Global Investing

In Chile, what’s good for stocks will be good for bonds

 

Felipe Larrain, Chile’s finance minister is facing a new job come March when incoming center-left government of President-elect Michelle Bachelet takes over. An academic by profession, he intends to either make his way back into the cloistered lecture halls of a university, not necessarily in Chile, or work for some kind of international organization that is outside of the corporate or financial world.

Chile’s economy, one of the best run in Latin America, with the highest investment grade credit rating in the region, is however experiencing a soggy point in its economic cycle. Inflation has picked up. There is continued weak economic output and domestic demand is cooling down. The central bank is holding its benchmark interest rate at 4.5 percent and suggests more stimulus is to come in the months ahead. The currency has depreciated but that’s not a concern, Larrain said. He was more concerned when the peso was trading in the 430 per U.S. dollar range versus today’s 3-1/2 year low of 545, an area he describes as providing equilibrium.

But before departing from his ministerial duties, Larrain outlined some of the achievements of his four years in office. The latest is the passage of the ‘Ley Unica de Fondos’, or ‘Investment Funds Act’. In Chile’s fixed income market, foreign participation is a minuscule 1 percent versus 35-40 percent in equities. “What the laws have done to equities, this will do for fixed income,” Larrain said in an interview with Reuters.

Listen in to this Reuters podcast to hear more about the law, which Larrain said has been described by independent financial analysts as the “most important regulatory change in Chilean financial markets since 2000/2001.”

You can listen to my interview with Larrain on SoundCloud here (about 8 minutes long).

Market cap of EM debt indices still rising

It wasn’t a good year for emerging market bonds, with all three main debt benchmarks posting negative returns for the first time since 2008. But the benchmark indices run by JPMorgan nevertheless saw a modest increase in market capitalisation, and assets of the funds that benchmark to these indices also rose.

JPMorgan says its index family — comprising EMBI Global dollar bond indices, the CEMBI group listing corporate debt and the GBI-EM index of local currency emerging bonds — ended 2013 with a combined market cap of $2.8 trillion, a 2 percent increase from end-2012. Take a look at the following graphic which shows the rise in the market cap since 2001:

Last year’s rise was clearly much slower than during previous years.  It was driven mainly by the boom in corporate bonds, which witnessed record $350 billion-plus issuance last year, taking the market cap of the CEMBI to $716 billion compared to $620 billion at the end of 2012, JPM said.

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.

Watanabes shop for Brazilian real, Mexican peso

Are Mr and Mrs Watanabe preparing to return to emerging markets in a big way?

Mom and pop Japanese investors, collectively been dubbed the Watanabes, last month snapped up a large volume of uridashi bonds (bonds in foreign currencies marketed to small-time Japanese investors),  and sales of Brazilian real uridashi rose last month to the highest since July 2010, Barclays analysts say, citing official data.

Just to remind ourselves, the Watanabes have made a name for themselves as canny players of the interest rate arbitrage between the yen and various high-yield currencies. The real was a red-hot favourite and their frantic uridashi purchases in 2007 and 2009-2011 was partly behind Brazil’s decision to slap curbs on incoming capital. Their ardour has cooled in the past two years but the trade is far from dead.

With the Bank of Japan’s money-printing keeping the yen weak and pushing down yields on domestic bonds, it is no surprise that the Watanabes are buying more foreign assets. But if their favourites last year were euro zone bonds (France was an especially big winner)  they seem to be turning back towards emerging markets, lured possibly by the improvement in economic growth and the rising interest rates in some countries. And Brazil has removed those capital controls.

Perfect storm brewing for the rouble

A perfect storm seems to be brewing for the Russian rouble. It has tumbled to four-year lows against a euro-dollar basket. Against the dollar, it has lost around 7 percent so far this year, faring better than many other emerging currencies. But signs are that next year will bring more turmoil.

While oil prices, the mainstay of Russia’s economy, are holding up, Russian growth is not. It is running at 1.3 percent so far this year and capital outflows continue unabated — $48 billion is estimated to have fled the country in the first nine months of 2013 compared with $55 billion in 2012. Russia’s mighty current account surplus has shrunk to barely nothing and could fall into deficit by the middle of next year, reckons Alfa Bank economist Natalia Orlova. Finally, the rouble can no longer count on the central bank for wholehearted day-to-day support. FX market interventions cost the bank $3.5 billion last month  but it also shifted the exchange-rate corridor upwards six times, indicating it is keen to move to a fully flexible currency.

Orlove also estimates that around $150 billion in overseas debt payments are due in 2014 for Russian corporates. She adds:

Red year for emerging bonds

What a dire year for emerging debt. According to JPMorgan, which runs the most widely run emerging bond indices, 2013 is likely to be the first year since 2008 that all three main emerging bond benchmarks end the year in the red.

So far this year, the bank’s EMBIG index of sovereign dollar bonds is down around 7 percent while local debt has fared even worse, with losses of around 8.5 percent, heading for only the third year of negative return since inception. JPMorgan’s CEMBI index of emerging market corporate bonds is down 2 percent for the year.

 

While incoming Fed boss Janet Yellen has assured markets that she doesn’t intend to turn off the liquidity taps any time soon, JPMorgan still expects U.S. Treasury yields to end the year at 2.85 percent (from 2.7 percent now). That would result in total returns for the EMBIG at minus 7 percent, the CEMBI  at minus 2 percent and GBI-EM at minus 7-9 percent, JPMorgan analysts calculate.

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)

Why did the market get the Fed and ECB so wrong?

To err once is unfortunate. To err twice looks like carelessness.
One of the great mysteries of 2013 will surely be how economists, investors and market participants of all stripes so spectacularly misread two of the biggest central bank policy set-pieces of the year.
The first was the Federal Reserve’s decision in September not to begin withdrawing its $85 billion-a-month bond-buying stimulus, the second was the European Central Bank’s decision in November to cut interest rates to a fresh low of just 0.25 percent.
The Fed’s decision on Sept. 18 not to “taper” stunned markets. The 10-year Treasury yield recorded its biggest one-day fall in almost two years, and the prospect of continued stimulus has since propelled Wall Street to fresh record highs. (See graphic, click to enlarge)


A Reuters poll on Sept. 9 showed that 49 of 69 economists expected the Fed to taper the following week, a consensus reached after Ben Bernanke said on May 22 that withdrawal of stimulus could start at one of “the next few meetings”.
But tapering was – and still is – always dependent on the data. And throughout this year, the Bernanke-Yellen-Dudley triumvirate has consistently noted that the labour market is extremely weak and the recovery uncertain.
Going into the Sept. 18 policy meeting unemployment was above 7 percent and the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation was well below target, barely more than 1 percent.
Plus, a simple read of the Fed’s statutory mandate of achieving “maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates” should have dispelled the notion a reduction in stimulus was imminent.
“People just didn’t want to listen. They just didn’t believe that they have to follow the data. They’ve not been listening, and it’s really hard to understand why,” said David Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College in the United States and former policymaker at the Bank of England.
It was a similar story with the ECB’s interest rate cut on Nov. 7 which only three leading banks – UBS, RBS and Bank of America-Merrill Lynch – correctly predicted.
These three institutions quickly adjusted their forecasts after shock figures on October 31 showed euro zone inflation plunging to a four-year low of 0.7 percent, triggering the euro’s biggest one-day fall in over six months.


By anyone’s measure, 0.7 percent falls some way short of the “below, but close to, 2% over the medium term” inflation rate stipulated in the ECB’s mandate.
So why did the highly paid experts get it so wrong again?
Herd mentality might have something to do with it.
“It’s great if you’re all right together, and equally great if you’re all wrong together,” Blanchflower said.
It’s like a fund manager who loses 20 percent in a year where the market is down 21 percent. He might have screwed up, but so did everyone else. And technically, he outperformed the market so can claim to have “earned” his large fees.
To be fair, some of the central banks’ communication this year hasn’t been quite as clear as intended. See Bernanke’s comments on May 22 and recent confusion over the Bank of England’s “forward guidance”.
If one of the aims of forward guidance is to avoid volatility and variance of opinion about the trajectory of policy, then this kind of spectacular misread is an indictment of forward guidance.
In addition, since Draghi’s famous “whatever it takes” speech in July last year, the ECB has always had the potential to catch the market off-guard.
But maybe we shouldn’t be so charitable, and the market’s wailing at being misled by the central banks should be taken on board but ultimately ignored. The tail should not wag the dog.
“The Fed can’t be or shouldn’t be a prisoner of the markets,” we were reminded on Thursday, by none other than Fed Chair-elect Janet Yellen.

Venezuelan bonds — storing up problems

Last week’s victory for Miss Venezuela in a global beauty pageant was a rare bit of good news for the South American country. With a black market currency exchange rate that is 10 times the official level, shortages of staples, inflation over 50 percent and political turmoil, Venezuela certainly won’t win any investment pageants.

This week investors have rushed to dump Venezuela’s dollar bonds as the government ordered troops to occupy a store chain accused of price gouging. Many view this as a sign President Nicolas Maduro is gearing up to extend his control over the private sector.  Adding to the bond market’s problems are plans by state oil firm PDVSA to raise $4.5 billion in bonds next week. Yields on  Venezuelan sovereign bonds have risen over 100 basis points this week; returns for the year are minus 25 percent, almost half of that coming since the start of this month.  Five-year credit default swaps for Venezuela are at two-year highs, having risen more than 200 basis points in November. And bonds from PDVSA, which is essentially selling debt to bankroll the government and pay suppliers, rather than to fund investments, have tanked too.

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Double-digit yields and high oil prices have made bond funds relatively keen on Venezuela but the latest sell-off is forcing a rethink. JPMorgan analysts have cut their recommendation on the bonds to underweight:

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.