Global Investing

The hryvnia is all right

The fate of Ukraine’s hryvnia currency hangs by a thread. Will that thread break?

The hryvnia’s crawling peg has so far held as the central bank has dipped steadily into its reserves to support it. But the reserves are dwindling and political unrest is growing. Forwards markets are therefore betting on quite a sizeable depreciation  (See graphic below from brokerage Exotix).

 

The thing to remember is that the key to avoiding a messy devaluation lies not with the central bank but with a country’s households. As countless emerging market crises over decades have shown, currency crises occur when people lose trust in their currency and leadership, withdraw their savings from banks and convert them into hard currency.  That is something no central bank can fight. Now Ukraine’s households hold over $50 billion in bank deposits, according to calculations by Exotix. Of this a third is in hard currency (that’s without counting deposits by companies).  But despite all the ruckus there is no sign of long queues outside banks or currency exchange points, scenes familiar to emerging market watchers.

So what are the reasons?  First, households and businesses seem confident of a muddle-through scenario (this view is shared by most, though not, foreign analysts). Possibly, the optimism is based on the central bank’s  track record this year on defending the hryvnia. It also seems likely that with some foreign aid (bits and bobs garnered from Russia, China and the EU) and by using the remaining reserves, Ukraine can hold it together until 2015 elections are past and the government can finally knuckle down to the rigours of an IMF aid programme.

Second, people will not find it easy to turn their backs on the 14-25 percent annual rate they can earn on their bank deposits. In smaller, lower quality banks, bank deposits might earn up to 27-28 percent a year.  Inflation meanwhile is running below zero.  David Hauner, head of EEMEA fixed income strategy at BofA-Merrill Lynch Global Research, says:

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.

Brazil-style tax may not work for South Africa

Traders in South African securities woke to a nasty surprise this morning — media reports that the ruling ANC party is considering slapping a tax on “short-term” financial market flows, possibly similar to the 2 percent tax Brazil brought in last October.  Luckily for them,  it may not happen.

Like Brazil, South Africa is worried about the strength of its currency, the rand, which rose almost 30 percent last year against the dollar and has firmed a further 1.5 percent this year to trade near 7.25 per dollar. Analysts like Elisabeth Gruie at BNP Paribas reckon fair value would be around 9 per dollar.  South Africa, like Brazil, is a commodity exporter so needs a fairly valued currency. Hence the call for capital controls to keep out foreign speculative cash.

But the similarities stop there.

Investors may not have cheered the Brazilian tax but few have pulled their cash from the country, betting the returns on offer make the 2 percent levy worthwhile. But South Africa may have a harder time.  Its economy may grow this year by 3 percent compared to Brazil’s 7.6 percent. Johannesburg stocks, especially those of multinational precious metals firms are attractive but they are not cheap — they trade at 11.5 times forward earnings while Brazil’s are at 10.6 times. And the domestic consumption story is still weak in South Africa which makes its companies more vulnerable to the global growth picture.

Shock! Emerging capital controls may just be working

Do capital controls work?  After years of telling us that they do not, the IMF and World Bank reluctantly conceded last year they may not be all that bad and indeed in some cases they may actually help keep away some of the speculators who have in recent years been pouring into emerging markets.

Developing countries for the most part like foreign capital, indeed they rely on it for development. What they don’t like is hot money — short-term speculative flows which are widely blamed for causing past emerging market crises. So starting from October last year several of them slapped controls on some of this cash. There are signs these may be working.

Take the experience of two large emerging markets, Brazil and Indonesia. Brazil shocked forBRAZIL-MARKETS/eign investors last October with a 2 percent tax on all flows to stocks and bonds. Nine months on, investors are still putting their cash there and Brazil has raked in millions of dollars thanks to the tax. But many fund managers, like HSBC’s Jose Cuervo, who runs a $6 billion portfolio of Brazilian stocks, are buying American Depositary Receipts (ADRS) of Brazilian firms rather than stocks listed in Sao Paulo.  Because ADRs are in dollars and listed in New York, investors are getting exposure to Brazil but sidestepping the tax.  Brazilian firms continue to receive investment but Brazil’s currency is not appreciating  like it was last year. A win-win all around.

Iceland: slipping again?

Just when you thought it was all over, Iceland looks like it’s in trouble again.  The cost of insuring Iceland’s debt against restructuring or default has risen this week to 720 basis points in the five-year credit default swap market, its highest since mid-2009.  That means it costs 720,000 euros a year for five years to insure 10 million euros of Icelandic debt against default.

Icelanders are to vote by March 6 on a deal to repay $5 billion lost in online Icesave bank accounts in Britain and the Netherlands. Those governments compensated savers when the bank collapsed and now want their money back from Reykjavik, but opinion polls show voters are likely to reject what are seen as the harsh terms of the agreement.

ICELAND/The uncertainty has driven debt insurance costs back up towards the levels seen just before the country’s banking system and government collapsed in Oct 2008.