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Macro And Credit - Buckling

Watching with interest the slowly grind higher in US interest rates with some weakening signs coming from US economic data such as the US trade deficit in goods getting spanked with orders for larger domestic appliances and other durable goods falling by a cool 3.7% from the month before, led by a hard drop in vehicle demand, when it came to choosing our title analogy for this week's conversation we reminded ourselves of "buckling" being a mathematical instability that leads to a failure mode. When a structure is subjected to compressive stress, buckling may occur. Buckling is characterized by a sudden sideways deflection of a structural member. This may occur even though the stresses that develop in the structure are well below those needed to cause failure of the material of which the structure is composed. As an applied load is increased (US interest rate hikes) on a member, such as a column, it will ultimately become large enough to cause the member to become unstable and it is said to have buckled. Further loading will cause significant and somewhat unpredictable deformations, possibly leading to complete loss of the member's load-carrying capacity. If the deformations that occur after buckling do not cause the complete collapse of that member, the member will continue to support the load that caused it to buckle. If the buckled member is part of a larger assemblage of components such as a building, any load applied to the buckled part of the structure beyond that which caused the member to buckle will be redistributed within the structure. In a mathematical sense, buckling is a bifurcation in the solution to the equations of static equilibrium. At a certain point, under an increasing load, any further load is able to be sustained in one of two states of equilibrium: a purely compressed state (with no lateral deviation) or a laterally-deformed state. Obviously we thing that financial markets have reached a bifurcation point and we have yet to see how the buckle of rising interest rates will be redistributed within the complex structures without leading to some renewed avalanche in some parts of the markets.
 
In this week's conversation, we would like to look at the vulnerability of equities and credit markets to a more hawkish tone of the Fed which would lead to more aggressive rate hikes should the "Big Bad Wolf" aka inflation continue to rear its ugly head.  
 
Synopsis:
  • Macro and Credit - Hike it till you break it
  • Final chart - Afraid of buckling? Watch credit availability
In our March 2017 conversation entitled "The Endless Summer" we concluded our missive at the time asking ourselves how many hikes it would take before the Fed finally breaks something. Given the arrival of a new Fed "sheriff" in town one might wonder if the pace will be as gradual as it seems should the Fed feels it is falling behind the curves when it comes the "Big Bad Wolf" aka inflation and current loose financial conditions. As we pointed out in our recent conversations the recent uptick in inflation coincided with a sharp sell-off in equities. Sure, one would point out to us that correlation doesn't mean causation, but, it certainly felt like the very crowded short-volatility complex was looking for a match that triggered the explosion and for some their ultimate demise.  The U.S. Average Hourly Earnings triggered the "buckling" as it brought back the fear in the markets of the return of the Big Bad Wolf aka "inflation".  For some it seems like us, it seems the "Big Bad Wolf" has already blown apart the "short vol" pig's house which was made of straw. If indeed the short-vol house was made of straw we wonder if the pig's equities markets house is made of sticks or and if the pig's credit markets house is made of bricks. The difficulty for the Fed in the current environment is the velocity of both the rates rise and inflation, because if indeed the Fed hike rates too quickly then it will trigger some other avalanches down the capital structure (short-vol complex being the equity tranche or first loss piece of the capital structure we think). If inflation and growth rise well above trend, then obviously the Fed will be under tremendous pressure to accelerate its normalization process. It is a very difficult balancing act.
 
When it comes to the bounce back for equities following the short-vol avalanche, which could have been possibly triggered by the recent uptick of inflation, we read with interest Deutsche Bank's Asset Allocation note from the 23rd of February entitled "Inflation and Equities" with the long summary below:
"The recent uptick in inflation coincided with a sharp correction in equities
Whether this was cause and effect is debatable for a variety of reasons and around half the correction reversed quickly (Stretched Consensus Positioning, Jan 31 2018; An Update On The Unwind, Feb 12 2018). Nonetheless, late in the business cycle with a tight labor market, strong growth, a lower dollar, higher oil prices and a fading of one off factors, all point to inflation moving up. What does higher inflation mean for equities? We discuss five key questions.
Is inflation bad for margins and earnings? Historically, higher inflation has been associated with higher margins and strong earnings growth
■ Conceptually, higher inflation is ambiguous. From a pricing vs cost perspective, whether higher inflation leads to higher or lower margins depends on the relative strengths of price vs wage and other input cost inflation. It depends on the relative importance of variable vs fixed costs. And on the extent to which corporates can increase productivity in response to cost pressures. It is notable that while markets seem to have been surprised by the recent uptick in wage inflation, corporates have been noting it for at least a year. Finally, inflation does not occur in a vacuum. The drivers of higher inflation matter and when it reflects strong growth, it implies not only higher sales but operating leverage from fixed costs can raise margins and amplify the impact on earnings.
Historically, the empirical evidence is unambiguous. Higher inflation was clearly associated with higher margins and strong earnings growth.
Does higher inflation mean lower equity multiples? By how much? A 1 pp rise in inflation compresses equity multiples by 1 point or a decline in prices of around 5% from recent pre-correction levels
■ The correlation between bond yields and equities depends on the driver: inflation (-) or real rates (+). Contrary to popular notions that higher bond yields mean lower equities, the historical relationship between bond yields and equities has been ambiguous (Long Cycles In The Bond-Equity Correlation, May 2014). Instead, the impact of higher yields on equities depends on whether they reflect higher inflation (-) which has always been negative for equities; or whether higher yields reflect higher real rates (+) which have always been positive for equities until real rates reached very high levels (greater than 4%--seen only once during the Volcker disinflation) (Do Higher Rates Mean Lower Equity Multiples? Sep 2014).
■ Why is higher inflation negative for equity valuations? When inflation moves up, the hurdle rate for all nominal investments moves up and in turn bond yields and earnings yields (inverse of the equity multiple) move up.
■ A 1pp rise in inflation compresses multiples by 1 point. A majority (70%) of the historical variation in the S&P 500 multiple is explained by its drivers: earnings/normalized levels (-); payouts (+); rates broken up into inflation (-) and real rates (+); and macro vol (-). Our estimates imply that a 1pp rise in inflation lowers the equity multiple by 1 point or a 5% decline in prices from the recent peak. Our house view and the consensus sees a somewhat smaller rise in inflation over the next 2 years. These ranges of increases in inflation imply a modest pullback in equities that would put it within the bands of normal 3-5% pullbacks that have historically occurred every 2-3 months.
Is the inflection in inflation a leading indicator of the end of the cycle? How long is the lead? On average 3 years, but the Fed’s reaction is key
With an average correction in equities of 21% around recessions, the timing of the next one is obviously key. If the recent uptick marks the typical mid- to latecycle inflection up in inflation, how long after did the next recession typically occur? On average 3 years, which would put it in late 2020. But the timing is likely determined critically by the Fed’s reaction. Historically, a Fed rate-hiking cycle preceded most recessions since World War II, with recessions occurring only after the Fed moved rates into contractionary territory. Arguably the Fed did this only after it was convinced the economy was overheating and it continued hiking until the economy slowed sufficiently or went into recession. At the current juncture, core inflation has remained below the Fed’s target of 2% for the last 10 years and several Fed officials have argued for symmetry in inflation outcomes around the target, i.e., to tolerate inflation above 2%. It is thus likely that the Fed will welcome the rise in inflation for now and simply stick to its current guidance, possibly moving it up modestly.
How high will inflation go? If inflation expectations remain range bound, core PCE inflation will stay within its narrow band of 1-2.3% in which it has been for the last 23 years
Outside the Great Inflation of 1968-1995, core PCE inflation has remained in a remarkably narrow band (Six Myths About Inflation, Oct 2017). The period since 1996 encompassed 3 business cycles that saw unemployment fluctuate between 3.8% and 10%; the dollar rise and fall by 40% more than once; oil prices rise 7-fold and almost completely reverse. Yet inflation remained in a narrow band unusual for an economic time series. Indeed, with a standard deviation of 35 bps, much of the range of variation in inflation since 1996 cannot be differentiated from the normal noise inherent in macro data.
The stability of inflation across large business- dollar- and oil-cycles in our view reflects the stability of inflation expectations which are the only driver of inflation over the long run. Inflation expectations have been stable since the mid-1990s, fluctuating for most of the last 23 years in a tight 50bps range and for most of it in an even narrower 30bps range. Following the dollar and oil shocks of 2014-2015, inflation expectations fell out of and are still 20bps below this range and 50bps below average. Absent large unexpected and persistent shocks, inflation expectations evolve slowly. It has in fact been difficult for policy makers to effect changes in inflation expectations as the recent experience of Japan and  the 10-year miss on the core PCE inflation target in the US illustrate (Six Myths About Inflation, Oct 2017).
What about all the stimulus? The impact of the stimulus will follow a pickup in growth with long lags (1½ years)
It is well known that inflation responds with long lags to growth, a tightening labor market and the dollar. Consider that the correlation between real GDP growth and core CPI inflation is a modest positive 5%. But when GDP growth is lagged by 6 quarters, the correlation jumps to a much stronger 80%. The lagged relationship implies that a sustained 1pp increase in GDP growth raises core inflation by 20bps after 1½ years. Our house forecast for GDP growth which is above consensus implies GDP growth of near 3% and core inflation peaking around 2.2% in 2020.
Growth outcomes significantly above our house view would need to materialize and sustain to raise inflation above and outside the band of the last 23 years. Moreover there would be plenty of lead time with growth needing to sustain at high levels for a prolonged period (1½ years) before it moved inflation up."  - source Deutsche Bank
As we repeated in numerous conversation, for a bear market to materialize you would need a significant pick-up in inflation for your "buckling" to occur and to lead to a significant repricing of risky asset prices such as equities and US High Yield. But what is very interesting to us is that the buildup in the trade war rhetoric coming from the US could be a harbinger for higher inflation down the line given that companies would most likely increase their prices with rising import prices that would be passed on already stretched consumers thanks to solid use of the credit cart (nonrevolving credit). 
 
In our recent conversation "Bracket creep", which describes the process by which inflation pushes wages and salaries into higher tax brackets, leading to a fiscal drag situation, we indicated that with declining productivity and quality with wages pressure building up, this could mean companies, in order to maintain their profit margins would need to increase their prices. To repeat ourselves "Protectionism", in our view, is inherently inflationary in nature. 
 
To preserve corporate margins, output prices will need to rise, that simple, and it is already happening. This can have a significant impact on earnings particularly when the S&P 500 Net Income Margins LTM is at close to record levels as indicated in Deutsche Bank's note:
"Inflation and earnings
Is inflation bad for margins and earnings? Historically, higher inflation has been associated with higher margins and strong earnings growth
Conceptually, higher inflation is ambiguous. From a pricing vs cost perspective, whether higher inflation leads to higher or lower margins depends on the relative strengths of price vs wage and other input cost inflation. It depends on the relative importance of variable vs fixed costs. And on the extent to which corporates can increase productivity in response to cost pressures. It is notable that while markets seem to have been surprised by the recent uptick in wage inflation, corporates have been noting it for at least a year. Finally, inflation does not occur in a vacuum. The drivers of higher inflation matter and when it reflects strong growth, it implies not only higher sales but operating leverage from fixed costs can raise margins and amplify the impact on earnings.
Historically, the empirical evidence is unambiguous. Higher inflation was clearly associated with higher margins and strong earnings growth.
- source Deutsche Bank
 
With the S&P 500 Net Income Margins LTM close to record levels and with the recent rise in prices operated by companies recently, it remains to be seen how long can margin levels remain this elevated. Sure, the fiscal boost provided by the US government should provide additional support yet the big question for us is relative to the US consumer and its sensitivity to rising prices as we discussed in the final point of our conversation "Harmonic tremor". Have we seen peak "Consumer confidence" and peak PMIs recently? One thing for certain is that Citigroup’s US Economic Surprise Index (CESIUSD Index) as an indicator of economic momentum has started to "buckle" recently. There is a clear relationship between the CITI's Economic Surprise Index and the Fed's monetary policy. When the Fed is in tightening mode, good news such as rising inflation expectations is generally seen as bad news. In spread terms, only high yield is sensitive to macro surprises. Moreover, the response of high yield spreads to macro surprises is "monotonic" in ratings: the lower the rating, the stronger the response. In our conversation "A shot across the bows", we indicated the following when it comes the Citi Economic Surprise Index (CESI). It could potentially indicate that economic fundamentals are trading ahead of themselves and could portend some credit spreads widening in the near future given there is a reasonably strong relationship between the inverse of Citigroup Economic Surprise Index and both the IG CDX and HY CDX. So all in all, you want to watch what the CESI does in the coming weeks and months. 
 
But moving back to the impact of the "Big Bad Wolf" aka inflation on equity multiples, we read with interest as well the other part of Deutsche Bank's report on the impact inflation can have:
"Inflation and equity multiples
Does higher inflation mean lower equity multiples? By how much? A 1 pp rise in inflation compresses equity multiples by 1 point or a decline in prices of around 5% from recent pre-correction levels
■ The correlation between bond yields and equities depends on the driver: inflation (-) or real rates (+). Contrary to popular notions that higher bond yields mean lower equities, the historical relationship between bond yields and equities has been ambiguous (Long Cycles In The Bond-Equity Correlation, May 2014). Instead, the impact of higher yields on equities depends on whether they reflect higher inflation (-) which has always been negative for equities; or whether higher yields reflect higher real rates (+) which have always been positive for equities until real rates reached very high levels (greater than 4%--seen only once during the Volcker disinflation) (Do Higher Rates Mean Lower Equity Multiples? Sep 2014).
Why is higher inflation negative for equity valuations? When inflation moves up, the hurdle rate for all nominal investments moves up and in turn bond yields and earnings yields (inverse of the equity multiple) move up.
■ A 1pp rise in inflation compresses multiples by 1 point. A majority (70%) of the historical variation in the S&P 500 multiple is explained by its drivers: earnings/normalized levels (-); payouts (+); rates broken up into inflation (-) and real rates (+); and macro vol (-). Our estimates imply that a 1pp rise in inflation lowers the equity multiple by 1 point or a 5% decline in prices from the recent peak. Our house view and the consensus sees a somewhat smaller rise in inflation over the next 2 years. These ranges of increases in inflation imply a modest pullback in equities that would put it within the bands of normal 3-5% pullbacks that have historically occurred every 2-3 months.
- source Deutsche Bank
 
Obviously from a "buckling" perspective the big question is whether higher yields reflect higher real rates (+) which have always been positive for equities until real rates reached very high levels, or, are they reflecting a higher inflation risk, in which case the repricing could be more severe as the Fed would probably step up on its hiking gear. For the positive momentum to hold and goldilocks environment to continue, you would need inflation and growth not running too hot, so that the Fed can gradually hike rather than stepping up its hiking pace. This is as well clearly highlighted by Charlie Bilello from Pension Partners in his blog post from the 15th of February entitled "Inflation, deflation and stock returns".
 
Again, it is a matter of "velocity" in the movement. An exogenous factor such as a geopolitical event that would trigger a sudden and rapid rise in oil prices would of course upset the situation and be much more negative for equities as we saw with the huge rise in oil prices prior to the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008.
 
One might therefore rightly ask if indeed inflation could be a leading indicator for recession. This is also a point which has been discussed in Deutsche Bank's very interesting note:
"Inflation as a leading indicator of recession
Is the inflection in inflation a leading indicator of the end of the cycle? How long is the lead? On average 3 years, but the Fed’s reaction is key
With an average correction in equities of 21% around recessions, the timing of the next one is obviously key. If the recent uptick marks the typical mid- to latecycle inflection up in inflation, how long after did the next recession typically occur? On average 3 years, which would put it in late 2020. But the timing is likely determined critically by the Fed’s reaction. Historically, a Fed rate-hiking cycle preceded most recessions since World War II, with recessions occurring only after the Fed moved rates into contractionary territory. Arguably the Fed did this only after it was convinced the economy was overheating and it continued hiking until the economy slowed sufficiently or went into recession. At the current juncture, core inflation has remained below the Fed’s target of 2% for the last 10 years and several Fed officials have argued for symmetry in inflation outcomes around the target, i.e., to tolerate inflation above 2%. It is thus likely that the Fed will welcome the rise in inflation for now and simply stick to its current guidance, possibly moving it up modestly.
- source Deutsche Bank
 
It is most likely that the Fed's hiking process was due to its fear of not being behind the curve when it comes to rising inflation. Yet with a yield curve flattening and loose financial conditions in conjunction with renewed fear of a trade war that would entail pricing pressure and imported inflation with a bear market in the US dollar, there is indeed a big risk in having the Fed having to move at a more rapid pace than it would like to. The balancing act of the Fed is incredibly difficult but, it boast a first mover advantage other the likes of the ECB and the Bank of Japan. Volatility might have been repressed but in all honesty, it is in Europe where the repression has been the most acute as it can be seen in government bond yields.
 
The big question surrounding the potential lethality of the "Big Bad Wolf" aka inflation lies in the velocity of inflation expectations. On that specific point, Deutsche Bank gives us additional food for thoughts in their lengthy note:
"Inflation and inflation expectations
How high will inflation go? If inflation expectations remain range bound, core PCE inflation will stay within its narrow band of 1-2.3% in which it has been for the last 23 years
■ Outside the Great Inflation of 1968-1995, core PCE inflation has remained in a remarkably narrow band (Six Myths About Inflation, Oct 2017). The period since 1996 encompassed 3 business cycles that saw unemployment fluctuate between 3.8% and 10%; the dollar rise and fall by 40% more than once; oil prices rise 7-fold and almost completely reverse. Yet inflation remained in a narrow band unusual for an economic time series. Indeed, with a standard deviation of 35 bps, much of the range of variation in inflation since 1996 cannot be differentiated from the normal noise inherent in macro data.
■ The stability of inflation across large business- dollar- and oil-cycles in our view reflects the stability of inflation expectations which are the only driver of inflation over the long run. Inflation expectations have been stable since the mid-1990s, fluctuating for most of the last 23 years in a tight 50bps range and for most of it in an even narrower 30bps range. Following the dollar and oil shocks of 2014-2015, inflation expectations fell out of and are still 20bps below this range and 50bps below average. Absent large unexpected and persistent shocks, inflation expectations evolve slowly. It has in fact been difficult for policy makers to effect changes in inflation expectations as the recent experience of Japan and the 10-year miss on the core PCE inflation target in the US illustrate (Six Myths About Inflation, Oct 2017).
- source Deutsche Bank
 
As long as growth and inflation doesn't run not too hot, the goldilocks environment could continue to hold for some months provided, as we mentioned above there is no exogenous factor from a geopolitical point of view coming into play which would trigger an acceleration in oil prices. Though, in similar fashion to volatility, the game can continue to be played provided "implicit inflation" or "inflation expectations" remain below "realized" inflation. In similar fashion to the demise of the short-vol trade, if there is a change in the 23 years narrative and suddenly "realized" inflation is above "expectations" then obviously this would be another grain of sand that could trigger some new avalanches in financial markets. We are not there yet we think.
 
Finally in our final chart below, given the late stage of the credit game, we think it is becoming essential to track any changes in credit availability in the months ahead given our loose financial conditions have been and the flattening of the US yield curve.
 
  • Final chart - Afraid of buckling? Watch credit availability
We have long posited that "Credit availability" is essential and a good predictor of upcoming defaults as far as US High Yield is concerned. The most predictive variable for default rates remains credit availability and if credit availability in US dollar terms vanishes, it could portend surging defaults down the line. The quarterly Senior Loan Officer Opinion Surveys (SLOOs) published by the Fed are very important to track. The SLOOS report does a much better job of estimating defaults when they are being driven by a systemic factor, such as a turn in business cycle or an all-encompassing macro event. Tightening in credit standards in conjunction with rate hikes will eventually weight on High Yield, and we are already seeing some fund outflows in the asset class (15th consecutive week). Our final chart comes from CITI Global Economics View note from the 23rd of February entitled "How Could Equity Sell-offs Affect Global Growth" and displays US Non-financial corporations Debt Outstanding as a percentage of GDP and AAA-BBB Effective Yield Spread for Industrial Corporate Bonds (1997-2017):
"What to watch?Given that a tightening in financial conditions poses a risk to the outlook, we would monitor:
  • The durability of the sell-off: that’s rather obvious – a brief period of financial tightening is unlikely to have any material implications on the real economy.
  • Credit availability and credit spreads: given the stage of the business cycle, prospects for higher inflation, and lower monetary accommodation in advanced economies, we think credit availability and credit spreads amid high leverage across some sectors and economies are key indicators to assess whether financial conditions are starting to feed through to economic activity (Figure 6).

 

  • Sentiment measures: measures of household and business sentiment are at very high levels across most AEs. A decline in sentiment would probably be a precursor to some moderation in spending intentions, even though the relationship between consumer sentiment and real consumption appears to have declined in recent years." - source CITI
If further loading of the credit mouse trap will eventually cause significant and somewhat unpredictable deformations, possibly leading to complete loss of the member's load-carrying capacity, low recoveries and significant losses for credit investors, when it comes to assessing a potential "buckling" in the credit markets, apart from the "Big Bad Wolf" aka inflation being the enemy of volatility and leverage, credit availability is an essential part of the credit cycle.
 
Stay tuned!
 
 
 
Courtesy of Macronomy
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