BANK FAILURES – In March 2008, I was working as an analyst on the trading floor at a commodity firm. The Reuters terminal flashed an alert that the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY) had extended a multi-billion dollar credit facility to the troubled investment bank Bear Stearns. As part of my market-monitoring role, I sent a brief one-paragraph email to the treasury and credit teams highlighting the news and warning it probably meant the end for Bear as an independent institution; emergency borrowing from the central bank normally marks effective failure.
Less than five minutes later, the finance director sent an email to all staff instructing no new positions were to be initiated with Bear; only risk-reducing trades that reduced our exposure were permitted. For the next week, our firm would not initiate any new trades unless we could verify Bear was NOT the counterparty. Presumably similar emails and trading prohibitions were being implemented at all the other firms in the market. Bear was isolated, unable to attract cash inflows, and collapsed a week later.
Watching the demise of a major investment bank taught me a valuable lesson: financial institutions live or die by confidence, and once it has been damaged, the end can come extraordinarily fast. Financial institutions die slowly at first, but very quickly towards the end. They do not get the benefit of the doubt. Our firm started to cut our exposure to Bear immediately at the hint of trouble, we couldn’t afford to wait for more information to see if the bank might survive. No one wants to be one of the last counterparties.
Friday is a particularly dangerous day for a bank in trouble. Regulators like to close a bank on Friday so they have the weekend to put in place a resolution and attempt to stabilise confidence in the rest of the financial system by Monday.
U.S. INTEREST RATE traders continue to boost their expectations for benchmark short rates at the end of the year as the central bank signals rates may have to go higher and stay there for longer to bring inflation back to target. Rates are now expected to be around 5.25-5.50% in December 2023 up from an expectation of 4.25-4.50% at the start of February:
COMMITMENT OF TRADERS reports – the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and ICE Futures Europe suspended publication of their commitments of traders reports in late January following a ransomware attack on a major market participant and infrastructure provider which resulted in incomplete submissions. Both are now starting to catch up with the backlog of missed weekly reports. ICE has caught up; the CFTC is still some weeks behind. I am not going to publish a weekly analysis again until they have both caught up fully since the reports now contain very out of date information. For reference, however, the hedge fund and money manager positions on February 7, the most recent currently available, are shown below:
EUROPE’s gas futures prices continue to slide despite a blast of colder weather across the northwest this week reflecting the high level of inventories. Front-month futures prices closed below €45 per megawatt-hour on March 3 for the first time since August 2021:
U.S. NON-MANUFACTURING firms reported a solid increase in activity in February. The ISM non-manufacturing index stood at 55.1 (40th percentile for all months since 1997) in February, little changed from January, but up from 49.2 (7th percentile) in December. The low December reading is starting to look like an anomaly. Service providers and other non-manufacturing businesses are reporting healthier conditions than their counterparts in manufacturing and freight:
U.S. OIL DRILLING activity continued to decelerate with the number of active rigs down -8 to 592 over the week ending on March 3. The oil-directed rig count has fallen in 10 of the last 13 weeks by a total of 35 rigs (-6%):
CHINA’s manufacturers reported the most widespread rise in business activity for over a decade as the economy rebounded after the end of coronavirus lockdowns and the passing of the epidemic’s exit wave. The official purchasing managers’ index surged to 52.6 in February, the highest since April 2012, and up from just 50.1 in January 2023 and 47.0 in December 2022. The index was in the 96th percentile for all months since 2011 pointing to a very broad upturn in activity:
NORTHWEST EUROPE is more than three-quarters of the way through the heating season. Frankfurt in Germany has experienced 1,377 heating degree days so far this winter compared with a long-term seasonal average of 1,673, a deficit of almost 18%, reducing heating demand and easing the pressure on gas inventories and prices:
U.S. OIL AND GAS drilling rigs fell by -7 last week to 753. The number of active rigs has fallen in five of the last eight weeks and is at the lowest since the start of July 2022. The upturn that started in August 2020 after the first wave of the pandemic has at least paused and possibly ended as drilling rates slide in response to lower oil and gas prices:
BRENT’s front-month futures price has fallen to $82 per barrel down from a high of $127 at the end of May 2022, after adjusting for inflation. But is that still fairly high or already below the long-term average? It depends whether or not the comparison includes the long period of low prices in the 1990s. In real terms, $82 is in the 65th percentile for all months since 1990, still fairly high. But if the 1990s are excluded, prices are in the 42nd percentile for all months since 2000 and the 48th percentile for all months since 2010, already in the lower half of the distribution:
EUROZONE manufacturers reported business activity fell in February for the eighth consecutive month. Preliminary estimates from partial survey data put the purchasing managers’ index at 48.5 (25th percentile for all months since 2006) in February compared with 48.8 (26th percentile) in January:
EU EMISSIONS allowance prices have hit a record €100 per tonne of CO2 equivalent for the compliance period ending in December 2023:
U.S. DURABLE GOODS orders for nondefense capital equipment excluding aircraft (a proxy for business investment) were up by +5 % in December 2022 compared with December 2021. Orders are reported in cash terms; with inflation running faster than 5%, the volume of new business was down in real terms. Even in nominal terms, however, orders have been flat since the middle of 2022, confirming the merchandise side of the economy has run out of momentum:
¹ China’s high-altitude balloon overflight across North America and the U.S. decision to shoot it down is being almost totally ignored by the country’s main state-controlled media, suggesting the government is still deciding its response and/or is keen not to allow the episode to worsen relations further.
U.S. OIL DRILLING is slowing in response to the slide in prices since the middle of 2022 (when WTI was trading around $120 per barrel) especially since the start of November (when it was still $90-95). Typically there is a 15-20 week lag between a change in futures prices and a change in number of active rigs. The number of rigs drilling for oil has fallen in 7 of the last 9 weeks by a total of -28 rigs (-4%). The drilling reduction is the largest since July and August 2020 when the industry was still in shock after the first wave of the pandemic and the volume war between Russia and Saudi Arabia:
FRANKFURT, a proxy for northwest Europe, reached roughly 60% of the way through the winter heating season on February 1. So far the accumulated heating demand has been -17% below the long-term average and is the lowest since 2015/16 and before that 2006/07. But after an exceptionally long period of mild temperatures between December 19 and January 15, temperatures have turned significantly colder, causing the heating deficit to narrow slightly: