Tag Archives: ecb

Investor Concerns: Greece Is the Word

Unless you have been living on a desert island, you are aware that Greece is in the midst of trying to resolve its financial difficulties with European authorities. This is just the latest round in a financial drama that has been playing out for a number of years now. Up to this point, the solution by both euro authorities and Greek leaders has been to delay any type of financial resolution. And that is the exact prescription handed down just a few weeks ago as Greece approached a February month-end debt payment of a magnitude it could not meet. Greece has been given another four months to come up with some type of restructuring plan. At this point, we’ve simply stopped counting how many times euro authorities have kicked the Greek can down the road.

Why all the drama regarding Greece? Greece represents only about 2% of Eurozone GDP. Who cares whether Greece is part of the euro? The Greek economy simply isn’t a big enough piece of the entire euro economy to really matter, is it?

The fact is that the key problems in the Greek drama have very little to do with the Greek economy specifically. The issues illuminate the specific flaw in the euro as a currency and the fact that the euro authorities are very much hoping to protect the European banking system. The reason we need to pay attention is that the ultimate resolution of these issues will have an impact on our investment decision making.

A key characteristic of the euro, which was formed in 1998, is that there is no one overall guarantor of euro area government debt. Think about the U.S. If the U.S. borrows money to fund building bridges in five states, the U.S. government (via the taxpayer) is the guarantor of the debt; it is not the individual debt of the five states involved. Yes, individual U.S. states can take on state-specific debt, but states cannot print money, as can large governments, so there are limiting factors. In Japan, the Japanese government guarantees yen-based government debt. In the U.S., the federal government guarantees U.S. dollar-based government debt. In Europe, there is no one singular “European government debt” guarantor of essentially euro currency government debt. The individual countries are their own guarantors.

The Eurozone has the only common currency on planet Earth without a singular guarantor of government debt. All the euro area governments essentially guarantee their own debt, yet have a common currency and interest rate structure. No other currency arrangement like this exists in today’s global economy. Many have called this the key flaw in the design of the euro. Many believe the euro as a currency cannot survive this arrangement. For now, the jury is out on the question of euro viability, but that question is playing out in country-specific dramas, such as Greece is now facing.

One last key point in the euro currency evolution. As the euro was formed, the European Central Bank essentially began setting interest rate policy for all European countries. The bank’s decisions, much like those of the Fed in the U.S., affected interest rates across the Eurozone economies. Profligate borrowers such as Greece enjoyed low interest rates right alongside fiscally prudent countries like Germany. There is no interest rate differentiation for profligate or prudent individual government borrowers in Europe. Moreover, the borrowing and spending of profligate countries such as Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and, yes, even France, for years benefited the export economies of countries such as Germany — the more these countries borrowed, the better the Germany economy performed.

This set of circumstances almost seemed virtuous over the first decade of the euro’s existence. It is now that the chickens have come home to roost, Greece being just the opening act of a balance sheet drama that is far from over. Even if we assume the Greek debt problem can be fixed, without a single guarantor of euro government debt going forward the flaw in the currency remains. Conceptually, there is only one country in Europe strong enough to back euro area debt, and that’s Germany. Germany’s continuing answer to potentially being a guarantor of the debt of Greece and other Euro area Governments? Nein. We do not expect that answer to change any time soon.

You’ll remember that over the last half year, at least, we have been highlighting the importance of relative currency movements in investment outcomes in our commentaries. The problematic dynamics of the euro has not been lost on our thinking or actions, nor will it be looking ahead.

The current debt problems in Greece also reflect another major issue inside the Eurozone financial sector. Major European banks are meaningful holders of country-specific government debt. Euro area banks have been accounting for the investments at cost basis on their books, as opposed to marking these assets to market value. In early February, Lazard suggested that Greece needs a 50% reduction in its debt load to be financially viable. Germany and the European Central Bank (ECB) want 100% repayment. You can clearly see the tension and just who is being protected. If Greece were to negotiate a 50% reduction in debt, any investor (including banks) holding the debt would have to write off 50% of the value of the investment. At the outset of this commentary, we asked, why is Greece so important when it is only 2% of Eurozone GDP? Is it really Greece the European authorities want to protect, or is it the European banking system?

Greece is a Petri dish. If Greece receives debt forgiveness, the risk to the Eurozone is that Italy, Spain, Portugal, etc. could be right behind it in requesting equal treatment. The Eurozone banking system could afford to take the equity hit in a Greek government debt write-down. But it could not collectively handle Greece, Italy, Spain and other debt write-downs without financial ramifications.

The problem is meaningful. There exist nine countries on planet Earth where debt relative to GDP exceeds 300%. Seven of these are European (the other two are Japan and Singapore):

Debt as % of GDP

IRELAND                                           390 %

PORTUGAL                                       358

BELGIUM                                          327

NETHERLANDS                                325

GREECE                                             317

SPAIN                                                 313

DENMARK                                        302

SWEDEN                                           290

FRANCE                                             280

ITALY                                                 267

As we look at the broad macro landscape and the reality of the issues truly facing the Eurozone in its entirety, what does another four months of forestalling Greek debt payments solve? Absolutely nothing.

How is the Greek drama/tragedy important to our investment strategy and implementation? As we have been discussing for some time now, relative global currency movements are key in influencing investment outcomes. Investment assets priced in ascending currencies will be beneficiaries of global capital seeking both return and principal safety. The reverse is also true. While the Greek debt crisis has resurfaced over the last six months, so, too, has the euro lost 15% of its value relative to the dollar. Dollar-denominated assets were strong performers last year as a result.

The second important issue to investment outcomes, as we have also discussed many a time, is the importance of capital flows, whether they be global or domestic. What has happened in Europe since the Greek debt crisis has resurfaced is instructive. The following combo chart shows us the leading 350 European stock index in the top clip of the chart and the German-only stock market in the bottom.

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Broadly, euro area equities have not yet attained the highs seen in 2014. But German stocks are close to 15% ahead of their 2014 highs. Why? Germany is seen as the most fiscally prudent and financially strong of the euro members. What we are seeing is capital gravitating toward the perception of safety that is Germany, relative to the euro area as a whole. This is the type of capital flow analysis that is so important in the current environment.

The headline media portray the Greek problem as just another country living beyond its means and unable to repay the debts it has accumulated. But the real issues involved are so much more meaningful. They cut to the core of euro viability as a currency and stability in the broad euro banking system. The Greek problem’s resurfacing in the last six months has necessarily pressured the euro as a currency and triggered an internal move of equity capital from the broad euro equity markets to individual countries perceived as strong, such as Germany. This is exactly the theme we have been discussing for months. Global capital is seeking refuge from currency debasement and principal safety in the financial markets of countries with strong balance sheets. For now, the weight and movement of global capital remains an important element of our analytical framework.

Watching outcomes ahead for Greece within the context of the greater Eurozone will be important. Greece truly is a Petri dish for what may be to come for greater Europe. Outcomes will affect the euro as a currency, the reality of the Greek economy, the perceived integrity of the European banking system and both domestic and global euro-driven capital flows. For now, Greece is the word.

Buckle Up: Monetary Events Are Speeding

Just when you thought the world could not spin much faster, global monetary events in 2015 have picked up speed. Buckle up.

A key macro theme of ours for some time now has been the increasing importance of relative global currency movements in financial market outcomes. And what have we experienced in this very short year-to-date period so far? After years of jawboning, the European Central Bank has finally announced a $60 billion monthly quantitative easing exercise to begin in March. Switzerland “de- linked” its currency from the euro. China has lowered the official renminbi/U.S. dollar trading band (devalued the currency). China lowered its banking system required reserve ratio. The Turkish and Ukrainian currencies saw double-digit declines. And interest-rate cuts have been announced in Canada, Singapore, Denmark (four times in three weeks), India, Australia and Russia (after raising rates meaningfully in December to defend the ruble). All of the above occurred within five weeks.

What do all of these actions have in common? They are meant to influence relative global currency values. The common denominator under all of these actions was a desire to lower the relative value of each country’s or area’s currency against global competitors. As a result, foreign currency volatility has risen more than noticeably in 2015, necessarily begetting heightened volatility in global equity and fixed income markets.

If we step back and think about how individual central banks and country-specific economies responded to changes in the real global economy historically, it was through the interest-rate mechanism. Individual central banks could raise and lower short-term interest rates to stimulate or cool specific economies as they experienced the positive or negative influence of global economic change. Country-specific interest-rate differentials acted as pressure relief valves. Global short-term interest-rate differentials acted as a supposed relative equalization mechanism. But in today’s world of largely 0% interest rates, the interest-rate “pressure relief valve” is gone. The new pressure relief valve has become relative currency movements. This is just one reality of the historically unprecedented global grand central banking monetary experiments of the last six years. At this point, the experiment is neither good nor bad; it is simply the environment in which we find ourselves. And so we deal with this reality in investment decision making.

There has been one other event of note in early 2015 that directly relates to the potential for further heightened currency volatility. That event is the recent Greek elections. We all know that Greece has been in trouble for some time. Quite simply, the country has borrowed more money than it is able to pay back under current debt-repayment schedules. The New York consulting/ banking firm Lazard recently put out a report suggesting Greek debt requires a 50% “haircut” (default) for Greece to remain fiscally viable. The European Central Bank (ECB), largely prompted by Germany, is demanding 100% payback. Herein lies the key tension that must be resolved in some manner by the end of February, when a meaningful Greek debt payment is due.

Of course, the problem with a needed “haircut” in Greek debt is that major Euro banks holding Greek debt have not yet marked this debt to “market value” on their balance sheets. In one sense, saving Greece is as much about saving the Euro banks as anything. If there is a “haircut” agreement, a number of Euro banks will feel the immediate pain of asset write-offs. Moreover, if Greece receives favorable debt restructuring/haircut treatment, then what about Italy? What about Spain, etc? This is the dilemma of the European Central Bank, and ultimately the euro itself as a currency. This forced choice is exactly what the ECB has been trying to avoid for years. Politicians in the new Greek government have so far been committing a key sin in the eyes of the ECB – they have been telling the truth about fiscal/financial realities.

So, to the point: What does this set of uncharted waters mean for investment decision making? It means we need to be very open and flexible. We need to be prepared for possible financial market outcomes that in no way fit within the confines of a historical or academic playbook experience.

Having said this, a unique occurrence took place in Euro debt markets in early February: Nestle ́ shorter-term corporate debt actually traded with a negative yield. Think about this. Investors were willing to lose a little bit of money (-20 basis points, or -.2%) for the “safety” of essentially being able to park their capital in Nestle’s balance sheet. This is a very loud statement. Academically, we all know that corporate debt is “riskier” than government debt (which is considered “risk-free”). But the markets are telling us that may not be the case at the current time, when looking at Nestle ́ bonds as a proxy for top-quality corporate balance sheets. Could it be that the balance sheets of global sovereigns (governments) are actually riskier? If so, is global capital finally starting to recognize and price in this fact? After all, negative Nestle ́ corporate yields were seen right alongside Greece’s raising its hand, suggesting Euro area bank and government balance sheets may not be the pristine repositories for capital many have come to blindly accept. This Nestle ́ bond trade may be one of the most important market signals in years.

As we have stated in our writings many a time, one of the most important disciplines in the investment management process is to remain flexible and open in thinking. Dogmatic adherence to preconceived notions can be very dangerous, especially in the current cycle. As such, we cannot look at global capital flows and investment asset class price reactions in isolation. This may indeed be one of the greatest investment challenges of the moment, but one whose understanding is crucial to successful navigation ahead. In isolation, who would be crazy enough to buy short-term Nestle ́ debt where the result is a guaranteed loss of capital in a bond held to maturity? No one. But within the context of deteriorating global government balance sheets, all of a sudden it is not so crazy an occurrence. It makes complete sense within the context of global capital seeking out investment venues of safety beyond what may have been considered “risk-free” government balance sheets, all within the context of a negative yield environment. Certainly for the buyer of Nestle ́ debt with a negative yield, motivation is not the return on capital, but the return of capital.

This leads us to equities and, again, this very important concept of being flexible in thinking and behavior. Historically, valuation metrics have been very important in stock investing. Not just levels of earnings and cash-flow growth, but the multiple of earnings and cash-flow growth that investors have been willing to pay to own individual stocks. This has been expressed in valuation metrics such as price-to-earnings, price relative to book value, cash flow, etc. To the point, in the current market environment, common stock valuation metrics are stretched relative to historical context.

In the past, we have looked at indicators like total stock market capitalization relative to GDP. The market capitalization of a stock is nothing more than its shares outstanding multiplied by its current price. The indicator essentially shows us the value of stock market assets relative to the real economy. Warren Buffett has called this his favorite stock market indicator.

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The message is clear. By this valuation metric, only the year 2000 saw a higher valuation than the current. For a while now, a number of market pundits have suggested the U.S. stock market is at risk of a crash based on these numbers.

Wells Capital Management recently developed data for the median historical price-to-earnings multiple of the NYSE (using the data for only those New York Stock Exchange companies with positive earnings). What this data tells us is that the current NYSE median PE multiple is the highest ever seen. Not exactly wildly heartwarming for anyone with a sense of stock market valuation history.

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It is data like this that has prompted a number of market commentators to issue warnings: The big bad stock market wolf isn’t coming; he’s here!

In thinking about these numbers and these dire warnings from a number on Wall Street, we again need to step back and put the current cycle into context. We need to put individual asset class movements into context.

In isolation, current stock market valuations should be very concerning (and they are). In isolation, these types of valuation metrics do not make a lot of sense set against historical precedent. But the negative yield on Nestle corporate debt make littles to no common sense, either…unless it is looked at as an alternative to deteriorating government balance sheets and government debt markets.

Trust us, the LAST thing we are trying to do is be stock market cheerleaders. We’ll leave that to the carnival barkers at CNBC, with its historically low viewer ratings. What we are trying to do is “see” where the current set of global financial market, economic and currency circumstances will lead global capital as we move throughout 2015.

Heightened global currency volatility means an increasing amount of global capital at the margin is seeking principal safety. The recent Greek election results are now forcing into the mainstream commentary the issue of Euro bank and government fiscal integrity, let alone solvency. We believe the negative yield on the Nestle ́ corporate bond is an important marker that global capital is now looking at the private (corporate) sector as a potential repository for safety. The Nestle ́ bond is an investment that has nothing to do with yield and everything to do with capital preservation. Nestle ́ has one of the more pristine corporate balance sheets on Earth. We need to remember that equities represent a claim on not only future cash flows of a corporation but also on its real assets and balance sheet wherewithal.

We need to be open to the possibility that, despite very high-valuation metrics, a weak global economy and accelerating global currency movements that are sure to play a bit of havoc with reported corporate earnings, the equity asset class may increasingly be seen as a global capital repository for safety in a world where global government balance sheets have become ever more precarious over the last half decade. The investor who survives long-term is the one with a plan of action for all potential market outcomes. Avoid the tendency to cry wolf, but, of course, also keep in mind that even the boy who cried wolf was ultimately correct.

It’s all in the rhythm and pacing of each unique financial and economic cycle. Having a disciplined risk management process is the key to being able to remain flexible in investment thinking and action.