The titles of our recent publications are below. To see them for free, please contact us!
A Rising Black Swan in the Barbaric Relic
Aug 2, 2020
In 1924, John Maynard Keynes called gold a “barbaric relic.” 96 years later, the financial media is squarely focused on the rise of the barbaric relic. In 5000 years of human history, gold has been the currency of choice across different cultures and regions. In comparison, our current fiat system only has 49 years of history (since the Nixon Shock in 1971). We have previously extensively discussed the challenges facing our current fiat currency system. In May, we called precious metals and miner stocks the “new FANG.” Please refer to our past writings “Mirror Image of Volcker Shock”, “Cross the Rubicon” and “The New FANG”.
We are not gold bugs. As a matter of fact, we think precious metals will be the next bubble eventually, and we hope to capitalize on it on the downside when the time comes. However, we think that it is probably years or a decade away, and we are still in the early stages of the bull run from a long-term perspective. For now, our focus is squarely focused on the upside, and how to manage the risks.
Fundamentally, we turned bullish towards gold at the end of 2018. The reason is simple: we thought that the real interest rates might have peaked, and the Fed had to ease. Paper currency can compete with gold if savers can earn positive interest rates above inflation - i.e. positive real rates. Therefore, the rise and fall of real interest rates hold the key to gold prices.
How did we know that real interest rates were peaking then?
July 26th, 2020
Following the Federal Reserve’s rate cuts to near zero, longer term investors have been increasingly concerned about the lack of portfolio insurance choices. High quality global sovereign debt has historically been the preeminent portfolio hedge for risk assets over the past 3 decades, but with yields already close to or below zero, how much more protection can they provide?
In our note “Mirror Image of the Volcker Shock” dated March 21, we pointed out that the inability of long rates to serve as portfolio insurance to risk portfolio will have profound implications on the capital market and that the “elimination of the ultimate cheap portfolio protection for risk assets will force a rethink of portfolio theory.” We discussed that risk parity is a levered version of the 60/40 portfolio, and many seemingly diversified institutional investors’ portfolios have nearly identical risk and return profile compared to the 60/40 portfolio.
What are the implications for institutional investors?
An EM Bull in a China Shop
July 19th, 2020
Most of our readers know that here at Dao, we don’t impose our views on the market. Rather we have probabilistic assessments of various scenarios and capital market development paths. We don’t try to handicap markets all the time. However, at certain defining moments, we foresee potential regime shifts with far-reaching impacts on every corner of the financial markets in the years and perhaps decades ahead.
We think we have arrived at such a defining moment.
First, we have discussed extensively that this is a highly unusual time as we had anticipated a year ago: the end of the 5-10 year business cycle converged with 1-3 year mini cycle and the end of the 40-year disinflationary cycle (see our original note “Navigating the End of Market Cycle”, “Mirror Image of Volcker Shock”). We have identified MMT as the predominant theme in the next 3-10 years, with major implications (“Decades happen in Weeks” and “Cross Rubicon”).
We laid out a long-term strategic plan for investors in our note “Decades Happen in Weeks,” dated April 5th. Our job is now to navigate: 1) uncertainty of this thesis 2) Timing 3) Sizing.
July 12th, 2020
One month ago, we warned on the rising COVID-19 cases due to the reopening of the economy and widespread protests. This is now a reality. Since mid-June, confirmed coronavirus cases re-accelerated after the curve was flattened.
Largely driven by increasing cases in sunbelt states such as Florida, Texas and California, daily confirmed cases in the US has reached more than 60,000, while cumulative confirmed cases have reached 3.2 million, roughly 1% of the US population.
With 4.2% of the global population, the US now represents 25% of global cumulative confirmed cases. While it is true that the US is doing more testing, the statistics are nonetheless alarming. The recent reacceleration of confirmed cases is not a US phenomenon, but global. Internationally, cumulative confirmed cases have reached 12.7 million as of Saturday, July 11th and confirmed cases are increasingly at a daily rate of more than 200,000 – a new high.
Will we experience another round of full or complete lockdowns? Will schools be reopened in fall and forced to shut down again? Your guess is as good as ours. However, we do know that in many parts of the world, the reopening has been rolled back as cases have resurged. Regardless of whether we will have a new round of lockdowns, the 2nd wave of the pandemic has curtailed expectations of a rapid economic recovery as consumers’ propensity to spend will diminish.
June 27th, 2020
This week, we systematically scan economic indicators, asset prices and volatilities globally and across all asset classes.
Our “Volatility Scan” dated January 24th picked up various warning signs in the stock market and risk assets in general, which contributed to our recommendation to put on direct hedges for equity portfolios. This week we will repeat the same process, which will provide context for understanding the volatility space in the current environment.
The chart below is the DCA cross-asset volatility index, which is the weighted average of the z-scores of implied volatilities of various asset classes, including currencies (including gold), rates, equity (vol and vol of vol) and commodities (oil and copper). We have observed a rising volatility trend since 2017. Despite the nearly complete recovery of equity indexes and low volatility in the rates markets, our cross-asset volatility index still remains elevated relative to history, despite a large pull back.
US Dollar Cycle Part 2 – Implications
June 20th, 2020
Last week, we elaborated on our hypothesis for a potential turn of the US Dollar Cycle.
While the implications in the currency space may be relatively clear, the impact on various asset classes may not be well understood or underestimated by investors. In our framework, the direction of the US Dollar is one of the most important drivers for global capital markets, impacting virtually all asset classes with profound implications for capital allocation.
