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TWN Info Service on Finance and Development (Oct15/02)
12 October 2015
Third World Network


Investors concerned over growing vulnerabilities in EMEs
Published in SUNS #8109 dated 9 October 2015


Geneva, 8 Oct (Kanaga Raja) - In their re-assessment of the global growth outlook, investors increasingly focused on growing vulnerabilities in emerging market economies (EMEs), particularly China, the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) has said.

In its latest Quarterly Review released recently, BIS said equity markets in China plunged following a prolonged surge in stock prices that had propelled many stock valuations to extreme levels, and this had dented investor confidence and weighed on asset prices globally.

The Basel-based central bank for the world's central banks said that global financial markets have suffered repeated blows over the past few months, with a number of them due to events in China. On the heels of the Greek crisis, markets were roiled following a sharp drop in the Chinese equity market and a surprise change to the renminbi's exchange rate arrangements.

Markets, particularly in Europe, hit turbulence early in the quarter as negotiations about renewed funding for Greece dragged on. This was behind much of the under-performance of European equities, which caused the EURO STOXX index to fall by almost 11% between end-March and early July.

According to BIS, the drawn-out negotiations between Greece and its creditors through the first half of 2015 gradually undermined market sentiment. As the situation reached crisis proportions, with the banking system closed down and capital controls in place, two-year Greek sovereign credit default swap (CDS) spreads peaked above 10,000 basis points in early July, after voters rejected proposed reforms in a referendum.

"Financial markets beyond Greece were also affected. In bond markets, there were clear signs of flight to safety: for example, German and Swiss bond yields fell on days when Greek CDS widened the most and recovered on days when spreads tightened considerably."

Although the ongoing Greek crisis weighed on investor sentiment, the direct contagion to other periphery euro area sovereigns was limited and short-lived, said BIS, adding that eventually, as it became likely in early July that a new programme for Greece would be forthcoming, markets quickly recovered and investors started to turn their gaze elsewhere.

China's situation, in particular, received increasing market attention as the country's equities fell sharply in late June and early July. Following a spectacular surge lasting over a year, the benchmark Shanghai Shenzhen CSI 300 Index lost almost one third of its value between 12 June and 8 July. The adjustment was even more dramatic for the Shenzhen Stock Exchange (SZSE) ChiNext small technology company index, which plunged by 40% over the same period.

The preceding run-up in Chinese equity prices was driven by increased trading activity and build-up of leverage, which accelerated as the central bank eased monetary policy. Combined daily turnover averaged CNY 1.8 trillion ($300 billion) in the month up to 12 June, around six times the 2014 average and exceeding that of the US stock market.

This was fuelled by over 56 million new trading accounts opened predominantly by retail investors in the first half of 2015. Broker-intermediated margin trading reached CNY 2.2 trillion ($360 billion) in early June, an almost sixfold increase from the year before, representing approximately 8% of tradable market capitalisation.

Increased leverage went hand in hand with rising valuations: the CSI 300 price/earnings ratio went up from 10 in mid-2014 to 21 in June 2015, while the P/E ratio on the ChiNext exchange peaked at 143. Turnover and leverage then plunged, reflecting new regulatory curbs and the rapid retreat of retail investors.

According to BIS, as concerns over Chinese equity market fundamentals persisted and authorities began scaling down their market-supporting measures, the volatility increasingly spilled over to other markets, especially in Asia. On 27 July, when the CSI 300 Index fell by 8.5% - its largest daily drop since 2007 - equity markets across Asia, and some commodity prices, suffered outsize drops. "In late July and early August, equity prices in China and elsewhere briefly stabilised. This respite was short-lived."

Concerns about China's growth outlook took centre stage as the People's Bank of China (PBoC) on 11 August announced major changes to its foreign exchange policy.

While the measures were officially described as a step towards a more market-oriented foreign exchange mechanism for the renminbi, the resulting depreciation was seen by some as a sign that Chinese growth was expected to weaken further.

