Global Investing

“Contrarian” Deutsche (a bit) less bearish on emerging stocks

For an investor in emerging equities the best strategy in recent years has been to take a contrarian stance, says John-Paul Smith at Deutsche Bank.

Smith, head of emerging equity strategy at Deutsche, has been bearish on emerging stocks since 2010, exactly the time when bucketloads of new cash was being committed to the asset class. Investors who heeded his advice back then would have been in the money — since end-2010 emerging equities have underperformed U.S. equities by almost 40 percent, Smith pointed out a couple of months ago.

Things have worsened since then and MSCI’s emerging equity index is down around 12 percent year-to-date, almost the level of loss that Deutsche had predicted for the whole of 2013. June outflows from emerging stock funds, according to EPFR Global last week, were the largest on record. But true to form, Smith says he is no longer totally bearish on emerging equities.  Maybe the presence or absence of those he calls “marginal international investors” — people who joined the EM party too late and are quick to take fright — is key. Many of these positions appear to have been cleaned out. Short positions or high cash balances dominate the books of dedicated players,  Smith writes:

However bad the underlying fundamentals appear to be,the best approach, following the end of the acute phase of the global financial crisis in early 2009 with regard to emerging market equities, has been to follow a contrarian strategy. We have attributed this to the greater influence of marginal international investors and in particular the rising influence of the sort of momentum – or trend-following investors whose strategies have become largely self-defeating, because they are devoid of the broader context  of sovereign and corporate governance, which is the true driver of longer term investment performance.

He adds wryly:

Also our own services are in fairly high demand which is usually a sign of a short term bottom in EM

Brazil grinds out a result

The South Americans are dominating possession. And it’s not only on the football pitch.

Net flows at Brazilian equity mutual funds have been positive for 11 out of the 12 months to end-May, according to estimates from Lipper, leading to total net inflows over the period of about $13 billion. That stands in stark contrast to the other three BRIC emerging market powerhouses.

China equity funds have waved goodbye to almost £3 billion in that time, Russia a similar amount and India $4 billion. India equity funds have seen 12 straight months of net outflows, Russia 10 out of 12 and China nine out of 12. The graphic below makes the trend clear, with Brazil the only BRIC to show net inflows to equity funds in eight of the 12 months examined. (A brief note on India: the reporting timetable of locally-domiciled funds means that these numbers are largely from funds based outside the country, which account for about half of assets)

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?

Eyes off the prize?

It’s starting to look like investors in Britain’s top companies have reverted to type.

Reuters ran the numbers on voting at FTSE 100 annual general meetings (AGM) last week and you would be forgiven for thinking the ‘shareholder spring’ had never happened. The average vote against executive pay deals at the 71 top companies which have so far held their AGM was down 18 percent from the result for the full FTSE 100 in 2011. The raw number has to be viewed with caution; investors claim victory in forcing companies to engage, cut absolute pay and tweak bonus arrangements, even though there is little direct evidence so far of pay moderation in absolute terms.

The protest vote fell or stayed put at 58 percent of companies and there was little other evidence of acrimony when you look beyond pay votes. If we exclude a clutch of votes over the rather arcane issue of notice periods for general meetings, then more than two thirds of companies suffered no protest vote of 10 percent or more on any other AGM resolution.

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.

Guarding against the inflation dog in emerging markets

The dog that didn’t bark was how the IMF described inflation. But might the fall in emerging market currencies reverse the current picture of largely benign inflation?

Nick Shearn, a portfolio manager at BlueBay Asset Management, sees the rise in inflation as not an if but a when, which makes inflation-linked bonds (linkers in common parlance) a good idea. These would hedge not only against EM but also G7 inflation — he calculates the correlation between the two at around 0.8 percent. He says linkers outperform as inflation uncertainty increases, hence:

As a result of the loose monetary policies of recent years that have been implemented to promote growth within emerging market economies, we believe rising as well as persistent inflation should become a trend….. Currently we are seeing the early signs of an inflation dynamic in isolated countries such as in Brazil. But, as inflation begins to rise across the region, inflation uncertainty will also begin to rise and consequently inflation-linked bonds should perform well.

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.