Guide to Financial Strategy Q4, 2018

Guide to Financial Strategy Q4, 2018

Key messages

 

As a specialist fixed income services company, bridport & co publishes quarterly a strategy on bond market activity. Stay up to date with the main market events.
Here are details to help you get a closer view and better understanding about the 4th quarter 2018.
 

Developed economies are going to stay on track

 

■ Growth in the US is will remain solid, at least in the short term, as Europe might go through a slower patch. The US and Eurozone growth differential is going to continue widening.

 

Federal Reserve and European Central Bank policy

 

■ Central banks message is clear. They however face challenges, the SNB is caught between a strong currency and a strong economy, the Fed is getting unwanted attention on its actions by President Trump and the ECB is normalizing its balance sheet, at a time which might not be the best.

 

Emerging markets might not be out of trouble yet

 

■ Turkey and Argentina received lots of market attention during the last quarter. The situation might not be over yet as things have not changed fundamentally.
 

 

Developed economies and markets are resilient to all surrounding noise

 
When looking at economic data around developed markets, everything seems fine. Growth, although no soaring is on a progressive trend, unemployment is low and is even reaching multiyear lows in some countries, inflation is back and is under control by major Central Banks and the consensus is that a policy mistake by one of them remains a tail risk, stock markets, at least in the US, continue on an uptrend. The main topic of the moment, a protectionist trade rhetoric and stance by the United States, is only affecting economies is a subdued manner, at least for now. Other issues, such as the financial woes of Turkey and Argentina do not seem to have significantly spilled over and affected other markets. Consensus seems rather confident and even if some analysts mention “the end of the cycle” or that “a slowdown lies ahead”, investors do not seem to be frightened or panicking about these prospects.
While we acknowledge the above, we receive a different perception from discussions with our clients. What will or could profoundly disrupt world markets and economies is hard to tell, if there is something, as markets are getting complacent about political risk, external shocks and trade disputes, nevertheless, even if inconspicuous, there is that “gut feeling” something is bubbling. In a sense it is all too good to be true, and those that have been here long enough know all too well this situation cannot last forever.

 

Emerging market woes are not over

 
We believe volatility emerging out of emerging markets is not over yet, and least as long we continue to see the US dollar strength. Consensus at the beginning of the year was for a weak USD, but time proved that forecast to be notably wrong. The rally does not show signs of stopping and cases for a strong USD are plentiful, from strong US economic growth versus a rather sluggish growth in Europe to an ever growing interest rate differential.

 

US Midterm elections I not a game changer but can bring some volatility

 
US midterm elections in November could be the highlight of the last quarter, with the main question being whether or not the Republicans will be able to keep control of the Senate and the House of Representatives. While any conceivable outcome is unlikely to derail financial markets, should the Democrats retake a majority in both chambers, it might mean situations such as government shutdown, impeachment threats or investigations into the Trump administration are more likely, these have proven to be sources of market volatility in the past.

 

US yield curve inversion is not a good sign

 
US Government yields are the highest of all G7 members, but remain low on an historical basis. We are somehow concerned by the general shape of its curve, which continued to flatten during the last quarter, with short term rates rising and longer ones levelling. At the end of September, the term spread between the 10-year Treasury note and the 2- year was at around 20 basis points, tightening more than 30 basis points over the first three quarters of 2018. This level not seen since 2007. Yield curve inversions have a strong predictive power as they preceeded each of the 7 recessions over the last 50 years.

 

USD Government rates

  • The United States economy and financial markets are robust and on an upward trend, but the open question remains, for how long this going to last
  • Two forces are pulling US Governement rates in different directions, with the trade war being a source of instability keeping rates low and inflationary elements pushing rates up
  • Yield curve inversion is posing a risk

US economic and market momentum is solid. For now

 

Fueled by massive tax cuts signed into law earlier this year as well as a budget with increased spending over USD 300bln over the next two years, the United States economic performance has been robust this far. The raging trade war, mainly aimed at China,which many believed would put a dent on the US economic performance, has yet not shown any major effects. Rates were somewhat kepts in check or at least did not seem to be a source of worry for investors, and as a result, company earnings have been solid and stock markets soared.

 

One question being on many minds is whether the current trend is sustainable and for how long

 

The trade war is a source of global instability and uncertainty. It is also undoubtly inflationary, at least on the short term, but investors are more concerned by the fact it could derail global growth, on a longer term and put the world into recession. It therefore helps keep the longer Treasury notes yield from rising further as investors seek safety.
On the other hand, low unemployment pushing up wages, anticyclical measures taken by the Trump administration in an already strong economy, the need to finance higher budget deficits, robust consumer spending are all inflationary elements, which should drive US rates higher.
Those two conflicting forces, each pulling rates in different directions have caused the 10 years Treasuries to trade sideways since February. We believe this situation will continue over the next quarters, and do not see any meanigful change of trajectory in one direction or another. We do however believe one source of volatility might the U.S. midterm elections, as the majority of both the House and the Senate might pass into Democratic hands, opening the door for more confrontations, including govenement shutdown, investigations on President Trumps activities and impeachment threats.

 

The yield curve inversion is an understimated risk

 

As mentioned on the first page the yield curve inversion is something we are concerned about.
Some argue that the actual term strucuture is attributable to the depressed longer term yields, which are capped at a very low absolute level due to the large quantitative easing programs which Central Banks have put in place over the last few years. Those levels being low in absolute terms, it took very slight tightening measures from the Federal Reserve to cause the term structure to flatten.
Yield curve inversions have preceded each of the last seven recessions. In a research paper published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Fransisco, Fed research advisers give some credit to the above reasoning deeming it “plausible”, but also remind that the effect of QE on interest rates remains uncertain and that a lower term premium does contribute to stimulate the economic activity but have at time contributed to overheat the economy and increase recession risks. They emphasize the fact that there is no clear evidence that “This time it is different” and that forecasters should ignore part of the current yield curve flattening because of the presumed macro-financial effects of QE.

 

We would adopt a barbell strategy, favoring floaters at the front end of the curve and fixed rates for longer term securities. Favor quality.

 

USD Graphs

 




 

EUR Government rates

  • The European Central Bank is continuing its balance sheet normalization process, but this comes at a time when risks to economic growth are increasing
  • Political risk in Europe remains high, threats range from the budget issues in Italy, Brexit and financial instability in neighboring Turkey
  • The path of both long and short term rates remains however predictable

 

Risks to Europe relatively subdued growth are plentiful

 

The Eurozone economy is still going to face headwinds in the coming quarters. Threats range from a disorderly Brexit to a worsening financial stability situation in Turkey.
Even though a compromise on the budget is the most likely outcome, we have since learnt the Italian elections in March that European markets react strongly to Italy political and financial events. Should nevertheless the budget break the EU limit, or the government implement other populist measures generally unwelcomed by the markets, it is very likely we could witness a sharp widening of Italian government spreads, and increased volatility on other European risk assets, as the Union unity and common rules would be put to the test again.
Turkey is still in the midst of a perfect storm, and although they raised rates toward the end of Q3, we doubt they are out of trouble. Raising rates is efficient up to a certain point, what ultimately matters is whether or not the market and the people are confident in what the Government is doing. Argentina, which raised rates to stellar levels with no tangible effects on the markets and economy is a good example. Turkey plays an important geopolitical role as the EU relies heavily on the country to control the flow of migrants trying to reach Europe. Should Turkey’s financial situation worsen and turn into a geopolitical crisis, it is likely we will see some contagion and European risk assets would suffer as a result.

 

Curve is likely to remain unchanged

 

In this climate of uncertainty it is very likely longer term German Bund rates will stay depressed. Inflation, while we would not call it elevated, rose above the Central Bank target in August, which however can mainly be attributed to elevated oil prices, which are a volatile component of the index. Core inflation, excluding food and energy, the measure ECB bases its analysis on, remained relatively subdued. The service sector, whose main cost is usually salaries, has not suffered from an increase in wages, and there is no evidence of labor cost growth acceleration in the Eurozone. Moreover, given the relatively sluggish PMIs and a rather fragile consumer confidence, we do not expect any major pick-up in growth.
The beginning of the last quarter also marks the beginning of ECB winding down its QE program. Starting in October, the Central Bank will reduce its asset purchase down to EUR 15bln a month from EUR 30bln until the end of December and then end it. They however leave the door open to more QE having stated a number of times that it was “subject to incoming data”. Mr. Draghi also stated that “when we stop, this does not mean that our monetary policy stops being accommodating. The amount of accommodation will remain very significant”. We can therefore clearly expect rates to stay low for a very long time.
 
We realize that allocating assets to EUR Fixed Income securities and obtaining a decent return is a challenging task. FRNs will be in very high demand and therefore might be hard to find when rates rise. Some advance shopping might prove itself having been a remunerative strategy when we will look back in 12 months.

 

EUR Graphs

 




CHF Government rates

  • A highly valued Swiss Franc and a robust economy put the Central Bank in a difficult situation
  • The CHF will remind sought by investors, as trade and geopolitical tensions increase
  • The Swiss National Bank seems to grow more and more concerned by the domestic real estate and mortgage market

 

The Swiss National Bank faces a difficult situation

 

The Swiss National Bank is trapped between two diverging trends. An ever strengthening Swiss Franc, both nominal and trade weighted, which makes it impossible for Thomas Jordan and his colleagues to raise rates, and a strong economy, the GDP grew 3.4% in Q2, the largest leap in 8 years and well above its average, reflecting a level of economic activity which would prompt any Central Bank to adopt a more restrictive stance.
This situation makes its task, and communication difficult. It has now been a year since the Swiss National Bank modified its narrative on the CHF adopting a very slight hawkish tone, describing it at “highly valued” rather than “significantly overvalued”, a first step towards a less accommodative policy. It is however very unlikely we see a depreciation of the Swiss currency as the situation in Emerging Markets continues to be shaky, notably in Argentina and Turkey, and the CHF will continue to play is safe haven role.
The SNB interest rate on sight deposits has remained at -0.75% since January 2015, the day the Central Bank stopped supporting the 1.20 CHF for 1 EUR level. This level is today the lowest of any G10 country. From an inflation point of view, the solid Swiss economic performance has not translated to a rampant increase in prices, headline CPI is at 1.2% yoy, core inflation remains relatively subdued at 0.5% yoy. Those numbers are below the Central Bank target but above the average of the past twenty years.

 

Trade tensions could spill over in Europe

 

Given these numbers, it is very likely that the SNB will keep on with its accommodative policy and keep rates on hold for at least another year. The catalyst for the SNB taking more aggressive steps towards normalization would be the European Central Bank raising its rates, a measure they said is not going to happen before the summer of 2019.
We believe one of the major threats to the Swiss economy is a broadening of the US trade sanctions spectrum to the European region, which has been relatively spared so far. The United Stated is Switzerland’s second main trading partner after Germany. In 2017 Swiss exports totaled CHF 220.6bln and 15.3% of those were intended for the US market. Tariffs aimed at the wider European region might include Switzerland and could be detrimental to its economy.
The SNB is growing increasingly wary of the domestic real estate market, having qualified it a number of times and said that it is the greatest threat to the domestically focused banks. The institution is concerned by the prices of real estate going up and rents going down, and the growth in buy-to-let investments.
The SNB will continue to kick the can down the road until the ECB starts to tighten its monetary policy. We also believe the risk is asymmetrical, with spreads and yields that could only go one way.

GBP Government Rates

  • The Brexit debate builds towards a crescendo ahead of the November “deadline” to reach a deal
  • The Bank of England hikes rates for the second time in a decade and Governor Mark Carney extends his term
  • The woes on the high street extend to some iconic British retailers

 

Prime Minister May insists it is the Chequers Plan or no deal

 

The Chequers Plan, forged at the Prime Minister’s country residence in July, was supposed to pull the cabinet together and accelerate negotiations with the EU. The compromise, or “soft Brexit”, proposal whereby the UK would abide by the “common rulebook” for goods and agricultural products, however, triggered the resignations of the Brexit and foreign secretaries in protest and provided an opportunity for some leading Remainers to exploit the undermining of Theresa May’s authority and push for a second referendum.
The pound fell to a 14-month low shortly after but despite the vocal opposition, Theresa May clings on. EU leaders were just as critical at the Salzburg summit and rejected the key elements of the proposal which they regard as cherry-picking. The two sides are back at an impasse and the probability of a no deal has increased. We will soon find out whether this prospect provides a catalyst for a change or more flexibility in negotiations. In the meantime UK assets, especially the pound, will remain in thrall to politics and Brexit.

 

The Bank of England delivers another dovish rate hike

 

Although the Monetary Policy Committee voted unanimously 9-0 to hike the base rate by 25bps to 0.75% at its August meeting, the emphasis on a “limited and gradual” approach to further increases saw the pound fall and government bonds rally in the aftermath. Against a backdrop of tepid growth, the UK economy expanded 0.4% in the second quarter, and softer inflation, it was a questionable move and perhaps only served to meet the BoE’s desire to normalize rates and provide more ammunition in the next downturn. Mark Carney also agreed to extend his term as Governor to January 2020 to support the economy through the turbulence of Brexit.

 

Troubled retailers leave many investors with buyer’s remorse

 

The pressure on traditional bricks and mortar retailers intensified despite the benefits provided by the hottest summer on record and one-off events such as the World Cup and Royal Wedding. House of Fraser, the iconic department store chain founded in Glasgow in 1849, collapsed into administration in August leaving senior secured bondholders wearing losses of more than 80 per cent of face value. Debenhams and John Lewis followed up with disappointing results and harsh profit warnings in September.
Retailers have struggled to adapt to the rapid shift towards digital shopping, online sales represent just 21% of the total at Debenhams and 39% at John Lewis, and are encumbered with long, inflexible store leases taken out more than a decade ago when interest rates were rising. The structural challenges have been amplified by the introduction of the national living wage and higher import costs from the sharp depreciation of Sterling which retailers have struggled to pass on in a fiercely competitive environment. Dented consumer confidence and reduced footfall on the high street has also been acutely felt by the restaurant sector.
We remain underweight gilts on valuation grounds and favour select corporate debt where credit spreads provide compensation for interest rate risk and inflation. More clarity over Brexit can provide opportunities in UK corporates and financials that have underperformed against the uncertain outlook.

 

GBP & CHF Graphs

 




 

Credit Markets

USD Investment Grade bonds in developed markets have widened slightly due to global macro uncertainties, but they remain low by historical standards.
However USD long dated high grade bonds offer the best opportunities right now. While the shorter end of the curve certainly seems attractive on an absolute basis and given the low term premium, we believe that if the current economic situation in the US persists, the curve will continue to flatten as the longer end will trade range bound. A downturn can however not be excluded, in which case the Fed would stop raising rates and longer end rates would go down. In both scenarios, we estimate credit spreads on High Yield bonds are at cyclical lows and we believe think are not remunerated for their risk at these levels.
Many investors see the actual weakness in Emerging Markets as a potential opportunity to put on long positions, judging the selloff is mainly induced by the deteriorating situation in Turkey and is sentiment induced. We believe differently and think continuing trade issues will hurt EM economies and a continued strong USD and relatively high USD funding rate will continue hurting countries with large external debt. Moreover, investor sentiment has played an enormous role since the beginning of the year and should continue to do so over the coming months.
EUR investment grade bonds continue to look unattractive to our eyes. Credit spreads have widened slightly since the beginning of the year but investor faces an asymmetrical risk. As mentioned earlier, it can be expected European rates will remain at their present levels for an extended period of time as we do not see any meaningful pick-up in inflation. Should trade tension spill over into the European region, it is likely investors would seek safety in the form of government bonds, but should this situation happen, this would have a negative effect on credit spreads. In our sense, the decline in government yields would not compensate the rise in risk premiums.
The asset purchase program, that included euro-denominated corporate bonds, the European Central Bank has led over the past 2 years has certainly helped High Yield debt credit spread stay tight, as yield hungry investors were rushing to the riskier higher paying securities. With the ECB now leaning towards the end of its asset purchase program, halving it to EUR15bln starting at the end of September and ending net asset purchase in 2019, some argue that EUR HY credit spreads will widen significantly, as investors move to safer assets.
While this scenario makes sense, we do not believe we will witness a sharp spike in EUR HY credit spreads, as the tightening is partly due effectively to the market moving to the HY segment as a result of the ECB asset purchase program but also to the relatively improving state of the economy. We are actually more concerned by the possible threat of US tariffs on EU exports that would certainly be harmful to EUR HY credit spreads. HY could also be hampered by the sluggish economic data coming out of Europe should this trend continue.
Consequently, knowing that EUR High Yield is often the often the only alternative to at least cover costs for EUR investors, we would encourage HY bond buyers wishing to add securities to their portfolios to do so on a selective basis.

 

Credit Graphs

 


 

bridport & co is a fixed income services company that provides advisory, execution and research to institutional investors. Read more on www.bridport.ch.

 

 

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