Global Investing

Korea shocks with rate cut but will it work?

Emerging market investors may have got used to policy surprises from Turkey’s central bank but they don’t expect them from South Korea. Such are the times, however, that the normally staid Bank of Korea shocked investors this morning with an interest rate cut,  the first in three years.  Most analysts had expected it to stay on hold. But with the global economic outlook showing no sign of lightening, the BoK probably felt the need to try and stimulate sluggish domestic demand. (To read coverage of today’s rate cut see here).

So how much impact is the cut going to have?  I wrote yesterday about Brazil, where eight successive rate cuts have borne little fruit in terms of stimulating economic recovery. Korea’s outcome could be similar but the reasons are different. The rate cut should help Korea’s indebted household sector. But for an economy heavily reliant on exports,  lower interest rates are no panacea,  more a reassurance that, as other central banks from China to the ECB to Brazil  ease policy, the BoK is not sitting on its hands.

Nomura economist Young-Sun Kwon says:

We do not think that rate cuts will be enough to reverse the downturn in the Korean economy which is largely dependent on exports.

Exports make up 53 percent of South Korea’s economy, World Bank data showed last year. That’s one of the highest rates in the world, far higher than China’s 29 percent or Brazil’s 12 percent. Nearly half these exports went to China. Europe and the United States –  growth is looking shaky in all these destinations.  Look at the figures to see how this is affecting Korea.   Exports grew 19 percent last year. But in 2012  export growth is estimated at 3.5 percent, half government’s initial forecast.  And correlation is high between exports and manufacturing — no wonder Korean factory activity shrank in June for the first time in five months.

Rather than reassure investors, the rate cut appears to have  spooked, with stock markets falling more than 2 percent and many analysts criticising the BoK for surprising markets.

SocGen poll unearths more EM bulls in July

These are not the best of times for emerging markets but some investors don’t seem too perturbed. According to Societe Generale,  almost half the clients it surveys in its monthly snap poll of investors have turned bullish on emerging markets’ near-term prospects. That is a big shift from June, when only 33 percent were optimistic on the sector. And less than a third of folk are bearish for the near-term outlook over the next couple of weeks, a drop of 20 percentage points over the past month.

These findings are perhaps not so surprising, given most risky assets have rallied off the lows of May.  And a bailout of Spain’s banks seems to have averted, at least temporarily, an immediate debt and banking crunch in the euro zone. What is more interesting is that despite a cloudy growth picture in the developing world, especially in the four big BRIC economies,  almost two-thirds of the investors polled declared themselves bullish on emerging markets in the medium-term (the next 3 months) . That rose to almost 70 percent for real money investors. (the poll includes 46 real money accounts and 45 hedge funds from across the world).

See the graphics below (click to enlarge):

Signals are positive on positioning as well with 38.5 percent of investors reckoning they were under-invested in emerging markets, compared to a quarter who felt they were over-invested. Again, real-money investors appeared more keen on emerging markets, with over 40 percent seeing themselves as under-invested. SocGen analysts write:

In Brazil, rate cuts but no economic recovery

Brazil’s central bank meets today and almost certainly will announce another half point cut in interest rates, the eighth consecutive reduction since last August. But so far there is little sign that its rate-cutting spree – the longest and most aggressive  in the developing world – is having much success in resuscitating the economy.

HSBC’s closely watched emerging markets index (EMI), released this week, shows Brazil as one of the weak links in the EM growth picture,  with sharp declines in manufacturing and export orders in the second quarter.

The government is expected to soon revise down its 4.5 percent growth projection for 2012; the central bank has already done so.  Industrial output is down, and automobile production has slumped 9 percent in the first half of 2012. Nor  it seems are record low interest rates encouraging the middle classes to take on more debt — the number of Brazilians seeking new credit fell 7.4 percent in the first half of this year, the biggest fall on record, according to credit research firm Seresa Experian.

European equities finding some takers

European equities are getting some investor interest again.

As the ongoing debt crisis erodes consumer spending and corporate profits, the euro zone’s share  in investors’ equity portfolios has fallen in the past year –Reuters polls show holdings of euro zone stocks at 25 percent versus over 36 percent a year back.  Cash has fled instead to U.S. stocks, opening up a record valuation gap between the European and U.S. shares. (see graphics below from my colleague Scott Barber). In fact no other region has ever been considered as cheap as the euro zone is now,  a monthly survey by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch found in June.

That could offer investors a powerful incentive to return, especially as there are signs of serious efforts to tackle the crisis by deploying the euro zone’s rescue fund.

Pioneer Investments has moved to an overweight position on European stocks. While Pioneer’s head of global asset allocation research Monica Defend stresses the overweight is a small one compared to, say, its position in emerging markets, she says:

Investors hungover after wine binge

During this depression, it would appear that investors are no longer finding solace in turning to the bottle.

Fine wines are being hit hard by the global downturn, with the Liv-ex Fine Wine 100 index down 7.4 percent on the year, according to July’s Cellar Watch Market Report.

The Liv-ex Bordeaux 500 was down by 3.4 percent month-on-month - an especially disappointing showing given that the market is usually energised in June by new Bordeaux releases.

Lipper: Getting serious about giving

“Wouldn’t you rather your donations achieve a lot rather than a little? Then you’ll need to get serious and proactive. If you do it wrong, you can easily waste your entire donation.”

Caroline Fiennes is not one to pull her punches when talking about charitable giving, but the more I talk to her, or read her new book – ‘It Ain’t What You Give It’s The Way That You Give It’ – the more it becomes apparent that her philosophy is not all that different from that of a professional fund manager.

No self-respecting fund manager would invest in a company just because they were asked to. A fund manager will choose to invest (or disinvest) because they believe it will help their fund perform well and that the investment fits within their investment objectives. Fiennes, who advises companies and individuals on their giving, advocates a similar approach for any donor: be clear about your objective and find organisations that have done a good job of achieving this, not just the ones that market themselves well.

Oil price slide – easy come, easy go?

One of the very few positives for the world economy over the second quarter — or at least for the majority of the world that imports oil — has been an almost $40 per barrel plunge in the spot price of Brent crude. As the euro zone crisis, yet another soft patch stateside and a worryingly steep slowdown in the BRICs all combined to pull the demand rug from under the energy markets, the traditional stabilising effects of oil returned to the fray. So much so that by the last week in June, the annual drop in oil prices was a whopping 20%. Apart from putting more money in household and business purses by directly lowering fuel bills and eventually the cost of products with high energy inputs, the drop in oil prices should have a significant impact on headline consumer inflation rates that are already falling well below danger rates seen last year. And for central banks around the world desperate to ease monetary policy and print money again to offset the ravages of deleveraging banks, this is a major relief and will amount to a green light for many — not least the European Central Bank which is now widely expected to cut interest rates again this Thursday.

Of course, disinflation and not deflation is what everyone wants. The latter would disastrous for still highly indebted western economies and would further reinforce comparisons with Japan’s 20 year funk. But on the assumption “Helicopter” Ben Bernanke at the U.S. Federal Reserve and his G20 counterparts are still as committed to fighting deflation at all costs, we can assume more easing is the pipeline — certainly if oil prices continue to oblige.  Latest data for May from the OECD give a good aggregate view across major economies. Annual inflation in the OECD area slowed to 2.1% in the year to May 2012, compared with 2.5% in the year to April 2012 – the lowest rate since January 2011. While this was heavily influenced by oil and food price drops, core prices also dipped below 2% to 1.9% in May.

JP Morgan economists Joseph Lupton and David Hensley, meantime, say their measure of global inflation is set to move below their global central bank target of 2.6% (which they aggregate across 26 countries)  for the first time since September 2010.

If Greece can, why can’t I?

We all know that Greece finally persuaded bondholders to swap their debt for new bonds this year, averting a messy default.

But Greece is not the only country to keep investors biting their nails in 2012 over the value of their holdings – frontier market sovereign borrowers have also been tinkering with their debt payments.

St Kitt’s, also a member of a monetary union in the Eastern Caribbean, like Greece completed a debt exchange offer in March.

Next Week: Managed expectations

Here’s a view of next week from our team’s weekly news planner:

Not unlike England’s performance at the Euro 2012 football tourament, EU summit expectations have been successfully lowered in advance by all concerned and  so it will be hard to disappoint as a result!

The gnawing realization in markets is that the really game-changing steps by Germany on some form of debt pooling now look unlikely before next year’s general election there and so investors may have to hang on tight to what can get done in the meantime if the system is to hold together. Yet for all the understandable policy scepticism, there are a lot of big changes on the table — from banking union, more flexible budget-cutting programs, infrastructure growth pushes, a roadmap at least to euro bonds and a euro finance ministry and the launch of the ESM next month (barring a last-minute torpedo from the German constitutional court at least).  It may be a little too easy to dismiss all that is happening just because there’s not going to be a grand instant fix ready for Monday. The ESM alone should have powerful stabilization powers for markets at least. What’s more, Merkel says ”over my dead body” to Euro bonds in one breath, and then “when conditions are right” in another. Assuming she’s referring to her political body, then even these may not be a million miles away.

But the saga has become as much about politics and personalities now as percentages and public opinion, and so you always have to factor in the chance of a major bust-up or row. Broad agreement itself, as a result, may be a relief for a bit come next week — at least until Thursday’s next Spanish debt auction!

Next week: Half time…

QE, some version of it or even the thought of it, seems to have raised all boats yet again — for a bit at least. You’d not really guess it from all the brinkmanship, crisis management and apocalyptic debates of the past month, but June has so far turned out to be a fairly upbeat month – weirdly. World equities are up more than 6 percent since June, lead by a 20 percent jump in European bank stocks and even a 20 percent jump in depressed Greek stocks. The Spanish may found themselves at the centre of the euro debt storm now, but even 10-year Spanish debt yields have returned to June 1 levels after briefly toying with record highs above 7%  in and around its own bank bailout and the Greek election. And the likes of Italian and Irish borrowing rates are actually down this month.  Ok, all that’s after a lousy May that blew up most of the LTRO-inspired first-quarter market gains. But, on a broad global level at least, stocks are still in the black for the year so far. It was certainly “sell in May” yet again this year, but it’s open question whether you stay away til St Ledgers day in September, as the hoary old adage would have it.

On the euro story, the Greeks didn’t go for the nuclear option last weekend at least and it looks like there are some serious proposals on the EU summit table for next week – talk of banking union, EFSF/ESM bond buying programmes, euro bills if not bonds, EIB infrastructure/project bonds to try and catalyse some growth,  and reasonable flexibility from Berlin and others on bailout austerity demands. The Fed has announced that it will twist again like it did last summer, by extending the Treasury yield curve programme by more than a quarter of a trillion dollars, and there are still hopes of it at least raising the prospect of more direct QE. The BoE is already chomping at that bit, as well as lending direct to SMEs, and most investors expect some further easing from the ECB in the weeks and months ahead.

Of course all that could disappoint once more and expectations are getting pumped up again as per June market performance numbers. The EU summit won’t deliver on everything, but there is some realization at least that they need to talk turkey on ways to prevent repeated rolling creditor strikes locking out governments out of the most basic of financing — only then have those very same creditors shun countries again when they agree to punishing fiscal adjustments. A credible growth plan helps a little but some pooling of debt looks unavoidable unless they seriously want to remain in perma-crisis for the rest of the year and probably many years to come. It may be a step too far before next year’s German elections, but surely even Berlin can now see that the bill gets ever higher the longer they wait.