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A risk sell-off that was waiting to happen

Without disparaging the seriousness of revolts sweeping the Arab world or the potential damage to global growth from soaring oil prices, risk investors may be getting what they wanted -- an excuse to sell.

February 23, 2011 / 10:20 AM IST

Without disparaging the seriousness of revolts sweeping the Arab world or the potential damage to global growth from soaring oil prices, risk investors may be getting what they wanted -- an excuse to sell.


Heading into the current Libya-focused turmoil, there were numerous signs that equity markets in particular were getting ahead of themselves and into the kind of territory that usually prompts talk of a correction.


These range from a series of new highs, to short hedge fund positioning and drained institutional cash balances.


A sell off could now be under way, with global equities as measured by MSCI falling as much as 1.4% from a 30-month high reached just last Friday.


Some welcome it.


"It's healthy for the market to take a breather after such strong gains," Jacques Henry, analyst at Louis Capital Markets in Paris, said on Tuesday as a wave of risk aversion swept markets, triggering flows into the likes of U.S. Treasuries and the Swiss franc.


This is not to say that what Alastair Newton of Nomura calls a tsunami sweeping across sometimes oil-rich Arab countries does not bring broader dangers.


Rising oil prices threaten inflation in countries that are already feeling growing price pressure, prompting central banks to consider interest rate rises.


They eat into corporate profits and can slow growth in energy-dependent countries, some of which are still only experiencing tentative economic recovery.


And that is even before any dust has settled and new governments are in place, presumably with new allegiances and policies.


But it does mean that any sell-off should be looked at in terms of where markets were as well as what risks the Middle East/North Africa protests now bring.



Signposts to sell


Investors have been on a risk rampage since mid-2010 when it became clear that the US Federal Reserve was going to pump up liquidity with a massive quantitative easing programme.


It has been fuelled by increasing economic health, particularly in the United States, but also in powerhouse economies such as Germany and China.


Since the beginning of July, global stocks have risen more than 30 percent. As of Friday's high, they were up more than 6 percent for this year alone.


In a number of cases, stock index gains in the first half dozen or so weeks of his year were close to what analysts predicted they would be in all of 2011.


This has left many with huge exposure to equities. Bank of America-Merrill Lynch's monthly fund manager poll, the most bullish in a decade, showed a net 67% of respondents were overweight equities in early February.


BofA-Merrill said these were "extreme" levels and that there were warnings in the survey.


Average cash holdings fell to 3.5%, a level that triggers an equity sell signal on BofA's model.


At the same time, data from the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission shows hedge funds turning into net short sellers of the S&P 500 US stock index as of February 15.


It prompted Societe Generale to warn that "technical factors suggest a correction is likely".


A similar theme can be seen in demand for options to sell Germany's DAX index.


The two indexes have gained as much as 6.9% and 7.6%, respectively, this year.



Risk still on


So Libya and the oil spike may be just the trigger investors needed to pare down their exposure to risk. The monthly Reuters asset allocation poll due next Monday should give some idea of how much they have done so.


The question for investors, however, will be whether the current troubles turn into something longer-lasting that requires a reappraisal of the consensus bet on a recovering global economy.


For now, the level of losses do not suggest that. Indeed most investors at the moment are probably only taking a step back.


The key will be oil, as Charles Robertson, head of macro strategy at Renaissance Capital, suggested:

"An average oil price for the year of USD 150 a barrel would be as painful as the oil-price hit felt in 1980, when the Iranian revolution pushed the global oil bill to nearly 8% of GDP. But economies can cope with a short-lived spike."

first published: Feb 23, 2011 08:28 am

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