Global Investing

Competitive, moi? Turkey jumps up the league

Switzerland tops the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness league for the fourth year running, according to the latest survey out today, while the United States is slipping down the table because of political and economic problems.

But quite a few emerging market countries are jumping up the league.

Charles Robertson at Renaissance Capital highlights Turkey and Nigeria as some of the best performers in the last year, rising 16 and 12 places respectively in the index, which is based on 12 measures, including infrastructure, macro-economic environment, and market size.

Turkey has moved into 43rd place, above Brazil and India. Nigeria has only reached 115th, but it trumps other sub-Saharan African countries like Mozambique and Uganda.

Turkey’s stockmarket has risen a staggering 32 percent this year (where broader emerging markets are only up 2 percent), despite well-documented troubles within the euro zone, the country’s main trading partner, and a civil war in neighbouring Syria.

“From a top-down view, Turkey does not look very good,” says  Xavier Hovasse, fund manager at Carmignac. But Hovasse adds that the country has been quick to shift some of its export sector away from the euro zone and towards the more buoyant Middle East, and has successfully competed there with exporters from countries like South Korea.

No policy easing this week in Turkey and Chile

More and more emerging central banks have been embarking on the policy easing path in recent weeks. But Chile and Turkey which hold rate-setting meetings this Thursday are not expected to emulate them. Both are expected to hold interest rates steady for now.

In Chile, the interest rate futures market is pricing in that the central bank will keep interest rates steady at 5 percent for the seventh month in a row. Most local analysts surveyed by Reuters share that view. Chile’s economy, like most of its emerging peers is slowing, hit by a potential slowdown in its copper exports to Asia but it is still expected at a solid 4.6 percent in the third quarter. Inflation is running at 2.5 percent, close to the lower end of the central bank’s  percent target band.

Turkey is a bit more tricky. Here too, most analysts surveyed by Reuters expect no change to any of the central bank rates though some expect it to allow banks to hold more of their reserves in gold or hard currency. The Turkish policy rate has in fact become largely irrelevant as the central bank now tightens or loosens policy at will via daily liquidity auctions for banks. And for all its novelty, the policy appears to have worked — Turkey’s monstrous current account deficit has contracted sharply and data  this week showed the June deficit was the smallest since last August. Inflation too is well off its double-digit highs.

Pay votes update… Spring takes a fall?

A few months ago, at the height of the British AGM season, we ran some numbers on shareholder protest votes over executive pay.

It seemed striking at the time that despite all the talk of revolution, the average vote against FTSE 100 companies’ remuneration reports had only edged higher, to 8.2% from 8.0% in 2011.

This week I’ve been catching up on the AGMs which have taken place since May, giving us a decent quorum of 92 companies, and the results are even more startling.

Shadow over Shekel

Israel’s financial markets had a torrid time on Monday as swirling rumours of an imminent air strike on Iran caused investors to flee. The shekel lost 1.4 percent, the Tel Aviv stock exchange fell 1.5 percent and credit default swaps, reflecting the cost of insuring exposure to a credit, surged almost 10 percent.

There has been a modest recovery today as the rumour mills wind down. But analysts reckon more weakness lies ahead for the shekel which is not far off three-year lows.  Political risks aside, the central bank has been cutting interest rates and is widely expected to take interest rates, currently at 2.25 percent, down to 1.75 percent by year-end. Societe Generale analysts are among the many recommending short shekel positions against the dollar. They say:

Expect the dovish stance of the Bank of Israel to remain well entrenched for now.

Put down and Fed up

Given almost biblical gloom about the world economy at the moment, you really have to do a double take looking at Wall Street’s so-called “Fear Index”. The ViX , which is essentially the cost of options on S&P500 equities, acts as a geiger counter for both U.S. and global financial markets.  Measuring implied volatility in the market, the index surges when the demand for options protection against sharp moves in stock prices is high and falls back when investors are sufficiently comfortable with prevailing trends to feel little need to hedge portfolios. In practice — at least over the past 10 years — high volatility typically means sharp market falls and so the ViX goes up when the market is falling and vice versa. And because it’s used in risk models the world over as a proxy for global financial risk, a rising ViX tends to shoo investors away from risky assets while a falling ViX pulls them in — feeding the metronomic risk on/risk off behaviour in world markets and, arguably, exaggerating dangerously pro-cyclical trading and investment strategies.

Well, the “Fear Index” last night hit its lowest level since the global credit crisis erupted five-years ago to the month.  Can that picture of an anxiety-free investment world really be accurate? It’s easy to dismiss it and blame a thousand “technical factors” for its recent precipitous decline.  On the other hand,  it’s also easy to forget the performance of the underlying market has been remarkable too. Year-to-date gains on Wall St this year have been the second best since 1998. And while the U.S. and world economies hit another rough patch over the second quarter, the incoming U.S. economic data is far from universally poor and many economists see activity stabilising again.

But is all that enough for the lowest level of “fear” since the fateful August of 2007? The answer is likely rooted in another sort of “put” outside the options market — the policy “put”, essentially the implied insurance the Fed has offered investors by saying it will act again to print money and buy bonds in a third round of quantitative easing (QE3) if the economy or financial market conditions deteriorate sharply again. Reflecting this “best of both worlds” thinking, the latest monthly survey of fund managers by Bank of America Merrill Lynch says a net 15% more respondents expect the world economy to improve by the end of the year than those who expect it to deteriorate but almost 50 percent still believe the Fed will deliver QE3 before 2012 is out.  In other words, things will likely improve gradually in the months ahead and if they don’t the Fed will be there to catch us.

Norwegians piling into Korean bonds

One of the stories of this year has been the stupendous rally on emerging local currency debt, fuelled in part by inflows from institutional investors tired of their zero or negative-return investments in Western debt.  Norway’s sovereign wealth fund said last week for instance that it was dumping some European bonds and spending more of its $600 billion war chest in emerging markets.

Quite a bit of that cash is going to South Korea. Regulators in Seoul recently reported a hefty rise in foreigners’ bond holdings (see here for the Reuters story) and  Societe Generale has a note out dissecting the data, which shows that total foreign holdings of Korean bonds are now worth around $79 billion — back at levels seen last July.  Norwegians emerged as the biggest buyers last month,  picking up bonds worth 1.5 trillion won ($1.3 billion) , almost double what they purchased in the entire first half of 2012. Norway’s holdings of Korean Treasuries now total 2.29 trillion won, up from just 190 billion won at the end of 2011.

The growing interest from overseas investors would seem logical — South Korea stands on the cusp between emerging and developed markets, with sound policies, a current account surplus and huge currency reserves. And Socgen analyst Wee-Khoon Chong says the Norwegian crown’s recent strength against other currencies makes such overseas trades more attractive (the crown is up 6 percent versus the euro this year and has gained 5.3 percent to the Korean won). “Norwegians are the newbies into the KTB market,” Chong says. “They are probably recycling their FX reserves.”

Emerging corporate debt tips the scales

Time was when investing in emerging markets meant buying dollar bonds issued by developing countries’ governments.

How old fashioned. These days it’s more about emerging corporate bonds, if the emerging market gurus at JP Morgan are to be believed. According to them, the stock of debt from emerging market companies now exceeds that of dollar bonds issued by emerging governments for the first time ever.

JP Morgan, which runs the most widely used emerging debt indices, says its main EM corporate bond benchmark, the CEMBI Broad, now lists $469 billion in corporate bonds.  That compares to $463 billion benchmarked to its main sovereign dollar bond index, the EMBI Global. In fact, the entire corporate debt market (if one also considers debt that is not eligible for the CEMBI) is now worth $974 billion, very close to the magic $1 trillion mark. Back in 2006, the figure was at$340 billion.  JPM says:

Olympic medal winners — and economies — dissected

The Olympic medals have all been handed out and the athletes are on their way home.  Which countries surpassed expectations and which ones did worse than expected? And did this have anything to do with the state of their economies?

An extensive Goldman Sachs report entitled Olympics and Economics  (a regular feature before each Olympic Games) predicted before the Games kicked off that the United States would top the tally with 36 gold medals. It also said the top 10 would include five G7 countries (the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy), two BRICs (China and Russia), one of the developing countries it dubs Next-11  (South Korea), and one additional developed and emerging market. These would be Australia and Ukraine, it said.

Close enough, except that Hungary took the place of Ukraine as the emerging economy in the Top 10 and the United States actually took 46 gold medals — more than Goldman had predicted.

Aussie: reserve managers’ new favourite

Lucky Australia. In a world of slowing economic growth its central bank today raised forecasts for 2012 GDP growth by a half point to 3.5 percent. That’s down to a mining boom, driven of course by China. But there’s a downside. Australia’s currency, the dollar (or affectionately, the Aussie), has steadily risen in recent years, and is up 3 percent versus the U.S. dollar this year. Unsurprisingly, the Reserve Bank of Australia tempered its good news on growth with a warning over the Aussie’s gains.

Analysts at Credit Agricole note that the Aussie’s gains this year have come in tandem with a rise in Japan’s yen. That in itself would have been highly unusual in the past: the yen is a so-called safe haven, the currency investors run to when all else is selling off, while the Aussie is a commodity currency, one that does well when world growth is looking good and risk appetite is high. CA analysts explain thus:

The role of the (Aussie) is probably changing from a traditional commodity currency to an increasingly attractive reserve currency.

Risk spills over in Middle East

There’s little or nothing to put your money into in Iran or Syria, and countries like Egypt and Tunisia are struggling to win investors back after their Arab Spring uprisings last year. But geopolitical risk is also seeping into other countries in the Middle East.

Lebanon is looking a tricky bet, as the country has seen clashes between supporters and opponents of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the border region has been used by rebels to smuggle arms into Syria and take refuge from Syrian troops.

Farouk Soussa, Middle East economist at Citi in Dubai, says:

Syria is having a very big impact on people’s perceptions of risk in Lebanon. There is an increasing risk that if we do have regime change in Syria, it could mean change in Lebanon.