Global Investing

Rupiah decline – don’t worry

Indonesia has just given the go-ahead for another leg down in the rupiah. It has cut its forecasts for the exchange rate to 9,700 per dollar compared to the 9,200 level at which the central bank used to step in. The currency has duly weakened and nervous foreigners have rushed to hedge exposure — 3-month NDFs price the rupiah at almost 10,000 to the dollar. The  rupiah last week hit a three-year low, its weakness coming on top of a dismal 2012 which saw it fall 6 percent as the current account deficit worsened. Traders in Jakarta are reporting dollar hoarding by exporters.

All that is spooking foreigners who own more than 30 percent of the domestic bond market. The currency weakness hit them hard last year as Indonesian bonds returned just 6 percent, a third of the sector’s 16 percent average (see graphic).

The central bank does not seem perturbed by the currency weakness. Luckily for it, inflation rates are still benign, which means a weak currency will probably remain in favour.

The big question is how will investors react?

A test will come on Tuesday, when the government will try to raise $724 million via an auction of domestic bonds and T-bills.  There has been some flight by bond investors in recent days  but most have stayed put – after all they are earning a 5-6 percent carry on bonds and currency exposure can be hedged.  Above all, people are betting the central bank is capable of stemming any big falls in the currency.  (They are probably right: Deputy Governor Hartadi  Sarwono assured investors last week that if the rupiah weakened too much, the bank would “definitely respond to it via interest rate policy”).  UBS strategist Manik Narain points out the central bank has $112 billion in its coffers while interest rates are at a record low 5.75 percent:

The central bank has a considerable arsenal. They haven’t even started to raise rates yet and if we were to see some monetary tightening, investors will quickly pay attention and come back.  They can also deploy some of their considerable reserves.

Emerging debt vs equity: to rotate or not

Emerging bonds have got off to a flying start in 2013, with debt funds taking in over $2 billion this past week, the second highest weekly inflow ever, according to fund tracker EPFR Global. Issuance is strong -  Turkey for instance this week borrowed cash repayable in 10 years for just 3.47 percent, its lowest yield ever in the dollar market.

Yet not everyone is optimistic and most analysts see last year’s returns of 16-18 percent EM debt returns as out of reach. The consensus instead seems to be for 5-8 percent as  tight spreads and low yields leave little room for further ralliesaverage yields on the EMBI Global sovereign debt index is just 4.4 percent.    Domestic bonds meanwhile could suffer if inflation turns problematic. (see here for our story on emerging bond sales and returns).

Now take a look at U.S. Treasury yields which are near 8-month highs. and could pose a headwind for emerging debt. Higher U.S. yields are not necessarily a bad thing for emerging markets provided the rise is down to a healthier economic outlook.  But that scenario could induce investors to turn their attention to equities and  indeed this is already happening. EPFR data shows emerging equity funds outstripped their bond counterparts last week, taking in $7.45 billion, the highest ever weekly inflow.

Asia’s ballooning debt

Could Asia be headed for a debt crisis?

The very thought may seem ludicrous given the region’s mighty current account surpluses and brimming central bank coffers.  But a note from RBS analysts Drew Brick and Rob Ryan raises some interesting concerns.

Historically speaking, most EM crises have been borne on the back of excessive capital inflows, Brick and Ryan write. And in many Asian countries, the consequence of these flows has been over-easy monetary policy that has left citizens and companies addicted to cheap money. Personal and corporate indebtedness levels have spiralled even higher in the past five years as governments across the continent responded to the 2008 credit crunch by unleashing billions of dollars in stimulus.

First, some numbers and graphics:

a) Asia’s current account surplus stands now around $250 billion, less than half its 2007 peak as exports have slumped.

A yen for emerging markets

Global Investing has written several times about Japanese mom-and-pop investors’  adventures in emerging markets. Most recently, we discussed how the new government’s plan to prod the Bank of Japan into unlimited monetary easing could turn more Japanese into intrepid yield hunters.  Here’s an update.

JP Morgan analysts calculate that EM-dedicated Japanese investment trusts, known as toshin, have seen inflows of $7 billion ever since the U.S. Fed announced its plan to embark on open-ended $40-billion-a-month money printing.  That’s taken their assets under management to $67 billion. And in the week ended Jan 2, Japanese flows to emerging markets amounted to $234 million, they reckon. This should pick up once the yen debasement really gets going — many are expecting a 100 yen per dollar exchange rate by end-2013  (it’s currently at 88).

At present, the lion’s share of Japanese toshin holdings — over $40 billion of it — are in hard currency emerging debt, JP Morgan says (see graphic).

The Watanabes are coming

With Shinzo Abe’s new government intent on prodding the Bank of Japan into unlimited monetary easing, it is hardly surprising that the yen has slumped to two-year lows against the dollar. This could lead to even more flows into overseas markets from Japanese investors seeking higher-yield homes for their money.

Japanese mom-and-pop investors — known collectively as Mrs Watanabe -  have for years been canny players of currency and interest rate arbitrage. In recent years they have stepped away from old favourites, New Zealand and Australia, in favour of emerging markets such as Brazil, South Africa and Turkey. (See here  to read Global Investing’s take on Mrs Watanabe’s foray into Turkey). Flows from Japan stalled somewhat in the wake of the 2010 earthquake but EM-dedicated Japanese investment trusts, known as toshin, remain a mighty force, with estimated assets of over $64 billion.  Analysts at JP Morgan noted back in October that with the U.S. Fed’s QE3 in full swing, more Japanese cash had started to flow out.

That trickle shows signs of  becoming a flood. Nikko Asset Management, the country’s third  biggest money manager, said this week that retail investors had poured $2.3 billion into a mutual fund that invests in overseas shares — the biggest  subscription since October 2006. This fund’s model portfolio has a 64 percent weighting to U.S. shares, 14 percent to Mexico and 10 percent to Canada while the rest is split between Latin American countries.

Emerging Policy-More interest rate cuts

A big week for central bank meetings looms and the doves are likely to be in full flight.

Take the Reserve Bank of India, the arch-hawk of emerging markets. It meets on Tuesday and some, such as Goldman Sachs, are predicting a rate cut as a nod to the government’s reform efforts. That call is a rare one, yet it may have gained some traction after data last week showed inflation at a 10-month low, while growth languishes at the lowest in a decade. Goldman’s Tushar Poddar tells clients:

With both growth and inflation surprising on the downside relative to the RBI’s forecast, there is a reason for the central bank to move earlier than its previous guidance.

The BBB credit ratings traffic jam

Adversity is a great leveller. Just look at the way sovereign credit ratings in the developed and emerging world have been converging ever since the credit crisis erupted five years ago. JPMorgan  has crunched a few numbers.

Few were surprised last week by S&P’s decision to cut the outlook on Britain’s AAA rating to negative. That gold-plated rating is becoming increasingly rare — according to JP Morgan, just 15 percent of global GDP now rates AAA with a stable outlook — a whopping comedown from 50 percent in 2007. Only 13 developed economies are now rated AAA, compared to 21 before the crisis. And only one, Australia, now has a higher rating (AAA) than in 2007 — 16 of its peers have suffered a total of 129 downgrades in this period.  With 20 rich countries on negative outlook, more downgrades are likely.

Emerging sovereigns, on the other hand, have enjoyed 189 upgrades (43 percent of these were moves into investment grade). That has caused what JPM dubs “a traffic jam”  in the triple B ratings area, with 20 percent of world GDP now rated at this level, compared to 8 percent in 2009.

Corruption and business potential sometimes go together

By Alice Baghdjian

Uzbekistan, Bangladesh and Vietnam found themselves cheered and chided this week.

The Corruption Perceptions Index, compiled by Berlin-based watchdog Transparency International, measured the perceived levels of public sector corruption in 176 countries and all three found their way into the bottom half of the study.

Uzbekistan shared 170th place with Turkmenistan (a higher ranking denotes higher perceived corruption levels) . Vietnam was ranked 123th, tied with countries like Sierra Leone and Belarus, while Bangladesh was 144th.

EM interest rates in 2013 – rise or fall

This year has been all about interest rate cuts. As Western central banks took their policy-easing efforts to ever new levels, emerging markets had little recourse but to cut rates as well. Interest rates in many countries from Brazil to the Czech Republic are at record lows.

Some countries such as Poland and Hungary are expected to continue lowering rates. Rate cuts may also come in India if a reluctant central bank finds its hand forced by the slumping economy. But in many markets, interest rate swaps are now pricing rate rises in 2013.

Are they correct in doing so? Emerging central banks will raise interest rates by an average 8 basis points next year, JP Morgan analysts predict.  UBS, in a recent note, reckons more EM central banks will raise rates than cut them. Analysts there offer the following graphic detailing their expectations:

Golden days of the Turkey-Iran trade may be gone

Global Investing has discussed in the past what a golden opportunity the Iranian crisis has proved for Turkey. Between January and July 2012 it ratcheted up gold exports to Iran ten-fold compared to 2011 as inflation-hit Iranians clamoured for the precious metal. Since August exports appear to have been routed via the UAE, possibly to circumvent U.S. sanctions on trade with Teheran.

The trade has been a handy little earner. Evidence of that has shown up in Turkey’s data all year as its massive current account deficit has steadily shrunk. On Friday, official data showed the Turkish trade gap falling by a third in October from year-ago levels. And yes, precious metal exports (read gold) came in at $1.5 billion compared to $322.4 million last October. In short, a jump of 370 percent.

But the days of the lucrative trade may be numbered, according to Morgan Stanley analyst Tevfik Aksoy. Aksoy notes that the gold exports can at least partly be accounted for by the considerable amounts of lira deposits that Iran held in Turkish banks as payment for oil exports. (Yes, there’s an oil link to all this. Turkey buys oil from Iran but pays lira due to Western sanctions against paying Teheran hard currency. Iranian firms use liras to shop for Turkish gold. See here for detailed Reuters article). These deposits are being steadily converted into gold and repatriated, Aksoy says.