‘Grand’ gestures with minimal effects, Europe is doing the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ with a glass of water. Measures won’t measure up to much. Little movement in interest rates, not enough assets to buy and ultimately – you can put out as many cream cakes as you’d like, but if people aren’t hungry, they aren’t going to eat. The pressure is rising and more is needed. Europe has become a ‘binary trade’, and it is important to invest in those set to benefit regardless.
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Political uncertainty in Italy could impact global markets, but provide a “fantastic buying opportunity.”
Like Jennifer Lawrence’s fall at the Oscars, unexpected but a chance to shine ‘comedically‘, Italy’s elections have shocked investors but provided attractive entry points to strong international firms, insulated from domestic woes (as well as offer up some funny one-liners from candidates). The possible loss of eagerly anticipated labour reforms, financial restrictions and market contagion provide shorter term sources of turmoil. However, existing reforms are likely to continue, market retrenchment is healthy and to be exploited for longer term opportunities.
Market elation has been a little bit too early, moved a little bit too far, and there are these potholes that actually could cause markets to stumble, at least in the shorter term. Markets do not like uncertainty, and the longer this continues, the longer the uncertainty is over the markets, the more likely is it will have a pullback.
The U.S. stock market is approaching 500 days since a 10 percent-plus correction, which she said was the tenth-longest time in history that such a bull run has occurred.
And it means when we’re looking at where valuations are , they’re no longer cheap with respect to the U.S. market, growth isn’t coming through as we thought it was going to come through, and you’ve got this level of uncertainty, meaning that it is more likely that these momentum followers – for example, the hedge funds are buying into financials – that they’re going to start to stumble.
But I do think that that means if we do see a correction, it could be muted because it’ll be a fantastic buying opportunity for those investors that are looking to rotate back into risk assets because over long-term, we’re actually more bullish about equities.
Low interest rates, credit spreads at multiyear lows and the prospects of a return to growth could still bode well for equities.
What the market needed was confidence and the return of depositors to put their money into European banks, something that hasn’t happened sufficiently.
All of that gives us slight cause for concern, meaning that we’re growing more cautious shorter-term, although, obviously, more bullish longer-term.”
And just a reminder of why Spain has been able to withstand bailout pressure and markets have shrugged off European woes until recently…
Gemma Godfrey, head of investment strategy for wealth management firm Brooks Macdonald, argues that the small drop in US economic output shows investors may have got carried away in recent weeks.
She warns that the stock market rally may prove fragile:
As investors dismiss the economic contraction to focus on the resilience of consumption, they miss the risk that this will come under pressure over the coming months as fiscal cliff measures come into play.
Market rallies have been driven by the fear of an imminent risk receding, but growth is now needed for another leg up in markets. Instead, the ‘pain trade’ is now missing out on equity upside, implying fear of underperformance may be driving investment versus conviction in the outlook for markets going forward. Exemplifying this is the recent rotation by Hedge funds into financial stocks, following the positive earnings momentum, which of course is backward over-the-shoulder looking, rather than based on confidence in the future.
After hitting multi-year highs, can the FTSE 100 continue its recent rally?
NO – The FTSE 100 has been rallying as the fear of risks, like a Eurozone exit or fiscal cliff stalemate, has receded. But growth is now needed for another leg up: there has been relief in the diagnosis, but the patient must now show signs of recovery. The concern for the UK is that it is tough to see a possible source of growth, especially after the latest economic figures showed us courting a triple dip recession. Looking overseas – as many FTSE companies do – the outlook for growth is more encouraging. But troubles in Europe and the US are far from over, as the former grapples with fiscal and banking union, and the latter with delayed spending cut decisions. Equities may provide value over the longer term, but you will have to encounter heightened volatility – and a likely correction – in the immediate future.
As U.S. stocks and the European equity index ended last week in positive territory, against a backdrop of disappointing data, market moves seems misplaced. Instead, Central Bank action is cosmetic not medicinal, a tool for reassurance not economic change. Developments from the recent EU Summit are either temporary or limited and capital remains restricted. However, economic deterioration heats up the pressure for action.Therefore, Central Banks are damned if they act and damned if they don’t. For sentiment to turn, we need to see signs of stability, as well as support.
Central bank action is being met with scepticism, and initial market rallies used as selling opportunities for profit taking. This is because moves are cosmetic and not medicinal, as in the short term they may reassure markets that measures are being taken, but they are of limited effectiveness at significantly boosting growth. Even Draghi himself, the President of the European Central Bank, argued “price signals (have) relatively limited immediate effect”. They won’t stimulate demand and, by potentially hurting bank profitability, could reduce the incentive to lend – the opposite of the target outcome.
Nevertheless, for the first time, we have seen the ECB cut the benchmark interest rate below 1%. In the same week, the Bank of England announced it will be increasing asset purchases by £50m. With weak US data and Bernanke already cautious, the pressure will be on to turn ‘Operation Twist’ into a more traditional waltz. Investors will be hoping the Fed will pump more liquidity into the system instead of ‘twisting’ or neutralising purchases by selling elsewhere along the yield curve.
Summit Moves Are Limited
The outcome of extensive talks at the EU Summit likewise fuelled a ‘false rally’. Spanish government bonds have since returned to hover around the unsustainable 7% level again despite developments. Instead, the 3 key ‘achievements’ are temporary or limited, as explained below…
1. Senior not guaranteed: Investors have been moved higher up the pecking order and will now be repaid for loans made to Spanish banks before the bailout fund. Being the ‘first’ in line to get money back is indeed an improvement but crucially the risk of loss is still there and may continue to worry the markets.
2. Wishful thinking? The government has been removed from the equation with bailout funds now able to offer loans to struggling Spanish banks directly. Removing government involvement in bank bailouts to protects sovereign bond yields ignores the possibility investors will continue to view the health of the banks as a driver of economic health.
3. Bond buying boost limited: Bailout funds may now buy debt directly from “solvent countries” (read: Italy). However, this is a limited source of demand and again short-sighted.
Capital Remains Restricted
The size of the problem remains a key concern and a crucial measure missing from the Summit was a substantial strengthening of the ‘firewalls’. At €500bn, the rescue fund is only 20% of the €2.4tn combined debt burden of Spain and Italy. The risk that a lack of funding will leave European leaders unable to stop the crisis spreading remains.
Economic Deterioration Heats up the Pressure for Action
With a backdrop of a deteriorating economic environment, Europe is far from able to ‘grow out of the problem’. German manufacturing deteriorated for 4th consecutive month. Relied upon as a rare source of growth, the outlook is dimming. European unemployment has reached its highest level since the creation euro. This is unlikely to spur spending and instead put the pressure back on Central Banks to do something to kick-start economic growth.
Therefore, Central Banks are damned if they act and damned if they don’t. For sentiment to turn, we need to see signs of stability, as well as support.
Note some of this article has been published by the Financial Times
Graph showing the correction in world equity markets over the past week (S&P 500 in white, Eurostoxx 600 in orange, FTSE 100 in yellow); put in context of the substantial upward move year to date. Source: Bloomberg
This week, issues concerning Europe’s firepower, the US consumer and broader economic growth will determine the direction of markets. Inflation, hard-to-beat expectations and political stalemate provide a significant downward risk to market, although upward momentum could always drive them further.
As fuel price inflation dents sentiment in the US, the consumer may be squeezed and figures for income and spending may disappoint. Furthermore, the opportunity for upside surprises in durable goods orders and Q4 GDP growth is limited as forecasted figures are already high.
A two-day meeting of Europe’s finance ministers will be closely watched for signs of an expansion in the firepower of the rescue fund. The deadline to do so draws near and the pressure for progress grows. However, Germany remains staunchly against such a move and, even if achieved, the figure reached may still not be enough.
As European markets suffer the longest losing streak since November, the correction is a healthy one. The index is still up over 8% this year, despite many of the region’s problems remaining unsolved. The latest disappointment, a manufacturing industry contracting more than forecast, is merely the next knock in an overall shrinking group of countries. Just this month the European Central Bank reduced the outlook for growth this year to a 0.1% contraction, keeping the region in recession. As expressed by Tim Geitner in the US, Europe is “only at beginning of a very tough, very long, hard road”.
Italy struggles to free its labour market, essential to restore confidence and ease debt
Crucial for Italy to restore confidence in their markets and bring down hefty borrowing costs is the structural reform of its labour laws. The country’s growth has lagged the euro average for more than a decade and with unemployment at the highest level since 2001 (9.2%), the fear is they will be left further and further behind. Unfortunately, talks between government and union have failed to ease firing laws, which would stop older workers being protected to the detriment of the youth (suffering from a massive 30% unemployment rate) and encourage hiring. With elections early next year, the time for progress is running out.
Portuguese auction success shows investors convinced short term but long term concerns continue
Portugal, seen as the next card to fall after Greece, succeeded in auctioning 4 month bills at the lowest yield since late 2010. Demand for these bonds reached 7 times the amount on offer, implying investors were sufficiently confident on the short term outlook for the country. Nevertheless, long term bond yields remain elevated, with investors requiring 12.5% to lend to Italy for 10 years. With a 3.3% economic contraction expected this year, unemployment at 14.8% and strikes over pay, welfare cuts and tax hikes, the long-term outlook is yet to be rosy. The deepening slump has dampened deficit reduction, with the figures almost tripling in the first two months of this year.The fear is more rescue funds will eventually be needed.
ECB passing the baton: unwinding support for banks but had better move cautiously
Interestingly, despite the potential pitfalls, the ECB seems to be scaling back certain bond purchases. Prior to the recent Long-Term Refinancing Operations (LTRO), a measure to buy €40bn of bonds was set. Since then, only €9bn has been bought and the policy expected to last until autumn may be wound down sooner. This is understandable with LTRO, injecting a whopping €1tn of liquidity having made this ‘gesture’ obsolete. Furthermore, a member of the ECB has proclaimed that it “has done its part now governments must do theirs”. A move towards letting banks stand on their own two feet is the long-term strategy for stability, but with potential for risk to re-erupt, they had better step cautiously.