Global Investing

Euro emigration – safety valve or worker drain?

Four years of relentless austerity in many of the euro zone’s most debt-hobbled countries have forced many of their youngest and sometimes brightest workers to grab the plane, train or boat and emigrate in search of work. For countries with a long history of emigration, such as Ireland, this is depressingly familar — coming just 20 years after the country’s last debt crisis and national belt-tightening in the 1980s crescendoed, with the exit of some 40,ooo a year in 1989/90 from a population of just 3-1/2 million people.

The intervening boom years surrounding the creation and infancy of the Europe’s single currency and expansion of the European Union eastwards saw huge net migration inflows back into the then-thriving euro zone periphery  — Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy — and created a virtuous circle of rising workforces, higher demand for housing/goods and rising exchequer tax receipts.

But all that has gone into reverse again since the credit, property and banking crash of 2008.

While the exodus takes short-term pressure off dole queues and national welfare bills, there is growing concern that the timing of this latest wave of young worker emigration comes as underlying societies are ageing, dependency ratios are rising and longer-term pressure on government finances from pension commitments is set to grow.

In a note to clients on Tuesday, Citi economist Michael Saunders details the extent of the renewed migration from the periphery and reckons prolonged austerity is exaggerating the shift and damage to the long-term financial sustainability of these countries’ already battered finances. With Europe’s impending pension shortfalls, he argues, they need higher working populations, not smaller ones.

Fears of collateral drought questioned

Have fears of global shortage of high-grade collateral been exaggerated?

As the world braces for several more years of painful deleveraging from the pre-2007 credit excesses, one big fear has been that a shrinking pool of top-rated or AAA assets — due varioulsy to sovereign credit rating downgrades, deteriorating mortgage quality, Basel III banking regulations, central bank reserve accumulation and central clearing of OTC derivatives — has exaggerated the ongoing credit crunch. Along with interbank mistrust, the resulting shortage of high-quality collateral available to be pledged and re-pledged between banks and asset managers,  it has been argued, meant the overall amount of credit being generating in the system has been shrinking,  pushing up the cost and lowering the availability of borrowing in the real economy. Quantitative easing and bond buying by the world’s major central banks, some economists warned, was only exaggerating that shortage by removing the highest quality collateral from the banking system.

But economists at JPMorgan cast doubt on this. The bank claims that the universe of AAA/AA bonds is actually growing by around $1trillion per year.  While central bank reserve managers absorb the lion’s share of this in banking hard currency reserves,  JPM reckon they still take less than half of the total created and, even then, some of that top-rated debt does re-enter the system as some central bank reserve managers engage in securities lending.

Citing a recent speech by ECB Executive Board member Benoit Coere dismissing ideas of a collateral shortage in the euro zone, JPM said ECB action in primary covered bond markets and in accepting lower-rated and foreign currency collateral had helped. It added that the average amount of eligible collateral available for Eurosystem liquidity operations was 14.3 trillion euros in the second quarter of 2012 — with 2.5 trillion euros of that put forward as collateral by euro zone banks to be used in the ECB’s repo operations of 1.3 trillion.  Critically, the majority of that 2.5 trillion posted at the ECB was either illiquid collateral such as bank loans or collateral associated with peripheral issuers and thus unlikely eligible for use in private repo markets anyway, they added. This process of absorbing low quality collateral in order to free up higher-quality assets for private use has been an approach of both the ECB and Bank of England.

Put down and Fed up

Given almost biblical gloom about the world economy at the moment, you really have to do a double take looking at Wall Street’s so-called “Fear Index”. The ViX , which is essentially the cost of options on S&P500 equities, acts as a geiger counter for both U.S. and global financial markets.  Measuring implied volatility in the market, the index surges when the demand for options protection against sharp moves in stock prices is high and falls back when investors are sufficiently comfortable with prevailing trends to feel little need to hedge portfolios. In practice — at least over the past 10 years — high volatility typically means sharp market falls and so the ViX goes up when the market is falling and vice versa. And because it’s used in risk models the world over as a proxy for global financial risk, a rising ViX tends to shoo investors away from risky assets while a falling ViX pulls them in — feeding the metronomic risk on/risk off behaviour in world markets and, arguably, exaggerating dangerously pro-cyclical trading and investment strategies.

Well, the “Fear Index” last night hit its lowest level since the global credit crisis erupted five-years ago to the month.  Can that picture of an anxiety-free investment world really be accurate? It’s easy to dismiss it and blame a thousand “technical factors” for its recent precipitous decline.  On the other hand,  it’s also easy to forget the performance of the underlying market has been remarkable too. Year-to-date gains on Wall St this year have been the second best since 1998. And while the U.S. and world economies hit another rough patch over the second quarter, the incoming U.S. economic data is far from universally poor and many economists see activity stabilising again.

But is all that enough for the lowest level of “fear” since the fateful August of 2007? The answer is likely rooted in another sort of “put” outside the options market — the policy “put”, essentially the implied insurance the Fed has offered investors by saying it will act again to print money and buy bonds in a third round of quantitative easing (QE3) if the economy or financial market conditions deteriorate sharply again. Reflecting this “best of both worlds” thinking, the latest monthly survey of fund managers by Bank of America Merrill Lynch says a net 15% more respondents expect the world economy to improve by the end of the year than those who expect it to deteriorate but almost 50 percent still believe the Fed will deliver QE3 before 2012 is out.  In other words, things will likely improve gradually in the months ahead and if they don’t the Fed will be there to catch us.

Next Week: “Put” in place?

 

Following are notes from our weekly editorial planner:

Oh the irony. Perhaps the best illustration of how things have changed over the past few weeks is that risk markets now fall when Spain is NOT seeking a sovereign bailout rather than when it is! The 180 degree turn in logic in just two weeks is of course thanks to the “Draghi put” – which, if you believe the ECB chief last week, means open-ended, spread-squeezing bond-buying/QE will be unleashed as soon as countries request support and sign up to a budget monitoring programme. The fact that both Italy and Spain are to a large extent implementing these plans already means the request is more about political humble pie – in Spain’s case at least.  In Italy, Monti most likely would like to bind Italy formally into the current stance. So the upshot is that – assuming the ECB is true to Draghi’s word – any deterioration will be met by unsterilized bond buying – or effectively QE in the euro zone for the first time. That’s not to mention the likelihood of another ECB rate cut and possibility of further LTROs etc. With the FOMC also effectively offering QE3 last week on a further deterioration of economic data stateside, the twin Draghi/Bernanke “put” has placed a safety net under risk markets for now. And it was badly needed as the traditional August political vacuum threatened to leave equally seasonal thin market in sporadic paroxysms. There are dozens of questions and issues and things that can go bump in the night as we get into September, but that’s been the basic cue taken for now.  The  backup in Treasury and bund yields shows this was not all day trading by the number jockeys.  The 5 year bund yield has almost doubled in a fortnight – ok, ok, so it’s still only 0.45%, but the damage that does to you total returns can be huge.

Where does that leave us markets-wise? Let’s stick with the pre-Bumblebee speech benchmark of July 25. Since then,  2-year nominal Spanish government yields have been crushed by more than 300bps… as have spreads over bunds given the latter’s equivalent yields remain slightly negative.  Ten-year Spain is a different story – but even here nominal yields have shed 85bp and the bund spread has shrunk by 100bp.  The Italy story is broadly similar.  Euro stocks are up a whopping 12.5%, global stocks are up almost 7 percent, Wall St has hit its highest since May 1, just a whisker from 2012 highs.  Whatever the long game, the impact has and still is hugely significant. An upturn in global econ data relative to recently lowered expectations – as per Citi’s G10 econ surprise index — has added a minor tailwind but this is a policy play first and foremost.

So, climate change in seasonal flows? Well, it was certainly “sell in May” again this year – but it would have been pretty wise to “buy back in June”. Staying away til St Ledgers day would – assuming we hold current levels til then – left us no better off had we just snoozed through the summer.

South African equities hit record highs, doomsayers left waiting

Earlier this year it seemed that an increase in global bullishness meant the end of the road for risk-off investment strategies and, by extension, the rise in South African equities. However, 6 months later, the band is still playing, and the ship is refusing to go down.

South African equities have flourished in the face of the doomsayers, with returns this year doubling the emerging market benchmark equity performance. Both the all-shares index and the top-40 share have hit fresh all time highs this week, and prophecies of gloom for South African stocks appear to have missed the mark somewhat.

Part of the reason for this is that, when it comes to risk attitudes, much of the song remains the same. South Africa has certainly benefitted from its continued attractiveness to risk-off investors, as global bullishness has receded from whence it came. For instance, as it is relatively well sheltered from euro zone turmoil, and as major gold exporter, firms based in the gold sector are ostensibly an attractive investment for the globally cautious.

A case for market intervention?

As we wait for ECB Mario Draghi to come good on his promise to do all in his power to save the euro,  the case for governments intervening in financial markets is once again to the fore. Draghi’s verbal intervention last week basically opened up a number of fronts. First, he clearly identified the extreme government bond spreads within the euro zone, where Germany and almost half a dozen euro countries can borrow for next to nothing while Spain and Italy pay 4-7%,  as making a mockery of a single monetary policy and that they screwed up the ECB’s monetary policy transmission mechanism.  And second, to the extent that the euro risks collapse if these spreads persist or widen further, Draghi then stated  it’s the ECB’s job to do all it can to close those spreads. No euro = no ECB. It’s existential, in other words. The ECB can hardly be pursuing “price stability” within the euro zone by allowing the single currency to blow up.

Whatever Draghi does about this, however, it’s clear the central bank has set itself up for a long battle to effectively target narrower peripheral euro bond spreads — even if it stops short of an absolute cap.  Is that justified if market brokers do not close these gaps of their own accord?  Or should governments and central banks just blithely accept market pricing as a given even if they doubt their accuracy?  Many will argue that if countries are sticking to promised budgetary programmes, then there is reason to support that by capping borrowing rates. Budget cuts alone will not bring down debts if borrowing rates remain this high because both depress the other key variable of economic growth.

But, as  Belgian economist Paul de Grauwe argued earlier this year,  how can we be sure that the “market” is pricing government debt for Spain and Italy now at around 7% any more accurately than it was when it was happily lending to Greece, Ireland and Portugal for 10 years at ludicrous rates about 3% back in 2005 before the crisis? Most now accept that those sorts of lending rates were nonsensical. Are 7%+ yields just as random? Should governments and the public that accepts the pre-credit crisis lending as grossly excessive now be just as sceptical in a symmetrical world? And should the authorities be as justified in acting to limit those high rates now as much as they should clearly have done something to prevent the unjustifiably low rates that blew the credit bubble everywhere — not just in the euro zone? De Grauwe wrote:

Devil and the deep blue sea

Ok, it’s a big policy week and of course it could either way for markets. An awful lot of ECB and Fed easing expectations may well be in the price already, so some delivery would appear to be important especially now that ECB chief Mario Draghi has set everyone up for fireworks in Frankfurt.

But if it’s even possible to look beyond the meetings for a moment, it’s interesting to see how the other forces are stacked up.

Perhaps the least obvious market statistic as July draws to a close is that, with gains of more than 10 percent, Wall St equities have so far had their best year-to-date since 2003. Who would have thunk it in a summer of market doom and despair.  Now that could be a blessing or a curse for those trying to parse the remainder of the year. Gloomy chartists and uber-bears such as SocGen’s Albert Edwards warn variously of either hyper-negative chart signals on the S&P500, such as the “Ultimate Death Cross”, or claims that the U.S. has already entered recession in the third quarter.

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.

Next Week: Big Black Cloud

Following are notes from our weekly editorial planning meeting:

Not unlike this year’s British “summer”, the gloom is now all pervasive. Not panicky mind, just gloomy. And there is a significant difference where markets are concerned at least. The former involves surprise and being wrongfooted — but latter has been slow realisation that what were once extreme views on the depth of the credit swamp are fast becoming consensus thinking. The conclusion for many now is that we’re probably stuck in this mire for several more years – anywhere between 5 and 20 years, depending on your favoured doom-monger. Yet, the other thing is that markets also probably positioned in large part for that perma-funk — be it negative yields on core government debt or euro zone equities now with half the p/e ratios of US counterparts. In short, the herd has already  hunkered down and finds it hard to see any horizon. Those who can will resort to short-term tactical plays based on second-guessing government and central bank policy responses (there will likely be more QE or related actions stateside eventually despite hesitancy in the FOMC minutes  and Fed chief Bernanke will likely give a glimpse of that thinking in his congressional testimony next week); or hoping to surf mini econ cycles aided by things like cheaper energy; or hoping to spot one off corporate success stories like a new Apple or somesuch.

So has all hope been snuffed out? The reason for the relapse mid-year depression is only partly related to the political minefield frustrating a resolution of the euro crisis – in some ways, things there look more encouraging policywise than they did two months ago. It stems as much from a realization of just how broken the banks credit creation system remains – a system that had hinged heavily on extensive collateral chains that have now largely been broken or shortened and starved of acceptable high-quality collateral. Curiously, QE – by removing even more of the top quality collateral – may even be exaggerating the problem. Some even say the extreme shortage of this quality “collateral” may require more, not less, government debt in the US and UK and would also benefit from a pooling of euro debt  – but everyone knows how easy all that’s going to be politically.

Despite all this, global markets have remained fairly stable over the past week – in part due to policy hopes underpinning risk markets and in part because there’s not many places left to hide without losing money in “safe-haven” bunkers. World equities are down about 2 percent over the past week,  but still up more than 6 percent from early June. Risk measured by volatility indicesis a smidgen higher too. Oil has firmed back toward $100pb, disappointing everyone apart from oil exporters. Spanish and Italian 10-yr yields are a touch higher. And at least part of the caution everywhere is ae vigil ahead of Chinese Q2 GDP data on Friday – numbers that now almost rival the U.S.  monthly payrolls in global market impact.

Oil price slide – easy come, easy go?

One of the very few positives for the world economy over the second quarter — or at least for the majority of the world that imports oil — has been an almost $40 per barrel plunge in the spot price of Brent crude. As the euro zone crisis, yet another soft patch stateside and a worryingly steep slowdown in the BRICs all combined to pull the demand rug from under the energy markets, the traditional stabilising effects of oil returned to the fray. So much so that by the last week in June, the annual drop in oil prices was a whopping 20%. Apart from putting more money in household and business purses by directly lowering fuel bills and eventually the cost of products with high energy inputs, the drop in oil prices should have a significant impact on headline consumer inflation rates that are already falling well below danger rates seen last year. And for central banks around the world desperate to ease monetary policy and print money again to offset the ravages of deleveraging banks, this is a major relief and will amount to a green light for many — not least the European Central Bank which is now widely expected to cut interest rates again this Thursday.

Of course, disinflation and not deflation is what everyone wants. The latter would disastrous for still highly indebted western economies and would further reinforce comparisons with Japan’s 20 year funk. But on the assumption “Helicopter” Ben Bernanke at the U.S. Federal Reserve and his G20 counterparts are still as committed to fighting deflation at all costs, we can assume more easing is the pipeline — certainly if oil prices continue to oblige.  Latest data for May from the OECD give a good aggregate view across major economies. Annual inflation in the OECD area slowed to 2.1% in the year to May 2012, compared with 2.5% in the year to April 2012 – the lowest rate since January 2011. While this was heavily influenced by oil and food price drops, core prices also dipped below 2% to 1.9% in May.

JP Morgan economists Joseph Lupton and David Hensley, meantime, say their measure of global inflation is set to move below their global central bank target of 2.6% (which they aggregate across 26 countries)  for the first time since September 2010.