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Let’s quickly dismiss the view that investors learnt from Brexit how to react to the election of Trump. US options are the world’s most liquid and the three month market that we track has consistently shown that President-elect Trump would be a sanguine outcome for stocks. Commentators are falling over themselves after the event to explain why this is, but OTAS has portrayed a consistent message of financial calm.

US Large Cap. Implied Volatility

US Large Cap. Implied Volatility

There have been three notable spikes in implied volatility over the past 16 months. Two of those, which we have labelled China and Recession, took this measure to exceptional levels, as fears mounted that a slowdown in Asia would cause the world economy to crater. The third spike, in the aftermath of the vote for Brexit, saw risk rise to unusual, but not exceptional levels. Politics may have rediscovered Paul Graham’s mantra that “It’s charisma, stupid” to explain which candidate wins a two-horse race, but the market remains firmly fixated on the economy.

By now we all have the received wisdom that Trump is good for certain regulated industries, such as banks and pharmaceuticals and his fiscal policies will mean more inflation and higher interest rates. The perceived riskiness of utilities relative to financials has jumped to unusual levels, last seen just before everyone remembered that Greece was about to default. With a while to wait to find out what Trump really stands for, big banks could be less risky than energy distributors for a while.

Implied Volatilty of Utilities Relative to Diversified Financials

Implied Volatilty of Utilities Relative to Diversified Financials

Central banks may have come to realise that forever easier money does not generate growth, but now they have the perfect foil to allow them to reverse course. Governors around the world have been beseeching politicians to do more to generate growth and the public has responded by electing those who promise to do something rather than nothing. There are incumbents who need to wise up fast. If Renzi’s reform bid fails then he may be gone, and if it succeeds and leads to a German imposed bail-in of bank depositors, then he’ll likely be gone a little later. The French also have an activist alternative to hamstrung mainstream politicians. Keep track daily of the implied volatility of the relevant markets and sectors with OTAS.

The chart of PE for the US top stocks suggests that the post-election move has room to run further and it would take a 7% re-rating to lift the valuation back to the highs of May 2015, when forward PE was last in touching distance of exceptional levels.

US Lage Cap. PE Valuation

US Large Cap. PE Valuation

One piece of received wisdom that is not playing out is that Trump will be unreservedly bad for trade and hence China and Emerging Markets. Mexico has taken a kicking, but perceived risk among China Enterprise stocks is almost unchanged. Once again it is fears of economic slowdown that floats this boat and clearly investors are not worried about a slowdown at present. Perhaps they believe that China wins relative to Mexico.

China Enterpise Implied Volatility

China Enterpise Implied Volatility

UK media is fretful the economy will suffer from trade restrictions. It is not obvious why Trump would single out the UK for harsh treatment when everything he has said points the other way and the immediate stock market weakness is likely to be currency related. The financial community in the UK is too savvy to confuse its own post-Brexit well-being with the health of the economy, when the opposite may be true. Keep an eye on implied volatility in the UK and be prepared to buy when threshold levels are reached. Threshold low PE ratios are also approaching.

One more thought going back to our blog of October 17, in which we argued that insurance stocks would be back in business once interest rate rises were on the cards. It may take a while for recalcitrant European central banks to get it, but the valuation of US insurance stocks in the last couple of days reinforces the conclusions we drew about what happens when they do.

US Insurance Sector PE Valuation

US Insurance Sector PE Valuation

After years of impasse, when the conclusion of culture wars rather than the economy occupied politicians, there are signs that activism is bringing markets to life. People worry that cultural change will be reversed, but let us hope that politicians and central bankers focus on the most important task of restoring growth for the benefit of all.

The plight of insurance companies in an era of low interest rates has led some to predict the total collapse of the industry. The sector is a bellwether for the stock market, because so much of its profit comes from investment returns. The chart of the PE of European insurers relative to the broader market shows that extreme valuation for the sector is a precursor of major market corrections.

ins-pe

European Insurance Valuation Relative to the Market

On this logic things are fine, because at two thirds of the average PE, insurance stocks have only just crossed into the normal valuation range following a period in the investment doghouse. This would tie in with our recent message that the prevailing investment trends are uncertainty over the direction of interest rates and gradually rising implied volatility back to normal levels. Relative implied volatility for the insurance sector peaks at index lows.

Implied Volatility of Insurance Stocks Relative to the Market

Implied Volatility of Insurance Stocks Relative to the Market

The woes of the insurance industry are easy to identify, which is why the sector is so popular among investment bloggers, who use it to point to the coming Armageddon in Europe, without having to offer too much analysis. Insurers depend on yield, all the more so as their customers age, so if central banks reduce bond yields to zero or below, insurance companies die.

You do not have to talk to those in the industry for too long to hear them bemoaning the new capital that is driving down returns for everyone. For the insurers, this is dumb capital that lacks the long-term perspective of their industry, but which thanks to light or no regulation has a lower cost of capital than incumbents. This is two different arguments; one about time horizons and another about the shadow financial sector.

Insurance is an industry whose last great innovation was the statistical analysis that brought about mortality tables. This allowed probability as a proxy for predictability and gave rise to a legion of highly specialised mathematicians with skills finely tuned to the needs of the industry. The maths can now be done faster and more effectively by computers, and so any cost advantage that new capital has from efficient operations is a permanent one. Whether you are regulated or not, you no longer need all those actuaries, just as investment banks no longer need so many analysts and lawyers don’t require all those proof reading juniors. Regulation actually serves to slow the loss of white collar jobs, because however onerous it may seem, all regulation favours incumbency.

The longer timeframe argument is more intriguing. Factor analysis shows that the inverse correlation between equity values and bond yields has weakened over several decades, most likely due to lower inflation, which had globalisation as its primary cause. The relationship has actually inverted since 2008, so that bonds and equities rise and fall in sync. Initial observations since 2013 suggest that the traditional correlation is reasserting itself.

This is due to the end of quantitative easing in the US and the political reaction to globalisation across the western world. Rising protectionism and constraints on immigration are the most evident backlash. These measures are designed to push up local wages and hence will be inflationary, and could herald the reversal of a long period of ascendancy of capital over labour.

It should be stressed that the jury is out on this. Most of our blogs reference the standoff between those who believe in the continuation of easy money and those thinking its time has passed, because this is the largest investment argument to be resolved. It is also one that OTAS indicators are ideally placed to track, including our fear gauge and low volatility performance monitor.

If the worm has turned however, and the ineffectiveness of monetary policy at the zero bound combines with political pressure to trigger policies that lead to higher interest rates, then the insurance sector will be back in business. Returns on insurance equities should discount this long before it happens. Those cautious mathematicians who have survived in the sector will have won the argument about the long-term, because underwriting in the industry should be priced using a higher cost-of-capital.

“It’s the devil’s way now, There is no way out

You can scream and you can shout

It is too late now, Because you have not been

Payin’ attention”

Radiohead 2+2=5

This week our Blog pulls together the themes and indicators from OTAS that we have been talking about for a while. We have been looking for clues that investors are losing faith in central bank omnipotence, which will expose those who do not adjust their portfolios from following the axiom of the past few years to a significant drawdown. There is a fierce debate among those who believe that judgement is coming and those who expect more of the same.

We tackled this issue in early September in what was probably my favourite blog, because the charts used to illustrate the points were the default charts that can be pulled up from OTAS with virtually no effort. For example, this chart of the average cost of credit for US large caps illustrates how credit risk has flat-lined this year, indicating a collective ambiguity about the direction of interest rates. Perhaps this is why the fiercest online investor arguments are about rates; because no one can be sure of where they are heading.

US Large Cap Average Cost of Credit

US Large Cap Average Cost of Credit

From here we developed the theory of Wall Street’s alternative fear gauge, where we used the relative volatility of banks and utilities to assess how relaxed investors were feeling about stock prices. In less than three weeks since then, the riskiness of banks, where low levels indicate an absence of fear, has fallen below that of utilities. This can hold true for several months, but it is not normal.

Relative Volatility of US Banks vs Utilities

Relative Volatility of US Banks vs Utilities

An obvious reason for the low relative riskiness of banks is that the odds of a US rate rise have increased, resulting in the dollar index breaking out of its recent trading range to the upside this week. Higher rates would raise banks’ margins, while hurting heavily borrowed utilities and diminishing the relative appeal of their dividend yields. This is a simple, but erstwhile effective investment conclusion.

Utility stocks are a stalwart of the low volatility portfolios that have been underperforming of late. This has led some to argue that the size of the unwind of the consensus trade in favour of low volatility and high yield will be the cause of the coming equity market fall. Last week we addressed the trigger point for index corrections in terms of the relative valuation of lower risk stocks. The sell-off in these names has pushed the riskiness of utility shares to extreme levels, which historically have not held for very long.

Relative Volatility of US Utilities

Relative Volatility of US Utilities

The mean reversion mechanism for this indicator is either that utilities lead and the rest follow in a coordinated meltdown in share prices, or the active few who trade relative volatility exit the stage, leaving the majority who passively expect the Fed to keep bailing them out to buy the dips.

The Radiohead song 2+2=5 references George Orwell’s 1984 and specifically Doublethink, whereby the state can compel citizens to believe something that is not true. For many investors it is axiomatic that stock prices will continue to rise, supported by easy monetary policy, because there is nowhere else for anyone to invest. The exchange rate related crushing that gold has taken this week reinforces this belief.

Radiohead subtitled their song The Lukewarm. This is a reference to those on the edge of Dante’s Inferno, who cannot figure out why they are there, because they didn’t do anything. For Dante, and the politically charged members of Radiohead, inactivity is precisely the crime for which these people are condemned. When you have an environmental activist in the family as I do, which makes Christmas colourful, you come to understand the charge sheet against the silent majority.

So who is more right; those who expect a major correction or those who believe that debt, deflation and an ageing population will result in years more pump priming by central banks. The reality is that both may be correct. A sell off in markets may be triggered by a rise in US interest rates, which could happen at the low point for our alternative fear gauge, which is now just a few points away. The resulting tumble could then trigger recognition of a policy error, leading central banks to resume the path of easy money.

In the first Blog referenced above we warned that CDS and implied volatility were sending conflicting signals. So far it is a correction in volatility that has addressed this discrepancy. US large cap CDS and implied volatility are two of the easiest charts to find and follow in OTAS. As Radiohead knew, there is no excuse for not payin’ attention.

Value is expensive. I am not sure that’s possible, etymologically speaking, although as it has happened it must be.

Investors are getting used to believing six impossible things before breakfast, as Lewis Carroll’s White Queen could. In a world of negative interest rates, this is the norm. Overnight I read another piece about Canada’s multiple investment bubbles and I am sure that one day they will all burst.

Timing, though, is everything. As a young man I worked in Malaysia during the frenzied stock market run of the 1990s. Each year more investors would come to visit (and shop), count the cranes building skyscrapers and return home bearish. One guy turned the taxi around within ten minutes of leaving the airport and took the next flight home. Eventually one of the visiting investors got their timing right. It would be nice to think it was the airport guy, but I can’t be sure.

Low value equates to low volatility. As this survey shows, low volatility is also low beta and financial strength. Yet over the long term, neither extremely low nor exceptionally high volatility delivers the best performance. That comes from stocks with middling risk.

This is logical. One test of any mathematical model is that it delivers intuitive results. Volatility is risk and if the lowest risk stocks always delivered the highest returns, then their price would be bid up to unsustainable levels. Equally, while risk and return are related, if constantly buying the riskiest stocks delivered the best performance, the word conservative would have fallen out of use.

How do we track this in OTAS? Median implied volatility for the largest stocks in the US is 24, which means that in three months’ time the average share is predicted to be up or down by 12%. The stocks with below average implied volatility have an average forward PE around 18x. This is a slight premium to the market.

PE Relative of Low Volatility Stocks

PE Relative of Low Volatility Stocks

Over time, the stocks that currently have below average risk trade at the same PE as the market. Not all of today’s low vol stocks will always have been less risky, but a lot of them will have been. The chart shows that when the PE premium in low risk stocks reaches 7%, the next move for the market is down.

There are arguments as to why low risk stocks might have the highest potential growth. Strong balance sheets leave scope for leverage and with all the free money sloshing around, buybacks can be used to raise EPS. But Q2 buybacks were the lowest for two years.

Alternatively, all the strongest stocks have the funds to invest in future growth, while the risky stocks have none and hence their earnings will fall. Also, low risk means low return, which equates to high current PE. And that is the point; when the PE of low risk stocks reaches a certain relative level, the low return element of the deal kicks in and stock prices fall.

This typically occurs when the market as a whole falls. When indices retreat from highs, the low risk stocks fall the furthest. Then a few more hedge funds close claiming the market to be irrational.

Canada’s still booming, there is tremendous demand for bonds that you pay to own and the least risky stocks have the highest expected growth. It’s not impossible that this continues, but history suggests that it is unlikely.

The mainstream media is all over the story of the demise of Deutsche Bank, which suggests we have entered the denouement. We use OTAS to assess what is currently factored into the share price as the consequence of any rescue deal for the bank.

Over the past ten years Deutsche has fared no worse than the average European bank, although of course it is supposed to be an above average player, both in terms of international investment banking and among the low return retail banks in Germany. Yet the combination of return on assets and return on equity is forecast to be the worst in the sector this year and next, meaning that for all its leverage, Deutsche’s core return is simply too low.

Deutsche Bank 10 Year Price Performance

Deutsche Bank 10 Year Price Performance

Over a decade, the share price is down 70%, as is the average European bank, while the European market as a whole managed a near 2% rise. By way of comparison, BNP Paribas is down just over 10% during the same period.

OTAS Technical analysis describes Deutsche as a falling knife; a stock trading below its significant moving averages and one that has yet to trigger signs of a turnaround. EPS Momentum is -9% over the past month, which unsurprisingly is in 95th percentile of the European diversified financials industry. There are, however, several banks and financial companies where short term momentum is worse.

Deutsche Bank EPE Momentum

Deutsche Bank EPS Momentum

Since the beginning of Q2 2012, forward estimates of Deutsche’s earnings have fallen 75%, while the share price is down around 70%. A further 15% fall in the share price is implied were it to match the change in EPS over this period. Once talk of bail outs goes mainstream, however, 12 month EPS forecasts move to the periphery of the investment debate.

The downgrades have pushed Deutsche’s forward P/E ratio to the highest on record and it recently touched a premium to the sector that surpassed the level reached in April 2009. Perhaps more significantly, the price to book ratio of 0.24x is below the low point reached during the financial crisis in 2008-9. At one third of the average rating of the sector, the prospects for recovery of Deutsche’s net asset value have never looked worse.

Throughout this time, the short interest in the shares has been surprisingly benign, although the exceptional trading volume of late points to the action being in the cash market. The current level of free float shares on loan is in the middle of its normal range and seems unlikely to be a useful indicator of where the share price goes from here.

The question now becomes what a recapitalisation of Deutsche Bank looks like, assuming it is correct to assume that for all its hard-line rhetoric, the German government cannot let its largest bank go under. With the equity currently expected to return 25% of its value, what about the debt? The CDS trades at 232 basis points, an extreme level over the last decade, but not the highest point reached in that time. Interest rates have fallen over this period however, so it is worth noting that at 1.9x the level of the average European financial, Deutsche’s debt is consider more risky than it has ever been.

Deutsche Bank CDS Relative to the Sector

Deutsche Bank CDS Relative to the Sector

For those who are prepared to bottom fish, there are a number of indicators in OTAS that might point to a turnaround in fortunes at some stage. One would be a stabilisation and then improvement in EPS Momentum, although history teaches that the share price will have moved before the analysts are ready to risk reputations on calling a buy. Thus OTAS technical signals, which focus on mean reversion, may provide an earlier indication of a bounce, especially if combined with another signal. This may be from the CDS market, because if debt investors start to relax about how many cents in the euro will be returned, then Deutsche’s shares should rally.

Stay tuned to OTAS, for it hasn’t happened yet.

This week the Federal Reserve is expected to keep interest rates unchanged. Generally speaking, lower interest rates are considered a drag on the profitability of banks and a boon to leveraged investors such as utilities. This is because the two industries may be seen as opposites, as banks’ traditional role was to supply the debt that utilities used to fund power projects. Both institutions are highly geared, but one to rising rates and the other to lower.

The implied volatility of banks tends to rise relative to utilities at times of market panic. Not only is bank leverage higher than that of utilities, or any other sector, and hence the business model more risky, but the response of the Fed to market panics is to lower rates, which hurts bank profitability. This is a highly simplistic view of investing, but it is not hard to see how it has become a dominant one in a world of repeated accommodation by the Fed.

Bank risk relative to utilities

Bank risk relative to utilities

The chart shows the median implied volatility of banks in North America against that of utilities. In other words, it is a measure of how risky banks are relative to power companies. Typically banks are greater risk because the value of the index is over one, although in periods of high complacency such as Spring 2015, this was not the case. While the spikes in the chart show when selloffs in the market occurred, it is the periods prior to the spikes that we might contemplate.

The chart runs from the beginning of the second quarter of 2010 to date. There is no compelling rationale for this time period, but it illustrates neatly the periods of extreme weakness in markets and that the two most recent sell offs, in February and June, were mild compared with the late 2011 and mid 2012 events. Investors are pretty benign about the risks to banks relative to utilities at this point and, using this as a gauge of market sentiment, pretty pleased with how the market should behave through the next three months.

This may be surprising given the impending US elections and an Italian referendum that could become a vote on the EU and membership of the Euro. It does, however, show how reliant investors are on central banks keeping asset prices high.

Thus it is worth considering Ben Hunt’s latest missive, in which he puts the odds of Fed hike at three times those implied by consensus. Why should we pay attention to a lone voice when so many are of a different opinion? Because if the consensus consists of a majority that all thinks the same thing for the same reason, then it is dogma rather than the wisdom of crowds.

The other reason for contemplating what might happen should the Fed raise rates is another look at our alternative fear gauge. While bank risk relative to utilities rose last week, it remains at a low level, creating an asymmetric risk-return payoff. A few basis point on, rather than off interest rates, will not be sufficient to restore bank profitability, but it would probably be enough to cause a major rethink among portfolio managers.

There is a debate in the UK about how David Cameron will be remembered. Further from the mainstream, the New Statesman attempts to define the legacy of New Labour’s “Golden Generation”, whose political careers appear to be over. A common theme of the conclusions is that no matter how intelligent you may be; an inability to connect with the electorate will be your undoing.

The aura of technology is painted by Apple, Google and Facebook; companies that tell consumers what their hearts desire before they know it themselves. The reality of much of the tech world is more mundane, and an inability to provide customers with what they want will kill off innovation.

At OTAS, our quest is to simplify efficient equity trading to the point where all that you need to know is encapsulated in a single chart. To arrive at that point however, is a journey of a thousand marginal improvements, more in keeping with the mantra of an Olympic coach than a Silicon Valley visionary. At each point we test our innovations with the heavy users of our software, collect their feedback and adapt the service to be of incremental use.

The barrier to our one-chart-world is the plurality of use cases for the software; differences that are largely unknown outside of equity trading desks, but which create a number of competing demands. One trader may focus only on the liquidity of orders, while another wants to see unusual price patterns. Some desks desire an automated dealing solution that sends regulation trades for low touch execution, while others require frequent updating on delivery versus benchmark. The quest for one-chartism continues.

To this end we are launching the Intraday Screener. This may be connected to an order book, portfolio, sector or market index and will show you at a glance the outliers in real-time trading.

OTAS Intraday Screener

OTAS Intraday Screener

The example above is of the UK non-life insurance sector. The size of the bubble represents the value of shares traded, while its position shows the deviation from normal in terms of both volume and return. In this snapshot, seven of the eight shares are trading up, a couple of which to an unusual degree (to the right of the chart). Four of the shares are trading with exceptional volume, the most extreme of which is down on the day. By hovering over this bubble we reveal real-time performance data for this outlier, Jardine Lloyd Thompson.

In truth, Intraday Screener is not a single chart. You may change the axes to show whichever combination of performance metrics you desire, be that absolute or relative to normal, relative to a basket of similar shares, liquidity, spread or predicted volume. You may also change the variables defined in the size and colour of the bubble, as well as alter the chart to show a map format. Yet we believe the screener represents meaningful progress towards the one chart to rule them all.

The chart above makes an important point about efficient trading, which is that it is not the biggest order or most liquid name that should automatically command your attention. Trading in such names is most likely to be within the normal range, so that steady execution using a risk-adjusted schedule is the optimum way to complete an order. Often the exceptional action is in other order book names, where close attention is required to avoid losing precious performance. The Intraday Screener shows you immediately the names that require your trading skill.

There are users who trade too few names a day to be concerned about relative dispersion. There are others who trade too many for a single chart to capture effectively. There is even a third category that has to be finished before the portfolio manager makes another tour of the floor. Yet we hope that Intraday Screener proves to be a most useful tool for our customers and one that effectively combines machine learning with their human intelligence.

Two articles published overnight indicate that the period of central bank omnipotence has ended. The Daily Telegraph carries this commentary on the ECB exhausting its ability to improve the Eurozone economy and this piece about the need for central banks to continue to project omnipotence, whatever the reality. One of our favourite analysts, Ben Hunt, has already declared  that central banking influence is on the wane.

Our recent blog on the logic of investors doubling up equity positions through the option market concluded that this strategy was rational when central banks are the primary influence over stock markets. It stands to reason that if this influence is on the wane, then the risks to equity exposure are mounting.

At OTAS we spend a lot of time looking at the indicators that may inform investors about a change in trend. One popular indicator is the level of credit default swaps, shown here for the median US large cap.

US Large Cap Median CDS

US Large Cap Median CDS

The lowest level of risk for US companies on this measure was June 2014. We have noted that this corresponded to the approximate peak in global export volumes and that economic momentum has deteriorated subsequently. The Fed indicated its taper strategy in December 2013 and officially ended bond buying in October 2014, but it was not until April 2015 that the cost of credit for US corporates began a meaningful rise. Credit risk has returned to its average level and stalled. This may indicate a reluctance to believe that the Fed can raise interest rates meaningfully.

US Large Cap Median Implied Volatility

US Large Cap Median Implied Volatility

Implied volatility is another favoured measure of risk. This also reached a trough in the summer of 2014 and showed a more meaningful pick up from Q2 2015. The reduction in implied volatility since February however, is at odds with the CDS risk indicator. This may suggest that the actions of investors are supressing volatility without the same degree of support from central banks as in the past. This is either because corporate earnings are on a growth trajectory, or because a bubble is forming based on past behaviour by central banks.

US Large Cap Median PE

US Large Cap Median PE

The PE valuation of US large caps is above its average range and on the verge of completing four weeks of decline from close to record highs this cycle. PE can fall due to rising earnings or falling prices and there is nothing to stop the two occurring simultaneously.

The situation in Europe sees the PE valuation of large caps at the very top of the average range. Relative to US stocks the valuation is mid-range, as shown below. The relative valuation has been rising since early July, which may be currency related. It does not, however, bear out relative rates of growth and is not factoring in that further ECB action may be detrimental to the economy, as suggested in the first article referred to above.

European Large Cap Median PE relative to US Large Cap

European Large Cap Median PE relative to US Large Cap

Our final chart shows the valuation of large cap UK stocks. This looks a lot like the US chart, albeit at slightly lower levels of PE. Short term positive EPS revisions are dominated by the Materials sector; much as Energy stocks dominate the list of most recently upgraded US shares. In Europe, ex the UK, without such a prominent resources sector, upgrades show no obvious sector bias.

UK Large Cap Median PE

UK Large Cap Median PE

The last month suggests that cracks are beginning to form in the equity bull market thesis. One rationale for this is that the power of central banks to influence stock prices is diminishing, perhaps at an accelerating rate. The bigger point is that monetary policy alone has been insufficient to drive an economic recovery that translates into corporate earnings rising as quickly as stock prices. One has to doubt that investors will afford politicians and fiscal policy the same perceived omnipotence as they have allowed central banks and monetary policy in recent years.

Sustained periods of low volatility correlate well with steadily rising equity prices. Yet concern is mounting that the current low volatility is storing up future problems, because investors are doubling up on high share prices. By selling put options on shares and indices, thereby committing themselves to buy shares should the prices fall, these funds are exposed to an equity market sell-off through both their ownership of stock and the recently written put options.

It is perfectly rationale to sell puts if you believe that markets are rising. The concern however, is that funds are so starved of yield that they are writing puts for the short-term income benefit and relying on the world’s central banks to bail them out should stock markets take a dive. A parallel is drawn with the sub-prime mortgage debacle, when it was not the size of the market for poorly underwritten mortgage loans that triggered the financial crisis, but the vast number of derivatives layered on top that magnified risk throughout the financial system.

US Implied Volatility - 2 Years

Implied volatility for the top 500 US stocks has fallen sharply since the post-Brexit panic and even more significantly since the worries about global growth were at their height in February. Yet as the chart above shows, two year implied volatility remains in its average range and around 10% above the successive lows of 2015.

US Implied Volatility - Longer Term

On a longer timeframe the shock from the financial crisis and its echo in 2011 are clearly visible, but the current level of implied volatility is not unusual in the post-crisis period when central banks have been deliberately dampening volatility in order to encourage risk-taking. Implied volatility for US large caps is 6% above the low point of its average spread. In Europe the picture is similar and implied volatility is 18% above the bottom end of its normal range, which has repeatedly marked the low point for this indicator.

