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It’s time to talk about European QT – part 1

https://bondvigilantes.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/1-at-10pc-euro-area-inflation-1024×576.pngThere has been a notable shift in tone from several ECB…

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There has been a notable shift in tone from several ECB speakers over the past couple of weeks in that they are talking more explicitly about shrinking the ECB’s balance sheet (known as quantitative tightening or QT) in what looks like a coordinated attempt to prepare the markets for the ECB’s next phase of monetary policy.

Euro-area inflation currently stands at 10% – a record for the single currency. Germany hasn’t seen this level of inflation since 1951 (during the Korean War). Before the pandemic, the proportion of items within the inflation basket that had inflation above 2% stood at 25%. That figure has now jumped to 85%. Moreover, headline inflation also masks a deep dispersion within Europe, ranging from 6.2% in France to well over 20% in the Baltics (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia). This is a very long way from the ECB’s mandated 2% target.

Source: M&G, Eurostat (September 2022).

While headline inflation is expected to fall next year as energy and food inflation drop off, core inflation (now at 4.8% yoy) is expected to remain strong, broad-based and self-reinforcing. This latter point is the real concern. In a simple world, tighter financial conditions slow demand for goods and services, which in turn should slow growth and cure inflationary forces. The real world is not so simple. European countries are reacting to inflationary pressures (mainly caused by spiralling energy costs) with huge fiscal spending plans, while at the same time the euro has been depreciating (down ~14% vs US dollar year-to-date). Both these factors reinforce inflation as growth weakens.

At the time of writing, the ECB has tackled inflation by hiking interest rates twice this year, taking its deposit rate from -0.5% to +0.75%. A further hike of +0.75% is expected on 27th October. Yet the ECB’s €5trn balance sheet of bonds remains unchanged. These assets were accumulated through quantitative easing (QE), a monetary policy tool used to stimulate spending in the European economy, starting back in 2014 and then turbo charged in 2020 to support the economy during the Covid pandemic. It worked by printing huge amounts of euros, which were used to buy bonds from the private sector. The ECB stopped increasing the amount of bonds it bought in July of this year, although proceeds from maturing bonds are still reinvested into new bonds with the same characteristics, maintaining the overall balance and shape of the portfolio. Given QE was part of the mechanism that stimulated the economy which, in turn, led to high inflation, it is reasonable for policy makers to consider when QT will form part of the monetary solution to extinguish it. (See here for more on QE and QT).

Source: M&G, ECB (30 September 2022)

There are other good reasons why the ECB should look to unwind its bond holdings. For one, there is growing evidence that European funding markets are suffering from a scarcity of German government bonds, the highest quality and usually most liquid form of collateral. Shortages are frequently pushing repo rates negative (meaning you get paid to borrow money), a phenomenon that occurs when demand for high-quality collateral outstrips demand for cash. This is also related to the historically wide spreads between swap rates and bund yields. The ECB currently owns approx. 60% of all ECB-eligible German Government debt outstanding (40% in APP(PSPP) and 20% in PEPP). In theory, these bonds should be available to repo markets, but this transmission mechanism does not appear to be working properly.

There is also the negative impact that both falling bond prices and rising financing costs will have on national central bank capital positions, as highlighted by the Dutch central bank in its recent ‘profit warning’ (see here).

In terms of timing, ECB President Lagarde recently said that the ECB would consider unwinding its balance sheet once policy rates had ‘normalised’. Many economists consider the ECB’s normal or neutral rate to be somewhere near 2% which markets are currently pricing in by the end of December 2022. By implication, QT could start as soon as Q1 next year.

Source: M&G, Bloomberg (23 October 2022).

Interest rates will remain the ECB’s primary tool to tighten financial conditions and fight inflation, but the case is growing for balance sheet reduction to work in tandem. Naturally this poses risks for market stability and fragmentation, presenting investors with a challenging environment to navigate over the coming quarters.

In this multi-part blog edition, I will drill down more into this topic to discuss how European QT could be structured and what the implications are for periphery spreads, credit, swap and collateral markets.

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Argonne’s Jordi Roglans-Ribas claims second Secretary’s Honor Award

Jordi Roglans-Ribas, a former director of the Nuclear Science and Engineering division at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory,…

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Jordi Roglans-Ribas, a former director of the Nuclear Science and Engineering division at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, received his second 2022 U.S. Secretary of Energy Achievement team award for participating in the team that completed the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

Credit: (Image by Argonne National Laboratory.)

Jordi Roglans-Ribas, a former director of the Nuclear Science and Engineering division at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, received his second 2022 U.S. Secretary of Energy Achievement team award for participating in the team that completed the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

Roglans-Ribas was also recognized with a 2022 team award for work with the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Kazakhstan Reactor Conversion Team to make nuclear research reactors safer from proliferation risk. The Secretary’s Honor Awards are considered one of DOE’s highest honors.

“The award for the completion of the VTR EIS recognizes the successful effort of the entire team and the significance of DOE completing the first reactor EIS.” — Jordi Roglans-Ribas, Argonne

An EIS is a government document that outlines the impact of a proposed project on its surrounding environment. It helps policymakers and community leaders make key decisions.

“The award for the completion of the VTR EIS recognizes the successful effort of the entire team and the significance of DOE completing the first reactor EIS,” said Roglans-Ribas.

Roglans-Ribas worked closely on the VTR EIS with a multidisciplinary group from government departments, national laboratories and contractor offices beginning in August 2019 and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, DOE published its first EIS for design and construction of a nuclear reactor since establishment of the National Environmental Policy Act in 1970. Now in the Federal Register, the VTR EIS has helped accelerate release of the Department of Defense’s Strategic Capabilities Office’s EIS for building and demonstrating the Project Pele mobile microreactor. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will reference both statements as it prepares its own versions for commercial advanced reactors currently under development.

“Jordi had an integral, long-term role on a professional team with immense collective expertise, keen attention to detail and enduring commitment,” said Temitope Taiwo, director of Argonne’s Nuclear Science and Engineering division. ​“As a result, the team completed a high-quality, complex and publicly visible analysis in a difficult pandemic environment.”

The VTR EIS team’s efforts were specifically praised for helping DOE advance its own efforts to provide a fast-reactor-based neutron source and testing capability. This capability has been missing from nuclear energy research and development infrastructure for nearly three decades. It is a critical capability needed to enhance and accelerate the innovative nuclear technologies that will advance U.S. objective to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.   

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.


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Hyro secures $20M for its AI-powered, healthcare-focused conversational platform

Israel Krush and Rom Cohen first met in an AI course at Cornell Tech, where they bonded over a shared desire to apply AI voice technologies to the healthcare…

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Israel Krush and Rom Cohen first met in an AI course at Cornell Tech, where they bonded over a shared desire to apply AI voice technologies to the healthcare sector. Specifically, they sought to automate the routine messages and calls that often lead to administrative burnout, like calls about scheduling, prescription refills and searching through physician directories.

Several years after graduating, Krush and Cohen productized their ideas with Hyro, which uses AI to facilitate text and voice conversations across the web, call centers and apps between healthcare organizations and their clients. Hyro today announced that it raised $20 million in a Series B round led by Liberty Mutual, Macquarie Capital and Black Opal, bringing the startup’s total raised to $35 million.

Krush says that the new cash will be put toward expanding Hyro’s go-to-market teams and R&D.

“When we searched for a domain that would benefit from transforming these technologies most, we discovered and validated that healthcare, with staffing shortages and antiquated processes, had the greatest need and pain points, and have continued to focus on this particular vertical,” Krush told TechCrunch in an email interview.

To Krush’s point, the healthcare industry faces a major staffing shortfall, exacerbated by the logistical complications that arose during the pandemic. In a recent interview with Keona Health, Halee Fischer-Wright, CEO of Medical Group Management Association (MGMA), said that MGMA’s heard that 88% of medical practices have had difficulties recruiting front-of-office staff over the last year. By another estimates, the healthcare field has lost 20% of its workforce.

Hyro doesn’t attempt to replace staffers. But it does inject automation into the equation. The platform is essentially a drop-in replacement for traditional IVR systems, handling calls and texts automatically using conversational AI.

Hyro can answer common questions and handle tasks like booking or rescheduling an appointment, providing engagement and conversion metrics on the backend as it does so.

Plenty of platforms do — or at least claim to. See RedRoute, a voice-based conversational AI startup that delivers an “Alexa-like” customer service experience over the phone. Elsewhere, there’s Omilia, which provides a conversational solution that works on all platforms (e.g. phone, web chat, social networks, SMS and more) and integrates with existing customer support systems.

But Krush claims that Hyro is differentiated. For one, he says, it offers an AI-powered search feature that scrapes up-to-date information from a customer’s website — ostensibly preventing wrong answers to questions (a notorious problem with text-generating AI). Hyro also boasts “smart routing,” which enables it to “intelligently” decide whether to complete a task automatically, send a link to self-serve via SMS or route a request to the right department.

A bot created using Hyro’s development tools. Image Credits: Hyro

“Our AI assistants have been used by tens of millions of patients, automating conversations on various channels,” Krush said. “Hyro creates a feedback loop by identifying missing knowledge gaps, basically mimicking the operations of a call center agent. It also shows within a conversation exactly how the AI assistant deduced the correct response to a patient or customer query, meaning that if incorrect answers were given, an enterprise can understand exactly which piece of content or dataset is labeled incorrectly and fix accordingly.”

Of course, no technology’s perfect, and Hyro’s likely isn’t an exception to the rule. But the startup’s sales pitch was enough to win over dozens of healthcare networks, providers and hospitals as clients, including Weill Cornell Medicine. Annual recurring revenue has doubled since Hyro went to market in 2019, Krush claims.

Hyro’s future plans entail expanding to industries adjacent to healthcare, including real estate and the public sector, as well as rounding out the platform with more customization options, business optimization recommendations and “variety” in the AI skills that Hyro supports.

“The pandemic expedited digital transformation for healthcare and made the problems we’re solving very clear and obvious (e.g. the spike in calls surrounding information, access to testing, etc.),” Krush said. “We were one of the first to offer a COVID-19 virtual assistant that deployed in under 48 hours based on trusted information from the health system and trusted resources such as the CDC and World Health Organization …. Hyro is well funded, with good growth and momentum, and we’ve always managed a responsible budget, so we’re actually looking to expand and gather more market share while competitors are slowing down.”

Hyro secures $20M for its AI-powered, healthcare-focused conversational platform by Kyle Wiggers originally published on TechCrunch

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Burger King Adds a Failed McDonald’s Comfort-Food Menu Item

Both companies have tried to make this beloved southern staple work, and Burger King is trying again with multiple new versions.

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Fast-food burger chains deal in the familiar. 

They sell comfort food, meals that make their customers feel good (even if that feeling soon enough turns to regret).

When one of the big three chains -- McDonald's, Wendy's (WEN) - Get Free Report, and Burger King -- adds a new menu item, it's either something outrageous designed to get publicity or an item that builds on the comfort-food model.

DON'T MISS: Unique McDonald's Sandwich Makes Its Menu Return

That's why so many fast-food innovations arise from taking a core menu item and give it a small twist. Wendy's does this more than any other chain as it rotates in different takes on cheese fries and new burgers that add well-known flavors like pretzel buns or more bacon.

McDonald's (MCD) - Get Free Report has been experimenting with similar ideas -- specifically trying to make southern classics like sweet tea and chicken biscuits -- work. The chain has had more success with sweet tea, which has become a menu staple, than it has with making chicken biscuits a morning staple.

And while McDonald's has tried to add southern style chicken biscuits to its morning menu without sustained success, that has not stopped its rivals from taking their own shot at the regional favorite. 

Wendy's has offered its Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit since it brought back its breakfast menu in 2020. And now Restaurant Brands International's (QSR) - Get Free Report Burger King has decided to add multiple takes on a chicken biscuit to its morning menu.

Wendy's also sold a "hot" version of its Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit.

Image source: Wendy's.

Burger King Adds Multiple Chicken Biscuits  

Burger King has built its morning menu around meat. The chain sells versions of its famed Croissan'Wich with double sausage, one with bacon, ham, and sausage, and similar offerings on biscuits.

Now, Burger King has been testing adding chicken to its meaty morning lineup.

Some of the chain's locations already sell a regular Chicken Biscuit and a Smoky Maple Chicken Croissan’wich (although those items are not being sold nationwide) and now it's testing a new take on a chicken biscuit in select markets.

"The Smoky Maple Chicken Biscuit features breaded white meat chicken with a smoky maple glaze on a warm buttermilk biscuit. It will be available through Aug. 31 while supplies last," according to Restaurant Business Online.

Burger King is offering the Smoky Maple Chicken Biscuit only in the Kansas City and Orlando-Daytona Beach markets.

McDonald's Also Bets On Breakfast Comfort Food 

McDonald's first put bagels on its breakfast menu in 1999. They were removed in January 2022 when the chain eliminated all-day breakfast and slimmed down its morning menu due to the covid pandemic.

Losing the bagels wasn't just about customers getting one less bread choice for their breakfast sandwich. It also invvolved McDonald's removing steak -- a meat that was only sold on a bagel -- from its morning menu.

Now, after a slow rollout across the country, McDonald's has returned its popular breakfast bagels to menus nationwide (albeit without making an official announcement).

Fans clamored for the return on social media in April 2022, when McDonald's Tweeted "Bring back ____." Tens of thousands of fans answered the query and the Breakfast Bagels were a popular request.

The most-requested item, the Snack Wrap, has not been returned and might not despite customer interest because making them adds complexity to the chain's kitchen operations. 

That's something the company has been working against as it works to streamline delivery and digital sales.         

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