Global Investing

Hungary’s Orban and his central banker

“Will no one rid me of this turbulent central banker?”  Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban may not have voiced this sentiment but since he took power last year he is likely to have thought it more than once.  Increasingly, the spat between Orban’s government and central bank governor Andras Simor brings to memory the quarrel England’s Henry II had with his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, over the rights and privileges of the Church almost 900 years ago. Simor stands accused of undermining economic growth by holding interest rates too high and resisting government demands for monetary stimulus.  The government’s efforts to sideline Simor are viewed as infringing on the central bank’s independence.

So far, attacks on Simor have ranged from alleging he has undisclosed overseas income to stripping him of his power to appoint some central bank board members. But  the government’s latest plan could be the last straw – proposed legislation that would effectively demote Simor or at least seriously dilute his influence. Simor says the government is trying to engineer a total takeover at the central bank.  “The new law brings the final elimination of the central bank’s independence dangerously close,” he said last week.  
 
The move is ill-timed however, coming exactly at a time when Hungary is trying to persuade the IMF and the European Union to give it billions of euros in aid. The lenders have expressed concern about the law and declined to proceed with the loan talks.  But the government says it will not bow to external pressure and plans to put the law to vote on Friday. That has sparked general indignation – Societe Generale analyst Benoit Anne calls the spat extremely damaging to investor confidence in Hungary. “I just hope the IMF will not let this go,” he writes.

Central banks and governments often fail to see eye to eye. But in Hungary, the government’s attacks on Simor, a respected figure in central banking and investment circles,  is hastening the downfall of the already fragile economy. For one, if IMF funds fail to come through, Hungary will need to find 4.7 billion euros next year just to repay maturing hard currency debt. That could be tough at a time when lots of borrowers — developed and emerging — will be competing for scarce funds.  Central European governments alone will be looking to raise 16 billion euros on bond markets, data from ING shows. So Orban will have to tone down his rhetoric if he is to avoid plunging his country into financial disaster.

But this week the tussle has intensified as the central bank has shrugged off Orban’s call for more “growth-friendly policies” and raised interest rates by half a point. The rate rise, the second in as many months, brings interest rates to 7 percent, sparking rage in the ruling party. But the central bank, quite logically,  argues higher rates are necessary to protect Hungary’s currency, the forint, from further weakness. And it has signalled it is fully prepared to raise rates again at the next meeting if required.

India: the odd BRIC out

China moved to ease policy this week via a reserve ratio cut for banks, effectively starting to reverse a tightening cycle that’s been in place since last January. Later the same day, Brazil’s central bank cut interest rates by 50 basis points for the third time in a row. Both countries are expected to continue easing policy as the global economic downturn bites. And last week Russia signalled that rate cuts could be on the way.

That makes three of the four members of the so-called BRIC group of the biggest emerging economies. Indonesia, the country some believe should be included in the BRIC group, has also been cutting rates. That leaves India, the fourth leg of the BRICs, the quartet whose name was coined by Goldman Sachs banker Jim O’Neill ten years ago this week. India could use a rate cut for sure. Data this week showed growth slowing to 6.9 percent in the three months to September — the slowest since September 2009. Factory output slowed to a 32-month low last month, feeling the effects of the global malaise as well as 375 basis points in rate increases since last spring. No wonder Indian stocks, down 20 percent this year, are the worst performing of the four BRIC markets.

But unlike the other BRICs, a rate cut is a luxury India cannot afford now — inflation is still running close to double digits.  “The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is the odd guy out due to stubbornly high inflation of near 10 percent,” writes Commerzbank analyst Charlie Lay.

Good reasons for rupee’s fall but also for recovery

It’s been a pretty miserable 2011 for India and Tuesday’s collapse of the rupee to record lows beyond 52 per dollar will probably make things worse. Foreigners, facing a fast-falling currency, have pulled out $500 million from the stock market in just the last five trading sessions.   That means net inflows this year are less than $300 million, raising concerns that India will have trouble financing its current account gap.  The weaker currency also bodes ill for the country’s stubbornly high inflation.

Why is the rupee suffering so much? First of all, it is a casualty of the general exodus from emerging markets. As a deficit economy, India is bound to suffer more than say Brazil, Korea or Malaysia.  And 18 months of interest rate rises have taken a toll on growth.

UBS analysts  proffer another explanation. They point out a steady deterioration in India’s net reserve coverage since the 2008 crisis. The reserve buffer — foreign-exchange reserves plus the annual current account balance, minus short-term external debt — stands at 9 percent of GDP, down from 14 percent in 2008.  Within emerging markets, only Egypt, Venezuela and Belarus saw bigger declines in net reserve coverage than India.

Interest rates rise in Kenya, Uganda. Hungary next

Recent weeks have witnessed an interesting  split between countries that are raising interest rates to fend off runs on their currencies, and those cutting rates to spur on growth — check out my colleague Carolyn Cohn’s recent piece on this topic (http://tinyurl.com/4x58ny6) .The frontier economies of Africa fall into the first category — Kenya this week jacked up rates by an unprecedented 550 basis points to ward off a currency collapse, while Uganda’s benchmark rate was increased by 300 bps.  

Big stable economies such as Australia, Brazil and Indonesia have cut interest rates. On Wednesday, Romania became the latest  country to do so.  But an exception is investment grade Hungary, which may soon join the ranks of  frontier markets in currency-defensive rate hikes.

It may also soon lose its investment grade status –at least one of the three big rating agencies is expected to soon announce a cut to the sovereign credit rating.  That fear has triggered flight from the forint and short-dated bonds, pushing the currency to 2-1/2 year lows and causing significant flattening in the yield curve. The situation hasn’t been helped by signs the government is cooking up another sceme to subsidise indebted small businesses. More is to come, many predict –a ratings downgrade could see investors pull at least $1.2 billion euros from local bond markets. ING Bank estimates. That would be 10 percent of foreigners’ Hungarian bond holdings and would send the currency into a fresh tailspin.

Japan fires latest FX wars salvo; other Asians to follow

Emerging central banks that sold billions of dollars over the summer in defence of their currencies might soon be forced to do the opposite. Japan’s massive currency intervention on Monday knocked the yen substantially lower not only versus the dollar but also against other Asian currencies.  The action is unlikely to sit well with other central banks struggling to boost economic growth and raises  the prospect of a fresh round of tit-for-tat currency depreciations. Already on Monday, central banks from South Korea and Singapore were suspected of wading into currency markets to buy dollars and push down their currencies which have recovered strongly from September’s selloff.  The won for instance is up 6.9 percent in October against the dollar — its biggest monthly gain since April 2009.  The Singapore dollar is up 4.5 percent, the result of a huge improvement in risk appetite.

Despite the interventions, the yen ended the session more than 2 percent lower against both the won and the Singapore dollar,  and most analysts reckon Japan’s latest intervention is by no means its last. That’s bad news for companies that compete with Japan on export markets and will keep neighbouring central banks watching for the BOJ’s next move. “Asian central banks are likely to play in the same game, and keep currencies competitive via regular interventions,” BNP Paribas analysts said.

But the race to the bottom has been underway for some time.  After all central banks in the West have cut rates, as in the euro zone, and embarked on more quantitative easing, as in the UK.  One bank, Switzerland’s, has gone as far as to effectively establish a ceiling for its currency.  And in Asia, Indonesia surprised markets with an interest rate cut this month while Singapore eased monetary policy. Many expect South Korea’s next move also to be a rate cut even though inflation is running well above target.  Analysts at Credit Agricole predicted this week’s G20 meeting to yield no fruitful discussion on what they termed “currency manipulation”. “This lack of co-ordinated policy could trigger an escalation in ongoing currency wars,” Credit Agricole analyst Adam Myers told clients. That would in turn lead to a renewed acceleration in central banks’ dollar reserves, he added.

Phew! Emerging from euro fog

Holding your breath for instant and comprehensive European Union policies solutions has never been terribly wise.  And, as the past three months of summit-ology around the euro sovereign debt crisis attests, you’d be just a little blue in the face waiting for the ‘big bazooka’. And, no doubt, there will still be elements of this latest plan knocking around a year or more from now. Yet, the history of euro decision making also shows that Europe tends to deliver some sort of solution eventually and it typically has the firepower if not the automatic will to prevent systemic collapse.
And here’s where most global investors stand following the “framework” euro stabilisation agreement reached late on Wednesday. It had the basic ingredients, even if the precise recipe still needs to be nailed down. The headline, box-ticking numbers — a 50% Greek debt writedown, agreement to leverage the euro rescue fund to more than a trillion euros and provisions for bank recapitalisation of more than 100 billion euros — were broadly what was called for, if not the “shock and awe” some demanded.  Financial markets, who had fretted about the “tail risk” of a dysfunctional euro zone meltdown by yearend, have breathed a sigh of relief and equity and risk markets rose on Thursday. European bank stocks gained almost 6%, world equity indices and euro climbed to their highest in almost two months in an audible “Phew!”.

Credit Suisse economists gave a qualified but positive spin to the deal in a note to clients this morning:

It would be clearly premature to declare the euro crisis as fully resolved. Nevertheless, it is our impression that EU leaders have made significant progress on all fronts. This suggests that the rebound in risk assets that has been underway in recent days may well continue for some time.

Is end-game approaching for Turkey’s policy experiment?

In less than two months, Turkey will mark the first anniversary of the start of an unusual monetary policy experiment, and it may well do so by calling it off.  The experiment hinged on cutting interest rates while raising banks’ reserve ratio requirements, and as recently as August, the central bank was hoping  it would be able to slow a local credit boom a bit but still protect exports by keeping the currency cheap.  Instead, an investor exodus from emerging markets has put the lira to the sword, fuelling at one point a 20 percent collapse in its value against the dollar.  That has forced the central bank to roll back some of the reserve ratio hikes and last week it jacked up overnight lending rates in an attempt to boost the currency. It has also sold vast quantities of dollars and is promising  to unveil more  measures on Wednesday.

But what the market really wants to see is an increase in Turkey’s main interest rate.  ”Not sure that ‘measures’ short of rate hikes will help,” RBS analyst Tim Ash writes.

Given Turkey’s massive current account deficit of almost 10 percent of GDP, an interest rate of 5.75 percent will provide little protection to the lira if emerging markets come under serious pressure again. Even if the lira stabilises at current levels, an inflation spike to double-digits looks inevitable.  Meanwhile the central bank’s hard currency reserves are vanishing at an alarming rate — just last week it spent $2.7 billion. That’s a lot given Turkish reserves are just $86 billion, or  four months of imports.  Current central bank policy is  ”an open door to reserve depletion,” Societe Generale strategist Guillaume Salomon says,  noting that despite the massive dollar sales,  the lira is not far off record lows hit earlier this month.

Turkey’s central bank: still a slippery customer

The Turkish central bank has done it again, wrong-footing monetary policy predictions with its latest interest rate moves.

On Thursday, the central bank hiked its overnight lending rate by widening the interest rate corridor. While most analysts correctly predicted the central bank would leave its policy rate unchanged, few foresaw the overnight lending rate hike to 12.5 percent from 9 percent.

As Societe Generale’s emerging markets strategist Gaelle Blanchard put it: ”They managed to find another trick. This one we were not expecting.”

Emerging consumers’ pain to spell gains for stocks in staples

Food and electricity bills are high. The cost of filling up at the petrol station isn’t coming down much either. The U.S. economy is in trouble and suddenly the job isn’t as secure as it seemed. Maybe that designer handbag and new car aren’t such good ideas after all.

That’s the kind of decision millions of middle class consumers in developing countries are facing these days. That’s bad news for purveyors of everything from jeans to iphones  who have enjoyed double-digit profits thanks to booming sales in emerging markets.

Brazil is the best example of how emerging market consumers are tightening their belts. Thanks to their spending splurge earlier this decade, Brazilian consumers on average see a quarter of their income disappear these days on debt repayments. People’s credit card bills can carry interest rates of up to 45 percent. The central bank is so worried about the growth outlook it stunned markets with a cut in interest rates this week even though inflation is running well above target

Jean-Claude Trichet, EM c.bankers’ new friend

What a friend emerging central bankers have in Jean-Claude Trichet. Last month the ECB boss stopped euro bears in their tracks by unexpectedly signalling concern over inflation in the euro zone. Since then the euro has pushed steadily higher  — against the dollar of course, but also against emerging currencies. The bet now is that interest rates – and the yield on euro investments — will start rising some time this year, possibly as early as this summer.

That’s ptrichetrovided some relief to central banks in the developing world who have struggled for months to stem the relentless rise in their currencies.

Being short euro versus emerging currencies was a popular investment theme at the start of 2011, partly because of EM strength but also because of the euro zone debt crisis. “What that also means is that people who were short euro against emerging currencies had to get out of those positions really fast,” says Manik Narain, a strategist at investment bank UBS. Check out the Turkish lira — that’s fallen around 5 percent against the euro since Trichet’s Jan 13 comments and is at the highest in over a year. South Africa’s rand is down 6 percent too. Moves in other crosses have been less dramatic but the euro’s star is definitely in the ascendant. The short EM trade versus the euro  has more room to run, Narain reckons.