Tag: Euro

2012 Themes: The More Things Change…

2012 Themes: The More Things Change…

Here are our top 10 investment themes for 2012.  These are the topics we think will have the biggest impact on client portfolios in the coming year…


1.  Steady as she goes: We think it unlikely the Fed will raise rates in 2012, largely due to the presidential election. With the ongoing crisis in Europe, the Fed would normally be engaging in further monetary easing, but there is nowhere to go below the current 0.00% target overnight rate. In most presidential election years, the Fed is hesitant to make large moves in either direction, to avoid appearing politically biased. That instinct is especially heightened in an election cycle where Fed policy action and arcane monetary policy debates have unexpectedly become contentious, emotional political issues.

2.  Risk Off: We believe risk assets (stock, real-estate, long-dated and high-yield bonds) will have a difficult 2012. Stocks have benefited from a sharp rebound after the credit crisis and are now back to the higher end of the historical range. Bonds meanwhile, are trading at yields that are lower than any seen in two generations. During the course of 2012, we would expect both to correct towards the mean. This should provide some interesting buying opportunities, especially for dollar-based investors.

3.  Break-Up or Make-Up, Brussels is good for both: 2012 should be the denouement for the European sovereign debt crisis.  Though it has been over a decade in the making, things have finally come to a head. All the dominoes (Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy) are lined up, and we wait to see which the two players (France and Germany) will allow to fall before they stop the carnage. We believe a Greek default is extremely likely this year. Even if there is a pre-negotiated haircut with some lenders, the market will treat it with the seriousness that the first default by a “developed” economy in a generation should. In either case, Greek bondholders should be prepared for losses on the order of 60% of par value.

4.  Euro Trash: We expect the Euro to bear much of the burden of the European sovereign crisis, and the currency to weaken significantly against the dollar. We would not be surprised if the Euro approached parity with the dollar over the course of the year. When we discussed a Euro break-up last year, it seemed like an outlier scenario. We have been amazed at the speed with which events have moved and a potential Euro-exit for one or more peripheral economies is now being openly discussed.

5.  Blue States/Red States: The US presidential election cycle should be the major story in the US in 2012. US and individual state debt burdens will be the most important topic of debate, as the European sovereign debt crisis plays out in the background. American politicians will have to negotiate some cut in benefits for the charmed baby-boomer generation to ensure the financial burden of these programs in coming years does not doom the economic prospects of their children and grandchildren. This negotiation of a new social compact between the generations is the most important issue of our times.

6.  Chinese Math: At the 18th Communist party congress to be held this year, we expect power to be transferred to a new generation of Chinese political leaders. We have no doubt that the enormous state apparatus will be fully utilized to ensure economic stability during the transfer. However, we believe these efforts will ultimately be for naught. The structural shift required as China moves from an investment driven economy to a consumption driven one will make for a tumultuous year in Chinese markets. The stock market has been depressed for almost five years, GDP growth is slowing as labor costs rise, and we expect Chinese real-estate is beginning to make the first moves in an unavoidable decline towards more reasonable levels.

7.  Revolutionary Times: We were surprised to see the speed at which the political structure of the Middle East has been transformed in a remarkable series of revolutions. Though we have been aware of the demographic pressures that created the basis for these changes, their rapidity has astounded us. As events unfold in the Arab world, something perhaps even more remarkable has begun to happen in Russia. A previously apathetic Russian electorate seems to be flexing its muscle in opposition to a renewed Putin presidency.  We expect to see more political turmoil in Europe and the Middle East in 2012. This coupled with major elections and power-transfers in the US and China make for a very uncertain 2012 politically speaking. In our view, this will make for very jittery markets throughout the year.

8.  Oil Slicks: The events in the middle-east will of course have an impact on energy prices. We expect political tensions to keep oil prices artificially inflated in 2012, but longer-term we think $100 oil is unsustainable as alternative energy sources approach cost-parity with conventional sources. And while we’re talking about oil, we would like to reiterate our skeptical view of gold prices, which we believe would be well under $1,000 an ounce if the political and economic future were not as muddy.

9.  Smart Homes: The past decade has seen the widespread adoption of computing and telecommunications technology touch virtually every aspect of human activity. We expect the markets to be enamored with a couple of very high-profile IPOs expected in 2012/2013 (Facebook and Twitter). We believe some of the higher profile IPOs of 2011 will perform poorly (GroupOn for instance). The larger story will continue to be the steady march of the internet into every device and living room, placing a strain on core Internet infrastructure. We heard relatively little about a seminal event that took place in 2011, the last large block of addresses (IPv4 numbers) was assigned and there is no address space on the current infrastructure to accommodate another few hundred million devices. The public discussion has centered around the addition of new top level domain names (like .com, .org), but the addresses that sit behind these are the real concern. A new addressing scheme (IPv6) has been built into most devices for years, but adoption is minimal. We expect this will have to change in 2012, with a few hiccups along the way.

10.  Housing: Still a buyer’s market: We expect the overall US housing market to remain stagnant in2012 with pockets of strength, particularly in major urban areas (NYC, DC, San Francisco) and some suburban and rural areas that did not overbuild in the run-up to the credit crisis.  We believe there is still too much supply available and US consumers as a whole will be reluctant to financially over-commit themselves given job security concerns and how many were burned by homeownership in the past few years, despite record low mortgage rates.


Coming to a head…

Coming to a head…

In our last few letters, we have discussed the extraordinary measures undertaken by governments across the world to support aggregate demand, and the extensive borrowing required to do this.  Over the past three months, both of these issues have been thrown into stark relief by events.

The dramatic and extremely sudden deterioration of Greek sovereign credit in the marketplace forced the European Central Bank (ECB) into a rapid about-face.  Germany’s elected representatives blinked and committed to a vast fund to support Mediterranean nations. Very few people expected to see the IMF lead a rescue package for European Monetary Union member-states in their life-times.  Eroding confidence in the ECB and EMU led to a deterioration in the value of the Euro as talk of this currency supplanting the US Dollar as the new global reserve currency did a sharp 180 degree turn and even sober commentators began to talk of a break-up of the European monetary union and the Euro’s death.  Meanwhile, bond-holders have turned their sights on the increasingly precarious state of sovereign balance sheets in most of the developed world.  Shocked by the speed with which Greek bonds lost value, most bond buyers are thinking seriously about sovereign credit risk in the developed world, awakening from a period that lasted two generations during which these risks were largely ignored.  Meanwhile, treasury officials the world over review the results of their bond auctions nervously, wary of any sign of demand slacking.  In many cases, their own central banks are becoming the most reliable buyers or financiers of new debt.

Three months ago, we wrote in an earlier post:

Numerous stimulus programs across the world will also be removed over the course of this year, including bank loan fueled infrastructure spending in China.  As the global economy has these crutches removed, we will watch with great interest to see how severe the damage to core private enterprise has been.

We believe this process has begun and the initial signs do not augur well for the global economy.  We have seen a debate re-kindled recently about whether the withdrawal of stimulus at this juncture is a repeat of “errors” made in the 1930s, when stimulus spending was reduced to control deficits.  However, with aggregate debt levels in the developed world as high as they are, we see few alternatives to a steady reduction of the extraordinary fiscal and monetary measures undertaken to control the crisis.

We also feel it’s necessary to discuss the “Flash Crash” of May 6th.  In our blog post the next day, we wrote that:

Since US equity market prices are far higher than underlying valuation (according to our measures) we were not surprised by the extent of the drop.  But we were very surprised by the speed at which the drop occurred, as well as the speed of the partial recovery.  It reminded us of the precipitous declines and partial reversals we saw during the height of the credit crisis in 2008 and 2009.   …

Though the US equity markets are receiving most of the attention, they are not the only source of the current volatility. Numerous other markets saw immense turbulence yesterday, including, but not limited to, overnight funding (libor), treasuries and particularly currency markets.  …

The major conclusions we draw from the trading action of the past week is that:

  1. Numerous market participants have limited conviction and their default stance is to step aside quickly in a falling market.
  2. The Euro-zone crisis will continue to roil markets until it is properly addressed.
  3. There are many underlying concerns about commodity prices, Chinese real-estate prices, credit-worthiness, etc. and they can manifest themselves very quickly.

Given the information we have, and our view of overall valuations, we caution investors to remain extremely vigilant and maintain a defensive posture.

All three major indices, Dow Jones Industrials, S&P 500 and Nasdaq composite closed out this quarter below the intraday lows reached that day.  The ten-year treasury is now below 3%, and no amount of commentary on US federal and municipal debt-levels appear to impact the decline.  Meanwhile, the Baltic Dry Index has dipped below 2500 again (amidst talk of expanding fleets and falling Chinese imports).  Speaking of China, we see more commentators openly questioning the solvency of Chinese banks and the reasons behind big IPOs.  All of this underpinned by the fact that unemployment and underemployment rates in western countries remain stubbornly high.

Not only is it increasingly difficult to write off the events of May 6th as a mere technicality, we believe that sudden decline has lead to deep distrust and uncertainty amongst investors.  Investors were already wary of fundamental economic and market conditions, the flash crash gave them reason to cast suspicion on the technical organization of the market.  This coupled with the SEC’s indictment of the premier US Bank, Goldman Sachs on charges of fraud, has fueled suspicion of large player’s motives and methods.  Many individual investors now believe the market is rigged against them, for the benefit of the largest trading firms and their most senior traders.  In our view, it was always thus.   Professional traders, whether they be electronic market-makers or specialists on the trading floor have always enjoyed a privileged position, which is completely appropriate given their role as liquidity providers and their responsibility to maintain orderly markets.  What we find difficult to accept is the extension of these privileges new players, without them being asked to shoulder the same responsibilities.

We do not see many silver linings amidst a climate of mutual suspicion and bad news.