Global Investing

Investors face a battle for clarity

How are we looking? Fluid, very fluid!

In a classic case of call and response, the latest twist of the euro saga has seen the crisis escalate sharply in Spain and Italy (with the attempted cleanup of Bankia the latest trigger for a surge in government borrowing rates in both) only to see the European Commission today invoke major policy responses including the proposed use of the new European Stability Mechanism (ESM) to directly recapitalize euro banks, a single banking union, a euro-wide deposit protection system and even pushing back Spanish budget deadlines by a year.

It seems clear from this that they see Spain and Italy – which seem to be trading in tandem regardless of their differences – as the battleground for the survival of the euro. The gauntlet is down for next month’s summit, though the absence of a roadmap to Eurobonds per se will disappoint and markets are not going to sit quietly for a month. Moreover, the Grexit vigil has another fortnight to run before any clarity and the latest polls are not going in the direction other euro governments had hoped, with anti-bailout parties still in the lead. And we can only assume Ireland votes in favour of the now notional fiscal pact tomorrow as per opinion polls, though there’s always an outside chance of an upset.

So, seeing ahead even a month seems like an impossible task. A week ahead, however, points the spotlight firmly at the ECBs meeting on Wednesday and the chance the central bank eases again in some form to try and buy time for other developments to work through. But it will also be a moment of potential conflict, with its role in the Spanish bank bailout fraught with disagreements to date. Despite a two-day London market holiday, the week will be dominated by central banks at large – the BoE meeting and Bernanke’s testimony on Thursday being the other highlights. Is there a chance they act together again? And Italian/Spanish/French bond auctions next week certainly look precarious in the current environment.

One interesting bit is that beyond economies on the front line, the wider markets have been relatively well behaved over the past week. Global stock markets and emerging markets are up to 1 percent higher since last Wednesday, broad European indices are flattish, the Vix is flat and oil is down a little (and arguably good news for everything else).

The real pressure points are the 50-75bp spikes in Italian and Spanish 10-yr yields, a near 3 percent loss in European bank stocks and the inexorable slide in bund and Treasury yields. Reflecting the heightened ECB easing talk, the euro is down another 1 percent.

Emerging market wine sophisticates?

Serving wine instead of beer at its annual rooftop soiree? Is this some kind of subliminal message specialist broker Auerbach Grayson is trying to send, ie: that emerging markets are mature and here’s the vino to prove it?

Or, is the message not in a bottle but in a case? Don’t limit your exposure to emerging markets but increase it for growth. Only a slight problem here in that emerging market stocks are underperforming developed markets so far this year. They underperformed in 2011 as well.

But don’t let facts get in the way of wine.

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Three snapshots for Thursday

Fears that Athens is on the brink of crashing out of the euro zone and igniting a renewed financial crisis have rattled global markets and alarmed world leaders, with Greece set to figure high on the agenda at a G8 summit later this week. This chart shows the impact on assets since the Greek election:

Euro zone banks now account for only 8% of total euro zone market value – they were over over 20% of the market in 2007:

Japan’s economy rebounded in January-March from a lull in the previous quarter, shaking off the pain of a strong yen and Europe’s debt crisis on solid consumer spending and rebuilding from last year’s earthquake.

Research Radar: Greek gloom

Greek gloom dominates the start of the week as new elections there look inevitable and talk of Greek euro exit, or a Grexit” as common market parlance now has it, mounts. All risk assets and securities hinged on global growth have been hit, with China’s weekend reserve ratio easing doing little to offset gloomy data from world’s second biggest economy at the end of last week. World stocks are down heavily and emerging markets are underperforming; the euro has fallen to near 4-month lows below $1.29; safe haven core government debt is bid as euro peripheral debt yields in Italy and Spain push higher; and global growth bellwethers such as crude oil and the Australian dollar are down – the latter below parity against the US dollar for the first time in 5 months.

Financial research reports on Monday and over the weekend were just as gloomy, but plenty of interesting takes:

Bank of New York Mellon’s Simon Derrick’s view of the Greek political impasse concluded “there is at least an evens chance that the latter part of this summer will see what had officially been seen up until last November as an impossibility: a nation leaving the EUR.”

Poland, the lonely inflation targeter

Is the National Bank of Poland (NBP) the last inflation-targeting central bank still standing?

The bank shocked many today with a quarter point rate rise, naming stubbornly high inflation as the reason, and signalling that more tightening is on its way. The NBP has sounded hawkish in recent weeks but few had actually expected it to carry through its threat to raise rates. Economic indicators of late have been far from cheerful – just hours after the rate rise, data showed Polish car production slumped 30 percent in April from year-ago levels. PMI numbers last week pointed to further deterioration ahead for manufacturing. And sitting as it does on the euro zone’s doorstep, Poland will be far more vulnerable than Brazil or Russia to any new setback in Greece. Its action therefore deserves praise, says Benoit Anne, head of emerging markets strategy at Societe Generale.

(Poland’s central bank) is one of the last orthodox inflation-targeting central banks in the global emerging market central bank universe. They are taking action because they are seeing inflation creeping up and have decided to be proactive.

Three snapshots for Tuesday

Equities in the countries most exposed to the euro zone crisis seem to be being hit especially hard this year. The Datastream index of shares in Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain has a total return of -5.3% this year compared to +8.9% for a euro zone index excluding those countries.

U.S. consumers went back to using their credit cards in March to keep spending while student and new-car loans shot up as the value of outstanding consumer credit jumped at the fastest rate since late 2001, data from the Federal Reserve showed on Monday.

Total consumer credit grew by $21.36 billion – more than twice the $9.8 billion rise that Wall Street economists surveyed by Reuters had forecast.

A necessary evil?

While market players nervously chew their nails over the Greek election result, the French market is calmly absorbing news of a socialist victory in its own presidential race.

Francois Hollande has defeated half the “Merkozy” austerity titan, and  panic is nowhere to be seen. Of course, the feeling that cuts might not quite be best way to spark  growth has been building for a while but today brings some confirmation that a new consensus is forming.

John Bennett, director of European equities at Henderson, believes the French result might be essential.

Research Radar: Beyond Hollande and Holland…

Markets have been dominated this week so far by the fallout from Sunday’s French presidential election, where Socialist Francois Hollande now looks set to beat incumbent conservative Nicolas Sarkozy in the May 6 runoff , and the collapse of the ruling Dutch coalition on Monday.  Public anxiety about budgetary austerity in Europe was further reinforced by news on Monday of a deepening of the euro zone private sector contraction in April. That said, euro equity, bond and currency prices have stabilised relatively quickly even if implied volatility has increased as investors brace for another month or so of political heat in the single currency bloc. The French runoff is now on the same day as the Greek elections and May 31 sees Ireland going to the polls to vote on the EU’s new fiscal compact.  Wall St’s volatility gauge, the ViX, is back up toward 20% — better reflecting longer term averages — and relatively risky assets such as emerging market equities remain on the back foot. The euro political heat and slightly slower Q2 world growth pulse will likely keep markets subdued and jittery until mid year at least. At that point, another cyclical upswing in world manufacturing together with the passing of the EBA’s euro bank recapitalisation deadline as well as the introduction of the new European Stability Mechanism may well encourage investors to return at better levels.

Following are some interesting tips from Tuesday’s bank and investment fund research notes:

- JPM economists reckon finding the reason behind the backup in US weekly initial jobless claims over the past couple of weeks is key to assessing whether a sub-par March payrolls report is repeated in April. It says it’s possible the claims jump move is a seasonal factor as unadjusted claims are closely tracking 2007′s pattern and Easter holidays fell on the same dates in both years. If 2007 was repeated, there would be a sizeable late April drop in claims and JPM looks for some of that on Thursday with a 14,000 forecast drop. (Reuters poll consensus is for a 11,000 drop)

Three snapshots for Thursday

U.S. jobless claims unexpectedly rose last week to their highest level since January:

The unemployment rate in Greece rose to 28.1% in January.

Gold mining equities continue to underperform the metal:

A Hungarian default?

More on Hungary. It’s not hard to find a Hungary bear but few are more bearish than William Jackson at Capital Economics.

Jackson argues in a note today that Hungary will ultimately opt to default on its  debt mountain as it has effectively exhausted all other mechanisms. Its economy has little prospect of  strong growth and most of its debt is in foreign currencies so cannot be inflated away. Austerity is the other way out but Hungary’s population has been reeling from spending cuts since 2007, he says, and is unlikely to put up with more.

How did other highly indebted countries cope? (lets leave out Greece for now). Jackson takes the example of  Indonesia and Thailand. Both countries opted for strict austerity after the 1997 Asian crisis and resolved the debt problem by running large current account surpluses. This worked because the Asian crisis was followed by a period of buoyant world growth, allowing these countries to boost exports. But Hungary’s key export markets are in the euro zone and are unlikely to recover anytime soon.