Global Investing

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:

This time, however, we are not looking for the same kind of euro pick-up that we saw in 2009. FX reserve managers typically invest in securities rated AA or higher. Even if they extend durations out to the 5-year area of sovereign curves, an average of AA/AAA Eurozone yields only pays 0.75% – exactly the same as Treasuries.5-year UK gilts are not much better at 0.9 % while Japan pays a measly 0.2% on 5-year bonds.

Instead ING analysts reckon FX reserve managers will go for currencies such as the Australian and Canadian dollars. Thanks to slightly better yields, and large, liquid bond markets,  a carry basket invested in the Australian, Canadian, Norwegian and Swedish currencies and funded out of the dollar, euro, sterling and yen will have an annualised carry pick up of 1.6%, the analysts say. That sounds pretty modest but according to ING, FX outperformance can deliver returns of over 10% on this basket. They write:

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.”

Emerging corporate debt tips the scales

Time was when investing in emerging markets meant buying dollar bonds issued by developing countries’ governments.

How old fashioned. These days it’s more about emerging corporate bonds, if the emerging market gurus at JP Morgan are to be believed. According to them, the stock of debt from emerging market companies now exceeds that of dollar bonds issued by emerging governments for the first time ever.

JP Morgan, which runs the most widely used emerging debt indices, says its main EM corporate bond benchmark, the CEMBI Broad, now lists $469 billion in corporate bonds.  That compares to $463 billion benchmarked to its main sovereign dollar bond index, the EMBI Global. In fact, the entire corporate debt market (if one also considers debt that is not eligible for the CEMBI) is now worth $974 billion, very close to the magic $1 trillion mark. Back in 2006, the figure was at$340 billion.  JPM says:

Olympic medal winners — and economies — dissected

The Olympic medals have all been handed out and the athletes are on their way home.  Which countries surpassed expectations and which ones did worse than expected? And did this have anything to do with the state of their economies?

An extensive Goldman Sachs report entitled Olympics and Economics  (a regular feature before each Olympic Games) predicted before the Games kicked off that the United States would top the tally with 36 gold medals. It also said the top 10 would include five G7 countries (the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy), two BRICs (China and Russia), one of the developing countries it dubs Next-11  (South Korea), and one additional developed and emerging market. These would be Australia and Ukraine, it said.

Close enough, except that Hungary took the place of Ukraine as the emerging economy in the Top 10 and the United States actually took 46 gold medals — more than Goldman had predicted.

Aussie: reserve managers’ new favourite

Lucky Australia. In a world of slowing economic growth its central bank today raised forecasts for 2012 GDP growth by a half point to 3.5 percent. That’s down to a mining boom, driven of course by China. But there’s a downside. Australia’s currency, the dollar (or affectionately, the Aussie), has steadily risen in recent years, and is up 3 percent versus the U.S. dollar this year. Unsurprisingly, the Reserve Bank of Australia tempered its good news on growth with a warning over the Aussie’s gains.

Analysts at Credit Agricole note that the Aussie’s gains this year have come in tandem with a rise in Japan’s yen. That in itself would have been highly unusual in the past: the yen is a so-called safe haven, the currency investors run to when all else is selling off, while the Aussie is a commodity currency, one that does well when world growth is looking good and risk appetite is high. CA analysts explain thus:

The role of the (Aussie) is probably changing from a traditional commodity currency to an increasingly attractive reserve currency.

Russia: a hawk among central bank doves?

This week has the potential to bring an interesting twist to emerging markets monetary policy. Peru, South Korea and Indonesia are likely to leave interest rates unchanged on Thursday but there is a chance of a rate rise in Russia. A rise would stand out at a time when  central banks across the world are easing monetary policy as fast as possible.

First the others. Rate rises in Indonesia and Peru can be ruled out. Peru grew at a solid  5.4 percent pace in the previous quarter and inflation is within target. Indonesian data too shows buoyant growth, with the economy expanding 6.4 percent from a year earlier. And the central bank is likely to be mindful of the rupiah’s weakness this year — it has been one of the worst performing emerging currencies of 2012.

Korea is a tougher call. The Bank of Korea stunned markets with a rate cut last month, its first in three years. Since then, data has shown that the economy is slowing even further after first quarter growth eased to 2008-2009 lows. Exports are falling at the fastest pace in three years. But most analysts expect it to wait it out in August and then cut rates in September. Markets on the other hand are bracing for a rate cut as yields on 3-year Korean bonds have fallen well under the central bank’s main 7-day policy rate.

Power failures shine light on India’s woes

Half of India’s 1.2 billion people have been without power today,  bringing transport, factories and offices to a grinding halt for the second day in a row and sparking rage amongst the sweltering population. That’s embarrassing enough for a country that prides itself as  a member of the BRIC quartet of big emerging powerhouses along with Brazil, Russia and China.  But the outages will also hit economic growth which is already at 10-year lows. And the power failures, highlighting India’s woeful infrastructure, bode poorly for the government’s plans to step up manufacturing and lure more foreign companies to the factory sector.

India urgently needs to increase production and exports of manufactured goods. After all, software or pharma exports do not create jobs for a huge and largely unskilled population. India should be making and selling toys, clothes, shoes –- the things that helped lift hundreds of millions of Chinese, Taiwanese and Koreans  out of poverty and fuelled the current account surpluses in these countries.  At present, manufacturing provides less than 16 percent of India’s gross domestic product (30 percent in China, 25 percent in South Korea and Taiwan)  but the government wants to raise that to 26 percent by 2022.  Trade minister Anand Sharma, in London last week, for a pre-Olympics conference, was eloquent on the plan to boost manufacturing exports to plug the current account gap:

In coming decades, India will be transformed into a major manufacturing hub of the world.

India, a hawk among central bank doves

So India has not joined emerging central banks’ rate-cutting spree .  After recent rate cuts in Brazil, South Korea, South Africa, Philippines and Colombia, and others signalling their worries over the state of economic growth,  hawks are in short supply among the world’s increasingly dovish central banks. But the Reserve Bank of India is one.

With GDP growth slowing to  10-year lows, the RBI would dearly love to follow other central banks in cutting rates.  But its pointed warning on inflation on the eve of today’s policy meeting practically sealed the meeting’s outcome. Interest rates have duly been kept on hold, though in a nod to the tough conditions, the RBI did ease banks’ statutory liquidity ratio. The move will free up some more cash for lending.

What is more significant is that the RBI has revised up its inflation forecast for the coming year by half a  percentage point, and in a post-meeting statement said rate cuts at this stage would do little to boost flagging growth. That, to many analysts, is a signal the bank will provide little monetary accommodation in coming months. and may force  markets to pedal back on their expectation of 100 basis points of rate cuts in the next 12 months.  Anubhuti Sahay at Standard Chartered in Mumbai says:

Emerging debt default rates on the rise

Times are tough and unsurprisingly, default rates among emerging market companies are rising.

David Spegel, ING Bank’s head of emerging debt, has a note out, calculating that there have been $8.271 billion worth of defaults by 19 emerging market issuers so far this year — nearly double the total $4.28 billion witnessed during the whole of 2011.

And there is more to come — 208 bonds worth $75.7 billion are currently trading at yield levels classed as distressed (above 1000 basis points), Spegel says, while another 120 bonds worth $45 billion are at “stressed” levels (yields between 700 and 999 bps).   Over half of the “distressed” bonds are in Latin America (see graphic below).  His list suggests there could be $2.4 billion worth of additional defaults in 2012 which would bring the 2012 total to $10.7 billion. Spegel adds however that defaults would drop next year to $6.8 billion.