We hope you’re enjoying your summer and are staying cool.
In our previous letter, we noted that the gaudy first quarter returns for risk assets (namely US stocks) were on an unsustainable trajectory and unlikely to continue upwards indefinitely. As we anticipated, the second quarter saw a steep selloff in risk assets as problems in Europe continued to deteriorate and US economic data disappointed. In June, equity markets rallied back a bit on the news that the Federal Reserve will be extending its Operation Twist policy through the end of 2012. However, this commitment fell short of what many risk investors were hoping to see in response to a global slowdown. As a result, risk assets have begun to sell off again as we enter the third quarter. So long as central banks continue to intervene in the financial markets (and investors anticipate these moves), we expect equity and bond markets will continue to respond in volatile fashion.
From a valuation standpoint, we believe US stocks appear to be near cyclical highs. The S&P 500 currently trades at a Price-Earnings (P/E) ratio above 16, which is above the historical average. The cyclically adjusted P/E ratio or CAPE, (a longer-term measure that averages 10 years of earnings) is at an even greater extreme of 22. Over the past century, US stocks have reached cyclical peaks with a CAPE over 22 on five occasions, in 1929 (at 32.5), in 1966 (at 24.1), in 2000 (at 44.2), in 2007 (at 27.5) and in 2011 (at 23.48). While stock prices could certainly continue to march higher, we don’t view these valuations as a bargain.
In our view, Europe continues to be the main driver of movements in most major markets, including bonds and foreign-exchange. The Euro has weakened substantially against most major currencies as it becomes clear that European institutions have no conclusive solution to the peripheral crisis (instead, they favor a “kick the can down the road” approach of providing emergency bailout funds to temporarily stem insolvency in countries like Greece and Spain). European equities have weakened substantially in response. In both the US and China, manufacturing activity has slowed over the past few months as uncertainty over the health of European consumers and companies mounts.
Back in the financial markets, it seems as if large banks can’t go a few of months without embroiling themselves in a major controversy. This quarter saw two banks — which had emerged largely unscathed from the financial crisis — fall flat on their faces, and one infant institution in Spain cry out for state assistance. At JP Morgan, a trading unit in the chief investment office was given a great deal of discretion and used it to develop an infatuation with a trading model that turned out to be a poor reflection of reality. The result was a loss of a few billion dollars, a number of ruined careers, and the surprising prospect of Jamie Dimon (JP Morgan Chase CEO) apologizing in public. The final cost of the trading losses has not been tallied as yet, but the episode has become exhibit A for the camp advocating strict implementation of the “Volcker rule” which prohibits banks from engaging in proprietary trading. We believe clear and consistent enforcement of the Volcker rule would go a long way towards preventing future financial crises.
Across the pond, Barclays found itself the first major casualty in a developing scandal surrounding the process used to set a key benchmark rate, LIBOR (London Interbank Offered Rate). LIBOR is used to price many financial instruments, including loans and derivatives amounting to hundreds of trillions of dollars. Many adjustable rate mortgages, and most interest rates swaps are based on some form of LIBOR. The rate, however, is determined based on a process developed in the 1980s. Treasury departments at major money-center banks in London submit an estimate of their borrowing rate. The outliers are discarded and an average of the remaining is published. It appears that at least at Barclays, proprietary traders who are supposed to play no part in the process were able to influence the teams providing Barclay’s submissions. Traders whose portfolios were impacted by the rate were able to persuade colleagues into altering Barclays’ submissions in their favor. To add insult to injury, senior managers claimed that regulators had encouraged them to lower the reported rate during the financial crisis so as not to appear weak. The end result: both the chairman and the CEO are on their way out and several other banks are rumored to have been guilty of similar manipulation schemes.
In Spain, Bankia the conglomerate formed by a merger of seven politically important cajas (savings banks) discovered that 2 + 2 = 4 when it comes to bank balance sheets. The large book of real-estate loans it had inherited from its predecessor banks continued to deteriorate and in May Bankia came clean, took a 4 billion Euro loss and asked for a 20 billion Euro capital injection from the Spanish government. Investors fled Spanish government debt once they saw the size of the hole in Bankia’s balance sheet and knew Spanish leaders had no choice but to extend it an open credit line. Seeing Spain’s borrowing costs rise to unsustainable levels, European leaders reached a tentative agreement to create a “banking union” and have European institutions, rather than individual nations serve as a back-stop for failing banks. Predictably, right after this “summit to save Europe” ended, dissenting opinions amongst the 26 Euro member nations made an unwelcome appearance. Markets seem to have gotten the message and the resumed the sell-off.
Meanwhile, the worm continues to turn, oblivious to the effectiveness of monetary or fiscal policy, but perhaps not to the relentless summer heat. An intense heat-wave across the US is being mirrored in the great granaries of Eurasia as well. Both Ukraine and Russia have experienced unusually high temperatures coupled with a long dry spell. The same conditions extend across the great plains of North America. This has begun to impact yield estimates for the corn, wheat and soybean crops, with many fields weakened by the unrelenting heat. Prices have surged, and a continued dry spell could see food prices rise. The sudden price hike in 2008 played a very large role in the global unrest that year.
We continue to advise clients to maintain a defensive allocation and limit exposure to risky assets like long-dated or high-yield bonds, low-quality stocks and commodities.
Here at Washington Square Capital Management, we quietly celebrated a happier anniversary this quarter. April marked three years in our existence as independent investment advisors and financial planners committed to furthering our client’s interests. We would like to thank all our clients and friends for your support and encouragement.
Subir Grewal Louis Berger