MORNING BID – Contagion abounds, and the Super Bowl

Jan 31, 2014 13:57 UTC

On Thursday, this column suggested that a bunch of stock markets selling off in tandem did not satisfy the definition of contagion. Central banks dumping U.S. assets, weak auctions of government debt in seemingly less related countries, and big sell offs in less affected currencies? That’s getting closer to the mark.

Foreign central banks cut their holdings of U.S. debt stored at the Federal Reserve by the most in seven months in the past week, in a bid to defend weak currencies. “It makes sense,” said Scott Carmack, fixed income portfolio manager at Leader Capital, which has $1 billion under management. “It will probably continue as emerging markets try to prop up their currencies.”

So, overall foreign holdings of securities like Treasuries, mortgage-backed securities and agency debt at the Fed fell by $20.77 billion to $3.325 trillion in the week ended Wednesday, the biggest drop since June. The overall draw-down has come to about $55 billion since the Fed first said it would cut back its monthly bond buying. Debt and equity funds, meantime, continue to shift away from the emerging markets, with EPFR reporting a pullback of about $10 billion from such funds; debt funds have shed $4.6 billion so far in 2014, about one-third of 2013′s total drawdown of $14.3 billion (and that’s for a full year).

While in some ways, the most attractive solution for some of these countries to try to stem capital flight is through higher interest rates (making their debt more attractive to investors who need a bigger return over inflation, which is too hot in places like Brazil and Turkey), higher rates aren’t going to entirely solve the problem. And so you get the spectacle of Hungary cutting its 1-year Treasury bill auction and yields rising by about two-thirds of a percentage point just to garner enough interest for what they did manage to sell.

Hungary’s less in danger than some other countries. It’s got a big current account surplus rather than a deficit, but that hasn’t stopped investors from pulling back there either, driving the forint to a two-year low against the dollar.

The ongoing weakness in currencies – which many analysts say has not yet run its course – is going to pinch economic growth in tandem with higher rates. This can sometimes launch a vicious cycle that has consumers in those countries saving money rather than spending it – again, because of inflation. Combine that with a slowing in capital flows, and a weak export environment thanks to the China slowdown, and it gets a lot uglier, as Reuters’ Sujata Rao pointed out in an overnight story.

She quotes Steve O’Hanlon, a fund manager at ACPI Investments, who summarizes it well by saying: “Markets are pricing a pretty dire situation in emerging markets (but) is EM cheaper given potential future output? I wouldn’t say so but it’s getting there. When currencies stop selling off, if (governments) produce real reforms, I will be investing in those markets. If you don’t see any reforms, the rate hikes will just destroy growth, discourage investors and make the situation far worse.”

On the U.S. side of things, the stock market might see a bit of relief, however briefly. The outperformance by bonds against stocks this month might spur some reallocation trades, helping the market on its last day of the month. So it’s got that going for it, which is nice. Of course, futures are getting hit hard this morning, so maybe this is false hope.

SUPER BOWL SHUFFLE
From a more grounded (well, ridiculous) perspective, it’s the Super Bowl this weekend in the U.S.

Strategists have long made sport of the vaunted “Super Bowl Indicator,” which, for a long time, stipulated that when teams in the National Football Conference (the 49ers, Giants, Cowboys, to name a few) were victorious, the stock market was in line for a good year, but when teams in the American Football Conference (Dolphins, Raiders) won the big game, the equity market was set for a bad year.

That was modified a few years ago to include old NFL teams that had migrated to the AFC – the Steelers and the Baltimore Colts (this column does not recognize teams that move in the middle of the night.) So that puts us in a unique position this year.

First off, the AFC team is the Broncos, so a win by them should put the market on track for weakness for the rest of 2014. This is, of course, undermined by the fact that when the Broncos do win (and they won in early 1998 and early 1999), the market does pretty darned well. Furthermore, their opponent, the Seattle Seahawks, spent most of their existence in the NFC before moving to the AFC a few years back. If the Steelers and Colts can be grandfathered into the good side of the ledger, it stands to reason that the Seahawks ought to be included on the bad side of the ledger, no?

MORNING BID – The prime directive

Jan 30, 2014 14:08 UTC

So, it’s been a few days. Which means the markets have hit that point in the Star Trek episodes when the Klingons were temporarily short of torpedoes, which gave the Enterprise crew time to suss out what was going on.

Some of the missiles were fired. Big rate hikes from Turkey and South Africa, that followed a rate hike from India, and a few conclusions are inescapable:

  1. The selling hasn’t run its course yet
  2. Rate hikes aren’t enough to turn the tide in favor of a struggling currency because people extrapolate that higher rates are going to pinch growth
  3. People may have been holding out hope that the Federal Reserve would have nodded in some way to the emerging markets and got no quarter from Ben Bernanke as he dropped the mic and disappeared in a puff of smoke at his last-ever Fed meeting.

Add in the latest – a decline in China’s manufacturing – and the pullback certainly has not run its course. Overnight volumes and trading during the NY cash session showed once again that the better volumes have been on the selling, rather than the buying.

The question now is how far this can go? And that depends on what kind of developments we’re looking at. If there’s a massive flight of capital, the selling will remain indiscriminate, and long-running. It’s not too encouraging that the Turkish lira’s rally was good for a few hours and not much more, and nobody even tried to take the South African rand that much higher at all.

But let’s hold fast on the ‘contagion’ notion for a bit here, because ‘contagion’ does not simply mean ‘a whole load of people selling stocks.’ So we’ve seen actions from central banks in India, Turkey, South Africa and earlier Indonesia, and Citigroup suggests Russia could take surprise action in a couple of weeks as well. Having central banks take the initiative to force adjustments in policy is preferred on some levels to the damage markets can dish out (though markets can keep dishing it out also).

But the true measure of contagion relates to how quickly short-term funds leave a country, how much of a country is dependent on foreign funding of longer-term obligations (do foreigners own all the short term debt? If so, not good – Turkey’s short-term external debt is equal to 116 percent of its FX reserves, leaving it unable to defend against capital flight, according to Morgan Stanley,) current account balances, and a few other factors. In a note late Wednesday, Morgan Stanley threw in China exposure to the mix as well, noting that those exporting lots of commodities – be it fuel, metal or ore – are in a more precarious position.

The more troubled nations when it comes to debt issues – like Brazil, Turkey or South Africa – are a bit less exposed to China than Malaysia or South Korea, but they’re plenty exposed, and the latter two don’t have problems with current account deficits and as much in the way of short-term funding. Closer to home, Goldman Sachs notes that just 5 percent of S&P 500 sales derive from emerging markets, and that during EM selloffs, the S&P tends to fall about half as much – with the most exposed naturally being materials and energy sectors.

So there’s some comfort on the U.S. side of things. Still, with US growth not helping emerging markets and China’s slowing and adjustment to the debt it has in its economy weighing heavily, the contagion problem is a very real one that may rear its head in a bigger way. If a slew of rate hikes can head off massive capital flight, the slow growth that comes from higher rates may be something individual economies can deal with. However, that’s only if this is enough of a confidence-inducing measure to keep investors somewhat invested. That’s a big ‘IF.’

MORNING BID – Turkey, the Fed, and we all float down here

Jan 29, 2014 14:46 UTC

The messy sell-off in emerging markets was stemmed overnight after Turkey surprised everyone by raising rates to 12 percent – but it didn’t last. Major averages in Britain and Germany opened at their highs of the day but have since faded, and even though the big rate increases in Turkey, South Africa and India are meant to stem capital flight, so far the market’s shooting first and asking questions later. S&P futures were up about 20 points after the Turkey rate hike – an odd move for such a localized event – and we’re seeing the reaction now, which, to quote Tom the cat about the ‘white mouse no longer being dangerous,’ “DON’T…YOU…BELIEVE…IT.” So we’re lower, and continue to head lower, and for those of you new to the markets, this is what’s called a selloff.

The big question: Will the Federal Reserve defer its tapering campaign in recognition of emerging-markets difficulty? One could say the Fed cannot be expected to act as the underwriter for global risk-taking, but you’d be laughed out of the room, given the performance of assets around the world in the last several years as the Fed went into full-QE mode.

On the other hand, there’s a difference between providing broad support to the markets (via helicopter or not) and an actual admission that you’re changing policy to respond to specific issues worldwide, and such a move strikes us as the latter, not the former. With that in mind, it would be remiss to think the Fed does not continue at its measured pace, dipping down to $65 billion in bond purchases per month this time, as Janet Yellen takes the reins and we find out what kind of situation the new Fed head has gotten herself into while Ben Bernanke eases into what one hopes is a steady and muted retirement (think Johnny Carson, not Alan Greenspan).

For one, eventually reducing the monthly stimulus to zero at least gives the Fed room to ratchet up that stimulus again if they really need to.
Furthermore, the emerging markets, in a sense, are already gone. No, it’s not a disaster yet – but the implosion of China’s shadow banking system, the resignation of every Turkish official in Ankara, and the, well, uh, never mind, Argentina is Argentina, and isn’t going to be solved by the Fed put. The Fed might give it lip service in its statement but any more than that really ratchets up the moral hazard.

Furthermore, when one takes a look at the relative strength of emerging markets stocks with the U.S. market, it’s clear EM has been struggling for a while anyway. A comparison of relative performance between the MSCI EM index (.MSCIEF, or EEM.P if you’re into the ETF thing) is at 0.7 or so, and U.S. markets have been the steady outperformer since the beginning of 2013, and that outperformance accelerated throughout the year but particularly in the second quarter when the Fed started talking about reducing stimulus in the first place.

That doesn’t mean they can or will reverse course – it makes no sense. But less liquidity washing ashore means a bad investment can no longer be covered by smoke and mirrors. The MSCIEF’s relative performance index is still looking terrible, having fallen below the 30 level that indicates an oversold condition. It’s not quite at the nadir of the June 2013 or May 2012 selloffs, but it’s close, so if there’s a place one might expect some buying, it’s now. But it’s not happening yet – and that does raise questions about whether we’ll see more soothing words from central banks.

WE ALL FLOAT DOWN HERE
Back in the USA, the Treasury is readying its first-ever auction of two-year floating-rate securities, likely to see demand from various types of investors.
There are currently more than $200 billion in agency and “supra-sovereign” floating rate notes outstanding, mostly from Federal Farm Credit and Federal Home Loan Bank, per Morgan Stanley data. So, Treasuries should add nicely to the mix here, and it’ll quickly become a very big dog in a very small pond (dogs can jump in ponds, go with the analogy). So the $15 billion will add to the week’s mix of other supply.

For one thing, this gives the Treasury the chance to manage its issuance a bit more by reducing the number of short-dated auctions of bills, instead issuing this note that resets based on market rates for floating-rate notes. It will helpfully cut back on the weird dislocations that the market has seen of late in bills that are maturing just as the United States is set to run afoul of the debt limit (again) or face some kind of annoying only-in-Washington-type spectacle.

(Of course, if it was all two-year floaters, then in the month it had more floaters coming just as a budget crisis hit, those yields would go through the roof. So you can’t entirely solve the Washington problem this way, and floating-rate notes as far as we know cannot hold Congressional office).

The other advantage for the Treasury is the lack of what’s called “term premium,” which Morgan Stanley says will lead to interest-rate payment savings.
Term premium refers to how much additional interest you have to offer someone who is taking the risk of buying longer-dated securities (and therefore risking wide swings in interest rates or other unforeseen events over a five-year period vs. say, six months). But floating rate notes have no such provision (they float, after all), so that *should* save Treasury some money.

Reuters’ bond correspondent Richard Leong points out they’re expected to sell with a yield of 0.10 percentage point, almost a quarter less in the two-year fixed-rate note supply sold on Tuesday. So, that’s savings for Uncle Sam until the FRN yield rises above the fixed-rate two-year notes. Overall, the interest rate should be greater than what’s embedded in notes, though, which is good for money market funds (they hold about $276 billion of floating rate notes already).

FRNs are great in an environment where interest rates are on the rise, which has been the case for several months now (until this month that is), and therein, of course, lies the danger. If rates fall, well, not so great, as the interest rate on the notes would be chipped away.

MORNING BID – Emerging Markets, Apple, Ma Bell, and whatever else one can think of

Jan 28, 2014 13:56 UTC

In the words of Inigo Montoya, let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

The market’s most immediate issues remain tied specifically to what’s going on overseas, particularly in Turkey. There, monetary authorities are meeting on a potential interest rate hike as a way of getting on top of the inflation problem (inflation’s at 7.5 percent, and the central bank’s lending rate is, uh, 7.75 percent).

So that’s a problem: Inflation is running real hot, the lira is in free-fall, and as Reuters’ Mike Peacock in London points out, the consensus view for a rate hike puts it at about 10 percent for when the bank announces its decision at midnight Istanbul time, 5:00 p.m. Eastern time (1000 GMT). Will that be enough to put a floor under the lira? Perhaps.

