Rating the credit watchers

The Covid 19 crisis has re-written the playbook for crises in the financial and economic world. Crises are usually a build-up of excess in one form or another; too much overseas borrowing (1997-98), inflated tech prices (2000-2001), too much leverage and debt (2007-2008). And with each crisis there has been the “How come the experts missed this” and what were the credit rating agencies thinking? Not this time. This crisis is a virus and impacts humanity with tragic consequences – and allows the ratings agencies to respond to events as they unfold.

So on Friday S&P did not change their BBB rating on Italy which was already on negative watch. Given the impact of the virus is likely to shrink the economy by 10% and take debt up to 155% of GDP it might be reasonable to say S&P were being charitable, possibly even political. But elsewhere the debt picture is equally gritty and the agencies are being less charitable, indeed, the number of negative rating actions across the corporate and structured world has increased materially since the beginning of March, with agencies giving little benefits and indeed credit to large swath of their rated universe.

The focus for markets to date has been on the quantum of ratings migration. With over $150bn of investment grade debt exiting the IG market to become high yield these “fallen angel” issuers have already topped the number in 2009.  Whilst Ford and Occidental Petroleum are the largest components there are expectations that this number will top $300bn by year end. With fallen angels exiting the Investment Grade market there could, mechanically, be an improvement in quality; in reality the nature of this crisis means there will be further debt issuance and more BBB issuance – so that is not to be. But the High Yield market is likely to increase by well over 25% as the fallen angels enter its universe.

So what should we expect from the rating agencies? Whatever construes a lenient approach should not be expected. Paradoxically, in an odd turn of events regulators such as the Bank of England are suggesting banks should be less prudent in provisioning to ensure they are not “clogging up” their capital; against this banks are likely to see 100% government guaranteeing of SME loans – none of this makes for a straight forward assessment for the agencies. And whilst banks and insurance companies hold a special place in the financial plumbing, the airline, hospitality and retail sectors do not.

Whilst support may be forthcoming for national champions such as Air France, the rating agencies tackled grounded fleets with downgrading the likes of IAG and Ryanair way back in late March. Issuers such as IHG (Intercontinental hotels) and Next have also been placed under review. Their ratings are in hand of government’s lock down trajectories and whatever is the new normal for industries figuring how social distancing works with customers they used to herd.  So far for this crisis the rating agencies are up with events but we are barely two months into the crisis and uncertainty still prevails.  Rating agencies decisions are not without material implications or cost for issuers – and themselves.

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

Details that blur the future in fixed income

At a headline glance it seems there is some calm returning to the financial markets. Equity markets are up 10% over the last month, sterling is back to around $1.25 and government bond markets are exhibiting some of their tightest ever-trading ranges in April. However, there remains gargantuan uncertainty ahead. Beyond the questions asked here of “Who pays?” there is also the growing changes in quality of data and markets.

Take inflation. It is not unreasonable to expect that the collapse of the economy will lead to deflation. We know toilet roll and hand gel cost more but to offset that package holidays will cost less. Yet what is the inflation (deflation) of a product that no one currently buys? And indeed, is the correct outcome to record a theoretical inflation number or a practical one? One of the premises of UK inflation is the manner in which products move out of, and into, our typical basket of goods.  For example, we now account for smart phones rather than vinyl. How this changes will have implications on everything from next year’s season ticket to RPI-linked bonds’ coupon payments.

And take central bank corporate bond purchases. Each central bank has responded in a way they believe is appropriate. Whilst the Fed has proved most expansive (announcing last week the purchase of BB-rated bonds) investment grade assets are very much front and centre of what central banks will buy. In the UK, this is the third time the Bank of England has purchased corporate assets since 2009. Given we have a well-trodden path of bank support it is not obvious why any corporate would want to be rated A. The ECB is set to purchase up to half of their “eligible” corporate bond universe by year-end. Credit market concerns in 2018 around the increase in BBBs to 50% now seem rather quaint, but 50% is now more likely a floor for BBBs (as a % of the overall indices) as the economic impact of Covid-19 send ratings lower.

The quality of markets is relevant to government bonds too. And not just in the most obvious ratings way; Fitch downgraded the UK to AA- at the end of March and markets will be on tenterhooks to see how Italy’s current BBB negative outlook rating is treated by S&P next Friday (24th at 10pm) – remember, the ECB prefers investment grade debt. The quality of markets is an elusive term but captures the sense of a free and fair market. The Bank of Japan has intervened to buy 10-year government bonds if they drift north of 20 bps since 2018. The Bank of England is stepping up its ownership of gilts to beyond one third of GDP.  The Fed has “infinite” capacity to purchase. Central bank policy – and details around that – are the key determinants of market value and the current aim is to crush volatility and see subdued rates for a long while to come.

These details and observations create different frameworks and value structures and do not detract from the immense monetary effort that has been corralled to deal with 15m unemployed in the US (as estimated by initial claims) nor the potential  collapse in the size of the UK economy by one-third in the second quarter but will create differing rational responses – some of which we can only start to imagine.

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

Who pays?

There is a sigh of relief in markets as the long Easter weekend approaches. Sadly, too many are suffering or worse from the cursed virus and many millions of key workers will be providing support to ensure “the lights stay on” for the rest of us.  However, we know that many companies and industries will be able to access cash; furloughing staff (rather than redundancy) is happening however, it is on what terms that cash is available and ultimately who pays that matters.

Today, the government announced further borrowing through its “Ways and Means” account. This is Her Majesty’s Government’s overdraft. As uncertainty continues and the bills mount, the overdraft provides the ability for HMG to write the cheques. As the overdraft gets bigger, the Bank of England will refinance the overdraft via Gilts. At a time of crisis it is fortunate that the Bank of England can print money; it is currently set to have bought a further £200bn of Gilts and corporate bonds by July. But will it be enough? Given that the £435bn of debt that Bank of England accumulated in various rounds of QE since 2009 have never been repaid, what is the likely political will to pay this £200bn (or more)?

And so it is in Europe. There are general warm words to help one another, but details failed to be agreed by the European finance ministers during their 16 hour teleconference on Wednesday. The European Central Bank is actively spending up to €1tn but in a potential re-run of the Euro crisis, Spain and Italy – in the eye of the humanitarian crisis – are not hearing warm words from the so called “frugal” countries in northern Europe. The Netherlands, Germany and others are not inclined to share the financial burden by having joint responsibility for new debt. Joint responsibility for debt at an instant puts an end to Eurozone crisis but there remains little likelihood that there is the political will in Germany and elsewhere to pay.

But some are paying. Shareholders of some of Europe’s largest insurance companies are following the Banks and not paying dividends. But EIOPIA’s (European Insurance and Occupational Pensions Authority) writ runs less large than that of banking regulators. As we saw last week, a letter from the PRA can stop banks’ dividends and curtail bankers’ remuneration. More of a mixed bag this week from insurers that currently leaves Legal and General paying its dividend but Aviva not. Dutch insurers were advised not to pay dividends but there is a more mixed response in France.

And savers are paying. With effective cash balance rates now at zero, savers will need to look elsewhere for income. Dividends from corporates are now very uncertain with companies like Tesco also under the spotlight. And for all of the government’s largesse, Rishi Sunak talks of loans. Someone will need to repay at some stage; for all of the financial engineering we have seen over the past weeks it would be naïve to think that taxation is headed lower – COVID 19 in many ways is a great leveller.

As and when we return to normality it will not be as it was. There will be long and visceral debate – which has already started – about who pays. 

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

…nobody thought that…

“Why did nobody see it coming?” was the question Her Majesty asked in 2008 of the financial crisis. From an investment perspective it is always good to review successes AND failures. The phrase “nobody thought that…” has been used in our virtual conversations many times recently and it helps encapsulate some of the dramatic events over the first quarter of 2020.

Nobody thought that way back in early February a virulent virus in the Wuhan region of China would collapse the global economy. Today’s estimates vary but global GDP is expected to contract in 2020 by around 3% from a previous expectation of positive growth of around 3%. For the year overall we should expect a 6% collapse in UK GDP too, from around 1% growth forecast at the start of the year. To put it into context, it is the worst collapse since the post-World War One contractions in 1920 and 1921, and worse than 1931. As the 6.6m weekly increase in US initial unemployment claims shows, this is truly horrific.

And nobody thought that interest rates would be cut to zero in the US within a fortnight. The scale of central bank intervention is truly staggering and, for the UK, at 10% of GDP mirrors the announcement from the Bank of England in March 2009. The Bank of England is currently buying £13.5bn of gilts a week. We have witnessed other quite incredible events; nobody thought that a geopolitical OPEC spat between Russia and Saudi Arabia would take the oil price to $20, lower than 2016, and materially lower than 1986 when adjusted for inflation.

So it is no surprise to see that in the last 10 days US investment grade spreads have touched levels not seen in over 30 years. No one could have predicted a 100 point price fall in the longest index- linked gilt in 10 days (from 300 to under 200). Similarly, in a rapid and unprecedented turn, moral and real regulatory pressure was placed on banks with a suspension of dividends for many major banks across the globe. This provided anxious subordinated bond holders (e.g. AT1 bonds) further worry, albeit these coupons seem safe for now. As with any investments, a turn of events driven by politics rather than contract can have unintended investment consequences and strengthen the chorus of “nobody thought that could happen”.

As we write our reports for the first quarter we will recognize good decisions; long duration, reduced credit exposures along with bad decisions, including exposure to oil companies and retailers. Such has been the ferocity of moves and prices that positioning for 1 March could be spectacularly wrong by mid-month. Many rational judgements have been destroyed as March played through and events happened that nobody thought could happen.

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

Picking our way through the rubble

There was an explosion in financial markets at the start of March; major economies literally shut up shop due to Covid 19 fears.  The emergency services arrived swiftly (albeit day by day it didn’t feel like it). The Fed and the Bank of England cut rates twice, the ECB announced bond purchases; generally there has been a spirit of “whatever it takes”. Fiscal support, everywhere, has been announced too. Investors are now picking their way through the rubble and seeing what is left, what can be salvaged and what has changed forever.

Bond investment covers all types of fixed income markets but readers will now know that that fear of dislocation in government bond markets has subsided. Central banks are hoovering up bonds and the US and UK yield curves are behaving accordingly. Nuanced gestures in Europe mean that the ECB is able to buy more Italian bonds than should prove necessary. Central bankers wearing their emergency services high viz jackets have done their job – and they have sorted the plumbing too. The mad rush to buy $ has subsided as the $ trade weighted index has reversed half of its crisis jump. Like all disaster sites, however, some areas remain higher risk.

Much of the fiscal support has been aimed at workers rather than corporates; that comes as no surprise as the economic impact hit the US employment market with 3.3million making initial unemployment claims. Earlier in the week it was the partisan politics in the Senate that delayed the US fiscal plan and equity and credit markets disliked the impasse; equity markets have marched materially higher since but the breakdown of who gets what is only starting to be assessed but credit markets are already sensing obvious winners and losers.

It will come as no surprise that companies in the airline, hotel and pub sectors are at the sharp end and their debt has yet to establish active trading valuations in many cases. However, in the winning corner are the largest credits and banks; the Intel, HSBC, MacDonald’s who have lead credit markets to the largest ever weekly supply of $ bonds with more than $100bn of new debt issued. Top quality investment grade credits have priced at a discount and capture generous spreads that reward for more than reasonable expectations of ratings downgrades and defaults.

The assessment of value, however, is ultimately an assessment of the timeline of this crisis. Spain’s death toll pushes higher, the human tragedy in Italy is real and the UK is seeing its leaders infected. We are all saddened by the human cost. Looking forward, the impact on the US economy still remains very uncertain. Our expectation is that all major economies will suffer dramatic GDP falls in Q2 but if the economic effects of the crisis start to be measured in quarters not months the relief in credit markets partially seen this week will become ever more palpable. 

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

The most incredible week

The most incredible week. More liquidity, fiscal support and forbearance than in any week, ever. Globally, responses have ranged from cheques in the post to government salary subsidies; central banks have shaken off reluctance to reveal largesse. Beneath the economic tumult there is the chill of humanitarian tragedy.

To steal from the more profound, this week marks the end of the beginning. We have an assessment of the crisis ahead of us. In the UK the government suggests anywhere between one and three months interruption of normal life. We are starting to sketch an outcome that will leave many businesses struggling and most with no clarity on outcomes for 2020.  Exhaustion not elation is the driver of pricing on Friday.

There is no need for a blow by blow account of the policy responses although £330bn stimulus and £200bn QE in the UK looks – at c.10 % of GDP -as empathic as anywhere. The ECB’s €750bn is as important in the detail – buying Greek bonds and reducing some current bond buying limitations – as in the size. National governments in Europe are supportive with Macron promising €300bn at the start of the week. All these measures- and more – in totality prove almost sufficient to deal with the economic pain of this crisis.

It is, however, the US and its currency that has been pivotal to the week. Whilst the €1.2trillion relief plan is working its way through the house the Fed slashed to zero and found a further $700bn for QE and a whole host of other measures. But it is access to $s -underneath all the above – that has been so crucial to investors this week. Countries, companies, traders and managers have needed $ to spend, service debt and margin call. The $ has had an unprecedented rally, outperforming its trade weight basket by 6%. Only by Friday have we seen a reversal of the $ appreciation. For $, read liquidity. And weak performance in EM, credit markets and volatility in government bond markets have been a response to the demand for $. We anticipate this to settle somewhat; some stability should return to the underlying structure of bond markets – but the crisis has further to unfold.

Central banks have made the provision of $ front and centre of their policy response through global provision of $ swap lines. Liquidity is provided but we are still feeling our way through the commercial impact of this crisis in risk assets. Despite the savage risk markets response – in equity and credit markets – there has been some new issuance in corporate bonds. Those that have been able to issue bonds have been utilities, telecoms companies and Pepsi – all perceived as universally robust for the current crisis. Companies in the travel, hospitality and gaming sectors ( to name just some), however, will need both access to government support but also some clarity through the passing of time and the crisis abating to regain some composure and confidence previously seen from investors.

It is safer to go back into the water today than Friday last. Government bonds have active buyers, $s are available. But we should anticipate for credit markets that many will want to stay on the beach until there is a clear sense of the beginning of the end of the crisis. And that is measured at a human level; a material decrease in the spread of Coronavirus and most importantly a collapse in deaths and a vaccine. Our thoughts are with all those affected and especially Italy.

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

The week that changed everything (again).

10 year Gilts, it seems incredible to say, ended the week more or less unchanged at 37bps. In the meantime the FTSE 100 lost over a 1000 points or around 17%. It might not seem like the most stunning event of the week but the inability of rates markets (risk free)  to rally – or act as a hedge to equity holdings ( risk markets) may have the most profound implications for investments. This is not to belittle the exceptional UK rate cut on Wednesday, the impact of the most expansive budge in a generation nor indeed the human toll of the Coronavirus and its knock on implications.

The slowing down of the Global economy is now a fact. The impacts will now be measured in units of severity rather than uncertainty. The EU now see GDP contracting by 1%. The UK’s forecast of positive 1.1% growth for 2020 very much looks like last week’s news. Evidently, there are sectors that will take the full brunt of major economies going into “curfew”. Travel and hospitality sectors are the most obvious but the knock on effect on banks is already being felt in valuations in credit markets. Both the ECB and the Bank of England are seeking to provide reassurance to the plumbing of the banking system and provide support to those effected, small and medium sized entities through loans and loan support. SME and larger companies can benefit from the cash flooding the system. Everywhere, prudential safety buffers have been removed to allow more cash to flow to the real economy. This is good news but there will always be concerns about the detail.

Credit markets –sandwiched between equity and rates markets had a compellingly fearful week. A simple measure of credit risk would be a frequently traded index of weaker credits (Crossover). This ended the week 1.5% higher in yield. Many high yield credit bonds fared worse than this with the oil sector particularly hard hit. With a slump of 1/3 in the value of oil occurring at Monday’s open many bonds fell dramatically in price between 10 and 30 points. Much like the relationship with Gilts and the FTSE the relationship between cash bonds and Indices became very confusing making tried and tested risk management techniques obsolete.

Much has been done by authorities to soften the blow of the virus. Expect more. We debate timelines but what was once set to effect Q1 will impact certainly H1 and clearly the whole of 2020.  Markets like to describe future outcomes in letters: V (swift bounce back), U (it will recover after a while) or L (we’re down here for a long while). At the end of this week, even with Friday’s bounce back in equities a U would be the best of it and credit markets believe “down here for a long while” is a real possibility. We have had no week quite like this since 2008. There is so much new information to digest. Much has been thrown up in the air and it will not all land back in the same place.

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

ESMA weighs in on bond liquidity

H2O, GAM, Woodford. Three fund managers that all faced crisis due to liquidity. Or rather, a lack of it. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the trade press has been filled with panicked comment on bond market liquidity.

Last Wednesday, the European Single Market Authority (ESMA) added fuel to the fire, releasing a report on their liquidity stress-testing. It was actually relatively benign, saying “The results show that overall, most funds are able to cope with such extreme but plausible shocks, as they have enough liquid assets to meet investors’ redemption requests”. It was not entirely rosy, however, noting “pockets of vulnerabilities” in certain asset classes where some funds would see liquidity dry up in the event of a fire sale, and would struggle to sell assets in a hurry. Naturally the press seized upon this and continued to work itself into a tizzy.

Illiquid assets bring a yield premium with them, and in a world of low yields these have become increasingly attractive. Many funds are snapping them up to boost returns. But it is vital to remember that the extra yield is in return for extra risk. Those who forget it may join H2O, GAM, and Woodford in realising that liquidity disappears at the very moment it is needed most.

At Kames, consideration of liquidity is absolutely key when evaluating a potential investment. We do not use illiquidity as a source of alpha. Instead, by maintaining a disciplined and rigorous investment process, we look to avoid those stocks that will become untradeable during a crisis. By keeping our funds agile, our clients get to sleep a little easier.

For more of our thoughts on bond liquidity, look here

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

Corbyn Proofing

Anyone who says they can predict the future of British politics at the moment is overconfident, ignorant, or trying to sell you something. The best we can say is that the relative probabilities of each outcome seem to be unusually balanced – or in plain English, that anything could happen.

Jeremy Corbyn becoming the next tenant of No.10 is one possibility. Concerns from the business community about the impact of a Corbyn administration have been rumbling for years now, but mostly remained on the periphery as Labour languished behind the Tories in the polls. In the current febrile environment, these fears suddenly look much closer to being realised.

The many policies proposed by Corbyn’s Labour have been discussed at length elsewhere. The key focus is on a significant redistribution of money and power from capital to labour, increasing public spending, and nationalisation of industry.

“Corbyn-proofing” a portfolio is not a simple task, but there are some actions one can take:

  • Reduce exposure to sterling, instead investing primarily in dollars, yen, and other core markets. The euro is an option, but the fortunes of the UK and the Eurozone are intertwined. The UK has its Brexit problem and Europe its growth problem, and the impacts will be shared between them. Corbyn’s enigmatic Brexit stance only creates more uncertainty for both sides.
  • Invest in global firms, rather than UK-based. Rising corporation tax and plans to compel domestic companies to dilute and distribute shares to employees do not make for booming share prices.
  • Despite plans for significantly increased spending and borrowing, gilts aren’t necessarily a must-sell. They are relatively cheap when compared to other major European markets. Despite Brexit, the Bank of England has not joined the rest of the world in forecasting rate cuts. Moreover, increased fiscal spending may be done via “People’s QE” in conjunction with the bank, and may not pull the rug out from valuations. The likely capital flight from the UK under a Corbyn government will slow the economy and support gilts.
  • Index-linked bonds may seem a sensible play against the prospect of inflationary fiscal policy, but long linkers have collapsed of late, courtesy of the Chancellor committing to a review of the flawed RPI measure. Linkers perform well on weaker sterling, but the pessimism around Brexit currently priced means the bias for sterling in the near term is upwards, as long as ‘no deal’ remains unlikely.

Ultimately, attempts at Corbyn-proofing are inextricably tied up with Brexit. Whilst no deal Brexit seems less likely at the moment (though more likely than anyone expected a year ago) it would be a brave person who sees Corbyn seeking a revocation Article 50. Corbyn’s instincts are anti-EU and anti-business elites; that’s a tough environment for UK asset performance.

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

A turgid dialect of English

My colleague Sandra Holdsworth often comes up with real gems in her observations of the market. This week she said “central bankers should do their market communication in a foreign language”. After mulling this over I think she has a point!

Way back in the 1950s it is fabled that Bank of England policy was made over a cup of tea and the raising of an eyebrow. Fast forward to 2013 and Mark Carney was very keen on providing clear forward guidance. Except that it hasn’t been very clear and arguably hasn’t worked very well. UK rates didn’t rise when unemployment zoomed through 7%. Brexit and the politics of “Project Fear” didn’t help the perception of clarity either. But it’s not just the Bank of England that has struggled to adopt the use of “plain English”.

The US Federal Reserve introduced “dot plots” in the early 2010s. The idea was to give a clear outlook to rates, except that actual Fed funds policy has moved nowhere near what they had been predicting. So when previous Federal reserve chairs Bernanke and Yellen failed to raise rates in line with what had been suggested, the Fed minutes became longer and longer. Policy misses need more explanation, or to put it more simply, if you don’t want to admit you are wrong best hide it through more words. In times past, previous Fed vice chair Alan Blinder referred to central bankers’ language, “Fedspeak”, as a “turgid dialect of English”.

Which returns us to Sandra’s point. Central bankers should be made to communicate not in their native tongue. One’s ability to obfuscate is greatly increased when one employs a carefully constructed rationale to reflect a course that is clearly collegiately predetermined yet which in fact has deviated from the desired outcome. See, no way could I have written that in French. Far easier to hide one’s true meaning in your own language.

Which of course is ironic. Despite having the most difficult job of corralling 19 disparate national central bankers, English is the lingua Franca of the European Central Bank. Doing “whatever it takes” is so much more easily spoken by an Italian in English.  You’d never get an Anglo Saxon central banker talk “plain English” like that.

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

€6.75trillion should do it!

The Eurozone is very much expecting some further monetary stimulus. Whether it’s July, September or later remains to be seen, but both the timing and the quantum will be key. Whilst a deposit rate cut is firmly on the cards, the size of potential bond purchases is up for debate.

How much should the ECB spend? We believe €6.75trillion should do it! This is a throwaway number – the ECB couldn’t buy that many bonds even if it wanted to, as there aren’t enough bonds available in practice to buy.

However, to illustrate some of the current funk for central bankers, the ECB (like the Bank of England) still has a 2% inflation target. The Governing Council clarified in 2003 that “in the pursuit of price stability it aims to maintain inflation rates below, but close to, 2% over the medium term”. 2003 now seems like ancient history, with the current rate 0.75% below this target at 1.25%.

So how did we arrive at €6.75trillion? Our government bond team spied a very sensible piece of research by Credit Agricole. They used various in-house models that looked at wages, employment, growth, currency and many other factors; they figured that an 18 month bond purchase programme of €50bn would increase core European inflation by 0.1%. So we figure that if the ECB wanted to achieve its 2% inflation target and aimed to do it solely by bond purchases, then to increase the Eurozone rate from its current 1.25, it would need to buy €375bn a month or €6.75trillion over 18 months.

This is, of course, fanciful and will not happen. But what it does illustrate is the stretched situation that monetary policy is in. For Europe, the debate is set to drift. Effective stimulus needs both monetary policy and fiscal policy. Whilst it is still early days for a sea change, the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has already asked the EU commission to review finance rules governing the EU. We now have former French finance minister Christine Lagarde taking over from Mario Draghi at the ECB. Current market valuations leave no room for fiscal policy to not be part of the overall solution.

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

Goodbye Akihito, hello Japanification?

As Emperor Akihito abdicates and Naruhito assumes his father’s role, we thought a review of the Japan and the UK since 1989 might be interesting – the year in which Akihito became Emperor.

First, of course, Akihito’s puny 30 years at the helm rather pales in comparison to Her Majesty’s all-other-UK-monarch-beating 67 years and counting. Back in 1989, too, UK interest rates (using UK base rates as a measure) were a mighty 13% and, like Her Majesty’s efforts, materially more than Japan’s 2.5%. Japan’s bubble burst after the Japanese discount rate was ramped up to 6%. By the end of 1995 Japan had cut rates to 0.5% and, bar an effort in the mid-2000s that saw rates go up to a whopping 75bps, they have remained in “not very much” territory ever since. (Indeed, other policy tools are now used, and the Bank of Japan focusses on the Policy Balance Rate). Thus, Japan has had rates below 1% for almost 25 years and so the phrase “Japanification” was born. Very low inflation, no inflation, or indeed deflation has been the norm and despite reform efforts over the last 5 years the economy has not had sufficient momentum to push rates higher.

Source: Bloomberg

This year is the 10th where UK rates have been under 1%. There will some who argue that given the UK’s more open economy and younger population, bar Brexit diversion, UK rates should be substantially higher.

Japan is not the UK, but it is a reminder that even if rates do go up in the UK, the hikes are unlikely to be dramatic.

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

A tale of two debt mountains

In the second half of 2018, the increase in BBB debt became a thing. “Look at how BBB debt makes up almost half of the corporate index now” became a thing to worry about. It suited the narrative around wider credit spreads, weaker equity markets, higher US rates; a self-fulfilling prophecy of debt-filled doom. Except that this isn’t anything new: what we see today has been the case for a number of years.

Share of BBB-rated bonds in major investment grade indices

Source:iBoxx as at 31 December 2018

It’s worth having a think about why there’s more debt. There are lots of answers to this question, but there is one very obvious explanation: Debt is cheap. By way of an example, back in 2016 BBB-rated British American Tobacco issued 35-year debt with a 2.25% coupon (tax deductible for BAT), while at the time the dividend yield on BAT shares was 3%…

For government debt markets, cheap funding costs are not whole the story. Whilst corporates may get downgraded because they choose to have more debt, governments tend to get downgraded because they, well, have to have more debt. No need to go into the politics of the doubling of the UK’s debt pile over the last 10 years, but the mix of Keynesian economics supporting an otherwise weak economy along with the desire for social cohesion has meant the UK government needed more debt funding. In the process the UK lost its AAA rating; Moody’s cut the UK to AA1 in 2013 and to AA2 in 2017. Same for Japan, AA2 back in 2011 and now A1 rated; and it was S&P that took the knife to the America’s credit rating in 2011 taking it to AA+. Only 58% of the Bloomberg Barclays government bond index is AAA and AA today, down from 94% at the start of 2009. When looking at government bond markets, the ratings sag of the world’s governments is just as pronounced as in corporate bonds.

As home owners in the UK and elsewhere know, it is not the nominal amount of debt that matters (per se), but instead the ability to service that debt. As government debt has ballooned over the last 10 years, gilt funding costs have significantly decreased, supported by zero interest rate policies, quantitative easing and the low/non-inflationary environment. Better rated corporates whose funding costs are “spread” to governments (like the aforementioned BAT) have thus benefited too, along with less well-rated credits as investors hunted for yield.

There should be no “shame” for corporates rated weaker A or high BBB. Academic and market wisdom has it that in these rating areas companies have the “right” balance between debt and equity and can achieve the best cost of capital. That is less clear cut for governments.

For investors, the concerns over weaker corporate ratings should also be concerns of weaker government bonds market ratings. Numbers in isolation only tell part of the story, but an increase in BBB debt provides opportunities for active managers. Too much debt drags on both corporate and government balance sheets alike. Whilst the two are inextricably linked, the solutions are potentially very different. Companies (that are able) can either trade their way out of debt or sell assets. Governments, on the other hand, can either hike taxes (typically politically tricky) or hope for some inflation; those that have their own currency can always print money.

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

Inverting yield curve dogma

Short rates have gone up in the US. Longer rates less so. The yield curve has flattened; is flattening; and conventional wisdom has it that this will continue. In due course, short rates will yield more than long rates. Think of, for example, two-year bonds at 3% and 10-year bonds at 2.875%. No problems with the maths, but does it mean anything?

The second part of that conventional wisdom is that as the yield curve inverts it is the amber light for a forthcoming slowdown. However, unlike the amber traffic lights which are typically set at five seconds, there is no predetermined time after which there has to be a recession, indeed if it all.  It could be a year (as we saw in 1990) or many years (as we saw in the late 1990s). That is the stuff for bond fund managers’ debate – but there is a determinism here. What if the patterns over the past hundred years are wrong? What if it is different this time?

Enter analysis from BNP Paribas. Its research shows that up until the 1930s the yield curve was almost always inverted (i.e. it’s not different this time, it’s just that we haven’t seen this for a long time!) Perpetual Gilts traded at a premium to short dated “call” money. It is worth thinking of it like this: Those people who had money didn’t want the hassle of chasing higher yields from the lightly regulated banking system. Stay safe with Gilts and let those who really needed money squabble for it at higher yields. No doubt a simplistic view of the materially less regulated world of late 19th Century bond markets, but there are parallels with today. Regulation demands that a whole chunk of pension fund money is locked away for the long term in safe assets almost irrespective of the cost of “call” money, which is creating ( as we have seen many times and continue to see in long Gilts) an inverted yield curve.

So why debate this now? The Fed is spending a lot of time worrying about what an inverted yield curve might mean for expectations as well as economic reality. As the graph below shows: the pre-1930 world was far choppier in terms of recession and expansion.

US Yield Curve Versus RecessionsSource: Macrobond, BNP Paribas

Todays’ sophisticated world of central banking and generic 2% inflation targeting provides stability; but as Quantitative Easing stops and the unwind drips the stock of bonds back to the market we are in unchartered territory. It might just be a little too easy to assume an inverted yield curve means upcoming recession.

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

Beautiful inside my portfolio forever

It has been 10 years since Damien Hirst sold 233 lots at Sotheby’s raising $198m – entitled “Beautiful inside My Head Forever”. The sale was conducted on September 15th & 16th and the timing proved an odd counterpoise to the destruction and collapse in financial markets. It helped highlight the surreal nature of financial markets when compared to the “real world”.

To prove to the art world that financial types don’t, well, understand art, I thought it would be useful to compare how Hirst’s art had done compared to the global high yield bond market. As even us financial philistines know – there is no visual pleasure in ownership of a high yield portfolio, but there is in Hirst’s dots or sharks.

Here’s the back of a pharmacy cabinet analysis. Hirst’s $198m put into the global high yield bond market would have more than doubled over the last 10 years – let’s call it $400m bar the shouting. A Google search of Damien Hirst’s price index shows a peak prior to the financial crisis and values are currently around one third of those in 2008. Hirst’s $198m sale would now, in theory, only raise in the region of a paltry $65m.

So I guess that’s asset allocation for you, or simply the power of carry. Or maybe the moral is to be a rich philistine or a poor artist. Or alternatively be Damien Hirst.

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

Kames Wags ESG Axe

For those wanting to find out what fund management is all about, don’t watch “Billions”. However, ever of the moment, Season 3 Episode 9 sees Taylor Mason pitch to a Russian oligarch, Axe Capital’s first foray into an ESG strategy. 29 years behind Kames, Taylor…

The screen plot, nonetheless, aims to emphasise tension between Taylor and Bobby Axelrod; Taylor does have a point when saying “I think international criminals are unstable bedrock for a cap raise”….

But it does raise the question who should want an ESG approach to funds and indeed what that ESG approach should be. There are added complications for fixed income investors too; no voting rights and benchmark parameters for starters. So to make Showtime’s scriptwriter’s life easier I have written Taylor’s script for how she should pitch ESG next time to John Malkovich, the Russian oligarch or one of his henchman.

“First, break a habit of a lifetime and obey some international government rules and don’t buy companies that make cluster munitions. In the words of our President, Bad! Anyways we can do better than that.”

“Second, you value your health, right? So don’t finance the black stuff. No oil: we don’t want you breathing too much Co2. Oil companies are out.” Oligarch squirms to consider the source of his ill-founded fortune.

“Third”, Taylor adds, “We can use algos to screen for bad companies. I’ve selected the best team to analyse ESG factors. These guys are winners.” [In this episode Taylor selects crack computer geeks to do “bad” things in equity market quant strategies. Let’s use our imagination and think they might be able to effectively screen ESG factors – something we have struggled with given the data quality]

“Fourth, and if you really care about ESG,” Taylor looks emphatically into the eyes of the now seething oligarch, “we incorporate it into what we do. No analysis without thinking how these companies are managed. We’ll figure out how they impact their workers, their customers. Are they damaging the world? If you want to do good you need to think about this. Are you with me?”

Taylor finishes “We want you to invest and deliver sustainable development goals….” at which point the Russian oligarch blows: John Malkovich at his malign, evil, sphinx-like best smashes his fist on the table and screams “What do yooooou take me for…?”

Of course this is all a bit surreal but it does display the various ESG approaches potentially available. We are firmly in the camp of bottom up research for the ESG investment process – and not being John Malkovich.

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

Poor PreferencESG

Preference shares took centre stage on the financial pages and Aviva press cuttings during March. It looks like we haven’t seen the end of the shenanigans with reports of further FCA digging. So what was all the fuss about?

Firstly, a bit of relevant background. These preference shares look like a bond (pay coupons) but have no fixed maturity i.e. are irredeemable. They also look like equity, carrying voting rights. Issued back in the early 1990s, at the time they added to the capital of the issuer and have traded like ultra-long bonds. Indeed as the instruments were issued with dividends (coupons) in the ball park of 8%, it is no surprise they have traded materially above their 100 issue price. The Aviva 8.625% bond was trading at 175 before the Aviva announcement.

So why did Aviva make its proposal to cancel these preference shares? Since the financial crisis there have been myriad changes to banking regulation and one of the outcomes of this is that these preference shares are not as useful as they were in counting towards capital as set down by regulators. Thus, Aviva, not unreasonably, sought to figure out how it could redeem the irredeemable preference shares.

Nothing wrong so far except for the plan. The plan proposed was in essence to amalgamate the voting rights of ordinary shareholders with those of the preference shareholders, ensuring the preference shareholder voice was drowned. Or put another way: propose a legal scheme by which the small minority (the preference shares) who are receiving those 8.625% coupons are made to vote equally with the vast majority of shareholders, who are in essence paying the 8.625% coupons. Good for ordinary shareholders because the proposition was to buy the preference shares back at 100 – where they were issued over 20 years ago – rather than the current market price of 175.

Even more succinctly, the scheme proposed a compulsory property purchase at 1990s prices (100) rather than today’s price (175). How could that “clever” scheme have been proposed? Who thought that that could be a good idea for ALL stakeholders? Forced appropriation of assets at below market price isn’t the stuff of equitable governance. No wonder there was uproar; the proposal had all the hallmarks of inward looking self-interest and absence of broader scrutiny.

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

Watering down tax structures

On 28 July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognised the human right to water and sanitation. It will also come as no surprise that in the UK we have enjoyed clean water for generations. Investing and supporting companies that deliver clean water certainly falls into ESG investing.

However, ownership of the assets that deliver water and sanitation has become political in the UK. As investors in bonds issued by water companies, we are keen to ensure that we maintain the value of our investments. There are three strands to our analysis. First is the effective management of these companies. Second, is the ability to reinvest in assets to deliver future cash flow and returns. Finally, exploring the social, regulatory and political environment in which companies operate.

It is this very last point that has recently become more material in our assessment of the UK water companies. At the start of February the Social Market Foundation issued a report claiming that the nationalisation of the water industry would cost in excess of £90bn. Water and its ownership have become a political issue; the election campaign in 2017 saw the Daily Mirror run this headline: “The Labour Party claims the water industry has been used for tax avoidance and says it’s time to bring it back into public ownership”. The use of offshore tax structures have become a political issue for an industry that has spent, and needs to spend, billions investing and delivering water in the UK.

Our fixed income team, together with our ESG-research team, has penned a letter to a number of major bond issuers in the UK water sector. We wrote that the nature of delivering clean water infrastructure requires further investment but that past and future investment should be conducted in a tax framework that, in itself, gives confidence to the public as consumers. There was no accusation of tax evasion but that certain efficient tax structures are not publically acceptable in times of strained public finances. We wrote that “Perceptions of what is acceptable have undoubtedly changed in recent years” and encouraged issuers to review tax structures that offer the perception of “cute” financing arrangements.

As investors our responsibility remains to the value of our investments. As such, and as our letter stated, “It is our responsibility to balance any reputational issues that adverse publicity may create within our overall risk assessment”. The rights and merits of public or private ownership are not ours to judge, but where we can influence to reduce uncertainty and volatility in the value of our assets, that is in our gift and interest.

Transparency builds trust and goodwill with all stakeholders (including investors). We hope that in some small part we can encourage transparency in how the companies we invest in manage their arrangements and in doing so, ensure effective delivery of water to all in the UK.

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

Five things to remember from 1994

The bond market’s memory is arguably short, but 1994 remains vivid as the last time that interest rates were raised in an aggressive, systemic fashion led by the US Federal Reserve.  The effect was dramatic with a near doubling of 2 year Treasury yields to over 7.5%, with Fed Funds moving to 6% from 3%.

Here are some other facts from 1994 that still reverberate today.

1) Amazon was founded in 1994. Now with a market capitalisation of $700bn, it has had a huge impact. It has disrupted and undermined traditional market assumptions across a whole range of sectors from real estate to retailing. As a barely profitable organisation it has grabbed huge market share and decimated inflation.

2) Lehman Brothers was floated having been spun out of the Shearson Lehman Hutton combine. In under 15 years Lehman’s aggressively leveraged balance sheet collapsed with spectacular results, ensuring the rapid dismemberment of its $680bn balance sheet in a disorderly fashion.

3) NAFTA was signed in 1994. Even if it isn’t completely revoked it is viewed as helping Donald Trump to the White House. The politics of around a fifth of US cars in effect being produced outside the US lingers, despite a fourfold increase in overall trade and an ongoing cap on inflationary pressures in the US.

4) US Debt. The US Budget deficit in 1994 was 2 1/2% of GDP; and outstanding US Treasury bonds totalled a rather paltry (by 2018 standards) $4.6trillion. Fast forward to 2018 and the Federal Reserve alone has amassed almost that amount of bonds for its Quantitative Easing programme. The amount of outstanding Treasury bonds has quadrupled whilst GDP has only doubled, leaving debt to GDP double at 100%.

5) None of the above takes away from the dramatic market sell off in bonds during 1994. An index of the treasury market would have lost almost 3.5% in total with most of the damage being done in the first quarter of 1994.

Market participants rightly fear a return of such bear sentiment, but a rerun is not on the cards.

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

Video: Carillion and other areas of the market investors should be wary of

Adrian Hull and Stephen Snowden share their views on Carillion and other areas of the market investors should be wary of.

‘It’s obvious that retail is going through a very difficult period of time and will continue to do so. The internet has just killed traditional retailing as we know it and the pressure will only get worse.’

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

Video: A view from the US

In this short video, Adrian Hull discusses the outlook for the US market.

‘Certainly a lot of people think there will be a material repatriation of overseas assets for US corporates which will feed in to the US economy…’

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

The small print view of 2018

Life as a journalist covering fixed income is usually easy in January. They will wheel out last year’s article about the imminent collapse of bond valuations and head off to the pub or the gym. If you are lucky you will get a Bill Gross soundbite for a headline! This year has so far been no different, and the Kames fixed income team is keen to avoid such hyperbole and instead offer a more grounded and realistic viewpoint. So, what do we expect?

Government bond yields will continue to remain low but the most likely outcome is that they drift a little higher in 2018. That is likely to be true across all the major markets. Today, 10-year US bonds are at 2.65%, 10-year gilts at 1.35% and 10-year bunds at 0.57%. Fixed income, like all markets, doesn’t move in a straight line, but we are most likely to be managing rates risk within portfolios, anticipating that we could see 3% on US 10s, 1.6% on gilts and potentially up to 1% on bunds during 2018 (mindful that along the way yields may well be lower than where they are today). As active investors we will change exposures and there is a fair chance that 31 December 2018 does not represent the highest point in yields.

What does that mean for short rates? We think it is unlikely that short rates head higher in the UK or Europe. That is most likely a 2019 event and the UK has to deal with the headwind of Brexit. European economies fared better in 2017 but will want to cement their growth path before looking to increase rates. As we have seen from the US, the rates path is slow and shallow. We could see further rate hikes in the US and the market anticipates between two and three increases of 0.25% in 2018. Inflation is set to remain tame by recent standards; US and European inflation could nudge up towards 2%, while UK inflation is likely to retreat from RPI above 3%.

The majority of our assets in fixed income remain invested in credit markets. Credit markets performed well in 2017 and it is unlikely we will see that same level of outperformance in 2018. Nonetheless the extra carry and returns from actively managed portfolios will add performance, and we hope to do better than just the coupons received. We have noticed an increase in events that have the potential to unnerve credit markets, but currently they have only gently rippled into sentiment. We start the year more mindful of that risk, but without a dramatic change to how portfolios were positioned before Christmas.

Each year there tends to be an event that gives us the opportunity to change our risk profiles and add to performance. Having said that, the most exciting opportunity in 2017 was early in the year during the run up to the French elections. 2017 was atypical and our expectation is that we see some events creating more material volatility in 2018. For example, that may be around the Italian elections in spring. Or a further reduction in bond purchases by central banks could inject material concerns into markets. Tax reform in the US could change some behaviours. Other geopolitical events may add to volatility. The current tentative rapprochement on the Korean peninsula may be short lived. Iranian politics could spike oil prices. Eastern European politicians may be less willing in EU plans than currently indicated. There are a host of challenges and the chance is that none of the above capture the market’s imagination but other factors do. We continue to endeavour to be ahead of events.

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

Not the South Sea Bubble

Christmas allows the opportunity to pull a book off the shelf and read. This year’s thriller was “The Great Swindle” a dated (1960) historical account of the South Sea Bubble.

It’s all in there for today; credit, greed, hubris and collapse. Winners and losers. A number of parallels caught my eye. Back in 1720 there were many “bubble” sceptics and these included Britain’s first Prime Minster, Robert Walpole and the then Archbishop of Dublin who wrote “..I am not concerned in it, for I think, if the debts of the nation may be paid by th[is] folly…it will be very well for the public”. Indeed, many felt that the transfer of the public debt burden onto individual stock holders was a good thing. No need to go into the particulars of what the scheme was, but in modern day parlance it was a “debt for equity swap for UK plc”.

Skip forward almost three hundred years and many of the debates of the 1720 are today’s debates, but in reverse. Today, it is generally accepted that government debt issuance to fund the state is a good thing – the exact opposite to the purpose of the South Sea Company. One of the overriding structural changes of the last ten years has been the transfer of debt from the private to the public sector. Today’s balance sheet increase – QE – has its critics, but few argue that that response didn’t soften the impact of the 2008 recession.

South Sea led to asset price inflation as those who profited and exited South Sea investments bought carriages, houses or land. A similar comparison could be made of asset owners over the last ten years, who are seen as having benefited from QE and zero interest rates. Today’s zero interest rates has impacted materially savers solely reliant on negative real return deposits.

The South Sea Company proved to be a get rich quick scheme despite the veneer of Parliamentary respectability seeking to reduce the country’s debt burden. The timeline of today’s ZIRP is in stark, prolonged contrast and very different to the flash in the pan of 1720. Wiser punters such as Sara, The Duchess of Marlborough saw that “this…project must burst in a little while and fall to nothing”. Whilst Walpole stabilised the South Sea bubble in late 1720, it wasn’t until 1733 that the Company was divided up and over another hundred years before South Sea successor companies closed. Maybe an interesting thought to the timeline where by QE is unwound in today’s G7 economies?

At peak valuations in 1720, the value of the South Sea Company was more than the total of Great Britain’s national debt at £50m, and GDP at an estimated £64m. It makes the UK’s asset purchases of £435bn by the end of 2016 – being a mere c.25% of GDP – look rather tame by comparison. Both post 2008 and post 1720 the issue of the day was stabilisation and dealing with deflation caused by bubbles.

So what does this all tell 2018’s investors? If there is a bubble out there, likely it’s called Bitcoin or tech. Bitcoin, like tech stocks, offer exciting chances of betting on a new, different future – much the same way as the South Sea Company did in 1720. But more pertinently it’s not the bond market. Whilst government bonds most likely drift higher in yields in 2018, it’s not a bubble – there will be more to worry about elsewhere.


Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

The King (well, Queen) is dead, long live the King!

Janet Yellen is set to be replaced by Jerome Powell as Chair of the US Federal Reserve. Whilst markets have speculated what the new kid on the block will deliver, the outcome is evolution, not revolution. Powell was not the preferred candidate of those who thought that interest rates should be materially higher; rather Powell is born in the image of Yellen, who gently allowed short rates to edge higher over her four-year term.

But just as significant is the change down the Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC) pecking order. The FOMC’s vice chair Stanley Fischer is gone, as will be William Dudley – the New York Fed rates ‘hawk’ who announced early retirement for mid-2018. There are further rotations to the rates-setting committee in 2018, which will see the dovish Neel Kashkari exit to be replaced by the more hawkish John Williams.

So what does this all mean? A change in members creates further uncertainty as people’s pronouncements tend to differ when they are ‘in the job’ i.e. on the FOMC. But more importantly, markets will be keen to see what ‘mettle’ Powell brings to his new role. Markets will want to understand what the FOMC looks like and testing its mettle is likely to be on the agenda. Expect to see an increase in volatility, especially in the front-end of the $ market. However, this is most likely at a disappointing rate compared to the choppier days of Greenspan and Volcker.

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

Forward guidance – 2017 style

UK rates move up by 0.25%. This was widely anticipated – but more interestingly – what next?

Carney and the MPC would like to be have some flexibility but as the short press statement reminds us – they are as much in the dark about the economy up to, and after, Brexit as the market is. Six of the eight paragraphs in the statement refer to the impact of Brexit on their decision, which was voted 7-2.

They have not said anything as emphatic as ‘rates aren’t going up again soon’, but the following sentence does hint at that outcome : “All members agree that any future increases in the Bank Rate would be expected to be at a gradual pace and to a limited extent.” Rates are set to stay low, uncertainty prevails and gilts shooting higher in price after the midday announcement gives an insight into the markets thinking. This rate cycle is set be a long and protracted affair.

All over bar the counting

November’s Bank of England MPC meeting is set to send base rates 25 bps higher. Ever since MPC member Andy Haldane’s comments in June, markets have started to price in rate rises. Comments from another member, Vlieghe, further surprised the market and his rate rise stance has been broadly supported by the Bank’s Governor, Mark Carney.

Markets have accepted a rate rise for November as a foregone conclusion and if nothing else a totemic moment. A generation has not seen rates go up in the UK; the last rise was over 10 years ago in June 2007.

What is a matter for debate in markets is the rate rise after November’s – and the simplest way of gauging this is the counting of the votes of the nine MPC members.

The slimmest majority at 5-4 would leave the market unsure that there might be a ‘next’ rate rise in short order and believe that it was ‘one (rate rise) and done’. After all a 0.25% increase only reverses the cut made immediately after the Brexit referendum vote in 2016.

An (unlikely) vote of 9-0 would show a unified MPC worried about ongoing inflation and the capacity for low unemployment to feed through to wage pressures. An 8-1 would fall into this camp too, as David Ramsden’s most recent comments suggest he is not for higher rates. No-man’s land is 7-2 and yesterday John Cunliffe commented that a rate hike was an “open question” suggest his vote could go either way.

But a 6-3 vote would see a committee viewed as not necessarily gunning for further rate rises. Suffice to say, as ever, market watchers are desperate to read the tea leaves for future rate hikes…but it seems all done for November, bar the counting.

Spare a thought for index-linked!

Government bond markets tend not to register as volatile; media headlines typically focus on shares falling by whatever huge amounts.

But spare a thought for holders of index-linked!

Last week saw the largest weekly fall this year in the long index-linked gilt. The index-linked ‘68s (Gilt 0.125% March 2068) started the week at a price of 260 and ended it at 227 – a fall in value of well over 10%.

Index-linked gilts offer security in providing returns linked to inflation (as measured by the Retail Price index) but they do not offer any certainty over capital values – as last week proved.

One of the main drivers of the high price of index-linked debt over the past couple of years has been the implicit exposure to longer-dated bonds – i.e. duration. And last week saw valuations take a tumble.

As our inflation expert James Lynch remarked on BondTalk on Thursday, we saw a re-run of June’s speech by Andy Haldane; this time the market took fright at Gertjan Vlieghe’s conversion to a base-rate hawk from his previous dovish position. As one of the nine voting members of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, his “conversion” matters. And unlike Haldane, who suggested rates should reverse last year’s post-Brexit emergency cut of 0.25%, Vlieghe thinks rates need to move beyond that.

Money markets are now pricing 80% likelihood of a 25bps rate hike for the November meeting; but the trajectory beyond that is far from certain. Unwinding last year’s questionable base rate cut might make sense, but do not confuse that with an ongoing ratcheting of rates higher. Oddly if that were to be the case, index-linked bonds would likely reverse some of last week’s falls.

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

Why a disorderly queue is worse than an orderly QE

The UK’s reputation took a further plunge as investors queued outside the Bank of England yesterday (see below) demanding payment in either gold or other hard currencies in exchange for the pound.

The currency took a further lurch lower in value after another frantic day’s trading on currency markets. Following the Governor’s refusal to bail out the UK’s major banks in 2008, the UK has failed to break from its cycle of recession after the catastrophic effects of the collapse of an effective payment system in 2008. The subsequent widespread economic hardship was exacerbated by The Bank of England’s refusal to allow Quantitative Easing (QE). The policy of QE has been aggressively pursued by other major central banks since 2009, leaving the Bank of England an outlier. The European Central Bank incrementally added its QE programme which saw a rapid solution to its “Euro crisis” in 2011.

This scene from yesterday, outside the Bank, is reminiscent of Northern Rock’s collapse 10 years ago, which saw then Chancellor Darling bail out that bank, but encouraged him and the Prime Minister to not support further bank rescues in 2008.

Yesterday’s demand was from a disparate collection of private individuals and investors, and marks the further increase in tensions as the currency slipped to further all-time lows against both the dollar and euro. As overseas investors continue to shun the UK government bond market, double-digit gilt yields further undermined equity market confidence.

Last year’s vote to leave the European Union only exacerbated the already weak financials. Conditions continue to worsen as net immigration to Europe and the rest of the world reaches levels not seen since the 19th century. The government aimed to reassure investors, but with an ounce of gold costing sterling-based investors over £10,000, it is difficult to see normal conditions returning to the UK anytime soon…

Or rather, is it just a queue of collectors keen to have one of the new Jane Austen £10 notes launched today?

My counterfactual history of events 10 years on from the financial crisis is clearly ludicrous. But whilst QE may be bad, it is like Churchill’s remarks on democracy: QE is the worst form of policy, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

Nothing to fear except price itself?

Is the real challenge for fixed income markets solely their valuations? Most measures from the global real economy point to stronger PMI, lower unemployment or increased GDP – all suggesting that rates should be higher. So why are Treasuries at their lowest yields this year?

US rates are in the tug of war between bond bulls and bears, with bulls currently having the upper hand. There is little doubt that the 1% increase since the end of 2015 has done little to dampen the US economy; the counter to this is that the economy has not run away either, seemingly regardless of significant swings in the dollar’s value. Cheap debt has fed into all aspects of rates and credit markets as financial repression reduces yields across markets. Are we in a goldilocks scenario? Or should we fear more than price itself?

There are signs of individual sector stress that aren’t as noticeable at an asset class level. Carmakers, typically with higher credit quality, are selling fewer units, while online retailers are redefining valuations for second-tier shopping malls. Credit market quality is also a subject of debate. Looking back to 2005/06, many corporates have slunk to lower credit ratings. But for the most part debt serviceability is not materially impaired, and financials’ credit quality is demonstrably stronger.

Maybe North Korea offers the opportunity to shake things up? Spread widening reactions so far to missile tests have been measured in Richter scale numbers (single digits) rather than nuclear equivalent, tonnes (hundreds). This points to markets with lower volatility, but could be an implicit bull signal. Certainly if it is only a war of words and further sanctions achieve the removal of uncertainty, this could prove bullish for credit markets.

Of course central bankers are really key to whether we should expect more of the same or not. They have been hyper-proactive in support of monetary policy and balance sheets have grown dramatically. We are now headed into a period where a reverse is the case. The Phillips curve and other econometric models that tell us to expect inflation to materialise from current levels of unemployment and growth are being challenged. Central bankers are the pilots frantically tapping their instrument gauges, knowing they need to land but have to do it on their own as well as negotiate the crosswinds of investor sentiment.

Markets expect an orderly removal of stimulus over a long period of time – and that orderly process is captured in current market valuations. A disruption to this view could cause meaningful market volatility and a back-up in valuations.

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

Masterly manipulation

“Masterly manipulation” it was called by J.M.Keynes in secret papers in the 1920’s. Today we call it QE. 

A fascinating and only recently discovered entry in old Bank of England ledgers revealed that in 1914 the Bank was forced to purchase Gilts for itself as there was insufficient demand for its new issue. The issue of the £350m “War Loan” in 1914 was reported as being a success; press articles of 1914 talk of demand ”pouring in” for the deal. Yet, £250m of the transaction was never sold and quietly shuffled away on to the Bank of England’s ledger – or balance sheet.

So what have we learnt from this historical discovery?

1) Just because the newspapers (social media, today) say it’s a good deal it doesn’t mean it is a good deal. Having some healthy scepticism is “stock-in-trade” for the Kames Fixed Income team, and we trust for our readers.

2) QE will happen in extremis but ultimately it is about delivering confidence. In 1914 it was about financing a European war and failure to be seen to be doing so would have had huge political ramifications. Similarly, in 2009 confidence in the financial system was shot and QE helped rebuild confidence in the system. Something had to be “done” and globally central bankers responded by tripling their balance sheets over the next eight years.

3) It has taken over 100 years for the “masterly manipulation” of War Loans to come to light. Despite some disquiet, Gilt purchases in the UK or purchases by other central banks have been done in an open, transparent and formulaic fashion. With today’s QE there is no obfuscation with the purchase process but QE’s unwind is less clear and a matter for public debate. Institutional transparency is a part of the confidence we have in our system. We may not like QE but it’s a whole lot more transparent than a hundred years ago.

(Thank you to the authors of the excellent bankunderground blog: https://bankunderground.co.uk/2017/08/08/your-country-needs-funds-the-extraordinary-story-of-britains-early-efforts-to-finance-the-first-world-war/#more-3230)

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

Awake at the wheel

“Asleep at the wheel” has been the accusation levelled at central bankers such as the Bank of England (BoE) over the financial crisis of 2008. But eager to prove its new found vigilance, the BoE yesterday tightened its controls on bank credit by announcing changes to its counter cyclical buffer (CCB).

The CCB aims to ensure banks are considered in their lending; it requires that banks increase their capital by 0.5% by this time next year and, all other things being equal, to 1% by November 2018. That would equate to £11.4bn extra capital required to back loans in the UK. All very prudent and exactly the sort of pro-active approach that central bankers should implement in boom times.

Yet politics suggest that we are still in a fiscally restrictive environment. Witness yesterday’s British Social Attitudes survey, which has a section entitled “A backlash against austerity”. Think what you like about austerity but it isn’t the stuff of boom times. So what’s the BoE worried about?

A very low savings rate is at the heart, coupled with a material increase in consumer lending through credit cards and car loans. But in an economy growing at below 2% with declining real wages, what are the Bank’s concerns? Most recent public statements over the path of interest rates centre on whether to reverse last summer’s rate cut. But Carney’s raising of the CCB must – even if only at the margin – slow the start and path of rate rises. And 0.25% or 0.5% is the discussion; the UK is not about to replicate the US rate cycle where short rates are up 1% since 2015.

The BoE aims to take a leisurely approach to the CCB increase. Like many of Carney’s initiatives it may be that the message is more effective than the action; he sees some risks but there’s no need to rush; time may mean these risks just disappear anyway. Brexit headwinds remain a challenge for UK policymakers and that is evident in the public tussle over rates with MPC members. It is difficult to view the CCB action in isolation. There is a suspicion that the BoE may just be fighting the last war and not the next. And the orders from the generals are contradictory.

Sign up to receive our weekly BondTalk email

Monetary policy: Soft or hard approach – not just a political dilemma

As the anniversary approaches of the Brexit referendum it is not just political life that has been buffeted by the referendum’s fallout. Yesterday, Bank of England MPC member Andy Haldane said he would most likely be voting for higher rates later this year. This was a day after his boss, Mark Carney, indicated that rates shouldn’t go up. This is the central banker’s equivalent of the different approaches to Brexit voiced by Philip Hammond and Theresa May.

Wind back to the policy response after last year’s referendum. BoE action was fast and furious as rates were cut by 25bps and a further round of gilt and corporate quantitative easing was announced. For some this response was an outcome of the pessimistic expectations for the economy from the ‘Project Fear’ playbook and was ahead of events. However, the solid growth of the last year is starting to lose energy. Weak-currency-induced inflation and continued high debt levels are playing havoc to consumers’ real spending power. Wage inflation is failing to keep pace with inflation, keeping pressure on both consumers and politicians.

So what is the difference between Haldane and Carney? To be fair, Haldane refers to “partial withdrawal of the additional” policy measures from last summer – i.e. rates can go back to where they were prior to last year’s vote, back to 0.5%. But the current environment of decreasing consumer spending power and the uncertainty over the Brexit negotiations are not a great backdrop for rate rises – Carney’s point. Furthermore, the election has thrown a “dust cloud of uncertainty”, to borrow from Haldane. The politics of austerity are in the spotlight too, with dwindling Tory enthusiasm for it along with the fallout from the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Despite likely looser fiscal policy it also feels more likely that a soft rather than hard approach to monetary policy is on the cards.

Careful what you wish for!

Careful what you wish for! Steve Jones our CIO uses this phrase; Theresa May should have heeded these words. Not a natural gambler, May’s snap election has backfired leaving political uncertainty. There is little doubt her political authority is reduced and there will be all kinds of conclusions emerging today, most notably around the style of Brexit and her leadership. As you might imagine this morning’s meeting had the full gamut of opinion and debate.

Senior equity manager Phil Haworth summarises the state of play as “no mandate for anything stupid” – a hard Brexit is less likely and the UK is more likely to reach some economically-sound agreement, such as joining the European Economic Area (EEA). The counter is that May’s reduced political mandate leads to a worse negotiating position, with EU politicians being able to jibe May and ensure a Brexit path with less control of the process and a more material likelihood of crashing out of the EU into WTO rules. The outcome of the next few days of political discussions are crucial. As we write the Conservative Party knows May has failed to deliver her mandate but heresy would be to allow a minority Labour government for all Conservatives. Also, the UK has switched Northern Ireland for Scotland as the “king maker” of Westminster politics. But it is difficult to see the Democratic Unionist Party’s 10 seats in support of pro-Republican Jeremy Corbyn.

The market reaction to increased uncertainty so far has focused on weaker sterling, but even that looks muted as currency markets seem to interpret a hung Parliament as a softer Brexit. Equally so within the gilt market; gilts are a touch higher but there is not panic here. Further sterling weakness could see higher-than-forecast inflation. At this point Mark Carney becomes increasingly important; gilts and global bond markets are at range lows and data continues to make valuations looked stretched. Today’s electoral wobbles do not change that view. The MPC has looked through “transitory“ inflation and worries about consumer demand. With investment at only 15% of GDP and consumption nearer 70%, the consumer remains the barometer for rates policy. Given the central bank’s comments on the squeezed consumer we expect Mr Carney to remain supportive for rates markets, but he is no guarantee to gilts continuing below 1% in 10 years.

As the politics play out, opportunities should emerge; our concern is that fascinating politics may not make for the volatility we would like to see – continuing one of the themes for 2017 so far. This is no 1992 when a surprise election result saw gilts move higher by 5 points!

Somewhat dovish

The “solids, modestly and little changed” have it. Yesterday’s FOMC minutes as ever run to a dozen pages and steer the market into its thinking. The small bounce of around 25c in 10-year US Treasury prices show the text was received in a “somewhat” dovish tone. Central bank speak is always measured but May’s minutes were more measured than March’s.

Despite this, the trajectory of higher US rates was reiterated, as the FOMC “expects economic conditions to evolve in a manner that will warrant further increases”. More tellingly is that the stock of $4.5trillion odd government and mortgage-backed bonds aren’t for sale any time soon and the key reinvestment of coupon payments are set to be ongoing. What is new is the management of the amount of reinvestment of maturing bonds that will take place.

Enter into the market lexicon reinvestment “caps”. The idea here is that the nominal amount of maturing bonds increases over time and a higher cap means a smaller reinvestment into the market. Set to be discussed at the next meeting, the “caps” could well be introduced by Q4 this year. The FOMC is at pains to add that this should happen in a “gradual and predictable” manner. The market will squabble over the rate and scale of the quarterly increase of the caps, also the balance between Treasuries and ABS along with the tenor of what remains to be reinvested.

So there you have it. Business as usual. Rates are set to trickle higher at some stage – although expectations remain “modest” – and only when the economic conditions demand it; and expect only a slow and gradual unwind of QE.

Taxi Driver – the sequel

Sequels are rarely good as the first. In Robert De Niro’s original 1976 film, Taxi Driver, Vietnam veteran Travis descends into New York’s low life as sexual infatuation and delusion overtake him.

As the original is based on sex it’s no surprise that the sequel is about money. In this case the cost of being allowed to buy a New York cab licence, known as a “medallion”, and its implications.

New York cabs is a regulated market with around 13,500 medallions allowed. As New York recovered from the 2008 financial crisis, the cost or value of a medallion increased dramatically to $1.3m in 2013 being driven by a combination of this restricted market and cheap money.

And today? Medallions sell for $241,000 as Uber decimates the existing regulated taxi business. This is not without implications. Clearly the disruption caused by technology – Uber in this case – has destroyed the value of the incumbent market by 80%. No wonder taxi drivers are angry.

The figures from Capital One – the US lender – show why it’s a problem. Most cabbies don’t have the cash to buy a medallion, so borrow it. Capital One has $655m of loans to cabbies and the non-performing loan rate of that part of its lending is 52.7% – doubling over the last year. For Capital One it is a huge hit in a tiny part (0.25%) of its overall lending. Evidently chastened by large write-offs in small areas, Capital One tells us it is “building a tech brand”: reading through Capital One’s annual stockholders’ presentation and its key (basically only) theme is “disruption caused by technology”.

Lenders are starting to understand this to ensure they can effectively manage exposures to sectors under stress (e.g. cabbies) to ensure their profitability. The lesson here is that the negative effects of disruption emerge in unexpected places.

Taxi Driver the sequel has a less happy ending than the original. De Niro runs out of bullets to shoot himself but I suspect the sequel sees the cabbie succumbing to his debts. For Hollywood, the villains will clearly be bankers, but the real – and unseen – villain is surely technology.

Netflix launches Billions

OK, so “Billions” is actually produced by Netflix competitor Showtime, owned by CBS and broadcast in the UK by Sky Atlantic. However, yesterday, Netflix issued its debut bond into the Euro market with €1bn of 3.625% 10 year bonds using its B1 rating.  What is unusual with Netflix is its vast market capitalisation at $63bn is often associated with materially better rated companies.

Netflix being one of the FANGs (The new tech stock of Facebook – Amazon – Netflix – Google) is still in build-out phase as it aggressively invests overseas to capture market share.  Whilst subscription revenues are evenly divided between the US and the rest of the world, US profits subsidise overseas expansion with top line growth of up to 30% – which is a key ingredient to its huge market capitalisation.  The pricing was fairly aggressive for a B1 issuer, but the halo effect of being a FANG means the deal isn’t breaking bad as it is around ¾ point higher today. The Crown in yesterday’s European high yield market.

Step out of the shadow

We believe there is a long shadow of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) that still prejudices investor sentiment to risk and return within corporate bond markets.

Recently we were asked about default rates in investment grade credit, and what impact this had on our positive view of the asset class.

We answered that over time investment grade spreads more than compensate for the risks of generic ownership of investment grade bonds. To support our view we borrowed some long-term evidence from the 2016 S&P ratings analysis around defaults, covering the period from 1981 to 2016.

According to the study, the Lehman default was twice the size of the next largest defaulter – Ford Motor Co., in 2009 – which in turn was almost twice the size of Energy Future Holdings at $47bn in 2010. In each year prior to 2008 (excluding WorldCom in 2002), the total default amount was less than $10bn.

Yet the lingering concern for credit markets continues to be the revisiting of the scale and size of defaults in the GFC – and the knock-on contagion that curtails access to credit. Our brighter view is that there continues to be ready access to credit for investment grade issuers and that the outlook continues to be for solid, sustainable growth – which doesn’t have the same cyclicality as we have seen over the past 40 years (the period of the S&P study).

We would note that the 2008 GFC was the first systemic crisis within the S&P study period, while the next crisis is likely to take a very different format to that of 2008, not least due to the regulatory and macro prudential steps taken by authorities since 2009.

In the last five years, 99.7% of BBB issuers have not defaulted. In terms of the triple digit basis point spreads available in investment grade markets over that period (and today), the defaults have been almost de minimis. So we continue to believe that the ongoing benign economic outlook combined with active management can ensure good levels of capital preservation in well-constructed corporate bond funds.

2016 Annual U.S. Corporate Default Study And Rating Transitions – click here to view

UK election – Bypassing the bond market, again

Election announcements make good theatre. A rushed press conference, lectern in the middle of Downing Street, searing Prime Ministerial looks and boom – a snap election for June 8.

In years gone by, such uncertainty was a source of material volatility to all markets, especially bond markets, and certainly worthy of more than the 5bps of volatility that we saw in gilts yesterday. But this gives us a clue to what is going on.

The volatility we saw at the end of June and July 2016 was obviously Brexit driven. What calmed markets was the swift resolution to the power vacuum, the UK proved resilient and institutional stability prevailed.

The action was all in the currency market with the c15% fall in sterling against the dollar on a trade-weighted basis. And so it was yesterday too: the action was in currency with a push to $1.28 and a cent on the euro exchange rate. There is no institutional uncertainty in Theresa May’s announcement – quite the opposite. It is a grab for power via a larger majority in Parliament with the desire to deliver the Brexit she sees fit and not one she has to discuss and share with Remainers nor hard Brexit Tory backbenchers. All very calming for the bond market.

There are clearly risks, though. Jeremy Corbyn is elected? Low. UKIP? Now Article 50 is triggered their raison d’etre has been removed. A resurgent Liberal Democratic party retaking Tory seats? More likely but the old Lib-Dem heartlands were in the “Leave” voting South-West. Scotland? Here we have the fourth general election or referendum in four years but despite the SNP’s push for IndyRef2, they are likely to face the Unionist challenge and lose Westminster seats. In short, the gilt market is comforted by the 20 point lead for the Tories in the opinion polls and expect June 9 to be business as usual but emphatically so.

As it stands today, politics are not a driver of material gilt market volatility. The action is in the currency markets and the currency-sensitive FTSE. An increase in gilt market volatility is most likely driven by non-domestic factors.

The coupon’s round trip

A few days ago we wrote about the possibility of the US Federal Reserve not reinvesting maturing bonds in its QE programme. Over time this would see the Fed’s portfolio of bonds reduce to zero (a very long time). This debate is about the reinvestment of maturities, but of course ignores those tricky little coupon things.

There are a whole load of technicalities around the administration of this, but it is in governments’ interests that the QE unwind happens slowly.


Let’s look at the UK. With the Bank of England (BoE) owning £435bn of gilts, Her Majesty’s Treasury (HMT) pays £15bn to the BoE.

If the BoE kept those coupons, the amount of bonds would compound by about £15bn a year, which, over time, would exponentially increase the nominal amount of bonds held by the BoE. This would lead to the BoE in essence being dominated by that relationship – which is not ideal for a central bank tasked with delivering independent advice.

Thus, the £15bn of coupons are sent back to HMT; a “round trip” that in essence means HMT has more money in its pot – and all of the political implications around that large dollop of money.

It is odd that this receives such little attention. It should be a charged and political issue given its enormity, but it gets lost in the vastness of QE.

To reinvest or not to reinvest

Last night the US Federal Reserve debated its $4.5 trillion balance sheet. This discussion has started to gain momentum with the change of politics on Capitol Hill at the end of 2016, and with one of the Fed governors William Dudley already indicating that 2018 may start to see a reduction of the Fed’s balance sheet.

Despite the end of Quantitative Easing being in sight QE “continues” here in the UK as well as in the US through the reinvestment of maturing bonds which has the effect of maintaining a static nominal balance sheet. That doesn’t hit the headlines as this is regarded as the small print and quietly forgotten – but it is material and going forward is up for grabs.

So for example, in 2018 the Bank of England will continue QE to the tune of £18bn as it reinvests maturing bonds. Policymakers to date have chosen to reinvest redeeming bonds in order to keep their nominal balance sheets constant – in the UK’s case £435bn of Gilts and in the US a total of $4.5 trillion.  For the UK there is no plan or policy to reduce the amount of bonds held by the Bank Of England, but the Federal Reserve has pushed it up its agenda.

Previously, US Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen had suggested it was a secondary consideration, but with rates anticipated to be up another 0.5% by year-end, it seems like reducing the Fed’s balance sheet will become part of the policy mix. We see this as being a material part of likely policy and market debates over the coming months. Previously the bond markets had anticipated that the Federal Reserve would start reducing its balance sheet when short rates (Fed funds) were around 2%. It is likely that as short rates are pushed up we will also see the cessation of reinvestments. Being a reversal of QE is implicitly monetary tightening and may well help elongate the gentle rate cycle we currently see. It may also be part of the Fed’s desire to provide a natural counter balance to a more expansionary fiscal policy from the Trump administration. Either way this suggests the Fed continues to believe the US economy is gaining strength.


On Tuesday we hosted a conference where we heard from our own team and a couple of economists. Chris Watling at Longview Economics takes a, well, long view. He is quite a proponent of Kondratieff. Who he? Starting at the end, he faced Stalin’s firing squad in 1938 at the age of 46. Prior to that he had held office in 1917 as deputy minister for supply before the second, October revolution of 1917 after which he moved to academia but ultimately falling foul of Stalin’s fanaticism and being sent to the gulag.

However, in 1922 he published his first book on the long cycle. A simplified explanation is that as capital is invested it creates monies which are reinvested in similar products that are produced more cheaply until this process leads to a loss of confidence and people hoard cash rather than invest. The long cycle is around every 35 years and the slide below suggests we are at a turning point, having seen new lows in government bond markets in 2016.

I don’t dislike this explanation of the world but it has its limitations as well as practical investment limitations. Bond yields may well be materially higher in the long term but as managers we are judged on monthly, quarterly and annual performance. As yesterday’s 10bps rally in 10 year US Treasuries AFTER the Fed rate hike proves, there are plenty of opportunities on the journey to slightly higher yields.

US 10 year bond yields – 1900 to present (showing Kondratieff cycles):

Why the WIRP screen is misleading for US hikes

There has been some chat in the press over the past days suggesting a 50% chance of a hike in March. We think this is a little misleading. A well-used analytical tool on Bloomberg shows a 50% probability, but this number uses the midpoint between the upper and lower bounds of the Fed Fund corridor as the most recent fixing, so this is currently 62.5bps.

However, if we look at the future market where futures trade on the average effective rate (not the midpoint of Fed Funds), this is currently 66bps and has remained very stable over the past few days.

So by our reckoning if you compare the spread between the effective rate from the futures market and the Fed Fund it looks like media observations are overstating the probability of a March rate hike. We think the actual probability is 36% (not a half). We work this out by using the April futures contract expiry price of 75bps, less the effective rate of 66bps which equates to 9bps; so if there is a 25bp rate hike the chances from the more dynamic futures market are 9/25 i.e. 36%.

Here is the effective rate vs the lower bound of 50bp:












Mixing your metaphors

Monday morning sees our Fixed Income team sit down and thrash what’s what for markets. We assess how our positioning has fared and should it change.

In the debate this morning one of the managers quipped “If you are going to invest in a country with a crazy dictator, you may as well get paid for it” – while discussing the relative value between the US and emerging markets.

This blog doesn’t aim to proffer views on US politics; however, there is no doubt that the Trump era is very different from the Obama regime. So I wondered how EM had faired since the start of 2017.

For the US Treasury market, yields have rallied by just over 10bps using the US 10 year note as a gauge. Overall returns would have earned you a further 2 months of its 2.25% coupon. All in all you’d be up around 1.5%. So my colleague was right – a generic investment grade Emerging Market index has done double that so far this year – just over 3%.

“You are mixing your metaphors” I hear you say – mixing your Sombreros with your Stetsons. It is an observation but it is clear that what happens in the US materially effects EM. Immediately after Donald Trump’s election, markets for all the obvious political reasons, became very bearish on EM. However, as the dust has settled there is a realisation that things aren’t changing overnight and that the Federal Reserve isn’t raising rates as aggressively as some had expected. Clearly there is more to relative value between the US and EM, but so far this year looks likely to repeat some of the key themes for 2016: any softness in the US interest rate cycle is likely to be good for EM economies.

What’s wrong with the bond market?

The last few months have seen some dramatic changes. Lots of attention has been paid to the Trump team line up; much political capital spent on Britain’s Brexit Bill being pushed through the UK Parliament. Given these events along with upcoming European elections, you would expect the bond market to be experiencing unprecedented volatility. But you would be wrong. Since mid-November the 10-Year US Treasury has traded in a range of 30 basis points – eerily similar to the UK’s 10-year Gilt as well as Germany and Switzerland’s benchmark issues. Likewise, the ‘term structure’ of yield curves for 30-year bonds compared to five or 10-year bonds for all these major markets are not dramatically different.

Also cross market valuations are not distinctly different over the last three months. European markets (Germany, UK and Switzerland) have become a little more expensive compared to US treasuries.

So what are the bond markets telling us? They are reminding us that they are forward looking and efficient. With 10-year US treasuries priced at 2.45% and 10-year Gilts at 1.3% all the action was in the previous three months. That action was driven by Brexit and Trump – with neither event anticipated by markets.

Thus, bond markets rapidly assessed a material change in outlook; Gilts almost trebled in yield from mid-August to November with a logical and unemotional assessment of higher inflation and further political challenges for the UK. Likewise, for the US, expectations of Trump shaking the political tree in Washington were rapidly priced in the days after his election. For Europe a similar story, Bunds were unchanged over this period but political stress signals are starting to be priced into the valuation of French and Italian bonds.

So what are the bond markets missing? Not much bar the politics – witness the underperformance in French bonds. Expect volatility if populism really does become a European phenomenon; Wilders in The Netherlands and Le Pen in France are still regarded as unlikely winners by markets but swathes of people voting for them can readily change that.

But the central case is that Europe rattles on with the European Central Bank in the driving seat. Slightly higher inflation and moderate growth across the EU, Switzerland and US are what the bond markets are currently expecting. However, a political shock from Europe has the capacity to shake the bond market from its current complacency.

A million miles apart

The scores were in today for Europe’s 2016 GDP. A mildly disappointing 0.4% growth in last quarter took the full year’s growth in 2016 to 1.7%. Not bad but short of the achievements in the US and UK where growth measured more than 2% for 2016.

Digging deeper and an odd fact occurs – at the bottom of the European growth pile for Q4 2016 – Greece and Finland. Growth contracted by 0.4% in Greece and 0.5% in Finland. Whilst both economies contracted, all eyes are on Greece, again. Deterioration in Finland’s finances are not the stuff of market volatility. Fundamentally there is trust in Finland to honour its liabilities. This is encapsulated by Finland’s 10 year bond yield of 55bps – a mere 20bps higher than Germany’s – impressive for a country with one fifteenth of the population.

Whilst Greek debt to GDP has barely increased from c. 175% over the last 5 years we are about to enter the fourth round of negotiations over Greece’s debt burden since 2010. For Finland that debt has increased by over 50% over the same time period to 63%, but ranking number 50 in the world’s most indebted countries (measured by debt/GDP) it isn’t the stuff of default nightmares. However, for the IMF, the EU and ECB (the “troika”) Greece’s position continues to be systemically problematic.

Finland is rated AA+ and Greece is CCC (technically having not defaulted in 2011). Greek 10 year debt at 7.3% yield is 6.75% more than Finland. The ECB currently supports Finland’s debt through its QE purchase programme, keeping Finnish yields low. The ECB judges it has already used its QE pro-rata firepower for Greek debt back in 2011 with previous programmes of Greek support.

There are two age-old debt market facts. Number 1) Borrowers who are committed to repaying can access funds at the cheapest terms. Finland. Those who aren’t committed, struggle. Greece. Number 2) If your debt is big enough it’s the lenders problem not yours i.e. the EU which owns around two thirds of Greek debt. 2017 represents another stab for the EU in an attempt to deal with Greece’s debt and a recalcitrant Greek government.  There may only 1,500 miles between Athens and Helsinki but they are still a million miles apart.