Global Investing

Emerging Policy-The inflation problem has not gone away

This week’s interest rate meetings in the developing world are highlighting that despite slower economic growth, inflation remains a problem for many countries. In some cases it could constrain  policymakers from cutting interest rates, or least from cutting as much as they would like.

Take Turkey. Its central bank surprised some on Tuesday by only cutting the upper end of its overnight interest rate corridor: many had interpreted recent comments by Governor Erdem Basci as a sign the lower end, the overnight borrowing rate, would also be cut. That’s because the central bank is increasingly concerned about the lira, which has appreciated more than 7 percent this year in real terms. But the bank contented itself by warning markets that more cuts could be made to different policy rates if needed (read: if the lira rises much more).

But inflation, while easing, remains problematic.  On the same day as the policy meeting, the International Monetary Fund recommended Turkey raise interest rates to deal with inflation, which was an annualised 9.2 percent in September. The central bank’s prediction is for a year-end 7 percent rate but that is 2 percentage points higher than its 5 percent target. So the central bank probably was sensible in exercising restraint.

There are other, Turkey-specific risks too. Tim Ash at Standard Bank says:

The message is that it is still a little early to put the foot to the floor on the gas again, when the current account deficit remains large, and financing risks are still considerable.

The other big meeting this week is in South Africa where the central bank, SARB, is likely to leave its interest rates unchanged at 5 percent on Thursday, despite dismal economic growth numbers. Data today showed headline price growth was a higher-than-expected 5.6 percent in October, close to the upper end of the SARB’s 3-6 percent target band. With inflation sticky, the central bank simply cannot risk weakening the rand any further with a rate cut. The currency has already fallen 10 percent against the dollar this year. From Danske Bank:

Emerging Policy-Hawkish Poland to join the doves

All eyes on Poland’s central bank this week to see if it will finally join the monetary easing trend underway in emerging markets. Chances are it will, with analysts polled by  Reuters unanimous in predicting a 25 basis point rate cut when the central bank meets on Wednesday. Data has been weak of late and signs are Poland will struggle even to achieve 2 percent GDP growth in 2013.

How far Polish rates will fall during this cycle is another matter altogether. Markets are betting on 100 basis points over the next 6 months but central bank board members will probably be cautious. Inflation is one reason  along with the  the danger of excessive zloty weakness that could hit holders of foreign currency mortgages. One source close the bank tells Reuters that 75 or even 50 bps would be appropriate, while another said:

“The council is very cautious and current market expectations for rate cuts are premature and excessive.”

Baton passing to the emerging markets consumer

Is there a change of sector leadership underway within emerging markets?

For years, commodities and energy delivered world-beating returns to emerging market investors. Yet in recent years there are signs of a shift, says Todd Henry, equity portfolio specialist at T.Rowe Price.

With the China tailwind no longer as strong as before demand for oil and metals will not be as robust as in the past decade, Henry says. But in China as well as elsewhere, disposable incomes have risen as a result of the fast economic growth these countries experienced in the past decade.

Check out the following two graphics from T.Rowe Price.

The first figure shows that in the ten years to December 2007, just before the global financial crisis erupted, emerging equities returned 300 percent in dollar terms. The two sectors that won the returns race in this period were energy and commodities, with dollar-based returns of around 650 percent. This is not surprising, given the enormous surge in Chinese demand for all manner of commodities, from oil to steel, as it fired up its exporters’ factories and embarked on a frenzy of infrastructure improvements.

Emerging Policy-the big easing continues

The big easing continues. A major surprise today from the Bank of Thailand, which cut interest rates by 25 basis points to 2.75 percent.  After repeated indications  from Governor Prasarn Trairatvorakul that policy would stay unchanged for now, few had expected the bank to deliver its first rate cut since January.  But given the decision was not unanimous, it appears that Prasarn was overruled.  As in South Korea last week,  the need to boost domestic demand dictated the BoT’s decision. The Thai central bank  noted:

The majority of MPC members deemed that monetary policy easing was warranted to shore up domestic demand in the period ahead and ward off the potential negative impact from the global economy which remained weak and fragile.

Thailand expects GDP to grow 5.7 percent this year and Prasarn has cited robust credit demand as the reason to keep rates on hold. But there have been ominous signs of late — exports and factory output have now fallen for three months straight, which probably dictated today’s rate cut.  Remember that exports, mainly of industrial goods, account for 60 percent of Thai GDP and the outlook is perilous — the BOT has already halved its export growth forecast for 2012 to 7 percent and has said it will cut this estimate further.

Emerging Policy: Rate cuts proliferate

Emerging market central banks have clearly taken to heart the recent IMF warning that there is “an alarmingly high risk”  of a deeper global growth slump.

Two central banks have cut interest rates in the past 24 hours: Brazil  extended its year-long policy easing campaign with a quarter point cut to bring interest rates to a record low 7.25 percent and the Bank of Korea (BoK) also delivered a 25 basis point cut to 2.75 percent.  All eyes now are on Singapore which is expected to ease monetary policy on Friday while Turkey could do so next week and a Polish rate cut is looking a foregone conclusion for November.

South Africa, Hungary, Colombia, China and Turkey have eased policy in recent months while India has cut bank reserve ratios to spur lending.

Iran currency plunge an omen for change?

In recent days Iranians all over the country have been rushing to dealers to change their rials into hard currency. The result has been a spectacular plunge in the rial which has lost a third of its value against the dollar in the past week. Traders in Teheran estimate in fact that it has lost two-thirds of its value since June 2011 as U.S and European economic sanctions bite hard into the country’s oil exports. The government blames the rout on speculators.

According to Charles Robertson at Renaissance Capital,  the rial’s tumble to record lows  and inflation running around 25 percent may be an indicator that Iran is moving towards regime change.  Robertson reminds us of his report from back in March where he pointed out that autocratic countries with a falling per capita income are more likely to move towards democracy. (Click here for what we wrote on this topic at the time)

He says today:

The renewed collapse of the currency recently suggests sanctions are working towards that end.

Fed re-ignites currency war (or currency skirmish)

The currency war is back.

Since last week when the Fed started its third round of money-printing (QE3), policymakers in emerging markets have been busily talking down their own currencies or acting to curb their rise. These efforts may gather pace now that Japan has also increased its asset-buying programme, with expectations that the extra liquidity unleashed by developed central banks will eventually find its way into the developing world.

The alarm over rising currencies was reflected in an unusual verbal intervention this week by the Czech central bank, with governor Miroslav Singer hinting at  more policy loosening ahead, possibly with the help of unconventional policy tools. Prague is not generally known for currency interventions — analysts at Societe Generale point out its last direct interventions were conducted as far back as 2001-2002.  Even verbal intervention is quite rate — it last resorted to this on a concerted basis in 2009, SoGen notes. Singer’s words had a strong impact — the Czech crown fell almost 1 percent against the euro.

The stakes are high — the Czech economy is a small, open one, heavily reliant on exports which make up 75 percent of its GDP. But Singer is certainly not alone in his efforts to tamp down his currency. Turkey’s 100 basis point cut to its overnight lending rate on Tuesday (and hints of more to come) was essentially a currency-weakening move. And Poland has hinted at entering its own bond market in case of “market turmoil”

Carry currencies to tempt central banks

Central bankers as carry traders? Why not.

As we wrote here yesterday, FX reserves at global central banks may be starting to rise again. That’s a consequence of a pick up in portfolio investment flows in recent weeks and is likely to continue after the U.S. Fed’s announcement of its QE3 money-printing programme.

According to analysts at ING, the Fed’s decision to restart its printing presses will first of all increase liquidity (some of which will find its way into central bank coffers). Second, it also tends to depress volatility and lower volatility encourages the carry trade. Over the next 12 months these  two themes will combine as global reserve managers twin their efforts to keep their money safe and still try to make a return, ING predicts, dubbing it a positive carry story.

The first problem is that yields are abysmal on traditional reserve currencies. That means any reserve managers keen to boost returns will try to diversify from the  dollar, euro, sterling and yen that constitute 90 percent of global reserves. Back in the spring of 2009 when the Fed scaled up QE1, its move depressed the dollar and drove reserve managers towards the euro, which was the most liquid alternative at the time. ING writes:

No BRIC without China

Jim O’ Neill, creator of the BRIC investment concept, has been exasperated by repeated calls in the past to exclude one or another country from the quartet, based on either economic growth rates, equity performance or market structure. In the early years, Brazil’s eligibility for BRIC was often questioned due to its anaemic growth; then it was the turn of oil-dependent Russia. Over the past couple of years many turned their sights on India due to its reform stupor. They have suggested removing it and including Indonesia in its place.

All these detractors should focus on China.

China’s validity in BRIC has never been questioned. Aside from the fact that BRI does not really have a ring, that’s not surprising. China’s growth rates plus undoubted political and economic clout on the international stage put  it head and shoulders above the other three. And after all, it is Chinese demand which drives a large part of the Russian and Brazilian economies.

But its equity markets have not performed for years.

This year, Russian and Indian stocks are up around 20 percent in dollar terms while China has gained 9 percent and Brazil 3 percent. In local currency terms however China is among the worst performing emerging markets, down 5 percent. Brazil has risen 9 percent.

Norwegians piling into Korean bonds

One of the stories of this year has been the stupendous rally on emerging local currency debt, fuelled in part by inflows from institutional investors tired of their zero or negative-return investments in Western debt.  Norway’s sovereign wealth fund said last week for instance that it was dumping some European bonds and spending more of its $600 billion war chest in emerging markets.

Quite a bit of that cash is going to South Korea. Regulators in Seoul recently reported a hefty rise in foreigners’ bond holdings (see here for the Reuters story) and  Societe Generale has a note out dissecting the data, which shows that total foreign holdings of Korean bonds are now worth around $79 billion — back at levels seen last July.  Norwegians emerged as the biggest buyers last month,  picking up bonds worth 1.5 trillion won ($1.3 billion) , almost double what they purchased in the entire first half of 2012. Norway’s holdings of Korean Treasuries now total 2.29 trillion won, up from just 190 billion won at the end of 2011.

The growing interest from overseas investors would seem logical — South Korea stands on the cusp between emerging and developed markets, with sound policies, a current account surplus and huge currency reserves. And Socgen analyst Wee-Khoon Chong says the Norwegian crown’s recent strength against other currencies makes such overseas trades more attractive (the crown is up 6 percent versus the euro this year and has gained 5.3 percent to the Korean won). “Norwegians are the newbies into the KTB market,” Chong says. “They are probably recycling their FX reserves.”