Global Investing

Iran: a frontier for the future

Investors trawling for new frontier markets have of late been rolling into Iran. Charles Robertson at Renaissance Capital (which bills itself as a Frontier bank) visited recently and his verdict?

It’s like Turkey, but with 9% of the world’s oil reserves.

Most interestingly, Robertson found a bustling stock market with a $170 billion market cap — on par with Poland – which is the result of a raft of privatisations in recent years.  A $150 million daily trading volume exceeds that of Nigeria, a well established frontier markets. And a free-float of $30 billion means that if Iranian shares are included in MSCI’s frontier index, they would have a share of 25 percent, he calculates.

What of the economy? Renaissance estimates its size at $437 billion, which if accurate would place it higher than Austria or Thailand. Foreign investors are keen — a thawing of relations with the West has triggered a race among multinations to explore business opportunities in the country of 78 million. Last month, more than 100 executives from France’s biggest firms visited Iran. Robertson writes:

Iran is beyond the final frontier for portfolio investors, but many on the ground appear to believe there is a good chance it will become investable (at least to frontier funds) within the next 6-18 months..Most interesting of all, there is a dynamic reform team now in charge of the government and central bank, which is undertaking the classic monetary and fiscal reforms EM investors usually like. This looks to us like a potential re-ratingplay that could – in an investable scenario – attract those investors who have recently invested in Saudi Arabia, like those who invested in Turkey after 2001 and Russia since the 1990s.

Not so fast.  Despite last year’s initial agreement between Teheran and six world powers, sanctions on Iran remain and until these are removed, few  investors will venture there. Second, fathoming Iran’s idiosyncratic markets could prove a challenge for foreigner, Robertson acknowledges, citing the banking sector and bond markets as an example:

No more “emerging markets” please

The crisis currently roiling the developing world has revived a debate in some circles about the very validity of the “emerging markets” concept. Used since the early 1980s as a convenient moniker grouping countries that were thought to be less developed — financially or infrastructure-wise or due to the size or liquidity of their financial markets — the widely varying performances of different countries during the turmoil has served to underscore the differences rather than similarities between them.  An analyst who traveled recently between several Latin American countries summed it up by writing that he had passed through three international airports during his trip but had not had a stamp in his passport that said “emerging market”.

Like this analyst, many reckon the day has come when fund managers, index providers and investors must stop and consider  if it makes sense to bucket wildly disparate countries together.  After all what does Venezuela, with its anti-market policies and 50 percent annual inflation, have in common with Chile, a free market economy with a high degree of transparency  and investor-friendliness?

Deutsche Bank analyst John-Paul Smith is one of many questioning current index-based investing models which he says essentially provide a free ride to the Russias and Venezuelas of this world, who may be undeserving of investor dollars.  Simply by virtue of inclusion in the emerging index, a country becomes a “default beneficiary” of passive investment flows — from funds that hug or track the benchmark — Smith says. In a note he calls for the abandonment of current index criteria such as market access, liquidity or per capita income in favour of a “substantive governance-based view of risk”
In other words:

The annus horribilis for emerging markets

Last year was one that most emerging market investors would probably like to forget.  MSCI’s main equity index fell 5 percent, bond returns were 6-8 percent in the red and some currencies lost up to 20 percent against the dollar.  Here are some flow numbers  from EPFR Global, the Boston-based agency that released some provisional  annual data to its clients late last week.

While funds dedicated to developed markets — equities and bonds –  received inflows amounting to over 7 percent of their assets under management (AUM), funds investing in emerging stocks lost more than 6 percent of their AUM.

In absolute terms, that amounted to a loss of $15.4 billion for emerging equity funds , banks said citing the EPFR data.

Banks cannot ease Ukraine’s reserve pain

The latest data from Ukraine shows its hard currency reserves fell $2 billion over November to $18.9 billion. That’s perilously low by any measure. (Check out this graphic showing how poorly Ukraine’s reserve adequacy ratios compare with other emerging markets: http://link.reuters.com/quq25v)

Central banks often have tricks to temporarily boost reserves, or at least, to give the impression that they are doing so. Turkey, for instance, allows commercial banks to keep some of their lira reserve requirements in hard currency and gold. Others may get friendly foreign central banks to deposit some cash. Yet another ploy is to issue T-bills in hard currency to mop up banks’ cash holdings. But it may be hard for Ukraine to do any of this says Exotix economist Gabriel Sterne, who has compared the Ukraine national bank’s plight with that of Egypt.

Ukraine and Egypt have both balked at signing up to IMF loan programmes because these  would require them to cut back on subsidies. But latest data shows Egypt’s reserves have risen to $17.8 billion from just over $10 billion in July, while Ukraine’s have declined from $22.9 billion. Egyptian import cover has also risen to 2.6 months while Ukraine now has enough cash to fund less than 2 months of imports (Back in July it was 3 months)
Sterne says:

The hryvnia is all right

The fate of Ukraine’s hryvnia currency hangs by a thread. Will that thread break?

The hryvnia’s crawling peg has so far held as the central bank has dipped steadily into its reserves to support it. But the reserves are dwindling and political unrest is growing. Forwards markets are therefore betting on quite a sizeable depreciation  (See graphic below from brokerage Exotix).

 

The thing to remember is that the key to avoiding a messy devaluation lies not with the central bank but with a country’s households. As countless emerging market crises over decades have shown, currency crises occur when people lose trust in their currency and leadership, withdraw their savings from banks and convert them into hard currency.  That is something no central bank can fight. Now Ukraine’s households hold over $50 billion in bank deposits, according to calculations by Exotix. Of this a third is in hard currency (that’s without counting deposits by companies).  But despite all the ruckus there is no sign of long queues outside banks or currency exchange points, scenes familiar to emerging market watchers.

Barclays sees 20 pct rise in EM bond supply in 2014

Sales of dollar bonds by emerging governments may surge 20 percent over 2013 levels, analysts at Barclays calculate.  They predict $94 billion in bond issuance in 2014 compared to $77 billion that seems likely this year. In net terms –excluding amortisations and redemptions — that will come to $29 billion, almost double this year’s $16 billion.

According to them, the increase in issuance stems from bigger financing needs in big markets such as Russia and Indonesia along with more supply from the frontiers of Africa. Another reason is that local currency emerging bond markets, where governments have been meeting a lot of their funding needs, are also now struggling to absorb new supply.

The increase is unlikely to sit well with investors — appetite for emerging assets is poor at present, EM bond funds have witnessed six straight months of outflows and above all, the projected rise in sovereign supply will come on top of projected corporate bond issuance of over $300 billion, similar to this year’s levels. (See graphic)

Value or growth? The dichotomy of emerging market shares

Investors in emerging markets are facing a tough choice. Should one buy cheap shares in the hope that poor corporate governance and profitability will improve some day? Or is it better to close one’s eyes and buy into expensively valued companies that sell mobile telephones, holidays and handbags — all the things high-spending emerging market consumers hanker after?

At the moment, investors are plumping for the latter, growth-at-any price investment strategy. Result: a lopsided emerging equity index in which consumer discretionary shares are up more than 5 percent this year, energy shares have lost 7 percent while MSCI’s benchmark emerging equity index is down 3 percent.

All markets have their share of cheap and expensive. But the dichotomy in emerging markets is especially stark. Analysis by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch of the biggest 100 emerging market companies revealed last week that the 20 most expensive stocks in this bucket are trading 11 times book value and 31 times earnings (both on trailing basis) while forward earnings-per-share (EPS) is seen at almost 30 percent. The top-20 companies all belong to the private sector and most are in the consumer-facing industries.  This year they have gained more than 50 percent.

Bond market liberalisation — good or bad for India?

Many investors have greeted with enthusiasm India’s plans to get its debt included in international indices such as those run by JPMorgan and Barclays. JPM’s local debt indices, known as the GBI-EM,  were tracked by almost $200 billion at the end of 2012.  So even very small weightings in such indices will give India a welcome slice of investment from funds tracking them.

At present India has a $30 billion cap on the volume of rupee bonds that foreign institutional investors can buy, a tiny proportion of the market. Barclays analysts calculate that Indian rupee bonds could comprise up to a tenth of various market capitalisation-based local-currency bond indices. That implies potential flows of $20 billion in the first six months after inclusion, they say — equivalent to India’s latest quarterly current account deficit. After that, a $10 billion annual inflow is realistic, according to Barclays. Another bank, Standard Chartered, estimates $20-$40 billion could flow in as a result of index inclusion.

All that is clearly good news, above all for the country’s chronic balance of payments deficit. The investments could ease the high borrowing costs that have put a brake on growth, and kick-start the local corporate bond market, provided more safeguards are put in. Indian banks that have traditionally held a huge amount of government bonds, would at least in theory be pushed into lending more to the real economy.

Emerging equities: out of the doghouse

Emerging stocks, in the doghouse for months and months, haven’t done too badly of late. The main EM index,  has rallied more than 11 percent since its end-August troughs, outgunning the S&P 500′s 3 percent rise in this period. Bank of America/Merrill Lynch strategist Michael Hartnett reminds us of the extreme underweight positioning in emerging stocks last month, as revealed by his bank’s monthly investor survey.  Anyone putting on a long EM-short UK equities trade back then would have been in the money with returns of 540 basis points, he says.

Undoubtedly, the postponement of the Fed taper is the main reason for the rally.  Another big inducement is that valuations look very cheap (forward P/E is around 9.9 versus a 10-year average of 10.8) .

According to Mouhammed Choukeir, CIO , Kleinwort Benson:

Looking at valuations we think emerging markets are in an attractively valued zone, hence we think it’s a good investment. EMs are in negative momentum trend but have good valuations. We’re sitting on the positions we’ve built but if it hits a positive (momentum) trend we will add on it…. You wait for value and value will translate into returns over time.

Bernanke Put for emerging markets? Not really

The Fed’s unexpectedly dovish position last week has sparked a rally in emerging markets — not only did the U.S. central bank’s all-powerful boss Ben Bernanke keep his $85 billion-a-month money printing programme in place, he also mentioned emerging markets in his post-meeting news conference, noting the potential impact of Fed policy on the developing world. All that, along with the likelihood of the dovish Janet Yellen succeeding Bernanke was described by Commerzbank analysts as “a triple whammy for EM.” A positive triple whammy, presumably.

Now it may be going too far to conclude there is some kind of Bernanke Put for emerging markets of the sort the U.S. stock market is said to enjoy — the assumption, dating back to Alan Greenspan’s days, that things cant go too wrong for markets because the Fed boss will wade in with lower rates to right things. But the fact remains that global pressure on the Fed has been mounting to avoid any kind of violent disruption to the flow of cheap money — remember the cacophony at this month’s G20 summit? Second, the spike in U.S. yields may have been the main motivation for standing pat but the Treasury selloff was at least partly driven by emerging central banks which have needed to dip into their reserve stash to defend their own currencies. According to IMF estimates, developing countries hold some $3.5 trillion worth of Treasuries, of which just under half is in China. (See here for my colleague Mike Dolan’s June 12 article on the EM-Fed linkages)

David Spegel, head of emerging debt at ING Bank in New York says the decision reflects “an appreciation for today’s globalised world”: