Global Investing

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.

But Russian Railways is not the only one.  Bonds issued by Russian state-run  companies such as banks VTB, VEB Sberbank and shipping company Sovkomflot were the worst performers in the  quasi-sovereign emerging markets space this month, having widened an average 25 bps in the past month against the sovereign. Russian companies account for 9 of the 10 cheapest quasis in emerging markets, Barclays data shows.

And private Russian companies’ debt has also suffered if their owners are subject to sanctions Another Kremlin insider Gennady Timchenko, a co-founder of oil trading firm Gunvor, appeared on the sanctions list. Gunvor’s 2018 bond, already under pressure, fell 5 points in one day last week and is down 11 cents on the dollar this month. Bonds in another energy firm Sibur, in which Timchenko has a stake, are off the lows hit last week but have fallen 7 cents in March.

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:

Indian shares: disappointment may lurk

Should Indian shares really be at record highs?

The index is up 3.6 percent this year. Foreign funds have been pouring money into Mumbai shares, betting that the opposition BJP, seen as more reform-friendly than the incumbent Congress, will form the next government. They purchased $420 million worth of Indian stocks last Friday, having bought $1.4 billion over the past 15 trading sessions.

There is also the fact that the rolling crisis in emerging markets, having smacked India during its first round last May, has now moved on and is ravaging places such as Russia and Nigeria instead. The rupee has firmed almost 2 percent this year to the dollar, as last year’s 6.5 percent/GDP current account deficit has contracted to just 0.9 percent of GDP.  Many international funds such as Blackrock and JPMorgan Asset Management have Indian stocks on overweight and Bank of America/Merrill Lynch’s monthly survey showed investors’  underweight on India was one of the smallest for emerging markets.

Indian company earnings may have beaten forecasts by around 5 percent so far in the season. But prospects can hardly be described as attractive. Indian economic growth is running at less than 5 percent. Valuations are in line with historical averages and at a 4 percent premium to global emerging markets on a book-value basis. But John-Paul Smith at Deutsche Bank says it is “the least bad” of the BRICs and is neutral to overweight.

More development = fewer violent deaths in India

A recent report highlights the importance of economic development for India and indeed for all developing countries. It also shows why we should worry about the slow pace of reform in India and how that has hit growth rates.

Bank of America/Merrill Lynch analysts have picked up a report from the Institute for Conflict Management, a New Delhi-based think tank, showing that terrorism-linked deaths in India last year were 6 times lower than in 2001, a development they ascribe to the rapid growth the country enjoyed in this period. The graphic below shows the link:

ICM data showed 885 people died last year in various conflicts around India – from cross-border skirmishes, North Eastern insurgency, Kashmir violence and Maoist attacks – compared with 5,839 back in 2001. And U.S. state department data shows the average number of people killed per attack in India at BofA/ML at 0.4 compared to a 1.6 global average in 2012.

Emerging markets coming off the turbulent boil?

Is it all over? Is the emerging market turmoil no longer a concern among investors, economists and academics? Measured at least in the last week, the market is recovering some lost ground. Maybe  January’s sell-off was enough and in the last week all boats seem to be rising once again. After all, there’s a new Fed Chair in Janet Yellen who has now officially taken over and the likelihood of easy monetary policy, tapering of asset purchases notwithstanding, isn’t expected to change.

MSCI’s emerging market benchmark stock index has rebounded 3.5 percent from a Feb. 4 low. The U.S. benchmark S&P 500 stock index has risen slightly more over the same period.

Taking the pulse of the market sentiment at the University of Delaware following a speech by Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser, it appears there’s less concern emerging market woes will take down the world. In a straw poll of the audience (rough estimate put the number at 350+ attendees), the message was upbeat.

Reforms changing the yin-yang of investing in China? – PODCAST

China’s influence on emerging markets, let alone the global economy, cannot be understated. Great strides have been made to build the economy over the past 30 years, but not without its casualties. In a conversation with Michelle Gibley, director of international research at Charles Schwab, I asked her about a new research paper she’s published on why, amid the angst and doubt on emerging markets, she has shifted her views. She’s turned positive on Chinese large-cap stocks and says the China of the past was running out of gas.

Click here to the interview. (My thanks to Freddie Joyner for helping get the audio into workable shape.)

Why New Reforms Make Chinese Stocks Attractive – Michelle Gibley, Director of International Research, Charl…