Global Investing

Japanization of euro zone bonds?

Fear of many years of stagnation in the major western economies has everyone fretting about a repeat of  the “lost decades” that Japan suffered after its banking and real estate bubble burst in the early 1990s. Indeed HSBC economists were recently keen to point out that U.S. per capita growth over the noughties was already actually weaker than either of Japan’s lost decades.

But in a detailed presentation on the impact of two years of soveriegn debt crisis on euro zone government bond holdings, Barclays  economist Laurent Fransolet asks whether that market too is turning into the Japanese government bond market — where years of slow growth, zero interest rates, current account surpluses and captive local buyers have depressed borrowing rates for years and turned JGBs into an increasingly domestic market dominated by local banks, pension funds and insurers. Non-residents hold less than 10 percent of JGBs, compared to more than 50 percent for the EGB as a whole, and Japanese banks hold up to 35 percent of their own government bond market.

But is the euro government market heading in that direction after successive crises have seen foreign investors flee many of the peripheral markets of Greece, Portugal, Ireland and even Italy and Spain? Fransolet argues that the seniority of substantial European Central Bank holdings built up in the interim (now about 15 percent of each of the five peripheral markets) may be one reason why these foreign investors will be wary of returning. Meantime, euro zone banks, who have traditionally held a high 20-25 percentage point share of euro government markets, withdrew sharply late last year amid balance sheet repair pressures but have  rebuilt holdings again sharply in early 2012 after the ECB’s liquidity injections — particularly in Italy and Spain.

In answer to the longer-term question of whether euro bonds will turn into a more insular market dominated less by interest rate signals than liquidity, regulatory and balance sheet issues, Fransolet is equivocal. On one level they are still very different — state-sector holdings of euro debt are still far from Japan’s, the euro market has clearly fragmented and net new issuance of euro debt is also still way below Japan.

However, the trend is clearly toward a more domestically driven market in the periphery of euro bloc in particular and local banks are becoming bigger players.  And, crucially, although foreign investors may not return en masse soon, their impact on those markets via futures and CDS markets and index weightings may still be high.

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.

Credit rally: Bubble or not?

Corporate bonds are back in vogue this year but how sustainable is it?

Just to highlight how bullish people have become, see following comments from fund managers:

“We do see scope for 2012 to deliver narrower corporate credit spreads and that will be the major positive contributor to fixed income returns this year.” – Chris Iggo, CIO Fixed Income, AXA Investment Managers)

“Corporate bonds should be a major source of performance for the bond component of Carmignac Patrimoine (fund) in 2012.” – French asset manager Carmignac Gestion

How socially responsible is your investing?

Is your investment ethically sound and socially responsible?

A new survey by consulting firm Mercer finds that only 9% of more than 5,000 investment strategies achieve the highest environmental, social and governance (ESG) ratings.

Socially responsible investing (SRI) involves buying shares in companies that manage ESG risks. For example, firms that make clean technologies are favoured, while businesses which pollute the environment, are complicit in human rights abuses or nuclear arms production are shunned. All this sounds good, but the performance of such investments has been somewhat mixed — meaning being good doesn’t always mean doing well. But the SRI industry is hoping that greater involvement of funds, especially long-term ones such as pension funds and sovereign wealth funds — may generate flows into the sector and lead to better performance.

Of the 5,175 strategies assigned ESG ratings, 57% are in listed equities, 20% fixed income and the remaining 23% across real estate, private equity, hedge funds and others.

Who is in greatest need to reform pension?

This year’s fall in global equities (down nearly 20 percent at one point) and tumbling bond yields, along with the euro zone sovereign debt crisis, are sowing the seeds for a new financial crisis – in the pension funds industry.

But which country is in the greatest need of pension reform?

Everyone, you may say, but a new study from Allianz Global Investors finds that Greece, India, China and Thailand need to reform their pension systems the most.

The study, which charts the relative sustainability of national pension systems in 44 countries, shows that India and China — two of the fastest growing emerging economies — suffer from low pension coverage and lack of adequate measures to improve the situation.

Top fund firms lose $16 trln in 2008

Watson Wyatt tells us the world’s largest fund managers lost $16 trillion of assets in 2008 as the worst of the global financial crisis took its toll on the top 500 global fund firms.  The fall in assets is the largest since Watson Wyatt’s research began in 1996 and doesn’t even include the dog days of early 2009 when no one knew quite when the flood would abate. 

Indeed, the survey to end-2008 is a wee bit limited, for all its completeness. A lot has changed in the asset management world since then.  Not least, the giant deal which brought BlackRock and Barclays Global Investors together to create the world’s largest money manager with assets of $2.8 trillion. Watson Wyatt’s survey ranks BGI as the world’s largest fund firm with $1.5 trillion.

Perhaps most pertinently though, the survey highlights in some detail an unprecented slump in passive assets during the year, shrinking by more than 25 percent to $4.5 trillion. Last in, first out it seems, as that has been followed by a 2009 marked by a swift and unapologetic return to the low fees of index investment after the shock of the credit crisis left active managers scratching their heads with the rest of us.

from Funds Hub:

Batten down the hatches

It's fashionable now for leading economists and financial wizards to claim that they saw the credit crunch coming and the kind of dislocation it would create. But how many have predicted where the next implosion will occur?

bad-building1Dr Andrew Lo, founder of hedge fund firm AlphaSimplex, and director of the MIT laboratory for financial engineering, has spent his career studying market behaviour, publishing papers examining why quant funds imploded in August 2007, and trying to reconcile behavioural economics with efficient market theory.

He sees the next big meltdown in commercial mortgages, but this time it's pensions funds that will bear the brunt of the losses rather than banks. Lo points out that commercial mortgages have been packed and sold in the same way as residential mortgages - different levels of risk exposure sliced and diced and wrapped up together in one package with a triple A rating slapped on top.

from DealZone:

“Tourists” arrive in private equity

Opportunistic buyers, lovingly dubbed "tourists" by those in the industry, have moved into the secondary private equity market. They're looThe cruise ship from Mediterranean Shipping Company Musica dwarfs Via Garibald as it arrives in Veniceking for positions in brand-name private equity funds at knock-down prices. As I wrote in a DealTalk today:"Pension funds and wealthy middle-east sovereign wealth funds are buying up investments in private equity funds, pushing up prices and sidelining secondary firms that specialise in acquiring the assets."The market for second-hand private equity assets -- where private equity investors offload assets to specialist buyers -- has mushroomed as the credit crisis has intensified. And increasing numbers of cash-strapped investors are concerned about meeting their future commitments to buyout funds."New investors have been attracted to deals by steep discounts to net asset value, forcing up prices for specialist buyers, such as Goldman Sachs (GS.N) and HarbourVest Partners (HVPE.AS) that last month closed secondary funds after reaching their $5.5 billion and $2.9 billion targets respectively."Read the full piece here.

Reuters Funds Summit: The end of equities?

Another in our series of one-minute managers. This time it is Ken Kinsey-Quick, who heads up multi manager investing at Thames River Capital. He reckons the old days of buying and holding equities over the long term are gone for good. Is he right?

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