Global Investing

Steroids, punch bowls and the music still playing: stocks dance into 2014

Four years into the stock market party fueled by a punch bowl overflowing with trillions of dollars of central bank liquidity, you’d think a hangover might be looming.

But almost all of the fund managers attending the London leg of the Reuters Global Investment Summit this week – with some $4 trillion of assets under management – say the party will continue into 2014.

Pascal Blanque, chief investment officer at Amundi Asset Management with over $1 trillion of assets under management, reckons markets are in a “sweet spot … largely on steroids with the backing of the central banks.”

If their collective benign world view pans out, the S&P 500 will comfortably post double-digit gains next year.

This despite having already tripled in just four years and chalked up a near 30-percent gain this year – its best year in a decade – to hit a record high above 1800 points. It’s been 18 months since the index chalked up a 10 percent correction.

Why did the market get the Fed and ECB so wrong?

To err once is unfortunate. To err twice looks like carelessness.
One of the great mysteries of 2013 will surely be how economists, investors and market participants of all stripes so spectacularly misread two of the biggest central bank policy set-pieces of the year.
The first was the Federal Reserve’s decision in September not to begin withdrawing its $85 billion-a-month bond-buying stimulus, the second was the European Central Bank’s decision in November to cut interest rates to a fresh low of just 0.25 percent.
The Fed’s decision on Sept. 18 not to “taper” stunned markets. The 10-year Treasury yield recorded its biggest one-day fall in almost two years, and the prospect of continued stimulus has since propelled Wall Street to fresh record highs. (See graphic, click to enlarge)


A Reuters poll on Sept. 9 showed that 49 of 69 economists expected the Fed to taper the following week, a consensus reached after Ben Bernanke said on May 22 that withdrawal of stimulus could start at one of “the next few meetings”.
But tapering was – and still is – always dependent on the data. And throughout this year, the Bernanke-Yellen-Dudley triumvirate has consistently noted that the labour market is extremely weak and the recovery uncertain.
Going into the Sept. 18 policy meeting unemployment was above 7 percent and the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation was well below target, barely more than 1 percent.
Plus, a simple read of the Fed’s statutory mandate of achieving “maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates” should have dispelled the notion a reduction in stimulus was imminent.
“People just didn’t want to listen. They just didn’t believe that they have to follow the data. They’ve not been listening, and it’s really hard to understand why,” said David Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College in the United States and former policymaker at the Bank of England.
It was a similar story with the ECB’s interest rate cut on Nov. 7 which only three leading banks – UBS, RBS and Bank of America-Merrill Lynch – correctly predicted.
These three institutions quickly adjusted their forecasts after shock figures on October 31 showed euro zone inflation plunging to a four-year low of 0.7 percent, triggering the euro’s biggest one-day fall in over six months.


By anyone’s measure, 0.7 percent falls some way short of the “below, but close to, 2% over the medium term” inflation rate stipulated in the ECB’s mandate.
So why did the highly paid experts get it so wrong again?
Herd mentality might have something to do with it.
“It’s great if you’re all right together, and equally great if you’re all wrong together,” Blanchflower said.
It’s like a fund manager who loses 20 percent in a year where the market is down 21 percent. He might have screwed up, but so did everyone else. And technically, he outperformed the market so can claim to have “earned” his large fees.
To be fair, some of the central banks’ communication this year hasn’t been quite as clear as intended. See Bernanke’s comments on May 22 and recent confusion over the Bank of England’s “forward guidance”.
If one of the aims of forward guidance is to avoid volatility and variance of opinion about the trajectory of policy, then this kind of spectacular misread is an indictment of forward guidance.
In addition, since Draghi’s famous “whatever it takes” speech in July last year, the ECB has always had the potential to catch the market off-guard.
But maybe we shouldn’t be so charitable, and the market’s wailing at being misled by the central banks should be taken on board but ultimately ignored. The tail should not wag the dog.
“The Fed can’t be or shouldn’t be a prisoner of the markets,” we were reminded on Thursday, by none other than Fed Chair-elect Janet Yellen.

Bernanke Put for emerging markets? Not really

The Fed’s unexpectedly dovish position last week has sparked a rally in emerging markets — not only did the U.S. central bank’s all-powerful boss Ben Bernanke keep his $85 billion-a-month money printing programme in place, he also mentioned emerging markets in his post-meeting news conference, noting the potential impact of Fed policy on the developing world. All that, along with the likelihood of the dovish Janet Yellen succeeding Bernanke was described by Commerzbank analysts as “a triple whammy for EM.” A positive triple whammy, presumably.

Now it may be going too far to conclude there is some kind of Bernanke Put for emerging markets of the sort the U.S. stock market is said to enjoy — the assumption, dating back to Alan Greenspan’s days, that things cant go too wrong for markets because the Fed boss will wade in with lower rates to right things. But the fact remains that global pressure on the Fed has been mounting to avoid any kind of violent disruption to the flow of cheap money — remember the cacophony at this month’s G20 summit? Second, the spike in U.S. yields may have been the main motivation for standing pat but the Treasury selloff was at least partly driven by emerging central banks which have needed to dip into their reserve stash to defend their own currencies. According to IMF estimates, developing countries hold some $3.5 trillion worth of Treasuries, of which just under half is in China. (See here for my colleague Mike Dolan’s June 12 article on the EM-Fed linkages)

David Spegel, head of emerging debt at ING Bank in New York says the decision reflects “an appreciation for today’s globalised world”:

‘Peace-ing’ together the world…

If only it were this easy.

 

The United Nations General Assembly begins its annual meeting next week with the overhang of chemical weapons diplomacy in Syria and a diplomatic dance over Iran’s nuclear aspirations (and the distrust by much of the West of Tehran’s intentions). That creates a tantalizing prospect of the two, U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, taking a face-to-face spin together on the global stage.

But it was all about getting down to business on Friday at the Grand Hyatt hotel in New York where the UN Global Compact and the LEGO Foundation unveiled a 1.65 meter tall replica of the UN headquarters. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon playfully pointed out his office. He was joined by LEGO Foundation chairman Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen and its chief executive officer Dr. Randa Grob-Zakhary, who want the way children play to be re-defined and the learning process to be re-imagined.

 

 

Ban placed the final piece into the model, which took around 500 hours and more than 90,000 pieces to construct.

Russian stocks: big overweight

Emerging stocks are not much in favour these days — Bank of America/Merrill Lynch’s survey of global fund managers finds that in August just a net 18 percent of investors were overweight emerging markets, among the lowest since 2001. Within the sector though, there are some outright winners and quite a few losers. Russian stocks are back in favour, the survey found, with a whopping 92 percent of fund managers overweight. Allocations to Russia doubled from last month (possibly at the expense of South African where underweight positions are now at 100 percent, making it the most unloved market of all) See below for graphic:

BofA points out its analyst Michael Harris recently turned bullish on Russian stocks advising clients to go for a “Big Overweight” on a market that he reckons is best positioned to benefit from the recovery in global growth.

Russia may not be anyone’s favourite market but in a world with plenty of cyclical headwinds, Russia looks a clear place for relative outperformance with upside risk if markets turn… we are overweight the entire market as we like domestic Russia, oil policy changes and beaten-up metals’ leverage to any global uplift.

Turkey’s central bank — a little more action please

In the selloff gripping emerging markets, one currency is conspicuous by its absence — the Turkish lira. But this will change unless the central bank adds significantly to its successful lira-defensive measures.

Hopefully at today’s policy meeting.

Like India or Indonesia which have borne the brunt of the recent rout, Turkey has a large current account deficit, equating to over 5 percent of its economic output. But what has made the difference for the lira is the contrast between the Turkish central bank’s decisive policy tightening moves and the ham-fisted tactics employed by India and Brazil.  (We wrote here about this).  See the following graphic (from Citi) that shows the central bank has effectively raised the effective cost of funding by 200 basis points to around 6.5 percent since its July 23 meeting.

 

Guillaume Salomon, a strategist at Societe Generale calls Turkey the “success story” given the relatively stable lira and expects the bank to raise the upper band of its interest rate corridor by another 50 basis points at least. He says:

South Africa may need pre-emptive rate strike

Should South Africa’s central bank — the SARB – strike first with an interest rate hike before being forced into it?  Gill Marcus and her team started their two-day policy meeting today and no doubt have been keeping an eye on happenings in Turkey, a place where a pre-emptive rate hike (instead of blowing billions of dollars in reserves) might have saved the day.

The SARB is very different from Turkey’s central bank in that it is generally less concerned about currency weakness due to the competitiveness boost a weak rand gives the domestic mining sector. This time things might be a bit different. The bank is battling not only anaemic growth but also rising inflation that may soon bust the upper end of its 3-6 percent target band thanks to a rand that has weakened 15  percent to the dollar this year.

Interest rates of 5 percent, moreover, look too low in today’s world of higher borrowing costs  – real interest rates in South Africa are already negative while 10-year yields are around 2.5 percent (1.5 percent in the United States). So any rise in inflation from here will leave the currency dangerously exposed.

“Contrarian” Deutsche (a bit) less bearish on emerging stocks

For an investor in emerging equities the best strategy in recent years has been to take a contrarian stance, says John-Paul Smith at Deutsche Bank.

Smith, head of emerging equity strategy at Deutsche, has been bearish on emerging stocks since 2010, exactly the time when bucketloads of new cash was being committed to the asset class. Investors who heeded his advice back then would have been in the money — since end-2010 emerging equities have underperformed U.S. equities by almost 40 percent, Smith pointed out a couple of months ago.

Things have worsened since then and MSCI’s emerging equity index is down around 12 percent year-to-date, almost the level of loss that Deutsche had predicted for the whole of 2013. June outflows from emerging stock funds, according to EPFR Global last week, were the largest on record. But true to form, Smith says he is no longer totally bearish on emerging equities.  Maybe the presence or absence of those he calls “marginal international investors” — people who joined the EM party too late and are quick to take fright — is key. Many of these positions appear to have been cleaned out. Short positions or high cash balances dominate the books of dedicated players,  Smith writes:

A drop in the ocean or deluge to come?

Glass half full or half empty? For emerging markets watchers, it’s still not clear.

Last month was a record one in terms of net outflow for funds dedicated to emerging equities, Boston-based agency EPFR Global said.  Debt funds meanwhile saw a $5.5 billion exodus in the week to June 26, the highest in history .

These sound like big numbers, but in fact they are relatively small. EM equity funds tracked by EPFR  have now reversed all the bumper year-to-date inflow registered by end-May, but what of all the flows they have received in the preceding boom decade?

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?