Global Investing

Active vs passive debate: the case of “monkeys”

As CalPERS considers switching all of its portfolios to passive investing,  questioning the effectiveness of active equity investment, there have been some interesting findings that would stir up the active vs passive debate.

Researchers at Cass Business School find that equity indexes constructed randomly by “monkeys” would have produced higher risk-adjusted returns (ie return adjusted by measuring how much risk is involved in producing that return) than an equivalent market capitalisation-weighted index over the last 40 years.

How does this work? Using 43 years of U.S. equity data, researchers programmed a computer to randomly pick and weight each of the 1,000 stocks in the sample, effectively simulating the stock-picking abilities of a monkey.The process was repeated 10 million times over each of the 32 years of the study.  Nearly all 10 million indices weighted by chance delivered vastly superior returns to the market cap approach. Andrew Clare, co-author of the paper, says:

“The results of this experiment showed that many of the monkey fund managers would have generated a superior performance than was produced by some of the alternative indexing techniques.  However, perhaps most shockingly we found that nearly every one of the 10 million monkey fund managers beat the performance of the market cap-weighted index.”

But investment advisers are not fully convinced that active is the way. A survey by housing investment specialist Castle Trust shows one in three advisers do not believe they can beat the index over five years. Sean Oldfield, chief executive officer, Castle Trust says:

Greece revs up in slow lane

There’s been plenty of bad news for heavily indebted Greece in the past three years – the banking crisis in neighbouring Cyprus being the latest of the country’s woes – but not all the news is gloomy.

MSCI’s Greece index was one of the developed world’s best performers this year, according to the index compiler’s quarterly survey, giving returns of 14.02 percent.

Morgan Stanley is one bank to have grown more enthusiastic about the troubled euro zone peripheral economy.

Emerging markets’ export problem

Taiwan’s forecast-beating export data today came as a pleasant surprise amid the general emerging markets economic gloom.  In a raft of developing countries, from South Korea to Brazil, from Malaysia to the Czech Republic, export data has disappointed. HSBC’s monthly PMI index showed this month that recovery remains subdued.

With Europe still in the doldrums, this is not totally unsurprising. But economists are growing increasingly concerned because the lack of export growth coindides with a nascent U.S. recovery. Clearly EM is failing to ride the US coattails.

Does all this confirm the gloomy prediction made last month by Morgan Stanley’s chief emerging markets economist, Manoj Pradhan. Pradhan reckons that a U.S. economy in recovery would be a competitor rather than a client for emerging markets, as  the world’s biggest economy tries to reinvent itself as a manufacturing power and shifts away from consumption-led growth. It is the latter that helped underwrite the export-led emerging market boom of the past decade.

New frontiers to outpace emerging markets

Fund managers searching for yield are increasing exposure to frontier markets (FM) as a diversification from emerging markets (EM), as the latter have been offering negative relative returns since January, according to MSCI data.

Barings Asset Management  said on Monday it plans to launch a frontier markets fund in coming weeks, with a projected 70 percent exposure to frontier markets such as Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Sri Lanka and Ukraine.

Emerging markets indices posted relative negative returns compared to developed and frontier markets in the first quarter, index compiler MSCI’s 2013 quarterly survey showed. The main emerging benchmark returned a negative 2.14 percent for the quarter, with the BRIC index also posting a loss, though a better performance of Latin American markets offered some promising signs  with a 0.48 percent increase.

Less yen for carry this time

The Bank of Japan unleashed its full firepower this week, pushing the yen to 3-1/2 year lows of 97 per dollar.  Year-to-date, the currency is down 11 percent to the dollar. But those hoping for a return to the carry trade boom of yesteryear may wait in vain.

The weaker yen of pre-crisis years was a strong plus for emerging assets, especially for high-yield currencies. Japanese savers chased rising overseas currencies by buying high-yield foreign bonds and as foreigners sold used cheap yen funding for interest rate carry trades. But there’s been little sign of a repeat of that behaviour as the yen has fallen sharply again recently .

Most emerging currencies are flatlining this year and some such as the Korean won and Taiwan dollar are deep in the red. The first reason is dollar strength of course, but there are other issues. Take equities — clearly some cash at the margins is rotating out to Japan, where equity mutual funds have received $14 billion over the past 16 weeks.  While the Nikkei is up 21 percent, Asian indices are broadly flat. In South Korea whose auto firms such as Hyundai and Kia compete with Japan’s Toyota and Honda, shares are bleeding foreign cash. The exodus has helped push the won down 5 percent to the dollar in 2013.

Weekly Radar: Q1 earnings test as the herd scatters

US Q1 EARNINGS START/DUBLIN EURO GROUP MEETING/US T-SECRETARY LEW IN BERLIN-PARIS/US-FRANCE-ITALY GOVT BOND AUCTIONS/FRANCE NATL ASSEMBLY VOTES ON LABOUR REFORM/VENEZUELA ELECTIONS

World markets have started the second quarter in an oddly indecisive mood given that Q1 turned out to be yet another bumper start to the year, looking to extend record stock market highs on Wall St but lacking the juice of new information to make a decisive break while Europe splutters and emerging markets and commodities head south. Two important pieces of the U.S. jigsaw will likely emerge over the coming week  with this Friday’s US employment report and the start of the Q1 corporate earnings season next week.

But there’s clearly been a more general rethink further afield among global investors given the breakdown in cross-asset and cross-border correlations – meaning it’s no longer enough to just get Wall St right and adjust your global risk button accordingly. It looks much harder work to get regional or asset allocations and positioning right. As Wall St flirts with new highs and US and Japanese equity funds continue draw hefty inflows, there’s been a pullback from all things Europe surrounding the Cyprus saga and parallel growth disappointments across the region and EPFR data last week showed redemptions from euro stock, bond and money funds continued.

Rich investors betting on emerging equities

By Philip Baillie

Emerging equities may have significantly underperformed their richer peers so far this year (they are about 4 percent in the red compared with gains of more than 6 percent for their MSCI’s index of developed stocks) , but almost a third of high net-worth individuals are betting on a rebound in coming months.

A survey of more than 1,000 high net-worth investors by J.P. Morgan Private Bank reveals that 28 percent of respondents expect emerging market equities to perform best in the next 12 months, outstripping the 24 per cent that bet their money on U.S. stocks.

That gels with the findings of recent Reuters polls where a majority of the 450 analysts surveyed said they expect emerging equities to end 2013 with double-digit returns.

Emerging earnings: a lot of misses

It’s not shaping up to be a good year for emerging equities. They are almost 3 percent in the red while their developed world counterparts have gained more than 7 percent and Wall Street is at record highs. When we explored this topic last month, what stood out was the deepening profit squeeze and  steep falls in return-on-equity (ROE).  The latest earnings season provides fresh proof of this trend and is handily summarized in a Morgan Stanley note which crunches the earnings numbers for the last 2012 quarter.

The analysts found that:

–With 84 percent of emerging market companies having already reported last quarter earnings, consensus estimates have been missed by around 6 percent. A third of companies that have already reported results have beaten estimates while almost half have missed.

– Singapore, Turkey and Hong Kong top the list of countries where earnings beat expectations while earnings in Hungary, Korea and Egypt have mostly underwhelmed. Consumer durables companies recorded the biggest number and magnitude of misses at 82 percent.

A Plan B for Argentina

What’s Argentina’s Plan B?

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has said she will sell the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, if need be, to keep paying creditors who agreed to restructure the country’s debts.  But it may not come to that. Warning: this is a complicated saga with very interesting twists.

A pair of hedge fund litigants demanding $1.3 billion in payments and a New York court are making it hard for Kirchner to keep paying international bondholders. But she might contemplate asking those existing creditors to swap into Argentine law bonds, to which the writ of the New York court will not extend.

First some background. Argentina is due to pay bond coupons this week and in June. Looks like the hedge funds will decline the payment proposal Argentina made last week; this could lead to a default.

Weekly Radar-”Slow panic” feared on Cyprus as central banks meet and US reports jobless

US MARCH JOBS REPORT/THREE OF G4 CENTRAL BANKS THURS/NEW QUARTER BEGINS/FINAL MARCH PMIS/KENYA SUPREME COURT RULING/SPAIN-FRANCE BOND AUCTIONS

Given the sound and fury of the past fortnight, it’s hard not to conclude that the messiness of the eventual Cyprus bailout is another inflection point in the whole euro crisis. For most observers, including Mr Dijsselbloem it seems, it ups the ante again on several fronts – 1) possible bank contagion via nervy senior creditors and depositors fearful of bail-ins at the region’s weakest institutions; 2) an unwelcome rise in the cost of borrowing for European banks who remain far more levered than US peers and are already grinding down balance sheets to the detriment of the hobbled European economy; and 3) likely heavy economic and social pressures in Cyprus going forward that, like Greece, increase euro exit risk to some degree. Add reasonable concerns about the credibility and coherence of euro policymaking during this latest episode and a side-order of German/Dutch ‘orthodoxy’ in sharp relief and it all looks a bit rum again.

Yet the reaction of world markets has been relatively calm so far. Wall St is still stalking record highs through it all for example as signs of the ongoing US recovery mount. So what gives? Today’s price action was interesting in that it started to show investors discriminating against European assets per se – most visible in the inability of European stocks to follow Wall St higher and lunge lower in euro/dollar exchange rate. European bank stocks and bonds have been knocked back relatively sharply this week post-Dijsselbloem too. If this decoupling pattern were to continue, it will remain a story of the size of the economic hit and relative underperformance. But that would change if concerns morphed into euro exit and broader systemic fears and prepare for global markets at large to feel the heat again too. We’re not back there yet with the benefit of the doubt on OMTs and pressured policy reactions still largely conceded. But many of the underlying movements that might feed system-wide stresses – what some term a “slow panic” like deposit shifts etc – will be impossible to monitor systematically by investors for many weeks yet and so nervy times are ahead as we enter Q2 after the Easter break.