Global Investing

Ireland descends from risky debt heights

Good news for Europe as the cost for insuring sovereign debt against default fell in the third quarter of 2012, according to the CMA Global Sovereign Credit Risk report.

Ireland slipped out of the 10 most risky sovereigns for the first time since the first quarter of 2010 according to CMA, making space for Lebanon to enter the club of the world’s ten most risky sovereign debt issuers.

Although Irish 5-year credit default swap spreads tightened to 317 basis points from 554 basis points in the third quarter, there is still a 25 percent chance that Ireland will not be able to honour its debt or restructure it over the next five years.

If this sounds bad, it’s an improvement from last quarter’s 39 percent and stands up pretty well against Greece, which tops the table with a 90 to 99 percent chance of default or further restructuring.

It’s lonely high up for Greece on the Olympus of risky sovereigns – the list’s number 2, Cyprus, can only boast of a comparatively modest 57 percent chance of default or debt restructuring.

Wages wag the tail of the DAX

This week, Germany celebrated its Tag der deutschen Einheit (Day of German Unity) marking twenty-two years since the wall was torn down between East and West.

Back in the present, Frankfurt’s main share index, the DAX, has outperformed all of its European peers this year and in dollar terms has outshone almost every other global equity index. Re-unification has been painful, fostering social tensions and still huge disparities between east and west, but some analysts argue that it is precisely those disparities, not least in wages, which have underpinned the primacy of German stocks today.

There are other crucial factors of course. Germany’s high-value and high cost exports such as BMW cars are in high demand in countries such as China and India, all the more because of the weak euro.  And despite the outperformance, the market seems to price German stocks as bargains — they currently trade around 10 times forward earnings compared to over 12 times for the world index. According to fund managers at Baring Asset Management:

What would a benign dictator do with the euro?

The idea of a “benign dictator” may well be an oxymoron but as a thought exercise it goes a way to explaining why giant global fund manager Blackrock thinks the chances of a euro zone collapse remains less than 20 percent.  When push comes to shove, in other words, Europe can sort this mess out. Speaking at an event showcasing the latest investment outlook from Blackrock Investment Institute, the strategy hub of the investment firm with a staggering $3.7 trillion of assets under management,  Richard Urwin said the problem in trying to second-guess the outcome of the euro crisis was the extent to which domestic political priorities were working against a resolution of the three-year old crisis.

“The thing is if you could imagine a benign dictator, then the problems are all solvable and could be fixed in a matter of weeks,” said Urwin, who is Head of Investments at Blackrock’s Fiduciary Mandate Investment Team.  Playing with the idea, Urwin said parts of a workable plan may involve debt rescheduling or restructuring for the existing bailout countries Greece, Portugal and Ireland; a buildup of a sufficiently large liquidity fund to help the larger countries such as Spain and Italy; a euro banking union with deposit guarantees and single supervisor to ring-fence and close insolvent banks that will never function properly; the creation of a central finance ministry and the issuance of jointly-guaranteed euro bonds etc etc.

Urwin’s point of course was not to advocate a dictator for the euro zone — although he acknowledged the euro was not exactly a child of European electorates to begin with–  rather that euro members have the ability if not the willingness yet to solve the crisis and that global investors looking for signposts in the saga needed to watch closely the runes of political cooperation and leadership instead of the economics and debt dynamics alone.  Where exactly that turns is hard to guess, but but it may well be that the process that has to wait until the German elections next year, he added.

Next Week: Managed expectations

Here’s a view of next week from our team’s weekly news planner:

Not unlike England’s performance at the Euro 2012 football tourament, EU summit expectations have been successfully lowered in advance by all concerned and  so it will be hard to disappoint as a result!

The gnawing realization in markets is that the really game-changing steps by Germany on some form of debt pooling now look unlikely before next year’s general election there and so investors may have to hang on tight to what can get done in the meantime if the system is to hold together. Yet for all the understandable policy scepticism, there are a lot of big changes on the table — from banking union, more flexible budget-cutting programs, infrastructure growth pushes, a roadmap at least to euro bonds and a euro finance ministry and the launch of the ESM next month (barring a last-minute torpedo from the German constitutional court at least).  It may be a little too easy to dismiss all that is happening just because there’s not going to be a grand instant fix ready for Monday. The ESM alone should have powerful stabilization powers for markets at least. What’s more, Merkel says ”over my dead body” to Euro bonds in one breath, and then “when conditions are right” in another. Assuming she’s referring to her political body, then even these may not be a million miles away.

But the saga has become as much about politics and personalities now as percentages and public opinion, and so you always have to factor in the chance of a major bust-up or row. Broad agreement itself, as a result, may be a relief for a bit come next week — at least until Thursday’s next Spanish debt auction!

The (CDS) cost of being in the euro

What’s the damage from being a member of the euro? German credit default swaps, used to insure risk, have spiralled to record highs over 130 basis points, three times the level of a year ago amid the escalating brouhaha over Spain’s banks and Greek elections. U.S. CDS meanwhile remain around 45 bps. That means it costs 45,000 to insure $10 million worth of U.S. investments for five years, compared to $135,000 for Germany. (click the graphics to enlarge)

A smaller but similarly interesting anomaly can be found in central Europe. Take close neighbours, the Czech and Slovak Republics who are so similar they were once the same country. Both have small open  economies, reliant on producing goods for export to Germany.

The difference is that Slovakia joined the euro in 2009.

Back then, with the world grappling with the fallout from the Lehman crisis, Slovakia appeared at a distinct advantage versus the Czech Republic. At the height of the crisis in February 2009, Czech 5-year CDS exploded to 300 bps, well above Slovakia’s levels. But slowly that premium has eroded. A year ago CDS for both countries were quoted at similar levels of around 70 bps.  Now the Czech CDS are quoted at 125 bps, having risen along with everything else, but Slovak CDS have jumped to 250 bps, data from Markit shows. (bonds have not reacted in the same manner — Slovak 1-year debt still yields around 0.8 percent versus 1.4 percent for the Czech Republic; similarly German yields have fallen to zero; for an explanation see here).

Sell in May? Yes they did

Just how miserable a month May was for global equity markets is summed up by index provider S&P which notes that every one of the 46 markets included in its world index (BMI)  fell last month, and of these 35 posted double-digit declines. Overall, the index slumped more than 9 percent.

With Greece’s anti-austerity May 6 election result responsible for much of the red ink, it was perhaps fitting that Athens was May’s worst performer, losing almost 30 percent (it’s down 65 percent so far this year).  With euro zone growth steadily deteriorating, even German stocks fell almost 15 percent in May while Portugal, Spain and Italy were the worst performing developed markets  (along with Finland).

The best of the bunch (at least in the developed world) was the United States which fell only 6.5 percent in May and is clinging to 2012 gains of around 5 percent. S&P analyst Howard Silverblatt writes:

Three snapshots for Wednesday

On Friday 283 companies in the S&P 500 had a dividend yield higher than the 10-year Treasury yield, at yesterday’s close this had fallen to 266 but remains very high compared to the last 5-years.

Italian consumer morale plunged to its lowest level on record in May as Italians’ pessimism over the state of the economy plumbed new depths.

Germany set a zero coupon on its new Schatz, the first time it has done so on debt of such maturity. The bid to cover ratio for the new bond at the auction was 1.7, compared with 1.8 at a sale of two-year debt on April 18.

Three snapshots for Tuesday

The euro zone just avoided recession in the first quarter of 2012 but the region’s debt crisis sapped the life out of the French and Italian economies and widened a split with paymaster Germany.

Click here for an interactive map showing which European Union countries are in recession.

The technology sector has been leading the way in the S&P 500 in performance terms so far this year with energy stocks at the bottom of the list. Since the start of this quarter financials have seen the largest reverse in performance.

Three snapshots for Thursday

The Bundesbank is preparing to stomach higher German inflation than it likes, above the European Central Bank’s target level, because of the euro zone crisis, a source at the central bank said on Thursday.

Although the Bundesbank still wants stable prices across the euro zone, its latest comments show the bank recognises that upward pressure on German wage costs and property prices suggest its inflation is likely to rise above the bloc’s average.

As this chart shows, historically the Bundesbank was quick to react to any signs of inflation:

Three snapshots for Wednesday

This chart shows the wide dispersion in equity market performance so far this year. In local currency terms Korea has a total return of nearly 12% and Germany over 10%, this compares to Italy at-6% and Spain at -16%.

In contrast to last year, this has driven average correlations between equity markets lower.

However, correlations may well pick up if markets move back into ‘risk-off’ mode. The chart below showing the weakness in the Citigroup G10 economic surprise indicator seems to be pointing towards further weakness in bonds relative to equities.