Measuring Market Liquidity: The NFCI

If you want to trade macro, you need to understand liquidity.

PTJ, Druck, Soros, Dalio — all these legends have expressed this fact multiple times.

Liquidity is what moves markets.

This is even more true now than in the macro heydays of the 70s and 80s.

With the rise of “blind investing” in the form of passively buying and holding ETFs, the majority of investors don’t care about valuation or merit. They just auto-shuttle their excess funds to the nearest robo advisor without a second thought.

This amount of “excess funds” is largely dependent on liquidity conditions.

When liquidity is loose, it’s cheap to get levered. People have extra cash and plow it into risk assets. Prices rise.

When liquidity is tight, people have less cash to spend. They may even sell stuff to service their existing debt. Prices fall.

There are a myriad of ways to measure and monitor liquidity conditions.

No single method is best, but one of our favorites is using the Chicago Fed’s National Financial Conditions Index (NFCI).

This index combines over 105 different indicators of financial activity to form one easy-to-read liquidity measurement. Money markets, debt markets, equity markets, traditional banking systems, “shadow” banking systems — they’re all included.

The zero line represents average liquidity conditions. Positive values indicate tighter-than-average conditions and negative values indicate looser-than-average conditions.

The Chicago Fed also publishes the Adjusted National Financial Conditions Index (ANFCI).

Since financial liquidity conditions are highly correlated to economic conditions, this index isolates the uncorrelated component. It tells us what liquidity conditions are like relative to economic conditions.

Positive values indicate liquidity conditions are tighter than would be suggested by current economic conditions, while negative values indicate the opposite.

You can see the difference between the standard and adjusted index in the graph below.

We prefer the ANFCI because it isolates liquidity conditions better than the NFCI.

The NFCI doesn’t always tell you when liquidity is deteriorating. In the late 90’s and 2014/2015, liquidity conditions were worsening but the strong stock market and strong economy kept the NFCI below 0, signaling liquidity was loose.

In contrast, the ANFCI was above 0 during the same period, signaling conditions were actually tightening.

The ANFCI is a little noisy to look at, but if you smooth the data with a 12-month MA, you get a nice picture of liquidity conditions in the U.S.

The cyclical nature of our economy becomes clear and it’s easy to see how liquidity predicts business cycles. You can use this tool to help you trade on the right side of the market.

When liquidity is tightening, take bearish trades. When liquidity is loosening, take bullish trades.

This index is also broken down further into 3 sub indices — risk, credit, and leverage.

Risk is a coincident indicator, credit is a lagging indicator, and leverage is a leading indicator of financial stress.

For trading purposes, the leverage part of the equation matters the most to see where the stock market is headed.

Above average leverage sows the seeds for a recession and a falling stock market. Below average leverage precedes economic booms and stock market rallies.

Ray Dalio discovered this logic long before the Chicago Fed and has made billions trading off it.

The leverage index can be broken down yet again to only include nonfinancial leverage.

Nonfinancial leverage is one of the most powerful leading indicators of stock market performance.

Liquidity, The NFCI, And Leverage

This graph might look familiar to you because it’s basically the short-term debt cycle, which can help you time markets.

For example, debt was at obscene levels before 2008 and signaled a shorting opportunity. And by 2010 debt was back below average and signaled a buying opportunity.

People are always the most levered at a market top and the least levered at a bottom.

A skilled macro trader wants to do the opposite. Paying attention to nonfinancial leverage will help you do that.  

Lever up when others are unlevered and delever when others are highly levered.

Despite all the financial doom and gloom we’re drowned with nowadays, nonfinancial leverage readings tell a different story.

Current levels are only average.

Before making your next trade, take a look at these indicators.

How’s liquidity? Where are we at in the debt cycle?

Knowing these answers will make you a lot more confident in your trading. It’s hard to get blind sided by a big crash or miss out on a huge rally when you have a handle on liquidity.

Summary

  • Liquidity is a key variable in determining the macro landscape
  • We can monitor liquidity using the ANFCI
    • If the ANFCI is trending higher, liquidity is tightening and we want to lean bearish
    • If the ANFCI is trending lower, liquidity is loosening and we want to lean bullish
  • The nonfinancial leverage component of the NFCI tells us where we are in the debt cycle
  • We want to buy risk assets at the bottom of the debt cycle (below average leverage) and sell risk assets at the top of the debt cycle (above average leverage)
Liquidity, The NFCI, And Leverage

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Brandon Beylo

Value Investor

Brandon has been a professional investor focusing on value for over 13 years, spending his time in small to micro-cap companies, spin-offs, SPACs, and deep value liquidation situations. Over time, he’s developed a deeper understanding for what deep-value investing actually means, and refined his philosophy to include any business trading at a wild discount to what he thinks its worth in 3-5 years.

Brandon has a tenacious passion for investing, broad-based learning, and business. He previously worked for several leading investment firms before joining the team at Macro Ops. He lives by the famous Munger mantra of trying to get a little smarter each day.

AK

Investing & Personal Finance

AK is the founder of Macro Ops and the host of Fallible.

He started out in corporate economics for a Fortune 50 company before moving to a long/short equity investment firm.

With Macro Ops focused primarily on institutional clients, AK moved to servicing new investors just starting their journey. He takes the professional research and education produced at Macro Ops and breaks it down for beginners. The goal is to help clients find the best solution for their investing needs through effective education.

Tyler Kling

Volatility & Options Trader

Former trade desk manager at $100+ million family office where he oversaw multiple traders and helped develop cutting edge quantitative strategies in the derivatives market.

He worked as a consultant to the family office’s in-house fund of funds in the areas of portfolio manager evaluation and capital allocation.

Certified in Quantitative Finance from the Fitch Learning Center in London, England where he studied under famous quants such as Paul Wilmott.

Alex Barrow

Macro Trader

Founder and head macro trader at Macro Ops. Alex joined the US Marine Corps on his 18th birthday just one month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He subsequently spent a decade in the military. Serving in various capacities from scout sniper to interrogator and counterintelligence specialist. Following his military service, he worked as a contract intelligence professional for a number of US agencies (from the DIA to FBI) with a focus on counterintelligence and terrorist financing. He also spent time consulting for a tech company that specialized in building analytic software for finance and intelligence analysis.

After leaving the field of intelligence he went to work at a global macro hedge fund. He’s been professionally involved in markets since 2005, has consulted with a number of the leading names in the hedge fund space, and now manages his own family office while running Macro Ops. He’s published over 300 white papers on complex financial and macroeconomic topics, writes regularly about investment/market trends, and frequently speaks at conferences on trading and investing.

Macro Ops is a market research firm geared toward professional and experienced retail traders and investors. Macro Ops’ research has been featured in Forbes, Marketwatch, Business Insider, and Real Vision as well as a number of other leading publications.

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