Global Investing

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):

There are reasons for the cheapness of course. The economy is slowing and looks on track for its weakest quarter since 2009. Recent corporate earnings have disappointed and there are worries over local government debt and bad loans at banks.  The property sector remains a worry and it is unclear if the PBOC will ease monetary policy. But many reckon the problems are in the price.

JPMorgan Asset Management for instance has changed its historic bias against Chinese stocks in its EM fund. China is now the fund’s  biggest overweight, more than 5 percent above the MSCI benchmark. Client portfolio manager Emily Whiting expects the market to rebound strongly once investors start unwinding their doomsday bets:

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.

Three snapshots for Tuesday

The German ZEW economic sentiment index for March smashed expectations, coming in at 22.3 against the Reuters poll of 10.0.  Over the last couple of years the German 10 year Bund yield has tended to track the ZEW, however this has broken down with yields staying below 2% despite the rebound in economic sentiment.


Improving earnings momentum has been backing up the rally in equities with fewer analysts taking the hatchet to earnings forecasts. The chart below shows that the 3-month average revisions ratio (the number of earnings  upgrades minus downgrades as a percent of the total) looks to have turned back towards positive – especially in Europe.


Are emerging markets joining the dividend race?.   As this chart of Datastream equity indices shows, the payout ratio for emerging market equities is now above that of the US. Traditionally seen as a growth-based investment, is this another sign of emerging market equities moving closer into line with developed?

Oil prices — Geopolitics or growth?

It’s the economy, stupid. Or isn’t it?

Brent crude has risen 15 percent since the end of last year, focusing people’s minds on the potential this has to choke off the recovery in world growth. But some reckon it is the recovery that’s at least partly responsible for the surging oil prices — economic data from United States and Germany has been strong of late. There are hopes that France and the United Kingdom may escape recession after all. And growth in the developing world has been robust.

Geopolitics of course is playing a role  as an increasing number of countries boycott Iranian oil and fret over a possible military strike by Israel on Iran’s nuclear installations.  But Deutsche Bank analysts point out that world equity markets, an efficient real-time gauge of growth sentiment, have risen along with oil prices.

Their graphic (below) shows a remarkably close relationship between oil prices and the S&P 500. Click to enlarge

Emerging beats developed in 2012

Robust growth from the emerging market basket in January was always going to be tough to beat, but research from February’s gains show just how strong these markets are performing against developed ones, and not just from the traditional BRICs either, research from S&P Indices shows.

Egypt has been a prime example. Following a bout of political unrest and subsequent removal of Hosni Mubarak after nearly 30 years in power, Egypt’s market returns have rocketed, climbing 15.3 percent in February on top of January’s 44.3 percent take-off.

Thailand, Chile, Turkey and Colombia are also on the to-watch list as these emerging lights have all flashed double-digit returns in the first two months of this year, while all twenty emerging markets included in the S&P data were up, gaining an average of 6.62 percent, making gains in the year-to-date a mouth-watering 18.95 percent.

The haves and have-nots of the (energy) world

Nothing like an oil price spike to bring out the differences between the haves and have-nots of this world. The ones who have oil and those who don’t.

With oil at $124 a barrel,  the stock markets of big oil importers India and South Korea posted their first weekly loss of 2012 on Friday.  But in Russia, where energy stocks make up 60 percent of the index, shares had their best day since November, rising more than 4 percent. The rouble’s exchange rate with the dollar jumped 1.5 percent but the lira in neighbouring Turkey (an oil importer) fell.

Emerging currencies and shares have performed exceptionally well this year. Some of last year’s laggards such as the Indian rupee have risen almost 10 percent and stocks have jumped 16-18 percent. But unless crude prices moderate soon, the 2012 rally in the  stocks, bonds and currencies of oil-poor countries may have had its day. Societe Generale writes:

Central banks and the next bubble (3)

Expectations are running high ahead of next week’s LTRO 2.0 (expected take-up is somewhat smaller than the first time and the previous estimate though, with Reuters poll predicting banks to grab c492 bln euros).

The ECB’s three-year loan operation, along with the BOJ’s unexpected easing, BoE’s QE and commitment from the Fed to keep rates on hold until at least end-2014 may constitute competitive monetary easing, Goldman Sachs argues.

As the moves to ease have been rolled out, we increasingly encounter the argument that such ‘competitive’ (non-coordinated) monetary expansions by developed market central banks are at best ineffective and at worst a zero-sum game at the global level—and perhaps a precursor of something worse, such as a slide towards protectionism.