At $3.2Tn, US Treasury (UST) net issuance YTD (end of June) is running at more than 3x the whole of 2019 and is more than 2x the largest annual UST issuance ever (2010). At $1.4Tn, US corporate bond issuance YTD is double the equivalent last year, and at this pace would easily surpass the largest annual issuance in 2017. According to Renaissance Capital, US IPO proceeds YTD are running at about 25% below last year’s equivalent. But taking into consideration share buybacks, which despite a decent Q1, are expected to fall by 90% going forward, according to Bank of America, net IPOs are still going to be negative this year but much less than in previous years.
Net issuance of financial assets this year is thus likely to reach record levels but so is net liquidity creation by the Fed. The two go together, hand by hand, it is almost as if, one is not possible without the other. In addition, the above trend of positive Fixed Income (FI) issuance (both rates and credit) and negative equity issuance has been a feature since the early 1980s.
For example, cumulative US equity issuance since 1946 is a ($0.5)Tn. Compare this to total liquidity added as well as issuance in USTs and corporate bonds.*
The equity issuance above includes also financial and foreign ADRs. If you strip these two out, the cumulative non-financial US equity issuance is a staggering ($7.4)Tn!
And all of this happened after 1982. Can you guess why? SEC Rule 10b-18 providing ‘safe harbor’ for share buybacks. No net buybacks before that rule, lots of buybacks after-> share count massively down. Cumulative non-financial US equity issuance peaked in 1983 and collapsed after. Here is chart for 1946-1983.
Equity issuance still lower than debt issuance but nothing like what happened after SEC Rule10B-18, 1984-2019.
Buybacks have had an enormous effect on US equity prices on an index basis. It’s not as if all other factors (fundamentals et all) don’t matter, but when the supply of a financial asset massively decreases while the demand (overall liquidity – first chart) massively increases, the price of an asset will go up regardless of what anyone thinks ‘fundamentals’ might be. People will create a narrative to justify that price increase ex post. The only objective data is demand/supply balance.
*Liquidity is measured as Shadow Banking + Traditional Banking Deposits. Issuance does not include other debt instruments (loans, mortgages) + miscellaneous financial assets. Source: Z1 Flow of Funds
Foreign selling starts to pick up also in US equities and agencies.
March broke the record for Total foreign monthly outflow.
This happened largely on the back of a record Private foreign sector outflow.
April still saw a large net foreign outflow, though not as big as March. Nevertheless, this time, the Official foreign flow reached an all-time low.
This is significant because the 12-month rolling cumulative total foreign flow in US turned negative by a large amount. This is very, very unusual.
Foreigners are still focused at the moment on selling primarily USTs.
While in the past, private foreign accounts may have bought USTs even when official foreign accounts were selling, in the last two months (April-March), private foreign money turned sellers in size. In fact, their outflows have been several times bigger than the official foreign account outflows. This most recent selling put the 12-month rolling UST private foreign flow in negative territory in March. It reached an all-time low in April. The 12-month rolling UST official foreign money flow is also close to its all-time record low, reached in November 2016.
On the US equities side, unlike in March, though, this time foreigners were net sellers. The total outflow was not that large by historical standards, but the official foreign outflow was.
Foreigners continued to buy US corporate bonds, especially official foreign money. Nothing new there.
Finally, on the agencies side, official foreign accounts were a rather unusual and large seller.
Conclusion: The continuous high level of total foreign US assets outflows in April is interesting and could herald a change in trend of previous USD inflows. We can see that by looking at the rolling 12-month data which turned negative in March and is accelerating lower. In theory, there shouldn’t have been any forced pressure on foreign accounts to exit US assets in April, as Fed/Other Central Banks swap and repo lines were already in place. If this continues, the USD may be in bigger trouble than initially thought. See here, here and here.
“General Motors Corp. filed for bankruptcy protection, got kicked off the New York Stock Exchange and out of the Dow Jones industrial average. And its stock has mostly been rising ever since. In fact, GM has been one of the hottest issues on Wall Street over the last six trading sessions, surging from 61 cents totoday’s closing price of $1.59 in the electronic pinksheets.com market – a gain of 161%. (…) As I’ve written before, there’s a universe of traders out there who love to play around with big-name stocks that end up in bankruptcy. You can’t explain the action based on any fundamentals. It’s just a minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour trading game. (…) We know how this will end. But between now and then, for some gamblers playing GM is better than a trip to Vegas.”
“GM’s stock keeps trading but it is probably worthless” Tom Petruno, Los Angeles Times, June 10, 2009
The price action in Hertz shares post-bankruptcy is quite normal (up to “Bankrupt Hertz granted approval to sell up to $1Bn in shares”, but that is another, important, story). The elevated activity of retail investors in trading the shares of bankrupt companies is a feature of this particular market. For a lot of them it ends badly, but most of them are doing it for the fun of gambling anyway.
I am not a bankruptcy expert or a bankruptcy lawyer and I have never been involved in a company restructuring (plenty of bond restructurings though). Let’s say that before Hertz, I knew nothing about bankruptcies. What I found fascinating with that recent episode, though, is that even people who should know about corporate bankruptcy (equity portfolio managers) did not know much either. I was intrigued by the Hertz case as it looked quite bizarre and indeed the price action seemed against all common sense.
As I embarked on researching the topic, it turned out that even the academic literature on this is quite scarce. Of course, there is a lot that addresses bankruptcy cases and issues but there is little on trading, valuations or performance of stocks which have entered bankruptcy. There are a few reasons for this perhaps. First, most bankrupt stocks are delisted from major exchanges before or around bankruptcy filings. Second, institutional ownership declines massively post-bankruptcy, with 90% of shares owned by retail thereafter. Third, research coverage drops as a result. And fourth, yes, the market for bankruptcy shares, it turns out, is quite inefficient, for example, very difficult to short (inability to source borrowing) and very wide bid-offer spread (all due to thin institutional involvement).
To do my research I relied extensively on two papers: 1. “Investing on Chapter 11 stocks: Trading, value, and performance” by Yuanzhi Li and Zhaodong Zhong 2. “Gambling on the market: who buys the stock of bankrupt companies?” by Luis Coelho and Richard Taffler. The below is my summary of some of the topics discussed in these as they pertain to markets.
There are quite a few misunderstandings about bankruptcy procedure. First, when companies get delisted, they don’t just disappear but continue to trade on the Pink Sheets, which is an electronic quotation system. Second, even though there are quite a few limitations, as mentioned above, trading activity is quite brisk. Third, it is quite common for prices to bounce immediately after bankruptcy announcements as institutional shareholders tend to choose to cover their shorts on the major exchanges than go through the Pink Sheets or indeed through the bankruptcy proceedings. Fourth, although in the majority of cases shareholders do get zero, there are precedents where shareholders gain, sometimes substantially, when buying the stocks immediately after bankruptcy announcements.
So, the fact that Hertz share price rose in these circumstances should not be a surprise given that the company was one of the most shorted stocks on the main exchanges for a number of years before. Moreover, it is quite common for share prices to rise immediately after declaring bankruptcy, even independent of short covering, on the back of a phenomenon called violation of APR (absolute priority rule) which occurs “when creditors are not fully satisfied before shareholders get any payments”.
There are two main reasons to do that. One is rational: there is value in buying cheap and deep out of the money call options on a company’s assets, operations, brand, etc. (some of them, some of the time, will pay off handsomely). There are examples of companies exiting bankruptcy with the original shareholders having gained from owning the shares from the day bankruptcy was officially announced.
The second reason is irrational. There is a massive non-linearity in the return: you get either zero or a lot. And who doesn’t like a cheap lottery ticket! The average price of bankrupt company shares is actually around $2 (yes, Hertz is well within that price range at the moment) in the month immediately post-bankruptcy, which to a lot of retail investors, looks, yes, irrationally, cheap.
“The human propensity to gamble seems to be able, at least partially, to explain why stocks of bankrupt firms continue to be actively traded by retail investor even after the formal announcement of bankruptcy.”
But don’t be deluded. There is only an ‘illusory profit opportunity’. The average return on holding the shares of bankrupt companies into the actual process of restructuring is a negative 28%. Limited possibility of short selling and not enough company disclosure, contributes to share prices reflecting a more optimistic scenario than actual reality and being much higher initially than, perhaps, ‘fundamental value’. That is why, there is a persistence of negative returns from a buy-and-hold strategy in bankrupt company shares: at the end of the bankruptcy proceedings, the true value of the stock is revealed. That does not mean though that buyers can not make money buying and selling the stock while still in the Pink Sheets.
Trading in the stocks of bankrupt companies whether immediately post-bankruptcy, as with Hertz, or in the Pink Sheets, is much more ‘suitable’ for retail investors, who, unlike institutional investors are more prone to overvalue risky assets and to prefer lottery-like payoffs. The current stock market activity, in general, was dominated by retail investors even before Hertz to an extent last observed probably during the dotcom boom. So, perhaps we are focusing too much on this phenomenon, and, in the process, exaggerating the effect retail investors have on the market, away from what that normally is.
Repo volumes are rising in a similar fashion to the beginning of the crisis in February. Liquidity is leaving the system. Last two days, repos (O/N and term) rose above $100Bn. S&P500 topped on February 19 while repo volumes were about half of what we are seeing today. By the time we hit $100Bn in repos (March 3), the index had dropped 10%.
We had about two weeks (March 3-March 22) of repos printing about $128Bn on average per day. S&P 500 bottomed on March 23 as the Fed started stepping in with its various programs. Repos went down below $50Bn on average a day. More importantly liquidity started flooding the system. Reverse repos skyrocketed from $5bn on average per day to $143Bn a day by mid-April! Equities rallied in due course.
April/May, things went back to normal: repo volumes between $0Bn and $50Bn a day and reverse repos averaging about $2-3Bn a day->Goldilocks: liquidity was just about fine. Equities were doing well. Then in the first week of June, repos jumped above $50Bn, and last Friday and today they went above $100Bn. Reverse repos are firmly at $0Bn: they have literally been $0Bn for the last 4 days.
Again, just like in February, liquidity is starting to get drained from the system. By that level of repo volumes in March, equities were already 10% lower from peak. S&P500 is just a couple % below that previous peak, but Nasdaq is above!
I am not sure why the market is here. It could be that, in a perfect Pavlovian way, investors are giving the benefit of the doubt to the Fed that it will announce an increase of its asset purchasing program at this week’s FOMC meeting. If it doesn’t, US equities are a sell.
And don’t be fooled by no YCC or any forward guidance. The Fed needs to step in the UST market big way. YCC on 2-3 year will do nothing. Fed needs to do YCC on at least up to 10yr. As to really address the liquidity leaving the system, Fed needs to at least double its weekly UST purchases.
Fed is now probably considering which is worse: a UST flash crash or a risky asset flash crash. Or both if they play their hand wrong.
Looking at the dynamics of the changes in the weekly Fed balance sheet, latest one released last night, a few things spring up which are concerning.
1.The rise in repos for a second week in a row – a very similar development to the March rise in repos (when UST10yr flashed crashed). The Fed’s buying of Treasuries is not enough to cope with the supply hitting the market, which means the private sector needs to pitch in more and more in the buying of USTs (which leads to repos up).
This also ties up with the extraordinarily rise in TGA (US Treasury stock-piling cash). But the build-up there to $1.4Tn is massive: US Treasury has almost double the cash it had planned to have as end of June! Bottom line is that the Fed/UST are ‘worried’ about the proper functioning of the UST market. Next week’s FOMC meeting is super important to gauge Fed’s sensitivity to this development
2.Net-net liquidity has been drained out of the system in the last two weeks despite the massive rise in the Fed balance sheet (because of the bigger rise in TGA). It is strange the Fed did not add to the CP facility this week and bought only $1Bn of corporate bonds ($33Bn the week before, the bulk of the purchases) – why?
Fed’s balance sheet has gone up by $3tn since the beginning of the Covid crisis, but only about half of that has gone in the banking system to improve liquidity. The other half has gone straight to the US Treasury, in its TGA account. That 50% liquidity drain was very similar throughout the Fed’s liquidity injection between Sept’19-Dec’19. And it was very much unlike QE 1,2,3, in which almost 90% of Fed liquidity went into the banking system. See here. Very different dynamics.
Bottom line is that the market is ‘mis-pricing’ equity risk, just like it did at the end of 2019, because it assumes the Fed is creating more liquidity than in practice, and in fact, financial conditions may already be tightening. This is independent of developments affecting equities on the back of the Covid crisis. But on top of that, the market is also mis-pricing UST risk because the internals of the UST market are deteriorating. This is on the back of all the supply hitting the market as a result of the Treasury programs for Covid assistance.
The US private sector is too busy buying risky assets at the expense of UST. Fed might think about addressing that ‘imbalance’ unless it wants to see another flash crash in UST. So, are we facing a flash crash in either risky assets or UST?
Ironically, but logically, the precariousness of the UST market should have a higher weight in the decision-making progress of the Fed/US Treasury than risky markets, especially as the latter are trading at ATH. The Fed can ‘afford’ a stumble/tumble in risky assets just to get through the supply in UST that is about to hit the market and before the US elections to please the Treasury. Simple game theory suggest they should actually ‘encourage’ an equity market correction, here and now. Perhaps that is why they did not buy any CP/credit this week?
The Fed is on a treadmill and the speed button has been ratcheted higher and higher, so the Fed cannot keep up. It’s a dilemma (UST supply vs risky assets) which they cannot easily resolve because now they are buying both. They could YCC but then they are risking the USD if foreigners decide to bail out of US assets. So, it becomes a trilemma. But that is another story.
There have been two dominant trends in the last four decades. The breakdown of the Bretton Woods Agreement in the early 1970s, the teachings of Milton Friedman, and the policies of Ronald Reagan, eventually ushered in the process of US financialization in the early 1980s. The burst of the Japan bubble in 1990, the Asian and EM financial crises of the mid-1990s, the dotcom bubble, and, finally, China’s entry into WTO in the early 2000s, brought in the era of globalization. This whole period has greatly benefited US, US financial assets and the US Dollar.
An unwind of these two trends of financialization and globalization is likely to have the opposite effect: causing US assets and the US dollar to underperform. From a pure flow perspective, going forward, foreigners are likely to invest less in the US, or may even start selling US assets outright. They are such a large player that their actions are bound to have a big effect on prices.
Foreigners have played an increasingly bigger role in US financial markets. In terms of ownership of US financial assets, if they were an ‘entity’ on its own, they would be the second largest holder of US financial assets in the US, after US households.
Foreigners owned about 2% of all US financial assets between 1945 and the 1980s. That number doubled between 1980 and 1990 and then tripled between 1990 and 2019!
As of the end of 2019, there were a total of $271Tn US financial assets by market value. Non-financial entities owned the majority, $129Tn, followed by the financial sector, $108Tn, and foreigners $34Tn.
The financial crisis of 2008 ushered in a period of financial banking regulation (on the back of the US authorities’ bail-out), which has slowly started to dismantle some of the structures built in the previous period starting in the 1980s. The Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting government bailout of the whole US financial industry, this time, are likely to intensify this regulation and spread it more broadly across all financial entities. As a result of that, there have been already calls to rethink the concept of shareholders primacy which had been a bedrock of US capitalism since the 1980s.
In addition, the withdrawal of the UK from the EU in 2016, followed shortly by the start of a withdrawal of the US from global affairs with the election of Donald Trump, ushered in the beginning of the process of de-globalization. The US-China trade war gave a green light for many companies to start shifting global supply chains away from China. The Covid-19 pandemic intensified this process, but instead of seeking a new and more appropriate location, companies are now reconsidering whether it might make sense to onshore everything.
What we are seeing is the winding down of these two dominant trends of the last 40 years: financialization and globalization. The effects globally will be profound, but I believe US financial assets are the most at risk given that they benefited the most in the previous status quo.
De-financialization is likely to reduce shareholder pay-outs (both buybacks and dividends) which have been at the core of US equities returns over the years. The authorities are also likely to start looking into corporate tax havens as a source of government cash drain in light of ever-increasing deficits. As a result, and as I have written before, I expect US equities to have negative returns (as of end of 2019*) for the next 5 years at least.
De-globalization is likely to reduce the flow of US dollars globally. Foreigners will have fewer USD outright to invest in US assets. Those, which are in need to repay USD debt, may have to sell US assets to generate the USDs. Indeed, the USD may strengthen at first but as US assets start to under-perform, the selling by foreigners will gather speed causing both asset prices as well as the USD to weaken further.
For example, foreigners are the third largest player in US equities, owning more than $8Tn as of the end of 2019. See below table for some of the largest holders.
As a percentage of market value, foreigners’ holdings peaked in 2014, but they are still almost double the level of the early 1990s and more than triple the level of the early 1980s. Last year, foreigners sold the most equities ever. Incidentally, HHs which have been a consistent seller of equities in the past, but especially since 2008, bought the most ever. Pension Funds and Mutual Funds, though, continued selling.
Foreigners are the largest holder of US corporate bonds, owning almost $4Tn as of end of 2019, more than ¼ of the market.
As a percentage of market value, foreigners’ holdings peaked in 2017, but they are still more than double the level of the early 1990s and 8x the level of the early 1980s.
Foreigners are also the largest holders of USTs, owning almost $6.7Tn as of end of 2019, more than 40% of the overall market.
As a percentage of market value, foreigners’ holdings peaked in 2008, at 57%! At today’s level, they are still about double the levels of the early 1990s and early 1980s.
There is a big risk in all these markets if the trends of the last four decades start reversing. US authorities are very much aware of the large influence foreigners have in US markets. The Fed’s swap and repo lines are not extended abroad just for ‘charity’, but primarily to ‘protect’ US markets from forced foreign selling in case they cannot roll their USD funding.
The UST Treasury market seems to be the most at risk here given the mountain of supply coming this and next year (multiple times larger than the previous record supply in 2008 – but foreigners back then were on a buying spree). The risk is not that there won’t be buyers, eventually, of USTs as US private sector is running a surplus plus the Fed is buying by the boatload, but that the primary auctions may not run as smoothly.
It was for this reason, I believe, that the authorities exempted USTs from the SLR for large US banks at the beginning of April. If that were not done, PDs might have been totally overwhelmed at primary auctions given the increased supply size, the fact that the Fed can’t bid and if foreigners start take up less. It is not clear, still, even with the relaxed regulation, how the primary auctions will go this year. We have to wait and see.
This is my reading of an excellent paper by S&P Global, “Examining Share Repurchasing and the S&P Buyback Indices in the U.S. Market” by Liyu Zeng and Priscilla Luk, March 2020.
Over the past 20 years (up to end of 2019), the S&P 500 Buyback Index had outperformed the S&P 500 in 16 out of 20 years, or about 5.5% per year. YTD, it has underperformed, though, by about 14%! With that it, has managed to erase the last 10 years of outperformance!
We had similar underperformance of the buyback index in the early stages of the last financial crisis, in 2007; while in 2009, the S&P 500 Buyback Index had a significant excess return. Make your own conclusions where we are in this cycle.
Reality is that “buybacks tend to follow the economic cycle with increased or decreased repurchase activities in up or down markets while dividend payouts are normally more stable over time, the S&P 500 Dividend Yield portfolio tends to outperform in down markets, while the S&P 500 Buyback Index may capture more upside momentum during bull markets.“
Almost all of tech, financial sector and consumer discretionary companies engage in share buybacks. Less than 50% of utilities do (but they all pay dividends). As share buybacks tend to congregate in cyclical rather than defensive sectors, the buyback index tends to underperform during recessions (this year).
Since 1997, the total amount of buybacks has exceeded the cash dividends paid by U.S. firms. The proportion of dividend-paying companies decreased to 43% in 2018 from 78% in 1980, while the proportion of companies with share buybacks increased to 53% from 28%.
Compare to other developed markets. Despite an increase of share repurchases in Europe and Asia, as a % of all companies, buybacks still stand at about half that in the US. On the other hand, fewer Canadian companies engaged in share buybacks during that period.
For the S&P 500 Index, over the last 20 years, 2/3 of the total return has come from capital gains and only 1/3 from dividends. Before the mid-1980s, when buybacks became dominant, the opposite was true. Buybacks have been instrumental in driving equity returns since the mid-1980s.
The response from the two most powerful central banks could not have been more different. ECB is innovative, using fine tuning and precision in tiered rates and targeted lending; Fed is still throwing the kitchen sink at the market by flooding the banking system with liquidity.
ECB is also going more direct partially because the banking system there is in shatters, but also because it makes sense regardless. Plus, the ECB is already taking credit risk by buying corporate bonds. Surely, the next step is literally direct credit lending and massively expanding the ECB counterparty list.
Fed is still stuck in the old model of credit transmission, entirely relying on the banking system. That model died in 2008, in fact, even before that, in the early 2000s, as the first Basel rules came into effect and the shadow banking system flourished.
Post 2008 it became much more common for financial institutions, like PE etc. to get in the credit loan business. Needless to say, this carries a big risk given that they don’t have access to Fed’s balance sheet like the banks.
The US banking system is now flooded with liquidity. If the new repo auctions are fully subscribed, this will double banks’ reserve balances and will bring them to the peak post the 2008 crisis. But do banks need that liquidity? It does not seem so: the first $500Bn repo auction yesterday had just $78Bn of demand. But that liquidity from the Fed is there on demand, plus the central banks swaps lines are open, and as of March 12, none has been drawn. And finally, the foreign reverse repos pool balance at the Fed has not shown any unusual activity (no drawdowns). All this is indicating that USD liquidity is at the moment sufficient, if not superfluous, so, it should have a negative effect on USD, given long USD has been a popular position post 2008.
All this liquidity, however, may still do nothing to stocks, as seen by their performance into the close yesterday, because balance sheet constraints prevent banks from channelling that liquidity further into the US economy where it is surely needed. From one hand, the Fed is really pushing on a string when it comes to domestic dollar liquidity, but, on the other, it is providing more than plenty abroad.
Risky assets are still a sell on any bounce, and the USD is probably a sell as well, as the Fed will be forced to keep cutting but it is now running a risk of foreign money exiting long established overweight positions in US assets.
As if rates going negative was not enough of a wake-up call that what we are dealing with is something else, something which no one alive has experienced: a build-up of private debt and inequality of extraordinary proportions which completely clogs the monetary transmission as well as the income generation mechanism. And no, classical fiscal policy is not going to be a solution either – as if years of Japan trying and failing was not obvious enough either.
But the most pathetic thing is that we are now going to fight a pandemic virus with the same tools which have so far totally failed to revive our economies. If the latter was indeed a failure, this virus episode is going to be a fiasco. If no growth could be ‘forgiven’, ‘dead bodies’ borders on criminal.
Here is why. The narrative that we are soon going to reach a peak in infections in the West following a similar pattern in China is based on the wrong interpretation of the data, and if we do not change our attitude, the virus will overwhelm us. China managed to contain the infectious spread precisely and exclusively because of the hyper-restrictive measures that were applied there. Not because of the (warm) weather, and not because of any intrinsic features of the virus itself, and not because it provided any extraordinary liquidity (it did not), and not because it cut rates (it actually did, but only by 10bps). In short, the R0 in China was dragged down by force. Only Italy in the West is actually taking such draconian measures to fight the virus.
Any comparisons to any other known viruses, present or past, is futile. We simply don’t know. What if we loosen the measures (watch out China here) and the R0 jumps back up? Until we have a vaccine or at least we get the number of infected people below some kind of threshold, anything is possible. So, don’t be fooled by the complacency of the 0.00whatever number of ‘deaths to infected’. It does not matter because the number you need to be worried about is the hospital beds per population: look at those numbers in US/UK (around 3 per 1,000 people), and compare to Japan/Korea (around 12 per 1,000 people). What happens if the infection rate speeds up and the hospitalization rate jumps up? Our health system will collapse.
UK released its Coronavirus action plan today. It’s a grim reading. Widespread transmission, which is highly likely, could take two or three months to peak. Up to one fifth of the workforce could be off work at the same time. These are not just numbers pulled out of a hat but based on actual math because scientist can monitor these things just as they can monitor the weather (and they have become quite good at the latter). And here, again, China is ahead of us because it already has at its disposal a vast reservoir of all kinds of public data, available for immediate analysis and to people in power who can make decisions and act fast, vert fast. Compare to the situation in the West where data is mostly scattered and in private companies’ hands. US seems to be the most vulnerable country in the West, not just because of its questionable leadership in general and Trump’s chaotic response to the virus so far, but also because of its public health system set-up, limiting testing and treating of patients.
Which really brings me to the issue at hand when it comes to the reaction in the markets.
The Coronavirus only reinforces what is primarily shaping to be a US equity crisis, at its worst, because of the forces (high valuation, passive, ETF, short vol., etc.) which were in place even before. This is unlikely to morph into a credit crisis because of policy support.
Therefore, if you have to place your bet on a short, it would be equities over credit. My point is not that credit will be immune but that if the crisis evolves further, it will be more like dotcom than GFC. Credit and equity crises follow each other: dotcom was preceded by S&L and followed by GFC.
And from an economics standpoint, the corona virus is, equally, only reinforcing the de-globalization trend which, one could say, started with the decision to brexit in 2016. The two decades of globalization, beginning with China’s WTO acceptance in 2001, were beneficial to the USD especially against EM, and US equities overall. Ironically, globalization has not been that kind to commodity prices partially because of the strong dollar post 2008, but also because of the strong disinflationary trend which has persisted throughout.
So, if all this is about to reverse and the Coronavirus was just the feather that finally broke globalization’s back, then it stands to reason to bet on the next cycle being the opposite of what we had so far: weaker USD, higher inflation, higher commodities, US equities underperformance.
“I am here for one reason and one reason alone. I’m here to guess what the music might do a week, a month, a year from now. That’s it. Nothing more. And standing here tonight, I’m afraid that I don’t hear a thing. Just…silence”
At the moment, the popular narrative in the market is that the Fed has created the greatest liquidity boost ever. On the back of it, US stock prices, in particular, have risen in an almost vertical fashion since September 2019. The irony is that this boost of liquidity was not big enough to justify such a reaction. In fact, if we compare Fed’s recent balance sheet increase to QE 1,2,3, it becomes obvious that they have little in common, which is why central bank officials have continuously stated that this is not QE. Whether that is the case or not is not a question of trivial semantics. It actually carries important market implications: once this overestimation of Fed liquidity becomes common knowledge, the stock market would have to correct accordingly.
The large increase of autonomous factors on the liability side of the Fed’s balance sheet is at the core of this misunderstanding.
Although the Fed has indeed been doing around $100Bn worth of repo operations on a daily basis since September 2019 (less so recently), these operations are only temporary (overnight and 14-days), i.e. they cannot be taken cumulatively in ascertaining the effect on liquidity. In fact, during that period, the Fed’s balance sheet increased by only about $400bn, of which about half came from repos, the other from securities purchases, mostly T-Bills, with the increase in UST (coupons) more than offset by the decline in MBS.
Source: FRB H.4.1, BeyondOverton
However, not all of the increase in Fed’s balance sheet went towards interbank liquidity: bank reserves rose by only about $150Bn (as of 22/01/2020), less than half of the total! Almost two-thirds went towards an increase in the Treasury General Account (TGA), which takes liquidity out. The growth of currency in circulation (which also decreases liquidity) was exactly offset by a net decline in reverse repos: a drop in the Foreign Reverse Repos (FRP), but a rise in domestic reverse repo.
Source: FRB H.4.1, BeyondOverton
Fed actually started increasing its T-Bills and coupons portfolio already in mid-August, three weeks before the repo spike. Part of that increase went towards MBS maturities. But by the end of August, Fed’s balance sheet had already started growing. By the third week of September, also the combined assets portfolio (T-Bills, coupons, MBS) bottomed out, even though MBS continued to decrease on a net basis.
