Posts tagged European Union
What a difference a year makes. For Exhibit A, consider the upcoming election this weekend in Italy. Wait, what? There’s an election in Italy this weekend? Must’ve missed that one…what with steel tariffs, Jared Kushner, incoherent crossfire between Trump and his own party on the issues of the day…only so much information one can consume, no?
The Way We Were
Other urgent media cross-currents notwithstanding there is, in fact, a national election in Italy this coming weekend. You would have known about it had it happened a year ago. Remember that time of slumbering volatility and gently ascending risk asset markets? Misty water-colored memories…There was an election in the Netherlands a year ago. The Netherlands is quite a bit smaller than Italy, GDP-wise, and it would be fair to venture that a not insignificant number of Americans would be hard-pressed to locate it on a map.
But for a few weeks in late winter last year the attention of global investors was focused on the outcome of elections in the land of dikes and canals. As in, it was about the only event on the radar screen that punters thought might unsettle the market’s placid waters, if it looked like the far right, anti-EU populist party would carry the day. It didn’t. A short time later the same singular focus turned to France (a larger country, the capital of which more Americans could probably name correctly).
Again, the far right threat failed to materialize as Marine Le Pen went down and Emmanuel Macron ascended as A New Hope (or, to the cynics, The Last (Classic Liberal) Jedi). The world resumed not caring about European elections. Oddly, the one the chattering class barely paid attention to, assuming the outcome was a given, was the German vote last September that produced a chaotic mess still in the process of being figured out six months later. The wisdom of crowds.
Two Matteos and a Clown Walk Into a Bar…
Which brings us to today, with Decision Italy about to happen amid a chaos of economic and geopolitical forces slamming markets this way and that with all the force of the Nor’easter currently having its gusty way with the DC region. Most of the same issues that concerned investors last year are very much front and center in this contest: neo-populism, anti-EU and single currency sentiment, hostility towards Middle East and North African immigration and, in this particular case, some disturbing reminders of Italy’s fascist history in the platforms of some of the leading political movements. The difference between this and last year’s elections is that a positive outcome – in the sense of being good for the EU, good for liberal democracy, bad for Russian meddlers – is actually the least likely one to happen.
That positive outcome would involve a decisive victory by the incumbent center-left Democratic Party (PD), which would probably mean the return of former prime minister Matteo Renzi, a EU-friendly technocrat inclined towards global free trade and the integrity of the single currency Eurozone. But the PD, similar to the fate of other established European center-left parties, has dropped precipitously in the polls. The likelihood of their winning a governing majority is vanishingly slim.
Enter the other two characters in our set-up to a bad joke: Matteo Salvini, the head of the far-right Northern League, and Silvio Berlusconi, the eternal court jester and sometime-leader of the Italian political scene. Berlusconi has cobbled together a right-leaning coalition between his own Forza Italia movement, Salvini’s League, a neo-fascist Brothers of Italy party and a southern alliance that calls itself “We’re With Italy” (if nothing else, Italy wins the Colorful Naming of Political Parties award). This unsavory coalition is the only political grouping with a reasonable chance at gaining majorities in either or both of the upper-house Senate or lower-house Chamber of Deputies come Sunday. If that happens, the next prime minister could very well be Mr. Salvini, who has personally referred to the euro as a “crime against humanity” and represents a movement founded on a northern Italian separatist agenda.
Chaos Has a Lean and Hungry Look
Slightly more likely than an outright win by the right is a hung election in which nobody gets a majority. That outcome could have the modest saving grace of keeping the current prime minister, the PD’s caretaker Paolo Gentiloni, at the helm for awhile longer while the various interests try to cobble together a grand coalition. But this result also does not bode well for the country or for regional stability. Italy’s debt to GDP ratio is already 130 percent, and the various public programs floated by the parties most likely to be in some form of power stand to add considerably more. Italy’s borrowing costs will be challenged as the ECB steps back from its full-throttle support of European bond markets. Global bond markets are already nervous this year; another Eurozone crisis would inflame an already investor-unfriendly environment. A competent response to economic challenges from any side looks unlikely.
For many months we have cited the “global macroeconomic context” as the main reason why we do not believe that a serious market reversal is right around the corner. The numbers continue to support that view today, despite the obvious return of long-dormant volatility among risk asset classes. But we also have to pay attention to the canaries in the coal mine – the factors that could loom ever larger as the current cycle plays out.
We know that much of the financial media world’s attention today is focused on the steel tariffs announced by Trump yesterday, and the (likely not unrelated) growing indications that the wheels are coming off this administration. Ultimately it will likely take more than one or two fumbling own goals to really take the nine year bull off its course. But there is evidence of a mosaic of chaos around the world – potentially including another Eurozone crisis, potentially including a China whose leader now possesses something close to absolute dictatorial powers, potentially including a whole new level of sophistication in global cyberterrorism. This mosaic of chaos is not (yet) showing up in macroeconomic headlines or in the steady stream of strong corporate earnings. But it is a mosaic we cannot ignore.
Some foreign words don’t have English translations that do them justice. Take the German “Schadenfreude,” for example. “Delight at the expense of another’s misfortune” just doesn’t quite pack the same punch. The Russian word “smutnoye” also defies a succinct English counterpart to fully import its meaning. Confusion, vagueness, a troubling sense that something nasty but not quite definable is lurking out there in the fog…these sentiments only partly get at the gist of the word. Russians, who over the course of their history have grown quite used to the presence of a potential fog-shrouded malignance out there in the fields, apply the term “smutnoye” to anything from awkward social encounters, to leadership vacuums in government, to drought-induced mass famines.
Who’s In Control?
We introduce the term “smutnoye” to this article not for an idle linguistic digression but because it seems appropriate to the lack of clarity about where we are in the course of the current economic cycle, and what policies central banks deem appropriate for these times. Recall that, just before the end of the second quarter, ECB chief Mario Draghi upended global bond markets with some musings on the pace of the Eurozone recovery and the notion that fiscal stimulus, like all good things in life, doesn’t last forever. Bond yields around the world jumped, with German 10-year Bunds leading the way as shown in the chart below.
At the time we were skeptical that Draghi’s comments signified some kind of sea change in central bank thinking (see our commentary for that week here). But bond yields kept going up in near-linear fashion, only pulling back a bit after Janet Yellen’s somewhat more dovish testimony to the US Congress earlier this week. And it has not just been the Fed and the ECB: hints of a change in thinking at the apex of the monetary policy world can be discerned in the UK and Canada as well. The sense many have is that central bankers want to wrest some control away from what they see as an overly complacent market. That, according to this view, is what motivated Draghi’s comments and what has credit market kibitzers focused like lasers on what words will flow forth from his mouth at the annual central bank confab in Jackson Hole next month.
Hard Data Doves
In that battle for control, and notwithstanding the recent ado in intermediate term credit yields, the markets still seem to be putting their money on the doves. The Fed funds futures index, a metric for tracking policy expectations, currently shows a less than 50 percent likelihood of a further rate hike this year, either in September or later – even though investors know full well that the Fed wants to follow through with one. Does that reflect complacency? A look at the hard data – particularly in regard to prices and wages – suggests common sense more than it does complacency. Two more headline data points released today add further weight to the view that another rate hike on the heels of June’s increase would be misguided.
US consumer prices came in below expectations, with the core (ex food & energy) CPI gaining 0.1 percent (versus the expected 0.2 percent) on the month, translating to a year-on-year gain of 1.7 percent. Retail sales also disappointed for what seems like the umpteenth time this year. The so-called control group (which excludes the volatile sectors of auto, gasoline and building materials) declined slightly versus an expected gain of 0.5 percent. These latest readings pile on top of last month’s tepid 1.4 percent gain in the personal consumer expenditure (PCE) index, the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge, and a string of earlier readings of a similarly downbeat nature.
Why Is This Cycle Different from All Other Cycles?
In her testimony to Congress this week, Yellen made reference to the persistence of below-trend inflation. The Fed’s basic policy stance on inflation has been that the lull is temporary and that prices are expected to recover and sustain those 2 percent targets. But Yellen admitted on Wednesday that there may be other, as-yet unclear reasons why prices (and employee wages) are staying lower for longer than an unemployment rate in the mid-4 percent range would normally suggest. This admission suggests that the Fed itself is not entirely clear as to where we actually are in the course of the economic recovery cycle that is in its ninth year and counting.
Equity markets have done a remarkable job at shrugging off this lack of clarity. Perhaps, like those Russian peasants of old, they are more focused on maximizing gain from the plot of land right under their noses while ignoring the slowly encroaching fog. Perhaps the fog will lift, revealing reason anew to believe a new growth phase lies ahead. All that remains to be seen; in the meantime, “smutnoye” remains the word of the moment.
Ah, to be alive at a time when “hey, did that really just happen?” can be the go-to phrase of any given day. To be perfectly honest, we did not give much more than a perfunctory review to the news some time back that UK prime minister Theresa May was calling a snap election in a bid to strengthen her Tory Party’s majority in Parliament. May’s insistent mantra of “steady and calm” seemed much more in keeping with the mood of the moment than the unpredictable antics of Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn, unloved even by much of his own party’s senior figures.
But while the good citizens of Washington, DC were filling up the local bars at 10 am for the much-hyped James Comey testimony, our British friends across the pond went to the polls and delivered yet another insouciant slap in the face of conventional wisdom. May’s Conservatives failed to gain a parliamentary majority, while Corbyn’s Labor Party bagged a sizable number of new seats and all sorts of other counterintuitive things happened… suffice it to say that “Democratic Union Party of Northern Ireland” was probably NOT on the tip of your tongue before now.
Does Someone Need a Time Out?
As of this moment the only hard data point we can affirm is that Britain has a “hung parliament,” meaning that no single party has a majority of seats from which to form a government. The most likely outcome, from the initial flurry of horse trading, will be a coalition between the Tories and Northern Ireland’s DUP, which also picked up a couple seats on Thursday night. But that is not definite; observers expect at least an attempt by Labor to form its own coalition. May’s own future as head of her party is anything but certain, and there is a better than average chance we will see another election called before the end of the year.
What this means for Brexit is also spectacularly unclear. What seems apparent, though, is that the “hard Brexit” approach favored by May, expressed by the sentiment that no deal (i.e. a nasty divorce) is better than a bad deal, is headed for the dustbin of history. Brexit is not off the table – Article 50 has been invoked and the game is afoot – but in the fog of confusion produced by the election outcome, some kind of a time-out may be in the cards.
L’Europe, En Marche!
Britain’s position vis à vis Article 50 negotiations is made more difficult still by the marked contrast of fortunes across the Channel. In his brief tour of duty as France’s president Emmanuel Macron has established himself as a strong leader whose En Marche (forward!) party – which did not even exist 14 months ago – is positioned to capture an historic majority of parliamentary seats in this weekend’s upcoming regional legislative elections (so many elections, so little time to cover and process them!). The Old Continent, plagued for so long by political sclerosis and the travails of the single currency region, suddenly looks ascendant under the M&M (Merkel & Macron) leadership star.
A stronger economy, though still not equally dispersed among all regions, may help the pro-EU center solidify its recent gains at the expense of far right populism. A more vibrant Europe will likely have the effect of making a decisive Brexit even less appealing to the nearly half of Britons who would still prefer to remain. Now, it is very difficult to tease out any kind of a clear Brexit message from the confusion of Westminster seats gained and lost on Thursday night. But with ten days to go before formal Article 50 negotiations are set to begin, a British negotiating team that has given short shrift to the many complex details to be worked out in the split would be well advised to take a deep breath and – perhaps – buy some additional time before engaging the battle.
It is said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Today’s Old Etonians, and their negotiating team peers, would do well to consult instead Sun Tzu -- on when to engage, and when to pull back and reassess.
This year, the month of March will serve up more than an endless succession of college basketball games and unappealing concoctions of green beer. Almost nine months after the surprise vote last summer, the United Kingdom will finally get to show the world what its exit from the European Union may look like as it triggers Article 50, formally kicking off divorce proceedings. Inquiring investors will want to know how this piece of the puzzle may fit into the evolving economic landscape over the coming years. We take stock of where things stand on the cusp of this new phase of the Brexit proceedings.
Here – Catch This
The UK’s economic performance in the second half of 2016 turned out to be not quite what Remain doomsayers predicted. Real GDP growth for the third quarter – the immediate period after the Brexit vote – was twice what the economists had forecast. With a further strong performance in the last quarter, the UK economy ended 2016 with year-on-year real GDP growth of 2.0 percent, the strongest among the world’s developed economies. Not bad for a would-be basket case!
For most of that time period – from July through November – the main growth driver was consumer spending. For whatever combination of reasons – giddy Leavers on a shopping spree right alongside gloomy Remainers stocking up for the apocalypse, maybe? – households let their consumer freak fly. The pattern changed in the last month of the year. A string of impressive reports from the industrial production corner of the economy in December showed that manufacturers finally appeared to be taking advantage of the sharply weaker pound to sell more stuff, including to key non-EU export markets. That in turn has led to talk of a rebalancing. Consumer spending is unlikely to continue at its recent fervid pace as inflation kicks in and wages fail to keep up – a trend that is already underway. If the services sector can pass the baton onto manufacturing, perhaps the UK could continue to overachieve and make a success of Brexit?
Your Check, Monsieur
The Bank of England has now twice raised its 2017 growth estimate for the UK, so maybe there is some cause for optimism (though it is somewhat hard to see how Britain sustains a competitive advantage as manufacturing powerhouse). A strain of optimism has certainly been coursing through policymaker veins. Prime Minister Theresa May has assured her constituents that the UK side of the negotiating table will push for a most favorable outcome and will fight any EU pushback with nerves of steel. Her government has even hinted at a Plan B should negotiations collapse; a sort of “Singapore on the Thames” financial haven with low tax rates and other incentives for global businesses. But there are a number of potentially thorny roadblocks between here and the promised land.
First off will be an unwelcome bill likely to present itself once the UK team shows up in Brussels. In the eyes of EU budget handlers, British liabilities for things ranging from pension scheme contributions to commitments for future spending projects run to about £60 billion. That is a large chunk of change that (for obvious reasons) has been given short shrift by the UK government in its white papers and other communications with the public on Brexit’s likely cost. EU negotiators give every indication they will insist on the settlement of this account as an up-front divorce payment before any further negotiations on market access, tariff holidays etc. can take place. The British side will be unlikely to go along with that, as it will be in their interests to hammer out a comprehensive solution before they think about a reasonable way to settle accounts. So talks could go off the rails before they even get to the serious issues of economic substance.
What if the negotiations fail? Again, that question has gotten very little focus to date but remains a distinct possibility. An animosity-filled parting of ways between the UK and its largest trading partner (worth about £600 billion per year) would likely not be in anybody’s interest. But each side has its own expectations, its own problems and its own unruly constituents not inclined towards compromise. Bear in mind that, ever mindful of the potential outcome of elections on its own territory, the EU side will be wary of showing any kind of blueprint for easy exit.
And there is a larger picture as well; the Brexit negotiations will be going on during a particularly fraught period for world trade. The Trump administration is hell-bent on scrapping multilateral deals and going after what it imagines to be opportunities for bilateral “wins” (using curiously befuddled and plodding scoring metrics like “surplus-good, deficit-bad”). China would love to lure more scorned partners into its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and consolidate supremacy in the Pacific. Brexit, then, will be a big part of an even bigger variable: the rapidly changing face of global trade. However this variable winds up affecting asset markets in 2017, it is likely to have a profound effect on growth and living standards for quite some time to come.
Contrarian investors come in all shapes and sizes, but they all share a variation of this basic way of looking at the world: when the crowd looks one way, it pays to look the other. Today there is an undisputed crowd looking one way -- the Trump reflation-infrastructure trade that shows scant signs of fading, despite a bit of a pause in US equity share gains this week. And there are plenty of good reasons -- we believe -- for looking in other directions, the arguments for which we have set out on these pages in weeks past. But where? This week we consider the merits of one of the least popular asset classes in recent times: European equities.
Europe: The Macro Case
On the face of it, there would seem to be not much to recommend Europe from a top-down analysis of the variables at play. Last year’s Brexit vote hangs over the Continent; while the general consensus remains that Britain’s exit will hurt its own economy more than that of Europe’s, the devil will be in the details of how the parties agree to implement Article 50. Plus, of course, the upcoming elections in France and Germany, and the still-potential wild card of early elections in Italy - will shine a light on the fissures created by anti-establishment sentiment. All this while rattled national leaders and EC technocrats listen for the next approaching Scud missile in the form of a late-night tweet from the other side of the Atlantic.
Valid points, all. On the other hand, the economic health of the region is arguably stronger than it has been since the recession began nearly ten years ago. One of the first macro headlines of note this year was a 1.7 percent reading for consumer price inflation in Germany. Additionally, Eurozone producer prices climbed 1.6 percent year-on-year through the end of December last year. A meaningful part of the jump comes from energy prices; nonetheless, building inflationary pressures would seem to indicate that Europe has moved well and truly back from the deflation trap that seemed all but certain to engulf the region just two years ago. Two cheers, perhaps, for Mario Draghi and his knack for jawboning equity and debt markets.
Moreover, while the upcoming elections could indeed put added stress on the integrity of the common currency region, there is a plausible argument to make against that outcome. Consider the French election, where a victory by far-right populist Marine Le Pen would send shock waves to Brussels. Recently the world learned that the til-now front runner in that race, conservative Francois Fillon, is embroiled in a financial scandal involving fake parliamentary jobs for his wife and children. Apparently nepotism is still a cause for scandal over there - who knew?
The knee-jerk reaction to that news would plausibly be fear that Le Pen, running second in the polls, would vaunt to front-runner status. But wait! The Fillon scandal appears to have worked first and foremost to the benefit of Emmanuel Macron, an independent candidate with a moderate center-left platform who has surged to front-runner status. A Macron win would shake up France’s ossified political system, but arguably in a productive way less likely to be a direct threat to Eurozone integrity. Add to that the likelihood of Angela Merkel winning her fourth term later in the year, and suddenly the Great European Crack-up of 2017 looks less probable.
Europe: the Micro Case
What about the bottom-up view? Well, the obvious place to start would be the valuation gap between US shares and their European counterparts. According to Thomson Reuters Datastream, the twelve month forward P/E multiple for the Euro Stoxx 600, a regional benchmark, is less than 15 times. The forward P/E for the S&P 500, on the other hand, is over 17 times. Now, there have been reasons a-plenty to attach higher valuations to US companies in recent years. Nonetheless, when whole asset classes go out of favor there are usually some very good names that get unfairly tarnished with the macro discount brush.
One area where some contrarians may have been seen fishing about recently is for shares of companies with a significant portion of their revenues derived from outside Europe, particularly in North America or China & Southeast Asia. Remember that for every Procter & Gamble there is a Unilever, for every Exxon Mobil a Royal Dutch Shell. And some of the world’s leading industrial materials concerns -- a sector particularly embraced by the Trump trade crowd -- hail from Europe, among them Germany’s Heidelberg Cement and France’s Lafarge. If you really have to play the infrastructure trade, why not play it with more attractively-valued shares?
The Currency Factor
For a dollar-denominated investor, Europe has been a disappointment for many, many years, and one of the main reasons for that has been the secular bull run of the US dollar. The consensus outlook for the dollar remains strong, mostly due to the imagined outcome of a sequence of interest rate hikes in the US while the Eurozone continues to feed its monetary stimulus program. Every percentage gain by the dollar against the euro is a percentage taken away from the price performance of EU shares in local currency terms. For most of the past eight years, that has been a daunting obstacle.
Again, though, if those EU inflation headlines continue into a trend it is likely to, at the least, put upward pressure on intermediate and long benchmark yields in the Eurozone, which in turn would provide some support to the euro. Back in the US, we continue to see the pace of rate increases by the Fed proceeding gradually and below-trend for some time to come (this squares with our view that the tidal wave of net new infrastructure spending is more a creation of hyperactive investor imaginations than actual likely policy in 2017). With the dollar hovering just a few points above euro parity, there is at least a reasonable case to make that the dollar’s bull run may settle back a bit from its recent pace -- indeed, we saw perhaps a preliminary sign of this with the greenback’s weak January trend.
None of this means that European equities are a fat-pitch obvious source of value. But in a world of expensively priced assets, sometimes it pays to get into the heads of the contrarians and see what they are thinking. We will continue to send reports from this corner of the market as we assess alternative opportunities over the coming weeks and months.