Brexit and the feedback of uncertainty through asset prices

The medium- and long-run consequences of Brexit are unknown, but increased uncertainty in response to the event will likely have real global effects of its own. Individuals are now less confident in their guesses about the future, and this uncertainty changes behavior, increasing risk aversion and decreasing business investment. Global markets reaction to Brexit reflects not only the new average belief about expected future earnings, but also the indirect feedback effects of the higher level of uncertainty.

Medium- and long-term effects unclear

The U.K.’s June 23 vote to leave the European Union, termed ‘Brexit’, surprised many analysts. As the referendum vote neared, markets (representing the average belief of individuals) increasingly expected the ‘remain’ party to win. Some well-educated analysts explained how Brexit would never happen (possibly what Nassim Nicholas Taleb would consider proof of a black swan). The ‘leave’ campaign won with 51.9 percent of the vote, prompting David Cameron’s announced resignation.

The medium-term consequences for the U.K. and E.U. (or anywhere else) are entirely unclear. For example, should unemployment increase and production falter in the U.K. during the next few months, the Bank of England may need to ease monetary policy further and adopt very unconventional tools. However, if the market reaction to Brexit can be fully absorbed by exchange rate adjustment, the Bank of England may need to raise interest rates in response.

On June 24, the pound sterling fell more than eight percent against the dollar (figure 1). In response to the currency depreciation, many here in the U.S. joked about buying goods online from the U.K. or planning vacations. Many others expressed uncertainty about the future of the U.K. and the E.U., and the economic and political implications for the U.S.

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Figure 1. The pound sterling fell against most currencies following the Brexit vote, including by more than eight percent in one day against the U.S. dollar.

Markets reminded of their anxiety issues

Within hours of the ‘leave’ campaign victory, stock prices of some financial services companies, such as Lloyds, fell by 30 percent. Although real changes from the vote may take two years to implement, the average belief about the appropriate cost of equity for these firms changed dramatically overnight. The fundamentals for people and businesses in the U.K. do not immediately change, but their behavior and asset prices do, and this has an indirect feedback effect on the fundamentals

Likewise, the U.S. is clearly not part of the E.U. or U.K., however, it is intimately linked to both markets through trade and investment. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 610 points (3.39%) on Friday in response to the news. The most widely-used measure of market volatility jumped nearly 50 percent (figure 2). The sales revenue of the largest U.S. companies is practically unchanged, however, individuals’ collective behavior has changed in response to uncertainty.

Individuals are repricing the assets that they previously overvalued. However, if the Bank of England is forced to wait to decide which direction its key policy will turn, how well can individuals immediately reprice future earnings? The immediate reaction to Brexit reflects not a new certainty about future earnings but increased uncertainty. Individuals never know what the future will hold, but these large unexpected events make them less confident in all of their guesses, and it changes their behavior.

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Figure 2. VIX, the CBOE measure of expected near-term equity market volatility, saw an almost 50 percent daily increase following the Brexit result

Searching for safety and the uncertainty feedback loop

When people are less certain about the future, they take fewer risks. For example, business investment falls when equity market volatility is high. Individual and institutional investors also show preference for safe assets during times of increased uncertainty. In an immediate reaction to Brexit, U.S. treasuries, gold, and Japanese Yen saw inflows, while equity markets saw net outflows. Neither business fundamentals nor any rules had changed; people were showing risk aversion.

Investors’ increased aversion to equity investment raises firms’ equity cost of capital. This cost of capital is a major factor in firms’ investment decisions, especially for smaller and less-cash-flush firms. Therefore, the uncertainty induced asset price shock has a feedback mechanism through which it affects the future value of companies. This dangerous feedback mechanism can be procyclical.

What it means for the U.S.

The medium- and long-term direct effects of Brexit on the U.S. are very unclear. Brexit-induced equity market volatility, higher levels of uncertainty, and the negative effects these entail can however be analyzed with attention to the current U.S. macroeconomic environment. Three potential short-run consequences emerge:

1) Continued volatility in equity markets and strong demand for treasuries;

2) More downward pressure on business investment, which was already negative in the first quarter of 2016; and

3) Delay of the next Federal Funds rate hike in response to the above.

While the downward pressure on already weak business investment is worrisome, none of the above are enough to induce major concern. Households, many of which have recently started seeing long-awaited wage and income increases, will play a key role in determining whether recent asset price volatility will spill into consumer sentiment and awake a much worse set of feedback mechanisms.

Check out the dashboard and please leave feedback

Nearly 100 freshly updated charts:

U.S. Macro and Markets Dashboard (Updated June 26, 2016)

References and additional reading

Networks, Crowds, and Markets: Reasoning About a Highly Connected World by David Easley and Jon Kleinberg

Nick Bloom comment on Brexit 

BBC: The UK’s EU referendum: All you need to know

 

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Dashboard update: bond yields fall with renewed demand for safe assets and lower interest rate expectations

Monitor more than 80 economic indicators with the macro and markets dashboard:

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United States Macroeconomic and Markets Dashboard: Updated June 11, 2016

Dashboard weekly update summary:

The latest labor market data show continued overall improvement in wages and low levels of new jobless claims, offering some consolation after the surprisingly weak May jobs report (see last week’s update). Equity market volatility increased, however, as already lackluster global growth forecasts were revised down by the World Bank. Domestic and foreign investors are shifting their portfolio of assets to fixed streams of income. Global bond yields, including on U.S. government and corporate debt, fell considerably during the past week’s rally. Investors are searching for higher returns on safe assets and responding to lower interest rate expectations.

Wages grow faster than productivity

Narrowing a long and persistent gap between productivity and wage growth, recent data suggest wages have been increasing in many industries. For most of the past decade, worker’s productivity (the output for each hour of work) grew more rapidly than their wages. The gap was in part from technology making work more efficient, but it also came from a weak labor market. An economy in which there are many qualified workers for each opening makes workers less likely to quit and more likely to accept no or small increases in wages. Companies simply do not need to rely on pay increases as a motivation when fear of unemployment is very strong.

While wage growth crawled along for a decade, productivity growth remained strong. Recent data suggest, however, that the long upward trend in productivity may be facing at least a hiccup. Meanwhile, overall measures show wages have been growing at a reasonable pace since mid-2014. Revised first quarter 2016 index data on wages and productivity shows the former nearly catching the latter.

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When oil prices fall, for example, there is a transfer of wealth from the stakeholders of oil producers (who face a fall in revenue) to households (who spend less on fuel and energy). Likewise, a fall or stagnation in corporate profits can result in an increase in worker’s relative share of output. Wages, unlike commodity or stock prices, tend not to be cut. Where the past year has seen labor markets and workers’ bargaining power improve, it has seen productivity and corporate profits stagnate.

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Additionally, data for the week of June 4 on new claims of joblessness was strong, with only 264,000 such claims. Overall, reasonable wage increases, an increasing labor share of output, and low headline unemployment paint a better picture for households and aggregate demand than the last jobs report’s payroll growth and participation rate data suggest. That said, labor market improvements are traditionally slow and gradual, while deterioration is rapid and steep. The June jobs report should therefore have major implications for the Fed’s rate hike decision.

Equity market volatility climbs

U.S. equity markets gains over the first four trading days of the week were erased on Friday by a large sell off. The CBOE volatility index, VIX, increased to 17 from 13.5 a week earlier. The bond rally described below suggests that there has been a flight to safety. Investors have been adjusting in part to new forecasts of generally lower global growth. Likewise, there are several large events on the horizon (brexit, elections, central bank policy divergence, etc.) suggesting fluctuations and jumps in equity markets (as well as debt and forex markets).

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Bond markets rally as investors seek safe assets and interest rate expectations fall

Over the past week, U.S. treasury bonds, t-bills, and corporate bond yields fell. Elsewhere, ten-year German bund yields are nearly negative and Japanese ten-year government bond yields have fallen to -0.13%. People’s tolerance for extremely low returns is limited, and U.S. government debt offers a relatively higher return. During the past week, ten-year U.S. treasury bonds reached a four year low, partially as a result of strong foreign demand.

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The spread between 10-year and 2-year treasuries sits currently at a nine-year low. Potential causes for the flat yield curve include the following: 1) investor search for return driving driving down long- and medium-duration bond yields, 2) investor fear of a business cycle downturn and a near future need for monetary easing, and 3) lower interest rate expectations as a result of recent data taking June (and potentially July) rate hikes off the table.

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Check out the full dashboard for more than 80 indicators of U.S. economic activity:

U.S. Macroeconomic and Markets Dashboard, June 11, 2016

I also updated the dashboard for Japan:

Japan Macroeconomic and Markets Dashboard, June 11, 2016

 

 

Dashboard update: Fed minutes and recent data advance interest rate hike expectations

Monitor more than 80 economic indicators with the macro and markets dashboard:

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United States Macroeconomic and Markets Dashboard: Updated May 21, 2016

Dashboard update summary:

New data continue to strengthen the U.S. macroeconomic picture. Minutes from the most recent meeting of the Federal Reserve Open Markets Committee (FOMC) signal that the U.S. central bank may increase its key federal funds interest rate target by 25 basis points in June. Markets have responded by increasingly pricing higher interest rate expectations into the bond and foreign exchange markets.

Industrial production stronger than expected

The Federal Reserve publishes an index of U.S. industrial production that goes back to 1919. The monthly index data for April was released on Tuesday, and showed greater-than-expected industrial sector output. This was a result largely of a month-over-month spike in production in the utilities sector, which had previously been hard hit by declines in both demand for utilities and commodity prices (see below). The index had declined each month so far during the year, and rebounded by seven tenths of a percent from March to April.

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Jobless claims drop to less alarming level

Data from the week of May 7 on the number of new claims of joblessness hit a recent high, drawing some attention. New data for the week of May 14 were better, with 278,000 new jobless claims during that week.

Inflation low and steady but pointed higher

April data on inflation, as measured by the consumer price index, was released on Tuesday. Annualized inflation for all items was 1.1 percent in April, while the Core CPI (the CPI excluding food & beverage, and energy) grew by 2.1 percent. Healthcare continues to grow at the fastest rate of any major item category in the basket. Energy and transportation costs are still below their previous year level, but less so than in March (see below).

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FOMC minutes suggest June hike more likely

On Wednesday, the Fed released minutes from the FOMC meeting at the end of April. The minutes indicate that if new labor market data shows continued strengthening, and inflation continues toward two percent, then the committee will likely raise the federal funds target rate in June.

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An increase in the federal funds rate causes other short-term (and to a lesser extent long-term) interest rates to rise. In essence, the fed funds target rate should act as a floor on the cost of risk-free borrowing of U.S. dollars.

Reaction of markets

Expectations about future interest rates play a major role in finance. Short term interest rate increases, like those from fed funds rate increases, generate broad effects, including on long term interest rates, the demand for money in the real economy, the propensity to save and invest, and bond and foreign exchange markets. Markets react today to changes today in expectations about the future. This happened following the release of the FOMC minutes; U.S. treasury bond prices fell immediately. The yield on ten- and two-year treasury bonds jumped, closing the week at 1.85% and 0.89% respectively.

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See more indicators, as well as foreign exchange rates, in the dashboard:

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Dashboard update: lowered expectations

Dashboard PDF file:

Macro and Markets Dashboard: United States (April 16, 2016 — PDF)

Dashboard update summary:

Much of the past week’s macroeconomic news offered disappointment, yet markets dismissed the weak data as a result of what seems like lowered expectations. Retail sales, business inventories, and industrial production reports showed weakness in March (though labor market continues to look good). Corporate earnings have been quite soft in the first quarter, and GDP figures are likely to reflect the first quarter slowdown in output. Investors, however, seem relatively more risk-on, despite the weak macroeconomic data. Their expectations about earnings have fallen low enough to not only absorb the recent results, but to react positively in some cases. These investors are also faced with fewer high-earning alternatives, given sluggish and slowing growth abroad.

CPI and PPI data show little change, while oil prices continue to rebound. Currency markets are quite active, especially on the emerging markets side, where the dollar is weaker, partially as a result of the commodity price rebound.

Macro and Labor Market Indicators

Industrial production and total capacity utilization both fell in March. The industrial production index was down 0.6 points, largely stemming from decreases in production in mining and utilities market groups. This was magnified in the total percentage of capacity utilized figure, which fell to its lowest level since 2010. Mining capacity grew 1.6 percent year over year, despite a simultaneous 12.9 percent fall in production.

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The inventories to sales ratio ticked up in February, as a result of a fall in sales of 1.4 percent and an increase of inventories by 1.2 percent over their February 2015 levels. The most recent week’s data on new jobless claims showed the fewest new claims since 1973.

Equities and Fixed Income

Despite the weak data from the corporate side, equity markets were up and corporate bond yields down during the week. The Nasdaq and Dow were up 1.8 percent on the week, while the S&P 500 climbed 1.6 percent. Yields on U.S. Treasury bonds at all maturities, and U.S. corporate bonds at all maturities and credit ratings, have fallen over the past month, pushing prices higher.

Prices and Currency Markets

This week brought the release of March PPI and CPI data. Both were largely unchanged, as the PPI for all commodities increased slightly and the CPI fell slightly, over their February year over year percentage change levels. There was a surprise in CPI apparel prices, which fell 0.6 percent over their March 2015 levels, despite an increase in February. The data continue to reflect the very low prices of energy and moderate prices increase in healthcare and housing.

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Currency markets were busy during the past week. The dollar strengthened against the Euro (0.91 percent), Yen (0.81 percent), and Swiss Franc (1.06 percent), while, as pointed out by FT’s hard currency, the dollar weakened further against the four R’s, the ruble, real, ringgit, and rand. These four currencies have seen a dramatic change in direction over the past month, appreciating against the dollar by more than 3.5 percent each and more than 5 percent in the case of the rand.

Note:

I try to gradually improve the dashboard and how I summarize changes. Any feedback would be much appreciated. Please feel free to leave a comment, or send me an email at brianwdew@gmail.com.

Dashboard update: signs of price pressure

Macro and Markets Dashboard: United States (April 9, 2016 — PDF)

The first full week of April saw active but net slightly down equity markets. While new economic data during the week was positive, expectations about corporate profits and output levels in the first quarter of 2016 are low. In light of solid fundamentals, and increasing aggregate demand, pessimists (including on the campaign trail) seem to be overreacting. Price data shows signs of upward pressure after an extended decline, and may soon join labor market and equity market indicators in signalling accelerating economic expansion.

The Nasdaq composite index fell 1.3 percent on the week, while both the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 1.2 percent. Volatility, as measured by the VIX, closed Friday 17 percent above its previous week level. The Shiller index of price to earnings ratios climbed in March to 25.5. Expectations about first quarter earnings are very weak.

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Prices data showed a continuation of upward pressure in March from commodity and food prices. Oil prices climbed more than eight percent during the past week. U.S. oil inventory fell for the first time in eight weeks. March CPI data, due out next week, should reflect the rising fuel and commodity prices.

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World food prices, measured by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, showed an uptick in March from a jump in sugar prices. This is only the second material increase in the world food price index since early 2014.

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The trade-weighted dollar index continues to show a depreciation in the U.S. dollar. To the frustration of the Bank of Japan, the Yen appreciated nearly three percent against the dollar during the past week, which is not included in the lagged trade-weighted index. The dollar did appreciate against many emerging market currencies, pound sterling, and the Canadian dollar, during the past week.

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Dashboard update: expectations and central bank signaling

Macro and Markets Dashboard: United States (March 12, 2016 — PDF)

Friday’s bull market led equity and commodity prices to their third consecutive weekly increase. Market volatility has continued to return to more comfortable levels. Investors views on the current macroeconomic environment and expectations about the future are important determinants of market behavior. While the global macroeconomic picture still includes low growth, I worry that unorthodox monetary policy may have its effectiveness counteracted by the signals it sends.

Oil prices, as measured by front-month contracts of West Texas Intermediate crude oil, increased nearly six percent during the week (see below). The S&P 500 and Dow Jones Industrial Average increased by more than a percentage point during the week, while the Nasdaq Composite Index was up two-thirds of a percent.

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The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) fell to its lowest level of the year on Friday, closing at 16.5. Possibly supporting the relative calm in markets, the week offered very little new domestic macroeconomic data. Next week should provide more food for investor thought.

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A quiet week for domestic data provides opportunity for reviewing the global picture. The IMF forecasts global growth to remain weak but gradually improve. Emerging markets, including China, continue to experience relatively slower growth and lower demand. Commodity exporters continue to be hurt by the collapse in prices. Global trade has slowed, and some economists have asked whether we have reached the end of globalization.

The European Central Bank (ECB) expanded quantitative easing and cut all interest rates during their meeting this week. Other central banks in the region will likely follow the ECB further into negative interest rate territory. I worry that negative interest rates and other unorthodox monetary policy are not as effective as anticipated. What Keynes termed “animal spirits” plays a role in explaining why the continued lowering of borrowing rates may not lead to more lending.

Negative interest rates send a mixed message. A bank is simultaneously being enticed to lend by the low cost of money while being told that the economy is in unprecedentedly bad shape. Near to zero, the actual effect of small changes to the interest rate can be overpowered by the message that is sent by the direction of movement. When central banks tighten from zero, as the Fed did in December, it signals that monetary policy is moving away from uncharted waters and that the economy is improving. A tightening central bank adds basis points to its arsenal for handling future crises. When central banks such as the ECB and Bank of Japan (BOJ) loosen monetary policy further, they move farther into a territory which scares investors and lenders and constrains their future movement.

In the U.S., labor market tightening, wage growth, core inflation, and signs of modest economic growth push the Fed towards another quarter point rate hike. Most economists, however, do not expect a rate increase from the Fed during its meeting next week. Despite other concerns, such as the weak global picture and the continued strength of the dollar, the animal within me would like to see a Fed funds rate increase in one of the next two meetings.