Global Investing

March bulls give way to April bears in emerging markets

The dust has settled on a scintillating first quarter for emerging markets but the cross-asset rally of the first three months has already run out of steam. A survey by Societe Generale of 69 EM investors shows that over half are bearish — at least for the near-term.

This marks quite a turn-around from the March survey, when 80 percent of investors declared themselves bullish on emerging markets. What’s more, investors are currently running very little risk and 47 percent of hedge fund respondents (these make up half the survey) feel they are over-invested in EM.  (The following graphic shows the findings — click on it to enlarge)

Almost a quarter of the hedge fund and real money investors are neutral tactically on the market, compared to just 4.5 percent last month. Serious optimism has dried up, SocGen commented:

Looking at the distribution of answers, it is quite clear that the mega-bullish investor on EM has disappeared at this point.

The return of worries about the euro zone debt crisis, U.S. growth and a slowdown in China have all contributed to a higher degree of pessimism on financial markets. It’s not all gloom though. Looking at emerging markets over the next 3 months, sentiment does pick up, with 64 percent of investors bullish. So this falling out of love with EM could be a temporary blip.

Asian bonds may suffer most if QE on ice

Bonds issued in emerging market currencies have been red-hot favourites with investors this year, garnering returns of 8.3 percent so far in 2012. But for some the happy days are drawing to a close — U.S. Treasury yields are nudging higher as the U.S. recovery gains a foothold and the Fed holds back from more money printing for now at least. That could spell trouble for emerging markets across the board (here’s something I wrote on this subject recently) but, according to JP Morgan, it is Asian bond markets that may bear the brunt.

Their graphic details weekly flows to local bond funds as measured by EPFR Global (in million US$). As on cue, these flows have tended to spike whenever central banks have pumped in cash. (Click the graphic to enlarge.)

Over the past several years,  inflows have driven local curves to very flat levels, but current levels of flatness are not sustainable if/when inflows begin to slow, let alone reverse.As there is a clear correlation between the Fed’s “QE periods” and large inflows into Asian markets, we think the next few months will be difficult for Asian bonds markets (JPM writes)

Yield-hungry tilt to equity from credit

For income-focused investors, the choice between stocks and corporate bonds has been a no-brainer in recent years. In a volatile world, corporate debt tends to be less sensitive to market gyrations and also has offered better yields – last year non-financial European corporate bonds provided a yield pickup of  73 basis points above stocks, Morgan Stanley calculates.

But, long a fan of credit over equity, MS reckons the picture may now be changing and points out that European equities are offering better yields than credit for the first time in over a decade. (The graphic below compares dividend yields on non-financial euro STOXX index with the IBOXX European non-financial corporate bond index. The former narrowly wins.)

The extra yield available on equities, coupled with perceptions of a more stable macro backdrop, may encourage income-oriented investors back into stocks.

End of LTRO = end of equity rally 2012?

This year’s global equity rally is unlikely to survive the end of the ECB’s liquidity injections, warns HSBC.

World stocks have jumped 10 percent since the start of 2012, emerging markets are up 15 percent and the index of top European stocks has gained 8 percent. These gains, HSBC says, are almost entirely down to the European Central Bank’s end-December refinancing operation, or LTRO, that injected $500 billion to ease banks’ liquidity worries. The tentative improvement in the U.S. and global growth picture along with beaten-down stock valuations added only limited ammunition to the rally, the bank says.

The findings of HSBC’s analysis? First, past episodes of quantitative easing — Japan in 2001-2004 and the United States, Britain and the euro zone after 2008 –  provided a significant fillip to equity markets.  U.S. stocks rose an average 6 percent, UK stocks by 8 percent and euro zone markets by 15 percent in the three months following the post-Lehman QE rounds, though in Japan the gains have been short-lived. Second, unexpected changes in monetary policy produced a larger impact on stock prices than the continuation of a previous policy.

Emerging market local bond rally has more legs

Just a month and half into 2012, emerging local currency bonds have already returned 9 percent, one of best performing asset classes. But the rally has further to go, says J.P. Morgan which runs the most widely used emerging debt indices. The bank is now predicting its benchmark local currency debt index, the GBI-EM, to end the year with returns of 16 percent, upping its original expectation for 11.9 percent.

There are several reasons for this bullishnesss. JPM’s latest client survey reveals investors’ positioning is still neutral, meaning there is potential for more gains. Cash inflows to EM local debt have been dwarfed this year by investments into dollar bonds, considered a safer, albeit lower-yielding asset than locally issued bonds. So when (and if) euro zone uncertainties abate, some of this cash is likely to make the switch.

Many emerging countries are still cutting interest rates, which will push down yields on short-dated bonds. Other countries may tolerate some more currency appreciation to dampen inflation, benefiting the currency side of the EM local bond trade. Above all, with all developed central banks intent on quantitative easing (Japan announced a surprise $130 billion worth of extra QE this week), the yield premium offered by emerging markets — the carry — is irresistible. On average the GBI-EM index offers a 4.5 percent yield pick up on U.S. Treasuries, JPM notes:

Interest rates in emerging markets – - harder to cut

Emerging market central banks and economic data are sending a message — interest rates will stay on hold for now.  There are exceptions of course.

Indonesia cut rates on Thursday but the move was unexpected and possibly the last for some time. Brazil has also signalled that rate cuts will continue.  But South Korea and Poland held rates steady this week and made hawkish noises. Peru and Chile will probably do the same.

The culprit that’s spoiling the party is of course inflation. Expectations that slowing growth will wipe out remaining price pressures have largely failed to materialise, leaving policymakers in a bind. Tensions over Iran could drive oil prices higher. Growth seems to be looking up in the United States.

Is end-game approaching for Turkey’s policy experiment?

In less than two months, Turkey will mark the first anniversary of the start of an unusual monetary policy experiment, and it may well do so by calling it off.  The experiment hinged on cutting interest rates while raising banks’ reserve ratio requirements, and as recently as August, the central bank was hoping  it would be able to slow a local credit boom a bit but still protect exports by keeping the currency cheap.  Instead, an investor exodus from emerging markets has put the lira to the sword, fuelling at one point a 20 percent collapse in its value against the dollar.  That has forced the central bank to roll back some of the reserve ratio hikes and last week it jacked up overnight lending rates in an attempt to boost the currency. It has also sold vast quantities of dollars and is promising  to unveil more  measures on Wednesday.

But what the market really wants to see is an increase in Turkey’s main interest rate.  ”Not sure that ‘measures’ short of rate hikes will help,” RBS analyst Tim Ash writes.

Given Turkey’s massive current account deficit of almost 10 percent of GDP, an interest rate of 5.75 percent will provide little protection to the lira if emerging markets come under serious pressure again. Even if the lira stabilises at current levels, an inflation spike to double-digits looks inevitable.  Meanwhile the central bank’s hard currency reserves are vanishing at an alarming rate — just last week it spent $2.7 billion. That’s a lot given Turkish reserves are just $86 billion, or  four months of imports.  Current central bank policy is  ”an open door to reserve depletion,” Societe Generale strategist Guillaume Salomon says,  noting that despite the massive dollar sales,  the lira is not far off record lows hit earlier this month.

Act now or forever hold your (b)-piece, Obama

It appears the penny has finally dropped in Washington. Bank bailout watchdog Elizabeth Warren, chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, has unveiled a report that outlines the shocking state of the U.S. commercial mortgage sector, which left unaided could spark “economic damage that could touch the lives of nearly every American”. The Havard Law School Professor and her panel colleagues are talking the kind of apocalyptic language that may just shake the White House and its star policy advisers into facing problems we have now rather simply obsess about those we may or may not encounter in the future. The global banking system may well need some kind of Volcker-esque guidelines to curb the next generation of excessive risk-takers but Obama is putting the cart before the horse in his efforts to haul the economy back on track. Certainly, his and the previous administration has toiled long and hard to stabilise the U.S. housing market, propping up Fannie and Freddie and their dysfunctional offspring, but the subprime mess has distracted attentions from the toxic commercial market, where the clean-up task is no less important. Warren reckons there is about $1.4 trillion worth of outstanding commercial real estate loans in the U.S that will need to be refinanced before 2014, and about half of them are already “underwater,” an industry term that refers to loans larger than the property’s current value. But bank brains are wasting too much time figuring out how the so-called “Volcker rule” might affect their operations and future profitability, instead of getting their arms around underwater real estate loans that could break their institutions in two long before the anti-risk measures even take hold. Obama’s premature challenge to their investment autonomy, which he says cultivated the collapse of banks like Lehmans, is like suturing a papercut while your jugular gapes wide open. Maybe now, as Warren’s report hammers home the threat posed by unperforming commercial real estate debt, Obama will give Wall Street a chance to refocus on the “now” and worry about “tomorrow”, tomorrow.

It appears the penny has finally dropped in Washington.

Bank bailout watchdog Elizabeth Warren, chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, has unveiled a report that outlines the perilous state of the U.S. commercial mortgage sector, which left unaided could spark “economic damage that could touch the lives of nearly every American”.

The Havard Law School Professor and her panel colleagues are talking the kind of apocalyptic language that may just shock the White House and its star policy advisers into facing problems banks have now rather simply obsess about those they may or may not encounter in the future.

Bosch Boss Bashes Bloated Bank Bonuses

Bosch CEO Franz Fehrenbach

Bosch CEO Franz Fehrenbach

Everyone complains about fat banker bonuses, but Bosch Chief Executive Franz Fehrenbach is taking the debate to a new level. The head of the world’s biggest car parts maker is going to review ties with its financiers and may break off business with those that pay excessive bonuses, he told reporters. “We find it irresponsible if some big banks more or less go back to business as usual before the crisis despite what we have gone through,” he said.  He cited HSBC and JP Morgan as positive examples of good corporate behaviour. Of course it’s easier to be picky when you are unlisted and generate huge cash flow.

from FaithWorld:

POLL: Is Goldman Sachs “doing God’s work”? Its CEO thinks so

sunday-times

Check out the headline at the bottom left of the Sunday Times front page. The man the London paper calls the most powerful banker on Earth says he is "just a banker 'doing God’s work'" .

The report says Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein"proudly pays himself more in a year than most of us could ever dream of — $68m in 2007 alone, a record for any Wall Street CEO, to add to the more than $500m of Goldman stock he owns" .

Goldman Sachs looks set to pay about $20 billion in bonuses for its top traders this year, at a time when the fallout from last year's financial crisis is still being felt and the United States unemployment rate has hit 10.2 percent, a 26-1/2-year high.