Now, U.S. companies don’t exactly have a lot of exposure to Turkey, and in this emerging markets rout we’re in the midst of right now, there’s a real question as to whether we’ve reached that “contagion” level. Sure, everything is selling off, but that’s not quite the definition, and it will take a little bit more time and effort – that is, more wholesale selling, liquidation of positions across various countries – to really call this a contagious effort. There are worrisome signs on that front, though. An analysis by Reuters’ Sujata Rao-Coverley, Dan Bases and Vidya Ranganathan points out that the increased funding through publicly traded fixed-income markets rather than bank lending means these markets are more intertwined, leading to the possibility of more selloffs that feed on each other.

Emerging markets with big current account deficits.

Back in 1998, bank loans were the funding mechanism for lots of emerging countries. Furthermore, the sheer dollar volume now dwarfs what was out there in the 1998 Asian contagion that later saw the collapse of the ruble. EM bonds are now in the range of $10 trillion, versus $422 billion in 1993, per JP Morgan; funds benchmarked to EM have assets of $603 billion, more than double what existed in 1997. EM ETFs? About $300 billion now – compared with nothing in 2004. And let’s remember the main ETF for emerging markets – EEM is the symbol – which is routinely the second-most active ETF in the United States. Long-term investing this ain’t, and the flight exacerbates the worries.

After three days of selling, emerging markets have stabilized a bit on Tuesday, so that’s something. Again, these selloffs often combine magnitude and time, with the swiftness only one part of it – the sheer ongoing nature of it is the other part. But that doesn’t mean preparations aren’t in order: David Kotok of Cumberland Advisors said his firm is raising cash levels, noting volatility tends to spike in forex markets when central banks have held interest rates near zero for a long time (which they have).

The real watcher is likely China’s shadow banking system and the possibility of problems there. Banks have been selling massive amounts of exposure to investment trusts to individuals for some time with promises of big returns and using that money invested for lots of lending; one of those trusts distributed by ICBC had to be bailed out this week. If there’s more of that to come, it’s a real question of what’s going on with the banking system’s health there – and that again leads to some uncomfortable conclusions about growth in China, which is far worse a problem than any crisis in Turkey, given its sheer size and influence.

OPEN-APPLE-RESET
Meanwhile, on a domestic front, Apple’s earnings weren’t what was expected. Sure, the company exceeded revenue forecasts and earnings forecasts, but it fell short of expectations on iPhone sales by a lot, and nobody’s happy about this. The stock was hit hard in after-hours action, and was, of late, down about 6 percent. Of course, selling 51 million phones over a three-month period isn’t exactly shabby, and the company is still making money hand-over-fist.

The disappointment comes, in part, from the realization that Apple’s growth rates just aren’t what they used to be, and that Samsung is widening its global lead in the smartphone market, with one report putting its sales at 86 million phones in the quarter. Samsung, of course, is selling more low-end phones, so it’s not like Apple is getting its head handed to it here, but its market share is down to about 17.6 percent from 22 percent, according to Strategy Analytics.

Carl Icahn’s recent calls for the company to get more aggressive in giving money back to shareholders through a big buyback are going to probably only get louder. This raises the chances that the company doubles down on the financial engineering strategy of growing earnings that admittedly has helped the shareholders of names like IBM, AT&T and Exxon Mobil, but doesn’t speak well from the innovation front for a lot of these names.

The company – the most valuable in the United States – had been banking on a big deal in China to sell even more phones, but the market is starting to look saturated on that front, Pacific Crest analyst Andy Hargreaves told Reuters’ Bill Rigby. And Apple doesn’t have a game-changing product on the horizon either right now, so that means the investment thesis comes down to volume. It’ll keep making scores of money, but reduced market share and pretty new colors and bells and whistles won’t be enough when “hardware can only go in one direction, and that’s flat or down,” said Alex Gauna of JMP.

If Apple is headed in the direction of AT&T, it’s going to eventually turn into one of those companies where investors get excited about special factors pumping up earnings results, and AT&T’s going to have that today when it reports results. What’s going on here? Pension related stuff – the market’s gains mean companies with lots of pension assets can mark those positions to market (read: make them bigger). And where previous years of losses can hurt those positions for the likes of Verizon, Ma Bell and UPS, this year it’s a help.

Verizon’s adjustment boosted S&P 500 earnings per share by 42 cents this quarter, and AT&T could make just as big a splash this time around. So AT&T is expected to record a gain of about $7.6 billion in the fourth quarter as a result of this, which is massive. Now, David Randall wrote a story a few days ago noting that few fund managers buy a stock based on this sort of thing – AT&T’s primary business is, uh, selling telephones, no, wait, ah yes, telecommunications – so if the business stinks, never mind the pension stuff.

But it’s nice that the pension funds are fully funded or better now, just in time for a big market correction.

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