Global Investing

Devil and the deep blue sea

Ok, it’s a big policy week and of course it could either way for markets. An awful lot of ECB and Fed easing expectations may well be in the price already, so some delivery would appear to be important especially now that ECB chief Mario Draghi has set everyone up for fireworks in Frankfurt.

But if it’s even possible to look beyond the meetings for a moment, it’s interesting to see how the other forces are stacked up.

Perhaps the least obvious market statistic as July draws to a close is that, with gains of more than 10 percent, Wall St equities have so far had their best year-to-date since 2003. Who would have thunk it in a summer of market doom and despair.  Now that could be a blessing or a curse for those trying to parse the remainder of the year. Gloomy chartists and uber-bears such as SocGen’s Albert Edwards warn variously of either hyper-negative chart signals on the S&P500, such as the “Ultimate Death Cross”, or claims that the U.S. has already entered recession in the third quarter.

On the other hand, the economic data isn’t playing ball with doomsters, as can be seen in Thursday’s latest U.S. consumer and business confidence readings as well as the latest house price data. What’s more, the closely watched Citigroup Economic Surprise index, though still in negative territory, is turning higher again as a result amid some hopes for at least a midyear fillip in manufacturing worldwide. Of course surprises are only relative to expectations. But then sufficiently lowered expectations are no bad thing in a marketplace attempting to discount all available information. It’s true too of the ongoing U.S. earnings season, where there had been a sharp downgrade of forecasts in the weeks leading up the corporate reports.  Thomson Reuters data shows that of the 303 firms in the S&P500 who have already reported Q2 earnings, some 66 percent are above analysts expectations — just shy of the average of of the past four quarters of 68 percent.

There is the hoary old argument that lukewarm economic signals will prevent the Fed from moving soon again on QE3, in part because the bar may be higher in an election year. But that just throws us back to the policy arena yet again and we promised to step aside from that for now!

Bah Humbug

Value managers and contrarian analysts long derided as permanent bears have been poking their heads out of the woods to bring some early Christmas cheer to delegates assembled at the CFA Institute’s European Conference in Amstedam.

James Montier, global strategist at SocGen, who likes to swim with sharks in his spare time, opened the conference on Tuesday by saying that he was more optimistic about equities than he had been for a long time, with the UK and European markets approaching bargain basement prices.

But on day two, Matt King, managing director, credit products strategy at Citigroup, rained all over this parade. “I have a message for equity investors,” he said. “It’s worse than you think!”

Are you revolted yet?

Financial markets might be in distress and stocks are falling through the floor, but according to James Montier, global strategist at Societe Generale, we are not in the final stage of bubble burst yet. For one thing, the Financial Times is still too big.

At a fund managers conference in London today, Montier — a renowned bear — noted a thesis by economists Hyman Minsky and Charles Kindleberger that bubbles go through five stages — displacement, credit creation, euphoria, critical stage/financial distress and revulsion.

Currently, he says, financial markets are going through the critical/distress stage but we are not in revulsion yet.

“In revulsion, the Financial Times will be three pages long and we will all be ashamed to be working in finance. Stocks will be unambiguously cheap,” he told a group of financial professionals.

UK economy — too gloomy to chart?

During a briefing in the London office of Societe Generale this week, Alain Bokobza, head of European Equity and Cross Asset strategy, handed out a booklet containing series of charts and graphs to explain the bank’s latest multi asset portfolio for the fourth quarter.
Chart
As he explained the outlook for the UK economy, a chart on UK growth was discreetly missing from the booklet.

“There’s no chart. It’s too gloomy to print it,” Bokobza told the participants.

Societe Generale sees inflation shooting below the Bank of England’s target of 2 percent over the next two years and has a bullish call on UK stocks as it predicts benchmark interest rates to fall to 3.5 percent in a year’s time from the current 5.0 percent.

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.

Phew! SocGen profits only slump 63%

socgen.jpgIt doesn’t seem much to cheer about but Societe Generale investors breathed a sigh of relief when second-quarter net profit only fell 63 percent.

The investment banking unit may have taken a 1.2 billion euro hit but higher profits from its international retail banking and consumer credit businesses offset the damage and kept the group in the black.

In today’s doom-laden markets that was something to celebrate – and the shares jumped more than 6 percent.