Global Investing

BRIC: Brilliant/Ridiculous Investment Concept

BRIC is Brazil, Russia, India, China — the acronym coined by Goldman Sachs banker Jim O’Neill 10 years back to describe the world’s biggest, fastest-growing and most important emerging markets.  But according to Albert Edwards, Societe Generale‘s uber-bearish strategist, it also stands for Bloody Ridiculous Investment Concept. Some investors, licking their wounds due to BRIC markets’ underperformance in 2011 and 2010, might be inclined to agree — stocks in all four countries have performed worse this year than the broader emerging markets equity index, to say nothing of developed world equities.

For years, money has chased BRIC investments, tempted by the countries’ fast growth, huge populations and explosive consumer hunger for goods and services. But Edwards cites research showing little correlation between growth and investment returns. He points out that Chinese nominal GDP growth may have averaged 15.6 percent  since 1993 but the compounded  return on equity investments was minus 3.3 percent.

But economic growth — the BRIC holy grail – is also now slowing. Data showed this week that Brazil posted zero growth in the third quarter of 2011 compared to last year’s 7.5 percent. Indian growth is  at the weakest in over two years. In Russia, rising discontent with the Kremlin — reflected in post-election protests — carries the risk of hitting the broader economy. And China, facing falling exports to a moribund Western world,  is also bound to slow. Edwards goes a step further and flags a hard landing in China as the biggest potential investment shock of 2012.  “Yet investors persist in the BRIC superior growth fantasy…If growth does matter to investors, they should be worried that
things seem to be slowing sharply in the BRIC universe,” he writes.

Thomson Reuters data earlier this year appeared to show some disenchantment with the BRIC concept. After rising 1600-fold between 2003 and 2007, assets in BRIC funds had shrunk to $28 billion by August 2011, almost a quarter below 2007 peaks, a bigger fall in percentage terms than most other fund categories.

What of O’Neill, the man behind the moniker? He talks increasingly of Growth Markets, a broader grouping that also includes other promising emerging countries such as Turkey and Mexico. But at a Reuters investment summit this week O’Neill noted that the main reason for BRIC stocks’ underperformance has been a massive monetary policy tightening exercise in all four countries, prompted by rising inflation.  With that at an end and valuations cheaper than they have been for a long time, he expects the BRIC markets, especiallly China, to do better next year despite slower growth. Time will tell.

Retail volte face confirms India as BRIC that disappoints

Jim O’Neill, the Goldman Sachs banker who coined the term BRICs to capture the fast-growing emerging-markets quartet of Brazil, Russia, India and China,  has fingered India as the BRIC that has disappointed the most over the past decade in terms of reforms, FDI and productivity. New Delhi’s latest decision to put on hold a landmark reform of its retail sector will only confirm this view.

The government’s backtracking on plans to allow foreign investment in supermarkets will not surprise those accustomed to New Delhi’s record on key economic reforms. But it means India’s weak performance on FDI receipts will continue and that’s bad news for the worsening balance of payments deficit.  Speaking of the retail volte face, O’Neill said: ”They shouldn’t raise people’s hopes of FDI and then in a week, say, ‘we’re only joking’”.

Various Indian lobby groups that oppose the reforms contend that foreign giants such as Wal-Mart and Tesco will kill off the livelihoods of millions of small traders.

India: the odd BRIC out

China moved to ease policy this week via a reserve ratio cut for banks, effectively starting to reverse a tightening cycle that’s been in place since last January. Later the same day, Brazil’s central bank cut interest rates by 50 basis points for the third time in a row. Both countries are expected to continue easing policy as the global economic downturn bites. And last week Russia signalled that rate cuts could be on the way.

That makes three of the four members of the so-called BRIC group of the biggest emerging economies. Indonesia, the country some believe should be included in the BRIC group, has also been cutting rates. That leaves India, the fourth leg of the BRICs, the quartet whose name was coined by Goldman Sachs banker Jim O’Neill ten years ago this week. India could use a rate cut for sure. Data this week showed growth slowing to 6.9 percent in the three months to September — the slowest since September 2009. Factory output slowed to a 32-month low last month, feeling the effects of the global malaise as well as 375 basis points in rate increases since last spring. No wonder Indian stocks, down 20 percent this year, are the worst performing of the four BRIC markets.

But unlike the other BRICs, a rate cut is a luxury India cannot afford now — inflation is still running close to double digits.  “The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is the odd guy out due to stubbornly high inflation of near 10 percent,” writes Commerzbank analyst Charlie Lay.

Good reasons for rupee’s fall but also for recovery

It’s been a pretty miserable 2011 for India and Tuesday’s collapse of the rupee to record lows beyond 52 per dollar will probably make things worse. Foreigners, facing a fast-falling currency, have pulled out $500 million from the stock market in just the last five trading sessions.   That means net inflows this year are less than $300 million, raising concerns that India will have trouble financing its current account gap.  The weaker currency also bodes ill for the country’s stubbornly high inflation.

Why is the rupee suffering so much? First of all, it is a casualty of the general exodus from emerging markets. As a deficit economy, India is bound to suffer more than say Brazil, Korea or Malaysia.  And 18 months of interest rate rises have taken a toll on growth.

UBS analysts  proffer another explanation. They point out a steady deterioration in India’s net reserve coverage since the 2008 crisis. The reserve buffer — foreign-exchange reserves plus the annual current account balance, minus short-term external debt — stands at 9 percent of GDP, down from 14 percent in 2008.  Within emerging markets, only Egypt, Venezuela and Belarus saw bigger declines in net reserve coverage than India.

Who is in greatest need to reform pension?

This year’s fall in global equities (down nearly 20 percent at one point) and tumbling bond yields, along with the euro zone sovereign debt crisis, are sowing the seeds for a new financial crisis – in the pension funds industry.

But which country is in the greatest need of pension reform?

Everyone, you may say, but a new study from Allianz Global Investors finds that Greece, India, China and Thailand need to reform their pension systems the most.

The study, which charts the relative sustainability of national pension systems in 44 countries, shows that India and China — two of the fastest growing emerging economies — suffer from low pension coverage and lack of adequate measures to improve the situation.

Emerging consumers’ pain to spell gains for stocks in staples

Food and electricity bills are high. The cost of filling up at the petrol station isn’t coming down much either. The U.S. economy is in trouble and suddenly the job isn’t as secure as it seemed. Maybe that designer handbag and new car aren’t such good ideas after all.

That’s the kind of decision millions of middle class consumers in developing countries are facing these days. That’s bad news for purveyors of everything from jeans to iphones  who have enjoyed double-digit profits thanks to booming sales in emerging markets.

Brazil is the best example of how emerging market consumers are tightening their belts. Thanks to their spending splurge earlier this decade, Brazilian consumers on average see a quarter of their income disappear these days on debt repayments. People’s credit card bills can carry interest rates of up to 45 percent. The central bank is so worried about the growth outlook it stunned markets with a cut in interest rates this week even though inflation is running well above target

Clinging to hope in bear-bitten Russia

Poor Russia. After spending six months as the world’s best performing emerging market, the Moscow bourse  has been the big loser of this month’s rout – year-to-date returns of over 10 percent until mid-July have since dissolved in a sea of red, with a plunge of over 20 percent since the start of August. As oil prices fell and the outlook for U.S. and European growth darkened, overweight positions in Russia halved versus July, a survey by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch showed this week.

But get this — Russia remains among investors’ main emerging market punts and only Indonesia is more favoured, according to the BoA/ML poll. The reason is that fund managers are still clinging to hopes that an increasingly wealthy Russian consumer will save the day. Unfortunately those hopes are yet to materialise. Returns on domestic demand-based stocks such as Sberbank, carmaker Avtovaz and supermarket chain Magnit have been even more disappointing this year than the broader Moscow market.

Even the staunchest Russia bull will have been disappointed with data showing Russia’s economy grew at just 3.4 percent in the second quarter of the year.  That proves the economy was running out of steam even before the August oil price fall and suggests that the Russian consumer is not yet stepping up to the mark. Retail data since then have been more heartening — annual sales rose 5.6 percent in July from 3 percent in June.

from MacroScope:

Give me liberty and give me cash!

Come back Mr Fukuyama, all is forgiven.

In his 1992 book "The End of History and the Last Man", American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously argued that all states were moving inexorably towards liberal democracy. His thesis that democracy is the pinnacle of political evolution has since been challenged by the violent eruption of radical Islam as well as the economic success of authoritarian countries such as China and Russia.

Now a study by Russian investment bank Renaissance Capital into the link between economic wealth and democracy seems to back Fukuyama.

Looking at 150 countries and over 60 years of history, RenCap found that countries are likely to become more democratic as they enjoyed rising levels of income with democracy virtually 'immortal' in countries with a GDP per capita above $10,000.

Indian stocks — buyers trickling back?

Last week snapped a three-week winning streak for Indian stocks — the first since last September for this year’s emerging markets laggard.  India,  an oil importer and a domestic demand play with high inflation, has languished this year in comparison with fellow-BRIC Russia which has returnedBRICS-TRADE/SUMMIT 14 percent so far, thanks to the $125/barrel oil price. But could the market be turning? Indian stocks, down 20 percent at one point in February, have cut their losses to 6 percent so far this year. And there are signs fund managers are piling back in.

ING Investment Management started buying Indian equities earlier this month for the first time since mid-2010. Inflation may have peaked and with state elections out of the way, politics may be less of an issue, they say. And Indian valuations, always expensive, are back in line with long term averages,  the fund’s strategist Maarten-Jan Bakkum notes. He is overweight Russia too but says that is driven by a tactical play on the oil price rather than any long-term conviction.

HSBC‘s head of emerging equities, John Lomax, says commodity and food price inflation may have peaked after a massive run and sees that leading to a change of tone within emerging markets. “We want to be a less exposed to the commodity themes now so we are less positive on Russia. But we like Turkey and we recently upgraded India and China, which are domestic demand plays.”

from Davos Notebook:

Will Goldman’s new BRICwork stand up?

RTXWLHHJim O'Neill, the Goldman Sachs economist who coined the term BRICs back in 2001, is adding four new countries to the elite club of emerging market economies. But does his new edifice have the same solid foundations?

In future, the BRIC economies of Brazil, Russia, China and India will be merged with those of Mexico, Indonesia, Turkey and South Korea under the banner “growth markets,” O'Neill told the Financial Times.

Hmmm.  Doesn't quite grab you like BRICs, does it? The Guardian helpfully offers an amended branding banner of  "Bric 'n Mitsk" (geddit?). But which ever way you cut it, it's hard to see a flood of investment conferences and funds floating off under the new moniker.