Tag Archives: ECB

Negative Is The New Subprime

What is nothing? What comes to mind when you imagine nothing? The moment we try to imagine what nothing is, we fail, because nothing cannot be envisioned. There is nothing to envision or ponder or even think about. Nothing is no thing.

Yes, the point above is tedious, but the value of nothing in the financial theater is the latest magic trick of the central bankers and the most vital factor governing all investments.

If I invest my hard-earned capital in an asset the guarantees a return of nothing, what should I expect as a return? Nothing is a good answer, and somewhat absurdly, there is the possibility that nothing is the best-case scenario. Let’s take it one step further to beyond nothing. In the current age of financial alchemy, there is nearly $15.5 trillion in sovereign and corporate bonds available that promise a return of not only nothing but actually less than nothing.

If I am hired to steward capital and I invest in something that returns less than nothing, I have knowingly given away some portion of the capital I invested, and I should find another profession. And yet, on this very day, there are trillions of dollars’ worth of bonds that promise a return of less than nothing. Furthermore, there are many professional investors who knowingly and willingly are buying those bonds! The table below shows the many instances of negative-yielding sovereign bonds, with U.S. yields as a comparison.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Warped Logic

The discussion and table above highlight just how far astray the financial system has gone in Europe and Japan. What we are witnessing is not just coloring outside the lines; it is upside down and inside out. Central bankers are frantically turning cartwheels to convince us that current circumstances, though deranged and highly abnormal, are perfectly sane and normal. More often than not, politicians, the media, and Wall Street fail to challenge these experiments and worse generally echo the central bankers’ siren song.

How do investors conclude that there will be only good outcomes as a result of what are imprudent and illogical decisions and actions? Is it prudent to expect a bright future when the financial system punishes prudent savers who are most able to invest in our future and rewards ill-advised borrowing beyond one’s means?  

The current market and economic environment beg for lucid evaluation of circumstances and intelligent, honest discourse on the potential implications. Unfortunately, most market participants would prefer to keep their head in the sand. Chasing the stock and bond markets for the past decade has produced handsome returns and, for most investment advisors, delivered praise and a generous wage. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Compounding wealth is the most important and most difficult financial concept for investors to grasp. Over the last ten years, many investors spent significant time recouping losses from the financial crisis, and they assumed great risk in doing so. Having recovered some or all of those losses, many are back in a position of compounding wealth. At this point, they can continue to look backward and believe that irrational policies will ensure that the past is prologue, or they can exercise some independent thought and recognize that the risk of another serious drawdown is not negligible. Prudent risk management is very generous to those who elect patience over expedience. Most financial advisors will not volunteer a fee-reducing, conservative approach even though it would be in their own best interest to do so at critical times.

Entities empowered with the responsibility of directing traffic and ensuring against bad behavior that wish to “manage” markets are increasingly weighed and found wanting. They have become a part of the bad behavior they were entrusted to prevent, yet again. Actions, or the lack thereof, that resulted in the destruction of wealth in recent history have been on full display for over the past decade. However, with stock markets near record highs today, these actions (or inactions) are cloaked in an artificial façade of success.

Retrospect

It has become cliché to point back to October 1929, the dot.com bubble, and the housing bubble as a reminder of what may transpire. Bulls confidently look at the bears citing those periods, just as Monty Python’s King Arthur looks at the Black Knight after dismembering his arms and legs and says, “What are you going to do, bleed on me?”

Yet, historical episodes are the correct frame of reference. Just as in those prior bubbles, the problem today is right in front of our face. The evidence is clear and the lunacy unmistakable. The poster child in 2000 was Pets.com and the sock puppet; in 2006 it was skyrocketing home prices and negatively amortizing subprime “liar” loans. Today, it is negative interest rates.

It is not hyperbole to say that today’s instance of finance gone wild is more insane than Pets.com, neg-am liar loans and any other absurd Ponzi scheme that has ever been perpetrated, ALL PUT TOGETHER.

The dot.com market collapse cost the economy roughly $8 trillion. The estimate of the cost of the 2008-09 financial crisis is $22 trillion. The market value of debt outstanding with negative interest rates is over $15 trillion.

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Although $15 trillion is less than the financial crisis losses, what must be considered is the multiplier effect. The losses in prior recessions were in part caused by the factors listed above but magnified by their ripple effect on other aspects of the economy and financial markets. This is the multiplier of the cause or the epicenter. Consider the following:

  • The S&P 500 Information Technology sector market cap was roughly $4 trillion in March 2000. The total market losses from the tech bubble amounted to about $8 trillion; therefore, the damage in that episode was about $2 for every $1 of exposure ($8T losses vs. $4T exposure) to the epicenter of the problem, so the multiplier was 2:1.
  • The toxic sub-prime part of the mortgage market was about $2 trillion. So, the impact of losses was $11 for every $1 of exposure ($22T loss vs. $2T exposure) to the epicenter, or a multiplier of 11:1.
  • If a problem emerged today and we are correct that the epicenter of this problem, negative-yielding debt, is further reaching than those prior mentioned episodes, then using a simple 11-to-1 ratio on $15 trillion is $165 trillion in losses, may be understating the potential problems. Even being very conservative with a 2:1 multiple yields mind-boggling losses.

This is unscientific scenario analysis, but it does provide a logical and reasonable array of possible outcomes. If one had postulated that the sub-prime mortgage market would spark even $2 trillion in losses back in 2007, they would have been laughed out of the room. Some people did anticipate the problem, made their concerns public, and were ridiculed. Even after the problem started, the common response was that sub-prime is too small to have an impact on the economy. In fact, the Fed and other central banks stood united in minimizing the imminent risks even as they were wreaking havoc on the financial system. Likewise, the “scientific” analysis currently being done by Ph.D. economists will probably miss today’s problem altogether.

European Banks

The concept of negative-yielding debt is totally irrational and incoherent. It contradicts every fundamental rule we learn and attempt to apply in business, finance, and economics.  It implies that the future is more certain than the present – that the unknown is more certain than the known!

When the investment/lending hurdle rate is not only removed but broadly disfigured in how we think about allocating resources, precious resources will be misallocated. The magnitude of that misallocation depends on the time and extent to which the policy persists.

As brought to our attention by Raoul Pal of Global Macro Investor and Real Vision, the first evidence of problems is emerging where the negative interest rate phenomenon has been most acute – Europe. European financial institutions are growing increasingly unhealthy due to the damage of negative rate policies. Currently, the Euro STOXX Bank index, as shown below, trades at levels below those of the trough of 2009 and its lowest levels since 1987. More importantly, the index is on the verge of breaking through a vital technical level to the downside. The shares of Germany’s two largest banks, Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank, are at historical lows.  Just as subprime was not isolated to the U.S., this problem is not isolated to Europe. These banks have contagion risk that, if unleashed, will spread throughout the global financial system. 

Data Courtesy Bloomberg

Summary

The market is reflecting a growing lack of confidence in the European banking and financial system as telegraphed through stock market pricing shown above.

The risk facing the global financial system is that, as problems emerge, the second and third-order effects of those issues will be both impossible to anticipate and increasingly difficult to control. Trust and confidence in the world’s central bankers can fade quickly as we saw only ten years ago.

Compounding wealth depends upon minimizing the risk of a large, permanent loss. If markets falter and the cause is monetary policy that advocated for negative interest rates, investors will have to accept accountability for the fact that it was staring us in the face all along.

Yes, We Are In Another Tech Bubble

Technology has touched our lives in so many ways, and especially so for investors. Not only has technology provided ever-better tools by which to research and monitor investments, but tech stocks have also provided outsized opportunities to grow portfolios. It’s no wonder that so many investors develop a strong affinity for tech.

Just as glorious as tech can be on the way up, however, it can be absolutely crushing on the way down. Now that tech stocks have become such large positions in major US stock indexes as well as in many individual portfolios, it is especially important to consider what lies ahead. Does tech still have room to run or has it turned down? What should you do with tech?

