Tracking systematic default risk

Systematic default risk is the probability of a critical share of the corporate sector defaulting simultaneously. It can be analyzed through a corporate default model that accounts for both firm-level and communal macro shocks. Point-in-time estimation of such a risk metric requires accounting data and market returns. Systematic default risk arises from the capital structure’s vulnerability and firms’ recent performance, as reflected in equity prices. The metric is both an indicator and predictor of macroeconomic conditions, particularly financial distress. Also, systematic default risk has helped forecast medium-term equity and lower-grade bond returns. This predictive power seems to arise mostly from the price of risk. When systematic default risk is high, investors require greater compensation for taking on exposure to corporate finances.

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The predictive power of real government bond yields

Real government bond yields are indicators of standard market risk premia and implicit subsidies. They can be estimated by subtracting an estimate of inflation expectations from standard yields. And for credible monetary policy regimes, inflation expectations can be estimated based on concurrent information on recent CPI trends and the future inflation target. For a data panel of developed markets since 2000, real yields have displayed strong predictive power for subsequent monthly and quarterly government bond returns. Simple real yield-based strategies have added material economic value in 2000-2023 by guiding both intertemporal and cross-country risk allocation.

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Equity versus fixed income: the predictive power of bank surveys

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Bank lending surveys help predict the relative performance of equity and duration positions. Signals of strengthening credit demand and easing lending conditions favor a stronger economy and expanding leverage, benefiting equity positions. Signs of deteriorating credit demand and tightening credit supply bode for a weaker economy and more accommodative monetary policy, benefiting long-duration positions. Empirical evidence for developed markets strongly supports these propositions. Since 2000, bank survey scores have been a significant predictor of equity versus duration returns. They helped create uncorrelated returns in both asset classes, as well as for a relative asset class book.

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A model for bond risk premia and the macroeconomy

An empirical analysis of the U.S. bond market since the 1960s emphasizes occasional abrupt regime changes, as defined by yield levels, curve slopes, and related volatility metrics. An arbitrage-free bond pricing model illustrates that bond risk premia can be decomposed into two types. One is related to continuous risk factors, traditionally summarized as the level, slope, and curvature of the yield term structure. The other type is related to regime-switching risk. Accounting for regime shift risk adds significant explanatory power to the model. Moreover, risk premia associated with regime shifts are related to the macroeconomic environment, particularly inflation and economic activity. The market price of regime shifts is strongly pro-cyclical and largely explained by these economic indicators. Investors apply a higher regime-related discount to bond values when the economy is booming.

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Merchandise import as predictor of duration returns

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Local-currency import growth is a widely underestimated and important indicator of trends in fixed-income markets. Its predictive power reflects its alignment with economic trends that matter for monetary policy: domestic demand, inflation, and effective currency dynamics. Empirical evidence confirms that import growth has significantly predicted outright duration returns, curve position returns, and cross-currency relative duration returns over the past 22 years. A composite import score would have added considerable economic value to a duration portfolio through timing directional exposure, positioning along the curve, and cross-country allocations.

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Macroeconomic cycles and asset class returns

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Indicators of growth and inflation cycles are plausible and successful predictors of asset class returns. For proof of concept, we propose a single balanced “cyclical strength score” based on point-in-time quantamental indicators of excess GDP growth, labor market tightening, and excess inflation. It has clear theoretical implications for all major asset markets, as rising operating rates and consumer price pressure raise real discount factors. Empirically, the cyclical strength score has displayed significant predictive power for equity, FX, and fixed income returns, as well as relative asset class positions. The direction of relationships has been in accordance with standard economic theory. Predictive power can be explained by rational inattention. Naïve PnLs based on cyclical strength scores have each produced long-term Sharpe ratios between 0.4 and 1 with little correlation with risk benchmarks. This suggests that a single indicator of cyclical economic strength can be the basis of a diversified portfolio.

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Fiscal policy criteria for fixed-income allocation

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The fiscal stance of governments can be a powerful force in local fixed-income markets. On its own, an expansionary stance is seen as a headwind for long-duration or government bond positions due to increased debt issuance, greater default or inflation risk, and less need for monetary policy stimulus. Quantamental indicators of general government balances and estimated fiscal stimulus allow backtesting the impact of fiscal stance information. Empirical evidence for 20 countries since the early 2000s shows that returns on interest rate swap receiver positions in fiscally more expansionary countries have significantly underperformed those in fiscally more conservative countries. Indicators of fiscal stance have been timely, theoretically plausible, and profitable criteria for fixed-income allocations across currency areas.

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Macro factors of the risk-parity trade

Risk-parity positioning in equity and (fixed income) duration has been a popular and successful investment strategy in past decades. However, part of that success is owed to a supportive macro environment, with accommodative refinancing conditions and slow, disinflationary, or even deflationary economies. Financial and economic shocks, as opposed to inflation shocks, dominated markets, leading to a negative equity-duration correlation. The macro environment is changeable, however, and a strong theoretical case can be made for managing risk-parity strategies based on economic trends and risk-adjusted carry. We propose simple strategies based on macro-quantamental indicators of economic overheating. Overheating scores have been strongly correlated with risk parity performance and macro-based management would have even benefited risk parity performance even during the past two “golden decades” of risk parity.

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Inflation expectations and interest rate swap returns

Inflation expectations wield great influence over fixed income returns. They determine the nominal yield required for a given equilibrium real interest rate, they influence inflation risk premia, and they shape the central bank’s course of action. There is no uniform inflation expectation metric than can be tracked in real-time. However, there are useful and complementary proxies, such as market-based breakeven inflation and economic data-based estimates. For trading strategies, these two can be combined. The advantage of breakeven rates is the real-time tracking of a broad range of influences. The advantages of economic data-based estimates are clarity, transparency, and precision of measurement. Changes in both inflation metrics help predict interest rate swap returns, but their combination is a better predictor than the individual series, emphasizing the complementarity of market and economic data.

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Trend following: combining market and macro information

Classic trend following is based on market prices or returns. Market trends are relatively cheap to produce, popular, and plausibly generate value in the presence of behavioral biases and rational herding. Macro trends track relevant states of the economy based on fundamental data. They are more expensive to produce from scratch and generate value due to rational information inattentiveness. While market trends are timelier, macro trends are more specific in information content. Due to this precision, they serve better as building blocks of trading signals without statistical optimization and are easier to predict based on real-time information. Reason and evidence suggest that macro and market trends are complementary. Two combination methods are [1] market information enhancement of macro trends and [2] market influence adjustment of macro trends.

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