The last 24 hours has seen something of a development in the world of central bank monetary easing which has highlighted an issue I have often warned about. Along the way it has provoked a few jokes along the lines of Poundland should now be 50 pence land or in old money ten shillings. Actually the new issue is related to one that the Bank of England experienced back in 2009 when it was operating what was called the SLS or Special Liquidity Scheme. If you have forgotten what it was I am sure the words “Special” and “Liquidity” have pointed you towards the banking sector and you would be right. The banks got liquidity/cash and in return had to provide collateral which is where the link as because on that road the Bank of England suddenly had to value lots of private-sector assets. Indeed it faced a choice between not giving the banks what they wanted or changing ( loosening) its collateral rules which of course was an easy decision for it. But valuing the new pieces of paper it got proved awkward. From FT Alphaville back then.

Accepting raw loans would also ensure that securities taken in the Bank’s operations have a genuine private sector demand rather than comprising ‘phantom’ securities created only for use in central bank operations.

In other words the Bank of England was concerned it was being done up like a kipper which is rather different from the way it tried to portray things.

Under the terms of the SLS, banks and building societies (hereafter ‘banks’) could, for a fee, swap high-quality mortgage-backed and other securities that had temporarily become illiquid for UK Treasury bills, for a period of up to three years.

Some how “high-quality” securities which to the logically minded was always problematic if you thought about the mortgage situation back then had morphed into a much more worrying “phantom” security.  Indeed as the June 2010 Quarterly Bulletin indicated there was rather a lot of them.

But a large proportion of the securities taken have been created specifically for use as collateral with the Bank by the originator of the underlying assets, and have therefore not been traded in the market. Such ‘own-name’ securities accounted for around 76% of the Bank’s extended collateral (around the peak of usage in January 2009), and form the overwhelming majority of collateral taken in the SLS.

Although you would not believe it from its pronouncements now the Bank of England was very worried about the consequences of this and in my opinion this is why it ended the SLS early. Which was a shame as the scheme had strengths and it ended up with other schemes ( FLS, TFS) as we mull the words “one-off” and “temporarily”. But the fundamental theme here is a central bank having trouble with private-sector assets which in the instance above was always likely to happen with instruments that have “not been traded in the market.”

The ECB and Steinhoff

Central banks can also get into trouble with assets that have been traded in the market. After all if market prices were always correct they would move much less than they do. In particular minds have been focused in the last 24 hours on this development.

The news that Steinhoff’s long-serving CEO Markus Jooste had quit sent the company’s share price into freefall on Wednesday morning. Steinhoff opened more than 60% lower, falling from its overnight close of R45.65 to as low as R17.57.

Overall, Steinhoff’s share price has dropped more than 80% over the past 18 months. The stock peaked at over R90 in June last year.  ( Moneyweb).

According to Reuters today has seen the same drum beat.

By 0748 GMT, the stock had slid 37 percent to 11.05 rand in Johannesburg, adding to a more than 60 percent plunge in the previous session. It was down about 34 percent in Frankfurt where it had had its primary listing since 2015.

You may be wondering how a story which might ( in fact is…) a big deal and scandal arrives at the twin towers of the ECB or European Central Bank. The first is a geographical move as Steinhoff has operations in Europe and two years ago today listed on the Frankfurt stock exchange. I am not sure that Happy Birthday is quite appropriate for investors who have seen the 5 Euros of then fall to 0.77 Euros now.

Next enter a central bank looking to buy private-sector assets and in this instance corporate bonds.

Corporate bonds cumulatively purchased and settled as at 01/12/2017 €129,087 (24/11/2017: €127,690) million.

One of the ( over 1000) holdings is as you have probably already guessed a Steinhoff corporate bond and in particular one which theoretically matures in 2025. I say theoretically because the news flow is so grim that it may in practice be sooner. From FT Alphaville.

German prosecutors say they are investigating whether Steinhoff International inflated its revenue and book value, one day after the global home retailer announced that its longtime chief executive had quit…The investigators are probing whether Steinhoff flattered its numbers by selling intangible assets and partnership shares without disclosing that it had close connections to the buyers. The suspicious sales were in “three-digit million” euros territory each, according to the prosecutors.

In terms of scale then the losses will not be relatively large as the bond size is 800 million Euros which would mean that the ECB would not buy more than 560 million under its 70% limit but it does pose questions.

they have a minimum first-best credit assessment of at least credit quality step 3 (rating of BBB- or equivalent) obtained from an external credit assessment institution

This leaves us mulling what investment grade actually means these days with egg on the face of the ratings agencies yet again. As time has passed I notice that the “high-quality” of the Bank of England has become the investment grade of the ECB.

The next question is simply to wonder what the ECB is doing here? Its claim that buying these bonds helps it achieve its inflation target of 2% per annum is hard to substantiate. What it has created is a bull market in corporate bonds which may help economic activity as for example we have seen negative yields even in some cases at issue. But there are side-effects such as moral hazard where the ECB has driven the price higher helping what appears to be fraudulent activity.

How much?

For those of you wondering about the size of the losses there are some factors we do not know such as the size of the holding. We do know that the ECB bought at a price over 90 which compares to the 58.2 as I type this. Some amelioration comes from the yield but not much as the coupon is 1.875% and of course that assumes it gets paid.

My understanding of how this is split is that 20% is collective and the other 80% is at the risk of the national central bank. So there may well be some fun and games when the Bundesbank finally reports on this.

Comment

There is much to consider here. Whilst this is only one corporate bond it does highlight the moral hazard issue of a central bank buying private-sector assets. There is another one to my mind which is that overall the ECB will have a (paper) profit but that is pretty much driven by its own ongoing purchases. This begs the question of what happens when it stops? Should it then fear a sharp reversal of prices it is in the situation described by Coldplay.

Oh no what’s this
A spider web and I’m caught in the middle
So I turn to run
And thought of all the stupid things I’d done.

The same is true of the corporate bond buying of the Bank of England which was on a smaller scale but even so ended up buying bonds from companies with ever weaker links ( Maersk) to the UK economy. Even worse in some ways is the issue of how the Bank of Japan is ploughing into the private-sector via its ever-growing purchases of Japanese shares vis equity ETFs. At the same time we are seeing a rising tide of scandals in Japan mostly around data faking.

Me on Core Finance

http://www.corelondon.tv/will-bond-yields-ever-go-higher/