Global Investing

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?

In Argentina, where the central bank is zealously guarding its sparse hard currency reserves, it does look likely that more provinces will follow Chaco’s example and pay creditors in pesos. But many of these municipal bonds, including Chaco’s, are governed by local law and are mostly held by Argentines. Analysts at Barclays say it is unlikely Buenos Aires will “pesify” debt issued under international law, i.e. force creditors to take payment in pesos. That’s because changing payment terms of international law paper could constitute full-fledged rather than technical default (as in Chaco’s case) and can also trigger cross default clauses. Barclays tells clients:

We believe that local law dollar debt of provincial governments and corporations will be mostly paid in pesos, as per July regulatory changes that ban exchange rate purchases without a “predetermined purpose”. But we do not expect changes in external provincial or corporate debt. Federal government local and external debt will remain honored in dollars, in our view.

Record year for emerging corporate bonds

The past 24 hours have brought news of more fund launches targeting emerging corporate debt;  Barings and HSBC have started a fund each while ING Investment Management said its fund launched late last year had crossed $100 million.  We have written about the seemingly insatiable demand  for corporate emerging bonds in recent months,  with the asset class last month surpassing the $1 trillion mark.  Data from Thomson Reuters shows today that a record $263 billion worth of EM corporate debt has already been underwritten this year by banks, more than a fifth higher than was issued in the same 2011 period (see graphic):

The biggest surge has come from Latin America, the data shows, with Brazilian companies accounting for one-fifth of the issuance. A $7 billion bond from Brazil’s state oil firm Petrobras was the second biggest global emerging market bond ever.

The top 10 EM corporate bonds of the year:  Petrobras issued the two biggest bonds of $7 billion and $3 billion, followed by Venezuela’s PDVSA and Indonesia’s Petramina. Brazil’s Santander Leasing was in fifth place, Mexican firms PEMEX and America Movil were sixth and seventh.  Chilean miner CODELCO, Brazil’s Banco do Brasil and  Russia’s Sberbank also entered the list.

Emerging Policy-the big easing continues

The big easing continues. A major surprise today from the Bank of Thailand, which cut interest rates by 25 basis points to 2.75 percent.  After repeated indications  from Governor Prasarn Trairatvorakul that policy would stay unchanged for now, few had expected the bank to deliver its first rate cut since January.  But given the decision was not unanimous, it appears that Prasarn was overruled.  As in South Korea last week,  the need to boost domestic demand dictated the BoT’s decision. The Thai central bank  noted:

The majority of MPC members deemed that monetary policy easing was warranted to shore up domestic demand in the period ahead and ward off the potential negative impact from the global economy which remained weak and fragile.

Thailand expects GDP to grow 5.7 percent this year and Prasarn has cited robust credit demand as the reason to keep rates on hold. But there have been ominous signs of late — exports and factory output have now fallen for three months straight, which probably dictated today’s rate cut.  Remember that exports, mainly of industrial goods, account for 60 percent of Thai GDP and the outlook is perilous — the BOT has already halved its export growth forecast for 2012 to 7 percent and has said it will cut this estimate further.

Emerging EU and the end of “naked” CDS

JP Morgan has an interesting take on the stupendous recent rally in the credit default swaps (CDS) of countries such as Poland and Hungary which are considered emerging markets, yet are members of the European Union. Analysts at the bank link the moves to the EU’s upcoming ban on “naked” sovereign CDS trades — trade in CDS by investors who don’t have ownership of the underlying government debt. The ban which comes into effect on Nov. 1, was brought in during 2010 after EU politicians alleged that hedge funds short-selling Greek CDS had exacerbated the crisis.

JP Morgan notes that the sovereign CDS of a group of emerging EU members (Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland and Romania) have tightened 100 basis points since the start of September, while a basket of emerging peers including Brazil, Indonesia and Turkey saw CDS tighten just 39 bps. See the graphic below:

 

Spread tightening was of a similar magnitude in both groups before this period, JPM says (the implication being that traders have been selling some of their “naked” CDS holdings in these markets ahead of the ban):

Golden Time for Turkey

One would have thought the brewing tensions in neighbouring Iran — an unravelling economy and the likelihood of an air strike by Israel– would only be a source of concern for Turkey. Every cloud, though….

Data released last week shows how the geo-political crisis has helped Turkey to shrink its massive current account deficit by a third this year. That’s because Iranians, scrambling to ditch their crumbling riyal currency and without access to dollars, have been buying up enormous amounts of gold as an inflation hedge, most of it from Turkey.

Turkey sold gold worth $6.2 billion to Iran in the January-July period this year, more than 10 times the $54 million that it exported to its neighbour in the same period in 2011. While sales to Iran officially dipped in August to $180 million from July’s $1.8 billion, that figure is deceptive as  exports appear to have been routed through the UAE, according to Capital Economics.

A happy future for the “doomed continent”?

The International Monetary Fund this week painted yet another gloomy picture, cutting its 2012 forecast for Africa along with most other countries around the world. In its latest World Economic Outlook, the IMF shaved its 2012 projections for Africa to 5 percent from 5.4 percent.

But it’s not all gloomy for Africa, once called  ”the doomed continent” by the Economist. With its eyes set on next year, the IMF revised up its 2013 outlook to 5.7 percent from 5.3 percent.

Sharing this optimistic outlook for Africa’s future is Africa-focused Russian bank Renaissance Capital:

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.

Venezuelan yields make it hard to stay away

The 60-70 basis-point post-election surge in Venezuela’s benchmark foreign currency bond yields  is already starting to reverse.

Despite disappointment among many in the overseas investment world over a comfortable re-election in Venezuela of populist left-wing President Hugo Chavez  on Sunday there are quite a few who are already wading in to buy back the government’s dollar bonds.  Not surprising,  as Venezuelan sovereign bonds yield some 10 percentage points on average over U.S. Treasuries and 700 basis points more than the EMBIG sovereign emerging bond index.  It’s pretty hard to keep away from that sort of yield, especially when your pockets are full of cash, the U.S. Federal Reserve is pumping more in every month and Venezuela is full of expensive oil .

The feeling among investors clearly is that while a victory for opposition candidate Henrique Capriles would have been preferable, Chavez is not not a disaster either  given that his policies are helping maintain a steady supply of thse high-yield bonds. And with oil prices over $110 a barrel, it is highly unlikely he will shirk on repaying debt.

Emerging Policy: Rate cuts proliferate

Emerging market central banks have clearly taken to heart the recent IMF warning that there is “an alarmingly high risk”  of a deeper global growth slump.

Two central banks have cut interest rates in the past 24 hours: Brazil  extended its year-long policy easing campaign with a quarter point cut to bring interest rates to a record low 7.25 percent and the Bank of Korea (BoK) also delivered a 25 basis point cut to 2.75 percent.  All eyes now are on Singapore which is expected to ease monetary policy on Friday while Turkey could do so next week and a Polish rate cut is looking a foregone conclusion for November.

South Africa, Hungary, Colombia, China and Turkey have eased policy in recent months while India has cut bank reserve ratios to spur lending.

Iran currency plunge an omen for change?

In recent days Iranians all over the country have been rushing to dealers to change their rials into hard currency. The result has been a spectacular plunge in the rial which has lost a third of its value against the dollar in the past week. Traders in Teheran estimate in fact that it has lost two-thirds of its value since June 2011 as U.S and European economic sanctions bite hard into the country’s oil exports. The government blames the rout on speculators.

According to Charles Robertson at Renaissance Capital,  the rial’s tumble to record lows  and inflation running around 25 percent may be an indicator that Iran is moving towards regime change.  Robertson reminds us of his report from back in March where he pointed out that autocratic countries with a falling per capita income are more likely to move towards democracy. (Click here for what we wrote on this topic at the time)

He says today:

The renewed collapse of the currency recently suggests sanctions are working towards that end.