So, Exactly What is Causing This Big Stock Run Up?

By: Reggie Middleton | Tue, Aug 18, 2009
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I was having lunch with a portfolio manager at a big $16 billion hedge fund the other day, trading ideas and chewing the fat. She said that she, and her whole fund, were not buying any equities. They were paid well on their legacy assets, which they dumping into the rally, though.

As a matter of fact, I really don't know anybody who is buying - save those guys that CNBC always seems to find - that are buying, not to mention buying in volume.

If I am not mistaken, this rally (the biggest since the great depression) has been the only rally that has occurred on DIMINISHING volume. That's right! Less people are buying the assets, yet the assets are going higher in price. That, my friend, is the inverse of supply and demand that you learned in econ 101. To move from the realm of undergrad econ to financial analysis, the prospects of many companies are looking relatively dim. Revenues are trending down, macro growth is forecast to be weak, coming out of the greatest recession there ever was, there aren't many stock buyers on reduced volume, yet stocks double in price. There is no wonder that so many conspiracy theories are floating around. It certainly debunks the theory of the massive liquidity from the Fed and the Treasury driving up stock prices because if that were the case, volume, and the amount of purchases would increase, not decrease. Liquidity is obviously not the driver in this case.

I would love to switch into bull mode and go net long, but unlike many in the talking head pundits camp, I need solid fundamental reasons to do so. I simply can't prudently justify chasing a stock because it traded higher.

With these thoughts in mind, let's look at what the largest providers of long exposure have been doing over the last year (hint: reducing exposure, which should push down on prices), as per Bloomberg:

Aug. 17 (Bloomberg) -- The world's biggest pension funds lost confidence in stocks as the best long-term investment, cutting holdings or leaving them unchanged during the steepest rally since the 1930s.

Funds overseeing money for California teachers and public workers, Dutch government retirees and South Korean private- sector employees reduced their target weightings for equities this year, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The rest of the 10 largest kept them the same. U.K. pensions have cut stock allocations to the lowest since 1974, according to Citigroup Inc. Managers handling Oxford and Cambridge University professors' assets have been selling shares as the MSCI World Index posted a five-month, 51 percent rally.

...

Losses suffered in the worst decade for stocks versus bonds since at least 1900 drove pension funds to pour more money into fixed income, commodities and derivatives just as signs the global recession is easing helped equities rebound from the MSCI World's biggest annual drop on record.

The average return for U.S. stocks has trailed government bonds by about 8.6 percentage points annually since 1999, after outperforming by 8.2 points last century, based on data compiled by the London Business School and Zurich-based Credit Suisse Group AG.

New Century

Equities appreciated an average 12.91 percent a year from 1900 to 1999, while bonds returned 4.69 percent annually, according to the data from the London Business School and Credit Suisse. Since the start of the new century, bonds gained 6.36 percent, compared with a loss of 2.27 percent for shares.

...

The MSCI World's 42 percent slump last year decimated equity allocations at pensions. The largest funds oversee a total of about $3 trillion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, magnifying the impact of their decisions on the performance of stocks worldwide.

Decade of Stagflation

Equity assets in the U.K. fell to 41 percent of holdings at the end of 2008, according to data compiled by New York-based Citigroup. The last time British pension funds held so little in equities was in 1974, after the Middle East oil embargo ushered in a decade of stagnant growth and price increases known as stagflation.

Funds aren't returning to their previous levels, according to Andy Maguire, a senior partner at Boston-based Boston Consulting Group. The proportion of equities in U.K. pensions exceeded bonds by 1.6 percentage points in the first quarter, the smallest gap since 1962, annual data compiled by Citigroup show.

Equity losses have hit the pension industry just as liabilities increase. The number of people worldwide 65 and older may jump to 1.3 billion by 2040 from 506 million last year. Their proportion of the total population will double to 14 percent in the same period, according to a June report from the U.S. Census Bureau.

...

Four of the world's seven largest pension funds -- Sacramento, California-based California State Teachers' Retirement System and California Public Employees' Retirement System; Heerlen, Netherlands-based Stichting Pensioenfonds ABP; and South Korea's National Pension Service -- have cut their equity target allocations, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

Calstrs, Calpers

The $119 billion California State Teachers' Retirement System, which oversees the pensions of 833,000 members, said on July 21 that it had temporarily shifted 5 percent from equities to fixed income, real estate and private equity, and permanently moved 5 percent from stocks to "absolute return" products that target gains even as markets fall.

"The shift out of equities is still in progress, "Calstrs' spokesman, Ricardo Duran, said in an e-mail on Aug. 12. The value of the fund's investments slid 25 percent in the fiscal year ended in June.

The $181 billion California Public Employees' Retirement System, which managed retirement benefits for 1.6 million current and retired public workers as of June 30, lowered its equities target to 49 percent from 56 percent on June 15. Calpers lost 23.4 percent in the fiscal year ended June 30, erasing six years of earnings.

ABP, which oversees the equivalent of $256 billion for more than 2.7 million Dutch government workers and teachers, reduced stock holdings to 29 percent from 32 percent in the first months of this year to reduce risks, according to spokesman Thijs Steger. ABP, the euro region's biggest pension fund, said the value of investments increased 4.5 percent in the first half.

...

Valuations, Oxbridge Dons

European pensions reduced their weightings even after the MSCI World fell to 9.4 times the average per-share earnings of its companies in November, the cheapest valuation since at least 1995, according to weekly data compiled by Bloomberg.

"Human emotion comes into the investment-making decision process, and managers are just as prone to it as individuals," said Neil Hennessy, who oversees $850 million as president of Hennessy Advisors Inc. in Novato, California. His Focus 30 Fund beat 99 percent of rivals in the past five years. "These managers are good, but you can see how they got whipsawed."

Universities Superannuation Scheme Ltd., which oversees the pensions of employees at more than 400 universities and higher education institutions including Oxford and Cambridge, is shunning stocks, said Elizabeth Fernando, an adviser to the fund's investment committee.

'An Awakening'

The U.K.'s second-largest pension fund, which managed 23.1 billion pounds ($38.1 billion) in Liverpool at the end of 2008, is diversifying investments after trustee boards got "scared enormously" during the bear market, Fernando said. The fund is boosting its allocation to alternatives that deliver "equity- type returns" but are uncorrelated with stocks, she said in an interview Aug. 4. She declined to give more details.

A third of U.K. pension funds in an April survey by Mercer Investment Consulting said they plan to cut domestic equities. Only 2 percent planned an increase, according to Mercer, a unit of New York-based Marsh & McLennan Cos. There has been no update of the survey since then.

"The fact is there has been an awakening towards the risk of equities and the part that equities should play in the overall pension-fund strategy," Tom Geraghty, the Dublin-based head of Mercer's European investment consulting business, said in an interview. "Not to say that equities should not be part of a pension's asset-allocation arrangement, but that they will have a less influential part to play."

The following are the world's 10 largest pension funds as ranked in September by Pensions & Investments and Watson Wyatt Worldwide. The right column shows their equity target allocation and whether they have cut or left it unchanged.

1. Government Pension Investment Japan

Held at 20%

2. Government Pension Norway

Held at 60%

3. ABP Netherlands

Cut to 29% from 32%

4. California Public Employees U.S.

Cut to 49% from 56%

5. National Pension Korea

Cut to 15% from 17% @

6. Federal Retirement Thrift U.S.

#

7. California State Teachers U.S.

Cut *

8. New York State Common U.S.

Held at 51%

9. Local Government Officials Japan

Held at 25%

10. Florida State Board

Held at 56%


@ Domestic equities.
# Doesn't maintain a target.
* Calstrs said on July 21 that it had shifted 10% from global equities and would adopt a new asset allocation mix to further diversify the portfolio and reduce its stake in stocks.

 


 

Reggie Middleton

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