Global Investing

Market exhaustion?

It’s curious to see so many asset managers reaffirm their faith in a bullish 2012 for world markets just as a buzzing first quarter comes to a close on Friday with hefty gains in equities and risk assets.  Whether or not there is a mechanical review of portfolios at quarter end, it’s certainly a reasonable time for review. The euro zone crisis has of course eased, the ECB has pumped the banks full of cash and the U.S. recovery continues.  So, no impending disaster then (unless you subscribe to the increasingly-prevalent hard-landing fears in China). But after 11+ percent gains in world equities in just three months on the back of all this information, you have to wonder where the “new news” is going to come from here. The surprise factor looks over and we’re highly unlikely to get 10%+ gains in global stocks every quarter this year.  So, is it time for tired markets to sober up for a while or maybe even reconsider the risk of reversal again? Strategists at JPMorgan Asset Management, at least, reckon the economic news has just lost its oomph.

There are broad signs of exhaustion in markets, which is coinciding with a softening in the data, suggesting that in the short term the moderation in the “risk on” environment may continue.

JPMAM cite the rollover in the Citigroup economic surprises indices, shown below, and also say their own propietary Risk Measurement index — a 39-factor model built on data from money markets, equities, economic data, commodities etc — is flagging more caution.

Time for a pause and bit of a think then, at least until the first-quarter corporate earnings season kicks in next month. And it’s here the next leg of any equities story may have to play out, rather than in the corridors of central banks and finance ministries. Gavyn Davies, Fulcrum Asset Management chairman and formerly BBC chairman and Goldman Sachs economist, reckons the valuation case for equities is pretty strong after a lousy decade — even if government bond yields continue rising. What’s less certain, he says, is whether the historically high share of nominal GDP commanded by after-tax corporate profits can persist. This requires a paradigm shift, one he reckons is bridged by globalisaton trends. One quarter won’t solve that puzzle, but attention may shift in that direction over the coming weeks.

 

Three snapshots for Monday

The NAHB U.S. homebuilder sentiment index held at 28, below economists’ expectations for 30.

Apple will initiate a regular quarterly dividend of $2.65 a share in July and will buy back up to $10 billion of its stock starting in fiscal 2013.

Energy leads the way for commodities this year, but with a big divergence between the components – gasoline sitting at the top while natural gas sits near the bottom.

Iran looms larger on Gulf radar screens

Tensions over Iran may be helping to push up oil prices as traders worry about a widespread embargo on the country’s crude oil but markets in neighbouring Gulf energy-rich economies are not benefiting.

One year after the Arab Spring started in Tunisia, investors remain sensitive to political risk in the Middle East.

Debt insurance costs have risen sharply this month for gas exporter Qatar and oil giant Saudi Arabia, just as global worries appear to be easing about the euro zone crisis.

If China catches a cold…

China has defied predictions of a hard economic landing for some time now so it is somewhat unsettling to see  investors positioning for a sharp slowdown in the world’s second-largest economy.

Over the last 10 years, the world has become accustomed to Chinese annual GDP growth of above 9 percent. A seemingly insatiable demand for commodities from soya beans to iron ore has catapulted the Asian giant to near the top of the global trade table. China is the biggest trading partner for countries on nearly every continent, from Angola to Australia.

But many are now fretting that an unhappy coincidence between stuttering global demand and domestic strains in the property and banking sectors could knock Chinese growth to below 7 percent (the level commonly identified as a ‘hard landing’), with grave implications for the rest of the world.

Venezuela — high risk, higher yield

Venezuela's Chavez with Lukashenko of Belarus

Which bond would you rather buy — one issued by a country with an unpredictable leader but huge oil reserves, or one with  a dictatorial president as well as empty coffers? The answer should be a no brainer. Not so. The countries are Venezuela and Belarus, and a basic comparison of their debt profiles shows how strangely risk can be priced in emerging markets.

Venezuela’s 2022 dollar bond yields 15.5 percent while the 2022 issue from state oil firm PDVSA trades at 17 percent yield. Venezuelan debt pays a 1200 basis point premium to U.S. Treasuries, according to the EMBI Global bond index.

Now check out Belarus. Dire public finances, a huge recent currency devaluation, and seeking an $8 billion bailout from the IMF, yet able to pay 11 percent on its 2018 issue. Its yield premium to Treasuries is 900 bps or three percentage points less than Venezuela.

Bad economic data, please

Interesting twist at the moment – how are financial markets going to view not-so-bad or good data out of the United States in the run-up to the next Federal Reserve meeting.

Investors have been pricing in a chunky operation by the Fed to feed the markets with cheap cash – look at the gold, silver, the Australian dollar and the Canadian dollar. Bad data from the United States will keep investors confident of such Fed action and support the flows into high yielding assets.

But any data showing the pace of recovery in the world’s largest economy is not in such a bad shape. Investors will adjust their expectations and positions, causing a sell-off in equities, speculative-grade credit and high-yielding currencies.

from Commodity Corner:

Why are commodities risky assets for investors?

Recently I received an email asking me to explain why commodities are risky assets. "I would think energy and raw
materials would still be in demand, even if Dubai defaults," the writer said.

 It's a good point. People need to eat, drink, drive and live. They can't do it without commodities.

 But for investors commodities are risky. That is because they mostly invest using commodity futures, which are subject to
wild price swings because they react strongly and immediately to demand and supply news and changing expectations for the future.    Since commodities became more popular with investors they have also become highly influenced by market sentiment and macro economic indicators and that's why they have been moving alongside equities.

When is a speculator not a speculator?

A lot of fuss is made about the dangers of speculators in commodity markets. But who is a speculator and who isn’t is based on a definition drawn up in the early part of the last century in the United States. The definition is no longer valid and anybody looking at those reports should be wary of drawing any firm conclusions.

For a start the word “speculator” with negative connotations is applied to pension funds, which invest over the long term to provide retirement income for many people around the world. Hedge funds are normally speculators but if they have hold the physical commodity then they can say they are commercial hedgers. Taking this theme a little further many natural resource companies run their Treasuries as profit making centres, which encourages them to trade the commodities they produce.

The London Metal Exchange has said it won’t go down the route the CFTC has and publish a weekly report detailing speculative long and short positions because there is no clear definition.

Investors break commodities link with equities

Investors smelling profits in commodities are using the sector as an early cycle play, alongside equities, because a lack of production capacity means higher prices sooner rather than later. 

Historically, prices of natural resources lag equities, which typically front run the economic cycle by between 18 to 24 months. The change is also partly due to the tumbling dollar, a major driver in recent weeks.

The natural resources sector is also one of the last to price in economic expansion. But not this time.

Start building the bunker

They keep telling us that the recession is over so maybe now’s the time to start worrying about inflation. That’s the view many wealthy investors are already taking, reasoning that a little bit of the yellow shiny stuff will provide some comfort as we start piling our cash into wheelbarrows to do the weekly groceries shop.

It is gold exchange traded commodities (ETCs) that have seen the biggest investor inflows this year so perhaps it’s not surprising that the gold price broke through $1,000 an ounce this week.

“Investors are concerned about sovereign risk, quantitative easing, government deficits and the outlook for the US dollar,” said Nicholas Brooks, head of research and investment strategy at ETF Securities, at a Dow Jones Indexes commodities briefing on Tuesday. “They are using gold as an insurance policy.”