Peter Pan, Central Banks and markets

J M Barrie’s Peter Pan had a very strong grasp of the necessity of faith – “Whenever a child says “I don’t believe in fairies”, there’s a fairy somewhere that falls down dead” was written in 1911, and his own ability to fly was critically dependent on his lack of doubt that he could fly.

Ever since the introduction of QE in 2009, markets have had faith that the unconventional actions of the Central Banks would lead to economic recovery. The markets’ expectation of better times ahead itself played a key role in boosting confidence in the real economy, so helping to generate that recovery.

In the last three months however, that faith has been eroding as markets have come to believe that central banks are no longer in control of events. In Japan, the failure to boost QE further at the end of 2014, when the Bank of Japan were expected to do so, closely followed by the adoption of negative interest rates a week after denying they would do so looks like panic. In Europe, Draghi encouraged markets to believe that further ECB easing would be forthcoming in December, only to be unable to deliver it, and then repeated the encouragement that action would be taken in March after market weakness in January. The ECB appears to be a very divided Central Bank. In the US, the Federal Reserve clearly indicated in December when it raised interest rates for the first time in seven years that it expected four further such increases in 2016. Yet markets now assign an equal probability to their next move being a rate cut as a rate hike – the Fed is losing credibility.

Behind all this is the continued deterioration in growth expectations – a year ago there was a general sense that 2015 would see economic recovery around the world as the enormous global monetary easing over the previous six years finally bore fruit. The reality was that once again growth disappointed expectations even with the tailwind of a much lower oil price. Market sentiment is giving up on monetary policy producing economic recovery, and their lack of belief will make it even harder for Central Banks to deliver it.

In particular the move to negative interest rates in Europe and Japan, and the admission by Janet Yellen that the Federal Reserve would also do so if they believed it was necessary has alarmed investors in bank securities, both equities and bonds. Coming as it does with further downgrades to global growth expectations, markets have drawn the implication that central banks themselves are losing confidence that further QE will stimulate economies and thus they are moving towards the idea of negative interest rates. If the Central Banks no longer believe in QE, why should anyone else?

Widespread negative interest rates have not been adopted before – perhaps they will incentivise people to spend rather than save, but that is unclear. What is clear is that negative interest rates are bad news for banks – they have been very reluctant to extend negative interest rates to most depositors, with the result that their net interest margins are falling, at a time when loan growth is slow or non-existent. Banks are the worst performing equity sector so far in 2016.

Markets have now lost faith in the ability of Central Banks to create economic growth – falling bond yields and falling equity prices demonstrate this. To recapture that faith, Central Banks will have to take even more aggressive, unusual and unexpected action.

The Global Monetary Policy Kaleidoscope

In 2009, in the face of a global economic crisis, the major economies of the world came together and acted in concert to ease monetary policy aggressively.  Together with fiscal stimulus in the US and China, these policies helped to prevent the world from slipping into depression.  Four years on, the economic conditions around the world vary enormously, and the appropriate monetary policies are now very different (though for all countries fiscal restraint is deemed necessary).  These differing monetary policies are producing clear differences in how the local financial markets are performing, and in 2013 there has been a much greater dispersion of performance between equity markets around the world than in 2012.

The economy with the most aggressively easy monetary policy (relative to the size of its economy)  is currently Japan, where in response to the lead of the new Prime Minister, the new Bank of Japan Governor has begun a programme of doubling the country’s monetary base in just two years.  This is being done deliberately to raise the rate of inflation in Japan from the negative rates seen in recent years to the new target of 2%.  To bring Japan out of its 20 year deflation, policymakers have articulated that inflation, and inflation expectations, need to rise to boost the nominal growth rate of the economy.  Should the current policy settings not be sufficient to do this, it is expected that policymakers will move monetary policy to an even easier stance.  The weaker yen that is likely from this policy should be instrumental in helping to boost inflation.

Next is the US, where currently the QE programme is about $4bn of new money creation every day that the financial markets are open.  Before the latest Japanese policy move, this constituted the most aggressive monetary easing.  However, the recent furore following Bernanke’s comments about the tapering of the QE policy indicate the sensitivity of markets to changes in the direction of US monetary policy.  Bernanke tried to argue that tapering a policy of printing $4bn every day to one of printing $2bn or $3bn was still a very accommodative policy; the markets however appeared to interpret it as a tightening of policy.  The rise in US bond yields since May shows that a policy that is easy, but less easy than it was, creates different expectations in the minds of investors, and the Federal Reserve’s words have thus changed the thinking of investors.

Both the ECB and the Bank of England are at a similar phase in their monetary policy.  Both have pursued unconventional policies in the past, the ECB with their three year LTROs and the Bank of England with their own QE programme, but have done little recently to move policy easier.  However, the new Bank of England Governor has clearly been tasked with boosting economic growth in the lead-up to the next election, and the ECB is concerned about the continued poor performance of the Eurozone economy.   The recent rise in bond yields that began in the US and spread across the Atlantic has been unwelcome as it raises the cost of borrowing for business and so offsets the otherwise easy policy in both the UK and the Eurozone.  A further easing of monetary policy can therefore be expected from both Central Banks, and crucially, for markets, the direction of monetary policy is still moving easier, in contrast to the US.

In China, markets have been surprised by the actions of the People’s Bank of China in not providing sufficient liquidity for the interbank market to operate smoothly in the face of liquidity pressures.  This caused overnight interest rates briefly to move above 10%, and has been interpreted as a lesson to the banking system that they have been too carefree with their lending and need to cut back.  This is effectively an act of policy tightening, though it is unlikely that the Chinese will take such tightening too far and seriously damage the economy’s growth prospects.

Finally, there are a number of significant emerging markets such as Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia and India where Central Banks have actually raised interest rates or have indicated an intention to do.  For the most part, this has been due to currency weakness, which boosts inflationary pressures in these economies, and so a tightening of monetary policy is believed to be required, in contrast to most of the rest of the world.

The league table of the stance of monetary policy, which runs from Japan, the US, the UK, Europe, China and Asia and then other emerging markets correlates precisely with the league table of year-to-date equity market performance.  Those countries with the easiest stance of monetary policy are those whose stock markets have performed best, and those with the tightest policy stance have performed worst.  This highlights the increasing dependence of financial markets on the liquidity provided by Central Banks, rather than fundamental economic and earnings trends.

Looking forward, we would expect Japan to remain at the top of the easy monetary league, with the UK moving up and the US moving down in the next few months, and the Eurozone having little room to make any changes.  China’s slowing growth will eventually produce an easier monetary policy, but may not be imminent, while the other emerging markets appear to be the furthest away from easier policy.  Japan and Asia remain the most favoured markets in our portfolios with Europe and Emerging Markets the least favoured.

A believer in the Abe lever – Japanese shares

The end of bear markets are periods when investors are delighted that they do not own a certain type of asset.  This usually means that the performance has been very poor for a long period of time, and for reasons that most investors believe will persist.  Typically, on long term valuation criteria the assets are understood to be cheap, but no one can envisage a situation whereby the valuations should rise.

Bull markets begin at the end of bear markets and tend to occur in three waves – the first wave, which we have just witnessed in Japan, occurs amid disbelief and surprise.  The second wave occurs as investors shift from disbelief to belief and it appears quite rational to buy as the fundamental news improves, and the third and final wave is the bubble wave as investors shift from belief to high conviction that prices must continue to rise, because the fundamental story is so compelling.  Between each wave is some sort of correction, which can encompass sharp falls in share prices.

Japanese shares were in a bear market for 23 years from 1989 to 2012 – there are probably few investors around today who can remember the last time Japanese stocks were in a bull market.  The major indices had fallen by 75% over that period, and by last year the equity weightings of domestic Japanese financial institutions were minimal and their portfolios dominated by government bonds with near zero yields.  In addition, many international investors were extremely comfortable with low or zero weightings to Japanese equities in their portfolios. Economic growth has been zero in nominal terms (that is including inflation) for over 20 years, and the legendary Japanese trade surplus of former decades has now become a trade deficit, following the Fukushima accident, the shutting down of all of its nuclear power plants and the consequent need to import a far greater amount of its energy requirements.  It boasted the largest government debt to GDP ratio in the developed world.  Investors who did own Japanese shares, made sure that they did not own very many, as it was so difficult to justify such positions to clients or managers.

By last autumn, over 70% of companies listed in Tokyo traded below book value, and the dividend yield of 2.5% was 3 times the yield available on a 10 year Japanese government bond, even though the dividends paid by companies in the stock market had doubled over the previous decade.  Japanese shares were very cheap but investors would not buy them, because very few believed that the Japanese economy would get back onto a path of growth.  Japan fulfilled all the conditions for an end to its long bear market.

Then, last December, Mr Abe, one of the many former prime ministers of the last decade who had proved ineffective and short-lived, and who regained the leadership of the LDP, fought a general election campaign asking for a mandate for dramatic change to set Japan’s economy on a course for growth.  His plan consisted of three pillars: (i) a short term fiscal stimulus of government investment spending, to boost demand in the short term; (ii) a shift in monetary policy aimed at boosting inflation expectations that would boost demand in the economy in the medium term; and (iii) a package of structural reforms to increase the economy’s long term potential growth rate.  This policy mix was eerily similar to that adopted by Japan in the mid-1930s, which successfully brought their economy out of the problems caused by the Great Depression.

His political timing was excellent in that: (i) the Governorship of the Bank of Japan was an appointment that needed to be made in the first quarter of 2013, and in many people’s eyes it had been the Bank of Japan’s conservative approach to monetary policy management that had been holding back the economy; and (ii) the Upper House elections were due to be held in July 2013, giving him the rather rare opportunity to gain a majority in both Houses of the Japanese Parliament at the same time, and thus be in a position not to have to compromise with opposition politicians.

In a matter of weeks, the consensus view of the prospects for Japanese markets had reversed. Rather than a stagnant economy with no change to policy, there was to be a dramatic shift to a pro-growth and most crucially to a pro-inflation stance.  At the heart of the policy shift was a change in the Bank of Japan’s inflation target from 1% to 2% and a belief and determination from inside the Bank of Japan that this could be attained.  This required a Governor who believed that creating higher inflation was possible, which the outgoing Governor did not; the change from Mr. Shirakawa to Mr. Kuroda brought this in one fell swoop.  To achieve this, Kuroda immediately announced a programme to print 6 trillion yen a month for two years, and so double Japan’s monetary base.  The aim of this programme was and is to raise inflation expectations, and encourage consumers and businesses to spend now, to hold down interest rates, and so reduce real yields in the economy, and most importantly to weaken the yen.

The weaker yen is an enormous boon for Japanese profits, whose companies sell so much around the world.  The profits of the large Japanese companies are very sensitive to the value of the yen, rising strongly as the yen declines.

Over the early months of 2013 the market suddenly found itself with increasing earnings forecasts, low valuations, enormous supplies of liquidity, and with most investors holding very little exposure to Japanese equities, but who believed that they needed far greater exposure.  The market rose rapidly, gaining almost 80% in the seven months from October 2012, to 1276 on the Topix index; this was partially offset for many international investors, who neglected to hedge their currency risk, by a fall of 25% in the value of the yen.  In the three weeks following the market peak on 22 May 2013, it has fallen back by almost 20%, though this still leaves it at the levels it was trading at in early April and 50% higher than the lows from last year.

There are those who believe that Japan has entered a bubble, but bubbles occur at the end of long bull markets, not after just seven months when many investors have had little opportunity to build positions.  The critical insight is that the market psychology on Japan has changed, from being uninvested and comfortable with that position, to being lightly invested but very uncomfortable with that position.  Apart from very short term orientated investors, who have profits to bank, and so will do so, most investors will now concern themselves with being underinvested in Japan, and so any positive news on Japanese growth, Japanese corporate earnings, easy monetary policy and a weaker currency will be seen as good news, and lead them to increase their weightings to Japan.

This summer is likely to see a continuation of the recent correction, as shorter-term investors take their profits and search the world for their next opportunity, and are replaced by longer term investors who need to build up their positions in Japan.   Thereafter, either the Japanese economy will begin to grow faster and inflation pick up a little, which will justify higher share prices, or if growth and inflation are not picking up, then the Bank of Japan will be forced into even greater money creation, and an even weaker yen which would also boost share prices.   In either event, a second wave of the bull market should be expected to begin later this year, though it will be critical to invest in Japanese equities with the currency hedged, since one of the major factors in stronger share prices will be the weaker yen, caused by the aggressive printing of money by the Bank of Japan.

Weak Yen weakens Germany

Germany, the powerhouse economy of the Eurozone, recently announced 2012 GDP growth of only 0.5%, and that it expected 2013 to deliver only 0.4% growth.  At a time when most of rest of the Eurozone is undergoing policies of austerity and reductions in private sector wage costs, they are looking to Germany to be the source of demand for their goods and services, which their own economies are currently unable to provide.

With a balanced budget, near full employment, and a trade surplus of 7% of GDP, Germany is ideally placed to pursue policies designed to boost German consumer incomes and spending, which the rest of the Eurozone could supply.  Yet, aside from some very modest pre-election tax cuts, which have already been announced, there is no indication that German politicians wish to go down such a road.

This is for two reasons.  Firstly, they take the view that the reason for their economic success is precisely because they have not, historically, pursued such short-term stimulatory policies, but have instead concentrated on ensuring they have globally competitive private-sector industries and a structurally balanced public-sector budget.  Secondly, the German Finance Ministry has realised that in the next few years they will need to provide funds to meet their obligations to the EFSF and the ESM, which have been set up to provide the bail-out monies for the weaker countries. They are thus already planning for offsetting public sector spending cuts in 2014 and beyond – in sharp contrast to all other countries, who are hoping further bail-outs won’t be needed, or will seek to borrow the funds from the markets if they are.

So, domestic spending is unlikely to be driving the German economy in the near future.  As usual, Germany will be hoping to benefit from global demand for its exports. Here though, the actions of the ECB and Japan may thwart those hopes.

Despite the Eurozone sliding back into recession, at its last two monthly meetings, the ECB has not cut interest rates when many commentators thought that it could and should have done.  Indeed after the last meeting, Mr Draghi made clear that the ECB had done as much as it could to promote growth, and it was now the role of governments to produce pro-growth policies.  The markets interpreted this as saying that no more rate cuts or easing of monetary policy would be forthcoming, in contrast to the $85bn each month of QE from the Federal Reserve.  Since then the euro has been the strongest of the major currencies, making German exports less competitive.

In Japan, the focus of the new government to stimulate the economy by all possible means including weakening the currency has seen the yen fall sharply in recent weeks.  Against the euro the yen is 20% weaker over two months and 26% weaker over six months.  These are dramatic moves for any major exchange rate, but the euro-yen exchange rate is particularly important for Japan and Germany.  This is because their strengths are in very similar industries, and competition is hard-fought in sectors such as automobiles, power plants and high-technology capital goods.

In early 2009, the exchange rate was 140 yen to the euro, and over the next 3 years the yen strengthened to 95 yen to the euro, making Japanese companies very uncompetitive against European (but most importantly, German) companies. German exports performed very well in 2010 and 2011, particularly to China.  This was also helped by a diplomatic row between Japan and China about sovereignty rights over some small islands lying between their two countries, sparking popular anti-Japanese sentiments inside China, and consumer boycotts of Japanese goods.

Japan is now deliberately weakening the yen further to stimulate their economy – the recent 20+% fall in the exchange rate will be a particular problem for German competitiveness, and will hold back export demand this year.

The investment implications of this are to remain wary of the European economy and light in European shares, to expect the euro to strengthen , and to be heavy in Japanese shares, but to avoid the yen exposure by, for example, owning currency-hedged share classes of Japanese funds.