19 Nov 2015

Illiquid Bond Markets? Brace Yourself!

Not much has to be added to my post from October 2014. Maybe the move to automated bond trading has accelerated a bit, but I would not expect that to be of any help when markets become stressed. But the issue is not off the table, and given the voices of prominent market pundits it is obvious that no one really knows what will happen if a major bear market in bonds arrives. But investors should remember that bonds are a conservative investment, or at least they should be. That means investing with a view to hold to maturity, so there is no real need for liquidity.

From October 2014:

Recently there are more and more reports about a perceived lack of liquidity in secondary bond markets.

For example Fund Traders dig deep for bonds (WSJ, Paywall)

Most Commentators blame the tide of regulation that has forced market makers to drastically reduce their bond inventories.

This may be a valid point but one should not forget that some other aspects could be more relevant.
The bond trading business has expanded enormously during the past 20-25 years. Until 2007/08 volumes and staff levels increased to what in retrospect can only be described as unsustainable levels. Some retrenchment was inevitable, with or without added regulation. This naturally has an effect on the volumes that the dealer community can handle.

Technology may play an incremental role but many more complicated transactions still have to be done over the telephone, albeit with the aid of messaging or email services. Full automation is still a distant prospect, especially when there are tens of thousands of different bond issues outstanding. 'Do you want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?' asked the head trader of the erstwhile Credit Suisse White Weld in the late 1970s in a note to a colleague who wanted to introduce technology into the bond trading business. In my opinion he still would not need to worry too much.

The level of interest rates has - and will - have to play an important part in the lack of liquidity. The big bull market in bonds has played itself out, rising markets create turnover. At best markets from now will move sideways - creating less and less profitable trading opportunities. At worst they will enter bear territory and declining bond prices traditionally mean lower profits and lower volumes. Only the best traders will be able to prosper in a climate of fear and pessimism.

The explosion in the amount of outstanding bond values and the corresponding expansion of the buy-side (who would ever have thought that a fund manager less than 30 years old would control billions in assets?) make it virtually certain that there will not be enough liquidity to allow a smooth exit through a (very) narrow door when markets turn. Is any trading venue going to be able to take the other side when the likes of Pimco or BlackRock want to implement a drastic shift in their investment strategy?

So the old saying holds: Markets will fluctuate, this will create opportunities for those who are a step ahead of the crowd. Expect sharp moves and review your risk management process to be able to cope with extreme volatility if and when it arrives - as surely it will one day.

18 Nov 2015

Hard to believe: Competition Inquiry into Fund Management

Bureaucrats are hard-pressed to find enough to occupy the enormous number of people working at the UK's regulatory body, the FCA. The irony is that the roughly 4000 employees themselves put a large burden on the industry and by extension on the British (and international) savers who ultimately pay for the costs of this neo-totalitarian construct.
Sloppy supervision led to the so-called abuses in the financial sector (Forex, Libor, 'mis-selling' of payment protection) and even more sloppy prosecution led to the imposition of arbitrary fines that bear no relation to the 'crimes' committed. In any proper court of justice there has to be concrete proof that harm was done but these enquiries are nothing else than vindictive persecution of an unpopular and quite often hated minority.
And the bureaucrats take their time. The final report is not expected to be published before early 2017 (who wants to open a book on that?).
There may be problems in the UK asset management industry but only a fool (and a regulator with time and money on his hands) would say that there is not enough competition. Any distortions are more likely to be the outcome of ill-considered tinkering by politicians (and I am sure Chancellor Osborne is busily working on some more schemes that will aggravate an already non-sensical legal and tax framework).
FCA launches competition study of UK asset management industry (IPE)