Risks 2012—an alternative view

The success rate for predictions is less than 50%, but when it comes to making money, the best strategy is to veer away from the herd to find new and different pastures

In the United States much of the consumer spending takes place before Christmas. In fact the day after the national holiday of Thanksgiving, the last Thursday in November, is called Black Friday, because that is when retail stores finally “get into the black” or start making a profit. Since consumer spending makes up 70% of the US economy, growing consumer spending is crucial to the growth of the US economy.

This year the reports of Christmas spending were uniformly positive. Both regular and online sales by retailers were supposed to have broken records. The markets responded positively to this welcome news. But there was one problem. The headline news wasn’t accurate. Today the government came out with the real figures. Instead of robust sales, they showed a marginal improvement of only 0.1%. This is a problem for investors, but it is also a huge opportunity.

Financial headlines and commentary are always filled with predictions. You cannot open a newspaper, watch a television show or visit a website without hearing all sorts of justifications for the generally accepted trend. If you accept that this trend is correct and invest accordingly, the odds are not good that you will make money, because if the prediction comes true, the market has already discounted it. There is no value to be found by following the herd. On the other hand, if you can discern something that the headlines don’t say, you can do very, very well.

The present assumptions are for slow growth in the US and a recession in Europe. In fact for the past six months it seems that we have heard about little else. With this limited focus, it appears that at least for the financial community only the developed world exists. When emerging markets are mentioned, the general assumption is that “having started on the road to growth, the chances that these markets will continue to grow is good.” While the bulls concede that growth is slowing, they feel that 7% or 8% is certainly the bottom, hardly a recession.

But what if there is an alternative scenario? What if the financial community has things backward? What if the real risk is in emerging markets and Europe only experiences a mild recession? Most commentators feel that this is improbable, but that is exactly the reason why the strategy might be exceptionally profitable.

Europe certainly appears to be a basket case. This is especially true of countries like Spain. It is estimated that there are 176 billion euros in bad loans and the banks need to set aside reserves of 50 billion euros to repair their balance sheets. Worse Spain has an unemployment rate approaching 23%. Still despite these problems there is hope for both Spain and Italy. Both have governments bent on reform, hopefully labour reform. In the present crisis, there appears no alternative, so what seemed politically impossible six months ago may be the only possible solution. Like India after the reform of the License Raj in the 1990s, rapid growth is certainly a possibility.

In contrast to Europe, emerging markets seem positively healthy. The consensus for China is that their tightening has successfully brought inflation under control and that the economy is ready for another round of stimulus. Like many other emerging markets it has enormous foreign currency reserves and is assumed to have little public debt. But there is another side.

As premier Wen Jiabao admits, the Chinese economy is “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated and ultimately unsustainable”. The tightening of the blistering real estate market has lend to 900 failed land auctions in 2011, three times the number as in 2010. One-third of the failed auctions occurred in November and December alone.

Failed auctions are real problems because land sales make up 74% of the revenue base of local governments up from 10% in the late 1990s. Local governments owe the state owned banks Rmb 10.7 trillion and 53% of that has to be paid back in 2012. Another indication of a rapidly slowing economy has been imports. The growth has fallen from almost 40% in October to 13% in December. China started 2012 with its first triple A rated bond default (theoretically temporary).

China is not the only problem. Inflation is exceptionally high in India, Turkey and Brazil. All of these once vibrant economies are beginning to slow. But perhaps the most interesting indicator has been that high end sales growth in Asia for the jeweller Tiffany has slowed from 36% to just 12%.

What will and will not be is not for us and certainly not for financial analysts to know. The success rate for predictions is less than 50%, but when it comes to making money, the best strategy is to veer away from the herd to find new and different pastures.

(William Gamble is president of Emerging Market Strategies. An international lawyer and economist, he developed his theories beginning with his first hand experience and business dealings in the Russia starting in 1993. Mr Gamble holds two graduate law degrees. He was educated at Institute D'Etudes Politique, Trinity College, University of Miami School of Law, and University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business Administration. He was a member of the bar in three states, over four different federal courts and has spoken four languages. Mr Gamble can be contacted at [email protected] or [email protected])



Bottled luxury

Get ready to revel in water

To alter a famous saying slightly: What’s in a name? That which we call water,
by any other name would smell as watery. Or will it?

That is not what connoisseurs of ‘fine water’ want you to believe. In India, where we regard water as water, the water enthusiasts are ready to sell it as clear, tasteless luxury in a bottle.

Dr Michael Mascha, an anthropologist turned water-connoisseur from the US, recently visited India to draw attention to water as an epicurean product. In Europe and the US, ‘natural’ (unprocessed—the special Bisleri ‘mineral’ water in our restaurants doesn’t qualify) and ‘premium’ quality water is a fairly sought-after product. Based on mouth-feel, mineral content, natural source, amount of natural carbonation—bottled water is graded. On one end, there is the almost neutral, soft variety called still water—which we have in India; and sparkling water that has a slightly bubbly mouth-feel.

Dr Mascha’s efforts have been to turn bottled water into an epicurean product. He travels around the world, talking about water, teaching people to acquire a taste for it and advices on ‘fine water etiquette’—which is about serving fine water with food. If it sounds as complicated as the elaborate cutlery deployed for stiff-and-starched high brow dinners—it is because it is.

He talked about pairing the right water with the right food. “You don’t pair wine and food randomly, do you? Why should water be different? I feel that the market and awareness for fine water now is at a stage that wine was 20 years ago. Now, people know more about serving wine; in the right container, with the right food. Fine water, in the next fifteen years, will see the same trajectory of development,” he adds.

So for subtle food like fish, you can have it with soft spring water. If you have red meat or game, you can go for water with a high mineral content. Having the right water really makes a difference in the taste, he claims. So does the right glass. After all, wouldn’t you feel bad if you are sipping water from a fine but plain glass while the person on the next table is being served champagne in a flute?

Similarly, there is the right water choice for the right drink. Going for whiskey? Spring water. And the list goes on.

Dr Mascha and Mr Naveen Luthra, director of Mulshi Springs Natural Drinking Water, claim that India is now slowly developing a market for ‘fine water’. “We can see in the premium segment, especially for the diaspora and returned NRIs who are interested in bottled water,” Mr Luthra says. But, he admits that it is a very niche segment, and even premium consumers do not experiment with water.

He compares premium bottled water to organic food—it is clean, pesticide-free, and can make a substantial difference in your health with regular use. Then there are special mineral waters, which have dissolved minerals like calcium or magnesium that are beneficial to health. We suspect that some ultra-health conscious individual just had an epiphany.

In case you are interested to experiment with water, Dr Mascha suggests starting with sparkling water. “You can start by ordering a bottle with some meal. That mouth-feel will give a different taste to your food,” he says. “I have conducted fine water workshops in many places and people have admitted that different kinds of bottled waters have different tastes, and they all give a different flavour to the food.”

However, Mr Luthra differs in his opinion of having sparkling water with Indian food. “The reason sparkling water hasn’t caught up in India is because it is slightly carbonated—which means it is acidic. Indian food is already so spicy. If a guy pairs acidic water with acidic food, he is dead,” he says.

So go for water. It is gourmet in clear, tasteless form; in a bottle. If you develop a taste for it, you may commission an extra wing on your bar.


In a range: Weekly Market Report

Nifty may move between 4,830 and 4,915

Extending its gains for the second week in a row, the market settled at its best weekly close in five weeks on positive economic indicators, giving rise to speculations that the RBI in its quarterly policy review later this month might lower interest rates. Signs of easing of the debt situation in Europe also augured well for the market, which closed with a gain of 2% at the end of the week.

The prime minister’s comments about lower economic growth pulled the market lower on Monday. Global rating agency Moody’s upgrade of India’s short-term foreign currency rating and an 8.49% spurt in passenger car sales in December led the indices higher on Tuesday. But nervousness ahead of the earnings season saw the indices closing flat on Wednesday

Positive economic indicators were overshadowed by subdued dollar-revenue forecast from IT giant Infosys, leading to a negative close on Thursday. Firm global cues helped the benchmarks in achieving a green close on Friday. The Sensex closed the week at 16,155, up 287 points and the Nifty gained 112 points to 4,866. We may now see the Nifty making a range-bound move between 4,830 and 4,915.

In the sectoral space, BSE Realty index soared 14% and the BSE Metal index jumped 10% while BSE IT tumbled 7% and BSE TECk declined 4%.

Among Sensex stocks, Tata Steel (up 14%), DLF (up 13%), Hindalco Industries (up 12%), Sterlite Industries and Larsen & Toubro (up 9% each) were the top gainers. The losers were led by Infosys (down 7%), TCS (down 7%), GAIL India, Bajaj Auto (down 2% each) and Hindustan Unilever (down 1%).

The top advancing stocks on the Nifty were Reliance Power (up 22%); Tata Steel, Jaiprakash Associates (up 14% each), Reliance Communications and Sesa Goa (up 13% each). The main losers on the index were Infosys (down 9%), TCS (down 7%), HCL Technologies (down 5%), GAIL India and Bajaj Auto (down 2% each).

Led by a recovery in manufacturing output, industrial production grew by 5.9% in November 2011 after witnessing a 4.74% contraction in the previous month. The resurgent industrial production numbers are likely to boost the sentiment in the economy and may also help the RBI go for rate cuts in the near future.

Food prices fell for the second consecutive week as food inflation remained in the negative zone at (-)2.90% for the week ended 31 December 2011 compared to (-)3.36% in the previous week. The fall in the rate of price rise of food items since the first week of November is substantial, as it has plummeted from double-digit territory into the negative zone.

However, headline inflation, which also factors in manufactured items, has been above the 9% mark since December 2010 and stood at 9.11% in November 2011. Figures for December will be announced on Monday.

Notwithstanding its inability to open multi-brand retail for foreign investment, the government on Tuesday notified 100% foreign direct investment (FDI) in single-brand retail. However, in respect of proposals involving FDI beyond 51%, mandatory sourcing of at least 30% would have to be done from the domestic small and cottage industries which have a maximum investment in plant and machinery of $1 million (about Rs5 crore).

In international news, rating agency Standard and Poor’s (S&P) has lowered the sovereign ratings of nine Eurozone countries, including France and Italy, a move that reignited concerns over the fiscal sustainability of the region. The downgrades—announced after US markets closed on Friday—are likely to be a dampener for financial markets as investors are likely to sell euro, Eurozone equities and sovereign bonds.


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