Global Investing

No Czech intervention but watch the crown

The Czech central bank surprised many this week after its policy meeting. Widely expected to announce the timing and extent of FX market interventions, Governor Miroslav Singer not only failed to do so, he effectively signalled that intervention was no longer on the cards — at least in the short term  In his words, looser monetary conditions were now “less urgent”.

What changed Singer’s mind? After all, data just hours earlier showed Czech industrial production plunging  12 percent year-on-year in December. The economy has not grown since mid-2011 and is likely to have contracted by more than 1 percent last year. Singer in fact predicts a second full year of recession. But some slightly upbeat-looking forward indicators could be cause for cheer. According to William Jackson at Capital Economics:

We think that the need for further policy loosening was tempered by the tentative pick-up in the most recent survey data as well as the fall in the crown (versus the euro) since the start of the year.

Until yesterday’s meeting, the crown had fallen 3 percent since the start of the year to seven-month lows against the euro.  January purchasing managers indexes (PMI) this week also showed the Czech indicator rising more than expected to 48.3, up from December’s three-year low of 46.0. That gelled with a pick-up in PMIs also in neighbouring Poland and Hungary.  A separate survey also shows that the business climate in emerging Europe ticked higher in January for the first time since April. The OeKB Central and Eastern Europe Business Climate index of around 400 Austria-based direct investors edged up to 17 points, from 14 in October and the Czech component rose two points to 24, the highest since the second quarter of 2012.

Even more crucial perhaps have been the recent indicators from Germany, United States and China, on which hinge the fortunes of the export-dependent Czech economy. The German PMI chalked up its biggest one-month rise in January since August 2009, soaring to its highest since June 2011.  The Czech National Bank has increased its medium-term inflation and growth forecasts slightly. According to Singer:

How contagious is the Malian conflict?

By Dasha Afanasieva

Security risks, shoddy governance and black markets have propelled West African countries up the risk rankings of consultancy Maplecroft’s annual Global Risks Atlas, released today.

As the French continue to battle Mali rebels in the Sahara, how big is the risk of the trouble spreading to Mali’s already fragile neighbours?

According to Maplecroft, Mali is an example of how

the security situation in one country can significantly increase the risk of violence and instability in the surrounding region, with implications for the operations of foreign firms

Emerging corporate bond boom stretches into 2013

The boom in emerging corporate debt is an ongoing theme that we have discussed often in the past, here on Global Investing as well as on the Reuters news wire. Many of us will therefore recall that outstanding debt volumes from emerging market companies crossed the $1 trillion milestone last October. This year could be shaping up to be another good one.

January was a month of record issuance for corporates, yielding $51 billion or more than double last January’s levels and after sales of $329 billion in the whole of 2012. (Some of this buoyancy is down to Asian firms rushing to get their fundraising done before the Chinese New Year starts this weekend). What’s more, despite all the new issuance, spreads on JPMorgan’s CEMBI corporate bond index tightened 21 basis points over Treasuries.

JPM say in a note today that assets benchmarked to the CEMBI have crossed $50.6 billion, having risen 60 percent year-over-year.  Interest in corporates is strong also among investors who don’t usually focus on this sector, the bank says, citing the results of its monthly client survey. One such example is asset manager Schroders. Skeptical a couple of years ago about the risk-reward trade-off in emerging debt, Schroders said last month it was seeing more opportunities in emerging corporates, noting:

From cycles to cell phones: tracking Africa’s middle classes

Mobile phone bills and beer consumption patterns are used by investors to assess how fast bank accounts are likely to grow in Africa, but what did investors count to gauge trends before there were mobile phones?

The answer? Cattle, bicycles, radios, founder of Zimbabwean telecoms company Econet Wireless Strive Masiyiwa told an Economist conference on Africa this afternoon. Masiyiwa said he researched ownership of these status items to assess the five-year demand for mobile phones in Botswana when he successfully bid for a mobile phone contract from Botswana’s government.

His forecasts, more optimistic than the other bidding operators’, still turned out to undershoot by hundreds of thousands, Masiyiwa said, adding that official data from organisations such as the World Bank also tend to underestimate Africa’s growth potential.

U.S. Treasury headwinds for emerging debt

Emerging bond issuance and inflows have had a strong start to the year but can it last?

Data from JPMorgan shows that emerging market sovereigns sold hard currency bonds worth $9.6 billion last month while companies raised $51.2 billion (that compares with Jan 2012 issuance levels of $17.5 billion for sovereigns and $23.9 billion for corporates). Similarly, inflows into EM debt were well over $10 billion last month, very probably topping the previous monthly record,  according to JPM.

But U.S. Treasury yields are rising, typically an evil omen for equities and emerging markets. Ten- year U.S. yields, the underlying risk-free rate off which many other assets are priced,  rose this week to nine-month highs above 2 percent. That has brought losses on emerging hard currency debt on the EMBI Global index to  2 percent so far this year. (there is a similar picture across equities, where year-to-date returns are barely 1 percent despite inflows of around $24 billion). Historically, negative monthly returns caused by rising U.S. yields have tended to lead to outflows.

Indian markets and the promise of reform

What a difference a few months have made for Indian markets.

The rupee is 8 percent up from last summer’s record lows. Foreigners have ploughed $17 billion into Indian stocks and bonds since Sept 2012 and foreign ownership of Indian shares is at a record high 22.7 percent, Morgan Stanley reckons.  And all it has taken to change the mood has been the announcement of a few reforms (allowing foreign direct investment into retail, some fuel and rail price hikes and raising FDI limits in some sectors). A controversial double taxation law has been pushed back.  The government has sold some stakes in state-run companies (it offloaded 10 percent of Oil India last week, netting $585 million).  If the measures continue, the central bank may cut interest rates further.

Above all, there have been promises-a-plenty on fiscal consolidation.

The promises are not new. Only this time, investors appear to believe Finance Minister P. Chidambaram.

Chidambaram who was on a four-city roadshow to promote India to investors, pledged in a Reuters interview last week not to cross the “red line” of a 5.3 percent deficit for this year in the Feb 28 budget. Standard Chartered, one of the banks that organised Chidambaram’s roadshow, sent out a note entitled: “The finance minister means business”.

Chinese firms like Europe but could do without red tape

By Dasha Afanasieva

Europe is a likely suitor for much of the $560 billion in outbound foreign direct investment China plans to make in the five years leading to 2015, according to a survey out today.

Ninety-seven percent of the 74 firms surveyed said that they will make future additional investments in the EU, with  most planning to invest higher amounts than currently, with more investment and acquisitions of technology brands and expertise, according to a study by European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, a lobby group for Chinese firms in the EU, with consultants Roland Berger and professional services firm KPMG.

In return for access to European markets and consumers, EU countries will get a boost in investment that they can ill afford themselves with such feeble growth prospects: in November the European Commission slashed its 2013 economic growth forecast for the EU’s euro zone bloc to just 0.1 percent, having predicted a much stronger recovery of 1 percent just six months before.

Weekly Radar: Glass still half-full?

ECB,BOE,RBA MEETINGS/ US-CHINA DEC TRADE DATA/CHINESE INFLATION/EU BUDGET SUMMIT/EUROPEAN EARNINGS/BUND AUCTION/SERVICES PMIS

Wednesday’s global markets were a pretty good illustration of the nature of new year rally. The largest economy in the world reported a shock contraction of activity in the final quarter of 2012 despite widespread expectations of 1%+ gain and this month’s bulled-up stock market barely blinked. Ok, the following FOMC decision and Friday’s latest US employment report probably helped keep a lid on things and there was plenty of good reason to be sceptical of the headline U.S. GDP number. Reasons for the big miss were hooked variously on an unexpectedly large drop in government defence spending, a widening of the trade gap (even though we don’t get December numbers til next week), a drawdown in inventories, fiscal cliff angst and “Sandy”. Final consumer demand looked fineand we know from the jobs numbers (and the January ADP report earlier) that the labour market remains relatively firm while housing continues to recovery. The inventory drop could presage a cranking up assembly lines into the new year given the “fiscal cliff” was dodged on Jan 1 and trade account distortions due to East Coast storms may unwind too. So, not only are we likely to see upward revisions to this advance data cut, there may well be significant “payback” in Q1 data and favourable base effects could now flatter 2013 numbers overall.

Yet as logical as any or all of those arguments may be,  the reaction to the shocker also tells you a lot about the prevalent “glass half full” view in the market right now and reveals how the flood of new money that’s been flowing to equity this year has not been doing so on the basis on one quarter of economic data. An awful lot of the investor flow to date is either simply correcting extremely defensive portfolios toward more “normal” times or reinvesting with a 3-5 year view in mind at least. There’s a similar story at play in Europe. Money has come back from the bunkers and there’s been a lock-step improvement in the “big picture” risks – we are no longer factoring in default risk into the major bond markets  at least and many are now happy to play the ebb and flow of economics and politics and market pricing within more reasonable parameters. There are no shortage of ghosts and ghouls still in the euro cupboard – dogged recession, bank legacy debt issue, Cyprus, Italian elections etc – but that all still seems more like more manageable country risk for many funds and a far cry from where we were over the past two years of potential systemic implosion. Never rule out a fresh lurch and the perceived lack of market crisis itself may take the pressure off Brussels and other EU capitals to keeping pushing hard to resolve the outstanding conundrums. But it would take an awful lot now to completely reverse the recent stabilisation, not least given the ECB has yet to fire a bullet of its new OMT intervention toolkit.

Banks won’t lend? Try a bond instead

When the banks won’t lend you money, head for the international debt markets.

Western European banks have been withdrawing funds from emerging Europe because of capital issues at home for the past few years, alarming international lenders so much that they formed the Vienna Initiative to help the region.

But those corporates that couldn’t borrow have been making use of the red-hot emerging corporate bond market instead.

Who’s driving the equity rally?

Does the money match the story?

Perhaps the biggest investment theme of the year so far has been the extent to which long-term investors may now slowly migrate back to under-owned and under-priced equities from super-expensive safe haven bunkers such as ‘core’ government bonds, yen, Swiss francs etc to which they herded at each new gale of the 5-year-old credit storm.

Indeed, some go further and say asset allocation mixes of the big institutional pension and insurance funds are – for a variety of regulatory and demographic reasons – now at such historical extremes in favour of bonds that they may now need rethinking in what some dub The Great Rotation.

All this has played into a new year whoosh in equity and other risk markets, as ebbing tail risks from the euro zone, US budget and China combine with signs of a decent cyclical turn in the world economy into 2013. Wall St’s S&P500, for example, has climbed 5.5% in January so far and closed above 1500 for the first time in more than five years last week following its longest winning streak (8-days) in eight years.