Global Investing

More EM central banks join the easing crew

Taiwan and Philippines have joined the easing crew. Taiwan cut interbank lending rates for the first time in 33 months on Friday while Philippines lowered the rate it pays banks on short-term special deposits. Hardly surprising. Given South Koreas’s shock rate cut on Thursday, its first in over three years, and China’s two rate cuts in quick succession, the spread of monetary easing across Asia looks inevitable. Markets are now betting the Reserve Bank of India will also cut rates in July.

And not just in Asia. Brazil last week cut rates for the eighth straight time  and Russia’s central bank, while holding rates steady,  amended its language to signal it was amenable to changing its policy stance if required.

Worries about a growth collapse are clearly gathering pace. So how much room do central banks have to cut rates? Compared with Europe or the United States, certainly a lot.  And with the exception of Indonesia and Philippines, interest rates in most countries are well above 2009 crisis lows.  But Deutsche Bank analysts, who applied a variation of the Taylor rule (a monetary policy parameter stipulating how much nominal interest rates can be changed relative to inflation or output), conclude that in Asia, only Vietnam and Thailand have much room to cut rates. Malaysia and China have less scope to do so and the others not at all (Their model did not work well for India).

Deutsche said of Korea:

After this week’s rate cut, our model suggests rates are essentially in line with the rule as defined by the past behaviour of the Bank of Korea

But there are also doubts that the doves can deliver.

I wrote here last week about how Brazil’s 11-month long easing cycle has borne little fruit and questioned how much immediate benefit Korea’s export-reliant economy will derive from a rate cut. Equity markets have reacted poorly to the rate cuts, interpreting them as proof of central banks’ nervousness rather than as a catalyst for spurring growth. Societe Generale analysts are pessimistic of emerging central banks’ ability this time to stem the rot. They write:

In Brazil, rate cuts but no economic recovery

Brazil’s central bank meets today and almost certainly will announce another half point cut in interest rates, the eighth consecutive reduction since last August. But so far there is little sign that its rate-cutting spree – the longest and most aggressive  in the developing world – is having much success in resuscitating the economy.

HSBC’s closely watched emerging markets index (EMI), released this week, shows Brazil as one of the weak links in the EM growth picture,  with sharp declines in manufacturing and export orders in the second quarter.

The government is expected to soon revise down its 4.5 percent growth projection for 2012; the central bank has already done so.  Industrial output is down, and automobile production has slumped 9 percent in the first half of 2012. Nor  it seems are record low interest rates encouraging the middle classes to take on more debt — the number of Brazilians seeking new credit fell 7.4 percent in the first half of this year, the biggest fall on record, according to credit research firm Seresa Experian.

India rate cut clamour misses rupee’s fall-JPM

Indian markets are rallying this week as they price in an interest rate cut at the Reserve Bank’s June 18 meeting.  With the country still in shock after last week’s 5.3 percent first quarter GDP growth print, it is easy to understand the clamour for rate cuts. After all, first quarter growth just a year ago was 9.2 percent.

Yet,  there may be little the RBI can do to kickstart growth and investment.  Many would argue the growth slowdown is not caused by tight monetary conditions but is down to supply constraints and macroeconomic risks –the government’s inability to lift a raft of crippling subsidies has swollen the fiscal deficit to almost 6 percent while inhibitions on foreign investment in food processing and retail keep food prices volatile.  

The other side of the problem is of course the rupee which has plunged to record lows amid the global turmoil. Lower interest rates could  leave the currency vulnerable to further losses.

Indian risks eclipsing other BRICs

India’s first-quarter GDP growth report was a shocker this morning at +5.3 percent. Much as Western countries would dream of a print that good, it’s akin to a hard landing for a country only recently aspiring to double-digit expansions and, with little hope of any strong reform impetus from the current government, things might get worse if investment flows dry up. The rupee is at a new record low having fallen 7 percent in May alone against the dollar — bad news for companies with hard currency debt maturing this year (See here). So investors are likely to find themselves paying more and more to hedge exposure to India.

Credit default swaps for the State Bank of India (used as a proxy for the Indian sovereign) are trading at almost 400 basis points. More precisely, investors must pay $388,000  to insure $10 million of exposure for a five-year period, data from Markit shows. That is well above levels for the other countries in the BRIC quartet — Brazil, China and Russia. Check out the following graphic from Markit showing the contrast between Brazil and Indian risk perceptions.

At the end of 2010, investors paid a roughly 50 bps premium over Brazil to insure Indian risk via SBI CDS. That premium is now more than 200 bps.

Lower rates give no respite to Brazil stocks

In normal times, an aggressive central bank campaign to cut interest rates would provide fodder for stock market bulls. That’s not happening in Brazil. Its interest rate, the Selic, has fallen 350 basis points since last August and is likely to fall further at this week’s meeting to a record low of 8.5 percent. Yet the Sao Paulo stock market is among the world’s worst performers this year, with losses of around 4 percent. That’s better than fellow BRIC Russia but far worse than India and China.

Brazil’s central bank and government are understandably worried about a Chinese growth slowdown that would eat into Brazilian commodity exports. They are therefore hoping that rate cuts will prepare the domestic economy to take up the slack.

But the haste to cut interest rates appears to have spooked some foreign investors, with many seeing the moves as evidence of political pressure on the central bank. A closely-watched survey from Bank of America/Merill Lynch showed that fund managers had swung into a net 14 percent underweight on Brazil in May from a net overweight of over 20 percent in April (See graphic). This is the first time investors have turned negative on Brazil since February 2011, BofA/ML said.

Battered India rupee lacks a warchest

The Indian rupee’s plunge this week to record lows will have surprised no one. After all, the currency has been inching towards this for weeks, propelled by the government’s paralysis on vital reforms and tax wrangles with big foreign investors. These are leading to a drying up of FDI and accelerating the exodus from stock markets. Industrial production and exports have been falling.  High oil prices have added a nasty twist to that cocktail. If the euro zone noise gets louder, a balance of payments crisis may loom. The rupee could fall further to 56 per dollar, most analysts predict.

True, the rupee is not the only emerging currency that is taking a hit. But the Reserve Bank of India looks especially powerless to stem the decline. (See here for an article by my colleagues in Mumbai) .  One reason  the RBI’s hands are  effectively tied is that  India is one of the few emerging economies that has failed to build up its hard currency reserves since the 2008 crisis and so is unable to spend in the currency’s defence. Usable FX reserves stand now around $260 bilion, down from $300 billion just before the 2008 crisis.  See the following graphic from UBS which shows that relative to GDP, India’s reserve loss has been the greatest in emerging markets.

But there is worse. The relative decline in reserves since 2008 coincides with a ballooning in India’s external debt, both private and public. Comprising mostly of corporate borrowing and trade credit, the debt stands at $350  billion, up from $225 billion four years back.

In India, no longer just who you know

It’s not what you know but who you know. There are few places where this tenet applies more than in India but of late being close to the powers in New Delhi does not seem to be paying off for many company bosses.

Look at this chart from specialist India-focused investor Ocean Dial. It shows that since mid-2011 companies perceived as politically well-connected have significantly underperformed the broader Mumbai index. The underperformance has intensified this year.

According to David Cornell, portfolio manager at the fund, this is down to several factors such as The Right to Information Act which has helped curb unfettered corruption as well as shifting political power away from the centre towards provincial governments.  He says:

Trading the new normal in India

After a ghastly 2011, Indian stock markets have’t done too badly this year despite the almost constant stream of bad news from India. They are up 12 percent, slightly outperforming other emerging markets, thanks to  fairly cheap valuations (by India’s normally expensive standards)  and hopes the central bank might cut rates. But foreign  inflows, running at $3 billion a month in the first quarter, have tapered off and the underlying mood is pessimistic. Above all, the worry is how much will India’s once turbo-charged economy slow? With the government seemingly in policy stupor, growth is likely to fall under 7 percent this year. News today added to the gloom — exports fell in March for the first time since the 2009 global crisis.

So how are fund managers to play India now? According to David Cornell, who runs an India portfolio at specialist investor Ocean Dial, they must simply get used to the “new normal” — subpar growth and high cost of capital. In this shift, Cornell points out, return on assets in India has fallen from a peak of almost 14 percent in 2007 to less than 10 percent now. While that is still higher than the broader emerging asset class, the advantage has dwindled to less than 1 percent as companies suffer from margin compression and falling turnover. Check out these two graphs from Ocean Dial:

Cornell is playing the new normal by focusing on three sectors — consumer goods, banks and pharmaceuticals. These companies, he says, have pricing power and structural barriers to entry (banks); provide access to still-buoyant demand for services such as mobile phones (consumer goods) and are well-run and profitable (pharmaceuticals). And the export-oriented pharma sector is also an effective hedge against the weakening rupee.

Where will the FDI flow?

For years the four mighty BRIC nations have grabbed increasing shares of world investment flows. But the coming years may not be so kind.  These countries bring up the bottom of the Economic Freedom Index (EFI) for 2012. Compiled by Washington D.C.-based think-tank The Heritage Foundation the EFI measures 10 freedoms —  from property rights to entrepreneurship – and according to a note out today from RBS economists, there is a strong positive link between a country’s EFI score and the amount of FDI (foreign direct investment) it can secure. So the more “free” a country, the more FDI inflows it can expect to receive — that’s what an RBS analysis of 2002-2008 investment flows shows.

So back to the BRICs. Or BRICS if you add in South Africa (part of the political grouping though not yet included in the BRIC investment concept used by fund managers). The following graphic shows Russia languishing at the bottom of the EFI, China just above Russia and India third from bottom.  Brazil is sixth from bottom while South Africa ranks two places higher.

At the other end of the spectrum is tiny Singapore. Its EFI score is double that of Russia and between 2002-2008 it attracted FDI equivalent to 50 percent of its economy. Russia in contrast saw negative net FDI (outflows exceeded inflows)

Three snapshots for Thursday

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits slipped 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 386,000, the Labor Department said. The prior week’s figure was revised up to 388,000 from the previously reported 380,000.

The four-week moving average for new claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends, rose 5,500 to 374,750.

Brazil’s central bank raised its key interest rate for a fourth straight time on Wednesday as it seeks to rein in persistent inflation, and indicated more rate increases could be on the way soon. This follows a 50bps rate cut from India earlier in the week.