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

 

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.

lshare_jun112016

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).

vix_jun112016

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: Jobs data and new uncertainty

Dashboard PDF file:

Macro and Markets Dashboard: United States (May 7, 2016 — PDF)
Dashboard Update Summary:

Jobs data for April showed payrolls continue to grow, but at a slower rate. Wage data was strong, however, the labor force participation rate gave up much of its recent improvement. Uncertainty surrounding markets and economic policy seems to have increased in the recent week, and fewer economists now predict a Fed rate hike in June. U.S. equity markets were down for the second consecutive week, while corporate bond yields rose and treasury yields fell. Recent data showed improvement in the trade balance from the weaker dollar, however, the recent depreciation trend has also become less certain.

Jobs Report showed slower jobs growth but wage improvement

The U.S. added 160,000 jobs in April, compared with 208,000 in March and 233,000 in February (both previous months were also revised downward). By sector, much of the growth came from the services side, on an annualized basis. Construction jobs, which make up less than five percent of nonfarm payrolls, were up 4.1 percent, while mining and logging jobs continued their decline and are now down more than fifteen percent over the past year (this is the smallest industry sector shown in the figure below, and represents only 0.4 percent of nonfarm payrolls). Weekly data on new jobless claims, as of April 30, showed still very low, but slightly increased, levels.

jobsector_may072016

The latest jobs report shows continued improvement in both nominal and real wages in practically all sectors. Nominal wages increased most rapidly over the past year in financial services, information services, and leisure and hospitality. On average, wages from the goods sector are higher, largely as a result of low-wage service-sector jobs in leisure and hospitality.

wages_may072016

Equity and Bond market conditions deteriorated

Equity markets were down for the second straight week. The S&P 500 was down 0.4 percent, the Nasdaq composite index was down 0.8 percent, and the Dow Jones industrial average was 0.2 percent lower. Volatility was higher during the week, and the VIX closed Friday at 14.7. The Shiller index of price to earnings ratios was up to 26.02 percent in April from 25.54 in March. Corporate bond yields ticked up during the week. The Merrill Lynch index of junk bond yields was up to 7.56 percent. Ten year treasury yields fell to 1.79 percent.

Economic policy uncertainty improved in April but may revert

Economic policy uncertainty, as measured by Baker, Bloom, and Davis, fell sharply in April, as there was little speculation of Fed action at the April meeting. However, I expect this index to bounce back; uncertainty will increase as the Fed June meeting and Brexit grow closer.

epu_may072016

Oil was down on the week, while April food prices increased

Oil prices closed lower on the week. The U.S. measure of crude oil prices, West Texas Intermediate crude front-month contracts, fell 2.7 percent during the week, to $44.66 a barrel. World food prices from the Food and Agriculture Organization (which I half-jokingly also use as a proxy of political instability) ticked up slightly in April, but remain low.

A weaker dollar improved the trade balance in March

The Fed’s trade-weighted dollar broad index against major currencies fell last Friday (April 29–past week data is released on Mondays) to its lowest level since May 2015. The year-to-date rapid depreciation of the dollar has cut import quantities, as further evidenced in the March data on trade. The trade deficit, which remains roughly 2.2 percent of GDP, improved to -40.4B in March. However, more recent foreign exchange data shows uncertainty about recent depreciation trends. The dollar was stronger against nearly all major trading partners during the past week, notably 1.2 percent against the British pound, 2.76 percent against the Canadian dollar, 3.16 percent against the Australian dollar, 4.5 percent against the Turkish lira, 3,86 percent against the Mexican peso, and 4.3 percent against the South African rand.

tb_may072016

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.

pe_apr092016

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.

wti_apr092016

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.

ffpi_apr092016

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.

fx_apr092016

Dashboard update: green shoots in March

Macro and Markets Dashboard: United States (April 2, 2016 — PDF)

The final week of March capped off a month of solid equity market gains and encouraging macroeconomic data. New data shows a continued strengthening of labor markets and a reduction in volatility. Bond yields fell during the week, and the dollar depreciated against most major currencies.

All three major U.S. equity market indices were up more than 6.5 percent on the month, while the Nasdaq composite index climbed nearly three percent during the week ending April 1. Volatility, as measured by the VIX, fell to its lowest level since August 2015. Indeed, nearly all major U.S. asset classes posted gains during the month, following a bearish January and February. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil prices jumped 13.6 percent in March, though they declined more than 2.5 percent during the most recent week.

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Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) data for March from the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) suggests improvement in manufacturing conditions (see above chart). The PMI, which can be thought of as the weighted percentage of purchasing managers who report positively (above 50 suggests growth), posted its first increase in six months. As a bonus, this monthly report comes with possibly the most pithy explanation accompanying any statistic:

PMI® at 51.8%

New Orders and Production Growing
Employment and Inventories Contracting
Supplier Deliveries Slower

The U.S. economy added 215,000 jobs in March, while unemployment figures ticked up slightly to five percent. However, as evidenced in the dashboard and in previous posts, an increase in the labor force participation rate tells a more complex story than an increase in the unemployment rate. A strong labor market will attract people who are otherwise not participating (someone without a job but not looking for work is not considered unemployed under the headline unemployment figure from the BLS). The labor force participation rate has experienced its first six consecutive months without decline since 2005, as people are being drawn into a decent labor market.

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Across the board, U.S. bond yields fell during the past week. The real yield curve on a five-year U.S. treasury pushed negative, reaching further than a quarter point into the red (see below). The yield on a ten-year treasury fell to 1.79 percent on Friday, from 1.91 a week earlier. Corporate bond yields in all credit segments were also down during the one-week period.

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Touching on some additional data, personal and personal disposable income both increased by 0.2 percent in February. The personal savings rate ticked up to 5.4 percent in February, from 5.3 percent in January. As expected, the net international investment position of the United States continued to deteriorate in Q4 of 2015. The economic policy uncertainty monthly index fell nearly 22 percent in March, providing further evidence for a reduction in uncertainty-related volatility.

Lastly, over the past week the U.S. dollar depreciated against all major non-pegged currencies. Notably, the greenback weakened by more than two percent against the Swiss franc and Canadian dollar, more than one and a half percent against the Yen, and around one percent against the Yuan during the five-day period.

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.

wti_mar0122016

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.

vix_mar0122016

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.

 

Dashboard update: investors shift assets to safe havens

Macro and Markets Dashboard: United States (February 13, 2016 — PDF)

As a result of the tumultuous start to the year, investors have been increasingly retreating to bastions like gold, Yen, and Swiss Francs. Gold prices have risen nearly 17 percent so far this year (see below). The Yen has appreciated more than six percent against the dollar during the past week, while the Swiss franc strengthened two and a third percent against the greenback.

gold_feb132016

Internationally, an increasing share (now 30%) of all government debt offers negative interest rates (the New York Times ran a fantastic piece on negative interest rates). This week, Japanese government bonds were in the news as the yield on the ten-year JGB fell into negative territory. This suggests expectations of prolonged low or negative interest rates. U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Yellen said that U.S. officials are looking into the option of negative interest rates. The yield on a ten-year U.S. treasury bond fell to 1.63 percent on Thursday. The spread between this ten year government bond and a high-yield corporate bond has climbed to its highest level since the financial crisis (see below).

junkspread_feb132016

Market volatility, as measured by the CBOE VIX, closed above 25 all week, ending the week at 25.04. Oil prices fell further during the week, with the benchmark U.S. measure, front month contracts for West Texas Intermediate crude, closing Friday at USD29.44 per barrel. On Thursday, the price per barrel hit a twelve year low of $26.05 (see below).

oil_feb132016