Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Turning Japanese?

This week has seen significant action by the major global central banks. For one the ECB has started buying Spanish and Italian government bonds while the Fed has stated that the funds rate will stay exceptionally low for at least the next two years (Not to forget that the BoJ and the SNB are also injecting liquidity into the financial system to keep their currencies from appreciating ever further).
What are the implications?
1. Banks have already been backstopped since 2008 via liquidity/capital injections/guarantees. This will continue and keep the banking sector afloat. The same now counts as well for the Eurozone sovereigns. Some of the peripherals might technically be insolvent, however, they are all kept liquid by either the EFSF (Greece, Ireland, Portugal) or the ECB as in the case of Italy and Spain (and potentially other sovereigns). Hence, a wave of sovereign defaults is also off the table. In turn, another systemic financial crisis can be called off (at least for now).
2. Nominal bond yields are turning Japanese. As the Fed depresses UST yields and the ECB caps Eurozone peripheral yields, spread products should come back into investors focus. Reasons are that there is no other way to earn yield (given that 5y UST trade below 1%) and as mentioned above the risk of another systemic financial crisis has dropped sharply given the ECB's capping of Italian bonds. Furthermore, the liquidity injections by the ECB, SNB and BoJ (and potentially also the BoE at a later stage) will also fuel the demand for spread products.
3. However, while nominal bond yields are turning Japanese (Low across the maturity and credit spectrum), below the surface the story is vastly different. In Japan nominal bond yields are low because of negative inflation whereas real yields are positive. In contrast, US nominal bond yields are low due to negative real yields coupled with moderate inflation. As an example: 5y Japanese yields are trading around 0,35% with 5y real yields trading around +0,65%, meaning that implied break-even inflation is around -0,3%. In the US, though, 5y UST trade around 0,95% with 5y TII real yields at -0,76% and the implied break-even inflation rate at 1.75%. Hence, the monetary stance in the US is very accommodative on an absolute as well as on a relative basis compared to Japan. In turn, even though the US economy will continue to deleverage over the next few years and with that there will be little self-sustaining growth (personally I think trend growth in the US should have fallen to around 2% and actual quarterly growth number should oscillate around this trend). However, this extreme level of accommodation should prevent the US economy from falling into another recession and from deflation becoming entrenched. Finally, it supports the notion made above: negative real yields will force investors to bring their money elsewhere).

Markit iTraxx Europe Crossover Index: Recent widening likely to reverse again
Source: Bloomberg

Overall, spread products should be the clear winner of the latest policy actions and I expect that the recent widening seen in the credit world will start to reverse again.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

From Systemic Crisis to Global Recession?

Despite the ECB having started to buy Italian and Spanish government bonds, financial markets remain in panic mode. However, the key driver now seems to be rather the threat of another global recession than of another systemic financial crisis. On the one side, growth is weak in the developed world where the sovereign debt crisis forces the weaker countries into austerity measures and prevents the stronger ones from adopting significant fiscal easing programs. On the other, the emerging market countries are still suffering from high inflation rates and have enacted monetary tightening measures to cool the economy and ease inflation pressures, hence they can't yet ride to the rescue as well. In turn, markets are pricing a renewed global recession, sending equity markets, commodities and safe government bond yields sharply lower in turn (with the notable exception of gold).
Looking ahead, it seems that in the developed world only the central banks are left to do the heavy lifting. The BoJ has already intervened to weaken the Yen and also the SNB is injecting more liquidity into the domestic financial market. Additionally, also the ECB is providing longer-term liquidity to the banking sector again. Finally, it seems that over the next few months, both the US Fed as well as the BoE might well do another round of quantitative easing. Overall, this creates another global liquidity glut to support asset prices. Furthermore, as the global banking sector is being backstopped via the massive liquidity injections and also the weaker Eurozone sovereigns are being kept afloat via the bail-out programs and the ECB bond buying, the risk of another systemic financial crisis due to a wave of sovereign and bank defaults should be reduced.
In turn, near-term growth in the developed market world should take a hit (personally, though, I do not see another wide-spread recession). However, also inflation should fall markedly given that the ongoing deleveraging should keep core inflation rates suppressed whereas the implosion in commodity prices should lead headline inflation markedly lower (this in turn should see emerging markets starting to ease policy again before the year is over). Hence, near-term nominal growth rates should be very low. Furthermore, given that the banking sector as well as sovereign are being kept afloat and given that available liquidity should be abundant, volatility should drop markedly again and nominal bond yields should be low not only for the safe governments (such as Germany, US, Switzerland) but pressure towards lower yields should intensify again for the wider government bond segment.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

No Dolce Vita for Italian Bond Investors

The second bail-out program for Greece has failed to ease stress in the other peripheral markets. Rather to the contrary, the Eurozone sovereign crisis is reaching a new level as the downward spiral (higher interest rates leading to a weakened solvability leading to higher interest rates) has reached Italy. Italy was generally assumed to be relatively safe despite its high sovereign debt level of approx. 120% of GDP. Reasons have been that the banking system appears sound amid low leverage/high capital ratios and a high level of deposits (and in turn not much funding stress). Furthermore, indebtdedness of the private sector is low and the savings ratio high. Finally, the deficit was "only" around 4% in 2010 and Italy is one of the few developed economies with a primary surplus (i.e. a budget surplus before interest payments). As a result, despite the high level of sovereign debt, the projections for the debt-GDP ratio were looking for a relatively flat development, i.e. no worsening in the solvability. Furthermore, the risk that Italy would have to take over a significant amount of banking debt (as in Ireland) appeared remote as well as the risk that the domestic economy would implode (as in Spain).

10y Italian and Spanish government bond yields reaching new records
Source: Bloomberg

However, amid the combination of private sector involvement in Greece, a negative rating outlook for Italy (amid chronic growth weakness), only a half-hearted austerity program as well as weakness in political leadership might all have lead parts of the international investor base to start selling/hedging their Italian bond exposure, thereby starting to drive up interest rates. Even more threatening, though, is the implosion of bank shares and the potential for a wave of capital flight by the Italian households. Once Italians lose their faith in the political system as well as their banks, they will increasingly shift their money elsewhere. Such a wave of capital flight would seriously undermine the stability of the Italian banking system (as it deprives them of a key source of funding) and significantly weaken the domestic demand for Italian debt (by the households themselves which take their money elsewhere but also by the banks which suffer already from high losses on their BTP holdings and would then need to shrink their balance sheets as funding via deposits dries up). So far data by the ECB for the development of banking deposits does not showw a significant flight out of Italy. However, the data cover only the period up to June, i.e. just when the rout in the BTP market as well as in Italian banking shares really started. Furthermore, banking deposits in Italy have not been growing anymore since late 2008, contrary to previous years.

Development of banking deposits by state (Dec 2007=100): Italian deposits drying up?
Source: ECB

Overall, this negative feedback loop has been set in motion and it seems that only further strong action by either Eurozone politicians, the EFSF or the ECB can break this downward spiral. We would either need very strong growth impulses for the Eurozone economy from key export markets (potentially also via a much lower euro), a large investment program for Southern Europe and/or a massive buying program for peripheral government bonds. However, the EFSF does not yet have the ability to do that (probably this will only be possible from autumn onwards) and even if it would, its size remains too limited. This would leave the ECB to do the heavy lifting and restart its bond-buying program, but this time also for Italian bonds and in much much larger size. So far, though, the ECB seems reluctant to go down that route.