Global Investing

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.

“The poor are suffering more because of climate change than anybody else,” says Scott Brown, president and CEO of microfinance company VisionFund International.

“The world is struggling with disaster insurance, it could be flood, drought, earthquake. The challenge is to try and get a product.”

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:

Obama better bet for US stocks?

The wealthy in the United States have a reputation for being firmly on the side of the Republican Party, but maybe they shouldn’t be for the November presidential election.

According to Tom Stevenson, investment director at asset manager Fidelity Worldwide Investments, past evidence points to Democrat Barack Obama as possibly the more lucrative bet for equity  investors.  He says:

Looking at stock market performance following the last 12 elections suggests that investors should, in the short term at least, be rooting for an Obama victory. History shows that markets tend to rally after a win for the incumbent party by more than 10% on average, but fall modestly if the challenger is successful.

Fed re-ignites currency war (or currency skirmish)

The currency war is back.

Since last week when the Fed started its third round of money-printing (QE3), policymakers in emerging markets have been busily talking down their own currencies or acting to curb their rise. These efforts may gather pace now that Japan has also increased its asset-buying programme, with expectations that the extra liquidity unleashed by developed central banks will eventually find its way into the developing world.

The alarm over rising currencies was reflected in an unusual verbal intervention this week by the Czech central bank, with governor Miroslav Singer hinting at  more policy loosening ahead, possibly with the help of unconventional policy tools. Prague is not generally known for currency interventions — analysts at Societe Generale point out its last direct interventions were conducted as far back as 2001-2002.  Even verbal intervention is quite rate — it last resorted to this on a concerted basis in 2009, SoGen notes. Singer’s words had a strong impact — the Czech crown fell almost 1 percent against the euro.

The stakes are high — the Czech economy is a small, open one, heavily reliant on exports which make up 75 percent of its GDP. But Singer is certainly not alone in his efforts to tamp down his currency. Turkey’s 100 basis point cut to its overnight lending rate on Tuesday (and hints of more to come) was essentially a currency-weakening move. And Poland has hinted at entering its own bond market in case of “market turmoil”

Carry currencies to tempt central banks

Central bankers as carry traders? Why not.

As we wrote here yesterday, FX reserves at global central banks may be starting to rise again. That’s a consequence of a pick up in portfolio investment flows in recent weeks and is likely to continue after the U.S. Fed’s announcement of its QE3 money-printing programme.

According to analysts at ING, the Fed’s decision to restart its printing presses will first of all increase liquidity (some of which will find its way into central bank coffers). Second, it also tends to depress volatility and lower volatility encourages the carry trade. Over the next 12 months these  two themes will combine as global reserve managers twin their efforts to keep their money safe and still try to make a return, ING predicts, dubbing it a positive carry story.

The first problem is that yields are abysmal on traditional reserve currencies. That means any reserve managers keen to boost returns will try to diversify from the  dollar, euro, sterling and yen that constitute 90 percent of global reserves. Back in the spring of 2009 when the Fed scaled up QE1, its move depressed the dollar and drove reserve managers towards the euro, which was the most liquid alternative at the time. ING writes:

Emerging market FX reserves again on rise

One of the big stories of the past decade, that of staggering reserve accummulation by emerging market central banks, appeared to have ground to a halt as global trade and economic growth slumped. But according to Bank of America/Merrill Lynch, reserves are  starting to grow again for the first time since mid-2011.

The bank calculates that reserve accumulation by the top-50 emerging central banks should top $108 billion in September after strong inflows of around $13 billion in each of the first  two weeks. Look at the graphic below.

 

So what is the source of these inflows? As BoA/ML points out global trade balances are at their cyclical lows and that is reflected in the dwindling current account surpluses in the developing world. But as risk sentiment has improved in the past six weeks,  there has been a pick up in fixed income and equity investment flows to emerging markets, compared to the developed world.

No BRIC without China

Jim O’ Neill, creator of the BRIC investment concept, has been exasperated by repeated calls in the past to exclude one or another country from the quartet, based on either economic growth rates, equity performance or market structure. In the early years, Brazil’s eligibility for BRIC was often questioned due to its anaemic growth; then it was the turn of oil-dependent Russia. Over the past couple of years many turned their sights on India due to its reform stupor. They have suggested removing it and including Indonesia in its place.

All these detractors should focus on China.

China’s validity in BRIC has never been questioned. Aside from the fact that BRI does not really have a ring, that’s not surprising. China’s growth rates plus undoubted political and economic clout on the international stage put  it head and shoulders above the other three. And after all, it is Chinese demand which drives a large part of the Russian and Brazilian economies.

But its equity markets have not performed for years.

This year, Russian and Indian stocks are up around 20 percent in dollar terms while China has gained 9 percent and Brazil 3 percent. In local currency terms however China is among the worst performing emerging markets, down 5 percent. Brazil has risen 9 percent.