Rave Universal Returns’ Scarce Selectivity

All emerging market debt and equity asset classes rallied in the first half, replicating advance economy minimum yield flight in 2016 despite marginal central bank benchmark rate increases and reflecting slight economic growth and earnings improvement over original forecasts. Stock markets outperformed after a multi-year funk with the MSCI core and frontier indices up 17% and 12%, respectively, while local government bond gains at 8% outstripped external sovereign and corporate ones around 5%. Resurgent fund flows at over $100 billion combined according to data trackers, a large portion from exchange-listed ETFs, have channeled momentum since the end of the first quarter when a brief global scare from the new US administration’s trade and immigration policies, which could hit China and Mexico in particular, faded into the background. The dollar retreated from previous highs and commodity prices stabilized in the aftermath, and retail and institutional investors then poured money in with scant geographic and asset class distinction. The second half will determine if markets can begin again to rise and fall on their own virtues in their own long-delayed “normalization” process, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of Asia’s and a decade since the US and Europe-led world financial meltdown.

As in the mania that preceded the late 2000s crash, stock market gains in the big BRIC economies mirrored the MSCI result, with Russia the only loser, down 15%. China and India were each ahead 20%, while Brazil was essentially flat with a 2% uptick. Brazil and Russia are out of recession but still grapple with stagflation. China’s 6.5% growth and steady currency and reserves were on target before the upcoming Party Congress, but the well-telegraphed incremental inclusion of “A” shares in the gauge was also a catalyst. India’s GDP increase was the same as China’s, and its price-earnings ratio toward 20 is five points above the emerging market average, but it is considered a structural reform standout despite lagging a generation behind peers, and the mixed record so far with recent months’ large banknote elimination and just-launched national tax unification. Including South Africa in the group, as a charter member of the BRICS Bank now in operation, contributes another 5% plus bump but reinforces the broad narrative of ambivalent economic and political fundamentals and model change. The IMF and World Bank tweaked the developing world growth forecast to 4.5% this year but warned about fiscal deficits, monetary strain from bank deleveraging, and balance of payments pressure from voluntary and hidden capital outflows. They suggested another period of business and financial sector opening and deepening was overdue with reactivation of stalled concepts like state bank and enterprise privatization.

The BRIC rebound has likewise been instrumental in lifting external corporate and sovereign bonds. Issuance was a record $100 billion and $250 billion in the respective segments through end-June, at average spreads around 300 basis points. China’s giant state-run and real estate companies, with tighter onshore access, have been 40% of corporates and Brazil’s Petrobras, the biggest individual debtor, has bounced off last year’s bottom after ratings downgrades and defaults hit Brazilian names broadly. Despite lingering international sanctions, Russia has returned in force to both markets, and a spate of new and resumed entrants, including Argentina and Gulf countries lifted lackluster traditional sovereign activity. Local bond average yields over 6% sparked a renewed carry trade wave among fast-moving investment funds borrowing in low-volatility industrial world currencies, a phenomenon largely absent the past decade. For more exotic destinations in Africa and elsewhere, IMF program negotiation resurfaced as an allocation driver, with Ghana, Zambia, Cameroon and Mongolia among popular bets shunned in the absence of additional official support.

With a nascent global bond selloff already arriving in July, EM fixed-income in particular could correct across the board, and the pure valuation argument for equities is increasingly questionable with profits hurting in many sectors outside world value chain connected consumer goods and technology. Local currency debt, and smaller and frontier country shares, should be able to hold if investors reflect and differentiate in the space in a long-term successful strategy, rather than risk disappointment with an overriding narrative of modest growth pickup and taper tantrum sequel avoidance.