Global Investing

A yen for emerging markets

Global Investing has written several times about Japanese mom-and-pop investors’  adventures in emerging markets. Most recently, we discussed how the new government’s plan to prod the Bank of Japan into unlimited monetary easing could turn more Japanese into intrepid yield hunters.  Here’s an update.

JP Morgan analysts calculate that EM-dedicated Japanese investment trusts, known as toshin, have seen inflows of $7 billion ever since the U.S. Fed announced its plan to embark on open-ended $40-billion-a-month money printing.  That’s taken their assets under management to $67 billion. And in the week ended Jan 2, Japanese flows to emerging markets amounted to $234 million, they reckon. This should pick up once the yen debasement really gets going — many are expecting a 100 yen per dollar exchange rate by end-2013  (it’s currently at 88).

At present, the lion’s share of Japanese toshin holdings — over $40 billion of it — are in hard currency emerging debt, JP Morgan says (see graphic).

But if developed central banks’ seemingly endless money-printing starts to significantly inflate emerging currencies again, local currency debt is likely to become more attractive.

Just a rough example. If Mrs Watanabe, as Japanese retail investors have collectively been dubbed,  had sold her yen at the start of last year to buy dollars, she would have made a healthy 15 percent return as the yen weakened. But if she had bought Korean won, she would have gained over 21 percent.

Aussie: reserve managers’ new favourite

Lucky Australia. In a world of slowing economic growth its central bank today raised forecasts for 2012 GDP growth by a half point to 3.5 percent. That’s down to a mining boom, driven of course by China. But there’s a downside. Australia’s currency, the dollar (or affectionately, the Aussie), has steadily risen in recent years, and is up 3 percent versus the U.S. dollar this year. Unsurprisingly, the Reserve Bank of Australia tempered its good news on growth with a warning over the Aussie’s gains.

Analysts at Credit Agricole note that the Aussie’s gains this year have come in tandem with a rise in Japan’s yen. That in itself would have been highly unusual in the past: the yen is a so-called safe haven, the currency investors run to when all else is selling off, while the Aussie is a commodity currency, one that does well when world growth is looking good and risk appetite is high. CA analysts explain thus:

The role of the (Aussie) is probably changing from a traditional commodity currency to an increasingly attractive reserve currency.

Japan… tide finally turning?

Until recently, when you mentioned  ”Japan” in the investment context, you could almost hear a collective sigh of disappointment — it was all about recession, deflation and poor investment returns.

However, sentiment does seem to be finally changing, not least because Tokyo stocks have rallied almost 20 percent since the start of the year, outperforming benchmark world and emerging indexes.

The yen has also been on a (rare) declining trend since the start of February, with the selling momentum accelerating since the Bank of Japan set an inflation goal of 1 percent in a surprise move and boosted its asset buying programme by $130 billion on Feb 14.

Three snapshots for Thursday

The VIX volatility index has fallen below the average level seen during the 2003-2008 pre-crisis period.

The low level of the VIX is also being matched by moves down in other ‘safe haven’ assets. The dollar is near an 11-month high against the yen, and a rise in U.S. Treasury yields is pushing up the spread between U.S. and Japanese bond yields.

President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron discussed the possibility of releasing emergency oil reserves during a meeting on Wednesday, two sources familiar with the talks said.

Buy more yen… to increase reserve returns

Japan has not been a sexy destination for investment. In an environment of rising sovereign risk, Japan’s huge debt burden (+200% and rising) and lack of triple-A rating (Japan is rated AA-, Aa3 and AA by the main rating agencies) are not something that would attract the world’s investors, including the powerful central bank reserve managers.

However, the yen is a different story. Enjoying a safe-haven status, the Japanese currency is staying just below its all-time high around 75.90 per dollar, while it also rose to an 11-year peak against the euro in January.

JP Morgan,whose asset management arm manages $70 billion for 65 official sector clients including central banks and sovereign wealth funds, says reserve managers have been diversifying into non-G4 currencies but the strategy has not performed well.

It’s the dollar

Two graphs (from Scott Barber) to remind that what you get from assets depends on the currency:

The Big Five: themes for the week ahead

Five things to think about this week

TUSSLE FOR DIRECTION
- The tussle between bullish and bearish inclinations — with bears gaining a bit of ground so far this month — is being played out over both earnings and economic data. Alcoa got the U.S. earnings season off to a good start but a heavier results week lies ahead and could toss some banana skins into the market’s path. Key financials, technology bellwethers (IBM, Google, Intel), as well as big names like GE, Nokia, Johnson and Johnson will offer more food for thought for those looking past the simple defensive versus cyclical split to choices between early cylicals, such as consumer discretionaries, and late cyclicals, such as industrials, based on the short-term earnings momentum. Macroeconomic data will need to confirm the picture painted by last week’s unexpectedly German strong orders and production figures to give bulls the upper hand.

FINANCIAL FOCUS
- The heavy financial results slate (Goldman, JP Morgan, Bank of America, Citi) will show the extent to which balance sheets are being cleansed of toxic assets and the health of, and outlook for margins, trading revenues, etc. The relative performance of the firms reporting could put the spotlight on the split between investment banking and retail exposure. In Europe, Swedbank’s results will be watched for Baltic exposure while clarity is still being sought on what banks plan to do with the large chunk of ECB one-year money which they continue to park back at the ECB in the form of overnight deposits.

JAPANESE DILEMMA
- The BOJ’s policy meeting poses thorny questions on quantitative easing (QE), with the policy debate complicated by sharp gains in the yen. The yen has risen as much as 10.5 percent in three months against the dollar and is nearing the 90 threshold which is viewed by the foreign exchanges as the point at which the Japanese authorities start ratcheting up the rhetoric. Further sustained yen gains will fuel market debate about the fallout for carry trades and for exporters — and by extension economic activity.

from Raw Japan:

Whither the yen — a withering yen?

The yen's fall against the dollar the past few weeks has been remarkably fast, and calculated from where it is now around 97.70 yen, the dollar has jumped nearly 9 percent this month, on track for its biggest such gain since August 1995.

The yen surged last year as the worsening financial crisis forced investors to unwind risky carry trades - meaning they had to buy lots of yen - under the belief that Japan's economy and banks were holding up through the storm.

Only last month, the yen hit an over-13-year high of 87.10 per dollar. So why has the Japanese currency fallen so fast?

Carry on falling

Graphic evidence from Investec Asset Management (below) highlighting the demise of the carry trade. It shows returns from borrowing low-yielding currencies such as Japanese yen to buy high-yielding ones over the past 7-1/2 years or so.  There has been a roughy 50 percent decline since the end of July.

End of carry trade unwind?

Merrill Lynch’s monthly poll of fund managers around the world has a bit of a surprise in the small print. More investors now reckon the Japanese yen is overvalued than see it as undervalued. This is the first time this has been the case since Merrill began asking the question, said by staff to be about eight years ago.

It clearly reflects a 13 percent dive in dollar/yen this year and a 24 percent plunge in euro/yen. But does the new view of value suggest that the unwinding of the carry trade is over? Another question from the Merrill poll shows hedge fund deleveraging levelling off.