Global Investing

Emerging Policy-Hawkish Poland to join the doves

All eyes on Poland’s central bank this week to see if it will finally join the monetary easing trend underway in emerging markets. Chances are it will, with analysts polled by  Reuters unanimous in predicting a 25 basis point rate cut when the central bank meets on Wednesday. Data has been weak of late and signs are Poland will struggle even to achieve 2 percent GDP growth in 2013.

How far Polish rates will fall during this cycle is another matter altogether. Markets are betting on 100 basis points over the next 6 months but central bank board members will probably be cautious. Inflation is one reason  along with the  the danger of excessive zloty weakness that could hit holders of foreign currency mortgages. One source close the bank tells Reuters that 75 or even 50 bps would be appropriate, while another said:

“The council is very cautious and current market expectations for rate cuts are premature and excessive.”

That would appear logical for a central bank whose mindset is essentially hawkish and which raised interest rates just six months ago to combat inflation. Goldman Sachs said in a note that it reckons any cut will be reluctantly made:

Opposition to more aggressive easing will likely remain strong owing to still high inflation and near-term risks relating to higher food and energy prices, and the large weight attached to the inflation objective.

Emerging EU and the end of “naked” CDS

JP Morgan has an interesting take on the stupendous recent rally in the credit default swaps (CDS) of countries such as Poland and Hungary which are considered emerging markets, yet are members of the European Union. Analysts at the bank link the moves to the EU’s upcoming ban on “naked” sovereign CDS trades — trade in CDS by investors who don’t have ownership of the underlying government debt. The ban which comes into effect on Nov. 1, was brought in during 2010 after EU politicians alleged that hedge funds short-selling Greek CDS had exacerbated the crisis.

JP Morgan notes that the sovereign CDS of a group of emerging EU members (Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland and Romania) have tightened 100 basis points since the start of September, while a basket of emerging peers including Brazil, Indonesia and Turkey saw CDS tighten just 39 bps. See the graphic below:

 

Spread tightening was of a similar magnitude in both groups before this period, JPM says (the implication being that traders have been selling some of their “naked” CDS holdings in these markets ahead of the ban):

This week in EM, expect more doves

With the U.S. Fed having cranked up its printing presses, there seems little to stop emerging central banks from extending their own rate cut campaigns this week.

The most interesting meeting promises to be in the Czech Republic. We saw some extraordinary verbal intervention last week from Governor Miroslav Singer, implying not only a rate cut but also recourse to “unconventional” monetary loosening tools. Of the 21 analysts polled by Reuters, 18 are expecting a rate cut on Thursday to a record low 0.25 percent.  Indeed, in a world of currency wars, a rate cut could be just what the recession-mired Czech economy needs. But Singer’s deputy, Moimir Hampl,  has muddled the waters by refuting the need for any unusual policies or even rate cuts.  Expect a heated debate (forward markets are siding with Singer and pricing a rate cut).

Hungary is a closer call, with 16 out of 21 analysts in a Reuters poll predicting an on-hold decision. The central bank board (MPC) is split too. Analysts at investment bank SEB point out that last month’s somewhat surprising rate cut was down to the four central bank board members appointed by the government. These four outvoted Governor Andras Simor and his two deputies who had favoured holding rates steady, given rising inflation. (Inflation is running at 6 percent, double the target).  That could happen again, given the government just last week reiterated the need for “lower interest rates and ample credit.  So SEB analysts write:

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.

10%-plus returns: only on emerging market debt

It’s turning out to be a great year for emerging debt. Returns on sovereign dollar bonds have topped 10 percent already this year on the benchmark EMBI Global index, compiled by JP Morgan.  That’s better than any other fixed income or equity category, whether in emerging or developed markets. Total 2012 returns could be as much as 12 percent, JPM reckons.

Debt denominated in emerging currencies has done less well . Still, the main index for local debt, JPM’s GBI-EM index, has  racked up a very respectable 7.6 percent return year-to-date in dollar terms, rebounding from a fall to near zero at the start of June.  Take a look at the following graphic which shows EMBIG returns on top:

Fund flows to emerging fixed income have been robust. EPFR Global says the sector took in  $16.2 billion year to date.  JPM, which tracks a broader investor set including Japanese investment trusts, estimates the total at $43 billion, not far off its forecast of $50-60 billion for the whole of 2012.

The (CDS) cost of being in the euro

What’s the damage from being a member of the euro? German credit default swaps, used to insure risk, have spiralled to record highs over 130 basis points, three times the level of a year ago amid the escalating brouhaha over Spain’s banks and Greek elections. U.S. CDS meanwhile remain around 45 bps. That means it costs 45,000 to insure $10 million worth of U.S. investments for five years, compared to $135,000 for Germany. (click the graphics to enlarge)

A smaller but similarly interesting anomaly can be found in central Europe. Take close neighbours, the Czech and Slovak Republics who are so similar they were once the same country. Both have small open  economies, reliant on producing goods for export to Germany.

The difference is that Slovakia joined the euro in 2009.

Back then, with the world grappling with the fallout from the Lehman crisis, Slovakia appeared at a distinct advantage versus the Czech Republic. At the height of the crisis in February 2009, Czech 5-year CDS exploded to 300 bps, well above Slovakia’s levels. But slowly that premium has eroded. A year ago CDS for both countries were quoted at similar levels of around 70 bps.  Now the Czech CDS are quoted at 125 bps, having risen along with everything else, but Slovak CDS have jumped to 250 bps, data from Markit shows. (bonds have not reacted in the same manner — Slovak 1-year debt still yields around 0.8 percent versus 1.4 percent for the Czech Republic; similarly German yields have fallen to zero; for an explanation see here).

In defence of co-investing with the state

It’s hard to avoid state-run companies if you are investing in emerging markets — after all they make up a third of the main EM equity index, run by MSCI. But should one be avoiding shares in these firms?

Absolutely yes, says John-Paul Smith at Deutsche Bank. Smith sees state influence as the biggest factor dragging down emerging equity performance in the longer term. They will underperform, he says, not just because governments run companies such as Gazprom or the State Bank of India in their own interests (rather than to benefit shareholders)  but also because of their habit of interfering in the broader economy.  Shares in state-owned companies performed well during the crisis, Smith acknowledges, but attributes emerging markets’ underperformance since mid-2010 to fears over the state’s increasing influence in developing economies. (t

Jonathan Garner at Morgan Stanley has a diametrically opposing view, favouring what he calls “co-investing with the state”.  Garner estimates a basket of 122 MSCI-listed companies that were over 30 percent state-owned outperformed the emerging markets index by 260 percent since 2001 and by 33 percent after the 2008 financial crisis on a weighted average basis. The outperformance persisted even when adjusted for sectors, he says (state-run companies tend to be predominantly in the commodity sector).

Currency rally drives sizzling returns on emerging local debt

Emerging market bonds denominated in local currencies enjoyed a record January last month with JP Morgan’s GBI-EM Global index returning around 8 percent in dollar terms. Year-to-date, returns are over 9.5 percent.

 

 

This is mainly down to spectacular gains on emerging currencies such as the Mexican peso and Turkish lira which have surged 7-10 percent against the dollar and euro this year.  Analysts say the currency component of this year’s returns has been around 7 percent, meaning any portfolio hedged for currency risk would have garnered returns of just 2.5 percent.

The gains come as good news to investors licking their wounds after the index ended 2011 in negative territory. A mid-year rout on emerging markets pushed up local bond yields, often by hundreds of basis points and sent many currencies to multi-year lows.

Emerging markets facing current account pain

Emerging markets may yet pay dearly for the sins of their richer cousins. While recent financial crises have been rooted in the United States and euro zone, analysts at Credit Agricole are questioning whether a full-fledged emerging markets crisis could be on the horizon, the first since the series of crashes from Argentina to Turkey over a decade ago. The concern stems from the worsening balance of payments picture across the developing world and the need to plug big  funding shortfalls.

The above chart from Credit Agricole shows that as recently as 2006, the 34 big emerging economies ran a cumulative current account surplus of 5.2 percent of GDP. By end-2011 that had dwindled to 1.7 percent of GDP. More worrying yet is the position of “deficit” economies. The current account gap here has widened to 4 percent of GDP, more than double 2006 levels and the biggest since the 1980s. The difficulties are unlikely to disappear this year, Credit Agricole says,  predicting India, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Vietnam, Poland and Romania to run current account deficits of over 4 percent this year.

Some fiscally profligate countries such as India may have mainly themselves to blame for their plight. But in general, emerging nations after the Lehman crisis were forced to embark on massive spending to buck up domestic consumption and offset the collapse of Western export markets. For this reason, many were unable to raise interest rates or did so too late. As the woes of the Turkish lira and Indian rupee showed last year, the yawning funding gap leaves many countries horribly exposed to the vagaries of global risk appetite.

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.