Global Investing

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:

Our opinion has been that the market has been underestimating the chances of an opposition victory. We believe an opposition victory could be a positive surprise for the market that could push Venezuelan assets to levels not seen in the past five years.

What if Chavez wins after all? That would mean another six years of the Bolivarian Revolution and Chavismo (Chavez’s leftist social and political movements, the former named after  the country’s 19th century liberation hero Simon Bolivar). But it would not be such a disaster. After all despite his fiery rhetoric, he has never shirked paying creditors, and with oil prices well above $100 a barrel he can well afford to do so. Moreover many reckon he will has been weakened by cancer and a recurrence of his illness will weaken his leadership.According to Greg Saichin, head of emerging debt at Pioneer Investments

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.

Iran currency plunge an omen for change?

In recent days Iranians all over the country have been rushing to dealers to change their rials into hard currency. The result has been a spectacular plunge in the rial which has lost a third of its value against the dollar in the past week. Traders in Teheran estimate in fact that it has lost two-thirds of its value since June 2011 as U.S and European economic sanctions bite hard into the country’s oil exports. The government blames the rout on speculators.

According to Charles Robertson at Renaissance Capital,  the rial’s tumble to record lows  and inflation running around 25 percent may be an indicator that Iran is moving towards regime change.  Robertson reminds us of his report from back in March where he pointed out that autocratic countries with a falling per capita income are more likely to move towards democracy. (Click here for what we wrote on this topic at the time)

He says today:

The renewed collapse of the currency recently suggests sanctions are working towards that end.

UK investors warm to European stocks

British investors are warming up to European equities, with the highest level of positive or rather positive views of the troubled bloc’s stocks in a year, an online survey by Baring Asset Management shows:

The biggest rise in sentiment was seen towards European equities, with over half (53%) of respondents saying they were now either ‘quite’ or ‘very’ favourable, up from 42% in the last survey and the most favourable they have been towards the European equity sector for a year.

UK investors remain more positive on stocks from emerging markets, the United States and Asia ex-Japan, but with ratings down from the previous poll three months ago, and UK equities are also viewed more favourably. The poll answered by just over 100 respondents between Aug 22-Sept 19 shows the euro zone crisis is still considered the biggest global economic challenge.

LIPPER: Performance fees and apologies

As Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister is finding, apologising when you have let people down is no simple matter. The worry for some absolute return funds must be that they are heading for a similar fate to Nick Clegg (even if they’re unlikely to suffer the same level of autotuned mockery).

One of the reasons for the rise of absolute return funds – those seeking to deliver positive returns in all market conditions – is that the industry has been trying to deal directly with client expectations left shattered by the financial crisis.

On top of their investment objectives, one way that absolute return funds say they have tried to better align investor and fund manager interests is by the use of performance-related fees, paid as a proportion of a fund’s returns, not a fixed percentage of assets (although pretty much all funds will charge the latter fee too). But do performance fees actually help to deliver more consistently positive returns, and do they do this for lower levels of risk? Or, much like making ill-advised promises about tuition fees, do performance fees actually make it more likely that a fund manager will have to say sorry down the line?

This week in EM, expect more doves

With the U.S. Fed having cranked up its printing presses, there seems little to stop emerging central banks from extending their own rate cut campaigns this week.

The most interesting meeting promises to be in the Czech Republic. We saw some extraordinary verbal intervention last week from Governor Miroslav Singer, implying not only a rate cut but also recourse to “unconventional” monetary loosening tools. Of the 21 analysts polled by Reuters, 18 are expecting a rate cut on Thursday to a record low 0.25 percent.  Indeed, in a world of currency wars, a rate cut could be just what the recession-mired Czech economy needs. But Singer’s deputy, Moimir Hampl,  has muddled the waters by refuting the need for any unusual policies or even rate cuts.  Expect a heated debate (forward markets are siding with Singer and pricing a rate cut).

Hungary is a closer call, with 16 out of 21 analysts in a Reuters poll predicting an on-hold decision. The central bank board (MPC) is split too. Analysts at investment bank SEB point out that last month’s somewhat surprising rate cut was down to the four central bank board members appointed by the government. These four outvoted Governor Andras Simor and his two deputies who had favoured holding rates steady, given rising inflation. (Inflation is running at 6 percent, double the target).  That could happen again, given the government just last week reiterated the need for “lower interest rates and ample credit.  So SEB analysts write: