Global Investing

10%-plus returns: only on emerging market debt

It’s turning out to be a great year for emerging debt. Returns on sovereign dollar bonds have topped 10 percent already this year on the benchmark EMBI Global index, compiled by JP Morgan.  That’s better than any other fixed income or equity category, whether in emerging or developed markets. Total 2012 returns could be as much as 12 percent, JPM reckons.

Debt denominated in emerging currencies has done less well . Still, the main index for local debt, JPM’s GBI-EM index, has  racked up a very respectable 7.6 percent return year-to-date in dollar terms, rebounding from a fall to near zero at the start of June.  Take a look at the following graphic which shows EMBIG returns on top:

Fund flows to emerging fixed income have been robust. EPFR Global says the sector took in  $16.2 billion year to date.  JPM, which tracks a broader investor set including Japanese investment trusts, estimates the total at $43 billion, not far off its forecast of $50-60 billion for the whole of 2012.

So what’s driving this stellar performance?

For one, emerging yield spreads over underlying U.S. Treasuries have tightened over 60 basis points since the start of the year, reflecting investors’ appetite for emerging markets exposure. Second, U.S. Treasuries.  Outright yields on the EMBIG are calculated as a spread over Treasuries which have risen since the start of the year. Third, the dollar has performed strongly versus other currencies.

The dollar’s resilience is the reason why investors this year are favouring emerging dollar debt to bonds in local EM currencies such as the rand and zloty — JPM estimates 80 percent of the fixed income flows it tracks have gone to dollar debt this year. Emerging currencies on the other hand have been volatile and big bond issuers such as Brazil and Indonesia have seen significant currency losses against the greenback. Hardly an inducement to dip into those debt markets.

Sell in May? Yes they did

Just how miserable a month May was for global equity markets is summed up by index provider S&P which notes that every one of the 46 markets included in its world index (BMI)  fell last month, and of these 35 posted double-digit declines. Overall, the index slumped more than 9 percent.

With Greece’s anti-austerity May 6 election result responsible for much of the red ink, it was perhaps fitting that Athens was May’s worst performer, losing almost 30 percent (it’s down 65 percent so far this year).  With euro zone growth steadily deteriorating, even German stocks fell almost 15 percent in May while Portugal, Spain and Italy were the worst performing developed markets  (along with Finland).

The best of the bunch (at least in the developed world) was the United States which fell only 6.5 percent in May and is clinging to 2012 gains of around 5 percent. S&P analyst Howard Silverblatt writes:

South African bond rush

It’s been a great year so far for South African bonds. But can it get better?

Ever since Citi announced on April 16 that South African government bonds would join its World Government Bond Index (WGBI),  almost 20 billion rand (over $2.5 billion ) in foreign cash has flooded to the local debt markets in Johannesburg, bringing year-to-date inflows to over 37 billion rand. Last year’s total was 48 billion. Michael Grobler, bond analyst at Johannesburg-based brokerage Afrifocus Securities predicts total 2012 inflows at over 60 billion rand, surpassing the previous 56 billion rand record set in 2o1o:

The assumption..is based on the fact that South Africa will have a much larger and diversified investor base following inclusion in the WGBI expanding beyond the EM debt asset class

In defence of co-investing with the state

It’s hard to avoid state-run companies if you are investing in emerging markets — after all they make up a third of the main EM equity index, run by MSCI. But should one be avoiding shares in these firms?

Absolutely yes, says John-Paul Smith at Deutsche Bank. Smith sees state influence as the biggest factor dragging down emerging equity performance in the longer term. They will underperform, he says, not just because governments run companies such as Gazprom or the State Bank of India in their own interests (rather than to benefit shareholders)  but also because of their habit of interfering in the broader economy.  Shares in state-owned companies performed well during the crisis, Smith acknowledges, but attributes emerging markets’ underperformance since mid-2010 to fears over the state’s increasing influence in developing economies. (t

Jonathan Garner at Morgan Stanley has a diametrically opposing view, favouring what he calls “co-investing with the state”.  Garner estimates a basket of 122 MSCI-listed companies that were over 30 percent state-owned outperformed the emerging markets index by 260 percent since 2001 and by 33 percent after the 2008 financial crisis on a weighted average basis. The outperformance persisted even when adjusted for sectors, he says (state-run companies tend to be predominantly in the commodity sector).

March world equity funk flattered by Wall St

It was all about the United States last month as far as equity markets were concerned. S&P’s world equity index may have ended the month with a small gain of just 0.3 percent but that was down to a 3 percent rise on  U.S. markets, data from the index provider shows. Strip out the U.S. contribution and it would have been a pretty poor month for world equities. Beyond Wall St, there was a decline of 1.7 percent and $285 billion lost in market value. Instead, the $418 billion added to U.S. market capitalization dragged the global aggregate up by $132 billion.

Behind the robust U.S. equity performance was a steady flow of strong economic data which also pushed up U.S. 10-year yields 20 bps last month. S&P index analyst Howard Silverblatt writes:

The overall rationale for the U.S. outperformance is the perception that several parts of the world have re-entered a recession, while the U.S. continues to show a slow, but steady recovery.

Investing in active funds: what’s the point?

Active vs passive investment is a long-lasting debate: active funds will tell you they deliver alpha (extra returns), but for a fee. Passive investment simply tracks the index so it’s cheaper. The risk is you may underperform your peers.

New research from Thomson Reuters Lipper throws up an interesting twist in the debate: It found that less than half of the actively managed mutual funds in Europe outperformed their benchmarks over the past 20 years.

The proportion of funds that outperformed varied from 26.7% in 2011, 40% over 3 years and 34.9% over the past 10 years. While bond funds fare better over 3 years with 45.4% outperforming, the proportion tailed off dramatically over the 10-year period, falling to 16.2%.

What to do with Belize’s superbond

This year’s renewed euphoria over emerging markets has bypassed some places. One such corner is Belize, a country sandwiched between Mexico and Guatemala, which many fear is gearing up for a debt default. There is a chance this will happen as early as next week

Belize is a small country with just 330,000 people but back in 2007,  it issued a $550 million bond on international markets. Known locally as a superbond for its large size (relative to the country’s economy), the issue earned Belize a spot on JP Morgan’s EMBI Global index of emerging market bonds.

As this index is used by 80 percent of fund managers who invest in emerging debt, many of them will have allocated some cash to hold the Belize bond  in their portfolios. These folk will be waiting anxiously to see if Belize pays a $23 million coupon due on Feb. 20.

The art of being passive

Hundreds or even thousands of  ”active” fund managers are competing to add alpha to beat benchmark indexes, be it in stocks, bonds or alternatives.

water

The market is so efficient, historical performance is no guide to the future. It’s nearly impossible to find a reliable method to pick advisers who deliver the best industry returns year in and out. There are also costs, from visible ones such as management fees and custody and administration expenses to “below water” costs such as trading commissions (due to higher turnover), bid/ask spread (price to buy, another to sell) and market impact costs (larger buy/sell orders affecting price).

Given this, is there a point in investing in active funds? What about just diversifing your assets through passive indexes?

The case for active/passive investment

Fund managers come back to this recurring question — is it better to invest passively, tracking benchmarks, or manage your money actively, taking risks?

Standard & Poor’s five-year data shows the S&P 500 index — a plain vanilla bet on U.S. stocks — outperformed 62.9 percent of actively managed large cap funds.

The S&P Midcap 400 index outperformed 73.4 percent of active mid-cap funds and the S&P SmallCap 600 outperformed more than one in two actively managed small funds.