Global Investing

Weekly Radar: Market stalemate sees volatility ebb further

Global markets have found themselves at an interesting juncture of underlying new year bullishness stalled by trepidation over several short-term headwinds (US debt debate, Q4 earnings, Italian elections etc etc) – the net result has been stalemate, something which has sunk volatility gauges even further. Not only did this week’s Merrill funds survey show investors overweight bank stocks for the first time since 2007, it also showed demand for protection against a sharp equity market drops over the next 3 months at lowest since at least 2008. The latter certainly tallies with the ever-ebbing VIX at its lowest since June 2007. Though some will of course now argue this is “cheap” – it’s a bit like comparing the cost of umbrellas even though you don’t think it’s going to rain.

Anyway, the year’s big investment theme – the prospect of a “Great Rotation” back into equity from bonds worldwide – has now even captured the sceptical eye of one of the market’s most persistent bears. SocGen’s Albert Edwards still assumes we’ll see carnage on biblical proportions first — of course — but even he says long-term investors with 10-year views would be mad not to pick up some of the best valuations in Europe and Japan they will likely ever see. “Unambiguously cheap” was his term – and that’s saying something from the forecaster of the New Ice Age.

For others, the very fact that Edwards has turned even mildly positive may be reason enough to get nervy! When the last bear turns bullish, and all that…

In the meantime, we’ll just have to keep monitoring the incoming news and data for direction. The balance of risks is still on the upside over the course of the year, but there will be bumps. Year-to-date on the MSCI World is still up almost 3 percent as vol ebbs and euro peripheral debt auctions and sovereign debt prices continue to fly.

We still have to see Q4 China GDP this week and the US earnings season is just cranking up. Judging by JPM and Goldman on Wednesday , the banks look ok so far. GE will get into the real world economy a bit more on Friday. Next week we then have the big techs like Apple and Microsoft and this is the sector making many anxious. Beyond that, the radar captures potential signals from Lower Saxony’s elections  on Sunday for September’s German parliamentary polls, we have the first eurogroup of the year on Monday and outstanding issues such as legacy bank debts, a Franco-German summit in Berlin, January’s flash PMIs worldwide and UK Q4 GDP. Israel elections jump into the mix and a South African interest rate decision too as the  drums sound again on the notorious ‘currency wars’.

Emerging debt vs equity: to rotate or not

Emerging bonds have got off to a flying start in 2013, with debt funds taking in over $2 billion this past week, the second highest weekly inflow ever, according to fund tracker EPFR Global. Issuance is strong -  Turkey for instance this week borrowed cash repayable in 10 years for just 3.47 percent, its lowest yield ever in the dollar market.

Yet not everyone is optimistic and most analysts see last year’s returns of 16-18 percent EM debt returns as out of reach. The consensus instead seems to be for 5-8 percent as  tight spreads and low yields leave little room for further ralliesaverage yields on the EMBI Global sovereign debt index is just 4.4 percent.    Domestic bonds meanwhile could suffer if inflation turns problematic. (see here for our story on emerging bond sales and returns).

Now take a look at U.S. Treasury yields which are near 8-month highs. and could pose a headwind for emerging debt. Higher U.S. yields are not necessarily a bad thing for emerging markets provided the rise is down to a healthier economic outlook.  But that scenario could induce investors to turn their attention to equities and  indeed this is already happening. EPFR data shows emerging equity funds outstripped their bond counterparts last week, taking in $7.45 billion, the highest ever weekly inflow.

Weekly Radar: Q4 earnings, China GDP and German elections

The first wave of Q4 US earnings, Chinese Q4 GDP  and European inflation dominate next week, while regional polls in Germany’s Lower Saxony the following Sunday give everyone a early peek at ideas surrounding probably the biggest general election of 2013 later in the year.

