Authers’ notes

John Authers

Hedge fund returns should not be compared directly to equity benchmarks. Hedge fund marketers will always say this, and with some reason: hedge fund strategies have a different risk-return profile from equities. Many allocate a lot of money to “short” positions, betting against the market. So it is not necessarily that surprising or damning when equity hedge funds suffer a very bad year compared to the index, as happened last year. That was a big part of my discussion with Hedge Fund Research’s Ken Heinz in the latest Note video:

But it is interesting to look at how hedge fund investors seem to have behaved. And in aggregate, they look a lot like classic retail mutual fund investors, chasing performance and piling in after a good run. Inflows to hedge funds last year were slightly lower than they were in 1993, according to HFR (and obviously far smaller in percentage terms). The great boost to hedge funds’ assets came in the years after the dotcom crash of 2000, when many funds managed to rise. 

John Authers

Goldman Sachs’ strategists are currently roaming Europe on their annual Global Strategy roadshow. As nobody can lightly ignore what Goldman is saying, the themes emerging from the London event were interesting.

Of particular concern are the prospects for corporate earnings; Japan; and the hope that 2013 will at last be the year for a “great rotation” out of bonds and into stocks.

On earnings, David Kostin, their US equity strategist, explains their view in the video below. In a nutshell, margins are high, but without a recession (which nobody expects) there is no need for a sharp reversion to the mean. Instead, forces such as shale gas will help profitability, but there will be little increase in margins as in many sectors they are already at historical highs. So margins stay at their plateau, and earnings rise gently thanks to the gentle recovery of the economy.

On Japan, bullishness is what might almost be called a “consensus contrarian” call. Many people are talking bullishly about Japan, despite its decades of under-performance. So many, indeed, that it is hard to call this call contrarian any more. 

John Authers

How is the US election affecting markets? Well, it seems that investors expect re-election for President Barack Obama, and their degree of confidence about this has increased remarkably in the last week. Mitt Romney’s bad stretch, as far as the markets are concerned, seems to have finished him off. That is the subject of today’s Note video, with Gideon Rachman.

 

John Authers

The S&P 500 has almost completed its round trip, and done so remarkably quickly. It only has about 5 per cent to go before it reaches its all-time high from 2007. Today’s video guest, the ever-interesting David Ranson, suggests that this was predictable, because asset markets reliably follow an exponential recovery path after a big fall.

Certainly, that pattern fits this recovery remarkably well: 

John Authers

As predicted, there is more to say about the London housing market. It is widely known that the buying pressure on prime London properties is coming from overseas. The eurozone crisis and the creation of fortunes by the commodities boom have helped push lots of money into the nicer neighbourhoods of central and west London.

But I had not previously grasped that foreign demand was also driving segments of the market below the true “prime” postcodes, and that that foreign demand is not primarily European or Middle Eastern but rather from Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. That is the strong message from this extraordinary chart from Jones Lang LaSalle, shared by Ed Hammond, our property correspondent, in the latest Note video: 

John Authers

Today’s Note video is on Frontier Markets. In theory, they should be exciting, offering the chance of real upside for the bold that Emerging Markets once did. In practice, FM equities have been mediocre over the last few years, while spreads on FM debt has tightened so sharply as to raise questions about how discriminating the buyers have been. The video, with Robin Wigglesworth, is here:

 

John Authers

Is it more accurate to refer to QE∞ instead of QE3? Unlike the previous doses of US QE, this campaign of asset purchases has no official limit, and will carry on until the unemployment rate has improved “substantially” – a word that the Federal Reserve can define, and redefine, as it sees fit over the years ahead.

I have already argued that this should be regarded as stunningly aggressive. In the latest Note video, Gavyn Davies, a fellow FT blogger, agrees. The key point, he suggests, is that over the last year the Fed’s reaction function has changed. It is not just that the employment situation has worsened but also that, for whatever reason, it has decided to give the full employment part of its mandate greater emphasis than before. There are plenty of possible reasons for this, which we discuss in the video: 

John Authers

What should we believe about China? That is the topic of today’s Note video with James Kynge, principal of the FT’s China research service, China Confidential. Uncertainty currently roils both China’s economics and its politics.

Plainly it is hard to spin the abrupt and unexplained disappearance of prospective premier Xi Jinping in any way that is positive. He is supposedly about to become the world’s second most powerful man – we still do not even know the date for the Congress that will approve that appointment, but it is due next month – and yet he has suddenly disappeared from public life. The news overnight (after we recorded the video) that he was named in a list of dignitaries expressing condolences to the family of a deceased , removes some of the more alarming explanations for his absence, but speculation about his health continues. The continued refusal to provide any official explanation for his absence is a classic example of Chinese opacity. 

John Authers

Marc Chandler of Brown Brothers Harriman is always  interesting. His take on the QE3 debate, ahead of the FOMC’s next decision, might startle many in the US: the US economy is in an enviable position – why is there any need for dramatic new exceptional measures?

Evidently many Americans do not feel as though they are much to be envied, and unemployment has dragged on at levels that are politically unacceptable. But America’s post-Lehman economic trajectory, with the recovery looking ever more firmly founded, should certainly be the envy of western Europe and Japan. 

John Authers

Whether it likes it or not, the Federal Reserve has been pulled into the political thickets. The demand is for it to “do something”. Whatever it does at its meeting this week will have  political ramifications, and you do not need to belong to the Ron Paul faction to question whether further QE of any kind is necessary at this stage.

As James Mackintosh pointed out in the Short View, inflation expectations and asset prices are both rising now, rather than falling as they were before QE1 and QE2. This Fed has a philosophical aversion to deflation, but there appears to be no imminent danger of that.