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Mystery deepens on H2O bond trading

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H2O Asset Management has reported hundreds of millions of euros in new illiquid bond trades with a small wealth management firm that denies any involvement in the transactions.

Belgium’s Merit Capital has insisted it did not engage in any of the trades, which H2O recorded in September in the weeks after regulators forced it to suspend its flagship funds.

The disputed transactions are fuelling a clash between the two firms that has drawn scrutiny from regulators in three countries, threatening to cause further difficulty for a former star of European asset management.

A document seen by the FT shows that H2O, a subsidiary of French bank Natixis with €22bn under management, recorded more than €370m of new “buy and sell back” bond trades last month with Merit Capital listed as broker. Some of these transactions are dated after the FT reported Merit Capital’s chairman had denied trading these bonds with H2O.

Other documents show that H2O received trade confirmations — which validate that a transaction has happened — for these trades from a different broker, Shard Capital, a London-based business with close ties to controversial businessman Lars Windhorst.

H2O’s substantial investments in illiquid bonds linked to Mr Windhorst’s businesses prompted French regulators to force a six-week fund suspension on the firm, an unprecedented intervention that ended last week. 

In another document, Shard confirmed that it acted as a broker on these deals for an unnamed third party — which was not Merit Capital — and said it reported the transactions to UK regulators as “agency trades”.

Shard Capital told the FT that it “cannot comment on trades that H2O may or may not have undertaken with third parties”.

H2O declined to comment. Merit Capital did not respond to requests for comment.

The FT has reported a series of reporting anomalies relating to H2O trades over the past year.

The National Bank of Belgium is currently scrutinising H2O’s claimed transactions with Merit Capital, while another Belgian regulator has been reviewing investments by one of Merit Capital’s funds in bonds issued by Mr Windhorst’s businesses, according to several people familiar with the matter.

Three board members representing Merit Capital’s owner, Duet Group, resigned last week. “We resigned to ensure that [Merit’s] board can operate independently” said Amit Haria, Duet’s chief financial officer, who was among those who left the board.

He added that an inspection of Merit’s Capital’s records had not revealed any trades booked against H2O. 

However, H2O claims the trades are valid because of an agreement the Belgian firm apparently signed last year that allowed the transactions to take place, according to people familiar with the dispute.

Merit Capital announced last week that H2O had presented it with what it called a “framework agreement” that set out general bond trading terms.

However, Merit Capital’s chief executive Jan de Coninck said the firm disputed the validity of the document because its board had not previously seen or approved it and Merit Capital did not hold the required licence.

“We were convinced that the disclosures in H2O’s annual accounts were an error because on our side with H2O there is no agreement and there are no transactions”, Mr de Coninck said in a press release last week, adding that Merit Capital would “take legal action”.

After the FT revealed H2O’s significant exposure to bonds linked to Mr Windhorst last year, the asset manager said it had sold some of these securities. Last month it emerged this sale had never closed. H2O then entered into complex buy and sell back trades in a move that some commentators saw as an effort to make its balance sheet look less risky.

H2O’s auditor KPMG flagged that several of its funds breached counterparty risk limits because of these trades, which included transactions with Shard. H2O said in fund filings that it has taken “necessary measures since mid-October [2019] to limit the exposure” to Shard.

Following the fund suspension in August, H2O revealed that up to a third of its funds were invested in the illiquid securities linked to Mr Windhorst, which it has written down by 60 per cent.

Since the fund suspension ended last week, investors have withdrawn more than €400m from H2O’s most liquid funds.



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Oil hits highest price since April 2019 before moderating

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The price of crude oil briefly hit its highest level for more than two years on Monday, lifting shares in energy companies, as traders banked on strong demand from the rebounding manufacturing and travel industries.

Brent crude crossed $75 a barrel for the first time since April 2019 before falling back slightly, while energy shares were the top performers on an otherwise lacklustre Stoxx Europe 600 index, gaining 0.7 per cent.

The international oil benchmark has risen around 50 per cent this year, underscoring strong demand ahead of next week’s meeting of the Opec+ group of oil-producing nations.

