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:

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:

Venezuelan bonds — storing up problems

Last week’s victory for Miss Venezuela in a global beauty pageant was a rare bit of good news for the South American country. With a black market currency exchange rate that is 10 times the official level, shortages of staples, inflation over 50 percent and political turmoil, Venezuela certainly won’t win any investment pageants.

This week investors have rushed to dump Venezuela’s dollar bonds as the government ordered troops to occupy a store chain accused of price gouging. Many view this as a sign President Nicolas Maduro is gearing up to extend his control over the private sector.  Adding to the bond market’s problems are plans by state oil firm PDVSA to raise $4.5 billion in bonds next week. Yields on  Venezuelan sovereign bonds have risen over 100 basis points this week; returns for the year are minus 25 percent, almost half of that coming since the start of this month.  Five-year credit default swaps for Venezuela are at two-year highs, having risen more than 200 basis points in November. And bonds from PDVSA, which is essentially selling debt to bankroll the government and pay suppliers, rather than to fund investments, have tanked too.

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Double-digit yields and high oil prices have made bond funds relatively keen on Venezuela but the latest sell-off is forcing a rethink. JPMorgan analysts have cut their recommendation on the bonds to underweight:

Russian stocks: big overweight

Emerging stocks are not much in favour these days — Bank of America/Merrill Lynch’s survey of global fund managers finds that in August just a net 18 percent of investors were overweight emerging markets, among the lowest since 2001. Within the sector though, there are some outright winners and quite a few losers. Russian stocks are back in favour, the survey found, with a whopping 92 percent of fund managers overweight. Allocations to Russia doubled from last month (possibly at the expense of South African where underweight positions are now at 100 percent, making it the most unloved market of all) See below for graphic:

BofA points out its analyst Michael Harris recently turned bullish on Russian stocks advising clients to go for a “Big Overweight” on a market that he reckons is best positioned to benefit from the recovery in global growth.

Russia may not be anyone’s favourite market but in a world with plenty of cyclical headwinds, Russia looks a clear place for relative outperformance with upside risk if markets turn… we are overweight the entire market as we like domestic Russia, oil policy changes and beaten-up metals’ leverage to any global uplift.

Weekly Radar: Draghi returns to London

ECB chief Mario Draghi returns to London next week almost 10 months on from his seminal “whatever it takes” speech to the global financial community in The City  – a speech that not only drew a line under the euro financial crisis by flagging the ECB’s sovereign debt backstop OMT but one that framed the determination of the G4 central banks at large to reflate their economies via extraordinary monetary easing. Since then we’ve seen the Fed effectively commit to buying an addition trillion dollars of bonds this year to get the U.S. jobless rate down toward 6.5%, followed by the ‘shock-and-awe’ tactics of the new Japanese government and Bank of Japan to end decades.

And as Draghi returns 10 months on, there’s little doubt that he and his U.S. and Japanese peers have succeeded in convincing financial investors of central bank doggedness at least. Don’t fight the Fed and all that – or more pertinently, Don’t fight the Fed/BoJ/ECB/BoE/SNB etc… G4 stock markets are surging ever higher through the Spring of 2013 even as global economic data bumbles along disappointingly through its by now annual ‘soft patch’.  Looking at the number tallies, total returns for Spanish and Greek equities and euro zone bank stocks are up between 40 and 50% since Draghi’s showstopper last July . Italian, French and German equities and Spanish and Irish 10-year government bonds have all returned about 30% or more. And you can add 7% on to all that if you happened to be a Boston-based investor due to a windfall from the net jump in the euro/dollar exchange rate. What’s more all of those have outperformed the 25% gains in Wall St’s S&P 500 since then, even though the latter is powering to uncharted record highs. And of course all pale in comparison with the eye-popping 75% rise in Japan’s Nikkei 225 in just six months!! Gold, metals and oil are all net losers and this is significant in a money-printing story where no one seems to see higher inflation anymore.

But with both Fed and BoJ pushes getting some traction on underlying growth and the euro zone economy registering it’s 6th straight quarter of contraction in the first three months of 2013, maybe Draghi’s big task now is to convince people the ECB will do whatever it takes to support the 17-nation economy too and not only the single currency per se. Last year’s pledge may have been a necessary start to stabilise things but it has not yet been sufficient to solve the economic problems bequethed by the credit crisis.

Weekly Radar: May days or Pay days?

So, it’s May and time for the annual if temporary equity market selloff, right? Well, maybe – but only maybe.  A fresh weakening of the global economic pulse would certainly suggest so, but central banks have shown again they are not going to throw in the towel in the battle to reflate. The ECB’s interest rate cut today and last night’s insistence from the Fed that it’s as likely to step up money printing this year as wind it down are two cases in point. And we’re still awaiting the private investment flows from Japan following the BOJ’s latest aggressive easing there.

So where does that all leave us? A third of the way through 2013 and it’s been a good year so far for nearly all bulls – both western equity bulls and increasingly bond bulls too! Not only have developed world equities clocked up some 13 percent year-to-date (the S&P500 set yet another record high this week while Europe’s bluechips recorded a staggering 12th consecutive monthly gain in April) , but virtually all bond markets from junk bonds to Treasuries, euro peripherals to emerging markets are now back in the black for the year as a whole. For the most eyebrow-raising evidence, look no further than last week’s debut sovereign bond from Rwanda at less than 7 percent for 10 years or even newly-junked Slovenia’s ability this week to plough ahead with a syndicated bond sale reported to already be in the region of four times oversubscribed. For many people, that parallel rise in equity and bonds smells of a bubble somewhere. But before you cry “QEEEEE!” , take a look at commodities — the bulls there have been taken a bath all year as data on final global demand hits yet another ‘soft patch’ over the past couple of months.

So is this just an idiosyncratic random walk of asset markets (itself no bad thing after years of stress-riven hyper correlation) or can we explain all three asset directions together? One way to think of it is in terms of global inflation. If QE-related inflation fears have been grossly exaggerated then pressure to remove monetary stimulus or wanes again and there may even be arguments – certainly in Europe – for more. This would intuitively explain the renewed dash for bonds and fixed income in general even in the face of the still-plausible, if long term, “Great Rotation” idea. You could argue the monetary free-for-all is buoying equities regardless of demand concerns. But why wouldn’t commodities gain on that basis too?

Weekly Radar: Second-guessing Japan flows as global growth slows

Figuring out what was driving pretty violent market moves this week was trickier than usual – and that says something about how much the herd has scattered this year, with ‘risk on-risk off’ correlations having weakened sharply. Just as everyone puzzled over a potential “wall of money” from Japan after the BOJ’s aggressive reflation efforts, the bottom seemed to fall out of gold, energy and broader commodity markets – dragging both equity markets and, unusually, peripheral euro zone bond yields lower in the process.  As dangerous as it may be to seek an overriding narrative these days, you could possibly tie all up these moves under the BOJ banner – something along these lines: the threat of a further yen losses pushes an already pumped-up US dollar ever higher across the board and undermines dollar-denominated  commodities, which have already been hampered by what looks like yet another lull in global demand. Developed market equities, whose Q1 surge had been reined in by several weeks of disappointing economic data and an iffy start to the Q1 earnings season, were then hit further by a lunge in heavy cap mining and energy stocks. The commodities hit may also help explain the persistent underperformance of emerging markets this year. What’s more the lift to Italian and Spanish government bonds comes partly from an assumption any Japanese money exit will seek U.S. and European government bonds and relatively higher-yielding euro government paper may be favoured by some over the paltry returns in the core ‘safe havens’ of Treasuries or bunds. The confidence to reach for yield has clearly risen over the past six months as wider systemic fears have receded – something underlined in dramatic style this week by a huge lunge in gold,  now lost almost 20 percent in the year to date.

While all that logic may be plausible, there have been dozens of other reasons floating around for the seemingly erratic twists and turns of the week.

The only truth so far is that everyone is still just guessing about the likely extent of a Japanese outflow and confidence about global growth has received another setback.

India’s deficit — not just about oil and gold

India’s finance minister P Chidambaram can be forgiven for feeling cheerful. After all, prices for oil and gold, the two biggest constituents of his country’s import bill, have tumbled sharply this week. If sustained, these developments might significantly ease India’s current account deficit headache — possibly to the tune of $20 billion a year.

Chidambaram said yesterday he expects the deficit to halve in a year or two from last year’s 5 percent level. Markets are celebrating too — the Indian rupee, stocks and bonds have all rallied this week.

But are markets getting ahead of themselves?  Jahangiz Aziz and Sajjid Chinoy, India analysts at JP Morgan think so.

Cheaper oil and gold: a game changer for India?

Someone’s loss is someone’s gain and as Russian and South African markets reel from the recent oil and gold price rout, investors are getting ready to move more cash into commodity importer India.

Stubbornly high inflation and a big current account deficit are India’s twin headaches. Lower oil and gold prices will help with both. India’s headline inflation index is likely to head lower, potentially opening room for more interest rate cuts.  That in turn could reduce gold demand from Indians who have stepped up purchases of the yellow metal in recent years as a hedge against inflation.

If prices stay at current levels, India’s current account gap could narrow by almost one percent of GDP in this fiscal year, analysts at Barclays reckon.  They calculate that $100 oil and gold at $1,400 per ounce would cut India’s net import bill by around $20 billion, bringing the deficit to around 3.2 percent of GDP.

Russia’s consumers — a promise for the stock market

As we wrote here last week, Russian bond markets are bracing for a flood of foreign capital. But there appears to be a surprising lack of interest in Russian equities.

Russia’s stock market trades on average at 5 times forward earnings, less than half the valuation for broader emerging markets. That’s cheaper than unstable countries such as Pakistan or those in dire economic straits such as Greece. But here’s the rub. Look within the market and here are some of the most expensive companies in emerging markets — mostly consumer-facing names. Retailers such as Dixy and Magnit and internet provider Yandex trade at up to 25 times forward earnings. These compare to some of the turbo-charged valuations in typically expensive markets such as India.

A recent note from Russia’s Sberbank has some interesting numbers on Russia’s consumer potential. Sberbank tracks a hypothetical Russian middle class family, the Ivanovs, to see how consumer confidence is shaping up (According to SB their data are broader in scope than the government’s official consumer confidence survey).