Europe Takes the QE Baton As EPS Nears 2009 Levels

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Europe Takes the QE Baton As EPS Nears 2009 Levels

bunds. Note that only two years ago Greek debt paid 25% per year more than German debt did. Anyone who bought Greek debt when that country was busy defaulting has scored big. (While I probably take far too much risk in my portfolio, I will readily admit to not having enough nerve to do something like that.) The other thing to note, and it is a little bit more difficult to see on this chart, is that for all intents and purposes the market is treating European-wide EFSF debt as German debt. There are only 10 basis points of difference.

Now let’s take a little stroll through history and view a chart of the yield curve of French debt. The top dotted line is where the yield curve was on January 1, 2007. We took our first look at this chart last Tuesday in preparation for this letter, noting that short-term French debt was at the zero bound. It went negative on Thursday, and negative all the way out to two years! Note that a 50-year French note (which I’m not sure actually trades) yields a hypothetical 2.5%, only modestly more than a 30-year would yield. You might have to have the patience of Job, and I’m not sure quite how you would go about executing the trade, but that has to be one of the most loudly screaming shorts I’ve ever seen!

Here is the equivalent chart for the German yield curve going back to January 2007. Note that German debt has a negative yield out to three years!!!

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While it should surprise no one, German long-term bond yields are at historic lows. I recall reading that Spanish bond yields are lower now than they have been at any other time in their history. I actually applaud the Spanish government for issuing 50-year bonds at 4%. I can almost guarantee you the day will come when Spain looks back at those 4% bonds with fondness. (I assume that the buyers are pension funds or insurance companies engaged in a desperate search for yield. I guess the extra 2% over a ten-year bond looks attractive … at least in the short term.)

And finally, let’s really widen our time horizon on German yields:

Time to Ramp up the Currency War

The yen hit a six-year low this week (over 105 to the dollar), creating even more of a problem for Germany and other European exporters to Asia. The chart below shows that Germany’s exports to the BRIICS except China are down significantly over the past few years, partially due to competition from Japan as the yen has dropped against the euro.

The yen-versus-euro problem (at least from Germany’s standpoint) is exacerbated by the remarkable appetite of Japanese investors for French bonds. This has been going on for over a year. In May and June of this year alone, Japanese investors bought $29.3 billion worth of French notes maturing at one year or more (presumably, this was before rates went negative). Note that even with minimal yields, the Japanese investors are up because of the currency play. (Interestingly, Japanese investors are dumping German bonds, again a yield play.)

Japanese analysts say that Japanese investors are hesitant to take the risks on the higher-yielding Italian and Spanish bonds, but for some reason they see almost no risk in French bonds. (Obviously not many Thoughts from the Frontline readers in Japan.) This behavior, of course, helps to drive down the price of the yen relative to the euro. (Source,Bloomberg)

Interesting side note: the third-largest country holding of US treasuries behind Japan and China is now Belgium. When you first read that, you have to do a double-take. Digging a little deeper, you find out there’s been a 41% surge in Belgian ownership of US bonds in just the first five months of this year. As it turns out, Euroclear Bank SA, a provider of security settlements for foreign lenders, is based in Belgium and is where countries can go to buy bonds they are not holding in their own treasuries. This buying surge is helping hold down US yields even as the Federal Reserve is reducing its QE program. Further, there is serious speculation, or rather speculation from serious sources, that Russian oligarchs are piling into US dollars by the tens of billions, again through Belgium.

Europe Takes the Baton

It is probably only a coincidence that just as the Fed ends QE, Europe will begin its own QE program. Note that the ECB has reduced its balance sheet by over $1 trillion in the past few years (to the chagrin of much of European leadership). There is now “room” for the ECB to work through various asset-buying programs to increase its balance sheet by at least another trillion over the next year or so, taking the place of the Federal Reserve. Draghi intends to do so.

Risk-takers should take note. European earnings per share are significantly lower than those of any other developed economy. Indeed, while much of the rest of the world has seen earnings rise since the market bottom in 2009, the euro area has been roughly flat.

Both the US and Japanese stock markets took off when their respective central banks began QE programs. Will the same happen in Europe? QE in Europe will have a little bit different flavor than the straight-out bond buying of Japan or the US, but they will still be pushing money into the system. With yields at all-time lows, European investors may start looking at their own stock markets. Just saying.

Draghi also knows there is really no way to escape his current conundrum without reigniting European growth. One of the textbook ways to achieve easy growth is through currency devaluation; and as we wrote in Code Red, the ECB will step up and do what it can to cheapen the euro in competition with Japan.

Just as the world is getting fewer dollars (in a world where global trade is done in dollars), Draghi is going to flood the world with euros.

Bank of Japan Governor Kuroda has steered the BOJ to where it now owns 20% of all outstanding Japanese government debt and is buying 70% of all newly issued Japanese bonds. The BOJ hoped that by driving down long-term rates it could encourage Japanese banks to invest and lend more, but bond-hungry regional Japanese banks are still snapping up long-term Japanese bonds, even at 50 basis points of yield. Given the current environment, the Bank of Japan cannot stop its QE program without creating a spike in yields that the government of Japan could not afford. Hence I think it’s unlikely that Japanese QE will end anytime soon, thus putting further pressure on the yen.

The BOJ is going to continue to buy massive quantities of bonds and erode the value of the yen over time in an effort to get 2% inflation.

In a world where populations in developed countries are growing older and are thus more interested in fixed-income securities, yields are going to be challenged for some time. Those planning retirement are going to generally need about twice what would have been suggested only 10 or 15 years ago in order to be able to achieve the same income. Welcome to the world of financial repression, brought to you by your friendly local central bank.

Introducing Tony Sagami

When we first launched Mauldin Economics some two years ago, my partners and I thought there was a need for a good fixed-income letter with a little different style and focus. My very first phone call was to my longtime friend Tony Sagami, to ask if he would write it. I have known Tony for almost 25 years. We have worked together, he has worked for me, and we have been competitors, but we’ve always been good friends.

Even though he now lives in Bangkok most of the year, we still visit regularly by email and Skype, and try to make a point of catching up in some part of the world at least twice a year. In addition to his talents as a writer, Tony brings a seasoned perspective and huge experience as a trader and investor. (Seasoned is a technical term for getting older, having made lots of instructive mistakes in your early years.) He has a way of taking my macro ideas and efficiently and effectively putting them to work. I know Yield Sharksubscribers must be happy, because our renewal rates are very high by industry standards.

As I mentioned early in the letter, for contractual reasons we haven’t been able to name Tony as the editor of Yield Shark. I’m really pleased that we can do so now. Tony was recently in Dallas, and we did a short video together so that I could introduce him. You can watch the video and learn more about Tony here. You will soon be receiving information from my partners about a new newsletter that Tony will also be writing, which we are tentatively calling The Rational Bear.

San Antonio, Washington DC, Chicago, and Boston

My respite from travel will be over in a few weeks as I head to the Casey Research Summit in San Antonio, September 17-21. It actually takes place at a resort in the Hill Country north of San Antonio, which is a fun place to spend a weekend with friends. Then the end of the month will see me traveling to Washington DC for a few days.

I’ll be back in Dallas in time for my 65th birthday on October 4, and then I get to spend another two weeks at home before the travel schedule picks back up. I will make a quick trip to Chicago, then swing back to Athens, Texas, before I head on to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for conferences. There are a few other trips shaping up as well.

My time at home has been well spent, as I’m catching up on all sorts of projects, spending more time in the gym, and just enjoying being home. Surprisingly, being at home has allowed me to see more friends than usual as they’ve come through town. Dennis Gartman was in yesterday, and we spent two pleasant hours catching up over lunch. He is one of the truly consummate gentlemen in our business and a bottomless reservoir of great stories. A perfect evening would be Dennis Gartman and Art Cashin holding court at the Friends of Fermentation after the market closes. You’d just sit there and scribble notes.

The other thing about being home is that it makes me want to get on a plane and go see even more friends! Yesterday I caught up with George and Meredith Friedman on the phone, and we realized it has been well over a year since we’ve seen each other, which is unusual for us. I really enjoy them, and they are their own source of endless stories. George and Meredith travel much more than I do, and all over the world at that, doing speeches and research and the like; but we agreed that sometime in October we will make a visit happen, whoever is doing the flying. I think one of the reasons that God made planes was so that friends could see each other more often.

A special hat tip goes to my associate Worth Wray for finding and creating most of the charts for this week. Plus helping me think through the letter. He has been a huge help this last year.

You have a great week and take a friend who tells great stories to lunch. It will do wonders for your outlook on life.

Your still can’t believe negative French interest rates analyst,

John Mauldin
John

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