Global Investing

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.

Moreover Ukraine paid a substantial premium to compensate investors for the risk. Last June it sold a $1.25 billion 5-year bond, paying just 6.25 percent or 300 basis points less. Michael Ganske, head of emerging markets research at Commerzbank says:

At the moment investors are pouring money into emerging fixed income, they just want to get a better yield for their portfolios. People understand Ukraine is not a fantastic credit but it is a matter of value for money — just look at the yield. I think this deal was positive for both sides: Ukraine were able to issue and get money in the bank and investors received an attractive yield.

Doves to rule the roost in emerging markets

Interest rate meetings are coming up this week in Turkey,  South Africa and Mexico.  Most analysts expect no change to interest rates in any of the three countries.  But chances are, the worsening global growth picture will force policymakers to soften their tone from previous months; indeed forwards markets are actually pricing an 18-20 basis-point interest rate cut in South Africa.

Doves in South Africa will have been encouraged by today’s lower-than-expected inflation print, coming soon after data showing a growth deceleration in the second quarter of the year. Investors have flooded the bond markets, betting on rate cuts in coming months. In Turkey and Mexico, no policy change is priced but a few reckon the former, reliant on a policy of day-to-day tinkering with liquidity, may narrow the interest rate corridor in a nod to slowing growth.

For now, all three banks could be constrained from cutting rates by fear of currency volatility and the potential knock-on effect on inflation. Of South Africa, analysts at TD Securities write:

10%-plus returns: only on emerging market debt

It’s turning out to be a great year for emerging debt. Returns on sovereign dollar bonds have topped 10 percent already this year on the benchmark EMBI Global index, compiled by JP Morgan.  That’s better than any other fixed income or equity category, whether in emerging or developed markets. Total 2012 returns could be as much as 12 percent, JPM reckons.

Debt denominated in emerging currencies has done less well . Still, the main index for local debt, JPM’s GBI-EM index, has  racked up a very respectable 7.6 percent return year-to-date in dollar terms, rebounding from a fall to near zero at the start of June.  Take a look at the following graphic which shows EMBIG returns on top:

Fund flows to emerging fixed income have been robust. EPFR Global says the sector took in  $16.2 billion year to date.  JPM, which tracks a broader investor set including Japanese investment trusts, estimates the total at $43 billion, not far off its forecast of $50-60 billion for the whole of 2012.

More EM central banks join the easing crew

Taiwan and Philippines have joined the easing crew. Taiwan cut interbank lending rates for the first time in 33 months on Friday while Philippines lowered the rate it pays banks on short-term special deposits. Hardly surprising. Given South Koreas’s shock rate cut on Thursday, its first in over three years, and China’s two rate cuts in quick succession, the spread of monetary easing across Asia looks inevitable. Markets are now betting the Reserve Bank of India will also cut rates in July.

And not just in Asia. Brazil last week cut rates for the eighth straight time  and Russia’s central bank, while holding rates steady,  amended its language to signal it was amenable to changing its policy stance if required.

Worries about a growth collapse are clearly gathering pace. So how much room do central banks have to cut rates? Compared with Europe or the United States, certainly a lot.  And with the exception of Indonesia and Philippines, interest rates in most countries are well above 2009 crisis lows.  But Deutsche Bank analysts, who applied a variation of the Taylor rule (a monetary policy parameter stipulating how much nominal interest rates can be changed relative to inflation or output), conclude that in Asia, only Vietnam and Thailand have much room to cut rates. Malaysia and China have less scope to do so and the others not at all (Their model did not work well for India).

Food prices may feed monetary angst

Be it too much sun in the American Midwest, or too much water in the Russian Caucasus, food supply lines are being threatened, and food prices are surging again just as the world economy slips into the doldrums.

This week, Chicago corn prices rose for a second straight day, bringing its rise over the month to 45%, and floods on Russia’s Black Sea coast disrupted their grain exports.  Having trended lower for about nine-months to June, the surge in July means corn prices are now up about 14% year-on-year. And all of this after too little rain over the spring and winterkill meant Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan’s combined wheat crop would fall 22 percent to 78.9 million tonnes this year from 2011.

But as damaging as these disasters have been for local populations, their effects could be much more widely felt.

Korea shocks with rate cut but will it work?

Emerging market investors may have got used to policy surprises from Turkey’s central bank but they don’t expect them from South Korea. Such are the times, however, that the normally staid Bank of Korea shocked investors this morning with an interest rate cut,  the first in three years.  Most analysts had expected it to stay on hold. But with the global economic outlook showing no sign of lightening, the BoK probably felt the need to try and stimulate sluggish domestic demand. (To read coverage of today’s rate cut see here).

So how much impact is the cut going to have?  I wrote yesterday about Brazil, where eight successive rate cuts have borne little fruit in terms of stimulating economic recovery. Korea’s outcome could be similar but the reasons are different. The rate cut should help Korea’s indebted household sector. But for an economy heavily reliant on exports,  lower interest rates are no panacea,  more a reassurance that, as other central banks from China to the ECB to Brazil  ease policy, the BoK is not sitting on its hands.

Nomura economist Young-Sun Kwon says:

We do not think that rate cuts will be enough to reverse the downturn in the Korean economy which is largely dependent on exports.

SocGen poll unearths more EM bulls in July

These are not the best of times for emerging markets but some investors don’t seem too perturbed. According to Societe Generale,  almost half the clients it surveys in its monthly snap poll of investors have turned bullish on emerging markets’ near-term prospects. That is a big shift from June, when only 33 percent were optimistic on the sector. And less than a third of folk are bearish for the near-term outlook over the next couple of weeks, a drop of 20 percentage points over the past month.

These findings are perhaps not so surprising, given most risky assets have rallied off the lows of May.  And a bailout of Spain’s banks seems to have averted, at least temporarily, an immediate debt and banking crunch in the euro zone. What is more interesting is that despite a cloudy growth picture in the developing world, especially in the four big BRIC economies,  almost two-thirds of the investors polled declared themselves bullish on emerging markets in the medium-term (the next 3 months) . That rose to almost 70 percent for real money investors. (the poll includes 46 real money accounts and 45 hedge funds from across the world).

See the graphics below (click to enlarge):

Signals are positive on positioning as well with 38.5 percent of investors reckoning they were under-invested in emerging markets, compared to a quarter who felt they were over-invested. Again, real-money investors appeared more keen on emerging markets, with over 40 percent seeing themselves as under-invested. SocGen analysts write:

European equities finding some takers

European equities are getting some investor interest again.

As the ongoing debt crisis erodes consumer spending and corporate profits, the euro zone’s share  in investors’ equity portfolios has fallen in the past year –Reuters polls show holdings of euro zone stocks at 25 percent versus over 36 percent a year back.  Cash has fled instead to U.S. stocks, opening up a record valuation gap between the European and U.S. shares. (see graphics below from my colleague Scott Barber). In fact no other region has ever been considered as cheap as the euro zone is now,  a monthly survey by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch found in June.

That could offer investors a powerful incentive to return, especially as there are signs of serious efforts to tackle the crisis by deploying the euro zone’s rescue fund.

Pioneer Investments has moved to an overweight position on European stocks. While Pioneer’s head of global asset allocation research Monica Defend stresses the overweight is a small one compared to, say, its position in emerging markets, she says:

Emerging stocks: when will there be gain after pain?

Emerging equities’ amazing  first quarter rally now seems a distant memory. In fact MSCI’s main emerging markets index recently spent 11 straight weeks in the red, the longest lossmaking stretch in the history of the index.  The reasons are clear — the euro zone is in danger of breakup, growth is dire in the West and stuttering in the East. Weaker oil and metals prices are hitting commodity exporting countries.

But there may be grounds for optimism. According to this graphic from HSBC analyst John Lomax, sharp falls in emerging equity valuations have always in the past been followed by a robust market bounce.

What might swing things? First, the valuation. The  2008 crisis took emerging  equity prices to an average of 8 times forward earnings for the MSCI index, down from almost 14 times before the Lehman crisis. The subsequent rebound from April 2009 saw the MSCI emerging index jump 90 percent. Emerging equities are not quite so cheap today, trading at around 9 times forward 12-month earnings but that is still well below developed peers and their own long-term average.

The (CDS) cost of being in the euro

What’s the damage from being a member of the euro? German credit default swaps, used to insure risk, have spiralled to record highs over 130 basis points, three times the level of a year ago amid the escalating brouhaha over Spain’s banks and Greek elections. U.S. CDS meanwhile remain around 45 bps. That means it costs 45,000 to insure $10 million worth of U.S. investments for five years, compared to $135,000 for Germany. (click the graphics to enlarge)

A smaller but similarly interesting anomaly can be found in central Europe. Take close neighbours, the Czech and Slovak Republics who are so similar they were once the same country. Both have small open  economies, reliant on producing goods for export to Germany.

The difference is that Slovakia joined the euro in 2009.

Back then, with the world grappling with the fallout from the Lehman crisis, Slovakia appeared at a distinct advantage versus the Czech Republic. At the height of the crisis in February 2009, Czech 5-year CDS exploded to 300 bps, well above Slovakia’s levels. But slowly that premium has eroded. A year ago CDS for both countries were quoted at similar levels of around 70 bps.  Now the Czech CDS are quoted at 125 bps, having risen along with everything else, but Slovak CDS have jumped to 250 bps, data from Markit shows. (bonds have not reacted in the same manner — Slovak 1-year debt still yields around 0.8 percent versus 1.4 percent for the Czech Republic; similarly German yields have fallen to zero; for an explanation see here).