Global Investing

What’s next? A U.S. downgrade or Spanish bailout?

What will happen first? A U.S. credit rating downgrade or the country’s unemployment falling below 7 percent?

Or Spain having no other option but to ask for a bailout?

Bank of America Merrill Lynch asked investors in its monthly fund manager survey what “surprises”  they saw coming up first this year.

And the result is: bad news will come first.

A U.S. debt downgrade got the top spot, with more than 35 percent of investors seeing that happen first, with crisis-hit Spain having to ask for more help a close second, at just over 30 percent.

The United States will have to wait a bit longer to cut its unemployment below 7 percent, with only about 12 percent seeing that happening first. Only 10 percent bet on Japan weakening its currency to 100 yen to the dollar and very few chose gold hitting $2,000 an ounce.

For the bank, it shows pessimism is still alive and kicking despite investors’ more positive view on the global economic outlook. It said in the report:

GUEST BLOG: The missing reform in the Kay Review

Simon Wong is partner at investment firm Governance for Owners, adjunct professor of law at Northwestern University School of Law, and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. He can be found on Twitter at @SimonCYWong. The opinions expressed reflect his personal views only.

There is much to commend in the Kay Review final report. It contains a rigorous analysis of the causes of short-termism in the UK equity markets and wide-ranging, thoughtful recommendations on the way forward.  Yet, it is surprising that John Kay omitted one crucial reform that would materially affect of the achievability of several of his key recommendations – shortening the chain of intermediaries, eliminating the use of short-term performance metrics for asset managers, and adopting more concentrated portfolios.  What’s missing?  Reconfiguring the structure and governance of pension funds.

A major challenge facing pension funds in the UK and elsewhere is the lack of relevant expertise and knowledge at board and management levels.  Consequently, many rely heavily – some would argue excessively – on external advisers.  I have been told by one UK pensions expert that inadequate knowledge and skills within retirement funds means that  investment consultants are effectively running most small- to medium-sized pension schemes in Britain. Another admits that trustees, many of whom are ordinary lay people with limited investment experience, are often intimidated by asset managers.

SocGen poll unearths more EM bulls in July

These are not the best of times for emerging markets but some investors don’t seem too perturbed. According to Societe Generale,  almost half the clients it surveys in its monthly snap poll of investors have turned bullish on emerging markets’ near-term prospects. That is a big shift from June, when only 33 percent were optimistic on the sector. And less than a third of folk are bearish for the near-term outlook over the next couple of weeks, a drop of 20 percentage points over the past month.

These findings are perhaps not so surprising, given most risky assets have rallied off the lows of May.  And a bailout of Spain’s banks seems to have averted, at least temporarily, an immediate debt and banking crunch in the euro zone. What is more interesting is that despite a cloudy growth picture in the developing world, especially in the four big BRIC economies,  almost two-thirds of the investors polled declared themselves bullish on emerging markets in the medium-term (the next 3 months) . That rose to almost 70 percent for real money investors. (the poll includes 46 real money accounts and 45 hedge funds from across the world).

See the graphics below (click to enlarge):

Signals are positive on positioning as well with 38.5 percent of investors reckoning they were under-invested in emerging markets, compared to a quarter who felt they were over-invested. Again, real-money investors appeared more keen on emerging markets, with over 40 percent seeing themselves as under-invested. SocGen analysts write:

Lower rates give no respite to Brazil stocks

In normal times, an aggressive central bank campaign to cut interest rates would provide fodder for stock market bulls. That’s not happening in Brazil. Its interest rate, the Selic, has fallen 350 basis points since last August and is likely to fall further at this week’s meeting to a record low of 8.5 percent. Yet the Sao Paulo stock market is among the world’s worst performers this year, with losses of around 4 percent. That’s better than fellow BRIC Russia but far worse than India and China.

Brazil’s central bank and government are understandably worried about a Chinese growth slowdown that would eat into Brazilian commodity exports. They are therefore hoping that rate cuts will prepare the domestic economy to take up the slack.

But the haste to cut interest rates appears to have spooked some foreign investors, with many seeing the moves as evidence of political pressure on the central bank. A closely-watched survey from Bank of America/Merill Lynch showed that fund managers had swung into a net 14 percent underweight on Brazil in May from a net overweight of over 20 percent in April (See graphic). This is the first time investors have turned negative on Brazil since February 2011, BofA/ML said.

March bulls give way to April bears in emerging markets

The dust has settled on a scintillating first quarter for emerging markets but the cross-asset rally of the first three months has already run out of steam. A survey by Societe Generale of 69 EM investors shows that over half are bearish — at least for the near-term.

This marks quite a turn-around from the March survey, when 80 percent of investors declared themselves bullish on emerging markets. What’s more, investors are currently running very little risk and 47 percent of hedge fund respondents (these make up half the survey) feel they are over-invested in EM.  (The following graphic shows the findings — click on it to enlarge)

Almost a quarter of the hedge fund and real money investors are neutral tactically on the market, compared to just 4.5 percent last month. Serious optimism has dried up, SocGen commented:

Japan… tide finally turning?

Until recently, when you mentioned  ”Japan” in the investment context, you could almost hear a collective sigh of disappointment — it was all about recession, deflation and poor investment returns.

However, sentiment does seem to be finally changing, not least because Tokyo stocks have rallied almost 20 percent since the start of the year, outperforming benchmark world and emerging indexes.

The yen has also been on a (rare) declining trend since the start of February, with the selling momentum accelerating since the Bank of Japan set an inflation goal of 1 percent in a surprise move and boosted its asset buying programme by $130 billion on Feb 14.

What fund managers think

Bank of America-Merrill Lynch’s monthly poll of around 200 fund managers had a few nuggets in the June version, aside from the usual mood-taking.

Gold is too expensive.  A net 27 percent of respondent thought it overvalued, up from 13 percent in May. Then again, the respondents to this poll have reckoned gold is too pricey since September 2009.

The fall in the euro should be tailing off. A net 14 percent reckon the single currency is still overvalued, but that is way down from the net 45 percent who thought so in the May poll.

The art of being passive

Hundreds or even thousands of  ”active” fund managers are competing to add alpha to beat benchmark indexes, be it in stocks, bonds or alternatives.

water

The market is so efficient, historical performance is no guide to the future. It’s nearly impossible to find a reliable method to pick advisers who deliver the best industry returns year in and out. There are also costs, from visible ones such as management fees and custody and administration expenses to “below water” costs such as trading commissions (due to higher turnover), bid/ask spread (price to buy, another to sell) and market impact costs (larger buy/sell orders affecting price).

Given this, is there a point in investing in active funds? What about just diversifing your assets through passive indexes?

from Commentaries:

Don’t hold your breath for European flotations

COLOMBIA/A web-based survey of more than 40 European institutional investors by investment bank Jefferies shows most -- 83 percent of those who responded -- are not expecting a re-opening of the IPO market in the UK and Continental Europe before the middle of 2010.

 

Only 23 percent of the analysts, portfolio managers and dealers surveyed reckon the IPO market will re-open by the end of this year.

Seems the world is still split on what type of companies will be floated though:

from Commentaries:

Are pension funds ignoring climate risk?

And are conservation groups moving into the business of giving investment advice?

It seems an unlikely path for environmentalists to take, but this WWF commissioned report warning that failure to take carbon risk into account could knock pension fund returns raises some interesting points.

"Carbon Risks in UK Equity Funds" by Mercer and Trucost "outlines how fund manager complacency on corporate carbon performance could put pension fund assets at risk as carbon-intensive companies face rising carbon costs and their company valuations fall in the short-term in anticipation of future carbon risk".