Global Investing

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?”

Erwan Boscher, head of Liability-Driven Investing and Fiduciary Management at AXA Investment Managers, says:

“Using market instruments like CDS and out of the money equity puts were suggested as a way of hedging sponsor risks, but we seldom see them implemented because of the cost, liquidity or reputational risks for the sponsor.”

Three snapshots for Wednesday

Spanish stocks jump out as the only only major equity market to miss out on the strong first quarter:

Euro zone money supply growth picked up in February but growth in private sector loans dipped.

The UK faces bigger hill to climb after fourth quarter GDP cut.

Three snapshots for Tuesday

Is now the time to shift to equities vs. bonds? Goldman Sachs think so and traditional valuation measures such as the equity risk premium (chart) make bonds look expensive relative to equities when compared to the average over the last 20 years.

It isn’t surprising that the performance of equities relative to bonds tends to be closely correlated with economic activity. However as the chart below shows this does break down from time to time, equities are currently still trailing bonds over a 12-month period while an ISM above 50 suggests equities should be winning.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke poured some cold water on the recent improvement in the U.S. jobs market yesterday. Today’s consumer confidence numbers were mixed, the “jobs hard to get” index rose to 41.0 per cent from 38.6 per cent the month before, but the “jobs plentiful” index also rose to 9.4 per cent from 7 per cent

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.

Quarter-end rebalancing: A myth?

With world stocks up more than 10  percent since the start of the year, it must be tempting for investors to cash in their gains before the quarter-end/fiscal year-end. Or is it really?

JP Morgan, which analysed equity buying of institutional investors including pension funds, insurance companies and investment funds in the United States, euro zone, Japan and the UK, finds that there is no empirical evidence of quarterly rebalancing by pension funds or insurance companies.

Below are the charts showing their findings on the amount of equity buying as a share of equity holdings in each quarter against the difference between equity return and the return on total assets. If pension funds and insurance companies do not rebalance at all, the amount of equity buying should be unaffected by the relative return of equities against total assets. And this is the result they found in Chart 1.

Three snapshots for Friday

Yesterday’s much worse than expected PMI data from the euro zone has pushed the Citigroup economic surprise index for the region below zero.

Germany has been one of the strongest performing equity markets this year but is still in the middle of the pack compared to other European countries on valuation.

U.S. new home sales slipped 1.6 percent to a seasonally adjusted 313,000-unit annual rate. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast sales at a 325,000-unit rate in February.

Investing in active funds: what’s the point?

Active vs passive investment is a long-lasting debate: active funds will tell you they deliver alpha (extra returns), but for a fee. Passive investment simply tracks the index so it’s cheaper. The risk is you may underperform your peers.

New research from Thomson Reuters Lipper throws up an interesting twist in the debate: It found that less than half of the actively managed mutual funds in Europe outperformed their benchmarks over the past 20 years.

The proportion of funds that outperformed varied from 26.7% in 2011, 40% over 3 years and 34.9% over the past 10 years. While bond funds fare better over 3 years with 45.4% outperforming, the proportion tailed off dramatically over the 10-year period, falling to 16.2%.

Oil prices — Geopolitics or growth?

It’s the economy, stupid. Or isn’t it?

Brent crude has risen 15 percent since the end of last year, focusing people’s minds on the potential this has to choke off the recovery in world growth. But some reckon it is the recovery that’s at least partly responsible for the surging oil prices — economic data from United States and Germany has been strong of late. There are hopes that France and the United Kingdom may escape recession after all. And growth in the developing world has been robust.

Geopolitics of course is playing a role  as an increasing number of countries boycott Iranian oil and fret over a possible military strike by Israel on Iran’s nuclear installations.  But Deutsche Bank analysts point out that world equity markets, an efficient real-time gauge of growth sentiment, have risen along with oil prices.

Their graphic (below) shows a remarkably close relationship between oil prices and the S&P 500. Click to enlarge

Slipping up on oil and Greece?

Thursday’s crude oil price surge to its highest in almost 4 years (apparently due to a subsequently denied report from Iran of a Saudi pipeline explosion…phew!)  illustrates just how anxious and dangerous the energy market has become for world markets yet again this year and HSBC on Friday spotlighted its threat to the global economy and asset prices in a note entitled  “Oil is the new Greece”. The point of the neat headline hook was a simple one:

With Greece disappearing, at least temporarily, from the headlines, investors have quickly found a new source of anxiety thanks to the recent surge in oil prices

Just like many investors and strategists over the past month, HSBC rounded up its various assessments of the impact and fallout from higher oil prices, stressing the biggest risk comes from supply disruptions related to the Iran nuclear standoff and that any major political upheaval in the region would threaten significant crude spikes. “Think $150 or even $200 a barrel,” it said. It reckoned the impact on world growth, and hence the broader risk horizon depended on the extent of this supply disruption and the durability and scale of the price rise.  Worried equity investors should consider hedging their portfolios by overweighting the energy sector. Obvious winners in currency world would be the Norwegian crown, Malaysian ringitt, Brazil’s real and Russia’s rouble, the bank’s strategists said. The most vulernable units are India’s rupee, Mexican and Philippines pesos and Turkey’s lira.

Becoming less negative on Europe

Markets are unimpressed today by Europe finally agreeing to bail out Greece for the second time, with European stocks down -0.6% on the day.

But here’s some encouraging news: Credit Suisse has become less negative on Continental European stocks for the first time in almost two years.

The bank has moved to benchmark weighting from 5% underweight for a currency hedged portfolio.