As Eurozone turmoil resurfaces, Gemma Godfrey takes you through the under the radar risks and how to trade them.
The risk of Greece leaving the Euro is looming large over markets as a ‘snap’ election nears on Jan 25th. Threatening to reverse the austerity measures (spending cuts etc) required for bailout funds and remaining in the Eurozone, Syriza looks likely to lead any coalition government, if it does not win outright.
Investors are expecting an eventual reduction of support by the Fed, and Merkel winning the election this weekend. However, what stock markets have not priced in is the resurgence of Eurozone troubles into the headlines. So what are the options, why is this important and how will this effect markets?
[Click image below or this LINK to watch this as a TV Clip]
As the Euro zone crisis intensifies and global markets reflect investor concerns, we ask ourselves, is a Greek exit from the euro on its way? Crucially, preparations have already begun to protect shareholder interest, companies are robust and policy in the US and China aims to maintain the upward momentum. To protect capital, proactively positioning portfolios has been key. International exposure and dividend yields offer attractive opportunities..
A ‘Grexit’ on its way?
All eyes once again are focused on Greece. An inability to form a government has led to a renewed fear that the country could exit the Euro and the wider European Union. Although only a small contributor to European economic output as a whole, contagion is the real risk. Concerns of further losses for external holders of Greek debt and a more widespread break-up of the euro have driven equity market weakness.
A self-perpetuating situation, investors are demanding more to lend to the likes of Spain and Portugal, driving their debt burdens to unsustainable levels. Furthermore, disappointing data from the US and China over the last few days have further added to the uncertainty.
…but preparations are underway
However, preparations have already begun to protect shareholder interest. German and French banks, which were the largest holders of Greek debt, have been aggressively reducing their positions. Some, for example, have cut periphery debt exposure by as much as half since 2010. Banks in the UK have been making provisions since at least November when the Financial Services Authority’s top regulator, Andrew Bailey, told banks: “We must not ignore the prospect of the disorderly departure of some countries from the eurozone.”
On the corporate side, interesting anecdotes have highlighted the proactive nature of company management in the face of this turmoil. Last year, for example, Tui, one of Europe’s largest travel companies, was reported to have requested to reserve the right to pay in a new Greek currency should the country exit from the euro. Corporate balance sheets are robust, holding more cash than long term averages, dividend yields and the potential for merger and acquisition activity once the macro outlook starts to improve can offer an attractive upside.
Finally, although wavering slightly, the US still successfully avoided falling back into recession. Keenly aware of both external and internal risks to growth, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke has made it clear he is not afraid to utilise further tools to protect economic growth. Especially with an election this year, policy is likely to remain accommodative. With respect to Emerging Markets, despite the recent wobble and an inevitable cooling of economic growth, with an estimated 1 billion of the population to join the consumer class by 2030, the long-term case remains strong.
Proactive portfolio positioning prudent
To protect capital, proactively positioning portfolios has been key. Reducing direct European exposure as Europe’s southern members showed severe signs of economic stress from an asset allocation perspective and via underlying fund managers has proved prudent. Fund managers have been able to maintain a zero weighting to Greece and a substantial underweight to the likes of Portugal and Spain relative to benchmark.
As equity markets reached new highs in the first quarter of this year, the substantial rally in share prices in the face of continued structural problems within the Euro zone, was a sign that the risk of a downward correction had increased in the short term. Caution was of course well-founded. A move to lock-in profits and redeploy capital to alternatives and property for a more attractive risk/return potential and hedge against inflation has been supported.
Assets which will help portfolio performance during these volatile market times are good quality companies with strong balance sheets paying an attractive level of dividends. Furthermore, in times of slow economic growth and persistent inflation, strong franchises with pricing power for protected market share and the ability to pass on increases in supply costs to the customer are very desirable attributes.
