Global Investing

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:

This time, however, we are not looking for the same kind of euro pick-up that we saw in 2009. FX reserve managers typically invest in securities rated AA or higher. Even if they extend durations out to the 5-year area of sovereign curves, an average of AA/AAA Eurozone yields only pays 0.75% – exactly the same as Treasuries.5-year UK gilts are not much better at 0.9 % while Japan pays a measly 0.2% on 5-year bonds.

Instead ING analysts reckon FX reserve managers will go for currencies such as the Australian and Canadian dollars. Thanks to slightly better yields, and large, liquid bond markets,  a carry basket invested in the Australian, Canadian, Norwegian and Swedish currencies and funded out of the dollar, euro, sterling and yen will have an annualised carry pick up of 1.6%, the analysts say. That sounds pretty modest but according to ING, FX outperformance can deliver returns of over 10% on this basket. They write:

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.

Aussie: reserve managers’ new favourite

Lucky Australia. In a world of slowing economic growth its central bank today raised forecasts for 2012 GDP growth by a half point to 3.5 percent. That’s down to a mining boom, driven of course by China. But there’s a downside. Australia’s currency, the dollar (or affectionately, the Aussie), has steadily risen in recent years, and is up 3 percent versus the U.S. dollar this year. Unsurprisingly, the Reserve Bank of Australia tempered its good news on growth with a warning over the Aussie’s gains.

Analysts at Credit Agricole note that the Aussie’s gains this year have come in tandem with a rise in Japan’s yen. That in itself would have been highly unusual in the past: the yen is a so-called safe haven, the currency investors run to when all else is selling off, while the Aussie is a commodity currency, one that does well when world growth is looking good and risk appetite is high. CA analysts explain thus:

The role of the (Aussie) is probably changing from a traditional commodity currency to an increasingly attractive reserve currency.

Power failures shine light on India’s woes

Half of India’s 1.2 billion people have been without power today,  bringing transport, factories and offices to a grinding halt for the second day in a row and sparking rage amongst the sweltering population. That’s embarrassing enough for a country that prides itself as  a member of the BRIC quartet of big emerging powerhouses along with Brazil, Russia and China.  But the outages will also hit economic growth which is already at 10-year lows. And the power failures, highlighting India’s woeful infrastructure, bode poorly for the government’s plans to step up manufacturing and lure more foreign companies to the factory sector.

India urgently needs to increase production and exports of manufactured goods. After all, software or pharma exports do not create jobs for a huge and largely unskilled population. India should be making and selling toys, clothes, shoes –- the things that helped lift hundreds of millions of Chinese, Taiwanese and Koreans  out of poverty and fuelled the current account surpluses in these countries.  At present, manufacturing provides less than 16 percent of India’s gross domestic product (30 percent in China, 25 percent in South Korea and Taiwan)  but the government wants to raise that to 26 percent by 2022.  Trade minister Anand Sharma, in London last week, for a pre-Olympics conference, was eloquent on the plan to boost manufacturing exports to plug the current account gap:

In coming decades, India will be transformed into a major manufacturing hub of the world.

More EM central banks join the easing crew

Taiwan and Philippines have joined the easing crew. Taiwan cut interbank lending rates for the first time in 33 months on Friday while Philippines lowered the rate it pays banks on short-term special deposits. Hardly surprising. Given South Koreas’s shock rate cut on Thursday, its first in over three years, and China’s two rate cuts in quick succession, the spread of monetary easing across Asia looks inevitable. Markets are now betting the Reserve Bank of India will also cut rates in July.

And not just in Asia. Brazil last week cut rates for the eighth straight time  and Russia’s central bank, while holding rates steady,  amended its language to signal it was amenable to changing its policy stance if required.

Worries about a growth collapse are clearly gathering pace. So how much room do central banks have to cut rates? Compared with Europe or the United States, certainly a lot.  And with the exception of Indonesia and Philippines, interest rates in most countries are well above 2009 crisis lows.  But Deutsche Bank analysts, who applied a variation of the Taylor rule (a monetary policy parameter stipulating how much nominal interest rates can be changed relative to inflation or output), conclude that in Asia, only Vietnam and Thailand have much room to cut rates. Malaysia and China have less scope to do so and the others not at all (Their model did not work well for India).

Next Week: Big Black Cloud

Following are notes from our weekly editorial planning meeting:

Not unlike this year’s British “summer”, the gloom is now all pervasive. Not panicky mind, just gloomy. And there is a significant difference where markets are concerned at least. The former involves surprise and being wrongfooted — but latter has been slow realisation that what were once extreme views on the depth of the credit swamp are fast becoming consensus thinking. The conclusion for many now is that we’re probably stuck in this mire for several more years – anywhere between 5 and 20 years, depending on your favoured doom-monger. Yet, the other thing is that markets also probably positioned in large part for that perma-funk — be it negative yields on core government debt or euro zone equities now with half the p/e ratios of US counterparts. In short, the herd has already  hunkered down and finds it hard to see any horizon. Those who can will resort to short-term tactical plays based on second-guessing government and central bank policy responses (there will likely be more QE or related actions stateside eventually despite hesitancy in the FOMC minutes  and Fed chief Bernanke will likely give a glimpse of that thinking in his congressional testimony next week); or hoping to surf mini econ cycles aided by things like cheaper energy; or hoping to spot one off corporate success stories like a new Apple or somesuch.

So has all hope been snuffed out? The reason for the relapse mid-year depression is only partly related to the political minefield frustrating a resolution of the euro crisis – in some ways, things there look more encouraging policywise than they did two months ago. It stems as much from a realization of just how broken the banks credit creation system remains – a system that had hinged heavily on extensive collateral chains that have now largely been broken or shortened and starved of acceptable high-quality collateral. Curiously, QE – by removing even more of the top quality collateral – may even be exaggerating the problem. Some even say the extreme shortage of this quality “collateral” may require more, not less, government debt in the US and UK and would also benefit from a pooling of euro debt  – but everyone knows how easy all that’s going to be politically.

Despite all this, global markets have remained fairly stable over the past week – in part due to policy hopes underpinning risk markets and in part because there’s not many places left to hide without losing money in “safe-haven” bunkers. World equities are down about 2 percent over the past week,  but still up more than 6 percent from early June. Risk measured by volatility indicesis a smidgen higher too. Oil has firmed back toward $100pb, disappointing everyone apart from oil exporters. Spanish and Italian 10-yr yields are a touch higher. And at least part of the caution everywhere is ae vigil ahead of Chinese Q2 GDP data on Friday – numbers that now almost rival the U.S.  monthly payrolls in global market impact.

Korea shocks with rate cut but will it work?

Emerging market investors may have got used to policy surprises from Turkey’s central bank but they don’t expect them from South Korea. Such are the times, however, that the normally staid Bank of Korea shocked investors this morning with an interest rate cut,  the first in three years.  Most analysts had expected it to stay on hold. But with the global economic outlook showing no sign of lightening, the BoK probably felt the need to try and stimulate sluggish domestic demand. (To read coverage of today’s rate cut see here).

So how much impact is the cut going to have?  I wrote yesterday about Brazil, where eight successive rate cuts have borne little fruit in terms of stimulating economic recovery. Korea’s outcome could be similar but the reasons are different. The rate cut should help Korea’s indebted household sector. But for an economy heavily reliant on exports,  lower interest rates are no panacea,  more a reassurance that, as other central banks from China to the ECB to Brazil  ease policy, the BoK is not sitting on its hands.

Nomura economist Young-Sun Kwon says:

We do not think that rate cuts will be enough to reverse the downturn in the Korean economy which is largely dependent on exports.

In Brazil, rate cuts but no economic recovery

Brazil’s central bank meets today and almost certainly will announce another half point cut in interest rates, the eighth consecutive reduction since last August. But so far there is little sign that its rate-cutting spree – the longest and most aggressive  in the developing world – is having much success in resuscitating the economy.

HSBC’s closely watched emerging markets index (EMI), released this week, shows Brazil as one of the weak links in the EM growth picture,  with sharp declines in manufacturing and export orders in the second quarter.

The government is expected to soon revise down its 4.5 percent growth projection for 2012; the central bank has already done so.  Industrial output is down, and automobile production has slumped 9 percent in the first half of 2012. Nor  it seems are record low interest rates encouraging the middle classes to take on more debt — the number of Brazilians seeking new credit fell 7.4 percent in the first half of this year, the biggest fall on record, according to credit research firm Seresa Experian.

Sell in May? Yes they did

Just how miserable a month May was for global equity markets is summed up by index provider S&P which notes that every one of the 46 markets included in its world index (BMI)  fell last month, and of these 35 posted double-digit declines. Overall, the index slumped more than 9 percent.

With Greece’s anti-austerity May 6 election result responsible for much of the red ink, it was perhaps fitting that Athens was May’s worst performer, losing almost 30 percent (it’s down 65 percent so far this year).  With euro zone growth steadily deteriorating, even German stocks fell almost 15 percent in May while Portugal, Spain and Italy were the worst performing developed markets  (along with Finland).

The best of the bunch (at least in the developed world) was the United States which fell only 6.5 percent in May and is clinging to 2012 gains of around 5 percent. S&P analyst Howard Silverblatt writes: