Global Investing

Weekly Radar: Q1 earnings test as the herd scatters

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World markets have started the second quarter in an oddly indecisive mood given that Q1 turned out to be yet another bumper start to the year, looking to extend record stock market highs on Wall St but lacking the juice of new information to make a decisive break while Europe splutters and emerging markets and commodities head south. Two important pieces of the U.S. jigsaw will likely emerge over the coming week  with this Friday’s US employment report and the start of the Q1 corporate earnings season next week.

But there’s clearly been a more general rethink further afield among global investors given the breakdown in cross-asset and cross-border correlations – meaning it’s no longer enough to just get Wall St right and adjust your global risk button accordingly. It looks much harder work to get regional or asset allocations and positioning right. As Wall St flirts with new highs and US and Japanese equity funds continue draw hefty inflows, there’s been a pullback from all things Europe surrounding the Cyprus saga and parallel growth disappointments across the region and EPFR data last week showed redemptions from euro stock, bond and money funds continued.

Euro stocks, as a result, are now flat for the year after two consecutive months in negative territory wiped out all of frothy January. And while you’d have made a cool 10 percent in developed market equities collectively in the first quarter and almost 9 percent on Wall St alone, you’d be in the red in emerging markets and badly burnt in gold, metals and commodities at large. So while the headline equity story suggests a G7 global recovery is underway at last, as the OECD suggested last week,  that’s not the signal from commodities and the emerging world. Could it really be just be a domestic US recovery story all on its own?

As a result it’s hard to find a binding theme so far in early April and market pricing this week reflects that somewhat, even though Easter-related holidays in many western markets contributed to the lack of direction. Apart from earnings season starting bell, next week has the euro group meeting in Dublin,  new US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew in Berlin and Paris and a hefty slate of data and debt auctions everywhere.

Emerging earnings: a lot of misses

It’s not shaping up to be a good year for emerging equities. They are almost 3 percent in the red while their developed world counterparts have gained more than 7 percent and Wall Street is at record highs. When we explored this topic last month, what stood out was the deepening profit squeeze and  steep falls in return-on-equity (ROE).  The latest earnings season provides fresh proof of this trend and is handily summarized in a Morgan Stanley note which crunches the earnings numbers for the last 2012 quarter.

The analysts found that:

–With 84 percent of emerging market companies having already reported last quarter earnings, consensus estimates have been missed by around 6 percent. A third of companies that have already reported results have beaten estimates while almost half have missed.

– Singapore, Turkey and Hong Kong top the list of countries where earnings beat expectations while earnings in Hungary, Korea and Egypt have mostly underwhelmed. Consumer durables companies recorded the biggest number and magnitude of misses at 82 percent.

Weekly Radar-”Slow panic” feared on Cyprus as central banks meet and US reports jobless

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Given the sound and fury of the past fortnight, it’s hard not to conclude that the messiness of the eventual Cyprus bailout is another inflection point in the whole euro crisis. For most observers, including Mr Dijsselbloem it seems, it ups the ante again on several fronts – 1) possible bank contagion via nervy senior creditors and depositors fearful of bail-ins at the region’s weakest institutions; 2) an unwelcome rise in the cost of borrowing for European banks who remain far more levered than US peers and are already grinding down balance sheets to the detriment of the hobbled European economy; and 3) likely heavy economic and social pressures in Cyprus going forward that, like Greece, increase euro exit risk to some degree. Add reasonable concerns about the credibility and coherence of euro policymaking during this latest episode and a side-order of German/Dutch ‘orthodoxy’ in sharp relief and it all looks a bit rum again.

Yet the reaction of world markets has been relatively calm so far. Wall St is still stalking record highs through it all for example as signs of the ongoing US recovery mount. So what gives? Today’s price action was interesting in that it started to show investors discriminating against European assets per se – most visible in the inability of European stocks to follow Wall St higher and lunge lower in euro/dollar exchange rate. European bank stocks and bonds have been knocked back relatively sharply this week post-Dijsselbloem too. If this decoupling pattern were to continue, it will remain a story of the size of the economic hit and relative underperformance. But that would change if concerns morphed into euro exit and broader systemic fears and prepare for global markets at large to feel the heat again too. We’re not back there yet with the benefit of the doubt on OMTs and pressured policy reactions still largely conceded. But many of the underlying movements that might feed system-wide stresses – what some term a “slow panic” like deposit shifts etc – will be impossible to monitor systematically by investors for many weeks yet and so nervy times are ahead as we enter Q2 after the Easter break.

Rotation schmotation

We’re at risk of labouring this point, but there has been some more evidence that this year’s equity rally has not been spurred by a shift away from fixed income. The latest data from our corporate cousins at Lipper offer pretty definitive proof that there has been no Great Rotation, at least not from bonds to stocks.

Worldwide mutual fund flows numbers for February showed an overall move into equity funds of more than $22 billion, and a net flow to bond funds of about half that. Over 3 months it’s a similar story, with a net inflow to equities of about $84 billion while bond funds sit close behind at about $75 billion. Little wonder then that there is some evidence at least of movements out of money market funds.

In fact, maybe HSBC called it about right last week. In a note, their cross-asset strategists reckoned a pick-up in economic growth might support a ‘minor’ cyclical rotation into equities from bonds, but a longer-term structural shift between the two asset classes as part of a ‘Great Rotation’ was less likely.

Weekly Radar: Cyprus hogs the headlines but contagion fears limited

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Cyprus has hogged the headlines since Friday, with bank closures now extended to a full week as they try to sort out a very messy bailout - made worse by domestic policy missteps over taxing bank deposits. As with Italy’s elections, the saga certainly challenges any market assumption that the euro crisis had abated for good and it’s also loaded with a series of potential precedents – not least the biggest taboo of them all, a euro exit. This is where the politics, brinkmanship and smoke-filled-rooms come in.  Yet as Cyprus is so small and its banks in such a peculiar setup – given the scale of Russian and other foreign depositors – the euro group, ECB and IMF appear determined not to be pressured into a bailout above the already gigantic 60 percent of GDP.

And, as with Greece last year, they will likely stand firm and leave any decision to exit up to the Cypriots themselves. You can’t rule out that they may choose to go and regional risks rise somewhat as a result. But if the islanders are genuinely worried about a 6-10% tax on deposits, they may also think long and hard about the chance those deposits would be redenominated into a heavily devalued Cypriot pound. Just ask the Argentinians what that feels like. A deposit haircut may seem a like a half-decent deal by comparison if some other mix of Russian loans, pension raids or securitised future gas revenues doesn’t stack up.

Weekly Radar: Dollar building steam?

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       The revved-up U.S. dollar – whose trade-weighted index is now up almost 5 percent in just six weeks – could well develop into one of the financial market stories of the year as the cyclical jump the United States has over the rest of G10 combines with growing attention being paid to the country’s potential “re-industrialisation”. As with all things FX, there’s a zillion ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ to the argument. Chief among them is many people’s assumption the Fed will be printing greenbacks well after this expansion takes hold as it targets a much lower jobless rate. Others doubt the much-vaunted return of the US Inc. back down the value chain into metal-bashing and manufacturing, while some feel the cheaper energy from the shale revolution and the lower structural trade deficits that promises will be short-lived as others catch up. However, with the dollar already super competitive (it’s down 30-40 percent on the Fed’s inflation-adjusted index over the past 10 years) the first set of arguments are more tempting. Even if you see the merits in both sides, the bull case clearly has not yet been discounted and may have further to go just to match the balance of risks.  With Fed printing presses still on full throttle, this has been a slow burner to date and it may be a while yet before it gets up a head of steam — many feel it’s still more of a 2nd half of 2013 story and the dollar index needs to get above last year’s highs to get people excited. But if it does keep motoring, it has a potentially dramatic impact on the investment landscape and not necessarily a benign one, even if shifting correlations and the broader macro landscape show this is not the ‘stress trade’ of the short-lived dollar bounces of the past five years.

Commodities priced in dollars could well feel the heat from a steady dollar uptrend. And if gold’s spiral higher over the past six years has been in part due to the “dollar debasement” trade, then its recent sharp retreat may be less puzzling . Emerging market currencies pegged to the dollar will also feel the pressure as well as countries and companies who’ve borrowed heavily in greenbacks. The prospect of a higher dollar also has a major impact on domestic US investors willingness to go overseas, casting questions on countries with big current account gaps. As the dominant world reserve currency, a rising dollar effectively tightens financial conditions for everyone else and we’ve been used to a weakening one for a very long time.

