From a dog to a darling, Japanese stocks have finally found favour. After returning 52% for investors last year, there are still 5 reasons this market has further to go, with opportunities most have missed. There is the potential for a catch up within the stock market, mispricing, earning growth, restructuring and increased buying. Sectors to benefit from reflation and growing domestic demand within a still unloved part of the market may profit.
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Central banks are running out of steam as their measures to bring calm back to markets are no longer as effective as they once were. Germany too seems unable to keep up. Like a marathon runner caught in a sprint, their reluctance to move forward stands in stark contrast to market moves focused on the end game. But the road isn’t clear. Europe has three remaining hurdles in their race to recovery: funds, fiscal unity and reform. With Greece approaching the final whistle, doubts over its ability to stay within Europe are growing louder. The worry is investors are watching the referee not the striker, more focused on the search for safety than the rising risk elsewhere in the markets. False starts continue to drive market volatility and while investors ask whether it’s time to back the ‘underdog’, European stocks may provide diamonds in rough, but things could get rougher.
The vital relationship between central banks implementing stimulus and Spanish yields falling has broken down since April of this year. No longer is central bank action able to reassure the market and instead Spain and Italy’s borrowing costs remain at elevated levels. Investors are demanding more. Structural change is needed but markets are concerned that leaders could choke under the pressure.
Germany: A marathon runner caught in a sprint
Germany wants to progress towards greater unity at its own pace but the markets move faster. Indeed a backbencher delivered his dissatisfaction with the European Central Bank’s plans to their Constitutional Court! It will be tackled in September but investors and the economy won’t wait. Weak consumer confidence and rating agency scepticism highlight the urgency for action.
Europe: 3 Hurdles in Race to Recovery
The three key obstacles to be tackled to progress towards stability are: enough funds to contain the crisis; fiscal consolidation (share budgets in order to share debt burdens and be able to offer ‘eurobonds’); and finally structural reform to regain competitiveness & growth. All are vital for the future of the region and this realisation is starting to build within the markets. Europe did manage to overcome their concern that a Fed-Style straight bond buying programme would reduce the pressure on countries to reform, with a Memorandum of Understanding putting these measures on paper. The use of ‘MOU’s in order to accept ‘IOU’s to lend to countries within Europe may be a step forward, but this remains only part of the full picture needed for longer-lasting results.
Greece: Approaching the Final Whistle
S&P ratings agency has questioned whether Greece will be able to secure the next tranche of bailout funds as it downgraded the outlook for its credit rating to negative. Without such funding, the ‘death knell’ for Greece’s euro membership will be sounded. With the IMFsignalling payments to Greece will stop, the lack of funding fuels fears that without drastic action, the end could be near. Even beyond Greece, the Italian Prime Minister dared to publicise the possibility of a Eurozone breakup if borrowing costs did not fall.
Investors: Watching the Referee not the Striker
The rush to safety has been overshadowing rising risks. As investors pile in to perceived ‘safe haven’ assets, the yield on German government bonds has been falling. However, in a different market, the cost of insuring these bonds has risen as these investors see risk on the rise. The snapback in bond markets to better reflect this sentiment could shake the equity market as well and is therefore a significant concern.
Markets: False Starts
Markets have rallied in the face of disappointing data. Eurozone stocks reached a 4 monthhigh as manufacturing dropped to a 3 year low suggesting the slump is extending into Q3. This discrepancy has driven market volatility, exacerbated by the low volume of shares traded over the summer months. Greater clarity is required to see a more sustained upward momentum which will have to wait until leaders are back from their hols!
Investments: When to Back the Underdog?
European stocks may provide diamonds in rough, but things could get rougher. The overweight US / underweight EU trade is starting to look stretched, as the divergence in performance between the two regions continues to increase. This has been quite understandable, but there will come a time when this is overdone. Within Europe, there are international companies, with geographically diversified revenue streams so not dependent solely on domestic demand for their products or services. Furthermore, with effective management teams and strong fiscal positions, some may be starting to look cheap. However, cheap could get cheaper. Damage to sentiment could lead to market punishment regardless of fundamentals. Therefore waiting for decisive developments & clarity on road to recovery may be prudent.
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 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.
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!
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.”
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