Wolfgang Bauer

Drifting apart: The decoupling of USD and EUR credit spreads

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

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

EUR vs. USD IG Credit Spreads

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

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

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

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

Sector Breakdown of USD IG Credit

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

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

Sector Breakdown of EUR IG Credit

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

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Exceptional times

Interest rates – both short and long term – are at record lows in Europe. The driving force behind this is the belief that both employment and inflation will be lower for longer. This is something that concerns the ECB and Drahgi’s Jackson Hole speech implies further easing ahead. These appear to be exceptional times.

The story of how we got here is pretty simple: a global banking collapse in 2008, followed by a further severe bout of local damage to the banking system in Europe caused by the sovereign debt crisis in 2011 and 2012.

The chart below is an attempt to illustrate where true borrowing rates have been. Taking a proxy for the cost of finance and adding that to three month Euribor gives a better picture of real monetary conditions than by simply looking at the headline ECB rate. Monetary policy in the Euro crisis was tightened in the core, but more so in the periphery.

Slide1

In the following charts we break out the inflation and employment data of the core and the periphery. What we see is that where tighter monetary policy is applied unemployment is subsequently higher and inflation is lower. It is not surprising that the Euro area and particularly the periphery have been weak given the severe monetary shock they took in the Euro crisis. This suggests that monetary policy still works.

Slide2

Slide3

Going forward, real monetary policy has effectively been eased aggressively from the summer of 2012 through to now. This should provide a boost to the Euro area, and in particular the periphery. Monetary policy is generally assumed to work with an 18 month lag and interestingly unemployment is already heading down. I expect this trend will continue.

We are in exceptional times from an interest rate perspective, but from an economic perspective unemployment has been this high before from 1994 to 1997, and inflation was below 1.0% in 1999 and 2009.

When economics deviates from markets you have to decide which is correct. I think that monetary policy works, and the huge easing from 2012 will bring about falling unemployment and prevent significant deflation. Exceptionally low interest rates in Europe seem out of line with the current and potential future economic data.

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The M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey – Q2 2014

Today we are launching the next wave of the M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey which aims to assess consumer expectations of inflation over the short and medium term.

With interest rates at multi century lows, central banks continue to inject large amounts of monetary stimulus into the global economy. Recent inflation rates in the US, UK and Germany have proved central to the current market focus, as actions from policymakers have become increasingly sensitive to inflation trends.  This is true for the Fed and the BoE, as markets assess their possible exit strategies/timing, but especially for the ECB, whose last round of action is perceived to have been largely motivated by disinflationary pressures in the Euro area. In that context, market focus on inflation expectations has increased.

The results of the May 2014 M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey suggest that both short and medium-term inflation expectations remain well anchored across most European countries.

Short-term expectations have risen from 2% to 2.3% in the UK as the country showed further signs of economic growth and reaccelerating wage pressure. On the other hand, inflation expectations for German consumers moderated in the last quarter as the downward trend in German HICP (1.1% YoY in April) may have added to the expectation that German inflation will remain subdued over the next year.

The general downward trend in short-term inflation expectations seems to have largely receded in all EMU countries and the UK. This may be somewhat surprising with much of Europe still experiencing low and falling inflation.

Inflation expectations – 12 months ahead

Over the medium term, inflation expectations remain above central bank targets in all countries surveyed, suggesting that consumers may lack confidence in policymakers’ effectiveness in achieving price stability. Over 5 years, UK inflation is expected to remain well anchored at a remarkably stable 3%. Despite recent low inflation rates across Europe, the majority of consumers in France, Italy and Spain continue to view inflation as a concern, and long-term expectations in those countries has risen back to 3%.

Inflation expectations – 5 years ahead

The findings and data from our May survey, which polled over 8,700 consumers internationally, is available in our latest report here or via @inflationsurvey on Twitter.

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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.

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Deflation spreading in Europe

The ECB has already demonstrated an unusually, and perhaps worryingly, high tolerance of low inflation readings, with no additional action having been taken despite Eurozone HICP at 0.5% year-on-year as inflation continues to fall in many countries.

(Dis)inflation

Why might this be? One reason might be that while it is very concerned about deflation, at this point in time the ECB does not have a clear idea of what the right tool is to relieve disinflationary pressure, or how to implement it. Another reason might be that it is not particularly concerned about the threat of disinflation and so is happy to wait for the numbers to rise.

