Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Credit Market Redux, Copper and China

TED Oct4 11 1yrMarkit iTraxx Europe Oct4 11

Markit CDX Oct4 11

Markit iTraxx Asia Oct4 11

China 5yr CDS Oct4 11

FCX Oct4 11VWO Oct4 11

GLD Oct4 11XOM Oct4 11

The credit markets are rumbling again, as measured by the TED (LIBOR-OIS) spread and widening credit default swap (CDS) spreads. Though the latter have been intensely worse for European debt indices over the last 3-4 months from the play-out over Greece and faltering European banks holding PIIGS sovereign debt, increasing spreads are seen across global CDS indices (Europe, NA, Asia - see Markit curves above), a potential precursor to a global slowdown.

In the initial throes of the credit market induced selloff in October 2008, certain asset classes sold off quickly with sharp declines: Emerging Market (EM) equities and debt, commodities (especially copper, gold and oil). During the month of September 2011, we've seen a similar sharp selloff in these asset classes, minus commensurate participation from oil (so far). The declines in copper have come with speculation that China and other major copper holders are dumping copper onto the open market, creating selling pressure, in anticipation of a slowdown in Chinese housing and manufacturing growth.

If these selloffs are a true reflection of a coming global slowdown, then we may anticipate lower lows in copper (a futures curve asymptote to $2 and the equity proxy FCX below $20) as well as EM equities (VWO proxy $20 range). Though oil has not participated for a variety of reasons, it too could follow, leading to sharp declines in the majors and the commodity. Gold may be the exception again this time — it reached a relative low October 24, 2008, and rebounded from there, never looking back.

The flip side is that what we are seeing is a head fake, created by selling pressure from hedging activity.

The question then becomes: what are the catalysts to sharp market reversals to the upside with a sustained rise? European debt restructuring is a foregone conclusion, and may not lead to significant sustenance, given the debt levels involved and the uncertainty and disorder within the EU in general. Another quantitative easing binge by monetary authorities may give a lift, but as we've seen, the result leads to an uptick in commodity inflation mixed with stale real growth, while promoting continued debt accumulation and preventing debt deleveraging. Negative real interest rates and economic uncertainty from regulatory, tax and fiscal policies are hampering private investment.

Given this outlook, continued volatility is the most likely outcome. Hiding out in the Treasury and muni markets may not be a panacea, given the negative real returns and the latent risks. As commodities, equity majors and proxies reach lower lows, their attractiveness to acquire and hold rises, given the probability of continued inflation growth. Disinflation from debt deleveraging (while it is allowed to occur!) provides significant opportunities.

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