Monday, July 28, 2014

A few thoughts on volatility

Market volatility is low, whether measured on an historical or option-implied basis.  Indeed, based on a measure of the normalized deviation of cross-asset implieds from long-term averages, it's the lowest since at least 2001 (the currency volatility index data only begins in that year).   Given the nature of asset markets in the 1970's-90's,  this essentially means that cross-market volatility is at its lowest level of the post-Bretton Woods era.

Now, you don't have to be a particularly discerning Fed-watcher to have realized that certain segments of the FOMC are getting a little antsy about the low levels of market volatility.  It's not quite at the level that they are shocked, SHOCKED to find that gambling is going on here....but it's not far off.

Indeed, the recent warnings from the Fed recall previous episodes of hand-wringing...notably Greenspan's (in)famous "irrational exuberance" speech in November 1996, as well as global monetary disquiet over the "complacency" and low levels of market vol a decade later.

Naturally, they would never admit to their own culpability, even though a cynic suffering macro punter anyone who sees better than Stevie Wonder realist might suggest that some of the culpability lays at their door.

Now, Macro Man will concede that it is somewhat tautological to use one measure of market volatility to explain other such measures.    However, the indicator that he likes to follow, the spread between the second and fourth eurodollar futures contracts, has historically been a pretty good proxy for Federal Reserve monetary policy expectations.  And as the nefarious Professor Woodford will tell you (or at least Ms. Yellen)...the FOMC can exert a great deal of power over market expectations of policy, and that these expectations themselves can have a substantial impact on markets (if not, as their voodoo might suggest, the real economy.)

In any case, if we look at the volatility of the 2/4 ED spread over the last quarter century, what do we find?  In late 1996, for example, the volatility of that spread was at its lowest point to date in the sample....just as Greenspan was moaning about irrational exuberance in the equity market.   Gee, Al, can you guess why equities were so perky?   

The last tightening cycle, of course, was incredibly well-telegraphed through the use of guidance-laden statements of the type we see still see today- "considerable period", "measured" withdrawal of accommodation, etc.   Greenspan, of course, famously credited the concurrent bond conundrum of low yields to his credibility and efficacious communications.   He must have been sleeping when those Asian central banks were buying hundreds of billions of dollars worth of Treasuries per year.....

In any event, the lack of volatility in expectations, which Greenspan triumphed in his self-fellating autobiography as a victory for transparent policy-making, naturally led to another massive misallocation capital and risk, most notably in the housing and volatility markets.  While the regulators have of course chosen to blame the cupidity of market participants (some of whom, it must be said, were truly loathsome), Macro Man cannot help but observe that they occurred simultaneously with a nadir in the volatility of Fed policy expectations.   The hangover, of course, required a little more than a few aspirin and a bacon sandwich to vanquish.

Fast forward to today, and we see that unsurprisingly, the measure of Fed expectations vol quite literally approached zero a couple of years ago, but has steadily risen since (though still remains at levels consistent with previous lows.)  Still, it's worth noting that the blow-ups generally seem to occur only after this measure eclipses 15 bps.    Russia/LTCM, the popping of the NASDAQ bubble, and the implosion of the Bear Stearns credit hedge funds in the summer of 2007 all occurred shortly after the 15 bps threshold was breached.

Perhaps it's a coincidence.  At the very least, there is no guarantee that the correlation implies causality- indeed, one could argue that some of the causality in the past may have worked in the opposite direction. reference to the top chart of the post, Macro Man may not know when the next 2 SD move in cross market vol is going to come....but he has a damned good idea of which direction it's going to be in.  

With the FOMC and payrolls this week, it may be tempting to think that the rise in vol will come sooner rather than later.   Perhaps it will.   On Macro Man's read, however, we probably need to get a little closer to the whites of the eyes of the tightening cycle before vol buyers get the all-clear.

Friday, July 25, 2014

One of these things

It's time to kick it old-school play a game of the perennial Sesame Street favourite, 'One of These Things is Not Like the Others.'  For those readers not familiar with the program and this game, here's a short video of the Cookie Monster that will instruct you in the nuances of the undertaking:

Got it?   Good.   See if you can spot which of these things doesn't belong as we head into the weekend.....

1) Initial jobless claims hit their lowest level since early 2006

2)  As a result, Dec 16 eurodollars have broken a host of moving averages, as well as the trendline from the early April low (which also pretty much hits the 'Summers low' from last September.)

3)  The DXY has surged to its highest level in a month, and looks set to threaten its highs of the year....

4)  The SPX, lifted for several years by a sea of over-abundant liquidity, closed within 0.03% of its all-time high yesterday, with cross asset implied volatilities at local or all-time lows.

Don't worry if you can't get the answer before Cookie finishes his'll probably have another few weeks to answer correctly.....

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Same-o, Same-o

Last week's min-bout of volatility notwithstanding, one day just seems to run into another these days, doesn't it.  Consider the following, which makes yesterday indistinguishable from countless others recently:

* SPX makes a new high

* USD/JPY trades at 101 and change

* USD/MXN trades 13.00, +- 10 centavos

* EDZ5 trades 99.00 , +- a few ticks

* An equity guy who loves the sound of his own voice says Herbalife is a fraud

* Another one, who loves the sound of his own voice, says it isn't: nicky-nicky-nah-nah

* A US regulator alleges wrongdoing at a non-US bank

* Ex post facto standards are applied to foreign exchange fixing behaviour by people who haven't got a scooby how the FX market works

* Government and regulatory outrage over the scandalous sums of money thrown at Congress by the corporate sector and other vested interests remains strangely silent

* Allegations of currency manipulation by foreign sovereign institutions, who have had a net impact several orders of magnitude larger than any fixing business, remain absent from the public discourse on the subject

* No one has yet to read the Dodd-Frank act from cover to cover

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A couple of thoughts on EM equities

At last, some peace and quiet.  After two days of searing, 1% move volatility, the S&P 500 finally allowed punters to take a breather yesterday, registering its smallest percentage move since all the way back Tuesday.

That having been said, tensions continue to intensify between the West and Russia, with each side accusing the other of culpability for the MH17 disaster.  Whatever the truth may be- and it certainly appears as if the balance of evidence points towards the pro-Russian rebels- we can unfortunately say that at the very least, the Russians have prior form on this sort of thing, right down to denying responsibility for the tragedy.

Whether the EU stands up forcefully to Putin's Russia remains to be seen, of course.   Realpolitik has a funny way of injecting itself into any moral crusade, and one wonders how willing certain EU nations will be to cut off a vital source of export demand and/or energy.

Russian assets have unsurprisingly taken a tumble, with the RTS $ index almost (but not quite) back to where it was when Jay Carney issued his investment advice to go short.

The chart of Gazprom is obviously quite similar.   Now, losses incurred during the Russian invasion of Georgia prompted your author to adopt the principle of never investing in the markets of a nation that invades another sovereign state, unless the invaders speak English.  For the past six years he has held to this precept without fail.  Given that Gazprom currently boasts a dividend yield of 5.4% and a P/E of 2.56, should the price fall back to the March lows, Macro Man will have to consider whether he can swallow his distaste for the Blofeld-like character of Putin and buy some. 

What's interesting is that this latest swoon has come at a time when EM equities generally are faring quite well, as reader abee crombie pointed out in yesterday's comments section.  Over the summer, Macro Man has been working on a little equity screen project for developed and emerging markets.  For reasons noted above, he does not include Russian stocks in the screen.  In the EM space, it is curious to note that the screen's 3 favourite individual markets are all China-related (Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong.)  A sign, perhaps, that the bad news there has been comfortably priced?  (Note that the table displays rankings within the universe- so a low number is better.)

Hmmm....perhaps Macro Man should focus his attention there.   Something tells him he'll sleep better at night owning the Taiwan ETF than Gazprom.....

Monday, July 21, 2014

Two for two

Volatile days are like late-night buses:  None for ages and then a bunch come all at once.   The SPX registered its second 1% day in a row on Friday, this time on the positive side of the ledger.  With the weather looking good on both sides of the Atlantic, it's not hard to see a scenario where normal service is resumed and the market grinds higher for another few weeks as punters head off to the beach.

Macro Man is lacking a bit of inspiration ce soir, so he will merely point out the interesting fact that the bellwether EDZ5 contract, widely watched to gauge the extent of expected Fed tightening next year, closed last Friday at 98.96.....a mere one tick higher than the contract closed on the equivalent Friday two years ago.   So much for rolldown, so much for volatility.....

Friday, July 18, 2014

Ding, dong, the streak is dead

The streak is dead.

It took red headline flashes of another downed Malaysian aircraft (this time by bad dudes),  military action in the Middle East, and the White House in lockdown over a suspicious package (which subsequently turned out to be an Amazon delivery of the president's speculative purchase of a Carmelo Anthony Bulls jersey), but the SPX moved 1% yesterday.

More than moved down!

As noted previously in the space,  the streak of sub-1% days was the longest since 1995.   Well, since Macro Man wrote that piece, the SPX tacked on another 21 days worth of low-vol trading before finally succumbing to the nefarious schemes of evil speculators reality.

To put that in perspective, the last time we went this long with such low vol:

* The Dallas Cowboys were about to win the Super Bowl

* Internet browsing looked like this (and Wikipedia didn't exist):

* Brett Favre looked like this:

* Danny Blind, the father of Netherlands fullback Daley Blind, captained Ajax to victory in the European Cup

* Derek Jeter had 12 hits in the major leagues

* The SPX was at 605

* Fed funds were at 5.75%

* USD/JPY was at 102.05 (gosh, no wonder yen vols are so low!)

So is this the beginning of the long-awaited secular uptick in vol?  It is tempting, very tempting to think so.   Of course, Macro Man (and, he presumes, other punters as well) are naturally disposed to expect vol to tick up, so the risk is that one sees a trend shift in every shadow.

While it is true that it is often an unexpected catalyst that prompts a notable reversal of fortune in markets, from Macro Man's perch geopolitical turbulence comes pretty low on his list of legitimate game-changers.

Simply put, these sort of incidents have an execrable track record of having a lasting, meaningful impact upon financial market conditions.    While it is true that Yellen yesterday suggested that rates could rise earlier than commonly supposed if labour market data exceeds expectations (which clearly would be a game-changer), the problem is that she bends over backwards to drag in ancillary indicators to "prove" that headline employment data over-states the strength of the labour market.

So what are we supposed to look at to make our judgements as to the timing of rate hikes?  (As an aside, when did the incredibly lame euphemism 'policy firming' replace the more prosaic 'rate hikes' as a descriptor of the thing the Fed hasn't done in more than eight years?)

Do we focus on NFP and the U-rate?   Or U-6, tepid wages, and the 'inexplicable' decline in the participation rate?  That Macro Man even has to ask the question, even rhetorically, is pretty damning for the Fed's communications strategy.

As it happens, the very uncertainly over which indicator to choose, and Yellen's penchant for cherry-picking the figures that support her prior view), could ultimately be the thing that increases vol.  While it is probably unwise to completely ignore the sweeping pronouncements of 'Hollywood' Bullard, it seems quite safe to conclude that his view is not one that is mirrored at the core o the committee.

Either way, one can only hope that it will be another two decades (at least) before we talk about  such a long streak of low volatility again.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Dammit, Janet

I've got something to say
I really loved the skillful way
You told us which assets were fairly valued today!

The river of BS was deep but I swam it, Janet
The future's uncertain so let's plan it, Janet
I'm long Spooz and Blues so don't tell me to can it, Janet
I've got one thing to say and that's
Dammit, Janet, I love you

The street had a stop to get long so I ran it, Janet
My book is on fire and you fan it, Janet
If you're trying to make a fool than I am it, Janet
Now I've got one thing to say and that's
Dammit, Janet, I love you

Here's my statement to prove that I'm no joker
There's three kinds of punters whose wealth will grow
That's good, bad, and mediocre
Oh J-A-N-E-T
I love you so

Go see the man who began it, Janet
Ben took my portfolio channel and told me to cram it, Janet
Told me to buy and not to panic, Janet
There's one thing to say and that's
Dammit, Janet, I love you......

With apologies to the Rocky Horror Picture Show