Global Investing

Home is where the heartache is…

On a recent trip home to Singapore, I was startled to learn just how much housing prices in the city-state have risen in my absence.

A cousin said he had recently paid over S$600,000 — about US$465,000 — for a yet-to-be-built 99-year-lease flat. Such numbers are hardly out of place in any major metropolis but this was for a state-subsidised three-bedroom apartment.

Soaring housing prices have fueled popular discontent — little wonder as median monthly household incomes have stagnated at around S$5,000.

For its part, the government — which houses 80 percent of people on the densely populated island — insists that public housing prices are shaped by ‘market forces’, pointing to a raft of financing schemes to help first-time buyers.

What’s less contentious is that Singapore is only part of a regional real estate boom that has driven property values by as much as 70 percent since the start of 2009 in cities such as Sydney, Hong Kong and Beijing.

Hungary’s Orban and his central banker

“Will no one rid me of this turbulent central banker?”  Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban may not have voiced this sentiment but since he took power last year he is likely to have thought it more than once.  Increasingly, the spat between Orban’s government and central bank governor Andras Simor brings to memory the quarrel England’s Henry II had with his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, over the rights and privileges of the Church almost 900 years ago. Simor stands accused of undermining economic growth by holding interest rates too high and resisting government demands for monetary stimulus.  The government’s efforts to sideline Simor are viewed as infringing on the central bank’s independence.

So far, attacks on Simor have ranged from alleging he has undisclosed overseas income to stripping him of his power to appoint some central bank board members. But  the government’s latest plan could be the last straw – proposed legislation that would effectively demote Simor or at least seriously dilute his influence. Simor says the government is trying to engineer a total takeover at the central bank.  “The new law brings the final elimination of the central bank’s independence dangerously close,” he said last week.  
 
The move is ill-timed however, coming exactly at a time when Hungary is trying to persuade the IMF and the European Union to give it billions of euros in aid. The lenders have expressed concern about the law and declined to proceed with the loan talks.  But the government says it will not bow to external pressure and plans to put the law to vote on Friday. That has sparked general indignation – Societe Generale analyst Benoit Anne calls the spat extremely damaging to investor confidence in Hungary. “I just hope the IMF will not let this go,” he writes.

Central banks and governments often fail to see eye to eye. But in Hungary, the government’s attacks on Simor, a respected figure in central banking and investment circles,  is hastening the downfall of the already fragile economy. For one, if IMF funds fail to come through, Hungary will need to find 4.7 billion euros next year just to repay maturing hard currency debt. That could be tough at a time when lots of borrowers — developed and emerging — will be competing for scarce funds.  Central European governments alone will be looking to raise 16 billion euros on bond markets, data from ING shows. So Orban will have to tone down his rhetoric if he is to avoid plunging his country into financial disaster.

Can Eastern Europe “sweat” it?

Interesting to see that Poland wants to squeeze out more income from its state-owned enterprise (SOE) sector in the face of slowing economic growth and financing pressures.

Warsaw wants to double next year’s dividends from stakes in firms ranging from copper mines to utility providers to banks.

Fellow euro zone aspirant Lithuania has also embarked on reforms aimed at increasing dividends sixfold from what UBS has dubbed “the forgotten side of the government balance sheet”. It wants to emulate countries such as Sweden and Singapore where such companies are managed at arm’s length from the state and run along strict corporate standards to consistently grow profits.

Are global investors slow to move on euro break-up risk?

No longer an idle “what if” game, investors are actively debating the chance of a breakup of the euro as a creditor strike  in the zone’s largest government bond market sends  Italian debt yields into the stratosphere — or at least beyond the circa 7% levels where government funding is seen as sustainable over time.  Emergency funding for Italy, along the lines of bailouts for Greece, Ireland and Portugal over the past two years, may now be needed but no one’s sure there’s enough money available — in large part due to Germany’s refusal to contemplate either a bigger bailout fund or open-ended debt purchases from the European Central Bank as a lender of last resort.

So, if Germany doesn’t move significantly on any of those issues (or at least not without protracted, soul-searching domestic debates and/or tortuous EU Treaty changes), creditor strikes can reasonably be expected to spread elsewhere in the zone until some clarity is restored. The fog surrounding the functioning and makeup of the EFSF rescue fund and now Italian and Greek elections early next year  — not to mention the precise role of the ECB in all this going forward — just thickens. Why invest/lend to these countries now with all those imponderables.

Where it all pans out is now anyone’s guess, but an eventual collapse of the single currency can’t be ruled out now as at least one possible if not likely outcome. The global consequences, according to many economists, are almost incalculable. HSBC, for example, said in September that a euro break-up would lead to a shocking global depression.

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 MacroScope:

Scams from Abuja to Reykjavik

It suffered the collapse of its currency, economy and banking system so being invoked in a version of the notorious Nigerian email scam is one of the smaller humiliations endured by Iceland.

The confidence trick, which has roots in the 18th century, usually involves an email from someone claiming to be either a deposed African dictator or a Nigerian lawyer, promising a sum of money in return for help to access a substantial fortune.

But the latest spam email making its rounds purports to be from Iceland, one of the highest profile sovereign casualties of the global financial crisis. This version of the email is supposedly from a "devoted christian (sic)" from Iceland", a widow seeking help to access $6 million in a Canadian bank left to her by her husband who worked for an oil giant for 19 years.

Iceland: slipping again?

Just when you thought it was all over, Iceland looks like it’s in trouble again.  The cost of insuring Iceland’s debt against restructuring or default has risen this week to 720 basis points in the five-year credit default swap market, its highest since mid-2009.  That means it costs 720,000 euros a year for five years to insure 10 million euros of Icelandic debt against default.

Icelanders are to vote by March 6 on a deal to repay $5 billion lost in online Icesave bank accounts in Britain and the Netherlands. Those governments compensated savers when the bank collapsed and now want their money back from Reykjavik, but opinion polls show voters are likely to reject what are seen as the harsh terms of the agreement.

ICELAND/The uncertainty has driven debt insurance costs back up towards the levels seen just before the country’s banking system and government collapsed in Oct 2008.

from MacroScope:

Small credit for big depression

It took some time, and a lot of downward corrections to IMF GDP forecasts, before the current global economic downturn won the title of 'worst since the Great Depression'.

Why settle for second worst though?

This one is in at least three ways just as bad if not even worse than 1929-30, economists Barry Eichengreen (University of California, Berkeley) and Kevin O'Rourke (Trinity College,
Dublin) argue

Look at global industrial output, world stock markets, and global trade volumes. Map the nine months after April 2008 against the period following June 1929 and the story you see is the following:

from MacroScope:

SDR bonds from the IMF?

Analysts are starting to wonder if the International Monetary Fund will issue bonds denominated in its currency, Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), to boost the international lender’s capital. 

G20 leaders meeting today are said to be ready to agree a tripling of the IMF’s resources, to $750 billion. One source at the summit said the IMF might also tap international capital markets. 

BNP Paribas analysts like the idea of SDR bonds that could be bought by central banks reallocating portfolios away from the dollar. “Increased IMF firepower and the IMF likely to issue SDR-denominated bonds later this year will allow equities to move significantly higher,” they say in a client note.