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from MacroScope:

A Stein in Bernanke’s shoe: Is there a bubble in corporate bonds?

Financial markets are again on edge about the direction of Fed policy following the surprisingly hawkish minutes of the January meeting released last week, even if most still expect the central bank to keep buying bonds at the current $85 billion monthly pace at least until the end of the year.

Federal Reserve Board Governor Jeremy Stein, an academic economist who joined the central bank last May, surprised Fed-watchers in his latest speech by focusing entirely on the risks of recent monetary stimulus and saying very little about its benefits. In particular, Stein, a corporate finance expert, raised the possibility that a bubble might be forming in the corporate bond markets, which has seen yields fall to record lows and issuance to record highs.

While the speech was riddled with caveats, Wall Street took it as an unusually stern warning about the potential side effects of quantitative easing from Fed’s inner-sanctum, the influential, presidentially-appointed Board of Governors in Washington. Stein argued:

Putting it all together, my reading of the evidence is that we are seeing a fairly significant pattern of reaching-for-yield behavior emerging in corporate credit. However, even if this conjecture is correct, and even if it does not bode well for the expected returns to junk bond and leveraged-loan investors, it need not follow that this risk-taking has ominous systemic implications. That is, even if at some point junk bond investors suffer losses, without spillovers to other parts of the system, these losses may be confined and therefore less of a policy concern.

from MacroScope:

China no longer tops list of global economic concerns

There are still plenty of macro factors to worry about around the world, but China seems to have dropped down the charts. Conversations with delegates at TradeTech Asia, the annual trading heads' conference held in Singapore, revealed that the U.S. fiscal cliff, food inflation, geopolitical risks in the Middle-East and Europe all trumped China as the major risks out there for financial markets.

Last time this year China was public enemy #1 for investors. But according to the latest Bank of America Merrill Lynch Global fund managers’ survey confidence in the outlook for China’s economy has surged to a three-year high – a big turnaround from a year ago when the fear was that shrinking company profits, rising bad loans and weak global demand at a time of stubbornly high inflation would all add up to a “hard-landing” for the world’s second largest economy. The consensus opinion among economists now is that the worst is over and growth bottomed in the third quarter that ended in September.

from Global Investing:

Yield-hungry funds lend $2bln to Ukraine

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Investors just cannot get enough of emerging market bonds. Ukraine, possibly one of the weakest of the big economies in the developing world, this week returned to global capital markets for the first time in a year , selling $2 billion in 5-year dollar bonds.  Investors placed orders for seven times that amount, lured doubtless by the 9.25 percent yield on offer.

Ukraine's problems are well known, with fears even that the country could default on debt this year.  The $2 billion will therefore come as a relief. But the dangers are not over yet, which might make its success on bond markets look all the more surprising.

from MacroScope:

The dangers of a bloated ECB balance sheet

Central balance sheets across the industrialized world have increased rapidly in response to the financial crisis, as recently noted on this blog. In Europe, the balance sheet of the ECB and the 17 national central banks that share the euro currency has grown to around 3 trillion euros after the ECB injected more than a trillion into the market in 3-year loans and loosened its collateral standards.

At above 30 percent of gross domestic product, the ECB's balance sheet has overtaken that of the Bank of Japan, which has been grappling with deflation for some two decades and started from a much higher level. It is also bigger than that of the U.S. Federal Reserve, which has aggressively responded to two financial crises in five years by tripling the size of its balance sheet to nearly $3 trillion today.

from Global Investing:

Pension funds’ hedging dilemma

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Pension funds have no shortage of concerns: their funding deficits are rapidly growing in the current low-return environment, and ageing populations are stretching their liabilities.

But a recent survey of pension funds trustees by French business school EDHEC has found that their biggest worry, cited by nearly 77% of the respondents, is the risk that their sponsor -- the entity or employer that administers the  pension plan for employees -- could go bust. Yet 84% of respondents fail to manage the sponsor risk.

from MacroScope:

Stocks rally not sustainable: Prudential

Want the recent rally in stocks to last? Don’t count on it, says John Praveen of Prudential Financial. The Dow Jones industrial average is up over 20 percent since September, and has gained 7 percent since the start of the year. But Praveen sees too many headwinds for the boom to continue.

The pace of gains thus far in 2012 is likely to be unsustainable and volatility is likely to remain high as several downside risks remain. These include:

from Global Investing:

How socially responsible is your investing?

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Is your investment ethically sound and socially responsible?

A new survey by consulting firm Mercer finds that only 9% of more than 5,000 investment strategies achieve the highest environmental, social and governance (ESG) ratings.

Socially responsible investing (SRI) involves buying shares in companies that manage ESG risks. For example, firms that make clean technologies are favoured, while businesses which pollute the environment, are complicit in human rights abuses or nuclear arms production are shunned. All this sounds good, but the performance of such investments has been somewhat mixed -- meaning being good doesn't always mean doing well. But the SRI industry is hoping that greater involvement of funds, especially long-term ones such as pension funds and sovereign wealth funds -- may generate flows into the sector and lead to better performance.

from MacroScope:

Euro zone crisis and sovereign wealth funds

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Two academics from the Fletcher School at the Tufts University have written a special guest blog for Macroscope on the impact of the euro zone debt crisis on sovereign wealth funds.

Dr. Eliot Kalter is a senior fellow, The Fletcher School at Tufts University, Sovereign Wealth Fund Initiative, and president of E M Strategies, Inc. Thomas F. Holt, Jr. is an adjunct professor of law, The Fletcher School and partner in the global law firm K&L Gates LLP.

from The Great Debate UK:

UK chancellor has mixed message for gilt investors

-- Ian Campbell is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own --

The UK sounds Greek again. Britain's new government is finding skeletons in the fiscal cupboard. George Osborne, the incoming chancellor of the exchequer, is appointing an independent watchdog to check the numbers out. The gilt market perhaps ought to recoil at the revelation that things are even worse than thought. But it's more likely to look on the bright side: coalition honeymoon, transparency and rectitude to come.
UK government bonds will for now probably continue defying threats that kill in the Aegean. A record peacetime deficit, an inflation rate of 3.4 percent, a plunging pound: no matter, UK 10-year paper has risen in value by about 2 percent this year and yields a miserly 3.8 percent. But while Osborne's deficit-cutting commitment will reassure, the medium-term risks to gilts remain great.
Gilts' appeal is largely relative. UK debt levels have worsened appallingly -- but are not yet appalling. Britain, like the United States, is rightly judged to have a more adaptable economy than the euro zone's. The pound can weaken, helping competitiveness and growth and therefore favouring rebalancing of the government's accounts.
But the growth that can save is not strongly in evidence now. Mervyn King, the Bank of England governor, has warned of possible growth disappointment as fiscal cuts kick in. Ironically this is another factor supporting gilts. Inflation is up, but is expected to be dragged down by economic weakness. That means interest rates will probably remain low, favouring bonds.
Still, gilts investors cannot be complacent. The fiscal deficit is huge but money-printing -- quantitative easing -- exceeded it in the year to March. Spencer Dale, the BoE's chief economist, speculated last week that QE had taken about one percentage point off gilt yields. Unless the economy worsens, the BoE is unlikely to resume gilt purchases. And one day it must start selling its gilt mountain.
There are other big risks. The coalition honeymooners may fall out. The economic turnaround will be extremely hard to generate. And Osborne's fiscal surgery may half kill the patient. For a UK that has much to do to stop its debt spiralling, gilt returns look poor. But the remarkable bonds may smile through the honeymoon all the same.

from Changing China:

Where others won’t go

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Chinese mining companies are expanding overseas because they are cost-effective and willing to work in dangerous and risky areas where others are unwilling to go, Yang Junmin, vice general
manager of Beijing Sinodrill, asserted at the Reuters China Investment Summit.

Some critics accuse Beijing of supporting corrupt regimes in Africa, the Middle East and Latin American, where Chinese companies are investing aggressively to secure access to raw materials to fuel the country's rapid economic growth.

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