Global Investing

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.

- Morgan Stanley’s James Lord thinks the rally in Hungary’s markets following Tuesday’s decision by the EU to reopen negotiations on financial assistance is justified but much may now be in the price. He said MS would prefer to wait for some pullback before looking for more bullish trades.  On a relative basis, Hungary 5-year CDS is now 60bp wider than Spain’s and MS said that while this gap could close much further  it was hard to see how Hungary CDS rates could trade below Spain.  “Indeed, if Spain goes into serious financial trouble, it could represent a systemic risk for all Europe, and funding stress would likely increase substantially. Given the strong dependence of Hungary towards the EU, it would be difficult to argue for Hungary to trade through Spain on any sustained basis.”

- Ashmore Investment Management’s Jerome Booth restates his bullish case for emerging markets with 10 points that conclude with the line:  “the best way to lose money without really trying is not to invest in emerging markets.” His points include warnings about equating past volatility with risk, passive investing (where he points out that only 12% of emerging debt is represented by available indices) and seeing emerging currency volatility against the dollar as an emerging problem rather than a U.S. one (“It is the dollar which is volatile”.)

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):

Urbanization sweet spots

It’s a hard slog sometimes looking for new and surprising sources of global economic growth that have not already be heavily discounted by global investors, especially in the uncertain world of 2012. It’s been as hard of late to find new arguments to invest in China and quite a few people suggesting the opposite.

But a Credit Suisse report out on Tuesday homed in on worldwide urbanization trends to find out where this well-tested driver of economic activity was likely to have most impact int he 21st century. For a start, the big aggregate numbers are as dramatic as you’d imagine. More than half  of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, crossing that milestone for the first time in 2009. And, accordingly to United Nations projections, urban dwellers will account for 70 percent of humanity by 2050. As recently as 1950, 70 percent of us were country folk.

CS economists Giles Keating and Stefano Natella crunch the numbers and reckon that, typically, a five percent rise in urban populations is associated with a 10 percent rise in per capita economic activity. Crunching them further, they find that there’s a “sweet spot” as the urban share of the population is moving from 30 percent to 50 percent and per capita GDP growth peaks. Emerging markets as a whole are currently about 45 percent, with non-Japan Asia and sun-Saharan Africa standing out. Developed economies are as high as 75 percent.

Asian bonds may suffer most if QE on ice

Bonds issued in emerging market currencies have been red-hot favourites with investors this year, garnering returns of 8.3 percent so far in 2012. But for some the happy days are drawing to a close — U.S. Treasury yields are nudging higher as the U.S. recovery gains a foothold and the Fed holds back from more money printing for now at least. That could spell trouble for emerging markets across the board (here’s something I wrote on this subject recently) but, according to JP Morgan, it is Asian bond markets that may bear the brunt.

Their graphic details weekly flows to local bond funds as measured by EPFR Global (in million US$). As on cue, these flows have tended to spike whenever central banks have pumped in cash. (Click the graphic to enlarge.)

Over the past several years,  inflows have driven local curves to very flat levels, but current levels of flatness are not sustainable if/when inflows begin to slow, let alone reverse.As there is a clear correlation between the Fed’s “QE periods” and large inflows into Asian markets, we think the next few months will be difficult for Asian bonds markets (JPM writes)

A Hungarian default?

More on Hungary. It’s not hard to find a Hungary bear but few are more bearish than William Jackson at Capital Economics.

Jackson argues in a note today that Hungary will ultimately opt to default on its  debt mountain as it has effectively exhausted all other mechanisms. Its economy has little prospect of  strong growth and most of its debt is in foreign currencies so cannot be inflated away. Austerity is the other way out but Hungary’s population has been reeling from spending cuts since 2007, he says, and is unlikely to put up with more.

How did other highly indebted countries cope? (lets leave out Greece for now). Jackson takes the example of  Indonesia and Thailand. Both countries opted for strict austerity after the 1997 Asian crisis and resolved the debt problem by running large current account surpluses. This worked because the Asian crisis was followed by a period of buoyant world growth, allowing these countries to boost exports. But Hungary’s key export markets are in the euro zone and are unlikely to recover anytime soon.

Hungary’s plan to get some cash in the bank

Hungary says it might borrow money from global bond markets before it lands a long-awaited aid deal with the International Monetary Fund. That pretty much seems to suggest Budapest has given up hope of getting the IMF cash any time soon. Given the fund has already said it won’t visit Hungary in April, that view would seem correct.

There is some logic to the plan.

Hungary desperately needs the cash — it must  find over 4 billion euros just to repay external debt this year.

It is also an attractive time to sell debt.  Appetite for emerging market debt remains strong. Emerging bond yield premiums over U.S. Treasuries have contracted sharply this year and stand near seven-month lows. Moreover, U.S. Treasury yields may rise, potentially making debt issuance more costly in coming months.