Tuesday, January 14, 2014

What Will 2014 Bring?

Equity markets: More of the same in 2014?
If the year 2013 ended with moods, markets and sentiments on an upswing, what's on deck for 2014?

What will happen in the upcoming year? What is the agenda for banks, investment managers, hedge funds and an assortment of institutions in financial services?

Let's first sort through equity markets. Last year, we saw blockbuster returns--over 25%, depending on the index you follow. There were the usual dips, dives and concerns, but by autumn, equity markets continued to edge upward. Anybody's diversified portfolio of stocks performed well. The upbeat markets reflected perceptions by many (traders, investors, bankers, et. al.) that we had climbed out of the financial crisis, that the economy had finally reversed course, and that we could confidently move on.

But market returns above 20%, for some portfolio managers and investment gurus are nothing to rave about. They become headaches, causes for concern.  Are we headed toward another bubble, another 1987, 1998, or 2008? A debilitating nose-dive after periods of euphoria has happened before (more than once), so it can (or must?) happen again. How should we interpret recent discouraging data about net job increases across the country? What will the Fed do (or not do)?

For many in finance, 2013's soaring returns are a warning signal that we should be cautious about an impending bubble burst or should at least dissect market trends or economic behavior that portends a market slump.  Market prognosticators who see doom on the horizon are not necessarily nay-saying pessimists. After everybody was struck by knock-out blows of the last crisis, market participants just want to be prepared for the next time.

From now until about midyear, traders and research analysts will observe every move of new Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, even if many have described her as a Bernanke disciple, someone loyal to a course of maintaining low interest rates and continuing the Fed's program of bond purchases.  Some experts say this such Fed strategy explained much of last year's upturn and any plan to deviate from this could upset stock markets.  

In 2014, in equity markets, if we don't see continuing upswings, we will see more structural changes in the way stocks are traded. Over the past decade, there have been structural overhauls in stock trading. Major stock exchanges (NYSE, Nasdaq) are no longer stoic boys' clubs that monopolize among themselves  transactional volume. They have had to change, adapt, and be aggressive to stay alive. They compete with lightning-quick electronic exchanges, "dark pools" (run by major financial institutions), high-frequency traders, and markets that have no end of day. They must offer low fees and nano-quick execution or become less relevant.  

So in 2014, the heralded New York Stock Exchange struggles to find a role in the chaotic stock-trading sphere. It is no longer independent. A few years ago, it considered diversity and expansion by acquiring European exchanges and becoming NYSE Euronext. As it struggled to adapt, appease shareholders and remain profitable, it allowed an upstart electronic-futures exchange, ICE, to take it over.  Now in the upcoming year, ICE wants to dismantle parts of NYSE, hinting that it acquired NYSE mostly to grab the futures and commodities arms. It will likely hold onto NYSE as a badge of prestige, while the NYSE goes head to head with other electronic newcomers and trail-blazers.

The overall agenda for 2014 is otherwise assorted--a range of items and issues that must addressed, tweaks here and there.   

Financial regulation continues into what might be phase three--more implementation,  a few more rules, and widespread adjustments by banks, traders, funds and regulators before we head into years of strict enforcement.  Perhaps the year will finally bring more clarity in derivatives trading--exchange trading, clearing vehicles, and over-the-counter rules.

On the legal side, last year's insider-trading scandals continue through the court system. Federal prosecutors suggest there could be more indictments, although they may not match the headlines from accusations, indictments and settlements at SAC Capital.  In this realm, Round 1 involved the hedge fund Galleon Group.  Round 2 brought us SAC Capital and settlements involving its founder Stephen Cohen.  Round 3 will unfurl in the year to come, could involve others in an intricate, tangled trading network, but may not expose familiar, big names.

Global banks performed well last year, but their investment-banking units had less reason to celebrate in 2013. IB revenues across the board sagged at most places. Banks have been mired in IB restructuring (as banks adapt to Volcker rules and capital requirements), and their clients continue to approach the economic horizon with caution. Indeed in 2013, there was a welcome spate of IPO's, big deals, and debt offerings. But clients have been hesitant about expanding too far too fast, shy about acquiring other firms or doing big mergers--all frustrating investment-bank leaders. M&A activity, which suggested a back-to-glory-days trend last summer, has slowed to an ordinary crawl. Some call it humming, normal activity. Others call it doldrums.

Nevertheless, like all years, it's easy to capture and describe current moods (renewed, cautious confidence), but hard to project a specific event that could be the domino that causes market unrest. Experienced market participants and risk managers know it takes one or two correlated events to change abruptly a bright, comfortable course, one event that could pummel 2013's optimism from its pedestal.

Let's hope in 2014 no Russian debt crisis, no Bear Stearns mortgage wipe-out, no unsettling, triple-witching-hour trading day, no Long Term Capital portfolio implosion or no Drexel-like junk-bond circus looms to erode the era of good feeling 2013 brought.

Tracy Williams

See also:

CFN:  Looking Back at 2013
CFN:  Cliffs, Recoveries, Outlook for 2013
CFN:  Where Do You Want to Work in 2013?
CFN:  Opportunities in 2012
CFN:  Approaching 2012


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