Global Investing

Russia: a hawk among central bank doves?

This week has the potential to bring an interesting twist to emerging markets monetary policy. Peru, South Korea and Indonesia are likely to leave interest rates unchanged on Thursday but there is a chance of a rate rise in Russia. A rise would stand out at a time when  central banks across the world are easing monetary policy as fast as possible.

First the others. Rate rises in Indonesia and Peru can be ruled out. Peru grew at a solid  5.4 percent pace in the previous quarter and inflation is within target. Indonesian data too shows buoyant growth, with the economy expanding 6.4 percent from a year earlier. And the central bank is likely to be mindful of the rupiah’s weakness this year — it has been one of the worst performing emerging currencies of 2012.

Korea is a tougher call. The Bank of Korea stunned markets with a rate cut last month, its first in three years. Since then, data has shown that the economy is slowing even further after first quarter growth eased to 2008-2009 lows. Exports are falling at the fastest pace in three years. But most analysts expect it to wait it out in August and then cut rates in September. Markets on the other hand are bracing for a rate cut as yields on 3-year Korean bonds have fallen well under the central bank’s main 7-day policy rate.

Russia’s meeting on Friday promises to be the most interesting one. Inflation has risen sharply in the past two months while utility tariff hikes from August were seen adding 1 percent to this year’s headline price growth number.  Year-end inflation could be 6.6 percent, analysts reckon, well above the central bank’s 5-6 percent target range. Deputy Governor Alexei Ulyukayev (who has been making hawkish noises for a while) told reporters last month rates could be “changed” in August.

Analysts at ING suggest the central bank may raise its deposit rate (which would narrow its interest rate corridor) and/or its reserve ratios for banks rather than move its key lending rate, which would have little impact anyway on food price inflation.  “This could be more about signalling than about a real anti-inflation move,” ING analysts write.

Yield-hungry funds lend $2bln to Ukraine

Investors just cannot get enough of emerging market bonds. Ukraine, possibly one of the weakest of the big economies in the developing world, this week returned to global capital markets for the first time in a year , selling $2 billion in 5-year dollar bonds.  Investors placed orders for seven times that amount, lured doubtless by the 9.25 percent yield on offer.

Ukraine’s problems are well known, with fears even that the country could default on debt this year.  The $2 billion will therefore come as a relief. But the dangers are not over yet, which might make its success on bond markets look all the more surprising.

Perhaps not. Emerging dollar debt is this year’s hot-ticket item, generating returns of over 10 percent so far in 2012. Yields in the so-called safe markets such as Germany and United States are negligible; short-term yields are even negative.  So a 9.25 percent yield may look too good to resist.

Food prices may feed monetary angst

Be it too much sun in the American Midwest, or too much water in the Russian Caucasus, food supply lines are being threatened, and food prices are surging again just as the world economy slips into the doldrums.

This week, Chicago corn prices rose for a second straight day, bringing its rise over the month to 45%, and floods on Russia’s Black Sea coast disrupted their grain exports.  Having trended lower for about nine-months to June, the surge in July means corn prices are now up about 14% year-on-year. And all of this after too little rain over the spring and winterkill meant Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan’s combined wheat crop would fall 22 percent to 78.9 million tonnes this year from 2011.

But as damaging as these disasters have been for local populations, their effects could be much more widely felt.

Indian risks eclipsing other BRICs

India’s first-quarter GDP growth report was a shocker this morning at +5.3 percent. Much as Western countries would dream of a print that good, it’s akin to a hard landing for a country only recently aspiring to double-digit expansions and, with little hope of any strong reform impetus from the current government, things might get worse if investment flows dry up. The rupee is at a new record low having fallen 7 percent in May alone against the dollar — bad news for companies with hard currency debt maturing this year (See here). So investors are likely to find themselves paying more and more to hedge exposure to India.

Credit default swaps for the State Bank of India (used as a proxy for the Indian sovereign) are trading at almost 400 basis points. More precisely, investors must pay $388,000  to insure $10 million of exposure for a five-year period, data from Markit shows. That is well above levels for the other countries in the BRIC quartet — Brazil, China and Russia. Check out the following graphic from Markit showing the contrast between Brazil and Indian risk perceptions.

At the end of 2010, investors paid a roughly 50 bps premium over Brazil to insure Indian risk via SBI CDS. That premium is now more than 200 bps.

Lower rates give no respite to Brazil stocks

In normal times, an aggressive central bank campaign to cut interest rates would provide fodder for stock market bulls. That’s not happening in Brazil. Its interest rate, the Selic, has fallen 350 basis points since last August and is likely to fall further at this week’s meeting to a record low of 8.5 percent. Yet the Sao Paulo stock market is among the world’s worst performers this year, with losses of around 4 percent. That’s better than fellow BRIC Russia but far worse than India and China.

Brazil’s central bank and government are understandably worried about a Chinese growth slowdown that would eat into Brazilian commodity exports. They are therefore hoping that rate cuts will prepare the domestic economy to take up the slack.

