‘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.
(Click on the image below for a quick video clip summary)
Vitally important for being a successful investor is the ability to look beyond ‘buzzwords’, acknowledge that a wobble can be more dangerous when the training wheels come off and understand the nature of those that hold the future of the company / country / financial market in their hands.
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?
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Huge strides forward in Europe and subsequent market rallies have raised hopes for the region. So is the road to recovery now clear or are significant risks still present? Crucially, what are the key areas of conflict we should be watching closely and which are ‘red herrings’?
A greater degree of oversight of the banking sector is needed for stability. Issues of experience and breadth of oversight to include smaller banks are somewhat misnomers but issues of authority, conflicts of interest, and deposit guarantees are not. Nevertheless, turmoil creates opportunities and the road will remain rocky for the shorter-term at least.
Resolution Remains Just Out of Reach
‘Tail risk’ in Europe has dramatically reduced over the past few months. This refers to the risk of a dramatic event which could drive an extreme change in portfolio values, i.e. a Greek exit from the Euro, having fallen substantially. Prompted by Draghi’s statement that he will do “whatever it takes” to save the euro, and solidified with his launch of an ‘Outright Monetary Transaction’, buying the bonds of countries that request help, markets have moved to reflect this reduction in perceived risk.
But does this mean the road to recovery is now clear? Unfortunately not. The risk of an immediate euro breakup may have eased but Europe still needs to integrate further before we can say unity has been strengthened sufficiently.
With the region rocked every time there is turmoil in one country’s banking sector, providing a level of oversight to spread, offset and protect from risk is a desperately needed move forwards. Agreement has been reached to progress this course of action, and the European Central Bank put in charge. So what are the key areas of conflict we should be watching closely to decipher how far risk has truly abated? What issues matter and which are ‘red herrings’?
Ready, Steady, Go….?
The ECB may have been the natural choice of supervisor but it has neither experienceof direct supervision, nor dedicated staff. However, this is probably the most easily remedied concern, with recruitment of a team with appropriate experience.
Of greater concern is the lack of authority with which the central bank would begin its ‘reign’. A ‘Banking Resolution Mechanism’, i.e. a process for the enforcement of support, rules and regulation, will only come into place at a later date. Threats without force are just words and the sustained support that could bring is doubtful.
Furthermore, the central bank’s original mandate of price stability could be compromised. It is unclear how a conflict of interest can be avoided when knowledge of bank positioning may affect its resolve to implement monetary policy. Knowing an interest rate move, for example, could destabilise a large bank and create a level of turmoil, may muddy the waters.
One for All and All for One
Germany has voiced its opposition to a broad-based level of oversight, focused not just on the largest banks but any that could pose a risk to the stability of the banking sector. As the country within the region with the largest number of ‘small’ banks as well as almost a third of the regions total number of banks, this has been a focal point in the press. The claim is that the administration costs to comply would be enormous, passed on customers and hit the local economy.
However, for two main reasons this again is more of a distraction than a nail in the coffin. Firstly, as in Spain, for example, it was issues in smaller banks which brought chaos to the country. Bankia, the ‘bailed-out’ bank, was constructed from several smaller struggling banks. Germany’s smaller banks together have total assets than exceed Deutsche Bank and are responsible for around 38% of both bank lending and deposits. Therefore, oversight should indeed include these banks.
Secondly, on a day-to-day basis, smaller banks may continue to receive oversight similar to national arrangements, minimising the feared disruption and cost. Rules were ‘softened’ when the European Parliament expressed the desire for the ECB to have the choice of delegating its supervision of smaller relevant lenders to national authorities. A feeling of loss of sovereignty is still tough to challenge but may be eased and outweighed by necessity.
Nevertheless, hostility from Germany continues in the form of opposition towards a single deposit guarantee scheme. A ‘run on banks’ was touted as a key risk as capital outflows from the periphery European countries gathered momentum last year. A lack of confidence in the safety of customer deposits drove exits and challenged the liquidity levels and stability of the targeted banks. A region-wide scheme to guarantee these deposits is hoped to bring some calm and reduce these fears.
This is a crucial part of the longer-term plan for a return of confidence to the region but has seemingly ‘dropped off the agenda’ according to Germany, resisting further discussion. The fear is the relative strength of one country will be used to offset weaknesses in another. Tax payers from one country could end up having to pay for the mistakes of a bank in another. Nevertheless, behind the headlines, it is understood that some form of transfer from Germany to the periphery is necessary for stability and this is certainly an issue to watch closely going forward.
A Rocky Road
Therefore, Europe has some crucial challenges to tackle over the next few months. Longer-term strategies must be embedded to protect the region. To complicate matters, politicians will continue to be distracted by ‘putting out fires’. For example, a request for help by Spain remains hotly debated and there is the potential for further civil unrest in reaction to growing opposition to austerity. The risk of further turmoil in Greece is high as it is tasked with completing bank recapitalisation and paying public sector debts, but a long-term solution to alleviate reliance on financial support remains illusive.
Turmoil creates opportunities and the road will remain rocky for the shorter-term at least. International firms that are merely headquartered in an area of weakness can provide an interesting opportunity as price moves, volatile in the shorter-term, more accurately reflect underlying value over the longer-term.
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.
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.
Central banks are running out of steam as their measures to bring calm back to markets are no longer as effective as they once were. Germany too seems unable to keep up. Like a marathon runner caught in a sprint, their reluctance to move forward stands in stark contrast to market moves focused on the end game. But the road isn’t clear. Europe has three remaining hurdles in their race to recovery: funds, fiscal unity and reform. With Greece approaching the final whistle, doubts over its ability to stay within Europe are growing louder. The worry is investors are watching the referee not the striker, more focused on the search for safety than the rising risk elsewhere in the markets. False starts continue to drive market volatility and while investors ask whether it’s time to back the ‘underdog’, European stocks may provide diamonds in rough, but things could get rougher.
The vital relationship between central banks implementing stimulus and Spanish yields falling has broken down since April of this year. No longer is central bank action able to reassure the market and instead Spain and Italy’s borrowing costs remain at elevated levels. Investors are demanding more. Structural change is needed but markets are concerned that leaders could choke under the pressure.
Germany: A marathon runner caught in a sprint
Germany wants to progress towards greater unity at its own pace but the markets move faster. Indeed a backbencher delivered his dissatisfaction with the European Central Bank’s plans to their Constitutional Court! It will be tackled in September but investors and the economy won’t wait. Weak consumer confidence and rating agency scepticism highlight the urgency for action.
Europe: 3 Hurdles in Race to Recovery
The three key obstacles to be tackled to progress towards stability are: enough funds to contain the crisis; fiscal consolidation (share budgets in order to share debt burdens and be able to offer ‘eurobonds’); and finally structural reform to regain competitiveness & growth. All are vital for the future of the region and this realisation is starting to build within the markets. Europe did manage to overcome their concern that a Fed-Style straight bond buying programme would reduce the pressure on countries to reform, with a Memorandum of Understanding putting these measures on paper. The use of ‘MOU’s in order to accept ‘IOU’s to lend to countries within Europe may be a step forward, but this remains only part of the full picture needed for longer-lasting results.
Greece: Approaching the Final Whistle
S&P ratings agency has questioned whether Greece will be able to secure the next tranche of bailout funds as it downgraded the outlook for its credit rating to negative. Without such funding, the ‘death knell’ for Greece’s euro membership will be sounded. With the IMFsignalling payments to Greece will stop, the lack of funding fuels fears that without drastic action, the end could be near. Even beyond Greece, the Italian Prime Minister dared to publicise the possibility of a Eurozone breakup if borrowing costs did not fall.
Investors: Watching the Referee not the Striker
The rush to safety has been overshadowing rising risks. As investors pile in to perceived ‘safe haven’ assets, the yield on German government bonds has been falling. However, in a different market, the cost of insuring these bonds has risen as these investors see risk on the rise. The snapback in bond markets to better reflect this sentiment could shake the equity market as well and is therefore a significant concern.
Markets: False Starts
Markets have rallied in the face of disappointing data. Eurozone stocks reached a 4 monthhigh as manufacturing dropped to a 3 year low suggesting the slump is extending into Q3. This discrepancy has driven market volatility, exacerbated by the low volume of shares traded over the summer months. Greater clarity is required to see a more sustained upward momentum which will have to wait until leaders are back from their hols!
Investments: When to Back the Underdog?
European stocks may provide diamonds in rough, but things could get rougher. The overweight US / underweight EU trade is starting to look stretched, as the divergence in performance between the two regions continues to increase. This has been quite understandable, but there will come a time when this is overdone. Within Europe, there are international companies, with geographically diversified revenue streams so not dependent solely on domestic demand for their products or services. Furthermore, with effective management teams and strong fiscal positions, some may be starting to look cheap. However, cheap could get cheaper. Damage to sentiment could lead to market punishment regardless of fundamentals. Therefore waiting for decisive developments & clarity on road to recovery may be prudent.
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
As the Euro zone crisis intensifies and global markets reflect investor concerns, we ask ourselves, is a Greek exit from the euro on its way? Crucially, preparations have already begun to protect shareholder interest, companies are robust and policy in the US and China aims to maintain the upward momentum. To protect capital, proactively positioning portfolios has been key. International exposure and dividend yields offer attractive opportunities..
A ‘Grexit’ on its way?
All eyes once again are focused on Greece. An inability to form a government has led to a renewed fear that the country could exit the Euro and the wider European Union. Although only a small contributor to European economic output as a whole, contagion is the real risk. Concerns of further losses for external holders of Greek debt and a more widespread break-up of the euro have driven equity market weakness.
A self-perpetuating situation, investors are demanding more to lend to the likes of Spain and Portugal, driving their debt burdens to unsustainable levels. Furthermore, disappointing data from the US and China over the last few days have further added to the uncertainty.
…but preparations are underway
However, preparations have already begun to protect shareholder interest. German and French banks, which were the largest holders of Greek debt, have been aggressively reducing their positions. Some, for example, have cut periphery debt exposure by as much as half since 2010. Banks in the UK have been making provisions since at least November when the Financial Services Authority’s top regulator, Andrew Bailey, told banks: “We must not ignore the prospect of the disorderly departure of some countries from the eurozone.”
On the corporate side, interesting anecdotes have highlighted the proactive nature of company management in the face of this turmoil. Last year, for example, Tui, one of Europe’s largest travel companies, was reported to have requested to reserve the right to pay in a new Greek currency should the country exit from the euro. Corporate balance sheets are robust, holding more cash than long term averages, dividend yields and the potential for merger and acquisition activity once the macro outlook starts to improve can offer an attractive upside.
Finally, although wavering slightly, the US still successfully avoided falling back into recession. Keenly aware of both external and internal risks to growth, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke has made it clear he is not afraid to utilise further tools to protect economic growth. Especially with an election this year, policy is likely to remain accommodative. With respect to Emerging Markets, despite the recent wobble and an inevitable cooling of economic growth, with an estimated 1 billion of the population to join the consumer class by 2030, the long-term case remains strong.
Proactive portfolio positioning prudent
To protect capital, proactively positioning portfolios has been key. Reducing direct European exposure as Europe’s southern members showed severe signs of economic stress from an asset allocation perspective and via underlying fund managers has proved prudent. Fund managers have been able to maintain a zero weighting to Greece and a substantial underweight to the likes of Portugal and Spain relative to benchmark.
As equity markets reached new highs in the first quarter of this year, the substantial rally in share prices in the face of continued structural problems within the Euro zone, was a sign that the risk of a downward correction had increased in the short term. Caution was of course well-founded. A move to lock-in profits and redeploy capital to alternatives and property for a more attractive risk/return potential and hedge against inflation has been supported.
Assets which will help portfolio performance during these volatile market times are good quality companies with strong balance sheets paying an attractive level of dividends. Furthermore, in times of slow economic growth and persistent inflation, strong franchises with pricing power for protected market share and the ability to pass on increases in supply costs to the customer are very desirable attributes.
International exposure and dividend yields offer attractive opportunities
Looking forward, a resolution of key issues in Europe is required to gain confidence to add to equity exposure. Structural reform, greater fiscal consolidation, a focus on growth and long term support are required for stability in the region. At the same time, with a medium to long-term time horizon, it is more important to focus on the geographical location of a company’s revenue streams than where it is headquartered. Investor overreaction can offer buying opportunities with share price corrections providing attractive, cheaper entry points to high quality firms. Furthermore, the yield from dividends these companies pay out can provide a valuable income stream. With many investors holding back capital, the flow of money back into markets, buying into sell-offs at lower levels, could dampen these downward moves and provide a level of support. Therefore, although volatility could continue and market direction remains difficult to determine, it is possible to navigate the turmoil.