As worries about populism in Europe rise, investors bet on stock market volatility

Traders work at the stock exchange in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany, on March 20, 2019. (AFP / Daniel Roland)
Updated 22 March 2019

As worries about populism in Europe rise, investors bet on stock market volatility

  • More than 350 million EU citizens will head to the polls between May 23 and 26 to elect a new Parliament
  • The vote will shape the future of the bloc amid a backlash against immigration and years of austerity

LONDON: Investors are betting on heightened political uncertainty and greater volatility in European stock markets ahead of European Parliament elections in May amid growing concerns about rising populism.
In one of the first concrete signs in financial markets that investors are bracing for political instability, VSTOXX futures , which reflect investor sentiment and economic uncertainty, have jumped in recent weeks.
While the classic gauge of fear — known as implied volatility, which tracks demand for options in European stocks — is currently at 15.68, futures that bet on the same thing over the coming months show a pronounced jump.
That’s because investors have piled on trades that bet on big swings in stocks as election day nears.
Implied volatility for futures contracts expiring in May show a pronounced jump to 16.8, compared with 15.35 in April. The contracts measure the 30-day implied volatility of the euro zone STOXX 50 index.
“We are seeing a bit of a kink around May when we have European elections and we have this wave of populism,” said Edmund Shing, head of equities and derivatives strategy at BNP Paribas.

Looming elections
More than 350 million EU citizens will head to the polls between May 23 and 26 to elect a new Parliament, a vote that will shape the future of the bloc amid a backlash against immigration and years of austerity.
Mainstream center-left and center-right lawmakers may lose control of the legislature for the first time, as euroskeptic and far-right candidates build support.
Herve Guyon, Societe Generale’s head of European equity derivatives flow strategy and solutions, said the rise of populism had triggered a recent flurry of speculative trades.
“Political uncertainty might be coming from the EU rather than the United States. We’ve seen investors doing very large trades to benefit from an increase in volatility around these events,” he said.
“We as a bank don’t expect the elections to be a massive game-changer. The populists won’t get enough to disrupt the political system, but we do note some investors did take some positions on this event.”
The implied volatility is still well below levels seen in late 2018 when global stock markets were routed amid worries about rising interest rates, slowing economic growth and the trade war between Beijing and Washington.
In late December, it shot to above 26, its highest since February.
But the flurry of activity suggests investors are seeking out new opportunities after a slide in implied volatility across major asset classes.
Edward Park, deputy chief investment officer at asset manager Brooks MacDonald, said some of the activity may also be due to persistent uncertainty about Britain’s exit from the European Union as the Brexit date of March 29 nears.
This year, volatility across currency, fixed income and stocks markets has plunged as the US Federal Reserve and European Central Bank have taken dovish policy stances.
The Deutsche Bank currency volatility indicator hit multi-year lows this week, while the proxy for fixed income volatility is languishing at all-time lows.
In stocks, the Cboe volatility index, Wall Street’s so-called “fear gauge,” fell to its weakest in six months this week.
“There’s been a cross-asset volatility crash — in euro-dollar, US rates and equities — in the aftermath of (ECB President Mario) Draghi’s and (Fed Chairman Jerome) Powell’s comments and the expectation of lower rates for longer,” said Guyon.

Where’s the beef? Argentine cattle ranchers hope it’s heading to China

Updated 40 min 34 sec ago

Where’s the beef? Argentine cattle ranchers hope it’s heading to China

  • Surging sales to Beijing shake up global meat trade and deliver tasty windfall for Latin American giant

BUENOS AIRES: Cattle ranchers in Argentina, which recently edged out neighbor Brazil as the top exporter of beef to China, are hoping to build on that status by getting more local meatpacking plants approved by Beijing, industry officials and other sources told Reuters.

An Argentine industry group is currently in China looking to promote the South American country’s famed T-bone steaks and sirloins, while Chinese teams have recently inspected Argentine local meat plants, the sources said.

The push, after a massive spike in Argentine beef exports to the world’s No. 2 economy this year, underscores how China is looking to diversify its protein supply, shaking up the global meat trade as African swine fever hammers its domestic hog herd.

It is also an important windfall for Latin America’s third-biggest economy, which is battling to get out of a deep recession and facing a swirling debt crisis ahead of elections in October that will likely usher in a new government.

Argentina, which traditionally exports cheaper cuts to China, saw its beef sales to the country more than double to $870 million in the first seven months of the year, data from its official INDEC statistics agency shows.

Chinese customs data show that amounted to around 185,604 tons of Argentine beef, giving it the top share of the Chinese import market with 21.7 percent, slightly ahead of Brazil’s 21.03 percent. That volume was a jump of 129 percent against the year before.

Santiago del Solar, chief of staff to Argentina’s agriculture minister, told Reuters there were many slaughterhouses up for approval and that China was working closely with Argentine food safety body Senasa.

“We will have news in the coming months about more pork, poultry and beef slaughterhouses being approved for China,” he said, adding Senasa was doing some inspections on behalf of China using an “honor system.”

Argentina’s ranchers are now looking for more. A trade delegation is currently in China meeting with potential buyers of the country’s meat, an industry official with knowledge of the meetings said.

The person added that a Chinese team had also recently traveled to Argentina to visit local meat plants.

“The Chinese were there last week in Buenos Aires, they were doing inspections and made good progress. The plants issue is pretty good, but with China they make approvals when they want to do it,” he said.

“We are optimistic with the results. It seems they didn’t find anomalies, but yes, it depends on the time frame of the Chinese.”

The progress comes after China granted export licenses to 25 Brazilian meatpacking plants earlier this month. Brazil has also seen a surge in meat demand from China.

China’s General Administration of Customs, which approves new imports, also recently gave the green light to imports of soymeal from Argentina, following decades of talks between the two countries.

The customs body did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment from Reuters asking about new Chinese approvals for Argentine meat plants.

A second person, a manager at a state-owned Chinese trading house, said he had met with an Argentine firm last week during the delegation’s visit. He declined to name the firm, which had met with China customs officials, but said it had already been approved for exports and was seeking further plant approvals.

Miguel Schiariti, president of the CICCRA meat industry chamber, said a Chinese team had also recently done a video-conference inspection of an Argentine plant alongside Senasa, with the aim of approving the facility for export.

“There are 11 meat plants ready to be approved and (the Chinese) are doing it one by one. But approval is taking a long time,” he said.

“These places would meet the criteria for approval, but the Chinese have always been very cautious, despite the problems they have with pork. It seems to me that plants won’t get approved before November.”