Friday, October 28, 2016

Macro: The Quiet Riot - Continental Version

For the past few weeks, the fixed income market has seen a significant change in moods.

The earliest trigger was in the JGBs market in late July, then it was the Gilts in late September following a pause from BoE. This week it definitely felt like the Bunds. Treasuries are down too from July highs, but in a much gradual fashion compared to the rest.

Now while we do have individual explanation (with the 20/20 hindsight) for all these (BoJ steepening chatter, Brexit, ECB QE rumors and, of course, Fed hike expectation), these moves signals some fundamental changes common across the markets as well. For one, this sell-off in rates is markedly different that recent large moves or the 2013 taper tantrum in terms of the accompanying movement of the inflation expectation. This is the first large sell-off in rates where the real rates (I used 10y yield less the 5y swap breakeven rate) were stable. Clearly the common thread has been inflation expectation - led by the Sterling inflation market, in response to a weakening currencies. But this was not limited only to GBP. Backed by the strong recovery of the commodity prices and oil, inflation markets across regions rallied, recovering from the bottom in Q1 this year. Even the Euro inflation is  flat on YTD basis after this recent move.
However, it is still too early to say if this points to an inflation scare. We are far off from seeing the white of the eyes of inflation. Large part of the recovery in inflation is driven by commodity prices which just came off multi-year lows. With over-capacity in many sectors, and a new cost/ supply equation for oil (see here too), there is no strong case for the commodity rally to overshoot substantially from here. On the demand side, apart from the healthy wage growth in the US, things are not significantly better. UK is still trying to figure out the consequences of Brexit. The collapse of the credit impulse in the Euro area late last year is yet to recover and Japan seems increasingly stuck.

The suddenness of the move suggests a large driver of the sell-off may be positioning, especially in Euro and GBP. Bunds open interest on Eurex were near historical high since 2008 before the selloff. This was definitely not helped by a rather tight-lipped Draghi on the last ECB. ICE Gilt positioning also indicated asymmetry with position build-up after Brexit. For core rates, this means the recent sell-off will stabilize as the pressure from positioning is diffused eventually. However, it is clear that we are approaching near the end of the era of quantitative easing. The next big move in rates will not be triggered by Fed. It will be the policy announcement from BoJ in Nov, followed by ECB's decision on QE in Q1 next year. Fed is priced in, and with all probabilities, will carry out a measured hike in December. It will be mostly a non-event.

What is rather interesting is how the current monetary policy plays out for the curve. It is clear we are increasingly approaching the end of QE-topia, with some central banks moving to normalize, and some still leaving considerable liquidity in the system and trying to lean on the next lever. This apparent divergence in the first order (the level of rates) is leading a convergence drive in the second order (the yield curve slope). BoJ is actively seeking to steepen the curve to alleviate concerns of the banking sectors, among other things. ECB will be glad to have the Euro area curve steepen back. The Fed is allegedly getting in the same business. The latest round of rates sell-off, unlike most before in recent time, was mostly a bear steepening move. Unfortunately, steepeners are not as juicy as they used to be in terms of carry a couple of years back, but still this is the trade to be in for the medium term - either in absolute term or cross-markets.

On the equity side, contrary to general view, this is not at all negative. Inflation recovering from current levels shows strength of the macro drivers. In fact in recent years, S&P 500 has shown more asymmetric correlation to inflation expectation than outright rates itself (see chart below). The thick tail on the right hand side has been dominated by inflation downside (i.e. correlated sell-off in equities with collapse in inflation expectation). A recovery in inflation expectation should be positive, at least initially, and ultimately uncorrelated to equity performance (runaway inflation is still a distance myth). This is especially true given the strong commitment from the Fed on its intention of slow paced hikes.
The S&P appears to be in a consolidation state - in a typical triangle formation, before the next leg (usually up from here).

The downside for equities from here is in fact event risks, and not macro. The US presidential election is one -although apparently the market does not care. Italian referendum is another - and again the history does not make a strong case for it either, if you go by the off-hand manner in which market digested the outcome of recent southern European election outcome.

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