Global Investing

Steroids, punch bowls and the music still playing: stocks dance into 2014

Four years into the stock market party fueled by a punch bowl overflowing with trillions of dollars of central bank liquidity, you’d think a hangover might be looming.

But almost all of the fund managers attending the London leg of the Reuters Global Investment Summit this week – with some $4 trillion of assets under management – say the party will continue into 2014.

Pascal Blanque, chief investment officer at Amundi Asset Management with over $1 trillion of assets under management, reckons markets are in a “sweet spot … largely on steroids with the backing of the central banks.”

If their collective benign world view pans out, the S&P 500 will comfortably post double-digit gains next year.

This despite having already tripled in just four years and chalked up a near 30-percent gain this year – its best year in a decade – to hit a record high above 1800 points. It’s been 18 months since the index chalked up a 10 percent correction.

Emerging equities: out of the doghouse

Emerging stocks, in the doghouse for months and months, haven’t done too badly of late. The main EM index,  has rallied more than 11 percent since its end-August troughs, outgunning the S&P 500′s 3 percent rise in this period. Bank of America/Merrill Lynch strategist Michael Hartnett reminds us of the extreme underweight positioning in emerging stocks last month, as revealed by his bank’s monthly investor survey.  Anyone putting on a long EM-short UK equities trade back then would have been in the money with returns of 540 basis points, he says.

Undoubtedly, the postponement of the Fed taper is the main reason for the rally.  Another big inducement is that valuations look very cheap (forward P/E is around 9.9 versus a 10-year average of 10.8) .

According to Mouhammed Choukeir, CIO , Kleinwort Benson:

Looking at valuations we think emerging markets are in an attractively valued zone, hence we think it’s a good investment. EMs are in negative momentum trend but have good valuations. We’re sitting on the positions we’ve built but if it hits a positive (momentum) trend we will add on it…. You wait for value and value will translate into returns over time.

The hit from China’s growth slowdown

China’s slowing economy is raising concern about the potential spillovers beyond its shores, in particular the impact on other emerging markets. Because developing countries have over the past decade significantly boosted exports to China to offset slow growth in the West and Japan, these countries are unquestionably vulnerable to a Chinese slowdown. But how big will the hit be?

Goldman Sachs analysts have crunched the numbers to show which markets and regions could be hardest hit. On the face of it non-Japan Asia should be most worried — exports to China account for almost 3 percent of GDP while in Latin America it is 2 percent and in emerging Europe, Middle East and Africa (CEEMEA) it is just 1.1 percent, their data shows.

But they warn that standard trade stats won’t tell the whole story. That’s because a high proportion of EM exports are re-processed in other countries before reaching China which in turn often re-works them for re-export to the developed world. In other words, exports to China from say, Taiwan, may be driven not so much by Chinese demand but by demand for goods in the United States or Europe. So gross trade data may actually be overstating a country’s vulnerability to a Chinese slowdown.

Tapping India’s diaspora to salvage rupee

What will save the Indian rupee? There’s an election next year so forget about the stuff that’s really needed — structural reforms to labour and tax laws, easing business regulations and scrapping inefficient subsidies. The quickest and most effective short-term option may be a dollar bond issued to the Indian diaspora overseas which could boost central bank coffers about $20 billion.

The option was mooted a month ago when the rupee’s slide started to get into panic territory but many Indian policymakers are not so keen on the idea

So what are the merits of a diaspora bond (or NRI bond as it’s known in India)?

BRIC shares? At the right price

Is the price right? Many reckon that the sell off in emerging markets and growing disenchantment with the developing world’s growth story is lending fresh validity to the value-based investing model.

That’s especially so for the four BRIC economies, where shares have underperformed for years thanks either to an over-reliance on commodities, excessive valuations conferred by a perception of fast growth or simply dodgy corporate governance. Now with MSCI’s emerging equity index down 30 percent from 2007 peaks, prices are looking so beaten down that some players, even highly unlikely ones, are finding value.

Societe Generale’s perma-bear Albert Edwards is one. Okay, he still calls the bloc Bloody Ridiculous Investment Concept but he reckons that share valuations are inching into territory where some buying might just be justified. Edwards notes that it was ultra-cheap share valuations in the early 2000s that set the stage for the sector’s stellar gains over the following decade, rather than any turbo-charged economic growth rates. So if MSCI’s emerging equity index is trading around 10 times forward earnings, that’s a 30 percent discount to the developed index, the biggest in a very long time. And valuations are lower still in Russia and Brazil.

South Africa may need pre-emptive rate strike

Should South Africa’s central bank — the SARB – strike first with an interest rate hike before being forced into it?  Gill Marcus and her team started their two-day policy meeting today and no doubt have been keeping an eye on happenings in Turkey, a place where a pre-emptive rate hike (instead of blowing billions of dollars in reserves) might have saved the day.

The SARB is very different from Turkey’s central bank in that it is generally less concerned about currency weakness due to the competitiveness boost a weak rand gives the domestic mining sector. This time things might be a bit different. The bank is battling not only anaemic growth but also rising inflation that may soon bust the upper end of its 3-6 percent target band thanks to a rand that has weakened 15  percent to the dollar this year.

Interest rates of 5 percent, moreover, look too low in today’s world of higher borrowing costs  – real interest rates in South Africa are already negative while 10-year yields are around 2.5 percent (1.5 percent in the United States). So any rise in inflation from here will leave the currency dangerously exposed.

Route 312 – China’s Route 66

The world’s largest car market, China, with a population of 1.3 billion people and an emerging middle class, holds great potential for investors and consumers alike with annual growth rates in the auto sector expected to hold at around 23 percent to 2017, according to Alliance Bernstein Asset Managers.

Joint ventures (JV), the most popular structure for foreign firms investing in the automobile sector in the world’s largest car market, are set to capitalise on a growing consumer base in a country with 3.3 million kilometres of asphalt. Traversing the so-called ‘mother’ road 312 (China’s route 66) is becoming more of an attainable dream for the Chinese consumer.

VW has a JV with Changchun-based FAW, Dongfeng with Nissan, GAC with Toyota and  Honda. There are many investment opportunities, though a constantly changing sectoral environment and risks of mechanical recalls can cause sharp fluctuations as in any market, according to Bernstein Research, a subsidiary of Alliance Bernstein holdings.

“Contrarian” Deutsche (a bit) less bearish on emerging stocks

For an investor in emerging equities the best strategy in recent years has been to take a contrarian stance, says John-Paul Smith at Deutsche Bank.

Smith, head of emerging equity strategy at Deutsche, has been bearish on emerging stocks since 2010, exactly the time when bucketloads of new cash was being committed to the asset class. Investors who heeded his advice back then would have been in the money — since end-2010 emerging equities have underperformed U.S. equities by almost 40 percent, Smith pointed out a couple of months ago.

Things have worsened since then and MSCI’s emerging equity index is down around 12 percent year-to-date, almost the level of loss that Deutsche had predicted for the whole of 2013. June outflows from emerging stock funds, according to EPFR Global last week, were the largest on record. But true to form, Smith says he is no longer totally bearish on emerging equities.  Maybe the presence or absence of those he calls “marginal international investors” — people who joined the EM party too late and are quick to take fright — is key. Many of these positions appear to have been cleaned out. Short positions or high cash balances dominate the books of dedicated players,  Smith writes:

When Japan was an emerging country

Recent wild swings in Japan’s financial markets — stocks, bonds and the yen — make Japan look almost like an emerging country.

Back in the 19th century, Japan was an emerging country, with its feudal society based largely on farming.

According to a paper by U.S. based researchers Chiaki Moriguchi and Emmanuel Saez, Japan’s GDP per capita in 1890 was at the level of U.S. GDP per capita in 1790, or about $1,200 in 2004 dollars. According to them, this is roughly comparable to the GDP per capita of the less developed countries today.

Weekly Radar: Question mark for the ‘austerians’

One of the more startling moves of the week was the fresh rally in euro government debt – with 10-year Italian and Spanish borrowing rates falling to their lowest since late 2010 when the euro crisis was just erupting and 2-year Italian yields even falling to 1999 euro launch levels. The trigger? There’s been a slow build up for weeks on the prospect of new Japanese investor flows  seeking liquid overseas government bonds  – but it was signs of a sharp slowdown in Germany’s economy that seems to have had a perversely positive effect on the region’s asset markets as a whole. The logic is that German objections to another ECB rate cut will ebb, as will its refusal to ease up on front-loaded fiscal austerity across Europe. If its own economic engine is now suffering along with the rest, significantly just five months ahead of German Federal elections, then a tilt toward growth in the regional policy mix may not seem so bad for Berlin after all. And if euro economies are more in synch, albeit in recession rather than growth, then perhaps it will lead to a more effective regional policy response.

All that plays into the intensifying “growth vs austerity” debate, which had already shifted at the Washington IMF meetings last week and was sharpened this week by by EU Commission chief Barroso’s claim that the high watermark of EU’s austerity push had passed. On top of the Reinhart/Rogoff research farrago, it’s been a bad couple of weeks for the “austerians”, with only a UK Q1 GDP bounceback of any support for case of ever deeper fiscal cuts,  and investors smell a change of tack. Their reaction? Not only have euro government borrowing costs fallen  further, but euro equities too rallied for 4 straight days through Wednesday. Those arguing that investors would run screaming at the sight of a more growth-tilted policy mix in Europe may have some explaining to do.

Next week is back on monetary policy watch however. The ECB takes centre stage amid rate cut talks hopes for help for credit-starved SMEs. The FOMC meets stateside aswell just ahead of the critical US April employment report.