Global Investing

Measuring political risk in emerging markets

(Corrects to say EI Sturdza is UK investment firm, not Swiss)

Commerzbank analyst Simon Quijano-Evans recently analysed credit ratings for emerging market countries and concluded that there is a strong tendency to “under-rate” emerging economies – that is they are generally rated lower than developed market “equals” that have similar profiles of debt, investment or reform. The reason, according to Quijano-Evans, is that ratings assessments tend to be “blurred by political risk which is difficult to quantify and is usually higher in the developing world compared with richer peers.

However there are some efforts to measure political risks, and unfortunately for emerging economies, some of those metrics seem to indicate that such risk is on the rise. Risk consultancy Maplecroft which compiles a civil unrest index (CUI), says street protests, ethnic violence and labour unrest are factors that have increased chances of business disruption in emerging markets by 20 percent over the past three months. Such unrest as in Hong Kong recently, can be sudden, causing headaches for business and denting economic growth, Maplecroft says. Hong Kong where mass pro-democracy protests in the city-state’s central business district which shuttered big banks and triggered a 7 percent stock market plunge last month.

As a result, Hong Kong jumped to 70th place in the index from a relatively safe 132nd place in the CUI which analyses governance, political and civil rights and the frequency and severity of incidents to assess the current and future civil unrest picture.

Hong Kong performs comparatively well in the economic, social and rights factors in the CUI, but performs poorly for democratic governance, Maplecroft says:

The scale of the protests, which has cost retailers upwards of $283 million, has seen Hong Kong move from the ‘medium risk’ category to ‘high risk’. Beijing’s response will be key to determining whether the situation deteriorates further.”

Emerging markets; turning a corner

Emerging markets have been attracting healthy investment flows into their stock and bond markets for much of this year and now data compiled by consultancy CrossBorder Capital shows the sector may be on the cusp of decisively turning the corner.

CrossBorder and its managing director Michael Howell say their Global Liquidity Index (GLI) — a measure of money flows through world markets — showed the sharpest improvement in almost three years in June across emerging markets. That was down to substantially looser policy by central banks in India, China and others that Howell says has moved these economies “into a rebound phase”.

This is important because the GLI, which has been around since the 1980s, has been a fairly accurate leading indicator, leading asset prices by 6-9 months and future economic activity by 12-15 months, Howell says:

No more “emerging markets” please

The crisis currently roiling the developing world has revived a debate in some circles about the very validity of the “emerging markets” concept. Used since the early 1980s as a convenient moniker grouping countries that were thought to be less developed — financially or infrastructure-wise or due to the size or liquidity of their financial markets — the widely varying performances of different countries during the turmoil has served to underscore the differences rather than similarities between them.  An analyst who traveled recently between several Latin American countries summed it up by writing that he had passed through three international airports during his trip but had not had a stamp in his passport that said “emerging market”.

Like this analyst, many reckon the day has come when fund managers, index providers and investors must stop and consider  if it makes sense to bucket wildly disparate countries together.  After all what does Venezuela, with its anti-market policies and 50 percent annual inflation, have in common with Chile, a free market economy with a high degree of transparency  and investor-friendliness?

Deutsche Bank analyst John-Paul Smith is one of many questioning current index-based investing models which he says essentially provide a free ride to the Russias and Venezuelas of this world, who may be undeserving of investor dollars.  Simply by virtue of inclusion in the emerging index, a country becomes a “default beneficiary” of passive investment flows — from funds that hug or track the benchmark — Smith says. In a note he calls for the abandonment of current index criteria such as market access, liquidity or per capita income in favour of a “substantive governance-based view of risk”
In other words:

Bond market liberalisation — good or bad for India?

Many investors have greeted with enthusiasm India’s plans to get its debt included in international indices such as those run by JPMorgan and Barclays. JPM’s local debt indices, known as the GBI-EM,  were tracked by almost $200 billion at the end of 2012.  So even very small weightings in such indices will give India a welcome slice of investment from funds tracking them.

At present India has a $30 billion cap on the volume of rupee bonds that foreign institutional investors can buy, a tiny proportion of the market. Barclays analysts calculate that Indian rupee bonds could comprise up to a tenth of various market capitalisation-based local-currency bond indices. That implies potential flows of $20 billion in the first six months after inclusion, they say — equivalent to India’s latest quarterly current account deficit. After that, a $10 billion annual inflow is realistic, according to Barclays. Another bank, Standard Chartered, estimates $20-$40 billion could flow in as a result of index inclusion.

All that is clearly good news, above all for the country’s chronic balance of payments deficit. The investments could ease the high borrowing costs that have put a brake on growth, and kick-start the local corporate bond market, provided more safeguards are put in. Indian banks that have traditionally held a huge amount of government bonds, would at least in theory be pushed into lending more to the real economy.

Frontier markets: past the high water-mark

By Julia Fioretti

Ethiopia’s plans to hit the Eurobond trail once it gets a credit rating are highlighting how fast frontier debt markets are growing.

IFR data shows that sub-Saharan Africa alone issued $4.2 billion of sovereign debt in the year to September, compared to $3.6 billion in the same 2012 period. And returns on frontier market bonds have outgunned their high-yield emerging sovereign peers this year.

JPMorgan, which runs the most-used emerging debt indices of which the frontier component is called NEXGEM, says the year-to-date return on NEXGEM is around 0.7 percent – while paltry, it’s well above corporate and sovereign emerging bonds.

