Global Investing

Emerging markets: to buy or not to buy

To buy or not to buy — that’s the question facing emerging market investors.

The sector is undoubtedly cheap –  equity valuations are 30-50 percent cheaper than their 10-year average on a price-book basis; currencies have depreciated 15-20 percent in the space of 4 months and local bond yields have surged by an average 150 basis points. As we have pointed out before, cheapness is relative and the slowing economic and credit growth in many countries will undoubtedly manifest itself in falling EPS growth. Companies that cannot pass on high input costs caused by weak currencies, will have to take a further margin squeeze.

But many analysts have in recent days changed their recommendations on the sector. Barclays for instance notes:

 Value has been created in EM local (debt) markets and the bulk of the global rates repricing should be behind us. 

 At Morgan Stanley they write:

Improved valuations and carry as well as signs of positive export growth momentum support emerging currencies near term.

Tapping India’s diaspora to salvage rupee

What will save the Indian rupee? There’s an election next year so forget about the stuff that’s really needed — structural reforms to labour and tax laws, easing business regulations and scrapping inefficient subsidies. The quickest and most effective short-term option may be a dollar bond issued to the Indian diaspora overseas which could boost central bank coffers about $20 billion.

The option was mooted a month ago when the rupee’s slide started to get into panic territory but many Indian policymakers are not so keen on the idea

So what are the merits of a diaspora bond (or NRI bond as it’s known in India)?

Russia — the one-eyed emerging market among the blind

It’s difficult to find many investors who are enthusiastic about Russia these days. Yet it may be one of the few emerging markets  that is relatively safe from the effects of “sudden stops” in foreign investment flows.

Russia’s few fans always point to its cheap valuations –and these days Russian shares, on a price-book basis, are trading an astonishing 52 percent below their own 10-year history, Deutsche Bank data shows.  Deutsche is sticking to its underweight recommendation on Russia but notes that Russia has:

“become so unpopular with the investor community that it is a candidate for the ‘it’s so bad it’s good’ club as evidenced by the very cheap valuations and long-term  underperformance.

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.

Weekly Radar: A ‘sudden stop’ in emerging markets?

Turkey’s lira, South Africa’s rand and South Korea’s won have all lunged, local currency debt yields have suddenly surged, there’s an intense investor focus on domestic political risks again and governments like Brazil who were taxing what they feared were excessive foreign investment over the past couple of years have U-turned as those flows evaporate. 

What some have feared for many months may well be materializing – a ‘sudden stop’ in financing flows to emerging markets as the makings of a perfect storm gathers. With the Fed mulling some reduction in the amount of dollars it’s pumping into the world, the prospect of a rare and protracted rise in the dollar and U.S. Treasury yields potentially changes entire EM investment metrics for U.S. funds (who make up almost half of the world’s private institutional investors) and from markets which have willingly or not been some of the biggest beneficiaries of QE in recent years but also to where where , by some estimates, nearly $8 trillion of FDI and portfolio flows have flowed over the past decade. It doesn’t even have to mean a reversal of capital already in emerging markets, but even a sudden stop in new flows there could seriously undermine the currency and debt markets of countries heavily dependent on rolling foreign financing – those with large current account gaps to finance. As emerging and global economic growth has eased and return on equity sinks, emerging equity markets have already underperformed for three years now. But the biggest wave of recent investment in EM had been into its bond markets, most recently to higher-yielding local-currency debt markets. And it’s these flows that could dry up rather quickly and shockingly, with all the attendant pressure on currency rates and vice versa. For context, a record of more than $410 billion new sovereign and corporate bonds from emerging economies were sold last year alone, according to JPMorgan, and Morgan Stanley estimates show emerging companies alone have sold some $130 billion worth of new debt so far this year – up 30 percent on last year and more than twice the same period in 2011.
               Already we’re seeing big hits to big current account deficit countries Turkey and South Africa in this region and, as is so often the case in emerging markets, the withdrawal of capital leads to an intense focus on domestic and political risks. These are two of the five biggest destination for bond flows over the past four years, a list –measured on flows as share of GDP – also includes Poland and Czech Republic. Mexico is top of the list, but many see its geographic and financial proximity to the US insulating it.

