bond

The EU ‘Rescue Fund’ – Part of The Problem Not The Solution

There is still much to be decided before EU leaders can claim to have provided a comprehensive and credible plan to end the sovereign debt crisis. The rescue fund itself has met with significant obstacles, with demand in doubt and delays to capital raising leading to question marks over its ability to borrow on behalf of those that can’t. Instead of improving sentiment, it may cause it to deteriorate. Details, commitment, growth, structural reforms and greater consolidation of governance, fiscal policy and politics are needed. This has become a global issue.

Deutsche Bank, Germany’s biggest bank, and Credit Agricole, the largest retail banking group in France, rallied more than 19% over the last week in October after certain ‘positive’ news was announced at EU Summit. Measures included the leveraging of the rescue fund to €1tn, a voluntary default of Greek debt and bank recapitalisation. However, this may involve a dangerous derivative structure with insurance coverage not guaranteed and demands not going far enough.

Delays could hit sentiment, deadline looming

The European Financial Stability Fund (a.k.a. the ‘rescue fund’) was created to borrow on behalf of those countries that found themselves unable to borrow (read Greece, Ireland, Portugal etc). However, Wednesday’s attempt to raise capital met a substantial obstacle – limited demand, leaving the fund itself unable to borrow. The €3bn 10-year bond offering had to be postponed, in the hope conditions would improve but a ‘red flag’ has been raised. If this fund is already having issues, at its current size with a lending capacity of €440bn, how will it manage with demands up to €1tn? Inadequate demand could cause sentiment to deteriorate, worsening the very situation it was meant to improve.

Demand from the East now in doubt

Plans to leverage the current fund to enable this €1tn of firepower seem to be heavily reliant on demand from the likes of China and Japan. This makes their apparent lack of interest in this recent bond offering most worrying. Investors have maintained the situation is too opaque and the risk/reward potential too skewed to the downside.

Dangerous derivative structure

The ‘Special Purpose Investment Vehicle’ which would allow this leveraging to occur has been likened to a CDO – collateralised debt obligation and the instrument that was at the heart of the subprime crisis, by insuring investors against loss. The bonds act as collateral so investors effectively buy junk sovereign debt with a certain level of guarantee from the fund.

The Greek ‘haircut’ has highlighted some of the risks. The ‘writedown’ of debt was structured as ‘voluntary’. It was agreed that private bond holders should offer to write off half of the amount Greece owed them versus a formal, official, enforced default. The latter would be classified as a credit event and trigger any insurers to pay up. However, the former doesn’t. Therefore investors who insured against losses paid a premium for cover but won’t get paid out to offset the losses suffered. The risk of a debt ‘default’ may not always be mitigated.

 Doesn’t cover all that is needed

More details are needed to understand how bailout facilities will be implemented and hopes for the first signs of commitment from the IMF, China and Japan were dashed at the G20 Meeting last Thursday and Friday. Moreover, the recapitalisation of the banks, which was set at €140bn will need to be increased dramatically. The IMF already put the level at €200bn, with analysts advising a number nearer €275bn.

Finally, the fund does not compensate for what the EU really needs: growth, structural reforms and greater consolidation of governance, fiscal policy and politics. The EU’s jobless figures are the highest they’ve been since the launch of the euro. Draghi may have put the focus back on growth by cutting interest rates, in a move that surprised the markets, from 1.5% to 1.25% but admitted growth forecasts are likely to be downgraded so the EU economy will remain fragile for some time. Accounting for approximately 24% of global GDP and with lower demand hitting export-oriented Asian countries, as for example Taiwan expands at its slowest rate for 2 years.

This is a global issue.

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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.

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)