Revising Our 2017 Outlook on U.S. Treasuries: From 2.25% to 2.50% on the 10-Year

In our earlier 2017 outlook on the U.S. 10-year Treasury yield published on December 21, 2016 (see “Our 2017 Outlook on U.S. Treasuries: 2.25% on the 10-Year“), we argued that the U.S. 10-year Treasury yield will close at around 2.25% at the end of 2017. Our target at the time was very much out-of-consensus, as most analysts (including those from Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and PIMCO) were expecting the 10-year to rise to 2.75% or above, driven mostly by late-cycle inflationary pressures and the promise of U.S. corporate tax cuts and a $1 trillion infrastructure spending package by the Trump administration.

Since the publication of our 2017 outlook on the 10-year Treasury, U.S. economic growth has disappointed, with the “advance” estimate of U.S. Q1 2017 real GDP growth hitting an annual rate of just 0.7%. As a response, the U.S. 10-year yield sank to a trough of 2.18% on April 18, before rebounding to a close of 2.33% earlier tonight.

Figure 1 below shows our timing calls as discussed in our weekly global macro newsletters on the U.S. 10-year from June 2015 to the present. Note that prices of the 10-year Treasury rise as yields decline.

us10year

Instead of our previous target of 2.25%, I now expect the U.S. 10-year Treasury yield to rise steadily from 2.33% today to around 2.50% by the end of this year. Note this target is still slightly out-of-consensus (e.g. Goldman Sachs is expecting the 10-year to rise to 3.00% by the end of this year). Given the still-uncertain U.S. political outlook, I am looking for significant, tradeable volatility on the 10-year for the rest of this year; on a net basis, however, I believe there will be an upward bias on the 10-year yield for the following reasons:

  • When our earlier 2017 outlook was published on December 21, 2016, speculators were holding a record short position on U.S. 10-year futures with the exception of a brief period in early 2005. An ensuing rally in the 10-year (a decline in yield) developed as a result; as of this writing, however, the net speculative position on U.S. 10-year futures has reversed dramatically from that of five months ago. In fact, net speculators’ bullish bets rose earlier last week to their highest levels since early 2008. From a contrarian standpoint, this should put downward pressure on the 10-year Treasury–in turn resulting in higher yields;
  • In our April 30, 2017 newsletter (email me for a copy), we switched from a “neutral” to a “bearish” positioning on German/French sovereign bonds, as: 1) after experiencing a near-Depression during the 2011-13 period, European economic growth was finally accelerating, and 2) ahead of the May 7th French run-off vote between Macron and Le Pen, it was clear that European political risk was dissipating. In fact, European forward rates at the time were showing a 60% chance of an ECB rate hike in March 2018. An acceleration in European economic growth is also being confirmed by the latest readings of our proprietary CBGDI (“CB Capital Global Diffusion Index”), as seen in Figure 2 below.

CBGDI.png

I have previously discussed the construction and implication of the CBGDI’s readings in many of our weekly newsletters and blog entries. The last time I discussed the CBGDI on this blog was on May 12, 2016 (“Leading Indicators Suggest Further Upside in Global Risk Asset Prices“).

To recap, the CBGDI is a global leading indicator which we construct by aggregating and equal-weighting the OECD-constructed leading indicators for 29 major countries, including non-OECD members such as China, Brazil, Turkey, India, Indonesia, and Russia. Moreover, the CBGDI has historically led the MSCI All-Country World Index and WTI crude oil prices since November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Historically, the rate of change (i.e. the 2nd derivative) of the CBGDI has led WTI crude oil prices by three months with an R-squared of 30%; and has led or correlated with the MSCI All-Country World Index, with an R-squared of over 40% (which is expected as local stock prices is typically a component of the OECD leading indicators).

The latest reading of the CBGDI has continued to improve after making a trough in late 2015/early 2016  (see Figure 2 above). Both the 1st and the 2nd derivatives of the CBGDI have continued to climb and are still in (slight) uptrends, suggesting a stabilization and in many cases, an acceleration (e.g. the economies of Austria, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, South Korea, New Zealand, Brazil, and Russia ) in global economic activity. With Chinese RMB and capital outflows having stabilized in recent months, global economic growth around the world seems to be synchronizing. This should lead to higher U.S./German/French sovereign rates from now till the end of 2017.

Long-term Sentiment Indicators Suggest U.S. Stock Market Exuberance

Despite Fed tightening, the rise of populism threatening the disruption of global trade and supply chains, along with ongoing delays in U.S. tax reform and infrastructure spending legislation, there is no doubt that economic optimism is more persuasive in mainstream U.S. society today than it was relative to just six months ago. Sure, President Trump is in the process of dismantling Dodd-Frank, the EPA, and even the ACA (through loosening IRS rules on the “individual mandate”) through a series of Executive Orders, but such loosening of regulations is not necessarily bullish for corporate profits as they encourage more competition in such affected industries over time. In fact, loosening IRS rules on the “individual mandate” may even lead to the collapse of the U.S. healthcare system, as the “individual mandate” forms the core of the ACA by requiring young, healthy Americans to purchase insurance so they could subsidize older, less healthy Americans with pre-existing conditions. An ACA in the absence of the “individual mandate” will be credit-negative for most U.S. healthcare companies.

Historically, the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index has not just acted as a reliable, coincident gauge of U.S. consumer sentiment, but also as a very reliable contrarian indicator for U.S. stock prices. While it has always been better in pin-pointing bottoms during a bear market, it has also worked well in calling significant stock market peaks over the last 35 years. This was true in the run-up of both the Consumer Confidence Index and U.S. stock prices leading up to the significant peaks in September 1987, July 1998, Fall 2000, as well as its “rounding top” during the first half of 2007. Just yesterday, the Consumer Confidence Index–by soaring through its September 1987 peak and hitting a high not seen since December 2000–gave us a “strong sell” signal on U.S. stocks. Figure 1 below shows the monthly readings of the Consumer Confidence Index. vs the Dow Industrials from January 1981 to March 2017.

consumerconfidenceSuch extreme complacency among U.S. mainstream society has morphed into “irrational exuberance” as retail investors, aided by near-record-high U.S. corporate buybacks, has also made its mark on U.S. margin debt outstanding. As of February 28, 2017, U.S. margin debt surged to an all-time high of $568.6 billion outstanding, more than $18 billion higher than its previous all-time high of $550.0 billion made in April 2015, just a few months before the onset of the July 2015-February 2016 global equity bear market. Over the last 12 months, U.S. margin debt outstanding has risen by $94.5 billion (see Figure 2 below)–its greatest 12-month rate of margin debt accumulation since June 2014.

margindebt

The Coming Breakthroughs in the Global Supercomputing Race

In our August 31, 2015 article (“The U.S. Needs to Rejuvenate the Global Supercomputing Race“), we expressed our concerns regarding the state of the global supercomputing industry; specifically, from a U.S. perspective, the sustainability of Moore’s Law, as well as increasing competition from the Chinese supercomputing industry. Below is a summary of the concerns that we expressed:

  • Technological innovation, along with increasing access to cheap, abundant energy, is the lifeblood of a growing, modern economy. As chronicled by Professor Robert Gordon in “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” U.S. productivity growth (see Figure 1 below; sources: Professor Gordon & American Enterprise Institute)–with the exception of a brief spurt from 1997-2004–peaked during the period from the late 1920s to the early 1950s; by 1970, much of today’s everyday household conveniences, along with the most important innovations in transportation & medicine, have already been invented and diffused across the U.S. Since 1970, almost all of the U.S. productivity growth could be attributed to the adoption and advances in the PC, investments in our fiber optic and wireless networks, along with the accompanying growth of the U.S. software industry (other impactful technologies since the 1970s include: the advent of hydraulic fracturing in oil & gas shale, ultra deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the commercialization of alternative energy and more efficient battery storage systems, as we first discussed in our July 27, 2014 article “How Fracking Saved the U.S. Economy“). This means that a stagnation in the U.S. computing or communications industries would result in an invariable slowdown in U.S/global productivity growth;

americanproductivitygrowth

  • The progress of the U.S. supercomputing industry, as measured by the traditional FLOPS (floating-point operations per second) benchmark, had experienced a relative stagnation when we last wrote about the topic in August 2015. E.g. in 2011, both Intel and SGI seriously discussed the commercialization of an “exascale” supercomputer (i.e. a system capable of performing 1 x 10^18 calculations per second) by the 2019-2020 time frame. As of today, the U.S. supercomputing community has pushed back its target time frame of building an exascale supercomputer to 2023;
  • At the country-specific level, the U.S. share of global supercomputing systems has been declining. As recent as 2012, the U.S. housed 55% of the world’s top 500 supercomputing systems; Japan was second, with 12% of the world’s supercomputing systems, with China (8%) in third place. By the summer of 2015, the U.S. share of the world’s top 500 supercomputing systems has shrunk to 46%, although both Japan and China remained a distant second at 8%. Today, the Chinese supercomputing industry has led an unprecedented surge to claim parity with the U.S, as shown in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2: China – Reaching Parity with the U.S. in the # of Top 500 Supercomputerstop500

Since the invention of the transistor in the late 1940s and the advent of the supercomputing industry in the 1960s, the U.S. has always been the leader in the supercomputing industry in terms of innovation, sheer computing power, and building the customized software needed to take advantage of said supercomputing power (e.g. software designed for precision weather forecasting, gene sequencing, airplane and automobile design, protein folding, and now, artificial intelligence, etc.). With U.S. economic growth increasingly dependent on innovations in the U.S. computing industry and communications network–and with China now threatening to surpass the U.S. in terms of supercomputing power (caveat: China’s HPC software industry is probably still a decade behind)–it is imperative for both U.S. policymakers and corporations to encourage and provide more resources for the U.S. to stay ahead of the supercomputing race.

