The Next Big Threat: Illiquidity

Liquidity is the investor’s ability to buy and sell a security without significantly impacting its price. Lack of liquidity in a security can have its consequences. Post financial crisis regulations, such as Volcker Rule (Dodd-Frank), and Basel 3, has made it more expensive and more difficult for banks to store bonds in their inventories and facilitate trades for investors. Regulations designed to make the system more safer have depressed the trading activity.

Lack of supply is one cause for diminishing liquidity. Banks, the dealers of corporate bonds, have reduced their inventories. According to Bank for International Settlements (BIS), “Market participants have raised concerns that regulatory reforms, by raising the costs of warehousing assets, have contributed to reducing market liquidity and could be keeping banks from acting as shock absorbers during periods of market stress.”

Primary Dealer Net Positions (2006 to 2016) Source: MarketAxess
Primary Dealer Net Positions (2006 to 2016)
Source: MarketAxess

According to BIS, “US primary dealers…have continued to reduce their corporate bond inventories over the past years. Since the beginning of the year 2013, they have cut back their net positions in U.S. Treasuries by nearly 80%.

Another big cause of decreasing in liquidity is technology. A technology that has changed the structure of markets, high-frequency trading (HFT), an algorithm computer trading in seconds and in fractions of seconds, account for much larger share of the trading transactions and it leads to low liquidity. Majority of HFTs, if not all, reduces liquidity by pairing selected (self-interest), leaving out others. According to BIS, 70% of U.S. Treasury trading is done electronically, up from 60% in 2012. For both high-yield bonds (not highly liquid asset), it accounts for more than 20%. About 90% of transactions on bond futures take place electronically. I have no doubt electronic trading will continue to increase.

“Greater use of electronic trading and enhanced transparency in fixed income markets typically comes at the cost of greater price impact from large trades.”, BIS said in the report. Bonds now trade in smaller transaction sizes than they did before, “… large trades seem less suitable for trading on electronic platforms because prices move quickly against participants who enter large orders due to the transparency of the market infrastructure.” “It “discourages market-makers from accommodating large trades if they fear that they cannot unwind their positions without risking a sizeable impact on prices.”

BIS in its quarterly review report (March 2015) stated (source: FINRA’s TRACE data), the average transaction size of large trades of U.S. investment grade corporate bonds (so-called “block trades”) declined from more than $25 million in 2006 to about $15 million in 2013.

This is a sign of illiquidity since “trading large amounts of corporate bonds has become more difficult.” Trades facing constrained liquidity puts investors, especially large investors, to a disadvantage.

Capacity to buy/sell without too much influence on the market prices are deteriorating. Lack of liquidity can causes wild swings in the bond prices, which then can affect the rest of the financial markets. Today’s financial markets are so connected just like the economic domino effects.

They are connected, but let me tell you why they are so important. The U.S Treasury securities market is the largest, the most liquid, and the most active debt market in the world. They are used to finance the government, and used by the Federal Reserve in implementing its monetary policy. I repeat, in implementing its monetary policy. Having a liquid market – in which having no problem buying and selling securities without affecting the market price – is very important to the market participants and policymakers alike.

Examples of high volatility in a low liquidity:

  • Flash Crash (May 2010)

In a matter of 30 minutes, major U.S. stock indices fell 10%, only to recover most of the losses before the end of the trading day. Some blue-chip shares briefly traded at pennies. WHAT A SALE! According to a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) report, before 2:32 p.m., volatility was unusually high and liquidity was thinning, a mutual-fund group entered a large sell order (valued at approximately $4.1 billion) in “E-mini” futures on the S&P 500 Index. The large trade was made by an algorithm. The “algo” was programmed to take account of trading volume, with little regard, or no regard at all, to the price nor time. Since the volatility was already high during that time and volume was increasing, this sell trade was executed in just 20 minutes, instead of several hours that would be typical for such an order, 75,000 E-mini contracts (again, valued at approximately $4.1 billion).

May 6, 2010 - SPY Volume and Price Source: SEC Report
May 6, 2010 – SPY Volume and Price
Source: SEC Report
May 6, 2010 - SPY Volume and Price Source: SEC Report
May 6, 2010 – SPY Volume and Price
Source: SEC Report

According to the report, this sell pressure was initially absorbed by HFTs, buying E-mini contracts. However, minutes after the execution of the sell order, HFTs “aggressively” reduced their long positions. The increase in the volume again led the mutual-fund group “algo” to increase “the rate at which it was feeding the orders into the markets”, creating what’s known as a negative feedback loop. That’s the power of HFTs.

This was nearly 6 years ago. Today, there’s no doubt the power of the secretive section of the financial markets, HFTs, are much stronger and powerful and can destroy the markets with “one finger”.

With low liquidity in the bond market and increasing HFT transactions in it, the threat is real. Automated trades can trigger extreme price swings and the communication in these automated trades can quickly erode liquidity before you even know it, even though there is a very high volume. While liquidity in the U.S. bond market is high, it’s not high enough to battle the power of the technological progress.

Let’s not forget. Fixed-income assets such as, corporate bonds, are often traded over the counter in illiquid markets, not in more liquid exchanges, as stocks are.

It’s all about profits. Some, if not all HFTs, act the way they do, to make profit. There’s nothing wrong with that. But, the creators of the algorithms have to be ethical and responsible. It’s not likely to happen anytime soon since profits are the main goal (mine too) in the financial markets. So why should HFT “be fair” to others? I know I wouldn’t.

  • Taper Tantrum (2013 Summer)

In the summer of 2013, the former Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, hinted an end to the Fed’s monthly purchases of long-term securities (taper off, or slow down its Quantitative Easing), which sent the financial markets, including the bond market into a tailspin.

On June 19, 2013, Ben Bernanke during a press conference said, “the Committee currently anticipates that it would be appropriate to moderate the monthly pace of purchases later this year.” That sentence alone started the financial market roller coaster.

Yields skyrocketed. The gravity took down the value of greenback (U.S. Dollar). U.S. long-term interest rates shot up by 100 basis points (1%). Even short-term interest rate markets saw the rate-hike to come sooner than the Fed policymakers suggested. Borrowings costs increased so much, as the markets was expecting tightening of the monetary policy, it “locked up” the Fed from cutting the pace of bond buying that year.

Markets' Reaction To June 19, 2013, Ben Bernanke Press Conference Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
Markets’ Reaction To June 19, 2013, Ben Bernanke Press Conference
Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

This raises (or raised) whatever the market prices can handle orders that are executed in milliseconds. It points to a lack of supply (dealer inventories), A.K.A illiquidity. I feel bad for funds that have a lot of corporate-bonds in their portfolio. The struggle is real.

An open-ended funds that allow investors to exit overnight are more likely to experience a run, as market volatility increases. A run on funds will force the funds to sell illiquid assets, which can push down the prices lower and lower. Recently example of that is the Third Avenue (“investors’ money are being held hostage”).

Brace for a fire sale. Coming soon in your area.

Market makers, where are you? Come back. I need to sell the investments at a current price, before it goes much lower.

  • October 15, 2014

The financial markets experienced – as the U.S. Department of the Treasury puts it – “an unusually high level of volatility and a very rapid round-trip in prices. Although trading volumes were high and the market continued to function, liquidity conditions became significantly strained.”

On October 15, 2014, the markets went into a tailspin again. The Dow plummeted 460 points, only to recover most of the losses. The Nasdaq briefly fell into a correction territory, only to rebound sharply. The 10-year Treasury yield “experienced a 37-basis-point trading range, only to close 6 basis points below its opening level”, according the U.S. Treasury Department report.

According to Nanex, a firm that offers real-time streaming data on the markets, between 9:33 A.M and 9:45 A.M, “liquidity evaporated in Treasury futures and prices skyrocketed (causing yields to plummet). Five minutes later, prices returned to 9:33 levels.” “Treasury futures were so active, they pushed overall trade counts on the CME to a new record high.”, said the report.

“Note how liquidity just plummets.”

Liquidity in the 10 year as measured by total sizes of orders in 10 levels of depth of book. Source: Nanex
Liquidity in the 10 year as measured by total sizes of orders in 10 levels of depth of book.
Source: Nanex

Again, as I said, “Today’s financial markets are so connected just like the economic domino effects.” The mayhem in in the bond market can spread to the foreign exchange (forex) market.

October 15, 2014 - World Currencies Source: Nanex
October 15, 2014 – World Currencies
Source: Nanex

These types of occurrences are becoming common, or the “new normal”. As the Fed raises rates, the market participants will be adjusting their portfolio and/or will adjust them ahead of it (expectations), these adjustments will force another market volatility. But this time, I believe it will be much worse, as liquidity continues to dry up and technology progresses.

Recent market crashes and volatility, including the August 2015 ETF blackout, is just another example of increasing illiquidity in the markets. Hiccups in the markets will get bigger and will become common. Illiquidity is the New Normal.

Hello HFTs, how are you doing? Making $$$? Cool.

With interest rates around 0 (well, before the rate-hike in December), U.S. companies have rushed to issue debt. With the recent rate-hike by the Fed, U.S. corporate bond market will experience more volatility. Lower and diminishing liquidity will “manufacture” a volatility to a record levels that the financial markets and the economy won’t be able to cope with it.  As said, “Today’s financial markets are so connected just like the economic domino effects.”, the corporate bond market volatility will spread to the rest of the financial markets.

Oh wait, that already is happening. Reversal of monetary policy by the Fed this year, as I believe the Fed will lower back rates this year, will make things worse.

Liquidity: Peace out!

Canada Crisis: Second Rate-Cut Of The Year

On July 15 (Wednesday), Canada’s central bank AKA Bank of Canada (BoC) cut overnight rate by 25 basis points (bps) from 0.75% to 50%. This is the second rate-cut this year. First rate-cut took place in January. Not only rate-cut, but lower growth forecasts.

BoC expects Gross Domestic Product growth to be 1.1% year-over-year (Y/Y) this year, down from its 1.9% forecast in April. Policy makers said that Gross domestic product probably “contracted modestly” in the first half. However, they did not call it recession. ‘‘The lower outlook for Canadian growth has increased the downside risks to inflation,’’ policy makers said.

Bank also reduced the net exports contribution to GDP by 0.8% to 0.6% from 1.4%. A stronger U.S. economy and a weaker Canadian dollar should contribute to higher export growth.

Bank of Canada's July Forecasts. Source.
Bank of Canada’s July Forecasts (Page 14). Source.

There has been a big shift in the inflation tone over the past few months:

April: “Risks to the outlook for inflation are now roughly balanced”

May: “the Bank’s assessment of risks to the inflation profile has not materially changed”

This time (July): “The lower outlook for Canadian growth has increased the downside risks to inflation”

“The Bank anticipates that the economy will return to full capacity and inflation to 2 per cent on a sustained basis in the first half of 2017.” In the April’s forecasts, the bank expected the economy to return to full capacity at the end of 2016. I can tell that the Bank is running scared.

Damages from low oil prices has been extensive.  Canada is the world’s fifth-largest oil producer and lower oil prices will definitely not help the economy. The damages from lower oil prices shrank the economy in the first half of the year.

Recently after Iran deal has been reached, oil prices fell sharply. It’s currently trading around $48. If the the deal is finalized, it won’t be very good for Canada economy since Iran might want to double its oil production, leading to much lower oil prices.

The bank also said “Additional monetary stimulus is required at this time to help return the economy to full capacity and inflation sustainably to target.” If conditions get worse, they will cut rates again.

Oil is not the only problem for Canada. Other concerns are potential bubbles in housing and consumer debt.

According to BoC’s Monetary Policy Report (June), “the vulnerability associated with household indebtedness remains important and is expected to edge higher in the near term in response to the ongoing negative impact on incomes from the sharp decline in oil prices and a projected increase in the level of household debt.” (Page 30).

Over the past few years, housing prices in Canada have skyrocketed. Lower borrowing costs will just add fuel to the fire (DEBT + HIGH PRICES IN HOUSING MARKET WITH LOW INTEREST RATES = NOT A GOOD COMBINATION) . There just might be a bubble in the housing market. But, BoC does not think so.

The next BoC meeting is on September 9th, about a week before the U.S. Federal Reserve meeting, the day that many believe lift-off from the zero interest rate policy will take place. CPI and non-farm payrolls data for July and August will decide whatever the Fed will hike or not.

Rate-cuts and plunging commodity prices, especially crude oil, has caused sell-off in Loonie. Ever since the first rate-cut of the year (January), Loonie (CAD) has weakened significantly. With strengthening dollar (USD), USD/CAD has skyrocketed. When looked at monthly chart, USD/CAD has developed ‘Cup and Handle’ formation. While this is a sign to short USD/CAD, I would be very careful because fundamentals for CAD are too weak. If I were to short it, I would put my stop above the resistance line (Bold Red line).

USD/CAD - Monthly
USD/CAD – Monthly

 

Fed removes “patient”, and adds twists

Last Wednesday (March 18, 2015), the Federal Reserve released its statement on the monetary policy and its economic projections. The The Fed dropped from its guidance “patient” in reference to its approach to raising the federal funds rate. It was largely to be expected to be removed, which would have send U.S Dollar higher and U.S market lower. However, the opposite happened because of two twists; they lowered their economic projections, and Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, Janet Yellen’s words during the press conference.

According to the “dot plot”, the Fed lowered median “dot” for 2015 to 0.625% from 1.125% (December). What is “dot plot”? The Dot Plot is part of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC)’s economics projections and it shows what each member thinks the federal funds rate should be in the future. It is released quarterly. Sometimes, it might be released more than that, depending on economic circumstances. It gives you a perspective of what each member of FOMC thinks about economic and monetary conditions in the future.

Again, the Fed lowered median “dot” for the end of 2015 to 0.625% from 1.125% in December (-0.50%). The Fed also lowered the “dot” for end of 2016 and 2017. For the end of 2016, it is at 1.875% from 2.5% in December (-0.625%). For the end of 2017, it is at 3.125% from 3.625% in December (-0.50%). Besides, the “dot”, Yellen said one thing that took a toll on the U.S Dollar.

Even though the Fed removed “patient” from the statement, Yellen had “patient” tone during the press conference. Yellen said ““Just because we removed the word “patient” from the statement does not mean we are going to be impatient,”. This sentence alone halted US Dollar from rebounding after it dropped on the statement. There are other things that complicates the timing of the rate-hike.

It’s now more complicated to predict the Fed’s next move because of three reasons; very strong US Dollar, low inflation, and economic crisis in Europe and Japan, if not United Kingdom too. US Dollar is too strong, hurting U.S exports. Inflation has declined due to falling energy prices. The struggling foreign countries economically can also hurt U.S economy. I believe two majors factor of the Fed’s next move are the strong US Dollar, and the low inflation. When both of them are combined together, it makes imports cheaper and keeps inflation lower. I believe Europe will start to get better–as Quantitative Easing (QE) fully kicks in–money starts flowing in Europe. European stocks will probably hit new highs in the coming years because of QE program. Once, the Fed raises the rates, the money will probably flow into Europe from the U.S because of negative interest rates. Low rates have been a key driver of the bull markets in the U.S stock market the past six years. Lower rates makes stocks more attractive to the investors.

Since, the “dot” has dropped harshly, I believe this could be a sign of late delivery of rate hike. They might hike the interest rate in September, not June. However, if non-farm payrolls number continue to be strong, average wage (indicator for inflation) lifts and oil prices rebound, then the door for rate-hike for June might still be open. For now, there is no sign of oil rebounding since it has dropped sharply this week. We will get the next non-farm payroll, which also includes average wage, on April 3.

In the statement, FOMC stated “The Committee anticipates that it will be appropriate to raise the target range for the federal funds rate when it has seen further improvement in the labor market and is reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent objective over the medium term. This change in the forward guidance does not indicate that the Committee has decided on the timing of the initial increase in the target range.”

The Fed want to be cautions before raising the interest rates. They want more time to be sure; “further improvement in the labor market” and “reasonably confident that inflation will move back to its 2 percent…” Although, non-farm payrolls have been strong lately, inflation is too low. The inflation is low because of the stronger dollar and the plunge in oil prices.

The Fed is in no hurry to increase the interest rate. The Fed said it would definitely not act on rates at “…April FOMC meeting.” and might wait until later in the year. I believe September has higher chance than June, from the rate-hike.

It looks to me that the Fed planned to send US Dollar lower. They probably wanted the US Dollar to be weaker before raising the rates, which could send the US Dollar a lot higher. Their plan worked. The US Dollar dropped so much that it sent EUR/USD (Euro against US Dollar) up 400 pips (above 1.10). U.S market rose after they were down ever since the release of non-farm payrolls for February. Dow gained over 200 points, as well as other indices.

 

Dow Jones (DJI) - 30 Mins
Dow Jones (DJI) – 30 Mins
US Dollar - 30 Mins
US Dollar – 30 Mins
EUR/USD - 30 Mins
EUR/USD – 30 Mins

 

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