Global Investing

On the rocky road to change in China

One thing investors in China thought they could rely on was a steady, if unelected, hand.

Now Chongqing’s political head Bo Xilai has fallen, and in pretty spectacular fashion too. His wife has been accused of murdering a British businessman and his brother had to step down from the board of Everbright Bank. There are rumours the handover of power in the Politburo scheduled for this autumn, when seven out of nine of Chinese leaders are going to retire, could be delayed as the intrigue unfolds.

So what does this mean for investing in the Middle Kingdom? Xi Jinping is tipped for the top, and presuming he makes it to the transition unscathed, one of his tasks will be continuing the internationalisation of the renminbi. 

Xi has something of a reputation as a reformer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll let China’s currency float freely.

John Adams, director of HR China and former manager for China at the Bank of England, said this about Xi at a talk in London this week:

For luxury, all that glitters is gold

The year has certainly got off to a good start for luxury companies, with firms like LVMH, home to Louis Vuitton, reporting stellar results for the first quarter. No wonder – according to CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets analyst Aaron Fischer, resurgent emerging market consumers are fuelling a strong growth in the global luxury goods market. Growth in the sector was  double its long-term average last year, Fischer says.  He has updated his bullish 2011 report “Dipped in Gold” and is particularly optimistic on established brands, predicting global growth of 10% in 2012, slowing slightly from last year’s 14% rise:

However, we expect leading brands to continue to outperform, rising 15%, compared with the street’s estimate of 12%, which seems far too low.

We look for emerging market consumers, especially when travelling, to drive robust sector growth in the medium term, posting a 15% demand compound annual growth rate in the next 10 years.

Three snapshots for Wednesday

Euro zone factories sank further into decline last month but manufacturers in Asia upped their tempo to meet growing demand from the United States and China, exposing a widening gulf between Europe and the rest of the world.

Unemployment in the euro zone rose to a 15-year high of 10.9 percent in March – as this chart shows the level of youth unemployment paints a worrying picture:

U.S. private employers hired a far fewer than expected 119,000 people in April, the smallest gain since September 2011, a report showed on Wednesday, adding to concerns that the economy has lost some of its momentum. This chart shows the relationship between the first release of ADP figures and non-farm payrolls which are released on Friday.

Where will the FDI flow?

For years the four mighty BRIC nations have grabbed increasing shares of world investment flows. But the coming years may not be so kind.  These countries bring up the bottom of the Economic Freedom Index (EFI) for 2012. Compiled by Washington D.C.-based think-tank The Heritage Foundation the EFI measures 10 freedoms —  from property rights to entrepreneurship – and according to a note out today from RBS economists, there is a strong positive link between a country’s EFI score and the amount of FDI (foreign direct investment) it can secure. So the more “free” a country, the more FDI inflows it can expect to receive — that’s what an RBS analysis of 2002-2008 investment flows shows.

So back to the BRICs. Or BRICS if you add in South Africa (part of the political grouping though not yet included in the BRIC investment concept used by fund managers). The following graphic shows Russia languishing at the bottom of the EFI, China just above Russia and India third from bottom.  Brazil is sixth from bottom while South Africa ranks two places higher.

At the other end of the spectrum is tiny Singapore. Its EFI score is double that of Russia and between 2002-2008 it attracted FDI equivalent to 50 percent of its economy. Russia in contrast saw negative net FDI (outflows exceeded inflows)

Turning point for lagging emerging stock returns?

Over the past year emerging markets have broadly lagged an upswing in global equity markets, yielding cumulative returns of 4.5 percent since last August. That’s less than half the return developed markets have provided (see graphic below).

But there are two reasons why a  turning point may be approaching. First the positioning. Foreign holdings of emerging equities have plunged in the past six months and according to research by HSBC they are at the lowest in four years. That’s especially the case in Asia, where fund managers have been jittery about China’s growth slowdown.

International funds appear to have responded aggressively to signs of a slowdown in emerging market economies, the bank observes, adding:

Three snapshots for Thursday

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits slipped 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 386,000, the Labor Department said. The prior week’s figure was revised up to 388,000 from the previously reported 380,000.

The four-week moving average for new claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends, rose 5,500 to 374,750.

Brazil’s central bank raised its key interest rate for a fourth straight time on Wednesday as it seeks to rein in persistent inflation, and indicated more rate increases could be on the way soon. This follows a 50bps rate cut from India earlier in the week.

from MacroScope:

Foreign investors still buying American

Overseas investors have yet to sour towards U.S. assets despite high government debt levels, according the latest figures on capital flows.

Including short-dated assets such as bills, foreigners snapped up $107.7 billion in U.S. securities in February, following a downwardly revised $3.1 billion inflow for January. At the same time, the United States attracted a net long-term capital inflow of just $10.1 billion in February after drawing an upwardly revised $102.4 billion in the first month of 2012.

The data showed China boosted purchases of U.S. government debt for a second month in February, but also some waning of demand for longer-dated securities.

March bulls give way to April bears in emerging markets

The dust has settled on a scintillating first quarter for emerging markets but the cross-asset rally of the first three months has already run out of steam. A survey by Societe Generale of 69 EM investors shows that over half are bearish — at least for the near-term.

This marks quite a turn-around from the March survey, when 80 percent of investors declared themselves bullish on emerging markets. What’s more, investors are currently running very little risk and 47 percent of hedge fund respondents (these make up half the survey) feel they are over-invested in EM.  (The following graphic shows the findings — click on it to enlarge)

Almost a quarter of the hedge fund and real money investors are neutral tactically on the market, compared to just 4.5 percent last month. Serious optimism has dried up, SocGen commented:

Three snapshots for Friday

JPMorgan profit beats expectations:

In China the annual rate of GDP growth in the first quarter slowed to 8.1 percent from 8.9 percent in the previous three months, the National Bureau of Statistics said on Friday, below the 8.3 percent consensus forecast of economists polled by Reuters.

Italian industrial output was weaker than expected in February, falling 0.7 percent after a revised 2.6 percent fall the month before, data showed on Friday. On a work-day adjusted year-on-year basis, output in February fell 6.8 percent, compared to a revised 4.6 percent decline in January.

No hard landing for Chinese real estate

The desperate days when Chinese property developers offered free cars as an inducement to homebuyers look to be over.

Sales and earnings figures indicate some of the gloom is lifting as developers have enjoyed a second straight month of rising sales. Vanke, China’s biggest developer by sales, said last week that March sales had risen 24 percent year on year, while  2011 profits rose 30 percent. Another firm, China Overseas Land, posted a 21.5 percent profit rise last year.

The mood is reflected in stock prices. While the Shanghai shares index has risen less than 5  percent this year,  a sub-index of Chinese property companies has risen 13 percent. Shares in Vanke and COL are up 13 percent and 22 percent respectively. A Reuters poll of fund  managers showed that investors had upped their weighting for property stocks to 10.9 percent at the end of March, the highest level in two years.