Investor sangfroid melts in face of French presidential elections

Euro volatility insurance costs jump as French vote nears

Investors have exuded sangfroid about the French presidential election, largely ignoring the risk of Marine Le Pen's far-right Front National (FN) riding on the populist wave that propelled Brexiters and Donald Trump to victory in the UK and US.

Such market composure always seemed too good to be true, and this week it showed signs of cracking.

As the first round of election on April 23rd nears, the cost of insuring against a volatile swing in the euro has jumped. One-month options contracts on the euro-dollar pair have risen to their highest level since the fortnight before the Brexit vote.

The tendency ahead of a serious political risk is to see “a lot more hedging activity in the two preceding weeks”, said Alberto Gallo, head of macro strategies at Algebris Investments. It was the case in the run-up to Brexit and the US election, and it began on Monday, less than a fortnight before the first round vote.


Opinion polls

While the French election was always going to be the standout event of the second quarter, April began with opinion polls throwing up one election outcome investors had not considered.

This was the prospect that Le Pen could end up in a second-round run-off against far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. A seasoned politician with a contempt for the European Union and its currency to match that of the FN leader, and a policy to impose a 100 per cent tax rate on top earners, he has gained altitude in opinion polls.

The polls continue to point to a second-round run-off between Le Pen and the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, and for Macron to then prevail

At this juncture, the polls continue to point to a second-round run-off between Le Pen and the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, and for Macron to then prevail.

Still, as Nomura forex strategist Jordan Rochester pointed out: "Just because the polls have been stable for Macron and Le Pen for some time we would not assume it will be the same for the last few weeks."

Mélenchon’s surge underlines the fluctuating mood of the French electorate. Polls also suggest that Macron’s support is soft. “The Le Pen/Mélenchon market uncertainty is rising,” said Rochester.

Contained fall

There is, however, considerably more volatility in the euro options market than in spot currency trading. Even though the euro has been declining in recent weeks, the fall has been relatively contained.

The euro has sagged 2.3 per cent against the dollar in the past 11 days, and 5 per cent against the yen in three weeks, a renowned haven currency and thus a proxy of French election risk. Selling of French bonds illustrates further evidence of the market’s election jitters. French 10-year yields have risen to a six-week peak over their German equivalent.

“The euro has been pretty resilient,” said Gallo. Indeed, euro-zone data make it tempting for strategists to look through the French elections to a period when the euro can rally, rates and inflation can go higher and European equities can bounce.

Market rebound

According to Patrick Zweifel, chief economist at Pictet Asset Management, if there is investor risk from the election it points in the direction of a strong market rebound should France choose an establishment candidate such as Macron or the centre-right's François Fillon.

“That would be extremely positive,” he said, with one eye on strong euro-zone growth and another on the election of either of these candidates setting France on the path of structural reform.

“Is the market going to acknowledge that by the end of May? Probably not,” said Zweifel. “But the risk is more tilted to the upside than the downside.”

There is the danger that the French election, and concern about the popularity of the anti-EU Five Star Movement in Italy, will distract investor attention from underlying risks elsewhere.

Market fears are too high in Europe and not high enough in the UK and the US, said Mr Gallo – perhaps a reflection of the Anglo-American nature of capital, he suggests.

“The market’s favourite hobby is to worry about France and Italy. Yet there is no strategy for a post-Brexit economy and there is a risk that Trump’s domestic agenda may be further delayed,” he said.

Polling error

According to Willem Verhagen, senior economist at the Dutch-based NN Investment Partners, Brexit was “a one-off event with no comparable benchmark”, while Mr Trump’s victory was the result of the peculiarities of the electoral college, whereas the French election is a “more straightforward” political risk.

Although Le Pen is polling well, the Front National has been around for many years, “so that makes me feel there is less risk from a polling error than with Brexit or the US election”.

There is another difference. Since the French election is spread over two rounds and two weeks, investors will have the opportunity to reassess their options when the campaign narrows to the second round run-off.

A better than expected first-round showing by Le Pen should increase hedging activity when markets reopen on April 24th. “But if she does not, then it becomes very expensive to hold a hedge for a low probability outcome,” said Gallo.

The French election will have investors poring over polling numbers for a good few weeks yet. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017)