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.

‘Peace-ing’ together the world…

If only it were this easy.

 

The United Nations General Assembly begins its annual meeting next week with the overhang of chemical weapons diplomacy in Syria and a diplomatic dance over Iran’s nuclear aspirations (and the distrust by much of the West of Tehran’s intentions). That creates a tantalizing prospect of the two, U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, taking a face-to-face spin together on the global stage.

But it was all about getting down to business on Friday at the Grand Hyatt hotel in New York where the UN Global Compact and the LEGO Foundation unveiled a 1.65 meter tall replica of the UN headquarters. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon playfully pointed out his office. He was joined by LEGO Foundation chairman Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen and its chief executive officer Dr. Randa Grob-Zakhary, who want the way children play to be re-defined and the learning process to be re-imagined.

 

 

Ban placed the final piece into the model, which took around 500 hours and more than 90,000 pieces to construct.

Russian stocks: big overweight

Emerging stocks are not much in favour these days — Bank of America/Merrill Lynch’s survey of global fund managers finds that in August just a net 18 percent of investors were overweight emerging markets, among the lowest since 2001. Within the sector though, there are some outright winners and quite a few losers. Russian stocks are back in favour, the survey found, with a whopping 92 percent of fund managers overweight. Allocations to Russia doubled from last month (possibly at the expense of South African where underweight positions are now at 100 percent, making it the most unloved market of all) See below for graphic:

BofA points out its analyst Michael Harris recently turned bullish on Russian stocks advising clients to go for a “Big Overweight” on a market that he reckons is best positioned to benefit from the recovery in global growth.

Russia may not be anyone’s favourite market but in a world with plenty of cyclical headwinds, Russia looks a clear place for relative outperformance with upside risk if markets turn… we are overweight the entire market as we like domestic Russia, oil policy changes and beaten-up metals’ leverage to any global uplift.

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.

Weekly Radar: A ‘sudden stop’ in emerging markets?

Turkey’s lira, South Africa’s rand and South Korea’s won have all lunged, local currency debt yields have suddenly surged, there’s an intense investor focus on domestic political risks again and governments like Brazil who were taxing what they feared were excessive foreign investment over the past couple of years have U-turned as those flows evaporate. 

What some have feared for many months may well be materializing – a ‘sudden stop’ in financing flows to emerging markets as the makings of a perfect storm gathers. With the Fed mulling some reduction in the amount of dollars it’s pumping into the world, the prospect of a rare and protracted rise in the dollar and U.S. Treasury yields potentially changes entire EM investment metrics for U.S. funds (who make up almost half of the world’s private institutional investors) and from markets which have willingly or not been some of the biggest beneficiaries of QE in recent years but also to where where , by some estimates, nearly $8 trillion of FDI and portfolio flows have flowed over the past decade. It doesn’t even have to mean a reversal of capital already in emerging markets, but even a sudden stop in new flows there could seriously undermine the currency and debt markets of countries heavily dependent on rolling foreign financing – those with large current account gaps to finance. As emerging and global economic growth has eased and return on equity sinks, emerging equity markets have already underperformed for three years now. But the biggest wave of recent investment in EM had been into its bond markets, most recently to higher-yielding local-currency debt markets. And it’s these flows that could dry up rather quickly and shockingly, with all the attendant pressure on currency rates and vice versa. For context, a record of more than $410 billion new sovereign and corporate bonds from emerging economies were sold last year alone, according to JPMorgan, and Morgan Stanley estimates show emerging companies alone have sold some $130 billion worth of new debt so far this year – up 30 percent on last year and more than twice the same period in 2011.
               Already we’re seeing big hits to big current account deficit countries Turkey and South Africa in this region and, as is so often the case in emerging markets, the withdrawal of capital leads to an intense focus on domestic and political risks. These are two of the five biggest destination for bond flows over the past four years, a list –measured on flows as share of GDP – also includes Poland and Czech Republic. Mexico is top of the list, but many see its geographic and financial proximity to the US insulating it.

               So, is this a 1997/1998 redux? That’s certainly a big fear. The similarities are obvious – building dollar strength, higher US Treasury yields and a repatriation of US investment to a domestic ‘emerging market’ (Silicone Valley and the dot.coms in the late 1990s); a sharp drop in Japan’s yen which upset the competitive landscape in Asia; narrowing global growth differentials; some signs of excessive monetary easing in emerging economies and concern about credit bubbles in China and elsewhere; the sudden magnifying of domestic political, social and policy risks etc etc.

Weekly Radar: Central banks try to regain some control

Central banks may be regaining some two-way control over global markets that had started to behave like a one-way bet. After flagging some unease earlier this month that frothy markets were assuming endless QE, the Fed and others look to be responding with at least some frank reality checks even if little new in the substance of their message. In truth, there may be no real change in the likely timing of QE’s end, or even the beginning of its end, but the size of the stock and bond market pullbacks on Wednesday and Thursday shows how sensitive they now are to the ebb and flow of central bank guidance on that score.  Although the 7% drop in Japan’s stock market looks alarming – Fed chief Bernanke actually played it fairly straight, signalling no imminent change and putting any possible wind down over the “next few meetings” still heavily conditional on a much lower jobless rate and higher inflation rate. The control he gains from here is an ability to nuance that message either way if either the data disappoints or markets get out of hand.

The central banks are clearly treading a fine line between getting traction in the real economy and not blowing new financial bubbles. The decider may be inflation and on that score central banks have a lot of leeway right now – global inflation is still evaporating and, as measured by JPM, fell in April to just 2.0% – its lowest in 3-1/2 years.  That said, CPI was also very well behaved in the run-up to 2007 credit crisis – it was asset prices and not consumer inflation that caused the problem. So – expect to hear plenty more cat-and-mouse on this from the central banks over the coming weeks/months.

