a rainy Friday in August in New York

August is the month when many senior portfolio managers are away from the office on vacation.  So big decisions on portfolio structure tend not to be made.

Friday is the day of the week when short-term traders’ thoughts turn to flattening their books so they won’t carry risk over the weekend.

It’s raining, which sparks thoughts in traders of sleeping in or leaving work early.

Add all that up, and the heavy betting should be that US stocks will likely move sideways in the morning and fade off toward the close.

That means this is a good day to stand on the sidelines and size up the tone of the market.

 

In pre-market trading, tech is up and bricks-and-mortar retailing (on the earnings miss by Foot Locker) is down.  …nothing new about this.  At some point there will doubtless be a fierce counter-trend rally.  But the negative earnings surprises are still provoking severe selloffs.  So I don’t think today is the day.

Pundits are speculating about the damaging effects on his political agenda of Mr. Trump’s apparent defense of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.  …but the Trump trade has been MIA since January, with the US a laggard among world stock markets during Mr. Trump’s time in office so far.  Yes, there may be residual hope for corporate tax reform from the administration, which this latest demonstration of the president’s ineptness as a executive could arguably undermine.  My guess is, however, that he is already well understood.

Two questions for today:

–will the market perform more strongly than the season and the weather are suggesting? This would be evidence that there’s still an untapped reservoir of bullishness waiting for somewhat better prices to express itself.

–should we be buying in the afternoon if it’s weaker than I expect?  My answer is No.  I think there is a lot of untapped bullishness, but we’re in a slowly rising channel whose present ceiling is less than 2500 on the S&P 500.   That’s not enough upside for me.  I’m also content to wait for any incipient bearishness to play itself out further.

It will be interesting to see how today plays out.

 

a professional portfolio manager performance check

I subscribe to the S&P Indexology blog.  Like most S&P communications efforts, I find this blog interesting, useful and reliable.

Anyway, two days ago Indexology published a check on the performance of equity managers who offer products to US customers.

In one respect, the findings were unsurprising.  For managers with US stock portfolio mandates, well over half underperformed their benchmarks over the one-year period ending in June.  Over five years, more than three-quarters failed to match or exceed the return of their index.

This is business as usual.  Why this is so isn’t 100% clear to me.

One of my mentors used to say that ” the pain of underperformance lasts long after the glow of outperformance has faded.”   I think that’s right.  In other words, clients will punish a PM severely for underperformance, but reward him/her by a much smaller amount for outperformance.  In a world where risks and rewards aren’t symmetrical, it’s probably better not to take the buck-the-crowd positions necessary to outperform.  Instead, it’s better to accept mild underperformance, keep close to the pack of rival managers and spend a lot of time marketing your like-me/trust-me attributes.

(To be clear, this isn’t a strategy I wholeheartedly embraced.  I generally achieved significant outperformance in up markets, endeavored not to lose my shirt in down markets.  My long-term US results were a lot better than the index, but at the cost of short-term volatility that was greater than the market’s.  Pension consultants, heavily reliant on academic theories of finance, tended to demand a smoother ride, even if that meant consistently less money in the pockets of their clients.  Yes, a constant problem for me.  But it illustrates the systematic pressure put on managers to conform, to look like everyone else.)

 

The surprising news in the blog post comes in international markets.   Generally speaking, the markets overseas are simpler in structure, information flows much more slowly than in the US, and PMs tend to be ill-trained and poorly paid.  Rather than being the culmination of a long a successful career, being a PM abroad is often only an early stepstone to something better.  So pencil in outperformance.

On a one-year view, however, Indexology reports that the vast majority of managers of global, international and emerging markets portfolios all underperformed their benchmarks.  This is the first time this has happened since S&P has been checking!!

I don’t watch this arena closely enough to have a worthwhile opinion on how this happened.  The fact of underperformance itself is surprising–the fact that more than 75% of managers of international funds underperformed is stunning.  My guess is that no one saw the deceleration of Continential European economies coming.

For anyone with international equity exposure, which is probably just about everyone, current manager performance is well worth monitoring closely.

 

Yahoo, welcome to France!

Dailymotion

For the past half-year, Yahoo (YHOO) has been negotiating with France Telecom to buy a controlling interest in Dailymotion, an online-video website that FT acquired in 2011 for €127 million ($165 million).  According to the Wall Street Journalthe two parties reached an agreement last month in which YHOO would pay $225 million for 75% of Dailymotion, the 10th largest You Tube competitor.

This looked like a sweet deal for both sides.  FT would get all its cash back plus a profit and would retain a 25% interest in Dailymotion, while YHOO shouldered all the financial and operational burden of growing Dailymotion as fast as possible.  YHOO would take a big step forward in developing an online video arm.

redressement productif intervenes

Then Paris stepped in.  In a move reminiscent of its rejection of Pepsi’s bid to acquire yogurt-maker Danone, the parties were summoned to the offices of the French Minister of Industry (=redressement productif), Arnaud Montebourg on April 12th.  Le Monde says M. Montebourg yelled at FT, described Dailymotion as a national treasure that must remain in French hands and vetoed the deal.

Odd behavior for an official who is a central figure Paris’s campaign to convince foreigners to invest in French companies (“Say Oui to France, Say Oui to Innovation”).  On the other hand, this is France we’re talking about.

damage done

This government move has bad consequences both for France, and for Dailymotion:

–Dailymotion is now stuck being a part of a telephone utility, which doesn’t have the skills, connections or capital to help it grow.

–Dailymotion employees see that their dreams of making a large profit by cashing out in a sale, or of being key figures in a large internet entity have gone up in smoke.  The most talented are doubtless already cutting their losses and leaving France for tech jobs elsewhere.

–Paris has just shown foreigners that any capital they put into France is subject to the whims of the ruling elite and could easily be trapped there forever.   M. Montebourg’s public post-meeting gloating about his action only reinforces this idea.

–the move is another significant step down the path to economic irrelevance blazed by Japan.

France is not the only chauvinist…

…although it is the birthplace of the Nicholas Chauvin legend.

Every country restricts foreign investment to some degree.  Almost no one lets non-citizens control essential industries like defense, telecommunications or media, for example.  Developing economies, fearing that rich foreigners will spirit away local businesses on the cheap, often enact wider restrictions.  Continental European nations, where preserving the position of a small group of “haves” is a very high priority, do the same.  The US, fearing its growing economic power, won’t let China buy much of anything.

ironies

M. Montebourg seems to have no clue that he has highlighted the negative reality behind the “Say Oui to France-innovation” campaign.

The campaign’s website, which I thought was well done, features prominently an explanatory video driven by the same Dailymotion Montebourg has just eviscerated.

The French love to disparage American intellect and culture.  According to one recent description, we have been mentally ensnared by our greatest creation, Disneyland, and are now unable find our way back to the real world.  They don’t seem to get it that venerating yogurt and online videos suggests you’re a lot more confused than we are.   Or that being lost in memories of the glory of the Ancien Régime is not such a hot thing, either.

recent world currency movements: stock market implications

dramatic changes

Although currency movements sometimes can often be overlooked by a stock market investor immersed in the hustle and bustle of day-to-day trading action, there have been a couple of whopping big moves in major currencies over the past half-year.

Since late July 2012, the euro has risen by 12.5% against the dollar.  Over the same time span, the yen has fallen by about 16.5% against the greenback.  A quick bit of multiplication tells us this also means that the euro has risen by about 30% against the Japanese currency.

To my mind, there’s no really satisfactory general economic theory about how currencies work.  But to give a sense of perspective, inflation in Japan has been, say, -1% on an annual basis over the second half of 2012.  We’ve had +1.5% in the US.  Euroland has experienced a 2.5% rise in the price level.  Inflation differentials imply that the yen should be rising against the dollar at a 2.5% annual rate and against the euro by 3.5%.  The euro, in turn, should have weakened by 1% against the dollar and 3.5% against the yen.  The actual outcome has been far different.

Of course, there are reasons for the spectacular assent of the euro and the plunge of the yen.  Until around mid-year, many observers thought Euroland was coming apart at the seams and rushed to get their money out before the demise.  I’m sure there was more than a touch of flight capital mixed in the outflows.  Thanks to Mario Monti’s and Angela Merkel’s actions indicating the political will to save the euro, capital flows have reversed in spectacular fashion.

Newly-elected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made it a central plank of his campaign for office that he intends to force the Bank of Japan to print lots of money.  Why?   …to weaken the yen and to create inflation.  The move could easily end in eventual economic disaster, but for now its main effect has been to drive the Japanese currency down a lot versus its trading partners’.

stock market implications

Generally speaking, a rising currency acts to slow down the domestic economy.  A falling currency gives the economy a temporary boost.

Currency changes can also rearrange the relative growth rates of different sectors.  The best-positioned companies will be those that have their sales in the strongest currencies and their costs (e.g., labor, raw materials, manufacturing) in the weakest.

Japan

The decline of the yen has given Japanese export-oriented firms a gigantic relative cost advantage against European competitors, and a significant, though smaller, one against US rivals–or those located in any country that ties its currency to the US$.  Anyone who sells products in Japan that are imported, or made with imported raw materials, has been crushed.

We’ve seen this movie before, however, on a couple of occasions.  It’s ugly.  Domestic firms lose.  Exporters will make substantial profit gains in the local currency.  But from a stock market view, that plus–with the possible exception of the autos–will be offset for foreigners by currency losses they have/will endure on their holdings.  Stocks in even the most advantaged sectors will deliver little better than breakeven to a $ investor, and will certainly rack up large losses to anyone interested in € returns, in my view.

Euroland

The EU has already had a return-from-the-dead rally, where stocks of all stripes in the economically challenged areas of southern Europe have done well.  The message of the stronger currency is that importers, or purely domestic firms in defensive industries will fare the best from here.    Although I think the preferred place to be from a long-term perspective is owning high quality export-oriented industrials, the rise of the euro has blunted their near-term attractiveness.  One exception:  multinationals based in the UK, because sterling hasn’t participated in the euro’s rocketship ride.

Ideally, you’d want a firm that imports Japanese goods into the EU.

the US

Americans are less accustomed to thinking about currency effects that investors in other areas, where their effects are more pervasive.  With the dollar being in the middle between an appreciating euro and a depreciating yen, currency effects will be two-sided. Firms with large Japanese businesses, like luxury goods companies, will be losers.  Firms with large European assets and profits, like many staples companies, will be winners.  Tourism from the EU will be up, from Japan, down.  One odd effect, which I don’t see any obvious American publicly listed beneficiary–the decline in the yen is causing the cost of living for ordinary Japanese to rise sharply, since that country imports so many dollar-price raw materials.  To offset that effect, Japan is beginning to weaken protective barriers that have kept much cheaper finished goods (like food) from entering the Japanese market.  Doubly bad for Japanese farmers, though.

Shaping a portfolio for 2012 (III): China

China

In assessing China, I think it’s important to distinguish carefully between the course of the mainland Chinese economy and the fortunes of China-related stocks.

the economy

background

The foremost goal of the Beijing government is to keep the ruling Communist Party in power.  This translates into the economic objective of avoiding possible social unrest by keeping employment high and unemployment low.  That’s quite a trick when you’re managing the transition from a rural, agriculture-based society to a more urban and manufacturing-oriented one.

In addition, China dedicated itself to creating a Western-style market-based economy in the late 1970s when it realized the country was too complex for central planning to work.  Again, hard to do when three-quarters of your industrial base was zombie-like state-owned corporations, when being a businessman was a felony and where citizens preferred to bury chuk kam gold trinkets in the back yard rather than use banks.

Complicating the situation further is the fact that high corporate or local/national government officials are Party officials whose chances for personal promotion are directly related to aggressively growing the areas they control, whether doing so makes long-term economic sense or not.

results

At the same time, all the mid-level national economic officials I’ve met–who actually implement policy–have been highly sophisticated, well-trained (mostly from the US or UK), competent and dedicated to creating healthy and balanced growth.

Given the large size of the Chinese economy and the paucity of tools to make economic policy, the best they’ve been able to do is to lurch between two extremes, overheating and stalling (the latter meaning unemployment is rising–a combination of new entrants to the labor force and layoffs)–and gradually lessen the amplitude of the cyclical swings.

where we are now

When the developed world appeared to be coming apart at the seams in 2008, China allowed a particularly strong domestic lurch to the upside.  For the past two years or so, Beijing has been trying to force an economic slowdown to rein in that expansionary impulse.

Policymakers have most recently been signalling their belief that slowdown has gone far enough and it’s time for faster expansion again.

China stocks

By and large, non-citizens can’t buy or sell stocks in the domestic market.  I’m not sure it makes much economic difference whether the local bourses go up or down.

Hong Kong is the natural market where the best and brightest of the mainland list their shares.

Over the past six months, Hong Kong stocks have sold off much more heavily than, say, the S&P 500, in response to worries about the Eurozone and potential global economic slowdown.  Since bottoming in early October, they’ve only rallied back in line with the S&P.  As I see it, so far there’s no anticipation of a better mainland economy this year in Hong Kong stock prices.  Many stocks there look cheap to me.

what to do

Personally, I think it’s important for all but the most risk-averse investors to have some exposure to the Chinese economy.

The most conservative way to do so is to hold companies listed in the US or Europe that have significant businesses in China.  Luxury goods retailers like LVMH, Tiffany or Coach are possibilities.  Casino companies like Wynn and Las Vegas Sands make all their money in Asia.

Discount brokers like Fidelity offer international trading services that allow foreigners to buy stocks in Hong Kong directly and cheaply.  Most investors will likely find it easier not to do research themselves, however, and buy an ETF or an actively managed mutual fund that specializes in Hong Kong or Greater China.

Price action in December and early January is often hard to read because of tax-related selling–losers in December, winners in early January.  Still, I’ve been a bit surprised that Hong Kong stocks haven’t done better than they have, given that the most recent economic news out of China, the EU and the US has virtually all been positive.

I don’t think this means that the positive case for the Chinese economy and for Hong Kong stocks is incorrect.  It may just take more time for negative emotion–from investors located in Europe, I think–to exhaust itself.  I’ve always thought that “buy on weakness” is pretty lame advice.  But it’s probably the right approach in this case.

 

 

Shaping a portfolio for 2012 (II): Europe

Europe–I’m not an expert…

I’ve been watching European stock markets for over 25 years, but I don’t consider myself an expert on Europe.  There are too many social and political quirks for me to get motivated to master its intricacies, given the relatively small size of each country, and of continental Europe in the aggregate, in stock market terms.  So I’ve taken an “American” approach and tried to just pick stocks.

…but everyone has to have a plan

On the other hand,  most stock market investors have to have a plan for dealing with Europe, since it’s a big trading partner with China and maybe a quarter of the revenues of the S&P 500 come from Europe.

Even a simple plan is almost infinitely better than nothing.  It gives you a baseline to monitor for signs that the reasoning behind your stock selection is wrong.  Rather than simply watch your stocks go down in flames, you can try to fix the budding problem.

Here’s my take on Europe:

There are a number of political groupings in Europe.  The widest is the EU itself.  Then there’s the Eurozone (all the countries which have adopted the common currency, the €) as a subset of the EU.  And there are other things like the Schengen free travel area.

For investors, the Eurozone is the most important of these.

To my mind, the defining characteristic of the Eurozone is that it has a common monetary policy, but fiscal policy that’s determined by each country.  This is what has the EZ in trouble today.

The ECB sets interest rates at a level that’s appropriate for the EZ as a whole.  For traditionally slower growing countries at the core, like France and Germany, that has arguably been too restrictive.  For faster growing, smaller economies on the periphery of the EZ, the rate has been extremely stimulative.

Easy money sloshing around the periphery found its way into massive numbers of speculative real estate deals.  Of course, each country should have recognized this and restrained speculation through cautious fiscal policy.  But what politician is going to take the punch bowl away from the party?  After all, there’s always an election around the corner.

To some degree, real estate speculation also infected the periphery with the “Dutch disease,” meaning that demand for construction workers drove up wages elsewhere–making other, export-oriented manufacturing industries less competitive.  For Americans, it’s like Detroit and the car industry.

If that weren’t bad enough, two countries, Greece and Italy, decided to game the system.

In my experience, Italy has always been the least economically responsible large country in Europe.  Yes, it took heroic measures to restructure itself to qualify to enter the EZ as a charter member.  But then it fell back into its old slovenly ways.

I’ll confess that I know next to nothing about Greece.  My impression is that it thinks membership in the EZ was a fabulous chance to scam the rest of Europe.  My impression is that it will happily default on its sovereign debt and leave the EU as soon as it gets a chance–sort of like skipping out on a restaurant check.  Luckily, its small size makes it a rounding error for Europe as a whole.

That’s the problem.  But where are we now?

I think we’re past the worst and on the way to fixing the current EZ problems.  I don’t mean the structural flaws in the EZ, but just today’s crisis.

We’re already seeing serious reform out of Ireland and Spain.  Greece and Portugal (another country where I have no clue) are too small to matter.   The real EZ economic uncertainty comes down to what happens in Italy.

Italy went through another painful wholesale economic reform process to enter the EZ and it has appointed economist Mario Monti as premier with a mandate for reform.  I think these are good signs that Italy is wiling to make the necessary changes to its economy once again.

One other point to mention:  a much simpler fix to problems in Italy and Greece would be to have the ECB loosen money policy by, for example, buying up Italian government bonds.  Doing so removes any incentive for Italy to reform, however–so it just kicks the can down the road.  More than that, money policy that’s inappropriately loose for Germany creates the need to use restrictive fiscal policy to offset it.  Angela Merkel certainly doesn’t want to have to do that.

my bottom line

economics

Politicians in any area of the world only seem to me to act when the situation has deteriorated so far that the painful measures they need to implement are greeted with relief by the electorate as a “rescue” from a worse fate.

I think we’re at, or past, that point in the EZ and that the essential measures are already agreed to, through changes in government, that will end the current EZ crisis.

The main means of change will be austerity.  Once the ECB is convinced that Italy is sincere in its reform efforts it may provide some monetary assistance.  But cutting government spending and enforcing tax laws will be the order of the day.

For the European periphery, this spells recession today and low growth for a while after.

stock markets

The bigger question for equity investors is often not so much what the economic reality is likely to be as, rather, what economic scenario is currently being discounted in today’s stock prices.

I have four conclusions:

1.  I think today’s European stock prices discount a more pessimistic outcome than I see as probable.

2. I don’t think that attitude will change, however, until we see changes in EZ laws that are slated for March plus further concrete developments from Rome.

3.  I don’t want to bet the farm on my analysis.

4.  No matter what the precise outcome, Europe is likely to be the slowest growing area of the world in 2012.

Therefore,

I’m substantially underweight Europe.   I hold small positions in a couple of equity mutual funds, and one stock, through its ADR, IHG.  I would prefer Europe-listed companies that have most of their business in other parts of the world over primarily domestic-oriented firms.  I’d also prefer to reach into Europe through multi-nationals listed elsewhere that have some European exposure.

thinking out loud about Euroland (II)

Euroland is small

Yesterday, I tried to argue that in world economic terms the Eurozone is smaller than many investors believe and that, therefore, even a severe recession there next year will only have a mild negative impact on global growth prospects.

There are two additional economic factors to consider–trade and investor expectations.

trade

Ex oil, most trade among Eurozone members is with each other.  Sales to the EU from China–Europe’s largest external trading partner–amount to less than 3% of the economy of either.  The same is true for business between the US and the EU.

Trade usually rises and falls faster than a country’s overall economy, though.  So a 5% decline in Eurozone GDP next year might translate into a 10% decline in imports.  Certainly not a good thing, but not by itself a disaster, either.

investor uncertainty

To my mind, the bigger issue by far is investor uncertainty.  Such fears typically turn out to be wildly overstated.  That knowledge doesn’t help much, however, if it’s your portfolio that’s being swamped by waves of irrational selling.

Even though Americans have been investing in foreign stock markets in a serious way for almost thirty years, I think most people still don’t understand that there isn’t a one-to-one relationship between world economies and world stock markets.  The relationship works for bonds, which comprise a much larger class of securities, but not for equities.

There are two reasons for this:

–in most countries, large portions of the economy have no publicly listed companies.  In the US, for example, the real estate, housing and auto sectors, all of which are important for GDP growth, have very little stock market representation

–in many countries, the owner of a domestic enterprise can easily be a foreign company.   In this case, the owner’s main public listing is probably in a foreign country–if it is listed at all.  Again, it contributes to GDP but has no local stock market presence.   TIF, for instance, is a US company but earns money and adds to GDP in the EU, Japan and China.  Ikea is a global furniture company founded by a Swedish entrepreneur.  It’s incorporated in the Netherlands and not publicly traded anywhere.

world stock markets by size

In world stock market terms, the Eurozone is smaller than it is in a macroeconomic sense.

The world stock markets open to foreigners break out roughly as follows:

US          45%

Eurozone          11%

rest of Europe (mostly the UK, with a dash of Switzerland and Sweden)          13%

Japan          9%

Canada + Australia          8%

emerging markets          14%.

Slicing the Eurozone up a bit further, the area’s main components are Germany and France, which together make up more than half the total.   By far the biggest sector is financials.

Unfortunately, there’s no reliable information I’m aware of to sort out the relationship between where companies in continental Europe may be listed vs. the countries where they make their money.  I think we should assume that all financials are pan-European enterprises, no matter where they are listed.  For other sectors, the tendency has been for countries to declare that certain companies or industries are national treasures and can’t be acquired by foreigners.  My guess–and it really is a guess–is that ex financials, most multinational exposure is to non-Eurozone areas.  If so, this exposure would be an economic and stock market plus.

conclusions

In the parsing of world stock market above, which gets down to the level of markets that make up as little as 2% of the world’s stock markets, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain don’t show up at all. They’re that small.

In terms of investor concern that’s depressing overall European markets, then, the issue has got to be either the indirect effects on business in France and Germany of problems in smaller Eurozone economies and/or the negative effects on the very large banking sector.  My guess is that the negative signal European markets are giving is much more the latter than the former.

 

Tomorrow–how to structure an equity portfolio in light of European stock market weakness.