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Archive for the ‘Debt Crisis’ Category

Rich valuations for the stock market’s global elite

The news that Paul Walsh, the CEO of Diageo, has unloaded a huge amount of stock (£16m) after exercising a raft of share options draws attention to the extent that the prices of high quality companies with strong global business franchises and the ability to generate cash have been bid up to very rich levels. The veteran market-watcher Richard Russell has observed something similar on the other side of the Atlantic.

What do billionaires Warren Buffett, John Paulson, and George Soros know that you and I don’t know?  I don’t have the answer, but I do know what these billionaires are doing.  They, all three, are selling consumer-oriented stocks.  Buffett has been a cheerleader for US stocks all along. But in the latest filing, Buffett has been drastically cutting back on his exposure to consumer stocks.  Berkshire sold roughly 19 million shares of Johnson and Johnson.  Berkshire has reduced his overall stake in consumer product stocks by 21%, including Kraft and Procter and Gamble.  He has also cleared out his entire position in Intel.  He has sold 10,000 shares of GM and 597,000 shares of IBM. Read the rest of this entry »

Cyprus and beyond: more thoughts

As usual it will take a day or two for the markets to decide which of their initial reactions to the Cyprus bailout – relief that a deal has been struck, or concern at the implications of the terms imposed by the troika – will prove dominant. Some things do seem clear from what we have learnt already:

  • This was the most acrimonious bailout negotiation yet, with little love lost between the Cypriot negotiators and the troika representatives on the other. Talks came close to breakdown on several occasions over the course of the past week. Apparently tipped off in advance that the Russians would not come riding to the rescue, the troika played hardball – and eventually won, although not before the Cypriot President had threatened to resign and/or take Cyprus out of the euro – a desperate course of action which the influential Archbishop of Cyprus, for one, has openly advocated.
  • Although the deal will avoid the outcome of Cyprus leaving the euro for now, that still remains a possibility. The bailout creates a number of important precedents, raising the possibility that bondholders and depositors in troubled banks elsewhere in the Eurozone could be forced to pick up the tab if their bank needs to be rescued in future. The Dutch finance minister who now heads the Eurogroup said as much yesterday, and subsequent attempts to smooth over his remarks – which were remarkably explicit – have been less than convincing.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

March 26, 2013 at 2:01 PM

Fools rush in while wise men take their time?

The New Year has started well, with plenty of evidence that professional investors are continuing to rediscover their appetite for risk assets, with the price of equities, corporate bonds and high yield debt all heading higher. The charts for leading equity indices, including the S&P 500 and the FTSE All-Share, have been trending higher ever since Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank, announced last summer his intention to “do whatever it takes” to prevent the eurozone from falling apart. He has every reason to be pleased with the response to his intervention, which to date has been effectively cost-free. Would it were always so easy! European stock markets, having been priced for disaster before, have led the way up as fears of the euro’s fragmentation recede. Volatility, as measured by the VIX, has meanwhile fallen to multi-year low levels. Read the rest of this entry »

An invidious choice

I find it hard to disagree with these comments from Sebastian Lyon, the CEO of Troy Asset Management, writing in the annual report of Personal Assets, the investment trust to which he and his colleagues now act as Investment Adviser, following the death of Ian Rushbrook four years ago.

The secular bear market in UK and US equities is now in its thirteenth year. How much longer must we wait until we can again be fully invested (or even geared!) and reap the double-digit returns we long for? Ask the policy makers! Stocks would be considerably lower were central banks not keeping stock prices artificially high by means of zero interest rates and quantitative easing. Despite these interferences, stock markets have gone sideways during the past year. Savers have not been rewarded for taking risk and hence our cautious strategy has paid off, for now, although we are likely to lag short term rises in the market should further monetary interventions be forthcoming.

Politicians in Europe are confronted with the invidious choice between severe austerity, which is likely to lead to periodic recessions and declining tax revenues, or incautious borrowing in the hope of buying growth. Both approaches will eventually force governments to pay higher rates of interest on debts. The maths do not stack up. No wonder governments are looking to extricate themselves from an intractable problem by leaning on central bankers to pull their inflationary strings. But our greatest concern is that the European challenges that have dogged markets since early 2010 are merely the dress rehearsal for the main event – a US fiscal crisis. While the UK and Europe have at least tried to tame their budget deficits, the United States has pushed ever harder on the fiscal accelerator. Stock markets swooned last August when they got a shock preview of what might happen should the brakes be applied. Following the public disagreement in Washington over increasing the public debt ceiling, the Dow Jones Industrials Index fell 13% in seven trading days. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

August 16, 2012 at 7:56 PM

The truth about future economic growth

Rob Arnott, the chairman of Research Affiliates, is one of the most articulate and interesting market analysts in the States, and someone whose ideas and research I have followed for a number of years. In my latest 30-minute podcast, I discuss with him the outlook for investment returns – and how they will be dramatically influenced by what he calls the three Ds now hanging over the world – debt, deficits and demographics. All three are conspiring to drag down likely future rates of economic growth in the developed world. Investors need not despair however, Rob argues: better returns are available if investors switch their focus from conventional benchmarks to a multi-asset strategy based on broad economic, rather than purely financial, criteria. Before listening in, click the link below to download a copy of the slides he used to develop his arguments at a recent presentation to a London Stock Exchange seminar. The podcast can be downloaded from here. Recommended.

Arnott LSE Presentation July 2012

Written by Jonathan Davis

July 29, 2012 at 5:30 PM

The Eurozone revisited

The latest Eurozone summit, the19th or 20th, depending how you count, has so far been well received by the financial markets. As always, however, this is not quite what it appears. The biggest mistake you can make is to impute approval or disapproval of recent developments to instant market reactions. You always need to take into account the context.

In this case the context was that few observers expected anything postiive to emerge from the summit and therefore the limited progress that was made can be classified as some sort of success, if only when compared to those low original expectations. The truth is that nothing much has changed, despite the optimistic noises coming out of various interested European parties.

Mrs Merkel made some apparent concessions at the summit, but they do not amount to much, when examined in the cold light of day. She is confident that she had not conceded much, and while subject to a range of domestic political pressures, there is no sign that Germany is ready to give in on the substantive measures that would be needed to give the Eurozone a chance of survival in its present form.

And that of course is to make the heroic assumption that even if Germany did agree to mutualisation of sovereign debt across Europe, and the fiscal and banking integration that would be needed to make that enforceable, it still might not solve the problems of banking weakness and lack of competitiveness that are the underlying causes of the current crisis. There is no magic wand to put those things right and it will take years for the necessary reforms to be shown to work in Italy, Spain and Greece.

Written by Jonathan Davis

July 5, 2012 at 8:03 PM

Posted in Debt Crisis, Eurozone

Talking markets: Jim Rogers

Global investor Jim Rogers thinks that the world is heading for an economic depression unless political leaders finally grasp the nettle of the debt burden they have accumulated over the past decade. He is not optimistic about the outcome. Bankrupt countries such as Greece need to default – and soooner rather than later. The longer they leave it, the worse the eventual outcome will be. Hear more of this – and how Jim is seeking to protect his own wealth in these difficult times – in my latest podcast, a 30-minute interview with one of the smartest investors I know. It is available to download from the Independent Investor website now. An edited transcript will be available in the New Year.

Written by Jonathan Davis

January 3, 2012 at 5:56 PM

Mark Mobius on the Eurozone crisis

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How does Mark Mobius see the outlook for investors in the light of the ongoing crisis in the Eurozone? You can find out by listening in to my latest podcast interview, which can now be downloaded from the Independent Investor website (link). Dr Mobius, who next year celebrates 25 years running the Templeton emerging markets funds business, with $40 billion of assets under management, discusses the threats and opportunities which the crisis has created.  This is the first of a series of podcast interviews with leading professional investors and advisers. Other to be interviewed in the series include the global investor Jim Rogers, author and economist John Kay and Guy Monson, the Chief Investment Officer of the Swiss private bank Sarasin.

Written by Jonathan Davis

December 11, 2011 at 6:58 PM

Forecasts be damned

If someone told you that the end of the world was coming tomorrow, and the day passed without incident, would you be inclined to believe the same person the next time they came out with a piece of radical advice? I doubt it.  Yet one of the wonders of markets and economics is how quickly even sensible investors will switch their assumptions about the future without missing a beat.

The latest example of this bizarre phenomenon was evident in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. The independent Office for Budget Responsibility, run by Robert Chote, a formidably bright former economist colleague of mine on The Independent, has drastically reduced its forecasts of future economic growth. They are radically different from the forecasts the same body presented just a few months ago. Yet by some magical process they are already being treated as gospel truth. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

December 3, 2011 at 11:30 AM

Good news, bad news for equities

Why have I mentioned more than once the possibility of a strong stock market rally coming soon? There are several factors at work here. The normal end of year experience of markets finishing strongly is one of them. The oversold technical position in many markets, allied to very low trading volumes, negative headlines in the media and deeply bearish sentiment, is another. More fundamental though is the possibility – which I now rate quite high – that Germany will in due course sanction some kind of ECB involvement in the Eurozone crisis that will provide a trigger for all the investors currently sitting nervously on their hands to rush back into the market. It may not yet happen – the politics of the Eurozone remain fragile and complex, and nothing is certain – but if it does the effect in the short term could be very powerful.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

November 24, 2011 at 3:15 PM

Those damned voters…

Did I say there was a need to take these markets one step at a time yesterday? Make that one day at a time. The unexpected decision yesterday by the Greek Prime Minister to call for a referendum on the eurozone package clearly introduces a whole new element of uncertainty into the outlook for financial assets. It almost certainly brings forward the date when Greece defaults and leaves the euro (as eventually it must).

It has never been obvious to me that staying in the euro is the best option for the Greek people, and that may well turn out to be what they think too.  They may opt to take the Icelandic route and vote for the devil they don’t know in preference to the one they do, which has little obvious to commend it.  The decision of the Eurozone to go all out for monetary union without waiting to establish the necessary fiscal  and political regime that was needed to make it workable has always been its most serious flaw, but sadly not the only one.

A consistent failure to consult or carry public opinion has been another hallmark of the whole EU project, and one that may now prove very costly to its architects. Markets hate uncertainty, but if the prospect of a referendum in Greece now forces the Eurozone leadership to start planning properly for the consequences of at least a partial breakup of the single currency, instead of trying to do everything to avoid even thinking about such an outcome, it will be no bad thing. Look out next for the departure of Berlusconi.

Written by Jonathan Davis

November 1, 2011 at 10:31 AM

Nose out of book

After several weeks immersed in completing the book I have been writing on the investment methods of Sir John Templeton, to be pubished in the spring next year, this week sees the return of this blog to active duty. The past three months in the financial markets have been amongst the strangest and most volatile I can remember for some while - certainly since the great crisis of 2008. Two main things (the Eurozone crisis/horror movie and an apparent slowdown in the recovery of the US economy) have dominated market sentiment throughout these months, leading to a huge amount of displacement activity by anxious investors, and a good deal of hyperbole amongst the commentariat.

Suffice it to say that the news on both counts appears to have improved in the last few days. Although the Eurozone crisis is clearly still a long way from being resolved, the US data does appear to point to things picking up on the other side of the Atlantic, which should silence the most extreme prophets of doom for a while, at least.  Having broken out of their trading range, it will be surprising if equity markets do not finish the year on a relatively strong note, perhaps even crawling their way back to the level at which they started the year. The prospect of new bouts of quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve and Bank of England have dampened yields on long term Government bond, but the sovereign debt of overborrowed developed countries continues to look a/the most vulnerable asset class on any but the shortest of time horizons. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

October 31, 2011 at 4:04 PM

Mr Bernanke, Japan and the US debt problem

Today saw the start of a significant rally in the US stock market for the first time in several days, and a significant day for the UK stock market, where the yield on the equity market briefly rose above that of the 10-year bond yield, traditionally an early warning signal that equities will deliver good returns over the medium term. It still looks like being a long hot August, however, with the Eurozone crisis showing little immediate signs of easing.

It was naughty - but oh so pointed – of Albert Edwards, the very bearish  market strategist at Soc Gen, to point out what Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, had to say in the now infamous “helicopter Ben” speech nine years ago. That was the speech, made well before he succeeded Alan Greenspan in the top job at the Federal Reserve, in which he expressed absolute confidence that the US would never again be allowed to experience a deflationary recession.

The Fed, he said, quite unequivocally, had the tools, in the shape of the printing presses, with which it could be sure of preventing deflation (and boy, you might say, has he used them already!).  But then, he asked – rhetorically – in his speech: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

August 9, 2011 at 4:17 PM

Time to watch that basket closely

An interesting range of views from market-watchers in this story from the Financial Times today.  Investors are slowly waking up to the lopsided nature of the currrent global market dynamics, in which there is an apparently real risk of a severe negative market event – either in Europe or in the United States – but one which still falls short of being a likely outcome.

How to position yourself  if you rate the probability of this occurring at say 20%? Is that high enough to justify taking extreme defensive action in anticipation of just such an outcome? That will ultimately depend on your tolerance for risk. A number of well regarded fund managers whose opinions I track have taken their holdings of cash to higher than normal levels in recenet weeks, although few have taken it as far as George Soros, whose Quantum Endowment Fund,  as I noted yesterday, is reported to be 75% in cash (although this is likely to include a range of currencies, which these days are often treated as proxies for other types of investment).

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

July 29, 2011 at 6:08 PM

A $100 billion dollar warning

There is an interesting profile in the latest issue of the New Yorker about Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, one of the world most successful macro hedge fund businesses, in the tradition of George Soros and Julian Robertson. Mr Soros has meanwhile just announced that he is closing his Quantum Endowment Fund to outside investors, ostensibly because of the impact of new regulations, and will in future run it solely as a family office.

Bridgewater Associates has around $100 billion under mangement and both anticipated and weathered the credit crisis with some success. Unlike the Quantum Fund, which until it changed its objective in 2000 from aggressive return-sekking to wealth preservation was famous for its big concentrated bets, the firm’s Pure Alpha fund is up around 10% this year while most hedge funds have struggled to make any money at all. Its style is to make a wide range of bets, many of them paired – buying platinum or selling silver, for example – in an effort to do what hedge funds were originally designed to do, which is to reduce correlation to the market’s overall movement. Dalio’s speciality is making calls on bond and currency markets.

While a lot of the New Yorker article is devoted to the unusual way in which Bridgewater Associates is run, it also contains Dalio’s judgment on current market conditions. “We are still in a deleveraging period” he says, and “we will be in a deleveraging period for ten years or more”. The article continues:

Dalio believes that some heavily indebted countries, including the United States, will eventually opt for printing money as a way to deal with their debts, which will lead to a collapse in their currency and in their bond markets. “There hasn’t been a case in history where they haven’t eventually printed money and devalued their currency,” he said.

Other developed countries, particularly those tied to the euro and thus to the European Central Bank, don’t have the option of printing money and are destined to undergo “classic depressions,” Dalio said. The recent deal to avoid an immediate debt default by Greece didn’t alter his pessimistic view. “People concentrate on the particular thing of the moment, and they forget the larger underlying forces,” he said. “That’s what got us into the debt crisis. It’s just today, today.”‘

But he also makes the obvious point that timing is the key to getting these big calls right. “I think late 2012 or early 2013 is going to be another very difficult period” is his reported view. That has always been my expectation too, but recent events – the muted response to the latest Greek bailout plan and the ongoing stalemate over the US debt ceiling (which Soros dismissed last week as “theatre”) -  may of course be bringing the point of crisis nearer.

That may of course also be one reason why the Quantum Fund is currently reported to be sitting with 75% of its assets in cash. However if the debt deal is done, which still looks the more likely outcome, there could be a decent rally in risk assets over the last few months of the year.

Written by Jonathan Davis

July 28, 2011 at 12:31 PM

A right old mess

The risk that the sovereign debt crisis could spiral out of control in the face of inadequate political will to resolve the crisis is clearly growing the longer that the impasse in the Eurozone (over peripheral country debt) and the United States (over lifting the debt ceiling) continues. Suggestions that we are in danger of a rerun of 2008 are not, alas, fanciful, and are growing by the day.

This is how the hedge fund manager Crispin Odey summed up the situation today, noting first the standoff in the United States, where both political parties seem blissfully unaware of the stakes for which they are playing.

The markets should be scared of such political madness, but instead the dollar benefits from greater madness emanating out of Europe. Greece is bust. Easy. However Germany and the Netherlands need to realise the necessity of recirculating the savings flows back into Spain and Italy. This current malaise provides an anvil upon which those countries can be hammered. A Euro in which deposits from southern Europe flood to Germany and are not re-exported except reluctantly by the ECB is ultimately doomed to expire. The timing of this is dangerous. Politicians are going away on holiday, but the markets will not wait. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

July 19, 2011 at 10:48 AM

Mixed messages from the markets

Two contrasting views today that neatly sum up the current rather feverish market dynamics. This link summarises Deutsche Bank’s view that the worst case outcome the Eurozone crisis could be a 35% fall in global stock markets. And here, on the other hand, is the latest weekly view from fund managers Artemis, citing six reasons to be cheerful.

Of course the whole world could still go to blazes in debt’s handcart. It might well. But on balance, we prefer to remember that the FTSE 100 is (just) above its level as 2011 began. And that’s despite, it’s worth remembering, Japan’s tsunami, war in Libya, Arabian unrest, nemesis in Greece and the end of American QE.

Corporate health. Sure, there’s more bad news to come, we reckon, for most UK retailers. But there’s still much less credit risk in most companies than there is in governments. Take a stock like Hunting (oilfield services). It has cash of £300 million, a third of its market cap. Or publisher Reed. It’s priced at 11.5x, has a 4% yield, diversified earnings and improving margins. Japan’s NTT Docomo (mobile telecoms, 3.8% yield) has more cash than it knows what to do with.

M&A. Weaker sterling makes UK assets even more attractive to foreign (war) chests. Negative real interest rates in the west. These force investors, reluctantly or otherwise, into (high yielding) equities. Pessimism. It’s pronounced. If history has any predictive power, the gloom suggests this is a ‘buying signal’. Emerging markets. China seems to be Goldilockian. The prospects are patent, and the growth is good. The best western companies will continue to make their money there, not here. QE2. Its positive effects will take time, but will benefit the US economy.

What all this confirms to me is that the market, as always, has great difficulty in finding a level when there is a wide range of potential outcomes, some of them extreme. The Eurozone crisis is a good case in point.  The way the crisis has evolved is as much an indictment of the inadequate way that Europe’s political class have responded to the new threat of sovereign debt default as it is about the underlying gravity of the potential problem.

Meanwhile, the interesting part about Mr Bernanke’s recent testimony, to my mind, is the reaffirmation that his whole approach to running the Federal Reserve is rooted in his paramount desire to avoid deflation at any cost.  if he does restart a further round of printing money (quantitative easing), it will be because the Fed sees a real risk of deflation once more.

The odds are still against a worst case outcome at this point, but there is no denying that it is a possibility, and that is what sends risk-averse investors scuttling for protection. In these circumstances remember all those stories about a big turn in sentiment towards gold and other commodities in the early part of the year? Gold’s continued ascent to new highs tells a different story.

Written by Jonathan Davis

July 15, 2011 at 2:00 PM

Economists and banks

Some observations on economists from veteran US investor Laslzo Birinyi, writing in the Financial Times.

In my experience, economists are not equipped by training or discipline to provide insight and guidance on stocks. As manifest by an number of cliches, the bond market is about here and now, while stocks are always looking ahead. Hence economists, almost by definition, “lead from the rear”.

Their recent concern regarding the banks and the implication for the financial system may indeed be correct, but I would note that the recent weakness of the traditional banks is actually the norm. In the nine bull markets back to 1962, 48 per cent of banks’s ultimate gains was made in the first two months of the rally. In the last two bull markets, after the first two months, banks not only underperformed, they were actually down the rest of the rally.

US bank shares certainly have been going nowhere for some time.

Meanwhile, as the market has been indicating since the weekend, the narrow Greek vote in favour of the austerity programme – although it does nothing but defer the country’s inevitable sovereign debt default  - looks likely to be the trigger for a reversal of the straight line fall in equities and bond yields which has been such a striking feature of the last two months in the markets.

Written by Jonathan Davis

June 30, 2011 at 6:41 AM

Q and A with Jonathan Ruffer

Most subscribers to my blog know that you can find an archive of my FT columns on the Independent Investor website. I have also added there a transcript of an interview with Jonathan Ruffer, the founder of Ruffer Investment Management (now Ruffer LLP), which formed part of the research for my most recent contribution to The Spectator, which appeared in last week’s issue.

Ruffer has been pursuing its distinctive absolute return approach to investment since 1994. Results to date have been outstanding: double digit compound growth with low volatility. Here is an extract from the Q and A, describing in Ruffer’s own words how his team predicted the onset of the credit crunch well before it happened:

I think the trouble with human beings, and certainly with the market, is that the market is an idiot savant.  If it picks up a thought, it can get almost immediately to the most sophisticated implication that derives from that thought. But if it isn’t thinking that thought, something can be crashingly obvious and nobody picks it up. A good example of that, something that we called to the detail, was the credit crunch of 2008, when we had a double-digit return despite being a long-only house. The truth is that, although the timing of 2008 wasn’t obvious, the event itself was fantastically obvious.

Once every generation or so what happens is that whole societies decide to borrow money. You get an inflection point when greed turns to fear, everybody runs for cover, and everybody wants to sell the collateral. What happens is not just that asset prices go down, but that the markets glitch up and that rocks a financial system to its very foundations.  Put like that, the credit crunch was obvious. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

October 18, 2010 at 10:40 AM

A Measured View of the Debt Crisis

Edward Chancellor, the financial historian now working for Jeremy Grantham’s fund management company, has done more than anyone to illuminate the imminence and consequences of the global debt crisis. In his most recent White Paper on the subject, he picks a measured path through the thickets of what soveriegn debt problems mean for economies and for investors. Among the key points I picked out from his eight page study are these:

1. Rapid increases in sovereign debt don’t have to lead to default or high inflation, although more often than not they do. One classic example is Britain after the Napoleonic wars. More recent examples, we know, include Sweden, Finland, and Canada in the 1990s. Swedish gross government debt fell from a peak of 84% of Swedish GDP to below 45% within three years.

2. Inflation and/or currency debasement is however more often than not the way out. It is politically more convenient and generally the easier option. Sometimes, when things have really deteriorated, it is the only option. Because repaying debt rewards the wealthy at the expense of the poor, devaluing the currency is, to borrow a phrase from Keynes, “the line of least resistance… it is, so to speak, nature’s remedy, which comes into silent operation when the body politic has shrunk from curing itself.”

3. The biggest problem today is that many countries today have very large structural budget deficits that cannot be fixed as readily as Britain was able to solve its Napoleonic war debt. The largest structural deficits, according to the Bank for International Settlements, are in the UK (10% of GDP), US, Ireland and Japan. What is more, these calculations exclude both the growing burden of unfunded liabilities such as pension and healthcare costs, which as we all know are enormous, and the bank guarantees given during the recent crisis.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Jonathan Davis

July 16, 2010 at 12:28 PM