For starters, recent earnings reports indicate that something has changed that deserves attention. Bellwethers such as Amazon, Alphabet and Apple all beat earnings estimates by a wide margin. All reported strong revenue growth. And yet all three stocks fell in the high single digits after they reported. At minimum, it has become clear that technology stocks no longer provide an uninterrupted ride up.

These are the kinds of earnings reports that can leave investors befuddled as to what is driving the stocks. Michael MacKenzie gave his take in the Financial Times late in October [here]:

“The latest fright came from US technology giants Amazon and Alphabet after their revenue misses last week. Both are highly successful companies but the immediate market reaction to their results suggested how wary investors are of any sign that their growth trajectories might be flattening.”

Flattening growth trajectories may not seem like such a big deal, but they do provide a peak into the often-tenuous association between perception and reality for technology. Indeed, this relationship has puzzled economists as much as investors. A famous example arose out of the environment of slowing productivity growth in the 1970s and 1980s [here] which happened despite the rapid development of information technology at the time. The seeming paradox prompted economist Robert Solow to quip [here],

You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

The computer age eventually did show up in the productivity statistics, but it took a protracted and circuitous route there. The technologist and futurist, Roy Amara, captured the essence of that route with a fairly simple statement [here]:

“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” Although that assertion seems innocuous enough, it has powerful implications. Science writer Matt Ridley [here] went so far as to call it the “only one really clever thing” that stands out among “a great many foolish things that have been said about the future.”

Gartner elaborated on the concept by describing what they called “the hype cycle” (shown below).

The cycle is “characterized by the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ followed by the ‘trough of disillusionment’.” It shows how the effects of technology get overestimated in the short run because of inflated expectations and underestimated in the long run because of disillusionment.

Amara’s law/ the hype cycle

Source: Wikipedia [here]

Ridley provides a useful depiction of the cycle:

“Along comes an invention or a discovery and soon we are wildly excited about the imminent possibilities that it opens up for flying to the stars or tuning our children’s piano-playing genes. Then, about ten years go by and nothing much seems to happen. Soon the “whatever happened to …” cynics are starting to say the whole thing was hype and we’ve been duped. Which turns out to be just the inflexion point when the technology turns ubiquitous and disruptive.”

Amara’s law describes the dotcom boom and bust of the late 1990s and early 2000s to a tee. It all started with user-friendly web browsers and growing internet access that showed great promise. That promise lent itself to progressively greater expectations which led to progressively greater speculation. When things turned down in early 2000, however, it was a long way down with many companies such as the e-tailer Pets.com and the communications company Worldcom actually going under. When it was all said and done, the internet did prove to be a massively disruptive force, but not without a lot of busted stocks along the way.

How do expectations routinely become so inflated? Part of the answer is that we have a natural tendency to adhere to simple stories rather than do the hard work of analyzing situations. Time constraints often exacerbate this tendency. But part of the answer is also that many management teams are essentially tasked with the effort of inflating expectations. A recent Harvard Business Review article [here] (h/t Grants Interest Rate Observer, November 2, 2018) provides revealing insights from interviews with CFOs and senior investment banking analysts of leading technology companies.

For example, one of the key insights is that “Financial capital is assumed to be virtually unlimited.” While this defies finance and economics theory and probably sounds ludicrous to most any industrial company executive, it passes as conventional wisdom for tech companies. For the last several years anyway, it has also largely proven to be true for both public tech-oriented companies like Netflix and Tesla as well as private companies like Uber and WeWork.

According to the findings, tech executives,

“…believe that they can always raise financial capital to meet their funding shortfall or use company stock or options to pay for acquisitions and employee wages.”

An important implication of this capital availability is,

“The CEO’s principal aim therefore is not necessarily to judiciously allocate financial capital but to allocate precious scientific and human resources to the most promising projects …”

Another key insight is, “Risk is now considered a feature, not a bug.” Again, this defies academic theory and empirical evidence for most industrial company managers. Tech executives, however, prefer to, “chase risky projects that have lottery-like payoffs. An idea with uncertain prospects but with at least some conceivable chance of reaching a billion dollars in revenue is considered far more valuable than a project with net present value of few hundred million dollars but no chance of massive upside.”

Finally, because technology stocks provide a significant valuation challenge, many tech CFOs view it as an excuse to abdicate responsibility for providing useful financial information. “[C]ompanies see little value in disclosing the details of their current and planned projects in their financial disclosures.” Worse, “accounting is no longer considered a value-added function.” One CFO went so far as to note “that the CPA certification is considered a disqualification for a top finance position [in their company].”

While some of this way of thinking seems to be endemic to the tech industry, there is also evidence that an environment of persistently low rates is a contributing factor. As the FT mentions [here], “When money is constantly cheap and available everything seems straightforward. Markets go up whatever happens, leaving investors free to tell any story they like about why. It is easy to believe that tech companies with profits in the low millions are worth many billions.”

John Hussman also describes the impact of low rates [here]:

“The heart of the matter, and the key to navigating this brave new world of extraordinary monetary and fiscal interventions, is to recognize that while 1) valuations still inform us about long-term and full-cycle market prospects, and; 2) market internals still inform us about the inclination of investors toward speculation or risk-aversion, the fact is that; 3) we can no longer rely on well-defined limits to speculation, as we could in previous market cycles across history.”

In other words, low rates unleash natural limits to speculation and pave the way for inflated expectations to become even more so. This means that the hype cycle gets amplified, but it also means that the cycle gets extended. After all, for as long as executives do not care about “judiciously allocating capital”, it takes longer for technology to sustainably find its place in the real economy. This may help explain why the profusion of technology the last several years has also coincided with declining productivity growth.

One important implication of Amara’s law is that there are two distinctly different ways to make money in tech stocks. One is to identify promising technology ideas or stocks or platforms relatively early on and to ride the wave of ever-inflating expectations. This is a high risk but high reward proposition.

Another way is to apply a traditional value approach that seeks to buy securities at a low enough price relative to intrinsic value to ensure a margin of safety. This can be done when disillusionment with the technology or the stock is so great as to overshoot realistic expectations on the downside.

Applying value investing to tech stocks comes with its own hazards, however. For one, several factors can obscure sustainable levels of demand for new technologies. Most technologies are ultimately also affected by cyclical forces, incentives to inflate expectations can promote unsustainable activity such as vendor financing, and debt can be used to boost revenue growth through acquisitions.

Further, once a tech stock turns decidedly down, the corporate culture can change substantially. The company can lose its cachet with its most valuable resource — its employees. Some may become disillusioned and even embarrassed to be associated with the company. When the stock stops going up, the wealth creation machine of employee stock options also turns off. Those who have already made their fortunes no longer have a good reason to hang around and often set off on their own. It can be a long way down to the bottom.

As a result, many investors opt for riding the wave of ever-inflating expectations. The key to succeeding with this approach is to identify, at least approximately, the inflection point between peak inflated expectations and the transition to disillusionment.

Rusty Guinn from Second Foundation Partners provides an excellent case study of this process with the example of Tesla Motors [here]. From late 2016 through May 2017 the narrative surrounding Tesla was all about growth and other issues were perceived as being in service to that goal. Guinn captures the essence of the narrative:

“We need capital, but we need it to launch our exciting new product, to grow our factory production, to expand into exciting Semi and Solar brands.” In this narrative, “there were threats, but always on the periphery.”

Guinn also shows how the narrative evolved, however, by describing a phase that he calls “Transitioning Tesla”. Guinn notes how the stories about Tesla started changing in the summer of 2017:

“But gone was the center of gravity around management guidance and growth capital. In its place, the cluster of topics permeating most stories about Tesla was now about vehicle deliveries.”

This meant the narrative shifted to something like, “The Model 3 launch is exciting AND the performance of these cars is amazing, BUT Tesla is having delivery problems AND can they actually make them AND what does Wall Street think about all this?” As Guinn describes, “The narrative was still positive, but it was no longer stable.” More importantly, he warns, “This is what it looks like when the narrative breaks.”

The third phase of Tesla’s narrative, “Broken Tesla”, started around August 2017 and has continued through to the present. Guinn describes,

“The growing concern about production and vehicle deliveries entered the nucleus of the narrative about Tesla Motors in late summer 2017 and propagated. The stories about production shortfalls now began to mention canceled reservations. The efforts to increase production also resulted in some quality control issues and employee complaints, all of which started to make their way into those same articles.”

Finally, Guinn concludes, “Once that happened, a new narrative formed: Tesla is a visionary company, sure, but one that doesn’t seem to have any idea how to (1) make cars, (2) sell cars or (3) run a real company that can make money doing either.” Once this happens, there is very little to inhibit the downward path of disillusionment.

Taken together, these analyses can be used by investors and advisors alike to help make difficult decisions about tech positions. Several parts of the market depend on the fragile foundations of growth narratives including many of the largest tech companies, over one-third of Russell 2000 index constituents that don’t make money, and some of the most over-hyped technologies such as artificial intelligence and cryptocurrencies.

One common mistake that should be avoided is to react to changing conditions by modifying the investment thesis. For example, a stock that has been owned for its growth potential starts slowing down. Rather than recognizing the evidence as potentially indicative of a critical inflection point, investors often react by rationalizing in order to avoid selling. Growth is still good. The technology is disruptive. It’s a great company. All these things may be true, but it won’t matter. Growth is about narrative and not numbers. If the narrative is broken and you don’t sell, you can lose a lot of money. Don’t get distracted.

In addition, it is important to recognize that any company-specific considerations will also be exacerbated by an elemental change in the overall investment landscape. As the FT also noted, “But this month [October] can be recognised as the point at which the market shifts from being driven by liquidity to being driven by fundamentals.” This turning point has significant implications for the hype cycle: “Turn off the liquidity taps at the world’s central banks and so does the ability of the market to believe seven impossible things before breakfast.”

Yet another important challenge in dealing with tech stocks that have appreciated substantially is dealing with the tax consequences. Huge gains can mean huge tax bills. In the effort to avoid a potentially complicated and painful tax situation, it is all-too-easy to forego the sale of stocks that have run the course of inflated expectations.

As Eric Cinnamond highlights [here], this is just as big of a problem for fiduciaries as for individuals:

“The recent market decline is putting a growing number of portfolio managers in a difficult situation. The further the market falls, the greater the pressure on managers to avoid sending clients a tax bill.”

Don’t let tax considerations supersede investment decisions.

So how do the original examples of Amazon, Alphabet and Apple fit into this? What, if anything, should investors infer from their quarterly earnings and the subsequent market reactions?

There are good reasons to be cautious. For one, all the above considerations apply. Further, growth has been an important part of the narrative of each of these companies and any transition to lower growth does fundamentally affect the investment thesis. In addition, successful companies bear the burden of ever-increasing hurdles to growth as John Hussman describes [here]:

“But as companies become dominant players in mature sectors, their growth slows enormously.”

“Specifically,” he elaborates, “growth rates are always a declining function of market penetration.” Finally, he warns,

“Investors should, but rarely do, anticipate the enormous growth deceleration that occurs once tiny companies in emerging industries become behemoths in mature industries.”

For the big tech stocks, wobbles from the earnings reports look like important warning signs.

In sum, tech stocks create unique opportunities and risks for investors. Due to the prominent role of inflated expectations in so many technology investments, however, tech also poses special challenges for long term investors. Whether exposure exists in the form of individual stocks or by way of major indexes, it is important to know that many technology stocks are run more like lottery tickets than as a sustainable streams of cash flows. Risk may be perceived as a feature by some tech CFOs, but it is a bug for long term investment portfolios.

Finally, tech presents such an interesting analytical challenge because the hype cycle can cause perceptions to deviate substantially from the reality of development, adoption and diffusion. Ridley describes a useful general approach: “The only sensible course is to be wary of the initial hype but wary too of the later scepticism.” Long term investors won’t mind a winding road but they need to make sure it can get them to where they are going.

Give Me An “L” For Liquidity

After a rocky first quarter markets posted a solid second quarter and improved steadily through the third quarter. The US economy is currently rolling along at a pretty healthy pace as GDP grew at 4.2% in the second quarter and earnings have been strong. Unemployment clocked in at 3.7% for September which is incredibly low by historical standards. Indications of inflation are starting to creep into wages, materials, and transportation and many manufacturers have been able to offset them by raising prices. Through the lens of economics, investors are in good shape.

It wasn’t that long ago, however, that investors looked past a feeble economic recovery and took cheer in the large volumes of liquidity major central banks around the world infused to support financial assets. Now the time has come to reverse course. As the Economist states [here] in no uncertain terms,

“Central banks are pitiless executioners of long-lived booms and monetary policy has shifted.”

Investors who view these conditions exclusively through the lens of economics risk misreading this pivotal event: global liquidity is falling and will bring asset prices down with it.

Liquidity is one of those finance topics that often gets bandied about but it is often not well understood. It seems innocuous enough but it is critical to a functioning economy. In short, it basically boils down to cash. When there is more cash floating around in an economic system, it is easier to buy things. Conversely, when there is less, it is harder to buy things.

Chris Cole from Artemis Capital Management has his own views as to why investors often overlook liquidity [here]. He draws an analogy between fish and investors. Because fish live in water, they don’t even notice it. Because investors have been living in a sea of liquidity, they don’t even notice it. As he notes,

“The last decade we’ve seen central banks supply liquidity, providing an artificial bid underneath markets.”

Another aspect of liquidity that can cause it to be under appreciated is that it is qualitatively different at scale. A drop of water may be annoying, but it rarely causes harm. A tsunami is life-threatening. Conversely, a brief delay in getting a drink of water may leave one slightly parched, but an extended stay in the desert can also be life-threatening. We have a tendency to take water (and liquidity) for granted until confronted with extreme conditions.

One person who does not take liquidity for granted is Stanley Druckenmiller. In an overview of his uniquely successful approach to investing on Realvision [here], he describes,

“But everything for me has never been about earnings. It’s never been about politics. It’s always about liquidity.”

Not earnings or politics, but liquidity. 

While not yet extreme, the liquidity environment is changing noticeably. Druckenmiller notes,

“we’ll [the Fed will] be shrinking our balance sheet $50 billion a month,” and, “at the same time, the ECB will stop buying bonds.”

Cole describes the same phenomenon in his terms,

“Now water is being drained from the pond as the Fed, ECB, and Bank of Japan shrink their balance sheets and raise interest rates.” 

Michael Howell of CrossBorder Capital, a research firm focusing on global money flows, summarizes the situation in a Realvision interview [here]:

“In terms of global liquidity, it’s currently falling at the fastest rate that we’ve seen since 2008 …”

For some investors, the decrease in liquidity is setting off alarms. Druckenmiller points out,

“It’s going to be the shrinkage of liquidity that triggers this thing.” He goes on, “And my assumption is one of these hikes- I don’t know which one- is going to trigger this thing. And I am on triple red alert because we’re not only in the time frame, we’re in the part …” He continues, “There’s no more euro ECB money spilling over into the US equity market at the end of the year …”

Or, as Zerohedge reported [here],

“We have previously discussed the market’s mounting technical and structural problems – we believe these are a direct result of the increasingly hostile monetary backdrop (i.e., there is no longer enough excess liquidity to keep all the plates in the air).”

As the Economist notes,

“Shifts in America’s monetary stance echo around global markets,” and there is certainly evidence this is happening. Cole notes, “The first signs of stress from quantitative tightening are now emerging in credit, international equity, and currency markets. Financial and sovereign credits are weakening and global cross asset correlations are increasing.” 

Howell also chimes in, 

“You’re also seeing emerging markets central banks being forced to tighten because of the upward shock to the US  dollar.” He concludes, “Emerging market currencies are very fragile. And emerging markets stock markets are falling out of bed. These are all classic symptoms of a tightening liquidity environment.”

The governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Urjit Patel, highlighted these issues when he wrote that “Emerging markets face a dollar double whammy” in the Financial Times [here]. He describes, “The upheaval stems from the coincidence of two significant events: the Fed’s long-awaited moves to trim its balance sheet and a substantial increase in issuing US Treasuries to pay for tax cuts.” He claims that if the Fed does not recalibrate the shrinkage of its balance sheet, “Treasuries will absorb such a large share of dollar liquidity that a crisis in the rest of the dollar bond markets is inevitable.”

Although there is evidence that liquidity is tightening, it has not done so uniformly yet. The Economist describes,

“The integration of the global financial system has turned national financial systems into a vast single sea of money that rises and falls with changes in saving and investment around the world.”

As a result, there are a lot of crosscurrents that confound simple analysis.

For example, Zerohedge reports [here],

“When ‘QT’ [quantitative tightening] started in September of 2017, outstanding Fed credit initially kept growing well into 2018, largely because reverse repos with US banks ran off faster than securities held by the Fed decreased …” The story continues, “The markets evidently never ‘missed’ the liquidity tied up in these reverse repos, not least because high quality treasury collateral serves as a kind of secondary medium of exchange in repo markets, where it supports all kinds of other transactions.” 

Flows of capital into US markets have also temporarily concealed tighter conditions. Howell highlights “the huge amounts of money of flight capital that have come into the US over the last four years” and quantifies it as “something like $4 trillion.”

But the turning tides of liquidity that have been so noticeable abroad are now also starting to wash up on US shores, as John Dizard demonstrates in the FT [here]. When rates are higher in the US, foreign investors can buy US Treasuries and hedge out the currency risk. He notes, “This made it possible for non-US institutions to hold large bond positions that paid a positive rate of interest without incurring foreign exchange risk.” However, by the end of September, “the interbank market’s cross-currency ‘basis swap’ for euros to US dollars rose by 30 basis points and the cost of yen-dollar basis swaps went up by 46 bp.” Dizard summarizes the likely consequences:

“That was the end of foreigners paying for the US economic expansion. It also probably marked the end of the housing recovery.”

Additional factors further muddy the mix. Repatriation flows have disguised the decline in liquidity but will only do so temporarily. Further, China has historically been a large buyer of US assets., but that is changing too. As Howell notes, “China has shown no appetite for buying further US dollar assets over the last 18 months.” He concludes,

“We think they’ve now stopped. And they’re redeploying their foreign exchange reserves into Central Asia in terms of real infrastructure spending.”

Bill Blain points to yet another factor in his analysis of liquidity in Zerohedge [here]. He notes,

“What’s happened since Lehman’s demise has been a massive transfer of risk from the banking sector – which means, so the regulators tell us, that banks are now safer. Marvellous [sic]. Where did that risk go? Into the non-bank financial sector.”

Almost as if on cue, the FT reported on liquidity issues at a shadow bank in India [here]: “The banks’ woes have meant India has come to rely for credit growth increasingly on its shadow banking sector. Non-bank lenders accounted for 40 per cent of loan growth in the past year, according to Nomura, funding their expansion by relying heavily on the short-term debt market.”

This case serves as a useful warning signal for investors because it is reflective of the global expansion of shadow banking and because it demonstrates the kind of pro-cyclical and mismatched funding that caused so many problems during the financial crisis.

In sum, although various transient factors have created some noise, the overall signal is fairly clear. Zerohedge reports [here],

“With net Fed credit actually decreasing, an important threshold has been crossed. The effect on excess liquidity is more pronounced, which definitely poses a big risk for overextended financial markets.”

Whether or not the big risk is immediate or not is open for some interpretation. As Druckenmiller puts it, “we’re kind of at that stage of the cycle where bombs are going off,” which suggests the time is now. However, he implicitly suggests developed market investors still have some time when he says,

“And until the bombs go off in the developed markets, you would think the tightening will continue.”

Problems for developed markets are on the way though, as liquidity is likely to get a lot worse. Cole says,

“Expect a crisis to occur between 2019 and 2021 when a drought caused by dust storms of debt refinancing, quantitative tightening, and poor demographics causes liquidity to evaporate.” He also warns, “[Y]ou should be VERY worried about how the bigger implicit short volatility trade affects liquidity in the overall market… THAT is the systemic risk.”

If it is still hard to imagine how a subtle and abstract thing like liquidity could overwhelm demonstrably strong economic results, perhaps a lesson from history can provide a useful illustration.

In Ken Burns’ Vietnam War documentary, Donald Gregg from the CIA captures the strategic perspective of the war:

“We should have seen it as the end of the colonial era in southeast Asia, which it really was. But instead we saw it in Cold War terms and we saw it as a — a defeat for the free world — that was related to the rise of China — and it was a total misreading of a pivotal event — which cost us very dearly.” 

In other words, the subtle and abstract force of independence from colonial rule ultimately proved to be an incredibly powerful one in Vietnam. Many people wanted to believe something else and that led to very costly decisions.

Liquidity is playing the same role for investors today and investors who believe otherwise are also likely to suffer. The important lesson is that long-term investors don’t need to worry about getting all the day-to-day cross-currents just right. But they do need to appreciate the gravity of declining liquidity.

A recent story in P&I [here] articulated the challenge well: 

“Investors also must be more aware. Few recognize when conditions that could lead to a crisis are brewing, and those who do often misjudge the timing and fail to act to protect themselves and their clients from the full impact of the storm.” More specifically, “The best laid plans for protecting investment gains, and even the corpus of a portfolio, could fail if attention is not paid to the likely shortage of liquidity” 

This isn’t to say it will be easy to do or that the message will be uniformly broadcast. For example, after the significant market losses in the second week of October, the FT reports [here] that Vanguard notified clients via a tweet:

“You know the drill. In face of market volatility, keep calm and stay the course.”

“Keeping calm” is certainly good advice; it is even harder to make good decisions when one is wildly emotional and/or impulsive. However, “staying the course” makes some dubious assumptions. 

If a market decline is just a random bout of volatility then it doesn’t make sense to change course. But when liquidity is declining and Druckenmiller sees “bombs going off” and Cole expects “a crisis to occur between 2019 and 2021,” a market decline has very different information content.  

Staying the course would also make sense if your exposure to stocks is low and your investment horizon is very long, but the numbers say just the opposite. As Zerohedge reports [here],

“Outside of the 2000 dotcom bubble, U.S. households have never had more of their assets invested in the stock market.”

Further, as Gallup documents [here], the 65 and older demographic, the one presumably with the shortest investment horizon, has actually slightly increased their stock holdings. As Bill Blain comments,

“You’ve got a whole market of buy-side investors who think liquidity and government largesse is unlimited.” 

Investors reluctant to heed the warnings on liquidity can consider one more argument — which comes from Druckenmiller’s own actions. As he puts it,

“I also have bear-itis, because I made– my highest absolute returns were all in bear markets. I think my average return in bear markets was well over 50%.”

Based on what he is seeing now, he is ready to pounce:

“I … kind of had this scenario that the first half would be fine, but then by July, August, you’d start to discount the shrinking of the balance sheet. I just didn’t see how that rate of change would not be a challenge for equities … and that’s because margins are at an all time record. We’re at the top of the valuation on any measures you look, except against interest rates …”

So, investors inclined to dismiss concerns about liquidity and who would be hurt if stocks should go down a lot, should know that on the other side is Stanley Druckenmiller, with an itchy trigger finger, ready to put his money where his mouth is.

Wrapping up, it is difficult to capture just how fundamentally important liquidity is to investing, but Chris Cole probably does it as well as anyone: 

“When you are a fish swimming in a pond with less and less water, you had best pay attention to the currents.”

So let’s hear it for liquidity: It is a powerful force that can boost portfolios and one that can diminish them just as easily.