Global Investing

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.

JPMorgan said NEXGEM, accounting for 9 percent of the broader emerging debt index and containing 18 countries, offers the best investment opportunity for the rest of 2012:

Stay overweight NEXGEM credits, including Belize, Dominican Republic, Georgia, Sri Lanka and upgrade Gabon to overweight this month.

In defence of co-investing with the state

It’s hard to avoid state-run companies if you are investing in emerging markets — after all they make up a third of the main EM equity index, run by MSCI. But should one be avoiding shares in these firms?

Absolutely yes, says John-Paul Smith at Deutsche Bank. Smith sees state influence as the biggest factor dragging down emerging equity performance in the longer term. They will underperform, he says, not just because governments run companies such as Gazprom or the State Bank of India in their own interests (rather than to benefit shareholders)  but also because of their habit of interfering in the broader economy.  Shares in state-owned companies performed well during the crisis, Smith acknowledges, but attributes emerging markets’ underperformance since mid-2010 to fears over the state’s increasing influence in developing economies. (t

Jonathan Garner at Morgan Stanley has a diametrically opposing view, favouring what he calls “co-investing with the state”.  Garner estimates a basket of 122 MSCI-listed companies that were over 30 percent state-owned outperformed the emerging markets index by 260 percent since 2001 and by 33 percent after the 2008 financial crisis on a weighted average basis. The outperformance persisted even when adjusted for sectors, he says (state-run companies tend to be predominantly in the commodity sector).

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.

Turning point for lagging emerging stock returns?

Over the past year emerging markets have broadly lagged an upswing in global equity markets, yielding cumulative returns of 4.5 percent since last August. That’s less than half the return developed markets have provided (see graphic below).

But there are two reasons why a  turning point may be approaching. First the positioning. Foreign holdings of emerging equities have plunged in the past six months and according to research by HSBC they are at the lowest in four years. That’s especially the case in Asia, where fund managers have been jittery about China’s growth slowdown.

International funds appear to have responded aggressively to signs of a slowdown in emerging market economies, the bank observes, adding:

All in the price in China?

It’s been a while since Chinese stocks earned investors fat profits. Last year the Shanghai market lost 22 percent and the compounded return on equity investments there since 1993 is minus 3 percent. This year too China has underwhelmed, rising less than 3 percent so far. Broader emerging equities on the other hand have just concluded their best first quarter since 1992, with gains of over 13 percent.

Given all that, bears remain a surprisingly rare breed in China. A Bank of America/Merrill Lynch’s monthly survey found it was fund managers’ biggest emerging markets overweight in March and that has been the case for some months now.  Clearly, hope dies last.

Driving many of these allocations is valuation. China’s equity market has always tended to trade at a premium to emerging markets but in recent months it has swung into a discount, trading at 9.2 times forward earnings or 10 percent below broader emerging markets.  MSCI’s China index is also trading almost 25 percent below its own long-term average, according to this graphic from my colleague Scott Barber (@scottybarber):

Asian bonds may suffer most if QE on ice

Bonds issued in emerging market currencies have been red-hot favourites with investors this year, garnering returns of 8.3 percent so far in 2012. But for some the happy days are drawing to a close — U.S. Treasury yields are nudging higher as the U.S. recovery gains a foothold and the Fed holds back from more money printing for now at least. That could spell trouble for emerging markets across the board (here’s something I wrote on this subject recently) but, according to JP Morgan, it is Asian bond markets that may bear the brunt.

Their graphic details weekly flows to local bond funds as measured by EPFR Global (in million US$). As on cue, these flows have tended to spike whenever central banks have pumped in cash. (Click the graphic to enlarge.)

Over the past several years,  inflows have driven local curves to very flat levels, but current levels of flatness are not sustainable if/when inflows begin to slow, let alone reverse.As there is a clear correlation between the Fed’s “QE periods” and large inflows into Asian markets, we think the next few months will be difficult for Asian bonds markets (JPM writes)

A Hungarian default?

More on Hungary. It’s not hard to find a Hungary bear but few are more bearish than William Jackson at Capital Economics.

Jackson argues in a note today that Hungary will ultimately opt to default on its  debt mountain as it has effectively exhausted all other mechanisms. Its economy has little prospect of  strong growth and most of its debt is in foreign currencies so cannot be inflated away. Austerity is the other way out but Hungary’s population has been reeling from spending cuts since 2007, he says, and is unlikely to put up with more.

How did other highly indebted countries cope? (lets leave out Greece for now). Jackson takes the example of  Indonesia and Thailand. Both countries opted for strict austerity after the 1997 Asian crisis and resolved the debt problem by running large current account surpluses. This worked because the Asian crisis was followed by a period of buoyant world growth, allowing these countries to boost exports. But Hungary’s key export markets are in the euro zone and are unlikely to recover anytime soon.

Oil prices — Geopolitics or growth?

It’s the economy, stupid. Or isn’t it?

Brent crude has risen 15 percent since the end of last year, focusing people’s minds on the potential this has to choke off the recovery in world growth. But some reckon it is the recovery that’s at least partly responsible for the surging oil prices — economic data from United States and Germany has been strong of late. There are hopes that France and the United Kingdom may escape recession after all. And growth in the developing world has been robust.

Geopolitics of course is playing a role  as an increasing number of countries boycott Iranian oil and fret over a possible military strike by Israel on Iran’s nuclear installations.  But Deutsche Bank analysts point out that world equity markets, an efficient real-time gauge of growth sentiment, have risen along with oil prices.

Their graphic (below) shows a remarkably close relationship between oil prices and the S&P 500. Click to enlarge

The haves and have-nots of the (energy) world

Nothing like an oil price spike to bring out the differences between the haves and have-nots of this world. The ones who have oil and those who don’t.

With oil at $124 a barrel,  the stock markets of big oil importers India and South Korea posted their first weekly loss of 2012 on Friday.  But in Russia, where energy stocks make up 60 percent of the index, shares had their best day since November, rising more than 4 percent. The rouble’s exchange rate with the dollar jumped 1.5 percent but the lira in neighbouring Turkey (an oil importer) fell.

Emerging currencies and shares have performed exceptionally well this year. Some of last year’s laggards such as the Indian rupee have risen almost 10 percent and stocks have jumped 16-18 percent. But unless crude prices moderate soon, the 2012 rally in the  stocks, bonds and currencies of oil-poor countries may have had its day. Societe Generale writes:

The missing barrels of oil

Where are the missing barrels of oil, asks Barclays Capital.

Oil inventories in the United States rose sharply last week, with demand for oil products  such as gasoline at the lowest in 15 years and crude stockpiles at the highest since last September. Americans, pinched in the wallet, are clearly cutting back on fuel use.

But worldwide, the inventories picture is different – Barclays calculates in  fact that oil stocks are around 50 million barrels below the seasonal average. And sustainable spare capacity in the market is less than 2 million barrels per day. What that means is that the world has “extremely limited buffers to absorb any one of the series of potential geopolitical mishaps.” (Barclays writes)

A big difference from the picture at the start of 2012. With the global economy weak, analysts predicted OPEC would need to pump 29.7 million barrels per day in the first quarter, more than a million barrels below what the group was actually pumping. Logic dictates inventories would have started to build.