BofA Takes Stock of Global Crises

Bank of America Global Wealth & Investment Management (GWIM) president Sallie Krawcheck hosted a discussion on how the crises in Japan and the Middle East may affect investors worldwide.

On the Webcast, “Global Risk Update: World Events and Your Financial Life,” Krawcheck was joined by Ian Bremmer, founder and president of Eurasia Group, a global political risk research and consulting firm, and Michael Hartnett, chief global equity strategist for BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research.

Considering the natural and nuclear disasters in Japan, Krawcheck noted that usually, natural disasters have a relatively short-term impact, but Japan may be affected in the long-term. Hartnett believes there will be long-term consequences in terms of energy development, commodities, and the Japanese market.

“Clearly, when you lose one form of energy, in this case nuclear—we don’t know that that’s permanent, but the possibility is there—then other forms of energy will need to replace it,” Hartnett said. “Commodities would be a second area…the earthquake adds to the view that there are potential supply shocks at any stage in the future, and that’s been one of the forces behind commodity prices doing well over the past 10 years. And then, thirdly, Japan. We don’t know how the Japanese will react to this over time; but certainly, the markets reacted very violently,” he added.

Bremmer pointed to Japan’s aging demographic, lack of emigration, and high national debt as other factors that will influence Japan’s financial recovery.

Middle East Concerns? 

In the Middle East, Bremmer said we’re entering a third phase of conflict. The first—which only began a little more than three months ago—saw the “rise of secularist, largely nationalist, local, democratic movements that rose up spontaneously against authoritarian regimes,” he said. In the second phase, authoritarian regimes learned to take these revolts more seriously and began to crack down more harshly. And now, he said, we’re entering the much more volatile and potentially dangerous phase of geopolitics, with this becoming a global issue.

The largest oil supplier, Saudi Arabia, is in no real risk of a revolt, Bremmer noted. Even if the king were to die tomorrow, there would most likely be a smooth transition of power to his successor. Nevertheless, the markets are highly sensitive to headlines in the Middle East and it is something to be wary of, he concluded.

What to buy, what to sell? 

With all the uncertainty surrounding these crises, what’s an investor to do, asked Krawcheck. Hartnett turned to commodities and emerging markets. “These things have been going up for the best part of 10 years now, so you want to be very careful… It would be much smarter to long oil when it was $20 than $120. But our feeling is that the story is incomplete, and it’s incomplete because of the debt that the West has. And there are very few ways to solve that problem, but one of those ways is to really inflate your way out of that problem, and I think commodity simply is a—not just a hedge against natural disaster but a hedge against inflation,” he said.

As for what to buy, Hartnett said “global best-of-breed companies…the best companies with the best balance sheets, the best management, the best earnings prospect,” are most obvious. He also thinks U.S. technology is “fairly weatherproof,” and emerging markets are still a good idea, but investors may want to be a bit more selective.  As for Europe and Japan, Hartnett believes they are still “really trapped in trading ranges, and you have to be able to play the ups and downs of those trading ranges to make a lot of money there.”

Fixed income is an “area of concern” in Hartnett’s opinion. “I think it’s really tough to see value stocks outperforming, small‐caps stocks outperforming—I think in the fixed income world, you want to be very, very careful about government debt. I think it really is the case that a lot of corporations now are actually safer than the governments.”

The complete 30-minute Webcast is available here.