Global Investing

Korean exporters’ yen nightmare (corrected)

(corrects name of hedge fund in para 3 to Symphony Financial Partners)

Any doubt about the importance of a weaker yen in thawing the frozen Japanese economy will have been dispelled by the Nikkei’s surge to 32-month highs this week. Since early December, when it became clear an incoming Shinzo Abe administration would do its best to weaken the yen, the equity index has surged as the yen has fallen.

Those moves are giving sleepless nights to Japan’s neighbours who are watching their own currencies appreciate versus the yen. South Korean companies, in particular, from auto to electronics manufacturers, must be especially worried. They had a fine time in recent years  as the yen’s strength since 2008 allowed them to gain market share overseas. But since mid-2012, the won has appreciated 22 percent versus the yen.  In this period, MSCI Korea has lagged the performance of MSCI Japan by 20 percent. Check out the following graphic from my colleague Vincent Flasseur (@ReutersFlasseur)

David Baran, co-founder of Tokyo-based Symphony Financial Partners, notes the relative performance of Hyundai and Toyota (Hyundai shares have fallen 2.5 percent this year adding to 13.5 percent loss in the last quarter of 2012. Toyota on the other hand is up 5 percent so far in 2013 after gaining 31 percent in Oct-Dec last year). Baran says he has gone long the Nikkei and short the Seoul index (the Kospi) and (Hong Kong’s) Hang Seng, while taking a short position on the yen. He says:

Dollar/yen went from 125 to 77 at the exporters’ expense and the Koreans benefited massively from this. Now, if we get a situation where the yen goes into the mid-90s or lower, Japanese corporates will be fantastically profitable and that’s what people are starting to build into equity  allocations. The feeling is that greater damage will be towards Korean exporters in favour of the Japanese.

Analysts at Morgan Stanley predict the won may appreciate another 10 percent  against the yen by year-end. But they are less worried about the outlook for Korean exporters, telling clients this week that unless the yen/won cross depreciated another 30 percent, Korean exports would not be structurally undercut.

What’s next? A U.S. downgrade or Spanish bailout?

What will happen first? A U.S. credit rating downgrade or the country’s unemployment falling below 7 percent?

Or Spain having no other option but to ask for a bailout?

Bank of America Merrill Lynch asked investors in its monthly fund manager survey what “surprises”  they saw coming up first this year.

And the result is: bad news will come first.

A U.S. debt downgrade got the top spot, with more than 35 percent of investors seeing that happen first, with crisis-hit Spain having to ask for more help a close second, at just over 30 percent.

Brazil’s inflation problem

When will Brazil’s central bank admit it has an inflation problem? Markets will be watching today’s rate-setting meeting for clues.

There is no doubt about the outcome of today’s meeting at the Banco Central do Brasil (BCB) — no one expects it to do anything but leave interest rates steady at the current 7.25 percent. But the BCB has been focused on growth for 18 months and has cut interest rates by 525 basis points in this time, its actions helping to drive the real 10 percent lower last year versus the dollar. The government meanwhile has unleashed huge doses of fiscal stimulus. The result, rather than a growth recovery, is a steady rise in inflation.

Goldman Sachs’ Latin America economist Alberto Ramos points out that Brazilian inflation came in above the 4.5 percent target for the third straight year in 2012 and the balance of inflation risks has deteriorated. Gasoline prices are to rise from next week and drought is making hydro-power generation more costly. Analysts polled by Reuters expect 2013 price growth at 5.53 percent. Ramos writes:

Mali risks in focus

The international focus is on  gold-producing country Mali after days of French air strikes on al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebel strongholds in the north of the West African country. France expects Gulf Arab states will help an African campaign against the rebels,  and a meeting of donors for the Mali operation is due at the end of the month. West African defence chiefs are meeting today to approve plans to speed up the deployment of 3,300 regional troops.

Mali isn’t normally on the radar screens of international portfolio investors, with little external debt and no developed capital markets.

But it is Africa’s third biggest gold producer, with London-listed Randgold the biggest investor and other foreign firms such as Anglogold also having investments.

Rupiah decline – don’t worry

Indonesia has just given the go-ahead for another leg down in the rupiah. It has cut its forecasts for the exchange rate to 9,700 per dollar compared to the 9,200 level at which the central bank used to step in. The currency has duly weakened and nervous foreigners have rushed to hedge exposure — 3-month NDFs price the rupiah at almost 10,000 to the dollar. The  rupiah last week hit a three-year low, its weakness coming on top of a dismal 2012 which saw it fall 6 percent as the current account deficit worsened. Traders in Jakarta are reporting dollar hoarding by exporters.

All that is spooking foreigners who own more than 30 percent of the domestic bond market. The currency weakness hit them hard last year as Indonesian bonds returned just 6 percent, a third of the sector’s 16 percent average (see graphic).

The central bank does not seem perturbed by the currency weakness. Luckily for it, inflation rates are still benign, which means a weak currency will probably remain in favour.

Emerging debt vs equity: to rotate or not

Emerging bonds have got off to a flying start in 2013, with debt funds taking in over $2 billion this past week, the second highest weekly inflow ever, according to fund tracker EPFR Global. Issuance is strong -  Turkey for instance this week borrowed cash repayable in 10 years for just 3.47 percent, its lowest yield ever in the dollar market.

Yet not everyone is optimistic and most analysts see last year’s returns of 16-18 percent EM debt returns as out of reach. The consensus instead seems to be for 5-8 percent as  tight spreads and low yields leave little room for further ralliesaverage yields on the EMBI Global sovereign debt index is just 4.4 percent.    Domestic bonds meanwhile could suffer if inflation turns problematic. (see here for our story on emerging bond sales and returns).

Now take a look at U.S. Treasury yields which are near 8-month highs. and could pose a headwind for emerging debt. Higher U.S. yields are not necessarily a bad thing for emerging markets provided the rise is down to a healthier economic outlook.  But that scenario could induce investors to turn their attention to equities and  indeed this is already happening. EPFR data shows emerging equity funds outstripped their bond counterparts last week, taking in $7.45 billion, the highest ever weekly inflow.

Weekly Radar: Q4 earnings, China GDP and German elections

The first wave of Q4 US earnings, Chinese Q4 GDP  and European inflation dominate next week, while regional polls in Germany’s Lower Saxony the following Sunday give everyone a early peek at ideas surrounding probably the biggest general election of 2013 later in the year.

With a bullish start to the year already confirmed by the so-called “5 day rule” on Wall St, we now come to the first real test – the Q4 earnings season. There was nothing to rock the boat from Alcoa but we will only start to get a glimpse of the overall picture next week after the big financials like JPM, Citi and Goldman report as well as real sector bellwethers Intel and GE. Yet again the questions centre on how the slow-growth macro world is sapping top lines, how this can continue to be offset by cost cutting to flatter profits and – perhaps most importantly for investors right now – what’s already in the price.

For the worriers, there’s already been plenty of gloom from lousy guidance  and memories of Q3 where less than half the 500 beat revenue forecasts. But the picture is not uniformly negative from a market perspective. For a start, both top and bottom line growth estimates have already been slashed to about a third of what they were three months ago but should still outstrip Q3 if they come in on target. Average S&P500 earnings growth for Q4 is expected to be almost 3 percent compared to near zero in Q3 and revenue growth is expected at about 2 percent after a near one percent drop the previous quarter. What’s more, the market has been well prepared for trouble already — negative-to-positive guidance by S&P 500 companies for Q4 was 3.6 to 1, the second worst since the third quarter of 2001. So, wait and see – but there will have to be some pretty scary headlines for a selloff at this juncture.  It may be just as tricky to build any bullish momentum ahead of renewed infighting in DC over the debt ceiling next month, but the latter issue has been treated to date this year as a frustration rather than a game-changer.

Asia’s ballooning debt

Could Asia be headed for a debt crisis?

The very thought may seem ludicrous given the region’s mighty current account surpluses and brimming central bank coffers.  But a note from RBS analysts Drew Brick and Rob Ryan raises some interesting concerns.

Historically speaking, most EM crises have been borne on the back of excessive capital inflows, Brick and Ryan write. And in many Asian countries, the consequence of these flows has been over-easy monetary policy that has left citizens and companies addicted to cheap money. Personal and corporate indebtedness levels have spiralled even higher in the past five years as governments across the continent responded to the 2008 credit crunch by unleashing billions of dollars in stimulus.

First, some numbers and graphics:

a) Asia’s current account surplus stands now around $250 billion, less than half its 2007 peak as exports have slumped.

Emerging Europe basks under Basel light touch

A lighter touch from the regulators in Basel is likely to be good news for eastern Europe, where policymakers have been concerned about the withdrawal of cash by western European banks to shore up their balance sheets at home.

Global regulators yesterday gave banks four more years and greater flexibility to develop cash buffers. Banks now have until 2019 to build up enough liquid assets to  keep them funded for 30 days in a squeeze.

That could slow the pace of bank deleveraging from eastern Europe, which was a worry for the region during the 2008/09 financial crisis, and has become so again during the euro zone crisis. The deleveraging was equivalent to 0.8 percent of the region’s GDP in the second quarter of 2012 and has reached 4 percent of GDP since mid-2011, according to the Vienna Initiative, which aims to prevent disorderly deleveraging from the region.

A yen for emerging markets

Global Investing has written several times about Japanese mom-and-pop investors’  adventures in emerging markets. Most recently, we discussed how the new government’s plan to prod the Bank of Japan into unlimited monetary easing could turn more Japanese into intrepid yield hunters.  Here’s an update.

JP Morgan analysts calculate that EM-dedicated Japanese investment trusts, known as toshin, have seen inflows of $7 billion ever since the U.S. Fed announced its plan to embark on open-ended $40-billion-a-month money printing.  That’s taken their assets under management to $67 billion. And in the week ended Jan 2, Japanese flows to emerging markets amounted to $234 million, they reckon. This should pick up once the yen debasement really gets going — many are expecting a 100 yen per dollar exchange rate by end-2013  (it’s currently at 88).

At present, the lion’s share of Japanese toshin holdings — over $40 billion of it — are in hard currency emerging debt, JP Morgan says (see graphic).