Global Investing

Weekly Radar: A ‘sudden stop’ in emerging markets?

Turkey’s lira, South Africa’s rand and South Korea’s won have all lunged, local currency debt yields have suddenly surged, there’s an intense investor focus on domestic political risks again and governments like Brazil who were taxing what they feared were excessive foreign investment over the past couple of years have U-turned as those flows evaporate. 

What some have feared for many months may well be materializing – a ‘sudden stop’ in financing flows to emerging markets as the makings of a perfect storm gathers. With the Fed mulling some reduction in the amount of dollars it’s pumping into the world, the prospect of a rare and protracted rise in the dollar and U.S. Treasury yields potentially changes entire EM investment metrics for U.S. funds (who make up almost half of the world’s private institutional investors) and from markets which have willingly or not been some of the biggest beneficiaries of QE in recent years but also to where where , by some estimates, nearly $8 trillion of FDI and portfolio flows have flowed over the past decade. It doesn’t even have to mean a reversal of capital already in emerging markets, but even a sudden stop in new flows there could seriously undermine the currency and debt markets of countries heavily dependent on rolling foreign financing – those with large current account gaps to finance. As emerging and global economic growth has eased and return on equity sinks, emerging equity markets have already underperformed for three years now. But the biggest wave of recent investment in EM had been into its bond markets, most recently to higher-yielding local-currency debt markets. And it’s these flows that could dry up rather quickly and shockingly, with all the attendant pressure on currency rates and vice versa. For context, a record of more than $410 billion new sovereign and corporate bonds from emerging economies were sold last year alone, according to JPMorgan, and Morgan Stanley estimates show emerging companies alone have sold some $130 billion worth of new debt so far this year – up 30 percent on last year and more than twice the same period in 2011.
               Already we’re seeing big hits to big current account deficit countries Turkey and South Africa in this region and, as is so often the case in emerging markets, the withdrawal of capital leads to an intense focus on domestic and political risks. These are two of the five biggest destination for bond flows over the past four years, a list –measured on flows as share of GDP – also includes Poland and Czech Republic. Mexico is top of the list, but many see its geographic and financial proximity to the US insulating it.

               So, is this a 1997/1998 redux? That’s certainly a big fear. The similarities are obvious – building dollar strength, higher US Treasury yields and a repatriation of US investment to a domestic ‘emerging market’ (Silicone Valley and the dot.coms in the late 1990s); a sharp drop in Japan’s yen which upset the competitive landscape in Asia; narrowing global growth differentials; some signs of excessive monetary easing in emerging economies and concern about credit bubbles in China and elsewhere; the sudden magnifying of domestic political, social and policy risks etc etc.

          Of course, it’s also very different from then in many ways – fewer currency pegs to concentrate and magnify the shocks; huge hard cash reserves built up as buffers against sudden stops; still superior underlying growth rates; more robust market structures; better government and corporate balance sheets etc etc.

          However, emerging markets still suffer from two things 1) being bucketed together in EM-labelled investment piles which feed contagion despite obvious differences between countries 2) relative illiquidity of these markets – it’s been straightforward and smooth in marketing and selling bonds to investment firms with a big appetite for risk and yield - but there is a real fear that if these funds suddenly wanted to liquidate many of these bonds in a hurry, the increasingly risk-averse banking/broker community is in no shape to intermediate the flows – risking sharp price moves and outright price disappearance.

The Sub-Saharan frontier: future generations

As growth in Sub-Saharan Africa is set to post a steady 5-6 percent per annum to 2017 according to IMF estimates,  investors will be taking notes on the region’s growth story not least with the financial sector.

Growth projections have rebounded from forecasts of around a 3 percent rise in 2009 after falling commodity prices have hit one of the region’s main revenue sources. Yet, according to the World Bank’s recent Global Development Finance report, stronger commodities will firm growth prospects in the coming years. In recent weeks, commodities have dipped, dampening the outlook for some resource-rich countries, but as 76 percent of the region’s population do not have access to a bank account, lenders are set to grow their presence in the region.

