Global Investing

Anticipating the fallout from South Africa’s ratings reviews

South Africa is due ratings reviews this Friday. Chances are that the Standard & Poor’s agency will cut its BBB rating by one, or possibly even two notches.  Another agency Fitch has a stable outlook on the rating but could still choose to downgrade the rating rather than the outlook. What will be the damage?

There is undoubtedly a link between ratings and bond prices.  So a one-notch ratings downgrade tends to lead to roughly a 20 percent increase in bond yield spreads and credit default swaps (instruments that are used to hedge against default), according to calculations by JPMorgan. But in South Africa the lower credit rating may already be already reflected in asset prices — Panama, Brazil, Colombia, Philippines, Uruguay, Indonesia, and Romania carry lower sovereign credit ratings but boast lower CDS and dollar bond yield premia over Treasuries.  Russia and Turkey have lower average ratings than South Africa but their debt and CDS spreads  are roughly on the same level.

So a ratings cut is unlikely to trigger huge outflows from South African debt markets, says JPMorgan, which runs the most widely used emerging bond indices. In Brazil for instance, a well-anticipated  downgrade back in March did not lead to significant cash outflows from its markets, JPM points out:

The current relationships between spreads and ratings do not necessarily imply another step wider in South Africa’s spreads until it is firmly sub-investment grade (not J.P. Morgan’s base case).

Secondly, even after a downgrade to BBB-, South Africa would still be rated investment grade, so investors will not be required to sell their holdings.  On local currency debt, South Africa is rated A- from S&P so a 1- or even 2-notch downgrade should have no technical impact the bank argues.

Buying back into emerging markets

After almost a year of selling emerging markets, investors seem to be returning in force. The latest to turn positive on the asset class is asset and wealth manager Pictet Group (AUM: 265 billion pounds) which said on Tuesday its asset management division (clarifies division of Pictet) was starting to build positions on emerging equities and local currency debt. It has an overweight position on the latter for the first time since it went underweight last July.

Local emerging debt has been out of favour with investors because of how volatile currencies have been since last May, For an investor who is funding an emerging market investments from dollars or euros, a fast-falling rand can wipe out any gains he makes on a South African bond. But the rand and its peers such as the Turkish lira, Indian rupee, Indonesian rupiah and Brazilan real — at the forefront of last year’s selloff –  have stabilised from the lows hit in recent months.  According to Pictet Asset Management:

Valuations of emerging market currencies have fallen to a point where they are now starkly at odds with such economies’ fundamentals. Emerging currencies are, on average, trading at almost two standard deviations below their equilibrium level (which takes into account a country’s net foreign asset holdings, inflation rate and its relative productivity).

Ukraine and the IMF: a sense of deja vu

The West has just agreed to stump up a load of cash for Ukraine but there is a distinct sense of deja vu around it all.

Let’s face it – Ukraine’s track record on how it manages ts economy and foreign affairs isn’t great. This is the third aid programme Kiev has signed with the International Monetary Fund in a decade and two of them have failed. The IMF has its fingers crossed that this one will not go the way of the past two. Reza Moghadam, the IMF’s top European official, tells Reuters in an interview:

They seem to be committed, they seem to own this reform programme and in that sense I am optimistic

Braving emerging stocks again

It’s a brave investor who will venture into emerging markets these days, let alone start a new fund. Data from Thomson Reuters company Lipper shows declining appetite for new emerging market funds – while almost 200 emerging debt and equity funds were launched in Europe back in 2011, the tally so far  this year is just 10.

But Shaw Wagener, a portfolio manager at U.S. investor American Funds has gone against the trend, launching an emerging growth and income fund earlier this month.

It’s a great time to launch a fund if you have a long-term focus in mind. Emerging markets trailed DM in terms of performance for a while, peaking at end of 2010 so we are 3-plus years into a down market and period of significant underperformance.

CORRECTED-Toothless or not, Western sanctions bite Russian bonds

(corrects last paragraph to show that Timchenko was Gunvor’s co-founder, not a former CEO)

Western sanctions against Russia lack bite, that’s the consensus. Yet the bonds of some Russian companies have taken a hit, especially the ones whose bosses have been targeted for visa- and asset freezes.

Take state-run Russian Raiways. Its chairman Vladimir Yakunin, a member of President Putin’s inner circle, was on the sanctions list. He said he was flattered to be targeted but investors in his company’s dollar bonds are likely to be less thrilled. Russian Railways’ 2022 bond is now the cheapest quasi-sovereign bond in the emerging markets universe relative to its sovereign, Barclays analysts point out. The bond trades now at a 158 bps premium to Russia’s 2022 issue while the one-year average premium has been 114 bps, Barclays note.

Asia’s path to prosperity and investment opportunities

Investors have been worried about the effect of a Chinese slowdown on Asian emerging markets, but the long-term growth story is still intact, according to specialist investment manager Matthews Asia.

Consumption is one of the key areas of growth. Illustrating the divergence of Asian economies and their path to prosperity, here’s an interesting chart from Matthews which shows the standard of living of various Asian countries, expressed by applying Geary-Khamis dollars — the concept of international dollars based on purchasing power parity — to today’s Japan.

For example, the living standards of North Korea and Mongolia are at around that of Japan in the 1890s — when Japan and China fought in the Sino-Japanese war and Wilhelm Rontgen discovered x-rays — while China’s is equivalent of an early 1970s Japan and Malaysia and Thailand are a step ahead at the mid-1970s.

Liquidity needs to pick up in EM

Emerging markets have seen heavy selling in the past few months, with political and economic crises hitting the region’s currencies and asset markets.

The obvious question now is: Is all the bad news in the price?

London-based CrossBorder Capital, who publishes monthly liquidity and risk appetite data for developed and emerging economies, thinks not.

“It is probably too early to buy the EM sector right now, certainly not until liquidity picks up again,” Michael Howell, CrossBorder’s managing director, says.

Who shivers if Russia cuts off the gas?

Markets are fretting about the prospect of western sanctions on Russia but Europeans will also suffer heavily from any retaliatory trade embargoes from Moscow which supplies roughly a third of the continent’s gas needs  – 130 billion cubic metres in 2012.

After all, memories are still fresh of winter 2009 when Russia cut off gas exports through Ukraine because of Kiev’s failure to pay bills on time.  ING Bank analysts have put together a table showing which countries could be hardest hit if the Kremlin indeed turns off the taps.

So while Hungary and Slovakia depend on Moscow for over a third of their energy,  Germany imported less than 10 percent of its needs  from Russia while Ireland, Spain and the United Kingdom received none at all in 2012, ING’s graphic shows.  So while the main impetus for the sanctions comes from the G7 group of rich countries,  it is central and Eastern Europe who will be in the firing line.

Iran: a frontier for the future

Investors trawling for new frontier markets have of late been rolling into Iran. Charles Robertson at Renaissance Capital (which bills itself as a Frontier bank) visited recently and his verdict?

It’s like Turkey, but with 9% of the world’s oil reserves.

Most interestingly, Robertson found a bustling stock market with a $170 billion market cap — on par with Poland – which is the result of a raft of privatisations in recent years.  A $150 million daily trading volume exceeds that of Nigeria, a well established frontier markets. And a free-float of $30 billion means that if Iranian shares are included in MSCI’s frontier index, they would have a share of 25 percent, he calculates.

What of the economy? Renaissance estimates its size at $437 billion, which if accurate would place it higher than Austria or Thailand. Foreign investors are keen — a thawing of relations with the West has triggered a race among multinations to explore business opportunities in the country of 78 million. Last month, more than 100 executives from France’s biggest firms visited Iran. Robertson writes:

No more “emerging markets” please

The crisis currently roiling the developing world has revived a debate in some circles about the very validity of the “emerging markets” concept. Used since the early 1980s as a convenient moniker grouping countries that were thought to be less developed — financially or infrastructure-wise or due to the size or liquidity of their financial markets — the widely varying performances of different countries during the turmoil has served to underscore the differences rather than similarities between them.  An analyst who traveled recently between several Latin American countries summed it up by writing that he had passed through three international airports during his trip but had not had a stamp in his passport that said “emerging market”.

Like this analyst, many reckon the day has come when fund managers, index providers and investors must stop and consider  if it makes sense to bucket wildly disparate countries together.  After all what does Venezuela, with its anti-market policies and 50 percent annual inflation, have in common with Chile, a free market economy with a high degree of transparency  and investor-friendliness?

Deutsche Bank analyst John-Paul Smith is one of many questioning current index-based investing models which he says essentially provide a free ride to the Russias and Venezuelas of this world, who may be undeserving of investor dollars.  Simply by virtue of inclusion in the emerging index, a country becomes a “default beneficiary” of passive investment flows — from funds that hug or track the benchmark — Smith says. In a note he calls for the abandonment of current index criteria such as market access, liquidity or per capita income in favour of a “substantive governance-based view of risk”
In other words: