Global Investing

Survival of the fattest?

Is there room only for the biggest, most aggressively-marketed funds in crisis-hit Europe?

Europe’s ten best-selling funds have attracted nearly a third of net sales across bonds, equity and mixed assets so far this year, as the grey bars show in the following chart from Thomson Reuters’ fund research firm Lipper.

TEN MOST SUCCESSFUL FUNDS’ NET SALES AS A PROPORTION OF ALL SALES

The numbers — which exclude ETFs — are even more staggering if looking at at the concentration of sales into groups/companies, rather than at fund level.

Then, data compiled by Fitch ratings using Lipper shows that over the past three years Europe’s ten biggest firms have attracted around 80 percent of  flows into fixed income, equity and mixed assets.

“Everyone has been surprised by the extent of the fund flow concentration,” said Aymeric Poizot, Head of Fitch Ratings  EMEA Fund & Asset Manager Rating Group. He believe it is time for a “serious strategic review” at smaller funds to allow them to compete in an increasingly globalised fund market where retail investors are turning back to seemingly risk-free bank deposits and new skills are needed to hunt for increasingly rare yields for bigger investors.

Weekly Radar: Global PMIs; US/UK GDP; FOMC; Heavy earnings, inc Apple

Whoosh! The gloomy start to the final quarter seems to have been swept away again by the beginnings of a half decent earnings season stateside – at least against the backdrop of dire expectations – and a steady drip feed of economic data surprises from the United States and elsewhere. Moody’s not downgrading Spain to junk has helped enormously and the betting is now that the latter will now seek and get a precautionary credit line, which would not require any bailout monies up front but still unleash the ECB on its bonds should they ever even need to – and,  given Thursday’s successful sale of 4.6 billion euros of 3-, 5- and 10-year Spanish government bonds,  they clearly don’t at the moment (almost 90% of Spain’s  original 2012 borrowing target has now been raised). What’s more, Greek euro exit forecasts have been put back or reduced meantime by big euro zone debt bears such as Citi and others, again helping ease tensions and defuse perceived near-term euro tail risks. Obama’s bounceback in the presidential polls after the latest debate may be helping too by rolling back speculation that a clean sweep rather than a more likely gridlock was a possible outcome from Nov 6 polls. China Q3 GDP came in as expected with a marginal slowdown to 7.4% and signs of growth troughing — all adding to the picture of relative calm.

So, in the absence of the world ending in a puff of smoke – and the latest week of data, earnings and reports suggests not – we’re left with a view of a hobbled but stabilising world economy aided by hyper-easy monetary policy that is bolting core interest rates to zero. Tactical investors then, at least,  are being drawn into the considerable pricing anomalies/temptations across bond and credit markets as well as the giant equity risk premia and regional price skews.

The upshot has been a sharp bounceback of some 2.5% in world equities since last Wednesday, falling sovereign bond spreads in euroland and in credit and emerging markets, a higher euro and financial volatility gauges still rock bottom. Dax vol, for example, is at its lowest in well over a year. Year to date, developed market equities are now scaling 15-20%! Germany stands out with gains of some 25%, but the US too is homing in on 20%. These are extremely punchy numbers in any year, but are doubly remarkable in year of so much handringing about the future. So much so, you have to wonder if the remainder of the year will be remain so clement. That doesn’t mean another shock or run for the hills, but shaving off the extremes of that perhaps?

Rollover risks rising on high-yield bonds

Emerging market corporate debt is in high demand, as we pointed out in this article yesterday.  But we noted headwinds too, not least the amount of debt that will fall due in coming years as a result of the current bond issuance bonanza.

David Spegel, head of emerging debt research at ING in New York is highlighting a new danger — that of the exponential increase in speculative grade debt, especially from developed markets, that is up for rollover in coming years. A swathe  of credit rating downgrades for European companies this year mean that many fund managers who bought high-grade assets, have now found themselves holding sub-investment grade paper.  He calculates in a note this week that $47 billion of “junk” rated European paper will find itself up for refinancing in the first half of next year, more than double the levels that were rolled over in the first half of 2012.

It gets worse. The big danger now is that as Spain and Italy tumble into the junk-rated category (Ratings agency S&P on Wednesday cut Spain to BBB-, just one notch above junk) their blue-chip companies may well have to follow suit.  Spegel estimates over $100 billion in Spanish and Italian BBB rated corporate bonds are due next year. If these slip into speculative grade, it would triple the amount  of high-yield paper that needs refinancing in the first six months of 2013.

Weekly Radar: Q3 earnings; China GDP; EU summit; US debate

Markets have turned glum again as October gets underway and the northern winter looms, weighed down by a relentless grind of negative commentary even if there’s been little really new information to digest. The net loss on MSCI’s world stock market index over the past seven days is a fairly restrained 1.5%, though we are now back down to early September levels. Debt markets have been better behaved. The likes of Spain’s 10-year yields are virtually unchanged over the past week amid all the rolling huff and puff from euroland. The official argument that Spain doesn’t need a bailout at these yield levels is backed up by analysis that shows even at the peak of the latest crisis in July average Spanish sovereign borrowing costs were still lower than pre-crisis days of 2006.  But with ratings downgrades still in the mix, it looks like a bit of a cat-and-mouse game for some time yet. Ten-year US Treasury yields, meantime, have nudged back higher again after the strong September US employment report and are hardly a sign of suddenly cratering world growth. What’s more, oil’s back up above $115 per barrel, with the broader CRB commodities index actually up over the past week. This contains no good news for the world, but if there are genuinely new worries about aggregate world demand, then not everyone in the commodity world has been let in on the ‘secret’ yet.

So why are we all shivering in our boots again? Perennial euro fears aside for a sec, the latest narratives go four ways at the moment. 1) The IMF’s World Economic Outlook (WEO) downgraded world growth and its Financial Stability report issued stern warnings on the extent of European bank deleveraging 2) a pretty lousy earnings season is just kicking off stateside, 3)  U.S. presidential election polls are neck and neck again and unnerving some people fearful of a clean sweep by Republicans and possible threats to the Federal Reserve’s independence and its hyper-active monetary policy 4) it’s a new quarter after a punchy Q3 and there’s not much new juice left to add to fairly hefty year-to-date gains. Maybe it’s a bit of all of the above.

But like so much of the year, whether the up moments or the downers, there’s pretty good reason to be wary of prevailing narratives.

Winners, losers and the decline of fear

Lipper has released its monthly look at fund flow trends in Europe, and as ever, it throws up some intriguing results.

August saw bond funds again dominate inflows, pulling in a net 20.8 billion euros and just a tad down on July’s record. Stocks funds continued to suffer, as British equity products led the laggards with close to 2 billion euros withdrawn by clients over the month. North American equity funds and their German counterparts also saw big outflows.

Looking regionally, the Italian fund sector continues to show some surprising strength. Net funds sales there topped the table for the second month running. You can see Lipper’s heat map of sales and AuM below:

Euro emigration – safety valve or worker drain?

Four years of relentless austerity in many of the euro zone’s most debt-hobbled countries have forced many of their youngest and sometimes brightest workers to grab the plane, train or boat and emigrate in search of work. For countries with a long history of emigration, such as Ireland, this is depressingly familar — coming just 20 years after the country’s last debt crisis and national belt-tightening in the 1980s crescendoed, with the exit of some 40,ooo a year in 1989/90 from a population of just 3-1/2 million people.

The intervening boom years surrounding the creation and infancy of the Europe’s single currency and expansion of the European Union eastwards saw huge net migration inflows back into the then-thriving euro zone periphery  — Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy — and created a virtuous circle of rising workforces, higher demand for housing/goods and rising exchequer tax receipts.

But all that has gone into reverse again since the credit, property and banking crash of 2008.

Funds will find a chill Wind in the Willows: Lipper

“Asset managers are emerging from their comfortable burrow to face a battery of lights.”

Sheila Nicoll, Director of Conduct Policy at Britain’s Financial Services Authority (FSA), had perhaps been reading Kenneth Grahame before her recent speech, and her words are likely to have sent a chilly wind through the willows of the UK funds industry.

The warning “poop poop” being sounded by the regulator has been getting louder and louder. Indeed the FSA may even be traveling faster than Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, who has recently suggested that he would impose a 1 percent cap on pension charges.

Making the most of the shareholder spring

We’ve had a fair while to ponder the implications of a British AGM season which saw investors oust a few CEOs and deal bloody noses to a few others. We’ve also had some data which implies the revolt wasn’t as widespread as advertised, but Sacha Sadan at Legal and General Investment Management thinks we have seen something important, and something that must be exploited.

His take is that austerity is at the heart of the matter. While the public suffers in a faltering economy, and investors stomach dwindling returns, it was never going to fly that pay deals for bosses should survive unchallenged. Add to that government and media pressure on remuneration, plus a new era of investor collaboration thanks to the stewardship code, and you get an ideal set of factors to drive the ‘shareholder spring’.

Of course, austerity won’t (let’s hope) last forever; governments are unlikely to sustain a narrative around ‘fat cat’ bosses; and the media always moves on. For Sadan that makes it crucial for investors to strike while the iron is hot.

