Given almost biblical gloom about the world economy at the moment, you really have to do a double take looking at Wall Street’s so-called “Fear Index”. The ViX , which is essentially the cost of options on S&P500 equities, acts as a geiger counter for both U.S. and global financial markets. Measuring implied volatility in the market, the index surges when the demand for options protection against sharp moves in stock prices is high and falls back when investors are sufficiently comfortable with prevailing trends to feel little need to hedge portfolios. In practice — at least over the past 10 years — high volatility typically means sharp market falls and so the ViX goes up when the market is falling and vice versa. And because it’s used in risk models the world over as a proxy for global financial risk, a rising ViX tends to shoo investors away from risky assets while a falling ViX pulls them in — feeding the metronomic risk on/risk off behaviour in world markets and, arguably, exaggerating dangerously pro-cyclical trading and investment strategies.
Following are notes from our weekly editorial planner:
Oh the irony. Perhaps the best illustration of how things have changed over the past few weeks is that risk markets now fall when Spain is NOT seeking a sovereign bailout rather than when it is! The 180 degree turn in logic in just two weeks is of course thanks to the “Draghi put” – which, if you believe the ECB chief last week, means open-ended, spread-squeezing bond-buying/QE will be unleashed as soon as countries request support and sign up to a budget monitoring programme. The fact that both Italy and Spain are to a large extent implementing these plans already means the request is more about political humble pie – in Spain’s case at least. In Italy, Monti most likely would like to bind Italy formally into the current stance. So the upshot is that – assuming the ECB is true to Draghi’s word – any deterioration will be met by unsterilized bond buying – or effectively QE in the euro zone for the first time. That’s not to mention the likelihood of another ECB rate cut and possibility of further LTROs etc. With the FOMC also effectively offering QE3 last week on a further deterioration of economic data stateside, the twin Draghi/Bernanke “put” has placed a safety net under risk markets for now. And it was badly needed as the traditional August political vacuum threatened to leave equally seasonal thin market in sporadic paroxysms. There are dozens of questions and issues and things that can go bump in the night as we get into September, but that’s been the basic cue taken for now. The backup in Treasury and bund yields shows this was not all day trading by the number jockeys. The 5 year bund yield has almost doubled in a fortnight – ok, ok, so it’s still only 0.45%, but the damage that does to you total returns can be huge.
As we wait for ECB Mario Draghi to come good on his promise to do all in his power to save the euro, the case for governments intervening in financial markets is once again to the fore. Draghi’s verbal intervention last week basically opened up a number of fronts. First, he clearly identified the extreme government bond spreads within the euro zone, where Germany and almost half a dozen euro countries can borrow for next to nothing while Spain and Italy pay 4-7%, as making a mockery of a single monetary policy and that they screwed up the ECB’s monetary policy transmission mechanism. And second, to the extent that the euro risks collapse if these spreads persist or widen further, Draghi then stated it’s the ECB’s job to do all it can to close those spreads. No euro = no ECB. It’s existential, in other words. The ECB can hardly be pursuing “price stability” within the euro zone by allowing the single currency to blow up.
Ok, it’s a big policy week and of course it could either way for markets. An awful lot of ECB and Fed easing expectations may well be in the price already, so some delivery would appear to be important especially now that ECB chief Mario Draghi has set everyone up for fireworks in Frankfurt.
European equities are getting some investor interest again.
As the ongoing debt crisis erodes consumer spending and corporate profits, the euro zone’s share in investors’ equity portfolios has fallen in the past year –Reuters polls show holdings of euro zone stocks at 25 percent versus over 36 percent a year back. Cash has fled instead to U.S. stocks, opening up a record valuation gap between the European and U.S. shares. (see graphics below from my colleague Scott Barber). In fact no other region has ever been considered as cheap as the euro zone is now, a monthly survey by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch found in June.
One of the very few positives for the world economy over the second quarter — or at least for the majority of the world that imports oil — has been an almost $40 per barrel plunge in the spot price of Brent crude. As the euro zone crisis, yet another soft patch stateside and a worryingly steep slowdown in the BRICs all combined to pull the demand rug from under the energy markets, the traditional stabilising effects of oil returned to the fray. So much so that by the last week in June, the annual drop in oil prices was a whopping 20%. Apart from putting more money in household and business purses by directly lowering fuel bills and eventually the cost of products with high energy inputs, the drop in oil prices should have a significant impact on headline consumer inflation rates that are already falling well below danger rates seen last year. And for central banks around the world desperate to ease monetary policy and print money again to offset the ravages of deleveraging banks, this is a major relief and will amount to a green light for many — not least the European Central Bank which is now widely expected to cut interest rates again this Thursday.
QE, some version of it or even the thought of it, seems to have raised all boats yet again — for a bit at least. You’d not really guess it from all the brinkmanship, crisis management and apocalyptic debates of the past month, but June has so far turned out to be a fairly upbeat month – weirdly. World equities are up more than 6 percent since June, lead by a 20 percent jump in European bank stocks and even a 20 percent jump in depressed Greek stocks. The Spanish may found themselves at the centre of the euro debt storm now, but even 10-year Spanish debt yields have returned to June 1 levels after briefly toying with record highs above 7% in and around its own bank bailout and the Greek election. And the likes of Italian and Irish borrowing rates are actually down this month. Ok, all that’s after a lousy May that blew up most of the LTRO-inspired first-quarter market gains. But, on a broad global level at least, stocks are still in the black for the year so far. It was certainly “sell in May” yet again this year, but it’s open question whether you stay away til St Ledgers day in September, as the hoary old adage would have it.
The European Central Bank kept interest rates on hold on Thursday. President Mario Draghi urged euro zone governments to agree a growth strategy to go hand in hand with fiscal discipline, but as thousands of Spaniards protested in the streets he gave no sign the bank would do more to address people’s fears about the economy