EU

Why Global Markets Could Be Derailed by the Ukraine

Turmoil in Emerging Markets hit investor confidence in January and, after a stellar February, the crisis in the Ukraine could lead to profit taking this month. Indeed, volatility spiked to a similar level and the S&P came off its all-time-high on Friday as fears started to set in.

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

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

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

Delays could hit sentiment, deadline looming

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

Demand from the East now in doubt

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

Dangerous derivative structure

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

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

 Doesn’t cover all that is needed

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

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

This is a global issue.

Stagflation risk and what this means for stocks

As the outlook for growth continues to deteriorate, whilst the price for goods and services remain stubbornly high, the risk of stagflation returns. This would be a tough scenario, where policy options tackling one of these issues would only worsen the other. This creates substantial downside risk for stock valuations based on bullish growth forecasts, whilst making it more prudent to invest in price makers able to pass on rising input costs.

Lower growth outlook

The outlook for growth is bleak. The IMF has reduced their forecasted expansion of Europe from 2% to 1.6% and Goldman Sachs swiftly followed suit predicting France and Germany will fall into recession next year, with the EU stagnating. The data looks supportive of this view. German retail sales disappointed expectations, with a contraction of -4.3% in July vs. -0.5% expected. With Europe still our largest trading partner, the effect on the UK could be severe.

Outside the EU, countries aren’t immune. China’s Purchasing Managers Index has fallen below the 50 mark, the line separating expansion from contraction and GDP growth came in at 9.1%, falling from 9.5% and below expectations.

QE increases stagflation fears

In an effort to boost the economy, the Bank of England surprised many commentators by increasing their purchases of UK government bonds, from £200bn to £275bn.  However, this is not without its risks. It is not a guaranteed strategy to boost growth and crucially create jobs. Instead, it is more likely to increase inflation.

Taking bonds out of the market and pumping cash in their place only reduces the value and purchasing power of the currency, making goods and services more expensive. Inflation is already above the 2% target set for price stability, hitting a rate of 5.2% at the latest measure this week. In the EU the value jumped to 3% in September, the fastest increase in 3 years and potentially a reason behind their Central Bank’s decision not to cut rates.

Unemployment in stagnating economies is an issue and highlights the threat. Spain is struggling with 1 in every 5 of their people without a job, increasing to 45% of the youth population, and Portugal’s jobless level has reached highs not seen for over two decades. The US’s September figures are stuck at 9.1%, although CPI came in below expectations. Here in the UK the level might ‘only’ be 7.9% but this is still high and stubbornly so, with inflation surprising on the upside.

The stagflation quandary (where stagnation and inflation meet) is that to tackle unemployment and boost growth, interest rates would be cut, however not only are they already low, but that would boost inflation even further. Likewise, to tackle inflation, interest rates might be increased but this would only hurt growth and employment.

A lose-lose situation.

Risk of Stock Downgrades

So what has this meant for stocks? Firstly, there is downside risk to stock valuations. With many valuations based on forecasted growth, downgrades could negatively impact and seem more expensive. Analysts are 10 times more bullish on the growth outlook than economists. Although, always more optimistic, that is twice the historical average.

Secondly, it may be more prudent to invest with those that are price makers not price takers, as well as with a protected demand base, in order to be able to pass on rising costs.

A Greek default on the cards but the banks aren’t listening

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.

CNBC Clip: Europe Weighing on Markets

Europe – Lacking a Long-Term Solution

Over the last few days we have seen a tremendous amount of volatility in the markets, epitomising the lack of clarity with which many investors have struggled. The contagion continues to spread as we hear rumours of a possible downgrade of French government debt although it is far more likely to occur for Italy first. Fundamentally, there is a lack of a long-term solution and the knee-jerk reaction by some EU countries to ban short selling not only misses the point, it may negatively impact the very stocks it is trying to protect. So as we see movement to safe havens, we also see room for opportunistic buying – as long as you invest with those with strong balance sheets unlikely to be hit in future earnings downgrades and have a long enough time horizon to withstand the volatility.

Italy and France to be downgraded? The Contagion Continues to Spread

The markets are already betting for the ratings agencies to downgrade France’s debt with credit default swap spreads widening to double their level at the beginning of July. A rising expense to insure against default implies the market believes it to be more likely. However, Italy is the more likely downgrade candidate in the short-term. The reasons given behind Portugal’s downgrade a few months back apply equally to Italy – an unsustainable debt burden (Italy has the third largest in the word at €1.8tn) and a low likelihood of being able to repay these obligations (as it dips back into recession). The European Financial Stability Fund is losing its credibility since even its increase to €440bn is not enough to cover future potential bailouts and would need to amount to at least €2tn. The crux of the problem, as I’ve iterated before, is that you can’t solve the problem of debt with debt and austerity does not foster growth. Instead debt burdens are increasing at a faster rate than GDP growth in many western economies so the situation is only getting worse.

Outlook for banks: Headwinds for banks remain

European banks remain highly correlated to the future of the periphery. German banks, for example, have exposure to the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain) amounting to more than 18% of German GDP. Commerzbank revealed that a €760m write-down for Greek debt holdings wiped out their entire Q2 earnings. That’s before we look at France who have an even higher exposure and here in the UK, our banks have nearly £100bn exposed to struggling economies. Furthermore, these banks need to refinance maturing debt (at a rate of €5.4tn over the next 24 months) at higher rates and with demand shrinking.

Will the ban on short-selling help? No, it misses the point

The markets are concerned with government fiscal credibility not its regulatory might. Instead, the ban could increase volatility and negatively impact the very stocks it is trying to protect. ‘Shorting’ was acknowledged by the Committee for European Securities Regulators as beneficial for “price discovery, liquidity and risk management” just last year, so we may well see higher volatility than we would have without. Secondly, it limits fund ability to bet on financials going up. Hedge funds use shorts to remove market risk, buying shares in one bank and borrowing and selling shares in another. If they are forced to close these ‘borrowed’ positions, they will have to sell the other bank shares they have bought outright, causing further selling pressure and price falls. Most interesting was the timing of the implementation, just before an announcement was made that the Greek economy shrank by 7% in Q2 – fuelling fears the ban was needed since there’s more bad news to come.

How to trade these markets: Movement to safe haven offering opportunities

So how can you invest in these markets? A possible support to the stock markets is the ‘search for yield’. Sitting on cash can’t be satisfying for long, with rates as low as they are, and the dividend yield on the Eurostoxx is now double the 10 year German ‘bund’ yield. This means that even if markets go sideways, the return generated from holding European stocks could be more attractive than either if the other options. In addition, valuations are looking reasonable, at a near 8x forward earnings. Therefore we may see flows returning to the markets. However, be warned, we are starting to see earnings downgrades and volatility may remain. Therefore invest in companies with strong balance sheets and maintain a medium to longer-term time horizon.

The US Debt Ceiling: The How, Why and What Could Happen?

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.

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.