Global Investing

Research Radar: “State lite”?

The FOMC’s relatively anodyne conclusions left world markets with little new to chew on Thursday, with some poor European banking results for Q1 probably get more attention.  Broadly, world stocks were a touch higher while the dollar and US Treasury yields were slightly lower. European bank stocks fell 2% and dragged down European indices. Euro sovereign yields were slightly higher, with markets eyeing Friday’s Italian bond auction. Volatility gauges were a touch lower and crude oil prices nudged up.

Following is a selection of some of the day’s interesting research snippets:

- Deutsche Bank’s emerging markets strategists John Paul Smith and Mehmet Beceren said they retain their negative bias toward global emerging market equities both in absolute and relative terms, highlighting Argentina’s expropriation of YPF from Repsol as another negative. “We anticipate that so-called state capitalism will continue to be a negative driver, as it has been since mid-2010, since the poor economic backdrop makes the corporate sector a tempting target for governments wishing to boost their popularity or find additional resources to add to the relatively low levels of social protection across most emerging economies.” They added that they remain overweight “state lite” emerging markets such as Taiwan, Mexico and Turkey and underweight Russia, China, Brazil and South Korea.

- Morgan Stanley’s James Lord thinks the rally in Hungary’s markets following Tuesday’s decision by the EU to reopen negotiations on financial assistance is justified but much may now be in the price. He said MS would prefer to wait for some pullback before looking for more bullish trades.  On a relative basis, Hungary 5-year CDS is now 60bp wider than Spain’s and MS said that while this gap could close much further  it was hard to see how Hungary CDS rates could trade below Spain.  “Indeed, if Spain goes into serious financial trouble, it could represent a systemic risk for all Europe, and funding stress would likely increase substantially. Given the strong dependence of Hungary towards the EU, it would be difficult to argue for Hungary to trade through Spain on any sustained basis.”

- Ashmore Investment Management’s Jerome Booth restates his bullish case for emerging markets with 10 points that conclude with the line:  “the best way to lose money without really trying is not to invest in emerging markets.” His points include warnings about equating past volatility with risk, passive investing (where he points out that only 12% of emerging debt is represented by available indices) and seeing emerging currency volatility against the dollar as an emerging problem rather than a U.S. one (“It is the dollar which is volatile”.)

Research Radar: Very 20th century

Wednesday’s market commentaries are loaded with the buzz around another technical UK recession in Q1 (the first time Britain has suffered what many see as a ‘double-dip’ since the 1970s); guessing about Wednesday’s FOMC outcome; and the European Commission letting Hungary off the hook about its controversial constitutional changes. In aggregate, and probably due to the looming FOMC,  markets are fairly stable – world equities, including euro stocks, emerging markets and even Britain’s FTSE are all higher. The US dollar, Treasuries,  volatility gauges, gold and even peripheral euro government bond yields are all down a bit.

Following is a selection of some of Wednesday’s interesting research ideas:

- Barclays’ Barry Knapp reckons US and world equities face a dilemma from the endless distortion to multiples and risk premia from monetary intervention and QE that is artifically lowering the risk-free rate akin to the “financial repression” of the 1950s — no one is sure now if equity is cheap or bonds just very expensive. He concludes that best thing for equities in the medium to long term is to avoid further QE but the problem is that stocks will almost certainly suffer in the short run if the Fed takes QE3 off the table. What’s more, Wednesday’s FOMC could be problem for markets initally if the Fed frets about the growth outlook, but a worsening of the economy might bring QE3 sooner than similar bouts in 2010 and 2011.

Research Radar: Beyond Hollande and Holland…

Markets have been dominated this week so far by the fallout from Sunday’s French presidential election, where Socialist Francois Hollande now looks set to beat incumbent conservative Nicolas Sarkozy in the May 6 runoff , and the collapse of the ruling Dutch coalition on Monday.  Public anxiety about budgetary austerity in Europe was further reinforced by news on Monday of a deepening of the euro zone private sector contraction in April. That said, euro equity, bond and currency prices have stabilised relatively quickly even if implied volatility has increased as investors brace for another month or so of political heat in the single currency bloc. The French runoff is now on the same day as the Greek elections and May 31 sees Ireland going to the polls to vote on the EU’s new fiscal compact.  Wall St’s volatility gauge, the ViX, is back up toward 20% — better reflecting longer term averages — and relatively risky assets such as emerging market equities remain on the back foot. The euro political heat and slightly slower Q2 world growth pulse will likely keep markets subdued and jittery until mid year at least. At that point, another cyclical upswing in world manufacturing together with the passing of the EBA’s euro bank recapitalisation deadline as well as the introduction of the new European Stability Mechanism may well encourage investors to return at better levels.

