Carousel of Political Discontent

Stuart Quint, Investment Insights PodcastStuart P. Quint, CFA, Senior Investment Manager & International Strategist

Hung parliaments in three recent elections may have investment implications. On this latest podcast, Stuart discusses what’s happening in Spain, Austria and Australia.

Quick hits:

  • Recent elections in Spain, Austria, and Australia highlight that voters are divided and unable to render a clear mandate for government.
  • Other parts of Europe appear vulnerable.
  • Politics pose risk to financial markets; loose monetary policy likely to persist in many places.

What do Spain, Austria, and Australia have in common? (No, this is not a trivia question nor the opening line of a bad joke.)

Each country in recent weeks has held elections, all of which failed to elect governments backed by a majority of the vote (with one case leading to yet another election).  Tepid economic growth has led to divided voters that could make it more difficult for governments to enact policies needed to stimulate economies. They each are riding “a carousel of political discontent”.

Starting in Spain

On June 26, Spain held general elections for the second time in six months (results of which were overshadowed by the Brexit referendum).  Both elections failed to confirm one party with a sufficient majority to form a government.  In fact, the two centrist-right and left parties lost parliamentary seats to smaller fringe parties. However, the June election did result in a higher seat count for the ruling center-right party.  Hope exists for the incumbent center-right party to be able to form a coalition, though most likely without support of a majority of parliament.[1]

Sobering developments in Austria

In May, Austria tried to elect a president, an office with more ceremonial functions than real political power.  The two final candidates came from the Greens and the far-right Freedom Party, parties not belonging to the traditional establishment.  After a very slight victory (50.3% to 49.7%)[2] for the Green candidate, the Austrian Constitutional Court annulled the results and rescheduled the election for October.[3]  Austria potentially might be the first country in the EU to elect a president from the far right, a sobering development in light of populist antipathy to the Euro project.

Instability in Australia

Elections that were intended to solidify the ruling coalition in Australia could end up having the opposite effect.  The ruling Liberal-National party coalition has lost seats in both houses of Parliament and faces the risk of forming a minority government.  Yet again, fringe parties siphoned off votes both from the incumbents and main opposition party Liberals. Australia has already suffered through five different Prime Ministers in the last six years. The last thing it needs is another unstable government and the risk of political paralysis and potential new elections.

Notable similarities

Three different countries with three different cultures still share some common themes. Slow economic growth has contributed to disillusionment with establishment parties. The new wrinkle is that cohesion in the traditional opposition, as well as incumbent parties, is unraveling. Fringe parties representing both ideological (far right and left) as well as parochial interests are gaining. Though unable to govern themselves, these fringe parties potentially could play greater roles as “kingmakers” for establishment parties to form ruling coalitions. More focus would be spent on holding together the coalition and catering to parochial issues rather than carrying through reforms to stoke confidence in the economy. Weak coalitions are prone to collapse and thus, new elections.

What’s the impact on other countries?

Other candidates for this cycle of discontent stand out in Europe, particularly countries in the Euro.  With its past history of rotating governments, Italy might reemerge as the popularity of incumbent PM Renzi has taken a hit from reform setbacks and lack of economic growth. The fringe opposition party Five Star enjoys significant popularity as shown in victories in recent municipal elections. The party espouses holding a referendum on Italy’s membership in the Euro. It might see opportunity to challenge Renzi in October when a referendum on voting reform is scheduled. If Renzi were to lose that vote, early elections are likely to ensue.

France also stands out with a vigorous populist far-right opposition party in the National Front of Marine LePen.  General elections in 2017 with the incumbent government suffering from depressed approval ratings could introduce additional market volatility. Along with a stagnant economy, France has also suffered backlash against efforts to reform labor markets.

What needs to change?

Political malcontent with economic growth has the potential to continue and add to market volatility. It also could lead to paralysis on fiscal and structural reform needed to accelerate growth. One consequence is likely: central banks will not be retreating from active monetary policy anytime soon in the face of weak growth, even if much of their dry powder has already been spent. Government inaction will still be replaced by central bank stimulation unless the situation changes.

Click here to listen to the podcast.

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, a Registered Investment Advisor.

[1] http://www.abc.es/espana/abci-rajoy-cita-manana-moncloa-201607051229_noticia.html  accessed on July 5, 2016.

[2] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-24/independent-van-der-bellen-wins-austrian-presidential-vote/7439372  accessed on July 5, 2016.

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/01/austrian-presidential-election-result-overturned-and-must-be-held-again-hofer-van-der-bellen accessed on July 5, 2016.

Investment Insights Podcast – Prospects and Possibilities of Brexit

Stuart Quint, Investment Insights PodcastStuart P. Quint, CFA, Senior Investment Manager & International Strategist

On this week’s podcast (recorded March 1, 2016), Stuart takes to the mic to discuss what the impact could look like should Britain exit the European Union (EU).

Quick takes:

  • On June 23, the United Kingdom (UK) will hold a referendum on whether to remain or exit the EU.
  • The consensus leans towards the UK staying put, but polls in recent general elections were wrong.
  • The UK has more to lose from “Brexit” than the EU, but it could also highlight other cracks in Europe.

Markets have reacted by selling off UK markets, particularly the British pound, in light of the impending uncertainty and potential adverse impact of a “yes” for Brexit. So what potential impact could there be for the UK?

  • Direct trade – the EU accounts for roughly half of UK imports and exports; potentially three million jobs at stake¹.
  • Scottish independence – Scotland is more sympathetic to the EU and could seek another referendum for their independence from Britain; they currently make up roughly 40% of UK’s GDP.
  • Multinational headquarters – could start vacating out of London; banking sector could reduce operations in UK and uproot to Frankfort or Paris, as well as Asia.

What’s the potential impact to the EU?

  • Trade – while not as impactful, a UK departure is still negative especially with tepid economic growth in Europe
  • Political risks – France elections in 2017 could see more impetus to opposition party of Marine Le Pen, which is of an anti-Europe mindset; Catalonian desire to secede from Spain could be rekindled
  • Economics – Europe’s focus on broader economic and national security issues could become complicated

Please click here to listen to the full recording

[1] Webb, Dominic and Matthew Keep, In brief: UK-EU economic relations (Briefing Paper Number 06091, House of Commons Library), 19 January 2016, page 3 accessed on www.parliament.uk/commons-library on March 1, 2016.

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, a Registered Investment Advisor.

International Insights Podcast – Greece: How Bad Is It?

Stuart Quint, Investment Insights PodcastStuart P. Quint, CFA, Senior Investment Manager and International Strategist

This audio podcast was recorded June 29, 2015:

Not surprisingly, Stuart’s podcast this week features the unnerving situation in Greece and the ripple effect it may have on a global scale.

Highlights of the discussion include:

In short…

  • The breakdown in negotiations between Greece and its creditors justifiably disappointed the markets.
  • Our sense is the end of the world has not come yet.
    • Primary links to Europe and world economy appear small and manageable.
    • Secondary links to Europe are murkier but not visible near term.
  • Watch economics and politics in peripheral Europe for further direction.

So, what about the near-term?

  • Do not underestimate Europe’s ability to prolong the agony (though it appears they are trying to force Greece’s hand even with the announced July 5 referendum).
  • Multiple scenarios could happen:
    • Best case is that Greece gets new government more willing to cut a deal
    • Worst case is Grexit and passive EU institutions

Does that mean it’s time to panic?

  • Primary links appear relatively minor and obvious
    • Most of Greece’s €340bn debt held by large government institutions (ECB, EU, IMF)
    • Direct trade links are small
    • Greek economy is small relative to Europe and the world
  • Secondary impacts less clear
    • Near-term hit to European confidence and economic growth
    • Medium-term credibility issue to the euro as a concept – in event of Grexit, should we worry about who is next?
      • Examples:
        • Italy – lower popular political support for euro (though ruling coalition supports Euro)
        • Spain – pending 4Q15 elections (one opposition party Podemos with minority of votes considers itself kindred to the ruling Greek Syriza party)
        • France – greater need for fiscal tightening, most popular anti-Euro populist party in LePen National Front

What to keep an eye on if things are getting worse or better

  • The euro
  • Peripheral bond spreads (Italy, Spain vs. Germany)
  • Greek referendum (Does it even happen? “Yes” a good result, but does it result in new negotiations and/or change of government?)
  • Popularity of other populist political parties in other parts of Europe (Spain, France, Italy)

Click here to listen to the full audio recording

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, a Registered Investment Advisor.

Investment Insights Podcast – February 11, 2015

Rosenberger_PodcastAndrew Rosenberger, CFA, Senior Investment Manager

On this week’s podcast (recorded February 5, 2015): We break away from our traditional format to hear Andy breakdown 2014 performance in terms of a diversified portfolio versus the S&P 500.

Highlights from the podcast include:

  • U.S. markets trumped mostly all other markets in 2014
  • Caution against knee-jerk reactions from investors to move portfolios from international to domestic
  • Encourage keeping an open mind to international opportunity given the 2014 pace of U.S. equities may be unlikely to continue
  • International markets are up year to date; U.S. slightly negative
  • Risks remain–new Greek government, elections in Spain, etc.

Listen here for the full version of Andy’s insights.

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.

Investment Insights Podcast – January 27, 2015

Bill MillerBill Miller, Chief Investment Officer

On this week’s podcast (recorded January 23, 2015):

What we like: ECB announces stimulative policies; developed markets (Spain, Italy, France, etc.) to benefit; hopeful for positive impact domestically

What we don’t like: U.S. economy slowing; investors nervous about current and future growth rate; some fallout from drop in oil prices

What we’re doing about it: Holding tight and looking for the benefits of the ECB stimulus and lower energy prices

Click here to listen to the audio recording

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.

International Insights Podcast – Greek Tragedy Revisited

Stuart Quint, Investment Insights PodcastStuart P. Quint, CFA, Senior Investment Manager and International Strategist

This audio podcast was recorded December 30, 2014:

Stuart’s International Insights Podcast focuses on Greece.

Three-point summary:

  1. Greece has reemerged in world headlines, although it might be more bark than bite (but with risks to the downside for Europe). Important to keep an eye on general elections in Spain later in 2015.
  2. Greek government collapsed as they failed to elect a new president by December 29. General elections set for January 25. Anti-austerity party leads polls, but markets seem to mostly understand current issues and that debt is held mainly by multilateral institutions–not private banks.
  3. Impact on Europe is small and does not hurt prospects for full-blown QE. However, Greece highlights the toll that comes with a lack of structural reform (and divided popular support) on sagging growth prospects in the EU.

Click here to listen to the full audio recording

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, a Registered Investment Advisor.

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)

2013 Review and Outlook

Amy MagnottaAmy Magnotta, CFA, Senior Investment Manager, Brinker Capital

2013 was a stellar year for U.S. equities, the best since 1997. Despite major concerns relating to the Federal Reserve (tapering of asset purchases, new Chairperson) and Washington (sequestration, government shutdown, debt ceiling), as well as issues like Cyprus and Syria, the U.S. equity markets steadily rallied throughout the year, failing to experience a pullback of more than 6%.

Source: Strategas Research Partners, LLC

In the U.S. markets, strong gains were experienced across all market capitalizations and styles, with each gaining at least 32% for the year. Small caps outperformed large caps and growth led value. Yield-oriented equities, like telecoms and utilities, generally lagged as they were impacted by the taper trade. The strongest performing sectors—consumer discretionary, healthcare and industrials—all gained more than 40%. Correlations across stocks continued to decline, which is a positive development for active managers.

YenDeveloped international markets produced solid gains for the year, but lagged the U.S. markets. Japan was the top performing country, gaining 52% in local terms; however, the gains translated to 27% in U.S. dollar terms due to a weaker yen. Performance in European markets was generally strong, led by Ireland, Germany and Spain.  Australia and Canada meaningfully lagged, delivering only mid-single-digit gains.

Concerns over the impact of Fed tapering and slowing economic growth weighed on emerging economies in 2013, and their equity markets significantly lagged that of developed economies. The group’s loss of -2.2% was exacerbated due to weaker currencies, especially in Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey and India. Emerging market small cap companies were able to eke out a gain of just over 1%, while less efficient frontier markets gained 4.5%.

Fixed income posted its first loss since 1999, with the Barclays Aggregate Index experiencing a decline of -2%. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury began rising in May, and moved significantly higher after then Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke signaled in his testimony to Congress that tapering of asset purchases could happen sooner than anticipated. The 10-year yield hit 3% but then declined again after the Fed decided not to begin tapering in September. It climbed steadily higher in November and December, ending the year at 3.04%—126 basis points above where it began the year.

TIPS were the worst performing fixed income sector for the year, declining more than -8%, as inflation remained low and TIPS have a longer-than-average duration. On the other hand, high-yield credit had a solid year, gaining more than 7%. Across the credit spectrum, lower quality outperformed.

Magnotta_Client_Newsletter_1.7.13_5We believe that the bias is for interest rates to move higher, but it will likely come in fits and starts. Rising longer-term interest rates in the context of stronger economic growth and low inflation is a satisfactory outcome. Despite rising rates, fixed income still plays a role in portfolios, as a hedge to equity-oriented assets if we see weaker economic growth or major macro risks. Our fixed income positioning in portfolios, which includes an emphasis on yield advantaged, shorter duration and low volatility absolute return strategies, is designed to successfully navigate a rising interest rate environment.

We continue to approach our macro view as a balance between headwinds and tailwinds. We believe the scale remains tipped in favor of tailwinds as we begin 2014, with a number of factors supporting the economy and markets.

  • Monetary policy remains accommodative: Even with tapering beginning in January, short-term interest rates should remain near zero until 2015. In addition, the European Central Bank stands ready to provide support, and the Bank of Japan has embraced an aggressive monetary easing program in an attempt to boost growth and inflation.
  • Global growth strengthening: U.S. economic growth has been slow and steady, but momentum has picked up (+4.1% annualized growth in 3Q). The manufacturing and service PMIs remain solidly in expansion territory. Outside of the U.S., growth has not been very robust but is still positive.
  • Labor market progress: The recovery in the labor market has been slow, but stable. Monthly payroll gains have averaged more than 200,000 and the unemployment rate has fallen to 7%.
  • Inflation tame: With the CPI increasing only +1.2% over the last 12 months, inflation in the U.S. is running below the Fed’s target.
  • Increase in household net worth: Household net worth rose to a new high in the third quarter, helped by both financial and real estate assets. Rising net worth is a positive for consumer confidence and future consumption.
  • U.S. companies remain in solid shape: U.S. companies have solid balance sheets that are flush with cash that could be reinvested, returned to shareholders, or used for acquisitions. Corporate profits remain at high levels and margins have been resilient.
  • Equity fund flows turn positive: Equity mutual funds have experienced inflows over the last three months while fixed income funds have experienced significant outflows, a reversal of the pattern of the last five years. Continued inflows would provide further support to the equity markets.
  • Some movement on fiscal policy: After serving as a major uncertainty over the last few years, there seems to be some movement in Washington. Fiscal drag will not have a major impact on growth next year. All parties in Washington were able to agree on a two year budget agreement, averting another government shutdown in January. However, the debt ceiling still needs to be addressed.

However, risks facing the economy and markets remain including:

  • Fed Tapering: The Fed will begin reducing the amount of their asset purchases in January, and if they taper an additional $10 billion at each meeting, QE should end in the fall. Risk assets have historically reacted negatively when monetary stimulus has been withdrawn; however, the economy appears to be on more solid footing.
  • Significantly higher interest rates: Rates moving significantly higher from current levels could stifle the economic recovery. Should mortgage rates move higher, it could jeopardize the recovery in the housing market.
  • Sentiment elevated: Investor sentiment is elevated, which typically serves as a contrarian signal. The market has not experienced a correction in some time.

Risk assets should continue to perform if real growth continues to recover, even in a higher interest rate environment; however, we could see volatility as markets digest the slow withdrawal of stimulus by the Federal Reserve. Valuations have certainly moved higher, but are not overly rich relative to history. Markets rarely stop when they reach fair value. There are even pockets of attractive valuations, such as emerging markets. Momentum remains strong; the S&P 500 Index spent all of 2013 above its 200-day moving average. However, investor sentiment is elevated, which could provide ammunition for a short-term pull-back. A pull-back could be short-lived should demand for equities remain robust.

Asset Class Outlook

Our portfolios are positioned to take advantage of continued strength in risk assets, and we continue to emphasize high conviction opportunities within asset classes, as well as strategies that can exploit market inefficiencies.

Asset Class ReturnsAsset Class Returns

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.

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