Global Investing

Three snapshots for Monday

The yield on 10-year  U.S. Treasuries, fell to their lowest levels since early October today, breaking decisively below 1.80 percent. That compares to the dividend yield on the S&P 500 of 2.28%.

The European Central Bank kept its government bond-buy programme in hibernation for the ninth week in a row last week. The ECB may come under pressure to act as  yields on Spanish 10-year government bonds rose further above 6% today.

Output at factories in the euro zone unexpectedly fell in March, the latest in a series of disappointing numbers signalling that the bloc’s recession may not be as mild as policymakers hope. On an annual basis, factory output dived 2.2 percent in March, the fourth consecutive monthly slide, Eurostat said, and only Germany, Slovenia and Slovakia were able to post growth in the month.

 

 

 

Research Radar: Greek gloom

Greek gloom dominates the start of the week as new elections there look inevitable and talk of Greek euro exit, or a Grexit” as common market parlance now has it, mounts. All risk assets and securities hinged on global growth have been hit, with China’s weekend reserve ratio easing doing little to offset gloomy data from world’s second biggest economy at the end of last week. World stocks are down heavily and emerging markets are underperforming; the euro has fallen to near 4-month lows below $1.29; safe haven core government debt is bid as euro peripheral debt yields in Italy and Spain push higher; and global growth bellwethers such as crude oil and the Australian dollar are down – the latter below parity against the US dollar for the first time in 5 months.

Financial research reports on Monday and over the weekend were just as gloomy, but plenty of interesting takes:

Bank of New York Mellon’s Simon Derrick’s view of the Greek political impasse concluded “there is at least an evens chance that the latter part of this summer will see what had officially been seen up until last November as an impossibility: a nation leaving the EUR.”

Not everyone is “risk off”

Who would have thought it. As fears over the euro zone’s fate, Chinese economic growth and Middle Eastern politics drive investors toward safe-haven U.S. and German bonds, some have apparently been going the other way.  According to JPMorgan, bonds from so-called frontier economies such as Pakistan, Belarus and Jordan (usually considered high-risk assets) have performed exceptionally well, doing far better in fact than their peers from mainstream emerging markets.  The following graphic from JPM which runs the NEXGEM sub-index of frontier debt, shows that returns on many of these bonds are running well into the double digits.

NEXGEM returns of 8.4 percent  are on par with the S&P 500, writes JPMorgan and outstrip all other emerging bond categories. Clearly one reason is the lack of correlation with the mainstream asset classes, many of which have been selling off for weeks amid growth fears and in the run up to French and Greek elections.  Second, investors who tend to buy these bonds usually have a pretty high risk-tolerance anyway as they keep their eyes on the double-digit yields they offer.

So year-to-date returns on Ivory Coast’s defaulted debt are running at over 40 percent on hopes that the country will resume payments on its $2.3 billion bond after June. The underperformer is Belize whose bonds suffered from a default scare at the start of the year.

South African bond rush

It’s been a great year so far for South African bonds. But can it get better?

Ever since Citi announced on April 16 that South African government bonds would join its World Government Bond Index (WGBI),  almost 20 billion rand (over $2.5 billion ) in foreign cash has flooded to the local debt markets in Johannesburg, bringing year-to-date inflows to over 37 billion rand. Last year’s total was 48 billion. Michael Grobler, bond analyst at Johannesburg-based brokerage Afrifocus Securities predicts total 2012 inflows at over 60 billion rand, surpassing the previous 56 billion rand record set in 2o1o:

The assumption..is based on the fact that South Africa will have a much larger and diversified investor base following inclusion in the WGBI expanding beyond the EM debt asset class

Emerging bond defaults on the rise, no surprise

As may be expected, the crisis has increased the risk of default by emerging market borrowers. According to estimates by ING Bank’s emerging bond guru David Spegel, the default rate on EM bonds is running at over $6 billion in the first four months of 2012, already surpassing the 2011 total of $4.3 billion. He  predicts another $1.3 billion of emerging defaults to come this year.

Spegel expects the default rate for speculative grade emerging corporates to rise to 3.25 percent by September, up from 3 percent at present.  That doesn’t look too bad, given defaults ran at 13 percent after the 2008 crisis and hit a record of over 30 percent in the 2001-2003 period. But ING data shows some $120 billion worth of corporate bonds trading at “distressed” or “stressed” levels, i.e. at spreads upwards of 700 basis points. The longer such wide spreads persist, the higher the probability of default. A worst case scenario  would see a 12.9 percent default rate by end-2012, Spegel says.

Many companies are having trouble rolling over maturing bonds (selling debt to pay off existing creditors). One reason might be the explosion in bond issuance this year. Data from Bank of America/Merrill Lynch shows bond sales by emerging borrowers, sovereign and corporate, totalled 14 billion in the first three months of the year, a quarter more than the same 2011 period.  Clearly everyone is rushing to raise cash before U.S. Treasury yields rise further. (see what we wrote on this a few months ago)

Three snapshots for Thursday

Weaker than expected economic data has pushed Citigroup’s G10 surprise indicator into negative territory. The indicator has tracked closely with the relative performance of equities vs bonds:

Italian business confidence fell unexpectedly to its lowest level in two and a half years on Thursday. Business confidence has historically given a good lead on GDP growth suggesting further weakness to come.

An update on currency moves against the dollar this year. Hungary tops the list, the EU opened the way to talks with Hungary on financial aid on Wednesday, ending a five-month dispute over the independence of its central bank. The UK pound and the euro remain positive for the year despite the UK falling back into recession and the continued euro zone crisis.

Hungary can seek IMF aid now. But can it cut rates?

The European Union has given Budapest the green light to seek aid from the IMF. (see here)  In fact, the breakthrough after five months of dispute does not let Hungary completely off the hook  — to get its hands on the money, Viktor Orban’s government will have to backtack on some controversial recent legislation, starting with its efforts to curb the central bank’s independence.  It remains to be seen if Orban will actually cave in.

But markets are reacting as if the IMF money is in Hungary’s pocket already. There have been sharp rallies in Hungarian dollar bonds,  CDS and currency markets (see graphic below from Capital Economics). The Budapest stock market has posted its best one-day gain since last November while the yield on local 10-year bonds have collapsed almost 100 bps. Hungarian officials are (a bit prematurely)  talking of issuing bonds on world markets.

What investors are hoping for now is a cut to the 7 percent interest rate. Hungary’s central bank jacked up rates by 100 bps in recent months to defend the forint as cash fled the country. Now there is a chance those rate rises can be reeled back in. After all, the moribund economy could really use a dash of monetary easing. Thanasis Petronikolos, head of emerging debt at Baring Asset Management has been overweight Hungary and  recalls that after 2008 crisis, the central bank was able to quickly take back its 300 bps of currency-defensive rate hikes.

The “least worst” option?

Western governments saddled with mountainous debts will “repress” creditors and savers via banking regulation, capital controls, central bank bond buying and currency depreciation that effectively puts sovereign borrowers at the top of the credit queue while simultaneously wiping out real returns for their bond holders. So says HSBC chief economist Stephen King in his latest report this week called “From Depression to repression”.

Building on the work of U.S. economist Carmen Reinhardt and others, King’s focus on the history of heavily indebted governments applying “financial repression” to creditors arrives at several interesting conclusions. First, even though western governments appeared successful in using these tactics to reduce massive World War Two debts alongside brisk economic growth during the 1950s and 1960s, King argues that the debt was cut mainly by the impressive economic growth and tax revenues during that “Golden Age” – and this was mostly down to the once-in-a-century period of relative peace that involved unprecedented integration and cooperation among western governments also engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet Union. Compared to this boost, the financial repression was a “sideshow”, he reckons.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           To show that, he applies the interest rate and inflation conditions of the 1950s and 1960s to the current US government debt trajectory and then compares the growth scenario back then with the one faced now. The graphic is revealing. So, for repression to work, it needs to generate higher growth first. And despite lower real rates today than in the days of Mad Men, that seems not to be the case.

Instead, King says governments will adopt this repression tactic anyway just to stave off draconian austerity now and prevent a destabilising surge in economy-wide borrowing rates. This will effectively reduce the amount of credit to the rest of the private sector, or at least elevating its cost, while reducing the pressure on governments to cut the debt levels quickly. The net result, then will likely be “persistently lower growth”, whatever your conclusion about the desirability of  state or the market allocation of resources.

Ukraine’s $58 billion problem

Ukrainian officials were at pains to reassure investors last week that no debt default was in the offing. But people familiar with the numbers will find it hard to believe them.

The government must find over $5.3 billion this year to repay maturing external debt, including $3 billion to the IMF and $2 billion to Russian state bank VTB. Bad enough but there is worse:  Ukrainian companies and banks too have hefty debt maturities this year. Total external financing needs– corporate and sovereign – amount to $58 billion, analysts at Capital Economics calculate. That’s a third of Ukraine’s GDP and makes a default of some kind very likely. The following graphic is from Capital Economics.

In normal circumstances Ukraine — and Ukrainian companies — could have gone to market and borrowed the money. Quite a few developing countries such as Lithuania recently tapped markets, others including Jamaica plan to do so. Ukraine’s problem is its refusal to toe the IMF line.  Agreeing to the IMF’s main demand to lift crippling gas subsidies would unlock a $15 billion loan programme, giving  access to the loan cash as well as to global bond markets. But removing subsidies would be political suicide ahead of elections in October.  And with the sovereign frozen out of bond markets, Ukrainian companies too will find it hard to raise cash.

from MacroScope:

Foreign investors still buying American

Overseas investors have yet to sour towards U.S. assets despite high government debt levels, according the latest figures on capital flows.

Including short-dated assets such as bills, foreigners snapped up $107.7 billion in U.S. securities in February, following a downwardly revised $3.1 billion inflow for January. At the same time, the United States attracted a net long-term capital inflow of just $10.1 billion in February after drawing an upwardly revised $102.4 billion in the first month of 2012.

The data showed China boosted purchases of U.S. government debt for a second month in February, but also some waning of demand for longer-dated securities.