In the Trenches: Less Is More

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Narratives can be powerfully emotive influences. Overplayed narratives often lead to extremes in investor sentiment, and extreme sentiment may reverse quickly alongside a change in the narrative.

It has done so twice since mid-year 2018.

Late last year, markets collapsed as the narrative shifted from Fed as dovish father to the Fed as a deadbeat dad. The sub-narrative also changed from one of synchronized global growth to one of synchronized global slowdown. The narrative reversed yet again early this year upon the return of the Fed as a dove.

While U.S. equity markets over-reacted to the Fed’s hawkish December communication, they are now doing the same in response to its dovish pivot.

We see little in the way of catalysts to new U.S. equity market highs as sentiment begins to wear thin on a rollover in data into the second half of the year and as the Fed remains on hold – as it should.

The new narrative around the Fed as dove has helped create some striking cross-asset dislocations. Global rates markets are telling a slowdown story. The U.S. yield curve inverted from 3-months to 10-years just a month ago, even after the Fed pivot. Both JGBs and Bunds are either negative or close to it. Funding markets are also showing signs of strain, as funds trade above IOER more and more often. [1]

Importantly, the dollar has been strengthening despite little change in real rate differentials. Its strength looks to be a product of a U.S. economy that remains strong relative to the rest of the world. The dollar’s strength will also have deleterious impacts on emerging markets (EMs), which are responsible for most of global growth. Economic performance in Europe has on balance continued to deteriorate, even as China stimulated its way to PMI expansion for March (and for April which fell closer to contraction once again). Japanese and European PMI’s have been abysmal, and the rates markets in Europe and Japan reflect it.

Yet, U.S. equity markets just made a new high.

How to reconcile this? What has really changed since January that should lead to a sustained rally in equities beyond current levels?

The bullish narrative for U.S. equity risk makes sense only if one accepts a narrative that the Fed will proactively move to prevent a U.S. slowdown before it happens.

The bullish narrative further presumes that the current global slowdown will somehow miraculously reverse or somehow not touch U.S. growth. (We have argued that U.S. growth will fade alongside its developed market peers as the benefits of the tax cuts wane). With the exception of Japan, central banks generally have been and remain reactive rather than proactive. Before central banks act preemptively using a Japanese-style modern monetary theory (MMT) approach, two things must happen. First, they must lose their relatively well-defined, current mandates. Second, they must lose their independence. We don’t expect this to happen to the Fed until after the next risk repricing is complete. Thus, even though Fed Funds futures markets remain convinced of a cut at well over a 60% probability, market participants ought to be more skeptical.

Former Minneapolis Fed president Narayana Kocherlakota wrote a Bloomberg opinion piece to the contrary the other day, arguing the Fed mandate is broad enough to move away from ‘patient’ and towards proactive. This is simply a bad idea.

He writes: “Ultimately, though, the policy shift could help investors avoid getting lulled into the kind of complacency that leads to ‘Minsky moments,’ such as the 2008 financial crisis. And it would certainly help Main Street, by refocusing the Fed’s efforts on ensuring a stable economy.”

Kocherlakota demonstrates a profound lack of understanding about what caused the 2008 crisis, but that’s a topic for another time.

For today, let’s take his argument to an extreme. Under the ‘full employment’ mandate and at the first sign of any wobble, the Fed could create reserves, and then use them to buy Treasuries. The Treasury sale proceeds could then be earmarked to fund social programs established to guarantee each citizen a job. Kocherlakota’s argument creates a slippery slope towards a central bank that lacks independence and fosters social agendas at the pleasure of incumbent politicians. The hurdles required for each ‘wobble’ in the data would likely be lower and lower until finally anything would qualify.

Last Thursday, Bloomberg wrote an entertaining story about how I am Wall Street’s biggest bear, and Robert Burgess picked it up in his opinion column last Friday. [2] While I am bearish now, I’m neither a bull nor a bear by nature. What I AM is a skeptic of popularly accepted narratives.

As a result, my views have been responsive to the more volatile conditions that may be associated with late cycle equity markets. Further, it’s my belief that late 2018’s volatility was not a denouement; rather, it was the beginning of a deeper slowdown. Let’s take a look at 1995 and 1998 as possible analogies supportive of the narrative that the Fed will cut proactively. In 1995, the Fed cut in response to a string of government statistics that showed a sharp slowdown in business activity, on the heels of a catastrophic Japanese earthquake in early 1995, and after the Tequila crisis late in 1994. In 1998, the Fed cut in response to LTCM’s collapse and the Russian financial crisis. In my view, neither analogy is durable. [3]

There are two major differences: the monetary policy mosaic and globalization.

In stark contrast to the present, 1995 Fed funds were 6%. Today, the Fed has little room to cut already so close to zero, and it has just recently normalized after 9 years of extraordinary policy intervention, which included quantitative easing (QE). Its peer central banks are similarly low on ammunition outside of renewed QE. Moreover, prior to cuts in 1995 and 1998, the Fed had quickly hiked from 3% to 6% on funds at 50bps per month over the course of only a year. This contrasts to a much slower pace of recent hikes (at 25bps per hike over 3 years).

The other important difference is globalization. For example, the Eurozone did not exist, and emerging markets accounted for only a small proportion of global growth (30% versus over 60% today). Thus, neither the European Central Bank (ECB), which did not exist, nor the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) were relevant central bank actors. Even the now frenetic Bank of Japan (BoJ) was sleepy. What’s the point? The Fed has other banks in its corner that are doing some of its work for it. It needs to lead the way towards normalization.

Today, the BoJ stands in an extreme position and currently in stark contrast to the Fed. The BoJ appears to act proactively at the slightest sign of trouble since the global financial crisis. Japan’s central bank is not independent, and its approach has been in response to criticisms it was slow to act after its debt bubble burst in the early 1990s. All things considered, Japan’s strategy hasn’t worked well, as GDP has averaged only 1.4% since September 2009 despite a balance sheet that has grown by $4 trillion dollars since mid-2018 (now $5 trillion). The increase of roughly $365 billion dollars/year is about 7% to 10% of GDP ($4.9 trillion nominal GDP 2018). Since early 2016, after the Shanghai Accord, both 10-year and 2-year JGBs began to yield less than zero. 2-year yields in Japan have yielded no more than 15bps since late 2009. Thus, we are in the fourth year of both 2 and 10-year bonds with negative yields and in the 10th year of near-zero short rates.

Were a recession or equity market panic to lead to a bid for the Yen, Japan might have nothing left but to sell newly created Yen reserves and buy U.S. Treasuries. We’ve had conversations with those close to the Japanese central bank, and they’ve indicated this is an option they might consider.

In contrast, the Fed’s just not there yet on MMT; American exceptionalism prevents it… at least for now. Eventually, as we wrote in our previous Epsilon Theory’s In the Trenches, all of the world’s central banks will eventually buy many different classes of private and publicly held assets. At that point, all central banks will likely have lost their independence and social policy will no longer be an implicit goal but rather an explicit one. It’s simply a matter of when rather than if; however, it’s no time soon.

Indeed, we remain fairly convinced that the Fed will not cut this year. Equity market performance has been just too strong and the data remains just good enough. The Fed will react only if risk assets and the economic fundamental data justify action. U.S fiscal stimulus (the fumes from tax cuts) will prop up U.S data just for long enough to prevent Fed action while the rest of the world is continuing to slow. Inaction is the Fed’s only logical choice right now.

In a world moving towards BoJ-style modern monetary theory (MMT), one might argue that cycle analysis itself is anachronistic. This is the most persuasive challenge to many of the arguments made here. Indeed, because of QE and globalization, things are different this time. Yet, market participants ought to be skeptical that the Fed is willing to proactively prevent all business cycles just yet.

Monetary policy was never designed to set capital costs over long periods of time. That’s what free markets do best. When intervention lasts too long, it creates distortions and bubbles. These distortions were acknowledged in Austrian business cycle theory (ABCT), which views business cycles as the consequence of excessive growth in credit often due to the artificially low interest rates set by a central banks. Historically, the lenses that create these distortions tend to shatter.

I would expect nothing different this cycle, as the Fed will not act preemptively enough to stop the excess its own policies have already created. Sadly, if the Fed and ECB finally decide to go all-in and become proactive rather than reactive, markets will no longer be markets. Markets will no longer price assets or risk based on market information. Social policy will set asset prices. All central banks would then become political, as Japan’s central bank and China’s central bank already have – unless there is a concerted effort to stop it.

At times, less is more when it comes to policy.

This is one of those times.


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[1] We have written and CNBC has now reported Fed officials are considering a new program that would allow banks to exchange Treasuries for reserves, a move that could bolster liquidity during difficult times and also help the Fed shrink its balance sheet. This conversation has occurred as Fed Funds has risen above IOER. As reported, proponents of the so-called standing repo facility see the program as a relatively risk-free way of giving banks a release valve in times of financial tightness, while also allowing the Fed to pare back its bond holdings with minimal market disruption. We view the standing repo facility as a stealthy form of quantitative easing. Indeed, one form of QE is the conversion of long-dated treasuries into Federal Reserve Notes.

[2] Robert Burgess wrote: “Investors are most pessimistic on the Americas, followed by Europe and then Asia. Cantor Fitzgerald strategist Peter Cecchini embodies the current sentiment. In a week when the S&P 500 Index closed at a record of 2,933.68, Cecchini boosted his year-end target for the benchmark, but only to 2,500 from 2,390, according to Bloomberg News’s Vildana Hajric. For those without a calculator handy, the new forecast represents a 15 percent drop from current levels. “We do not foresee an inflection in U.S. economic growth or S&P earnings growth in the second half as global growth continues to slow and costs rise,” Cecchini said. “We also do not foresee a Fed cut as likely. With slower growth and a Fed that is slow to cut, we think equities will struggle in the second half.” It’s not like Cecchini is some foaming-at-the-mouth bear; he rightly urged investors to buy the dip in January after the big sell-off in late 2018.”

[3] Perhaps, a better analogy might be the coordinated global central bank response that began in February 2016 to stabilize the Chinese yuan. The so-called Shanghai accord came in response to two prior shocks in global equity markets in response to fears of a devaluation of the Yuan. Central banks acted in concert with the Chinese authorities to assure that capital could flow into China and prevent a destabilizing depreciation. It worked, and likely prevented what could have been a broader default cycle here in the U.S. on the heels of defaults in the energy industry. I, for one, was too bearish in 2016 on an analogy to pervious default cycles. So could 2019 be a repeat of 2016? It doesn’t seem likely. Central bank policy was synchronous back then, and there was no trade war division. Balance sheets were expanding and central bankers were not in normalization mode. No major pivot was required. Moreover, at that time, there was no fiscal stimulus in the United States. Thus, U.S. growth was arguably more fragile were a global shock to occur. We think a bigger wobble in financial asset markets and the domestic economy is needed (and should be required) before the Fed cuts rates.


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Peter
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Peter

In addition to the 180 degree shift by Mr. Powell and the return of the notion that the Stock Market is the Fed’s “Daddy”, is the notion that the new stimulus from China was going to once again lead the world stronger.
Throw in the repeated and in ad nauseaum claim that success in the Trade negotiations were going to bring back the best in globalization and you had 3 key narratives which has driven the stock market to new highs.

Yet the Fed is still doing QT, the Trade negotiations will probably deliver only nominal improvements and China’s stimulus is one quarter of what it was in the past (and with a debt laden economy less able to absorb more debt).

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