Global Investing

Weekly Radar: Earnings wobble as payrolls, BOJ, G20 eyed

Easy come, easy go. A choppy October prepares to exit on a downer – just like it arrived. World equities lost about 3 percent over the past seven, mostly on Tuesday, and reversed the previous week’s surge to slither back to early September levels. Just for the record, Tuesday was a poor imitation of the lunge this week 25 years ago – it only the worst single-day percentage loss since July and only the 10th biggest drop of the past year alone. But it was a reminder how fragile sentiment remains despite an unusually bullish, if policy-driven year.

Why the wobble? t’s hard to square the still fairly rum, or at best equivocal, incoming macro data and earnings numbers alongside year-to-date western stock market gains of 10-25%. There’s more than enough room to pare back some more of that and still leave a fairly decent year given the macro activity backdrop and we now only have about 6 full trading weeks left of 2012. So it will likely remain bumpy – not least with U.S. and Chinese leadership changes into the mix as mood music. The sheer weight of a gloomy Q3 earnings season seems to have hit home this week, with revenue declines or downgraded outlooks  – particularly in “real economy” firms such as Caterpillar, Dupont,  Intel and IBM etc – worrying many despite more decent bottom line earnings. As some investors pointed out, earnings can’t continue to beat expectations if revenues continue to wither and there are still precious few signs of an convincing economic turnaround worldwide to draw a line under the latter.

The policy-driven equity boom of the past couple of months has also been suspect to many strategists given the lack of rotation from defensive stocks to cyclicals, showing little conviction in central bank reflation policies succeeding soon even though ever more ZIRP/QE has seen something of an indiscriminate dash to any fixed income yields you care to mention – from junk to ailing sovs and now even CLOs! The bond rush has swept up an awful lot of odd stuff –  not least 10-year dollar debt from countries such as Bolivia and Zambia, whatever about Spain, and corporate junk with CCC ratings and current default rates of almost 30%! As some other funds have pointed out, another weird aspect of this has been the appetite for long duration – which doesn’t fit with any belief that reflationary policies will work on a reasonable timeframe. So, is that it? Central banks will continue to wrap everything in cotton wool for the next decade without ever succeeding in boosting growth or even inflation? Hmmm. The various U.S. growth signals are not ultra-convincing, not yet at least, but they’re not to be ignored either. Thursday’s news of a bounceback in the UK economy in Q3 also shows the prevailing stagnation narrative is not without question. And everyone seems convinced Chinese growth has troughed in Q3 –and  just look at the 66% rise in Baltic Freight prices in little over a month. The rebound in super-low equity volatility in the U.S. and Europe this week is also worth watching – though it has to be said, these gauges remain historically low about 20%.

All of which brings us to US election and another potential reason to be wary of the next couple of weeks or so at least. It’s neck and neck for the White House with the debates now all done and dusted and fiscal cliff jitters firmly in the frame. Reports that Bernanke plans to step down when his 2nd term expires early in 2014 may have taken some of the sting from the Fed policy question, but Barclays strategists still think there could be a jump of 50bp or more in the implied rate on 2015 Fed funds futures in direct reaction to a victory for the Fed-sceptical Romney team. Given that they also think a Romney win, by more easily sidestepping the fiscal cliff and related growth fears, could pump 10-year Treasuries above 2 percent, that’s a considerable near-term risk to euphoric fixed income markets at least. Of course, they assume the opposite knee-jerk direction in rates on an Obama win.

On the other side of the coin, don’t forget about global monetary policy in the meantime.  The Bank of Japan meeting next week could well announce more QE from there.

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.

Teflon Treasuries?

The pleasant surprise of Friday’s upbeat U.S. employment report rattled the U.S. Treasury bond market, as you’d expect, encouraging as it did some optimism about a sustained U.S. economic recovery, tempering fears of deflation and casting some doubts on the likelihood of another bout of quantitative easing or bond buying by the Federal Reserve.  And investors wary of seemingly teflon Treasuries are always keen to use such a backup in U.S. borrowing rates as a reason to rethink a market where supply is soaring and national debt levels are accelerating and where the country has just entered a presidential election year.

The release then by Eurostat on Monday of 2011 government debt  levels for the European Union and euro zone — where bond markets have been in chaos for the past couple of years — provided another reason to look sceptically at Treasuries as it showed aggregate EU and euro zone debt more than 10 percentage points of GDP lower than in the United States.

And with no fresh debt reduction plan likely this side of November’s presidential elections, the comparative U.S. debt trajectory over the coming years looks alarming.

McCainonomics

Republican presidential candidate John McCain has admitted in the past that economics is not his strong suit. In an interview with Reuters this week, he expressed a desire for a Treasury secretary who inspires confidence and trust if he should win the White House. rtx92vl.jpgMcCain also aid he could balance the budget by 2013 if the economy gets going and if nothing is done to harm growth.Nothing worrying about any of that.

But the odd eyebrow may have been raised when the Arizona senator got onto the dollar, which he wants to bolster, and China. “The first step that has to be taken is obviously we have to stop mortgaging our economy to China … and asking them to finance our debt,” he said. This sounds like he wants China to stop buying U.S. Treasuries.

“That I think would have the most salutary effect in the short term,” McCain added.