Global Investing

Buying back into emerging markets

After almost a year of selling emerging markets, investors seem to be returning in force. The latest to turn positive on the asset class is asset and wealth manager Pictet Group (AUM: 265 billion pounds) which said on Tuesday its asset management division (clarifies division of Pictet) was starting to build positions on emerging equities and local currency debt. It has an overweight position on the latter for the first time since it went underweight last July.

Local emerging debt has been out of favour with investors because of how volatile currencies have been since last May, For an investor who is funding an emerging market investments from dollars or euros, a fast-falling rand can wipe out any gains he makes on a South African bond. But the rand and its peers such as the Turkish lira, Indian rupee, Indonesian rupiah and Brazilan real — at the forefront of last year’s selloff –  have stabilised from the lows hit in recent months.  According to Pictet Asset Management:

Valuations of emerging market currencies have fallen to a point where they are now starkly at odds with such economies’ fundamentals. Emerging currencies are, on average, trading at almost two standard deviations below their equilibrium level (which takes into account a country’s net foreign asset holdings, inflation rate and its relative productivity).

What’s more, interest rates in all these countries have risen since the selloff kicked off last May, in some cases by hundreds of basis points. That makes running short positions on emerging currencies and local debt too costly, analysts say.  What’s also helping is the sharp volatility decline across broader currency markets, with Reuters data showing one-month euro/dollar implied volatility near its lowest since the third quarter of 2007. That has helped revive carry trades — the practice of selling low-yield currencies in favour of higher-yield assets  Low volatility and high carry – that’s a great backdrop for emerging markets. No wonder that last week saw cash return to emerging debt funds after first quarter outflows of over $17 billion. Pictet again:

Local currency bond yields have climbed in recent months – quite steeply in some cases – hence, the asset class has acquired some extremely positive characteristics. Such yields are now among the highest of all global fixed income classes, yet their duration is among the lowest. In a period likely to see higher U.S. bond yields, that makes for an attractive combination.

No more “emerging markets” please

The crisis currently roiling the developing world has revived a debate in some circles about the very validity of the “emerging markets” concept. Used since the early 1980s as a convenient moniker grouping countries that were thought to be less developed — financially or infrastructure-wise or due to the size or liquidity of their financial markets — the widely varying performances of different countries during the turmoil has served to underscore the differences rather than similarities between them.  An analyst who traveled recently between several Latin American countries summed it up by writing that he had passed through three international airports during his trip but had not had a stamp in his passport that said “emerging market”.

Like this analyst, many reckon the day has come when fund managers, index providers and investors must stop and consider  if it makes sense to bucket wildly disparate countries together.  After all what does Venezuela, with its anti-market policies and 50 percent annual inflation, have in common with Chile, a free market economy with a high degree of transparency  and investor-friendliness?

Deutsche Bank analyst John-Paul Smith is one of many questioning current index-based investing models which he says essentially provide a free ride to the Russias and Venezuelas of this world, who may be undeserving of investor dollars.  Simply by virtue of inclusion in the emerging index, a country becomes a “default beneficiary” of passive investment flows — from funds that hug or track the benchmark — Smith says. In a note he calls for the abandonment of current index criteria such as market access, liquidity or per capita income in favour of a “substantive governance-based view of risk”
In other words:

Beaten-down emerging equities may not be all that cheap

It’s generally accepted these days that emerging equities are cheap and that value-focused investors should consider buying. But some disagree  — analysts at UBS say the alleged cheapness of EM equities rings hollow when you look at the return-on-equity on emerging companies. They don’t dispute that the market has de-rated significantly on price-earnings and price-book metrics (at 10.5 times and 1.5 times respectively, they are well below long-term averages). But they argue that these have not been excessive when compared to the decline in profitability.  Emerging return-on-equity pre-crisis was usually higher than developed. Once at a lofty 17 percent, emerging ROE now languishes at 12.7 percent, almost on par with ROE for developed companies. Check out this graphic:

Multiples in EM have de-rated in only lock step with the de-rating in  margins and RoEs relative to the developed world  (UBS write)

UBS also point out, quite correctly, that not all emerging markets are cheap — while some indices such as Russia and China are indeed inexpensive, others such as Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia are very expensive.   Sectors such as energy and materials, hostage to the global growth picture, are cheap but “outside of this, EM is not cheap; indeed even on a purely historical comparison it is expensive,” UBS says.

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.

A boost for cheap emerging equities. So will they bite?

Emerging stocks have rallied 3 percent today after the Fed’s startling decision to leave its $85 billion-a month money-printing in place, and some markets such as Turkey are up more than 7 percent. With the first Fed hike now expected to come in 2015 and tapering starting only from December, emerging markets have effectively received a three month breather. So will the buyers return?

A lot of folks have been banging the drum about how cheap emerging markets are these days. But imminent Fed tapering has been scaring away any who might have been tempted. Plus there is the economic growth slowdown that could knock profit margins at emerging market companies. Bank of America/Merrill Lynch which runs a closely watched monthly survey of fund managers shows just in the following graphic how unloved the sector is relative to history:

So should people be buying? BofA/ML certainly thinks so: its strategist Ajay Kapur suggests emerging stocks are 20 percent undervalued. He acknowledges all the risks out there but reckons they are all in the price by now:

Cheer up Morocco, frontier markets are hot

Morocco fears its stock market is on the verge of being re-classified as a frontier market when  index provider MSCI announces its annual rejig of equity indices this month.

Maybe it should pray for relegation instead. A report at the end of last week by Citi notes the boom in frontier market equities — they have risen 15 percent since the start of this year, a stark contrast to their better known, more liquid emerging market cousins which have fallen around 5 percent so far this year. In fact the performance of the frontiers — comprising less liquid, smaller markets from Kenya to Kazakhstan — has been more akin to the U.S. or Japanese equity markets which have earned investors double-digit returns this year.

Citi notes that the seven best returning markets in the world this year are all in the so-called frontiers, while the nine worst laggards are from the emerging world. Check out the graphic below. It shows how markets such as Kenya, Bulgaria and the United Arab Emirates have rallied more than 40 percent this year.

Emerging earnings: a lot of misses

It’s not shaping up to be a good year for emerging equities. They are almost 3 percent in the red while their developed world counterparts have gained more than 7 percent and Wall Street is at record highs. When we explored this topic last month, what stood out was the deepening profit squeeze and  steep falls in return-on-equity (ROE).  The latest earnings season provides fresh proof of this trend and is handily summarized in a Morgan Stanley note which crunches the earnings numbers for the last 2012 quarter.

The analysts found that:

–With 84 percent of emerging market companies having already reported last quarter earnings, consensus estimates have been missed by around 6 percent. A third of companies that have already reported results have beaten estimates while almost half have missed.

– Singapore, Turkey and Hong Kong top the list of countries where earnings beat expectations while earnings in Hungary, Korea and Egypt have mostly underwhelmed. Consumer durables companies recorded the biggest number and magnitude of misses at 82 percent.

Emerging debt vs equity: to rotate or not

Emerging bonds have got off to a flying start in 2013, with debt funds taking in over $2 billion this past week, the second highest weekly inflow ever, according to fund tracker EPFR Global. Issuance is strong -  Turkey for instance this week borrowed cash repayable in 10 years for just 3.47 percent, its lowest yield ever in the dollar market.

Yet not everyone is optimistic and most analysts see last year’s returns of 16-18 percent EM debt returns as out of reach. The consensus instead seems to be for 5-8 percent as  tight spreads and low yields leave little room for further ralliesaverage yields on the EMBI Global sovereign debt index is just 4.4 percent.    Domestic bonds meanwhile could suffer if inflation turns problematic. (see here for our story on emerging bond sales and returns).

Now take a look at U.S. Treasury yields which are near 8-month highs. and could pose a headwind for emerging debt. Higher U.S. yields are not necessarily a bad thing for emerging markets provided the rise is down to a healthier economic outlook.  But that scenario could induce investors to turn their attention to equities and  indeed this is already happening. EPFR data shows emerging equity funds outstripped their bond counterparts last week, taking in $7.45 billion, the highest ever weekly inflow.

Baton passing to the emerging markets consumer

Is there a change of sector leadership underway within emerging markets?

For years, commodities and energy delivered world-beating returns to emerging market investors. Yet in recent years there are signs of a shift, says Todd Henry, equity portfolio specialist at T.Rowe Price.

With the China tailwind no longer as strong as before demand for oil and metals will not be as robust as in the past decade, Henry says. But in China as well as elsewhere, disposable incomes have risen as a result of the fast economic growth these countries experienced in the past decade.

Check out the following two graphics from T.Rowe Price.

The first figure shows that in the ten years to December 2007, just before the global financial crisis erupted, emerging equities returned 300 percent in dollar terms. The two sectors that won the returns race in this period were energy and commodities, with dollar-based returns of around 650 percent. This is not surprising, given the enormous surge in Chinese demand for all manner of commodities, from oil to steel, as it fired up its exporters’ factories and embarked on a frenzy of infrastructure improvements.

No BRIC without China

Jim O’ Neill, creator of the BRIC investment concept, has been exasperated by repeated calls in the past to exclude one or another country from the quartet, based on either economic growth rates, equity performance or market structure. In the early years, Brazil’s eligibility for BRIC was often questioned due to its anaemic growth; then it was the turn of oil-dependent Russia. Over the past couple of years many turned their sights on India due to its reform stupor. They have suggested removing it and including Indonesia in its place.

All these detractors should focus on China.

China’s validity in BRIC has never been questioned. Aside from the fact that BRI does not really have a ring, that’s not surprising. China’s growth rates plus undoubted political and economic clout on the international stage put  it head and shoulders above the other three. And after all, it is Chinese demand which drives a large part of the Russian and Brazilian economies.

But its equity markets have not performed for years.

This year, Russian and Indian stocks are up around 20 percent in dollar terms while China has gained 9 percent and Brazil 3 percent. In local currency terms however China is among the worst performing emerging markets, down 5 percent. Brazil has risen 9 percent.