Light at the End of the Tunnel?

By Claus Vistesen

tunnelOne of the stories that caught my attention this week was the Bloomberg piece about how banks in London and New York are starting to jump ship off of the old finance hubs due to fear of effects from planned regulatory tightening.

Quote Bloomberg

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Banks in Europe are exploring ways to cut costs by routing more of their trades and other business through overseas subsidiaries, a plan that may shift tax revenue away from London and loosen European regulators’ influence over the lenders.Nomura Holdings Inc., HSBC Holdings Plc (HSBA) and UBS AG (UBSN) are among lenders preparing plans to book as much business as possible through legal entities in jurisdictions where tax rates are lower and rules on capital and liquidity are less onerous, the banks and lawyers and accountants working with them say.

(…)

Banks could record as much as 30 percent of the value of their trades through Hong Kong, Singapore and other jurisdictions instead of hubs such as London and New York without running into trouble with regulators, Matten said. Such a move would hurt traditional hubs such as London because assets are treated for tax and regulatory purposes in the country where they are booked. It would also allow banks to sidestep the U.K. bank levy, introduced last year to raise 2.5 billion pounds ($4.1 billion) from lenders operating in Britain, as well as any financial transaction tax imposed by the European Union.

Perhaps this is a sign of the times in the sense that both banks and market participants seem to be looking increasingly outside the boundaries of the developed world for growth, profit and eventually prosperity. Having just moved to the Big Smoke I would not necessarily lament a downsizing of the finance sector even if it is the pond that I also do my fishing for the daily meal ticket. Perhaps, if fast moving financiers chose to go to Singapore instead of London, the residents of the latter would not have to endure paying 300.000 GBP for a studio flat in Canary Wharf [1].

Of course, it may all be a red herring but it could also be part of a number of tentative signs that the locus of global activity on a variety of fronts is moving to new epicentres. Let us hope they do not travel entirely in our foot steps.

More generally, we just put out our monthly report and the outlook is very much wishy-washy. Surely, our leading indicators are pointing down, but after the market puke in August it seems to me that the end of the world had almost been priced in as the S&P500 hit the 1100 marker. In this sense, do not be surprised to see it ticking towards 1250 even if the recent job data were abysmal, but beware. The old range has been broken and we are finding a new lower one. Market prices have a tendency to become "normal" after a period and with global economic activity visibly slowing the fundamentals are not really on the bulls’ side even if they point to the merits of chasing a counter trend rally after a 10% drawdown.

More generally, as I have noted before, the divergence between respectable analysts is widening, which always makes me take a few steps back. On the one hand, I see both buy side and sell side analysts rather stubbornly sticking to their year-end S&P500 targets of 1300-1400 while other independent analysts put the fair value of the index at 900-1000. Both will obviously have an axe (or maybe even a book) to grind, but part of my job is to synthesize the consensus into a fairly straight road map for our clients, and it is getting difficult.

I tend to side with the pessimists if only because I find it difficult to see how US corporates can continue to operate as efficiently as they have been doing so far. Gerald Minack had some excellent points on this in his latest report;

A big medium-term uncertainty for DM equity investors is the sustainability of earnings. A decade ago, the big uncertainty was whether valuations could be sustained. They weren’t . The de-rating may have further to go, but clearly valuation is less of a headwind now than at the TMT-inspired peak. Earnings, on the other hand, are very high. Profits are now near an all-time high as a share of global GDP, and the real return on equity has followed . What’s not able, however, is not the cycle rebound, but the elevated level of earnings (and real returns) over the past decade. The forward-looking issue is whether those elevated returns can be sustained. At a global level, the answer may be ‘yes’ – for the simple reason it’s now possible to make profits in places where previously it was not. What’s not clear is the sustainability of high earnings in the developed world.

In particular, I would would point to the contradiction between continuing ultra low unit labour costs and the need to now see growth moving from cost cutting to topline growth. Something does not add up.

Real unit labour costs are now at 60-year lows. This matches the decline in wage share of GDP to a 50-year low. Arithmetically, this is the most important support for high profits. As I’ve discussed in prior reports, it’s not clear how long households can support consumer spending at near 70% of GDP with labour income at multi-decade lows. That’s been possible recently due to massive transfers from the public sector, but that support appears unsustainable.

In my opinion, this is the big elephant in the room in relation to the US stock market. It will be difficult for earnings (and margins) to stay at current levels going forward. It follows naturally from the fact that if all companies cut costs and this improves margins this will only work for a limited period time as there are decreasing returns if everyone follows this strategy at the same time. Now we need to see topline sales growth for margins to be sustained, but this is obviously difficult with the current macroeconomic backdrop, so something has to give.

Globally, coincident data is already slowing visibly across the globe with headline PMI readings and trade data coming in steadily lower. In that sense we are up against the wall again only so shortly after the shock of 2008/09 and this time, the ability of policy makers to respond is limited.

However, I would be wary of calling this another 2008. One of the effects of experiencing a balance sheet recession with subsequent deleveraging is that trend growth falls and thus that the economy becomes liable to more frequent recessions. This applies to the US in particular but essentially also to the whole of OECD. This means that we will see more frequent but also essentially shallower recessions. The only qualifier here is really that some parts of Europe are now stuck in a depression locked in a vice of dysfunctional institutions and a lack of willingness and political capability to deal with the problems.

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As such, within Europe also lies the potential source a Lehman like shock should the crisis prompt a rapid and violent default of one or more sovereigns and/or financial institutions. Certainly, euro area banks are feeling the pinch as USD funding is getting cut off and if anything it seems to me that the EURUSD is looking a bit too strong for its own good given the backdrop of the mess in the euro zone. As cash levels at euro zone banks are drawn down the currency will adjust to fundamentals not to mention of course the fact that the ECB is slowly but steadily being pushed into full blown QE and monetisation of peripheral debt.

The latest G&F provides a good summary;

(…) The risk of a dollar rally against the euro in coming months is growing. This is because, sooner or later, the ECB will have to reverse its recent insane monetary tightening. Trichet made a start in this direction this week in his usual ponderous manner. Thus, he told the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs of the European Parliament in Brussels on Monday that “risks to the medium-term outlook for price developments are under study in the context of the ECB staff projections that will be released early September.” The issue here is whether markets will allow Trichet to save face and not performs an abrupt U-turn before his scheduled departure from the scene on 31 October.

More generally, the recent comments from the IMF that euro zone banks need additional capital is once more a case of stating the almost obviously obvious. The transmission mechanism here is very simple. The market is now effectively pricing in a default of Greece and possibly other peripheral economies and this means that the attention must now turn to the losses that creditors will bear or, alternatively, the size of the bailout if we stick to the old mantra of no losses. As a good friend of mine pointed out recently,

All trough last month’s banking shares’ collapse, I have been thinking that perhaps, equity investors are worried that the recapitalization will be different this time, with either the taxpayer (wrong solution) or the bondholder (rightly, through a bond-for-equity swap), massively diluting the shareholder. Politicians obviously do not have the stomach, nor the muscle for new bailouts.

Or to put it differently, there are no easy solutions left. One solution is the Brady Bond plan which is currently being floated in the case of Greece. The problem as I see is that it is fudged precisely when it comes to the current valuation of the bonds. Basically, there has to be pain today for the creditors, otherwise we are just kicking the proverbial can down the road as recapitalisation is avoided today but made worse for tomorrow. A solution for recapitalising banks today would naturally be for their creditors to accept a swap for equity and thus being moved into the frontline to absorb any losses that the banks would bear on sovereign debt, but that is not popular. Essentially, being degraded to equity holder in a bank with known sovereign assets in the European periphery is equal to taking a haircut on your initial investment, but all this then leaves the inevitable question of who and when someone will step up to take the lead in the debt restructuring.

Of course, the idea of substituting debt for equity is the same principle applied in the case of Greece posting domestic assets (islands, utility companies etc) as collateral for credit. We can then think about this collateral as Greek sovereign equity and as with creditors of banks, it is all good in theory but in practice, not so well.

Elsewhere, the game of Old Maid in global currency markets continue with the SNB still in the spotlight despite already having taken desperate measures to stop the appreciation of the CHF;

Quote Bloomberg

While the Swiss National Bank has so far avoided currency purchases in its latest bid to keep a lid on the franc, it may soon have no alternative but to follow through on its threat to intervene, economists and strategists said.

But what really caught my attention was comments by Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega that lowering interest rates represents an effective antidote against an appreciating currency.

Quote Bloomberg

For “the next two or three years, the conditions will be there for rates to keep falling,” Mantega told reporters in Sao Paulo today. “Falling rates are a good antidote for the gains in the real.”

Allow me to quote myself from the post linked above;

Old Maid is a card game where the simple task is to avoid holding a given card (often the queen of spades) at the end of the game. Even in the company of good friends however, holding Old Maid at the end is not fun. Often, you have to buy the drinks, drop a piece of clothes, or endure other travails. And as it turns out, the global FX market is not unlike this good old game of cards where the Old Maid is proxied by having a strong currency on whose shoulders the correction of global macroeconomic imbalances must invariably fall. In this way, and although one sometimes get the feeling that everyone believes that everybody may actually export their way out of their current misery, buying one country’s currency means selling another and thus, someone (be it an individual economy or a group/basket of economies) must end up holding Old Maid.

The easy investment advice here is naturally to buy the Old Maid which means that just as the global financial punditry searching for clues as to what lies ahead for the global economy and the looming slowdown, the SNB et al may have to skint yet awhile for light at the end of the tunnel.

[1] – No my dear reader, I am renting and I would never touch these things but they are there and they are being sold.

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1 Comment
  1. David Lazarus says

    There is a benefit of banks trying to move operations away from London and New York. There will be even less reason to bail out the failure of a bank that is only in name based in London or New York. Central banks could withdraw lender of last resort status to such banks, signalling that in a failure they would no longer bailout said banks. That will cause a run on those banks the moment there is any nervousness. As liabilities would not be covered. They could also be expected to get bailouts from where they are now trading.

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