Khamis, 6 Januari 2011

Emerging Market Currencies in 2011

Emerging market assets/currencies registered some unbelievable gains in 2010 as the global economy emerged from recession and investor risk appetite picked up. In the last few months, however, emerging market currencies gave back some of their gains as the EU sovereign debt crisis flared up and the currency wars began to rage. Given that neither of these uncertainties is likely to be resolved anytime soon, 2011 could be a tumultuous year for emerging markets.

Let’s look at the numbers for emerging markets in 2010. The highlights for currencies were the Malaysian ringgit and Thai baht rose, both of which “rose around 10% against the dollar, to their strongest levels since the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. The South African rand was up 14% versus the dollar. It was a minor currency, however, that was the world’s best-performing: Mining-rich Mongolia’s togrog finished the year 15% higher against the dollar.” After being allowed to resume its appreciation, the Chinese Yuan rose by a modest 3.5%.

The J.P. Morgan Emerging Markets Bond Index Global returned a record 11.9% in 2010, to the extent that now trades at a modest 2.5% spread over US Treasury bonds. The standout was probably Argentina, whose sovereign debt returned a whopping 35% over the year. Switching to equities, the MSCI Emerging Markets Index returned 16.4%, handily beating the MSCI World Index, which itself rose by an impressive 9.6%. The individual top performing stock markets in 2010 unsurprisingly were “Frontier markets such as Sri Lanka (+96.0%), Bangladesh (+83.5%), Estonia (+72.6%), Ukraine (+70.2%), the Philippines (+56.7%) and Lithuania (+56.5%).” In total, an estimated $825 Billion in private capital flowed into emerging markets during the year, including $53 Billion into local currency bonds.

Emerging markets took advantage of the surge in investor interest to issue record amount of local currency debt and through a plethora of massive stock IPOs. Still, the intractable rise in currency and asset prices was generally seen as an undesirable trend, and emerging markets took significant steps to counter it. More than a dozen central banks have already intervened directly in currency markets in a bid to hold down their currencies. According to the IMF, “Emerging nations had accumulated $1.2 trillion in currency reserves between the financial crisis’s peak in early 2009 and the third quarter of 2010,” including ~$300 Billion in Asia ex-China. Some countries, such as Brazil – poured $1 Billion a week into forex markets during the height of their intervention campaigns.

Speaking of Brazil, it was also among the first to impose capital controls, in the form of a 6% tax on foreign bond investors. Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia have also imposed capital controls, while Mexico has tapped an IMF credit line, which it can use to “manage the stability of its external balances.” Moreover, these countries collectively won an important victory at the fall meeting of the G20, by receiving formal permission for all of these measures.

Alas, most of these inflows were probably justified by fundamentals, which means that they are more difficult to fight against than if they were merely the product of speculation. For example, “Developing countries expanded at a 7.1 per cent rate, compared with 2.7 per cent in advanced countries.” Moreover, emerging market stocks are trading at an average P/E multiple of 14.5, well below their recent historical average. This means that in spite of impressive performance in 2010, corporate profits are still rising faster than share prices. In addition, yields on emerging market sovereign debt still exceed the yields on comparable debt for western countries, despite being lower risk in some ways.


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