Global Investing

Japan’s big-money investors still sitting tight

More on the subject of Japanese overseas investment.

As we said here and here, Japanese cash outflows to world markets have so far been limited to a trickle, almost all from retail mom-and-pop investors who like higher yields and are estimated to have 1500 trillion yen ($15.40 trillion) in savings. As for Japan’s huge institutional investors — the $730 billion mutual fund industry and $3.4 trillion life insurance sectors — they are sitting tight.

If some are to be believed, the hype over outflows is misguided. Morgan Stanley for one reckons Japanese insurers’ foreign bond buying may rise by just 2-3 percent in the next two years, amounting to $60-100 billion. Pension funds are even less likely to re-balance their portfolios given large cash flow needs, the bank said.

But a Reuters survey last week revealed several insurance companies are indeed considering boosting unhedged foreign bond holdings.  Insurers currently hold almost half their assets in Japanese government bonds and risk being crowded out of the JGB market as the central bank ramps up purchases.  A recent survey by Barclays also showed Japanese investors keen on overseas debt.

Barclays analyst Bill Diviney offers the following explanation as to why institutional investors haven’t ventured out so far:

From the life insurer investment plans released last week the basic takeaway was that in terms of current levels in currency and given the rally in emerging and developed bonds of late they seem to be uncomfortable with the current price levels and the sense I get is that they are waiting fro a dip in the market. So the markets have risen in anticipation of Japanese flows but the investors themselves want to wait until there is more value and better buying levels.

Deutsche’s emerging markets bear sticking to his guns

Emerging markets bear John-Paul Smith first made his call to underweight emerging equities at the end of 2010. In a note released late on Monday he points out that such a position would have paid off handsomely — since end-2010 emerging equities have underperformed MSCI’s World index by 27.5 percent and U.S. MSCI by 37.6 percent.

 

Smith, who is head of emerging equity strategy at Deutsche Bank, sees no reason to change his call. Reckoning that the cyclical heyday of emerging markets is past, he is advising clients to hold on to developed and U.S. equities at the expense of emerging markets. The reason? China, pivotal for the rest of the EM world for commodities, trade.

Smith writes:

We are maintaining our existing underweight recommendations for GEM versus DM/US and current country weightings within GEM because the ongoing structural deterioration in the sustainable growth rate of the Chinese economy will continue to be the dominant narrative for the GEM equity asset class, in our view. Since the start of the year it has been increasingly evident at the micro level that the massive increase in total corporate financing has not as yet fed through into anything resembling a commensurate pickup in final demand.

Show us the (Japanese) money

Where is the Japanese money? Mostly it has been heading back to home shores as we wrote here yesterday.

The assumption was that the Bank of Japan’s huge money-printing campaign would push Japanese retail and institutional investors out in search of yield.  Emerging markets were expected to capture at least part of a potentially huge outflow from Japan and also benefit from rising allocations from other international funds as a result.  But almost a month after the BOJ announced its plans, the cash has not yet arrived.

EM investors, who seem to have been banking the most on the arrival of Japanese cash, may be forgiven for feeling a tad nervous. Data from EPFR Global shows no notable pick-up in flows to EM bond funds while cash continues to flee EM equities ($2 billion left last week).

BRIC banks reap ratings reward from government support

The ability of Brazil, Russia, India and China to support their leading banks is tightly correlated to the credit rating on the banks, according to ratings agency Moody’s. The agency compares the ratings of four of the biggest BRIC banks which it says are likely to enjoy sovereign support if they run into trouble.

China’s Industrial & Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) tops the list of BRIC lenders with a rating of (A1 stable)  thanks to the central bank’s $3 trillion plus reserve stash.

Brazil’s Banco do Brazil  (Baa2 positive) is in investment grade territory but it still fares better than the State Bank of India (SBI) (Baa3 stable) and Russia’s Sberbank (Baa3 stable) at one notch above junk status.

Weekly Radar: Question mark for the ‘austerians’

One of the more startling moves of the week was the fresh rally in euro government debt – with 10-year Italian and Spanish borrowing rates falling to their lowest since late 2010 when the euro crisis was just erupting and 2-year Italian yields even falling to 1999 euro launch levels. The trigger? There’s been a slow build up for weeks on the prospect of new Japanese investor flows  seeking liquid overseas government bonds  – but it was signs of a sharp slowdown in Germany’s economy that seems to have had a perversely positive effect on the region’s asset markets as a whole. The logic is that German objections to another ECB rate cut will ebb, as will its refusal to ease up on front-loaded fiscal austerity across Europe. If its own economic engine is now suffering along with the rest, significantly just five months ahead of German Federal elections, then a tilt toward growth in the regional policy mix may not seem so bad for Berlin after all. And if euro economies are more in synch, albeit in recession rather than growth, then perhaps it will lead to a more effective regional policy response.

All that plays into the intensifying “growth vs austerity” debate, which had already shifted at the Washington IMF meetings last week and was sharpened this week by by EU Commission chief Barroso’s claim that the high watermark of EU’s austerity push had passed. On top of the Reinhart/Rogoff research farrago, it’s been a bad couple of weeks for the “austerians”, with only a UK Q1 GDP bounceback of any support for case of ever deeper fiscal cuts,  and investors smell a change of tack. Their reaction? Not only have euro government borrowing costs fallen  further, but euro equities too rallied for 4 straight days through Wednesday. Those arguing that investors would run screaming at the sight of a more growth-tilted policy mix in Europe may have some explaining to do.

Next week is back on monetary policy watch however. The ECB takes centre stage amid rate cut talks hopes for help for credit-starved SMEs. The FOMC meets stateside aswell just ahead of the critical US April employment report.

Will gold’s glitter dim in India?

Indians have reacted to the latest gold prices falls by — buying more gold. And why not? Aside from Indians’ well known passion for the yellow metal (yours truly not excluded) gold has by and large served well as an investment: annual returns over the past five years have been around 17 percent, Morgan Stanley notes.

Now, gold’s near 20 percent plunge this year has wiped some $300 billion off Indians’ gold holdings, Morgan Stanley estimates in a note (households are believed to own about 15,000 metric tonnes of gold). So is the gold rush in India over?

Possibly. Indian gold imports have doubled to around 3 percent of GDP in the past five years. That rise is partly down to greater wealth which translates into more wedding jewellery purchases. But the more unpleasant side of the equation is India’s inflation problem. Look at the following charts from MS that shows how negative real interest rates have encouraged savings in gold rather than financial instruments:

Weekly Radar: Second-guessing Japan flows as global growth slows

Figuring out what was driving pretty violent market moves this week was trickier than usual – and that says something about how much the herd has scattered this year, with ‘risk on-risk off’ correlations having weakened sharply. Just as everyone puzzled over a potential “wall of money” from Japan after the BOJ’s aggressive reflation efforts, the bottom seemed to fall out of gold, energy and broader commodity markets – dragging both equity markets and, unusually, peripheral euro zone bond yields lower in the process.  As dangerous as it may be to seek an overriding narrative these days, you could possibly tie all up these moves under the BOJ banner – something along these lines: the threat of a further yen losses pushes an already pumped-up US dollar ever higher across the board and undermines dollar-denominated  commodities, which have already been hampered by what looks like yet another lull in global demand. Developed market equities, whose Q1 surge had been reined in by several weeks of disappointing economic data and an iffy start to the Q1 earnings season, were then hit further by a lunge in heavy cap mining and energy stocks. The commodities hit may also help explain the persistent underperformance of emerging markets this year. What’s more the lift to Italian and Spanish government bonds comes partly from an assumption any Japanese money exit will seek U.S. and European government bonds and relatively higher-yielding euro government paper may be favoured by some over the paltry returns in the core ‘safe havens’ of Treasuries or bunds. The confidence to reach for yield has clearly risen over the past six months as wider systemic fears have receded – something underlined in dramatic style this week by a huge lunge in gold,  now lost almost 20 percent in the year to date.

While all that logic may be plausible, there have been dozens of other reasons floating around for the seemingly erratic twists and turns of the week.

The only truth so far is that everyone is still just guessing about the likely extent of a Japanese outflow and confidence about global growth has received another setback.

India’s deficit — not just about oil and gold

India’s finance minister P Chidambaram can be forgiven for feeling cheerful. After all, prices for oil and gold, the two biggest constituents of his country’s import bill, have tumbled sharply this week. If sustained, these developments might significantly ease India’s current account deficit headache — possibly to the tune of $20 billion a year.

Chidambaram said yesterday he expects the deficit to halve in a year or two from last year’s 5 percent level. Markets are celebrating too — the Indian rupee, stocks and bonds have all rallied this week.

But are markets getting ahead of themselves?  Jahangiz Aziz and Sajjid Chinoy, India analysts at JP Morgan think so.

Amid yen weakness, some Asian winners

Asian equity markets tend to be casualties of weak yen. That has generally been the case this time too, especially for South Korea.

Data from our cousins at Lipper offers some evidence to ponder, with net outflows from Korean equity funds at close to $700 million in the first three months of the year. That’s the equivalent of about 4 percent of the total assets held by those funds. The picture was more stark for Taiwan funds, for whom a similar net outflow equated to almost 10 percent of total AuM. Look more broadly though and the picture blurs; Asia ex-Japan equity funds have seen net inflows of more than $3 billion in the first three months of the year, according to Lipper data.

Analysts polled by Reuters see more drops ahead for the yen which they predict will trade around 102 per dollar by year-end (it was at 77.4 last September). Some banks such as Societe Generale expect a 110 exchange rate and therefore recommend being short on Chinese, Korean and Taiwanese equities.

No one-way bet on yen, HSBC says

Will the yen continue to weaken?

Most people think so — analysts polled by Reuters this month predict that the Japanese currency will fall 18 percent against the dollar this year. That will bring the currency to around 102 per dollar from current levels of 98. And all sorts of trades, from emerging debt to euro zone periphery stocks, are banking on a world of weak yen.

Now here is a contrary view. David Bloom, HSBC’s head of global FX strategy, thinks one-way bets on the yen could prove dangerous. Here are some of the points he makes in his note today:

–  Bloom says the link between currencies and QE (quantitative easing) is not straightforward. Note that after three rounds of QE the dollar is flexing its muscles. The ECB’s LTRO too ultimately benefited the euro.