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The fire in Treasurys

The fire in Treasurys

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Just where was the fire that caused the Federal Reserve to buy $1.3 of treasury debt in a month -- financing all treasury sales and then some? I've been puzzling about this question in a few posts, most recently here. Commenter "unknown" impolitely but usefully points me to a nice paper by Andreas Schrimpf, Hyun Song Shin and Vladyslav Sushko that explains some market mechanics. I am still not persuaded that these gyrations motivate or justify the Fed buying these or more trillions of debt, but there is an interesting story here.

Treasury yields

Their first graph shows stock prices and bond yields. As risk and risk aversion rose, as they always do in bad times, stock prices fell and bond prices rose, with yields falling.


Trouble starts on  9 March when "the market experienced a snapback in yields" Look hard at the graph. The blue line rises a bit while the red line continues to fall.

OK, but still -- is it a disaster that the US treasury, that had been borrowing happily at 1.8% in January, must borrow at 0.8-1.2% in March? Is it such a disaster that the Fed must buy all new issues of debt?

"Arbitrage" redux

What caused the "snapback?" here is where the paper gets interesting. Basically a bunch of hedge funds replayed an age-old strategy and got caught. Plus ça change. They bought treasury bonds and simultaneously sold them in futures markets. Since treasury bonds are great collateral they can lever up a small price difference to make a lot with little investment.

But even arbitrage opportunities are not risk free. Prices that are slightly off can get further off before they eventually converge. And then the hedge funds need to post margin, which they don't have. So, they follow the mother of all financial fallacies -- risk management that consists of selling  positions on the way down, trying to synthesize a put option with a stop loss order. But selling to who? Everyone else is doing the same thing, markets get illiquid in times of stress (no, they've never done that before), so the price difference widens even more.


Once the funds were no longer able to meet variation margins, their positions were unwound by dealers/futures exchanges, pushing prices lower. This in turn gave rise to a classic “margin spiral”
This is the price difference that the funds had been arbitraging. The price widened -- the arbitrage got better. But this means a lot of lost money in the initial positions.

Other almost-arbitrage price relationships widened too, a now familiar phenomenon
Similarly, the market experienced severe mispricing along the yield curve (yield curve fitting errors) and between benchmark bonds and other similar securities.. indicating a breakdown in arbitrage linking various corners of fixed income markets.  
 

How in the world did this happen again, so soon?  LTCM redux? Metallgesellschaft? In the treasury markets? Didn't 12 years and 100,000 pages of Dodd Frank, and ten times that of academic papers on various "fire sales" and "spirals," and a small army of regulators put a stop to all this? All the massive regulation did, apparently,  was to further restrict dealer and bank balance sheets, as seen in the repo eruption last summer, and make liquidity worse.

Their policy summary:
..market monitoring should look beyond current conditions and ask the “what- if” questions that are relevant for potential market stresses. To be effective, such fully fledged stress tests must assess the potential scope for forced selling and feedback loops, especially in tranquil periods when leverage is building up.
"Should have" is is the right verb tense! Just why in 12 years did none of this perfectly obvious stress testing already happen?

They provide one answer implicit:
In this context, the reaction function of the central bank is an important background factor. 
Yes. Everyone knew the Fed will ride to the rescue, so why keep dry powder around? And the expectation proved true once again. The Fed is fueling the moral hazard as we speak.

The fire? 

So,  a bunch of hedge funds sold volatility, again, and lost money, again. Little apparent arbitrage opportunities arose between similar securities. (Is 12 basis points a financial calamity? four?). Not enough investors with the expertise to arbitrage 4 basis points spreads are around willing take mark-to-market risk in a time of immense volatility and uncertainty. Capital does move slowly. It was harder for a while for other people whose idea of risk management is selling on the way down to dump securities.

Does this justify buying $1.3 trillion of treasury debt? 

Financing the treasury and buying the debt

I found interesting insights here
Under normal circumstances, dealers would be able to alleviate market stresses by absorbing sales and building up an inventory of securities. But, dealers’ treasury inventories had already been stretched, especially from 2018 onwards, as they needed to absorb a large amount of issuance (Graph 3, right-hand panel). Far from there being a shortage of safe assets, there was a glut* in the run-up to Covid-19. 
[my emphasis]


I found this comment particularly revealing, but opening a lot of questions. We are so used to the claim of a "global savings glut" "safe asset shortage"  that signs of these stories running out of steam are  interesting.

This could be a question to which massive purchases are the answer -- the treasury is finding it hard to sell more debt. Of course, treasuries that turn to central banks to buy their debt is not a circumstance that usually ends well.
The recent shifts in the investor base of treasury securities from official sector investors (eg foreign central banks) and long-term investors towards leveraged traders and other negative convexity investors give pause for thought regarding potential future volatility from endogenous feedback loops. 
Wow. If this is true, the game is up. We can't sell trillions and trillions to, oh, the central bank of China. But "negative convexity investors" are not a fundamental source of demand. They buy treasurys only to sell futures, and quickly close out their positions. They are not funneling a trillion dollars a month of new savings to treasurys. So if this story is true, there are no fundamental investors, and that's why the Fed is buying. 

The paper attempts to give a different rationale, that the Fed really was buying in order to make the markets more liquid. (Again, just why this is a huge social problem is hard to tell) The paper claims that the markets calmed because the Fed bought up all these extra treasurys from the dealers, removing the treasurys from the dealer's books. In order to get dealers to arbitrage again,
the authorities [Fed] may need to absorb sales directly rather than doing so indirectly by lending to dealers, especially when funding is not the relevant constraint. This may also explain why, on this occasion, the Fed’s rapid purchases of securities out of dealers’ inventories (to the tune of about $670 billion) appeared more effective in stabilising the market than the provision of liquidity via repo operations, where take-up was relatively subdued.
Translation: the big puzzle in all of this is how the Fed by simply buying can restore "liquidity." To restore liquidity you have to buy and sell, take the arbitrage trades.

Normally (and to the tune of trillions right now in other markets) the Fed simply lends money to dealers who can then trade more. (And make more money. Remember the Volcker rule, don't finance trading by deposits? The idea here is to finance trading by borrowing from the Fed!) But if the dealers are capital constrained, or regulation constrained, that doesn't help. So if the fed buys up all the risky assets from the dealers, the dealers can start up all over again.

I presume the last graph doesn't have up to the minute data and would show... -$470 billion on dealer balance sheets? To buy $200 billion from the dealers why did the Fed have to buy $1.3 trillion?

Why did dealers accumulate so much treasury debt in the first place? If they didn't want to hold the treasurys they should have sold them, and prices should have gone down -- interest rates should have gone up. They had to want to hold the treasurys. That proved a wise decision as they made  ton of money as interest rates declined. But after yields went from 2 to 0.5%, in the "de-risking" demand for treasurys, why didn't they sell off their book again? How much more money do they want to make? Why did they finally sell to the Fed (at what price?)

Bottom line

So why did the Fed buy? Is it a  “dealer of last resort” as the paper puts it, or is it the  buyer of last resort? Was there really a fire, or just the usual bunch of hedge funds screaming that they lost money writing out of the money puts, once again?

--------------


* Picky comment. Economists should never use the word "shortage" or "glut," at least absent a price control. They carry a pejorative implication that something is wrong about a demand or supply curve shifting, and needs policy response. The original "savings glut" was East Asian countries that decided keeping some liquid assets around was a good idea in case of trouble, a strikingly old fashioned idea that might look mighty good right now as pervasively indebted America looks around to pay bills for a few months.

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Spread & Containment

War, peace and security: The pandemic’s impact on women and girls in Nepal and Sri Lanka

The impacts of COVID-19 must be incorporated into women, peace and security planning in order to improve the lives of women and girls in postwar countries…

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Nepalese girls rest for observation after receiving the Moderna vaccine for COVID-19 in Kathmandu, Nepal. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha)

Attention to the pandemic’s impacts on women has largely focused on the Global North, ignoring countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka, which continue to deal with prolonged effects of war. While the Nepalese Civil War concluded in 2006 and the Sri Lankan Civil War concluded in 2009, internal conflicts continue.

As scholars of gender and war, our work focuses on the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. And our recently published paper examines COVID-19’s impacts on women and girls in Nepal and Sri Lanka, looking at policy responses and their repercussions on the women, peace and security agenda.

COVID-19 has disproportionately and negatively impacted women in part because most are the primary family caregivers and the pandemic has increased women’s caring duties.

This pattern is even more pronounced in war-affected countries where the compounding factors of war and the pandemic leave women generally more vulnerable. These nations exist at the margins of the international system and suffer from what the World Bank terms “fragility, conflict and violence.”

Women, labour and gender-based violence

Gendered labour precarity is not new to Nepal or Sri Lanka and the pandemic has only eroded women’s already poor economic prospects.

Prior to COVID-19, Tharshani (pseudonym), a Sri Lankan mother of three and head of her household, was able to make ends meet. But when the pandemic hit, lockdowns prevented Tharshani from selling the chickens she raises for market. She was forced to take loans from her neighbours and her family had to skip meals.

Some 1.7 million women in Sri Lanka work in the informal sector, where no state employment protections exist and not working means no wages. COVID-19 is exacerbating women’s struggles with poverty and forcing them to take on debilitating debts.

Although Sri Lankan men also face increased labour precarity, due to gender discrimination and sexism in the job market, women are forced into the informal sector — the jobs hardest hit by the pandemic.

Two women sit in chairs, wearing face masks
Sri Lankan women chat after getting inoculated against the coronavirus in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in August 2021. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

The pandemic has also led to women and girls facing increased gender-based violence.

In Nepal, between March 2020 and June 2021, there was an increase in cases of gender-based violence. Over 1,750 incidents were reported in the media, of which rape and sexual assault represented 82 per cent. Pandemic lockdowns also led to new vulnerabilities for women who sought out quarantine shelters — in Lamkichuha, Nepal, a woman was allegedly gang-raped at a quarantine facility.

Gender-based violence is more prevalent among women and girls of low caste in Nepal and the pandemic has made it worse. The Samata Foundation reported 90 cases of gender-based violence faced by women and girls of low caste within the first six months of the pandemic.

What’s next?

While COVID-19 recovery efforts are generally focused on preparing for future pandemics and economic recovery, the women, peace and security agenda can also address the needs of some of those most marginalized when it comes to COVID-19 recovery.

The women, peace and security agenda promotes women’s participation in peace and security matters with a focus on helping women facing violent conflict. By incorporating women’s perspectives, issues and concerns in the context of COVID-19 recovery, policies and activities can help address issues that disproportionately impact most women in war-affected countries.

These issues are: precarious gendered labor market, a surge in care work, the rising feminization of poverty and increased gender-based violence.

A girl in a face mask stares out a window
The women, peace and security agenda can help address the needs of some of those most marginalized. (AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha)

Policies could include efforts to create living-wage jobs for women that come with state benefits, emergency funding for women heads of household (so they can avoid taking out predatory loans) and increasing the number of resources (like shelters and legal services) for women experiencing domestic gender-based violence.

The impacts of COVID-19 must be incorporated into women, peace and security planning in order to achieve the agenda’s aims of improving the lives of women and girls in postwar countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Luna KC is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Research Network-Women Peace Security, McGill University. This project is funded by the Government of Canada Mobilizing Insights in Defence and Security (MINDS) program.

Crystal Whetstone does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Economics

Target Sets Sights on Holiday Season, Has Plan for High Inventory

Target said that it still expects spillover from inventory rightsizing to the tune of $200 million in the third quarter.

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Target said that it still expects spillover from inventory rightsizing to the tune of $200 million in the third quarter.

Target's  (TGT) - Get Target Corporation Report strategy is paying off as the company's stock falls on heavy volume following its earnings release. 

Normally, a profit miss as wide as Target's, 39 cents per share vs. expectations of 72 cents per share, would result in a bigger drop than Target's, but the retailer has been prepping the market for this miss all summer. 

The inventory the company built up during the height of the pandemic, as Americans shopped more from home, needs to go, and the only way get rid of the excess product is deep discounts. 

"Back in June, we announced that our team would be undertaking a bold effort to rightsize our inventory position in the categories for which demand patterns have radically changed," CEO Brian Cornell said during the company's earnings call. "While this decision had a meaningful short-term impact on our financial results, we strongly believe it was the best path forward."

Now, looking forward the company sees some overhang for the third quarter, but expects a big holiday season ahead. 

While some fear a recession and what it might do to the economy, Target is convinced that the holiday season will be strong.

Image source: John Smith/VIEWpress.

Target Aims for Holiday Season

While Target is focused on the back-to-school season currently underway, the company expects "spillover" from its inventory issues to be present during the third quarter to the tune of $200 million. 

But the company's own checks suggest that its shoppers are excited about the holiday season. 

"The one thing that seems to be very consistent is a guest and consumer who says they want to celebrate the holiday seasons so we certainly expect that they are going to be celebrating Halloween this year and actively trick or treating and hosting parties with friends and family," Cornell said.

"We know they're looking forward to Thanksgiving and they're going to look forward to celebrating the Christmas holidays and that comes down each and every week as we survey consumers and talk to our guests so that gives us great optimism for our ability to perform during these key holiday seasons"

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Not only does Target expect a strong quarter, but the company also expects favorable comps as fourth quarter headwinds from a year ago aren't present this time around. 

"Guests already have their sights set on upcoming holidays and seasonal moments in Q3 and beyond," Cornell said.

Target's Q2 Collapse

Target said adjusted earnings for the three months ending in July were pegged at 39 cents per share, down 89% from the same period last year and well shy of the Street consensus forecast of 72 cents per share.

Group revenues, Target said, rose 3.5% to $26 billion, essentially matching analysts' estimates of a $26.04 billion tally. Target said same-store sales rose 2.6%, again shy of the Refinitiv forecast of 3.2%, while operating margins fell to 1.2%, below the group's July guidance of a 2% level. 

Earlier this summer, Target cautioned that its bigger-than-expected 35% build-up in overall inventories over the first quarter would trigger price cuts, adding that deeper discounts would be needed to shift the excess goods onto a customer base that was already pulling back on discretionary spending.

Walmart  (WMT) - Get Walmart Inc. Report, Target's larger big box rival, said Tuesday that improving spending trends, as well as actions the group has taken to shift excess inventory, will ease some of the pressures it expects to face in terms of overall profits over the back half of the year.

Walmart said adjusted earnings for the three months ended in July came in at $1.77 per share, down one penny from the same period last year but well ahead of the Street consensus forecast of $1.62 per share.

Group revenues, the company said, were tabbed at $152.9 billion, an 8.4% increase from last year that topped analysts' estimates of $150.81 billion. U.S. same-store sales rose 6.5% from last year, the company said, firmly topping the Refinitiv forecast. 

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Economics

Why Is No One at Nike Working This Week?

And will the move gain broader acceptance among American employers?

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And will the move gain broader acceptance among American employers?

You go into an office, pull at the door and find that it doesn't give and nobody's there. 

It may sound like the start of the common rushing-to-the-office-on-a-Saturday nightmare but, more and more, collective time off is being embraced by employees as part of a push for a better work culture.

While professional social media platform LinkedIn  (MSFT) - Get Microsoft Corporation Report and dating app Bumble  (BMBL) - Get Bumble Inc. Report had already experimented with collective time off for workers, the corporate ripples truly began with Nike  (NKE) - Get Nike Inc. Report.

In August 2021, the activewear giant announced that it was giving the 11,000-plus employees at its Oregon headquarters the week off to "power down" and "destress" from stress brought on by the covid-19 pandemic.

"In a year (or two) unlike any other, taking time for rest and recovery is key to performing well and staying sane," Matt Marrazzos, Nike's senior manager of global marketing science, wrote to employees at the time.

Nike Is On Vacation Right Now

The experiment was, not exactly unexpectedly, very well-received — a year later, the company instituted its second annual "Well-Being Week." Both the corporate headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., and three Air Manufacturing design labs with over 1,500 employees are closed for a collective paid vacation from Aug. 15 to 19.

"We knew it would be impactful, but I was blown away by the feedback from our teammates [...]," Nike's Chief Human Resources Officer Monique Matheson wrote in a LinkedIn post.

"Because everyone was away at the same time, teammates said they could unplug – really unplug, without worrying about what was happening back at the office or getting anxiety about the emails piling up."

Shutterstock/TheStreet

Of course, the time off only applies to corporate employees. To keep the stores running and online orders fulfilled but not exacerbate the differences between blue and white collar workers, Nike gave its retail and distribution employees a week's worth of paid days off that they can use as they see fit.

Nike has tied the change to its commitment to prioritize mental health. In the last year, it launched everything from a "marathon of mental health" to a podcast that discusses how exercise can be used to manage anxiety and depression.

Rippling Through the Corporate World?

But as corporations are often criticized for turning mental health into positive PR without actually doing much for employees, the collective week off was perhaps the most significant thing the company did for workers' mental health.

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The practice of set office closures has long been common practice in many European countries. In France, not only corporate offices but even restaurants and retail stores empty out over the month of August for what is culturally considered sacred vacation time. 

But as American work culture prioritizes individual choice and "keeping business going" above all else, the practice has been seen as radical by many corporate heads and particularly small businesses that may find it more difficult to have such a prolonged drop in business. 

But in many ways, the conversations mirror some companies' resistance to remote work despite the fact that one-fourth of white-collar jobs in the U.S. are expected to be fully remote by 2023

"This is the kind of perk that makes employees want to stay," industry analyst Shep Hyken wrote in a comment for RetailWire. "And knowing they can’t completely shut the entire company down, I like the way they are compensating the distribution and retail store employees."

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