Risk Trade Yields to Yen for Safety

08/26/2010 2:23 pm EST


Igor Greenwald

Chief Investment Strategist, MLP Profits

The new rules for successful global investing couldn’t be simpler: Equities are to be owned one month out of every three, coinciding with reports of lucrative corporate earnings. The rest of the time, one must seek out the lowest yields, from zero in gold to the miserly payouts on US, Japanese, and German bonds, no matter how much these heavily indebted sovereigns try to borrow.

At least that’s been the pattern in 2010. Last month’s profit reports argued that emerging-markets consumers and developed-nation exporters could safeguard global recovery. This month, that notion has been challenged by ominous signs of further weakening in the US, Japan, and stock indices the world over.

Tokyo’s Nikkei is down 21% in less than five months and at the lowest point since April 2009. Despite a public debt nearly twice Japan’s annual gross domestic product, the yen hit another 15-year high against the dollar Tuesday, weighing down exports German bunds, like US Treasuries, have never been more popular, in stark contrast to some of Europe’s problem credits, notably those of Greece and Ireland. The latter was downgraded by Standard & Poor’s this week on worries that Irish banks will need more help than the country can afford.

Could the news possibly get any worse? Only if things proceed the way a majority now expects. But the herd is often not the most prescient forecaster. It’s hard to forecast by following someone else’s tail.

The better sort of headline hasn’t gone away just because it hasn’t been associated with the action in stocks for a couple of weeks. For instance, though Australia’s parliament is now hung, its economy continues to sizzle. German business confidence hit a three-year high this week. Thailand’s growth has also surprised to the up side. Bank lending in Brazil is booming. Russians are snapping up cars. Despite signs of a top in Canada’s housing market, the average home there is still fetching US$324,000, 77% above the median sale price south of the 49th parallel.

Canadian copper mines, on the other hand, don’t seem overpriced in light of strong Chinese demand. Tom Slee has unearthed a mid-cap producer selling for a fraction of the value of the ore reserves it controls.

Vietnamese investment funds are also in the fire-sale bin, as the investors who piled into the “next China” three years ago count their losses. With Hanoi in a bear market, London-listed Vietnam funds are trading at huge discounts to net asset value. Andrew McHattie argues that the selling has been overdone, and spotlights one fund that could prove a bargain.

Chris Gilchrist is less optimistic, warning that the European crisis has merely gone into a dormant phase and will resurface as banks try to roll over their borrowings. They’ll have to hope the economy’s better by then, but not so much better that rates have taken off.

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