Monday, December 26, 2016

Macro | 2017 - The Year Ahead

2016 has been the year of surprises - The Brexit, the US Presidential election, the Italian referendum, the massive de-monitization in India, the Nobel prize in literature - you name it. But perhaps the real surprise was how the markets shrugged off each of these supposedly to catastrophic events.

As discussed earlier, this year has been the year of the dollar. The chart below on the left compares volatilities across asset classes in terms of cumulative daily moves greater than 1.5x the daily standard deviation. The dollar has been the clear winner. But also notice the sharp pick up in rates (US 30y here) late this year, reflecting the sell-off after the US election. The chart on the right shows the reversal and continuation of trends across asset classes during the year. The solid performance of risk assets after the sell-off early in the year, in spite of the dollar rally, increase in yields and continued weakness in the Chinese Yuan, has been nothing short of unexpected.

Going in to the next year, however, much of it depends on the performance of the US economy - more specifically the continued strength of the private consumption components and the much expected revival of the investment expenditure. The charts below show what to expect in each of these going in to 2017. A simple linear model points to the strong dependence of the house prices, real rate and labor productivity. The biggest risk to this component of GDP from rising rate is the house price, which has been strong in 2016. The upside risk is of course a much awaited improvement of the productivity (without a runway inflationary pressure).

The investment expenditure, on the other hand, is largely driven by the inflation (NOT real rate, based on this empirical AR(1) model) and expectation about the economy (here represented by the Conference Board leading Index for the US). This part will be crucially determined by the policies of the new administration. The built-up expectation about fiscal spending and its impact on keeping the US growth engine running I think is a bit over-rated. In fact fiscal stimulus in an economy with tight labor market can be more inflationary than expected. The biggest upside may possibly be in the private investments front, which has been running remarkably low for a recovery compared to past episodes. A judicious mix of policy can change this. An improvement in tax regime and infrastructure spending may make US assets attractive not only for domestic, but also for overseas investors. On the other hand, the storm kicked up over trades and foreign policies can be unsettling for long term investments. This is too early to conclude in either way - but this will definitely be the major source of risks, either good or bad. And if this hypothesis is true, this will mean a decoupling of the movement of rates, risk assets and dollars, conditional on no extraordinary increase in inflation or inflation expectation.

The last bit about contained inflation is the base case scenario. Over-all 2016 has seen global inflation picking up in the second half of the year. This to a large extent is driven by the recovery in energy prices and commodities in general. We are still to see any thing on the core inflation that will be any cause of concern. In fact global core inflation is down marginally in the second half in 2016, with notable exception of China. The medium to long term inflation forecast remains stable. The recent rally in inflation break-even markets, while impressive, is coming off from a very low level. We have discussed before the weakening relationship of wage pressure and headline inflation. Nevertheless wage growth is least of any concerns. We do have decent growth in wages in the US, but they are hardly extraordinary compared to pre-crisis periods, and elsewhere globally it remains subdued.

2016 has also been remarkable in at least two other aspects. First, we have seen a definite improvement in global PMI, not only limited to the US anymore. And also the significant contraction in US (negative) current account balance since the post-crisis QE world has now turned a corner and we have a marginal expansion in US current account deficit again. This is all the while with an expansion of Chinese current account surplus along with strong Euro area balance and contraction in current account surplus in petro-dollars economies. If the recent recovery of oil prices sustain, we will see the last bit changing in to positive territories again. That leaves the post-crisis anomaly of the very large Euro area surplus. The global imbalance in trade (and alternatively net savings) is shown the chart below on the left. During the 2000s, the US consistently ran an increasing current account deficit and a shrinking interest rate differential (see the right hand chart below, weighted rates differential to Euro and Japan economies). The dollar more or less followed the suit, weakening during most part of early 2000s. If we assume the QE is more or less done for the ECB and in 2017 we will focus back on tapering in the base case scenario, then it is hard to see that rates differential widening any further. Add to this the massive current account imbalance of the Euro area, and 2017 might as well be the turn-around year for the Euro, instead of the consensus long dollar trade (barring political accidents).

