European bond markets disappointed by a hawkish ECB easing

BY ERIC VANRAES AND PASCAL PERRONE

Monthly Fund Commentary
19 Jan 2016

BY ERIC VANRAES AND PASCAL PERRONE

In December, all eyes were focused on central bank meetings, expecting a massive bazooka shot from Mr. Draghi on 3rd December and a cautious tightening by the Fed on 16th December. The FOMC revealed no surprise with a first rate hike in almost a decade (Fed Funds from 0%-0.25% to 0.25%-0.50%) and a relatively dovish comment by Chairman Janet Yellen signalling gradual tightening in 2016 and confirming that the size of the Fed’s balance sheet will not decrease “until normalization of the Fed Funds rate is well under way”. The surprise came from the ECB but more precisely from the markets’ reaction to the ECB’s decisions. Apparently, they expected too much from Mr. Draghi, probably due to misinterpretation of ultra-dovish speeches from ECB’s members before the meeting. Mr. Draghi actually did the job, cutting the deposit rate from -0.2% to -0.3%, extending the QE for 6 months (i.e. 6×60 billion EUR = 360 billion EUR) and adding Municipal and Regional bonds to the QE purchase list.

The markets did want an “extend + expand” of the QE and their disappointment led to a mini-sell off in the European Government bond market that spread to US Treasuries. Due to this exceptional Central bank activity, all other news faded into the background. There was mixed economic data in the US with steady improvement in the job market offset by poor industrial production and ISM manufacturing (reaching the lowest level since June 2009) and in Europe, more signs of economic recovery in Spain and Italy but gloomy French data and possible political instability in Spain after elections that led to no clear winner. In this respect, the widening of only 20bps of the spread Bono-Bund seems too small.

In this context, the German yield curve experienced a bearish steepening, the 2y yield increasing from -0.42% to -0.34%, the 5y yield from -0.18% to -0.04% and the 10y Bund yield from 0.47% to 0.63%. On the credit side, the US corporate CDX index kept widening from 84 to 88 bps due to the first signs of recession in some sectors of the US industry and the European iTraxx Main widened from 70 to 77 bps, led by some disappointment after the ECB meeting. Many investors thought that some corporate bonds could have been included in the QE purchase list had the decision been made to expand the QE from EUR 60 to 80 billion EUR per month. 

In December, following the strategy implemented since June, the Investment Adviser continued to favour high quality and liquidity. He focused his attention on the decrease of the weight of bonds maturing in 2021, selling Cez and reducing AstraZeneca (from EUR 3 to 1 million) in order to decrease the duration of the credit portfolio, allowing him to decrease the short Bund position.

The Modified Duration of the Fund has been slightly decreased after the ECB meeting from 2.5 to around 2.25 and the duration overlay policy has been maintained with a short position of 250 Bobls and only 50 Bunds instead of 60 last month. This short Bund position which has been dramatically reduced in Q3 and Q4 (short 50 Bund at Year end against 280 in September and 350 in August) should be maintained at this level as the Investment Adviser considers that the duration of government-owned corporates maturing in 2022-2024 (Nederlandse Gasunie, Sagess, Aéroports de Paris, EDF and Deutsche Bahn) must be hedged. In terms of portfolio diversification, the Fund held 50 issues from 45 different issuers.  

The Investment Adviser believes that the ECB will stay ultra-accommodative and that Mr. Draghi will announce an increase of the ECB’s QE in the coming months. The economic conditions are not particularly improving in the Eurozone with low growth and, more importantly (as it is the unique mandate of the ECB) zero inflation. Growth is a concern because the current conditions are disappointing despite the alignment of planets (low euro, low yields, low oil & commodity prices and ECB’s QE). Regarding the Fed’s policy, the behaviour of the FOMC in 2016 is unclear: inflation is low, international issues are growing (Emerging markets, China in particular) and the Fed is expecting four rate hikes (25bps/Quarter) while markets only forecast 2 hikes (the 2y Treasury note yield reached 1.05% which is too low compared to the Fed’s dot-plots). One of the key drivers of markets in 2016 (both bonds and equities) will be Forex: the currency war is still in place as many central banks are still in ultra-dovish mode, including China and Japan. The dollar index (Bloomberg ticker DXY) is more than ever the major factor to follow and the weakening of the Yuan could lead to a less hawkish Fed behaviour and a more dovish ECB.

The Fund Manager is still extremely cautious on corporate spreads and on liquidity of the credit market. He will continue to focus his investments on PSPP and high quality corporates. High beta names will be avoided except very short maturities with a “buy and hold until maturity” strategy. The modified duration of the Fund may be maintained around 2.2-2.4. The Fund Management team will pursue this strategy during the following weeks and still believes that positive returns will be achievable as a result of the carry of PSPP bonds and high-quality corporates, their spread tightening potential, credit selection and active management of duration and yield curve.

The views and statements contained herein are those of Sturdza Private Banking Group in their capacity as Investment Adviser to the Fund as of 14/01/16.