Global Investing

Mrs Watanabe in Istanbul

Japanese mom-and-pop investors’ penchant for seeking high-yield investments overseas is well known. Mrs Watanabe (as the canny player of currency and exchange rate arbitrage has come to be known) invests billions of yen overseas every year via  so-called uridashi bonds, debt denominated in currencies with high yields.  Data shows the lira has suddenly become the red-hot favourite with uridashi investors this year.

In a note entitled Welcome Mrs Watanabe, Barclays analysts estimate $2 billion in lira-based uridashi issuance this year, ahead of old favourite, the  Australian dollar.

So far, Japan’s exposure to Turkey is negligible at just 1.2 percent of their emerging market portfolio investments (Brazil is 4 percent, Korea 3 percent and Mexico 2 percent).  But Turkey’s high yields (almost 8 percent on one-year bonds) and the lira’s resilience mean the figure could rise to $5-$6 billion a year. That is almost half of total portfolio flows to Turkey in 2011, Barclays says.

Its analysts note that Brazil has fallen from favour with Mrs Watanabe as the central bank there has cut rates sharply, taxed foreign inflows and pushed the real down almost 10 percent to the dollar. In contrast,  the Turkish lira is up 5 percent this year.  The central bank has signalled it will not countenance a weaker lira and kept monetary policy tight.  It has also not stood in the way of flows to local bond markets which have received almost $8 billion this year from foreigners. Barclays write:

Turkey and some other high-yielding EM countries such as Russia may find themselves beneficiaries of investor interest previously directed at Brazil and the real….If Turkey succeeds in attracting more and more of these flows, the lira exchange rate is likely to benefit, as well as the Turkish bond market where these flows could end up.

Emerging debt default rates on the rise

Times are tough and unsurprisingly, default rates among emerging market companies are rising.

David Spegel, ING Bank’s head of emerging debt, has a note out, calculating that there have been $8.271 billion worth of defaults by 19 emerging market issuers so far this year — nearly double the total $4.28 billion witnessed during the whole of 2011.

And there is more to come — 208 bonds worth $75.7 billion are currently trading at yield levels classed as distressed (above 1000 basis points), Spegel says, while another 120 bonds worth $45 billion are at “stressed” levels (yields between 700 and 999 bps).   Over half of the “distressed” bonds are in Latin America (see graphic below).  His list suggests there could be $2.4 billion worth of additional defaults in 2012 which would bring the 2012 total to $10.7 billion. Spegel adds however that defaults would drop next year to $6.8 billion.

Risks loom for South Africa’s bond rally

Investors are wondering how much longer the rally in South Africa’s local bond markets will last.

The market has received inflows of over $7.5 billion year-to-date, having benefited hugely from Citi’s April announcement that it would include South Africa in its elite World Government Bond Index (WGBI).  But like many other emerging markets, South Africa has also gained from international investors’ hunger for higher-yielding bonds. And the central bank’s surprise rate cut last week was the icing on the cake, sending 5-year yields plunging another 30 basis points.

There are some headwinds however. First positioning. Around a third of government bonds are already estimated to be in foreigners’ hands. Second, markets may be pricing in too much policy easing (Forward rate agreements are assigning a 77  percent probability of another 50 bps rate cut within the next six months).  That’s especially so given local wheat and maize prices have been hitting record highs in recent weeks.

South Africa’s joins the rate cutting spree

Another central bank has caved in and cut interest rates — South Africa lowered its key rate to a record low of 5 percent at Thursday’s meeting. In doing so, the central bank noted growth was slowing further. ”Negative spillover effects (from the global economy)  likely to intensify,” it said.

Very few analysts had predicted this outcome, reckoning the central bank (or SARB as it’s known) would hold fire until its next meeting due to concerns over the currency and inflation.  But in fact, forward markets had guessed a cut was coming, especially after June inflation was lower than expected. And after all, even the conservative Bank of Korea cut rates last week to buck up domestic growth and compensate for slumping exports.  There have also been some policy easing in Taiwan and Philippines in the past week while earlier on Thursday, Turkey’s central bank unleashed more liquidity into the banking system. Kevin Lings, chief economist at Stanlib in Johannesburg says:

(South Africa’s rate cut) would suggest that the Reserve Bank feels they are a little bit behind the curve when they look at interest rate movements in other countries and hence the decision.

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.

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.