Europe Implied Volatility

The charts appear to support the strategy of the put sellers, because implied volatility still has room to fall to reach previous lows, during which time the options sold will expire worthless. The put writers are also doing central bankers’ bidding by taking more risk, so they will feel justified in expecting central banks to bail them out when necessary. Large, long-only funds find it difficult to react to sudden moves in markets, meaning that they miss their chance to scoop up large quantities of shares before prices rally back to where they were. A logical way to ensure that these funds benefit from temporary corrections is to write puts so that they are guaranteed stock immediately prior to a central bank induced bounce.

There is a near-term benefit in enhanced portfolio returns because of the income from writing puts, but the longer-term gains are based on the assumption that central banks will continue to do what they have been doing since 2009. Janet Yellen may lay out the path to higher interest rates in her speeches, but as long as the Fed is seen to be ready to ease monetary policy whenever markets are in stress, the put-writing investment strategy will work.

OTAS users may keep a close eye on the trends in implied volatility to see when the current normal moves become exceptional. They should also look for confirmation from other indicators presented in a similar fashion, such as the cost of credit for corporates derived from the CDS market.

 

We have written a lot about using implied volatility as the measure of how equity markets will react to supposedly high risk political events, including Brexit and the US Presidential Election. This week, Institutional Investor has been good enough to publish our article making precisely this point. Today, however, I want to focus on corporate credit and its importance in determining the success of central bank policy.

Once again I am grateful for outside help, in this instance EvergreenGK for pointing out when and why “Don’t fight the Fed” works. The crux of the argument is that our mantra should really be “Don’t fight the Spread“.

The message from implied volatility in equity markets is that stocks and shares are set fair for the next three months at least, which takes us to the eve of the Presidential election, supposedly the most polarising event in living memory. Equity investors are relying on volatility-crushing central bank interventions to maintain an upward trajectory to equity markets.

Evergreen notes that the early 1930s, the start of the 2000s and mid-2008 to early 2009, were all periods of expansionary monetary policy and terrible stock market performance. If you hadn’t fought the Fed on those occasions, your portfolio would have come-a-cropper. The signal to break from orthodoxy was the rise in corporate credit spreads, because investors considered the risk of companies defaulting to be so great that no authority could do anything about it. This proved to be the case for periods of time that we now call the Great Depression, the bursting of the Dot-Com Bubble and the Global Financial Crisis.

So to today and the five-year credit default swap for the average large cap US company as an indicator of risk for equities. The low point of the median CDS was June 2014 and there has been a steady rise since April 2015. This coincides with total global trade by volume (not value) starting its decline; hard evidence that the trend towards globalisation ended well before protectionists were the only choice for the White House.

Average 5Y CDS for US Large Caps

Average 5Y CDS for US Large Caps

I have shown the chart over a five year period. What this highlights is that corporate credit risk is now very close to the average level over that period and below levels seen in 2011 (thus well below extremes three years earlier). The high point of central bank potency has passed, because the links between money and trade, a primary conduit of long-term global growth, are just too tenuous. What central banks appear to have done however, thanks to the ECB’s intervention in February, is cap the level of risk for now.

EUR CDS

Average 5Y CDS for European Large Caps

The trends for large European corporate credit are similar to those in the US. Average credit costs are 13% higher in Europe, despite US policy rates being above those in Europe. This means that the risk of companies defaulting is greater than in the US, even though the ECB has been buying corporate debt directly since June.

This week the Bank of England announced that it would purchase up to £10bn of corporate debt. The rationale for this is that it will do more to make investors buy other corporate securities (i.e. equities) than if the Bank simply purchased more gilts. Also, with the cost of debt reduced, companies should issue more debt. It remains to be seen whether this has any impact on corporate investment, but recent history suggests that it will boost share buybacks and M&A.

UK CDS

Average 5Y CDS for UK Large Caps

Credit risk in the UK is higher than both the US and Europe. The highest risk is for mining companies, followed by supermarkets and then financial companies. The issues with each of these industries pre-dates Brexit by some way, although as we argue in the Institutional Investor article, the rapid response to Brexit by the Bank of England will only exacerbate the woes of banks and insurers. The UK economy is peculiarly dependent on financial industries.

The success of central banks in holding down corporate credit costs may well determine whether you should be “fighting the Fed” or going with the flow. OTAS presentation of corporate credit is relevant because of the deep statistical analysis that sits behind every chart and table and in the flags that alert you, stock-by-stock, to significant credit events. You can stare at other screens for hours if your firm buys the data feeds, but without the statistical significance, it’s all just noise.