Global Investing

No Czech intervention but watch the crown

The Czech central bank surprised many this week after its policy meeting. Widely expected to announce the timing and extent of FX market interventions, Governor Miroslav Singer not only failed to do so, he effectively signalled that intervention was no longer on the cards — at least in the short term  In his words, looser monetary conditions were now “less urgent”.

What changed Singer’s mind? After all, data just hours earlier showed Czech industrial production plunging  12 percent year-on-year in December. The economy has not grown since mid-2011 and is likely to have contracted by more than 1 percent last year. Singer in fact predicts a second full year of recession. But some slightly upbeat-looking forward indicators could be cause for cheer. According to William Jackson at Capital Economics:

We think that the need for further policy loosening was tempered by the tentative pick-up in the most recent survey data as well as the fall in the crown (versus the euro) since the start of the year.

Until yesterday’s meeting, the crown had fallen 3 percent since the start of the year to seven-month lows against the euro.  January purchasing managers indexes (PMI) this week also showed the Czech indicator rising more than expected to 48.3, up from December’s three-year low of 46.0. That gelled with a pick-up in PMIs also in neighbouring Poland and Hungary.  A separate survey also shows that the business climate in emerging Europe ticked higher in January for the first time since April. The OeKB Central and Eastern Europe Business Climate index of around 400 Austria-based direct investors edged up to 17 points, from 14 in October and the Czech component rose two points to 24, the highest since the second quarter of 2012.

Even more crucial perhaps have been the recent indicators from Germany, United States and China, on which hinge the fortunes of the export-dependent Czech economy. The German PMI chalked up its biggest one-month rise in January since August 2009, soaring to its highest since June 2011.  The Czech National Bank has increased its medium-term inflation and growth forecasts slightly. According to Singer:

Are EM forex reserves strong enough?

One of the big stories of the past decade has been the massive jump in central bank reserves, with total reserves having quintupled from a decade ago to around $10.6 trillion.

But the growth has not been uniform. And over the past 18 months slowing world growth and trade has stalled reserve accummulation across the developing world, making some countries increasingly vulnerable to financial shocks, according to analysts at Capital Economics.

They point out for instance that, although most emerging economies are less vulnerable than in the past, Ukrainian reserves have fallen by a quarter in the past year while in Venezuela they declined by 40 percent. Egyptian reserves halved since end-2011, forcing it to agree to an IMF aid deal. Foreign exchange reserves in these countries may not be sufficient to protect against balance of payment crises should trade flows and investments slow further, they reckon.

Golden Time for Turkey

One would have thought the brewing tensions in neighbouring Iran — an unravelling economy and the likelihood of an air strike by Israel– would only be a source of concern for Turkey. Every cloud, though….

Data released last week shows how the geo-political crisis has helped Turkey to shrink its massive current account deficit by a third this year. That’s because Iranians, scrambling to ditch their crumbling riyal currency and without access to dollars, have been buying up enormous amounts of gold as an inflation hedge, most of it from Turkey.

Turkey sold gold worth $6.2 billion to Iran in the January-July period this year, more than 10 times the $54 million that it exported to its neighbour in the same period in 2011. While sales to Iran officially dipped in August to $180 million from July’s $1.8 billion, that figure is deceptive as  exports appear to have been routed through the UAE, according to Capital Economics.

Is the rouble overhyped?

For many months now the Russian rouble has been everyone’s favourite currency. Thanks to all the interest it rose 4 percent against the dollar during the July-September quarter. How long can the love affair last?

It is easy to see why the rouble is in favour. The central bank last month raised interest rates to tame inflation and might do so again on Friday. The  implied yield on 12-month rouble/dollar forwards  is at 6 percent — among the highest in emerging markets.  It has also been boosted by cash flowing into Russian local bond market, which is due to be liberalised in coming months. Above all, there is the oil price which usually gets a strong boost from Fed QE.  So despite worries about world growth, Brent crude prices are above $110 a barrel. Analysts at Barclays are among those who like the rouble, predicting it to hit 30.5 per dollar by end-2012, up from current levels of 31.12.

All that sounds pretty bullish. But there are reasons why the rouble’s days of strength may be numbered. First the QE effect is unlikely to last. As we argued here, QE’s impact will be less strong than after the previous two rounds. Analysts at ING Bank point out that in 3-6 months after the launch of QE2 oil prices gained 40 percent, pushing the rouble up nearly 10%. This time oil won’t repeat the trend this time, and neither will the rouble, they say:

Will Poland have an “ECB moment”?

When Poland stunned markets in May with a quarter-point rate rise, analysts at Capital Economics predicted that the central bank would have an “ECB moment” before the year was over, a reference to the European Central Bank’s decision to cut interest rates last year, just months after it hiked them. A slew of weak economic data, from industrial output to retail sales and employment, indicates the ECB moment could arrive sooner than expected. PMI readings today shows the manufacturing business climate deteriorated for the fourth straight month, remaining in contraction territory.

With central banks all around intent on cutting rates, markets, unsurprisingly, are betting on easing in Poland as well. A 25 bps cut is priced for September and 75 bps for the next 12 months, encouraged by dovish comments from a couple of board members (one of whom had backed May’s decision to raise rates). Bond yields have fallen by 60-80 basis points.

Marcin Mrowiec, chief economist at Bank Pekao says:

The market should continue to expect that the (central bank) will unwind the rate hike delivered in May.

Poland, the lonely inflation targeter

Is the National Bank of Poland (NBP) the last inflation-targeting central bank still standing?

The bank shocked many today with a quarter point rate rise, naming stubbornly high inflation as the reason, and signalling that more tightening is on its way. The NBP has sounded hawkish in recent weeks but few had actually expected it to carry through its threat to raise rates. Economic indicators of late have been far from cheerful – just hours after the rate rise, data showed Polish car production slumped 30 percent in April from year-ago levels. PMI numbers last week pointed to further deterioration ahead for manufacturing. And sitting as it does on the euro zone’s doorstep, Poland will be far more vulnerable than Brazil or Russia to any new setback in Greece. Its action therefore deserves praise, says Benoit Anne, head of emerging markets strategy at Societe Generale.

(Poland’s central bank) is one of the last orthodox inflation-targeting central banks in the global emerging market central bank universe. They are taking action because they are seeing inflation creeping up and have decided to be proactive.

Hungary can seek IMF aid now. But can it cut rates?

The European Union has given Budapest the green light to seek aid from the IMF. (see here)  In fact, the breakthrough after five months of dispute does not let Hungary completely off the hook  — to get its hands on the money, Viktor Orban’s government will have to backtack on some controversial recent legislation, starting with its efforts to curb the central bank’s independence.  It remains to be seen if Orban will actually cave in.

But markets are reacting as if the IMF money is in Hungary’s pocket already. There have been sharp rallies in Hungarian dollar bonds,  CDS and currency markets (see graphic below from Capital Economics). The Budapest stock market has posted its best one-day gain since last November while the yield on local 10-year bonds have collapsed almost 100 bps. Hungarian officials are (a bit prematurely)  talking of issuing bonds on world markets.

What investors are hoping for now is a cut to the 7 percent interest rate. Hungary’s central bank jacked up rates by 100 bps in recent months to defend the forint as cash fled the country. Now there is a chance those rate rises can be reeled back in. After all, the moribund economy could really use a dash of monetary easing. Thanasis Petronikolos, head of emerging debt at Baring Asset Management has been overweight Hungary and  recalls that after 2008 crisis, the central bank was able to quickly take back its 300 bps of currency-defensive rate hikes.

Ukraine’s $58 billion problem

Ukrainian officials were at pains to reassure investors last week that no debt default was in the offing. But people familiar with the numbers will find it hard to believe them.

The government must find over $5.3 billion this year to repay maturing external debt, including $3 billion to the IMF and $2 billion to Russian state bank VTB. Bad enough but there is worse:  Ukrainian companies and banks too have hefty debt maturities this year. Total external financing needs– corporate and sovereign – amount to $58 billion, analysts at Capital Economics calculate. That’s a third of Ukraine’s GDP and makes a default of some kind very likely. The following graphic is from Capital Economics.

In normal circumstances Ukraine — and Ukrainian companies — could have gone to market and borrowed the money. Quite a few developing countries such as Lithuania recently tapped markets, others including Jamaica plan to do so. Ukraine’s problem is its refusal to toe the IMF line.  Agreeing to the IMF’s main demand to lift crippling gas subsidies would unlock a $15 billion loan programme, giving  access to the loan cash as well as to global bond markets. But removing subsidies would be political suicide ahead of elections in October.  And with the sovereign frozen out of bond markets, Ukrainian companies too will find it hard to raise cash.

A Hungarian default?

More on Hungary. It’s not hard to find a Hungary bear but few are more bearish than William Jackson at Capital Economics.

Jackson argues in a note today that Hungary will ultimately opt to default on its  debt mountain as it has effectively exhausted all other mechanisms. Its economy has little prospect of  strong growth and most of its debt is in foreign currencies so cannot be inflated away. Austerity is the other way out but Hungary’s population has been reeling from spending cuts since 2007, he says, and is unlikely to put up with more.

How did other highly indebted countries cope? (lets leave out Greece for now). Jackson takes the example of  Indonesia and Thailand. Both countries opted for strict austerity after the 1997 Asian crisis and resolved the debt problem by running large current account surpluses. This worked because the Asian crisis was followed by a period of buoyant world growth, allowing these countries to boost exports. But Hungary’s key export markets are in the euro zone and are unlikely to recover anytime soon.

How Turkey cut interest rates but didn’t really

How do you cut interest rates without actually loosening monetary policy? Turkey’s central bank effectively did that today.

I wrote this morning that the bank and its boss Erdem Basci were gearing for rate cuts, thanks to the lira’s steady rise (see the graphic)  that should help tame inflation later this year (provided the global investment feel remains positive). But I also said a rate cut was unlikely to happen today. I was wrong — and right too. The central bank cut its overnight lending rate by 100 basis points to 11.5 percent while keeping the one-week repo rate  — the main policy rate — steady at 5.75 percent.

So why is this not a real cut? Note that the former overnight rate hasn’t been used for over a month. Instead the central bank has been using the “corridor” between the lending and borrowing rates to adjust policy on an almost daily basis. The upper end of the corridor is in fact used more to tighten policy when there is a need to defend the lira, analysts point out. And most importantly, the central bank has already been providing funds at the cheaper 5.75 percent rate.