Global Investing

Yield-hungry funds lend $2bln to Ukraine

Investors just cannot get enough of emerging market bonds. Ukraine, possibly one of the weakest of the big economies in the developing world, this week returned to global capital markets for the first time in a year , selling $2 billion in 5-year dollar bonds.  Investors placed orders for seven times that amount, lured doubtless by the 9.25 percent yield on offer.

Ukraine’s problems are well known, with fears even that the country could default on debt this year.  The $2 billion will therefore come as a relief. But the dangers are not over yet, which might make its success on bond markets look all the more surprising.

Perhaps not. Emerging dollar debt is this year’s hot-ticket item, generating returns of over 10 percent so far in 2012. Yields in the so-called safe markets such as Germany and United States are negligible; short-term yields are even negative.  So a 9.25 percent yield may look too good to resist.

Moreover Ukraine paid a substantial premium to compensate investors for the risk. Last June it sold a $1.25 billion 5-year bond, paying just 6.25 percent or 300 basis points less. Michael Ganske, head of emerging markets research at Commerzbank says:

At the moment investors are pouring money into emerging fixed income, they just want to get a better yield for their portfolios. People understand Ukraine is not a fantastic credit but it is a matter of value for money — just look at the yield. I think this deal was positive for both sides: Ukraine were able to issue and get money in the bank and investors received an attractive yield.

Next Week: Big Black Cloud

Following are notes from our weekly editorial planning meeting:

Not unlike this year’s British “summer”, the gloom is now all pervasive. Not panicky mind, just gloomy. And there is a significant difference where markets are concerned at least. The former involves surprise and being wrongfooted — but latter has been slow realisation that what were once extreme views on the depth of the credit swamp are fast becoming consensus thinking. The conclusion for many now is that we’re probably stuck in this mire for several more years – anywhere between 5 and 20 years, depending on your favoured doom-monger. Yet, the other thing is that markets also probably positioned in large part for that perma-funk — be it negative yields on core government debt or euro zone equities now with half the p/e ratios of US counterparts. In short, the herd has already  hunkered down and finds it hard to see any horizon. Those who can will resort to short-term tactical plays based on second-guessing government and central bank policy responses (there will likely be more QE or related actions stateside eventually despite hesitancy in the FOMC minutes  and Fed chief Bernanke will likely give a glimpse of that thinking in his congressional testimony next week); or hoping to surf mini econ cycles aided by things like cheaper energy; or hoping to spot one off corporate success stories like a new Apple or somesuch.

So has all hope been snuffed out? The reason for the relapse mid-year depression is only partly related to the political minefield frustrating a resolution of the euro crisis – in some ways, things there look more encouraging policywise than they did two months ago. It stems as much from a realization of just how broken the banks credit creation system remains – a system that had hinged heavily on extensive collateral chains that have now largely been broken or shortened and starved of acceptable high-quality collateral. Curiously, QE – by removing even more of the top quality collateral – may even be exaggerating the problem. Some even say the extreme shortage of this quality “collateral” may require more, not less, government debt in the US and UK and would also benefit from a pooling of euro debt  – but everyone knows how easy all that’s going to be politically.

Despite all this, global markets have remained fairly stable over the past week – in part due to policy hopes underpinning risk markets and in part because there’s not many places left to hide without losing money in “safe-haven” bunkers. World equities are down about 2 percent over the past week,  but still up more than 6 percent from early June. Risk measured by volatility indicesis a smidgen higher too. Oil has firmed back toward $100pb, disappointing everyone apart from oil exporters. Spanish and Italian 10-yr yields are a touch higher. And at least part of the caution everywhere is ae vigil ahead of Chinese Q2 GDP data on Friday – numbers that now almost rival the U.S.  monthly payrolls in global market impact.

European equities finding some takers

European equities are getting some investor interest again.

As the ongoing debt crisis erodes consumer spending and corporate profits, the euro zone’s share  in investors’ equity portfolios has fallen in the past year –Reuters polls show holdings of euro zone stocks at 25 percent versus over 36 percent a year back.  Cash has fled instead to U.S. stocks, opening up a record valuation gap between the European and U.S. shares. (see graphics below from my colleague Scott Barber). In fact no other region has ever been considered as cheap as the euro zone is now,  a monthly survey by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch found in June.

That could offer investors a powerful incentive to return, especially as there are signs of serious efforts to tackle the crisis by deploying the euro zone’s rescue fund.

Pioneer Investments has moved to an overweight position on European stocks. While Pioneer’s head of global asset allocation research Monica Defend stresses the overweight is a small one compared to, say, its position in emerging markets, she says:

Oil price slide – easy come, easy go?

One of the very few positives for the world economy over the second quarter — or at least for the majority of the world that imports oil — has been an almost $40 per barrel plunge in the spot price of Brent crude. As the euro zone crisis, yet another soft patch stateside and a worryingly steep slowdown in the BRICs all combined to pull the demand rug from under the energy markets, the traditional stabilising effects of oil returned to the fray. So much so that by the last week in June, the annual drop in oil prices was a whopping 20%. Apart from putting more money in household and business purses by directly lowering fuel bills and eventually the cost of products with high energy inputs, the drop in oil prices should have a significant impact on headline consumer inflation rates that are already falling well below danger rates seen last year. And for central banks around the world desperate to ease monetary policy and print money again to offset the ravages of deleveraging banks, this is a major relief and will amount to a green light for many — not least the European Central Bank which is now widely expected to cut interest rates again this Thursday.

Of course, disinflation and not deflation is what everyone wants. The latter would disastrous for still highly indebted western economies and would further reinforce comparisons with Japan’s 20 year funk. But on the assumption “Helicopter” Ben Bernanke at the U.S. Federal Reserve and his G20 counterparts are still as committed to fighting deflation at all costs, we can assume more easing is the pipeline — certainly if oil prices continue to oblige.  Latest data for May from the OECD give a good aggregate view across major economies. Annual inflation in the OECD area slowed to 2.1% in the year to May 2012, compared with 2.5% in the year to April 2012 – the lowest rate since January 2011. While this was heavily influenced by oil and food price drops, core prices also dipped below 2% to 1.9% in May.

JP Morgan economists Joseph Lupton and David Hensley, meantime, say their measure of global inflation is set to move below their global central bank target of 2.6% (which they aggregate across 26 countries)  for the first time since September 2010.

Next week: Half time…

QE, some version of it or even the thought of it, seems to have raised all boats yet again — for a bit at least. You’d not really guess it from all the brinkmanship, crisis management and apocalyptic debates of the past month, but June has so far turned out to be a fairly upbeat month – weirdly. World equities are up more than 6 percent since June, lead by a 20 percent jump in European bank stocks and even a 20 percent jump in depressed Greek stocks. The Spanish may found themselves at the centre of the euro debt storm now, but even 10-year Spanish debt yields have returned to June 1 levels after briefly toying with record highs above 7%  in and around its own bank bailout and the Greek election. And the likes of Italian and Irish borrowing rates are actually down this month.  Ok, all that’s after a lousy May that blew up most of the LTRO-inspired first-quarter market gains. But, on a broad global level at least, stocks are still in the black for the year so far. It was certainly “sell in May” yet again this year, but it’s open question whether you stay away til St Ledgers day in September, as the hoary old adage would have it.

On the euro story, the Greeks didn’t go for the nuclear option last weekend at least and it looks like there are some serious proposals on the EU summit table for next week – talk of banking union, EFSF/ESM bond buying programmes, euro bills if not bonds, EIB infrastructure/project bonds to try and catalyse some growth,  and reasonable flexibility from Berlin and others on bailout austerity demands. The Fed has announced that it will twist again like it did last summer, by extending the Treasury yield curve programme by more than a quarter of a trillion dollars, and there are still hopes of it at least raising the prospect of more direct QE. The BoE is already chomping at that bit, as well as lending direct to SMEs, and most investors expect some further easing from the ECB in the weeks and months ahead.

Of course all that could disappoint once more and expectations are getting pumped up again as per June market performance numbers. The EU summit won’t deliver on everything, but there is some realization at least that they need to talk turkey on ways to prevent repeated rolling creditor strikes locking out governments out of the most basic of financing — only then have those very same creditors shun countries again when they agree to punishing fiscal adjustments. A credible growth plan helps a little but some pooling of debt looks unavoidable unless they seriously want to remain in perma-crisis for the rest of the year and probably many years to come. It may be a step too far before next year’s German elections, but surely even Berlin can now see that the bill gets ever higher the longer they wait.

Stumbling at every hurdle

Financial markets are odd sometimes. For weeks they have fretted about the outcome of the Greek election and its impact on the future of the euro zone as a whole. But today they appeared to dismiss the outcome despite a result that was about as positive as global investors fearful for euro zone stability could have hoped for.  So what gives?

The logic behind the weeks of trepidation was fairly simple and straightforward. After an inconclusive election on May 6, a second Greek poll on June 17 was due to give a definitive picture of whether Greeks wanted to stay in the euro and with all the budgetary conditions necessary to keep EU/IMF bailout funds in place.  If a victory for parties wanting to scrap the bailout agreement and austerity led to a halt of EU/IMF funds, the fear was that Greece would inevitably be forced out of the single currency bloc in time too. And if that unprecedented event happened, then a chain reaction would be hard to avoid.  If one country goes back to its domestic currency, despite all its debts being denominated in euros, investors would then find it impossible not to assume at least some element of euro exit risk for fellow-bailout recipients Portugal and Ireland and possibly even Spain and Italy, where doubts remain about their market access over time.

Extreme tail risk or not, this set the scene for the jittery markets that ensued during the Greek electoral hiatus of May 6- June 17. Athens stocks lost more than 17%;  Spanish 10-year government bonds lost more than 7% and the euro/dollar exchange rate was down almost 4%. etc. The fear of euro-wide contagion was so-great that the Spanish bank bailout in the interim had a little or no positive impact. And with the global economic growth picture weakening in tandem with, and partly because of, the euro mess, then prices reflecting world demand in general were hit hard by concerns that another shock to the European banking system could trigger a reversal of trillions of euros of European bank lending from around the globe. Crude oil dropped almost 14%, broad commodity prices and emerging market equities lost about 8%.

Next week: Call and response?

The Greek vote next Sunday now stands front and centre of pretty much all investment thinking, but the problem is that it may still be days and weeks before we get a true picture of what’s happened, whether a government can be formed and what their stance will be. If the new parliament cannot clearly back the existing bailout, even after a bout of  horse-trading, then a game of chicken with Europe ensues.  Eurogroup meets again on Thursday and there’s a German/French/Italy/Spain summit on Friday.  But G20 leaders gather in Mexico as all this is unfolding, so they will certainly be quorate if some sort of global response is required to any initial market shock. What’s more, the FOMC is meeting Tuesday and Wednesday should Bernanke feel the US needs urgent insulation from the fallout regardless of broader action. But it’s certainly not beyond the bounds of reason that coordinated central bank action materializes next week if markets do indeed go skewways after the Greek poll. They have all clearly been consulting on the issue lately via telephone and bilaterals. And the assumption of more QE is there among investors. Three quarters of the 260+ funds polled by BoAMerrill Lynch this month expect another ECB LTRO by the end of Q3 and almost a half expecting more Fed QE over the same time.

And maybe it is this assumption of massive policy response that’s preventing markets capitulating outright. Money is gradually going to ground, but it’s not yet thrown in the towel completely as you can see from major equity indices, volatility gauges and interbank spreads etc. And there are a lot of headwinds everywhere over the next six months, the US election, fiscal cliff, end of operation twist stateside – and that’s in one of the few major western economies that was generating any significant growth this year. In other words, there are no shortage of arguments for another monetary boost. A heavy econ data slate during the week will also reveal just how much the world economy has run into sand this quarter. The standouts are the flash PMIs for June, the US Philly Fed index for June and UK jobs and inflation numbers.

As to the lack of response to last weekend’s Spanish bank bailout, it was weird in many ways that anyone really expected a major rally on this just six days ahead of a Greek vote which could throw the whole bloc into chaos.  Even if you thought the Spanish bailout was good, and it was certainly a necessary if not sufficient step, you would still not return to Spanish debt until the next couple of weeks of events had cleared. So, in that respect, it’s unlikely the market made any real judgement on it either way. The subsequent credit rating cuts from Moody’s have not helped and yields have spiked to the 7% level flashing red lights. But it’s hard to see how any exposed frontline euro market, from Spain to Italy and Ireland to Portugal, can really stabilise ahead of the weekend.  One fear on the Spanish rescue was of private investors’ subordination to EU/IMF creditors in any workout of Spanish debt. But even that too may have been overstated when it comes to the sovereign. For a start, the interest rate charged on the funds means a massive saving for Madrid compared with prevailing market rates and, as Barclays argued, actually increases the overall pie available for any workout, with a possible increase in projected recovery rates compared with the pre-bailout setup.  If that was the big concern, then the subsequent rise in Spanish yields most likely is more Greek than Spanish in origin.

Research Radar: Greek gloom

Greek gloom dominates the start of the week as new elections there look inevitable and talk of Greek euro exit, or a Grexit” as common market parlance now has it, mounts. All risk assets and securities hinged on global growth have been hit, with China’s weekend reserve ratio easing doing little to offset gloomy data from world’s second biggest economy at the end of last week. World stocks are down heavily and emerging markets are underperforming; the euro has fallen to near 4-month lows below $1.29; safe haven core government debt is bid as euro peripheral debt yields in Italy and Spain push higher; and global growth bellwethers such as crude oil and the Australian dollar are down – the latter below parity against the US dollar for the first time in 5 months.

Financial research reports on Monday and over the weekend were just as gloomy, but plenty of interesting takes:

Bank of New York Mellon’s Simon Derrick’s view of the Greek political impasse concluded “there is at least an evens chance that the latter part of this summer will see what had officially been seen up until last November as an impossibility: a nation leaving the EUR.”

South African bond rush

It’s been a great year so far for South African bonds. But can it get better?

Ever since Citi announced on April 16 that South African government bonds would join its World Government Bond Index (WGBI),  almost 20 billion rand (over $2.5 billion ) in foreign cash has flooded to the local debt markets in Johannesburg, bringing year-to-date inflows to over 37 billion rand. Last year’s total was 48 billion. Michael Grobler, bond analyst at Johannesburg-based brokerage Afrifocus Securities predicts total 2012 inflows at over 60 billion rand, surpassing the previous 56 billion rand record set in 2o1o:

The assumption..is based on the fact that South Africa will have a much larger and diversified investor base following inclusion in the WGBI expanding beyond the EM debt asset class

Big Fish, Small Pond?

It’s the scenario that Bank of England economist Andrew Haldane last year termed the Big Fish Small Pond problem — the prospect of rising global investor allocations swamping the relatively small emerging markets asset class.

But as of now, the picture is better described as a Small Fish in a Big Pond, Morgan Stanley says in a recent study, because emerging markets still receive a tiny share of asset allocations from the giant investment funds in the developed world.

These currently stand at under 10% of diversified portfolios from G4 countries even though emerging markets make up almost a fifth of the market capitalisation of world equity and debt capital markets.  In the case of Japan, just 4% of cross-border investments are in emerging markets, MS estimates.