Japan: Diminishing Policy Choices and the Implications for Everyone Else

Sept 7, 2019 Diminishing Policy Choices and the Implications
A Case Study of Japan

In the summer of 2018, we turned negative on growth momentum based on our leading indicators, and the market narrative has now caught up with our thesis. We have also shared with readers that most of our recommendations to institutional clients are predicated upon the easing expectation of the central banks as they are responding to the 1-3y mini reflation cycles we have discussed before. For further details, please refer to our thematic piece, “Navigating the End of Market Cycle”.

As global sovereign yields continue to fall, fears of ZIRP are back. Roughly 1/3 of global DM bonds have negative yields. Greenspan was quoted on Wednesday saying that negative rates in the US are “only a matter of time.” In that respect, Japan remains the country with the most amount of experience. So it’s worthwhile to have another look at the economic history of the land of the rising sun, and in particular assessing what lessons we can learn (or unlearn) for the rest of the world.

Currently, Japan is in a bit of a pickle. Growth has been slowing. (Manufacturing PMI below)

Chart 1. Japan Manufacturing PMI
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The domestic economy will be slowing from a declining population (basically forever).

Chart 2. Japan Nominal GDP vs. Japanese Population
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Data Source: Bloomberg

And the rolling trade balance turned into a deficit late last year.

Chart 3. Japanese Trade Balance
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The BoJ and MoF have already attempted to use the tools at their disposal to stimulate domestic spending, but those effects have long since faded. Despite of the fact that sovereign debt to GDP has ballooned to 238% of GDP, of which about half is owned by the BoJ, Japan’s nominal GDP has barely grown at all in 2 decades.

Chart 4. Japanese GDP at Current Prices
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One of the main issues is simply that the elderly won’t spend any more and are averse to risk taking. They are spending as little as they can. For the economy as a whole, this means that economic activity would be declining unless there is some mechanism to convert the savings into expenditures. That is essentially what the government is doing. By issuing JGBs and spending the proceeds, the Japanese government is essentially turning the savings into expenditures, thereby staving off a deeper contraction in economic activity.
Since the crisis, the Japanese government has managed to slowly reduce its budget deficit, but it’s hard to see how they can ever run a budget surplus on a sustainable basis and turn the debt/GDP ratio around. Which means 300% debt to GDP is only a matter of time. That sounds a bit crazy, but how does it matter? What’s the difference between a Yen of currency and a Yen of Japanese government debt anyway? If either just sits around in a bank somewhere, without the bank using it the create loans, does it matter? Investors tend to point to the Weimar Republic and Zimbabwe as examples of what can happen when the central bank keeps monetizing, but in those cases, the rate of monetization were several orders of magnitude bigger.
In here and now, the BoJ has already exhausted their typical tools, which makes the country highly vulnerable to another global recession. The last time the BoJ cut rates to -10bps in early 2016 the Yen strengthened 17% vs the Dollar over the next 7 months. That occurred in the context of a global slowdown and bond rally, much like now, but it was enough to make the BoJ think twice about further cuts. The BoJ has already bought so much of the JGB float that participants in the JGB market are complaining about market functioning. More corporate bond purchases are a possibility, but it is questionable how much additional purchases will matter given that spreads are fairly tight already. Does that mean the BoJ is out of bullets, and only fiscal policy choices are left?
The whole purpose of central bank easing is to incentivize risk taking at a time when fear is rampant. Said differently, the goal is to make risk-free assets unattractive relative to risky assets. Historically, this meant making cash less attractive, and when short term interest rates hit zero, this extended to making long duration sovereign debt less attractive relative to risky assets. When even long duration sovereign debt yields are at the floor, there isn’t much else to do except just buy risky assets directly. Specifically, REITs and equities. For Japan, there is actually a good academic argument for buying risky assets directly, because the embedded risk premiums are very high. The current Japanese Equity Risk Premium is ~740bps vs the 30y JGB yield. In comparison, in the US it is just 320bps. It can be argued that if the BoJ can tighten that risk premium, companies will be able to access cheaper financing and use that to invest more, hire more, etc. Chart 5. Equity Risk Premium – Topix vs. SPX
[cid:image005.png@01D566F0.4BE1A180]
Source: Bloomberg.
The problem is that there is a global discount rate for risk assets in a world of free capital flow – i.e. there are no capital controls. For example, other than company specific concerns, there is no reason that Toyota’s Free Cash Flow should be discounted at a different rate than GM’s. So to reduce the equity risk premium in Japan, the BoJ will need to impact the discount rate globally. That’s a very tall order for the BoJ to handle alone.
One might wonder why aren’t Japanese corporations conducting significant share buybacks themselves given the high equity risk premium. The Topix has a dividend yield of 2.6% vs both cash and 30y JGBs yielding around zero. Value Investor Michael Burry, made famous in the book “The Big Short,” noted in an interview this week that
“It is not hard in Japan to find simple extreme undervaluation — low earnings multiple, or low free cash flow multiple. In many cases, the company might have significant cash or stock holdings that make up a lot of the stock price.
The government would surely like to see these companies mobilize their zombie cash and other caches of trapped capital. About half of all Japanese companies under $1 billion in market cap trade at less than tangible book value, and the median enterprise value to sales ratio for these companies is less than 50%. There is tremendous opportunity here for re-rating if companies would take governance more seriously. Far too many companies are sitting on massive piles of cash and shareholdings. And these holdings are higher, relative to market cap, than any other market on Earth.”
It seems like a no brainer to use the cash and buy back equity! Except the S&P Japan buyback index has been sharply underperforming since 3Q 2017, and is now below pre-Abenomics levels: Chart 6. S&P Japan Buyback Index vs. S&P Japan Index
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What gives? Specifically, why aren’t Japanese companies willing to spend the large cash on their balance sheets? There isn’t a liquidity problem. Cash has option value that is highly useful during period of economic dislocation or growth, but since Japan’s economy isn’t all that much riskier than other DM countries, it’s hard to explain why Japanese companies would want to hold so much more cash than their DM competitors. Dr. Burry (and Third Point before him) suggested that corporate governance is the main problem. And maybe it is for specific companies, especially in the small cap space. But it seems like for the broad large cap market as a whole, short term liabilities (red) have increased in line with the increase in cash & cash like assets. (green)

Chart 7. TPX Index vs. TPX Current Liability and Current Asset [cid:image007.png@01D566F0.4BE1A180]
Data source: Bloomberg

In fact, the increase in short term liabilities have been faster than the increase in cash like assets, which has resulted in a decline in the current ratio. Chart 8. TPX vs. TPX Current Ratio
[cid:image008.png@01D566F0.4BE1A180]
Data Source: Bloomberg

This may be one reason Japanese equities haven’t performed as well, despite the fact that they are now only trading at a small premium above book value: (1.1 vs 3.3 for the S&P 500) Chart 9. TPX vs. Book Value Per Share
[cid:image009.png@01D566F0.4BE1A180]
Data Source: Bloomberg
The point is that for the broader Japanese equity market, the problem is not what it may seem. On balance, it does not seem like Japanese corporations are sitting on significant excess cash relative to their needs, which means that further policy efforts to penalize cash holdings (i.e. via negative rates) will not necessarily spur a push into stock buybacks.
Nevertheless, without a lot of other options, cuts further into negative territory is likely for the BoJ. ~80% chance of a 10bp cut at the 10/31 meeting is priced in. The hope is that a small cut will be more beneficial for the economy than hurtful for the agents of credit creation – the banks. This is despite of the fact that Japanese banks have underperformed the broader market by 46% since the peak of the Abenomics program, and on an outright level is basically unchanged from then. Chart 10. TPX Bank Index vs. TPX Index
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The market correctly priced the decrease in earnings due to lower risk free rates, as the PE Ratio (2nd panel) is basically unchanged despite the index declining significantly.
Chart 11. TPX Bank Index, PE Ratio and Price (2nd panel) to Book Ratio (3rd panel) [cid:image011.jpg@01D566F0.4BE1A180]

A final point to consider is that within the context of a balanced portfolio of equities and bonds, if the bond portion becomes less negatively correlated to equities because yields have hit a floor, to keep the portfolio at the same level of risk the manager has to reduce the amount of equities in the portfolio. This is a key point for the rest of the world, we think.
The point here is that conventional easing, in the form of more negative rates, more sovereign bond purchases, are clearly hitting limits. What’s left is the going further out the risk curve and using the printing press to tighten risk asset premiums directly.
Like other policy initiatives such as QE, the BoJ has already started going down this road. Currently, the BoJ owns about half a trillion Yen of Japanese REITs, vs a market cap of ~14.5 trillion, and 26.7 trillion of ETFs vs an equity market cap of ~340 trillion. The question is: how effective is it?

Let’s first have a look at the impact on equities. The BoJ holdings of ETFs has steadily increased since purchases started in 2011, such that the BoJ is now a top 10 owner in about half of Japan’s listed companies. Yes, the equity risk premium – defined here as the earnings yield minus the 30y JGB yield has actually increased, almost monotonically, since the program started, and even after the purchase pace was accelerated to ~2% of the market cap per year.

Chart 12. BoJ Holdings as % of Equity Market Ca vs. Equity Risk Premium [cid:image012.png@01D566F0.4BE1A180]
Data Source: Bloomberg
For JREITs, the purchase program jumped out of the gate quickly and seemed to have better results. After hitting a buying pace of ~2.5% per annum of the market in 2012, the REIT risk premium declined quickly, though how much of that was due to starting valuations is a question. Chart 13. BoJ Holdings % of JREITs Market Cap vs. JREIT Risk Premium [cid:image013.png@01D566F0.4BE1A180]
Data Source: Bloomberg
In aggregate, it’s probably fair to argue that purchases will likely need to hit at least 2% of market cap a year to be effective for tightening the Risk Premium. Note that we are focusing on the Risk Premium here, rather than the outright level, because we are interested in how central bank purchases will affect the relative valuation vs risk free bonds now that the latter are nearer their lower bounds. Most of the academic studies conclude that the buying programs have supported the outright level of prices. [See Barbon and Gianinazzi (2018) Charoenwong et al. (2019) and Harada and Okimoto (2019)] However, it’s worth noting that corporate earnings have been broadly increasing during this time. Even relative to earnings, it is not clear how much the purchase program has had an impact: Chart 14. BoJ Holdings % of Market Cap vs. TPX Index PE Ratio [cid:image014.png@01D566F0.4BE1A180]
Data Source: Bloomberg

For the rest of the world, we think it is only a matter of time before risky asset purchases become part of the policy tool kit. After all, it is the next iteration of the whole purpose of easy monetary policy and the printing press. Clearly, given the intrusion of public interests into private, and the increased likelihood of fiscal dominance, we will probably need to see a global recession before this weapon comes out. But given Japan’s experience, we would caution readers from getting blown away by ‘shock and awe’ aspect of such programs. Furthermore, it seems quite likely that without directly purchases of risk assets, or despite them, risky asset premiums are likely to increase as yields get closer to their effective floor, wherever that may be. As bonds become less negatively correlated to equities, volatility targeting programs and managers must reduce their equities ownership. Where the new risk premium level will be is anyone’s guess, but Japan has already shown that 700bps is not out of the question.

The risky asset premium is not the only lever that the Japanese have used. One of the goals of Abenomics was to weaken the Yen, given the impact on inflation. Other countries would retaliate if the BoJ simply printed Yen and sold it in global FX markets, so instead the authorities forced the large Japanese pension funds to sell Yen denominated assets in their portfolios to buy foreign assets unhedged. The initial impact was a large depreciation in the Yen, but like lowering interest rates, that action alone is not free. The large currency mismatch means a Yen strengthening will result in large mark to market losses for the pension funds, along with the expected negative impact on the profits of Japanese exporters. In a sharp global risk off scenario, the simultaneous strengthening of the Yen, expected weakening of expected corporate profits will mean significant negative mark to market impacts of the pension funds’ assets. And because Japanese fixed income does not have room to rally further, there will be very little in the Japanese pension portfolio to offset the pain. How the Japanese pension managers will react in that scenario is anyone’s guess, but it’s hard to imagine that they will have the fortitude to even rebalance to their target weights and buy more foreign equities in such a scenario. The press will of course have a field day talking about the mark to market losses. It seems quite possible that voter outrage at the mark to market losses results in a highly inopportune shift out of risk assets, as well as an increase in currency hedges. In aggregate, in the next global recession, the combination of the effects of: falling earnings, compounded by a sharply strengthening Yen, itself compounded by currency hedging flows from Japanese pensions, could mean a much more volatile Japanese equity market relative to its peers. This may be another reason the Nikkei has underperformed the S&P (white) more than currency effects alone could justify. Chart 15. Nikkei/SP Ratio vs. USDJPY.
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Implications:
As the monetary policy ammunition is running out across the globe, we think global central banks will at least try to cut interest rates further into negative territory and start to purchase risky assets such as equities and REITs. Ultimately, fiscal measures will have to be launched upon next downturn, and since global leverage is at all time highs, fiscal stimuli have to be underwritten by central banks – i.e. fiscal and monetary policy coordination.
Our case study in Japan indicates that further large scale of asset purchases, including stocks, may not be enough to compress risk premium of equities. We acknowledge that Japan has chronical demographic headwinds, which is also true in Europe and many other Asian countries such as South Korea and China. We recognize that in a world of free capital flows, the effects of any country’s monetary stimulus are global rather than local and local assets will benefit more from such stimulus, which explains why Japanese REITs have been more responsive to BoJ’s asset purchases than Japanese equities. It is no surprise that in countries with closed capital accounts like China, the stimulus will have a large response from domestic asset markets. Therefore we argue that to support global equity markets, a synchronized and coordinated large scale asset purchases of shares may be needed.
Our case study also highlights a tail risk that has been underestimated by the market. In the next global down turn, the currency appreciation of JPY due to the unwind of carry trade will lead to significant market-to-market closes of Japanese pension funds due to their heavy overweight to foreign assets (both US treasury and risky assets) without currency hedging, and at the same time, their Japanese stock holdings may experience larger losses as Japanese exporters will face significant currency headwinds. And to make the situation worse, their bond portfolios provide much less diversification benefits as rates hit negative territory. Japanese pensions may be forced to hedge the currency risks, which will only pour gas to the fire on the JPY appreciation, creating further pain for Japanese exporters, whose shares are held by Japanese pensions. Please do not hesitate to reach out to us for questions and feedback. Good luck! Dao Capital Advisors
DCA@DaoCapAdvisors.com

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Thoughts Going into 2019

What an interesting and humbling year it’s been. After 2017, expectations were ripe for a reset, and that sure has happened. Amazing what paradigm shifts can do.

Many readers are probably suffering from “2019 Forecasts” fatigue, so I will try to keep things brief. As always, disagreements & criticisms are not only appreciated, but requested from readers!

Economics

The slowdown in money growth is being felt globally. Of the big 3, the European and Chinese economies are facing particularly tough conditions because the banking systems are undercapitalized relative to its balance sheets. This means that without central bank liquidity, money supply growth slows dramatically. Until that changes, it will be difficult to bet on a sustained re-acceleration. The US is in a much better spot in that regard, but even there, the impact of higher interest rates is clearly impacting rates sensitive sectors. The consensus view is that we are now late cycle and a recession is likely in 2020. I think this is a too early, unless Fed Funds hit 3% before the end of 2019.

Central Banks & Rates

It’s worth noting that the tightening in financial conditions is the entire point of Fed hikes. Similarly, the market pressure on Italy’s fiscal situation during its negotiations with the EU is part of the ECB’s goal. So neither should be seen as sufficient conditions on their own for the two central banks to reverse course. What has changed in 4Q is that the data has clearly started to turn lower, and the size of the financial tightening implies that the slowdown is likely to extend further.

The European data started slowing first, which suggests the ECB will move earlier than Fed – subject to the Italians & Brits, of course. I think there will be some serious constraints on ECB actually hiking, but the current market pricing is not all that attractive to fade given the headline risks, IMO. Readings for ECB hikes north of 50bps provides good opportunities for mid-curve receiver positions, IMO, where roll down to premium exceeds 3x.

The US data WILL slow further, however, so it’s just a matter of time before the Fed reacts to that. But the market is currently only pricing in 18bps of hikes for all of 2019. With growth still positive and well above zero, that number just seems too low. In fact – using OIS swaps over the next two years, the market is now pricing in more hikes by the ECB (32bps) than the Fed! (23bps) Recall that unemployment is at 8.1% in Europe and 3.7% in the US. From a modal perspective, there is clearly a disconnect. Mathematically minded readers will note that one reason explaining the disconnect is that the ECB is much closer to the zero bound than the Fed. After all, if a recession does hit, the market can price in a lot more cuts for the US than Europe. But if we assume that the Fed cuts to zero in a recession and the ECB keeps the deposit rate unchanged, the implied probability of a recession over the next couple years relative to the SEP baseline is about 1 in 3. There are lots of ways we can further quantify whether that makes sense, but to me, that seems too high. Betting on a more hawkish Fed like a good proposition. The question on timing is, as usual, paramount. Ultimately, the question for rate markets is: at 2.25% Fed Funds, have we reached the terminal level for the cycle? If the answer is yes, then the current market pricing is justified. But I think that is a question that the market won’t be able to answer until growth rates bottom and can re-accelerate. And given that financial markets are driving the deceleration this time, we should probably wait for risk assets to stabilize for a period before entering. A bit obvious, perhaps, but it can be easy to forget obvious things when things are volatile.

Also – for those that missed it, the changes in the Fed’s FRB/US model was very interesting, and should have an impact on your expectations for the Fed’s reaction function. Note that inflation variables in the model now has significantly lower sensitivities to shocks. Per the Fed:

Although the sensitivity of the inflation process has declined in the new model, the smaller short-term responses of the inflation variables reflect not so much the changes to the model as they do the re-estimation of the wage-price block equations over a longer sample period that now extends through 2017… A second noticeable feature of the responses between the models is a faster convergence of the response of many variables back to the original baseline in the long run.

https://www.federalreserve.gov/econres/notes/feds-notes/overview-of-the-changes-to-the-frb-us-model-2018-20181207.htm

Credit & Equities

Credit spreads have been affected by a couple of things this quarter: first the downgrade of GE, which was a shock due to the size of its stock of debt, how widely it’s held, and the speed of the downgrade. Secondly, the decline in WTI oil prices below 50 drove renewed concerns around the default risk of energy companies. When combined with the generally poor liquidity of the corporate bond market, slowing profit growth and the record high debt / EBITDA measures, spreads widened dramatically relative to what the economic data alone would suggest. In addition, the year end illiquidity is likely having a supportive effect on where some small credits are marked. Some credit managers have suggested to me that there could be a jolt lower for these prices in the new year as the bonds finally clear. We’ll see.

The Equity Risk Premium is pretty high – cheap by >10% for major equity indices by my calculations, and not seen since Feb and before than Oct 2016. There is a disconnect between equity and credit prices here. Either credit should weaken further or equities should be higher. Will the new year turn things around, as risk takers start with a fresh slate and PnL? I think so, but think this is also the consensus view. So if there ISN’T a rally in January – watch out!!

One factor for the size of the equity sell off is almost certainly because to the reduction in market liquidity. As documented by Goldman (below) and others, single stock and S&P futures liquidity & market depth is at the lowest level in years. This is undoubtedly a result of the move into passive instruments. This instance can certainly be different, but note that historically these periods of illiquidity have all been good buying opportunities for equities.

I think that the 1987 narrative is may be somewhat illustrative of current conditions. Economic growth was decent in 1986, and looked likely to get stronger in 1987. Unemployment had dropped rapidly and were not far from making 10 year lows. This prompted a hawkish Fed and a jump in yields. (in orange below) The 200bps jump in 10y yields from June to Oct, in conjunction with portfolio insurance programs, drove a 33% peak to trough sell off. While that was a major financial shock, growth remained strong. The Fed cut rates but had fully reversed the cuts 6 months later, and 10y yields were broadly range bound for the next few years. Equities made new highs in mid 1989, about 2 years after the prior peak.

This time around, the Fed is similarly concerned about overheating (financial overheating at least) and were guiding yields higher. The 3.24% print on 10y yields was the highest in 7 years. Furthermore, the combination of low liquidity from algorithmic market making, (see charts above) substantial increase in passive investment vehicles, and the prevalence of volatility driven investment systems provides an accelerant for the risk off move similar to the portfolio insurance programs in 1987.

S&P earnings per share is up +19% YoY. (sorry there was a typo before) S&P Prices are down -9%. That’s a -28% differential. Differentials that big have been pretty infrequent historically – we’ve only seen worse than -25% swings 5 times before over the past 40 years. 1984, 1988, 1994, 2002, 2010.  The returns of the next years were: +26%, +27%,+34%,+26%,+0%.  The returns in 2011 weren’t so hot because that was during the EU crisis, when people thought the Euro was going to implode.

Note that it is also year 3 of the presidential cycle, which has historically delivered much bigger returns than in the other years. The media reports that Trump views the stock market as an indicator for his presidency, so it shouldn’t be a shock to see some additional fiscal stimulus coming down the pipe. Whether that will be positive over the long run is questionable of course, but is certainly an upside risk in the near term.

FX & Commodities

The dollar has been quite muted over the past couple months. Looking at the charts alone, it would be hard to see that we’ve had the biggest risk off move in a couple years this quarter. From a market tone perspective, I think that means the bias for the dollar is lower. Weak EU growth and an reticent ECB is already in the price here. A stabilization of global growth, even at low levels, has a good chance of propelling the dollar weaker. The possibility of further US fiscal stimulus is another dollar bearish risk. Finally, BAML’s fund manager survey has long dollars as a crowded/most-loved trade. (see chart) As noted elsewhere, the EU (mainly Germany) current acct balance is now very high, and that is changing the sensitivity of the EUR/USD cross to risk conditions. This is something that will be important to monitor, I think.

The 1y1y WTI strip is now around $50 which is reportedly below the cost of production for a lot of shale sources. In theory, that will cause a lot of supply to close up and bring the oil market back into balance. Certainly, that was the case in 2015 and 2016. However, it’s important not to forget that the shale producers wound up figuring out lots of ways to increase efficiency then, meaning that the true level for “break-even” in mid 2016 wound up being notably lower than the assumptions made in 2015. Ultimately, the oil market will probably need to see some stabilization in the inventory builds before there can be confidence that the supply is really adjusting sufficiently. That may be starting to play out, but it’s still early days.

EM

Chinese growth is weak – no news there. What’s different is that there just hasn’t been a sizable monetary response like we saw in previous cycles. One of our Chinese academic contacts has noted that unemployment and economic distress is actually quite widespread, and in no way reflected in the reported data. Again, not shocking, but given the context of the slowdown and the trade war, there are a number of legitimate questions about what the economic plan really is. With Xi’s power unquestioned, the trade war in full swing, and the prevalence of large amounts of non-economical debt broadly recognized, it’s quite possible that China is finally attempting to do necessary to rebalance its economy. The need to reduce debt while at the same time limiting reliance on net exports and reorient GDP towards consumption, all with a declining labor force is an extremely difficult task. In this context, Chinese government bond yields look too high.

Also worth noting is that the outlook on EM stocks is now the most bullish in 10 years, according to BAML. Valuation measures like CAPE are certainly supportive, but the secular changes that have taken place, along with the institutional challenges, remain quite worrying.

Announcement

After a number of years in my current seat, I am now actively hunting for a new role. If any readers know of a position that could use a global macro and/or asset allocation mind set, in either an advisory or portfolio management role, I would sincerely appreciate the opportunity to discuss it. Thanks for reading and Happy Holidays!

Trade Ideas for 2018

First Off, Marking the 2017 Trades:

Sell puts on 30y Treasuries at ~3.5% yield (roughly 150 on the ultra contracts)

+1.5% on the notional of an Ultra contract a year ago. I assumed shorting new quarterly puts at the close on the day the older puts expired. A year ago the consensus was fairly heavily tilted toward higher rates, so this one worked fairly well in early in the year.

Long US Leveraged Loans outright or HY on duration hedged basis

The S&P Leveraged Loan 100 index returned +3.3%. Default rates were low and the Fed hiked.

Long USDCAD

-3.0%. This one was looking pretty decent in early May, but turned around rapidly after that as the BoC turned sharply hawkish in mid June, as the unemployment rate began falling sharply. They’ve backed off a bit since, as inflation has remained benign. In retrospect, I didn’t pay enough attention to the surge in employment in 4Q of last year.

Long S&P vs Russell

+7.2%. Probably a surprise to some folks given how well the economy has done as well as the tax bill headlines. IMO, much of that was already in the price a year ago, and the tech sector helped a lot also.

Hit rate: 3 for 4. The results certainly weren’t exciting, but they worked, and delivered on low volatility and low correlation to major asset classes. For a macro mandate, it wasn’t terrible, especially since the industry results were pretty paltry in general. The general backdrop for 2017 was one of low macroeconomic and asset class volatility, which meant very few opportunities in macro space. IMO, the best macro opportunity of the year was in Sept, when the market pricing for the Fed got crazy dovish on the back of the low inflation prints. I discussed this a bit in my last note back in Sept.

2018 Macro Thoughts:

The consensus is for another decent year economically speaking, and it’s hard to find data that suggests otherwise. I’m sure readers have already read many versions of “2018 Outlooks” already, so I’ll try to avoid repeating the more consensus views. The unfortunate byproduct of that kind of forecast is that mispricings will continue to remain scarce, and the long carry / long risk trades will remain in vogue. I don’t see anything that suggests 2018 will be a great year for macro strategies, though in that I hope I’m wrong.

I think the Fed will hike more than is priced in, but the market will only adjust gradually. I don’t think yields will be a problem until we get at least above 2.25%, which means it’s probably a 2019 problem. Given the current trends in train, we may see a bit of volatility in the spring. Core PCE seems likely to pick up at the end of 1Q on a YoY basis. Given consensus expectations though, the risks seem skewed toward them staying pat in March and only hiking after realized inflation picks up, though another noticeable drop in the unemployment rate would likely trigger sequential quarterly hikes. The FOMC voters next year are noticeably more hawkish than the ones this year, though it’s unlikely they’ll rebel against Powell given that it’ll be his first year. There seems to be some sympathy for price level targeting at the Fed currently, which if adopted would give the Fed leeway to keep policy easier. (It’s also possible the Fed rolls it out in lieu of forward guidance in the next recession) If so, we could see a replay of the late 90’s, whereby a lack of financial condition tightening, along with regulatory easing results in a renewed series of financial bubbles. Regardless of what happens, the Fed’s actions in 2019 will lay the groundwork for whether there is a recession early in the next decade.

I’ve been saying for a few years now that for 30y treasuries, 2.75-3% is fair, and the Fed dots seem to agree. Part of the rationale is the decline in inflation uncertainty, which GS has noted, though the decline in policy uncertainty has helped as well. That’s one reason I think US equities are valued fairly here, and if anything a bit on the cheap side. And that’s before taking into account the balance of risks for next year.

European growth is likely to remain robust, but has not translated into good earnings growth. EU core inflation is likely to pick up by more than is expected, but my guess is that the ECB will try to continue to buy more time for the Italians to get their debt situation under control. Fortunately, at current yields and nominal growth rates, Italy is in the clear. The weak earnings growth, however, significantly weakens the value proposition for EU Equities. In general, I see valuations there as fair to rich, despite the sharp underperformance in local currency terms this year.

Unlike the US and Europe, the Chinese economy is likely already slowing. Knock on effects look likely in 1Q, and possibly concentrated in the metals complex. The consensus is that Chinese policy makers have learned from the 2015 growth scare are will be much more careful this time around, which means the slowdown will be mild. That’s certainly pretty reasonable, but the risks are clearly skewed toward a worse outcome, especially given the size, complexity, and leverage levels.

In general, the consensus seems to be pretty bullish EM assets, and from a valuation perspective, it’s hard to disagree. However, it’s worth noting that historically, EM equity outperformance has been driven by a weakening dollar. The BIS, among others, have noted the procyclical effects of stronger EM currencies easing EM financial conditions. So to me, the EM equities bet is strongly related to a bet on a weaker USD. The problem is that I am not convinced that we’re about to embark on a sustained bear market for the USD yet – it doesn’t seem all the pieces are yet in place. On the other hand, EM sovereign debt looks fairly attractive vs DM High yield. EM economic conditions look fairly benign, while delivered DM High Yield defaults are at unsustainably low levels.

2018 Ideas:

Go long a 50/50 basket of S&P 500 and 30yr US Treasuries.
I’ve been writing about the insurance aspects of risk free assets within a portfolio. It’s worth noting that with Bunds, Gilts and especially JGB yields where they are, the amount of insurance they provide in a global risk off is significantly lower relative to previous cycles. (i.e. how much are JGB’s going to go up / pay out in a recession from these levels?) In conjunction with the higher debt loads everywhere, there is a real cap on how high yields can go. Furthermore, GS has noted that the decline in delivered inflation volatility had a major impact on implied volatility on the long end, with likely knock on effects on the term premium as well. 30y yields at 2.90% or so is in my fair value estimate, and as a result provides some portfolio insurance at a reasonable cost.

Short AUD vs USD.

A play on the Chinese slowdown that is in train. Inflation in Australia, like in other DM countries, has remained low, and the RBA is reluctant to hike, especially given the high debt load and the level of the currency. Currently the negative carry is deminimis and looks likely to turn positive later this year (!) given market pricing and consensus forecasts.

Long MIB vs SX5E.

Italian companies seem to have shaken off many of its legacy problems and its relative growth profile has picked up. Looks like the market isn’t buying it just yet, so this looks like a decent entry point.

Long Bitcoin.

Because it’s going to change the world, something something. Because you can’t trust governments. Also supply is limited. And it’s totally worth it to pay $25 in fees and wait 15 minutes per transaction for an asset with an annualized volatility of 100%. Finally, and most importantly, because the price is going up. Like a lot!! What are you going to do, not buy it?!? FOMO dude!! This guy gets it: “valuation is immaterial.”

In case it’s not obvious, the last one’s a joke. Some of the stuff is just so out there you have to laugh a bit. I wish there were more substantive ideas, but between the market landscape and other responsibilities taking up my time, I couldn’t find more ideas compelling enough to hold for multiple quarters. As always, constructive criticism is welcomed!

What’s going on in the bond market?

The market is currently pricing just ~0.35% of hikes over the next TWO years. The infamous Fed dots imply ~1.75% of hikes. Even with the knowledge that the Fed dots have been way too high the past several years, that gap is very, very large. The consensus view seems to be that the market has lost faith that inflation will return to anywhere close to 2%.

But that doesn’t really seem to be the case. According to Bloomberg, the median private sector economist projection for core PCE at the end of 2018 is 1.8% vs the Fed at 2.0%. 1y1y inflation forwards are pricing in a headline CPI of roughly 2.0%. So I have a very hard time believing that the consensus actually think a lack of inflation likely.

In fact, betting on more hikes appears to be a popular or even crowded trade now, with Bloomberg actually running an article this morning entitled: “Bond Market’s Hot Trade is Betting a 2017 Fed Hike Still in Play.”

So if the market doesn’t believe that the Fed will stop hiking, and may in fact be betting for more hikes, the big question is: why is bond market pricing so different?

There isn’t a smoking gun type answer to this one, and probably never will be. But my hypothesis is that there are two primary factors: the shortage of risk-free bonds, and their insurance properties. Neither hypothesis are all that novel, but perhaps some of the conclusions will be of interest.

The bond shortage argument has been around for a long time. Many banks have tables showing annual net issuance of risk-free bonds, after accounting for QE programs, relative to demand from private sector investors like pension plans and the like. That gap has been very wide, and in addition has recently exacerbated by the increase in USD FX reserves. (Foreign central banks tend to park their USD reserves in US treasuries, mainly at the front end of the curve. The recent rally in EMFX has allowed many of them to replenish their reserves, which are now back to mid 2016 levels)

In addition, since the 1990’s, risk free bonds are essentially the only asset class that is negatively correlated to risky assets. In other words, they provide insurance for the rest of a portfolio. An in a world where asset prices are universally deemed expensive, the price of insurance should naturally rise.

In fact, insurance, as we all know, typically costs money. So if owning treasuries are akin to owning insurance, should we be shocked that owning treasuries… ultimately costs money, relative to cash?

To some extent, the various term premium models out there showing negative readings across the curve already says that. Consensus views seem to remain that term premiums will revert to above zero over the long run, after QE programs are unwound, etc. But if QE becomes a recurring part of the central bank tool kit, as most central bankers assume, it may well be that negative term premiums are here to stay.

To take the insurance analogy a bit further – historically insurance pricing fluctuates such that during quiet periods, insurance companies compete to drive down the price of insurance to uneconomical levels, until a natural disaster or other shock causes the insurance market to reprice as the weaker players are forced to step away from the market. Perhaps we could see a similar dynamic in the treasury market – long periods of notably negative term premiums, until a shock (like an a Fed hike) causes a temporary repricing to more justifiable levels.

For the record, I think the consensus view on inflation is right. My own inflation model, which only puts a minimal weight on the slope of the Philips curve and has done a decent job of forecasting inflation out of sample, suggests Fed and consensus forecasts over the next several quarters look pretty reasonable, and if anything could be on the low side.

In my last note in mid June, I noted that rates looked rich but it wasn’t time to fade it yet, which turned out OK over the longer run. Unfortunately that was immediately before the Sinatra conference, which caused a temporary spike in yields, which has since been more than unwound. At this juncture, I think there is enough uncertainty at the Fed about inflation that they will want to see more than one strong inflation print to hike in Dec. There are only 3 more core PCE prints to be released between now and the Dec FOMC, and 4 CPI prints. So my guess is that the inflation data will need to start strengthening very soon for a Dec hike to be realistic. In addition, since the recession there’s been a seasonally bearish bias to the MoM core PCE prints in the last few months of the year. So my personal take is that current market pricing for Dec isn’t all that crazy.

Otherwise, macro pricing doesn’t look terribly mispriced at this juncture –

· Credit spreads look a bit tight, but there’s nothing that suggests a reversal is likely. I’ve been hearing that underwriting for leveraged loans have been weak given strong demand, but that could persist for some time.

· Spec positioning on the dollar is starting to get stretched, but I don’t think it’s a binding factor – yet. I don’t think the USD is terribly mispriced – fundamentally, the trend turned in 2014, IMO.

· Equity prices still look pretty reasonable here. I don’t think a Fed hike or QE unwind will cause a major correction. A major reason is that the long end of the curve doesn’t look too out of whack.

Some Thoughts on Cycle Length

First, a quick note. I haven’t posted many updates this year because frankly, I haven’t seen a whole lot of mispricings. My last post on in late Feb suggested getting long duration, which has worked out OK. I think rates are a bit rich currently, but the backdrop suggests more downside is likely over the rest of the summer. I actually think equities are pretty fairly priced here. Prices had ramped up ahead of fundamentals earlier this year, but it seems like the fundamentals have now caught up.

I’ve been thinking a bit about how this business cycle could play out. Historically, falling unemployment has generated rising inflationary pressures, which causes the Fed to hike enough to trigger a recession. What’s different this time is that falling unemployment has not been generating much inflation at all. The scenario being priced in by fixed income markets is that this will cause to Fed to slow or significantly shorten its hiking cycle. That’s certainly plausible to me. I don’t think anyone can rule out a scenario whereby very low unemployment rates coincide with low inflation. After all, we are already seeing it in many countries across the globe like Japan and Germany. And then there’s the chart from Haldane at the BoE that purports to go back to the 1500’s: that suggests no relationship before the industrial revolution:

But there’s another possibility, which is that unemployment will cause inflationary pressures only when unemployment is low, but then the inflation will accelerate. i.e. the slope of the Phillips curve is non-linear. Goldman recently published a study of the relationship between inflation and unemployment by metropolitan areas, which provides some support for this hypothesis.

In addition to that, there is data in US history that support this. The time periods in the early 50’s and the early 60’s exhibited both low unemployment (in blue and inverted below) and low inflation. (cpi in red) That period ultimately led to the inflationary spiral that dominated monetary developments for the subsequent decade.

Now, obviously this is not the 1960’s. We don’t have the baby boom wave coming, and rather than an inflationary oil shock, we are getting a deflationary oil shock. But the data as well as the rhetoric from the current Fed suggests that – as long as unemployment continues to fall, hikes are likely to be forth coming. In fact, that is exactly what the Fed did in the late 90’s, despite inflation that is only a bit higher than current levels. After all, the Fed doesn’t know how things will play out – whether unemployment and inflation will completely decouple, or whether some relationship still exists. So it will most like try to tread a path in the middle, that will allow it to accelerate or decelerate tightening as evidence for either case unfolds. Put differently, if unemployment is at 3.5% in a year’s time, the Fed is likely to be hiking still, even if inflation is unchanged.

The lowest unemployment reading in US history is 2.5%. If we extrapolate the trend decline in unemployment since it peaked, we could be there in 2019 – just 2 years away.

The Fed will want Fed Funds to be at least positive then on a real basis, which means 2.25% nominal. That’s another 4 hikes, or roughly 2 per year. But the risk is clearly tilted toward more hikes. The SEP median dot is near 3% for the end of 2019, with the unemployment dot basically unchanged from the last reading and core inflation at 2%. That’s pretty undemanding. And I think that because of the analysis above, the dots are sticky. Well, at least stickier than dots were in the past – simply because of the possibility of accelerating inflation.

In addition, my estimate is that 3.5% Fed Funds is highly likely to tip the economy into a recession. (a very very big) If things play out as listed here, that suggests 2020 as the potential start of the next recession.

Now – how is this useful, even if this scenario somehow plays out? Put differently, how could assets perform if this expansion extends another three years? There aren’t a lot of precedents, but here are a few thoughts:

· China’s forced rebalancing away from credit growth could be delayed until then. But the impact of a US recession on China could be yuuuuge….

· Corporate leverage ratios could make all time highs. Stock buybacks could increase until then

· I don’t think a huge equity bubble is particularly likely. The psychological pain from the past two recessions are probably going to stick around for a generation – I think if another equity bubble will happen this time, we would’ve begun the see signs already. Certainly we didn’t get an equity bubble in the 1950’s. A corporate credit bubble seems more likely to me given the massive demand for debt, the easing of covenants, and the fact that most corporate credit ex-financials did OK the last time around

· But by bubble, I mean equities may not get to levels that result in a crash. But they certainly could get to a very high plateau and stay there. A model that extrapolates 10y nominal price returns suggest that current prices embed a 2% return annually. There’s a pretty good chance that if the cycle goes to 2020, that figure goes down to zero. But that could be ~30% higher from here in price terms.

A View on Long Term Global Rates

It’s been 3 months since global yields gapped higher, and the consensus view remains quite bearish. Expectations for Fed hikes this year haven’t changed that much from the 2-3 hike range, which means the consensus seems heavily skewed toward steepeners.

I’d like to use this note to elaborate a bit about why those views may be wrong, and then go over some developed country bond markets individually. My guess is that some readers will be familiar with various components of the arguments set out below, but hopefully everyone will find an interesting piece of food for thought by the conclusion. As always, discussions and disagreements are welcome.

Preamble

I think one of the major things folks miss when they project rates going back to some historical average is that they do not take into account the fact that past economic outcomes were burnished as a result of falling rates. Sounds trivial, but it doesn’t seem to be broadly incorporated into expectations of asset returns. To be more concrete: US growth is currently what it is because of the continuous decline in US yields since the end of 2013. For growth to persist at current levels AND yields to move significantly higher would require a huge source of growth from some other sector of the economy. That would be bigly!

The Philadelphia Fed has a quarterly survey asking economists their expectations. One of them is their expectations for the nominal return on 10yr treasury bonds. Now, perhaps it’s not a surprise that actual 10yr Treasury yields have been lower than the average survey response. But it is worth noting that since 2000, the difference between the market rate and expectations averaged 130bps. Talk about bias!

To be fair, many of the models that economists use (especially at central banks) have embedded features that allows for past interest rates to affect equilibrium estimates. That is one reason why the FOMC’s estimate of long run Fed Funds rate has been consistently falling for the past several years. But unfortunately, it seems not many folks fully adjust their views to real world outcomes!

Japan

This is probably the easiest one. Consensus forecasts for 10y JGB yields in a year’s time is just 11 bps, basically unchanged from current levels. And the reasoning the pretty clear. Japanese inflation has hovered around zero for the past two decades despite multiple efforts by the BoJ to raise it. The vast majority of the variation in core CPI inflation after adjusting for taxes has simply been a function of the Yen:

This is already reasonably well accepted by market participants, which is why the various discussions around the BoJ potentially raising the 10bp cap on JGB yields isn’t all that credible. Even the most hawkish member of the BoJ has warned against it. So barring either a break in the two decade long relationship above, or a change in the BoJ mandate away from positive inflation targeting, JGB yields look likely to continue trading in this range for the foreseeable future.

Europe

…is a mess. Nothing new there. Most of the noise around Europe seems to be on French politics right now, but I think it’s just a distraction from the bigger problem. Which is that the Italian sovereign bond yields are unsustainable without purchases by the ECB.

Italian government interest payments alone have been stable at around 4%-5% of GDP over the past decade despite both the 30% jump in debt/GDP and the slowdown in nominal GDP growth. That’s been the case only because of ECB purchases, which has pushed 7y BTP yields from ~4.5% a decade ago to just ~1.6% now. Even with that however, interest payments at 4% of GDP are unsustainable with nominal GDP at less than 2%:

The current debt distribution according to Bloomberg is front loaded, with an average maturity of 6.7 years and a weighted average coupon of 3.36%.

With current BTP yields well below the average weighted coupon, and given that we know the debt maturity profile, we can make an estimate of how long it will take for interest payments to fall to sustainable levels. I’m going to define sustainable at 3% of GDP, which is giving Italy the benefit of the doubt given that nominal Italian GDP growth has printed above 2% YoY just once in the past 5 years. We’ll also assume that the primary deficit balances the interest payments such that the debt to GDP ratio stays stable at 135%. If we assume that the BTP curve holds constant, and the maturity profile is held constant, and nominal GDP is stable at 2%, interest payments as a percent of nominal GDP will evolve as follows:

Now: 3.36% avg coupon * 1.35 debt/GDP = 4.5%

2018: 2.97 * 1.35 = 4.0%

2019: 2.73 * 1.35 = 3.7%

2020: 2.51 * 1.35 = 3.4%

2021: 2.37 * 1.35 = 3.2%

2022: 2.23 * 1.35 = 3.0%

Put differently, if we optimistically assume BTP yields do not rise much more from here, growth and inflation remains at current levels (i.e. no more growth shocks), and debt/GDP remains stable, it will take another 5 years before interest payments fall to a plausibly sustainable level. It seems quite unlikely that the ECB will be able to step away from buying BTPs until we are close to that level.

In addition, consider the fact that the “mark to market” level for interest payments as a percent of GDP, which I define as Debt/GDP * 7y yields, cannot stay more than 1% above nominal GDP growth for very long without yields jumping higher. That’s because such a move would result in a self-reinforcing spiral akin to what we saw during the EU crisis. Higher yields => worsening fiscal picture => higher yields. With sustainable nominal GDP likely not much higher than 2%, this probably means around 3% or so, which on 135% debt/GDP implies a ceiling of ~2.25% on 7y BTPs.

To me, this means that the ECB will have to keep 7y BTPs yields not much above 2.0% until at least 2021. It’s very hard to see that happening without some sort of QE program.

Of course, the ECB is not allowed to buy only BTPs. It will have to buy bunds as well, which is already a problem due to scarcity. I think the market has been sniffing this story out the past couple months, and one reason why 2y German yields have dropped to new lows even as 2y yields elsewhere have been stable. Here is a chart of the spread between an average of French, Spanish, and Italian 2y yields vs German 2y yields:

After converging to a range around 35bps or so, spreads have moved back to ~70bps, a level not seen since the end of 2013. In fact, 70bps was a key resistance level that marked the beginning of the EU crisis back in 2010. This 70bps level is a line in the sand, in my opinion. If spreads break above it, we will see periphery spreads widen out until the QE tapering is reversed.

United States

The impact of the items I listed earlier is likely impacting the US market the most via the term premium. The term premium is defined as the compensation that investors require for bearing the risk that short term Treasury yields do not evolve as they expected. The most well known measure is the ACM estimate, which the NY Fed has discussed. Currently, the ACM 10y term premium estimate is around zero, which is quite low relative to history. A common theme that many bond bearish articles have discussed is that the term premium could revert back to longer term averages, which is in the neighborhood of 1.5%.

However, a closer look at the term premium shows that it’s actually highly correlated to the spread premium of US treasuries relative to the rest of the world. The chart below plots the 10y ACM term premium in white, and the yield difference between 10y treasuries and a basket of 10y bunds, gilts and JGBs in orange and inverted. As the chart shows, the higher the yield advantage treasuries offer relative to the rest of the world, the lower the term premium. Which makes sense!

The implication then, is that if both the BoJ and the ECB are not able to allow yields in their countries to move much higher, the spread between treasury yields and the rest of the world is not likely to tighten. Which suggests that the risk is not that the US term premium could rise, but that they could fall further!

There are many other factors that affect yields that I haven’t discussed here, but I think it the analysis above presents a compelling argument that the top for US yields is likely to be quite a bit lower than consensus expectations.

Implications

Market tone in Fixed Income is very bullish currently. In the past few weeks, we’ve had:

1. a more hawkish than expected Yellen,

2. strong, above consensus inflation prints

3. strong, above consensus growth prints, which means the economic surprise index hit the highest level in almost 5 years:

4. strong data globally, with the Citi G10 economic surprise index at levels not seen since 2010(!)

5. strong performance in risk assets

And yet long term yields have not moved higher! Literally, we’ve had almost everything a bond bear could ask for, and yet US yield are lower YTD and looks ready to break below support that has held since Dec:

If yields can’t go higher on good news… what will? In my last note in early Dec, I suggested getting some exposure to duration via selling out of the money puts on 30y treasuries. I think it’s time to upgrade that view to building duration outright.

Trade Ideas for 2017

Before we get to the ideas, a quick note on my predictions and ideas from the past year. Overall, it’s been a decent year for my calls. Part of that is due to the major swings in asset prices over the course of the year. Here were my key calls and subsequent market price action: (I used SPX as the proxy for risk assets and 5y Treasury yields as a proxy for risk free rates)

On 10/22/2015, I wrote ‘It’s time to be Neutral or Short Risk.’ (assets) That proceeded a 13% drop over the subsequent 3.5 months:

On 1/21/2016, I wrote ‘It’s time to start building exposure to risk assets.’ That was a bit before the ultimate low (which I acknowledged was likely at the time), but was subsequently followed by a double digit gain over the subsequent 3 months:

On 6/23/2016 I wrote ‘Here comes the Squeeze,’ where I noted that equities were likely to rally regardless of the Brexit referendum outcome.

On 8/22/2016, I wrote ‘It’s time to short the front end,’ where I argued that it was time to bet on higher rates:

To sum up, most of the intra-year calls have worked out, though it seems I was a bit early on all of them.

My 2016 ideas all showed nice profits at mid year, but have retraced much of their gains over the past month.

· Short CHF vs JPY worked pretty well. Regular readers will recall that I proposed taking profits when the cross was at 106 mid-year.

1. 12/11/15 level for 12m fwd: 123.84

2. Current Spot: 112.22

3. PL = +8.4%

· Short AUD vs USD. This trade hit a 5% profit within a month of initiation, but gave it all back. The PBoC easing starting in late 2015 was the main factor that knock the trade into a loss.

1. 12/11/15 level for 12m fwd: 0.7073

2. Current Spot: 0.7460

3. PL = -3%

· US 5s30s Flattener. This trade was up +35bps by the end of Aug, when I’d suggested potentially booking profits. Since I proposed going short duration, the trade has gone back to flat.

1. 12/11/15 level for 1yfwd 5s30s in swaps: 0.742

2. Current Spot: 0.726

3. PL = +1.5 bps.

Thoughts about the Current Macro Environment: (This will provide some context for the 2017 trade ideas)

The global economic & inflation rebound has some more room to go. The current economic momentum and some leading indicators suggests another quarter or two. The deflation / recession mindset that was in place for much of last year is now a good base against which the economic cycle can extend. EM balance sheets are now fairly healthy, (though potentially at risk if the USD strengthens a lot more) and FX levels undemanding.

Global cyclical indicators are now close to the peak levels seen from late 2013 – late 2014. (below chart is from GS)

With G8 unemployment now near multi-decade lows, it is questionable how much the acceleration can continue.

The biggest long term risk remains rapidly tightening monetary policy. By my estimates, US policy rates above 3% would be enough to trigger a recession. We’re obviously still a ways from that, but by the end of 2017, we could be almost halfway there. In contrast with the low odds of recession near term, I think the odds of a US recession during 2019-2021 period is quite high. How quickly policy actually tightens, however, will be dependent on the evolution of fiscal policy and inflation. That’s one reason I’m hesitant about making any longer term bets on the belly of the curve.

I don’t think there’s that much upside left for equities, at least on a risk adjusted basis. On my models, they are already trading rich, but that may well be justified due to the corporate tax cuts that Trump has talked about. GS noted that a reduction in effective corporate taxes by ~10% could increase EPS by ~15% or so. That certainly justifies some sort of premium, but further gains on that front will require some legislative details. DM yields and equity valuations are roughly in balance here, so a further rise in yields will be a significant headwind for equities, though rising earnings will provide some offset.

Nevertheless, it is key to recognize that there is more uncertainty now about the appropriate risk free discount rate than at any time since the end of 2013. This key input that goes into essentially every asset valuation model presents a key source of uncertainty that lowers the conviction on any calls one can make. Note that this uncertainty is also being reflected in vol space, as rates and FX vol are both quite high compared to the past 5 years.

2017 trade ideas:

Sell puts on 30y Treasuries at ~3.5% yield (roughly 150 on the ultra contracts)

There is a limited amount of upside for 30y yields from here. The global savings glut and wealth inequality is not going away. No president is going to move us out of the new normal. As global momentum slows at some point next year, those views will be talked about again. In addition, implied vol for US rates is on the high side. Currently, 3m puts are ~1’20 bid, or ~88bps of notional. On an annualized basis, that is roughly 3.5%. I think you are supposed to get long 30y treasuries at that yield, if not sooner, and get longer if the opportunity arises. As I mentioned, I am strongly convinced that policy rates in excess of 3% is likely to trigger a recession, so 3.5% is a good level to lean against.

In addition, per JPM, various positioning metrics suggests that Treasury shorts are now fairly crowded.

On the other hand, it seems unlikely that we will see the highs for yields until at least the end of the year or even inauguration. There is simply too much uncertainty and current yields are not quite high enough to justify the risks. In addition, with economic and inflation momentum on the rise, risks are still biased to the upside. As a result, selling puts provides a reasonable alternative, IMO.

Long US Leveraged Loans outright or HY on duration hedged basis

Though clearing levels for risk free rates are in question, credit spread levels are easier to call. Credit spreads are ~3.6% for loans, and ~3.7% for HY CDX. Given that near term economic risks are low, neither are unreasonably tight given expected defaults and is likely to provide a decent source of vol-adjusted carry. The higher total yield is not a problem – interest coverage ratios remains healthy. (per GS – see chart)

This is a fairly consensus call. Having said that, it is important to be mindful of where we are in the business cycle, and that credit spreads are only somewhat attractive. In other words, it’s not the time to load up on illiquid bonds!

Long USDCAD

After the 1998-2007 oil boom, Canada is suffering from a mild form of dutch disease, IMO. Despite the 25% depreciation in the real effective exchange rate since 2007, the current account deficit remains quite poor at -3.5% of GDP. Over the past 40 years, the only other two periods of such sustained current account deficits saw large depreciations that continued until the deficit was corrected. I think that’s a pretty good template this time around also.

In addition, the trade has the added bonus of being positive carry, and negatively correlated to risk assets.

The biggest pushback on this is that oil is likely to rally, which has historically meant CAD strength. In this respect, it is important to recall that the US is now a major oil exporter – in fact, the net US petroleum trade balance is almost flat, levels not seen since 2002.

Long S&P vs Russell

Higher real rates are negative for small caps relative to large caps. The current levels are already extrapolating a jump in growth:

There’s certainly a bit more room for small caps to outperform, but they seem more likely to mean revert – either due to growth mean reverting or a tightening Fed.

On a final note of clarification, these are not necessarily trades that anyone should hold blindly for the year. But I do think that they provide some interesting risk/reward tradeoffs over a longer time frame that at least will provide some food for thought for readers. As always, thoughts and disagreements are welcome. Good luck and best wishes for a profitable and educational 2017!