Friday, September 22, 2017

Macro | A Paradigm Shift For India's Retail Investors?

The Indian economy is at an interesting point. We had two large scale policy moves in recent time - the much controversial Demonetization in November last year, and the implementation of (a somewhat rundown version) of Goods and Services Tax regime this year. Early this month, we had the first GDP print following these two major steps. The headline prints came in lower than consensus - 5.7 percentage for Q2 vs. 6.5 (and 6.1 last quarter). This was followed by equally weak Industrial Production release. A stronger than expected headline CPI prints did not help, as this squeezes the room for any rate cuts from the RBI.

A closer look at the GDP data (see component break-down in the chart below) shows some serious weakness. The private consumption part (C) has weakened significantly following the demonetization (the vertical red dashed line). The investment component (I) has been weak for a while (although staged a comeback in the last quarter). Exports growth was not helped by a strong rupee. In last few quarters, government expenditure helped the headline a lot. But the sustainability of this is questionable. We will have the fiscal deficit data out later this month. But the street does not expect anything great.

The story of the IIP paints a similar picture (see chart below, overall IIP, manufacturing, base materials, consumer durable, consumer non-durable, capital goods, electricity, intermediate goods and mining respectively). While demonetization appears to have caused a negative shock, in general most of them peaked out before that, around early 2016 to be fair. The capital goods, which staged a minor comeback since bottoming out in 2014, again resumed the downward trend, along with most (except consumer durable, and to some extend mining).

This is all in a relatively benign global macro scenario. In spite of the Fed taper 2.0 announcement, we have little jitters in the markets. Rates, both global and local, are relatively low and volatility remains subdued. Oil prices remain range-bound. A rally in oil along with a weakening INR following Fed and expected ECB taper later this year can worsen the scope of fiscal stimulus. Most in the business sectors does not expect private investments to turn around before end of this year at the earliest. The investment exuberance back in 2004-06 left many corporates laden with unmanageable debt burden and bank balance sheets with NPA.

In this background of weakening macro story, the Indian equity markets is in a tear. The flagship NSE Nifty Index posted a YTD 21%+ gain, among the best globally and compared to it's own history. The trailing 12-month PE ratio is looking worryingly high. High valuation remains a big concern among investors in this, and most other traditional metrics (a bit better in terms of price to book).
However, comparing the PE ratio to its historical average is not very good way to capture everything that goes on to determine fair price. In the most basic approach, the price of equity is a function of market risk free rates (say the local sovereign bond) and equity risk premium. Following the approach in this paper from AQR, I modeled the BSE SENSEX P/E based on the risk factors - the bond yields as well as the equity and bond volatilities (as in the original paper) along with current account balance as a percentage of GDP (reflecting the fiscal risk of the economy) and spread of bond yields to US Treasury (captures the flow risks). The last two are more relevant for an emerging market economy like India. The time-series shows a marked shift in relationship between pre- and post-crisis era. I fitted the model only on (monthly) data from 2010 onward to capture the recent dynamics. As it turns out, the bond vol has little contribution to market risk premia for India. The bond yield and equity vol shows significant but low correlation, whereas the CA deficit and spread to treasury captures a significant portion of the variance. The chart below shows the fit on this model (adjusted R-squared ~0.72).
According to this model, the PE ratio is only slightly on the over-valuation side - not a cause of great alarm. According to this model, the market was highly over-valued around late 2011, and early 2015. We saw corrections in both cases. Also the under-valued period, early this year, was followed by upward corrections as well. This model does not forecast a large correction anytime soon unless we rally up a lot quickly from here (obvious caveat: these are in-sample results).

But what is most interesting, and perhaps most significant is the recent flows that we have seen in Indian equity markets. Traditionally, the equity markets in India has been shunned by a large portion of retail investors. The experience of scams in 1990s and the melt-downs, once during dot-com busts and another in 2008, did not helped. The foreign portfolio investors dwarfed the domestic flows in cash equities for a long time (although it is a different story in F&O). But since 2014, something changed. The extra-ordinary flows in to the equities markets, led by domestic mutual funds (presumably on the back on retail savings channeled to equities) completely outpaced the foreign flows.
Is this a mass optimism following the 2014 election outcome and equity rally? Or are we witnessing a major shift in the savings behavior of retail investors in India. The retail money has missed the initial come-back equity rally following the 2008 crash, and a part of the early 2014 rally as well, where the foreign investors made out handsomely. But much of the late rally in Indian equities has gone to the retail pockets. Is this dumb money chasing recent gains? We do not know for sure, but as we argued above, we are some distance away from any valuation melt-down in Indian equities. And the flow signifies the loss tolerance of the retails - who are sitting on some comfortable profits - has quite a bit room before panic. And finally, the weakening property markets and demonetization may have incentivized a permanent change in retail behavior.

We do not know for sure. But what is the implication if it is indeed a fundamental shift in savings behavior? As argued above, the macro in India is down, but with policies properly executed, the turn-around can be sharp. If oil remains range-bound and the Fed and ECB do not stray afar from the implied forward curves, we will have little in terms of global shock to upset the local economy. On the other hand, the efforts to put banking sector NPA in shape, along with the full kick-back of the GST regime should significantly improve the badly needed private investments. Add to this mixture this retail savings paradigm shift, and we are looking at the very beginning of a multi-year rally in Indian equity markets.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Off Topic | How Not To Discourage Banks from Short Term Trading

Lately we have had a lot of talks about Volcker repeal or replace. Does Volcker rule do what it is supposed to? Is it good or bad, and for whom? There are many issues, lobbying and conversations going on right now. Here is the latest proposal from Harvard Law School:
To achieve the objectives of the Volcker rule, we propose that banks be prohibited from basing compensation on trading-based profits. Our prohibition would encompass both ex ante compensation on trading-based profits (such as contracts or non-legally binding representations that the individual’s pay will be tied to their trading profits) and ex post compensation (such as discretionary bonuses the amount of which set based on a trader’s trading profits). Violations of this rule would result in a fine to the entity, claw-back of the individual’s impermissible incentive pay, and potential criminal liability for intentional violations.
The essence  of the argument from the authors are:
  1. Banks compete in the securities market with other banks and firms to make short term trading profit (the target of the rule). Since this is a zero-sum game, only those banks who are able to attract top traders are able to turn in a positive profit, while others will be discouraged (by potential losses).
  2. Since banks also compete in the labour market - i.e. to attract trading talent, banning profit-linked compensation will force talented traders to hedge funds.

Wham! together, the end result is banks getting second-tier trading talents who must compete against the first-tier traders from hedge funds and will lose money in the zero sum game that short term trading is. Hence banks in general will be discouraged to trade short term at all.

There are some serious issues with this proposals and authors' understanding how short term trading, compensation and banks work in general.

Firstly the way banks and hedge funds make money can be significantly different. A top-tier trader in a bank will not necessarily be a top-tier in a hedge funds. In short term trading, there are three ways to make money - 1) You have superior information of who owns what and who wants to trade which way 2) have a balance sheet advantage - to overwhelm markets or to hold your ground or 3) have superior analytical capabilities (better guts, models AI, whatever for short term price prediction) and/or pure trading skill.

Banks usually excel in #1 and #2 because of their dealing role (may be not #2 much anymore, but also they do not have to cross the bid-ask spread). Hedge funds have limited access to these information and balance sheet advantages, but are supposed to have an edge in #3. Many top traders from a banking set-up fail in a hedge fund environment because of this. The trading and making money work differently.

So even if banks lose out top trading talents to hedge funds, by no means they will lose their edges that they specialize in (more true for OTC-heavy asset classes like fixed income and less applicable for exchange-heavy asset classes like equities). The advantages belong more to the seat than the man (or woman as the case may be) occupying it.

And then the compensation scheme itself is weak. The easiest way to link trader's incentives to performance - where you cannot directly link it to trading profit - is to tie it to job security. Hire top talents with a very high fixed compensation. Prune the second-raters in next cycle. Rinse and repeat. The top talents will be attracted  - if they are indeed better, they will know they can perform. A compensation scheme linked to trading profits is a series of call option on trader's PnL. Tweaking this to high fixed compensation is similar, just a series of digital calls (instead of a vanilla calls), with a knock-out feature (based on trading profit).


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Markets | Trading the "Bond Bubble"

One of the most confusing conundrum in recent time has been the curious case of stubbornly weak inflation and upbeat economy with low unemployment.

The US GDP number, while not spectacular, has been solid. Atlanta Fed GDP-Now picked up significantly in recent time. The consensus forecast for medium term GDP (2018) also improved from the start of the year and now stands at 2.3 percent. Unemployment rate remains near record lows, below pre-crisis number. According to JOLTS surveys, both quit rate and job opening rate matches or betters the pre-crisis cyclical highs. Even the relatively more pessimistic Fed labor market conditions index has improved significantly from the lows of early 2016. But both market and survey based inflation expectations are going the other way. The 5y treasury break-even inflation came-off ~40bps from highs of early this year and now stands at 1.65 percent. Similar is the story for break-even swaps markets. To match, the medium term consensus inflation forecast has come down from 2.4 percent early this year to 2.2 percent. The fall is even steeper for 2017 forecast, from 2.5 percent as recent as April, it is now at 2.10 handle. And this does not appear to be driven by oil or commodities. Both Brent and WTI have been range-bound since mid of last year. Even the set-back in general commodities prices (see Bloomberg Commodity or CRB index) early this year is now on the path of recovery. The Phillips curve is either flat, dead or was never there.

This conflicting development seemed to have a win-win impact on major asset markets. Instead of the fabled great rotation, we have seen strong money flows in both stocks and bonds - blame it on the re-balancing of portfolios, or general optimism.

The stock market benefited from solid economy and strong earnings, with valuation also supported by low rates. But the positioning remains cautious (with a correction in the gamma positioning as well).

A more interesting development is happening in the bonds markets. The bonds markets seem to have sided with the low inflation view - that no matter what the Fed does - inflation, and rates, are not going anywhere anytime soon. The over-all positioning remains solidly in the long territory. But the peculiarity is in the strong flattening bias build-up. Early this year we saw a massive swing in long maturity bonds positioning, from extreme shorts to moderate longs. This was presumably driven by the built-up and subsequent unwinds of the Trump Trade. As a side-effect, this has resulted in the extreme flattening positioning on the street. It appears everyone is positioned for a low pace of rate hikes from the Fed, and anchored low inflation expectation - resulting in a yield curve flattening. Last few times we had this kind of extremes (early 2010, mid 2012, around just before Taper tantrum and start of 2015) we had a very strong steepening that bloodied all these speculative position well and good.

Most of the players in the markets are already wary of overall bonds positioning. Some are calling out a bond bubbleSome are ready to take the opposite view. If you are in the markets to trade and not for punditry, it is hard to take a strong view. This extreme positioning in the curve provides a cheap (in terms of risk to reward ratio) way to position for a bonds sell-off. Or forget bursting the bubble, even a Fed balance sheet normalization can be the trigger. It is not at all certain balance sheet normalization will lead to increase in term premia and long term yields. But most theories say so. And if the Fed decides to hold short term policy rates during this normalization, this steepening can play out in both bull or bear scenario. And honestly, nobody has any clue how the Chinese are going to change their treasury buying patterns after the National Congress in the Autumn. If the current premier is able to stamp his authority, as generally expected, this may mark a definitive shift in policy from GDP growth target to economic stability. That, in turn, will have far reaching ripples for global asset markets.

At current level, the US curve is the flattest among all major currencies (except 5 year vs. 10 year area where JPY curve is flatter). A steepening in USD rates is a highly asymmetric trade - the trade to position for a bond bubble, whether you believe in it or not.

1. Data source: ICI for funds flow data, CFTC commitment of traders for positioning data (latest 1st August)
2. Steepening position is implied from short end (2 year and 5 year) and long end futures positioning, expressed in equivalent (approximate) duration at 10 year point.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Off Topic| Wide and Deep Learning in R

R is an excellent environment for quick and dirty data science. I am a R user and obviously a bit biased, but between Python and R, R has always had the edge for data visualization and quick hypothesis testing. If you do not find the latest and greatest methods of bleeding edge analytics somewhere available already within the strong R package ecosystem, it is more or less safe to assume it does not exist anywhere else either. And forget Python, the IDE from R Studio is perhaps the best IDE across any development platform (although the Visual Studio perhaps has a better debugging interface). But one area where R has been weak is in machine learning, especially in the deep learning area. And with the explosion of interest (and fad?) in deep learning, this has become quite a glaring gap.

But hopefully not anymore. We already have Google's TensorFlow available in R for a while. But to be honest, it did not have much feel of R in it and looked like a deprecated version of the Python release. However, very recently the R Studio folks released a R support for the excellent Keras high level API, with back-end of TensorFlow. This feels like R (with some quirk like in memory modification of objects) and works like a charm. Although it runs on top of a local python platform, the package exposes pretty much all the functionalities Keras support.

You will already find a list of examples in their site here. Here is to add a basic example of how to set up a wide and deep learning network. This involves creating two separate learning network. The wide one has only one layer (effectively a logistic regression of sort). The deep network is created separately. The output of two is combined (concatenated) in a final decision layer (this is slightly different architecture than the TensorFlow example). This is run on the usual Census Income data-set. The error rate for this set up is around 16 - comparable to other methods officially reported.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Markets | Positioning For The UK Election

UK goes in to elections this week. Since the surprise announcement in April, the polling has narrowed quite a bit between the two major parties. (See chart below - although note a large part of Labour gain has been at the expense of smaller parties, especially UKIP). However although the markets had a sharp initial reaction to the announcement, the moves subsequently have been more cautious. The outcome of the election is touted as determining the direction of Brexit negotiation. And markets appear to be waiting to assess the situations once the results are out. However, what the market will focus on in Thursday evening is not only the UK's divorce from the European Union.
Looking past the Brexit, the major differences between the Tories and Labour campaign is their respective stance on tax and government spending. If conservatives have their ways, it will basically continue the status quo, without any significant change in taxation or spending.
On the other hand, the labor plans to increase taxation (focused on corporates and top earners) as well as infrastructure spending. The National Transformation Fund with a corpus of £250b proposed by the Labour compares to a £23b National Productivity Investment Fund of the Tory government. The net effect is an increased need for borrowing, put at 45b estimates by the Tories. The other major campaign difference will perhaps add to this bill. The Labour maintains a so called "soft Brexit" approach, and a change in government in London may actually increase goodwill in Brussels. But Labour's negotiation aims also implies the UK may actually end up footing a substantial Brexit bill.
Put together, these means increased issuance of Gilts for a Labour government compared to the Tories. So in an unlikely scenario of a major Labour win, all the market forces and economics fall nicely in place. Gilts will sell-off on the back of fiscal plans - along with a steepening of the curve. Sterling pound will rally, supported by both the new Brexit stance and a rising yields. Equities will sell off, triggered by both taxation and a rallying pound and rising yields. For a strong conservative win, the impact is mostly in market sentiments than any dramatic departure in economics.
As we see from the charts above, the correlation in Tory polling vs. GBP and Gilts have mostly switched to negative off-late (and to rather positive territory for Labour). These correlations implies a Tory win will have some downside impact for GBP. But strong win may even see a small upside driven by a reduced political uncertainty before the economics kicks in. Gilts have little scope to respond vigorously, facing the inflation pressure on one hand and a more than expected Dovish BoE on the other - marginally positive for Gilts (yields go down). Equities will perhaps shrug off all of it.
That leaves us with the scenario of a Labour-led coalition government. This will in general hurt the market sentiments, with a higher chance of a addled up Brexit negotiation and potentially another election around the corner. This will be a sort of risk-off moment for UK, with sell-off in pounds and equities and a rally in gilts. This will also be a shock event - as at present the betting markets prices in a 90+ % probability of a Conservative majority. Assigning some reasonable probabilities to various outcome, the pay-off matrix looks like below. And it suggests a short GBP position before the election.
Position-wise we have seen a large reversal of positions in futures (as per CFTC reports) after the election announcement - a large decrease in net speculative shorts in Sterling pound. On the other hand, the currency options market shows a significant increase in negative skew pricing (demand to protect from a sterling crash). In fact the GBP 1 week 10 delta risk reversals is near the highs around the Scottish referendum in 2014 (although much less than the highs reached around Brexit referendum). So it appears we have some options positioning (or at least demands) - indicating a position switch from futures to options. Assuming most dealers in the FX markets will have the opposite position, this adds to a negative bias on Sterling.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Markets | VIX - Waiting For Godot

By now everyone and their cats are aware that volatility across markets and asset classes are low, been so for a long time, and shows no signs of reversal. VIX, the US market benchmark vol index is around it's historic lows. The MOVE Index - the bond markets benchmark from BofA/ML - is no better. CVIX - an FX benchmark from Deutsche - is doing a bit better but nothing assuring. People have punted, hoped and feared a come back of volatility, but so far we have not seen any sustained sign of it.

The reasons and the expectations from analysts come under mainly two flavours. The first narrative is that volatility is artificially suppressed by big league volatility sellers (speculators, but more importantly those ETFs folks and systematic risk factors people). The second narrative is market in general is going through a hopeful optimistic patch supported by central bank puts. Both groups believe volatility is going to explode sooner or later. According to the first narrative, a potential driver is a random shock, that will force re-balance in ETFs and risk factors strategies and will amplify the move. The second version is we are just a few bad economic prints or some geo-political mis-steps away from a runaway volatility.

While both of these narratives have some merits, none of them is either sufficient or complete. Or even useful for any practical purpose. There are different opinions, but I tend to side with the arguments from risk factors people (like AQR) that this line of arguments vastly over-estimates the impact of risk factors portfolios. And it is hardly fair to blame some folks for selling vols in a steep roll-down scenario as we have these days (we have written about it before). On top there is certainly some influence from street positioning. As we have written about before, for a long time now, the dominant positions of the big hedgers (read big banks and market making houses) in the markets have been long gamma, putting a stabilizing effect and pinning the vol down. The second "complacency" narrative appears less plausible, but of course cannot be ruled out.

But irrespective of which one (or may be even both) you believe in, none is useful to take a position in volatility. Essentially the argument is: volatility is trading in a distorted way and we need an external event to set it right. It is cheap since such an event will surely come some time in future. Unfortunately, by definition, we cannot predict much about the timing of an unexpected external event. And presumably you do not have the luxury of an infinite stop-loss on the bleeding you will have while you wait for that vol exploding event to materialize.

In fact the only predictable statement to make about the direction of volatility is: when the rates go up, VIX will follow. And here is why.

To start, note that although the VIX is near historical lows, it is not cheap. The realized has been lower. And the second fundamental thing to note that in the post-crisis world, the volatility has transcended its status as just a "fear gauge" and has become an asset class in its own right. And in this world of unconventional monetary policy and low rates, volatility has become intrinsically tied to the level of rates. The chart below captures this point.

We talked about this point way back in 2012 (from bonds markets point of view). When you treat volatility as an asset class (where selling volatility is a surrogate carry strategy) it becomes clear to see the connection. Consider an asset allocator who has an option to either sell volatility and collect the premiums, or buy some equivalently risky carry product, e.g. a high yield corporate bonds portfolio.

To make apple-to-apple comparison, we can think of a hypothetical "volatility bond". Given the existing spread of risky (BBB) bonds to treasury, we can deduce the probability of default of such an investment. From this, we can hypothesize a volatility bond, which consists of selling an out-of-the-money (OTM) call spread and put spread on S&P 500, each 100 point wide. The strike of the short options are such that the probability (implied from volatility) of them ending up in the money is equal to the probability of default of the high yield portfolio above (worth 100 in notional). In both cases the maximum we can lose is $100 (note in the case of short vol strategy, only one of the call or put spread can be in the money and exercised against us). So the yield from the high yield portfolio, and the premium collected (let's call that volatility yield) are comparable returns from portfolios with comparable risks. The chart above shows the yields from these two roughly equivalent portfolios. As we can see, in this rough approximation, the vol yield has in fact been higher than comparable BBB yield through out the post-crisis period, and moved in steps. The relative value before the crisis was unbalanced. It would have paid to buy OTM options spreads, funded by a high yield portfolio (anecdotally, there was an equivalent popular trade there during that time, but in the wrong market - the infamous Japanese widow maker). But at present the markets are pretty much in sync with each other and appear efficient. Far from the "distortion" argument in the narratives above.

The only way the vol can rationally go up from here is if the general risk portfolio yields also go up. That can happen in two ways. Either spread to risk-less rates (like treasury) increases (signifying a risk-off event like in the narratives above). Or through a secular rise in rates - which basically takes us back to Fed and inflation. As argued in the last post, pretty much everything we can expect now hangs on future inflation path.

The results are outcome of an approximate analysis. We obviously ignored some important issues (like skew and convexity of these deep OTM strikes) and made some shortcuts (a digital set-up is more appropriate than a options spreads as in here). We also missed a bit more fundamental point here, which is correlation. S&P 500 is a much broader index than the high yield universe, and the comparison above is more appropriate as the market-wide correlation goes up. As the correlation goes lower, we can afford to sale closer to the money options spread in S&P to retain the same riskiness in the portfolio, thus making the volatility yield even higher. And as we have it, the correlation (again see the last post) is down off late. But the main point remains unchanged - Vol is low but NOT cheap (although last few points in recent time in 2017 points to some relative cheapness).

Perhaps it is a good time to stop complaining about low VIX prints and watch those HY spreads and inflation development carefully instead.

All data from CBOE website/ Yahoo Finance/ Bloomberg

Monday, May 1, 2017

Macro | Cross Asset Correlation Update

The markets seem to slowly leave behind the massive focus on fiscal impulse following the US presidential election, and the inordinate amount of stress and optimism about the US dollar rally. This is already reflected at least in terms of asset price behaviours, if not media and analysts focus yet.

Cross asset macro drivers for 2017 YTD (based on first factors extracted from principle component analysis for each asset class) looks much like H1 of 2016, which saw a cautious rally in risk assets following the early stress period - albeit now it comes with reduced influence of oil prices and volatility on risk asset prices. This stands markedly different from the H2 of either 2015 or 2016 - which saw a pick up cross asset correlation (with very different outcome, a risk-off move in H2 2015 and a risk-on rally in H2 2016). The MST charts below captures this dynamics pictorially.

Among the risk assets, DM equity factor shows increased positive sentiments to rates (i.e. increased yields leading to rally). Inflation has become more important for DM equities as well, while FX has virtually no influence. For EM equities, the latest trends has been a slight de-sensitization to rates and FX movement, although they remain significant. The credit factor also picked up its correlation to rates (and FX, which is mostly influenced by EM credits part), while retaining correlation to inflation.

This makes the rates and inflation path the most important determinants for risk assets at present - at least from Developed Markets equity investors' point of view. Markets will always react (or over-react) to tax cuts expectations and presidential elections. But we are now, it appears, back to the basics.

On this fundamental note, we have seen some recent encouragement in global inflation space. The left chart below shows GDP weighted CPI inflation (global top 20 economies as well as Developed Markets within that). Since the recent bottoming out at start of 2016, we have seen a secular rise in inflation, which is more pronounced for the DM case. However, the core inflation scenario (not presented here) is far from running hot. Core inflation in the US and China have improved from 2015 lows, but much less dramatically. Only in the case of Euro area this has been solid (from very low levels). One the other hand, global credit growth (right chart below) appears to have topped out in a secular manner. On the positive sides, the wage growth in the US (not shown here) has been encouraging and sustained.

If we consider these points, in the context of extraordinary monetary accommodation that exists across the globe today, we should be more hesitant to conclude we are heading towards a definite normalization anytime soon, in spite of strong sentiments. The rates market seems to agree. We have seen inflation recoveries in 2011 (remember the ECB hike mistakes) and also in early 2014. It was a misfire in both cases. A weakening credit impulse and barely normal inflation in the face of extraordinary monetary stimulus represents a global demand which is far from recovered. This makes the case for removal of these extraordinary monetary measures very difficult - most policy makers are still biased to err on the upside inflation naturally. That is unless we see the whites in the eyes of inflation - in which case, it either may be too late, or have to be too harsh and steep. For now, the forward looking inflation measures (both market based like break-even inflation and model based like Cleveland Fed now-cast) remain stable without any sign of worrisome upward pressure. This means the risk assets will largely avoid negative reaction by a possible June Fed hike (market probability of 67% as of date priced in). The key risk in this regard remains any (mis-)communication or premature taper on the central bank balance sheets.

All data from St Louis Fred Database