Global Investing

Drought for some, green grass for others

The British National Farmers Union has just announced that this year’s  wheat yields will be the lowest since the 1980s.  Already,  corn and soybean prices are at record highs as the worst drought in more than 50 years in the United States has added to supply worries caused by drought in Russia.

Fears are running high of a global food crisis like the one that led to rioting in poor countries in 2008.

As with everything, the grass is greener in some places than in others.  In this case, the grain exporters may actually benefit from the droughts. Kazakhstan, for example, one of the world’s top 10 grain exporters, saw the value of its wheat exports soar by almost 500 percent between January and July this year compared with the same period in 2011.

So who are the big losers?

A sharp rise in food prices poses the most severe risks to Sub-Saharan Africa, while India is most at risk among the rapidly growing BRIC nations, according to the 2013 Food Security Risk Index compiled by political risk think-tank Maplecroft.

Nine out of 11 countries categorised as ‘extreme risk’ are in Sub-Saharan Africa, with the 2013 Food Security Risk Index topped by Somalia and followed by the Democratic Republic of Congo. The world’s youngest nation, South Sudan, made its sad debut on the index with a bang, propelled straight into the ‘extreme risk’ category.

Winners, losers and the decline of fear

Lipper has released its monthly look at fund flow trends in Europe, and as ever, it throws up some intriguing results.

August saw bond funds again dominate inflows, pulling in a net 20.8 billion euros and just a tad down on July’s record. Stocks funds continued to suffer, as British equity products led the laggards with close to 2 billion euros withdrawn by clients over the month. North American equity funds and their German counterparts also saw big outflows.

Looking regionally, the Italian fund sector continues to show some surprising strength. Net funds sales there topped the table for the second month running. You can see Lipper’s heat map of sales and AuM below:

Euro emigration – safety valve or worker drain?

Four years of relentless austerity in many of the euro zone’s most debt-hobbled countries have forced many of their youngest and sometimes brightest workers to grab the plane, train or boat and emigrate in search of work. For countries with a long history of emigration, such as Ireland, this is depressingly familar — coming just 20 years after the country’s last debt crisis and national belt-tightening in the 1980s crescendoed, with the exit of some 40,ooo a year in 1989/90 from a population of just 3-1/2 million people.

The intervening boom years surrounding the creation and infancy of the Europe’s single currency and expansion of the European Union eastwards saw huge net migration inflows back into the then-thriving euro zone periphery  — Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy — and created a virtuous circle of rising workforces, higher demand for housing/goods and rising exchequer tax receipts.

But all that has gone into reverse again since the credit, property and banking crash of 2008.

Fears of collateral drought questioned

Have fears of global shortage of high-grade collateral been exaggerated?

As the world braces for several more years of painful deleveraging from the pre-2007 credit excesses, one big fear has been that a shrinking pool of top-rated or AAA assets — due varioulsy to sovereign credit rating downgrades, deteriorating mortgage quality, Basel III banking regulations, central bank reserve accumulation and central clearing of OTC derivatives — has exaggerated the ongoing credit crunch. Along with interbank mistrust, the resulting shortage of high-quality collateral available to be pledged and re-pledged between banks and asset managers,  it has been argued, meant the overall amount of credit being generating in the system has been shrinking,  pushing up the cost and lowering the availability of borrowing in the real economy. Quantitative easing and bond buying by the world’s major central banks, some economists warned, was only exaggerating that shortage by removing the highest quality collateral from the banking system.

But economists at JPMorgan cast doubt on this. The bank claims that the universe of AAA/AA bonds is actually growing by around $1trillion per year.  While central bank reserve managers absorb the lion’s share of this in banking hard currency reserves,  JPM reckon they still take less than half of the total created and, even then, some of that top-rated debt does re-enter the system as some central bank reserve managers engage in securities lending.

Citing a recent speech by ECB Executive Board member Benoit Coere dismissing ideas of a collateral shortage in the euro zone, JPM said ECB action in primary covered bond markets and in accepting lower-rated and foreign currency collateral had helped. It added that the average amount of eligible collateral available for Eurosystem liquidity operations was 14.3 trillion euros in the second quarter of 2012 — with 2.5 trillion euros of that put forward as collateral by euro zone banks to be used in the ECB’s repo operations of 1.3 trillion.  Critically, the majority of that 2.5 trillion posted at the ECB was either illiquid collateral such as bank loans or collateral associated with peripheral issuers and thus unlikely eligible for use in private repo markets anyway, they added. This process of absorbing low quality collateral in order to free up higher-quality assets for private use has been an approach of both the ECB and Bank of England.

Election test for Venezuela bond fans

Investors who have been buying up Venezuelan bonds in hopes of an opposition victory in this weekend’s presidential election will be heartened by the results of a poll from Consultores 21 which shows Henrique Capriles having the edge on incumbent Hugo Chavez.  The survey shows the pro-market Capriles with 51.8 percent support among likely voters, an increase of 5.6 percentage points since a mid-September poll.

Venezuelan bonds have rallied hard ever since it became evident a few months back that Chavez, a socialist seeking a new six-year term, would face the toughest election battle of his 14-year rule. Year-to-date returns on Venezuelan debt are over 20 percent, or double the gains on the underlying bond index, JP Morgan’s EMBI Global. And the rally has taken yields on Venezuela’s most-traded 2027 dollar bond to around 10.5 percent, a drop of 250 basis points since the start of the year.

But Barclays analysts are advising clients to load up further by picking up long-tenor 2031 sovereign bonds or 2035 bonds issued by state oil firm PDVSA:

Wages wag the tail of the DAX

This week, Germany celebrated its Tag der deutschen Einheit (Day of German Unity) marking twenty-two years since the wall was torn down between East and West.

Back in the present, Frankfurt’s main share index, the DAX, has outperformed all of its European peers this year and in dollar terms has outshone almost every other global equity index. Re-unification has been painful, fostering social tensions and still huge disparities between east and west, but some analysts argue that it is precisely those disparities, not least in wages, which have underpinned the primacy of German stocks today.

There are other crucial factors of course. Germany’s high-value and high cost exports such as BMW cars are in high demand in countries such as China and India, all the more because of the weak euro.  And despite the outperformance, the market seems to price German stocks as bargains — they currently trade around 10 times forward earnings compared to over 12 times for the world index. According to fund managers at Baring Asset Management:

Funds will find a chill Wind in the Willows: Lipper

“Asset managers are emerging from their comfortable burrow to face a battery of lights.”

Sheila Nicoll, Director of Conduct Policy at Britain’s Financial Services Authority (FSA), had perhaps been reading Kenneth Grahame before her recent speech, and her words are likely to have sent a chilly wind through the willows of the UK funds industry.

The warning “poop poop” being sounded by the regulator has been getting louder and louder. Indeed the FSA may even be traveling faster than Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, who has recently suggested that he would impose a 1 percent cap on pension charges.

Is the rouble overhyped?

For many months now the Russian rouble has been everyone’s favourite currency. Thanks to all the interest it rose 4 percent against the dollar during the July-September quarter. How long can the love affair last?

It is easy to see why the rouble is in favour. The central bank last month raised interest rates to tame inflation and might do so again on Friday. The  implied yield on 12-month rouble/dollar forwards  is at 6 percent — among the highest in emerging markets.  It has also been boosted by cash flowing into Russian local bond market, which is due to be liberalised in coming months. Above all, there is the oil price which usually gets a strong boost from Fed QE.  So despite worries about world growth, Brent crude prices are above $110 a barrel. Analysts at Barclays are among those who like the rouble, predicting it to hit 30.5 per dollar by end-2012, up from current levels of 31.12.

All that sounds pretty bullish. But there are reasons why the rouble’s days of strength may be numbered. First the QE effect is unlikely to last. As we argued here, QE’s impact will be less strong than after the previous two rounds. Analysts at ING Bank point out that in 3-6 months after the launch of QE2 oil prices gained 40 percent, pushing the rouble up nearly 10%. This time oil won’t repeat the trend this time, and neither will the rouble, they say:

Making the most of the shareholder spring

We’ve had a fair while to ponder the implications of a British AGM season which saw investors oust a few CEOs and deal bloody noses to a few others. We’ve also had some data which implies the revolt wasn’t as widespread as advertised, but Sacha Sadan at Legal and General Investment Management thinks we have seen something important, and something that must be exploited.

His take is that austerity is at the heart of the matter. While the public suffers in a faltering economy, and investors stomach dwindling returns, it was never going to fly that pay deals for bosses should survive unchallenged. Add to that government and media pressure on remuneration, plus a new era of investor collaboration thanks to the stewardship code, and you get an ideal set of factors to drive the ‘shareholder spring’.

Of course, austerity won’t (let’s hope) last forever; governments are unlikely to sustain a narrative around ‘fat cat’ bosses; and the media always moves on. For Sadan that makes it crucial for investors to strike while the iron is hot.

Insuring African farmers against climate catastrophe

From floods to drought, microfinance companies are looking at ways for farmers in developing countries to cope better with the vagaries of climate change.

According to the Microcredit Summit Campaign, there were over 137 million very poor families worldwide with a microloan in 2010. The industry has grown increasingly sophisticated, though it has also gained a bad reputation in parts of the world for selling very high-interest loans to very poor people, with the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh curbing their use.

Microfinance companies are now looking to extend their reach with crop insurance in Africa. Small farmers in African countries cannot get regular crop insurance, but a successful project in India uses weather stations to calculate the weather and its possible impact on harvests within reach of those stations, working out claims automatically.