Global Investing

Banks lead the equity sector flows

Banks and financials stocks have had a pretty good year. The Thomson Reuters Global Financials index is up by more than 20% in the last 12 months, and although the detritus of the financial crisis still offers the occasional sting, investors are starting to see brighter spots for the industry.

That confidence is increasingly obvious in the fund flows.

Our corporate cousins at Lipper track more than 7,000 mutual funds and ETFs which are dedicated to specific industry sectors. Dig a little into the data in this subset of funds, and you start to get a pretty good picture of where the biggest bets have been placed.

Just shy of 500 of these funds are focused entirely on banks & financials. Together they hold more than $46 billion in assets.

Last month, they suffered a total net outflow of just about $1 billion, but on a one-year view, 10 months of net inflows have driven an injection of over $10 billion. It amounts to a concerted bet on the sector, particularly in the U.S. where the bulk of assets are held, with the inflows equating to 22% of the latest published assets under management. You can see the evolution over the year in the chart below; cumulative gains or losses over the 12 months are shown in the blue area; monthly flows are shown by the red bars.

The sector was by far the most popular, both in absolute terms and relative to the assets held.

South Africa’s perfect storm

Of all the emerging currency and bond markets that are feeling the heat from the dollar’s rise, none is suffering more than South Africa. A series of horrific economic data prints at home, the prospect of more labour unrest and the slump in metals prices are making this a perfect storm for the country’s financial markets.

Some worrying data from the Johannesburg Stock Exchange this morning shows that foreigners sold almost 5 billion rand (more than $500 million) worth of bonds during yesterday’s session alone. Over the past 10 days, non-resident selling amounted to 10.7 billion rand. They have also yanked out 1.2 billion rand from South African equities in this time. And at the root of this exodus lies the rand, which has fallen almost 15 percent against the dollar this year. Now apparently headed for the 10-per-dollar mark, the rand’s weakness has eaten into investors’ total return, tipping it into negative return for the year.

What a contrast with last year, when a record 93 billion rand flooded into the country on the back of its inclusion in Citi’s prestigious WGBI bond index.  That lifted foreign holdings of South African bonds to well over a third of the total. Investors at the time were more willing to turn a blind eye to the rand’s lacklustre performance, liking its relatively high yield and betting on interest rate cuts to help the duration component of the trade.

Hedge fund boss Baha sees gold at $3,000-$5,000

Christian Baha, the head of Austrian fund firm Superfund and representative of the hedge fund industry in Oliver Stone movie Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, is predicting that the gold price could rise to between $3,000 and $5,000 over the next five to 10 years.

Baha, who says he has more than half his personal wealth in gold and silver, either physically or in units in Superfund funds denominated in the precious metals, believes that an unprecedented phase of quantitative easing by central banks is driving a bubble in government bonds, but that gold offers real value.

“Do you think paper money has any intrinsic value? I don’t believe so. Gold has real value,” Baha said in a recent interview.

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.

Will gold’s glitter dim in India?

Indians have reacted to the latest gold prices falls by — buying more gold. And why not? Aside from Indians’ well known passion for the yellow metal (yours truly not excluded) gold has by and large served well as an investment: annual returns over the past five years have been around 17 percent, Morgan Stanley notes.

Now, gold’s near 20 percent plunge this year has wiped some $300 billion off Indians’ gold holdings, Morgan Stanley estimates in a note (households are believed to own about 15,000 metric tonnes of gold). So is the gold rush in India over?

Possibly. Indian gold imports have doubled to around 3 percent of GDP in the past five years. That rise is partly down to greater wealth which translates into more wedding jewellery purchases. But the more unpleasant side of the equation is India’s inflation problem. Look at the following charts from MS that shows how negative real interest rates have encouraged savings in gold rather than financial instruments:

India’s deficit — not just about oil and gold

India’s finance minister P Chidambaram can be forgiven for feeling cheerful. After all, prices for oil and gold, the two biggest constituents of his country’s import bill, have tumbled sharply this week. If sustained, these developments might significantly ease India’s current account deficit headache — possibly to the tune of $20 billion a year.

Chidambaram said yesterday he expects the deficit to halve in a year or two from last year’s 5 percent level. Markets are celebrating too — the Indian rupee, stocks and bonds have all rallied this week.

But are markets getting ahead of themselves?  Jahangiz Aziz and Sajjid Chinoy, India analysts at JP Morgan think so.

Cheaper oil and gold: a game changer for India?

Someone’s loss is someone’s gain and as Russian and South African markets reel from the recent oil and gold price rout, investors are getting ready to move more cash into commodity importer India.

Stubbornly high inflation and a big current account deficit are India’s twin headaches. Lower oil and gold prices will help with both. India’s headline inflation index is likely to head lower, potentially opening room for more interest rate cuts.  That in turn could reduce gold demand from Indians who have stepped up purchases of the yellow metal in recent years as a hedge against inflation.

If prices stay at current levels, India’s current account gap could narrow by almost one percent of GDP in this fiscal year, analysts at Barclays reckon.  They calculate that $100 oil and gold at $1,400 per ounce would cut India’s net import bill by around $20 billion, bringing the deficit to around 3.2 percent of GDP.

Asia’s credit explosion

Whatever is happening to all those Asian savers? Apparently they are turning into big time borrowers.

RBS contends in a note today that in a swathe of Asian countries (they exclude China and South Korea) bank deposits are not keeping pace with credit which has expanded in the past three years by up to 40 percent.

Some of this clearly is down to slowing exports and a greater focus on the domestic consumer.  Credit levels are also rising overall in these economies because of borrowing for big infrastructure projects.  But there are signs too that credit conditions are too loose.

What’s next? A U.S. downgrade or Spanish bailout?

What will happen first? A U.S. credit rating downgrade or the country’s unemployment falling below 7 percent?

Or Spain having no other option but to ask for a bailout?

Bank of America Merrill Lynch asked investors in its monthly fund manager survey what “surprises”  they saw coming up first this year.

And the result is: bad news will come first.

A U.S. debt downgrade got the top spot, with more than 35 percent of investors seeing that happen first, with crisis-hit Spain having to ask for more help a close second, at just over 30 percent.

Mali risks in focus

The international focus is on  gold-producing country Mali after days of French air strikes on al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebel strongholds in the north of the West African country. France expects Gulf Arab states will help an African campaign against the rebels,  and a meeting of donors for the Mali operation is due at the end of the month. West African defence chiefs are meeting today to approve plans to speed up the deployment of 3,300 regional troops.

Mali isn’t normally on the radar screens of international portfolio investors, with little external debt and no developed capital markets.

But it is Africa’s third biggest gold producer, with London-listed Randgold the biggest investor and other foreign firms such as Anglogold also having investments.