Global Investing

Discovering Pyongyang’s view with a North Korean diplomat

Last week I went to a very unique session on North Korea which featured a rare appearance of a North Korean diplomat, at London-based policy institute Chatham House.

A wide range of topics — from North-South relations, human rights, a potential nuclear test to a new generation of young diplomats — were discussed, but  under the so-called Chatham House rules (meaning I cannot reveal who said what).

Participants discussed how Pyongyang’s relationship with South Korea and the United States has been deteriorating as both sides exchange some pretty acrid verbal attacks. For instance earlier this month North Korea’s official KCNA called  South Korean President Park Geun-hye a “political prostitute” while it described U.S. President Barack Obama as a “wicked black monkey”.  South Korean Ministry of Defence spokesman Kim Min-seok for his part, had retorted that North Korea wasn’t a real country and that it existed solely to prop up a single person.

The North’s argument is that all those abusive comments were made by members of the North Korean public and were just reported by the KCNA.

The country has been defensive over allegations of human rights abuses in North Korea, though it admits not all is perfect in the country. This stance perhaps explains a recent move by Pyongyang to agree to review some of the U.N. recommendations to improve human rights in the country.

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.

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.

Weekly Radar: Watch the thought bubbles…

Far from the rules of the dusty old investment almanac, it’s up, up and away in May after all. And judging by the latest batch of economic data, markets may well have had good reason to look beyond the global economic ‘soft patch’ – with US employment, Chinese trade and even German and British industry data all coming in with positive surprises since last Friday. Is QE gaining traction at last?

Well, it’s still hard to tell yet in the real economy that continues to disappont overall. But what’s certain is that monetary easing is contagious and not about to stop in the foreseeable future – whether there’s signs of a growth stabilisation or not. With the Fed, BoJ and BoE still on full throttle and the ECB cutting interest rates again last week, monetary easing is fanning out across the emerging markets too. South Korea was the latest to surprise with a rate cut on Thursday, in part to keep a lid on its won currency after Japan’s effective maxi devaluation over the past six months. But Poland too cut rates on Wednesday. And emerging markets, which slipped into the red for the year in February, have at last moved back into the black – even if still far behind year-to-date gains in developed market equities of about 16%!

Not only have we got new records on Wall St and fresh multi-year highs in Europe and Japan, there’s little sign that either this weekend’s meeting in London of G7 finance chiefs or next weekend’s G20 sherpas gathering in Moscow will want to signal a shift  in the monetary stance. If anything, they may codify the recent tilt toward easier austerity deadlines in Europe and elsewhere. But inevitably talk of unintended consequences of QE and bubbles will build again now as both equity and debt markets race ahead , even if the truth is that asset managers have been remarkably defensive so far this year in asset, sector and geographical choices …  one can only guess at what might happen if they did actually start to get aggressive! Perhaps the next pause will have to come from the Fed thinking aloud again about the longevity of its QE programme — so best watch those thought bubbles!

Amid yen weakness, some Asian winners

Asian equity markets tend to be casualties of weak yen. That has generally been the case this time too, especially for South Korea.

Data from our cousins at Lipper offers some evidence to ponder, with net outflows from Korean equity funds at close to $700 million in the first three months of the year. That’s the equivalent of about 4 percent of the total assets held by those funds. The picture was more stark for Taiwan funds, for whom a similar net outflow equated to almost 10 percent of total AuM. Look more broadly though and the picture blurs; Asia ex-Japan equity funds have seen net inflows of more than $3 billion in the first three months of the year, according to Lipper data.

Analysts polled by Reuters see more drops ahead for the yen which they predict will trade around 102 per dollar by year-end (it was at 77.4 last September). Some banks such as Societe Generale expect a 110 exchange rate and therefore recommend being short on Chinese, Korean and Taiwanese equities.

Asia’s credit explosion

Whatever is happening to all those Asian savers? Apparently they are turning into big time borrowers.

RBS contends in a note today that in a swathe of Asian countries (they exclude China and South Korea) bank deposits are not keeping pace with credit which has expanded in the past three years by up to 40 percent.

Some of this clearly is down to slowing exports and a greater focus on the domestic consumer.  Credit levels are also rising overall in these economies because of borrowing for big infrastructure projects.  But there are signs too that credit conditions are too loose.

Hyundai hits a roadbump

The issue of the falling yen is focusing many minds these days, nowhere more than in South Korea where exporters of goods such as cars and electronics often compete closely with their Japanese counterparts. These companies got a powerful reminder today of the danger in which they stand — quarterly profits from Hyundai fell sharply in the last quarter of 2012.  (See here to read what we wrote about this topic last week)

Korea’s won currency has been strong against the dollar too, gaining 8 percent to the greenback last year. In the meantime the yen fell 16 percent against the dollar in 2012 and is expected to weaken further. Analysts at Morgan Stanley pointed out in a recent note that since June 2012, Korean stocks have underperformed Japan, corresponding to the yen’s 22 percent depreciation in this period. Their graphic below shows that the biggest underperformers were consumer discretionary stocks (a category which includes auto and electronics manufacturers). Incidentally, Hyundai along with Samsung, makes up a fifth of the Seoul market’s capitalisation.

Shares in Hyundai and its Korean peer Kia have fared worst among major global automakers for the past three months – down 5 percent and 18 percent, respectively.  Both companies expect sales this year to be the slowest in a decade. Toyota on the other hand has risen 30 percent and expects to reach the top spot in terms of world sales for the first time since 2010.

Korean exporters’ yen nightmare (corrected)

(corrects name of hedge fund in para 3 to Symphony Financial Partners)

Any doubt about the importance of a weaker yen in thawing the frozen Japanese economy will have been dispelled by the Nikkei’s surge to 32-month highs this week. Since early December, when it became clear an incoming Shinzo Abe administration would do its best to weaken the yen, the equity index has surged as the yen has fallen.

Those moves are giving sleepless nights to Japan’s neighbours who are watching their own currencies appreciate versus the yen. South Korean companies, in particular, from auto to electronics manufacturers, must be especially worried. They had a fine time in recent years  as the yen’s strength since 2008 allowed them to gain market share overseas. But since mid-2012, the won has appreciated 22 percent versus the yen.  In this period, MSCI Korea has lagged the performance of MSCI Japan by 20 percent. Check out the following graphic from my colleague Vincent Flasseur (@ReutersFlasseur)

David Baran, co-founder of Tokyo-based Symphony Financial Partners, notes the relative performance of Hyundai and Toyota (Hyundai shares have fallen 2.5 percent this year adding to 13.5 percent loss in the last quarter of 2012. Toyota on the other hand is up 5 percent so far in 2013 after gaining 31 percent in Oct-Dec last year). Baran says he has gone long the Nikkei and short the Seoul index (the Kospi) and (Hong Kong’s) Hang Seng, while taking a short position on the yen. He says:

A yen for emerging markets

Global Investing has written several times about Japanese mom-and-pop investors’  adventures in emerging markets. Most recently, we discussed how the new government’s plan to prod the Bank of Japan into unlimited monetary easing could turn more Japanese into intrepid yield hunters.  Here’s an update.

JP Morgan analysts calculate that EM-dedicated Japanese investment trusts, known as toshin, have seen inflows of $7 billion ever since the U.S. Fed announced its plan to embark on open-ended $40-billion-a-month money printing.  That’s taken their assets under management to $67 billion. And in the week ended Jan 2, Japanese flows to emerging markets amounted to $234 million, they reckon. This should pick up once the yen debasement really gets going — many are expecting a 100 yen per dollar exchange rate by end-2013  (it’s currently at 88).

At present, the lion’s share of Japanese toshin holdings — over $40 billion of it — are in hard currency emerging debt, JP Morgan says (see graphic).

The Watanabes are coming

With Shinzo Abe’s new government intent on prodding the Bank of Japan into unlimited monetary easing, it is hardly surprising that the yen has slumped to two-year lows against the dollar. This could lead to even more flows into overseas markets from Japanese investors seeking higher-yield homes for their money.

Japanese mom-and-pop investors — known collectively as Mrs Watanabe -  have for years been canny players of currency and interest rate arbitrage. In recent years they have stepped away from old favourites, New Zealand and Australia, in favour of emerging markets such as Brazil, South Africa and Turkey. (See here  to read Global Investing’s take on Mrs Watanabe’s foray into Turkey). Flows from Japan stalled somewhat in the wake of the 2010 earthquake but EM-dedicated Japanese investment trusts, known as toshin, remain a mighty force, with estimated assets of over $64 billion.  Analysts at JP Morgan noted back in October that with the U.S. Fed’s QE3 in full swing, more Japanese cash had started to flow out.

That trickle shows signs of  becoming a flood. Nikko Asset Management, the country’s third  biggest money manager, said this week that retail investors had poured $2.3 billion into a mutual fund that invests in overseas shares — the biggest  subscription since October 2006. This fund’s model portfolio has a 64 percent weighting to U.S. shares, 14 percent to Mexico and 10 percent to Canada while the rest is split between Latin American countries.