With a bullish start to the year already confirmed by the so-called “5 day rule” on Wall St, we now come to the first real test – the Q4 earnings season. There was nothing to rock the boat from Alcoa but we will only start to get a glimpse of the overall picture next week after the big financials like JPM, Citi and Goldman report as well as real sector bellwethers Intel and GE. Yet again the questions centre on how the slow-growth macro world is sapping top lines, how this can continue to be offset by cost cutting to flatter profits and – perhaps most importantly for investors right now – what’s already in the price.

For the worriers, there’s already been plenty of gloom from lousy guidance  and memories of Q3 where less than half the 500 beat revenue forecasts. But the picture is not uniformly negative from a market perspective. For a start, both top and bottom line growth estimates have already been slashed to about a third of what they were three months ago but should still outstrip Q3 if they come in on target. Average S&P500 earnings growth for Q4 is expected to be almost 3 percent compared to near zero in Q3 and revenue growth is expected at about 2 percent after a near one percent drop the previous quarter. What’s more, the market has been well prepared for trouble already — negative-to-positive guidance by S&P 500 companies for Q4 was 3.6 to 1, the second worst since the third quarter of 2001. So, wait and see – but there will have to be some pretty scary headlines for a selloff at this juncture.  It may be just as tricky to build any bullish momentum ahead of renewed infighting in DC over the debt ceiling next month, but the latter issue has been treated to date this year as a frustration rather than a game-changer.

Weekly Radar: From fiscal cliff to fiscal tiff…

The new year starts with a markets ‘whoosh’, thanks to some form of detente in DC — though this one was already motoring in 2012. The New Year’s Eve rally was the biggest final day gain in the S&P500 since 1974, for what it’s worth.  And for investment almanac obsessives, Wednesday’s 2%+ gains are a good start to so-called “five-day-rule”, where net gains in the S&P500 over the first five trading days of the year have led to a positive year for equity year overall on 87 percent of 62 years since 1950.

So do we have a fiscal green light stateside for global investors? Or does it just lead us all to another precipice in two months time? Well, markets seem to have voted loudly for the former so far. And to the extent that at least some bi-partisan progress reduces the risk of policy accident and renewed recession, then that’s justified. And Wall St’s relief went global and viral, with eurostocks up almost 3% and emerging markets up over 2% on Wednesday. Even the febrile bond markets sat up and took notice, with core US and German yields jumping higher while riskier Italian and Spanish yields skidded to their lowest in several months.

So is all that New Year euphoria premature given we will likely be back in  the political trenches again next month?  Maybe, but there’s good reason to retain last year’s optimism for a number of basic reasons. As seasoned euro crisis watchers know well, the world doesn’t end at self-imposed deadlines. The worst that tends to happen is they are extended and there is even a chance of – Shock! Horror! – a compromise. Never rule out a disastrous policy accident completely, but it’s wise not to make it a central scenario either. In short, markets seem to be getting a bit smarter at parsing politics. Tactical volatility or headline-based trading wasn’t terribly lucrative last year, where are fundamental and value based investing fared better.  And the big issue about the cliff is that the wrangling has sidelined a lot of corporate planning and investment due to the uncertainties about new tax codes as much as any specific measures. While there’s still some considerable fog around that, a little of the horizon can now be seen and political winds seem less daunting than they once did. If even a little of that pent up business spending does start to come through, it will arrive the slipstream of a decent cyclical upswing.  China is moving in tandem meantime. The euro zone remains stuck in a funk but will also likely be stabilised at least by U.S. and Chinese  over the coming months. Global factory activity expanded again in December for the first time since May.

The BBB credit ratings traffic jam

Adversity is a great leveller. Just look at the way sovereign credit ratings in the developed and emerging world have been converging ever since the credit crisis erupted five years ago. JPMorgan  has crunched a few numbers.

Few were surprised last week by S&P’s decision to cut the outlook on Britain’s AAA rating to negative. That gold-plated rating is becoming increasingly rare — according to JP Morgan, just 15 percent of global GDP now rates AAA with a stable outlook — a whopping comedown from 50 percent in 2007. Only 13 developed economies are now rated AAA, compared to 21 before the crisis. And only one, Australia, now has a higher rating (AAA) than in 2007 — 16 of its peers have suffered a total of 129 downgrades in this period.  With 20 rich countries on negative outlook, more downgrades are likely.

Emerging sovereigns, on the other hand, have enjoyed 189 upgrades (43 percent of these were moves into investment grade). That has caused what JPM dubs “a traffic jam”  in the triple B ratings area, with 20 percent of world GDP now rated at this level, compared to 8 percent in 2009.

Golden days of the Turkey-Iran trade may be gone

Global Investing has discussed in the past what a golden opportunity the Iranian crisis has proved for Turkey. Between January and July 2012 it ratcheted up gold exports to Iran ten-fold compared to 2011 as inflation-hit Iranians clamoured for the precious metal. Since August exports appear to have been routed via the UAE, possibly to circumvent U.S. sanctions on trade with Teheran.

The trade has been a handy little earner. Evidence of that has shown up in Turkey’s data all year as its massive current account deficit has steadily shrunk. On Friday, official data showed the Turkish trade gap falling by a third in October from year-ago levels. And yes, precious metal exports (read gold) came in at $1.5 billion compared to $322.4 million last October. In short, a jump of 370 percent.

But the days of the lucrative trade may be numbered, according to Morgan Stanley analyst Tevfik Aksoy. Aksoy notes that the gold exports can at least partly be accounted for by the considerable amounts of lira deposits that Iran held in Turkish banks as payment for oil exports. (Yes, there’s an oil link to all this. Turkey buys oil from Iran but pays lira due to Western sanctions against paying Teheran hard currency. Iranian firms use liras to shop for Turkish gold. See here for detailed Reuters article). These deposits are being steadily converted into gold and repatriated, Aksoy says.

Crisis? What crisis? Global funds grow stronger

Global funds are having a good year.

According to a report by financial services lobby TheCityUK, pension funds,  insurance funds and  mutual funds are on track to finish the year with $21 trillion more of assets under management than when they hit rock bottom in 2008 with the Lehmann collapse.

They are growing for the fourth year in a row, and much more so than last year, thanks to the recovery in equity markets.

All together, the London lobby forecasts these funds will end the year with about $85.2 trillion of assets under managements globally, $5.4 trillion more than last year, while 2011 ended “only” $1 trillion higher than 2010.

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.

Iran currency plunge an omen for change?

In recent days Iranians all over the country have been rushing to dealers to change their rials into hard currency. The result has been a spectacular plunge in the rial which has lost a third of its value against the dollar in the past week. Traders in Teheran estimate in fact that it has lost two-thirds of its value since June 2011 as U.S and European economic sanctions bite hard into the country’s oil exports. The government blames the rout on speculators.

According to Charles Robertson at Renaissance Capital,  the rial’s tumble to record lows  and inflation running around 25 percent may be an indicator that Iran is moving towards regime change.  Robertson reminds us of his report from back in March where he pointed out that autocratic countries with a falling per capita income are more likely to move towards democracy. (Click here for what we wrote on this topic at the time)

He says today:

The renewed collapse of the currency recently suggests sanctions are working towards that end.

Obama better bet for US stocks?

The wealthy in the United States have a reputation for being firmly on the side of the Republican Party, but maybe they shouldn’t be for the November presidential election.

According to Tom Stevenson, investment director at asset manager Fidelity Worldwide Investments, past evidence points to Democrat Barack Obama as possibly the more lucrative bet for equity  investors.  He says:

Looking at stock market performance following the last 12 elections suggests that investors should, in the short term at least, be rooting for an Obama victory. History shows that markets tend to rally after a win for the incumbent party by more than 10% on average, but fall modestly if the challenger is successful.