fixed income speculation and tapering

One of the earliest attempts by technical analysts in the US to link their work to economic variables was in charting the relationship between growth in the domestic money supply and stock market advance.

This wasn’t Milton Friedman.

This was–and is–a common sense attempt to create a barometer to measure the degree of speculation inherent in the stock market.  The idea is that the economy needs a certain amount of money to grease the wheels of commerce–to keep factories humming, meet payrolls, build inventories.  Anything in excess of that amount will inevitably find its way into financial speculation in equities, real estate and commodities.  Speculation, in turn, will lead to intervention by the Fed , “to take away the punch bowl,” as William M. Martin, a former Fed Chairman put it.  (Or, in the most recent case, where the punch bowl was heavily spiked and stayed out forever, a near-meltdown of the world financial system.)  So it’s an early warning indicator of a market decline.

Although still used by at least one famous hedge fund, this simple rule has lost much of its usefulness in a globalized world with supply chain management systems, ubiquitous, but only semi-visible derivative contracts and the increased prominence of businesses based on intellectual property.

I think, however, that the Fed is using this rule, but has reversed the inference, as part of its rationale for tapering.  I think the Fed sees increasing speculative activity in fixed income markets as evidence that there’s too much money sloshing around in the world.  (I know I am.)

Three areas worry me:

pik bonds.    Pik stands for payment-in-kind.  It’s a type of junk bond where the issuer has shaky cash flows and may not be able to afford to make interest payments on its debt.  So lenders allow the firm to pay interest “in kind,” meaning issuing more junk bonds to cover the interest expense.  As is always the case in investment banking, there are variations on the theme:  the bond may be pik from inception; the issuer may have the right to convert the bonds from cash to pik, if he needs to; or the issuer may be able to “toggle” back and forth between cash and pik as he desires.

In my limited junk bond experience, pik bonds only rear their heads at bond market peaks.  And they’re here again.

contingent convertibles, or “cocos.’   The original cocos, spawned by the financial crisis, are bonds issued by financial companies that can be forcibly converted into equity–thus shoring up regulatory capital–if the issuer gets into financial trouble.  In my view, the buyer is exposed to all the downside of owning an equity with few of the rewards.

According to the Financial Times, a new variation on the coco theme has recently appeared.  The new securities are called “sudden death” or “wipeout” bonds.   Their attraction is that they pay coupons of around 8%.  The catch is that if the issuer’s regulatory capital falls below a ratio specified in the bond indenture–so far its been if a bank’s Tier One equity ratio falls below 7%–then coco holders lose all their money.  

To me, this looks like an equity put dressing it up in bond clothing so fixed income managers can buy it.

the Fragile Five.  2014 opened to a bout of bondholder angst about their positions in the debt of places like Argentina.  Argentina?   Really?  Isn’t this the same place that nationalized Repsol in 2012?   …the same place that defaulted on its sovereign debt in 2001?   …where capital flight has accelerated to the point that the government has shut down online shopping to prevent money from leaving the country?  Talk about risky.

I think these areas worry the Fed, too.  They’re why I think we’d have to see considerable economic weakness in the US before tapering comes to a halt.