International exposure and dividend yields offer attractive opportunities
Looking forward, a resolution of key issues in Europe is required to gain confidence to add to equity exposure. Structural reform, greater fiscal consolidation, a focus on growth and long term support are required for stability in the region. At the same time, with a medium to long-term time horizon, it is more important to focus on the geographical location of a company’s revenue streams than where it is headquartered. Investor overreaction can offer buying opportunities with share price corrections providing attractive, cheaper entry points to high quality firms. Furthermore, the yield from dividends these companies pay out can provide a valuable income stream. With many investors holding back capital, the flow of money back into markets, buying into sell-offs at lower levels, could dampen these downward moves and provide a level of support. Therefore, although volatility could continue and market direction remains difficult to determine, it is possible to navigate the turmoil.
As French and Greek voters make their feeling about spending cuts loud and clear, we ask ourselves – why has there been such a strong swing to anti-austerity/pro-growth, how does this threaten the survival of the euro and is a Greek default still possible? The deepening slump has dampened deficit reduction, the Fiscal treaty hangs in the balance and patience is wearing thin. Crucially, according to voters and investors, time is running out.
Growth vs. Austerity: deepening slump is dampening deficit reduction
Francois Hollande’s victory in the French elections marks a significant change of focus in European politics. In contrast to the rhetoric delivered up to this point, Hollande wants emphasis of policy to be on growth instead of austerity. Why does he want this? Because the situation is deteriorating. Unless a country grows, their debt burden, as a percentage of a decreasing national output, grows and is therefore harder to manage. As iterated by French Socialist lawmaker Arnaud Montebourg, in an interview with BFMTV “Austerity is everywhere and it’s a complete shipwreck,”.
Portugal and Spain are prime examples. While the Portuguese economy is expected to contract by 3.3% this year, the deepening slump is dampening deficit reduction. In fact, the deficit almost tripled in the first couple of months of this year alone. Spain, similarly, is struggling with a deteriorating debt situation. As almost 1 in 4 are without jobs, unemployment is boosting defaults. Bad loan ratios have reached a 17 year high (see chart below on the right).
Survival of the Euro Threatened
However, such a drastic change of attitude could damage the Franco-German Alliance, political progress and the very survival of the euro. This is because for Hollande to promote growth, he is threatening the fiscal treaty, perceived as crucial for keeping the euro together in its current form. The Treaty would create closer consolidation within the European union. Handing over authority for National Budgets to a Supra-National entity could ensure the various moving parts of the region interact better as a whole. However, Hollande disagrees with the primary focus on debt and deficit limits, without any pro-growth measures.
Whilst the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble is ready to discuss initiatives to boost economic growth Merkel has said she will not renegotiate the pact. As her spokesperson asserted, it “has already been signed by 25 out of 27 EU countries”. Instead the likelihood may be a growth pact attached to the fiscal pact. Nevertheless, the problems don’t end there. Firstly, Hollande will have his work cut out for him in an economy that is barely growing, with jobless claims at their highest in 12 years and a rising debt load that keeps France vulnerable. Secondly, can both sides agree what they mean by growth?
Growth by any other name…
France and Germany disagree strongly on how to achieve growth. Merkel maintains it is through structural reforms – making it easier to fire workers, which would encourage employers to hire, certainly a key aim for the Italian Government. However, Hollande is hesitant and instead wants growth via infrastructure spending. But Germany won’t agree to spending funded by borrowing – exactly opposite to their deficit reduction targets. Therefore, again although rhetoric can be applauded, practical plans remain elusive.
A Greece Default Still Possible
Uncertainty continues to be a key challenge for Greece as voters in a similar move to the French, overwhelmingly rejected mainstream candidates supporting spending cuts. Crucially, these cuts were aimed at securing bailouts and avoiding a default. Instead, 70 per cent of voters supported parties that promised to tear up the bailout and attempts may be made to negotiate a gradual ”disengagement” from the harshest austerity measures of Greece’s €130 billion ($168 billion) bailout. This keeps the possibility of a Greek default firmly in the picture and until a coalition is formed, a new election next month is possible.
As European markets suffer the longest losing streak since November, the correction is a healthy one. The index is still up over 8% this year, despite many of the region’s problems remaining unsolved. The latest disappointment, a manufacturing industry contracting more than forecast, is merely the next knock in an overall shrinking group of countries. Just this month the European Central Bank reduced the outlook for growth this year to a 0.1% contraction, keeping the region in recession. As expressed by Tim Geitner in the US, Europe is “only at beginning of a very tough, very long, hard road”.
