Global Investing

Steroids, punch bowls and the music still playing: stocks dance into 2014

Four years into the stock market party fueled by a punch bowl overflowing with trillions of dollars of central bank liquidity, you’d think a hangover might be looming.

But almost all of the fund managers attending the London leg of the Reuters Global Investment Summit this week – with some $4 trillion of assets under management – say the party will continue into 2014.

Pascal Blanque, chief investment officer at Amundi Asset Management with over $1 trillion of assets under management, reckons markets are in a “sweet spot … largely on steroids with the backing of the central banks.”

If their collective benign world view pans out, the S&P 500 will comfortably post double-digit gains next year.

This despite having already tripled in just four years and chalked up a near 30-percent gain this year – its best year in a decade – to hit a record high above 1800 points. It’s been 18 months since the index chalked up a 10 percent correction.

Value or growth? The dichotomy of emerging market shares

Investors in emerging markets are facing a tough choice. Should one buy cheap shares in the hope that poor corporate governance and profitability will improve some day? Or is it better to close one’s eyes and buy into expensively valued companies that sell mobile telephones, holidays and handbags — all the things high-spending emerging market consumers hanker after?

At the moment, investors are plumping for the latter, growth-at-any price investment strategy. Result: a lopsided emerging equity index in which consumer discretionary shares are up more than 5 percent this year, energy shares have lost 7 percent while MSCI’s benchmark emerging equity index is down 3 percent.

All markets have their share of cheap and expensive. But the dichotomy in emerging markets is especially stark. Analysis by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch of the biggest 100 emerging market companies revealed last week that the 20 most expensive stocks in this bucket are trading 11 times book value and 31 times earnings (both on trailing basis) while forward earnings-per-share (EPS) is seen at almost 30 percent. The top-20 companies all belong to the private sector and most are in the consumer-facing industries.  This year they have gained more than 50 percent.

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”:

A boost for cheap emerging equities. So will they bite?

Emerging stocks have rallied 3 percent today after the Fed’s startling decision to leave its $85 billion-a month money-printing in place, and some markets such as Turkey are up more than 7 percent. With the first Fed hike now expected to come in 2015 and tapering starting only from December, emerging markets have effectively received a three month breather. So will the buyers return?

A lot of folks have been banging the drum about how cheap emerging markets are these days. But imminent Fed tapering has been scaring away any who might have been tempted. Plus there is the economic growth slowdown that could knock profit margins at emerging market companies. Bank of America/Merrill Lynch which runs a closely watched monthly survey of fund managers shows just in the following graphic how unloved the sector is relative to history:

So should people be buying? BofA/ML certainly thinks so: its strategist Ajay Kapur suggests emerging stocks are 20 percent undervalued. He acknowledges all the risks out there but reckons they are all in the price by now:

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:

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.

BRIC shares? At the right price

Is the price right? Many reckon that the sell off in emerging markets and growing disenchantment with the developing world’s growth story is lending fresh validity to the value-based investing model.

That’s especially so for the four BRIC economies, where shares have underperformed for years thanks either to an over-reliance on commodities, excessive valuations conferred by a perception of fast growth or simply dodgy corporate governance. Now with MSCI’s emerging equity index down 30 percent from 2007 peaks, prices are looking so beaten down that some players, even highly unlikely ones, are finding value.

Societe Generale’s perma-bear Albert Edwards is one. Okay, he still calls the bloc Bloody Ridiculous Investment Concept but he reckons that share valuations are inching into territory where some buying might just be justified. Edwards notes that it was ultra-cheap share valuations in the early 2000s that set the stage for the sector’s stellar gains over the following decade, rather than any turbo-charged economic growth rates. So if MSCI’s emerging equity index is trading around 10 times forward earnings, that’s a 30 percent discount to the developed index, the biggest in a very long time. And valuations are lower still in Russia and Brazil.

Weekly Radar: A ‘sudden stop’ in emerging markets?

Turkey’s lira, South Africa’s rand and South Korea’s won have all lunged, local currency debt yields have suddenly surged, there’s an intense investor focus on domestic political risks again and governments like Brazil who were taxing what they feared were excessive foreign investment over the past couple of years have U-turned as those flows evaporate. 

What some have feared for many months may well be materializing – a ‘sudden stop’ in financing flows to emerging markets as the makings of a perfect storm gathers. With the Fed mulling some reduction in the amount of dollars it’s pumping into the world, the prospect of a rare and protracted rise in the dollar and U.S. Treasury yields potentially changes entire EM investment metrics for U.S. funds (who make up almost half of the world’s private institutional investors) and from markets which have willingly or not been some of the biggest beneficiaries of QE in recent years but also to where where , by some estimates, nearly $8 trillion of FDI and portfolio flows have flowed over the past decade. It doesn’t even have to mean a reversal of capital already in emerging markets, but even a sudden stop in new flows there could seriously undermine the currency and debt markets of countries heavily dependent on rolling foreign financing – those with large current account gaps to finance. As emerging and global economic growth has eased and return on equity sinks, emerging equity markets have already underperformed for three years now. But the biggest wave of recent investment in EM had been into its bond markets, most recently to higher-yielding local-currency debt markets. And it’s these flows that could dry up rather quickly and shockingly, with all the attendant pressure on currency rates and vice versa. For context, a record of more than $410 billion new sovereign and corporate bonds from emerging economies were sold last year alone, according to JPMorgan, and Morgan Stanley estimates show emerging companies alone have sold some $130 billion worth of new debt so far this year – up 30 percent on last year and more than twice the same period in 2011.
               Already we’re seeing big hits to big current account deficit countries Turkey and South Africa in this region and, as is so often the case in emerging markets, the withdrawal of capital leads to an intense focus on domestic and political risks. These are two of the five biggest destination for bond flows over the past four years, a list –measured on flows as share of GDP – also includes Poland and Czech Republic. Mexico is top of the list, but many see its geographic and financial proximity to the US insulating it.

               So, is this a 1997/1998 redux? That’s certainly a big fear. The similarities are obvious – building dollar strength, higher US Treasury yields and a repatriation of US investment to a domestic ‘emerging market’ (Silicone Valley and the dot.coms in the late 1990s); a sharp drop in Japan’s yen which upset the competitive landscape in Asia; narrowing global growth differentials; some signs of excessive monetary easing in emerging economies and concern about credit bubbles in China and elsewhere; the sudden magnifying of domestic political, social and policy risks etc etc.