Global Investing

Retail volte face confirms India as BRIC that disappoints

Jim O’Neill, the Goldman Sachs banker who coined the term BRICs to capture the fast-growing emerging-markets quartet of Brazil, Russia, India and China,  has fingered India as the BRIC that has disappointed the most over the past decade in terms of reforms, FDI and productivity. New Delhi’s latest decision to put on hold a landmark reform of its retail sector will only confirm this view.

The government’s backtracking on plans to allow foreign investment in supermarkets will not surprise those accustomed to New Delhi’s record on key economic reforms. But it means India’s weak performance on FDI receipts will continue and that’s bad news for the worsening balance of payments deficit.  Speaking of the retail volte face, O’Neill said: ”They shouldn’t raise people’s hopes of FDI and then in a week, say, ‘we’re only joking’”.

Various Indian lobby groups that oppose the reforms contend that foreign giants such as Wal-Mart and Tesco will kill off the livelihoods of millions of small traders.

Not so, according to  a study by the Vale Columbia Centre for Sustainable Economic Development, a think-tank that studies FDI trends. The Centre’s Nandita Dasgupta notes that many emerging economies that have allowed 100-percent foreign participation in retail since the early 1990s have seen encouraging results. These include Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Russia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. In China, FDI in retail was permitted 20 years ago. But there is no evidence the huge investments have hurt mom-and-pop operations or domestic retail chains, Dasgupta says. In fact, since 2004 the number of small Chinese outlets has increased to around 2.5 million from 1.9 million. Between 1992 and 2001, employment in retail and wholesale almost doubled to 54 million.

In Indonesia, where FDI to retail was liberalised 10 years ago, 90 percent of the business remains with small traders, Dasgupta points out.

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.

Sparks still flying over Harbin Electric

Emotions continued to run hot on Tuesday over Harbin Electric, the small-cap U.S. listed Chinese motor manufacturer, a week after a year-long management buyout process came to an end.

The company was finally taken private in a deal that paid $24 a share, but not before short-selling bloggers pummeled the stock to a 52-week low of $5.82 on June 16.

Short sellers including Andrew Left of Citron Research and researcher/journalist Roddy Boyd published research claiming the company was being run fraudulently. Harbin was one of many Chinese companies listed in North America that came under scrutiny earlier in the year.

The power of Chinese international tourists

These days, streets of London, Paris, Tokyo and even Santorini are filled with Chinese tourists. In London’s Heathrow Airport Terminal 3, the queue for the tax refund is so long that one has to wait 3 hours to get his or her tax refund (my mother, on her recent trip to the UK, had to give up in the end).

But the potential economic impact of Chinese international tourists — estimated to be 100 million by 2020, or 6.4 percent of global outbound tourists according to United Nations World Tourism Organisation — is something that could boost sluggish consumer spending in the West.

Hong Kong and Macau, currently the top destinations for Chinese tourists, are reaping the benefits from Chinese tourists thanks to their rich offering of luxury goods. In Hong Kong alone, Chinese tourists spent HK$87 billion ($11 billion) last year — fivefold compared with 2000 — with shopping accounting for 74 percent of their total spending.

Who is in greatest need to reform pension?

This year’s fall in global equities (down nearly 20 percent at one point) and tumbling bond yields, along with the euro zone sovereign debt crisis, are sowing the seeds for a new financial crisis – in the pension funds industry.

But which country is in the greatest need of pension reform?

Everyone, you may say, but a new study from Allianz Global Investors finds that Greece, India, China and Thailand need to reform their pension systems the most.

The study, which charts the relative sustainability of national pension systems in 44 countries, shows that India and China — two of the fastest growing emerging economies — suffer from low pension coverage and lack of adequate measures to improve the situation.

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.

from Jeremy Gaunt:

Splendour in China and other branding

MSCI, the index provider used by leading investors across the world, has decided it needs a name change in Greater China. In a news release this morning the firm (which is no longer owned by Morgan Stanley, the MS in its title) said its Chinese business would henceforth be branded as  MSCI 明晟.

When I tweeted this @reutersJeremyG, one wag suggested  this meant "MSCI small-ladder-bigger-ladder-books-on-a-picnic-table", which is what it indeed looks like to an untrained eye (like mine).  But it is actually Ming Sheng, which  apparently is supposed to symbolise "brightness and transparency, prosperity and splendour".

That might sound a little flowery for an index provider, but is arguably apt given the role such indices have in opening up markets to investment.

If China catches a cold…

China has defied predictions of a hard economic landing for some time now so it is somewhat unsettling to see  investors positioning for a sharp slowdown in the world’s second-largest economy.

Over the last 10 years, the world has become accustomed to Chinese annual GDP growth of above 9 percent. A seemingly insatiable demand for commodities from soya beans to iron ore has catapulted the Asian giant to near the top of the global trade table. China is the biggest trading partner for countries on nearly every continent, from Angola to Australia.

But many are now fretting that an unhappy coincidence between stuttering global demand and domestic strains in the property and banking sectors could knock Chinese growth to below 7 percent (the level commonly identified as a ‘hard landing’), with grave implications for the rest of the world.

We’re all in the same boat

The withering complexity of a four-year-old global financial crisis — in the euro zone, United States or increasingly in China and across the faster-growing developing world — is now stretching the minds and patience of even the most clued-in experts and commentators. Unsurprisingly, the average householder is perplexed, increasingly anxious and keen on a simpler narrative they can rally around or rail against. It’s fast becoming a fertile environment for half-baked conspiracy theories, apocalypse preaching and no little political opportunism. And, as ever, a tempting electoral ploy is to convince the public there’s some magic national solution to problems way beyond borders.

For a populace fearful of seemingly inextricable connections to a wider world they can’t control, it’s not difficult to see the lure of petty nationalism, protectionism and isolationism. Just witness national debates on the crisis in Britain, Germany, Greece or Ireland and they are all starting to tilt toward some idea that everyone may be better off on their own — outside a flawed single currency in the case of Germany, Greece and Ireland and even outside the European Union in the case of some lobby groups in Britain. But it’s not just a debate about a European future, the U.S.  Senate next week plans to vote on legisation to crack down on Chinese trade due to currency pegging despite the interdependency of the two economies.  And there’s no shortage of voices saying China should somehow stand aloof from the Western financial crisis, even though its spectacular economic ascent over the past decade was gained largely on the back of U.S. and European demand.

Despite all the nationalist rumbling, the crisis illustrates one thing pretty clearly – the world is massively integrated and interdependent in a way never seen before in history. And globalised trade and finance drove much of that over the past 20 years. However desireable you may think it is in the long run, unwinding that now could well be catastrophic. A financial crisis in one small part of the globe will now quickly affect another through a blizzard of systematic banking and cross-border trade links systemic links.

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