What the Heck is Happening in the Cayman Islands?

Doug Nolan

Another quiet week… When the Fed on Friday announced its “Not QE” balance sheet reflation strategy, the Dow was already 400 points higher on anticipation of a positive trade negotiation outcome.

The Federal Reserve will Tuesday begin buying $60 billion of Treasury bills monthly through 2020’s second quarter. This follows a five-week period where Federal Reserve Credit surged $187 billion.

In addition, the Fed said it will continue with its overnight and term “repo” market interventions, along with reinvesting proceeds from maturing longer-dated maturities.

I have speculated the Fed’s balance sheet might inflate to $10 TN over the course of the next crisis and down-cycle. It’s possible that we could see expansion approaching $500 billion over the next six to nine months.

Announcing its “Not QE” plan as markets were in the throes of an intense short squeeze creates poor optics. Most analysts had expected the rollout to come at the Fed’s end-of-month meeting - or even during November. This is one more example of the Fed acting as if it is facing a serious risk to financial stability.

October 11 – Bloomberg (Rich Miller and Christopher Condon): “…The central bank… stressed that ‘these actions are purely technical measures to support the effective implementation’ of interest-rate policy and ‘do not represent a change’ in its monetary stance. ‘In particular, purchases of Treasury bills likely will have little if any impact on the level of longer-term interest rates and broader financial conditions.’”

There may come a day when bond markets push back against central bank interventions – “purely technical” or otherwise. Ten-year Treasury yields jumped six bps Friday to 1.73% - though this move higher was in response to the markets’ “risk on” mood ahead of the completion of trade talks. Two-year Treasury yields rose 5 bps Friday to 1.60%, up 19 bps for the week (and reversing most of last week’s drop).

The implied yield on January Fed funds futures rose 9.5 bps this week to 1.555% (current Fed funds rate 1.82%). Even with a successful “Phase 1” trade deal with China – not to mention the Fed’s plan to expand its holdings - the probability of a rate cut at the Fed’s October 30th meeting was little changed this week at 71%.

University of Michigan Consumer Confidence was reported at a much stronger-than-expected – and three-month high - 96. The Current Conditions component jumped 4.9 points to 113.4, the high going back to December 2018 (116.1). The St. Louis Fed’s Real GDP Nowcast Model has Q3 GDP at 3.12%. And if the world is indeed at the cusp of a U.S./China trade truce, there is even less justification for an additional rate cut. Yet I am not convinced trade risks – or economic vulnerabilities more generally – are the crux of underlying market fragilities or central bank unease.

It was an unfittingly low-key headline: “Better Data on Modern Finance Reveals Uncomfortable Truths.” The subheading to Gillian Tett’s Thursday FT article was more direct: “It is Unnerving That the Shadow Banking Sector is Swelling, Given its Role in the Financial Crisis.”

The FT’s list of “most read” articles included “Why Investors See Inflation as a Very British Problem” and “TP ICAP Pays £15m to Settle FCA Charges Over ‘Wash Trades.’” Ms. Tett’s insightful piece failed to make the cut. I was however reminded of an FT article from early 1998 highlighting the explosion of trading in Russia currency and bond derivatives, along with Gillian Tett’s exceptional reporting on the proliferation of subprime CDOs and mortgage derivatives late in the mortgage finance Bubble period.

October 10 – Financial Times (Gillian Tett): “What the heck is happening in the Cayman Islands? That is a question often asked in relation to corporate tax. This week, for example, the OECD called for an end to the loopholes that let global companies cut their tax bills in places like the British overseas territory. As the debate bubbles on, there is another facet of globalisation that merits more discussion: the financial flows associated with offshore centres, particularly between banks and non-bank entities.”

“Cross-border lending by banks to non-bank financial institutions, such as hedge funds, has also jumped, from $4.8tn in 2016 to $6.6tn in 2019. More striking, those non-bank institutions have quietly ‘become important sources of cross-border funding for banks, particularly in international currencies,’ the BIS notes.

Yet again, those offshore financial centres feature: almost 20% of banks’ cross-border dollar funding is now supplied by entities based in the Cayman Islands, a ratio only topped by those in the US, while entities based in Luxembourg and the Caymans are crucial in the euro markets. Or as the BIS concludes, ‘Banks’ positions with [non-banks] are concentrated in few countries, particularly financial centres.’”

“Non-bank intermediaries’ share of total financial system assets increased from 31% to 36%” between 2007 and 2017, observes a report from the IESE Business School… Meanwhile, the BIS data shows that banks’ cross-border dealings with non-bank entities has been swelling too. One reason is that banks are increasingly funding governments (by buying their debt).

But their exposure to non-financial companies is also rising noticeably, both to onshore and offshore subsidiaries. ‘Banks lend significant amounts to non-financial corporations located in financial centres . . . [providing] credit to the financing arms of multinational corporations located there,’ the BIS notes, adding that banks’ claims on NFCs [non-financial corporations] in the Cayman Islands are larger than on those in Italy. (Yes, really.)”

Convoluted, murky stuff: The amalgamation of “offshore financial centres,” “cross-border dollar funding,” “non-bank intermediaries” and “offshore subsidiaries,” make CDOs, special purpose vehicles, and other mortgage financial Bubble era “shadow” financial processes appear rather clear and luminous by comparison.

Ms. Tett’s article pinpoints the “belly of the beast.”

The GSEs, securitizations, sophisticated mortgage derivatives, and “repo” finance created the nucleus of the risk intermediation and leverage fueling precarious mortgage finance Bubble excess. I am convinced the mushrooming of government bonds, the proliferation of global “repo” markets and off-shore securities lending operations, along with unmatched global derivatives excess and leveraged speculation, are at the epicenter of the runaway “global government finance Bubble.”

Tett’s article notes the global push to accumulate reliable official data. The BIS (Bank for International Settlements) has expanded data for non-bank counterparties and offshore financial centers. While interesting – and certainly illustrating the enormous scope of offshore finance – I’m not confident that the BIS and global central bank community have a handle on what evolved into colossal global flows intermediated through securities finance and “offshore” finance. The recurring extensive revisions to the Fed’s Rest of World (ROW) Z.1 data informs me that there are major shortcomings and outright holes in the data.

Indeed, What the Heck is Happening in the Cayman Islands?

A few snippets from the BIS’s September 2019 Quarterly Review - International Banking and Financial Market Developments (referenced in Tett’s article).

“Derivatives trading in over-the-counter (OTC) markets rose even more rapidly than that on exchanges, according to the latest BIS Central Bank Triennial Survey… The daily average turnover of interest rate and FX derivatives on markets worldwide – on exchanges and OTC – rose from $11.3 trillion in April 2016 to $18.9 trillion in April 2019.”

“The turnover of interest rate derivatives increased markedly between April 2016 and April 2019, especially in OTC markets, where trading more than doubled from $2.7 trillion per day to $6.5 trillion.”

“The OTC trading of FX derivatives also rose substantially… In OTC markets, the daily average turnover of FX derivatives increased from $3.4 trillion to $4.6 trillion between April 2016 and April 2019.”

Tett’s article also mentioned data from the Financial Stability Board (FSB), whose Global Monitoring Report on Non-Bank Financial Intermediation 2018 (issued in February) includes detail on global non-bank entities through the end of 2017.

The FSB’s tabulation of MUNFI (monitoring universe of non-bank financial intermediaries) has a 2017 ending value of $185 TN, up substantially from the $100.6 TN to close out 2008. FSB analysis focuses on a “Narrow Measure of NBFI” (non-bank financial intermediaries), and then breaks down this category by Economic Function (subgroups EF1 through EF5). EF1 – ended 2017 at $36.7, more than double the $14.2 TN from 2008.

“EF1 includes collective investment vehicles (CIVs) with features that make them susceptible to runs.” This group includes fixed-income funds, hedge funds, money market funds, trust companies, ETS and real estate funds (along with smaller components). “EF1 growth is mainly attributable to the four jurisdictions where most EF1 entities reside – US (with 26.3% of total EF1 assets), China (16.5%), the Cayman Islands (14.3%), and Luxembourg (8.9%).”

Breaking down “Narrow Measure of NBFI:” Investment Funds ($45.4 TN, 13.6% ’17 growth); Captive Financial Institutions and Money Lenders ($25.9 TN, 0.5% ’17 contraction); Broker-Dealers ($9.6 TN, 1.1% ’17 contraction); Money Market Funds ($5.8 TN, 10.2% ’17 growth); Hedge Funds ($4.4 TN, 15.8% ’17 growth); Structured Finance Vehicles ($4.9 TN, 2.2% ’17 growth); Trust Companies ($4.6 TN, 27.1% ’17 growth).

“The resulting narrow measure was $51.6 trillion at end-2017” (from ‘08’s $36.2TN). “The total financial assets of entities in the narrow measure grew in 2017 (8.5%), both in absolute terms and relative to GDP... This growth rate is consistent with the average annual growth rate (8.8%) of the narrow measure over 2011-16. This average growth rate was mainly driven by the Cayman Islands, China, Ireland and Luxembourg, which together accounted for 67% of the dollar value increase since 2011.”

Such heady growth in finance comes with consequences. That growth in non-bank (“shadow”) finance over this boom cycle has been driven by entities in the Cayman Islands, China, Ireland and Luxembourg bodes well for the accumulation of leverage and latent risk intermediation issues – not so much for sustainability and stability.

Other highlights: “The total repo assets of banks and OFIs grew by 9.6% in 2017 to reach $9.4 trillion, while their total repo liabilities grew by 9.8% to reach $9.2 trillion, largely driven by banks’ increasing use of repos.”

“Hedge funds’ assets grew in 2017, based on data reported from 15 jurisdictions. The Cayman Islands continues to be the largest hub for such funds among reporting jurisdictions (87% of submitted total hedge fund assets) where they grew by 17.5%, driving the overall growth of the reported sector.” This passage come with a curious footnote: “There is no separate licensing category for hedge funds incorporated in the Cayman Islands, thus the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority (CIMA) estimated their size based on certain characteristics (eg leverage).”

“China accounted for most trust company assets (88% of global trust company assets) and overall growth. The growth rate of China’s trust company assets has increased over the past three years (16.6% in 2015, 24.0% in 2016 and 29.8% in 2017).”

In a recent CBB, I posited it was no coincidence that instability in Chinese money markets was followed not many weeks later by instability in U.S. “repo” finance. I believe a decade of zero and near-zero rates and unrelenting global QE has fostered unprecedented leveraged speculation on a global basis. I suspect the size of “carry trades” and myriad forms of speculative leverage dwarf that from the mortgage finance Bubble era – having seeped into all corners, nooks and crannies of global fixed-income markets. Moreover, “repo,” securities shorting, derivatives and securities finance more generally are the unappreciated sources of global liquidity abundance – in tightly interconnected funding markets with the nucleus in “offshore financial centers.”

I hold the view that massive leverage has accumulated in U.S. fixed income, in Chinese Credit, European debt, dollar-denominated bonds globally and EM debt more generally. I’ll assume heady grown in “repo” and offshore financial intermediation only accelerated since 2017.

It was no coincidence that U.S. “repo” market tumult followed on the heels of an abrupt reversal in global bond yields. I appreciate how the enormous global buildup in leveraged speculation works miraculously so long as bond yields are declining (bond prices rising).

Furthermore, uncertainty associated with escalating U.S./China trade frictions spurred a historic global speculative “blow-off” and market dislocation. If only bond yields could fall forever – even as debt and deficits expand uncontrollably.

It’s not clear to me how the global system doesn’t turn increasingly unstable, which I believe explains why the ECB and now the Fed have resorted again to QE.

Question: “When you first became chair, you were spotted numerous times carrying Paul Volcker’s book under your arm – and I’m curious what lessons did you learned from Paul Volcker and what lessons are you taking through your chairmanship?”

Jerome Powell, October 8th, 2019, during Q&A at a National Association of Business Economics event in Denver: “I’ve known Paul Volcker since I was an Assistant Secretary in the Treasury in 1992 or 1991. Of course, at that time, he had just relatively recently left the Fed - and I was frightened of even meeting him. I was just so intimidated by this global figure. And he couldn’t have been nicer and more interested in helping me and supporting me and we kind of kept up. He was really a great person to know. I read numerous accounts of his life. This book, if you haven’t read it, really sums it up really well. I don’t think there has been a greater public servant in our broad area in our lifetimes. He really just did exactly what he thought was the right thing – all the time. And he lets the chips fall where they may. He was famously booed at a Washington Bullets basketball game when he had rates very high… He’s a great man. I’m still in touch with him. I actually thought that I should buy 500 copies of this book and just hand them out at the Fed. I didn’t do that. It’s a book I strongly recommend, and we can all hope to live up to some part of who he is.”

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