Published in CityA.M.
The global recovery does not fully account for the rise in markets, and the growth that would justify these elevated price levels is not guaranteed. (more…)
Vitally important for being a successful investor is the ability to look beyond ‘buzzwords’, acknowledge that a wobble can be more dangerous when the training wheels come off and understand the nature of those that hold the future of the company / country / financial market in their hands.
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As the Euro zone crisis intensifies and global markets reflect investor concerns, we ask ourselves, is a Greek exit from the euro on its way? Crucially, preparations have already begun to protect shareholder interest, companies are robust and policy in the US and China aims to maintain the upward momentum. To protect capital, proactively positioning portfolios has been key. International exposure and dividend yields offer attractive opportunities..
A ‘Grexit’ on its way?
All eyes once again are focused on Greece. An inability to form a government has led to a renewed fear that the country could exit the Euro and the wider European Union. Although only a small contributor to European economic output as a whole, contagion is the real risk. Concerns of further losses for external holders of Greek debt and a more widespread break-up of the euro have driven equity market weakness.
A self-perpetuating situation, investors are demanding more to lend to the likes of Spain and Portugal, driving their debt burdens to unsustainable levels. Furthermore, disappointing data from the US and China over the last few days have further added to the uncertainty.
…but preparations are underway
However, preparations have already begun to protect shareholder interest. German and French banks, which were the largest holders of Greek debt, have been aggressively reducing their positions. Some, for example, have cut periphery debt exposure by as much as half since 2010. Banks in the UK have been making provisions since at least November when the Financial Services Authority’s top regulator, Andrew Bailey, told banks: “We must not ignore the prospect of the disorderly departure of some countries from the eurozone.”
On the corporate side, interesting anecdotes have highlighted the proactive nature of company management in the face of this turmoil. Last year, for example, Tui, one of Europe’s largest travel companies, was reported to have requested to reserve the right to pay in a new Greek currency should the country exit from the euro. Corporate balance sheets are robust, holding more cash than long term averages, dividend yields and the potential for merger and acquisition activity once the macro outlook starts to improve can offer an attractive upside.
Finally, although wavering slightly, the US still successfully avoided falling back into recession. Keenly aware of both external and internal risks to growth, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke has made it clear he is not afraid to utilise further tools to protect economic growth. Especially with an election this year, policy is likely to remain accommodative. With respect to Emerging Markets, despite the recent wobble and an inevitable cooling of economic growth, with an estimated 1 billion of the population to join the consumer class by 2030, the long-term case remains strong.
Proactive portfolio positioning prudent
To protect capital, proactively positioning portfolios has been key. Reducing direct European exposure as Europe’s southern members showed severe signs of economic stress from an asset allocation perspective and via underlying fund managers has proved prudent. Fund managers have been able to maintain a zero weighting to Greece and a substantial underweight to the likes of Portugal and Spain relative to benchmark.
As equity markets reached new highs in the first quarter of this year, the substantial rally in share prices in the face of continued structural problems within the Euro zone, was a sign that the risk of a downward correction had increased in the short term. Caution was of course well-founded. A move to lock-in profits and redeploy capital to alternatives and property for a more attractive risk/return potential and hedge against inflation has been supported.
Assets which will help portfolio performance during these volatile market times are good quality companies with strong balance sheets paying an attractive level of dividends. Furthermore, in times of slow economic growth and persistent inflation, strong franchises with pricing power for protected market share and the ability to pass on increases in supply costs to the customer are very desirable attributes.
International exposure and dividend yields offer attractive opportunities
Looking forward, a resolution of key issues in Europe is required to gain confidence to add to equity exposure. Structural reform, greater fiscal consolidation, a focus on growth and long term support are required for stability in the region. At the same time, with a medium to long-term time horizon, it is more important to focus on the geographical location of a company’s revenue streams than where it is headquartered. Investor overreaction can offer buying opportunities with share price corrections providing attractive, cheaper entry points to high quality firms. Furthermore, the yield from dividends these companies pay out can provide a valuable income stream. With many investors holding back capital, the flow of money back into markets, buying into sell-offs at lower levels, could dampen these downward moves and provide a level of support. Therefore, although volatility could continue and market direction remains difficult to determine, it is possible to navigate the turmoil.
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.
Inflation, hard-to-beat expectations and political stalemate provide a significant downward risk to market this week. (Quoted in the Weekend edition of the Financial Times)
Last week was dominated by disappointing manufacturing data from Europe and China, whilst markets shrugged off a less than impressive Budget. After such a substantial rally year to date, this correction is healthy.
This week, issues concerning Europe’s firepower, the US consumer and broader economic growth will determine the direction of markets. Inflation, hard-to-beat expectations and political stalemate provide a significant downward risk to market, although upward momentum could always drive them further.
As fuel price inflation dents sentiment in the US, the consumer may be squeezed and figures for income and spending may disappoint. Furthermore, the opportunity for upside surprises in durable goods orders and Q4 GDP growth is limited as forecasted figures are already high.
A two-day meeting of Europe’s finance ministers will be closely watched for signs of an expansion in the firepower of the rescue fund. The deadline to do so draws near and the pressure for progress grows. However, Germany remains staunchly against such a move and, even if achieved, the figure reached may still not be enough.
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.
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.
The deadline for delivering a deal to allow the US to continue to borrow and spend, August 2nd, is approaching. Mirroring issues in the EU, a problem of debt cannot be solved by yet more debt. With the threat of a downgrade looming, any rise in interest rates could make the situation worse, hitting the tax payer and US exporters. Moreover, an increase in this ‘benchmark’ rate could impact the UK and hurt our property market, and a weaker dollar could result in job losses in our export sector. Further afield, with China the largest holder of US debt, the concern could spread globally towards countries relied upon to drive future growth. But failing to raise the ceiling isn’t an option and may cause an eventual default further down the line. Therefore, a deal will be struck and a balance found between demands for more spending cuts and aspirations for tax increases.
The US has ‘maxed out its credit card’
The US debt ‘ceiling’ is the maximum amount of bonds the US can issue, i.e. the maximum amount the US can borrow to finance its spending. The limit is currently set at $14.3tn but with the country spending approximately $120bn more than it takes in terms of revenue each month, after funding its participation in 2 world wars, rescuing the financial system post-Lehmans and pumping the economy with new capital to boost economic growth, the debt limit was reached on May 16. Put another way, the US has maxed out its credit card.
The issue echoes EU troubles: Debt cannot solve the problem of debt
Instigated in 1917, the debt ceiling has in fact been raised 74 times since 1962 alone. It should be noted; raising the limit does not increase fiscal spending but merely allows current obligations to be met and annual deficits to be financed. Nevertheless, in the current environment, with sovereign debt crises in Europe, investors and rating agencies are becoming acutely aware that cannot solve a problem of debt with more debt and the extent to which the ceiling would have to be expanded is troublesome. Obama’s proposed budget will require a ~$2.2tn hike just to meet next year’s obligations.
A lose-lose situation could hit tax payers and US exporters
Even if the ceiling is raised, there are other issues to tackle. S&P in April threatened reduce the credit rating of US debt. The importance of this threat should not be underestimated. With a ‘AAA’ status and ‘stable’ outlook’, any downgrade would threaten its role as the safest place to store savings. To retain their position, the US needs to address how it will not only plug this short-term gap, but also meet longer-term challenges. A hit to confidence would increase the rate of interest demanded by investors to compensate for a higher perceived risk of loss. This would increase borrowing costs for the US, worsening their debt burden and further limiting the amount of new debt they would be able to issue. It has been estimated that even an increase of 25 basis points could cost tax payers $500m more per month. With less demand for US treasuries, there would be less demand for the dollar to fund these transactions, making the products the country exports more expensive abroad and again hitting their balance sheet.
The issue could hit the East and future global growth
In its extreme, uncertainty could spark another financial crisis as well as put the dollar’s status as the world reserve currency at risk. (Interestingly, a McKinsey investigation reported less than 20% of business executives expect its dominance to continue to 2025). For this isn’t an isolated incidence. Dollar-denominated US debt is held world-wide (especially $1.1tn by China), spreading the problem towards the very countries many are lauding as growth drivers of the future.
UK jobs, home prices and recovery could be hit
There could be dire consequences felt even in the UK. The US is our largest export partner, spending $50bn for our products last year alone. A weaker dollar would damage American buying power, making these products more expensive and damaging demand. This would cause companies producing these goods to suffer and jobs would be lost. Furthermore, if fears over the ability of the US government to repay its debts led to investors demanding more to lend to the UK government, mortgage rates would become more onerous and it could be harder for buyers to purchase a property. With less investors able to buy and therefore lower demand, sellers may be forced to lower asking prices to get a sale.
Failing to raise the ceiling wouldn’t cause an immediate but an eventual default
In the near-term, the US could continue to function. Failing to be able to increase borrowing would necessitate spending cuts: to military salaries, social security, medicare and unemployment benefits. Furthermore, some of their debt could be rolled over so long as the overall amount of treasuries outstanding didn’t rise. However, this is unsustainable in the medium to longer-term and would lead to an eventual default.
With too much at stake a deal is likely to be reached
The issue is currently being used as a negotiating chip by Republicans to get deeper cuts and long-term reforms whilst refusing to raise taxes, versus the White House aiming to cap tax exemptions and reduce ‘inequalities’ benefitting big business. Nevertheless, with such serious ramifications possible, it is unlikely a deal will not be struck.
From the world’s best performing index in the first three months of this year, to a laggard this quarter, the Russian index has offered dramatic returns as well as downside risk. What has driven investor sentiment and what are many investors missing?
Russia’s RTS Index was the world’s best performing index in the first three months of this year but has now fallen by around 11% in value so far this quarter (Source: Bloomberg). Moves in this market are often attributed to sentiment over the oil price due to the significant revenues generated by the country exporting this commodity. Therefore speculation over economic growth (read: oil demand) is highly influential. This year has been no different. Turmoil in the Middle East can be attributed as one of the main drivers of a strong rally in oil in the first quarter and concerns over economic growth has caused a reversal since that time. However, is this too simplistic a view and aren’t there other factors to which an investor in Russia should be paying attention?
It is clear to see why investors play so much emphasis on the oil price as a dictator of Russia’s financial health. Supplying some 11.4% of the world’s oil supply last year, Russia is the “biggest single source outside the opec cartel”. Although official figures calculate its contribution to Russia’s GDP at 9%, it is important to be aware that speculation over tax avoidance suggests the value may be nearer to 25%. Nevertheless, what is often overlooked is the specific oil price factored into their budget. For this year, a price above $75/barrel will produce a deficit reduction. With Brent currently standing at $115/barrel, a fall in the Russian Index in reaction to a fall in the oil price to anything above $75/barrel may be missing the point.
With Russian oil fields maturing and production growth resting heavily on foreign investment, the country is looking externally for new sources. Iraq offers potential opportunities and TNK-BP, Russia’s 3rd largest oil producer and BP Plc’s 50-50 joint venture, isn’t holding back. The relationship between the two countries dates back many years and in 2008 Russia wrote off most of their $12.9bn debt mainly generated pre-gulf war from the Saddam Hussein government purchases of Soviet weapons. Interestingly, last October the Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev announced his country was ready to strengthen co-operation with Iraq, the same month TNK-BP gained the right to bid for 3 natural gas areas in the region.
Within the political arena, Russia has been just as active. In addition to fighting for a stronger developing market influence at the IMF, Russia has offered its services to facilitate the exit of Qaddafi from rule in Libya. This is the first time it has shown support for the NATO-led military campaign after abstaining from UN Security council vote in March which authorised the intervention and accusing NATO of violating the resolution by backing anti-Qaddafi rebels and causing civilian casualties from air raids. Due to the belief that Qaddafi has “forfeited legitimacy”, they are willing to negotiate his fate with members of his entourage. Evidence of the country’s powerful network, the value of their political clout has been highlighted.
Back to commodities but from a different angle, the Russian weather is an influencer to watch for investing in the agriculture markets. Fine weather has prompted an upward revision of Russian grain production with the Federal Hydrometerological Center reporting the warmer weather has improved the prospect for crops. This has led to speculation that Russia’s ban on grain exports may be lifted on 1 July. Wheat future prices saw double digit losses.
One particular potential buyer of Russia’s resources is China, state media reported last Monday. China Investment Corp (CIC), the country’s $300bn sovereign wealth fund, was set up in 2007 to invest some of the country’s massive foreign exchange reserves. With the world’s largest foreign capital resource, at $3.0tn, they are keen to find better sources of return and commodities to fuel their rapid economic growth.
Despite these many factors which may influence Russia’s outlook, financially, economically and politically; its index continues to exhibit a strong correlation to the oil price. This week we’ve seen oil (and Russian equities) respond positively to the declaration by the Group of Eight that the global recovery is strengthening.
Nevertheless, to differentiate between short-term over-reaction and more logical fundamental moves, being aware of all the issues will equip you with the insight to navigate this volatile but potentially profitable market.
As “super-injunctions” are labelled “pointless” by the rise of ‘new’ social media sites, the world seems a smaller place for those wanting to hide potential transgressions. Indeed, such accusations can have broad ramifications as the head of the International Monetary Fund this week steps down from his leadership position. Could this trigger the end of European dominance at the IMF and even pave the way for Emerging Market leaders to acquire a more appropriate size of the power pie?
Last week, an anonymous twitter user exploited a ‘jurisdiction arbitrage’ to name celebrities whose identities are being protected by a series of ‘gagging-orders’. The Twitter site is based in the US and therefore “outside the jurisdiction of the British courts”. Furthermore, not only would the user himself be “difficult to trace” but the number of other users who forwarded on the names and could be charged represented a “mass defiance” and “unlikely” any of them would be pursued. Therefore potential wrong-doers can, for the moment at least, be named and shamed in some form of media. Just how dangerous can these revelations be?
This week legalities are once again in the headlines as Dominique Strauss-Kahn, (now the former) head of the International Monetary Fund, stands accused of politically damaging indiscretions. Regardless of the outcome of the case, the political impact has been made and focus is on identifying his potential successor.
Historically the IMF Managing Director has been European and the World Bank President American but nowhere in the “Articles of Agreement’ is this mentioned. So where did this bias come from? It dates back to the Bretton Woods conference, where the fund was formed and this informal agreement struck. In the aftermath of World War II, European economic stability played a large part in the health of the world’s economy and voting power reflected the balance of power. The US has a 16.7% share, Germany 5.9% and the UK & France 4.9% each; leaving the ‘door open’ for ‘behind the scenes’ negotiations. Unsurprisingly, since this time, there have been 10 Managing Directors, all of them European.
Proponents of a continuation of European dominance point to the IMF’s crucial role in stemming the European Sovereign Debt crisis. A German government spokesman, Christoph Steegmans, maintains that the leader needs to understand “Europe’s particularities”. Interesting then that there has been no talk of electing an official from the Middle East as Egypt requests a $4bn loan to ‘fill its budget gap’. With all the turmoil, doesn’t a leader need to understand the ‘particularities’ of this region too? Instead, focus is on German candidates (including Axel Weber, the former head of the Central Bank who recently withdrew from the race to succeed Trichet as head of the ECB). A favourite amongst pundits is French finance Minister Christine Lagarde. Bank of Canada Governor, Mark Carney has even been given odds of 10-to-1 by a British bookmaker. Gordon Brown’s name has even been thrown into the ring but was quickly opposed by our PM Cameron due to the record budget deficit which continued to build during his tenure. Here lies the crux of the issue, since the EU and ECB have yet to solve the debt crisis, is it time for someone else to have a go?
The economic balance of power is changing. China has overtaken Japan as the second largest economy and it has been argued that it will surpass the US’s share of global GDP in a decade. Back in 1973, the developing nations asserted more of their power as a group led by Indonesia and Iran vetoed the nomination of a Dutch candidate (seen as too closely aligned to the interests of wealthy nations). With this in mind, candidates from South Africa, Turkey, Singapore, Indonesia, Mexico and a Chinese official who advises the IMF already have been mentioned in the press. Brazil too has contributed to the discussion, as their Finance Minister argues for a “new criteria”. Indeed changes to IMF governance were decided in 2008 and last year, shifting 5.3% of the voting share to emerging markets. Although nothing has yet taken effect. However, with the increased contribution of funding coming from these regions and the negativity within these countries expressed against too much focus on the developed world, change is warranted.
As ever, economic issues can often lie opposed to equity market movement. But changes (or continuation) of dominance could affect short-term sentiment for various country’s financial markets. Exploit any over-reaction in the short-term whilst remaining focused on quality in the longer-term. The shift of economic power is well underway, let’s see if the political powers play catch up….