In France, Investors Get the Centrist Limbo They Wanted - Kanebridge News
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In France, Investors Get the Centrist Limbo They Wanted

Polarisation has for years left the country’s politics stuck in an unpopular middle ground, and the latest elections won’t change that

By JON SINDREU
Wed, Jul 10, 2024 9:42amGrey Clock 2 min

When it comes to France’s turbulent politics , the current impasse is probably the best investors could have hoped for.

The second round of French legislative elections delivered a widely expected hung parliament, but not its predicted makeup: Rather than coming in first, Marine Le Pen ’s far-right and anti-immigrant National Rally finished third. In a shock twist , the leftist New Popular Front alliance emerged victorious, with the party of President Emmanuel Macron and its allies in second place.

This is because leftists and centrists ended up coordinating. In many local races, candidates dropped out to avoid dividing the vote against the far right. Still, no party has an outright majority, which plunges the country into political gridlock. This was, counterintuitively, the preferred outcome for financial markets.

The CAC 40 initially tumbled when the elections were called in June, driven by fears of a potential National Rally government challenging the European Union with fiscally expansive plans. Then the French stock benchmark perked up, as the first-round results suggested that the far-right wouldn’t get a majority.

Yet markets remained volatile because the rise of the New Popular Front raised even greater concerns. The policies of this coalition, in which leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon is a key leader, also include more public spending, on top of widespread tax increases. Indeed, the CAC 40 closed down 0.6% Monday, probably reflecting investors’ concerns about these parties potentially managing to form a new government. Mélenchon has stated that there will be no deals with the centrists.

These worries seem overblown. Yes, there are doubts about how France will handle its budget deficit, which amounted to 5.5% of gross domestic product in 2023 and has forced the EU to launch an “excessive deficit procedure” against the country. Macron may need to accept the reversal of reforms such as a higher retirement age.

Still, a fiscal crisis isn’t in the cards, because the European Central Bank is ultimately in control of France’s bond market.

As for economic growth, it is unclear how much impact Macron’s policies have had in the first place, particularly given resistance from unions and swaths of the public, which resulted in the famous “yellow vest” protests in 2018 and 2020.

What matters for sectors battered in the stock market, including banks, energy firms and infrastructure operators, is that the risk of widespread tax increases, nationalisations and a prolonged standoff with Brussels seems smaller now than a few weeks ago. Whatever Mélenchon says, the left will either have to compromise or else form a minority government that might scare investors but wouldn’t be able to pass laws.

So there isn’t much justification for the lower valuation of lenders such as Société Générale and especially BNP Paribas —one of Europe’s most interesting banks that now trades at 0.65 times tangible book value. The same is likely true for firms such as energy utility Engie and infrastructure-concessions leader Vinci , which have lost 8% of their market value since the end of May.

These elections are more a symptom of Macron’s weakness than its cause. After a chaotic month, French politics is back where it has been for years, with a rising far right forcing the left to back a centrist platform that can achieve little because few people actually like it. Macron himself became president on an anti-Le Pen ticket, but in seven years has failed to rally broad support for his pro-business vision.

This could eventually make Le Pen’s victory inevitable, as she claimed after initial results came in. For now, though, it is more or less what markets ordered.



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The S&P 500 index has been crushing private-equity returns in the past year, and Blackstone ’s second-quarter results illustrate that trend.

As part of its earnings release early Thursday Blackstone said its corporate private-equity returns in the year ending in June were 11.3%. That compares with a 24.5% total return for the S&P 500.

In the prior year ending in June 2023, the S&P 500 topped Blackstone with a 19.4% return against 9.7% for the firm’s corporate private-equity business, which has $145 billion of assets and remains one of its most important areas along with real estate.

Blackstone is the leading alternatives firm with over $1 trillion in assets under management and has the largest market value of any public investment firm at more than $160 billion.

Driven by Nvidia , Microsoft , Apple , Amazon and other big technology stocks, the S&P 500 has handily topped most asset classes in the past several years.

Another sign of more difficult times for private equity came earlier this week from Calpers, the $503 billion California pension fund, when it reported it s preliminary returns for its fiscal year ending in June . Calpers is one of the first major endowments or pension funds to report results for the June fiscal year. undefined The pension fund, a major player in private equity, said its private-equity investments gained 10.9% net of fees—although that figure is lagged one quarter. Calpers’ public-equity investments were up 17.5% in the year ended June—its strongest asset class. Private equity remains a favorite of many pension funds and leading university endowments like those of Harvard and Yale. Their view is that private equity can beat public-market returns over the long term.

But the private-equity business has gotten tougher in recent years due to keen competition for deals, higher interest rates and a less receptive IPO market, which has made exits tougher.

And private-equity portfolios of firms like Blackstone look nothing like the S&P 500, given their investments in small to midsize companies.

Blackstone, for instance, bought a majority stake in Emerson’s climate technologies business last year and more recently purchased Tropical Smoothie, a franchiser of fast-casual cafes. It also holds a stake in Bumble, the publicly traded online dating site, and it’s an investor in actress Reese Witherspoon’s media company, Hello Sunshine. Blackstone’s corporate private-equity business runs $145 billion and has 82 investments, according to the firm’s website.

Blackstone’s private-equity business has strong long-term returns including a gain of over 50% in the year ended in June 2021 when it handily topped the S&P 500 index.

But the S&P 500 index has become difficult to beat more recently and it’s dominated by some of the best companies in the world. It carries less risk than private equity, given the cash-rich balance sheets of its leading companies like Apple , Microsoft and Alphabet .

Private-equity firms, by contrast, often use considerable leverage to boost returns. Investors can get exposure to the S&P 500 through index funds that charge 0.1% or less in annual fees and with immediate liquidity.

A key risk with the S&P 500 is its vulnerability to a selloff in the leading tech firms that now make up over 40% of the index. The recent rotation into smaller companies illustrates that.

Blackstone shares gained 1.1% to $136.31 Thursday in the wake of its earnings news as investors focused on rising investment deployments and positive management comments on the firm’s outlook.

The firm’s nearly $40 billion of inflows and $34 billion of capital deployment during the second quarter marked “the highest level of investment activity in two years,” Chief Executive Officer Stephen Schwarzman said in a statement.

Citi analyst Christopher Allen wrote in a note to clients on Thursday that while Blackstone’s overall performance was mixed, the outlook appears to be improving given fund-raising and deployment trends.

Investors also were heartened by Blackstone President Jon Gray’s comments about a bottoming in commercial real estate and strong capital deployment in that area.

But ultimately, the game for Blackstone and its alternatives peers is about performance—particularly beating low-fee public investments like the S&P 500. That seems to be getting more difficult.