Global Investing

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:

This could be a positive signal for emerging equities if economic conditions subside…particularly for Asian markets where holdings are lowest.

Valuations are the other attraction. Emerging equities are trading around 10 times forward earnings —a fifth below developed market peers. In China, which comprises about 18 percent of the main MSCI emerging equity index, valuations are near record lows. EM valuations have been “sustainably lower” only back in 2002 or during the depths of the 2008 crisis, notes James Bristow, who runs a global equity portfolio at U.S. asset manager Blackrock in London.

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.

Money in containers. Many see big bucks in Russia’s infrastructure push

A lot of things are wrong with Russia, one of them being its rickety infrastructure.

Many see this as an investment opportunity, however, reckoning the planned $1 trillion infrastructure upgrade plan will get going, especially with the 2014 Winter Olympics and 2018 soccer World Cup looming. Bets on infrastructure have also gathered pace as the Kremlin, seeking to placate a mutinous populace, has pledged reforms, privatisations and a general push to reduce Russia’s dependence on oil exports.

Takouhi Tchertchian at asset managers Renaissance says one sector – shipping containers — reflects the potential for gains from infrastructure improvements. Such containers, usually made of steel, can be loaded and transported over long distances, and transferred easily and cheaply from sea to road to rail.  But Russia has among the lowest levels of containerisation in the world, at around 4 percent compared to the emerging markets average of 15 percent, Tchertchian says. Even in India, almost 3o percent of goods travel by container while in a developed country like Britain, the figure is 40 percent.

Emerging market local bond rally has more legs

Just a month and half into 2012, emerging local currency bonds have already returned 9 percent, one of best performing asset classes. But the rally has further to go, says J.P. Morgan which runs the most widely used emerging debt indices. The bank is now predicting its benchmark local currency debt index, the GBI-EM, to end the year with returns of 16 percent, upping its original expectation for 11.9 percent.

There are several reasons for this bullishnesss. JPM’s latest client survey reveals investors’ positioning is still neutral, meaning there is potential for more gains. Cash inflows to EM local debt have been dwarfed this year by investments into dollar bonds, considered a safer, albeit lower-yielding asset than locally issued bonds. So when (and if) euro zone uncertainties abate, some of this cash is likely to make the switch.

Many emerging countries are still cutting interest rates, which will push down yields on short-dated bonds. Other countries may tolerate some more currency appreciation to dampen inflation, benefiting the currency side of the EM local bond trade. Above all, with all developed central banks intent on quantitative easing (Japan announced a surprise $130 billion worth of extra QE this week), the yield premium offered by emerging markets — the carry — is irresistible. On average the GBI-EM index offers a 4.5 percent yield pick up on U.S. Treasuries, JPM notes:

Emerging Markets: the love story

It is Valentine’s day and emerging markets are certainly feeling the love. Bank of America/Merrill Lynch‘s monthly investor survey shows a ‘stunning’ rise in allocations to emerging markets in February. Forty-four percent of  asset allocators are now overweight emerging market equities this month, up from 20 percent in January — the second biggest monthly jump in the past 12 years. Emerging markets are once again investors’ favourite asset class.

Looking ahead, 36 percent of respondents said they would like to overweight emerging markets more than any other region, with investors saying they would underweight all other regions, including the United States. Meanwhile investor faith in China has rebounded  with only 2 percent of investors believing the Chinese economy will weaken over the next year, down from 23 percent in January. China also regained its crown of most favoured emerging market in February.

Last year, the main EM index plummeted more than 20 percent as emerging assets fell from favour. So what is the reason for this renewed passion in 2012?