Doug Noland: Liquidity Trade

It’s not quite 1999 at this point, but it’s been moving in that direction. In about five months’ time, the Nasdaq 100 (NDX) has posted a gain of 20.5%. NDX stocks with greater than 50% y-t-d gains include Vertex Pharmaceuticals (74%), Activision (64%), Tesla (60%), (58%), Wynn Resorts (54%), CSX (53%), Autodesk (52%), Liberty Ventures (51%) and Lam Research (50%). Amazon’s 34% 2017 rise has increased market capitalization to $481bn (P/E 189). Apple’s 33% gain pushed its market cap to $806bn. Facebook has gained 33% y-t-d, Google 26%, and Netflix 32%.

There’s an interesting similarity to the 1999 backdrop: A Federal Reserve (and global central bank community) way too timid in implementing a “tightening cycle” despite bubbling asset markets. Fed funds began 1999 at 4.75%, after rates were slashed 75 bps late in 1998 in response to the Russia/LTCM financial crisis. Despite clearly overheated securities markets, rates ended 1999 at 5.5% – the same level they were for much of 1998. The Fed was content to let the speculative Bubble run, with memories of the previous year’s near financial meltdown clear in their minds. Moreover, Y2K uncertainties provided a convenient excuse to accommodate the raging Bubble.

There’s at least one huge difference to 1999. The 10-year Treasury yield began ‘99 at 4.65% and ended the year at 6.44%. Ten-year yields ended Friday’s session at 2.16%, down 29 bps so far in 2017 and near lows since the election. Astounding amounts of government debt have been issued globally since 1999. Radical central bank measures ensured prices of these securities inflated to unprecedented levels (even in the face of endless supply). Historically low yields are a global phenomenon. German bund yields closed the week at 27 bps and French yields closed at 71 bps. It’s worth noting some current 10-year sovereign debt yields: negative 27 bps in Switzerland, 31 bps in Finland, 40 bps in Sweden, 48 bps in Netherlands, 53 bps in Denmark, 54 bps in Austria and 64 bps in Belgium.

MSCI’s all-country world stock index ended the week at a record high. Both the UK FTSE (up 5.7% y-t-d) and German DAX (up 11.7%) equities indices traded Friday at new highs. European equities have been powering higher. The French CAC 40 has gained 9.9% y-t-d, Spain’s IBEX 35 16.6%, and Italy’s MIB 8.8%.

June 2 – Bloomberg (Katherine Chiglinsky): “Mohamed El-Erian, Allianz SE’s chief economic adviser, said the rally in stocks and high-yield bonds is part of a ‘liquidity trade,’ based on optimism that central bank stimulus efforts and the accumulation of corporate profits will sustain market gains. ‘That is what you’re betting on,’ El-Erian said Friday in an interview on Bloomberg Television. ‘You’re not betting on the Trump rally anymore. You’re not betting on the reflation trade anymore.’”

The “Trump Trade” provided convenient cover for what has been for some time a strengthening speculative Liquidity Trade. The histrionic bond market reaction to the weaker payroll data was telling. The long-bond surged a full point, with yields dropping five bps to the lows since November. If the issue were a weakening economy, one was challenged to see it in the reaction within the risk markets. Investment-grade corporate debt (LQD) gained about 0.5% Friday to trade to the high since November. Even junk debt (HYG) posted a small gain to trade to an almost 18-month high. The NDX jumped 1.1% Friday, with the Nasdaq Composite up 1.0% – both to record highs. The Semiconductors gained 1.0% (near year-2000 highs), and the Morgan Stanley High Tech index rose almost 1% to an all-time high. The Biotechs rose 1.9% to a 2017 high (up 20% y-t-d).

It’s worth noting that gold gained 1% on Liquidity Trade Friday, increasing 2017 gains to a notable 11%. Crude’s 1.5% Friday decline (down 4.3% for the week) was not inconsistent with Liquidity Trade dynamics. Shale exploration and extraction are thriving on easy “money.” And when it comes to Liquidity analysis, Bitcoin has earned a place at the table. Bitcoin rose $160 this week to $2,430, boosting its y-t-d gain to a remarkable 155%.

A Friday ZeroHedge article asked the relevant question: “BoJ, ECB Balance Sheets Exceed the Fed’s For First Time Ever – What Happens Next?” The over $1.0 TN global QE injections during the first four months of the year argue for “Peak QE.” The ZeroHedge article includes a chart of the G3 (Fed, BOJ, ECB) balance sheet that correlates closely with U.S. stocks going back to 2009. It’s worth noting that G3 balance sheets will soon reach $14.0 TN, up from less than $6.0 TN in early-2009 (after initial crisis-period QE). “Now what?”, indeed. Near zero rates and unprecedented “money printing” have inflated asset price Bubbles around the globe. What happens when stimulus is removed? This is by now a conspicuous problem, though markets are confident that central bankers have no stomach for finding out how big of a problem. The Liquidity Trade is premised on global central bankers being trapped in ultra-easy “money” (including ongoing printing).

May 30 – Bloomberg (Jeanna Smialek and Matthew Boesler): “Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard said soft inflation could cause her to reassess the path forward for monetary policy should it linger, even as the global economic outlook brightens and U.S. growth looks poised to rebound. ‘If the soft inflation data persist, that would be concerning and, ultimately, could lead me to reassess the appropriate path of policy,’ Brainard said… ‘I see some tension between signs that the economy is in the neighborhood of full employment and indications that the tentative progress we had seen on inflation may be slowing,’ Brainard said. ‘If the tension between the progress on employment and the lack of progress on inflation persists, it may lead me to reassess the expected path of the federal funds rate in the future, although it is premature to make that call today.”

This is exactly the type of dovish diffidence that feeds market speculation. The Fed needs to find a backbone and move forward in the direction of normalization without reacting to the normal ebb and flow of securities markets, inflation data and economic performance. Moreover, central bankers should jettison this notion of no tolerance for recessions or bear markets – both precious Capitalistic system cleansing mechanisms. Clearly, central bankers have come to exert profound effects on securities and asset prices. Recent history has as well demonstrated that their capacity to manipulate an index of consumer prices is suspect at best. Prolonging ultra-easy money will surely exacerbate global overcapacity (i.e. additional Chinese capacity and U.S. shale investment).

Especially after Friday’s weaker-than-expected payroll data, the markets will question whether the Fed is about to flinch. Expectations are growing that the FOMC will pull back from an already incredibly cautious rate hike cycle – one that to this point has completely failed to “tighten” financial conditions. Indeed, conditions have further loosened.

I’ve read and listened to analyses warning against the Fed committing a major policy error by tightening into a weakening economy. Yet the Federal Reserve’s mistake was waiting way too long to commence the normalization process. At this point, there is great risk in the Fed accommodating late-cycle excesses – including the global securities markets’ Liquidity Trade. Only a meaningful amount of pain will impact what has become a major inflationary/speculative psychology enveloping global securities markets. The Fed needs to bite the bullet and push rates higher.

Discussions continue regarding the Federal Reserve’s decision to shrink its balance sheet. Similar to rate discussions, the markets (for good reason) believe the Fed will refrain from measures that actually tighten financial conditions and impinge booming securities markets. If queried, most sophisticated market professionals would likely respond that they expect the next major change in the Fed’s holdings to be on the upside (another round of QE). Some Fed officials see selling assets as a positive measure that would help reduce excessive monetary accommodation. At this point, balance sheet discussions appear to be backfiring. Believing that the Fed will likely pause rate increases while reducing assets both slowly and very modestly, the markets now see potential Fed balance sheet operations as a bullish development that ensures no actual tightening of financial conditions for many months to come.

Next Thursday’s ECB meeting is widely expected to see a contentious debate regarding the process for winding down extraordinary QE and rate measures. Euro zone economies and inflation trends have bounced back. Ultra-loose financial conditions have worked their magic, although Draghi does not want any change in ECB stimulus to upset the Liquidity Trade. The Germans and others have long ago seen enough and seek to establish a timeline for winding down QE.

The markets assume Draghi will, once again, win the day. This week also saw happenings in China that embolden those believing that Beijing will also continue to win the day, month and year.

May 31 – Bloomberg: “The offshore yuan jumped the most in four months as funding costs surged amid speculation policy makers were supporting the currency in the wake of a surprise sovereign rating downgrade… ‘The sharp gain in the offshore yuan is partially due to the unwinding of short yuan positions because the high offshore yuan funding cost has made the currency too expensive to short,’ said Stephen Innes, senior Asia-Pacific currency trader at Oanda Corp… ‘Bears with short yuan positions would need to cut their exposure.’ The overnight yuan interbank rate in Hong Kong, known as Hibor, surged 15.7 percentage points on Wednesday to 21.08%, the highest since Jan. 6, while the offshore yuan’s overnight deposit rate jumped to 60%.”

May 31 – Bloomberg: “China is dishing out a tough lesson to currency traders and strategists alike: don’t bet against the yuan. The currency jumped its highest level in seven months offshore, extending Wednesday’s gain of 1.2%, despite analyst forecasts for declines this quarter. Surging interbank rates are squeezing bears by driving up the cost of short positions. The rally, which broke months of calm against the dollar, comes as a rebuke to Moody’s…, which downgraded China’s sovereign debt rating last week. The government has made its displeasure clear, calling the move ‘absolutely groundless.’”

On the back of the People’s Bank of China’s forceful interventions, the renminbi traded this week to the strongest level since November. Speculative markets have come to welcome heavy-handed Chinese intervention. The assumption is that Chinese officials are absolutely determined to hold bursting Bubble dynamics at bay.

China is not the only macro worry. Italian bank stocks were hit 4.3% this week. Talk of early elections also pressured Italian bonds. With yields rising 16 bps, the Italian to bund yield spread widened a notable 22 bps this week to a six-week high. It’s also worth mentioning the 4.3% fall in crude and the 9.4% drubbing in natural gas. And there’s the ongoing strength in the yen. The Japanese currency rose 0.8% this week (up 5.9% y-t-d) and has been notably resilient in the face of advancing equities and risk markets. I tend to believe that various macro risks continue to play a prevailing role in stubbornly low global bond yields, a backdrop that along with timid central bankers fuels dangerously speculative risk markets across the globe.


Original Post 3 June 2017

Categories: Doug Noland, Perspectives