Global Investing

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.

That can hardly have made pleasant listening for his hosts at Sberbank who had billed the event as a chance for European fund managers and companies to meet their Russian counterparts and explore investment opportunities.  Russia desperately needs overseas capital – wealthy Russians and companies are prone to moving their cash overseas and there is some $150 billion worth of corporate  debt due for repayment over the coming year. But sanctions imposed by the West over the Kremlin’s role in Ukraine are deterring even those who have seen Russia merely as a tactical, short-term way of making money.

Until last year, the picture was not too bleak in terms of bricks-and-mortar foreign direct investment (FDI)  - into factories, real estate and mines. United Nations data show the FDI stock in Russia at almost $600 billion, a 100-fold rise from 1995 levels. That includes big-ticket investments by companies such as consumer goods giant PepsiCo and Danone as well as car makers Ford and Volkswagen. New commitments, however, are scarce as sanctions bite and Russia’s economy heads for a deep-freeze.

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:

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

Who shivers if Russia cuts off the gas?

Markets are fretting about the prospect of western sanctions on Russia but Europeans will also suffer heavily from any retaliatory trade embargoes from Moscow which supplies roughly a third of the continent’s gas needs  – 130 billion cubic metres in 2012.

After all, memories are still fresh of winter 2009 when Russia cut off gas exports through Ukraine because of Kiev’s failure to pay bills on time.  ING Bank analysts have put together a table showing which countries could be hardest hit if the Kremlin indeed turns off the taps.

So while Hungary and Slovakia depend on Moscow for over a third of their energy,  Germany imported less than 10 percent of its needs  from Russia while Ireland, Spain and the United Kingdom received none at all in 2012, ING’s graphic shows.  So while the main impetus for the sanctions comes from the G7 group of rich countries,  it is central and Eastern Europe who will be in the firing line.

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.

Banks cannot ease Ukraine’s reserve pain

The latest data from Ukraine shows its hard currency reserves fell $2 billion over November to $18.9 billion. That’s perilously low by any measure. (Check out this graphic showing how poorly Ukraine’s reserve adequacy ratios compare with other emerging markets: http://link.reuters.com/quq25v)

Central banks often have tricks to temporarily boost reserves, or at least, to give the impression that they are doing so. Turkey, for instance, allows commercial banks to keep some of their lira reserve requirements in hard currency and gold. Others may get friendly foreign central banks to deposit some cash. Yet another ploy is to issue T-bills in hard currency to mop up banks’ cash holdings. But it may be hard for Ukraine to do any of this says Exotix economist Gabriel Sterne, who has compared the Ukraine national bank’s plight with that of Egypt.

Ukraine and Egypt have both balked at signing up to IMF loan programmes because these  would require them to cut back on subsidies. But latest data shows Egypt’s reserves have risen to $17.8 billion from just over $10 billion in July, while Ukraine’s have declined from $22.9 billion. Egyptian import cover has also risen to 2.6 months while Ukraine now has enough cash to fund less than 2 months of imports (Back in July it was 3 months)
Sterne says:

With pension reform, Poland joins the sell-off. More to come

If the backdrop for global emerging markets (GEM) were not already challenging enough, there are, these days, some authorities that step in and try to make things even worse, writes Societe Generale strategist Benoit Anne. He speaks of course of Poland, where the government this week announced plans to transfer 121 billion zlotys ($36.99 billion) in bonds held by private pension funds to the state and subsequently cancel them. The move, aimed at cutting public debt by 8 percentage points,  led to a 5 percent crash yesterday on the Warsaw stock exchange, while 10-year bond yields have spiralled almost 50 basis points since the start of the week. So Poland, which had escaped the worst of the emerging markets sell-off so far, has now joined in.

But worse is probably to come. Liquidity on Polish stock and bond markets will certainly take a hit — the reform removes a fifth of  the outstanding government debt. That drop will decrease the weights of Polish bonds in popular global indices, in turn reducing demand for the debt from foreign investors benchmarked to those indices. Citi’s World Government Bond Index, for instance, has around $2 trillion benchmarked to it and contains only five emerging economies. That includes Poland whose weight of 0.55 percent assumes roughly $11 billion is invested it in by funds hugging the benchmark.

According to analysts at JPMorgan:

The most significant local market impact of the Polish pension reforms is likely to come from index-related selling as the weight of Polish government local currency debt in major global bond indices, including Citi’s WGBI and the Barclays Global Aggregate index, is likely to fall. Our base case scenario sees $3.5 billion worth of index-related selling, with risks skewed to the upside

Russia’s starting blocs – the EEU

The course is more than 20 million square kilometers, and covers 15 percent of the world’s land surface. It’s not a new event in next month’s IAAF World Championships in Moscow but a long-term project to better integrate emerging Eurasian economies.

The eventual aim of a new economic union for post-Soviet states, known as the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), is to “substitute previously existing ones,” according to Tatiana Valovaya, Russia’s minister in charge of development of integration and macroeconomics, at a media briefing in London last week.

That means new laws and revamping regulation for “natural monopolies” in the member states, streamlined macroeconomic policy, shared currency policy, new rules on subsidies for the agricultural and rail sectors and the development of oil markets.

European banks: slow progress

The Cypriot crisis, stemming essentially from a banking malaise, reminds us that Europe’s banking woes are far from over. In fact, Stephen Jen and Alexandra Dreisin at SLJ Macro Partners posit in a note on Monday that five years into the crisis, European banks have barely carried out any deleveraging. A look at their loan-to-deposit ratios  (a measure of a bank’s liquidity, calculated by dividing total outstanding loans by total deposits) remain at an elevated 1.15. That’s 60 percent higher than U.S. banks which went into the crisis with a similar LTD ratio but which have since slashed it to 0.7.

It follows therefore that if bank deleveraging really gets underway in Europe, lending will be curtailed further, notwithstanding central bankers’ easing efforts. So the economic recession is likely to be prolonged further. Jen and Dreisin write:

We hope that European banks can do this sooner rather than later, but fear that bank deleveraging in Europe is unavoidable and will pose a powerful headwind for the economy… Assuming that European banks, over the coming years, reduce their LTD ratio from the current level of 1.15 to the level in the U.S. of 0.72, there would be a 60% reduction in cross-border lending, assuming deposits don’t rise… This would translate into total cuts in loans of some $7.3 trillion.

Emerging EU and the end of “naked” CDS

JP Morgan has an interesting take on the stupendous recent rally in the credit default swaps (CDS) of countries such as Poland and Hungary which are considered emerging markets, yet are members of the European Union. Analysts at the bank link the moves to the EU’s upcoming ban on “naked” sovereign CDS trades — trade in CDS by investors who don’t have ownership of the underlying government debt. The ban which comes into effect on Nov. 1, was brought in during 2010 after EU politicians alleged that hedge funds short-selling Greek CDS had exacerbated the crisis.

JP Morgan notes that the sovereign CDS of a group of emerging EU members (Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland and Romania) have tightened 100 basis points since the start of September, while a basket of emerging peers including Brazil, Indonesia and Turkey saw CDS tighten just 39 bps. See the graphic below:

 

Spread tightening was of a similar magnitude in both groups before this period, JPM says (the implication being that traders have been selling some of their “naked” CDS holdings in these markets ahead of the ban):