Category Archives: liquidity risk

26/4/21: What Low Corporate Insolvencies Figures Aren’t Telling Us


One of the key features of the Covid19 pandemic to-date has been a relatively low level of corporate insolvencies. In fact, if anything, we are witnessing virtually dissipation of the insolvencies proceedings in the advanced economies, and a simultaneous investment boom in the IPOs markets. 

The problem, of course, is that official statistics - in this case - lie. And they lie to the tune of at least 50 percent. Consider two charts:


The chart from the IMF is pretty scary. 18 percent of companies are expected to experience liquidity-related financial distress and 16 percent are expected to experience insolvency risk. The data covers Europe and Asia-Pacific. Which omits a wide range of economies, including those with more heavily leveraged corporate sectors, and cheaper insolvency procedures e.g. the U.S. The estimates also assume that companies that run into financial distress in 2020 will exit the markets in 2020-2021. In other words, the 16 percentage insolvency risk estimate is not covering firms that run into liquidity problems in 2021. Presumably, they will go to the wall in 2022. 

The second chart puts into perspective the IPO investment boom. Vast majority of IPOs in 2020-2021 have been SPACs (aka, vehicles for swapping ownership of prior investments, as opposed to generating new investments). The remainder of IPOs include DPOs (Direct Public Offerings, e.g. Coinbase) which (1) do not raise any new investment capital and (2) swap founders and insiders equity out and retail investors' equity in. 

The data above isn't giving me a lot of hope, to be honest of a genuine investment boom. 

We are living through the period of fully financialized economy: the U.S. government monetary and fiscal injections in 2020 totaled some $12.3 trillion. That is more than 1/2 of the entire annual GDP. Since then, we've added another $2.2 trillion. Much of these money went either directly (monetary policy) or indirectly (Robinhooders' effect) into the Wall Street and the Crypto Alley. In other words, little of it went to sustain real investment in productive capital. Fewer dollars went to sustain skills upgrading or new development. Less still went to support basic or fundamental research. 

In this environment, it is hard to see how global recovery can support higher productivity growth to bring us back to pre-pandemic growth path. What the recovery will support is and accelerated transfer of wealth:

  • From lower income households that saved - so far  - their stimulus cash, and are now eager to throw it at pandemic-deferred consumption; 
  • To Wall Street (via corporate earnings and inflation) and the State (via inflation-linked taxes).
In the short run, there will be headlines screaming 'recovery boom'. In the long run, there will be more structural unemployment, less jobs creation and greater financial polarization in the society. Low - to-date - corporate insolvencies figures and booming financial markets are masking all of this in the fog of the pandemic-induced confusion. 

31/5/20: S&P500 Shares Buybacks: Retained Earnings and Risk Hedging

Shares buybacks can have a severely destabilizing impact on longer term companies' valuations, as noted in numerous posts on this blog. In the COVID19 pandemic, legacy shares buybacks are associated with reduced cash reserves cushions and thiner equity floats for the companies that aggressively pursued this share price support strategy in recent years. Hence, logic suggests that companies more aggressively engaging in shares buybacks should exhibit greater downside volatility - de facto acting as de-hedging instrument for risk management.

Here is the evidence:

Note how dramatically poorer S&P500 Shares Buybacks index performance has been compared to the overall S&P500 in recent weeks. Since the start of March 2020, S&P500 Shares Buybacks index average daily performance measured in y/y returns has been -15.04%, against the S&P500 index overall performance of -0.89%. Cumulatively, at the end of this week, S&P500 Shares Buybacks index total return is down 10.18 percent against S&P500 total return of -0.967 percent.

While in good times companies have strong incentives to redistribute their returns to shareholders either through dividends or through share price supports or both, during the bad times having spare cash on balancesheet in the form of retained earnings makes all the difference. Or, as any sane person knows, insurance is a cost during the times of the normal, but a salvation during the times of shocks.

19/5/18: Leverage risk in investment markets is now systemic

Net margin debt is a measure of leverage investors carry in their markets exposures, or, put differently, the level of debt accumulated on margin accounts. Back at the end of March 2018, the level of margin debt in the U.S. stock markets stood at just under $645.2 billion, second highest on record after January 2018 when the total margin debt hit an all-time-high of $665.7 billion, prompting FINRA to issue a warning about the unsustainable levels of debt held by investors.

Here are the levels of gross margin debt:


And here is the net margin debt as a ratio to the markets valuation - a more direct measure of leverage, via Goldman Sachs research note:
Which is even more telling than the absolute gross levels of margin debt in the previous chart.

Per latest FINRA statistics (, as of the end of April 2018, debit balances in margin accounts rose to $652.3 billion, beating March levels

And things are even worse when we add leveraged ETFs to the total margin debt:

In simple terms, we are at systemic levels of risk relating to leverage in the equity markets.

8/4/18: Tail Risk and Liquidity Risk: What about that Alpha?

An interesting data set that illustrates two key concepts relating to financial returns, covered extensively in my courses:

  1. Liquidity risk factor - inducing added risk premium on lower liquidity assets; and
  2. The importance of large scale corrections in long term data series (geometric vs arithmetic averaging for returns)
Indirectly, the above also indicates the ambiguous nature of returns alpha (also a subject of my class presentations, especially in the Applied Investment & Trading course in MSc Finance, TCD): micro- small- and to a lesser extent mid-cap stocks selections are often used to justify alpha-linked fees by investment advisers. Of course, in all, ranking in liquidity risks helps explain much of geometric returns rankings, while across all, geometric averaging discount over arithmetic averaging returns helps highlight the differentials in tail risks.

Sounds pretty much on the money.