September’s bond bonanza

What a half-month it has been for bond issuance! As we wrote here, many borrowers  — corporate and sovereign;  from emerging markets and developed  — have seen  this period as a last-chance saloon of sorts to raise money on global capital markets before the Fed starts to cut off the supply of free cash.

But the month so far has been different not only in the sheer volume of supply but also for the fact that issuance by governments of developing countries has surpassed emerging corporate bond sales. That’s something that hasn’t happened for a long time.

By the end of last week, sovereign issuance for September had hit $13.5 billion, more than any other month this year and a quarter of the total 2013 sovereign issuance so far, according to analysts at JPMorgan. In comparison, sovereign issuance historically averages $2.2 billion a month, rising to $5 billion every September following the summer lull.  Issuers were Russia with $7 billion, South Africa and Romania with $2 billion each; while South Korea and Indonesia raised $1 billion and $1.5 billion respectively. JPM writes:

With pension reform, Poland joins the sell-off. More to come

If the backdrop for global emerging markets (GEM) were not already challenging enough, there are, these days, some authorities that step in and try to make things even worse, writes Societe Generale strategist Benoit Anne. He speaks of course of Poland, where the government this week announced plans to transfer 121 billion zlotys ($36.99 billion) in bonds held by private pension funds to the state and subsequently cancel them. The move, aimed at cutting public debt by 8 percentage points,  led to a 5 percent crash yesterday on the Warsaw stock exchange, while 10-year bond yields have spiralled almost 50 basis points since the start of the week. So Poland, which had escaped the worst of the emerging markets sell-off so far, has now joined in.

But worse is probably to come. Liquidity on Polish stock and bond markets will certainly take a hit — the reform removes a fifth of  the outstanding government debt. That drop will decrease the weights of Polish bonds in popular global indices, in turn reducing demand for the debt from foreign investors benchmarked to those indices. Citi’s World Government Bond Index, for instance, has around $2 trillion benchmarked to it and contains only five emerging economies. That includes Poland whose weight of 0.55 percent assumes roughly $11 billion is invested it in by funds hugging the benchmark.

According to analysts at JPMorgan:

The most significant local market impact of the Polish pension reforms is likely to come from index-related selling as the weight of Polish government local currency debt in major global bond indices, including Citi’s WGBI and the Barclays Global Aggregate index, is likely to fall. Our base case scenario sees $3.5 billion worth of index-related selling, with risks skewed to the upside

Active vs passive debate: the case of “monkeys”

As CalPERS considers switching all of its portfolios to passive investing,  questioning the effectiveness of active equity investment, there have been some interesting findings that would stir up the active vs passive debate.

Researchers at Cass Business School find that equity indexes constructed randomly by “monkeys” would have produced higher risk-adjusted returns (ie return adjusted by measuring how much risk is involved in producing that return) than an equivalent market capitalisation-weighted index over the last 40 years.

How does this work? Using 43 years of U.S. equity data, researchers programmed a computer to randomly pick and weight each of the 1,000 stocks in the sample, effectively simulating the stock-picking abilities of a monkey.The process was repeated 10 million times over each of the 32 years of the study.  Nearly all 10 million indices weighted by chance delivered vastly superior returns to the market cap approach. Andrew Clare, co-author of the paper, says:

Emerging corporate bond boom stretches into 2013

The boom in emerging corporate debt is an ongoing theme that we have discussed often in the past, here on Global Investing as well as on the Reuters news wire. Many of us will therefore recall that outstanding debt volumes from emerging market companies crossed the $1 trillion milestone last October. This year could be shaping up to be another good one.

January was a month of record issuance for corporates, yielding $51 billion or more than double last January’s levels and after sales of $329 billion in the whole of 2012. (Some of this buoyancy is down to Asian firms rushing to get their fundraising done before the Chinese New Year starts this weekend). What’s more, despite all the new issuance, spreads on JPMorgan’s CEMBI corporate bond index tightened 21 basis points over Treasuries.

JPM say in a note today that assets benchmarked to the CEMBI have crossed $50.6 billion, having risen 60 percent year-over-year.  Interest in corporates is strong also among investors who don’t usually focus on this sector, the bank says, citing the results of its monthly client survey. One such example is asset manager Schroders. Skeptical a couple of years ago about the risk-reward trade-off in emerging debt, Schroders said last month it was seeing more opportunities in emerging corporates, noting:

Emerging debt vs equity: to rotate or not

Emerging bonds have got off to a flying start in 2013, with debt funds taking in over $2 billion this past week, the second highest weekly inflow ever, according to fund tracker EPFR Global. Issuance is strong -  Turkey for instance this week borrowed cash repayable in 10 years for just 3.47 percent, its lowest yield ever in the dollar market.

Yet not everyone is optimistic and most analysts see last year’s returns of 16-18 percent EM debt returns as out of reach. The consensus instead seems to be for 5-8 percent as  tight spreads and low yields leave little room for further ralliesaverage yields on the EMBI Global sovereign debt index is just 4.4 percent.    Domestic bonds meanwhile could suffer if inflation turns problematic. (see here for our story on emerging bond sales and returns).

Now take a look at U.S. Treasury yields which are near 8-month highs. and could pose a headwind for emerging debt. Higher U.S. yields are not necessarily a bad thing for emerging markets provided the rise is down to a healthier economic outlook.  But that scenario could induce investors to turn their attention to equities and  indeed this is already happening. EPFR data shows emerging equity funds outstripped their bond counterparts last week, taking in $7.45 billion, the highest ever weekly inflow.