Global Investing

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.

Iran’s 2009 per capita income of over $10,000 would put it among the countries that have a 5.1 to 15.5 percent chance of democratisation if incomes shrink, according to Robertson’s calculations in March, based on past regime changes in other countries. (Iran itself could argue, reasonably enough, that it is the most democratic country in the region — everyone over the age of 18, including women, are allowed to vote, though the choice of candidates is restricted)

Furthermore, 17% of the population is comprised of young men aged 15-29 (more than in the Arab Spring countries of Tunisia, Egypt, Syria or Libya)  — another underlying factor that could trigger unrest, according to his research.

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.”

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.