Global Investing

U.S. Treasury headwinds for emerging debt

Emerging bond issuance and inflows have had a strong start to the year but can it last?

Data from JPMorgan shows that emerging market sovereigns sold hard currency bonds worth $9.6 billion last month while companies raised $51.2 billion (that compares with Jan 2012 issuance levels of $17.5 billion for sovereigns and $23.9 billion for corporates). Similarly, inflows into EM debt were well over $10 billion last month, very probably topping the previous monthly record,  according to JPM.

But U.S. Treasury yields are rising, typically an evil omen for equities and emerging markets. Ten- year U.S. yields, the underlying risk-free rate off which many other assets are priced,  rose this week to nine-month highs above 2 percent. That has brought losses on emerging hard currency debt on the EMBI Global index to  2 percent so far this year. (there is a similar picture across equities, where year-to-date returns are barely 1 percent despite inflows of around $24 billion). Historically, negative monthly returns caused by rising U.S. yields have tended to lead to outflows.

The S&P500 U.S. equity index is trading at five-year highs, however, despite Treasuries’ creep higher. That would appear to indicate greater confidence in the growth outlook.  Support for emerging markets may also come from Japanese retail cash that is fleeing a falling yen. Morgan Stanley analysts, for instance, do not expect significant outflows just yet, noting that “the nature of inflows overall (into emerging debt) has been more structural than in past years and therefore tends to be much stickier”. They add:

We believe that EM investors should not be overly concerned. The main reason for this is the expectation of a range-bound UST going forward, with only 25 bps further widening projected. Neither the pace nor the extent of this change seems disruptive to us, even with a potential temporary overshoot on the upside.

Hyundai hits a roadbump

The issue of the falling yen is focusing many minds these days, nowhere more than in South Korea where exporters of goods such as cars and electronics often compete closely with their Japanese counterparts. These companies got a powerful reminder today of the danger in which they stand — quarterly profits from Hyundai fell sharply in the last quarter of 2012.  (See here to read what we wrote about this topic last week)

Korea’s won currency has been strong against the dollar too, gaining 8 percent to the greenback last year. In the meantime the yen fell 16 percent against the dollar in 2012 and is expected to weaken further. Analysts at Morgan Stanley pointed out in a recent note that since June 2012, Korean stocks have underperformed Japan, corresponding to the yen’s 22 percent depreciation in this period. Their graphic below shows that the biggest underperformers were consumer discretionary stocks (a category which includes auto and electronics manufacturers). Incidentally, Hyundai along with Samsung, makes up a fifth of the Seoul market’s capitalisation.

Shares in Hyundai and its Korean peer Kia have fared worst among major global automakers for the past three months – down 5 percent and 18 percent, respectively.  Both companies expect sales this year to be the slowest in a decade. Toyota on the other hand has risen 30 percent and expects to reach the top spot in terms of world sales for the first time since 2010.

Golden days of the Turkey-Iran trade may be gone

Global Investing has discussed in the past what a golden opportunity the Iranian crisis has proved for Turkey. Between January and July 2012 it ratcheted up gold exports to Iran ten-fold compared to 2011 as inflation-hit Iranians clamoured for the precious metal. Since August exports appear to have been routed via the UAE, possibly to circumvent U.S. sanctions on trade with Teheran.

The trade has been a handy little earner. Evidence of that has shown up in Turkey’s data all year as its massive current account deficit has steadily shrunk. On Friday, official data showed the Turkish trade gap falling by a third in October from year-ago levels. And yes, precious metal exports (read gold) came in at $1.5 billion compared to $322.4 million last October. In short, a jump of 370 percent.

But the days of the lucrative trade may be numbered, according to Morgan Stanley analyst Tevfik Aksoy. Aksoy notes that the gold exports can at least partly be accounted for by the considerable amounts of lira deposits that Iran held in Turkish banks as payment for oil exports. (Yes, there’s an oil link to all this. Turkey buys oil from Iran but pays lira due to Western sanctions against paying Teheran hard currency. Iranian firms use liras to shop for Turkish gold. See here for detailed Reuters article). These deposits are being steadily converted into gold and repatriated, Aksoy says.

Emerging policy-Down in Hungary; steady in Latin America

A mixed bag this week on emerging policy and one that shows the growing divergence between dovish central Europe and an increasingly hawkish (with some exceptions) Latin America.

Hungary cut rates this week by 25 basis points, a move that Morgan Stanley described as striking “while the iron is hot”, or cutting interest rates while investor appetite is still strong for emerging markets. The current backdrop is keeping the cash flowing even into riskier emerging markets of which Hungary is undeniably one. (On that theme, Budapest also on Wednesday announced plans for a Eurobond to take advantage of the strong appetite for high-risk assets, but that’s another story).

So despite 6 percent inflation, most analysts had predicted the rate cut to 6 percent. With the central bank board  dominated by government appointees, the  stage is now set for more easing as long as investors remain in a good mood.  Rates have already fallen 100 basis points during the current cycle and interest rate swaps are pricing another 100 basis points in the first half of 2013. Morgan Stanley analysts write:

Venezuelan yields make it hard to stay away

The 60-70 basis-point post-election surge in Venezuela’s benchmark foreign currency bond yields  is already starting to reverse.

Despite disappointment among many in the overseas investment world over a comfortable re-election in Venezuela of populist left-wing President Hugo Chavez  on Sunday there are quite a few who are already wading in to buy back the government’s dollar bonds.  Not surprising,  as Venezuelan sovereign bonds yield some 10 percentage points on average over U.S. Treasuries and 700 basis points more than the EMBIG sovereign emerging bond index.  It’s pretty hard to keep away from that sort of yield, especially when your pockets are full of cash, the U.S. Federal Reserve is pumping more in every month and Venezuela is full of expensive oil .

The feeling among investors clearly is that while a victory for opposition candidate Henrique Capriles would have been preferable, Chavez is not not a disaster either  given that his policies are helping maintain a steady supply of thse high-yield bonds. And with oil prices over $110 a barrel, it is highly unlikely he will shirk on repaying debt.

South African bond rush

It’s been a great year so far for South African bonds. But can it get better?

Ever since Citi announced on April 16 that South African government bonds would join its World Government Bond Index (WGBI),  almost 20 billion rand (over $2.5 billion ) in foreign cash has flooded to the local debt markets in Johannesburg, bringing year-to-date inflows to over 37 billion rand. Last year’s total was 48 billion. Michael Grobler, bond analyst at Johannesburg-based brokerage Afrifocus Securities predicts total 2012 inflows at over 60 billion rand, surpassing the previous 56 billion rand record set in 2o1o:

The assumption..is based on the fact that South Africa will have a much larger and diversified investor base following inclusion in the WGBI expanding beyond the EM debt asset class

Big Fish, Small Pond?

It’s the scenario that Bank of England economist Andrew Haldane last year termed the Big Fish Small Pond problem — the prospect of rising global investor allocations swamping the relatively small emerging markets asset class.

But as of now, the picture is better described as a Small Fish in a Big Pond, Morgan Stanley says in a recent study, because emerging markets still receive a tiny share of asset allocations from the giant investment funds in the developed world.

These currently stand at under 10% of diversified portfolios from G4 countries even though emerging markets make up almost a fifth of the market capitalisation of world equity and debt capital markets.  In the case of Japan, just 4% of cross-border investments are in emerging markets, MS estimates.

All in the price in China?

It’s been a while since Chinese stocks earned investors fat profits. Last year the Shanghai market lost 22 percent and the compounded return on equity investments there since 1993 is minus 3 percent. This year too China has underwhelmed, rising less than 3 percent so far. Broader emerging equities on the other hand have just concluded their best first quarter since 1992, with gains of over 13 percent.

Given all that, bears remain a surprisingly rare breed in China. A Bank of America/Merrill Lynch’s monthly survey found it was fund managers’ biggest emerging markets overweight in March and that has been the case for some months now.  Clearly, hope dies last.

Driving many of these allocations is valuation. China’s equity market has always tended to trade at a premium to emerging markets but in recent months it has swung into a discount, trading at 9.2 times forward earnings or 10 percent below broader emerging markets.  MSCI’s China index is also trading almost 25 percent below its own long-term average, according to this graphic from my colleague Scott Barber (@scottybarber):

Yield-hungry tilt to equity from credit

For income-focused investors, the choice between stocks and corporate bonds has been a no-brainer in recent years. In a volatile world, corporate debt tends to be less sensitive to market gyrations and also has offered better yields – last year non-financial European corporate bonds provided a yield pickup of  73 basis points above stocks, Morgan Stanley calculates.

But, long a fan of credit over equity, MS reckons the picture may now be changing and points out that European equities are offering better yields than credit for the first time in over a decade. (The graphic below compares dividend yields on non-financial euro STOXX index with the IBOXX European non-financial corporate bond index. The former narrowly wins.)

The extra yield available on equities, coupled with perceptions of a more stable macro backdrop, may encourage income-oriented investors back into stocks.

Another fine excuse for selling stocks

There is no question that the losses on stock markets at the moment are primarily the result of the Greek crisis. A downgrade of a euro zone country’s sovereign debt to junk is enough to make all but insane mainstream investors take a large step away from risk.

But could it also be that the Greek crisis has come at a time when big investors were looking for an excuse to cool down the equity rally? MSCI’s all-country world stock index hit a peak on April 15 that was not only higher than anything seen this year, but also last year as well.  Up about 85 percent from its March 2009 lows, in fact.

Partly as a result, there were some signs emerging that suggested a correction would soon be in the works.