Global Investing

Of snakes, dragons and fund managers

The Year of the Snake is considered one of the less auspicious in the 12-year Chinese zodiac cycle. And 2013 is the year of the Black Water Snake, which comes around once every 60 years and is seen as the least fortuitous. How China’s stock markets turn out after years of poor performance remains to be seen but the snake is providing banks and asset managers with plenty of food for thought. Many of them have been gazing into the crystal ball to see what 2013 may hold for Chinese markets.

Fidelity Worldwide investments highlights the ‘Snakes and Ladders’ that could influence Chinese equities this year. (They have a great accompanying illustration)

Fidelity’s Raymond Ma reckons  there are six ‘R’s’ that could act as ‘ladders’ to buoy Chinese equity markets this year: recovery, reverse, reform, reflation, re-rating and rally. Under snakes he names inflation, a continued depreciation of the Japanese yen, excessive corporate debt/equity issuance,  a prolonged euro zone crisis and an earlier-than-expected end to quantitative easing in the United States.

But past snake years  have been the worst of the cycle for world markets, analysts at CMC Markets point out. Their analysis shows that  the S&P 500 and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng have generally posted losses, while UK returns have been below average. The Hang Seng has fared particularly poorly (down four snake years in a row with average losses of 16.7 percent) So, will the curse hold this year, CMC ask:

Will the year of the snake bite equities in 2013?

Agnes Deng, Head of HK China Equity at Baring Asset Management, is more optimistic. Water snakes have a reputation for transformation, in the same way that China’s economy is undergoing change. Moreover, Chinese zodiac snakes are female or yin, Deng says, contrasting the Snake with the “moody, broody, male yang energy” of the Dragon last year.  (Incidentally the supposedly auspicious Year of the Dragon, 2012, provided little cheer for Chinese equities). Deng says:

Russia’s consumers — a promise for the stock market

As we wrote here last week, Russian bond markets are bracing for a flood of foreign capital. But there appears to be a surprising lack of interest in Russian equities.

Russia’s stock market trades on average at 5 times forward earnings, less than half the valuation for broader emerging markets. That’s cheaper than unstable countries such as Pakistan or those in dire economic straits such as Greece. But here’s the rub. Look within the market and here are some of the most expensive companies in emerging markets — mostly consumer-facing names. Retailers such as Dixy and Magnit and internet provider Yandex trade at up to 25 times forward earnings. These compare to some of the turbo-charged valuations in typically expensive markets such as India.

A recent note from Russia’s Sberbank has some interesting numbers on Russia’s consumer potential. Sberbank tracks a hypothetical Russian middle class family, the Ivanovs, to see how consumer confidence is shaping up (According to SB their data are broader in scope than the government’s official consumer confidence survey).

Weekly Radar: Currency warriors meet in Moscow

G20/EUROGROUP/EURO Q4 GDP/STATE OF THE UNION/BOJ/UST, GILT AND ITALY BOND AUCTIONS/EUROPEAN EARNINGS

Hiccup. February has so far certainly brought a more sober, if healthier, perspective to world markets. Global stocks are off about half a percent this week, letting the air out gently from January’s over-inflated 5 percent surge. The focus is back on Europe, where the threat of a euro FX overshoot (in the face of LTRO paybacks and rising euro interest rates alongside stepped-up “global currency wars”) has fused with a plethora of unresolved national debt conundrums and a stream of ‘event risks’ on the region’s calendar. Euro stocks have retreated to December levels as the currency move and fresh political angst has taken the wind out of earnings and growth projections after such a steep rally over the past six months. Name anything you want – the tightening race for this month’s Italian elections and Monte di Paschi scnadal there, a delayed Cyprus bailout and elections there this month, the Irish promissory note standoff with the ECB etc etc – when things turn, they all these get amplified again even if none really are likely to be systemic threats in the way we’d become used to over the past two years. The slight backup in Italian/Spanish yields to December levels shows sentiment turns still pack a punch, the European earnings season has been mixed so far, there are political murmurs about capping the euro and the political calendar over the next six weeks is a bit of a minefield for nervy markets. All the issues still look resolvable – the tricky Irish bank debt rejig looks on the verge of a resolution; few still believe Berlusconi be the next Italian PM (only 5 percent on betting website Intrade think so, for example); and Cyprus is expected by most to get bailed out eventually. Today’s ECB will be critical to most of those issues, but next week’s euro group gets a chance to update everyone on its role in them aswell). The issue likely to gnaw deepest at investors is the regional growth outlook  and,  in that respect, the euro surge is about as welcome as a kick in the teeth at this juncture. (Euro Q4 GDPs out next week). The French clearly want to rein in the currency but don’t have the tools or the German backing. Draghi and the ECB will likely have to come to rescue again, though he will not admit to euro targeting and so may drag his feet on this one until the move starts to burn. Interesting times ahead and interesting G20 finance meeting in Moscow next week as a result.

To keep this week’s market wobble  in Europe in perspective, however Wall St still continues to hover close to record highs as the Q4 GDP shock was probably correctly dismissed as a red herring; Japan’s TOPIX is now up 35% in three months (well, about 15% in euro terms), and Shanghai is up 18% in just two months. It’s curious to note that Shanghai was the top pick of the year when Reuters polled global forecasters in December and average gains for the whole of 2013 were expected to be… 17 percent. So, stick with the growth and the currency printing regions for now it seems – even if you do get whacked on the exchange rate.

Indian markets and the promise of reform

What a difference a few months have made for Indian markets.

The rupee is 8 percent up from last summer’s record lows. Foreigners have ploughed $17 billion into Indian stocks and bonds since Sept 2012 and foreign ownership of Indian shares is at a record high 22.7 percent, Morgan Stanley reckons.  And all it has taken to change the mood has been the announcement of a few reforms (allowing foreign direct investment into retail, some fuel and rail price hikes and raising FDI limits in some sectors). A controversial double taxation law has been pushed back.  The government has sold some stakes in state-run companies (it offloaded 10 percent of Oil India last week, netting $585 million).  If the measures continue, the central bank may cut interest rates further.

Above all, there have been promises-a-plenty on fiscal consolidation.

The promises are not new. Only this time, investors appear to believe Finance Minister P. Chidambaram.

Chidambaram who was on a four-city roadshow to promote India to investors, pledged in a Reuters interview last week not to cross the “red line” of a 5.3 percent deficit for this year in the Feb 28 budget. Standard Chartered, one of the banks that organised Chidambaram’s roadshow, sent out a note entitled: “The finance minister means business”.

Weekly Radar: Glass still half-full?

ECB,BOE,RBA MEETINGS/ US-CHINA DEC TRADE DATA/CHINESE INFLATION/EU BUDGET SUMMIT/EUROPEAN EARNINGS/BUND AUCTION/SERVICES PMIS

Wednesday’s global markets were a pretty good illustration of the nature of new year rally. The largest economy in the world reported a shock contraction of activity in the final quarter of 2012 despite widespread expectations of 1%+ gain and this month’s bulled-up stock market barely blinked. Ok, the following FOMC decision and Friday’s latest US employment report probably helped keep a lid on things and there was plenty of good reason to be sceptical of the headline U.S. GDP number. Reasons for the big miss were hooked variously on an unexpectedly large drop in government defence spending, a widening of the trade gap (even though we don’t get December numbers til next week), a drawdown in inventories, fiscal cliff angst and “Sandy”. Final consumer demand looked fineand we know from the jobs numbers (and the January ADP report earlier) that the labour market remains relatively firm while housing continues to recovery. The inventory drop could presage a cranking up assembly lines into the new year given the “fiscal cliff” was dodged on Jan 1 and trade account distortions due to East Coast storms may unwind too. So, not only are we likely to see upward revisions to this advance data cut, there may well be significant “payback” in Q1 data and favourable base effects could now flatter 2013 numbers overall.

Yet as logical as any or all of those arguments may be,  the reaction to the shocker also tells you a lot about the prevalent “glass half full” view in the market right now and reveals how the flood of new money that’s been flowing to equity this year has not been doing so on the basis on one quarter of economic data. An awful lot of the investor flow to date is either simply correcting extremely defensive portfolios toward more “normal” times or reinvesting with a 3-5 year view in mind at least. There’s a similar story at play in Europe. Money has come back from the bunkers and there’s been a lock-step improvement in the “big picture” risks – we are no longer factoring in default risk into the major bond markets  at least and many are now happy to play the ebb and flow of economics and politics and market pricing within more reasonable parameters. There are no shortage of ghosts and ghouls still in the euro cupboard – dogged recession, bank legacy debt issue, Cyprus, Italian elections etc – but that all still seems more like more manageable country risk for many funds and a far cry from where we were over the past two years of potential systemic implosion. Never rule out a fresh lurch and the perceived lack of market crisis itself may take the pressure off Brussels and other EU capitals to keeping pushing hard to resolve the outstanding conundrums. But it would take an awful lot now to completely reverse the recent stabilisation, not least given the ECB has yet to fire a bullet of its new OMT intervention toolkit.

Who’s driving the equity rally?

Does the money match the story?

Perhaps the biggest investment theme of the year so far has been the extent to which long-term investors may now slowly migrate back to under-owned and under-priced equities from super-expensive safe haven bunkers such as ‘core’ government bonds, yen, Swiss francs etc to which they herded at each new gale of the 5-year-old credit storm.

Indeed, some go further and say asset allocation mixes of the big institutional pension and insurance funds are – for a variety of regulatory and demographic reasons – now at such historical extremes in favour of bonds that they may now need rethinking in what some dub The Great Rotation.

All this has played into a new year whoosh in equity and other risk markets, as ebbing tail risks from the euro zone, US budget and China combine with signs of a decent cyclical turn in the world economy into 2013. Wall St’s S&P500, for example, has climbed 5.5% in January so far and closed above 1500 for the first time in more than five years last week following its longest winning streak (8-days) in eight years.

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.

What flows out, must flow in?

Much has been made of the flows into U.S. equities this month. Funds have rolled out the red carpet for a record $11.3 billion or so in net inflows over the first two weeks of the year, more when you factor in ETFs.

Just to cool the enthusiasm a little, it’s worth remembering that this comes after a torrid 2012.

Our graphic detailing Lipper’s latest estimated net flows in and out of various fund sectors shows combined outflows from U.S. equity funds and U.S. small cap funds reached a total of more than $150 billion last year. The fourth quarter alone contributed more than $50 billion of that.

Emerging debt vs equity: to rotate or not

Emerging bonds have got off to a flying start in 2013, with debt funds taking in over $2 billion this past week, the second highest weekly inflow ever, according to fund tracker EPFR Global. Issuance is strong -  Turkey for instance this week borrowed cash repayable in 10 years for just 3.47 percent, its lowest yield ever in the dollar market.

Yet not everyone is optimistic and most analysts see last year’s returns of 16-18 percent EM debt returns as out of reach. The consensus instead seems to be for 5-8 percent as  tight spreads and low yields leave little room for further ralliesaverage yields on the EMBI Global sovereign debt index is just 4.4 percent.    Domestic bonds meanwhile could suffer if inflation turns problematic. (see here for our story on emerging bond sales and returns).

Now take a look at U.S. Treasury yields which are near 8-month highs. and could pose a headwind for emerging debt. Higher U.S. yields are not necessarily a bad thing for emerging markets provided the rise is down to a healthier economic outlook.  But that scenario could induce investors to turn their attention to equities and  indeed this is already happening. EPFR data shows emerging equity funds outstripped their bond counterparts last week, taking in $7.45 billion, the highest ever weekly inflow.

Weekly Radar: Q4 earnings, China GDP and German elections

The first wave of Q4 US earnings, Chinese Q4 GDP  and European inflation dominate next week, while regional polls in Germany’s Lower Saxony the following Sunday give everyone a early peek at ideas surrounding probably the biggest general election of 2013 later in the year.

With a bullish start to the year already confirmed by the so-called “5 day rule” on Wall St, we now come to the first real test – the Q4 earnings season. There was nothing to rock the boat from Alcoa but we will only start to get a glimpse of the overall picture next week after the big financials like JPM, Citi and Goldman report as well as real sector bellwethers Intel and GE. Yet again the questions centre on how the slow-growth macro world is sapping top lines, how this can continue to be offset by cost cutting to flatter profits and – perhaps most importantly for investors right now – what’s already in the price.

For the worriers, there’s already been plenty of gloom from lousy guidance  and memories of Q3 where less than half the 500 beat revenue forecasts. But the picture is not uniformly negative from a market perspective. For a start, both top and bottom line growth estimates have already been slashed to about a third of what they were three months ago but should still outstrip Q3 if they come in on target. Average S&P500 earnings growth for Q4 is expected to be almost 3 percent compared to near zero in Q3 and revenue growth is expected at about 2 percent after a near one percent drop the previous quarter. What’s more, the market has been well prepared for trouble already — negative-to-positive guidance by S&P 500 companies for Q4 was 3.6 to 1, the second worst since the third quarter of 2001. So, wait and see – but there will have to be some pretty scary headlines for a selloff at this juncture.  It may be just as tricky to build any bullish momentum ahead of renewed infighting in DC over the debt ceiling next month, but the latter issue has been treated to date this year as a frustration rather than a game-changer.