Global Investing

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.

The other major market event of the week is the big Chinese macro data dump on Friday – Q4 GDP and December retail sales, production and house prices. Is there a risk here? Well, as sceptics regularly say, the fact China reports GDP two weeks after the end of the quarter suggests a certain amount of “data by decree” and the numbers tend to fit the official line. But to the extent that the global market bullishness of the past month or so has been largely hooked on a cyclical Chinese upswing (one that some assume saw a trough in growth in Q3) then these numbers wlll be as important as ever for global risk markets. The forecast is that GDP growth accelerated to 7.8% in Q4 from 7.4% the prior quarter and today’s news of a 14.1% surge in Chinese exports in December underpins that.

Here are some key data releases and events of next week:

EZ Nov production Mon

UK Dec inflation/house prices Tues

US Dec retail sales/PPI Tues

Central/Eastern Europe finance conference in Vienna, Tues

EZ Dec inflation Weds

US Q4 earnings Weds: Goldman, JPM, BNYMellon

US Dec inflation/industrial output Weds

Brazil rate decisions Weds

US Q4 earnings Thurs: Intel, Citi, Blackrock, Amex, BoA,  

US Dec housing starts/permits, Jan Philly Fed Thurs

China Q4 GDO, Dec Industrial/retail/house prices Fri

UK Dec retails sales Fri

US Q4 earnings Fri: GE, State St

Germany’s Lower Saxony holds regional elections Sun

 

 

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.

The Great Switchback and the ERP?

The risk of a whiplash-inducing switchback from core AAA bonds to equity and risk — now that euro/banking systemic fears have eased and a global economic stabilisation seems to be underway — is suddenly top of most investors’ agendas.  Last week’s surge in U.S. Treasury, German bund and British gilt yields as global stocks caught a fresh updraft saw U.S. equity outperform bonds by almost 5 percent, according to Societe Generale. While not historically shocking in itself, SG reckons the cumulative weight of several weeks of this may well be having its impact on asset managers as the Q1 comes to an end.

Coming on the back on several weeks of equity outperformance, those remaining overweight bonds will be finding life particularly uncomfortable right now.

The question for most strategists is whether this is start of a wholesale rebasing of portfolios that could see dramatic asset allocation shifts over the coming quarters.

Three snapshots for Monday

China’s trade balance plunged $31.5 billion into the red in February as imports swamped exports.  It followed reports on Friday that inflation cooled in February while retail sales and industrial output fell below forecast, all pointing to a gradual cooling.

Investors ploughed more money into hedge funds over the past month as performance has picked up after last year’s losses.

Final Q4 Italian GDP growth came in at -0.7%q/q. This chart showing GDP vs the Markit purchasing managers’ index shows the current recession may continue into this year.

Three snapshots for Friday

The U.S. economy probably created 210,000 jobs last month, according to a Reuters survey. If the forecasts are accurate, the government’s jobs report on Friday would mark the first time since early 2011 that payrolls have grown by more than 200,000 for three months in a row. Refresh chart

China’s annual consumer inflation slowed sharply to a 20-month low in February, and factory output and retail sales also cooled more than forecast, giving policymakers ample room to further loosen monetary policy to support flagging growth.

Greece averted the immediate risk of an uncontrolled default, winning strong acceptance from its private creditors for a bond swap deal which will ease its massive public debt and clear the way for a new international bailout.

January in the rearview mirror

As January 2012 drifts into the rearview mirror as a bumper month for world markets, one way to capture the year so far is in pictures – thanks to Scott Barber and our graphics team.

The driving force behind the market surge was clearly the latest liquidity/monetary stimuli from the world’s central banks.

The ECB’s near half trillion euros of 3-year loans  has stabilised Europe’s ailing banks by flooding them with cheap cash for much lower quality collateral. In the process, it’s also opened up critical funding windows for the banks and allowed some reinvestment of the ECB loans into cash-strapped euro zone goverments. That in turn has seen most euro government borrowing rates fall. It’s also allowed other corporates to come to the capital markets and JP Morgan estimates that euro zone corporate bond sales in January totalled 46 billion euros, the same last year and split equally between financials and non-financials..

Sparring with Central Banks

Just one look at the whoosh higher in global markets in January and you’d be forgiven smug faith in the hoary old market adage of “Don’t fight the Fed” — or to update the phrase less pithily for the modern, globalised marketplace: “Don’t fight the world’s central banks”. (or “Don’t Battle the Banks”, maybe?)

In tandem with this month’s Federal Reserve forecast of near-zero U.S. official interest rates for the next two years, the European Central Bank provided its banking sector nearly half a trillion euros of cheap 3-year loans in late December (and may do almost as much again on Feb 29). Add to that ongoing bouts of money printing by the Bank of England, Swiss National Bank, Bank of Japan and more than 40 expected acts of monetary easing by central banks around the world in the first half of this year and that’s a lot of additional central bank support behind the market rebound.  So is betting against this firepower a mug’s game? Well, some investors caution against the chance that the Banks are firing duds.

According to giant bond fund manager Pimco, the post-credit crisis process of household, corporate and sovereign deleveraging is so intense and loaded with risk that central banks may just be keeping up with events and even then are doing so at very different speeds. What’s more the solution to the problem is not a monetary one anyway and all they can do is ease the pain.

Can Eastern Europe “sweat” it?

Interesting to see that Poland wants to squeeze out more income from its state-owned enterprise (SOE) sector in the face of slowing economic growth and financing pressures.

Warsaw wants to double next year’s dividends from stakes in firms ranging from copper mines to utility providers to banks.

Fellow euro zone aspirant Lithuania has also embarked on reforms aimed at increasing dividends sixfold from what UBS has dubbed “the forgotten side of the government balance sheet”. It wants to emulate countries such as Sweden and Singapore where such companies are managed at arm’s length from the state and run along strict corporate standards to consistently grow profits.

Hungary and the euro zone blame game

More tough talk from Hungarian officials on the ‘unjustified’ weakness of the country’s currency, which has dropped 11 percent against the euro this year to all-time lows.

This time, it’s central banker Ferenc Gerhardt arguing that the weakness of the forint is out of sync with economic fundamentals and blaming it on the debt turmoil in the euro zone.

Perhaps he should look a little closer to home.

Hungary’s drift from orthodox economic policy since the centre-right government took over the reins last year has made it the most exposed of eastern European economies.

Phew! Emerging from euro fog

Holding your breath for instant and comprehensive European Union policies solutions has never been terribly wise.  And, as the past three months of summit-ology around the euro sovereign debt crisis attests, you’d be just a little blue in the face waiting for the ‘big bazooka’. And, no doubt, there will still be elements of this latest plan knocking around a year or more from now. Yet, the history of euro decision making also shows that Europe tends to deliver some sort of solution eventually and it typically has the firepower if not the automatic will to prevent systemic collapse.
And here’s where most global investors stand following the “framework” euro stabilisation agreement reached late on Wednesday. It had the basic ingredients, even if the precise recipe still needs to be nailed down. The headline, box-ticking numbers — a 50% Greek debt writedown, agreement to leverage the euro rescue fund to more than a trillion euros and provisions for bank recapitalisation of more than 100 billion euros — were broadly what was called for, if not the “shock and awe” some demanded.  Financial markets, who had fretted about the “tail risk” of a dysfunctional euro zone meltdown by yearend, have breathed a sigh of relief and equity and risk markets rose on Thursday. European bank stocks gained almost 6%, world equity indices and euro climbed to their highest in almost two months in an audible “Phew!”.

Credit Suisse economists gave a qualified but positive spin to the deal in a note to clients this morning:

It would be clearly premature to declare the euro crisis as fully resolved. Nevertheless, it is our impression that EU leaders have made significant progress on all fronts. This suggests that the rebound in risk assets that has been underway in recent days may well continue for some time.