Hedge Funds

Can Stock Markets Continue Their Recent Rally?

Published by the Guardian

Gemma Godfrey, head of investment strategy for wealth management firm Brooks Macdonald, argues that the small drop in US economic output shows investors may have got carried away in recent weeks.

She warns that the stock market rally may prove fragile:

As investors dismiss the economic contraction to focus on the resilience of consumption, they miss the risk that this will come under pressure over the coming months as fiscal cliff measures come into play.

Market rallies have been driven by the fear of an imminent risk receding, but growth is now needed for another leg up in markets. Instead, the ‘pain trade’ is now missing out on equity upside, implying fear of underperformance may be driving investment versus conviction in the outlook for markets going forward. Exemplifying this is the recent rotation by Hedge funds into financial stocks, following the positive earnings momentum, which of course is backward over-the-shoulder looking, rather than based on confidence in the future.

Published by CityAM

After hitting multi-year highs, can the FTSE 100 continue its recent rally?

NO – The FTSE 100 has been rallying as the fear of risks, like a Eurozone exit or fiscal cliff stalemate, has receded. But growth is now needed for another leg up: there has been relief in the diagnosis, but the patient must now show signs of recovery. The concern for the UK is that it is tough to see a possible source of growth, especially after the latest economic figures showed us courting a triple dip recession. Looking overseas – as many FTSE companies do ­– the outlook for growth is more encouraging. But troubles in Europe and the US are far from over, as the former grapples with fiscal and banking union, and the latter with delayed spending cut decisions. Equities may provide value over the longer term, but you will have to encounter heightened volatility – and a likely correction – in the immediate future.

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.

How to handle hedge fund investing

Whilst at GAIM, the world’s largest alternative investment & hedge fund conference, it was hard to ignore both the issues the hedge fund industry face and the opportunities from which they can profit. So how can you, as an investor, handle hedge fund investing? Be strategic, be sensible and speak up….

Fees – How can you challenge them?

Bigger isn’t always better. Instead it was the larger funds that had trouble liquidating large positions to meet redemptions in 2008 and this was amplified in Fund of Funds structures. The resulting side pockets and gates, which locked up investor capital, burned bridges. Therefore, funds merely offering access to large ‘star’ fund managers with limited attention to downside and liquidity risks no longer appear to be as wise an investment as once perceived.

A due diligence downfall.  Some funds of hedge funds had exposure to Madoff and other hedge fund failures. Therefore, ‘outsourcing’ hedge fund investment to a dedicated fund manager did not always reduce risk.

Strategy choice – Does it matter?

A ‘typical’ hedge fund does not exist. A hedge fund index is an artificial averaging of a wide range of performance data. In fact, over the past 2 years, the best performing hedge fund strategy has generated 160% more return than the worst. Yes, 160%! Even year to year the rankings change. By investing in completely different assets, implementing vastly different investment processes, hedge funds can perform in entirely different directions in a variety of market conditions.

Source: http://www.advisoranalyst.com. Hedge fund strategies ranked by performance each year, showing the variability in strategy leadership.

Value – How can hedge fund investments benefit your portfolio?

Well-equipped. With doubts over the sustainability of the ‘recovery’ in the developed world shaking equity markets; turmoil in the middle east creating volatility in commodities and the sovereign debt crisis rocking the bond markets, having a wider range of tools to exploit the uncertainty is valuable

A diversifier.  Widespread fear and the increase of speculators in certain markets has resulted in heightened correlation between asset classes, for example, equities and commodities have been moving inline…. An active manager who can provide uncorrelated returns to diversify a portfolio and steady the return profile again is attractive

Differentiating. In contrast, correlations between investments within each asset class are falling. The FT recently reported that the correlation between stocks in the S&P 500 index has fallen to levels not seen since June 2007. This means there is a widening divergence between returns.  Therefore, the ability to differentiate between opportunities within a subset is a strength of active over passive investing.

So what can you do?

Be strategic: strategy choice matters so utilize your views on the macroeconomic environment to help determine which strategies in which to invest

Be sensible: ensure funds deserve the fees they are charging, e.g. are focused on portfolio construction, generating returns from niche strategies, and structured appropriately with the redemption frequency matching the liquidity of the underlying investments.

Speak up: it is as important for BOTH sides to manage expectations to avoid redemptions from investors, and side pockets from funds.

Gold may Glitter but can it Deliver?

The classic “safe-haven” investment has seen a strong uptrend in its value since the autumn of 2008. Risk aversioninflation fearsfalls in the dollar and demand from the east have all been credited as drivers of this move. But just how supportive are these factors going forward — what is the risk gold could lose its lustre?

A Hedge against Inflation

The fear of inflation is heating up as on Wednesday the Bank of England suggested that “there is a good chance” inflation will hit 5% later in the year, far above the target rate of 2%. Elsewhere, on the same day, Chinese inflation figures surprised on the upside. However, is gold an adequate hedge? It can be shown graphically that it is not. Charting the inflation rate (CPI change year on year) against the gold price, we can see that over the past decade the relationship breaks down. Indeed, if the gold price kept up with increases in general price levels, it would be valued at $2,600 an ounce instead of around the $1,500 level. How about if instead of actual inflation, we look at the market’s expectation of inflation? Even in this case, the relationship does not hold. Instead, there are other factors at play. As previously discussed, investors may be more focused on the sustainability of the economic growth rate and allow for some inflation. Inflation alone may not provide sufficient support.

The Gold Price (white) vs. CPI change year-on-year (orange). Source: Bloomberg

A Beneficiary of Risk Aversion

So — could upcoming economic, fiscal or political disappointments sufficiently boost the gold price? Here the case looks stronger. From sovereign debt crises in Europe, to the tragic tsunami in Japan and the turmoil in the Middle East, there has been enough newsflow to stoke fears and flows into gold (a “whopping” $679m of capital was invested in precious metals in one week alone at the beginning of April). Furthermore, a lack of confidence in the dollar further boosted investment for those looking for a more reliable base.

Demand from the East and Central Banks

In addition to jewellery demand, central bank purchases may provide much support for gold as we move forward. Russia needs to acquire more than 1,000 tons and China 3,000 tons to have a gold reserve ratio to outstanding currency on parity with the U.S. This is even likely to be an understatement with China stating publicly they would like to acquire at least 6,000 tons and there are unofficial rumors that this may go as high as 10,000 tons.

A bubble with no clear end

George Soros described gold as the “ultimate asset bubble” and with sentiment driving the price as much as fundamentals, it’s unclear when the trend will reverse. An increasing monetary base is looking for a home. As Marcus Grubb, MD of Investment at the World Gold Council was quoted as saying at a ‘WealthBriefing’ Breakfast on Thursday: “In the next 10 minutes the world’s gold producers will mine $3m of gold, while the US prints $15m.” However, an often-overlooked drawback in investing in gold is its lack of yield. With some stock offering attractive dividend yields and investors wanting their investments to provide attractive returns during the life of their investment, capital flows may wander.

The Investment Insight

Remain wary of relying on one driver of returns; it can often be overshadowed by another. Instead build a complete picture and continuously question your base case scenario. Gold is a more complex asset than many give it credit for and as always, it pays to be well diversified.


Hedge Funds – to be Feared or Favoured?

As the biggest hedge fund insider trading case comes to a close, we are reminded of the risks of investing in the asset class. Ever since generating losses in 2008, the reputation of these ‘absolute return’ vehicles has been damaged. The Madoff scandal which topped off the year did not help. Nevertheless, whilst clarity in the markets remains illusive and with a wider range of tools to exploit opportunities, are they a form of investment to be feared or favoured?

A Tainted Asset Class

Disappointed and disillusioned, many investors are reluctant to revisit the asset class run by managers once hailed as the new “masters of the universe”. Sold on the promise of generating positive performance in any market environment or at the very least preserving capital in times of stress, losses generated in 2008 came as a shock. With the Madoff scandal came the realization that even funds that did consistently generate steady returns were not immune to trouble. There is even an aptly named “Hedge Fund Implode-o-Meter” website tracking the number of major funds which have “imploded” since late 2006 (out of interest the number at last look stands at 117, although this includes all funds suffering any form of “permanent adverse change”, not just total shutdown).

But Not All Are Created Equal

Not all hedge funds should be tarred with the same brush and although grouped within the same category, they can differ tremendously. From the investment vehicles in which they invest to the stringency of their risk management, not all are created equal. The Hedge Fund Association summed the situation up succinctly with the assertion that “investment returns, volatility, and risk vary enormously among the different hedge fund strategies. Some strategies which are not correlated to equity markets are able to deliver consistent returns with extremely low risk of loss, while others may be as or more volatile than mutual funds.”

Losses Were Often Greater Elsewhere

Putting aside the often misleading ‘absolute return’ banner, the average hedge fund was better able to preserve capital through the market downturn than a regular ‘long-only’ mutual fund. Whilst the MSCI World Index fell 42% in 2008, the Credit/Suisse Tremont Hedge Fund Index fell 19%, More impressive still were the 21% of funds which posted positive returns for the year (the majority of which were up double digits). Crucially, over a more appropriate investment horizon of 3 years, according to figures by EDHEC Business School, “The majority of hedge funds delivered better returns than the S&P 500 index”. Hedge Funds have shown themselves able of generating highly attractive returns.

The Tide Has Changed

Investors have demanded more. In 2008 they ‘spoke with their feet’ and the hedge fund industry suffered $782bn of redemptions. The Hedge Funds had to listen. What was requested, according to a report by Scorpio Partnership, was “transparency, simplicity and liquidity”. Likewise, the Hedge Fund Scandals were a wake up call to investors and much more focus is being placed on operational due diligence, to avoid investing in any future hedge fund failures.

Investment Insight: Well-Positioned to Exploit Opportunities

With the risk of future macro shocks clouding the horizon (read: Japan, Middle East, EU Sovereign Debt), the direction of the markets is somewhat hard to predict. Therefore investing with flexible managers able to react to the quickly changing environment and nimble enough to exploit opportunities when they present themselves seems an attractive move. Not all investments are created equal, some are more equal than others.

The ‘Surprises’ of the Japanese Crisis and the Investment Lessons to Learn

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.

 

A Business Surprise – Car Makers

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.

 

Investment Insight: The Lessons we can Learn

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.