While fourth quarter 2012 earnings results will continue to garner attention, investors may also be looking overseas to gauge market direction, especially with the recent, first meeting of the year for European finance ministers. It is worth remembering that each spring for the past three years, the S&P 500 has started a slide of about 10% during the second quarter, led by events in Europe.
However, this year may be different. In 2012, the European Union finally took two important steps to halt the financial aspect of its ongoing crisis.
One of those steps was the creation of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), a permanent rescue fund for countries in need of credit and unable to borrow in the market. Another important measure was the authorization of Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT), granting the European Central Bank (ECB) more power to intervene in the bond markets to assist countries in distress.
With these programs able to lend with few limits to banks and willing to buy bonds of any country that will accept the conditions, we do not expect market participants to fear a European financial crisis this spring and drive a 10% decline for U.S. stocks as they have in recent years. But Europe’s crisis is far from over, and market participants may drive stocks lower later this year.
Europe has traded a financial crisis for an economic one. The ECB is able and willing to only fight one crisis. The price Europe has paid to avoid a financial crisis is in the form of recession and unemployment rising above 10% — including France at 10.7%, Italy at 11.1%, Ireland at 14.7%, Portugal at 16.3%, and Spain at 26.2%. The Eurozone is mired in a recession that the ECB has little ability to mitigate. Inflation is still over the 2% target.
This is not just a shift in the crisis facing Europe’s southern countries. It has now started to infect the core. In 2012, the economies of northern Europe, such as Germany, France, and Finland, were less negatively affected with economic growth and lower levels of unemployment more similar to that of the United States than the countries of southern Europe, including Italy, Spain, and Portugal. However, in 2013, the two largest economies of the Eurozone, Germany and France, will face low growth or even stagnation and rising unemployment.
The slowdown in northern Europe can make conditions in southern Europe worse by returning some risk of financial crisis. The economic slowdown in northern Europe may make these countries more reluctant to approve the release of aid packages to the southern countries. This is noteworthy, since if the Italian elections in February 2013 fail to produce a government that achieves political stability and applies economic reforms, the increased market pressure on Italy will likely require financial aid. Germany, the de facto decision maker as a result of making up the lion’s share of any aid package, may already be averse to approve any more unpopular aid packages ahead of the German elections coming this fall. With the elections slowing the decision-making process in Germany, no fundamental changes in policy will likely be made before the elections that may avert the growing economic crisis.
In early 2012, the European fear gauge was the bond yield of southern European countries rising as the financial crisis worsened. But now that a financial crisis has been allayed, the decline in northern European bond yields is a sign of a worsening economic crisis. In a remarkable sign of how the European financial crisis has eased, Portugal’s 10-year bond yield fell from 16% last summer to 6% [Figure 2], and Italian bond yields fell from 7.5% to under 5%. But at the same time, Germany’s 10-year bond yield fell below 1.5% [Figure 3]. This is not a sign of crisis averted, but of a different one brewing. Economists’ estimates for Germany’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2013 are still coming down. Europe’s 2012 auto sales fell -8.2% from the prior year, the biggest drop in 19 years.
The investment consequences are that the bond yields of southern European countries may once again begin to rise, fall elections highlight the challenges putting pressure on stocks, and recession continues and ensnares more of the core nations of Europe. We may again see a stock market slide related to Europe’s evolving crisis, but it may not be until the summer or fall that it appears this year rather than in the spring. After the powerful rise in European stocks since the financial crisis was averted last summer, investors may be increasingly better off focusing on U.S. and emerging market stocks as the year matures and the European economic crisis deepens.