Saturday, December 8, 2018

8/12/18: Back to the 1950s: Tracing Out 25 Years of the Credit Bubble

While the current cycle of declining interest rates has been running for at least 25 years, the most recent iteration of the period has been exceptionally benign. Since the end of the global financial crisis, Corporate and, to a greater extent Government, borrowing costs have run at the levels close to, or even below, those observed in the 1950s-1960s.

Since 2002-2003, FFR, on average, has been below the risk premium on lending to the Government & corporates. This has changed in 4Q 2017 when Treasuries risk premium fell below the FFR and stayed there since. In simple terms, it pays to use monetary policy to leverage the economy.
Not surprisingly, the role of debt in funding economic growth has increased.

And, as the last chart below shows, the relationship between policy rates (Federal Funds Rate) and Government and Corporate debt costs has been deteriorating since the start of the Millennium, especially for Corporate debt:

In simple terms, risk premium on Corporate debt has been negatively correlated with the Federal Funds Rate (so higher policy rates imply lower risk premium on Corporate bonds) and the positive relationship between Government debt risk premium and Fed's policy rate is now at its weakest level in history (so higher policy rates are having lower impact on risk premium for Government bonds). In part, these developments reflect accumulation of Government debt on the Fed's balancesheet. In part, the glut of liquidity in the banking and financial system (leading to mis-pricing of risks on a systemic basis). And, in part, the disconnection between Corporate debt markets and the policy rates induced by the debt-financed shares buybacks and M&As, plus yield-chasing investment strategies, all of which severely discount risk premia on Corporate debt.

8/12/18: Shares Buybacks Hit Diminishing Marginal Returns

The S&P 500 Buyback Index Total Return data tracks the performance of the top 100 stocks with the highest buyback ratios in the S&P 500 in terms of total return. As the chart below shows, the Buyback Index has generally and significantly outperformed S&P500 returns since 2008:

with three discernible periods of outperformance highlighted in the second chart:

In simple terms, since December 2015, the Buyback Index Total Return performance relative to S&P500 returns has stagnated, despite accelerating buybacks by the S&P500 corporates. In part, this is driven by the increased buybacks activity in the less active companies (not constituents of the Buyback Index), but in part the data suggests that the returns to buybacks are generally tapering out.

At the same time, correlation between S&P500 returns and Buyback Index returns has been weakening from around the same time:

All of the above indicates a breakdown in the traditional post-2008 pattern of returns, as buybacks role as the drivers for improved ROE performance for top S&P500 shares re-purchasers is starting to run into diminishing returns.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

6/12/18: Are Younger Americans More Comfortable With a Multipolar World?

When it comes to challenging status quo heuristics, the younger generations usually pave the way. The same applies to the heuristics relating to geopolitical environment. While the older generations of Americans appear to be firmly stuck in the comfort-seeking status quo ante of 'Cold War'-linked hegemonic perception of the world around us - the basis for which is the alleged positive exceptionalism of the U.S. confronted by the negative exceptionalism of Russia and, increasingly, China, Americans of younger cohorts are starting to comprehend the reality of multipolar world we inhabit.

At least, according to the Pew Research data:

The gap between the tail generations (the Z-ers and the Boomers) is massive, and the spread within the generations is relatively more compressed for the Z-ers.

6/12/18: When it comes to geopolitical & socio-economic anxiety, Europe's problem is European

Europe is a sitting duck for major geopolitical risk, but the U.S. is getting there too:

And volatility surrounding the uncertainty measure is also out of line for Europe, both in levels and trends:

Just as the Global Financial Crisis in Europe was not caused by the U.S. financial meltdown, even if the latter was a major catalyst to the former, so is the current period of extreme policy anxiety and instability is not being driven by the emergence of the Trump Administration. Europe's problem seems to be European.

5/12/18: Bitcoin: Sell-off is a structural break to the downside of the already negative trend

Bitcoin has suffered a significant drop off in terms of its value against the USD in November. Despite trading within USD6,400-6,500 range through mid-November, on thin volumes, BTC dropped to a low of USD3,685 by November 24, before entering the ‘dead cat bounce’ period since. The Bitcoin community, however, remains largely of the view that any downside to Bitcoin is a temporary, irrationally-motivated, phenomena (see the range of forward forecasts for the crypto here:

Dynamically, Bitcoin has been trading down, on a persistent. albeit volatile trend since January this year. Based on monthly ranges (min-max for daily open-close prices), the chart below shows conclusively that as of mid-November, BTCUSD has entered a new regime - consistent with a new low for the crypto.

This regime switch is a relatively rare event in the last 11 months of trading, singling that the BTC lows are neither secure in the medium term, nor are likely to be replaced by an upward trend. While things are likely to remain volatile for BTCUSD, this volatility is unlikely to signal any reversal of the downward pressures on the crypto currency.

Consistent with this, we can think of two possible, albeit distinctly probable, scenarios:

  1. Scenario 1 (the more likely one): BTCUSD will, in the medium term of 1-3 months, drop below USD3,000 levels, and
  2. Scenario 2 (least likely one): BTCUSD will repeat its December 2017 - January 2018 ‘hockey stick’ dynamics.

Noting the above dynamics, the lack of any catalyst for the BTC upside, and the simple fact that since mid-November, larger volumes traded supported greater moves to the downside than to the upside, current trading range of USD3,900-4,100 is unlikely to last.

Scenario 2 supports going long BTC at prices around USD3,800, but it requires a major, highly unlikely and unforeseeable at this point in time, catalyst. A replay of the 2017 scenario needs a convincing story. Back then, in September-October 2017, a combination of the enthusiastic marketing of bitcoin as a 'solve all problems the world has ever known' technology, coupled with the novelty of the asset has triggered a massive influx of retail investors into the crypto markets. These investors are now utterly destroyed, financially and morally, having bought into BTC at prices >$4,000 and transaction costs of 20-25 percent (break-even prices of >$5,000). The supply of new suckers is now thin, as the newsflow has turned decidedly against cryptos, and price dynamics compound bear market analysis. Another factor that led BTC to a lightning fast rise in December 2017 was the promise of the 'inevitable' and 'scale-supported' arrival of institutional investors into the market. This not only failed to materialise over the duration of 2018, but we are now learning that the few institutional investors that made their forays into the markets have abandoned any plans for engaging in setting up trading and investment functions for their clients. In the end, today, the vast majority of the so-called  institutional investors are simply larger scale holders of BTC and other cryptos, unrelated to the traditional financial markets investment houses.

Scenario 1 implies you should cut your losses or book your gains, by selling BTC.

5/12/18: BRIC PMIs for November: A Moderate Pick Up in Growth

BRIC PMIs are in, although I am still waiting for Global Composite PMI report to update quarterly series - so stay tuned for more later), and the first thing that is worth noting is that, based on monthly data:

  1. Brazil growth momentum has accelerated somewhat, in November (103.2) compared to October (101.0), although both readings are consistent with weak growth (zero growth in my series is set at 100). November reading is the highest in 9 months, although statistically, it is comparable to growth recorded in March, April and October this year).
  2. Russia growth momentum de-accelerated from 111.6 in October to 110 in November, although, again, statistically, the two numbers are not significantly different from each other. November was the second highest reading in nine months, and the third highest reading in 2018.
  3. China growth has improved from 101.0 in October to 103.8 in November. Despite this, last two months remain the lowest since April this year. From statistical significance point of view, October reading was distinctly below November reading, but November reading was consistent with August-September.
  4. India posted substantial rise in growth conditions, from already robust 106.0 in October to a 24-months high of 109.2. This reading is statistically above all other period readings, with exception of being tied with July 2018 level of 108.2.
Thus, overall, BRIC Composite growth indicator rose from 102.8 in October to 105.3 in November, the highest in 10 months. BRIC ex-Russia reading was at 105.4 in November, compared to 102.7 in October. November reading for ex-Russia BRIC growth indicator was also the highest since February 2013.

Couple of charts to illustrate monthly data trends:

While the chart above clearly shows that Russia supports BRIC block growth momentum to the upside, this effect is somewhat moderating due to both ex-Russia BRIC growth momentum rising and Russia growth momentum slowing slightly.

The chart below highlights BRIC estimated growth contribution to global growth momentum:

Overall, as the chart above shows, BRIC economies contribution to global growth momentum has accelerated in November, but remains bound-range within the longer-term trend of weaker BRIC growth for the last five and a half years.

As noted above, I will be posting more on BRIC growth dynamics signalled by the PMIs once we have Global Composite PMIs published by Markit. Stay tuned.

Friday, November 30, 2018

30/11/18: Turning Europe into Greece

My latest column for the Cayman Financial Review is out, discussing how the lessons from the Global Financial Crisis, not learned by Europe, are creating new ghosts of VUCA across the European financial and economic landscapes:

30/11/18: Ireland’s Dependency Ratio Problem?

Ireland seems to have a twin dependency. or rather a triple dependency problem:

  • Younger population means larger share of population is either below the working age or in education;
  • Older population largely working less in their post-retirement age due to a number of factors, such as family/household work (‘grandparents duties’ in absence of functional childcare and early education systems), and tax effects (low thresholds for the upper marginal tax rate application act as disincentive to supply surplus labor over and above retirement income), plus the workplace practices and regulations that restrict post-retirement age work; and
  • Working-age adults in large numbers drawing various forms of allowances (labor force participation rate being low for Ireland despite a relatively benign unemployment statistics).

All of which means that the aggregate (and very broad) dependency ratio for Ireland is yet to recover from the decade-old crisis, and is below that for other small, open economies, for example, Iceland:

The latter observation was true before the crisis, but the onset of the GFC and the Great Recession have pushed Ireland’s employment to population ratio to such dire lows that the country is yet to recover from its woes. Iceland recovered its pre-crisis levels of employment to population ratio back in 2016. It also endured much less pronounced impact of the crisis in terms of ratio decline (peak to trough) and duration of the peak-to-peak cycle. Ireland is still climbing out of the mess, and the rate of recovery is expected to slow down dramatically in 2018 (based on the IMF data).

While many observers and analysts are quick to discount this ratio, the reality is that economy’s resilience to shocks, its productive capacity today (and, via on-the-job training, learning by doing and other forms of career-linked investments in productivity growth, its future capacity) are determined by how many people work in the economy per capita of population. The lower the ratio, the less income producing capacity the economy has, the lower the absorption capacity of the economy in the face of adverse shocks.

30/11/18: The Myth of Social Mobility and Wealth Inequality

Three charts, related topics.

Global wealth inequality has been a much-discussed problem these days, with both longer-term economic and social, not to mention political, impacts being assigned to it across both the Advanced Economies and the Emerging Markets. Setting aside the causes and drivers for this development, here is the latest evidence on the wealth distribution around the world from Credit Suisse:

The 3.211 billion people, accounting for 63.9% of the total estimated world population are holding USD6.2 trillion worth of wealth (1.9% of the world total value of assets). Another 26.6% of population or 1.335 billion people, hold 13.9% of total global wealth. Thus, 90.5% of population hold combined 15.8% of the total global wealth. In the top 10 percent category, those with wealth of USD100K to 1 million account for 8.7% of global population and hold 39.3 percent of total global wealth. The 0.8% of population (42 million people) have combined holdings of wealth around USD142 trillion or 44.8% of total global wealth.

This is striking and it is problematic. Even if most of our own wealth inequality referencing is done across the adjoining class of comparatives, the gap between the top of the pyramid and the bottom is so insurmountably vast, that any idea that there is some sort of meritocratic division of wealth in our global society flies out of the window. The problem is not so much income inequality, but the inequality arising from inherited wealth, which generates income returns from invested assets that cannot be offset or diluted by merit of effort, talent and work, no matter how hard one works. Even stripping out luck effects of self-made millionaires and billionaires, the pyramid above is the evidence to the endurance of inter-generational wealth transfers.

The dynamics of evolution in wealth inequality that got us here are presented in the following charts via Goldman Sachs Research:

These figures are for the U.S. economy and they are frightening, just as much as the wealth pyramid above is frightening. Share of wealth held by the top 1% wealth-holders grew from just above 21% in the late 1970s-early 1980s to closer to 37% in 2014. Since then, it has increased more. Share of wealth held by the remaining top 10 percenters declined from ca 44% in the early 1970s to around 35% from the late 1990s on. But the share of wealth held by middle America collapsed to below 27% since the high of around 36% in mid-1980s. Things were never brilliant for the bottom 50 percent of Americans to begin with, but since the Global Financial Crisis, lower middle of America has had negative net wealth through 2014. even though it might have risen since then somewhat, at no time in modern history have the middle and lower-middle class Americans enjoyed holding more than 2 percent of the total wealth.

This is a double-ugly conclusion, because it simultaneously runs against two key propositions on which the American society rests: the proposition of social cross-class mobility upwards from lower wealth classes to middle class, and the proposition that social progress in the American society is distinct from the ‘basket cases’ dynamics in the larger emerging economies (the likes of India and China). In a way, America replicates the world in terms of both, wealth inequality and its dynamics. And that is not a good thing for a society based on exceptionalism values.

The added dimension to this is that, given the above dynamics and the degree of elites entrenchment / capture within the political establishment, we are facing an impossible task of rebalancing the above wealth inequalities without triggering some serious political discontent. Worse, we have no tools for doing so, other than traditional socialist tools (expropriation via taxation of income), which are not effective in dealing with this problem. One of the reasons why these tools are ineffective is that broad-based income tax measures impact more adversely those who work for living (higher income earners) and do not touch those who experience wealth appreciation through capital gains on inherited wealth (as long as they re-invest their wealth-generated income). Another reason, is that higher income earners, on average, can claim merit as a source of their income more than those who hold inherited wealth. A third reason is that redistribution through taxation is highly inefficient: the funds flow to the politically-empowered, not to merit-deserving, and the losses on tax funds are high due to the cost of Government bureaucracy.

Which leaves us with the unpleasant dilemma: tax inherited wealth (during inheritance transfer in the future, and retro-actively, via tax on existent wealth, in the past). Which in itself is highly problematic for the following reasons: (1) wealth is mobile across borders, and financialized wealth is especially so; (2) a significant tax on wealth is likely to trigger repricing of all assets to the downside (liquidation of wealth to cover tax liabilities), adversely impacting wealth acquired by the first generation of entrepreneurs and investors; and (3) inducing a sizeable decline in the life-cycle expected wealth of the current younger generations, resulting is a large scale re-leveraging of these generations.

Neither of these effects is easy to address.

Monday, November 26, 2018

25/11/18: Russian South Stream 2.0 Comes Out of the Shadows

Russia and Turkey have announced that the two countries have reached significant progress in reviving the November 2014-shut down South Stream gas pipeline intended to land Russian gas across the Black Sea. The project is the part of the already secured open tender contracts for purchases of gas signed between Gazprom, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Slovakia and Austria.

Source: Kommersant

The new Black Sea gas pipeline Turkish Stream will run under sea from Krasnodar to a landing hubv just west of Istanbul. On November 19, presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in Istanbul to announce the completion of pipeline's off-shore section.

Pipeline capacity is for 30 bullion cubic meters, bcm, although initial phase capacity will be closer to 17bcm (the first pipe). Currently, Gazprom supplies the above volume (30bcm) to Turkey (ca 16bcm), Bulgaria, Serbia, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria. Turkish market has been supplied via Blue Stream pipeline, and the other countries are supplied via Ukraine.

Based on reports from Russia's Kommersant (, Gazprom has managed to achieve two feats:

  1. Gazprom has completed laying two (not one) pipes for Turkish Stream, one intended to supply Turkey and another, to supply Southern Europe, 
  2. Gazprom secured tenders for purchases of gas from all EU states to be connected to the South Stream project (Bulgaria's open tender closes in December 2018, but all other countries have already signed onto supply agreements).

Significantly, the tenders were secured in compliance with the EU Energy Directives. This means that Gazprom latest venture has addressed the main cause of the EU's original objections to the same pipeline prior to 2014. In the case of open tenders process, Gazprom used exactly the same scheme to secure capacity orders for its Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany, Czech Republic and Slovakia back in 2017. According to the experts cited by Kommersant, this makes in impossible for the EU to shut down the project.

Of course, history reminder due, South Stream was primarily killed off not by the EU, but by the U.S. keen on protecting Ukraine's near monopoly on Russian gas transit. The Obama Administration exerted massive pressure on Bulgaria and other South Stream-receiving countries to prevent landing Russian gas in Southern Europe. So far, there has been little indication what Washington's position on the latest iteration of the South Stream might be, but I doubt it will be welcoming.

Kommersant-quoted stats on South Stream are impressive: according to the paper sources, Gazprom signed delivery tenders with Slovakia for seven years from October 2022 for 4.3bcm, of which Austria will get 3.8bcm, 4.7bcm will go to Hungary, 2bcm to Serbia, and 4.8bcm to Bulgaria. So, comes October 2022,  the South Stream (or Turkey Stream, or whatever you want to call this) will be pumping into Southern Europe the equivalent of the current transit through Ukraine.

Between two new pipelines, Gazprom can easily deliver its current supply contracts to Europe by-passing Ukraine, although, if European demand continues to expand at the current rates, it is likely that Gazprom will need to retain some Ukrainian transit capacity into the future. Even in 2021, before South Stream comes fully on stream, Russian gas transit via Ukraine can fall to below 10bcm per annum.

These developments are undoubtedly a major concern for Ukraine - the country already raised criticism of the South Stream on November 19 - as transit of Russian gas via Ukraine is a major revenue earner for Kyiv. Based on the European Council on Foreign Relations data, between 1991 and 2000, Ukraine accounted for 93 percent of Russian gas transit to Europe; by January 2014, this amounted to 49 percent. Naftogaz, Ukrainian State gas company, tried repeatedly to extract monopoly-level revenues from Gazprom. Back in 2008, Naftogaz tried to charge Gazprom $9 per tcm/100km in transit fees - triple the price charged for transit by Slovakia and Poland, and more than double the fee charged by the majority of the Western European states. This pricing came on top of Ukrainian authorities expecting Gazprom to supply gas to Ukraine for domestic consumption at severely subsidised prices. It is, of course, worth noting that Gazprom itself is a monopoly and has, in the past, used its dominant market positions to exercise market power. There are no innocents (other than European buyers of gas) in the long-running disputes between Naftogaz-Ukraine and Gazprom-Russia.

Nonetheless, the situation is asymmetric. Russia currently continues to rely on Ukraine for transit of its main traded commodity, while Ukraine continues to rely on Russia for a large share of its economic activity. In a recent note, Bruegel ( estimated that Nord Stream 2 coming on line can cost Ukrainian economy ca 2-3 percent of GDP in foregone Russian gas transit earnings. South Stream is likely to add another 1.5 percent.  In the longer run, overall cost to Ukraine of losing Russian gas transit routes can cost as much as 5-6 percent of GDP.

Note: the latest developments in the Sea of Azov can put significant political pressure on the South Stream project, if the EU and the U.S. choose to significantly escalate their pressure on Russia in the wake of the Russian blockade of trade routes through Kerch Straits and in response to the naval incidents reported today. Both, the reported blockade and the naval incident, are worrying developments, and the onus is on Russia to rapidly de-escalate the already volatile situation in the Azov Sea. There are no justifiable reason for restricting Ukraine's access to trade routes, and for increasing military tensions in the region.

Saturday, November 24, 2018