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.
Political uncertainty in Italy could impact global markets, but provide a “fantastic buying opportunity.”
Like Jennifer Lawrence’s fall at the Oscars, unexpected but a chance to shine ‘comedically‘, Italy’s elections have shocked investors but provided attractive entry points to strong international firms, insulated from domestic woes (as well as offer up some funny one-liners from candidates). The possible loss of eagerly anticipated labour reforms, financial restrictions and market contagion provide shorter term sources of turmoil. However, existing reforms are likely to continue, market retrenchment is healthy and to be exploited for longer term opportunities.
From Greek election elation to Spanish rescue concerns; a clear road to recovery has remained elusive. Greece continues to gamble with their euro membership with the misguided belief that they can soften demands for austerity, without threatening their bailout. Instead, it is the lack of a sufficient firewall, rather than a commitment to Greece remaining within the eurozone, which stands in the way of an exit. When banks are supported and other countries protected from a fallout, bailout payments to Greece and their membership within the eurozone could come to an end. Withdrawals from Greek banks could force the issue even earlier, as the desire to stay in the euro is offset with capital flows betting against it. For markets, it is clarity over the outlook going forward that is required for investor confidence and upward market momentum to return. We are not there yet, but time is running out.
Watch a 5 minute clip: Breaking the news about the outlook for Europe post Greek election
Greece Gambles With € Membership
New Democracy’s win in the Greek elections was a victory of fear over anger. Outrage over the harsh austerity terms that have pushed the country into a 5th year of recession was outweighed by the fear of an exit from the euro. Protest against the tough spending cuts and tax increases was overshadowed by alarm at potential isolation and banking collapse, if these measures were to be rejected and bailout funds halted. Thus, New Democracy, perceived as the ‘pro-euro’ party and as such the investors’ choice, won.
Crucially, however, although less willing to gamble their euro membership and expressing a commitment to staying in the eurozone, New Democracy also want to renegotiate the bailout terms. Dangerously, they believe it is possible to soften demands for austerity, without threatening their bailout. As a party seen as responsible for the crisis in the first place, their track record does not inspire confidence.
Odds Against Greece If Firewalls Strengthened
The Spanish rescue exacerbated the problem. Offering Spain a bailout without stringent terms was seen as a desperate move by European leaders, bending to pressure from a fear of further turmoil. Such a sign of perceived ‘weakness’ gave Greek leaders the confidence to believe their demands could likewise be met and the need for harsh austerity no longer mandatory.
This is misplaced. The possibility of a Greek exit is being discussed far more freely by European politicians. It is the lack of a sufficient firewall, rather than a continued resilient commitment to Greece remaining within the eurozone, which stands in the ways. This is especially the case while Greece’s membership continues to threaten the existence of the eurozone as a whole. When there are sufficient rescue funds in place to support the banks and protect other countries from the fallout, bailout payments to Greece and their membership within the eurozone could come to an end.
Depositors Could Dictate Greece’s Fate
With depositors withdrawing over €500m each day from Greek banks, decisions over the country’s future may be decided even sooner. European company exits have also gathered steam. Carrefour, Europe’s biggest retailer, has cut their losses and sold out of Greece. As sources of support dry up, the country stands on far shakier grounds. Voters may have moved in one direction but depositors have moved in another. A desire to stay in the euro offset with capital flows betting against it. As Bill Gross, founder and co-CIO of Pimco, said on CNBC’s Street Signs “Greece’s fate will be decided not at the ballot box but at the ATM”.
For markets, it is clarity over the outlook going forward that is required for investor confidence and upward market momentum to return. We are not there yet, but time is running out.
To note: Conviction for an exit from the euro has grown among The Investment Insight readers. From 40% of readers a month ago, to 72% on the latest poll (below), the belief that an exit is inevitable is building….
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.
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.
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.
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.
The problem with international meetings is politicians are often “more interested in their next job than the next generation” – Anonymous source via Anthony Hilton, Evening Standard
Political turmoil has hit the three largest European economies in recent days. Portugal’s Prime Minister resigned, Merkel’s party was ousted from the most prosperous state in Germany after an almost 58 year uninterrupted rule and at France’s recent election, abstention reached a new high at 54% of the population. What are the main issues to be watching, how are they affecting investments and why is the term ‘decoupling’ now being used to describe countries within the EU?
In reaction to recent French takeovers of Italian companies, Italy is threatening to draft a bill to curtail the trend. France maintains the bill will go beyond measures conceived by Paris and tensions look to worsen as the French EDF, the largest shareholder of Italian energy company Edison prepares to replace the Italian CEO with a French counterpart. Indeed with David Cameron concerned about maintaining an open and competitive continent, the issue is one to watch. Nevertheless, with a high savings rate and exposure to German and Emerging Market economies, the outlook for Italy remains strong. In a recent auction, the maximum amount of index-linked bonds targeted was sold on Tuesday, €6bn year to date. Domestic demand remains strong.
Spanish Growth Downgraded
Another European country with issues of its own and yet resilient market reaction is Spain. The Central Bank sees a growth outlook of 0.8% for this year, lower than the government’s expectation of 1.3% growth. Unemployment is still among the highest in Europe at ~20% and they are implementing some of the deepest austerity measures to bring their deficit inline with that of France. Nevertheless, markets are forward looking and are reacting well to the aggressive policy implementation. Spreads on Spanish bonds over the equivalent German versions continue to narrow.
Even more worrying is the 43% youth unemployment (as quoted in The Guardian), higher than both Egypt and Tunisia - leading Gregory White at The Business Insider to call Spain "The Next Egypt" http://read.bi/i7fKOu. Source of chart: Miguel Navascues, an economist who spent 30years for the Bank of Spain following a posting for the US http://bit.ly/fDGb6k
Germany Facing a ‘Blocking Majority’
After another disappointing election result, the governing party of Germany could face a ‘blocking majority’ if they lose one more state in the September elections. Inner-party opposition is looking likely to intensify and after abstaining in the UN’s vote on the ‘no fly zone’ over Libya, fears of a return to isolationism have returned. Together this could compound the indecision that has dogged Merkel’s leadership so far. Nevertheless, the country’s deficit is set to fall as low as 2.5% of GDP.
Therefore, the markets are starting to differentiate between countries. Spanish and Italian equity markets are almost 9% higher than they were at the start of the year while others are still struggling. Most interesting is the lacklustre return of Germany’s equity market despite stronger fundamentals. Although this can be explained by the idea that markets move not by information on an absolute basis but relative to past performance and most crucially – expectations. With this in mind, Italian and Spanish economies are seen to be improving and doing well versus investor-set benchmarks.
The Investment Insight
There are many more hurdles along the way. The yield on Portugal’s 5-year notes surpassed 9% for the first time since Bloomberg records began (1997). The average yield across maturities lies at 4%, but the trend is upwards and once a 6% level is reached, it is argued it will become near impossible to reduce the countries debt-to-GDP ratio. In the immediate future, today’s results of Ireland’s banking stress tests will reveal the additional capital required for adequate solvency. As always, it is wise to maintain context, exploit contagion to your benefit and focus on quality for the longer-term.