Global Investing

from Jeremy Gaunt:

Getting there from here

Depending on how you look at it, August may not have been as bad a month for stocks as advertised. For the month as a whole, the MSCI all-country world stock index  lost more than 7.5 percent.  This was the worst performance since May last year, and the worst August since 1998.

But if you had bought in at the low on August 9, you would have gained  healthy 8.5 percent or so.

In a similar vein, much is made of the fact that the S&P 500 index  ended 2009 below the level it started 2000, in other words, took a loss in the decade.

That completely ignores, however, a more than doubling of the index between 2002 and 2007.

There is a danger sometimes in allowing the calendar to dictate your interpretation of financial market behaviour.

The wealth effect in reverse

This chart shows losses in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index since October 2007. Joseph Brusuelas, a director at Moody’s Economy.com, said from the 2007 peak to the first quarter of 2009, U.S. stock holdings fell $7.6 trillion in real terms. “Our estimate suggests that through the end of March, U.S. stock wealth will have fallen by $66,000 per household,” he said.

- Emily Kaiser

For better or worse?

Wealth managers at Citi Private Bank are telling their clients to stay neutral in their exposure to hedge funds at the moment, whether the strategy be event driven, equity long/short or macro. The main reason is that capital markets are still stressed and many hedge funds still need to deleverage.

The firm points out, however, that hedge funds had a good news-bad news kind of year in 2008. Based on the HFRX Global Hedge Fund Index, it was the worst performance on record. The index lost 23.3 percent. Its next worst performance was 2002 — and that was only a 1.5 percent decline.

Losses were widespread across all kinds of strategies. Only merger arbitrage and systematic macro gained anything. 

How low will hedge funds go?

How bad will hedge funds’ year-end performance figures look?

According to Credit Suisse/Tremont, funds fell 6.30 percent in October after a 6.55 percent drop in September, taking losses for the first ten months to 15.54 percent.

Seven strategies are now nursing double-digit losses, with only two — managed futures and dedicated short bias — in positive territory.

Even global macro, which bets on the likes of global equity markets, world currencies, sovereign debt and commodities, is now back in the red. These funds are down 7.10 percent after substantial losses in September and October.

Star Coffey decides not to go it alone

So star hedge fund manager Greg Coffey has opted to join established firm Moore Capital.

In April, when high-performing, high-earning Coffey resigned from GLG, the market was awash with rumours that he wanted to start up his own firm, pulling in billions from investors.

However, times have changed in the hedge fund industry.

The average fund is down nearly 20 percent so far this year, according to Hedge Fund Research’s HFRX index, while emerging markets funds have taken a particular battering as markets such as Russia and China have fallen.

Going back to Quakers?

InvestorIn these troubled times, go back to basics.

Theo Zemek, AXA Investment Managers‘ global head of fixed income, says investors should adopt “Quaker investment policies” – sober and safe investment strategies that can be explained to their grandmothers.

“Anyone who utters the word ‘hedge’, after all these CDS (failures), ought to be taken out and be shot,” the 25-year markets veteran told a media briefing.

“This is the scariest market I’ve ever seen in 25 years. The world of complex instruments, credit guarantees… That world is very much an ancient history… It’s a darn tough market. Who is left standing among our counterparties?”

Fannie, Freddie fanning fears

More stress on its balance sheets is just about the last thing that the banking sector needs. The subprime mortgage crisis has already battered banks, leading to huge losses, scrambles for funding and free-falling banking shares. The S&P index of financial stocks has lost more than 30 percent so far this year. At its worst, the index plunged around 55 percent between a high in May last year and a low in June this year.

S&P Financial StocksNow, after a brief respite, comes more bad news. First, hedge funds still seem to be wedded to betting on further losses. Laurence Fletcher, who writes about hedge funds here at Reuters, notes that more than 6 percent of British banks’ equity is on loan to short sellers.

More worrying yet for banks, however, may be their exposure to embattled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In a report, Societe Generale economists estimate that U.S. commercial banks hold about $1 trillion in Fannie and Freddie debt. That amounts to a whopping 9 percent of the commercial banks’ balance sheets.

Hedge funds hit more turbulence

Things are going from bad to worse for hedge funds.

Hedge funds were hit when their bets went wrong in JulyHaving only just clawed back their losses after a dreadful March, the closely-watched Credit Suisse/Tremont Hedge Fund Index shows hedge funds lost a hefty 2.61 percent in July after being hit by a double-whammy of market movements.

These freewheeling funds had been betting for some time that banks stocks would fall as the credit crisis ate into their profits, while also betting that commodities would rise as demand for oil, metals and food soared.

This had been working well, but in July banks bounced back because they looked so cheap to some investors, while commodities fell from some of the dizzying heights they had recently reached.