But the haste to cut interest rates appears to have spooked some foreign investors, with many seeing the moves as evidence of political pressure on the central bank. A closely-watched survey from Bank of America/Merill Lynch showed that fund managers had swung into a net 14 percent underweight on Brazil in May from a net overweight of over 20 percent in April (See graphic). This is the first time investors have turned negative on Brazil since February 2011, BofA/ML said.

Oil falls. So does the Russian stock market

Russian equities have had their worst week since early-December, with losses of over 6 percent. But don’t look too far for the reason — world crude futures have fallen to three-month lows around $114 a barrel on worries that U.S. and world economic growth may not be picking up after all.  They too have fallen 6 percent so far this week. Check out the following graphics showing how Russian stocks and its currency move in lock-step with oil prices:

If anything, the falls on Russian assets are outpacing the weakness on global crude oil markets in recent months, possibly because the jitters that caused last December’s massive falls have not been entirely overcome. Anti-government demonstrators are no longer hitting the streets but  with President-elect Vladimir Putin to be sworn in next week, fears are the  Kremlin may prefer squeezing more cash from energy companies to implementing the reforms the economy desperately needs.  Latest plans flagged on Thursday  to raise oil and gas extraction taxes would seem to confirm these worries and are hitting energy sector shares — half the Moscow index.

All this has widened Russian stock valuations to almost record levels against the broader emerging equity set.  But that is unlikely to entice buyers if the oil price stays where it is — after all half of Russia’s revenues come from oil and it needs an oil price of around $120 a barrel  to balance its budget. Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Troika Dialog puts it succinctly:

Where will the FDI flow?

For years the four mighty BRIC nations have grabbed increasing shares of world investment flows. But the coming years may not be so kind.  These countries bring up the bottom of the Economic Freedom Index (EFI) for 2012. Compiled by Washington D.C.-based think-tank The Heritage Foundation the EFI measures 10 freedoms —  from property rights to entrepreneurship – and according to a note out today from RBS economists, there is a strong positive link between a country’s EFI score and the amount of FDI (foreign direct investment) it can secure. So the more “free” a country, the more FDI inflows it can expect to receive — that’s what an RBS analysis of 2002-2008 investment flows shows.

So back to the BRICs. Or BRICS if you add in South Africa (part of the political grouping though not yet included in the BRIC investment concept used by fund managers). The following graphic shows Russia languishing at the bottom of the EFI, China just above Russia and India third from bottom.  Brazil is sixth from bottom while South Africa ranks two places higher.

At the other end of the spectrum is tiny Singapore. Its EFI score is double that of Russia and between 2002-2008 it attracted FDI equivalent to 50 percent of its economy. Russia in contrast saw negative net FDI (outflows exceeded inflows)

Ukraine’s $58 billion problem

Ukrainian officials were at pains to reassure investors last week that no debt default was in the offing. But people familiar with the numbers will find it hard to believe them.

The government must find over $5.3 billion this year to repay maturing external debt, including $3 billion to the IMF and $2 billion to Russian state bank VTB. Bad enough but there is worse:  Ukrainian companies and banks too have hefty debt maturities this year. Total external financing needs– corporate and sovereign – amount to $58 billion, analysts at Capital Economics calculate. That’s a third of Ukraine’s GDP and makes a default of some kind very likely. The following graphic is from Capital Economics.

In normal circumstances Ukraine — and Ukrainian companies — could have gone to market and borrowed the money. Quite a few developing countries such as Lithuania recently tapped markets, others including Jamaica plan to do so. Ukraine’s problem is its refusal to toe the IMF line.  Agreeing to the IMF’s main demand to lift crippling gas subsidies would unlock a $15 billion loan programme, giving  access to the loan cash as well as to global bond markets. But removing subsidies would be political suicide ahead of elections in October.  And with the sovereign frozen out of bond markets, Ukrainian companies too will find it hard to raise cash.

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.

BRICS: future aid superpowers?

Britain’s aid programme for India hit the headlines this year, when New Delhi, much to the fury of the Daily Mail, described Britain’s £200 million annual aid to it as peanuts. Whether it makes sense to send money to a fast-growing emerging power that spends billions of dollars on arms is up for debate but few know that India has been boosting its own aid programme for other poor nations.  A report released today by NGO Global Health Strategies Initiatives (GHSi) finds that India’s foreign assistance grew 10.8 percent annually between 2005 and 2010.

The actual sums flowing from India are,  to use its own phrase, peanuts. The country provided $680 million in 2010. Compare that to the $3.2 billion annual contribution even from crisis-hit Italy. The difference is that Indian donations have risen from $443 million in 2005, while Italy’s have fallen 10 percent in this period, GHSi found. Indian aid has grown in fact at a rate 10 times that of the United States. Add to that Indian pharma companies’ contribution – the source of 60- 80 percent of the vaccines procured by United Nations agencies.

Other members of the BRICS group of developing countries are also stepping up overseas assistance, with a special focus on healthcare, the report said. BRICS leaders meet this week to ink a deal on setting up a BRICS development bank.