May 2016 Monthly Market And Economic Outlook

Amy MagnottaAmy Magnotta, CFASenior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital

Continuing the rally that began in mid-February, risk assets posted modest gains in April, helped by more dovish comments from the Federal Reserve and further gains in oil prices. Expectations regarding the pace of additional rate hikes by the Fed have been tempered from where they started the year. Economic data releases were mixed, and while a majority of companies beat earnings expectations, earnings growth has been negative year over year.

The S&P 500 Index gained 0.4% for the month. Energy and materials were by far the strongest performing sectors, returning 8.7% and 5.0% respectively. On the negative side was technology and the more defensive sectors like consumer staples, telecom and utilities. U.S. small and micro-cap companies outpaced large caps during the month, and value continued to outpace growth.

International equity markets outperformed U.S. equity markets in April, helped by further weakness in the U.S. dollar. Developed international markets, led by solid returns from Japan and the Eurozone, outpaced emerging markets. Within emerging markets, strong performance from Brazil was offset by weaker performance in emerging Asia.

The Barclays Aggregate Index return was in line with that of the S&P 500 Index in April. Treasury yields were relatively unchanged, but solid returns from investment grade credit helped the index. High-yield credit spreads continued to contract throughout the month, leading to another month of strong gains for the asset class.

We remain positive on risk assets over the intermediate-term; however, we acknowledge that we are in the later innings of the bull market that began in 2009 and the second half of the business cycle. The worst equity market declines are typically associated with recessions, which are preceded by aggressive central bank tightening or accelerating inflation, factors which are not present today.  While our macro outlook is biased in favor of the positives and a near-term end to the business cycle is not our base case, the risks must not be ignored.

A number of factors we find supportive of the economy and markets over the near term.

Global monetary policy remains accommodative: The Fed’s approach to tightening monetary policy is patient and data dependent.  The Bank of Japan and the ECB have been more aggressive with easing measures in an attempt to support their economies, while China may require additional support.

Stable U.S. growth and tame inflation: U.S. economic growth has been modest but steady. While first quarter growth was muted at an annualized rate of +0.5%, we expect to see a bounce in the second quarter as has been the pattern. Payroll employment growth has been solid and the unemployment rate has fallen to 5.0%. Wage growth has been tepid at best despite the tightening labor market, and reported inflation measures and inflation expectations, while off the lows, remain below the Fed’s target.

U.S. fiscal policy more accommodative: With the new budget, fiscal policy is poised to become modestly accommodative in 2016, helping offset more restrictive monetary policy.

Constructive backdrop for U.S. consumer: The U.S. consumer should see benefits from lower energy prices and a stronger labor market.

However, risks facing the economy and markets remain, including:

Risk of policy mistake: The potential for a policy mistake by the Fed or another major central bank is a concern, and central bank communication will be key. In the U.S. the subsequent path of rates is uncertain and may not be in line with market expectations, which could lead to increased volatility. Negative interest rates are already prevalent in other developed market economies. An event that brings into question central bank credibility could weigh on markets.

Slower global growth: Economic growth outside the U.S. is decidedly weaker, and while China looks to be improving, a significant slowdown remains a concern.

Another downturn in commodity prices: Oil prices have rebounded off of the recent lows and lower energy prices on the whole benefit the consumer; however, another significant leg down in prices could become destabilizing. This could also trigger further weakness in the high yield credit markets, which have recovered since oil bottomed in February.

Presidential Election Uncertainty: The lack of clarity will likely weigh on investors leading up to November’s election. Depending on the rhetoric, certain sectors could be more impacted.

The technical backdrop of the market has improved, as have credit conditions, while the macroeconomic environment leans favorable. Investor sentiment moved from extreme pessimism levels in early 2016 back into more neutral territory. Valuations are at or slightly above historical averages, but we need to see earnings growth reaccelerate. We expect a higher level of volatility as markets assess the impact of slower global growth and actions of policymakers; but our view on risk assets still tilts positive over the near term. Higher volatility has led to attractive pockets of opportunity we can take advantage of as active managers.

Source: Brinker Capital. Views expressed are for informational purposes only. Holdings subject to change. Not all asset classes referenced in this material may be represented in your portfolio. All investments involve risk including loss of principal. Fixed income investments are subject to interest rate and credit risk. Foreign securities involve additional risks, including foreign currency changes, political risks, foreign taxes, and different methods of accounting and financial reporting. Brinker Capital Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor.

Has Quantitative Easing Worked? A Two-Part Blog Series Perspective (Part II)

Solomon-(2)Brad Solomon, Junior Investment Analyst

Part two in a two-part blog series discussing quantitative easing measures on a domestic and global scale. Part one published last week.

Transmission to Main Street has been dubious.

The Fed’s FRB/US model, which is the workhorse behind quantifying QE’s transmission mechanisms into the general economy, forecasted a 0.2 percentage-point drop in unemployment over a 2-year time horizon as a result of a $500 billion LSAP, according to then-Fed governor Stein in 2012. Given that the cumulative scale of QE in the U.S. totaled around $4 trillion over about 4.4 years, excluding intermittent periods between buying sprees, the FRB/US model would then forecast a reduction in unemployment of 1.6 percentage points. (This assumes that there are no marginally diminishing returns to QE dollars.) Building in a “lag” of six months, the actual U.S. unemployment rate fell by 4.0 percentage points during this period and currently hovers near 5%, right above what is often pegged as the natural rate of unemployment. To what extent that reduction is due to QE, though, is very difficult to answer—there is no “control subject” in real-world experiments. The next-best-option is the event study that looks at variables prior to and following some stimulus, although this risks blending the effect with some other variable. While unemployment has fallen near its natural rate, anecdotal evidence speaks to widespread underemployment

Other metrics look either ambiguous or decidedly impressive. Across the U.S., U.K., Eurozone, and Japan, industrial production growth has been significantly more volatile than it was pre-recession; unemployment has fallen, with exception of the Eurozone where it has marched further upward after a double-dip recession in 2013; household saving as a percent of disposable income has come down substantially. Lack of healthy inflation has proven to be the fly in the ointment. Nearly 30 countries have explicitly adopted inflation targeting (around half of those in the last 15 years), but the majority continue to be plagued by nagging disinflation or outright deflation. Consider the poster child Japan who pioneered QE over the 2001-2006 period in its commitment to purchase $3-6 trillion in Japanese government bonds (JGBs) per month until core CPI became “stably above zero.” While the Bank of Japan wrapped up with the program in March 2006 after witnessing year-over-year core CPI in Japan clock in just above zero for three consecutive months, this was more of a mathematical win. Headline inflation over the period picked up solely due to a rapid rise in the price of crude oil, which arguably has little connection to monetary policy. This is not to say that some commentators have not already called for an indefinite deflationary environment, or that QE’s effects on the money supply don’t appear ambiguous.

Getting back to using the U.S. as an example, income growth has not followed the drop in unemployment, and inequality has persisted. Annualized growth rates since 2010 have been near zero and well below their long-term averages, and the lack of growth is particularly pronounced in the lower income quintiles.

Solomon_QE_4

On another front, record-low mortgage rates are undoubtedly a product of QE but have not translated into pre-2008 home buying, even in the presence of rising FICO scores and real home prices that are hovering around their 10-year trailing average. In fairness to QE, though, there simply seems to be a lack of a relationship between the cost of borrowing money to buy a home, and the demand for borrowing that money, as evidenced by the chart below.

Solomon_QE_5

QE’s efficacy seems to have varied case-by-case, and there is a growing consensus that there are diminishing marginal returns to QE.

Of this last point, Japan and the ECB should take note. While the Bank of Japan refrained from expanding its QE program at its meeting this past Friday above the current $670 billion p.a. rate, such expansion remains on the table for its November and December meetings. A similar decision faces the ECB in December, and the rhetoric of ECB President Mario Draghi has been mostly dovish in tone. (The annual rate of asset purchases by the ECB currently stands at about $816 billion.) While both banks will ultimately adhere to their mandates in trying to combat deflation and negative export growth, perhaps expectations should be set low for how effective further QE will be in meeting those mandates.

Proponents of real business cycle theory would not be surprised at much of the above—that is, that aggressive monetary policy has failed to override a general shift in appetites for home-buying, tepid supply-glut disinflation, reduced appetite by banks to lend, and the preference by businesses towards doing nothing productive with bond issuance besides repurchasing their own equity. These “exogenous” factors may overpower the stimulatory nature of QE, or the problem may be one of model specification. (Getting back to the home sales/mortgage rate example, QE may do its job of lowering borrowing rates, but this may not ultimately stoke home-buying appetites, which is a failure of the assumed indirect transmission mechanism that underlies QE’s founding.) Whatever the case, while it has helped solve short-run liquidity problems by injecting cash into the financial system, QE has proven sub-optimal in terms of being a cure-all to the woe of general economic lethargy.

Further reading

  1. Fawley, Brett & Christopher Neely. “Four Stories of Quantitative Easing.” (2013)
  2. Krishnamurthy, Arvind & Annette Vissing-Jorgensen. “The Ins and Outs of LSAPs.” (2013)
  3. Klyuev, Vladimir et. al. “Unconventional Choices for Unconventional Times.” (2009)
  4. McTeer, Robert. “Why Quantitative Easing May Not Work the Same Way in Europe as in the U.S.” (2015)
  5. Raab, Carolin et. al. “Large-Scale Asset Purchases by Central Banks II: Empirical Evidence.” (2015)
  6. Schuman, Michael. “Does QE Work? Ask Japan.” (2010)
  7. Stein, Jeremy. “Evaluating Large-Scale Asset Purchases.” (2012)
  8. Williams, John. “Monetary Policy at the Zero Lower Bound.” (2014)
  9. Williamson, Stephen D. “Current Federal Reserve Policy Under the Lens of Economic History.” (2015)
  10. Yardeni, Edward & Mali Quintana. “Global Economic Briefing: Central Bank Balance Sheets.” (2015)

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change. Brinker Capital, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor.

Has Quantitative Easing Worked? A Two-Part Blog Series Perspective

Solomon-(2)Brad Solomon, Junior Investment Analyst

Part one in a two-part blog series discussing quantitative easing measures on a domestic and global scale.

As policy rates hover near (or below) zero, the focus has been on the timing and magnitude of rate hikes by the Fed and other central banks. Don’t worry, I’m not here to add my speculative voice to that crowded discussion. Instead, I want to provide a quick ex-post assessment of another tool that has left the spotlight after being largely phased out by the Fed. I’m talking about quantitative easing (QE)—the buying of massive amounts of financial assets—or large-scale asset purchases (LSAPs) as they are termed by some economists.

At its core, QE attempts to influence the supply and demand for financial assets, thereby shifting preferences towards spending and investment and away from saving. (For those interested in getting further into the weeds on QE’s theoretical underpinnings, check out Ben Bernanke’s 2012 Jackson Hole speech, Jeremy Stein’s remarks that same year, or this release by the IMF.) Among the U.S., U.K., Japan, and the ECB, the scope of QE to date has amounted to around 10-20% of 2014 nominal GDP. To put that into perspective for the U.S.’s case, that is about the magnitude of U.S. total federal discretionary spending over the trailing four years.

Solomon_QE_1

So, with the Bank of Japan and ECB contemplating expanding quantitative easing at their upcoming meetings, does the existing research generally conclude that QE globally has been a few trillion dollars well spent? Let’s take a closer look.

LSAPs have seemed to benefit U.S. equities unequivocally well, and international equities less so. Evidence on financial system vitality is mixed.

The algebraic explanation is relatively straightforward: the yield on risk-free securities is an element of the discount rate used to value stocks and other assets. Artificially keeping this rate low, as well as creating expectations that it will stay that way, increases the discounted present value of other financial assets. However, only in the U.S. has the annualized return of that country’s respective MSCI index over the past five years exceeded the return required by a general equity risk premium of 5.57% (from Fama & French, 2002) and country risk premiums as computed by Aswatch Damodaran of NYU (2015).

Solomon_QE_2

Evidence on QE’s ability to reduce stress within the financial system is mixed. Event studies show that QE announcements were followed by sharp reductions in financial stress indicators, which consist of variables including the TED spread, corporate bond spreads, and beta of banking stocks. However, some studies on Japan’s experience with QE assert that it took a substantial amount of time for bank lending to improve, as banks were burdened by nonperforming loans and uneasiness towards extending credit.

Solomon_QE_3

Furthermore, QE may have also distorted asset prices (some have gone far enough to use the term bond bubble) while creating “price-insensitive buyers,” a term used by Ben Inker of GMO to describe an investor for whom the expected return on the asset does not dictate their decision to purchase.

Look for part two of this blog series later in the week.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change.

An End to Complacency

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Portfolio Specialist, Brinker Capital

Volatility abruptly made an entrance onto the global stage, shoving aside the complacency that has reigned over the world’s equity markets this year as they have marched steadily from record high to record high. Asset prices were driven sharply lower last week, as gathering concerns that the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States may be closer than anticipated to raising interest rates, combined with increasing worries about the possibility of deflation in the Eurozone, and a default by the nation of Argentina, to weigh heavily on investor sentiment. The selling seen across equity markets last Thursday was particularly emphatic, with declining stocks listed on the NYSE outpacing those advancing by a ratio of 10:1, and the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index (VIX), which measures expected market volatility, climbing 25% to its highest point in four months, all combining to erase the entirety of the gains in the Dow Jones Industrial Average for the year.

Preisser_Complacency_8.4.14The looming specter of the termination of the Federal Reserve’s bond-buying program, which is scheduled for October, is beginning to cast its shadow over the marketplace as this impending reality, coupled with fears that the Central Bank will be forced to raise interest rates earlier than expected, has served to raise concerns. Evidence of this could be found last Wednesday, where, on a day that saw a report of Gross Domestic Product in the United States that far exceeded expectations, growing last quarter at an annualized pace of 4%, vs. the 2.1% contraction seen during the first three months of the year, and a policy statement from the Federal Reserve which relayed that, “short-term rates will stay low for a considerable time after the asset purchase program ends” (Wall Street Journal) equity markets could only muster a tepid response. It was the dissenting voice of Philadelphia Fed President, Charles Plosser who opined that, “the guidance on interest rates wasn’t appropriate given the considerable economic progress officials had already witnessed” (Wall Street Journal), which seemed to resonate the loudest among investors, giving them pause that this may be a signal of deeper differences beginning to emerge within the Federal Open Market Committee. Concern was further heightened on Thursday morning of last week, when a report of the Employment Cost Index revealed an unexpected increase to 0.7% for the second quarter vs. a 0.3% rise for the first quarter (New York Times), which stoked nascent fears of inflation, bolstering the case for the possibility of a more rapid increase in rates.

Negative sentiment weighed heavily on equity markets outside of the U.S. as well last week, as the possibility of deflationary pressures taking hold across the nations of Europe’s Monetary Union, combined with ongoing concerns over the situation in Ukraine and the second default in thirteen years by Argentina on its debt to unsettle market participants. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Euro-zone inflation increased at an annual rate of just 0.4% in July, having risen by 0.5% the month before. In July 2013 the rate was 1.6%” While a fall in prices certainly can be beneficial to consumers, it is when a negative spiral occurs, as a result of a steep decline, to the point where consumption is constrained, that it becomes problematic. Once these forces begin to take hold, it can be quite difficult to reverse them, which explains the concern it is currently generating among investors. The continued uncertainty around the fallout from the latest round of sanctions imposed on Russia, as a result of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, further undermined confidence in stocks listed across the Continent and contributed to the selling pressure.

ArgentinaInto this myriad of challenges facing the global marketplace came news of a default by Argentina, after the country missed a $539 interest payment, marking the second time in thirteen years they have failed to honor portions of their sovereign debt obligations. The head of research at Banctrust & Co. was quoted by Bloomberg News, “the full consequences of default are not predictable, but they certainly are not positive. The economy, already headed for its first annual contraction since 2002 with inflation estimated at 40 percent, will suffer in a default scenario as Argentines scrambling for dollars cause the peso to weaken and activity to slump.”

With all of the uncertainty currently swirling in these, “dog days of summer,” it is possible that the declines we have seen of late may be emblematic of an increase in volatility in the weeks to come as we move ever closer to the fall, and the terminus of the Fed’s asset purchases.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are not intended as investment advice or recommendation. For informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change.

Eurozone Crisis Report Card

Ryan DresselRyan Dressel, Investment Analyst, Brinker Capital

In January 2013 Amy Magnotta wrote in detail about how the actions of the European Central Bank (ECB) finally gave the markets confidence that policy makers could get their sovereign debt problems under control.[1] The purpose of this blog is to measure the progress of the ECB’s actions, as well as other critical steps taken to resolve the Eurozone crisis.

Maintaining the Euro: A+
The markets put a lot of faith in the comments made by the head of the ECB Mario Draghi in July, 2012. Draghi stated that he would “Pledge to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro.” These words have proven to be monumental in preserving the euro as a currency. Following his announcement, the ECB still had to put together a plan that would be approved by the ECB’s governing council (comprised of banking representatives from each of the 18 EU countries)[2]. The politics of the approval essentially boiled down to whether or not each council member supported the euro as a currency. Draghi’s plan ultimately passed when Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, endorsed it in September 2012.[3] The stabilization of the euro boosted lending and borrowing for European banks, and allowed governments to introduce necessary economic reforms outlined in the plan.

Since the plan was approved, the euro’s value versus the U.S. Dollar has continued to rise; reaching levels last seen in 2011. There is still some debate as to whether or not the currency will last over the long term, but for now its stability has helped avoid the worst possible outcome (financial collapse). There are several key elections coming up over the next month, which could renew the threat of breaking up the currency if anti-EU officials are elected.

Government Deficit Levels: B
The average Eurozone government deficit came in at 3.0% in 2013, which was down from 3.7% in 2012. Budgets will need to remain tight for years to come.

Corporate Earnings: B
The MSCI Europe All Cap Index has returned 27.46% in 2013 and 5.01% so far in 2014 (as of last week). The Euro area also recorded first quarter 2014 GDP growth at +0.2% (-1.2% in Q1 2013).[4] This indicates that companies in Europe have established some positive earnings growth since the peak of the crisis. On a global scale, Europe looks like an attractive market for growth.

Dressel_EuroZone_ReportCard_5.30.14

Unemployment: C
Unemployment in the Eurozone has stabilized, but has not improved significantly enough to overcome its structural problems. The best improvements have come out of Spain, Ireland and Portugal due to a variety of reasons. In Ireland, emigration has helped reduce jobless claims while a majority of economic sectors increased employment growth. In Spain, the increased competitiveness in the manufacturing sector has been a large contributor. Portugal has seen a broad reduction in unemployment stemming from the strict labor reforms mandated by the ECB in exchange for bailout packages. These reforms are increasing worker hours, cutting overtime payments, reducing holidays, and giving companies the ability to replace poorly performing employees.[5]

Dressel_EuroZone_ReportCard_5.30.14_1[6]

There are also some important fundamental factors detracting from the overall labor market recovery. The large divide between temporary workers and permanent workers in many Eurozone countries has made labor markets especially difficult to reform. This is likely due to a mismatch of skills between employers and workers. High employment taxes and conservative decision-making by local governments and corporations have also created challenges for the recovery.

Additional Reading: Euro Area Labor Markets

Debt Levels: D
Total accumulated public debt in the Eurozone has actually gotten worse since the ECB’s plan was introduced. In 2013 it was 92.6% of gross domestic product, up from 90.7% in 2012. The stated European Union limit is 60%, which reflects the extremely high amount of government borrowing required to stabilize their economies.

Overall Recovery Progress: B-
On a positive note, governments are finally able to participate in bond markets without the fear of bankruptcy looming. Banks are lending again. Unemployment appears to have peaked and political officials recognize the importance of improving economic progress.

Unlike the 2008 U.S. recovery however, progress is noticeably slower. The social unrest, slow decision making, low confidence levels, and now geopolitical risks in Ukraine have hampered the recovery. When you consider the financial state of Europe less than two years ago, you have to give the ECB, and Europe in general, some credit. Things are slowly heading in the right direction.

The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are for informational purposes only. Holdings are subject to change.

[1] January 4, 2013. “Is Europe on the Mend?” http://blog.brinkercapital.com/2013/01/04/is-europe-on-the-mend/
[2]
European Central Bank. http://www.ecb.europa.eu/ecb/orga/decisions/govc/html/index.en.html
[3] September 6, 2012. “Technical features of Outright Monetary Transactions. European Central Bank.” http://www.ecb.europa.eu/press/pr/date/2012/html/pr120906_1.en.html
[4] Eurostat
[5] August 6, 2012. “Portugal Enforces Labour Reforms but More Demanded.” http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2012/08/port-a06.html
[6] Eurostat (provided by Google Public Data)

There’s a Reason It’s Cheap

Jeff RauppJeff Raupp, CFA, Senior Investment Manager

A few years ago when I was down the shore in New Jersey with my family, I decided it was time for my then nine- and six-year-old children to try one of my favorite childhood pastimes—boogie boarding. For those unfamiliar, a boogie board is a (very) poor-man’s version of a surf board; basically a short board that helps you ride waves either on your stomach or, if you’re really good, your knees. So we went to the store to buy a pair of boards and found a pretty wide price range— $10 for the 26-inch, all-foam board to $100+ for the 42-inch poly-something-or-other board with the hard-slick bottom. Being a bit of a value investor, and not knowing how much the kids would like riding waves, I went with something much closer to the bottom end of that range. To make a long story short, three hours later I found myself with a broken board (who knew a foam board couldn’t handle a 200+ lb dad demonstrating?), a broken ego, and a trip back to the store to purchase a new pair of boards—this time closer to the middle of the price range. A good lesson for the kids, but definitely a reinforced lesson for me, is often when something is cheap there’s a very good reason why.

8.22.13_Raupp_Cheap_1I’m reminded of this lesson when I look at global equity valuations, particularly those in Europe. Forward P/E ratios (stock price divided by the next 12 months of projected earnings) in most of the major Eurozone countries fall in the 10- to 12-times range, which is relatively cheap from a historical perspective. Compared to the U.S. at 14½ and other developed countries like Japan and Australia at close to 14, the region seems pretty attractive. Tack onto that that the Eurozone has just emerged from its longest recession ever, and the idea that markets are forward-looking, it would seem like a great opportunity to rotate assets into cheap markets as their economies are improving. And we’re seeing some of that in the third quarter, as the Europe-heavy MSCI EAFE index has outpaced the S&P 500 by about 3% quarter-to-date.

But, similar to low-priced boogie boards, buyers of European equities need to be aware of the risks that come with your “bargain” purchase. This past Tuesday, German finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble, admitted that there would need to be another Greek bailout next year even though they’ve been bailed out twice in the last four years and restructured (defaulted on) 25% of their debt in 2012. All told, about $500 billion has gone to support an economy with a 2013 GDP of about $250 billion, and it hasn’t been enough. And by the way, youth unemployment is approaching 60%, and 2013 has seen multiple protests and strikes over austerity measures.

8.22.13_Raupp_Cheap_2Beyond Greece, Portugal and Ireland are running national debts of over 120% of GDP and could need additional bailout money. Italy is operating with a divided government and a national debt of over 130% of GDP, and the Netherlands and Spain are still on the downward side of the housing bubble. Germany has been Europe’s economic powerhouse and has played an integral role in containing the debt issues on Europe’s southern periphery. But they’ve been grudging financiers, so much so that German chancellor Angela Merkel has gone to great lengths to avoid the topic of additional bailouts ahead of upcoming German elections.

Sometimes that bargain purchase works out. You get the right product on sale or you’re able to buy cheap markets when the negatives have already been baked into the price. But make sure you’re considering all the angles, or you could quickly end up back at the store.

Trouble in the Mediterranean

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Investment Strategist, Brinker Capital

Blue-chip stocks listed in the United States stumbled on their quest to reclaim the historic heights they recently attained, as a renewal of concerns from the European continent served to unsettle investors. Proverbial wisdom contends that markets will climb a, “wall of worry”, and this statement has rung particularly true this year as the Dow Jones Industrial Average has marched steadily higher amid a torrent of potential pitfalls. Up until this week, market participants have largely disregarded the political gridlock ensnaring Washington, D.C. and the possibility of a resurgence of the European sovereign debt crisis, instead clamoring for risk assets, and in so doing, have driven stocks into record territory. The current rally has, however, paused for the moment with the increased possibility that Cyprus may become the first member of the Eurozone to exit the currency union, once again casting the shadow of doubt across the Mediterranean Sea and onto the sustainability of this collection of countries.

A decision rendered by leaders of the European Union last weekend—to attempt to impose a tax on bank deposits within the nation of Cyprus in exchange for the release of rescue funds the country desperately needs—sent tremors through global financial markets. Although the Cypriot population stands at slightly more than one million citizens, making it one of the smallest countries in the Eurozone, the repercussions of this decision were felt across continents. Policy makers representing the nations of their monetary union hastily gathered to decide what conditions would need to be met in order to disperse the necessary financial aid to Cyprus, totaling ten billion euros, and in so doing, made a significant policy error. According to The New York Times on March 19, “Under the terms of Cyprus’ bailout, the government must raise 5.8 billion euros by levying a one-time tax of 9.9 percent on depositors with balances of more than 100,000 euros. Those with balances below that threshold would pay 6.75 percent, an asset tax that would still hit pensioners and the lowest -income earners hard.” Although the intentions of the European leaders making this decision were to target large foreign depositors, who have historically used the country’s banks as a tax haven, the proposed inclusion of those on the lower end of the spectrum has created widespread uncertainty.

EurosThe imposition of a tax on deposits that would include those of 100,000 euros and less, which had been guaranteed by insurance provided by the European Union, has created concerns over the stability of the banking system in Cyprus and by extension, that of the Eurozone in its entirety. By negating the very guarantee that had been put in place to strengthen this vital portion of the Eurozone’s financial system, policy makers have increased the risk that large scale withdrawals will be taken across Cyprus, which is exactly the type of situation they had hoped to avoid. The New York Times quoted Andreas Andreou, a 26-year-old employee of a Cypriot trading company, who gave voice to the feelings of the populace when he said, “How can I trust any bank in the Eurozone after this decision? I’m lifting all my deposits as soon as the banks open. I’d rather put the money in my mattress.” In order to forestall such an event, and protect against the possibility of contagion to the other heavily indebted members of the currency union, the country’s banks have been shuttered and are scheduled to remain so until Tuesday.

Uncertainty continues to swirl in the warm Mediterranean air as the Cypriot Parliament on Wednesday rejected the original terms of the bailout, casting the nation’s leaders into direct conflict with those of the European Union. With the deadline for
the country to propose a viable plan to raise the requisite 5.8 billion euros,
set by the Continent’s Central Bank for Monday, fast approaching, the stakes of
this game of brinksmanship have been raised, as the possibility of the country
leaving the euro zone has been broached. Eric Dor, a French economist who is the head of research at the Iéseg School of Management in Lille, France offered his opinion on the rationale of Europe’s leaders in The New York Times on Thursday, “They are saying we can take the risk of pushing Cyprus out of the Eurozone, and that Europe can take the losses without going broke.” Although the raising of the possibility of Cyprus being expelled from the monetary union, is most likely a negotiating tactic designed to goad Cypriot leaders into adopting the reforms the E.U. has deemed necessary, with the more likely outcome of a compromise being reached, the current impasse serves as a reminder of the difficulties facing the Continent as it continues its unprecedented experiment in democracy.

Is Europe on the Mend?

Magnotta@AmyLMagnotta, CFA, Brinker Capital

We have spent so much time focusing on the U.S. fiscal cliff that the concerns regarding Europe seemed to have been pushed to the sideline. On the positive side there has been progress in Europe. Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank, can take some credit for the progress. The Financial Times even named him their Person of the Year.

The €1 trillion Long-Term Refinancing Operation (LTRO) put in place in late 2011 helped fund the banking system. In July, Draghi pledged to “do whatever it takes to preserve the euro.” His words were followed up by the ECB’s open-ended sovereign bond buying program called Outright Money Transactions (OMTs) designed to keep yields on Eurozone sovereign bonds in check. The next step could be establishing the ECB as the direct supervisor of the region’s banks.

Source: FactSet

Source: FactSet

These actions have brought down borrowing costs for problem countries such as Italy and Spain, helping to change the trajectory of the crisis and prevent an economic collapse. Yields on 10-Year Italian and Spanish bonds have fallen over 200 basis points to 4.4% and 5.2%, respectively. The Euro has also strengthened versus the U.S. dollar since July, from a low of 1.21 $/€ to 1.32 $/€ today.

Source: FactSet

Source: FactSet

I wonder how long this lull in volatility in the region can continue in the face of a weak growth in the region. Seven Eurozone countries fell into recession in 2012 — Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Cyprus, Slovenia and Finland. The Greek economy experienced its 17th consecutive quarter of contraction, while Portugal completed its second year of recession. There remains a stark difference in the economic performance of Germany and the rest of the Eurozone. Unemployment rates are at very high levels and continue to increase. Youth unemployment is above 50% in both Greece and Spain, a recipe for social unrest.

The ECB’s actions have bought time for the Eurozone economies to get their sovereign debt problems under control. However, continued austerity measures implemented in an attempt to repair the debt crisis have only served to further weaken growth in the region and exacerbate the situation by pushing debt to GDP ratios even higher. While some confidence has been restored to the markets, policymakers should attempt to implement more pro-growth measures to pull the region out of recession.

12.28.12_Magnotta_Europe_ChartCombo

Europe’s equity markets have rebounded nicely in 2012, leading global equity markets on a relative basis since the second quarter; the rally helped by the ECB’s actions. I remain concerned that the ECB’s measures, while improving confidence, do not address the underlying problems of weak to negative economic growth combined with deleveraging. Weak growth in the region should weigh on corporate earnings and keep a ceiling on equity valuations. The deleveraging process takes years to work through. Because the situation remains fragile, we are likely still prone to event risk and periods of increased volatility in the region.

Source: FactSet

Source: FactSet

Economic Data Lifts Stocks, Market Commentary by Joe Preisser

Global equities resumed their upward march last week, reclaiming levels unattained since April, following the issuance of economic data from both the Eurozone and the United States, which largely exceeded expectations. The release of gross domestic product figures from Germany and France offered encouragement to investors as they revealed more favorable readings than analysts had forecast. Alexander Kraemer, an analyst at Commerzbank AG was quoted by Bloomberg News, “while not great in any way, German and French GDP numbers were better than expected, which adds to the scenario that there is no risk of an imminent euro break up. It shows that global growth is not collapsing, which also helps reduce investment risks.”

Following closely on the heels of the positive news from the Continent was a report of retail sales from the United States which surpassed expectations. In a sign that consumer spending may be on the rise, all of the major categories surveyed rose to post the largest increase in five months (New York Times). Adding to the optimism already present in the marketplace were better than expected readings on industrial production and consumer prices, as well as continued signs of stabilization from the labor and housing markets in the U.S. (Bloomberg News) released during the latter portion of last week.

The concern with which the Israeli government views the threat of the nation of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon was on full display last week as a marked increase in bellicose rhetoric as well as highly publicized preparedness measures for its citizenry emanated from the country. Comments made by the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, during a Bloomberg Government breakfast in Washington last Wednesday served to highlight the rapidly rising tensions. “Diplomacy hasn’t succeeded. We’ve come to a very critical juncture where important decisions have to be made.”

The distribution of gas masks to the public, as well as the testing of other civil defense measures last week accompanied the strong warnings from Mr. Oren and further revealed the precariousness of the situation. As the potential for a preemptive Israeli military strike continues to mount, and with it the possibility of a major disruption of the supply of crude oil to the global marketplace, the risk premium assigned by traders around the world to the per barrel price has contributed significantly to the twelve per cent rally seen since June, which if unabated will hold negative repercussions for the world economy.

As the data released last week continues to outpace expectations, the belief has grown within the marketplace that the economic improvement seen, although still only incremental, may reduce the chances of the Federal Reserve enacting additionally accommodative monetary policies in the near term. In a reflection of this growing sentiment among traders, prices of U.S. Treasury debt have moved significantly lower over the course of the last several weeks, sending yields, which rise when prices decline, to levels unseen since May as the bond market has begun to adjust to the changing environment.

Byron Wien, Vice Chairman of the Blackstone Group’s advisory services unit gave voice to an increasing belief among investors, in an interview with Bloomberg News, “housing is bottoming, gasoline is down from the beginning of the year. The European situation is getting better, not resolved, but getting better…there will be more good news than bad.”

Central Bank’s Sway Stock, Market Commentary by Joe Preisser

Aided by a broad based reassessment of comments issued by European Central Bank President, Mario Draghi on Thursday, and the release of better than anticipated employment figures for the month of July in the United States, stocks rallied strongly on Friday to reverse the losses suffered earlier in the week and reclaim their upward trajectory.

Following a meeting of the American Central Bank’s policy making committee this week, the decision to forbear enacting any additionally accommodative monetary policy at present was announced in tandem with indications that measures designed to stimulate the world’s largest economy may be forthcoming.  The Federal Open Market Committee said in its official statement that they, “will provide additional accommodation as needed to promote a stronger economic recovery and sustained improvement in labor market conditions.”  As the recovery in the world’s largest economy has continued at a frustratingly slow pace, hope has pervaded the marketplace that increased liquidity will be provided by policy makers in order to encourage growth should they deem it necessary.  In its most recent communiqué, the Federal Reserve has reinforced this belief thus offering support for risk based assets.  Brian Jacobsen, the Chief Portfolio Strategist for Wells Fargo Funds Management was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying, “They probably are closer to providing, as they say, ‘additional accommodation as needed’, but I still think that they want more data before they actually pull the trigger.”

Investors across the globe registered their disappointment on Thursday with the decision rendered by the European Central Bank, to refrain from immediately employing any additional measures to support the Eurozone’s economy, by selling shares of companies listed around the world.  Hope for the announcement of the commencement of an aggressive sovereign bond buying program, designed to lower borrowing costs for the heavily indebted members of the currency union, which blossomed in the wake of comments made by Central Bank President Mario Draghi last week were temporarily dashed during Thursday’s press conference.  Although Mr. Draghi pledged to defend the euro, and stated that the common currency is, “irreversible” (New York Times), the absence of a substantive plan to aid the ailing nations of the monetary union was disparaged by the marketplace and precipitated a steep decline in international indices.

Friday morning brought with it a large scale reinterpretation of the message conveyed by European Central Bank President, Mario Draghi the day before, as investors parsed the meaning of his words and concluded that the E.C.B. is in fact moving closer to employing the debt purchasing program the market has been clamoring for.  The release of better than expected news from the labor market in the United States combined with the improvement in sentiment on the Continent to send shares markedly higher across the globe.  According to the New York Times, “on Friday, stocks on Wall Street and in Europe advanced as investors digested the announcement alongside data showing the U.S. added 163,000 jobs.”  Although the absence of immediate action served to initially unnerve traders, further reflection upon the President’s comments revealed the resolve of the Central Bank to support the currency union and fostered optimism for its maintenance. A statement released by French bank Credit Agricole on Friday captured the marked change in market sentiment, “Mr. Draghi’s strong words should not be understated, in our view.  The ECB President made it perfectly clear that the governing council was ready to address rising sovereign yields…Overall, notwithstanding the lack of detail at this stage, we believe the ECB will deliver a bold policy response in due time”(Wall Street Journal).