Global Investing

Next week: Half time…

QE, some version of it or even the thought of it, seems to have raised all boats yet again — for a bit at least. You’d not really guess it from all the brinkmanship, crisis management and apocalyptic debates of the past month, but June has so far turned out to be a fairly upbeat month – weirdly. World equities are up more than 6 percent since June, lead by a 20 percent jump in European bank stocks and even a 20 percent jump in depressed Greek stocks. The Spanish may found themselves at the centre of the euro debt storm now, but even 10-year Spanish debt yields have returned to June 1 levels after briefly toying with record highs above 7%  in and around its own bank bailout and the Greek election. And the likes of Italian and Irish borrowing rates are actually down this month.  Ok, all that’s after a lousy May that blew up most of the LTRO-inspired first-quarter market gains. But, on a broad global level at least, stocks are still in the black for the year so far. It was certainly “sell in May” yet again this year, but it’s open question whether you stay away til St Ledgers day in September, as the hoary old adage would have it.

On the euro story, the Greeks didn’t go for the nuclear option last weekend at least and it looks like there are some serious proposals on the EU summit table for next week – talk of banking union, EFSF/ESM bond buying programmes, euro bills if not bonds, EIB infrastructure/project bonds to try and catalyse some growth,  and reasonable flexibility from Berlin and others on bailout austerity demands. The Fed has announced that it will twist again like it did last summer, by extending the Treasury yield curve programme by more than a quarter of a trillion dollars, and there are still hopes of it at least raising the prospect of more direct QE. The BoE is already chomping at that bit, as well as lending direct to SMEs, and most investors expect some further easing from the ECB in the weeks and months ahead.

Of course all that could disappoint once more and expectations are getting pumped up again as per June market performance numbers. The EU summit won’t deliver on everything, but there is some realization at least that they need to talk turkey on ways to prevent repeated rolling creditor strikes locking out governments out of the most basic of financing — only then have those very same creditors shun countries again when they agree to punishing fiscal adjustments. A credible growth plan helps a little but some pooling of debt looks unavoidable unless they seriously want to remain in perma-crisis for the rest of the year and probably many years to come. It may be a step too far before next year’s German elections, but surely even Berlin can now see that the bill gets ever higher the longer they wait.

The EBA deadline for 9% bank capital ratios next week may also bear some watching. While it should be a formality at this late stage, you’d wonder whether the passing of June 30 marker might see some of the cash hoarding at banks leak back to other financial markets (rather than being deposited straight back at the ECB as window dressing dominates)

And the half-year mark for investors will be a sobering review, meantime. H1 showed clearly how transitory QE and liquidity pumping is, even if it’s necessary to ward of deflationary spiral associated with the ongoing deleveraging of banks, households and governments and broad money contraction in developed world economies. The second half looks like it will tilt back toward the US elections and fiscal issues there – but it’s hardly a good news story stateside now either.

Stumbling at every hurdle

Financial markets are odd sometimes. For weeks they have fretted about the outcome of the Greek election and its impact on the future of the euro zone as a whole. But today they appeared to dismiss the outcome despite a result that was about as positive as global investors fearful for euro zone stability could have hoped for.  So what gives?

The logic behind the weeks of trepidation was fairly simple and straightforward. After an inconclusive election on May 6, a second Greek poll on June 17 was due to give a definitive picture of whether Greeks wanted to stay in the euro and with all the budgetary conditions necessary to keep EU/IMF bailout funds in place.  If a victory for parties wanting to scrap the bailout agreement and austerity led to a halt of EU/IMF funds, the fear was that Greece would inevitably be forced out of the single currency bloc in time too. And if that unprecedented event happened, then a chain reaction would be hard to avoid.  If one country goes back to its domestic currency, despite all its debts being denominated in euros, investors would then find it impossible not to assume at least some element of euro exit risk for fellow-bailout recipients Portugal and Ireland and possibly even Spain and Italy, where doubts remain about their market access over time.

Extreme tail risk or not, this set the scene for the jittery markets that ensued during the Greek electoral hiatus of May 6- June 17. Athens stocks lost more than 17%;  Spanish 10-year government bonds lost more than 7% and the euro/dollar exchange rate was down almost 4%. etc. The fear of euro-wide contagion was so-great that the Spanish bank bailout in the interim had a little or no positive impact. And with the global economic growth picture weakening in tandem with, and partly because of, the euro mess, then prices reflecting world demand in general were hit hard by concerns that another shock to the European banking system could trigger a reversal of trillions of euros of European bank lending from around the globe. Crude oil dropped almost 14%, broad commodity prices and emerging market equities lost about 8%.

Picking your moment

Watching how the mildly positive market reaction to this weekend’s 100 billion euro Spanish bank bailout evaporated within a morning’s trading, it’s curious to look at the timing of the move and what policymakers thought might happen. On one hand, it showed they’d learned something from the previous three sovereign rescues in Greece, Ireland and Portugal by pre-emptively seeking backstop funds for Spain’s banks rather than waiting for the sovereign to be pushed completely out of bond markets before grudgingly seeking help.

But getting a positive market reaction to any euro bailout just six days before the Greek election of June 17 was always going to be nigh-on impossible. If the problem for private creditors is certainty and visibility, then how on earth was that supposed to happen in a week like this? In view of that, it was surprising there was even 6 hours of upside in the first place. In the end, Spanish and broad market prices remain broadly where they were before the bailout was mooted last Thursday — and that probably makes sense given what’s in the diary for the remainder of the month.

So, ok, there was likely a precautionary element to the timing in that the proposed funds for Spanish bank recapitalisation are made available before any threat of post-election chaos in Greece forces their hand anyhow. It may also be that there were oblique political signals being sent by Berlin and Brussels to the Greek electorate that the rest of Europe is prepared for any outcome from Sunday’s vote and won’t be forced into concessions on its existing bailout programme. On the other hand, Greeks may well read the novel structure of the bailout – in that it explicitly targets the banking sector without broader budgetary conditions on the government – as a sign that everything euro is flexible and negotiable.

Sell in May? Yes they did

Just how miserable a month May was for global equity markets is summed up by index provider S&P which notes that every one of the 46 markets included in its world index (BMI)  fell last month, and of these 35 posted double-digit declines. Overall, the index slumped more than 9 percent.

With Greece’s anti-austerity May 6 election result responsible for much of the red ink, it was perhaps fitting that Athens was May’s worst performer, losing almost 30 percent (it’s down 65 percent so far this year).  With euro zone growth steadily deteriorating, even German stocks fell almost 15 percent in May while Portugal, Spain and Italy were the worst performing developed markets  (along with Finland).

The best of the bunch (at least in the developed world) was the United States which fell only 6.5 percent in May and is clinging to 2012 gains of around 5 percent. S&P analyst Howard Silverblatt writes:

Investors face a battle for clarity

How are we looking? Fluid, very fluid!

In a classic case of call and response, the latest twist of the euro saga has seen the crisis escalate sharply in Spain and Italy (with the attempted cleanup of Bankia the latest trigger for a surge in government borrowing rates in both) only to see the European Commission today invoke major policy responses including the proposed use of the new European Stability Mechanism (ESM) to directly recapitalize euro banks, a single banking union, a euro-wide deposit protection system and even pushing back Spanish budget deadlines by a year.

It seems clear from this that they see Spain and Italy – which seem to be trading in tandem regardless of their differences – as the battleground for the survival of the euro. The gauntlet is down for next month’s summit, though the absence of a roadmap to Eurobonds per se will disappoint and markets are not going to sit quietly for a month. Moreover, the Grexit vigil has another fortnight to run before any clarity and the latest polls are not going in the direction other euro governments had hoped, with anti-bailout parties still in the lead. And we can only assume Ireland votes in favour of the now notional fiscal pact tomorrow as per opinion polls, though there’s always an outside chance of an upset.

So, seeing ahead even a month seems like an impossible task. A week ahead, however, points the spotlight firmly at the ECBs meeting on Wednesday and the chance the central bank eases again in some form to try and buy time for other developments to work through. But it will also be a moment of potential conflict, with its role in the Spanish bank bailout fraught with disagreements to date. Despite a two-day London market holiday, the week will be dominated by central banks at large – the BoE meeting and Bernanke’s testimony on Thursday being the other highlights. Is there a chance they act together again? And Italian/Spanish/French bond auctions next week certainly look precarious in the current environment.

Three snapshots for Tuesday

The euro zone just avoided recession in the first quarter of 2012 but the region’s debt crisis sapped the life out of the French and Italian economies and widened a split with paymaster Germany.

Click here for an interactive map showing which European Union countries are in recession.

The technology sector has been leading the way in the S&P 500 in performance terms so far this year with energy stocks at the bottom of the list. Since the start of this quarter financials have seen the largest reverse in performance.

Three snapshots for Monday

The yield on 10-year  U.S. Treasuries, fell to their lowest levels since early October today, breaking decisively below 1.80 percent. That compares to the dividend yield on the S&P 500 of 2.28%.

The European Central Bank kept its government bond-buy programme in hibernation for the ninth week in a row last week. The ECB may come under pressure to act as  yields on Spanish 10-year government bonds rose further above 6% today.

Output at factories in the euro zone unexpectedly fell in March, the latest in a series of disappointing numbers signalling that the bloc’s recession may not be as mild as policymakers hope. On an annual basis, factory output dived 2.2 percent in March, the fourth consecutive monthly slide, Eurostat said, and only Germany, Slovenia and Slovakia were able to post growth in the month.

Three snapshots for Wednesday

This chart shows the wide dispersion in equity market performance so far this year. In local currency terms Korea has a total return of nearly 12% and Germany over 10%, this compares to Italy at-6% and Spain at -16%.

In contrast to last year, this has driven average correlations between equity markets lower.

However, correlations may well pick up if markets move back into ‘risk-off’ mode. The chart below showing the weakness in the Citigroup G10 economic surprise indicator seems to be pointing towards further weakness in bonds relative to equities.

Three snapshots for Tuesday

Equities in the countries most exposed to the euro zone crisis seem to be being hit especially hard this year. The Datastream index of shares in Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain has a total return of -5.3% this year compared to +8.9% for a euro zone index excluding those countries.

U.S. consumers went back to using their credit cards in March to keep spending while student and new-car loans shot up as the value of outstanding consumer credit jumped at the fastest rate since late 2001, data from the Federal Reserve showed on Monday.

Total consumer credit grew by $21.36 billion – more than twice the $9.8 billion rise that Wall Street economists surveyed by Reuters had forecast.

Three snapshots for Thursday

The European Central Bank kept interest rates on hold on Thursday.  President Mario Draghi urged euro zone governments to agree a growth strategy to go hand in hand with fiscal discipline, but as thousands of Spaniards protested in the streets he gave no sign the bank would do more to address people’s fears about the economy

The divergence between Euro zone countries is starting to impact analyst estimates for earnings. As this chart shows earnings forecasts for Spain and Portugal are seeing more downgrades than Germany or France.

The inflation rate in Turkey rose to 11.1% in April, putting pressure on the central bank to raise interest rates: