austerity

From Rome With Love? The 3 Issues To Watch For Italy & Global Markets

This article made the Front Page of the Huffington Post Business

Political uncertainty in Italy could impact global markets, but provide a “fantastic buying opportunity.”

cnbc squawk

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.

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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”.

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!

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.

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.