Quarterly review: Grexit and China fears drain investor confidence

Chris Flood

The threat of a Greek exit from the eurozone drained investors' confidence in the second quarter of this year, causing fund sales in Europe and the US to falter.

Investors' appetite for new fund allocations was also blunted by a sharp correction in China's stock market and uncertainty about the timing of a US interest rate rise.

The stock movements inside the Shanghai Stock Exchange in the Lujiazui Financial district of Shanghai on September 22, 2015.
Johannes Eislele | AFP | Getty Images

Nick Nelson, head of European equity strategy at UBS, the bank, says: "Greece undoubtedly sapped confidence and it was not resolved before the troubles in China's stock market started. Investors have been questioning whether the slowdown in China and other emerging markets will derail the recovery in the US and Europe."

The US stock market hit an all-time high in May but equity prices eased back as the second quarter progressed amid concerns about high company valuations.

Mr Nelson says: "US company profit margins are close to record highs and it will be more challenging for companies to deliver strong earnings growth from here as the economic cycle matures."

As a result, equity fund sales in North America fell by more than a fifth to €35.5bn from €46bn in the previous three months, according to figures given exclusively to FTfm by Broadridge FundFile, the data provider.

Concerns about the timing and impact of an increase in US interest rates slowed inflows into bond funds in North America to a virtual standstill, with sales of just €1.5bn in the second quarter, down 96.5 per cent from the €43.3bn recorded in the previous three months.

In Europe, the European Central Bank's extension of its quantitative easing programme to include sovereign bonds provided a boost to fund sales in the first three months of 2015 and that momentum carried on into the month of April.

But sales dropped sharply in May and turned to outflows in June. Investors retreated to the sidelines as growing tensions between the Greek government and its creditors put the future of the eurozone in jeopardy.

Investors also struggled to identify where they might find buying opportunities as the ECB purchases of sovereign debt dragged a swath of bond yields into negative territory, a historically unprecedented development.

For the second quarter as a whole, net sales of European mutual funds (excluding money market funds) dropped by more than a third, to €82.8bn.

Fund sales across numerous European countries in the second quarter fell into negative territory as the Greek crisis continued. Net outflows were registered in Spain, Norway, Finland and Belgium while sales fell sharply in Germany, Switzerland, France, Sweden and the Netherlands.

"The umbrellas went up in May as clouds gathered around the possibility of Grexit and impending rate rises in the US. Net sales of European retail funds responded in kind," says Diana Mackay, chief executive of the Mackay Williams consultancy.

The main exception to the gloom was the UK market. It experienced a rebound to positive sales of €6.8bn after net outflows of €3.8bn in the previous three months.

Jake Moeller, head of UK & Ireland research at Lipper, the data provider, says British investors felt insulated from many of the problems affecting the eurozone.

"There is a sense of psychological detachment and that helped fund sales remain buoyant. UK investors are also receiving high-quality investment advice and so they are less trigger happy when it comes to selling than many continental investors who only recently moved into mutual funds as a result of low interest rates," says Mr Moeller.

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Growing risk aversion was mirrored in equity fund sales in the "international" category — defined by Lipper as those funds that do not generate four-fifths of their sales from a single European market — which dropped 70.7 per cent to just €7bn.

BlackRock and UBS retained their first- and second-place rankings in the table for fund sales in the international category but net inflows for both dropped by around half in the second quarter, to €7.6bn and €3.4bn, respectively.

Gam, the Swiss-listed asset manager, climbed to third spot, helped by a large advisory mandate win from an unnamed European institutional investor.

Craig Wallis, group head of institutional and fund distribution at Gam, says: "The one asset class where there has been consistent pressure is emerging markets. But apart from that, we have seen clients continuing to allocate to both European and Japanese equities along with our absolute return strategies."

Gam says investors have also been looking for alternative forms of fixed income. "Funds investing in specialist credit strategies, mortgage-backed securities and catastrophe bonds have continued to attract interest," Mr Wallis says.

In Asia, the rally that preceded the correction in China was fuelled in part by local retail investors buying stocks with borrowed money. The Broadridge data also indicate a huge surge in money entering the stock market. Net inflows across all asset classes accelerated to $165.4bn in the second quarter, more than four times higher than the inflows registered in the previous three months.