Global Investing

Anticipating the fallout from South Africa’s ratings reviews

South Africa is due ratings reviews this Friday. Chances are that the Standard & Poor’s agency will cut its BBB rating by one, or possibly even two notches.  Another agency Fitch has a stable outlook on the rating but could still choose to downgrade the rating rather than the outlook. What will be the damage?

There is undoubtedly a link between ratings and bond prices.  So a one-notch ratings downgrade tends to lead to roughly a 20 percent increase in bond yield spreads and credit default swaps (instruments that are used to hedge against default), according to calculations by JPMorgan. But in South Africa the lower credit rating may already be already reflected in asset prices — Panama, Brazil, Colombia, Philippines, Uruguay, Indonesia, and Romania carry lower sovereign credit ratings but boast lower CDS and dollar bond yield premia over Treasuries.  Russia and Turkey have lower average ratings than South Africa but their debt and CDS spreads  are roughly on the same level.

So a ratings cut is unlikely to trigger huge outflows from South African debt markets, says JPMorgan, which runs the most widely used emerging bond indices. In Brazil for instance, a well-anticipated  downgrade back in March did not lead to significant cash outflows from its markets, JPM points out:

The current relationships between spreads and ratings do not necessarily imply another step wider in South Africa’s spreads until it is firmly sub-investment grade (not J.P. Morgan’s base case).

Secondly, even after a downgrade to BBB-, South Africa would still be rated investment grade, so investors will not be required to sell their holdings.  On local currency debt, South Africa is rated A- from S&P so a 1- or even 2-notch downgrade should have no technical impact the bank argues.

A Plan B for Argentina

What’s Argentina’s Plan B?

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has said she will sell the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, if need be, to keep paying creditors who agreed to restructure the country’s debts.  But it may not come to that. Warning: this is a complicated saga with very interesting twists.

A pair of hedge fund litigants demanding $1.3 billion in payments and a New York court are making it hard for Kirchner to keep paying international bondholders. But she might contemplate asking those existing creditors to swap into Argentine law bonds, to which the writ of the New York court will not extend.

First some background. Argentina is due to pay bond coupons this week and in June. Looks like the hedge funds will decline the payment proposal Argentina made last week; this could lead to a default.

Chaco signals warning for Argentina debt

A raft of Argentine provinces and municipalities suffered credit rating downgrades this week after one of their number, Chaco, in the north of the country, ran out of hard currency on the eve of a bond payment. Instead it paid creditors $260,000 in pesos. Now Chaco wants creditors to swap $30 million in dollar debt for peso bonds because it still cannot get its hands on any hard currency.

The episode is a frightening reminder of Argentina’s $100 billion debt default 10 years ago and unsurprisingly has triggered a surge in bond yields and credit default swaps (CDS). But broader questions also arise from it.

First, will debt “pesification” by some Argentine municipalities snowball to affect international bonds as well? And second, is municipal debt likely to become a problem for other emerging markets in coming months?

Emerging EU and the end of “naked” CDS

JP Morgan has an interesting take on the stupendous recent rally in the credit default swaps (CDS) of countries such as Poland and Hungary which are considered emerging markets, yet are members of the European Union. Analysts at the bank link the moves to the EU’s upcoming ban on “naked” sovereign CDS trades — trade in CDS by investors who don’t have ownership of the underlying government debt. The ban which comes into effect on Nov. 1, was brought in during 2010 after EU politicians alleged that hedge funds short-selling Greek CDS had exacerbated the crisis.

JP Morgan notes that the sovereign CDS of a group of emerging EU members (Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland and Romania) have tightened 100 basis points since the start of September, while a basket of emerging peers including Brazil, Indonesia and Turkey saw CDS tighten just 39 bps. See the graphic below:

 

Spread tightening was of a similar magnitude in both groups before this period, JPM says (the implication being that traders have been selling some of their “naked” CDS holdings in these markets ahead of the ban):

The (CDS) cost of being in the euro

What’s the damage from being a member of the euro? German credit default swaps, used to insure risk, have spiralled to record highs over 130 basis points, three times the level of a year ago amid the escalating brouhaha over Spain’s banks and Greek elections. U.S. CDS meanwhile remain around 45 bps. That means it costs 45,000 to insure $10 million worth of U.S. investments for five years, compared to $135,000 for Germany. (click the graphics to enlarge)

A smaller but similarly interesting anomaly can be found in central Europe. Take close neighbours, the Czech and Slovak Republics who are so similar they were once the same country. Both have small open  economies, reliant on producing goods for export to Germany.

The difference is that Slovakia joined the euro in 2009.

Back then, with the world grappling with the fallout from the Lehman crisis, Slovakia appeared at a distinct advantage versus the Czech Republic. At the height of the crisis in February 2009, Czech 5-year CDS exploded to 300 bps, well above Slovakia’s levels. But slowly that premium has eroded. A year ago CDS for both countries were quoted at similar levels of around 70 bps.  Now the Czech CDS are quoted at 125 bps, having risen along with everything else, but Slovak CDS have jumped to 250 bps, data from Markit shows. (bonds have not reacted in the same manner — Slovak 1-year debt still yields around 0.8 percent versus 1.4 percent for the Czech Republic; similarly German yields have fallen to zero; for an explanation see here).

Indian risks eclipsing other BRICs

India’s first-quarter GDP growth report was a shocker this morning at +5.3 percent. Much as Western countries would dream of a print that good, it’s akin to a hard landing for a country only recently aspiring to double-digit expansions and, with little hope of any strong reform impetus from the current government, things might get worse if investment flows dry up. The rupee is at a new record low having fallen 7 percent in May alone against the dollar — bad news for companies with hard currency debt maturing this year (See here). So investors are likely to find themselves paying more and more to hedge exposure to India.

Credit default swaps for the State Bank of India (used as a proxy for the Indian sovereign) are trading at almost 400 basis points. More precisely, investors must pay $388,000  to insure $10 million of exposure for a five-year period, data from Markit shows. That is well above levels for the other countries in the BRIC quartet — Brazil, China and Russia. Check out the following graphic from Markit showing the contrast between Brazil and Indian risk perceptions.

At the end of 2010, investors paid a roughly 50 bps premium over Brazil to insure Indian risk via SBI CDS. That premium is now more than 200 bps.

Quiet CDS creep highlights China risk

As credit default swaps (CDS) for many euro zone sovereigns have zoomed to ever new record highs this year, Chinese CDS too have been quietly creeping higher. Five-year CDS are around 135 bps today, meaning it costs $135,000 a year to insure exposure to $10 million of Chinese risk over a five-year period. According to this graphic from data provider Markit, they are up almost 45 basis points in the past six weeks.  In fact they are double the levels seen a year ago.

That looks modest given some of the numbers in Europe. But worries over China, while not in

 

the same league as for the euro zone, are clearly growing, as many fear that the real scale of indebtedness and bad loans in the economy could be higher than anyone knows.  Above all, investors have been fretting about a possible hard landing for the economy, with the government unable to control  a growth slowdown.

Iran looms larger on Gulf radar screens

Tensions over Iran may be helping to push up oil prices as traders worry about a widespread embargo on the country’s crude oil but markets in neighbouring Gulf energy-rich economies are not benefiting.

One year after the Arab Spring started in Tunisia, investors remain sensitive to political risk in the Middle East.

Debt insurance costs have risen sharply this month for gas exporter Qatar and oil giant Saudi Arabia, just as global worries appear to be easing about the euro zone crisis.

Iceland: slipping again?

Just when you thought it was all over, Iceland looks like it’s in trouble again.  The cost of insuring Iceland’s debt against restructuring or default has risen this week to 720 basis points in the five-year credit default swap market, its highest since mid-2009.  That means it costs 720,000 euros a year for five years to insure 10 million euros of Icelandic debt against default.

Icelanders are to vote by March 6 on a deal to repay $5 billion lost in online Icesave bank accounts in Britain and the Netherlands. Those governments compensated savers when the bank collapsed and now want their money back from Reykjavik, but opinion polls show voters are likely to reject what are seen as the harsh terms of the agreement.

ICELAND/The uncertainty has driven debt insurance costs back up towards the levels seen just before the country’s banking system and government collapsed in Oct 2008.