GDP

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.

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.

‘Operation Twist’ – What is it? How could it help? But why will it not?

As the US launches $400bn ‘Operation Twist’ in a desperate attempt to kick-start the economy, concerns arise over how effective this will be. It’s true that something needs to be done and inflation restricts the options open to the Fed but the strategy has a poor track record in terms of effectiveness. We will be in a lower growth environment for longer and should prepare accordingly.

 

The Economy Struggles: Something needs to be done

The US remains driven by consumer spending (~70% of GDP), but weak consumer confidence and limited access to financing are severe headwinds. Unemployment is stuck at 9% and even more worrying are the ‘under-employment’ figures which include those that have been forced to cut their working week rise as far as 18.5% of the population. In addition to discouraging spending, the longer this continues, the more skills are being eroded. Therefore the US government is under an immense pressure to act.

But inflation restricts options

So what can they do? When conventional monetary policy has become ineffective, since short term interest rates are already low, that’s where quantitative easing steps in.  With the aim of stimulating the economy, the Fed will buy financial assets in order to inject money into the markets. Bernanke has made it clear that one of the pre-requisites is a re-emergence of deflationary risks. However, inflation remains stubbornly above 2%. Pumping more money into the markets increases its supply and therefore reduces its value. With the currency less valuable, it doesn’t go as far as it used to and you get less ‘bang for you buck’. Things seem more expensive and inflation has been boosted.

Operation Twist to the rescue?

There is hope. One form of quantitative easing avoids the problem of inflation – Operation Twist. The strategy still involves the Fed buying long term government bonds, but in this case, it’s offset with selling short term bonds. This avoids flooding the market with cash which would exacerbate inflation. Another way this method is also described, by selling short term bonds and buying longer term bonds, is an extending of the maturity of Fed’s bond portfolio. Buying these long dated bonds increases demand and therefore reduces the amount of interest the bond issuer has to offer to entice buyers. A reduced longer term rate makes for example mortgages (long term borrowing) more affordable which would hopefully encourage spending.

A Poor Track Record

History teaches that Operation Twist may be of limited use.  When it was applied back in 1961, it only reduced rates by 15bps! This would not be enough to encourage spending, hiring and boost the economy sufficiently.

What can you do?

Prepare for a lower growth environment for longer. Pay attention to the type of customer a company in which you’re interested in investing services. A strong balance sheet, pricing power and protected demand will serve firms well.

Russian Investment Opportunities: The Drivers and the Hidden Gems

From the world’s best performing index in the first three months of this year, to a laggard this quarter, the Russian index has offered dramatic returns as well as downside risk. What has driven investor sentiment and what are many investors missing?

The World Leader Slips to World Laggard

Russia’s RTS Index was the world’s best performing index in the first three months of this year but has now fallen by around 11% in value so far this quarter (Source: Bloomberg). Moves in this market are often attributed to sentiment over the oil price due to the significant revenues generated by the country exporting this commodity. Therefore speculation over economic growth (read: oil demand) is highly influential. This year has been no different. Turmoil in the Middle East can be attributed as one of the main drivers of a strong rally in oil in the first quarter and concerns over economic growth has caused a reversal since that time. However, is this too simplistic a view and aren’t there other factors to which an investor in Russia should be paying attention?

Source: Bloomberg. Russian RTS Index (white) vs. MSCI World Index (orange) - all $.

Beyond Oil

It is clear to see why investors play so much emphasis on the oil price as a dictator of Russia’s financial health. Supplying some 11.4% of the world’s oil supply last year, Russia is the “biggest single source outside the opec cartel”. Although official figures calculate its contribution to Russia’s GDP at 9%, it is important to be aware that speculation over tax avoidance suggests the value may be nearer to 25%. Nevertheless, what is often overlooked is the specific oil price factored into their budget. For this year, a price above $75/barrel will produce a deficit reduction. With Brent currently standing at $115/barrel, a fall in the Russian Index in reaction to a fall in the oil price to anything above $75/barrel may be missing the point.

Boosting Ties with Iraq

With Russian oil fields maturing and production growth resting heavily on foreign investment, the country is looking externally for new sources. Iraq offers potential opportunities and TNK-BP, Russia’s 3rd largest oil producer and BP Plc’s 50-50 joint venture, isn’t holding back. The relationship between the two countries dates back many years and in 2008 Russia wrote off most of their $12.9bn debt mainly generated pre-gulf war from the Saddam Hussein government purchases of Soviet weapons. Interestingly, last October the Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev announced his country was ready to strengthen co-operation with Iraq, the same month TNK-BP gained the right to bid for 3 natural gas areas in the region.

Mediating the Exit of Qaddafi

Within the political arena, Russia has been just as active. In addition to fighting for a stronger developing market influence at the IMF, Russia has offered its services to facilitate the exit of Qaddafi from rule in Libya. This is the first time it has shown support for the NATO-led military campaign after abstaining from UN Security council vote in March which authorised the intervention and accusing NATO of violating the resolution by backing anti-Qaddafi rebels and causing civilian casualties from air raids. Due to the belief that Qaddafi has “forfeited legitimacy”, they are willing to negotiate his fate with members of his entourage. Evidence of the country’s powerful network, the value of their political clout has been highlighted.

Driving the Agriculture Market

Back to commodities but from a different angle, the Russian weather is an influencer to watch for investing in the agriculture markets. Fine weather has prompted an upward revision of Russian grain production with the Federal Hydrometerological Center reporting the warmer weather has improved the prospect for crops. This has led to speculation that Russia’s ban on grain exports may be lifted on 1 July. Wheat future prices saw double digit losses.

The Chinese Buyer

One particular potential buyer of Russia’s resources is China, state media reported last Monday. China Investment Corp (CIC), the country’s $300bn sovereign wealth fund, was set up in 2007 to invest some of the country’s massive foreign exchange reserves. With the world’s largest foreign capital resource, at $3.0tn, they are keen to find better sources of return and commodities to fuel their rapid economic growth.

G-8 Bullishness Boosting Appetite for Risk

Despite these many factors which may influence Russia’s outlook, financially, economically and politically; its index continues to exhibit a strong correlation to the oil price. This week we’ve seen oil (and Russian equities) respond positively to the declaration by the Group of Eight that the global recovery is strengthening.

Investment Insight

Nevertheless, to differentiate between short-term over-reaction and more logical fundamental moves, being aware of all the issues will equip you with the insight to navigate this volatile but potentially profitable market.

IMF Revelations: The End of European Dominance & The Rise of Emerging Markets?

As “super-injunctions” are labelled “pointless” by the rise of ‘new’ social media sites, the world seems a smaller place for those wanting to hide potential transgressions.  Indeed, such accusations can have broad ramifications as the head of the International Monetary Fund this week steps down from his leadership position. Could this trigger the end of European dominance at the IMF and even pave the way for Emerging Market leaders to acquire a more appropriate size of the power pie?

Jurisdiction Arbitrage: The Super-Injunction Flaw

Last week, an anonymous twitter user exploited a ‘jurisdiction arbitrage’ to name celebrities whose identities are being protected by a series of ‘gagging-orders’. The Twitter site is based in the US and therefore “outside the jurisdiction of the British courts”. Furthermore, not only would the user himself be “difficult to trace” but the number of other users who forwarded on the names and could be charged represented a “mass defiance” and “unlikely” any of them would be pursued. Therefore potential wrong-doers can, for the moment at least, be named and shamed in some form of media. Just how dangerous can these revelations be?

Revelations at The IMF

This week legalities are once again in the headlines as Dominique Strauss-Kahn, (now the former) head of the International Monetary Fund, stands accused of politically damaging indiscretions. Regardless of the outcome of the case, the political impact has been made and focus is on identifying his potential successor.

The European Bias

Historically the IMF Managing Director has been European and the World Bank President American but nowhere in the “Articles of Agreement’ is this mentioned. So where did this bias come from? It dates back to the Bretton Woods conference, where the fund was formed and this informal agreement struck. In the aftermath of World War II, European economic stability played a large part in the health of the world’s economy and voting power reflected the balance of power. The US has a 16.7% share, Germany 5.9% and the UK & France 4.9% each; leaving the ‘door open’ for ‘behind the scenes’ negotiations. Unsurprisingly, since this time, there have been 10 Managing Directors, all of them European.

Flaws of a European Successor

Proponents of a continuation of European dominance point to the IMF’s crucial role in stemming the European Sovereign Debt crisis. A German government spokesman, Christoph Steegmans, maintains that the leader needs to understand “Europe’s particularities”. Interesting then that there has been no talk of electing an official from the Middle East as Egypt requests a $4bn loan to ‘fill its budget gap’. With all the turmoil, doesn’t a leader need to understand the ‘particularities’ of this region too? Instead, focus is on German candidates (including Axel Weber, the former head of the Central Bank who recently withdrew from the race to succeed Trichet as head of the ECB). A favourite amongst pundits is French finance Minister Christine Lagarde. Bank of Canada Governor, Mark Carney has even been given odds of 10-to-1 by a British bookmaker. Gordon Brown’s name has even been thrown into the ring but was quickly opposed by our PM Cameron due to the record budget deficit which continued to build during his tenure. Here lies the crux of the issue, since the EU and ECB have yet to solve the debt crisis, is it time for someone else to have a go?

Opportunity for Developing Markets

The economic balance of power is changing. China has overtaken Japan as the second largest economy and it has been argued that it will surpass the US’s share of global GDP in a decade. Back in 1973, the developing nations asserted more of their power as a group led by Indonesia and Iran vetoed the nomination of a Dutch candidate (seen as too closely aligned to the interests of wealthy nations). With this in mind, candidates from South Africa, Turkey, Singapore, Indonesia, Mexico and a Chinese official who advises the IMF already have been mentioned in the press. Brazil too has contributed to the discussion, as their Finance Minister argues for a “new criteria”. Indeed changes to IMF governance were decided in 2008 and last year, shifting 5.3% of the voting share to emerging markets. Although nothing has yet taken effect. However, with the increased contribution of funding coming from these regions and the negativity within these countries expressed against too much focus on the developed world, change is warranted.

Investment Conclusion

As ever, economic issues can often lie opposed to equity market movement. But changes (or continuation) of dominance could affect short-term sentiment for various country’s financial markets. Exploit any over-reaction in the short-term whilst remaining focused on quality in the longer-term. The shift of economic power is well underway, let’s see if the political powers play catch up….

Europe and a New Form of ‘Decoupling’ – How to React

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?

Headline of Germany's biggest newspaper, Bild, 12 May 2010. Source: http://read.bi/cZa0of

Berlusconi ‘Flirting’ With Protectionism

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.

 

Equally applicable for France with their 54% abstention rate as to Germany's indecision - The once opinionated cocktail hour has gone quiet! Source: http://www.zundelsite.org/cartoons/german_party.html

A New ‘Decoupling’

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.

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