The most important central bank in the world, i.e. the US Fed, made an announcement yesterday that attracted a large deal of attention from investors. The bank withdrew its assurance to remain “patient” before the Fed funds rate would be increased. This paved the way for a possible abandonment of the zero interest rate policy, if economic need be. The new formula goes like this: the Fed funds rate will be raised once the labour market has improved more and the FOMC is optimistic about inflation rising towards the medium-term target of two percent.
We have seen European equities outperform their American peers in the year to date, both in local currency and in euro. Not even the increase of the US dollar relative to the euro of 8% made a difference to that. What is this pro-European optimism based on? After all, the US economy has seen a significantly better development than the Eurozone. The same is true for US companies, which have been recording profit growth, as opposed to Europe, where profits have generally been falling recently. The uncertainties in Greece and Ukraine only add to this scenario.
The share price performance in emerging Europe, i.e. Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia, Turkey, and since most recently again, Greece, has not been overwhelming in the past years. Since the middle of 2011 the MSCI Emerging Europe, the most important index for the region, had been locked into a sideways movement, which was topped off by a correction at the end of 2014 as a result of the ongoing political crises. Along with (geo-) political factors, the weakening of the economic dynamics and a lack of reforms had been causing a subdued price performance.
The oil and gas sector is the backbone of the Russian economy. It contributes roughly a quarter to the Russian GDP, and it accounts for almost two thirds of exports. Oil and gas companies represent almost 60% of the market capitalisation of the Moscow stock exchange. It therefore makes sense to analyse the performance of the Russian equity market in connection with the level and development of the oil price. For a long time, the “oil x 20” rule of thumb would suggest that the fair value of the RTS, the Russian equity index, was 20 times the price of crude oil (as measured in US dollar per barrel of Brent). Especially equity strategists – always suckers for simple marketing ploys – would take a liking to this relation.
Since the cutting of key-lending rates to almost zero in the Eurozone did not suffice to keep the inflation expectations at their long-term target of slightly below 2%, the ECB Council decided in January to expand the central bank money supply until the accomplishment of the target was foreseeable.
The possible effect on the financial market and the economies are multi-faceted. 1) The excessively low inflation expectations increase. This will cause real interest rates (i.e. nominal interest rates minus inflation) to fall. 2) The currency (i.e. the euro) depreciates vis-à-vis other currencies. 3) A so-called asset price effect is created. The ECB buys bonds with low yields, resorting to the central bank money supply. This keeps bond yields very low (partially even negative). Given that, and because the volume of government bonds investable by the private sector shrinks, investors are pushed into asset classes with higher expected yields (bonds with long maturities, bonds with higher default risk, bonds with higher coupons in a foreign currency). This crowding-out effect supports asset prices. The net worth of the holders of these asset classes increases. 4) The willingness of banks to grant loans is supported by the very low bond yields.
The environment has become a bit brighter in the past weeks.
In addition to the improvement of the economic environment in the Eurozone and Japan, more and more central banks loosened their monetary policies. For example, on 12 February the central bank of Sweden (Riksbank) surprisingly cut its key-lending rate to -0.1% and announced to buy small volumes of government bonds. The reason behind this measure is the same as for similar steps taken by other central banks: the risk of falling short of the inflation target has increased. The markets reacted in a textbook-fashion with falling yields and a depreciating currency (krona). Both are supportive to the economy. On the financial markets the continuously falling and partially even negative yields of government bonds have pushed investors into securities with a higher expected yield (bonds with longer maturities, bonds with a higher default risk, bonds in foreign currencies, shares).