Global Investing

South Africa’s perfect storm

Of all the emerging currency and bond markets that are feeling the heat from the dollar’s rise, none is suffering more than South Africa. A series of horrific economic data prints at home, the prospect of more labour unrest and the slump in metals prices are making this a perfect storm for the country’s financial markets.

Some worrying data from the Johannesburg Stock Exchange this morning shows that foreigners sold almost 5 billion rand (more than $500 million) worth of bonds during yesterday’s session alone. Over the past 10 days, non-resident selling amounted to 10.7 billion rand. They have also yanked out 1.2 billion rand from South African equities in this time. And at the root of this exodus lies the rand, which has fallen almost 15 percent against the dollar this year. Now apparently headed for the 10-per-dollar mark, the rand’s weakness has eaten into investors’ total return, tipping it into negative return for the year.

What a contrast with last year, when a record 93 billion rand flooded into the country on the back of its inclusion in Citi’s prestigious WGBI bond index.  That lifted foreign holdings of South African bonds to well over a third of the total. Investors at the time were more willing to turn a blind eye to the rand’s lacklustre performance, liking its relatively high yield and betting on interest rate cuts to help the duration component of the trade.

As we wrote earlier this ye ar, the majority of these bond purchases by foreigners were made when the rand was much firmer. Even allowing for substantial currency hedging, calculations by UBS show that the currency is now well under levels at which longer-term bond returns would be in the red. The same likely applies to equity investments too –  in dollar terms South African stocks have lost over 13 percent, among this year’s worst performing emerging markets.

Policymakers may have turned a blind eye to the rand’s falls over the past year,  reckoning on a net gain from a weak currency  to the export-reliant economy. But further weakness leading to a foreign investor exodus will quickly change the equation for South Africa, which has a current account deficit to finance, running at around 6.5 percent at present.

Hedge fund boss Baha sees gold at $3,000-$5,000

Christian Baha, the head of Austrian fund firm Superfund and representative of the hedge fund industry in Oliver Stone movie Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, is predicting that the gold price could rise to between $3,000 and $5,000 over the next five to 10 years.

Baha, who says he has more than half his personal wealth in gold and silver, either physically or in units in Superfund funds denominated in the precious metals, believes that an unprecedented phase of quantitative easing by central banks is driving a bubble in government bonds, but that gold offers real value.

“Do you think paper money has any intrinsic value? I don’t believe so. Gold has real value,” Baha said in a recent interview.

Not all emerging currencies are equal

The received wisdom is dollar strength = weaker emerging market currencies. See here for my colleague Mike Dolan’s take on this. But as Mike’s article does point out, all emerging markets are not equal. It follows therefore that any waves of dollar strength and higher U.S. yields will hit them to varying degrees.

ING Bank says in a note sent to clients on Tuesday that emerging currency gains in recent years have been closely tied to foreign investments into domestic bond markets. Recent years have seen a torrent of inflows into local debt, driving down yields on the main GBI-EM index and significantly boosting its market value. Hence, it makes sense to examine how the GBI-EM’s biggest constituents might fare under a scenario of a surging dollar and Treasury yields (In the two years before a Fed tightening cycle commences, 5-year Treasury yields can trade 120-150 basis points higher, ING analysts point out).

In almost every one of the emerging markets examined by ING, spreads over U.S. Treasuries have tightened dramatically since the start of 2012. Ergo, they are vulnerable to correction.

Emerging corporate debt: still booming

The corporate bond juggernaut continues apace in emerging markets.

In a note at the end of last week, analysts at Bank of America/Merrill Lynch estimated that companies from the developing world have sold debt worth $179 billion already this year. Originally, the bank had forecast $268 billion in corporate debt issuance in 2013, a touch below last year’s $290 billion but it is finding itself, like many others, marking up its estimates.

Oleg Melentyev,  credit strategist at BofA/Merrill, writes that recent bumper bond sales imply quarterly issuance is running at 10-11 percent of market size, well above the past average. Melentyev points out that the first 4.5 months of the year tend to account for 35 percent of full-year total debt sales by EM companies.  If this formula were applied now,  it would imply total 2013 new debt issuance at $420 billion.

For now, however, the bank expects $316 billion in full year corporate issuance from EM, with Asia accounting for $126 billion of this.

Turkey’s (investment grade)bond market

We wrote here yesterday on how Turkish hard currency bonds have been given the nod to join some Barclays global indices as a result of the country’s elevation to investment grade. Turkish dollar bonds will also move to the Investment grade sub-index of JPMorgan’s flagship EMBI Global on June 28.

Local lira debt meanwhile will enter JPM’s GBI-EM Global Diversified IG 15 percent Cap Index —  the top-tier of the bank’s GBI-EM index. But the big prize, an invitation into Citi’s mega World Government Bond Index, is still some way off. Requiring a still higher credit rating, WGBI membership is an honour that has been accorded to only four emerging markets so far.

Still, the Turkish Treasury is not complaining.  Even before last week’s upgrade to investment grade by Moody’s, it was borrowing from the lira bond market at record cheap levels of around 5 percent for two-year cash. Ten-year yields are down half a percentage point this year. One reason of course is the gush of liquidity from Western central banks. But most funds (at least those who were allowed to do so) had not waited for the Moody’s signal before buying Turkish bonds. So the bond market was already trading Turkey as investment grade.

Weekly Radar: Central banks try to regain some control

Central banks may be regaining some two-way control over global markets that had started to behave like a one-way bet. After flagging some unease earlier this month that frothy markets were assuming endless QE, the Fed and others look to be responding with at least some frank reality checks even if little new in the substance of their message. In truth, there may be no real change in the likely timing of QE’s end, or even the beginning of its end, but the size of the stock and bond market pullbacks on Wednesday and Thursday shows how sensitive they now are to the ebb and flow of central bank guidance on that score.  Although the 7% drop in Japan’s stock market looks alarming – Fed chief Bernanke actually played it fairly straight, signalling no imminent change and putting any possible wind down over the “next few meetings” still heavily conditional on a much lower jobless rate and higher inflation rate. The control he gains from here is an ability to nuance that message either way if either the data disappoints or markets get out of hand.

The central banks are clearly treading a fine line between getting traction in the real economy and not blowing new financial bubbles. The decider may be inflation and on that score central banks have a lot of leeway right now – global inflation is still evaporating and, as measured by JPM, fell in April to just 2.0% – its lowest in 3-1/2 years.  That said, CPI was also very well behaved in the run-up to 2007 credit crisis – it was asset prices and not consumer inflation that caused the problem. So – expect to hear plenty more cat-and-mouse on this from the central banks over the coming weeks/months.

For investors, periodic pullbacks from here are justified and likely sensible. But it’s still hard to argue against a wholesale change of behaviour – which is merely to assume central banks will prevent further growth shocks but will take some time to transform persistently sluggish growth into anything like a sustained inflation-fueling expansion . As a result, funds will likely steer clear of “safe” havens of cash, gold, Swiss franc and yen despite this bounce and continue their migration to income everywhere, with a bias to relative growth stories within that and an exchange rate tilt according to the likely sequencing of QE exit– all of which points to the U.S. dollar if not its stock markets. And for many that may just mean repariation or staying at home –the US is still the homebase for two thirds of the world’s institutional funds, or some $55 trillion of savings.

Paid for the risk? Egypt’s tempting pound

Surprising as it may seem, the Egyptian pound has got some fans.  The currency has languished for months at record lows against the dollar and the headlines are alarming — the lack of an IMF aid programme, meagre hard currency reserves, political upheaval. So what’s to like ?

Analysts at Societe Generale say that just looking at the spot exchange rate of the pound is missing the bigger picture. Instead, they advise buying 12-month non-deliverable forwards on the pound — essentially a way of locking into a fixed rate for pound against the dollar in a year’s time depending on where you think it may actually trade. They write:

The implicit yield at this point is 21 percent for the 12m NDF, which we think is quite attractive. The way to think about Egypt NDFs is to approach them as a distressed asset. The risk/reward is quite attractive, and a lot of the bad news has been priced in. Yes, there have been serious delays in the programme negotiations with the IMF and that has clearly been a negative for the overall country view, but I would like to point out that the actual 12m NDF level has hardly budged in the process. This to me suggests that the valuation looks particularly good.

The only game in town

The extent of the surge to Japan by equity investors is written in sparkly 50-foot-high neon letters by the latest flows data out from Lipper.

We all know that Abenomics has, thus far, cast a spell over markets; the Nikkei is up about 80 percent since the middle of November, when Shinzo Abe first started looking like a bona fide challenger to win power. But it is still startling to see how flows into Japan have dominated investment behaviour.

In April alone, Japan equity funds and ETFs accounted for $9.1 billion of net inflows in a month when total net inflows across all sectors was just $9.9 billion. The money pouring into the Tokyo markets was also more than three times greater than the net inflows at the next best sector. Add the Japan Small and Midcaps sector as well as Asia Pacific funds (heavily weighted to Japan) and April net inflows inspired by the BOJs aggressive monetary policy easing reach $11.2 billion.

Want a better rating? Dig for oil

Middle East countries which are energy exporters have better investment ratings than  oil importers in the region, Fitch says, and that gap is widening.

Paul Gamble, director in the sovereigns group at Fitch, told a briefing this week that the ratings gap has never been bigger and that:

If you look at the outlooks, it has the potential to widen further.

The energy exporters – Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Ras Al-Khaimah – all are rated investment grade by Fitch. Saudi Arabi’s rating has a positive outlook while the others have at least a stable outlook.  Of the energy importers, meanwhile, two are on negative outlook – Egypt and Tunisia – while Morocco, Israel and Lebanon are stable. Only Israel and Morocco are investment grade.

Turkey: investment grade, peace and FDI?

Turkey’s elevation to investment grade last week may or may not be a game changer for its stock and bond markets, but the country is really hoping for a boost to FDI – bricks-and-mortar foreign direct investment  into manufacturing or power generation. Its peace process with Kurdish separatists should help.

Speaking last week at Mitsubishi-UFJ’s annual Turkey conference, Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek cited data showing an average 2 percentage-point pick-up in FDI in the two years immediately after a country moves into investment grade.

Sticky, job-creating and not prone to sudden flight, FDI is the kind of investment that Turkey, with a massive balance of payments deficit, desperately needs. Turkey does worse than most other countries on the FDI front.  Its combined deficit of the current account and net FDI is around 5 percent, Commerzbank analysts note –  wider than most emerging market peers.