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Five Years of Whatever it Takes
July 25 - Bloomberg (Paul Gordon and Carolynn Look): "Five years ago today, Mario Draghi was talking about bumblebees. The European Central Bank president's speech in London on July 26, 2012, became instantly famous because of his pledge to do 'whatever it takes' to save the euro. But for all the power and clarity of that phrase, he started his remarks more obliquely. 'The euro is like a bumblebee. This is a mystery of nature because it shouldn't fly but instead it does. So the euro was a bumblebee that flew very well for several years. And now -- and I think people ask 'how come?'-- probably there was something in the atmosphere, in the air, that made the bumblebee fly. Now something must have changed in the air, and we know what after the financial crisis.' At the time, the currency bloc was being buffeted by soaring bond yields in peripheral nations as speculators bet the union's fundamental flaws would rip it apart. Draghi's answer was to state unequivocally that the immediate crisis fell under the ECB's responsibility and he would deal with it. 'The ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough.' That pledge was followed by a program to buy the debt of stressed countries in return for structural reforms, and in that respect the words alone proved to be enough. Yield spreads collapsed even though the program has never been tapped."
This week marks the five-year anniversary of Draghi's "whatever it takes." I remember the summer of 2012 as if it were yesterday. From the Bubble analysis perspective, it was a Critical Juncture - for financial markets and risk perceptions, for policy and for the global economy. Italian 10-year yields hit 6.60% on July 24, 2012. On that same day, Spain saw yields surge to 7.62%. Italian banks were in freefall, while European bank stocks (STOXX600) were rapidly approaching 2009 lows. Having risen above 55 in 2011, Deutsche Bank traded at 23.23 on July 25, 2012.
It was my view at the time that the "European" crisis posed a clear and immediate threat to the global financial system. A crisis of confidence in Italian debt (and Spanish and "periphery" debt) risked a crisis of confidence in European banks - and a loss of confidence in European finance risked dismantling the euro monetary regime.
Derivatives markets were in the crosshairs back in 2012. A crisis of confidence in European debt and the euro would surely have tested the derivatives marketplace to the limits. Moreover, with the big European banks having evolved into dominant players in derivatives (taking share from U.S. counterparts after the mortgage crisis), counter-party issues were at the brink of becoming a serious global market problem. It's as well worth mentioning that European banks were major providers of finance for emerging markets.
From the global government finance Bubble perspective, Draghi's "whatever it takes" was a seminal development. The Bernanke Fed employed QE measures during the 2008 financial crisis to accommodate deleveraging and stabilize dislocated markets. Mario Draghi leapfrogged (helicopter) Bernanke, turning to open-ended QE and other extreme measures to preserve euro monetary integration. No longer would QE be viewed as a temporary crisis management tool. And just completely disregard traditional monetary axiom that central banks should operate as lender of last resort in the event of temporary illiquidity - but must avoid propping up the insolvent. "Whatever it takes" advocates covert bailouts for whomever and whatever a small group of central bankers chooses - illiquid, insolvent, irredeemable or otherwise. Now five years after the first utterance of "whatever it takes," the Draghi ECB is still pumping out enormous amounts of "money" on a monthly basis (buying sovereigns and corporates) with rates near zero.
Keep in mind that while "whatever it takes" first radiated from Draghi's lips, markets soon surmised that the ECB president was speaking on behalf of the cadre of leading global central bankers. After all, ECB (desperate) measures were followed promptly by the return of QE by the Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan, the Swiss National Bank and others. It's worth mentioning that the Fed's balance sheet totaled about $2.8 TN in July 2012, only to rise to $4.4 TN by September 2014. Amazingly, Bank of Japan assets have expanded about three-fold since 2012 to approach $5.0 TN.
Going back to 2002, the burst "tech" Bubble was evolving into a full-fledged U.S. corporate debt crisis. Back then Fed governor Bernanke's talk of "helicopter money" and the "government printing press" profoundly altered market dynamics. It may not have at the time been loud and clear. But putting markets on notice that the Fed was contemplating extraordinary reflationary measures was a far-reaching development for corporate debt. Facing a liquidity crisis back in 2002, Ford bonds had become a popular short in the marketplace. Almost single-handedly, Dr. Bernanke's speeches proved a catalyst for the speculating community reversing the Ford (and corporate debt) bond short - and then going long. The impact on general market liquidity was profound. And with the corporate debt crisis resolved there was nothing to hold back the burgeoning mortgage finance Bubble.
What "Helicopter Ben" accomplished with U.S. corporate bonds, "Super Mario" surpassed with Trillions of European sovereign, corporate and financial debt. Italian bond yields ended 2012 at 4.5%, down 210 bps from July highs. Spain's 10-yields declined about 250 bps to 5.00% in less than six months. "Whatever it takes" almost immediately transformed Italian and Spanish debt from favored shorts to about the most enticing speculative long securities in world.
Draghi's utterance 'The ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough,' was a direct declaration to speculators with short positions in the euro currency, along with shorts in Italian, Spanish and periphery debt. Immediately Cover Your Shorts and Go Long. Five years on, Italian yields hover around 2.10% and Spanish yields sit at about 1.50% - emblematic of arguably one of history's most spectacular securities market mispricings. European bank stocks have gained better than 50%. Draghi not only bloodied the shorts, be ensured spectacular profits for those levered long European debt - and the riskier the Credit the greater the reward.
Central bankers should not be in the business of playing favorites in the markets. So how did it get to the point where they seek to incentivize longs (levered and otherwise) while routinely punishing the shorts? Because central bankers followed the Bernanke Fed into a policy course of using rising securities and asset prices as a reflationary mechanism for the overall economy. As we've witnessed now for going on a decade, that's a slippery slope. Adopt pro-Bubble policies and there will be no turning back. Inflate an epic Bubble and you own it for the duration.
"The euro is like a bumblebee. This is a mystery of nature because it shouldn't fly but instead it does." The euro flew and it soared incredibly high, trading above 1.50 to the dollar in early-2008. As fundamentally flawed as the euro monetary experiment has been, it was buoyed by the fundamentally weaker dollar. The euro flew on the back of highly speculative flows, much of it flowing from an overcharged U.S. Credit system. U.S. monetary policy had been too loose for too long. Unstable finance has been nurtured for what seems like an eternity. The U.S. exported its Credit Bubble to the world.
Going all the way back to the late-nineties, Italy and the European periphery were a leveraged speculator community darling. Indeed, the Euro Convergence Trade granted huge profits to the hedge fund community. The egregious amounts of leverage employed (directly and through derivatives) was illuminated with the 1998 implosion of Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM).
The LTCM fiasco contributed to an 18-month bear market that saw the euro trade down to 0.87 vs. the dollar in early 2002. With Dr. Bernanke and his radical theories on reflationary policies arriving on the scene in 2002, it's no coincidence that the euro then embarked on a multiyear rally. The euro traded up to 1.00 late in 2002, 1.20 in 2003, 1.35 in 2004, 1.45 in 2007 and 1.58 in 2008. It's furthermore no coincidence that Italian bond prices tracked the euro higher. After trading at 5.5% in the first-half of 2002, Italian yields dropped to 3.22% by October 2005. Greek bonds followed an almost identical trajectory, as both already highly-indebted nations took full advantage of the market's insatiable demand for European peripheral debt.
Draghi has lately grown accustomed to patting himself on the back. He saved the euro. He saved Europe's big banks. He kept Greece and Italy in the euro currency. His policies have spurred European economic recovery. But Draghi and global central bankers also inflated history's greatest speculative Bubble. Celebration will be in order only if policies can be normalized without the whole thing coming crashing down.
July 25 - BloombergBusinessweek (Jana Randow): "Euro-area governments have saved almost 1 trillion euros ($1.16 trillion) in interest payments since 2008 as record-low European Central Bank rates depress bond yields at a time when state treasurers are also reducing debt. That's according to calculations by Germany's Bundesbank, which is urging finance ministers in the 19-nation region to make provisions for when interest rates start to rise. Italy, the world's third-most indebted country, has benefited most, with savings exceeding 10% of gross domestic product."
Italy has been the biggest beneficiary of collapsing market yields. The problem is that its debt load still expanded to a distressing 130% of GDP. Italy remains only a jump in yields away from trouble, and I suspect this helps explain why Draghi has been so reticent to pull back on the stimulus throttle. After trading below 1.90% in mid-June, Italian yields surged to 2.33% earlier this month as markets began to contemplate global central bankers moving toward concerted normalization.
The FOMC this week confirmed the dovishness of Yellen's testimony before congress. Apparently, over the past month Fed rate "normalization" has been scaled back to perhaps one more hike this year - and that could be about it. And I just don't buy the Fed's recent fixation on below target inflation (GSCI Commodities Index up 4.2% this week on further dollar weakness!).
Something has raised concerns at the FOMC. Could it be European debt markets, with ECB stimulus to be significantly reduced in the months ahead. Or perhaps it's China and their officials determined to rein in some financial excess. EM and all their dollar-denominated debt? Maybe a dysfunctional Washington has supplanted international developments on the worry list - or, understandably, it could be a combination of things.
At least for the week, global markets lost a bit of their recent swagger. While Boeing helped the Dow to yet another record high, the S&P500 ended the week little changed. The broader market underperformed. The highflying technology stocks were unimpressive in the face of general robust earnings. The VIX rose to 10.29, with some volatility beginning to seep into stock trading. Commodities caught a big bid, while bond yields began moving north again. The currencies remain unsettled.
Thinking back five years, U.S. markets at the time were incredibly complacent. The risk of crisis in Europe was downplayed: Policymakers had it all under control. Sometime later, the Financial Times - in a fascinating behind-the-scenes exposé - confirmed the gravity of the situation and how frazzled European leaders were at the brink of losing control. Yet central bankers, once again, saved the day - further solidifying their superhero status.
I'm convinced five years of "whatever it takes" took the global government finance Bubble deeper into perilous uncharted territory. Certainly, markets are more complacent than ever, believing central bankers are fully committed to prolonging indefinitely the securities bull market. Meanwhile, leverage, speculative excess and trend-following flows have had an additional five years to accumulate. Market distortions - including valuations, deeply embedded complacency, and Trillions of perceived safe securities - have become only further detached from reality. And the longer all this unstable finance flows freely into the real economy, the deeper the structural maladjustment.
For the Week:
The S&P500 was about unchanged (up 10.4% y-t-d), while the Dow jumped 1.2% (up 10.5%). The Utilities slipped 0.3% (up 8.4%). The Banks added 0.5% (up 3.7%), and the Broker/Dealers rose 1.0% (up 14.0%). The Transports dropped 2.6% (up 2.0%). The S&P 400 Midcaps declined 0.7% (up 6.1%), and the small cap Russell 2000 dipped 0.5% (up 5.3%). The Nasdaq100 slipped 0.2% (up 21.5%), and the Morgan Stanley High Tech index fell 0.8% (up 25.5%). The Semiconductors dropped 1.3% (up 20.6%). The Biotechs declined 1.0% (up 29.7%). With bullion up $15, the HUI gold index rallied 2.3% (up 7.7%).
Three-month Treasury bill rates ended the week at 106 bps. Two-year government yields added a basis point to 1.35% (up 16bps y-t-d). Five-year T-note yields increased three bps to 1.83% (down 9bps). Ten-year Treasury yields rose five bps to 2.29% (down 16bps). Long bond yields jumped nine bps to 2.90% (down 17bps).
Greek 10-year yields rose 11 bps to 5.33% (down 170bps y-t-d). Ten-year Portuguese yields added two bps to 2.93% (down 82bps). Italian 10-year yields gained five bps to 2.12% (up 31bps). Spain's 10-year yields rose seven bps to 1.53% (up 15bps). German bund yields increased four bps to 0.54% (up 34bps). French yields rose five bps to 0.81% (up 13bps). The French to German 10-year bond spread widened one to 27 bps. U.K. 10-year gilt yields gained four bps to 1.22% (down 2bps). U.K.'s FTSE equities index fell 1.1% (up 3.2%).
Japan's Nikkei 225 equities index declined 0.7% (up 4.4% y-t-d). Japanese 10-year "JGB" yields added a basis point to 0.08% (up 4bps). France's CAC40 added 0.3% (up 5.5%). The German DAX equities index declined 0.6% (up 5.9%). Spain's IBEX 35 equities index rallied 1.1% (up 12.7%). Italy's FTSE MIB index rose 1.1% (up 11.4%). EM equities were mixed. Brazil's Bovespa index gained 1.3% (up 8.7%), while Mexico's Bolsa declined 0.7% (up 12.2%). South Korea's Kospi sank 2.0% (up 18.5%). India's Sensex equities index added 0.9% (up 21.3%). China's Shanghai Exchange increased 0.5% (up 4.8%). Turkey's Borsa Istanbul National 100 index rose 0.8% (up 37.8%). Russia's MICEX equities index slipped 0.4% (down 14.2%).
Junk bond mutual funds saw outflows of $21 million (from Lipper).
Freddie Mac 30-year fixed mortgage rates declined four bps to 3.92% (up 44bps y-o-y). Fifteen-year rates slipped three bps to 3.20% (up 42bps). The five-year hybrid ARM rate fell three bps to 3.18% (up 40bps). Bankrate's survey of jumbo mortgage borrowing costs had 30-yr fixed rates up five bps to 4.11% (up 42bps).
Federal Reserve Credit last week declined $5.1bn to $4.435 TN. Over the past year, Fed Credit added $0.4bn. Fed Credit inflated $1.625 TN, or 58%, over the past 246 weeks. Elsewhere, Fed holdings for foreign owners of Treasury, Agency Debt rose $6.0bn last week to $3.325 TN. "Custody holdings" were up $105bn y-o-y, or 3.3%.
M2 (narrow) "money" supply last week gained $6.0bn to a record $13.608 TN. "Narrow money" expanded $740bn, or 5.8%, over the past year. For the week, Currency increased $2.7bn. Total Checkable Deposits dropped $50.2bn, while Savings Deposits jumped $52.1bn. Small Time Deposits added $1.3bn. Retail Money Funds were little changed.
Total money market fund assets jumped $23.28bn to $2.640 TN. Money Funds fell $75bn y-o-y (2.8%).
Total Commercial Paper gained $7.4bn to $978bn. CP declined $49bn y-o-y, or 4.7%.
The U.S. dollar index declined 0.6% to 93.26 (down 8.9% y-t-d). For the week on the upside, the Swedish krona increased 1.5%, the Norwegian krone 1.3%, the British pound 1.1%, the Australian dollar 0.9%, the Canadian dollar 0.9%, the New Zealand dollar 0.8%, the euro 0.8%, the Singapore dollar 0.4%, the Japanese yen 0.4% and the Brazilian real 0.4%. On the downside, the Swiss franc declined 2.4%, the South African rand 0.8%, the Mexican peso 0.7% and the South Korean won 0.3%. The Chinese renminbi gained 0.44% versus the dollar this week (up 3.09% y-t-d).
The Goldman Sachs Commodities Index jumped 4.2% (down 3.0% y-t-d). Spot Gold gained 1.2% to $1,270 (up 10.2%). Silver rose 1.4% to $16.695 (up 4.5%). Crude surged $3.94 to $49.71 (down 8%). Gasoline surged 7.2% (unchanged), while Natural Gas declined 1.0% (down 21%). Copper jumped 5.6% (up 15%). Wheat dropped 3.7% (up 18%). Corn fell 1.4% (up 10%).
Trump Administration Watch:
July 27 - Bloomberg (Sahil Kapur and Erik Wasson): "The House is set to leave for its August recess without having taken the first essential step to overhauling the U.S. tax code: agreeing on a 2018 budget resolution. Disputes among House Republicans over spending levels and the controversial border-adjusted tax proposal are preventing Speaker Paul Ryan from winning enough support to schedule a floor vote on the budget that a House panel approved last week. With House members planning to leave Washington Friday for a five-week recess, the lack of a budget is raising doubts that a tax rewrite -- one of President Donald Trump's top priorities -- can get done this year, or even before the 2018 elections. 'Clearly, no budget, no tax reform,' said the House's chief tax writer, Representative Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican."
July 25 - Bloomberg (Erik Wasson and Roxana Tiron): "House Republicans this week are increasing the possibility of a government shutdown in October by moving forward with a $788 billion spending bill that complies with President Donald Trump's demands to boost the military, reduce clean-energy programs and fund a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Those priorities, especially $1.6 billion in wall funding, guarantee House and Senate Democratic leaders will oppose the bill. Trump has urged his Republican supporters in Congress to fight, saying in May that a 'good' shutdown may be needed to advance his agenda. Republicans are trying to demonstrate unity after months of division over major legislation, including a repeal of Obamacare."
July 24 - Bloomberg (Alex Harris): "The Treasury Department got a clear message from investors that they're starting to get concerned another showdown over the U.S. debt ceiling may get ugly. The government's auction Monday of $39 billion of three-month bills attracted the lowest demand of any other sale of the securities since June 2009. The bills, which mature around when the Treasury is estimated to run out of money unless lawmakers agree to extend the statutory limit on the nation's borrowing, were sold at a rate of 1.18%, the highest since October 2008."
July 27 - Bloomberg (Margaret Talev): "White House chief strategist Steve Bannon supports paying for middle-class tax cuts with a new top rate of 44% for Americans who make more than $5 million a year, according to a person familiar... It's unclear whether President Donald Trump would support the move, which would bring the top rate, currently 39.6%, to the highest level in 30 years. Trump has said he's focused on tax changes that would help the middle class, but an analysis this month of the tax outline the White House released in April shows it would mostly benefit top earners."
July 25 - Reuters (John Benny): "A final decision on a steel trade policy may have to wait until other top-priority issues on his agenda get addressed, U.S. President Donald Trump told the Wall Street Journal... The administration would take time in making a decision on whether to block steel imports... Trump had previously initiated a 'Section 232' review of the U.S. steel industry that allows for the imposition of tariffs or quotas on imports if they are found to threaten national security. The law, which has been used twice before - to investigate oil in 1999 and iron and steel in 2001 - allows the president to impose restrictions on imports for reasons of national security."
China Bubble Watch:
July 23 - New York Times (Keith Bradsher and Sui-Lee Wee): "Let the West worry about so-called black swans, rare and unexpected events that can upset financial markets. China is more concerned about 'gray rhinos' — large and visible problems in the economy that are ignored until they start moving fast. The rhinos are a herd of Chinese tycoons who have used a combination of political connections and raw ambition to create sprawling global conglomerates. Companies like Anbang Insurance Group, Fosun International, HNA Group and Dalian Wanda Group have feasted on cheap debt provided by state banks, spending lavishly to build their empires. Such players are now so big, so complex, so indebted and so enmeshed in the economy that the Chinese government is abruptly bringing them to heel. President Xi Jinping recently warned that financial stability is crucial to national security, while the official newspaper of the Communist Party pointed to the dangers of a 'gray rhinoceros,' without naming specific companies."
July 24 - New York Times (David Barboza): "The acquisitive Chinese conglomerate HNA Group moved to allay concerns about its ownership structure... by releasing a statement showing that its biggest shareholder had recently shifted from a mysterious businessman to a foundation it set up in New York. The company said that its largest shareholder, a private businessman in China named Guan Jun, had recently donated his 30% stake in the company to HNA's charitable organization, the Hainan Cihang Charity Foundation. Combined with the 22.8% stake held by HNA's sister charity in China, HNA says it is now 52% owned by the Cihang foundations."
July 23 - Bloomberg: "Several Chinese banks that helped fund HNA Group Co.'s global acquisition spree are losing their appetite for financing the company, according to people familiar with the matter. Three of the banks have decided to stop extending new loans to HNA, said the people... One made the decision early this year, the second acted a couple of months ago and the third moved recently, the people said. A fourth bank trimmed its exposure to the company over the past few months and reduced the size of a credit line, one of the people said, without providing further details."
July 25 - Bloomberg (Laurence Arnold and Prudence Ho): "For a company regularly in the news for its frequent and wide-ranging acquisitions, China's HNA Group Co. remains shrouded in mystery. Chinese and American government officials are seeking more information about the company's ownership -- though for very different reasons -- and the European Central Bank may open a review of its own. Once a little-known airline operator, the company took on billions of dollars in debt as it made more than $40 billion of acquisitions over six continents since the start of 2016. With interests in tourism, logistics and financial services, it's now the biggest shareholder of such well-known names as Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. and Deutsche Bank AG."
July 23 - Wall Street Journal (Lingling Wei and Chao Deng): "China's government reined in one of its brashest conglomerates with the approval of President Xi Jinping, according to people with knowledge of the action—a mark that the broader government clampdown on large private companies comes right from the top of China's leadership. The measures, with President Xi's previously unreported approval last month, bar state-owned banks from making new loans to property giant Dalian Wanda Group to help fuel its foreign expansion. The cutoff in bank financing for the company's foreign investments highlights Beijing's changing view of a series of Wanda's recent overseas acquisitions as irrational and overpriced, these people say."
July 22 - New York Times (Paul Mozur and Carolyn Zhang): "Facebook is the world's largest social network, with more than two billion users. LinkedIn was sold to Microsoft for $26 billion last year. And Apple is Apple, the most valuable company in the world. In most local markets, it would be a surprise if any one of these companies were floundering. But in China, the real shock is that their troubles no longer surprise anyone. Just in the past few weeks, Facebook had one of its most popular apps blocked by the Chinese government. LinkedIn... had its local boss step down amid tepid results in the country. And Apple announced a billion-dollar investment to comply with local law as it continued to watch Chinese demand for its iPhones fade. This summer of challenge for the three companies offers a broad illustration of just how varied the obstacles have become for foreign companies in China. They also show in stark terms why this vast market has been frustratingly difficult for outsiders."
July 25 - Reuters (Ryan Woo, Kevin Yao and Stella Qiu): "All major Chinese enterprises owned by the central government will be turned into limited liability companies or joint-stock firms by the end of the year as part of reforms aimed at overhauling their unwieldy structures. Beijing is trying to revive China's bloated state-owned sector and create 'bigger and stronger' conglomerates capable of competing on the global stage. Restructuring state-owned enterprises (SOEs) will separate government administration from management of day-to-day business operations, one step toward greater efficiency."
July 27 - Bloomberg (Alessandro Speciale): "Germany's grip over the euro area's financial institutions is getting firmer. With the reappointment... of Werner Hoyer as president of the European Investment Bank, Germany's hold over three key roles for the region's economy was reaffirmed. A fourth one -- by far the most important -- could follow. Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann is a frequently mentioned candidate to replace Italy's Mario Draghi when his term as European Central Bank's president runs out in October 2019... Further complicating the succession talks will be the large number of European posts coming up for grabs in the next two years, as well as French President's Emmanuel Macron stated intention of creating a euro-area finance minister."
July 24 Financial Times (Michael Hunter): "Could zombies be keeping Mario Draghi awake at night? Investors remain highly sensitive to the outlook for the start of the reduction, or tapering, of the European Central Bank's €60bn monthly stimulus spending. As the scrutiny of the ECB president's every utterance continues, there is some eye-catching analysis from Bank of America Merrill Lynch on what could be an important factor in his thinking on tapering. It points toward so-called 'zombie' companies, or those that depend on ultra-loose monetary policy for credit provision. 'Although corporate leverage has helpfully declined over the last few years, we still find that 9% of firms have very weak interest coverage metrics in Europe,' says the bank's Barnaby Martin, credit strategist. The research defines a zombie company as one with an interest coverage ratio 'at or below 1 times' earnings."
July 25 - Reuters (Paul Carrel and Irene Preisinger): "German business morale hit a record high in July as 'euphoric' manufacturers, shrugging off the impact of a strong euro, anticipated a surge in already robust exports from Europe's biggest economy. The Munich-based Ifo economic institute said... its business climate index, based on a monthly survey of some 7,000 firms, hit its third record high in as many months with a rise to 116.0 from 115.2 in June."
Central Bank Watch:
July 24 - Bloomberg (Tanvir Sandhu): "The European Central Bank has given the green light to summer carry trades as volatility remains contained and the policy meetings in September and October are likely reserved to outline further details on quantitative easing, buying more time for carry, Bloomberg strategist Tanvir Sandhu writes. Italian bonds offer one of the most attractive carry and rolldown across European government bonds, with the five-year bucket three-month carry and roll at 16 bps and one-year at 70 bps. That compares with one-year of 30 bps for 10-year bunds and 42 bps for bonos. Given that carry trades are implicitly short volatility, two-year Italy stands out as the most attractive on a vol-adjusted basis. Since earning the full carry and rolldown assumes an unchanged yield curve, adjusting for volatility will provide a more realistic indicator of profitability."
Global Bubble Watch:
July 22 - Financial Times (Chris Flood): "Vanguard is closing in on BlackRock's title as the world's largest asset manager after pulling in more than $1bn a day of investor money since the start of the year. The two heavyweights of the investment industry are attracting unprecedented inflows into their low-cost exchange traded funds amid rising investor dissatisfaction with the high fees and poor performance of active managers that strive to beat the market. Investors ploughed $215bn into Vanguard's funds in the first six months of the year, far outpacing new business growth for BlackRock, which pulled in $168bn over the same period."
July 26 - Financial Times (Eric Platt): "Investor enthusiasm for corporate debt has neared levels not seen since before the start of the credit crisis, in a deepening endorsement of a global economic recovery that has already propelled US stock markets to record heights. In several parts of the US bond markets, companies are now able to raise money at a lower cost, relative to government bonds, than they have for the past decade... 'This is a continuation of this hunt for yield that you have seen for the last couple of years,' said Brian Kennedy, a portfolio manager with Loomis Sayles. 'Between the economic backdrop, lack of yield around the world and the buyers out of Asia and Europe, the investment grade and high-yield markets are the sweet spots for people who want yield.'"
July 23 - Financial Times (Laura Noonan): "The men running two of Wall Street's biggest banks saw the value of their shareholdings rise by a combined $314m in 2016 as stock market prices rocketed in the aftermath of Donald Trump's election as US president. But while Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein each enjoyed $150m-plus rises in the value of their stock and options in JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, respectively, the average gains for the other 18 best-paid chief executives at international banks last year was $4m."
July 25 - Reuters (Gertrude Chavez-Dreyfuss and Anna Irrera): "Wall Street's main regulator said on Tuesday that initial coin offerings (ICOs), a means of crowdfunding for blockchain technology companies, should be subject to the same safeguards required in traditional securities sales. ICOs have become a bonanza for digital currency entrepreneurs, allowing them to raise millions quickly by creating and selling digital 'tokens' with no regulatory oversight. But the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has said that the tokens can be considered securities, and therefore, may need to be registered unless a valid exemption applies."
Fixed Income Bubble Watch:
July 23 - Financial Times (Attracta Mooney): "Investors piled more than $355bn into bond funds in the first five months of 2017 despite concerns that the fixed-income market is set for an unprecedented shake-up as central banks shift towards normalising monetary policy. The surge of money has put fixed-income funds on course to beat 2016's full-year inflows of $375bn... The net inflows are already larger than the amount of money invested in fixed income funds over the entire 2013 and 2015. The biggest winners this year include Pimco's income fund, T Rowe Price's new income fund that invests in US bonds, and a Vanguard index fund investing in global fixed income. These products have had inflows of between $4bn and $27bn since the start of the year."
July 23 - Financial Times (Attracta Mooney): "Bob Michele, a bond fund veteran, is more worried than he has ever been. The head of global fixed income at JPMorgan Asset Management, the US fund house, has spent almost four decades investing in bonds. The 57-year-old... is gearing up for the most demanding period of his career. 'The next 18 months are going to be incredibly challenging. I am not an equity investor, but I can just imagine how equity investors felt in 1999, during the dotcom bubble,' he says... The Nasdaq Composite, the index, lost 78% of its value in the 18 months after the tech bubble collapsed. Mr Michele, like many fixed-income investors, is acutely worried about how central banks' retreat from monetary easing will affect the bond market."
Federal Reserve Watch:
July 25 - Wall Street Journal (Kate Davidson): "President Donald Trump is considering renominating Janet Yellen as Federal Reserve chairwoman but also views his economic adviser Gary Cohn as a top candidate, he told The Wall Street Journal... Mr. Trump reiterated that he thinks Ms. Yellen is doing a good job and he has 'a lot of respect for her,' and said she is still in the running to serve a second four-year term as leader of the central bank. But he said he also is considering replacing Ms. Yellen with Mr. Cohn, who became Mr. Trump's National Economic Council director after a 26-year career at Goldman Sachs..."
July 23 - Reuters (Marius Zaharia): "In September 2015, the U.S. Federal Reserve cited risks from China as a key reason for delaying its first interest rate hike in a decade. A wall of Chinese debt maturing in the next few years could jolt the country back into the U.S. central bank's policy deliberations. Two years ago, it was a collapse in Chinese stocks, a surprise yuan devaluation and shrinking foreign exchange reserves that roiled financial markets that delayed the Fed, but it did raise rates three months later and has tightened further since. Now, some see risks emerging in China's dollar-denominated bonds that could give the Fed greater pause for thought as it raises rates, even as other central banks signal a shift from ultra-easy policy. To be sure, Fed officials have not publicly flagged China's debt as a major risk in their policy discussions. However, debt analysts point to the possibility of another September 2015 moment in which the Fed takes its cues from concerns about China."
July 23 - Financial Times (Gavyn Davies): "Janet Yellen, in an unusually ebullient mood, suggested last month that there may not be a repeat of the Global Financial Crash (GFC) 'in our lifetimes'. Given the extreme severity of the GFC, that is perhaps a fairly easy hurdle for the central bankers to clear. As a result of the co-ordinated efforts of Basel III and the Financial Stability Board under Mark Carney, the fault lines in the pre-2008 financial architecture have been largely repaired. A more difficult question is whether the current phase of rising markets, which began in 2009, will end because financial asset prices implode under their own weight. There may not be a complete collapse of the entire financial system this time, but there could still be a very unpleasant bear market for investors to endure. It is clear from the latest Fed minutes that 'a few' members of the FOMC are more worried about the risk of financial instability than Chair Yellen, but even they seem reluctant to tighten monetary or prudential policy unless the Fed's dual mandate, aimed at low inflation and maximum employment, is under threat."
July 26 - Bloomberg (Craig Torres): "Federal Reserve officials said they would begin running off their $4.5 trillion balance sheet 'relatively soon' and left their benchmark policy rate unchanged as they assess progress toward their inflation goal. The start of balance-sheet normalization -- possibly as soon as September -- is another policy milestone in an economic recovery now in its ninth year. The Fed bought trillions of dollars of securities to lower long-term borrowing costs after cutting the main interest rate to zero in December 2008."
U.S. Bubble Watch:
July 25 - Reuters (Lucia Mutikani): "U.S consumer confidence jumped to a near 16-year high in July amid optimism over the labor market while house prices maintained their upward trend in May, which could boost consumer spending after recent sluggishness... 'This brightens the outlook for the economy as we enter the second half of the year,' said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG... 'We expect Fed officials will continue with their gradual pace of rate hikes secure in the knowledge that a confident consumer means that more spending is on the way.'"
July 26 - Bloomberg (Patricia Laya): "The U.S. housing market is stabilizing near 10-year highs, according to government data Wednesday that showed sales of new homes were slightly less than forecast. Single-family home sales increased 0.8% m/m to 610k annualized pace (est. 615k). Median sales price fell 3.4% y/y to $310,800. Supply of homes crept up to 5.4 months from 5.3 months; 272,000 new houses were on market at end of June."
July 25 - Bloomberg (Patricia Laya): "Steady price gains in 20 U.S. cities in May indicate that a tight supply of properties paired with increased demand is boosting home values, according... S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller... 20-city property values index increased 5.7% y/y (est. 5.8%). National price gauge advanced 5.6% y/y. An shortage of listings is still behind the rapid appreciation of home prices, particularly in high-demand areas such as Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, where values have surpassed pre-recession peaks."
July 27 - Wall Street Journal (Michael Wursthorn): "Wall Street brokerages are pushing customers to take out billions of dollars in loans backed by stocks and bonds, a trend that yields lucrative fees for the firms but poses risks for borrowers. Executives at Morgan Stanley earlier this month highlighted these loans to individuals as a big growth area and revenue driver, saying the loans helped expand the bank's overall wealth lending by about $3.5 billion, or 6%, in the second quarter. On Thursday, Goldman Sachs... took a step toward growing its securities-based lending business through a new partnership with Fidelity Investments. For brokerages, these so-called securities-backed loans have become a reliable source of revenue in the years since the financial crisis as firms have begun moving away from a business model of charging commissions for trading to a system of fees based on assets under management."
July 24 - Bloomberg (Andy Sharp): "Former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba overtook scandal-hit Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as the best person to lead Japan, an opinion poll showed... Ishiba was seen as the most appropriate choice for prime minister by 20.4% of respondents to the poll conducted by the Sankei newspaper and FNN TV network, while 19.7% picked Abe. In a similar survey in December, Ishiba's 10.9% lagged behind the 34.5% who favored Abe."
July 25 - Reuters (Tetsushi Kajimoto): "The two new members of the Bank of Japan's policy board said... that the central bank should continue efforts to achieve its 2% inflation goal and it was premature to debate an exit from its massive monetary stimulus. Goushi Kataoka, a 44-year-old former economist... and an advocate of massive money printing, said he wants to see the price goal achieved quickly although he cannot say when that can be. The other new board member, Hitoshi Suzuki, a 63-year-old former deputy president of Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ... said it was 'dangerous' to markets to debate an exit from the stimulus now."
EM Bubble Watch:
July 24 - Bloomberg (Natasha Doff): "The rapid growth of a BlackRock Inc. exchange-traded fund that tracks emerging-market debt is causing jitters among investors. The iShares JP Morgan EM Local Government Bond ETF, ticker IEML, has doubled in size this year, mopping up more than $3 billion of inflows as investors reach for average yields as high as 4.72% in developing economies. The risk is that if the carry trade unwinds, as tends to happen eventually, investors could race for the exit all at once and send the fund tumbling."
July 24 - Wall Street Journal (Carolyn Cui): "Venezuelan bond prices tumbled to their lowest levels of the year as default fears grew following U.S. President Donald Trump's threat to impose sanctions on the country. State-owned oil producer Petróleos de Venezuela SA's bonds due in November fell 2.9% late in New York trading Monday and have tumbled 7.6% over the past six sessions, now at their lowest levels since December... The government's bonds due in 2038 were down 10% during the period after falling 4.3% on Monday."
Leveraged Speculation Watch:
July 26 - Bloomberg (Katia Porzecanski): "Paulson & Co., the investment firm that shot to fame betting on the collapse of the U.S. housing market, is closing its 2-year-old long-short equity fund in an effort to shift strategies after a steep drop in assets. 'We are re-focusing the funds on our core areas of expertise in merger arbitrage and distressed credit, where our assets have been growing,' founder John Paulson said in a letter to investors... 'We thank the long-short team for their efforts on behalf of the company.'"
July 26 - Bloomberg (Stepan Kravchenko): "Russia threatened to retaliate against new sanctions passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, saying they made it all but impossible to achieve the Trump administration's goal of improved relations. The measures push U.S.-Russia ties into uncharted territory and 'don't leave room for the normalization of relations' in the foreseeable future, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said... Hope 'is dying' for improved relations because the scale of 'the anti-Russian consensus in Congress makes dialogue impossible and for a long time,' Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the international affairs committee in Russia's upper house of parliament, said... Russia should prepare a response to the sanctions that's 'painful for the Americans,' he said."
July 25 - CNBC (Nyshka Chandran): "The rivalry between India and China is heating up as the heavyweight economies face territorial tensions on both land and sea. A fierce border standoff in Bhutan's Doklam region — triggered by a Chinese road construction project in a disputed area and a Bhutanese request for Indian help — is now entering its second month with soldiers from both sides engaged in skirmishes. But a new confrontation in the relationship is arising as New Delhi is growing concerned about a Chinese naval presence in its own backyard: the Indian Ocean. 'As the [Doklam] crisis stretches on, China is likely to seek ways to pressure India, both on the border and elsewhere, and this will compound the cycle of competition that is already well underway,' Shashank Joshi, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said..."
July 24 - South China Morning Post (David Barboza): "China... issued its strongest warning yet to India over their month-long border dispute, saying Beijing would protect its sovereignty 'at all costs'. Observers believe that China's stepping up of its rhetoric, which came before a high-level security meeting that involves both Chinese and Indian security officials, gives Beijing more bargaining power in the talks with New Delhi. Defence ministry spokesman Wu Qian also said that China planned to strengthen its 'targeted deployment and exercises' along the disputed border, and that India should 'have no illusions' about its military's capabilities or commitment."
July 24 - Reuters (Michael Martina and Matthew Tostevin): "China's Foreign Ministry has urged a halt to oil drilling in a disputed part of the South China Sea, where Spanish oil company Repsol had been operating in cooperation with Vietnam. Drilling began in mid-June in Vietnam's Block 136/3... The block lies inside the U-shaped 'nine-dash line' that marks the vast area that China claims in the sea and overlaps what it says are its own oil concessions. Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China had indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, which China calls the Nansha islands, and jurisdiction over the relevant waters and seabed."