Global Investing

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).

Deutsche said of Korea:

After this week’s rate cut, our model suggests rates are essentially in line with the rule as defined by the past behaviour of the Bank of Korea

But there are also doubts that the doves can deliver.

I wrote here last week about how Brazil’s 11-month long easing cycle has borne little fruit and questioned how much immediate benefit Korea’s export-reliant economy will derive from a rate cut. Equity markets have reacted poorly to the rate cuts, interpreting them as proof of central banks’ nervousness rather than as a catalyst for spurring growth. Societe Generale analysts are pessimistic of emerging central banks’ ability this time to stem the rot. They write:

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).

Sell in May? Yes they did

Just how miserable a month May was for global equity markets is summed up by index provider S&P which notes that every one of the 46 markets included in its world index (BMI)  fell last month, and of these 35 posted double-digit declines. Overall, the index slumped more than 9 percent.

With Greece’s anti-austerity May 6 election result responsible for much of the red ink, it was perhaps fitting that Athens was May’s worst performer, losing almost 30 percent (it’s down 65 percent so far this year).  With euro zone growth steadily deteriorating, even German stocks fell almost 15 percent in May while Portugal, Spain and Italy were the worst performing developed markets  (along with Finland).

The best of the bunch (at least in the developed world) was the United States which fell only 6.5 percent in May and is clinging to 2012 gains of around 5 percent. S&P analyst Howard Silverblatt writes:

India rate cut clamour misses rupee’s fall-JPM

Indian markets are rallying this week as they price in an interest rate cut at the Reserve Bank’s June 18 meeting.  With the country still in shock after last week’s 5.3 percent first quarter GDP growth print, it is easy to understand the clamour for rate cuts. After all, first quarter growth just a year ago was 9.2 percent.

Yet,  there may be little the RBI can do to kickstart growth and investment.  Many would argue the growth slowdown is not caused by tight monetary conditions but is down to supply constraints and macroeconomic risks –the government’s inability to lift a raft of crippling subsidies has swollen the fiscal deficit to almost 6 percent while inhibitions on foreign investment in food processing and retail keep food prices volatile.  

The other side of the problem is of course the rupee which has plunged to record lows amid the global turmoil. Lower interest rates could  leave the currency vulnerable to further losses.

Indian risks eclipsing other BRICs

India’s first-quarter GDP growth report was a shocker this morning at +5.3 percent. Much as Western countries would dream of a print that good, it’s akin to a hard landing for a country only recently aspiring to double-digit expansions and, with little hope of any strong reform impetus from the current government, things might get worse if investment flows dry up. The rupee is at a new record low having fallen 7 percent in May alone against the dollar — bad news for companies with hard currency debt maturing this year (See here). So investors are likely to find themselves paying more and more to hedge exposure to India.

Credit default swaps for the State Bank of India (used as a proxy for the Indian sovereign) are trading at almost 400 basis points. More precisely, investors must pay $388,000  to insure $10 million of exposure for a five-year period, data from Markit shows. That is well above levels for the other countries in the BRIC quartet — Brazil, China and Russia. Check out the following graphic from Markit showing the contrast between Brazil and Indian risk perceptions.

At the end of 2010, investors paid a roughly 50 bps premium over Brazil to insure Indian risk via SBI CDS. That premium is now more than 200 bps.