Global Investing

Braving emerging stocks again

It’s a brave investor who will venture into emerging markets these days, let alone start a new fund. Data from Thomson Reuters company Lipper shows declining appetite for new emerging market funds – while almost 200 emerging debt and equity funds were launched in Europe back in 2011, the tally so far  this year is just 10.

But Shaw Wagener, a portfolio manager at U.S. investor American Funds has gone against the trend, launching an emerging growth and income fund earlier this month.

It’s a great time to launch a fund if you have a long-term focus in mind. Emerging markets trailed DM in terms of performance for a while, peaking at end of 2010 so we are 3-plus years into a down market and period of significant underperformance.

He may be onto something. Some analysts have tentatively started advising clients to start dipping their toes back into water, given how cheap emerging market valuations are. Societe Generale for instance which has been negative on emerging equities for 3 years, said in a note that the sector had gone from being “priced for perfection to deep value”.

Emerging equities trade around 10 times forward earnings, compared to 14 for their developed counterparts and down from 13 times back in 2010.  Check out this graphic by @ReutersFlasseur: http://link.reuters.com/rut87v

CORRECTED-Toothless or not, Western sanctions bite Russian bonds

(corrects last paragraph to show that Timchenko was Gunvor’s co-founder, not a former CEO)

Western sanctions against Russia lack bite, that’s the consensus. Yet the bonds of some Russian companies have taken a hit, especially the ones whose bosses have been targeted for visa- and asset freezes.

Take state-run Russian Raiways. Its chairman Vladimir Yakunin, a member of President Putin’s inner circle, was on the sanctions list. He said he was flattered to be targeted but investors in his company’s dollar bonds are likely to be less thrilled. Russian Railways’ 2022 bond is now the cheapest quasi-sovereign bond in the emerging markets universe relative to its sovereign, Barclays analysts point out. The bond trades now at a 158 bps premium to Russia’s 2022 issue while the one-year average premium has been 114 bps, Barclays note.

Asia’s path to prosperity and investment opportunities

Investors have been worried about the effect of a Chinese slowdown on Asian emerging markets, but the long-term growth story is still intact, according to specialist investment manager Matthews Asia.

Consumption is one of the key areas of growth. Illustrating the divergence of Asian economies and their path to prosperity, here’s an interesting chart from Matthews which shows the standard of living of various Asian countries, expressed by applying Geary-Khamis dollars — the concept of international dollars based on purchasing power parity — to today’s Japan.

For example, the living standards of North Korea and Mongolia are at around that of Japan in the 1890s — when Japan and China fought in the Sino-Japanese war and Wilhelm Rontgen discovered x-rays — while China’s is equivalent of an early 1970s Japan and Malaysia and Thailand are a step ahead at the mid-1970s.

Liquidity needs to pick up in EM

Emerging markets have seen heavy selling in the past few months, with political and economic crises hitting the region’s currencies and asset markets.

The obvious question now is: Is all the bad news in the price?

London-based CrossBorder Capital, who publishes monthly liquidity and risk appetite data for developed and emerging economies, thinks not.

“It is probably too early to buy the EM sector right now, certainly not until liquidity picks up again,” Michael Howell, CrossBorder’s managing director, says.

Russian investing: offshore or onshore

Nerves about the potential impact of sanctions on Russian banks and the orderly functioning of Russian markets are driving investors to trade Russian rouble forwards offshore rather than onshore, even though the central bank told Reuters today it will not impose capital controls

Several Russian companies are also trading at a higher price in the offshore (GDR/ADR) market than the local stock markets, according to research by Bank of America-Merrill Lynch. The price difference  in some cases such as Mobile Telesystems and Magnit is as big as 15-16 percent, BofA/ML notes.

But that differential could provide a buying opportunity in the local market, BoA-ML adds, as any sanctions would not hit retail or fund buyers of the local stocks, but the large banks who often buy the offshore shares.

Who shivers if Russia cuts off the gas?

Markets are fretting about the prospect of western sanctions on Russia but Europeans will also suffer heavily from any retaliatory trade embargoes from Moscow which supplies roughly a third of the continent’s gas needs  – 130 billion cubic metres in 2012.

After all, memories are still fresh of winter 2009 when Russia cut off gas exports through Ukraine because of Kiev’s failure to pay bills on time.  ING Bank analysts have put together a table showing which countries could be hardest hit if the Kremlin indeed turns off the taps.

So while Hungary and Slovakia depend on Moscow for over a third of their energy,  Germany imported less than 10 percent of its needs  from Russia while Ireland, Spain and the United Kingdom received none at all in 2012, ING’s graphic shows.  So while the main impetus for the sanctions comes from the G7 group of rich countries,  it is central and Eastern Europe who will be in the firing line.

Iran: a frontier for the future

Investors trawling for new frontier markets have of late been rolling into Iran. Charles Robertson at Renaissance Capital (which bills itself as a Frontier bank) visited recently and his verdict?

It’s like Turkey, but with 9% of the world’s oil reserves.

Most interestingly, Robertson found a bustling stock market with a $170 billion market cap — on par with Poland – which is the result of a raft of privatisations in recent years.  A $150 million daily trading volume exceeds that of Nigeria, a well established frontier markets. And a free-float of $30 billion means that if Iranian shares are included in MSCI’s frontier index, they would have a share of 25 percent, he calculates.

What of the economy? Renaissance estimates its size at $437 billion, which if accurate would place it higher than Austria or Thailand. Foreign investors are keen — a thawing of relations with the West has triggered a race among multinations to explore business opportunities in the country of 78 million. Last month, more than 100 executives from France’s biggest firms visited Iran. Robertson writes:

And best central banking twitter of the year goes to…

Congratulations to Bank of Spain, which won the best central bank website of the year award given by Central Banking Publications, as the specialist news provider for central bankers hosted its inaugural central banking awards  last night in London. (The flagship Central Banker of the Year award was won by ECB’s Draghi, no surprise there)

Central banks around the world are looking for ways to improve their communication strategies and the website is one area they are focusing on (Quantity is not everything, yet the Bank of Spain’s website features 7,000 pages of information and 24,700 separate files).

But what about social media? Are  policymakers tech-savvy enough for it?

I asked one board member of a central bank in Europe who sat next to me over the awards dinner whether he used Twitter. He said: “No, I think it’s waste of time. I don’t even have a Facebook account.”

No more “emerging markets” please

The crisis currently roiling the developing world has revived a debate in some circles about the very validity of the “emerging markets” concept. Used since the early 1980s as a convenient moniker grouping countries that were thought to be less developed — financially or infrastructure-wise or due to the size or liquidity of their financial markets — the widely varying performances of different countries during the turmoil has served to underscore the differences rather than similarities between them.  An analyst who traveled recently between several Latin American countries summed it up by writing that he had passed through three international airports during his trip but had not had a stamp in his passport that said “emerging market”.

Like this analyst, many reckon the day has come when fund managers, index providers and investors must stop and consider  if it makes sense to bucket wildly disparate countries together.  After all what does Venezuela, with its anti-market policies and 50 percent annual inflation, have in common with Chile, a free market economy with a high degree of transparency  and investor-friendliness?

Deutsche Bank analyst John-Paul Smith is one of many questioning current index-based investing models which he says essentially provide a free ride to the Russias and Venezuelas of this world, who may be undeserving of investor dollars.  Simply by virtue of inclusion in the emerging index, a country becomes a “default beneficiary” of passive investment flows — from funds that hug or track the benchmark — Smith says. In a note he calls for the abandonment of current index criteria such as market access, liquidity or per capita income in favour of a “substantive governance-based view of risk”
In other words:

Indian shares: disappointment may lurk

Should Indian shares really be at record highs?

The index is up 3.6 percent this year. Foreign funds have been pouring money into Mumbai shares, betting that the opposition BJP, seen as more reform-friendly than the incumbent Congress, will form the next government. They purchased $420 million worth of Indian stocks last Friday, having bought $1.4 billion over the past 15 trading sessions.

There is also the fact that the rolling crisis in emerging markets, having smacked India during its first round last May, has now moved on and is ravaging places such as Russia and Nigeria instead. The rupee has firmed almost 2 percent this year to the dollar, as last year’s 6.5 percent/GDP current account deficit has contracted to just 0.9 percent of GDP.  Many international funds such as Blackrock and JPMorgan Asset Management have Indian stocks on overweight and Bank of America/Merrill Lynch’s monthly survey showed investors’  underweight on India was one of the smallest for emerging markets.

Indian company earnings may have beaten forecasts by around 5 percent so far in the season. But prospects can hardly be described as attractive. Indian economic growth is running at less than 5 percent. Valuations are in line with historical averages and at a 4 percent premium to global emerging markets on a book-value basis. But John-Paul Smith at Deutsche Bank says it is “the least bad” of the BRICs and is neutral to overweight.