Debt

Why Global Markets Could Be Derailed by the Ukraine

Turmoil in Emerging Markets hit investor confidence in January and, after a stellar February, the crisis in the Ukraine could lead to profit taking this month. Indeed, volatility spiked to a similar level and the S&P came off its all-time-high on Friday as fears started to set in.

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Global Markets Are Not Prepared For The German Election

Top Story on Yahoo! Finance, published on the Front Page of Huffington Post Business, discussed on CNBC.

Investors are expecting an eventual reduction of support by the Fed, and Merkel winning the election this weekend. However, what stock markets have not priced in is the resurgence of Eurozone troubles into the headlines. So what are the options, why is this important and how will this effect markets?

[Click image below or this LINK to watch this as a TV Clip]

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Why There’s More Than Meets The Eye With Europe’s Latest Bond Buying Plan

Bold words, high expectations and market rallies. We’ve seen steps in the right direction in Europe, but the 3 features that differentiate the latest bond buying program also highlight its flaws. It’s conditional but hard to police, transparent but uncertain, and unlimited but not long-term. The vicious circle is clear; a country will only get support if its economy deteriorates to the extent they will accept onerous conditions which will cause it to sink deeper into recession. With multiple significant flaws present in current plans, enough has been done to buoy markets but more is needed to support economic progress and bring sufficient confidence back to markets.

“Whatever it takes”

With bold statements come high expectations and Draghi, the European Central Bank President, has been acutely aware of this fact. After claiming he would do “whatever it takes” to save the euro, the pressure was on to support this with a decisive plan of action.

Earlier this month he seemed to do just that, promising to launch an unlimited bond-buying program to ease pressure on sovereign borrowing costs. Taken positively by the markets, the Eurostoxx closed up over 2% that day and periphery sovereign bond yields fell on the news alone.

However, the question remains: has this really marked the end of the Eurozone crisis? The rally has taken bank shares and CDSs back to where they stood in March, when markets similarly put faith in cheap 3-year ECB loans, only to be disappointed. Are markets at risk of a correction this time too?

Step in the right direction but we’ve a long way to go

Draghi identified at least 3 ways in which his latest plan would be different from previous bond-buying schemes. However, they also help identify flaws which could come to light if the situation in the Eurozone were to continue to deteriorate significantly: 

1. Conditional but hard to police

To allay (German) worries of long-lasting and repeated requests for help, the support provided by the ECB will come with conditions. The ECB will buy bonds of countries that request help, as long as they conform to certain terms. Countries will be charged with specific requirements, e.g. spending cuts, to try and build fiscal discipline so assistance can wind down. The conditional nature of any offer to support a country’s government bonds could however also be cause for concern. It is hard to police. The resultant turmoil that would ensue from a country not only having identified themselves as in need of help, but now having that help withdrawn would extend beyond the country in question. This would therefore be mutually destructive. With investors fleeing from any asset perceived to be exposed to this country as they looked to de-risk portfolios, ECB assets could be damaged, lowering their resolve to enact this punishment.

Moreover, this unintentionally maps out the road to a euro exit. It highlights that once a country that has received a bailout no longer meets specific targets, the rug may be pulled out from underneath it and the resulting pressure could force it out of the euro.

2.    Transparent but uncertain

The ECB will be transparent about which country’s bonds they are buying, reducing speculation and giving markets a clearer indication of what’s going on. However, this doesn’t mean the picture would be crystal clear. Uncertainty remains as to the exact level at which bond-buying could be triggered and the conditions that would be put in place.

3. Unlimited but not long term

There is no cap on the amount of bonds that can be bought and therefore it can provide some form of support long into the future. However, this does not equate to a long term solution. Buying bonds is not a substitute for reform or a strategy for economic growth, which Draghi himself stated has “risk to the downside”. Both of which are crucial for the health of Europe and an end to the crisis.

Possible dissent

Finally, although not corresponding to anything stated as a benefit of the plan, it was not unanimous. The German Bundesbank President was not in favour of the plan and could still cause trouble. Indeed, it has since been ruled that Germany has the right to vote over every rescue programme. Considering the country’s fondness for austerity, bailout terms could be tougher and either rejected, damage the economy further, or accepted and failed to be followed. The vicious circle is clear; a country will only get support if its economy deteriorates to the extent they will accept onerous conditions which will cause it to sink deeper into recession.

With multiple significant flaws present in current plans, enough has been done to buoy markets but more is needed to support economic progress further down the line and bring sufficient confidence back to markets.

Will the French and Greek election results change the direction of Europe?

As French and Greek voters make their feeling about spending cuts loud and clear, we ask ourselves – why has there been such a strong swing to anti-austerity/pro-growth, how does this threaten the survival of the euro and is a Greek default still possible? The deepening slump has dampened deficit reduction, the Fiscal treaty hangs in the balance and patience is wearing thin. Crucially, according to voters and investors, time is running out.

Growth vs. Austerity: deepening slump is dampening deficit reduction

Francois Hollande’s victory in the French elections marks a significant change of focus in European politics.  In contrast to the rhetoric delivered up to this point, Hollande wants emphasis of policy to be on growth instead of austerity. Why does he want this? Because the situation is deteriorating. Unless a country grows, their debt burden, as a percentage of a decreasing national output, grows and is therefore harder to manage. As iterated by French Socialist lawmaker Arnaud Montebourg, in an interview with BFMTV “Austerity is everywhere and it’s a complete shipwreck,”.

Portugal and Spain are prime examples. While the Portuguese economy is expected to contract by 3.3% this year, the deepening slump is dampening deficit reduction. In fact, the deficit almost tripled in the first couple of months of this year alone. Spain, similarly, is struggling with a deteriorating debt situation. As almost 1 in 4 are without jobs, unemployment is boosting defaults. Bad loan ratios have reached a 17 year high (see chart below on the right).

 

Survival of the Euro Threatened

However, such a drastic change of attitude could damage the Franco-German Alliance, political progress and the very survival of the euro. This is because for Hollande to promote growth, he is threatening the fiscal treaty, perceived as crucial for keeping the euro together in its current form. The Treaty would create closer consolidation within the European union. Handing over authority for National Budgets to a Supra-National entity could ensure the various moving parts of the region interact better as a whole. However, Hollande disagrees with the primary focus on debt and deficit limits, without any pro-growth measures.

Whilst the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble is ready to discuss initiatives to boost economic growth Merkel has said she will not renegotiate the pact. As her spokesperson asserted, it “has already been signed by 25 out of 27 EU countries”. Instead the likelihood may be a growth pact attached to the fiscal pact. Nevertheless, the problems don’t end there. Firstly, Hollande will have his work cut out for him in an economy that is barely growing, with jobless claims at their highest in 12 years and a rising debt load that keeps France vulnerable. Secondly, can both sides agree what they mean by growth?

Growth by any other name…  

France and Germany disagree strongly on how to achieve growth. Merkel maintains it is through structural reforms – making it easier to fire workers, which would encourage employers to hire, certainly a key aim for the Italian Government. However, Hollande is hesitant and instead wants growth via infrastructure spending. But Germany won’t agree to spending funded by borrowing – exactly opposite to their deficit reduction targets. Therefore, again although rhetoric can be applauded, practical plans remain elusive.

A Greece Default Still Possible

Uncertainty continues to be a key challenge for Greece as voters in a similar move to the French, overwhelmingly rejected mainstream candidates supporting spending cuts. Crucially, these cuts were aimed at securing bailouts and avoiding a default. Instead, 70 per cent of voters supported parties that promised to tear up the bailout and attempts may be made to negotiate a gradual ”disengagement” from the harshest austerity measures of Greece’s €130 billion ($168 billion) bailout. This keeps the possibility of a Greek default firmly in the picture and until a coalition is formed, a new election next month is possible.

Is time running out?

Will there be enough time for political leaders to regain credibility and encourage Eurozone growth? As confidence wanes, borrowing costs rise and debt burdens risk becoming unsustainable. Worryingly, therefore, patience is running thin. Echoing Margaret Thatcher’s thoughts on a unified Europe as “the vanity of intellectuals, an inevitable failure: only the scale of final damage is in doubt”, the German paper, Die Welt, wrote after the French and Greek elections: “In the end the results are proof that Europe doesn’t work”.