Argentina back in court

Argentina squares off today in a U.S. Appeals court with the so-called holdout creditors who are demanding $1.3 billion in payments on defaulted bonds. A decision will probably take a few days but supporters of both sides have been mustering.

Emails have been pouring into journalists’ inboxes thick and fast from the Argentine Task Force, a lobby group that wants Argentina to settle with bondholders and identifies its goal as “pursuing a fair reconciliation of of the Argentine debt default”.  And yesterday, a noisy pots-and-pans protest was held outside the London offices of Elliot Associates (the parent company of one of the two hedge fund litigants)  by groups supporting Argentina in its battle against those it terms “vulture funds”.  Nick Dearden, director of the Jubilee Debt Campaign, a group that calls for cancelling poor countries’ debts, says:

If the vulture funds are allowed to extract their pound of flesh from Argentina today, we will see a proliferation of vulture funds in Europe tomorrow.

Russian companies next stop for Euroclear

The excitement continues over Russian assets becoming Euroclearable.   Euroclear’s head confirmed last week to journalists in Moscow that corporate debt would be the next step, potentially becoming eligible for settlement within a month. Russian equities are set to follow from July 1, 2014.

What that means is foreign investors buying Russian domestic rouble bonds will be able to process them through the Belgium-based clearing house, 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.

The Euroclear effect in terms of foreign inflows to Russian bonds could be as much $40 billion in the 2013-2014 period, analysts at Barclays estimated earlier this month.  Yields on Russian government OFZ bonds should compress a further 50-80 basis points this year, says Vladimir Pantyushin, the bank’s chief economist in Moscow, adding to the 130 bps rally in 2012. Foreigners’ share of the market should double to 25-30 percent Pantyushin says, putting Russia in line with the emerging markets average.

A (costly) balancing act in Hungary

A bond trader in London is still marvelling at the market’s willingness to snap up a Eurobond from Hungary, calling it a country with “a policy mix so unorthodox even Aunty Christine won’t lend to them”.  But Hungary’s probable glee at bypassing the IMF and “Aunty Christine”  with $3.25 billion in two bonds that were almost four times oversubscribed, is probably short-sighted.

Hungary needs to raise the equivalent of $23.4 billion this year to repay maturing debt. The bond placement will enable Hungary to easily meet the hard currency component of this, and it has been enormously successful in luring buyers to domestic debt markets.  Such has been the demand for Hungarian bonds in recent months that foreigners’ holdings of forint-denominated government debt are at a record high of over 45 percent.

The success does not necessarily represent a thumbs-up for Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s policies but is more likely due to the yield Hungary paid — well over 5 percent for five and 10-year cash. In dollar terms that is not to be sneezed at, especially at a time when liquidity is abundant and the yield on mainstream dollar assets is low. The same reason is behind the demand for forint bonds, where Hungary pays over 5 percent on one-year paper. An IMF loan would have been far cheaper. (The rate for a standby loan of the kind Hungary had is tied to the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights (SDR) interest rate. Very large loans carry a surcharge of 200 basis points)

Of snakes, dragons and fund managers

The Year of the Snake is considered one of the less auspicious in the 12-year Chinese zodiac cycle. And 2013 is the year of the Black Water Snake, which comes around once every 60 years and is seen as the least fortuitous. How China’s stock markets turn out after years of poor performance remains to be seen but the snake is providing banks and asset managers with plenty of food for thought. Many of them have been gazing into the crystal ball to see what 2013 may hold for Chinese markets.

Fidelity Worldwide investments highlights the ‘Snakes and Ladders’ that could influence Chinese equities this year. (They have a great accompanying illustration)

Fidelity’s Raymond Ma reckons  there are six ‘R’s’ that could act as ‘ladders’ to buoy Chinese equity markets this year: recovery, reverse, reform, reflation, re-rating and rally. Under snakes he names inflation, a continued depreciation of the Japanese yen, excessive corporate debt/equity issuance,  a prolonged euro zone crisis and an earlier-than-expected end to quantitative easing in the United States.