Dollar Strength, EM Stresses = Ongoing U.S. Equity Risk

Today, a discussion about to what extent dollar strength, that leads to EM stresses, will infect U.S. bourses.

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Our EM team has been warning for some time that sharply higher foreign-currency debt levels among emerging market (EM) companies and banks will pose a formidable challenge to EM. Indeed, we have written about the risks associated with the end of the “dollar carry trade” (i.e. EM companies’ and banks’ borrowing in U.S. dollars).

With the dollar still rising, concerns about the impact of EM weakness on the U.S. and other developed markets are mounting. Could EM vulnerability to a rising dollar trigger a global financial accident? “Crises” are inherently difficult to time – it is impossible to know when investor behavior/psychology will turn. There are two points that make us leery about EM risks as they relate to U.S. (and other developed markets). First, EM is far more important in terms of its global GDP weighting than in previous decades, implying that when EM catches a cold, the rest of the world will more than just sneeze. Second, with policy options in developed economies nearly exhausted, the tool to deals with a crisis are more limited than, for example the 1990s.

At a minimum, slower demand from emerging markets and dollar strength risk creating earnings disappointments for globally-exposed sectors in developed market bourses. Indeed, the rise in the dollar and poor EM demand have been key reasons why we have advocated a domestic vs. global approach within the U.S. stock universe. A cautious approach is still warranted.

Chinese Debt Swap Program: A Potential Game Changer?

The Chinese government is planning a massive debt swap program to deal with local government liabilities. This could fundamentally change investors’ perceptions about a key risk factor that has plagued China’s macro picture in recent years.

The Chinese press has reported that the Ministry of Finance is planning a RMB 3 trillion debt swap program, which will allow local governments to directly raise debt in exchange for their borrowings accumulated by various local government financing vehicles (LGFVs) in recent years. Although this program has not been officially unveiled, Finance Minister Lou in a press conference on the sidelines of the NPC confirmed such a program has been put forward for approval. If true, it would signify that Beijing’s overhaul of local government debt has reached a final stage.

Last year’s fiscal reforms enabled local governments to raise debt “legally”, which provided a transparent mechanism to address their “incremental” fiscal shortfalls. The proposed debt swap program would be utilized to deal with existing liabilities accumulated at localities in previous years. As the LGFV debt issue has been flagged as a key macro risk, the swap program holds the promise of dissolving a major concern that investors have had with respect to China’s macro picture. It would significantly reduce the perceived credit risk within the financial system and the banking sector.

For now, we remain upbeat on H shares and neutral on A shares, mainly due to valuation concerns. However, the debt swap program, if implemented, will be unambiguously good news for the bank-heavy Chinese stock markets. We will reassess our view in the coming weeks on any material progress on this front.

ECB: A QE Update

Apart from setting a date (March 9th) for the beginning of its asset purchase program, the ECB filled in some other details around its policies.

In the press conference introductory statement, President Draghi announced upward revisions to growth over the next year, but revisions to inflation forecasts were down (to 0% for 2015). But it was in the Q&A that more light was shined on QE policy. The major point gleaned from the Q&A is that the central bank is not prepared to buy bonds yielding less than the deposit rate.

That stipulation then begs the question: What happens if there is not enough liquidity for the ECB to buy €60 billion per month if the central bank will not buy any asset with a yield below the deposit rate? One answer is that the ECB could lower the deposit rate. We believe that given the choice between a lower deposit rate or not attaining the €60 billion in monthly purchases, the ECB would likely do the former. The ECB will be disposed to finishing the 19 months of quantitative purchases in order to protect its credibility, unless of course the economy is strong enough to warrant stopping early.

So far, the ECB is not showing concern that there will not be enough sellers of high-quality bonds for the ECB to buy. Draghi more or less dismissed the question during the Q &A and also alluded that he thought there were plenty of foreign sellers.

We have pointed out in Daily Insights that, in fact, the shortage of government paper is acute, especially in Germany, where there will be very little net new issuance. The government last week issued a 5-year Bund for the first time sporting a negative nominal yield (-8 basis points). Almost 30% of the continental European bond market is currently trading in negative territory, and the ECB hasn’t even started buying yet.

Negative yields are helping keep the euro weak, which, much like QE elsewhere in the world, is giving a definitive boost to local growth, and for the time being, equity markets. We maintain overweight positions in euro area stocks relative to the U.S. and global benchmarks.

Chinese Monetary Policy And Stocks

While the latest rate cut is clearly positive and is long overdue, the PBoC is still behind the curve. Monetary conditions remain far too tight, and further easing is likely.

Speaking at China’s annual parliamentary hearing, Premier Li Kequiang noted that, “The downward pressure on China’s economy is intensifying,” and that 2015 would be a tough year for growth. Indeed, the Chinese government downgraded its official target for growth to ‘around’ 7%.

Amidst this sober evaluation, China’s monetary conditions index has continued to deteriorate, driven by both rising real rates and a rising currency. This is disconcerting for asset prices, especially domestic A shares, as the market has rallied strongly since mid last year and is no longer cheap. The rally has partly been driven by expectations of policy easing and an improvement in monetary conditions – which have clearly failed to materialize.

For now our China strategists maintain a neutral rating on domestic A shares, as the risk-return profile of this asset class is roughly balanced. On one hand, there is a strong case that the PBoC should continue to ease, which will eventually lead to improvement in monetary conditions and a bid up in stock prices. On the other hand, the market may disappoint if investors decide that policy easing so far has not been effective and the PBoC continues to drag its feet. In this environment, any aggressive directional bet would be premature.

Deteriorating monetary conditions also bode poorly for investable Chinese stocks, but the case for this asset class is strengthened by attractive valuation. Chinese investable shares are still trading at hefty discounts to their historical averages – which justifies risk-taking, especially within the broader backdrop of monetary easing. The case for relative outperformance of Chinese investable stocks versus the EM benchmark is more compelling. China is among the few countries that have ample room for monetary easing, and Chinese stocks are still trading at discounts to their EM and global peers despite the past two years’ sharp outperformance. Chinese investable stocks will likely continue to be positively rerated going forward.

U.K. Election Preview

In a recent Special Report, our European and geopolitical strategists discussed investment implications of the upcoming U.K. elections.

The U.K. general election is set for May 7, with the outcome too close to call at this point. If we had to put our money on the outcome, we would favor the center-left Labour Party to pull off a tight victory that produced a center-left coalition with either the Liberal Democratic Party (Lib Dems) or the Scottish Nationalist Party (or both).

The election is likely to have only a modest impact on the equity market. The reason is that over time, the U.K. stock market has become a collection of large multinational companies that are listed on the London Stock Exchange but have very little exposure to the U.K. economy or politics. The main driver of the U.K. stock market’s relative performance is its sector skew: overweight Energy; underweight Industrials, rather than domestic economics and politics. Hence, the FTSE100 outperforms when Energy outperforms Industrials and vice-versa.

However, the election outcome will be much more significant for the interest rate and gilt market as well as the pound. A center-left Labour-led government is likely to slow down the pace of austerity. The U.K. has one of the largest budget deficits in the developed world and its fiscal thrust is expected to be deeply negative in the coming years. A Labour-led government, particularly one supported by the more left-leaning SNP, would slow the pace of consolidation. Together with the recent improvements in the labor market, consumer confidence, and real wages, this could force the Bank of England to tighten monetary policy earlier than the market is currently expecting – putting upward pressure on gilt yields and the pound.

Furthermore, a win for the pro-EU Labour government would remove uncertainty over the EU referendum.