RORO: Risk on, risk off

Assets are moving in lockstep with each other, which is making life very hard for traders indeed.

The phenomenon of RORO – risk on, risk off – is nicely illustrated in two graphs from HSBC, via alphaville:

What you are seeing is two maps of correlations between various assets, in 2005 and 2012. Dark red means the two assets are strongly positively correlated, dark blue means they are strongly negatively correlated, and turquoise, green and yellow means no real correlation either way.

In 2005, most assets were roughly uncorrelated. Some, like the NASDAQ, S&P500 and Dow Jones, moved in tandem, as did the four key European markets, and the key sovereign and investment-grade bonds. But for the most part, different assets gained and lost value in an uncorrelated manner.

Come 2012, and everything changed. In the top left are all the assets which get stronger in the good times – mostly indexes like the FTSE, but also a few currencies and copper. In the bottom right, there are the assets used to hedge bets when times are rough: the sovereign bonds, the Yen, and right down at the bottom, the US Dollar.

The former class are the risk-on assets; those investors buy when they want to take on risk to make money. The latter are the risk-off assets; those which they buy to get themselves some stability.

The simplified reason for the change is the bimodal nature of responses to crises. When things go wrong, one of two things happen: Governments step in and save the day, or they don't. Quantitative easing is one example of this, but so are bank bailouts, expansions of the "firewall", and so on. If they happen, every risk-on asset rises; if they don't, everything falls.

For those interested, a deeper examination of what RORO means for markets is given by Bryce Elder over at the FT, but the overall problem with the phenomenon is that it reduces trading to a bet on up or down. As a result, traders hate it. As Elder writes, instead of being able to do their job well, by focusing on the fundamentals of each asset they buy (asking questions like "is copper going to be in demand because of growing infrastructure demands"), "each day’s profit or loss is determined to a large degree by results of a sovereign bond auction or comments by a central banker".

Until the crisis is over, though, RORO is sticking around, so investors had better learn to live with it.

Risk on: A trader at the New York Stock Exchange. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.