Global Investing

Iran: a frontier for the future

Investors trawling for new frontier markets have of late been rolling into Iran. Charles Robertson at Renaissance Capital (which bills itself as a Frontier bank) visited recently and his verdict?

It’s like Turkey, but with 9% of the world’s oil reserves.

Most interestingly, Robertson found a bustling stock market with a $170 billion market cap — on par with Poland – which is the result of a raft of privatisations in recent years.  A $150 million daily trading volume exceeds that of Nigeria, a well established frontier markets. And a free-float of $30 billion means that if Iranian shares are included in MSCI’s frontier index, they would have a share of 25 percent, he calculates.

What of the economy? Renaissance estimates its size at $437 billion, which if accurate would place it higher than Austria or Thailand. Foreign investors are keen — a thawing of relations with the West has triggered a race among multinations to explore business opportunities in the country of 78 million. Last month, more than 100 executives from France’s biggest firms visited Iran. Robertson writes:

Iran is beyond the final frontier for portfolio investors, but many on the ground appear to believe there is a good chance it will become investable (at least to frontier funds) within the next 6-18 months..Most interesting of all, there is a dynamic reform team now in charge of the government and central bank, which is undertaking the classic monetary and fiscal reforms EM investors usually like. This looks to us like a potential re-ratingplay that could – in an investable scenario – attract those investors who have recently invested in Saudi Arabia, like those who invested in Turkey after 2001 and Russia since the 1990s.

Not so fast.  Despite last year’s initial agreement between Teheran and six world powers, sanctions on Iran remain and until these are removed, few  investors will venture there. Second, fathoming Iran’s idiosyncratic markets could prove a challenge for foreigner, Robertson acknowledges, citing the banking sector and bond markets as an example:

Waiting for current account improvement in Turkey

The fall in Turkey’s lira to record lows is raising jitters among foreign investors who will have lost a good deal of money on the currency side of their stock and bond investments.  They are also worrying about the response of the central bank, which has effectively ruled out large rate hikes to stabilise the currency. But can the 20 percent lira depreciation seen since May 2013 help correct the country’s balance of payments gap?

Turkey’s current account deficit is its Achilles heel . Without a large domestic savings pool, that deficit tends to blow out whenever growth quickens and the lira strengthens . That leaves the country highly vulnerable to a withdrawal of foreign capital. Take a look at the following graphic (click on it to enlarge) :

In theory, a weaker Turkish lira should help cut the deficit which has expanded to over 7 percent of GDP.  Let us compare the picture with 2008 when the lira plunged around 25 percent against the dollar in the wake of the Lehman crisis. At the time the deficit was not far short of current levels at around 6 percent of GDP.  By September 2009 though, this gap had shrunk by two-thirds to around 2 percent of GDP.

Barclays sees 20 pct rise in EM bond supply in 2014

Sales of dollar bonds by emerging governments may surge 20 percent over 2013 levels, analysts at Barclays calculate.  They predict $94 billion in bond issuance in 2014 compared to $77 billion that seems likely this year. In net terms –excluding amortisations and redemptions — that will come to $29 billion, almost double this year’s $16 billion.

According to them, the increase in issuance stems from bigger financing needs in big markets such as Russia and Indonesia along with more supply from the frontiers of Africa. Another reason is that local currency emerging bond markets, where governments have been meeting a lot of their funding needs, are also now struggling to absorb new supply.

The increase is unlikely to sit well with investors — appetite for emerging assets is poor at present, EM bond funds have witnessed six straight months of outflows and above all, the projected rise in sovereign supply will come on top of projected corporate bond issuance of over $300 billion, similar to this year’s levels. (See graphic)

Turkish savers hang onto dollars

As in many countries with memories of hyperinflation and currency collapse, Turkey’s middle class have tended to hold at least part of their savings in hard currency. But unlike in Russia and Argentina, Turkish savers’ propensity to save in dollars has on occasion proved helpful to companies and the central bank. That’s because many Turks, rather than just accumulating dollars, have evolved into savvy players of exchange rate swings and often use sharp falls in the lira to sell their dollars and buy back the local currency. Hence Turks’ hard currency bank deposits, estimated at between $70-$100 billion –  on a par with central bank reserves — have acted as a buffer of sorts, stabilising the lira when it falls past a certain level.

But back in 2011, when the lira was in the eye of another emerging markets storm, we noticed how some Turks had become strangely reluctant to sell dollars. And during this year’s bout of lira weakness too, Turkish savers have not stepped up to help out the central bank, research by Barclays finds. Instead they are accumulating dollars — “rather than being contrarian, their behaviour now seems aligned with global capital flows,” Barclays  analysts write. While the lira has weakened to record lows this year, data from UBS shows that the dollarisation ratio, the percentage of bank deposits in foreign currency, has actually crept up to 37.6 percent from 34.5 percent at the start of the year. Here’s a Barclays graphic that illustrates the shift.

What are the reasons for the turnaround? In the past, those selling dollars to buy back cheap lira could be confident they would not be out of pocket because the central bank would support the lira with higher interest rates.  But ever since end-2010, when the bank embarked on a policy of determinedly keeping interest rates low, they no longer have this assurance. Barclays write:

Value or growth? The dichotomy of emerging market shares

Investors in emerging markets are facing a tough choice. Should one buy cheap shares in the hope that poor corporate governance and profitability will improve some day? Or is it better to close one’s eyes and buy into expensively valued companies that sell mobile telephones, holidays and handbags — all the things high-spending emerging market consumers hanker after?

