Tag Archives: low volatility

A frazzled Goldilocks?

Whatever measure you look at, equities in the US are overvalued, arguably in bubble territory. Investors poured record amounts into equity funds in recent weeks as the market melt-up takes hold. One of the intriguing features of the bull market over the past 18 months has been the extraordinary low volatility. Hamish Preston of S&P Dow Jones Indices estimated that the average observed 1-month volatility in the S&P 500 in 2017 is “lower than in any other year since 1970”. To illustrate the point, the graph below shows the monthly change in the S&P500 over recent years.

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The lack of any action below 0% since November 2016 and any pullback greater than 2% since January 2016 is striking. “Don’t confuse lack of volatility with stability, ever” is a quote from Nassim Nicolas Taleb that’s seems particularly apt today.

Andrew Lapthorne of SocGen highlighted that low risk markets tend to have a big knock on effect with a “positive feedback mechanism embedded in many risk models”. In other words, the less risk is observed in the market and used as the basis for model inputs, the more risk the quant models allow investors to take! [The impact of quant models and shadow risks from passive investing and machine learning are areas I hope to explore further in a future post.]

One risk that has the potential to spoil the party in 2018 is the planned phased normalisation of monetary policy around the world after the great experimentations of recent years. The market is currently assuming that Central Banks will guarantee that Goldilocks will remain unfrazzled as they deftly steer the ship back to normality. A global “Goldilocks put” if I could plagiarize “the Greenspan put”! Or a steady move away from the existing policy that no greater an economic brain than Donald Trump summarized as being: “they’re keeping the rates down so that everything else doesn’t go down”.

The problem for Central Banks is that if inflation stays muted in the short-term and monetary policy remains loose than the asset bubbles will reach unsustainable levels and require pricking. Or alternatively, any attempt at monetary policy normalization may dramatically show how Central Banks have become the primary providers of liquidity in capital markets and that even modest tightening could result in dangerously imbalances within the now structurally dependent system.

Many analysts (and the number is surprising large) have been warning for some time about the impact of QE flows tightening in 2018. These warnings have been totally ignored by the market, as the lack of volatility illustrates. For example, in June 2017, Citi’s Matt King projected future Central Bank liquidity flows and warned that a “significant unbalancing is coming“. In November 2017, Deutsche Bank’s Alan Ruskin commented that “2018 will see the world’s most important Central Bank balance sheets shift from a 12 month expansion of more than $2 trillion, to a broadly flat position by the end of 2018, assuming the Fed and ECB act according to expectations”. The projections Deutsche Bank produced are below.

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Andrew Norelli of JP Morgan Asset Management in a piece called “Stock, Flow or Impulse?” stated that “It’s still central bank balance sheets, and specifically the flow of global quantitative easing (QE) that is maintaining the buoyancy in financial asset prices”. JP Morgan’s projections of the top 4 developed countries are below.

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Lance Roberts of RealInvestmentAdvice.com produced an interesting graph specifically relating to the Fed’s balance sheet, as below. Caution should be taken with any upward trending metric when compared to the S&P500 in recent years!

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Of course, we have been at pre-taper junctions many times before and every previous jitter has been met with soothing words from Central Banks and more liquidity creation. This time though it feels different. It has to be different. Or Central Bankers risk been viewed as emperors without cloths.

The views of commentators differ widely on this topic. Most of the business media talking heads are wildly positive (as they always are) on the Goldilocks status quo. John Mauldin of MauldinEconomics.com believes the number one risk factor in the US is Fed overreach and too much tightening. Bank of America Merrill Lynch chief investment strategist Michael Hartnett, fears a 1987/1994/1998-style flash crash within the next three months caused by a withdrawal of central bank support as interest rates rise.

Christopher Cole of Artemis Capital Management, in a wonderful report called “Volatility and the Alchemy of Risk”, pulls no punches about the impact of global central banks having pumped $15 trillion in cheap money stimulus into capital markets since 2009. Cole comments that “amid this mania for investment, the stock market has begun self-cannibalizing” and draws upon the image of the ouroboros, an ancient Greek symbol of a snake eating its own tail. Cole estimates that 40% of EPS growth and 30% of US equity gains since 2009 have been as a direct result of the financial engineering use of stock buy backs. Higher interest rates, according to Cole, will be needed to combat the higher inflation that will result from this liquidity bonanza and will cut off the supply for the annual $800 billion of share buybacks. Cole also points to the impact on the high yield corporate debt market and the overall impact on corporate defaults.

Another interesting report, from a specific investment strategy perspective, is Fasanara Capital’s Francesco Filia and the cheerfully entitled “Fragile Markets On The Edge of Chaos”. As economies transition from peak QE to quantitative tightening, Filia “expect markets to face their first real crash test in 10 years” and that “only then will we know what is real and what is not in today’s markets, only then will we be able to assess how sustainable is the global synchronized GDP growth spurred by global synchronized monetary printing”. I like the graphic below from the report.

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I found the reaction to the Trump’s administration misstep on dollar strength interesting this week. Aditya Bhave and Ethan Harris, economists at Bank of America, said of the episode that “the Fed will see the weak dollar as a sign of easy financial conditions and a green light to keep tightening monetary policy”. ECB President Mario Draghi was not happy about the weak dollar statement as that would complicate Europe’s quantitative tightening plans. It was also interesting to hear Benoit Coeure, a hawkish member ECB executive board, saying this week that “it’s happening at different paces across the region, but we are moving to the point where we see wages going up”.

I think many of the Central Banks in developed countries are running out of wriggle room and the markets have yet to fully digest that reality. I fear that Goldilocks is about to get frazzled.

When does one plus one equal more than two?

S&P released a thoughtful piece on Monday called “Hedge Fund Reinsurers: Are The Potential Rewards Worth The Added Risk?” I couldn’t find a direct link to the article but Artemis has a good summary here. They start by asking whether combining a reinsurer strategy with a hedge fund strategy can create higher risk adjusted returns than the two approaches could achieve separately. They conclude with the following:

“The potential crossover between hedge funds and reinsurers offers compelling possibilities. However, a commensurate focus on additional risks would have to supplement the singular focus on higher investment returns. Considering both is necessary in determining whether one plus one is truly greater than two. This depends on whether combining hedge funds and reinsurers can create additional diversification benefits that don’t occur in these two types of organisations independently, thus creating a more capital efficient vehicle. We believe it’s possible. However, in our view, closing the gap between reinsurer and hedge fund risk cultures and implementing prudent risk controls is necessary to realize these benefits.”

I have posted on this topic before. One of the hedge fund reinsurer strategies is to combine low volatility P&C business (primarily as a source of cheap “float”)with the alpha seeking asset business. My problem with this strategy is that every reinsurer is looking out for low volatility/stable return (re)insurance business (its the holy grail after all!), even more so in today’s highly efficient and competitive market. So what can clever chino wearing quants living on a tropical island offer that every other established reinsurer can’t? I suspect that the answer is to price the business with a higher discount rate based upon their higher expected return. S&P point out that this may create increased risks elsewhere such as liquidity risk in stress scenarios. Another strategy is to combine volatile property catastrophe risk with higher asset risk, essentially combining two tail risk strategies. This pushes the business model more towards the highly leveraged model as per that used by the monoline insurer, the ultimate “picking up pennies in front of a stream-roller” play.

To get an idea of the theory behind the various strategies, the graph below illustrates the diversification of each using the calculation in the Solvency II standard formula, with different concentrations for market, counterparty, life, health and non-life risks (selected for illustration purposes only).

click to enlargeHedge Fund Reinsurer Diversification

The graph shows that a hedge fund reinsurer with a low volatility liability strategy shows the least amount of diversification compared to a composite, non-life or a property cat reinsurer due to the dominance of market risk. Interesting, the high risk strategy of combining a hedge fund strategy on assets with property cat on the liability side shows diversification at a similar level (i.e. 78%) to that of a non-life reinsurer where non-life risk dominates.

Hedge fund reinsurers would no doubt argue that, through their alpha creating ability, the 25% correlation between market and non-life risk is too high for them. Reducing that correlation to 0% for the hedge fund reinsurers gives the diversification above, as per “Diversification 1” above. Some may even argue that the 25% correlation in the standard formula is too low for traditional players, as this post on Munich Re’s results excluding catastrophic losses illustrates, so I have shown the diversification for an illustrative composite, non-life or a property cat reinsurer with a 75% correlation between market and non-life risks, as per “Diversification 2” above.

In my opinion, one plus one is always two and under-priced risk cannot be justified by combining risk strategies. Risk is risk and combining two risks doesn’t change the fundamentals of each. One strategy that hasn’t re-emerged as yet is what I call the hedging reinsurer whereby liabilities are specifically hedged by asset strategies. Initially, the property cat reinsurers tried to use weather derivatives to hedge their risk but an illiquid market for weather derivatives and the considerable amount of basis risk resulted in difficulties with the strategy. The strategy is commonly used on the life side of the business with investment type business, particularly business with guarantees and options. Also the appetite for longevity risk by those reinsurers with significant mortality exposure that can significantly hedge the longevity risk is a major developing market trend. I do not see why the strategy could not be used more on the non-life side for economic related exposures such as mortgage indemnity or other credit type exposures.

In the immediate term, the best strategy that I see is the arbitrage one that those who have survived a few underwriting cycles are following, as per this post. On that point, I noticed that BRIT, in their results today, stated they have “taken advantage of current market conditions in reinsurance to significantly strengthen group wide catastrophe cover. These additional protections include a property aggregate catastrophe cover and some additional variable quota share protection”. When risk is cheap, arbitrating it makes the most sense to me as a strategy, not doubling up on risks.