Global Investing

Rich investors betting on emerging equities

By Philip Baillie

Emerging equities may have significantly underperformed their richer peers so far this year (they are about 4 percent in the red compared with gains of more than 6 percent for their MSCI’s index of developed stocks) , but almost a third of high net-worth individuals are betting on a rebound in coming months.

A survey of more than 1,000 high net-worth investors by J.P. Morgan Private Bank reveals that 28 percent of respondents expect emerging market equities to perform best in the next 12 months, outstripping the 24 per cent that bet their money on U.S. stocks.

That gels with the findings of recent Reuters polls where a majority of the 450 analysts surveyed said they expect emerging equities to end 2013 with double-digit returns.

(Note a caveat on the survey – the responses were collated before recent unsettling events in Cyprus – which could have some knock-on effects on emerging markets, especially given the banking exposure to countries such as Slovenia, Luxembourg, Malta and Russia).

However, regardless of the growing list of risks, 60 percent of the investors pick equities as their top performing asset class for the next 12 months –  more evidence that the so-called Great Rotation — the offloading of bond holdings in favour of equities — remains a theme despite some growth and political risks.

Survival of the fattest?

Is there room only for the biggest, most aggressively-marketed funds in crisis-hit Europe?

Europe’s ten best-selling funds have attracted nearly a third of net sales across bonds, equity and mixed assets so far this year, as the grey bars show in the following chart from Thomson Reuters’ fund research firm Lipper.

TEN MOST SUCCESSFUL FUNDS’ NET SALES AS A PROPORTION OF ALL SALES

The numbers — which exclude ETFs — are even more staggering if looking at at the concentration of sales into groups/companies, rather than at fund level.

Time for a slice of vol?

As the global markets consensus shifts toward a “basically bullish, but enough for now” stance — at least before Fed chief Bernanke on Monday was read as rekindling Fed easing hopes — more than a few investment strategists are examining the cost and wisdom of hedging against it all going pear-shaped again. At least two of the main equity hedges, core government bonds and volatility indices, have certainly got cheaper during the first quarter. But volatility (where Wall St’s Vix index has hit its lowest since before the credit crisis blew up in 2007!) looks to many to be the most attractive option. Triple-A bond yields, on the other hand, are also higher but have already backed off recent highs and bond prices remain in the stratosphere historically.  And so if Bernanke was slightly “overinterpreted” on Monday — and even optimistic houses such as Barclays reckon the U.S. economy, inflation and risk appetite would have to weaken markedly from here to trigger “QE3″ while further monetary stimuli in the run-up to November’s U.S. election will be politically controversial at least — then there are plenty of investors who may seek some market protection.

Societe Generale’s asset allocation team, for one, highlights the equity volatility hedge instead of bonds for those fearful of a correction to the 20% Wall St equity gains since November.

A remarkable string of positive economic surprises has boosted risky assets and driven macro expectations higher but has also created material scope for disappointment from now on. We recommend hedging risky asset exposure (Equity, Credit and Commodities) by adding Equity Volatility to portfolios.

The Great Switchback and the ERP?

The risk of a whiplash-inducing switchback from core AAA bonds to equity and risk — now that euro/banking systemic fears have eased and a global economic stabilisation seems to be underway — is suddenly top of most investors’ agendas.  Last week’s surge in U.S. Treasury, German bund and British gilt yields as global stocks caught a fresh updraft saw U.S. equity outperform bonds by almost 5 percent, according to Societe Generale. While not historically shocking in itself, SG reckons the cumulative weight of several weeks of this may well be having its impact on asset managers as the Q1 comes to an end.

Coming on the back on several weeks of equity outperformance, those remaining overweight bonds will be finding life particularly uncomfortable right now.

The question for most strategists is whether this is start of a wholesale rebasing of portfolios that could see dramatic asset allocation shifts over the coming quarters.

Retreat of Tail-Risk Trinity

Until this week at least, one of the big puzzles of the year for many investors was squaring a 10-15% surge in equity indices with little or no movement in rock-bottom U.S., German and UK government bond yields. To the extent that both markets reflect expectations for future economic activity, then one of them looks wrong. The pessimists, emboldened by the superior predictive powers of the bond market over recent decades, claim the persistence of super low U.S. Treasury, German bund and British gilt yields reveals a deep and pervasive pessimism about global growth for many years to come. Those preferring the sunny side up reckon super-low yields are merely a function of central bank bond buying and money printing — and if those policies are indeed successful in reflating economies, then equity bulls will be proved correct in time. A market rethink on the chances for another bout of U.S. Federal Reserve bond-buying after upbeat Fed statements and buoyant U.S. economic numbers over the past week also nods to the latter argument.

But as we approach the final fortnight of the first quarter,  more seems to be going on. Much of the whoosh of Q1 so far has merely been a reversal of the renewed systemic fears that emerged in the second half of last year. In fact, gains in world equity indices of circa 13% are an exact reversal of the net losses suffered between last June and the end of 2011.  And if those gains are justified, then much of the extreme “tail risks” that scared the horses back then must have been put to rest too, no? Well, the two mains tail risks — a euro zone breakup or collapse and a lapse of the U.S. economy into another recesssion or depression — do look to have been been put to bed for now at least. The ECB’s mega 3-year cash floods in December and February and the “orderly” Greek debt default and restructuring last week have certainly eased the euro strain. The remarkable stabilisation of U.S. labour markets, factory activity, household credit and even retail sales has also silenced the double-dippers there for now too.

The net result seems to have been this week’s synchronised retreat in three of the main “catastrophe hedges” — gold, AAA-government bonds and equity volatility indices — and this move could well mark a critical juncture. Gold is down 8% since its 2012 peak on Leap Day,  10-year U.S., UK and German government bond yields are up 25/30 basis points since Monday alone, and equity volatility gauges such as Wall St’s ViX have dropped to levels not seen since before the whole credit crisis exploded in the summer of 2007.  If extreme systemic fears are genuinely abating and the prevalence of even marginal positioning like this in investment portfolios is being unwound, then there may well be some seismic flows ahead that could add another leg to the equity rally.  The U.S. bias in all this is obvious with the rise of the dollar exchange rate index to its highest since January. That has its own investment ramifications — not least in emerging markets. But the questions for many will remain. Is the coast really clear? Are elections over the coming weeks in France and Greece and an Irish referendum on the euro fiscal pact just sideshows? Is the global economy sufficiently repaired to bet on renewed growth from here and will corporate earnings follow suit? Has bank and household deleveraging across the western world halted? Are the oil price surge and geopolitical risks in the Middle East no longer a concern? And if you’ve made 10-15% already this year, are you going to go double or quits?  The chances are there will not be 10-15% equity gains in every quarter this year.

Revisiting March lows

No, not in the way you think. Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of world stocks hitting what appears to be their post-financial crisis low. The index was the MSCI all-country world index. The low was hit on March 9, 2009.

At the time, many investors reckoned their world was collapsing. Stocks had fallen close to 60 percent in a little more than 16 months. But the low proved to be the start of a remarkable rally that brought the index back up 80 percent until January this year.

All is not well on equity markets at the moment, given worries about European debt, the end of special central bank liquidity programmes and questions about the sustainability of the U.S. economic recovery.  The MSCI index seems to be having a hard time staying in positive territory this year.

from MacroScope:

Australia’s SWF lags in returns

Australia's Future Fund reveals that the fund's mixed asset portfolio (excluding Telstra holding) returned 5.6 percent in the third quarter.

The fund has just over 10 percent in Australian equities, 22.8 percent in global equities. Safer instruments dominate, with debt holdings at 24 percent and cash at 31 percent.

The mixed-asset fund significantly underperforms an equity-only portfolio. For example, the MSCI world equity index has risen more than 17 percent in the Q3 alone.

The Big Five: themes for the week ahead

Five things to think about this week:

APPETITE TO CHASE? 
- Equity bulls have managed to retain the upper hand so far and the MSCI world index is up almost 50 percent from its March lows. However, earnings may need to show signs of rebounding for the rally’s momentum to be sustained. Even those looking for further equity gains think the rise in stock prices will lag that in earnings once the earnings recovery gets underway, as was the case in past cycles. The symmetry/asymmetry of market reaction to data this week — as much from China as from the major developed economies — will show how much appetite there is to keep chasing the rally higher. 

TAKING CONSUMERS’ PULSE 
- A better picture of the health of the consumer will emerge this week as U.S. retailers’ earnings coincides with the release of U.S. July retail sales data and the UK BRC retail survey comes out on the other side of the Atlantic. With joblessness still rising, the reports will show how willing households are to spend and whether deep discounts, which eat into retailers’ profit margins, are the only thing that will tempt them to shop — both key issues for the macroeconomic and corporate outlook. 

CENTRAL BANK WATCH 
- After last week’s Bank of England surprise, all eyes turn to what sort of signals the U.S. Federal Reserve and Bank of Japan will send on the outlook for their respective economies and QE programmes. After the BOE’s expansion of its QE programme the short sterling strip repriced how soon UK rates would rise. But the broader trend recently in the U.S., euro zone and the UK has been to discount rate rises in 2010 — and possibly as soon as this year in Australia. Benchmark interbank euro rates have risen for the first time in two months, and central bankers everywhere, including China, face the delicate balancing act of managing monetary tightening expectations in the months ahead.