Global Investing

Perfect storm brewing for the rouble

A perfect storm seems to be brewing for the Russian rouble. It has tumbled to four-year lows against a euro-dollar basket. Against the dollar, it has lost around 7 percent so far this year, faring better than many other emerging currencies. But signs are that next year will bring more turmoil.

While oil prices, the mainstay of Russia’s economy, are holding up, Russian growth is not. It is running at 1.3 percent so far this year and capital outflows continue unabated — $48 billion is estimated to have fled the country in the first nine months of 2013 compared with $55 billion in 2012. Russia’s mighty current account surplus has shrunk to barely nothing and could fall into deficit by the middle of next year, reckons Alfa Bank economist Natalia Orlova. Finally, the rouble can no longer count on the central bank for wholehearted day-to-day support. FX market interventions cost the bank $3.5 billion last month  but it also shifted the exchange-rate corridor upwards six times, indicating it is keen to move to a fully flexible currency.

Orlove also estimates that around $150 billion in overseas debt payments are due in 2014 for Russian corporates. She adds:

This is going to be an issue and given that the central bank is actively promoting inflation targeting, the market should prepare for higher rouble volatility.

There is one other major risk. Russian rouble bonds have become the must-have component of every emerging bond portfolio after Moscow made its debt eligible for processing via the major Western clearing houses Euroclear and Clearstream. As a result foreigners’ share of the Russian bond market has rocketed to over 25 percent from around 5 percent in early-2012.

Beaten-down emerging equities may not be all that cheap

It’s generally accepted these days that emerging equities are cheap and that value-focused investors should consider buying. But some disagree  — analysts at UBS say the alleged cheapness of EM equities rings hollow when you look at the return-on-equity on emerging companies. They don’t dispute that the market has de-rated significantly on price-earnings and price-book metrics (at 10.5 times and 1.5 times respectively, they are well below long-term averages). But they argue that these have not been excessive when compared to the decline in profitability.  Emerging return-on-equity pre-crisis was usually higher than developed. Once at a lofty 17 percent, emerging ROE now languishes at 12.7 percent, almost on par with ROE for developed companies. Check out this graphic:

Multiples in EM have de-rated in only lock step with the de-rating in  margins and RoEs relative to the developed world  (UBS write)

UBS also point out, quite correctly, that not all emerging markets are cheap — while some indices such as Russia and China are indeed inexpensive, others such as Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia are very expensive.   Sectors such as energy and materials, hostage to the global growth picture, are cheap but “outside of this, EM is not cheap; indeed even on a purely historical comparison it is expensive,” UBS says.

Turkish savers hang onto dollars

As in many countries with memories of hyperinflation and currency collapse, Turkey’s middle class have tended to hold at least part of their savings in hard currency. But unlike in Russia and Argentina, Turkish savers’ propensity to save in dollars has on occasion proved helpful to companies and the central bank. That’s because many Turks, rather than just accumulating dollars, have evolved into savvy players of exchange rate swings and often use sharp falls in the lira to sell their dollars and buy back the local currency. Hence Turks’ hard currency bank deposits, estimated at between $70-$100 billion –  on a par with central bank reserves — have acted as a buffer of sorts, stabilising the lira when it falls past a certain level.

But back in 2011, when the lira was in the eye of another emerging markets storm, we noticed how some Turks had become strangely reluctant to sell dollars. And during this year’s bout of lira weakness too, Turkish savers have not stepped up to help out the central bank, research by Barclays finds. Instead they are accumulating dollars — “rather than being contrarian, their behaviour now seems aligned with global capital flows,” Barclays  analysts write. While the lira has weakened to record lows this year, data from UBS shows that the dollarisation ratio, the percentage of bank deposits in foreign currency, has actually crept up to 37.6 percent from 34.5 percent at the start of the year. Here’s a Barclays graphic that illustrates the shift.

What are the reasons for the turnaround? In the past, those selling dollars to buy back cheap lira could be confident they would not be out of pocket because the central bank would support the lira with higher interest rates.  But ever since end-2010, when the bank embarked on a policy of determinedly keeping interest rates low, they no longer have this assurance. Barclays write:

Emerging markets’ export problem

Taiwan’s forecast-beating export data today came as a pleasant surprise amid the general emerging markets economic gloom.  In a raft of developing countries, from South Korea to Brazil, from Malaysia to the Czech Republic, export data has disappointed. HSBC’s monthly PMI index showed this month that recovery remains subdued.

With Europe still in the doldrums, this is not totally unsurprising. But economists are growing increasingly concerned because the lack of export growth coindides with a nascent U.S. recovery. Clearly EM is failing to ride the US coattails.

Does all this confirm the gloomy prediction made last month by Morgan Stanley’s chief emerging markets economist, Manoj Pradhan. Pradhan reckons that a U.S. economy in recovery would be a competitor rather than a client for emerging markets, as  the world’s biggest economy tries to reinvent itself as a manufacturing power and shifts away from consumption-led growth. It is the latter that helped underwrite the export-led emerging market boom of the past decade.

Less yen for carry this time

The Bank of Japan unleashed its full firepower this week, pushing the yen to 3-1/2 year lows of 97 per dollar.  Year-to-date, the currency is down 11 percent to the dollar. But those hoping for a return to the carry trade boom of yesteryear may wait in vain.

The weaker yen of pre-crisis years was a strong plus for emerging assets, especially for high-yield currencies. Japanese savers chased rising overseas currencies by buying high-yield foreign bonds and as foreigners sold used cheap yen funding for interest rate carry trades. But there’s been little sign of a repeat of that behaviour as the yen has fallen sharply again recently .

Most emerging currencies are flatlining this year and some such as the Korean won and Taiwan dollar are deep in the red. The first reason is dollar strength of course, but there are other issues. Take equities — clearly some cash at the margins is rotating out to Japan, where equity mutual funds have received $14 billion over the past 16 weeks.  While the Nikkei is up 21 percent, Asian indices are broadly flat. In South Korea whose auto firms such as Hyundai and Kia compete with Japan’s Toyota and Honda, shares are bleeding foreign cash. The exodus has helped push the won down 5 percent to the dollar in 2013.

Using sterling to buy emerging markets

Sterling looks likely to be one of this year’s big G10 currency casualties (the other being  yen).  Having lost 7 percent against the dollar and 5.5 percent to the euro so far this year on fear of a British triple-dip recession, sterling probably has further to fall.  (see here for my colleague Anirban Nag’s take on sterling’s outlook).

Many see an opportunity here — as a convenient funding currency to invest in emerging markets. A funding currency requires low interest rates that can bankroll purchases of higher-yielding assets including stocks, other currencies, bonds and commodities. Sterling ticks those boxes.  A funding  currency must also not be subject to any appreciation risk for the duration of the trade. And here too, sterling appears to win, as the Bank of England’s remit widens to give it more leeway on monetary easing.

All in all, it’s a better option than the U.S. dollar, which was most used in recent years, or the pre-crisis favourite of the Swiss franc, says Bernd Berg, head of emerging FX strategy at Credit Suisse Private Bank.

Indian markets and the promise of reform

What a difference a few months have made for Indian markets.

The rupee is 8 percent up from last summer’s record lows. Foreigners have ploughed $17 billion into Indian stocks and bonds since Sept 2012 and foreign ownership of Indian shares is at a record high 22.7 percent, Morgan Stanley reckons.  And all it has taken to change the mood has been the announcement of a few reforms (allowing foreign direct investment into retail, some fuel and rail price hikes and raising FDI limits in some sectors). A controversial double taxation law has been pushed back.  The government has sold some stakes in state-run companies (it offloaded 10 percent of Oil India last week, netting $585 million).  If the measures continue, the central bank may cut interest rates further.

Above all, there have been promises-a-plenty on fiscal consolidation.

The promises are not new. Only this time, investors appear to believe Finance Minister P. Chidambaram.

Chidambaram who was on a four-city roadshow to promote India to investors, pledged in a Reuters interview last week not to cross the “red line” of a 5.3 percent deficit for this year in the Feb 28 budget. Standard Chartered, one of the banks that organised Chidambaram’s roadshow, sent out a note entitled: “The finance minister means business”.

Rupiah decline – don’t worry

Indonesia has just given the go-ahead for another leg down in the rupiah. It has cut its forecasts for the exchange rate to 9,700 per dollar compared to the 9,200 level at which the central bank used to step in. The currency has duly weakened and nervous foreigners have rushed to hedge exposure — 3-month NDFs price the rupiah at almost 10,000 to the dollar. The  rupiah last week hit a three-year low, its weakness coming on top of a dismal 2012 which saw it fall 6 percent as the current account deficit worsened. Traders in Jakarta are reporting dollar hoarding by exporters.

All that is spooking foreigners who own more than 30 percent of the domestic bond market. The currency weakness hit them hard last year as Indonesian bonds returned just 6 percent, a third of the sector’s 16 percent average (see graphic).

The central bank does not seem perturbed by the currency weakness. Luckily for it, inflation rates are still benign, which means a weak currency will probably remain in favour.

Tide turning for emerging currencies, local debt

Emerging market currencies have been a source of frustration for investors this year. With central banks overwhelmingly in rate-cutting mode and export growth slowing, most currencies have performed poorly. That has been a bit of a dampener for local currency debt –  while returns in dollar terms have been robust at 13 percent, currency appreciation has contributed just 1.5 percent of that, according to JP Morgan.

 

 

The picture could be changing though.  Fund managers at the Reuters 2013 investment outlook summit this week have been unanimously bullish on emerging debt, with many stating a preference for domestic debt. So far this year, dollar debt has taken in three-quarters of all inflows to emerging fixed income.

Andreas Uterman, CIO of Allianz Global Investors told the summit in London that many emerging currencies looked significantly undervalued, and that this anomaly would gradually resolve itself:

Risks loom for South Africa’s bond rally

Investors are wondering how much longer the rally in South Africa’s local bond markets will last.

The market has received inflows of over $7.5 billion year-to-date, having benefited hugely from Citi’s April announcement that it would include South Africa in its elite World Government Bond Index (WGBI).  But like many other emerging markets, South Africa has also gained from international investors’ hunger for higher-yielding bonds. And the central bank’s surprise rate cut last week was the icing on the cake, sending 5-year yields plunging another 30 basis points.

There are some headwinds however. First positioning. Around a third of government bonds are already estimated to be in foreigners’ hands. Second, markets may be pricing in too much policy easing (Forward rate agreements are assigning a 77  percent probability of another 50 bps rate cut within the next six months).  That’s especially so given local wheat and maize prices have been hitting record highs in recent weeks.