What does Safe Haven mean in these troubled times?

We find ourselves yet again in a crisis and are reminded that some perspective is needed.  From CNBC at the end of last year.

The S&P 500 has returned more than 50% since President Trump was elected, more than double the average market return of presidents three years into their term, according to Bespoke Investment Group.

After that the equity market took the advice of Jeff Lynne and ELO as 2020 began.

And you, and your sweet desire
You took me higher and higher, baby
It’s a livin’ thing

Whereas a few minutes ago Bloomberg tweeted this.

European equities are poised for their worst week since the 2008 financial crisis.

So ch-ch-changes and another clear reminder of this came from Bloomberg as recently as the 20th of this month.

Virgin Galactic climbed again to a record high, defying analysts who say the stock is overdue for correction

We can stay with the theme of the man who fell to earth because since then the share price has halved from $41.55 to $21.30 after hours last night.

If we take this as a broad sweep ELO were on the case it seems.

It’s a terrible thing to lose
It’s a given thing
What a terrible thing to lose

Where can you go?

Japanese Yen, Swiss Franc and Euro

You may be questioning two of those so let me explain. If you look back in time I wrote quite a few articles on the “Currency Twins” the Yen and the Swissy. This was because they were borrowed heavily in before the credit crunch and people rushed to cover positions as it developed. This was equivalent to buying them and they surged building a safe haven psychology. Although it was more minor there was some of this in the Euro as well.

If we move forwards to now the simplest is the Swiss Franc based as it is in a country which is considered safe and secure, hence the demand at times of fear and uncertainty. The Swiss National Bank has returned to selling the Swiss Franc recently to try and keep it down. Switching to the Yen the main issue here is the large size of Japanese overseas private investments. At times of uncertainty the fear is that the Japanese will start to repatriate this and push the Yen higher so markets shift the price just in case. The Euro is not quite so clear but the area does have strengths as for example its current account surplus. Also at times like this it gets a bit of a German sheen as well.

You may have noted an interesting similarity here. This is that all these three currencies have negative interest-rates and I have posted before that there are avenues ahead where the SNB will cut to -1%.

US Treasury Bonds

There are two factors here of which the opening one is the effective reserve currency status of the US Dollar. So you can always buy commodities and the like in US Dollars with no risk of devaluation or depreciation. Next comes the fact that bonds offer a guaranteed return as in you will always get your nominal US $100 back as well as some interest, or if you prefer yield or coupon. So you get both the reserve currency and some interest, hence the knee-jerk rush into US Treasuries at a time like this.

The problem is the old familiar refrain that things aren’t what they used to be. In particular you get a lot less yield now as for example both the two and five-year yields have fallen below 1% overnight. I have chosen these because in a safe haven trade you tend  buy short maturity bonds. But it is also true that longer-dated bonds do not offer much these days as even the ten-year Treasury Note has seen its yield fall below 1.2% now. Some events here are contradictory because the two-year future is up 27 ticks this week and whilst that is really rather satisfactory for those who got in early it should not move like that if you are looking for stability. You do not want Blood Sweat and Tears.

What goes up must come down
Spinnin’ wheel got to go ’round
Talkin’ ’bout your troubles it’s a cryin’ sin
Ride a painted pony let the spinnin’ wheel spin

Some of the logic above applies to other bond markets which have soared too. Although in some cases the logic gets awkward because both the German and Swiss bond markets have yields which are negative across all maturities. So here we are back to the currency being a safe haven and such a strong one that people are willing to accept increasingly negative yields to take advantage of it. My home country the UK has seen Gilt yields plummet too as a combination of factors are in play. The irony is that the safest UK  haven which is RPI linked Gilts already were extremely expensive and frankly having little relationship with inflation which seems set to fall in response to the present crisis.

Gold

This is something of an old curiosity shop in these times. In general we have seen a gold price rally which continues a phase we have been noting in recent months. But it is also true that just when we might have expected it to rally rally further the price of gold fell backwards.  There are an enormous number of conspiracy stories about gold and its price but for out purposes it is something of a patchy safe haven. Our favourite precious metal was of course “The Precious! The Precious! ” in Lord of the Rings but in our world the central banks give that title to other banks.They however are most certainly not a safe haven as we learn more about the use of the word “resilient ” by central bankers.

Comment

Let me add another factor in the safe haven world which is timing.If you had movd into any of the markets above earlier this week you would now be doing rather well. This comex with an implication that prices and levels matter which often gets forgotten in the melee and excitement.

There are also other winners which get given temporary safe haven status at times like these.For example those producigface masks or involved in teleconferencing.  I have to confess I had a wry smile at the price of teleconferencing companý Zoom rising as it did not work on my laptop when I tried it for Rethinking the Dollar.

Apologies to those affected by a blog misfire earlier as Windows 10 played up again.

Will the 2020’s be a decade of currency devaluations?

Sometimes financial markets set the agenda for the week and as this week began they did so as the Renminbi ( Yuan) of China passed what some might call lucky number 7. The New York Times has put it like this.

The renminbi traded in mainland China on Monday morning at roughly 7.02 to the dollar, compared with about 6.88 late on Friday. A higher number represents a weaker currency. The last time China’s currency was weaker than 7 to the dollar was in 2008, as the financial crisis mounted.

In itself a 0.01 move through 7 is no more significant than any other. But that would be in a free float which is not what we have here. Also there has been a move of the order of 2% in total which is significant for an exchange rate which is both closely watched and would be more accurately described as a sort of managed free float. Anyway you do not have to take my word for it as in a happy coincidence the People’s Bank of China has been explaining its position.

China implements a managed floating exchange rate system based on market supply and demand with reference to a basket of currencies. Market supply and demand play a decisive role in the formation of exchange rate. The fluctuation of RMB exchange rate is determined by this mechanism . This is the proper meaning of the floating exchange rate system. From the perspective of the global market, as the exchange rate between currencies, exchange rate fluctuations are also the norm.

There are more holes than in a Swiss Cheese there as we observe an official denial that China has done this deliberately.

Affected by unilateralism and trade protectionism measures and the imposition of tariff increases on China, the RMB has depreciated against the US dollar today, breaking through 7 yuan, but the renminbi continues to be stable and strong against a basket of currencies. This is the market. Supply and demand and the reflection of fluctuations in the international currency market.

The PBOC clearly does not follow UK politics as otherwise it would know “strong and stable” means anything but these days! For example  the Reminbi has fallen by 1.8% versus the Japanese Yen if we stay in the Pacific and by 1.7% versus the Euro if we look wider.

Time for a poetic influence

I regularly report on the rhetoric of central bankers but I am not sure I have seen anything like this before.

It should be noted that the RMB exchange rate is “ breaking 7” . This “7” is not the age. It will not come back in the past, nor is it a dam. Once it is broken, it will bleed for thousands of miles. “7” is more like the water level of the reservoir, and the water is abundant. The period is higher, and it will fall down when it comes to the dry season. It is normal to rise and fall.

Perhaps the online translator does not help much here but there is a lot more going on than for example the English translation of the Japanese government always being “bold action” for the Yen.

Up is the new down

If your currency is falling then the obvious “Newspeak” response is to suggest it is rising.

In the past 20 years, the nominal effective exchange rate and the real effective exchange rate of the RMB calculated by the Bank for International Settlements have appreciated by about 30% , and the exchange rate of the RMB against the US dollar has appreciated by 20% . It is the strongest currency among the major international currencies. Since the beginning of this year, the renminbi has remained in a stable position in the international monetary system. The renminbi has strengthened against a basket of currencies, and the CFETS renminbi exchange rate index has appreciated by 0.3%

However if you are telling people this is due to the market it might be best to avoid phrases like “control toolbox,”

In the process of dealing with exchange rate fluctuations in recent years, the People’s Bank of China has accumulated rich experience and policy tools, and will continue to innovate and enrich the control toolbox.

So let me finish this section by pointing out that the PBOC has “allowed” the Reminbi to go through 7 this morning in response to something we noted on Friday.

Trade talks are continuing, and…..during the talks the U.S. will start, on September 1st, putting a small additional Tariff of 10% on the remaining 300 Billion Dollars of goods and products coming from China into our Country. This does not include the 250 Billion Dollars already Tariffed at 25%…

As the Frenchman puts it in the Matrix series of films.

action and reaction, cause and effect.

Bond Markets

One immediate impact of this has been that bond markets have surged again and we are reminded of my topic on Friday. The totem pole for this has been the bond or bund market of Germany where we see two clear developments. Another record high as the ten-year yield falls to -0.52% and as I type this the whole curve has a negative yield. Over whatever time span you choose Germany is being paid to borrow.

Japan

I do not envy the person who had the job of explaining market developments to Governor Kuroda at the Bank of Japan daily meeting. Firstly the Yen has surged into the 105s versus the US Dollar which is exactly the reverse of the Abenomics strategy of Japan. Then there was the 366 point fall in the Nikkei 225 index which is not so welcome when you own 5% of the shares on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. At least the trading desk will have been spared the job as they will have been busy buying the 70.5 billion Yen’s worth of equities that are typically bought on down days like this. This is neatly rounded off by the Japanese Government Bond market not rallying anything like as much as elsewhere due to the “yield curve control” policy backfiring and providing a clean sweep.

Oh and the day of woe was rounded off by the South Korean’s buying much fewer Japanese cars.

Switzerland

Regular readers will recall the period that I labelled the Yen and the Swiss Franc the “currency twins”. Well they are back just like Arnie and in fact with a 2.2% rally against the Renminbi it is the Swiss Franc which is the powerhouse today. It has rallied against pretty much everything as we remind ourselves of the last policy statement of the Swiss National Bank.

The situation on the foreign exchange market continues to be fragile. The negative interest rate and the SNB’s willingness to intervene in the foreign exchange market as necessary remain essential in order to keep the
attractiveness of Swiss franc investments low and thus ease pressure on the currency.

Well they were right about “fragile”. Do not be surprised if we see the SNB intervening again which will be further bullish for overseas bond and equity markets as that is where they invest much of the money.

Mind you equity markets are falling now meaning this from last week is already out of date.

SNB‘s pile of U.S. shares hits a record $93 billion on buoyant markets ( Bloomberg)

The Ashes

As I hope that England’s sadly rickety batting order can resist the pressure from a land down under today I have been mulling something else. Both countries have weak currencies at the moment and are perhaps singing along with Level 42.

The Chinese way
Who knows what they know
The Chinese legend grows

I could never lie
For honour I would lie
Following the Chinese way

 

Comment

Just like in the 1920’s will the 2020’s open with some competitive devaluations?

President Trump seems to quite like the idea if his tweets are any guide. In the Euro area we see a central bank that seems set to follow policies which in theoretical terms at least should weaken the Euro although the ECB is swimming against the trade surplus. I have covered the Swiss and the Japanese. So let me leave you with two final thoughts.

In the confused melee has the UK stolen something of a march?

Is there a major economy who wants a stronger currency?

Podcast

 

 

 

 

 

What does risk-off actually mean?

Today I intend to look at a subject which gets bandied about a fair bit but is not always well explained. Along the way we find that some of our regular themes and subjects are in play here. Whilst the concept of risk off may look simple we have learnt in the credit crunch era that such things rarely are as we introduce the issue of perception. One man or woman’s risk-off may seem rather risky to others. Also we have been taught that things that the finance equivalent of economics 101 would tell us are risk-free in fact are not. So let us advance cautiously.

Sovereign bond markets

There was a perception that these were risk-free although as someone who worked for many years in them I was only too aware that you could lose money in them. The bond market in my country the UK saw several solid falls in my time meaning that investors lost money. The risk-free element here was that you would always get your nominal amount back at the maturity of the UK Gilt. Although that always was something of an Ivory Tower definition as in the meantime inflation could and in the UK’s case is usually very likely to eat into the real value of your investment and foreign investors also have a currency risk. As over time the UK Pound £ has tended to depreciate then on average you would be a loser here.

At this point we see that “risk-free” was never really that anyway. Those who recall the heights of the Euro area crisis will recall the European Central Bank insisting that Greek government bonds be recorded as risk-free in banking accounts, or more specifically a risk-weighting of 0. This was something of a further swerve as the ECB with its many national treasuries is not linked to them in the way that most central banks which only deal with one are.

Be that as it may central banks have advanced the case of sovereign bonds being risk-free by the advent of the QE ( Quantitative Easing) era where they have bought them on an enormous scale. This has two main features, investors tend to be too busy congratulating themselves when large profits are made to worry much about the risk assumed. Next comes the concept of the world’s main central banks being effectively buyers of last resort for sovereign bonds and thereby providing a put option for the price. On this road we see that whilst in theory the risks have got higher in practice they may well have got lower because the central bank will not allow falls. The latter argument is reinforced by those of us who believe they cannot do so without revealing that they have not achieved the successes they claim.

Today

The thoughts above are highlighted by the fact that sovereign bond markets have been rallying strongly again over the last week or two. The risk-off theme has seen them rally in a new version of what used to be called a flight to quality. We have learnt that bonds may not be quality but that has been anaesthetised by the likely reality of central bank action. Putting this into numbers the US ten-year yield is 2.37% as I type this compared to this on the 22nd of March.

I will come to the cause of this in a moment but if we stick with the event we see that the ten-year US Treasury Note now yields 2.5%. The Trump tax cuts were supposed to drive this higher as we note that it was 3.24% in early November last year.

This type of risk-off trade has also been seen elsewhere as for example the UK ten-year Gilt yields 1.04%. This has mostly been missed in the wider debate as the UK could plainly borrow if it chose but we seem locked into a belief that borrowing is unaffordable when it is the reverse. The headliner in terms of numbers is Germany which has a ten-year bund yield of -0.11% and therefore is actually being paid to borrow all the way up to the ten-year maturity. Japan is the same although the negative yield is smaller.

Currencies

There are currencies which are perceived to be safe havens and thus see a flow of buying when fear appears. The stereotypes for this were the German Deutschmark and the Swiss Franc. In more modern times not only has the Euro taken over the role of the Deutschmark in the main but we have seen the Japanese Yen not only join the list but often be at the top of it. The present state of play is summarised by Dailyfx.com below.

The Japanese Yen’s current backstory is of course fundamental, with risk aversion stemming from increased US-China trade tensions supporting what is, after all, perhaps the quintessential anti-growth currency play.

The US Dollar has haven appeal too, of course, but the Japanese Yen is certainly beating it at present, with USD/JPY having wilted very sharply back to lows not seen since the start of February.

As they point out the picture is muddied by the fact that there are times that people go “holla dollar” or as Aloe Blacc put it.

