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Jenga-like structure builds in credit markets

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For one influential watcher of the credit world, conditions in the corporate bond market are starting to look unnerving.

Matt Mish, who heads up UBS’s credit strategy team, likens the current state of the market to a tower of Jenga blocks. At the moment, crucial support is being provided by central bank buying across the globe, holding borrowing costs low and providing a backstop if investor demand falls. As that support is removed, piece by piece, the tower could begin to wobble.

“At some point, investors are going to realise that the Jenga puzzle is losing more and more pieces,” said Mr Mish. “It doesn’t mean the tower will definitely collapse but it has the potential to create more volatility.”

Bankers say that, while the topic may not pose an immediate risk, it is beginning to crop up in conversations with clients. How do central banks gently pare their commitment to support credit markets, and what happens if they fall short of it?

“The optimism priced into the market is substantial,” said Mark Lynagh, co-head of European debt markets at BNP Paribas. “It is very much driven by central bank support and an assumption that it will continue in parallel to a successful vaccine rollout. If there is an underwhelming aspect to any of that, it poses a risk to the credit market.”

In the US, the first Jenga block to be taken out came at the end of the year, with the wind-down of the corporate credit facilities that had come to the market’s rescue during the worst of the coronavirus-induced sell-off in March. The US Federal Reserve’s historic decision to begin buying corporate bonds bolstered investor confidence and opened the floodgates to new lending, allowing companies to plug the holes left by the economic downturn with fresh debt. 

Despite the facilities’ withdrawal, the tower remains standing, with average yields on both investment-grade and high-yield bonds remaining at or around record lows. 

The second support to be removed is expected to be a tapering of the Fed’s purchases of government bonds, to begin as early as this year, according to some predictions. Fed chair Jay Powell said this week that the central bank must be “very careful in communicating about asset purchases” because of the sensitivity among investors about the removal of support for the economy. Whatever the Fed does not buy will need to be bought by other investors and more supply, all else being equal, tends to mean lower prices and higher yields. 

When rising Treasury yields are tied to inflation, it is typically no bad thing for corporate bonds. Higher inflation erodes the value of outstanding debt and often indicates higher growth, supporting companies’ ability to repay it. However, rising real yields, which account for any inflationary effects, are an indication of higher borrowing costs for corporates. There have been glimpses of this already this year.

Still, corporate bond markets have largely not flinched. Many investors remain assured that the Fed will step in should markets falter again, bolstering appetite to buy corporate debt. Ending the corporate credit facilities is of little consequence in the current environment, so long as the Fed is willing to reintroduce them if needed. Rising real yields are less of a threat if the Fed will loosen policy again, should it come to that. 

By moving so swiftly and decisively in March, the Fed has created the assumption that it will do so again. This week, in response to signs that investors might be pricing in tapering this year, Mr Powell assured the market: “Now is not the time to be talking about exit.”

The situation is akin to the challenge faced by Fed chair Ben Bernanke after the 2008 financial crisis. In 2013, after multiple rounds of quantitative easing, the suggestion that the central bank might begin to reduce support in the future caused a sharp move higher in Treasury yields.

In the background, the Fed’s ability to repeat the actions it took last year is already being curtailed. As part of December’s relief package, the central bank is prevented from reinstating the corporate credit facilities without Congress’s approval. It means that even if the Fed maintains that it will do whatever it takes to support market functioning, the reality may be harder to implement without the support of lawmakers.

“Most investors think that the programmes could be reintroduced,” said Mr Mish. “But it’s not clear they will have the same punch.”

In turn, if the view that the Fed is less able to provide a backstop to credit markets becomes more widespread, then a reassessment of the risk of lending to companies without it will quickly follow. 

joe.rennison@ft.com



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Copper hits record high with demand expected to rise sharply

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Copper prices hit a record high on Friday in the latest leg of a broad rally across commodity markets sparked by the reopening of major economies and booming demand for minerals needed for the green energy transition.

Copper, used in everything from electric vehicles to washing machines, rose as much as 1.2 per cent to $10,232 a tonne, surpassing its previous peak set in 2011 at the height of a previous commodities boom.

The price has more than doubled from its pandemic lows in March last year due to voracious demand from China, the biggest consumer of the metal, and also investors looking to bet on a big uptick in the global economy and protect their portfolios against potential for rising inflation.

Government stimulus packages and the shift towards electrification to meet the goals of the Paris agreement on climate change are expected to fuel further demand for the metal, which analysts and industry executives believe could hit $15,000 a tonne by 2025.

“Capacity utilisation rates of our customers are the highest in a decade and that’s before stimulus money both in Europe and the US has started to flow,” said Kostas Bintas, head of copper trading at Trafigura, one of the world’s biggest independent commodity traders. “That will be significant.”

The US and Europe were becoming significant factors in the consumption of copper for the first time in decades, he added. “Before, it’s effectively been a China-only story. That is changing fast.”

Concerns about the long-term supply of copper due to lack of investment by large miners has also pushed up prices. There are only a few large projects in a development, while most of the world’s easily produced copper has already been mined.

“The current pipeline of projects likely to start producing in the next few years represents only 2.3 per cent of forecast mine supply,” said Daniel Haynes, analyst at banking group ANZ. “This is well down on previous cycles, including 2010-13 when it reached 12 per cent.”

The upward march of other raw materials is showing no signs of abating. Steelmaking ingredient iron ore traded above $200 a tonne for the first time as China returned to work after the Labour Day holidays in early May. 

In spite of production cuts in Tangshan and Handan, two key steelmaking cities in China, analysts expect output to remain solid over the next couple of quarters. 

“Recent production cuts in Tangshan have boosted demand for higher-quality ore and prompted mills to build iron ore inventories as their margins are on the rise with steel supply being restricted,” said Erik Hedborg, a principal analyst at CRU Group.

“Iron ore producers are enjoying exceptionally high margins as around two-thirds of seaborne supply only require prices of $50 a tonne to break even.”

Elsewhere, tin on Thursday rose above $30,000 a tonne for the first time in a decade before easing. Tin is used to make solder — the substance that binds circuit boards and wiring — and is benefiting from strong demand from the electronics industry, which has been lifted by growing numbers of stay-at-home workers.

US wood prices continued to race higher ahead of the peak in the US homebuilding season in the summer with lumber futures rising to a record high above $1,600 per 1,000 board feet length, up from $330 this time last year.

Agricultural commodities also continued to rally as a result of a particularly dry season in Brazil, concerns about drought in the US and Chinese demand. Strong increases in food prices have started to affect global consumers. Corn rose to a more than eight-year high of $7.68 this week, while coffee has risen almost 10 per cent since the start of month, hitting a four-year high of $1.54 a pound this week.



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Wall Street stocks waver as investors await US jobs data

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Wall Street stock markets wavered, with tech losses dragging down some indices, but remained close to record highs ahead of US jobs data on Friday that could pile pressure on the Federal Reserve to rethink its ultra-supportive monetary policies.

The S&P 500 was up 0.2 per cent in the afternoon in New York, hovering slightly below its all-time high achieved late last month. The peak was reached following a long rally supported by the Fed and other central banks unleashing trillions of dollars into financial markets in pandemic emergency spending programmes.

The technology-heavy Nasdaq Composite, however, which is stacked with growth companies sensitive to changing interest rate expectations, was down 0.5 per cent by the afternoon in New York, the fifth straight losing session for the index.

The divergence of the two indices followed patterns from earlier this year, when investors sold out of growth companies over fears of rising rates and poured into more cyclical plays. That trade has been more muted recently but could be coming back, said Nick Frelinghuysen, a portfolio manager at Chilton Trust.

“It’s been a bit more ambiguous . . . in terms of what regime is leading this market higher, is it quality and growth or is it value and cyclicals?” Frelinghuysen said. “We’re in a little bit of a wait-and-see mode right now.”

The 10-year Treasury yield, which rose rapidly earlier this year amid inflation fears, declined 0.05 percentage points to 1.56 per cent on Thursday.

In Europe, the Stoxx 600 closed down 0.2 per cent, hovering just below its record high reached in mid-April.

With the US economy close to recovering losses incurred during coronavirus shutdowns, economists expect the US government to report on Friday that the nation’s employers created 1m new jobs in April. Investors will scrutinise the non-farm payrolls report for clues about possible next moves by the Fed, which has said it will continue with its $120bn a month of bond purchases until the labour market recovers.

Up to 1.5m jobs would “not be enough for the Fed to shift”, analysts at Standard Chartered said. “Between 1.5m and 2m, there is likely to be uncertainty on Fed perceptions.”

Central bankers worldwide had a strong “communications challenge” around the eventual withdrawal of emergency monetary support measures, said Roger Lee, head of UK equity strategy at Investec.

“If it is orderly, then you can expect a gentle continuation of this year’s stock market rotation” from lockdown beneficiaries such as technology shares into economically sensitive businesses such as oil producers and banks, Lee said. “If it is disorderly, it will be a case of ‘sell what you can’.”

On Thursday the Bank of England upgraded its growth forecasts for the UK economy but stopped short of following Canada in scaling back its asset purchases.

The BoE maintained the size of its quantitative easing programme at £895bn, while also keeping its main interest rate on hold at a record low of 0.1 per cent. The British central bank added that while its asset purchases “could now be slowed somewhat” after it became the dominant buyer of UK government debt last year, “this operational decision should not be interpreted as a change in the stance of monetary policy”.

Sterling slipped 0.1 per cent against the dollar to $1.389.

The dollar, as measured against a basket of trading partners’ currencies, weakened 0.4 per cent. The euro gained 0.4 per cent to $1.206.

Brent crude fell 1.1 per cent to $68.17 a barrel.



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Gensler raises concern about market influence of Citadel Securities

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Gary Gensler, new chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, has expressed concern about the prominent role Citadel Securities and other big trading firms are playing in US equity markets, warning that “healthy competition” could be at risk.

In testimony released ahead of his appearance before the House financial services committee on Thursday, Gensler said he had directed his staff to look into whether policies were needed to deal with the small number of market makers that are taking a growing share of retail trading volume.

“One firm, Citadel Securities, has publicly stated that it executes about 47 per cent of all retail volume. In January, two firms executed more volume than all but one exchange, Nasdaq,” Gensler said.

“History and economics tell us that when markets are concentrated, those firms with the greatest market share tend to have the ability to profit from that concentration,” he said. “Market concentration can also lead to fragility, deter healthy competition, and limit innovation.”

Gensler is scheduled to appear at the third hearing into the explosive trading in GameStop and other so-called meme stocks in January.

Trading volumes in the US surged that month as retail investors flocked into markets, prompting brokers such as Robinhood to introduce trading restrictions that angered investors and drew the attention of lawmakers.

The market activity galvanised policymakers in Washington and investors. Lawmakers have focused much of their attention on “payment for order flow”, in which brokers such as Robinhood are paid to route orders to market makers like Citadel Securities and Virtu.

That practice has been a boon for brokers. It generated nearly $1bn for Robinhood, Charles Schwab and ETrade in the first quarter, according to Piper Sandler.

Gensler noted that other countries, including the UK and Canada, do not allow payment for order flow.

“Higher volumes of trades generate more payments for order flow,” he said. “This brings to mind a number of questions: do broker-dealers have inherent conflicts of interest? If so, are customers getting best execution in the context of that conflict?”

Gensler also said he had directed his staff to consider recommendations for greater disclosure on total return swaps, the derivatives used by the family office Archegos. The vehicle, run by the trader Bill Hwang, collapsed in March after several concentrated bets moved against the group, and banks have sustained more than $10bn of losses as a result.

Market watchdogs have expressed concerns that regulators had little or no view of the huge trades being made by Archegos.

“Whenever there are major market events, it’s a good idea to consider what risks they might have placed on the entire financial system, even when the system holds,” Gensler said.

“Issues of concentration, whether among market makers or brokers at the clearinghouse, may increase potential system-wide risks, should any single incumbent with significant size or market share fail.”



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