With regards to the latter of these possibilities, Mario Draghi discussed the low inflation numbers in January in Davos as being part of a relative price adjustment between European economies, and as being an improvement in competitiveness. One implication from this argument has to be that the lowest inflation numbers are being seen only in the periphery, and that as a result the much needed price adjustment between periphery and core is starting to take place. The other implication from this argument is that the ECB is happy to let this adjustment happen.

The chart below, however, shows inflation in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy (which together make up around 80% of Eurozone GDP) in terms of constant tax rates on a headline basis. This is important because fiscal reforms can have significant impacts on inflation numbers, when perhaps these should be stripped out as being temporary and artificial. The most obvious example of this would be a country implementing a hike in VAT, in which case inflation will jump upwards for a period until the base effect is removed some time later. This chart, alarmingly, shows that Spain, Italy and the Netherlands are now all experiencing deflation on a constant tax basis. It also shows that France is close to the precipice, with inflation on this basis at 0.2% year on year.

(Dis)inflation at constant tax rates even worse

A further concern from the above two charts ties in to the ECB’s argument that the low inflation numbers in the periphery are a temporary phenomenon on a path to important and desirable internal adjustments to competitiveness. This argument might hold if the periphery is seeing low inflation, while the core is seeing stable, on-target or slightly above-target inflation that brings Eurozone inflation as a whole, to close to but below 2%. However, both the above charts show that the trend of disinflation is affecting more than just the periphery in isolation, and this calls Draghi’s competitiveness argument into serious question. The ECB might be well advised to get ahead of this worrying trend and act soon.

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.

matt_russell_100

Opportunities in Spanish ABS

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

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

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

Spanish RMBS blog

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day. The ECB takes baby steps towards QE

Just when you thought the Fed had well and truly killed the carry trade, a surprisingly dovish Mario Draghi reminded markets yesterday that Europe remains a very different place from the US. Having previously argued that the ECB never pre commits to forward guidance, yesterday marks something of a volte-face. ‘The Governing Council expects the key ECB interest rates to remain at present or lower levels for an extended period of time.’ The willingness to offer guidance brings the ECB closer to its UK and US peers, the latter having been in the guidance camp for some time. This firmly reinforces our view that the ECB retains an accommodative stance and an easing bias.

The willingness to offer forward guidance to the market no doubt came after some long and hard introspection within the Governing Council. So why the change ? Firstly, the ECB is worried that it may miss its primary target of maintaining inflation at or close to 2% over the medium term. Secondly, Draghi indicated an increasing concern that the real economy continues to demonstrate ‘broad based’ weakness, and finally, as has been the case for some time, the Council worries that the Eurozone continues to labour with subdued monetary dynamics. This sounds increasingly like Fed talk of recent years.

Draghi also expressed his concern yesterday during his Q&A at the effective tightening of monetary conditions via higher government bond yields (see chart) since the Fed’s tapering discussions. Frankly the last thing the Eurozone needs at this stage in its nascent recovery is higher borrowing costs.

Bond yield have risen

Draghi in communicating that the next likely move will be an easing of policy has attempted to talk bond yields down. European risk assets appear to have taken his comments positively but the bond market remains sceptical. At the time of writing only short to medium dated bonds are trading at lower yields.

In conjunction with revising down its 2013 Italian GDP forecast from -1.5% to -1.8%, the IMF has publicly urged the ECB to embark upon direct asset purchases. Is this a likely near term response ? For now those calls will likely fall on deaf ears especially with German elections later this year. The ECB clearly believes that its next move would be to cut rates further in response to a weaker outlook. Buying time seems to be the current approach.

However, should Eurozone inflation expectations continue to undershoot (the market is currently pricing 1.36% and 1.66% over the next 5 & 10 years, see chart)  and economic performance remain downright lacklustre across Europe, then the ECB will have to think very carefully about what impact it can expect from a ‘traditional’ monetary response. QE may be some way off, and would no doubt see massive objections from Berlin, but in the same way that the ECB never pre commits, maybe just maybe, QE will be on the table sooner than the market is currently anticipating.

Inflation expectations in Europe

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