Random Shots - Smoke Screens

First off obviously; Spain and the country's bailout which was announced yesterday. Alpha.Sources is amazed that it has not happened before really. As we have seen so often before when Europe is on the brink of disaster this time with a Greek exit looming and Spanish banks in tatters, a response has been cooked up in the fudge factory. 

Spain asked euro region governments for a bailout worth as much as 100 billion euros ($125 billion) to rescue its banking system as the country became the biggest euro economy so far to seek international aid.“The Spanish government declares its intention of seeking European financing for the recapitalization of the Spanish banks that need it,” Spanish Economy Minister Luis de Guindos told reporters in Madrid today. A statement by euro region finance ministers said the loan amount will “cover estimated capital requirements with an additional safety margin.”

With Greece the immediate danger only a couple of weeks ago, the failure by Bankia seems to suddenly have alerted the eurostriches to the vortex of capital destruction in the Spanish banking system and the inevitable bailout got the fast track rubber stamp. 

Two points are interesting to focus on initially here. 

Firstly, the headline number of €125 billion is big, really big. Only a couple of weeks ago we were hearing numbers of a €20 to €30 billion euros for Spanish banks and this underscores just how expensive this may turn out to be. Consequently, we don't really believe that this is going to be the final number now do we?

Looking at mortgages alone, the accumulation of negative equity by households may rack up a total tally of more than €250 billion euros and this does not include property developer loans. Spain decided early on to attempt to let time be a healer and assumed that losses could be taken over time without the market catching on. This weekend's events show us that this is not possible and I think that the final number will have German and IMF accountants working over time to figure out just exactly where the money is going to come from. A corollary to this point is the also that the EU badly needs to sort out the firepower for the EFSF and the ESM since the original structure simply won't have to capital to sort out Spain and cannot, in its current form, simply access the market for more.

Secondly, the battle of numbers mentioned above seem initially to have taken the backseat to the discussion of whether in fact Spain has gotten a bailout or simply a very cheap loan by a willing lender.  Finance minister Luis de Guindos plays the part well. 

“The financial support will be directed to the FROB [Spain's Fund for Orderly Bank Restructuring] which will inject it in the financial entities that need it,” said finance minister Luís de Guindos in a press conference this afternoon. “It is a loan with very favorable terms, much more favorable than the market’s. In no way is this a bailout.

Obviously, this is nonsense but we must understand that this is a critical discourse to push for Spain. Every single country that has so far received an EU/IMF bailout is dead in the water either now effectively under permanent stewardship of a troika or simply in some form of default. In this light, Spain has a distinct interest in pushing the story that this is not a bailout, but my feeling is that this weekend may have marked the last time for a long while that the Spanish sovereign has accessed the market on normal market conditions. 

In this sense, yours truly certainly agrees with Edward. If it walks like one and quacks like one and all that. 

“Of course it’s a bailout. What else would you call it? If you can’t finance your debt, and you have to ask someone else to finance it, it’s a bailout. But everybody who’s taken a bailout is dead, and Rajoy doesn’t want to be dead."

Still, while Edward may have the right point here there is a finer point to be made. The higher the EU/IMF bailout efforts reaches up through the pecking order in the peripheral economies the weaker Germany's and the EU's hand becomes. You can just imagine the discussion about conditionality with Spain withRajoy et al simply pointing out the obvious in terms of a complete meltdown of the euro zone economy in the even of an un-managed unravelling of the Spanish banking system. 

The smoke screens will be blown thick and fast from Madrid, but the initial spin is very easy to predict. Spain's problems, we will be told, reside in its banks and therefore the government needs less supervision relative to Greece where the government is the culprit. As Lisa Abend puts it (article linked above), 
Any European and IMF oversight–the latter will not be contributing funds but will be involved in monitoring their use–will be restricted to the financial sector, not the Spanish macroeconomic system as a whole.

This is absolute tripe of course.  One of the main lessons of this crisis is that in the case of a highly risky stock of private debt in the private (banking) sector it is only a matter of time before this liability must be assumed by the sovereign (Ireland is an example here, but Australia and Denmark exhibit similar characteristics).  One would expect Spain to continue playing this implicit card of systemic importance in order to starve off the stigma of bailout. Naturally, this is grossly unfair for Greece which is being submitted to chemotherapy even as there is a 50/50 chance that the treatment itself will kill the patient. This is is especially the case if the ECB/EU end up chucking the country out through a stop of the ECB liquidity life line. 


Reality Creeping up on Japan

Of the deluge of news the past couple of weeks, what caught Alpha.Sources' attention was how the Bank of Japan pushed back against increasing government cries for more monetisation. 

BOJ Deputy Governor Hirohide Yamaguchi said the central bank will not rule out further easing if risks in Europe materialize and exert strong downward pressure on Japan's economy. But he signaled that Japan will likely achieve the BOJ's 1 percent inflation target without further monetary easing steps, saying the bank's stimulus measures in February and April have heightened the chance the economy will resume a recovery.

A sign of the times perhaps that central banks are starting to feel the pressure from the very guardians of their assumed independence to do more, and to do it more aggressively. As always it will be difficult for central banks to do much since ultimately that would involve biting the very hand that feeds them.

Still, it was refreshing to hear the governor Shirakawa rise above the relationship with the ministry of finance to link Japan's chronic deflation problem to the country's ageing population. If only leaders and economists in Europe would listen to this rather than the consensus that has now emerged that a euro breakup and exit is now the inevitable outcome.

Another interesting structural force which seems to be at play in Japan is the fact that the trade balance may never swing back into surplus due to the dependence on energy imports. Primarily LNG imports tied to the oil price on long term contracts. Alliance Bernstein estimates in a recent note that of the Y1 trillion increase in imports since April 2010, about Y700 billion has come from LNG imports which has replaced the country's idle nuclear capacity. As such idleness is likely to be structural so will the persistent trade deficit likely become structural. 

We should remember however that Japan still runs a substantial current account surplus as a result of a positive income balance derived from the world's largest positive net foreign asset position. Still, the current account surplus is shrinking fast coming in at only 2% of GDP in 2011 which is the lowest in 12 years. As suhc, despite Mr Shirakawa believing that the BOJ has done enough, the onus on the central bank rises to start monitising government debt less Japan wants to peddle bonds to foreigners in which case reality would instantly catch up the Japan's government finances. 


Deflation Risks Re-Emerge with a Venegance, but Central Banks Prefer Stagflation

Moving on to the market, my dear reader we are at it again. Europe is once again on the brink of disaster with a Greek exit looming and Spain all but certain to seek the inevitable bailout. As so often before, starting up the fudge factory seems to be the most likely outcome , but could this time be different? 

A number of heavy weight columnists have recently (yet again) proclaimed that the end of the world is nigh. Most devastatingly was of course Raoul Pal's End Game presentation which gives investors a mere 6 month to protect themselves before heading for the bunker. 

In addition, Soc Gen's Albert Edwards also recently touched on the growing and most disconcerting disconnect between global stock markets and all time low (and even zero or negative) bond yields in the developed world. 

As 30y German Bund yields slide below 2% and rapidly converge towards Japanese rates, we have a taster of what is to come in the US and UK in the months ahead. We still see US 10y yields even now making new all-time lows falling below 1% as hard landings occur in China and the US. The secular equity valuation bear market began in 2000 and renewed global recession will be the trigger to catalyse the third and hopefully final, gut-wrenching phase of valuation de-rating. Expect the S&P500 to decline decisively below its March 2009, 666 intra-day low. All hope will be crushed.

And in his latest flash comment, Greed and Fear (Chris Wood) also alerts investors to the threat of deflation. 

The consensus monkeys have been proved wrong yet again. A mere three months after talkingheads on the sell side were doing their usual annual first quarter ritual of proclaiming the endof the “secular” bull market in US treasury bonds, the ten-year bond yield made a new all-timelow of 1.45% on Friday. 


It continues to amaze GREED & fear how most analysts in the West continue to underestimate the deflationary structural forces at play and are always trying to pick the peak of the bond bull market (in price terms) and the commencement of inflation. Still the main reason GREED & fear has so far avoided succumbing to this temptation is that GREED & fear has been observing Japan for more than 20 years. And for GREED & fear, and for anyone else who has been watching Japan for a similar period, the market action in the West since the global financial crisis hit in the summer of 2008 does not surprise. Rather it remains eerily familiar.

Alpha Sources is concerned, as ever, that a wash-out is coming and certainly remains in the structural deflation camp in so far as goes global debt and growth dynamics writ large. It is also the contention here that it remains a widowmaking trade to call the end of the bull market in bonds, that would require much a much more sinster involvement of bond vigilantes from whatever hole they might appear.

However two points are worth noting.

Firstly, G&F's comparison with Japan may only be as good as it goes. While the blueprint is the same and there central banks have woved no to repeat the Japanese experience. The stated intention of central banks remain to print when it doubt. 

Nowhere is this clearer than with Bernanke. The Fed chairman has demonstrably stated his intention not to travel down Japan's road to deflation. Could it be that this commitment in itself will lead us to an alternative outcome? As always, the proof will be in the actual effect of additional monetary and fiscal stimulus where I would note that in past periods of QE in the US, bond yields have increased! Then there is of course the BOE where Mervyn King and his council have been extremely aggressive in their efforts to combat perceived deflation risks. 

Secondly, on the scenario laid out by Albert Edwards,  one has to note that the stock market is essentially just a nominal price and nominal prices can be manipulated by authorities. While Edwards clearly believe that we are heading towards a situation where this is impossible, Alpha.Sources would be weary betting on a fallout in the S&P 500 to the 500s before the Fed's toolbox has been completely exhausted. Negtive interest rate on excess reserves as well as outright unsterilized purchases of financial assets are the likely next steps if things go south from here. 

But, as always, Edwards is on to something. As stock markets ran up in the aftermath of the ECB's LTRO yields stayed pinned to the floor. When and how aggressively would yields catch up to the stock market? Well, it seems now that we know the answer to this question; the market may just be about to catch up with falling bond yields even if the latter remains severly oversold in the short run. 

We are now in a situation where developed government bond markets still considered safe are pricing in a calamity, but it is important for investors to understand that such apparent grave "expectations" are amplified by the very nature of post crisis financial markets where government bond markets across the European periphery are considered nothing but a very risky equity investment (due to the implied subordination to an ever growing size of the institutional (ECB and IMF) sector involvement in this market). 

In this sense, there is a considerable fundamental mispricing mechanism being operated at the current juncture where normal discounted cash flow valuation analysis cannot be used to explain why anyone would want to pile into government bonds. Or put differently, there are many reasons to hold government bonds and the discounted return from holding to maturity is not necessarily one of them. Liquidity and preservation of the face value of capital are much more important in the current climate even to such an extent that investors are willing to pay a premium for the return of their capital at a later date (negative interest rates). 

In the US for example, it is not clear to Alpha.Sources for example that inflation expectations in the US are pricing in stagflation rather than deflation. This makes sense if we believe in Bernanke's commitment. Of two evils, the Fed appears to prefer stagflation over deflation and it will make sure that faced with such a binary menu, the former is what materialises. 

In the short run, the stark drop in US payrolls may give direction with equities likely to correct downwards towards what the bond market has been telling us for a while rather than the other way around. But ultimately and while Alpha.Sources is weary of the threat of deflation, it is important to show significant respect the playbooks of central banks. Evidence has taught us not to underestimate the ruthlessness by which central bankers are ready to provide inflationary stimulus and as such Alpha.Sources will be hesitant to claim, unlike in the case of Spanish politicians, that they are blowing smoke screens.