Global Investing

Who’s driving the equity rally?

Does the money match the story?

Perhaps the biggest investment theme of the year so far has been the extent to which long-term investors may now slowly migrate back to under-owned and under-priced equities from super-expensive safe haven bunkers such as ‘core’ government bonds, yen, Swiss francs etc to which they herded at each new gale of the 5-year-old credit storm.

Indeed, some go further and say asset allocation mixes of the big institutional pension and insurance funds are – for a variety of regulatory and demographic reasons – now at such historical extremes in favour of bonds that they may now need rethinking in what some dub The Great Rotation.

All this has played into a new year whoosh in equity and other risk markets, as ebbing tail risks from the euro zone, US budget and China combine with signs of a decent cyclical turn in the world economy into 2013. Wall St’s S&P500, for example, has climbed 5.5% in January so far and closed above 1500 for the first time in more than five years last week following its longest winning streak (8-days) in eight years.

But what sort of money is behind this price move? Well, new cash flowing into equity funds so far this year has been the highest on record at some $55 billion. Retail investors have certainly been big participants, with Lipper data showing new-year retail inflows to U.S.-based stock funds at their highest since 2001. HSBC points out that 9 consecutive weeks of net retail buying of equities is “longer and larger” that any of the sporadic bursts seen over the past two years and emerging market equity appears to be a clear favourite.

But what of the bigger behemoths?

An HSBC analysis on global fund holdings (based on data provided by fund tracker EPFR) reckons big international funds are far less pessimistic than they were six months but are still broadly neutral on equity overall. “We measure this by tracking the holdings of high and low beta sectors and it is now only marginally in favour of low beta sectors”

Weekly Radar: Managing expectations

With a week to go in January, global stock markets are up 3.8 percent – gently nudging higher after the new year burst and with a continued evaporation of volatility gauges toward new 5-year lows. That’s all warranted by a reappraisal of the global economy as well as murmurs about longer-term strategic shifts back to under-owned and cheaper equities. But, as ever, you can never draw a straight line. If we were to get this sort of move every month this year, then total returns for the year on the MCSI global index would be 50 percent – not impossible I guess, but highly unlikely. So, at some stage the market will pause, hestitate or even take a step back. Is now the time just three weeks into the year?

Well lots of the much-feared headwinds have not materialized. The looming US budget ceiling showdown keeps getting put back – it’s now May by the way, even if another mini-cliff of sorts is due in March — but you get can-kicking picture here already. The US earnings season looks fairly benign so far, even given the outsize reaction to Apple after hours on Wednesday. European sovereign funding worries have proven wide of the mark to date too as money floods to Spain and even Portugal again. And Chinese data confirms a decent cyclical rebound there at least from Q3′s trough. All seems like pretty smooth sailing – aside perhaps from the UK’s slightly perplexing decision to add rather than ease uncertainty about its economic future. So what can go wrong? Well there’s still an event calendar to keep an eye on – next month’s Italian elections for example. But even that’s stretching it as a major bogeyman the likely outcome.

In truth, the biggest hurdle is most likely to be the hoary old problem of over-inflated expectations. Just look at the US economic surprise index – it’s tipped into negative territory for the first time since late last summer. Yet incoming US data has not been that bad this year. What the index tells you more about has been the rising expectations. (The converse, incidentally, is true of the euro zone where you could say the gloom’s been overdone.) Yet without the fuel of positive “surprises” we’re depending more on a structural story to buoy equity and that is a multi-year, glacial shift rather than necessarily a 2013 yarn. The start of the earnings season too is also interesting with regard to expectations. With little over 10 percent of the S&P500 reported by last Friday, the numbers showed 58% had beaten the street. That’s not bad at first glance but a good bit lower than the 65% average of the past four quarters. On the other hand, it’s been top-line corporate revenues that have supposedly been terrifying everyone and it’s a different picture there. Of the 10% of firms out to date, 65 percent have reported Q4 revenues ahead of forecasts – far ahead of the 50% average of the past four quarters. Early days, but that’s relatively positive on the underlying economy at least.

Weekly Radar: Market stalemate sees volatility ebb further

Global markets have found themselves at an interesting juncture of underlying new year bullishness stalled by trepidation over several short-term headwinds (US debt debate, Q4 earnings, Italian elections etc etc) – the net result has been stalemate, something which has sunk volatility gauges even further. Not only did this week’s Merrill funds survey show investors overweight bank stocks for the first time since 2007, it also showed demand for protection against a sharp equity market drops over the next 3 months at lowest since at least 2008. The latter certainly tallies with the ever-ebbing VIX at its lowest since June 2007. Though some will of course now argue this is “cheap” – it’s a bit like comparing the cost of umbrellas even though you don’t think it’s going to rain.

Anyway, the year’s big investment theme – the prospect of a “Great Rotation” back into equity from bonds worldwide – has now even captured the sceptical eye of one of the market’s most persistent bears. SocGen’s Albert Edwards still assumes we’ll see carnage on biblical proportions first — of course — but even he says long-term investors with 10-year views would be mad not to pick up some of the best valuations in Europe and Japan they will likely ever see. “Unambiguously cheap” was his term – and that’s saying something from the forecaster of the New Ice Age.

For others, the very fact that Edwards has turned even mildly positive may be reason enough to get nervy! When the last bear turns bullish, and all that…

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.

Weekly Radar: Elections and housing in last big week of 2012

So an extra dose of medicine from the Fed on Wednesday helps smother global market volatility further into the yearend — even though naming an explicit 6.5% unemployment rate could well send Treasury bond volatility soaring as the current 7.7% rate likely approaches that level in 2014 just as the Fed low-rate pledge expires. Not a story for early next year maybe, but…

More nose-against-the-windshield, the busy end to this week – with the EU Summit today and December’s flash PMIs tomorrow – makes it difficult to clear the decks yet for yearend — at least not as much as market pricing and volumes would suggest. Moves to some form of EU banking union are already in the mix from Brussels, however, so another plus at the margins perhaps.

And looking back over the past week — who’d have thought we could still be surprised by an upset in Italian politics? It was the only real significant pre-Fed news of the past week and maybe packed more of a initial punch that it warranted as a result. But for all the interest in Monti stepping aside and Silvio’s attempt to return, there was no really big shift in picture already in front of investors. Ok, so the election is now likely in February not March/April and no one wants to write off Berlusconi completely. But he’s still more than 10 points adrift in polls and Monti himself may well stand for PM in the election too. In short, it adds some political risk at the edges, but if you were happy to hold or buy more Italian bonds before this (still a big ‘if’), then all that really changed for investors is they got a better yield at this week’s relatively successful auction.

Weekly Radar: China and Fed steal the show

Even though US cliff talks remain unresolved, many of the edges have been taken off seasonal yearend jitters elsewhere. Euro pressures have been kept under wraps since the Greek deal,  the possibility of yet another Fed QE manoeuvre next Wednesday is back in play and a significant pulse has been recorded in the global economy via the latest PMIs – thanks in large part to China and the US service sector.US payrolls loom again tomorrow, but the picture is one of stabilisation if not full-scale recovery.

All this has kept markets pretty calm with a positive tilt as investors parse 2013. The Greek deal has proved to be a very important juncture for the euro zone, with Italian 10-year yields down yet another 14bp Wednesday-to-Wednesday. The parallel recentr lunge in Spanish yields backed up a few notches after this week’s auction disappointed some traders. Yet even here the relative ease with which a supposedly-cornered Madrid raised more than 4 billion euros for next year’s coffers keeps the financial side of their crisis, if not the economic one, in context for now at least.

Elsewhere, the past seven days saw the euro surging again – partly a result of a mega euro/Swiss jump after Credit Suisse’s decision to charge for franc deposits – negative interest rates in the cold light of day. What that also shows again this year is the danger of betting against central banks. Even though the world and it’s mother were betting against the euro against the Swiss franc all year, the SNB remains successful so far in capping the franc at 1.20. Like the ECB and the Fed – it means business. Once committed, the central banks will not change tack without a dramatic shift in thinking. Perhaps in tandem, gold has continued to drift lower.

Weekly Radar: Bounceback as year winds down

Yet another Greek impasse, a French downgrade, ongoing DC cliff dodging and a downturn in Citi’s G10 economic surprise index (though not yet in the US one) could have been plausible reasons this week to extend the post-election global markets swoon. But at 8 consecutive days in the red up to last Friday, that was the longest losing streak since last November, and a lot of froth had been shaken off these year-end markets already.

We’ve seen a decent bounceback in nearly all risks assets instead. That may be partly due to volume-sapping Thanksgiving week and partly due to the fact that more and more funds think the year is effectively over now anyhow. The only big wildcard left is the timing of an fiscal agreement stateside and few managers now honestly believe there won’t be some sort of a deal. (Deutsche, for the record, said this week that the divide between the sides over tax is much less than many assume).  Greece is a slower burner but again, few people believe it will be hung out to dry any time soon and a deal on the next tranche – whatever about deep and meaningful OSI, payment moratoriums and loan rate cuts – will most likely be reached next week at the latest. Talk of a EFSF-funded Greek debt buyback meantime has helped pushed its debt yields to the lowest since the restructuring.  And the French downgrade was probably the least surprising move of the past five years.

So we’re left closing out a half-decent investment year with a view of early 2013 that is framed by a Chinese cyclical upswing, a likely additional fillip to business planning from a US fiscal deal on top of an already brisk housing recovery there, and the likely return of one the euro bailout patients, Ireland, to the syndicated dollar capital markets almost a year before its bailout programme ends. Further into the year gets much trickier as usual, with elections in Germany, Italy, Israel and Iran to name but four… but  as Bernanke reminded us this week and every investor experienced in full voice in 2012, the central banks are heavily committed to reflation policies now and will not stand idly by if there’s yet another serious downturn.

Weekly Radar: In the shadow of the cliff

It’s been another rum old week market-wise, with global stocks off another 2 percent or more and recording seven straight days in the red for the first time since August. Throw any spin you like at the reasoning, but the pretty predictable post-election hiatus on U.S. fiscal cliff worries now seem to be front and centre of everything. And that will just has to play itself out now, leaving markets stuck in this funk until they come up with the fix. The running consensus still seems to be that some solution will be reached, but no one wants to be too brave about it. And given the cliff is one of the few good explanations for the sharp divergence between the equity market and still rising US economic surprises,  you can see why many feel the US fiscal standoff is merely delaying a resumption of the rally.

The euro zone story has rumbled again of course, with the Greek hand-to-mouth financing, pressure for official sector debt write-offs there and another nervy wait for the latest tranche of bailout funds. Anti-austerity protests in Greece, Spain, Portugal and elsewhere meantime stepped up a gear this week and Q3 data out today confirmed the euro bloc back in recession.

Yet Europe is not the main driver of global markets at the moment. The latest MerrillBoA funds survey this week showed that, at 54%, more than twice as many funds now think falling off the US cliff and not the euro crisis is the biggest global investment risk. The euro group meets next week on Greece  ahead of a two-day EU summit and we still have no clarity on Spain’s bailout either. There’s plenty of headline risk then, for sure, and the parallel release next week of November PMIs is hardly going to bring sweetness and light. That said, there’s been about as much good as bad news from Europe of late. The ECB is simply not going to pull the plug on Greece even if OSI gets pushed up to governmental level and take a lot more time. Spain and Italy have both now effectively completed funding for this  year and there were very positive noises this week on Ireland returning to markets in early 2013 with a 10-year syndicated dollar bond, while Fitch raised its sovereign rating outlook to stable from negative.

Weekly Radar: Cliff dodging and Euro recessions

Most everything got swept up in the US election over the past week but, for all the last minute nail biting  and psephology, it was pretty much the result most people had been expecting all year. So, is there anything really to read into the market noise around the event? The rule of thumb in the runup was a pretty crude — Obama good for bonds (Fed friendly, cliff brinkmanship, growth risk) and Romney good for stocks (tax cuts, friend to capital/wealth, a cliff dodger thanks to GOP House backing and hence pro growth). And so it played out Wednesday. But in truth, it’s been fairly marginal so far. Stocks were down about 2 pct yesteray, but they’d been up 1 pct on election day for no obvious reason at all. But can anyone truly be surprised by an outcome they’d supposedly been betting on all along. (Just look at Intrade favouring Obama all the way through the runup). Maybe it’s all just risk hedging at the margins. What’s more, like all crude rules of thumb, they’re not always 100 pct accurate anyway.  Many overseas investors just could not fathom a coherent Romney economic plan anyway apart from radical political surgery on the government budget that many saw as ambiguous for growth and social stability anyhow.  Domestic investors may more understandably wring their hands about hits on dividend and income taxes, but it wasn’t clear to everyone outside that that a Romney plan was automatically going to lift national growth over time anyhow.

That said, it was striking on Wednesday that even though global funds were mostly relieved the Fed won’t now be shackled after 2014, nearly everyone still expects the fiscal cliff to be resolved by compromise. Whether that’s wishful thinking or the smartest guess remains to be seen. But, just like in Europe, it means they are at the very least going to have endure a barrage of political noise in headlines and endless scaremongering before any deal is ultimately forthcoming. Some say the nature of the GOP defeat, even with an incumbent saddled with an 8 pct unemployment rate, will force enough moderate Republicans to seek distance from Tea Party and seek compromise. But others point out that post-Sandy relief  spending may also bring the dreaded debt ceiling issue forward sooner than expected now too. All in all, the overwhelming consensus still betting on an eventual cliff dodge may be the most worrying aspect of market positioning and may be the best explanation the slightly outsize and sudden stock market reaction.

It also presupposes markets are trading solely on U.S. issues when the other world worries remain.

INVESTMENT FOCUS-Bond-heavy overseas funds want Obama win

Overseas investors, many of whom are creditors to the highly-indebted U.S. government, reckon a re-election of President Barack Obama would be best for world markets even if U.S. counterparts say otherwise.

For the second month in a row, Reuters’ monthly survey of top fund managers around the world was evenly split when asked whether a win for incumbent Democrat Obama or Republican hopeful Mitt Romney in the Nov. 6 presidential poll would be good for global markets.

The split was clearly dependant on whether the asset manager was based in the United States or not. Domestic funds, by and large, tend to favour Romney; overseas investors Obama.