Global Investing

Ukraine and the IMF: a sense of deja vu

The West has just agreed to stump up a load of cash for Ukraine but there is a distinct sense of deja vu around it all.

Let’s face it – Ukraine’s track record on how it manages ts economy and foreign affairs isn’t great. This is the third aid programme Kiev has signed with the International Monetary Fund in a decade and two of them have failed. The IMF has its fingers crossed that this one will not go the way of the past two. Reza Moghadam, the IMF’s top European official, tells Reuters in an interview:

They seem to be committed, they seem to own this reform programme and in that sense I am optimistic

Indeed, Ukraine’s new government has taken some brave and politically unpopular  steps, allowing the currency to depreciate and announcing plans to cut gas subsidies that amount to almost a tenth of its annual GDP, according to IMF data. (Here’s a piece from Breaking Views on the shocking energy waste in Ukraine).

But there’s a long road ahead, says Luis Costa, head of CEEMEA strategy at Citi.  According to Costa:

“Dog-Eared” debt and the IMF’s sovereign restructuring ideas

Since April of last year, a small but growing cadre of lawyers, investors, regulators, and yes, even journalists, have been carrying around dog-eared copies of an International Monetary Fund paper (read: trial balloon) that revisits how the fund, the lender of last resort for many nations, might revamp its approach to sovereign debt restructurings.

 

The IMF prefaces its latest foray into sovereign restructurings by saying history shows official sector sovereign debt restructurings have been “too little too late” and when it gets involved, the public money used in a settlement too often just flows to private sector investors who take the cash out of the afflicted country.

 

The Fund tried this once before in 2002 under former First Deputy Managing Director Anne Krueger with the idea of establishing a Sovereign Debt Restructuring Mechanism (SDRM). This was two years after hedge fund Elliott Associates won a judgment against Peru in a case where it held out for better restructuring terms. It was a year after Argentina’s last and biggest sovereign debt default had occurred and progress in negotiating a deal with creditors was going nowhere. (That default was a sovereign record, only to be eclipsed by Greece in 2012.) The SDRM plan some 14 years ago died after the United States, the largest donor to the fund, decided against to withhold its support.

Ukraine aid may pay off for Kremlin

Ukraine said today it was issuing a $3 billion in two-year Eurobonds at a yield of 5 percent in what seems to the start of a bailout deal with Russia. That sounds like a good deal for Kiev — its Eurobond maturing next year is trading at at a yield of 8 percent and it could not reasonably expect to tap bond markets for less than that. In addition,  Ukraine is also  getting a gas price discount from Russia that will provide an annual saving of $2.6 billion or so.

But what about Russia? Whether the bailout was motivated by “brotherly love” as Putin claims or by geo-politics, it sounds like a rotten deal for Moscow. The credit will earn it 5 percent on what is at best a risky investment. What’s more the money will come out of its rainy day fund which had been earmarked to cover future pension deficits. State gas company Gazprom will have to stomach a 30 percent price cut, which according to Barclays analysts is “a reminder of the risks of Gazprom’s quasi-sovereign status.”

But there could be positives.

Putin is clearly playing a long game that aims not only at giving the Kremlin tighter political control over Ukraine but also to bring it back into the Russian gas sales orbit and eventually create a bigger trade bloc encompassing Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, says Christopher Granville, managing director of consultancy Trusted Sources in London.

Banks cannot ease Ukraine’s reserve pain

The latest data from Ukraine shows its hard currency reserves fell $2 billion over November to $18.9 billion. That’s perilously low by any measure. (Check out this graphic showing how poorly Ukraine’s reserve adequacy ratios compare with other emerging markets: http://link.reuters.com/quq25v)

Central banks often have tricks to temporarily boost reserves, or at least, to give the impression that they are doing so. Turkey, for instance, allows commercial banks to keep some of their lira reserve requirements in hard currency and gold. Others may get friendly foreign central banks to deposit some cash. Yet another ploy is to issue T-bills in hard currency to mop up banks’ cash holdings. But it may be hard for Ukraine to do any of this says Exotix economist Gabriel Sterne, who has compared the Ukraine national bank’s plight with that of Egypt.

Ukraine and Egypt have both balked at signing up to IMF loan programmes because these  would require them to cut back on subsidies. But latest data shows Egypt’s reserves have risen to $17.8 billion from just over $10 billion in July, while Ukraine’s have declined from $22.9 billion. Egyptian import cover has also risen to 2.6 months while Ukraine now has enough cash to fund less than 2 months of imports (Back in July it was 3 months)
Sterne says:

The Sub-Saharan frontier: future generations

As growth in Sub-Saharan Africa is set to post a steady 5-6 percent per annum to 2017 according to IMF estimates,  investors will be taking notes on the region’s growth story not least with the financial sector.

Growth projections have rebounded from forecasts of around a 3 percent rise in 2009 after falling commodity prices have hit one of the region’s main revenue sources. Yet, according to the World Bank’s recent Global Development Finance report, stronger commodities will firm growth prospects in the coming years. In recent weeks, commodities have dipped, dampening the outlook for some resource-rich countries, but as 76 percent of the region’s population do not have access to a bank account, lenders are set to grow their presence in the region.

Julius Baer notes the region’s market potential:

Since 2002, resource-hungry China has swept across a by-and-large grateful African continent, taking oil and minerals in exchange for debt relief, low-interest loans, or much needed infrastructure, such as roads, ports and housing.

Paid for the risk? Egypt’s tempting pound

Surprising as it may seem, the Egyptian pound has got some fans.  The currency has languished for months at record lows against the dollar and the headlines are alarming — the lack of an IMF aid programme, meagre hard currency reserves, political upheaval. So what’s to like ?

Analysts at Societe Generale say that just looking at the spot exchange rate of the pound is missing the bigger picture. Instead, they advise buying 12-month non-deliverable forwards on the pound — essentially a way of locking into a fixed rate for pound against the dollar in a year’s time depending on where you think it may actually trade. They write:

The implicit yield at this point is 21 percent for the 12m NDF, which we think is quite attractive. The way to think about Egypt NDFs is to approach them as a distressed asset. The risk/reward is quite attractive, and a lot of the bad news has been priced in. Yes, there have been serious delays in the programme negotiations with the IMF and that has clearly been a negative for the overall country view, but I would like to point out that the actual 12m NDF level has hardly budged in the process. This to me suggests that the valuation looks particularly good.

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)

Are EM forex reserves strong enough?

One of the big stories of the past decade has been the massive jump in central bank reserves, with total reserves having quintupled from a decade ago to around $10.6 trillion.

But the growth has not been uniform. And over the past 18 months slowing world growth and trade has stalled reserve accummulation across the developing world, making some countries increasingly vulnerable to financial shocks, according to analysts at Capital Economics.

They point out for instance that, although most emerging economies are less vulnerable than in the past, Ukrainian reserves have fallen by a quarter in the past year while in Venezuela they declined by 40 percent. Egyptian reserves halved since end-2011, forcing it to agree to an IMF aid deal. Foreign exchange reserves in these countries may not be sufficient to protect against balance of payment crises should trade flows and investments slow further, they reckon.

Emerging Policy-The inflation problem has not gone away

This week’s interest rate meetings in the developing world are highlighting that despite slower economic growth, inflation remains a problem for many countries. In some cases it could constrain  policymakers from cutting interest rates, or least from cutting as much as they would like.

Take Turkey. Its central bank surprised some on Tuesday by only cutting the upper end of its overnight interest rate corridor: many had interpreted recent comments by Governor Erdem Basci as a sign the lower end, the overnight borrowing rate, would also be cut. That’s because the central bank is increasingly concerned about the lira, which has appreciated more than 7 percent this year in real terms. But the bank contented itself by warning markets that more cuts could be made to different policy rates if needed (read: if the lira rises much more).

But inflation, while easing, remains problematic.  On the same day as the policy meeting, the International Monetary Fund recommended Turkey raise interest rates to deal with inflation, which was an annualised 9.2 percent in September. The central bank’s prediction is for a year-end 7 percent rate but that is 2 percentage points higher than its 5 percent target. So the central bank probably was sensible in exercising restraint.

Weekly Radar: Q3 earnings; China GDP; EU summit; US debate

Markets have turned glum again as October gets underway and the northern winter looms, weighed down by a relentless grind of negative commentary even if there’s been little really new information to digest. The net loss on MSCI’s world stock market index over the past seven days is a fairly restrained 1.5%, though we are now back down to early September levels. Debt markets have been better behaved. The likes of Spain’s 10-year yields are virtually unchanged over the past week amid all the rolling huff and puff from euroland. The official argument that Spain doesn’t need a bailout at these yield levels is backed up by analysis that shows even at the peak of the latest crisis in July average Spanish sovereign borrowing costs were still lower than pre-crisis days of 2006.  But with ratings downgrades still in the mix, it looks like a bit of a cat-and-mouse game for some time yet. Ten-year US Treasury yields, meantime, have nudged back higher again after the strong September US employment report and are hardly a sign of suddenly cratering world growth. What’s more, oil’s back up above $115 per barrel, with the broader CRB commodities index actually up over the past week. This contains no good news for the world, but if there are genuinely new worries about aggregate world demand, then not everyone in the commodity world has been let in on the ‘secret’ yet.

So why are we all shivering in our boots again? Perennial euro fears aside for a sec, the latest narratives go four ways at the moment. 1) The IMF’s World Economic Outlook (WEO) downgraded world growth and its Financial Stability report issued stern warnings on the extent of European bank deleveraging 2) a pretty lousy earnings season is just kicking off stateside, 3)  U.S. presidential election polls are neck and neck again and unnerving some people fearful of a clean sweep by Republicans and possible threats to the Federal Reserve’s independence and its hyper-active monetary policy 4) it’s a new quarter after a punchy Q3 and there’s not much new juice left to add to fairly hefty year-to-date gains. Maybe it’s a bit of all of the above.

But like so much of the year, whether the up moments or the downers, there’s pretty good reason to be wary of prevailing narratives.