Will stock markets see a Minsky Moment in 2020?

Few investors now remember the days when price discovery was thought to be the key role of stock markets. Instead, we know that prices are really now set by central banks, on the model of the Politburo in the old Soviet Union.

How else can one explain the above chart? It shows the US S&P 500 Index has risen 50% over the past 5 years, even though US corporate profits have fallen 5% (using US Bureau of Economic Analysis data).

As in the old USSR, central banks have also abolished “bad news”.

All news is now good news, as any ‘bad news’ means the Federal Reserve will rush to provide more price support. It has been so successful that the Index hasn’t even suffered a 20% correction over the past decade, as my Chart of the Decade confirmed.

But does this mean that stock markets will never fall again?  That is the real question as we enter 2020.

On the positive side, we know that companies have also provided major support via buybacks.  Apple alone did $240bn of buybacks between 2014 – 2018. Companies spent $800bn in total in 2018, but cash now seems to be tighter with 2019 purchases down around 15% to $700bn.

We also know that President Trump believes a strong stock market is key to his re-election this year. His Trade Adviser, Peter Navarro, has already suggested 2020 will be another record:

“It’s going to be the roaring 2020s. ”Dow 32,000 is a conservative estimate of where we’ll be at the end of the year.”

Certainly investors seem to be very positive, as the above charts confirm.  Share prices for the FANGAM stocks – Facebook, Apple, Netflix, Google and Amazon stocks have soared to new heights:

  • Apple for example, was up 32% in Q4 and nearly doubled in 2019
  • On its own, it provided 14% of the S&P’s gain in the quarter, and 8.5% of the annual gain

This wonderful performance took place even though Apple’s net income has fallen for the past 4 quarters. It is also hard to argue that Microsoft or the other FANGAM companies are suddenly about to see supercharged growth.

So is there a negative side?  Maybe old-fashioned investors were simply wrong to believe stock markets’ key role as price discovery and the efficient allocation of capital?

If one wants to worry, one has to instead look to the insights of Hyman Minsky, who warned that:

  • A long period of stability eventually leads to major instability
  • This is because investors forget that higher reward equals higher risk
  • Instead, they believe that a new paradigm has developed
  • They therefore take on high levels of debt to finance ever more speculative investments

His argument was that liquidity is not the same as solvency. Central banks can pump out trillions of dollars in stimulus, and make it ridiculously easy for companies to justify new investments. It is hard to argue with a CEO who claims:

“Why not borrow, as it’s not costing us anything with today’s interest rates“.

But what happens if the earnings from the new investments are too low to pay the interest due on the debt?

That is the risk we face today, given there is now a record $3tn of BBB grade debt – the lowest level of ‘investment grade’ debt. If some of these companies start to default, then confidence in the central banks’ ‘new paradigm’ will quickly disappear – and, with it, market liquidity

Investors will then find themselves unable to sell the under-performing asset, and suddenly realise they have over-paid.  In turn, this will prompt a rush for the exits. Prices will drop quite sharply, as ‘distress sales’ start to take place.

China’s former central bank governor has already warned that it may be facing its own Minsky Moment. As investors finish celebrating their 2019 success, they might find it prudent to ponder whether the good times can really continue forever.

Chart of the Decade – the Fed’s support for the S&P 500 will end with a debt crisis

Each year, there has been only one possible candidate for Chart of the Year.  Last year it was the collapse of China’s shadow banking bubble; 2017 was Bitcoin’s stratospheric rise; 2016 the near-doubling in US 10-year interest rates; and 2015 the oil price fall.

This year, the ‘Chart of the Decade’ is in a league of its own. Produced by Goldman Sachs, it shows that the S&P 500 is in its longest-ever run without a 20% downturn.

The reason for this amazing performance is not hard to find.  It has been caused by the US Federal Reserve’s adoption of Ben Bernanke’s concept that:

“Higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence“.

Set out in 2010, it replaced the previous policy set out by William McChesney Martin that their job was:

“To take away the punchbowl as the party gets going”.

“Don’t fight the Fed” is one of the best short-term investment principles, but the Fed’s success is quite extraordinary when one looks back over the past decade.  Each time the market has threatened to slide, they have rushed in with yet more support:

  • In QE1, the Fed pumped out $1.3tn of support for financial markets, in addition to reducing interest rates to near-zero
  • This free money mostly went straight into asset markets such as stocks, which weakened when the stimulus stopped
  • QE2 came to the rescue with another $600bn of support – but again, stocks then weakened
  • QE3 provided longer-term support, with $40bn/month then increasing to $85bn/month

President Trump’s tax cuts provided even further support when the Fed finally paused, as the Financial Times chart confirms, by encouraging a massive wave of share buybacks.

Remarkably, these buybacks came at a time when profits were actually falling as a percentage of GDP, as the third chart shows. Investors should really have been pulling out of shares, rather than buying more. But after so many years of Fed support, most asset managers had either forgotten how to read a Profit & Loss account and Balance Sheet – or had decided these were irrelevant to stock valuation.

Since September, we have been in a new Fed stimulus cycle. As I noted then, a $50bn hole had appeared in New York financial markets.  Regulators and consensus commentators combined to explain this was only due to temporary factors. But since then, the support has reached $376bn, and the Fed has announced it will happily supply another $500bn of support to cover possible year-end problems, probably taking the total close to $1tn since September.

Behind this panic is the IMF’s warning that the $8.1tn of Treasury bonds available as collateral for the repo market, are in fact “owned” by an average of 2.2 different banks at the same time. Understandably, bank CFOs are pulling back, and trying to establish if “their” Treasury bonds in fact belong to someone else.

Regulators should never have allowed this to happen.  They should also have focused long ago – as I suggested this time last year – on the implications of the decline in China’s shadow banking sector.  Just as I expected, China is now exporting deflation around the world, with its PPI falling since June.

China’s slowdown also means an end to the flow of Chinese cash that flooded into New York financial markets, which hedge funds have then leveraged into outsize profits in financial markets.

The Fed turned a blind eye to this, just as it allowed BBB corporate debt to expand at a record rate, as the chart from S&P confirms.   As we noted in June’s pH Report:

“US BBB grade debt, the lowest grade in which most funds are allowed to invest, is now more than $3tn, with 19% of this total ($579bn) in the very lowest BBB– grade. And this BBB– total jumps to $1tn if one includes financial sector debt. S&P also report that global BBB debt is now $7tn, with US companies accounting for 54% of the total.

“The problem is that BBB- debt becomes speculative debt if it is downgraded by just one notch to BB grade. And most investors are then forced by their mandate to sell their holding in a hurry, creating the potential for a vicious circle, as the most liquid bonds will inevitably be sold first. In turn, this creates the potential for a “waterfall effect” in the overall bond market – and to contagion in the stock market itself.”

The Fed’s focus on boosting the stock market is clearly going to end in a debt crisis.  But when warning of this, the consensus responds as in 2006-8, when I was warning of a global financial crash, “That’s impossible”.  And no doubt, once the debt crisis has occurred, it will again claim “nobody could have seen this coming”.

This is why the S&P 500 chart is my ‘chart of the decade’.

$50bn hole appears in New York financial markets – Fed is “looking into it”

Most people would quickly notice if $50 went missing from their purse or wallet. They would certainly notice if $50k suddenly disappeared from their bank account. But a fortnight ago, it took the New York Federal Reserve more than a day to notice that $50bn was missing from the money markets it was supposed to regulate.

Worse was to come. By the end of last week, the NY Fed was being forced to offer up to $100bn/day of overnight money.  And it was also clear that the authorities still have no idea of what is going wrong.

This is perhaps not surprising when one remembers, as I charted here between 2007-8, that the Fed failed to notice the subprime crisis until Lehman went bankrupt in September 2008.

