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Emerging market debt: notes from my recent trip to the IMF Annual Meetings

Last week I attended the IMF’s Annual Meetings in Washington D.C, where I had a series of very interesting meetings with government officials and other world financial leaders. The underlying theme behind most of the discussions was that emerging market countries continue their adjustment into a new phase characterized by less abundant liquidity and lower commodity prices. This adjustment process has thus far held a reasonably steady course, as the asset class has posted respectable returns year to date, part of that driven by lower US yields and part driven by the tightening of spreads and carry. Currencies, which is one of the main channels of adjustment to this new environment have been depreciating, which is something I had highlighted earlier in the year.

Looking into 2015, concerns are shifting from US rates into more specific EM factors. A slowdown of growth in China and other countries was the main concern voiced through the meetings. This reflects an uneven global recovery, where the US is unable to fully offset the growth drag coming from the Eurozone and Japan. Additionally, geopolitical events and country specific structural issues have also contributed to the slowdown.

In Ukraine, expectations of a restructuring through a voluntary maturity extension seems widely expected, despite the supportive rhetoric coming from IMF officials, suggesting that additional funding may be provided given the higher financing required as a result of the country’s worse than expected conflict. Despite the supportive rhetoric, I remain cautious on the credit at these levels, with the view that there can be contagion arising from defaults of state owned banks in the years ahead as they will have access to Hryvnia liquidity from the Central Bank, but no preferential access to USD given Ukraine’s weak international reserve position.

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Venezuela’s default expectations seem lower than implied by market prices. I believe the disconnect reflects the uncertain recovery value on the credit compared to prior emerging market restructurings. The amount and seniority of additional claims, such as dollar claims by importers, airlines, compensations for past nationalization of assets by the state and state arrears make the recovery exercise a difficult one.

Argentina will face a difficult year ahead given its stagflation and declining reserves, though it has a slight advantage versus the two other distressed credits in the sense that a new administration is likely to pursue more orthodox economic policies than the current administration. Still, the country’s legal dispute with the holdouts will extend well into next year and there is also the risk that a bond acceleration on the Defaulted Par bonds makes this situation even more complex.

Brazil’s upcoming second round elections on October 26 will be critical. Foreigners are more skeptical that the pro-market Aecio Neves could win. I see the elections a little less binary than the markets. Aecio’s ability to push reforms through Congress can disappoint, given Brazil’s fragmented party structure. At these levels, however, I see more upside in asset prices and particularly local rates should he win, than I see downside should Dilma be re-elected.

As for Russia, its ability to maintain its investment grade rating largely depends on how long with the conflict with Ukraine will last. Relations with the West, particularly with the US have hit bottom and are at the lowest point since the Cold War. US authorities remain quite relaxed in terms of maintaining their sanctions for a very long time if needed. I remain cautious on the credit, but believe that spreads already reflect the deterioration in capital flows, international reserves and the recent decline in oil prices. Credit risk between the sovereign and select state champions such as Gazprom or the larger state owned banks should continue.

In terms of overall asset allocation, there is little consensus on what will outperform next year, whether it is external debt, local debt or corporates. More of a consensus, however, is the fact that return expectations are conservative, with low single digits expected. Reflecting this, inflows into the asset class are expected to remain positive, but materially below levels seen before 2013.

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In local currency bonds, I believe the recent rally in US rates and fall in commodity prices warrants adding duration in some countries. Various EM Central Banks are willing to allow for additional currency weakening without the need to tighten monetary policy. They believe that any pressures on inflation will be perceived by economic agents to be temporary, particularly in countries such as Chile where an output gap exists, or in countries such as Colombia that have been tightening policy.

I expect returns to be more muted in hard currency next year and the gap between hard and local currency bond returns should not be as wide as this year’s. In addition, country selection remains key and we have already been witnessing this differentiation over the last few years.

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Do Central Banks tell us too much for our own good?

I read in The Times last week that the Shadow Monetary Policy Committee (a panel of economists and Bank of England alumni) thinks that the Bank of England should announce a freeze on UK rates for an extended period of time. The Federal Reserve also had this policy (now replaced by even more explicit guidance about the unemployment rate and inflation levels), as did the Bank of Canada. In the past few years the Fed has spent weeks debating its communications strategy. Elsewhere we get monthly press conferences (including in Trichet’s time as head of the ECB the use of the explicit codewords “strong vigilance” which meant “rates going up next month”). We also get Inflation Reports and Financial Stability Reports, fan charts and GDP forecasts from which market economists pronounce that the Bank’s two year ahead projection means no more QE just yet. I wonder though whether we’re being given too much information, and that in telling us exactly what they are going to do, central banks risk either a) having to not change their policy even if economic circumstances mean that they should (for example if economic growth comes back strongly yet they’ve promised to keep rates on hold for years), or b) lose face, credibility and trust with the market by going back on their promise. Each of these actions has a cost, and should lower an economy’s potential GDP rate.

Is the promise of low rates forever fuelling the return of those Four Horsemen of the Bondocalypse – CLOs, PIK notes, CCC rated high yield issuance, and mega – LBOs? Does it lead to complacency in investment? To schemes that can only survive if rates don’t ever rise? Is current central bank policy generating asset bubbles? And what are central bankers left with, without the ability to surprise and shock? Worse still, what if “low rates forever” has the opposite effect than intended? Does it say “doomed, we’re all doomed”? Perhaps central bankers should realise that keeping us guessing is their most powerful tool (OK maybe QE Infinity is their most powerful tool, but still).

The clip below is of Diego Maradona, scoring against England in the Mexico World Cup finals in 1986.

I was reminded of it when I picked up a copy of Steve Hodge’s autobiography The Man With Maradona’s Shirt in the sales. Maradona was fortunate enough to swap shirts with Nottingham Forest legend Hodge after that game. Anyway, back in 2005 Bank of England Governor gave a speech in which he said the most interesting thing a central banker ever said.

“The great Argentine footballer, Diego Maradona, is not usually associated with the theory of monetary policy. But his performance against England in the World Cup in Mexico City in June 1986 when he scored twice is a perfect illustration of my point. Maradona’s first “hand of God” goal was an exercise of the old “mystery and mystique” approach to central banking. His action was unexpected, time-inconsistent and against the rules. He was lucky to get away with it. His second goal, however, was an example of the power of expectations in the modern theory of interest rates. Maradona ran 60 yards from inside his own half beating five players before placing the ball in the English goal. The truly remarkable thing, however, is that, Maradona ran virtually in a straight line. How can you beat five players by running in a straight line? The answer is that the English defenders reacted to what they expected Maradona to do. Because they expected Maradona to move either left or right, he was able to go straight on. ”

If Maradona had put out a press release and a booklet explaining exactly what he was going to do, it could never have happened. But by keeping the England team guessing and by shifting his weight from left to right (the footballing equivalent of raised eyebrows) he scored the greatest goal of all time.