Global Investing

Trading the new normal in India

After a ghastly 2011, Indian stock markets have’t done too badly this year despite the almost constant stream of bad news from India. They are up 12 percent, slightly outperforming other emerging markets, thanks to  fairly cheap valuations (by India’s normally expensive standards)  and hopes the central bank might cut rates. But foreign  inflows, running at $3 billion a month in the first quarter, have tapered off and the underlying mood is pessimistic. Above all, the worry is how much will India’s once turbo-charged economy slow? With the government seemingly in policy stupor, growth is likely to fall under 7 percent this year. News today added to the gloom — exports fell in March for the first time since the 2009 global crisis.

So how are fund managers to play India now? According to David Cornell, who runs an India portfolio at specialist investor Ocean Dial, they must simply get used to the “new normal” — subpar growth and high cost of capital. In this shift, Cornell points out, return on assets in India has fallen from a peak of almost 14 percent in 2007 to less than 10 percent now. While that is still higher than the broader emerging asset class, the advantage has dwindled to less than 1 percent as companies suffer from margin compression and falling turnover. Check out these two graphs from Ocean Dial:

Cornell is playing the new normal by focusing on three sectors — consumer goods, banks and pharmaceuticals. These companies, he says, have pricing power and structural barriers to entry (banks); provide access to still-buoyant demand for services such as mobile phones (consumer goods) and are well-run and profitable (pharmaceuticals). And the export-oriented pharma sector is also an effective hedge against the weakening rupee.

If cost of capital is high, you want to avoid leverage, you want to be in banks which have pricing power. In pharmaceuticals you have 20 percent earnings growth and transparent accounting. In an uncertain environment these sectors should perform well. (Cornell says)

 

In general, fund managers seem to be fairly positive on India despite the economic gloom and the government’s best efforts to drive them away via ill-reasoned initiatives such as attempts to retrospectively tax some investment gains.

Emerging bond defaults on the rise, no surprise

As may be expected, the crisis has increased the risk of default by emerging market borrowers. According to estimates by ING Bank’s emerging bond guru David Spegel, the default rate on EM bonds is running at over $6 billion in the first four months of 2012, already surpassing the 2011 total of $4.3 billion. He  predicts another $1.3 billion of emerging defaults to come this year.

Spegel expects the default rate for speculative grade emerging corporates to rise to 3.25 percent by September, up from 3 percent at present.  That doesn’t look too bad, given defaults ran at 13 percent after the 2008 crisis and hit a record of over 30 percent in the 2001-2003 period. But ING data shows some $120 billion worth of corporate bonds trading at “distressed” or “stressed” levels, i.e. at spreads upwards of 700 basis points. The longer such wide spreads persist, the higher the probability of default. A worst case scenario  would see a 12.9 percent default rate by end-2012, Spegel says.

Many companies are having trouble rolling over maturing bonds (selling debt to pay off existing creditors). One reason might be the explosion in bond issuance this year. Data from Bank of America/Merrill Lynch shows bond sales by emerging borrowers, sovereign and corporate, totalled 14 billion in the first three months of the year, a quarter more than the same 2011 period.  Clearly everyone is rushing to raise cash before U.S. Treasury yields rise further. (see what we wrote on this a few months ago)

Where will the FDI flow?

For years the four mighty BRIC nations have grabbed increasing shares of world investment flows. But the coming years may not be so kind.  These countries bring up the bottom of the Economic Freedom Index (EFI) for 2012. Compiled by Washington D.C.-based think-tank The Heritage Foundation the EFI measures 10 freedoms —  from property rights to entrepreneurship – and according to a note out today from RBS economists, there is a strong positive link between a country’s EFI score and the amount of FDI (foreign direct investment) it can secure. So the more “free” a country, the more FDI inflows it can expect to receive — that’s what an RBS analysis of 2002-2008 investment flows shows.

So back to the BRICs. Or BRICS if you add in South Africa (part of the political grouping though not yet included in the BRIC investment concept used by fund managers). The following graphic shows Russia languishing at the bottom of the EFI, China just above Russia and India third from bottom.  Brazil is sixth from bottom while South Africa ranks two places higher.

At the other end of the spectrum is tiny Singapore. Its EFI score is double that of Russia and between 2002-2008 it attracted FDI equivalent to 50 percent of its economy. Russia in contrast saw negative net FDI (outflows exceeded inflows)

Turning point for lagging emerging stock returns?

Over the past year emerging markets have broadly lagged an upswing in global equity markets, yielding cumulative returns of 4.5 percent since last August. That’s less than half the return developed markets have provided (see graphic below).

But there are two reasons why a  turning point may be approaching. First the positioning. Foreign holdings of emerging equities have plunged in the past six months and according to research by HSBC they are at the lowest in four years. That’s especially the case in Asia, where fund managers have been jittery about China’s growth slowdown.

International funds appear to have responded aggressively to signs of a slowdown in emerging market economies, the bank observes, adding:

Research Radar: “State lite”?

The FOMC’s relatively anodyne conclusions left world markets with little new to chew on Thursday, with some poor European banking results for Q1 probably get more attention.  Broadly, world stocks were a touch higher while the dollar and US Treasury yields were slightly lower. European bank stocks fell 2% and dragged down European indices. Euro sovereign yields were slightly higher, with markets eyeing Friday’s Italian bond auction. Volatility gauges were a touch lower and crude oil prices nudged up.

Following is a selection of some of the day’s interesting research snippets:

- Deutsche Bank’s emerging markets strategists John Paul Smith and Mehmet Beceren said they retain their negative bias toward global emerging market equities both in absolute and relative terms, highlighting Argentina’s expropriation of YPF from Repsol as another negative. “We anticipate that so-called state capitalism will continue to be a negative driver, as it has been since mid-2010, since the poor economic backdrop makes the corporate sector a tempting target for governments wishing to boost their popularity or find additional resources to add to the relatively low levels of social protection across most emerging economies.” They added that they remain overweight “state lite” emerging markets such as Taiwan, Mexico and Turkey and underweight Russia, China, Brazil and South Korea.

Hungary can seek IMF aid now. But can it cut rates?

The European Union has given Budapest the green light to seek aid from the IMF. (see here)  In fact, the breakthrough after five months of dispute does not let Hungary completely off the hook  — to get its hands on the money, Viktor Orban’s government will have to backtack on some controversial recent legislation, starting with its efforts to curb the central bank’s independence.  It remains to be seen if Orban will actually cave in.

But markets are reacting as if the IMF money is in Hungary’s pocket already. There have been sharp rallies in Hungarian dollar bonds,  CDS and currency markets (see graphic below from Capital Economics). The Budapest stock market has posted its best one-day gain since last November while the yield on local 10-year bonds have collapsed almost 100 bps. Hungarian officials are (a bit prematurely)  talking of issuing bonds on world markets.

What investors are hoping for now is a cut to the 7 percent interest rate. Hungary’s central bank jacked up rates by 100 bps in recent months to defend the forint as cash fled the country. Now there is a chance those rate rises can be reeled back in. After all, the moribund economy could really use a dash of monetary easing. Thanasis Petronikolos, head of emerging debt at Baring Asset Management has been overweight Hungary and  recalls that after 2008 crisis, the central bank was able to quickly take back its 300 bps of currency-defensive rate hikes.

Research Radar: Beyond Hollande and Holland…

Markets have been dominated this week so far by the fallout from Sunday’s French presidential election, where Socialist Francois Hollande now looks set to beat incumbent conservative Nicolas Sarkozy in the May 6 runoff , and the collapse of the ruling Dutch coalition on Monday.  Public anxiety about budgetary austerity in Europe was further reinforced by news on Monday of a deepening of the euro zone private sector contraction in April. That said, euro equity, bond and currency prices have stabilised relatively quickly even if implied volatility has increased as investors brace for another month or so of political heat in the single currency bloc. The French runoff is now on the same day as the Greek elections and May 31 sees Ireland going to the polls to vote on the EU’s new fiscal compact.  Wall St’s volatility gauge, the ViX, is back up toward 20% — better reflecting longer term averages — and relatively risky assets such as emerging market equities remain on the back foot. The euro political heat and slightly slower Q2 world growth pulse will likely keep markets subdued and jittery until mid year at least. At that point, another cyclical upswing in world manufacturing together with the passing of the EBA’s euro bank recapitalisation deadline as well as the introduction of the new European Stability Mechanism may well encourage investors to return at better levels.

Following are some interesting tips from Tuesday’s bank and investment fund research notes:

- JPM economists reckon finding the reason behind the backup in US weekly initial jobless claims over the past couple of weeks is key to assessing whether a sub-par March payrolls report is repeated in April. It says it’s possible the claims jump move is a seasonal factor as unadjusted claims are closely tracking 2007′s pattern and Easter holidays fell on the same dates in both years. If 2007 was repeated, there would be a sizeable late April drop in claims and JPM looks for some of that on Thursday with a 14,000 forecast drop. (Reuters poll consensus is for a 11,000 drop)

March bulls give way to April bears in emerging markets

The dust has settled on a scintillating first quarter for emerging markets but the cross-asset rally of the first three months has already run out of steam. A survey by Societe Generale of 69 EM investors shows that over half are bearish — at least for the near-term.

This marks quite a turn-around from the March survey, when 80 percent of investors declared themselves bullish on emerging markets. What’s more, investors are currently running very little risk and 47 percent of hedge fund respondents (these make up half the survey) feel they are over-invested in EM.  (The following graphic shows the findings — click on it to enlarge)

Almost a quarter of the hedge fund and real money investors are neutral tactically on the market, compared to just 4.5 percent last month. Serious optimism has dried up, SocGen commented:

Hard times for EM in QE-less world of higher US yields

Now that the Fed appears to have dashed any lingering hopes for an imminent QE3, what’s next for emerging markets? Most observers put this year’s stellar performance of emerging bonds, currencies and equities largely down to the various money-printing or cheap money operations in the developed world. That’s kept core government bond yields bumping along near record lows and benefited higher-yielding emerging assets.

Many would add that in any case a solid economic recovery in the United States should be fairly good news for the rest of the world too. Not so, says HSBC. It argues that a better U.S. outlook is not necessarily good news for emerging markets simply because the side effect of economic improvement is a stronger dollar and higher Treasury yields and that’s an environement in which EM assets tend to underperform.

For an example, it looks back to the days between November 2010 and Feb 2011 when signs of improvement in the U.S. economy steepened the U.S. yield curve,  pushing the spread between 2-year/10-year Treasuries almost 100 bps wider.  Flows to emerging markets dipped sharply, the following graph shows:

All in the price in China?

It’s been a while since Chinese stocks earned investors fat profits. Last year the Shanghai market lost 22 percent and the compounded return on equity investments there since 1993 is minus 3 percent. This year too China has underwhelmed, rising less than 3 percent so far. Broader emerging equities on the other hand have just concluded their best first quarter since 1992, with gains of over 13 percent.

Given all that, bears remain a surprisingly rare breed in China. A Bank of America/Merrill Lynch’s monthly survey found it was fund managers’ biggest emerging markets overweight in March and that has been the case for some months now.  Clearly, hope dies last.

Driving many of these allocations is valuation. China’s equity market has always tended to trade at a premium to emerging markets but in recent months it has swung into a discount, trading at 9.2 times forward earnings or 10 percent below broader emerging markets.  MSCI’s China index is also trading almost 25 percent below its own long-term average, according to this graphic from my colleague Scott Barber (@scottybarber):