For the past 2 weeks, extraordinary things have been happening in a critical part of the world’s financial markets. And unfortunately, the NY Fed didn’t notice until after it had begun, as the Financial Times later reported:

  • First, on Monday 16th, the repo market suddenly began to trade higher – reaching a high of 7%
  • Then as the market opened at 7am on Tuesday, “Rates rocketed upward again, to 6% within a few minutes and then to a high of 10%. That was four times the rate the repo market was trading the week before. Typically, repo prices move around by a few basis points each day — a few hundredths of a percentage point.

Finally, someone at the Fed woke up – or perhaps, somebody woke them up – and they announced $75bn of support to try and stop rates moving even higher. Even that had its problems, as “technical difficulties” meant the lending was delayed.

As Reuters then reported next day, this cash wasn’t enough. The shortage “forced the Fed to make an emergency injection of more than $125bn …. its first major market intervention since the financial crisis more than a decade ago.”

Of course, as with the early signs of the subprime crisis, the Fed then went into “don’t frighten the children mode“.  We were told it was all due to corporations needing cash to pay their quarterly tax bills, and banks needing to pay for the Treasury bonds they had bought recently.

Really! Don’t companies pay their tax bills every quarter? And don’t banks normally pay for their bonds?  Was this why some large banks found themselves forced to pay 10% for overnight money, when they would normally have paid around 2%?  And in any case, isn’t repo a $2.2tn market – and so should be easily able to cope with both events?

Equally, if it was just a one-off problem, why did the NY Fed President next have to announce daily support of “at least $75bn through 10 October” as well as other measures? And why did the Fed have to scale this up to $100bn/day last Wednesday, after banks needed $92bn of overnight money?

Was it that corporations were suddenly paying much more tax than expected, or banks buying up the entire Treasury market? The explanation is laughable, and shows the degree of panic in regulatory circles, that their explanation isn’t even remotely plausible.

We can expect many such stories to be put around over the next few days and weeks. As readers will remember, we were told in March 2008 that Bear Stearns’ collapse was only a minor issue. As I noted here at the time, S&P even told us that it meant “the end of the subprime write downs was now in sight“.

I didn’t believe these supposedly calming voices then, and I don’t believe them now. Common sense tells us that something is seriously wrong with the financial system, if large borrowers have to pay 10% for overnight money in a $2.2tn market.

And what is even more worrying is that, just as with subprime, the regulators clearly don’t have a clue about the nature of the problem(s).

My own view, as I warned in the Financial Times last month, is that “China’s (August 5) devaluation could prove to be the trigger for an international debt crisis”.  Current developments in the repo market may be a sign that this is more likely than many people realise.  I hope I am wrong.

 

China’s renminbi and the global ring of fire

China’s property bubble puts it at the epicentre of the ring of fire © Reuters 

China’s devaluation could be the trigger for an international debt crisis, as I describe in my latest post for the Financial Times, published on the BeyondBrics blog

August has often seen the start of major debt crises. The Latin American crisis began on August 12, 1982. The Asian crisis began with Thailand’s IMF rescue on August 11, 1997. The Russian crisis began on August 17, 1998.

We fear that the renminbi’s fall below Rmb7 per dollar on August 5 will act as just such a catalyst — this time, for the onset of a global debt crisis that has long been in the category of an accident waiting to happen.

The risk is summarised in the chart below from the Institute of International Finance, showing the seemingly inexorable rise in global debt over the past 20 years

Central banks came to believe that business cycles could be abolished by the use of stimulus, first through subprime and then through quantitative easing. This would encourage the return of the legendary “animal spirits” and allow the debt created to be wiped out by a combination of growth and inflation.

© Institute of International Finance

Unfortunately, as we have argued here before, this belief took no account of demographics or the impact of today’s ageing populations in slowing demand growth.

The baby boomers, who created the growth supercycle when they moved into the wealth creator 25-54 generation, have now joined the cohort of perennials aged 55 and above. They already own most of what they need. The focus on stimulus means that policymakers have failed to develop the new social/economic policies needed to maintain soundly-based growth in a world of increasing life expectancy and falling fertility. Instead, stimulus policies have created overcapacity and today’s record levels of debt.

