The scandal over a shady land sale to a nationalist school operator has dealt a rare blow to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, unnerving investors counting on continued political stability.
Getting out of hand
The issue boils down to whether an 800 million yen ($7.19 million) discount on land sold to Moritomo Gakuen by the government was appropriate, and whether any political figures were involved in the sale or the approval process for the school to be built on the plot. If politicians did play a role and money changed hands, that could be considered graft.
Moritomo Gakuen chief Yasunori Kagoike alleged political involvement when he testified Thursday before the Diet, but this has been denied by officials who led finance bureaus involved in the deal. Yet government explanations have not cleared up public doubts about the process or the sale price.
“It’s a shame that this couldn’t bring the matter to a close,” a senior government official said after Kagoike’s testimony.
The prime minister’s office led the effort to bring Kagoike before the Diet, seeking to highlight contradictions in his claims. Yet the administrator did not budge even while under oath, putting the onus on the government to explain the sale as well as the role of Abe’s wife, Akie.
Two rate hikes since last year have weakened the dollar. Why is that, and what’s ahead for dollar, currencies & gold? And while we are at it, we’ll chime in on what may be in store for the stock market…
The chart above shows the S&P 500, the price of gold and the U.S. dollar index since the beginning of 2016. The year 2016 started with a rout in the equity markets which was soon forgotten, allowing the multi-year bull market to continue. After last November’s election we have had the onset of what some refer to as the Trump rally. Volatility in the stock market has come down to what may be historic lows. Of late, many trading days appear to start on a down note, although late day rallies (possibly due to retail money flowing into index funds) are quite common.
Where do stocks go from here? Of late, we have heard outspoken money manager Jeff Gundlach suggests that bear markets only happen if the economy turns down; and that his indicators suggest that there’s no recession in sight. We agree that bear markets are more commonly associated with recessions, but with due respect to Mr. Gundlach, the October 1987 crash is a notable exception. The 1987 crash was an environment that suffered mostly from valuations that had gotten too high; an environment where nothing could possibly go wrong: the concept of “portfolio insurance” was en vogue at the time. Without going into detail of how portfolio insurance worked, let it be said that it relied on market liquidity. The market took a serious nosedive when the linkage between the S&P futures markets and their underlying stocks broke down.
Gold imports by India, which competes with China for the role of world’s biggest consumer, are said to have risen almost three-fold in February from a year earlier as jewellers increased stockpiles before the festival and wedding period that starts next month.
Shipments jumped 175% to 96.4 metric tons in February from a year earlier, according to a person familiar with provisional data from the finance ministry, who asked not to be identified as the data aren’t public. Overseas purchases slid 32% to 595.5 tons in the 11 months to February. Ministry spokesman D. S. Malik declined to comment on the data.
After a lull in demand exacerbated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s move to withdraw high denomination currency notes, jewellers are building up inventories.
They expect to see some recovery in purchases ahead of India’s wedding season and on the auspicious Hindu gold-buying day of Akshaya Tritiya that falls toward the end of April this year.
The world’s largest pension fund delivered a return of 7.98 per cent in the final quarter of 2016 as the Trump rally sent global asset prices soaring in yen terms.
Japan’s Government Pension Investment Fund, which manages public pension money for millions of workers, returned ¥10.5tn ($91.9bn) during the quarter. Its value rose to ¥144.8tn ($1,268.5bn).
The surge in value helps to validate Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s 2014 decision to shift the GPIF into risky assets, including foreign equities, and gives him another reason to thank new US president Donald Trump.
Increasing risk in the GPIF portfolio is meant to help Japan meet the huge pension bills from its aging population. But there is intense political sensitivity about any losses, even due to quarterly market volatility, because of the impression of speculating with public money.
The GPIF made 15.2 per cent in the quarter on its holdings of domestic equities, slightly ahead of a 15 per cent rise in the Topix index, and 16.5 per cent on its portfolio of foreign stocks. Foreign bond holdings returned 8.8 per cent, reflecting the yen’s fall, while domestic bonds lost 1.1 per cent.
After three quarters of its fiscal year, which runs to the end of March, the GPIF was up 5.7 per cent. That follows a 3.9 per cent fall the previous year.
The price of a bitcoin has climbed above that of a troy ounce of gold for the first time on record after the cryptocurrency enjoyed a dramatic upswing in interest since last year.
Bitcoin has jumped by nearly 33 per cent this year to trade at $1,265 on Thursday amid a surge in interest in China, where the authorities fret the digital currency is being used to facilitate capital flight from the country. Bitcoin has risen nearly 200 per cent over the past 12 months, despite efforts to curb its use in China.
Of course, comparing gold to bitcoin is arbitrary, given that the precious metal is measured in weight – a troy ounce of gold (about 31 grams) cost $1,233 on Thursday – while the virtual currency beloved of technologists is entirely ephemeral and abstract. But the cross is nonetheless symbolic of its unexpected staying power and influence in certain circles.
Although most of the interest has shifted towards the potential wider usages of blockchain – the electronic ledger that underpins bitcoin – the Securities and Exchange Commission is currently considering a proposal for an exchange-traded fund backed by bitcoin.
SEC officials on February 14 met with Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss – the bitcoin ETF’s champions – to discuss the proposal and a decision is due by March 11, according to Bloomberg.
The digital currency came close to the headline gold price in late 2013, when it spiked above $1,000 per dollar for the first time, but then quickly halved in value in 2014, traded sideways for much of 2015 before embarking on a sharp rally in the middle of last year.
The world’s largest sovereign wealth fund overcame sluggish markets at the start of last year to deliver a return of 6.9 per cent in 2016.
Norway’s $905bn oil fund was boosted by strong stock markets in the second half of the year with equity investments returning 8.7 per cent. Fixed income returned 4.3 per cent in 2016.
Yngve Slyngstad, chief executive of Norges Bank Investment Management, the manager of the fund, said:
“The return in 2016 was characterised by falling international interest rates in the first half of the year and strong equity markets in the second half. The year began with a downturn in the markets, and uncertainty regarding developments in China.”
The fund had 62.5 per cent of assets invested in equities at the end of the year but is expected this spring to be given permission to increase that to 70 per cent. Fixed income assets accounted for 34.3 per cent and real estate 3.2 per cent.
Moody’s on Friday became the latest ratings agency to lift its outlook on Russia’s credit rating, upgrading it from ‘negative’ to ‘stable’, citing both a fiscal strategy — that is expected to lower the country’s dependence on energy and replenish its savings — and the gradual economic recovery.
The ratings agency had confirmed Russia’s Ba1 rating, which is one notch below investment grade, in April 2016, but assigned it a negative outlook at the time to reflect an erosion of the government’s fiscal savings amid a downturn in crude prices. But on Friday, it said the recovery in the country’s economy following a nearly two-year long recession, alongside the fiscal consolidation strategy, have eased the risks that it had identified last year.
Russia’s deficit-to-GDP ratio is now forecast to narrow by roughly one percentage point per year between 2017 and 2019 and Moody’s said this new target was “achievable” because the government’s “oil price and revenue assumptions are sufficiently conservative”.
The agency, said:
Moody’s now believes that the downside risks identified in April 2016 have diminished to a level consistent with a stable outlook. The stabilization of the rating outlook partly reflects external events, and in particular the increase in oil prices to a level consistent with the government’s budget assumptions. The stable outlook also reflects the plans the government has put in place to consolidate its finances over the medium term, and the slow recovery in the economy following almost two years of recession.
Rival raters S&P and Fitch have also boosted their outlook on the country in recent months, as external risks to the oil-producing nation ease.
Norway’s government has proposed making the biggest changes to the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund in decades, increasing its risk by investing about $90bn more in stock markets and cutting the amount of oil money it can use in the budget.
The $900bn oil fund should be able to invest 70 per cent of its assets in equities, up from the current 60 per cent, as the centre-right government backed proposals by both the fund itself and an expert group.
The shift, which needs parliamentary approval, would be significant for global markets as the oil fund on average already owns 1.3 per cent of every listed company. The increase in equities would come at the expense of bonds, as the oil fund, which has an investment horizon of a century or more, tries to increase its returns.
At the same time, the Norwegian government is aiming to reduce the amount of money from the fund Oslo is allowed to use in budgets. Under the so-called spending rule introduced in 2001, the government is allowed to take up to 4 per cent of the fund each year – which is meant to be equivalent to the real return from investments. This would be reduced to a maximum of 3 per cent in the future under the new proposal, as the outlook for returns has fallen.
One week ago, Deutsche Bank analysts warned that the global economic boom is about to end for one reason that has nothing to do with Trump, and everything to do with China’s relentless debt injections. As DB’s Oliver Harvey said, “attention has focused on President Trump, but developments on the other side of the world may prove more important. At the beginning of 2016, China embarked on its latest fiscal stimulus funded from local government land sales and a booming property market. The Chinese business cycle troughed shortly thereafter and has accelerated rapidly since.”
DB then showed a chart of leading indicators according to which following a blistering surge in credit creation by Beijing, the economy was on the verge of another slowdown: “That makes last week’s softer-than-expected official and Caixin PMIs a concern. Land sales, which have led ‘live’ indicators of Chinese growth such as railway freight volumes by around 6 months, have already tailed off significantly. “
Chinese overseas deals worth almost $75bn were cancelled last year as a regulatory clampdown and restrictions on foreign exchange caused 30 acquisitions with European and US groups to fall through.
The figures, which reveal a sevenfold rise in the value of cancelled deals from about $10bn in 2015, highlight a waning appetite for global dealmaking by the world’s second-largest economy. But despite more deals being abandoned, the analysis by law firm Baker McKenzie and researcher Rhodium shows that Chinese direct investment into the US and Europe still more than doubled to a record $94.2bn in 2016.
Sellers of assets in Europe and the US are becoming increasingly wary of large deals with Chinese buyers, according to people involved with several cross-border transactions involving China.
“The Chinese are getting more professional but sellers are giving more priority to potential buyers outside China because of the restrictions imposed on capital,” said one person who dealt with mainland buyers.
China notched up a record capital exodus last year, driven by expectations that the renminbi would continue to weaken against the dollar, and as slowing domestic growth diverted investment elsewhere.