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Wolfgang Bauer

How to find relative value in EUR and USD investment grade credit using CDS

There is more than one way to skin a cat for credit investors. Those looking for credit exposure can do so through either owning the debt issued by an issuer or by selling credit default swap (CDS) protection for the same issuer. The differential in price between the corporate bond and CDS contract can mean the difference between outperforming and underperforming in a world of tight credit spreads and low yields. Additionally, it is possible to do this for the whole investment grade or high yield market, allowing bond investors to gain credit exposure in their preferred geographical region (for example, the U.S., Europe, or Asia). U.S. and European credit spreads have compressed substantially and are now at levels last seen before the Lehman Brothers collapse. Given this convergence, the question for global IG bond investors today is which market is relatively more attractive from a valuation perspective?

Let’s first take a look at EUR versus USD credit. The easiest way to do this is by using two credit default swap indices. These indices (also known as CDI) represent 125 of the most liquid five-year credit default swaps on investment grade (IG) entities in Europe (iTRAXX EUR 5Y) and North America (CDX IG 5Y). Looking at the historical performance of both indices, the differential between both index levels remained basically flat until the onset of the financial crisis in the second half of 2007. During this period, iTRAXX EUR traded around 10-15 basis points (bps) tighter than the CDX IG. During the crisis, the absolute levels of both indices increased substantially but iTRAXX EUR outperformed CDX IG, with the North American index moving up to a peak level of around 230bps in late 2008. In the following three years, with the easing of the U.S. recession and the emergence of the Eurozone crisis, CDX IG outperformed iTRAXX EUR by around 120 bps.

Starting from its minimum of -64 bps in November 2008, the index differential turned positive in May 2010 and reached its peak value of 57 bps in November 2011. With the Eurozone crisis calming down, iTRAXX EUR has once again outperformed CDX IG. Today the index differential has virtually disappeared (4 bps), and both indices have tightened to around 65bps by the end of May, a level not seen since the end of 2007. iTRAXX EUR continued to tighten in June and temporarily traded through CDX IG for the first time since March 2010.

CDS indices: EUR vs. USD IG credit

Selling CDS protection for a company creates a credit risk exposure that is essentially equivalent to buying a comparable bond of the same issuer. Hence, from a fixed income investor’s point of view, it is worth comparing the CDS spread and the credit spread of the cash bond. The difference between these two is often referred to as the CDS basis. Positive values (i.e., CDS spread > bond Z-spread) indicate a higher compensation for taking the same credit risk through the CDS of a company rather than owning the bond of a company, and vice versa for a negative basis.

Drawing a direct like-for-like comparison between CDS and corporate bond indices can be tricky. For example, it is impossible to find appropriate outstanding cash bonds for all the companies that are in the CDS indices. Furthermore, CDS indices comprise contracts with a certain maturity (e.g., five years) and roll every six months, whereas cash bonds approach a predefined maturity and are eventually redeemed, assuming they don’t default or are perpetual instruments.

We approached the problem by constructing our own equally-weighted non-financial CDS and cash bond indices, both for U.S. and Eurozone issuers. In terms of EUR issuers, we started from the current iTRAXX EUR roll, ranked the constituent entities by total debt outstanding and selected the top 20 Eurozone non-financial issuers with comparable outstanding bonds (c. five years until maturity, senior unsecured, vanilla, reasonable level of liquidity, etc.) for our CDS and bond indices. We then compared the year-to-date evolution of weekly CDS and cash bond spreads as well as the CDS basis, averaged over the 20 index members. For our USD indices we applied the same strategy, selecting a subset of 20 US non-financial issuers from the current CDX IG roll.

The chart below shows CDS spreads, bond Z-spreads and CDS bases both for our EUR and USD indices. Throughout the year, all four non-financial IG index spreads have been grinding tighter. The CDS basis for USD non-financial IG credit has been consistently negative (-19 bps on average). In absolute terms the negative USD basis has receded, moving from between -30 and -20 bps in January to -11 bps in the first week of July. In contrast, except for the first week of January which might be distorted by low trading volumes, the EUR non-financial IG CDS basis has been positive (+12 bps on average) and amounts to +11 bps for the first week of July.

CDS basis: EUR vs. USD non-financial IG credit

Several reasons have been put forward to explain the contrast between EUR and USD CDS basis values, including supply/demand imbalances within European cash bond markets adding a scarcity premium to bond prices and thus suppressing bond spreads. It has also been argued that in Europe CDS contracts were predominantly used for hedging purposes (i.e., to reduce credit exposure by buying the CDS contract) driving up CDS spreads, whereas the use of USD CDS contracts was more balanced between increasing and decreasing credit risk exposure.

In the current market environment characterised by low yields and tight credit spreads, CDS basis values do matter. The choice between a cash bond or a credit derivative is another lever fixed income investors can use to exploit relative value opportunities. By carefully selecting the financial instrument, cash bond vs. CDS contract, a spread pickup of tens of basis points can be realised for taking equivalent credit risk. A positive basis indicates that the CDS looks cheap relative to the cash bond, and vice versa for a negative basis. For instance, at the moment it often makes a lot of sense for us to get exposure to EUR IG credit risk through CDS contracts rather than through cash bonds, when we see attractive positive CDS basis values.

jim_leaviss_100

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.

Wolfgang Bauer

The Great Compression of peripheral to core European risk premiums

Are investors still compensated adequately for investing in peripheral rather than core European debt, or has the on-going convergence eroded debt valuation differentials altogether? In his latest blog entry, James highlighted five signs indicating that the bond markets consider the Eurozone crisis resolved. Inter alia, James pointed out that risk premiums for peripheral vs. core European high yield credit had essentially disappeared over the past two years. Here I would like to extend the periphery/core comparison by taking a look at investment grade (IG) credit and sovereign debt.

First, let’s have a look at the spread evolution of peripheral and core European non-financial (i.e., industrials and utilities) IG indices over the past 10 years. In addition to the absolute asset swap (ASW) spread levels, we plotted the relative spread differentials between peripheral and core credit. The past ten years can be divided into three distinct phases. In the first phase, peripheral and core credit were trading closely in line with each other; differentials did not exceed 50 bps. The Lehman collapse in September 2008 and subsequent market shocks lead to a steep increase in ASW spreads, but the strong correlation between peripheral and core credit remained intact. Only in the second phase, during the Eurozone crisis from late 2009 onwards, spreads decoupled with core spreads staying relatively flat while peripheral spreads increased drastically. Towards the end of this divergence period, spread differentials peaked at more than 280 bps. ECB President Draghi’s much-cited “whatever it takes” speech in July 2012 rang in the third and still on-going phase, i.e., spread convergence.

As at the end of March 2014, peripheral vs. core spread differentials for non-financial IG credit had come back down to only 18 bps, a value last seen four years ago. The potential for further spread convergence, and hence relative outperformance of peripheral vs. core IG credit going forward, appears rather limited. Within the data set covering the past 10 years, the current yield differential is in very good agreement with the median value of 17 bps. Over a 5-year time horizon, the current differential looks already very tight, falling into the first quartile (18th percentile).

Peripheral vs. core European non-financial IG credit

Moving on from IG credit to sovereign debt, we took a look at the development of peripheral and core European government bond yields over the past 10 years. As a proxy we used monthly generic 10 year yields for the largest economies in the periphery and the core (Italy and Germany, respectively). Again three phases are visible in the chart, but the transition from strong correlation to divergence occurred earlier, i.e., already in the wake of the Lehman collapse. At this point in time, due to their “safe haven” status German government bond yields declined faster than Italian yields. Both yields then trended downwards until the Eurozone crisis gained momentum, causing German yields to further decrease, whereas Italian yields peaked. Once again, Draghi’s publicly announced commitment to the Euro marked the turning point towards on-going core/periphery convergence.

Italian vs. German government bonds

Currently investors can earn an additional c. 170 bps when investing in 10 year Italian instead of 10 year German government bonds. This seems to be a decent yield pick-up, particularly when you compare it with the more than humble 18 bps of core/periphery IG spread differential mentioned above. As yield differentials have declined substantially from values beyond 450 bps over the past two years, the obvious question for bond investors at this point in time is: How low can you go? Well, the answer mainly depends on what the bond markets consider to be the appropriate reference period. If markets actually believe that the Eurozone crisis has been resolved once and for all, not much imagination is needed to expect yield differentials to disappear entirely, just like in the first phase in the chart above. When looking at the past 10 years as a reference period, there seems to be indeed some headroom left for further convergence as the current yield differential ranks high within the third quartile (69th percentile). However, if bond markets consider future flare-ups of Eurozone turbulences a realistic scenario, the past 5 years would probably provide a more suitable reference period. In this case, the current spread differential appears less generous, falling into the second quartile (39th percentile). The latter reading does not seem to reflect the prevailing market sentiment, though, as indicated by unabated yield convergence over the past months.

In summary, a large portion of peripheral to core European risk premiums have already been reaped, making current valuations of peripheral debt distinctly less attractive than two years ago. Compared to IG credit spreads, there seems to be more value in government bond yields, both in terms of current core/periphery differentials and regarding the potential for future relative outperformance of peripheral vs. core debt due to progressive convergence. But, of course, on-going convergence would require bond markets to keep believing that the Eurozone crisis is indeed ancient history.

jamestomlins_100

5 Signs That the Bond Markets (rightly or wrongly) think the Eurozone Crisis is Over

Regardless of your opinion on the merit of the ECB’s policy, there is little doubt that the efficacy of Mario Draghi’s various statements and comments over the past 2 years has been radical.  Indeed there are several signs in the bond markets that investors believe  the crisis is over. Here are some examples:

1)      Spanish 10 yr yields have fallen to 3.2%, this is lower than at any time since 2006, well before the crisis hit, having peaked at around 6.9% in 2012. This is an impressive recovery, almost as impressive as …

Spanish 10 Year Government Bond Yields

2)      The fall in Italian 10 year bond yields, which have hit new 10 year lows of 3.15%, lower than any time since 2000. The peak was 7.1% in December 2011. To put this in context, US 10 year yields were at 3% as recently as January this year.

Italian 10 Year Government Bond Yields

3)      Last month, Bank of Ireland issued €750m of covered bonds (bonds backed by a collateral pool of mortgages), maturing in 2019 with a coupon of 1.75%. These bonds now trade above par, with a yield to maturity of 1.5%. The market is not pricing in any material risk premium relating to the Irish housing market.

4)      There is no longer any risk premium within the high yield market for peripheral European risk. The chart below (published by Bank of America Merrill Lynch) shows that investors in non-investment grade corporates no longer discriminates between “core” and “peripheral” credits when it comes to credit spreads.

Core vs. peripheral high yield bond spreads

5)      Probably the biggest sign of all, is that today Greece is re-entering the international bonds markets. The country is expected to issue €3bn 5 year notes with a yield to maturity of 4.95%.

stefan_isaacs_100

Equity multiple expansion to the rescue. A benefit to high yield ?

The high yield market rightly pays a good deal of attention to leverage trends (the relationship between debt and earnings). The larger the quantum of debt a business carries relative to its earnings, the greater the risk. Other metrics are arguably as important, though it is the leverage metric that consistently garners the lion’s share of attention. With spreads near the post Lehman tights, it is unquestionably concerning to see a trend of rising leverage as earnings plateau and companies generally take on more debt.

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The very same central bank policies that have kept bond yields low and encouraged high yield companies to take on more debt have also helped to support higher equity prices. As money has flooded into the asset class, the market has not surprisingly re-rated upwards. What this has meant for high yield investors is that one measure of the ‘margin of safety’, or an equity cushion has, at least temporarily, been increased. The chart below shows the implied equity cushion by subtracting the average level of US high yield leverage from the S&P Mid Cap trailing 12 month enterprise multiple. The higher the implied cushion the better. So for example with stock markets at the lows in early 2009, the implied equity cushion fell to a mere two turns, but has since recovered to a far more healthy and above average six.

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Many will no doubt point out that an implied cushion is exactly that- implied. And the argument is clearly a pro- cyclical one that relies on an imperfect comparison. We’d concur with that and emphasise the fact that there can be no substitute for thorough credit analysis. We will always prefer to invest in appropriate financial leverage, strong interest coverage and free cash flow generation over equity implied multiples. The former gives a business flexibility and exposes it less to market vagaries.

Yet there is no getting away from the fact that central bank policy has, and can still yet, come to the rescue of even some of most levered high yield companies. In hindsight, few of us would have predicted the surprisingly low level of defaults we’ve witnessed through this cycle. And whilst IPOs of high yield companies has been a fairly rare thing over the last few years, higher equity multiples, an on-going return of animal spirits and a desire/need to put money to work may yet alter that trend.

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anthony_doyle_100

20/20 hindsight – looking at three year government bond market returns

Investors in government bonds – historically seen as a low volatile and safe asset class – have had to get to grips with assessing credit risk as well as duration risk in their portfolios. It is simply no longer the case that investors can safely lend to a government without first assessing the government’s willingness and ability to pay back the borrowed sum. This has had a large impact on government bond market returns over the past three years, the results of which are shown below.

Given the fall in yields in developed bond markets, it is unsurprising to see long duration assets like UK index-linked gilts and government bonds performing very well. For example, a broad based measure of the UK index-linked market has generated a 40% total return for investors since the end of March 2010. This is despite the UK losing its prized AAA credit rating this year. Even more surprising is the fact that the big buyer in the gilt market – the Bank of England – has not spent a single penny on a UK index-linked gilt. To date, all £332bn of government bond purchases have been in the gilt market. One investor that did buy index-linked gilts was the Bank’s £3bn pension fund, which had a 95% allocation to index-linked gilts and corporates as at February 2012.

3 year total returns in government bond markets

Looking elsewhere, those that were willing to take some credit risk were handsomely rewarded in European government bond markets. For example, investors in Irish debt generated a return of 25% over the past three years. This compares favourably to Europe’s true “risk-free” asset, German government bunds, which generated a total return of 19%. That said, it was not all smooth sailing for peripheral bond investors. Just ask investors in Greek debt, who suffered a 40% loss. Investors in Cypriot government debt fared somewhat better, losing 6% over the three years. Unfortunately for investors seeking protection from Italian inflation, Italian index-linked government bonds generated a return of only 6%. This was below the increase in Italian inflation of 9% over the three year period and is the result of investors becoming more pessimistic about the Italian growth outlook.

Overall, the gold medal for government bond 3 year returns goes to the Philippines with equity-like performance of 64%. The bond market has benefited from purchases by foreign investors, largely due to its relatively strong fundamentals. The combination of a relatively high yield, strong growth and low inflation has been a magnet for government bond investors.

This analysis isn’t much of a guide for what is going to happen over the next three years. Going back to March 2010, I can’t remember many forecasting that Ireland would outperform Germany in government bond markets or that UK linkers would outperform their Italian equivalents by over 30% . So should we be worried about what the consensus is saying now? Isn’t 20/20 hindsight a wonderful thing.

jamestomlins_100

The Real Income Enigma

“The question isn’t at what age I want to retire, it’s at what income.”

George Foreman

The carry trade, the grab for yield – call it what you will, but this has been a persistent fact of life in today’s investment climate, especially as larger cohorts of the developed world join the ranks of the retired. As Mr Foreman points out above, the financial aspect of retirement isn’t really dominated by how much capital you might have, but how much income can be generated from your savings and various entitlements. Furthermore, safeguarding this income from the rapacious grasp of inflation is crucial. Real income is the goal.

While there is plenty of demand for real income, the supply of assets that can provide this is now dwindling. The chart below is a very simple one (and arguably too simplistic), but it paints a stark picture for income hungry investors. On the left hand side is the nominal income yield from various asset classes (dividend yield in the case of equities, yield to maturity for fixed income). The right hand side merely takes away the last inflation number to give you a snapshot of real income yields. This does not take into account the possibility of earnings and dividend growth from the equity markets (an important aspect) or indeed any changes in the inflation rate. For any income orientated investor, this essentially gives you the menu of options for generating inflation beating income in the here and now.

Comparing real yields across asset classes

One thing that should come as no surprise is that cash and government bonds offer negative real returns on a buy and hold basis, but what is less obvious perhaps is that the number of asset classes that offer a positive real return has shrunk dramatically. Indeed, only high yield bonds offer a significant pick up above and beyond the inflation rate. (This pick up is there in part to compensate investors for the risk of default, volatility and lack of liquidity). Whilst we do not expect dramatic capital gains from high yield in the near future, absent a major negative shock for risk appetite, this context provides very powerful structural and technical support for the asset class. Investors, particularly those seeking income, ignore this at their peril.

mike_riddell_100

Middle East research trip – a rare oasis of attractive bond valuations

My last research trip video to Asia was deemed by our marketing department to be so bad that we all had to be sat down and told what would be common sense to most people; apparently it’s not a great idea to speak to camera next to a busy airport runway, and you can’t see anything if you record yourself in your hotel room at night with the main lights off. So hopefully this effort is a slight improvement, although I still couldn’t resist a quick stint at Abu Dhabi International Airport, and the majority of it is filmed outside a shisha cafe in London.

You can view the video below.


The trip if anything strengthened my belief that parts of the Middle East debt market look very attractive relative to some of the massively overvalued emerging markets.

Abu Dhabi is said to be the Switzerland of the Middle East, and this appears to me to be largely justified. Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund is over US$600bn, which works out at almost US$100k per person. The big difference with Switzerland is in valuations. Many Swiss government bonds were until recently trading with a negative yield (meaning that investors were paying money to Switzerland for the privilege of parking their cash there), while the bonds of some AA rated Abu Dhabi state owned enterprises have higher yields than some junk rated EM sovereigns. The rating agencies’ assessment of the Abu Dhabi issuers looks broadly correct to us, so the valuations vis-à-vis EM sovereigns looks completely wrong.

Dubai remains a little worrying. It seems to see itself as Disneyland for adults; while I was out there reports surfaced of Dubai building its first underwater hotel, and yesterday plans were announced to build the world’s largest ferris wheel. Personally I don’t really get the attraction – it is a bit like going on holiday to Westfield Shopping Centre, not exactly my idea of a holiday – although there are many who disagree since apparently more people went to Dubai Mall last year than visited New York or Los Angeles.

Qatar perhaps sits somewhere in between. It is blessed with huge natural resources, but I’m still bothered on many levels why they bid for (and successfully won) the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The cost of hosting the FIFA World Cup is relatively trivial for Qatar; more concerning is that they are channelling quite a bit of money into economically and politically wobbly countries such as Egypt, and there are reports today that the Qatar sovereign wealth fund may invest $3.5bn in Russian bank VTB. Why?

I didn’t have a chance to visit Saudi Arabia or Bahrain, but some of the Emirati and Qatari banks provided interesting colour, suggesting they are concerned about investing or lending in Saudi Arabia given current valuations, and the ongoing unrest in Bahrain means that the country’s previous role as a regional hub has almost certainly been irreversibly ruined. In contrast to Bahrain, political unrest in Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Qatar is exceptionally unlikely given that the wealth effects of the economic boom have been widely distributed to the local population, and lower paid workers are on the whole migrant workers and are there voluntarily – if they don’t like it, they can leave.

PS I refer to avocado bathroom suites at the end of the video, but forgot to give Jim the credit for this point. See Jim’s blog from last year here.

jamestomlins_100

High yield – it’s pickin’ time

It’s fair to say that we have been toning down our view on the high yield market of late. We could well see returns in the high single digits for 2013, but the potential for more substantial capital gains is less apparent in today’s context.

This does, however, ignore quite a powerful feature of the current high yield environment – the scope for exploiting opportunities and pricing dislocations within the market itself. To use a more technical term, spread dispersion within the market is very elevated. What do we mean by this?

Here is a snapshot of the European high yield market back in 2007 with credit rating plotted against credit spread. As credit risk increased, you got paid incrementally more credit risk premium. This produced a gentle upward sloping curve. The market was fairly efficient and the level of spread dispersion within a credit rating category was fairly limited.

European high yield spreads June 2007

Compare this to a snapshot of today’s market below: not only is the average risk premium significantly higher than in 2007, but more importantly, there is a much higher range of spreads within each rating category.

European high yield spreads January 2013

How can this obvious dislocation be exploited? If you can correctly assess credit risk independent of the ratings agencies, then you can start to pick and chose the bonds that are mispriced. Furthermore the reward for getting this “stock selection” correct can be meaningful. If for example you purchase Bond X at a credit spread of 750bps and sell Bond Y at 250bps, this is a 500bps difference. Let’s say that this difference moves to zero over time with both Bond X and Bond Y converging to a credit spread of 500bps, with a duration of 5 years. This is a relative price performance of 25% (a capital gain of 12.5% for Bond X, and avoiding a 12.5% capital loss for Bond Y).

If an active manager can realise even a small element of these sorts of opportunities across a portfolio, then the additional returns can be meaningful. It’s (stock) pickin’ time.

It's Pickin' Time

 

anthony_doyle_100

The chart annoying every Aussie consumer

In 2012, the Reserve Bank of Australia cut its cash rate five times and by a total of 1.25%. That is a big move in interest rates for an economy growing at 3.1%, an unemployment rate of 5.4% and inflation sitting bang-on target at 2.0%. The RBA cash rate is now equal to the 50-year low seen during the 2009 recession. So what has got the RBA so nervous?

One word: consumption. Around 54% of Australian GDP is household consumption. But the household saving rate, at 10.6%, is more than double the average of the past decade. Aussies are deleveraging. Consumption, for so long the driver of growth in the boom years, has stumbled.

And unfortunately for the RBA, the latest GDP statistics showed limited sign of investment outside the mining sector. Certainly the appreciation of the Australian Dollar – once known as the “Aussie Battler” or “Pacific Peso” – has not helped things. On a trade-weighted basis, the Australian Dollar has risen by 45% since January 2009, leading to calls from industry for the RBA to intervene in currency markets. The strong dollar is a huge headwind for the Australian manufacturing sector in an increasingly globalised world. The RBA is hoping that a reduction in interest rates will a) spur household consumption and b) have some impact on the strength of the currency.

On the currency front, the RBA rate cuts have had minimal impact. The trade weighted index rose over the course of 2012 by 1.7%. Ouch. On the consumption front, unfortunately for the RBA and the heavily indebted Aussie consumer, the banks haven’t been playing ball. The chart below highlights the spread differential between variable mortgages, variable term loans, and the standard credit card rate over the RBA’s cash rate.

The chart scaring every Aussie consumer

Despite a record low cash rate of only 3.0%, the spread between the rate charged on personal loans and credit cards is at a record highs. Banks aren’t passing on the full cuts in the official rate. In the variable home loan space, the spread has been steadily rising since October 2007. It is particularly important to have a look at the variable mortgage rate as around 80% of home loans in Australia are variable rate mortgages. Overall, the chart shows that the transmission mechanism of monetary policy in Australia is becoming increasingly muted, presenting greater challenges for the RBA.

Central banking isn’t the easiest job in the world at the best of times. Due to high rates of indebtedness and home ownership, the RBA has previously found that moving interest rates could quickly stimulate the economy if needed. The last thing that central bankers need is a further handicap on their ability to deliver their inflation targets. But that is exactly what is going on in Australia right now and the RBA should be concerned.

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