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Fixed-Income Insights

Emerging markets face continued volatility over the short term, but the weaker markets are being separated from the stronger, and the opportunities for investors are becoming clearer.

Emerging markets (EM) received a bit of a respite in September, after several months in the eye of a global storm swirling around expectations that the U.S. Federal Reserve would soon begin to taper its $85 billion in monthly purchases of Treasury and agency mortgage-backed securities.

Instead, at its meeting on September 18, the Fed decided to maintain its massive bond buying program in the face of continued concerns about the growth rate of the U.S. economy. For EMs, that means the flow of U.S. dollars around the globe should continue to support their economies for a while, giving them additional opportunity—where there is the political will to do so—to implement the structural improvements that might help them better survive future turmoil in global markets.

During the summer, those outflows were substantial. From early May until the end of August, nearly $48 billion left EMs via the channel of mutual fund portfolio outflows, both equity and bond.1 Bond outflows continued through mid-September resulting in a cumulative $25.1 billion out of EM bond funds between May 30 and October 2, or almost 10% of total assets under management. During the same period the yields in some EMs rose sharply—Turkey's 10-year sovereign bond, for example, rose 400 basis points between May 17 and August 23—providing a quick shock to the interest rate curve.2 Plans to issue sovereign bonds were put on hold as the cost of financing rose.

As demand for EM bonds and equities fell, EM currencies were hit hard. Following the congressional testimony of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke on May 22, when he failed to rebuff a suggestion that tapering would begin soon, EM currencies began a steady decline. The representative Barclays Global Emerging Markets Strategy [GEMS] Index ended the month as a whole down 3.57%. Overall, from the beginning of May through the end of August, the index declined 6.78%. For the most part, the EM currency markets have since recovered some of their losses; the Barclays GEMS Index rebounded 2.84% in September.3 But the threat of an eventual tapering—the timing of which remains uncertain—continues to hang over market sentiment.

Currencies that bore the brunt of the sell-off beginning in May, including the Brazilian real, Indian rupee, South African rand, Indonesian rupiah, and the Turkish lira, are those of nations that had depended on the massive Fed monetary stimulus to finance increasing imbalances in their economies. Although many of these currencies appreciated strongly in September, when the Fed backed away from tapering, investors should take note of their tight correlation to the perceived level of global liquidity. Monetary easing alone has never been the foundation on which sound economic growth is built. Those emerging economies most dependent upon the Fed's largesse are beginning to look less stable.

Chart 1 illustrates the steep decline of the four weakest EM currencies through a four-month period, with the worst of the downturn experienced between May 22 and September 18. The insert shows the value of the four currencies relative to the U.S. dollar at the low point, August 29.


 

Chart 1: Poor Fundamentals Hurt the Currencies of Four Nations in Particular
(Spot rate versus U.S. Dollar Index*)

Source: Wells Fargo Weekly Economic and Financial Commentary, August 30, 2013. All data as of September 15, 2013.

*The U.S. Dollar Index (USDX) is a weighted geometric mean used to measure the performance of the U.S. dollar against a basket of currencies, currently including the euro (57.6% of the Index), Japanese yen (13.6%), British pound (11.9%), Canadian dollar (9.1%), Swedish krona (4.2%), and Swiss franc (3.6). Performance of the USDX is measured against the 100 mark. So if the USDX is said to be at 125%, that means it has gained 25% in value. The USDX is sometimes called the cash or spot index. Futures contracts based on the USDX are traded using the symbol DX.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. For illustrative purposes only and does not reflect the performance of any Lord Abbett mutual fund or any particular investment. Foreign currency exchange rates may fluctuate significantly over short periods of time. They generally are determined by supply and demand in the foreign exchange markets and relative merits of investments in different countries, actual or perceived changes in interest rates, and other complex factors. Currency exchange rates also can be affected unpredictably by intervention (or the failure to intervene) by U.S. or foreign governments or central banks, or by currency controls or political developments. The securities markets of emerging countries tend to be less liquid, especially subject to greater price volatility, have a smaller market capitalization, have less government regulation and may not be subject to as extensive and frequent accounting, financial and other reporting requirements as securities issued in more developed countries.


Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Turkey share three common denominators: high inflation, large current account deficits, and a heavy dependence on portfolio flows (debt, equity, or loans, whether sourced locally or externally) rather than foreign direct investment (FDI) to support growth. For these nations, the Fed's decision to delay its eventual tapering provides a brief window of opportunity to introduce policies that can hopefully set a course in the right direction.

Further, all four nations are making attempts, some more successfully than others, to address some imbalances, including hiking interest rates to combat stubborn inflation that is at risk of further increases due to currency depreciation. Over the short term, this may not be good for economic growth (or for bonds), but it should support their respective currencies, and it helps to lower current account deficits by making imported goods more expensive and by reducing credit growth. But raising rates is no substitute for basic structural reforms that would shrink deficits permanently while attracting more sustainable capital flows in the form of FDI. Investors will quickly lose patience with short-term measures and likely only reward those countries that are trying to put their economies on a more secure footing in the future.

In addition, all four have intervened in the currency markets to support their currencies, which is a common practice in the history of EMs (and in the developed nations), but one that, for many investors, brought to mind a similar, but unsuccessful, endeavor during the Asian currency crisis of 1997. In that crisis, Thailand was forced to float its currency, the baht, because it lacked the foreign currency reserves to support it, as investors, fearful of the nation's ability to repay its massive foreign debt, fled investments in the Asian country. In what was to become known later as the "Asian contagion," investors' lack of confidence in the Thai baht quickly spread to all of Southeast Asia and Japan, where asset prices also fell sharply.

Some investors remain fearful of a 1997 replay, but we believe the likelihood of that occurring is minimal. Back then, EM central banks had insufficient foreign exchange reserves that they could use to support their respective currencies in times of market panic. Today, the reserves are much larger, and even though some were used in this recent downturn, for the most part, ample reserves remain intact. Indonesia, for example, built its foreign exchange reserves from a low of $27.4 billion in August 2000 to a high of $124.6 billion in August 2011, and in August 2013, it still had reserves of $92.9 billion, after selling approximately 20 billion in U.S. dollars to support the rupiah this summer.4


 

Chart 2: EM Central Banks Have Accumulated Large Foreign Exchange Reserves, Especially Since the Mid-1990s
(Data as of December 31, 2012)

Source: World Bank, IMF, Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research.


Because of the similarities of the issues they face, the four weakest nations abovementioned are being treated as one bloc and are trading as such. The market has discounted all of them. While there may be some justification for that over the short term, over the medium term, once the individual policies of these nations play out, differentiation will occur.

Aside from these troubled four, however, we believe there are significant opportunities for long-term investors. For example, since Mexico's economy is tied to that of the United States, it should benefit from its northern neighbor's economic recovery. Mexico has seen private sector lending expand by 7.1% year over year in August,5 and, recently, the Bank of Mexico delivered a 25 basis-point interest rate cut to further boost economic growth.6 There also are positive growth stories in the Philippines, where the service economy is expanding, and South Korea, one of Japan's main trading partners. The currencies of these three nations—the Mexican peso, Philippines peso, and South Korean won—were hit hard in the largely indiscriminate sell-off this summer. But the strong fundamentals of each nation have already been supporting a recovery.

We are less sanguine, though, on Eastern Europe's growth story, where a lengthy recession has taken its toll. Nonetheless, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and even Romania each have improving current account balances—either surpluses or much smaller deficits than they've had in the past. Currently, growth rates are hovering around 1%, but that picture should improve as the eurozone economy strengthens.

Our conviction on emerging markets as an investment opportunity remains strong. As the economies of the developed nations recover, the growth differential between them and EMs likely will narrow, as it has already. But that is a positive development for the global economy. The polarization of investments—a rush to EMs and a flight from developed nations—that has characterized markets since the financial crisis of 2008–09 is ending, and markets are returning to a more balanced portfolio approach.

Emerging markets are still growing and developing. Following a decade of major policy and debt management changes, many of them today have stronger economies, growing business opportunities, less vulnerability to foreign dollars as local currency assumes a greater share of the sovereign bond market, larger reserves of foreign exchange, more balanced current accounts, and fewer restrictions on external investment.

Chart 3 (which uses the MSCI Emerging Markets Index7 for stocks as a proxy for the growth trend of emerging markets and the MSCI World Index8 as a proxy for the growth trend of developed markets) makes two things clear: First, the recovery from the depths of the financial crisis of 2008–09 was much more dramatic in EMs than it was in the debt-burdened developed nations of the world—a testament to the economic and structural improvements many EMs made over the past decade. And second, even as the developed nations recover from that crisis and start to close the growth gap, we believe EMs should still offer growth and diversification opportunities for investors' portfolios.


 

Chart 3: EMs Recovered from the Financial Crisis of 2008–09 Faster Than Did the Developed World—and Still Offer Growth Opportunities for Investors
(Cumulative growth of daily index returns using a baseline of 100 as a starting point.)

Source: © 2013 FactSet Research Systems, Inc. All rights reserved. The information contained herein: (1) is proprietary to FactSet Reseach Systems Inc. and/or its content providers; (2) may not be copied or distributed; and (3) is not warranted to be accurate, complete or timely. Neither FactSet Research Systems Inc. nor its content providers are responsible for any damages or losses arising from any use of this information. © Morgan Stanley Emerging Markets Index (MSCI). MSCI makes no express or implied warranties or representations and shall have no liability whatsoever with respect to any MSCI data contained herein. The MSCI data may not be further redistributed or used as a basis for other indices or any securities or financial products. This report is not approved, reviewed or produced by MSCI. Indexes are unmanaged, and one cannot invest directly in an index.

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. For illustrative purposes only and does not reflect the performance of any Lord Abbett mutual fund or any particular investment. Indexes are unmanaged, do not reflect the deduction of fees or expenses, and are not available for direct investment.

The securities markets of emerging countries tend to be less liquid, especially subject to greater price volatility, have a smaller market capitalization, have less government regulation and may not be subject to as extensive and frequent accounting, financial and other reporting requirements as securities issued in more developed countries. Further, investing in the securities of issuers located in certain emerging countries may present a greater risk of loss resulting from problems in security registration and custody or substantial economic or political disruptions.


Over the short term, the uncertainty surrounding the timing of Fed policy and the confirmation of Janet Yellen as the new Fed chairwoman will no doubt keep EM markets on edge. We expect volatility to be particularly high in the markets of those four countries identified earlier as the weakest. But, in our view, once this period of instability ends, the medium-term outlook for emerging markets remains positive.


1 "Credit Alert: Weekly Fund Flows," Standard Chartered, May 3, 2013, and August 30, 2013.
2 "EM Strategy Comment: Weekly Fund Flows and Technicals," Morgan Stanley, October 3, 2013.
3 All data derived from the Barclays Global Emerging Markets Strategy [GEMS] Index, which is based on investing in one-month synthetic money market deposits across 15 diversified emerging market currencies.
4 tradingeconomics.com. October 8, 2013.
5 Peter de Montmollin, "Mexico's Banks Expand Private Sector Lending by 7.1%," Business News: Americas, September 30, 2013.
6 Jude Webber, "Mexico: Stocks, Bonds, Peso Rally on Surprise Rate Cut," Financial Times, September 6, 2013.
7 The MSCI Emerging Markets Index is a free float-adjusted market-capitalization index that is designed to measure equity market performance of emerging markets. The Index consists of the following 21 emerging market country indexes: Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Czech Republic, Egypt, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Taiwan, Thailand, and Turkey. Gross dividends approximates the maximum possible dividend reinvestment. The amount reinvested is the entire dividend distributed to individuals resident in the country of the company, but does not include tax credits.
8 The MSCI World Index is a free float-adjusted market capitalization weighted index that is designed to measure the equity market performance of developed markets. The Index consists of the following 24 developed market country indexes: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Gross dividends approximates the maximum possible dividend reinvestment. The amount reinvested is the entire dividend distributed to individuals resident in the country of the company, but does not include tax credits.

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