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.

Where will the FDI flow?

For years the four mighty BRIC nations have grabbed increasing shares of world investment flows. But the coming years may not be so kind.  These countries bring up the bottom of the Economic Freedom Index (EFI) for 2012. Compiled by Washington D.C.-based think-tank The Heritage Foundation the EFI measures 10 freedoms —  from property rights to entrepreneurship – and according to a note out today from RBS economists, there is a strong positive link between a country’s EFI score and the amount of FDI (foreign direct investment) it can secure. So the more “free” a country, the more FDI inflows it can expect to receive — that’s what an RBS analysis of 2002-2008 investment flows shows.

So back to the BRICs. Or BRICS if you add in South Africa (part of the political grouping though not yet included in the BRIC investment concept used by fund managers). The following graphic shows Russia languishing at the bottom of the EFI, China just above Russia and India third from bottom.  Brazil is sixth from bottom while South Africa ranks two places higher.

At the other end of the spectrum is tiny Singapore. Its EFI score is double that of Russia and between 2002-2008 it attracted FDI equivalent to 50 percent of its economy. Russia in contrast saw negative net FDI (outflows exceeded inflows)

Research Radar: Very 20th century

Wednesday’s market commentaries are loaded with the buzz around another technical UK recession in Q1 (the first time Britain has suffered what many see as a ‘double-dip’ since the 1970s); guessing about Wednesday’s FOMC outcome; and the European Commission letting Hungary off the hook about its controversial constitutional changes. In aggregate, and probably due to the looming FOMC,  markets are fairly stable – world equities, including euro stocks, emerging markets and even Britain’s FTSE are all higher. The US dollar, Treasuries,  volatility gauges, gold and even peripheral euro government bond yields are all down a bit.

Following is a selection of some of Wednesday’s interesting research ideas:

- Barclays’ Barry Knapp reckons US and world equities face a dilemma from the endless distortion to multiples and risk premia from monetary intervention and QE that is artifically lowering the risk-free rate akin to the “financial repression” of the 1950s — no one is sure now if equity is cheap or bonds just very expensive. He concludes that best thing for equities in the medium to long term is to avoid further QE but the problem is that stocks will almost certainly suffer in the short run if the Fed takes QE3 off the table. What’s more, Wednesday’s FOMC could be problem for markets initally if the Fed frets about the growth outlook, but a worsening of the economy might bring QE3 sooner than similar bouts in 2010 and 2011.

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)

March bulls give way to April bears in emerging markets

The dust has settled on a scintillating first quarter for emerging markets but the cross-asset rally of the first three months has already run out of steam. A survey by Societe Generale of 69 EM investors shows that over half are bearish — at least for the near-term.

This marks quite a turn-around from the March survey, when 80 percent of investors declared themselves bullish on emerging markets. What’s more, investors are currently running very little risk and 47 percent of hedge fund respondents (these make up half the survey) feel they are over-invested in EM.  (The following graphic shows the findings — click on it to enlarge)

Almost a quarter of the hedge fund and real money investors are neutral tactically on the market, compared to just 4.5 percent last month. Serious optimism has dried up, SocGen commented:

Pension funds’ hedging dilemma

Pension funds have no shortage of concerns: their funding deficits are rapidly growing in the current low-return environment, and ageing populations are stretching their liabilities.

But a recent survey of pension funds trustees by French business school EDHEC has found that their biggest worry, cited by nearly 77% of the respondents, is the risk that their sponsor — the entity or employer that administers the  pension plan for employees – could go bust. Yet 84% of respondents fail to manage the sponsor risk.

So how do you hedge against such a risk?

You could buy credit default swaps of the sponsor company or buy out-of-the-money equity put derivatives to seek protection. But both options are costly and illiquid. Moreover, it might send a negative signal to the market: after all, if the company’s pension fund is seen effectively shorting the company in an aggressive manner, investors may wonder “What do they know that we don’t?”

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.

Russia’s new Eurobond: what’s the fair price?

Russia’s upcoming dollar bond, the first in two years, should fly off the shelves. It’s good timing — elections are past, the world economy seems to be recovering and crucially for Russia, oil prices are over $125 a barrel.  And the rise in core yields has massively tightened emerging markets’ yield premium to  U.S. Treasuries, offering an attractive window to raise cash.  Russia’s spread premium over Treasuries hit the narrowest levels in 7 months recently and despite some widening this week it is still some 75 basis points below end-2011 levels.

Initial indications from the ongoing roadshow are for a two-tranche bond with 10- and 20-year maturities, possibly raising a total of $3.5 billion.

But market bullishness notwithstanding, investors say Moscow should resist temptation to price the bond too high, a mistake it made during its last foray into global capital markets in April 2010. Fund managers have unpleasant memories of that deal, recalling that Russia unexpectedly tightened the yield offered by 25-28 bps, making the bond an expensive one for investors who had already placed bids. The bond price fell sharply once trading kicked off and yields across the Russian curve rose around 25-30 basis points. Jeremy Brewin, a fund manager at Aviva said:

Japan… tide finally turning?

Until recently, when you mentioned  ”Japan” in the investment context, you could almost hear a collective sigh of disappointment — it was all about recession, deflation and poor investment returns.

However, sentiment does seem to be finally changing, not least because Tokyo stocks have rallied almost 20 percent since the start of the year, outperforming benchmark world and emerging indexes.

The yen has also been on a (rare) declining trend since the start of February, with the selling momentum accelerating since the Bank of Japan set an inflation goal of 1 percent in a surprise move and boosted its asset buying programme by $130 billion on Feb 14.

Investing in active funds: what’s the point?

Active vs passive investment is a long-lasting debate: active funds will tell you they deliver alpha (extra returns), but for a fee. Passive investment simply tracks the index so it’s cheaper. The risk is you may underperform your peers.

New research from Thomson Reuters Lipper throws up an interesting twist in the debate: It found that less than half of the actively managed mutual funds in Europe outperformed their benchmarks over the past 20 years.

The proportion of funds that outperformed varied from 26.7% in 2011, 40% over 3 years and 34.9% over the past 10 years. While bond funds fare better over 3 years with 45.4% outperforming, the proportion tailed off dramatically over the 10-year period, falling to 16.2%.