I need a dollar dollar, a dollar is what I need
Hey hey
Well I need a dollar dollar, a dollar is what I need
Hey hey
And I said I need dollar dollar, a dollar is what I need
And if I share with you my story would you share your dollar with me
Bad times are comin’ and I reap what I don’t sow.
The other side of the coin is emerging market currencies which tend to be hit and at the moment our eyes are usually drawn to the Turkish Lira or the Argentine Peso. Hence the rumours out of Turkey yesterday that capital controls may be on the way as frankly there is not much else left to try.
The last couple of weeks has perhaps seen a new entry to the charts. What I mean by that is the way that the price of Bitcoin has been rallying and at times surging. As I type this it is above US $8000 on several exchanges which leaves us with plenty to mull as the last year or so has left us observing various crises in the new coin structure.
Comment
I have left to last the main other side of the coin which is equity markets which fall and the go lower. That is partly because of the ch-ch-changes here where even relatively small falls tend to have markets on alert for more central bank easing. This trend has been exacerbated by the way that US President  Donald Trump focuses on the stock market so much. However that does provide another argument in favour of bond markets as for example we have already seen the reverse QE programme called QT given an end date. I have written before that I would not be surprised if we saw more bond purchases by the US Federal Reserve in what would no doubt be called QE4. That could easily be sparked if the Chinese should start to sell their holdings of US Treasuries in any real size.
Thus we see that it is really only a perceived risk-off really and let me conclude by throwing in another factor. For some time individuals have seen foreign property investments as a type of risk-off trade but now we are seeing house price falls in many of the places they invested that may change. Although of course from the perspective of places like Argentina and Turkey that is small-fry and should things really light up again in the Middle-East many things will look relatively risk-free.

 

How many more central banks will end up buying equities?

One of the features of modern economic life is the way that central banks have expanded their operations. In a way that development is a confession of failure ( as why are new policies requited if they existing ones are working? ) Although of course that would be met with as many official denials as you can shake a stick at. We moved from sharply lower interest-rates to QE (Quantitative Easing) bond purchases to credit easing and in some places to negative interest-rates. The latter brings me to the countries I classified as the “Currency Twins” Japan and Switzerland who both have negative interest-rates and some negative bond yields. In fact this morning the Bank of Japan gave Forward Guidance on this subject.

The Bank intends to maintain the current extremely low levels of short- and long-term interest rates for an extended period of time, taking into account uncertainties regarding
economic activity and prices including the effects of the consumption tax hike scheduled to take place in October 2019.

So the first feature seems to be negative interest-rates and perhaps ones which persist as both Japan and Switzerland are on that road. Thus you start by funding yourself with money at a negative cost something which ordinary investors can only dream of. But we also have countries with negative interest-rates which have not ( so far) bought equities such as Sweden and the Euro area although the latter does have a sort of hybrid in its ongoing corporate bond programme.

However we find more of a distinguishing factor if we note that both Japan and Switzerland ended up with soaring exchange-rates due to the impact of the large carry-trades that took place before the credit crunch. This was what led me to label them the “Currency Twins”  and the period since then has seen them respond to this which has seen them via different routes end up as equity investors on a larger and larger scale albeit by a different route. An irony comes if we look at an alternative universe where Germany had its own currency too as in that timeline it too would have seen a soaring currency and presumably it too would be an equity investor.

Bank of Japan

Here is this morning’s announcement.

The Bank will purchase exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and Japan real estate investment trusts (J-REITs) so that their amounts outstanding will increase at annual
paces of about 6 trillion yen and about 90 billion yen, respectively. With a view to lowering risk premia of asset prices in an appropriate manner, the Bank may increase
or decrease the amount of purchases depending on market conditions.

As you can see the Tokyo Whale will continue to gobble up the plankton from the Japanese equity world and at quite a pace. The latter sentence refers to the way it buys more when the market drops which of course looks rather like a type of put option for other equity investors. That is what it means by “lower risk premia” although more than a few would question if this is “appropriate”

Also there are ch-ch-changes ahead. From the Financial Times.

the BoJ also said it would alter the balance of its ¥6tn ($54bn) per year ETF buying programme so that a much greater proportion was focused on ETFs that track the broader, market cap-weighted Topix index. The scale of its Topix-linked ETF purchases would rise from ¥2.7tn to ¥4.2tn per year, the bank said in its statement.

The Japanese owned FT fails however to note the main two significant points of this. The first is that the Tokyo Whale was simply running out of Nikkei index based ETFs to buy as it was up to around 80% of them and of course rising. The next comes from a comparison of the two indices where the Nikkei is described as very underweight this sector and it is much larger in the Topix ( ~9%). Regular readers will no doubt have figured that this is the “precious” or banking sector.

As of this month it has made major purchases on 3 days buying 70.5 billion Yen on each occasion.

Let us move on by noting that Japan has bought equities but so far they have been Japanese ones boosting its own market and keeping the impact on the exchange-rate to an implied one.

Swiss National Bank

The SNB has been a buyer of equities as well but came to it via a different route which is that once it implemented its “unlimited” policy on foreign exchange intervention it then found it had “loadsamoney” and had to find something to do with all the foreign currency it had bought. The conventional route would be to buy short-dated foreign government bonds which it did but because of the scale of the operation it began to impact here and may have been a factor in some Euro area bond yields going negative. The Geneva Whale would have found itself competing with the ECB QE operation if it had carried on so switched to around 20% of its foreign exchange reserves going into equities.

That is a tidy sum when we note it had some 748.8 billion Swiss Francs of foreign exchange reserves at the end of June. How is that going?

. The profit on foreign currency positions amounted to CHF 5.2 billion.

So at that point rather well but of course it is rather strapped in for the ride with its holdings which will have led to some fun and games more recently as it notes its holding in Facebook as the tweet below illustrates.

 

If you ride the tiger on the way up you can end up getting bitten by it in the way down. Also a passive investment strategy means you raise your stake as prices rise whereas an active one means you are an explicit as opposed to an implicit hedge fund. Some like to express this in terms of humour.

SNB OFFERS TO BUY UNLIMITED AMOUNT OF TESLA AT 305 ( @RudyHavenstein )

We do not know if the recent weakness in the so-called FANG tech stocks is just ebb and flow or a sea change, but the latter would have the SNB entering choppy water.

Comment

We see that this particular development can be traced back to the carry trade and a rising currency. Both of the countries hit by this ended up with central banks buying equities although only the Swiss have bought foreign equities. Perhaps the Japanese think that as a nation they own plenty of foreign assets already or there is an inhibition against supporting a gaijin market. That would be both emotional and perhaps logical if we note how many lemons have been passed onto them.

Looking ahead newer entrants may not follow the same path as we note that once a central bank crosses a monetary policy Rubicon it has the effect of emboldening others. The temptation of what so far have been profits will be an incentive although of course any suggestion that such moves are for profit would be meant with the strictest official denial. Should there be losses however we know that they will be nobody’s fault unless they become large in which case it will be entirely the fault of financial terrorists.

Putting this into perspective is the price I am about to describe. Around 1000 until the middle of 2016 but rose to 8380 earlier this year and as of the last trade 6080. One of those volatile coins the central bankers dislike so much? Nope, it is the SNB share price in Swiss Francs.

 

The soaring price of shares in the Swiss National Bank poses many questions

We find ourselves today looking at a country which exhibits many of the economic themes of these times and one of them is brought to mind by this from the fastFT twitter feed.

US 10-year bond yields creep further towards 3% milestone

The fact that the 10-year Treasury Note yield is 2.99% is part of what is called “normalisation” of interest-rates and bond yields, although care is needed as we have been here before. But my subject of today can say the equivalent of “bah humbug” to this as it has a 10-year yield of a mere 0.13%. If we look back and take a broad sweep it has had this yield averaging around 0% for the past five years with a low of -0.6%. In fact Switzerland can still borrow out to the 8 year maturity and be paid for doing so as its yields are negative out to their. So the old normal remains a distant dream ( or nightmare depending on your perspective) and let me throw in a thought. There are arguments you should use such times to borrow and invest but the Swiss have pretty much set their face against this.

The Confederation wants to ensure room for manoeuvre for future generations by means of a sustainable fiscal policy. It has been pursuing a strategy of a balanced budget in the medium-term and a low level of debt since the start of 2000…………Thanks to the debt brake, it has been possible to considerably reduce federal debt ( Department of Finance February 2nd 2018).

According to the OECD it has a national debt of just under 43% of annual GDP. Of course there is a virtuous circle between bond yields and fiscal surpluses but for these times Switzerland is rather abnormal to say the least.

Negative Interest-Rates

The Swiss National Bank has contributed to the above via this.

Interest on sight deposits at the SNB is to remain at –0.75% and the target range for the three-month Libor is
unchanged at between –1.25% and –0.25%.

Money rates are at -0.73% if you want precision and as Swiss Banks have some 573 billion Swiss France deposited at the SNB there will be an icy chill felt although of course the SNB did take measures to protect the “precious”. Nonetheless there is a cost. From Reuters.

Swiss banks paid 970 million Swiss francs ($1 billion) in negative interest rate charges in the first six months of 2017, according to central bank data, up 40 percent year-on-year as clients continue to hoard cash.

Interesting isn’t it that so far ( and we have over 3 years now) there has been little impact on cash holdings? We learn a little more about negative interest-rates from this as there does not seem to be much of an adjustment so far.

Boom!

Last week saw what was quite an event. From Reuters.

The Swiss franc fell to a three-year low of 1.20 against the euro on Thursday as a revival in risk appetite encouraged investors to use it to buy higher yielding assets elsewhere, betting on loose monetary policy keeping the currency weak.

This took us back to January 15th 2015 when this happened.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) has decided to discontinue the minimum exchange rate of CHF 1.20 per euro with immediate effect and to cease foreign currency purchases associated with enforcing it.

This was how interest-rates were reduced to -0.75% as the previous policy of “unlimited intervention” fell to earth. It was not that the SNB was running out of reserves as when you intervene against a strong currency you are selling something you do have an unlimited supply of at least in theoretical terms. But it was a combination of the scale of interventions  required and the side-effects and consequences which in this instance broke the bank policy.

As ever a move in interest-rates of 0.5% was in currency terms like putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg and the Swiss Franc surged.

; in midMarch 2015 it was at CHF 1.06 per euro, constituting a 12% appreciation against the minimum exchange rate of CHF 1.20 per euro in place until mid-January. ( SNB)

For newer readers wondering why the Swiss Franc was so strong it had been kicked-off by the reversal of the Carry Trade. If you look back in time on here you will see analysis of what I called the Currency Twins of the Swissy and the Japanese Yen who were affected by enormous levels of foreign borrowing pre credit crunch. This strengthened those two currencies after the credit crunch as some rushed to get out and of course the currency markets noted that at least some were desperate to get out.

This had a substantial human cost as many mortgage and business borrowers in Eastern Europe had taken advantage of low interest-rates in the Swiss Franc. They then faced surging monthly repayments when they were converted into the currency in which they had an income and quite a crisis was started. Of course doing such a thing was stupid but care is needed as whilst you should be responsible for your own actions it is also true that the banking sector did its best to miss lead on this issue and hide the risks faced.

Hedge Fund

On the road to the 15th of January 2015 the Swiss National Bank built up an extraordinary amount of foreign exchange reserves. In fact since there it has also intervened from time to time but on a much more minor scale.

The SNB will remain active in the foreign
exchange market as necessary, while taking the overall currency situation into consideration.

Which according to the 2017 annual report has led to this.

The level of currency reserves has risen by more than
CHF 700 billion to almost CHF 800 billion since the onset of the financial and debt crisis in 2008. The increase is largely due to foreign currency purchases aimed at curbing the appreciation of the Swiss franc.

Which has led to this as I pointed out on the 15th of March.

The majority of the SNB’s foreign currency investments are in government bonds, bonds issued by foreign local authorities (e.g. provinces and municipalities) and supranational organisations, as well as corporate bonds, or are placed at other central banks. The proportion of equities is one-fifth. Two-fifths of the foreign currency investments are denominated in euros, and more than one-third in US dollars. Other important investment currencies are the pound sterling, yen and Canadian dollar.

It has become rather a large hedge fund as we note the diversification into equities. Also we get a hint of why Euro area bonds have done so well as not only has the ECB been buying via its QE program so has the Swiss National Bank. A rally driven by competing central banks?

Comment

There is a lot to consider here as for example if we start with an international perspective what will happen to equities if the Swiss National Bank should stop buying and start selling? The bellweather of this is Apple where according to NASDAQ it owned some 19.1 million shares at the end of 2017. Care is needed as we are just below the 1.20 level and the SNB intervened at considerably worse levels but it could decide to reverse course soon at least in part unless of course it is singing along to the ladies of En Vogue.

Hold me tight and don’t let go
Don’t let go
You have the right to lose control
Don’t let go

Don’t let go
Don’t let go

Meanwhile staying with the theme of equities there is the ongoing issue of shares in the Swiss National Bank itself.

This has led to quite a lot of speculation that one day the private shareholders might get a share so to speak. This is how it looked back in October.

Less than a month after its stock smashed through the 3,000-franc-a-share barrier, SNB shares hit an intraday high of 4,324 on Wednesday and were trading as high as 4,600 on Thursday. The stock has tripled in value from a year ago, repeatedly confounding market watchers by regularly hitting records.

It is now 8380 Swiss Francs according to Bloomberg. Should shares in a central bank be doing this? The answer is clearly no as we mull a central bank which is partly privately owned.

Moving back to Switzerland I note many are calling this a success for the SNB. Odd isn’t it that this way round the counterfactuals that many are so keen on when things go wrong for central banks seem to get lost in a fog of amnesia? The truth is we do not know as currency trends ebb and flow but there is of course another factor. Any economic slow down would start currently with interest-rates at -0.75% posing the question of what would happen next? Perhaps they will run into Korean Won. From February.

The swap agreement enables Korean won and Swiss francs to be purchased and repurchased between the two central banks, up to a limit of KRW 11.2 trillion, or CHF 10 billion.

 

The Swiss mixture of negative interest-rates, currency intervention and equity investing

Today brings an opportunity to look at a consequence of several economic themes. The opening one is related to the way that in both economic and currency terms the Euro is something of a super massive black hole. This accompanies and has exacerbated issues caused by what was called the carry trade in the years that preceded the credit crunch. Back then borrowers both individual and corporate decided to take advantage of cheaper interest-rates abroad and in particular used the Swiss Franc and the Japanese Yen. This meant that both currencies soared and in the early days on here I christened them the currency twins for that reason. Both currencies were bounced around by this as at first as the trade was put on they were depressed but later as the credit crunch hit and nerves replaced greed both currencies soared. This showed how even national economies were to this extent the playthings of international currency flows and meant that Switzerland had elements of the Japanese experience.

Thus it should be no great surprise to see a country with elements of the Euro and the Yen experience finding itself in the cold icy world of negative interest-rates, From the Swiss National Bank earlier.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) is maintaining its expansionary monetary policy, with the
aim of stabilising price developments and supporting economic activity. Interest on sight deposits at the SNB is to remain at –0.75% and the target range for the three-month Libor is unchanged at between –1.25% and –0.25%.

This goes through to some extent on the nod these days but if we look at the economic situation we see something that is increasingly familiar.

In Switzerland, GDP grew in the fourth quarter at an annualised 2.4%. This growth was again primarily driven by manufacturing, but most other industries also made a positive contribution. In the wake of this development, capacity utilisation in the economy as a whole
improved further. The unemployment rate declined again slightly through to February. The SNB continues to expect GDP growth of around 2% for 2018 and a further gradual decrease in unemployment.

We set yet again that expansionary monetary policy coincides with economic expansion and there is a contradiction. We are told by the SNB that manufacturing is leading the charge whilst it also tells us that the Swiss Franc is at too high an exchange-rate.

The Swiss franc remains highly valued. The situation in the foreign exchange market is still fragile and monetary conditions may change rapidly. The negative interest rate and the SNB’s willingness to intervene in the foreign exchange market as necessary therefore remain essential. This keeps the attractiveness of Swiss franc investments low and eases pressure on the currency.

In other words perhaps the currency is not as big a deal for an area you might think would be price competitive and no doubt the situation below is a factor in this.

The international economic environment is currently favourable. In the fourth quarter of 2017,
the global economy continued to exhibit solid, broad-based growth. International trade
remained dynamic. Employment registered a further increase in the advanced economies,
which is also bolstering domestic demand.
The SNB expects global economic growth to remain above potential in the coming quarters.

So is the Swiss Franc too high as the SNB keeps telling us? If you think of foreign exchange markets as being “fragile” in one of the better periods for the world economy when can you ever leave the party?As you can see below the rhetoric is still the same.

The SNB will remain active in the foreign
exchange market as necessary, while taking the overall currency situation into consideration.

The Swiss Franc

Actually the indices of the SNB also pose a question about its policy as it has various real exchange rate indices and they are between 104 and 110 now if we set 2000 as 100. This is different to the nominal measure which is at 153. So the situation is complex as the carry trade pushed it down and then sucked it back up. Of course the SNB would say its policies have helped ameliorate the situation.

Hedge Fund alert

The enthusiasm of the SNB for currency intervention especially in the period running up to the 20th of January 2015 has led to it becoming one of the world’s largest investors. This is because in an unusual situation – from the Uk’s perspective anyway – it has intervened to keep its currency down rather than up so it has bought foreign currencies. this meant that it needed some sort of investment strategy.

The majority of the SNB’s foreign currency investments are in government bonds, bonds issued by foreign local authorities (e.g. provinces and municipalities) and supranational organisations, as well as corporate bonds, or are placed at other central banks. The proportion of equities is one-fifth. Two-fifths of the foreign currency investments are denominated in euros, and more than one-third in US dollars. Other important investment currencies are the pound sterling, yen and Canadian dollar.

As there were some 790 billion Swiss Francs of reserves as of the end of last year this is a big operation. With equity markets rising it has been profitable and of course over time so has the bond investing even allowing for recent tougher times. This has led to this.

Another important project was the renewal of the profit distribution agreement  between the Federal Department of Finance (FDF) and the SNB, which defines the amount of the annual profit distribution to the Confederation and
the cantons.

Yet as I pointed out on the 3rd of October last year there are also private shareholders.

Cantons own 45% of stock, cantonal banks 15% and private investors (individuals or institutions) the remaining 40%.

This has led to quite a lot of speculation that one day the private shareholders might get a share so to speak. This is how it looked back in October.

Less than a month after its stock smashed through the 3,000-franc-a-share barrier, SNB shares hit an intraday high of 4,324 on Wednesday and were trading as high as 4,600 on Thursday. The stock has tripled in value from a year ago, repeatedly confounding market watchers by regularly hitting records.

The price is now as of the last trade 5640 Swiss Francs so the rumours continue. We get many stories about central banks being privately owned which are usually not true whereas here there is some truth  to it.

Comment

There is a lot to consider about the present Swiss situation where we again see negative interest-rates and a different type of balance sheet expansion combined with recorded economic growth that is solid. We also see some familiar risks.

Imbalances on the mortgage and real estate markets persist. While growth in mortgage lending remained relatively low in 2017, prices for single-family houses and owner-occupied apartments began to rise more rapidly again. Residential investment property prices also rose,
albeit at a somewhat slower pace. Owing to the strong growth in recent years, this segment in particular is subject to the risk of a price correction over the medium term.

Things take a further step forwards when we note their line of thinking.

The SNB will
continue to monitor developments on the mortgage and real estate markets closely, and will
regularly reassess the need for an adjustment of the countercyclical capital buffer.

It seems as though rather than stepping back they might intervene even more reminding me of the words of Joe Walsh.

I go to parties sometimes until 4
It’s hard to leave when you can’t find the door

Me on Core Finance TV

The Euro rally has ignored the monetary policy of the ECB

Firstly let me welcome your all to 2018 and wish you a Happy New Year. Although those getting ready for the new Mifid ( ii ) rules still feel a little hungover. This bit looks good.

Brokers will be driven to move transactions in a wide range of securities onto open, regulated platforms, limiting unreported broker-to-broker deals that have been the traditional way to trade things such as commodities, bonds and energy.

This bit however begs more than a few questions.

Europe’s new rules require research to be sold and billed separately. This is very disruptive — as banks and brokers struggle to comply, fund managers rethink how they operate and analysts find themselves forced to prove their worth.

Am I alone in thinking that for more than a few this will prove to be a struggle?

The Euro

If we move to news then in financial markets our attention is attracted to thresholds and we are seeing a period of Euro strength as it rallies above 1.20 versus the US Dollar.

Of course this phase also involves a period of US Dollar weakness on the other side of the coin. This combination does pose a question for what we might call economics 101 as we saw only last month the US Federal Reserve do this.

In view of realized and expected labor market conditions and inflation, the Committee decided to raise the target range for the federal funds rate to 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 percent.

So on an interest-rate comparison basis there would be an argument for a higher US Dollar as not only is the ECB ( European Central Bank) deposit rate at -0.4% it has no  current plans to raise it and its President Mario Draghi has hinted several times that there may be no rise in his term. Also there is a difference in terms of QE ( Quantitative Easing) as the US Federal Reserve is beginning to reduce its holdings albeit very slowly whereas the ECB will continue to purchase a further 30 billion Euros a month until at least September. Thus whilst the ECB has reduced the size of its monthly purchases it remains a buyer as the Federal Reserve sells. Back in the day one of the “truths” so to speak of QE was considered to be that it would weaken a currency and yet it is hard not to have a wry smile as we observe exactly the reverse.

Trade Weighted

Actually the pattern here is very similar to that of the chart above showing the US Dollar. The recent rally started in the spring from just below 93 and now is above 99. Whilst there will be individual moves it is time for another wry smile as we note that for all the panics and shocks the Euro is very close to the 100 at which it was first measured in 1999.

As we have looked at several times before this reduces the inflation  trajectory and according to the Draghi Rule from March 2014 will have this impact.

Now, as a rule of thumb, each 10% permanent effective exchange rate appreciation lowers inflation by around 40 to 50 basis points.

This leaves us with something of a conundrum as the ECB is below its inflation target so will now presumably have to run a more easy monetary policy than expected which ordinarily should weaken the Euro, but so far we have seen the reverse.

Why is the Euro in a stronger phase?

A major strategic strength for the Euro is provided by this.

The current account of the euro area recorded a surplus of €30.8 billion in October 2017 (see Table 1). This reflected surpluses for goods (€26.2 billion), primary income(€9.8 billion) and services (€7.3 billion), which were partly offset by a deficit for secondary income (€12.5 billion). ( ECB data).

This continued a pattern which if we look further back is a song with a powerful and consistent beat.

The 12-month cumulated current account for the period ending in October 2017 recorded a surplus of €349.6 billion (3.2% of euro area GDP), compared with one of €363.4 billion (3.4% of euro area GDP) for the 12 months to October 2016.

Whilst balance of payments data remain unreliable as for example we see examples of countries who both think they have a surplus with each other! The Euro area has mostly via Germany run consistent current account surpluses providing support for the currency value.

If economic life was that simple then the Euro would only rise and of course it is not but another factor weighed in during 2017 which was the better economic performance of the Euro area.

We don’t see it as a recovery anymore, but as an expansion. The annual growth rate in the euro area is the strongest for ten years. We expect a GDP growth rate of 2.4% for 2017which by European standards is quite high. Business and consumer confidence are at their highest levels for over 17 years, according to the November reading of the European Commission’s Economic Sentiment Indicator. Seven million jobs have been created in the euro area since mid-2013. ( Benoit Coeure in Caixin General on Saturday).

Indeed he went so far as to imply this is the best period since the Euro began.

The breadth of the expansion in terms of countries and sectors is greater than at any point over the last 20 years.

The better news has been reinforced by the private sector PMI surveys published earlier this morning. From Markiteconomics.

The eurozone manufacturing sector ended 2017 on
a high note. Strong rates of expansion in output, new
orders and employment pushed the final IHS Markit
Eurozone Manufacturing PMI® to 60.6 in December,
its best level since the survey began in mid-1997.

Or as the Black-Eyed Peas would put it.

I got that boom, boom, boom
That future boom, boom, boom
Let me get it now

The outlook looks bright as well/

Forwardlooking indicators bode well for the New Year: new orders rose at a near-record pace, while purchasing
growth hit a new peak as firms readied themselves
for higher production. Meanwhile, job creation was
maintained at November’s record pace.

There was particular optimism for Germany which means the official data series will have to do quite a bit of catching up to play the same song. Also it was nice to see Greece simply recording an expansion as that has been so so rare there.

Comment

There is a fair bit to consider here but we are seeing a phase where the better economic performance of the Euro area is outweighing relative interest-rates for currency investors. The economic good news is problematic at a time of lower inflation as the ECB continues with both a negative interest-rate and monthly QE at a time of this.

The annual growth rate in the euro area is the strongest for ten years.

There have of course been better decades but even so the ECB is out on something of a limb here. They may yet regret not putting asset prices into the inflation measures and more than a few policymakers may be grateful that the higher Euro is putting a bit of a brake on things.

Meanwhile a stronger Euro is as I pointed out a little while back releasing a little of the pressure on the Swiss Franc as the exchange rate between the two at 1.17 edges its way back to the 1.20 floor of three years ago.

Does every silver lining need a cloud? Well a dark cloud is certainly provided by this from the Financial Times.

Now it says the “restatement of the financial statements of Steinhoff Investment Holdings Limited for years prior to 2015 is likely to be required and investors in Steinhoff are advised to exercise caution in relation to such statements”

The cake trolley at the Bank of Finland will no longer be arriving at the desk of whoever decided that Steinhoff was a good investment for the corporate bond QE programme.