Julius Baer notes the region’s market potential:

Since 2002, resource-hungry China has swept across a by-and-large grateful African continent, taking oil and minerals in exchange for debt relief, low-interest loans, or much needed infrastructure, such as roads, ports and housing.

South Africa’s perfect storm

Of all the emerging currency and bond markets that are feeling the heat from the dollar’s rise, none is suffering more than South Africa. A series of horrific economic data prints at home, the prospect of more labour unrest and the slump in metals prices are making this a perfect storm for the country’s financial markets.

Some worrying data from the Johannesburg Stock Exchange this morning shows that foreigners sold almost 5 billion rand (more than $500 million) worth of bonds during yesterday’s session alone. Over the past 10 days, non-resident selling amounted to 10.7 billion rand. They have also yanked out 1.2 billion rand from South African equities in this time. And at the root of this exodus lies the rand, which has fallen almost 15 percent against the dollar this year. Now apparently headed for the 10-per-dollar mark, the rand’s weakness has eaten into investors’ total return, tipping it into negative return for the year.

What a contrast with last year, when a record 93 billion rand flooded into the country on the back of its inclusion in Citi’s prestigious WGBI bond index.  That lifted foreign holdings of South African bonds to well over a third of the total. Investors at the time were more willing to turn a blind eye to the rand’s lacklustre performance, liking its relatively high yield and betting on interest rate cuts to help the duration component of the trade.

Emerging corporate debt: still booming

The corporate bond juggernaut continues apace in emerging markets.

In a note at the end of last week, analysts at Bank of America/Merrill Lynch estimated that companies from the developing world have sold debt worth $179 billion already this year. Originally, the bank had forecast $268 billion in corporate debt issuance in 2013, a touch below last year’s $290 billion but it is finding itself, like many others, marking up its estimates.

Oleg Melentyev,  credit strategist at BofA/Merrill, writes that recent bumper bond sales imply quarterly issuance is running at 10-11 percent of market size, well above the past average. Melentyev points out that the first 4.5 months of the year tend to account for 35 percent of full-year total debt sales by EM companies.  If this formula were applied now,  it would imply total 2013 new debt issuance at $420 billion.

For now, however, the bank expects $316 billion in full year corporate issuance from EM, with Asia accounting for $126 billion of this.

Turkey’s (investment grade)bond market

We wrote here yesterday on how Turkish hard currency bonds have been given the nod to join some Barclays global indices as a result of the country’s elevation to investment grade. Turkish dollar bonds will also move to the Investment grade sub-index of JPMorgan’s flagship EMBI Global on June 28.

Local lira debt meanwhile will enter JPM’s GBI-EM Global Diversified IG 15 percent Cap Index —  the top-tier of the bank’s GBI-EM index. But the big prize, an invitation into Citi’s mega World Government Bond Index, is still some way off. Requiring a still higher credit rating, WGBI membership is an honour that has been accorded to only four emerging markets so far.

Still, the Turkish Treasury is not complaining.  Even before last week’s upgrade to investment grade by Moody’s, it was borrowing from the lira bond market at record cheap levels of around 5 percent for two-year cash. Ten-year yields are down half a percentage point this year. One reason of course is the gush of liquidity from Western central banks. But most funds (at least those who were allowed to do so) had not waited for the Moody’s signal before buying Turkish bonds. So the bond market was already trading Turkey as investment grade.

Weekly Radar: Central banks try to regain some control

Central banks may be regaining some two-way control over global markets that had started to behave like a one-way bet. After flagging some unease earlier this month that frothy markets were assuming endless QE, the Fed and others look to be responding with at least some frank reality checks even if little new in the substance of their message. In truth, there may be no real change in the likely timing of QE’s end, or even the beginning of its end, but the size of the stock and bond market pullbacks on Wednesday and Thursday shows how sensitive they now are to the ebb and flow of central bank guidance on that score.  Although the 7% drop in Japan’s stock market looks alarming – Fed chief Bernanke actually played it fairly straight, signalling no imminent change and putting any possible wind down over the “next few meetings” still heavily conditional on a much lower jobless rate and higher inflation rate. The control he gains from here is an ability to nuance that message either way if either the data disappoints or markets get out of hand.

The central banks are clearly treading a fine line between getting traction in the real economy and not blowing new financial bubbles. The decider may be inflation and on that score central banks have a lot of leeway right now – global inflation is still evaporating and, as measured by JPM, fell in April to just 2.0% – its lowest in 3-1/2 years.  That said, CPI was also very well behaved in the run-up to 2007 credit crisis – it was asset prices and not consumer inflation that caused the problem. So – expect to hear plenty more cat-and-mouse on this from the central banks over the coming weeks/months.

For investors, periodic pullbacks from here are justified and likely sensible. But it’s still hard to argue against a wholesale change of behaviour – which is merely to assume central banks will prevent further growth shocks but will take some time to transform persistently sluggish growth into anything like a sustained inflation-fueling expansion . As a result, funds will likely steer clear of “safe” havens of cash, gold, Swiss franc and yen despite this bounce and continue their migration to income everywhere, with a bias to relative growth stories within that and an exchange rate tilt according to the likely sequencing of QE exit– all of which points to the U.S. dollar if not its stock markets. And for many that may just mean repariation or staying at home –the US is still the homebase for two thirds of the world’s institutional funds, or some $55 trillion of savings.

Weekly Radar: Draghi returns to London

ECB chief Mario Draghi returns to London next week almost 10 months on from his seminal “whatever it takes” speech to the global financial community in The City  – a speech that not only drew a line under the euro financial crisis by flagging the ECB’s sovereign debt backstop OMT but one that framed the determination of the G4 central banks at large to reflate their economies via extraordinary monetary easing. Since then we’ve seen the Fed effectively commit to buying an addition trillion dollars of bonds this year to get the U.S. jobless rate down toward 6.5%, followed by the ‘shock-and-awe’ tactics of the new Japanese government and Bank of Japan to end decades.

And as Draghi returns 10 months on, there’s little doubt that he and his U.S. and Japanese peers have succeeded in convincing financial investors of central bank doggedness at least. Don’t fight the Fed and all that – or more pertinently, Don’t fight the Fed/BoJ/ECB/BoE/SNB etc… G4 stock markets are surging ever higher through the Spring of 2013 even as global economic data bumbles along disappointingly through its by now annual ‘soft patch’.  Looking at the number tallies, total returns for Spanish and Greek equities and euro zone bank stocks are up between 40 and 50% since Draghi’s showstopper last July . Italian, French and German equities and Spanish and Irish 10-year government bonds have all returned about 30% or more. And you can add 7% on to all that if you happened to be a Boston-based investor due to a windfall from the net jump in the euro/dollar exchange rate. What’s more all of those have outperformed the 25% gains in Wall St’s S&P 500 since then, even though the latter is powering to uncharted record highs. And of course all pale in comparison with the eye-popping 75% rise in Japan’s Nikkei 225 in just six months!! Gold, metals and oil are all net losers and this is significant in a money-printing story where no one seems to see higher inflation anymore.

But with both Fed and BoJ pushes getting some traction on underlying growth and the euro zone economy registering it’s 6th straight quarter of contraction in the first three months of 2013, maybe Draghi’s big task now is to convince people the ECB will do whatever it takes to support the 17-nation economy too and not only the single currency per se. Last year’s pledge may have been a necessary start to stabilise things but it has not yet been sufficient to solve the economic problems bequethed by the credit crisis.

Weekly Radar: Watch the thought bubbles…

Far from the rules of the dusty old investment almanac, it’s up, up and away in May after all. And judging by the latest batch of economic data, markets may well have had good reason to look beyond the global economic ‘soft patch’ – with US employment, Chinese trade and even German and British industry data all coming in with positive surprises since last Friday. Is QE gaining traction at last?

Well, it’s still hard to tell yet in the real economy that continues to disappont overall. But what’s certain is that monetary easing is contagious and not about to stop in the foreseeable future – whether there’s signs of a growth stabilisation or not. With the Fed, BoJ and BoE still on full throttle and the ECB cutting interest rates again last week, monetary easing is fanning out across the emerging markets too. South Korea was the latest to surprise with a rate cut on Thursday, in part to keep a lid on its won currency after Japan’s effective maxi devaluation over the past six months. But Poland too cut rates on Wednesday. And emerging markets, which slipped into the red for the year in February, have at last moved back into the black – even if still far behind year-to-date gains in developed market equities of about 16%!

Not only have we got new records on Wall St and fresh multi-year highs in Europe and Japan, there’s little sign that either this weekend’s meeting in London of G7 finance chiefs or next weekend’s G20 sherpas gathering in Moscow will want to signal a shift  in the monetary stance. If anything, they may codify the recent tilt toward easier austerity deadlines in Europe and elsewhere. But inevitably talk of unintended consequences of QE and bubbles will build again now as both equity and debt markets race ahead , even if the truth is that asset managers have been remarkably defensive so far this year in asset, sector and geographical choices …  one can only guess at what might happen if they did actually start to get aggressive! Perhaps the next pause will have to come from the Fed thinking aloud again about the longevity of its QE programme — so best watch those thought bubbles!

Weekly Radar: May days or Pay days?

So, it’s May and time for the annual if temporary equity market selloff, right? Well, maybe – but only maybe.  A fresh weakening of the global economic pulse would certainly suggest so, but central banks have shown again they are not going to throw in the towel in the battle to reflate. The ECB’s interest rate cut today and last night’s insistence from the Fed that it’s as likely to step up money printing this year as wind it down are two cases in point. And we’re still awaiting the private investment flows from Japan following the BOJ’s latest aggressive easing there.

So where does that all leave us? A third of the way through 2013 and it’s been a good year so far for nearly all bulls – both western equity bulls and increasingly bond bulls too! Not only have developed world equities clocked up some 13 percent year-to-date (the S&P500 set yet another record high this week while Europe’s bluechips recorded a staggering 12th consecutive monthly gain in April) , but virtually all bond markets from junk bonds to Treasuries, euro peripherals to emerging markets are now back in the black for the year as a whole. For the most eyebrow-raising evidence, look no further than last week’s debut sovereign bond from Rwanda at less than 7 percent for 10 years or even newly-junked Slovenia’s ability this week to plough ahead with a syndicated bond sale reported to already be in the region of four times oversubscribed. For many people, that parallel rise in equity and bonds smells of a bubble somewhere. But before you cry “QEEEEE!” , take a look at commodities — the bulls there have been taken a bath all year as data on final global demand hits yet another ‘soft patch’ over the past couple of months.

So is this just an idiosyncratic random walk of asset markets (itself no bad thing after years of stress-riven hyper correlation) or can we explain all three asset directions together? One way to think of it is in terms of global inflation. If QE-related inflation fears have been grossly exaggerated then pressure to remove monetary stimulus or wanes again and there may even be arguments – certainly in Europe – for more. This would intuitively explain the renewed dash for bonds and fixed income in general even in the face of the still-plausible, if long term, “Great Rotation” idea. You could argue the monetary free-for-all is buoying equities regardless of demand concerns. But why wouldn’t commodities gain on that basis too?

Show us the (Japanese) money

Where is the Japanese money? Mostly it has been heading back to home shores as we wrote here yesterday.

The assumption was that the Bank of Japan’s huge money-printing campaign would push Japanese retail and institutional investors out in search of yield.  Emerging markets were expected to capture at least part of a potentially huge outflow from Japan and also benefit from rising allocations from other international funds as a result.  But almost a month after the BOJ announced its plans, the cash has not yet arrived.

EM investors, who seem to have been banking the most on the arrival of Japanese cash, may be forgiven for feeling a tad nervous. Data from EPFR Global shows no notable pick-up in flows to EM bond funds while cash continues to flee EM equities ($2 billion left last week).