Global Investing

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.

Fiscal tiffs aside,  the trade of 2012 was to have faith in the tenacity (if not necessarily the long-term success) of the major central banks pursuit of reflation and there’s nothing to suggest a change there as we move into 2013. What could go wrong? Well, lots as always. And there will surely be plenty of down days moving into the debt ceiling deadline in late February. We can be certain of few things, but one is that stocks will not rise 2% every day this year. Jitters about US debt downgrades will have their day and hard-talking from negotiators will jar periodically. But some deal will likely be done one way or the other. It may well store up problems for the future, but it is very hard to trade that now. As to the longer-term US fiscal health?  As ugly as it looks, most economists are convinced there’s little or no hope of a medium-term fiscal recovery if growth craters in the interim and another recession looms. It’s also worth noting that the U.S. primary deficit fell last year and is expected to fall further in 2013. So as long as the Fed plays ball for now…

As used to it as we’ve become, it’s easy to forget the scale of global central bank support that’s in the pipe and how powerful that could become quite quickly if underlying economic confidence returns worldwide. Perhaps the biggest question for markets is that after such a positive second half of 2012, how much is now already in the price? Most people’s top pick for 2013 –Shanghai stocks– have already put on 16 percent since the start of December, for example.

Weekly Radar: China and Fed steal the show

Even though US cliff talks remain unresolved, many of the edges have been taken off seasonal yearend jitters elsewhere. Euro pressures have been kept under wraps since the Greek deal,  the possibility of yet another Fed QE manoeuvre next Wednesday is back in play and a significant pulse has been recorded in the global economy via the latest PMIs – thanks in large part to China and the US service sector.US payrolls loom again tomorrow, but the picture is one of stabilisation if not full-scale recovery.

All this has kept markets pretty calm with a positive tilt as investors parse 2013. The Greek deal has proved to be a very important juncture for the euro zone, with Italian 10-year yields down yet another 14bp Wednesday-to-Wednesday. The parallel recentr lunge in Spanish yields backed up a few notches after this week’s auction disappointed some traders. Yet even here the relative ease with which a supposedly-cornered Madrid raised more than 4 billion euros for next year’s coffers keeps the financial side of their crisis, if not the economic one, in context for now at least.

Elsewhere, the past seven days saw the euro surging again – partly a result of a mega euro/Swiss jump after Credit Suisse’s decision to charge for franc deposits – negative interest rates in the cold light of day. What that also shows again this year is the danger of betting against central banks. Even though the world and it’s mother were betting against the euro against the Swiss franc all year, the SNB remains successful so far in capping the franc at 1.20. Like the ECB and the Fed – it means business. Once committed, the central banks will not change tack without a dramatic shift in thinking. Perhaps in tandem, gold has continued to drift lower.

Weekly Radar: In the shadow of the cliff

It’s been another rum old week market-wise, with global stocks off another 2 percent or more and recording seven straight days in the red for the first time since August. Throw any spin you like at the reasoning, but the pretty predictable post-election hiatus on U.S. fiscal cliff worries now seem to be front and centre of everything. And that will just has to play itself out now, leaving markets stuck in this funk until they come up with the fix. The running consensus still seems to be that some solution will be reached, but no one wants to be too brave about it. And given the cliff is one of the few good explanations for the sharp divergence between the equity market and still rising US economic surprises,  you can see why many feel the US fiscal standoff is merely delaying a resumption of the rally.

The euro zone story has rumbled again of course, with the Greek hand-to-mouth financing, pressure for official sector debt write-offs there and another nervy wait for the latest tranche of bailout funds. Anti-austerity protests in Greece, Spain, Portugal and elsewhere meantime stepped up a gear this week and Q3 data out today confirmed the euro bloc back in recession.

Yet Europe is not the main driver of global markets at the moment. The latest MerrillBoA funds survey this week showed that, at 54%, more than twice as many funds now think falling off the US cliff and not the euro crisis is the biggest global investment risk. The euro group meets next week on Greece  ahead of a two-day EU summit and we still have no clarity on Spain’s bailout either. There’s plenty of headline risk then, for sure, and the parallel release next week of November PMIs is hardly going to bring sweetness and light. That said, there’s been about as much good as bad news from Europe of late. The ECB is simply not going to pull the plug on Greece even if OSI gets pushed up to governmental level and take a lot more time. Spain and Italy have both now effectively completed funding for this  year and there were very positive noises this week on Ireland returning to markets in early 2013 with a 10-year syndicated dollar bond, while Fitch raised its sovereign rating outlook to stable from negative.

Weekly Radar: Cliff dodging and Euro recessions

Most everything got swept up in the US election over the past week but, for all the last minute nail biting  and psephology, it was pretty much the result most people had been expecting all year. So, is there anything really to read into the market noise around the event? The rule of thumb in the runup was a pretty crude — Obama good for bonds (Fed friendly, cliff brinkmanship, growth risk) and Romney good for stocks (tax cuts, friend to capital/wealth, a cliff dodger thanks to GOP House backing and hence pro growth). And so it played out Wednesday. But in truth, it’s been fairly marginal so far. Stocks were down about 2 pct yesteray, but they’d been up 1 pct on election day for no obvious reason at all. But can anyone truly be surprised by an outcome they’d supposedly been betting on all along. (Just look at Intrade favouring Obama all the way through the runup). Maybe it’s all just risk hedging at the margins. What’s more, like all crude rules of thumb, they’re not always 100 pct accurate anyway.  Many overseas investors just could not fathom a coherent Romney economic plan anyway apart from radical political surgery on the government budget that many saw as ambiguous for growth and social stability anyhow.  Domestic investors may more understandably wring their hands about hits on dividend and income taxes, but it wasn’t clear to everyone outside that that a Romney plan was automatically going to lift national growth over time anyhow.

That said, it was striking on Wednesday that even though global funds were mostly relieved the Fed won’t now be shackled after 2014, nearly everyone still expects the fiscal cliff to be resolved by compromise. Whether that’s wishful thinking or the smartest guess remains to be seen. But, just like in Europe, it means they are at the very least going to have endure a barrage of political noise in headlines and endless scaremongering before any deal is ultimately forthcoming. Some say the nature of the GOP defeat, even with an incumbent saddled with an 8 pct unemployment rate, will force enough moderate Republicans to seek distance from Tea Party and seek compromise. But others point out that post-Sandy relief  spending may also bring the dreaded debt ceiling issue forward sooner than expected now too. All in all, the overwhelming consensus still betting on an eventual cliff dodge may be the most worrying aspect of market positioning and may be the best explanation the slightly outsize and sudden stock market reaction.

It also presupposes markets are trading solely on U.S. issues when the other world worries remain.

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.

What would a benign dictator do with the euro?

The idea of a “benign dictator” may well be an oxymoron but as a thought exercise it goes a way to explaining why giant global fund manager Blackrock thinks the chances of a euro zone collapse remains less than 20 percent.  When push comes to shove, in other words, Europe can sort this mess out. Speaking at an event showcasing the latest investment outlook from Blackrock Investment Institute, the strategy hub of the investment firm with a staggering $3.7 trillion of assets under management,  Richard Urwin said the problem in trying to second-guess the outcome of the euro crisis was the extent to which domestic political priorities were working against a resolution of the three-year old crisis.

“The thing is if you could imagine a benign dictator, then the problems are all solvable and could be fixed in a matter of weeks,” said Urwin, who is Head of Investments at Blackrock’s Fiduciary Mandate Investment Team.  Playing with the idea, Urwin said parts of a workable plan may involve debt rescheduling or restructuring for the existing bailout countries Greece, Portugal and Ireland; a buildup of a sufficiently large liquidity fund to help the larger countries such as Spain and Italy; a euro banking union with deposit guarantees and single supervisor to ring-fence and close insolvent banks that will never function properly; the creation of a central finance ministry and the issuance of jointly-guaranteed euro bonds etc etc.

Urwin’s point of course was not to advocate a dictator for the euro zone — although he acknowledged the euro was not exactly a child of European electorates to begin with–  rather that euro members have the ability if not the willingness yet to solve the crisis and that global investors looking for signposts in the saga needed to watch closely the runes of political cooperation and leadership instead of the economics and debt dynamics alone.  Where exactly that turns is hard to guess, but but it may well be that the process that has to wait until the German elections next year, he added.