Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Markets | Trading the "Bond Bubble"

One of the most confusing conundrum in recent time has been the curious case of stubbornly weak inflation and upbeat economy with low unemployment.

The US GDP number, while not spectacular, has been solid. Atlanta Fed GDP-Now picked up significantly in recent time. The consensus forecast for medium term GDP (2018) also improved from the start of the year and now stands at 2.3 percent. Unemployment rate remains near record lows, below pre-crisis number. According to JOLTS surveys, both quit rate and job opening rate matches or betters the pre-crisis cyclical highs. Even the relatively more pessimistic Fed labor market conditions index has improved significantly from the lows of early 2016. But both market and survey based inflation expectations are going the other way. The 5y treasury break-even inflation came-off ~40bps from highs of early this year and now stands at 1.65 percent. Similar is the story for break-even swaps markets. To match, the medium term consensus inflation forecast has come down from 2.4 percent early this year to 2.2 percent. The fall is even steeper for 2017 forecast, from 2.5 percent as recent as April, it is now at 2.10 handle. And this does not appear to be driven by oil or commodities. Both Brent and WTI have been range-bound since mid of last year. Even the set-back in general commodities prices (see Bloomberg Commodity or CRB index) early this year is now on the path of recovery. The Phillips curve is either flat, dead or was never there.

This conflicting development seemed to have a win-win impact on major asset markets. Instead of the fabled great rotation, we have seen strong money flows in both stocks and bonds - blame it on the re-balancing of portfolios, or general optimism.

The stock market benefited from solid economy and strong earnings, with valuation also supported by low rates. But the positioning remains cautious (with a correction in the gamma positioning as well).

A more interesting development is happening in the bonds markets. The bonds markets seem to have sided with the low inflation view - that no matter what the Fed does - inflation, and rates, are not going anywhere anytime soon. The over-all positioning remains solidly in the long territory. But the peculiarity is in the strong flattening bias build-up. Early this year we saw a massive swing in long maturity bonds positioning, from extreme shorts to moderate longs. This was presumably driven by the built-up and subsequent unwinds of the Trump Trade. As a side-effect, this has resulted in the extreme flattening positioning on the street. It appears everyone is positioned for a low pace of rate hikes from the Fed, and anchored low inflation expectation - resulting in a yield curve flattening. Last few times we had this kind of extremes (early 2010, mid 2012, around just before Taper tantrum and start of 2015) we had a very strong steepening that bloodied all these speculative position well and good.

Most of the players in the markets are already wary of overall bonds positioning. Some are calling out a bond bubbleSome are ready to take the opposite view. If you are in the markets to trade and not for punditry, it is hard to take a strong view. This extreme positioning in the curve provides a cheap (in terms of risk to reward ratio) way to position for a bonds sell-off. Or forget bursting the bubble, even a Fed balance sheet normalization can be the trigger. It is not at all certain balance sheet normalization will lead to increase in term premia and long term yields. But most theories say so. And if the Fed decides to hold short term policy rates during this normalization, this steepening can play out in both bull or bear scenario. And honestly, nobody has any clue how the Chinese are going to change their treasury buying patterns after the National Congress in the Autumn. If the current premier is able to stamp his authority, as generally expected, this may mark a definitive shift in policy from GDP growth target to economic stability. That, in turn, will have far reaching ripples for global asset markets.

At current level, the US curve is the flattest among all major currencies (except 5 year vs. 10 year area where JPY curve is flatter). A steepening in USD rates is a highly asymmetric trade - the trade to position for a bond bubble, whether you believe in it or not.

1. Data source: ICI for funds flow data, CFTC commitment of traders for positioning data (latest 1st August)
2. Steepening position is implied from short end (2 year and 5 year) and long end futures positioning, expressed in equivalent (approximate) duration at 10 year point.