LONDON (Reuters) - With a whiff of global recovery in the air and central bank liquidity abundant, investors in 2013 are packing their bags for China, fellow ‘BRICs’ Brazil and Russia, long-dormant Japan and even some Mediterranean sun.
Of course, seeking consensus on the top country destinations for the year ahead is hardly an exact science.
Often the simplest game is to avoid what did best the previous year, look at the subdued valuations of laggards and bet on a catch-up depending on the economic cycle. Rank underlying economic growth rates, factor in policy shifts and you’re away.
And after five years of stomach-churning global crises, the more conservative western money managers won’t even think of leaving home without at least some basic ‘security checks’ - let alone set off for exotic new frontiers.
So the basis of most 2013 forecasts are the pretty critical assumptions that the euro won’t collapse, the United States will dodge its looming “fiscal cliff” of tax and spending crunches, and that China’s economy has averted a nosedive in growth.
If none of that sounds an alarm, and you don’t want to hunker down at home, then this year’s tidal wave of central bank liquidity and money-printing from central banks in Washington, London, Frankfurt and Tokyo is waiting to be surfed.
Reuters global stock market polls yet again tell a story of BRIC rebirth. After two years in which the stock markets of the four emerging giants underperformed even those of bailed-out Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Italy and Spain - despite vastly superior economic growth rates - the old ploy of hoovering up what’s been beaten down seems unshakeable.
China's long-suffering Shanghai Composite .SSEC - one of the few major bourses still in the red this year, down 25 percent from early 2011 and still less than half its 2007 peak - is easily the favorite destination for money managers, with median forecast gains of 17 percent.
In separate Reuters poll this week of some 55 major asset managers worldwide, Shanghai was also the top emerging market pick for more than two-thirds of respondents.
“From a valuation perspective and given the turn in the cycle, the Chinese equity market - surprisingly a massive underperformer this year - is the one that stands out,” said Philip Poole, Head of Strategy at HSBC Global Asset Management.
Frustrated China bulls, perhaps unsurprisingly, are keen to see the gradual rebalancing of the world’s No. 2 economy from exports to consumption show through in the Shanghai markets.
“This is a market that can turn on a sixpence and I would be very surprised if 2013 isn’t a much better year after an ‘A’ share bear market that has lasted over three years,” Anthony Bolton of Fidelity’s China Special Solutions fund told clients.
That was also the case this year, however, and none have ended up in the top five best performers. All except Brazil finished 2012 in the black in dollar terms but they mostly underperformed “safer” markets closer to home, with even Wall Street and Frankfurt racking up meaty double-digit advances.
Long-standing BRIC bears have also yet to throw in the towel.
Deutsche Bank’s emerging market equities strategist John Paul Smith reckons China will continue to disappoint with “structural shortcomings ... too obvious for foreign investors to ignore”. He remains underweight China, Brazil and Russia, favoring Turkey, Taiwan, Mexico and Poland instead.
The latter two also found favor in the Reuters poll, with strong returns forecast on the Mexican peso and Warsaw stocks.
Perhaps the surprise package in the New Year's top five is Japan's Nikkei index .N225, a view this week's election win for the Liberal Democratic Party is likely to reinforce given its pledge to step up the fight against domestic deflation.
Even Jim O‘Neill, the Goldman Sachs Asset Management chairman who coined BRIC acronym a decade ago, sees Japan as 2013’s best performing equity market, although he stressed hedging the yen due to the pivotal role a significantly weaker currency is likely to take in reviving the economy and market.
“There’s quite a widespread market belief that if the yen weakens, one wants to own the Nikkei and obviously with an export orientation,” he told clients.
“But ... if the yen weakens because of new domestic fundamentals, and investors believe that this has a higher probability of working, then presumably there will be even bigger domestic Japanese equity plays to focus on.”
O‘Neill’s top picks still include China and Russia, at numbers two and three respectively. But he then sees Mediterranean sunshine in the form of Spain and Italy, part of the battered euro periphery which the European Central bank has vowed to underpin.
The ECB’s August pledge to intervene, and steady progress by euro governments in advancing tighter fiscal and banking union within the bloc have effectively removed the risk of a euro collapse, transforming these markets’ prospects.
While elections in Italy and Germany next year might give pause for thought, the ECB’s monetary support and backstop bond-buying program -- plus global recovery prospects and an easing of local fiscal drags -- are encouraging investors to return.
Italian stocks returned 10 percent this year, although that was only a third of German gains. Spanish shares just crept into the black.
More than half the fund managers polled by Reuters opted for European equities within the developed world, at least 50 percent of whom going for the beaten-down euro zone periphery.
Many also feel there’s juice left in the big government bond markets of Spain and Italy despite a recent rally. Over 50 percent of the 32 respondents in the Reuters poll opted for euro government bonds as their sovereign debt pick for 2013, with three quarters of them specifying Italy and Spain.
"European assets strike back," declared Societe Generale strategist Alain Bokobza and team, whose top trades for 2013 involve buying the EuroSTOXX 50 .STOXX50E against the U.S. S&P 500 .SPX and buying Spanish debt versus low-risk German bunds.
There’s always a wild card, usually for the very brave. As speculation grows of a market-friendly replacement for ailing populist President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s tiny stock market .IBC was the white-knuckle bet of 2012.
If you could even get in there, and skirt the risk of nationalization or even police raids on currency brokers, it would have tripled your money in dollar terms since January.
For the less adventurous traveler, local bourses in Turkey, Poland, Estonia and Germany made up the rest of this year’s Top Five, with hefty dollar gains of 38-60 percent.
If you prefer MSCI’s country benchmarks, Africa muscled its way onto the map with more than 50 percent gains in Kenya, Nigeria and Egypt. Electoral risk or the threat of political violence were clearly no deterrents this year.
Portuguese and Greek 10-year government bond returns of around 80 percent in 2012, were up there with the big speculative equity bets of the year as the ECB rode in.
Losses of 50-60 percent in politically volatile Ukraine showed what can happen when things go wrong in small troubled economies, however, as did similarly poor returns in Cyprus -- likely to become 2013’s first recipient of a euro zone bailout.
Additional reporting by Andy Bruce, Ingrid Melander, Alice Baghdian. Graphics by Vincent Flasseur; Editing by Catherine Evans