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.


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%.


The power of duration: a contemporary example

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

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

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

US UK and German 10 year yields

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

The importance of duration

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

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


Should the Bank of England hike rates?

Many of us have become accustomed to a world of ultra-low interest rates and quantitative easing (QE). Taking into account inflation, real short-term interest rates are negative in most of the developed world. Of course, these historically low interest rates were a central bank response –co-ordinated on some occasions – to the Great Financial Crisis of 2008. Whilst we are still waiting for the official data, it appears increasingly likely that 2013 marked the start of a synchronised recovery in the advanced economies. So is it now time for the Bank of England to consider hiking the base rate? Perhaps good – and not awesome – economic growth is more appropriate to avoid a bust down the line.

Economic theory and real world experience tells us that interest rates that are kept too low for too long will distort investment decisions and lead to excessive risk-taking. They may also result in the formation of asset price bubbles that ultimately collapse. With parts of the UK housing market (including London and the south-east) posting double-digit returns in 2013, the FTSE 100 within arm’s reach of an all-time high last seen during the tech bubble (and up over 60% since 2009), and UK non-financial corporate bond spreads 45 basis points away from 2007 lows; it is clear that ultra-low interest rates have had a great effect on both financial markets and the real economy.

At the risk of being called a party pooper, here are 5 reasons why I think we could see an interest rate hike before year end (the market is pricing in around February/March 2015), and certainly before the third quarter of 2016 (the time when the BoE think the unemployment rate will fall to 7%).

  1. Asset price bubbles are forming
  2. Unemployment is falling quickly towards 7%
  3. Inflation risks should not be forgotten
  4. The Taylor rule suggests interest rates are way below neutral
  5. The risk of Euro area break-up appears to have fallen

Asset prices bubbles are forming

There has been a significant run-up in UK financial assets over the course of the past five years, particularly since QE became a feature of the financial landscape. Investors in equity and bond markets alike have been enjoying the fruits of QE. Those that own financial assets have seen their net wealth increase substantially from the post-crisis lows. Consensus forecasts for 2014 suggests that most market forecasters expect another robust year for risk assets, fuelled by easy money and the search for positive real returns.

Of course, the greatest financial asset that the average UK household own is their own house. In 2011, it was estimated that around 15 million households are owner-occupied (a rate of around 65% of total households). Thus it is unsurprising that newspaper readers are usually hit with a headline about rising house prices on a daily basis. House prices, on a number of measures, have begun to accelerate again with low interest rates and tight housing supply a key contributor to the price increase. Low interest rates have given UK consumers the incentive to accumulate high levels of household debt compared to their incomes.  The average house price is now 5.4 times earnings, the highest level since July 2010 and well above the long-run average of 4.1.

UK house prices are re-accelerating and pushing higher

The Help-To-Buy scheme is contributing to the run-up in this highly leveraged and interest-rate sensitive sector (a topic I covered back in July here). By hiking the base rate this year, the BoE would hopefully achieve a reduction in speculation and debt accumulation in the housing sector. This would not be a popular action to take – it never is – but we should all be wary about the damage a rampant housing market can have on an economy.  BoE Governor Mark Carney – as head of the Financial Policy Committee – has already moved to stop the Funding for Lending Scheme and mentioned that placing restrictions on the terms of mortgage credit may be a tool that can be used to reign in house prices.

Whether macro-prudential policy tools will work or not remains open to debate. Ultimately, central banks are trying to focus in on one element of the economy by raising interest rates or restricting credit. We do have a real-life macroeconomic example currently taking place though. On October 1, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand imposed a limit on how much banks could devote to low-deposit loans and required major banks to hold more capital to back loans. It’s very early days but for the month of November, the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand reported a 1.2% increase in New Zealand house prices and 9.6% over the year. The RBNZ and BoE might find that trying to slow the housing market using macro-prudential measures is a bit like trying to stop a car by opening the doors and hoping that wind-resistance does the rest. You really need to put your foot on the brake.

The longer the boom lasts, the greater the pain when it inevitably ends.

Unemployment is falling quickly towards 7%

The unemployment rate has fallen from 7.9 to 7.4% over the past nine months and is a key tenet of the BoE’s forward guidance. The fast decline has seen some speculation amongst economists that the BoE may lower the unemployment threshold from 7.0 to 6.5%. Of course, the 7.0% threshold that it has set it is not a trigger to hike interest rates, rather it is a point at which the BoE would consider hiking rates. However, the labour market has improved much quicker than the BoE has been expecting with the unemployment rate now sitting at the lowest rate since March 2009. We are still well above the average unemployment rate seen during the period between 2000 and 2008, but I would argue that this was an abnormal period for the UK economy. It was a NICE period – non-inflationary, constantly expanding – and is unlikely to be repeated. Arguably the UK’s natural rate of unemployment is now a percentage point or two higher than that of the noughties, suggesting less spare capacity in the UK economy than many expect. It may not be long before we start to see wage demands start to pick up, leading to rising inflationary pressures. Higher wage growth in 2014 would bode well for consumption and household net wealth given the increase in house prices and investment portfolios.

The UK unemployment rate is below the long-run average

As it is generally accepted that monetary policy operates with a lag, (the BoE estimate a lag time of around two years), and the unemployment rate itself is a lagging indicator of economic activity. If the BoE waits until the unemployment rate hits 7%, or for confirmation that economic growth is strong, then it may be too late. A slight tap on the breaks by hiking the base rate may be appropriate.

Inflation risks should not be forgotten

Ben wrote an excellent piece on the UK’s inflation outlook last month. To quote:

Current inflation levels may seem benign. However, potential demand-side shocks coupled with a build-up in growth momentum and the difficulty of removing the huge wall of money created by QE will pose material risks to inflation in the medium term. Markets have become short-sightedly focused on the near term picture as commodity prices have weakened and inflation expectations have been tamed by the lack of growth.

In addition, central banks have a nasty habit of keeping monetary policy too loose for too long. It even has a name – “The [insert FOMC Chairperson Name] Put”. The easy-money policies of the FOMC in the 1970s are seen as a key contributor to the runaway inflation seen during the period.  Eventually, the FOMC reversed its own policies, hiking rates to 19% in 1981.

Of course, what central bankers really fear is that ultra-easy monetary policy and the great experiment of QE will lead to an increase in inflation. A return of inflation will only be tamed by hiking rates. Whilst the inflation rate has been moderating in the UK and is close to the Bank of England’s target at 2.1%, it follows almost 5 years of above target inflation. Whist it is not a clear and present danger, the experience of the 1970s suggests that we cannot ignore the threat that inflation poses to the UK economy, especially as rising inflationary expectations are often difficult to contain.

The Taylor rule suggests interest rates are way below neutral

The Taylor rule provides a rough benchmark of the normal reaction to economic conditions as it relates interest rates to deviations of inflation from target and the output gap. According to the Taylor rule for the UK, a base rate of 0.5% is around 2.0% below where it should be given current rates of growth and inflation.

The BoE base rate remains highly stimulatory

Negative real interest rates have done the job by stabilising the economy, but is it now time to tap the brakes? With the UK economy growing at an annualised rate of more than 3% in the second and third quarters of 2013 (above the long-term average of 2%), the UK may be operating much closer to full employment than many currently estimate. Forward looking survey indicators and economic data suggest the UK economy is growing strongly, with business confidence at a 20 year high and the UK Services PMI for December suggesting a strong broad-based upturn. Of course, the BoE would like the other components of GDP like exports and investment to contribute more to economic growth. A rising currency wouldn’t help this. But sometimes it is difficult to have your cake and eat it too, especially if you are a central banker.

The risk of Euro area breakup appears to have fallen

Now it’s time for the “Draghi Put”. Draghi’s famous “whatever it takes” speech is probably the most important speech ever given by a central banker. The speech has had a fantastic effect on assets from government bonds to European equity markets and everything in between. More importantly, as I wrote here back in July 2013, despite the problems that Europe faces – the concerning outlook, the record levels of unemployment and debt, the proposed tax on savers in Cyprus – no country has left the EMU. The EMU has in fact added new members (Slovakia in 2009, Estonia in 2011, Latvia in 2014). European countries remain open for trade, have continued to enforce EU policies and have not resorted to protectionist policies. EU banking regulation has become stronger, the financial system has stabilised, and new bank capital requirements are in place.

This bodes well for the UK, as stabilisation in the Eurozone suggests stronger export demand, increased confidence, and higher investment in the UK from European firms. Perversely, an interest rate hike might actually improve confidence in the UK economy, signalling that the central bank is confident that economic growth is self-sustaining.

The BoE must walk the tightrope between raising rates slightly now to avoid higher inflation and financial instability or risk having to do a lot more monetary policy “heavy-lifting” down the line. A base rate at 0.5% is way below a neutral level and the BoE has a long way to go before getting anywhere near this level. It could act this year and gradually start raising interest rates to lessen the continued build-up of financial imbalances. The difficult action in the short-run to raise the base rate will help to support “healthy” economic growth 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.


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.



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!



A new source of supply in the ABS market

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


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


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

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

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

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

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



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).


The M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey – Q3 2013

Despite high unemployment rates, excess capacity and a sanguine inflation outlook from the major central banks, it is important to keep an eye on any potential inflation surprises that may be coming down the line. For instance, we only need to look at ultra easy monetary policy; low interest rates and improving economic growth to see that the risk of an unwelcome inflation shock is higher than perhaps at any time over the past five years. The development of forward guidance measures is a clear sign that central banking has evolved substantially from 2008 in the form of Central Bank Regime Change. It appears that there is a growing consensus that inflation targeting is not the magical goal of monetary policy that many had once believed it to be and that full employment and financial stability are equally as important.  Given that monetary policy appears firmly focused on securing growth in the real economy – at perhaps the expense of inflation targets – we thought that it would be useful to gauge the short and long-term inflation expectations of consumers across the UK, Europe and Asia. The findings from our August survey, which polled over 8,000 consumers internationally, is available in our latest report here.

The results suggest consumers continue to lack confidence that inflation will decline below current levels in either the short or medium term. Despite evidence that short-term inflation expectations may be moderating in some countries, most respondents expect inflation to be higher in five years than in one year. Confidence that the European Central Bank will achieve its inflation target over the medium term remains weak, while confidence in the Bank of England has risen.

The survey found that consumers in most countries continue to expect inflation to be elevated in both one and five years’ time. In the UK, inflation is expected to be above the Bank of England’s CPI target of 2.0% on a one- and five-year ahead basis. All EMU countries surveyed expect inflation to be equal to or higher than the European Central Bank’s HICP target of 2.0% on a one- and five-year ahead basis. Long-term expectations for inflation have changed little in the three months since the last survey, with the majority of regions expecting inflation to be higher than current levels in five years. Five countries expect inflation to be 3.0% or higher in one year: Austria, Hong Kong, Italy, Singapore and the UK.

Consumers in Austria, Germany and the UK have reported an increase in one year inflation expectations compared with those of the last survey three months ago. This is of particular relevance for the UK, where the Bank of England has stated three scenarios under which the Bank would re-assess its policy of forward guidance. The first of these “knockouts” refers to a scenario where CPI inflation is, in the Bank’s view, likely to be 2.5% or higher over an 18-month to two-year horizon. Short-term inflation expectations in Singapore and Spain continued their downward trend in the latest survey results, registering their third straight quarter of lower expectations.

Inflation expectations - 12 months ahead

Over a five-year horizon, the inflation expectations of consumers in Austria, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland have risen. Whilst inflation expectations in Switzerland remain at the lowest level in our survey at 2.8%, consumers have raised their expectations from 2.5% in February. Long-term inflation expectations in France and the UK remained stable at 3.0%. Meanwhile, consumers in Hong Kong and Singapore have the highest expectations, at 5.0%, although the Hong Kong number shows a decline from 5.8% three months ago.

Inflation expectations - 12 months ahead

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