Global Investing

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:

Iran is beyond the final frontier for portfolio investors, but many on the ground appear to believe there is a good chance it will become investable (at least to frontier funds) within the next 6-18 months..Most interesting of all, there is a dynamic reform team now in charge of the government and central bank, which is undertaking the classic monetary and fiscal reforms EM investors usually like. This looks to us like a potential re-ratingplay that could – in an investable scenario – attract those investors who have recently invested in Saudi Arabia, like those who invested in Turkey after 2001 and Russia since the 1990s.

Not so fast.  Despite last year’s initial agreement between Teheran and six world powers, sanctions on Iran remain and until these are removed, few  investors will venture there. Second, fathoming Iran’s idiosyncratic markets could prove a challenge for foreigner, Robertson acknowledges, citing the banking sector and bond markets as an example:

Frontier markets: past the high water-mark

By Julia Fioretti

Ethiopia’s plans to hit the Eurobond trail once it gets a credit rating are highlighting how fast frontier debt markets are growing.

IFR data shows that sub-Saharan Africa alone issued $4.2 billion of sovereign debt in the year to September, compared to $3.6 billion in the same 2012 period. And returns on frontier market bonds have outgunned their high-yield emerging sovereign peers this year.

JPMorgan, which runs the most-used emerging debt indices of which the frontier component is called NEXGEM, says the year-to-date return on NEXGEM is around 0.7 percent – while paltry, it’s well above corporate and sovereign emerging bonds.

Not everyone is “risk off”

Who would have thought it. As fears over the euro zone’s fate, Chinese economic growth and Middle Eastern politics drive investors toward safe-haven U.S. and German bonds, some have apparently been going the other way.  According to JPMorgan, bonds from so-called frontier economies such as Pakistan, Belarus and Jordan (usually considered high-risk assets) have performed exceptionally well, doing far better in fact than their peers from mainstream emerging markets.  The following graphic from JPM which runs the NEXGEM sub-index of frontier debt, shows that returns on many of these bonds are running well into the double digits.

NEXGEM returns of 8.4 percent  are on par with the S&P 500, writes JPMorgan and outstrip all other emerging bond categories. Clearly one reason is the lack of correlation with the mainstream asset classes, many of which have been selling off for weeks amid growth fears and in the run up to French and Greek elections.  Second, investors who tend to buy these bonds usually have a pretty high risk-tolerance anyway as they keep their eyes on the double-digit yields they offer.

So year-to-date returns on Ivory Coast’s defaulted debt are running at over 40 percent on hopes that the country will resume payments on its $2.3 billion bond after June. The underperformer is Belize whose bonds suffered from a default scare at the start of the year.