Global Investing

Emerging markets coming off the turbulent boil?

Is it all over? Is the emerging market turmoil no longer a concern among investors, economists and academics? Measured at least in the last week, the market is recovering some lost ground. Maybe  January’s sell-off was enough and in the last week all boats seem to be rising once again. After all, there’s a new Fed Chair in Janet Yellen who has now officially taken over and the likelihood of easy monetary policy, tapering of asset purchases notwithstanding, isn’t expected to change.

MSCI’s emerging market benchmark stock index has rebounded 3.5 percent from a Feb. 4 low. The U.S. benchmark S&P 500 stock index has risen slightly more over the same period.

Taking the pulse of the market sentiment at the University of Delaware following a speech by Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser, it appears there’s less concern emerging market woes will take down the world. In a straw poll of the audience (rough estimate put the number at 350+ attendees), the message was upbeat.

In Delaware this morning, at least, the audience was asked how much they expected, if at all, the U.S. market would be roiled by turmoil in the emerging markets? Very little was the answer. The majority, 59 percent, said there would be little impact, although a sizable minority at 29 percent said there would be a lot. Just 5 percent said it was 1997 all over again and 7 percent said no impact at all. Plosser said the current volatility in emerging market currencies could still pose a risk if they were to spill over more broadly into other financial markets. However, he did not consider it a significant risk to the U.S. economy at this point. “While there continues to be some downside risks, for the first time in a few years, I see a potential for some upside risks to the economic outlook. We need to consider this possibility as we calibrate monetary policy,” Plosser said.

When it came to the Fed completing its taper of asset purchases by the end of the year, however, the answers were not so clear cut. An equal amount, 42 percent, said the fed would finish its course of tapering by year end. However, 42 percent said no, the emerging markets or an economic slowdown will force the Fed to stop its tapering measures, thereby keeping its asset purchase program, currently at $65 billion a month, going for longer. Plosser, by the way reiterated that he wants to see tapering finished sooner rather than later because at this point it is “neither helpful or essential.” Just to round it out, 14 percent said they didn’t know if the Fed would finish tapering in 2014 and well, 2 percent just didn’t care.

The hryvnia is all right

The fate of Ukraine’s hryvnia currency hangs by a thread. Will that thread break?

The hryvnia’s crawling peg has so far held as the central bank has dipped steadily into its reserves to support it. But the reserves are dwindling and political unrest is growing. Forwards markets are therefore betting on quite a sizeable depreciation  (See graphic below from brokerage Exotix).

 

The thing to remember is that the key to avoiding a messy devaluation lies not with the central bank but with a country’s households. As countless emerging market crises over decades have shown, currency crises occur when people lose trust in their currency and leadership, withdraw their savings from banks and convert them into hard currency.  That is something no central bank can fight. Now Ukraine’s households hold over $50 billion in bank deposits, according to calculations by Exotix. Of this a third is in hard currency (that’s without counting deposits by companies).  But despite all the ruckus there is no sign of long queues outside banks or currency exchange points, scenes familiar to emerging market watchers.

Why did the market get the Fed and ECB so wrong?

To err once is unfortunate. To err twice looks like carelessness.
One of the great mysteries of 2013 will surely be how economists, investors and market participants of all stripes so spectacularly misread two of the biggest central bank policy set-pieces of the year.
The first was the Federal Reserve’s decision in September not to begin withdrawing its $85 billion-a-month bond-buying stimulus, the second was the European Central Bank’s decision in November to cut interest rates to a fresh low of just 0.25 percent.
The Fed’s decision on Sept. 18 not to “taper” stunned markets. The 10-year Treasury yield recorded its biggest one-day fall in almost two years, and the prospect of continued stimulus has since propelled Wall Street to fresh record highs. (See graphic, click to enlarge)


A Reuters poll on Sept. 9 showed that 49 of 69 economists expected the Fed to taper the following week, a consensus reached after Ben Bernanke said on May 22 that withdrawal of stimulus could start at one of “the next few meetings”.
But tapering was – and still is – always dependent on the data. And throughout this year, the Bernanke-Yellen-Dudley triumvirate has consistently noted that the labour market is extremely weak and the recovery uncertain.
Going into the Sept. 18 policy meeting unemployment was above 7 percent and the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation was well below target, barely more than 1 percent.
Plus, a simple read of the Fed’s statutory mandate of achieving “maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates” should have dispelled the notion a reduction in stimulus was imminent.
“People just didn’t want to listen. They just didn’t believe that they have to follow the data. They’ve not been listening, and it’s really hard to understand why,” said David Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College in the United States and former policymaker at the Bank of England.
It was a similar story with the ECB’s interest rate cut on Nov. 7 which only three leading banks – UBS, RBS and Bank of America-Merrill Lynch – correctly predicted.
These three institutions quickly adjusted their forecasts after shock figures on October 31 showed euro zone inflation plunging to a four-year low of 0.7 percent, triggering the euro’s biggest one-day fall in over six months.


By anyone’s measure, 0.7 percent falls some way short of the “below, but close to, 2% over the medium term” inflation rate stipulated in the ECB’s mandate.
So why did the highly paid experts get it so wrong again?
Herd mentality might have something to do with it.
“It’s great if you’re all right together, and equally great if you’re all wrong together,” Blanchflower said.
It’s like a fund manager who loses 20 percent in a year where the market is down 21 percent. He might have screwed up, but so did everyone else. And technically, he outperformed the market so can claim to have “earned” his large fees.
To be fair, some of the central banks’ communication this year hasn’t been quite as clear as intended. See Bernanke’s comments on May 22 and recent confusion over the Bank of England’s “forward guidance”.
If one of the aims of forward guidance is to avoid volatility and variance of opinion about the trajectory of policy, then this kind of spectacular misread is an indictment of forward guidance.
In addition, since Draghi’s famous “whatever it takes” speech in July last year, the ECB has always had the potential to catch the market off-guard.
But maybe we shouldn’t be so charitable, and the market’s wailing at being misled by the central banks should be taken on board but ultimately ignored. The tail should not wag the dog.
“The Fed can’t be or shouldn’t be a prisoner of the markets,” we were reminded on Thursday, by none other than Fed Chair-elect Janet Yellen.

Tapping India’s diaspora to salvage rupee

What will save the Indian rupee? There’s an election next year so forget about the stuff that’s really needed — structural reforms to labour and tax laws, easing business regulations and scrapping inefficient subsidies. The quickest and most effective short-term option may be a dollar bond issued to the Indian diaspora overseas which could boost central bank coffers about $20 billion.

The option was mooted a month ago when the rupee’s slide started to get into panic territory but many Indian policymakers are not so keen on the idea

So what are the merits of a diaspora bond (or NRI bond as it’s known in India)?

Turkey’s central bank — a little more action please

In the selloff gripping emerging markets, one currency is conspicuous by its absence — the Turkish lira. But this will change unless the central bank adds significantly to its successful lira-defensive measures.

Hopefully at today’s policy meeting.

Like India or Indonesia which have borne the brunt of the recent rout, Turkey has a large current account deficit, equating to over 5 percent of its economic output. But what has made the difference for the lira is the contrast between the Turkish central bank’s decisive policy tightening moves and the ham-fisted tactics employed by India and Brazil.  (We wrote here about this).  See the following graphic (from Citi) that shows the central bank has effectively raised the effective cost of funding by 200 basis points to around 6.5 percent since its July 23 meeting.

 

Guillaume Salomon, a strategist at Societe Generale calls Turkey the “success story” given the relatively stable lira and expects the bank to raise the upper band of its interest rate corridor by another 50 basis points at least. He says:

South Africa may need pre-emptive rate strike

Should South Africa’s central bank — the SARB – strike first with an interest rate hike before being forced into it?  Gill Marcus and her team started their two-day policy meeting today and no doubt have been keeping an eye on happenings in Turkey, a place where a pre-emptive rate hike (instead of blowing billions of dollars in reserves) might have saved the day.

The SARB is very different from Turkey’s central bank in that it is generally less concerned about currency weakness due to the competitiveness boost a weak rand gives the domestic mining sector. This time things might be a bit different. The bank is battling not only anaemic growth but also rising inflation that may soon bust the upper end of its 3-6 percent target band thanks to a rand that has weakened 15  percent to the dollar this year.

Interest rates of 5 percent, moreover, look too low in today’s world of higher borrowing costs  – real interest rates in South Africa are already negative while 10-year yields are around 2.5 percent (1.5 percent in the United States). So any rise in inflation from here will leave the currency dangerously exposed.

Chinese inflation – unreported retail

China’s inflation print for June at 2.7 percent, a four-month high, was higher than forecast, but part of the picture could be obfuscated by a lack of accounting for the ever-growing online retail sector.

Gross domestic product figures have been consistently revised down this year from 8 percent to around 7.4 percent by July, with significant doubt over the reliability of official data. Some analysts forecast the more likely GDP print is around 5 percent, given the lack of punishment for falsifying local data and incentives for better growth figures for regional prints.

With an increasing share of shopping carried out online through websites such as Taobao, Tmall and Paipai, there is an increasing argument for online retail numbers -which had lifted one metric of inflation  closer to 7 percent in April –  to be included in the headline CPI. That metric is the retail sector’s internet shopping price index (iSPI).

Russians and the city: consumer led growth

Speculation is growing that new central bank governor Elvira Nabiullina will cut rates to help stimulate faltering growth soon after takes up her job later this month, but the resilience of the Russian consumer may be another important factor in giving the economy a lift.

Retail sales figures have been lower than expected for the first quarter of 2013, leading economists to revise downwards their prediction for this driver of growth, though performance in the construction and cement sectors is improving, according to Morgan Stanley research:

Overall, we estimate that household consumption growth has accounted for 65 percent of Russian growth over the last decade.

Guarding against the inflation dog in emerging markets

The dog that didn’t bark was how the IMF described inflation. But might the fall in emerging market currencies reverse the current picture of largely benign inflation?

Nick Shearn, a portfolio manager at BlueBay Asset Management, sees the rise in inflation as not an if but a when, which makes inflation-linked bonds (linkers in common parlance) a good idea. These would hedge not only against EM but also G7 inflation — he calculates the correlation between the two at around 0.8 percent. He says linkers outperform as inflation uncertainty increases, hence:

As a result of the loose monetary policies of recent years that have been implemented to promote growth within emerging market economies, we believe rising as well as persistent inflation should become a trend….. Currently we are seeing the early signs of an inflation dynamic in isolated countries such as in Brazil. But, as inflation begins to rise across the region, inflation uncertainty will also begin to rise and consequently inflation-linked bonds should perform well.

Weekly Radar: Central banks try to regain some control

Central banks may be regaining some two-way control over global markets that had started to behave like a one-way bet. After flagging some unease earlier this month that frothy markets were assuming endless QE, the Fed and others look to be responding with at least some frank reality checks even if little new in the substance of their message. In truth, there may be no real change in the likely timing of QE’s end, or even the beginning of its end, but the size of the stock and bond market pullbacks on Wednesday and Thursday shows how sensitive they now are to the ebb and flow of central bank guidance on that score.  Although the 7% drop in Japan’s stock market looks alarming – Fed chief Bernanke actually played it fairly straight, signalling no imminent change and putting any possible wind down over the “next few meetings” still heavily conditional on a much lower jobless rate and higher inflation rate. The control he gains from here is an ability to nuance that message either way if either the data disappoints or markets get out of hand.

The central banks are clearly treading a fine line between getting traction in the real economy and not blowing new financial bubbles. The decider may be inflation and on that score central banks have a lot of leeway right now – global inflation is still evaporating and, as measured by JPM, fell in April to just 2.0% – its lowest in 3-1/2 years.  That said, CPI was also very well behaved in the run-up to 2007 credit crisis – it was asset prices and not consumer inflation that caused the problem. So – expect to hear plenty more cat-and-mouse on this from the central banks over the coming weeks/months.

For investors, periodic pullbacks from here are justified and likely sensible. But it’s still hard to argue against a wholesale change of behaviour – which is merely to assume central banks will prevent further growth shocks but will take some time to transform persistently sluggish growth into anything like a sustained inflation-fueling expansion . As a result, funds will likely steer clear of “safe” havens of cash, gold, Swiss franc and yen despite this bounce and continue their migration to income everywhere, with a bias to relative growth stories within that and an exchange rate tilt according to the likely sequencing of QE exit– all of which points to the U.S. dollar if not its stock markets. And for many that may just mean repariation or staying at home –the US is still the homebase for two thirds of the world’s institutional funds, or some $55 trillion of savings.