Global Investing

Weekly Radar: Cyprus hogs the headlines but contagion fears limited

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Cyprus has hogged the headlines since Friday, with bank closures now extended to a full week as they try to sort out a very messy bailout - made worse by domestic policy missteps over taxing bank deposits. As with Italy’s elections, the saga certainly challenges any market assumption that the euro crisis had abated for good and it’s also loaded with a series of potential precedents – not least the biggest taboo of them all, a euro exit. This is where the politics, brinkmanship and smoke-filled-rooms come in.  Yet as Cyprus is so small and its banks in such a peculiar setup – given the scale of Russian and other foreign depositors – the euro group, ECB and IMF appear determined not to be pressured into a bailout above the already gigantic 60 percent of GDP.

And, as with Greece last year, they will likely stand firm and leave any decision to exit up to the Cypriots themselves. You can’t rule out that they may choose to go and regional risks rise somewhat as a result. But if the islanders are genuinely worried about a 6-10% tax on deposits, they may also think long and hard about the chance those deposits would be redenominated into a heavily devalued Cypriot pound. Just ask the Argentinians what that feels like. A deposit haircut may seem a like a half-decent deal by comparison if some other mix of Russian loans, pension raids or securitised future gas revenues doesn’t stack up.

So, the small scale of Cyprus, a lack of direct systemic banking or sovereign debt linkages and the likelihood of some sort of political deal eventually emerging have all served to limit the fallout from the drama on world markets – rightly or wrongly.   World equities have been knocked back a bit, but remain up 5.75% year-to-date. The VIX popped higher, but remains super-low under 13%. Italian stocks are back to where they were on Friday afternoon, while the more telling Italian and Spanish 10-yr bond yields have even nudged lower. A successful Spanish government bond auction on Thursday, where yields across all maturities fell from the previous auctions in February, showed just how limited any Cyprus contagion has been so far at least.

So, unjustifiably complacent? Perhaps – there are certainly lots of bogeymen in this story. But let’s be clear about the “shock factor”. Back on Jan 1, the year kicked off with several “known knowns” ahead that everybody already knew would be messy – the US fiscal cliff, the Italian elections and the Cyprus bailout. And they all proved exactly that – messy. But few investors anywhere could claim to have not been braced for these. To be sure, all could blow up into something worse still, but none yet amounts to an investment ‘game changer’. Radars are up, however, and funds polled by BoAMerrill reckon the euro crisis has moved back to the top of their list of tail risks for the first time since August. We shall see if they continue to hold their nerve as the first quarter closes next week. More worrying for investors in Europe has been the continued funk in business sentiment in March and the Cyprus ructions won’t have helped that much since. Patience in waiting for some broad-based European economic recovery may be more limited than the seeming tolerance of  noisy Cyprus bailout. 

Using sterling to buy emerging markets

Sterling looks likely to be one of this year’s big G10 currency casualties (the other being  yen).  Having lost 7 percent against the dollar and 5.5 percent to the euro so far this year on fear of a British triple-dip recession, sterling probably has further to fall.  (see here for my colleague Anirban Nag’s take on sterling’s outlook).

Many see an opportunity here — as a convenient funding currency to invest in emerging markets. A funding currency requires low interest rates that can bankroll purchases of higher-yielding assets including stocks, other currencies, bonds and commodities. Sterling ticks those boxes.  A funding  currency must also not be subject to any appreciation risk for the duration of the trade. And here too, sterling appears to win, as the Bank of England’s remit widens to give it more leeway on monetary easing.

All in all, it’s a better option than the U.S. dollar, which was most used in recent years, or the pre-crisis favourite of the Swiss franc, says Bernd Berg, head of emerging FX strategy at Credit Suisse Private Bank.

Cyprus: don’t line up the dominoes

By Stephen Eisenhammer

Over the past few years we’ve become used to the global economy resting on a knife-edge. So when dramatic events like the levy on bank deposits in Cyprus happen we wait for the dominoes to fall. Two days on we’re still waiting…

The recovery in the euro zone, so vital to Europe’s emerging markets,  is undoubtedly fragile but the incident in Cyprus doesn’t seem to be enough to knock it all down now that the European Central Bank seems willing to step in if borrowing rates go to high.

Overall, this should not be read as a game-changer for the global markets but more as background noise creating indeed some volatility, on top of the uncertainty created after the Italian elections - Societe Generale.

Junk-rated EM sovereigns — so last year

With rising U.S. Treasury yields posing a threat to emerging debt.  JP Morgan is now advising investors to cut holdings of sovereign dollar bonds to marketweight from overweight. And it suggests doing that by reducing exposure to the riskiest (and usually the highest-yielding) emerging markets, listed on its NEXGEM sub-index.

These bonds, with high yields and low credit ratings, basked in the glow of investor appetite last year when U.S. and German bonds were yielding next to zero and the  euro zone looked in danger of falling apart. Emerging debt issuance last year topped $300 billion while junk credits such as Zambia and Guatemala saw massive demand for their debut bond sales.   (Sales of junk-rated corporate bonds likewise boomed in the yield-seeking frenzy).

But with frontier markets now accounting for more than 75 percent of net new sovereign issuance, some jitters could be growing. Even Angola, which issued a private placement last year, is now in JPM’s  EMBI Global index , though analysts think a recent private placement from Tanzania may not make it. Crucially, returns on emerging dollar bonds are among the worst of major asset classes this year at minus 2 percent (compare that to 9 percent gains on the S&P500)

Weekly Radar: Dollar building steam?

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       The revved-up U.S. dollar – whose trade-weighted index is now up almost 5 percent in just six weeks – could well develop into one of the financial market stories of the year as the cyclical jump the United States has over the rest of G10 combines with growing attention being paid to the country’s potential “re-industrialisation”. As with all things FX, there’s a zillion ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ to the argument. Chief among them is many people’s assumption the Fed will be printing greenbacks well after this expansion takes hold as it targets a much lower jobless rate. Others doubt the much-vaunted return of the US Inc. back down the value chain into metal-bashing and manufacturing, while some feel the cheaper energy from the shale revolution and the lower structural trade deficits that promises will be short-lived as others catch up. However, with the dollar already super competitive (it’s down 30-40 percent on the Fed’s inflation-adjusted index over the past 10 years) the first set of arguments are more tempting. Even if you see the merits in both sides, the bull case clearly has not yet been discounted and may have further to go just to match the balance of risks.  With Fed printing presses still on full throttle, this has been a slow burner to date and it may be a while yet before it gets up a head of steam — many feel it’s still more of a 2nd half of 2013 story and the dollar index needs to get above last year’s highs to get people excited. But if it does keep motoring, it has a potentially dramatic impact on the investment landscape and not necessarily a benign one, even if shifting correlations and the broader macro landscape show this is not the ‘stress trade’ of the short-lived dollar bounces of the past five years.

Commodities priced in dollars could well feel the heat from a steady dollar uptrend. And if gold’s spiral higher over the past six years has been in part due to the “dollar debasement” trade, then its recent sharp retreat may be less puzzling . Emerging market currencies pegged to the dollar will also feel the pressure as well as countries and companies who’ve borrowed heavily in greenbacks. The prospect of a higher dollar also has a major impact on domestic US investors willingness to go overseas, casting questions on countries with big current account gaps. As the dominant world reserve currency, a rising dollar effectively tightens financial conditions for everyone else and we’ve been used to a weakening one for a very long time.

Abenomics rally: bubble or trend?

“Abenomics” is the buzzword in Japan these days — it refers to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s aggressive reflationary fiscal and monetary policies that triggered the yen’s 10 percent decline against the dollar and 17 percent rally in Tokyo stocks this year.

So it’s no wonder that the Japanese mutual fund market, the second largest in Asia-Pacific, enjoyed the largest monthly inflows in almost six years last month, raking in as much as $11 billion.

With all that new money coming in, will you be late to the game if you haven’t gone in already?

Turning water into gold in China

By Stephen Eisenhammer

Rivers of gold? Maybe not, but there can be money to be made in Chinese water systems.

With the world’s largest population rapidly moving from the countryside to the city, Chinese water supplies are becoming horribly polluted and the companies wading in to clean and purify them are set to benefit.

Investors are taking an interest in water cleaning companies which are supported by the Chinese government as the country attempts to avoid a dawning crisis.

Here comes the real

Inflation is finally biting Brazilian policymakers. The real strengthened around 1.5 percent last week without triggering the usual shrill outcries from government ministers. Nor did the central bank intervene in the currency market even though the real is the best performing emerging currency this year. The bank in fact shifted towards a more hawkish policy stance during its March meeting, a move that seems to have had the blessing of the government.

Friday’s data showed the benchmark consumer price index, IPCA,   up 0.6 percent for a year-on-year inflation rate of 6.31 percent. President Dilma Rousseff, who faces elections next year, took to the airwaves soon after to reassure voters about her commitment to taming inflation, announcing a series of tax cuts. That effectively is a signal that there is now no political constraint on raising interest rates. According to the political risk consultancy, Eurasia:

If the government doesn’t enact measures during the first half of this year to anchor inflationary expectations, Rousseff would run one of two risks. She would either run the risk of inflation starting to eat into the disposable income of families in a manner that could hurt her politically, or relatedly, put the central bank in a position of having to raise interest rates more aggressively later in the year to control inflation with more negative repercussions to growth.

Emerging Policy-”Full stop” in Poland but a start in Mexico?

An action-packed week for emerging monetary policy.

First we had Poland stunning markets with a half-point rate cut when only 25 bps was priced. Governor Marek Belka said the double-cut marked a “full stop”  after several cuts.  Then came Brazil which kept rates on hold at 7.25 but turned hawkish after spending over 18 months in dovish mode. (Rates stayed on hold in Indonesia and Malaysia).

In Brazil, it was high time. Inflation and inflation expectations have been rising for a while, the yield curve has been steepening and anxiety has grown, not only about the central bank”s commitment to controlling inflation but also about its independence.  Whether the central bank will actually start a hiking cycle anytime soon is another matter. Barclays reckon it will, predicting three consecutive 50 bps rate hikes starting from April. But analysts at Societe Generale are among those who are betting on flat rates for now. They point out that since the meeting, the Brazilian yield curve has moved to its flattest in a year and the 2017 inflation breakevens (the difference between the yields on fixed-rate and inflation-linked bonds of similar maturity) have fallen more than 50bps:

This implies that simply by showing a small amount of vigilance, a great deal of structural inflation concerns seem to have dissipated.

Treasuries threat to emerging markets

Emerging market issuers have been busy this year, but investors aren’t getting much of a return, as rising Treasury yields steal their lunch.

Joyce Chang, head of emerging markets research at JP Morgan, told the Emerging Market Traders’ Association yesterday that:

Returns are lacklustre, barely breaking positive territory.

This despite the fact that there has been $62 billion in emerging market issuance in the first two months of the year, compared with last year’s record totals of $333 billion.