Global Investing

Emerging markets: to buy or not to buy

To buy or not to buy — that’s the question facing emerging market investors.

The sector is undoubtedly cheap –  equity valuations are 30-50 percent cheaper than their 10-year average on a price-book basis; currencies have depreciated 15-20 percent in the space of 4 months and local bond yields have surged by an average 150 basis points. As we have pointed out before, cheapness is relative and the slowing economic and credit growth in many countries will undoubtedly manifest itself in falling EPS growth. Companies that cannot pass on high input costs caused by weak currencies, will have to take a further margin squeeze.

But many analysts have in recent days changed their recommendations on the sector. Barclays for instance notes:

 Value has been created in EM local (debt) markets and the bulk of the global rates repricing should be behind us. 

 At Morgan Stanley they write:

Improved valuations and carry as well as signs of positive export growth momentum support emerging currencies near term.

US investors prop up emerging equity flows

U.S. mutual fund investors are ploughing on with bets on emerging market equities, according to the latest net flows numbers from our corporate cousins at fund research firm Lipper. Has no one told them there’s supposed to be a massive sell-off?

August was the 30th straight month the sector has seen net inflows, and the 9th straight month of net inflows above $1 billion. Sure, there’s a downward trend from the February peak, but the resilience of demand is notable given doom-laden headlines about how EM markets will fare once the Fed feels its generosity is no longer required.

Of course, the popular image of mutual fund investors is as a perennial lagging indicator for allocations trends, and the stage may be being set for a sharp turnaround this month. However, U.S. investors have already been offloading their bets on emerging debt, with funds in the sector seeing net outflows of $2.6 billion, or 7.5% of total assets, in the three months to end-August.

Tapping India’s diaspora to salvage rupee

What will save the Indian rupee? There’s an election next year so forget about the stuff that’s really needed — structural reforms to labour and tax laws, easing business regulations and scrapping inefficient subsidies. The quickest and most effective short-term option may be a dollar bond issued to the Indian diaspora overseas which could boost central bank coffers about $20 billion.

The option was mooted a month ago when the rupee’s slide started to get into panic territory but many Indian policymakers are not so keen on the idea

So what are the merits of a diaspora bond (or NRI bond as it’s known in India)?

Pakistan, Nigeria, Bulgaria… the cash keeps coming

The frontier markets juggernaut continues. Here’s a great graphic from Bank of America/Merrill Lynch showing the diverging fund flow dynamic into frontier and emerging equity markets.

What it shows, according to BofA/ML  is:

Frontier market funds with year-to-date inflows of $1.5 billion have decoupled from emerging markets ($2.1 billion outflows year-to-date)

In other words, frontier fund inflows since January equate to 44 percent of their assets under management (AUM), the bank says.

Emerging markets funds shun Brazil, South Africa

Global emerging markets equity funds have cut average weightings to Brazil and South Africa for the fourth straight quarter, according to the latest allocations data from fund research firm Lipper.

You can see a full interactive graphic of the allocations data here or by clicking on the snapshot below.

The average allocation to Brazil has fallen by 1.75 percentage points over the past year to stand at 11.6 percent of portfolios by the end of the April-June 2013 quarter. South Africa’s average weighting has fallen to 6.0 percent from 7.3 percent in the second quarter of 2012.

BRIC shares? At the right price

Is the price right? Many reckon that the sell off in emerging markets and growing disenchantment with the developing world’s growth story is lending fresh validity to the value-based investing model.

That’s especially so for the four BRIC economies, where shares have underperformed for years thanks either to an over-reliance on commodities, excessive valuations conferred by a perception of fast growth or simply dodgy corporate governance. Now with MSCI’s emerging equity index down 30 percent from 2007 peaks, prices are looking so beaten down that some players, even highly unlikely ones, are finding value.

Societe Generale’s perma-bear Albert Edwards is one. Okay, he still calls the bloc Bloody Ridiculous Investment Concept but he reckons that share valuations are inching into territory where some buying might just be justified. Edwards notes that it was ultra-cheap share valuations in the early 2000s that set the stage for the sector’s stellar gains over the following decade, rather than any turbo-charged economic growth rates. So if MSCI’s emerging equity index is trading around 10 times forward earnings, that’s a 30 percent discount to the developed index, the biggest in a very long time. And valuations are lower still in Russia and Brazil.

South Africa may need pre-emptive rate strike

Should South Africa’s central bank — the SARB – strike first with an interest rate hike before being forced into it?  Gill Marcus and her team started their two-day policy meeting today and no doubt have been keeping an eye on happenings in Turkey, a place where a pre-emptive rate hike (instead of blowing billions of dollars in reserves) might have saved the day.

The SARB is very different from Turkey’s central bank in that it is generally less concerned about currency weakness due to the competitiveness boost a weak rand gives the domestic mining sector. This time things might be a bit different. The bank is battling not only anaemic growth but also rising inflation that may soon bust the upper end of its 3-6 percent target band thanks to a rand that has weakened 15  percent to the dollar this year.

Interest rates of 5 percent, moreover, look too low in today’s world of higher borrowing costs  – real interest rates in South Africa are already negative while 10-year yields are around 2.5 percent (1.5 percent in the United States). So any rise in inflation from here will leave the currency dangerously exposed.

Chinese inflation – unreported retail

China’s inflation print for June at 2.7 percent, a four-month high, was higher than forecast, but part of the picture could be obfuscated by a lack of accounting for the ever-growing online retail sector.

Gross domestic product figures have been consistently revised down this year from 8 percent to around 7.4 percent by July, with significant doubt over the reliability of official data. Some analysts forecast the more likely GDP print is around 5 percent, given the lack of punishment for falsifying local data and incentives for better growth figures for regional prints.

With an increasing share of shopping carried out online through websites such as Taobao, Tmall and Paipai, there is an increasing argument for online retail numbers -which had lifted one metric of inflation  closer to 7 percent in April –  to be included in the headline CPI. That metric is the retail sector’s internet shopping price index (iSPI).

“Contrarian” Deutsche (a bit) less bearish on emerging stocks

For an investor in emerging equities the best strategy in recent years has been to take a contrarian stance, says John-Paul Smith at Deutsche Bank.

Smith, head of emerging equity strategy at Deutsche, has been bearish on emerging stocks since 2010, exactly the time when bucketloads of new cash was being committed to the asset class. Investors who heeded his advice back then would have been in the money — since end-2010 emerging equities have underperformed U.S. equities by almost 40 percent, Smith pointed out a couple of months ago.

Things have worsened since then and MSCI’s emerging equity index is down around 12 percent year-to-date, almost the level of loss that Deutsche had predicted for the whole of 2013. June outflows from emerging stock funds, according to EPFR Global last week, were the largest on record. But true to form, Smith says he is no longer totally bearish on emerging equities.  Maybe the presence or absence of those he calls “marginal international investors” — people who joined the EM party too late and are quick to take fright — is key. Many of these positions appear to have been cleaned out. Short positions or high cash balances dominate the books of dedicated players,  Smith writes:

A drop in the ocean or deluge to come?

Glass half full or half empty? For emerging markets watchers, it’s still not clear.

Last month was a record one in terms of net outflow for funds dedicated to emerging equities, Boston-based agency EPFR Global said.  Debt funds meanwhile saw a $5.5 billion exodus in the week to June 26, the highest in history .

These sound like big numbers, but in fact they are relatively small. EM equity funds tracked by EPFR  have now reversed all the bumper year-to-date inflow registered by end-May, but what of all the flows they have received in the preceding boom decade?