Global Investing

Anticipating the fallout from South Africa’s ratings reviews

South Africa is due ratings reviews this Friday. Chances are that the Standard & Poor’s agency will cut its BBB rating by one, or possibly even two notches.  Another agency Fitch has a stable outlook on the rating but could still choose to downgrade the rating rather than the outlook. What will be the damage?

There is undoubtedly a link between ratings and bond prices.  So a one-notch ratings downgrade tends to lead to roughly a 20 percent increase in bond yield spreads and credit default swaps (instruments that are used to hedge against default), according to calculations by JPMorgan. But in South Africa the lower credit rating may already be already reflected in asset prices — Panama, Brazil, Colombia, Philippines, Uruguay, Indonesia, and Romania carry lower sovereign credit ratings but boast lower CDS and dollar bond yield premia over Treasuries.  Russia and Turkey have lower average ratings than South Africa but their debt and CDS spreads  are roughly on the same level.

So a ratings cut is unlikely to trigger huge outflows from South African debt markets, says JPMorgan, which runs the most widely used emerging bond indices. In Brazil for instance, a well-anticipated  downgrade back in March did not lead to significant cash outflows from its markets, JPM points out:

The current relationships between spreads and ratings do not necessarily imply another step wider in South Africa’s spreads until it is firmly sub-investment grade (not J.P. Morgan’s base case).

Secondly, even after a downgrade to BBB-, South Africa would still be rated investment grade, so investors will not be required to sell their holdings.  On local currency debt, South Africa is rated A- from S&P so a 1- or even 2-notch downgrade should have no technical impact the bank argues.

The hit from China’s growth slowdown

China’s slowing economy is raising concern about the potential spillovers beyond its shores, in particular the impact on other emerging markets. Because developing countries have over the past decade significantly boosted exports to China to offset slow growth in the West and Japan, these countries are unquestionably vulnerable to a Chinese slowdown. But how big will the hit be?

Goldman Sachs analysts have crunched the numbers to show which markets and regions could be hardest hit. On the face of it non-Japan Asia should be most worried — exports to China account for almost 3 percent of GDP while in Latin America it is 2 percent and in emerging Europe, Middle East and Africa (CEEMEA) it is just 1.1 percent, their data shows.

But they warn that standard trade stats won’t tell the whole story. That’s because a high proportion of EM exports are re-processed in other countries before reaching China which in turn often re-works them for re-export to the developed world. In other words, exports to China from say, Taiwan, may be driven not so much by Chinese demand but by demand for goods in the United States or Europe. So gross trade data may actually be overstating a country’s vulnerability to a Chinese slowdown.

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:

Turkey’s central bank — a little more action please

In the selloff gripping emerging markets, one currency is conspicuous by its absence — the Turkish lira. But this will change unless the central bank adds significantly to its successful lira-defensive measures.

Hopefully at today’s policy meeting.

Like India or Indonesia which have borne the brunt of the recent rout, Turkey has a large current account deficit, equating to over 5 percent of its economic output. But what has made the difference for the lira is the contrast between the Turkish central bank’s decisive policy tightening moves and the ham-fisted tactics employed by India and Brazil.  (We wrote here about this).  See the following graphic (from Citi) that shows the central bank has effectively raised the effective cost of funding by 200 basis points to around 6.5 percent since its July 23 meeting.

 

Guillaume Salomon, a strategist at Societe Generale calls Turkey the “success story” given the relatively stable lira and expects the bank to raise the upper band of its interest rate corridor by another 50 basis points at least. He says:

Russia — the one-eyed emerging market among the blind

It’s difficult to find many investors who are enthusiastic about Russia these days. Yet it may be one of the few emerging markets  that is relatively safe from the effects of “sudden stops” in foreign investment flows.

Russia’s few fans always point to its cheap valuations –and these days Russian shares, on a price-book basis, are trading an astonishing 52 percent below their own 10-year history, Deutsche Bank data shows.  Deutsche is sticking to its underweight recommendation on Russia but notes that Russia has:

“become so unpopular with the investor community that it is a candidate for the ‘it’s so bad it’s good’ club as evidenced by the very cheap valuations and long-term  underperformance.

South Africa may need pre-emptive rate strike

Should South Africa’s central bank — the SARB – strike first with an interest rate hike before being forced into it?  Gill Marcus and her team started their two-day policy meeting today and no doubt have been keeping an eye on happenings in Turkey, a place where a pre-emptive rate hike (instead of blowing billions of dollars in reserves) might have saved the day.

The SARB is very different from Turkey’s central bank in that it is generally less concerned about currency weakness due to the competitiveness boost a weak rand gives the domestic mining sector. This time things might be a bit different. The bank is battling not only anaemic growth but also rising inflation that may soon bust the upper end of its 3-6 percent target band thanks to a rand that has weakened 15  percent to the dollar this year.

Interest rates of 5 percent, moreover, look too low in today’s world of higher borrowing costs  – real interest rates in South Africa are already negative while 10-year yields are around 2.5 percent (1.5 percent in the United States). So any rise in inflation from here will leave the currency dangerously exposed.

The Sub-Saharan frontier: future generations

As growth in Sub-Saharan Africa is set to post a steady 5-6 percent per annum to 2017 according to IMF estimates,  investors will be taking notes on the region’s growth story not least with the financial sector.

Growth projections have rebounded from forecasts of around a 3 percent rise in 2009 after falling commodity prices have hit one of the region’s main revenue sources. Yet, according to the World Bank’s recent Global Development Finance report, stronger commodities will firm growth prospects in the coming years. In recent weeks, commodities have dipped, dampening the outlook for some resource-rich countries, but as 76 percent of the region’s population do not have access to a bank account, lenders are set to grow their presence in the region.

Julius Baer notes the region’s market potential:

Since 2002, resource-hungry China has swept across a by-and-large grateful African continent, taking oil and minerals in exchange for debt relief, low-interest loans, or much needed infrastructure, such as roads, ports and housing.

South Africa’s perfect storm

Of all the emerging currency and bond markets that are feeling the heat from the dollar’s rise, none is suffering more than South Africa. A series of horrific economic data prints at home, the prospect of more labour unrest and the slump in metals prices are making this a perfect storm for the country’s financial markets.

Some worrying data from the Johannesburg Stock Exchange this morning shows that foreigners sold almost 5 billion rand (more than $500 million) worth of bonds during yesterday’s session alone. Over the past 10 days, non-resident selling amounted to 10.7 billion rand. They have also yanked out 1.2 billion rand from South African equities in this time. And at the root of this exodus lies the rand, which has fallen almost 15 percent against the dollar this year. Now apparently headed for the 10-per-dollar mark, the rand’s weakness has eaten into investors’ total return, tipping it into negative return for the year.

What a contrast with last year, when a record 93 billion rand flooded into the country on the back of its inclusion in Citi’s prestigious WGBI bond index.  That lifted foreign holdings of South African bonds to well over a third of the total. Investors at the time were more willing to turn a blind eye to the rand’s lacklustre performance, liking its relatively high yield and betting on interest rate cuts to help the duration component of the trade.

South African rand slides as labour unrest grows

The South African rand has lost most ground amongst emerging market currencies, according to Reuters data, falling almost 10 percent so far this year to hit 4-year lows against the dollar.

That is perhaps not so surprising given the country’s high level of dependence on the minerals and mining sectors, which have been disrupted by labour strikes along the same lines evident in the summer of 2012. Lonmin, the world’s third largest producer of metal, said it stopped its production of its Marikana mine near Rustenburg following strikes over wages.

 

Net commodity exports – Morgan Stanley and UNCTAD

With the metals and mining sectors accounting for 60 percent of South Africa’s exports, the strong relationship between these sectors and the rand is not surprising. A falling currency has a knock-on effect of facilitating inflation, especially as imports grew faster than exports for the first quarter of 2013. Meanwhile platinum prices have been in a gradual downwards trend since February.

Rand: the only way is south

Any hopes of policy support for the rand from the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) have vanished.  The currency fell 1 percent after yesterday’s SARB meeting where  Governor Gill Marcus made it clear she would not be standing in the way of the rand’s move south. It is now trading at 9.32 per dollar.

More losses look likely, especially if foreign bond investors throw in the towel, a move which analysts at Societe Generale liken to “the market equivalent of a volcanic eruption”. Foreigners, after all, own more than 36 percent of the 1 trillion-rand market in local currency sovereign bonds.

Bearishness appears to have escalated since a Reuters poll of 32 analysts conducted in early-March.  Back then the mean forecast for the rand’s exchange rate in a month’s time was 8.94 per dollar, the poll found.  The 12-month mean forecast was for 8.787.