Around this time last year we wrote here on currency intervention in the Japanese Yen. The TL;DR version.
There is a pretty simple reason we don’t see intervention much anymore – it does not work…Intervention is like trying to hold 100 ping pong balls underwater at the same time – sooner or later one will pop up. As long as the BOJ keeps interest rates artificially low and continues yield curve control, the currency will eventually, intervention or not, get blasted. When the Fed is guiding market yields close to 5% and even the Europeans are raising 75bps a meeting, the policy gaps are untenable. Something has to give.
The big story in the past week was the massive currency intervention by the Bank of Japan (BOJ). Hard to know exactly how much went through, but reports were in the range of $70bn on Friday alone. FX interventions by major central banks are less frequent than they were years ago. This was the first BOJ buy side intervention since 1998. There is a pretty simple reason we don’t see intervention much anymore – it does not work. Let’s have a quick look at what’s going on.
Against the trend of most other central banks, BOJ policy has been to maintain low interest rates and keep long term yields under 25bps (a policy called yield curve control, YCC), despite rising inflation and a global backdrop of major economy yields rising substantially. They have been the principal buyer of Japanese Bonds, leading to a crash in liquidity. In recent weeks we have seen multi day streaks when the benchmark ten-year bond (the JGB as it’s known) has not traded. Forcing long-term interest rates to below market levels (the 10y swap market has rates around 70bps) has created massive pressure on the currency, and the BOJ has tried to stem the tide.
Some big pool of money (BPM) would like something for nothing. Large financial institutions (LFI) are happy to help. Heck, they even compete to help the most. As long as X never happens – and of course it never does – we can give you exactly what you want. In the 1980s, pension funds wanted to be long stocks but not the downside tail. Buying puts was too expensive. No problem says LFI! We will give you something called portfolio insurance. Instead of paying implied volatility, you can own an option-like structure at realized volatility. As long as the market does not gap down a lot – which of course it never does – there is plenty of liquidity to execute the hedge. October 1987 put an end to that little fantasy. Then there were those good old sub-prime loans. Some BPM would like some higher yielding debt. No problem says LFI! Each mortgage may be risky, but they are much better behaved when we look at a big basket of them and we’ll spread them out all over the country. As long as house prices never go down, which of course they don’t, and certainly not all over the country, these bonds are golden. We’ve even paid someone to give them a AAA rating! That ended…not well.
The reaction to last week’s CPI print was pretty dramatic. We see a couple of related factors:
Given the fall in gas prices, the S&P had bumped off the bottom in anticipation of a soft print. Positioning went from negative to perhaps modestly positive. CPI caught the market on the wrong foot.
Gas prices as reported in the CPI did fall as expected, but just about everything else went up (see graph below). Everyone knows gas fell because of releases from the Strategic Petroleum reserve. That policy is the definition of “transitory” (they will need to buy it back, no less). With everything else going up, inflation fears pulled a Lazarus.
Watch rents. Lagging but steady inflation indicator, closely tied to wages.
I recently had a conversation with a colleague about the idea that portfolios over the last 40 years have been conditioned for falling interest rates. If that supertanker makes a turn, a lot of money will be on a collision course. He said in 1984 there was an equal and opposite issue … buying bonds for the prior 20 years had been a fool’s errand. The cycle climaxed in June 1984 with a hot GDP, a low inflation print and a collapse in bonds. Even though inflation was low, no one wanted to own them.
I was intrigued and pressed the conversation with our resident bond historian and partner, Paul DeRosa. His response below:
The chart below is fascinating to us, particularly in light of the fairly modest in magnitude, but quite speedy rise in UK yields. The chart shows the difference between futures prices for sterling 3 month LIBOR expiring in September 2022 and 3 years later, in September 2025. They price at 100 minus the interest rate, so a price of 99.5 equates to a 0.5% prevailing rate at expiry. Roughly speaking, individually the contracts can be interpreted as the markets best pricing for interest rates at those points in time, the spread between them gives a look at how the path is priced to get there.
A year ago, rates were priced to be at about zero in September 2022, and not much higher – maybe 1 hike – by September 2025. At a starting point of functionally zero rates – that’s a pretty poor prognosis for 5 years time. Earlier this year, the spread between contracts increased as the nearer maturity contract dropped a little in price – implying higher yields – while the longer maturity contract fell more in price. The spread widened to a high of 78bps in early summer. That’s the market roughly saying things are a bit better economically – over the next few years we will see about a hike per year.
“You can eat or you can sleep”. The biggest change I have witnessed over the course of the past 3+ decades is the change in investor preference, particularly hedge fund investors, away from positive skew to negative skew… from sleeping to eating. I sleep well. The quote came from a discussion my partner had with another manager who runs a fund that is often aggressively short volatility. He, like all of Wall Street and beyond, have monetized this preference for negative skew – regular returns most of the time, with the occasional blowup. They are eating well.
The preference for negative skew flies in the face of conventional finance theory and behavioral economics. After all, why would people buy lottery tickets? Smarter people than me have worked these ideas over, and it’s a bit of a mess. Let’s just think about 3 possible drivers (I am not bashful about stealing others good ideas). Some of these thoughts are motivated by a great blog post that can be found here: https://www.macroresilience.com/2010/01/13/do-investors-prefer-negative-skewness/
We wrote a few times during the depths of March and April on stresses we were seeing in bond, credit and funding markets. It was clear things were not functioning correctly. It was equally clear that both monetary and fiscal policymakers were trying as hard as they could to counteract. Now that some time has passed much more detailed examinations are coming out that are well worth reading to get a better idea of how the plumbing works, and sometimes gets blocked.
We are now a couple of weeks on from the last update we wrote looking at the actions the Fed had taken to stabilize bond and funding markets. Given last Thursday began with further announcements of expanding efforts to help, it seems a good time to revisit where things stand now. The commercial paper program is now up and running and we should be seeing the first of the “Economic Impact Payments” hitting household accounts right around now.
First, a recap of the most recent actions. April 9th saw the Fed announce actions to provide up to $2.3 trillion in loans to support the economy. They are doing this in a few ways, financing the loans banks are making to small businesses under the Paycheck Protection Program. This is the program that gives small businesses a direct incentive to keep workers on the payroll, via loan forgiveness if all employees are kept on the payroll for 8 weeks post the first disbursal. Coupled with the expanded Unemployment Insurance benefits, the goal is to minimize the income shock as much as possible to workers by either increased benefits to laid off workers or aiding companies in paying wages to keep people employed through this period.