Global Investing

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.

And what of currency wars? The yen has slumped 12 percent against the dollar this year while currencies from emerging economies Korea, Philippines, and Mexico have  risen 6-7 percent. JP Morgan predicts the yen, currently trading around 86 to the dollar,  will trade between 80 and 90 next year ( previous estimate 75-85 yen) But some in the new administration want more – Abe’s special advisor Koichi Hamada says only a 95-100 per dollar level would be proof that monetary easing is working.

So emerging central banks may have a hard fight to keep a lid on their currencies if outflows from Japan gather momentum. Look at the Korean won — it is trading at a 2-1/2 year high against the yen, having risen 21 percent in 2012, the largest annual gain since 1998. That’s painful for an economy that sends around 6 percent of its exports to Japan; its companies from carmakers to electronics manufacturers compete against Japan for other export markets and all that should eventually force the central bank to step in. The Singapore dollar meanwhile has appreciated 19 percent versus the yen this year.

After bumper 2012, more gains for emerging Europe debt?

By Alice Baghdjian

Interest rate cuts in emerging markets, credit ratings upgrades and above all the tidal wave of liquidity from Western central banks have sent almost $90 billion into emerging bond markets this year (estimate from JP Morgan). Much of this cash has flowed to locally-traded emerging currency debt, pushing yields in many markets to record lows again and again. Local currency bonds are among this year’s star asset classes, returning over 15 percent, Thomson Reuters data shows.

But the pick up in global growth widely expected in 2013 may put the brakes on the bond rally in many countries – for instance rate hikes are expected in Brazil, Mexico and Chile. One area where rate rises are firmly off the agenda however is emerging Europe and South Africa, where economic growth remains weak. That is leading to some expectations that these markets could outperform in 2013.

There have already been big rallies. Since the start of the year, Turkey’s 10 year bond has rallied by 300 basis points; Hungary’s by almost 400 bps; and Poland’s by 200 bps. So is there room for more.

Hungary’s forint and rate cut expectations

A rate cut in Hungary is considered a done deal today. But a sharp downward move in the forint  is making future policy outlook a bit more interesting.

The forint fell 1.5 percent against the euro on Monday to the lowest level since July and has lost 2.6 percent this month. Monday’s loss was driven by a rumour that the central bank planned to stop accepting bids for two week T-bills. That would effectively have eliminated the main way investors buy into forint in the short term.   The rumour was denied but the forint continues to weaken.

Analysts are not too worried, attributing it to year-end position squaring. Benoit Anne, head of EM strategy at Societe Generale, points out the forint is the world’s best performing emerging currency of 2012 (up  11.3 percent against the dollar). Given the state of the economy (recession) and falling inflation, the forint move will not deter the central bank from a rate cut, he says.

The BBB credit ratings traffic jam

Adversity is a great leveller. Just look at the way sovereign credit ratings in the developed and emerging world have been converging ever since the credit crisis erupted five years ago. JPMorgan  has crunched a few numbers.

Few were surprised last week by S&P’s decision to cut the outlook on Britain’s AAA rating to negative. That gold-plated rating is becoming increasingly rare — according to JP Morgan, just 15 percent of global GDP now rates AAA with a stable outlook — a whopping comedown from 50 percent in 2007. Only 13 developed economies are now rated AAA, compared to 21 before the crisis. And only one, Australia, now has a higher rating (AAA) than in 2007 — 16 of its peers have suffered a total of 129 downgrades in this period.  With 20 rich countries on negative outlook, more downgrades are likely.

Emerging sovereigns, on the other hand, have enjoyed 189 upgrades (43 percent of these were moves into investment grade). That has caused what JPM dubs “a traffic jam”  in the triple B ratings area, with 20 percent of world GDP now rated at this level, compared to 8 percent in 2009.

EM interest rates in 2013 – rise or fall

This year has been all about interest rate cuts. As Western central banks took their policy-easing efforts to ever new levels, emerging markets had little recourse but to cut rates as well. Interest rates in many countries from Brazil to the Czech Republic are at record lows.

Some countries such as Poland and Hungary are expected to continue lowering rates. Rate cuts may also come in India if a reluctant central bank finds its hand forced by the slumping economy. But in many markets, interest rate swaps are now pricing rate rises in 2013.

Are they correct in doing so? Emerging central banks will raise interest rates by an average 8 basis points next year, JP Morgan analysts predict.  UBS, in a recent note, reckons more EM central banks will raise rates than cut them. Analysts there offer the following graphic detailing their expectations:

Tide turning for emerging currencies, local debt

Emerging market currencies have been a source of frustration for investors this year. With central banks overwhelmingly in rate-cutting mode and export growth slowing, most currencies have performed poorly. That has been a bit of a dampener for local currency debt –  while returns in dollar terms have been robust at 13 percent, currency appreciation has contributed just 1.5 percent of that, according to JP Morgan.

 

 

The picture could be changing though.  Fund managers at the Reuters 2013 investment outlook summit this week have been unanimously bullish on emerging debt, with many stating a preference for domestic debt. So far this year, dollar debt has taken in three-quarters of all inflows to emerging fixed income.

Andreas Uterman, CIO of Allianz Global Investors told the summit in London that many emerging currencies looked significantly undervalued, and that this anomaly would gradually resolve itself:

Emerging policy-Down in Hungary; steady in Latin America

A mixed bag this week on emerging policy and one that shows the growing divergence between dovish central Europe and an increasingly hawkish (with some exceptions) Latin America.

Hungary cut rates this week by 25 basis points, a move that Morgan Stanley described as striking “while the iron is hot”, or cutting interest rates while investor appetite is still strong for emerging markets. The current backdrop is keeping the cash flowing even into riskier emerging markets of which Hungary is undeniably one. (On that theme, Budapest also on Wednesday announced plans for a Eurobond to take advantage of the strong appetite for high-risk assets, but that’s another story).

So despite 6 percent inflation, most analysts had predicted the rate cut to 6 percent. With the central bank board  dominated by government appointees, the  stage is now set for more easing as long as investors remain in a good mood.  Rates have already fallen 100 basis points during the current cycle and interest rate swaps are pricing another 100 basis points in the first half of 2013. Morgan Stanley analysts write:

And the winner is — frontier market bonds

Global Investing has commented before on how strongly the world’s riskiest bonds — from the so-called frontier markets such as Mongolia, Nigeria and Guatemala — have performed.  NEXGEM, the frontier component of the bond index family run by JP Morgan, is on track to outperform all other fixed income classes this year with returns of over 20 percent., the bank tells clients in a note today. Just to compare, broader emerging dollar bonds on the EMBI Global index have returned some 16 percent year-to-date while local currency emerging debt is up 13 percent.

That appetite for the sector is strong was proven by a September Eurobond from Zambia that was 15 times subscribed. Demand shows no sign of flagging despite a default in frontier peer Belize and shenanigans over the payment of Ivory Coast’s missed coupons from last year. Reasons are easy to find. First, the yield. The average yield on the NEXGEM is roughly 6.5 percent compared with  just under 5 percent on the EMBIG.

Second, this is where a lot of issuance is happening as big emerging markets such as Brazil and Mexico, once prolific dollar bond issuers, sell less and less on external markets in favour of domestic debt.  Frontier markets are filling the gap. JPM says Angola, Guatemala, Mongolia and Zambia joined the NEXGEM in 2012 as they made their debut on global capital markets. Bolivia is also set for inclusion soon, taking the number of NEXGEM members to 23 by end-2012.

Emerging Policy-The inflation problem has not gone away

This week’s interest rate meetings in the developing world are highlighting that despite slower economic growth, inflation remains a problem for many countries. In some cases it could constrain  policymakers from cutting interest rates, or least from cutting as much as they would like.

Take Turkey. Its central bank surprised some on Tuesday by only cutting the upper end of its overnight interest rate corridor: many had interpreted recent comments by Governor Erdem Basci as a sign the lower end, the overnight borrowing rate, would also be cut. That’s because the central bank is increasingly concerned about the lira, which has appreciated more than 7 percent this year in real terms. But the bank contented itself by warning markets that more cuts could be made to different policy rates if needed (read: if the lira rises much more).

But inflation, while easing, remains problematic.  On the same day as the policy meeting, the International Monetary Fund recommended Turkey raise interest rates to deal with inflation, which was an annualised 9.2 percent in September. The central bank’s prediction is for a year-end 7 percent rate but that is 2 percentage points higher than its 5 percent target. So the central bank probably was sensible in exercising restraint.

Weekly Radar: Cliff dodging and Euro recessions

Most everything got swept up in the US election over the past week but, for all the last minute nail biting  and psephology, it was pretty much the result most people had been expecting all year. So, is there anything really to read into the market noise around the event? The rule of thumb in the runup was a pretty crude — Obama good for bonds (Fed friendly, cliff brinkmanship, growth risk) and Romney good for stocks (tax cuts, friend to capital/wealth, a cliff dodger thanks to GOP House backing and hence pro growth). And so it played out Wednesday. But in truth, it’s been fairly marginal so far. Stocks were down about 2 pct yesteray, but they’d been up 1 pct on election day for no obvious reason at all. But can anyone truly be surprised by an outcome they’d supposedly been betting on all along. (Just look at Intrade favouring Obama all the way through the runup). Maybe it’s all just risk hedging at the margins. What’s more, like all crude rules of thumb, they’re not always 100 pct accurate anyway.  Many overseas investors just could not fathom a coherent Romney economic plan anyway apart from radical political surgery on the government budget that many saw as ambiguous for growth and social stability anyhow.  Domestic investors may more understandably wring their hands about hits on dividend and income taxes, but it wasn’t clear to everyone outside that that a Romney plan was automatically going to lift national growth over time anyhow.

That said, it was striking on Wednesday that even though global funds were mostly relieved the Fed won’t now be shackled after 2014, nearly everyone still expects the fiscal cliff to be resolved by compromise. Whether that’s wishful thinking or the smartest guess remains to be seen. But, just like in Europe, it means they are at the very least going to have endure a barrage of political noise in headlines and endless scaremongering before any deal is ultimately forthcoming. Some say the nature of the GOP defeat, even with an incumbent saddled with an 8 pct unemployment rate, will force enough moderate Republicans to seek distance from Tea Party and seek compromise. But others point out that post-Sandy relief  spending may also bring the dreaded debt ceiling issue forward sooner than expected now too. All in all, the overwhelming consensus still betting on an eventual cliff dodge may be the most worrying aspect of market positioning and may be the best explanation the slightly outsize and sudden stock market reaction.

It also presupposes markets are trading solely on U.S. issues when the other world worries remain.