As Eurozone turmoil resurfaces, Gemma Godfrey takes you through the under the radar risks and how to trade them.
The risk of Greece leaving the Euro is looming large over markets as a ‘snap’ election nears on Jan 25th. Threatening to reverse the austerity measures (spending cuts etc) required for bailout funds and remaining in the Eurozone, Syriza looks likely to lead any coalition government, if it does not win outright.
‘Grand’ gestures with minimal effects, Europe is doing the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ with a glass of water. Measures won’t measure up to much. Little movement in interest rates, not enough assets to buy and ultimately – you can put out as many cream cakes as you’d like, but if people aren’t hungry, they aren’t going to eat. The pressure is rising and more is needed. Europe has become a ‘binary trade’, and it is important to invest in those set to benefit regardless.
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As an investor, misunderstandings and overreaction can offer some of the best opportunities to profit. Here 5 widely held beliefs are challenged and attractive investment strategies revealed: There is no need to fear deflation; The stock market trade has reversed; It’s not too late to join the (small cap) party; Central Bank action will not achieve its goal; Turmoil in Ukraine unlikely to directly impact earnings…
Investors are expecting an eventual reduction of support by the Fed, and Merkel winning the election this weekend. However, what stock markets have not priced in is the resurgence of Eurozone troubles into the headlines. So what are the options, why is this important and how will this effect markets?
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Central banks are running out of steam as their measures to bring calm back to markets are no longer as effective as they once were. Germany too seems unable to keep up. Like a marathon runner caught in a sprint, their reluctance to move forward stands in stark contrast to market moves focused on the end game. But the road isn’t clear. Europe has three remaining hurdles in their race to recovery: funds, fiscal unity and reform. With Greece approaching the final whistle, doubts over its ability to stay within Europe are growing louder. The worry is investors are watching the referee not the striker, more focused on the search for safety than the rising risk elsewhere in the markets. False starts continue to drive market volatility and while investors ask whether it’s time to back the ‘underdog’, European stocks may provide diamonds in rough, but things could get rougher.
The vital relationship between central banks implementing stimulus and Spanish yields falling has broken down since April of this year. No longer is central bank action able to reassure the market and instead Spain and Italy’s borrowing costs remain at elevated levels. Investors are demanding more. Structural change is needed but markets are concerned that leaders could choke under the pressure.
Germany: A marathon runner caught in a sprint
Germany wants to progress towards greater unity at its own pace but the markets move faster. Indeed a backbencher delivered his dissatisfaction with the European Central Bank’s plans to their Constitutional Court! It will be tackled in September but investors and the economy won’t wait. Weak consumer confidence and rating agency scepticism highlight the urgency for action.
Europe: 3 Hurdles in Race to Recovery
The three key obstacles to be tackled to progress towards stability are: enough funds to contain the crisis; fiscal consolidation (share budgets in order to share debt burdens and be able to offer ‘eurobonds’); and finally structural reform to regain competitiveness & growth. All are vital for the future of the region and this realisation is starting to build within the markets. Europe did manage to overcome their concern that a Fed-Style straight bond buying programme would reduce the pressure on countries to reform, with a Memorandum of Understanding putting these measures on paper. The use of ‘MOU’s in order to accept ‘IOU’s to lend to countries within Europe may be a step forward, but this remains only part of the full picture needed for longer-lasting results.
Greece: Approaching the Final Whistle
S&P ratings agency has questioned whether Greece will be able to secure the next tranche of bailout funds as it downgraded the outlook for its credit rating to negative. Without such funding, the ‘death knell’ for Greece’s euro membership will be sounded. With the IMFsignalling payments to Greece will stop, the lack of funding fuels fears that without drastic action, the end could be near. Even beyond Greece, the Italian Prime Minister dared to publicise the possibility of a Eurozone breakup if borrowing costs did not fall.
Investors: Watching the Referee not the Striker
The rush to safety has been overshadowing rising risks. As investors pile in to perceived ‘safe haven’ assets, the yield on German government bonds has been falling. However, in a different market, the cost of insuring these bonds has risen as these investors see risk on the rise. The snapback in bond markets to better reflect this sentiment could shake the equity market as well and is therefore a significant concern.
Markets: False Starts
Markets have rallied in the face of disappointing data. Eurozone stocks reached a 4 monthhigh as manufacturing dropped to a 3 year low suggesting the slump is extending into Q3. This discrepancy has driven market volatility, exacerbated by the low volume of shares traded over the summer months. Greater clarity is required to see a more sustained upward momentum which will have to wait until leaders are back from their hols!
Investments: When to Back the Underdog?
European stocks may provide diamonds in rough, but things could get rougher. The overweight US / underweight EU trade is starting to look stretched, as the divergence in performance between the two regions continues to increase. This has been quite understandable, but there will come a time when this is overdone. Within Europe, there are international companies, with geographically diversified revenue streams so not dependent solely on domestic demand for their products or services. Furthermore, with effective management teams and strong fiscal positions, some may be starting to look cheap. However, cheap could get cheaper. Damage to sentiment could lead to market punishment regardless of fundamentals. Therefore waiting for decisive developments & clarity on road to recovery may be prudent.
As investors price into the markets only two options for Europe, politicians feel the pressure to avoid a break-up of the monetary union as we know and instead embark on the second scenario, full scale fiscal unity. European countries must share their budgets to share their burdens; fully unite or expect exits; go hard or go home. A Banking Union would form part of this strategy but would it be blinkered to significant risks? Nevertheless, caution can cloud ones vision and maintaining holdings in good quality companies, rather than raising cash levels is preferable. Progress is moving in the right direction and when confidence returns, so could market momentum.
A European Banking Union – an essential but flawed strategy
Ever since the fall of Lehman Brothers and the start of the ‘credit crisis’, a call for greater control over the banks has been hotly debated. Challenged with rising regulatory costs and lower trading volumes margins are being squeezed. Balance sheets are predicted to shrink by at least €1.5tn by the end of next year, even before taking account of an effect of a possible Greek exit.
A proposal that has won support in France is for a European Banking Union. This would involve a single regulator to oversee banks across Europe. Furthermore, it includes an EU-wide deposit guarantee scheme to protect savers in the event of a bank collapse. The European Central Bank has been hailed as the most appropriate candidate as supervisor, explicitly focusing the oversight to the euro area as opposed to the full European Union. This allays one of the UK’s concerns but reservations remain.
A mockery of the original mandate?
Firstly, it maymake a mockery of the ECB’s original mandate. Originally tasked with the challenge of controlling inflation, critics maintain this new role would conflict and weaken their ability to do so. Any move to print money (increasing the amount in circulation, reducing its value meaning more is required to make purchases), could increase inflation instead of maintain price level stability.
A ‘blinkered’ approach?
Secondly, focusing on only part of the problem is not a full solution. A supervisory body overseeing the banks will focus on the largest financial institutions but miss the risks stored up lower down the food chain. The most recent ‘crisis’ was kicked off by Bankia, Spain’s largest savings bank, suffering solvency issues. However, it was formed from 7 already troubled smaller banks and therefore the risks they posed would have gone unnoticed. Oversight is certainly warranted, but is the horse wearing blinkers?
Fiscal unity first
Finally, this is not a first step. Before such a move is considered, fiscal consolidation is required. To provide backing to support banks, greater control over national budgets is needed. Being so heavily affected by the economy in which they are located, unity must start from the top down. A ‘two speed’ Europe with pockets of growth versus widespread recession; a need for interest rate increases opposing desperation for further easing; and budget surpluses contrasting deficits highlighting the instability. European countries must share their budgets to share their burdens, fully unite or expect exits, go hard or go home.
But beware of de-risking
Caution can cloud ones vision and currently cash is not king. As prices rise faster than cash can appreciate in most savings accounts, the value of money is being eroded. Boosting cash levels is not prudent. Instead, maintaining a holding in good quality companies, with confidence they will grow in value over the long run, makes more sense. Progress is moving in the right direction and when confidence returns, so could market momentum.
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.
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.
The markets expect a Greek default and time is running out. However, banks still haven’t recognised enough of this loss, highlighting the pent-up risk in the sector. Deep-seated scepticism continues to drive market volatility and this will continue until a credible plan is on the table.
A Greek default due
Markets are pricing in a 93% probability Greece will default, with the country missing its deficit reduction targets, contracting greater than anticipated (-5.5% vs. -3.8%) and unable to meet salary and pension obligations within the next couple of weeks. However, there is still much uncertainty on what the next steps will be. Politicians are still clinging to the hope further bailouts will help and hinting they will demand private investors to bear a bigger part of the pain (“technical revisions” to allow greater haircut) but Finland is demanding collateral and time is running out.
“Time to move”
Despite ‘kicking the can down the road’ and delaying decisions over the next tranche of the Greek bailout, the markets are looking to the G20 meeting in Cannes on 3rd – 4th November as the final deadline for decisive action. Political pressure is high as Geitner demands it’s “time to move” and Obama issues some stark words accusing the EU of having a fiscal plan that is “scaring the world”.
Banks are not prepared
Dexia, one of Europe’s largest banks, hit the news with their need for some form of rescue. Their reliance on short term funding may be their current problem but the outlook is no more rosey. They have only reduced the value of their Greek bond debt exposure by 21%. If they, along with BNP Paribas and Soc Gen write-down these debts by 51%, that will cause massive losses amounting to E3bn. That’s of course assuming Greece doesn’t fully renege on all outstanding loans due.
Pent up risk
Therefore there are still many events that could shock the markets. Although so far market falls have been followed by short term rallies as investors use the opportunity to buy back into the markets. Crucially though, upside and downside moves are exhibiting a large amount of intra-day volatility. This highlights the deep seated scepticism that will only be removed once a credible and clear long-term plan is put into action. Until that time, the swings will continue.