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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.
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.