Global Investing

Betting on (expensive and over-owned) Indian equities

How much juice is left in the Indian equity story? Mumbai’s share index has raced to successive record highs and has gained 24 percent so far this year in dollar terms as investors have bought into Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reform promises.

Foreign investors have led the charge through this year, pouring billions of dollars into the market. Now locals are also joining the party – Indian retail investors who steered clear of the bourse for three years are trickling back in – they have been net investors for 3 months running and last month they purchased Rs 108 billion worth of shares, Citi analysts note. 

Foreigners meanwhile have been moving down the market cap scale, with their ownership of the top 100-500 ranked companies rising from 13% to 15% over the quarter. That’s behind the broader BSE500 index’s outperformance compared to the Nifty index, Citi said.

Citi earlier this month predicted another 3 percent gains for Indian stocks by year-end. Equity derivatives indicate that is feasible – stock exchange data shows foreign investors are loading up on call contracts on the Nifty index at the 8,000 point and 8,100 point levels -a call option gives its holder the right to buy the underlying cash shares.   The index is currently trading at 7,800 points.

Now people are starting to wonder how much further this has to run.

One problem with the Indian market is the valuation. Always expensive by emerging market standards, Indian shares are trading at more than 16 times forward earnings on average, a bit above its long-term average and the second priciest market in Asia. Growth is chugging along at below 6 percent and high inflation means interest rates may rise further. Investors’ positioning moreover is pretty heavy -India is the second biggest emerging market overweight among funds after China. HSBC analysts advise keeping India at marketweight in portfolios, arguing that market upside would be limited from here.

Put down and Fed up

Given almost biblical gloom about the world economy at the moment, you really have to do a double take looking at Wall Street’s so-called “Fear Index”. The ViX , which is essentially the cost of options on S&P500 equities, acts as a geiger counter for both U.S. and global financial markets.  Measuring implied volatility in the market, the index surges when the demand for options protection against sharp moves in stock prices is high and falls back when investors are sufficiently comfortable with prevailing trends to feel little need to hedge portfolios. In practice — at least over the past 10 years — high volatility typically means sharp market falls and so the ViX goes up when the market is falling and vice versa. And because it’s used in risk models the world over as a proxy for global financial risk, a rising ViX tends to shoo investors away from risky assets while a falling ViX pulls them in — feeding the metronomic risk on/risk off behaviour in world markets and, arguably, exaggerating dangerously pro-cyclical trading and investment strategies.

Well, the “Fear Index” last night hit its lowest level since the global credit crisis erupted five-years ago to the month.  Can that picture of an anxiety-free investment world really be accurate? It’s easy to dismiss it and blame a thousand “technical factors” for its recent precipitous decline.  On the other hand,  it’s also easy to forget the performance of the underlying market has been remarkable too. Year-to-date gains on Wall St this year have been the second best since 1998. And while the U.S. and world economies hit another rough patch over the second quarter, the incoming U.S. economic data is far from universally poor and many economists see activity stabilising again.

But is all that enough for the lowest level of “fear” since the fateful August of 2007? The answer is likely rooted in another sort of “put” outside the options market — the policy “put”, essentially the implied insurance the Fed has offered investors by saying it will act again to print money and buy bonds in a third round of quantitative easing (QE3) if the economy or financial market conditions deteriorate sharply again. Reflecting this “best of both worlds” thinking, the latest monthly survey of fund managers by Bank of America Merrill Lynch says a net 15% more respondents expect the world economy to improve by the end of the year than those who expect it to deteriorate but almost 50 percent still believe the Fed will deliver QE3 before 2012 is out.  In other words, things will likely improve gradually in the months ahead and if they don’t the Fed will be there to catch us.