Global Investing

Emerging Policy-the big easing continues

The big easing continues. A major surprise today from the Bank of Thailand, which cut interest rates by 25 basis points to 2.75 percent.  After repeated indications  from Governor Prasarn Trairatvorakul that policy would stay unchanged for now, few had expected the bank to deliver its first rate cut since January.  But given the decision was not unanimous, it appears that Prasarn was overruled.  As in South Korea last week,  the need to boost domestic demand dictated the BoT’s decision. The Thai central bank  noted:

The majority of MPC members deemed that monetary policy easing was warranted to shore up domestic demand in the period ahead and ward off the potential negative impact from the global economy which remained weak and fragile.

Thailand expects GDP to grow 5.7 percent this year and Prasarn has cited robust credit demand as the reason to keep rates on hold. But there have been ominous signs of late — exports and factory output have now fallen for three months straight, which probably dictated today’s rate cut.  Remember that exports, mainly of industrial goods, account for 60 percent of Thai GDP and the outlook is perilous — the BOT has already halved its export growth forecast for 2012 to 7 percent and has said it will cut this estimate further.

Second, as in most places, pressure is growing from governments on central banks.  Radhika Rao, an economist with Forecast in Singapore says:

Official circles have been mounting pressure on the bank to keep its eyes trained on growth rather than price stability.

Emerging Policy: Rate cuts proliferate

Emerging market central banks have clearly taken to heart the recent IMF warning that there is “an alarmingly high risk”  of a deeper global growth slump.

Two central banks have cut interest rates in the past 24 hours: Brazil  extended its year-long policy easing campaign with a quarter point cut to bring interest rates to a record low 7.25 percent and the Bank of Korea (BoK) also delivered a 25 basis point cut to 2.75 percent.  All eyes now are on Singapore which is expected to ease monetary policy on Friday while Turkey could do so next week and a Polish rate cut is looking a foregone conclusion for November.

South Africa, Hungary, Colombia, China and Turkey have eased policy in recent months while India has cut bank reserve ratios to spur lending.

This week in EM, expect more doves

With the U.S. Fed having cranked up its printing presses, there seems little to stop emerging central banks from extending their own rate cut campaigns this week.

The most interesting meeting promises to be in the Czech Republic. We saw some extraordinary verbal intervention last week from Governor Miroslav Singer, implying not only a rate cut but also recourse to “unconventional” monetary loosening tools. Of the 21 analysts polled by Reuters, 18 are expecting a rate cut on Thursday to a record low 0.25 percent.  Indeed, in a world of currency wars, a rate cut could be just what the recession-mired Czech economy needs. But Singer’s deputy, Moimir Hampl,  has muddled the waters by refuting the need for any unusual policies or even rate cuts.  Expect a heated debate (forward markets are siding with Singer and pricing a rate cut).

Hungary is a closer call, with 16 out of 21 analysts in a Reuters poll predicting an on-hold decision. The central bank board (MPC) is split too. Analysts at investment bank SEB point out that last month’s somewhat surprising rate cut was down to the four central bank board members appointed by the government. These four outvoted Governor Andras Simor and his two deputies who had favoured holding rates steady, given rising inflation. (Inflation is running at 6 percent, double the target).  That could happen again, given the government just last week reiterated the need for “lower interest rates and ample credit.  So SEB analysts write:

Carry currencies to tempt central banks

Central bankers as carry traders? Why not.

As we wrote here yesterday, FX reserves at global central banks may be starting to rise again. That’s a consequence of a pick up in portfolio investment flows in recent weeks and is likely to continue after the U.S. Fed’s announcement of its QE3 money-printing programme.

According to analysts at ING, the Fed’s decision to restart its printing presses will first of all increase liquidity (some of which will find its way into central bank coffers). Second, it also tends to depress volatility and lower volatility encourages the carry trade. Over the next 12 months these  two themes will combine as global reserve managers twin their efforts to keep their money safe and still try to make a return, ING predicts, dubbing it a positive carry story.

The first problem is that yields are abysmal on traditional reserve currencies. That means any reserve managers keen to boost returns will try to diversify from the  dollar, euro, sterling and yen that constitute 90 percent of global reserves. Back in the spring of 2009 when the Fed scaled up QE1, its move depressed the dollar and drove reserve managers towards the euro, which was the most liquid alternative at the time. ING writes:

Norwegians piling into Korean bonds

One of the stories of this year has been the stupendous rally on emerging local currency debt, fuelled in part by inflows from institutional investors tired of their zero or negative-return investments in Western debt.  Norway’s sovereign wealth fund said last week for instance that it was dumping some European bonds and spending more of its $600 billion war chest in emerging markets.

Quite a bit of that cash is going to South Korea. Regulators in Seoul recently reported a hefty rise in foreigners’ bond holdings (see here for the Reuters story) and  Societe Generale has a note out dissecting the data, which shows that total foreign holdings of Korean bonds are now worth around $79 billion — back at levels seen last July.  Norwegians emerged as the biggest buyers last month,  picking up bonds worth 1.5 trillion won ($1.3 billion) , almost double what they purchased in the entire first half of 2012. Norway’s holdings of Korean Treasuries now total 2.29 trillion won, up from just 190 billion won at the end of 2011.

The growing interest from overseas investors would seem logical — South Korea stands on the cusp between emerging and developed markets, with sound policies, a current account surplus and huge currency reserves. And Socgen analyst Wee-Khoon Chong says the Norwegian crown’s recent strength against other currencies makes such overseas trades more attractive (the crown is up 6 percent versus the euro this year and has gained 5.3 percent to the Korean won). “Norwegians are the newbies into the KTB market,” Chong says. “They are probably recycling their FX reserves.”

Olympic medal winners — and economies — dissected

The Olympic medals have all been handed out and the athletes are on their way home.  Which countries surpassed expectations and which ones did worse than expected? And did this have anything to do with the state of their economies?

An extensive Goldman Sachs report entitled Olympics and Economics  (a regular feature before each Olympic Games) predicted before the Games kicked off that the United States would top the tally with 36 gold medals. It also said the top 10 would include five G7 countries (the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy), two BRICs (China and Russia), one of the developing countries it dubs Next-11  (South Korea), and one additional developed and emerging market. These would be Australia and Ukraine, it said.

Close enough, except that Hungary took the place of Ukraine as the emerging economy in the Top 10 and the United States actually took 46 gold medals — more than Goldman had predicted.

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.

India, a hawk among central bank doves

So India has not joined emerging central banks’ rate-cutting spree .  After recent rate cuts in Brazil, South Korea, South Africa, Philippines and Colombia, and others signalling their worries over the state of economic growth,  hawks are in short supply among the world’s increasingly dovish central banks. But the Reserve Bank of India is one.

With GDP growth slowing to  10-year lows, the RBI would dearly love to follow other central banks in cutting rates.  But its pointed warning on inflation on the eve of today’s policy meeting practically sealed the meeting’s outcome. Interest rates have duly been kept on hold, though in a nod to the tough conditions, the RBI did ease banks’ statutory liquidity ratio. The move will free up some more cash for lending.

What is more significant is that the RBI has revised up its inflation forecast for the coming year by half a  percentage point, and in a post-meeting statement said rate cuts at this stage would do little to boost flagging growth. That, to many analysts, is a signal the bank will provide little monetary accommodation in coming months. and may force  markets to pedal back on their expectation of 100 basis points of rate cuts in the next 12 months.  Anubhuti Sahay at Standard Chartered in Mumbai says:

South Africa’s joins the rate cutting spree

Another central bank has caved in and cut interest rates — South Africa lowered its key rate to a record low of 5 percent at Thursday’s meeting. In doing so, the central bank noted growth was slowing further. ”Negative spillover effects (from the global economy)  likely to intensify,” it said.

Very few analysts had predicted this outcome, reckoning the central bank (or SARB as it’s known) would hold fire until its next meeting due to concerns over the currency and inflation.  But in fact, forward markets had guessed a cut was coming, especially after June inflation was lower than expected. And after all, even the conservative Bank of Korea cut rates last week to buck up domestic growth and compensate for slumping exports.  There have also been some policy easing in Taiwan and Philippines in the past week while earlier on Thursday, Turkey’s central bank unleashed more liquidity into the banking system. Kevin Lings, chief economist at Stanlib in Johannesburg says:

(South Africa’s rate cut) would suggest that the Reserve Bank feels they are a little bit behind the curve when they look at interest rate movements in other countries and hence the decision.

More EM central banks join the easing crew

Taiwan and Philippines have joined the easing crew. Taiwan cut interbank lending rates for the first time in 33 months on Friday while Philippines lowered the rate it pays banks on short-term special deposits. Hardly surprising. Given South Koreas’s shock rate cut on Thursday, its first in over three years, and China’s two rate cuts in quick succession, the spread of monetary easing across Asia looks inevitable. Markets are now betting the Reserve Bank of India will also cut rates in July.

And not just in Asia. Brazil last week cut rates for the eighth straight time  and Russia’s central bank, while holding rates steady,  amended its language to signal it was amenable to changing its policy stance if required.

Worries about a growth collapse are clearly gathering pace. So how much room do central banks have to cut rates? Compared with Europe or the United States, certainly a lot.  And with the exception of Indonesia and Philippines, interest rates in most countries are well above 2009 crisis lows.  But Deutsche Bank analysts, who applied a variation of the Taylor rule (a monetary policy parameter stipulating how much nominal interest rates can be changed relative to inflation or output), conclude that in Asia, only Vietnam and Thailand have much room to cut rates. Malaysia and China have less scope to do so and the others not at all (Their model did not work well for India).