Global Investing

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:

In Egypt, there is more scope for authorities to issue dollar T-bills to mop up dollars. But Ukrainian commercial banks’ net foreign assets are negative, in contrast with Egypt.

He estimates that as of September, Ukrainian commercial banks’ net foreign assets — the value of their overseas assets, minus the value of their  assets owned by foreigners — at minus $8 billion (they own $16 billion worth of overseas assets while their liabilities amount to $28 billion. Egyptian private banks, on the other hand, have a net foreign position of $2.4 billion and are therefore in a better position, Sterne says.  As we point out here, Ukraine’s central bank has been leaning on commercial banks to cough up dollars but given their own position, this may not get too far.

The Sub-Saharan frontier: future generations

As growth in Sub-Saharan Africa is set to post a steady 5-6 percent per annum to 2017 according to IMF estimates,  investors will be taking notes on the region’s growth story not least with the financial sector.

Growth projections have rebounded from forecasts of around a 3 percent rise in 2009 after falling commodity prices have hit one of the region’s main revenue sources. Yet, according to the World Bank’s recent Global Development Finance report, stronger commodities will firm growth prospects in the coming years. In recent weeks, commodities have dipped, dampening the outlook for some resource-rich countries, but as 76 percent of the region’s population do not have access to a bank account, lenders are set to grow their presence in the region.

Julius Baer notes the region’s market potential:

Since 2002, resource-hungry China has swept across a by-and-large grateful African continent, taking oil and minerals in exchange for debt relief, low-interest loans, or much needed infrastructure, such as roads, ports and housing.

Paid for the risk? Egypt’s tempting pound

Surprising as it may seem, the Egyptian pound has got some fans.  The currency has languished for months at record lows against the dollar and the headlines are alarming — the lack of an IMF aid programme, meagre hard currency reserves, political upheaval. So what’s to like ?

Analysts at Societe Generale say that just looking at the spot exchange rate of the pound is missing the bigger picture. Instead, they advise buying 12-month non-deliverable forwards on the pound — essentially a way of locking into a fixed rate for pound against the dollar in a year’s time depending on where you think it may actually trade. They write:

The implicit yield at this point is 21 percent for the 12m NDF, which we think is quite attractive. The way to think about Egypt NDFs is to approach them as a distressed asset. The risk/reward is quite attractive, and a lot of the bad news has been priced in. Yes, there have been serious delays in the programme negotiations with the IMF and that has clearly been a negative for the overall country view, but I would like to point out that the actual 12m NDF level has hardly budged in the process. This to me suggests that the valuation looks particularly good.

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.

Shadow over Shekel

Israel’s financial markets had a torrid time on Monday as swirling rumours of an imminent air strike on Iran caused investors to flee. The shekel lost 1.4 percent, the Tel Aviv stock exchange fell 1.5 percent and credit default swaps, reflecting the cost of insuring exposure to a credit, surged almost 10 percent.

There has been a modest recovery today as the rumour mills wind down. But analysts reckon more weakness lies ahead for the shekel which is not far off three-year lows.  Political risks aside, the central bank has been cutting interest rates and is widely expected to take interest rates, currently at 2.25 percent, down to 1.75 percent by year-end. Societe Generale analysts are among the many recommending short shekel positions against the dollar. They say:

Expect the dovish stance of the Bank of Israel to remain well entrenched for now.

Urbanization sweet spots

It’s a hard slog sometimes looking for new and surprising sources of global economic growth that have not already be heavily discounted by global investors, especially in the uncertain world of 2012. It’s been as hard of late to find new arguments to invest in China and quite a few people suggesting the opposite.

But a Credit Suisse report out on Tuesday homed in on worldwide urbanization trends to find out where this well-tested driver of economic activity was likely to have most impact int he 21st century. For a start, the big aggregate numbers are as dramatic as you’d imagine. More than half  of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, crossing that milestone for the first time in 2009. And, accordingly to United Nations projections, urban dwellers will account for 70 percent of humanity by 2050. As recently as 1950, 70 percent of us were country folk.

CS economists Giles Keating and Stefano Natella crunch the numbers and reckon that, typically, a five percent rise in urban populations is associated with a 10 percent rise in per capita economic activity. Crunching them further, they find that there’s a “sweet spot” as the urban share of the population is moving from 30 percent to 50 percent and per capita GDP growth peaks. Emerging markets as a whole are currently about 45 percent, with non-Japan Asia and sun-Saharan Africa standing out. Developed economies are as high as 75 percent.

Emerging beats developed in 2012

Robust growth from the emerging market basket in January was always going to be tough to beat, but research from February’s gains show just how strong these markets are performing against developed ones, and not just from the traditional BRICs either, research from S&P Indices shows.

Egypt has been a prime example. Following a bout of political unrest and subsequent removal of Hosni Mubarak after nearly 30 years in power, Egypt’s market returns have rocketed, climbing 15.3 percent in February on top of January’s 44.3 percent take-off.

Thailand, Chile, Turkey and Colombia are also on the to-watch list as these emerging lights have all flashed double-digit returns in the first two months of this year, while all twenty emerging markets included in the S&P data were up, gaining an average of 6.62 percent, making gains in the year-to-date a mouth-watering 18.95 percent.

Emerging markets facing current account pain

Emerging markets may yet pay dearly for the sins of their richer cousins. While recent financial crises have been rooted in the United States and euro zone, analysts at Credit Agricole are questioning whether a full-fledged emerging markets crisis could be on the horizon, the first since the series of crashes from Argentina to Turkey over a decade ago. The concern stems from the worsening balance of payments picture across the developing world and the need to plug big  funding shortfalls.

The above chart from Credit Agricole shows that as recently as 2006, the 34 big emerging economies ran a cumulative current account surplus of 5.2 percent of GDP. By end-2011 that had dwindled to 1.7 percent of GDP. More worrying yet is the position of “deficit” economies. The current account gap here has widened to 4 percent of GDP, more than double 2006 levels and the biggest since the 1980s. The difficulties are unlikely to disappear this year, Credit Agricole says,  predicting India, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Vietnam, Poland and Romania to run current account deficits of over 4 percent this year.

Some fiscally profligate countries such as India may have mainly themselves to blame for their plight. But in general, emerging nations after the Lehman crisis were forced to embark on massive spending to buck up domestic consumption and offset the collapse of Western export markets. For this reason, many were unable to raise interest rates or did so too late. As the woes of the Turkish lira and Indian rupee showed last year, the yawning funding gap leaves many countries horribly exposed to the vagaries of global risk appetite.

Developing vs developed. Ratings convergence goes on

Watchers of ratings agencies might be wondering if a golden period of steady credit upgrades for emerging economies is coming to an end. This week brought a ratings downgrade for Egypt and an outlook cut for Turkey. Hungary is teetering on the brink of having its rating cut to junk. Across the emerging world, countries are struggling with weaker growth, still-high inflation and falling investment. Debt ratios are rising.  All this could bode ill for sovereign credit ratings.

But no fear. The so-called ratings convergence between developed and developing economies has some way to go yet.  Egypt and Turkey may have received bad news this week but there were ratings upgrades for Kazakhstan and Georgia. Emerging countries are still more likely to be upgraded than downgraded. Debt-ridden rich nations on the other hand face ratings cuts, including possibly the mighty United States.  JPMorgan points out that, emerging markets have enjoyed 35 upgrades this year, while developed sovereigns have suffered 32 downgrades and no upgrades.  The bank predicts an additional 22 upgrades for the developing world in 2012.

“The convergence trend appears likely to continue, since a total of nine developed market countries remain on negative outlook or review for a possible downgrade,” according to JPMorgan. Emerging economies have received 133 sovereign upgrades since 2008, the bank notes.  The last developed country upgrade that still stands?  Sweden’s move up to AAA — achieved in 2004.

Tunisia-driven ructions in Cairo markets

Traders at the Cairo stock exchangeWhat a week it has been for Egypt.  All the regional political upheaval  happened in Tunisia, half a continent away, but most of the pain has been felt on Cairo’s financial markets. The Egyptian stock market has fallen almost 8 percent and the Egyptian pound is languishing near seven-year lows to the dollar. The cost of insuring exposure to Egyptian debt has risen to 18-month highs.

So are investors preparing for a Tunisia-style popular uprising in Egypt? Or is it that its market, more sophisticated than Tunisia’s, is bearing the brunt of investors’ increasing bearishness on the North African region? Probably a bit of both.

Egypt faces elections later this year and 82-year old Hosni Mubarak, president for almost 30 years, is likely to run again. Just like much of North Africa and the Middle East, inflation, especially food inflation is high while youth unemployment rates are higher than most of the developing world. Risks of uprisings are seen highest in Egypt and Jordan, where there is relatively more political freedom than, say Libya, but leaders lack the oil wealth cushion that the Gulf states or Libya boast. Given Egypt’s “youth bulge” — the proportion of the population comprised of young men aged 15-34 –regime change is a risk, reckons Charles Robertson, chief economist at Renaissance Capital.