Are fund managers too scared to take a view on Venezuela?

It has been long expected, but its happening still caused meaningful price dislocation. Two weeks ago, President Maduro of Venezuela announced that the country would restructure its debts. As a result, so far this month Venezuelan dollar bonds have delivered an -18.5% return.

At the start of the month, even though they were already trading at an average price of 46c/$, these bonds still made up a meaningful 1.8% of the flagship emerging market dollar bond index. So even if you were only neutral Venezuelan debt, the past couple of weeks have cost you a decent clip of performance.

Kames doesn’t own any Venezuelan debt, and here’s a few reasons why:

  • Debt restructurings are massively complex…: That Mr Maduro tasked his Vice President, Tareck El Aissami, whom the US sanctions as a drug trafficking kingpin, to lead negotiations on the Venezuelan side, betrays the Chavistas’ woeful under-estimation, and probable misunderstanding, of what they are trying to achieve.
  • and Venezuela’s looks like being the most complex of all: More important than individuals, though, are the US financial sanctions currently aimed at Venezuela. Yet, very many Venezuelan bondholders sit in the US, and a great deal of Venezuela’s oil, its lifeblood, is sold to US buyers. Restructuring under these circumstances seems practically impossible. And what about all the other creditors (international airlines with trapped dollars, for example) eyeing this situation with interest?
  • Domestic politics offers little upside: While Mr Maduro and Chavismo currently appear to hold the upper hand in Venezuelan politics, if the regime collapses, it’s unlikely that that which follows it would be nearly as assiduous in servicing its debts. In particular, if the IMF became involved alongside a new regime, expect it to take a dim view of international bondholders. And if the current regime survives? Expect more of today’s confusion.
  • China and Russia: Both are meaningful lenders to Venezuela. The opportunity for Russia, in particular, to keep the Maduro regime in power, and its debt servicing (barely) current, may be too good to pass up. It can thus get one over on the US, and its investors, on territory ‘close to home’. Sovereign actors with very different motivations and understandings could lead this situation to bump along the bottom for some time.

All that said, eventual recovery values for Venezuelan dollar bonds may well prove to be higher than the levels at which they trade today (in the 20s and 30s). However, both the pathway and timescale to these higher values are highly uncertain – arguably, impossible to read.

If your fund manager holds Venezuelan debt, he or she must think differently. We note that JP Morgan has said that Venezuelan bonds will remain in its emerging market sovereign bond indices, despite default. Could it be that, despite all the opacity and uncertainty around the situation, fund managers are too scared to take a view, and some benchmark risk, here?

From our perspective, we think there are currently plenty of other, more decipherable, investment opportunities across the emerging market debt universe. Venezuela doesn’t pose contagion risk to the wider asset class, we think, so we remain happily pursuing these opportunities.

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Emerging market sovereigns and corporates – why they’re different, and why they both matter

One paradox of investing in emerging market debt is as follows: very often, those outside the asset class, when criticising it, fail to differentiate between sovereign and corporate borrowers. At the same time, those within the asset class probably don’t think sufficiently about the two investment themes together. Let me explain what I mean.

Firstly, when those who criticise emerging market debt aren’t sure which sort of borrower they’re talking about. In this instance, it’s fair to say that this is not a mistake that these otherwise well-informed people would make when talking about developed market fixed income! To these critics, all emerging market debt is the same. This is, at quite fundamental levels, not the case. Consider the following few facts: emerging market private sector debt as a percentage of GDP is over twice the level of emerging market general government debt as a percentage of GDP. Simultaneously, emerging market private sector debt is overwhelmingly made up of bank lending to corporates and households, as opposed to debt raised in the bond markets. And in both cases, emerging market government and private sector debt is overwhelmingly domestic.

All this puts a few holes in some of the usual shibboleths about emerging market debt. For example, that emerging market sovereign and corporate debt profiles are one and the same. Or, that emerging market corporates have made the entirety of their liabilities (dollar) bonds, owned by foreigners.

What about those inside the asset class? As the emerging market fixed income universe has grown greatly in scale in recent years, investors in the space have become increasingly isolated, as either specialists in one investment theme or the other. However, if you want to buy an Argentine corporate, for instance; you should be sure to have a firm view of what’s going on with the Argentine sovereign. Surprisingly often among emerging markets investors, this isn’t the case.

At Kames, we invest across emerging markets sovereigns and corporates, and aim to marry a clear-eyed view of the top down, with a firm understanding of the bottom-up. This holistic approach also involves tackling some of the widespread misunderstandings about emerging market fixed income as a whole.

More rare than a Chinese Congress

China has been in the news a great deal this week, with the announcement, at the Communist Party’s quinquennial Congress, of the next cadre of leadership alongside President Xi Jinping.

However, China did something else significant this week too, and even more infrequent than a once every five year event, although it attracted considerably less attention.  The country issued its first sovereign bonds denominated in U.S. dollars since 2004. Eventually priced at 15bps over the U.S. Treasury curve at the five year point, and 25bps over the U.S. Treasury curve at the 10 year point, the new deals represented competitive pricing for the Chinese sovereign.  Of course, with each deal capped at $1bn in size, and given the infrequency of China’s appearances in the dollar bond market, the new bonds enjoyed considerable demand. The order book across the two deals was over $22bn in size.

Why did China, a country with over $3 trillion in reserves, need to borrow $2bn?  Well, it didn’t.  The intention of these new bonds is almost certainly to support the pricing of the existing dollar debt issued by China’s many and varied SOEs (state-owned enterprises).

Unlike their sovereign, these SOEs are not shy about coming to the market.  At the last count, some $75bn of Chinese quasi-sovereign bonds were to be found in the main EM dollar-denominated sovereign debt index.  With spreads of these issuers trading, on a simple average basis, at around 90bps, China will feel its new sovereign bonds can reduce their borrowing cost.  After all, SOEs in regional peer South Korea can trade as tight as 20bps over their sovereign.

The new deal makes sense then, though legitimate questions can be asked as to what extent a $2bn of bonds can, by themselves, deliver fair pricing for an $11 trillion dollar economy.  All the same, we expect Chinese SOE bonds to enjoy pricing support as a result of this transaction, and unlike the sovereign, the SOEs will keep on issuing…

Familiar faces, unfamiliar risks

A couple of weeks ago, finance ministers, central bank governors, and other interested parties, including lots of emerging markets-focused investors, gathered in Washington, D.C. for the IMF and World Bank Group’s Annual Meetings.

Listening to speakers, and talking to other investors, a couple of my key takeaways from the meetings would be as follows:

Firstly, it’s a constructive time for global growth. The major emerging economies are growing, led by China, but backed up by recovery in the likes of Argentina, Egypt, and Russia. On Europe, there is widespread optimism for the first time in a number of years. In the U.S., the IMF does not make any assumptions in its forecasts about the positive benefits of likely tax reform. Finally, and critically for emerging markets, in this benign growth environment, commodity prices are expected to remain supportive.

Where, though, are the risks? Somewhat to my surprise, these seem to pivot on geopolitical issues, principally those involving the U.S. For example, the state of NAFTA negotiations can only be described as fragile. At the same time, U.S. – Russia relations seem to be at multi-decade lows, as the Trump White House has abandoned ship on the matter. What implications does this attitude have for the Iran nuclear deal, for example? All this, of course, before we mention North Korea.

Perhaps geopolitical concerns can be overstated for markets, and investors should stick to their knitting and traditional fears! However, the extent of geopolitical uncertainty currently engendered by the White House was striking to me. It certainly puts into sharp relief the old idea that political risks in emerging markets are greater than those to be found in their developed market peers.

Fortune favoured the brave

At a well-attended investment bank research conference on emerging markets last week, a noteworthy chart on show displayed returns across various asset classes over the year to date. In this chart, six of the top ten asset classes were from EM.

Well out in front of the pack, at +27.9%, was EM equities. EM local markets in USD terms returned 14.0%, and our principal indices, EM sovereigns and EM corporates, both in hard currency, returned 9.3% and 7.4%, respectively. The latter was just outside the top ten.

These numbers trumped developed market indices: US HY has returned 6.9%, and US IG 5.3%. In Europe, the numbers were 5.5% and 1.2%.

It’s fair to say that at the start of the year, many people didn’t see such strong performance in emerging markets coming. The pending Trump presidency cast a shadow over EM, and caution was widespread.

Fortune, however, favoured the brave. Since that time, growth across emerging markets has surprised to the upside, led by China, while the Trump presidency has proven to be strong on tweeting, and less strong on delivery. The dollar has lagged.

We think that this is not just a phase, and that emerging markets are poised for continued performance. Some emerging economies were badly burnt by the commodity sell-off, but came back more resilient – growth is now picking up across EM; valuations are superior to those in developed markets, where post-crisis interference has smothered yields; finally, inflows to the asset class provide a renewed and supportive technical.

As ever, the picture is far from perfect: South Africa looks like it will get worse before it gets better; Venezuela is teetering on the edge. However, the overall picture is undoubtedly a constructive one, and against this backdrop, we see widespread opportunities across the emerging market debt space.

The market continues to fear that the strength is about to turn over. We think the greater risk to investor positioning is that it persists.

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Dubai harbours global port success, but will not be contained

To many in the UK, Dubai is best known as a tourism and entertainment hub, perhaps a good bet for some winter sun. Its role as a leading global trading centre is less well known. However, it is the latter aspect of Dubai which is, we think, both the most important and interesting part of its story.

Global ports operator “DP World” epitomises this element of Dubai. Having begun with one asset in Dubai in 1972, the company today operates 78 terminals across 40 countries. In 2016, it handled 64 million TEU (twenty-foot equivalent units), the ubiquitous, work-horse containers of global trade.

We like this company, not least for its core role in Dubai, and its strong global diversification. Its long end bonds have this year performed particularly strongly. However, for the general observer, it is DP World’s experience of and take on global trade that is most interesting.

Yesterday, the company reported its first half results, and the read-across is solid. Firstly, consolidated volumes of TEU were up by +4.7% YoY on a like for like basis. Secondly, performance in the company’s three major regions was healthy.  In the Middle East, Europe, and Africa, volumes increased +4.2% YoY, driven by the UAE and the UK. In Asia Pacific and the Indian Subcontinent, volumes increased a respectable +2.9% YoY. Finally, in Australia and the Americas, volumes gained +13.5% YoY, driven by the latter region.

This sound performance is, importantly, expected to be maintained in the second half of the year. This augurs well for both emerging and developed economies, and also serves to highlight, once again, Dubai’s under-appreciated role as a key link in global trade.

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Qatar and the GCC: not much cooperation here

Experience would tell you that, in the current dispute between Qatar and its neighbours, cooler heads on both sides would prevail soon enough, and the situation in the region revert to normal. However, reviewing the list of demands made overnight by Saudi Arabia and its allies of Qatar provides good reason to think again.

In short, the list of demands is steep, and so it is hard to imagine Qatar engaging in the necessary set of climb-downs that acquiescence would entail. Among the demands is found: Qatar shutting down Al-Jazeera; ending military co-operation with Turkey; paying repatriations; and, best of all, facing ten years of annual compliance monitoring!

Qatar is supposed to agree to all of this within ten days. As one set of mostly very wealthy nations faces off against another, very wealthy, nation, what seems more likely is a medium- or even long-term stalemate. This, both sides can probably manage: certainly, nobody in Qatar is going to go hungry as a result of any current blockade.

The implications are probably more troubling for EM investors’ sense of the region. GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) assets have historically anchored many an EM portfolio: these are wealthy, stable, well-run economies, after all.

Perhaps not. With a millennial Crown Prince in charge in Saudi Arabia; with oil threatening to break out of its 1Y range to the downside; and, above all, with a far from steady hand on the tiller in the White House, it is not clear if the GCC should, any longer, be taken as the hallmark of stability it once was.

As I said above, we shouldn’t be surprised if a face-saving way out of the current impasse is found, and the GCC thus reverts to type. But at first glance, this morning’s rather surprising list of demands suggests that this time could be different. Investors should prepare accordingly.

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EM Corporates – Stay selective

It’s a difficult time to like EM corporate bonds.

In the first instance, valuations are expensive. In fact, emerging market corporate bonds now trade at a tighter spread than emerging market government bonds.

Source: JP Morgan. CEMBI is the EM corporate index, EMBIG the EM sovereign index.

In addition, the greater part of the build-up in leverage in emerging markets in recent years has been on private balance sheets, not on those belonging to governments.

At Kames, our focus is on those stronger sovereign balance sheets. However, we can and do buy the debt of emerging market companies when individual credits’ valuations and fundamentals are attractive. It’s a highly selective approach that takes advantage of price dislocations and disruptions – a necessary approach, too, in what has become an expensive corner of the market.

South Africa: stay cautious for now

On Friday morning President Zuma of South Africa dismissed his Finance Minister and Deputy Finance Minister. Such a move had seemed likely after the highly unusual decision to call back the two ministers from a roadshow in London earlier that week.

Finance Minister Gordhan enjoyed a strong measure of market confidence, in a country where institutional strength has been seen to be in short supply. As such, his sacking represents a real blow to South Africa’s credibility.

Over the course of last week the rand sold off approximately 8% against the dollar. The spread on South African dollar denominated sovereign bonds, as measured by JP Morgan’s EMBIG Diversified index, moved from +239bps to +269bps over the same period.

We would not step in here, however. The currency’s sell-off still leaves it inside the one-year average of 14 rand to the dollar, and well inside the one-year high of 15.9. As for bonds, we expect South Africa to now lose its investment grade ratings from at least two of three ratings agencies. South African paper should therefore trade closer to BB rated Turkey (+314bps).

Overall, the decision to sack Mr Gordhan reveals the high stakes around the battle for power in South Africa this year. As the African National Congress gears up to choose its next leader later this year, the issues surrounding President Zuma’s controversial time in power seem to be coming to a head, as he battles to secure his position and legacy.

With little clarity around how this probably destructive endgame might play out, and value set to leak further in South African assets, we prefer to be on the sidelines here.

China in the age of Trump

China has seen elevated credit growth since the global financial crisis, such that investors consistently raise this issue as a core concern for emerging markets. The more recent rise of President Trump has also added to the pressure on the world’s second largest economy. A recent visit to China for a number of meetings with economists, academics, and policymakers, has helped develop my thinking on these key topics.

The watchword for China this year is stability. The 19th party congress this autumn, where President Xi Jinping will seek a second term as General Secretary, while various other senior members of the party also jockey for position, means that the energies of the state are principally focused on avoiding any unforeseen disruptions. That includes to the economy.

Thankfully for the party, China’s economy is in something of a sweet spot right now. A commodity upswing, trade strength, and government-backed investment demand should see the 6.5% growth target for 2017 comfortably met. At the same time, the PBoC seems able to raise its policy rates, in order to push back at some of the smaller banks’ funding models, without raising its more important benchmark rates.

When it comes to President Trump’s views on China I believe that, for this year at least, his bark will be worse than his bite. A fully blown trade war between the US and China serves neither side’s overall interests. We might well see some tit-for-tat tariffs introduced, but the broader relationship should remain on course. We may even see some ‘gives’ from China at next week’s meeting of the two leaders in Florida.

Over the medium to long term, however, my view of China is somewhat bleaker. Firstly, it is doubtful that China can somehow dodge economic gravity, following its dizzying rise in debt to GDP: a banking crisis or major growth shock will probably come to pass. Secondly, real estate continues to play too great a role in the financial accounts of Chinese local governments and individuals, and indeed in national growth targets. Thirdly, Chinese SOEs continue to play a distorting role in the Chinese economy, and the current leadership does not seem minded to engage in serious reform on this, or related matters.

I am mindful that the contradictions of a ‘socialist market economy’ mean that China could well keep the show on the road for longer than we expect. Equally, genuine growth upturns in China and Asia should not be ignored by market participants when they occur. But with the above questions on leverage outstanding, allied to the challenge facing China in reforming its impossible trinity (of rates, currency, and capital), a crunch moment seems likely in the next few years.