New quarter, old issues for investors

By Jeremy Gaunt, European Investment Correspondent

LONDON (Reuters) – Surprising as it may seem, investors are heading into a new quarter in relatively buoyant form, overcoming nerves about Japan’s disasters, rising oil prices and the EU’s delay in finalizing its debt crisis package.

The first quarter was littered with weeks of “risk on, risk off” trading and a lot of uncertainty remains. But it is ending with remarkable resilience.

World stocks as measured by MSCI are above the levels they were at when Japan’s earthquake hit. Emerging market shares, losers for much of Q1, are nearly in the black for 2011 at eight-week highs.

The VIX volatility index is back down near levels not seen since before the Egyptian unrest began stirring the oil markets.

Reuters’ quarterly poll of almost 400 market analysts and economists, released in the past week, showed all 18 stock indexes covered in the survey finishing 2011 in positive territory compared with current levels.

Some, such as Hong Kong’s Hang Seng and Korea’s KOSPI, were seen gaining more than 17 percent by year-end.

Other gains were more modest, but nonetheless positive, such as 8 percent for the U.S. S&P 500, more than 9 percent for France’s CAC 40 and a solid 13 percent plus for Germany’s DAX.

The primary driver, when everything else is stripped away, is confidence that the global economy is in pretty good condition and with it the corporate outlook.

It may not feel like it to millions of people in developed economies weighed down with debt and still recovering from recession but at an International Monetary Fund-projected 4.7 percent, global growth is set to rise well above the roughly 3.5 percent long-term average.

“There is still a lot of uncertainty … but the big thing that has allowed markets to climb this (recent) wall of worry is the economy,” said Valentijn van Nieuwenhuijzen, head of strategy at ING Investment Management.

Recovery, he said, had spread from just manufacturing and trade to services, making it broader and more “shock proof.”

Economic focus in the coming week will, therefore, be on critical U.S., euro zone and Japanese employment reports while the impact on world business confidence from recent events will be monitored in global Purchasing Manager Indexes.

QUITE A QUARTER

From a purely markets perspective, however, the past three months have thrown out some remarkable challenges — none of which have actually gone away.

There is some interesting economic debate about whether the events were actually “Black Swans” that no one could predict or just far out tail risks.

But it is probably fair to say that no one was properly positioned for Japan’s triple disasters of earthquake, tsumami and nuclear crisis, or for a revolt in the Arab world that would set geopolitics on its head and drive up the oil price.

The stubborn nature of the euro zone debt crisis was probably easier to predict, but not necessarily to position for given the complexity of competing domestic and international politics coming up against market demands for quick answers.

So not everyone is entering the second quarter in a risk positive mood, particularly with higher interest rates around the corner from policymakers, notably the European Central Bank.

Barclays Capital said in the past week that policy normalization — higher rates — meant its clients should take “a more cautious approach to markets than the risk-embracing positions we have recommended since the recovery got under way two years ago.”

But it did say that the Japan disasters and North Africa/Middle East revolts should not derail the global economic expansion.

EU DEBT AGAIN

One of the focuses of the coming week, meanwhile, is likely to be another delay in solving the euro zone debt crisis.

European leaders wrapped up a much heralded summit on Friday by giving themselves until June to finalize an increase in their temporary bailout facility, failing to deliver the broad package they had promised.

Markets took the failure fairly calmly, perhaps because they are used to EU leaders extending supposedly fixed deadlines for resolving multiple clashes of national interests.

But Portugal, the main country under pressure at the moment, saw its debt costs rise and was widely assumed to be heading toward a bailout similar to those given to Greece and Ireland.

(Editing by Ruth Pitchford)

New quarter, old issues for investors