bank of england

Why Market Moves Have Been Misguided

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.

Watch this being hotly debated on CNBC, with an entertaining edge…

Central Bank Action is Cosmetic Not Medicinal

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


What to watch this week: Policy drives market direction (Prezi slideshow)

With political pitfalls possible, eyes on Chinese easing, and a flight to quality by investors, policy is driving market direction. This week, the minutes from the latest Federal Reserve meeting will be scoured for signs of further fiscal support. Moreover, the Bank of England’s inflation report will be reviewed for changes to the outlook for growth and inflation. Central bank rhetoric will determine how investors trade. (Watch this as a slide show…)

Political Pitfalls Possible

France’s new President will meet German Chancellor Merkel today with opposing views on the fiscal treaty (see previous post). Furthermore, until a Greek coalition is formed, turmoil there will continue.

Eyes on China Easing

After data disappointed last week, the Bank of China cut the reserve requirement ratio by 50 basis points on Saturday. This is the equivalent to injecting around $64 billion into the banks. Investors remain watchful on Chinese policy, hoping it remains accommodative as the economy cools, to protect global growth.

Flight to Quality

Unsurprisingly, with the climate uncertain, investors have rushed into perceived safe havens. With much money still on the sidelines, a reversal of this trend could provide a hefty boost to markets. Appetite for risk is a crucial current driver.

QE3 Back on the Table?

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) minutes will be scoured for signs of fiscal support. Housing market weakness and elevated unemployment has caused Bernanke to leave the door open for further stimulus. Any indication of inflation easing could put the possibility of QE3 back on the table. Although still unlikely, with elections due this year, the pressure is on for policy to remain accommodative.

A Worse Outlook for UK Inflation and Growth?

The Bank of England’s inflation report will give investors colour on the headwinds for consumption and the economy as a whole, as growth and inflation forecasts may be amended. Plunging purchasing power will keep consumer spending stifled. As rising inflation data calls an end to a 5 month easing trend and continues to surprise on the upside, investors will be watching for an increase in the inflation forecast. Higher energy prices and lending rates have kept the risk to the upside and as we dip back into recession, businesses are unlikely to boost hiring. Investors will therefore focus on whether the growth outlook is downgraded. Headwinds are severe and sentiment remains depressed.

Stagflation risk and what this means for stocks

As the outlook for growth continues to deteriorate, whilst the price for goods and services remain stubbornly high, the risk of stagflation returns. This would be a tough scenario, where policy options tackling one of these issues would only worsen the other. This creates substantial downside risk for stock valuations based on bullish growth forecasts, whilst making it more prudent to invest in price makers able to pass on rising input costs.

Lower growth outlook

The outlook for growth is bleak. The IMF has reduced their forecasted expansion of Europe from 2% to 1.6% and Goldman Sachs swiftly followed suit predicting France and Germany will fall into recession next year, with the EU stagnating. The data looks supportive of this view. German retail sales disappointed expectations, with a contraction of -4.3% in July vs. -0.5% expected. With Europe still our largest trading partner, the effect on the UK could be severe.

Outside the EU, countries aren’t immune. China’s Purchasing Managers Index has fallen below the 50 mark, the line separating expansion from contraction and GDP growth came in at 9.1%, falling from 9.5% and below expectations.

QE increases stagflation fears

In an effort to boost the economy, the Bank of England surprised many commentators by increasing their purchases of UK government bonds, from £200bn to £275bn.  However, this is not without its risks. It is not a guaranteed strategy to boost growth and crucially create jobs. Instead, it is more likely to increase inflation.

Taking bonds out of the market and pumping cash in their place only reduces the value and purchasing power of the currency, making goods and services more expensive. Inflation is already above the 2% target set for price stability, hitting a rate of 5.2% at the latest measure this week. In the EU the value jumped to 3% in September, the fastest increase in 3 years and potentially a reason behind their Central Bank’s decision not to cut rates.

Unemployment in stagnating economies is an issue and highlights the threat. Spain is struggling with 1 in every 5 of their people without a job, increasing to 45% of the youth population, and Portugal’s jobless level has reached highs not seen for over two decades. The US’s September figures are stuck at 9.1%, although CPI came in below expectations. Here in the UK the level might ‘only’ be 7.9% but this is still high and stubbornly so, with inflation surprising on the upside.

The stagflation quandary (where stagnation and inflation meet) is that to tackle unemployment and boost growth, interest rates would be cut, however not only are they already low, but that would boost inflation even further. Likewise, to tackle inflation, interest rates might be increased but this would only hurt growth and employment.

A lose-lose situation.

Risk of Stock Downgrades

So what has this meant for stocks? Firstly, there is downside risk to stock valuations. With many valuations based on forecasted growth, downgrades could negatively impact and seem more expensive. Analysts are 10 times more bullish on the growth outlook than economists. Although, always more optimistic, that is twice the historical average.

Secondly, it may be more prudent to invest with those that are price makers not price takers, as well as with a protected demand base, in order to be able to pass on rising costs.

Gold may Glitter but can it Deliver?

The classic “safe-haven” investment has seen a strong uptrend in its value since the autumn of 2008. Risk aversioninflation fearsfalls in the dollar and demand from the east have all been credited as drivers of this move. But just how supportive are these factors going forward — what is the risk gold could lose its lustre?

A Hedge against Inflation

The fear of inflation is heating up as on Wednesday the Bank of England suggested that “there is a good chance” inflation will hit 5% later in the year, far above the target rate of 2%. Elsewhere, on the same day, Chinese inflation figures surprised on the upside. However, is gold an adequate hedge? It can be shown graphically that it is not. Charting the inflation rate (CPI change year on year) against the gold price, we can see that over the past decade the relationship breaks down. Indeed, if the gold price kept up with increases in general price levels, it would be valued at $2,600 an ounce instead of around the $1,500 level. How about if instead of actual inflation, we look at the market’s expectation of inflation? Even in this case, the relationship does not hold. Instead, there are other factors at play. As previously discussed, investors may be more focused on the sustainability of the economic growth rate and allow for some inflation. Inflation alone may not provide sufficient support.

The Gold Price (white) vs. CPI change year-on-year (orange). Source: Bloomberg

A Beneficiary of Risk Aversion

So — could upcoming economic, fiscal or political disappointments sufficiently boost the gold price? Here the case looks stronger. From sovereign debt crises in Europe, to the tragic tsunami in Japan and the turmoil in the Middle East, there has been enough newsflow to stoke fears and flows into gold (a “whopping” $679m of capital was invested in precious metals in one week alone at the beginning of April). Furthermore, a lack of confidence in the dollar further boosted investment for those looking for a more reliable base.

Demand from the East and Central Banks

In addition to jewellery demand, central bank purchases may provide much support for gold as we move forward. Russia needs to acquire more than 1,000 tons and China 3,000 tons to have a gold reserve ratio to outstanding currency on parity with the U.S. This is even likely to be an understatement with China stating publicly they would like to acquire at least 6,000 tons and there are unofficial rumors that this may go as high as 10,000 tons.

A bubble with no clear end

George Soros described gold as the “ultimate asset bubble” and with sentiment driving the price as much as fundamentals, it’s unclear when the trend will reverse. An increasing monetary base is looking for a home. As Marcus Grubb, MD of Investment at the World Gold Council was quoted as saying at a ‘WealthBriefing’ Breakfast on Thursday: “In the next 10 minutes the world’s gold producers will mine $3m of gold, while the US prints $15m.” However, an often-overlooked drawback in investing in gold is its lack of yield. With some stock offering attractive dividend yields and investors wanting their investments to provide attractive returns during the life of their investment, capital flows may wander.

The Investment Insight

Remain wary of relying on one driver of returns; it can often be overshadowed by another. Instead build a complete picture and continuously question your base case scenario. Gold is a more complex asset than many give it credit for and as always, it pays to be well diversified.

Stagflation – A Risk Worth Noticing

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting – Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Much is made in the news of the risk of inflation. We can’t step far outside our doors without being faced with the challenges it brings. From shockingly high petrol prices to rising agriculture costs hitting our shopping bills, the fear is setting in. However, when we strip out these volatile elements, just how much of a problem is core inflation? Instead, with economic growth precariously fragile, when it does become a concern, won’t we be left fighting a ‘war on two fronts’? It’s time we start to notice the ‘Elephant in The Room’.

An Anaemic Recovery

The economic recovery remains weak. Still driven by the consumer, the environment for spending is tenuous. Retail sales for December were downgraded and January’s figures can only be described as “unspectacular”. We saw the first increase in the claimant count in four months (which would have been even higher had people not given up the job search entirely). Moreover, earnings growth slowed to the lowest rate in six months (from 2.5% to 2.0%). With Hometrack, the property analytics business, foreseeing homebuyers facing a continued struggle to obtain mortgages in 2011, the outlook for spending and GDP growth looks tough.

Source: Capital Economics “UK Labour Market Data” Regular pay growth slowed from 2.5% to 2.0% (Published end Feb 2011, data to end Dec / Jan)

Consumer Companies Highlight the Headwinds

Highlighting the problem were the many consumer companies missing Q410 earnings estimates and downgrading their forecasts for this year. Diageo, Colgate-Palmolive and P&G were among those that struggled to meet expectations. Falls in demand were blamed, with the situation looking none the rosier going forward. Renault predicts the demand for cars in their home market of France will fall by 8%. In addition, rising input costs is adding to woes. Pepsi is budgeting for a whopping 8 – 9.5% increase in the amount of capital they will spend on oil and agriculture commodities, which contributed to the firm lowering their forecast for earnings growth from low double digits to high single digits. The question on everyone’s lips is – can they continue to pass on higher costs to the consumer? With the aforementioned weakness, the most likely answer is “no”.

Source: Bloomberg. Next share price (white) and the Cotton price (orange) + >10% YTD already.

Inflation ‘Illusion’ Tempting Risky Action

So just how much of a problem is inflation, when compared to the weakness of the recovery? True, headline Inflation has held stubbornly above the Bank of England’s target at 3.7%. However, stripping out food and energy prices, core inflation falls to 2.9% and recent reports show that after excluding taxes, we hit the 2% jackpot. Regardless, the political environment poses a risk. The MPC (Monetary Policy Committee) is under immense pressure to defend its credibility after keeping rates on hold for 23 months consecutively. Markets are now pricing in a 25bps rise in May. Crucially, these expectations alone have consequences. In one week alone, more than 10 mortgage lenders pulled their best fixed rate deals – hitting credit availability to the already weakened consumer ‘spenders’.

Only an idiot fights a war on two fronts. ~ Londo Mollari, Babylon 5

Stagflation – A ‘War on Two Fronts’

This is the crux of the problem – promoting growth can at times risk inflation and fighting inflation can risk weakening growth. Currently the biggest challenge of the two is strengthening growth. If the recovery remains weak, then when inflation rises and poses a far more serious challenge, the government will not be able to implement policies to fight it without dragging the economy into another recession. The possibility of stagflation is real. In this situation the government will feel even more pressure to raise rates but unemployment will still be high and so if rates rise, many will suffer. At the moment the MPC have a “wait and see” attitude – let’s hope this continues and they don’t succumb to ‘peer pressure’ too soon.