Global Investing

The “least worst” option?

Western governments saddled with mountainous debts will “repress” creditors and savers via banking regulation, capital controls, central bank bond buying and currency depreciation that effectively puts sovereign borrowers at the top of the credit queue while simultaneously wiping out real returns for their bond holders. So says HSBC chief economist Stephen King in his latest report this week called “From Depression to repression”.

Building on the work of U.S. economist Carmen Reinhardt and others, King’s focus on the history of heavily indebted governments applying “financial repression” to creditors arrives at several interesting conclusions. First, even though western governments appeared successful in using these tactics to reduce massive World War Two debts alongside brisk economic growth during the 1950s and 1960s, King argues that the debt was cut mainly by the impressive economic growth and tax revenues during that “Golden Age” – and this was mostly down to the once-in-a-century period of relative peace that involved unprecedented integration and cooperation among western governments also engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet Union. Compared to this boost, the financial repression was a “sideshow”, he reckons.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           To show that, he applies the interest rate and inflation conditions of the 1950s and 1960s to the current US government debt trajectory and then compares the growth scenario back then with the one faced now. The graphic is revealing. So, for repression to work, it needs to generate higher growth first. And despite lower real rates today than in the days of Mad Men, that seems not to be the case.

Instead, King says governments will adopt this repression tactic anyway just to stave off draconian austerity now and prevent a destabilising surge in economy-wide borrowing rates. This will effectively reduce the amount of credit to the rest of the private sector, or at least elevating its cost, while reducing the pressure on governments to cut the debt levels quickly. The net result, then will likely be “persistently lower growth”, whatever your conclusion about the desirability of  state or the market allocation of resources.

And, in the absence of an obvious alternative, repression may also be the “least worst” option, King argues.

 

 

 

“Ultimately, however, we’re likely to be stuck with repression unless we find some other alternative source of growth, whether through, say, new technologies, ingeniously-funded infrastructure projects or mass immigration of people of working age (thus increasing both production and tax revenues). However, in the absence of growth – and with the democratic process valuing the minimisation of short-term pain at the possible expense of long-term gain – repression seems an easy, if ultimately damaging, way of avoiding tough decisions.”

Ukraine’s $58 billion problem

Ukrainian officials were at pains to reassure investors last week that no debt default was in the offing. But people familiar with the numbers will find it hard to believe them.

The government must find over $5.3 billion this year to repay maturing external debt, including $3 billion to the IMF and $2 billion to Russian state bank VTB. Bad enough but there is worse:  Ukrainian companies and banks too have hefty debt maturities this year. Total external financing needs– corporate and sovereign – amount to $58 billion, analysts at Capital Economics calculate. That’s a third of Ukraine’s GDP and makes a default of some kind very likely. The following graphic is from Capital Economics.

In normal circumstances Ukraine — and Ukrainian companies — could have gone to market and borrowed the money. Quite a few developing countries such as Lithuania recently tapped markets, others including Jamaica plan to do so. Ukraine’s problem is its refusal to toe the IMF line.  Agreeing to the IMF’s main demand to lift crippling gas subsidies would unlock a $15 billion loan programme, giving  access to the loan cash as well as to global bond markets. But removing subsidies would be political suicide ahead of elections in October.  And with the sovereign frozen out of bond markets, Ukrainian companies too will find it hard to raise cash.

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:

Japanization of euro zone bonds?

Fear of many years of stagnation in the major western economies has everyone fretting about a repeat of  the “lost decades” that Japan suffered after its banking and real estate bubble burst in the early 1990s. Indeed HSBC economists were recently keen to point out that U.S. per capita growth over the noughties was already actually weaker than either of Japan’s lost decades.

But in a detailed presentation on the impact of two years of soveriegn debt crisis on euro zone government bond holdings, Barclays  economist Laurent Fransolet asks whether that market too is turning into the Japanese government bond market — where years of slow growth, zero interest rates, current account surpluses and captive local buyers have depressed borrowing rates for years and turned JGBs into an increasingly domestic market dominated by local banks, pension funds and insurers. Non-residents hold less than 10 percent of JGBs, compared to more than 50 percent for the EGB as a whole, and Japanese banks hold up to 35 percent of their own government bond market.

But is the euro government market heading in that direction after successive crises have seen foreign investors flee many of the peripheral markets of Greece, Portugal, Ireland and even Italy and Spain? Fransolet argues that the seniority of substantial European Central Bank holdings built up in the interim (now about 15 percent of each of the five peripheral markets) may be one reason why these foreign investors will be wary of returning. Meantime, euro zone banks, who have traditionally held a high 20-25 percentage point share of euro government markets, withdrew sharply late last year amid balance sheet repair pressures but have  rebuilt holdings again sharply in early 2012 after the ECB’s liquidity injections — particularly in Italy and Spain.

Yield-hungry tilt to equity from credit

For income-focused investors, the choice between stocks and corporate bonds has been a no-brainer in recent years. In a volatile world, corporate debt tends to be less sensitive to market gyrations and also has offered better yields – last year non-financial European corporate bonds provided a yield pickup of  73 basis points above stocks, Morgan Stanley calculates.

But, long a fan of credit over equity, MS reckons the picture may now be changing and points out that European equities are offering better yields than credit for the first time in over a decade. (The graphic below compares dividend yields on non-financial euro STOXX index with the IBOXX European non-financial corporate bond index. The former narrowly wins.)

The extra yield available on equities, coupled with perceptions of a more stable macro backdrop, may encourage income-oriented investors back into stocks.

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.

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 missing barrels of oil

Where are the missing barrels of oil, asks Barclays Capital.

Oil inventories in the United States rose sharply last week, with demand for oil products  such as gasoline at the lowest in 15 years and crude stockpiles at the highest since last September. Americans, pinched in the wallet, are clearly cutting back on fuel use.

But worldwide, the inventories picture is different – Barclays calculates in  fact that oil stocks are around 50 million barrels below the seasonal average. And sustainable spare capacity in the market is less than 2 million barrels per day. What that means is that the world has “extremely limited buffers to absorb any one of the series of potential geopolitical mishaps.” (Barclays writes)

A big difference from the picture at the start of 2012. With the global economy weak, analysts predicted OPEC would need to pump 29.7 million barrels per day in the first quarter, more than a million barrels below what the group was actually pumping. Logic dictates inventories would have started to build.

European corporate bonds flourishing

A new set of data from Thomson Reuters sheds light on blossoming European corporate bond activity.

Here are the main findings:

– European corporate debt totals $75 billion so far during 2012, up 83% over the same period in 2011, and a year-to-date total only surpassed by 2009 in the last decade.  January 2012 saw $48 billion raised, the strongest month since March 2011 ($50 billion).  With a week to go before the end of the month, February issuance is already up 68% over February 2011.

– German, UK and French borrowers dominate the European corporate bond market, accounting for 69% of all issuance. The Energy & Power and Industrials sectors are particularly prevalent in Europe, accounting for over 44% of the market.