Global Investing

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:

From an EM perspective there is little reason to fight the rising tide of monetary policy support in the near term. Comparisons to the 2009 global carry trade are unavoidable given the scope of G-4 central bank  balance sheet expansion.

So far, around 70 percent of the gains posted by the GBI-EM index have been down to currency appreciation (see here). That could change going forward as some central banks may act to slow FX appreciation.  That’s already been happening in Brazil. Gains from the duration trade — derived from interest rate cuts — are also more or less done, analysts  reckon, because emerging central banks are more likely from here to keep interest rates on hold than to cut. J.P. Morgan adds:

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.

Emerging Markets: the love story

It is Valentine’s day and emerging markets are certainly feeling the love. Bank of America/Merrill Lynch‘s monthly investor survey shows a ‘stunning’ rise in allocations to emerging markets in February. Forty-four percent of  asset allocators are now overweight emerging market equities this month, up from 20 percent in January — the second biggest monthly jump in the past 12 years. Emerging markets are once again investors’ favourite asset class.

Looking ahead, 36 percent of respondents said they would like to overweight emerging markets more than any other region, with investors saying they would underweight all other regions, including the United States. Meanwhile investor faith in China has rebounded  with only 2 percent of investors believing the Chinese economy will weaken over the next year, down from 23 percent in January. China also regained its crown of most favoured emerging market in February.

Last year, the main EM index plummeted more than 20 percent as emerging assets fell from favour. So what is the reason for this renewed passion in 2012?

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.

Currency rally drives sizzling returns on emerging local debt

Emerging market bonds denominated in local currencies enjoyed a record January last month with JP Morgan’s GBI-EM Global index returning around 8 percent in dollar terms. Year-to-date, returns are over 9.5 percent.

 

 

This is mainly down to spectacular gains on emerging currencies such as the Mexican peso and Turkish lira which have surged 7-10 percent against the dollar and euro this year.  Analysts say the currency component of this year’s returns has been around 7 percent, meaning any portfolio hedged for currency risk would have garnered returns of just 2.5 percent.

The gains come as good news to investors licking their wounds after the index ended 2011 in negative territory. A mid-year rout on emerging markets pushed up local bond yields, often by hundreds of basis points and sent many currencies to multi-year lows.

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.

Emerging consumers’ pain to spell gains for stocks in staples

Food and electricity bills are high. The cost of filling up at the petrol station isn’t coming down much either. The U.S. economy is in trouble and suddenly the job isn’t as secure as it seemed. Maybe that designer handbag and new car aren’t such good ideas after all.

That’s the kind of decision millions of middle class consumers in developing countries are facing these days. That’s bad news for purveyors of everything from jeans to iphones  who have enjoyed double-digit profits thanks to booming sales in emerging markets.

Brazil is the best example of how emerging market consumers are tightening their belts. Thanks to their spending splurge earlier this decade, Brazilian consumers on average see a quarter of their income disappear these days on debt repayments. People’s credit card bills can carry interest rates of up to 45 percent. The central bank is so worried about the growth outlook it stunned markets with a cut in interest rates this week even though inflation is running well above target

Venezuela — high risk, higher yield

Venezuela's Chavez with Lukashenko of Belarus

Which bond would you rather buy — one issued by a country with an unpredictable leader but huge oil reserves, or one with  a dictatorial president as well as empty coffers? The answer should be a no brainer. Not so. The countries are Venezuela and Belarus, and a basic comparison of their debt profiles shows how strangely risk can be priced in emerging markets.

Venezuela’s 2022 dollar bond yields 15.5 percent while the 2022 issue from state oil firm PDVSA trades at 17 percent yield. Venezuelan debt pays a 1200 basis point premium to U.S. Treasuries, according to the EMBI Global bond index.

Now check out Belarus. Dire public finances, a huge recent currency devaluation, and seeking an $8 billion bailout from the IMF, yet able to pay 11 percent on its 2018 issue. Its yield premium to Treasuries is 900 bps or three percentage points less than Venezuela.

Investors love those emerging markets

No question that investors are in the throes of passion over emerging markets. The latest Reuters asset allocation polls show investors pouring money into Asian and Latin American stocks in October to the detriment of U.S. and euro zone equities. Exposure to equities in emerging Europe, Asia ex-Japan, Latin America and Africa/Middle East rose to 15.6 percent of a typical stock portfolio from 14.3 percent a month earlier. untitled

from Reuters Investigates:

Enter stage left — Brazil’s next president?

BRAZIL-ELECTION/ROUSSEFFNot every president has a police mugshot, but it's not so surprising in Latin America.

A special report out of Brazil today sheds new light on Dilma Rousseff, a former guerrilla leader who is likely to be elected the booming country's next president. She spent nearly three years in jail in the early 1970s and was tortured by her military captors. She's come a long way since then.

The product of more than a dozen interviews with Rousseff and her top advisers, the story gives a glimpse of how Rousseff could govern at the helm of a country that, with India, Russia and China, is among the worlds few economic bright spots.