It was a gloomy, rainy night in Boston last week where emerging market analysts and portfolio managers huddled together before an audience of 75+ people to discuss an equally gloomy situation in Venezuela, specifically whether or not the nation, with the biggest proven oil reserves in the world, is on the precipice of defaulting on its debt.
Last week’s victory for Miss Venezuela in a global beauty pageant was a rare bit of good news for the South American country. With a black market currency exchange rate that is 10 times the official level, shortages of staples, inflation over 50 percent and political turmoil, Venezuela certainly won’t win any investment pageants.
The past 24 hours have brought news of more fund launches targeting emerging corporate debt; Barings and HSBC have started a fund each while ING Investment Management said its fund launched late last year had crossed $100 million. We have written about the seemingly insatiable demand for corporate emerging bonds in recent months, with the asset class last month surpassing the $1 trillion mark. Data from Thomson Reuters shows today that a record $263 billion worth of EM corporate debt has already been underwritten this year by banks, more than a fifth higher than was issued in the same 2011 period (see graphic):
Investors who have been buying up Venezuelan bonds in hopes of an opposition victory in this weekend’s presidential election will be heartened by the results of a poll from Consultores 21 which shows Henrique Capriles having the edge on incumbent Hugo Chavez. The survey shows the pro-market Capriles with 51.8 percent support among likely voters, an increase of 5.6 percentage points since a mid-September poll.
Which bond would you rather buy — one issued by a country with an unpredictable leader but huge oil reserves, or one with a dictatorial president as well as empty coffers? The answer should be a no brainer. Not so. The countries are Venezuela and Belarus, and a basic comparison of their debt profiles shows how strangely risk can be priced in emerging markets.
Politics have turned nastier than usual this year in emerging markets. Nonetheless, if you were a buyer of emerging bonds, you would have been ill-advised to play safe. That’s because the best performing emerging credit so far this year is Ivory Coast, which at the end of January effectively defaulted on its $2.3 billion dollar bond. Yes really, according to JP Morgan, which runs the most widely-used emerging debt indexes.