Global Investing

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

All that bodes ill for shares in companies selling so-called consumer discretionaries in developing countries  – non-essential items such as autos and high-end cosmetics.

But someone’s loss is someone’s gain. Shares in companies selling consumer staples –food, beverages, prescription meds and tobacco —  are starting to pick up.  In short, everything that outperforms during economic downturns. MSCI’s index of emerging market staples is flat on the year, doing only slighly better than consumer discretionaries. But guess what? In August, when everything was selling  off staples did ok. They fell 2.4 percent, much better than MSCI’s discretionaries index which lost 8 percent.

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.

Shock! Emerging capital controls may just be working

Do capital controls work?  After years of telling us that they do not, the IMF and World Bank reluctantly conceded last year they may not be all that bad and indeed in some cases they may actually help keep away some of the speculators who have in recent years been pouring into emerging markets.

Developing countries for the most part like foreign capital, indeed they rely on it for development. What they don’t like is hot money — short-term speculative flows which are widely blamed for causing past emerging market crises. So starting from October last year several of them slapped controls on some of this cash. There are signs these may be working.

Take the experience of two large emerging markets, Brazil and Indonesia. Brazil shocked forBRAZIL-MARKETS/eign investors last October with a 2 percent tax on all flows to stocks and bonds. Nine months on, investors are still putting their cash there and Brazil has raked in millions of dollars thanks to the tax. But many fund managers, like HSBC’s Jose Cuervo, who runs a $6 billion portfolio of Brazilian stocks, are buying American Depositary Receipts (ADRS) of Brazilian firms rather than stocks listed in Sao Paulo.  Because ADRs are in dollars and listed in New York, investors are getting exposure to Brazil but sidestepping the tax.  Brazilian firms continue to receive investment but Brazil’s currency is not appreciating  like it was last year. A win-win all around.

from Funds Hub:

Live from the City Oscars 2010

I'll be at the Guildhall in London today for the latest run down of the financial sector's favourite brokers, analysts and fund managers.

Scrambling for debt

Developing countries must be eyeing with alarm the vast amounts of bonds that the euro zone and the United States are planning to sell this year and for years to come. Having borrowed large sums, starting a couple of years back to fund the bailout of  U.S. and European banks, developed economies must now raise the cash to repay the holders of those old bonds  – in market parlance, they need to roll over the debt.

The prospect of rolling such vast sums continuously in the current fragile market must be unnerving to say the least. But what about other countries who too have creditors to pay off — emerging markets in particular?  How will their deals fare if  U.S. and European bonds, seen usually as safer assets,  flood the market and drive up yields?

Not too badly, it would seem. The first reason is a simple matter of numbers. The United States needs to roll over one-fifth of all  its outstanding bills in 2010, — a whopping $1.6 trillion. The euro zone must find 1.3 trillion euros in the coming year — more than the recent Greek aid deal that took them so much time and hand-wringing to finalise.   Emerging markets’ needs are tiny in comparison.  ING Bank reckons they need as little as $75 billion to service their hard currency debt in 2010 and half of this has already been raised.  Should not be a problem, then.

from DealZone:

Sovereign Funds sextuple down

They may be placing smaller bets, but sovereign wealth funds were back with a vengeance in the third quarter.

Global corporate mergers and acquisitions activity involving sovereign wealth funds jumped sixfold to nearly $22 billion in the quarter, with 37 deals completed. Global announced M&A volumes involving state investment vehicles stood at $21.8 billion, up from $3.6 billion in the second quarter, according to our data.

The number of deals more than doubled from 17 in the April-June period. Only two weeks into the fourth quarter, there were five pending or completed deals with a combined value of $164.7 million. At the height of the boom in the first quarter of 2006, sovereign wealth funds sealed 35 deals worth $45.7 billion.

I blame the fund managers

I’ve been building up a couple of dummy funds on Reuters’ new Portfolio tool. Not only is it a welcome diversion from actual work, but it allows me to test the mettle of the fund managers we speak to, and check out the guidance offered by the Lipper Leader fund rankings.

One of my portfolios uses the stock picks and short ideas offered up by the managers we interview for the many FUND VIEW stories which dot the Reuters wire. The other simply picks some of the funds which score highest across the Lipper fund sectors.

In theory, it gives me ample room to lay blame elsewhere when the dummy funds inevitably go belly up and I’m forced into a fire sale of assets to repay my dummy investors with dummy money. In truth though, I’m going to set the asset weightings and decide when to buy and sell so any abject failures will be more fairly laid at my door.