Global Investing

Surprise winner in frontier debt last year

Which was the best performer in emerging bond markets last year?  The sector had a pretty torrid year overall, with sovereign dollar bonds finishing 2013 almost 7 percent in the red. But there were exceptions.

The best returns were to be had – hold your breath — in little-watched Belize, a member of JPMorgan’s NEXGEM frontier debt index. Someone who bought Belize debt at the start of last year would have been in the money, with gains of 50 percent, though the returns were in fact down to the restructuring of Belize debt early last year.

Second on the list was Argentina, despite court wranglings over hold-out funds from the country’s 2002 default.

Just as frontier stocks  outstripped emerging stocks in 2013 (Bulgaria was top dog in that index), the NEXGEM index as a whole outperformed emerging debt, enjoying returns of 5 percent last year.  Interestingly, the top 10 also included Ecuador, Jamaica and Cote d’Ivoire, three other countries that have been in default in the recent past.  

According to JP Morgan analysts:

NEXGEM issuers are likely to continue to come to market, with 16 countries forecast to issue a total of $14.8 billion in 2014, which would be a 40 percent increase from 2013

A guide to North Korean “elections” – due in March

Investors are bracing themselves this year for elections in all of “Fragile Five” countries and a number of other emerging nations that are adding political concerns to those economies already vulnerable to capital flight risks.

Perhaps a lesser-known political event that is coming up in 2014 is in North Korea, which will hold “elections” for its parliament on March 9.

The polls will elect members of the country’s rubber-stamping Supreme People’s Assembly for the first time since 2009 and also for the first time since Kim Jong-Un — the third generation of his family to rule the Stalinist state — took leadership in 2011.

Market cap of EM debt indices still rising

It wasn’t a good year for emerging market bonds, with all three main debt benchmarks posting negative returns for the first time since 2008. But the benchmark indices run by JPMorgan nevertheless saw a modest increase in market capitalisation, and assets of the funds that benchmark to these indices also rose.

JPMorgan says its index family — comprising EMBI Global dollar bond indices, the CEMBI group listing corporate debt and the GBI-EM index of local currency emerging bonds — ended 2013 with a combined market cap of $2.8 trillion, a 2 percent increase from end-2012. Take a look at the following graphic which shows the rise in the market cap since 2001:

Last year’s rise was clearly much slower than during previous years.  It was driven mainly by the boom in corporate bonds, which witnessed record $350 billion-plus issuance last year, taking the market cap of the CEMBI to $716 billion compared to $620 billion at the end of 2012, JPM said.

BRIC-layer makes MINT

Former Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill, deviser of the BRIC acronym uniting the emerging market giants of Brazil, Russia, India and China, has coined a new term – MINT.

In a series of BBC radio programmes starting today, O’Neill looks at the “next economic giants” of Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey. It’s a break-out of four of the countries from his previously-coined Next-11, which also included Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam.

O’Neill, who retired last year from his role as chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management (after spending too much time looking at Reuters), says on the BBC website that the MINT economies benefit from favourable geographical locations and, in some cases, reform-minded politicians:

Waiting for current account improvement in Turkey

The fall in Turkey’s lira to record lows is raising jitters among foreign investors who will have lost a good deal of money on the currency side of their stock and bond investments.  They are also worrying about the response of the central bank, which has effectively ruled out large rate hikes to stabilise the currency. But can the 20 percent lira depreciation seen since May 2013 help correct the country’s balance of payments gap?

Turkey’s current account deficit is its Achilles heel . Without a large domestic savings pool, that deficit tends to blow out whenever growth quickens and the lira strengthens . That leaves the country highly vulnerable to a withdrawal of foreign capital. Take a look at the following graphic (click on it to enlarge) :

In theory, a weaker Turkish lira should help cut the deficit which has expanded to over 7 percent of GDP.  Let us compare the picture with 2008 when the lira plunged around 25 percent against the dollar in the wake of the Lehman crisis. At the time the deficit was not far short of current levels at around 6 percent of GDP.  By September 2009 though, this gap had shrunk by two-thirds to around 2 percent of GDP.

The annus horribilis for emerging markets

Last year was one that most emerging market investors would probably like to forget.  MSCI’s main equity index fell 5 percent, bond returns were 6-8 percent in the red and some currencies lost up to 20 percent against the dollar.  Here are some flow numbers  from EPFR Global, the Boston-based agency that released some provisional  annual data to its clients late last week.

While funds dedicated to developed markets — equities and bonds –  received inflows amounting to over 7 percent of their assets under management (AUM), funds investing in emerging stocks lost more than 6 percent of their AUM.

In absolute terms, that amounted to a loss of $15.4 billion for emerging equity funds , banks said citing the EPFR data.

Less merging in emerging markets last year

Last year was not the best for mergers in emerging markets, according to Thomson Reuters data, which shows  mergers & acquisition activity down 4.6 percent from 2012 to $675.2 billion. The number of deals fell even more – by 11.3 percent to 12,748.

The drop-off in emerging M&A activity mirrors a 5 percent fall in the benchmark MSCI emerging stocks index last year, with investors more fearful about the emerging market growth outlook. But unlike stock market performance, emerging market deal activity outstripped the global total, which was down 6 percent from 2012 levels.

The biggest emerging market deal was Brazilian Grupo Oi’s $16 billion planned takeover over of Portugal Telecom,  Thomson Reuters said.

Ukraine aid may pay off for Kremlin

Ukraine said today it was issuing a $3 billion in two-year Eurobonds at a yield of 5 percent in what seems to the start of a bailout deal with Russia. That sounds like a good deal for Kiev — its Eurobond maturing next year is trading at at a yield of 8 percent and it could not reasonably expect to tap bond markets for less than that. In addition,  Ukraine is also  getting a gas price discount from Russia that will provide an annual saving of $2.6 billion or so.

But what about Russia? Whether the bailout was motivated by “brotherly love” as Putin claims or by geo-politics, it sounds like a rotten deal for Moscow. The credit will earn it 5 percent on what is at best a risky investment. What’s more the money will come out of its rainy day fund which had been earmarked to cover future pension deficits. State gas company Gazprom will have to stomach a 30 percent price cut, which according to Barclays analysts is “a reminder of the risks of Gazprom’s quasi-sovereign status.”

But there could be positives.

Putin is clearly playing a long game that aims not only at giving the Kremlin tighter political control over Ukraine but also to bring it back into the Russian gas sales orbit and eventually create a bigger trade bloc encompassing Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, says Christopher Granville, managing director of consultancy Trusted Sources in London.

Watanabes shop for Brazilian real, Mexican peso

Are Mr and Mrs Watanabe preparing to return to emerging markets in a big way?

Mom and pop Japanese investors, collectively been dubbed the Watanabes, last month snapped up a large volume of uridashi bonds (bonds in foreign currencies marketed to small-time Japanese investors),  and sales of Brazilian real uridashi rose last month to the highest since July 2010, Barclays analysts say, citing official data.

Just to remind ourselves, the Watanabes have made a name for themselves as canny players of the interest rate arbitrage between the yen and various high-yield currencies. The real was a red-hot favourite and their frantic uridashi purchases in 2007 and 2009-2011 was partly behind Brazil’s decision to slap curbs on incoming capital. Their ardour has cooled in the past two years but the trade is far from dead.

With the Bank of Japan’s money-printing keeping the yen weak and pushing down yields on domestic bonds, it is no surprise that the Watanabes are buying more foreign assets. But if their favourites last year were euro zone bonds (France was an especially big winner)  they seem to be turning back towards emerging markets, lured possibly by the improvement in economic growth and the rising interest rates in some countries. And Brazil has removed those capital controls.

Russia’s people problem

President Vladimir Putin is generally fond of blaming the West for the ills besetting Russia. This week though, he admitted in his State of the Nation speech that the roots of Russia’s sluggish economy may lie at home rather than abroad.  The government expects the economy to expand a measly 1.4 percent this year (less than half of the growth the US is likely to see) and long-term growth estimates have been trimmed to 2.5 percent a year.

Much of that is down to the lack of reform which has left many big companies in the state’s (generally wasteful) hands, weak rule of law that deters investment and capital flight to the tune of tens of billions of dollars a year. Yet there is another factor that could be harder to fix — Russia’s poor demographic profile. The population started declining sharply in the early 1990s amid political and economic turmoil, falling by 3.4 million in the 2000-2010 decade, according to census data. The impact is set to be felt sharply from now on, exactly when children born in 1990s would have started entering the workforce.

The consequences are already being felt. Russia will close more than 700 schools this year for lack of pupils and the jobless rate has dipped to a record low of around 5 percent, not because the economy is booming but because the country is running out of people who can take the jobs.