Global Investing

BRIC: Brilliant/Ridiculous Investment Concept

BRIC is Brazil, Russia, India, China — the acronym coined by Goldman Sachs banker Jim O’Neill 10 years back to describe the world’s biggest, fastest-growing and most important emerging markets.  But according to Albert Edwards, Societe Generale‘s uber-bearish strategist, it also stands for Bloody Ridiculous Investment Concept. Some investors, licking their wounds due to BRIC markets’ underperformance in 2011 and 2010, might be inclined to agree — stocks in all four countries have performed worse this year than the broader emerging markets equity index, to say nothing of developed world equities.

For years, money has chased BRIC investments, tempted by the countries’ fast growth, huge populations and explosive consumer hunger for goods and services. But Edwards cites research showing little correlation between growth and investment returns. He points out that Chinese nominal GDP growth may have averaged 15.6 percent  since 1993 but the compounded  return on equity investments was minus 3.3 percent.

But economic growth — the BRIC holy grail – is also now slowing. Data showed this week that Brazil posted zero growth in the third quarter of 2011 compared to last year’s 7.5 percent. Indian growth is  at the weakest in over two years. In Russia, rising discontent with the Kremlin — reflected in post-election protests — carries the risk of hitting the broader economy. And China, facing falling exports to a moribund Western world,  is also bound to slow. Edwards goes a step further and flags a hard landing in China as the biggest potential investment shock of 2012.  “Yet investors persist in the BRIC superior growth fantasy…If growth does matter to investors, they should be worried that
things seem to be slowing sharply in the BRIC universe,” he writes.

Thomson Reuters data earlier this year appeared to show some disenchantment with the BRIC concept. After rising 1600-fold between 2003 and 2007, assets in BRIC funds had shrunk to $28 billion by August 2011, almost a quarter below 2007 peaks, a bigger fall in percentage terms than most other fund categories.

What of O’Neill, the man behind the moniker? He talks increasingly of Growth Markets, a broader grouping that also includes other promising emerging countries such as Turkey and Mexico. But at a Reuters investment summit this week O’Neill noted that the main reason for BRIC stocks’ underperformance has been a massive monetary policy tightening exercise in all four countries, prompted by rising inflation.  With that at an end and valuations cheaper than they have been for a long time, he expects the BRIC markets, especiallly China, to do better next year despite slower growth. Time will tell.

Retail volte face confirms India as BRIC that disappoints

Jim O’Neill, the Goldman Sachs banker who coined the term BRICs to capture the fast-growing emerging-markets quartet of Brazil, Russia, India and China,  has fingered India as the BRIC that has disappointed the most over the past decade in terms of reforms, FDI and productivity. New Delhi’s latest decision to put on hold a landmark reform of its retail sector will only confirm this view.

The government’s backtracking on plans to allow foreign investment in supermarkets will not surprise those accustomed to New Delhi’s record on key economic reforms. But it means India’s weak performance on FDI receipts will continue and that’s bad news for the worsening balance of payments deficit.  Speaking of the retail volte face, O’Neill said: ”They shouldn’t raise people’s hopes of FDI and then in a week, say, ‘we’re only joking’”.

Various Indian lobby groups that oppose the reforms contend that foreign giants such as Wal-Mart and Tesco will kill off the livelihoods of millions of small traders.

Contemplating Italian debt restructuring

This week’s evaporation of confidence in the euro zone’s biggest government debt market — Italy’s 1.6 trillion euros of bonds and bills and the world’s third biggest — has opened a Pandora’s Box that may now force  investors to consider the possibility of a mega sovereign debt default or writedown and, or maybe as a result of,  a euro zone collapse.

Given the dynamics and politics of the euro zone, this is a chicken-or-egg situation where it’s not clear which would necessarily come first. Greece has already shown it’s possible for a “voluntary” creditor writedown of  the country’s debts to the tune of 50 percent without — immediately at least — a euro exit. On the other hand, leaving the euro and absorbing a maxi devaluation of a newly-minted domestic currency would instantly render most country’s euro-denominated debts unpayable in full.

But if a mega government default is now a realistic risk, the numbers on the “ifs” and “buts” are being being crunched.

Phew! Emerging from euro fog

Holding your breath for instant and comprehensive European Union policies solutions has never been terribly wise.  And, as the past three months of summit-ology around the euro sovereign debt crisis attests, you’d be just a little blue in the face waiting for the ‘big bazooka’. And, no doubt, there will still be elements of this latest plan knocking around a year or more from now. Yet, the history of euro decision making also shows that Europe tends to deliver some sort of solution eventually and it typically has the firepower if not the automatic will to prevent systemic collapse.
And here’s where most global investors stand following the “framework” euro stabilisation agreement reached late on Wednesday. It had the basic ingredients, even if the precise recipe still needs to be nailed down. The headline, box-ticking numbers — a 50% Greek debt writedown, agreement to leverage the euro rescue fund to more than a trillion euros and provisions for bank recapitalisation of more than 100 billion euros — were broadly what was called for, if not the “shock and awe” some demanded.  Financial markets, who had fretted about the “tail risk” of a dysfunctional euro zone meltdown by yearend, have breathed a sigh of relief and equity and risk markets rose on Thursday. European bank stocks gained almost 6%, world equity indices and euro climbed to their highest in almost two months in an audible “Phew!”.

Credit Suisse economists gave a qualified but positive spin to the deal in a note to clients this morning:

It would be clearly premature to declare the euro crisis as fully resolved. Nevertheless, it is our impression that EU leaders have made significant progress on all fronts. This suggests that the rebound in risk assets that has been underway in recent days may well continue for some time.

Is end-game approaching for Turkey’s policy experiment?

In less than two months, Turkey will mark the first anniversary of the start of an unusual monetary policy experiment, and it may well do so by calling it off.  The experiment hinged on cutting interest rates while raising banks’ reserve ratio requirements, and as recently as August, the central bank was hoping  it would be able to slow a local credit boom a bit but still protect exports by keeping the currency cheap.  Instead, an investor exodus from emerging markets has put the lira to the sword, fuelling at one point a 20 percent collapse in its value against the dollar.  That has forced the central bank to roll back some of the reserve ratio hikes and last week it jacked up overnight lending rates in an attempt to boost the currency. It has also sold vast quantities of dollars and is promising  to unveil more  measures on Wednesday.

But what the market really wants to see is an increase in Turkey’s main interest rate.  ”Not sure that ‘measures’ short of rate hikes will help,” RBS analyst Tim Ash writes.

Given Turkey’s massive current account deficit of almost 10 percent of GDP, an interest rate of 5.75 percent will provide little protection to the lira if emerging markets come under serious pressure again. Even if the lira stabilises at current levels, an inflation spike to double-digits looks inevitable.  Meanwhile the central bank’s hard currency reserves are vanishing at an alarming rate — just last week it spent $2.7 billion. That’s a lot given Turkish reserves are just $86 billion, or  four months of imports.  Current central bank policy is  ”an open door to reserve depletion,” Societe Generale strategist Guillaume Salomon says,  noting that despite the massive dollar sales,  the lira is not far off record lows hit earlier this month.

from MacroScope:

New twist in Hungary’s Swiss debt saga. Banks beware.

A fresh twist in Hungary's Swiss franc debt saga. The ruling party, Fidesz, is proposing to offer mortgage holders the opportunity to repay their franc-denominated loans in one fell swoop at an exchange rate to be  fixed well below the market rate.  This is a deviation from the existing plan, agreed in June, which allows households to repay mortgage installments at a fixed rate of 180 forints per Swiss franc (well below the current 230 rate). Households would repay the difference, with interest, after 2015.

If this step is implemented and many loan holders take up the offer, it would be terrible news for Hungary's banks. The biggest local lender OTP could face a loss of $2 billion forints, analysts at Budapest-based brokerage Equilor calculate.  Not surprisingly, OTP shares plunged 10 percent on Friday after the news, forcing regulators to suspend trade in the stock. Shares in another bank FHB are down 8 percent.

But Fidesz' message is unequivocal.  "The financial consequences should be borne by the banks,"  Janos Lazar, the Fidesz official behind the plan says. The government is to debate the proposal on Sunday.

Emerging consumers’ pain to spell gains for stocks in staples

Food and electricity bills are high. The cost of filling up at the petrol station isn’t coming down much either. The U.S. economy is in trouble and suddenly the job isn’t as secure as it seemed. Maybe that designer handbag and new car aren’t such good ideas after all.

That’s the kind of decision millions of middle class consumers in developing countries are facing these days. That’s bad news for purveyors of everything from jeans to iphones  who have enjoyed double-digit profits thanks to booming sales in emerging markets.

Brazil is the best example of how emerging market consumers are tightening their belts. Thanks to their spending splurge earlier this decade, Brazilian consumers on average see a quarter of their income disappear these days on debt repayments. People’s credit card bills can carry interest rates of up to 45 percent. The central bank is so worried about the growth outlook it stunned markets with a cut in interest rates this week even though inflation is running well above target

Clinging to hope in bear-bitten Russia

Poor Russia. After spending six months as the world’s best performing emerging market, the Moscow bourse  has been the big loser of this month’s rout – year-to-date returns of over 10 percent until mid-July have since dissolved in a sea of red, with a plunge of over 20 percent since the start of August. As oil prices fell and the outlook for U.S. and European growth darkened, overweight positions in Russia halved versus July, a survey by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch showed this week.

But get this — Russia remains among investors’ main emerging market punts and only Indonesia is more favoured, according to the BoA/ML poll. The reason is that fund managers are still clinging to hopes that an increasingly wealthy Russian consumer will save the day. Unfortunately those hopes are yet to materialise. Returns on domestic demand-based stocks such as Sberbank, carmaker Avtovaz and supermarket chain Magnit have been even more disappointing this year than the broader Moscow market.

Even the staunchest Russia bull will have been disappointed with data showing Russia’s economy grew at just 3.4 percent in the second quarter of the year.  That proves the economy was running out of steam even before the August oil price fall and suggests that the Russian consumer is not yet stepping up to the mark. Retail data since then have been more heartening — annual sales rose 5.6 percent in July from 3 percent in June.

Inside the Reuters investment polls

The headline news from our Reuters asset allocation polls this month was that not much has changed from December in terms of overall investment positioning, but that there was a decided shift from emerging markets and European stocks to North America.

But buried in the numbers were a couple of other things:

– Bonds are decidedly unpopular among fund managers. The overall global allocation was the lowest since February.

– Bond underweights have also been getting heavier and heavier since summer and now reflect significant bearishness.

The Naked Truth

Do independent asset managers perform better than bank-run funds?

Lipper was recently approached to analyse the difference in performance between funds operated by broader financial services companies (banks and insurers) and those managed by ‘pure play’ asset managers.

This research came in the wake of comments made by Peter Hargreaves, founder of IFA Hargreaves Lansdown, who said in September that many funds in the UK run by banks were “seriously crap”.

With the temperature apparently rising, it might be a little foolhardy to enter such a debate. Yet objective analysis is surely where independent fund researchers can best provide a useful contribution. Besides, it might be gettin’ hot in here, but I for one will not be takin’ off my clothes.