Global Investing

from Summit Notebook:

Ritholtz: I zig when everybody zags

INVESTMENT-SUMMIT/RITHOLTZ

The U.S. economy is experiencing an ongoing but slow recovery, says Barry Ritholtz, director of equity research at Fusion IQ. But that's not stopping him from enjoying discounted prices in a low-inflation environment, at least when it comes to his personal spending habits. The world is on sale if you've got the money to spend, he told the Reuters Investment Outlook summit in New York when asked, for example, if he might spend less while on a vacation or forego a purchase or two.

"I am an enormous counter-cyclical spender. At the top of the bull market I don't want to buy anything. I am a seller into a bull market. We have been buying a ton of stuff over the past year. We got two new cars long before the May.... so we picked up two new cars. We're doing work on the house. We're adding a kitchen. I got my wife a very lovely birthday gift. She got me a very lovely birthday gift. We've been buying artwork. We've buying jewelry. I love to buy stuff when it is on sale. I hate to buy top dollar for it.

"So, we just were in the Cayman Islands on vacation some time ago. We were in Aruba back in December. I'm heading to Vancouver in July and probably take a week or two in the Hamptons. I'm thrilled to spend money in this environment.

"I got an e-mail from a client in the heart of '08 saying the advise and commentaries have been great but you're just so relentlessly negative in '08, you've got to say something that makes me not want to commit suicide.

"I said stuff is on sale, go buy stuff. Go buy collectible automobiles, artwork, jewelry. If you want to buy real estate, you are probably early, but if you find a unique property, and as we have seen with some of these so-called trophy properties they've come down in price but they don't plummet the way some condo in Miami is going to plummet. If you find something you really want to get, buy it now. Don't be afraid to make low-ball bids on artwork. If it is $15 million up from $8 million, bid six and you might get surprised by what happens.

Poor investor confidence – or is it?

The latest State Street investor confidence index bears some scrutiny. The overall index dropped in February which would seem to be in line with other sentiment indicators such as The Conference Board’s consumer confidence index and the German Ifo on business thinking.

But the State Street  fall was entirely due to bearish Asian sentiment. There were gains in the North American and European regional calculations. Also the overall, North American and European indices all came in above 100 — which means that sentiment remains on the bullish side.

It begs the question of whether Asia is a) lagging b) leading or c) just out there on its own.

Act now or forever hold your (b)-piece, Obama

It appears the penny has finally dropped in Washington. Bank bailout watchdog Elizabeth Warren, chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, has unveiled a report that outlines the shocking state of the U.S. commercial mortgage sector, which left unaided could spark “economic damage that could touch the lives of nearly every American”. The Havard Law School Professor and her panel colleagues are talking the kind of apocalyptic language that may just shake the White House and its star policy advisers into facing problems we have now rather simply obsess about those we may or may not encounter in the future. The global banking system may well need some kind of Volcker-esque guidelines to curb the next generation of excessive risk-takers but Obama is putting the cart before the horse in his efforts to haul the economy back on track. Certainly, his and the previous administration has toiled long and hard to stabilise the U.S. housing market, propping up Fannie and Freddie and their dysfunctional offspring, but the subprime mess has distracted attentions from the toxic commercial market, where the clean-up task is no less important. Warren reckons there is about $1.4 trillion worth of outstanding commercial real estate loans in the U.S that will need to be refinanced before 2014, and about half of them are already “underwater,” an industry term that refers to loans larger than the property’s current value. But bank brains are wasting too much time figuring out how the so-called “Volcker rule” might affect their operations and future profitability, instead of getting their arms around underwater real estate loans that could break their institutions in two long before the anti-risk measures even take hold. Obama’s premature challenge to their investment autonomy, which he says cultivated the collapse of banks like Lehmans, is like suturing a papercut while your jugular gapes wide open. Maybe now, as Warren’s report hammers home the threat posed by unperforming commercial real estate debt, Obama will give Wall Street a chance to refocus on the “now” and worry about “tomorrow”, tomorrow.

It appears the penny has finally dropped in Washington.

Bank bailout watchdog Elizabeth Warren, chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, has unveiled a report that outlines the perilous state of the U.S. commercial mortgage sector, which left unaided could spark “economic damage that could touch the lives of nearly every American”.

The Havard Law School Professor and her panel colleagues are talking the kind of apocalyptic language that may just shock the White House and its star policy advisers into facing problems banks have now rather simply obsess about those they may or may not encounter in the future.

No one flying to safety yet

Reuters asset allocation polls for January are out and — perhaps not surprisingly — show global investors cutting back a bit on stocks. That would be expected given that world stocks are heading for a negative month and the likes of emerging markets have had a few days battering.

What was perhaps most interesting, however, was the fact that the pull back was not accompanied by any flight to safety. Both bond and cash allocations also fell slightly. The money went into other assets such as property and hedge funds.

Conclusion? No one is panicking. Some, such as Charlie Morris of HSBC Global Asset Management, even reckon that January’s pull back is nice and healthy, taking the froth off the market.

There’s oil in them thar wealth funds

Some interesting new data on sovereign wealth funds from State Street Global Advisors, a huge fund firm that does a lot of business with them. Most interesting, perhaps, is that the vast majority of sovereign wealth fund money comes from oil and gas revenues rather than from countries building up large foreign reserves from other trade, eg China.

    – The U.S. firm identified 37 major sovereign wealth funds worth a total of $3 trillion. – More than two-thirds, or 70 percent, of that money came from oil and gas interests. – Of the 37, all had at least $3 billion in assets. – Eight of them had more than $100 billion. – Only 13 of the 37 funds were not based on commodity wealth. – Asia had the largest number of SWFs at 13. – The 10 funds based in the Middle East had nearly half the wealth, or 46 percent, between them.

These funds, incidentally, are becoming more like mainstream investment companies by the day. State Street says they are eventually going to turn into the equivalent of large public sector pension funds and could well start becoming more active as shareholders in companies in which they invest.

What’s on your reading list?

If anyone needed a reminder that Christmas and NewYear holidays are almost here, Societe Generale has provided it. Analyst Dylan Grice has picked up the mantle of the departed James Montier to offer a seasonal reading list for those with a fixation about investment and economics.

True, some people might prefer to immerse themselves in a rollicking sea tale from Patrick O’Brian or a good old  Sookie Stackhouse vampire mystery. But we know that Reuters blogs’ readers are a discriminating lot with a keen understanding of and passion for finance. So here is Dylan’s list of six must-reads:

1. Manias, Panics and Crashes, by Charles P. Kindleberger;
2. The Essays of Warren Buffet, edited by Richard Cunningham;
3. Reminiscences of a Stock Operator, by Edwin Lefevre;
4. Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Taleb;
5. The Case against the Fed, by Murray Rothbard;
6. Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, eds Kahneman, Slovic and
Tversky.

What worries the BRICs

Some fascinating data about the growing power of emerging markets, particularly the BRICs, was on display at the OECD‘s annual investment conference in Paris this week. Not the least of it came from MIGA, the World Bank’s Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, which tries to help protect foreign direct investors from various forms of political risk.

MIGA has mainly focused on encouraging investment into developing countries, but a lot of its latest work is about investment from emerging economies.

This has been exploding over the past decade. Net outward investment from developing countries reached $198 billion in 2008 from around $20 billion in 2000. The 2008 figure was only 10.8 percent of global FDI, but it was just 1.4 percent in 2000.

Time to kick Russia out of the BRICs?

It may end up sounding like a famous ball-point pen maker, but an argument is being made that Goldman Sach’s famous marketing device, the BRICs, should really be the BICs. Does Russia really deserve to be a BRIC, asks Anders Åslund, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, in an article for Foreign Policy.

Åslund, who is also co-author with Andrew Kuchins of “The Russian Balance Sheet”, reckons the Russia of Putin and Medvedev is just not worthy of inclusion alongside Brazil, India and China  in the list of blue-chip economic powerhouses. He writes:

The country’s economic performance has plummeted to such a dismal level that one must ask whether it is entitled to have any say at all on the global economy, compared with the other, more functional members of its cohort.

A black swan in the desert

Just when investors were settling down to lock in a few of the year’s profits and put their feet up for the end of the year holidays, a black swan has come waddling out of the desert to put everything on edge.

The unwelcome cygnus atratus came in the form of Gulf emirate Dubai telling creditors of Dubai World and property group Nakheel that debt repayments would be delayed.  Fears of contagion spread widely, hitting world stocks, lifting the dollar out of its basement and driving demand for European debt so much that a roughly 6-month trading range for futures was breached.

It all may settle down soon. Dubai says the problem does not apply to its big international ports group.  Meanwhile, the emirate is a pretty leveraged place, but fellow emirates and neighbouring countries such as Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are pretty flush with cash. They could even step in to help as a matter of solidarity.