For investors, periodic pullbacks from here are justified and likely sensible. But it’s still hard to argue against a wholesale change of behaviour – which is merely to assume central banks will prevent further growth shocks but will take some time to transform persistently sluggish growth into anything like a sustained inflation-fueling expansion . As a result, funds will likely steer clear of “safe” havens of cash, gold, Swiss franc and yen despite this bounce and continue their migration to income everywhere, with a bias to relative growth stories within that and an exchange rate tilt according to the likely sequencing of QE exit– all of which points to the U.S. dollar if not its stock markets. And for many that may just mean repariation or staying at home –the US is still the homebase for two thirds of the world’s institutional funds, or some $55 trillion of savings.

South African rand slides as labour unrest grows

The South African rand has lost most ground amongst emerging market currencies, according to Reuters data, falling almost 10 percent so far this year to hit 4-year lows against the dollar.

That is perhaps not so surprising given the country’s high level of dependence on the minerals and mining sectors, which have been disrupted by labour strikes along the same lines evident in the summer of 2012. Lonmin, the world’s third largest producer of metal, said it stopped its production of its Marikana mine near Rustenburg following strikes over wages.

 

Net commodity exports – Morgan Stanley and UNCTAD

With the metals and mining sectors accounting for 60 percent of South Africa’s exports, the strong relationship between these sectors and the rand is not surprising. A falling currency has a knock-on effect of facilitating inflation, especially as imports grew faster than exports for the first quarter of 2013. Meanwhile platinum prices have been in a gradual downwards trend since February.

Weekly Radar: Draghi returns to London

ECB chief Mario Draghi returns to London next week almost 10 months on from his seminal “whatever it takes” speech to the global financial community in The City  – a speech that not only drew a line under the euro financial crisis by flagging the ECB’s sovereign debt backstop OMT but one that framed the determination of the G4 central banks at large to reflate their economies via extraordinary monetary easing. Since then we’ve seen the Fed effectively commit to buying an addition trillion dollars of bonds this year to get the U.S. jobless rate down toward 6.5%, followed by the ‘shock-and-awe’ tactics of the new Japanese government and Bank of Japan to end decades.

And as Draghi returns 10 months on, there’s little doubt that he and his U.S. and Japanese peers have succeeded in convincing financial investors of central bank doggedness at least. Don’t fight the Fed and all that – or more pertinently, Don’t fight the Fed/BoJ/ECB/BoE/SNB etc… G4 stock markets are surging ever higher through the Spring of 2013 even as global economic data bumbles along disappointingly through its by now annual ‘soft patch’.  Looking at the number tallies, total returns for Spanish and Greek equities and euro zone bank stocks are up between 40 and 50% since Draghi’s showstopper last July . Italian, French and German equities and Spanish and Irish 10-year government bonds have all returned about 30% or more. And you can add 7% on to all that if you happened to be a Boston-based investor due to a windfall from the net jump in the euro/dollar exchange rate. What’s more all of those have outperformed the 25% gains in Wall St’s S&P 500 since then, even though the latter is powering to uncharted record highs. And of course all pale in comparison with the eye-popping 75% rise in Japan’s Nikkei 225 in just six months!! Gold, metals and oil are all net losers and this is significant in a money-printing story where no one seems to see higher inflation anymore.

But with both Fed and BoJ pushes getting some traction on underlying growth and the euro zone economy registering it’s 6th straight quarter of contraction in the first three months of 2013, maybe Draghi’s big task now is to convince people the ECB will do whatever it takes to support the 17-nation economy too and not only the single currency per se. Last year’s pledge may have been a necessary start to stabilise things but it has not yet been sufficient to solve the economic problems bequethed by the credit crisis.

Weekly Radar: May days or Pay days?

So, it’s May and time for the annual if temporary equity market selloff, right? Well, maybe – but only maybe.  A fresh weakening of the global economic pulse would certainly suggest so, but central banks have shown again they are not going to throw in the towel in the battle to reflate. The ECB’s interest rate cut today and last night’s insistence from the Fed that it’s as likely to step up money printing this year as wind it down are two cases in point. And we’re still awaiting the private investment flows from Japan following the BOJ’s latest aggressive easing there.

So where does that all leave us? A third of the way through 2013 and it’s been a good year so far for nearly all bulls – both western equity bulls and increasingly bond bulls too! Not only have developed world equities clocked up some 13 percent year-to-date (the S&P500 set yet another record high this week while Europe’s bluechips recorded a staggering 12th consecutive monthly gain in April) , but virtually all bond markets from junk bonds to Treasuries, euro peripherals to emerging markets are now back in the black for the year as a whole. For the most eyebrow-raising evidence, look no further than last week’s debut sovereign bond from Rwanda at less than 7 percent for 10 years or even newly-junked Slovenia’s ability this week to plough ahead with a syndicated bond sale reported to already be in the region of four times oversubscribed. For many people, that parallel rise in equity and bonds smells of a bubble somewhere. But before you cry “QEEEEE!” , take a look at commodities — the bulls there have been taken a bath all year as data on final global demand hits yet another ‘soft patch’ over the past couple of months.

So is this just an idiosyncratic random walk of asset markets (itself no bad thing after years of stress-riven hyper correlation) or can we explain all three asset directions together? One way to think of it is in terms of global inflation. If QE-related inflation fears have been grossly exaggerated then pressure to remove monetary stimulus or wanes again and there may even be arguments – certainly in Europe – for more. This would intuitively explain the renewed dash for bonds and fixed income in general even in the face of the still-plausible, if long term, “Great Rotation” idea. You could argue the monetary free-for-all is buoying equities regardless of demand concerns. But why wouldn’t commodities gain on that basis too?

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.