Global Investing

Another fine excuse for selling stocks

There is no question that the losses on stock markets at the moment are primarily the result of the Greek crisis. A downgrade of a euro zone country’s sovereign debt to junk is enough to make all but insane mainstream investors take a large step away from risk.

But could it also be that the Greek crisis has come at a time when big investors were looking for an excuse to cool down the equity rally? MSCI’s all-country world stock index hit a peak on April 15 that was not only higher than anything seen this year, but also last year as well.  Up about 85 percent from its March 2009 lows, in fact.

Partly as a result, there were some signs emerging that suggested a correction would soon be in the works.

– Morgan Stanley noted that one of the indexes it follows had been up at least 50 percent year-on-year eight times in March. History showed that on 77 percent of such occasions that equity markets had subsequently fallen 4 percent.

– Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s April fund manager survey saw cash holdings had dropped to 3.5 percent of assets.  On four out of five occasions that that has happened before, BofA said, equities declined by 7 percent in the following 4-5 weeks.

Poor investor confidence – or is it?

The latest State Street investor confidence index bears some scrutiny. The overall index dropped in February which would seem to be in line with other sentiment indicators such as The Conference Board’s consumer confidence index and the German Ifo on business thinking.

But the State Street  fall was entirely due to bearish Asian sentiment. There were gains in the North American and European regional calculations. Also the overall, North American and European indices all came in above 100 — which means that sentiment remains on the bullish side.

It begs the question of whether Asia is a) lagging b) leading or c) just out there on its own.

Good news and bad in investor confidence data

Good news and bad in the latest  investor confidence sounding from State Street. The overall index took a dive again — third month in a row — and is now barely above neutral. That’s the bad news if you are keen to see risk assets do well.

The good news is that despite three months of falling the index is still above 100, showing that risk appetite remains present among the U.S. financial services firm’s institutional investor cllients, albeit only just.

But add to that State Street’s findings that the fall in its global index was almost entirely due to Asian investors. The regional indices for North America and Europe both rose.

from MacroScope:

Transparency: a double edged sword for SWFs

Sovereign wealth funds, facing criticism from Western regulators and politicians for their opaqueness, are keen to open up their books.

While Norway is a leader in the SWF league of transparency, other countries like China have started publishing annual reports.

But is transparency all good for SWFs?

Gary Smith, head of  central banks, supranational institutions and sovereign wealth funds at BNP Paribas Investment Partners, says the pressure to open up has raised unseen consequences of having to face domestic pressures.

Rebasing investors’ confidence

Interesting change by State Street in its monthly sounding of its institutional investor clients. The firm has gone back over all its data and rebased it in order to get an indicator that not only marks up and down changes in investor confidence but also suggests what regime investors are in. Ken Froot, the Harvard professor who co-developed the index, describes the move thus:

“We have revised the Investor Confidence Index to provide a better guide as to the level of risk tolerance. Specifically, we have rebased the index so that a level of 100 is ‘neutral’: readings above this level tell us that institutional investors are increasing their allocations to risky assets, while readings below 100 indicate that institutional investors are reducing such allocations.”

So what does this month tell us? The global index is now at a 10-month high, having risen every month since December.  But according to the new rebased reading, it has only been in territory that indicates the buying of risky assets for the past two months.

Zeitgeist check

Some more bits and bobs to capture the current mood among investors:

– MSCI’s all-country world stock index has recaptured all of its 2009 losses and is now working on recouping last year’s. It is up 6 percent for this year.

– Fund researchers EPFR Global notes investors are moving at pace out of cash into emerging market equity and bond funds. In the week to May 6 a net $3.6 billion moved into various emerging stock funds. Money market (cash) funds saw outflows of $1.6 billion.

State Street says there has been a “sea change” in investor behaviour. In April cross-border flows that it tracks suggested the most risk-seeking investment regime since May 2008.  “Institutions are buying emerging markets aggressively, adding to entrenched positions in Latin America and diversifying into emerging Asia,” it says.

from MacroScope:

Springing back to life

The steady stream of less-bad-than-expected economic data has evidently been working as a builder of optimism. Confidence in improved economies and financlal market conditions is growing.

One of the biggest surprises has been Germany's ZEW economic sentiment survey -- which polls analysts and economists in Europe's largest economy. Not only did the index jump this month, it entered positive territory for the first time since July 2007. That was before the credit crisis hit.

U.S. financial services firm State Street also reports that the mood among institutional investors in North America, Europe and Asia is at a nine month high. The main point about this survey is that it is extraplolated from the actual buying and selling patterns within $12 trillion that State Street holds for investors as a custodian.

A riot of a recession

Every month, the financial services company State Street studies the trillions of dollars in institutional investor money it looks after as custodian and tries to gauge where things stand. Over the years, it has come up with a map consisting of five different regimes, or moods, to reflect this. They range from the bullish “Liquidity Abounds” in which investors buy equities and focus on growth, to the uber-risk averse “Riot Point”.

Guess what? Investors moved into “Riot Point” last month after flipping about for four months in the slightly less bearish but still risk averse “Safety First” regime. This essentially means that they gave up in October – which is not a particularly stunning finding given that many stock markets had their worst performance in decades.

So now comes the bad news. In the 11 years State Street has been drawing its map, the longest period of risk aversion as measured by investors being in “Riot Point” or “Safety First” was the nine months between February and October 2001. This almost exactly coincided with the then-U.S. recession.

Investing with Dante

You know things are bad on financial markets when an investment research note starts talking about Dante‘s visit to the nine circles of Hell with tormented lustful souls and gluttons living in filthy slush.

In the case of State Street Global Markets’ latest report, however, there is a more direct link than simple hyperbole about the way investors are feeling. The firm recently had a chat with former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers who defined what he saw as the five viciousrtx8t2k.jpg circles of the current financial crisis.

It goes like this:

Circle One: House prices fall in value, putting some people into negative equity and leading some to default on mortgages. Foreclosures further erode asset values.