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Holiday conditions vs risk, Italy on a collision course, Brexit inevitabilities - DFX Key Themes

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JohnDFX

Will Holiday Conditions Save Us from Fundamentals and Speculation? 

Normally, there is not a strong appetite for holiday trading conditions because it can materially slow markets – and most traders seek out volatility, even if it is as much a risk as a basis for potential. However, this year, there will be a strong appetite for the typical conditions associated with the time of year. In 2018, we have seen an extraordinary bout of volatility with dramatic bear waves in benchmark risk assets like the US indices through February and October while the progress of the previous years of this decade long bull run has grown increasingly uncertain. We have yet to see a commitment to a bear trend by the S&P 500 and its ilk, but it is a far greater probability in these conditions – systemic shifts more readily occur after periods of consolidation rather than sudden ‘V’ tops or bottoms. It is against this backdrop that the promise of November and December seasonal performance expectations can raise hopes. The ‘holiday’ markets and ‘Santa Clause Rally’ are popular reference to the same general market conditions. 

Through the closing 8 weeks of the year, holidays break up the momentum that can build behind systemic trends, losses are booked for accounting purposes and open period for funds encourage portfolio changes. There is a reason that such seasonality expectations exist, there is statistical relevance behind the views. Yet, as the saying goes: ‘this time may be different’. Historically, the S&P 500 has accumulated an oversized portion of its annual gains through the final two months and the VIX volatility index has in turned dropped through the same period denoting a reduction in the variability of returns (in other words, risk). That said, conditions and context matter. If the markets are unstable and there is outsized exposure, sparks can turn into flames that raze a financial system. There are plenty of catalysts to track as potential catalysts of crisis, from trade wars to political instability to monetary policy normalization. Yet, it is the general state of the financial system that truly represents the threat. 

The excessive leverage taken on by investors (notional and thematic), businesses (buy back shares with proceeds of bond issuance), consumers (revolving credit and housing) and governments (growing debt burdens) makes the growth we have enjoyed these past years look borrowed and far more threatening than reassuring. That excess is already showing through in certain corners of the financial system. The steady dive in emerging markets, high yield fixed income and global shares relative to the unrealistic buoyancy of US stocks signal some sign of recognition. Nevertheless, it is clear that such appreciation hasn’t translated into capitulation. Deleveraging is essential and it will occur via intent or force with timing dependent on the method.  

Pushing Brexit to the Breaking Point 

An emergency November summit between European Union and United Kingdom leaders to secure a deal on Brexit will only occur should the latter party make significant progress on its position involving critical points of impasse at the previous meeting. And, recent reports don’t offer much to be enthusiastic about. Multiple times over the past month, we have seen enthusiasm trumpeted on breakthroughs among UK government and between the UK and EU; but each time, that confidence was quickly snuffed out. It seems virtually impossible to satisfy all relevant parties in this stalemate. The Prime Minister’s cabinet has a concentration of hardliners that demands no alternative to an absolute Brexit is acceptable. In contrast, Parliament is more flexible in its interest to maintain some connection to the shared markets and is willing to bend on some points of contention – though the number of its rank open to a second referendum creates some inherent difficulty. 

And, then there is the EU itself. The collective wants to maintain strong economic ties with the large economy, but it is not willing to make exceptions to its requirements for access for fear of other countries demanding the same benefits as they file their own Article 50 withdrawal intentions. This past week, the UK’s transportation minister resigned from the cabinet owing to his belief that the deal they can reach with the EU would not be the Brexit that the country had voted for, and a second referendum on the new terms would be necessary. Ultimately, this will not materially change the general complication of the process; but it does speak to the frayed nerves and quickly winding down clock. PM May has stated repeatedly that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and that they fully intend to push forward when the two-year time frame for Brexit negotiations expires at the end of March. Adding the countdown to this situation only raises the risk that difficult negotiations will ultimately prove a push over a financial and economic cliff. If there is ultimately a breakthrough immediately at hand, there still are significant difficulties brought on by the short time left to work up technical requirements and to push through approval for all the member countries. 

That said, should the situation continue to shamble forward, the risks grow exponentially as businesses and investors move operations to avoid the unknowns that they march towards – already the 3Q GDP figures reported a further reduction in business spending. The flight in capital will in turn slow growth and undermine confidence figures which slowly graduate into more systemic economic factors. A financial crisis may not come to pass until later, however, as liquidity can hold up to hesitation – though not capital flight. It is growing clear that there is no ‘best case scenario’ with this situation whereby there will not be additional political, economic and/or financial stress for some participant in the divorce. Investors should be concerned with the subsequent issues, but they may not have the luxury given the threats so prominent in the immediate risks. 

Is an Italian-EU Debt Crisis Inevitable?

Financial and political fractures in the European Union will continue to erode confidence for an entire trading session. In the week ahead, Italy’s standoff with the European Community over its plans to defy austerity measures the previous government had agreed to will hit another important deadline. After the EC rejected Italy’s budget proposal a few weeks ago for setting spending targets and GDP estimates too high, the country was told to go back to the drawing board to significantly reduce the projected 2.4 percent spending to GDP ratio it had planned. In the lead up that second effort due on Tuesday, Prime Minister Conte and Deputy PM Salvini made clear they had no intention of making significant changes to appease Brussels. If that is true, there is almost no chance that this situation will not devolve into some measure of an existential crisis for the Union. 

The middle ground is extraordinarily far for both parties with Italy operating on a voter mandate to rebuke austerity and Europe seeing little chance of avoiding an avalanche of anger amongst members should it make another exception to its budgetary rules to a country that has such an extraordinary debt in a general period of global economic strength and while so many of its peers are holding true to significant austerity. If the standoff between this country and collective does not turn off its current course, it could cause irreparable damage to the Euro’s standing in the currency market. The world’s second most liquid currency depends on the stability of its unions. If a member of this smaller subset were to leave – especially the third largest – it would carve out a significant portion of GDP and financial liquidity not to mention raise the risks of other countries following suit from ‘virtually zero’ to ‘probable’.  

Holding ‘European’ exposure against those risks would be a non-starter, especially if the situation were to unfold alongside global risk concerns (more likely). Specific interest in individual countries can continue to hold up, but identifying what portion of a country’s market will be unaffected by the financial ripples would be difficult and a bridge too far if risk aversion is undermines patience and nuance. Should this threat balloon, the lessons of the European sovereign debt crisis between 2009 and 2012 will be revisited. Yet, this time, populism is far more pervasive, the region is still recovering from the previous austerity and the central bank has no capacity to ramp up ramp up support beyond LTROs which will find its effectiveness as diminished as the QE program that replaced it. 

 

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