Should Banks Be Lending? (CNBC Video Clip)

European Central Bank action has failed: Some have claimed the LTRO was a game changer but it hasn’t solved the structural issues within Europe. They continue so yields are starting to rise again, and the lending isn’t being passed on to consumers and businesses… Watch the debate below and vote…

Greece – an exit from the euro now a possibility…

As markets now price in a full default on 2 year loans, and the next tranche of the bailout hangs in the balance until political chaos abates, the question now seems to be – is an exit from the euro inevitable? The people of Greece are against it, but politicians are threatening it and firms are getting prepared for the possibility. Finally, there is a fear of a run on the banks as deposits fall and the risk other countries may join the ‘default’ bandwagon.

Greeks do not want to leave the Euro

Although 60% of the Greek population view the austerity terms set for them to receive the next tranche of their bailout negatively, more than 7 in every 10 favour staying in euro. The main benefit to the country in the reinstatement of their own currency would be its inevitable depreciation, enabling the economy to regain competitiveness with respect to the (cheaper) price of their goods and services. UBS estimates this would be a 60% change in valuation. However, the bank also estimates borrowing costs would rise by 7%, hitting balance sheets and costing each citizen €11,500 in the first year outside the euro (€4,000 in subsequent years).

…But politicians point to the possibility

Nevertheless, politicians have begun pointing to the possibility of Greece leaving the euro. When faced with a potential referendum being held in Greece, subsequently called off, Sarkozy exclaimed that the “real question is whether Greece remains within Europe or not”. The Luxembourg Prime Minister tried a more diplomatic tact conceding it does not have to remain a member “at all costs”. Whereas Germany’s biggest newspaper far more brutally demanded “no more billions for the Greeks, Greece out of the euro!

…And firms are starting to prepare

And companies are starting to make preparations for Greece to return to their own currency. Tui, one of Europe’s largest travel companies see Greece leaving the euro as “more than a theoretical possibility” and have accordingly requested the freedom to pay bills in the new currency.

Lack of credibility puts the bailout at risk

A surprise and ultimately rejected call for a referendum and the ensuing political chaos put the next tranche of the bailout at risk. A last ditch attempt at appeasing the people, by putting the acceptance of the tough austerity measures they will have to endure to a vote, led to threats of expulsion from the euro. Subsequently, a coalition government has been formed until early elections can be called and the Prime Minister has stepped down from his position. The rumours that the leader of this new unity interim government, Papademos, wasn’t even in the country at that time doesn’t bode well for a new era of superior management!

Time is short as an €8bn bailout has now been withheld for over a month, until the situation is sorted out. 700,000 public sector employees and 2 million pensioners need to be paid at the end of the month and nearly €3bn for bonds maturing in December from the 19th onwards. However, Greece still has a bloated public sector, refuses to sell or lease more of their assets, misses out on what could amount to €30bn in tax avoidance each year and continues to generate a 10.5% deficit in terms of spending versus income. And with riots on the streets and wage and pension cuts already of 20% and upwards, flexibility to cut more is somewhat limited. Fundamentally of course, this won’t generate growth. With the resulting bailout a short term plug, and the economy still forecasted to shrink by 2.5% next year, the feeling of futility can be understood.

…and there are fears of a run on the banks

Worryingly, Greece deposits fell by €10bn, 6% of current deposits in October alone. And it’s no longer just the wealthy looking to relocate assets to the likes of Switzerland but by people needing the funds to survive. An audit of Greece’s largest banks could reveal in December €15bn of non-performing loans, whilst holding a disproportionally large amount of their own sovereign debt. Greek 2 year yields have risen above 100%, implying investors do not expect these loans to be repaid. It could take €30bn to recapitalise these banks.

… and the risk others may follow

If one country is allowed to renege on its debts, then there is the possibility of others demanding likewise. Ireland could follow suit and demand it is therefore unfair that they have to repay bond holders in full. However, although a possibility, it is not currently a probability. The stark austerity measures being imposed on Greece, and the scrutiny they are now under is enough to put other countries off that option for the moment. Ernst &Young Item Club estimate that a default by Portugal, Ireland & Spain would cause Eurozone output to fall by 6%, in a recessionary environment that’s not a number to take lightly!

The EU ‘Rescue Fund’ – Part of The Problem Not The Solution

There is still much to be decided before EU leaders can claim to have provided a comprehensive and credible plan to end the sovereign debt crisis. The rescue fund itself has met with significant obstacles, with demand in doubt and delays to capital raising leading to question marks over its ability to borrow on behalf of those that can’t. Instead of improving sentiment, it may cause it to deteriorate. Details, commitment, growth, structural reforms and greater consolidation of governance, fiscal policy and politics are needed. This has become a global issue.

Deutsche Bank, Germany’s biggest bank, and Credit Agricole, the largest retail banking group in France, rallied more than 19% over the last week in October after certain ‘positive’ news was announced at EU Summit. Measures included the leveraging of the rescue fund to €1tn, a voluntary default of Greek debt and bank recapitalisation. However, this may involve a dangerous derivative structure with insurance coverage not guaranteed and demands not going far enough.

Delays could hit sentiment, deadline looming

The European Financial Stability Fund (a.k.a. the ‘rescue fund’) was created to borrow on behalf of those countries that found themselves unable to borrow (read Greece, Ireland, Portugal etc). However, Wednesday’s attempt to raise capital met a substantial obstacle – limited demand, leaving the fund itself unable to borrow. The €3bn 10-year bond offering had to be postponed, in the hope conditions would improve but a ‘red flag’ has been raised. If this fund is already having issues, at its current size with a lending capacity of €440bn, how will it manage with demands up to €1tn? Inadequate demand could cause sentiment to deteriorate, worsening the very situation it was meant to improve.

Demand from the East now in doubt

Plans to leverage the current fund to enable this €1tn of firepower seem to be heavily reliant on demand from the likes of China and Japan. This makes their apparent lack of interest in this recent bond offering most worrying. Investors have maintained the situation is too opaque and the risk/reward potential too skewed to the downside.

Dangerous derivative structure

The ‘Special Purpose Investment Vehicle’ which would allow this leveraging to occur has been likened to a CDO – collateralised debt obligation and the instrument that was at the heart of the subprime crisis, by insuring investors against loss. The bonds act as collateral so investors effectively buy junk sovereign debt with a certain level of guarantee from the fund.

The Greek ‘haircut’ has highlighted some of the risks. The ‘writedown’ of debt was structured as ‘voluntary’. It was agreed that private bond holders should offer to write off half of the amount Greece owed them versus a formal, official, enforced default. The latter would be classified as a credit event and trigger any insurers to pay up. However, the former doesn’t. Therefore investors who insured against losses paid a premium for cover but won’t get paid out to offset the losses suffered. The risk of a debt ‘default’ may not always be mitigated.

 Doesn’t cover all that is needed

More details are needed to understand how bailout facilities will be implemented and hopes for the first signs of commitment from the IMF, China and Japan were dashed at the G20 Meeting last Thursday and Friday. Moreover, the recapitalisation of the banks, which was set at €140bn will need to be increased dramatically. The IMF already put the level at €200bn, with analysts advising a number nearer €275bn.

Finally, the fund does not compensate for what the EU really needs: growth, structural reforms and greater consolidation of governance, fiscal policy and politics. The EU’s jobless figures are the highest they’ve been since the launch of the euro. Draghi may have put the focus back on growth by cutting interest rates, in a move that surprised the markets, from 1.5% to 1.25% but admitted growth forecasts are likely to be downgraded so the EU economy will remain fragile for some time. Accounting for approximately 24% of global GDP and with lower demand hitting export-oriented Asian countries, as for example Taiwan expands at its slowest rate for 2 years.

This is a global issue.

‘Operation Twist’ – What is it? How could it help? But why will it not?

As the US launches $400bn ‘Operation Twist’ in a desperate attempt to kick-start the economy, concerns arise over how effective this will be. It’s true that something needs to be done and inflation restricts the options open to the Fed but the strategy has a poor track record in terms of effectiveness. We will be in a lower growth environment for longer and should prepare accordingly.

 

The Economy Struggles: Something needs to be done

The US remains driven by consumer spending (~70% of GDP), but weak consumer confidence and limited access to financing are severe headwinds. Unemployment is stuck at 9% and even more worrying are the ‘under-employment’ figures which include those that have been forced to cut their working week rise as far as 18.5% of the population. In addition to discouraging spending, the longer this continues, the more skills are being eroded. Therefore the US government is under an immense pressure to act.

But inflation restricts options

So what can they do? When conventional monetary policy has become ineffective, since short term interest rates are already low, that’s where quantitative easing steps in.  With the aim of stimulating the economy, the Fed will buy financial assets in order to inject money into the markets. Bernanke has made it clear that one of the pre-requisites is a re-emergence of deflationary risks. However, inflation remains stubbornly above 2%. Pumping more money into the markets increases its supply and therefore reduces its value. With the currency less valuable, it doesn’t go as far as it used to and you get less ‘bang for you buck’. Things seem more expensive and inflation has been boosted.

Operation Twist to the rescue?

There is hope. One form of quantitative easing avoids the problem of inflation – Operation Twist. The strategy still involves the Fed buying long term government bonds, but in this case, it’s offset with selling short term bonds. This avoids flooding the market with cash which would exacerbate inflation. Another way this method is also described, by selling short term bonds and buying longer term bonds, is an extending of the maturity of Fed’s bond portfolio. Buying these long dated bonds increases demand and therefore reduces the amount of interest the bond issuer has to offer to entice buyers. A reduced longer term rate makes for example mortgages (long term borrowing) more affordable which would hopefully encourage spending.

A Poor Track Record

History teaches that Operation Twist may be of limited use.  When it was applied back in 1961, it only reduced rates by 15bps! This would not be enough to encourage spending, hiring and boost the economy sufficiently.

What can you do?

Prepare for a lower growth environment for longer. Pay attention to the type of customer a company in which you’re interested in investing services. A strong balance sheet, pricing power and protected demand will serve firms well.

Banks Slash Jobs but Severe Headwinds Remain

As banks all over the world slash jobs, we ask ourselves – will this produce more streamline firms ready to generate significant profits, or a sign of the poor outlook for the sector? Unfortunately, stifling regulation repressive and a false bubble has driven this move and severe headwinds remain through exposure to struggling economies and substantial funding needs.

The 50 largest banks around the world have announced almost 60,000 job cuts. UBS are laying off 5.3% of their workforce, blaming stricter capital requirements and slowdown in client trading activity; Credit Suisse cutting jobs by 4% to save SFr1bn and Lloyds a whopping 14%.

Restrictive regulation make banks more stable but less profitable

Stricter capital requirements were just the type of new regulatory measures the Chief Executive of Standard Chartered feared at Davos back in January, would “stifle growth”. At this time we saw banks such as Credit Suisse missing earnings targets and downgrade their expectations severely going forward (from above 18% return on equity to 15%, which turned out to still be too high).

UBS has seen costs in their investment banking division soar to 77% of income and net profit fall almost 50% from a year earlier. Stricter capital requirements mean banks have to hold a higher amount of capital in order to honour withdrawals if hit with operating losses. Furthermore, restrictions on bonuses led to increases in fixed salaries and an inflexible cost base.

Backtracking on a false bubble

Job cuts should also be set within the context of occurring after a ‘false bubble’. Post the 2008 financial crisis and bank bankruptcies and proprietary trading layoffs, the fixed income, currency and commodity business of the remaining players boomed as competition dropped. Banks began expanding. UBS’s proposed cuts of 3,500 jobs comes after an expansion of 1,700 to the workforce and incomparable to the 18,500 job losses experienced during the crisis.

Exposure to struggling economies is a key threat

Crucially, these cuts do nothing to solve the biggest problem these banks are struggling with. They have substantial exposure to struggling EU economies. In Germany, bank exposure to the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland and Spain) amounts to more than 18% of the countries GDP. Just last month Commerzbank suffered a €760m write-down from holding debt that is unlikely to be repaid, which all but wiped out their entire earnings for the second quarter of the year. Further fuelling fear of the spread of the crisis from periphery to core is that French banks are among the largest holders of Greek debt.

Here in the UK we’re by no means immune. Our banks have £100bn connected to the fate of these periphery economies. RBS, 83% owned by the British taxpayer is so heavily exposed to Greek debt that it has written off £733m so far this year.

Severe funding needs and fear of lending exacerbate the problem

90 EU banks need to roll €5.4tn over the next 24 months. This will be funded at higher rates and with disappearing demand as investors become more wary, exacerbating the problem. In addition these banks need to raise an extra $100bn by the end of the year. An inability to borrow to satisfy current obligations, not withstanding any expansive moves, is a serious obstacle to profit generation. 

Moreover, job cuts do nothing to boost confidence to encourage banks to lend. Just two weeks ago, EU banks deposited €107bn with the European Central Bank overnight than lend to each other. If banks are not even lending to each other, losing out on a valuable opportunity to make money, then how encouraged are we as investors to get involved?


Europe – Lacking a Long-Term Solution

Over the last few days we have seen a tremendous amount of volatility in the markets, epitomising the lack of clarity with which many investors have struggled. The contagion continues to spread as we hear rumours of a possible downgrade of French government debt although it is far more likely to occur for Italy first. Fundamentally, there is a lack of a long-term solution and the knee-jerk reaction by some EU countries to ban short selling not only misses the point, it may negatively impact the very stocks it is trying to protect. So as we see movement to safe havens, we also see room for opportunistic buying – as long as you invest with those with strong balance sheets unlikely to be hit in future earnings downgrades and have a long enough time horizon to withstand the volatility.

Italy and France to be downgraded? The Contagion Continues to Spread

The markets are already betting for the ratings agencies to downgrade France’s debt with credit default swap spreads widening to double their level at the beginning of July. A rising expense to insure against default implies the market believes it to be more likely. However, Italy is the more likely downgrade candidate in the short-term. The reasons given behind Portugal’s downgrade a few months back apply equally to Italy – an unsustainable debt burden (Italy has the third largest in the word at €1.8tn) and a low likelihood of being able to repay these obligations (as it dips back into recession). The European Financial Stability Fund is losing its credibility since even its increase to €440bn is not enough to cover future potential bailouts and would need to amount to at least €2tn. The crux of the problem, as I’ve iterated before, is that you can’t solve the problem of debt with debt and austerity does not foster growth. Instead debt burdens are increasing at a faster rate than GDP growth in many western economies so the situation is only getting worse.

Outlook for banks: Headwinds for banks remain

European banks remain highly correlated to the future of the periphery. German banks, for example, have exposure to the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain) amounting to more than 18% of German GDP. Commerzbank revealed that a €760m write-down for Greek debt holdings wiped out their entire Q2 earnings. That’s before we look at France who have an even higher exposure and here in the UK, our banks have nearly £100bn exposed to struggling economies. Furthermore, these banks need to refinance maturing debt (at a rate of €5.4tn over the next 24 months) at higher rates and with demand shrinking.

Will the ban on short-selling help? No, it misses the point

The markets are concerned with government fiscal credibility not its regulatory might. Instead, the ban could increase volatility and negatively impact the very stocks it is trying to protect. ‘Shorting’ was acknowledged by the Committee for European Securities Regulators as beneficial for “price discovery, liquidity and risk management” just last year, so we may well see higher volatility than we would have without. Secondly, it limits fund ability to bet on financials going up. Hedge funds use shorts to remove market risk, buying shares in one bank and borrowing and selling shares in another. If they are forced to close these ‘borrowed’ positions, they will have to sell the other bank shares they have bought outright, causing further selling pressure and price falls. Most interesting was the timing of the implementation, just before an announcement was made that the Greek economy shrank by 7% in Q2 – fuelling fears the ban was needed since there’s more bad news to come.

How to trade these markets: Movement to safe haven offering opportunities

So how can you invest in these markets? A possible support to the stock markets is the ‘search for yield’. Sitting on cash can’t be satisfying for long, with rates as low as they are, and the dividend yield on the Eurostoxx is now double the 10 year German ‘bund’ yield. This means that even if markets go sideways, the return generated from holding European stocks could be more attractive than either if the other options. In addition, valuations are looking reasonable, at a near 8x forward earnings. Therefore we may see flows returning to the markets. However, be warned, we are starting to see earnings downgrades and volatility may remain. Therefore invest in companies with strong balance sheets and maintain a medium to longer-term time horizon.