Was that the bond market tantrum of 2019?

Sometimes economics and financial markets provoke a wry smile. This morning has already provided an example of that as Germany’s statistics office tells us Germany exported 4.6% more in September than a year ago, so booming. Yes the same statistics office that told us yesterday that production was down by 4.3% in September so busting if there is such a word. The last couple of months have given us another example of this do let me start by looking at one side of what has taken place.

QE expansion

We have seen two of the world’s major central banks take steps to expand their QE bond buying one explicitly and the other more implicitly. We looked at the European Central Bank or ECB only on Wednesday.

The Governing Council decided to restart net purchases under each constituent programme of the asset purchase programme (APP)……….. at a monthly pace of €20 billion as from 1 November 2019.

More implicitly have been the actions of the US Federal Reserve as it continues to struggle with the Repo crisis.

Based on these considerations, last Friday the FOMC announced that the Fed will be purchasing U.S. Treasury bills at least into the second quarter of next year.7 Specifically, the Desk announced an initial monthly pace of purchases of $60 billion.

That was John Williams of the New York Fed who added this interesting bit.

These permanent purchases

Also there is this.

In concert with these purchases, the FOMC announced that the Desk will continue temporary overnight and term open market operations at least through January of next year.

Maybe a hint that they think dome of this is year end US Dollar demand. But we find that the daily operations continue and at US $80.14 billion as of yesterday they continue on a grand scale. So the Treasury Bill purchases and fortnightly Repo’s have achieved what exactly?

If we move from the official denials that this is QE to looking at the balance sheet we see that it is back above 4 trillions dollars and rising. In fact it was US $4.02 trillion at the end of last month or around US $250 billion higher in this phase.

Bond Markets

You might think and indeed economics 101 would predict that bond markets would be surging and yields falling right now. But we have learnt that things are much more complex than that. Let me illustrate with the US ten-year Treasury Note. You might expect some sort of boost from the expansion of the balance sheet and the purchases of Treasury Bills. But no, the futures contact which nearly made 132 early last month is at 128 and a half now. At one point yesterday the yield looked like it might make 2% as there was quite a rout but some calm returned and it is 1.91% as I type this.

As an aside this is another reminder of the relative impotence of interest-rate cuts these days as if anything a trigger for yields rising was the US interest-rate cut last week. The Ivory Towers will be lost in the clouds yest again.

The situation is even more pronounced in the Euro area where actual purchases have been ongoing for a week now. However in line with our buy the rumour and sell the fact theme we see that the German bond market has fallen a fair bit. In mid-August the benchmark ten-year yield went below -0.7% whereas now it is -0.26%. So Germany is still being paid to borrow at that maturity but considerably less. Indeed at the thirty-year maturity they do have to pay something albeit not very much ( 0.24%).

The UK

There have been a couple of consequences in the UK. The first I spotted in yesterday’s output from the Bank of England.

Mortgage rates and personal loan rates remain near
historical lows, with the rates on some fixed-rate mortgages continuing to fall over the past few months (Table 2.B).
Interest rates on credit cards have increased, although the effective rate paid by the average borrower has remained
stable, in part because of the past lengthening of interest-free periods.

Whilst this is true, if you are going to parade the knowledge of the absent-minded professor Ben Broadbent about foreign exchange options then you should be aware that as Todd Terry put it.

Something’s goin’ on

The five-year Gilt yield has risen from a nadir of 0.22% to 0.52% so the ultra-low period of mortgage rates is on its way out should we stay here.

If we move to the fiscal policy space in the UK then we see that the message that we can borrow cheaply has arrived in the general election campaign.

Although debt stocks are high in many developed countries, debt service ratios are very low. The UK gross debt stock has doubled from 42 per cent of GDP in 1985 to 84 per cent of GDP today, yet debt interest service has halved, from 4 per cent of GDP to below 2 per cent over the same period. It has rarely been lower. A rule using the debt stock would argue for fiscal consolidation, whereas a debt service metric suggests there is ample room for fiscal expansion. Especially as market interest rates are extraordinarily low. (  FT Alphaville)

https://ftalphaville.ft.com/2019/11/06/1573068343000/Is-it-time-for-a-shift-in-fiscal-rules–/

I have avoided the political promises which peak I think with the Greens suggestion of an extra £100 billion a year. But the Toby Nangle and Neville Hill proposal above has strengths and has similarities to what I have suggested here for some time. But I think it needs to come with some way of locking the debt costs in, so if you borrow more because it is cheap you borrow for fifty years and not five. It reinforces my suggestion of the 27th of June that the UK should issue some 100 year Gilts.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here and let me start with the borrow whilst it is still cheap theme. There are issues as highlighted by this from Francine Lacqua of Bloomberg.

London’s Elizabeth line has been delayed by a year, and will require extra funding, according to TfL

For those unaware this was called Crossrail ( renaming is often a warning sign) which will be a welcome addition to the London transport infrastructure combing elements of The Tube with the railways. But it gets ever later and more expensive.

There was also some irony as regards the Bank of England as in response to the sole decent question at its presser yesterday (from Joumanna Bercetche of CNBC) Governor Carney effectively suggested the next rate move would be down not up. Yet Gilt yields rose.

Next comes the issue of whether this is a sea-change or just part of the normal ebb and flow of financial markets? We will find out more this afternoon as we wait to see if there were more than just singed fingers in the German bond market for example or whether some were stopped out? After all reporting you had taken negative yield and a capital loss poses more than a few questions about your competence. Even the most credulous will now know it is not a one-way bet but on the other hand if you are expecting QE4 to come down the New York slipway then you can place your bets at much better levels than before.

The UK should issue a 100 year bond (Gilt)

Sometimes ideas come to fruition at the time but others have a much longer gestation period. My subject of today is an example of the latter as it was back in March 2012 that Chancellor George Osborne included this in the UK Budget.

In light of evidence of strong demand for gilts of long maturities and against the backdrop of historically low long-term interest rates, in 2012–13 the DMO will consult on the case for issuance of gilts with maturities significantly longer than those currently in issue, that is in excess of 50 years, and/or perpetual gilts.

By DMO he meant the Debt Management Office which is the body which manages the UK’s national debt. The plan was for it to do this.

The consultation will build an evidence base to inform the Government’s decision on whether to issue such instruments. It will seek to establish the likely strength and sustainability of demand, the cost-effectiveness and risks of issuance, and the impact on market liquidity and the good functioning of the wider gilt market.

If we look at the plan back then we see it was based on “historically low long-term interest-rates” or bond yields. That was true in March 2012 with longer maturity Gilt yields having fallen by a bit more than 1%. If you compound that over 100 years then you would be quids in so to speak as an issuer.

Investment Week

They held an online debate and Jim Leaviss of M&G told us this.

Few fund managers would publically argue that a yield of supposedly around 3.5% is good value given both inflation and political uncertainty over 100 years.

Such things are a hostage to fortune as it has turned out that any fund manager who had bought such a bond would be giving a lecture tour right now on how clever they had been, as well as deserving a large bonus. We should not be harsh on Jim as who could have predicted the last 7 years.

Currently, we are not bullish on the gilt market: it looks expensive and I am not sure you would want to lock in low yields for such a long time period.

Oh well as Fleetwood Mac would say. He did think that a 100 year Gilt would be bought in spite of that being a bad idea.

However, there has been demand for long-dated gilts given the size of the existing 2060 gilt and the 2062 linker of over £16bn and over £8bn respectively.

If a 2112 is issued, its very existence will cause index-led funds or liability matching pension funds to buy it.

Not everyone in the debate felt that it would work and others thought that the Gilt market was already too expensive. Here is Jeff Keen of JO Hanbro.

Assuming the Bank of England is successful in meeting its 2% inflation target, this implies long term gilt yields should be in the 4%-5% range rather than the currently implied yield for a 100-year gilt of around 3.5%. The difference is a downward price adjustment of around 30%. Beware – gilts are not necessarily a safe haven.

Apologies for embarrassing them.

What happened next?

There was no explicit issue although in 2015 we did covert something into a 100 year bond. From gov.uk.

The Treasury will redeem the outstanding £1.9 billion of debt from 3½% War Loan on Monday 9 March 2015.

The reason for that was the 3.5% coupon which in 2012 had seemed cheap was by then looking rather expensive for the UK taxpayer.

Austria yesterday

You may recall that Austria issued a century or 100 year bond back in 2017 well there is more of it now.

They also revised pricing lower for a tap of Austria’s outstanding debt maturing in 2117 with demand there exceeding 5.3 billion euros. That 1.25 billion euro issue priced at 48 bps over an outstanding Fed 2047 bond, translating to a yield of 1.171%. ( Reuters)

Yes you did read that yield correctly and as pointed out in the comments yesterday there was another sign that it was an issuers party for the Austrian taxpayer.

The country’s debt management agency launched the sale of 3 billion euros of five-year bonds at 23 basis points below the mid-swap rate, translating to a yield of -0.435%. The deposit rate stands at -0.40%.

There was a time when the ECB deposit rate was a barrier for bond yield issuance but as you can see that is now in the past. The bull market for bonds is so strong that it has passed the benchmark and if Germany issued a five-year bond it would blow it away at around -0.6%.

Another sign of how strong the bull market is in bonds is that there was plenty of extra demand for the two issues by the Austrian Treasury. As its overall yield is 2.08% it has improved conditions for the taxpayer there with both issues.

The UK Gilt Market

This has also been in a bull market where yields are both absolutely and historically low. We do not have the levels of much of the Euro area for several reasons. Firstly official interest-rates are lower there with the deposit rate being -0.4% as opposed to the UK Bank Rate of 0.75%. Next we have had ECB President Mario Draghi only recently hint about even lower interest-rates and more QE bond buying. Also with the planned TLTRO money market ( bank subsidy) operation it is in the process of enforcing them.

But we do have very low yields as for example both the two and five-year yields seem to have settled around 0.6%. If we look further out we do have a fifty-year Gilt which yields some 1.38% as I type this. So what is called our yield curve is pretty flat both as a curve and also in comparison with the past.

Comment

This seems clear cut to me as at present yields the UK could issue a 100 year Gilt very cheaply. There are loads of projects which would look extremely viable at these levels. If you are wondering how much? Well even if we issued at the fifty-year yield of around 1.4% that would be 2.1% below 2012. Actually if you look at the way the yield curve shapes we might be able to issue at a yield of 1.3%. Amazingly cheap and less than a tenth of past yields experienced in my career.

The flip-side of the coin is that at such a yield the percentages are heavily weighted against any buyers. So buyers of fixed-income funds might do well to be afraid and perhaps very afraid. It is a bit different for holders who have been in a long running party.

As to size well if you do it why not offer £10 billion and see what happens? I would not be surprised to see it be over subscribed.

Meanwhile every idea has its niches. From PolemicTMM.

UK should issue a 100yr zero coupon 42bio Euro-denominated bond to fund the Brexit bill (if bond mkts continue like this, we may even get -ve rates). EU institutions would end up having to buy it due to EU imposed reserve regs and so effectively end up funding Brexit.

By bio he means billion I think. The quid pro quo for an even lower interest-rate would be an exchange-rate risk.

The Investing Channel

 

The H2O problem

The last week or so has seen some disturbing developments at one fund management group and of course it comes hot on the heels of the problems of Woodford Funds that I looked at on the 7th of this month. There are some familiar features and themes in the two stories as we wonder if the synchronised timing is no coincidence. So let us take a look at the FT Alphaville article which opened the batting on this subject a week ago.

Proclaimed a “bond maven” by the Wall Street Journal, Bruno Crastes is the chief executive of H2O Asset Management — the firm he established at the start of the decade with backing from Natixis.

The Frenchman has been known to wholeheartedly embrace risk hoping to reap rewards in the longer term, with Mr Crastes perhaps most famous for his big bets on Greek bonds at the height of the eurozone sovereign debt crisis.

Being lauded as a “bond maven” by the WSJ, puts us on alert immediately. It is not quite as bad as being lauded as young business(wo)man of the year but still worrying enough. Then in an era where we often find it is the perceived safe havens are doing well someone who wholeheartedly embraces risk seems out of phase with the times.

There were also two other warning signs.

H2O has rapidly grown in the past six years: from managing €3bn in 2013, its assets under management have increased ten-fold to €30bn. It’s not hard to see why either, given that some of H2O’s funds were among Europe’s best-performing alternative funds last year. One strategy returned an impressive net 32.9 per cent.

If we start with the second sentence then there is a view that best-performers in finance should always be investigated because of the likelihood that this was caused by something outside the rules. After all 32.9% in these times of low interest-rates and yields?

The next point can swing both ways because who wants to broadcast a competitive advantage to the world rather than take advantage of it?

Mr Crastes has been reluctant to go into the specifics of how H2O has been able to beat the market so handily.

The Specific Problem

The mismatch below makes the funds look like a bank which is hardly reassuring as it does not have a central bank standing behind it.

Given that the bonds backing Mr Windhorst’s companies are highly illiquid, and H2O’s funds allow retail investors to withdraw their money on a daily basis, the apparent scale of these investments is significant.

Adding to the issue is the track record of Mr.Windhorst involving two company collapses and personal bankruptcy. But this was apparently no deterrent.

Using this methodology, H2O appears to hold more than €1.4bn in bonds issued by financial vehicles linked to Mr Windhorst across the six funds. They each hold exposures of between 5.5 per cent (Adagio) to 13.7 per cent (Multibonds) in Windhorst-related bonds.

The data suggest H2O is by far the biggest holder of many of Lars Windhorst’s bonds, often holding the majority of the outstanding amount across the firm and even individual funds holding up to 22 per cent of specific securities.

This was particularly pronounced here.

A bond issue from Chain Finance, a vehicle that Mr Windhorst used in 2017 to settle outstanding lawsuits and repay existing debts, proved a particularly popular investment for H2O. All six funds poured money into it, together they hold a combined €383m of the €500m bond — nearly 77 per cent.

H2O admit that this investment is illiquid and marked it down by 24% but there is more. The fund has been very keen on further investments in bonds issued by Mr.Windhorst.

And there are signs that newly minted bonds linked to the former “wunderkind” are now flowing into H2O’s portfolios.

Mr Windhorst appears to have been busily issuing new bonds in the past few months. There is, for instance, Netherlands-registered Trent Petroleum Finance, which issued a €850m bond in December last year…….In the past six months, Trent Petroleum, Rubin Robotics, Tennor Finance and Everest Medtech have issued a total of €2.75bn in bonds at yields between 5 and 8 per cent. And they are starting to appear in H2O’s filings.

As you can see we are continuing down the illiquidity route and seemingly making a virtue of it as we mull whether it has already become a trap where the fear is that it will all collapse if the music stops? This brings us back to the Woodfood Funds saga although this time around the investments are in bonds rather than equities.

I guess you are already on the case as to what happens next…..

Slip-Sliding Away

On Friday it seemed there was a case of trying to close the stable door after the horse had bolted. From Reuters.

London-based H2O, a key contributor of profits at Natixis Investment Managers, was put in the spotlight on Thursday when Morningstar flagged its review, citing questions over liquidity and governance at the H2O fund.

After all as a reply to the Alphaville article from FuturesRodney pointed out the situation had previously looked rather different.

Given the 5-Star fund rating from Morningstar, Trustnet and others, you have to wonder about the degree of analysis and true due diligence which these organisations apply?

Meanwhile according to Reuters the situation was indeed slip-sliding away.

Natixis said in a statement on Friday that H2O, which managed $32.5 billion in assets at the end of 2018, had seen outflows of 600 million euros (535.64 million pounds) between the start of the second quarter and June 20.

How much of that was after the Alphaville article?

Moving to yesterday we saw clear signs of trouble,trouble,trouble.

