Global Investing

Fed re-ignites currency war (or currency skirmish)

The currency war is back.

Since last week when the Fed started its third round of money-printing (QE3), policymakers in emerging markets have been busily talking down their own currencies or acting to curb their rise. These efforts may gather pace now that Japan has also increased its asset-buying programme, with expectations that the extra liquidity unleashed by developed central banks will eventually find its way into the developing world.

The alarm over rising currencies was reflected in an unusual verbal intervention this week by the Czech central bank, with governor Miroslav Singer hinting at  more policy loosening ahead, possibly with the help of unconventional policy tools. Prague is not generally known for currency interventions — analysts at Societe Generale point out its last direct interventions were conducted as far back as 2001-2002.  Even verbal intervention is quite rate — it last resorted to this on a concerted basis in 2009, SoGen notes. Singer’s words had a strong impact — the Czech crown fell almost 1 percent against the euro.

The stakes are high — the Czech economy is a small, open one, heavily reliant on exports which make up 75 percent of its GDP. But Singer is certainly not alone in his efforts to tamp down his currency. Turkey’s 100 basis point cut to its overnight lending rate on Tuesday (and hints of more to come) was essentially a currency-weakening move. And Poland has hinted at entering its own bond market in case of “market turmoil”

What of Latin America and Asia, the main battlegrounds for currency wars of the past? As may be expected, Brazil has been the most vocal in its criticism of the Fed — its finance minister Guido Mantega (who first came up with the currency wars phrase) has threatened more measures to keep a “devalued real” .  The central bank has already sold billions of dollars worth of reverse currency swaps to weaken the real this week. Neighbouring Peru on Tuesday waded into currency markets to weaken the sol, saying the central bank was trying to get in ahead of an expected wave of inflows. In Asia, central banks from the Philippines and Taiwan have been spotted buying dollars to weaken their currencies while Korea will almost certainly cut interest rate to curb its won which is near  six-month highs to the dollar.

All that sounds pretty familiar.  But are emerging economies really that worried?  And should they be?

Carry currencies to tempt central banks

Central bankers as carry traders? Why not.

As we wrote here yesterday, FX reserves at global central banks may be starting to rise again. That’s a consequence of a pick up in portfolio investment flows in recent weeks and is likely to continue after the U.S. Fed’s announcement of its QE3 money-printing programme.

According to analysts at ING, the Fed’s decision to restart its printing presses will first of all increase liquidity (some of which will find its way into central bank coffers). Second, it also tends to depress volatility and lower volatility encourages the carry trade. Over the next 12 months these  two themes will combine as global reserve managers twin their efforts to keep their money safe and still try to make a return, ING predicts, dubbing it a positive carry story.

The first problem is that yields are abysmal on traditional reserve currencies. That means any reserve managers keen to boost returns will try to diversify from the  dollar, euro, sterling and yen that constitute 90 percent of global reserves. Back in the spring of 2009 when the Fed scaled up QE1, its move depressed the dollar and drove reserve managers towards the euro, which was the most liquid alternative at the time. ING writes:

No policy easing this week in Turkey and Chile

More and more emerging central banks have been embarking on the policy easing path in recent weeks. But Chile and Turkey which hold rate-setting meetings this Thursday are not expected to emulate them. Both are expected to hold interest rates steady for now.

In Chile, the interest rate futures market is pricing in that the central bank will keep interest rates steady at 5 percent for the seventh month in a row. Most local analysts surveyed by Reuters share that view. Chile’s economy, like most of its emerging peers is slowing, hit by a potential slowdown in its copper exports to Asia but it is still expected at a solid 4.6 percent in the third quarter. Inflation is running at 2.5 percent, close to the lower end of the central bank’s  percent target band.

Turkey is a bit more tricky. Here too, most analysts surveyed by Reuters expect no change to any of the central bank rates though some expect it to allow banks to hold more of their reserves in gold or hard currency. The Turkish policy rate has in fact become largely irrelevant as the central bank now tightens or loosens policy at will via daily liquidity auctions for banks. And for all its novelty, the policy appears to have worked — Turkey’s monstrous current account deficit has contracted sharply and data  this week showed the June deficit was the smallest since last August. Inflation too is well off its double-digit highs.

Emerging corporate debt tips the scales

Time was when investing in emerging markets meant buying dollar bonds issued by developing countries’ governments.

How old fashioned. These days it’s more about emerging corporate bonds, if the emerging market gurus at JP Morgan are to be believed. According to them, the stock of debt from emerging market companies now exceeds that of dollar bonds issued by emerging governments for the first time ever.

JP Morgan, which runs the most widely used emerging debt indices, says its main EM corporate bond benchmark, the CEMBI Broad, now lists $469 billion in corporate bonds.  That compares to $463 billion benchmarked to its main sovereign dollar bond index, the EMBI Global. In fact, the entire corporate debt market (if one also considers debt that is not eligible for the CEMBI) is now worth $974 billion, very close to the magic $1 trillion mark. Back in 2006, the figure was at$340 billion.  JPM says:

Olympic medal winners — and economies — dissected

The Olympic medals have all been handed out and the athletes are on their way home.  Which countries surpassed expectations and which ones did worse than expected? And did this have anything to do with the state of their economies?

