All posts tagged Insurance

Let’s quickly dismiss the view that investors learnt from Brexit how to react to the election of Trump. US options are the world’s most liquid and the three month market that we track has consistently shown that President-elect Trump would be a sanguine outcome for stocks. Commentators are falling over themselves after the event to explain why this is, but OTAS has portrayed a consistent message of financial calm.

US Large Cap. Implied Volatility

US Large Cap. Implied Volatility

There have been three notable spikes in implied volatility over the past 16 months. Two of those, which we have labelled China and Recession, took this measure to exceptional levels, as fears mounted that a slowdown in Asia would cause the world economy to crater. The third spike, in the aftermath of the vote for Brexit, saw risk rise to unusual, but not exceptional levels. Politics may have rediscovered Paul Graham’s mantra that “It’s charisma, stupid” to explain which candidate wins a two-horse race, but the market remains firmly fixated on the economy.

By now we all have the received wisdom that Trump is good for certain regulated industries, such as banks and pharmaceuticals and his fiscal policies will mean more inflation and higher interest rates. The perceived riskiness of utilities relative to financials has jumped to unusual levels, last seen just before everyone remembered that Greece was about to default. With a while to wait to find out what Trump really stands for, big banks could be less risky than energy distributors for a while.

Implied Volatilty of Utilities Relative to Diversified Financials

Implied Volatilty of Utilities Relative to Diversified Financials

Central banks may have come to realise that forever easier money does not generate growth, but now they have the perfect foil to allow them to reverse course. Governors around the world have been beseeching politicians to do more to generate growth and the public has responded by electing those who promise to do something rather than nothing. There are incumbents who need to wise up fast. If Renzi’s reform bid fails then he may be gone, and if it succeeds and leads to a German imposed bail-in of bank depositors, then he’ll likely be gone a little later. The French also have an activist alternative to hamstrung mainstream politicians. Keep track daily of the implied volatility of the relevant markets and sectors with OTAS.

The chart of PE for the US top stocks suggests that the post-election move has room to run further and it would take a 7% re-rating to lift the valuation back to the highs of May 2015, when forward PE was last in touching distance of exceptional levels.

US Lage Cap. PE Valuation

US Large Cap. PE Valuation

One piece of received wisdom that is not playing out is that Trump will be unreservedly bad for trade and hence China and Emerging Markets. Mexico has taken a kicking, but perceived risk among China Enterprise stocks is almost unchanged. Once again it is fears of economic slowdown that floats this boat and clearly investors are not worried about a slowdown at present. Perhaps they believe that China wins relative to Mexico.

China Enterpise Implied Volatility

China Enterpise Implied Volatility

UK media is fretful the economy will suffer from trade restrictions. It is not obvious why Trump would single out the UK for harsh treatment when everything he has said points the other way and the immediate stock market weakness is likely to be currency related. The financial community in the UK is too savvy to confuse its own post-Brexit well-being with the health of the economy, when the opposite may be true. Keep an eye on implied volatility in the UK and be prepared to buy when threshold levels are reached. Threshold low PE ratios are also approaching.

One more thought going back to our blog of October 17, in which we argued that insurance stocks would be back in business once interest rate rises were on the cards. It may take a while for recalcitrant European central banks to get it, but the valuation of US insurance stocks in the last couple of days reinforces the conclusions we drew about what happens when they do.

US Insurance Sector PE Valuation

US Insurance Sector PE Valuation

After years of impasse, when the conclusion of culture wars rather than the economy occupied politicians, there are signs that activism is bringing markets to life. People worry that cultural change will be reversed, but let us hope that politicians and central bankers focus on the most important task of restoring growth for the benefit of all.

The plight of insurance companies in an era of low interest rates has led some to predict the total collapse of the industry. The sector is a bellwether for the stock market, because so much of its profit comes from investment returns. The chart of the PE of European insurers relative to the broader market shows that extreme valuation for the sector is a precursor of major market corrections.


European Insurance Valuation Relative to the Market

On this logic things are fine, because at two thirds of the average PE, insurance stocks have only just crossed into the normal valuation range following a period in the investment doghouse. This would tie in with our recent message that the prevailing investment trends are uncertainty over the direction of interest rates and gradually rising implied volatility back to normal levels. Relative implied volatility for the insurance sector peaks at index lows.

Implied Volatility of Insurance Stocks Relative to the Market

Implied Volatility of Insurance Stocks Relative to the Market

The woes of the insurance industry are easy to identify, which is why the sector is so popular among investment bloggers, who use it to point to the coming Armageddon in Europe, without having to offer too much analysis. Insurers depend on yield, all the more so as their customers age, so if central banks reduce bond yields to zero or below, insurance companies die.

You do not have to talk to those in the industry for too long to hear them bemoaning the new capital that is driving down returns for everyone. For the insurers, this is dumb capital that lacks the long-term perspective of their industry, but which thanks to light or no regulation has a lower cost of capital than incumbents. This is two different arguments; one about time horizons and another about the shadow financial sector.

Insurance is an industry whose last great innovation was the statistical analysis that brought about mortality tables. This allowed probability as a proxy for predictability and gave rise to a legion of highly specialised mathematicians with skills finely tuned to the needs of the industry. The maths can now be done faster and more effectively by computers, and so any cost advantage that new capital has from efficient operations is a permanent one. Whether you are regulated or not, you no longer need all those actuaries, just as investment banks no longer need so many analysts and lawyers don’t require all those proof reading juniors. Regulation actually serves to slow the loss of white collar jobs, because however onerous it may seem, all regulation favours incumbency.

The longer timeframe argument is more intriguing. Factor analysis shows that the inverse correlation between equity values and bond yields has weakened over several decades, most likely due to lower inflation, which had globalisation as its primary cause. The relationship has actually inverted since 2008, so that bonds and equities rise and fall in sync. Initial observations since 2013 suggest that the traditional correlation is reasserting itself.

This is due to the end of quantitative easing in the US and the political reaction to globalisation across the western world. Rising protectionism and constraints on immigration are the most evident backlash. These measures are designed to push up local wages and hence will be inflationary, and could herald the reversal of a long period of ascendancy of capital over labour.

It should be stressed that the jury is out on this. Most of our blogs reference the standoff between those who believe in the continuation of easy money and those thinking its time has passed, because this is the largest investment argument to be resolved. It is also one that OTAS indicators are ideally placed to track, including our fear gauge and low volatility performance monitor.

If the worm has turned however, and the ineffectiveness of monetary policy at the zero bound combines with political pressure to trigger policies that lead to higher interest rates, then the insurance sector will be back in business. Returns on insurance equities should discount this long before it happens. Those cautious mathematicians who have survived in the sector will have won the argument about the long-term, because underwriting in the industry should be priced using a higher cost-of-capital.