Global Investing

January in the rearview mirror

As January 2012 drifts into the rearview mirror as a bumper month for world markets, one way to capture the year so far is in pictures – thanks to Scott Barber and our graphics team.

The driving force behind the market surge was clearly the latest liquidity/monetary stimuli from the world’s central banks.

The ECB’s near half trillion euros of 3-year loans  has stabilised Europe’s ailing banks by flooding them with cheap cash for much lower quality collateral. In the process, it’s also opened up critical funding windows for the banks and allowed some reinvestment of the ECB loans into cash-strapped euro zone goverments. That in turn has seen most euro government borrowing rates fall. It’s also allowed other corporates to come to the capital markets and JP Morgan estimates that euro zone corporate bond sales in January totalled 46 billion euros, the same last year and split equally between financials and non-financials..

But to the extent that the ECB move was aimed primarily at preventing a seizure of the banks, then one measure of  success can be seen in the degree to which it steepened government yield curves in Spain and Italy. A positive yield curve, which measures the gap between short-term  and long-term interest rates,  is effectively commercial banks’ ATM — they  make money by simply borrowing short-term and lending long. This chart then shows some normality returning to the benchmark interest structure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The problem, as highlighted by bond investor Pimco and others, is twofold. One, how does all this extra liquidity find its way to the real economy if fearful households and companies don’t or can’t borrow more or are still assiduously paying down debts — the suffocating ‘deleveraging’ process scaring investors and policymakers alike? It’s one thing lending back to governments, and that may be a necessary move to prevent economic meltdown, but that’s not going to generate renewed economic activity or job growth on its own. And then, two, what if banks — under regulatory and market pressure to rebuild shot balance sheets — simply refuse to expand “risky” lending again and hoard these cheap borrowings as cash that gets put back on deposit at the central bank?

EM growth is passport out of West’s mess but has a price, says “Mr BRIC”

Anyone worried about Greece and the potential impact of the euro debt crisis on the world economy should have a chat with Jim O’Neill. O’Neill, the head of Goldman Sachs Asset Management ten years ago coined the BRIC acronym to describe the four biggest emerging economies and perhaps understandably, he is not too perturbed by the outcome of the Greek crisis. Speaking at a recent conference, the man who is often called Mr BRIC, pointed out that China’s economy is growing by $1 trillion a year  and that means it is adding the equivalent of a Greece every 4 months. And what if the market turns its guns on Italy, a far larger economy than Greece?  Italy’s economy was surpassed in size last year by Brazil, another of the BRICs, O’Neill counters, adding:

“How Italy plays out will be important but people should not exaggerate its global importance.  In the next 12 months the four BRICs will create the equivalent of another Italy.”

Emerging economies are cooling now after years of turbo-charged growth. But according to O’Neill, even then they are growing enough to allow the global economy to expand at 4-4.5 percent,  a faster clip than much of the past 30 years. Trade data for last year will soon show that Germany for the first time exported more goods to the four BRICs than to neighbouring France, he said.

Contemplating Italian debt restructuring

This week’s evaporation of confidence in the euro zone’s biggest government debt market — Italy’s 1.6 trillion euros of bonds and bills and the world’s third biggest — has opened a Pandora’s Box that may now force  investors to consider the possibility of a mega sovereign debt default or writedown and, or maybe as a result of,  a euro zone collapse.

Given the dynamics and politics of the euro zone, this is a chicken-or-egg situation where it’s not clear which would necessarily come first. Greece has already shown it’s possible for a “voluntary” creditor writedown of  the country’s debts to the tune of 50 percent without — immediately at least — a euro exit. On the other hand, leaving the euro and absorbing a maxi devaluation of a newly-minted domestic currency would instantly render most country’s euro-denominated debts unpayable in full.

But if a mega government default is now a realistic risk, the numbers on the “ifs” and “buts” are being being crunched.

Are global investors slow to move on euro break-up risk?

No longer an idle “what if” game, investors are actively debating the chance of a breakup of the euro as a creditor strike  in the zone’s largest government bond market sends  Italian debt yields into the stratosphere — or at least beyond the circa 7% levels where government funding is seen as sustainable over time.  Emergency funding for Italy, along the lines of bailouts for Greece, Ireland and Portugal over the past two years, may now be needed but no one’s sure there’s enough money available — in large part due to Germany’s refusal to contemplate either a bigger bailout fund or open-ended debt purchases from the European Central Bank as a lender of last resort.

So, if Germany doesn’t move significantly on any of those issues (or at least not without protracted, soul-searching domestic debates and/or tortuous EU Treaty changes), creditor strikes can reasonably be expected to spread elsewhere in the zone until some clarity is restored. The fog surrounding the functioning and makeup of the EFSF rescue fund and now Italian and Greek elections early next year  — not to mention the precise role of the ECB in all this going forward — just thickens. Why invest/lend to these countries now with all those imponderables.

Where it all pans out is now anyone’s guess, but an eventual collapse of the single currency can’t be ruled out now as at least one possible if not likely outcome. The global consequences, according to many economists, are almost incalculable. HSBC, for example, said in September that a euro break-up would lead to a shocking global depression.

Euro exit-ology

Whether or not it’s likely or even a good idea, talk of Greece leaving the euro is no longer taboo in either financial or political circles.  What is more, anxiety over the future of the  single currency has reached such a pitch since the infection of the giant Italian bond market that there are many investors talking openly of an unraveling of the entire bloc. But against such an amplified “tail risk”,  it’s remarkable how stable world financial markets have been over the past few turbulent weeks — at least outside the ailing sovereign debt markets in question.

Yet, focussing on the possible consequences for Greece of bankruptcy and euro exit has now become an inevitable part of investment reseach and analysis. In a note to clients on Tuesday entitled “Breaking Up is Hard to Do“, Bank of New York Mellon strategist Simon Derrick sketched some of the issues.

One issue he pointed out,  and one raised in the September Spiegel online report, was the chance of invoking Article 143 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which permits certain countries to “take protective measures” and which could be used to allow restrictions on the movement of capital in order to prevent a flight of capital abroad.

PIGS, CIVETS and other creature economies…

Given the ubiquity of BRICs and PIGS, it seems everyone else in the financial and business world is attempting to conjure up catchy acronyms to group economies with similar traits. All with varying degrees of success. BRITAIN-WEATHER/

HSBC chief Michael Geogehan has been championing ‘CIVETS‘ to describe Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa as the next tier of developing economies poised for spectacular growth.

Evoking the skunk-like animal blamed for the spread of the deadly SARS outbreak in Asia is not exactly auspicious but then it will probably be less offensive than the porcine moniker for Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. The collective term — with permutations such as PIIGGS to include Ireland and Great Britain among the list of debt-ridden countries — has been denounced by politicians in Portugal and Spain.

from MacroScope:

Should central banks now sell gold?

Central banks in debt-strapped countries have a golden opportunity ahead of them, if you will excuse the pun, to help their countries' finances by selling their yellow metal holdings.

At least, that is the message that Royal Bank of Scotland's commodities chief Nick Moore has been giving in recent presentations -- and he thinks it might happen.   The gist is that gold is now at a record price but banks have not come close to  meeting their sales allowance for the year.

Under the Central Bank Gold Agreement there is a quota of 400 tonnes that can be sold by central banks within a 12 month period and with only about three months to go in the latest period less than 39 tonnes has been sold.  At today's price that remaining 361 tonnes is worth some $14 billion.

from FaithWorld:

Pope urges bold world economic reform before G8 summit

popePope Benedict issued an ambitious call to reform the way the world works on Tuesday shortly before its most powerful leaders meet at the G8 summit in Italy. His latest encyclical, entitled "Charity in Truth," presents a long list of steps he thinks are needed to overcome the financial crisis and shift economic activity from the profit motive to a goal of solidarity of all people.

Following are some of his proposals. The italics are from the original text. Do you think they are realistic food for thought or idealistic notions with no hope of being put into practice?

    "There is urgent need of a true world political authority. .. to manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration... such an authority would need to be universally recognized and to be vested with the effective power to ensure security for all, regard for justice, and respect for rights." The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly - not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people-centred..." "Financiers must rediscover the genuinely ethical foundation of their activity, so as not to abuse the sophisticated instruments which can serve to betray the interests of savers. Right intention, transparency, and the search for positive results are mutually compatible and must never be detached from one another." "Without doubt, one of the greatest risks for businesses is that they are almost exclusively answerable to their investors, thereby limiting their social value... there is nevertheless a growing conviction that business management cannot concern itself only with the interests of the proprietors, but must also assume responsibility for all the other stakeholders who contribute to the life of the business: the workers, the clients, the suppliers of various elements of production, the community of reference... What should be avoided is a speculative use of financial resources that yields to the temptation of seeking only short-term profit, without regard for the long-term sustainability of the enterprise, its benefit to the real economy and attention to the advancement, in suitable and appropriate ways, of further economic initiatives in countries in need of development." "One possible approach to development aid would be to apply effectively what is known as fiscal subsidiarity, allowing citizens to decide how to allocate a portion of the taxes they pay to the State."
(Photo: Pope Bendict, 1 July 2009/Tony Gentile)

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