MacroScope

Investment Week: From the Trenches…

Early September skirmishes turned this week into full-scale “currency wars”, to use Brazil’s terminology. Dramatic language, but not unwarranted. The markets have taken Fed signals of preparation for further money printing as an effective attempt at a dollar devaluation, allowing the country export its deflationary pressures overseas via capital outflows to higher-yielding developing countries.

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The major developing nations, for all the arguments favouring currency revaluations of 20-25% over the next couple of years, are not going to stand idly by and watch that happen overnight. But their attempts to offset the impact of soaring local currencies and attendant asset bubbles merely floods local economies with cash at a time when fighting inflation — not deflation — is their priority. Brazil has raised the red flag, but the likes of Turkey and Taiwan are also registering fears about the impact of another bout of US monetary pump priming. Meantime, the gloves are off in the US-China yuan row; possible trade measures are being invoked in DC; and there is little chance of cooler heads prevailing this side of the US mid-term elections. This story will run.

What’s certain is the G20 finance meeting in South Korea on Oct 22 has significant work to do. Next week the battle lines are already drawing up at the Asia-Europe summit in Brussels (and China’s PM Wen and Japan’s PM Kan both travel) and then the annual IMF/G7 meetings in DC. The key US September payrolls report on Friday, for good measure, may be the deciding data set for the Fed to pull the trigger on QEII. And also meeting next Thursday is the Bank of England, itself back in a QE frame of mind if you listened this week to one of its policymakers Adam Posen  

But apart from a sliding dollar and rampaging emerging markets, the most interesting development this week was the steep euro climb in the face of some severe credit/debt/banking scares in Dublin and even Lisbon. Although the FX market focus is clearly on the Fed and interest rate differentials (rate futures are showing a yawning gap between US and euro zone interest rates over the next year or two) the euro rise a remarkable turnaround from the Spring  when every sovereign debt wobble led to existential euro lunges.

One reason for the shift is credibility in the ample EFSF rescue fund (now AAA-rated) and its ability to cope with any fallout from nasty but relatively containable debt problems like Ireland’s. The other is that the main source of sovereign debt contagion – the impact on other creditor euro zone banks – is has been dampened since the recent EU stress tests allowed local regulators to identify and isolate (and possibly merge etc?) the most exposed banks. And finally, the aggregate euro zone economic, employment and credit data remains surprisingly strong through Q3 and the ECB seems able to continue to gradually withdraw excess liquidity – in stark contrast to the Fed. The ECB meeting next Thursday will be an important sounding on its intentions going forward.

from Global Investing:

Shock! Emerging capital controls may just be working

Do capital controls work?  After years of telling us that they do not, the IMF and World Bank reluctantly conceded last year they may not be all that bad and indeed in some cases they may actually help keep away some of the speculators who have in recent years been pouring into emerging markets.

Developing countries for the most part like foreign capital, indeed they rely on it for development. What they don't like is hot money -- short-term speculative flows which are widely blamed for causing past emerging market crises. So starting from October last year several of them slapped controls on some of this cash. There are signs these may be working.

Take the experience of two large emerging markets, Brazil and Indonesia. Brazil shocked forBRAZIL-MARKETS/eign investors last October with a 2 percent tax on all flows to stocks and bonds. Nine months on, investors are still putting their cash there and Brazil has raked in millions of dollars thanks to the tax. But many fund managers, like HSBC's Jose Cuervo, who runs a $6 billion portfolio of Brazilian stocks, are buying American Depositary Receipts (ADRS) of Brazilian firms rather than stocks listed in Sao Paulo.  Because ADRs are in dollars and listed in New York, investors are getting exposure to Brazil but sidestepping the tax.  Brazilian firms continue to receive investment but Brazil's currency is not appreciating  like it was last year. A win-win all around.

from Summit Notebook:

Ritholtz: I zig when everybody zags

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The U.S. economy is experiencing an ongoing but slow recovery, says Barry Ritholtz, director of equity research at Fusion IQ. But that's not stopping him from enjoying discounted prices in a low-inflation environment, at least when it comes to his personal spending habits. The world is on sale if you've got the money to spend, he told the Reuters Investment Outlook summit in New York when asked, for example, if he might spend less while on a vacation or forego a purchase or two.

"I am an enormous counter-cyclical spender. At the top of the bull market I don't want to buy anything. I am a seller into a bull market. We have been buying a ton of stuff over the past year. We got two new cars long before the May.... so we picked up two new cars. We're doing work on the house. We're adding a kitchen. I got my wife a very lovely birthday gift. She got me a very lovely birthday gift. We've been buying artwork. We've buying jewelry. I love to buy stuff when it is on sale. I hate to buy top dollar for it.

"So, we just were in the Cayman Islands on vacation some time ago. We were in Aruba back in December. I'm heading to Vancouver in July and probably take a week or two in the Hamptons. I'm thrilled to spend money in this environment.

from Global Investing:

Poor investor confidence – or is it?

The latest State Street investor confidence index bears some scrutiny. The overall index dropped in February which would seem to be in line with other sentiment indicators such as The Conference Board's consumer confidence index and the German Ifo on business thinking.

But the State Street  fall was entirely due to bearish Asian sentiment. There were gains in the North American and European regional calculations. Also the overall, North American and European indices all came in above 100 -- which means that sentiment remains on the bullish side.

It begs the question of whether Asia is a) lagging b) leading or c) just out there on its own.

from Global Investing:

What’s on your reading list?

If anyone needed a reminder that Christmas and NewYear holidays are almost here, Societe Generale has provided it. Analyst Dylan Grice has picked up the mantle of the departed James Montier to offer a seasonal reading list for those with a fixation about investment and economics.

True, some people might prefer to immerse themselves in a rollicking sea tale from Patrick O'Brian or a good old  Sookie Stackhouse vampire mystery. But we know that Reuters blogs' readers are a discriminating lot with a keen understanding of and passion for finance. So here is Dylan's list of six must-reads:

1. Manias, Panics and Crashes, by Charles P. Kindleberger;
2. The Essays of Warren Buffet, edited by Richard Cunningham;
3. Reminiscences of a Stock Operator, by Edwin Lefevre;
4. Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Taleb;
5. The Case against the Fed, by Murray Rothbard;
6. Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, eds Kahneman, Slovic and
Tversky.

from Global Investing:

What worries the BRICs

Some fascinating data about the growing power of emerging markets, particularly the BRICs, was on display at the OECD's annual investment conference in Paris this week. Not the least of it came from MIGA, the World Bank's Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency, which tries to help protect foreign direct investors from various forms of political risk.

MIGA has mainly focused on encouraging investment into developing countries, but a lot of its latest work is about investment from emerging economies.

This has been exploding over the past decade. Net outward investment from developing countries reached $198 billion in 2008 from around $20 billion in 2000. The 2008 figure was only 10.8 percent of global FDI, but it was just 1.4 percent in 2000.

from Global Investing:

Time to kick Russia out of the BRICs?

It may end up sounding like a famous ball-point pen maker, but an argument is being made that Goldman Sach's famous marketing device, the BRICs, should really be the BICs. Does Russia really deserve to be a BRIC, asks Anders Åslund, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, in an article for Foreign Policy.

Åslund, who is also co-author with Andrew Kuchins of "The Russian Balance Sheet", reckons the Russia of Putin and Medvedev is just not worthy of inclusion alongside Brazil, India and China  in the list of blue-chip economic powerhouses. He writes:

The country's economic performance has plummeted to such a dismal level that one must ask whether it is entitled to have any say at all on the global economy, compared with the other, more functional members of its cohort.

Big ambition for Equatorial Guinea

This week has seen a rush of key policymakers and business executives from Africa flocking to London. Apart from Sierra Leone, oil and gas executives have been discussing the outlook for Equatorial Guinea, a small central African state rich in oil.

Equatorial Guinea made a relatively rare foray into the global news earlier this month for a presidential pardon of  former British army officer Simon Mann, who was serving a 34-year prison sentence in the country for his role in a failed coup d’etat in 2004.

Gabriel Obiang Lima, vice minister of mines, industry and energy, was in London to talk about his ambition for the country. “Our aim is not to be the Kuwait of the region. It’s to be the Singapore of the region,” he told dozens of business executives in a conference in London on Wednesday.

from Global Investing:

Pity Poor Pound

Britain's pound has long been the whipping boy of notoriously fickle currency markets, but there are worrying signs that it's not just hedge funds and speculators who have lost faith in sterling. Reuters FX columnist Neal Kimberley neatly illustrated yesterday just how poor sentiment toward sterling in the dealing rooms has become and the graphic below (on the sharp buildup of speculative 'short' positsions seen in U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission data) shows how deeply that negative view has become entrenched.              

 While the pound's inexorable grind down to parity with the euro captures the popular headlines, the Bank of England's index of sterling against a trade-weighted basket of world currencies shows that weakness is pervasive. The index has lost more than a quarter of its value in little over two years -- by far the worst of the G4 (dollar, euro, sterling and yen) currencies over the financial crisis. The dollar's equivalent index has shed only about a third of the pound's losses since mid-2007, while the euro's has jumped about 10% and the yen's approximately 20% over that period.

There's no shortage of negatives -- Britain's deep recession, recent housing bust, near zero interest rates and money printing, soaring government budget deficit (forecast at more than 12% pf GDP next year, it's the highest of the G20) and looming general election in early 2010. In the relative world of currency traders, not all of these are necessarily bad for the pound -- the country is emerging tentatively from recession, the dominant financial services sector is recovering rapidly and  short-term interest rates (3-month Libor at least) do offer better returns than the dollar, yen, Swiss franc or Canadian dollar. 

SWFs by the Caspian

The world’s leading sovereign wealth funds are gathering in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, for a two-day inaugural meeting which ends on Friday.

A year after adopting the Santiago Principles of best practice guidelines, they are meeting next to the Caspian sea to review investment activities and assess how regulation and efforts to open up are helping them gain wider acceptance in a still-sceptical world.

The participants include SWFs from China, Kuwait, Azerbaijan, Australia, Libya, Ireland, Singapore and New Zealand. The meeting is hosted by the State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan – which made a record (and rare for SWFs) profit last year thanks to a conservative investment strategy.  The $11-billion fund, which made a record profit of around $300 million, or 3.7-3.8 percent in 2008, has said it wants to add riskier assets back onto the portfolio gradually.