At the moment, investors are plumping for the latter, growth-at-any price investment strategy. Result: a lopsided emerging equity index in which consumer discretionary shares are up more than 5 percent this year, energy shares have lost 7 percent while MSCI’s benchmark emerging equity index is down 3 percent.

All markets have their share of cheap and expensive. But the dichotomy in emerging markets is especially stark. Analysis by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch of the biggest 100 emerging market companies revealed last week that the 20 most expensive stocks in this bucket are trading 11 times book value and 31 times earnings (both on trailing basis) while forward earnings-per-share (EPS) is seen at almost 30 percent. The top-20 companies all belong to the private sector and most are in the consumer-facing industries.  This year they have gained more than 50 percent.

Frontier markets: past the high water-mark

By Julia Fioretti

Ethiopia’s plans to hit the Eurobond trail once it gets a credit rating are highlighting how fast frontier debt markets are growing.

IFR data shows that sub-Saharan Africa alone issued $4.2 billion of sovereign debt in the year to September, compared to $3.6 billion in the same 2012 period. And returns on frontier market bonds have outgunned their high-yield emerging sovereign peers this year.

JPMorgan, which runs the most-used emerging debt indices of which the frontier component is called NEXGEM, says the year-to-date return on NEXGEM is around 0.7 percent – while paltry, it’s well above corporate and sovereign emerging bonds.

The hit from China’s growth slowdown

China’s slowing economy is raising concern about the potential spillovers beyond its shores, in particular the impact on other emerging markets. Because developing countries have over the past decade significantly boosted exports to China to offset slow growth in the West and Japan, these countries are unquestionably vulnerable to a Chinese slowdown. But how big will the hit be?

Goldman Sachs analysts have crunched the numbers to show which markets and regions could be hardest hit. On the face of it non-Japan Asia should be most worried — exports to China account for almost 3 percent of GDP while in Latin America it is 2 percent and in emerging Europe, Middle East and Africa (CEEMEA) it is just 1.1 percent, their data shows.

But they warn that standard trade stats won’t tell the whole story. That’s because a high proportion of EM exports are re-processed in other countries before reaching China which in turn often re-works them for re-export to the developed world. In other words, exports to China from say, Taiwan, may be driven not so much by Chinese demand but by demand for goods in the United States or Europe. So gross trade data may actually be overstating a country’s vulnerability to a Chinese slowdown.

Pakistan, Nigeria, Bulgaria… the cash keeps coming

The frontier markets juggernaut continues. Here’s a great graphic from Bank of America/Merrill Lynch showing the diverging fund flow dynamic into frontier and emerging equity markets.

What it shows, according to BofA/ML  is:

Frontier market funds with year-to-date inflows of $1.5 billion have decoupled from emerging markets ($2.1 billion outflows year-to-date)

In other words, frontier fund inflows since January equate to 44 percent of their assets under management (AUM), the bank says.

Turkey’s (investment grade)bond market

We wrote here yesterday on how Turkish hard currency bonds have been given the nod to join some Barclays global indices as a result of the country’s elevation to investment grade. Turkish dollar bonds will also move to the Investment grade sub-index of JPMorgan’s flagship EMBI Global on June 28.

Local lira debt meanwhile will enter JPM’s GBI-EM Global Diversified IG 15 percent Cap Index —  the top-tier of the bank’s GBI-EM index. But the big prize, an invitation into Citi’s mega World Government Bond Index, is still some way off. Requiring a still higher credit rating, WGBI membership is an honour that has been accorded to only four emerging markets so far.

Still, the Turkish Treasury is not complaining.  Even before last week’s upgrade to investment grade by Moody’s, it was borrowing from the lira bond market at record cheap levels of around 5 percent for two-year cash. Ten-year yields are down half a percentage point this year. One reason of course is the gush of liquidity from Western central banks. But most funds (at least those who were allowed to do so) had not waited for the Moody’s signal before buying Turkish bonds. So the bond market was already trading Turkey as investment grade.

Paid for the risk? Egypt’s tempting pound

Surprising as it may seem, the Egyptian pound has got some fans.  The currency has languished for months at record lows against the dollar and the headlines are alarming — the lack of an IMF aid programme, meagre hard currency reserves, political upheaval. So what’s to like ?

Analysts at Societe Generale say that just looking at the spot exchange rate of the pound is missing the bigger picture. Instead, they advise buying 12-month non-deliverable forwards on the pound — essentially a way of locking into a fixed rate for pound against the dollar in a year’s time depending on where you think it may actually trade. They write:

The implicit yield at this point is 21 percent for the 12m NDF, which we think is quite attractive. The way to think about Egypt NDFs is to approach them as a distressed asset. The risk/reward is quite attractive, and a lot of the bad news has been priced in. Yes, there have been serious delays in the programme negotiations with the IMF and that has clearly been a negative for the overall country view, but I would like to point out that the actual 12m NDF level has hardly budged in the process. This to me suggests that the valuation looks particularly good.