Thursday, November 14, 2013

US Treasury 30yr Auction Post-Mortem

Today the treasury auctioned off 16bln 30yr bonds at 1pm (ET).  This occurred during a fairly volatile backdrop.  Janet Yellen was answering questions from the Senate for much of the "setup" period.  Her testimony was fairly QE - supportive, and so the bond market rallied during her entire testimony.  Then we had a 3.5bln 10yr POMO @ 11am (ET) 2 hours before the auction.  This was the pre-auction crescendo that many day traders are familiar with.

Bonds rallied right into the 20minute period after the 10yr POMO in a crescendo of volume....and then fell back down to the overnight VWAP after the 1pm 30yr auction tailed 1.5 basis points.

(pictured are 30yr UB futures vs inverse DX futures)

I suggested selling bonds at 11:20am this morning into the crescendo of volume, and covering after the auction.  As a trader, i couldn't really think of anything else to do.

Up until the 10yr POMO, the 10/30 curve was stable at 108 basis points.   This indicated that a concentrated short setup had not taken place.  However, after 11:20am, 30yr bonds started to underperform (both outright price and on the curve), indicating that the setup (selling bonds pre-auction) had begun.  I thought the timing of this setup selling very coincidental.

While the treasury market is still generally strong post-auction (the belly inparticular), the fact that the 30yr auction tailed indicates that the large short base pre-Yellen speech release has mostly covered and the market should be fairly stable in the current price range.

 (UST yield change on day)

Typically, the treasury market builds a concession pre-auction, and actual investors of US Treasury paper buy these auctions to get long.  Today that is a scary trade (getting long) because the market has repriced higher after Yellen's early-release speech last night.

As a day trader, i won't participate in that trade...but as a portfolio manager, i'm sure that many are.
 With Janet Yellen at the helm, its clear that the economy will need to clearly demonstrate deep economic strength before she will consider reducing QE...and that may be a long time away.

If you are interested in this type of bond market commentary intraday, in addition to following along with the trades that i am doing in the market, then i suggest trying out my paypal subscription twitter feed.


UST 30yr Pre-Aution Thoughts Before Yellen Confirmation Hearing

On any other 30yr auction day, i would be selling 30yr bonds right here (9am in NY) (30yr bond yield @ 3.79% and UB futures @ 140-21   both higher in price by 4 basis points on the day) in anticipation of the 16bln 30yr bonds (32bln 10yr equivalents) to be auctioned in 4 hours.

(pictures 30yr UB bond futures vs inverse DX)

However, today is not any other day.  Unemployment claims are slightly up...more than expected, labor productivity is up, and unit labor costs are down.  All of these point to no desire to increase hiring.  That is bad for the consumer (because the consumer is labor), and hence bullish for bonds.  These numbers ought to also be bearish for stocks (a weaker consumer does not increase sprnding)...but it seems the QE fever is still keeping S&P futures high before the open.  In a world where more QE = higher stock prices...Yellen's prepared remarks released yesterday made no mention of taper, and were highly supportive of QE continuation (though she did not explicitly state that).  The remarks were vague, but erred on the side of continuing current accommodative policy (so, QE-4-ever).

This causes a conundrum. Regardless of Yellen's testimony and Q&A session this morning, there will still be a 30yr bond auction at 1pm (ET).  Given the strength and low volume yesterday, and the current bullish tone of the bond market (4bps stronger from yesterdays closes) the bond market does not feel like there is a significant setup of short 30yr positions.  This must take place before the auction.  Primary dealers must each bid for their pro-rata share of the auction (so about 800mm each).  No dealer wants to come out of a 30yr bond auction long 800mm 30yr bonds...its just too much risk in a world where directional risk is shunned.

This is the backdrop in the minds of bond traders as we approach Yellen's testimony and Q&A session.  We will be reacting to her testimony with this in mind. be clear...if she does not indicate a desire to extend QE (either in fact, or by indicating a lower unemployment threshold) then there should be good selliing of 30yr bonds to setup for the 1pm 30yr bond auction.

Typically, bond traders want to come out of the 30yr bond auction long bonds...but typically that occurs from a very low price, as the market usually sells off going into the auction.  Today that is not the case (so far).  I expect today to have unusually high volatility in the bond market....but we will just have to wait and see.

I'll be active on twitter feel free to join in the conversation.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

UST 10yr Auction Post Mortem

The UST market grinded higher today, right into the 1pm (ET) 10yr auction. The 10yr auction came at the EXACT high print of the day on the current 10yr note @ 2.75%.   This is uncommon for a low volume day (i was expecting a tail...instead the auction came on-the-screws, at the high of the day).

Typical trading volumes for a 10yr auction day are around 450bln 10yr equivs. Today we are at 240bln 10yr equivs (asof 1pm), and on target for a 360bln 10yr equiv on track for an 80% volume day.

The USD index (DX) was weak today, which typically creates strength for US Treasuries. This held true today, and probably explains a portion of the bid in the UST market going into the 10yr auction.

(pictured are 10yr futures vs inverse DX futures)

While there is no use crying over spilt milk (most traders go into the auctions short, and then bid to cover that short, hoping for a Dutch treat), lets start to think about what this means for tomorrow's 30yr bond auction.

We know there was a large-ish UST short position initiated after NFP on Friday.  I can only surmise that this aggregate short position (combined with general USD weakness) is responsible for the strength in todays 10yr auction.  With the treasury market still sticking at the highs of the day (in fact making a new high as i am writing this), it feels safe to assume that there is more short covering to be done.

This is the backdrop as we now begin our approach into tomorrow's 30yr bond auction.  30yr bonds have underperformed on the curve today, which tells us that a short 30yr setup has already begun (possibly outright..possibly on the curve).  We will have more clarity on that point tomorrow.

Trading volumes were very low going into the 10yr auction..and are still low 30 minutes after the auction.  It feels like a significant sized group of market participants are not participating in the US Treasury market.

More later on twitter

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Surprise - US Policy Reduces Trading Volumes AND Liquididty In The US Treasury Market - BRAVO

The US Federal Reserve Bank has been easing quantitatively (QE) for 4 years now, since 2009.  Over this period, average daily trading volume in the US Treasury market has reduced from 500bln 10yr equivalents per day to 350bln 10yr equivalents.  350bln 10yr equivs may still seem like a big number...but this is a 30% decrease in trading volumes, and that is a reduction not only in volume, but liquidity.  Some readers out there might think"so what?" or "whats the big deal if the US Treasury market is less liquid than it used to be?"  The answer rests in the ultimate lenders of capital, and the structure of the Treasury market which is of great concern to participants of this market.  Investors (yes, a rarely used word these days) prefer to invest in assets that are liquid, especially when that asset is designated as a "risk free" asset.  Liquidity = ability to enter / exit at tight spreads without affecting the market price for the security.  The US treasury market used to be the deepest most liquid bond market in the world.  This characteristic of the UST market has significantly faded as QE has run its course, and the result is a reduction in actual "investors" of US government debt.  This is partly why the US Fed is still doing QE.  If the Fed doesn't buy US govt bonds...who will?  The value of the USD has been cheapened by QE, and that significantly increases the risk in holding UST debt.  Think about that for a moment..the US Fed's actions have increased the risk of holding UST paper.  UST paper is supposed to be the "risk free" asset against which everything else is judged.  If the "risk" of holding the "risk free asset" are investors to measure "risk."

 I will leave it to the reader to draw parallels to the situation as it is currently playing out in Japan.

The Fed engaged in QE for 4 specific goals.

1)  Push investors out the credit curve (from UST --> corp bonds --> Stocks)
2)  Reduce / keep down interest rates to fund US Govt spending
3)  Increase inflation (for example, prop up the housing market)
4)  Decrease unemployment

Of these 4 goals, #s 1-3 are credible.  #4 is not so clear.

#5 is not a "goal" but an unintended side effect.
5) Reduced secondary market net supply while increasing supply of the currency  = reduced trading volume = reduced liquidity

I suppose i could repeat the phrase, "when the only tool you have is a hammer...every problem looks like a nail"

Here is a direct example of #5

This week is the refunding for long term UST debt (10yr notes and 30yr bonds).

With the QE induced reduction in trading volume and liquidity, expect the remaining market trading participants to continue selling UST's ahead of the "make room" before bidding on bonds in the upcoming auctions (remember, primary dealers are required to bid for their pro-rata share of every about 5% each).   As the US Fed continues to print USD to buy UST, the world incrementally loses trust in the value of the USD. Think of the tipping point (currently taking place in Japan as well).

Of course, there has been talk and speculation of the Fed reducing / ending their QE program.  Unfortunately, there is no way for the US Fed to "exit" their QE program.  The only exit option is to wait for the debt to mature and swap IOU's with the US Treasury.

The market is a discounting function, in that it discounts future expected values in the current price of assets.  This means that ultimately, when the market realizes that the Fed cannot exit its QE position (i'm amazed this hasn't happened yet), the discounting function requires the price of UST debt to drop, yields to rise, and the currency to cheapen.  And here is where the Fed holding a sizable portion of all outstanding UST debt becomes both a problem, solution, and problem again.

1) Problem:  QE reduces value of the currency, and thus (reduces desire / increases risk) of holding long term US govt debt.
2) Solution: the central bank steps in and buys the long term debt, inflating financial assets
3) Financial asset inflation translates into consumer price inflation
4) Problem:  --> see problem #1

5) The modern world hasn't figured out #5 yet, however Japan is on the path to experience #5 before the US.

It is hard to imagine life in the US falling over due to financial failure, as happened in Greece and Cyprus.  Of course in the US it would be slightly different, as the US can print money and inflate away certain problems.  The scary part is when those who have been inflated out of being able to survive get hungry enough to riot...that is when chickens in the US will come home to roost.  This is a slowly building does not happen overnight.  And every slowly building phenomenon has a "tipping point."

Back to the markets....

As volume and liquidity decrease with the path of QE, we continue to get closer to the moment when the market actually discounts this reality.  This is the only reason US bond yields are as low as they are (the same could be said for European Govt bonds).  The market hasn't fully discounted this "non-exit exit."  Similar statements could be said about the situation in Spain, France and Italy.  Amazing our ability for cognitive dissonance, no?

While this all sounds oddly familiar to a ponzi scheme (the kind that goes along fine until one day it implodes)...the effect today is a reduction in both liquidity and trading volume which has created "volatility gaps" or "bifurcated volatility"  This is simply recognizing the path that we are currently on.  I don't expect the govt (US, Europe, China or Japan) to reverse course...its just important to recognize where we are on the path.

Here is the real purpose of this should i change my trading strategy to adapt to this new volatility regime?

Until recently, the average daily trading range for 10yr note futures (the most liquid UST security) was 20 ticks or about 8 bps (a tick here is 1/32nd of 1 USD of face).  Of course when we say "average" that implies some daily vol ranges are bigger than 20 ticks...and some are smaller.  Days with significant ECO data (NFP, FOMC, large duration auctions, Housing data,  CPI, ect..) expect larger than average trading ranges and volatility.  Days with less significant ECO data expect less volatility and smaller trading ranges.  This basic concept still holds true today...but the gap in average volatility between a big vol day and a small day has increased (much like the gap between the rich and the poor).   In today's market, a large vol day might see a 12-16bp range...and a "normal" small vol day might see only 3-5bp trading range.  5 years ago, these vol range were more like 5-8bps and 10-18 bps.  The result is that during the intermittent "slow periods" the market is extraordinarily slow..and during high vol events, the market reprices so fast that large entities do not have the ability to change their position before the market has significantly repriced.  This is what we call a reduction in liquidity.  As a small individual trader, you may think this does not have a significant impact on your day-to-day life.  But as an investor in the institution (do you have a bank account?  do you have a pension fund?...then you do have a stake here) this affects us all as the cost of hedging interest rate risk has significantly increased.

So, as a day trader, how do we respond to this change in the structure of market volatility?  It means that the average mean reversion trades have much smaller ranges.  If you "need" to make X dollars per day trading...and intraday vol is reduced, then you must therefore trade larger size, with more leverage to make up for the reduction in average volatility.  This poses a problem to our internal risk manager.  Increased size / leverage on your account means tighter stops in terms of price ranges (for example, risking 5k to make 15k).  With larger size you will lose 5k faster if the market moves against you.  So, this increases the probability that you will get stopped out, and thus decreases the expected value of your mean reversion trading strategy.  An option is to not increase your trading size / leverage.  However, with the smaller vol ranges, this implies that you will not be able to hit your revenue targets, and this has caused banks and hedge funds to look elsewhere for their trading / liquidity providing business.  This is why trading volatility has participants have simply gone elsewhere...which reduces not only trading volume but liquidity.

These conditions are what drive traders (liquidity providers) out of an illiquid market, and into a different, more liquid market.  Illiquid Markets tend to be "sticky" when trading volumes are small..and "gap" when trading volumes increase.

So, what is my advice?  You could either take your stake, pull out and go find another more liquid venue to trade (FX perhaps?).  Trust would not be the first.  For the remaining traders...there is still opportunity..but that opportunity comes with increased risk.  This is the hallmark of an emerging market (yes, we are still talking about the US Treasury market).   This all sounds reminiscent of stories about traders who blew up when volatility "gapped."  LTCM is the most famous, but there are numerous others.

To be clear, i'm not advocating traders leave the UST market..i'm simply pointing out that market structure has changed...and in order to survive, we as traders (intraday liquidity providers) must either change with it....or be pushed into insolvency.

So how do we change our trading strategy with this decreased average volatility?  We need to be more aggressive.  This applies both during the slow mean reversion trading days, as well as the trending trading days.  Gone are the days where you can sell a good pop...or buy a good dip.  Now, you need to figure out your intended direction, and initiate trade closer to the middle.  This of course increases the risk that you will get stopped out if you are making such decisions on a random basis.  You have to "know" what will happen next.  Does this describe how you "feel" about the US Treasury market?

Yup...still talking about the US Treasury market here.  Surprised??