Saturday, May 21, 2011

It's still mainly about the economy

LONDON: From Arab revolt to disaster in Japan and the arrest of the head of the IMF, there have been enough big news surprises thrown at financial markets this year to prompt suggestions that Elvis will show up next, Reuters reports on Saturday, May 21.

But throughout it all, investors have pretty much focused on three interlinked issues -- when the U.S. Federal Reserve will stop creating liquidity, whether China can cool itself in a controlled manner, and if the world economy is really healed.

Rising oil prices and unease over euro zone debt are crucial elements buried within.

These issues have combined to keep investors cautious, but not overly so. Yields have risen but not blown out, and world stocks are gaining at a rate that would lead to annual increases in the low double digits.

"It is clear that some investors have decided that they need to take some risk off the table but they do not want to take too much off," said Andrew Milligan, head of global strategy at Standard Life Investments.

The real stresses, however, lie ahead.

Investors are entering a heavy period for global economic data that will take on additional importance because it may reflect the first impact from Japan's triple disasters in March.

It will also be hard to shake off concerns about what will happen when the U.S. Federal Reserve ends its asset-buying quantitative easing (QE) program next month.

QE has been described as jumper cables on a dead car battery. What happens when you unclip them?

A Reuters poll released in the past week showed that stocks, bonds, gold and the euro were all expected to fall in the three months after the end of QE2.

Investors rarely wait for an event like that before acting on their holdings.


For the coming week much of the data focus will be on Europe, with the release of euro zone purchasing managers' indexes and various sentiment surveys.

Economists at ING reckon these will again point to a highly divided euro zone, with core economies such as Germany soaring away and the likes of Greece and Portugal struggling under the weight of debt-reducing fiscal austerity.

The past week showed how bond investors see the two groups. A bond auction in Germany threw out lower borrowing costs than previously while one in Portugal demanded higher coupons from the government.

Attention may be distracted by the comings and goings of world leaders, culminating in the Group of Eight summit in the French resort of Deauville.

It will follow an OECD anniversary bash which German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy will attend, while President Barack Obama will also be on a pre-G8 European tour in Dublin, London and Warsaw.

None of this may add much to the investment mood, but such events tend to create a background noise for markets, which may get louder if Merkel and Sarkozy in particular speak about euro zone debt.

As for Obama, one of his immediate problems is that the U.S. debt ceiling has been hit.

Treasury prices are reasonably stable for now, but a solution to the issue will need to be found for this to remain the case.


A wild card for attention in the coming week may be Turkey, up until recently a darling of emerging market investors.

Turkey's central bank holds a meeting on Wednesday at which it is expected to keep interest rates steady while increasing banks' reserve requirements yet again.

The latter is a novel monetary policy experiment which is roughly the opposite of QE.

Investors are keen for clues over when an actual interest rate tightening cycle could begin -- markets are currently pricing in around 75 basis points by year-end but many say more aggressive moves may be needed.

Turkey's worsening current account deficit and unabated credit growth show the reverse-QE experiment, involving low interest rates and higher reserve ratios, may be failing.

So investors have been voting with their feet -- Turkish stocks are down 8 percent alone this month.

In the past week, a Bank of America/Merrill Lynch fund manager survey showed investors underweighting Turkey for the first time in three years. - Reuters

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