US manufacturing activity expanded at a record rate in May, according to a purchasing managers’ index produced by IHS Markit. Air travel in the EU has reached almost 50 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, ahead of the July 1 introduction of passes that will allow vaccinated or Covid-negative people to move freely.

“This is a higher consuming part of the year,” said Pictet multi-asset investment manager Shaniel Ramjee, referring to the summer travel season. “And the oil market is pricing in strong near-term demand that is better than previous expectations.”

In stock markets, the Stoxx Europe 600 dipped 0.3 per cent while futures markets signalled Wall Street’s S&P 500 share index would add 0.1 per cent at the New York opening bell.

The yield on the 10-year US Treasury was steady at 1.494 per cent. Germany’s equivalent Bund yield gained 0.02 percentage points to minus 0.154 per cent.

Equity and bond markets have consolidated after an erratic few sessions since US central bank officials last week put out forecasts indicating the first post-pandemic interest rate rise might come in 2023, a year earlier than previously thought.

US shares tumbled last week, while government bonds rallied, on fears of tighter monetary policy derailing the global economic recovery.

Wall Street equities then bounced back on Monday, with a follow-on rally in some Asian markets on Tuesday, as sentiment got a boost from more dovish commentary from Fed officials.

Fed chair Jay Powell, in prepared remarks ahead of congressional testimony later on Tuesday said the central bank “will do everything we can to support the economy for as long as it takes to complete the recovery”.

John Williams, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, also said that the US economy was not ready yet for the central bank to start pulling back its hefty monetary support.

Jean Boivin, head of the BlackRock Investment Institute, said that “the Fed’s new outlook will not translate into significantly higher policy rates any time soon”.

“We may see bouts of market volatility . . . but we advocate staying invested and looking through any turbulence,” Boivin added.

The dollar index, which measures the greenback against trading partners’ currencies and has been boosted by expectations of US interest rates moving higher before other major central banks take action, was steady at around a two-month high.

The euro dipped 0.1 per cent against the dollar to purchase $1.1901, around its lowest level since early April. Sterling also lost 0.1 per cent to $1.3909.



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Wall Street rebounds as markets adjust to Fed rate rise outlook

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Wall Street stocks bounced back and government bonds softened on Monday following tumultuous moves last week after the Federal Reserve took a hawkish shift on interest rates and inflation.

The S&P 500 added 1.2 per cent in early New York dealings. The share index’s resurgence came after it posted its worst performance in almost four months last week in the wake of Fed officials signalling the central bank could raise rates to tame inflation sooner than investors had expected.

The yield on the benchmark 10-year US Treasury bond dropped sharply last week as investors viewed the Fed as ready to control surges in inflation that erode the returns from fixed interest securities. On Monday it rose 0.02 percentage points to 1.472 per cent.

Fed policymakers on Wednesday projected that interest rates would rise from record-low levels in 2023, from their earlier median forecast of 2024. James Bullard, president of the St Louis Fed, told television network CNBC on Friday that the first rate increase could come as soon as next year as inflation grew.

However, Gregory Perdon, co-chief investment officer at private bank Arbuthnot Latham, urged caution. “The facts are that the Fed hasn’t done anything yet. Wall Street loves to climb the wall of worry.”

Fed officials’ statements last week prompted fears of rapid policy tightening by the world’s most powerful central bank that could derail the global economic recovery from Covid-19. Investors also backed out of so-called reflation trades, which had involved selling government bonds and buying shares in companies that benefit from economic growth, such as materials producers and banks.

On Monday, however, energy, basic materials and banking stocks were the best performers on the S&P 500. The technology-focused Nasdaq Composite index was also up, gaining 0.7 per cent in early dealings.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller US companies, whose fortunes are viewed as pegged to economic growth, gained 1.7 per cent. Europe’s Stoxx 600 share index rose 0.7 per cent, with materials stocks at the top of its leaderboard.

The yield on the 30-year Treasury briefly fell below 2 per cent on Monday morning for the first time since February 2020 before bouncing back to 2.065 per cent.

Investors last week had taken profits on reflation trades that had become “crowded” and “expensive”, said Salman Baig, portfolio manager at Unigestion.

Baig added that, following the initial shocks after the Fed meeting, markets would probably return to betting on “a cyclical recovery as economies reopen”.

Other analysts said the bond market reaction had been too pessimistic, predicting a broad-based economic slowdown in response to Fed rate increases that had not happened yet.

The fall in long-term yields “is only justified if the Fed is making a policy error, choking the economy”, said Peter Chatwell, head of multi-asset strategy at Mizuho. “We think this is far from the truth — the Fed has simply sought to prevent inflation expectations from de-anchoring.”

Elsewhere in markets, the dollar index, which measures the greenback against other major currencies, dropped 0.3 per cent after gaining almost 2 per cent last week.

Brent crude, the international oil benchmark, rose 0.9 per cent to $74.18 a barrel.

Additional reporting by Tommy Stubbington in London

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Saudis agree oil deal with Pakistan to counter Iran influence

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Saudi Arabia has agreed to restart oil aid to Pakistan worth at least $1.5bn annually in July, according to officials in Islamabad, as Riyadh works to counter Iran’s influence in the region.

Riyadh demanded that Pakistan repay a $3bn loan last year after Islamabad pressured Saudi Arabia to criticise India’s nullification of Kashmir’s special status.

But the acrimony between the two longtime allies has eased after Imran Khan, the prime minister, met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in May.

News of the oil deal with Pakistan comes as Saudi Arabia embarks on a diplomatic push with the US and Qatar to build a front against Iran, said analysts. Riyadh lifted a three-year blockade of Qatar in January in what experts said was an attempt to curry favour with the newly elected Joe Biden.

Pakistan had shifted closer to Saudi Arabia’s regional rivals Iran and Turkey, which, along with Malaysia, have sought to establish a Muslim bloc to rival the Saudi-led Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

Khan has developed a strong rapport with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, encouraging Pakistanis to watch the Turkish historical television series Dirilis Ertugrul (Ertugrul’s Resurrection) for its depiction of Islamic values.

Ali Shihabi, a Saudi commentator familiar with the leadership’s thinking, said that “bad blood” had accumulated between Riyadh and Islamabad, but recent bilateral meetings had “cleared the air” and reset relations to the extent that oil credit payments would restart soon.

A senior Pakistan government official said: “Our relations with Saudi Arabia have recovered from [a downturn] earlier. Saudi Arabia’s support will come through deferred payments [on oil] and the Saudis are looking to resume their investment plans in Pakistan.”

The Saudi offer is less than half of the previous oil facility of $3.4bn, which was put on hold when ties frayed.

But Fahad Rauf, head of equity research at Ismail Iqbal Securities in Karachi, said: “Any amount of dollars helps because time and again we face a current account crisis. And with these prices north of $70 a barrel anything helps.”

Pakistan’s foreign reserves were more than $16bn in June compared with about $7bn in 2019 before it entered its $6bn IMF programme.

Robin Mills at consultancy Qamar Energy said: “Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are allies, but their relationship has always been rocky. And the Pakistan-Iran relationship is better than you might think.”

Mills said that the timing of the Saudi gesture was “interesting” given that Iran was preparing to step up oil exports with the US considering easing sanctions.

“The Saudis are on a bridge-building mission more generally. They have sought to mend fences with the US and there is also the resumption of relations with Qatar,” he said.

Ahmed Rashid, an author of books on Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Taliban, said that there were a variety of factors that might have spurred Riyadh to restart the oil facility.

It may be “partially linked to the American need for bases” to launch counter-terrorism attacks in Afghanistan from Pakistan, he said, but added that its priority was probably to prevent Islamabad from falling under Tehran’s influence.

Rashid pointed out that Pakistan was caught between China, which has invested billions of dollars in infrastructure projects, and the US.

“Pakistan has to play it carefully, it is dependent on China for the Belt and Road, dependent on the west for loans,” said Rashi. “This is a very complex game.”

Anjli Raval in London and Simeon Kerr in Dubai



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