Global Investing

Strong dollar, weak oil and emerging markets growth

Many emerging economies have been banking on weaker currencies to revitalise economic growth.  Oil’s 25 percent fall in dollar terms this year should also help. The problem however is the dollar’s strength which is leading to a general tightening of monetary conditions worldwide, more so in countries where central banks are intervening to prevent their currencies from falling too much.

Michael Howell, managing director of the CrossBorder Capital consultancy estimates the negative effect of the stronger dollar on global liquidity (in simple terms, the amount of capital available for investment and spending) outweighs the positives from falling oil prices by a ratio of 10 to 1. Not only does it raise funding costs for non-U.S. banks and companies, it also usually forces other central banks to keep monetary policy tight, especially in countries with high inflation or external debt levels. Howell says:

If you get a strong dollar and intervention by EM cbanks what it means is monetary tightening…The big decision is: do they allow currencies to devalue or do they defend them? But when they use reserves to protect their currencies, there is an implicit policy tightening.

The tightening happens because central bank dollar sales tend to suck out supply of the local currency from markets, tightening liquidity.   That effectively drives up the cost of money, as banks and companies scramble for cash to meet their daily commitments.  Central banks can of course offset interventions via so-called sterilisations – for instance when they buy dollars to curb their currencies’ strength, they can issue bonds to suck up the excess cash from the market. To ease the tight money supply problem they can in theory print more cash to supply banks.  But while many emerging central banks did sterilise interventions in the post-crisis years when their currencies were appreciating, they are less likely to do so when they are trying to stem depreciation, says UBS strategist Manik Narain.  So what is happening is that (according to Narain):

Markets are forcing central banks into supporting growth or the currency. You absolutely have to sacrifice growth as we have seen in places like Turkey where liquidity has impacted the growth profile

Bleak investment outlook sours mood at Russia forum

By Alexander Winning

What are the chances that Western investors will rush back to Russia if a shaky ceasefire in Ukraine leads to a more lasting peace? Pretty slim, judging by a keynote speech at a recent Russia-focused investment conference in London.

Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, told the conference organised by Sberbank CIB, the investment-banking arm of Russia’s top state-controlled lender, there was little prospect of significant Western investment in Russia over the next 5 years:

I would be surprised if much foreign direct investment flowed into Russia from Germany and other Western countries. But there will be more investment coming from China.

Sanctions bite Russia but some investors are fishing

By Andrew Winterbottom

Russian stocks are up today, for the fifth day in a row and at the highest level in two weeks. What’s going on? As we wrote  here earlier in the week, foreign investors have been fleeing this market.  However it could be that some of them are starting to put aside concerns about the potential for further sanctions on Moscow and are scouring Russia’s stock markets for contrarian buying opportunities.

Russian stocks, chronically undervalued, are trading now at a discount of more than 60 percent to broader emerging markets, and to China which by all accounts is the standout beneficiary of the Russian woes. Just how cheap Russian shares are can be gauged from the fact they trade at a discount event to turbulent Pakistan. Here is a link that compares Russian equity valuations with other emerging and developed markets:  http://link.reuters.com/guv77v

While tensions between Russia and the West look to be only increasing, the risks of investing in Russia at present are obvious. But with greater risk comes greater potential reward, says Jonathan Bell, head of emerging market equities at Nomura Asset Management:

The people buying emerging markets

We’ve written (most recently here) about all the buying interest that emerging markets have been getting from once-conservative investors such as pension funds and central banks. Last year’s taper tantrum, caused by Fed hints about ending bond buying, did not apparently deter these investors . In fact, as mom-and-pop holders of mutual funds rushed for the exits,  there is some evidence pension and sovereign  wealth  funds actually upped emerging allocations, say fund managers. And requests-for-proposals (RFPs) from these deep-pocketed investors are still flooding in,  says Peter Marber, head of emerging market investments at Loomis Sayles.

The reasoning is yield, of course, but also recognition that there is a whole new investable universe out there, Marber says:

There has been so much yield compression that to get the returns investors are accustomed to, they have to either go down in credit quality or look overseas. Investors have been globalizing their equity portfolios for 25 years but the bond portfolios still have a home bias. We are starting to see more and more institutional investors gain exposure to emerging markets, and a large number of recent RFPs highlight more sophisticated mandates than a decade ago.

Buying back into emerging markets

After almost a year of selling emerging markets, investors seem to be returning in force. The latest to turn positive on the asset class is asset and wealth manager Pictet Group (AUM: 265 billion pounds) which said on Tuesday its asset management division (clarifies division of Pictet) was starting to build positions on emerging equities and local currency debt. It has an overweight position on the latter for the first time since it went underweight last July.

Local emerging debt has been out of favour with investors because of how volatile currencies have been since last May, For an investor who is funding an emerging market investments from dollars or euros, a fast-falling rand can wipe out any gains he makes on a South African bond. But the rand and its peers such as the Turkish lira, Indian rupee, Indonesian rupiah and Brazilan real — at the forefront of last year’s selloff –  have stabilised from the lows hit in recent months.  According to Pictet Asset Management:

Valuations of emerging market currencies have fallen to a point where they are now starkly at odds with such economies’ fundamentals. Emerging currencies are, on average, trading at almost two standard deviations below their equilibrium level (which takes into account a country’s net foreign asset holdings, inflation rate and its relative productivity).

Ukraine and the IMF: a sense of deja vu

The West has just agreed to stump up a load of cash for Ukraine but there is a distinct sense of deja vu around it all.

Let’s face it – Ukraine’s track record on how it manages ts economy and foreign affairs isn’t great. This is the third aid programme Kiev has signed with the International Monetary Fund in a decade and two of them have failed. The IMF has its fingers crossed that this one will not go the way of the past two. Reza Moghadam, the IMF’s top European official, tells Reuters in an interview:

They seem to be committed, they seem to own this reform programme and in that sense I am optimistic

Iran: a frontier for the future

Investors trawling for new frontier markets have of late been rolling into Iran. Charles Robertson at Renaissance Capital (which bills itself as a Frontier bank) visited recently and his verdict?

It’s like Turkey, but with 9% of the world’s oil reserves.

Most interestingly, Robertson found a bustling stock market with a $170 billion market cap — on par with Poland – which is the result of a raft of privatisations in recent years.  A $150 million daily trading volume exceeds that of Nigeria, a well established frontier markets. And a free-float of $30 billion means that if Iranian shares are included in MSCI’s frontier index, they would have a share of 25 percent, he calculates.

What of the economy? Renaissance estimates its size at $437 billion, which if accurate would place it higher than Austria or Thailand. Foreign investors are keen — a thawing of relations with the West has triggered a race among multinations to explore business opportunities in the country of 78 million. Last month, more than 100 executives from France’s biggest firms visited Iran. Robertson writes:

Waiting for current account improvement in Turkey

The fall in Turkey’s lira to record lows is raising jitters among foreign investors who will have lost a good deal of money on the currency side of their stock and bond investments.  They are also worrying about the response of the central bank, which has effectively ruled out large rate hikes to stabilise the currency. But can the 20 percent lira depreciation seen since May 2013 help correct the country’s balance of payments gap?

Turkey’s current account deficit is its Achilles heel . Without a large domestic savings pool, that deficit tends to blow out whenever growth quickens and the lira strengthens . That leaves the country highly vulnerable to a withdrawal of foreign capital. Take a look at the following graphic (click on it to enlarge) :

In theory, a weaker Turkish lira should help cut the deficit which has expanded to over 7 percent of GDP.  Let us compare the picture with 2008 when the lira plunged around 25 percent against the dollar in the wake of the Lehman crisis. At the time the deficit was not far short of current levels at around 6 percent of GDP.  By September 2009 though, this gap had shrunk by two-thirds to around 2 percent of GDP.

Ukraine aid may pay off for Kremlin

Ukraine said today it was issuing a $3 billion in two-year Eurobonds at a yield of 5 percent in what seems to the start of a bailout deal with Russia. That sounds like a good deal for Kiev — its Eurobond maturing next year is trading at at a yield of 8 percent and it could not reasonably expect to tap bond markets for less than that. In addition,  Ukraine is also  getting a gas price discount from Russia that will provide an annual saving of $2.6 billion or so.

But what about Russia? Whether the bailout was motivated by “brotherly love” as Putin claims or by geo-politics, it sounds like a rotten deal for Moscow. The credit will earn it 5 percent on what is at best a risky investment. What’s more the money will come out of its rainy day fund which had been earmarked to cover future pension deficits. State gas company Gazprom will have to stomach a 30 percent price cut, which according to Barclays analysts is “a reminder of the risks of Gazprom’s quasi-sovereign status.”

But there could be positives.

Putin is clearly playing a long game that aims not only at giving the Kremlin tighter political control over Ukraine but also to bring it back into the Russian gas sales orbit and eventually create a bigger trade bloc encompassing Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, says Christopher Granville, managing director of consultancy Trusted Sources in London.

Russia’s people problem

President Vladimir Putin is generally fond of blaming the West for the ills besetting Russia. This week though, he admitted in his State of the Nation speech that the roots of Russia’s sluggish economy may lie at home rather than abroad.  The government expects the economy to expand a measly 1.4 percent this year (less than half of the growth the US is likely to see) and long-term growth estimates have been trimmed to 2.5 percent a year.

Much of that is down to the lack of reform which has left many big companies in the state’s (generally wasteful) hands, weak rule of law that deters investment and capital flight to the tune of tens of billions of dollars a year. Yet there is another factor that could be harder to fix — Russia’s poor demographic profile. The population started declining sharply in the early 1990s amid political and economic turmoil, falling by 3.4 million in the 2000-2010 decade, according to census data. The impact is set to be felt sharply from now on, exactly when children born in 1990s would have started entering the workforce.

The consequences are already being felt. Russia will close more than 700 schools this year for lack of pupils and the jobless rate has dipped to a record low of around 5 percent, not because the economy is booming but because the country is running out of people who can take the jobs.