Introducing the 3D challenge – Debt, Demographics and Disruption (with a US case study)

Abstract: As a response to the Financial Crisis of 2008, central banks have been running persistent loose monetary policies (NIRP and aggressive asset purchase programs) in order to generate some growth and inflation. Even though the measures chosen by policymakers mainly came from the burst in the housing market (US and Europe), developed economies have also been cornered with another long-term big issue: the 3D problem – Debt, Demographics and Disruption. Demographics reveal a dramatic aging of the developed world’s population (‘Baby Boom effect’), which has been playing a role in the desire of consumers to save more than actually spend. In addition, the long-term solvency of public and private plans has also been a growing concerns across the developed nations, adding pressure on current workers to increase their amount of savings based on a shift in expectations of higher taxes to sustain the secular change in demographics. The effect of an increase in savings have been one of the main factors of a decrease in inflation expectations across the world in addition to a sluggish growth, forcing policymakers to maintain a loose monetary policy, cutting rates to even negative territory and diversifying the asset purchase programs (corporate bonds, ETF and Real estate). The slowdown of inflation, and even deflation for some countries, is an issue for developed nations as it increases the country’s debt in real terms, putting the country under pressure and questioning its long run sustainability.

We then looked at the US economy for our case study on the 3D problem. Our analysis is composed of three sections: in the first one we quickly review US demographics challenge, then in the second section we present the US Federal and Household debt, and in the third part we introduce Disruption in different sectors of the US economy.

Link ==> 3D Problem

Macro 1: Japan and Abenomics

I will kick these series of macro updates by an analysis on Japan’s current situation. As you can see it on the chart below, the Nikkei index plummeted 14.50% since December’s high, hitting a low of 16,017 last week (20% drawdown from peak to trough). If we look at the chart below, it seems we entered a bear market in Japan and market participants could still consider the recent spike as quick oversold recovery.


(Source: Bloomberg)

The Yen also reacted to this market headwinds and USDJPY was pushed down to 116 last Wednesday (its August support). One thing that surprises me and captivates me at the same time is the correlation’s strength between all asset classes. For instance, if we look at the chart below shows the moves of Oil (WTI Feb16 contract in yellow) and the SP500 Index (Green line). The amount of pressure that the commodity decline has caused to the overall market is excessive and has put a lot of nations in trouble.

Yen and Rest.jpg

(Source: Bloomberg)

If we have a look at fundamentals, Japan seems to be in a liquidity trap. The BoJ’s balance sheet total asset has surged by 143% [to JPY386tr] since December 2012 and the central bank is currently purchasing 80tr Yen of JGBs every month. It’s has been almost three years that Japan is engaged into a massive stimulus programme, which hasn’t had the expected effect. GDP grew modestly by 0.3% QoQ in the third quarter (avoiding a quintuple-dip recession after a first estimate of -0.2%) and the core inflation rate increased 0.10% YoY in November of 2015, ending a 3-month deflation period but still far from the 2-percent target set by Abe and Kuroda. It is hard to believe that after all the effort (mostly money printing), the situation hasn’t changed much. The question is ‘what would happen if the equity market falls to lower levels and the Yen appreciated further?’ What are Japan’s options?



(Source: Trading economics)

I remember one article I read last October from Alhambra Investment Partners, which was talking about the Japanese QE. The chart below reviews all the QEs implemented since the GFC and how the BoJ reacted each time it had a difficult macro situation (i.e. low inflation, stagnating equities, zero-growth…). As you can see, Japan has constantly increase its QE size little by little until Abe was elected In December 2012 and went all-in by starting its QQME stimulus on April 3rd 2013. As Ray Dalio said in many interviews (when he talks about the Fed), the effect of QE diminishes if credit spreads are already close to zero (and asset prices already ‘inflated’), therefore additional measures will constantly be less effective than in the past (‘central banks have the power to tighten, but very little power to ease’). I believe this is exactly where Japan stands at the moment, giving Abe (and Kuroda and Aso) a harsh time.


(Source: Alhambra Investment Partners)

Another BoJ’s important indicator is the Japanese workers’ real wages, which went back into the negative territory, declining 0.4% YoY in November and marking the first fall since June 2015 according to the Ministry of Finance. Despite PM Abe’s hard work pushing companies to increase wages in order to fuel household consumption, household spending dropped by 2.9% in November and has been contracting most of the months over the past 2 years.


(Source: Trading economics)

With a debt-to-GDP ratio sitting at 230%, one chart I liked that was published in a Bloomberg post showed the ‘growing dominance’ of the BoJ. The central bank held 30.3% of the country’s sovereign debt (as of September 2015), more than any investor class. For instance, the chart below shows the evolution of the holdings of both the BoJ and Financial Institutions (ex. Insurers); at  the start of the QQME, BoJ holdings were 13.2% vs. 42.4% for Financial Institutions. How long can this story continue?


(Source: Bloomberg)


Japan update: Abenomics 2.0

As a sort of casual week end ‘routine’, I was watching the cross assets chart of the main economies that I usually follow. There are so many things that are happening at the moment, however a little update on Japan is always refreshing and useful.

The chart below shows the evolution of the equity market (Nikkei 225 index, Candles) overlaid with USDJPY (green line). As you can see, since Abe came into power in December 2012, there has been a sort of Pavlovian response to the massive monetary stimulus: currency depreciation has led to higher equities. However, the Nikkei 225 index closed at 17,725 on Friday and is down almost 15% from a high of 21,000 reached on August 11, whereas the currency has stabilized at around 120 and has been trading sideways over the past month with an 1-month ATM implied volatility down from 13.2 to 10.6% over the same period. If we look at the 20-day correlation (that I like to watch quite a bit) between the two asset classes, we are down from a high of 89% reached on August 24th to 38.1% in the last observation with an equity market being much more volatile.


(Source: Bloomberg)

In article I wrote back in September 2014 entitled The JPY and some overnight developments, I commented a bit on how Japanese Pension Funds (GPIF in my example) were decreasing their bonds allocation and switching to equities. And the questions I ask myself all the time is ‘Can the BoJ (and the other major CBs) lose against the equity market today?’ Indeed, the GPIF, which manages about $1.15 in assets, suffered a 9.4tr Yen loss between July and September according to Nomura Securities.

Abenomics 1.0 update…

We saw lately that Japan printed a negative GDP of 0.3% QoQ in the second quarter of 2015 and is potentially heading for a Quintuple-Dip recession in 7 years. In addition, the economy returned to deflation (for the first time since 2013) if we look at the CPI Nationwide Ex Fresh Food (-0.1% YoY in August, down from 3.4% in May 2014). We know that deflation and recession were both factors that Abe has been trying to fight and avoid, and the question is now ‘What is the next move?’

In a press conference on September 24th, PM Abe announced a sort-of new ‘arrow’ where the plan is to achieve a GDP target of 600 trillion Yen in the coming years (no specific time horizon mentioned as far as I know), which is 20% more from where the economy stands at the moment (JPY 500tr). In addition, he also target to increase the birth rate to 1.8 children per woman from the current low rate of 1.4 in order to make sure that the Japanese population don’t fall below 100 million in 50 years (from approximately 126 million today).

Clearly, this new announcement shows that the three-arrow plan has failed for the moment, and the BoJ only has been the major player in order to inflate prices over the past few years. I am wondering how this new plan is going to work in the middle of the recent EM economic turmoil. My view goes for additional stimulus, another 10 trillion Yen on the table which will bring the QQME program to a total of 90 trillion Yen. If you think about it, the BoJ is currently running a QE program almost as much as big as the Fed’s one in 2013 (85bn USD a month, 1 trillion USD per year) for an economy three times smaller than the US. Deceptions coming from Kuroda (i.e. no additional printing) could strengthen the Yen a little bit, but this will be seen as a new buying opportunities for traders or investors looking at the 135 medium-term retracement (against the US Dollar).

Here are a few figures and ratios to keep in my mind in the medium-term future…

Bank of Japan Total Assets

According to Bloomberg’s BJACTOTL Index, the BoJ’s balance sheet total assets increased by 210tr Yen since December 2012 and now stands at 368tr Yen. With an economy estimated at roughly 500tr Yen, the BoJ-total-assets-to-GDP ratio stands now at 73.6%.


(Source: Bloomberg)

Japan Banks total Assets

As of Q1 2015, the Japanese Banks reported a 1,818 trillion Yen exposure, which represents 363% as a share of the country’s GDP.


(Source: Bloomberg)

Based on the figures, you clearly understand that Japan’s government has been trying to push savers into stocks so Mrs Watanabe can take part of this artificial asset price inflation. However, a recent study from the Bank of Japan showed that Japanese households still had 52% of their assets in cash and bank deposits as of March 2015 (vs 13% for the American for instance).

The 15-percent recent drawdown in the equity market clearly shows sign of persistent ‘macro tourists’ investors, who are giving Abe and the BoJ board a hard time.

To conclude, the situation is still complicated in Japan, which is hard to believe based on the figures I just showed you. I strongly believe that Abe cannot fail in his plan, therefore if the new arrow needs more stimulus (which it does), we could see another 10 to 15 trillion on the table in the coming months. The medium term key level on USDJPY stands at 135, which brings us back to the high of March 2002.

Quick update on the Euro

This morning, EZ August flash inflation came in at 0.3% YoY and confirmed falling trend (from 0.4% in July). The ECB meets next week (September 4) and the market is pricing some action: talks of corridor rates cut, updates on the ABS program…

My advice is ‘stay short EURUSD’ for those who got in already, or wait for a bounce back above the 1.3200 level for entering a short position. Large offers are seen at 1.3200 – 1.3250 (combined with huge expiries, 4bn Euros of vanilla option according to Reuters). Though the first support stands at 1.3100 where we might see a pause, my MT target remains at 1.3000. After German retail sales printed much lower than expected at -1.4% MoM in July (vs. 0.1% consensus), Italian quarterly unemployment rate rose to 12.6% in July (vs 12.3% expected) and preliminary inflation (EU Norm) entered into a negative territory, printing at -0.2% YoY and joining Greece, Spain and Portugal in recording annual consumer-price declines.

Peripheral yields picked up a bit, with the 10-year Italian and Spanish yields trading at 2.44% and 2.24% respectively, up from Wednesday’s low of 2.36% and 2.09%.

My view goes for a corridor rate cut in order to optimize the T-LTROs (first starting on Sept 18). ABS purchases sound a bit premature…


(Source: Reuters)

Another way to play the Euro at the moment would be against GBP as I believe the market has overreacted to the some data disappointments and a slightly dovish QIR (Quarterly Inflation Report) back on August 13th. Good resistance level is at 0.7960/5, therefore going short EURGBP at around that level with a first target at 0.7880 (stop loss above 0.8020) could be a good strategy. Bank of England is also meeting next week but I expect it to be a non-event.

Watch the 2-year yield spreads!

Yesterday evening, while most of the people were watching the World Cup first game’s kick-off, BoE Governor Carney and UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne both gave a speech at the Mansion House. The topic on the table was their concerns about the UK housing market as a rate hike would stress mortgage debt and therefore threaten the recovery. Until now, investors and traders were pricing in a rate increase somewhere in Q2 next year; however, Carney surprised the market by stating the Official Bank rate hike ‘could happen sooner than markets currently expect’. It immediately shifted the UK rate curve higher, with the 2-year now trading at a 3-year high of 0.852%. If we have a look at the chart below, we can see that the UK-US 2-year spread (in red) rose 10bps sending Cable (in yellow) to the roof. After it nearly reached its strong psychological resistance at 1.7000 on May 6, the British pound had entered into a bearish momentum against the greenback until it test its support at 1.6680 (mid-April lows) a few times. Despite strong UK fundamentals, the market is more concerned about the rate ‘neutrality’ debate and which central bank will consider starting raising its benchmark rate early next year.


(Source: Reuters)

However, this week’s strong employment data in addition to Carney’s hawkish speech played in favour of the pound which hit its psychological 1.7000 resistance against the US Dollar yesterday. We reached our target on EURGBP at 0.8000 based on my previous article (Some overnight developments), which has also been driven by the 2-year UK-EU yield spread (in orange, reversed scale RHS) as you can see it below.


(Source: Reuters)

With the FOMC meeting next week, I assume that the volatility will remain low and especially in the FX market. Carry trade currencies (especially the Kiwi) should continue to outperform in this market. We saw yesterday that a currency that will remain under pressure will be the Swedish Krona (SEK) after the CPI came in at -0.20% YoY in May. If deflation continues to stagnate at around 0%, the Riksbank will have to intervene later this year but cutting its benchmark by another 25bps (it currently stands at 25bps), therefore impacting the currency.