Global Investing

South Africa may need pre-emptive rate strike

Should South Africa’s central bank — the SARB – strike first with an interest rate hike before being forced into it?  Gill Marcus and her team started their two-day policy meeting today and no doubt have been keeping an eye on happenings in Turkey, a place where a pre-emptive rate hike (instead of blowing billions of dollars in reserves) might have saved the day.

The SARB is very different from Turkey’s central bank in that it is generally less concerned about currency weakness due to the competitiveness boost a weak rand gives the domestic mining sector. This time things might be a bit different. The bank is battling not only anaemic growth but also rising inflation that may soon bust the upper end of its 3-6 percent target band thanks to a rand that has weakened 15  percent to the dollar this year.

Interest rates of 5 percent, moreover, look too low in today’s world of higher borrowing costs  – real interest rates in South Africa are already negative while 10-year yields are around 2.5 percent (1.5 percent in the United States). So any rise in inflation from here will leave the currency dangerously exposed.

Therefore staying behind the curve could prove a mistake, say Tradition Analytics:

The fear is that, by continuing to run very low interest rates on the premise that it is protecting domestic economic growth…the central bank is setting up the economy for less price stability, more uncertainty and higher variability in the rand outcome.  South Africa can ill-afford another blow-off in the rand…Dismissing the possibility that the SARB may be forced into a hike is dangerous as another bout of rand weakness could push the inflation rate above the 7% mark at which point the question then morphs into how much above the 6% level the SARB will tolerate.

A drop in the ocean or deluge to come?

Glass half full or half empty? For emerging markets watchers, it’s still not clear.

Last month was a record one in terms of net outflow for funds dedicated to emerging equities, Boston-based agency EPFR Global said.  Debt funds meanwhile saw a $5.5 billion exodus in the week to June 26, the highest in history .

These sound like big numbers, but in fact they are relatively small. EM equity funds tracked by EPFR  have now reversed all the bumper year-to-date inflow registered by end-May, but what of all the flows they have received in the preceding boom decade?

Turkey’s (investment grade)bond market

We wrote here yesterday on how Turkish hard currency bonds have been given the nod to join some Barclays global indices as a result of the country’s elevation to investment grade. Turkish dollar bonds will also move to the Investment grade sub-index of JPMorgan’s flagship EMBI Global on June 28.

Local lira debt meanwhile will enter JPM’s GBI-EM Global Diversified IG 15 percent Cap Index —  the top-tier of the bank’s GBI-EM index. But the big prize, an invitation into Citi’s mega World Government Bond Index, is still some way off. Requiring a still higher credit rating, WGBI membership is an honour that has been accorded to only four emerging markets so far.

Still, the Turkish Treasury is not complaining.  Even before last week’s upgrade to investment grade by Moody’s, it was borrowing from the lira bond market at record cheap levels of around 5 percent for two-year cash. Ten-year yields are down half a percentage point this year. One reason of course is the gush of liquidity from Western central banks. But most funds (at least those who were allowed to do so) had not waited for the Moody’s signal before buying Turkish bonds. So the bond market was already trading Turkey as investment grade.

Paid for the risk? Egypt’s tempting pound

Surprising as it may seem, the Egyptian pound has got some fans.  The currency has languished for months at record lows against the dollar and the headlines are alarming — the lack of an IMF aid programme, meagre hard currency reserves, political upheaval. So what’s to like ?

Analysts at Societe Generale say that just looking at the spot exchange rate of the pound is missing the bigger picture. Instead, they advise buying 12-month non-deliverable forwards on the pound — essentially a way of locking into a fixed rate for pound against the dollar in a year’s time depending on where you think it may actually trade. They write:

The implicit yield at this point is 21 percent for the 12m NDF, which we think is quite attractive. The way to think about Egypt NDFs is to approach them as a distressed asset. The risk/reward is quite attractive, and a lot of the bad news has been priced in. Yes, there have been serious delays in the programme negotiations with the IMF and that has clearly been a negative for the overall country view, but I would like to point out that the actual 12m NDF level has hardly budged in the process. This to me suggests that the valuation looks particularly good.

Weekly Radar: May days or Pay days?

So, it’s May and time for the annual if temporary equity market selloff, right? Well, maybe – but only maybe.  A fresh weakening of the global economic pulse would certainly suggest so, but central banks have shown again they are not going to throw in the towel in the battle to reflate. The ECB’s interest rate cut today and last night’s insistence from the Fed that it’s as likely to step up money printing this year as wind it down are two cases in point. And we’re still awaiting the private investment flows from Japan following the BOJ’s latest aggressive easing there.

So where does that all leave us? A third of the way through 2013 and it’s been a good year so far for nearly all bulls – both western equity bulls and increasingly bond bulls too! Not only have developed world equities clocked up some 13 percent year-to-date (the S&P500 set yet another record high this week while Europe’s bluechips recorded a staggering 12th consecutive monthly gain in April) , but virtually all bond markets from junk bonds to Treasuries, euro peripherals to emerging markets are now back in the black for the year as a whole. For the most eyebrow-raising evidence, look no further than last week’s debut sovereign bond from Rwanda at less than 7 percent for 10 years or even newly-junked Slovenia’s ability this week to plough ahead with a syndicated bond sale reported to already be in the region of four times oversubscribed. For many people, that parallel rise in equity and bonds smells of a bubble somewhere. But before you cry “QEEEEE!” , take a look at commodities — the bulls there have been taken a bath all year as data on final global demand hits yet another ‘soft patch’ over the past couple of months.

So is this just an idiosyncratic random walk of asset markets (itself no bad thing after years of stress-riven hyper correlation) or can we explain all three asset directions together? One way to think of it is in terms of global inflation. If QE-related inflation fears have been grossly exaggerated then pressure to remove monetary stimulus or wanes again and there may even be arguments – certainly in Europe – for more. This would intuitively explain the renewed dash for bonds and fixed income in general even in the face of the still-plausible, if long term, “Great Rotation” idea. You could argue the monetary free-for-all is buoying equities regardless of demand concerns. But why wouldn’t commodities gain on that basis too?

Japan’s big-money investors still sitting tight

More on the subject of Japanese overseas investment.

As we said here and here, Japanese cash outflows to world markets have so far been limited to a trickle, almost all from retail mom-and-pop investors who like higher yields and are estimated to have 1500 trillion yen ($15.40 trillion) in savings. As for Japan’s huge institutional investors — the $730 billion mutual fund industry and $3.4 trillion life insurance sectors — they are sitting tight.

If some are to be believed, the hype over outflows is misguided. Morgan Stanley for one reckons Japanese insurers’ foreign bond buying may rise by just 2-3 percent in the next two years, amounting to $60-100 billion. Pension funds are even less likely to re-balance their portfolios given large cash flow needs, the bank said.

But a Reuters survey last week revealed several insurance companies are indeed considering boosting unhedged foreign bond holdings.  Insurers currently hold almost half their assets in Japanese government bonds and risk being crowded out of the JGB market as the central bank ramps up purchases.  A recent survey by Barclays also showed Japanese investors keen on overseas debt.

Will gold’s glitter dim in India?

Indians have reacted to the latest gold prices falls by — buying more gold. And why not? Aside from Indians’ well known passion for the yellow metal (yours truly not excluded) gold has by and large served well as an investment: annual returns over the past five years have been around 17 percent, Morgan Stanley notes.

Now, gold’s near 20 percent plunge this year has wiped some $300 billion off Indians’ gold holdings, Morgan Stanley estimates in a note (households are believed to own about 15,000 metric tonnes of gold). So is the gold rush in India over?

Possibly. Indian gold imports have doubled to around 3 percent of GDP in the past five years. That rise is partly down to greater wealth which translates into more wedding jewellery purchases. But the more unpleasant side of the equation is India’s inflation problem. Look at the following charts from MS that shows how negative real interest rates have encouraged savings in gold rather than financial instruments:

Weekly Radar-”Slow panic” feared on Cyprus as central banks meet and US reports jobless

US MARCH JOBS REPORT/THREE OF G4 CENTRAL BANKS THURS/NEW QUARTER BEGINS/FINAL MARCH PMIS/KENYA SUPREME COURT RULING/SPAIN-FRANCE BOND AUCTIONS

Given the sound and fury of the past fortnight, it’s hard not to conclude that the messiness of the eventual Cyprus bailout is another inflection point in the whole euro crisis. For most observers, including Mr Dijsselbloem it seems, it ups the ante again on several fronts – 1) possible bank contagion via nervy senior creditors and depositors fearful of bail-ins at the region’s weakest institutions; 2) an unwelcome rise in the cost of borrowing for European banks who remain far more levered than US peers and are already grinding down balance sheets to the detriment of the hobbled European economy; and 3) likely heavy economic and social pressures in Cyprus going forward that, like Greece, increase euro exit risk to some degree. Add reasonable concerns about the credibility and coherence of euro policymaking during this latest episode and a side-order of German/Dutch ‘orthodoxy’ in sharp relief and it all looks a bit rum again.

Yet the reaction of world markets has been relatively calm so far. Wall St is still stalking record highs through it all for example as signs of the ongoing US recovery mount. So what gives? Today’s price action was interesting in that it started to show investors discriminating against European assets per se – most visible in the inability of European stocks to follow Wall St higher and lunge lower in euro/dollar exchange rate. European bank stocks and bonds have been knocked back relatively sharply this week post-Dijsselbloem too. If this decoupling pattern were to continue, it will remain a story of the size of the economic hit and relative underperformance. But that would change if concerns morphed into euro exit and broader systemic fears and prepare for global markets at large to feel the heat again too. We’re not back there yet with the benefit of the doubt on OMTs and pressured policy reactions still largely conceded. But many of the underlying movements that might feed system-wide stresses – what some term a “slow panic” like deposit shifts etc – will be impossible to monitor systematically by investors for many weeks yet and so nervy times are ahead as we enter Q2 after the Easter break.

Asia’s credit explosion

Whatever is happening to all those Asian savers? Apparently they are turning into big time borrowers.

RBS contends in a note today that in a swathe of Asian countries (they exclude China and South Korea) bank deposits are not keeping pace with credit which has expanded in the past three years by up to 40 percent.

Some of this clearly is down to slowing exports and a greater focus on the domestic consumer.  Credit levels are also rising overall in these economies because of borrowing for big infrastructure projects.  But there are signs too that credit conditions are too loose.

Using sterling to buy emerging markets

Sterling looks likely to be one of this year’s big G10 currency casualties (the other being  yen).  Having lost 7 percent against the dollar and 5.5 percent to the euro so far this year on fear of a British triple-dip recession, sterling probably has further to fall.  (see here for my colleague Anirban Nag’s take on sterling’s outlook).

Many see an opportunity here — as a convenient funding currency to invest in emerging markets. A funding currency requires low interest rates that can bankroll purchases of higher-yielding assets including stocks, other currencies, bonds and commodities. Sterling ticks those boxes.  A funding  currency must also not be subject to any appreciation risk for the duration of the trade. And here too, sterling appears to win, as the Bank of England’s remit widens to give it more leeway on monetary easing.

All in all, it’s a better option than the U.S. dollar, which was most used in recent years, or the pre-crisis favourite of the Swiss franc, says Bernd Berg, head of emerging FX strategy at Credit Suisse Private Bank.