Global Investing

Weekly Radar: Market stalemate sees volatility ebb further

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.

Anyway, the year’s big investment theme – the prospect of a “Great Rotation” back into equity from bonds worldwide – has now even captured the sceptical eye of one of the market’s most persistent bears. SocGen’s Albert Edwards still assumes we’ll see carnage on biblical proportions first — of course — but even he says long-term investors with 10-year views would be mad not to pick up some of the best valuations in Europe and Japan they will likely ever see. “Unambiguously cheap” was his term – and that’s saying something from the forecaster of the New Ice Age.

For others, the very fact that Edwards has turned even mildly positive may be reason enough to get nervy! When the last bear turns bullish, and all that…

In the meantime, we’ll just have to keep monitoring the incoming news and data for direction. The balance of risks is still on the upside over the course of the year, but there will be bumps. Year-to-date on the MSCI World is still up almost 3 percent as vol ebbs and euro peripheral debt auctions and sovereign debt prices continue to fly.

We still have to see Q4 China GDP this week and the US earnings season is just cranking up. Judging by JPM and Goldman on Wednesday , the banks look ok so far. GE will get into the real world economy a bit more on Friday. Next week we then have the big techs like Apple and Microsoft and this is the sector making many anxious. Beyond that, the radar captures potential signals from Lower Saxony’s elections  on Sunday for September’s German parliamentary polls, we have the first eurogroup of the year on Monday and outstanding issues such as legacy bank debts, a Franco-German summit in Berlin, January’s flash PMIs worldwide and UK Q4 GDP. Israel elections jump into the mix and a South African interest rate decision too as the  drums sound again on the notorious ‘currency wars’.

Rupiah decline – don’t worry

Indonesia has just given the go-ahead for another leg down in the rupiah. It has cut its forecasts for the exchange rate to 9,700 per dollar compared to the 9,200 level at which the central bank used to step in. The currency has duly weakened and nervous foreigners have rushed to hedge exposure — 3-month NDFs price the rupiah at almost 10,000 to the dollar. The  rupiah last week hit a three-year low, its weakness coming on top of a dismal 2012 which saw it fall 6 percent as the current account deficit worsened. Traders in Jakarta are reporting dollar hoarding by exporters.

All that is spooking foreigners who own more than 30 percent of the domestic bond market. The currency weakness hit them hard last year as Indonesian bonds returned just 6 percent, a third of the sector’s 16 percent average (see graphic).

The central bank does not seem perturbed by the currency weakness. Luckily for it, inflation rates are still benign, which means a weak currency will probably remain in favour.

Emerging debt vs equity: to rotate or not

Emerging bonds have got off to a flying start in 2013, with debt funds taking in over $2 billion this past week, the second highest weekly inflow ever, according to fund tracker EPFR Global. Issuance is strong -  Turkey for instance this week borrowed cash repayable in 10 years for just 3.47 percent, its lowest yield ever in the dollar market.

Yet not everyone is optimistic and most analysts see last year’s returns of 16-18 percent EM debt returns as out of reach. The consensus instead seems to be for 5-8 percent as  tight spreads and low yields leave little room for further ralliesaverage yields on the EMBI Global sovereign debt index is just 4.4 percent.    Domestic bonds meanwhile could suffer if inflation turns problematic. (see here for our story on emerging bond sales and returns).

Now take a look at U.S. Treasury yields which are near 8-month highs. and could pose a headwind for emerging debt. Higher U.S. yields are not necessarily a bad thing for emerging markets provided the rise is down to a healthier economic outlook.  But that scenario could induce investors to turn their attention to equities and  indeed this is already happening. EPFR data shows emerging equity funds outstripped their bond counterparts last week, taking in $7.45 billion, the highest ever weekly inflow.

Weekly Radar: Q4 earnings, China GDP and German elections

The first wave of Q4 US earnings, Chinese Q4 GDP  and European inflation dominate next week, while regional polls in Germany’s Lower Saxony the following Sunday give everyone a early peek at ideas surrounding probably the biggest general election of 2013 later in the year.

With a bullish start to the year already confirmed by the so-called “5 day rule” on Wall St, we now come to the first real test – the Q4 earnings season. There was nothing to rock the boat from Alcoa but we will only start to get a glimpse of the overall picture next week after the big financials like JPM, Citi and Goldman report as well as real sector bellwethers Intel and GE. Yet again the questions centre on how the slow-growth macro world is sapping top lines, how this can continue to be offset by cost cutting to flatter profits and – perhaps most importantly for investors right now – what’s already in the price.

For the worriers, there’s already been plenty of gloom from lousy guidance  and memories of Q3 where less than half the 500 beat revenue forecasts. But the picture is not uniformly negative from a market perspective. For a start, both top and bottom line growth estimates have already been slashed to about a third of what they were three months ago but should still outstrip Q3 if they come in on target. Average S&P500 earnings growth for Q4 is expected to be almost 3 percent compared to near zero in Q3 and revenue growth is expected at about 2 percent after a near one percent drop the previous quarter. What’s more, the market has been well prepared for trouble already — negative-to-positive guidance by S&P 500 companies for Q4 was 3.6 to 1, the second worst since the third quarter of 2001. So, wait and see – but there will have to be some pretty scary headlines for a selloff at this juncture.  It may be just as tricky to build any bullish momentum ahead of renewed infighting in DC over the debt ceiling next month, but the latter issue has been treated to date this year as a frustration rather than a game-changer.

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.

After bumper 2012, more gains for emerging Europe debt?

By Alice Baghdjian

Interest rate cuts in emerging markets, credit ratings upgrades and above all the tidal wave of liquidity from Western central banks have sent almost $90 billion into emerging bond markets this year (estimate from JP Morgan). Much of this cash has flowed to locally-traded emerging currency debt, pushing yields in many markets to record lows again and again. Local currency bonds are among this year’s star asset classes, returning over 15 percent, Thomson Reuters data shows.

But the pick up in global growth widely expected in 2013 may put the brakes on the bond rally in many countries – for instance rate hikes are expected in Brazil, Mexico and Chile. One area where rate rises are firmly off the agenda however is emerging Europe and South Africa, where economic growth remains weak. That is leading to some expectations that these markets could outperform in 2013.

There have already been big rallies. Since the start of the year, Turkey’s 10 year bond has rallied by 300 basis points; Hungary’s by almost 400 bps; and Poland’s by 200 bps. So is there room for more.

Weekly Radar: Elections and housing in last big week of 2012

So an extra dose of medicine from the Fed on Wednesday helps smother global market volatility further into the yearend — even though naming an explicit 6.5% unemployment rate could well send Treasury bond volatility soaring as the current 7.7% rate likely approaches that level in 2014 just as the Fed low-rate pledge expires. Not a story for early next year maybe, but…

More nose-against-the-windshield, the busy end to this week – with the EU Summit today and December’s flash PMIs tomorrow – makes it difficult to clear the decks yet for yearend — at least not as much as market pricing and volumes would suggest. Moves to some form of EU banking union are already in the mix from Brussels, however, so another plus at the margins perhaps.

And looking back over the past week — who’d have thought we could still be surprised by an upset in Italian politics? It was the only real significant pre-Fed news of the past week and maybe packed more of a initial punch that it warranted as a result. But for all the interest in Monti stepping aside and Silvio’s attempt to return, there was no really big shift in picture already in front of investors. Ok, so the election is now likely in February not March/April and no one wants to write off Berlusconi completely. But he’s still more than 10 points adrift in polls and Monti himself may well stand for PM in the election too. In short, it adds some political risk at the edges, but if you were happy to hold or buy more Italian bonds before this (still a big ‘if’), then all that really changed for investors is they got a better yield at this week’s relatively successful auction.

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: Bounceback as year winds down

Yet another Greek impasse, a French downgrade, ongoing DC cliff dodging and a downturn in Citi’s G10 economic surprise index (though not yet in the US one) could have been plausible reasons this week to extend the post-election global markets swoon. But at 8 consecutive days in the red up to last Friday, that was the longest losing streak since last November, and a lot of froth had been shaken off these year-end markets already.

We’ve seen a decent bounceback in nearly all risks assets instead. That may be partly due to volume-sapping Thanksgiving week and partly due to the fact that more and more funds think the year is effectively over now anyhow. The only big wildcard left is the timing of an fiscal agreement stateside and few managers now honestly believe there won’t be some sort of a deal. (Deutsche, for the record, said this week that the divide between the sides over tax is much less than many assume).  Greece is a slower burner but again, few people believe it will be hung out to dry any time soon and a deal on the next tranche – whatever about deep and meaningful OSI, payment moratoriums and loan rate cuts – will most likely be reached next week at the latest. Talk of a EFSF-funded Greek debt buyback meantime has helped pushed its debt yields to the lowest since the restructuring.  And the French downgrade was probably the least surprising move of the past five years.

So we’re left closing out a half-decent investment year with a view of early 2013 that is framed by a Chinese cyclical upswing, a likely additional fillip to business planning from a US fiscal deal on top of an already brisk housing recovery there, and the likely return of one the euro bailout patients, Ireland, to the syndicated dollar capital markets almost a year before its bailout programme ends. Further into the year gets much trickier as usual, with elections in Germany, Italy, Israel and Iran to name but four… but  as Bernanke reminded us this week and every investor experienced in full voice in 2012, the central banks are heavily committed to reflation policies now and will not stand idly by if there’s yet another serious downturn.

And the winner is — frontier market bonds

Global Investing has commented before on how strongly the world’s riskiest bonds — from the so-called frontier markets such as Mongolia, Nigeria and Guatemala — have performed.  NEXGEM, the frontier component of the bond index family run by JP Morgan, is on track to outperform all other fixed income classes this year with returns of over 20 percent., the bank tells clients in a note today. Just to compare, broader emerging dollar bonds on the EMBI Global index have returned some 16 percent year-to-date while local currency emerging debt is up 13 percent.

That appetite for the sector is strong was proven by a September Eurobond from Zambia that was 15 times subscribed. Demand shows no sign of flagging despite a default in frontier peer Belize and shenanigans over the payment of Ivory Coast’s missed coupons from last year. Reasons are easy to find. First, the yield. The average yield on the NEXGEM is roughly 6.5 percent compared with  just under 5 percent on the EMBIG.

Second, this is where a lot of issuance is happening as big emerging markets such as Brazil and Mexico, once prolific dollar bond issuers, sell less and less on external markets in favour of domestic debt.  Frontier markets are filling the gap. JPM says Angola, Guatemala, Mongolia and Zambia joined the NEXGEM in 2012 as they made their debut on global capital markets. Bolivia is also set for inclusion soon, taking the number of NEXGEM members to 23 by end-2012.