Global Investing

U.S. Treasury headwinds for emerging debt

Emerging bond issuance and inflows have had a strong start to the year but can it last?

Data from JPMorgan shows that emerging market sovereigns sold hard currency bonds worth $9.6 billion last month while companies raised $51.2 billion (that compares with Jan 2012 issuance levels of $17.5 billion for sovereigns and $23.9 billion for corporates). Similarly, inflows into EM debt were well over $10 billion last month, very probably topping the previous monthly record,  according to JPM.

But U.S. Treasury yields are rising, typically an evil omen for equities and emerging markets. Ten- year U.S. yields, the underlying risk-free rate off which many other assets are priced,  rose this week to nine-month highs above 2 percent. That has brought losses on emerging hard currency debt on the EMBI Global index to  2 percent so far this year. (there is a similar picture across equities, where year-to-date returns are barely 1 percent despite inflows of around $24 billion). Historically, negative monthly returns caused by rising U.S. yields have tended to lead to outflows.

The S&P500 U.S. equity index is trading at five-year highs, however, despite Treasuries’ creep higher. That would appear to indicate greater confidence in the growth outlook.  Support for emerging markets may also come from Japanese retail cash that is fleeing a falling yen. Morgan Stanley analysts, for instance, do not expect significant outflows just yet, noting that “the nature of inflows overall (into emerging debt) has been more structural than in past years and therefore tends to be much stickier”. They add:

We believe that EM investors should not be overly concerned. The main reason for this is the expectation of a range-bound UST going forward, with only 25 bps further widening projected. Neither the pace nor the extent of this change seems disruptive to us, even with a potential temporary overshoot on the upside.

Indian markets and the promise of reform

What a difference a few months have made for Indian markets.

The rupee is 8 percent up from last summer’s record lows. Foreigners have ploughed $17 billion into Indian stocks and bonds since Sept 2012 and foreign ownership of Indian shares is at a record high 22.7 percent, Morgan Stanley reckons.  And all it has taken to change the mood has been the announcement of a few reforms (allowing foreign direct investment into retail, some fuel and rail price hikes and raising FDI limits in some sectors). A controversial double taxation law has been pushed back.  The government has sold some stakes in state-run companies (it offloaded 10 percent of Oil India last week, netting $585 million).  If the measures continue, the central bank may cut interest rates further.

Above all, there have been promises-a-plenty on fiscal consolidation.

The promises are not new. Only this time, investors appear to believe Finance Minister P. Chidambaram.

Chidambaram who was on a four-city roadshow to promote India to investors, pledged in a Reuters interview last week not to cross the “red line” of a 5.3 percent deficit for this year in the Feb 28 budget. Standard Chartered, one of the banks that organised Chidambaram’s roadshow, sent out a note entitled: “The finance minister means business”.

Emerging Policy-Doves reign

Rate cuts are still coming thick and fast in emerging markets — in some cases because of falling inflation and in others to deter the gush of speculative international capital.

Arguably the biggest event in emerging markets is tomorrow’s Reserve Bank of India (RBI) meeting which is expected to yield an interest rate cut for the first time in nine months.

India’s inflation, while still sticky, eased last month to a three-year low of around 7 percent. And a quarter point rate cut to 7.75 percent will in effect be a nod from the RBI to the government’s recent reform efforts.  In anticipation of a rate cut, Indian 10-year bond yields have dropped 50 basis points since the start of the year.  But the RBI, probably the world’s most hawkish central bank at present, has warned that markets need not expect a 50 bps cut or even a sustained rate-cutting campaign. Governor Duvvuri Subbarao said last week inflation still remains too high for comfort, while on Monday the RBI said in a quarterly report that more reform was needed to make the central bank turn its focus on growth.

Weekly Radar: Managing expectations

With a week to go in January, global stock markets are up 3.8 percent – gently nudging higher after the new year burst and with a continued evaporation of volatility gauges toward new 5-year lows. That’s all warranted by a reappraisal of the global economy as well as murmurs about longer-term strategic shifts back to under-owned and cheaper equities. But, as ever, you can never draw a straight line. If we were to get this sort of move every month this year, then total returns for the year on the MCSI global index would be 50 percent – not impossible I guess, but highly unlikely. So, at some stage the market will pause, hestitate or even take a step back. Is now the time just three weeks into the year?

Well lots of the much-feared headwinds have not materialized. The looming US budget ceiling showdown keeps getting put back – it’s now May by the way, even if another mini-cliff of sorts is due in March — but you get can-kicking picture here already. The US earnings season looks fairly benign so far, even given the outsize reaction to Apple after hours on Wednesday. European sovereign funding worries have proven wide of the mark to date too as money floods to Spain and even Portugal again. And Chinese data confirms a decent cyclical rebound there at least from Q3′s trough. All seems like pretty smooth sailing – aside perhaps from the UK’s slightly perplexing decision to add rather than ease uncertainty about its economic future. So what can go wrong? Well there’s still an event calendar to keep an eye on – next month’s Italian elections for example. But even that’s stretching it as a major bogeyman the likely outcome.

In truth, the biggest hurdle is most likely to be the hoary old problem of over-inflated expectations. Just look at the US economic surprise index – it’s tipped into negative territory for the first time since late last summer. Yet incoming US data has not been that bad this year. What the index tells you more about has been the rising expectations. (The converse, incidentally, is true of the euro zone where you could say the gloom’s been overdone.) Yet without the fuel of positive “surprises” we’re depending more on a structural story to buoy equity and that is a multi-year, glacial shift rather than necessarily a 2013 yarn. The start of the earnings season too is also interesting with regard to expectations. With little over 10 percent of the S&P500 reported by last Friday, the numbers showed 58% had beaten the street. That’s not bad at first glance but a good bit lower than the 65% average of the past four quarters. On the other hand, it’s been top-line corporate revenues that have supposedly been terrifying everyone and it’s a different picture there. Of the 10% of firms out to date, 65 percent have reported Q4 revenues ahead of forecasts – far ahead of the 50% average of the past four quarters. Early days, but that’s relatively positive on the underlying economy at least.

What flows out, must flow in?

Much has been made of the flows into U.S. equities this month. Funds have rolled out the red carpet for a record $11.3 billion or so in net inflows over the first two weeks of the year, more when you factor in ETFs.

Just to cool the enthusiasm a little, it’s worth remembering that this comes after a torrid 2012.

Our graphic detailing Lipper’s latest estimated net flows in and out of various fund sectors shows combined outflows from U.S. equity funds and U.S. small cap funds reached a total of more than $150 billion last year. The fourth quarter alone contributed more than $50 billion of that.

Rupiah decline – don’t worry

Indonesia has just given the go-ahead for another leg down in the rupiah. It has cut its forecasts for the exchange rate to 9,700 per dollar compared to the 9,200 level at which the central bank used to step in. The currency has duly weakened and nervous foreigners have rushed to hedge exposure — 3-month NDFs price the rupiah at almost 10,000 to the dollar. The  rupiah last week hit a three-year low, its weakness coming on top of a dismal 2012 which saw it fall 6 percent as the current account deficit worsened. Traders in Jakarta are reporting dollar hoarding by exporters.

All that is spooking foreigners who own more than 30 percent of the domestic bond market. The currency weakness hit them hard last year as Indonesian bonds returned just 6 percent, a third of the sector’s 16 percent average (see graphic).

The central bank does not seem perturbed by the currency weakness. Luckily for it, inflation rates are still benign, which means a weak currency will probably remain in favour.

Emerging debt vs equity: to rotate or not

Emerging bonds have got off to a flying start in 2013, with debt funds taking in over $2 billion this past week, the second highest weekly inflow ever, according to fund tracker EPFR Global. Issuance is strong -  Turkey for instance this week borrowed cash repayable in 10 years for just 3.47 percent, its lowest yield ever in the dollar market.

Yet not everyone is optimistic and most analysts see last year’s returns of 16-18 percent EM debt returns as out of reach. The consensus instead seems to be for 5-8 percent as  tight spreads and low yields leave little room for further ralliesaverage yields on the EMBI Global sovereign debt index is just 4.4 percent.    Domestic bonds meanwhile could suffer if inflation turns problematic. (see here for our story on emerging bond sales and returns).

Now take a look at U.S. Treasury yields which are near 8-month highs. and could pose a headwind for emerging debt. Higher U.S. yields are not necessarily a bad thing for emerging markets provided the rise is down to a healthier economic outlook.  But that scenario could induce investors to turn their attention to equities and  indeed this is already happening. EPFR data shows emerging equity funds outstripped their bond counterparts last week, taking in $7.45 billion, the highest ever weekly inflow.

Asia’s ballooning debt

Could Asia be headed for a debt crisis?

The very thought may seem ludicrous given the region’s mighty current account surpluses and brimming central bank coffers.  But a note from RBS analysts Drew Brick and Rob Ryan raises some interesting concerns.

Historically speaking, most EM crises have been borne on the back of excessive capital inflows, Brick and Ryan write. And in many Asian countries, the consequence of these flows has been over-easy monetary policy that has left citizens and companies addicted to cheap money. Personal and corporate indebtedness levels have spiralled even higher in the past five years as governments across the continent responded to the 2008 credit crunch by unleashing billions of dollars in stimulus.

First, some numbers and graphics:

a) Asia’s current account surplus stands now around $250 billion, less than half its 2007 peak as exports have slumped.

Record year for global bond markets in 2012

How good was 2012 for bond markets? Very good, by the look of the many records broken.

2012  was the strongest year for global high yield and investment grade debt on record, new issuance of corporate debt from emerging markets issuers was also the strongest since records began in 1980 and activity on global debt capital markets were overall up 10 percent from 2011, Thomson Reuters data shows.

Euro-denominated international corporate debt increased 69.5 percent, making 2012 issuance the second largest on record behind 2009.

The Watanabes are coming

With Shinzo Abe’s new government intent on prodding the Bank of Japan into unlimited monetary easing, it is hardly surprising that the yen has slumped to two-year lows against the dollar. This could lead to even more flows into overseas markets from Japanese investors seeking higher-yield homes for their money.

Japanese mom-and-pop investors — known collectively as Mrs Watanabe -  have for years been canny players of currency and interest rate arbitrage. In recent years they have stepped away from old favourites, New Zealand and Australia, in favour of emerging markets such as Brazil, South Africa and Turkey. (See here  to read Global Investing’s take on Mrs Watanabe’s foray into Turkey). Flows from Japan stalled somewhat in the wake of the 2010 earthquake but EM-dedicated Japanese investment trusts, known as toshin, remain a mighty force, with estimated assets of over $64 billion.  Analysts at JP Morgan noted back in October that with the U.S. Fed’s QE3 in full swing, more Japanese cash had started to flow out.

That trickle shows signs of  becoming a flood. Nikko Asset Management, the country’s third  biggest money manager, said this week that retail investors had poured $2.3 billion into a mutual fund that invests in overseas shares — the biggest  subscription since October 2006. This fund’s model portfolio has a 64 percent weighting to U.S. shares, 14 percent to Mexico and 10 percent to Canada while the rest is split between Latin American countries.