“Cheap” emerging markets: Bargain basement or falling knife?

Cheap emerging markets: Bargain basement or falling knife?

Fri, Aug 23 2013

By Sujata Rao

LONDON (Reuters) – Emerging markets are looking very cheap and the beaten-down prices could be a solid base for future returns, but funds should be prepared for more short-term losses if they take the plunge. Stocks, bonds and currencies across the developing world are suffering a rout on a scale not seen for years. Asset price valuations look dirt cheap – versus emerging markets’ own history and also possibly against their future prospects.But on the downside, the impending rollback in Fed money printing will almost certainly drive up U.S. bond yields, the higher global borrowing costs seeping through to hit economic growth across the developing world.

And falls in currencies such as Indian rupee and Brazilian real are a worry, eroding foreign investors’ returns from local stocks and bonds.

Yet, even as such fears feed the selling momentum, cheap valuations are starting to catch the eye of some investors who are looking at the sector from the perspective of a few months or even a few years down the road.

JPMorgan Asset Management, for instance, says it is snapping up cheap emerging market shares to top up its funds.

“As bad as the newsflow is in emerging markets, we would highlight that it is not the grounds for a crisis. However valuations are at crisis levels,” says George Iwanicki, a strategist at JPMorgan Asset Management in New York.

Iwanicki argues that historically, buying emerging equities when they trade at 1.5 times book value or less has delivered positive returns. The sector is now trading 1.45 times.

That compares with a current price-to-book ratio for the U.S. benchmark S&P 500 .SPX index of 2.35 and 1.29 for the pan-Europe Euro STOXX 50 .STOXX50E.

Compared to their own 10-year history, emerging equities are 30-50 percent cheaper on a price-book basis, and valuations have more than halved from their 2007 peaks, data shows.

“Valuations have fallen to levels that historically have almost always provided a positive return,” Iwanicki said.

Similar analysis from HSBC shows that when emerging equities trade at current valuation levels of around 10 times forward earnings, a subsequent market rebound has tended to deliver returns of around 60 percent in the following year.

Rising U.S. yields will be a formidable challenge especially for markets such as India and Turkey that have funding deficits, says John Lomax, HSBC’s head of emerging equity strategy. But valuations suggest much risk is already discounted, he adds.

“Valuations look attractive but headwinds also look severe so there is no point in being unnecessarily brave,” Lomax said. “But you shouldn’t throw out the whole emerging markets baby with the bath water.”

DEBT

Bonds may have further to go. Not only are they hyper-sensitive to Treasury moves, emerging debt, unlike stocks, has been an investor favourite for months. Segments of the market, arguably, were in bubble territory.

Still, average yields on bonds in emerging market currencies have risen 150 basis points this year on JPMorgan’s GBI-EM index, and the worst-hit currencies have lost 15-18 percent to the dollar, reversing some of their overvaluation.

Werner Gey van Pittius, co-head of emerging debt at Investec Asset Management says emerging economies’ growth gloom will eventually lift, dragged up by the brightening picture in the United States, Japan and the euro zone.

“We see value in the market and we are adding risk,” van Pittius says. “We find it hard to believe that (correlations)between emerging and developed markets have completely broken down. Our base case is EM data will catch up…that’s not priced in.”

Meanwhile there could be plenty of money to be made.

Real interest rates – the difference between interest rates and inflation – have risen as central banks tighten policy. And implied yields on emerging currencies, derived from the gap between spot and forward rates, are also rising.

The implied 1-year yield on the Indonesian rupiah, for example, is around 15 percent.

And even in a world of rising yields and falling currencies, investors can make a killing by receiving coupons on short-duration bonds and reinvesting the proceeds, van Pittius says.

Even factoring in a 100 bps rise in emerging bond yields and 1 percentage point currency loss from current levels, he reckons on an annualised 5.5 percent return from emerging debt.

FALLING KNIFE?

Of course some of those assets are cheap for a reason and will stay cheap for years to come. Bears will also note that slumping profit margins remain a problem for stock markets.

John-Paul Smith, head of emerging equity strategy at Deutsche Bank says companies from the developing world can sustain return-on-equity (ROE) levels only by taking more debt. ROE measures how much profit a firm makes with shareholder’s money.

“It would be inaccurate to perceive EM equities as cheap relative to returns they generate because their quality of RoE is deteriorating more rapidly than developed markets,” he says.

The biggest hurdle to the valuation trade is market momentum that could saddle funds with big short-term losses.

“Investors will start looking at valuations again and see there is lot of value. The time frame? 6 months? 12 months? Not less than that,” said Marcelo Assalin, lead portfolio manager at ING Investment Management for emerging local debt strategies.

“I am not looking at valuations but technicals and fundamentals,” he said. “Valuation wise you would want to be long but no one wants to grab a falling knife.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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