Posts tagged volatility
Testing Time

The Q1 earnings numbers have kicked up a lot of dust across sectors and individual companies, which is good news for stock-pickers eager to prove their worth. For markets as a whole, though, I see little change in the underlying narrative relative to what I have been talking about recently. Equity investors remain focused on what policymakers are saying rather than what they’re doing, sticking with the idea that central banks, and perhaps even politicians at large, have their backs. Bond markets are nodding in agreement. Solid labour market data in the U.S., and a robust Q1 GDP print, have not dented market-implied expectations that the next move by the Fed will be a cut. And in the Eurozone, markets have priced out an adjustment in the deposit rate through 2021. Blackrock’s Rick Rieder summed it up neatly last week by referring to the asymmetric outlook for policy. I am paraphrasing, but the idea goes something like this: “If central banks raise rates, they will do so slowly and hesitantly. If they have to cut, due to tightening financial conditions and a slowing economy, they will do so fast and aggressively.” I would even wrap in fiscal policy here, though this admittedly tends to operate more slowly, and over a longer timeframe than monetary policy.

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Pain, and a Silver Lining

If you are an equity investor with time to read this, I reckon that I should have the decency to cut straight to the point. Based on macro liquidity indicators, I see a convincing case for a short-term bounce in global equities into year-end, before—unfortunately—further weakness in Q1. The main argument is summarized in the two charts on the following page. The first compares momentum—the 2nd derivative of y/y growth—in global equities and global real M1. I am working under the assumption that the year-over-year rate in the global stock index will decline gradually to -10% by the end of March. Adding back into the price points to just under 6% upside between now and the end of December, before a nasty 11% drawdown in the first quarter. This story is supported by the idea that higher yields and rising oil prices are now a significant challenge to multiples, especially in the U.S. Abee makes a similar point over at Macro Man, with the ominous addendum that it’ll probably get worse if growth in earnings falter, which they are liable to do, eventually. The argument for a short-term bounce is straightforward. At the time of writing, the global equity benchmark is down nearly 10% on the month in October, and about 5% for the year. I never thought that this would be a particularly good year for equities, but this seems like an excessive reaction, after all. 

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Competing Narratives

I have two objectives with this week’s missive. I want to contrast what I think are the two prevailing narratives used to explain markets in the first half of the year. And then I want to have a look at the durability of large-cap equity earnings because it seems to be crucial to what happens next. The first story pits the storm chasers against the connectors. The former primarily sees events such as the equity volatility surge in February, the widening LIBOR/OIS spread and the leap in Italian two-year yields as a result of a change in market structure. The ratio of liquidity-providing market makers to crowded trades has shrunk dramatically, creating the condition for face-ripping reversals in consensus and complacent positioning. The storm chasers sees this, and are trying to exploit it. They don’t necessarily ignore the big picture, but they are sufficiently confident in its stability to believe that storms can arise independently of it. Proponents of this view would argue that it is the combination of 15-sigma events and a stable overall environment that is the central story. For example, the fact that the February blow-up of the short vol trade was linked to a bigger story—that the market as a whole would crash—is what makes the initial trade, and the rebound, so attractive.

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A World of Suboptimal Choices

It's never easy when bonds and stocks decline at the same time, but despite the much-publicised death of the "risk parity" strategy, I don't think the past few weeks' price action qualifies as decisive evidence. After all, the S&P 500 is down a mere 0.6% from its peak in the beginning of June, while US 10-year futures are off only 1.5%. In writing this, though, I remember that many punters in this business use leverage. This acts as an accelerant not only for the volatility of their PnLs, but also for the speed with which a meme can take hold in the peanut gallery. I sympathise with the plight of bond traders in Europe where the dislocation in yields has been particularly nasty. When yields are near zero, or even negative, the relationship between small changes in yield and prices can be brutal. This is even acuter in Japan, where the BOJ might soon have to actually defend that 0% target on the 10-year yield, to avoid an accident in the domestic asset management industry. In the U.S., the 10-year yields has been altogether less dramatic, but big enough to raise questions about whether we have made a switch from a flattener to a steepener.

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