Global Investing

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.

Goldman Sachs quite rightly pointed out in its report that progress and improvement in economic growth have historically equaled progress in sport  –check out South Korea’s 13 golds in London compared with none in Munich 40 years ago; its per capita income is now $23,000 compared with $2,300  back then.  Clearly wealth is key: hence 9 of the top 20 medal winning nations also have among the highest per capita incomes.

Second, countries with a socialist past (or present) also usually put up a strong showing even if the people are poorer — 8 of the top 20 from London are either communist (China, Cuba and North Korea)  or ex-Soviet bloc (Russia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and the Czech Republic).

South African equities hit record highs, doomsayers left waiting

Earlier this year it seemed that an increase in global bullishness meant the end of the road for risk-off investment strategies and, by extension, the rise in South African equities. However, 6 months later, the band is still playing, and the ship is refusing to go down.

South African equities have flourished in the face of the doomsayers, with returns this year doubling the emerging market benchmark equity performance. Both the all-shares index and the top-40 share have hit fresh all time highs this week, and prophecies of gloom for South African stocks appear to have missed the mark somewhat.

Part of the reason for this is that, when it comes to risk attitudes, much of the song remains the same. South Africa has certainly benefitted from its continued attractiveness to risk-off investors, as global bullishness has receded from whence it came. For instance, as it is relatively well sheltered from euro zone turmoil, and as major gold exporter, firms based in the gold sector are ostensibly an attractive investment for the globally cautious.

Risks loom for South Africa’s bond rally

Investors are wondering how much longer the rally in South Africa’s local bond markets will last.

The market has received inflows of over $7.5 billion year-to-date, having benefited hugely from Citi’s April announcement that it would include South Africa in its elite World Government Bond Index (WGBI).  But like many other emerging markets, South Africa has also gained from international investors’ hunger for higher-yielding bonds. And the central bank’s surprise rate cut last week was the icing on the cake, sending 5-year yields plunging another 30 basis points.

There are some headwinds however. First positioning. Around a third of government bonds are already estimated to be in foreigners’ hands. Second, markets may be pricing in too much policy easing (Forward rate agreements are assigning a 77  percent probability of another 50 bps rate cut within the next six months).  That’s especially so given local wheat and maize prices have been hitting record highs in recent weeks.

South Africa’s joins the rate cutting spree

Another central bank has caved in and cut interest rates — South Africa lowered its key rate to a record low of 5 percent at Thursday’s meeting. In doing so, the central bank noted growth was slowing further. ”Negative spillover effects (from the global economy)  likely to intensify,” it said.

Very few analysts had predicted this outcome, reckoning the central bank (or SARB as it’s known) would hold fire until its next meeting due to concerns over the currency and inflation.  But in fact, forward markets had guessed a cut was coming, especially after June inflation was lower than expected. And after all, even the conservative Bank of Korea cut rates last week to buck up domestic growth and compensate for slumping exports.  There have also been some policy easing in Taiwan and Philippines in the past week while earlier on Thursday, Turkey’s central bank unleashed more liquidity into the banking system. Kevin Lings, chief economist at Stanlib in Johannesburg says:

(South Africa’s rate cut) would suggest that the Reserve Bank feels they are a little bit behind the curve when they look at interest rate movements in other countries and hence the decision.

Doves to rule the roost in emerging markets

Interest rate meetings are coming up this week in Turkey,  South Africa and Mexico.  Most analysts expect no change to interest rates in any of the three countries.  But chances are, the worsening global growth picture will force policymakers to soften their tone from previous months; indeed forwards markets are actually pricing an 18-20 basis-point interest rate cut in South Africa.

Doves in South Africa will have been encouraged by today’s lower-than-expected inflation print, coming soon after data showing a growth deceleration in the second quarter of the year. Investors have flooded the bond markets, betting on rate cuts in coming months. In Turkey and Mexico, no policy change is priced but a few reckon the former, reliant on a policy of day-to-day tinkering with liquidity, may narrow the interest rate corridor in a nod to slowing growth.

For now, all three banks could be constrained from cutting rates by fear of currency volatility and the potential knock-on effect on inflation. Of South Africa, analysts at TD Securities write:

from Africa News blog:

Are African governments suppressing art?

By Cosmas Butunyi

The dust is finally settling on the storm that was kicked off in South Africa by a controversial painting of President Jacob Zuma with his genitals exposed.

The country that boasts one of the most liberal constitutions in the world and the only one on the African continent with a constitutional provision that protects and defends the rights of  gays and lesbians , had   its values put up to  the test  after an artist    ruffled feathers by a painting that questioned the moral values  of the ruling African National Congress .

For weeks, the storm ignited by the painting  called  ‘The Spear’, raged on, sucking in Goodman Gallery that displayed it and City Press, a weekly newspaper that had published it on its website. The matter eventually found its way into the corridors of justice, where the ruling ANC sought redress against the two institutions. The party also mobilised its supporters to stage protests outside the courtroom when the case it filed came up for hearing. They also matched to the gallery and called for a boycott of City Press , regarded as one of the country's most authoritative newspapers.

Not everyone is “risk off”

Who would have thought it. As fears over the euro zone’s fate, Chinese economic growth and Middle Eastern politics drive investors toward safe-haven U.S. and German bonds, some have apparently been going the other way.  According to JPMorgan, bonds from so-called frontier economies such as Pakistan, Belarus and Jordan (usually considered high-risk assets) have performed exceptionally well, doing far better in fact than their peers from mainstream emerging markets.  The following graphic from JPM which runs the NEXGEM sub-index of frontier debt, shows that returns on many of these bonds are running well into the double digits.

NEXGEM returns of 8.4 percent  are on par with the S&P 500, writes JPMorgan and outstrip all other emerging bond categories. Clearly one reason is the lack of correlation with the mainstream asset classes, many of which have been selling off for weeks amid growth fears and in the run up to French and Greek elections.  Second, investors who tend to buy these bonds usually have a pretty high risk-tolerance anyway as they keep their eyes on the double-digit yields they offer.

So year-to-date returns on Ivory Coast’s defaulted debt are running at over 40 percent on hopes that the country will resume payments on its $2.3 billion bond after June. The underperformer is Belize whose bonds suffered from a default scare at the start of the year.

Urbanization sweet spots

It’s a hard slog sometimes looking for new and surprising sources of global economic growth that have not already be heavily discounted by global investors, especially in the uncertain world of 2012. It’s been as hard of late to find new arguments to invest in China and quite a few people suggesting the opposite.

But a Credit Suisse report out on Tuesday homed in on worldwide urbanization trends to find out where this well-tested driver of economic activity was likely to have most impact int he 21st century. For a start, the big aggregate numbers are as dramatic as you’d imagine. More than half  of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, crossing that milestone for the first time in 2009. And, accordingly to United Nations projections, urban dwellers will account for 70 percent of humanity by 2050. As recently as 1950, 70 percent of us were country folk.

CS economists Giles Keating and Stefano Natella crunch the numbers and reckon that, typically, a five percent rise in urban populations is associated with a 10 percent rise in per capita economic activity. Crunching them further, they find that there’s a “sweet spot” as the urban share of the population is moving from 30 percent to 50 percent and per capita GDP growth peaks. Emerging markets as a whole are currently about 45 percent, with non-Japan Asia and sun-Saharan Africa standing out. Developed economies are as high as 75 percent.

Emerging markets facing current account pain

Emerging markets may yet pay dearly for the sins of their richer cousins. While recent financial crises have been rooted in the United States and euro zone, analysts at Credit Agricole are questioning whether a full-fledged emerging markets crisis could be on the horizon, the first since the series of crashes from Argentina to Turkey over a decade ago. The concern stems from the worsening balance of payments picture across the developing world and the need to plug big  funding shortfalls.

The above chart from Credit Agricole shows that as recently as 2006, the 34 big emerging economies ran a cumulative current account surplus of 5.2 percent of GDP. By end-2011 that had dwindled to 1.7 percent of GDP. More worrying yet is the position of “deficit” economies. The current account gap here has widened to 4 percent of GDP, more than double 2006 levels and the biggest since the 1980s. The difficulties are unlikely to disappear this year, Credit Agricole says,  predicting India, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Vietnam, Poland and Romania to run current account deficits of over 4 percent this year.

Some fiscally profligate countries such as India may have mainly themselves to blame for their plight. But in general, emerging nations after the Lehman crisis were forced to embark on massive spending to buck up domestic consumption and offset the collapse of Western export markets. For this reason, many were unable to raise interest rates or did so too late. As the woes of the Turkish lira and Indian rupee showed last year, the yawning funding gap leaves many countries horribly exposed to the vagaries of global risk appetite.

Not quite 99 emerging market beers on the wall

Should emerging market investors set aside their spreadsheets and crack open a cold one?

Their markets have zoomed higher from the March lows, with MSCI’s emerging markets stock index up 81 percent. Are they heading for a fall? Will investors soon be crying in their beer? And if so what kind?

Broker Auerbach Grayson held a rooftop fete this week showcasing emerging market versus developed market beers, with nary a Yankee brew in sight.