Recent posts

anthony_doyle_100

The yield-dampeners: will interest rates inevitably rise when QE ends?

After the ‘taper tantrum’ of 2013, many commentators predict that the catalyst for a sell-off in fixed income assets could be the ending of quantitative easing by the US Federal Reserve later this year. In the latest issue of our Panoramic Outlook series, I present an alternative view to this consensus thinking, analysing a number of dynamics in bond markets that have surprised investors during this period of extraordinary monetary policy. My emphasis is on what I view as three key ‘yield-dampeners’ at work that investors should be aware of:

  • The fragility of the global economic recovery and high debt levels in the US economy make it unlikely that interest rates will return to pre-crisis levels, limiting the potential downside to bonds.
  • There are some powerful structural deflationary forces which are helping to keep inflation low.
  • A strong technical factor – the global savings glut – is likely to remain supportive to fixed income assets as is firm demand from large institutional pension funds and central banks.

Given these influences, it’s very much possible that those looking for yields to rise back to pre-crisis levels when QE ends may be disappointed. Not only are these yield-dampening forces at play in the US Treasury market, but they could also easily be applied to the UK or European government bond markets, potentially providing a useful lesson for the future path of yields. This will impact the attractiveness of other fixed income assets such as investment grade and high yield corporate bonds. Arguably, ultra-low cash rates and a stable interest rate environment for government bonds would provide a solid base for corporate bond markets as investors continue to seek positive real returns on their investments. The full analysis is located here.

This entry was posted in Interest rates and tagged , by . Bookmark the permalink.

Please note the content on this website is for Investment Professionals only and should be shared responsibly. No other persons should rely on the information contained within this website.

jim_leaviss_100

What is the collapse in the Baltic Dry shipping index telling us about global growth?

The Baltic Dry Index (BDI) is a daily priced indicator of the cost of shipping freight on various trade routes for dry bulk carriers, based on data submitted by shipbrokers to the Baltic Exchange in London. Since March this year the index has fallen by over 50%, and this has made economists worry that the fall reflects a generalized slowdown in global trade – dry bulk goods include cement, coal, ore as well as food stuffs like grain. A lot of it is the stuff that China imports to support its investment led growth model, so a collapse in demand for the ships that carry bulk dry goods to China might be telling us that China is slowing rapidly. And that obviously has significant impacts on those economies which are reliant on exporting to China for their own growth – for instance Australia, Chile, South Africa and South Korea all have between 21% and 36% of their exports going to China.

Obviously though demand for space on ships is only half of the equation. As expectations grew that the Great Financial Crisis was behind us, and as China kept publishing high single digit growth rates, there was a significant expansion in shipbuilding. Since 2010 annual growth in Dry Bulk supply has been anywhere from 5% to over 15% year on year – in most periods outstripping demand growth, and certainly depressing prices. It’s not just dry bulk, there’s also big excess supply in container ships. Shipping companies are trying to manage these supply problems – the average age of ships when scrapped has fallen from 28 years in 2011 to 21 years in Q1 2014, 4% of the fleet is “idle”, ships are “slow steaming” (going slowly to save fuel and costs of being idle at port) and shipping companies are cancelling future orders for new ships (in 2013 32% of orders were not delivered as planned and were either postponed or cancelled). But for 2014 and 2015 at least the excess supply problem gets worse, not better.

So is the Baltic Dry Index telling us anything about global trade and growth? We started off from a position of scepticism – there used to be a good relationship (we wrote about it here in 2011), but since the massive shipping supply boom maybe it had lost its power as in indicator? But it turns out that the correlation between world trade and the BDI is EXTREMELY good. The CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis produces the monthly CPB World Trade Monitor. It’s clear from these global trade data that the volume of trade has been weakening since the end months of 2013. Trade actually fell in May, by 0.6% month on month, although due to volatility and seasonals, a rolling 3 month versus previous 3 month measure is preferred. The chart below shows that after some strong momentum in global trade in 2010 it’s fallen to a much more stagnant growth level in the past couple of years, and a brief recovery in mid 2013 has tailed away. In Q1 this year, world trade momentum turned negative. We have shown the Baltic Dry Index against this measure of world trade – it doesn’t just look like a strong relationship optically, but it has a correlation coefficient of 0.74 (strong) with a t value of 7.83 (statistically significant at an extremely high level).

Baltic Dry vs World Trade - Chart - v01 - CHART 1

When we last wrote about the Baltic Dry Index we pointed out that it appeared to be a good lead indicator for 10 year US Treasury yields, the theory being that a fall in the BDI presaged falling GDP and therefore justified lower rates. And indeed the fall in the BDI in early 2011 did nicely predict the big Treasury rally 3 months later. There is still a relationship today, but sadly for us bond fund managers the better relationship is with UST yields predicting movements in the BDI (so ship-owners please feel free to make money on the back of this). Nevertheless, over the same time period as the earlier chart there is still a decent correlation if you use the BDI as a leading indicator and push it forward by 3 months, so it does appear to have some predictive powers.

Baltic Dry as Leading Indicator for 10Y Treasury Yield - Chart - v01 - CHART 2

So we’ll keep looking at the Baltic Dry Index for the same reason that we like the Billion Prices Project for inflation. When you can find a daily priced, publically available measure or statistic that comes out a month or more ahead of official data and is a strong proxy for that data it’s very valuable.

This entry was posted in markets and players and tagged by . Bookmark the permalink.

Please note the content on this website is for Investment Professionals only and should be shared responsibly. No other persons should rely on the information contained within this website.

Anjulie-Rusius_100

Falling soft commodity prices are a piece of cake

Higher agricultural commodity prices at the start of the year raised concerns about the impact these could have on retail food prices, should the trend prove persistent. Fortunately, the price of soft commodities (coffee, sugar, wheat etc) appears to have decoupled from that of hard commodities (gold, silver, platinum etc) in recent months. Indeed, data from the last seven quarters indicate that the price of many agricultural commodities have actually fallen, as the chart below shows.

Slide1

Coffee prices are now at a five month low, after fears of a shortage of coffee beans from Brazil have receded. The supply of sugar has increased year-on-year, while wheat prices have also fallen due to increased harvests and easing crop concerns.

In order to gauge the collective effect of these changing agricultural commodity prices and how they could potentially feed through into UK inflation, I have constructed a simple cake index, teaming up Global Commodity Price data with some basic recipes from the BBC Good Food website. Given that sponge and individual cakes are two of the representative items included in the CPI 2014 basket of goods – and that food and drink items make up 11.2% of the overall CPI index – combining the commodities in this way gives an indication of how future changes might affect the average consumer.

The graph below shows the results of the cake index, demonstrating the change in various cake costs (since October 2012) versus the UK CPI (yoy %). What’s interesting is the generally downward trend of all cake indices in the last seven quarters. Sponge cake and plain scones look particularly good value in recent months, owing to the high proportion of wheat in their recipes. Apple cake unsurprisingly provides a price signal for its key ingredient (the price of apples has fallen 4% YTD), while coffee cake gives a less pronounced but similar effect. The good news – particularly for lovers of chocolate cake – is that despite the persistent increase in the cost of cocoa, the price of other cake constituents such as sugar, wheat and palm oil (used as a proxy for butter) have all fallen sufficiently to offset this, bringing the price of chocolate cake lower in recent months.

Slide2

Despite the recent June increase in CPI to 1.9% yoy, due to the lag between raw commodity prices and their general price level, we should perhaps expect to see deflation feeding into cake prices and the overall food constituent of CPI in the coming months. Therefore although it is unclear who exactly was the first to declare “let them eat cake!”, this person may have been on to something. Personally, I’d recommend the (relatively cheap) scones.

Wolfgang Bauer

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

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

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

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

CDS indices: EUR vs. USD IG credit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jim_leaviss_100

Bondfire of the Maturities: how to improve credit market liquidity

Liquidity in credit markets has been a hot topic in recent months. The Bank of England has warned about low volatility in financial markets leading to excessive reaching for yield, the FT suggested that the US authorities are considering exit fees for bond funds in case of a run on the asset class, and you’ve all seen the charts showing how assets in corporate bond funds have risen sharply just as Wall Street’s appetite for assigning capital to trade bonds has fallen. But why the worry about corporate bond market liquidity rather than that of equity markets? There are a couple of reasons. Firstly the corporate bond markets are incredibly fragmented, with companies issuing in multiple maturities, currencies and structures, unlike the stock markets where there are generally just one or two lines of shares per company. Secondly, stocks are traded on exchanges, and market makers have a commitment to buy and sell shares in all market conditions. No such commitment exists in the credit markets – after the new issue process you might see further offers or bids, but you might not – future liquidity can never be taken for granted.

So how can we make liquidity in corporate bond and credit markets as good as that in equity markets? First of all let’s consider fragmentation. If I type RBS corp <Go> into Bloomberg there are 1011 results. That’s 1011 different RBS bonds still outstanding. It’s 19 pages of individual bonds, in currencies ranging from the Australian dollar to the South African rand. There are floating rate notes, fixed rate bonds with coupons ranging from below 1% to above 10%, maturities from now to infinity (perpetuals), inflation-linked bonds, bonds with callability (embedded options), and there are various seniorities in the capital structure (senior, lower tier 2, upper tier 2, tier 1, prefs). Some of these issues have virtually no bonds left outstanding and others are over a billion dollars in size. Each has a prospectus of hundreds of pages detailing the exact features, protections and risks of the instrument. Pity the poor RBS capital markets interns on 3am photocopying duty. The first way we can improve liquidity in bond markets is to have a bonfire of the bond issues. One corporate issuer, one equity, one bond.

Jim blog

How would this work? Well the only way that you could have a fully fungible, endlessly repeatable bond issue is to make it perpetual. The benchmark liquid bond for each corporate would have no redemption date. If a company wanted to increase its debt burden it would issue more of the same bond, and if it wanted to retire debt it would do exactly the same as it might do with its equity capital base – make an announcement to the market that it is doing a buyback and acquire and cancel those bonds that it purchases in the open market.

What about the coupon? Well you could decide that all bonds would have, say, a 5% coupon, although that would lead to long periods where bonds are priced significantly away from par (100) if the prevailing yields were in a high or low interest rate environment. But you see the problems that this causes in the bond futures market where there is a sporadic need to change the notional coupon on the future to reflect the changing rate environment. So, for this reason – and for a purpose I’ll come on to in a while – all of these new perpetual bonds will pay a floating rate of interest. They’ll be perpetual Floating Rate Notes (FRNs). And unlike the current FRN market where each bond pays, say Libor or Euribor plus a margin (occasionally minus a margin for extremely strong issuers), all bonds would pay Libor or Euribor flat. With all corporate bonds having exactly the same (non) maturity and paying exactly the same coupon, ranking perceived creditworthiness becomes a piece of cake – the price tells you everything. Weak high yield issues would trade well below par, AAA supranationals like the World Bank, above it.

So your immediate objection is likely to be this – what if I, the end investor, don’t want perpetual floating rate cashflows? Well you can add duration (interest rate risk) in the deeply liquid government bond markets or similarly liquid bond futures market, and with corporate bonds now themselves highly liquid, a sale of the instrument would create “redemption proceeds” for an investor to fund a liability. And the real beauty of the new instruments all paying floating rates is that they can be combined with the most liquid financial derivative markets in the world, the swaps market. An investor would be able to swap floating rate cashflows for fixed rate cashflows. This happens already on a significant scale at most asset managers. Creating bigger and deeper corporate bond markets would make this even more commonplace – the swaps markets would become even more important and liquid as the one perpetual FRN for each company is transformed into the currency and duration of the end investor’s requirement (or indeed the company itself can transform its funding requirements in the same way as many do already). Investors could even create inflation linked cashflows as that CPI swaps market deepened too.

So what are the problems and objections to all of this? Well loads I’m guessing, not least from paper mills, prospectus and tombstone manufacturers (the Perspex vanity bricks handed out to everyone who helped issue a new bond). But the huge increase in swapping activity will increase the need for collateral (cash, government bonds) in the system, as well as potentially increasing systemic risks as market complexity increases. Collateralisation and the move to exchanges should reduce those systemic risks. Another issue regards taxation – junky issuers will be selling their bonds at potentially big discounts to par. Tax authorities don’t like this very much (they see it as a way of avoiding income tax) and it means that investors would have to be able to account for that pull to par to be treated as income rather than capital gain. Finally I reluctantly concede there might have to be 2 separate bond issues for banks and financials. One reflecting senior risk, and one reflecting subordinated contingent capital risk (CoCos). But if we must do this, the authorities should create a standard structure here too, with a common capital trigger and conversion. Presently there are various levels for the capital triggers, and some bonds convert into equity whilst others wipe you out entirely. There is so much complexity that it is no wonder that a recent RBS survey of bond investors showed that 90% of them rate themselves as having a higher understanding of CoCos than the market.

Addressing the second difference between bonds and equities, the other requirement would be for the investment banks to move fully to exchange trading of credit, and to assume a market making requirement for those brokers who lead manage bond transactions. This doesn’t of course mean that bonds won’t fall in price if investors decide to sell en masse – but it does mean that there will always be a price. This greater liquidity should mean lower borrowing costs for companies, and less concern about a systemic credit crisis in the future.

matt_russell_100

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

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

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

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

UKAR – borrowers in 3+ months arrears have declined significantly

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

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

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

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

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

mike_riddell_100

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slide1

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

Slide2

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

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

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

Slide3

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

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

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

Slide4

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

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

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

Ana_Gil_100

The reliability of market and consumer inflation expectations

After yesterday’s poor U.S. GDP number and despite Mark Carney’s seemingly dovish testimony before the Treasury Select Committee, the Bank of England is increasingly looking like it will be the first of the major central banks to hike rates. At this stage, the BoE can retain its dovish stance because inflation is not an issue. However, in an environment of falling unemployment, early signs of a pick-up in wage inflation, rising house prices and stronger economic growth, consumers and markets may increasingly begin to focus on inflation. In anticipation, we think now is a good time to compare the inflation forecasting performance of markets and consumers.

In the graphs below we have compared UK RPI bond breakevens (a measure of market inflation expectations) with the Bank of England’s Gfk NOP Inflation Attitudes Survey (i.e. a UK household survey with over 1900 respondents consisting of nine questions on expectations for interest rates and inflation). An important point to note is that the analysis compares realised inflation (% yoy) with what survey expectations and breakeven rates indicated 2 years before.

How reliable are inflation expectations?

The comparison presents a number of interesting results:

Unexpected deflation: Both the survey and breakevens underestimated actual RPI inflation outcomes between 2006-2008 (in other words, nobody anticipated the inflationary shock coming from higher commodity/energy prices).  In 2008, UK RPI was rising at an annual rate of 5.2% as high oil prices were feeding through into higher energy bills. Market and consumer inflation expectations largely ignored the higher inflation numbers, a sign the central bank inflation targeting credibility remained strong.

UK RPI turned negative in 2009 as the world plunged into recession and the BOE cut interest rates. The market eventually began to price in deflation but only after RPI turned negative. For example, in November 2008 the 2 year breakeven was -1.4%, the actual RPI print in November 2010 was 4.7%. Owing 2 year gilt linkers relative to conventional 2 year gilts directly after the financial crisis was a great trade.

Deflation (and recessions) appear particularly hard to forecast, for consumers and markets alike. This is because consumers and markets tend to anchor their future expectations off current inflation (and growth) readings.

Post-crisis unanchoring:  Consumer inflation expectations generally underestimated realised inflation up until the global financial crisis, and has overestimated it since then, a possible sign that the crisis-recession years may have affected consumer views on the BoE’s commitment to fight inflation. Between 2000 and 2009, 2 year-ahead expected inflation averaged 2.5%. Since 2009, it has averaged 3.4%, almost one percentage point higher; suggesting a lower level of confidence that price stability will be achieved and also reflecting the higher RPI prints post 2009.

Surprisingly similar forecasts: Breakeven and survey rates differed only slightly over the sample period, with the largest gap (400bps) opening up in October 2008 after the Lehman crash. This was probably caused by the forced unwind of leveraged long inflation trades combined with a huge flight to quality bid for nominal government bonds, which distorted the market implied inflation rate. The average differential through the period (excluding years 08-09) is just 8bps. Nevertheless, breakevens seem to track RPI better since consumer surveys are usually carried out on a quarterly basis whilst the former are traded and re-valued with higher frequency. This makes them better at capturing quick moves and turning points in inflation.

Future expectations: Over the next 2 years, both consumers and markets expect RPI to rise above the current level of 2.6%. With a 2.7% implied breakeven, 2-year gilt linkers look relatively inexpensive today.

Of course, breakevens are far from being a perfect measure of inflation, as they embed inflation and liquidity risks premia, but they do appear to be better predictors of future inflation relative to consumer surveys. That does not mean survey-based data does not provide us with useful information, and for this purpose we launched the M&G YouGov Inflation Expectations Survey last year (available here). Consumer inflation expectations affect a number of economic variables, including consumer confidence, retail spending, and unit labour costs. However, during inflection points, such as the one we may be going through at present and in a world of approaching shifts in monetary policy, the timeliness of breakevens could represent an advantage that makes it worthwhile to follow them carefully.

anthony_doyle_100

What could possibly derail the global economy?

Things are looking pretty good for the global economy right now. The U.S. Federal Reserve is slowly reducing quantitative easing, China is continuing to grow at a relatively rapid pace, the Bank of England is talking about rate hikes, and the central banks of Japan and Europe continue to stimulate their respective economies with unconventional and super-easy monetary policy. The International Monetary Fund expects growth in the developed economies to pick-up from a 0.5% low in 2012 to almost 2.5% by 2015, while emerging market economies are expected to grow by 5.5%.

Of course, it is notoriously difficult to forecast economic growth given the complexity of the underlying economy. There are simply too many moving parts to predict accurately. This is why central banking is sometimes described as similar to “driving a car by looking in the rear-view mirror

With this in mind, it is prudent to prepare for a range of possible outcomes when it comes to economic growth. Given the consensus seems pretty optimistic at the moment, we thought it might be interesting to focus on some of the possible downside risks to global economic growth and highlight three catalysts that could cause a recession in the next couple of years. To be clear, there are an infinite range of unforeseen events that could possibly occur, but the below three seem plausibly the most likely to occur in the foreseeable future.

Risk 1: Asset price correction

Every investor is a winner

There is no question that ultra-easy monetary policy has stimulated asset prices to some degree. A combination of low interest rates and quantitative easing programmes has resulted in fantastic returns for investors in various markets ranging from bonds, to equities, to housing. Investors have been encouraged by central banks to put their cash and savings to work in order to generate a positive real return and have invested in a range of assets, resulting in higher prices. The question is whether prices have risen by too much.

This process is likely to continue until there is some event that means returns on assets will be lower in the future. Another possibility is that a central bank may be forced to restrict the supply of credit because of fears that the economy, or even a market, is overheating. An example of this is the news that the Bank of England is considering macro-prudential measures in response to the large price increases in the UK property market.

In addition, there is a surprising lack of volatility in investment markets at the moment, indicating that the markets aren’t particularly concerned about the current economic outlook. Using the Chicago Board Options Exchange OEX Volatility Index, also known as the old VIX (a barometer of U.S. equity market volatility) as an example shows that markets may have become too complacent. Two days ago, the index fell to 8.86 which is the lowest value for this index since calculations started in 1986. Previous low values occurred in late 1993 (a few months before the famous bond market sell-off of 1994) and mid-2007 (we all remember what happened in 2008). The lack of volatility has been something that several central banks have pointed out, including the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Bank of England. The problem is, it is the central banks that have contributed most to the current benign environment with their forward guidance experiment, which has made investors relaxed about future monetary policy action.

If these events were to occur, we could see a re-pricing of assets. Banks suffer as loans have been given based on collateral that has been valued at overinflated prices. A large impact in currency markets is likely, as investors become risk averse and start to redeem assets. These events could spill over to the real economy and could therefore result in a recession.

Risk 2: Resource price shock

Energy prices could hamper economic growth

It appears that the global economy may be entering a renewed phase of increased volatility in real food and fuel prices. This reflects a number of factors, including climate change, increasing biofuel production, geopolitical events, and changing food demand patterns in countries like China and India. There may also be some impact from leveraged trading in commodities. There are plenty of reasons to believe that global food price shocks are likely to become more rather than less common in the future.

As we saw in 2008, these shocks can be destabilising, both economically and politically. In fact, you could argue that the Great Financial Crisis was caused by the spike in commodity prices in 2007-08, and the impact on the global economy was so severe because high levels of leverage made the global economy exceptionally vulnerable to external shocks. Indeed, each of the last five major downturns in global economic activity has been immediately preceded by a major spike in oil prices (as the FT has previously pointed out here). Commodity price spikes impact both developed and developing countries alike, with low-income earners suffering more as they spend a greater proportion of their income on food and fuel. There is also a large impact on inflation as prices rise.

A resource price shock raises a number of questions. How should monetary and fiscal policy respond? Will central banks focus on core inflation measures and ignore higher fuel and food prices? Will consumers tighten their belts, thereby causing economic growth to fall? Will workers demand higher wages to compensate for rising inflation?

Risk 3: Protectionism

After decades of increased trade liberalisation, since the financial crisis the majority of trade measures have been restrictive. The World Trade Organisation recently reported that G-20 members put in place 122 new trade restrictions from mid-November 2013 to mid-May 2014. 1,185 trade restrictions have been implemented since October 2008 which covers around 4.1% of world merchandise imports.  Some macro prudential measures could even be considered a form of protectionism (for example, Brazil’s financial transactions tax (IOF) which was designed to limit capital inflows and weaken the Brazilian currency).

If this trend is not reversed, trade protectionism – and currency wars – could begin to hamper economic growth. Small, open economies like Hong Kong and Singapore would be greatly impacted. Developing nations would also be affected due to their reliance on exports as a driver of economic growth.

Many economists blame trade protectionism for deepening, spreading and lengthening the great Depression of the 1930s. Should the global economy stagnate, political leaders may face growing pressure to implement protectionist measures in order to protect industries and jobs. Policymakers will need to be careful to not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Economic forecasting is a tricky business. It is important that investors are aware of these risks that may or may not eventuate, and plan accordingly. The outlook may not be as rosy as the consensus thinks it is.

jamestomlins_100

Burrito Bonds – an example of the retail bond market

One of our local burrito vendors has been advertising a new 8% bond to its customer base. The company, Chilango, wants to raise up to £3m to fund expansion of its chain in central London. This will be done via a crowd sourced retail offering that’s already drawn some interesting coverage in the financial press. Having performed some extensive due diligence on the company’s products as a team, we can safely say they make a pretty good burrito. However, when we compare the bond to the traditional institutional high yield market, we have some concerns that investors should be aware of.

  1. Disclosure – a typical high yield bond offering memorandum (the document that sets out the rules of the issue, its risk and all the necessary historical financial disclosure) can be several hundred pages long. Producing this is a very time intensive and expensive process, but a valuable one for producing a host of useful information for potential investors. Additionally, a law firm and an accounting firm typically sign off on this document, effectively staking their reputation and incurring litigation risk based on the veracity of the information disclosed.

    In contrast, the Chilango’s document is 33 pages long, with some fairly superficial financial disclosure. The photo below illustrates this comparative informational disadvantage and the relative lack of depth in financial information compared to a recent institutional high yield bond offering from Altice.

    Slide1

  2. Financial Risk – there are two big potential concerns here. Firstly, the starting leverage for the bonds is potentially quite high. Using some admittedly finger in the air assumptions regarding the potential cash flow of each new outlet opened (a necessary approach given poor disclosure), leverage could be around 6.0x Net Debt/EBITDA in 2015. This is certainly at the riskier end of the high yield spectrum. The second major concern is that we don’t know for certain how much debt the company will raise. Chilango state that they target at least £1m in this issue, but are willing to raise up to £3m, leverage is likely to be north of 10x (again this is a best guess). All this means the bonds would in our opinion get at best a CCC rating, right at the riskiest end of the credit rating spectrum for sub-investment grade bonds.Slide2
  3. Security – Chilango state very clearly that these bonds will be unsecured instruments. This means that in the event of a default, the creditors will rank behind any secured creditors. There appears to be limited existing secured creditors, but we see nothing in the documentation to prevent a layer of new secured debt being raised ahead of these notes (something that is a common covenant in institutional bonds deals). Consequently, it’s prudent to assume that in a default situation the recovery value of the bonds is likely to be significantly below face value. This equity-like downside means investors should demand an equity-like return in our view.
  4. Call Protection – these bonds are redeemable at the option of the issuer at any time. Consequently, investor returns could be materially curtailed due to the lack of call protection. Call protection is the premium over face value the investors get when the issuing company redeems the debt early (their call option). Thus some of the benefit also accrues to the bondholder. Take the following return profile:
    8% Bond, Callable at Par
    Years Outstanding Total Return
    1 8%
    2 17%
    3 26%
    4 36%

    If the plan to open new branches goes well, the bond investor should be happy right? Wrong. If this happens, the company may well look like a less risky prospect and will be able to raise debt finance more cheaply. Let’s say a bank offers them a loan at 5%, they could then redeem the 8% bond early, diminishing the total return to bondholders (as per above), and save £90,000 a year on interest costs per year (assuming they issued £3m bonds). Again, call protection is a common feature of the institutional high yield market which protects investors in these situations.

  5. Liquidity – these are non-transferrable bonds. This means that a) the company does not have to file a full offering memorandum hence the lack of disclosure and b) it will not be possible to buy or sell the bonds in a secondary market. This is more akin to a bilateral loan between an individual investor and the company, with the investor in it for the long haul. Consequently, an investor will neither be able to easily manage their risk exposure nor will they be able to take profits should they so wish before the bond is redeemed.
  6. Value – we can see that there are many risks – but to be fair that is the nature of high yield investing. So the real question is, “is 8% sufficient compensation for this risk”. The good news is that this bond has a unique bonus coupon in the form of a free burrito a week for anyone prepared to invest £10,000. At current prices, this equates to 3.63% additional coupon (a steak, prawn or pork burrito with extra guacamole is £6.99), so an all-in coupon of 11.63% (8% cash + 3.63% burrito).We’d argue that a “burrito fatigue factor” should be applied, simply because you may not want a burrito every week and you will probably not be physically near a Chilango every week to cash in this extra coupon. A 75% factor feels about right, which reduces the burrito coupon to 2.72% and the all-in return to 10.72%. So is 10.72% a fair price? To get a sense of this we can look at some GBP dominated CCC rated institutional bonds in other asset light industries
    Bond Price Yield
    Phones 4 U 10% 2019 90.5 12.7%
    Towergate 10.5% 2019 98.5 10.9%
    Matalan 8.875% 2020 101.5 8.5%
    Average: 10.7%

    By coincidence, the all in coupon of 10.7% is bang in line with the average of this (very limited) group of comparable bonds. However, I’d argue that the Chilango bonds should be significantly cheaper than the bonds above due to higher leverage, no liquidity, no call protection and the lack of disclosure. What should this differential be? Again, there is no scientific answer, but our starting point would probably be in the 15-20% range, and only then with some more certainty around the potential maturity of the bond and the ability to share in the future success of the company.

So, much as though we would all enjoy the tasty weekly coupons, our view is that like many of the so-called “retail” or “mini” bond offerings, the Chilango burrito bonds stack up poorly against some of the current opportunities in the institutional high yield market.

M&G has no financial interest in seeing this issue succeed or fail, either directly or indirectly.

Page 3 of 8212345...102030...Last »