“Commerce flourishes by circumstances, precarious, transitory, contingent, almost as the winds and waves that bring it to our shores.” — Charles Caleb Colton
“Politicians know that structural reforms – to increase competition, foster innovation, and drive institutional change – are the way to tackle structural impediments to growth. But they know that while the pain from reform is immediate, gains are typically delayed and their beneficiaries uncertain.” — Raghuram Rajan
Following four quarters of negative growth surprises, the European economy positively surprised for the first quarter of 2019. Based on preliminary data, the Euro Area’s GDP grew 1.2 year-over-year and 0.4 per cent quarter-over-quarter. Quarter-over-growth was up from the 0.2 per cent recorded in fourth quarter last year and ahead of the 0.2 per cent growth anticipated by the ECB as recently as March. As an added boost, Italy emerged from its third recession in a decade.
In March, the ECB revised down its GDP growth projection for this year to 1.1 per cent from 1.7 per cent last December. If forthcoming data confirm the gradual improvement in the economy, the ECB may well need to revise its GDP growth projections in June. The performance of the European economy during the last quarter may yet prove to be fleeting given transitory effects.
Automotive sales declined month-over-month in each of last four months of 2018 — plunging 11.4 quarter-over-quarter, on a seasonally adjusted basing, during the fourth quarter — triggered by the introduction of tougher emission standards by European regulatory authorities. The new standards have been drafted with the intent giving consumers a more realistic picture of fuel economy by compelling automakers to test vehicles in conditions more representative of real-world conditions. The transition to the new regulatory regime upset the apple cart, automakers struggled to complete testing and certification in a timely manner — impacting production and leading wide-scale inventory shortages.
More than half of automakers’ production losses were recouped in first quarter of this year.
Part of the slowdown in 2018 was also driven by the draw down of inventories, which led to weakness in intermediate goods production following a significant upcycle in 2017. The downward inventory trend was partly reversed in the first of quarter of this year and the correction may still have a few more months to run.
Construction activity during the first quarter of this year may also have been exaggerated. A relatively mild winter, particularly in February and March, boosted construction activity. In February, construction output jumped by 3 per cent month-over-month. (March data is not yet available.)
The non-transitory positives were accelerating wages, healthy levels of job creation and robust consumer spending. Fixed investment by business also continued to expand at a healthy clip driven by high levels of capacity utilisation — Italy is the exception of course, the economy continues to operate below levels recorded in 2008.
There were no signs of a pick-up in exports from Euro Area, based on January and February data. Global trade, however, is no longer declining and may not be headwind to growth in 2019, especially if the US and China reach some sort of agreement in their trade dispute in the near term and Europe avoids an escalation of trade tensions with the US.
The positive growth for the first quarter have been reflected in an uptick in European money supply M2 — defined as currency in circulation plus overnight deposits plus deposits with an agreed maturity up to 2 years plus deposits redeemable at a period of notice up to 3 months.
European M2 growing at an annual pace of 5 per cent, outside a recession, has in recent years translated into the economy expanding between 1 and 2 per cent. With M2 growth still range bound, we see limited capacity for the European economic growth to further surprise to the upside forth rest of 2019 barring a remarkable recovery in global trade or in global auto demand.
Turning to equity markets and with the MSCI Europe Total Return Index up almost 14 per cent year-to-date in US dollar terms, the question is whether a broad exposure to European equity markets warranted?
The chart below compares the MSCI Europe Index to the year-over-year growth in European money supply M1 advanced by 12 month. (M1 is the ECB’s narrow measure of money supply which comprises only currency in circulation plus overnight deposits i.e. highly liquid money that can be spent immediately.)
Based on the chart below the European equity markets may already priced in the good news.
Another time series we chart against the MSCI Europe Index is the ratio of the narrow measure of money supply M1 to the broader measure of money supply M2, once again advanced by twelve months. Based on the comparison of the two time series, the historical relationship suggests that there may yet be upside in Europe still.
The historical relationship makes sense, as M1 expanding at a faster rate than M2 — the composition of money supply shifting from a less liquid form to a more liquid one — was a leading indicator for increased capital expenditures. This relationship, in our opinion, is not as robust as it used to be as the ECB has eliminated the opportunity cost for individuals and businesses in holding cash in demand deposits, rather than placing it in higher yielding time deposits. Two-year deposits yield as little as 3 basis points today while businesses could earn as much 120 basis points prior to the Global Financial Crisis and as much as 300 basis points during the Eurozone crisis.
Exposure to Euro Area equities should be based on bottom stock selection to identify value opportunities, in our opinion. While we think broad based equity exposure to non-emerging Europe should be avoided at this stage.
This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed.