Individual stock picking has not been effective since August 2011. Market movement is dominated by events related to the debt crisis in Europe. When markets make big moves up and down, the source of the news is almost always traced back to Europe. In such a backdrop, macro-analysis makes more sense than bottom-up investing in individual stocks.
The Straits Time Index, along with most global stock indices, bottomed on 5 Oct 2011. A new rally began the next day, topped on 28 Oct 2011 after which it started its decline. From the STI chart, the market went into correction on 18 Nov 2011. It was a short-lived rally.
What happened near 28 Oct 2011 which marked the start of the decline? Global markets anticipated a European rescue plan which explains the rally which started on 6 Oct 2011. After the rescue plan was announced on 27 Oct 2011, global stock market began its descent again. The rescue plan was not enough to reassure the markets. On the day of announcement, global stock indices actually made a massive rally. Then, it looked like the rally that started on 5 Oct was here to stay. On the next day, new worries emerge when Italian 10-year bond yields tops 6%. On Nov 25, 10-year Italian bond yields reached 7.23% despite mighty ECB buying the bonds. This is serious because (1) Italian bond market is the 3rd largest in the world. A disaster there is highly contagious. (2) Greece, Ireland and Portugal were forced to seek financial rescues when their bond yields reached around 6.5%. Italy today is worse (3) Italy has high debt(118% of GDP) and slow economic growth. How can Italian bond investors be confident that their debts can be repaid in full? Besides, further austerity (demanded by Germany) may slow down growth further or even tip country into recession.
One feature of the rescue plan was that investors who bought CDS (credit default swaps) on Greek debt as insurance will not be paid because the deal agreed to was voluntary. Now, investors who hedge their sovereign debt risks using CDS are scared. If investors cannot reduce credit risk by buying CDS as insurance, then they have to reduce credit risk by demanding higher bond yields. I think this is a major reason European bond markets came under increasing attack almost right after the rescue plan was announced.
In the past weeks, every time European bond yields go up, global stock indices will go down. In the coming weeks, European bond yields should be the key indicators to observe for equity investors.
I am waiting for something to happen for global stock markets to have a solid rally. This something is Germany agreeing to print money. Printing money is the least painful way to repay debt. I am not sure whether money printing is a good economic solution because there are side effects like inflation. However, I am highly confident that once Germany agrees to money printing, a global rally in equities lasting months will follow. See what happened in 2009 after massive money printing by the Fed.
The alternative to money printing is austerity. It is by no means superior to the money-printing solution. When debt levels are too high (like the PIGS countries) and requires strong future economic growth to pay down debt, then austerity actually worsens chances of paying off debt by weakening the economy. Furthermore, austerity dampen domestic consumption by cutting spending and raising taxes. Therefore, economic growth must come from strong exports. Problem for Europe is, export to who? If everyone else is tightening their belts for austerity, who is going to buy the exports? Germany? The great export-machine of Europe to transform into a big import-sucker? European demographics worsen the problem. Too many old people, too few young people is bad enough for growth. Protective labour laws and culture further worsens the situation by protecting the old workers who are hard and expensive to fire at the expense of young workers, many of whom are on contract work, don't get good training opportunities or simply unemployed. Today, Spanish youth unemployment is a whooping 21.2%. When corrective economic measures are too painful, it may cause social riots. The situation can be highly unpredictable and chaotic. The last time a great nation was subjected to great economic pain, the people elected a madman into power. That mad-man was Adolf Hitler.
Of course, the best solution is economic growth from the creation of real productivity from real products/services of high social utility and not financial engineering techniques like printing money. However, you need plenty of good engineers for that. Engineers have bore the brunt of retrenchments in recent recessions. I know because I am an engineer. This time round, I will not be spared. I have received notice I will be retrenched. Today, there are very few students who want to study engineering and many of the best engineers have switched lines to work in banks. In fact, many engineering students went straight to the banks after graduation without ever working as an engineer.
Eventually, I think Germany will allow money-printing to ease the European debt crisis because austerity is doubtful to be effective. I cannot think of other solutions that politicians can depend on now.