Global Investing

No more currency war. Mantega dumps the IOF

Brazil’s finance minister Guido Mantega, one of the most shrill critics of Western money-printing, has decided to repeal the so-called IOF tax, he imposed almost three years ago as a measure to fend off  hot money flows.

Well, circumstances alter cases, Mantega might say. And the world is a very different place today compared to 2010. Back then, the Fed was cranking up its printing presses and the currency war (in Mantega’s words) was raging; today the U.S. central bank is indicating it may start tapering off the stimulus it has been delivering. Nor is investors enthusiasm for emerging markets what it used to be.  Brazil’s currency, the real, is plumbing four-year lows against the dollar and local bond yields have risen 30 basis points since the start of May. Brazil’s balance of payments situation meanwhile, is deteriorating, which means it needs all the foreign capital  it can get, hot money or otherwise. And currency weakness spells inflation — bad news for Brazil’s government which faces voters next year.

The IOF did work — Brazil’s local debt markets received just over $10 billion last year, Bank of America/Merrill Lynch calculates — a third of 2010 levels, and much of the cash that was already invested, preferred to stay put (given the IOF is paid upon exiting the country).

So will Mantega’s latest gambit work? So far, the real’s reaction has been muted and some analysts even reckon on short-term losses as funds that were staying in to avoid paying the 6 percent levy, are now free to leave.

Analysts at BofA/ML estimate a 2 percent currency benefit versus the dollar as well as a bond rally as real yields for foreigners will now be higher. Brazilian global bonds (denominated in reais but listed and traded overseas) however could lose out — these enjoyed a surge in demand as investors tried to get exposure to the currency without paying the IOF. BofA-ML reckon yields here could rise as much as 150 bps.

Emerging local debt: hedges needed

The fierce sell-off that hit emerging market local currency debt last month was possibly down to low levels of currency hedging by investors, JPMorgan says.

Analysts at the bank compare the rout with the one May 2012, caused by exactly the same reason — higher U.S. yields. There was a difference though — back then EM currencies dropped more than 8% on the month but EM local bonds, unlike last month, were little changed.

Gauging hedging levels is usually a tricky business. But JPM uses the results of its monthly client surveys to analyse the differing moves:

South Africa’s perfect storm

Of all the emerging currency and bond markets that are feeling the heat from the dollar’s rise, none is suffering more than South Africa. A series of horrific economic data prints at home, the prospect of more labour unrest and the slump in metals prices are making this a perfect storm for the country’s financial markets.

Some worrying data from the Johannesburg Stock Exchange this morning shows that foreigners sold almost 5 billion rand (more than $500 million) worth of bonds during yesterday’s session alone. Over the past 10 days, non-resident selling amounted to 10.7 billion rand. They have also yanked out 1.2 billion rand from South African equities in this time. And at the root of this exodus lies the rand, which has fallen almost 15 percent against the dollar this year. Now apparently headed for the 10-per-dollar mark, the rand’s weakness has eaten into investors’ total return, tipping it into negative return for the year.

What a contrast with last year, when a record 93 billion rand flooded into the country on the back of its inclusion in Citi’s prestigious WGBI bond index.  That lifted foreign holdings of South African bonds to well over a third of the total. Investors at the time were more willing to turn a blind eye to the rand’s lacklustre performance, liking its relatively high yield and betting on interest rate cuts to help the duration component of the trade.

Not all emerging currencies are equal

The received wisdom is dollar strength = weaker emerging market currencies. See here for my colleague Mike Dolan’s take on this. But as Mike’s article does point out, all emerging markets are not equal. It follows therefore that any waves of dollar strength and higher U.S. yields will hit them to varying degrees.

ING Bank says in a note sent to clients on Tuesday that emerging currency gains in recent years have been closely tied to foreign investments into domestic bond markets. Recent years have seen a torrent of inflows into local debt, driving down yields on the main GBI-EM index and significantly boosting its market value. Hence, it makes sense to examine how the GBI-EM’s biggest constituents might fare under a scenario of a surging dollar and Treasury yields (In the two years before a Fed tightening cycle commences, 5-year Treasury yields can trade 120-150 basis points higher, ING analysts point out).

In almost every one of the emerging markets examined by ING, spreads over U.S. Treasuries have tightened dramatically since the start of 2012. Ergo, they are vulnerable to correction.

Turkey’s (investment grade)bond market

We wrote here yesterday on how Turkish hard currency bonds have been given the nod to join some Barclays global indices as a result of the country’s elevation to investment grade. Turkish dollar bonds will also move to the Investment grade sub-index of JPMorgan’s flagship EMBI Global on June 28.

Local lira debt meanwhile will enter JPM’s GBI-EM Global Diversified IG 15 percent Cap Index —  the top-tier of the bank’s GBI-EM index. But the big prize, an invitation into Citi’s mega World Government Bond Index, is still some way off. Requiring a still higher credit rating, WGBI membership is an honour that has been accorded to only four emerging markets so far.

Still, the Turkish Treasury is not complaining.  Even before last week’s upgrade to investment grade by Moody’s, it was borrowing from the lira bond market at record cheap levels of around 5 percent for two-year cash. Ten-year yields are down half a percentage point this year. One reason of course is the gush of liquidity from Western central banks. But most funds (at least those who were allowed to do so) had not waited for the Moody’s signal before buying Turkish bonds. So the bond market was already trading Turkey as investment grade.

Emerging European bonds: The music plays on

There seems to be no end to the rip-roaring bond rally across emerging Europe.  Yields on Turkish lira bonds fell to fresh record lows today after an interest rate cut and stand now more than a whole percentage point below where they started the year.

True, bonds from all classes of emerging market have benefited from the flood of money flowing from central banks in the United States, Europe and Japan, with over$20 billion flowing into EM debt funds since the start of 2013, according to EPFR Global. Flows for the first three months of 2013 equated to 12 percent of the funds’ assets under management.

But the effect has been most marked in emerging European local currency bonds — unsurprising, given economic growth here is weakest of all emerging markets and central banks have been the most pro-active in slashing interest rates.  Emerging European yields have fallen around 50 basis points since the start of the year, compared to a 20 bps average yield fall on the broader JPMorgan index of emerging local bonds, Thomson Reuters data shows.

Weekly Radar: May days or Pay days?

So, it’s May and time for the annual if temporary equity market selloff, right? Well, maybe – but only maybe.  A fresh weakening of the global economic pulse would certainly suggest so, but central banks have shown again they are not going to throw in the towel in the battle to reflate. The ECB’s interest rate cut today and last night’s insistence from the Fed that it’s as likely to step up money printing this year as wind it down are two cases in point. And we’re still awaiting the private investment flows from Japan following the BOJ’s latest aggressive easing there.

So where does that all leave us? A third of the way through 2013 and it’s been a good year so far for nearly all bulls – both western equity bulls and increasingly bond bulls too! Not only have developed world equities clocked up some 13 percent year-to-date (the S&P500 set yet another record high this week while Europe’s bluechips recorded a staggering 12th consecutive monthly gain in April) , but virtually all bond markets from junk bonds to Treasuries, euro peripherals to emerging markets are now back in the black for the year as a whole. For the most eyebrow-raising evidence, look no further than last week’s debut sovereign bond from Rwanda at less than 7 percent for 10 years or even newly-junked Slovenia’s ability this week to plough ahead with a syndicated bond sale reported to already be in the region of four times oversubscribed. For many people, that parallel rise in equity and bonds smells of a bubble somewhere. But before you cry “QEEEEE!” , take a look at commodities — the bulls there have been taken a bath all year as data on final global demand hits yet another ‘soft patch’ over the past couple of months.

So is this just an idiosyncratic random walk of asset markets (itself no bad thing after years of stress-riven hyper correlation) or can we explain all three asset directions together? One way to think of it is in terms of global inflation. If QE-related inflation fears have been grossly exaggerated then pressure to remove monetary stimulus or wanes again and there may even be arguments – certainly in Europe – for more. This would intuitively explain the renewed dash for bonds and fixed income in general even in the face of the still-plausible, if long term, “Great Rotation” idea. You could argue the monetary free-for-all is buoying equities regardless of demand concerns. But why wouldn’t commodities gain on that basis too?

Japan’s big-money investors still sitting tight

More on the subject of Japanese overseas investment.

As we said here and here, Japanese cash outflows to world markets have so far been limited to a trickle, almost all from retail mom-and-pop investors who like higher yields and are estimated to have 1500 trillion yen ($15.40 trillion) in savings. As for Japan’s huge institutional investors — the $730 billion mutual fund industry and $3.4 trillion life insurance sectors — they are sitting tight.

If some are to be believed, the hype over outflows is misguided. Morgan Stanley for one reckons Japanese insurers’ foreign bond buying may rise by just 2-3 percent in the next two years, amounting to $60-100 billion. Pension funds are even less likely to re-balance their portfolios given large cash flow needs, the bank said.

But a Reuters survey last week revealed several insurance companies are indeed considering boosting unhedged foreign bond holdings.  Insurers currently hold almost half their assets in Japanese government bonds and risk being crowded out of the JGB market as the central bank ramps up purchases.  A recent survey by Barclays also showed Japanese investors keen on overseas debt.

Weekly Radar: Question mark for the ‘austerians’

One of the more startling moves of the week was the fresh rally in euro government debt – with 10-year Italian and Spanish borrowing rates falling to their lowest since late 2010 when the euro crisis was just erupting and 2-year Italian yields even falling to 1999 euro launch levels. The trigger? There’s been a slow build up for weeks on the prospect of new Japanese investor flows  seeking liquid overseas government bonds  – but it was signs of a sharp slowdown in Germany’s economy that seems to have had a perversely positive effect on the region’s asset markets as a whole. The logic is that German objections to another ECB rate cut will ebb, as will its refusal to ease up on front-loaded fiscal austerity across Europe. If its own economic engine is now suffering along with the rest, significantly just five months ahead of German Federal elections, then a tilt toward growth in the regional policy mix may not seem so bad for Berlin after all. And if euro economies are more in synch, albeit in recession rather than growth, then perhaps it will lead to a more effective regional policy response.

All that plays into the intensifying “growth vs austerity” debate, which had already shifted at the Washington IMF meetings last week and was sharpened this week by by EU Commission chief Barroso’s claim that the high watermark of EU’s austerity push had passed. On top of the Reinhart/Rogoff research farrago, it’s been a bad couple of weeks for the “austerians”, with only a UK Q1 GDP bounceback of any support for case of ever deeper fiscal cuts,  and investors smell a change of tack. Their reaction? Not only have euro government borrowing costs fallen  further, but euro equities too rallied for 4 straight days through Wednesday. Those arguing that investors would run screaming at the sight of a more growth-tilted policy mix in Europe may have some explaining to do.

Next week is back on monetary policy watch however. The ECB takes centre stage amid rate cut talks hopes for help for credit-starved SMEs. The FOMC meets stateside aswell just ahead of the critical US April employment report.

Cheaper oil and gold: a game changer for India?

Someone’s loss is someone’s gain and as Russian and South African markets reel from the recent oil and gold price rout, investors are getting ready to move more cash into commodity importer India.

Stubbornly high inflation and a big current account deficit are India’s twin headaches. Lower oil and gold prices will help with both. India’s headline inflation index is likely to head lower, potentially opening room for more interest rate cuts.  That in turn could reduce gold demand from Indians who have stepped up purchases of the yellow metal in recent years as a hedge against inflation.

If prices stay at current levels, India’s current account gap could narrow by almost one percent of GDP in this fiscal year, analysts at Barclays reckon.  They calculate that $100 oil and gold at $1,400 per ounce would cut India’s net import bill by around $20 billion, bringing the deficit to around 3.2 percent of GDP.