Weekly Bond Update: EM on the brink, asset allocation key
- EM challenged by strong dollar, lower commodities, high valuations
- US no longer a safe-haven as Trump pulls out of globalisation consensus
- Investors seeking an alternative to volatile equities should consider bonds
By Althea Spinozzi
Brazil, Russia, India, and China – the 'BRICs' – have been the mantra over the past 15 years. The term 'BRIC' was coined by former Goldman Sachs asset management chair Jim O’Neil in 2001 and since then these countries have seen exponential growth even though they were affected by episodes of volatility.
Emerging markets in general have been benefiting from tighter central bank policies over the past few years and have broadly exceeded expectations. Of late, however, investors have grown increasingly bearish as EM fund inflows slow down.
The reality is that EM are challenged by three specific factors: a strong US dollar, low commodity prices, and high valuations.
Even though the US dollar has lost 11% against the euro since the beginning of the year, the dollar continues to be well above its 2014 levels and despite political uncertainties in Washington, the US economy is increasingly robust, pointing to the fact that the USD is not likely to return to its 2013-2014 levels.
A strong US dollar combined with increasingly hawkish policy and interest rate hikes from developed market central banks might prove deadly for many EM companies and governments that have taken advantage of favourable market conditions in order to finance their ongoing operations in USD.
Commodity prices are proving to be a trap as well. As a matter of fact, many emerging countries are heavily dependent on commodity exports and even though it looks as if commodity prices are going to marginally recover in 2018, prices will still be below the levels seen at the beginning of 2014.
Lastly, higher asset valuations in both the bond and stock markets has pushed many investors to look beyond their comfort zones to find higher-yielding opportunities in emerging countries. This flow has further swelled the value of these assets, making the overall space “expensive”.
An expensive space
In order to understand how EM grew so expensive, one can look at the the USD-denominated government bond issued by China last week where Beijing was able to place five- and 10-year government bonds at +15bps and +25bps over the Treasuries.
Adding to the above, EM political uncertainty might pose a still-bigger risk as we have seen in South Africa over the past few weeks; economic conditions are weak, and the political crisis is digging the country's economy even deeper. Consequently, yields rose last week and they will continue to be volatile as the African National Congress approaches and there is no clarity on the results.
In Russia, the financial sector is finally showing some weakness with Bank Otkritie looking for grounds to write off bonds due in April 2019. At the same time, Russian Standard Bank has commented that the bonds of Russian Standard Ltd. are not linked to the bank, making investors fear a possible default.
Investors are learning that the risks are as high abroad as they are at home. Even though the West has been able to limit losses following the 2008 crisis, and now is in the process of normalisation, today's “normal” will be different than it was pre-2008.
Trump’s presidency has finally put an end to the post-World War II circumstance we knew as “Americanisation”. For over 70 years, the US has led international talks and formed the global consensus. Now, however as the world continues to move towards more comprehensive globalisation, the Trump administration is stepping away from international agreements and aiming to close beneficial bilateral arrangements.
Trump’s administration also increases political uncertainty, making the US dollar and US Treasuries more volatile and sensitive to political and economic developments. The dollar and US Treasuries have long been regarded as safe havens but the reality is that these may be the first assets to become decidedly unsafe as rash decisions continue to issue from the Oval Office.
One good example could be how Trump is reportedly set to deal with the Puerto Rican hurricane crisis by wiping out Puerto Rico’s debt. Money cannot be safe in a country where the president doesn’t understand the profound consequences of wiping out government bonds.
The US is no longer a safe haven.
This puts many investors in awkward position. We may well be approaching a crisis in EM, but money is no longer safe at "home" either!
Stocks at the heights
One of the biggest trades in 2017 has been shorting the S&P 500 as investors thought that the index had reached its top and would soon go down. This trade has revealed to be costly as the index is up 15% since the beginning of the year.
If equity traders believe stock markets will be more volatile in 2018 as current levels struggle to find support, they should look at the bond market. The beauty of fixed income is that when you buy a bond you essentially lock in a specific yield... unless the company is unable to repay the notional, of course.
This means that if you like a particular company but believe that the stock price will be volatile due to external factors, you can guarantee an annual return without being affected by market volatility (provided you are confident that the company is sound and will be able to repay back its debt).
We have looked at the most heavily traded stocks in the Saxo platform this year in order to find out which bonds may be interesting for equities traders. A few names got our attention...
- Tencent Holdings Limited. The company provides internet and mobile value-added services (online advertising and e-commerce transactions globally). Tencent stock soared 84.5% this year. In case investors believe the party will be over in 2018, the company has several US dollar bonds with maturities between 2018 and 2025. Tencent 3.375% May 2019 offers approximately 2% yield.
- Santos Ltd. It's a different story for the Australian explorer and producer of natural gas where prices this year were a little bit like a yo-yo, reaching bottom in July and recovering in the past couple of months. In case you like the company but you don’t wish to be exposed to the stock’s volatility, the company has a US dollar bond paying 4.125% coupon with 2027 maturity, this indicatively represents a4% yield.
The music is obviously over and an EM crisis can spread quite easily to developed markets. Sooner or later, the equities market will show signs of weakness.
Thus, asset diversification is always the key.
— Edited by Michael McKenna
Althea Spinozzi is a sales trader at Saxo Bank