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.

Afghan pomegranate growers squeezed as prices drop

Updated 29 min 27 sec ago

Afghan pomegranate growers squeezed as prices drop

  • Renowned for its reputed health benefits, the pomegranate is a point of pride for Afghan farmers
  • In Kandahar province, the prized crimson fruit could grow to the size of small melons

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan: Pomegranate farmers in southern Afghanistan — where growing the juicy fruit is an important alternative to opium poppy production — say they are feeling the squeeze this year, with business blemished by chilly weather, pests and export woes.

The prized crimson fruit, globally renowned for its reputed health benefits, is a point of pride for Afghan farmers, particularly in Kandahar province, where luscious pomegranates the size of small melons dangle from trees.

Every autumn, Afghans start drinking pomegranate juice as the fruit bursts into season. Vendors pile carts high with gravity-defying pomegranate pyramids and offer fresh-squeezed beverages.

Haji Abdul Manan, who has been growing fruit in southern Kandahar for about 30 years, said a springtime cold snap damaged pomegranate flowers, impacting about 40 percent of his crop.

Problems also came from “lice, flies and a fungal disease,” he added, likening a type of greenfly to a natural disaster that had ruined more than 100 of the orb-shaped fruits daily.

“It is the duty of the Afghan government to spray all the gardens in Kandahar and to protect the pomegranates from diseases, but the government is not doing anything,” Manan complained.

Apart from its sweet flavor, fans point to pomegranates’ purported health benefits including high levels of vitamin C and antioxidants that are said to help protect the body.

“Kandahar’s pomegranates are the world’s best for flavor, color, and several times Kandahar’s pomegranates came first in competitions abroad,” Nasrullah Zaheer, the head of Kandahar’s chamber of commerce, told AFP.

In Kandahar, a medium-sized pomegranate goes for the equivalent of about 15 US cents, but by the time the fruit reach Kabul they cost about three times that.

Zaheer and several other farmers claimed Pakistan has this year imposed hefty tariffs on pomegranate imports, which, despite a drop in yield in some parts of Afghanistan, has led to an oversupply in the domestic market and sharp price drops.

But the Pakistan Embassy in Kabul denied such a drastic measure had been taken, saying Pakistan had raised duties only slightly because “Afghan exporters consistently understate the value of pomegranates and fruits.”

Muhammad Hafeez, a fruit and vegetable seller at a market in Islamabad, said the pomegranate supply from Kandahar had not been impacted.

“The supply is in bulk and the quality is good,” Hafeez told AFP.

Abdul Baqi Beena, deputy director of the Kandahar chamber of commerce, said about 40,000 to 50,000 tons of pomegranates were exported annually, including to India, Pakistan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

For years, Afghanistan and international donors tried to wean farmers from growing opium poppies by encouraging alternatives such as fruit crops.

But those efforts often failed as drug smugglers offered lucrative prices that normally far exceed the income from traditional agriculture.

The US Agency for International Development previously supported the farming of high-value crops, including pomegranates, as an alternative to opium production, but in recent years has shifted its focus to helping build export markets and supporting Afghan farmers that way.

“There is strong regional demand for high-value Afghan products that generate sufficient profit to justify export cost,” Daniel Corle, USAID team lead for development outreach and communications, said in an email.

“These include pomegranates, pine nuts, apricots, spices, gems, marble, and carpets, among others.”