One of the fun things about being a financial journalist is you get to sit in on some really interesting meetings with super-smart people.
I got the opportunity to sit down with a team of bank research analysts and equity salespeople at a top firm on Friday.
These guys cover financial stocks, providing short-term stock-specific coverage and big-picture “future of the industry” type reports.
They speak to clients pretty much every day, fielding questions on what is going on out there with financial stocks, so I asked them what their clients were asking them about most often.
Here is what they said, with a few suggestions for further reading:
The big question on investors' minds is where we are in the credit cycle, according to one of the analysts. The possibility that there might be a recession on the way is the talk of Wall Street.
The energy sector has already taken a hammering, with high-yield markets showing signs of stress and big banks taking provisions in the fourth quarter on their energy loans.
The question now is whether that stress will spill over to the wider economy. Corporate balance sheets look surprisingly weak, according to one of the analysts, who said leverage ratios had risen and interest-coverage ratios had fallen.
That might not be a problem if the economy rides out the recent market volatility, but if a recession were to arrive, it could spell trouble.
IOne of the analysts said he had a number of incoming calls asking about the possibility of a Brexit ― that is the UK leaving the European Union ― and the impact that might have.
Another said investors were asking about the banking sector in Italy. Italy just reached a 'bad bank' deal with European officials, allowing banks to offload bad loans, but there is still some concern over the likely success of the clean-up operation.
Another analyst said a key theme that is underappreciated at the moment is what is going on in Germany. Germany took in more than 1 million refugees in 2015, according to Reuters, testing Angela Merkel's popularity as chancellor. Forty percent of respondents to a recent poll said they wanted her to resign over her refugee policy.
That has wide-ranging consequences for Europe, as Merkel is regarded as a regional leader.
So yeah, a lot going on in Europe.
The Bank of Japan stunned financial markets on Friday, taking official interest rates into negative territory. The central bank announced that it will charge an interest rate of -0.1% for excess reserves parked at the bank by financial institutions.
That follows earlier decisions by the likes of Switzerland and Sweden to experiment with negative interest rates.
The question investors are asking, according to one of the analysts, is how central banks extricate themselves from that kind of policy, and what ammo they have left if things deteriorate from here.
'The central banks don't have much left in the toolbox,' one of the analysts said.
SURPRISE! The founder of the world's largest hedge fund thinks everyone is wrong on the Fed's next move
This is how a central bank could kill off cash with negative interest rates
FORMER FED PRESIDENT: 'The Federal Reserve is a giant weapon that has no ammunition left'
It seems barely a day goes by without a financial firm signalling an interest in blockchain, the protocol developed to underpin bitcoin.
In short, blockchain has the potential to reduce admin errors, costs, and settlement risk. For a slightly more detailed look at the potential for blockchain, I'd recommend reading this story by Oscar Williams-Grut.
Banks are currently signing up to industry consortia and filing blockchain-related patents, and blockchain-related startups are out there raising big sums of money.
According to one of the analysts, investors are trying to get a handle on how blockchain works and how it could change the economics of the financial industry.
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