Global Investing

Are EM forex reserves strong enough?

One of the big stories of the past decade has been the massive jump in central bank reserves, with total reserves having quintupled from a decade ago to around $10.6 trillion.

But the growth has not been uniform. And over the past 18 months slowing world growth and trade has stalled reserve accummulation across the developing world, making some countries increasingly vulnerable to financial shocks, according to analysts at Capital Economics.

They point out for instance that, although most emerging economies are less vulnerable than in the past, Ukrainian reserves have fallen by a quarter in the past year while in Venezuela they declined by 40 percent. Egyptian reserves halved since end-2011, forcing it to agree to an IMF aid deal. Foreign exchange reserves in these countries may not be sufficient to protect against balance of payment crises should trade flows and investments slow further, they reckon.

Venezuela is viewed as the biggest concern, with import cover of just two months. A fall in commodity prices could worsen its position further. The import cover picture was similar in Egypt before the IMF deal.  What of emerging Europe? Given the large current account deficits and hefty external debt repayment schedules, this region is especially exposed to a slowdown in capital flows.

Capital Economics says:

The risks for emerging Europe would be magnified by further disruption to the euro zone banking system which would curtail their access to foreign capital.

Weekly Radar: Bounceback as year winds down

Yet another Greek impasse, a French downgrade, ongoing DC cliff dodging and a downturn in Citi’s G10 economic surprise index (though not yet in the US one) could have been plausible reasons this week to extend the post-election global markets swoon. But at 8 consecutive days in the red up to last Friday, that was the longest losing streak since last November, and a lot of froth had been shaken off these year-end markets already.

We’ve seen a decent bounceback in nearly all risks assets instead. That may be partly due to volume-sapping Thanksgiving week and partly due to the fact that more and more funds think the year is effectively over now anyhow. The only big wildcard left is the timing of an fiscal agreement stateside and few managers now honestly believe there won’t be some sort of a deal. (Deutsche, for the record, said this week that the divide between the sides over tax is much less than many assume).  Greece is a slower burner but again, few people believe it will be hung out to dry any time soon and a deal on the next tranche – whatever about deep and meaningful OSI, payment moratoriums and loan rate cuts – will most likely be reached next week at the latest. Talk of a EFSF-funded Greek debt buyback meantime has helped pushed its debt yields to the lowest since the restructuring.  And the French downgrade was probably the least surprising move of the past five years.

So we’re left closing out a half-decent investment year with a view of early 2013 that is framed by a Chinese cyclical upswing, a likely additional fillip to business planning from a US fiscal deal on top of an already brisk housing recovery there, and the likely return of one the euro bailout patients, Ireland, to the syndicated dollar capital markets almost a year before its bailout programme ends. Further into the year gets much trickier as usual, with elections in Germany, Italy, Israel and Iran to name but four… but  as Bernanke reminded us this week and every investor experienced in full voice in 2012, the central banks are heavily committed to reflation policies now and will not stand idly by if there’s yet another serious downturn.

And the winner is — frontier market bonds

Global Investing has commented before on how strongly the world’s riskiest bonds — from the so-called frontier markets such as Mongolia, Nigeria and Guatemala — have performed.  NEXGEM, the frontier component of the bond index family run by JP Morgan, is on track to outperform all other fixed income classes this year with returns of over 20 percent., the bank tells clients in a note today. Just to compare, broader emerging dollar bonds on the EMBI Global index have returned some 16 percent year-to-date while local currency emerging debt is up 13 percent.

That appetite for the sector is strong was proven by a September Eurobond from Zambia that was 15 times subscribed. Demand shows no sign of flagging despite a default in frontier peer Belize and shenanigans over the payment of Ivory Coast’s missed coupons from last year. Reasons are easy to find. First, the yield. The average yield on the NEXGEM is roughly 6.5 percent compared with  just under 5 percent on the EMBIG.

Second, this is where a lot of issuance is happening as big emerging markets such as Brazil and Mexico, once prolific dollar bond issuers, sell less and less on external markets in favour of domestic debt.  Frontier markets are filling the gap. JPM says Angola, Guatemala, Mongolia and Zambia joined the NEXGEM in 2012 as they made their debut on global capital markets. Bolivia is also set for inclusion soon, taking the number of NEXGEM members to 23 by end-2012.

Moody’s takes some pressure off Turkey

Moody’s disappointed a lot of folks this week when it failed to raise Turkey’s credit rating to investment grade.

After Fitch upped Turkey on Nov 5 into the coveted top tier, hopes were high that Moody’s would do the same and soon. Being rated investment grade by at least two agencies has a lot of pluses .  But all the subsequent investment inflows have side effects and one of them is currency appreciation.  Check out these graphs. (click to enlarge)

The currency has been a headache for Turkey’s central bank for a while now. Back in 2010, lira appreciation was the motivation for embarking on an unorthodox monetary policy.  This year in nominal terms the lira has gained just over 5 percent against the dollar, as Turkish stocks and bonds, among the best performers in the world in 2012, have lured foreigners.

Strike on Iran: bets are off

Spread betters have drastically cut their expectations of a U.S. or Israeli air strike on Iran since Barack Obama’s re-election earlier this month.

Intrade, a Dublin-based online exchange, is showing 20 percent of its clients seeing a strike by June 2013, and 33 percent by Dec 2013.

Those expectations are not tiny, but they are down sharply from 35 and 50 percent, respectively, just before the election.

Emerging Policy-The inflation problem has not gone away

This week’s interest rate meetings in the developing world are highlighting that despite slower economic growth, inflation remains a problem for many countries. In some cases it could constrain  policymakers from cutting interest rates, or least from cutting as much as they would like.

Take Turkey. Its central bank surprised some on Tuesday by only cutting the upper end of its overnight interest rate corridor: many had interpreted recent comments by Governor Erdem Basci as a sign the lower end, the overnight borrowing rate, would also be cut. That’s because the central bank is increasingly concerned about the lira, which has appreciated more than 7 percent this year in real terms. But the bank contented itself by warning markets that more cuts could be made to different policy rates if needed (read: if the lira rises much more).

But inflation, while easing, remains problematic.  On the same day as the policy meeting, the International Monetary Fund recommended Turkey raise interest rates to deal with inflation, which was an annualised 9.2 percent in September. The central bank’s prediction is for a year-end 7 percent rate but that is 2 percentage points higher than its 5 percent target. So the central bank probably was sensible in exercising restraint.

Investors investigated

We’ve wondered before about the validity of the British ‘shareholder spring’ narrative. A few high-profile casualties gave the story drama, but as we showed back in the summer, evidence of a widespread change in thinking was hard to find. KPMG has arrived at a similar conclusion this week.

This morning, FairPensions, a British charity which aims to promote responsible investment, has dug deeper into the behaviour of major institutional investors during that supposedly febrile period, and among the nuggets it has produced is the chart below of voting on contentious pay reports at annual meetings.

There are some questions which crop up straight away. What did BlackRock and Standard Life like so much about the Barclays pay deal that no other investor could spot; why did BlackRock think Martin Sorrell’s potential 500% bonus was a goer; and given that, why did almost everyone think a maximum bonus award of 923% of BP CEO Bob Dudley’s salary was just dandy?

Angola: is it a loan, is it a bond?

Is it a bird or is it a plane?

Among the scores of issues coming to the flavour-of-the-year emerging sovereign debt market – recent borrowers include Costa Rica and Ukraine – Angola’s debut deal is one of the most confusing.

Russia’s second-largest bank VTB provided what was described as a $1 billion loan to the Angolan government earlier this year through a private placement of 7-year paper, with a yield of 7 percent.

The debt was issued by a special purpose vehicle backed by VTB, but the Angolan government was the ultimate guarantor, ratings agency Moody’s said at the time.

Weekly Radar: In the shadow of the cliff

It’s been another rum old week market-wise, with global stocks off another 2 percent or more and recording seven straight days in the red for the first time since August. Throw any spin you like at the reasoning, but the pretty predictable post-election hiatus on U.S. fiscal cliff worries now seem to be front and centre of everything. And that will just has to play itself out now, leaving markets stuck in this funk until they come up with the fix. The running consensus still seems to be that some solution will be reached, but no one wants to be too brave about it. And given the cliff is one of the few good explanations for the sharp divergence between the equity market and still rising US economic surprises,  you can see why many feel the US fiscal standoff is merely delaying a resumption of the rally.

The euro zone story has rumbled again of course, with the Greek hand-to-mouth financing, pressure for official sector debt write-offs there and another nervy wait for the latest tranche of bailout funds. Anti-austerity protests in Greece, Spain, Portugal and elsewhere meantime stepped up a gear this week and Q3 data out today confirmed the euro bloc back in recession.

Yet Europe is not the main driver of global markets at the moment. The latest MerrillBoA funds survey this week showed that, at 54%, more than twice as many funds now think falling off the US cliff and not the euro crisis is the biggest global investment risk. The euro group meets next week on Greece  ahead of a two-day EU summit and we still have no clarity on Spain’s bailout either. There’s plenty of headline risk then, for sure, and the parallel release next week of November PMIs is hardly going to bring sweetness and light. That said, there’s been about as much good as bad news from Europe of late. The ECB is simply not going to pull the plug on Greece even if OSI gets pushed up to governmental level and take a lot more time. Spain and Italy have both now effectively completed funding for this  year and there were very positive noises this week on Ireland returning to markets in early 2013 with a 10-year syndicated dollar bond, while Fitch raised its sovereign rating outlook to stable from negative.

Frontier markets: safe haven for stability seekers

Frontier markets have an air of adventure and unpredictability about them. One is tempted to ask: Who knows what will happen next?

The figures tell a different story.

In fact, emerging markets overtook frontier markets in terms of volatility of returns as long ago as June 2006, as a recent HSBC report shows. And a more significant milestone was passed a year later, in June 2007, when even developed markets overtook frontier markets in terms of volatility of returns.

Since then, frontier markets have without fail stayed more stable than developed and emerging markets. In 2012, the gap between the closely-correlated developed/emerging markets bloc and frontier markets widened even further as returns in the latter seem to be becoming even more stable. According to David Wickham, EM investment director at HSBC Global Asset Management: