Global Investing

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.

And the dollar move is just starting to play out big in emerging markets, where emerging market currencies are on the back foot everywhere from Turkey to South Africa, South Korea and others. The reaction so far as been to lift local stock markets on potential exporter relief but a big question moving ahead is to what extent persistent exchange rate weakness will start to deter or even reverse foreign investment flows.

Next week is a busy if mixed bag – a heavy G7 data slate, with Japan a focus; rate decisions in Brazil, Thailand, Hungary and Canada, US Treasury and JGB debt auctions, EU flash inflation and jobless reports, and China’s Premier visiting Germany.

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.

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.

photo

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.