We have successfully utilized the US Dollar cycle to benefit our investment decisions while managing billions of capital in the past, and we hope to share some of those experiences with our readers and clients.
While most investors accept the under performance of Emerging Market and non-US risk assets as fact and history, we decisively underweight EM (short EM currencies), commodities and Non-US assets in 2013, capitalizing on the rising US Dollar cycle. At the time, the consensus was that EM would significantly outperform the US due to “high growth”, “better valuations”, and “attractive demographics.” Our decisions at the time were very contrarian, to say the least.
Fast forward seven years, and investors are giving up EM, citing “low growth”, “de-globalization”, “death of commodities” as “fundamental” rationale. Quite the opposite, we are developing a thesis that a potential regime shift for relative outperformance of EM vs. DM and Non-US vs US might occur in the near future. While we could copy and paste the same consensus arguments 7 years ago (“high growth”, “better valuation”, and “attractive demographics.” ) to support our potential bullish thesis on EM, the truth is that we are singularly focused on the US Dollar.
Implications of the US Dollar Cycle on Asset Prices
Decision Time for US Dollar Cycle
June 13th, 2020
In the past three weeks, a particularly interesting development that caught our attention was the breakdown of US Dollar Index from its consolidated range.
Could this potentially mark the end of the rising US Dollar cycle? Our interest is piqued.
Before we jump further into the rationale, it would be helpful to go through past USD dollar cycles to see how we got here.
The chart below is the USD dollar index since 1970, which clearly illustrates 3 distinct US dollar cycles – 3 weakening periods and 3 strengthening periods.
June 6th, 2020
Recently, we have been asked quite often on the direction of stocks and risk assets in general.
We have shared with our readers since the end of April that we have turned more cautious about the overall broad equity market. Instead of recommending outright de-risking, we have been recommending that investors continue to seek attractive hedging opportunities, while at the same time, investors should opportunistically deploy capital to attractive lagging assets poised to recover if the economic recovers.
Our short-term indicator now shows that that market is highly vulnerable for a downward move in the short term; however we are not ready to call for prolonged downside. Please refer to our recommendation section for our thoughts on potential actions for the time being.
Since the equity rebound from March low, the rally was primarily led by large tech names, and the Nasdaq 100 has fully recovered its losses and the S&P 500 index is only 5% below all time highs. However, the Value line Geometric Index, a broader measurement of US stocks, continues to demonstrate a downward trend. The index is at the same level as 6 years ago and interestingly, the current resistance area of 480 to 500 was the top of the range before the GFC in 2007 – see the chart below.
Thoughts on European Equities
May 30, 2020
YTD, the S&P 500 has outperformed the Euro Stoxx index by 12%. This is a fairly large gap, though almost the entire move occurred in the first half of March.
What’s driving this? How should we think about the relationship going forward?
Before examine the recent period, it’s worth remembering that the S&P has been outperforming Eurostoxx for over a decade now.
The main driver for this is fundamental, not valuation based. From Dec 2009 to Dec 2019, earnings’ estimates for the S&P grew more than twice as much as that for the Eurostoxx...
There is a litany of reasons for this, but the difference in institutional setup is critical...
All Pegs Broken Loose - Saudi Riyal
May 22, 2020
Two weeks ago, we wrote that “the risk reward asymmetry has increased significantly enough to warrant a bet on the potential de-pegging of the Hong Kong Dollar to US dollar. This can be considered a cheap tail hedge.”
Today the Hong Kong Dollar forward price has moved significant beyond its mid-point towards the weak side of the band and the price of HKD put options have jumped in the past two days as the national security law is slated for passage in the National People’s Congress in Beijing next week, which would further endanger Hong Kong’s judicial independence.
Today, we think investors should consider another tail hedging opportunity – a potential de-peg of the Saudi Riyal.
The New FANG
May 17, 2020
Let’s review a simple set of statistics since mid– March to put into context what has happened over the past couple months - when social distancing started, economy was “shut down” and large-scale testing on covid-19 began.
We note a number of divergences and potential mispricings that we think are important to monitor.
All Pegs Broken Lose
May 9, 2020
We think the risk reward asymmetry has increased significantly enough to warrant a bet on the potential de-pegging of the Hong Kong Dollar to US dollar. This can be considered cheap tail hedge.
Hong Kong is one of the few countries that has kept its currency peg. The Hong Kong Dollar has been pegged to the USD dollar at 7.8 HKD to USD since 1983, and has been maintained within a tight band between 7.75 to 7.85 over the past 15 years.
May 3, 2020
Back in March when we urged investors to buy stocks, we said that we could visualize a scenario that “stocks rally against exponentially growing confirmed cases”. Today, we visualize a potential scenario that the rally could stall or even revert to the downside while the economy is being re-opened.
To be sure, we are not saying that a stock sell off is a certainty. As a matter of fact, due to the rapid decline of asset classes, divergences between different assets have emerged and investors should continue to deploy capital selectively and opportunistically. However, on a broad asset class level, we think that the risk/reward on equities have significantly tilted towards downside, contrary to mid/late March.
We are ultimately open-minded to the scenarios that we have laid out. The question is whether we will skip stage 3 or not. Investors have gotten used to the 1-3 year mini-reflation cycle post GFC when central banks actively intervened upon any sign of economic weakness and drawdown of financial assets. As a result, economic recessions did not materialize, and the stage 3 selloffs never transpired. While this is certainly possible given the magnitude and speed of fiscal and monetary responses, equities avoiding the fundamentally driven sell off is not our base case.
Let’s take a longer term look.
What if US Rates are too High?
Apr 26, 2020
In the past reports, we have discussed that the end of current market cycle would mark the beginning of the end of the four decade long disinflationary cycle with falling interest rates. Note the word “beginning of the end”. The reversal of these multi-decades trends is not an inflection point, but rather a bottoming process that can take years.
We recommended receiving US rates at the beginning of the year, and suggested taking profits in mid-early March when US 10y hit the level around 40 bps. Since then, we thought that rates would range bound for a while. Indeed, in the past 2 months, the US 10y rate has been between 50 bps to 140 bps. According to our reading, the 10Y rate is now poised to make large movement in the weeks ahead. Will the rate revert back to the box and continue to be range bound? It is possible. However, we now think that risks have increased for the 10y rate to make a decisive break down below 50 bps, heading towards zero or even negative.
Is it possible that 60bps on 10y treasuries is too high? Let’s take a look at this from some different angles.
Cross the Rubicon
Apr 19, 2020
As our readers know that we believe that the end of the current market cycle could mark the beginning of the end of the four decade long disinflationary cycle since the early 1980s with profound implications for decades to come. We have laid out some key implications in our prior notes and laid out how investors should position the portfolio for the long term – please review “The Mirror Image of Volcker Shock” and “Decades Happen in Weeks”. We will elaborate on those and other long-term themes in the future.
But first, we think it is far more important to understand the impact on the traditional asset allocation framework. We think this could potentially mark the end of the static asset allocation framework, and kick start a new era of active asset allocation based on the risk/reward assessment of various asset classes. We have written about this when we started Dao Capital, anticipating that the seismic change will occur once interest rates hit nadir. Never did we think that it would take a pandemic for this to happen.
We have always said that the institutional setup determines the investment results – give us the name of an institutional investor, and we can roughly estimate their performance without even the need to meet and talk to them. Why? Chances are that their performance will not deviate from their strategic asset allocation, which is static, predetermined, regardless of the market conditions.
The discussions of on market cycles, valuations and fundamentals have little to do with asset allocation decisions for most institutions. In the end, the asset allocations is determined by the risk and return profiles of the investors, and have little to do with fundamental assessments. Most institutional asset allocation frameworks are built on extended versions of Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT). While the theory may sound sophisticated, the end result has always been very simple: if you want to have higher returns, you need to take more equity risk. (both private and public) In exchange you will have higher portfolio volatility. The discussions typically focus on the required returns that investors “need” in order to satisfy liabilities or what kind of risk tolerance they have. The classical example is life-cycle funds, which design a glide path of asset mixes depending on the age of the investor – i.e. the older they are, the less equities in their allocation. To be sure, we do believe that risk aversion (age is important factor of risk aversion) is a significant input to the asset allocation decision. However market conditions play an equal if not more important role in the asset allocation decision.
The End of the Beginning
Apr 13, 2020
“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” -Winston Churchill
In mid and late March, we strongly proposed taking equity risk, and encouraged investors to scale in long positions via risk reversals. We did not think it would be “the” bottom for the market, but we were confident that that it would be “one of the bottoms of the market.”
We anticipated that several specific factors could contribute to this rebound, predicated mainly upon extremely oversold market conditions, visible catalysts for a pause in forced de-leveraging, quarter-end pension rebalancing, and the massive and fiscal stimulus. While others were panicking, recall that we specifically visualized a picture that stocks could rally against exponential growth of COV-19 cases.
Here is the picture on how that visualization transpired consequently in the weeks following. From March 23 to April 10th, SP 500 rallied almost 30% (from intra-day lows) while at the same time, US Coronavirus cases increased more than 10 fold from roughly 50 K to more than 500 K. Obviously it would be silly to state that equities are positively correlated to COV-19!
Decades Happen in Weeks
Apr 6, 2020
“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.”
— Vladimir Lenin
We have quoted this sentence several times in the past year as we have been expecting that tectonic shifts are likely to occur. It is happening.
We have highlighted the unusual confluence of 1-3 year mini cycle, 5-10 year business cycle and the four-decade falling interest rate and disinflation cycle. Simply put, the failure to reflate from the 2018-2019 growth slow down would lead to the end of the current business cycle, which would lead to the end of the four-decade cycle of falling interest rates. Please review our writing from last year – “Navigating the End of the Market Cycle”.
We did not predict coronavirus pandemic. However, in our view, it simply served as a catalyst that led to the downturn of the aging market cycle with record leverage and valuations. We have highlighted that our market cycle indicator has shown that our current market cycle was in a peaking process. It has now decisively rolled over to the downside.
Be Ready to Fade the Rally
Mar 29, 2020
Be Ready to Fade the Rally
We have sided with the rebound in risk assets and it is occurring. But we do not think it’s sustainable, and we urge investors to be ready to fade the rally.
Before we lay out the reasons for this change of stance, it is helpful to review why we believed in the rebound in the first place.
First, unlimited QE seemed to be working to unclog the plumbing of the funding markets for now. Fra-OIS is falling and the SOFR overnight rate (secured lending) has dropped below the IOER (interest rate on the excess reserve). US Treasury liquidity is starting to return to normalcy. Credit spreads have started to tighten as the Fed began buying investment grade corporate bonds. We have been expecting the Fed to purchase corporate bonds. Some of the fast money community and dealers have started to re-lever again to front run’s fed purchases, the first time in the past three weeks.
The Mirror Image of the Volker Shock
Mar 21, 2020
Paul Volker passed away in December 2019. His passing closely coincides with the end of four decades of declining interest rates.
Most of our readers know that we believe that we are at an unusual period with a confluence of the tail end of the 5-10-year business cycle and the 4-decade disinflationary cycle. Most investors are familiar with the 5-10-year business cycle and may be well prepared for the potential end of the current market cycle by following the playbooks of the past four decades. While some of dynamics of past business cycles may repeat, we think investors may be surprised that the same playbooks that has worked well in the past 4 decades may not work well in the future.
The key is interest rates. Volker’s interest rate hikes ended the inflationary era, and laid the foundation for interest rate policy as a monetary policy lever for central bankers in decades to come. However, after every business cycle, the Fed could not hike the interest rates higher than the high of previous cycle, and they had to cut interest rates lower than the low of previous cycle before they could effectively stimulate economy. This trend is now an end with interest rates falling back to zero.
Interest rate are used as discount rates to future cash flows. Therefore falling interest rates have led to higher net present value of all financial assets. For the real economy, central banks are also able to manage the economic cycle by lowering borrowing costs to support credit expansion or increasing borrowing costs to slow down credit expansion. Once interest rates hits zero with the record high leverage as we face today, interest rates are no longer effective tools to manage economic cycle. We are truly standing at an unusual time – interest rates have never been this low in the 5000 years of human history.
Mar 13, 2020
Since the market is changing quickly, our weekly note may not be adequate for some readers. So please do not hesitate to reach us via email if you have further questions.
While we had been cautious about the risky assets and made numerous recommendations to hedge the risk assets (long receivers, put spreads on Nasdaq 100 ETF, and short selected EM countries) in January and February, the speed of the decline and vol shock shocked even us.
Recent capital market developments are concerning. Here are some of things we monitor closely:
First, we are very concerned that liquidity in the treasury market continues to be bad, despite the resumption of QE, and expected Fed cuts next week. Liquidity in treasury markets are on par with the financial crisis. This is key because if there isn’t enough liquidity in treasuries, we cannot hope for rational pricing for riskier assets. Fed may take additional action on this next week.
Levered treasury investors have been key supports to elevated UST debt issuance. They typically invest in UST treasury and hedge the positions using treasury futures. The sustained illiquidity of the UST and the cheapening of cash security vs futures can cause investors to liquidate the treasury positions. Investors also use levered treasury positions to hedge risky assets, and they may chose to liquidate the positions if they prove to be ineffective.
Second, we note that Investment Grade credit yields have unwound much of their decline YTD this week. The chart below shows the US 5y swap rate + 5y Investment Grade CDX as a proxy for 5y borrowing rates for USD corporate borrowers. The combination of spread widening and backup in risk free rates has resulted in an almost 50bp jump in corporate borrowing costs from the lows this month
Fear the Fear Itself
Mar 8, 2020
Our empirical experience taught us that when people regularly congratulate us for getting recent major asset prices right, it is time to think about the opposite. Indeed, we are making some major adjustments of our recommendation this week, mainly in US rates.
Like everyone else, we don’t have a crystal ball, but we focus on risk vs reward, and probability assessments of the future vs the market’s assessment of the future. When a large discrepancy emerges, that’s the time to act. Our views and opinions don’t matter unless: a) they are not reflected by the market pricing, b) there are fundamental reasons why our views may prove to be right, c) roughly accurate timing of the occurrence. As a matter of fact, we are not afraid to put on trades against our views and beliefs if the risk vs rewards of the trade are highly asymmetric.
We said before that we did not have advanced knowledge of the coronavirus at the beginning of the year when we turned cautious, but rather we noted that assets had been priced for a successful period of reflation while the fundamental data failed to pick up as we had expected. The most direct and consistent way to express the view on the growth slowdown is through central banks’ reaction function – they will cut rates and ease. We recommended receiving rates (long treasuries) either through delta one positions or via options when implied vol was still very cheap. Our recommendation on gold was also predicated upon the expected easing measures of central banks.
The implications for stocks are not as straightforward as on rates, because stocks are influenced not only by the economic growth and corporate earnings, but also by the measures of central banks and fiscal authorities. We wish there were instruments like GDP swaps, so that market participants could either be receivers or payers of GDP growth rate to express bearish or bullish view on economic growth. In the absence of such instruments, economic growth is only one of the key factors that influence the stock prices.
Where do we go from here?
Mar 1, 2020
Since the day we penciled “Run FOMO.exe” on October 12, 2019, US stocks had been on fire, rising more than 15% within 4 months. The gains were then wiped out within a week.
Let us review our thought process since the beginning of the year.
First, at the very beginning of the year, we turned cautious, though we were generally bullish on the broad market within the context of liquidity support from the Fed. “Though we continue to side with the reflationary scenario, we are starting to turn more cautious mainly because many leading economic indicators have failed to pick up much, while many major assets classes are already priced for the reflationary scenario”. We showed the YOY change of stocks to long-dated treasuries total return ratio had completely deviated from the ISM index. By now it has converged.
Second, we recommended receiving US rates either through delta-one positions or via options on January 18th per our note Raven of Zurich (Econ Scan). “Given our assessments on the economic situation above, we think that investors can establish long US rates as a hedge to risk exposure.” US 10y yield has fallen by 70 bps since then. We also recommended receivers via options because of the low implied volatility at the time.
Third, on January 27th’s Volatility Scan, we said “Per our discussions above, we think direct hedges to equity indices may not be a bad idea. We like put spreads on the Nasdaq 100 ETF, QQQ – on which we like the April expiry 199-210 put spread for $1.5. We think it is attractive to use USD(put) JPY(call) options given the record low implied vol. For example, we like the USDJPY 100 strike, 1 year option for 85 cents.” The Put Spread has now tripled to $4.5, with very minor losses on USDJPY option.
Fourth, on February 1st, we recommended transitioning a portion of the gains of rate receivers to conditional bull steepeners per our note “Magic Pill”, by noting “We now recommend rotating some of those positions (rate receivers) into conditional bull steepeners so that hedging costs can be lowered. Why? We think that the probability has increased significantly for Fed to embark on a cutting cycle again”
Fifth, On February 7th, we wrote the note “Ag Shame, South Africa”, recommending shorting the South Africa Rand and or CDS. We also recommended shorting the Brazilian Real as a hedge to emerging markets or broad risk exposure.
Finally, last week we alerted our readers about the heightened risks of a reversal per the note “Imminent Reversal – Introducing Bull Intensity Index”, encouraging investors to hold on to the hedges illustrated above.
That was the past, now what? We think it is time to start shifting tactics from defense to offense...
Introducing the DCA Bull Intensity Index
Feb 24, 2020
Readers who know us well often hear us say that our main task is to build puzzles. Our first step is to understand and process the relevant information and data available to us. Like pieces of the puzzle, each data point can only offer partial information. Our job is to put all the pieces together to form a picture on where capital markets stand. To build the puzzle, we have three key components: 1. Fundamentals 2. Asset prices 3. Monetary and fiscal policies. We then focus on the reaction function between them to fit the different puzzle pieces together to form a holistic assessment of the markets...
The Four Seasons of a Bubble
Feb 17, 2020
In our investment careers, we have been fortunate to be able to sit down and discuss global investment matters with the CIOs and PMs of some of the world’s most famous and respected asset management firms. One of the most common topics in our conversations with them is that central bank intervention has distorted price discovery and more importantly has created financial excesses - aka bubbles. Agreed, but instead of complaining about it, one should accept it as a fact and seek ways to monetize it. Here at Dao, we accept that nothing in the financial world is “abnormal”. We believe that the cause and effect functions between economic growth, monetary/fiscal authorities and asset prices will always repeat.
In this note, we recognize that financial bubbles have occurred in the past, are occurring right in front our eyes and will recur in the future. As a matter of fact, one should be excited about “bubbles” because it means exhilarating opportunities. What investors need is a process to risk manage and capitalize on it...
Ag Shame South Africa
Feb 10, 2020
Ag shame (pronounced ach shame) is a South African slang term used to express sympathy or pity. We have been students of South Africa for many years now, and are indeed very sympathetic to the plight that the policy makers there now face.
Despite being blessed with rich natural resources and advanced capital markets relative to the rest of Africa, South African economic development has been very slow. Dutch disease is a likely culprit, along with the structural water and power challenges...
Feb 3, 2020
Fear the fear itself. Don’t you worry? But there are magic financial pills for the coronavirus – easier monetary policy. Since the GFC, monetary policy has been the omnipotent prescription to cure all economic and geopolitical ills – QE1, QE2, operation twist, QE3, global QE, and most recently, “Not QE” balance sheet expansion. European sovereign crisis? Brexit? Trade war with China? Falling stock prices? Repo disruption? Global pandemic concerns? No problem. Easing monetary policies cure them all. No wonder, BOJ’s Kuroda once declared that central bankers are magic people.
Since October 2019, the Fed has put interest rate policy on hold and assured investors that it was a “mid-cycle” insurance cut with a goal to extend the current business cycle. Since the beginning of the year, we have been biased towards lower rates. Two weeks ago, we specifically recommended long US rates either through delta one or option strategies to hedge risk exposure. We still like these positions, though we now suggest booking some partial profits for those who have benefited from the positions. We now recommend rotating some of those positions...
Jan 27, 2020
Over the past week, the outbreak of the CoronaVirus has become the focus of markets. While we continue to believe that the Fed’s liquidity provisions and economic fundamentals remain the key drivers of capital markets, we think we may start to experience some market volatility out of pandemic fears, albeit for a brief period of time. During the Ebola outbreak in the fall of 2014, the S&P 500 dropped around 10%. .
The macro backdrop of the Ebola episode in fall 2014 was quite different from today. At the time, economic developments were generally positive and the Fed was about to end QE. The S&P 500 Index was plateauing in anticipation of the withdrawal of Fed liquidity. The market was vulnerable and Ebola fears provided a perfect catalyst...
The Raven of Zurich
Jan 20, 2020
...In 1996, former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan delivered a famous speech on “Irrational Exuberance”, warning against stock speculation. Afterwards, the S&P 500 more than doubled and NASDAQ composite roughly tripled before the peak in year 2000. In 1926, seventy years before Greenspan’s famous speech, Felix Somary, Austrian-Swiss political economist and banker, warned that a stock crash would come because of the “gap of appearance and reality,” while internationally renowned economist John Maynard Keynes disagreed, believing that a “crash will never come in our time” because of the efficacy of cheap money. Somary was wrong and Keynes was right… for two years. From the beginning of 1927 to the peak of the US stock market in 1929, the Dow Jones Industrial Index went up more than 150%. Somary’s dire prediction was later vindicated as the Dow Jones index would peak in the fall of 1929, dropping 90% in the following three years, earning him the name “Raven of Zurich”....
Riding the Liauidity Wave
Jan 13, 2020
...we think stocks will continue to be supported very possibly through April 15th because of continued liquidity provisions from the Fed and other global central banks. However, the ascending slope will not be as steep as we saw in Q4 last year because the liquidity growth rate is decreasing. We don’t have clear visibility beyond Q2, as we need to see the economic data pick up and catch up with financial assets for a more sustainable reflation cycle. In the absence of a pickup of the data, and if there is a withdrawal of liquidity this spring, it is highly likely that we will recommend derisking strategies and hedging strategies. Please reach out to us for a discussion.
However, in the very short-term (next 1-2 weeks), we think the likelihood to a short-term pullback is very high given the following reasons: 1. Overly optimistic investor sentiments and positioning. 2. Reduced liquidity provisions. 3. Corporate entering buyback blackout. We would advise investors to scale out of overweights to risk assets to be more neutral until the spring to be better positioned for the bifurcated risks....."
Dec 20, 2019
We take a look at long term petroleum projections, and the evolving electric vehicle market. And we find some very interesting marks for Private Equity valuations.
No Falling Angels Allowed
Dec 8, 2019
Since the GFC, US corporations have emerged as the largest buyers of their own shares, driving equity outperformance. Therefore, it is critical to have a forward-looking view on corporate buybacks. Back in fall 2018, we predicted that corporate buybacks could be peaking, and it seems that we may be proved right.
Why this is important? According to Federal Reserve Board Flow of Funds data, US buyback activity is the dominant driving force of this bull market, followed distantly by small foreign demand – refer to the chart below. Household and other domestic entities are net sellers of stocks rather than buyers. If corporate buyback activities have indeed peaked, the longer-term implications for stock market are negative. Note the last peak in corporate buybacks was in 2007, one year before the GFC.
Our peak corporate buybacks thesis last year remains intact due to the following reasons...
Reminiscences of year 1999-2000
Nov 17, 2019
Readers are probably familiar with various comparisons of our current market status vs. history. Many compared our current period of asset valuation, leverage and income inequality to that of 1929, while Ray Dalio at Bridgewater thinks that our current period is most analogous to that of 1937. Others find similarities between the extended period of low inflation today with the 1960s as precursors to the roaring inflation in 1970s. We agree with some of those observations. We also find some remarkable resemblances to the market cycle of the late 1990s.
To be sure, we are not saying that capital market behavior will repeat exactly. As the cliché goes, “The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” However, we think it is the symptoms that rhyme, while the reaction functions between the market, economy and fiscal/monetary authorities always repeat themselves.
Our current economic cycle is now the longest in US history, followed by the one in 1990s, which lasted 120 months. Between the two cycles, we find that the macro backdrops are very similar.
Taxes and Capital Markets
Nov 10, 2019
As the Democratic candidates begin stumping in Iowa, this is a good time to begin considering the different fiscal issues that are likely to impact the investment landscape. This is the first of several articles we have planned discussing taxes and fiscal policy and the impact on capital markets.
But before we discuss fiscal impacts, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the historical nature of the polarization in the political landscape, especially across age. The Boomer generation, with their high voter participation rate but declining numbers, is increasingly facing off versus the Millennials and Gen-Xers, whose participation rates have spiked. In fact, the 2018 midterms was the first election whereby the younger generation outvoted the Boomers and older generations, according to the Pew Research Center.
The anti-ageism sentiment by the younger cohorts is now pervasive enough that it has its own meme...
Nov 2, 2019
As stocks and risky assets continue to rally despite decelerating economic growth and falling earnings, we acknowledge the frustrations of many market participants. We can trade rates, stocks, currencies and commodities, but cannot trade GDP. Our readers and clients know that our framework is built upon the three-way interaction between capital market, economic development and monetary/fiscal activism. From our perspective, asset price action has been broadly in line with our expectations, with equity risk premiums reflecting falling growth expectations.
.Our readers and clients know that we have tilted towards a reflationary scenario for a while, as our report noted that “We think there is a decent chance for risk asset prices to break to the upside next week….” Sure enough, S&P 500 broke out on the first day of the week.
This week, we will examine whether various asset prices confirm the reflationary hypothesis.
Oct 27, 2019
Our clients have often asked how we were able to predict the peak in US growth rates in the summer of 2018 and the subsequent sell off in the equity markets. Like everyone else, we don’t have a crystal ball. However, we do have a systematic framework utilizing an array of leading economic indicators and asset price patterns that paints a mosaic on where we stand. Most of our readers know that our framework is based on the three-way relationship between economic development, asset prices and fiscal/monetary authorities. We start by understanding the messages conveyed by the asset prices. Today, we will share some of our charts in volatility space.
The chart below calculates the daily z-score (3y rolling window) for the VIX (SP 500 implied vol), CVIX ((currency implied vol) and Move Index ( interest rate implied vol). What stands out is the upward trend and still elevated level of Move Index (+ 0.7 sigma above mean), reflecting uncertainty around growth expectations, while stock implied vol ( -0.4 sigma below mean), indicating the easing monetary expectations have stabilized stock markets. The currency implied vol is 1.35 sigma below mean), consistent with the global synchronized slowdown and central bank reactions thus far.
A Note on Hong Kong
Oct 21, 2019
We can understand why investors may be worried about the situation in Hong Kong given that the current protests, which started on March 31st this year, is the longest since Hong Kong’s return to China and shows no signs of ending. It appears to be getting more violent. More importantly, this is occurring alongside an acrimonious trade war between the two largest economies in the world, with the weakest economic growth in China in 3 decades, and the worst economic and political relationship between Washington and Beijing in past two decades. No wonder that two months ago, Steve Eisman, the investor of “Big Short” fame, said on CNBC that this could be a black swan event. Many China bears are getting very excited with the catalysts, especially those wagering on the de-pegging of Hong Kong Dollar.
But before we dive into this topic, we would like to share a story. Back in 2012, I interviewed several well-known hedge fund managers who had successfully bet on the US subprime crisis. I asked them about their views on the depreciation of the Chinese RMB as a result of the credit binge post Great Recession..
Oct 14th, 2019
FOMO – aka fear of missing out, is not a feeling that is unique to retail investors. It is also a predictable institutional behavior based on the institutional setups common in our investment industry – fund managers have a strong need to generate alpha vs. relative benchmarks or absolute returns by year-end. At stake are not only the year-end bonuses, but job security or even the firms’ survival.
It is not surprising that investors are bearishly positioned for seemingly the right reasons: 1. Weak global economic growth outlook with real risks of recession. 2. Trade wars. 3. Brexit risks 4. Presidential impeachment and socialist democratic presidential candidates. The list goes on.
The chart below shows SP 500 index (blue line) and the differential between AAII US investors’ bullish sentiment readings vs bearish readings (green line). The gap shows that investors are as pessimistic as we saw in late December 2018 when stocks bottomed out...
Not Decision Time Yet
Oct 6th, 2019
Most of our friends and clients know that while we recognize the importance of talent, investment process and risk management, we believe that the starting point of a successful investment is the institutional setup... Why is this relevant now? We currently see great opportunities that can only be capitalized by long-term patient investors. While others complain about the market distortions created by central bank policy, we are thankful because the central banks have created these opportunities with great risk/reward asymmetry.
We have discussed previously that we are in the classical stage one period of an economic growth slowdown: financial assets rally, supported by central banks’ easing measures (announced and expected) in reaction to the economic growth slowdown. We have shared with our readers and clients before, while our numerous leading indicators continue point to the downside of economic growth momentum, we nonetheless see some emerging signs of reflation, which is yet to be confirmed. We are open-minded to either scenario. In the past few reports, we have shared many of the indicators that we watch. We think we will get better clarity in weeks ahead. Did the poor ISM data release this week US tilt our view one way or another?
A Crossroad for Inflation
Sept 29th, 2019
Since we published our report on emerging signs of reflation two weeks ago, we have received many questions regarding our outlook on inflation. This topic is very timely. Following the highly inflationary period in the 1970s, central banks learned to get ahead of inflation once economic growth is at full capacity – as the cliché goes “ ..to take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going..”. After a decade of quantitative easing with NIRP and ZIRP (negative and zero interest rates), inflation continues to be muted. As a result, central banks’ reaction functions have been quietly changing – they are increasingly willing to tolerate higher inflation for a longer period of time. More importantly, it is has become consensus that fiscal measures need to take the front seat as monetary ammunition has been exhausted. We have said that we have no doubt that upon next downturn, fiscal measures will be launched and will be monetized by central banks – MP3 (monetary policy 3.0) per Bridgewater, MMT (modern monetary theory) per Stephanie Kelton or fiscal monetary policy coordination per central bank verbiage, planting the seeds for an inflationary period to come.
A risk to this view is that we don’t need an economic downturn to launch MMT. We are already starting to take the incremental steps. If indeed there is a long-term inflationary regime shift, we believe that there will be far-reaching implications for portfolio construction and probably for the entire asset management framework based on static asset allocation...
The Status of the Market
Sept 21st, 2019
Unlike those with developed narratives who fit the data to their outlook, we look at all relevant economic and financial data and try to put the puzzle together to get an evolving picture of the market status. The message from the market prices of various asset classes and economic indicators may or may not agree with each other. When they don’t, they provoke our thinking and often lead to differentiated insights. We are neither bulls nor bears, we simply want to be in sync with the market. We don’t argue that the market is right or wrong. Rather, we accept it as is. We simply want to be one step ahead of the next stage of market development and be in sync. Unlike those who have deterministic views on the “outcome” and “eventuality” of asset prices, we have probability assessments on potential direction and magnitude of the movement of asset prices. They are path dependent based on the three-way reaction function between capital markets, economic development and government policies. Where do we stand now?
We shared with our clients and readers recently that we have identified some emerging signs of reflation (please refer to our last weekly report for further details). However, we highlighted in same report that these reflation signs are not confirmed yet and we are not ready to make the call for another reflation period at the current juncture. On the contrary, most of our leading economic indicators continue to point to the downside.
Emerging Signs of Reflation
Sept 15th, 2019
When facts change, it is too late to change. What do you do sir?
Many quote “when facts change, I change, what do you do sir?” when they adjust their positions after facing losses. We believe that change is the only constant thing in capital markets, where the so-called “equilibrium” is a constant moving target. It is no surprise for most investors that when you see facts change, your PnL (or relative performance vs. benchmark) is already in the red. As Jesse Livermore used to say, narratives follow market prices, not the other way around.
James Grant once said that “successful investing is having everyone agree with you….later.” Our hard-learned lessons taught us that “successful investing is having everyone agree with you….tomorrow.” We believe that to be successful, investors need to be one step ahead of others, but not two steps. If we can help our clients be one step ahead of others, we will have accomplished our mission. To do this, we have built an investment process by systemizing our past lessons. While we recognize some validity of the claim that “financial assets are forward discounting mechanism”, what drives our framework is the three-way reinforcing feedback loop of asset prices, economic/fundamental and fiscal/monetary policies. Late summer of last year, we saw the peak of growth and stock markets, while the mainstream narrative was still on “global synchronized growth” Today, recession talk is the consensus narrative, while we see emerging signs of potential reflation.
Diminishing Policy Choices: a Case Study of Japan
Sept 7th, 2019
In this Weekly report, we wanted to highlight our thematic report, “Diminishing Policy Choices and the Implications, A Case Study of Japan”.
As the monetary policy ammunition is running out across the globe, we think global central banks will eventually cut interest rates further into negative territory and after that start purchases of risky assets such as equities and REITs. Ultimately, fiscal measures will have to be launched upon the next downturn, and since global leverage is at all time highs, fiscal stimuli have to be underwritten by central banks - i.e. fiscal and monetary policy coordination.
Our case study in Japan indicates that further large scale asset purchases, including stocks, may not be enough to compress the risk premium of equities unless done in a global fashion. We acknowledge that Japan has chronical demographic headwinds, which is also true in Europe and many Asian countries such as South Korea and China. We recognize that in a world of free capital flows, the effects of any country’s monetary stimulus are global rather than local and local assets will benefit more from such stimulus, which explains why Japanese REITs have been more responsive to BoJ’s asset purchases than Japanese equities. It is no surprise that in countries with closed capital accounts like China, the stimulus will have a large response from domestic asset markets. Therefore we argue that to support global equity markets, a synchronized and coordinated large scale asset purchase program of shares may be needed upon next downturn...
Art of Deal – Win the War Without a Fight
Sept 2nd, 2019
“It is nice to win 100% of the battles, but the ideal is to win the war without a single fight.” Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist believed that wars are suboptimal ways to defeat opponents, because your strength will be weakened even if you win all the battles and you’ll be more vulnerable to other threats. President Trump, the author of “the Art of Deal”, seems to strongly disagree. He famously declared that a “trade war is easy to win”.
In this report, we offered our thoughts on the trade war - both long term and short-term. we pointed out that "in the short-run, unlike the consensus view that the trade war will escalate immediately to a new level, we think that both Trump and China have an incentive to ease the tensions"
We highlighted key risk events in September and why this month is critical. We recommended fast money traders to buy calls on equities to position for a breakout to the upside and to take gains or short safe haven assets such as long-dated treasuries, gold and Yen.
From J-Hole to B-Hole
August 26th, 2019
Today, President Trump asked the same question, “… who is our bigger enemy, Jay Powell or Chairman Xi?” This basically lays bare the intention to escalate the trade war – to create enough trade headwinds so that Fed can cut rates aggressively and start QE as he demanded. On the one hand, he can show how strong he is to take on China and on the other hand, he gets significant monetary stimulus ahead of the election – indeed one stone kills two birds. It is no coincidence that Trump announced recent trade escalation measures on July 31st - one day after last FOMC meeting, which Trump lambasted for not delivering enough stimulus. We wrote last week that the 80 point drop of the S&P 500 tested the pain threshold of Trump as he started to walk back from the escalation and showed a willingness to re-engage in negotiations with “personal friend, Xi”. This Friday morning, he was watching carefully whether this is the pain threshold for Jay Powell – “Now the Fed can show their stuff!” he tweeted right before the speech of Chairman Powell at Jackson Hole, eagerly expecting some big announcement. Right after Powell’s speech, he released a series of angry tweets, promising further trade escalation measures.
Fight the Fed
August 19th, 2019
Before we dive into current market discussions, it is helpful to have a big picture and review our framework on cycles. In our thematic report “Navigating the End of Market Cycle," we pointed out that “we are in a rare period when some major cycles are near inflection points: the 1-3 year mini-reflation cycle, 5-10 economic (market) cycle, 50-100 years inflation cycle.”
Will central banks be able to re-engineer another 1-3 year reflation cycle? We have argued that it is more difficult this time around given the following reasons:
Navigating the End of the Cycle
“History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes,” says Mark Twain. In our framework, the mechanism of cause and effects of the law of economics always repeats itself, what rhymes are the symptoms. We believe that we are in a rare period of time when some major cycles are converging for inflections: 1-3 year mini-reflation cycle, 5-10 economic (market) cycle, 50-100 years of inflation cycle. While driving on the highway, we never realize that the earth is a sphere – similarly, as we monitor capital markets and economic development day-to-day and month-to-month, we may forget where we are in the cycle. The transition of different stages of cycles are a process, rather than an exact moment or point and the evolution process is path dependent. History always happens in a non-linear fashion (whether in capital markets or in geopolitics), as Vladimir Lenin points out that “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”