Global Investing

Yield-hungry funds lend $2bln to Ukraine

Investors just cannot get enough of emerging market bonds. Ukraine, possibly one of the weakest of the big economies in the developing world, this week returned to global capital markets for the first time in a year , selling $2 billion in 5-year dollar bonds.  Investors placed orders for seven times that amount, lured doubtless by the 9.25 percent yield on offer.

Ukraine’s problems are well known, with fears even that the country could default on debt this year.  The $2 billion will therefore come as a relief. But the dangers are not over yet, which might make its success on bond markets look all the more surprising.

Perhaps not. Emerging dollar debt is this year’s hot-ticket item, generating returns of over 10 percent so far in 2012. Yields in the so-called safe markets such as Germany and United States are negligible; short-term yields are even negative.  So a 9.25 percent yield may look too good to resist.

Moreover Ukraine paid a substantial premium to compensate investors for the risk. Last June it sold a $1.25 billion 5-year bond, paying just 6.25 percent or 300 basis points less. Michael Ganske, head of emerging markets research at Commerzbank says:

At the moment investors are pouring money into emerging fixed income, they just want to get a better yield for their portfolios. People understand Ukraine is not a fantastic credit but it is a matter of value for money — just look at the yield. I think this deal was positive for both sides: Ukraine were able to issue and get money in the bank and investors received an attractive yield.

Next Week: Big Black Cloud

Following are notes from our weekly editorial planning meeting:

Not unlike this year’s British “summer”, the gloom is now all pervasive. Not panicky mind, just gloomy. And there is a significant difference where markets are concerned at least. The former involves surprise and being wrongfooted — but latter has been slow realisation that what were once extreme views on the depth of the credit swamp are fast becoming consensus thinking. The conclusion for many now is that we’re probably stuck in this mire for several more years – anywhere between 5 and 20 years, depending on your favoured doom-monger. Yet, the other thing is that markets also probably positioned in large part for that perma-funk — be it negative yields on core government debt or euro zone equities now with half the p/e ratios of US counterparts. In short, the herd has already  hunkered down and finds it hard to see any horizon. Those who can will resort to short-term tactical plays based on second-guessing government and central bank policy responses (there will likely be more QE or related actions stateside eventually despite hesitancy in the FOMC minutes  and Fed chief Bernanke will likely give a glimpse of that thinking in his congressional testimony next week); or hoping to surf mini econ cycles aided by things like cheaper energy; or hoping to spot one off corporate success stories like a new Apple or somesuch.

So has all hope been snuffed out? The reason for the relapse mid-year depression is only partly related to the political minefield frustrating a resolution of the euro crisis – in some ways, things there look more encouraging policywise than they did two months ago. It stems as much from a realization of just how broken the banks credit creation system remains – a system that had hinged heavily on extensive collateral chains that have now largely been broken or shortened and starved of acceptable high-quality collateral. Curiously, QE – by removing even more of the top quality collateral – may even be exaggerating the problem. Some even say the extreme shortage of this quality “collateral” may require more, not less, government debt in the US and UK and would also benefit from a pooling of euro debt  – but everyone knows how easy all that’s going to be politically.

Despite all this, global markets have remained fairly stable over the past week – in part due to policy hopes underpinning risk markets and in part because there’s not many places left to hide without losing money in “safe-haven” bunkers. World equities are down about 2 percent over the past week,  but still up more than 6 percent from early June. Risk measured by volatility indicesis a smidgen higher too. Oil has firmed back toward $100pb, disappointing everyone apart from oil exporters. Spanish and Italian 10-yr yields are a touch higher. And at least part of the caution everywhere is ae vigil ahead of Chinese Q2 GDP data on Friday – numbers that now almost rival the U.S.  monthly payrolls in global market impact.

Hungary can seek IMF aid now. But can it cut rates?

The European Union has given Budapest the green light to seek aid from the IMF. (see here)  In fact, the breakthrough after five months of dispute does not let Hungary completely off the hook  — to get its hands on the money, Viktor Orban’s government will have to backtack on some controversial recent legislation, starting with its efforts to curb the central bank’s independence.  It remains to be seen if Orban will actually cave in.

But markets are reacting as if the IMF money is in Hungary’s pocket already. There have been sharp rallies in Hungarian dollar bonds,  CDS and currency markets (see graphic below from Capital Economics). The Budapest stock market has posted its best one-day gain since last November while the yield on local 10-year bonds have collapsed almost 100 bps. Hungarian officials are (a bit prematurely)  talking of issuing bonds on world markets.

What investors are hoping for now is a cut to the 7 percent interest rate. Hungary’s central bank jacked up rates by 100 bps in recent months to defend the forint as cash fled the country. Now there is a chance those rate rises can be reeled back in. After all, the moribund economy could really use a dash of monetary easing. Thanasis Petronikolos, head of emerging debt at Baring Asset Management has been overweight Hungary and  recalls that after 2008 crisis, the central bank was able to quickly take back its 300 bps of currency-defensive rate hikes.

Ukraine’s $58 billion problem

Ukrainian officials were at pains to reassure investors last week that no debt default was in the offing. But people familiar with the numbers will find it hard to believe them.

The government must find over $5.3 billion this year to repay maturing external debt, including $3 billion to the IMF and $2 billion to Russian state bank VTB. Bad enough but there is worse:  Ukrainian companies and banks too have hefty debt maturities this year. Total external financing needs– corporate and sovereign – amount to $58 billion, analysts at Capital Economics calculate. That’s a third of Ukraine’s GDP and makes a default of some kind very likely. The following graphic is from Capital Economics.

In normal circumstances Ukraine — and Ukrainian companies — could have gone to market and borrowed the money. Quite a few developing countries such as Lithuania recently tapped markets, others including Jamaica plan to do so. Ukraine’s problem is its refusal to toe the IMF line.  Agreeing to the IMF’s main demand to lift crippling gas subsidies would unlock a $15 billion loan programme, giving  access to the loan cash as well as to global bond markets. But removing subsidies would be political suicide ahead of elections in October.  And with the sovereign frozen out of bond markets, Ukrainian companies too will find it hard to raise cash.

Hair of the dog? Citi says more LTROs in store

Just as global markets nurse a hangover from their Q1 binge on cheap ECB lending — a circa 1 trillion euro flood of 1%, 3-year loans to euro zone banks in December and February (anodynely dubbed a Long-Term Refinancing Operation) — there’s every chance they may get, or at least need, a proverbial hair of the dog.

At least that’s what Citi chief economist Willem Buiter and team think despite regular insistence from ECB top brass that the recent two-legged LTRO was likely a one off.

Even though Citi late Wednesday nudged up its world growth forecast for a third month running, in keeping with Tuesday’s IMF’s upgrade , it remains significantly more bearish on headline numbers and sees PPP-weighted global growth this  year and next at 3.1% and 3.5% compared with the Fund’s call of 3.5% and 4.1%.

BRICS: future aid superpowers?

Britain’s aid programme for India hit the headlines this year, when New Delhi, much to the fury of the Daily Mail, described Britain’s £200 million annual aid to it as peanuts. Whether it makes sense to send money to a fast-growing emerging power that spends billions of dollars on arms is up for debate but few know that India has been boosting its own aid programme for other poor nations.  A report released today by NGO Global Health Strategies Initiatives (GHSi) finds that India’s foreign assistance grew 10.8 percent annually between 2005 and 2010.

The actual sums flowing from India are,  to use its own phrase, peanuts. The country provided $680 million in 2010. Compare that to the $3.2 billion annual contribution even from crisis-hit Italy. The difference is that Indian donations have risen from $443 million in 2005, while Italy’s have fallen 10 percent in this period, GHSi found. Indian aid has grown in fact at a rate 10 times that of the United States. Add to that Indian pharma companies’ contribution – the source of 60- 80 percent of the vaccines procured by United Nations agencies.

Other members of the BRICS group of developing countries are also stepping up overseas assistance, with a special focus on healthcare, the report said. BRICS leaders meet this week to ink a deal on setting up a BRICS development bank.

Hungary’s plan to get some cash in the bank

Hungary says it might borrow money from global bond markets before it lands a long-awaited aid deal with the International Monetary Fund. That pretty much seems to suggest Budapest has given up hope of getting the IMF cash any time soon. Given the fund has already said it won’t visit Hungary in April, that view would seem correct.

There is some logic to the plan.

Hungary desperately needs the cash — it must  find over 4 billion euros just to repay external debt this year.

It is also an attractive time to sell debt.  Appetite for emerging market debt remains strong. Emerging bond yield premiums over U.S. Treasuries have contracted sharply this year and stand near seven-month lows. Moreover, U.S. Treasury yields may rise, potentially making debt issuance more costly in coming months.

Bullish Barclays says to buy Portuguese debt

Some bets are not for the faint-hearted. Risky punts are even less so following a sovereign debt crisis, one that has riddled European debt markets for two years. Barclays Capital, however, recommends a particularly unusual bet, one that your parents might baulk at.

It will be of little surprise that Barcap is bullish on the year, advising towards assets that will perform well in an environment of US-led global growth, easy monetary policy and tight oil supplies following reduced tail-risks in Europe curbed by cheap money from the European Central Bank.

Now that the rush of the addictive LTRO money is over and the dust is settling on central banks’ balance sheets, Barcap is brave enough to recommend an unlikely candidate and one of the recent targets of financial markets — Portugal.

Buy more yen… to increase reserve returns

Japan has not been a sexy destination for investment. In an environment of rising sovereign risk, Japan’s huge debt burden (+200% and rising) and lack of triple-A rating (Japan is rated AA-, Aa3 and AA by the main rating agencies) are not something that would attract the world’s investors, including the powerful central bank reserve managers.

However, the yen is a different story. Enjoying a safe-haven status, the Japanese currency is staying just below its all-time high around 75.90 per dollar, while it also rose to an 11-year peak against the euro in January.

JP Morgan,whose asset management arm manages $70 billion for 65 official sector clients including central banks and sovereign wealth funds, says reserve managers have been diversifying into non-G4 currencies but the strategy has not performed well.

EM growth is passport out of West’s mess but has a price, says “Mr BRIC”

Anyone worried about Greece and the potential impact of the euro debt crisis on the world economy should have a chat with Jim O’Neill. O’Neill, the head of Goldman Sachs Asset Management ten years ago coined the BRIC acronym to describe the four biggest emerging economies and perhaps understandably, he is not too perturbed by the outcome of the Greek crisis. Speaking at a recent conference, the man who is often called Mr BRIC, pointed out that China’s economy is growing by $1 trillion a year  and that means it is adding the equivalent of a Greece every 4 months. And what if the market turns its guns on Italy, a far larger economy than Greece?  Italy’s economy was surpassed in size last year by Brazil, another of the BRICs, O’Neill counters, adding:

“How Italy plays out will be important but people should not exaggerate its global importance.  In the next 12 months the four BRICs will create the equivalent of another Italy.”

Emerging economies are cooling now after years of turbo-charged growth. But according to O’Neill, even then they are growing enough to allow the global economy to expand at 4-4.5 percent,  a faster clip than much of the past 30 years. Trade data for last year will soon show that Germany for the first time exported more goods to the four BRICs than to neighbouring France, he said.