Global Investing

Interest rates in emerging markets – - harder to cut

Emerging market central banks and economic data are sending a message — interest rates will stay on hold for now.  There are exceptions of course.

Indonesia cut rates on Thursday but the move was unexpected and possibly the last for some time. Brazil has also signalled that rate cuts will continue.  But South Korea and Poland held rates steady this week and made hawkish noises. Peru and Chile will probably do the same.

The culprit that’s spoiling the party is of course inflation. Expectations that slowing growth will wipe out remaining price pressures have largely failed to materialise, leaving policymakers in a bind. Tensions over Iran could drive oil prices higher. Growth seems to be looking up in the United States.

On top of that, all the major central banks in the developed world are intent on flooding the world economy with cash and some of it will inevitably make its way to emerging nations. So while economies could do with a good dose of policy easing, most central banks cannot afford to let their guard down on inflation.

Take China where January inflation came in well above expectations on Thurday, with food prices up 10.5 percent on the year. Expect no cuts to the policy rate this year, warn analysts at RBC. Over in Seoul, Bank of Korea governor Kim Choong-soo said policymakers needed to be “on alert” for inflation risks and described inflation expectations as “considerably  high.” The verdict from Barclays:

Financial repression revisited

At a monetary policy event hosted by Fathom Consulting at the Reuters London office today, former Bank of England policymakers were discussing the pros and cons of “financial repression”.

Financial repression is a concept first introduced in the 1970s in the United States and is becoming a talking point again after the financial crisis, especially with a NBER paper last year written by economists Reinhart and Sbrancia reviving the debate.

In the paper, authors define financial repression as follows:

Historically, periods of high indebtedness have been associated with a rising incidence of default or restructuring of public and private debts. A subtle type of debt restructuring takes the form of “financial repression”.

Without real sign of rate cuts, Indian equity rally still fragile

Indian equities are among the best emerging markets performers this year, with the Mumbai market having posted its best January rise since 1994. That’s quite a reversal from last year’s 24 percent slump. The bet is faltering economic growth will force the central bank to cut interest rates from a crippling 8.5 percent. So, how safe is the rally?

Some conditions are already in place. Valuations look decent after last year’s drop. There has been a surge in global investors’ appetite for emerging market assets. So Apurva Shah, who helps manage $600 million at the BNP Paribas Mutual Fund in Mumbai, expects positive returns from Indian stocks this year. But for a decent rally to be sustained, interest rates have to fall in order to kickstart faltering growth, he says.

The risk is really the assumption that interest rates and inflation are actually on the way down. We’ve seen the first leg of that happening, but it’s just the beginning. Rates are still way too high. To trigger off any real revival in economic growth they need to fall a lot more.

Emerging markets facing current account pain

Emerging markets may yet pay dearly for the sins of their richer cousins. While recent financial crises have been rooted in the United States and euro zone, analysts at Credit Agricole are questioning whether a full-fledged emerging markets crisis could be on the horizon, the first since the series of crashes from Argentina to Turkey over a decade ago. The concern stems from the worsening balance of payments picture across the developing world and the need to plug big  funding shortfalls.

The above chart from Credit Agricole shows that as recently as 2006, the 34 big emerging economies ran a cumulative current account surplus of 5.2 percent of GDP. By end-2011 that had dwindled to 1.7 percent of GDP. More worrying yet is the position of “deficit” economies. The current account gap here has widened to 4 percent of GDP, more than double 2006 levels and the biggest since the 1980s. The difficulties are unlikely to disappear this year, Credit Agricole says,  predicting India, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Vietnam, Poland and Romania to run current account deficits of over 4 percent this year.

Some fiscally profligate countries such as India may have mainly themselves to blame for their plight. But in general, emerging nations after the Lehman crisis were forced to embark on massive spending to buck up domestic consumption and offset the collapse of Western export markets. For this reason, many were unable to raise interest rates or did so too late. As the woes of the Turkish lira and Indian rupee showed last year, the yawning funding gap leaves many countries horribly exposed to the vagaries of global risk appetite.

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.

Turkish central bank reaps what it sows

Turkey’s inflation spike is here. And it is looking worse than expected.

Data today shows October inflation jumping 3.27 percent,  well above forecast and the highest in nine years. Compare that to 1.8 percent at this time last year. Annual inflation is now running at 7.7 percent and makes the central bank’s end-year forecast of 8.3 percent look optimistic –most analysts reckon it will be closer to 10 percent. Inflation has in fact been rising steadily in recent months — a consequence of the runaway credit boom of the past year and a policy experiment which saw the central bank cutting interest rates in the face of an overheating economy and raising banks’ reserve ratios instead.  Add in the pass-through from the lira’s big depreciation since August and a jump in  inflation is hardly surprising. The central bank has of late expressed some concern about inflation and used this to justify its actions to prop up the lira.

“Critics though might still argue that it is more a case of ‘as you sow, so you will reap’ and inflation being felt now is a reflection of the inappropriate policy mix earlier in the year,” RBS analyst Tim Ash writes.

Turkey was lucky today though. Shenanigans in Greece held investors attention and a rate cut by the European Central Bank boosted risk appetite, allowing markets to shrug off the Turkish numbers. Bond yields have risen only 5-6 basis points and stocks have rallied.  The central bank meanwhile is expected to stick to its guns and not raise interest rates, relying instead on its liquidity tightening exercise to do the trick.

Interest rates rise in Kenya, Uganda. Hungary next

Recent weeks have witnessed an interesting  split between countries that are raising interest rates to fend off runs on their currencies, and those cutting rates to spur on growth — check out my colleague Carolyn Cohn’s recent piece on this topic (http://tinyurl.com/4x58ny6) .The frontier economies of Africa fall into the first category — Kenya this week jacked up rates by an unprecedented 550 basis points to ward off a currency collapse, while Uganda’s benchmark rate was increased by 300 bps.  

Big stable economies such as Australia, Brazil and Indonesia have cut interest rates. On Wednesday, Romania became the latest  country to do so.  But an exception is investment grade Hungary, which may soon join the ranks of  frontier markets in currency-defensive rate hikes.

It may also soon lose its investment grade status –at least one of the three big rating agencies is expected to soon announce a cut to the sovereign credit rating.  That fear has triggered flight from the forint and short-dated bonds, pushing the currency to 2-1/2 year lows and causing significant flattening in the yield curve. The situation hasn’t been helped by signs the government is cooking up another sceme to subsidise indebted small businesses. More is to come, many predict –a ratings downgrade could see investors pull at least $1.2 billion euros from local bond markets. ING Bank estimates. That would be 10 percent of foreigners’ Hungarian bond holdings and would send the currency into a fresh tailspin.

Is end-game approaching for Turkey’s policy experiment?

In less than two months, Turkey will mark the first anniversary of the start of an unusual monetary policy experiment, and it may well do so by calling it off.  The experiment hinged on cutting interest rates while raising banks’ reserve ratio requirements, and as recently as August, the central bank was hoping  it would be able to slow a local credit boom a bit but still protect exports by keeping the currency cheap.  Instead, an investor exodus from emerging markets has put the lira to the sword, fuelling at one point a 20 percent collapse in its value against the dollar.  That has forced the central bank to roll back some of the reserve ratio hikes and last week it jacked up overnight lending rates in an attempt to boost the currency. It has also sold vast quantities of dollars and is promising  to unveil more  measures on Wednesday.

But what the market really wants to see is an increase in Turkey’s main interest rate.  ”Not sure that ‘measures’ short of rate hikes will help,” RBS analyst Tim Ash writes.

Given Turkey’s massive current account deficit of almost 10 percent of GDP, an interest rate of 5.75 percent will provide little protection to the lira if emerging markets come under serious pressure again. Even if the lira stabilises at current levels, an inflation spike to double-digits looks inevitable.  Meanwhile the central bank’s hard currency reserves are vanishing at an alarming rate — just last week it spent $2.7 billion. That’s a lot given Turkish reserves are just $86 billion, or  four months of imports.  Current central bank policy is  ”an open door to reserve depletion,” Societe Generale strategist Guillaume Salomon says,  noting that despite the massive dollar sales,  the lira is not far off record lows hit earlier this month.

Turkey’s central bank: still a slippery customer

The Turkish central bank has done it again, wrong-footing monetary policy predictions with its latest interest rate moves.

On Thursday, the central bank hiked its overnight lending rate by widening the interest rate corridor. While most analysts correctly predicted the central bank would leave its policy rate unchanged, few foresaw the overnight lending rate hike to 12.5 percent from 9 percent.

As Societe Generale’s emerging markets strategist Gaelle Blanchard put it: ”They managed to find another trick. This one we were not expecting.”

from Jeremy Gaunt:

#ThingsStrongerThanTheKenyaShilling

Twitter does have some very strange Trends. These are the things that appear on the right-hand side of the page that show what people are talking about. They more they talk, the more likely it is that something will get listed.  More often than not they are about celebrities such as Justin Bieber.

But today's Worldwide  Trends was particularly unusual.

#ThingsStrongerThanTheKenyaShilling was right up there near the top.

As the graph here shows, the shilling has taken a heavy beating since the Lehman Brother collapse. This is one reason for the Twitter outburst.  "Kenyans are getting fed up," said @oreo_junkie, whose Twitter feed states it is from Nairobi.

And judging by some of the other "answers" to the trendline, it is not a matter for levity in Kenya. "Government's resolve to fight Corruption" was one;  "Stupidity of Kenyans to  reelect the same MPs" was another.