In times of deep uncertainty, we are often overwhelmed with information and use mental shortcuts to arrive at snap decisions and judgements. Sometimes, such assumptions work, but this approach can also lead to biases, errors and confusion, especially when it comes to investment decisions.
A year of indecision
Under ordinary circumstances, the world has time to catch its breath between major news events. The sheer speed at which history happened during 2011, though, created deep market uncertainty, from Japan’s earthquake cum tsunami to a tragic nuclear disaster, from war in Libya to escalating political turmoil across the Middle East and North Africa, from limited concern over weaker Eurozone members to widespread fears of single currency break-up.
Not since the Second World War have investors had to navigate such a barrage of events. Many fell into a trap that rendered their rational capacities useless, with financial markets driven instead by fear, short-termism, stop-losses and political instability. By the third quarter, many had resorted to cash, waiting for a meaningful United States recovery, for eurozone “leadership”, for signs of Middle Eastern entente. We might as well have been “Waiting for Godot”.
The year started relatively well, as markets continued to benefit from the 2010 year-end rally. Investors were looking forward to strong growth in the US and continued buoyancy from the emerging markets. By spring, though, reality was breaking through. America’s recovery was paltry and Western Europe’s largely unforeseen sovereign debt crisis was coming into view. Rapid Asian growth was also stoking inflation.
The response to all three problems was fiscal constraint, which stoked fears of recession in the Western world and culminated in a rather vicious August sell-off, with global markets giving up their year-to-date gains in a single, wicked week. By the end of 2011, investor sentiment had yet to recover with global markets still locked in a deep malaise. As a new year dawns, opinion is divided between adherents of “risk-on” and “risk-off”, with neither side completely convinced, but the more cautious definitely holding sway.
A Japanese tragedy
In December 2010, Goldman Sachs placed Japanese equities in their list of “favorite” 2011 investments with a 12,000 target for the Nikkei, based on a strong macro backdrop. As the world’s third-largest economy was struck by an earthquake and tsunami in March, killing thousands, Asian markets dropped severely and continued their descent amidst ever-worsening news, not least the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Alongside the ghastly human impact, the shutdown of car plants and oil refineries imposed vast economic costs, as global supply chains seized. The Japanese government suggests the bill could ultimately reach an astonishing $320 billion.
Despite a sluggish global economy, world oil demand reached 89.3 million barrels per day in 2011, according to the International Energy Agency. That’s an all-time high, up from 84.1 million in 2009 and 76.4 million in 2000. This growth was driven by spiraling Asian consumption. China consumed almost 15 percent more oil in 2011 than in 2010. As the emerging markets continue to grow, and their massive populations adopt more energy-intensive lifestyles, the IEA foresees global crude use of 93.4 million barrels a day by 2015.
In 2011, the price per barrel of Brent crude reached $110, up from an average of $79 in 2010. This was driven by relentless Asian demand and from MENA-based supply concerns fuelled by the Arab uprisings. Libya is still pumping nowhere near the 1.7 million barrels it supplied daily to world markets in 2010.
The tortuous negotiations between Congress and the White House over raising the US debt ceiling made the markets take notice of America’s $14 trillion of public debt. The Federal Reserve made the unprecedented announcement that base interest rates would be nailed to the floor until 2013. As the end of 2011 came into view, global markets finally accepted that the US could be in for a much longer period of weaker growth than previously expected.
With a budget deficit standing at 10 percent of gross domestic product, America’s fiscal situation is dire. The Congressional “super committee” seems unable to fulfill its remit of finding $1.2 trillion of spending cuts and new revenues by January 2013. As Uncle Sam’s debt continues to spiral, heading for $18 trillion by 2016, even the seemingly impossible spending cuts may not be enough. For now, as the euro suffers, the dollar looks strong. But America’s fiscal woes will inevitably come back to hurt the markets.
The Eurozone debacle
Throughout much of 2011, the European Central Bank (ECB) took a relatively aggressive interest rate stance, as Germany’s inflation aversion prevailed and higher borrowing costs exacerbated the creeping austerity across the Eurozone. While Greece took center-stage, the other PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) also began to squeal due to their high-debt burdens and spiralling sovereign bond yields. Several member states are effectively insolvent, which suggest default and debt rescheduling is inevitable, something policymakers seem determined not to accept.
As 2011 comes to an end, the PIIGS government yields are reaching new euro-era highs. A previously unthinkable default is threatening the ECB due to the refusal of member states to sufficiently raise the bailout to stop the contagion. The infection of Europe’s “core” (France, Austria, the Netherlands and even Germany) is now a fact, and could spell systemic disaster for the Eurozone.
Gold maintained a broadly upward trend and crossed the $1,900 level before reversing course. The strength of the gold price has been supported by soaring gold coin sales, America’s debt ceiling debacle and Eurozone worries, together with almost unprecedented gold stockpiling by central banks. The trend has been marked by bumps stemming from margin calls, liquidity constraints, hedge fund liquidation, profit taking and investors’ capitulation.
Angst about US and European economies led the Swiss franc and the yen to benefit from “safe haven” flows. Strong currencies often are not welcome though. Switzerland’s central bank pegged the Swiss franc at 1.20 to the euro to boost its local economy. The Bank of Japan remains undecided with regards to the yen, leaving it at relatively strong levels.
As 2011 comes to an end, Europe is in the midst of many changes. Mario Dragi, an Italian banker, replaced Jean Claude Trichet as ECB governor. In Greece, former ECB Vice President Lucas Papademos replaced Georges Papandreou as prime minister; in Italy, having failed to charm parliament due to fiscal problems and a long history of sex scandals, Silvio Berlusconi resigned as prime minister, leaving Mario Monti, an economist, to shoulder Italy’s burden. During the “make or break” Brussels summit in December, Europe’s leaders threw the kitchen sink at the Eurozone conundrum, unveiling a new European Stability Mechanism and promising fiscal union. Yet again, the bond markets remained unimpressed, with many still pricing-in a ‘Eurozone break-up’.
With presidential elections in the US and France in 2012, challenges remain to be tackled whether with new blood or new reforms, but investor sentiment looks set to remain unchanged, with rattled nerves playing havoc with both investor psychology and asset prices.
NADA SAFA is a private banker