Global Investing

South Africa may need pre-emptive rate strike

Should South Africa’s central bank — the SARB – strike first with an interest rate hike before being forced into it?  Gill Marcus and her team started their two-day policy meeting today and no doubt have been keeping an eye on happenings in Turkey, a place where a pre-emptive rate hike (instead of blowing billions of dollars in reserves) might have saved the day.

The SARB is very different from Turkey’s central bank in that it is generally less concerned about currency weakness due to the competitiveness boost a weak rand gives the domestic mining sector. This time things might be a bit different. The bank is battling not only anaemic growth but also rising inflation that may soon bust the upper end of its 3-6 percent target band thanks to a rand that has weakened 15  percent to the dollar this year.

Interest rates of 5 percent, moreover, look too low in today’s world of higher borrowing costs  – real interest rates in South Africa are already negative while 10-year yields are around 2.5 percent (1.5 percent in the United States). So any rise in inflation from here will leave the currency dangerously exposed.

Therefore staying behind the curve could prove a mistake, say Tradition Analytics:

The fear is that, by continuing to run very low interest rates on the premise that it is protecting domestic economic growth…the central bank is setting up the economy for less price stability, more uncertainty and higher variability in the rand outcome.  South Africa can ill-afford another blow-off in the rand…Dismissing the possibility that the SARB may be forced into a hike is dangerous as another bout of rand weakness could push the inflation rate above the 7% mark at which point the question then morphs into how much above the 6% level the SARB will tolerate.

A drop in the ocean or deluge to come?

Glass half full or half empty? For emerging markets watchers, it’s still not clear.

Last month was a record one in terms of net outflow for funds dedicated to emerging equities, Boston-based agency EPFR Global said.  Debt funds meanwhile saw a $5.5 billion exodus in the week to June 26, the highest in history .

These sound like big numbers, but in fact they are relatively small. EM equity funds tracked by EPFR  have now reversed all the bumper year-to-date inflow registered by end-May, but what of all the flows they have received in the preceding boom decade?

Weekly Radar: A ‘sudden stop’ in emerging markets?

Turkey’s lira, South Africa’s rand and South Korea’s won have all lunged, local currency debt yields have suddenly surged, there’s an intense investor focus on domestic political risks again and governments like Brazil who were taxing what they feared were excessive foreign investment over the past couple of years have U-turned as those flows evaporate. 

What some have feared for many months may well be materializing – a ‘sudden stop’ in financing flows to emerging markets as the makings of a perfect storm gathers. With the Fed mulling some reduction in the amount of dollars it’s pumping into the world, the prospect of a rare and protracted rise in the dollar and U.S. Treasury yields potentially changes entire EM investment metrics for U.S. funds (who make up almost half of the world’s private institutional investors) and from markets which have willingly or not been some of the biggest beneficiaries of QE in recent years but also to where where , by some estimates, nearly $8 trillion of FDI and portfolio flows have flowed over the past decade. It doesn’t even have to mean a reversal of capital already in emerging markets, but even a sudden stop in new flows there could seriously undermine the currency and debt markets of countries heavily dependent on rolling foreign financing – those with large current account gaps to finance. As emerging and global economic growth has eased and return on equity sinks, emerging equity markets have already underperformed for three years now. But the biggest wave of recent investment in EM had been into its bond markets, most recently to higher-yielding local-currency debt markets. And it’s these flows that could dry up rather quickly and shockingly, with all the attendant pressure on currency rates and vice versa. For context, a record of more than $410 billion new sovereign and corporate bonds from emerging economies were sold last year alone, according to JPMorgan, and Morgan Stanley estimates show emerging companies alone have sold some $130 billion worth of new debt so far this year – up 30 percent on last year and more than twice the same period in 2011.
               Already we’re seeing big hits to big current account deficit countries Turkey and South Africa in this region and, as is so often the case in emerging markets, the withdrawal of capital leads to an intense focus on domestic and political risks. These are two of the five biggest destination for bond flows over the past four years, a list –measured on flows as share of GDP – also includes Poland and Czech Republic. Mexico is top of the list, but many see its geographic and financial proximity to the US insulating it.

