Global Investing

Picking your moment

Watching how the mildly positive market reaction to this weekend’s 100 billion euro Spanish bank bailout evaporated within a morning’s trading, it’s curious to look at the timing of the move and what policymakers thought might happen. On one hand, it showed they’d learned something from the previous three sovereign rescues in Greece, Ireland and Portugal by pre-emptively seeking backstop funds for Spain’s banks rather than waiting for the sovereign to be pushed completely out of bond markets before grudgingly seeking help.

But getting a positive market reaction to any euro bailout just six days before the Greek election of June 17 was always going to be nigh-on impossible. If the problem for private creditors is certainty and visibility, then how on earth was that supposed to happen in a week like this? In view of that, it was surprising there was even 6 hours of upside in the first place. In the end, Spanish and broad market prices remain broadly where they were before the bailout was mooted last Thursday — and that probably makes sense given what’s in the diary for the remainder of the month.

So, ok, there was likely a precautionary element to the timing in that the proposed funds for Spanish bank recapitalisation are made available before any threat of post-election chaos in Greece forces their hand anyhow. It may also be that there were oblique political signals being sent by Berlin and Brussels to the Greek electorate that the rest of Europe is prepared for any outcome from Sunday’s vote and won’t be forced into concessions on its existing bailout programme. On the other hand, Greeks may well read the novel structure of the bailout – in that it explicitly targets the banking sector without broader budgetary conditions on the government – as a sign that everything euro is flexible and negotiable.

However, if the answer to the two-year-old euro sovereign crisis lies in convincing long-term private creditors to lend to euro governments again at sustainable rates for 5-10 years,  then nothing was ever likely to change on that score until after Sunday’s vote across Greece anyway. And, even if there is a result in favour of the bailout, the shape of the euro zone and its future is still in the mix until we see outcome of the June 28-29 EU summit.  It’s not that the Spanish bank rescue is not a good move for Spain,  it’s just that we won’t really know for another three weeks or so.

At some point, it seems, there has to be a credible plan and agreement that removes the threat of a euro unravelling, an outcome that every creditor now fears could leave sovereign borrowers with the hopeless task of paying back euro debts in new pesetas, drachmas, escudos, punts and lire. As Barclays economists said on Sunday, the Spanish plan in itself doesn’t remove that risk:

Research Radar: Greek gloom

Greek gloom dominates the start of the week as new elections there look inevitable and talk of Greek euro exit, or a Grexit” as common market parlance now has it, mounts. All risk assets and securities hinged on global growth have been hit, with China’s weekend reserve ratio easing doing little to offset gloomy data from world’s second biggest economy at the end of last week. World stocks are down heavily and emerging markets are underperforming; the euro has fallen to near 4-month lows below $1.29; safe haven core government debt is bid as euro peripheral debt yields in Italy and Spain push higher; and global growth bellwethers such as crude oil and the Australian dollar are down – the latter below parity against the US dollar for the first time in 5 months.

Financial research reports on Monday and over the weekend were just as gloomy, but plenty of interesting takes:

Bank of New York Mellon’s Simon Derrick’s view of the Greek political impasse concluded “there is at least an evens chance that the latter part of this summer will see what had officially been seen up until last November as an impossibility: a nation leaving the EUR.”

Research Radar: Beyond Hollande and Holland…

Markets have been dominated this week so far by the fallout from Sunday’s French presidential election, where Socialist Francois Hollande now looks set to beat incumbent conservative Nicolas Sarkozy in the May 6 runoff , and the collapse of the ruling Dutch coalition on Monday.  Public anxiety about budgetary austerity in Europe was further reinforced by news on Monday of a deepening of the euro zone private sector contraction in April. That said, euro equity, bond and currency prices have stabilised relatively quickly even if implied volatility has increased as investors brace for another month or so of political heat in the single currency bloc. The French runoff is now on the same day as the Greek elections and May 31 sees Ireland going to the polls to vote on the EU’s new fiscal compact.  Wall St’s volatility gauge, the ViX, is back up toward 20% — better reflecting longer term averages — and relatively risky assets such as emerging market equities remain on the back foot. The euro political heat and slightly slower Q2 world growth pulse will likely keep markets subdued and jittery until mid year at least. At that point, another cyclical upswing in world manufacturing together with the passing of the EBA’s euro bank recapitalisation deadline as well as the introduction of the new European Stability Mechanism may well encourage investors to return at better levels.

Following are some interesting tips from Tuesday’s bank and investment fund research notes:

- JPM economists reckon finding the reason behind the backup in US weekly initial jobless claims over the past couple of weeks is key to assessing whether a sub-par March payrolls report is repeated in April. It says it’s possible the claims jump move is a seasonal factor as unadjusted claims are closely tracking 2007′s pattern and Easter holidays fell on the same dates in both years. If 2007 was repeated, there would be a sizeable late April drop in claims and JPM looks for some of that on Thursday with a 14,000 forecast drop. (Reuters poll consensus is for a 11,000 drop)

Hair of the dog? Citi says more LTROs in store

Just as global markets nurse a hangover from their Q1 binge on cheap ECB lending — a circa 1 trillion euro flood of 1%, 3-year loans to euro zone banks in December and February (anodynely dubbed a Long-Term Refinancing Operation) — there’s every chance they may get, or at least need, a proverbial hair of the dog.

At least that’s what Citi chief economist Willem Buiter and team think despite regular insistence from ECB top brass that the recent two-legged LTRO was likely a one off.

Even though Citi late Wednesday nudged up its world growth forecast for a third month running, in keeping with Tuesday’s IMF’s upgrade , it remains significantly more bearish on headline numbers and sees PPP-weighted global growth this  year and next at 3.1% and 3.5% compared with the Fund’s call of 3.5% and 4.1%.

Three snapshots for Monday

Spanish 10-year bond yields hit 6%, around the levels seen in Ireland/Portugal and Italy/Spain at the start and resumption of ECB bond purchases.

U.S. retail sales rose more than expected in March as Americans shrugged off high gasoline prices.

Currency speculators boosted their bets against the euro in the latest week. Figures from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission released on Friday showed a jump in euro net shorts of 101,364 contracts this week from 79,480 previously.

Is Ireland back on track?

In a week in which euro zone debt fears returned in earnest for the first time in 2012, a positive investment tip about one of the three bailed out peripheral euro economies was eye-catching in its timing. RBS on Thursday issued a recommendation to its clients to buy the bonds of one of Ireland’s main commercial banks Bank of Ireland.

Now, financial markets have for some time priced Irish government debt more positively that either Greece or Portugal, in large part due to the country’s superior private sector growth prospects and the government’s seeming acceptance of and adherence to the austerity targets demanded in return for European bailout funds.  That said, there is little end in sight to problem of banks bad debts and mounting mortgage arrears and few signs of recovery in a housing market where prices are down some 50 percent from pre-crisis peaks. Moreover, Ireland has scheduled a referendum on the new euro fiscal pact for May 31 and, if it’s rejected, the country could lose access to future euro emergency funds.

But, in a note entitled “The Celtic Tiger is coming back on track”, RBS credit strategists  Alberto Gallo and Phoenix Kalen took a positive tilt on developments and recommended investors snap up the 8.45% yield available on the senior unsecured bonds of  ailing, government-backed Bank of Ireland — the country’s “main viable bank”. The bonds mature in 2013 and had an original coupon of 4.625%.

Japanization of euro zone bonds?

Fear of many years of stagnation in the major western economies has everyone fretting about a repeat of  the “lost decades” that Japan suffered after its banking and real estate bubble burst in the early 1990s. Indeed HSBC economists were recently keen to point out that U.S. per capita growth over the noughties was already actually weaker than either of Japan’s lost decades.

But in a detailed presentation on the impact of two years of soveriegn debt crisis on euro zone government bond holdings, Barclays  economist Laurent Fransolet asks whether that market too is turning into the Japanese government bond market — where years of slow growth, zero interest rates, current account surpluses and captive local buyers have depressed borrowing rates for years and turned JGBs into an increasingly domestic market dominated by local banks, pension funds and insurers. Non-residents hold less than 10 percent of JGBs, compared to more than 50 percent for the EGB as a whole, and Japanese banks hold up to 35 percent of their own government bond market.

But is the euro government market heading in that direction after successive crises have seen foreign investors flee many of the peripheral markets of Greece, Portugal, Ireland and even Italy and Spain? Fransolet argues that the seniority of substantial European Central Bank holdings built up in the interim (now about 15 percent of each of the five peripheral markets) may be one reason why these foreign investors will be wary of returning. Meantime, euro zone banks, who have traditionally held a high 20-25 percentage point share of euro government markets, withdrew sharply late last year amid balance sheet repair pressures but have  rebuilt holdings again sharply in early 2012 after the ECB’s liquidity injections — particularly in Italy and Spain.

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.

German inflation to rescue euro economy?

With the ECB’s second cheap money flood in three months coursing through European banks and financial markets and the possibility at least of a further interest rate cut in offing, the relief in Europe’s austerity-wracked periphery is palpable. But what of the impact on the relatively buoyant “core” in Germany, the bloc’s largest economy and super-competitive export engine? Darren Williams at money managers Alliance Bernstein reckons  German inflation is being cooked up by this super-easy ECB money, coming as it does against a backdrop of  relatively brisk German credit growth and house price inflation there of some 5.5% last year which is “positively explosive by German standards”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is the flipside of pre-crisis euro zone problem with “one-size-fits-all” monetary policy. Before 2007,  sluggish  German growth meant ECB policy was kept far too loose for the faster-growing  peripheral economies who then generated credit and inflation-fueled booms that boosted real-estate prices, private and public sector debts and eroded competitiveness.  Now, monetary policy appropriate to a euro-wide slowdown fueled by the hobbled periphery looks far too too loose for Germany.

However, Williams posits that if Germany can tolerate an effront to its anti-inflation psyche then this move could help rebalance skewed intra-euro current accounts by boosting German domestic demand for the exports of its troubled euro neighbours while curbing the super-competiveness of German exports flooding other euro economies and undermining producers there. That’s not the way many in Germany want the rebalancing to happen clearly. But even the most ardent hawks in Berlin probably now acknowledge that endless austerity and economic contraction in its nearest neighbours or the sort of financial implosion likely from a euro collapse would not be in Germany’s best interests either. So, a little compromise perhaps.

Calculating euro breakup shocks

Euro breakup risks, although subsiding, are still high on investor minds.

Almost one in two fund managers surveyed by Bank of America Merrill Lynch last month said they expect a euro zone country to leave the monetary union.

Technology services company SunGard, which has modelled different euro breakup scenarios, says the departure of Greece and Portugal will lead to a 15 percent rise in the euro against the dollar, a 20 percent fall in euro zone yields, a 15 percent fall in euro zone equities and a 20 percent increase in credit spreads.

Below are other findings:

    If all PIIGS left the euro, the single currency would rise 25% and regional equities would fall 20%. U.S. stocks would drop 15 percent. European banking stocks would fall by 25% and ITRAXX Financials credit spreads would increase by 100%, which would imply losses of up to 20% in high-grade corporate debt. VIX would be over 50. A total collapse scenario would see European equities down 40%, U.S. and global equities down 30%, euro yields down 75% and ITRAXX Europe and ITRAXX Financials credit spreads up 150% and 200%respectively. Oil would fall across the scenarios, ranging from 5% from a Greece departure through to a 50% decline from a complete breakup. Sterling would strengthen against the Euro by between 5-25% across the scenarios.

The results seek to model the impact of each scenario over three months, looking eight weeks before and six weeks after the shock to form a balanced picture.