Global Investing

Weekly Radar: Cyprus hogs the headlines but contagion fears limited

CYPRUS BRINKMANSHIP/BERNANKE IN LONDON/BRICS SUMMIT/MARCH CONSUMER SENTIMENT IN EUROPE/JAPAN INFLATION-JOBS-PRODUCTION/US-UK Q4 GDP REVISIONS

Cyprus has hogged the headlines since Friday, with bank closures now extended to a full week as they try to sort out a very messy bailout - made worse by domestic policy missteps over taxing bank deposits. As with Italy’s elections, the saga certainly challenges any market assumption that the euro crisis had abated for good and it’s also loaded with a series of potential precedents – not least the biggest taboo of them all, a euro exit. This is where the politics, brinkmanship and smoke-filled-rooms come in.  Yet as Cyprus is so small and its banks in such a peculiar setup – given the scale of Russian and other foreign depositors – the euro group, ECB and IMF appear determined not to be pressured into a bailout above the already gigantic 60 percent of GDP.

And, as with Greece last year, they will likely stand firm and leave any decision to exit up to the Cypriots themselves. You can’t rule out that they may choose to go and regional risks rise somewhat as a result. But if the islanders are genuinely worried about a 6-10% tax on deposits, they may also think long and hard about the chance those deposits would be redenominated into a heavily devalued Cypriot pound. Just ask the Argentinians what that feels like. A deposit haircut may seem a like a half-decent deal by comparison if some other mix of Russian loans, pension raids or securitised future gas revenues doesn’t stack up.

So, the small scale of Cyprus, a lack of direct systemic banking or sovereign debt linkages and the likelihood of some sort of political deal eventually emerging have all served to limit the fallout from the drama on world markets – rightly or wrongly.   World equities have been knocked back a bit, but remain up 5.75% year-to-date. The VIX popped higher, but remains super-low under 13%. Italian stocks are back to where they were on Friday afternoon, while the more telling Italian and Spanish 10-yr bond yields have even nudged lower. A successful Spanish government bond auction on Thursday, where yields across all maturities fell from the previous auctions in February, showed just how limited any Cyprus contagion has been so far at least.

So, unjustifiably complacent? Perhaps – there are certainly lots of bogeymen in this story. But let’s be clear about the “shock factor”. Back on Jan 1, the year kicked off with several “known knowns” ahead that everybody already knew would be messy – the US fiscal cliff, the Italian elections and the Cyprus bailout. And they all proved exactly that – messy. But few investors anywhere could claim to have not been braced for these. To be sure, all could blow up into something worse still, but none yet amounts to an investment ‘game changer’. Radars are up, however, and funds polled by BoAMerrill reckon the euro crisis has moved back to the top of their list of tail risks for the first time since August. We shall see if they continue to hold their nerve as the first quarter closes next week. More worrying for investors in Europe has been the continued funk in business sentiment in March and the Cyprus ructions won’t have helped that much since. Patience in waiting for some broad-based European economic recovery may be more limited than the seeming tolerance of  noisy Cyprus bailout. 

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.

Weekly Radar: Bounceback as year winds down

Yet another Greek impasse, a French downgrade, ongoing DC cliff dodging and a downturn in Citi’s G10 economic surprise index (though not yet in the US one) could have been plausible reasons this week to extend the post-election global markets swoon. But at 8 consecutive days in the red up to last Friday, that was the longest losing streak since last November, and a lot of froth had been shaken off these year-end markets already.

We’ve seen a decent bounceback in nearly all risks assets instead. That may be partly due to volume-sapping Thanksgiving week and partly due to the fact that more and more funds think the year is effectively over now anyhow. The only big wildcard left is the timing of an fiscal agreement stateside and few managers now honestly believe there won’t be some sort of a deal. (Deutsche, for the record, said this week that the divide between the sides over tax is much less than many assume).  Greece is a slower burner but again, few people believe it will be hung out to dry any time soon and a deal on the next tranche – whatever about deep and meaningful OSI, payment moratoriums and loan rate cuts – will most likely be reached next week at the latest. Talk of a EFSF-funded Greek debt buyback meantime has helped pushed its debt yields to the lowest since the restructuring.  And the French downgrade was probably the least surprising move of the past five years.

So we’re left closing out a half-decent investment year with a view of early 2013 that is framed by a Chinese cyclical upswing, a likely additional fillip to business planning from a US fiscal deal on top of an already brisk housing recovery there, and the likely return of one the euro bailout patients, Ireland, to the syndicated dollar capital markets almost a year before its bailout programme ends. Further into the year gets much trickier as usual, with elections in Germany, Italy, Israel and Iran to name but four… but  as Bernanke reminded us this week and every investor experienced in full voice in 2012, the central banks are heavily committed to reflation policies now and will not stand idly by if there’s yet another serious downturn.

Weekly Radar: Earnings wobble as payrolls, BOJ, G20 eyed

Easy come, easy go. A choppy October prepares to exit on a downer – just like it arrived. World equities lost about 3 percent over the past seven, mostly on Tuesday, and reversed the previous week’s surge to slither back to early September levels. Just for the record, Tuesday was a poor imitation of the lunge this week 25 years ago – it only the worst single-day percentage loss since July and only the 10th biggest drop of the past year alone. But it was a reminder how fragile sentiment remains despite an unusually bullish, if policy-driven year.

Why the wobble? t’s hard to square the still fairly rum, or at best equivocal, incoming macro data and earnings numbers alongside year-to-date western stock market gains of 10-25%. There’s more than enough room to pare back some more of that and still leave a fairly decent year given the macro activity backdrop and we now only have about 6 full trading weeks left of 2012. So it will likely remain bumpy – not least with U.S. and Chinese leadership changes into the mix as mood music. The sheer weight of a gloomy Q3 earnings season seems to have hit home this week, with revenue declines or downgraded outlooks  – particularly in “real economy” firms such as Caterpillar, Dupont,  Intel and IBM etc – worrying many despite more decent bottom line earnings. As some investors pointed out, earnings can’t continue to beat expectations if revenues continue to wither and there are still precious few signs of an convincing economic turnaround worldwide to draw a line under the latter.

The policy-driven equity boom of the past couple of months has also been suspect to many strategists given the lack of rotation from defensive stocks to cyclicals, showing little conviction in central bank reflation policies succeeding soon even though ever more ZIRP/QE has seen something of an indiscriminate dash to any fixed income yields you care to mention – from junk to ailing sovs and now even CLOs! The bond rush has swept up an awful lot of odd stuff –  not least 10-year dollar debt from countries such as Bolivia and Zambia, whatever about Spain, and corporate junk with CCC ratings and current default rates of almost 30%! As some other funds have pointed out, another weird aspect of this has been the appetite for long duration – which doesn’t fit with any belief that reflationary policies will work on a reasonable timeframe. So, is that it? Central banks will continue to wrap everything in cotton wool for the next decade without ever succeeding in boosting growth or even inflation? Hmmm. The various U.S. growth signals are not ultra-convincing, not yet at least, but they’re not to be ignored either. Thursday’s news of a bounceback in the UK economy in Q3 also shows the prevailing stagnation narrative is not without question. And everyone seems convinced Chinese growth has troughed in Q3 –and  just look at the 66% rise in Baltic Freight prices in little over a month. The rebound in super-low equity volatility in the U.S. and Europe this week is also worth watching – though it has to be said, these gauges remain historically low about 20%.

Next week: Call and response?

The Greek vote next Sunday now stands front and centre of pretty much all investment thinking, but the problem is that it may still be days and weeks before we get a true picture of what’s happened, whether a government can be formed and what their stance will be. If the new parliament cannot clearly back the existing bailout, even after a bout of  horse-trading, then a game of chicken with Europe ensues.  Eurogroup meets again on Thursday and there’s a German/French/Italy/Spain summit on Friday.  But G20 leaders gather in Mexico as all this is unfolding, so they will certainly be quorate if some sort of global response is required to any initial market shock. What’s more, the FOMC is meeting Tuesday and Wednesday should Bernanke feel the US needs urgent insulation from the fallout regardless of broader action. But it’s certainly not beyond the bounds of reason that coordinated central bank action materializes next week if markets do indeed go skewways after the Greek poll. They have all clearly been consulting on the issue lately via telephone and bilaterals. And the assumption of more QE is there among investors. Three quarters of the 260+ funds polled by BoAMerrill Lynch this month expect another ECB LTRO by the end of Q3 and almost a half expecting more Fed QE over the same time.

And maybe it is this assumption of massive policy response that’s preventing markets capitulating outright. Money is gradually going to ground, but it’s not yet thrown in the towel completely as you can see from major equity indices, volatility gauges and interbank spreads etc. And there are a lot of headwinds everywhere over the next six months, the US election, fiscal cliff, end of operation twist stateside – and that’s in one of the few major western economies that was generating any significant growth this year. In other words, there are no shortage of arguments for another monetary boost. A heavy econ data slate during the week will also reveal just how much the world economy has run into sand this quarter. The standouts are the flash PMIs for June, the US Philly Fed index for June and UK jobs and inflation numbers.

As to the lack of response to last weekend’s Spanish bank bailout, it was weird in many ways that anyone really expected a major rally on this just six days ahead of a Greek vote which could throw the whole bloc into chaos.  Even if you thought the Spanish bailout was good, and it was certainly a necessary if not sufficient step, you would still not return to Spanish debt until the next couple of weeks of events had cleared. So, in that respect, it’s unlikely the market made any real judgement on it either way. The subsequent credit rating cuts from Moody’s have not helped and yields have spiked to the 7% level flashing red lights. But it’s hard to see how any exposed frontline euro market, from Spain to Italy and Ireland to Portugal, can really stabilise ahead of the weekend.  One fear on the Spanish rescue was of private investors’ subordination to EU/IMF creditors in any workout of Spanish debt. But even that too may have been overstated when it comes to the sovereign. For a start, the interest rate charged on the funds means a massive saving for Madrid compared with prevailing market rates and, as Barclays argued, actually increases the overall pie available for any workout, with a possible increase in projected recovery rates compared with the pre-bailout setup.  If that was the big concern, then the subsequent rise in Spanish yields most likely is more Greek than Spanish in origin.