity – the Conference Board, a think tank, has estimated that labour productivity growth slowed from 8.8% in 2011 to 7.4% in 2012 and 7.1% in 2013. Maybe this is due to rural-urban migration slowing to a trickle, meaning fewer workers are shifting from low productivity agriculture to higher productivity manufacturing, i.e. China is approaching or has arrived at the Lewis Turning Point (see more on this under China – much weaker long term growth prospects from page 4 of our July 2012 Panoramic).

However the most likely explanation for China’s surging investment being coupled with a weaker growth rate is that China is experiencing a major decline in capital efficiency. Countries that have made the rare move from the top left of the chart towards the bottom right include the Soviet Union (1973-1989), Spain (1997-2007), South Korea (1986-1996), Thailand (1988-1996) and Iceland (2004-2006). Needless to say, these investment bubbles didn’t end well. In the face of a labour productivity slowdown, China is trying to hit unsustainably high GDP growth rates by generating bigger and bigger credit and investment bubbles. And as the IMF succinctly put it in its Global Financial Stability Report from October 2013, ‘containing the risks to China’s financial system is as important as it is challenging’. China’s economy is becoming progressively unhinged, and it’s hard to see how it won’t end badly.

Slide2

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The Professor Michael Pettis China forecast: 3-4% real growth on average for the next decade. And that would be a good result.

Having seen one of my favourite economists, Professor Michael Pettis, present twice in the past couple of months, I thought I’d try to distil his important messages about the future of the Chinese economy. For those with more time, he also writes a blog which you can find here. The recent presentations aside, I first saw Professor Pettis at a breakout session during the World Bank-IMF meeting in Tokyo in 2012. I was in the crowd in a packed room when Pettis said that Chinese GDP growth would likely fall to an average of 4% for the next decade. Across the audience there were audible titters and even people making the “he’s crazy” thing by swirling their fingers next to their heads. Little more than a year on, and the China slowdown view is nearer to the consensus – although you’d still find it difficult to find an official sub-5% China GDP forecast over any timeframe. Pettis maintains that 3-4% average growth is China’s likely future; the IMF’s World Economic Outlook has revised down its estimate of Chinese potential growth, but only from 8.9% to 8.0%. This morning the 2013 Chinese GDP number was released, at 7.7%, the 4th year in a row now of lower annual growth rates (and even then sceptics suggest that electricity consumption data and freight analysis show that the GDP numbers are overstated in the official statistics).

Professor Pettis’s starting point is that any investment led growth model eventually comes to an end as the quick wins from early infrastructure spending and urbanisation/industrialisation fade away and profitable investment opportunities become harder to find. And this investment has to be financed somehow – and it is the household that pays. For Brazil, the first example of an “economic miracle”, the investment was financed through high income taxes. In the “East Asian” model however (and this was true in Japan’s growth phase post WW2 as well as in China today) the burden on households is less explicit than taxation. The three hidden methods of boosting investment growth at the expense of consumption growth are:

  1. An undervalued exchange rate, boosting exporting manufacturers at the expense of higher imported goods prices for consumers.
  2. Low wage growth vs productivity growth, a subsidy for employers.
  3. And most importantly, financial repression. This confiscates savings from consumers and is another subsidy for, in particular the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs). Pettis estimates that Chinese interest rates have at times been 8-10% below where they “should” have been.

When the supply of profitable investment starts to run out, debt starts to rise more quickly than the ability to service that debt. This leads to a Japan style debt crisis or stagnation. Some estimate that 30% of new loans issued are simply to rollover debt that would otherwise be in default, and that non-performing loans are seriously underestimated in the official data (under 1% according to the China Banking Regulatory Commision). But what about reform, as promised by the Third Plenum? President Xi Jinping appears to recognise the problems that the economy faces, and accepts the need for rebalancing towards consumption. But he has also publically recognised the vested interests in China. The interests of the political elite are aligned with infrastructure projects and the State Owned Enterprises, and this will make reform exceptionally difficult. Studies of “successful” economic development have suggested that nations that democratise quickly and fully or nations that centralise aggressively do well economically over the long term. Examples of those that do neither are Argentina and Russia. It remains unclear whether China will follow a “successful” path, because of its vested interests. As a result growth of 7-8% per year might continue to be the debt-fuelled norm – but the hangover will be much bigger (disorderly negative growth rather than 3-4% in an orderly rotation away from investment towards consumption).

What would real reform look like, in Professor Pettis’s view?

  1. Reduced investment into the SOEs, local government and real estate sectors. Increased investment in SMEs.
  2. Liberalisation of interest rates to reflect the real risks of lending.
  3. Reduction in overall Chinese debt to GDP ratio.

You can read FT Alphaville’s Third Plenum cheat sheet here. You would have to say that progress towards what Michael Pettis thinks is necessary looks pretty slow – although it does appear that there has been some upwards movement in Chinese money market rates more recently, with the average 3 month money market rate (SHIBOR) moving up from below 5% in Q3 2013 to over 5.5% now.

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Emerging market debt: 2013 returns post-mortem and themes for 2014

Emerging market (EM) fixed income posted its third negative performance year since 1998, driven by rising US Treasury yields, fears of tapering, and concerns around declining capital inflows from developed markets into emerging markets.  A number of EM countries were also hindered by country-specific drivers such as slowing growth, decreasing productivity, twin deficits, and exposure to a slowing Chinese economy.  EM fixed income still saw inflows for 2013 of $9.7bn, although this was way behind the $97.5bn inflows of 2012, and the asset class has seen outflows of around $40bn since May (source EPFR, JP Morgan).

Asset allocation and active duration management were key to performance in 2013

Within the asset class, EM corporate bonds outperformed EM sovereign debt, with the former returning -0.6% and the latter -5.3% in 2013. This sub-asset class benefited from its shorter duration and tangential spill-over (or higher correlations?) from the stronger performance in global investment grade and high yield credit. EM corporate bond spreads, measured by the JP Morgan Corporate EMBI index, are now flat to hard currency sovereign debt which translates into a narrowing of 66 bps since the beginning of 2013.

Therefore, the asset allocation between EM sovereigns in both hard and local currency and EM corporates was one of the key calls for performance in 2013. Sovereign bonds underperformed over the year, with hard currency debt delivering a negative return of -5.3%, also due to the fact that it has the longest duration of all three sub-asset classes. However, local currency debt faced a particularly challenging year, delivering a negative total return of -9.0% which can be mostly attributed to the foreign exchange component of the bond, while the carry, i.e. the additional return due to higher local interest rates, compensated for the back-up in yields.

It is worth though having a closer look at the underlying dynamics as it helps to further understand the drivers of performance in 2013 and how 2014 will be different.

1) Most of the negative return of EM hard currency sovereign debt was driven by rising US Treasury yields and less by the perceived deterioration in EM credit profiles and widening of EM spreads.
The negative impact of widening credit spreads was modest, contributing -0.5% to the total return of hard currency sovereign debt as the chart above shows. To put this into perspective, spreads widened by 50 bps in 2013, while 10 year US Treasury yields backed up by 116 bps. Hence, duration management was key in 2013. With tapering priced in and the US Treasury forward curve pricing 10 year US Treasury yields at around 3.5% by year end, an additional backup in US rates should be less pronounced in 2014 than it was in 2013. The risk to this outlook is for stronger than expected data and/or worsening of inflation expectations, which is not priced in at the moment. That is, a bear flattening of the US curve through pushing forward the anticipated hikes in the Fed Funds rate (currently priced for 2015 and beyond) is a risk to be monitored carefully.

The hard currency sovereign debt performance of stronger EM countries was not necessarily better

2) The performance of hard currency sovereign debt was not necessarily better for countries that are perceived to be more resilient, i.e. have lower debt levels, stronger liquidity, fiscal and current account position, sustainable growth as well as reform momentum, than for those that are perceived to be more vulnerable.
Let’s take Mexico, one of the stronger emerging market economies, and South Africa, an increasingly vulnerable emerging market country, as an example. Mexican government debt denominated in hard currency returned -7.1%, while the total return for South Africa’s government bonds stood at -6.9%. One explanation is that the channel of adjustment in the current account deficit countries is weaker currencies and/or higher interest rates which may not be such a negative factor for sovereign debt spreads. Countries that allow for a free floating currency minimise net international reserve losses, which is supportive for the performance of hard versus local currency debt. In fact, the major performance difference between these two countries was precisely on their local currency debt (see below), where Mexico justifiably outperformed South Africa.

3) Another characteristic of 2013 was the outperformance of those bonds associated with higher credit risk, such as high yielders and frontier markets.
The JPMorgan Next Generation Markets Index (NEXGEM), an index for frontier market sovereign bonds rated BB+ and lower, returned +5.1% in 2013. This may seem counterintuitive given the recent change of sentiment towards EM assets, but it is refreshing that the market differentiated between the various emerging market issuers and rewarded the stable or improving credit profile of the weaker issuers with positive returns and re-priced deteriorating stories into negative returns. Argentina, for example, returned +19.1% on the delayed court decision regarding the holdouts, as well as on expectations for better economic policies with a new government in 2015. Venezuela, on the other hand, returned -12.3% on continued growing macroeconomic and political imbalances. In addition, Eichenberg and Gupta find that countries which allowed for large increases in their current account deficits and for a sharp appreciation of their currencies, saw indeed a stronger valuation correction, but also suggest that bigger and more liquid emerging markets experienced, generally speaking, more pressure on currency and debt valuations. Identifying the critical bottom-up, idiosyncratic factors was hence key in 2013 and will remain so in 2014, given the large rally we have seen in most of these frontier market bonds and, therefore, less favourable valuations.

Weakening EM currencies provided the strongest headwind for the asset class

4) Local currency debt was the key underperformer.
The bulk of the losses in emerging market debt issued in local currency was due to currency depreciation, which was one of the key transmission mechanisms in 2013 to potential lower capital flows into emerging markets. As such, various currencies will continue their move to fair value or undervaluation, if warranted, through 2014 as well. An eventual narrowing of current account deficits in countries that require an adjustment but do not face major structural rigidities, such as Brazil, India or Indonesia, should slow the depreciation pressure and, thus, performance in 2014 should not be as negative. That is, the balance of risks and market focus should then be centred on the capital account.

5) Positive carry and a lower duration have provided an anchor of support for local currency debt returns.
Local currency yields rose by 135 bps in 2013 to 6.85%, driven by currency weakness (South Africa), monetary policy tightening (Brazil, Indonesia), fiscal deterioration and inflation risk (Brazil), political and external account concerns (Turkey), as well as a higher floor from US yields. The carry, however, and a lower average duration on local currency debt, for which a comparable index has a duration of 4.6 years, allowed for the total return in local currency terms to be flat in 2013 and provide a better cushion for 2014.

6) Political risks were pretty muted in 2013 (with a few exceptions), but are likely to increase significantly in 2014.
Though countries like Turkey and Ukraine as well as the Middle East faced serious political crises, politics did not play a major role for the asset class in 2013. However, 2014 will be a year in which the return impact from idiosyncratic political events in emerging markets could increase substantially. Twelve of the major emerging market countries will have presidential and/or parliamentary elections, including all the ‘fragile 5’ countries, i.e. Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa and Turkey – and we will comment in more detail on this in a forthcoming blog closer to the election dates. The prospect of these elections could potentially reduce the net capital flows into these economies on a temporary basis, such as through local capital flight, delayed foreign direct investment (FDI) and/or portfolio flows as well as increased demand for foreign exchange (FX) or credit default swap (CDS) hedging etc., pending the outcome of the elections and subsequent prospects for future economic policy and support for reforms.

In summary, the asset allocation between EM sovereigns in both hard and local currency and EM corporates should be less important in 2014 than it was in 2013, given that the forward yield curve implied levels for US interest rates is already pricing 10 year yields in the mid 3% range. Furthermore, the relative value opportunity between these three asset classes has decreased after the underperformance of sovereign debt in 2013 and the narrowing of EM corporate bond spreads on the back of  the rally in global credit in both the investment grade and high yield space. In addition, valuations for local currency debt look better, also on the basis of the exchange rate adjustments seen in 2013 and higher yields. In other words, we expect the difference on performance, on aggregate, to be more muted at the top down level.

On the other hand, idiosyncratic EM events, including political events, will become more relevant, which makes bottom up security selection and timing, i.e. the repositioning through bouts of volatility, even more critical in 2014 . Global macro factors and drivers of global risk appetite, such as economic growth and inflation, China’s rebalancing efforts, commodity prices as well as developments in the Eurozone, will remain equally important.

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Bundesbank: no deflation in sight. Really?

Today I came across an article in which the Bundesbank took the festive season as an opportunity to discuss if all the Christmas sales discounts are going to turn into a permanent phenomenon for the Eurozone. “No deflation in sight” (in German) concludes that the Eurozone is unlikely to experience continuously falling prices, ie deflation. The Bundesbank does however identify some parallels between today and the 1930s – the last period of deflation in Germany. The Bundesbank attributes the current disinflationary trend in the Eurozone to the austerity imposed on the peripheral economies. It is striking that this line of argument offers the opportunity to draw some historical parallels. In the early 1930s, chancellor Brüning’s retrenchment policies (in form of emergency decrees) in response to the global economic crisis and the perceived lack of German competitiveness included severe wage cuts for civil servants, public sector job cuts, reduction of pension payments and entitlements as well as higher income taxes.  These policies marked a period of severe economic downturn and deflation with major historical consequences.

Germany’s economic downturn in the early 1930s

However, the Bundesbank seems to take some comfort out of the fact that the deflationary experiences in the periphery have not been as severe as in Germany in the 1930s and not sufficient to drag the entire Eurozone into a deflationary spiral so far. The German central bank anticipates that the austerity measures will show their positive effects on the peripheral economic competitiveness soon which should pay off in form of a return to modest economic growth in 2014 and 2015. While the high unemployment rates in the Eurozone, and in the periphery in particular, will continue to ease any inflationary pressure, the paper concludes that the pickup in economic activity will provide an anchor to the downside. In other words, the worst is over, and that’s why there is no deflation in sight. SocGen’s Sebastien Galy critically points out that the Bundesbank bases much of its analysis on the assumption of a strong positive correlation between growth and inflation which historically has not always been evident and doesn’t seem to be consistent with the trend of disinfloyment that the US is currently experiencing.

Two different monetary policy approaches during economic downturns and periods of austerity

The Bundesbank also sees the deflation risk contained in the Eurozone as the ECB’s monetary policy response is very different to the 1930s. Back then, the economic downturn was aggravated through the monetary policy response of the Reichsbank. As the chart above shows, the central bank kept interest rates at a very high level which led to unbearable financing costs in the real economy and suppressed credit growth further. The reasons for this policy approach were certainly very complex, but, without delving too deep into any academic debate, it seems that the German room to manoeuvre might have been restricted by the Young Plan and that the shock of hyperinflation in the 1920s built a psychological barrier to loose monetary policy. The Bundesbank article points out that today’s monetary response by the ECB is very different. Today’s historically low ECB refinancing rate of just 0.25% is a reflection of the ECB’s very expansive monetary policy approach in response to the Eurozone crisis and is, therefore, providing another anchor of price stability, i.e. reducing the downside risk of deflation.

However, the psychology of deflation doesn’t get sufficient focus by the Bundesbank in this particular article in my view. The authors touch upon the concept of inflation expectations and their impact on consumption behaviour (if you expect prices to go down, then you delay purchases which puts further downward pressure on prices), but don’t go into much detail. As the latest M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey showed, expectations were still well-anchored in November, but on a declining trend across Europe, and it will be interesting to see how inflation expectations have adjusted considering that recent data showed that not only did the periphery experience real wage declines in the third quarter, but German workers also saw real wage declines for the first time since 2009. This is certainly a surprising, if not worrying trend with regard to both disinflation and the Eurozone rebalancing efforts.

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jim_leaviss_100

US Treasuries – are we nearly there yet? Maybe we are.

Before we get all beared up about tapering, it’s worth seeing how far we’ve come already, and what the end game should be. The sell-off in US Treasury bonds has already been severe. 10 year yields have risen from a low of 1.4% in July 2012 to nearly 3% today. Most street strategists have yields rising further in 2014, with the consensus 10 year forecast at 3.37% for a year’s time.

But as well as looking at the spot yield, we should see what the yield curve implies for future yields. The chart below shows the 10 year 10 year forward rate – in other words the expected 10 year UST yield in a decade’s time backed out mathematically by looking at long dated UST yields today. You can see that the implied 10 year yield is now over 4%, at 4.13%.

The other thing I have put on the chart is a shaded band representing the range of expectations within the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) for the longer run Federal Funds rate. You can find this range of expectations here on the third slide of the charts from yesterday’s FOMC minutes. Four members think that that the long run Fed Funds rate is as low as 3.5%, and two think it is as high as 4.25%. The median expectation is 4%.

The bond market expects 10 year USTs to yield 4.13% in a decade’s time

Now the 10 year bond yield is effectively the compounded sum of all short rates out to 10 years, plus or minus the term premium (which we will discuss in a minute). If the FOMC members are correct that 4% is the long run interest rate, then if the term premium is zero, the 10 year forward rate at 4.13% has already overshot where it needs to be, and we should be closing out our short duration positions in the US bond markets.

The term premium is important though (this blog from Simon Taylor is good at explaining what it is, and showing some estimates). The term premium is compensation for the uncertainty about the short rate forecast. Historically it has been positive, as you might expect, reflecting future inflation or downgrade risks. In recent years though it has been negligible, even negative – perhaps due to a non-price sensitive buyer in the market (the Fed through QE), but also perhaps due to deflation rather than inflation risk? It is likely however that the term premium rises at a turning points in rates – and also that if inflation ever made a sustained comeback, with central banks refusing to fight it, like in the pre-Volker years, the risk premium would rise strongly. We also know that markets tend to overshoot in both directions. Nevertheless, whilst it’s too soon to say that we’ve seen the highest yields of this cycle, as a value investor you could say that yields are moving towards fair value.

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Jim Leaviss’ outlook for 2014. The taper debate (watch the data), inflation (where is it?), and it’s a knockout. Merry Christmas!

With many expecting a ‘great rotation’ out of fixed interest assets in 2013, bond investors will, in the main, have experienced a better year than some had predicted 12 months ago. It might not always have felt like it at the time – indeed, over the summer when markets were sent into a spin by the prospect of the US Federal Reserve (the Fed) cutting its supply of liquidity earlier than expected, it almost certainly did not. But riskier assets, notably high yield corporate bonds, have continued to perform strongly, while investment grade corporate bonds are on track to deliver another year of positive returns, in spite of the volatility.

Meanwhile, the macroeconomic backdrop has generally improved over the past year, with the economic recovery gaining significant momentum in the US and, more recently, the UK. However, the picture in Europe remains mixed, while our concerns over the emerging markets are mounting. However, despite their disparate prospects, all countries – and all bond markets – are united by at least one common dependency: the Fed.

So what does 2014 have in store for global bond markets? In our latest Panoramic outlook, Jim outlines his macroeconomic and market forecasts for the year ahead. And for those of you who have been wondering, the annual M&G Bond Vigilantes Christmas quiz will be posted later this week.

Enjoy!

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Research trip video: Australia – the land of houses and holes

A couple of weeks ago I headed back to my hometown of Sydney, Australia. In between the barbies, the beach and a few beers, I managed to get around and film this short research video.

Australia is the 13th largest economy in the world and those that live there enjoy a very high standard of living. Growth is dominated by its service sector which makes up around 70% of GDP, whilst the total mining sector represents around 20% of GDP. With one of the most expensive housing markets in the world, a strong currency and the possibility of a China slowdown clearly on the horizon, will Australia’s economic performance over the next twenty years be as strong as the last?


Anjulie-Rusius_100

A shifting Beveridge Curve – Does the US have a long term structural unemployment problem?

I am sure that many of us are familiar with some of the better known economic theories concerning unemployment which have previously been discussed or alluded to on this blog e.g. Okun’s Law and the Taylor Rule, but perhaps a lesser known theory (which has been receiving growing attention from economists in recent times), is the Beveridge Curve.

Using data on job vacancies and unemployment, the Beveridge Curve indicates how efficient an economy is at matching unemployed workers to job vacancies and can indicate where in the business cycle an economy sits. Looking specifically at data for the US from December 2000 onwards, the jobs market behaved as you’d expect; changes in the supply or demand for labour causes movement along the curve (this is particularly apparent during the highlighted recessionary periods). But what is particularly interesting – and glaringly obvious – is the shift which occurred post June 2009. The looping movement “back up the curve” is less surprising as after an economic contraction, this would be precisely what you would expect during a recovery period (i.e. falling unemployment teamed with an increase in the job vacancy rate as firms start to hire again).

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But what could have caused this shift in the Beveridge curve, which if it remains, could imply a long term increase in structural unemployment?

1) Inefficiency. The shift is essentially indicative of an increase in the job vacancy rate. So perhaps we could argue that there has been a short-term reduction in the efficiency of job matching due to labour market conditions. Indeed, this inefficiency could in part have arisen from a decrease in labour mobility, linked to the US housing market. Since home prices are still below the pre-crisis peak, this could result in reluctance from jobseekers to sell their homes, which could in turn geographically limit their search. If this were true, in time the curve would be expected to shift back in line as the housing market recovers and jobs and workers get matched more quickly.

2) The labour force participation rate. Perhaps the shift has been caused by the post-crisis increase in unemployment. As the theory would have it, as the number of job seekers increases relative to the population, this would cause an outward shift of the Beveridge Curve. The US has however witnessed the exact opposite since 2009 – a fall in both the unemployment and labour force participation rates. On this point, research from Unicredit suggests that the fall in the latter is causing the unemployment rate to be understated were it not for the decline in the labour force participation rate, unemployment would stand at 11.5%. This signifies that the US may well have an underlying structural unemployment problem that is currently being ignored.

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3) Long term unemployment. If caused by a fundamental mismatch between an employer’s requirements and an employee’s skill set (which deteriorates as more and more time is spent out of work), long term unemployment could cause the Beveridge Curve to shift outwards. Indeed, the proportion of unemployed workers who have been without work for 27 weeks upwards has increased since June 2009 and remains high, suggesting that a long term structural shift may have occurred in the US.

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4) Increasing frictional unemployment. To cause an outward shift of the Beveridge Curve, frictional unemployment – the time period between jobs, caused by redundancies and resignations – would have to increase. Although this could have caused the initial shift, to my mind, this argument is inconsistent with longevity of the shift. If the shift were solely due to frictional unemployment, this impact should have been eroded since 2009 as labour market performance gained some ground.

5) Economic and policy uncertainty. I think it’s fair to say that the US has seen its fair share of economic uncertainty since 2009 and significant political headwinds in 2013 alone. Firstly, with regards to the sequestration earlier this year which saw fiscal contraction manifest most notably via the expiration of the temporary payroll tax and budget caps. Secondly (although more recently so this will not yet be reflected in the data), political headwinds have continued in the form of the prolonged Government shutdown. As such, these headwinds could potentially explain the lasting effect of the shift, in 2013 at least.

On the whole, the outward shift of the Beveridge Curve indicates that there has been a significant change in the US labour market. The key question however is whether or not this shift will prove to be a short term phenomenon that will erode over time as the US recovery strengthens. If we suppose that the shift is temporary and that the US will revert to norm, reading off the graph, this suggests that unemployment for August 2013 should have been in the region of 5.5%, which is well below the Fed’s trigger level to raise interest rates. On the other hand, is this too optimistic and have we instead witnessed a long term shift that is here to stay? The Beveridge Curve is one to watch.

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