MacroScope

A Stein in Bernanke’s shoe: Is there a bubble in corporate bonds?

Financial markets are again on edge about the direction of Fed policy following the surprisingly hawkish minutes of the January meeting released last week, even if most still expect the central bank to keep buying bonds at the current $85 billion monthly pace at least until the end of the year.

Federal Reserve Board Governor Jeremy Stein, an academic economist who joined the central bank last May, surprised Fed-watchers in his latest speech by focusing entirely on the risks of recent monetary stimulus and saying very little about its benefits. In particular, Stein, a corporate finance expert, raised the possibility that a bubble might be forming in the corporate bond markets, which has seen yields fall to record lows and issuance to record highs.

While the speech was riddled with caveats, Wall Street took it as an unusually stern warning about the potential side effects of quantitative easing from Fed’s inner-sanctum, the influential, presidentially-appointed Board of Governors in Washington. Stein argued:

Putting it all together, my reading of the evidence is that we are seeing a fairly significant pattern of reaching-for-yield behavior emerging in corporate credit. However, even if this conjecture is correct, and even if it does not bode well for the expected returns to junk bond and leveraged-loan investors, it need not follow that this risk-taking has ominous systemic implications. That is, even if at some point junk bond investors suffer losses, without spillovers to other parts of the system, these losses may be confined and therefore less of a policy concern.

His position should not be overstated: just in December Stein strongly backed QE3.

China no longer tops list of global economic concerns

There are still plenty of macro factors to worry about around the world, but China seems to have dropped down the charts. Conversations with delegates at TradeTech Asia, the annual trading heads’ conference held in Singapore, revealed that the U.S. fiscal cliff, food inflation, geopolitical risks in the Middle-East and Europe all trumped China as the major risks out there for financial markets.

Last time this year China was public enemy #1 for investors. But according to the latest Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global fund managers’ survey confidence in the outlook for China’s economy has surged to a three-year high – a big turnaround from a year ago when the fear was that shrinking company profits, rising bad loans and weak global demand at a time of stubbornly high inflation would all add up to a “hard-landing” for the world’s second largest economy. The consensus opinion among economists now is that the worst is over and growth bottomed in the third quarter that ended in September.

Money has come back to the market too. Nine straight weeks of inflows have seen $3.2 billion pumped into China equity funds, according to EPFR, in the lead up to the 18th Party Congress where China’s new leadership was unveiled.  Hong Kong, still the main gateway for foreign investors into China, has seen optimism over China combined with the U.S. Fed’s third round of asset purchases lead to strong capital flows into the market. The territory’s monetary authority was forced to repeatedly intervene to defend the HK$’s peg against the US$ last month while the Chinese yuan is hitting fresh record highs.

The dangers of a bloated ECB balance sheet

Central balance sheets across the industrialized world have increased rapidly in response to the financial crisis, as recently noted on this blog. In Europe, the balance sheet of the ECB and the 17 national central banks that share the euro currency has grown to around 3 trillion euros after the ECB injected more than a trillion into the market in 3-year loans and loosened its collateral standards.

At above 30 percent of gross domestic product, the ECB’s balance sheet has overtaken that of the Bank of Japan, which has been grappling with deflation for some two decades and started from a much higher level. It is also bigger than that of the U.S. Federal Reserve, which has aggressively responded to two financial crises in five years by tripling the size of its balance sheet to nearly $3 trillion today.

Historically, a central bank’s job is to maintain price stability and the value of its currency. The ECB’s non-standard measures have aimed to do just that as the euro zone debt crisis threatened the viability of the euro currency. But a growing and deteriorating balance sheet also comes at a price.

Stocks rally not sustainable: Prudential

Want the recent rally in stocks to last? Don’t count on it, says John Praveen of Prudential Financial. The Dow Jones industrial average is up over 20 percent since September, and has gained 7 percent since the start of the year. But Praveen sees too many headwinds for the boom to continue.

The pace of gains thus far in 2012 is likely to be unsustainable and volatility is likely to remain high as several downside risks remain. These include:

1) Greek risks: The second Greek bailout and debt restructuring deal are likely to be a short-term reprieve, with still high Greek debt/GDP burden and Greek elections due in April.  A negative election outcome with no clear mandate and/or a new government reneging on its commitments (to reduce debt) could potentially roil markets.

Euro zone crisis and sovereign wealth funds

Two academics from the Fletcher School at the Tufts University have written a special guest blog for Macroscope on the impact of the euro zone debt crisis on sovereign wealth funds.

Dr. Eliot Kalter is a senior fellow, The Fletcher School at Tufts University, Sovereign Wealth Fund Initiative, and president of E M Strategies, Inc. Thomas F. Holt, Jr. is an adjunct professor of law, The Fletcher School and partner in the global law firm K&L Gates LLP.

“While Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs) vary widely in their size and investment objectives, continuing tensions in the euro zone and in global markets more generally can only accelerate their concerns about investing in the West.  Significantly, in a last month’s meeting of SWFs in Sydney, the political focus shifted from questions raised by recipient countries about SWFs’ accountability and transparency to the risks inherent when investing in heavily indebted countries and the need to improve existing risk management frameworks.  Although SWFs account for less than 6 percent of total assets held by global institutional investors, they are an important barometer of global capital flows because of their clean balance sheets, long-term investment horizons and ability to invest large and growing amounts of capital quickly.