Emerging markets lose billions as investors pull out

By Puneet Pal Singh
Business reporter

  • Published

Six weeks into the New Year and Asia's emerging markets seem to have lost their lustre for stock investors.

Already last year's best performers are some of 2011's worst.

India's Bombay Stock Exchange index is down more than 10% this year. Shanghai and Jakarta's returns have not been much better, with the exchanges losing about 5% and 7% respectively. Hong Kong has shed close to 1%.

According to EPFR, a company that tracks investment flows, some $7bn poured out of emerging market equity funds in the week ending Friday 4 February.

That was the biggest weekly withdrawal in more than three years, EPFR says.

'Safe havens'

The outflow of capital from some of Asia's biggest markets was triggered by the political unheaval in Tunisia and Egypt and the subsequent jump to more than $100 a barrel in the price of oil.

But analysts say it also reflects longer running concerns about high levels of inflation and the expectation that interest rates will have to be raised to slow price growth.

The worry is that inflation will erode the value of equity investments and as interest rates push higher, so economic growth will slow.

"We are going to see a slowdown in growth," says Tey Tze Ming, a market strategist with Saxo Capital Markets.

"Funds chasing higher gross domestic product growth found their way to emerging markets last year. But as growth slows down, the money is taking a flight back to safe havens."

Rate moves

If anything, many of Asia's emerging economies have become victims of their own success, analysts said.

Faced with tough economic conditions at home, many foreign investors looked to emerging markets last year as their best way to boost returns.

But as economic growth in the emerging economies peaked, so did inflation and concerns about their overheating economies, surging food prices and the threat of growing asset bubbles.

Interest rates have been going up across the region in an effort to deal with these issues.

In January, India raised its main cost of borrowing by 25 basis points to 6.5%. It was the seventh time it had raised interest rates in 12 months.

Last week, Indonesia upped its main interest rate to 6.75%, and most recently China pushed its cost of borrowing to 6.06%.

By contrast, interest rates in more developed economies are much lower.

In the US, the Federal Reserve has set its main interest rate at between 0% and 0.25%. The European Central Bank has its at 1%, while in Japan, borrowing costs are close to zero.

Cash flows

The immediate impact of this can be seen in the net inflow of funds into more developed economies.

According to EPFR, US equity funds have seen capital inflows rise for five straight weeks. Equity funds in Japan, meanwhile, have taken in money for ten weeks straight.

Image caption,
A Chinese investor monitors stock exchange data on a board in Zhengzhou

As a result, stock markets in more developed economies have been doing better than their Asian rivals who are often seen as more risky.

Over the last month, the US-based Dow Jones Industrial Average has gained 6.7%. And while the main stock indexes in London and Frankfurt are little changed during the same period at least they have not been falling, analysts said.

'Supply issues'

For many analysts though, the problem is not the fight against inflation, rather it is the impact it will have on growth.

At least, they argue, because many of the problems, such as food and oil price increases, are outside of a central bank's control.

"Commodities are facing a supply issue, so prices are unlikely to go down any time soon," says Saxo Capital Markets' Mr Ming.

"Raising interest rates may not control prices, but will hurt growth."

Double whammy

The rates issue is not the only bit of bad news for Asia's emerging markets when it comes to attracting stock investors.

Over the past couple of months, there has been a growing view that some of the biggest developed economies may be returning to a longer-term growth trend.

Economic data coming out of the US for example has had a more positive slant since the end of last year.

The latest figures showed that the US economy grew by 2.9% in the whole of 2010, which is the strongest year of growth since 2005.

Consumer spending, meanwhile, has been picking up and the most recent unemployment rate was better than many analysts had expected.

Concerns over the Euro zone debt crisis have also been easing, as politicians and central banks have been working together and pumping billions of euros into the region's financial system.

According to Frank Engles, managing director at Barclays Capital, this has led institutional investors to rethink their exposure to emerging markets.

"Positive economic data out of the US has created a belief amongst investors that it is on a robust path of recovery and there could be potential investment opportunities there," he says.

'Temporary shift'

However, Mr Engles adds that while the focus may now be on more developed markets, it could easily shift eastwards again later this year.

Especially if governments and central banks in markets such as India and China put in place well thought out fiscal and monetary policies, and relax financial and currency controls.

"This is clearly a temporary shift," he says.

"Huge investors like pension funds and insurance companies are under-exposed in these markets. Until about two years ago their asset allocation to emerging markets was about 3%-5%.

"This is bound to increase."

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