Trying to Stay Focused on the Big Picture

By: Doug Noland | Sat, Jul 7, 2012
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Having wrapped up my working holiday this week, my end-of-week writing schedule should now return to normal. It's certainly been an eventful few weeks. The European debt crisis, again, began to spiral out of control. Policymakers were, once again, forced into desperate measures. Buffeted by countervailing forces, global risk markets have bounced between crisis-induced de-risking/de-leveraging and policy intervention-driven speculative excess. And as systemic stress escalates the markets anxiously anticipate even more powerful policy responses. The precarious "risk on, risk off" global risk market trading dynamic has become only more overbearing.

More specifically, global risk markets rallied significantly after Germany's capitulation at the latest European summit. After stating rather unequivocally that there was a line that would not be crossed ("as long as I live"), Chancellor Merkel was seen as buckling under the pressure. The Germans gave into the demands (to some, "blackmail") of the contingent from Italy, Spain and France, as the European powerbase lurched southward. And if Merkel was willing to bend on EU bailout oversight and emergency lending directly to Spanish banks, surely she would eventually capitulate on Eurobonds, EU system-wide deposit guarantees and other forms of debt "mutualization." Those believing that the Germans would have no alternative than to eventually backstop troubled eurozone debt issuers were emboldened - at least momentarily.

Ms. Merkel was pilloried at home - by the press, by her political opposition and even within her own governing coalition. German public opinion is clearly hardening; the German constitutional court is preparing... And while it might appear that the June 28/29 summit provided an inflection point for a more pragmatic - and decidedly less principled - German position, one could also envisage a scenario where such public embarrassment engenders a tougher German stance. After dropping to 6.11% post-summit, Spanish 10-year yields traded back to almost 6.95% today. For the week, Spain's 10-year yields jumped 62 bps and Italy's rose 20 bps (to 6.01%).

In the (fleeting) post-summit euphoria, the euro rallied from about 1.24 to almost 1.27 (vs. the dollar). The euro ended this week at 1.2291, trading intraday below the June 1st trading low (1.2288). Considering the large short position, the euro bounce was notably unimpressive. Indeed, I view euro weakness as confirmation of the unfolding bearish thesis. The bullish contingent would like to view German policy accommodation as the beginning of the end to the European debt crisis. I (and others) instead see an escalating Credit crisis that has now irreparably afflicted the "core" of the European system. It is at this point wishful thinking to believe that the Germans - even if they were willing to sacrifice their nation's creditworthiness to backstop eurozone debt - retain the capacity to sustain market confidence in Trillions of Spanish and Italian sovereign debt, local government obligations and banking system liabilities.

Policymakers will, as we've witnessed again recently from European politicians and central bankers, respond to heightened systemic stress by ratcheting up their responses. Yet, and also no surprise, these increasingly desperate measures will have depleted and fleeting effects - and really tend only to heighten market instability. The big unknown remains the timing of when market confidence in the capacity of policy measures to incite market rallies is finally depleted. Without this carrot, I expect we'll be facing an altered global market environment.

The structure of today's marketplace (especially with respect to the proliferation of hedging and derivative trading strategies) is conducive to short squeezes. This is compounded by the policy environment backdrop whereby market players (sophisticated and otherwise) fully recognize that policymakers are determined to backstop the markets. This incentivizes speculation and, I would argue, has nurtured Bubble Dynamics. Understandably, trumpeting global market resilience in the face of European debt tumult and slowing global growth has become common. I continue to fear that the confluence of complacency, policy impotence, and endemic global market speculative excess creates unappreciated systemic fragilities.

Extraordinarily divergent macro views have solidified. Some see the makings for a new secular bull market. I instead see an increasingly susceptible global Credit Bubble and attendant historic financial mania. A critical facet of this thesis remains that policymakers will go to incredible lengths to sustain Credit, financial and economic booms. And while this guarantees difficulty in assessing the timing of when catastrophe might strike - it seemingly ensures such an outcome. With unsettled markets only adding to confusion, I thought it appropriate this week to touch upon Credit theory to try to bring a little clarity to the muddled macro backdrop - Trying to Stay Focused on the Big Picture.

During the halcyon upside of the Credit cycle, ever increasing quantities of Credit disburse purchasing power throughout financial and economic systems. The Credit-induced increase in spending supports income growth, consumption, corporate profits, investment, government receipts/expenditures and economic output. Asset inflation is seen as fundamentally driven and, furthermore, as confirmation of the bullish viewpoint. One can say that Credit growth is self-reinforcing - or "recursive." Importantly, the upside of Credit booms ensures seemingly positive "fundamentals" that validate the system's financial asset price structures and, more generally, the expansive Credit and financial infrastructure.

The Credit boom ensures notions of economic "miracles," "New Eras," and "New Paradigms." Policymakers are generally seen as astute; economic doctrine as advanced and enlightened. The inflationary bias associated with the Credit cycle's upside provides policymakers great flexibility - and seemingly ensures policy effectiveness. And especially after a few episodes of policy responses freeing the system from the jaws of crisis, players throughout the markets and economy (not to mention the general public) come to believe in the capacity of policymakers to avoid trouble and sustain the boom. The social mood is one of general optimism, cooperation and cohesion. The pie is perceived to be getting bigger, and most are for the most part satisfied that they're enjoying their share. And, of course, "bull markets create genius."

The unavoidable may be avoided for years, yet the brutality of a Credit cycle's downside in the end will be commensurate with the duration and scope of boom-time excesses. And the changed Credit environment changes so many things. The maladjusted economic structure will eventually give way, ushering in a cycle of deteriorating fundamentals - including stagnant household incomes, faltering profits and deteriorating government finances. The pie will not only shrinking, but most will come to see a fortunate few unfairly taking an ever increasing share to the detriment of everyone else. The system will be viewed as inequitable, unjust and flat out broken. The social mood turns sour, as most incomes stagnate (or worse) and perceived financial wealth withers. Faith in institutions will wane. Post-Bubble policymakers will invariably be viewed as inept. Optimism is supplanted by pessimism. As always, wrenching bear markets create disdain and hostility.

Credit's downside, along with accompanying bear markets, over time instills wreaking ball havoc upon the Credit structure. In the final analysis, Credit is everything and always about confidence. During the Credit expansion, constructive fundamentals and general optimism bolster the perception that Credit is sound and that most Credit instruments will be vehicles of wealth generation. As a Credit bust ensues and the economic and asset price backdrop deteriorates, ever-increasing swaths of Credit instruments are viewed as impaired or even dubious. The entire Credit and financial structure, having grown to incredible stature during the boom, turns brittle and unstable - generally starting out on the "periphery" before eventually rotting away at the "core."

Policymakers will not accept defeat before one hell of a fight. Dreadful policy errors will be repeated and compounded. Government officials will go to increasing inflationary lengths to bolster incomes and economic output, support asset markets, and stimulate Credit growth. Such measures typically enjoy initial success, though such a policy course will invariably lead to an expanding governmental role in the economy and an interventionist role in the Credit and asset markets. Too be sure, finance will be mispriced and poorly allocated.

Stubborn refusal to admit mistakes along with increasing desperation ensure things will only get worse. Over time, it all regresses into a perilous confidence game. Government intervention and monetary stimulus inflate confidence for a while, although such actions only weaken the underpinnings of the Credit structure. In reflecting upon the late-twenties excesses that set the stage for collapse and depression, Keynes referred to the "whirlwind of speculation." I expect there will be a point when the markets begin to narrow the gulf between the (speculative) market's perception of policy efficacy and the outright limits of governmental control and market intervention. "When the development of a country becomes the byproduct of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done."

 


For the Week:

The S&P500 declined 0.5% (up 7.7% y-t-d), and the Dow fell 0.8% (up 4.5%). The broader market outperformed. The S&P 400 Mid-Caps gained 0.6% (up 7.8%), and the small cap Russell 2000 rose 1.1% (up 8.9%). The Morgan Stanley Cyclicals slipped 0.5% (up 4.6%), and the Transports dipped 0.2% (up 3.6%). The Morgan Stanley Consumer index declined 0.3% (up 4.9%), and the Utilities fell 0.5% (up 1.9%). The Banks were down 1.3% (up 14.8%), and the Broker/Dealers were hit for 1.7% (up 3.7%). The Nasdaq100 was little changed (up 14.7%), while the Morgan Stanley High Tech index declined 2.1% (up 7.0%). The Semiconductors dropped 2.4% (up 3.2%). The InteractiveWeek Internet index declined 0.7% (up 6.1%). The Biotechs increased 1.4% (up 36.6%). With bullion down $14, the HUI gold index fell 1.0% (down 15.1%).

One-month Treasury bill rates ended the week at 6 bps and three-month bills closed at 7 bps. Two-year government yields were down 3 bps to 0.27%. Five-year T-note yields ended the week 8 bps lower at 0.64%. Ten-year yields fell 10 bps to 1.55%. Long bond yields dropped 9 bps to 2.66%. Benchmark Fannie MBS yields declined 11 bps to 2.46%. The spread between benchmark MBS and 10-year Treasury yields narrowed one to 91 bps. The implied yield on December 2013 eurodollar futures declined 4 bps to 0.56%. The two-year dollar swap spread was little changed at 25 bps. The 10-year dollar swap spread increased 2.5 to 15 bps. Corporate bond spreads were slightly wider. An index of investment grade bond risk ended the week one wider to 113 bps. An index of junk bond risk rose 3 to 590 bps.

Debt issuance was very slow. Investment grade issuers included Caledonia Generating $200 million.

Junk bond funds saw inflows of $779 million (from Lipper). Junk Issuers included Halcon Resources $750 million and Ashtead Capital $500 million,

I saw no convertible debt issued.

International dollar bond issuers included European Investment Bank $8.0bn and Kazakhstan Temir $800 million.

German bund yields sank 26 bps to 1.33% (down 50bps y-t-d), and French yields dropped 31 bps to 2.37% (down 77bps). The French to German 10-year bond spread narrowed 5 to 104 bps. Spain's 10-year yields jumped 62 bps to 6.91% (up 187bps). Italian 10-yr yields rose 20 bps to 6.01% (down 102bps). Ten-year Portuguese yields rose 8 bps to 10.01% (down 277bps). The new Greek 10-year note yield declined 19 bps to 25.19%. U.K. 10-year gilt yields fell 14 bps to 1.59% (down 39bps). Irish yields fell 18 bps to 6.15% (down 211bps).

The German DAX equities index was quite volatile but ended about unchanged (up 8.7% y-t-d). Spain's IBEX 35 equities index sank 5.1% (down 21.3%), and Italy's FTSE MIB dropped 3.8% (down 9.0%). Japanese 10-year "JGB" yields declined 4 bps to 0.80 (down 19bps). Japan's Nikkei added 0.2% (up 6.7%). Emerging markets were mixed. Brazil's Bovespa equities index rallied 1.9% (down 2.4%), while Mexico's Bolsa declined 0.9% (up 7.4%). South Korea's Kospi index added 0.2% (up 1.8%). India's Sensex equities index increased 0.5% (up 13.4%). China's Shanghai Exchange was about unchanged (up 1.1%).

Freddie Mac 30-year fixed mortgage rates declined 4 bps to a record low 3.62% (down 98bps y-o-y). Fifteen-year fixed rates were down 5 bps to 2.89% (down 86bps). One-year ARMs were 6 bps lower at 2.68% (down 33bps). Bankrate's survey of jumbo mortgage borrowing costs had 30-yr fixed rates unchanged at 4.26% (down 82ps).

Federal Reserve Credit declined $8.8bn to $2.845 TN. Fed Credit was down $8.9bn from a year ago, or 0.3%. Elsewhere, Fed Foreign Holdings of Treasury, Agency Debt this past week (ended 7/4) increased $3.0bn to $3.513 TN. "Custody holdings" were up $92.4bn y-t-d and $67.3bn year-over-year, or 2.0%.

Global central bank "international reserve assets" (excluding gold) - as tallied by Bloomberg - were up $591bn y-o-y, or 6.0% to a record $10.469 TN. Over two years, reserves were $2.035 TN higher, for 24% growth.

M2 (narrow) "money" supply rose $14.7bn to a record $9.924 TN. "Narrow money" has expanded 6.0% annualized year-to-date and was up 8.0% from a year ago. For the week, Currency increased $2.5bn. Demand and Checkable Deposits declined $1.1bn, while Savings Deposits advanced $13.8bn. Small Denominated Deposits declined $1.8bn. Retail Money Funds increased $1.2bn.

Total Money Fund assets declined $5.1bn to $2.533 TN. Money Fund assets were down $162bn y-t-d and $154bn over the past year, or 5.7%.

Total Commercial Paper outstanding sank $35.5bn to $973bn. CP was up $14bn y-t-d, while declining $243bn from a year ago, or down 20.0%.

Global Credit Watch:

July 5 - Bloomberg (Simon Kennedy): "Global central banks went on the offensive against the faltering world economy, cutting interest rates and increasing bond buying as a round of international stimulus gathers pace. In a 45-minute span, the European Central Bank and People's Bank of China cut their benchmark borrowing costs, while the Bank of England raised the size of its asset-purchase program. They acted two weeks after the Federal Reserve expanded a program lengthening the maturity of bonds it holds and Chairman Ben S. Bernanke indicated more measures will be taken if needed. 'The actions had the look and feel of a coordinated global easing campaign,' said Nick Kounis, head of macro research at ABN Amro Bank NV... 'The central banks are trying to arrest the synchronized slowdown in global economic growth that has taken shape.'"

July 5 - Bloomberg (Jeff Black and Jana Randow): "The European Central Bank cut interest rates to a record low and said it won't pay anything on overnight deposits as the sovereign debt crisis threatens to drive the euro region into recession. Some 'downside risks to the euro-area economic outlook have materialized,' ECB President Mario Draghi said... after lowering the main refinancing rate and the deposit rate by 25 bps to 0.75% and zero respectively. 'Economic growth in the euro area continues to remain weak with heightened uncertainty weighing on both confidence and sentiment,' Draghi said."

July 5 - Bloomberg (Frances Schwartzkopff): "Denmark's central bank cut its main borrowing costs to record lows and brought the rate it offers on certificates of deposit below zero, as policy makers test uncharted territory to fight a capital influx. The benchmark lending rate was cut to 0.2% from 0.45%, while the deposit rate was reduced to minus 0.2% from 0.05%..."

July 5 - Bloomberg (Scott Hamilton): "The Bank of England restarted bond purchases two months after halting its expansion of stimulus as the deteriorating outlook spurred policy makers to ramp up efforts to kick start a recovery. The Monetary Policy Committee... raised its asset-purchase target by 50 billion pounds ($78bn) to 375 billion pounds and said the purchases will take four months to complete."

July 4 - Bloomberg (Chiara Vasarri): "Italy's budget deficit as a share of gross domestic product rose in the first quarter to the highest in three years amid a deepening recession and higher debt servicing costs, national statistics institute Istat said... Italy's budget deficit rose to 8% of GDP in the three months through March from 7% in the same quarter a year earlier, as borrowing costs rose and tax revenue dropped, Istat said today. The figure is the highest since the first quarter of 2009..."

July 3 - Bloomberg (Caroline Fairchild): "International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde said she is not in the mood to renegotiate the terms of Greece's bailout agreement. 'I am not in a negotiation or renegotiation mood at all,' Lagarde said... 'We are in a fact-finding mood.' Officials from the IMF, European Central Bank and the European Commission begin a visit to Greece tomorrow to assess the country's progress in implementing the terms of its second international bailout..."

July 3 - Bloomberg (Josiane Kremer): "Finland underlined its determination to get collateral in exchange for loans to Spain's banks as the Nordic country targets similar terms to those won last year on its contribution to Greece's second bailout. 'We have the requirements of collateral on the loans that are from the temporary vehicle,' Jukka Pekkarinen, director general at the Finnish Finance Ministry in Helsinki, said... 'The details are still open, but the principle standpoint is the same' as in the case of Greece, he said."

July 3 - Bloomberg (Helene Fouquet and Mark Deen): "France's banks including BNP Paribas SA and Societe Generale SA will have to split off some of their riskiest operations as President Francois Hollande pushes ahead with his campaign promises. The government will force banks to divide retail and 'speculative' operations and push for a tax on financial transactions, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said... These measures may come on top of a planned increase in the levy on bank profit."

July 5 - Bloomberg (Kim McLaughlin): "Sweden's Finance Minister Anders Borg said "some sort of default" is still the most likely scenario for Greece as officials from the IMF and Europe visit the country to assess progress in implementing the terms of its second international bailout... Borg said he's not sure if Greece will be able to stay in the euro or be forced to leave the common currency."

Global Bubble Watch:

July 4 - National Post (Garry Marr): "Sales in Canada's most expensive housing market continue to plummet with the Greater Vancouver area hitting a 10-year low in June for activity. The Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver said there were 2,362 property sales in June, a 27.6% drop from a year earlier and a 17.2% decline from just May. Overall, there are 18,493 properties for sale in the area through the MLS, a 22% increase from a year ago..."

Currency Watch:

The U.S. dollar index rallied 2.1% this week to 83.38 (up 4.0% y-t-d). For the week on the upside, the South Korean won increased 0.7% and the Japanese yen 0.2%. On the downside, the Danish krone declined 3.0%, the euro 3.0%, the Swiss franc 2.9%, the Norwegian krone 2.6%, the Swedish krona 1.4%, the British pound 1.4%, the South African rand 1.2%, the Brazilian real 0.9%, the Singapore dollar 0.6%, the New Zealand dollar 0.5%, the Canadian dollar 0.3%, the Australian dollar 0.2%, the Mexican peso 0.2%, and the Taiwanese dollar 0.1%.

Commodities Watch:

July 4 - Bloomberg (Alan Bjerga): "When rain doesn't fall in Iowa, it's not just Des Moines that starts fretting. Food buyers from Addis Ababa to Beijing all are touched by the fate of the corn crop in the U.S., the world's breadbasket in an era when crop shortages mean riots. This year they have reason to be concerned... Stockpiles of corn in the U.S. tumbled 48% between March and June, the biggest drop since 1996... And that was before drought hit the Midwest. Chicago last month saw its first 100 degree Fahrenheit day in June since 1988, the year parched ground caused $78 billion in crop damage. The share of the corn crop with top-quality ratings was 48% as of July 1; it was 69% a year earlier. And with little rain in the forecast, farmers can only hope to preserve what crops they can after watching corn futures rise 33% since June 15... If ample rain doesn't fall by mid-July, U.S. farmers may face catastrophe, said Matthew Rosencrans, a National Weather Service meteorologist who specializes in drought."

The CRB index recovered 1.0% this week (down 6.0% y-t-d). The Goldman Sachs Commodities Index gained 1.0% (down 6.2%). Spot Gold declined 0.9% to $1,584 (up 1.3%). Silver was down 2.5% to $26.92 (down 3.6%). August Crude lost 51 cents to $84.45 (down 15%). August Gasoline gained 3.2% (up 2%), while July Natural Gas declined 1.7% (down 7%). September Copper fell 2.5% (down 1%). September Wheat jumped 6.5% (up 24%) and September Corn surged 10.6% (up 8%).

China Watch:

July 5 - Bloomberg: "China cut benchmark interest rates for the second time in a month and allowed banks to offer bigger discounts on their borrowing costs, stepping up efforts to reverse a slowdown in the world's second-biggest economy. The one-year lending rate will fall by 31 bps and the one-year deposit rate will drop by 25 bps effective tomorrow, the People's Bank of China said... The PBOC also widened the discount banks can offer on loans to 30% from 20%..."

July 3 - Bloomberg: "Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd., the nation's largest lender, and its three closest rivals cut lending to less than 190 billion yuan ($30bn) in June, three newspapers reported. New loans by ICBC, China Construction Bank Corp., Bank of China Ltd. and Agricultural Bank of China Ltd. decreased to about 188 billion yuan last month from 250 billion yuan in May, the Securities Times reported today, without citing anyone. The figure was about 180 billion yuan, Shanghai Securities News said..."

July 4 - Bloomberg: "China's services industries expanded in June at the slowest pace in 10 months as growth in new business weakened, a private survey showed. The purchasing managers' index... fell to 52.3 in June from a 19-month high of 54.7 in May... That's the largest decline since August."

July 3 - Bloomberg: "Liu Xuejun, a building-equipment dealer, couldn't restock his Shanghai showroom fast enough in 2009 as he sold an excavator every three days. Now he might wait six months between sales. 'Scheduled property construction work just doesn't kick off,' said Liu, 41, as he stood amid dozens of yellow excavators and wheel loaders in the showroom of Shanghai Wo You Construction Machinery Co. on the eastern outskirts of the city."

July 3 - Bloomberg (Justina Lee): "Hong Kong's retail sales rose at the slowest pace since 2009 as Chinese shoppers cut back on purchases of luxury goods such as jewelry and watches. Sales increased 8.8% in May from a year earlier... A slowdown in China is rippling through Hong Kong, which reported record retail-sales gains as recently as last year, and nearby Macau, where casino revenues are increasing at a reduced pace."

India Watch:

July 3 - Bloomberg (Anoop Agrawal ): "Credit risk for India's financial institutions is climbing toward a three-year high after the central bank warned that cash shortages and rising bad loans threaten lenders in Asia's third-largest economy."

June 28 - Bloomberg (Anoop Agrawal and Kartik Goyal): "India is likely to face elevated inflation risks from supply bottlenecks and lingering threats to economic expansion, the Reserve Bank of India said. 'Threats to stability are posed by the global sovereign debt problem and risk aversion, domestic fiscal position, widening current-account deficit and structural aspects of food inflation,' the central bank said in its Financial Stability Report released in Mumbai today. While India's financial system "remains robust," challenges to stability have increased since the last assessment in December 2011."

European Economy Watch:

July 2 - Bloomberg (Mark Deen): "Euro-area manufacturing output contracted for an 11th straight month in June as Europe's debt crisis sapped demand across the continent."

July 4 - Bloomberg (Simone Meier): "Services and manufacturing output shrank in June for a fifth month in the euro area and services unexpectedly contracted in Germany, adding to signs of a deepening economic slump in the second quarter."

July 4 - Bloomberg (Gregory Viscusi, Helene Fouquet and Mark Deen): "France's two-week-old Socialist government unveiled 7.2 billion euros ($9bn) of tax increases to meet deficit-reduction goals and avoid bond-market punishment. The 2012 measures... presage even larger tax increases and spending cuts next year in an economy that's barely expanding. The largest new levy will be a one-time surcharge on wealthy individuals' assets to raise 2.3 billion euros."

July 3 - Bloomberg (Svenja O'Donnell): "U.K. mortgage approvals fell in May and construction shrank at the fastest rate in 2 1/2 years in June, adding to signs the housing market is slowing amid growing concern over the economic outlook."

Global Economy Watch:

July 4 - Bloomberg (Scott Rose): "Russian inflation quickened more than economists estimated last month... Consumer prices rose 4.3% from a year earlier, compared with a 3.6% advance in May..."

Central Bank Watch:

July 4 - Bloomberg (Jurjen van de Pol and Martijn van der Starre): "European Central Bank council member Klaas Knot said the bank's bond-purchase program will remain 'fast asleep,' Elsevier magazine reported... 'If someone has to help southern Europe, then it has to be other governments, not the ECB,' Knot, who heads the Dutch central bank, was quoted as saying... 'The bond-buying program is fast asleep and will remain there.' The ECB's liquidity assistance to banks and its bond-buying program 'increase risks on the ECB's balance sheet,' Knot said... 'You can't continue endlessly with that. There comes a moment, and I can't tell when, that our balance sheet comes into play...'"

U.S. Bubble Economy Watch:

July 2 - Bloomberg (Shobhana Chandra): "Manufacturing in the U.S. unexpectedly shrank in June for the first time since the economy emerged from the recession three years ago, indicating a mainstay of the expansion may be faltering. The Institute for Supply Management's index fell to 49.7, worse than the most-pessimistic forecast in a Bloomberg News survey, from 53.5 in May..."

June 29 - Bloomberg (Krista Giovacco): "The amount of leveraged loans made in the U.S. is down almost 30% this year from the same period of 2011 as a slowing economy cuts borrowings for buyouts to a three-year low. Companies led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. and Lawson Software Inc. got $196.3 billion of high-yield, high-risk loans during the first half of the year, compared with $254.1 billion during the January through June period in 2011, according to Standard & Poor's Capital IQ Leveraged Commentary & Data. Some $19.1 billion of the debt was raised to finance buyouts, the least since $5.27 billion was sold during the first six months of 2009."

 


 

Doug Noland

Author: Doug Noland

Doug Noland
The Credit Bubble Bulletin
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