Global Investing

Put down and Fed up

Given almost biblical gloom about the world economy at the moment, you really have to do a double take looking at Wall Street’s so-called “Fear Index”. The ViX , which is essentially the cost of options on S&P500 equities, acts as a geiger counter for both U.S. and global financial markets.  Measuring implied volatility in the market, the index surges when the demand for options protection against sharp moves in stock prices is high and falls back when investors are sufficiently comfortable with prevailing trends to feel little need to hedge portfolios. In practice — at least over the past 10 years — high volatility typically means sharp market falls and so the ViX goes up when the market is falling and vice versa. And because it’s used in risk models the world over as a proxy for global financial risk, a rising ViX tends to shoo investors away from risky assets while a falling ViX pulls them in — feeding the metronomic risk on/risk off behaviour in world markets and, arguably, exaggerating dangerously pro-cyclical trading and investment strategies.

Well, the “Fear Index” last night hit its lowest level since the global credit crisis erupted five-years ago to the month.  Can that picture of an anxiety-free investment world really be accurate? It’s easy to dismiss it and blame a thousand “technical factors” for its recent precipitous decline.  On the other hand,  it’s also easy to forget the performance of the underlying market has been remarkable too. Year-to-date gains on Wall St this year have been the second best since 1998. And while the U.S. and world economies hit another rough patch over the second quarter, the incoming U.S. economic data is far from universally poor and many economists see activity stabilising again.

But is all that enough for the lowest level of “fear” since the fateful August of 2007? The answer is likely rooted in another sort of “put” outside the options market — the policy “put”, essentially the implied insurance the Fed has offered investors by saying it will act again to print money and buy bonds in a third round of quantitative easing (QE3) if the economy or financial market conditions deteriorate sharply again. Reflecting this “best of both worlds” thinking, the latest monthly survey of fund managers by Bank of America Merrill Lynch says a net 15% more respondents expect the world economy to improve by the end of the year than those who expect it to deteriorate but almost 50 percent still believe the Fed will deliver QE3 before 2012 is out.  In other words, things will likely improve gradually in the months ahead and if they don’t the Fed will be there to catch us.

What could possibly go wrong?? Well, lots — obviously. As Vanguard’s European CIO Jeff Molitor told us here this week: “No one can see around corners.” And the euro crisis of course remains top of the list of bogeymen. But here too the ECB has constructed its own “policy put” of sorts as ECB chief Draghi has pledged to bolster euro sovereign debt markets via the banks’ first ever bout of QE in the event of a request for a support progamme from ailing giants such as Spain and Italy.  What else? Hard landing signs in China? Fresh banking stress globally? All possible. But — all likely to be met with substantial policy reaction from the Fed at least if they hit the US economy badly again and threaten to  push already-high unemployment back up.

So calm is justified then?

Enter November’s U.S. Presidential election. The “Bernanke put”, as with the “Greenspan put” before it,  is rooted in the Fed’s dual mandate to pursue both full employment as well as price stability — a critical post-Depression orientation of the country’s entire macroeconomic policy approach that many economists insist has served the United States well over the past half century but which also riles many others, not least Paul Ryan, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s newly-appointed running mate for the position of Vice President.

Time for a slice of vol?

As the global markets consensus shifts toward a “basically bullish, but enough for now” stance — at least before Fed chief Bernanke on Monday was read as rekindling Fed easing hopes — more than a few investment strategists are examining the cost and wisdom of hedging against it all going pear-shaped again. At least two of the main equity hedges, core government bonds and volatility indices, have certainly got cheaper during the first quarter. But volatility (where Wall St’s Vix index has hit its lowest since before the credit crisis blew up in 2007!) looks to many to be the most attractive option. Triple-A bond yields, on the other hand, are also higher but have already backed off recent highs and bond prices remain in the stratosphere historically.  And so if Bernanke was slightly “overinterpreted” on Monday — and even optimistic houses such as Barclays reckon the U.S. economy, inflation and risk appetite would have to weaken markedly from here to trigger “QE3″ while further monetary stimuli in the run-up to November’s U.S. election will be politically controversial at least — then there are plenty of investors who may seek some market protection.

Societe Generale’s asset allocation team, for one, highlights the equity volatility hedge instead of bonds for those fearful of a correction to the 20% Wall St equity gains since November.

A remarkable string of positive economic surprises has boosted risky assets and driven macro expectations higher but has also created material scope for disappointment from now on. We recommend hedging risky asset exposure (Equity, Credit and Commodities) by adding Equity Volatility to portfolios.

Three snapshots for Thursday

The VIX volatility index has fallen below the average level seen during the 2003-2008 pre-crisis period.

The low level of the VIX is also being matched by moves down in other ‘safe haven’ assets. The dollar is near an 11-month high against the yen, and a rise in U.S. Treasury yields is pushing up the spread between U.S. and Japanese bond yields.

President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron discussed the possibility of releasing emergency oil reserves during a meeting on Wednesday, two sources familiar with the talks said.

Calculating euro breakup shocks

Euro breakup risks, although subsiding, are still high on investor minds.

Almost one in two fund managers surveyed by Bank of America Merrill Lynch last month said they expect a euro zone country to leave the monetary union.

Technology services company SunGard, which has modelled different euro breakup scenarios, says the departure of Greece and Portugal will lead to a 15 percent rise in the euro against the dollar, a 20 percent fall in euro zone yields, a 15 percent fall in euro zone equities and a 20 percent increase in credit spreads.

Below are other findings:

    If all PIIGS left the euro, the single currency would rise 25% and regional equities would fall 20%. U.S. stocks would drop 15 percent. European banking stocks would fall by 25% and ITRAXX Financials credit spreads would increase by 100%, which would imply losses of up to 20% in high-grade corporate debt. VIX would be over 50. A total collapse scenario would see European equities down 40%, U.S. and global equities down 30%, euro yields down 75% and ITRAXX Europe and ITRAXX Financials credit spreads up 150% and 200%respectively. Oil would fall across the scenarios, ranging from 5% from a Greece departure through to a 50% decline from a complete breakup. Sterling would strengthen against the Euro by between 5-25% across the scenarios.

The results seek to model the impact of each scenario over three months, looking eight weeks before and six weeks after the shock to form a balanced picture.