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Will Thursday's Final TLTRO Finally Spark Carry Trades?

By Nick Kounis of ABN Amro

Euro Rates Watch – Will the TLTRO spark carry trades?

  • The last of the ECB’s TLTRO-II operations is expected to have a big take up, with the market expecting EUR 125bn, and some forecasts as high as EUR 300bn
  • From a rates perspective, what matters is whether these funds will trigger flows into the bond or swap markets as banks set up carry trades
  • Carry trades have certainly looked attractive and currently there is a possible spread of around 80bp between the rate on the TLTRO and similar maturity peripheral bonds
  • However, there is little evidence that banks have used TLTRO-II funds for carry trades over the last few months
  • Eurozone bank government bond holdings have actually fallen sharply since the first TLTRO-II…
  • …while a very small proportion of banks said they would use the funds to buy assets in the ECB’s Bank Lending Survey
  • Finally, there was no discernible impact on government bond curves around the time of the TLTROs…
  • ….and only a temporary impact on swap spreads in one of the three operations
  • Overall, we doubt the last of the TLTRO’s will have a major lasting impact on bond or swap markets

The impact of TLTRO-II on the eurozone rates market

On Thursday, the ECB will hold its fourth tender under the TLTRO-II (Targeted Long-Term Refinancing Operations) programme. A large take-up is expected. A poll published by Reuters had a  median forecast of EUR 125bn net borrowing (EUR 141bn gross given banks will repay EUR 16.74bn), with estimates as high as EUR 300bn. From a rates perspective, what matters is whether these funds will trigger flows into the bond or swap markets as banks set up carry trades. Certainly, carry trades can be attractive. At the time of past operations there has been a possible spread of around 40bp between the rate on the TLTRO and similar maturity peripheral bonds. Currently this spread has risen to around 80bp, given the rise in peripheral yields. In this note we assess how likely it is that we will see a major impact on bond and swap markets by looking at the impact of the first three tenders, which saw a cumulative net take up of EUR 138bn. We first take a look at what banks have said about the uses of TLTRO funds in the ECB’s Bank Lending Survey. We go on to look at bank bond holdings. Finally, we analyse price movements in the bond and swap markets around the time of the TLTROs.

Only a very small proportion of banks say they used TLTRO to buy assets

The ECB’s Euro area Bank Lending Survey of January 2017 (see here) asked 134 banks about their participation in past TLTRO-II operations and the upcoming tender. In addition, the banks were questioned on their planned use of the funds (see charts below). Of the banks, 37% said they participated in the third TLTRO-II operation, which was lower than in the second tender (see graphs below). Meanwhile, 26% said they intended to participate in the upcoming TLTRO-II tender, while 42% was undecided and 32% indicated that they did not plan to participate. It is likely that more banks now intend to participate given it is final tender and market expectations of interest rate hikes have risen (see appendix). For the use of past TLTRO-II liquidity, banks revealed that they would use the cheap liquidity for granting loans (60%), to refinance other funding sources (24%), while only a very modest proportion said they intended to buy assets (9%). For tomorrow’s tender, a slightly higher proportion of the banks said they would engage in carry trades (13%).

Eurozone government bond holdings have fallen

The banks’ responses in the ECB survey appear to be corroborated in data on eurozone banks’ non-MFI bond holdings (see charts below). Eurozone banks’ bond holdings fell significantly between June of last year and  January of this year. Total bond holdings fell by EUR 153bn (-9.6%), while domestic bond holdings fell by EUR 124bn (-10.6%). The large absolute falls were seen in Spain and Italy, followed by France and Germany. If banks had  initiated carry trades by using TLTRO-II funds to invest in bonds, their bond holdings would have been expected to rise. Rather, a large buyer – the Eurosystem central banks – seems to have crowded them out of the market.

Little discernible impact on bond or swap markets

Finally, we find no major or sustained impact on bo nd or swap markets in the day surrounding the TLTRO-II operations. In the charts below, T is the TLRO-II settlement day for the various operations, and we show movements in swap and bond markets 5 days before and 5 days after. Carry trades would be expected to induce steepening as they would support the segment around 4-years. The left hand chart shows 5s10s ASW swap spreads. There was only temporary steepening around the time of the first TLTRO-II in June, while there was no visible impact in the September and December editions. In the run-up to this month’s TLTRO-II, we do see some steepening, as there appears to be some front running. But it is too early to say it trend will be sustained, given the experience of the swap market behaviour in the first three tenders. The right hand chart shows the average 4s8s spreads of Italian and Spanish government bonds. There is little evidence of bull steepening around any of the operations.

No major sustained impact expected from last TLTRO-II

The last of the TLTRO-II operations will probably see a large net take up of EUR 100bn or more. As discussed above, it would seem very attractive to invest TLTRO proceeds into especially peripheral government bonds  or to conduct carry trades by entering receiver swaps of similar maturities to the tender. However, there is little evidence that banks have done so up until now, even though it has always been relatively attractive. One  potential reason for this is that (especially peripheral) bank holdings of government bonds were already very large at the start of the TLTRO-II operations. They may feel uncomfortable adding to those holdings. Another reason is that by investing in assets, banks increase their balance sheets. This could be accompanied by higher regulatory costs which would make carry trades less profitable. Furthermore, there have been initiatives in Europe to risk-weight banks’ domestic government bond holdings. At the same time, investors have recently become more concerned about the fundamentals of certain sovereigns in the periphery,  especially once QE ends. Overall, we  doubt the last of the TLTRO’s will have a major lasting impact on bond or swap markets

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