Global Investing

What would a benign dictator do with the euro?

The idea of a “benign dictator” may well be an oxymoron but as a thought exercise it goes a way to explaining why giant global fund manager Blackrock thinks the chances of a euro zone collapse remains less than 20 percent.  When push comes to shove, in other words, Europe can sort this mess out. Speaking at an event showcasing the latest investment outlook from Blackrock Investment Institute, the strategy hub of the investment firm with a staggering $3.7 trillion of assets under management,  Richard Urwin said the problem in trying to second-guess the outcome of the euro crisis was the extent to which domestic political priorities were working against a resolution of the three-year old crisis.

“The thing is if you could imagine a benign dictator, then the problems are all solvable and could be fixed in a matter of weeks,” said Urwin, who is Head of Investments at Blackrock’s Fiduciary Mandate Investment Team.  Playing with the idea, Urwin said parts of a workable plan may involve debt rescheduling or restructuring for the existing bailout countries Greece, Portugal and Ireland; a buildup of a sufficiently large liquidity fund to help the larger countries such as Spain and Italy; a euro banking union with deposit guarantees and single supervisor to ring-fence and close insolvent banks that will never function properly; the creation of a central finance ministry and the issuance of jointly-guaranteed euro bonds etc etc.

Urwin’s point of course was not to advocate a dictator for the euro zone — although he acknowledged the euro was not exactly a child of European electorates to begin with–  rather that euro members have the ability if not the willingness yet to solve the crisis and that global investors looking for signposts in the saga needed to watch closely the runes of political cooperation and leadership instead of the economics and debt dynamics alone.  Where exactly that turns is hard to guess, but but it may well be that the process that has to wait until the German elections next year, he added.

Far from thinking these plans are some fanciful wishlist, Blackrock managers stressed that a lot of what has been done in the euro bloc over the past couple of the years — in terms of cross-border bailouts and funds, fiscal integration and central bank activism — would also have been thought unthinkable as recently as 2009.  And the past month of European Union moves  — recapitalisation of the Spanish banking system,  opening up the new European Stability Mechanism to directly fund banks and not just sovereigns, and moves toward a European banking union — all marked another big, if still insufficient, step to restore system-wide confidence.

“My view is that there has been a great deal of progress in the past 60 days in Europe,” said Peter Fisher, Head of Blackrock’s Fixed Income Portfolio Management Group. “But we’ve yet to see whether the political leadership in Europe will tie themselves to the mast of reforms needed to hold the euro together. They’ve made some progress but we still don’t see them having done enough to make it credible yet for us.”

Play the mini-cycles, not the euro crisis

For all the headline attention on euro zone political heat over the next six weeks or so  (Spain is already in the spotlight, Sunday is the first round of the French presidential elections, Greece goes to the polls on May 6, Ireland votes on the EU fiscal pact on May 31 etc etc),  global investors may be better rewarded if they follow the more mundane runes of the world’s manufacturing cycle for tips on market direction.

As showcased by the IMF this week, the big picture global growth story remains one of a relatively modest slowdown this year to 3.5% before a substantial rebound in 2013 to well above trend at 4.1%. Of course, there are some who think that’s hopelessly optimistic and others who may quibble about the absolute numbers but agree with the basic ebb and flow.

Yet within even these headline numbers, many mini-cycles are  playing out — especially within manfacturing, which accounts for about 20% of global GDP.  But problems in deciphering these twists and turns have been compounded over the past year or so by the impact from natural disasters and supply chain disruptions such as Japan’s devastating earthquake and Thailand’s floods.

Quarter-end rebalancing: A myth?

With world stocks up more than 10  percent since the start of the year, it must be tempting for investors to cash in their gains before the quarter-end/fiscal year-end. Or is it really?

JP Morgan, which analysed equity buying of institutional investors including pension funds, insurance companies and investment funds in the United States, euro zone, Japan and the UK, finds that there is no empirical evidence of quarterly rebalancing by pension funds or insurance companies.

Below are the charts showing their findings on the amount of equity buying as a share of equity holdings in each quarter against the difference between equity return and the return on total assets. If pension funds and insurance companies do not rebalance at all, the amount of equity buying should be unaffected by the relative return of equities against total assets. And this is the result they found in Chart 1.