Global Investing

Strong dollar, weak oil and emerging markets growth

Many emerging economies have been banking on weaker currencies to revitalise economic growth.  Oil’s 25 percent fall in dollar terms this year should also help. The problem however is the dollar’s strength which is leading to a general tightening of monetary conditions worldwide, more so in countries where central banks are intervening to prevent their currencies from falling too much.

Michael Howell, managing director of the CrossBorder Capital consultancy estimates the negative effect of the stronger dollar on global liquidity (in simple terms, the amount of capital available for investment and spending) outweighs the positives from falling oil prices by a ratio of 10 to 1. Not only does it raise funding costs for non-U.S. banks and companies, it also usually forces other central banks to keep monetary policy tight, especially in countries with high inflation or external debt levels. Howell says:

If you get a strong dollar and intervention by EM cbanks what it means is monetary tightening…The big decision is: do they allow currencies to devalue or do they defend them? But when they use reserves to protect their currencies, there is an implicit policy tightening.

The tightening happens because central bank dollar sales tend to suck out supply of the local currency from markets, tightening liquidity.   That effectively drives up the cost of money, as banks and companies scramble for cash to meet their daily commitments.  Central banks can of course offset interventions via so-called sterilisations – for instance when they buy dollars to curb their currencies’ strength, they can issue bonds to suck up the excess cash from the market. To ease the tight money supply problem they can in theory print more cash to supply banks.  But while many emerging central banks did sterilise interventions in the post-crisis years when their currencies were appreciating, they are less likely to do so when they are trying to stem depreciation, says UBS strategist Manik Narain.  So what is happening is that (according to Narain):

Markets are forcing central banks into supporting growth or the currency. You absolutely have to sacrifice growth as we have seen in places like Turkey where liquidity has impacted the growth profile

Measuring political risk in emerging markets

(Corrects to say EI Sturdza is UK investment firm, not Swiss)

Commerzbank analyst Simon Quijano-Evans recently analysed credit ratings for emerging market countries and concluded that there is a strong tendency to “under-rate” emerging economies – that is they are generally rated lower than developed market “equals” that have similar profiles of debt, investment or reform. The reason, according to Quijano-Evans, is that ratings assessments tend to be “blurred by political risk which is difficult to quantify and is usually higher in the developing world compared with richer peers.

However there are some efforts to measure political risks, and unfortunately for emerging economies, some of those metrics seem to indicate that such risk is on the rise. Risk consultancy Maplecroft which compiles a civil unrest index (CUI), says street protests, ethnic violence and labour unrest are factors that have increased chances of business disruption in emerging markets by 20 percent over the past three months. Such unrest as in Hong Kong recently, can be sudden, causing headaches for business and denting economic growth, Maplecroft says. Hong Kong where mass pro-democracy protests in the city-state’s central business district which shuttered big banks and triggered a 7 percent stock market plunge last month.

As a result, Hong Kong jumped to 70th place in the index from a relatively safe 132nd place in the CUI which analyses governance, political and civil rights and the frequency and severity of incidents to assess the current and future civil unrest picture.

Betting on (expensive and over-owned) Indian equities

How much juice is left in the Indian equity story? Mumbai’s share index has raced to successive record highs and has gained 24 percent so far this year in dollar terms as investors have bought into Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reform promises.

Foreign investors have led the charge through this year, pouring billions of dollars into the market. Now locals are also joining the party – Indian retail investors who steered clear of the bourse for three years are trickling back in – they have been net investors for 3 months running and last month they purchased Rs 108 billion worth of shares, Citi analysts note. 

Foreigners meanwhile have been moving down the market cap scale, with their ownership of the top 100-500 ranked companies rising from 13% to 15% over the quarter. That’s behind the broader BSE500 index’s outperformance compared to the Nifty index, Citi said.

The people buying emerging markets

We’ve written (most recently here) about all the buying interest that emerging markets have been getting from once-conservative investors such as pension funds and central banks. Last year’s taper tantrum, caused by Fed hints about ending bond buying, did not apparently deter these investors . In fact, as mom-and-pop holders of mutual funds rushed for the exits,  there is some evidence pension and sovereign  wealth  funds actually upped emerging allocations, say fund managers. And requests-for-proposals (RFPs) from these deep-pocketed investors are still flooding in,  says Peter Marber, head of emerging market investments at Loomis Sayles.

The reasoning is yield, of course, but also recognition that there is a whole new investable universe out there, Marber says:

There has been so much yield compression that to get the returns investors are accustomed to, they have to either go down in credit quality or look overseas. Investors have been globalizing their equity portfolios for 25 years but the bond portfolios still have a home bias. We are starting to see more and more institutional investors gain exposure to emerging markets, and a large number of recent RFPs highlight more sophisticated mandates than a decade ago.

Emerging markets; turning a corner

Emerging markets have been attracting healthy investment flows into their stock and bond markets for much of this year and now data compiled by consultancy CrossBorder Capital shows the sector may be on the cusp of decisively turning the corner.

CrossBorder and its managing director Michael Howell say their Global Liquidity Index (GLI) — a measure of money flows through world markets — showed the sharpest improvement in almost three years in June across emerging markets. That was down to substantially looser policy by central banks in India, China and others that Howell says has moved these economies “into a rebound phase”.

This is important because the GLI, which has been around since the 1980s, has been a fairly accurate leading indicator, leading asset prices by 6-9 months and future economic activity by 12-15 months, Howell says:

Buying back into emerging markets

After almost a year of selling emerging markets, investors seem to be returning in force. The latest to turn positive on the asset class is asset and wealth manager Pictet Group (AUM: 265 billion pounds) which said on Tuesday its asset management division (clarifies division of Pictet) was starting to build positions on emerging equities and local currency debt. It has an overweight position on the latter for the first time since it went underweight last July.

Local emerging debt has been out of favour with investors because of how volatile currencies have been since last May, For an investor who is funding an emerging market investments from dollars or euros, a fast-falling rand can wipe out any gains he makes on a South African bond. But the rand and its peers such as the Turkish lira, Indian rupee, Indonesian rupiah and Brazilan real — at the forefront of last year’s selloff –  have stabilised from the lows hit in recent months.  According to Pictet Asset Management:

Valuations of emerging market currencies have fallen to a point where they are now starkly at odds with such economies’ fundamentals. Emerging currencies are, on average, trading at almost two standard deviations below their equilibrium level (which takes into account a country’s net foreign asset holdings, inflation rate and its relative productivity).

Braving emerging stocks again

It’s a brave investor who will venture into emerging markets these days, let alone start a new fund. Data from Thomson Reuters company Lipper shows declining appetite for new emerging market funds – while almost 200 emerging debt and equity funds were launched in Europe back in 2011, the tally so far  this year is just 10.

But Shaw Wagener, a portfolio manager at U.S. investor American Funds has gone against the trend, launching an emerging growth and income fund earlier this month.

It’s a great time to launch a fund if you have a long-term focus in mind. Emerging markets trailed DM in terms of performance for a while, peaking at end of 2010 so we are 3-plus years into a down market and period of significant underperformance.

Asia’s path to prosperity and investment opportunities

Investors have been worried about the effect of a Chinese slowdown on Asian emerging markets, but the long-term growth story is still intact, according to specialist investment manager Matthews Asia.

Consumption is one of the key areas of growth. Illustrating the divergence of Asian economies and their path to prosperity, here’s an interesting chart from Matthews which shows the standard of living of various Asian countries, expressed by applying Geary-Khamis dollars — the concept of international dollars based on purchasing power parity — to today’s Japan.

For example, the living standards of North Korea and Mongolia are at around that of Japan in the 1890s — when Japan and China fought in the Sino-Japanese war and Wilhelm Rontgen discovered x-rays — while China’s is equivalent of an early 1970s Japan and Malaysia and Thailand are a step ahead at the mid-1970s.

No more “emerging markets” please

The crisis currently roiling the developing world has revived a debate in some circles about the very validity of the “emerging markets” concept. Used since the early 1980s as a convenient moniker grouping countries that were thought to be less developed — financially or infrastructure-wise or due to the size or liquidity of their financial markets — the widely varying performances of different countries during the turmoil has served to underscore the differences rather than similarities between them.  An analyst who traveled recently between several Latin American countries summed it up by writing that he had passed through three international airports during his trip but had not had a stamp in his passport that said “emerging market”.

Like this analyst, many reckon the day has come when fund managers, index providers and investors must stop and consider  if it makes sense to bucket wildly disparate countries together.  After all what does Venezuela, with its anti-market policies and 50 percent annual inflation, have in common with Chile, a free market economy with a high degree of transparency  and investor-friendliness?

Deutsche Bank analyst John-Paul Smith is one of many questioning current index-based investing models which he says essentially provide a free ride to the Russias and Venezuelas of this world, who may be undeserving of investor dollars.  Simply by virtue of inclusion in the emerging index, a country becomes a “default beneficiary” of passive investment flows — from funds that hug or track the benchmark — Smith says. In a note he calls for the abandonment of current index criteria such as market access, liquidity or per capita income in favour of a “substantive governance-based view of risk”
In other words:

Indian shares: disappointment may lurk

Should Indian shares really be at record highs?

The index is up 3.6 percent this year. Foreign funds have been pouring money into Mumbai shares, betting that the opposition BJP, seen as more reform-friendly than the incumbent Congress, will form the next government. They purchased $420 million worth of Indian stocks last Friday, having bought $1.4 billion over the past 15 trading sessions.

There is also the fact that the rolling crisis in emerging markets, having smacked India during its first round last May, has now moved on and is ravaging places such as Russia and Nigeria instead. The rupee has firmed almost 2 percent this year to the dollar, as last year’s 6.5 percent/GDP current account deficit has contracted to just 0.9 percent of GDP.  Many international funds such as Blackrock and JPMorgan Asset Management have Indian stocks on overweight and Bank of America/Merrill Lynch’s monthly survey showed investors’  underweight on India was one of the smallest for emerging markets.

Indian company earnings may have beaten forecasts by around 5 percent so far in the season. But prospects can hardly be described as attractive. Indian economic growth is running at less than 5 percent. Valuations are in line with historical averages and at a 4 percent premium to global emerging markets on a book-value basis. But John-Paul Smith at Deutsche Bank says it is “the least bad” of the BRICs and is neutral to overweight.