Global Investing

Fresh skirmishes in global currency war

Amid all the furious G7 money printing of recent years, Brazil was the first to sound the air raid siren in the “international currency war”  back in 2010 and it continues to cry foul over the past week. With its finance ministry issuing fresh warnings last night over hot-money flows being dropped by western economies on its unsuspecting exporters via currency speculation,  Brazil’s central bank then set off its own defensive anti aircraft battery with a surprisingly deep interest rate cut late Wednesday. Having tried everything from taxes on hot foreign inflows to currency market intervention, they are braced for a long war and there’s little sign of the flood of cheap money from the United States, Europe and Japan ending anytime soon. So, if  you can’t beat them, do you simply join them?

The prospect of  a deepening of this currency conflict — essentially beggar-thy-neighbour devaluation policies designed to keep countries’ share of ebbing world growth intact — was a hot topic this week for Societe Generale’s long-standing global markets bear Albert Edwards. Edwards, who represent’s SG’s “Alternative View”, reckons the biggest development in the currency battle this year has been the sharp retreat of Japan’s yen and this could well drag China into the fray if global growth continues to wither later this year. He highlighted the Japan/China standoff with the following graphic of yen and yuan nominal trade-weighted exchange rates.

Edwards goes on to say that this could, in turn, create another explosive FX standoff between China and the United States if Beijing were to consider devaluation — the opposite of what the protectionist U.S. lobby has been screaming for for years.

“We have long stated that if the Chinese economy looks to be hard landing, as we believe it will, the authorities there will actively consider renminbi devaluation, despite the political consequences of such action.”

“Clearly, the US will not respond well if China chooses to devalue. But China might argue that as its reserves are now declining there is clear downward pressure on its currency and that, after all, the US has asked it to allow market forces to have more of an influence!”

Emerging beats developed in 2012

Robust growth from the emerging market basket in January was always going to be tough to beat, but research from February’s gains show just how strong these markets are performing against developed ones, and not just from the traditional BRICs either, research from S&P Indices shows.

Egypt has been a prime example. Following a bout of political unrest and subsequent removal of Hosni Mubarak after nearly 30 years in power, Egypt’s market returns have rocketed, climbing 15.3 percent in February on top of January’s 44.3 percent take-off.

Thailand, Chile, Turkey and Colombia are also on the to-watch list as these emerging lights have all flashed double-digit returns in the first two months of this year, while all twenty emerging markets included in the S&P data were up, gaining an average of 6.62 percent, making gains in the year-to-date a mouth-watering 18.95 percent.

Emerging market local bond rally has more legs

Just a month and half into 2012, emerging local currency bonds have already returned 9 percent, one of best performing asset classes. But the rally has further to go, says J.P. Morgan which runs the most widely used emerging debt indices. The bank is now predicting its benchmark local currency debt index, the GBI-EM, to end the year with returns of 16 percent, upping its original expectation for 11.9 percent.

There are several reasons for this bullishnesss. JPM’s latest client survey reveals investors’ positioning is still neutral, meaning there is potential for more gains. Cash inflows to EM local debt have been dwarfed this year by investments into dollar bonds, considered a safer, albeit lower-yielding asset than locally issued bonds. So when (and if) euro zone uncertainties abate, some of this cash is likely to make the switch.

Many emerging countries are still cutting interest rates, which will push down yields on short-dated bonds. Other countries may tolerate some more currency appreciation to dampen inflation, benefiting the currency side of the EM local bond trade. Above all, with all developed central banks intent on quantitative easing (Japan announced a surprise $130 billion worth of extra QE this week), the yield premium offered by emerging markets — the carry — is irresistible. On average the GBI-EM index offers a 4.5 percent yield pick up on U.S. Treasuries, JPM notes:

Brazil going Turkey? Not quite

Could Brazil be on the cusp of  adopting a Turkish-style monetary policy,  J.P. Morgan analysts ask.

Many central banks have of late been forced to scale back interest rate cuts (here’s something I wrote on this topic last week) but one, Brazil’s Banco Central, remains resolutely dovish.

After four rate cuts it seems determined to take the official Selic rate into single-digit territory.  Aldo Mendes, a deputy governor at the bank, told investors in London last week that he was confident of meeting the 4.5 percent inflation target this year. Friday’s data showing annual inflation at an 11-month low of 6.22 percent should have given policymakers some more ammunition.

Interest rates in emerging markets – - harder to cut

Emerging market central banks and economic data are sending a message — interest rates will stay on hold for now.  There are exceptions of course.

Indonesia cut rates on Thursday but the move was unexpected and possibly the last for some time. Brazil has also signalled that rate cuts will continue.  But South Korea and Poland held rates steady this week and made hawkish noises. Peru and Chile will probably do the same.

The culprit that’s spoiling the party is of course inflation. Expectations that slowing growth will wipe out remaining price pressures have largely failed to materialise, leaving policymakers in a bind. Tensions over Iran could drive oil prices higher. Growth seems to be looking up in the United States.

Currency rally drives sizzling returns on emerging local debt

Emerging market bonds denominated in local currencies enjoyed a record January last month with JP Morgan’s GBI-EM Global index returning around 8 percent in dollar terms. Year-to-date, returns are over 9.5 percent.

 

 

This is mainly down to spectacular gains on emerging currencies such as the Mexican peso and Turkish lira which have surged 7-10 percent against the dollar and euro this year.  Analysts say the currency component of this year’s returns has been around 7 percent, meaning any portfolio hedged for currency risk would have garnered returns of just 2.5 percent.

The gains come as good news to investors licking their wounds after the index ended 2011 in negative territory. A mid-year rout on emerging markets pushed up local bond yields, often by hundreds of basis points and sent many currencies to multi-year lows.

EM growth is passport out of West’s mess but has a price, says “Mr BRIC”

Anyone worried about Greece and the potential impact of the euro debt crisis on the world economy should have a chat with Jim O’Neill. O’Neill, the head of Goldman Sachs Asset Management ten years ago coined the BRIC acronym to describe the four biggest emerging economies and perhaps understandably, he is not too perturbed by the outcome of the Greek crisis. Speaking at a recent conference, the man who is often called Mr BRIC, pointed out that China’s economy is growing by $1 trillion a year  and that means it is adding the equivalent of a Greece every 4 months. And what if the market turns its guns on Italy, a far larger economy than Greece?  Italy’s economy was surpassed in size last year by Brazil, another of the BRICs, O’Neill counters, adding:

“How Italy plays out will be important but people should not exaggerate its global importance.  In the next 12 months the four BRICs will create the equivalent of another Italy.”

Emerging economies are cooling now after years of turbo-charged growth. But according to O’Neill, even then they are growing enough to allow the global economy to expand at 4-4.5 percent,  a faster clip than much of the past 30 years. Trade data for last year will soon show that Germany for the first time exported more goods to the four BRICs than to neighbouring France, he said.

BRIC: Brilliant/Ridiculous Investment Concept

BRIC is Brazil, Russia, India, China — the acronym coined by Goldman Sachs banker Jim O’Neill 10 years back to describe the world’s biggest, fastest-growing and most important emerging markets.  But according to Albert Edwards, Societe Generale‘s uber-bearish strategist, it also stands for Bloody Ridiculous Investment Concept. Some investors, licking their wounds due to BRIC markets’ underperformance in 2011 and 2010, might be inclined to agree — stocks in all four countries have performed worse this year than the broader emerging markets equity index, to say nothing of developed world equities.

For years, money has chased BRIC investments, tempted by the countries’ fast growth, huge populations and explosive consumer hunger for goods and services. But Edwards cites research showing little correlation between growth and investment returns. He points out that Chinese nominal GDP growth may have averaged 15.6 percent  since 1993 but the compounded  return on equity investments was minus 3.3 percent.

But economic growth — the BRIC holy grail – is also now slowing. Data showed this week that Brazil posted zero growth in the third quarter of 2011 compared to last year’s 7.5 percent. Indian growth is  at the weakest in over two years. In Russia, rising discontent with the Kremlin — reflected in post-election protests — carries the risk of hitting the broader economy. And China, facing falling exports to a moribund Western world,  is also bound to slow. Edwards goes a step further and flags a hard landing in China as the biggest potential investment shock of 2012.  “Yet investors persist in the BRIC superior growth fantasy…If growth does matter to investors, they should be worried that
things seem to be slowing sharply in the BRIC universe,” he writes.

Retail volte face confirms India as BRIC that disappoints

Jim O’Neill, the Goldman Sachs banker who coined the term BRICs to capture the fast-growing emerging-markets quartet of Brazil, Russia, India and China,  has fingered India as the BRIC that has disappointed the most over the past decade in terms of reforms, FDI and productivity. New Delhi’s latest decision to put on hold a landmark reform of its retail sector will only confirm this view.

The government’s backtracking on plans to allow foreign investment in supermarkets will not surprise those accustomed to New Delhi’s record on key economic reforms. But it means India’s weak performance on FDI receipts will continue and that’s bad news for the worsening balance of payments deficit.  Speaking of the retail volte face, O’Neill said: ”They shouldn’t raise people’s hopes of FDI and then in a week, say, ‘we’re only joking’”.

Various Indian lobby groups that oppose the reforms contend that foreign giants such as Wal-Mart and Tesco will kill off the livelihoods of millions of small traders.

India: the odd BRIC out

China moved to ease policy this week via a reserve ratio cut for banks, effectively starting to reverse a tightening cycle that’s been in place since last January. Later the same day, Brazil’s central bank cut interest rates by 50 basis points for the third time in a row. Both countries are expected to continue easing policy as the global economic downturn bites. And last week Russia signalled that rate cuts could be on the way.

That makes three of the four members of the so-called BRIC group of the biggest emerging economies. Indonesia, the country some believe should be included in the BRIC group, has also been cutting rates. That leaves India, the fourth leg of the BRICs, the quartet whose name was coined by Goldman Sachs banker Jim O’Neill ten years ago this week. India could use a rate cut for sure. Data this week showed growth slowing to 6.9 percent in the three months to September — the slowest since September 2009. Factory output slowed to a 32-month low last month, feeling the effects of the global malaise as well as 375 basis points in rate increases since last spring. No wonder Indian stocks, down 20 percent this year, are the worst performing of the four BRIC markets.

But unlike the other BRICs, a rate cut is a luxury India cannot afford now — inflation is still running close to double digits.  “The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is the odd guy out due to stubbornly high inflation of near 10 percent,” writes Commerzbank analyst Charlie Lay.