               So, is this a 1997/1998 redux? That’s certainly a big fear. The similarities are obvious – building dollar strength, higher US Treasury yields and a repatriation of US investment to a domestic ‘emerging market’ (Silicone Valley and the dot.coms in the late 1990s); a sharp drop in Japan’s yen which upset the competitive landscape in Asia; narrowing global growth differentials; some signs of excessive monetary easing in emerging economies and concern about credit bubbles in China and elsewhere; the sudden magnifying of domestic political, social and policy risks etc etc.

Emerging local debt: hedges needed

The fierce sell-off that hit emerging market local currency debt last month was possibly down to low levels of currency hedging by investors, JPMorgan says.

Analysts at the bank compare the rout with the one May 2012, caused by exactly the same reason — higher U.S. yields. There was a difference though — back then EM currencies dropped more than 8% on the month but EM local bonds, unlike last month, were little changed.

Gauging hedging levels is usually a tricky business. But JPM uses the results of its monthly client surveys to analyse the differing moves:

South Africa’s perfect storm

Of all the emerging currency and bond markets that are feeling the heat from the dollar’s rise, none is suffering more than South Africa. A series of horrific economic data prints at home, the prospect of more labour unrest and the slump in metals prices are making this a perfect storm for the country’s financial markets.

Some worrying data from the Johannesburg Stock Exchange this morning shows that foreigners sold almost 5 billion rand (more than $500 million) worth of bonds during yesterday’s session alone. Over the past 10 days, non-resident selling amounted to 10.7 billion rand. They have also yanked out 1.2 billion rand from South African equities in this time. And at the root of this exodus lies the rand, which has fallen almost 15 percent against the dollar this year. Now apparently headed for the 10-per-dollar mark, the rand’s weakness has eaten into investors’ total return, tipping it into negative return for the year.

What a contrast with last year, when a record 93 billion rand flooded into the country on the back of its inclusion in Citi’s prestigious WGBI bond index.  That lifted foreign holdings of South African bonds to well over a third of the total. Investors at the time were more willing to turn a blind eye to the rand’s lacklustre performance, liking its relatively high yield and betting on interest rate cuts to help the duration component of the trade.

Not all emerging currencies are equal

The received wisdom is dollar strength = weaker emerging market currencies. See here for my colleague Mike Dolan’s take on this. But as Mike’s article does point out, all emerging markets are not equal. It follows therefore that any waves of dollar strength and higher U.S. yields will hit them to varying degrees.

ING Bank says in a note sent to clients on Tuesday that emerging currency gains in recent years have been closely tied to foreign investments into domestic bond markets. Recent years have seen a torrent of inflows into local debt, driving down yields on the main GBI-EM index and significantly boosting its market value. Hence, it makes sense to examine how the GBI-EM’s biggest constituents might fare under a scenario of a surging dollar and Treasury yields (In the two years before a Fed tightening cycle commences, 5-year Treasury yields can trade 120-150 basis points higher, ING analysts point out).

In almost every one of the emerging markets examined by ING, spreads over U.S. Treasuries have tightened dramatically since the start of 2012. Ergo, they are vulnerable to correction.

Emerging corporate debt: still booming

The corporate bond juggernaut continues apace in emerging markets.

In a note at the end of last week, analysts at Bank of America/Merrill Lynch estimated that companies from the developing world have sold debt worth $179 billion already this year. Originally, the bank had forecast $268 billion in corporate debt issuance in 2013, a touch below last year’s $290 billion but it is finding itself, like many others, marking up its estimates.

Oleg Melentyev,  credit strategist at BofA/Merrill, writes that recent bumper bond sales imply quarterly issuance is running at 10-11 percent of market size, well above the past average. Melentyev points out that the first 4.5 months of the year tend to account for 35 percent of full-year total debt sales by EM companies.  If this formula were applied now,  it would imply total 2013 new debt issuance at $420 billion.

For now, however, the bank expects $316 billion in full year corporate issuance from EM, with Asia accounting for $126 billion of this.

Weekly Radar: Central banks try to regain some control

Central banks may be regaining some two-way control over global markets that had started to behave like a one-way bet. After flagging some unease earlier this month that frothy markets were assuming endless QE, the Fed and others look to be responding with at least some frank reality checks even if little new in the substance of their message. In truth, there may be no real change in the likely timing of QE’s end, or even the beginning of its end, but the size of the stock and bond market pullbacks on Wednesday and Thursday shows how sensitive they now are to the ebb and flow of central bank guidance on that score.  Although the 7% drop in Japan’s stock market looks alarming – Fed chief Bernanke actually played it fairly straight, signalling no imminent change and putting any possible wind down over the “next few meetings” still heavily conditional on a much lower jobless rate and higher inflation rate. The control he gains from here is an ability to nuance that message either way if either the data disappoints or markets get out of hand.

The central banks are clearly treading a fine line between getting traction in the real economy and not blowing new financial bubbles. The decider may be inflation and on that score central banks have a lot of leeway right now – global inflation is still evaporating and, as measured by JPM, fell in April to just 2.0% – its lowest in 3-1/2 years.  That said, CPI was also very well behaved in the run-up to 2007 credit crisis – it was asset prices and not consumer inflation that caused the problem. So – expect to hear plenty more cat-and-mouse on this from the central banks over the coming weeks/months.

For investors, periodic pullbacks from here are justified and likely sensible. But it’s still hard to argue against a wholesale change of behaviour – which is merely to assume central banks will prevent further growth shocks but will take some time to transform persistently sluggish growth into anything like a sustained inflation-fueling expansion . As a result, funds will likely steer clear of “safe” havens of cash, gold, Swiss franc and yen despite this bounce and continue their migration to income everywhere, with a bias to relative growth stories within that and an exchange rate tilt according to the likely sequencing of QE exit– all of which points to the U.S. dollar if not its stock markets. And for many that may just mean repariation or staying at home –the US is still the homebase for two thirds of the world’s institutional funds, or some $55 trillion of savings.

Emerging European bonds: The music plays on

There seems to be no end to the rip-roaring bond rally across emerging Europe.  Yields on Turkish lira bonds fell to fresh record lows today after an interest rate cut and stand now more than a whole percentage point below where they started the year.

True, bonds from all classes of emerging market have benefited from the flood of money flowing from central banks in the United States, Europe and Japan, with over$20 billion flowing into EM debt funds since the start of 2013, according to EPFR Global. Flows for the first three months of 2013 equated to 12 percent of the funds’ assets under management.

But the effect has been most marked in emerging European local currency bonds — unsurprising, given economic growth here is weakest of all emerging markets and central banks have been the most pro-active in slashing interest rates.  Emerging European yields have fallen around 50 basis points since the start of the year, compared to a 20 bps average yield fall on the broader JPMorgan index of emerging local bonds, Thomson Reuters data shows.

Weekly Radar: May days or Pay days?

So, it’s May and time for the annual if temporary equity market selloff, right? Well, maybe – but only maybe.  A fresh weakening of the global economic pulse would certainly suggest so, but central banks have shown again they are not going to throw in the towel in the battle to reflate. The ECB’s interest rate cut today and last night’s insistence from the Fed that it’s as likely to step up money printing this year as wind it down are two cases in point. And we’re still awaiting the private investment flows from Japan following the BOJ’s latest aggressive easing there.

So where does that all leave us? A third of the way through 2013 and it’s been a good year so far for nearly all bulls – both western equity bulls and increasingly bond bulls too! Not only have developed world equities clocked up some 13 percent year-to-date (the S&P500 set yet another record high this week while Europe’s bluechips recorded a staggering 12th consecutive monthly gain in April) , but virtually all bond markets from junk bonds to Treasuries, euro peripherals to emerging markets are now back in the black for the year as a whole. For the most eyebrow-raising evidence, look no further than last week’s debut sovereign bond from Rwanda at less than 7 percent for 10 years or even newly-junked Slovenia’s ability this week to plough ahead with a syndicated bond sale reported to already be in the region of four times oversubscribed. For many people, that parallel rise in equity and bonds smells of a bubble somewhere. But before you cry “QEEEEE!” , take a look at commodities — the bulls there have been taken a bath all year as data on final global demand hits yet another ‘soft patch’ over the past couple of months.

So is this just an idiosyncratic random walk of asset markets (itself no bad thing after years of stress-riven hyper correlation) or can we explain all three asset directions together? One way to think of it is in terms of global inflation. If QE-related inflation fears have been grossly exaggerated then pressure to remove monetary stimulus or wanes again and there may even be arguments – certainly in Europe – for more. This would intuitively explain the renewed dash for bonds and fixed income in general even in the face of the still-plausible, if long term, “Great Rotation” idea. You could argue the monetary free-for-all is buoying equities regardless of demand concerns. But why wouldn’t commodities gain on that basis too?