Global Investing

Nowhere to hide

Shampoo, margarine and medicine – surely some things will be okay in a recession?

Unfortunately, the concept of defensive stocks is taking a big knock along with so much else this time round. Companies making the stuff are themselves no longer certain what the future holds.

Unilever’s decision to scrap its financial targets sent its shares skidding this week and raised the spectre that more companies may follow suit.

So far, U.S.-based groups such as Procter & Gamble, Kraft and Sara Lee have trimmed their guidance rather than abandoned it. But some analysts think other consumer goods powerhouses in Europe, where the tradition of giving clear earnings guidance is less well-rooted than in the U.S., might copy Unilever in throwing in the towel.

Nestle, Danone and Reckitt Benckiser all report results in the next two weeks.

At the same time, the world’s second largest drugmaker, GlaxoSmithKline, is also giving up the practice of guiding the market on profits.

For better or worse?

Wealth managers at Citi Private Bank are telling their clients to stay neutral in their exposure to hedge funds at the moment, whether the strategy be event driven, equity long/short or macro. The main reason is that capital markets are still stressed and many hedge funds still need to deleverage.

The firm points out, however, that hedge funds had a good news-bad news kind of year in 2008. Based on the HFRX Global Hedge Fund Index, it was the worst performance on record. The index lost 23.3 percent. Its next worst performance was 2002 — and that was only a 1.5 percent decline.

Losses were widespread across all kinds of strategies. Only merger arbitrage and systematic macro gained anything. 

Dead cat bounce?

New year can get in the way of understanding what is happening on financial markets. Just because humans measure the year in 12 month tranches, it does not necessarily follow that markets do. Consider world stocks, for example. MSCI’s all-country world stock index is often cited as having fallen 43.5 percent in 2008. In fact, long-term investors’ losses were a lot worse. From an all-time high on November 1, 2007, to a low on November 28, 2008, the index fell 56.2 percent.

Something similar is happening at the moment. Investors might be focusing on year-to-date losses of around 5.7 percent for the index, but they are doing better than that. The index has gained 14.5 percent from that November 28 low last year.

What is your interpretation? 1) The credit crunch crash lasted for 12 months, hit bottom on November 28 and stocks are now recovering or 2) We have just had a dead cat bounce.

The end of the Bush stock market

Today marks the end of the Bush stock market.

He has presided over the evisceration of more than $4.6 trillion of U.S. stock market wealth as measured by the S&P 500.

By comparison, the S&P 500 gained more than $9 trillion in value under the eight years of Bill Clinton’s administration.

Recession is no secret

Mike Trudel, U.S.-based managing director and senior product specialist at BlackRock, has become convinced the economic recession really has arrived.

When he checked into London’s hip upmarket hotel Sanderson earlier this week, the staff uniform caught his eye.

Hotel staff were wearing black T-shirts, with RECESSION written in big letters in front. They highlighted SI in red – like this:

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.

Some shock, horror numbers from global stocks

Some mind-boggling numbers from the MSCI all-country world stock index, which is one of the broadest measures of how equity markets are doing and is a benchmark for many institutional investors. The index has some 2,500 companies in it from 48 developed and emerging economies.

First off, it has lost around $15 trillion in value since the end of October last year (graph below). That is more than 21 times the $700 billion U.S. bank rescue plan. It also more than graph.jpgthe annual gross domestic product of the United States. It is more than three time Japan’s annual output and more than four times that of Germany.

Secondly, the speed with which this fall has taken place has been breathtaking by investment standards. It took companies that make up the index about four years to gain the $15 trillion in share value before hitting an all-time peak last November. About a third of the losses since hitting that peak came in a free fall from mid-September to mid-October this year.