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)

Investment Insights Podcast – Unrest in Ukraine and Investment Implications

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

Stuart joins us this week to share some comments on the developing situation in Ukraine and its impact on investors.  Click the play button below to listen in to his podcast, or read a summarized version of his thoughts below.

Podcast recorded March 3, 2014:

Ukraine’s struggles are overwhelming. Political, economic, and now military challenges confront the country. Politically and militarily speaking, the U.S. and the European Union (EU) have few tools at this time and modest willpower to oppose Russian intentions in Ukraine. And given that the ruling government is merely a caretaker for the May elections, it seems unlikely there will be a bailout package offered by the International Money Fund (IMF) any time soon. Default on existing international and local obligations appears likely in the near term.

Russia is not without its own constraints, though, as the Russian economy is directly tied to Europe. Three out of every four dollars of foreign direct investment in Russia come from Europe.[1]  The EU also remains Russia’s most important trading partner with 55% of Russian exports destined for Europe.[2]

Let’s take a look at the potential scenarios: (1) Russian annexation of the Crimea, (2) negotiated settlement with later elections that would most likely bring about a grand coalition government, probably with leanings toward Moscow, and (3) military escalation (civil war, Russian forces occupy eastern Ukraine, either of which results in a smaller Ukraine or outright disintegration as a sovereign state).

So what investment implications might this have? (1) The near term is helpful for fixed income, with commodities benefiting from any disruption of supply (oil, gas) and flight to safety (gold), and (2) negative impact most of all for European (Russia supplies 30% of European gas supply[3]) and emerging markets (mainly Russia, but also other markets with the need to import capital could suffer from currency weakness and higher interest rates demanded by investors).

A negotiated settlement involving recognition of Russian claims in exchange for a roadmap to stabilize the rest of Ukraine would reverse many of these trends.  Indeed, a similar situation occurred when Russia invaded Georgia in August 2008, but the crisis in Ukraine has potentially more serious implications given its proximity to Western Europe and that it carries a large population of over 45 million people.[4]

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

Monthly Market and Economic Outlook: February 2014

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

After such a strong move higher in 2013, U.S. equity markets took a breather in January as the S&P 500 Index fell -3.5%. Volatility returned to the markets as concerns over the impact of Fed tapering and emerging economies weighed on investors. Investor sentiment, a contrarian indicator, had also climbed to extreme optimism levels, leaving the equity markets ripe for a short-term pullback.

In U.S. equity markets, the utilities (+3%) and healthcare (+1%) sectors delivered gains, while energy and consumer discretionary each declined -6%. Mid caps led both small and large caps in January, helped by the strong performance of REITs. Fourth quarter 2013 earnings season has been decent so far. Of the one-third of S&P 500 companies reporting, 73% have beat expectations.

U.S. equity markets led international markets in January, helped by a stronger currency. Performance within developed markets was mixed, with peripheral Europe outperforming (Ireland, Italy, Spain, Portugal), while Australia, France and Germany lagged.

Emerging markets equities significantly lagged developed markets in January, as the impact of Fed tapering, slower economic growth and higher inflation weighed on their economies. Countries with large current account deficits have seen their currencies weaken significantly. Latin America saw significant declines, with Argentina down -24%, Chile down -12% and Brazil down -11%. Asia fared slightly better, with the region down less than -5%. Emerging Europe was dragged lower with double-digit losses in Turkey.

Fixed income had a solid month of performance as interest rates fell across the yield curve. The 10-year Treasury note is now trading around 2.6%, 40 basis points lower than where it started the year. The Barclays Aggregate Index gained +1.5% in January, its best monthly return since July 2011. All major sectors were in positive territory for the month; however, higher-quality corporates led high yield. Municipal bonds edged out taxable bonds and continue to benefit from improving fundamentals.

We believe that the bias is for interest rates to move higher, but it will likely be choppy. 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 as experienced in January. 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 or stable 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 move into 2014, with a number of factors supporting the economy and markets over the intermediate term.

  • Monetary policy remains accommodative: Even with the Fed beginning to taper asset purchases, short-term interest rates should remain near zero until 2015. In addition, the ECB 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 picked up in the second half of 2013. Outside of the U.S., growth has not been very robust, but it 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 +1.5% 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 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 turned 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. 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 this time and the withdrawal is more gradual. The reaction of emerging markets to Fed tapering is cause for concern and will contribute to higher market volatility.
  • 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.

Risk assets should continue to perform if real growth continues to recover; 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. There are even pockets of attractive valuations, such as emerging markets. We are not surprised that we have experienced a pull-back in equity markets to start the year as investor sentiment was elevated and it had been an extended period of time since we last experienced a correction. However, we expect it to be more short-term in nature and maintain a positive view on equities for the year.

Magnotta_Market_Update_2.7.14

We feel that 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

Data points above compiled from FactSet, Standard & Poor’s, MSCI, and Barclays. Asset Class Returns data compiled from FactSet and Red Rocks Capital. The views expressed are those of Brinker Capital and are for informational purposes only. Holdings subject to change

Investment Insights Podcast – February 7, 2014

Investment Insights PodcastBill Miller, Chief Investment Officer

On this week’s podcast (recorded February 6, 2014):

  • What we like: Stability in emerging market currencies; European Central Bank fighting deflation
  • What we don’t like: Hypersensitivity to growth metrics
  • What we are doing about it: Letting natural hedging between asset classes manage volatility; remaining neutral in other portfolios; looking for a good employment number

Click the play icon below to launch the audio recording.

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

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.

Decoding the G7 Statement

Andy RosenbergerAndy Rosenberger, CFA, Senior Investment Manager

Earlier this week, members of the seven richest countries met for the official G7 conference. Center to the assembly were discussions surrounding the recent actions by Japan to stimulate their economy through currency devaluation and higher inflation targets. Investors, hungry for a green light by the G7 that Japanese policies are warranted, were disappointed and confused as conflicting statements were issued. The official statement read:

“We, the G7 Ministers and Governors, reaffirm our longstanding commitment to market determined exchange rates and to consult closely in regard to actions in foreign exchange markets. We reaffirm that our fiscal and monetary policies have been and will remain oriented towards meeting our respective domestic objectives using domestic instruments, and that we will not target exchange rates. We are agreed that excessive volatility and disorderly movements in exchange rates can have adverse implications for economic and financial stability. We will continue to consult closely on exchange markets and cooperate as appropriate.”

Confused by the statement? You weren’t alone. The statement, although obscure, was initially seen by the market as a green light. Specifically, market participants focused on the following sentence:

“We reaffirm that our fiscal and monetary policies have been and will remain oriented towards meeting our respective domestic objectives using domestic instruments…”

However, only hours later, an unnamed “official” was quoted in a Reuters article as saying:

“The G7 statement signaled concern about excess moves in the yen.” and “The G7 is concerned about unilateral guidance on the yen. Japan will be in the spotlight at the G20 in Moscow this weekend.”

G7

The unnamed “official” was enough to stop the yen’s depreciation; at least temporarily. Investors’ eyes will now turn to the G20 meeting this weekend for further clarification. However, the reality of all of this is that it’s more noise than news.

Japan has started down a path with which there’s no turning back. Too many failed stimulus attempts have been one of the major reasons as to why Japan hasn’t been able to escape its two-decade long deflationary spiral. Reversing course now would be disastrous for the Japanese economy, and more importantly, Japan’s newly elected Prime Minster Shinzo Abe. Prime Minster Abe has only months to establish his Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) credibility before another round of elections determine the party’s fate. Turning back now would surely cost the party its ruling power. Ultimately, it seems hard to believe that newly elected officials would side with six members from other countries over that of the voters and ultimately their political careers.

A Tale of Two Currencies

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Brinker Capital

As the global marketplace continues to recover from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, two of the world’s major currencies, the yen and the euro, have embarked on remarkably different paths of late in a reflection of the efforts of the Central Bank’s, which guard the levers of these economies, to achieve growth and stability. The responses of the nations ‘ respective policy makers has led directly to a steep decline in the value of the Japanese Yen, while the European continent has seen its common medium of exchange rise to heights unreached since 2011. Although the nature of the challenges facing what are two of the largest economies in the world differ significantly, the efficacy of the monetary policies employed to combat them will have a profound effect on markets across the globe.

In Japan, newly elected Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has grabbed headlines after only a few weeks in office, through his advocacy of aggressive measures designed to foster growth within a nation that has been mired in stagnation. Dubbed “Abenomics”, the plan is a multifaceted approach to economic stimulus whose centerpiece is a desire to devalue the nation’s currency, in an effort to support its exporters by rendering the goods and services they provide less expensive on the world stage. According to the Wall Street Journal, on February 6th, “Analysts at Goldman Sachs Inc. estimate that for every 10 yen the currency weakens against the dollar, profits of exporters would rise by 7% to 10%.” Mr. Abe has professed his aim to achieve this through a controversial limiting of a measure of the Bank of Japan’s (BOJ) autonomy in an effort to effectively force the reflation of the economy through a program of unlimited monetary easing and large scale stimulus. In addition, the Prime Minister has pledged to fill the recently vacated position at the helm of the BOJ with an appointee who shares his commitment to revitalizing the country’s economy through all available means (The Economist, Jan 26th). The efforts undertaken thus far, combined with Mr. Abe’s emphatically-stated focus on combatting the deflation that has plagued Japan for more than a decade, have resulted in a sharp fall in the value of the yen, and a steep rise in equity prices listed on the nation’s exchange, which should be sustained as long as this endeavor proves successful. “The Nikkei has surged 32% since mid-November…The yen has declined 14% against the dollar over the same period…The gains in Tokyo have made Japan the world’s best-performing major stock market over the past three months ”(The Wall Street Journal, February 6th).2.8.13_Preisser_Currencies

On the Continent, the nearly four-year-old struggle to maintain its union in the face of a perilous debt crisis that threatened the world economy, has led to an unprecedented effort by the European Central Bank (ECB) to support the common currency. The fear of a possible dissolution of this unique collection of countries led directly to the widespread selling of the euro, as well as large scale liquidations of bonds issued by its sovereign members. As the cost of repaying the debt of a host of the European Union’s members rose to unsustainable levels the President of the ECB, Mario Draghi elected to act pledging to do, “whatever it takes to preserve the euro”(Bloomberg News July 26,2012). This statement manifested itself in a series of massive sovereign debt purchases by The Central Bank in September of 2012 which was dubbed, “Outright Monetary Transactions.” Mr. Draghi’s effort brought stability back to the euro-zone, and as a result led to an appreciation of its currency. As investors have become more confident that the worst of the crisis has been averted, the euro has risen further, and is now back to levels untested in two years. The sequence of events on the Continent stands in stark contrast to those in Japan, as Europe’s exporters have seen the cost of their products increase, thus making it more difficult for them to compete in the global marketplace. The threat that this state of affairs poses to the recovery of the region’s economy is such that it was directly and repeatedly addressed by Mr. Draghi this week during a press conference in which he suggested that the Central Bank may take steps to counter the effects of the currency’s rise. The ECB President was quoted by Bloomberg News as saying on Feb 7th, “The exchange rate is not a policy target, but it is important for growth and price stability…We want to see if the appreciation is sustained, and if it alters our assessment of the risks to price stability.”

The historic measures undertaken by both the European Central Bank, and the Bank of Japan in the interest of maintaining stability and fostering growth have thus far been largely successful, however it will be the ongoing maintenance of the consequences of this success that will ultimately determine the fate of these economies.