“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
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
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
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
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.