Global Investing

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)

- Following the surprise news last week that dovish Bank of England policy maker Adam Posen is no longer voting for more UK money printing, Barclays FX team said it’s turning more positive on the UK economy and also says sticky inflation may mean the Bank of England’s current monetary stance may be too accommodative. As a result, it lowered its euro/sterling 3-month forecast to 0.79 from 0.84. However, it cautioned about being short euro/sterling until after Wednesday’s Q1 UK GDP report, which it said could come in weaker than expected due to temporary factors. (Reuters poll consensus is for a 0.1% rise Q/Q)

- As everyone watches the FOMC outcome on Wednesday, Bank of New York Mellon‘s Simon Derrick highlights widespread expectations of further Bank of Japan easing and asset purchases on Friday. He reckons the economic arguments for more easing in Japan may be sound but it’s worth considering whether BoJ governor Masaaki Shirakawa may want to start facing down heavy political pressure for endless BoJ easing.

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%.

State vs entrepreneurial capitalism

The post-crisis world has been in part shaped by the growing presence of sovereign wealth funds, which have become an important source of funding with their $4 trillion assets, replacing private equity and hedge funds. But some people are wondering whether state capitalism really is the way forward, to boost the potential growth rate of the post-crisis world.

Robert Litan, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, believes that in fact it’s entrepreneurs who would play a key role, and it’s important for policymakers to come up with a mechanism to help them.

Litan estimates that the United States needs 30-60 new “home-run” firms a year with annual sales of $1 billion to boost U.S. growth rate by one percentage point beyond its post-war average of 3 percent. This is double the past 150-year average of 15 firms a year.

Three snapshots for Wednesday

Most U.S. banks passed their annual stress test driving shares higher. Where does this leave their valuation? Looking at price-to-book value in aggregate (1st chart) they are only just trading above a ratio of one, looking cheap compared to a 15-year average ratio of two.  However a premium is opening up over European banks which are still trading below book value, and analyst forecasts for return on equity suggest banks are in a very different environment to the last 15-years (2nd chart)

The UK could start issuing 100-year bonds as it seeks to lock in current low interest rates. Recent sales of long-dated UK gilts have met with strong demand, and  as the chart below shows yields on 50-year gilts hit a record low of around 3 percent in January.

Three snapshots for Tuesday

The German ZEW economic sentiment index for March smashed expectations, coming in at 22.3 against the Reuters poll of 10.0.  Over the last couple of years the German 10 year Bund yield has tended to track the ZEW, however this has broken down with yields staying below 2% despite the rebound in economic sentiment.


Improving earnings momentum has been backing up the rally in equities with fewer analysts taking the hatchet to earnings forecasts. The chart below shows that the 3-month average revisions ratio (the number of earnings  upgrades minus downgrades as a percent of the total) looks to have turned back towards positive – especially in Europe.


Are emerging markets joining the dividend race?.   As this chart of Datastream equity indices shows, the payout ratio for emerging market equities is now above that of the US. Traditionally seen as a growth-based investment, is this another sign of emerging market equities moving closer into line with developed?