Global Investing

Corruption and business potential sometimes go together

By Alice Baghdjian

Uzbekistan, Bangladesh and Vietnam found themselves cheered and chided this week.

The Corruption Perceptions Index, compiled by Berlin-based watchdog Transparency International, measured the perceived levels of public sector corruption in 176 countries and all three found their way into the bottom half of the study.

Uzbekistan shared 170th place with Turkmenistan (a higher ranking denotes higher perceived corruption levels) . Vietnam was ranked 123th, tied with countries like Sierra Leone and Belarus, while Bangladesh was 144th.

Those findings are unlikely to surprise. But consider this. All three countries are said to boast some of the best prospects for business and growth over the next two decades. That’s according to the findings of a separate study released in the same week.

Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Bangladesh made it into the top 20 countries with the best growth prospects for business, outranking the United States, a study by political risk consultancy Maplecroft found.

Weekly Radar: China and Fed steal the show

Even though US cliff talks remain unresolved, many of the edges have been taken off seasonal yearend jitters elsewhere. Euro pressures have been kept under wraps since the Greek deal,  the possibility of yet another Fed QE manoeuvre next Wednesday is back in play and a significant pulse has been recorded in the global economy via the latest PMIs – thanks in large part to China and the US service sector.US payrolls loom again tomorrow, but the picture is one of stabilisation if not full-scale recovery.

All this has kept markets pretty calm with a positive tilt as investors parse 2013. The Greek deal has proved to be a very important juncture for the euro zone, with Italian 10-year yields down yet another 14bp Wednesday-to-Wednesday. The parallel recentr lunge in Spanish yields backed up a few notches after this week’s auction disappointed some traders. Yet even here the relative ease with which a supposedly-cornered Madrid raised more than 4 billion euros for next year’s coffers keeps the financial side of their crisis, if not the economic one, in context for now at least.

Elsewhere, the past seven days saw the euro surging again – partly a result of a mega euro/Swiss jump after Credit Suisse’s decision to charge for franc deposits – negative interest rates in the cold light of day. What that also shows again this year is the danger of betting against central banks. Even though the world and it’s mother were betting against the euro against the Swiss franc all year, the SNB remains successful so far in capping the franc at 1.20. Like the ECB and the Fed – it means business. Once committed, the central banks will not change tack without a dramatic shift in thinking. Perhaps in tandem, gold has continued to drift lower.

Weekly Radar: Cliff dodging and Euro recessions

Most everything got swept up in the US election over the past week but, for all the last minute nail biting  and psephology, it was pretty much the result most people had been expecting all year. So, is there anything really to read into the market noise around the event? The rule of thumb in the runup was a pretty crude — Obama good for bonds (Fed friendly, cliff brinkmanship, growth risk) and Romney good for stocks (tax cuts, friend to capital/wealth, a cliff dodger thanks to GOP House backing and hence pro growth). And so it played out Wednesday. But in truth, it’s been fairly marginal so far. Stocks were down about 2 pct yesteray, but they’d been up 1 pct on election day for no obvious reason at all. But can anyone truly be surprised by an outcome they’d supposedly been betting on all along. (Just look at Intrade favouring Obama all the way through the runup). Maybe it’s all just risk hedging at the margins. What’s more, like all crude rules of thumb, they’re not always 100 pct accurate anyway.  Many overseas investors just could not fathom a coherent Romney economic plan anyway apart from radical political surgery on the government budget that many saw as ambiguous for growth and social stability anyhow.  Domestic investors may more understandably wring their hands about hits on dividend and income taxes, but it wasn’t clear to everyone outside that that a Romney plan was automatically going to lift national growth over time anyhow.

That said, it was striking on Wednesday that even though global funds were mostly relieved the Fed won’t now be shackled after 2014, nearly everyone still expects the fiscal cliff to be resolved by compromise. Whether that’s wishful thinking or the smartest guess remains to be seen. But, just like in Europe, it means they are at the very least going to have endure a barrage of political noise in headlines and endless scaremongering before any deal is ultimately forthcoming. Some say the nature of the GOP defeat, even with an incumbent saddled with an 8 pct unemployment rate, will force enough moderate Republicans to seek distance from Tea Party and seek compromise. But others point out that post-Sandy relief  spending may also bring the dreaded debt ceiling issue forward sooner than expected now too. All in all, the overwhelming consensus still betting on an eventual cliff dodge may be the most worrying aspect of market positioning and may be the best explanation the slightly outsize and sudden stock market reaction.

It also presupposes markets are trading solely on U.S. issues when the other world worries remain.

Weekly Radar: Earnings wobble as payrolls, BOJ, G20 eyed

Easy come, easy go. A choppy October prepares to exit on a downer – just like it arrived. World equities lost about 3 percent over the past seven, mostly on Tuesday, and reversed the previous week’s surge to slither back to early September levels. Just for the record, Tuesday was a poor imitation of the lunge this week 25 years ago – it only the worst single-day percentage loss since July and only the 10th biggest drop of the past year alone. But it was a reminder how fragile sentiment remains despite an unusually bullish, if policy-driven year.

Why the wobble? t’s hard to square the still fairly rum, or at best equivocal, incoming macro data and earnings numbers alongside year-to-date western stock market gains of 10-25%. There’s more than enough room to pare back some more of that and still leave a fairly decent year given the macro activity backdrop and we now only have about 6 full trading weeks left of 2012. So it will likely remain bumpy – not least with U.S. and Chinese leadership changes into the mix as mood music. The sheer weight of a gloomy Q3 earnings season seems to have hit home this week, with revenue declines or downgraded outlooks  – particularly in “real economy” firms such as Caterpillar, Dupont,  Intel and IBM etc – worrying many despite more decent bottom line earnings. As some investors pointed out, earnings can’t continue to beat expectations if revenues continue to wither and there are still precious few signs of an convincing economic turnaround worldwide to draw a line under the latter.

The policy-driven equity boom of the past couple of months has also been suspect to many strategists given the lack of rotation from defensive stocks to cyclicals, showing little conviction in central bank reflation policies succeeding soon even though ever more ZIRP/QE has seen something of an indiscriminate dash to any fixed income yields you care to mention – from junk to ailing sovs and now even CLOs! The bond rush has swept up an awful lot of odd stuff –  not least 10-year dollar debt from countries such as Bolivia and Zambia, whatever about Spain, and corporate junk with CCC ratings and current default rates of almost 30%! As some other funds have pointed out, another weird aspect of this has been the appetite for long duration – which doesn’t fit with any belief that reflationary policies will work on a reasonable timeframe. So, is that it? Central banks will continue to wrap everything in cotton wool for the next decade without ever succeeding in boosting growth or even inflation? Hmmm. The various U.S. growth signals are not ultra-convincing, not yet at least, but they’re not to be ignored either. Thursday’s news of a bounceback in the UK economy in Q3 also shows the prevailing stagnation narrative is not without question. And everyone seems convinced Chinese growth has troughed in Q3 –and  just look at the 66% rise in Baltic Freight prices in little over a month. The rebound in super-low equity volatility in the U.S. and Europe this week is also worth watching – though it has to be said, these gauges remain historically low about 20%.

Baton passing to the emerging markets consumer

Is there a change of sector leadership underway within emerging markets?

For years, commodities and energy delivered world-beating returns to emerging market investors. Yet in recent years there are signs of a shift, says Todd Henry, equity portfolio specialist at T.Rowe Price.

With the China tailwind no longer as strong as before demand for oil and metals will not be as robust as in the past decade, Henry says. But in China as well as elsewhere, disposable incomes have risen as a result of the fast economic growth these countries experienced in the past decade.

Check out the following two graphics from T.Rowe Price.

The first figure shows that in the ten years to December 2007, just before the global financial crisis erupted, emerging equities returned 300 percent in dollar terms. The two sectors that won the returns race in this period were energy and commodities, with dollar-based returns of around 650 percent. This is not surprising, given the enormous surge in Chinese demand for all manner of commodities, from oil to steel, as it fired up its exporters’ factories and embarked on a frenzy of infrastructure improvements.

Weekly Radar: Global PMIs; US/UK GDP; FOMC; Heavy earnings, inc Apple

Whoosh! The gloomy start to the final quarter seems to have been swept away again by the beginnings of a half decent earnings season stateside – at least against the backdrop of dire expectations – and a steady drip feed of economic data surprises from the United States and elsewhere. Moody’s not downgrading Spain to junk has helped enormously and the betting is now that the latter will now seek and get a precautionary credit line, which would not require any bailout monies up front but still unleash the ECB on its bonds should they ever even need to – and,  given Thursday’s successful sale of 4.6 billion euros of 3-, 5- and 10-year Spanish government bonds,  they clearly don’t at the moment (almost 90% of Spain’s  original 2012 borrowing target has now been raised). What’s more, Greek euro exit forecasts have been put back or reduced meantime by big euro zone debt bears such as Citi and others, again helping ease tensions and defuse perceived near-term euro tail risks. Obama’s bounceback in the presidential polls after the latest debate may be helping too by rolling back speculation that a clean sweep rather than a more likely gridlock was a possible outcome from Nov 6 polls. China Q3 GDP came in as expected with a marginal slowdown to 7.4% and signs of growth troughing — all adding to the picture of relative calm.

So, in the absence of the world ending in a puff of smoke – and the latest week of data, earnings and reports suggests not – we’re left with a view of a hobbled but stabilising world economy aided by hyper-easy monetary policy that is bolting core interest rates to zero. Tactical investors then, at least,  are being drawn into the considerable pricing anomalies/temptations across bond and credit markets as well as the giant equity risk premia and regional price skews.

The upshot has been a sharp bounceback of some 2.5% in world equities since last Wednesday, falling sovereign bond spreads in euroland and in credit and emerging markets, a higher euro and financial volatility gauges still rock bottom. Dax vol, for example, is at its lowest in well over a year. Year to date, developed market equities are now scaling 15-20%! Germany stands out with gains of some 25%, but the US too is homing in on 20%. These are extremely punchy numbers in any year, but are doubly remarkable in year of so much handringing about the future. So much so, you have to wonder if the remainder of the year will be remain so clement. That doesn’t mean another shock or run for the hills, but shaving off the extremes of that perhaps?

Weekly Radar: Q3 earnings; China GDP; EU summit; US debate

Markets have turned glum again as October gets underway and the northern winter looms, weighed down by a relentless grind of negative commentary even if there’s been little really new information to digest. The net loss on MSCI’s world stock market index over the past seven days is a fairly restrained 1.5%, though we are now back down to early September levels. Debt markets have been better behaved. The likes of Spain’s 10-year yields are virtually unchanged over the past week amid all the rolling huff and puff from euroland. The official argument that Spain doesn’t need a bailout at these yield levels is backed up by analysis that shows even at the peak of the latest crisis in July average Spanish sovereign borrowing costs were still lower than pre-crisis days of 2006.  But with ratings downgrades still in the mix, it looks like a bit of a cat-and-mouse game for some time yet. Ten-year US Treasury yields, meantime, have nudged back higher again after the strong September US employment report and are hardly a sign of suddenly cratering world growth. What’s more, oil’s back up above $115 per barrel, with the broader CRB commodities index actually up over the past week. This contains no good news for the world, but if there are genuinely new worries about aggregate world demand, then not everyone in the commodity world has been let in on the ‘secret’ yet.

So why are we all shivering in our boots again? Perennial euro fears aside for a sec, the latest narratives go four ways at the moment. 1) The IMF’s World Economic Outlook (WEO) downgraded world growth and its Financial Stability report issued stern warnings on the extent of European bank deleveraging 2) a pretty lousy earnings season is just kicking off stateside, 3)  U.S. presidential election polls are neck and neck again and unnerving some people fearful of a clean sweep by Republicans and possible threats to the Federal Reserve’s independence and its hyper-active monetary policy 4) it’s a new quarter after a punchy Q3 and there’s not much new juice left to add to fairly hefty year-to-date gains. Maybe it’s a bit of all of the above.

But like so much of the year, whether the up moments or the downers, there’s pretty good reason to be wary of prevailing narratives.

Carry currencies to tempt central banks

Central bankers as carry traders? Why not.

As we wrote here yesterday, FX reserves at global central banks may be starting to rise again. That’s a consequence of a pick up in portfolio investment flows in recent weeks and is likely to continue after the U.S. Fed’s announcement of its QE3 money-printing programme.

According to analysts at ING, the Fed’s decision to restart its printing presses will first of all increase liquidity (some of which will find its way into central bank coffers). Second, it also tends to depress volatility and lower volatility encourages the carry trade. Over the next 12 months these  two themes will combine as global reserve managers twin their efforts to keep their money safe and still try to make a return, ING predicts, dubbing it a positive carry story.

The first problem is that yields are abysmal on traditional reserve currencies. That means any reserve managers keen to boost returns will try to diversify from the  dollar, euro, sterling and yen that constitute 90 percent of global reserves. Back in the spring of 2009 when the Fed scaled up QE1, its move depressed the dollar and drove reserve managers towards the euro, which was the most liquid alternative at the time. ING writes:

No BRIC without China

Jim O’ Neill, creator of the BRIC investment concept, has been exasperated by repeated calls in the past to exclude one or another country from the quartet, based on either economic growth rates, equity performance or market structure. In the early years, Brazil’s eligibility for BRIC was often questioned due to its anaemic growth; then it was the turn of oil-dependent Russia. Over the past couple of years many turned their sights on India due to its reform stupor. They have suggested removing it and including Indonesia in its place.

All these detractors should focus on China.

China’s validity in BRIC has never been questioned. Aside from the fact that BRI does not really have a ring, that’s not surprising. China’s growth rates plus undoubted political and economic clout on the international stage put  it head and shoulders above the other three. And after all, it is Chinese demand which drives a large part of the Russian and Brazilian economies.

But its equity markets have not performed for years.

This year, Russian and Indian stocks are up around 20 percent in dollar terms while China has gained 9 percent and Brazil 3 percent. In local currency terms however China is among the worst performing emerging markets, down 5 percent. Brazil has risen 9 percent.

Olympic medal winners — and economies — dissected

The Olympic medals have all been handed out and the athletes are on their way home.  Which countries surpassed expectations and which ones did worse than expected? And did this have anything to do with the state of their economies?

An extensive Goldman Sachs report entitled Olympics and Economics  (a regular feature before each Olympic Games) predicted before the Games kicked off that the United States would top the tally with 36 gold medals. It also said the top 10 would include five G7 countries (the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy), two BRICs (China and Russia), one of the developing countries it dubs Next-11  (South Korea), and one additional developed and emerging market. These would be Australia and Ukraine, it said.

Close enough, except that Hungary took the place of Ukraine as the emerging economy in the Top 10 and the United States actually took 46 gold medals — more than Goldman had predicted.