Global Investing

Weekly Radar: Q3 earnings; China GDP; EU summit; US debate

Markets have turned glum again as October gets underway and the northern winter looms, weighed down by a relentless grind of negative commentary even if there’s been little really new information to digest. The net loss on MSCI’s world stock market index over the past seven days is a fairly restrained 1.5%, though we are now back down to early September levels. Debt markets have been better behaved. The likes of Spain’s 10-year yields are virtually unchanged over the past week amid all the rolling huff and puff from euroland. The official argument that Spain doesn’t need a bailout at these yield levels is backed up by analysis that shows even at the peak of the latest crisis in July average Spanish sovereign borrowing costs were still lower than pre-crisis days of 2006.  But with ratings downgrades still in the mix, it looks like a bit of a cat-and-mouse game for some time yet. Ten-year US Treasury yields, meantime, have nudged back higher again after the strong September US employment report and are hardly a sign of suddenly cratering world growth. What’s more, oil’s back up above $115 per barrel, with the broader CRB commodities index actually up over the past week. This contains no good news for the world, but if there are genuinely new worries about aggregate world demand, then not everyone in the commodity world has been let in on the ‘secret’ yet.

So why are we all shivering in our boots again? Perennial euro fears aside for a sec, the latest narratives go four ways at the moment. 1) The IMF’s World Economic Outlook (WEO) downgraded world growth and its Financial Stability report issued stern warnings on the extent of European bank deleveraging 2) a pretty lousy earnings season is just kicking off stateside, 3)  U.S. presidential election polls are neck and neck again and unnerving some people fearful of a clean sweep by Republicans and possible threats to the Federal Reserve’s independence and its hyper-active monetary policy 4) it’s a new quarter after a punchy Q3 and there’s not much new juice left to add to fairly hefty year-to-date gains. Maybe it’s a bit of all of the above.

But like so much of the year, whether the up moments or the downers, there’s pretty good reason to be wary of prevailing narratives.

On 1) the WEO downgrades: These have been flagged by the Fund for well over a fortnight and were relatively modest given some of the worst fears out there. Many economists argue IMF forecasts were far too sanguine in its last July update and are only now being corrected to reflect the well-documented summer doldrums. That doesn’t make the world a pretty place all of a sudden, but it does question why this alone should be an especially new factor to investors or market traders. If anything the most recent signs from global PMIs and the US housing or labour market show some stabilisation rather than deterioration. The Fund’s euro bank deleveraging estimate was also upped to $2.8 trillion by end-2013 from a $2.6 trillion call in April. Again, the scale of the forecast change is almost a margin of error — not because the nominal $200 bln adjustment is small but because of the “guesstimate” nature of the forecast. It’s also not clear how much it takes account of the welter of policy action in the pipeline and there are signs from the likes of Fitch and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development that the frontline of this banking retreat at least – central and eastern Europe – is not suffering as much as was originally feared. That may change, but it’s not at all different from what we already know here.

On 2) and the earnings season: the big question is how much of the dour earnings pre-announcements and profit warnings (the worst ratio of warnings to positive guidance since 2001) have already been built into prices.  It’s reasonable that the market braces for some negative surprises and gloomy corporate outlooks, but it’s hard to imagine anyone is unprepared for the Q3 numbers per se. Alcoa was first out of the traps as ever this week and a good snapshot of the overall picture – underlying aluminium demand is weakening, but its earnings actually beat the well-prepped forecasts. JPM is up on Friday. But the “real economy” global bellwethers  of GE, Google, Microsoft, Intel and IBM next week may be more telling than what the big banks show.

In Brazil, rate cuts but no economic recovery

Brazil’s central bank meets today and almost certainly will announce another half point cut in interest rates, the eighth consecutive reduction since last August. But so far there is little sign that its rate-cutting spree – the longest and most aggressive  in the developing world – is having much success in resuscitating the economy.

HSBC’s closely watched emerging markets index (EMI), released this week, shows Brazil as one of the weak links in the EM growth picture,  with sharp declines in manufacturing and export orders in the second quarter.

The government is expected to soon revise down its 4.5 percent growth projection for 2012; the central bank has already done so.  Industrial output is down, and automobile production has slumped 9 percent in the first half of 2012. Nor  it seems are record low interest rates encouraging the middle classes to take on more debt — the number of Brazilians seeking new credit fell 7.4 percent in the first half of this year, the biggest fall on record, according to credit research firm Seresa Experian.

Argentine CDS spiral on “peso-fication” fear

Investors with exposure to Argentina will have been dismayed in recent weeks by the surging cost of insuring that investment — Argentine 5-year credit default swaps have risen more than 300 basis points since mid-May to the highest levels since 2009. That means one must stump up close to $1.5 million to insure $10 million worth of Argentine debt against default for a five year period, data from Markit shows.

The rise coincides with growing fears that President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner is getting ready to crack down on people’s dollar holdings. Fears of forcible de-dollarisation have sent Argentine savers scurrying to the banks to withdraw their hard currency and stash it under mattresses. That has widened the gap between the official and the “black market” exchange rate. (see the graphic below from Capital Economics)

While government officials have denied there is such a move afoot, Fernandez has not helped matters by exhorting people to “think in pesos”.  That will be hard for Argentines, most of whom have vivid memories of hyperinflation, default and devaluation. Unsurprisingly, most prefer to save in dollars. 

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.

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.