               So, is this a 1997/1998 redux? That’s certainly a big fear. The similarities are obvious – building dollar strength, higher US Treasury yields and a repatriation of US investment to a domestic ‘emerging market’ (Silicone Valley and the dot.coms in the late 1990s); a sharp drop in Japan’s yen which upset the competitive landscape in Asia; narrowing global growth differentials; some signs of excessive monetary easing in emerging economies and concern about credit bubbles in China and elsewhere; the sudden magnifying of domestic political, social and policy risks etc etc.

Guarding against the inflation dog in emerging markets

The dog that didn’t bark was how the IMF described inflation. But might the fall in emerging market currencies reverse the current picture of largely benign inflation?

Nick Shearn, a portfolio manager at BlueBay Asset Management, sees the rise in inflation as not an if but a when, which makes inflation-linked bonds (linkers in common parlance) a good idea. These would hedge not only against EM but also G7 inflation — he calculates the correlation between the two at around 0.8 percent. He says linkers outperform as inflation uncertainty increases, hence:

As a result of the loose monetary policies of recent years that have been implemented to promote growth within emerging market economies, we believe rising as well as persistent inflation should become a trend….. Currently we are seeing the early signs of an inflation dynamic in isolated countries such as in Brazil. But, as inflation begins to rise across the region, inflation uncertainty will also begin to rise and consequently inflation-linked bonds should perform well.

Weekly Radar: Central banks try to regain some control

Central banks may be regaining some two-way control over global markets that had started to behave like a one-way bet. After flagging some unease earlier this month that frothy markets were assuming endless QE, the Fed and others look to be responding with at least some frank reality checks even if little new in the substance of their message. In truth, there may be no real change in the likely timing of QE’s end, or even the beginning of its end, but the size of the stock and bond market pullbacks on Wednesday and Thursday shows how sensitive they now are to the ebb and flow of central bank guidance on that score.  Although the 7% drop in Japan’s stock market looks alarming – Fed chief Bernanke actually played it fairly straight, signalling no imminent change and putting any possible wind down over the “next few meetings” still heavily conditional on a much lower jobless rate and higher inflation rate. The control he gains from here is an ability to nuance that message either way if either the data disappoints or markets get out of hand.

The central banks are clearly treading a fine line between getting traction in the real economy and not blowing new financial bubbles. The decider may be inflation and on that score central banks have a lot of leeway right now – global inflation is still evaporating and, as measured by JPM, fell in April to just 2.0% – its lowest in 3-1/2 years.  That said, CPI was also very well behaved in the run-up to 2007 credit crisis – it was asset prices and not consumer inflation that caused the problem. So – expect to hear plenty more cat-and-mouse on this from the central banks over the coming weeks/months.

For investors, periodic pullbacks from here are justified and likely sensible. But it’s still hard to argue against a wholesale change of behaviour – which is merely to assume central banks will prevent further growth shocks but will take some time to transform persistently sluggish growth into anything like a sustained inflation-fueling expansion . As a result, funds will likely steer clear of “safe” havens of cash, gold, Swiss franc and yen despite this bounce and continue their migration to income everywhere, with a bias to relative growth stories within that and an exchange rate tilt according to the likely sequencing of QE exit– all of which points to the U.S. dollar if not its stock markets. And for many that may just mean repariation or staying at home –the US is still the homebase for two thirds of the world’s institutional funds, or some $55 trillion of savings.

Emerging European bonds: The music plays on

There seems to be no end to the rip-roaring bond rally across emerging Europe.  Yields on Turkish lira bonds fell to fresh record lows today after an interest rate cut and stand now more than a whole percentage point below where they started the year.

True, bonds from all classes of emerging market have benefited from the flood of money flowing from central banks in the United States, Europe and Japan, with over$20 billion flowing into EM debt funds since the start of 2013, according to EPFR Global. Flows for the first three months of 2013 equated to 12 percent of the funds’ assets under management.

But the effect has been most marked in emerging European local currency bonds — unsurprising, given economic growth here is weakest of all emerging markets and central banks have been the most pro-active in slashing interest rates.  Emerging European yields have fallen around 50 basis points since the start of the year, compared to a 20 bps average yield fall on the broader JPMorgan index of emerging local bonds, Thomson Reuters data shows.

Weekly Radar: Draghi returns to London

ECB chief Mario Draghi returns to London next week almost 10 months on from his seminal “whatever it takes” speech to the global financial community in The City  – a speech that not only drew a line under the euro financial crisis by flagging the ECB’s sovereign debt backstop OMT but one that framed the determination of the G4 central banks at large to reflate their economies via extraordinary monetary easing. Since then we’ve seen the Fed effectively commit to buying an addition trillion dollars of bonds this year to get the U.S. jobless rate down toward 6.5%, followed by the ‘shock-and-awe’ tactics of the new Japanese government and Bank of Japan to end decades.

And as Draghi returns 10 months on, there’s little doubt that he and his U.S. and Japanese peers have succeeded in convincing financial investors of central bank doggedness at least. Don’t fight the Fed and all that – or more pertinently, Don’t fight the Fed/BoJ/ECB/BoE/SNB etc… G4 stock markets are surging ever higher through the Spring of 2013 even as global economic data bumbles along disappointingly through its by now annual ‘soft patch’.  Looking at the number tallies, total returns for Spanish and Greek equities and euro zone bank stocks are up between 40 and 50% since Draghi’s showstopper last July . Italian, French and German equities and Spanish and Irish 10-year government bonds have all returned about 30% or more. And you can add 7% on to all that if you happened to be a Boston-based investor due to a windfall from the net jump in the euro/dollar exchange rate. What’s more all of those have outperformed the 25% gains in Wall St’s S&P 500 since then, even though the latter is powering to uncharted record highs. And of course all pale in comparison with the eye-popping 75% rise in Japan’s Nikkei 225 in just six months!! Gold, metals and oil are all net losers and this is significant in a money-printing story where no one seems to see higher inflation anymore.

But with both Fed and BoJ pushes getting some traction on underlying growth and the euro zone economy registering it’s 6th straight quarter of contraction in the first three months of 2013, maybe Draghi’s big task now is to convince people the ECB will do whatever it takes to support the 17-nation economy too and not only the single currency per se. Last year’s pledge may have been a necessary start to stabilise things but it has not yet been sufficient to solve the economic problems bequethed by the credit crisis.

Weekly Radar: Watch the thought bubbles…

Far from the rules of the dusty old investment almanac, it’s up, up and away in May after all. And judging by the latest batch of economic data, markets may well have had good reason to look beyond the global economic ‘soft patch’ – with US employment, Chinese trade and even German and British industry data all coming in with positive surprises since last Friday. Is QE gaining traction at last?

Well, it’s still hard to tell yet in the real economy that continues to disappont overall. But what’s certain is that monetary easing is contagious and not about to stop in the foreseeable future – whether there’s signs of a growth stabilisation or not. With the Fed, BoJ and BoE still on full throttle and the ECB cutting interest rates again last week, monetary easing is fanning out across the emerging markets too. South Korea was the latest to surprise with a rate cut on Thursday, in part to keep a lid on its won currency after Japan’s effective maxi devaluation over the past six months. But Poland too cut rates on Wednesday. And emerging markets, which slipped into the red for the year in February, have at last moved back into the black – even if still far behind year-to-date gains in developed market equities of about 16%!

Not only have we got new records on Wall St and fresh multi-year highs in Europe and Japan, there’s little sign that either this weekend’s meeting in London of G7 finance chiefs or next weekend’s G20 sherpas gathering in Moscow will want to signal a shift  in the monetary stance. If anything, they may codify the recent tilt toward easier austerity deadlines in Europe and elsewhere. But inevitably talk of unintended consequences of QE and bubbles will build again now as both equity and debt markets race ahead , even if the truth is that asset managers have been remarkably defensive so far this year in asset, sector and geographical choices …  one can only guess at what might happen if they did actually start to get aggressive! Perhaps the next pause will have to come from the Fed thinking aloud again about the longevity of its QE programme — so best watch those thought bubbles!