Global Investing

Interest rates rise in Kenya, Uganda. Hungary next

Recent weeks have witnessed an interesting  split between countries that are raising interest rates to fend off runs on their currencies, and those cutting rates to spur on growth — check out my colleague Carolyn Cohn’s recent piece on this topic (http://tinyurl.com/4x58ny6) .The frontier economies of Africa fall into the first category — Kenya this week jacked up rates by an unprecedented 550 basis points to ward off a currency collapse, while Uganda’s benchmark rate was increased by 300 bps.  

Big stable economies such as Australia, Brazil and Indonesia have cut interest rates. On Wednesday, Romania became the latest  country to do so.  But an exception is investment grade Hungary, which may soon join the ranks of  frontier markets in currency-defensive rate hikes.

It may also soon lose its investment grade status –at least one of the three big rating agencies is expected to soon announce a cut to the sovereign credit rating.  That fear has triggered flight from the forint and short-dated bonds, pushing the currency to 2-1/2 year lows and causing significant flattening in the yield curve. The situation hasn’t been helped by signs the government is cooking up another sceme to subsidise indebted small businesses. More is to come, many predict –a ratings downgrade could see investors pull at least $1.2 billion euros from local bond markets. ING Bank estimates. That would be 10 percent of foreigners’ Hungarian bond holdings and would send the currency into a fresh tailspin.

The forint is down 9 percent this year to the euro, and Hungarians, holding a vast stock of euro- and Swiss franc-denominated mortgages, cannot really tolerate a much weaker currency. A rate rise seems like the only way out, says Societe Generale analyst Benoit Anne who predicts the Hungarian central bank will be sufficiently alarmed by the pace and scope of the forint’s fall to raise rates by 200-300 basis points. That rekindles memories of the October 2008 crisis when the bank was forced into a 300 bps rate rise to support the forint.  Swaps markets are currently pricing a 100 bps rate rise — most analysts say that is too conservative.

The fact is investors have turned their attention to Hungary away from Turkey, where the central bank has stabilised the lira via a stealthy policy tightening exercise that boosted implied yields on the lira to around 9 percent, the highest in emerging markets. Hungary will have to do the same, says Anne who advises investors to sell the forint and buy lira instead.

Japan fires latest FX wars salvo; other Asians to follow

Emerging central banks that sold billions of dollars over the summer in defence of their currencies might soon be forced to do the opposite. Japan’s massive currency intervention on Monday knocked the yen substantially lower not only versus the dollar but also against other Asian currencies.  The action is unlikely to sit well with other central banks struggling to boost economic growth and raises  the prospect of a fresh round of tit-for-tat currency depreciations. Already on Monday, central banks from South Korea and Singapore were suspected of wading into currency markets to buy dollars and push down their currencies which have recovered strongly from September’s selloff.  The won for instance is up 6.9 percent in October against the dollar — its biggest monthly gain since April 2009.  The Singapore dollar is up 4.5 percent, the result of a huge improvement in risk appetite.

Despite the interventions, the yen ended the session more than 2 percent lower against both the won and the Singapore dollar,  and most analysts reckon Japan’s latest intervention is by no means its last. That’s bad news for companies that compete with Japan on export markets and will keep neighbouring central banks watching for the BOJ’s next move. “Asian central banks are likely to play in the same game, and keep currencies competitive via regular interventions,” BNP Paribas analysts said.

But the race to the bottom has been underway for some time.  After all central banks in the West have cut rates, as in the euro zone, and embarked on more quantitative easing, as in the UK.  One bank, Switzerland’s, has gone as far as to effectively establish a ceiling for its currency.  And in Asia, Indonesia surprised markets with an interest rate cut this month while Singapore eased monetary policy. Many expect South Korea’s next move also to be a rate cut even though inflation is running well above target.  Analysts at Credit Agricole predicted this week’s G20 meeting to yield no fruitful discussion on what they termed “currency manipulation”. “This lack of co-ordinated policy could trigger an escalation in ongoing currency wars,” Credit Agricole analyst Adam Myers told clients. That would in turn lead to a renewed acceleration in central banks’ dollar reserves, he added.

Phew! Emerging from euro fog

Holding your breath for instant and comprehensive European Union policies solutions has never been terribly wise.  And, as the past three months of summit-ology around the euro sovereign debt crisis attests, you’d be just a little blue in the face waiting for the ‘big bazooka’. And, no doubt, there will still be elements of this latest plan knocking around a year or more from now. Yet, the history of euro decision making also shows that Europe tends to deliver some sort of solution eventually and it typically has the firepower if not the automatic will to prevent systemic collapse.
And here’s where most global investors stand following the “framework” euro stabilisation agreement reached late on Wednesday. It had the basic ingredients, even if the precise recipe still needs to be nailed down. The headline, box-ticking numbers — a 50% Greek debt writedown, agreement to leverage the euro rescue fund to more than a trillion euros and provisions for bank recapitalisation of more than 100 billion euros — were broadly what was called for, if not the “shock and awe” some demanded.  Financial markets, who had fretted about the “tail risk” of a dysfunctional euro zone meltdown by yearend, have breathed a sigh of relief and equity and risk markets rose on Thursday. European bank stocks gained almost 6%, world equity indices and euro climbed to their highest in almost two months in an audible “Phew!”.

Credit Suisse economists gave a qualified but positive spin to the deal in a note to clients this morning:

It would be clearly premature to declare the euro crisis as fully resolved. Nevertheless, it is our impression that EU leaders have made significant progress on all fronts. This suggests that the rebound in risk assets that has been underway in recent days may well continue for some time.

We’re all in the same boat

The withering complexity of a four-year-old global financial crisis — in the euro zone, United States or increasingly in China and across the faster-growing developing world — is now stretching the minds and patience of even the most clued-in experts and commentators. Unsurprisingly, the average householder is perplexed, increasingly anxious and keen on a simpler narrative they can rally around or rail against. It’s fast becoming a fertile environment for half-baked conspiracy theories, apocalypse preaching and no little political opportunism. And, as ever, a tempting electoral ploy is to convince the public there’s some magic national solution to problems way beyond borders.

For a populace fearful of seemingly inextricable connections to a wider world they can’t control, it’s not difficult to see the lure of petty nationalism, protectionism and isolationism. Just witness national debates on the crisis in Britain, Germany, Greece or Ireland and they are all starting to tilt toward some idea that everyone may be better off on their own — outside a flawed single currency in the case of Germany, Greece and Ireland and even outside the European Union in the case of some lobby groups in Britain. But it’s not just a debate about a European future, the U.S.  Senate next week plans to vote on legisation to crack down on Chinese trade due to currency pegging despite the interdependency of the two economies.  And there’s no shortage of voices saying China should somehow stand aloof from the Western financial crisis, even though its spectacular economic ascent over the past decade was gained largely on the back of U.S. and European demand.

Despite all the nationalist rumbling, the crisis illustrates one thing pretty clearly – the world is massively integrated and interdependent in a way never seen before in history. And globalised trade and finance drove much of that over the past 20 years. However desireable you may think it is in the long run, unwinding that now could well be catastrophic. A financial crisis in one small part of the globe will now quickly affect another through a blizzard of systematic banking and cross-border trade links systemic links.

from MacroScope:

Dramatic ending to Greek tragedy

Greece is in the danger zone. Even as the country's finance minister sought to reassure his euro zone counterparts at a meeting in Poland, Greek credit default swaps were pricing in a more than 90 percent chance of default, according to Reuters calculations of Markit data. Economists in a Reuters poll see a 65 percent chance of that happening, probably within a year.

Such fears recently sent jitters across financial markets, prompting some words of comfort from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy that they are determined to keep Greece in the euro zone. But speculation is growing that Greece will default, and that it will be a messy ordeal. Here are some of the potential dangers if it occurs:

* Greece may be seen as setting a precedent for Portugal and Ireland, analysts said. Yields on peripheral euro zone debt could surge rapidly, making funding costs increasingly unsustainable as yields on Italian and Spanish 10-year bonds surge back towards 7 percent. The ECB could have to intervene more aggressively in the secondary bond market to the detriment of its balance sheet.

from MacroScope:

New twist in Hungary’s Swiss debt saga. Banks beware.

A fresh twist in Hungary's Swiss franc debt saga. The ruling party, Fidesz, is proposing to offer mortgage holders the opportunity to repay their franc-denominated loans in one fell swoop at an exchange rate to be  fixed well below the market rate.  This is a deviation from the existing plan, agreed in June, which allows households to repay mortgage installments at a fixed rate of 180 forints per Swiss franc (well below the current 230 rate). Households would repay the difference, with interest, after 2015.

If this step is implemented and many loan holders take up the offer, it would be terrible news for Hungary's banks. The biggest local lender OTP could face a loss of $2 billion forints, analysts at Budapest-based brokerage Equilor calculate.  Not surprisingly, OTP shares plunged 10 percent on Friday after the news, forcing regulators to suspend trade in the stock. Shares in another bank FHB are down 8 percent.

But Fidesz' message is unequivocal.  "The financial consequences should be borne by the banks,"  Janos Lazar, the Fidesz official behind the plan says. The government is to debate the proposal on Sunday.

Emerging consumers’ pain to spell gains for stocks in staples

Food and electricity bills are high. The cost of filling up at the petrol station isn’t coming down much either. The U.S. economy is in trouble and suddenly the job isn’t as secure as it seemed. Maybe that designer handbag and new car aren’t such good ideas after all.

That’s the kind of decision millions of middle class consumers in developing countries are facing these days. That’s bad news for purveyors of everything from jeans to iphones  who have enjoyed double-digit profits thanks to booming sales in emerging markets.

Brazil is the best example of how emerging market consumers are tightening their belts. Thanks to their spending splurge earlier this decade, Brazilian consumers on average see a quarter of their income disappear these days on debt repayments. People’s credit card bills can carry interest rates of up to 45 percent. The central bank is so worried about the growth outlook it stunned markets with a cut in interest rates this week even though inflation is running well above target

Clinging to hope in bear-bitten Russia

Poor Russia. After spending six months as the world’s best performing emerging market, the Moscow bourse  has been the big loser of this month’s rout – year-to-date returns of over 10 percent until mid-July have since dissolved in a sea of red, with a plunge of over 20 percent since the start of August. As oil prices fell and the outlook for U.S. and European growth darkened, overweight positions in Russia halved versus July, a survey by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch showed this week.

But get this — Russia remains among investors’ main emerging market punts and only Indonesia is more favoured, according to the BoA/ML poll. The reason is that fund managers are still clinging to hopes that an increasingly wealthy Russian consumer will save the day. Unfortunately those hopes are yet to materialise. Returns on domestic demand-based stocks such as Sberbank, carmaker Avtovaz and supermarket chain Magnit have been even more disappointing this year than the broader Moscow market.

Even the staunchest Russia bull will have been disappointed with data showing Russia’s economy grew at just 3.4 percent in the second quarter of the year.  That proves the economy was running out of steam even before the August oil price fall and suggests that the Russian consumer is not yet stepping up to the mark. Retail data since then have been more heartening — annual sales rose 5.6 percent in July from 3 percent in June.

Counting the costs of Hungary’s Swiss franc debt

The debt crises in the euro zone and United States are claiming some innocent bystanders. Investors fleeing for the safety of the Swiss franc have ratcheted up pressure on Hungary, where thousands of households have watched with horror as the  franc surges to successive record highs against their own forint currency. In the boom years before 2008,  mortgages and car loans in Swiss francs seemed like a good idea –after all the forint was strong and Swiss interest rates, unlike those in Hungary, were low.  But the forint then was worth 155-160 per franc. Now it is at a record low 260 — and falling – making it increasingly painful to keep up repayments. Swiss franc debt exposure amounts to almost a fifth of Hungary’s GDP. And that is before counting loans taken out by companies and municipalities.

Hungarian families could get some relief in coming months via a government plan that caps the exchange rate for mortgage repayments at 180 forints until the end of 2014.  But the difference will have to be paid – with interest — from 2015.  Meanwhile, the issue threatens to bring down Hungary’s banks which must pick up the cost in the meantime and will almost certaintly see a rise in bad loans –  no wonder shares in Hungary’s biggest bank OTP are down 25 percent this month.  “(The franc rise) suggests a massive jump on banks’ refinancing requirements going forward, ” says Citi analyst  Luis Costa.

These overburdened banks will end up cutting lending to businesses, meaning a further hit to Hungary’s already anaemic economic growth. ING analysts earlier this month advised clients to steer clear of Hungarian shares, “given the burden from (forint/franc) depreciation not only on loan-takers but also the implications this has for the domestic growth story.”

Venezuela — high risk, higher yield

Venezuela's Chavez with Lukashenko of Belarus

Which bond would you rather buy — one issued by a country with an unpredictable leader but huge oil reserves, or one with  a dictatorial president as well as empty coffers? The answer should be a no brainer. Not so. The countries are Venezuela and Belarus, and a basic comparison of their debt profiles shows how strangely risk can be priced in emerging markets.

Venezuela’s 2022 dollar bond yields 15.5 percent while the 2022 issue from state oil firm PDVSA trades at 17 percent yield. Venezuelan debt pays a 1200 basis point premium to U.S. Treasuries, according to the EMBI Global bond index.

Now check out Belarus. Dire public finances, a huge recent currency devaluation, and seeking an $8 billion bailout from the IMF, yet able to pay 11 percent on its 2018 issue. Its yield premium to Treasuries is 900 bps or three percentage points less than Venezuela.