Global Investing

Tide turning for emerging currencies, local debt

Emerging market currencies have been a source of frustration for investors this year. With central banks overwhelmingly in rate-cutting mode and export growth slowing, most currencies have performed poorly. That has been a bit of a dampener for local currency debt –  while returns in dollar terms have been robust at 13 percent, currency appreciation has contributed just 1.5 percent of that, according to JP Morgan.

 

 

The picture could be changing though.  Fund managers at the Reuters 2013 investment outlook summit this week have been unanimously bullish on emerging debt, with many stating a preference for domestic debt. So far this year, dollar debt has taken in three-quarters of all inflows to emerging fixed income.

Andreas Uterman, CIO of Allianz Global Investors told the summit in London that many emerging currencies looked significantly undervalued, and that this anomaly would gradually resolve itself:

Once the global economy starts to recover, it will be easier to bear appreciation of real exchange rates.

JP Morgan’s survey of 75 U.S.-based bond investors showed that the majority of investors plan to raise their allocation to emerging debt next year, with  local currency debt topping the list of preferences.  They targeted  7-10 percent returns on JPM’s GBI-EM local debt index,  outstripping the 5-7 percent expected of sovereign dollar debt.  Currency gains are expected to become a bigger driver of performance, accounting for half of next year’s GBI-EM returns, JPM reckons.

Are EM forex reserves strong enough?

One of the big stories of the past decade has been the massive jump in central bank reserves, with total reserves having quintupled from a decade ago to around $10.6 trillion.

But the growth has not been uniform. And over the past 18 months slowing world growth and trade has stalled reserve accummulation across the developing world, making some countries increasingly vulnerable to financial shocks, according to analysts at Capital Economics.

They point out for instance that, although most emerging economies are less vulnerable than in the past, Ukrainian reserves have fallen by a quarter in the past year while in Venezuela they declined by 40 percent. Egyptian reserves halved since end-2011, forcing it to agree to an IMF aid deal. Foreign exchange reserves in these countries may not be sufficient to protect against balance of payment crises should trade flows and investments slow further, they reckon.

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?

Ireland descends from risky debt heights

Good news for Europe as the cost for insuring sovereign debt against default fell in the third quarter of 2012, according to the CMA Global Sovereign Credit Risk report.

Ireland slipped out of the 10 most risky sovereigns for the first time since the first quarter of 2010 according to CMA, making space for Lebanon to enter the club of the world’s ten most risky sovereign debt issuers.

Although Irish 5-year credit default swap spreads tightened to 317 basis points from 554 basis points in the third quarter, there is still a 25 percent chance that Ireland will not be able to honour its debt or restructure it over the next five years.

Rollover risks rising on high-yield bonds

Emerging market corporate debt is in high demand, as we pointed out in this article yesterday.  But we noted headwinds too, not least the amount of debt that will fall due in coming years as a result of the current bond issuance bonanza.

David Spegel, head of emerging debt research at ING in New York is highlighting a new danger — that of the exponential increase in speculative grade debt, especially from developed markets, that is up for rollover in coming years. A swathe  of credit rating downgrades for European companies this year mean that many fund managers who bought high-grade assets, have now found themselves holding sub-investment grade paper.  He calculates in a note this week that $47 billion of “junk” rated European paper will find itself up for refinancing in the first half of next year, more than double the levels that were rolled over in the first half of 2012.

It gets worse. The big danger now is that as Spain and Italy tumble into the junk-rated category (Ratings agency S&P on Wednesday cut Spain to BBB-, just one notch above junk) their blue-chip companies may well have to follow suit.  Spegel estimates over $100 billion in Spanish and Italian BBB rated corporate bonds are due next year. If these slip into speculative grade, it would triple the amount  of high-yield paper that needs refinancing in the first six months of 2013.

Norwegians piling into Korean bonds

One of the stories of this year has been the stupendous rally on emerging local currency debt, fuelled in part by inflows from institutional investors tired of their zero or negative-return investments in Western debt.  Norway’s sovereign wealth fund said last week for instance that it was dumping some European bonds and spending more of its $600 billion war chest in emerging markets.

Quite a bit of that cash is going to South Korea. Regulators in Seoul recently reported a hefty rise in foreigners’ bond holdings (see here for the Reuters story) and  Societe Generale has a note out dissecting the data, which shows that total foreign holdings of Korean bonds are now worth around $79 billion — back at levels seen last July.  Norwegians emerged as the biggest buyers last month,  picking up bonds worth 1.5 trillion won ($1.3 billion) , almost double what they purchased in the entire first half of 2012. Norway’s holdings of Korean Treasuries now total 2.29 trillion won, up from just 190 billion won at the end of 2011.

The growing interest from overseas investors would seem logical — South Korea stands on the cusp between emerging and developed markets, with sound policies, a current account surplus and huge currency reserves. And Socgen analyst Wee-Khoon Chong says the Norwegian crown’s recent strength against other currencies makes such overseas trades more attractive (the crown is up 6 percent versus the euro this year and has gained 5.3 percent to the Korean won). “Norwegians are the newbies into the KTB market,” Chong says. “They are probably recycling their FX reserves.”

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.

Mrs Watanabe in Istanbul

Japanese mom-and-pop investors’ penchant for seeking high-yield investments overseas is well known. Mrs Watanabe (as the canny player of currency and exchange rate arbitrage has come to be known) invests billions of yen overseas every year via  so-called uridashi bonds, debt denominated in currencies with high yields.  Data shows the lira has suddenly become the red-hot favourite with uridashi investors this year.

In a note entitled Welcome Mrs Watanabe, Barclays analysts estimate $2 billion in lira-based uridashi issuance this year, ahead of old favourite, the  Australian dollar.

So far, Japan’s exposure to Turkey is negligible at just 1.2 percent of their emerging market portfolio investments (Brazil is 4 percent, Korea 3 percent and Mexico 2 percent).  But Turkey’s high yields (almost 8 percent on one-year bonds) and the lira’s resilience mean the figure could rise to $5-$6 billion a year. That is almost half of total portfolio flows to Turkey in 2011, Barclays says.

Emerging debt default rates on the rise

Times are tough and unsurprisingly, default rates among emerging market companies are rising.

David Spegel, ING Bank’s head of emerging debt, has a note out, calculating that there have been $8.271 billion worth of defaults by 19 emerging market issuers so far this year — nearly double the total $4.28 billion witnessed during the whole of 2011.

And there is more to come — 208 bonds worth $75.7 billion are currently trading at yield levels classed as distressed (above 1000 basis points), Spegel says, while another 120 bonds worth $45 billion are at “stressed” levels (yields between 700 and 999 bps).   Over half of the “distressed” bonds are in Latin America (see graphic below).  His list suggests there could be $2.4 billion worth of additional defaults in 2012 which would bring the 2012 total to $10.7 billion. Spegel adds however that defaults would drop next year to $6.8 billion.

Yield-hungry funds lend $2bln to Ukraine

Investors just cannot get enough of emerging market bonds. Ukraine, possibly one of the weakest of the big economies in the developing world, this week returned to global capital markets for the first time in a year , selling $2 billion in 5-year dollar bonds.  Investors placed orders for seven times that amount, lured doubtless by the 9.25 percent yield on offer.

Ukraine’s problems are well known, with fears even that the country could default on debt this year.  The $2 billion will therefore come as a relief. But the dangers are not over yet, which might make its success on bond markets look all the more surprising.

Perhaps not. Emerging dollar debt is this year’s hot-ticket item, generating returns of over 10 percent so far in 2012. Yields in the so-called safe markets such as Germany and United States are negligible; short-term yields are even negative.  So a 9.25 percent yield may look too good to resist.