Friday, January 29, 2016

Next Bubble to Burst

Many today believe the 2008-2009 recession was caused by a credit crisis in the banking system. They view the levels of debt that had built up in the consumer and financial sectors as excessive and somehow "blowing up" like a form of spontaneous combustion. The credit crisis, however, was preceded by a number of developments, not the least of which was the vast expansion of debt and the instruments that created and compounded that debt. But, the most immediate precursor of the crisis was a sudden and rapid repricing of risk that was well underway by the middle of 2007. In the years prior to 2007, risk had largely been discounted in the corporate, financial and consumer sectors, as yield spreads narrowed to historic lows. By 2014-2105, junk bonds were trading at yield levels below that of high grade corporate bonds throughout much of the 1990s.

Credit spreads, or the yield differential of a corporate bond, mortgage security or other debt instrument, relative to the US Treasury benchmark rate, is at the center of the way in which bonds are priced in the capital markets. The lower the credit rating, or the higher the perceived riskiness of a bond, the greater the yield spread relative to a Treasury bond of equivalent maturity.

Now the thing is, credit spreads are not static, but rather vary from time to time. During periods of relative calm and optimism in the financial markets, credit spreads tend to compress (often just as lending criteria become more relaxed). In times of uncertainty or distress, credit spreads widen. In the period 2003-2007, high yield bond spreads declined to levels that were absurd, with junk bond spreads compressing to less than 2.5%. By the time the 2008 recession was fully underway, however, these spreads would widen to an all-time high of 21.0%!

As can be seen from the graph below, debt levels are now once again at record levels, although today the debt is concentrated in the corporate and sovereign sectors, rather than the mortgage and financial sectors, as was the case leading up to the financial crisis. In fact, absolute debt levels in the US today are much higher than they were before the 2008 financial crisis.

Amidst this expansion of debt, a similar pattern of ultra-low risk premiums has been underway for several years, as a rapid expansion of liquidity by world central banks flowed into the sector. By mid-2014, high yield credit spreads had fallen to 3.3%. But now, the tide is once again turning. Rapidly widening credit spreads for high yield bonds are again underway, showing a similar pattern of risk re-repricing to what we saw in 2007. Today, the high yield index shows a credit spread of just under 8.0% (roughly the same levels as 2008).

The near default in Venezuela, deepening recession in Brazil and devastation in the energy sector has us also wondering about the vulnerability of bank stocks, with material emerging markets and oil patch exposures for these institutions. If the value of publicly held high yield debt is rapidly deteriorating (as price moves inversely with yield) mustn't the same value deterioration be equally true of these bank loans?  JPM Chairman, Jamie Dimon was quick to play down the issue of his bank's risk profile in energy, arguing that the bank is well reserved against potential losses. As if to further comfort JPM investors, Dimon continued to offer that bank loans to oil and gas companies are asset backed; that is, losses would be offset by the realization of collateral.

The question, of course, remains as to what these assets would be worth in an environment of plunging oil prices, record excess capacity and massive inventory build. Taken in the context of the repricing of risk, the high yield bond market does appear to be telling us something about the near-term future of the economy that is increasingly difficult to ignore.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Hillary Clinton's Plan for Social Security

Faced with increasing pressure from Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination, the Clinton camp has recently found it necessary to finally address the issue of Social Security, a topic widely discussed by Senator Sanders. We've written at length about the issues facing Social Security, as well as the flaws in Bernie Sanders' well-intentioned plan for revitalizing this program, upon which so seniors widely rely.

Ms. Clinton's proposal, however, not only lacks substance, but credibility. After all, in previous mention of the topic, her comments have been limited to "don't touch it". Then, as now, not touching Social Security puts us on a path to the program's demise. This is not our view, but that of the Trustees of the Social Security Administration. And lest you believe as Ms. Clinton proclaims that the whole idea of Social Security insolvency is a myth promoted by the GOP, consider that the Trustees of the Social Security Administration, the same ones attempting to alert the public to the impending disaster, are all Obama appointees - and all Democrats.

Clinton's plan to fix Social Security is, first, to kill the notion of privatizing the system. Well, she may be right about this, but killing a proposal hardly provides a fix. Second, she'd "consider" raising the cap on wages subject to the Social Security tax (currently $118,500 per year). Lastly, she'd like to make some sort of adjustment for women, seeing that women often work less years than men, and therefore accrue less Social Security benefits. And, sorry folks, that's about it.

Just to recast the problem, quoting the 2015 report of the Social Security Administration, the present value deficit of the Social Security Trust Fund, in other words, the difference between what is projected to be paid in benefits and what is expected to be gathered in taxes and investment income, is roughly $10 trillion. Removing the cap on wages alone (which goes somewhat beyond what the candidate has proposed) is a relative drop in the bucket. And this is the only aspect of her plan that can actually be quantified.

Here's the basic problem. With an aging society and demographic imbalances, the current level of tax and earnings will only float the Trust Fund until 2034, or roughly another 20 years. After that, benefits, already meager, would have to be reduced by a third. Now here's the tough part, There are only two possible solutions for addressing this crisis: either increase taxes, or cut benefits, or provide some combination of the two. The subtlety comes in how this is done. How do you raise taxes fairly and keep from cutting benefits to those who need them the most? For this, we've previously provided our views, available here.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

What's Working in this Market Correction

The New Year starts with a bang, with hundred points swings in the Dow Jones Industrial Average each day this week. Unfortunately, the swings have all been to the downside, with the S&P falling nearly 5.0% this week. In this environment, investors may be tempted to throw up their hands and sell everything, or watch from the sidelines like a deer in the headlights as portfolio values head ever lower. Let's look at what's actually working.

First, while some portion of the selloff was likely initiated by the Fed's modest rate hike in December, the 0.25% increase has all been directed at the short end of the yield curve. Bonds, especially long-dated bonds have performed quite well, with the yield on the 30-year UST falling below 3% (2.93% as of this writing) from a level of 3.04% just last week. Eleven basis points of declining yield has the price of the US Treasury 2x ETF (UBT) rising from $73 to $76 over the same period. That's a 4% gain for the week, while everything else seems to be swimming furiously in a sea of red.

This leads us to our first trade for the New Year, bonds, and specifically UBT as an ETF play available to retail investors. UBT is levered 2x which means that a rise in long term interest rates would also cause this instrument to fall disproportionately in value. But if your view is that the economy may be hitting a rough patch, where stocks are susceptible, then bonds may provide a safe port in the storm. This is especially true if you believe economic growth and inflation, the principal enemies of bonds, will continue to be subdued. It's also worth noting that UBT traded as high as 97 back in February 2015, when the long bond traded at 2.25%. Not to say this is where things are headed, but with the softness we're seeing in global markets, difficult to rule it out either.

Oil continues its rapid decline, now bordering on a free-fall. The inverse leveraged ETF, SCO, has done especially well over this period, rising from $80 in the beginning of November to its present level of $160. How much lower oil can go is anyone's guess, but WTI is now roughly where it was during the 2009 recession (along with other commodity prices). Hard to believe it falls much further, yet SCO may still form a reasonable hedge against long positions, certainly in energy and perhaps, also, industrial stocks.

SKF, the inverse leveraged ETF on financial services stocks, also has our attention. This instrument can not only provide a hedge against other long equity positions, but highlight the risks specific to the financial services sector. Some concern with financial services profits may be warranted following the poor performance of markets in the latter part of 2015 and the disastrous 4th quarter results posted by Jefferies on December 15. Customarily a harbinger of things to come at the larger Wall Street names, our concern can only be amplified by the exposures of these firms to deteriorating credits in the oil patch.

On the long side, defensive sectors like healthcare and utilities may prove a good place to hide, collecting dividends and waiting for markets to sort themselves out. As to cash, which investment advisors tend to dismiss, it's beating stocks by 4.89% this year.