Global Investing

Fresh skirmishes in global currency war

Amid all the furious G7 money printing of recent years, Brazil was the first to sound the air raid siren in the “international currency war”  back in 2010 and it continues to cry foul over the past week. With its finance ministry issuing fresh warnings last night over hot-money flows being dropped by western economies on its unsuspecting exporters via currency speculation,  Brazil’s central bank then set off its own defensive anti aircraft battery with a surprisingly deep interest rate cut late Wednesday. Having tried everything from taxes on hot foreign inflows to currency market intervention, they are braced for a long war and there’s little sign of the flood of cheap money from the United States, Europe and Japan ending anytime soon. So, if  you can’t beat them, do you simply join them?

The prospect of  a deepening of this currency conflict — essentially beggar-thy-neighbour devaluation policies designed to keep countries’ share of ebbing world growth intact — was a hot topic this week for Societe Generale’s long-standing global markets bear Albert Edwards. Edwards, who represent’s SG’s “Alternative View”, reckons the biggest development in the currency battle this year has been the sharp retreat of Japan’s yen and this could well drag China into the fray if global growth continues to wither later this year. He highlighted the Japan/China standoff with the following graphic of yen and yuan nominal trade-weighted exchange rates.

Edwards goes on to say that this could, in turn, create another explosive FX standoff between China and the United States if Beijing were to consider devaluation — the opposite of what the protectionist U.S. lobby has been screaming for for years.

“We have long stated that if the Chinese economy looks to be hard landing, as we believe it will, the authorities there will actively consider renminbi devaluation, despite the political consequences of such action.”

“Clearly, the US will not respond well if China chooses to devalue. But China might argue that as its reserves are now declining there is clear downward pressure on its currency and that, after all, the US has asked it to allow market forces to have more of an influence!”

Emerging beats developed in 2012

Robust growth from the emerging market basket in January was always going to be tough to beat, but research from February’s gains show just how strong these markets are performing against developed ones, and not just from the traditional BRICs either, research from S&P Indices shows.

Egypt has been a prime example. Following a bout of political unrest and subsequent removal of Hosni Mubarak after nearly 30 years in power, Egypt’s market returns have rocketed, climbing 15.3 percent in February on top of January’s 44.3 percent take-off.

Thailand, Chile, Turkey and Colombia are also on the to-watch list as these emerging lights have all flashed double-digit returns in the first two months of this year, while all twenty emerging markets included in the S&P data were up, gaining an average of 6.62 percent, making gains in the year-to-date a mouth-watering 18.95 percent.

The missing barrels of oil

Where are the missing barrels of oil, asks Barclays Capital.

Oil inventories in the United States rose sharply last week, with demand for oil products  such as gasoline at the lowest in 15 years and crude stockpiles at the highest since last September. Americans, pinched in the wallet, are clearly cutting back on fuel use.

But worldwide, the inventories picture is different – Barclays calculates in  fact that oil stocks are around 50 million barrels below the seasonal average. And sustainable spare capacity in the market is less than 2 million barrels per day. What that means is that the world has “extremely limited buffers to absorb any one of the series of potential geopolitical mishaps.” (Barclays writes)

A big difference from the picture at the start of 2012. With the global economy weak, analysts predicted OPEC would need to pump 29.7 million barrels per day in the first quarter, more than a million barrels below what the group was actually pumping. Logic dictates inventories would have started to build.

A scar on Bahrain’s financial marketplace

Bahrain’s civil unrest — which had a one-year anniversary this week — has taken a toll on the local economy and left a deep scar on the Gulf state’s aspiration to become an international financial hub.

A new paper from the Sovereign Wealth Fund Initiative, a research programme at Center for Emerging Market Enterprises (CEME) at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, examines how the political instability of 2011 is threatening Bahrain’s efforts in the past 30 years to diversify its economy and develop the financial centre.

Asim Ali from University of Western Ontario and Shatha Al-Aswad, assistant vice president at State Street, argue in the paper that even before the revolt, Bahrain lagged in building the foundations of a truly international hub in the face of competition from Dubai and Qatar.

Emerging Markets: the love story

It is Valentine’s day and emerging markets are certainly feeling the love. Bank of America/Merrill Lynch‘s monthly investor survey shows a ‘stunning’ rise in allocations to emerging markets in February. Forty-four percent of  asset allocators are now overweight emerging market equities this month, up from 20 percent in January — the second biggest monthly jump in the past 12 years. Emerging markets are once again investors’ favourite asset class.

Looking ahead, 36 percent of respondents said they would like to overweight emerging markets more than any other region, with investors saying they would underweight all other regions, including the United States. Meanwhile investor faith in China has rebounded  with only 2 percent of investors believing the Chinese economy will weaken over the next year, down from 23 percent in January. China also regained its crown of most favoured emerging market in February.

Last year, the main EM index plummeted more than 20 percent as emerging assets fell from favour. So what is the reason for this renewed passion in 2012?

Interest rates in emerging markets – - harder to cut

Emerging market central banks and economic data are sending a message — interest rates will stay on hold for now.  There are exceptions of course.

Indonesia cut rates on Thursday but the move was unexpected and possibly the last for some time. Brazil has also signalled that rate cuts will continue.  But South Korea and Poland held rates steady this week and made hawkish noises. Peru and Chile will probably do the same.

The culprit that’s spoiling the party is of course inflation. Expectations that slowing growth will wipe out remaining price pressures have largely failed to materialise, leaving policymakers in a bind. Tensions over Iran could drive oil prices higher. Growth seems to be looking up in the United States.

Melancholia, social class and GDP forecasts in Turkey

An interesting take on GDP stats and those who make the predictions. An analysis of economic growth forecasts for several emerging markets over 2006-2010 has led Renaissance Capital economist Mert Yildiz to conclude that analysts of Turkish origin (and he is one) tend to be: 

a) far more pessimistic about their country’s economic growth outlook than the foreigners, and 

b) more pessimistic than economists from Poland, Russia, India or China are about their respective countries.

January in the rearview mirror

As January 2012 drifts into the rearview mirror as a bumper month for world markets, one way to capture the year so far is in pictures – thanks to Scott Barber and our graphics team.

The driving force behind the market surge was clearly the latest liquidity/monetary stimuli from the world’s central banks.

The ECB’s near half trillion euros of 3-year loans  has stabilised Europe’s ailing banks by flooding them with cheap cash for much lower quality collateral. In the process, it’s also opened up critical funding windows for the banks and allowed some reinvestment of the ECB loans into cash-strapped euro zone goverments. That in turn has seen most euro government borrowing rates fall. It’s also allowed other corporates to come to the capital markets and JP Morgan estimates that euro zone corporate bond sales in January totalled 46 billion euros, the same last year and split equally between financials and non-financials..

EM growth is passport out of West’s mess but has a price, says “Mr BRIC”

Anyone worried about Greece and the potential impact of the euro debt crisis on the world economy should have a chat with Jim O’Neill. O’Neill, the head of Goldman Sachs Asset Management ten years ago coined the BRIC acronym to describe the four biggest emerging economies and perhaps understandably, he is not too perturbed by the outcome of the Greek crisis. Speaking at a recent conference, the man who is often called Mr BRIC, pointed out that China’s economy is growing by $1 trillion a year  and that means it is adding the equivalent of a Greece every 4 months. And what if the market turns its guns on Italy, a far larger economy than Greece?  Italy’s economy was surpassed in size last year by Brazil, another of the BRICs, O’Neill counters, adding:

“How Italy plays out will be important but people should not exaggerate its global importance.  In the next 12 months the four BRICs will create the equivalent of another Italy.”

Emerging economies are cooling now after years of turbo-charged growth. But according to O’Neill, even then they are growing enough to allow the global economy to expand at 4-4.5 percent,  a faster clip than much of the past 30 years. Trade data for last year will soon show that Germany for the first time exported more goods to the four BRICs than to neighbouring France, he said.

Home is where the heartache is…

On a recent trip home to Singapore, I was startled to learn just how much housing prices in the city-state have risen in my absence.

A cousin said he had recently paid over S$600,000 — about US$465,000 — for a yet-to-be-built 99-year-lease flat. Such numbers are hardly out of place in any major metropolis but this was for a state-subsidised three-bedroom apartment.

Soaring housing prices have fueled popular discontent — little wonder as median monthly household incomes have stagnated at around S$5,000.