Global Investing

Emerging Policy-The inflation problem has not gone away

This week’s interest rate meetings in the developing world are highlighting that despite slower economic growth, inflation remains a problem for many countries. In some cases it could constrain  policymakers from cutting interest rates, or least from cutting as much as they would like.

Take Turkey. Its central bank surprised some on Tuesday by only cutting the upper end of its overnight interest rate corridor: many had interpreted recent comments by Governor Erdem Basci as a sign the lower end, the overnight borrowing rate, would also be cut. That’s because the central bank is increasingly concerned about the lira, which has appreciated more than 7 percent this year in real terms. But the bank contented itself by warning markets that more cuts could be made to different policy rates if needed (read: if the lira rises much more).

But inflation, while easing, remains problematic.  On the same day as the policy meeting, the International Monetary Fund recommended Turkey raise interest rates to deal with inflation, which was an annualised 9.2 percent in September. The central bank’s prediction is for a year-end 7 percent rate but that is 2 percentage points higher than its 5 percent target. So the central bank probably was sensible in exercising restraint.

There are other, Turkey-specific risks too. Tim Ash at Standard Bank says:

The message is that it is still a little early to put the foot to the floor on the gas again, when the current account deficit remains large, and financing risks are still considerable.

The other big meeting this week is in South Africa where the central bank, SARB, is likely to leave its interest rates unchanged at 5 percent on Thursday, despite dismal economic growth numbers. Data today showed headline price growth was a higher-than-expected 5.6 percent in October, close to the upper end of the SARB’s 3-6 percent target band. With inflation sticky, the central bank simply cannot risk weakening the rand any further with a rate cut. The currency has already fallen 10 percent against the dollar this year. From Danske Bank:

Emerging Policy-Data vindicates doves but not all are cutting

Rate decisions last week in emerging markets well anticipated this week’s crop of economic data.

Russia for instance not only kept rates on hold last Friday (after raising them at its previous meeting) but struck a less hawkish tone than expected. Voila, data this week showed growth in the third quarter was 2.9 percent compared to 4 percent in April-June.

We’ll have to wait for November 30 to see what Poland’s Q3 growth numbers look like but data today shows inflation eased to two-year lows in October. That appears to vindicate the central bank’s decision to cut interest rates last week. for the first time in three years.  Simon Quijano-Evans at ING Bank writes:

Emerging Policy-Hawkish Poland to join the doves

All eyes on Poland’s central bank this week to see if it will finally join the monetary easing trend underway in emerging markets. Chances are it will, with analysts polled by  Reuters unanimous in predicting a 25 basis point rate cut when the central bank meets on Wednesday. Data has been weak of late and signs are Poland will struggle even to achieve 2 percent GDP growth in 2013.

How far Polish rates will fall during this cycle is another matter altogether. Markets are betting on 100 basis points over the next 6 months but central bank board members will probably be cautious. Inflation is one reason  along with the  the danger of excessive zloty weakness that could hit holders of foreign currency mortgages. One source close the bank tells Reuters that 75 or even 50 bps would be appropriate, while another said:

“The council is very cautious and current market expectations for rate cuts are premature and excessive.”

Emerging Policy-the big easing continues

The big easing continues. A major surprise today from the Bank of Thailand, which cut interest rates by 25 basis points to 2.75 percent.  After repeated indications  from Governor Prasarn Trairatvorakul that policy would stay unchanged for now, few had expected the bank to deliver its first rate cut since January.  But given the decision was not unanimous, it appears that Prasarn was overruled.  As in South Korea last week,  the need to boost domestic demand dictated the BoT’s decision. The Thai central bank  noted:

The majority of MPC members deemed that monetary policy easing was warranted to shore up domestic demand in the period ahead and ward off the potential negative impact from the global economy which remained weak and fragile.

Thailand expects GDP to grow 5.7 percent this year and Prasarn has cited robust credit demand as the reason to keep rates on hold. But there have been ominous signs of late — exports and factory output have now fallen for three months straight, which probably dictated today’s rate cut.  Remember that exports, mainly of industrial goods, account for 60 percent of Thai GDP and the outlook is perilous — the BOT has already halved its export growth forecast for 2012 to 7 percent and has said it will cut this estimate further.

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.

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).

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.

Next week: Call and response?

The Greek vote next Sunday now stands front and centre of pretty much all investment thinking, but the problem is that it may still be days and weeks before we get a true picture of what’s happened, whether a government can be formed and what their stance will be. If the new parliament cannot clearly back the existing bailout, even after a bout of  horse-trading, then a game of chicken with Europe ensues.  Eurogroup meets again on Thursday and there’s a German/French/Italy/Spain summit on Friday.  But G20 leaders gather in Mexico as all this is unfolding, so they will certainly be quorate if some sort of global response is required to any initial market shock. What’s more, the FOMC is meeting Tuesday and Wednesday should Bernanke feel the US needs urgent insulation from the fallout regardless of broader action. But it’s certainly not beyond the bounds of reason that coordinated central bank action materializes next week if markets do indeed go skewways after the Greek poll. They have all clearly been consulting on the issue lately via telephone and bilaterals. And the assumption of more QE is there among investors. Three quarters of the 260+ funds polled by BoAMerrill Lynch this month expect another ECB LTRO by the end of Q3 and almost a half expecting more Fed QE over the same time.

And maybe it is this assumption of massive policy response that’s preventing markets capitulating outright. Money is gradually going to ground, but it’s not yet thrown in the towel completely as you can see from major equity indices, volatility gauges and interbank spreads etc. And there are a lot of headwinds everywhere over the next six months, the US election, fiscal cliff, end of operation twist stateside – and that’s in one of the few major western economies that was generating any significant growth this year. In other words, there are no shortage of arguments for another monetary boost. A heavy econ data slate during the week will also reveal just how much the world economy has run into sand this quarter. The standouts are the flash PMIs for June, the US Philly Fed index for June and UK jobs and inflation numbers.

As to the lack of response to last weekend’s Spanish bank bailout, it was weird in many ways that anyone really expected a major rally on this just six days ahead of a Greek vote which could throw the whole bloc into chaos.  Even if you thought the Spanish bailout was good, and it was certainly a necessary if not sufficient step, you would still not return to Spanish debt until the next couple of weeks of events had cleared. So, in that respect, it’s unlikely the market made any real judgement on it either way. The subsequent credit rating cuts from Moody’s have not helped and yields have spiked to the 7% level flashing red lights. But it’s hard to see how any exposed frontline euro market, from Spain to Italy and Ireland to Portugal, can really stabilise ahead of the weekend.  One fear on the Spanish rescue was of private investors’ subordination to EU/IMF creditors in any workout of Spanish debt. But even that too may have been overstated when it comes to the sovereign. For a start, the interest rate charged on the funds means a massive saving for Madrid compared with prevailing market rates and, as Barclays argued, actually increases the overall pie available for any workout, with a possible increase in projected recovery rates compared with the pre-bailout setup.  If that was the big concern, then the subsequent rise in Spanish yields most likely is more Greek than Spanish in origin.

Three snapshots for Thursday

The European Central Bank kept interest rates on hold on Thursday.  President Mario Draghi urged euro zone governments to agree a growth strategy to go hand in hand with fiscal discipline, but as thousands of Spaniards protested in the streets he gave no sign the bank would do more to address people’s fears about the economy

The divergence between Euro zone countries is starting to impact analyst estimates for earnings. As this chart shows earnings forecasts for Spain and Portugal are seeing more downgrades than Germany or France.

The inflation rate in Turkey rose to 11.1% in April, putting pressure on the central bank to raise interest rates:

Three snapshots for Thursday

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits slipped 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 386,000, the Labor Department said. The prior week’s figure was revised up to 388,000 from the previously reported 380,000.

The four-week moving average for new claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends, rose 5,500 to 374,750.

Brazil’s central bank raised its key interest rate for a fourth straight time on Wednesday as it seeks to rein in persistent inflation, and indicated more rate increases could be on the way soon. This follows a 50bps rate cut from India earlier in the week.