Global Investing

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.

It’s early days yet. Yet the impact of the U.S. rebound this time does appear different from the past.

Typically, a recovery in the United States leads to a rise in demand for all sorts of products – chemicals,  home furnishing, clothing, footwear, light manufacturing,  electrical appliances, machinery and equipment, transport – and this leads to a broad-based rebound in imports, analysts at UBS say. That has not happened in this cycle, and imports from  EM in particular have lagged. The answer, according to UBS, lies in the kind of things the United States has been importing. Look at their chart below  - most in demand are heavy machinery and transport equipment because the rebound is centred on construction, autos and infrastructure. UBS says:

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.

Weekly Radar: Q1 earnings test as the herd scatters

US Q1 EARNINGS START/DUBLIN EURO GROUP MEETING/US T-SECRETARY LEW IN BERLIN-PARIS/US-FRANCE-ITALY GOVT BOND AUCTIONS/FRANCE NATL ASSEMBLY VOTES ON LABOUR REFORM/VENEZUELA ELECTIONS

World markets have started the second quarter in an oddly indecisive mood given that Q1 turned out to be yet another bumper start to the year, looking to extend record stock market highs on Wall St but lacking the juice of new information to make a decisive break while Europe splutters and emerging markets and commodities head south. Two important pieces of the U.S. jigsaw will likely emerge over the coming week  with this Friday’s US employment report and the start of the Q1 corporate earnings season next week.

But there’s clearly been a more general rethink further afield among global investors given the breakdown in cross-asset and cross-border correlations – meaning it’s no longer enough to just get Wall St right and adjust your global risk button accordingly. It looks much harder work to get regional or asset allocations and positioning right. As Wall St flirts with new highs and US and Japanese equity funds continue draw hefty inflows, there’s been a pullback from all things Europe surrounding the Cyprus saga and parallel growth disappointments across the region and EPFR data last week showed redemptions from euro stock, bond and money funds continued.

A Plan B for Argentina

What’s Argentina’s Plan B?

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has said she will sell the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, if need be, to keep paying creditors who agreed to restructure the country’s debts.  But it may not come to that. Warning: this is a complicated saga with very interesting twists.

A pair of hedge fund litigants demanding $1.3 billion in payments and a New York court are making it hard for Kirchner to keep paying international bondholders. But she might contemplate asking those existing creditors to swap into Argentine law bonds, to which the writ of the New York court will not extend.

First some background. Argentina is due to pay bond coupons this week and in June. Looks like the hedge funds will decline the payment proposal Argentina made last week; this could lead to a default.

European banks: slow progress

The Cypriot crisis, stemming essentially from a banking malaise, reminds us that Europe’s banking woes are far from over. In fact, Stephen Jen and Alexandra Dreisin at SLJ Macro Partners posit in a note on Monday that five years into the crisis, European banks have barely carried out any deleveraging. A look at their loan-to-deposit ratios  (a measure of a bank’s liquidity, calculated by dividing total outstanding loans by total deposits) remain at an elevated 1.15. That’s 60 percent higher than U.S. banks which went into the crisis with a similar LTD ratio but which have since slashed it to 0.7.

It follows therefore that if bank deleveraging really gets underway in Europe, lending will be curtailed further, notwithstanding central bankers’ easing efforts. So the economic recession is likely to be prolonged further. Jen and Dreisin write:

We hope that European banks can do this sooner rather than later, but fear that bank deleveraging in Europe is unavoidable and will pose a powerful headwind for the economy… Assuming that European banks, over the coming years, reduce their LTD ratio from the current level of 1.15 to the level in the U.S. of 0.72, there would be a 60% reduction in cross-border lending, assuming deposits don’t rise… This would translate into total cuts in loans of some $7.3 trillion.

Weekly Radar: Dollar building steam?

FOMC/FRANCO-GERMAN SUMMIT/GERMAN-FRENCH-SPAIN AUCTIONS/GLOBAL FLASH PMIS FOR MARCH/UK BUDGET-JOBS-CPI-BOE MINS/ICC HEARING ON KENYATTA/SAFRICA RATES

       The revved-up U.S. dollar – whose trade-weighted index is now up almost 5 percent in just six weeks – could well develop into one of the financial market stories of the year as the cyclical jump the United States has over the rest of G10 combines with growing attention being paid to the country’s potential “re-industrialisation”. As with all things FX, there’s a zillion ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ to the argument. Chief among them is many people’s assumption the Fed will be printing greenbacks well after this expansion takes hold as it targets a much lower jobless rate. Others doubt the much-vaunted return of the US Inc. back down the value chain into metal-bashing and manufacturing, while some feel the cheaper energy from the shale revolution and the lower structural trade deficits that promises will be short-lived as others catch up. However, with the dollar already super competitive (it’s down 30-40 percent on the Fed’s inflation-adjusted index over the past 10 years) the first set of arguments are more tempting. Even if you see the merits in both sides, the bull case clearly has not yet been discounted and may have further to go just to match the balance of risks.  With Fed printing presses still on full throttle, this has been a slow burner to date and it may be a while yet before it gets up a head of steam — many feel it’s still more of a 2nd half of 2013 story and the dollar index needs to get above last year’s highs to get people excited. But if it does keep motoring, it has a potentially dramatic impact on the investment landscape and not necessarily a benign one, even if shifting correlations and the broader macro landscape show this is not the ‘stress trade’ of the short-lived dollar bounces of the past five years.

Commodities priced in dollars could well feel the heat from a steady dollar uptrend. And if gold’s spiral higher over the past six years has been in part due to the “dollar debasement” trade, then its recent sharp retreat may be less puzzling . Emerging market currencies pegged to the dollar will also feel the pressure as well as countries and companies who’ve borrowed heavily in greenbacks. The prospect of a higher dollar also has a major impact on domestic US investors willingness to go overseas, casting questions on countries with big current account gaps. As the dominant world reserve currency, a rising dollar effectively tightens financial conditions for everyone else and we’ve been used to a weakening one for a very long time.

Argentina back in court

Argentina squares off today in a U.S. Appeals court with the so-called holdout creditors who are demanding $1.3 billion in payments on defaulted bonds. A decision will probably take a few days but supporters of both sides have been mustering.

Emails have been pouring into journalists’ inboxes thick and fast from the Argentine Task Force, a lobby group that wants Argentina to settle with bondholders and identifies its goal as “pursuing a fair reconciliation of of the Argentine debt default”.  And yesterday, a noisy pots-and-pans protest was held outside the London offices of Elliot Associates (the parent company of one of the two hedge fund litigants)  by groups supporting Argentina in its battle against those it terms “vulture funds”.  Nick Dearden, director of the Jubilee Debt Campaign, a group that calls for cancelling poor countries’ debts, says:

If the vulture funds are allowed to extract their pound of flesh from Argentina today, we will see a proliferation of vulture funds in Europe tomorrow.

Weekly Radar: Currency warriors meet in Moscow

G20/EUROGROUP/EURO Q4 GDP/STATE OF THE UNION/BOJ/UST, GILT AND ITALY BOND AUCTIONS/EUROPEAN EARNINGS

Hiccup. February has so far certainly brought a more sober, if healthier, perspective to world markets. Global stocks are off about half a percent this week, letting the air out gently from January’s over-inflated 5 percent surge. The focus is back on Europe, where the threat of a euro FX overshoot (in the face of LTRO paybacks and rising euro interest rates alongside stepped-up “global currency wars”) has fused with a plethora of unresolved national debt conundrums and a stream of ‘event risks’ on the region’s calendar. Euro stocks have retreated to December levels as the currency move and fresh political angst has taken the wind out of earnings and growth projections after such a steep rally over the past six months. Name anything you want – the tightening race for this month’s Italian elections and Monte di Paschi scnadal there, a delayed Cyprus bailout and elections there this month, the Irish promissory note standoff with the ECB etc etc – when things turn, they all these get amplified again even if none really are likely to be systemic threats in the way we’d become used to over the past two years. The slight backup in Italian/Spanish yields to December levels shows sentiment turns still pack a punch, the European earnings season has been mixed so far, there are political murmurs about capping the euro and the political calendar over the next six weeks is a bit of a minefield for nervy markets. All the issues still look resolvable – the tricky Irish bank debt rejig looks on the verge of a resolution; few still believe Berlusconi be the next Italian PM (only 5 percent on betting website Intrade think so, for example); and Cyprus is expected by most to get bailed out eventually. Today’s ECB will be critical to most of those issues, but next week’s euro group gets a chance to update everyone on its role in them aswell). The issue likely to gnaw deepest at investors is the regional growth outlook  and,  in that respect, the euro surge is about as welcome as a kick in the teeth at this juncture. (Euro Q4 GDPs out next week). The French clearly want to rein in the currency but don’t have the tools or the German backing. Draghi and the ECB will likely have to come to rescue again, though he will not admit to euro targeting and so may drag his feet on this one until the move starts to burn. Interesting times ahead and interesting G20 finance meeting in Moscow next week as a result.

To keep this week’s market wobble  in Europe in perspective, however Wall St still continues to hover close to record highs as the Q4 GDP shock was probably correctly dismissed as a red herring; Japan’s TOPIX is now up 35% in three months (well, about 15% in euro terms), and Shanghai is up 18% in just two months. It’s curious to note that Shanghai was the top pick of the year when Reuters polled global forecasters in December and average gains for the whole of 2013 were expected to be… 17 percent. So, stick with the growth and the currency printing regions for now it seems – even if you do get whacked on the exchange rate.

Weekly Radar: Glass still half-full?

ECB,BOE,RBA MEETINGS/ US-CHINA DEC TRADE DATA/CHINESE INFLATION/EU BUDGET SUMMIT/EUROPEAN EARNINGS/BUND AUCTION/SERVICES PMIS

Wednesday’s global markets were a pretty good illustration of the nature of new year rally. The largest economy in the world reported a shock contraction of activity in the final quarter of 2012 despite widespread expectations of 1%+ gain and this month’s bulled-up stock market barely blinked. Ok, the following FOMC decision and Friday’s latest US employment report probably helped keep a lid on things and there was plenty of good reason to be sceptical of the headline U.S. GDP number. Reasons for the big miss were hooked variously on an unexpectedly large drop in government defence spending, a widening of the trade gap (even though we don’t get December numbers til next week), a drawdown in inventories, fiscal cliff angst and “Sandy”. Final consumer demand looked fineand we know from the jobs numbers (and the January ADP report earlier) that the labour market remains relatively firm while housing continues to recovery. The inventory drop could presage a cranking up assembly lines into the new year given the “fiscal cliff” was dodged on Jan 1 and trade account distortions due to East Coast storms may unwind too. So, not only are we likely to see upward revisions to this advance data cut, there may well be significant “payback” in Q1 data and favourable base effects could now flatter 2013 numbers overall.

Yet as logical as any or all of those arguments may be,  the reaction to the shocker also tells you a lot about the prevalent “glass half full” view in the market right now and reveals how the flood of new money that’s been flowing to equity this year has not been doing so on the basis on one quarter of economic data. An awful lot of the investor flow to date is either simply correcting extremely defensive portfolios toward more “normal” times or reinvesting with a 3-5 year view in mind at least. There’s a similar story at play in Europe. Money has come back from the bunkers and there’s been a lock-step improvement in the “big picture” risks – we are no longer factoring in default risk into the major bond markets  at least and many are now happy to play the ebb and flow of economics and politics and market pricing within more reasonable parameters. There are no shortage of ghosts and ghouls still in the euro cupboard – dogged recession, bank legacy debt issue, Cyprus, Italian elections etc – but that all still seems more like more manageable country risk for many funds and a far cry from where we were over the past two years of potential systemic implosion. Never rule out a fresh lurch and the perceived lack of market crisis itself may take the pressure off Brussels and other EU capitals to keeping pushing hard to resolve the outstanding conundrums. But it would take an awful lot now to completely reverse the recent stabilisation, not least given the ECB has yet to fire a bullet of its new OMT intervention toolkit.

Weekly Radar: Managing expectations

With a week to go in January, global stock markets are up 3.8 percent – gently nudging higher after the new year burst and with a continued evaporation of volatility gauges toward new 5-year lows. That’s all warranted by a reappraisal of the global economy as well as murmurs about longer-term strategic shifts back to under-owned and cheaper equities. But, as ever, you can never draw a straight line. If we were to get this sort of move every month this year, then total returns for the year on the MCSI global index would be 50 percent – not impossible I guess, but highly unlikely. So, at some stage the market will pause, hestitate or even take a step back. Is now the time just three weeks into the year?

Well lots of the much-feared headwinds have not materialized. The looming US budget ceiling showdown keeps getting put back – it’s now May by the way, even if another mini-cliff of sorts is due in March — but you get can-kicking picture here already. The US earnings season looks fairly benign so far, even given the outsize reaction to Apple after hours on Wednesday. European sovereign funding worries have proven wide of the mark to date too as money floods to Spain and even Portugal again. And Chinese data confirms a decent cyclical rebound there at least from Q3′s trough. All seems like pretty smooth sailing – aside perhaps from the UK’s slightly perplexing decision to add rather than ease uncertainty about its economic future. So what can go wrong? Well there’s still an event calendar to keep an eye on – next month’s Italian elections for example. But even that’s stretching it as a major bogeyman the likely outcome.

In truth, the biggest hurdle is most likely to be the hoary old problem of over-inflated expectations. Just look at the US economic surprise index – it’s tipped into negative territory for the first time since late last summer. Yet incoming US data has not been that bad this year. What the index tells you more about has been the rising expectations. (The converse, incidentally, is true of the euro zone where you could say the gloom’s been overdone.) Yet without the fuel of positive “surprises” we’re depending more on a structural story to buoy equity and that is a multi-year, glacial shift rather than necessarily a 2013 yarn. The start of the earnings season too is also interesting with regard to expectations. With little over 10 percent of the S&P500 reported by last Friday, the numbers showed 58% had beaten the street. That’s not bad at first glance but a good bit lower than the 65% average of the past four quarters. On the other hand, it’s been top-line corporate revenues that have supposedly been terrifying everyone and it’s a different picture there. Of the 10% of firms out to date, 65 percent have reported Q4 revenues ahead of forecasts – far ahead of the 50% average of the past four quarters. Early days, but that’s relatively positive on the underlying economy at least.