Macro trends

Macroeconomic trends predict asset returns for two principal reasons: They affect investors’ attitudes toward risk and influence the expected risk-neutral payoff of a financial contract. The market impact of macroeconomic trends is typically more pronounced over longer horizons (such as months) than over shorter horizons (such as days). The relevance and predictive power of point-in-time macro trends have been demonstrated in applied research for all major asset classes: fixed income, foreign exchange, equities, commodities, credit derivatives, and cross-asset return correlation. The alignment of macroeconomic trend information and trading positions is often simple and straightforward. However, the logical transformation of the information states and hedging of target positions

The importance of macro trends

Why macroeconomic trends matter

Generally, all market prices are part of an economic equilibrium. More specifically, macroeconomic trends influence asset prices for two reasons: They affect investors’ attitudes toward risk and shape the expected risk-neutral payoff of a financial contract.

  • Risk aversion rises in recessions due to a focus on preserving limited resources. Standard economic theory proposes that the marginal utility of income increases as income falls. When household income declines and fear of unemployment rises, each incremental dollar becomes more valuable. The fear becomes more acute near the lower limits of living. Similar aversion to breaking downside thresholds can be observed in the financial industry. There is even a special concept of “loss aversion,” which is not the same as risk aversion (view post here) because the aversion is disproportionate toward drawdowns below a threshold.
  • The effects of macroeconomic trends on risk-neutral expected payoffs of securities are ubiquitous and often obvious. For example, inflation directly impacts the real return of nominal fixed-income securities; as inflation rises, the real purchasing power of fixed-income payments decreases. Similarly, macroeconomic trends such as economic growth and relative price-wage trends influence the earnings prospects of stocks. Also, financial conditions affect the default risk of credit. External balances and relative prices of goods and services matter for exchange rate dynamics.

The importance of macroeconomic information is principally recognized by many investors. They monitor economic data releases and employ economists for deeper analyses. Empirical studies show that bond and equity markets are more likely to post large moves on days of key data releases than on other days (view post here). However, the influence of economic data on market price changes tends to be stronger over longer time horizons. This is because macroeconomic developments and their effects are often more persistent than non-fundamental factors, such as market sentiment or order flows. Therefore, macroeconomic trends are a significant explanatory factor of medium to long-term price trends.

  • In the fixed-income market, empirical work has suggested that deviations of major economic data from analyst expectations can explain more than a third of quarterly bond price fluctuations in the U.S. (view post here). By contrast, daily data surprises explain only 10% of market fluctuations. Medium-term returns of government bonds seem to be predictable through nowcasted economic growth, excess inflation relative to the target (view post here), excess domestic macroeconomic demand (view post here), nominal import growth (view post here), and measures of financial market tail risk (view post here). Over the longer term, bond yields seem to move almost one-to-one with expected inflation and the estimated equilibrium short-term real interest rate (view post here).
    Equilibrium theory helps explain how macroeconomic trends and expectations for future short-term interest rates shape the yield curve (view post here). Stable components in GDP growth and inflation drive long-term yield trends. Transitory deviations of GDP growth and inflation cause cyclical movements in yield curves. Moreover, there is evidence that bond returns contain significant risk premia for regime changes related to economic growth and inflation in an economy (view post here).
    Moreover, research claims that a single fundamental divergence may explain most of the decline in equilibrium real interest rates from the 1980s to 2010s. On the one hand, the propensity to save surged due to demographic changes (view post here), rising inequality of wealth, and the reserve accumulation of emerging market central banks. On the other hand, investment spending was reduced by cheapening capital goods and declining government activity (view post here).
  • In the foreign exchange space, theory and evidence support a positive relationship between growth differentials and FX forward returns (view post here) and a close link between relative industry cycles and exchange rate dynamics (view post here). Currencies of countries in a strong cyclical position are expected to appreciate against those in a weak position. Also, macroeconomic indicators of competitiveness of currency areas are significant predictors of FX forward returns and a solid basis for pure macro(economic) trading strategies (view post here). Standard FX carry signals can be significantly improved by enhancing them with information on economic performance, leading to the advanced concepts of “modified real carry” and “balanced real carry” (view post here).  Similarly, standard FX trend following can be improved by considering macro headwinds (view post here).
    Deviations of currency values from their medium-term equilibrium give rise to multi-year exchange rate trends. Over time, exchange rates between areas of similar economic development have been observed to revert to their mean values, and adjustments have occurred mainly through changes in the nominal exchange rate. (view post here).
    External balances, which describe transactions between residents and non-residents of a currency area, also predict exchange rates and FX returns. Modern international capital flows are mainly about financing rather than goods transactions. The patterns and risks associated with international capital flows and financial shocks shape FX return dynamics (view post here). For example, a large negative international investment position of a currency area encourages FX hedging against that currency, particularly in times of turmoil, and hence positive but pro-cyclical FX returns (view post here).
  • As to equity markets, research supports a close link between macroeconomic developments and the two key components of stock valuation: earnings and discount factors. As a result, research has found many applications of macro indicators for the prediction of broad equity returns:
    • When stock prices increase, they contribute to the growth of household wealth and create favorable conditions for corporate investment. This, in turn, leads to a rise in aggregate spending, tighter labor markets, and potentially inflationary pressure, all of which are headwinds for positive equity market trends. Therefore, broad macro trends help predict market trends’ sustainability (view post here). For example, stronger consumer spending and tighter labor markets undermine monetary policy support and typically indicate a shift in national income from corporate to households. Private consumption strength has negatively predicted local-currency equity returns in the past and has been valuable for the timing of equity market turning points (view post here).
    • Inflation is another valuable equity trading signal. In past decades, even the simplest inflation metrics have served as warning signals at the outset of large market drawdowns and as heads-ups for opportunities before recoveries. The evident predictive power of inflation for country equity indices has broad implications for using real-time CPI metrics in equity portfolio management. (view post here). Also, a downshift in expected inflation can have multiple effects on equity markets: it raises average company valuation ratios, such as price-earnings ratios and credit default risk, at the same time. This combination of higher valuation ratios and increased credit risk can contribute to a relative asset class trend, where investors shift their preferences towards equities compared to other asset classes (view post here).
    • Improving bank lending conditions bolster aggregate demand in the economy and the creation of leverage. Both augur well for corporate profitability and forthcoming earnings reports. Indeed, signs of strengthening credit supply or demand in bank lending surveys have positively predicted equity returns in past decades (view post here).
    • Intervention liquidity expansion is a helpful predictor of relative equity market performance across different currency areas  (view post here). This indicator captures the monetary base expansion resulting from central bank open market operations in FX and fixed-income markets. Equity markets with more expansionary operations have an advantage over those with less liquidity supply.
    • Measures of macroeconomic uncertainty, i.e., unpredictable disturbances in economic activity, serve as predictors of equity market volatility (view post here).
    • Macroeconomic trends also affect the relative performance of sectoral equity indices. For example, the state of the business cycle, relative price trends, or financial conditions drive divergences in business conditions. Empirical evidence exists of sizable value generation through macro factor-based sector allocation across international equity markets (view post here).
    • Finally, the prices of equity factor portfolios seem anchored by the macroeconomy in the long run. This implies predictability of equity factor performance going forward (view post here) and explains why macroeconomic indicators can be used for equity factor timing, i.e., when to receive and pay alternative non-directional risk premia (view post here). Put simply, macroeconomic conditions may influence the probability that a specific investment factor will yield good returns. This is consistent with the evidence of momentum in various equity factor strategies (view post here), i.e., past equity factor returns have historically predicted future returns. Moreover, some research shows that macroeconomic factors, such as short-term interest rates, help predict the timing of exposure to equity convexity, i.e., stocks whose elasticity to the market return is curved upward and that outperform in large market moves (view post here).
  • In commodity markets, macroeconomic trends mainly industrial demand and financial investor preferences. There is strong evidence that macroeconomic data support predictions of short-term energy market trends (view post here). Valid macro indicators include shipping costs, industrial production measures, non-energy industrial commodity prices, transportation data, weather data, financial conditions indices, and geopolitical uncertainty measures. Macroeconomic indicators of industry sentiment, production, and inventory growth have also helped predict base metal futures returns (view post here). Changes in manufacturing business confidence can be aggregated by industry size across all major economies to give a powerful directional signal of global demand for metals and energy. (view post here).
    Meanwhile, the big cycles in some raw material prices have been driven mainly by “demand shocks,” which seem to be related to global macroeconomic changes and have had persistent effects for 10 years or more (view post here). Precious metals prices have a long-term equilibrium relationship with consumer prices and are natural candidates for hedges against inflationary monetary policy (view post here).
  • In credit markets, macroeconomic trends influence attitudes toward default risk and actual default probabilities. When systemic stress is high, investors require greater compensation for exposure to corporate default risk. This explains why measures of systemic macro default risk predict low-grade bond returns negatively (view post here).
    Selling protection through credit default swaps (CDS) is akin to writing put options on sovereign default. In sovereign CDS markets, default risk depends critically on sovereign debt dynamics. There is strong evidence of a negative relation between increases in predicted debt ratios (under current market conditions) and CDS returns. (view post here).
  • The correlation across asset markets also depends on macro factors. The most prominent example is the correlation between equity and bond returns. Economic policy is a key macro force behind it (view post here). In an active monetary policy regime, where central bank rates respond disproportionately to inflation changes, the influence of technology (supply) shocks dominates markets, and the correlation turns positive. In a fiscal policy regime, where governments use debt financing to manage the economy, the influence of investment (financial) shocks dominates, and the correlation turns negative.

Economic shocks have more powerful market effects if they change long-term expectations. Thus, a key factor of economic impact is whether long-term expectations are “anchored” or not. For example, persistent undershooting of inflation targets in the developed world has made long-term inflation expectations more dubious and susceptible to short-term inflation trends. This “de-anchoring” can be measured (view post here) through surveys and long-dated securities, providing valuable information on the consequences of price shocks for markets.

Aligning macro trends and market positions

The directional effect of economic change is often straightforward, following standard macroeconomic theory and market experience. For example, rising expected inflation and lower unemployment have historically translated into higher low-risk bond yields (view post here).  Also, swings in large commodity-intensive sectors, such as construction in China, have driven global prices for raw materials, such as base metals (view post here). Furthermore, export price changes in “commodity countries” help explain and even predict their exchange rate dynamics (view post here).

However, many macroeconomic trends can also have multiple effects, which need to be disentangled. For example, expansionary financial conditions can be both beneficial and harmful for future equity market performance, depending on the trade-off between positive growth impact and elevated vulnerability. On these occasions, indicators must be modified, become parts of larger formulas, and be split into different parts. For example, financial conditions can be divided into short-term impulses, such as yield compression, and medium-term vulnerability, such as increased leverage (view post here). Combinations of negative shocks and elevated vulnerability would then be clear negative signals for equity markets. Combinations of positive impulses and low vulnerability would be clear positive signals.

Global macro and market factors often obfuscate the relationship between country-specific macroeconomic trends and financial returns.

  • For example, the value of a currency typically benefits from strengthening the underlying economy relative to other countries. However, almost all currencies are, to varying degrees, sensitive to changes in global markets and the exchange rates of the largest economies. To validate and trade relative economic trends, it is, therefore, useful to hedge against such global influences or set up positions relative to similar contracts or both. Empirical evidence suggests that global FX forwards can be hedged reliably against the largest part of global market influences (view post here).
  • More generally, macro sensitivities are endemic in trading strategies, diluting alpha, undermining portfolio diversification, and distorting backtests. However, it is possible to immunize strategies through “beta learning,” a statistical learning method that supports identifying appropriate models and hyperparameters and allows backtesting of hedged strategies without look-ahead bias (view post here).

Sometimes, information regarding economic uncertainty can be as valuable as information on the economic direction. One can estimate economic uncertainty through various methods, such as keyword frequency in the news, relevant market volatility, and forecast dispersions. Such measures help to detect phases of popular fear or panic and complacency (view post here), both of which offer opportunities for professional investors. Indeed, composite measures suggest that uncertainty typically rises abruptly but subsides only gradually.
Unsurprisingly, uncertainty about the economic and financial state, in general, has been conducive to higher volatility in market prices, including commodities (view post here). Economic uncertainty can also affect directional trends. For example, there is evidence that uncertainty about external balances leads to the underperformance of currencies of economies with net capital imports (view post here).

Best practices for tracking macro trends

Macro trend indicators

Since the range of available macro data is vast, they must inevitably be condensed into small manageable sets of meaningful indicators. Generally, a macro trend indicator can be defined as an updatable time series that represents a meaningful economic or financial trend, and that can be mapped to the performance of tradable assets or derivatives positions. There are three major sources of information for macro trend indicators:

  • economic data,
  • financial market data, and
  • expert judgment.

While these sources are often portrayed as competing investment principles, they are highly complementary. Economic data establish a direct link between investment and economic reality, market data inform on the state of financial markets and economic trends that are not (yet) incorporated in economic data, and expert judgment is critical for formulating stable theories and choosing the right data.

Economic data

For all major economies, statistics offices publish wide arrays of economic data series, often with changing definitions, elaborate adjustments, multiple revisions, and occasional large distortions. Monitoring economic data consistently is tedious and expensive. Most professional investors find it easier to trade on data surprises than on actual macro trends. It is not uncommon for investment managers to consider an economic report only with respect to its presumed effect on other investors’ expectations and positions and to subsequently forget its contents within hours of its release.

What makes monitoring economies difficult is that there is usually no single series that represents a broad macroeconomic trend on its own in a timely and consistent fashion. To begin with, conventional economic data are published with considerable lags, subject to frequent revisions, and often their true history is very hard to reconstruct for financial market backtesting. Moreover, many important types of macro information for markets are not produced by central agencies. For example, equilibrium real interest rates and long-term inflation trends are essential factors for fixed-income strategies (view post here). Yet neither of these is available as an official, reliable data series since such estimation requires judgment and macroeconomic modeling (view post here).  Even something apparently simple indicators, such as inflation trends, use a range of different data series at the same time, such as consumer price growth, “core” inflation measures, price surveys, wage increases, labor market conditions, household spending, exchange rates, and inflation derivatives in financial markets. In practice, the use of economic data for macro trading requires [1] producing special tradable economic data, [2] formulating a plausible and logical theory to create meaningful indicators, and [3] applying statistical methods.

Published economic data cannot be easily and directly plugged into systematic trading strategies. Unlike financial market data, which are intensively used for algorithmic and systematic trading, economic data come with several inconvenient features such as low frequency of updating, lack of point-in-time recording, and backward revisions. Therefore, economics statistics and other quantifiable information must be brought into a form that is suitable for systematic research. One can call this form tradable economic data (view post here).

Theoretical structure establishes a plausible relation between the observed data and the conceived macroeconomic trend. This is opposite to data mining and requires that we set out a formula based on our understanding of the data and the economy before we explore the actual data.

  • As a simple example, different sectoral production reports can be combined by adding them in accordance with the weight of the sectors in the economy.
  • The monetary policy stance in a regime with sizeable asset purchase programs can be estimated as a single “implied” short-term interest rate based on the actual short-term interest rate and the equivalent effect of compression of term premia, based on a yield curve factor model (view post here).
  • As a more advanced example, we can extend measures of consumer price inflation by indicators of concurrent aggregate demand. This helps to distinguish between supply and demand shocks to prices, making it easier to judge whether a price pressure will last or not (view post here).
  • Even modern academic macroeconomic theory can help. True, dynamic stochastic general equilibrium models are often too complex and ambiguous for practical insights. However, simplified static models of the New Keynesian type incorporate important features of dynamic models while still allowing us to analyze the effect of macro shocks on interest rates, exchange rates, and asset prices in simple diagrams (view post here for interest rates and here for exchange rates).

Statistical methods become useful where our prior knowledge of data structure ends. They necessarily rely on the available data sample. With respect to economic trends, they can accomplish two major goals: dimension reduction and nowcasting.

  • Dimension reduction condenses the information content of a multitude of data series into a small manageable set of factors or functions. This reduction is important for forecasting with macro variables because many data series have only limited and highly correlated information content. (view post here).
  • Nowcasting tracks a meaningful macroeconomic trend in a timely and consistent fashion. An important challenge for macro trend indicators is timeliness. Unlike financial market data, economic series have monthly or quarterly frequency, giving only 4-12 observations per year. For example, GDP growth, the broadest measure of economic activity, is typically only published quarterly with one to three months delay. Hence, it is necessary to integrate lower and higher-frequency indicators and to make use of data releases with different time lags.

In recent years, dynamic factor models have become a popular method for both dimension reduction and nowcasting. Dynamic factor models extract the communal underlying factor behind timely economic reports and translate the information of many data series into a single underlying trend (view post here and here). This single underlying trend is then interpreted conceptually, for example, as “broad economic growth” or “inflation expectations”. Also, the financial conditions of an economy can be estimated by using dynamic factor models that distill a broad array of financial variables (view post here).

It is important to measure local macroeconomic trends from a global perspective. Just looking at domestic indicators is rarely appropriate in an integrated global economy. As a simple example, inflation trends have increasingly become a global phenomenon due to globalization and convergent monetary policy regimes. Over the past three decades, local inflation has typically been drifting towards global trends in the wake of deviations (view post here). As an example of the global effects of small-country shocks, “capital flow deflection” is a useful conceptual factor for emerging markets that stipulates that one country’s capital inflow restrictions are likely to increase the inflows into other similar countries (view post here). In order to measure this effect, one needs to build a time series of capital controls in all major economies in order to distill the specific impact on a single currency.

Financial data

Financial market data is often more readily available and at higher frequencies compared to macroeconomic data. Additionally, investment professionals are generally more familiar with financial market data and find it easier to interpret. However, extracting specific macro trend information content from financial data can be challenging as a single price typically reflects the influence of many factors. Isolating the macroeconomic component from these factors requires theoretical modeling and statistical methods.

  • A simple example would be to derive inflation expectations from breakeven inflation, as priced in the inflation swap markets. For this purpose, we must at least make an adjustment for the inflation risk premium embedded in the swaps contract, possibly by using the correlation of inflation swaps with broad market benchmarks (view post here).
  • Trends in industrial commodity prices are typically aligned with global demand, economic growth, and, ultimately, inflationary pressure. Since commodity prices are observable in real-time, they can predict related economic trends. And since most of these economic trends matter for interest rates, they help to forecast bond returns (view post here). More advanced information extraction would check whether rising commodity prices have coincided with upward or downward revisions to global industrial activity. This helps to distinguish between commodity supply and global demand shocks; these two can have very different implications for the exchange rate, equity, and rates markets (view post here). Also, commodity-based terms-of-trade indicators are drivers and valid predictors of FX forward returns (view post here).
  • Another intuitive source of information on perceived uncertainty is the futures curve of implied equity index volatility, particularly VIX (view post here). This curve is shaped by the relation between present and future expected volatility and, hence, serves as an indicator of present complacency, in the form of a steep curve or panic, through an inverted curve.
  • Bond and swap yields are a rich source of information. The level of real short-term rates is related to the monetary policy stance. The slope of the curve is related to expected future policy rates and risk premia. And the curvature of the term structure is naturally related to the expected “over-tightening” or “under-tightening” of monetary policy and, hence, is a valid trading signal for the foreign exchange market (view post here). Moreover, the difference between government bond yields and swap yields, adjusted for credit risk, is often indicative of a “liquidity yield” or “convenience yield” of government bonds, i.e., non-pecuniary benefits that arise from high liquidity, suitability as collateral and eligibility as regulatory liquidity buffers. Such liquidity yields not only indicate long-term expected returns of the bonds themselves, but their changes also affect exchange rate dynamics in a similar manner as changes in interest rates (view post here). For example, since the dollar exchange rate clears the market for safe dollar assets increases in the convenience yield for these assets typically trigger an overshooting in the international value of the dollar (view post here).
  • Another simple and popular example is the measurement of monetary policy uncertainty through short-term rate derivatives. Policy uncertainty is a key component of equity return volatility that improves predictions that are otherwise based on historical and implied equity volatility alone (view post here).
  • The term premia in credit default swap curves are indicative of country’s financial risk. In particular, flattening or inversion of CDS curves is typically indicative of negative country-specific shocks (view post here). Empirical research suggests that changes in CDS term premia have predicted exchange rate changes and local stock returns in the past.
  • The USD exchange rate has become an important early indicator for U.S. and global credit conditions (view post here). This is because a large share of corporate loans is regularly sold to mutual funds. In times of USD strength, credit funds typically experience outflows as the balance sheets of non-U.S. borrowers deteriorate, i.e., the weight of their USD debt increases relative to non-USD assets.
  • Financial return volatility across asset classes is one of the most popular indicators for the quantity of risk and the aversion to risk. Implied volatility indices can be constructed across asset classes based on out-of-the-money call and put premia and can be used to extract forward-looking market information (view post here). Realized volatility is typically calculated as the (annualized) standard deviation of returns over a period, usually from the close of one trading day to the close of the next. However, alternative useful concepts of volatility make use of open, close, high, and low prices and even trading volumes (view post here). Moreover, heterogeneous autoregressive models of realized volatility have become a popular standard for predicting volatility at various frequencies (view post here). Moreover, equity and bond market volatility can be decomposed into persistent and transitory components by means of statistical methods. Plausibility and empirical research suggest that the persistent component of price volatility is associated with macroeconomic fundamentals. This means that persistent volatility is an important signal itself and its sustainability depends on macroeconomic trends and events (view post here). Meanwhile, the transitory component, if correctly identified, is more closely associated with market sentiment and can indicate mean-reverting price dynamics.
  • An example that relies more on statistical estimation would be the measurement of non-conventional monetary policy shocks based on asset prices. For this, we can estimate changes in the first principal component of bond yields that are independent of policy rates and on monetary policy announcement dates. Non-conventional monetary policy shocks tend to have a profound and lasting impact on most asset markets (view post here).

A global perspective is probably more crucial for analyzing financial data than for economic data, particularly given the worldwide influence of U.S. financial markets. Here are some key points related to this perspective:

  • Impact of U.S. monetary policy: Research has shown that shocks to U.S. monetary policy have a significant impact not only on the U.S. dollar exchange rates but also on foreign-currency risk premia more broadly. Changes in U.S. monetary policy can reverberate across global financial markets, affecting interest rates, asset prices, and investor sentiment in various countries (view post here).
  • Transmission of term premium shocks: Shocks to the term premium in longer-dated U.S. yields can have persistent subsequent effects on term premia in other global markets (view post here).
  • Cross-asset class perspective: Different market participants and institutions specialize in different types of assets and information. Equity investors tend to focus more on corporate earnings prospects, while fixed-income investors pay greater attention to macroeconomic trends and monetary policy. Investment strategies in one market can often benefit from the information provided by another if one is familiar with “decoding” price signals quickly. For instance, equity markets have historically been more sluggish than bond markets in adjusting discount factors to shifts in relative country inflation (view post here). Similarly, changes in the implied pace of future policy rates, as priced by fed funds futures, have in the past helped to predict equity returns (view post here) and even the U.S. dollar exchange rate (view post here).

Expert judgment

As a rule, expert judgment is a powerful complement rather than an alternative to statistical methods. Experts can provide valuable insights and contextual understanding that may not be captured by statistical models alone. Here are a few ways in which expert judgment complements statistical methods:

  • Formulating economic theory behind a macro strategy can provide a solid foundation and rationale for the trading approach. While it may not always be necessary to create a successful strategy, looking for inspiration in economic theory can be good practice for several reasons, such as a deeper understanding of the fundamental drivers, identifying key relationships, awareness of changing circumstances capable of breaking up vital relationships to allowing traders to stay ahead of market trends and make proactive trading decisions. Understanding of economic theory allows traders to build on academic research: by drawing inspiration from established economic theories, traders can benefit from the wealth of knowledge and insights generated by economists and researchers in the field.
  • Interpreting data: Experts have domain knowledge and expertise in the subject matter, allowing them to interpret the meaning of data accurately. They can provide context and explain the nuances of the data. For example, some business surveys that refer to a particular month actually use data collected in the previous month.
  • Assessing data relevance: the experts can identify which data elements are most meaningful and informative for the analysis. For example, in some countries, core inflation (excluding food and energy) is a very important benchmark for policy rates, while in other countries, the central bank would only look at headline inflation.
  • Detecting data distortions: Experts can recognize data distortions caused by factors such as changes in tax policies, regulated prices, natural disasters, or calendar effects. By considering these distortions, experts can provide adjustments or insights to ensure a more accurate analysis.
  • Incorporating qualitative information: Statistical methods typically focus on quantitative data, but experts can provide qualitative information and insights that enhance the analysis. This qualitative knowledge may include information about market conditions, industry dynamics, policy changes, or geopolitical events that can influence the interpretation of statistical results.
  • Validating statistical findings: Experts can validate and verify statistical findings by applying their knowledge and experience to assess the plausibility and reasonableness of the results. They can identify potential limitations or alternative explanations that statistical methods alone may overlook.