Following are some interesting tips from Tuesday’s bank and investment fund research notes:

- JPM economists reckon finding the reason behind the backup in US weekly initial jobless claims over the past couple of weeks is key to assessing whether a sub-par March payrolls report is repeated in April. It says it’s possible the claims jump move is a seasonal factor as unadjusted claims are closely tracking 2007′s pattern and Easter holidays fell on the same dates in both years. If 2007 was repeated, there would be a sizeable late April drop in claims and JPM looks for some of that on Thursday with a 14,000 forecast drop. (Reuters poll consensus is for a 11,000 drop)

Hair of the dog? Citi says more LTROs in store

Just as global markets nurse a hangover from their Q1 binge on cheap ECB lending — a circa 1 trillion euro flood of 1%, 3-year loans to euro zone banks in December and February (anodynely dubbed a Long-Term Refinancing Operation) — there’s every chance they may get, or at least need, a proverbial hair of the dog.

At least that’s what Citi chief economist Willem Buiter and team think despite regular insistence from ECB top brass that the recent two-legged LTRO was likely a one off.

Even though Citi late Wednesday nudged up its world growth forecast for a third month running, in keeping with Tuesday’s IMF’s upgrade , it remains significantly more bearish on headline numbers and sees PPP-weighted global growth this  year and next at 3.1% and 3.5% compared with the Fund’s call of 3.5% and 4.1%.

No hard landing for Chinese real estate

The desperate days when Chinese property developers offered free cars as an inducement to homebuyers look to be over.

Sales and earnings figures indicate some of the gloom is lifting as developers have enjoyed a second straight month of rising sales. Vanke, China’s biggest developer by sales, said last week that March sales had risen 24 percent year on year, while  2011 profits rose 30 percent. Another firm, China Overseas Land, posted a 21.5 percent profit rise last year.

The mood is reflected in stock prices. While the Shanghai shares index has risen less than 5  percent this year,  a sub-index of Chinese property companies has risen 13 percent. Shares in Vanke and COL are up 13 percent and 22 percent respectively. A Reuters poll of fund  managers showed that investors had upped their weighting for property stocks to 10.9 percent at the end of March, the highest level in two years.

Japanization of euro zone bonds?

Fear of many years of stagnation in the major western economies has everyone fretting about a repeat of  the “lost decades” that Japan suffered after its banking and real estate bubble burst in the early 1990s. Indeed HSBC economists were recently keen to point out that U.S. per capita growth over the noughties was already actually weaker than either of Japan’s lost decades.

But in a detailed presentation on the impact of two years of soveriegn debt crisis on euro zone government bond holdings, Barclays  economist Laurent Fransolet asks whether that market too is turning into the Japanese government bond market — where years of slow growth, zero interest rates, current account surpluses and captive local buyers have depressed borrowing rates for years and turned JGBs into an increasingly domestic market dominated by local banks, pension funds and insurers. Non-residents hold less than 10 percent of JGBs, compared to more than 50 percent for the EGB as a whole, and Japanese banks hold up to 35 percent of their own government bond market.

But is the euro government market heading in that direction after successive crises have seen foreign investors flee many of the peripheral markets of Greece, Portugal, Ireland and even Italy and Spain? Fransolet argues that the seniority of substantial European Central Bank holdings built up in the interim (now about 15 percent of each of the five peripheral markets) may be one reason why these foreign investors will be wary of returning. Meantime, euro zone banks, who have traditionally held a high 20-25 percentage point share of euro government markets, withdrew sharply late last year amid balance sheet repair pressures but have  rebuilt holdings again sharply in early 2012 after the ECB’s liquidity injections — particularly in Italy and Spain.

Time for a slice of vol?

