Global Investing

Russia’s people problem

President Vladimir Putin is generally fond of blaming the West for the ills besetting Russia. This week though, he admitted in his State of the Nation speech that the roots of Russia’s sluggish economy may lie at home rather than abroad.  The government expects the economy to expand a measly 1.4 percent this year (less than half of the growth the US is likely to see) and long-term growth estimates have been trimmed to 2.5 percent a year.

Much of that is down to the lack of reform which has left many big companies in the state’s (generally wasteful) hands, weak rule of law that deters investment and capital flight to the tune of tens of billions of dollars a year. Yet there is another factor that could be harder to fix — Russia’s poor demographic profile. The population started declining sharply in the early 1990s amid political and economic turmoil, falling by 3.4 million in the 2000-2010 decade, according to census data. The impact is set to be felt sharply from now on, exactly when children born in 1990s would have started entering the workforce.

The consequences are already being felt. Russia will close more than 700 schools this year for lack of pupils and the jobless rate has dipped to a record low of around 5 percent, not because the economy is booming but because the country is running out of people who can take the jobs.

Russian bank VTB estimates that the labour force will shrink at the rate of 0.3-0.5 percent a year over the next decade. And Natalia Orlova, chief economist at another Russian bank, Alfa, (the source of the above graphic) says that in 2013, the labour force will have shrunk by 800,000,  a decline that she expects will gather momentum and ultimately end up at 2 million a year.  Not only will the labour force shrink by 3 percent between 2013-2016, but the share of skilled employees in the workforce has halved over the past decade, she says:

The demographic wave is coming into the market. For the past five years, it was not felt by companies. Now we will see the impact of the population decline as more people become pensioners and fewer young people come to the jobs market. The growth rates of the past decade coincided with better demographics of the 1980s. So we have at least 10 years ahead that should be very painful.

Banks cannot ease Ukraine’s reserve pain

The latest data from Ukraine shows its hard currency reserves fell $2 billion over November to $18.9 billion. That’s perilously low by any measure. (Check out this graphic showing how poorly Ukraine’s reserve adequacy ratios compare with other emerging markets: http://link.reuters.com/quq25v)

Central banks often have tricks to temporarily boost reserves, or at least, to give the impression that they are doing so. Turkey, for instance, allows commercial banks to keep some of their lira reserve requirements in hard currency and gold. Others may get friendly foreign central banks to deposit some cash. Yet another ploy is to issue T-bills in hard currency to mop up banks’ cash holdings. But it may be hard for Ukraine to do any of this says Exotix economist Gabriel Sterne, who has compared the Ukraine national bank’s plight with that of Egypt.

Ukraine and Egypt have both balked at signing up to IMF loan programmes because these  would require them to cut back on subsidies. But latest data shows Egypt’s reserves have risen to $17.8 billion from just over $10 billion in July, while Ukraine’s have declined from $22.9 billion. Egyptian import cover has also risen to 2.6 months while Ukraine now has enough cash to fund less than 2 months of imports (Back in July it was 3 months)
Sterne says:

The hryvnia is all right

The fate of Ukraine’s hryvnia currency hangs by a thread. Will that thread break?

The hryvnia’s crawling peg has so far held as the central bank has dipped steadily into its reserves to support it. But the reserves are dwindling and political unrest is growing. Forwards markets are therefore betting on quite a sizeable depreciation  (See graphic below from brokerage Exotix).

 

The thing to remember is that the key to avoiding a messy devaluation lies not with the central bank but with a country’s households. As countless emerging market crises over decades have shown, currency crises occur when people lose trust in their currency and leadership, withdraw their savings from banks and convert them into hard currency.  That is something no central bank can fight. Now Ukraine’s households hold over $50 billion in bank deposits, according to calculations by Exotix. Of this a third is in hard currency (that’s without counting deposits by companies).  But despite all the ruckus there is no sign of long queues outside banks or currency exchange points, scenes familiar to emerging market watchers.

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:

Revitalised West knocks Brazil, Russia off global growth Top-30

By Shadi Bushra

Yet another sign of the growth convergence between developed and emerging markets. Two  of the “BRIC’ countries have dropped out of the Top-30 in a growth index compiled by political risk consultancy Maplecroft, while several Western powerhouses have nudged their way onto the list.

Maplecroft’s 2014 Growth Opportunities Atlas showed that Brazil and Russia — the B and R of the BRIC bloc — had dropped 26 and 41 places, respectively – due to slow economic reforms and diversification.  The United States, Australia and Germany meanwhile broke into the top 30 on the  index, which evaluates 173 countries on their growth prospects over the next 20 years.

The study’s results are indicative of the broader pattern this year of an emerging markets slowdown after years of robust growth fuelled by cheap money from the West and a decade of booming trade. But the two other BRIC countries — India and China — have retained their top spots, albeit with lower absolute scores. And India overtook China for first place due to its “catch-up growth potential,”  Maplecroft’s report said.

Emerging equities: out of the doghouse

Emerging stocks, in the doghouse for months and months, haven’t done too badly of late. The main EM index,  has rallied more than 11 percent since its end-August troughs, outgunning the S&P 500′s 3 percent rise in this period. Bank of America/Merrill Lynch strategist Michael Hartnett reminds us of the extreme underweight positioning in emerging stocks last month, as revealed by his bank’s monthly investor survey.  Anyone putting on a long EM-short UK equities trade back then would have been in the money with returns of 540 basis points, he says.

Undoubtedly, the postponement of the Fed taper is the main reason for the rally.  Another big inducement is that valuations look very cheap (forward P/E is around 9.9 versus a 10-year average of 10.8) .

According to Mouhammed Choukeir, CIO , Kleinwort Benson:

Looking at valuations we think emerging markets are in an attractively valued zone, hence we think it’s a good investment. EMs are in negative momentum trend but have good valuations. We’re sitting on the positions we’ve built but if it hits a positive (momentum) trend we will add on it…. You wait for value and value will translate into returns over time.

Bernanke Put for emerging markets? Not really

The Fed’s unexpectedly dovish position last week has sparked a rally in emerging markets — not only did the U.S. central bank’s all-powerful boss Ben Bernanke keep his $85 billion-a-month money printing programme in place, he also mentioned emerging markets in his post-meeting news conference, noting the potential impact of Fed policy on the developing world. All that, along with the likelihood of the dovish Janet Yellen succeeding Bernanke was described by Commerzbank analysts as “a triple whammy for EM.” A positive triple whammy, presumably.

Now it may be going too far to conclude there is some kind of Bernanke Put for emerging markets of the sort the U.S. stock market is said to enjoy — the assumption, dating back to Alan Greenspan’s days, that things cant go too wrong for markets because the Fed boss will wade in with lower rates to right things. But the fact remains that global pressure on the Fed has been mounting to avoid any kind of violent disruption to the flow of cheap money — remember the cacophony at this month’s G20 summit? Second, the spike in U.S. yields may have been the main motivation for standing pat but the Treasury selloff was at least partly driven by emerging central banks which have needed to dip into their reserve stash to defend their own currencies. According to IMF estimates, developing countries hold some $3.5 trillion worth of Treasuries, of which just under half is in China. (See here for my colleague Mike Dolan’s June 12 article on the EM-Fed linkages)

David Spegel, head of emerging debt at ING Bank in New York says the decision reflects “an appreciation for today’s globalised world”:

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.

Emerging markets: to buy or not to buy

To buy or not to buy — that’s the question facing emerging market investors.

The sector is undoubtedly cheap –  equity valuations are 30-50 percent cheaper than their 10-year average on a price-book basis; currencies have depreciated 15-20 percent in the space of 4 months and local bond yields have surged by an average 150 basis points. As we have pointed out before, cheapness is relative and the slowing economic and credit growth in many countries will undoubtedly manifest itself in falling EPS growth. Companies that cannot pass on high input costs caused by weak currencies, will have to take a further margin squeeze.

But many analysts have in recent days changed their recommendations on the sector. Barclays for instance notes:

Tapping India’s diaspora to salvage rupee

What will save the Indian rupee? There’s an election next year so forget about the stuff that’s really needed — structural reforms to labour and tax laws, easing business regulations and scrapping inefficient subsidies. The quickest and most effective short-term option may be a dollar bond issued to the Indian diaspora overseas which could boost central bank coffers about $20 billion.

The option was mooted a month ago when the rupee’s slide started to get into panic territory but many Indian policymakers are not so keen on the idea

So what are the merits of a diaspora bond (or NRI bond as it’s known in India)?