Category: Global Macro

Is credit really the smart money?

Conventional wisdom holds that credit markets are “smart institutional money” that sees problems faster than  equity markets that  are full of less sophisticated retail investors.  I question whether that is still empirically true.  Retail investors now own large portions of the credit market, including high yield. Credit markets appear to be distorted by a combination of indexation and a reach for yield.   Its possible that bonds trading at par can be a false comfort signal for an equity investor looking at a highly leveraged company, because in many recent cases equity markets have been faster to react to bad news.

Retail ownership of credit markets.

However you slice and dice the data, there is clearly a lot more retail money in credit than there was a decade ago.  The media  mostly reports on noisy weekly or monthly flows, even though there has been a clear long term change.

Bond funds in general have experienced dramatic inflows over the past decade:

bond mutual funds.png

Source: ICI Fact Book 2017


The issues becomes more serious when you look just at the high yield part of the market. Boaz Weinstein of Saba Capital estimated that between ½ or ⅓ of junk bonds are owned by retail investors in the current market. The WSJ cited Lipper data that says mutual fund ownership of high yield bonds/loans is $97 billion today vs $18 billion a decade ago. ICI slices the data differently, and comes up with a much nosier data set for just floating rate unds, indicating large outflows in 2014 and 2015.  However it shows net assets in high yield bond funds up 3x compared to 2007, and the total number of funds up over 2x during that time.

High Yield inflows.png

Source: ICI Fact Book 2017

Its not just mutual funds either- there are now more closed end type fund structures that market towards retail investors.  BDCs experienced a fundraising renaissance through 2014, and are now active in all parts of the high yield credit markets- from large syndicated loans to lower middle market.  Closely related, before the last financial crisis, ago there was minimal retail ownership of CLO equity tranches, but now there are a few specialist funds, and a lot of BDCs have big chunks of it as well.     Oxford Lane and Eagle Point were sort of pioneers in marketing CLO investments to retail investors but many others have followed.   Interval funds are a tiny niche, but over half the funds in registration are focused on credit.  It seems just about every asset manager is cooking up a direct lending strategy.  The illiquid parts of the credit market are harder to quantify, but there has been a clear uptick in retail investor exposure since before the financial crisis.  The marginal buyer impacting pricing is increasingly likely to be a retail investor rather than an institution.  

Retail investors to exhibit more extreme herding behavior.  According to Ellington Management Group:

This feedback loop between asset returns and asset flows has magnified the growth of the high yield bubble.

Capital Distortions

Its pretty easy to make a loan, its much harder to get paid back.

-Jeffrey Aronson, Centerbridge Capital

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Trump’s foreign policy: Pulling a Homer

It is almost universally accepted that Donald Trump’s foreign policy is going to be a disaster. But what if his bizarre antics actually work? What if Trump pulls a Homer on foreign policy?

Trump Foreign Policy: Pulling a HomerTrump Foreign Policy: Pulling a Homer

Pulling a Homer

Here’s a scenario under which Trump ends up being known as a foreign policy success. It probably won’t happen, but if it does, you heard it here first.

  • The Iran protestors succeed in replacing or drastically reforming the government in Iran. The new regime remembers Trump was the first world leader to directly support them. US-Iran relations open up. Trump takes credit whether he deserves it or not.
  •  China and South Korea get so concerned with Trump’s impulsiveness that they finally decide to take action on North Korea. Trump takes credit whether he deserves it or not.
  • Israel and Palestine come  together in sort of a reverse Camp David summit as a result of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Both parties are concerned with Trump’s bizarre behaviour, and finally start negotiating from realistic basis. Trump takes credit whether he deserves it or not.
  • As a result ⅔ of the “Axis of Evil”  is fixed through diplomatic means, and Middle East peace achieved during the Trump administration. History books go on to credit him as a highly persuasive foreign policy president. Scott Adams’ “4d Chess” analogy for Trump’s actions, however preposterous it seems now, ends up becoming the accepted narrative.

Trump Foreign Policy Compared to Nixon

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Minsky and the Junk Bond Era

King of Capital: The Remarkable Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of Steve Schwarzman and Blackstone discusses the early days of the leveraged buyouts(LBOs) and junk bonds from the vantage point of Blackstone’s founders.

In 1978, KKR did an LBO of an industrial pumps make (Houdaille Industries). There had been many small LBOS of private businesses, but no one had gone that big,  done a public company. A young investment banker named Steve Schwartzman heard about the deal and realized he had to get his hands on that prospectus. “He sensed something new was afoot — a way to make fantastic profits and a new outlet for his talents, a new calling.

“I read that prospectus, looked at the capital structure, and realized the returns that could be achieved.” he recalled years later. “I said to myself, ‘This is a gold mine.’ It was like a Rosetta stone for how to do leveraged buyouts. “

Speculative Bridge Financing

It quickly became apparent how lucrative leveraged buyouts could be.

LBOs were financed with Junk Bonds. The process of issuing junk bonds was messy and cumbersome. It took most banks an extremely long time to issue bonds. Drexel was so adept at hawking junks, that companies and other banks in a deal would go forward on an LBO based solely on Drexel’s assurance that it was “highly confident” it could issue bonds. Other banks that couldn’t do that would offer short term financing, aka bridge loans, so a buyer could close a deal quickly, and then issue bonds later to repay bridge loans This alowed DLK, Merril Lynch, and First Boston to compete with Drexel in the LBO financing space.

But what if the bonds couldn’t issued? How would the bridge loan be paid for?

… bridge lending was risky for banks because they could end up stuck with inventories of large and wobbly loans if the market changed direction or the company stumbled between the time the deal was signed up and the marketing of the bonds. The peril was magnified because bridge loans bre high, junk bond-like interest rates, which ratcheted up to punishing levels if borrowers failed to retire the loans on schedule. The ratchets were meant to prod bridge borrowers to refinance quickly with junk, and up until the fall of 1989, every bridge loan issued by a major investment bank had been paid. But the ratchets began to work against the banks when the credit markets turned that fall. The rates shot so high that the borrowers couldn’t afford them, an the banks found themselves stuck with loans that were headed towards default.

In the late 80s/early 90s. several junk bond deals fell through with disastrous consequences. The $6.8 billion United airlines buyout turned out poorly. Several stores ended up going bankrupt due to a failed junk bond deal: Federated Department stores , the parent of Bloomingdale’s, Abraham & Strauss, Filene’s and Lazarus, etc. etc. First Boston nearly failed due to its exposure to junk bond deals. Blackstone mostly sidestepped the worst problems of the era, but fought hard to get refinancing in some cases, and had a couple deals jeopardized.

The Minsky view of junk bonds and LBOs

The collapse of the bridge financing market in the junk bond era illustrates a key idea in Hyman Minsky’s Financial Instability Hypothesis: the idea of three types of leverage.

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Freedom Corridor vs. Belt and Road

India’s opposition to One Belt One Road makes sense given the whole Kashmir issue, and general geopolitical competition.  Indian think tanks have therefore been warning about risk to both China and target countries(ie this article makes some good points but is a bit cliched and hyperbolic)

Making things more interesting,  India and Japan this month launched their own similar(albeit geographically narrower)  initiative: The Asia Africa Growth Corridor(AAGC), aka the Freedom Corridor.   Right now its still in the  development bank and think tank press release phase,   but India and Japan have strong incentive to follow up with real money pretty quickly.  India and Africa have a deep history of mercantile and maritime connections.  India’s Exim bank has already funded $8 billion in credit in Africa, according to Modi’s speech during an African Development Bank meeting, which was held in India last week.  Port infrastructure in East Africa and the Indian Ocean are likely to be the first priorities, along with agriculture and electricity.  Incidentally,  India and Japan are also  building a LNG terminal in Sri Lanka, a country that is heavily in debt to China as a result of controversial infrastructure projects.

There is a Chinese aphorism,  “When the sandpiper and the clam grapple, it is the fisherman who profits” (鹬蚌相争渔翁得利).  If China and India really end up competing by spending money around East Africa, companies involved in building or benefiting from improved infrastructure could reap a decent reward.    Will the benefits accrue to any outside minority investors in publicly listed companies?  Too soon to tell, but it will be interesting to watch. The usual caveats about EM corruption and waste apply to AAGC as much as they do to OBOR, but the financial media is likely to oversimplify.  India and Japan’s now official strategy could impact select companies listed in India and Japan, in addition to companies in the less developed capital markets of East Africa and Sri Lanka. 

Disequilibrium Analysis

George Soros treats developments in financial markets as a historical process. In The Alchemy of Finance, he outlines his theory of reflexivity, discusses historical developments in markets, and describes a real time “experiment” he undertook while running the Quantum fund in the 1980s.

Markets are an ideal laboratory for testing theories: changes are expressed in quantitative terms, and the data are easily accessible.

Three of the key interrelated concepts in his framework, are anti-equilibrium, Imperfect Knowledge, and Reflexivity.


In markets, equilibrium is a very rare special case. Further, adjustments rarely lead to new equilibrium. The economy is always in adjustment.

According to George Soros:

If we want to understand the real world we must divert our gaze from a hypothetical final outcome , and concentrate our attention on the process of change that we observe all around us.

In trying to deal with macroeconomic developments, equilibrium analysis is totally inappropriate. Nothing could be further removed from reality than the assumptions that the participants base their decisions on perfect knowledge. People are groping to anticipate the future with the help of whatever guideposts they can establish. The outcome tends to diverge from expectations, leading to constantly changing expectations, and constantly changing outcomes. The process is reflexive.

The stock market, is of course a perfect example:

The concept of an equilibrium seems irrelevant at best and misleading at worst. The evidence shows persistent fluctuations, whatever length of time is chosen as the period of observation. Admittedly, the underlying conditions that are supposed to be reflected in stock prices are also constantly changing, but it is difficult to establish any firm relationship between changes in stock prices and changes in underlying conditions. Whatever relationship can be established has to be imputed rather than observed.

So its better to focus on nature and direction of ongoing adjustments, rather than trying to identify an equilibrium.

Imperfect Knowledge

Perhaps more problematic with an exclusive focus on rarely occurring equilibrium conditions is the assumption of perfect knowledge. Perfect knowledge is impossible. Everything is a provisional hypothesis, subject to improvement. Soros makes the bias of market participants the center part of his analysis.


In natural sciences, usually the thinking of participants and the events themselves can be separated. However, when people are involved, there is interplay between thoughts and actions. There is a partial link to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The basic deductive nomological approach of science is inadequate. Use of probabilistic generalization, or some other novel scientific method is preferable.

Thinking plays a dual role. On the one hand, participants seek to understand the situation in which they participate; on the other, their understanding serves as the basis of decisions which influence the course of the events. The two roles interfere with each other.

The influence of this idea is inseparable from the theory of imperfect knowledge.

The participants’ perceptions are inherently flawed, and there is a two-way connection between flawed perceptions and the actual course of events, which results in a lack of correspondence between the two.

This two way connection is what Soros called “reflexivity.”

The thinking of participants, exactly because it is not governed by reality, is easily influenced by theories. In the field of natural phenomena, scientific method is effective only then its theories are valid, but in social political , and economic matters, theories can be effective without being valid.

Effective here, means having an impact. For example, in a bubble, the cost of capital for some companies drops to be absurdly low, relative to the risk of their respective enterprises. Consequently, some businesses that would have otherwise died, may go on to survive. (Example from two decades after the Alchemy of Finance was written: Peter Thiel mentions when being interviewed in Inside the House of Money, that Paypal did a massive capital raise right a the height of the tech bubble, even though it didn’t need the money at the time) On the flip side, a depression can be self fulfilling, if businesses are unable to refinance.

This seems to be especially true in the credit markets:

Loans are based on the lender’s estimation of the borrowers ability to service his debt. The valuation of the collateral is supposed to be independent of the act of lending; but in actual fact the act of lending can affect the value of the collateral. This is true of the individual case and of the economy as a whole. Credit expansion stimulates the economy and enhances the collateral values; the repayment or contraction of credit has a depressing influence both on the economy and on the valuation of collateral. The connection between credit and economy activity is anything but constant- for instance , credit for building a new factory has quite a different effect from credit for a leveraged buyout. This makes it difficult to quantify the connection between credit and economic activity. Yet it is a mistake to ignore it.

This is reminiscent of Hyman Minsky’s Financial Instability Hypothesis

In terms of the stock market, Soros asserts (1)Markets are always biased in one direction or another. (2) Markets can influence the events that they anticipate.