Global Investing

Betting on (expensive and over-owned) Indian equities

How much juice is left in the Indian equity story? Mumbai’s share index has raced to successive record highs and has gained 24 percent so far this year in dollar terms as investors have bought into Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reform promises.

Foreign investors have led the charge through this year, pouring billions of dollars into the market. Now locals are also joining the party – Indian retail investors who steered clear of the bourse for three years are trickling back in – they have been net investors for 3 months running and last month they purchased Rs 108 billion worth of shares, Citi analysts note. 

Foreigners meanwhile have been moving down the market cap scale, with their ownership of the top 100-500 ranked companies rising from 13% to 15% over the quarter. That’s behind the broader BSE500 index’s outperformance compared to the Nifty index, Citi said.

Citi earlier this month predicted another 3 percent gains for Indian stocks by year-end. Equity derivatives indicate that is feasible – stock exchange data shows foreign investors are loading up on call contracts on the Nifty index at the 8,000 point and 8,100 point levels -a call option gives its holder the right to buy the underlying cash shares.   The index is currently trading at 7,800 points.

Now people are starting to wonder how much further this has to run.

One problem with the Indian market is the valuation. Always expensive by emerging market standards, Indian shares are trading at more than 16 times forward earnings on average, a bit above its long-term average and the second priciest market in Asia. Growth is chugging along at below 6 percent and high inflation means interest rates may rise further. Investors’ positioning moreover is pretty heavy -India is the second biggest emerging market overweight among funds after China. HSBC analysts advise keeping India at marketweight in portfolios, arguing that market upside would be limited from here.

Pension funds’ hedging dilemma

Pension funds have no shortage of concerns: their funding deficits are rapidly growing in the current low-return environment, and ageing populations are stretching their liabilities.

But a recent survey of pension funds trustees by French business school EDHEC has found that their biggest worry, cited by nearly 77% of the respondents, is the risk that their sponsor — the entity or employer that administers the  pension plan for employees – could go bust. Yet 84% of respondents fail to manage the sponsor risk.

So how do you hedge against such a risk?

You could buy credit default swaps of the sponsor company or buy out-of-the-money equity put derivatives to seek protection. But both options are costly and illiquid. Moreover, it might send a negative signal to the market: after all, if the company’s pension fund is seen effectively shorting the company in an aggressive manner, investors may wonder “What do they know that we don’t?”

Trash heap for sovereign CDS?

For all the ifs and buts about the latest euro rescue agreement, one of its most profound market legacies may be to sound the death knell for sovereign credit default swaps — at least those covering richer developed economies. In short, the agreement reached in Brussels last night outlined a haircut on Greek government bonds of some 50 percent as a way to keep the country’s debt mountain sustainable over time. But anyone who had bought default insurance on the debt in the form of CDS would not get compensated as long as the “restructuring” was voluntary, or so says a top lawyer for the International Swaps and Derivatives Association — the arbiter of CDS contracts.

ISDA general counsel  David Geen said there would be no change in the ruling to account for the size of the haircut:

As far we can see it’s still a voluntary arrangement and therefore we are in the same position as we were with the 21 percent when that was agreed (in July)

Regulate Us? We’re Hurt.

Obama advisor Paul Volcker wants more regulation.

Obama advisor Paul Volcker wants more regulation.

The popular image of Wall Street institutions involve swagger: the ability to absorb the competition’s blows, taking no prisoners, raking in the money… until it seems like the government could force them to rein in their excesses. It’s at that point that Wall Street’s tough guys suddenly sound wounded.

In Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, an article about the derivatives legislation being considered in Washington has this comment from Bank of America spokesman James Mahoney—the bank is “concerned that we won’t be able to provide our customers with financial products they need to manage risk and grow and that foreign banks will step in and take that business.”

There are several layers of bruised egos at work here – the assertion that America’s economic future is imperiled by the regulation of derivatives, and the boogeyman specter of a “foreign bank” that will take over. Add the obligatory reference to customers (which recalls the braying from various corners about how the threat to BP’s dividends are really an attack on “pensioners” and “retirees”), and there’s a lot of guilt being laid on in the statement.