Global Investing

Korea shocks with rate cut but will it work?

Emerging market investors may have got used to policy surprises from Turkey’s central bank but they don’t expect them from South Korea. Such are the times, however, that the normally staid Bank of Korea shocked investors this morning with an interest rate cut,  the first in three years.  Most analysts had expected it to stay on hold. But with the global economic outlook showing no sign of lightening, the BoK probably felt the need to try and stimulate sluggish domestic demand. (To read coverage of today’s rate cut see here).

So how much impact is the cut going to have?  I wrote yesterday about Brazil, where eight successive rate cuts have borne little fruit in terms of stimulating economic recovery. Korea’s outcome could be similar but the reasons are different. The rate cut should help Korea’s indebted household sector. But for an economy heavily reliant on exports,  lower interest rates are no panacea,  more a reassurance that, as other central banks from China to the ECB to Brazil  ease policy, the BoK is not sitting on its hands.

Nomura economist Young-Sun Kwon says:

We do not think that rate cuts will be enough to reverse the downturn in the Korean economy which is largely dependent on exports.

Exports make up 53 percent of South Korea’s economy, World Bank data showed last year. That’s one of the highest rates in the world, far higher than China’s 29 percent or Brazil’s 12 percent. Nearly half these exports went to China. Europe and the United States –  growth is looking shaky in all these destinations.  Look at the figures to see how this is affecting Korea.   Exports grew 19 percent last year. But in 2012  export growth is estimated at 3.5 percent, half government’s initial forecast.  And correlation is high between exports and manufacturing — no wonder Korean factory activity shrank in June for the first time in five months.

Rather than reassure investors, the rate cut appears to have  spooked, with stock markets falling more than 2 percent and many analysts criticising the BoK for surprising markets.

SocGen poll unearths more EM bulls in July

These are not the best of times for emerging markets but some investors don’t seem too perturbed. According to Societe Generale,  almost half the clients it surveys in its monthly snap poll of investors have turned bullish on emerging markets’ near-term prospects. That is a big shift from June, when only 33 percent were optimistic on the sector. And less than a third of folk are bearish for the near-term outlook over the next couple of weeks, a drop of 20 percentage points over the past month.

These findings are perhaps not so surprising, given most risky assets have rallied off the lows of May.  And a bailout of Spain’s banks seems to have averted, at least temporarily, an immediate debt and banking crunch in the euro zone. What is more interesting is that despite a cloudy growth picture in the developing world, especially in the four big BRIC economies,  almost two-thirds of the investors polled declared themselves bullish on emerging markets in the medium-term (the next 3 months) . That rose to almost 70 percent for real money investors. (the poll includes 46 real money accounts and 45 hedge funds from across the world).

See the graphics below (click to enlarge):

Signals are positive on positioning as well with 38.5 percent of investors reckoning they were under-invested in emerging markets, compared to a quarter who felt they were over-invested. Again, real-money investors appeared more keen on emerging markets, with over 40 percent seeing themselves as under-invested. SocGen analysts write:

Sell in May? Yes they did

Just how miserable a month May was for global equity markets is summed up by index provider S&P which notes that every one of the 46 markets included in its world index (BMI)  fell last month, and of these 35 posted double-digit declines. Overall, the index slumped more than 9 percent.

With Greece’s anti-austerity May 6 election result responsible for much of the red ink, it was perhaps fitting that Athens was May’s worst performer, losing almost 30 percent (it’s down 65 percent so far this year).  With euro zone growth steadily deteriorating, even German stocks fell almost 15 percent in May while Portugal, Spain and Italy were the worst performing developed markets  (along with Finland).

The best of the bunch (at least in the developed world) was the United States which fell only 6.5 percent in May and is clinging to 2012 gains of around 5 percent. S&P analyst Howard Silverblatt writes:

India rate cut clamour misses rupee’s fall-JPM

Indian markets are rallying this week as they price in an interest rate cut at the Reserve Bank’s June 18 meeting.  With the country still in shock after last week’s 5.3 percent first quarter GDP growth print, it is easy to understand the clamour for rate cuts. After all, first quarter growth just a year ago was 9.2 percent.

Yet,  there may be little the RBI can do to kickstart growth and investment.  Many would argue the growth slowdown is not caused by tight monetary conditions but is down to supply constraints and macroeconomic risks –the government’s inability to lift a raft of crippling subsidies has swollen the fiscal deficit to almost 6 percent while inhibitions on foreign investment in food processing and retail keep food prices volatile.  

The other side of the problem is of course the rupee which has plunged to record lows amid the global turmoil. Lower interest rates could  leave the currency vulnerable to further losses.

Indian risks eclipsing other BRICs

India’s first-quarter GDP growth report was a shocker this morning at +5.3 percent. Much as Western countries would dream of a print that good, it’s akin to a hard landing for a country only recently aspiring to double-digit expansions and, with little hope of any strong reform impetus from the current government, things might get worse if investment flows dry up. The rupee is at a new record low having fallen 7 percent in May alone against the dollar — bad news for companies with hard currency debt maturing this year (See here). So investors are likely to find themselves paying more and more to hedge exposure to India.

Credit default swaps for the State Bank of India (used as a proxy for the Indian sovereign) are trading at almost 400 basis points. More precisely, investors must pay $388,000  to insure $10 million of exposure for a five-year period, data from Markit shows. That is well above levels for the other countries in the BRIC quartet — Brazil, China and Russia. Check out the following graphic from Markit showing the contrast between Brazil and Indian risk perceptions.

At the end of 2010, investors paid a roughly 50 bps premium over Brazil to insure Indian risk via SBI CDS. That premium is now more than 200 bps.

Quiet CDS creep highlights China risk

As credit default swaps (CDS) for many euro zone sovereigns have zoomed to ever new record highs this year, Chinese CDS too have been quietly creeping higher. Five-year CDS are around 135 bps today, meaning it costs $135,000 a year to insure exposure to $10 million of Chinese risk over a five-year period. According to this graphic from data provider Markit, they are up almost 45 basis points in the past six weeks.  In fact they are double the levels seen a year ago.

That looks modest given some of the numbers in Europe. But worries over China, while not in

 

the same league as for the euro zone, are clearly growing, as many fear that the real scale of indebtedness and bad loans in the economy could be higher than anyone knows.  Above all, investors have been fretting about a possible hard landing for the economy, with the government unable to control  a growth slowdown.

Battered India rupee lacks a warchest

The Indian rupee’s plunge this week to record lows will have surprised no one. After all, the currency has been inching towards this for weeks, propelled by the government’s paralysis on vital reforms and tax wrangles with big foreign investors. These are leading to a drying up of FDI and accelerating the exodus from stock markets. Industrial production and exports have been falling.  High oil prices have added a nasty twist to that cocktail. If the euro zone noise gets louder, a balance of payments crisis may loom. The rupee could fall further to 56 per dollar, most analysts predict.

True, the rupee is not the only emerging currency that is taking a hit. But the Reserve Bank of India looks especially powerless to stem the decline. (See here for an article by my colleagues in Mumbai) .  One reason  the RBI’s hands are  effectively tied is that  India is one of the few emerging economies that has failed to build up its hard currency reserves since the 2008 crisis and so is unable to spend in the currency’s defence. Usable FX reserves stand now around $260 bilion, down from $300 billion just before the 2008 crisis.  See the following graphic from UBS which shows that relative to GDP, India’s reserve loss has been the greatest in emerging markets.

But there is worse. The relative decline in reserves since 2008 coincides with a ballooning in India’s external debt, both private and public. Comprising mostly of corporate borrowing and trade credit, the debt stands at $350  billion, up from $225 billion four years back.

Not everyone is “risk off”

Who would have thought it. As fears over the euro zone’s fate, Chinese economic growth and Middle Eastern politics drive investors toward safe-haven U.S. and German bonds, some have apparently been going the other way.  According to JPMorgan, bonds from so-called frontier economies such as Pakistan, Belarus and Jordan (usually considered high-risk assets) have performed exceptionally well, doing far better in fact than their peers from mainstream emerging markets.  The following graphic from JPM which runs the NEXGEM sub-index of frontier debt, shows that returns on many of these bonds are running well into the double digits.

NEXGEM returns of 8.4 percent  are on par with the S&P 500, writes JPMorgan and outstrip all other emerging bond categories. Clearly one reason is the lack of correlation with the mainstream asset classes, many of which have been selling off for weeks amid growth fears and in the run up to French and Greek elections.  Second, investors who tend to buy these bonds usually have a pretty high risk-tolerance anyway as they keep their eyes on the double-digit yields they offer.

So year-to-date returns on Ivory Coast’s defaulted debt are running at over 40 percent on hopes that the country will resume payments on its $2.3 billion bond after June. The underperformer is Belize whose bonds suffered from a default scare at the start of the year.

In defence of co-investing with the state

It’s hard to avoid state-run companies if you are investing in emerging markets — after all they make up a third of the main EM equity index, run by MSCI. But should one be avoiding shares in these firms?

Absolutely yes, says John-Paul Smith at Deutsche Bank. Smith sees state influence as the biggest factor dragging down emerging equity performance in the longer term. They will underperform, he says, not just because governments run companies such as Gazprom or the State Bank of India in their own interests (rather than to benefit shareholders)  but also because of their habit of interfering in the broader economy.  Shares in state-owned companies performed well during the crisis, Smith acknowledges, but attributes emerging markets’ underperformance since mid-2010 to fears over the state’s increasing influence in developing economies. (t

Jonathan Garner at Morgan Stanley has a diametrically opposing view, favouring what he calls “co-investing with the state”.  Garner estimates a basket of 122 MSCI-listed companies that were over 30 percent state-owned outperformed the emerging markets index by 260 percent since 2001 and by 33 percent after the 2008 financial crisis on a weighted average basis. The outperformance persisted even when adjusted for sectors, he says (state-run companies tend to be predominantly in the commodity sector).

Trading the new normal in India

After a ghastly 2011, Indian stock markets have’t done too badly this year despite the almost constant stream of bad news from India. They are up 12 percent, slightly outperforming other emerging markets, thanks to  fairly cheap valuations (by India’s normally expensive standards)  and hopes the central bank might cut rates. But foreign  inflows, running at $3 billion a month in the first quarter, have tapered off and the underlying mood is pessimistic. Above all, the worry is how much will India’s once turbo-charged economy slow? With the government seemingly in policy stupor, growth is likely to fall under 7 percent this year. News today added to the gloom — exports fell in March for the first time since the 2009 global crisis.

So how are fund managers to play India now? According to David Cornell, who runs an India portfolio at specialist investor Ocean Dial, they must simply get used to the “new normal” — subpar growth and high cost of capital. In this shift, Cornell points out, return on assets in India has fallen from a peak of almost 14 percent in 2007 to less than 10 percent now. While that is still higher than the broader emerging asset class, the advantage has dwindled to less than 1 percent as companies suffer from margin compression and falling turnover. Check out these two graphs from Ocean Dial:

Cornell is playing the new normal by focusing on three sectors — consumer goods, banks and pharmaceuticals. These companies, he says, have pricing power and structural barriers to entry (banks); provide access to still-buoyant demand for services such as mobile phones (consumer goods) and are well-run and profitable (pharmaceuticals). And the export-oriented pharma sector is also an effective hedge against the weakening rupee.