Global Investing

Dollar drags emerging local debt into red

Victims of the dollar’s strength are piling up.

Total returns on emerging market local currency bonds dipped into the red for the first time this year, according to data from JPMorgan which compiles the flagship GBI-EM global diversified index of domestic emerging debt. While the EMBI Global index of sovereign dollar debt has already taken a hit the rise in U.S. yields, local bonds’ problems are down to how EM currencies are performing against the dollar.

JPMorgan points out that while bond returns in local currency terms, from carry and duration, are a decent 1 percent, that has been negated by the 1.3 percent loss on the currency side. With the dollar on the rampage of late  (it’s up almost 4 percent in 2013 against a grouping of major world currencies) that’s unsurprising. But a closer look at the data reveals that much of the loss is down to three underperforming markets — South Africa, Hungary and Poland. These have dragged down overall returns even though Asian and Latin American currencies have done quite well.

The graphic below shows South African local debt bringing up the bottom of the table, with the FX component of returns at around minus 9 percent  In rand terms however the return is still in positive territory, but only just. Hungary and Poland fare only slightly better.

Many bond positions are of course hedged. But as we wrote here yesterday  in an article on South Africa, escalating currency weakness can trigger exits from local bond markets.  And worryingly, JPMorgan notes that returns in local currency terms have plateaued at 1 percent over the past 10 days.

Using sterling to buy emerging markets

Sterling looks likely to be one of this year’s big G10 currency casualties (the other being  yen).  Having lost 7 percent against the dollar and 5.5 percent to the euro so far this year on fear of a British triple-dip recession, sterling probably has further to fall.  (see here for my colleague Anirban Nag’s take on sterling’s outlook).

Many see an opportunity here — as a convenient funding currency to invest in emerging markets. A funding currency requires low interest rates that can bankroll purchases of higher-yielding assets including stocks, other currencies, bonds and commodities. Sterling ticks those boxes.  A funding  currency must also not be subject to any appreciation risk for the duration of the trade. And here too, sterling appears to win, as the Bank of England’s remit widens to give it more leeway on monetary easing.

All in all, it’s a better option than the U.S. dollar, which was most used in recent years, or the pre-crisis favourite of the Swiss franc, says Bernd Berg, head of emerging FX strategy at Credit Suisse Private Bank.

Here comes the real

Inflation is finally biting Brazilian policymakers. The real strengthened around 1.5 percent last week without triggering the usual shrill outcries from government ministers. Nor did the central bank intervene in the currency market even though the real is the best performing emerging currency this year. The bank in fact shifted towards a more hawkish policy stance during its March meeting, a move that seems to have had the blessing of the government.

Friday’s data showed the benchmark consumer price index, IPCA,   up 0.6 percent for a year-on-year inflation rate of 6.31 percent. President Dilma Rousseff, who faces elections next year, took to the airwaves soon after to reassure voters about her commitment to taming inflation, announcing a series of tax cuts. That effectively is a signal that there is now no political constraint on raising interest rates. According to the political risk consultancy, Eurasia:

If the government doesn’t enact measures during the first half of this year to anchor inflationary expectations, Rousseff would run one of two risks. She would either run the risk of inflation starting to eat into the disposable income of families in a manner that could hurt her politically, or relatedly, put the central bank in a position of having to raise interest rates more aggressively later in the year to control inflation with more negative repercussions to growth.

Emerging Policy-”Full stop” in Poland but a start in Mexico?

An action-packed week for emerging monetary policy.

First we had Poland stunning markets with a half-point rate cut when only 25 bps was priced. Governor Marek Belka said the double-cut marked a “full stop”  after several cuts.  Then came Brazil which kept rates on hold at 7.25 but turned hawkish after spending over 18 months in dovish mode. (Rates stayed on hold in Indonesia and Malaysia).

In Brazil, it was high time. Inflation and inflation expectations have been rising for a while, the yield curve has been steepening and anxiety has grown, not only about the central bank”s commitment to controlling inflation but also about its independence.  Whether the central bank will actually start a hiking cycle anytime soon is another matter. Barclays reckon it will, predicting three consecutive 50 bps rate hikes starting from April. But analysts at Societe Generale are among those who are betting on flat rates for now. They point out that since the meeting, the Brazilian yield curve has moved to its flattest in a year and the 2017 inflation breakevens (the difference between the yields on fixed-rate and inflation-linked bonds of similar maturity) have fallen more than 50bps:

This implies that simply by showing a small amount of vigilance, a great deal of structural inflation concerns seem to have dissipated.

Argentina back in court

Argentina squares off today in a U.S. Appeals court with the so-called holdout creditors who are demanding $1.3 billion in payments on defaulted bonds. A decision will probably take a few days but supporters of both sides have been mustering.

Emails have been pouring into journalists’ inboxes thick and fast from the Argentine Task Force, a lobby group that wants Argentina to settle with bondholders and identifies its goal as “pursuing a fair reconciliation of of the Argentine debt default”.  And yesterday, a noisy pots-and-pans protest was held outside the London offices of Elliot Associates (the parent company of one of the two hedge fund litigants)  by groups supporting Argentina in its battle against those it terms “vulture funds”.  Nick Dearden, director of the Jubilee Debt Campaign, a group that calls for cancelling poor countries’ debts, says:

If the vulture funds are allowed to extract their pound of flesh from Argentina today, we will see a proliferation of vulture funds in Europe tomorrow.

Emerging Policy-Doves reign

Rate cuts are still coming thick and fast in emerging markets — in some cases because of falling inflation and in others to deter the gush of speculative international capital.

Arguably the biggest event in emerging markets is tomorrow’s Reserve Bank of India (RBI) meeting which is expected to yield an interest rate cut for the first time in nine months.

India’s inflation, while still sticky, eased last month to a three-year low of around 7 percent. And a quarter point rate cut to 7.75 percent will in effect be a nod from the RBI to the government’s recent reform efforts.  In anticipation of a rate cut, Indian 10-year bond yields have dropped 50 basis points since the start of the year.  But the RBI, probably the world’s most hawkish central bank at present, has warned that markets need not expect a 50 bps cut or even a sustained rate-cutting campaign. Governor Duvvuri Subbarao said last week inflation still remains too high for comfort, while on Monday the RBI said in a quarterly report that more reform was needed to make the central bank turn its focus on growth.

The Watanabes are coming

With Shinzo Abe’s new government intent on prodding the Bank of Japan into unlimited monetary easing, it is hardly surprising that the yen has slumped to two-year lows against the dollar. This could lead to even more flows into overseas markets from Japanese investors seeking higher-yield homes for their money.

Japanese mom-and-pop investors — known collectively as Mrs Watanabe -  have for years been canny players of currency and interest rate arbitrage. In recent years they have stepped away from old favourites, New Zealand and Australia, in favour of emerging markets such as Brazil, South Africa and Turkey. (See here  to read Global Investing’s take on Mrs Watanabe’s foray into Turkey). Flows from Japan stalled somewhat in the wake of the 2010 earthquake but EM-dedicated Japanese investment trusts, known as toshin, remain a mighty force, with estimated assets of over $64 billion.  Analysts at JP Morgan noted back in October that with the U.S. Fed’s QE3 in full swing, more Japanese cash had started to flow out.

That trickle shows signs of  becoming a flood. Nikko Asset Management, the country’s third  biggest money manager, said this week that retail investors had poured $2.3 billion into a mutual fund that invests in overseas shares — the biggest  subscription since October 2006. This fund’s model portfolio has a 64 percent weighting to U.S. shares, 14 percent to Mexico and 10 percent to Canada while the rest is split between Latin American countries.

Emerging Policy-More interest rate cuts

A big week for central bank meetings looms and the doves are likely to be in full flight.

Take the Reserve Bank of India, the arch-hawk of emerging markets. It meets on Tuesday and some, such as Goldman Sachs, are predicting a rate cut as a nod to the government’s reform efforts. That call is a rare one, yet it may have gained some traction after data last week showed inflation at a 10-month low, while growth languishes at the lowest in a decade. Goldman’s Tushar Poddar tells clients:

With both growth and inflation surprising on the downside relative to the RBI’s forecast, there is a reason for the central bank to move earlier than its previous guidance.

The BBB credit ratings traffic jam

Adversity is a great leveller. Just look at the way sovereign credit ratings in the developed and emerging world have been converging ever since the credit crisis erupted five years ago. JPMorgan  has crunched a few numbers.

Few were surprised last week by S&P’s decision to cut the outlook on Britain’s AAA rating to negative. That gold-plated rating is becoming increasingly rare — according to JP Morgan, just 15 percent of global GDP now rates AAA with a stable outlook — a whopping comedown from 50 percent in 2007. Only 13 developed economies are now rated AAA, compared to 21 before the crisis. And only one, Australia, now has a higher rating (AAA) than in 2007 — 16 of its peers have suffered a total of 129 downgrades in this period.  With 20 rich countries on negative outlook, more downgrades are likely.

Emerging sovereigns, on the other hand, have enjoyed 189 upgrades (43 percent of these were moves into investment grade). That has caused what JPM dubs “a traffic jam”  in the triple B ratings area, with 20 percent of world GDP now rated at this level, compared to 8 percent in 2009.

EM interest rates in 2013 – rise or fall

This year has been all about interest rate cuts. As Western central banks took their policy-easing efforts to ever new levels, emerging markets had little recourse but to cut rates as well. Interest rates in many countries from Brazil to the Czech Republic are at record lows.

Some countries such as Poland and Hungary are expected to continue lowering rates. Rate cuts may also come in India if a reluctant central bank finds its hand forced by the slumping economy. But in many markets, interest rate swaps are now pricing rate rises in 2013.

Are they correct in doing so? Emerging central banks will raise interest rates by an average 8 basis points next year, JP Morgan analysts predict.  UBS, in a recent note, reckons more EM central banks will raise rates than cut them. Analysts there offer the following graphic detailing their expectations: