asset allocation

Why Olympic Success Must Inspire Action in Europe

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.

Watch the debate in a quick CNBC clip:

How Europe’s Crisis is Like the Olympics & How to Trade These Markets

 

Central Banks: Running out of steam

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 risksAs 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.

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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.

Commodities – Looking for diversification? Your search doesn’t end here!

Wide diversification is only required when investors do not understand what they are doing – Warren Buffett

The above quote is a key support for my view that investing in index-wide vehicles is merely an exercise in di-worse-ification. It’s time to get specific. Commodities have often been lauded as a “key diversifier” but within the last 18 to 24 months, the case has broken down. Investors using commodity ETFs to enhance the risk-adjusted return of their portfolios may be falling foul of Buffett’s quote. Here I provide a warning to those who may be taking on more risk in their portfolios than they realise…

When constructing a portfolio, diversification is a key focus. Capital is allocated across asset classes in an attempt to produce an attractive risk / return profile. The search is made for investments which post returns completely uncorrelated to other investments, thus helping reduce the volatility of the portfolio since at times when one market may be experiencing a pull-back, another may be exhibiting strong returns entirely unaffected by the input moving the first market.

Historically the commodity markets have been used as such an asset class. An essential ingredient to a well-diversified portfolio, especially one heavily invested in equities. The commodity markets were used mainly by commodity producing companies to lock-in the price for their output (by taking the other side of the trade using options) and enable management to budget adequately.

However, recently this relationship appears to have been contaminated. In speaking to George Zivic (Managing Partner of Almanac Capital) to get a better insight, he maintained that this is a structural change. The increase of investors speculating in the commodity markets has led to a higher percentage of the traders treating the instruments inline with any other risk asset.

Source: Bloomberg. The price movements of the S&P Index (white) and the S&P GSCI Commodity Index (orange), a composite index of commodity sector returns. Note the recent high correlation highlighted in blue

As you can see from the above the movements in the price of the US equity index and that of the commodity index have exhibited a heightened level of correlation.

Furthermore, as you can see from the below chart, the differential between the winning and losing commodity returns has been a great trade for an investor wishing to minimise net exposure to a highly volatile market

 

 

Source: Capital Economics. Selected Commodity Prices in 2Q10 (% Change, $ terms). Note the dispersion in returns, again highlighted in blue.

INVESTMENT INSIGHT

It is no longer the time to gain exposure via passive investing / ETFs etc. The smart money will be making smarter investments – DIFFERENTIATE between commodities, with their different supply / demand characteristics – again, EXPLOIT CONTAGION when some will be over-punished or over-pushed. With the majority of an “all-commodity” ETF invested in the energy markets, at least for the short term alpha generation will focus on the markets with far less visibility, less research focus and less investor attention. “Niche”-type investments in weather derivatives, agriculture etc. offer less correlated returns and greater diversification benefits.

 

 

The Case for Equities and How to Invest

“Quality is never an accident, it is always the result of intelligent effort” (Ruskin)

There appears to be at present a major discrepancy between quality and value – which reminds me of the Oscar Wilde quote that “a cynic knows the price of everything but the value of nothing”. As I highlighted in a prior post, What’s Driving the Markets and How Should I Invest?, investors have seemed to push up the price of lower quality companies, leaving an opportunity to invest in companies of higher value with upside potential of reversing its underperformance versus its index. I will now show how despite there being question marks over the value of the wider equity market versus its long-term average, against other asset classes the investment case looks strong – and there’s much cash waiting on the sidelines! Just remember – Quality, Quality, Quality!

Valuations may be unconvincing…

As you can see from the above chart it is arguable that relative to its long-run average, the equity market is fairly priced to slightly over-valued. To explain, using the same great blogger who sources the chart , the avid “Charter” of financial data, Doug Short: “The Q Ratio is a popular method of estimating the fair value of the stock market developed by Nobel Laureate James Tobin. The total price of the market divided by the replacement cost of all its companies. The mean-adjusted chart above indicate that the market remains significantly overvalued by historical standards” — 41% to 52% (depending the version of calculation you choose).

… But risk premium is stretched…

US Cyc-Adj Earnings Yield (Non-Fin) vs. US Real Return on Cash (%). Source: Capital Economics

Despite my point on valuation, the above chart shows how little all the cash sitting on the sidelines is earning their investor and in stark contrast to the earnings yield some equities could be providing instead – a mighty enticing motivation to invest.

… the Case for Equity versus Bonds Strengthens…

Ok, so what about bonds? Surely that would be an equally enticing move? Perhaps better on a risk return basis? Actually no. The superior yield equities can offer versus bonds is well- exemplified in the chart below, from Jesse Felder in his contribution to Seeking Alpha, By One Measure Stocks Are Cheapest in Over Half a Century.

This highlights not only the motivation for a move from cash to equities, but also a switch from government bonds to equities. When discussing earnings yield it is interesting to remember Warren Buffett’s quote that: “earnings can be pliable as putty when a charlatan heads the company reporting them”, lending support to my focus on quality companies which includes the requirement of good management.

I showed in my previous post, How to Play the Bond Markets, how the case for bonds is no longer a “broad-based trade” and investment grade spreads are now 63% narrower than at their 2008/9 peak and now below 2002 levels.

… And it’s Not the Time for High Yield

Moving on to high yield, credit appears to have recovered much more than equities. The below chart (which will be uploaded tomorrow – an exciting insight from Merrill Lynch) shows that the last time high yield (called high grade (HG) in this graph) spreads were near 200 bps, the S&P 500 was between 1,400 and 1,500, vs. only 1,181 currently (20/10/10). (To keep this post short and snappy, I will explore this in more detail later)…

INVESTMENT INSIGHT – How to Invest

As previously expressed, this has been a low quality rally, driven by low quality, high beta names (exemplified in my chart showing US Consumer Discretionary which should be the most affected in a recession driving increases in the wider market) – Therefore active management remains key – sector and stock divergence

This is a ‘stock-pickers’ market. Invest in high quality companies (strong balance sheets, cash flow rich) which have the upside potential to re-rate to their intrinsic value and having underperformed during the periods of market over-exuberance.

How to play the Bond Markets

“Our lives are defined by opportunities, even the ones we miss” (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

I think the above title is apt for much of life, including the investment world, and the credit crisis was one such opportunity which served to make or break many mangers out there. A “broad-based” bet on parts of the fixed income asset class was enough to extract alpha. Now things are slightly trickier…

Investing is no longer a call on the asset class alone, but rather an emphasis on specifics is coming more into play.  Spreads have narrowed, from their historically wide levels (see chart below from an excellent fellow blogger the Calafia Beach Pundit, Scott Granis, the former Chief Economist at Western Asset Management and Seeking Alpha certified) but Corporates are focused on managing and strengthening their balance sheets. Differentiation in returns can be seen between sectors and between names. Thus, the key going forward is credit selection and a focus on quality.

I remain cautious on the high yield space, concerned with the possibility of the default rate coming in higher than expected and with lower levels of credit available to struggling companies, the recovery rate disappointing on the downside. This again highlights the importance of being name specific when investing. With spreads narrowing as far as the above chart shows, the risk / reward profile of this part of the asset class is not as attractive.

INVESTMENT INSIGHT: Be name specific, focused on high-quality companies with strong balance sheets

 


A “House View”

The search for yield is becoming an ever tougher quest for investors, especially the more cautious amongst us. Arguably, the easy money has already been made within the fixed income space; cash offers little as an investment vehicle and many question what the growth drivers will be behind many developed market economies and stock markets. Thus we are left asking, where should one invest?

We also need to question the type of environment we are investing in. Government action will be highly influential as it exits from its policy of Monetary Easing. Timing will be crucial but almost impossible to get right. Too early and we risk dipping back into recession and experiencing the destructive forces of deflation; too late and the threat of rampant inflation rears its head.  The consensus is that the government will favour the latter option as the lesser of two evils. Either way, any recovery the world sees may be a volatile one and clarity may remain elusive. Concerns over debt are still acute and here in the UK the Government predicts expenditure, revenues and debt are to get worse before getting better.

Thus I highlight the importance of an active management approach to investing, where the manager has the ability to react quickly to the changing environment and provide protection on the downside. Focus is also on being selective within each asset class. Although no longer a broad-based trade, opportunities remain within fixed income, with quality paramount and the focus on being name specific. Equities are looking more interesting. Nevertheless, with the potential for corrections in the markets in the near-term, investing with long / short managers, who have a proven track record of navigating the choppy markets of the last few years successfully and who are well-positioned to exploit opportunities both on the upside and downside, is attractive.

Emphasis is on being pro-active rather than reactive and continuing to monitor the changing economic and market environments closely.

INVESTMENT INSIGHT

ACTIVE MANAGEMENT

ALLOCATE TO EQUITIES

ANTICIPATE A MARKET PULLBACK (i.e. invest via long/short managers able to protect on the downside)