Around 1.4 billion euros (1.2 billion pounds) was pulled from H2O funds last week after rating company Morningstar put one of its funds under review, citing concerns over liquidity and governance. That sent Natixis shares tumbling. ( Reuters)

That makes me wonder how much was withdrawn on Friday and Monday as well? As for these purposes Friday was not part of last week.These situations can be like a dam bursting as so many try to escape through what is a small door at the same time. There has been a response.

H2O, which manages around 31 billion euros ($35 billion), said it had sold part of its non-rated private bonds. It did not give details, but said the aggregate value of the bonds represents less than 500 million euros as of Monday. (Reuters)

To whom and for how much are the obvious questions?

Anyway the dam analogy is in play as Robert Smith of the FT points out.

New data from H2O out: shows the assets across the six funds we flagged as having exposure to Lars Windhorst dropped €1.2bn on Friday; takes the total fall to more than €2.6bn

 

Also I doubt many of you will be surprised by this.

In a bid to stem investor outflows, H2O has also introduced “swing pricing”, imposing discounts on investors that want money back

Comment

This sort of crisis has happened before as there are echoes of the 1990s here as outperformance is followed be a reverse ( Long-Term Capital Management) and entry doors prove much larger than the exit one ( Milan Stock Exchange). But to my mind it is not a coincidence that we are seeing such problems.This is being driven by the developments below.

Bonds are winning, according to BofAML. Over the past 12 months:

– U.S. Treasuries outperformed the S&P 500 by 140 bps

– European bonds outperformed Eurostoxx 50 by 660 bps – JGBs outperformed Nikkei 225 by 840 bps

– EM sovereign bonds outperformed EM equities by 1250 bps ( @tracyalloway )

If we add in her calculation that there have been 715 interest-rate cuts in the credit crunch era we are left with the point that likely returns are dwindling. Also we return to the point I made earlier about safe havens and risk. No wonder some funds are heading for areas which are illiquid as they chase higher returns. But the catch comes to the issue of what is a fair price for these assets? The truth is that it is always opaque until somebody turns on the light and the cockroaches scatter.

The road gets darker as we note that the QE era has made this worse as it has made markets less liquid.In a explicit sense we see this with Japanese Government Bonds after all the purchases of the Bank of Japan,but it happened with Greek Government Bonds too.As an aside that is why I have a wry smile when Greek Government Bond yields are quoted.But there have been implicit effects too as many will not trade in German Government Bonds now due to this.

GERMAN 10-YEAR BOND YIELD FALLS TO -0.330%, NEW RECORD LOW ( @DeltaOne)

Also I think that we need to look at the roles of regulators such as the UK Financial Conduct Authority which has 2 problems on its books this month alone. To,my mind it needs to decide whether it has a basic role with investors needing mostly to observe a form of “caveat emptor” or whether its role is much wider than that? The latter role seems doomed to failure.

Finally are there wider fears or are the rallies in Gold ( US $1433) and Bitcoin ( US $11,398) just a coincidence?

 

 

 

A bond issue does little for the problem of plunging investment in Greece

Today brings a development which will no doubt be trumpeted across the media and it is explained by this from Reuters yesterday,

Greece will return to bond markets with a five-year issue “in the near future, subject to market conditions”, authorities said on Monday.

The sovereign has mandated BofA Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs International Bank, HSBC, J.P. Morgan, Morgan Stanley and SG CIB as joint lead managers for the transaction, according to a regulatory filing to the stock exchange.

The near future is today as we mull that in spite of its role in the Greek economic crisis Goldman Sachs is like the Barnacles in the writings of Charles Dickens as it is always on the scene where money is involved. As to why this is happening the Wall Street Journal explains.

Greece‘s borrowing costs have dropped to a four-month low, and Athens plans to raise up to $3.4 billion in a bond sale.

Although it is not turning out to be quite as cheap as the 3.5% hoped for.

Greece Opens Books For New 5 Year Bond, Initial Guidance For Yield 3.75-3.875% – RTRS Source ( @LiveSquawk)

Why are investors buying this?

The obvious objection is the default history of Greece but in these times of ultra low yields ~3.8% is not be sniffed at. This is added to by the Euro area slow down which could provoke more ECB QE and whilst Greece does not currently qualify it might as time passes. In the mean time you collect 3.8% per annum.

Why is Greece offering it?

This is much more awkward for the politicians and media who trumpet the deal because it is a bad deal in terms of financing for Greece. It has been able to borrow off the European Stability Mechanism at not much more than 1% yield for some time now. Actually its website suggests it has been even cheaper than that.

0.9992% Average interest rate charged by ESM on loans (Q1 2018)

Past borrowing was more expensive so the overall ESM average is according to it 1.62%. So Greece is paying a bit more than 2% on the average cost of borrowing from the ESM which is hardly a triumph. Even worse the money will have to be borrowed again in five years time whereas the average ESM maturity is 32 years ( and may yet be an example of To Infinity! And Beyond!).

So there is some grandstanding about this but the real reason is escaping from what used to be called the Troika and is now called the Institutions. The fact the name had to be changed is revealing in itself and I can understand why Greece would want to step away from that episode.
As we move on let me remind you that Greece has borrowed some 203.8 billion Euros from the ESM and its predecessor the EFSF.

The economy

We can see why the Greek government wants to establish its ability to issue debt and stay out of the grasp of the institutions as we note this from Kathimerini.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced an 11 percent increase in the minimum wage during a cabinet meeting on Monday, the first such wage hike in the country in almost a decade.

Actually the sums are small.

The hike will raise the minimum wage from 586 to 650 euros and is expected to affect 600,000 employees. He also said the government will scrap the so-called subminimum wage of 518 euros paid to young employees.

There are two catches here I think. Firstly in some ways Greece is competing with the Balkan nations which have much lower average wages than we are used to. Also this reverses the so-called internal competitiveness model.

The standard mimimum monthly wage was slashed by 22 percent to 586 euros in 2012, when Greece was struggling to emerge from a recession.

A deeper cut was imposed on workers below 25 years, as part of measures prescribed by international lenders to make the labour market more flexible and the economy more competitive.

Productivity

Here we find something really rather awkward which in some ways justifies the description of economics as the dismal science. Let me start with a welcome development which is the one below.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in October 2018 was 18.6% compared to 21.0% in October 2017 and 18.6% in September 2018 ( Greece Statistics Office)

But the improving labour market has not been matched by developments elsewhere as highlighted by this.

we documented that employment had started to lead output growth in the early days of the SYRIZA government. Since such a policy is unsustainable, we have to include in any consistent outlook that this process reverses and output starts leading employment again – hence restoring positive productivity growth. ( Kathimerini)

That led me to look at his numbers and productivity growth plunged to nearly -5% in 2015 and was still at an annual rate of -3% in early 2016. Whilst he says we “have to include” an improvement the reality is that it has not happened yet as this year has seen two better quarters and one weaker one. We have seen employment indicators be the first sign of a turn in an economy before but they normally take a year or so to be followed by the output indicator not three years plus. This reminds us that Greek economic growth is nothing to write home about.

The available seasonally adjusted data
indicate that in the 3rd quarter of 2018 the Gross Domestic
Product (GDP) in volume terms increased by 1.0% in comparison with the 2nd quarter of 2018, while
in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2017, it increased by 2.2%.

If it could keep up a quarterly rate of 1% that would be something but the annual rate is in the circumstances disappointing. After all the decline was from a quarterly GDP of 62 billion Euros at the peak in 2009 whereas it is now 51.5 billion. So the depression has been followed by only a weak recovery.

More debt

I looked at the woes of the Greek banks yesterday but in terms of the nation here is the Governor of the central bank from a speech last week pointing to yet another cost on the way to repairing their balance sheets

An absolutely indicative example can assess the immediate impact of a transfer of about €40 billion of NPLs, namely all denounced loans and €7.4 billion of DTCs ( Deferred Tax Credits).

Comment

Whilst I welcome the fact that Greece has finally seen some economic growth the problem now is the outlook. The general Euro area background is not good and Greece has been helped by strong export growth currently running at 7.6%. There have to be questions about this heading forwards then there is the simply woeful investment record as shown by the latest national accounts.

Gross fixed capital formation (GFCF) decreased by 23.2% in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2017.

The scale of the issue was explained by the Governor of the central bank in the speech I referred to earlier.

However, in order to increase the capital stock and thus the potential output of the Greek economy, positive net capital investment is indispensable. For this to happen, private investment must grow by about 50% within the next few years. In other words, the Greek economy needs an investment shock, with a focus on the most productive and extrovert business investment, to avoid output hysteresis and foster a rebalancing of the growth model in favour of tradeable goods and services.

Yet as we stand with the banks still handicapped how can that happen? Also if we return to the productivity discussion at best it will have one hand tied behind its back by as the lack of investment leads to an ageing capital stock. So whilst the annual rate of economic growth may pick up at the end of 2018 as last year quarterly growth was only 0.2% I am worried about the prospects for 2019.

It should not be this way and those who created this deserve more than a few sleepless nights in my opinion.

Is Greece growing more quickly than the UK?

Today we return to a long running and grim saga which is the story of Greece and its economic crisis. However Bloomberg has put a new spin on it as follows.

Greece is growing faster than Britain and is outperforming it in financial markets.

Okay so let us take a deeper look at what they are saying. Matthew Winkler who is the Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Bloomberg News, whatever that means, goes on to tell us this.

In a role reversal not even the most prescient dared to anticipate, Greece is growing faster than the U.K. and outperforming it in financial markets. ……..Now that Europe is leading the developed world in growth, productivity and job creation after the euro gained 14.2 percent last year — the most among 16 major currencies and the strongest appreciation since 2003 — Greece is the biggest beneficiary and Britain is the new sick man of Europe.

This is really quite extraordinary stuff isn’t it? Let me just mark that the author seems to be looking entirely through the prism of financial markets and look at what else he has to say.

In the bond market, Greece is the king of total return (income plus appreciation), handing investors 60 percent since the Brexit vote. U.K. debt securities lost 3 percent, and similar bonds sold by euro-zone countries gained 7 percent during the same period, according to the Bloomberg Barclays indexes measured in dollars. Since March 1, 2012, when the crisis of confidence over Greece was at its peak and its debt was trading at 30 cents on the dollar, Greek bonds have returned 429 percent, dwarfing the 19 percent for euro bonds and 10 percent for the U.K., Bloomberg data show.

Also money is flowing into the Greek stock market.

ETF flows to Europe gained 15 percent and 13 percent to the U.K. during the same period. The Global X MSCI Greece ETF, the largest U.S.-based exchange-traded fund investing in Greek companies, is benefiting from a 35 percent increase in net inflows since the 2016 Brexit vote.

Finally we do actually get something based on the real economy.

The same analysts also forecast that Greece will overtake Britain in GDP growth. They expect Greece to see its GDP rise 2.15 percent this year and 2.2 percent in 2019 as the U.K. grows 1.4 percent and 1.5 percent.

Many of you will have spotted that the Greece is growing faster than the UK has suddenly morphed into people forecasting it will grow quicker than it! This poses a particular problem where Greece is concerned and can be illustrated by the year 2012. Back then we had been assured by the Troika that the Greek economy would grow by 2% on its way to an economic recovery and the UK was back then enmeshed in “triple-dip” fears. Actually there was no UK triple dip and the Greek economy shrank by around 7% on the year before.

GDP growth

According to the Greek statistics office these are the latest figures.

The available seasonally adjusted data
indicate that in the 3rd quarter of 2017 the Gross Domestic
Product (GDP) in volume terms increased by 0.3% in comparison with the 2nd quarter of 2017, while in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2016, it increased by 1.3%.

Thus we see that if we move from forecasts and rhetoric to reality Greece has some economic growth which we should welcome but not only is that slower than the UK in context it is really poor if we look at its record. After the severe economic depression it has been through the economy should be rebounding rather than edging forwards. I have written many times that it should be seeing sharp “V Shaped” growth rather than this “L Shaped” effort.

If we look back the GDP at market prices peaked in Greece in 2008 at 231.9 billion Euros but in 2016 it was only 175.9 billion giving a decline of the order of 24% or 56 billion Euros. That is why it should be racing forwards now to recover at least part of the lost ground but sadly as I have predicted many times it is not. Even if the forecasts presented as a triumph above come true it will be a long long time before Greece gets back to 2008 levels. Whereas the UK economy is a bit under 11% larger and to be frank we think that has been rather a poor period.

Job creation

You may note that there was a shift to Europe leading the world on job creation as opposed to Greece so let us investigate the numbers.

The number of employed persons increased by 94,071 persons compared with November 2016 (a 2.6% rate of increase) and decreased by 9,659 persons compared with October 2017 (a 0.3% rate of decrease).

I am pleased to see that the trend is for higher employment albeit there has been a monthly dip. Actually if we look further the last 3 months have seen a fall so let us hope we are not seeing another false dawn. Further perspective is provided by these numbers.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in November 2017 was 20.9% compared to the upward revised 23.3% in November 2016 and the upward revised 20.9% in October 2017. The number of employed in November 2017 amounted to 3,761,452 persons. The number of unemployed amounted to 995,899 while the number of inactive to 3,242,383.

The first issue is the level of unemployment which has improved but still has the power to shock due to its level. The largest shock comes from a youth unemployment rate of 43.7% which is better than it was but leaves us mulling a lost generation as some seem set to be out of work for years to come and maybe for good. Or perhaps as Richard Hell and the Voidoids put it.

I belong to the Blank Generation, and
I can take it or leave it each time.

Before I move on I would just like to mark the level of inactivity in Greece which flatters the numbers more than a little.

Bond Markets

Last week there was a fair bit of cheerleading for this. From the Financial Times.

Greece has wrapped up the sale of a seven-year bond after a 48-hour delay blamed on international market turbulence, raising €3bn at a yield of 3.5 per cent. The issue marked the first time since 2014 that the country has raised new money. A five-year bond issue last July raised €3bn, about half of which involved swapping existing debt for longer-dated paper.

The problem is in the interest-rate as Greece has got the opportunity to borrow at a much higher rate than it has been doing! Let me hand you over to the European Stability Mechanism or ESM.

The loans, at very low-interest rates with long maturities, are giving Greece fiscal breathing space to bring its public finances in order……..Moreover, the EFSF and ESM loans lead to substantially lower financing costs for the country. That is because the two institutions can borrow cash much more cheaply than Greece itself, and offer a long period for repayment.

As you can see the two narratives are contradictory as we note Greece is now choosing to issue more expensively at a considerably higher interest-rate or yield. This matters a lot due to its circumstances.

They point to the debt-to-GDP ratio, which stands at more than 180%.

Comment

I would be more than happy if the Greek economy was set to grow more quickly than the UK as frankly it not only needs to be growing much faster it should be doing so for the reason I explained earlier. As someone who has consistently made the case for it needing a default and devaluation I find it stunning that the Bloomberg article claims this is a success for Greece.

 the euro gained 14.2 percent last year — the most among 16 major currencies and the strongest appreciation since 2003

After all the set backs for Greece and its people what they do not need is a higher exchange rate. Finally the better prospects for the Euro area offer some hope of better days but they will be braked somewhat by the higher currency.

The confused narrative seems to also involve claiming that paying more on your debt is a good thing. Awkward in the circumstances to be making the case for sovereignty! But the real issue is to get out of this sort of situation which is sucking demand out of the economy. From Kathimerini.

 It is no coincidence that the “increased post-bailout monitoring” is expected to end in 2022, when the obligation for high primary surpluses of 3.5 percent of gross domestic product expires.

So in conclusion there is a lot to consider here as we wish Greece well for 2018. It badly needs a much better year but frankly also more considered and thoughtful analysis as those who have suffered through this deserve much better. The ordinary Greek was mostly unaware of what their establishment was doing as it fiddled the data and let the oligarchs slip slide away from paying their taxes.

 

What evidence is there for a bond market bubble?

There is a saying that even a blind squirrel occasionally finds a nut. I am left wondering about this as I note that the former Chair of the US Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan has posted a warning about bond markets. From Bloomberg.

Equity bears hunting for excess in the stock market might be better off worrying about bond prices, Alan Greenspan says. That’s where the actual bubble is, and when it pops, it’ll be bad for everyone.

Actually that is troubling on two counts. The simplest is the existence of extraordinarily high bond prices and low and in some cases negative yields. The next is that fact that his successors in charge of the various central banks may start pumping more monetary easing into this bubble to stop it deflating and it being “bad for everyone”. Indeed maybe this mornings ECB monthly bulletin is already on the case.

Looking ahead, the Governing Council confirmed that a very substantial degree of monetary accommodation is needed for euro area inflation pressures to gradually build up and support headline inflation developments in the medium term.

Let us look at what he actually said.

“By any measure, real long-term interest rates are much too low and therefore unsustainable,” the former Federal Reserve chairman, 91, said in an interview. “When they move higher they are likely to move reasonably fast. We are experiencing a bubble, not in stock prices but in bond prices. This is not discounted in the marketplace.”

I find it intriguing that he argues that there is no bubble in stock prices which are far higher than when he thought they were the result of “irrational exuberance” . After all low bond yields must be supporting the share prices of pretty much any stock with a solid dividend in a world where investors are so yield hungry that even index-linked Gilts have been used as such.

What is a bubble?

This is hard to define but involves extreme price rises which are then hard to justify with past metrics or measurement techniques. With convenient timing we have seen a clear demonstration of one only this week as something extraordinary develops. From Sky Sports News.

Sky sources: Neymar agrees 5-year-deal at PSG worth £450m, earning £515,000-a-week after tax. More on SSN.

One sign that we are in the “bubbilicious” zone is that no-one is sure of the exact price as I note others suggesting the deal is £576 million. You could drive the whole London bus fleet through the difference. The next sign is that people immediately assure you that everything is just fine as it is normal. From the BBC.

Mourinho said: “Expensive are the ones who get into a certain level without a certain quality. For £200m, I don’t think [Neymar] is expensive.

To be fair he pointed out that there would however be consequences.

“I think he’s expensive in the fact that now you are going to have more players at £100m, you are going have more players at £80m and more players at £60m. And I think that’s the problem.”

Of course Jose will be relieved that what was previously perceived as a large sum spent on Paul Pogba now looks relatively cheap. Oh and did I say that the numbers get confused?

PSG’s total outlay across the initial five-year deal will come to £400m.

If Sky are correct the high property prices we look at will be no problem as he will earn in a mere 8 months enough to buy the highest price flat they could find in Paris ( £18 million). The rub if there is one is that the price could easily rise if they know he is the buyer!

The comparison with the previous record does give us another clue because if we look at the Paul Pogba transfer it has taken only one year for the previous record to be doubled. That speed and indeed acceleration was seen in both the South Sea Bubble and the Tulip Mania.

Perhaps there was a prescient sign some years ago when the team who has fans who are especially keen on blowing bubbles was on the case. From SkyKaveh.

West Ham were close to signing Neymar from Santos in 2010. Offered £25m but move collapsed when Santos asked for more money

Back to bonds

If we look at market levels then the warning lights flash especially in places where investors are paying to get bonds. If we look at the Euro area then a brief check saw me note that for 2 years yields are negative in Germany, France, Belgium, Italy and Spain. For Germany especially investors can go further out in terms of maturity and get a negative yield. Does that define a bubble on its own as they are paying for something which is supposed to pay you?! There are two additional factors to throw in which is that the real yield situation is even worse as over the next two years inflation looks set to be positive at somewhere between 1% and 2%. Also if we look at Spain with economic growth having been ~3% or so a year for a bit why would you buy a bond at anything like these levels?

Another sign of a bubble that has worked pretty well over time is that you find the Japanese buying it. So I noted this earlier from @liukzilla.

“Japanese Almost Triple Foreign Bond Buying in July” exe: buy or + buy => like a double chocolate pie

Here we do get something of a catch as the issue of foreign investors buying involves the currency as well. Whether that is a sign of the Euro peaking I do not know but in a way it shows another form of looking for yield if you can call a profit a yield. Also there is an issue here of Japanese investors buying foreign bonds not only because there is little or no yield to be found at home but also because the Bank of Japan is soaking up the supply of what there is.

Comment

If we survey the situation we see that prices and yields especially in what we consider to be the first world do show “bubbilicious” signs. If we look at my home country of the UK it seemed extraordinary when the ten-year Gilt yield went below 2% and yet it is now around 1.2%. Of course the Bank of England with its “Sledgehammer” QE a year ago blew so much that it fell briefly to 0.5% in an effort which was a type of financial vandalism as we set yet again assets prioritised over the real economy. What we are not seeing is an acceleration unless perhaps we move to real yields which have dropped as inflation has picked up.

So far I have looked at sovereign bonds but this has also spilled over into corporate bonds especially with central banks buying them. We have seen them issued at negative yields as well which makes us wonder how that all works if one of the companies should ever go bust. Yet we also need to remind ourselves that there are geographical issues as we look around as Africa has double-digit yields in many places and according to Bloomberg buying short dated bonds in the Venezuelan state oil company yields 152% although the ride would not be good for your heart rate.

 

 

Is this the revenge of the bond vigilantes?

The latter part of 2016 has seen quite a change in the state of play in bond markets. If we look at my own country the UK we only have to look back to the middle of August to see a situation where the UK Gilt market surged to an all-time high. This was driven by what was called a “Sledgehammer” of monetary easing according to the Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane.  This comprised not only £60 billion of Gilt purchases and £10 billion of corporate bond purchases but also promises of “more,more,more” later in the year. Not only was this a time of bond market highs it was also a time of what so far at least has been “peak QE” as central planners like our Andy flexed both their muscles (funded of course by a combination of the ability to create money and taxpayer backing) and their rhetoric.

However those who pushed the UK Gilt market to new highs following the Bank of England now face large losses as you see it has fallen heavily since. The ten-year Gilt yield which fell to 0.5% is now 1.5% as the Bank of England’s Forward Guidance looks ever more like General Custer at Little Big Horn with bond vigilantes replacing the Red Indians. Let me switch into price terms which will give you a clearer idea of the scale of what has taken place. There are always issues with any such measure but the UK Gilt which matures in 2030 can be considered as an average. Fresh with his central planning mandate Mark Carney paid 152.7 for it back in mid-August but last week he got a relative bargain at 138 and if today’s prices hold will be paying much less later this week.

This of course means that the Bank of England has made fairly solid losses on this round of QE as we wonder if that is the “Sledgehammer” referred to. So will anyone else who bought with them and I raise this as some may have been forced to buy in a type of “stop-loss” situation as we wait to see if the pain became too much for some pension funds and insurance companies. Such a situation would be a complete failure as we recall central banks are supposed to supervise and maintain free and fair markets which awkwardly involves stopping the very price and yield manipulation that QE relies on.

As we stand the overall Bank of England QE operation will be in profit but of course that has been partly driven by the new round of it! Anyway here is a picture of the Sledgehammer as it currently stands.

What has driven this?

The UK may well have been at least partially a driving force on the world scene in mid-summer but of course the recent player has been the Trump Truck on its journey to the White House. I recall pointing out on here on November 9th that this part of his acceptance speech meant that a new fiscal policy seemed on its way.

We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals.

It had an immediate impact.

There has been a clear market adjustment to this which is that the 30 year ( long bond) yield has risen by 0.12% to 2.75%.

We have of course more perspective now and this morning that yield has nudged 3.2%. Of course there is ebb and flow but also we have seen a clear trend.

Crude Oil

This has also been a player via its impact on expectations for inflation. This morning the announced deal between OPEC and non-OPEC countries saw the price of a barrel of Brent Crude Oil rising 5% to around US $57 per barrel. This compares to the recent nadir of around US $42 in early August. There are of course differences in taxation and so on but roughly I would expect this to raise annual consumer inflation by around 0.5%. This time around the effect seems set to be larger as we have so far replaced the price falls of the latter part of 2015 with rises in 2016. Of course the oil price will change between now and the end of 2016 but this gives an idea of the impact as we stand.

There has also been a general shift higher in commodities prices or to be more specific a surge in metals prices which has only partially been offset by the others. The CRB (Commodity Research Bureau) Index opened 2016 in the low 370s and is now 427.

US Federal Reserve

This has had an influence as well. It contributed to the bond market rally by the way its promises of “3-5” interest-rate rises were replaced by a reality of none so far. Now we face the prospect of this Wednesday’s  meeting thinking that they probably have to do one now to retain any credibility at all. Back on November 9th I wondered if they would and there are still grounds for that as we look at Trump inspired uncertainty and higher bond yields and US Dollar strength. However on the other side of the idea I note that @NicTrades suggesting they could perhaps do 0.5% this week. Far too logical I think!

But as we look back at nearly all of 2016 how much worse could the Forward Guidance of the US Federal Reserve have been?

The Ultras

No not the Italian football hooligans as I am thinking here of the trend that involved countries issuing ever longer dated debt. If we stay with Italy though Mark Jasayoko had some thoughts yesterday on Twitter.

Italy‘s 50year bond issued on Oct 5 is down 11.33% since. = 4yrs of coupons Dear bond bulls, enjoy holding on for the next half century.

Oh Well as Fleetwood Mac would say. There was also Austria with its 70 year bond which pretty much immediately fell and I note that this morning reports of a yield rise approaching 0.1%.  Those who gambled on the ECB coming to the rescue are left with the reality that such long-dated bonds are currently excluded from its QE. As for the 100 year bond issued by Ireland in March the price may well have halved since then.

Perhaps the outer limit of this can be found in Mexico which issued a 100 year Euro denominated bond in March 2015. Of course not even Donald Trump can put a wall around a bond but it puts a chill up your spine none the less.

As we look at the whole environment we see that taxpayers have done well here or more likely governments who will spend the “gains” and investors will have lost. Should the wild swings lead to casualties and bailouts the taxpayer picture will get more complex.

Comment

So we have seen a sort of revenge of the bond vigilantes although care is needed as a few months hardly replaces a bear market which in trend terms has lasted for around 3 decades. However there is a real economy effect here and let me highlight it from the United States.

Interest rates on U.S. fixed-rate mortgages rose to their highest levels in more than two years……..The Washington-based industry group said 30-year fixed-rate conforming mortgages averaged 4.27 percent, the highest level since October 2014……..The spike in 30-year mortgage rates, which have risen about 0.50 percentage point since the Nov. 8 election, has reduced refinancing activity.

That effect will be seen in many other countries and we will also see the cost of business loans rise. Also over time governments which have of course got used to ever cheaper borrowing seem set to find that the tie which was forever being loosened is now being tightened. How is the fiscal expansionism recommended by establishment bodies such as the IMF looking now?