Global Investing

Poland, the lonely inflation targeter

Is the National Bank of Poland (NBP) the last inflation-targeting central bank still standing?

The bank shocked many today with a quarter point rate rise, naming stubbornly high inflation as the reason, and signalling that more tightening is on its way. The NBP has sounded hawkish in recent weeks but few had actually expected it to carry through its threat to raise rates. Economic indicators of late have been far from cheerful – just hours after the rate rise, data showed Polish car production slumped 30 percent in April from year-ago levels. PMI numbers last week pointed to further deterioration ahead for manufacturing. And sitting as it does on the euro zone’s doorstep, Poland will be far more vulnerable than Brazil or Russia to any new setback in Greece. Its action therefore deserves praise, says Benoit Anne, head of emerging markets strategy at Societe Generale.

(Poland’s central bank) is one of the last orthodox inflation-targeting central banks in the global emerging market central bank universe. They are taking action because they are seeing inflation creeping up and have decided to be proactive.

The rate rise  is especially notable given many central banks in developing countries appear effectively to have surrendered their inflation-fighting mandate. Nowhere is the push for lower interest rates more pronounced than in Brazil where the government last week announced plans to scrap fixed-rate savings deposits in a move that is seen paving the way for more agressive rate cuts. Clearly there is tolerance here for higher inflation, which will still end 2012 well above target.

But many analysts such as Manik Narain at UBS consider Poland’s decision a high-risk one given the growth issues. Narain sees it possibly motivated by the need to signal Poland will not welcome further currency weakness (the zloty like most emerging currencies has shed much of its early-2012 gain) Therefore a prolonged monetary tightening cycle is unlikely, he says. Indeed many reckon the NBP may find itself, like the European Central Bank last year, reversing an ill-considered rate rise. Analysts at Capital Economics write:

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.

The “least worst” option?

Western governments saddled with mountainous debts will “repress” creditors and savers via banking regulation, capital controls, central bank bond buying and currency depreciation that effectively puts sovereign borrowers at the top of the credit queue while simultaneously wiping out real returns for their bond holders. So says HSBC chief economist Stephen King in his latest report this week called “From Depression to repression”.

Building on the work of U.S. economist Carmen Reinhardt and others, King’s focus on the history of heavily indebted governments applying “financial repression” to creditors arrives at several interesting conclusions. First, even though western governments appeared successful in using these tactics to reduce massive World War Two debts alongside brisk economic growth during the 1950s and 1960s, King argues that the debt was cut mainly by the impressive economic growth and tax revenues during that “Golden Age” – and this was mostly down to the once-in-a-century period of relative peace that involved unprecedented integration and cooperation among western governments also engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet Union. Compared to this boost, the financial repression was a “sideshow”, he reckons.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           To show that, he applies the interest rate and inflation conditions of the 1950s and 1960s to the current US government debt trajectory and then compares the growth scenario back then with the one faced now. The graphic is revealing. So, for repression to work, it needs to generate higher growth first. And despite lower real rates today than in the days of Mad Men, that seems not to be the case.

Instead, King says governments will adopt this repression tactic anyway just to stave off draconian austerity now and prevent a destabilising surge in economy-wide borrowing rates. This will effectively reduce the amount of credit to the rest of the private sector, or at least elevating its cost, while reducing the pressure on governments to cut the debt levels quickly. The net result, then will likely be “persistently lower growth”, whatever your conclusion about the desirability of  state or the market allocation of resources.

Three snapshots for Tuesday

U.S. consumer confidence came in slightly weaker than expected but the ‘jobs-hard-to-get’ index – historically a good lead indicator of the unemployment rate - fell to 37.5 in April.

Spanish equities in price terms are near their 2009 lows but valuations are still some way above:

Australian consumer prices rose by less than expected last quarter while key measures of underlying inflation showed the smallest rise in more than a decade, paving the way for a cut next week and suggesting further cuts were possible.

Three snapshots for Tuesday

Argentina’s debt insurance costs rose after the country moved to seize control of leading energy company YPF on Monday,  Madrid called the move on YPF, controlled by Spanish company Repsol, a hostile decision and vowed “clear and strong” measures, while the EU’s executive European Commission warned that an expropriation would send a very negative signal to investors. Of the countries in the MSCI Frontier equities universe Argentinian equities are the worst performer this year.

German analyst and investor sentiment rose unexpectedly in April. The Mannheim-based ZEW economic think tank’s monthly poll of economic sentiment rose to 23.4 from 22.3 in March, beating a consensus forecast in a Reuters poll of analysts for a fall to 20.0.

India’s first interest rate cut in three years may be its last for a while. The central bank cut rates on Tuesday by an unexpectedly sharp 50 basis points to boost the sagging economy, but warned there was limited scope for more cuts, with inflation likely to remain elevated and growth on track to pick up, albeit modestly.

Three snapshots for Wednesday

Saudi Arabia has repeated publicly it would prime its pumps to meet any shortfall in exports from fellow OPEC member Iran, this chart shows their production since 1980:

Unwelcome news for British finance minister George Osborne ahead of today’s budget – February public sector borrowing comes in at £15.2bn against expectations for £8bn.

Along with the rise in bond yields, expectations for interest rates at end 2013 and 2014 have started to pick up:

Central banks and the next bubble (2)

In the previous bubble blog earlier in the week I wrote that G4 central bank balance sheets are expanding to a whopping 26% of GDP.

In what Nomura’s Bob Janjuah called “Monetary Anarchy”, some analysts worry that central bank liquidity expansion is a timebomb which if/when it explodes would have very negative consequences.

Swiss private bank Lombard Odier, weighing in on the debate, warns that not only has the quality of central bank balance sheets deteriorated, there has been no visible impact on the real economy.

How Turkey cut interest rates but didn’t really

How do you cut interest rates without actually loosening monetary policy? Turkey’s central bank effectively did that today.

I wrote this morning that the bank and its boss Erdem Basci were gearing for rate cuts, thanks to the lira’s steady rise (see the graphic)  that should help tame inflation later this year (provided the global investment feel remains positive). But I also said a rate cut was unlikely to happen today. I was wrong — and right too. The central bank cut its overnight lending rate by 100 basis points to 11.5 percent while keeping the one-week repo rate  — the main policy rate — steady at 5.75 percent.

So why is this not a real cut? Note that the former overnight rate hasn’t been used for over a month. Instead the central bank has been using the “corridor” between the lending and borrowing rates to adjust policy on an almost daily basis. The upper end of the corridor is in fact used more to tighten policy when there is a need to defend the lira, analysts point out. And most importantly, the central bank has already been providing funds at the cheaper 5.75 percent rate.

Turkey gearing up for rate cuts but not today

Could the Turkish central bank surprise markets again today?

Given its track record, few will dare to place firm bets on the outcome of today’s meeting but the general reckoning for now is that the bank will keep borrowing and lending rates steady and signal no immediate change to its weekly repo rate of 5.75 percent. With year-on-year inflation in the double digits, logic would dictate there is no scope for an easier monetary policy.

But there are reasons to believe the Turkish central bank, whose mindset is essentially dovish, is letting its thoughts stray towards rate cuts. Consider the following:

a) Governor Erdem Basci has already said he does not see the need for further policy tightening  b)The lira has strengthened  9 percent this year against the dollar and is back at levels last seen in early September, thanks to almost one billion dollars in foreign flows to the Turkish stock market and well-subscribed bond issues. And crucially c) Global factors are supportive (developed central banks are continuing to pump liquidity and a bailout  has finally been agreed for Greece) .

Emerging market local bond rally has more legs

Just a month and half into 2012, emerging local currency bonds have already returned 9 percent, one of best performing asset classes. But the rally has further to go, says J.P. Morgan which runs the most widely used emerging debt indices. The bank is now predicting its benchmark local currency debt index, the GBI-EM, to end the year with returns of 16 percent, upping its original expectation for 11.9 percent.

There are several reasons for this bullishnesss. JPM’s latest client survey reveals investors’ positioning is still neutral, meaning there is potential for more gains. Cash inflows to EM local debt have been dwarfed this year by investments into dollar bonds, considered a safer, albeit lower-yielding asset than locally issued bonds. So when (and if) euro zone uncertainties abate, some of this cash is likely to make the switch.

Many emerging countries are still cutting interest rates, which will push down yields on short-dated bonds. Other countries may tolerate some more currency appreciation to dampen inflation, benefiting the currency side of the EM local bond trade. Above all, with all developed central banks intent on quantitative easing (Japan announced a surprise $130 billion worth of extra QE this week), the yield premium offered by emerging markets — the carry — is irresistible. On average the GBI-EM index offers a 4.5 percent yield pick up on U.S. Treasuries, JPM notes: