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Entries in US Economy (97)

Thursday
Apr032014

Over and out for Forward Guidance

I'll try anything once, twice if I like it, three times to make sure."

So said Mae West, the late American actress and entertainer, whose upbeat line is often used to denote a positive and openminded approach to life.  Yet, just because you try it once does not mean that you have to like it. For example, I recently travelled from London to New York only to stay for 18 hours. Spending 12 hours in airplane over the course of a full day is decidedly not something I intend to do again if I can help it. 

I wonder whether Yellen would heed Mrs West's dictum in the context of trying to define what "a considerable time" really means or perhaps when it comes to putting a number on the elusive NAIRU? Unfortunately for Yellen she does not, unlike me, have to luxury of only trying once. She will be forced to try over and over again until she gets it right and it might be a bumpy ride.  

The problem is simple yet vexing for the Fed (and quite possibly the BOE too). It is steadily becoming impossible for the Fed to maintain the illusion of forward guidance and this poses problems. Forward guidance always worked incredibly well in theory for an economy stuck at the zero bound with a gaping negative output gap. It even worked in practice, but with the US economy starting to show signs of returning to steady positive growth (albeit that such growth might be weak overall) time horizons are getting increasingly squeezed. 

This was obviously highlighted with last week’s FOMC where short rates rose sharply and Eurodollar futures sold off. As we saw in the market for risk asset, such bear flattening is not something investors like too much. All the commotion arguably came as the Fed revised up its interest rate projections for 2015 and 2016. This won't really surprise any investors who tend to keep a close eye on fixed income markets in the US. However the key problem is that this renders forward guidance impotent. In short, rate hikes are now being priced in on a substantial level within a, for market participants, relevant and important time horizon. In a normal world where interest rates are price along a continuous spectrum this is normal but in a world of forward guidance which denotes a binary world where the central bank pre-commits to a specific interest rate regime (ZIRP) it renders such policy very difficult to sustain. 

One reason for last week's change in communication could be that Fed is genuinely turning more hawkish (in anticipation of a tighter labour market and wage pressures). After all, markets cannot expect interest rates to stay at zero forever. However, Yellen’ comments at the beginning of this week suggest otherwise, and herein also lies the problem. The communication of forward guidance is now almost impossible for the Fed; as investors know all too well, it is impossible to put the proverbial toothpaste back in the tube. 

Still, this seems exactly what Yellen attempted to do on Monday. Here is Macro Man [1]with a relevant observation in this regard.

(...) Yellen took pains to point out reasons why much of the current unemployment is cyclical rather than structural.   Among the arguments employed were the low level of wage growth.  While it is certainly true that wage growth is below long-term norms, it is somewhat disingenuous to suggest that it has been stagnant.  Indeed, private sector wage growth (the only type she has any power whatsoever to impact) has accelerated smartly over the past eighteen months, and now rests above the average level that prevailed when the past two Fed tightening cycles commenced.

So, the doves are back in charge it seems, but investors are not stupid. Whatever the Fed decides to do forward guidance is now a dead policy. It is time to find a new recipe regardless of whether Yellen and the rest of the FOMC agree with Mae West's morale or not. 

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[1] - Readers should note that this is the original Macro Man wielding the pen here. To the extent that you can get excited over anything in the blogosphere, it is genuinely uplifting to have the good ol' MM back (with or without his knee caps!). 

Monday
Mar242014

The big disconnect between leverage and spreads

Matt King from Citigroup usually serves up nice presentations, but his past few highlighting the increasingly problematic increase in leverage among non-financial corporates is particularly illuminating. The latest installment is full of illuminating charts, but it will suffice to focus on the one below, 

Source: Citgroup, Matt King (March 2014)

 

Since 1988 there has been a relative close, and logical, correlation between higher corporate leverage and higher spreads, but not this time around. It is difficult to find a clearer picture of the effect of a structurally low interest rate regime (ZIRP) run simultaneously by global major central banks.

One of the most obvious consequences of persistently low interest rates in the past 2-3 years has been the increase in leverage for non-financial corporates (with access to the debt markets). A new bubble is brewing and if you look at the sectors of the economy that have responded to low interest rates (i.e. who have had room to lever up) the picture falls squarely on non-financial corporates. 

Yet, when presenting this view to clients in the past 6-12 months I have received strong push back. Net debt is still low I am told and corporate cash balances have improved. All this is true, but I have already given a hint to my rebuttal. We need to look at non-financial corporates and indeed, we need to drill down to sector level. 

First of all, let us quickly dispense with the notion that US corporates are sitting on large cash balances. This is true when judged from afar, but cash reserves are very concentrated. 

 

The reason for this skew is mainly banks and the likes of General Electric, Berkshire Hathaway, Apple etc. This is simply to say then that the notion of US corporates being awash with cash does not hold up to scrutiny as a general market characteristic. This is supported by the expecteced relationship between higher net debt and a lower liquidity position (measured by the Quick Ratio). 

 

So while the market based information is telling us that spreads and leverage are now disconnected, fundamentals remain in-line with theory. Companies with higher net debt also have poorer liquidity positions [1]. The final piece of evidence I would like to point to just how distorted overall net debt data is by the financial sector.

 

Including the financial sector will consequently give a picture of steadily declining leverage to new lows in the past 5 years. However, this is deeply misleading. If we strip out financials (which in any case is logical as their balance sheets look completely different from non-financial corporates') net debt per share has ascended new highs in the past 2-3 years. Mind you, these figures are both indexed and inflation adjusted so there is no nominal money illusion to blame for the results either. 

There are now more corporate bonds outstanding in the US than there are mortgage backed securities. This is a significant data point. The heart of the next crisis and debt bubble will be non-financial corporate debt (particularly in the energy and materials sector). Investors should take note. 

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[1] - The relationship between net debt per share and the Quick Ratio is non-linear due to the fact that the Quick Ratio is bounded by zero at its lower bound (while net debt per share is unbounded).