Global Investing

China data: Lessons from Yongzheng

 Is China’s data reliable? With official figures showing the Chinese economy grew by 7.7 percent in the first quarter of 2013, a so-called slowdown or ‘soft patch’ in the Chinese economy has concerned some marketeers. Whether gross-domestic-product calculations involve macro data or micro data, the overall picture is not so clear, though some say a focus on regional numbers, cement, oil and gas usage would help complement official statistics. Kang Qu, assistant vice president of research at the Bank of China, said at a panel discussion earlier this week organised by the centre for the study of financial innovation, and supported by NowCasting, on calculating official Chinese data there is not so much government focus as in other countries on business confidence indicators but more on GDP prints, which are still under some doubt:
This is a reference when the People’s Bank of China makes big decisions.
Difficulty in collating accurate data is perhaps not so surprising, given the rapid urbanisation of the world’s second largest economy. Off-beat labour statistics (employing dissimilar methodology to the ILO) are partly skewed due to a large number of temporary registrants that slip the official statistics net. The solution? Jinny Lin at Standard Chartered, who thinks China’s real GDP level is more likely around 5.5 percent, suggested this could be taken from the history books. Emperor Yongzheng, China’s ruler in the late Qing dynasty, set up an independent body to look at data at the local level, and successfully stemmed tax evasion.

If local data is reliable enough, we should use local data.

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Source: Flikr creative commons

Problems are found at a local level too, however. While the current system sets local government officials’ bonuses for better GDP growth, there is no penalty for supplying incorrect data, neither are local government officials assessed on the jobs they create but via a points system. Instead local governments have ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ targets to attain, according to the panellists, some of which include environmental targets.

Then there is the issue of language. Some say data is more detailed in the Chinese language than in English, though official translations help bridge this gap. Quandaries remain, the resolution is still far from clear.

South African rand slides as labour unrest grows

The South African rand has lost most ground amongst emerging market currencies, according to Reuters data, falling almost 10 percent so far this year to hit 4-year lows against the dollar.

That is perhaps not so surprising given the country’s high level of dependence on the minerals and mining sectors, which have been disrupted by labour strikes along the same lines evident in the summer of 2012. Lonmin, the world’s third largest producer of metal, said it stopped its production of its Marikana mine near Rustenburg following strikes over wages.

 

Net commodity exports – Morgan Stanley and UNCTAD

With the metals and mining sectors accounting for 60 percent of South Africa’s exports, the strong relationship between these sectors and the rand is not surprising. A falling currency has a knock-on effect of facilitating inflation, especially as imports grew faster than exports for the first quarter of 2013. Meanwhile platinum prices have been in a gradual downwards trend since February.

Emerging European bonds: The music plays on

There seems to be no end to the rip-roaring bond rally across emerging Europe.  Yields on Turkish lira bonds fell to fresh record lows today after an interest rate cut and stand now more than a whole percentage point below where they started the year.

True, bonds from all classes of emerging market have benefited from the flood of money flowing from central banks in the United States, Europe and Japan, with over$20 billion flowing into EM debt funds since the start of 2013, according to EPFR Global. Flows for the first three months of 2013 equated to 12 percent of the funds’ assets under management.

But the effect has been most marked in emerging European local currency bonds — unsurprising, given economic growth here is weakest of all emerging markets and central banks have been the most pro-active in slashing interest rates.  Emerging European yields have fallen around 50 basis points since the start of the year, compared to a 20 bps average yield fall on the broader JPMorgan index of emerging local bonds, Thomson Reuters data shows.

Weekly Radar: Draghi returns to London

ECB chief Mario Draghi returns to London next week almost 10 months on from his seminal “whatever it takes” speech to the global financial community in The City  – a speech that not only drew a line under the euro financial crisis by flagging the ECB’s sovereign debt backstop OMT but one that framed the determination of the G4 central banks at large to reflate their economies via extraordinary monetary easing. Since then we’ve seen the Fed effectively commit to buying an addition trillion dollars of bonds this year to get the U.S. jobless rate down toward 6.5%, followed by the ‘shock-and-awe’ tactics of the new Japanese government and Bank of Japan to end decades.

And as Draghi returns 10 months on, there’s little doubt that he and his U.S. and Japanese peers have succeeded in convincing financial investors of central bank doggedness at least. Don’t fight the Fed and all that – or more pertinently, Don’t fight the Fed/BoJ/ECB/BoE/SNB etc… G4 stock markets are surging ever higher through the Spring of 2013 even as global economic data bumbles along disappointingly through its by now annual ‘soft patch’.  Looking at the number tallies, total returns for Spanish and Greek equities and euro zone bank stocks are up between 40 and 50% since Draghi’s showstopper last July . Italian, French and German equities and Spanish and Irish 10-year government bonds have all returned about 30% or more. And you can add 7% on to all that if you happened to be a Boston-based investor due to a windfall from the net jump in the euro/dollar exchange rate. What’s more all of those have outperformed the 25% gains in Wall St’s S&P 500 since then, even though the latter is powering to uncharted record highs. And of course all pale in comparison with the eye-popping 75% rise in Japan’s Nikkei 225 in just six months!! Gold, metals and oil are all net losers and this is significant in a money-printing story where no one seems to see higher inflation anymore.

But with both Fed and BoJ pushes getting some traction on underlying growth and the euro zone economy registering it’s 6th straight quarter of contraction in the first three months of 2013, maybe Draghi’s big task now is to convince people the ECB will do whatever it takes to support the 17-nation economy too and not only the single currency per se. Last year’s pledge may have been a necessary start to stabilise things but it has not yet been sufficient to solve the economic problems bequethed by the credit crisis.

Eastern European banks: good and bad

First, some good news – eastern European banks are relatively profitable. Austrian bank Raiffeisen, which is heavily involved in the region, published a report at the weekend which showed:

In terms of growth and profit, the banking sectors in the CEE (central and eastern Europe) region continue to outperform their Western European counterparts.

Real loan growth in the region’s banks, which includes Russia and Ukraine, was 21.8 percent between 2010 and 2012, Raiffeisen says, while euro zone banks’ real loan growth was negative over the same period.

Emerging markets to fuel airline spending trajectory

Emerging markets may not have all the technological know-how in civil aerospace, but from China across the world to Brazil, they do have the cash.

The civil aerospace sector performed well in 2013, according to Societe Generale data, trading at a 4 percent premium over the MSCI world index, while the defence sector has steadied, and in the medium to long term civil aerospace should be supported by strong orderbooks from emerging economies.

Research from PwC shows the global aviation industry is set to increase by 3.3 percent to 68 billion by 2022, driven by an increase in fleet size.

LIPPER-Toil triumphs over talent for ‘star’ fund managers

The tumult caused by Richard Buxton’s move from Schroders to Old Mutual in March highlighted the veneration of “star” fund managers, those select few who apparently rise above the crowd to shine their light upon adoring investors.

We don’t need to dwell on Buxton’s track record (annualised return on his UK Alpha Plus fund of 13.7 percent over 10 years), but combined with Mark Lyttleton’s departure from BlackRock – his own star rather faded of late – I am drawn to ponder the funds industry’s views of, and hunger for, stellar talent.

It is attractive, and reassuring even, to believe that the people running our money are blessed with some innate skill for playing the markets, but I recently had to re-consider my own views on natural talent when talking to Matthew Syed, now a journalist and author, but previously England’s number 1 table tennis player for a decade. A competitor at two Olympic Games and winner of three Commonwealth Gold medals, Syed has some experience of being praised for his apparent natural ability.

Weekly Radar: Watch the thought bubbles…

Far from the rules of the dusty old investment almanac, it’s up, up and away in May after all. And judging by the latest batch of economic data, markets may well have had good reason to look beyond the global economic ‘soft patch’ – with US employment, Chinese trade and even German and British industry data all coming in with positive surprises since last Friday. Is QE gaining traction at last?

Well, it’s still hard to tell yet in the real economy that continues to disappont overall. But what’s certain is that monetary easing is contagious and not about to stop in the foreseeable future – whether there’s signs of a growth stabilisation or not. With the Fed, BoJ and BoE still on full throttle and the ECB cutting interest rates again last week, monetary easing is fanning out across the emerging markets too. South Korea was the latest to surprise with a rate cut on Thursday, in part to keep a lid on its won currency after Japan’s effective maxi devaluation over the past six months. But Poland too cut rates on Wednesday. And emerging markets, which slipped into the red for the year in February, have at last moved back into the black – even if still far behind year-to-date gains in developed market equities of about 16%!

Not only have we got new records on Wall St and fresh multi-year highs in Europe and Japan, there’s little sign that either this weekend’s meeting in London of G7 finance chiefs or next weekend’s G20 sherpas gathering in Moscow will want to signal a shift  in the monetary stance. If anything, they may codify the recent tilt toward easier austerity deadlines in Europe and elsewhere. But inevitably talk of unintended consequences of QE and bubbles will build again now as both equity and debt markets race ahead , even if the truth is that asset managers have been remarkably defensive so far this year in asset, sector and geographical choices …  one can only guess at what might happen if they did actually start to get aggressive! Perhaps the next pause will have to come from the Fed thinking aloud again about the longevity of its QE programme — so best watch those thought bubbles!

It’s all adding up – emerging markets to drive global spending

The world’s leading ad agencies are positioning themselves  in Brazil, Russia and China — countries that are expected to provide almost a third of the growth in global advertising over the next three years. That’s according to a report by S&P Capital IQ Equity Research, a unit of publishing giant McGraw Hill.

Most major advertisers already have a foothold in these BRIC economies, where the advertising market is projected to grow by an average 10.7 percent  a year over the next three years — more than three times the growth rate in  the developed world.  Over the next 15 years,  big emerging markets will add $200 billion to the global ad spend, S&P Capital IQ reckons.

Hopes, unsurprisingly, are pinned on the soccer World Cup in 2014 and the 2016 Olympics, both hosted by Brazil. Russia hosts the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi and Football World cup in 2018 and both these events are expected to boost ad spending. The behemoths of the ad world have prepared for this, says Alex Wisch, an analyst at S&P Capital IQ:

Weekly Radar: May days or Pay days?

So, it’s May and time for the annual if temporary equity market selloff, right? Well, maybe – but only maybe.  A fresh weakening of the global economic pulse would certainly suggest so, but central banks have shown again they are not going to throw in the towel in the battle to reflate. The ECB’s interest rate cut today and last night’s insistence from the Fed that it’s as likely to step up money printing this year as wind it down are two cases in point. And we’re still awaiting the private investment flows from Japan following the BOJ’s latest aggressive easing there.

So where does that all leave us? A third of the way through 2013 and it’s been a good year so far for nearly all bulls – both western equity bulls and increasingly bond bulls too! Not only have developed world equities clocked up some 13 percent year-to-date (the S&P500 set yet another record high this week while Europe’s bluechips recorded a staggering 12th consecutive monthly gain in April) , but virtually all bond markets from junk bonds to Treasuries, euro peripherals to emerging markets are now back in the black for the year as a whole. For the most eyebrow-raising evidence, look no further than last week’s debut sovereign bond from Rwanda at less than 7 percent for 10 years or even newly-junked Slovenia’s ability this week to plough ahead with a syndicated bond sale reported to already be in the region of four times oversubscribed. For many people, that parallel rise in equity and bonds smells of a bubble somewhere. But before you cry “QEEEEE!” , take a look at commodities — the bulls there have been taken a bath all year as data on final global demand hits yet another ‘soft patch’ over the past couple of months.

So is this just an idiosyncratic random walk of asset markets (itself no bad thing after years of stress-riven hyper correlation) or can we explain all three asset directions together? One way to think of it is in terms of global inflation. If QE-related inflation fears have been grossly exaggerated then pressure to remove monetary stimulus or wanes again and there may even be arguments – certainly in Europe – for more. This would intuitively explain the renewed dash for bonds and fixed income in general even in the face of the still-plausible, if long term, “Great Rotation” idea. You could argue the monetary free-for-all is buoying equities regardless of demand concerns. But why wouldn’t commodities gain on that basis too?