James Mackintosh

There’s a lot of excitement now junk bond yields (at least on one index) have dropped below 5 per cent for the first time. What to call them, for one thing. “High yield” no longer seems appropriate, although frankly “junk” was always better, and remains just as good. The fact that they barely ever default any longer, suggesting on its face that they are no longer junk, is yet another problem – as John discusses with Deutsche Bank’s Jim Reid in today’s Note video.

But hold on a minute. It is true yields have plunged. But the following charts show that junk bonds are much shorter dated now than they were, so the drop in yield is not as dramatic as it looks (if you lend someone money for less time, you should expect a lower yield as the loan is less risky). The average duration on the index is at a record-low three and a half years (modified duration is a tad longer, but still a record low).

Junk bond yield and duration

On the other hand, investment-grade bonds (and top-grade junk too) have longer maturities – in the case of investment grade, the longest since 1980 at more than seven years. So the ultra-low yields (just over 2.5 per cent) of these better-quality bonds are even lower when adjusted for the risk of lending money for longer. Chart-fest after the jump. Read more

James Mackintosh

Markets aren’t known for their patriotic fervour. Populated by cynics and motivated by money, there is little reason to expect local markets to support their national governments – particularly in the eurozone, where the response by the wealthy in crisis-hit countries has been to ship their cash to Germany or the UK.

But hang on! Perhaps brokers are more patriotic than popularly thought: it turns out that analysts tend to recommend shares in companies from their countries.

A nice piece of work by Charles de Boissezon at Société Générales global equity engineering and advisory unit looked at broker recommendations on German and Spanish blue-chips, the two markets tending to be reasonably domestically-exposed.

Not surprisingly there are more buy recommendations on German than Spanish shares, and more sells on Spanish.

But the breakdown is revealing: analysts at German brokers are much more positive about German companies than analysts working for Spanish brokers, and vice-versa:

Broker recommendations by country Read more

James Mackintosh

Economic bloggers love Excel, so they have leaped on the discovery that Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart, two of the most famous economists out there, aren’t very good at spreadsheets.

The story is told elsewhere in detail, and the academic paper debunking R&R’s maths is full of delicious examples of mistakes (look at footnote 6 for a lovely example).

The gist of it is that enormous weight is given to one year in New Zealand, 1951, when R&R recorded GDP falling by 7.6 per cent.

This year is given a lot of weight for three reasons: First, four previous post-war years were excluded. Second, the average was worked out by producing an average for each country, then averaging those. The combined effect was to give one year in NZ the same weight as 19 years of Greece. Third, a whole bunch of other countries were excluded by mistake.

R&R admit the Excel error in excluding other countries, but are sticking to their other exclusions (because their data on debt-to-GDP had gaps at that point), and to their method of averaging. They also point out that the broad conclusion, that growth slows as debt rises, is still supported by the data, just not so dramatically.

The New Zealand figure is intriguing, though. The 7.6% drop in GDP appears to come from a series compiled by the late Angus Maddison, the great economic historian.

But 1951 was a very strange year for the Kiwis, and the falling GDP then is not an example of weak growth with high debt. The price of wool tripled in 1949-50, and since it made up about half of the country’s exports this boosted GDP enormously. When prices fell back, GDP fell again. Government debt really wasn’t an issue. Read more

James Mackintosh

Spandau Ballet’s 1983 anthem Gold could be the national anthem for the world’s inflationistas.

Always believe in your soul
You’ve got the power to know
You’re indestructible
Always believe in, because you are
Gold! GOLD Read more

Stephen Foley, the FT’s markets correspondent, says a number of forces have combined to sour the outlook for the precious metal, and none of them seem likely to abate any time soon.

James Mackintosh

Cue great excitement. All those pre-written articles and commentaries on the S&P 500 passing its previous closing highs can be rolled out, and there is something for the 24-hour TV to talk about other than the rather small queues at banks in Cyprus.

Just a couple of small flaws: Read more

A suggestion by Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem that the Cyprus deal could mean depositors at troubled banks elsewhere in the eurozone also suffering has pushed banks back into bear territory. James Mackintosh, investment editor, warns of the risk of a vicious downward spiral unless Europe and the European Central Bank can reflate peripheral economies.

The S&P 500 is gnawing at an all-time high. Bond proxy stocks are driving the rally and James Mackintosh, investment editor, warns that as companies opt for share buy-backs rather than reinvesting, future profits and investors will be the poorer.

James Mackintosh

Cyprus has finally struck a €10bn deal to become the fifth country “rescued” by the rest of the eurozone, after Greece, Ireland, Portugal and a special loan for Spain. Almost a third of the 17 countries in the single currency have now had to be rescued.

Unlike all the other deals, Cyprus gets immediate deflation, through heavy losses for depositors above €100,000 at its two biggest banks, Bank of Cyprus and Laiki. Read more

James Mackintosh

Former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers warned of the dangers in the eurozone in his latest op-ed for the FT, and it is hard to disagree. But part of what he said bothered me:

A worrisome indicator in much of Europe is the tendency of stock and bond prices to move together. In healthy countries, when sentiment improves stock prices rise and bond prices fall, as risk premiums decline and interest rates rise. In unhealthy economies, as in much of Europe today, bonds are seen as risk assets, so they move just like stocks in response to changes in sentiment. Read more

James Mackintosh

Among phrases you don’t hear any much any more are:

  • Safe as houses
  • As sound as a pound
  • As safe as the Bank of England.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that all three are out of fashion, after the US housing bubble that brought down the world economy, the collapse of sterling and the Bank of England’s failure to control inflation over either the past 50 years or the more recent past, when it was aiming for 2 per cent (the blue line on the chart).

UK CPI inflation and the target

Yesterday’s UK Budget avoided the extra inflationary pressure that would have come from fiddling with the target, which should give some support for the pound. But don’t get too positive: outgoing governor Sir Mervyn King voted for a second time for more monetary easing, and while he was outvoted again, Mark Carney is widely expected to be both more dovish and more convincing. I discuss this in today’s Short View column and video, and in greater detail below:

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James Mackintosh

I have a lot of sympathy with the explosion of outrage both within Cyprus and internationally at the decision to default on tax depositors of its banks.

It is just wrong that depositors, even large Russian tax-avoiders, are suffering while other senior bank creditors are excluded. It is wrong that Greek depositors in Cypriot banks are excluded, even though it was the Greek assets bought in large part with those deposits which caused a lot of the problems. And it is particularly wrong that small depositors are being hit, making a mockery of the deposit guarantee scheme.

Yet, there is risk in everything, and depositors were being compensated for the riskiness of Cypriot banks through higher interest rates. This chart shows the deposit rates paid on fixed-term deposits of less than a year (much of Cypriot deposits are fixed term, although even overnight deposits pay more interest than the rest of the eurozone).

Deposit rates in Cyprus and Germany

Now, it is fair to say depositors generally don’t realise the risks they are running. Even when they do realise, they mostly don’t care (as Icesave showed in the UK): that’s the whole point of deposit guarantee schemes, after all. But in fact the compensation paid for the risk that it turned out depositors were running was about right. Read more

James Mackintosh

Just a quick update for those who love Iceland as a model (a category which unites the unlikely pair of uber-Keynesian Paul Krugman and Conservative eurosceptic Dan Hannan).

After its disastrous banking and property bubble and bust, house prices have been growing strongly again, and are within a whisker of their 2008 highs – in stark contrast to Ireland and Spain. All three (with two different measures of Spanish housing) are shown in this chart, and Iceland’s break from the Irish/Spanish pattern is clear:

House prices Iceland, Ireland, Spain

This, just like the country’s return to economic growth, looks like another justification for Iceland’s decision to refuse to bail out its banks, unlike most of the rest of the world.

Now, I’m no friend of bank bailouts, and would much rather see middle-class bank creditors take losses than taxes rise on the poor to subsidise those creditors.

But things aren’t quite as simple as the housing chart shows. As well as cleaning up its banking system through a gigantic default, in large part on foreigners, Iceland’s krona has collapsed.

When measured in foreign currencies, the people of the island are far poorer than they were, something which really matters for a place which imports virtually everything it needs other than fish and electricity.

One example is the import of cars: for the four years since 2008, the total tonnage of cars (I know, funny measure, but that’s how Iceland provides it) imported is lower than for the single year of 2006. And this isn’t only because of the extremes of the bubble: last year, even as Iceland began to recover and imports picked up, saw fewer cars imported than in any year from 1999 to the collapse.

Adjusting Icelandic house prices into euros, then, allows a fairer comparison with Spain and Ireland’s outcomes (although not a way Icelandic residents will think about it, of course). And it tells quite a different story:

Now, this doesn’t matter to Icelandic homeowners paid in krona. But it does put a bit of a damper on the idea that Iceland is having a strong recovery.

Measuring in krona, even Spanish house prices have started to rise, as you see in this next chart: Read more

James Mackintosh

To answer the question of who owns corporate America, we turn naturally enough to Goldman Sachs. In spite of all the “vampire squid” hype, the answer isn’t GS: but it does have an excellent summary of how ownership has changed (click on the chart for a bigger version).

Ownership of corporate America Read more

James Mackintosh

Reasons to worry: the S&P 500 is back above its dotcom bubble high today and just 1.4 per cent below its 2007 credit bubble high of 1,576.

This makes investors feel happy, and when they are happy they tend to buy more shares. In this sense equities are a Giffen good like a Rolls-Royce: the higher the price, the more people want them. Until, suddenly, they don’t.

For those who believe the market is truly efficient, rising shares merely reflect a changed reality, and the potential gains from here are just as good as at any other time. But the market is not truly efficient. Investors are growing complacent, which adds to the risk of a correction.

The market may well carry on up (one driver would be the combination of good news on the economy and further signs from the Fed that it will not tighten monetary policy), but the fact of its having risen should play no part in a decision to invest, momentum trading strategies aside. Watch yourself. The time to buy is when shares are cheap, not when they are expensive. Shares, particularly in the US, clearly offer less upside than they did a few months ago.

We now face a giant triple top in the markets, as this chart of the S&P 500 shows:

S&P 500 triple top Read more

The European Central Bank – like the Bank of England – has decided against an immediate further loosening of monetary policy, but Mario Draghi, president, says some ECB policymakers favour cutting interest rates. Ralph Atkins, the FT’s capital markets editor, argues that with small businesses in the eurozone’s south facing a severe credit crunch and the stronger euro hitting eurozone exports, further action from the ECB may soon prove inevitable.

An investor appeared to make sensible decisions with her family’s savings – avoiding her home country of Greece, picking a safe haven and bonds rather than equities. But as FT Alphaville reporter Lisa Pollack explains, the Dutch bank that issued the bonds she chose was nationalised and all was lost – a consequence of new legislation on bank resolutions.

John Authers

Yet again, it is time to rain on the parade of the many people who are excited by the new high set on Tuesday by the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The rally in US stocks is impressive, however you measure it. But the Dow remains a fatally flawed index, and there is no reason why anyone should pay any attention to it. I said this as the Dow hit landmarks back in 2006 and 2007. Here goes again.

As an index of only 30 stocks, the Dow is not broadly diversified and is not representative of the US stock market as a whole (the S&P 500, by far the world’s most widely followed index, is more important for that purpose). Its stocks are not uniformly large enough to qualify as a “mega-cap” index (try the Russell Top 50 instead). Neither are they sufficiently dominated by industrials (despite the name) to qualify as an industrial index (the S&P 500 industrials sub-index might work better for that). Read more

James Mackintosh

Ireland’s recent history is a story of hopes dashed. Hope is now being stoked again, not least by those with the most interest in being positive: the Irish government and European lenders.

For Europe, Ireland is the poster child for austerity and must, just must, be recovering. Some positive jobs figures, showing the first growth in employment since 2008 (on which more later) have prompted what passes for elation in the depression-hit island.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso led the cheering this week on a visit to Dublin, saying Ireland’s economy “is turning the corner”.

It shows that the programmes can work. It shows that there can be light at the end of the tunnel.

When there’s a determination we can achieve results. This is a message that’s valid for Ireland and other countries that are going through reforms.

Of course, he wants to believe this. Europe desperately needs a success story to set against the anti-austerity vote in Italy, yet more gloom in Greece and a worsening economic outlook for the eurozone.

But the bond markets agree, and have done for months. Irish 8-year yields (its benchmark) stand at 3.7 per cent, lower than Spain and Italy. The country has successfully returned to bond markets, and hopes to bring in a 10-year benchmark before the end of June. Even the inconclusive Italian elections prompted only a slight wobble.

So, have the markets become too optimistic? Below is a rather longer than usual read on Ireland and the wider eurozone issues. Read more

Uncertainty over the outcome of Italy’s election has strengthened sterling as its safe haven status appeals, in spite of Moody’s downgrade of the UK. James Mackintosh, investment editor, examines the prospects for more of a bounce in sterling.

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