An extensive Goldman Sachs report entitled Olympics and Economics  (a regular feature before each Olympic Games) predicted before the Games kicked off that the United States would top the tally with 36 gold medals. It also said the top 10 would include five G7 countries (the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy), two BRICs (China and Russia), one of the developing countries it dubs Next-11  (South Korea), and one additional developed and emerging market. These would be Australia and Ukraine, it said.

Close enough, except that Hungary took the place of Ukraine as the emerging economy in the Top 10 and the United States actually took 46 gold medals — more than Goldman had predicted.

Russia: a hawk among central bank doves?

This week has the potential to bring an interesting twist to emerging markets monetary policy. Peru, South Korea and Indonesia are likely to leave interest rates unchanged on Thursday but there is a chance of a rate rise in Russia. A rise would stand out at a time when  central banks across the world are easing monetary policy as fast as possible.

First the others. Rate rises in Indonesia and Peru can be ruled out. Peru grew at a solid  5.4 percent pace in the previous quarter and inflation is within target. Indonesian data too shows buoyant growth, with the economy expanding 6.4 percent from a year earlier. And the central bank is likely to be mindful of the rupiah’s weakness this year — it has been one of the worst performing emerging currencies of 2012.

Korea is a tougher call. The Bank of Korea stunned markets with a rate cut last month, its first in three years. Since then, data has shown that the economy is slowing even further after first quarter growth eased to 2008-2009 lows. Exports are falling at the fastest pace in three years. But most analysts expect it to wait it out in August and then cut rates in September. Markets on the other hand are bracing for a rate cut as yields on 3-year Korean bonds have fallen well under the central bank’s main 7-day policy rate.

India, a hawk among central bank doves

So India has not joined emerging central banks’ rate-cutting spree .  After recent rate cuts in Brazil, South Korea, South Africa, Philippines and Colombia, and others signalling their worries over the state of economic growth,  hawks are in short supply among the world’s increasingly dovish central banks. But the Reserve Bank of India is one.

With GDP growth slowing to  10-year lows, the RBI would dearly love to follow other central banks in cutting rates.  But its pointed warning on inflation on the eve of today’s policy meeting practically sealed the meeting’s outcome. Interest rates have duly been kept on hold, though in a nod to the tough conditions, the RBI did ease banks’ statutory liquidity ratio. The move will free up some more cash for lending.

What is more significant is that the RBI has revised up its inflation forecast for the coming year by half a  percentage point, and in a post-meeting statement said rate cuts at this stage would do little to boost flagging growth. That, to many analysts, is a signal the bank will provide little monetary accommodation in coming months. and may force  markets to pedal back on their expectation of 100 basis points of rate cuts in the next 12 months.  Anubhuti Sahay at Standard Chartered in Mumbai says:

Emerging debt default rates on the rise

Times are tough and unsurprisingly, default rates among emerging market companies are rising.

David Spegel, ING Bank’s head of emerging debt, has a note out, calculating that there have been $8.271 billion worth of defaults by 19 emerging market issuers so far this year — nearly double the total $4.28 billion witnessed during the whole of 2011.

And there is more to come — 208 bonds worth $75.7 billion are currently trading at yield levels classed as distressed (above 1000 basis points), Spegel says, while another 120 bonds worth $45 billion are at “stressed” levels (yields between 700 and 999 bps).   Over half of the “distressed” bonds are in Latin America (see graphic below).  His list suggests there could be $2.4 billion worth of additional defaults in 2012 which would bring the 2012 total to $10.7 billion. Spegel adds however that defaults would drop next year to $6.8 billion.

Doves to rule the roost in emerging markets

Interest rate meetings are coming up this week in Turkey,  South Africa and Mexico.  Most analysts expect no change to interest rates in any of the three countries.  But chances are, the worsening global growth picture will force policymakers to soften their tone from previous months; indeed forwards markets are actually pricing an 18-20 basis-point interest rate cut in South Africa.

Doves in South Africa will have been encouraged by today’s lower-than-expected inflation print, coming soon after data showing a growth deceleration in the second quarter of the year. Investors have flooded the bond markets, betting on rate cuts in coming months. In Turkey and Mexico, no policy change is priced but a few reckon the former, reliant on a policy of day-to-day tinkering with liquidity, may narrow the interest rate corridor in a nod to slowing growth.

For now, all three banks could be constrained from cutting rates by fear of currency volatility and the potential knock-on effect on inflation. Of South Africa, analysts at TD Securities write:

10%-plus returns: only on emerging market debt

It’s turning out to be a great year for emerging debt. Returns on sovereign dollar bonds have topped 10 percent already this year on the benchmark EMBI Global index, compiled by JP Morgan.  That’s better than any other fixed income or equity category, whether in emerging or developed markets. Total 2012 returns could be as much as 12 percent, JPM reckons.

Debt denominated in emerging currencies has done less well . Still, the main index for local debt, JPM’s GBI-EM index, has  racked up a very respectable 7.6 percent return year-to-date in dollar terms, rebounding from a fall to near zero at the start of June.  Take a look at the following graphic which shows EMBIG returns on top:

Fund flows to emerging fixed income have been robust. EPFR Global says the sector took in  $16.2 billion year to date.  JPM, which tracks a broader investor set including Japanese investment trusts, estimates the total at $43 billion, not far off its forecast of $50-60 billion for the whole of 2012.