Monday, March 30, 2015

Treasury prices can go higher

The U.S. Federal Reserve sounded an “all clear” for Treasury securities at its March 18 meeting. With continued problems in the U.S. labor market, stagnant real wage growth, flagging retail sales and deflation worries, the Fed won't be raising rates anytime soon. Treasury prices, then, are sure to rise. 

The coming rally will draw strength from steps that central banks in Europe and Japan are taking to boost exports by devaluing their currencies, which drives investors to the U.S. What's more, government-bond prices, even for Spanish and Italian debt, are higher than in the U.S. It won't be long before investors narrow those gaps by purchasing Treasuries.

The Fed started the springtime rally last week when it effectively signaled it wouldn't soon increase interest rates by cranking down forecasts for the federal funds rate and inflation. The economy, the Fed said, is now “moderating” instead of “expanding at a solid pace.” 

The central bank also cut its 2015 economic growth outlook to 2.5 percent from 3.4 percent, much like the repeated downgrades of its gross domestic product forecasts for 2012, 2013 and 2014. 
The Fed's post-meeting release dropped the statement that the Fed would be “patient” before raising interest rates. To make sure no one thought that meant an imminent rate increase, Chair Janet Yellen said: “Just because we have removed the word ‘patient’ from the statement doesn’t mean we’re going to be impatient.” 

The Fed’s dual mandate is to promote full employment and price stability. It hasn't accomplished either. Payroll employment has accelerated, with almost 282,000 new jobs a month in the last 11 months, significantly higher than the average of about 185,000 between October 2010 and March 2014. 

But most of the new jobs are in low-paying sectors such as retailing and hospitality, not high-paying fields such as manufacturing, utilities and information technology. Also, with corporate revenue growing slower in this business expansion versus other recoveries, the route to larger profits has been through cost-cutting. Most costs, directly or indirectly, are for labor. 

Real wages and median household incomes, as a result, have been flat, which slows down consumer spending. Households are putting away rather than spending the savings from the recent drop in gasoline prices. Retail sales fell in December, January and February, while the household savings rate jumped. 

The Fed defines its second mandate, price stability, as 2 percent inflation. Many other central banks use the 2 percent inflation target as well. They don’t love inflation, but they fear the deflation that has plagued Japan for two decades. As prices fall, potential buyers anticipate further declines by putting off purchases. Excess capacity and inventories mount and depress prices further. That confirms consumers' suspicions, so they further cut spending, to the detriment of economic growth. 

After the Fed’s March 18 announcement, Treasury bond prices leaped. I continue to believe that the 30-year Treasury yield, now 2.59 percent, will drop to 2 percent in a year, for a total return of about 15 percent. For a 30-year zero-coupon bond, I expect about an 18 percent return. I also look for the 10-year Treasury yield to drop from the current 2 percent to 1 percent, producing a total return of about 10 percent. 

With the odds falling for a Fed rate increase in the near future, investors are beginning to concentrate on the shrinking issuance of Treasury notes and bonds, which fell to $693 billion in February from $1.7 trillion in the 12 months ending May 2010, as the fiscal 2014 federal deficit declined to $483 billion from $1.4 trillion in fiscal 2009. On the demand side, foreigners continue to charge into Treasuries as the ultimate safe haven in a sea of global economic and financial trouble. Their holdings have jumped by almost $232 billion from January 2014.

 And there’s plenty of money available to buy Treasuries, with quantitative easing taking place in Japan and the euro zone. The Bank of Japan is buying up to $100 billion in securities a month, while the European Central Bank recently began purchasing $65 billion a month. As those central banks deliberately drive down their currencies, they encourage investors to flock to Treasuries.

There is another compelling argument for substantial rallies in Treasuries: The gaps between their yields and those of most developed countries are astoundingly wide. Those gaps are ridiculous -- unless you believe Spain and Italy issue higher-quality government obligations than the U.S.! Only Australia, among 17 developed foreign countries, has a higher 10-year bond yield than does the U.S., by 0.32 percentage point. 

These yield gaps scream to be closed, and no doubt will be, by a rally in Treasury prices. With the Bank of Japan and the ECB buying up sovereigns, yields in those regions will probably fall further. 

Investors in the euro zone and Japan can get better returns by buying Treasuries as opposed to their own sovereigns. They will get better capital appreciation as Treasuries rally. And they profit further as the dollar continues to rise against the yen, euro and almost every currency. 

What am I missing?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Copper prices have further downside risks

The commodity price boom that began after China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 has turned to bust. Copper prices are down 41 percent from their 2011 peak and probably have a lot further to go. 

So why are copper producers ignoring all the obvious economic signals -- lower demand, excess supply and falling prices -- and ratcheting up production? The answer is that producers have powerful incentives to increase output. 
(Disclosure: Gary Shilling manages investment portfolios in which copper is shorted, so I have a financial interest in falling copper prices.) 

Let me explain. Think back to the early 2000s, when it was accepted wisdom that fast-growing China would soak up most of the world’s commodities. China, indeed, has been buying more than 40 percent of annual global output of copper, tin, lead, zinc and other nonferrous metals. It's been gobbling up 50 percent of seaborne iron ore and huge quantities of coal. And it has built large stockpiles of crude oil. 

As manufacturing shifted to China from Europe and North America, the Middle Kingdom became a much bigger buyer and user of commodities than its domestic economy required. 

The jump in prices led commodity producers to invest in big new operations in Australia, Brazil and elsewhere. Many of these projects came online just as global demand slowed in a classic boom-to-bust commodity cycle. 

But even as China's commodity-intensive exports to North America and Europe atrophy and China's own infrastructure spending slows, excess capacity keeps building. The reason: It’s not economical to suspend some of these projects due to high sunk costs and shutdown expenses. Some producers, moreover, may not be free to slash output as prices swoon, especially if they’re government-controlled and need foreign exchange to service sovereign debts. 

To see how market versus non-market forces are interacting, compare two widely used metals, aluminum and copper. Aluminum prices are down 32 percent from their April 2011 top, much less than copper's 41 percent freefall. Six of the top 10 aluminum companies are in Russia and China, where government decisions, not economic forces, often prevail.

The government and state-owned enterprises in China push aluminum output to provide employment and to achieve other national goals, such as self-sufficiency in aluminum. In Russia and India, the goal is to generate revenue from aluminum exports that can be exchanged for currencies needed to pay down debt; in Brazil, the driver is substituting domestically produced aluminum for imports. 

Aluminum production in these emerging economies has been booming. Even though half of China’s output is produced at a loss, the Chinese government buys excess metal from smelters to avoid bankruptcies, bad bank debts and unemployment.

 Much of the surge in aluminum output, however, is offset by cutbacks in the U.S., Canada and Australia. Alcoa, for example, is closing high-cost plants around the world. Since 2009, the aluminum industry in developed countries has shuttered more than 50 smelters. These moves have kept global prices from plummeting. 

By contrast, copper is produced mainly in the developing countries of Chile, Peru, Congo, Zambia and Russia. China is a net exporter of aluminum but an importer of copper. China had been building copper stockpiles but apparently that has slowed, along with China's slackened growth. The premium paid for copper on the Shanghai market over the London Metal Exchange was $85 a ton at the end of January, down from $160 a year earlier.

Copper output in developed countries has been restrained by falling prices, except in the U.S. and Australia, where output has risen because the marginal cost of production is even lower than market prices. Copper inventories are rising as output grows in Chile, China, Russia and other countries. In Chile, the world’s largest copper producer, stocks rose by 170,000 tons in the second half of 2014, the highest in a decade except for a brief spurt in 2013. 

Copper is used in almost every manufactured product, from plumbing fixtures to autos to machinery. Some 56 percent goes into electrical equipment and construction, which are weakening as China's economy shifts from an emphasis on manufactured exports, infrastructure and construction to consumer spending and services. 

Since copper is traded in dollars, the strong greenback makes it more expensive for non-U.S. buyers, putting more downward pressure on prices. At the same time, since about 93 percent of copper is produced outside the U.S., labor and other production costs are dropping in dollar terms, encouraging yet more output.  

The upshot is that about 20 percent of mined copper worldwide is unprofitable at current prices.  A global copper surplus is likely this year, the first since 2009, with supply exceeding demand by 500,000 tons, or 2 percent of annual refined production, according to Goldman Sachs. The International Copper Study Group, made up of copper-producing and consuming countries, says demand will rise just 1.1 percent this year while output jumps 4.3 percent. 

In an atmosphere of falling commodity prices, copper will probably continue to be weak; it's a favorite short in portfolios I manage. The lower the price of copper, the more developing economies must produce and export to get the same number of dollars to service their foreign debts. And the more they export, the more the downward pressure on copper prices. That forces them to produce and export even more, in a self-reinforcing downward spiral. 

Look out below.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Big declines for Oil ahead

At about US$50 a barrel, crude oil prices are down by more than half from their June 2014 peak of US$107. They may fall more, perhaps even as low as US$10 to US$20. Here’s why.

US economic growth has averaged 2.3 per cent a year since the recovery started in mid-2009. That’s about half the rate you might expect in a rebound from the deepest recession since the 1930s. Meanwhile, growth in China is slowing, is minimal in the euro zone and is negative in Japan. Throw in the large increase in US vehicle gas mileage and other conservation measures and it’s clear why global oil demand is weak and might even decline.

Oil prices

At the same time, output is climbing, thanks in large part to increased US production from hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling. US output rose by 15 per cent in the 12 months through November from a year earlier, based on the latest data, while imports declined 4 per cent.

Something else figures in the mix: The eroding power of the OPEC cartel. Like all cartels, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries is designed to ensure stable and above- market crude prices. But those high prices encourage cheating, as cartel members exceed their quotas. For the cartel to function, its leader -- in this case, Saudi Arabia -- must accommodate the cheaters by cutting its own output to keep prices from falling. But the Saudis have seen their past cutbacks result in market-share losses.

So the Saudis, backed by other Persian Gulf oil producers with sizable financial resources -- Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates -- embarked on a game of chicken with the cheaters. On November 27, OPEC said that it wouldn’t cut output, sending oil prices off a cliff. The Saudis figure they can withstand low prices for longer than their financially weaker competitors, who will have to cut production first as pumping becomes uneconomical.

What is the price at which major producers chicken out and slash output? Whatever that price is, it is much lower than the US$125 a barrel Venezuela needs to support its mismanaged economy. The same goes for Ecuador, Algeria, Nigeria, Iraq, Iran and Angola.

Saudi Arabia requires a price of more than US$90 to fund its budget. But it has US$726 billion in foreign currency reserves and is betting it can survive for two years with prices of less than US$40 a barrel.

Furthermore, the price when producers chicken out isn’t necessarily the average cost of production, which for 80 per cent of new US shale oil production this year will be US$50 to US$69 a barrel, according to Daniel Yergin of energy consultant IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates. Instead, the chicken-out point is the marginal cost of production, or the additional costs after the wells are drilled and the pipes are laid. Another way to think of it: It’s the price at which cash flow for an additional barrel falls to zero.

Last month, Wood Mackenzie, an energy research organization, found that of 2,222 oil fields surveyed worldwide, only 1.6 per cent would have negative cash flow at US$40 a barrel. That suggests there won’t be a lot of chickening out at US$40. Keep in mind that the marginal cost for efficient US shale-oil producers is about US$10 to US$20 a barrel in the Permian Basin in Texas and about the same for oil produced in the Persian Gulf.

Also consider the conundrum financially troubled countries such as Russia and Venezuela find themselves in: They desperately need the revenue from oil exports to service foreign debts and fund imports. Yet, the lower the price, the more oil they need to produce and export to earn the same number of dollars, the currency used to price and trade oil.

With new discoveries, stability in parts of the Middle East and increasing drilling efficiency, global oil output will no doubt rise in the next several years, adding to pressure on prices. US crude oil production is forecast to rise by 300,000 barrels a day during the next year from 9.1 million now.

Sure, the drilling rig count is falling, but it’s the inefficient rigs that are being idled, not the horizontal rigs that are the backbone of the fracking industry. Consider also Iraq’s recent deal with the Kurds, meaning that another 550,000 barrels a day will enter the market.

While supply climbs, demand is weakening. OPEC forecasts demand for its oil at a 14-year low of 28.2 million barrels a day in 2017, 600,000 less than its forecast a year ago and down from current output of 30.7 million. It also cut its 2015 demand forecast to a 12-year low of 29.12 million barrels.

Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency reduced its 2015 global demand forecast for the fourth time in 12 months by 230,000 barrels a day to 93.3 million and sees supply exceeding demand this year by 400,000 barrels a day.

Although the 40 per cent decline in US gasoline prices since April 2014 has led consumers to buy more gas-guzzling SUVs and pick-up trucks, consumers during the past few years have bought the most efficient blend of cars and trucks ever. At the same time, slowing growth in China and the shift away from energy-intensive manufactured exports and infrastructure to consumer services is depressing oil demand. China accounted for two-thirds of the growth in demand for oil in the past decade.

So look for more big declines in crude oil and related energy prices. My next column will cover the winners and losers from low oil prices.