Global Investing

Three snapshots for Friday

Yesterday’s much worse than expected PMI data from the euro zone has pushed the Citigroup economic surprise index for the region below zero.

Germany has been one of the strongest performing equity markets this year but is still in the middle of the pack compared to other European countries on valuation.

U.S. new home sales slipped 1.6 percent to a seasonally adjusted 313,000-unit annual rate. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast sales at a 325,000-unit rate in February.

Russia’s new Eurobond: what’s the fair price?

Russia’s upcoming dollar bond, the first in two years, should fly off the shelves. It’s good timing — elections are past, the world economy seems to be recovering and crucially for Russia, oil prices are over $125 a barrel.  And the rise in core yields has massively tightened emerging markets’ yield premium to  U.S. Treasuries, offering an attractive window to raise cash.  Russia’s spread premium over Treasuries hit the narrowest levels in 7 months recently and despite some widening this week it is still some 75 basis points below end-2011 levels.

Initial indications from the ongoing roadshow are for a two-tranche bond with 10- and 20-year maturities, possibly raising a total of $3.5 billion.

But market bullishness notwithstanding, investors say Moscow should resist temptation to price the bond too high, a mistake it made during its last foray into global capital markets in April 2010. Fund managers have unpleasant memories of that deal, recalling that Russia unexpectedly tightened the yield offered by 25-28 bps, making the bond an expensive one for investors who had already placed bids. The bond price fell sharply once trading kicked off and yields across the Russian curve rose around 25-30 basis points. Jeremy Brewin, a fund manager at Aviva said:

Three snapshots for Tuesday

U.S. February housing starts fall slightly to a 698,000 annual rate:

UK inflation edged down to 3.4% in February:

Spanish banks’ bad loans highest since August 1994

Three snapshots for Monday

The NAHB U.S. homebuilder sentiment index held at 28, below economists’ expectations for 30.

Apple will initiate a regular quarterly dividend of $2.65 a share in July and will buy back up to $10 billion of its stock starting in fiscal 2013.

Energy leads the way for commodities this year, but with a big divergence between the components – gasoline sitting at the top while natural gas sits near the bottom.

State vs entrepreneurial capitalism

The post-crisis world has been in part shaped by the growing presence of sovereign wealth funds, which have become an important source of funding with their $4 trillion assets, replacing private equity and hedge funds. But some people are wondering whether state capitalism really is the way forward, to boost the potential growth rate of the post-crisis world.

Robert Litan, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, believes that in fact it’s entrepreneurs who would play a key role, and it’s important for policymakers to come up with a mechanism to help them.

Litan estimates that the United States needs 30-60 new “home-run” firms a year with annual sales of $1 billion to boost U.S. growth rate by one percentage point beyond its post-war average of 3 percent. This is double the past 150-year average of 15 firms a year.

Yuan risks uniting bulls and bears?

Is the outlook for China’s yuan uniting the biggest global markets bulls and bears? Well, kind of.

As China posts its biggest trade deficit (yes, that’s a deficit) of the new millennium and its monetary authorities flag greater “flexibility” of the yuan exchange rate (the PBOC engineered the US$/yuan’s second biggest daily drop on record on Monday), the chances of an internationally-controversial weakening of yuan in a U.S. election year have risen.  A weaker yuan would clearly up the ante in the global currency war, coming as it does amid Japan’s successful weakening of its yen this year and as Brazil on Monday felt emboldened enough in its battle to counter G7 devaluations by extending a tax curbing foreign inflows.  And, arguably, it could bring the whole conflagration around full circle, where currency weakening in the BRICs and other emerging economies blunts one of the desired effects of money-printing and super-lax monetary policy in the G7 — merely encouraging even more printing and so on.

Societe Generale’s long-time global markets bear Albert Edwards argued as much last week:  “We have long stated that if the Chinese economy looks to be hard landing, as we believe it will, the authorities there will actively consider renminbi devaluation, despite the political consequences of such action.”

Fresh skirmishes in global currency war

Amid all the furious G7 money printing of recent years, Brazil was the first to sound the air raid siren in the “international currency war”  back in 2010 and it continues to cry foul over the past week. With its finance ministry issuing fresh warnings last night over hot-money flows being dropped by western economies on its unsuspecting exporters via currency speculation,  Brazil’s central bank then set off its own defensive anti aircraft battery with a surprisingly deep interest rate cut late Wednesday. Having tried everything from taxes on hot foreign inflows to currency market intervention, they are braced for a long war and there’s little sign of the flood of cheap money from the United States, Europe and Japan ending anytime soon. So, if  you can’t beat them, do you simply join them?

The prospect of  a deepening of this currency conflict — essentially beggar-thy-neighbour devaluation policies designed to keep countries’ share of ebbing world growth intact — was a hot topic this week for Societe Generale’s long-standing global markets bear Albert Edwards. Edwards, who represent’s SG’s “Alternative View”, reckons the biggest development in the currency battle this year has been the sharp retreat of Japan’s yen and this could well drag China into the fray if global growth continues to wither later this year. He highlighted the Japan/China standoff with the following graphic of yen and yuan nominal trade-weighted exchange rates.

Edwards goes on to say that this could, in turn, create another explosive FX standoff between China and the United States if Beijing were to consider devaluation — the opposite of what the protectionist U.S. lobby has been screaming for for years.

Oil prices — Geopolitics or growth?

It’s the economy, stupid. Or isn’t it?

Brent crude has risen 15 percent since the end of last year, focusing people’s minds on the potential this has to choke off the recovery in world growth. But some reckon it is the recovery that’s at least partly responsible for the surging oil prices — economic data from United States and Germany has been strong of late. There are hopes that France and the United Kingdom may escape recession after all. And growth in the developing world has been robust.

Geopolitics of course is playing a role  as an increasing number of countries boycott Iranian oil and fret over a possible military strike by Israel on Iran’s nuclear installations.  But Deutsche Bank analysts point out that world equity markets, an efficient real-time gauge of growth sentiment, have risen along with oil prices.

Their graphic (below) shows a remarkably close relationship between oil prices and the S&P 500. Click to enlarge

The missing barrels of oil

Where are the missing barrels of oil, asks Barclays Capital.

Oil inventories in the United States rose sharply last week, with demand for oil products  such as gasoline at the lowest in 15 years and crude stockpiles at the highest since last September. Americans, pinched in the wallet, are clearly cutting back on fuel use.

But worldwide, the inventories picture is different – Barclays calculates in  fact that oil stocks are around 50 million barrels below the seasonal average. And sustainable spare capacity in the market is less than 2 million barrels per day. What that means is that the world has “extremely limited buffers to absorb any one of the series of potential geopolitical mishaps.” (Barclays writes)

A big difference from the picture at the start of 2012. With the global economy weak, analysts predicted OPEC would need to pump 29.7 million barrels per day in the first quarter, more than a million barrels below what the group was actually pumping. Logic dictates inventories would have started to build.

Teflon Treasuries?

The pleasant surprise of Friday’s upbeat U.S. employment report rattled the U.S. Treasury bond market, as you’d expect, encouraging as it did some optimism about a sustained U.S. economic recovery, tempering fears of deflation and casting some doubts on the likelihood of another bout of quantitative easing or bond buying by the Federal Reserve.  And investors wary of seemingly teflon Treasuries are always keen to use such a backup in U.S. borrowing rates as a reason to rethink a market where supply is soaring and national debt levels are accelerating and where the country has just entered a presidential election year.

The release then by Eurostat on Monday of 2011 government debt  levels for the European Union and euro zone — where bond markets have been in chaos for the past couple of years — provided another reason to look sceptically at Treasuries as it showed aggregate EU and euro zone debt more than 10 percentage points of GDP lower than in the United States.

And with no fresh debt reduction plan likely this side of November’s presidential elections, the comparative U.S. debt trajectory over the coming years looks alarming.