Put down and Fed up

Given almost biblical gloom about the world economy at the moment, you really have to do a double take looking at Wall Street’s so-called “Fear Index”. The ViX , which is essentially the cost of options on S&P500 equities, acts as a geiger counter for both U.S. and global financial markets.  Measuring implied volatility in the market, the index surges when the demand for options protection against sharp moves in stock prices is high and falls back when investors are sufficiently comfortable with prevailing trends to feel little need to hedge portfolios. In practice — at least over the past 10 years — high volatility typically means sharp market falls and so the ViX goes up when the market is falling and vice versa. And because it’s used in risk models the world over as a proxy for global financial risk, a rising ViX tends to shoo investors away from risky assets while a falling ViX pulls them in — feeding the metronomic risk on/risk off behaviour in world markets and, arguably, exaggerating dangerously pro-cyclical trading and investment strategies.

Well, the “Fear Index” last night hit its lowest level since the global credit crisis erupted five-years ago to the month.  Can that picture of an anxiety-free investment world really be accurate? It’s easy to dismiss it and blame a thousand “technical factors” for its recent precipitous decline.  On the other hand,  it’s also easy to forget the performance of the underlying market has been remarkable too. Year-to-date gains on Wall St this year have been the second best since 1998. And while the U.S. and world economies hit another rough patch over the second quarter, the incoming U.S. economic data is far from universally poor and many economists see activity stabilising again.

But is all that enough for the lowest level of “fear” since the fateful August of 2007? The answer is likely rooted in another sort of “put” outside the options market — the policy “put”, essentially the implied insurance the Fed has offered investors by saying it will act again to print money and buy bonds in a third round of quantitative easing (QE3) if the economy or financial market conditions deteriorate sharply again. Reflecting this “best of both worlds” thinking, the latest monthly survey of fund managers by Bank of America Merrill Lynch says a net 15% more respondents expect the world economy to improve by the end of the year than those who expect it to deteriorate but almost 50 percent still believe the Fed will deliver QE3 before 2012 is out.  In other words, things will likely improve gradually in the months ahead and if they don’t the Fed will be there to catch us.

Next Week: “Put” in place?

 

Following are notes from our weekly editorial planner:

Oh the irony. Perhaps the best illustration of how things have changed over the past few weeks is that risk markets now fall when Spain is NOT seeking a sovereign bailout rather than when it is! The 180 degree turn in logic in just two weeks is of course thanks to the “Draghi put” – which, if you believe the ECB chief last week, means open-ended, spread-squeezing bond-buying/QE will be unleashed as soon as countries request support and sign up to a budget monitoring programme. The fact that both Italy and Spain are to a large extent implementing these plans already means the request is more about political humble pie – in Spain’s case at least.  In Italy, Monti most likely would like to bind Italy formally into the current stance. So the upshot is that – assuming the ECB is true to Draghi’s word – any deterioration will be met by unsterilized bond buying – or effectively QE in the euro zone for the first time. That’s not to mention the likelihood of another ECB rate cut and possibility of further LTROs etc. With the FOMC also effectively offering QE3 last week on a further deterioration of economic data stateside, the twin Draghi/Bernanke “put” has placed a safety net under risk markets for now. And it was badly needed as the traditional August political vacuum threatened to leave equally seasonal thin market in sporadic paroxysms. There are dozens of questions and issues and things that can go bump in the night as we get into September, but that’s been the basic cue taken for now.  The  backup in Treasury and bund yields shows this was not all day trading by the number jockeys.  The 5 year bund yield has almost doubled in a fortnight – ok, ok, so it’s still only 0.45%, but the damage that does to you total returns can be huge.

Where does that leave us markets-wise? Let’s stick with the pre-Bumblebee speech benchmark of July 25. Since then,  2-year nominal Spanish government yields have been crushed by more than 300bps… as have spreads over bunds given the latter’s equivalent yields remain slightly negative.  Ten-year Spain is a different story – but even here nominal yields have shed 85bp and the bund spread has shrunk by 100bp.  The Italy story is broadly similar.  Euro stocks are up a whopping 12.5%, global stocks are up almost 7 percent, Wall St has hit its highest since May 1, just a whisker from 2012 highs.  Whatever the long game, the impact has and still is hugely significant. An upturn in global econ data relative to recently lowered expectations – as per Citi’s G10 econ surprise index — has added a minor tailwind but this is a policy play first and foremost.

So, climate change in seasonal flows? Well, it was certainly “sell in May” again this year – but it would have been pretty wise to “buy back in June”. Staying away til St Ledgers day would – assuming we hold current levels til then – left us no better off had we just snoozed through the summer.