Global Investing

Poland, the lonely inflation targeter

Is the National Bank of Poland (NBP) the last inflation-targeting central bank still standing?

The bank shocked many today with a quarter point rate rise, naming stubbornly high inflation as the reason, and signalling that more tightening is on its way. The NBP has sounded hawkish in recent weeks but few had actually expected it to carry through its threat to raise rates. Economic indicators of late have been far from cheerful – just hours after the rate rise, data showed Polish car production slumped 30 percent in April from year-ago levels. PMI numbers last week pointed to further deterioration ahead for manufacturing. And sitting as it does on the euro zone’s doorstep, Poland will be far more vulnerable than Brazil or Russia to any new setback in Greece. Its action therefore deserves praise, says Benoit Anne, head of emerging markets strategy at Societe Generale.

(Poland’s central bank) is one of the last orthodox inflation-targeting central banks in the global emerging market central bank universe. They are taking action because they are seeing inflation creeping up and have decided to be proactive.

The rate rise  is especially notable given many central banks in developing countries appear effectively to have surrendered their inflation-fighting mandate. Nowhere is the push for lower interest rates more pronounced than in Brazil where the government last week announced plans to scrap fixed-rate savings deposits in a move that is seen paving the way for more agressive rate cuts. Clearly there is tolerance here for higher inflation, which will still end 2012 well above target.

But many analysts such as Manik Narain at UBS consider Poland’s decision a high-risk one given the growth issues. Narain sees it possibly motivated by the need to signal Poland will not welcome further currency weakness (the zloty like most emerging currencies has shed much of its early-2012 gain) Therefore a prolonged monetary tightening cycle is unlikely, he says. Indeed many reckon the NBP may find itself, like the European Central Bank last year, reversing an ill-considered rate rise. Analysts at Capital Economics write:

Hungary can seek IMF aid now. But can it cut rates?

The European Union has given Budapest the green light to seek aid from the IMF. (see here)  In fact, the breakthrough after five months of dispute does not let Hungary completely off the hook  — to get its hands on the money, Viktor Orban’s government will have to backtack on some controversial recent legislation, starting with its efforts to curb the central bank’s independence.  It remains to be seen if Orban will actually cave in.

But markets are reacting as if the IMF money is in Hungary’s pocket already. There have been sharp rallies in Hungarian dollar bonds,  CDS and currency markets (see graphic below from Capital Economics). The Budapest stock market has posted its best one-day gain since last November while the yield on local 10-year bonds have collapsed almost 100 bps. Hungarian officials are (a bit prematurely)  talking of issuing bonds on world markets.

What investors are hoping for now is a cut to the 7 percent interest rate. Hungary’s central bank jacked up rates by 100 bps in recent months to defend the forint as cash fled the country. Now there is a chance those rate rises can be reeled back in. After all, the moribund economy could really use a dash of monetary easing. Thanasis Petronikolos, head of emerging debt at Baring Asset Management has been overweight Hungary and  recalls that after 2008 crisis, the central bank was able to quickly take back its 300 bps of currency-defensive rate hikes.

Oil prices — Geopolitics or growth?

It’s the economy, stupid. Or isn’t it?

Brent crude has risen 15 percent since the end of last year, focusing people’s minds on the potential this has to choke off the recovery in world growth. But some reckon it is the recovery that’s at least partly responsible for the surging oil prices — economic data from United States and Germany has been strong of late. There are hopes that France and the United Kingdom may escape recession after all. And growth in the developing world has been robust.

Geopolitics of course is playing a role  as an increasing number of countries boycott Iranian oil and fret over a possible military strike by Israel on Iran’s nuclear installations.  But Deutsche Bank analysts point out that world equity markets, an efficient real-time gauge of growth sentiment, have risen along with oil prices.

Their graphic (below) shows a remarkably close relationship between oil prices and the S&P 500. Click to enlarge

Good reasons for rupee’s fall but also for recovery

It’s been a pretty miserable 2011 for India and Tuesday’s collapse of the rupee to record lows beyond 52 per dollar will probably make things worse. Foreigners, facing a fast-falling currency, have pulled out $500 million from the stock market in just the last five trading sessions.   That means net inflows this year are less than $300 million, raising concerns that India will have trouble financing its current account gap.  The weaker currency also bodes ill for the country’s stubbornly high inflation.

Why is the rupee suffering so much? First of all, it is a casualty of the general exodus from emerging markets. As a deficit economy, India is bound to suffer more than say Brazil, Korea or Malaysia.  And 18 months of interest rate rises have taken a toll on growth.

UBS analysts  proffer another explanation. They point out a steady deterioration in India’s net reserve coverage since the 2008 crisis. The reserve buffer — foreign-exchange reserves plus the annual current account balance, minus short-term external debt — stands at 9 percent of GDP, down from 14 percent in 2008.  Within emerging markets, only Egypt, Venezuela and Belarus saw bigger declines in net reserve coverage than India.

from Summit Notebook:

Geneva is for wealth management

Even for an American who's not wealthy, Geneva has a reputation as a global centre for wealth management - the place the world's rich come to stash their money and (they hope) make it grow.

    But you don't necessarily expect it to be so aggressive -- after all, the rich tend to be demure when it comes to their banking.

    Imagine one reporter's surprise, then, on arriving in the airport in Geneva and seeing bank ads everywhere. Think of the casino adds in Las Vegas's McCarron Airport or the technology ads in San Jose's Mineta Airport: it's the exactly the same in Geneva, only with wealth managers.

Start building the bunker

They keep telling us that the recession is over so maybe now’s the time to start worrying about inflation. That’s the view many wealthy investors are already taking, reasoning that a little bit of the yellow shiny stuff will provide some comfort as we start piling our cash into wheelbarrows to do the weekly groceries shop.

It is gold exchange traded commodities (ETCs) that have seen the biggest investor inflows this year so perhaps it’s not surprising that the gold price broke through $1,000 an ounce this week.

“Investors are concerned about sovereign risk, quantitative easing, government deficits and the outlook for the US dollar,” said Nicholas Brooks, head of research and investment strategy at ETF Securities, at a Dow Jones Indexes commodities briefing on Tuesday. “They are using gold as an insurance policy.”

from DealZone:

Switzerland’s pound of UBS cheese

When Switzerland sold its stake in the country's largest bank at the top end of its price range, it made a hefty profit on compensation for interest lost from shedding the mandatory convertible notes it held in the bank early. It's not as if it didn't deserve a big payoff, having gone to the mat with the mighty U.S. government to defend UBS over allegations that it aided and abetted wealthy American tax dodgers.

Our source says the Swiss sold 332 million shares at 16.50 Swiss francs each, at the top end of a 16 to 16.50 francs price range, with books being three to five times oversubscribed. That gives government 5.5 billion Swiss francs ($5.1 billion), plus 1.8 billion francs in compensation, making a profit on the 6 billion francs it shelled out in its rescue attempt last October.

Has the U.S. regulatory offensive poked so many holes in the Swiss banking system as to rob it of its best asset? While UBS is starting to pay its dues, it could be taking on fresh liability by complying with the order to hand over the names of thousands of UBS's rich American clients to Washington. This could result in fresh provisions for big legal bills, as outed clients sue UBS for breaking that same Swiss banking secrecy law that had been so important to the wealth management bank for so long.

from Alexander Smith:

Is Jefferies right to be bullish on M&A in AM?

A bull(ish) note from growing investment banking group Jefferies Putnam Lovell predicting "a steady flow of M&A activity in the global asset management industry" for the second half of 2009.

Jefferies is basing its view on the following factors:

    divestitures by larger financial groups shoring up their capital base  pure-play asset managers looking to bulk up private equity firms drawn not least by lower capital requirements

And the firm is putting its money where its mouth is. It has recently been hiring scores of senior bankers from rival firms as it seeks to build itself a major presence.

This hasn't been without its problems. UBS filed a claim against Jefferies after the mid-sized investment bank lured away nearly three dozen of the Swiss bank's healthcare bankers.

Please invest, please

Hardly suprising that investment funds want their clients to cough up some money. It is, after all, how they get paid. So an appeal to pension funds from UBS Global Asset Management to stop sitting on the fence is not entirely pro bono. Nonetheless, a new note from the firm that trustees are actually risking things by hanging on to large cash reserves is worth a run through.

First, it says, there is the danger that they will lose out on any market recovery. UBS reckons stocks are well priced with high expected returns. It did not say so, but people sitting on cash in late November to early January missed a more than 25 percent rally in world stocks.

Second, UBS reckons hanging on to cash is not a good move given the amount of higher-yielding low-risk investments currently available. Some investment grade corporate bonds are trading at 10 percent-plus yields.

Zeitgeist check

Some more bits and bobs to capture the current mood among investors:

– Some stock indexes have started to fall below their 2008 lows, meaning the turn-of-the-year rally has petered out. Dead cat bounce?

– Analysts are becoming increasingly downbeat about corporate earnings. Seven of the 10 sectors in the S&P 500 are looking at a year-on-year decline in earnings, according to Thomson Reuters proprietary research. That’s the highest number of sectors in negative territory since Q4 2001.

– UBS economists have sharply revised down estimates for 2009 growth in Japan, China, much of the rest of Asia, and the euro zone. They now expect world GDP to grow a paltry 0.4 percent this year.