Wednesday, 30 May 2018

BTP time bombs.

My last post was on Turkey and oil. Oil, only briefly to say it was turning and Turkey in a great long verbose way to say it was turning.

Last week every eye was upon the Turkish lira. But market attention is drawn not by absolute badness but by relative baldness, so the complete explosion in Italian politics over the last five days has drawn the macro tourists away from Turkey, leaving it free to pick itself up, dust itself down and become one of the world's best performing assets this week, knocking the socks off even the USA. Oil has also continued its downwards track leaving the long Turkey short oil trade looking like a podium winner. But there is no one even watching the champagne spraying ceremony because they have all dashed off to Italy.

Italy is really big stuff compared to the shakedown of a Turkish market that has already been seriously shaken down. If you think Turkey is a source of contagion in EM, you just have to watch what Italy can do to the DMs.

Italy is where risk and reward have been forced together between the huge clamps of ECB policy. Applying billions of Euros of force to the BTP market the ECB has managed to hold things for long enough to convince the market that Italian risk was not far off German risk and that Italian yields could be lower than US yields. And the money poured in on the implicit promise that the ECB would always be there and the explicit promise that they ‘would do whatever it takes'. Which is all fine as long as Italy doesn't decide to tear up its agreement with Europe and hence the ECB.

Unlike Turkey, Italy has a LOT of money parked in its debt markets. First, because it has a lot of debt and second because it pays more than the rest of core European. Finally, it will only lose you money if it defaults.

Losing money in bonds is a game of peek-a-boo. If you don't look at it won’t have cost you anything because any bond with a positive yield will, on full repayment at maturity, have made you money on an absolute basis. However, on a relative basis, things can be very different. Bond markets are about chasing the best yield and that implies relativity. Bond performances are barely ever measured against absolute return, instead choosing to be measured against a benchmark. So relative performance is absolutely key for measuring success. As soon as we have the relative performance we have to keep a track on how things are going and though we know we will get our money back in the end, if the value of bonds fall relative to the benchmark we are 'losing money’.

One obvious way not to be losing money, if we know we’ll always make in the end, is not to look at the price of the bond whilst holding it. 'No looky' no lossy'. Or no mark to market. This is what the ECB does with its holdings and that applies to the current 250bio it has on its books through QE. If it has no intention of selling them before maturity then there is theoretically no reason to mark them to market.

Funds are a different kettle of fish as investors constantly want to know what the worth of their assets are for value and for risk management sakes and that involves measuring them against current market prices. Kaboom.

Italy has always been a dirty little secret in real money portfolios. The long-term traditional real money accounts have huge amounts of higher (well, it was) grade Italian debt on their books under the title of European bonds. Desperation for yield and performance has forced many to wade into the 'Draghi guaranteed' higher yielder. There was little chance of being criticised by senior management for being long Italy, as to doubt Draghi was to doubt the existence of the Euro and therefore the existence of your own large European financial institution. If you know the event that blows up your fund also blows up the whole company then there is no relative disadvantage to holding them, if it blows up you lose your job either way.

When Europe started to recover and the Eurozone lift-off story started propagating 18 months ago, the chance of Italian default through local credit pressures was seen to fade and the demand from private hands to buy the previously considered toxic NPLs and sub-grade debt that was polluting Italian banks’ balance sheets was huge. The banks eagerly offloaded swathes of it and were starting to be classed as clean again. So banks were bought again too.

The purchasing of Italian based debt by private hands has been huge. Real money, hedge funds and SWFs own it and swathes of it have been built into all sorts of illiquid high-yielding structured products. The Italian banks are still holding enough of it together with government debt, to have some serious problems. Everyone is up to their necks in it.

The question is who has the longest mark-to-market interval. If you don’t have to look at the relative value then you might be able to ride this out as long as there is no default or restructuring into NuevoLira. But trying to keep a lid on exposures is going to become harder as time goes on. We are going to see fissures open up in places we probably haven’t yet imagined. Try picturing financial Europe as a Hawaii Big Island lava map. Even Herr Oettinger may find the soles of his feet warming up through German institutions' Italian debt holdings.

BTPs erupt in Portfolios

So in summary. I am a fader of peak 'tabloid' noise. Tabloid noise is indeed at a fever pitch. But in the case of Italy, we are not quite there yet. Mrs Watanabe has not yet sung and, though trying their best not to make any noise, those with Italian debt embedded in ‘safe' funds are going to be crying for their mamas before we see this over. Of course, that is unless Mr Draghi and the Eurocrats bow to quiet pressure to ‘just sort it out’.

I had wondered whether Italy might issue 250 billion of a 1000yr zero coupon BTP. They could exchange this with the ECB for all the shorter-dated stuff they hold and as ECB isn't mark-to-market, they would have effectively written off Italy’s debt. Just an idea.

Finally, its time to resurrect a post from 2014 which is once again very apt. Though my interpretation this time is that there is a lot more to worry about.

Monty Python's Four Italians sketch

Friday, 25 May 2018

Tabloid Turkey.

My Tabloid-o-meter shot into the red this week on two matters - Oil and Turkey. I have had very successful runs in both over the last two years but with the amount of noise surrounding them, I have reversed my positions as both are likely to correct. However, I am going to leave oil for now and concentrate on the Turkish noise.

Watching the crowds form around the Turkish sell-off is like watching a fight break out in the school playground.

