Global Investing

Measuring political risk in emerging markets

(Corrects to say EI Sturdza is UK investment firm, not Swiss)

Commerzbank analyst Simon Quijano-Evans recently analysed credit ratings for emerging market countries and concluded that there is a strong tendency to “under-rate” emerging economies – that is they are generally rated lower than developed market “equals” that have similar profiles of debt, investment or reform. The reason, according to Quijano-Evans, is that ratings assessments tend to be “blurred by political risk which is difficult to quantify and is usually higher in the developing world compared with richer peers.

However there are some efforts to measure political risks, and unfortunately for emerging economies, some of those metrics seem to indicate that such risk is on the rise. Risk consultancy Maplecroft which compiles a civil unrest index (CUI), says street protests, ethnic violence and labour unrest are factors that have increased chances of business disruption in emerging markets by 20 percent over the past three months. Such unrest as in Hong Kong recently, can be sudden, causing headaches for business and denting economic growth, Maplecroft says. Hong Kong where mass pro-democracy protests in the city-state’s central business district which shuttered big banks and triggered a 7 percent stock market plunge last month.

As a result, Hong Kong jumped to 70th place in the index from a relatively safe 132nd place in the CUI which analyses governance, political and civil rights and the frequency and severity of incidents to assess the current and future civil unrest picture.

Hong Kong performs comparatively well in the economic, social and rights factors in the CUI, but performs poorly for democratic governance, Maplecroft says:

The scale of the protests, which has cost retailers upwards of $283 million, has seen Hong Kong move from the ‘medium risk’ category to ‘high risk’. Beijing’s response will be key to determining whether the situation deteriorates further.”

Perfect storm brewing for the rouble

A perfect storm seems to be brewing for the Russian rouble. It has tumbled to four-year lows against a euro-dollar basket. Against the dollar, it has lost around 7 percent so far this year, faring better than many other emerging currencies. But signs are that next year will bring more turmoil.

While oil prices, the mainstay of Russia’s economy, are holding up, Russian growth is not. It is running at 1.3 percent so far this year and capital outflows continue unabated — $48 billion is estimated to have fled the country in the first nine months of 2013 compared with $55 billion in 2012. Russia’s mighty current account surplus has shrunk to barely nothing and could fall into deficit by the middle of next year, reckons Alfa Bank economist Natalia Orlova. Finally, the rouble can no longer count on the central bank for wholehearted day-to-day support. FX market interventions cost the bank $3.5 billion last month  but it also shifted the exchange-rate corridor upwards six times, indicating it is keen to move to a fully flexible currency.

Orlove also estimates that around $150 billion in overseas debt payments are due in 2014 for Russian corporates. She adds:

Korean exporters’ yen nightmare (corrected)

(corrects name of hedge fund in para 3 to Symphony Financial Partners)

Any doubt about the importance of a weaker yen in thawing the frozen Japanese economy will have been dispelled by the Nikkei’s surge to 32-month highs this week. Since early December, when it became clear an incoming Shinzo Abe administration would do its best to weaken the yen, the equity index has surged as the yen has fallen.

Those moves are giving sleepless nights to Japan’s neighbours who are watching their own currencies appreciate versus the yen. South Korean companies, in particular, from auto to electronics manufacturers, must be especially worried. They had a fine time in recent years  as the yen’s strength since 2008 allowed them to gain market share overseas. But since mid-2012, the won has appreciated 22 percent versus the yen.  In this period, MSCI Korea has lagged the performance of MSCI Japan by 20 percent. Check out the following graphic from my colleague Vincent Flasseur (@ReutersFlasseur)

David Baran, co-founder of Tokyo-based Symphony Financial Partners, notes the relative performance of Hyundai and Toyota (Hyundai shares have fallen 2.5 percent this year adding to 13.5 percent loss in the last quarter of 2012. Toyota on the other hand is up 5 percent so far in 2013 after gaining 31 percent in Oct-Dec last year). Baran says he has gone long the Nikkei and short the Seoul index (the Kospi) and (Hong Kong’s) Hang Seng, while taking a short position on the yen. He says:

Power failures shine light on India’s woes

Half of India’s 1.2 billion people have been without power today,  bringing transport, factories and offices to a grinding halt for the second day in a row and sparking rage amongst the sweltering population. That’s embarrassing enough for a country that prides itself as  a member of the BRIC quartet of big emerging powerhouses along with Brazil, Russia and China.  But the outages will also hit economic growth which is already at 10-year lows. And the power failures, highlighting India’s woeful infrastructure, bode poorly for the government’s plans to step up manufacturing and lure more foreign companies to the factory sector.

India urgently needs to increase production and exports of manufactured goods. After all, software or pharma exports do not create jobs for a huge and largely unskilled population. India should be making and selling toys, clothes, shoes –- the things that helped lift hundreds of millions of Chinese, Taiwanese and Koreans  out of poverty and fuelled the current account surpluses in these countries.  At present, manufacturing provides less than 16 percent of India’s gross domestic product (30 percent in China, 25 percent in South Korea and Taiwan)  but the government wants to raise that to 26 percent by 2022.  Trade minister Anand Sharma, in London last week, for a pre-Olympics conference, was eloquent on the plan to boost manufacturing exports to plug the current account gap:

In coming decades, India will be transformed into a major manufacturing hub of the world.

Three snapshots for Wednesday

Euro zone factories sank further into decline last month but manufacturers in Asia upped their tempo to meet growing demand from the United States and China, exposing a widening gulf between Europe and the rest of the world.

Unemployment in the euro zone rose to a 15-year high of 10.9 percent in March – as this chart shows the level of youth unemployment paints a worrying picture:

U.S. private employers hired a far fewer than expected 119,000 people in April, the smallest gain since September 2011, a report showed on Wednesday, adding to concerns that the economy has lost some of its momentum. This chart shows the relationship between the first release of ADP figures and non-farm payrolls which are released on Friday.

Where will the FDI flow?

For years the four mighty BRIC nations have grabbed increasing shares of world investment flows. But the coming years may not be so kind.  These countries bring up the bottom of the Economic Freedom Index (EFI) for 2012. Compiled by Washington D.C.-based think-tank The Heritage Foundation the EFI measures 10 freedoms —  from property rights to entrepreneurship – and according to a note out today from RBS economists, there is a strong positive link between a country’s EFI score and the amount of FDI (foreign direct investment) it can secure. So the more “free” a country, the more FDI inflows it can expect to receive — that’s what an RBS analysis of 2002-2008 investment flows shows.

So back to the BRICs. Or BRICS if you add in South Africa (part of the political grouping though not yet included in the BRIC investment concept used by fund managers). The following graphic shows Russia languishing at the bottom of the EFI, China just above Russia and India third from bottom.  Brazil is sixth from bottom while South Africa ranks two places higher.

At the other end of the spectrum is tiny Singapore. Its EFI score is double that of Russia and between 2002-2008 it attracted FDI equivalent to 50 percent of its economy. Russia in contrast saw negative net FDI (outflows exceeded inflows)

Play the mini-cycles, not the euro crisis

For all the headline attention on euro zone political heat over the next six weeks or so  (Spain is already in the spotlight, Sunday is the first round of the French presidential elections, Greece goes to the polls on May 6, Ireland votes on the EU fiscal pact on May 31 etc etc),  global investors may be better rewarded if they follow the more mundane runes of the world’s manufacturing cycle for tips on market direction.

As showcased by the IMF this week, the big picture global growth story remains one of a relatively modest slowdown this year to 3.5% before a substantial rebound in 2013 to well above trend at 4.1%. Of course, there are some who think that’s hopelessly optimistic and others who may quibble about the absolute numbers but agree with the basic ebb and flow.

Yet within even these headline numbers, many mini-cycles are  playing out — especially within manfacturing, which accounts for about 20% of global GDP.  But problems in deciphering these twists and turns have been compounded over the past year or so by the impact from natural disasters and supply chain disruptions such as Japan’s devastating earthquake and Thailand’s floods.

Three snapshots for Monday

ISM report on U.S. manufacturing shows PMI at 53.4 in March against 52.4 in February:

Euro zone unemployment rose to 10.8% in February, with youth unemployment in Spain reaching 50.5%

China’s official Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) hit an 11-month high with a stronger-than-expected reading but a separate private survey by HSBC, which focuses more on smaller factories than the large state-owned enterprises captured in the official data, painted a gloomier picture: