Global Investing

It’s not end of the world at the Fragile Five

Despite all the doom and gloom surrounding capital-hungry Fragile Five countries, real money managers have not abandoned the ship at all.

Aberdeen Asset Management has overweight equity positions in Indonesia, India, Turkey and Brazil — that’s already 4 of the five countries that have come under market pressure because of their funding deficits.  The fund is also positive on Thailand and the Philippines.

Devan Kaloo, head of global emerging markets at Aberdeen, says these economies have well-run companies that are well positioned to adjust and enjoy slightly higher return on equity (ROE) than their developed counterparts. He says:

The current shakeout is forcing companies to focus on margins and cut costs, which would bring benefits in the long term. Corporates are more profitable than DM… If you are brave, Turkey has some fabulously run companies.

Even in Russia — where the rouble is possibly the next target of fast money speculators — there are well-run corporates, such as retail chain Magnit.

Venezuelan bonds — storing up problems

Last week’s victory for Miss Venezuela in a global beauty pageant was a rare bit of good news for the South American country. With a black market currency exchange rate that is 10 times the official level, shortages of staples, inflation over 50 percent and political turmoil, Venezuela certainly won’t win any investment pageants.

This week investors have rushed to dump Venezuela’s dollar bonds as the government ordered troops to occupy a store chain accused of price gouging. Many view this as a sign President Nicolas Maduro is gearing up to extend his control over the private sector.  Adding to the bond market’s problems are plans by state oil firm PDVSA to raise $4.5 billion in bonds next week. Yields on  Venezuelan sovereign bonds have risen over 100 basis points this week; returns for the year are minus 25 percent, almost half of that coming since the start of this month.  Five-year credit default swaps for Venezuela are at two-year highs, having risen more than 200 basis points in November. And bonds from PDVSA, which is essentially selling debt to bankroll the government and pay suppliers, rather than to fund investments, have tanked too.

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Double-digit yields and high oil prices have made bond funds relatively keen on Venezuela but the latest sell-off is forcing a rethink. JPMorgan analysts have cut their recommendation on the bonds to underweight:

Trading the new normal in India

After a ghastly 2011, Indian stock markets have’t done too badly this year despite the almost constant stream of bad news from India. They are up 12 percent, slightly outperforming other emerging markets, thanks to  fairly cheap valuations (by India’s normally expensive standards)  and hopes the central bank might cut rates. But foreign  inflows, running at $3 billion a month in the first quarter, have tapered off and the underlying mood is pessimistic. Above all, the worry is how much will India’s once turbo-charged economy slow? With the government seemingly in policy stupor, growth is likely to fall under 7 percent this year. News today added to the gloom — exports fell in March for the first time since the 2009 global crisis.

So how are fund managers to play India now? According to David Cornell, who runs an India portfolio at specialist investor Ocean Dial, they must simply get used to the “new normal” — subpar growth and high cost of capital. In this shift, Cornell points out, return on assets in India has fallen from a peak of almost 14 percent in 2007 to less than 10 percent now. While that is still higher than the broader emerging asset class, the advantage has dwindled to less than 1 percent as companies suffer from margin compression and falling turnover. Check out these two graphs from Ocean Dial:

Cornell is playing the new normal by focusing on three sectors — consumer goods, banks and pharmaceuticals. These companies, he says, have pricing power and structural barriers to entry (banks); provide access to still-buoyant demand for services such as mobile phones (consumer goods) and are well-run and profitable (pharmaceuticals). And the export-oriented pharma sector is also an effective hedge against the weakening rupee.

Ukraine’s $58 billion problem

Ukrainian officials were at pains to reassure investors last week that no debt default was in the offing. But people familiar with the numbers will find it hard to believe them.

The government must find over $5.3 billion this year to repay maturing external debt, including $3 billion to the IMF and $2 billion to Russian state bank VTB. Bad enough but there is worse:  Ukrainian companies and banks too have hefty debt maturities this year. Total external financing needs– corporate and sovereign – amount to $58 billion, analysts at Capital Economics calculate. That’s a third of Ukraine’s GDP and makes a default of some kind very likely. The following graphic is from Capital Economics.

In normal circumstances Ukraine — and Ukrainian companies — could have gone to market and borrowed the money. Quite a few developing countries such as Lithuania recently tapped markets, others including Jamaica plan to do so. Ukraine’s problem is its refusal to toe the IMF line.  Agreeing to the IMF’s main demand to lift crippling gas subsidies would unlock a $15 billion loan programme, giving  access to the loan cash as well as to global bond markets. But removing subsidies would be political suicide ahead of elections in October.  And with the sovereign frozen out of bond markets, Ukrainian companies too will find it hard to raise cash.

Emerging bonds this year. The riskier the better.

Politics have turned nastier than usual this year in emerging markets. Nonetheless, if you were a buyer of emerging bonds, you would have been ill-advised to play safe. That’s because the best performing emerging credit so far this year is Ivory Coast, which at the end of January effectively defaulted on its $2.3 billion dollar bond. Yes really, according to JP Morgan, which runs the most widely-used emerging debt indexes.

That’s because the bond has risen about 15 points since the start of the year on hopes Alassane Ouattara — seen as the rightful winner of last year’s election — would wrest back the presidency from Laurent Gbagbo who had refused to quit ofIVORYCOAST/fice. Ouattara, now installed in the presidential palace, is expected to honour the bond. So if you’d bought this bond at the end of December you would have earned a notional return of 25 percent, according to JP Morgan. The index overall has returned just 1.6 percent.

In second place? Ecuador. It too defaulted in 2008 — on $3.2 billion in bonds — but has benefited recently from oil prices at well over $100 a barrel. That should help its economy grow 5 percent this year.  Another oil power, Venezuela, is in third place. Its bonds may be trading at a 10 percent yield premium to U.S.  Treasuries, reflecting its riskiness, but Venezuelan bonds returned close to 10 percent so far this year, JP Morgan told clients. Many fund managers have piled in, noting  that despite the unpredictability of its President Hugo Chavez, he is raking in oil export revenues and  has never shied away from repaying debt.