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Pop goes the credit market?

On Wednesday, Mervyn King took on the role of the central bank’s chief toast master at the Lord Mayor of London’s Banquet – cue fine dining, full formal dress, a large hall and obviously fine wines. Central bankers are not known for their singing talent, so he entertained the audience with a slice of his views on the outlook for monetary policy in the UK, ranging from the practical (how to improve the quality of £5 notes in circulation) to the central inflationary conundrum (the impact of money supply growth on inflation).

From the perspective of us bond investors, the interesting part of his speech referred to loose monetary conditions. He warned about the corporate demand for credit and the readiness of financial institutions to lend, and was particularly concerned about the development of complex financial instruments and the spate of loan arrangements without traditional covenants. "It may say Champagne – AAA – on the label of an increasing number of structured credit instruments. But by the time investors get to what’s left in the bottle, it could taste rather flat" (David commented on precisely these concerns in our blog last week).

At first the choice of wine to accompany his speech appears appropriate for such a grand occasion. Or maybe we have a central banker with a sense of humour who compares the credit markets to a fancy bottle of bubbly, that goes POP.


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Swans, turkeys and tigers – the false security of the bell curve

I’m reading The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb. Before Australia was discovered by Europeans, the idea that a swan could be anything other than white did not exist. The book’s premise is that we are deluded in using historical models to predict future events, be they world changing political moments, or risk and return in financial markets. He talks about the ludic fallacy – "believing that the structured randomness found in games resembles the unstructured randomness found in life". When we look at risk, we draw bell curve distributions, or test our portfolios against maximum expected losses – for example by modelling the impact of a 1987 style crash on our equity holdings. Yet it is the "black swans" that make the big differences to long term portfolio performance – the disappearance of the Chinese and Russian stock markets at the start of the last century for example. Taleb gives the example of measuring a thousand days in the life of a turkey, and measuring its happiness and comfort over that period: for the first 999 days, the bird’s utility gradually increases as it becomes happy in its surroundings (only if free range, obviously) and gets fatter. Chart this and you have an uptrend with fairly low volatility (a nice Sharpe Ratio). On the 1000th day it is killed and eaten. We should stop thinking of financial markets as having predictable, casino style returns. Even casinos don’t have predictable casino style returns. Casino owners have models which analyse the odds of all the games they offer, with overlays that predict some big swings if a big hitter walks through the door and wins heavily on "black". They also carefully model fraud risk, either from employees or cheating customers, and thus spend a fortune on video cameras and security guards. Here then are the actual 4 biggest losses or near losses suffered by one Las Vegas casino, as told in the book:

1. They lost $100 million when their star entertainer (either Siegfried or Roy) got mauled by a tiger on stage
2. A builder tried to blow up the casino with dynamite after being injured during its construction
3. An administrative employee failed to post several years worth of tax forms to the IRS, resulting in a massive fine
4. The casino owner’s daughter was kidnapped, and casino takings were used (illegally) to pay the ransom

A "black swan" has three characteristics – it is unpredictable, its impact is huge, and after it has happened we try to explain it in order for us to make it feel as if it was not so unpredictable (9/11 for example). Moving back to bonds, as we must do from time to time, the book rubbishes the historical "fact" that the First World War was both inevitable and universally anticipated. He cites Niall Ferguson‘s study of British and European bond prices in the months leading up to the start of the conflict; even though a coming Great War would surely destroy both public finances and the wider economy, the bond prices saw no movement. The fact that volatility in global markets is at record lows right now tells us nothing about future events. We must expect the unexpected, and position portfolios to benefit from black swans – how we do that is the hard bit.

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Are central banks targeting the correct inflation measures?

For monetary policy to work, it is essential that central banks target the correct inflation measure. There are a number of differences in the way that inflation can be calculated – for example, the Bank of England and the ECB target headline inflation, while the Federal Reserve focuses on core inflation (which strips out energy and food prices). If central banks are looking at the wrong inflation measures, and there is a real risk that they are, then there could be serious implications for global bond markets.

Why does the Fed only focus on core inflation, when food comprises 15% of ‘total’ US inflation and energy forms nearly 9%? The answer is not that the central bank is pretending that food and energy don’t exist – rather it is because these components tend to be very volatile and very short lived, being more to do with whether there’s been a political scare or a hot summer than being part of any long term economic trend. Food and energy can therefore distort the ‘true’ picture of inflation, and given the lag involved (at least 12 months) between changes in monetary policy and its effect on the wider economy, an overreaction to a short term fluctuations could be disastrous.

But what if the recent change in food prices and energy prices is not actually temporary at all? Soaring food and energy prices have meant that headline inflation has averaged around 0.5% higher in OECD countries since the beginning of 2003, and if you believe that the long term trend is for food prices to climb higher (think global warming) or for oil prices to continue rising (perhaps because of Peak Oil), then there is a real risk that the Federal Reserve is significantly underestimating inflationary pressure. One high profile critic of the Fed’s focus on core inflation is Charlie Bean, who was formerly my personal tutor at LSE in the 1980s but is now the Bank of England’s Chief Economist. He argued last year that higher food and energy costs are a by-product of Chinese demand and globalisation, so in calculating inflation, it makes little sense ignoring the higher inflationary effects of globalisation (energy costs) while at the same time including the disinflationary benefits of globalisation (cheaper manufactured goods).

Even if we assume that the recent rise in food and energy prices are here to stay, the ECB and the Bank of England will most likely only begin to take firm action when these inflationary pressures turn into so called ‘second round effects’ in the form of higher wages. Wage growth in the developed world has been incredibly low over the past five years, with real wage growth in most of the developed world being negative as a result of global competition and immigration. However, there is evidence that the workers are demanding more (we first commented on this back in December), and if wages do rise then central banks will certainly clamp down with higher interest rates.


Leveraged Buy In (LBI) – the new buzz word in the City

OK, I actually just invented this term myself, but I think it very accurately captures what’s currently going on in the bond and equity markets around the world. For a few years now, private equity funds have taken advantage of low bond yields and high equity earnings yields by issuing lots of debt very cheaply and taking companies private. Finance directors of companies still publicly listed have finally woken up to the threat posed by private equity, and are now increasing leverage voluntarily.

Expedia, the online travel company, has done precisely this, announcing that it is taking advantage of cheap debt to leverage up in an effort to enhance earnings. The company proposed that it would buy back a whopping $3.5bn of its equity, which is about 40% of its outstanding shares. Great news for equity holders – Expedia’s share price is up about 20% so far this month – but leveraging up is the last thing that bond holders want, and the spread on Expedia’s bonds maturing in 2018 shot up from 90 basis points to 210 basis points (a 10% drop in the bonds’ price) after S&P downgraded the bonds to high yield status.

Expedia is a slightly unusual case, in that leveraging up is normally what you’d expect from a company that has a high equity earnings yield (ie a low Price/Earnings ratio). At the beginning of June, though, Expedia’s leading P/E ratio was 21, implying a relatively low equity earnings yield of 4.7%. At this level, the need to leverage up is less apparent, and bond and equity markets alike were taken aback by Expedia’s announcement. Clearly, Expedia’s management behaviour suggests that the market is grossly underestimating the company’s future earnings growth.

A company where leveraging up has more obvious benefits is Home Depot, the giant US DIY firm. I first wrote about the possibility of Home Depot becoming a target for private equity in December last year and currently own Home Depot equity in the M&G Optimal Income Fund. The view was that Home Depot was under-leveraged and was a prime target for an LBO, albeit the company was (and still is) beyond the reach of private equity funds because of its $80bn market cap. Half a year later, and management has clearly bowed to shareholder pressure to enhance earnings. Home Depot today announced that it is seeking to buy back 30% of its outstanding equity, in a deal that will be partly funded by issuing $12bn of bonds. Again, great news for equity holders, and Home Depot’s equity is up 7% today. Bad news for bond holders though – Fitch ratings agency downgraded Home Depot’s bonds from A+ to A-, while both Moody’s and S&P have said they may downgrade the company’s credit rating.

I expect many more ‘LBIs’ and LBOs over the next 12 months, and continue to believe that the yield premium available on a number of corporate bonds is insufficient for the risk taken on.


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Structured credit – the ratings agencies fight back

Rating agencies have come under fire recently. A number of perceived gaffs haven’t helped the agencies’ credibility (we covered Moody’s changes to its bank rating methodology on this blog), but the biggest concern at present is regarding structured credit.

Some investors have always treated ratings agencies with a degree of scepticism, arguing that there must be a conflict of interest when companies are the ones who pay agencies to rate their own bonds and deals. This scepticism has grown with structured credit, because agencies can earn twice as much as they could for rating a conventional corporate bond. There is also widespread concern that the agencies lack the resources to properly analyse complicated structured credit, because the best brains at the ratings agencies often get snatched up by the investment banks and fund managers.

S&P yesterday hit back, releasing a report entitled "The Covenant Lite Juggernaut is Raising CLO Risks – And Standard & Poor’s is Responding". The background to this report was that ratings agencies had been criticised over their lack of action over what are perceived to be increasingly risky leveraged loan deals. An increase in risk of leveraged loans meant that the credit ratings given to CLOs, which are asset backed securities backed by a pool of leveraged loans, were perhaps not reflecting the true credit risk. "Covenant Lite" deals, where the legal protections for investors are weaker, worry us (see here for my earlier blog article).

Without going into too much detail, S&P have made changes to their criteria for rating CLOs, including assuming a 10% lower recovery rate for leveraged loans that come with the "covenant lite" tag. While this is an improvement, we remain cautious over covenant lite deals – the great attraction of the leveraged loan asset class to us has always been its seniority and high recovery rates in event of default, and anything that jepodises this makes us nervous.


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French VAT hike rumoured; could add 1% to French inflation

We’re hearing rumours that the new French government is about to announce a big rise in the VAT rate, perhaps by 5% (Germany hiked its VAT rate by 3% at the start of this year). This would add a full percent to French inflation. Short dated French inflation linked bonds have rallied relative to nominal bonds as a result. Apart from the impact on price inflation, higher consumption taxes will damage consumer spending. We have seen German retail sales growth turn negative so far this year – the French consumer has been slowly recovering since 2004 and tax hikes put this recovery at risk. We all remember the damage that a Japanese consumption tax hike did that their fragile economy a decade ago. It will be interesting to see just how robust the recent Eurozone strength really is, and also interesting to see how the French public and unions react to this, and other structural reforms from the new right wing government under Nicolas Sarkozy. Are we about to see economic reforms on the same scale as Thatcher’s in the 1980s? Talking of which, if you get the chance to see Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain on BBC Two, please watch it – it’s by far the best thing on telly (now The Apprentice has finished anyway). Tuesday’s episode focused on the Thatcher revolution, and the social upheaval that the UK went through – from the 3,000,000+ unemployment rates and industrial unrest at the start of the 80s through to our discovery of consumer credit and the yuppy a few years later. Do the French want to swap a large state and social cohesion, but low levels of growth and high unemployment for a more dynamic, Anglo-Saxon style economy, but one where "there is no such thing as society"? By the look of the election results the answer is "yes" – but as the UK showed, the transition period is exceptionally painful.


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5 reasons why the bond market is selling off

1. Technical analysis
You may well disapprove of the theory that lines drawn with a ruler and a pencil on a chart of bond yields can help predict the future, but like it or not, enough people in the bond market have been looking at the 5% level in 10 year US Treasuries to make it a big deal. This marked the support trend line of the bond bull market that had gone back to 1987. The market has broken through this level, opening the way for further significant falls (if you believe in this mumbo jumbo).

2. Convexity selling
Long dated fixed rate mortgages – although less popular now than they were a few years ago – are a big part of the US property market. These are then repackaged as Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS) and sold on to bond portfolios, with cashflows from homeowners (interest payments and capital repayments) flowing through to the bond investors. Unfortunately these bonds have "negative convexity". This means that they perform badly when yields rise, and badly when yields fall – you only outperform government bonds in relatively stable yield environments. Why? Well when yields fall, the homeowner can pay back the mortgage early and remortage at a lower rate. This means that the MBS owner gets repaid, and the duration of his portfolio falls in a rallying market, making him underperform. In a bear market, as we have now, nobody refinances their mortgages as the new rates are higher. This means that the prepayment rate assumed for the investors’ portfolios is too high, and they end up being longer duration than they wanted in a falling market. As a result many will sell bonds to reduce their duration back to the assumed level ("convexity hedging") and a vicious circle can follow.

3. Capitulation
Some well known bond houses and investment banks in the US have publically changed their formerly bullish views on the market. Both PIMCO and Merrill Lynch have reversed their expectations for Fed rate cuts in 2007. Additionally former Fed Chairman Greenspan has today talked about higher bond yields being likely – a couple of months ago he was talking of the "possibility" of a US recession.

4. China
I talked yesterday about the risk of Asian Central Bank selling of their US Treasury Bond holdings. Well the market’s also worried about Chinese inflation, which has just come in at a 27 month high, albeit at only 3.4%. What really scared markets was the food component, which is rising at over 8% pa (meat and eggs showing 25%+ hikes). With Chinese living standards rising at the same time as biofuel use is raising the costs of crops, is this the start of a global inflationary food trend?

5. The economy, stoopid
US retail sales were very strong today, and economists reckon that second quarter US GDP growth will be back on track after nearly a year of sub-trend growth. Whereas Fed rate cuts were expected earlier this year, the Eurodollar futures strip now prices in a good chance of a hike by the end of this year.


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China crisis for US bonds?

Tim Bond, head of Global Asset Allocation at Barclays Capital, wrote a well-timed piece panning bond markets in the FT on Thursday last week. He argues that bond yields are much lower, and yield curves much flatter than would normally be expected given the current economic environment, and estimates that long dated bond yields are around 1% below equilibrium value. This has occurred because of a combination of foreign exchange reserve growth and regulatory changes that forced pension fund investors to purchase more long dated assets.

As a result of this demand/supply imbalance, bond yields are very low. Meanwhile equity earnings yields remain reasonably high, spurring companies to releverage. Finance directors with any sense have reacted to the market conditions by issuing debt very cheaply, and buying back their equity. Those that haven’t releveraged have found hungry private equity investors circling their firms. We’ve commented quite a bit about corporate releveraging in our blog (such as here).

Tim Bond believes that foreign exchange reserve growth is prompting global reserve managers to diversify away from low risk bonds and into higher risk assets, and suggests that China will redirect some $300-400bn away from bonds and into equities. Foreign exchange reserves certainly go some way to explaining why bond yields remain so low, but the projections for China appear a little aggressive. The US Treasury publishes this lengthy analysis of foreign ownership of US securities. It shows that overseas investors own more than half of the outstanding US government bond market, up sharply from 22% in 1989. China’s holdings of US Treasuries have risen very steadily from around $80bn at the beginning of 2002 up to $420bn at the end of March, which is second only to Japan’s $612bn. There is little sign of China’s build up of Treasuries slowing, never mind falling back down to 2002 levels, but I agree with the general conclusions of Tim’s article – bond yields have been depressed by significant and continuous Asian central bank buying, but if these foreign buyers stop turning up to the Treasury’s bond auctions this bear market might have further to run.

I see the Chinese buying of US bonds as a form of vendor financing. China produces goods, but doesn’t (yet) have the domestic demand to purchase them. The US consumer has massive demand for goods, but doesn’t have the means to pay for them. So the Chinese give the Americans cheap credit in order for them to keep buying, and keep the Asian factories in business. As long as the current global demand imbalances persist this should keep the US bond market stable. But what happens if Asian domestic demand grows to an extent that they don’t need to rely on the US consumer? Or if European domestic demand finally starts to recover, creating another big market for Asian goods? Finally what about the losses that the Asian central banks are suffering on their US bond portfolios? In this quarter alone so far the Treasury bond market is down 1.2%, so the Chinese will have suffered mark to market losses of $5bn, and the Japanese over $7bn. Might there be a mass running to the door?


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UCITSIII wider powers, CDS and CDOs – a question from a client

Sent by anonymous, 4 June 2007:

As an investment IFA I can sympathise with the question dated 23.05.07 – in relation to asset allocation and the resultant bond exposure so many stochastic modelling tools tell us to have. We have been underweight in Fixed Interest in general as an asset class for about 1 year now and going overweight in UK commercial property funds. This I am now taking back down to neutral (as I think UK property has had its day) – but I am still nervous about increasing the fixed interest exposure. I have looked at funds that use the UCITS III powers ie "strategic" bond funds and have to say that they look exciting. On the flip side however, I read a report that suggests some managers do not have sufficient knowledge to use the derivatives effectively and this could cause a major problem.

I would be interested to hear your views on this topic – particularly in relation to CDS, CDOs and the impact the US sub prime market problems could have on these.

The CDS (Credit Default Swap) market has developed rapidly, and in just a decade is now more liquid than the conventional corporate bond markets. There are undoubted benefits to CDS, namely that derivatives can provide investors with pure exposure to a company’s credit risk (so it doesn’t matter whether interest rates go up or down), and investors can make money from correctly forecasting that a company’s credit worthiness will deteriorate. The development of CDS has also been integral in spreading and diversifying risk within the economy as a whole, although the sheer size of the market has led to concerns.

The biggest worry is whether derivatives can withstand the impact of a large unforeseen shock. By definition, it’s not possible to predict a large unforeseen shock, but all we can say for certain is that there will be one. Last week, Terrence Checki, a vice president at the New York Federal Reserve, warned that "abundant global liquidity has been a powerful wind in the back of economic and policy progress and has bought substantial benefits [but] as we all know, liquidity is ephemeral: it disappears at the most inconvenient times". This is precisely what happened after the Russian default of August 1998, which was the last quake to shake the bond markets.

The Russian default caused financial markets around the world to seize up. Global liquidity evaporated, even for US Treasuries. The sudden and sharp spread widening wreaked havoc on what were supposedly low risk investments. Higher risk investments were inevitably hit hard – between July 20 1998 and October 5 1998, the FTSE 100 fell from 6179 to 4648. Perhaps the highest profile collapse was that of the Long Term Capital Management (LTCM), a hedge fund that lost almost $5bn in a matter of months and had to be bailed out by the Federal Reserve in order to prevent a widespread global meltdown. Now that the derivatives market is many times bigger than in the 1990s, what will the impact be of another Russia?

The problem is that the CDS market hasn’t been properly tested yet, because defaults in the global bond market have been incredibly low for an almost unprecedented period of time. This is not to say there have been no defaults at all though – Delphi, the world’s biggest auto parts manufacturer, defaulted in 2005. Delphi had around $2bn worth of bonds outstanding, but the value of the CDS riding on Delphi was over $20bn. Traditionally in the CDS market, contracts were settled by delivering the actual bonds, so investors that had bought protection needed to go into the market, buy the defaulted bonds, and then sell the bonds at par (100% value) to investors who had written protection. With Delphi there were concerns that the huge number of derivatives would create settlement problems, however a large proportion of the derivatives were either netted off against each other or settled for cash, and settlement in the end proved fairly straightforward. Cash settlement is becoming the norm in the CDS market, and the risk of any major settlement issues cropping up in the future is falling as the market becomes more transparent and efficient.

Moving onto CDOs (Collaterised Debt Obligations), the issues facing CDO investors (specifically synthetic CDO investors) are similar to those facing CDS, because synthetic CDOs are invested in CDS. With a CDO, an investor can choose precisely how much risk they want to take. Someone who invests in an equity tranche faces potentially large rewards but knows that if the portfolio is hit by defaults then they will be the first taking a hit on their capital. An investor in an AAA rated tranche of a CDO knows that he or she won’t lose any money until all the investors ranked beneath them are wiped out. The risk facing CDO investors, though, is knowing how much risk they are actually taking. There’s been a fair amount of criticism directed towards ratings agencies (see here for a good piece from the FT) who, it is argued, aren’t up to the job of rating sophisticated structured products. Does a AAA rated synthetic CDO tranche really carry the same default risk as a US Treasury? We’ll only know for sure when there’s a liquidity crunch.

The woes of the US mortgage market have hit a number of CMOs quite hard (CMOs are like CDOs, except the underlying portfolio is invested in mortgages rather than bonds). We’ve covered the US sub prime mortgage market in a fair bit of depth on this blog (see here, for instance). The yield on a number of CMO tranches that were previously rated investment grade suddenly shot out to 15% once the size of the collapse became apparent, but at the moment, it doesn’t look like the US sub prime crisis is the next Russian default. After pausing for breath, equity markets have more than recovered their losses and jumped to record highs in the US.

Finally, the concern over fund managers’ experience in dealing with products and instruments such as CDOs, CLOs and CDS is certainly a legitimate one. Some asset management firms are able to rely on their experience in alternative assets to build up the necessary operational infrastructure. M&G are lucky to have a market-leading CDO team who have been using CDS for over five years. The use of Value at Risk (VAR) analysis is also critical to control portfolio risk. But it’s less likely to be an operational issue that hurts investors rather than bad judgement from a fund manager. Investors need to be aware that while buying protection is not a risky strategy, since the downside is capped, writing protection has the potential to result in a fairly large loss. Given our views on credit risk in the corporate bond market, Richard Woolnough has mostly used CDS to buy protection in the M&G Optimal Income Fund, since he thinks there are a greater number of unattractively priced corporate bonds out there than attractive ones. When the next Russia comes along, it will likely be those funds taking excessive risk by writing protection on companies whose bonds default that will feel the pain. In short, if you make bad investment decisions using CDS and CDOs you will lose money, just as you would in traditional instruments, but there is nothing intrinsically bad about the derivatives and structured credit markets, and indeed they are often used to reduce and diversify risk rather than increase it.


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Energy: inflation and extinction, or a future golden age for mankind? I'm cheering up.

Being a gloomy bond fund manager, I like nothing more than to read a book predicting economic and social collapse. Thus I’ve just finished reading The Last Oil Shock – a Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man, by David Strahan. There’s not much new in this, but it does contain a useful recap of Peak Oil theory. As a quick summary, Dr M. King Hubbert used statistical sampling techniques to correctly predict the peak in US oil production in 1971, and later, that global oil production would peak in 2005. So we’ve reached the point where oil production is falling, yet global demand is rising by 2-3% per year as emerging market growth develops. The most interesting thing for me in the book was some analysis of the imaginative estimates of reserves produced by the OPEC nations (the true numbers could be half what is stated), and also the assertion that poor stewardship of many oil fields (most obviously in Iraq) has reduced their potential dramatically.

So I was out for a beer with one of my cleverer friends last week, and was on my soapbox proclaiming that it’s not for global warming reasons that we should be saving energy, but because we need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels before they run out, leaving us in an anarchic Mad Max world. And even if you believe that we’ll muddle through without having to move to the hills and buy shotguns, the impact on inflation of higher and higher oil prices would be significant. He told me not to worry, and to read this article about nuclear fusion. In contrast to fission, in which atoms are split apart to create nuclear reactions, fusion joins hydrogen isotopes together to produce helium, a neutron and energy. This is the same type of reaction that powers the sun. The reaction produces only very low levels of radiation, so its safe, and no CO2, so it’s good for the environment. The problem to date is that the amount of energy required to join the hydrogen isotopes together can exceed what comes out. But this is changing, and there’s a French fusion reactor being built right now, as well as an EU project underway to use lasers to initiate the fusion process. So the prospect of almost free, unlimited, safe and clean energy is not simply a dream, but a real possibility, and within our lifetimes. Free energy, no need to get involved in the Middle East to secure oil supplies, or to be held hostage by Russia over access to natural gas, and no greenhouse gas emissions – could this be the next golden age for mankind?


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