Unlike the tone of our August 31, 2015 article, however, we have grown more hopeful, primarily because of the following developments:

  • Moore’s Law is still alive and well: At CES 2017 in Las Vegas, Intel declared that Moore’s Law remains relevant, with a second-half target release date for its 10 nano-meter microprocessor chips.  At a subsequent nationally-televised meeting with President Trump earlier this month, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich announced the construction of its $7 billion Fab 42 in Arizona, a pilot plant for its new 7 nano-meter chips. Commercial production of the 7nm chips is schedule to occur in the 2020-2022 time frame, with most analysts expecting the new plant to incorporate more exotic technologies, such as gallium-nitride as a semiconductor material. The next iteration is 5nm chips; beyond 5 nano-meters, however, a more fundamental solution to extend Moore’s Law will need to occur, e.g. commercializing a graphene-based transistor;
  • GPU integration into supercomputing systems: The modern-day era of the GPU (graphics process unit) began in May 1995, when Nvidia commercialized its first graphics chip, the NV1, the first commercially-available GPU capable of 3D rendering and video acceleration. Unlike a CPU, the GPU is embedded with multiple threads of processing power, allowing it to perform many times more simultaneous calculations relative to a CPU. Historically, the supercomputing industry had been unable to take advantage of the sheer processing power of the GPU, given the lack of suitable programming languages specifically designed for GPUs. When the 1.75 petaflop Jaguar supercomputer was unveiled by Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 2009, it was notable as Jaguar was one of the first supercomputers to be outfitted with Nvidia GPUs. Its direct successor, the 17.59 petaflop Titan, was unveiled in 2012 with over 18,000 GPUs. At the time, this was a concern for two reasons: 1) hosting over 18,000 GPUs within a single system was unprecedented and would doom the project to endless failures and outages, and 2) there were too few programming codes to take advantage of the sheer processing power of the 18,000 GPUs. These concerns have proven to be unfounded; today, GPUs are turning home PCs into supercomputing systems while Google just rolled out a GPU cloud service focused on serving AI customers;
  • AI, machine-learning software commercialization: Perhaps one of the most surprising developments in recent years has been the advent of AI, machine-learning software, yielding results that were unthinkable just five years ago. These include: 1) Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo, which defeated three-time European Go champion Fan Hui by 5-0 in 2015, and finally, the world Go champion Ke Jie earlieir this year, 2) Carnegie Mellon’s Libratus, which defeated four of the world’s top poker players over 20 days of playing, and 3) the inevitable commercialization of Level 5 autonomous vehicles on the streets of the U.S., likely by the 2021-2025 time frame. Most recently, Microsoft and the University of Cambridge teamed up to develop a machine learning system capable of writing its own code. The advent of AI in the early 21st century is likely to be a seminal event in the history of supercomputing;
  • Ongoing research into quantum computing: The development of a viable, commercial quantum computer is gaining traction and is probably 10-20 years away from realization. A quantum computer is necessary for the processing of tasks that are regarded as computationally intractable on a classical computer. These include: 1) drug discovery and the ability to customize medical treatments based on the simulation of proteins and how they interact with certain drug combinations, 2) invention of new materials through simulations at the atomic level. This will allow us to build better conductors and denser battery systems, thus transforming the U.S. energy infrastructure almost overnight, and 3) the ability to run simulations of complex societal and economic systems. This will allow us to more efficiently forecast economic growth and design better public policies and urban planning tools.

Our 2017 Outlook on U.S. Treasuries: 2.25% on the 10-Year

Last year at around this time, we published our 2016 outlook on the 10-year Treasury yield (“Our 2016 Outlook on U.S. Treasuries: 2.5% on the 10-Year“). To recall, we model our 10-year Treasury yield expectations with the following “building blocks” model:

10-year Treasury Yield = expected 10-year U.S. inflation + expected U.S. real GDP growth + global central bank purchases (including U.S. QE) + geopolitical premium

Note that the current “arbitrage” between the German & Japanese 10-year (typically done with a “dirty hedge” by hedge funds) with the U.S. 10-year is being taken into account in the above model, to the extent that ECB and BOJ purchases are driving such hedge fund “arbitrage” activity.

The reasoning behind our 2016 outlook of 2.5% (the 10-year is trading at 2.54% as of this writing) included: 1) higher U.S. inflation driven by the combination of a tightening U.S. job market, rising U.S. housing prices, and higher healthcare costs, and 2) the peaking of certain deflationary effects around the world, e.g. Chinese CPI was no longer declining while fears surrounding a larger-than-expected Chinese yuan devaluation would turn out to be unfounded.

Figure 1 below shows our timing calls on the U.S. 10-year from June 2015 to the present (note the prices of the 10-year Treasury rise as yields decline).

10yeartreasury2016

For 2017, I am targeting a 2.25% rate on the U.S. 10-year yield. The target is slightly out-of-consensus (Goldman, Morgan Stanley, and PIMCO are all expecting the 10-year to rise to 2.75% or above). The outlook, however, is very uncertain and I am again looking for significant (tradeable) volatility on the 10-year in 2017; by and large, however, I believe the factors that will drive the 10-year yield lower slightly outweigh the bearish factors on the 10-year:

  • As of this writing, speculative shorts on the U.S 10-year futures are–with the exception of early 2005–at their highest level since the collection of COT records beginning in 1992. From a contrarian standpoint, this should provide some short-term support for the 10-year (in turn resulting in lower yields);
  • Much of the recent up-move in the U.S. 10-year yield occurred after the U.S. presidential election as investors speculated on a combination of higher growth and higher inflation, driven by the promise of: U.S. corporate & personal income tax cuts, a promised $1 trillion infrastructure spending package by President-elect Trump, potential repeal of the ACA and Dodd-Frank along with a myriad other U.S. “regulatory burdens.” As a reminder, however, this is all conjecture at this point. The Republicans are likely to pass their promised corporate & income tax cuts and to repeal the ACA through the reconciliation process (this is needed to avoid a Senate filibuster by the Democrats). However, such tax cuts passed through the reconciliation process needs to be revenue-neutral. Even with the potential to use “dynamic scoring” (where it is assumed lower taxes will result in higher GDP growth in order to offset some of the tax revenue lost), a significant part of the promised tax cuts will likely be scaled back in order to meet fiscal budget targets. E.g. The much discussed 15% or 20% statutory corporate income tax rate will likely be revised to 25%;
  • In the long-run, the U.S. economy is still limited by the combination of slowing population growth (the current 0.77% annual population growth rate is the lowest since the 1930s), older (and less productive) demographics, and a potential stall in immigration–the latter of which has historically benefited the U.S. disproportionately (immigrants are twice as likely to be entrepreneurs than native-born Americans). Another historic tailwind for the U.S. economy actually peaked in 1999: women participation in the labor force has trended down since 2009.

Unless productivity growth jumps over the next several years (not likely; the “fracking revolution” was the last enabler of U.S. productivity growth), the U.S. economy is likely to stall at 2% real GDP growth, especially given the recent 14-year high in the U.S. dollar index–which will serve to encourage import growth and restrict export growth. Note this outlook assumes that the long-term U.S. inflation outlook remains “well-anchored” at 2.0%–should the U.S. Congress adopt a more populist outlook (i.e. higher fiscal spending that is likely to be monetized by the Fed in the next recession), then the 10-year could easily surpass 3.0% sometime in 2017.

The Fed Paves the Way for Running a “High-Pressure Economy” (Along with Higher Inflation)

Since the beginning of last year (see my February 4, 2015 commentary “U.S. Inflationary Pressures Remain Muted” and my March 1, 2016 Forbes commentary “Why Federal Reserve Tightening Is Still A Distant Event“), I have consistently asserted that the Fed’s ultimate tightening schedule would be slower than expected–from both the perspective of the Fed’s original intentions, as well as those of the fed funds futures market. Indeed, the most consistent theme since the beginning of the 2008-09 global financial crisis has been this: The tepid recovery in global financial conditions and global economic growth has consistently forced the Fed to ease more than expected; and since the “tapering” of the Fed’s quantitative easing policy at the end of 2013, to tighten less than expected. E.g. the October 2008 Blue Chip Economic Indicators survey of America’s top economists predicted the fed funds rate to rebound to 4.0% by late 2010. Subsequent forecasts were similarly early.

According to the CME Fed Watch, the probability of a 25 bps Fed rate hike on December 14 is now over 70%. I expect the December 14 hike to occur as the Fed has been prepping the market for one 25 bps hike for months; however–similar to what I asserted last year–I do not believe this rate hike will signal the beginning of a new rate hike cycle. Rather, the timing of the Fed’s third rate hike will again be data-dependent (more on that below). Fed funds futures currently peg the Fed’s third rate hike to not occur until more than a year from now, i,e. at the December 13, 2017 FOMC meeting. This is the most likely timing for the third rate hike, for the following reasons:

1. U.S. households remain in “deleveraging” mode. Haunted by the 2008-09 global financial crisis, record amounts of student loans outstanding (currently at $1.3 trillion), and a shorter runway to retirement age and lower income prospects, U.S. consumer spending growth since the bottom of the 2008-09 global financial crisis has been relatively tepid (see Figure 1 below), despite ongoing improvements in the U.S. labor market;

Fig1PCE.png

2. The developed world & China are still mired by deflationary pressures. While the Fed had not been shy about hiking rates ahead of other central banks in previous tightening cycles, the fact that all of the world’s major central banks–with the exception of the Fed–are still in major easing cycles means the Fed has no choice but to halt after its December 14, 2016 hike. Even the Bank of England–which was expected to be the first major central bank to hike rates–was forced to reverse its stance and renew its quantitative easing policy as UK policymakers succumbs to the rise of populism. In a world still mired by deflationary pressures, the U.S. could easily succumb to another deflationary cycle if the Fed prematurely adopts a hawkish stance;

3. The Fed is no longer in denial and finally recognizes the uniqueness of the 2008-09 deleveraging cycle that is still with us today. In a June 3, 2016 speech (titled “Reflections on the Current Monetary Policy Environment“), Chicago Fed President Charles Evans asserted why this isn’t a normal recovery cycle and because of that, argued why the Fed should foster a “high-pressure” economy (characterized by a tight labor market and sustained inflation above 2%) in order to ward off downside risks in both economic growth and inflation. Quoting President Evans: “I view risk-management issues to be of great importance today. As I noted earlier, I still see the risks as weighted to the downside for both my growth and inflation outlooks … So I still judge that risk-management arguments continue to favor providing more accommodation than usual to deliver an extra boost to aggregate demand … One can advance risk-management arguments further and come up with a reasonable case for holding off increasing the funds rate for much longer, namely, until core inflation actually gets to 2 percent on a sustainable basis.

President Evans’ speech was followed by similar dovish sentiment expressed by Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo in a September 9, 2016 CNBC interview, Fed Governor Lael Brainard in a September 12, 2016 speech at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, as well as the September 2016 FOMC minutes. Finally, Fed Chair Janet Yellen explored the potential benefits of running a “high-pressure economy” after a deep recession in her October 14, 2016 speech at a recent conference sponsored by the Boston Fed. Quoting Chair Yellen:

If we assume that hysteresis is in fact present to some degree after deep recessions, the natural next question is to ask whether it might be possible to reverse these adverse supply-side effects by temporarily running a “high-pressure economy,” with robust aggregate demand and a tight labor market. One can certainly identify plausible ways in which this might occur. Increased business sales would almost certainly raise the productive capacity of the economy by encouraging additional capital spending, especially if accompanied by reduced uncertainty about future prospects. In addition, a tight labor market might draw in potential workers who would otherwise sit on the sidelines and encourage job-to-job transitions that could also lead to more-efficient–and, hence, more-productive–job matches. Finally, albeit more speculatively, strong demand could potentially yield significant productivity gains by, among other things, prompting higher levels of research and development spending and increasing the incentives to start new, innovative businesses.

Bottom line: The Fed continues to back off from committing to an official tightening schedule. After the December 14, 2016 rate hike, probability suggests the next rate hike to not occur until the December 13, 2017 FOMC meeting. Until the year-over-year PCE core rate rises to and maintains a rate of 2.0% or over, the Fed will not recommit to a new rate hike cycle. This also paves the way for higher U.S. inflation; as such, clients should continue to underweight U.S. long-duration Treasuries and overweight gold.

Italy’s NPLs Still the Global Banking System’s Weakest Link

I last discussed the vulnerabilities in the Italian banking system in our April 12, 2016 blog post (“Strengthening the Global Banking System’s Weakest Link“), where I asserted that–given its global inter-connectivity  today–the world’s financial system can only be as strong as its weakest link. Typically, a liquidity or solvency issue can linger on indefinitely, simply due to the absence of external shocks or because the overall global economy is doing well. In the case of the current NPL issues with the Italian banking system, an effort in January to encourage sales of NPLs by providing government-backed guarantees unfortunately attracted investors’ attention to Italian banks’ NPL issues. When we last covered this issue three months ago, Italian banking stocks were “only” down 20% YTD; today, they are collectively down by 55% YTD.

The vulnerability of the Italian banking system–and by extension, that of the Western European banking system–has come under increased scrutiny over the last several months, exacerbated by: 1) the unexpected, ongoing deflationary malaise in much of the developed world; the May 2016 Italian inflation reading was -0.3% year-over-year, worse than market expectations of -0.2%. June 2016 Italian inflation is expected to hit -0.4% year-over-year, resulting in six straight months of deflationary readings, 2) the dramatic flattening and downshift of the Western European yield curve; globally, nearly US$12 trillion of government bonds now have negative yields, and 3) an unexpected vote for “Brexit,” equivalent to a negative growth shock within the EU, as well as heightened political and economic uncertainty.

The Italian banking system in particular is saddled with 360 billion euros of NPLs, equivalent to about one-third of all of the Euro Zone’s NPLs. Moreover–as efforts since January have demonstrated–a concerted sales effort in NPLs in Europe is not a simple task. Firstly, EU rules explicitly ban the use of government-backed guarantees to cushion NPL losses. Secondly, the average restructuring period for Italian bad loans is an abnormally long 8 years; a quarter of cases take 12 years. Finally, the European market for NPLs is small and underdeveloped relative to the overall stock of NPLs in the banking system. In other words, the market for selling Italian NPLs is relatively small, and is almost non-existent without government-backed guarantees (e.g. A proposal by Apollo to purchase 3.5 billion euros of NPLs held by Italian bank Carige back in March made no progress). Italy’s NPL issues are especially concerning given the lack of core profitability of the Italian banking system (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1: Return on Regulatory Capital of European Banks by Country – June 2015 (source: EBA, Goldman Sachs)

returnoncapitalEBA

It is generally agreed upon that an Italian government-led recapitalization of 40 billion euros into some of Italy’s largest banks (Unicredit, BMPS, and Intesa, for example) would be adequate to resolve the Italian NPL issue, as long as Euro area growth re-accelerates; at the very least, the immediate probability of a Euro-wide banking contagion would be reduced by an order of magnitude. There are two real obstacles to this “happy scenario,” however: 1) the EU, backed by Germany, is resistant to any Italian government-led efforts to recapitalize the banks at no cost to Italian bank debt holders, as this directly goes against EU rules. Any attempt to “bail-in” Italian banks would increase contagion risks among all of EU banks as both depositors and debt holders will likely take their capital and flee to either the U.S. or other safe haven asset classes, such as gold, and 2) Italian Prime Minster Matteo Renzi has promised to resign if he loses the constitutional referendum to be held in October. Recent opinion polls suggest Renzi’s campaign will fall short; this will likely lead to significant Italian and EU-wide instability given the surge of the populist Five Star Movement in recent opinion polls. Seen in this light, the fragility of the Italian banking system is an ongoing cause for concern.

Leading Indicators Suggest Further Upside in Global Risk Asset Prices

Note: I know many of you reading this are either overweight cash or net short U.S. equities. Please don’t shoot the messenger: I am not personally biased to the upside – I am merely channeling what my models are telling me, and they are telling me to stay bullish.

In my January 31, 2016 newsletter, I switched from a generally neutral to a bullish position on global risk assets. Specifically:

  • For U.S. equities, I switched from a “slightly bullish” to a “bullish” position (after switching from a “neutral” to a “slightly bullish” stance on the evening of January 7th);
  • For international developed equities, a shift from “neutral” to “bullish”;
  • For emerging market equities, a shift from “neutral” to “slightly bullish”; and
  • For global REITs, a shift from “neutral” to “bullish.”

My bullish tilt on global risk assets at the time was primarily based on the following reasons:

  1. A severely oversold condition in U.S. equities, with several of my technical indicators hitting oversold levels similar to where they were during the September 1981, October 1987, October 1990, and September 1998 bottoms;
  2. Significant support coming from both my primary and secondary domestic liquidity indicators, such as the relative steepness of the U.S. yield curve, the Fed’s renewed easing bias in the aftermath of the December 16, 2015 rate hike, and a sustained +7.5% to +8.0% growth in U.S. commercial bank lending;
  3. Tremendous bearish sentiment among second-tier and retail investors (which is bullish from a contrarian standpoint), including a spike in NYSE short interest, a spike in the AUM of Rydex’s bear funds, and several (second-tier) bank analysts making absurd price level predictions on oil and global risk assets (e.g. Standard Chartered’s call for $10 oil and RBS’ “advice” to clients to “sell everything”).

In a subsequent blog post on February 10, 2016 (“Leading Indicators Suggest a Stabilization in Global Risk Asset Prices“), I followed up on my bullish January 31st prognostications with one more bullish indicator; i.e. the strengthening readings of our proprietary CBGDI (“CB Capital Global Diffusion Index”) indicator which “suggests–at the very least–a stabilization, if not an immediate rally, in both global equity and oil prices.

I have previously discussed the construction and implication of the CBGDI’s readings in many of our weekly newsletters and blog entries. The last two times I discussed the CBGDI in this blog was on May 15, 2015 (“Leading Indicators Suggest Lower U.S. Treasury Rates“) and on February 10, 2016 (“Leading Indicators Suggest a Stabilization in Global Risk Asset Prices“).

To recap, the CBGDI is a global leading indicator which we construct by aggregating and equal-weighting the OECD-constructed leading indicators for 29 major countries, including non-OECD members such as China, Brazil, Turkey, India, Indonesia, and Russia. Moreover, the CBGDI has historically led the MSCI All-Country World Index and WTI crude oil prices since November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Historically, the rate of change (i.e. the 2nd derivative) of the CBGDI has led WTI crude oil prices by three months with an R-squared of 30%; and has led or correlated with the MSCI All-Country World Index, with an R-squared of over 40% (which is expected as local stock prices is typically a component of the OECD leading indicators).

The latest reading of the CBGDI has continued to improve upon the readings which we discussed several months ago (see Figure 1 below)–just 10 days after we turned bullish on global risk assets. Both the 1st and the 2nd derivatives of the CBGDI have continued to climb and are still in (slight) uptrends, suggesting a stabilization and in some cases, a re-acceleration (e.g. the economies of South Korea, New Zealand, Spain, and India) in global economic activity. So don’t shoot the messenger–but it appears that the rally in global risk assets coming out of the late-January-to-early-February bottom still has more room to run.

CBGDIMay2016

Strengthening the Global Banking System’s Weakest Link

As I discussed in my most recent newsletter (please email me to request a copy) and in my February 19, 2016 Forbes column (“Shares Of Global Banks Are Too Cheap To Ignore“), I remain constructive on shares of U.S. financial companies, despite (or even because of) their recent underperformance. More specifically, I asserted that much of the current fears (e.g. impact of rising energy-related defaults and ongoing litigation costs & financial penalties related to conduct leading up to the 2008-09 global financial crisis) surrounding U.S. and global financial stocks are overblown.

I also asserted that share prices of global financial companies in 2016 will mostly be driven by the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy, as a significant portion of U.S. banks’ revenues is driven by “net interest income,” i.e. the traditional role of banks’ borrowing short and lending long. In Wells Fargo’s case, net interest income makes up more than 50% of the firm’s revenue. If the Fed embarks on a renewed hiking campaign and the U.S. yield curve flattens, then U.S. banks’ margins will be hit, which in turn will depress their share prices.

Fortunately, the U.S. yield curve is still very far away from flattening. E.g. As of this writing, the spread between the 10- and the 1-year Treasury rate stands at 1.27%. Just as important, the CME Fed Watch indicator does not suggest a rate hike until the FOMC’s December 21, 2016 meeting at the earliest. Moreover–despite the recent underperformance of U.S./global financial stocks–credit risk for the global financial sector remains relatively and historically low; in fact, as computed by S&P Global Market Intelligence, the implied credit risk within the global financial sector is actually the lowest out of all ten major S&P global sectors.

As financial history and the experience of the 2008-09 global financial crisis have demonstrated, however, the global financial system is only as strong as its weakest links; and it is these “weakest links” that investors have recently focused on. More specifically, the slow pace of general and banking reforms within the Euro Zone, particularly the relatively high level of nonperforming loans in the Italian banking sector, is raising the specter of counter-party risks and resulting in a flight of capital away from Italian/European financial stocks (e.g. UniCredit is down 37% YTD, Intesa down 26%, and Banco Popolare down 38%), and to a lesser extent, U.S. financial stocks.

Figure 1: Italian Banks Have Relatively High NPL Ratios (as of June 2015)

europenpls

The Italian banking system is saddled with about 360 billion euros of NPLs, making up about one-third of the Euro Zone’s total NPLs (although 50% of it has already been provisioned). With Italian banking stocks down nearly 20% YTD (and down 25% over the last 12 months), Italian policymakers are now being forced to act to shore up the country’s bank balance sheets through sales of NPLs, equity raises, and accelerating the write-off of NPLs. An effort in January to encourage sales of NPLs by providing government-backed guarantees gained little traction (and unfortunately attracted investors’ attention to Italian banks’ NPL problem), as Italian policymakers could not agree on how the plan would be implemented, especially in light of European rules that explicitly ban state aid to failing companies.

So far this week, Italian policymakers–working in conjunction with banks, pension funds, and insurers–have drawn up plans for a 5 billion euro bailout fund (dubbed “Atlante”) to purchase NPLs and/or to inject capital into ailing banks. Investors’ initial responses have ranged from skeptical to condescending, given the relatively small size of the fund and the lack of details surrounding its implementation. Bottom line: Italian/European policymakers, in conjunction with the private sector, will need to work harder to create a more comprehensive and workable solution to reduce NPLs in the Italian banking system. Until this happens, the current rally in U.S./global financial stocks from their early February lows will remain precarious.

U.S. Consumer Spending Yet to Overheat: Fed to Pause

According to the CME Fed Watch, the chance of a Fed rate hike this Wednesday is virtually zero. The reasons for the Fed to “stand pat” have been well recited but here they are again: 1) ongoing, elevated global systemic/slowdown risks due to the recent decline in global financial stocks, a Chinese economic slowdown, and chronically low oil prices resulting in fears of higher corporate defaults, 2) despite a recent pick-up in the U.S. core inflation rate (the 12-month change in the January core CPI is at 2.2%), the Fed’s preferred measure of core inflation, i.e. the 12-month change in the core PCE, remains tolerable at 1.7%, and 3) Since the late 1990s, the world’s developed economies have mostly grappled (unsuccessfully) with the specter of deflation; e.g. over the last 3 years, the Bank of Japan expanded its monetary base by 173%, and yet, the country is still struggling to achieve its target inflation rate of 2% (Japan’s January core CPI was flat year-over-year). As such, the Fed should err on the side of caution and back off from its recent rate hike campaign.

As of today, the CME Fed Watch is suggesting 50/50 odds of a 25 basis point rate hike at the Fed’s June 15 meeting. Historically, the Fed has only hiked when the odds rise to more than 60/40, and I believe this is the case here. Many things could change from now to June 15; however, given: 1) lingering fears over a Chinese slowdown and the loss of Chinese FOREX reserves, and 2) the fact that core PCE readings have not yet registered a +2.0% reading (I need the year-over-year change in the core PCE to sustain a level of over +2.0% for many months before I am convinced that inflation is a problem), I remain of the opinion that the next rate hike will mostly likely occur at the FOMC’s September 21 meeting.

Finally–despite an ongoing rise in U.S. employment levels (see Figure 1 below)–both U.S. wage growth (see Figure 2 below) and consumer spending growth (See Figure 3 below) remain anemic. Note that both U.S. wage growth and consumer spending growth do not “turn on a dime”; this means that–until or unless we witness a sustained rise in both U.S. wage and consumer spending growth–the Fed should err on the side of caution and back off on its rate hike campaign. At the earliest, this will mean a 25 basis point hike at the FOMC’s September 21 meeting.

USemployment

Figure 2: Nominal Wage Growth Remains Below Target Despite Year-end 2015 Push

 

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PCEgrowth

Leading Indicators Suggest a Stabilization in Global Risk Asset Prices

Even as the vast majority of analysts stayed bullish on the global economy and global risk assets early last year, I began to turn bearish for a variety of reasons, including: 1) global liquidity, as measured by the amount of US$ circulating freely in the global financial system, continued to weaken, 2) valuations in U.S. equities were at the 95th percentile of all readings dating back to the late 1970s, as measured on a P/B and P/E basis, 3) U.S. corporate profit margins were already at 50-year highs, while U.S. corporate profits as a percentage of U.S. GDP was at a high not seen since 1929, 4) U.S. corporate earnings growth, ex. energy, were beginning to decelerate, and 5) our proprietary leading indicator, the CB Capital Global Diffusion Index (“CBGDI”) was indicating a global economic slowdown, as well as a pullback in global equity and oil prices.

I have previously discussed the construction and implication of the CBGDI’s latest readings in many of our weekly newsletters, and last discussed it in this blog on May 15, 2015 (“Leading Indicators Suggest Lower U.S. Treasury Rates“). Specifically, the CBGDI is a global leading indicator which we construct by aggregating and equal-weighting the OECD leading indicators for 29 major countries, including non-OECD members such as China, Brazil, Turkey, India, Indonesia, and Russia. The CBGDI has also historically led the MSCI All-Country World Index and WTI crude oil prices since November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Historically, the rate of change (i.e. the 2nd derivative) of the CBGDI has led WTI crude oil prices by three months with an R-squared of 30%, while leading the MSCI All-Country World Index slightly, with an R-squared of over 40% (naturally as stock prices is typically one component of the OECD leading indicators).

In my May 15, 2015 blog entry, I also stated:

Our own studies suggest the global economy has been slowing down significantly since the 2nd half of last year [i.e. 2014]; more importantly, the negative momentum has not abated much … the 2nd derivative of the CBGDI has gotten weaker. It also extended its decline below the 1st derivative, which in the past has led to a slowdown or even a major downturn in the global economy, including a downturn in global asset prices.”

The rest is history, as they say.

Recent readings of the CBGDI, however, paint a much brighter picture. Firstly, both the 1st and 2nd derivatives of the CBGDI have stabilized and are now increasing. Secondly, both global equity prices (i.e. the MSCI All-Country World Index) and oil prices have declined to levels that are indicative of a more severe slowdown than the CBGDI readings imply (see Figure 1 below). To me, the latest readings of the CBGDI suggests–at the very least–a stabilization, if not an immediate rally, in both global equity and oil prices.

CBGDIDecember2015