Global Investing

Who shivers if Russia cuts off the gas?

Markets are fretting about the prospect of western sanctions on Russia but Europeans will also suffer heavily from any retaliatory trade embargoes from Moscow which supplies roughly a third of the continent’s gas needs  – 130 billion cubic metres in 2012.

After all, memories are still fresh of winter 2009 when Russia cut off gas exports through Ukraine because of Kiev’s failure to pay bills on time.  ING Bank analysts have put together a table showing which countries could be hardest hit if the Kremlin indeed turns off the taps.

So while Hungary and Slovakia depend on Moscow for over a third of their energy,  Germany imported less than 10 percent of its needs  from Russia while Ireland, Spain and the United Kingdom received none at all in 2012, ING’s graphic shows.  So while the main impetus for the sanctions comes from the G7 group of rich countries,  it is central and Eastern Europe who will be in the firing line.

ING analysts point out that Western European countries are also more able to source alternative gas supplies, say in the form of LNG shipped on tanker from Qatar or Algeria:

What experts on the gas supply network suggest is that central and eastern europe is less well-shielded from interruptions to Russian/Ukrainian gas supply and also has fewer back-up options in terms of diverted supply from other regions of Europe.

Emerging European bonds: The music plays on

There seems to be no end to the rip-roaring bond rally across emerging Europe.  Yields on Turkish lira bonds fell to fresh record lows today after an interest rate cut and stand now more than a whole percentage point below where they started the year.

True, bonds from all classes of emerging market have benefited from the flood of money flowing from central banks in the United States, Europe and Japan, with over$20 billion flowing into EM debt funds since the start of 2013, according to EPFR Global. Flows for the first three months of 2013 equated to 12 percent of the funds’ assets under management.

But the effect has been most marked in emerging European local currency bonds — unsurprising, given economic growth here is weakest of all emerging markets and central banks have been the most pro-active in slashing interest rates.  Emerging European yields have fallen around 50 basis points since the start of the year, compared to a 20 bps average yield fall on the broader JPMorgan index of emerging local bonds, Thomson Reuters data shows.

Dollar drags emerging local debt into red

Victims of the dollar’s strength are piling up.

Total returns on emerging market local currency bonds dipped into the red for the first time this year, according to data from JPMorgan which compiles the flagship GBI-EM global diversified index of domestic emerging debt. While the EMBI Global index of sovereign dollar debt has already taken a hit the rise in U.S. yields, local bonds’ problems are down to how EM currencies are performing against the dollar.

JPMorgan points out that while bond returns in local currency terms, from carry and duration, are a decent 1 percent, that has been negated by the 1.3 percent loss on the currency side. With the dollar on the rampage of late  (it’s up almost 4 percent in 2013 against a grouping of major world currencies) that’s unsurprising. But a closer look at the data reveals that much of the loss is down to three underperforming markets — South Africa, Hungary and Poland. These have dragged down overall returns even though Asian and Latin American currencies have done quite well.

The graphic below shows South African local debt bringing up the bottom of the table, with the FX component of returns at around minus 9 percent  In rand terms however the return is still in positive territory, but only just. Hungary and Poland fare only slightly better.

Time running out for Hungarian bonds?

Could Hungary’s run of good luck be about to end?

Despite controversial policies, things have gone the country’s way in recent months — the easing euro crisis and abundant global liquidity saw investors flock to high-yield emerging markets such as Hungary and also allowed it to tap international capital for a $3.25 billion bond. It has slashed interest rates seven times straight, cutting them this week to a record low 5.25 percent. The result is an increased reliance on international bond investors. Foreigners’ share of the Budapest bond market  is almost 50 percent, among the highest percentages in emerging markets.

But analysts at Unicredit write that both markets and economic data had validated rate cuts in 2012, which may not be the case any more. Annual headline inflation fell from 6.6% in September 2012 to 3.7% in January 2013 while the economy contracted 1.7% last year. As a result, net foreign buying of Hungarian bonds rose  in the second half of 2012 to 837 billion forints (an average daily rate of almost 6 billion forints), they note.  Markets are pricing at least 3 more cuts, that will take the rate to 4.5 percent.

But support from foreigners is ebbing. Since the beginning of the year, Unicredit points out, foreign investors have cut holdings of government bonds by 236.8 billion forints (average daily outflow of 6.1 billion forints). Moreover, the most recent rate cuts have failed to fully translate into bond yield corrections, they say.  While the short-dated 2-5 year segment of the curve dropped 23-40 basis points, the belly (the middle) of the curve dipped by only 9-24 bps and longer-dated yields over 10 years have risen by around 18 bps. And the fall in inflation too could be a thing of the past if the government resorts to tax hikes in order to meet the deficit target of 2.7% of GDP  — that would persuade the European Union to lift the excessive deficit procedure it has triggered against Hungary for repeated budget deficit overshoots.

Emerging Policy-More cuts and a change of governors in Hungary

All eyes on the Hungarian central bank this week.  Not so much on tomorrow’s policy meeting (a 25 bps rate cut is almost a foregone conclusion) but on Friday’s nomination of a new governor by Prime Minister Viktor Orban.  Expectations are for Economy Minister Gyorgy Matolcsy to get the job, paving the way for an extended easing cycle. Swaps markets are currently pricing some 100 basis points of rate cuts over the coming six months in Hungary — the question is, could this go further? With tomorrow’s meeting to be the last by incumbent Andras Simor, clues over future policy are unlikely, but analysts canvassed by Reuters reckon interest rates could fall to 4.5 percent by the third quarter, compared to their prediction for a 5 percent trough in last month’s poll.

A rate cut is also possible in Israel later today, taking the interest rate to 1.5 percent. Recent data showed growth at a weaker-than-expected 2.5 percent in the last quarter of 2012 while inflation was 1.5 percent in January, at the bottom of the central bank’s target range.  But most importantly, according to Goldman Sachs, the shekel has been strengthening, having risen 7 percent against the dollar since November and 6.8 percent on a trade-weighted basis in this period. That could prompt a rate cut, though analysts polled by Reuters still think on balance that the BOI will keep rates unchanged while retaining a dovish bias. A possible reason could be that house prices — a sensitive issue in Israel — are still on the rise despite tougher regulations on mortgage lending.

 

A (costly) balancing act in Hungary

A bond trader in London is still marvelling at the market’s willingness to snap up a Eurobond from Hungary, calling it a country with “a policy mix so unorthodox even Aunty Christine won’t lend to them”.  But Hungary’s probable glee at bypassing the IMF and “Aunty Christine”  with $3.25 billion in two bonds that were almost four times oversubscribed, is probably short-sighted.

Hungary needs to raise the equivalent of $23.4 billion this year to repay maturing debt. The bond placement will enable Hungary to easily meet the hard currency component of this, and it has been enormously successful in luring buyers to domestic debt markets.  Such has been the demand for Hungarian bonds in recent months that foreigners’ holdings of forint-denominated government debt are at a record high of over 45 percent.

The success does not necessarily represent a thumbs-up for Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s policies but is more likely due to the yield Hungary paid — well over 5 percent for five and 10-year cash. In dollar terms that is not to be sneezed at, especially at a time when liquidity is abundant and the yield on mainstream dollar assets is low. The same reason is behind the demand for forint bonds, where Hungary pays over 5 percent on one-year paper. An IMF loan would have been far cheaper. (The rate for a standby loan of the kind Hungary had is tied to the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights (SDR) interest rate. Very large loans carry a surcharge of 200 basis points)

Emerging Policy-Doves reign

Rate cuts are still coming thick and fast in emerging markets — in some cases because of falling inflation and in others to deter the gush of speculative international capital.

Arguably the biggest event in emerging markets is tomorrow’s Reserve Bank of India (RBI) meeting which is expected to yield an interest rate cut for the first time in nine months.

India’s inflation, while still sticky, eased last month to a three-year low of around 7 percent. And a quarter point rate cut to 7.75 percent will in effect be a nod from the RBI to the government’s recent reform efforts.  In anticipation of a rate cut, Indian 10-year bond yields have dropped 50 basis points since the start of the year.  But the RBI, probably the world’s most hawkish central bank at present, has warned that markets need not expect a 50 bps cut or even a sustained rate-cutting campaign. Governor Duvvuri Subbarao said last week inflation still remains too high for comfort, while on Monday the RBI said in a quarterly report that more reform was needed to make the central bank turn its focus on growth.

After bumper 2012, more gains for emerging Europe debt?

By Alice Baghdjian

Interest rate cuts in emerging markets, credit ratings upgrades and above all the tidal wave of liquidity from Western central banks have sent almost $90 billion into emerging bond markets this year (estimate from JP Morgan). Much of this cash has flowed to locally-traded emerging currency debt, pushing yields in many markets to record lows again and again. Local currency bonds are among this year’s star asset classes, returning over 15 percent, Thomson Reuters data shows.

But the pick up in global growth widely expected in 2013 may put the brakes on the bond rally in many countries – for instance rate hikes are expected in Brazil, Mexico and Chile. One area where rate rises are firmly off the agenda however is emerging Europe and South Africa, where economic growth remains weak. That is leading to some expectations that these markets could outperform in 2013.

There have already been big rallies. Since the start of the year, Turkey’s 10 year bond has rallied by 300 basis points; Hungary’s by almost 400 bps; and Poland’s by 200 bps. So is there room for more.

Fitch’s Xmas gift for Hungary leaves analysts agog

Hungary’s outlook upgrade to stable from positive by Fitch was greeted with incredulity by many analysts. Benoit Anne at Societe Generale wonders if the decision had anything to do with the Mayan prophecy that proclaiming the end of the world on Dec. 21:

What is the last crazy thing you would do on the last day of the world? Well, the guys at Fitch could not find anything better to do than upgrading Hungary’s rating outlook to stable. Now, that really makes me scared.

A bit brutal maybe but the point Anne wants to make is valid — nothing fundamental has changed in Hungary — its GDP growth and debt numbers are looking as dire as before and the central bank is still subject to political interference.

Hungary’s forint and rate cut expectations

A rate cut in Hungary is considered a done deal today. But a sharp downward move in the forint  is making future policy outlook a bit more interesting.

The forint fell 1.5 percent against the euro on Monday to the lowest level since July and has lost 2.6 percent this month. Monday’s loss was driven by a rumour that the central bank planned to stop accepting bids for two week T-bills. That would effectively have eliminated the main way investors buy into forint in the short term.   The rumour was denied but the forint continues to weaken.

Analysts are not too worried, attributing it to year-end position squaring. Benoit Anne, head of EM strategy at Societe Generale, points out the forint is the world’s best performing emerging currency of 2012 (up  11.3 percent against the dollar). Given the state of the economy (recession) and falling inflation, the forint move will not deter the central bank from a rate cut, he says.