Global Investing

Weekly Radar: From fiscal cliff to fiscal tiff…

The new year starts with a markets ‘whoosh’, thanks to some form of detente in DC — though this one was already motoring in 2012. The New Year’s Eve rally was the biggest final day gain in the S&P500 since 1974, for what it’s worth.  And for investment almanac obsessives, Wednesday’s 2%+ gains are a good start to so-called “five-day-rule”, where net gains in the S&P500 over the first five trading days of the year have led to a positive year for equity year overall on 87 percent of 62 years since 1950.

So do we have a fiscal green light stateside for global investors? Or does it just lead us all to another precipice in two months time? Well, markets seem to have voted loudly for the former so far. And to the extent that at least some bi-partisan progress reduces the risk of policy accident and renewed recession, then that’s justified. And Wall St’s relief went global and viral, with eurostocks up almost 3% and emerging markets up over 2% on Wednesday. Even the febrile bond markets sat up and took notice, with core US and German yields jumping higher while riskier Italian and Spanish yields skidded to their lowest in several months.

So is all that New Year euphoria premature given we will likely be back in  the political trenches again next month?  Maybe, but there’s good reason to retain last year’s optimism for a number of basic reasons. As seasoned euro crisis watchers know well, the world doesn’t end at self-imposed deadlines. The worst that tends to happen is they are extended and there is even a chance of – Shock! Horror! – a compromise. Never rule out a disastrous policy accident completely, but it’s wise not to make it a central scenario either. In short, markets seem to be getting a bit smarter at parsing politics. Tactical volatility or headline-based trading wasn’t terribly lucrative last year, where are fundamental and value based investing fared better.  And the big issue about the cliff is that the wrangling has sidelined a lot of corporate planning and investment due to the uncertainties about new tax codes as much as any specific measures. While there’s still some considerable fog around that, a little of the horizon can now be seen and political winds seem less daunting than they once did. If even a little of that pent up business spending does start to come through, it will arrive the slipstream of a decent cyclical upswing.  China is moving in tandem meantime. The euro zone remains stuck in a funk but will also likely be stabilised at least by U.S. and Chinese  over the coming months. Global factory activity expanded again in December for the first time since May.

Fiscal tiffs aside,  the trade of 2012 was to have faith in the tenacity (if not necessarily the long-term success) of the major central banks pursuit of reflation and there’s nothing to suggest a change there as we move into 2013. What could go wrong? Well, lots as always. And there will surely be plenty of down days moving into the debt ceiling deadline in late February. We can be certain of few things, but one is that stocks will not rise 2% every day this year. Jitters about US debt downgrades will have their day and hard-talking from negotiators will jar periodically. But some deal will likely be done one way or the other. It may well store up problems for the future, but it is very hard to trade that now. As to the longer-term US fiscal health?  As ugly as it looks, most economists are convinced there’s little or no hope of a medium-term fiscal recovery if growth craters in the interim and another recession looms. It’s also worth noting that the U.S. primary deficit fell last year and is expected to fall further in 2013. So as long as the Fed plays ball for now…

As used to it as we’ve become, it’s easy to forget the scale of global central bank support that’s in the pipe and how powerful that could become quite quickly if underlying economic confidence returns worldwide. Perhaps the biggest question for markets is that after such a positive second half of 2012, how much is now already in the price? Most people’s top pick for 2013 –Shanghai stocks– have already put on 16 percent since the start of December, for example.

Russian equity sales: disappointing

Investment banks have been dismayed this year by the slump in first-time share listings across emerging markets, the area they had hoped would yield the most growth (and fees). But as we pointed out in this story, emerging IPO volumes fell 40 percent this year. And equity bankers have seen lucrative IPO fees dry up – they almost halved this year from 2011  and are a third of 2007 levels.

One market that has possibly disappointed investors most is Russia.  Its plan a few years ago to privatise large swathes of state-run companies via share sales had bankers salivating — estimates for the proceeds ranged from $30-$50 billion. The pipeline is still alluring, with all manner of companies up for privatisation, including shipping company Sovcomflot and the Russian Railways monopoly.  The Kremlin did raise $5 billion this year by selling a 7.6 percent stake in Sberbank, the banking giant, but not much else has come to pass.  In fact, 2012 saw the state tighten its grip on the energy sector, as government-controlled Rosneft bought oil producer TNK off BP, forking out $12.3 billion and some equity.

Sberbank analyst Chris Weafer estimates Russian companies raised $2.5 billion this year via IPOs, including a $1.8 billion offering from mobile operator Megafon- that’s almost half last year’s levels. Actually, the picture is not that dismal. Weafer points out that total equity issuance to the market, including strategic stake sales by shareholders, came to  $12.8 billion (the total was bumped up by the $5 billion Sberbank deal) and that is up from last year’s total of $9.9 billion.

The Watanabes are coming

With Shinzo Abe’s new government intent on prodding the Bank of Japan into unlimited monetary easing, it is hardly surprising that the yen has slumped to two-year lows against the dollar. This could lead to even more flows into overseas markets from Japanese investors seeking higher-yield homes for their money.

Japanese mom-and-pop investors — known collectively as Mrs Watanabe -  have for years been canny players of currency and interest rate arbitrage. In recent years they have stepped away from old favourites, New Zealand and Australia, in favour of emerging markets such as Brazil, South Africa and Turkey. (See here  to read Global Investing’s take on Mrs Watanabe’s foray into Turkey). Flows from Japan stalled somewhat in the wake of the 2010 earthquake but EM-dedicated Japanese investment trusts, known as toshin, remain a mighty force, with estimated assets of over $64 billion.  Analysts at JP Morgan noted back in October that with the U.S. Fed’s QE3 in full swing, more Japanese cash had started to flow out.

That trickle shows signs of  becoming a flood. Nikko Asset Management, the country’s third  biggest money manager, said this week that retail investors had poured $2.3 billion into a mutual fund that invests in overseas shares — the biggest  subscription since October 2006. This fund’s model portfolio has a 64 percent weighting to U.S. shares, 14 percent to Mexico and 10 percent to Canada while the rest is split between Latin American countries.

After bumper 2012, more gains for emerging Europe debt?

By Alice Baghdjian

Interest rate cuts in emerging markets, credit ratings upgrades and above all the tidal wave of liquidity from Western central banks have sent almost $90 billion into emerging bond markets this year (estimate from JP Morgan). Much of this cash has flowed to locally-traded emerging currency debt, pushing yields in many markets to record lows again and again. Local currency bonds are among this year’s star asset classes, returning over 15 percent, Thomson Reuters data shows.

But the pick up in global growth widely expected in 2013 may put the brakes on the bond rally in many countries – for instance rate hikes are expected in Brazil, Mexico and Chile. One area where rate rises are firmly off the agenda however is emerging Europe and South Africa, where economic growth remains weak. That is leading to some expectations that these markets could outperform in 2013.

There have already been big rallies. Since the start of the year, Turkey’s 10 year bond has rallied by 300 basis points; Hungary’s by almost 400 bps; and Poland’s by 200 bps. So is there room for more.

Fitch’s Xmas gift for Hungary leaves analysts agog

Hungary’s outlook upgrade to stable from positive by Fitch was greeted with incredulity by many analysts. Benoit Anne at Societe Generale wonders if the decision had anything to do with the Mayan prophecy that proclaiming the end of the world on Dec. 21:

What is the last crazy thing you would do on the last day of the world? Well, the guys at Fitch could not find anything better to do than upgrading Hungary’s rating outlook to stable. Now, that really makes me scared.

A bit brutal maybe but the point Anne wants to make is valid — nothing fundamental has changed in Hungary — its GDP growth and debt numbers are looking as dire as before and the central bank is still subject to political interference.

Hungary’s forint and rate cut expectations

A rate cut in Hungary is considered a done deal today. But a sharp downward move in the forint  is making future policy outlook a bit more interesting.

The forint fell 1.5 percent against the euro on Monday to the lowest level since July and has lost 2.6 percent this month. Monday’s loss was driven by a rumour that the central bank planned to stop accepting bids for two week T-bills. That would effectively have eliminated the main way investors buy into forint in the short term.   The rumour was denied but the forint continues to weaken.

Analysts are not too worried, attributing it to year-end position squaring. Benoit Anne, head of EM strategy at Societe Generale, points out the forint is the world’s best performing emerging currency of 2012 (up  11.3 percent against the dollar). Given the state of the economy (recession) and falling inflation, the forint move will not deter the central bank from a rate cut, he says.

Emerging Policy-More interest rate cuts

A big week for central bank meetings looms and the doves are likely to be in full flight.

Take the Reserve Bank of India, the arch-hawk of emerging markets. It meets on Tuesday and some, such as Goldman Sachs, are predicting a rate cut as a nod to the government’s reform efforts. That call is a rare one, yet it may have gained some traction after data last week showed inflation at a 10-month low, while growth languishes at the lowest in a decade. Goldman’s Tushar Poddar tells clients:

With both growth and inflation surprising on the downside relative to the RBI’s forecast, there is a reason for the central bank to move earlier than its previous guidance.

The BBB credit ratings traffic jam

Adversity is a great leveller. Just look at the way sovereign credit ratings in the developed and emerging world have been converging ever since the credit crisis erupted five years ago. JPMorgan  has crunched a few numbers.

Few were surprised last week by S&P’s decision to cut the outlook on Britain’s AAA rating to negative. That gold-plated rating is becoming increasingly rare — according to JP Morgan, just 15 percent of global GDP now rates AAA with a stable outlook — a whopping comedown from 50 percent in 2007. Only 13 developed economies are now rated AAA, compared to 21 before the crisis. And only one, Australia, now has a higher rating (AAA) than in 2007 — 16 of its peers have suffered a total of 129 downgrades in this period.  With 20 rich countries on negative outlook, more downgrades are likely.

Emerging sovereigns, on the other hand, have enjoyed 189 upgrades (43 percent of these were moves into investment grade). That has caused what JPM dubs “a traffic jam”  in the triple B ratings area, with 20 percent of world GDP now rated at this level, compared to 8 percent in 2009.

African growth if China slows

The  apparent turnaround in Africa’s fortunes over the past decade has been attributed to the rise of China and its insatiable appetite for African commodities. So African policymakers, like those everywhere, will have been relieved by the recent uptick in Chinese economic data.

But is Africa’s dependence on China exaggerated?  A hard landing in the Asian giant will be an undoubted setback for African finances but according to Fitch Ratings.  it may not be a disaster.

Fitch analyst Kit Ling Leung estimates that if China’s economy grows at below-forecast rates of 5 percent in 2013 and 6.5 percent in 2014, African real GDP growth will slow by 90 basis points.  So a 3 percentage point drop in Chinese growth will lead to less than a 1 percentage point hit to Africa. Countries such as Angola will take a harder hit due to oil price falls but others such as Uganda, which import most of their energy, may even benefit, Yeung’s exercise shows.

Corruption and business potential sometimes go together

By Alice Baghdjian

Uzbekistan, Bangladesh and Vietnam found themselves cheered and chided this week.

The Corruption Perceptions Index, compiled by Berlin-based watchdog Transparency International, measured the perceived levels of public sector corruption in 176 countries and all three found their way into the bottom half of the study.

Uzbekistan shared 170th place with Turkmenistan (a higher ranking denotes higher perceived corruption levels) . Vietnam was ranked 123th, tied with countries like Sierra Leone and Belarus, while Bangladesh was 144th.