Sunday, 29 March 2015

Meanwhile on the markets

The recent weeks brought some noteworthy developments on financial markets, some particularly worth highlighting and commenting on. Observations of how markets behave leads me to conclude my academic grasp of economic theorems is being rendered obsolete, while new paradigms unfold…

1. Interest rates

In early March Poland’s monetary authorities decreased the policy rate by 50 basis points, to (yet another) record-low 1.50%. In terms of historical levels of central bank’s rates, the current level appears hazardously low, however put into broader perspective, Poland’s monetary policy does not come out as extremely easy. Absolute level of interest rates is among the highest in the EU and oddly enough, real interest rates have not been that high since many years. Current real rate is around 3% (1.50% policy rate + 1.60% y/y deflation), while in the past years inflation-adjusted interest rates would not seldom run into negative territory. Do notice this reasoning bears some simplification, since inflation records are backward-looking while interest rates as of today refer to future periods and time mismatch exists.

The Polish central bank’s governor has also stressed there was no room for further monetary easing and over the coming months monetary authorities would take the “wait and see” approach. The only justification for such scale of monetary loosening is the ongoing deflation, which however is spurred by factors beyond central bank’s control. By slashing interest rates to record-low levels the central bank only adjusted its policy to evolution of price level in the economy (the question remains whether NBP would be capable of swiftly reacting to increasing inflation). Lower interest rates will not kick-start the economy, as it is expanding in a healthy and sustainable pace, consumption will also not be much stimulated, since propensities to spend, save and borrow are driven by several other more meaningful factors than monetary policy. Consequently, the most aggrieved by the recent rate cut are depositors whose savings do not grow as fast as they would like to be.

The other group hit are banks. They “suffer” (i.e. fall short of their shareholders’ expectations towards profits reaped in Poland) because rate decrease is followed by drop in cap on interest rates they are allowed to charge borrowers which is 4 times central bank’s lending rate, now 4 times 2.50%, i.e. 10%. Evidently banks find several ways of circumventing the regulation. Quite recently I learnt an up-front fee for a cash loan is on average 10% these days. In practice it means if you want to borrow let’s say 10,000 PLN you either effectively have to borrow 11,000 (and pay interest on it) or effectively get only 9,000 (but pay interest on 10,000). Banks will pass the unfavourable impact of monetary policy to their clients, as they will do with an increased deposit insurance fund contribution. The fund, intact between 2001 and 2014, has been recently depleted by 3 billion PLN to fund payments to depositors who had entrusted their money to insolvent credit unions (since October 2012 covered by deposit insurance system and the same rules of financial supervision as banks). The fraudulent activity of credit unions has been harnessed for full-blown mud-slinging in the current presidential campaign, yet this is a topic for another post…

Worth also mentioning the financial watchdog issued a warning to banks against evaluating mortgage loan applicants creditworthiness based on current interest rates and show clients stress simulations, i.e. how their instalments would rise if interest rates increased by a specific number of basis points. A commendable move, given currently granted mortgage loans could turn out to be a time bomb akin to CHF-denominated mortgages foisted upon client when the Swiss France cost not much above 2 PLN. Seven years ago Polish central bank’s policy rate was 6%. Unless a new paradigm emerges (i.e. interest rates higher than zero being an abnormal phenomenon), return of interest rates to such level within 25 or 30 years when mortgage loan is to be repaid, is definitely conceivable.

2. Stock market

Since taking up the job with the New Factory I am subject to stringent restrictions on trading, hence in order to avoid requesting approval for each single transaction, reporting transactions ex-post after each trade, reporting not executed trades and submitting breakdowns of orders and transactions at the end of each reporting period, I terminated my brokerage account and spare myself adrenaline by putting all my money into saving accounts and term deposits.

WIG, the broad market index covering almost the entire universe of stocks listed on Warsaw Stock Exchange, performed quite well in the first quarter of this year. It must be noted this index is a total return index, i.e. takes into account dividend income, in contrast to for instance WIG20, covering 20 biggest in terms of market capitalisation companies on WSE.
For this index I deliberately have chosen 10Y time interval for comparison, to illustrate for over two years the index has been in a clearly sideways trend. WIG20 is a price index, hence its readouts fail to reflect dividend income distributed to shareholders, which may make up a large portion of income, since many of index’s components are state-controlled cash cows whose dividends are a vital source of money to the government budget. Yet the chart clearly indicates those who invested in the index portfolio four years ago might not have broken even, even despite reaping several generous dividends.

Conclusions: the discrepancy between broad-market WIG index and blue-chip WIG20 index reflects not only differences in calculation formula but also the fact smaller companies outperform larger. WIG is hence a better business cycle gauge, yet not only because of its width. WIG20 composition is quite specific and not well-diversified. Banks have a large weight in the index, besides mining, oil and gas and electricity are strongly represented in the WIG20, making the index undesirably reliant on sentiments in a few industries and to regulatory and market environment having substantial impact on earnings of companies underlying the index.

3. Currency market

USD/PLN, here the pair purposely presented over 10Y horizon, has recently hit its 10-year high of 3.95 (some 0.05 higher than in memorable February 2009). The psychological barrier of 4.00 has not been even neared. Unlike six years ago, it was not the weakness of Polish zloty, but the strength of the US currency that drove USD/PLN quotations to exorbitantly high levels.

Polish currency recently has been amazingly stable as never before in its history which is well illustrated by EUR/PLN quotations. For more than two years, EUR/PLN has not broken out of quite narrow range from 4.00 to 4.30, while most of the time it stayed between 4.10 and 4.20. Such volatility is characteristic for mature markets. What also needs to be underlined, level on which the exchange rate has stabilised is neutral for the Polish economy, i.e. it well strikes balance between ensuring competitiveness of Polish exports and fending off prohibitive prices of imported goods. The issue of EUR adoption in Poland is also intensively exploited in the presidential campaign.

The divergence between skyrocketing USD/PLN and fairly stable EUR/PLN must lie on cross pair, EUR/USD. Quotes of the most liquid currency pair in the world dropped for a moment below 1.05 in the second week of March, thus also hitting 10Y low and then bounced back, yet remain below 1.10. The quaint FX rate movement reflects relative strength of the US economy and imminent monetary tightening (although Fed’s declaration interest rates will not be jacked up very soon brought appreciation of USD to a halt) as well as doldrums in which the EU economy is, compounded by increased scale of quantitative easing pursued by the ECB.

And for the very end, CHF/PLN quotations for which in my view the most relevant period for observation is three months. After shooting up on 15 January 2015, the Swiss currency slowly depreciated and CHF/PLN levelled off around 3.90, some 8% higher than before the SNB spun its currency out of control. For the indebted in CHF, impact of rising CHF/PLN has been well offset by negative LIBOR (currently near –0.85%) Polish banking sector’s concerted spread decrease (banks have not done it off their own bat, but have been coerced by financial sector watchdog). Mortgage debts of many households are now some 8% higher than in late 2014, yet their monthly debt service cash flow has not been hit.

4. Commodities

For sake of brevity I will focus only on crude oil prices that were searching for trough in second and third decade of January 2015. The subsequent rebound was a typical reaction of speculators to clearly oversold market. The scale of incline in the first half of February 2015 was impressive, since Brent oil price went up by some 30% within two weeks. In March oil quotations were very volatile, best proven by price fluctuations over the last two trading days. On 26 March oil went up by 5% in the wake of news of military action in Yemen to retreat by 5% on 27 March and wipe out almost the whole price increase from the previous day.

The question which naturally comes up these days is where the markets are heading. The only answer that naturally comes up to my mind is “I have no idea”. The most intensive period of my study of economics fell into 2008-2010, the run-up to the financial crisis, its most severe phase and early recovery. Near-zero interest rates at that time were considered a temporary measure employed to buoy up economies. Today, after six and a half years of ultra-loose monetary policies and no prospect of returning to long-term average levels of interest rates in developed economies one should ask what the current level of neutral interest rate in Taylor rule equation is.

I cannot even tell you in which phase of the traditionally defined business cycle we are. In Poland in 2000s we could witness recovery, early upswing, late upswing and downturn, in second half of 2009 we saw recovery, late upswing was in 2011, then the Polish economy slowed to record sluggish growth in 1Q2013. Are we now in early upswing or in late upswing? Needless to say, with hindsight it is easier to judge. But if we bear in mind stock market is said to be good indicator of future trends in the economy and it has been flat or mildly rising in the past months, economic growth should slightly accelerate. Economists’ forecasts in unison foresee a period of flat, but stable growth of 3% - 4% until 2017. Overly optimistic? Economists’ dreams of smoothed out business cycle fluctuations coming true? Time will only tell. One thing I am pretty sure of is that there might be many external shocks which may shatter all plausible projections. Keep the faith though.

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