Global Investing

More EM central banks join the easing crew

Taiwan and Philippines have joined the easing crew. Taiwan cut interbank lending rates for the first time in 33 months on Friday while Philippines lowered the rate it pays banks on short-term special deposits. Hardly surprising. Given South Koreas’s shock rate cut on Thursday, its first in over three years, and China’s two rate cuts in quick succession, the spread of monetary easing across Asia looks inevitable. Markets are now betting the Reserve Bank of India will also cut rates in July.

And not just in Asia. Brazil last week cut rates for the eighth straight time  and Russia’s central bank, while holding rates steady,  amended its language to signal it was amenable to changing its policy stance if required.

Worries about a growth collapse are clearly gathering pace. So how much room do central banks have to cut rates? Compared with Europe or the United States, certainly a lot.  And with the exception of Indonesia and Philippines, interest rates in most countries are well above 2009 crisis lows.  But Deutsche Bank analysts, who applied a variation of the Taylor rule (a monetary policy parameter stipulating how much nominal interest rates can be changed relative to inflation or output), conclude that in Asia, only Vietnam and Thailand have much room to cut rates. Malaysia and China have less scope to do so and the others not at all (Their model did not work well for India).

Deutsche said of Korea:

After this week’s rate cut, our model suggests rates are essentially in line with the rule as defined by the past behaviour of the Bank of Korea

But there are also doubts that the doves can deliver.

I wrote here last week about how Brazil’s 11-month long easing cycle has borne little fruit and questioned how much immediate benefit Korea’s export-reliant economy will derive from a rate cut. Equity markets have reacted poorly to the rate cuts, interpreting them as proof of central banks’ nervousness rather than as a catalyst for spurring growth. Societe Generale analysts are pessimistic of emerging central banks’ ability this time to stem the rot. They write:

Korea shocks with rate cut but will it work?

Emerging market investors may have got used to policy surprises from Turkey’s central bank but they don’t expect them from South Korea. Such are the times, however, that the normally staid Bank of Korea shocked investors this morning with an interest rate cut,  the first in three years.  Most analysts had expected it to stay on hold. But with the global economic outlook showing no sign of lightening, the BoK probably felt the need to try and stimulate sluggish domestic demand. (To read coverage of today’s rate cut see here).

So how much impact is the cut going to have?  I wrote yesterday about Brazil, where eight successive rate cuts have borne little fruit in terms of stimulating economic recovery. Korea’s outcome could be similar but the reasons are different. The rate cut should help Korea’s indebted household sector. But for an economy heavily reliant on exports,  lower interest rates are no panacea,  more a reassurance that, as other central banks from China to the ECB to Brazil  ease policy, the BoK is not sitting on its hands.

Nomura economist Young-Sun Kwon says:

We do not think that rate cuts will be enough to reverse the downturn in the Korean economy which is largely dependent on exports.

SocGen poll unearths more EM bulls in July

These are not the best of times for emerging markets but some investors don’t seem too perturbed. According to Societe Generale,  almost half the clients it surveys in its monthly snap poll of investors have turned bullish on emerging markets’ near-term prospects. That is a big shift from June, when only 33 percent were optimistic on the sector. And less than a third of folk are bearish for the near-term outlook over the next couple of weeks, a drop of 20 percentage points over the past month.

These findings are perhaps not so surprising, given most risky assets have rallied off the lows of May.  And a bailout of Spain’s banks seems to have averted, at least temporarily, an immediate debt and banking crunch in the euro zone. What is more interesting is that despite a cloudy growth picture in the developing world, especially in the four big BRIC economies,  almost two-thirds of the investors polled declared themselves bullish on emerging markets in the medium-term (the next 3 months) . That rose to almost 70 percent for real money investors. (the poll includes 46 real money accounts and 45 hedge funds from across the world).

See the graphics below (click to enlarge):

Signals are positive on positioning as well with 38.5 percent of investors reckoning they were under-invested in emerging markets, compared to a quarter who felt they were over-invested. Again, real-money investors appeared more keen on emerging markets, with over 40 percent seeing themselves as under-invested. SocGen analysts write:

In Brazil, rate cuts but no economic recovery

Brazil’s central bank meets today and almost certainly will announce another half point cut in interest rates, the eighth consecutive reduction since last August. But so far there is little sign that its rate-cutting spree – the longest and most aggressive  in the developing world – is having much success in resuscitating the economy.

HSBC’s closely watched emerging markets index (EMI), released this week, shows Brazil as one of the weak links in the EM growth picture,  with sharp declines in manufacturing and export orders in the second quarter.

The government is expected to soon revise down its 4.5 percent growth projection for 2012; the central bank has already done so.  Industrial output is down, and automobile production has slumped 9 percent in the first half of 2012. Nor  it seems are record low interest rates encouraging the middle classes to take on more debt — the number of Brazilians seeking new credit fell 7.4 percent in the first half of this year, the biggest fall on record, according to credit research firm Seresa Experian.

Argentine CDS spiral on “peso-fication” fear

Investors with exposure to Argentina will have been dismayed in recent weeks by the surging cost of insuring that investment — Argentine 5-year credit default swaps have risen more than 300 basis points since mid-May to the highest levels since 2009. That means one must stump up close to $1.5 million to insure $10 million worth of Argentine debt against default for a five year period, data from Markit shows.

The rise coincides with growing fears that President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner is getting ready to crack down on people’s dollar holdings. Fears of forcible de-dollarisation have sent Argentine savers scurrying to the banks to withdraw their hard currency and stash it under mattresses. That has widened the gap between the official and the “black market” exchange rate. (see the graphic below from Capital Economics)

While government officials have denied there is such a move afoot, Fernandez has not helped matters by exhorting people to “think in pesos”.  That will be hard for Argentines, most of whom have vivid memories of hyperinflation, default and devaluation. Unsurprisingly, most prefer to save in dollars. 

Indian risks eclipsing other BRICs

India’s first-quarter GDP growth report was a shocker this morning at +5.3 percent. Much as Western countries would dream of a print that good, it’s akin to a hard landing for a country only recently aspiring to double-digit expansions and, with little hope of any strong reform impetus from the current government, things might get worse if investment flows dry up. The rupee is at a new record low having fallen 7 percent in May alone against the dollar — bad news for companies with hard currency debt maturing this year (See here). So investors are likely to find themselves paying more and more to hedge exposure to India.

Credit default swaps for the State Bank of India (used as a proxy for the Indian sovereign) are trading at almost 400 basis points. More precisely, investors must pay $388,000  to insure $10 million of exposure for a five-year period, data from Markit shows. That is well above levels for the other countries in the BRIC quartet — Brazil, China and Russia. Check out the following graphic from Markit showing the contrast between Brazil and Indian risk perceptions.

At the end of 2010, investors paid a roughly 50 bps premium over Brazil to insure Indian risk via SBI CDS. That premium is now more than 200 bps.

Lower rates give no respite to Brazil stocks

In normal times, an aggressive central bank campaign to cut interest rates would provide fodder for stock market bulls. That’s not happening in Brazil. Its interest rate, the Selic, has fallen 350 basis points since last August and is likely to fall further at this week’s meeting to a record low of 8.5 percent. Yet the Sao Paulo stock market is among the world’s worst performers this year, with losses of around 4 percent. That’s better than fellow BRIC Russia but far worse than India and China.

Brazil’s central bank and government are understandably worried about a Chinese growth slowdown that would eat into Brazilian commodity exports. They are therefore hoping that rate cuts will prepare the domestic economy to take up the slack.

But the haste to cut interest rates appears to have spooked some foreign investors, with many seeing the moves as evidence of political pressure on the central bank. A closely-watched survey from Bank of America/Merill Lynch showed that fund managers had swung into a net 14 percent underweight on Brazil in May from a net overweight of over 20 percent in April (See graphic). This is the first time investors have turned negative on Brazil since February 2011, BofA/ML said.

In defence of co-investing with the state

It’s hard to avoid state-run companies if you are investing in emerging markets — after all they make up a third of the main EM equity index, run by MSCI. But should one be avoiding shares in these firms?

Absolutely yes, says John-Paul Smith at Deutsche Bank. Smith sees state influence as the biggest factor dragging down emerging equity performance in the longer term. They will underperform, he says, not just because governments run companies such as Gazprom or the State Bank of India in their own interests (rather than to benefit shareholders)  but also because of their habit of interfering in the broader economy.  Shares in state-owned companies performed well during the crisis, Smith acknowledges, but attributes emerging markets’ underperformance since mid-2010 to fears over the state’s increasing influence in developing economies. (t

Jonathan Garner at Morgan Stanley has a diametrically opposing view, favouring what he calls “co-investing with the state”.  Garner estimates a basket of 122 MSCI-listed companies that were over 30 percent state-owned outperformed the emerging markets index by 260 percent since 2001 and by 33 percent after the 2008 financial crisis on a weighted average basis. The outperformance persisted even when adjusted for sectors, he says (state-run companies tend to be predominantly in the commodity sector).

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:

What to do with Belize’s superbond

This year’s renewed euphoria over emerging markets has bypassed some places. One such corner is Belize, a country sandwiched between Mexico and Guatemala, which many fear is gearing up for a debt default. There is a chance this will happen as early as next week

Belize is a small country with just 330,000 people but back in 2007,  it issued a $550 million bond on international markets. Known locally as a superbond for its large size (relative to the country’s economy), the issue earned Belize a spot on JP Morgan’s EMBI Global index of emerging market bonds.

As this index is used by 80 percent of fund managers who invest in emerging debt, many of them will have allocated some cash to hold the Belize bond  in their portfolios. These folk will be waiting anxiously to see if Belize pays a $23 million coupon due on Feb. 20.