Global Investing

Weekly Radar: May days or Pay days?

So, it’s May and time for the annual if temporary equity market selloff, right? Well, maybe – but only maybe.  A fresh weakening of the global economic pulse would certainly suggest so, but central banks have shown again they are not going to throw in the towel in the battle to reflate. The ECB’s interest rate cut today and last night’s insistence from the Fed that it’s as likely to step up money printing this year as wind it down are two cases in point. And we’re still awaiting the private investment flows from Japan following the BOJ’s latest aggressive easing there.

So where does that all leave us? A third of the way through 2013 and it’s been a good year so far for nearly all bulls – both western equity bulls and increasingly bond bulls too! Not only have developed world equities clocked up some 13 percent year-to-date (the S&P500 set yet another record high this week while Europe’s bluechips recorded a staggering 12th consecutive monthly gain in April) , but virtually all bond markets from junk bonds to Treasuries, euro peripherals to emerging markets are now back in the black for the year as a whole. For the most eyebrow-raising evidence, look no further than last week’s debut sovereign bond from Rwanda at less than 7 percent for 10 years or even newly-junked Slovenia’s ability this week to plough ahead with a syndicated bond sale reported to already be in the region of four times oversubscribed. For many people, that parallel rise in equity and bonds smells of a bubble somewhere. But before you cry “QEEEEE!” , take a look at commodities — the bulls there have been taken a bath all year as data on final global demand hits yet another ‘soft patch’ over the past couple of months.

So is this just an idiosyncratic random walk of asset markets (itself no bad thing after years of stress-riven hyper correlation) or can we explain all three asset directions together? One way to think of it is in terms of global inflation. If QE-related inflation fears have been grossly exaggerated then pressure to remove monetary stimulus or wanes again and there may even be arguments – certainly in Europe – for more. This would intuitively explain the renewed dash for bonds and fixed income in general even in the face of the still-plausible, if long term, “Great Rotation” idea. You could argue the monetary free-for-all is buoying equities regardless of demand concerns. But why wouldn’t commodities gain on that basis too?

The answer likely lies in the desperate demand among big institutional investors for income in a low-growth, QE-buoyed world. The paltry income left in ‘safe’ bond markets becomes less unappealing if the inflation horizon is lower than we thought and from there the push for more yield fuels all bond markets. Similarly this year’s equities rally has been remarkable because it’s been led by income-like, blue chip defensive stocks with decent dividends that ape bond returns – and not by growth stocks or even emerging markets, which still remain in the red.

And if income is the only game in town and there’s no inflation scare, then the last place you want to be is income-less commodities.

No one-way bet on yen, HSBC says

Will the yen continue to weaken?

Most people think so — analysts polled by Reuters this month predict that the Japanese currency will fall 18 percent against the dollar this year. That will bring the currency to around 102 per dollar from current levels of 98. And all sorts of trades, from emerging debt to euro zone periphery stocks, are banking on a world of weak yen.

Now here is a contrary view. David Bloom, HSBC’s head of global FX strategy, thinks one-way bets on the yen could prove dangerous. Here are some of the points he makes in his note today:

–  Bloom says the link between currencies and QE (quantitative easing) is not straightforward. Note that after three rounds of QE the dollar is flexing its muscles. The ECB’s LTRO too ultimately benefited the euro.

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.

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.

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.

Pricing ‘new brooms’ at White House and Fed

With less than two weeks left to the U.S. presidential elections and all three televised debates done and dusted, investors are at last squaring up to the detailed financial market impact of the event itself and the column inches in newsprint and research reports lengthen by the day.

Barclays interest rate strategists are one of the first to stick hard numbers on likely market outcomes in a report late Tuesday that dug deep into both the well-documented “fiscal cliff” but also into the less discussed uncertainty surrounding the medium-term direction of the Federal Reserve and its leadership.

With news reports suggesting Fed chief Ben Bernanke will not now choose to stand again for a third term at the helm of the U.S. central bank in 2014, some may argue Fed risk from the election has been neutered. But with monetary policy still the only game in town policy-wise for many asset managers – at least on the stimulus side — then even the slightest risk to the Fed’s mandate remains a significant market factor.

This week in EM, expect more doves

With the U.S. Fed having cranked up its printing presses, there seems little to stop emerging central banks from extending their own rate cut campaigns this week.

The most interesting meeting promises to be in the Czech Republic. We saw some extraordinary verbal intervention last week from Governor Miroslav Singer, implying not only a rate cut but also recourse to “unconventional” monetary loosening tools. Of the 21 analysts polled by Reuters, 18 are expecting a rate cut on Thursday to a record low 0.25 percent.  Indeed, in a world of currency wars, a rate cut could be just what the recession-mired Czech economy needs. But Singer’s deputy, Moimir Hampl,  has muddled the waters by refuting the need for any unusual policies or even rate cuts.  Expect a heated debate (forward markets are siding with Singer and pricing a rate cut).

Hungary is a closer call, with 16 out of 21 analysts in a Reuters poll predicting an on-hold decision. The central bank board (MPC) is split too. Analysts at investment bank SEB point out that last month’s somewhat surprising rate cut was down to the four central bank board members appointed by the government. These four outvoted Governor Andras Simor and his two deputies who had favoured holding rates steady, given rising inflation. (Inflation is running at 6 percent, double the target).  That could happen again, given the government just last week reiterated the need for “lower interest rates and ample credit.  So SEB analysts write:

Fed re-ignites currency war (or currency skirmish)

The currency war is back.

Since last week when the Fed started its third round of money-printing (QE3), policymakers in emerging markets have been busily talking down their own currencies or acting to curb their rise. These efforts may gather pace now that Japan has also increased its asset-buying programme, with expectations that the extra liquidity unleashed by developed central banks will eventually find its way into the developing world.

The alarm over rising currencies was reflected in an unusual verbal intervention this week by the Czech central bank, with governor Miroslav Singer hinting at  more policy loosening ahead, possibly with the help of unconventional policy tools. Prague is not generally known for currency interventions — analysts at Societe Generale point out its last direct interventions were conducted as far back as 2001-2002.  Even verbal intervention is quite rate — it last resorted to this on a concerted basis in 2009, SoGen notes. Singer’s words had a strong impact — the Czech crown fell almost 1 percent against the euro.

The stakes are high — the Czech economy is a small, open one, heavily reliant on exports which make up 75 percent of its GDP. But Singer is certainly not alone in his efforts to tamp down his currency. Turkey’s 100 basis point cut to its overnight lending rate on Tuesday (and hints of more to come) was essentially a currency-weakening move. And Poland has hinted at entering its own bond market in case of “market turmoil”

Put down and Fed up

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.

Well, the “Fear Index” last night hit its lowest level since the global credit crisis erupted five-years ago to the month.  Can that picture of an anxiety-free investment world really be accurate? It’s easy to dismiss it and blame a thousand “technical factors” for its recent precipitous decline.  On the other hand,  it’s also easy to forget the performance of the underlying market has been remarkable too. Year-to-date gains on Wall St this year have been the second best since 1998. And while the U.S. and world economies hit another rough patch over the second quarter, the incoming U.S. economic data is far from universally poor and many economists see activity stabilising again.

But is all that enough for the lowest level of “fear” since the fateful August of 2007? The answer is likely rooted in another sort of “put” outside the options market — the policy “put”, essentially the implied insurance the Fed has offered investors by saying it will act again to print money and buy bonds in a third round of quantitative easing (QE3) if the economy or financial market conditions deteriorate sharply again. Reflecting this “best of both worlds” thinking, the latest monthly survey of fund managers by Bank of America Merrill Lynch says a net 15% more respondents expect the world economy to improve by the end of the year than those who expect it to deteriorate but almost 50 percent still believe the Fed will deliver QE3 before 2012 is out.  In other words, things will likely improve gradually in the months ahead and if they don’t the Fed will be there to catch us.

Next Week: Big Black Cloud

Following are notes from our weekly editorial planning meeting:

Not unlike this year’s British “summer”, the gloom is now all pervasive. Not panicky mind, just gloomy. And there is a significant difference where markets are concerned at least. The former involves surprise and being wrongfooted — but latter has been slow realisation that what were once extreme views on the depth of the credit swamp are fast becoming consensus thinking. The conclusion for many now is that we’re probably stuck in this mire for several more years – anywhere between 5 and 20 years, depending on your favoured doom-monger. Yet, the other thing is that markets also probably positioned in large part for that perma-funk — be it negative yields on core government debt or euro zone equities now with half the p/e ratios of US counterparts. In short, the herd has already  hunkered down and finds it hard to see any horizon. Those who can will resort to short-term tactical plays based on second-guessing government and central bank policy responses (there will likely be more QE or related actions stateside eventually despite hesitancy in the FOMC minutes  and Fed chief Bernanke will likely give a glimpse of that thinking in his congressional testimony next week); or hoping to surf mini econ cycles aided by things like cheaper energy; or hoping to spot one off corporate success stories like a new Apple or somesuch.

So has all hope been snuffed out? The reason for the relapse mid-year depression is only partly related to the political minefield frustrating a resolution of the euro crisis – in some ways, things there look more encouraging policywise than they did two months ago. It stems as much from a realization of just how broken the banks credit creation system remains – a system that had hinged heavily on extensive collateral chains that have now largely been broken or shortened and starved of acceptable high-quality collateral. Curiously, QE – by removing even more of the top quality collateral – may even be exaggerating the problem. Some even say the extreme shortage of this quality “collateral” may require more, not less, government debt in the US and UK and would also benefit from a pooling of euro debt  – but everyone knows how easy all that’s going to be politically.

Despite all this, global markets have remained fairly stable over the past week – in part due to policy hopes underpinning risk markets and in part because there’s not many places left to hide without losing money in “safe-haven” bunkers. World equities are down about 2 percent over the past week,  but still up more than 6 percent from early June. Risk measured by volatility indicesis a smidgen higher too. Oil has firmed back toward $100pb, disappointing everyone apart from oil exporters. Spanish and Italian 10-yr yields are a touch higher. And at least part of the caution everywhere is ae vigil ahead of Chinese Q2 GDP data on Friday – numbers that now almost rival the U.S.  monthly payrolls in global market impact.