As William White, a former chief economist of the Bank for International Settlements, warned at Davos in 2016: “It will become obvious in the next recession that many of these debts will never be serviced or repaid, and this will be uncomfortable for a lot of people who think they own assets that are worth something.” Presciently, he suggested that the trigger for the crisis could be a Chinese devaluation.

Central banks have created a debt-fuelled ‘ring of fire’ with multiple fault-lines

The risk, outlined in our second chart, is that central banks have created a debt-fuelled global “ring of fire”. China has undertaken around half of all global stimulus since 2008, in effect creating subprime on steroids. As we noted here last year, its tier 1 cities boast some of the highest house-price-to-earnings ratios in the world, while profits from property speculation allowed car sales to rise fourfold from 500,000 a month in 2008 to 2m a month in 2017.

As the FT reported in April, investors have already been spooked by rising levels of dollar debt in China’s property sector. This debt is set to open the global ring of fire, as US president Donald Trump raises the stakes in his trade war. The president and his advisers seem to have chosen to ignore the very real risk of currency devaluation, as markets respond to the impact of tariffs on the economy:

  • China’s property bubble puts it at the epicentre of the ring of fire
  • This is now spreading out across Asia, impacting other Asian currencies and economies
  • The Bank of Japan is about to become the largest owner of Japanese stocks
  • The end of the property bubble is causing the end of the commodity bubble
  • In turn, this is impacting Australia, South Africa, Brazil, Russia and the Middle East
  • ECB stimulus means eurozone government bonds have negative interest rates
  • Banks cannot make a profit and savers have no income
  • President Trump’s China trade war risks connecting all the dots
  • The UK’s potential no-deal Brexit in October further threatens global supply chains

The issue is the risk of contagion from one market to another. Risks in individual silos can be bad enough, but if they spread across boundaries it quickly becomes hard to know who is holding the risk. As US Federal Reserve chairman Jay Powell warned in May while discussing potential problems in the market for collateralised loan obligations (CLO):

“Regulators, investors, and market participants around the world would benefit greatly from more information on who is bearing the ultimate risk associated with CLOs. We know that the US CLO market spans the globe . . . But right now, we mainly know where the CLOs are not — only $90bn of the $700bn in total CLOs are held by the largest US banks . . . In a downturn institutions anywhere could find themselves under pressure, especially those with inadequate loss-absorbing capacity or runnable short-term financing.”

The CLO market is just one part of the problem. As S&P Global reported recently, more than $3tn of US corporate debt is rated triple B, with $1tn rated triple B minus, the lowest level of investment grade. US companies account for 54 per cent of the world’s $7tn total triple B debt. The risk of contagion in any sell-off is clear, as many institutions would have to sell if recession forced rating agencies into downgrades, taking debt below investment grade.

In turn, this would add to the risks in US equity markets, which are already at extreme valuations. Pension funds would be most at risk as they have been major investors in corporate debt and in recent years have entered markets such as the Asian offshore US dollar market in their search for higher yields. A downturn in their returns would risk creating a vicious circle, forcing companies to increase their pension contributions just at the moment when their earnings are already under pressure as the trade war slows the global economy.

Mr Trump may come to regret his comment that “trade wars are good and easy to win”. We envisage a testing time ahead, particularly as only those over 60 have personal experience of even the “normal” business cycles seen before the boomer supercycle began.

Paul Hodges and Daniël de Blocq van Scheltinga publish The pH Report.

London house prices edge closer to a tumble

After the excitement of Wimbledon tennis and a cricket World Cup final, Londoners were back to their favourite conversation topic last week – house prices. But now the news has become bittersweet as the price decline starts to accelerate.

As the London Evening Standard headline confirms:

The London property slump has dramatically accelerated with prices falling at their fastest rate in a decade, official figures reveal… The latest “punishing” downward lurch means that more than £21k ($26k) was wiped from the value of the average London house over the period, according to the Land Registry… The number of sales is still in decline with just 5947 recorded in March, down from 7350 a year previously.”

‘Reversion to the mean’ is always the most reliable of investment guides, and the chart shows prices could have some way to fall before they reach this level – and, of course, prices often over-correct after the type of sharp rise that has been seen over the past 20 years:

  • Most people have to buy houses on a mortgage, where the ratio of price to income is the key factor
  • As the chart shows, prices and ratios have seen 2 distinct periods since 1971 (when records began)
  • Prices (inflation adjusted) have had an upward trend since 2000, with today’s 11% fall the worst
  • 1971-1999 saw more violent swings – eg between 1983-1993 they doubled and then halved
  • The average ratio since 2000 has been 9.3, which would bring prices down by a further 23%
  • The average ratio between 1971-1999 was 4.8, which would bring prices down by a further 60%

WHY DID PRICES RISE?
London prices have been boosted by 4 main factors since 1971:

Demographics.  Most fundamentally, the BabyBoomers (born between 1946-1970) began to move into their house-buying years. This dramatically increased demand (as I discussed last week), whilst supply was slow to respond due to planning restrictions etc.

In addition, women began to go back to work after having children, creating the phenomenon of 2-income families for the first time in history. The younger Boomers saw the benefit of this as affordability rose; those who followed them paid the price in terms of higher prices.

Buy to let. London became the capital of ‘Buy-to-let’. UK tenancy law changed in 1988 and by the mid-1990s, parents realised it would be cheaper and better to buy apartments for their student children, rather than paying high rents for shoddy lodgings. Others followed in the belief that property was “safer” than stock markets”.

Falling interest rates (they were 15% during the 1992 ERM crisis) made the mortgage payment very affordable – particularly with tax relief as well. But since 2017, tax relief has been reducing, and disappears next year. And today’s ageing UK population, where nearly 1 in 5 people are now aged 65+, means the Boomers no longer have spare cash to spend on buying property.

The global city.  After the financial crisis, London property appeared an oasis of calm as the Bank of England supported house prices by cutting interest rates to near-zero, dramatically boosting affordability. Everyone knew by then that “house prices only increased”, as memories of the 1970-1980s were forgotten, and so capital gains seemed assured.

This made London, along with other “global cities” such as New York, very attractive to Russians, Arabs, Asians and anyone else who was worried that their government might try to grab their money. Europeans also bought as the eurozone crisis developed. And then the success of the 2012 London Olympics made it the city where everyone wanted to live, especially as its financial sector was booming due to central bank stimulus programmes.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?
The question now is whether these drivers will continue.  Brexit, of course, has already cast a shadow over the idea of the UK as an island of stability in a troubled world. And whilst the collapse of the currency since the referendum makes property more affordable for foreign buyers, it means that those who bought at the peak are nursing even larger losses.

And, of course, the fall in the actual volume of sales is another worrying sign. Volume usually leads price, up or down. And housing markets aren’t like stock markets, where you can usually trade very quickly if you want to sell. Instead you have to wait for a buyer to appear – and even then, the UK’s property laws make it possible for them to pull out until the very last moment.

All in all, it would therefore be surprising if prices didn’t continue falling, back to the average house price/earnings ratio of the past 20 years.  A temporary over-correction, where they went even lower, would also be normal after such a long period without a major fall.

Whether they go lower than this, and return to the 1971-99 ratio, probably depends on what happens with Brexit.  If those who believe it will open up a new ‘golden age’ for the UK economy are right, then  prices might well stabilise and could even rise again, after the initial disruption. But if it proves an economic disaster, then a return to the troubled period of the 1970s would be no surprise at all.

 

Stock markets risk Wile E. Coyote fall despite Powell’s rush to support the S&P 500

How can companies and investors avoid losing money as the global economy goes into a China-led recession?  That’s the key question as we enter 2019.  We have reached a fork in the road:

The central banks’ aim was set out in November 2010 by US Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke:

“Higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending. Increased spending will lead to higher incomes and profits that, in a virtuous circle, will further support economic expansion.”

And the current Chairman, Jay Powell, rushed to calm investors on Friday by confirming this policy:

“We will be prepared to adjust policy quickly and flexibly and use all of our tools to support the economy should that be appropriate.”

His words confirm he equates “the economy” with the stock market, as the chart shows:

  • The Fed no longer sees its core mandate on jobs and prices as defining its role
  • Instead it has become focused on making sure the S&P 500 moves steadily upwards
  • Every time the S&P 500t flirts with breaking the lower “tramline”, the Fed rushes to its rescue

Like Wile E Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, the Fed has used more and more absurdly complex strategies to try and keep the market going upwards.  But now it is very close to finding itself over the cliff edge.

CORPORATE DEBT IS THE KEY RISK FOR 2019

The Fed should have realised long ago that markets cannot keep climbing forever.  Instead, by printing $4tn of free cash, it has temporarily destroyed their key role of price discovery.  As a result:

  • Investors now have no idea if are paying too much for their purchases
  • Companies don’t know if their new investments will actually make money

We are heading almost inevitably to another  ‘Minsky Moment’ as I described in September 2008,:

“Earnings from the new investments prove too low to pay the interest due on the debt. Confidence in the ‘new paradigm’ disappears and, with it, market liquidity. Investors find themselves unable to sell the under-performing asset, and suddenly realise they have over-paid. In turn, this prompts a rush for the exits. Prices then begin to drop quite sharply, as ‘distress sales’ take place.

This time, however, the risk is in corporate debt, not US subprime lending.  As the charts above show:

  • The ratio of US corporate debt to GDP has reached an eye-watering 46%, higher than ever before
  • Lending standards have collapsed with most investment debt in the lowest “Triple B” grade

Investors’ obviously loved Powell’s confirmation on Friday that he is determined to cover their backs. But they may start to remember over the weekend that the cause of Thursday’s collapse was Apple’s problems in China – about which, the Fed can actually do very little.

And whilst Apple won’t go bankrupt any time soon, weaker companies in its supply chain certainly face this risk – as do other companies dependent on sales in China.  And as their sales volumes and profits start to fall, investors similarly risk finding that large numbers of companies with “Triple B” ratings have suddenly been re-rated as “Junk”:

  • Bianco Research suggest that 14% of companies in the S&P 1500 are zombies, with their earnings unable to cover interest expenses
  • The Bank of International Settlements has already warned that Western central banks stimulus lending means that  >10% of US/EU firms currently “rely on rolling over loans as their interest bill exceeds their EBIT. They are most likely to fail as liquidity starts to dry up”.

CHINA’S CORPORATE DEBT IS THE EPICENTRE OF THE RISK

As the chart shows, China’s corporate debt is now the highest in the world.  Yet it hardly existed before 2008, when China’s leadership panicked and began the largest stimulus programme in history.

The “good news” is that China’s new leadership recognise the problem, as I discussed in November 2017,  China’s central bank governor warns of ‘Minsky Moment’ risk.  The “bad news” – for the Fed’s desire to support the stock market, and for companies dependent on Chinese demand – is that they are determined to tackle the risk, having warned:

“China’s financial sector is and will be in a period with high risks that are easily triggered. Under pressure from multiple factors at home and abroad, the risks are multiple, broad, hidden, complex, sudden, contagious, and hazardous. The structural unbalance is salient; law-breaking and disorders are rampant; latent risks are accumulating; [and the financial system’s] vulnerability is obviously increasing.”

Companies and investors need to take great care in 2019.  China’s downturn means that markets are starting to rediscover their role of price discovery, despite the Fed’s efforts to keep waving its magic wand:

  • Companies with too much debt will go bankrupt, leading to the Minsky Moment
  • The domino effect of price wars and lower volumes will quickly hit other supply chains
  • Time spent today in understanding this risk will prove time very well spent later this year

Once the tramline is broken, the Fed and the S&P 500 will find themselves in Wile E Coyote’s position in the famous Road Runner cartoons – with nowhere to go, but down.