Global Investing

Clinging to hope in bear-bitten Russia

Poor Russia. After spending six months as the world’s best performing emerging market, the Moscow bourse  has been the big loser of this month’s rout – year-to-date returns of over 10 percent until mid-July have since dissolved in a sea of red, with a plunge of over 20 percent since the start of August. As oil prices fell and the outlook for U.S. and European growth darkened, overweight positions in Russia halved versus July, a survey by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch showed this week.

But get this — Russia remains among investors’ main emerging market punts and only Indonesia is more favoured, according to the BoA/ML poll. The reason is that fund managers are still clinging to hopes that an increasingly wealthy Russian consumer will save the day. Unfortunately those hopes are yet to materialise. Returns on domestic demand-based stocks such as Sberbank, carmaker Avtovaz and supermarket chain Magnit have been even more disappointing this year than the broader Moscow market.

Even the staunchest Russia bull will have been disappointed with data showing Russia’s economy grew at just 3.4 percent in the second quarter of the year.  That proves the economy was running out of steam even before the August oil price fall and suggests that the Russian consumer is not yet stepping up to the mark. Retail data since then have been more heartening — annual sales rose 5.6 percent in July from 3 percent in June.

So which way could Russia go? Some like Russian investment house Aton say another 20-25 percent stock market drop cannot be ruled out if the global economy goes into a tailspin. That sounds overly pessimistic – - as UBS analysts point out the global macro backdrop and the oil price outlook do not look nearly as bad as 2008. Chinese growth too is holding up well. 

Three things are in Russia’s favour. One is that prices for oil, the mainstay of the Russian economy, remain over $100 a barrel –  that should allow the government to keep spending ahead of elections.  Second, most other emerging markets look uglier. Stocks in fellow-BRIC India may have fared better during the August selloff but the picture is far from rosy. Growth is slowing, as testified by factory expansion that fell for the third straight month in July and car sales that are down for the first time in over two years.  The central bank remains uber-hawkish.  Little surprise then that the BoA survey showed India to be investors’ least favoured market.

Avoid financial meltdown – use a thesaurus

So it’s not just investors who are guilty of moving in a herd-like fashion.

Financial journalists use the same verbs and nouns with greater frequency as stock markets overheat but display more variety in their phraseology after the bubble bursts, a study by Irish computer scientists has shown.

Trawling through nearly 18,000 on-line news articles that mention the Dow Jones, FTSE and Nikkei stock indices between 2006 and 2010, Aaron Gerow of Trinity College Dublin and Mark Keane of University College Dublin found that the language used by the writers had become more similar in the run-up to the global financial crisis.

Indian stocks — buyers trickling back?

Last week snapped a three-week winning streak for Indian stocks — the first since last September for this year’s emerging markets laggard.  India,  an oil importer and a domestic demand play with high inflation, has languished this year in comparison with fellow-BRIC Russia which has returnedBRICS-TRADE/SUMMIT 14 percent so far, thanks to the $125/barrel oil price. But could the market be turning? Indian stocks, down 20 percent at one point in February, have cut their losses to 6 percent so far this year. And there are signs fund managers are piling back in.

ING Investment Management started buying Indian equities earlier this month for the first time since mid-2010. Inflation may have peaked and with state elections out of the way, politics may be less of an issue, they say. And Indian valuations, always expensive, are back in line with long term averages,  the fund’s strategist Maarten-Jan Bakkum notes. He is overweight Russia too but says that is driven by a tactical play on the oil price rather than any long-term conviction.

HSBC‘s head of emerging equities, John Lomax, says commodity and food price inflation may have peaked after a massive run and sees that leading to a change of tone within emerging markets. “We want to be a less exposed to the commodity themes now so we are less positive on Russia. But we like Turkey and we recently upgraded India and China, which are domestic demand plays.”

Indian stocks — is the gloom about to lift?

INDIA-ECONOMY/BUDGETIs the gloom finally starting to lift  for Indian stocks? Deep in the red this year, the market has nevertheless risen 3 percent in March. That’s despite oil’s surge over $100 a barrel. So what gives?

On the face of it, it’s a terrible time for the Indian market. Soaring oil prices, near double-digit inflation and a hawkish central bank  — all this will almost certainly ensure that India misses its 9 percent growth target for the coming fiscal year.  But the Mumbai market fell 15 percent in the first two months of 2011 and that means valuations in India, always an expensive market, may be approaching reasonable levels.   ”A sharp rise in oil is always a tail risk for India but given equity valuations, we think it is a good time for stock picking with a 12-month view,” Morgan Stanley analysts told clients in a note.

And oil does not necessarily spoil the party, Morgan Stanley says. MS analysts note that of the six oil supply shocks over the past three decades, only the 1990 Iraq war left Indian equities in the red six months after the shock. That was due to a balance of payments crisis which is not likely this time. So, excluding the 1990 event, the Sensex index has risen 24 percent on average in the six months after an oil shock, MS says.

from MacroScope:

The promise of middle age

The wave of popular discontent now sweeping the Middle East and North Africa has been driven by the region's youth, frustrated by chronic umemployment and enraged by widespread corruption.

In a special report entitled 'Youth bulges and equities', Deutsche Bank argues that the proportion of angry young men to the general population is not only a gauge of socio-political stability but also a key indicator of market performance.

The 'youth bulge' -- the ratio of males between 15-29 versus those aged 30-59 -- came in at an average of 106 percent in the 251 conflicts seen around the world between 1950 and 2006. Two-thirds of countries that suffered social upheaval had a young-to-old men ratio of above 100 percent compared to the current 45-55 percent average seen in developed countries.

Inside the Reuters investment polls

The headline news from our Reuters asset allocation polls this month was that not much has changed from December in terms of overall investment positioning, but that there was a decided shift from emerging markets and European stocks to North America.

But buried in the numbers were a couple of other things:

– Bonds are decidedly unpopular among fund managers. The overall global allocation was the lowest since February.

– Bond underweights have also been getting heavier and heavier since summer and now reflect significant bearishness.

BRICs chipped

It may come as a bit of a surprise but in the end developed market stocks did quite well last year. For one thing, they outperformed the much-touted BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China). Here is the graphic to show it.

EM_BRICP1210

The best stocks of 2010

For all the doom and gloom associated with the broader economy—historic unemployment in the United States, debt woes and mandated austerity in Europe—it’s been a remarkably positive year for the stock market. As we enter the last week of 2010, the S&P 500 index is up nearly 13 percent for the year. That’s far from a record (1954 witnessed a breakneck 45 percent rise), but at least the index this year climbed above the level hit before Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy in September, 2008. The stock comeback story is not unique to America, either; this week, Korea’s stocks hit their highest level in more than three years.

At one time, the gurgling stock market would have been a fairly reliable predictor for a healthy economy in the near future—and who knows, that may still be the case. More bearish observers point to artificial stimulants, like an unsustainable commodity bubble and the Fed’s quantitative easing policy.

Regardless, a lot of equity holders will be popping Champagne (or prosecco) this week. Our chart below shows the top ten performers in the S&P 500 for the year—so what does it tell us? Well, the best-performing stock of the year is Cummins Inc., an Indiana-based company that makes power generators and diesel engines. Not surprisingly, its strong market performance this year is based on healthy sales abroad, particularly in emerging markets enjoying the rise in commodity prices. Another top performer has been AIG, the once-mighty insurer which lost nearly all of its value in 2009 but has made a strong comeback thanks to a massive taxpayer bailout. Two other financial firms that also flirted with the abyss made the top ten.

Solar activities and market cycles

Can nature’s cycles enrich our finance and market theories?

Market predictions based on the alignment of the sun, moon and the earth and other cycles could help investors stay disciplined and profit in economic storms, says Daniel Shaffer, CEO of Shaffer Asset Management.

SPACE/SUN

Shaffer writes that sunspot activities show that the sun has an approximate 11-year cycle and as of March 31, 2009, sunspot activity has reached a 100-year low (this, interestingly, coincides with a cycle low in equity markets, reached sometime mid-March in 2009).

But a low in solar activity seems to be followed by a high. Scientists are predicting a solar maximum of activity in sunspots in 2012 that could e the strongest in modern times, according to Shaffer.

Clever Fed

Proof  that a little surprise can be quite big.

Ahead of the Federal Reserve’s decision on more quantitative easing there were three possible outcomes that  could have threatened what is becoming a strong global equity rally. In short:

– Meeting expectations could have been seen as boring, leading to a sell off

– Not meeting expectations could have been seen as widely disappointing, leading to a sell off