Global Investing

Weekly Radar: Managing expectations

With a week to go in January, global stock markets are up 3.8 percent – gently nudging higher after the new year burst and with a continued evaporation of volatility gauges toward new 5-year lows. That’s all warranted by a reappraisal of the global economy as well as murmurs about longer-term strategic shifts back to under-owned and cheaper equities. But, as ever, you can never draw a straight line. If we were to get this sort of move every month this year, then total returns for the year on the MCSI global index would be 50 percent – not impossible I guess, but highly unlikely. So, at some stage the market will pause, hestitate or even take a step back. Is now the time just three weeks into the year?

Well lots of the much-feared headwinds have not materialized. The looming US budget ceiling showdown keeps getting put back – it’s now May by the way, even if another mini-cliff of sorts is due in March — but you get can-kicking picture here already. The US earnings season looks fairly benign so far, even given the outsize reaction to Apple after hours on Wednesday. European sovereign funding worries have proven wide of the mark to date too as money floods to Spain and even Portugal again. And Chinese data confirms a decent cyclical rebound there at least from Q3′s trough. All seems like pretty smooth sailing – aside perhaps from the UK’s slightly perplexing decision to add rather than ease uncertainty about its economic future. So what can go wrong? Well there’s still an event calendar to keep an eye on – next month’s Italian elections for example. But even that’s stretching it as a major bogeyman the likely outcome.

In truth, the biggest hurdle is most likely to be the hoary old problem of over-inflated expectations. Just look at the US economic surprise index – it’s tipped into negative territory for the first time since late last summer. Yet incoming US data has not been that bad this year. What the index tells you more about has been the rising expectations. (The converse, incidentally, is true of the euro zone where you could say the gloom’s been overdone.) Yet without the fuel of positive “surprises” we’re depending more on a structural story to buoy equity and that is a multi-year, glacial shift rather than necessarily a 2013 yarn. The start of the earnings season too is also interesting with regard to expectations. With little over 10 percent of the S&P500 reported by last Friday, the numbers showed 58% had beaten the street. That’s not bad at first glance but a good bit lower than the 65% average of the past four quarters. On the other hand, it’s been top-line corporate revenues that have supposedly been terrifying everyone and it’s a different picture there. Of the 10% of firms out to date, 65 percent have reported Q4 revenues ahead of forecasts – far ahead of the 50% average of the past four quarters. Early days, but that’s relatively positive on the underlying economy at least.

And the Apple story is yet another case in point. Even though its shares fell about 10% in after-hours trade on anything from a slight revenue miss, future guidance and market-share concerns — it says more about the scale of expectations built into this one, if spectacular, corporate story. Look at the actual numbers  and you see in absolute terms, its supposedly worrying iPhone shipments were still up 29% over the year to a new record and iPhone sales in greater China more than doubled. A tough crowd to please now, clearly, but again telling us more about expectations that underlying activity. For what it’s worth, Apple’s bottom-line earnings beat the street. 

And finally, the other big – structural rather than cyclical – story in play over the past 10 days has been the unwind of the euro safe-haven plays – hardly surprising given that now two of the three bailout countries (Ireland and Portugal) are back in the private markets again default-free and the one-time big worry (Spain) is drowning in foreign creditors all of a sudden. Bund, Treasury and Gilt yields of course have all been pushing higher, even though QE limits that move. But perhaps the biggest manifestation of the safe-haven exit has been the 3% Swiss franc retreat – who said the SNB couldn’t hold the line? Sterling’s slide too is as much to do with this as it is related to Cameron’s EU sideswipe. Watch out for others too – Nordic markets perhaps? London property? Gold is still higher on the year, but that just underlines the fact it was always more an inflation-hedge rather than haven from systemic shocks.       

Israel election cuts Iran risk

Israeli markets cheered election results today, with stocks rising 1 percent and the shekel edging up towards recent nine-month highs. Right-wing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed victory, but his Likud party and ultra-nationalist allies Yisrael Beitenu lost ground to a new centrist party. Final results are expected tomorrow.

Voters seem to have concentrated on domestic issues, including the state of the economy, but foreign investors tend to look at the geopolitical risks, and these appear to have lessened.

Punters have been removing their bets on an air strike on Iran, particularly since the re-election of Barack Obama as U.S. President in November. The chance of a strike on Iran by the U.S. or Israel by the end of the year has fallen to 23.1 percent today, according to online exchange Intrade.com, compared with around 35 percent shortly after the U.S. election, and a high of 60 percent in October.

What flows out, must flow in?

Much has been made of the flows into U.S. equities this month. Funds have rolled out the red carpet for a record $11.3 billion or so in net inflows over the first two weeks of the year, more when you factor in ETFs.

Just to cool the enthusiasm a little, it’s worth remembering that this comes after a torrid 2012.

Our graphic detailing Lipper’s latest estimated net flows in and out of various fund sectors shows combined outflows from U.S. equity funds and U.S. small cap funds reached a total of more than $150 billion last year. The fourth quarter alone contributed more than $50 billion of that.

Zara not Prada to tempt emerging market shoppers

By Dasha Afanasieva

Markets got a fright today when luxury goods maker Richemont reported stagnant Asian sales in the last three months of 2012.  Richemont shares as well as those in its rivals such as LVMH (maker of Louis Vuitton handbags and Hennessy cognac) tanked after the news.

Like many of its peers in the west, Richemont the maker of Cartier watches, looks to China to drive its growth as the United States and Europe face the stark prospect of stagnation.

But the fastest growing class of the world’s fastest growing economy will probably not be Cartier-clad.

Emerging policy-One cut, two steady

What a varied bunch emerging markets have become. At last week’s monetary policy meetings, we saw one rate rise (Serbia) and differing messages from the rest. Mexico turned dovish while hitherto dovish Brazilian central bank finally mentioned the inflation problem. Russia meanwhile kept markets guessing, signalling it could either raise rates next month or cut them.

This week, a cut looks likely in Turkey while South Africa and the Philippines will almost certainly keep interest rates steady.

Turkey’s main policy rate – the one-week repo rate – and overnight lending rate are widely expected to stay on hold at 5.50 percent and 9 percent respectively on Tuesday. But some predict a cut in the overnight borrowing rate – the lower end of the interest rate corridor, motivated partly by the need to keep the currency in check.   The lira is trading near 10-month highs, thanks to buoyant inflows to Turkish capital markets.  That has helped lower inflation from last year’s double-digit levels.

Weekly Radar: Market stalemate sees volatility ebb further

Global markets have found themselves at an interesting juncture of underlying new year bullishness stalled by trepidation over several short-term headwinds (US debt debate, Q4 earnings, Italian elections etc etc) – the net result has been stalemate, something which has sunk volatility gauges even further. Not only did this week’s Merrill funds survey show investors overweight bank stocks for the first time since 2007, it also showed demand for protection against a sharp equity market drops over the next 3 months at lowest since at least 2008. The latter certainly tallies with the ever-ebbing VIX at its lowest since June 2007. Though some will of course now argue this is “cheap” – it’s a bit like comparing the cost of umbrellas even though you don’t think it’s going to rain.

Anyway, the year’s big investment theme – the prospect of a “Great Rotation” back into equity from bonds worldwide – has now even captured the sceptical eye of one of the market’s most persistent bears. SocGen’s Albert Edwards still assumes we’ll see carnage on biblical proportions first — of course — but even he says long-term investors with 10-year views would be mad not to pick up some of the best valuations in Europe and Japan they will likely ever see. “Unambiguously cheap” was his term – and that’s saying something from the forecaster of the New Ice Age.

For others, the very fact that Edwards has turned even mildly positive may be reason enough to get nervy! When the last bear turns bullish, and all that…

Korean exporters’ yen nightmare (corrected)

(corrects name of hedge fund in para 3 to Symphony Financial Partners)

Any doubt about the importance of a weaker yen in thawing the frozen Japanese economy will have been dispelled by the Nikkei’s surge to 32-month highs this week. Since early December, when it became clear an incoming Shinzo Abe administration would do its best to weaken the yen, the equity index has surged as the yen has fallen.

Those moves are giving sleepless nights to Japan’s neighbours who are watching their own currencies appreciate versus the yen. South Korean companies, in particular, from auto to electronics manufacturers, must be especially worried. They had a fine time in recent years  as the yen’s strength since 2008 allowed them to gain market share overseas. But since mid-2012, the won has appreciated 22 percent versus the yen.  In this period, MSCI Korea has lagged the performance of MSCI Japan by 20 percent. Check out the following graphic from my colleague Vincent Flasseur (@ReutersFlasseur)

David Baran, co-founder of Tokyo-based Symphony Financial Partners, notes the relative performance of Hyundai and Toyota (Hyundai shares have fallen 2.5 percent this year adding to 13.5 percent loss in the last quarter of 2012. Toyota on the other hand is up 5 percent so far in 2013 after gaining 31 percent in Oct-Dec last year). Baran says he has gone long the Nikkei and short the Seoul index (the Kospi) and (Hong Kong’s) Hang Seng, while taking a short position on the yen. He says:

What’s next? A U.S. downgrade or Spanish bailout?

What will happen first? A U.S. credit rating downgrade or the country’s unemployment falling below 7 percent?

Or Spain having no other option but to ask for a bailout?

Bank of America Merrill Lynch asked investors in its monthly fund manager survey what “surprises”  they saw coming up first this year.

And the result is: bad news will come first.

A U.S. debt downgrade got the top spot, with more than 35 percent of investors seeing that happen first, with crisis-hit Spain having to ask for more help a close second, at just over 30 percent.

Brazil’s inflation problem

When will Brazil’s central bank admit it has an inflation problem? Markets will be watching today’s rate-setting meeting for clues.

There is no doubt about the outcome of today’s meeting at the Banco Central do Brasil (BCB) — no one expects it to do anything but leave interest rates steady at the current 7.25 percent. But the BCB has been focused on growth for 18 months and has cut interest rates by 525 basis points in this time, its actions helping to drive the real 10 percent lower last year versus the dollar. The government meanwhile has unleashed huge doses of fiscal stimulus. The result, rather than a growth recovery, is a steady rise in inflation.

Goldman Sachs’ Latin America economist Alberto Ramos points out that Brazilian inflation came in above the 4.5 percent target for the third straight year in 2012 and the balance of inflation risks has deteriorated. Gasoline prices are to rise from next week and drought is making hydro-power generation more costly. Analysts polled by Reuters expect 2013 price growth at 5.53 percent. Ramos writes:

Mali risks in focus

The international focus is on  gold-producing country Mali after days of French air strikes on al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebel strongholds in the north of the West African country. France expects Gulf Arab states will help an African campaign against the rebels,  and a meeting of donors for the Mali operation is due at the end of the month. West African defence chiefs are meeting today to approve plans to speed up the deployment of 3,300 regional troops.

Mali isn’t normally on the radar screens of international portfolio investors, with little external debt and no developed capital markets.

But it is Africa’s third biggest gold producer, with London-listed Randgold the biggest investor and other foreign firms such as Anglogold also having investments.