Global Investing

Weekly Radar: Cyprus hogs the headlines but contagion fears limited

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Cyprus has hogged the headlines since Friday, with bank closures now extended to a full week as they try to sort out a very messy bailout - made worse by domestic policy missteps over taxing bank deposits. As with Italy’s elections, the saga certainly challenges any market assumption that the euro crisis had abated for good and it’s also loaded with a series of potential precedents – not least the biggest taboo of them all, a euro exit. This is where the politics, brinkmanship and smoke-filled-rooms come in.  Yet as Cyprus is so small and its banks in such a peculiar setup – given the scale of Russian and other foreign depositors – the euro group, ECB and IMF appear determined not to be pressured into a bailout above the already gigantic 60 percent of GDP.

And, as with Greece last year, they will likely stand firm and leave any decision to exit up to the Cypriots themselves. You can’t rule out that they may choose to go and regional risks rise somewhat as a result. But if the islanders are genuinely worried about a 6-10% tax on deposits, they may also think long and hard about the chance those deposits would be redenominated into a heavily devalued Cypriot pound. Just ask the Argentinians what that feels like. A deposit haircut may seem a like a half-decent deal by comparison if some other mix of Russian loans, pension raids or securitised future gas revenues doesn’t stack up.

So, the small scale of Cyprus, a lack of direct systemic banking or sovereign debt linkages and the likelihood of some sort of political deal eventually emerging have all served to limit the fallout from the drama on world markets – rightly or wrongly.   World equities have been knocked back a bit, but remain up 5.75% year-to-date. The VIX popped higher, but remains super-low under 13%. Italian stocks are back to where they were on Friday afternoon, while the more telling Italian and Spanish 10-yr bond yields have even nudged lower. A successful Spanish government bond auction on Thursday, where yields across all maturities fell from the previous auctions in February, showed just how limited any Cyprus contagion has been so far at least.

So, unjustifiably complacent? Perhaps – there are certainly lots of bogeymen in this story. But let’s be clear about the “shock factor”. Back on Jan 1, the year kicked off with several “known knowns” ahead that everybody already knew would be messy – the US fiscal cliff, the Italian elections and the Cyprus bailout. And they all proved exactly that – messy. But few investors anywhere could claim to have not been braced for these. To be sure, all could blow up into something worse still, but none yet amounts to an investment ‘game changer’. Radars are up, however, and funds polled by BoAMerrill reckon the euro crisis has moved back to the top of their list of tail risks for the first time since August. We shall see if they continue to hold their nerve as the first quarter closes next week. More worrying for investors in Europe has been the continued funk in business sentiment in March and the Cyprus ructions won’t have helped that much since. Patience in waiting for some broad-based European economic recovery may be more limited than the seeming tolerance of  noisy Cyprus bailout. 

Weekly Radar: Dollar building steam?

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       The revved-up U.S. dollar – whose trade-weighted index is now up almost 5 percent in just six weeks – could well develop into one of the financial market stories of the year as the cyclical jump the United States has over the rest of G10 combines with growing attention being paid to the country’s potential “re-industrialisation”. As with all things FX, there’s a zillion ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ to the argument. Chief among them is many people’s assumption the Fed will be printing greenbacks well after this expansion takes hold as it targets a much lower jobless rate. Others doubt the much-vaunted return of the US Inc. back down the value chain into metal-bashing and manufacturing, while some feel the cheaper energy from the shale revolution and the lower structural trade deficits that promises will be short-lived as others catch up. However, with the dollar already super competitive (it’s down 30-40 percent on the Fed’s inflation-adjusted index over the past 10 years) the first set of arguments are more tempting. Even if you see the merits in both sides, the bull case clearly has not yet been discounted and may have further to go just to match the balance of risks.  With Fed printing presses still on full throttle, this has been a slow burner to date and it may be a while yet before it gets up a head of steam — many feel it’s still more of a 2nd half of 2013 story and the dollar index needs to get above last year’s highs to get people excited. But if it does keep motoring, it has a potentially dramatic impact on the investment landscape and not necessarily a benign one, even if shifting correlations and the broader macro landscape show this is not the ‘stress trade’ of the short-lived dollar bounces of the past five years.

Commodities priced in dollars could well feel the heat from a steady dollar uptrend. And if gold’s spiral higher over the past six years has been in part due to the “dollar debasement” trade, then its recent sharp retreat may be less puzzling . Emerging market currencies pegged to the dollar will also feel the pressure as well as countries and companies who’ve borrowed heavily in greenbacks. The prospect of a higher dollar also has a major impact on domestic US investors willingness to go overseas, casting questions on countries with big current account gaps. As the dominant world reserve currency, a rising dollar effectively tightens financial conditions for everyone else and we’ve been used to a weakening one for a very long time.

Weekly Radar: Currency warriors meet in Moscow

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Hiccup. February has so far certainly brought a more sober, if healthier, perspective to world markets. Global stocks are off about half a percent this week, letting the air out gently from January’s over-inflated 5 percent surge. The focus is back on Europe, where the threat of a euro FX overshoot (in the face of LTRO paybacks and rising euro interest rates alongside stepped-up “global currency wars”) has fused with a plethora of unresolved national debt conundrums and a stream of ‘event risks’ on the region’s calendar. Euro stocks have retreated to December levels as the currency move and fresh political angst has taken the wind out of earnings and growth projections after such a steep rally over the past six months. Name anything you want – the tightening race for this month’s Italian elections and Monte di Paschi scnadal there, a delayed Cyprus bailout and elections there this month, the Irish promissory note standoff with the ECB etc etc – when things turn, they all these get amplified again even if none really are likely to be systemic threats in the way we’d become used to over the past two years. The slight backup in Italian/Spanish yields to December levels shows sentiment turns still pack a punch, the European earnings season has been mixed so far, there are political murmurs about capping the euro and the political calendar over the next six weeks is a bit of a minefield for nervy markets. All the issues still look resolvable – the tricky Irish bank debt rejig looks on the verge of a resolution; few still believe Berlusconi be the next Italian PM (only 5 percent on betting website Intrade think so, for example); and Cyprus is expected by most to get bailed out eventually. Today’s ECB will be critical to most of those issues, but next week’s euro group gets a chance to update everyone on its role in them aswell). The issue likely to gnaw deepest at investors is the regional growth outlook  and,  in that respect, the euro surge is about as welcome as a kick in the teeth at this juncture. (Euro Q4 GDPs out next week). The French clearly want to rein in the currency but don’t have the tools or the German backing. Draghi and the ECB will likely have to come to rescue again, though he will not admit to euro targeting and so may drag his feet on this one until the move starts to burn. Interesting times ahead and interesting G20 finance meeting in Moscow next week as a result.

To keep this week’s market wobble  in Europe in perspective, however Wall St still continues to hover close to record highs as the Q4 GDP shock was probably correctly dismissed as a red herring; Japan’s TOPIX is now up 35% in three months (well, about 15% in euro terms), and Shanghai is up 18% in just two months. It’s curious to note that Shanghai was the top pick of the year when Reuters polled global forecasters in December and average gains for the whole of 2013 were expected to be… 17 percent. So, stick with the growth and the currency printing regions for now it seems – even if you do get whacked on the exchange rate.

Weekly Radar: Glass still half-full?

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Wednesday’s global markets were a pretty good illustration of the nature of new year rally. The largest economy in the world reported a shock contraction of activity in the final quarter of 2012 despite widespread expectations of 1%+ gain and this month’s bulled-up stock market barely blinked. Ok, the following FOMC decision and Friday’s latest US employment report probably helped keep a lid on things and there was plenty of good reason to be sceptical of the headline U.S. GDP number. Reasons for the big miss were hooked variously on an unexpectedly large drop in government defence spending, a widening of the trade gap (even though we don’t get December numbers til next week), a drawdown in inventories, fiscal cliff angst and “Sandy”. Final consumer demand looked fineand we know from the jobs numbers (and the January ADP report earlier) that the labour market remains relatively firm while housing continues to recovery. The inventory drop could presage a cranking up assembly lines into the new year given the “fiscal cliff” was dodged on Jan 1 and trade account distortions due to East Coast storms may unwind too. So, not only are we likely to see upward revisions to this advance data cut, there may well be significant “payback” in Q1 data and favourable base effects could now flatter 2013 numbers overall.

Yet as logical as any or all of those arguments may be,  the reaction to the shocker also tells you a lot about the prevalent “glass half full” view in the market right now and reveals how the flood of new money that’s been flowing to equity this year has not been doing so on the basis on one quarter of economic data. An awful lot of the investor flow to date is either simply correcting extremely defensive portfolios toward more “normal” times or reinvesting with a 3-5 year view in mind at least. There’s a similar story at play in Europe. Money has come back from the bunkers and there’s been a lock-step improvement in the “big picture” risks – we are no longer factoring in default risk into the major bond markets  at least and many are now happy to play the ebb and flow of economics and politics and market pricing within more reasonable parameters. There are no shortage of ghosts and ghouls still in the euro cupboard – dogged recession, bank legacy debt issue, Cyprus, Italian elections etc – but that all still seems more like more manageable country risk for many funds and a far cry from where we were over the past two years of potential systemic implosion. Never rule out a fresh lurch and the perceived lack of market crisis itself may take the pressure off Brussels and other EU capitals to keeping pushing hard to resolve the outstanding conundrums. But it would take an awful lot now to completely reverse the recent stabilisation, not least given the ECB has yet to fire a bullet of its new OMT intervention toolkit.

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.

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: 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.

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.