Global Investing

Banks cannot ease Ukraine’s reserve pain

The latest data from Ukraine shows its hard currency reserves fell $2 billion over November to $18.9 billion. That’s perilously low by any measure. (Check out this graphic showing how poorly Ukraine’s reserve adequacy ratios compare with other emerging markets: http://link.reuters.com/quq25v)

Central banks often have tricks to temporarily boost reserves, or at least, to give the impression that they are doing so. Turkey, for instance, allows commercial banks to keep some of their lira reserve requirements in hard currency and gold. Others may get friendly foreign central banks to deposit some cash. Yet another ploy is to issue T-bills in hard currency to mop up banks’ cash holdings. But it may be hard for Ukraine to do any of this says Exotix economist Gabriel Sterne, who has compared the Ukraine national bank’s plight with that of Egypt.

Ukraine and Egypt have both balked at signing up to IMF loan programmes because these  would require them to cut back on subsidies. But latest data shows Egypt’s reserves have risen to $17.8 billion from just over $10 billion in July, while Ukraine’s have declined from $22.9 billion. Egyptian import cover has also risen to 2.6 months while Ukraine now has enough cash to fund less than 2 months of imports (Back in July it was 3 months)
Sterne says:

In Egypt, there is more scope for authorities to issue dollar T-bills to mop up dollars. But Ukrainian commercial banks’ net foreign assets are negative, in contrast with Egypt.

He estimates that as of September, Ukrainian commercial banks’ net foreign assets — the value of their overseas assets, minus the value of their  assets owned by foreigners — at minus $8 billion (they own $16 billion worth of overseas assets while their liabilities amount to $28 billion. Egyptian private banks, on the other hand, have a net foreign position of $2.4 billion and are therefore in a better position, Sterne says.  As we point out here, Ukraine’s central bank has been leaning on commercial banks to cough up dollars but given their own position, this may not get too far.

The hryvnia is all right

The fate of Ukraine’s hryvnia currency hangs by a thread. Will that thread break?

The hryvnia’s crawling peg has so far held as the central bank has dipped steadily into its reserves to support it. But the reserves are dwindling and political unrest is growing. Forwards markets are therefore betting on quite a sizeable depreciation  (See graphic below from brokerage Exotix).

 

The thing to remember is that the key to avoiding a messy devaluation lies not with the central bank but with a country’s households. As countless emerging market crises over decades have shown, currency crises occur when people lose trust in their currency and leadership, withdraw their savings from banks and convert them into hard currency.  That is something no central bank can fight. Now Ukraine’s households hold over $50 billion in bank deposits, according to calculations by Exotix. Of this a third is in hard currency (that’s without counting deposits by companies).  But despite all the ruckus there is no sign of long queues outside banks or currency exchange points, scenes familiar to emerging market watchers.

Emerging stocks lose again in November

By Shadi Bushra

After years of basking in their reputation as high-return hot spots, 2013 could be the year emerging equity markets finally lost their magic touch. Last month continued the litany of losses — seventeen of the 20 emerging markets listed on S&P Dow Jones indices ended November in the red, the index provider says. Contrast that with developed markets’ fortunes last month– 18 of the markets listed by the index rose, while eight fell.

So last month’s scores: Emerging stocks – down 2 percent; Developed stocks – up 1.6 percent. And for 2013 as a whole, emerging stocks are down 3 percent while developed markets are up a whopping 22 percent, approaching their 2007 peaks, according to S&P Dow Jones.

While each of the emerging market countries has their own unique cauldron of political and economic issues affecting their stocks’ performance, there is common ground too – the expected tapering of U.S. monetary stimulus.  The hardest-hit emerging countries were those that have too much exposure to investors in developed countries, who may move their money from the developing world once the cheap money begins to dry up.  Worst off was Indonesia where equities fell nearly 13 percent in November, and on the year they are down more than 23 percent.

Perfect storm brewing for the rouble

A perfect storm seems to be brewing for the Russian rouble. It has tumbled to four-year lows against a euro-dollar basket. Against the dollar, it has lost around 7 percent so far this year, faring better than many other emerging currencies. But signs are that next year will bring more turmoil.

While oil prices, the mainstay of Russia’s economy, are holding up, Russian growth is not. It is running at 1.3 percent so far this year and capital outflows continue unabated — $48 billion is estimated to have fled the country in the first nine months of 2013 compared with $55 billion in 2012. Russia’s mighty current account surplus has shrunk to barely nothing and could fall into deficit by the middle of next year, reckons Alfa Bank economist Natalia Orlova. Finally, the rouble can no longer count on the central bank for wholehearted day-to-day support. FX market interventions cost the bank $3.5 billion last month  but it also shifted the exchange-rate corridor upwards six times, indicating it is keen to move to a fully flexible currency.

Orlove also estimates that around $150 billion in overseas debt payments are due in 2014 for Russian corporates. She adds:

Revitalised West knocks Brazil, Russia off global growth Top-30

By Shadi Bushra

Yet another sign of the growth convergence between developed and emerging markets. Two  of the “BRIC’ countries have dropped out of the Top-30 in a growth index compiled by political risk consultancy Maplecroft, while several Western powerhouses have nudged their way onto the list.

Maplecroft’s 2014 Growth Opportunities Atlas showed that Brazil and Russia — the B and R of the BRIC bloc — had dropped 26 and 41 places, respectively – due to slow economic reforms and diversification.  The United States, Australia and Germany meanwhile broke into the top 30 on the  index, which evaluates 173 countries on their growth prospects over the next 20 years.

The study’s results are indicative of the broader pattern this year of an emerging markets slowdown after years of robust growth fuelled by cheap money from the West and a decade of booming trade. But the two other BRIC countries — India and China — have retained their top spots, albeit with lower absolute scores. And India overtook China for first place due to its “catch-up growth potential,”  Maplecroft’s report said.

Iran: Brazil of the Middle East?

Last weekend’s interim deal between Iran and world powers opens up an opportunity for a revitalised Iran to use its economic influence to advance its interests, and some other countries in the region should benefit.

If negotiators reach a comprehensive agreement that lifts sanctions, Iran will strengthen its position as an economic power, a prospect that Israel and the Arab monarchies do not welcome, but that may bode well for Turkish growth and a relief of broader Middle East tensions, according to Noah Capital Markets strategist Emad Mostaque.

Comparing an Iran unencumbered by sanctions to a “Brazil of the Middle East,” Mostaque says the isolated country’s natural resources, educated populace, and industrial capacity mean it will see significant foreign investment if the spectre of a war with the West were to disappear completely:

Steroids, punch bowls and the music still playing: stocks dance into 2014

Four years into the stock market party fueled by a punch bowl overflowing with trillions of dollars of central bank liquidity, you’d think a hangover might be looming.

But almost all of the fund managers attending the London leg of the Reuters Global Investment Summit this week – with some $4 trillion of assets under management – say the party will continue into 2014.

Pascal Blanque, chief investment officer at Amundi Asset Management with over $1 trillion of assets under management, reckons markets are in a “sweet spot … largely on steroids with the backing of the central banks.”

Red year for emerging bonds

What a dire year for emerging debt. According to JPMorgan, which runs the most widely run emerging bond indices, 2013 is likely to be the first year since 2008 that all three main emerging bond benchmarks end the year in the red.

So far this year, the bank’s EMBIG index of sovereign dollar bonds is down around 7 percent while local debt has fared even worse, with losses of around 8.5 percent, heading for only the third year of negative return since inception. JPMorgan’s CEMBI index of emerging market corporate bonds is down 2 percent for the year.

 

While incoming Fed boss Janet Yellen has assured markets that she doesn’t intend to turn off the liquidity taps any time soon, JPMorgan still expects U.S. Treasury yields to end the year at 2.85 percent (from 2.7 percent now). That would result in total returns for the EMBIG at minus 7 percent, the CEMBI  at minus 2 percent and GBI-EM at minus 7-9 percent, JPMorgan analysts calculate.

Barclays sees 20 pct rise in EM bond supply in 2014

Sales of dollar bonds by emerging governments may surge 20 percent over 2013 levels, analysts at Barclays calculate.  They predict $94 billion in bond issuance in 2014 compared to $77 billion that seems likely this year. In net terms –excluding amortisations and redemptions — that will come to $29 billion, almost double this year’s $16 billion.

According to them, the increase in issuance stems from bigger financing needs in big markets such as Russia and Indonesia along with more supply from the frontiers of Africa. Another reason is that local currency emerging bond markets, where governments have been meeting a lot of their funding needs, are also now struggling to absorb new supply.

The increase is unlikely to sit well with investors — appetite for emerging assets is poor at present, EM bond funds have witnessed six straight months of outflows and above all, the projected rise in sovereign supply will come on top of projected corporate bond issuance of over $300 billion, similar to this year’s levels. (See graphic)

Why did the market get the Fed and ECB so wrong?

To err once is unfortunate. To err twice looks like carelessness.
One of the great mysteries of 2013 will surely be how economists, investors and market participants of all stripes so spectacularly misread two of the biggest central bank policy set-pieces of the year.
The first was the Federal Reserve’s decision in September not to begin withdrawing its $85 billion-a-month bond-buying stimulus, the second was the European Central Bank’s decision in November to cut interest rates to a fresh low of just 0.25 percent.
The Fed’s decision on Sept. 18 not to “taper” stunned markets. The 10-year Treasury yield recorded its biggest one-day fall in almost two years, and the prospect of continued stimulus has since propelled Wall Street to fresh record highs. (See graphic, click to enlarge)


A Reuters poll on Sept. 9 showed that 49 of 69 economists expected the Fed to taper the following week, a consensus reached after Ben Bernanke said on May 22 that withdrawal of stimulus could start at one of “the next few meetings”.
But tapering was – and still is – always dependent on the data. And throughout this year, the Bernanke-Yellen-Dudley triumvirate has consistently noted that the labour market is extremely weak and the recovery uncertain.
Going into the Sept. 18 policy meeting unemployment was above 7 percent and the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation was well below target, barely more than 1 percent.
Plus, a simple read of the Fed’s statutory mandate of achieving “maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates” should have dispelled the notion a reduction in stimulus was imminent.
“People just didn’t want to listen. They just didn’t believe that they have to follow the data. They’ve not been listening, and it’s really hard to understand why,” said David Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College in the United States and former policymaker at the Bank of England.
It was a similar story with the ECB’s interest rate cut on Nov. 7 which only three leading banks – UBS, RBS and Bank of America-Merrill Lynch – correctly predicted.
These three institutions quickly adjusted their forecasts after shock figures on October 31 showed euro zone inflation plunging to a four-year low of 0.7 percent, triggering the euro’s biggest one-day fall in over six months.


By anyone’s measure, 0.7 percent falls some way short of the “below, but close to, 2% over the medium term” inflation rate stipulated in the ECB’s mandate.
So why did the highly paid experts get it so wrong again?
Herd mentality might have something to do with it.
“It’s great if you’re all right together, and equally great if you’re all wrong together,” Blanchflower said.
It’s like a fund manager who loses 20 percent in a year where the market is down 21 percent. He might have screwed up, but so did everyone else. And technically, he outperformed the market so can claim to have “earned” his large fees.
To be fair, some of the central banks’ communication this year hasn’t been quite as clear as intended. See Bernanke’s comments on May 22 and recent confusion over the Bank of England’s “forward guidance”.
If one of the aims of forward guidance is to avoid volatility and variance of opinion about the trajectory of policy, then this kind of spectacular misread is an indictment of forward guidance.
In addition, since Draghi’s famous “whatever it takes” speech in July last year, the ECB has always had the potential to catch the market off-guard.
But maybe we shouldn’t be so charitable, and the market’s wailing at being misled by the central banks should be taken on board but ultimately ignored. The tail should not wag the dog.
“The Fed can’t be or shouldn’t be a prisoner of the markets,” we were reminded on Thursday, by none other than Fed Chair-elect Janet Yellen.