Global Investing

Weekly Radar: In the shadow of the cliff

It’s been another rum old week market-wise, with global stocks off another 2 percent or more and recording seven straight days in the red for the first time since August. Throw any spin you like at the reasoning, but the pretty predictable post-election hiatus on U.S. fiscal cliff worries now seem to be front and centre of everything. And that will just has to play itself out now, leaving markets stuck in this funk until they come up with the fix. The running consensus still seems to be that some solution will be reached, but no one wants to be too brave about it. And given the cliff is one of the few good explanations for the sharp divergence between the equity market and still rising US economic surprises,  you can see why many feel the US fiscal standoff is merely delaying a resumption of the rally.

The euro zone story has rumbled again of course, with the Greek hand-to-mouth financing, pressure for official sector debt write-offs there and another nervy wait for the latest tranche of bailout funds. Anti-austerity protests in Greece, Spain, Portugal and elsewhere meantime stepped up a gear this week and Q3 data out today confirmed the euro bloc back in recession.

Yet Europe is not the main driver of global markets at the moment. The latest MerrillBoA funds survey this week showed that, at 54%, more than twice as many funds now think falling off the US cliff and not the euro crisis is the biggest global investment risk. The euro group meets next week on Greece  ahead of a two-day EU summit and we still have no clarity on Spain’s bailout either. There’s plenty of headline risk then, for sure, and the parallel release next week of November PMIs is hardly going to bring sweetness and light. That said, there’s been about as much good as bad news from Europe of late. The ECB is simply not going to pull the plug on Greece even if OSI gets pushed up to governmental level and take a lot more time. Spain and Italy have both now effectively completed funding for this  year and there were very positive noises this week on Ireland returning to markets in early 2013 with a 10-year syndicated dollar bond, while Fitch raised its sovereign rating outlook to stable from negative.

So, generalised cliff gloom seems to have hit all risk markets indiscriminately. Over the past seven days, equities are lower, EM equities underperformed, Treasury and bund yields are down again (German 2-year back negative) and peripheral European yields have nudged back up again too. The dollar’s a little higher on the euro. On the other hand, oil and commods are up a bit – though that has as much to do with renewed MidEast tensions.  What’s more,  commodities in general are one of the few macro price gauges still in the red for 2012  — so to the extent that some of the global market pressures are related to year-end profit taking, then they may be in different territory.

All in all, this looks like a tired rather than overly anxious market. Implied equity vol remains relatively low and euro/dollar FX vol hit another five-year low this week.

Weekly Radar: Leadership change in DC and Beijing?

Any hope of figuring out a new market trend before next week’s U.S. election were well and truly parked by the onset of Hurricane Sandy. Friday’s payrolls may add some impetus, but Tuesday’s Presidential poll is now front and centre of everyone’s minds. With the protracted process of Chinese leadership change starting next Thursday as well, then there are some significant long-term political issues at stake in the world’s two biggest economies.  Not only is the political horizon as clear as mud then, but Sandy will only add to the macro data fog for next few months as U.S. east coast demand will take an inevitable if temporary hit — something oil prices are already building in.

Across the Atlantic, the EU Commission’s autumn forecasts next week for 2012-14 GDP and deficits will likely make for uncomfortable reading, as will a fractious EU debate on fixing the blocs overall budget next year. But the euro zone crisis at least seems to have been smothered for now. Spain seems in no rush seek a formal bailout, will only likely seek a precautionary credit line rather than new monies anyway and needs neither right now in any case given a still robust level of market access at historically reasonable rates and with 95% of its 2012 funding done. According to our latest poll, more than 60% of global fund managers think Spanish yields have peaked for the crisis. Greece’s deep and painful debt problems, shaky political consensus and EU negotiations are all as nervy as usual. But tyhe assumption is all will avoid another major make-and-break standoff for now. More than three quarters of funds now expect Greece to remain in the euro right through next year at least.

The extent to which the relative calm is related to today’s introduction of a wave of EU regulation on short-selling of bonds and equities and, in particular, rules against ‘naked’ credit default swap positions on sovereign debt is a moot point. This may well have reined in the most extreme speculative activity for now and it has certainly hit liquidity and volumes.

Weekly Radar: Global PMIs; US/UK GDP; FOMC; Heavy earnings, inc Apple

Whoosh! The gloomy start to the final quarter seems to have been swept away again by the beginnings of a half decent earnings season stateside – at least against the backdrop of dire expectations – and a steady drip feed of economic data surprises from the United States and elsewhere. Moody’s not downgrading Spain to junk has helped enormously and the betting is now that the latter will now seek and get a precautionary credit line, which would not require any bailout monies up front but still unleash the ECB on its bonds should they ever even need to – and,  given Thursday’s successful sale of 4.6 billion euros of 3-, 5- and 10-year Spanish government bonds,  they clearly don’t at the moment (almost 90% of Spain’s  original 2012 borrowing target has now been raised). What’s more, Greek euro exit forecasts have been put back or reduced meantime by big euro zone debt bears such as Citi and others, again helping ease tensions and defuse perceived near-term euro tail risks. Obama’s bounceback in the presidential polls after the latest debate may be helping too by rolling back speculation that a clean sweep rather than a more likely gridlock was a possible outcome from Nov 6 polls. China Q3 GDP came in as expected with a marginal slowdown to 7.4% and signs of growth troughing — all adding to the picture of relative calm.

So, in the absence of the world ending in a puff of smoke – and the latest week of data, earnings and reports suggests not – we’re left with a view of a hobbled but stabilising world economy aided by hyper-easy monetary policy that is bolting core interest rates to zero. Tactical investors then, at least,  are being drawn into the considerable pricing anomalies/temptations across bond and credit markets as well as the giant equity risk premia and regional price skews.

The upshot has been a sharp bounceback of some 2.5% in world equities since last Wednesday, falling sovereign bond spreads in euroland and in credit and emerging markets, a higher euro and financial volatility gauges still rock bottom. Dax vol, for example, is at its lowest in well over a year. Year to date, developed market equities are now scaling 15-20%! Germany stands out with gains of some 25%, but the US too is homing in on 20%. These are extremely punchy numbers in any year, but are doubly remarkable in year of so much handringing about the future. So much so, you have to wonder if the remainder of the year will be remain so clement. That doesn’t mean another shock or run for the hills, but shaving off the extremes of that perhaps?

Rollover risks rising on high-yield bonds

Emerging market corporate debt is in high demand, as we pointed out in this article yesterday.  But we noted headwinds too, not least the amount of debt that will fall due in coming years as a result of the current bond issuance bonanza.

David Spegel, head of emerging debt research at ING in New York is highlighting a new danger — that of the exponential increase in speculative grade debt, especially from developed markets, that is up for rollover in coming years. A swathe  of credit rating downgrades for European companies this year mean that many fund managers who bought high-grade assets, have now found themselves holding sub-investment grade paper.  He calculates in a note this week that $47 billion of “junk” rated European paper will find itself up for refinancing in the first half of next year, more than double the levels that were rolled over in the first half of 2012.

It gets worse. The big danger now is that as Spain and Italy tumble into the junk-rated category (Ratings agency S&P on Wednesday cut Spain to BBB-, just one notch above junk) their blue-chip companies may well have to follow suit.  Spegel estimates over $100 billion in Spanish and Italian BBB rated corporate bonds are due next year. If these slip into speculative grade, it would triple the amount  of high-yield paper that needs refinancing in the first six months of 2013.

Weekly Radar: Q3 earnings; China GDP; EU summit; US debate

Markets have turned glum again as October gets underway and the northern winter looms, weighed down by a relentless grind of negative commentary even if there’s been little really new information to digest. The net loss on MSCI’s world stock market index over the past seven days is a fairly restrained 1.5%, though we are now back down to early September levels. Debt markets have been better behaved. The likes of Spain’s 10-year yields are virtually unchanged over the past week amid all the rolling huff and puff from euroland. The official argument that Spain doesn’t need a bailout at these yield levels is backed up by analysis that shows even at the peak of the latest crisis in July average Spanish sovereign borrowing costs were still lower than pre-crisis days of 2006.  But with ratings downgrades still in the mix, it looks like a bit of a cat-and-mouse game for some time yet. Ten-year US Treasury yields, meantime, have nudged back higher again after the strong September US employment report and are hardly a sign of suddenly cratering world growth. What’s more, oil’s back up above $115 per barrel, with the broader CRB commodities index actually up over the past week. This contains no good news for the world, but if there are genuinely new worries about aggregate world demand, then not everyone in the commodity world has been let in on the ‘secret’ yet.

So why are we all shivering in our boots again? Perennial euro fears aside for a sec, the latest narratives go four ways at the moment. 1) The IMF’s World Economic Outlook (WEO) downgraded world growth and its Financial Stability report issued stern warnings on the extent of European bank deleveraging 2) a pretty lousy earnings season is just kicking off stateside, 3)  U.S. presidential election polls are neck and neck again and unnerving some people fearful of a clean sweep by Republicans and possible threats to the Federal Reserve’s independence and its hyper-active monetary policy 4) it’s a new quarter after a punchy Q3 and there’s not much new juice left to add to fairly hefty year-to-date gains. Maybe it’s a bit of all of the above.

But like so much of the year, whether the up moments or the downers, there’s pretty good reason to be wary of prevailing narratives.

Euro emigration – safety valve or worker drain?

Four years of relentless austerity in many of the euro zone’s most debt-hobbled countries have forced many of their youngest and sometimes brightest workers to grab the plane, train or boat and emigrate in search of work. For countries with a long history of emigration, such as Ireland, this is depressingly familar — coming just 20 years after the country’s last debt crisis and national belt-tightening in the 1980s crescendoed, with the exit of some 40,ooo a year in 1989/90 from a population of just 3-1/2 million people.

The intervening boom years surrounding the creation and infancy of the Europe’s single currency and expansion of the European Union eastwards saw huge net migration inflows back into the then-thriving euro zone periphery  — Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy — and created a virtuous circle of rising workforces, higher demand for housing/goods and rising exchequer tax receipts.

But all that has gone into reverse again since the credit, property and banking crash of 2008.

A case for market intervention?

As we wait for ECB Mario Draghi to come good on his promise to do all in his power to save the euro,  the case for governments intervening in financial markets is once again to the fore. Draghi’s verbal intervention last week basically opened up a number of fronts. First, he clearly identified the extreme government bond spreads within the euro zone, where Germany and almost half a dozen euro countries can borrow for next to nothing while Spain and Italy pay 4-7%,  as making a mockery of a single monetary policy and that they screwed up the ECB’s monetary policy transmission mechanism.  And second, to the extent that the euro risks collapse if these spreads persist or widen further, Draghi then stated  it’s the ECB’s job to do all it can to close those spreads. No euro = no ECB. It’s existential, in other words. The ECB can hardly be pursuing “price stability” within the euro zone by allowing the single currency to blow up.

Whatever Draghi does about this, however, it’s clear the central bank has set itself up for a long battle to effectively target narrower peripheral euro bond spreads — even if it stops short of an absolute cap.  Is that justified if market brokers do not close these gaps of their own accord?  Or should governments and central banks just blithely accept market pricing as a given even if they doubt their accuracy?  Many will argue that if countries are sticking to promised budgetary programmes, then there is reason to support that by capping borrowing rates. Budget cuts alone will not bring down debts if borrowing rates remain this high because both depress the other key variable of economic growth.

But, as  Belgian economist Paul de Grauwe argued earlier this year,  how can we be sure that the “market” is pricing government debt for Spain and Italy now at around 7% any more accurately than it was when it was happily lending to Greece, Ireland and Portugal for 10 years at ludicrous rates about 3% back in 2005 before the crisis? Most now accept that those sorts of lending rates were nonsensical. Are 7%+ yields just as random? Should governments and the public that accepts the pre-credit crisis lending as grossly excessive now be just as sceptical in a symmetrical world? And should the authorities be as justified in acting to limit those high rates now as much as they should clearly have done something to prevent the unjustifiably low rates that blew the credit bubble everywhere — not just in the euro zone? De Grauwe wrote:

Optimism of the $5 mln+ in Spain, Ireland

Crisis, what crisis?

Wealthy investors across Europe are confident about the future of the euro zone and the efficiency of unpopular austerity policies, with the rich in bailed-out Ireland and Spain topping the list, according to a survey published by J.P. Morgan Private Bank on Wednesday. The study, conducted in May and June, said:

High Net Worth investors in Spain, Ireland and the UK were found to have the most optimistic outlook, with 92 per cent, 90 per cent and 85 per cent respectively believing the Eurozone will either manage to avert large defaults and is rewarded for stringent austerity, or one that survives but will look different than the current structure.

They were the most optimistic of the 325 individuals polled for the survey. Overall, over 75 percent for the investors had a positive view on the euro zone’s outlook.  Only six per cent said they expected a severe global depression.(The bank defines HNW investors as those with assets of over $5 million).

SocGen poll unearths more EM bulls in July

These are not the best of times for emerging markets but some investors don’t seem too perturbed. According to Societe Generale,  almost half the clients it surveys in its monthly snap poll of investors have turned bullish on emerging markets’ near-term prospects. That is a big shift from June, when only 33 percent were optimistic on the sector. And less than a third of folk are bearish for the near-term outlook over the next couple of weeks, a drop of 20 percentage points over the past month.

These findings are perhaps not so surprising, given most risky assets have rallied off the lows of May.  And a bailout of Spain’s banks seems to have averted, at least temporarily, an immediate debt and banking crunch in the euro zone. What is more interesting is that despite a cloudy growth picture in the developing world, especially in the four big BRIC economies,  almost two-thirds of the investors polled declared themselves bullish on emerging markets in the medium-term (the next 3 months) . That rose to almost 70 percent for real money investors. (the poll includes 46 real money accounts and 45 hedge funds from across the world).

See the graphics below (click to enlarge):

Signals are positive on positioning as well with 38.5 percent of investors reckoning they were under-invested in emerging markets, compared to a quarter who felt they were over-invested. Again, real-money investors appeared more keen on emerging markets, with over 40 percent seeing themselves as under-invested. SocGen analysts write:

European equities finding some takers

European equities are getting some investor interest again.

As the ongoing debt crisis erodes consumer spending and corporate profits, the euro zone’s share  in investors’ equity portfolios has fallen in the past year –Reuters polls show holdings of euro zone stocks at 25 percent versus over 36 percent a year back.  Cash has fled instead to U.S. stocks, opening up a record valuation gap between the European and U.S. shares. (see graphics below from my colleague Scott Barber). In fact no other region has ever been considered as cheap as the euro zone is now,  a monthly survey by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch found in June.

That could offer investors a powerful incentive to return, especially as there are signs of serious efforts to tackle the crisis by deploying the euro zone’s rescue fund.

Pioneer Investments has moved to an overweight position on European stocks. While Pioneer’s head of global asset allocation research Monica Defend stresses the overweight is a small one compared to, say, its position in emerging markets, she says: