Bad news out of Europe, Germany in particular, makes two potentially profitable outcomes significantly more likely. Firstly, the European Central Bank will be more flexible in its efforts to keep Greece in the Eurozone. Secondly, there are fewer roadblocks in the ECB’s way for announcing further QE. Policy is diverging. While the US contemplates tightening, Europe is exploring the opposite. Resulting currency moves could provide a welcomed boost to European exporters.
Bad news for Europe, good news for investors
Investor hopes for ‘government bond-buying’ QE were raised today as Germany came under renewed pressure.
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.
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…
With strong words to support the Euro, Mario Draghi, the European Central Bank President, quelled fears over the future of the Eurozone. However, the bailout negotiations in Cyprus revealed cracks in this ‘floor’ supporting the region and markets. A ‘Banking Union’ has been undermined, imbalances within the region magnified and individual systematic risk returned. Divergences within the global banking sector will widen but with the Fed likely to remain accommodative, bullish market sentiment may continue to overshadow concerns elsewhere. Nevertheless, this recent turmoil has highlighted that we’re far from an end to the crisis.
[Click image below or this LINK to watch this as a TV Clip]
Markets have shrugged off improvement in the Eurozone because more is needed for stability. Rising demand for German goods, an improving business climate and stability in Spanish housing should have given markets cause for celebration. However, after the substantial rally we’ve seen, and the headwinds yet to be tackled within the region, caution has crept back into markets.
Absence of Growth and Currency Risk
There is deep concern over Europe’s ability to kickstart growth, as austerity measures dampen economic expansion and a strong euro stifles exports. The increase in demand for German factory goods interestingly was driven by demand withinthe euro area. Domestic demand was weak and the currency still source of concern abroad. Furthermore, despite an overall improving business climate, uncertainty in the political and economic landscape going forward is causing delay in hiring and investment.
Spain Precarious and Firepower Lacking
Once again hitting the headlines, Spain could derail European stability, as corruption charges are directed at the government while they continue to grapple with a large budget deficit. The latest data points to a possible floor in Spanish housing prices but defaults on bank loans due to the real estate bubble remains elevated and there is only limited further financial aid available directly from the rescue fund. In order to meet its main obligation of lending to struggling countries, additional direct bank aid has been rumoured to amount to less than €100bn, nowhere near enough to contain future turmoil!
Reform and Unity Needed
With France expected to have slipped back into recession, Draghi, the European Central Bank President, is right to warn that the region is not in the clear yet. What’s needed now are structural reform and closer fiscal and political unity. Only with a return of confidence, based on improving fundamentals, can stability return.
Bold words, high expectations and market rallies. We’ve seen steps in the right direction in Europe, but the 3 features that differentiate the latest bond buying program also highlight its flaws. It’s conditional but hard to police, transparent but uncertain, and unlimited but not long-term. The vicious circle is clear; a country will only get support if its economy deteriorates to the extent they will accept onerous conditions which will cause it to sink deeper into recession. With multiple significant flaws present in current plans, enough has been done to buoy markets but more is needed to support economic progress and bring sufficient confidence back to markets.
“Whatever it takes”
With bold statements come high expectations and Draghi, the European Central Bank President, has been acutely aware of this fact. After claiming he would do “whatever it takes” to save the euro, the pressure was on to support this with a decisive plan of action.
Earlier this month he seemed to do just that, promising to launch an unlimited bond-buying program to ease pressure on sovereign borrowing costs. Taken positively by the markets, the Eurostoxx closed up over 2% that day and periphery sovereign bond yields fell on the news alone.
However, the question remains: has this really marked the end of the Eurozone crisis? The rally has taken bank shares and CDSs back to where they stood in March, when markets similarly put faith in cheap 3-year ECB loans, only to be disappointed. Are markets at risk of a correction this time too?
Step in the right direction but we’ve a long way to go
Draghi identified at least 3 ways in which his latest plan would be different from previous bond-buying schemes. However, they also help identify flaws which could come to light if the situation in the Eurozone were to continue to deteriorate significantly:
1. Conditional but hard to police
To allay (German) worries of long-lasting and repeated requests for help, the support provided by the ECB will come with conditions. The ECB will buy bonds of countries that request help, as long as they conform to certain terms. Countries will be charged with specific requirements, e.g. spending cuts, to try and build fiscal discipline so assistance can wind down. The conditional nature of any offer to support a country’s government bonds could however also be cause for concern. It is hard to police. The resultant turmoil that would ensue from a country not only having identified themselves as in need of help, but now having that help withdrawn would extend beyond the country in question. This would therefore be mutually destructive. With investors fleeing from any asset perceived to be exposed to this country as they looked to de-risk portfolios, ECB assets could be damaged, lowering their resolve to enact this punishment.
Moreover, this unintentionally maps out the road to a euro exit. It highlights that once a country that has received a bailout no longer meets specific targets, the rug may be pulled out from underneath it and the resulting pressure could force it out of the euro.
2. Transparent but uncertain
The ECB will be transparent about which country’s bonds they are buying, reducing speculation and giving markets a clearer indication of what’s going on. However, this doesn’t mean the picture would be crystal clear. Uncertainty remains as to the exact level at which bond-buying could be triggered and the conditions that would be put in place.
3. Unlimited but not long term
There is no cap on the amount of bonds that can be bought and therefore it can provide some form of support long into the future. However, this does not equate to a long term solution. Buying bonds is not a substitute for reform or a strategy for economic growth, which Draghi himself stated has “risk to the downside”. Both of which are crucial for the health of Europe and an end to the crisis.
Finally, although not corresponding to anything stated as a benefit of the plan, it was not unanimous. The German Bundesbank President was not in favour of the plan and could still cause trouble. Indeed, it has since been ruled that Germany has the right to vote over every rescue programme. Considering the country’s fondness for austerity, bailout terms could be tougher and either rejected, damage the economy further, or accepted and failed to be followed. The vicious circle is clear; a country will only get support if its economy deteriorates to the extent they will accept onerous conditions which will cause it to sink deeper into recession.
With multiple significant flaws present in current plans, enough has been done to buoy markets but more is needed to support economic progress further down the line and bring sufficient confidence back to markets.
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.
As markets now price in a full default on 2 year loans, and the next tranche of the bailout hangs in the balance until political chaos abates, the question now seems to be – is an exit from the euro inevitable? The people of Greece are against it, but politicians are threatening it and firms are getting prepared for the possibility. Finally, there is a fear of a run on the banks as deposits fall and the risk other countries may join the ‘default’ bandwagon.
Greeks do not want to leave the Euro
Although 60% of the Greek population view the austerity terms set for them to receive the next tranche of their bailout negatively, more than 7 in every 10 favour staying in euro. The main benefit to the country in the reinstatement of their own currency would be its inevitable depreciation, enabling the economy to regain competitiveness with respect to the (cheaper) price of their goods and services. UBS estimates this would be a 60% change in valuation. However, the bank also estimates borrowing costs would rise by 7%, hitting balance sheets and costing each citizen €11,500 in the first year outside the euro (€4,000 in subsequent years).
A surprise and ultimately rejected call for a referendum and the ensuing political chaos put the next tranche of the bailout at risk. A last ditch attempt at appeasing the people, by putting the acceptance of the tough austerity measures they will have to endure to a vote, led to threats of expulsion from the euro. Subsequently, a coalition government has been formed until early elections can be called and the Prime Minister has stepped down from his position. The rumours that the leader of this new unity interim government, Papademos, wasn’t even in the country at that time doesn’t bode well for a new era of superior management!
Time is short as an €8bn bailout has now been withheld for over a month, until the situation is sorted out. 700,000 public sector employees and 2 million pensioners need to be paid at the end of the month and nearly €3bn for bonds maturing in December from the 19th onwards. However, Greece still has a bloated public sector, refuses to sell or lease more of their assets, misses out on what could amount to €30bn in tax avoidance each year and continues to generate a 10.5% deficit in terms of spending versus income. And with riots on the streets and wage and pension cuts already of 20% and upwards, flexibility to cut more is somewhat limited. Fundamentally of course, this won’t generate growth. With the resulting bailout a short term plug, and the economy still forecasted to shrink by 2.5% next year, the feeling of futility can be understood.
…and there are fears of a run on the banks
Worryingly, Greece deposits fell by €10bn, 6% of current deposits in October alone. And it’s no longer just the wealthy looking to relocate assets to the likes of Switzerland but by people needing the funds to survive. An audit of Greece’s largest banks could reveal in December €15bn of non-performing loans, whilst holding a disproportionally large amount of their own sovereign debt. Greek 2 year yields have risen above 100%, implying investors do not expect these loans to be repaid. It could take €30bn to recapitalise these banks.
… and the risk others may follow
If one country is allowed to renege on its debts, then there is the possibility of others demanding likewise. Ireland could follow suit and demand it is therefore unfair that they have to repay bond holders in full. However, although a possibility, it is not currently a probability. The stark austerity measures being imposed on Greece, and the scrutiny they are now under is enough to put other countries off that option for the moment. Ernst &Young Item Club estimate that a default by Portugal, Ireland & Spain would cause Eurozone output to fall by 6%, in a recessionary environment that’s not a number to take lightly!
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.
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.
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.
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.