Source: FRB H.4.1, BeyondOverton
Fed’s repo operations began the second week of September. They reached a high of $256Bn during the last week of December. At $186Bn, down $70Bn from the highs, they are at the same level where they were in mid-October.
Source: FRB H.4.1, BeyondOverton
On the liability side, TGA actually bottomed out two weeks before the Fed started buying coupons and T-Bills, while the FRP topped the week the Fed started the repo operations. Could it be a coincidence? I don’t think so. My guess is that the Fed knew exactly what was going on and took precautions on time. Just as we found out that the Fed had lowered the rate paid on FRP to that of the domestic repo rate, we might also one day find out if it did indeed nudge foreigners to start moving funds away.
Source: FRB H.4.1, BeyondOverton
So, while the Fed’s liquidity injection since last September was substantial relative to the period when the Fed was tapering (2018) or when the balance sheet was not growing (2015-17), it is a stretch to make a claim that this is the greatest liquidity boost ever. The charts below show the 4-week and 3-month moving average percentage change in the Fed’s balance sheet. The 4-week change in September was indeed the largest boost in liquidity since the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. The 3-month change, though, isn’t.
Source: FRB H.4.1, BeyondOverton
The Fed pumped more liquidity in the system during the European debt crisis. In the first four months of 2013, both the growth rate of the Fed’s balance sheet and the absolute increase of assets and bank reserves were higher than in the last four months of 2019. Moreover, there were no equivalent increases in either the TGA or the FRP.
Source FRB H.4.1, BeyondOverton
In fact, the reason Fed’s balance sheet changes this time around did not provide any substantial boost to liquidity, is precisely because they are very different from the three QE episodes immediately after the 2008 financial crisis.
For example, during QE1, the increase in securities held was more than three times the increase in Fed’s total assets. That was mostly because loans and central banks (CBs) swaps declined, to make up the difference. The Fed bought both coupons and MBS. However, 75% of the increase in assets came from a rise in MBS (from $0 to almost $1.2Tn), while T-Bills remained unchanged and agencies declined.
The Fed had begun to extend loans to primary dealers (PDs) even before September 2008, but immediately after Lehman Brothers failed, it included asset-backed/commercial paper/money market/mutual fund entities to this list of loan recipients as well. At around $400Bn, these were short-term loans, designed to pretty much make sure that no other PD or any significantly important player failed.
By the time QE1 finished most of these loans were repaid. In a similar fashion, the Fed had already put in place CBs swap lines even before September 2008, but they got really filled up, to the tune of more than $500Bn, after the Lehman Brothers event. Finally, repos actually decreased during QE1. Bottom line is, as far as Fed’s assets are concerned, September 2019 had no resemblances at all to September 2008.
On the liability side, the differences were also stark. Unlike 2019, during QE1 bank reserves contributed to 95% of the overall increase of balance sheet. The FRP remained pretty much flat for the full duration of QE1, while the TGA was unchanged but it did exhibit the usual volatility during seasonal funding periods.
Source: FRB H.4.1, BeyondOverton
QE2 was much more straightforward than QE1. Fed’s assets increased only on the back of coupon purchases (around $600Bn), while the Fed continued to decrease its MBS and loans portfolio. On the liability side, bank reserves continued to contribute about 95% of the increase. The rest was currency in circulation. Bottom line here again is that there is really no resemblance to 2019.
QE3 was similar to QE2 in the sense that Fed’s reserves increased 100% on the back of securities purchases (around $1.6Tn), but this time split equally between coupons and MBS. On the liability side, however, at 80% of total, bank reserves contributed slightly less towards the overall increase than during QE1 or QE2. The rest was split between currency in circulation and reverse repos. So, during QE3 less of the Fed’s balance sheet increase, than during the previous QEs, contributed to liquidity overall, but still much more than in 2019.
Reverse repos were especially prominent after QE3, when the Fed stopped growing its balance sheet but before it actually started tapering it. Probably, that was the sign that the banking system was actually running enough surplus reserves that it was willing to give some of the liquidity back to the Fed.
To recap, whatever the Fed has been doing so far, starting in September 2019, has simply no comparisons with any of the previous QEs. The largest increases on the Fed’s balance sheet in 2019 were T-Bills and repos; the Fed never bought T-Bills or engaged in repos in any of the previous QEs – the asset mix was totally different. On the liability side, while in the QEs almost all of the increase went directly into bank liquidity, in 2019 less than 50% did. FRP was more or less unchanged, at around $100Bn, between the beginning of QE1 and the end of QE3, but by September 2019 it had tripled. TGA averaged around $60Bn before the end of QE3; thereafter the average increased four times!
As a matter of fact, when we put the whole picture together, the case could be made that the Fed did not really create any additional liquidity at all since equities bottomed in March 2009.
Fed’s assets have increased by about $2Tn since then. But only 37% of that increase went to bank reserves. 40% went towards the natural increase of currency in circulation, 14% went to the TGA and 9% went to the FRP (last three drawing liquidity out).
Source: FRB H.4.1, BeyondOverton
Yes, bank reserves have increased by about $800Bn since then but also have bank reserves needs on the back of Basel III liquidity requirements. According to the Fed itself, the aggregate lowest comfortable level of reserve balances in the banking system ranges from $600Bn to just under $900Bn. Thus, at $1.6Tn currently, there is not much excess liquidity left in the system: on a net basis, whatever extra liquidity was created, it happened between September 2008 and March 2009.
More precisely, actually, the Fed did create surplus liquidity up to about the end of 2014. Between 2015 and the end of 2017, the liquidity in the system stayed flat. After that, the Fed started taking liquidity out, and by the middle of 2019 it left just about enough surplus liquidity (over and above the March 2009 level) to satisfy Basel III liquidity requirements.
Going forward, it is very likely that the bulk of the increase of the central bank’s balance sheet is behind us for the moment, ceteris paribus. The Fed will continue shifting from repos to T-Bills and probably coupons (especially if it hikes the IOER/repo rate, as expected). The effect on liquidity will depend on the mixture of liabilities, though. I expect the TGA to start drifting lower with seasonality as well as because it is at level associated with reversals in the past.
Source: FRB H.4.1, BeyondOverton
FRP has a bit more to go on the downside but I think it will struggle to break $200Bn, and it might settle around $215Bn. TGA and FRP declining should help liquidity even if Fed’s balance sheet does not increase. If the decline in the demand for repos is less than Fed’s securities purchases, bank reserves are likely to go up: this should help liquidity overall. Otherwise, it depends on the net effect of the change in all autonomous factors.
Source: FRB H.4.1, BeyondOverton
So, while the Fed has just about created enough liquidity to take bank reserves to the level of March 2009 (plus the reserves required to meet Basel III liquidity requirements), S&P 500 is up 10% since the Fed started this latest liquidity injections, and almost 400% since the bottom in 2009: an outstanding performance given all of the above. While the rise in the market pre 2019 can be fully attributed to massive corporate share buybacks, with active managers and real money (households, pension funds, mutual funds and insurance companies) net sellers of equities, thereafter, it is more of a mixed bag.
In 2019 retail money picked up the baton from corporates and bought the most equities since the 2008 financial crisis. In addition, there has been relentless selling of volatility in the form of exotic structured retail products (mostly out of Asia), betting on a continued stability and a rising trend on the back of the ongoing US corporate share buyback program, combined with the Fed’s about face on rates last year. Together with an all-time record speculative selling of VIX futures, this has left the street, generally speaking, quite long gamma, thus further helping the market’s bullish stance (to monetize their gamma exposure, dealers sell on rallies and buy on dips, thus cushioning the market on the way down, while the buying from other sources ensures the market keeps grinding higher).
Having mostly missed the extraordinary rally in US stocks during 2009-2018 (i.e. during the Fed’s previous balance sheet expansions and before the tapering), real money did not want to be left out on this one as well. However, not only the premises for this bullishness are unfounded, as discussed above, but also the internals of the previous stock market rally might be changing.
Corporate share buybacks, while still strong, are fading. This is happening for two main reasons. First, the Boeing scandal (prior to last year, Boeing was one of the largest share buyback companies in the US), I believe, is really accelerating bipartisan support to allow regulators more leeway into scrutinizing how companies choose to spend their cash. Second, with corporate earnings growth slowing down, US companies have been substantially scaling down their plans for share buybacks in 2020, anyway.
Neither the fact that the central bank liquidity is much smaller than envisioned, nor that the breadth of the rally is narrowing, seems to be on people’s radar at the moment. On the contrary, investors might be even embracing a completely new paradigm, this-time-is-different attitude, which sometimes comes at moments preceding a market correction. For example, at Davos 2020, Bob Prince, the Co-CIO of the largest hedge fund in the world, Bridgewater, said in an interview with Bloomberg TV, that he believed the boom-bust cycle was over. In fact, he went further in elaborating on this view:
“Stability could be an opportunity…You’ll hear the tremors before the earthquake. It won’t just come upon you all of a sudden. Volatility is out there, but it is not imminent.” This reminded me of the build-up to the 2008 financial crisis. It’s not that people did not see the risks in subprime mortgage CDOs back then. They did, and that was why it took them some time to get in on the
 See Brace Your Horses, This Carriage is Broken”, BeyondOverton, January 14, 2020
 “How an exotic investment product sold in Korea could create havoc in the US options market”, Bloomberg, January 20, 2020
 “When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.”, Chuck Prince, CEO of Citibank, the largest US bank in 2007.