Currencies in the region and beyond depreciated sharply in response to the weakening of the Chinese currency. As price drops in commodity markets accelerated, investors grew increasingly concerned about growth prospects for EMEs more broadly, and the impact on the global economy.

When Chinese equity prices began to fall sharply again in late August, global equity indices plummeted, said BIS, noting that between 18 and 25 August, while Chinese equities slumped by another 21%, the world's major equity indices dropped by around 10%.

The S&P 500 Index closed 4% down on 24 August alone (a day when the CSI 300 Index fell by almost 9%), after a 6% slide during the day, amid intra-day stock price drops of more than 20% for blue chips such as GE and JPMorgan Chase.

Against this backdrop, said BIS, implied volatilities shot up: the VIX index surged to 40, its highest level since 2011, while EME implied equity volatility (VXEEM) rose the most on record.

"Rising volatility was not confined to equities: commodity, bond and foreign exchange market volatility all spiked to levels much above post-crisis averages."

By the start of September, the global equity market sell-off brought the Datastream world P/E ratio back down to just below its median value since 1987. Global P/E ratios had breached this median value in early 2015, after their upward trajectory since 2012.

BIS underlined that China's economic slowdown and the US dollar's appreciation have confronted EMEs with a double challenge: growth prospects have weakened, especially for commodity exporters, and the burden of dollar-denominated debt has risen in local currency terms.

According to one indicator, China's private sector manufacturing activity contracted at its fastest pace in six years in August, while the purchasing managers' index (PMI) in Brazil, Russia and Turkey remained at or below 50 amid adverse country-specific developments.

In this environment, EME corporations, after ratcheting up their income-based leverage to the highest levels in a decade, saw sharply rising credit spreads. The depreciation against the US dollar of most EME currencies, including those of both commodity producers and consumers, added to the difficulty of servicing the dollar-denominated part of this debt.

After a brief but sizeable recovery in the second quarter of 2015, the prices of most commodities continued their plunge, putting additional pressure on commodity producers' exchange rates. Perceptions of weaker global demand due to the fall in China's investment growth and, in the case of oil, persistently high supply played a key role.

"Financial factors, too, may have contributed to the commodity plunge. The fall in the dollar oil price can be partly explained by the appreciation of the US dollar, which in the absence of such a decline makes oil more expensive outside the United States."

Despite falling stock prices and rising borrowing costs, the US energy sector stepped up its debt issuance, possibly in an effort to defend market share. "High debt burdens may force these firms to keep up their production simply to generate the cash flow they need to service their debt, accentuating the downward pressure on oil prices."

Against this backdrop, said BIS, a number of emerging market economy and commodity-exporting advanced economy central banks eased monetary policy, including those of China, Hungary, India, Korea, Russia and Thailand as well as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Norway.

In Brazil, where a recession coincided with rising inflation and political tensions, the central bank increased its key policy rate from 12.75% in early March to 14.25%, citing above-target inflation as its primary concern, but signalled a pause in further tightening.

As emerging market currencies sagged against the dollar, the PBoC on 11 August announced major changes to its foreign exchange policy.

The renminbi would continue to trade against the US dollar in a plus-minus 2% daily band, but the central parity around which the band is set would be determined by the previous day's closing market rate rather than a preset target rate. This more market-oriented mechanism is a step towards fulfilling the criteria for the renminbi's inclusion in the IMF's SDR basket ahead of its review in late 2015.

This change led to further ructions in the foreign exchange markets. The renminbi slipped by 2.8% against the US dollar in the two days after the surprise announcement, before stabilising when the PBoC intervened to support the currency.

Emerging Asia currencies reacted strongly, with the Malaysian ringgit depreciating by more than 6% since the announcement, said BIS.

DIVERGING MONETARY POLICIES

BIS said that diverging monetary policies have continued to be an important driver for markets over the past few months. With policy rates close to zero, the Bank of Japan and the ECB continued their respective asset purchase programmes, seeking to stimulate economic activity and lift inflation closer to target.

At the same time, the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England continued to prepare market participants for an eventual increase in their policy rates.

In particular, the Federal Reserve's efforts in this direction have been ongoing for some time, thus keeping US forward interest rates persistently above those in the euro area and elsewhere. But macroeconomic upsets and bouts of market turbulence have prompted investors to scale back their expectations for near-term rate hikes.

For example, whereas prices of federal funds futures contracts at the beginning of 2015 implied an 80% probability that the target rate would have been raised by September, and a 90% probability that it would have happened by December, these probabilities had fallen to around 32% and 58%, respectively, by 2 September.

These estimated probabilities dropped sharply twice during the quarter. On 8 July, they fell to 21% and 54%, respectively, shortly after the Greek referendum and on a day when the Shanghai equity index plummeted by 6%. After recovering in subsequent weeks, they again slid in late August following the extreme turbulence in global equity markets.

According to BIS, although the timing of the Federal Reserve's first move has become more uncertain, interest rate differentials between the United States and many other countries have remained wide, with important consequences for foreign exchange markets.

In particular, except for a brief hiatus in the second quarter of 2015, the US dollar has been on an appreciating trend since mid-2014. The influence of interest rate differentials on the dollar was particularly stark with regard to the euro: as the difference between US and core euro area interest rates began to widen again in the third quarter of 2015, the dollar resumed its strengthening path against the euro. Towards the end of the period, as US short-term rates edged down, the euro recovered somewhat.

Interest rate differentials also affected the behaviour of investors and borrowers. With interest rates at or near record lows in the euro area, fixed income investors increasingly turned to higher-yielding dollar assets.

For example, flows into European exchange-traded funds linked to US bonds surged. In the first half of this year, such flows amounted to $4.8 billion, as compared with $4.0 billion in the entire year of 2014 and $3.4 billion in 2013.

For their part, firms in the United States increasingly issued euro-denominated debt to benefit from the low borrowing costs. In the second quarter of 2015, total gross issuance of euro-denominated debt by US non- financial corporations amounted to 30 billion euros, surpassing even the brisk issuance of the previous two quarters.

"With ongoing ECB asset purchases weighing on the yields of core euro area government debt, yield-starved European investors have welcomed the rising supply of corporate debt."

BOND YIELDS

BIS said that long-term government bond yields in advanced economies edged lower to levels not far from the troughs reached early in the year, following sharp but brief increases in the second quarter.

The yield on 10-year German government bonds, which peaked at just below 1% in early June 2015, had eased back to around 80 basis points by the beginning of September. US 10-year Treasury yields similarly eased from around 2.5% to 2.2% over the same period.

The persistence of very low bond yields largely reflected unusually low term premia. The influence of low premia was particularly stark for euro area bonds.

Since the culmination of the financial crisis, estimated term premia on 10-year core euro area government bonds gradually fell from above 100 basis points to around zero at the beginning of 2014.

Since then, said BIS, a prolonged slide in premia pulled yields down close to zero in the second quarter of 2015, before both premia and yields recovered somewhat.

This large downward move in euro area term premia coincided with growing expectations for, and ultimately the implementation of, the ECB extended asset purchase programme.

The sharper drop in euro area term premia than in US premia explains much of the widening gap between long- term bond yields in the two economies. Implied forward interest rate curves also show that much of the current low-yield environment is the result of very low real forward interest rates.

Real forward rates rise only very slowly, entering positive territory only at horizons three years ahead for the United States, and six years ahead for the euro area.

Moreover, even at 10 years ahead, real forward rates reach levels considerably below those seen prior to the financial crisis, accounting for almost all of the similarly large gap between current and pre-crisis nominal forward rates.

The behaviour of institutional investors may have played a role in explaining such unusually low yields. For example, as yields have come down, the duration of pension funds' and insurance companies' liabilities have lengthened, forcing them to step up their hedging activities.

BIS said: "This has increased demand for long-term swaps, adding to the downward pressure on yields. Such self-reinforcing effects are likely to have been amplified in an environment where central banks continue to exert great demand for bonds, and where investors have persistently sought higher returns in longer-dated bonds."

 


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