inflation

Bad News For Europe, Good News For Investors

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.

merkel

Bad news for Europe, good news for investors

Investor hopes for ‘government bond-buying’ QE were raised today as Germany came under renewed pressure.

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How to Navigate Markets through the Euro-Zone Turmoil…

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.

What to watch this week: Policy drives market direction (Prezi slideshow)

With political pitfalls possible, eyes on Chinese easing, and a flight to quality by investors, policy is driving market direction. This week, the minutes from the latest Federal Reserve meeting will be scoured for signs of further fiscal support. Moreover, the Bank of England’s inflation report will be reviewed for changes to the outlook for growth and inflation. Central bank rhetoric will determine how investors trade. (Watch this as a slide show…)

Political Pitfalls Possible

France’s new President will meet German Chancellor Merkel today with opposing views on the fiscal treaty (see previous post). Furthermore, until a Greek coalition is formed, turmoil there will continue.

Eyes on China Easing

After data disappointed last week, the Bank of China cut the reserve requirement ratio by 50 basis points on Saturday. This is the equivalent to injecting around $64 billion into the banks. Investors remain watchful on Chinese policy, hoping it remains accommodative as the economy cools, to protect global growth.

Flight to Quality

Unsurprisingly, with the climate uncertain, investors have rushed into perceived safe havens. With much money still on the sidelines, a reversal of this trend could provide a hefty boost to markets. Appetite for risk is a crucial current driver.

QE3 Back on the Table?

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) minutes will be scoured for signs of fiscal support. Housing market weakness and elevated unemployment has caused Bernanke to leave the door open for further stimulus. Any indication of inflation easing could put the possibility of QE3 back on the table. Although still unlikely, with elections due this year, the pressure is on for policy to remain accommodative.

A Worse Outlook for UK Inflation and Growth?

The Bank of England’s inflation report will give investors colour on the headwinds for consumption and the economy as a whole, as growth and inflation forecasts may be amended. Plunging purchasing power will keep consumer spending stifled. As rising inflation data calls an end to a 5 month easing trend and continues to surprise on the upside, investors will be watching for an increase in the inflation forecast. Higher energy prices and lending rates have kept the risk to the upside and as we dip back into recession, businesses are unlikely to boost hiring. Investors will therefore focus on whether the growth outlook is downgraded. Headwinds are severe and sentiment remains depressed.

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.

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.

‘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.

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.


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.

Stagflation – A Risk Worth Noticing

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting – Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Much is made in the news of the risk of inflation. We can’t step far outside our doors without being faced with the challenges it brings. From shockingly high petrol prices to rising agriculture costs hitting our shopping bills, the fear is setting in. However, when we strip out these volatile elements, just how much of a problem is core inflation? Instead, with economic growth precariously fragile, when it does become a concern, won’t we be left fighting a ‘war on two fronts’? It’s time we start to notice the ‘Elephant in The Room’.

An Anaemic Recovery

The economic recovery remains weak. Still driven by the consumer, the environment for spending is tenuous. Retail sales for December were downgraded and January’s figures can only be described as “unspectacular”. We saw the first increase in the claimant count in four months (which would have been even higher had people not given up the job search entirely). Moreover, earnings growth slowed to the lowest rate in six months (from 2.5% to 2.0%). With Hometrack, the property analytics business, foreseeing homebuyers facing a continued struggle to obtain mortgages in 2011, the outlook for spending and GDP growth looks tough.

Source: Capital Economics “UK Labour Market Data” Regular pay growth slowed from 2.5% to 2.0% (Published end Feb 2011, data to end Dec / Jan)

Consumer Companies Highlight the Headwinds

Highlighting the problem were the many consumer companies missing Q410 earnings estimates and downgrading their forecasts for this year. Diageo, Colgate-Palmolive and P&G were among those that struggled to meet expectations. Falls in demand were blamed, with the situation looking none the rosier going forward. Renault predicts the demand for cars in their home market of France will fall by 8%. In addition, rising input costs is adding to woes. Pepsi is budgeting for a whopping 8 – 9.5% increase in the amount of capital they will spend on oil and agriculture commodities, which contributed to the firm lowering their forecast for earnings growth from low double digits to high single digits. The question on everyone’s lips is – can they continue to pass on higher costs to the consumer? With the aforementioned weakness, the most likely answer is “no”.

Source: Bloomberg. Next share price (white) and the Cotton price (orange) + >10% YTD already.

Inflation ‘Illusion’ Tempting Risky Action

So just how much of a problem is inflation, when compared to the weakness of the recovery? True, headline Inflation has held stubbornly above the Bank of England’s target at 3.7%. However, stripping out food and energy prices, core inflation falls to 2.9% and recent reports show that after excluding taxes, we hit the 2% jackpot. Regardless, the political environment poses a risk. The MPC (Monetary Policy Committee) is under immense pressure to defend its credibility after keeping rates on hold for 23 months consecutively. Markets are now pricing in a 25bps rise in May. Crucially, these expectations alone have consequences. In one week alone, more than 10 mortgage lenders pulled their best fixed rate deals – hitting credit availability to the already weakened consumer ‘spenders’.

Only an idiot fights a war on two fronts. ~ Londo Mollari, Babylon 5

Stagflation – A ‘War on Two Fronts’

This is the crux of the problem – promoting growth can at times risk inflation and fighting inflation can risk weakening growth. Currently the biggest challenge of the two is strengthening growth. If the recovery remains weak, then when inflation rises and poses a far more serious challenge, the government will not be able to implement policies to fight it without dragging the economy into another recession. The possibility of stagflation is real. In this situation the government will feel even more pressure to raise rates but unemployment will still be high and so if rates rise, many will suffer. At the moment the MPC have a “wait and see” attitude – let’s hope this continues and they don’t succumb to ‘peer pressure’ too soon.