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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)