Consumer

What may drive markets this week?

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.

Graph showing the correction in world equity markets over the past week (S&P 500 in white, Eurostoxx 600 in orange, FTSE 100 in yellow); put in context of the substantial upward move year to date. Source: Bloomberg

Graph showing the correction in world equity markets over the past week (S&P 500 in white, Eurostoxx 600 in orange, FTSE 100 in yellow); put in context of the substantial upward move year to date. Source: Bloomberg

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.

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The Greek Tragedy: Could a ‘Haircut’ Help?

Debate has been raging as to whether the Greek economy can avoid bankruptcy. Just how big is the problem, what are the options and how is this impacting financial markets? 

Background to the Problem

Greece is around €300bn in debt. Putting that into context, its budget deficit is one of the highest in Europe and last year amounted to more than four times the Eurozone limit at 13.6% of GDP. This more than supports the country’s inclusion in the infamous ‘PIIGS’ acronym (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) used to refer to the areas of sovereign debt concern.

What’s Going On?

Despite the jobless rate reaching 16% (and a horrific 42.5% for youth), the Greek economy has seen only marginal deleveraging. Instead, people are depending on consumer credit to maintain their levels of expenditure and service their debts (i.e. paying credit card bills with other credit cards). Moreover, whilst many in the UK struggle to obtain loans from banks, the overall banking sector in Greece actually increased their credit availability, with the most significant increase going to the government itself.

Attempted Solutions

Last Thursday, Jean-Claude Trichet, President of the European Central Bank, announced that they would lend Greece €45bn in new loans. However, this alone, they acknowledge, is not enough. The ECB wants to see structural reforms and a good deal of privatization, with the claim that €50bn could be generated over 3 to 5 years to reduce debt/GDP from 160% to 140%.

What are the Complications?

Loans to ‘bailout’ struggling countries are partially funded by taxpayers from different countries within the EU. Therefore, the problem is not an isolated one. Furthermore, even after this loan and the privatization contributions, there will be a financing gap of €170bn between 2012 -14 which will need filling. European banks have to refinance €1.3tn maturing debt by end 2012 and are owed over €200bn already by the PIIGs for refinancing ops.

Could a Good ‘Haircut’ Help?

With so much talk of a ‘restructuring’, i.e. bond holders sharing some of the pain, it is interesting to hear the views of Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, an ECB executive board member on the subject. He maintains that these are not the tools by which Greece can save its economy but could cause a “Depression” and “banking system collapse”. Furthermore, those pointing to a compromise of a voluntary or ‘soft’ restructuring appear to be fooling themselves. According to him, there is “no such thing as an ‘orderly’ or ‘soft’ re-structuring” since ‘haircuts’ (a percentage knocked off the par value of a bond) would have to be forced by governments. Crucially, any type of restructuring would cause a panic in the markets and cause credit events reducing the value of these investment vehicles either way.

Yield on a 10 year Greek Government Bond (Orange), 10 year German Government Bond (white) and the spread between the two (yellow) - showing the higher premium demanded by investors for holding Greek debt, near historical highs - highlighting a heightened risk perceived by the markets.

So, What Are the Options?

As previously mentioned, a default on some of its debts would have dire consequences but the prospects for sustainable financial solvency appear weak with such a substantial deficit and the habits of borrowers and lenders not much improved. Most worrying, from the perspective of European stability is the recent comments from a Greek EU Commissioner that “The scenario of removing Greece from the euro is now on the table”. Therefore, although in stark contrast to statements by Greece’s Prime Minister and with France and Germany still heavily exposed to EU laggards, which together make a break up of the euro unlikely in the short-term, it is a fear weighing on investors minds.

How are the financial Markets Reacting?

Risk aversion is back on the rise. Investors are worried and, understandably, demanding higher premiums to lend to Greece. That’s not all. Other markets are suffering. “All sophisticated indicators of systemic risk, cross correlations of CDS and yield spreads show a high sensitivity to restructuring moves and are at levels higher than in September 2008”.

The Investment Insight: What Can You Do?

This has two consequences. Firstly, investors should be more cautious of an indiscriminate sell-off but secondly, this can be used as an opportunity to pick up high quality assets at a lower price. Be wary but remain opportunistic.

How to Invest in These Markets

Click HERE to see Gemma Godfrey on CNBC\’s European Closing Bell

Gemma Godfrey, Chairman of the Investment Committee and Head of Research at Credo Capital, and John Authers of the Financial Times on CNBC’s European Closing Bell. Discussing how you should invest your money.

Join Guy Johnson and Louisa Bojesen for a fast-paced, dynamic wrap up to the trading day. “European Closing Bell” gives an in-depth analysis of the day’s market action and includes expert analysis from the major players in the European business and financial world.

The ‘Surprises’ of the Japanese Crisis and the Investment Lessons to Learn

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts – Sir Winston Churchill

The human suffering of the earthquake and following tsunami in Japan is well documented. Exceeding the magnitude of Kobe both in strength and structural damage, the final cost is unknown and the aftershock which occurred yesterday did nothing to abate the concern. Surprise consequences have revealed significant weaknesses in both the word of politics and business and from an investment point of view, there are lessons we can learn…

A Political Surprise – Germany

The ruling party in Germany was voted out of office in one of its most prosperous states after almost 58 unbroken years in power. If they lose one more state election in September, Merkel could face a “blocking majority”. Despite voter concerns over the EU rescue fund (which they see as a potential ‘bottomless pit’) and claims leaders are out of touch with business, the surprise came as instead the loss was blames on Japan. After extending the life of 17 nuclear power stations and then calling a 3 month ‘thinking period’, politicians claimed the nuclear crisis swayed voters towards a Green anti-nuclear coalition.

 

A Business Surprise – Car Makers

The other surprise came to the heads of car making companies. Reliant on tight inventory management and a high proportion of electrical components, the supply chain interruptions from suffering Japanese suppliers hit these firms hard. What surprised them the most was the fact that a lot of these electrical components came from a single source. Since these were often parts sold to previous firms to be built into other parts then sold onto car makers, this concentration risk was not identified. In reaction Peugeot, Europe’s second largest auto maker by volume was forced to slow production at 7 plants in France and Spain. Japan’s Nissan saw the affects lasting for at least a month and started importing engines from their US plants – a reversal of a trend.

 

Source: Bloomberg – Since March 11 2011, the date of the earthquake, Peugeot (white) has caught up with the MSCI Wold Index (yellow) whereas Nissan (orange) is still struggling at a 13% lower level – all performance normalised.

The ‘Crisis Effect’– Luxury Goods

In reaction to the devastation, many in Japan are spurning conspicuous spending. Tiffany lowered their earnings expectations and expects Japanese sales (a fifth of their total) to fall by 15% in Q1 against retail demand rising 11% on average across the rest of the globe. Bulgari has now re-opened all but one of their 40 stores but, as one of their biggest markets, sees sales remaining weak for at least 6 months. This 6 month figure may have been derived from a comparison with the Great Hanshin earthquake, Kobe, back in 1995 where the after-effects were felt for approximately this length of time. However, this time around there have power cuts affecting populous areas, supporting concerns this is over-optimistic.

 

Source: Bloomberg – Bulgari (orange) hardly moved post-earthquake despite earnings concerns whereas Tiffany (yellow) was hit hard (-11%) but has also staged an impressive recovery (+11%)

The Bottom Line – Heightened Uncertainty

What this all highlights is the heightened level of uncertainty we are dealing with. There remains the potential for events few of us could predict, with consequences which come as a surprise and, those that are temporary, with a hard-to-forecast end date.

 

Investment Insight: The Lessons we can Learn

There are clear lessons we can learn. With a global recovery still open to macro shocks, it is prudent to remain active with an ability to protect your portfolio, whether through managers that can reduce their net exposure to markets or otherwise. And from a more stock specific point of view, know companies in which you invest well, including the full length of their supply chain and the true resilience of their client base. It’s true that crucial, often overlooked details are often only realised during times of stress, and this is by far one of the most tragic. Never stop learning.

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.

Emerging Markets – Crucial Points to be Aware of When Investing in the “Region”

What Investor Excitement Is Ignoring….

Inflation is like sin; every government denounces it and every government practices it – Frederick Leith-Ross

One of the most interesting market moves in 2010 was the significant outperformance of US equities over Chinese, despite far weaker GDP growth numbers. What many missed is the fact that it is not absolute values but relative figures / surprises which move markets. With this in mind, is it worrying that the consensus for China’s long term earnings growth is forecasted at 18%? Not much room is left for upside surprises, but there’s plenty of space for disappointment!

Source: "The Surprising truth about Investing in the BRICs" on Nicholas Vardy's The Global Guru, http://www.theglobalguru.com/article.php?id=340&offer=GURU001.

Therefore, it is important to be aware of the issues and risks associated with the region to be able to decide not only what to invest in but how to size the investment accordingly, inline with risk / return targets. As expressed above, it is crucial to judge what you believe is already priced into the markets and what pose as upside or downside potential.

Short-Term EM Risks

Short-term cyclical factors can overshadow long-term structural trends

INFLATION: the index used to calculate inflation in EM has double the exposure to food prices than in the G10 (developed countries). Using the price of wheat as an example – an all time high was reached at the beginning of this month, highlighting the magnified pressure felt in the region which may spook investors. From another angle, fiscal policy in China led to a 30% growth in the money supply (M2) in 2009, increased by almost as much again last year, stoking inflationary fears (since with more money around, it becomes worth less and more of it is required to buy goods i.e. goods become more expensive)

ALLOCATIONS: a record percentage of portfolio managers are overweight Emerging Market equities. The combined net assets of the two largest EM ETFs are now above that for the S&P 500, despite the US equity market being ~4 times the size of the investable EM universe.

Long-Term EM Risks

Long-term demographics may negatively affect the working population

AGE TRENDS: the biggest drop in the young working age population is “set to take place in China,” a result of its one-child policy.

ACCESS TO EDUCATION: Of the top 50 universities, only 3 are based in emerging market countries and the highest stay rate is among Chinese students. This means that in order to get a top quality education, the youth of Emerging Markets may have to study abroad and if they do so, may end up staying, greatly limiting the young, well-educated working class of their homeland.

EM Stock Risks

Do due diligence on the companies you pick – you may not be getting the exposure you want

EXPOSURE: just 14% of EM market cap is represented by domestic-facing sectors (i.e. not all EM stocks give investors exposure to the rise of the Consumer and the “Domestic Demand” growth story, a main reason for investment)

GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION: Within the EM stock markets, government ownership of companies is significant. For the Chinese market, 67% of its market cap is government owned (35% in Russia, 29% in India and 14% in Brazil). Putting this in context, in the US, at the height of the financial crisis, government ownership was about 3.7% of market cap. The importance of this should not be underestimated. It means that at times, within EM, a majority government owned entity may not be acting entirely in the interests of the investors.

STOCK EXAMPLE: Petrobras (PBR):  Brazilian government and its affiliates own about 64% of common voting shares. The offering documents state that “the government, as our principal shareholder, has and may pursue in the future, certain of its macroeconomic and social objectives through us.”

INVESTMENT INSIGHT

Therefore, in conclusion: Be aware –

Short-term cyclical factors can overshadow long-term structural trends

Long-term demographics may negatively affect the EM working population

Do due diligence on the companies you pick – you may not be getting the exposure you want

Is There Hope From Emerging Markets – Are we being too G8-centric? Radio Clip

“Risk of acronym over-exuberancea pithy abbreviation does not necessarily equate to a profitable investment!” (Me!)

Click the image below to here my views on Emerging Markets (and the global economic outlook). It was broadcasted just the other week on “The N@ked Short Club” on Resonance FM – (2m+ listeners and growing!). Follow-on comment from Mike Gasior, CEO of AFS.

The Long-Term Case Summarised

  • Strength of balance sheets (10% D / GDP vs. 400% in UK)
  • High levels of savings to deploy rather than build (33% vs 17% of GDP)
  • FX reserves (75% of global forex)
  • Wider range of policy tools available

Most crucially

  1. The growth of emerging consumer class: an estimated 1bn are to join by 2030 , with the Chinese middle class to exceed the US population within a few yrs
  2. We have seen resolve: Industrial Production is above its pre-crisis peaks in emerging Asia and there are increasing levels of intra-regional trade (see chart below) – leading to countries becoming more insulated from pullbacks in demand from developed markets
  • From export-led to domestic-demand (and neighbor-demand) led
  • In just 14 years, Emerging Market exports to other developing countries (light blue) increased by 10%.

Although valuation and reputation concerns remain

Source: http://www.etf-exchange-traded-funds.com. Automatic Trend Lines by the Ramp Pattern Recognition Program. MSCI EM has risen 135% above March low although still below previous peak for those who believe the long term trend is up.

A word of warning

  • As ever, DIFFERENTIATE between markets – they aren’t all as strong.
  • And market RISK OF CONTAGION remains – if international investors get spooked, they will  take risk off the table across the board regardless of fundamentals
  • INVEST IN QUALITY – should add value over longer-term.

We have had the “BRICs” (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and the calls just keep coming. Now the term “Chindonesia” (China, India and Indonesia) has been coined or even the “Civets” (not just cat-like mammals from Africa and Asia but Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa). But as my above quote states, there is a risk of acronym over-exuberance – a pithy abbreviation does not necessarily equate to a profitable investment! Often there are discrepancies between international investor excitement and the fundamentals of the economy and sentiment on the ground.

Specific Stock Example

Avoid anything with “Chinese Consumer” in the name, a beneficiary of this “over-exuberance” and have potentially, in some cases, become over-priced. Instead look for more indirect access to value and growth.

One such example – to be taken within the context of an admission of having spent little time evaluating the fundamentals sufficiently, is Want Want China Holdings, listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange – maker of rice cakes and flavoured milk in China as well as snack foods. Has rallied 24% YTD to a PE, according to Reuters, of around 33x, above that of its sector. A different angle is Olam International, listed in Singapore, – global leader in supply chain management of agriculture products and food ingredients, which has underperformed Want Want by almost 7% YTD and cheaper than the sector average (PE 19x).