Ultra-low interest rates may lead to a ‘debt trap’

The highly-regarded Stephen Bartholomeusz warns that central bank policies may lead to a ‘debt trap’:

“….With the world apparently re-starting the use of unconventional monetary policies even before central banks have extricated themselves from the legacies of a decade of those policies, there is a real risk that the impacts and the threats posed by their side effects will swell and that the world will be caught within what the BIS has previously described as a “debt trap’’ with no exit.

The other disturbing aspect of the [BIS] report is that it repeatedly says it is too early to assess the longer-term implications of the policies the central banks have employed.

Central bankers respond to the latest data – they respond to short-term signals – but the side-effects of their post-crisis policies have already been building for a decade and will continue to build while they maintain ultra-low or negative policy rates and keep buying bonds and other fixed interest securities to depress longer-term interest rates and suppress risk premia.

How those side-effects are unwound and how the banks extricate themselves from their policies and the legacies of those policies won’t be known until they try, but the potential for another crisis has been increased by the big surge in global leverage and the elevated asset prices the policies have encouraged.

Negative rates and quantitative easing and variations on those themes might, as the BIS report says, be useful additions to central bankers’ toolboxes but the past decade has shown they aren’t by themselves a panacea for economic ills and they bring with them potentially unpleasant side effects the longer they are in place.”

Debt traps occur when the interest rate needed to service the government debt is greater than the growth rate of GDP, according to former Fed governor Robert Heller:

“…In such a situation, debt service obligations grow more rapidly than the economy; eventually, the accumulated debt can no longer be serviced properly. In other words, the dynamics of the situation become unsustainable and a death spiral ensues.”

So far, central banks have responded by driving interest rates to record lows but unintended consequences are emerging, with low interest rates leading to low GDP growth. A feedback loop is emerging:

    • Low interest rates

Australia: 10-Year Bond Yield

    • Low bank interest margins

Australia: Bank Net Interest Margins

    • Low credit growth

Australia: Credit & Broad Money Growth

    • Low inflation

Australia: Underlying Inflation

    • And low economic growth

Australia: GDP Growth

We are venturing where angels fear to tread: central banks trialing new policies without empirical evidence as to their long-term consequences.

Monetary policy should be administered judiciously, intervening only when the financial system is in dire straits, outside the realm of the regular business cycle. Instead monetary policy is treated as a panacea, the constant drip-feed building a long-term dependence on further stimulus.

The problem with ‘traps’ is that they are difficult to escape.

“If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.”

~ Will Rogers

[NOTE: I should clarify that Australia has relatively low fiscal debt and is not in any immediate danger of a debt trap. But the ‘lucky country’ would suffer severely from fallout if the US or China were caught in a debt trap.]

Robert Shiller’s warning

Nobel prize-winning economist Robert Shiller warns that cracks are once again surfacing in the US housing market.

“We have had a strong housing market for pretty much all the time since 2012. Just after the financial crisis, the housing market didn’t recover, maybe because banking was in disarray and people were still expecting declines after the event. After 2012, it started going up at more than 10 per cent a year nationwide in the US, and has been slowing down since.”

Shiller says that a worrying pattern emerging in house prices is reminiscent of the property market in the run-up to the Great Recession.

The bursting of the US housing bubble in 2006-07 was a key trigger of the financial crisis…… “I have seen this happen before, we’re like back in 2005 again when the rate of increase in home prices was slowing down a lot but still going up.

Case Shiller Index

Growth in the Case Shiller National Home Price Index is clearly weakening but we need to be careful of confirmation bias where we “cherry-pick” negative news to reinforce a bearish outlook. I would take the present situation as an “amber” warning and only a drop below zero (when house prices fall) as a red flag.

Shiller has an enviable reputation for predicting recessions, having warned of the Dotcom bubble in tech stocks and the housing bubble ahead of the 2008 global financial crisis. He is correct that narratives (beliefs) can become self-fulfilling prophecies. If the dominant view is that the economy will contract, then it probably will — as corporations stop investing in new capacity and banks restrict lending. Geo-political tensions — US/China, UK/EU Brexit, and Iran/Saudi Arabia — combined with massive uncertainty in global trade and oil markets, could quickly snowball into a full-blown recession.

Witching hour on Friday

“Witching hour” refers to the last hour of trading on days, normally the third Friday of the month, when there is a simultaneous expiry of options and futures in derivatives markets. Traders who don’t roll-over into a new contract are forced to cover their positions, which can lead to massive intra-day volatility in underlying markets.

“Quadruple witching” happens four times each year — on the third Friday of March, June, September, and December — when index futures, index options, stock futures, and stock options expire simultaneously. With that level of futures and options expiring, trading volume in equities usually spikes in the last hour.

Spot the June and September witching hours on the chart below.

Witching Hour June & September 2018

Note that June had witching hours on Friday 15th and 22nd. Also note that there was not a lot of price movement despite the heavy trading volumes. That’s not to say that witching hour is incapable of disrupting an already unstable market but it’s unlikely to have a long-term impact if conditions are settled.

After the liquidity squeeze earlier this week, it’s important to keep an eye on this.

Predicting recessions with payroll and unemployment data

Recessions are notoriously difficult to measure (even the NBER occasionally gets it wrong) and an official declaration of a recession may be lagged by more than 6 months. Economist Claudia Sahm devised the Sahm Rule, using changes in unemployment levels, as a more timely predictor of recessions.

Sahm rule: US Data

But the signal repeatedly lags the official start date of recessions by several months, limiting its usefulness for investment purposes.

In previous articles I observed that payroll growth is a good predictor of recessions. But payroll growth has been declining for decades; so it has been difficult to devise a one-size-fits-all-recessions rule. Until I turned to using momentum.

Twiggs Momentum is my own variation on the standard momentum formula and I applied this to monthly payroll data to arrive at a 3-month TMO.

Sweden: Sahm rule

The orange band on the above chart reflects the amber warning range, between 0.5% and 0.3%, where recession is likely. If TMO crosses below the red line at 0.3%, risk of recession increases to very high.

When the TMO falls below 0.5%, a recession is likely, but there is one false reading at 0.49% in 1986. So I treat 0.5% as an amber warning level.

There are no false signals below 0.3% in the last 50 years. So I treat the 0.3% level as a red warning — that recession risk is very high.

Some of the signals (e.g. 1975) are late but the TMO has a far better record, than the Sahm Rule, at giving timely warning of recessions.

The August 2019 TMO reading is an amber warning of 0.5%.

Tectonic shift threatening the global reserve currency system

As Mark Carney observed at Jackson Hole: the global reserve currency system is broken — it has been since Nixon defaulted on gold backing for the Dollar in 1973 — and there is no fix. We have to find a replacement along the lines of Carney’s suggestion. On Macrovoices, two experts on the EuroDollar system, Jeffrey Snider and Luke Gromen discuss the massive tectonic shift facing the global financial system.

https://www.macrovoices.com/683-macrovoices-184-luke-gromen-jeff-snider

This is a complex topic but it is important that we grasp the implications before a tsunami appears on the horizon.

Interest spreads hold sway over the global economy

An inverted yield curve is a reliable predictor of recessions but it also warns of falling bank profits. When the spread between long-term Treasury yields and short-term rates is  below zero, net interest margins are squeezed.

Yield Differential (10y - 3m)

In a normal market, with a steep yield curve, net interest margins are wide as bank’s funding maturity is a lot shorter than their loan book. In other words, they borrow short and lend long. Few bank deposits have maturities longer than 3 to 6 months, while loans and leases have much longer maturities and command higher interest rates.

When the yield curve inverts, however, the spread between long and short-term rates disappears and interest margins are squeezed. Not only is that bad for banks, it’s bad for the entire economy.

When their interest margins are squeezed, banks become risk averse and lending growth slows. That is understandable. When interest margins are barely covering operating expenses, banks cannot afford credit write-downs and become highly selective in their lending.

Slowing credit growth has a domino-effect on business investment and consumer spending on durables (mainly housing and automobiles). If there is a sharp fall in credit growth, a recession is normally not far behind1.

Bank Loans & Leases

Right now, the Fed is under pressure to cut interest rates to support the US economy. While this would lower short-term rates and and may flatten the yield curve, cutting interest rates off a low base opens a whole new world of pain.

Quartz this week published a revealing commentary on the damage that negative interest rates in developed economies are doing to bank net interest margins :

The problem for commercial banks is that government bond and mortgage interest rates keep going lower, but it isn’t as easy to cut deposit rates — the rate at which banks themselves borrow from customers — at the same pace. After all, it’s tough to convince people to keep deposits in an account that returns less than they put in (even though this already happens, invisibly, through inflation).

Bank Net Interest Margins in Developed Countries

Ultra-low interest rates are likely to squeeze bank margins in a similar way to the inverted yield curve. And with a similar impact on credit growth and the economy.

If I was Trump I would be pleading with the Fed not to cut interest rates.

Footnote:
1. The NBER declared a recession in 1966 when the S&P 500 fell 22% but later changed their mind and airbrushed it out of history.

S&P 500 target

My target for the current S&P 500 long-term advance has been 3000 for a number of years. The chart below explains the target calculation.

S&P 500 Target CalculationClick here to view a full screen image.

The Dotcom bubble retraced from a peak of 1500 to a low of 800. Readers who are familiar with my method will know that on a short- or medium-term chart I would simply extend the retracement above the previous peak of 1500 (giving a target of 2300) but long-term charts work better on a log scale.

If we extend the distance between peak and trough above the peak on a log scale chart, we get a target of 2800.

If we do the same for the global financial crisis (GFC), we get a target of 3200.

Mid-way between the two is another important target, of 3000, which is double the previous two peaks at 1500.

Of the three targets, I feel that 3000 is the strongest. Not only because it is the middle target and double the previous peaks, but round numbers are important psychological barriers. The Dow, for example, took more than 10 years to break resistance at 1000.

Now some may feel that technical analysis like this has as much significance as reading tea leaves or consulting your astrological charts. But observation shows that market activity tends to cluster around significant levels (e.g. 1500) or numbers and can present formidable barriers to trend progress.

Primary Support

The next question is: if the market reverses at 3000, how far is it likely to retrace? There is no straight answer, but primary reversals normally retrace between 50% and 100% of the previous gain, or between 25% and 50% of the current level.

There are two major support levels evident on the chart:

  1. The 2100 peak from 2015, a 50% retracement (on a log scale) of the preceding advance; and
  2. The 1500 peak from 2000 and from 2007, marking 100% retracement of the previous advance and also a 50% retracement from the current level.

A lot would depend on the severity of the reaction.

“You watch the market — that is, the course of prices as recorded by the tape with one object: to determine the direction. Prices, we know, will move either up or down according to the resistance they encounter. For purposes of easy explanation we will say that prices, like everything else, move along the line of least resistance. They will do whatever comes easiest, therefore they will go up if there is less resistance to an advance than to a decline; and vice versa.”

~ Jesse Livermore

Trump: This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you

The chart below depicts container traffic at the Port of Los Angeles, the largest volume US container port. Loaded inbound containers (blue), measured in twenty foot units or TEUs, have far exceeded loaded outbound units (red) for a number of years. What is noteworthy is that the ratio of loaded outbound to inbound containers has deteriorated from 48% to 38% over the last 6 years.

Port of Los Angeles Container Traffic

Imposition of tariffs has not reversed this. In fact the opposite. Stats for July 2019 show an 8.7% increase in inbound traffic and a 4.0% decrease in outbound traffic, while the ratio of inbound to outbound containers fell to a new low of 34%.

S&P 500: Flight to safety

10-Year Treasury yields are near record lows after Donald Trump’s announcement of further tariffs on China. The fall reflects the flight to safety, with rising demand for Treasuries as a safe haven.

10-Year Treasury Yield

Crude found support at $50/barrel. Breach would warn of a new down-trend, with a target of $40/barrel. Declining crude prices reflect a pessimistic outlook for the global economy.

10-Year 3-Month Treasury Spread

The S&P 500 found support at 2850. Rising volatility warns of increased market risk. A test of support at 2750 remains likely.

S&P 500

Declining Money Flow on the Nasdaq 100 reflects rising selling pressure. Expect a test of 7000.

Nasdaq 100

The Shanghai Composite Index broke support at 2850. A Trend Index peak at zero warns of strong selling pressure. Expect a test of support at 2500.

Shanghai Composite Index

India’s Nifty is testing support at 11,000. Breach would offer a target of 10,000.

Nifty Index

Dow Jones Euro Stoxx 600, reflecting large cap stocks in the European Union, is testing primary support at 368. Strong bearish divergence on the Trend Index warns of a double-top reversal, with a target of 330.

DJ Euro Stoxx 600

The Footsie is similarly testing support at 7150. Breach would offer a target of 6600.

FTSE 100

I have warned clients to cut exposure to the market. It’s a good time to be cautious.

“There is a time for all things, but I didn’t know it. And that is precisely what beats so many men in Wall Street who are very far from being in the main sucker class. There is the plain fool, who does the wrong thing at all times everywhere, but there is the Wall Street fool, who thinks he must trade all the time.”

~ Jesse Livermore