Many emerging economies have been banking on weaker currencies to revitalise economic growth. Oil’s 25 percent fall in dollar terms this year should also help. The problem however is the dollar’s strength which is leading to a general tightening of monetary conditions worldwide, more so in countries where central banks are intervening to prevent their currencies from falling too much.
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”.
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.
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)
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.
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?
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.
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.