Was It Ever?

The BOJ asked
Is QE still effective?
Or…was it ever?

One of the constants in financial markets since 2012 has been the BOJ’s massive intervention in Japanese markets.  They were the first major central bank to utilize QE, although they call it QQE (Quantitative and Qualitative Easing – not sure what quality it brings) and have now reached a point where the BOJ owns more than 51% of the JGB market.  In fact, given their buy and hold strategy removes those bonds from trading, the liquidity in the JGB market has suffered greatly.  Remember, too, that JGB issuance is greater than 230% of the Japanese GDP, which means the BOJ’s balance sheet is larger than the Japanese economy, currently sitting at ~$6.74 Trillion or 133.2%.

But they don’t only purchase JGB’s, they are also actively buying equity ETF’s in Japan, and by using their infinite printing press have now become the largest single shareholder in the country with holdings of ~$435 Billion, or roughly 7.5% of all the equities outstanding in the country.  And you thought the Fed was pursuing an activist monetary policy!

The thing is, it is not hard to describe all these efforts as utter failures in achieving their aims.  Those aims were to support growth and push inflation up to 2.0%.  (As an aside, it is remarkable how 2.0% has become the ‘magic’ number for the right amount of inflation in central banking circles.  Thank you Donald Brash.)  However, a quick look at the history of inflation in Japan since Kuroda-san’s appointment to Governor of the BOJ in March 2013, and the latest surge in activist monetary policy, shows that the average inflation rate during his tenure as been 0.73%.  Inflation peaked in May 2014, in the wake of the GST hike (a tax rise on consumption) at 3.7%, and spent 12 months above the 2.0% level as that impact was felt, but then the baseline was permanently higher and inflation quickly fell back below 1.0%, never to consider another rise to that level.

Looking at growth, the picture is similar, with the average Q/Q GDP growth during Kuroda-san’s tenure just 0.1%.  It is abundantly clear that central bankers are no Einsteins, as they seem constantly surprised that the same strategies they have been using for years do not produce new results.  Perhaps you must be insane to become a central banker.

What makes this relevant today is that last night, it was learned that BOJ policymakers are considering some changes to their policies.   It’s current policy of YCC has short-term rates at -0.1% and a target for 10-year yields of 0.00% +/- 0.20% leeway.  They also currently purchase ¥12 Trillion ($115 Billion) of equity ETF’s per year.  However, their new plans indicate that they are going to change the mix of JGB purchases, extending the tenor and cutting back purchases of short-term bonds, while also allowing more flexibility in the movement of 10-year yields, with hints it could widen that band from the current 40bps to as much as 60bps.  While that may not seem like a lot, given the minimal adjustments that have been made to these policies over the past 8 years, any movement at all is a lot.

And the market took heed quickly, with JPY (-0.5%) falling to its weakest point vs. the dollar since mid-November.  Technically, USDJPY has broken through some key resistance levels and the prospects are for further USD appreciation, at least in the short run.

In China, the PBOC
Is worried that bubbles will key
More problems ahead
And to punters’ dread
Have drained out more liquidity

China is the other noteworthy story this morning, where the central bank has aggressively drained liquidity from the market as they remain extremely wary of inflating bubbles.  Overnight funding costs rose 29bps last night, to their highest level since March 2015.  Not surprisingly, Chinese equity markets suffered with Shanghai (-0.6%) and the Hang Seng (-0.95%) both unable to follow yesterday’s US rally.  (The Nikkei (-1.9%) also suffered as concerns were raised that the BOJ, in their revamp of policy, may choose to buy less equities.)  What is so interesting about this action is that if you ask any Western central banker about bubbles you get two general responses; first, they cannot tell when a bubble exists; and second, anyway, even if they could, it is not their job to deflate them.  Yet, the PBOC is very clear that not only can they spot a bubble, but they will address it.

I think it is fair to say that given the recent activity in certain stocks like GameStop and AMC, the US market is really exhibiting bubble-like tendencies.  Rampant speculation by individual investors is always a sign of a bubble.  We saw that in 1999-2000 during the Tech bubble, when people quit their day jobs to become stock traders and we saw that in the housing bubble of 2007-8, when people quit their day jobs to speculate in real estate and flip houses.   It also seems pretty clear that the combination of current monetary and fiscal policies has resulted in equity markets being the final repository of that cash.  Having lived, and traded, through the previous two bubbles, I can affirm the current situation exhibits all the same hallmarks, with one exception, the fact that central banks are explicitly targeting asset purchases.  However, this situation cannot extend forever, and at least one part of the financial framework will falter. When that starts, price action will become extremely volatile, similar to what we saw last March, but for a longer period of time, and market liquidity, which has already suffered, will get even worse.  All this points to the idea that hedging financial risk remains critical.  Do not be dissuaded by some volatility, because I assure you, it can get worse.

Anyway, a quick tour of markets shows some real confusion today.  Equities, which we saw fell sharply in Asia, are falling across Europe as well (DAX -0.8%), CAC (-0.9%), FTSE 100 (-1.0%) despite the fact that preliminary GDP data from the continent indicated growth in Q4 was merely flat, not negative. US futures are all pointing lower as well, between 0.5% and 0.9%.

Bonds, however, are all being sold as well, with Treasury yields rising 2.6bps, and European market seeing even greater rate rises (Bunds +3.3bps, OATs +3.3bps, Gilts +3.9bps).  So, investors are selling both stocks and bonds.  What are they buying?

Commodities are in favor this morning, with oil (+0.5%) and the ags rising, but precious metals are in even greater favor (Gold +1.1%, Silver +3.25%).  And finally, the dollar, is under broad pressure, with only the yen really underperforming today.  NOK (+0.9%) is leading the way in the G10, while the rest of the bloc, though higher, is less enthusiastic with gains ranging from 0.1%-0.3%.  Emerging market currencies are having a much better day, led by ZAR (+1.3%) on the back of the commodity rally, followed by TRY (+0.85%) and MXN (+0.45%).  CNY (+0.25%) has rallied on the back of the Chinese monetary actions and BRL (-0.1%) is the only laggard in the bloc as bets on rate hikes, that had been implemented earlier in the week, seem to be getting unwound.

There is important data this morning as well, led by Personal Income (exp 0.1%) and Personal Spending (-0.4%), but also Core PCE (1.3%), Chicago PMI (58.5) and Michigan Sentiment (79.3).  The PCE data has the best chance of being the most interesting, as a higher than expected print will get tongues wagging once more regarding the reflation trade and higher bond yields.

But, when looking at the markets in their totality, there is no specific theme.  Risk is neither on, nor off, but looks more confused.  If I had to describe things, I would say that fiat linked items are under pressure while real items are in demand.  Alas, given current monetary policy globally, I fear that is the future in a nutshell.  As to the dollar, relative to other currencies, clearly, today it is under the gun, but arguably, it is really just consolidating its recent modest gains.

Good luck, good weekend and stay safe