Global Investing

Investors investigated

We’ve wondered before about the validity of the British ‘shareholder spring’ narrative. A few high-profile casualties gave the story drama, but as we showed back in the summer, evidence of a widespread change in thinking was hard to find. KPMG has arrived at a similar conclusion this week.

This morning, FairPensions, a British charity which aims to promote responsible investment, has dug deeper into the behaviour of major institutional investors during that supposedly febrile period, and among the nuggets it has produced is the chart below of voting on contentious pay reports at annual meetings.

There are some questions which crop up straight away. What did BlackRock and Standard Life like so much about the Barclays pay deal that no other investor could spot; why did BlackRock think Martin Sorrell’s potential 500% bonus was a goer; and given that, why did almost everyone think a maximum bonus award of 923% of BP CEO Bob Dudley’s salary was just dandy?

(For the record, BlackRock tells us that it does not comment on voting decisions, and notes its Barclays vote was outsourced over a potential conflict of interest linked to its 2009 acquisition of BGI. Standard Life couldn’t find the right people to comment directly, but a spokeswoman noted public statements that it had been pacified by concessions made by Barclays shortly before the AGM)

In truth, and as FairPensions acknowledges, investors were picking their fights during the UK AGM season, which helps to explain some of the oddities in the above graphic. But it’s fair to ask whether such inconsistencies are helpful in drawing a line under excessive pay deals or promoting the idea of investor stewardship

Frontier markets: safe haven for stability seekers

Frontier markets have an air of adventure and unpredictability about them. One is tempted to ask: Who knows what will happen next?

The figures tell a different story.

In fact, emerging markets overtook frontier markets in terms of volatility of returns as long ago as June 2006, as a recent HSBC report shows. And a more significant milestone was passed a year later, in June 2007, when even developed markets overtook frontier markets in terms of volatility of returns.

Since then, frontier markets have without fail stayed more stable than developed and emerging markets. In 2012, the gap between the closely-correlated developed/emerging markets bloc and frontier markets widened even further as returns in the latter seem to be becoming even more stable. According to David Wickham, EM investment director at HSBC Global Asset Management:

What would a benign dictator do with the euro?

The idea of a “benign dictator” may well be an oxymoron but as a thought exercise it goes a way to explaining why giant global fund manager Blackrock thinks the chances of a euro zone collapse remains less than 20 percent.  When push comes to shove, in other words, Europe can sort this mess out. Speaking at an event showcasing the latest investment outlook from Blackrock Investment Institute, the strategy hub of the investment firm with a staggering $3.7 trillion of assets under management,  Richard Urwin said the problem in trying to second-guess the outcome of the euro crisis was the extent to which domestic political priorities were working against a resolution of the three-year old crisis.

“The thing is if you could imagine a benign dictator, then the problems are all solvable and could be fixed in a matter of weeks,” said Urwin, who is Head of Investments at Blackrock’s Fiduciary Mandate Investment Team.  Playing with the idea, Urwin said parts of a workable plan may involve debt rescheduling or restructuring for the existing bailout countries Greece, Portugal and Ireland; a buildup of a sufficiently large liquidity fund to help the larger countries such as Spain and Italy; a euro banking union with deposit guarantees and single supervisor to ring-fence and close insolvent banks that will never function properly; the creation of a central finance ministry and the issuance of jointly-guaranteed euro bonds etc etc.

Urwin’s point of course was not to advocate a dictator for the euro zone — although he acknowledged the euro was not exactly a child of European electorates to begin with–  rather that euro members have the ability if not the willingness yet to solve the crisis and that global investors looking for signposts in the saga needed to watch closely the runes of political cooperation and leadership instead of the economics and debt dynamics alone.  Where exactly that turns is hard to guess, but but it may well be that the process that has to wait until the German elections next year, he added.

Turning point for lagging emerging stock returns?

Over the past year emerging markets have broadly lagged an upswing in global equity markets, yielding cumulative returns of 4.5 percent since last August. That’s less than half the return developed markets have provided (see graphic below).

But there are two reasons why a  turning point may be approaching. First the positioning. Foreign holdings of emerging equities have plunged in the past six months and according to research by HSBC they are at the lowest in four years. That’s especially the case in Asia, where fund managers have been jittery about China’s growth slowdown.

International funds appear to have responded aggressively to signs of a slowdown in emerging market economies, the bank observes, adding:

Top fund firms lose $16 trln in 2008

Watson Wyatt tells us the world’s largest fund managers lost $16 trillion of assets in 2008 as the worst of the global financial crisis took its toll on the top 500 global fund firms.  The fall in assets is the largest since Watson Wyatt’s research began in 1996 and doesn’t even include the dog days of early 2009 when no one knew quite when the flood would abate. 

Indeed, the survey to end-2008 is a wee bit limited, for all its completeness. A lot has changed in the asset management world since then.  Not least, the giant deal which brought BlackRock and Barclays Global Investors together to create the world’s largest money manager with assets of $2.8 trillion. Watson Wyatt’s survey ranks BGI as the world’s largest fund firm with $1.5 trillion.

Perhaps most pertinently though, the survey highlights in some detail an unprecented slump in passive assets during the year, shrinking by more than 25 percent to $4.5 trillion. Last in, first out it seems, as that has been followed by a 2009 marked by a swift and unapologetic return to the low fees of index investment after the shock of the credit crisis left active managers scratching their heads with the rest of us.

Another nail in the Malthusian coffin?

All the talk of addressing the global imbalances throws a spotlight on contrasting demographic trends in the world’s two most populous nations — China and India.

Prior to the financial crisis, India’s annual growth rate of about 9 percent seemed positively moribund next to China’s double-digit economic expansion. But purely on demographics, the dimming power of the US consumer could give India an edge over its neighbour in the longer run.

That’s what India’s trade minister Anand Sharma seemed to suggest last week when he reminded the audience at a London conference that the country had “20 percent of the world’s children”:

from DealZone:

Goldman’s Viniar: Why pay twice?

HEALTHFOOD-ASIA/Turns out Goldman Sachs is a staunch advocate of going organic -- when it comes to the money management business.

As Barclays auctioned off its Barclays Global Investors unit this year, Goldman was widely seen as a likely acquirer. That is until Blackrock In under Larry Fink emerged as the buyer with a $13.5 billion deal.

Lots of other money managers are expected to be sold, as the industry consolidates and cash-strapped banks look for valuables to pawn. But Viniar told analysts Goldman's preference is to grow the business without deals, and appeared to question the very idea of money manager deals.

from Summit Notebook:

Blackrock sees opportunities in shrinking Japan

Japan's population has peaked and all the projections have it sliding sharply in coming decades, raising questions about investment opportunities when emerging markets, in particular, offer much more obvious growth opportunities.

By 2055 government researchers expect Japan's population to slide 30 percent to below 90 million from around 128 million with mushrooming numbers of retirees to be supported by a dwindling workforce.

Yet Japan will still be an important destination for world investors, argues Hiroyuki Arita, the Japan head of Blackrock, the world's largest money manager.

Shorting in the forest

Short-sellers have come under pressure especially after the collapse of Lehman Brothers as regulators and politicians blamed them for wrecking the financial markets.

Mark Lyttleton, fund manager at BlackRock, says short selling is essential in bringing returns, especially in absolute return strategy.

“Unless you have the ability to short, it is very difficult to make money in absolute terms. It is easy to say it but it’s a bit harder to do it,” he told a briefing.

Recession is no secret

Mike Trudel, U.S.-based managing director and senior product specialist at BlackRock, has become convinced the economic recession really has arrived.

When he checked into London’s hip upmarket hotel Sanderson earlier this week, the staff uniform caught his eye.

Hotel staff were wearing black T-shirts, with RECESSION written in big letters in front. They highlighted SI in red – like this: