Sunday, March 15, 2009

Market View: Lenihan's Cod Oil Sales Trip?

Weekly round up
We are in a thaw though don’t bet on this being a sign of global warming. The markets have shown some (to some not surprising) bounce in the latest (bear) rally. Across the world and here in Ireland. But the winter isn’t over, yet.

First where it all started from: the US. Some encouraging news:
  • The U.S. trade deficit narrowed by 9.7% in January to $36bn, the lowest monthly gap since October 2002. This marks a sixth consecutive decline in the trade deficit, the first case of such extended contraction since the new data collection started in 1992. Oil and petroleum products deficit fell to $14.7bn in January, the lowest since September 2004. Trade deficit with China widened to $20.57bn relative to $20.31bn in the same month last year. Lower prices for inputs and commodities helped. In exports, main decreases were in the areas of capital goods and industrial goods – reflective of the global investment slowdown. Ditto in the area of imports (except that capital goods imports were down less than exports, suggesting companies continue to travel down the cost curve. Details here).
  • US University of Michigan/Reuters consumer sentiment index notched up in March to 56.6 from 56.3 one month ago. While this beats analysts’ expectations (55.0), the improvement is hardly significant to signal any improvement in consumer spending and borrowing going forward. This is despite March being the first month of Obama’s massive stimulus plan – not exactly a ringing endorsement (for more on this see here)
So the last week came to be a somewhat bullish one with flat US Treasuries, low single-digit gains in commodities and a rally in stocks (up ca 10-14%) with commercial real estate-leading markets, like REITs. Up over 20%.
US Dollar has lost some ground on the Euro, further underlying markets desire to see continued strengthening of the US trade balance. In this beggar-thy-neighbour climate, good news for US is bad news for exports-driven Ireland.

JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley (first chart below) illustrate the rally for the financials. Most of the sector gains were probably due to rising levels of speculative news flow. If this is a signal of a renewed focus on balance sheet health, expect the rally to turn into a deep correction. Bank of America (BAC) – up some 85% during the week – is a case in point. There is no fundamentally new development, yet this week’s statements about improving outlook on profitability pushed the stock to the top of the financial shares (Citibank (C), Wells Fargo (WFC) etc) performance rankings. The second chart below illustrates, while highlighting the relatively poor performance of non-financials.

Irish Markets
Pretty much the same picture holds for Irish markets. Two of the three remaining banks led the positive momentum with few features of note:
  1. Volumes were relatively weak (running at ca ½ of the 52-weeks daily averages);
  2. IL&P underperformed (with the markets having little faith in the bank side of the insurer, as in the past);
  3. Overall ISEQ posted a lacklustre performance for the week, signaling that the main concerns about Irish economy’s fundamentals are still there.
These are illustrated below and show continued theme of volatility around a relatively flat broad markets trend - something I predicted a month ago.
The above concerns, of course are to continue next week as well.

Ireland Inc Sales Pitch
It is now being rumored that Mr Lenihan is going on that 'road trip' to showcase Ireland to UK (and other international) investors. Here is a list of problems that I would put to him at such a sales meeting. All of these basically ask the same question - why would any investor expose herself to Ireland today.
  1. Fiscal position: all the indications are that Minister Lenihan will opt for a ‘soft’ solution – raising taxes and refusing to inflict real cuts on the public sector. Thus, ‘savings’ on the current expenditure side will be pushed into 2011 or later as the Minister ‘cuts’ numbers through natural attrition. Taxes will hammer the economy today. Only an insanely naïve person can be convinced by such a strategy.
  2. Corporate credit: debts problems continue to plague Irish companies, with more roll-overs and re-negotiations of the covenants. This will be compounded in weeks ahead by an accumulation of arrears to contractors and suppliers. Mini-Budget will spell a war of attrition between smaller services providers and larger contracting companies as the former struggle to extract payments in the environment where Messrs Lenihan and Cowen sneaking deeper into peoples' (and thus companies') pockets.
  3. Corporate outlook: PE ratios are still too high for Ireland Inc, implying that there is more room for downgrades. In the US, there is more clarity as to the 2010 PE ratios supported by the markets, with a range in 15-20 perceived to be the top during the recovery part of the cycle (whenever this happens). So the expected downgrading room that is still remaining in, say S&P500 is -150 points or ca 20%. In Ireland, the same figures imply probably a range of sustainable 2010-2011 PE ratios of ca 10 (again assuming that we see some recovery starting in 2010 and companies actually living up to the idea of proper disclosure of losses and impairments – something that few of them have done to date). So the bottom line is that we can see ISEQ travelling all the way to 1,470-1,500 before hitting a sustainable U-turn, while IFin might be tumbling down to 200-215.
  4. Earnings and demand are going to continue falling in months to come. Although much of this is already built into expectations, the actual numbers are not yet visible through the fog of corporate denial. Banks still lead in terms of balance sheets opacity and the Government is doing nothing less than destroying in a wholesale fashion private workers’ ability to stay afloat on mortgages repayment and consumption. Dividend yields are now poised to continue downward well into 2010 (optimistically) or even past 2011 (pessimistically). So any bottoming-out of the market will coincide with an on-set of an inverted J-styled recovery – we are not getting back to 4-5% long term growth trend once we come out of this recession. A poultry 2% would be a miracle and a Belgian-style 1.2-1.5% GDP growth over the long run is a more likely scenario.
  5. Global growth for Ireland Inc is not going to be a magic bullet. The Government has wasted all chances of reforming the least productive sectors in this downturn and is hell-bent on protecting our excessively high cost base. This means we are unlikely to benefit from any serious global growth upturn.
  6. Increased global reliance on Governments interventions is going to hurt Irish exports in the long run as national Governments will tend to reduce incentives for outsourcing, leading many MNCs to gradually unwind transfer pricing activities here in Ireland. There is absolutely no chance our Enterprise Ireland-sponsored companies are going to be able to take up the slack.
  7. No recovery in Ireland will be possible until house prices and commercial real estate values stabilize and start improving. High debt, diminishing ability to repay existent loans (courtesy of Government raiding households finances to pay for waste in the public sector and a growing army of consultants – e.g Alan Ahearne & Co) all mean that there is no prospect for a return in house values growth until, possibly, well after 2013. Absent such a recovery, there will be no sustained rallies in other asset classes.
  8. Finally, there is a psychological shift that is underway when it comes to Irish public perceptions of asset markets. This shift is now counter-positing a 40-50% decline in house prices against a 90% decline in most popular equity categories and a wipe-out of investors in nationalized (and potentially yet to be nationalized) banks. The return of a growth cycle is unlikely to trigger significant movement of households’ cash into Irish stocks. This will be further compounded by the aversion to leveraging and continued credit rationing (induced via new banking regulations and investor hysteresis).
So the conclusion is a simple one – Irish equities recovery is nowhere near becoming a reality. Expect further turbulence on a generally downward trajectory in weeks ahead, followed by a potential spike of misplaced short-term optimism in the wake of the mini-Budget. Once the investors work through the forthcoming Government decisions, it will be down again for ISE.

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