Finally, one of the biggest anticipation in 2017 is the great asset rotation, investors fleeing the bonds universe from the rising rate fear and piling in to equities. Again, there is hardly a strong case for that. Firstly, the demographics in the developed world does not allow a strong return to equities. Secondly, the fear about overseas official accounts dumping treasuries is largely unfounded - primarily most of them have been snapped up by the private sectors, and if we have steady energy prices we will see a lot less selling of treasuries by the petro-dollar economies. China, of course remains vulnerable with a steady outflow, but the outcome is unexpected here. A large dumping of treasuries by China, driven by PBoC's need to supply dollar demand in the domestic economy, will mostly be a risk-averse move and will have the opposite effect on US yields than what a large sell-off might suggest (i.e. a flight-to-safety rally instead of a bonds sell-off). As far as the US households are concerned, they started the great rotation a while back already - as the chart below show.

Overall, we can conclude from above that the major macro drivers for 2017 will be 1) US house prices and US fiscal and trade policies 2) Euro area economic indicators, especially credit impulse 3) The uncertain role of the emerging market economies in face of rising rates and dollars and finally 4) The re-balancing of global excess savings. We should expect a limited rise of rates and inflation (and inflation expectation). Also risk assets face no immediate strong head-winds yet as we expect the upside risk to bond yields and inflation limited. Finally, as we near the end of monetary activism and divergence, going forward we will see a higher de-correlation among asset classes. The major tail risks remain the Chinese economy - where expected risks of accident are low (but with a large impact of course). Among idiosyncratic risks, the UK economy may be vulnerable to a dragged-on negotiation on Brexit, which also potentially may have some mirror impact on the Euro area.

Given this, here we list the top macro trades for the coming year. Note these are the major themes and ways to express them, not a fire-and-forget strategy to be executed on the first trading day of the year.

Economic Theme
Market Impact
US Policy Regime Shift – pro-business (tax friendly), pro-fiscal (infra spending) with a risk of foreign confrontation
Macro: Consumption (and employment) has limited upside, the main upside lies in investment pick-up. Downside for house prices and trades
Market: Selectively positive for equities, negative for rates, Limited upside for dollars.
  1. Pay USD rates against GBP
  2. Long equity options with knock-out on lower rates
  3. Forward vol around (1y5y5y or similar) through vol-triangle, or simply 1y5y vs. 1y10y vol spread to protect against unexpected inflation/ sharp bear flattening.
  4. Rates receivers with lower rates knock-in for hedging economic shocks (long equities hedge, positive carry on upper left on forwards levels)
European/ Global   Recovery
Macro: higher rates, higher Euro (against USD and GBP) and higher inflation – with political surprise downside for Euro Area. Normalization of EU trade balance.
  1. Long Euro FX calls with knock-in on higher rates
  2. GBP vs. EUR inflation breakeven tightener (pay GBP breakeven)
  3. Opportunistic rates steepener convergence
Brexit Implication
Unsustainably high priced-in inflation in UK. Equities so far priced-in only sterling weakness (FTSE in dollar terms sold off same as GBP since Brexit, this does not incorporate any weakening of the economy)
  1. Short FTSE 100 quantoed in euro vs. SX5E or beta-weighted SX7E (highly correlated to Euro rates)
  2. GBP vs. EUR inflation breakeven tightener (pay GBP breakeven)
China Put
A flare up of Chinese crisis. Chinese market prices more controlled, than dependent countries
  1. China rates payer vs AUD
  2. Short EM bonds (especially if you see a strong dollar rally ahead of us)
EM underperformance
Dollar strengthening, and economies closely linked to dollar following the rates moves
  1. Buy dollar against EM CCY basket
  2. Short EM bonds (especially if you see a strong dollar rally ahead of us)
Euro Area Crisis Hedge
Reversal of peripheral spread tightening
  1. Long Germany break-even vs. Italy (follows  closely the CDS spread)
Run-away inflation cheap hedge
The (unlikely) scenario of central banks losing control or way behind the curve. The idea is while normal inflationary pressure will push real yields, runaway inflation will force monetization, given the debt-to-GDP ratios of major economies.
  1. near-OTM rates payers vs. inflation, against far-OTM inflation caps against rates.

Have a great year ahead!