Global Investing

Strong dollar, weak oil and emerging markets growth

Many emerging economies have been banking on weaker currencies to revitalise economic growth.  Oil’s 25 percent fall in dollar terms this year should also help. The problem however is the dollar’s strength which is leading to a general tightening of monetary conditions worldwide, more so in countries where central banks are intervening to prevent their currencies from falling too much.

Michael Howell, managing director of the CrossBorder Capital consultancy estimates the negative effect of the stronger dollar on global liquidity (in simple terms, the amount of capital available for investment and spending) outweighs the positives from falling oil prices by a ratio of 10 to 1. Not only does it raise funding costs for non-U.S. banks and companies, it also usually forces other central banks to keep monetary policy tight, especially in countries with high inflation or external debt levels. Howell says:

If you get a strong dollar and intervention by EM cbanks what it means is monetary tightening…The big decision is: do they allow currencies to devalue or do they defend them? But when they use reserves to protect their currencies, there is an implicit policy tightening.

The tightening happens because central bank dollar sales tend to suck out supply of the local currency from markets, tightening liquidity.   That effectively drives up the cost of money, as banks and companies scramble for cash to meet their daily commitments.  Central banks can of course offset interventions via so-called sterilisations – for instance when they buy dollars to curb their currencies’ strength, they can issue bonds to suck up the excess cash from the market. To ease the tight money supply problem they can in theory print more cash to supply banks.  But while many emerging central banks did sterilise interventions in the post-crisis years when their currencies were appreciating, they are less likely to do so when they are trying to stem depreciation, says UBS strategist Manik Narain.  So what is happening is that (according to Narain):

Markets are forcing central banks into supporting growth or the currency. You absolutely have to sacrifice growth as we have seen in places like Turkey where liquidity has impacted the growth profile

Buying back into emerging markets

After almost a year of selling emerging markets, investors seem to be returning in force. The latest to turn positive on the asset class is asset and wealth manager Pictet Group (AUM: 265 billion pounds) which said on Tuesday its asset management division (clarifies division of Pictet) was starting to build positions on emerging equities and local currency debt. It has an overweight position on the latter for the first time since it went underweight last July.

Local emerging debt has been out of favour with investors because of how volatile currencies have been since last May, For an investor who is funding an emerging market investments from dollars or euros, a fast-falling rand can wipe out any gains he makes on a South African bond. But the rand and its peers such as the Turkish lira, Indian rupee, Indonesian rupiah and Brazilan real — at the forefront of last year’s selloff –  have stabilised from the lows hit in recent months.  According to Pictet Asset Management:

Valuations of emerging market currencies have fallen to a point where they are now starkly at odds with such economies’ fundamentals. Emerging currencies are, on average, trading at almost two standard deviations below their equilibrium level (which takes into account a country’s net foreign asset holdings, inflation rate and its relative productivity).

Waiting for current account improvement in Turkey

The fall in Turkey’s lira to record lows is raising jitters among foreign investors who will have lost a good deal of money on the currency side of their stock and bond investments.  They are also worrying about the response of the central bank, which has effectively ruled out large rate hikes to stabilise the currency. But can the 20 percent lira depreciation seen since May 2013 help correct the country’s balance of payments gap?

Turkey’s current account deficit is its Achilles heel . Without a large domestic savings pool, that deficit tends to blow out whenever growth quickens and the lira strengthens . That leaves the country highly vulnerable to a withdrawal of foreign capital. Take a look at the following graphic (click on it to enlarge) :

In theory, a weaker Turkish lira should help cut the deficit which has expanded to over 7 percent of GDP.  Let us compare the picture with 2008 when the lira plunged around 25 percent against the dollar in the wake of the Lehman crisis. At the time the deficit was not far short of current levels at around 6 percent of GDP.  By September 2009 though, this gap had shrunk by two-thirds to around 2 percent of GDP.

Banks cannot ease Ukraine’s reserve pain

The latest data from Ukraine shows its hard currency reserves fell $2 billion over November to $18.9 billion. That’s perilously low by any measure. (Check out this graphic showing how poorly Ukraine’s reserve adequacy ratios compare with other emerging markets: http://link.reuters.com/quq25v)

Central banks often have tricks to temporarily boost reserves, or at least, to give the impression that they are doing so. Turkey, for instance, allows commercial banks to keep some of their lira reserve requirements in hard currency and gold. Others may get friendly foreign central banks to deposit some cash. Yet another ploy is to issue T-bills in hard currency to mop up banks’ cash holdings. But it may be hard for Ukraine to do any of this says Exotix economist Gabriel Sterne, who has compared the Ukraine national bank’s plight with that of Egypt.

Ukraine and Egypt have both balked at signing up to IMF loan programmes because these  would require them to cut back on subsidies. But latest data shows Egypt’s reserves have risen to $17.8 billion from just over $10 billion in July, while Ukraine’s have declined from $22.9 billion. Egyptian import cover has also risen to 2.6 months while Ukraine now has enough cash to fund less than 2 months of imports (Back in July it was 3 months)
Sterne says:

Venezuelan bonds — storing up problems

Last week’s victory for Miss Venezuela in a global beauty pageant was a rare bit of good news for the South American country. With a black market currency exchange rate that is 10 times the official level, shortages of staples, inflation over 50 percent and political turmoil, Venezuela certainly won’t win any investment pageants.

This week investors have rushed to dump Venezuela’s dollar bonds as the government ordered troops to occupy a store chain accused of price gouging. Many view this as a sign President Nicolas Maduro is gearing up to extend his control over the private sector.  Adding to the bond market’s problems are plans by state oil firm PDVSA to raise $4.5 billion in bonds next week. Yields on  Venezuelan sovereign bonds have risen over 100 basis points this week; returns for the year are minus 25 percent, almost half of that coming since the start of this month.  Five-year credit default swaps for Venezuela are at two-year highs, having risen more than 200 basis points in November. And bonds from PDVSA, which is essentially selling debt to bankroll the government and pay suppliers, rather than to fund investments, have tanked too.

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Double-digit yields and high oil prices have made bond funds relatively keen on Venezuela but the latest sell-off is forcing a rethink. JPMorgan analysts have cut their recommendation on the bonds to underweight:

Turkish savers hang onto dollars

As in many countries with memories of hyperinflation and currency collapse, Turkey’s middle class have tended to hold at least part of their savings in hard currency. But unlike in Russia and Argentina, Turkish savers’ propensity to save in dollars has on occasion proved helpful to companies and the central bank. That’s because many Turks, rather than just accumulating dollars, have evolved into savvy players of exchange rate swings and often use sharp falls in the lira to sell their dollars and buy back the local currency. Hence Turks’ hard currency bank deposits, estimated at between $70-$100 billion –  on a par with central bank reserves — have acted as a buffer of sorts, stabilising the lira when it falls past a certain level.

But back in 2011, when the lira was in the eye of another emerging markets storm, we noticed how some Turks had become strangely reluctant to sell dollars. And during this year’s bout of lira weakness too, Turkish savers have not stepped up to help out the central bank, research by Barclays finds. Instead they are accumulating dollars — “rather than being contrarian, their behaviour now seems aligned with global capital flows,” Barclays  analysts write. While the lira has weakened to record lows this year, data from UBS shows that the dollarisation ratio, the percentage of bank deposits in foreign currency, has actually crept up to 37.6 percent from 34.5 percent at the start of the year. Here’s a Barclays graphic that illustrates the shift.

What are the reasons for the turnaround? In the past, those selling dollars to buy back cheap lira could be confident they would not be out of pocket because the central bank would support the lira with higher interest rates.  But ever since end-2010, when the bank embarked on a policy of determinedly keeping interest rates low, they no longer have this assurance. Barclays write:

Russian stocks: big overweight

Emerging stocks are not much in favour these days — Bank of America/Merrill Lynch’s survey of global fund managers finds that in August just a net 18 percent of investors were overweight emerging markets, among the lowest since 2001. Within the sector though, there are some outright winners and quite a few losers. Russian stocks are back in favour, the survey found, with a whopping 92 percent of fund managers overweight. Allocations to Russia doubled from last month (possibly at the expense of South African where underweight positions are now at 100 percent, making it the most unloved market of all) See below for graphic:

BofA points out its analyst Michael Harris recently turned bullish on Russian stocks advising clients to go for a “Big Overweight” on a market that he reckons is best positioned to benefit from the recovery in global growth.

Russia may not be anyone’s favourite market but in a world with plenty of cyclical headwinds, Russia looks a clear place for relative outperformance with upside risk if markets turn… we are overweight the entire market as we like domestic Russia, oil policy changes and beaten-up metals’ leverage to any global uplift.

Tapping India’s diaspora to salvage rupee

What will save the Indian rupee? There’s an election next year so forget about the stuff that’s really needed — structural reforms to labour and tax laws, easing business regulations and scrapping inefficient subsidies. The quickest and most effective short-term option may be a dollar bond issued to the Indian diaspora overseas which could boost central bank coffers about $20 billion.

The option was mooted a month ago when the rupee’s slide started to get into panic territory but many Indian policymakers are not so keen on the idea

So what are the merits of a diaspora bond (or NRI bond as it’s known in India)?

“Contrarian” Deutsche (a bit) less bearish on emerging stocks

For an investor in emerging equities the best strategy in recent years has been to take a contrarian stance, says John-Paul Smith at Deutsche Bank.

Smith, head of emerging equity strategy at Deutsche, has been bearish on emerging stocks since 2010, exactly the time when bucketloads of new cash was being committed to the asset class. Investors who heeded his advice back then would have been in the money — since end-2010 emerging equities have underperformed U.S. equities by almost 40 percent, Smith pointed out a couple of months ago.

Things have worsened since then and MSCI’s emerging equity index is down around 12 percent year-to-date, almost the level of loss that Deutsche had predicted for the whole of 2013. June outflows from emerging stock funds, according to EPFR Global last week, were the largest on record. But true to form, Smith says he is no longer totally bearish on emerging equities.  Maybe the presence or absence of those he calls “marginal international investors” — people who joined the EM party too late and are quick to take fright — is key. Many of these positions appear to have been cleaned out. Short positions or high cash balances dominate the books of dedicated players,  Smith writes:

A drop in the ocean or deluge to come?

Glass half full or half empty? For emerging markets watchers, it’s still not clear.

Last month was a record one in terms of net outflow for funds dedicated to emerging equities, Boston-based agency EPFR Global said.  Debt funds meanwhile saw a $5.5 billion exodus in the week to June 26, the highest in history .

These sound like big numbers, but in fact they are relatively small. EM equity funds tracked by EPFR  have now reversed all the bumper year-to-date inflow registered by end-May, but what of all the flows they have received in the preceding boom decade?