Global Investing

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.

In answer to the longer-term question of whether euro bonds will turn into a more insular market dominated less by interest rate signals than liquidity, regulatory and balance sheet issues, Fransolet is equivocal. On one level they are still very different — state-sector holdings of euro debt are still far from Japan’s, the euro market has clearly fragmented and net new issuance of euro debt is also still way below Japan.

However, the trend is clearly toward a more domestically driven market in the periphery of euro bloc in particular and local banks are becoming bigger players.  And, crucially, although foreign investors may not return en masse soon, their impact on those markets via futures and CDS markets and index weightings may still be high.

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.

Discovering the pleasure of dividends in Russia

American financier J.D. Rockefeller said watching dividends rolling in was the only thing that gave him pleasure. But it is a pleasure which until now has largely bypassed shareholders in most big Russian companies. That might be about to change.

Russian firms,  especially the big commodity producers, are generally seen as poor dividend payers. So dividend yields, the ratio of dividends to the share price,  have been unattractive.

On a trailing 5-year period, the average dividend yield in Russia was 1.8 percent compared to 2.5 percent for emerging markets, notes Soren Beck-Petersen, investment director for emerging markets at HSBC Global Asset Management. That absence of positive cash flow from companies is one reason why Russia has always traded so cheap relative to other emerging markets, he says.

Money in containers. Many see big bucks in Russia’s infrastructure push

A lot of things are wrong with Russia, one of them being its rickety infrastructure.

Many see this as an investment opportunity, however, reckoning the planned $1 trillion infrastructure upgrade plan will get going, especially with the 2014 Winter Olympics and 2018 soccer World Cup looming. Bets on infrastructure have also gathered pace as the Kremlin, seeking to placate a mutinous populace, has pledged reforms, privatisations and a general push to reduce Russia’s dependence on oil exports.

Takouhi Tchertchian at asset managers Renaissance says one sector – shipping containers — reflects the potential for gains from infrastructure improvements. Such containers, usually made of steel, can be loaded and transported over long distances, and transferred easily and cheaply from sea to road to rail.  But Russia has among the lowest levels of containerisation in the world, at around 4 percent compared to the emerging markets average of 15 percent, Tchertchian says. Even in India, almost 3o percent of goods travel by container while in a developed country like Britain, the figure is 40 percent.

Corporate bonds in sweet spot

Anticipation is running high for the ECB’s LTRO 2.0 due on Feb 29.

The first such operation in December has largely benefited peripheral bonds even though estimates show banks used a bulk of their borrowing (seen at  just 150-190 bln euros on a net basis) to repay their debt, as the graphic below shows.

 

 

At the second LTRO, banks are expected to use the proceeds to pay down their debt further. That is a good news for non-bank corporate credit because banks — busy deleveraging — are more likely to repay existing debt than roll over and existing holders of bank debt will need to look elsewhere to allocate their assets.

“Apart from the shrinking size of (European bank bonds) some investors might want to get out of them anyway and allocate assets somewhere else… Credit spreads are pricing in a very pessimistic scenario. There’s a very good value in non-banking credit,” says Didier Saint-Georges, member of the investment committee at French asset manager Carmignac Gestion.