As the global markets consensus shifts toward a “basically bullish, but enough for now” stance — at least before Fed chief Bernanke on Monday was read as rekindling Fed easing hopes — more than a few investment strategists are examining the cost and wisdom of hedging against it all going pear-shaped again. At least two of the main equity hedges, core government bonds and volatility indices, have certainly got cheaper during the first quarter. But volatility (where Wall St’s Vix index has hit its lowest since before the credit crisis blew up in 2007!) looks to many to be the most attractive option. Triple-A bond yields, on the other hand, are also higher but have already backed off recent highs and bond prices remain in the stratosphere historically.  And so if Bernanke was slightly “overinterpreted” on Monday — and even optimistic houses such as Barclays reckon the U.S. economy, inflation and risk appetite would have to weaken markedly from here to trigger “QE3″ while further monetary stimuli in the run-up to November’s U.S. election will be politically controversial at least — then there are plenty of investors who may seek some market protection.

Societe Generale’s asset allocation team, for one, highlights the equity volatility hedge instead of bonds for those fearful of a correction to the 20% Wall St equity gains since November.

A remarkable string of positive economic surprises has boosted risky assets and driven macro expectations higher but has also created material scope for disappointment from now on. We recommend hedging risky asset exposure (Equity, Credit and Commodities) by adding Equity Volatility to portfolios.

Market exhaustion?

It’s curious to see so many asset managers reaffirm their faith in a bullish 2012 for world markets just as a buzzing first quarter comes to a close on Friday with hefty gains in equities and risk assets.  Whether or not there is a mechanical review of portfolios at quarter end, it’s certainly a reasonable time for review. The euro zone crisis has of course eased, the ECB has pumped the banks full of cash and the U.S. recovery continues.  So, no impending disaster then (unless you subscribe to the increasingly-prevalent hard-landing fears in China). But after 11+ percent gains in world equities in just three months on the back of all this information, you have to wonder where the “new news” is going to come from here. The surprise factor looks over and we’re highly unlikely to get 10%+ gains in global stocks every quarter this year.  So, is it time for tired markets to sober up for a while or maybe even reconsider the risk of reversal again? Strategists at JPMorgan Asset Management, at least, reckon the economic news has just lost its oomph.

There are broad signs of exhaustion in markets, which is coinciding with a softening in the data, suggesting that in the short term the moderation in the “risk on” environment may continue.

JPMAM cite the rollover in the Citigroup economic surprises indices, shown below, and also say their own propietary Risk Measurement index — a 39-factor model built on data from money markets, equities, economic data, commodities etc — is flagging more caution.

Hungary’s plan to get some cash in the bank

Hungary says it might borrow money from global bond markets before it lands a long-awaited aid deal with the International Monetary Fund. That pretty much seems to suggest Budapest has given up hope of getting the IMF cash any time soon. Given the fund has already said it won’t visit Hungary in April, that view would seem correct.

There is some logic to the plan.

Hungary desperately needs the cash — it must  find over 4 billion euros just to repay external debt this year.

It is also an attractive time to sell debt.  Appetite for emerging market debt remains strong. Emerging bond yield premiums over U.S. Treasuries have contracted sharply this year and stand near seven-month lows. Moreover, U.S. Treasury yields may rise, potentially making debt issuance more costly in coming months.

Russia’s new Eurobond: what’s the fair price?

Russia’s upcoming dollar bond, the first in two years, should fly off the shelves. It’s good timing — elections are past, the world economy seems to be recovering and crucially for Russia, oil prices are over $125 a barrel.  And the rise in core yields has massively tightened emerging markets’ yield premium to  U.S. Treasuries, offering an attractive window to raise cash.  Russia’s spread premium over Treasuries hit the narrowest levels in 7 months recently and despite some widening this week it is still some 75 basis points below end-2011 levels.

Initial indications from the ongoing roadshow are for a two-tranche bond with 10- and 20-year maturities, possibly raising a total of $3.5 billion.

But market bullishness notwithstanding, investors say Moscow should resist temptation to price the bond too high, a mistake it made during its last foray into global capital markets in April 2010. Fund managers have unpleasant memories of that deal, recalling that Russia unexpectedly tightened the yield offered by 25-28 bps, making the bond an expensive one for investors who had already placed bids. The bond price fell sharply once trading kicked off and yields across the Russian curve rose around 25-30 basis points. Jeremy Brewin, a fund manager at Aviva said: