Global Investing

On the rocky road to change in China

One thing investors in China thought they could rely on was a steady, if unelected, hand.

Now Chongqing’s political head Bo Xilai has fallen, and in pretty spectacular fashion too. His wife has been accused of murdering a British businessman and his brother had to step down from the board of Everbright Bank. There are rumours the handover of power in the Politburo scheduled for this autumn, when seven out of nine of Chinese leaders are going to retire, could be delayed as the intrigue unfolds.

So what does this mean for investing in the Middle Kingdom? Xi Jinping is tipped for the top, and presuming he makes it to the transition unscathed, one of his tasks will be continuing the internationalisation of the renminbi. 

Xi has something of a reputation as a reformer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll let China’s currency float freely.

John Adams, director of HR China and former manager for China at the Bank of England, said this about Xi at a talk in London this week:

Where will the FDI flow?

For years the four mighty BRIC nations have grabbed increasing shares of world investment flows. But the coming years may not be so kind.  These countries bring up the bottom of the Economic Freedom Index (EFI) for 2012. Compiled by Washington D.C.-based think-tank The Heritage Foundation the EFI measures 10 freedoms —  from property rights to entrepreneurship – and according to a note out today from RBS economists, there is a strong positive link between a country’s EFI score and the amount of FDI (foreign direct investment) it can secure. So the more “free” a country, the more FDI inflows it can expect to receive — that’s what an RBS analysis of 2002-2008 investment flows shows.

So back to the BRICs. Or BRICS if you add in South Africa (part of the political grouping though not yet included in the BRIC investment concept used by fund managers). The following graphic shows Russia languishing at the bottom of the EFI, China just above Russia and India third from bottom.  Brazil is sixth from bottom while South Africa ranks two places higher.

At the other end of the spectrum is tiny Singapore. Its EFI score is double that of Russia and between 2002-2008 it attracted FDI equivalent to 50 percent of its economy. Russia in contrast saw negative net FDI (outflows exceeded inflows)

BRICS: future aid superpowers?

Britain’s aid programme for India hit the headlines this year, when New Delhi, much to the fury of the Daily Mail, described Britain’s £200 million annual aid to it as peanuts. Whether it makes sense to send money to a fast-growing emerging power that spends billions of dollars on arms is up for debate but few know that India has been boosting its own aid programme for other poor nations.  A report released today by NGO Global Health Strategies Initiatives (GHSi) finds that India’s foreign assistance grew 10.8 percent annually between 2005 and 2010.

The actual sums flowing from India are,  to use its own phrase, peanuts. The country provided $680 million in 2010. Compare that to the $3.2 billion annual contribution even from crisis-hit Italy. The difference is that Indian donations have risen from $443 million in 2005, while Italy’s have fallen 10 percent in this period, GHSi found. Indian aid has grown in fact at a rate 10 times that of the United States. Add to that Indian pharma companies’ contribution – the source of 60- 80 percent of the vaccines procured by United Nations agencies.

Other members of the BRICS group of developing countries are also stepping up overseas assistance, with a special focus on healthcare, the report said. BRICS leaders meet this week to ink a deal on setting up a BRICS development bank.

Yuan risks uniting bulls and bears?

Is the outlook for China’s yuan uniting the biggest global markets bulls and bears? Well, kind of.

As China posts its biggest trade deficit (yes, that’s a deficit) of the new millennium and its monetary authorities flag greater “flexibility” of the yuan exchange rate (the PBOC engineered the US$/yuan’s second biggest daily drop on record on Monday), the chances of an internationally-controversial weakening of yuan in a U.S. election year have risen.  A weaker yuan would clearly up the ante in the global currency war, coming as it does amid Japan’s successful weakening of its yen this year and as Brazil on Monday felt emboldened enough in its battle to counter G7 devaluations by extending a tax curbing foreign inflows.  And, arguably, it could bring the whole conflagration around full circle, where currency weakening in the BRICs and other emerging economies blunts one of the desired effects of money-printing and super-lax monetary policy in the G7 — merely encouraging even more printing and so on.

Societe Generale’s long-time global markets bear Albert Edwards argued as much last week:  “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.”

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 Markets: the love story

It is Valentine’s day and emerging markets are certainly feeling the love. Bank of America/Merrill Lynch‘s monthly investor survey shows a ‘stunning’ rise in allocations to emerging markets in February. Forty-four percent of  asset allocators are now overweight emerging market equities this month, up from 20 percent in January — the second biggest monthly jump in the past 12 years. Emerging markets are once again investors’ favourite asset class.

Looking ahead, 36 percent of respondents said they would like to overweight emerging markets more than any other region, with investors saying they would underweight all other regions, including the United States. Meanwhile investor faith in China has rebounded  with only 2 percent of investors believing the Chinese economy will weaken over the next year, down from 23 percent in January. China also regained its crown of most favoured emerging market in February.

Last year, the main EM index plummeted more than 20 percent as emerging assets fell from favour. So what is the reason for this renewed passion in 2012?

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.

Home is where the heartache is…

On a recent trip home to Singapore, I was startled to learn just how much housing prices in the city-state have risen in my absence.

A cousin said he had recently paid over S$600,000 — about US$465,000 — for a yet-to-be-built 99-year-lease flat. Such numbers are hardly out of place in any major metropolis but this was for a state-subsidised three-bedroom apartment.

Soaring housing prices have fueled popular discontent — little wonder as median monthly household incomes have stagnated at around S$5,000.

Moscow is not Cairo. Time to buy shares?

The speed of the backlash building against Russia’s paramount leader Vladimir Putin following this week’s parliamentary elections has taken investors by surprise and sent the country’s shares and rouble down sharply lower.

Comparisons to the Arab Spring may be tempting, given that the demonstrations in Russia are also spearheaded by Internet-savvy youth organising via social networks.

But Russia’s economic and demographic profiles suggest quite different outcomes from those in the Middle East and North Africa. The gathering unrest may, in fact, signal a reversal of fortunes for the stock market, down 18 percent this year, argue  Renaissance Capital analysts Ivan Tchakarov, Mert Yildiz and Mert Yildiz.

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.