“Both poker and investing are games of incomplete information. You have a certain set of facts and you are looking for situations where you have an edge, whether the edge is psychological or statistical.” –  David Einhorn

Looking with interest at the continuation of the rally in both equities and credit, including the high beta space while looking at the continuation in worsening macro data coming out of Europe, when it came to selecting our title analogy, thanks our fondness for behavioral psychology, we decided to go for the “Zeigarnik” effect given most investors are focusing these days on the uncompleted task of the Fed’s balance sheet reduction. In psychology, the “Zeignarnik effect” states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. In Gestalt psychology, the Zeigarnik effect has been used to demonstrate the general presence of Gestalt phenomena: not just appearing as perceptual effects, but also present in cognition. If a task is interrupted, the reduction of tension is impeded. Through continuous tension, the content is made more easily accessible, and can be easily remembered. The Zeigarnik effect suggests that students who suspend their study, during which they do unrelated activities (such as studying unrelated subjects or playing games), will remember material better than students who complete study sessions without a break (McKinney 1935; Zeigarnik, 1927). The results of the study of the “Zeigarnik effect” suggest that a desire to complete a task can cause it to be retained in a person’s memory until it has been completed, and that the finality of its completion enables the process of forgetting it to take place. In similar fashion the desire of the Fed to complete its balance sheet reduction could generate we think, a “Zeigarnik effect” in investors mind. After all it seems to us that the Fed’s balance sheet contraction is more influential on assets prices than rates hike, hence the importance of the “Zeigarnik effect” but we ramble again…

In this week’s conversation, we would like to look at the state of credit markets and US in particular given the significant rise in leverage in recent years versus Europe, as well as the state of the US consumer. 


  • Macro and Credit – R is for “recession” and D is for “deleveraging”. 
  • Final charts – Central banks to markets: let’s be friends again…
  • Macro and Credit – R is for “recession” and D is for “deleveraging”. 

The central banking cavalry came late to the rescue with both the Fed and the PBOC coming to support risk assets in general and high beta in particular. Given the even weaker tone coming out of Europe we think it won’t take long until we see more support coming from the ECB particularly given the grim growth outlook for the likes of Italy and its continuing ailing financial sector. Given that the European Banking Union remain “unfinished business”, it is we think another case of “Zeigarnik effect” as the “doom loop” aka the nexus between the sovereign and the banks is yet to be meaningfully addressed. 

In our previous conversation we pointed out to the more pronounced slowdown affecting Europe including France as well. With French Services PMI at 47.5 in January, at the lowest level in the last 4 years versus 49 in December it doesn’t bode well for French GDP going forward:

– graph source Bloomberg

This is what we had to say about France in our last conversation about France:

“The situation for French corporate treasures when it comes to cash flows from operations is deteriorating to a level close to 2012-2013 follow the Euro crisis. This we think, warrants close monitoring, given we think that the ongoing “attrition warfare” between the French government and the “yellow jackets” is taking its toll on the French economy as a whole, which as we reminded you last week is very much “services” orientated relative to other countries of the European Union (80% for France vs 76% of GDP on average).” – source Macronomics January 2019

Sure there is global weaker tone when it comes to macro data, but it is no doubt more pronounced in some places and in Europe in particular hence our concerns and the use of the dreaded “R” word, “R” for recession when it comes to Europe, with Germany coming close to it recently.

But, the latest dovish tone from the Fed is very supportive for high beta, bearish US dollar, bullish Emerging Markets equities, bullish gold and gold stocks as well.

With global “easing” on its way back, following investors fears of a policy mistakes and with a Fed more S&P 500 dependent thanks to the wealth effect, credit could see a return of “goldilocks” thanks to low rates volatility. 

The “R” word has been rising as of late thanks to the global deceleration in global trade on top of a flattening yield curve, but when it comes to credit markets in general and US credit markets in particular, it seems that the “D” word, “D” for deleveraging is staging a comeback as indicated by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their Situation Room note from the 29th of January entitled “The (soft) floor on credit fundamentals”:

The (soft) floor on credit fundamentals

Our view is that large capital structures in the corporate bond market will go to great length to defend their IG ratings as it could become prohibitively expensive to operate in high yield. That (soft) floor on fundamentals remains one of the reasons we are overweight BBB-rated names. We make a couple of timely observations. First, although the situation remains evolving, we note that General Electric – the 6th largest BBB-rated issuer – is now again trading like the BBB-rated name it currently is, which is a remarkable turnaround after trading in line with BB-rated names during its weakest period last October/November (Figure 1).

Second, when Verizon – the second largest BBB – reported earnings this morning they managed to disappoint and the stock declined more than 3%. However with the company’s emphasis on deleveraging credit investors where not disappointed as spreads tightened about 2bps. AT&T – the largest BBB – was downgraded to BBB-flat in June last year. We would argue that for very large issuers BBB-flat is effectively the floor on ratings, as with further downgrades Fallen Angel risk would be too high for many investors. Since June 30, 2018 – when AT&T became BBB-flat rated in the indices – credit spreads in the Telecom sector, which is dominated by Verizon and AT&T, have tightened 12bps even as the overall IG market widened 10bps (Figure 2).

While we appreciate the longer term challenges to the Telecom industry from technological change, for the next several years we are comforted by relatively stable cash flows and the financial flexibility to support BBB ratings afforded by high dividend yields in the 4.5%-6.6% range. Hence our overweight stance on the Telecom sector.” – source Bank of America Merrill Lynch

If there is indeed a slowly but surely rise in the cost of capital, yet at more tepid pace thanks to the latest dovish tone from the Fed, then indeed, this could be more supportive for credit, if companies choose the deleveraging route in the US to defend their credit ratings. In this kind of scenario, it would be more “bond” friendly than “equity” friendly from a dividend perspective we think.

In addition to a potential “D” for deleveraging story playing out for the US, Europe as well could also see a more defensive balance sheet stance coming from CFOs given the weakening growth outlook more pronounced on European shores. On that very subject we read some interesting additional points made by Bank of America Merrill Lynch in their note mentioned above:

Credit Strategy/Equity Strategy: Who are the refi “losers”?

From the era of hubris… to the reality check

Between 2012 and 2017, European corporates basked in ever-declining debt costs, thanks to unprecedented support from the ECB. The result was a steady boost to Earnings Per Share estimates. Buoyant credit markets thus led equity markets higher. But now the tables have turned, and the equity market should be prepared for a reversal of this symbiotic relationship. European credit spreads have doubled over the last year and companies are finding that they must now pay large concessions on bond deals to attract the requisite demand. Moreover, bond refinancing is a pressing need for a number of companies that failed to term-out their debt maturities during the good times. We think that credit markets now signal that EPS downgrades lie ahead.

A walk into the future – who are the refinancing “losers”?

Table 1 screens for European issuers that could see the greatest EPS downgrades from refinancing their 1-5yr debt. Based on today’s credit landscape, we calculate EPS hits of up to 4%. Which names tend to be captured by our screen? Those with plenty of frontend debt still, and those where credit markets have already priced-in steep credit curves.

While Table 1 highlights a variety of names, reflecting these mix of themes, (peripheral) utilities, autos, industrials and telecoms feature prominently. And while there may be mitigants to EPS hits for utilities (regulatory regimes) and autos (financial debt), if debt costs continue to rise in Europe, these sectors would be impacted in other ways.

The canary in the credit mine for stocks

At the height of ECB QE, interest costs for European companies had dropped to 20yr lows. However, interest expenses returning to pre-QE levels will likely become a reality, and will be a further headwind to an already slowing profit cycle. EPS Revision Ratios have been trending down since 2017, when credit spreads turned, and our top-down profit cycle model is predicting 0% EPS growth this year. While operational leverage is undoubtedly the key profitability driver, a 100bps rise in interest costs could lead to a ~2% hit to European EPS. Our strategic view on equity styles and sectors is to focus on quality companies with higher profitability and lower leverage – names that we think will be less vulnerable to rising interest cost and widening credit spreads.

Defend the debt…not the dividend

Companies manage to shareholders, not bondholders. That is the unspoken rule. But we believe that this narrative may no longer hold in today’s world of tougher debt rollovers. Equity investors should be prepared for companies to “defend” their debt more than their dividend going forward. Equity investors should therefore be mindful of companies with a high quantum of front-end bonds, and with high dividend payout ratios.

Who are the refi “winners” still?

The silver lining for equity investors is that while debt costs are rising everywhere, some companies have been relatively slow to refinance their bonds over the last few years, and are thus paying higher-than-market coupons on their existing debt. When refinancing time comes, we believe these companies (Table 2) will likely see a small EPS boost.

– source Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Whereas 2018 was not a good vintage for European stocks, then indeed there might be more additional pain for some equities holders should CFOs in Europe as well embrace a more defensive balance sheet stance, though, leverage in Europe has been creeping up at a much slower pace with the exception of France, being the outlier when it comes to corporate credit leverage overall.

We pointed out in our previous conversations that corporate treasurers in France were becoming more cautious given the deterioration they were seeing in their operating cash flows and slowdown in activity. We could therefore see more dividend cuts coming from French local players, if indeed CFOs adopt a more credit friendly approach when it comes to their balance sheet. The French “leverage” is highlighted in the below Barclays chart from their European Equity and Credit Strategy report from the 30th of January entitled “How worried should we be about Credit?”:

– source Barclays

In relation to the European situation we read with interest Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Credit/Equity Strategy note from the 29th of January entitled “Who are the refi losers”:

Canary in the credit mine for stocks

The end of all-time lows on interest charges, as QE ends Since the inception of ECB QE in 2015, corporate borrowing costs have been falling up until 2017, when we saw the Euro cost of debt drop to all-time lows (Chart 5).

With ECB QE coming to an end, we have seen widening corporate credit spreads amid a widespread economic downturn and trade tensions. In periods of declining macro conditions, although safe-haven government bond yields tend to fall amid expectations of looser monetary policy, corporate credit spreads tend to widen due to the perception of rising default risks.

Interest expenses returning to pre-QE levels becomes especially important when EPS Revision Ratios in Europe have been trending down since May ’17 (chart 6) and our topdown earnings model predicts 0% EPS growth in Europe over the next 12 months (chart 7).

Unsurprisingly, investors are increasingly demanding that companies preserve cash to pay down debt rather than spend it on dividends or capex (chart 8).

We prefer more defensive High Quality names with lower relative quantities of frontend debt (or flatter credit curves). These are names that are less likely to see a hit to EPS from future debt refinancing, we think. Also similar to the list, we are strategically overweight the Food & Beverages equity sector in Europe.

European stocks dropped 18% last year, peak-to-trough, but have recovered the majority of December’s losses this year. Recent Fed action has clearly brought short-term relief, but so far has failed to generate large inflows back into Euro corporate credit. The key question is whether we can see a repeat of 2016, when the Fed took a long pause – and helped credit markets. However, in Europe, we think the ECB are unlikely to be able to offer new big stimulus, given the political constraints of QE.

We would note that equities have 88% correlation with credit spreads. But credit markets can also serve as useful leading indicators for equity investors. Large declines in EUR HY credit spreads have reliably signaled major troughs in equities in the past. With global growth in question, central banks are the only game in town (chart 9).

The credit market-equity market nexus

Note as well, that our analysis shows that a rise in European high-yield spreads of 100bp leads to an approximate 2% hit to market EPS in Europe (from the current levels). Given that our top-down model for European earnings suggests 0% EPS growth in 2019, we think that this is quite a meaningful number.” – source Bank of America Merrill Lynch

If indeed the Fed’s dovish pattern has been more positive for US equity holders including the high beta space, we do agree with Bank of America Merrill Lynch that, in Europe, the story might play out differently, with equities benefiting less from the ECB than credit markets overall. With slowing growth we continue to dislike European banks equities. From a credit perspective, it is more on a case by case basis we think but we would rather own selected credit from European banks than their stocks as far as we are concerned regardless of the high beta/cheap valuation put forward by some pundits or “confidence men” out there. 

So does it mean a return for “goldilocks” for credit? Sure they are many external factors such as Brexit and other geopolitical factors that come into play but, given the Fed has been in the driving seat in the most recent “risk-on” mood, there is a potential for a continuation of the rebound but probably not as significant as the one we saw during the second part of 2016 thanks to the rally in oil prices. We have touched this subject before on numerous occasions but when it come to a sustained rally for US High Yield, oil prices do matter a lot given the exposure to the Energy sector. 

With a notable slowdown in global growth on the back of rising angst surrounding the outcome of the trade war between the United States and China, with central banks coming to the rescue there is indeed a potential for credit to continue to perform on the back of the stabilization of fund flows in the asset class. In relation to US corporate credit’s potential for pushing the United States into recession, as we stated before, earnings will be essential in 2019. On this subject we read with interest UBS’s take from their Global Macro Strategy note from the 28th of January entitled “Credit Perspectives – US Corporate Credit – What we worry about and what we don’t”:

“While US growth is coming lower, rest of the world growth is still falling even quicker. Much as we think that at the aggregate level there are mitigating factors that imply US corporate debt won’t itself lead to a US recession, there seems to be little doubt higher leverage means the US economy is more vulnerable to a profits slowdown, even one that has its origin abroad. The lack of willingness and ability from China to give a major stimulus this time has compromised growth both in Asia and Europe. Given that Asia has been a big driver of the demand for both tech and energy, key sectors for the US LL and HY markets, a slowdown here could have a big impact on US spreads. Energy issuers are still amongst the most vulnerable, even if the breakeven price for shale has fallen to USD 40-50 per barrel on WTI (Figure 24).

At those levels HY energy spreads could rise to 800-1000bps, we estimate. For the IG space, the big risk is European financials, to which US financials display a very tight correlation (Figure 25), and which have widened but less than would have been expected in the face of a sharp growth slowdown in Europe.

However, the decline in credit market liquidity means a sign of relative calm should not be read as a signal of health. Things could change dramatically with a few downgrades, or an uptick in NPLs.” – source UBS

Given the significant rally in European credit since the inception of QE in Europe and with the ECB purchasing directly corporate credit, should a new TLTRO materialize in the coming months to continue to support the European financial sector, we do not think the upside will be as significant as seen before. We do have to agree with UBS namely that the “Zeigarnik effect” of our “generous gamblers” will probably be less potent than previously in engineering a significant rebound in credit markets à la 2016.

Moving back to the subject of earnings and risk-on/Goldilocks, we think there is limited upside in 2019 and we did warn in 2018, that when it came to earnings estimates, analysts were being overly optimistic in their outlook. December has clearly set the tone for vicious EPS revisions and cuts in many instances. If indeed CFOs become much more defensive of their balance sheet, then we could see more dividend cuts in 2019, which would be more credit positive, no wonder we suggested to seek higher quality in US Investment Grade versus high beta credit, performance wise, it has been more supportive to play quality (ratings) over quantity (high beta/yield) as highlighted in the below charts from Bank of America Merrill Lynch from their Credit Market Strategist note from the 25th of January entitled “High grades to IG”:

High grades to IG

While equities and high yield ended this week roughly flat (Figure 1) the strong rally in investment grade continued with credit spreads tightening at a roughly 5bps weekly pace (Figure 2).

This makes sense as the key economic data release this week – Jobless Claims – at the best level since the 1960s (Figure 3) confirms recession risk remains remote. Moreover, the Fed remains clearly on hold for an extended period of time (Figure 4) on the negative GDP impacts of tighter financial conditions and uncertainties surrounding trade war and the government shutdown.

For IG, the material decline in rate hiking risks in reaction to just some tenths cuts to economic growth is a good tradeoff. Being relatively more sensitive to economic growth for high yield and equities the tradeoff is a bit different.

The most likely scenario for how this year plays out, in our view, is continued improvement in the macro – US government reopens, Brexit resolves, US–China relations de-escalate and the US economy continues to grow above trend. As financial conditions ease this environment eventually puts the Fed in a position to resume its rate hiking cycle – probably sometime in the middle part of the year – which is going to be a more formidable challenge for IG. For now, we expect tighter credit spreads – although obviously the first big step has already been taken – but over time IG outperformance fades and turns to underperformance. We remain overweight IG corporate bonds.” – source Bank of America Merrill Lynch

So yes, clearly, there is room for slightly more tightening with the Fed’s dovish tilt and lack of interest rates volatility with falling inflation expectations. In terms of upside, it is a question of not having “great expectations” and being very selective hence the return of global macro and active management at this stage of the cycle with continued rising dispersion. 

Our final charts below clearly highlight the importance of central banks and in particular the Fed in driving asset prices, with its balance sheet policy reduction being the most important factor at play when it comes to the “Zeigarnik effect”.

  • Final charts – Central banks to markets: let’s be friends again…

With the most recent dovish tilt coming out of the US Federal Reserve, no surprise “risk-on” lives on. It is all about after all a question of “growth sensitive assets” as indicated in our final charts from Bank of America Merrill Lynch The Inquirer note from the 30th of January entitled “Wanted: Monetary easing, not Verbal flexibility”:

All indicators point to weak global growth, and suggest EASING monetary policy

1) Only 5 out of 38 economies are seeing rising OECD leading economic indicators (LEI). The net proportion of countries with rising LEI is in the bottom decile of its history since 1988. 2) The world’s monetary base shrunk 1.7% YoY in November, only the sixth time since 1980. All prior five occurrences of a shrinking monetary base were associated with recessions in Asia/emerging markets, and ALL were eventually associated with global monetary easing. The Fed’s plan to “watch paint dry” and shrink its balance sheet by USD50bn/month this year, is likely to shrink the global real monetary base by 5% YoY by end-2019. Global central banks are implying a massive rise in the money multiplier to counteract this, and/or a rise in monetary velocity to keep nominal GDP growth humming. We think these assumptions are heroic. 3) The global 1m earnings revisions at 0.5 (i.e. for every upward revision there are two downward revisions) is in its bottom decile. 4) Asset prices that have an opinion on global growth (Dr Copper, Dr Sotheby’s, Dr. Halliburton etc.) are in their lowest decile. Again, prior instances of such analyst pessimism and weak asset prices were followed by monetary easing. Policymakers seem to be flexible, and the markets like this flexibility if data weakens. Next stop easing?” – source Bank of America Merrill Lynch

Given the “Zeignarnik effect” states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks, it seems that markets are more than happy to remember an incomplete balance sheet reduction from the Fed at this stage but, we ramble again…

“An educated person is one who has learned that information almost always turns out to be at best incomplete and very often false, misleading, fictitious, mendacious – just dead wrong.” – Russell Baker, American journalist.

Stay tuned!

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