Should Gentlemen Prefer Bonds?

There is this fixed income theme playing in my contrarian head since some time and I did some priliminary reading over the past few days to figure it out. The hike in diesel will surely stoke inflation, but much depends on how the INR will behave as the US Fed goes about mopping mortage securities from the US market. The USD has already started depcreciating post the QE3 announcement. The JPY will also join the party now that the central bank of Japan has also announced their own mop up act. Yes, the fact is that global events will always have a much higher impact on the landed cost of fuel (huge component of inflation) than the price cuts announced. It is perhaps because of this ‘imported inflation’ that the RBI chose not to dunk their policy rates (repo) despite the industry clamouring for it like a starving mongrel. Ergo yields remain high and the hypothesis that once the policy rates get lowered (step wise), fixed income trading positions will profit is still yet to be proven.

Peter Lynch’s quote comes to mind:

When yields on long term Government bonds exceed the dividend yield on the S&P 500 by 6% or more, sell your stocks and buy bonds.

Now, I don’t know how much of this still applies in the US markets as of today, let alone India but the chart below shows the historical trend of the dividend yield of the NIFTY over the past 13 years or so.

 

The 10 yr GoI bond yield has been moving in a range bound manner since the start of last calendar yield (see chart below from Bloombeg). It is around 8.18% these days. So, Lynch’s above equation evaluates to 8.18% – 1.48% = 6.7% > 6%.

But then yet another quote from Peter Lynch comes to mind and makes me all confused as ever:

Gentlemen who prefer bonds don’t know what they are missing

Sigh!

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REC Tax Free Bonds

 I just applied for 1L worth of tax free bonds from the Rural Electrification Corp (REC) whose IPO opened today. This appears to be the last opportunity this year to buy tax free bonds and the application window is open till 12Mar (very small really). Unless you have pigged up heavily on fixed income, this issue should warrant more than a cursory glance by you. Here are the salient points from the prospectus (click here):

  • Ratings: “CRISIL AAA/Stable”, “CARE AAA” , “FITCH AAA(ind)” and “[ICRA]AAA”. So from that perspective looks to carry a low credit risk
  • No one’s underwriting the issue. No one wanted to or did the AAA ratings make REC say no to middlemen?
  • Usual 3 categories but NRIs absent from the scope. Sad. This is apparently to ensure that the allotment etc gets done within this FY and some folks say that involving our foreign bhais will slow down things. In any case the previous issues by NHAI, HUDCO etc took more than a month to get listed.
  • Interest of 8.13% for 10 yr and 8.32% for 15 yr bond for Category III (retail rats). 750 crores (25%) of the issue is reserved for Category III which means if more than 75,000 individual applications come in at cut-off, then the allocation game of dice will play out. Allotment will be made on a first come first served basis. In case it gets oversubscribed (which I assume it should) then if your application reached the bankers one day prior to the date when oversubscription occurred, you’d get the FCFS treatment else you’d get proportionate to your application amount. So it pays to apply early. The recent NHAI tax free issue was oversubscribed by 2.5 times.
  • The NHAI tax free bond, while it took its sweet time to list, jumped up immediately when it listed on 7/8 of Feb’12. It went up some 2 – 3% during listing time – which means that tax-free bonds are best bought during their IPOs and not from the secondary markets.
  • The 09.15 G-Sec maturing on 2024 (12 years to go) is trading at yield spreads of 8.27% – 8.28%. (http://www.ccilindia.com/OMHome.aspx)
  • Interest will be payable yearly on 1Jul. Would’ve been nice for Category III to get a cumulative interest option. Even then, 10 yr bank deposits offer less than 10% today and when you bake in the tax benefit (if you are in the highest tax bracket, these bonds give you a return of ~11.5% or so.
  • While you can apply in lots of 5 bonds (fv 1000/- each) you can sell one bond at a time, if you wish. Given heavy institutional interest for the 10 year paper, liquidity and therefore demand is likely to be high on that and therefore price of the bond on the secondary market (will list & trade on BSE) should be higher. If RBI does start dunking down interest rates towards the latter part of the year, then the price will canter up more. But capital gains tax will apply.  

It was good that IRFC’s (which is the financing arm of Indian Railways) budgeting went a bit awry (their plan size for FY11/12 was cut by 16%) and they could not use up their quota of tax-free bonds. That slack got transferred to REC instead of the Government allowing railways to roll over its unutilized portion to next FY. The Government had allowed INR 30,000 crores to be raised by infra sector PSUs during the current FY via the tax free bonds route. Assuming an interest payout of 8% this translates to a servicing cost of 2,400 crores. Assuming a low tax rate of 20%, this translates to INR 480 crores of income forgone by the Government which means a margin give up of 1.6%. But I guess that’s small change if you get INR 300 bn of capital in a year to fund infra building…

This is surely a good thing – I hope that the FM announces an even higher quota for the next FY.

Structured Equity Products

First things first – daughter gets through the national round of the spelling bee that was held in Kolkata. International round is next.

Yesterday, someone asked me to analyse a structured equity product which the wealth management group of a well known private bank had pushed for his consideration and possible investment. This was a “structured” equity linked debenture with a pay-out in the form of a knock out barrier option. If I have not lost you yet and if you aren’t KO’d, you may want to take a peep at the term sheet here. In a nutshell, what this instrument is saying is that it’ll pay you regardless of the NIFTY tanking down. If on any of the predefined monthly observation dates, the NIFTY breaches a preset barrier, then a knock out event would have happened and investors will get a fixed return of 27.5% for 24 months.  This is equivalent to investing in a fixed income instrument (bond) that gives an annual return of 11.4%. Note that with QE2, and a new wave of cheap US money expected to flood our markets the chances of the barrier getting knocked out in the short term remains extremely high. so then all that this means is that you are holding a pure fixed income instrument. The hastily scribbled payoff diagram above tries to show what I think this gives us.

“Structured” equity notes seems to be an INR 15,000 crore industry having been introduced only 4 years back in the Indian market. These class of products are quite popular in Asia and with increasing volatility expected due to increasing wads of hot money coming down to Asia, the popularity of such instruments should grow. That is really a problem since it does not seem cool to buy these things. Why? Because these are just plain and simple fixed income instruments at heart masquerading as sexy and exotic equity junkets. The annual yield of 11.4% really does not look quite cool when one considers A) the prospect of interest rates rising locally as the RBI grapples to control inflation and B) the management fee of 2 – 2.5% that such structures entail. Just 9% after taking out the fees. Also, this is not risk free for it entails taking on the credit risk of the issuer. There is no liquidity as well so the managers of such structures do not have much of a duration risk to manage – so what for this 2 – 2.5% fee? That fee, really is to justify the enormous amount of finacial acumen and spreadsheet crunching calculations that goes under anything that swishes using guiles like “structured”, “Knock Out”, “Barrier”, “Participation” etc. Investors who put their money behind such ventures must be feeling really hep and smart about themselves. Imagine having protected your capital (ok, not all of it, 97.5% perhaps 🙂 ) and also participating in the run up of NIFTY. Wouldn’t such males love to brag about it to whoever cares to listen – if some female ears patronise their trumpeting, then all the better! I don’t think I’m stretching the issue – do a random survey, I can bet my widgets that the proportion of investing females that pick up this product would be far lesser than the proportion of investing males that do the same.

SEBI made capital protection on such instruments mandatory some time back, so that lends some saving grace for such macho investors. Thankfully, most ticket sizes (i.e. face value of such debentures/notes) are 1 lakh plus so that means that macho men of modest means will not be able to participate here. Which is good, but then there was this CIO of an asset management house making a case for peddling this for an investment level as low as INR 5000! Wow! That makes it a mass market structured kill! That was from an article that was published in early 2008. In fact the more noise about such products more are the chances that we might be nearing really overbought market levels.  The point behind introducing a sexist angle to this barrier is simply to make a strong point in favour of restricting investing to products and asset classes that one understands. I know most of you would agree that there is nothing hep or cool about buying such notes, but I also do know that if some of you did buy it under whatever compomising situations then a part of you would trumpet. Avoid that. The process of amassing wealth through investing is utterly boring and almost emasculated, if I daresay.

The latent desire that such products seek to serve still needs addressing though. You have a section of the HNI/well heeled type of investors who get edgy whenever the benchmarks seem like peaking up and there is an increase in volatility. The psychological weightage that such investors apply to the act of capital preservation becomes higher. Which is again correct. But I kind of disagree in getting blindsided by the hype around these products and only using such notes to achieve that end. 9% return. Investors would be better off buying a high rated bond (of similar maturity)directly. Picking up a balanced mutual fund might require active monitoring of the fund managers’ actions (since a rising market might invoke some managers’ to increase their allocation to equity in a balanced fund making the risk – reward ratio lean towards the risk side). If you must do something whacky, then take a look at the crude payoff diagram of this structure that I have shown above. What base building blocks can be combined to create something similar to this?

An option strategy called the bull call spread, where one buys an at the money call and simltaneously sells an out of money call at a strike that is around the participation rate of the above structure should achieve a similar payoff. The quantity of options should be scaled up depending on the participation rate of the structure. The net premium paid will be one part of your investment. The balance can be put to work by buying a simple fixed income instrument. And you are home – your manliness intact (if that matters to you!). The hitch here could be finding long dated options – most of you would be using common online trading screens of retail brokerages and the max that you’ll get is a quarter’s look forward. This is something I have not explored myself but what I suggest is that next time your banks’ investment planner or relationship manager calls you, instead of finding an excuse and disconnecting ask that person to give you quotes (i.e. premiums) if you were to purchase/sell long dated options of NIFTY. The premiums would be high, no doubt – but I don’t even know how high. So, it’s a line that at least I am waiting to pick up. Will the bank really negotiate hard for me and try to find me a good deal? Will my notional be high enough for anyone to be really interested in? Does my bank have a prop trading arm where they are be a counterparty to my macho designs? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions – but yes, I am interested in long dated index options, if cost effective.

Economic Hit Men and Various Bonds

Rishab asked me to write something about infrastructure bonds which I do later in this post but before that something about the fascinating world of economic hit men (cool phrase, right?).

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Just finished reading the book “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” by John Perkins. Fuck. What a book. I’m not referring to the writing style (which is good) but the content – a detailed narrative of the ‘corporatocracy’ of the US and the role that “Economic Hit Men (EHM)” played in it. This represents the latest form of imperialism that has played about and for almost all of us, nearly the only one during our lifetimes.

The Boston Herald newspaper likened it to something like a conceptual love child of James Bond and Milton Friedman (Nobel Prize economics laureate and advisor to Ronald Reagan). And that is exactly how I felt as I turned the pages – I kept playing and re-playing the storylines of the latest Bond films in my mind. I don’t watch much movies so Bond films are the only flicks that I can relate to in this context. Please read the book (you must) and if you can suggest some other movies (other than “The Panama Deception“) that resonate with the theme please do let me know.

John Perkins now writes about a lot of stuff on his website but I think that this book will always remain his magnum opus. In a nutshell, this is what is the core theme that Perkins talks about, of the post Jimmy Carter US:

– As the US became more and more powerful, its apetite for natural resources grew larger and larger. It’s hinterland, being as rich as it is, was never going to be enough for this world leader which has 765 (!) vehicles per 1000 people. In comparision, China is at 128 and India is just about at (ha ha ha) a dozen (though it is touted to become the larest car market by 2030)!

– So the US has always wanted to look outside its borders (just like every previous empire building state has done in the past) to secure it’s supply lines.

– But new methods were needed in the post WWII, Bretton Woods era.

– So US interests would identify countries rich with natural resources and with possibly non-democratically elected governments. The phrase ‘US interests’ is used deliberately here since it would later allow for a possible detraction and an escape route to denial and a possible high moral ground.

– Pocket the leaders of such nationalities and send in a team of consultants to the country (these would NEVER be on the payroll of the US Government)

– Cook up statistics and IRR and all assorted crap about a development plan and come up with an investment plan.

– Get the Bretton Woods sisters (the IMF and the World Bank) to provide loans. ‘Engineer’ things such that work contracts (construction activity mostly) were always awarded to US companies. Ensure that such countries remain indebted.

It talks about the assasinations of President Aguilera of Ecuador and President Torridos of Panama. Then about the US invasion of Panama (Dec 1989) to extradite President Noreiga done despite severe international opposition and violation of internal law. Air strikes on a country as threating as Panama? The book notes that the then President George H. W. Bush was under pressure to shed the wimpy image that the US media was heaping upon him. It also questions if killing thousands (though US media reported far far less) to remove one man accussed of drug trafficking, racketeering and money laundering is anti wimpy. The book says that Noreiga was negotiating with the Japanese to build a second canal in the Panama. What was interesting for me to read is that another anti-EHM, Saddam Hussein was castigated by the US for violating international law when he decided to strike Kuwait less than a year of the Panama invasion! I guess we have different laws for different states. But this time I guess Bush was able to shed his wimpy image and see his popularity ratings soar to 90% amongst the Americans and get more international support since Saddam himself was quite a dark guy. I was preparing for my board exams and seemed to miss much of this – who cares anyways when you are the most important point of your academic life. But when the twin towers were felled, I was very much hooked on to the news feeds. I talked about causality in my previous post – and now I wonder if we can see some causal relationship between today’s threat of terrorism on US soil and the policies of post Carter US. Just thinking. Hope no causality exists.

The lure of lucre and the power of world domination is understandable. The English practised their own form of ‘corporatocracy’ using the East India Company as their front. The Portguese did it though the Spanish conquistadors were more infamous and direct in their methods. I am sure even the Gupta empire in early India did it when it touched places like the Malay peninsula, Singapore, Ceylon, etc.

Whatever be the motivation and regardless of the official stand of the Government the book is a must read. It took immense resolve on the part of the author to write the book. Read it.

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From cross border economic shenanigans that look like a lift out from Bond movies to real bonds closer home:

If you remember, the recent Union budget had the Finance Minister announcing the re-introduction of tax saving infrastructure bonds. I remember having picked up some tax saving infrastructure bonds issued by ICICI and IDBI during the period 2001-2003. To save tax. My salary was lower then than what it is now and therefore a penny of tax saved had greater marginal utility, though the opportunity cost was HUGE since the equity markets were shooting up like crazy, picking themselves up from the dot com destruction. Today the situation is different since according to me the opportunity cost has reduced (not too many bargains to be found in the secondary capital market). But regardless of that, saving taxes is a virtue which increases one’s take home pay.

IFCI has been the one first off the block in issuing these infrastructure bonds. Here is the term sheet of the issue. A lot of material can be found on the internet so I will not ham. Check out this post on finwinonline – it covers the topic well. I have the following observations:

  1. All should invest. Period. Currently there is no substitute to IFCI bonds today and this gives you an INR 20,000 additional deduction from your taxable income (Section 80 CCF). Invest till 20,000 unless you are unweight and/or love investing in fixed income instruments. You can invest more, but A) you’ll not get the tax benefit and B) the yield will not be mouthwatering.
  2. While the deadline is 31Aug’10 and you need to have a demat account to apply, no need to fret in case you still have not opened a demat account. Other similar issues will indeed follow but the question is will they be at par or under or higher? (in terms of interest offered on the bonds).
  3. Since India does not (yet) have a deep corporate bond market, the Finance Ministry has done good to institute a buy back option for the bond holders after the mandatory 5 year holding period. Presence of this exit option has definitely made these 10 year bonds quite attractive to investors.
  4. The other good bit is that since these bonds would be sold through the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE), capital gains tax will apply on redemption (instead of the gains being taxed at the individual’s tax rate) and there will be no Tax Deducted at Source (TDS).
  5. The other important aspect about the issue is the generous waiver granted by the Finance Ministry of the necessity to procure and publish credit ratings of the issue/issuer as part of the issue. This is cool, right (sarcasm)? Is that why IFCI rushed in first off the block? So, according to me, you might not lose much in case you are a bit strapped for funds at the moment and are not apply to the IFCI issue. Also, I am not aware of the % of allocation in case the total retail appications are more than the bonds available. The reason for that is that A) you have a quota of INR 20,000 to fill; B) it is quite likely that local interest rates will rise in the near future; so C) even if you have other slightly stronger issuers (LIC, IFCI, IDBI, other NBFCs?) throwing out their paper, the dip in coupon induced by their stronger credit worthiness may be offset by the rising interest rates.
  6. Appopros my earlier post re IFCI (License to Bank, dt 5Jul2010), I guess I am in two minds now given this development. It may be possible that the banking license eludes IFCI. Some people are talking about the company selling out to a strategic investor. The Government of India has people on the board of IFCI and since extant shareholding issues are yet to be sorted out, I think the banking license trigger may not apply. While the position is 9.43% in the black for me, this is yet another instance where I’ve broken one of my resolves – to never put money on investment theories which have a digital event at the core of their persuasion.

Finally, the last word on the infrastructure bonds is the sense of equality it provides us common folk while our political leaders clamour for two successive salary hikes in two weeks – and get it as well. I think there is an outstanding demand by our leaders to make their salary tax free as well. If that happens, I know that I will puke on my pizza.

The Bond Bubble

The bubbling stories going around this week in the financial blogosphere have mostly centered on the heady climb of US treasuries. In fact the topic has been quite hot the past month but the din is getting louder now. Comparisions with the dot com bubble and the housing bubble have started doing the rounds. The yield on the 10 year US paper is currently around 1% now. Which means that if you freeze the frame today, it will take a hundred years for the interest component to add up and match the price you pay for such bonds today. The P/Es (inverse of yield) of the no-brick and no-mortar tech companies were also in the heady hundreds during 1999-00. I don’t have too much of a view since it’s all happening outside of our shores. The Small Investor writes about it here as also the links I’ve listed below: it’s important enough for us to pay attention since we have NOT decoupled ourselves from the west. It’s actually the FII money that’s driving up our local markets here. Hot money.

  • FT Alphaville on the conundrum that equity prices and bond price are now moving in step. i.e. UP!

Logically, I’d guess that the bond market is bigger, more liquid and less amenable to manipulation. So, if the bonds and the stocks are sending out conflicting messages, should one not trust the former?

However, are bond markets better predictors of the economy? I think not: since nominal GDP growth and interest rates are both driven by inflation. Correlation is NOT causality. It’s a mistake many make – if two lines A & B move in tandem, that does not necessarily mean that A and B have a causal relationship. There could be a third factor C which is driving both A & B. So, bond prices are ↑; equity markets are ↑; economic data (US) is ↔. Thats the confusion. 

  • A website called bond-bubble (what else!) has come up and the graph on it’s homepage is quite telling.

It shows the super steep rise of US public debt – almost a parabolic rise. To me this looks similar to the rise of the Chinese stock market. That looked parabolic as well ( y = 4 * A * x↑2) and it could not defy gravity. But can US debt come crashing down? Maybe – if the currency crashes.

  • That seems to be awesome news for the gold bugs! It makes the case that the bursting of the bond bubble will pave the way for a massive upsurge in gold prices. The article notes that the yellow metal shines brightest in three situations – “heightened economical/financial risk; outright inflation and/or deflation”. And therein makes the case for a coming Gold bubble! Marc Faber,  (who keeps telling people to buy gold) has been bearish on treasuries right through the start of April but no one seems to be listening.

 TULIP SOUTH SEA RAILROAD ROARING TWENTIES → POSEIDON → JAPAN → DOT COM → HOUSING → BOND → IS IT GOLD NOW? 

This is making people like me (the “half informed”) even more nervous now. Ignorance is bliss – part knowledge is most painful. Anyways, the local markets are frothing on all the money that’s coming in from the US. The Fed there is busy buying up treasuries and sloshing money in their system (to buy the bonds, the Fed has to release money by paying whoever is holding bonds). They’re doing it by working their printing presses overtime spooking inflation. But I guess the game with inflation is that if you whack it too much too fast, the thing just snaps and the party careens towards deflation. I wish I had paid more attention during my economics classes. But to me it sounds logical that what comes in, goes out. So, this money will go back from where it came (at least in the interim). And all will fall down.

Though there is some more ground for the NIFTY to cover. That’s what the “experts” here are saying. The market isn’t fully stoned yet. It’s just started rolling the weed, maybe a few drags….let’s stop hallucinating. In 2008 so many of our local “experts” were shouting out that India is decoupled and that the housing bubble will not effect us. Even politicians had joined the chorous. De-coupled my moon. We are as joined to the US hip as our big bro in the vicinity.

Maybe I’ll be able to call the top.

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