Italy struggles to free its labour market, essential to restore confidence and ease debt
Crucial for Italy to restore confidence in their markets and bring down hefty borrowing costs is the structural reform of its labour laws. The country’s growth has lagged the euro average for more than a decade and with unemployment at the highest level since 2001 (9.2%), the fear is they will be left further and further behind. Unfortunately, talks between government and union have failed to ease firing laws, which would stop older workers being protected to the detriment of the youth (suffering from a massive 30% unemployment rate) and encourage hiring. With elections early next year, the time for progress is running out.
Portuguese auction success shows investors convinced short term but long term concerns continue
Portugal, seen as the next card to fall after Greece, succeeded in auctioning 4 month bills at the lowest yield since late 2010. Demand for these bonds reached 7 times the amount on offer, implying investors were sufficiently confident on the short term outlook for the country. Nevertheless, long term bond yields remain elevated, with investors requiring 12.5% to lend to Italy for 10 years. With a 3.3% economic contraction expected this year, unemployment at 14.8% and strikes over pay, welfare cuts and tax hikes, the long-term outlook is yet to be rosy. The deepening slump has dampened deficit reduction, with the figures almost tripling in the first two months of this year.The fear is more rescue funds will eventually be needed.
ECB passing the baton: unwinding support for banks but had better move cautiously
Interestingly, despite the potential pitfalls, the ECB seems to be scaling back certain bond purchases. Prior to the recent Long-Term Refinancing Operations (LTRO), a measure to buy €40bn of bonds was set. Since then, only €9bn has been bought and the policy expected to last until autumn may be wound down sooner. This is understandable with LTRO, injecting a whopping €1tn of liquidity having made this ‘gesture’ obsolete. Furthermore, a member of the ECB has proclaimed that it “has done its part now governments must do theirs”. A move towards letting banks stand on their own two feet is the long-term strategy for stability, but with potential for risk to re-erupt, they had better step cautiously.
As markets now price in a full default on 2 year loans, and the next tranche of the bailout hangs in the balance until political chaos abates, the question now seems to be – is an exit from the euro inevitable? The people of Greece are against it, but politicians are threatening it and firms are getting prepared for the possibility. Finally, there is a fear of a run on the banks as deposits fall and the risk other countries may join the ‘default’ bandwagon.
Greeks do not want to leave the Euro
Although 60% of the Greek population view the austerity terms set for them to receive the next tranche of their bailout negatively, more than 7 in every 10 favour staying in euro. The main benefit to the country in the reinstatement of their own currency would be its inevitable depreciation, enabling the economy to regain competitiveness with respect to the (cheaper) price of their goods and services. UBS estimates this would be a 60% change in valuation. However, the bank also estimates borrowing costs would rise by 7%, hitting balance sheets and costing each citizen €11,500 in the first year outside the euro (€4,000 in subsequent years).
A surprise and ultimately rejected call for a referendum and the ensuing political chaos put the next tranche of the bailout at risk. A last ditch attempt at appeasing the people, by putting the acceptance of the tough austerity measures they will have to endure to a vote, led to threats of expulsion from the euro. Subsequently, a coalition government has been formed until early elections can be called and the Prime Minister has stepped down from his position. The rumours that the leader of this new unity interim government, Papademos, wasn’t even in the country at that time doesn’t bode well for a new era of superior management!
Time is short as an €8bn bailout has now been withheld for over a month, until the situation is sorted out. 700,000 public sector employees and 2 million pensioners need to be paid at the end of the month and nearly €3bn for bonds maturing in December from the 19th onwards. However, Greece still has a bloated public sector, refuses to sell or lease more of their assets, misses out on what could amount to €30bn in tax avoidance each year and continues to generate a 10.5% deficit in terms of spending versus income. And with riots on the streets and wage and pension cuts already of 20% and upwards, flexibility to cut more is somewhat limited. Fundamentally of course, this won’t generate growth. With the resulting bailout a short term plug, and the economy still forecasted to shrink by 2.5% next year, the feeling of futility can be understood.
…and there are fears of a run on the banks
Worryingly, Greece deposits fell by €10bn, 6% of current deposits in October alone. And it’s no longer just the wealthy looking to relocate assets to the likes of Switzerland but by people needing the funds to survive. An audit of Greece’s largest banks could reveal in December €15bn of non-performing loans, whilst holding a disproportionally large amount of their own sovereign debt. Greek 2 year yields have risen above 100%, implying investors do not expect these loans to be repaid. It could take €30bn to recapitalise these banks.
… and the risk others may follow
If one country is allowed to renege on its debts, then there is the possibility of others demanding likewise. Ireland could follow suit and demand it is therefore unfair that they have to repay bond holders in full. However, although a possibility, it is not currently a probability. The stark austerity measures being imposed on Greece, and the scrutiny they are now under is enough to put other countries off that option for the moment. Ernst &Young Item Club estimate that a default by Portugal, Ireland & Spain would cause Eurozone output to fall by 6%, in a recessionary environment that’s not a number to take lightly!
As banks all over the world slash jobs, we ask ourselves – will this produce more streamline firms ready to generate significant profits, or a sign of the poor outlook for the sector? Unfortunately, stifling regulation repressive and a false bubble has driven this move and severe headwinds remain through exposure to struggling economies and substantial funding needs.
The 50 largest banks around the world have announced almost 60,000 job cuts. UBS are laying off 5.3% of their workforce, blaming stricter capital requirements and slowdown in client trading activity; Credit Suisse cutting jobs by 4% to save SFr1bn and Lloyds a whopping 14%.
Restrictive regulation make banks more stable but less profitable
Stricter capital requirements were just the type of new regulatory measures the Chief Executive of Standard Chartered feared at Davos back in January, would “stifle growth”. At this time we saw banks such as Credit Suisse missing earnings targets and downgrade their expectations severely going forward (from above 18% return on equity to 15%, which turned out to still be too high).
UBS has seen costs in their investment banking division soar to 77% of income and net profit fall almost 50% from a year earlier. Stricter capital requirements mean banks have to hold a higher amount of capital in order to honour withdrawals if hit with operating losses. Furthermore, restrictions on bonuses led to increases in fixed salaries and an inflexible cost base.
Backtracking on a false bubble
Job cuts should also be set within the context of occurring after a ‘false bubble’. Post the 2008 financial crisis and bank bankruptcies and proprietary trading layoffs, the fixed income, currency and commodity business of the remaining players boomed as competition dropped. Banks began expanding. UBS’s proposed cuts of 3,500 jobs comes after an expansion of 1,700 to the workforce and incomparable to the 18,500 job losses experienced during the crisis.
Exposure to struggling economies is a key threat
Crucially, these cuts do nothing to solve the biggest problem these banks are struggling with. They have substantial exposure to struggling EU economies. In Germany, bank exposure to the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland and Spain) amounts to more than 18% of the countries GDP. Just last month Commerzbank suffered a €760m write-down from holding debt that is unlikely to be repaid, which all but wiped out their entire earnings for the second quarter of the year. Further fuelling fear of the spread of the crisis from periphery to core is that French banks are among the largest holders of Greek debt.
Here in the UK we’re by no means immune. Our banks have £100bn connected to the fate of these periphery economies. RBS, 83% owned by the British taxpayer is so heavily exposed to Greek debt that it has written off £733m so far this year.
Severe funding needs and fear of lending exacerbate the problem
90 EU banks need to roll €5.4tn over the next 24 months. This will be funded at higher rates and with disappearing demand as investors become more wary, exacerbating the problem. In addition these banks need to raise an extra $100bn by the end of the year. An inability to borrow to satisfy current obligations, not withstanding any expansive moves, is a serious obstacle to profit generation.
Moreover, job cuts do nothing to boost confidence to encourage banks to lend. Just two weeks ago, EU banks deposited €107bn with the European Central Bank overnight than lend to each other. If banks are not even lending to each other, losing out on a valuable opportunity to make money, then how encouraged are we as investors to get involved?