Global Investing

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.

So while a market pause at least has been well warranted, the big 2013 theme of a long-term investor retreat from core debt and re-allocation toward  equity will likely prevent major corrections as long as the underlying global growth story – modest as it is – holds up and builds some steam. ANd that is a long-term story and won’t be decided over a week or even a few months. US Treasury auctions next week may be the ones to watch in that regard.

                   

GLOBAL DATA/EVENTS TO WATCH NEXT WEEK:

UK/Swiss January inflation Mon

Euro group Mon

Indonesia rate decision Tues

Europe Q4 earnings Tues: ThyssenKrupp, Barclays, Glencore etc

ECOFIN meeting Tues

EZ Dec industrial production Tues

Swedish rate decision Tues

ECB’s Draghi in Madrid Tues

US 3-year Treasury auction Tues

US Obama State of the Union Tues

Europe Q4 earnings Weds: ING, SocGen, Peugeot etc

Italy govt bond auction Weds

US Jan retail sales Weds

US 10-yr Treasury auction Weds

SKorea rate decision Thurs

Japan Q4 GDP Thurs

BOJ decision Thurs

EZ/Germany/France/Italy Q4 GDP Thurs

Europe Q4 earnings Thurs: ABB, BNP Paribas, Nestle, Rio Tinto etc

UK gilt auction Thurs

US 30-yr Treasury auction Thurs

G20 finance ministers and central bankers meet Moscow Fri/Sat

UK Jan retail sales Fri

US Jan industrial output Fri


Clearing a way to Russian bonds

Russian debt finally became Euroclearable today.

What that means is foreign investors buying Russian domestic rouble bonds will be able to process them through Belgian clearing house Euroclear, which transfers securities from the seller’s securities account to the securities account of the buyer, while transferring cash from the account of the buyer to the account of the seller. Euroclear’s links with correspondent banks in more than 40 countries means buying Russian bonds suddenly becomes easier.And safer too in theory because the title to the security receives asset protection under Belgian law. That should bring a massive torrent of cash into the OFZs, as Russian rouble government bonds are known.

In a wide-ranging note entitled “License to Clear” sent yesterday, Barclays reckons previous predictions of some $20 billion in inflows from overseas to OFZ could be understated — it now estimates that $25 to $40 billion could flow into Russian OFZs during 2013-2o14. Around $9 billion already came last year ahead of the actual move, Barclays analysts say, but more conservative asset managers will have waited for the Euroclear signal before actually committing cash.

Foreigners’  increased interest will have several consequences.  Their share of Russian local bond markets, currently only 14 percent, should go up. The inflows are also likely to significantly drive down yields, cutting borrowing costs for the sovereign, and ultimately corporates. Already, falling OFZ yields have been driving local bank investment out of that market and into corporate bonds (Barclays estimates their share of the OFZ market has dropped more than 15 percentage points since early-2011).  And the increased foreign inflows should act as a catalyst for rouble appreciation.

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.

Weekly Radar: Market stalemate sees volatility ebb further

Global markets have found themselves at an interesting juncture of underlying new year bullishness stalled by trepidation over several short-term headwinds (US debt debate, Q4 earnings, Italian elections etc etc) – the net result has been stalemate, something which has sunk volatility gauges even further. Not only did this week’s Merrill funds survey show investors overweight bank stocks for the first time since 2007, it also showed demand for protection against a sharp equity market drops over the next 3 months at lowest since at least 2008. The latter certainly tallies with the ever-ebbing VIX at its lowest since June 2007. Though some will of course now argue this is “cheap” – it’s a bit like comparing the cost of umbrellas even though you don’t think it’s going to rain.

Anyway, the year’s big investment theme – the prospect of a “Great Rotation” back into equity from bonds worldwide – has now even captured the sceptical eye of one of the market’s most persistent bears. SocGen’s Albert Edwards still assumes we’ll see carnage on biblical proportions first — of course — but even he says long-term investors with 10-year views would be mad not to pick up some of the best valuations in Europe and Japan they will likely ever see. “Unambiguously cheap” was his term – and that’s saying something from the forecaster of the New Ice Age.

For others, the very fact that Edwards has turned even mildly positive may be reason enough to get nervy! When the last bear turns bullish, and all that…

Weekly Radar: From fiscal cliff to fiscal tiff…

The new year starts with a markets ‘whoosh’, thanks to some form of detente in DC — though this one was already motoring in 2012. The New Year’s Eve rally was the biggest final day gain in the S&P500 since 1974, for what it’s worth.  And for investment almanac obsessives, Wednesday’s 2%+ gains are a good start to so-called “five-day-rule”, where net gains in the S&P500 over the first five trading days of the year have led to a positive year for equity year overall on 87 percent of 62 years since 1950.

So do we have a fiscal green light stateside for global investors? Or does it just lead us all to another precipice in two months time? Well, markets seem to have voted loudly for the former so far. And to the extent that at least some bi-partisan progress reduces the risk of policy accident and renewed recession, then that’s justified. And Wall St’s relief went global and viral, with eurostocks up almost 3% and emerging markets up over 2% on Wednesday. Even the febrile bond markets sat up and took notice, with core US and German yields jumping higher while riskier Italian and Spanish yields skidded to their lowest in several months.

So is all that New Year euphoria premature given we will likely be back in  the political trenches again next month?  Maybe, but there’s good reason to retain last year’s optimism for a number of basic reasons. As seasoned euro crisis watchers know well, the world doesn’t end at self-imposed deadlines. The worst that tends to happen is they are extended and there is even a chance of – Shock! Horror! – a compromise. Never rule out a disastrous policy accident completely, but it’s wise not to make it a central scenario either. In short, markets seem to be getting a bit smarter at parsing politics. Tactical volatility or headline-based trading wasn’t terribly lucrative last year, where are fundamental and value based investing fared better.  And the big issue about the cliff is that the wrangling has sidelined a lot of corporate planning and investment due to the uncertainties about new tax codes as much as any specific measures. While there’s still some considerable fog around that, a little of the horizon can now be seen and political winds seem less daunting than they once did. If even a little of that pent up business spending does start to come through, it will arrive the slipstream of a decent cyclical upswing.  China is moving in tandem meantime. The euro zone remains stuck in a funk but will also likely be stabilised at least by U.S. and Chinese  over the coming months. Global factory activity expanded again in December for the first time since May.

A case for market intervention?

As we wait for ECB Mario Draghi to come good on his promise to do all in his power to save the euro,  the case for governments intervening in financial markets is once again to the fore. Draghi’s verbal intervention last week basically opened up a number of fronts. First, he clearly identified the extreme government bond spreads within the euro zone, where Germany and almost half a dozen euro countries can borrow for next to nothing while Spain and Italy pay 4-7%,  as making a mockery of a single monetary policy and that they screwed up the ECB’s monetary policy transmission mechanism.  And second, to the extent that the euro risks collapse if these spreads persist or widen further, Draghi then stated  it’s the ECB’s job to do all it can to close those spreads. No euro = no ECB. It’s existential, in other words. The ECB can hardly be pursuing “price stability” within the euro zone by allowing the single currency to blow up.

Whatever Draghi does about this, however, it’s clear the central bank has set itself up for a long battle to effectively target narrower peripheral euro bond spreads — even if it stops short of an absolute cap.  Is that justified if market brokers do not close these gaps of their own accord?  Or should governments and central banks just blithely accept market pricing as a given even if they doubt their accuracy?  Many will argue that if countries are sticking to promised budgetary programmes, then there is reason to support that by capping borrowing rates. Budget cuts alone will not bring down debts if borrowing rates remain this high because both depress the other key variable of economic growth.

But, as  Belgian economist Paul de Grauwe argued earlier this year,  how can we be sure that the “market” is pricing government debt for Spain and Italy now at around 7% any more accurately than it was when it was happily lending to Greece, Ireland and Portugal for 10 years at ludicrous rates about 3% back in 2005 before the crisis? Most now accept that those sorts of lending rates were nonsensical. Are 7%+ yields just as random? Should governments and the public that accepts the pre-credit crisis lending as grossly excessive now be just as sceptical in a symmetrical world? And should the authorities be as justified in acting to limit those high rates now as much as they should clearly have done something to prevent the unjustifiably low rates that blew the credit bubble everywhere — not just in the euro zone? De Grauwe wrote:

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.

Three snapshots for Wednesday

Most U.S. banks passed their annual stress test driving shares higher. Where does this leave their valuation? Looking at price-to-book value in aggregate (1st chart) they are only just trading above a ratio of one, looking cheap compared to a 15-year average ratio of two.  However a premium is opening up over European banks which are still trading below book value, and analyst forecasts for return on equity suggest banks are in a very different environment to the last 15-years (2nd chart)

The UK could start issuing 100-year bonds as it seeks to lock in current low interest rates. Recent sales of long-dated UK gilts have met with strong demand, and  as the chart below shows yields on 50-year gilts hit a record low of around 3 percent in January.

Three snapshots for Friday

The U.S. economy probably created 210,000 jobs last month, according to a Reuters survey. If the forecasts are accurate, the government’s jobs report on Friday would mark the first time since early 2011 that payrolls have grown by more than 200,000 for three months in a row. Refresh chart

China’s annual consumer inflation slowed sharply to a 20-month low in February, and factory output and retail sales also cooled more than forecast, giving policymakers ample room to further loosen monetary policy to support flagging growth.

Greece averted the immediate risk of an uncontrolled default, winning strong acceptance from its private creditors for a bond swap deal which will ease its massive public debt and clear the way for a new international bailout.