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Europe and a New Form of ‘Decoupling’ – How to React

The problem with international meetings is politicians are often “more interested in their next job than the next generation” – Anonymous source via Anthony Hilton, Evening Standard

Political turmoil has hit the three largest European economies in recent days. Portugal’s Prime Minister resigned, Merkel’s party was ousted from the most prosperous state in Germany after an almost 58 year uninterrupted rule and at France’s recent election, abstention reached a new high at 54% of the population. What are the main issues to be watching, how are they affecting investments and why is the term ‘decoupling’ now being used to describe countries within the EU?

Headline of Germany's biggest newspaper, Bild, 12 May 2010. Source: http://read.bi/cZa0of

Berlusconi ‘Flirting’ With Protectionism

In reaction to recent French takeovers of Italian companies, Italy is threatening to draft a bill to curtail the trend. France maintains the bill will go beyond measures conceived by Paris and tensions look to worsen as the French EDF, the largest shareholder of Italian energy company Edison prepares to replace the Italian CEO with a French counterpart.  Indeed with David Cameron concerned about maintaining an open and competitive continent, the issue is one to watch. Nevertheless, with a high savings rate and exposure to German and Emerging Market economies, the outlook for Italy remains strong. In a recent auction, the maximum amount of index-linked bonds targeted was sold on Tuesday, €6bn year to date. Domestic demand remains strong.

Spanish Growth Downgraded

Another European country with issues of its own and yet resilient market reaction is Spain. The Central Bank sees a growth outlook of 0.8% for this year, lower than the government’s expectation of 1.3% growth. Unemployment is still among the highest in Europe at ~20% and they are implementing some of the deepest austerity measures to bring their deficit inline with that of France. Nevertheless, markets are forward looking and are reacting well to the aggressive policy implementation. Spreads on Spanish bonds over the equivalent German versions continue to narrow.

Even more worrying is the 43% youth unemployment (as quoted in The Guardian), higher than both Egypt and Tunisia - leading Gregory White at The Business Insider to call Spain "The Next Egypt" http://read.bi/i7fKOu. Source of chart: Miguel Navascues, an economist who spent 30years for the Bank of Spain following a posting for the US http://bit.ly/fDGb6k

Germany Facing a ‘Blocking Majority’

After another disappointing election result, the governing party of Germany could face a ‘blocking majority’ if they lose one more state in the September elections. Inner-party opposition is looking likely to intensify and after abstaining in the UN’s vote on the ‘no fly zone’ over Libya, fears of a return to isolationism have returned. Together this could compound the indecision that has dogged Merkel’s leadership so far. Nevertheless, the country’s deficit is set to fall as low as 2.5% of GDP.

 

Equally applicable for France with their 54% abstention rate as to Germany's indecision - The once opinionated cocktail hour has gone quiet! Source: http://www.zundelsite.org/cartoons/german_party.html

A New ‘Decoupling’

Therefore, the markets are starting to differentiate between countries. Spanish and Italian equity markets are almost 9% higher than they were at the start of the year while others are still struggling.  Most interesting is the lacklustre return of Germany’s equity market despite stronger fundamentals. Although this can be explained by the idea that markets move not by information on an absolute basis but relative to past performance and most crucially – expectations. With this in mind, Italian and Spanish economies are seen to be improving and doing well versus investor-set benchmarks.

The Investment Insight

There are many more hurdles along the way. The yield on Portugal’s 5-year notes surpassed 9% for the first time since Bloomberg records began (1997). The average yield across maturities lies at 4%, but the trend is upwards and once a 6% level is reached, it is argued it will become near impossible to reduce the countries debt-to-GDP ratio. In the immediate future, today’s results of Ireland’s banking stress tests will reveal the additional capital required for adequate solvency. As always, it is wise to maintain context, exploit contagion to your benefit and focus on quality for the longer-term.

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The Problems of “Absolute Returns”

“How often misused words generate misleading thoughts.”   Herbert Spencer (British social Philosopher, 1820-1903)

When it comes to discussing hedge funds, the quote above rings true. Mis-sold and mis-understood, investors have been left disillusioned. Marketed as being able to generate “absolute returns” in all environments, and tarred allwith the same brush in a “one size fits all” sell, appropriateness was often overlooked. All the catchy phrases and vague promises have mis-managed investor expectation and clients spoke with their feet. As we look to the future, with the next generation of “more highly regulated funds”, we must be wary to not fall foul of over-promising and under-delivering…

Common Misconceptions:

1. “Shorts” as a means of risk-reduction to balance “long” exposure vs. ability of funds to be hurt on both the long and short side together due to e.g. unexpected deal surprises. For example, in late October 2008 hedge funds lost £18bn in two days of trading due to a costly short call. Managers had bet on VW shares falling because of the global economic downturn but once Porsche revealed they had been secretly building their stake to a controlling share, they scrambled to cover their positions.

2. If so-and-so are investing, then sufficient due diligence must have been carried out”. Just take the Madoff ponzi scheme – half of UBP’s 22 fund of funds invested, HSBC provided finance to clients who invested, many successful individuals invested large amounts…. It comes back to the basic tenet – “Never invest in a business you cannot understand “ (Buffett)

3.  If I get nervous, I can always take my money out. Following on from point 2, without investigating a fund – the liquidity of its underlying investments, the commitment of major shareholders etc., many were shocked when fund of funds, in particular, implemented side-pockets and gates to limit the amount a client could redeem.

4.  “Larger funds are always safer” In actual fact it was many of the larger funds that found it hard to meet redemptions – needing to liquidate a larger amount in the market and slower to implement changes in strategy as markets sold off back in 08. Instead it was the smaller, more nimble players that were able to adapt quicker to navigate the markets better, and able to meet redemption requests more easily and avoid having to implement side-pockets or gates.

5. “Paying an extra layer of fees is worth the diversification benefits of a fund of funds investment – although still true in some instances, many fund of funds are merely “best of breed” funds with less emphasis on portfolio construction and therefore less of an uncorrelated nature. In addition, those that paid less attention to the liquidity of their underlying funds were squeezed when these funds gated whilst they were receiving redemption calls.

What can we do with this information?

1. More accurately assess the risk profile of a hedge fund investment, size and position allocations accordingly

2. Ensure a full due diligence process has been carried out

3. Assess the liquidity of the assets the fund is investing in and interview large fund shareholders – a managed account is not always necessary, the emphasis should be on appropriateness – daily liquidity is suitable for a large-cap global equity fund but a more private equity-type fund could suffer from too much focus on managing flows than managing the money itself.

4. Look for the sweet spot that exists at the point when a fund’s running costs are comfortably covered and there are low operational concerns, whilst the manager still has the hunger to perform before becoming complacent and managing more than he is best at handling.

5. Watch the correlation of the fund to other parts of your portfolio and to the managers within the same asset class to ensure sufficient diversification benefits – mitigating some of the volatility for steadier returns.

MANAGE CLIENT EXPECTATIONS