Two kids start shoving each other, a crowd gathers, others see the crowd and ask what’s going on, more join as the playground’s attention starts to get sucked in by the gravity of the situation. They are told by those who didn't know what was going on what is going on, but Chinese whispers are propagating the further out the crowd is from the epicentre. Teachers are called and kids start Facebooking the action. The media notice and a reporter arrives, then the TV crews (let’s stay this is a Beverly Hills school) and suddenly a 'school-fight expert' is on the screens. To fill time and tighten the tension he even suggests that the fight might spread to neighbouring schools as gang culture is rife. Watching this on TV, parents pull their kids out from all the local school. Why? they don’t really need the reason, just the fact that their darlings have the smallest chance of being hurt is enough. Meanwhile, an enterprising guy opens a book on the fight, offering odds. People who have no clue about the antagonists are betting on the outcome. Seeing there is money to be made, big online betting sites get involved. Adverts appear extolling how much money can be made betting on the fight and an old man with ‘The End is Nigh' on a placard is spotted wailing outside the school. He's interviewed on TV as an expert on the upcoming global destruction. Finally ‘Phyghtchain' is ICO’d. The crypto coin backed by the physics of fight. Ten minutes after it launches someone in the centre of the scrum notices that the two scrapping kids have vanished, having been called home for their tea.

Well, that’s what it feels like, and pretty much encapsulates the anatomy of the past few EM crises. If you had faded the noise you would have made a lot of money.

Turkey has been firmly at the centre of my geopolitical radar for years, but the failed coup and the onset of the Putinisation of Erdogan had me shorting Turkey faster than a butcher on Boxing Day (26th Dec, for my non-UK readers).

The concerns being that Turkey was going to be a massive problem in the overlap of every sector of global politics. Add this to the price of coffee in Bodrum cafes and it looked like an obvious short. Yes, I do use a bit of coffee PPP as an indicator for when a country moves from EM to DM, usually through UM (Upstart Market, where they think they can charge alpine prices for emerging levels of service) and Turkey went UM very quickly in the early naughties.

The problem with starting the ball rolling on shorting Turkey was the yield. Yield is like a hill in the road. To get over it you need enough momentum in underlying price to overcome the drag of yield gravity. if you are paying 10+% of your returns away hoping for a move that is greater than that to pay you off, in a world where if you manage to make 5% as a fund money manager you are a hero, you need a really strong belief that you are going to get a big move your way. And this is where momentum comes in. If you travel fast enough up that hill of price then you will make it successfully to the other side in profit. While things grind along slowly it may not be worth the risk.

Until the day comes when something triggers the tipping point and the yield is no longer enough to pay for the risk in price moves. This is what happened with Erdogan's policy announcement that high interest rates were bad and weren’t going to be used to defend the currency. Boom. Momentum meant that prices were moving far faster than the yield could compensate for. Who cares about 16% p/a interest costs when you are getting 5% moves in a day? As momentum explodes the relative return of carry is diminished.

Those long of the carry trade were underwater and the risk-reward was seriously changed. Japanese yield hunters were finally triggered out of their positions (normally the last out) and the resulting sharp moves were what sucked in media attention and anyone thinking there was a buck to be made. Why has everyone piled in? Well… Well, a good question to ask is why are you selling TRY now rather than selling it a year ago at much better levels? The answers I hear back are that ‘this time is different’. Deficits, Balance of Payments, screwed up policy, political isolation and a rising US dollar and global rates.

So which bits of that are new?

Deficits and BoP are cited every time there is an EM sell-off, but we know from experience that investors are tarts enough to be bought off by high yield once things stabilise.

The screwed up policy and political isolation - these are based on Erdogan and I concur it is a long-term mess, but the balance of monetary policy position has shifted with the 300bp rate hike on Wednesday. The political situation is a very good reason to be concerned in the long-term but it isn't anything new to us.

Rising US rate and a strong dollar - This generic EM wasp spray is brought out every time there is an EM crisis. As seen in 2014 and 2016 it never ends up killing EM. It is also important when reading articles on the amount of dollar debt out there, to consider who owns it. EM dependency on US-based lending is waning. If EM issue USD debt and buy USD debt then as rates rise, yes, the borrowers suffer but the lenders gain. Often it is the same countries or companies who are both long and short - most of it is intra-China. So whilst I agree that higher US rates and a stronger dollar don't help matters it certainly isn't responsible for the chaos.

QE unwind? Money was cheap and it was easy to park it in high yield. But the reduction in liquidity is reflected in rates and a move in rates is yield differential and though US rates may be 2% higher than last time, Turkish rates are higher still. It’s a great back-fit story but it isn't the trigger or the ‘now’.

So, as with an old wedding cake being recycled for the first christening, we have the old baked reasons to sell Turkey re-iced with some new ones.

Turkey is still a tinderbox and Erdogan’s positioning in the world will have to be resolved before we can see any long-term improvement but I do not see this event as THE blow-up. EM blow ups are more like dud fireworks. They explode in your face when you go back to wonder why they hadn’t gone off. Early 2014 may be a good case in point to follow. We had maximum noise before Turkey ended up as the best performing EM of the year.

I do not see Turkey acting as a catalyst for a contagious event. It is an easy sensationalist game to play and Ambrose Evans Pritchard is at it already, quoting the head of the IIFF  but the world is now smart enough not to clump all ‘EM’ into the one fund-box it used to.

With noise at such levels and every macro tourist flocking to Turkey, I have turned my shorts into Turkish longs looking for momentum to fade and the weight of the carry costs tied to the ankles of TRY shorts to drag them, spluttering, underwater.