Emerging markets are about to end a turbulent year in which US-China trade tensions dominated headlines and central banks around the world came to rescue the global economy from falling into a recession.
Stocks, currencies and local-currency sovereign bonds of developing economies are all eking out gains for 2019 after last year’s biggest annual losses in three years. The Vanguard FTSE emerging-markets ETF has gained around 16% this year.
“It was one of those weird years where the economic situation was worse than expected from the beginning of this year,” said Michael Kushma, the chief investment officer for global fixed income in New York at Morgan Stanley Investment Management. “That makes investors worried that we have all the good news priced in and that next year it’s going to be much more challenging.”
Here are some highlights of 2019 across global emerging markets:
US Trade War
- As the US-China trade war entered into another year, headlines about the dispute remained a major market driver as the imposition of reciprocal tariffs weighed on exports and economic growth outlooks globally. The International Monetary Fund made a fifth straight cut to its 2019 global growth forecast in October — to 3% from 3.2% in July — citing a broad deterioration as trade tensions undermined the expansion.
- Sentiment turned more positive in the fourth quarter as the two largest economies in the world reached a phase-one trade deal in December, without providing much detail on when it will be signed, what China will buy more of, or when part two will start being discussed.
- Amid speculation China would use a weaker currency to fight against the tariff impact, both the offshore and onshore yuan weakened past 7 per dollar in August. It was the first time since 2008 the onshore yuan fell below that level, spurring senior officials of the People’s Bank of China to reassure foreign companies the currency won’t continue to weaken significantly.
- The Reserve Bank of India kicked off the rate-lowering cycle in Asia in February and has been the most aggressive among the major emerging-market central banks, with five cuts for a total of 135 basis points. This was followed by Indonesia with 100 points and the Philippines at 75 points.
- Even those with already low policy rates joined the fray, with the Bank of Korea and Bank of Thailand reducing their rates by 50 basis points each to 1.25%. Malaysia cut once, in May, by 25 basis points.
- In other regions, Turkey’s central bank delivered 1,200 basis points of cuts this year to 12% in pursuit of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan‘s unconventional theory that high interest rates cause rather than curb price growth. Russia has lowered its policy rate by 150 basis points so far this year. Mexico reduced borrowing costs for the first time in five years, with cuts totalling 75 basis points so far in 2019.
- Ukraine’s newcomer President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who won a runoff in April, was caught up in the political whirlwind surrounding Trump’s impeachment probe. Congress is investigating whether Trump exercised diplomatic pressure on Zelenskiy for his own political gain.
- But that wasn’t enough to deter investors from lapping up Ukraine’s bonds and currency. Foreign funds looking to reap returns on high real interest rates and a burgeoning local-debt market propelled the hryvnia to the best currency performance worldwide. Ukraine’s dollar bonds handed investors a 29% return through Monday, the most among all emerging markets.
- Russia’s currency, equities and bonds bounced back after a rocky 2018, with the ruble and stocks beating all other major emerging markets and bonds handing investors the biggest return among major emerging markets. A new round of US sanctions imposed in August proved to be less severe than expected.
- Russian stocks were also boosted by more generous payouts from state-controlled companies under pressure to hand back profits to the Finance Ministry as dividends.
Argentina Election Surprise
- Argentine markets all but collapsed in the aftermath of leftist Alberto Fernandez’s surprise victory in mid-August’s primary vote, which led the nation to implement capital controls and re-profile some of its local debt. The peso was the worst-performing currency in the world in 2019.
- Fernandez took office Dec. 10, and investors were still waiting to learn how his new government will tackle a debt load of more than $100 billion as the nation careens toward what may be its ninth default in two centuries.
Protests Erupt Across Latin America
- Social movements turned into into violent protests across Latin America in 2019 as the region’s worsening income inequality was exacerbated by fuel-price hikes in Ecuador, higher subway fares in Chile, and alleged voter fraud and an ousted leader in Bolivia. It has left the region vulnerable to currency, stock and bond sell-offs as investors weigh the uncertainty that comes along with ravaged cities, new governments and rewritten constitutions.
- Colombia also experienced its largest protests in years, with labour unions, students and indigenous groups leading a nationwide strike aimed at President Ivan Duque.
Hong Kong Protest
- What started out as a peaceful rally in March against a proposed extradition bill in Hong Kong escalated into full blown violence, with the number of casualties and damage still rising. The US approved the Hong Kong bill supporting the protesters on Nov. 28, though it’s still unclear whether or how it will impact the US-China trade negotiations. What is clear is that the protests don’t seem to be dying down, with one of the biggest pro-democracy protests since June occurring as recently as Dec. 8.
Japan-South Korea Spat
- The two nations’ own trade war stems largely from differences in perception as to whether Japan has provided sufficient compensation for its 1910-45 colonisation of the Korean Peninsula.
- In July, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government placed export restrictions on specialised materials vital for South Korea’s tech industry, claiming the measure was intended to prevent high-tech exports from being illegally transferred to North Korea, which is seen as retaliation for South Korean court decisions demanding Japanese companies such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. pay compensation to victims of wartime forced labour.
- Japan removed South Korea from its list of “white nations” considered safe enough to export strategic materials to in August, while less than two weeks after that, President Moon Jae-in’s government downgraded Japan from its list of most trusted trading partners.
- In retaliation for the export curbs, South Korea decided not to extend the General Security of Military Information Agreement, a bilateral pact to share military intelligence on matters such as missile launches by North Korea. South Korea put a halt to its decision to withdraw from this agreement late November as the two nations agreed to continue export talks.
South Africa’s big Eskom Issue
- A crisis at South Africa’s Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd. culminated in a decision by Moody’s Investors Service to cut the company’s debt outlook to negative from stable. Eskom provides about 95% of South Africa’s electricity. It has amassed about 450 billion rand ($31 billion) of debt.
- The budget announced in February included a $4.6 billion cash injection over the next three years to help the company service debt and free up money for operations. The government has since announced a rescue plan for the utility and doubled the bailout.
- The support has caused South Africa’s budget deficit to soar, putting the country’s sole remaining investment-grade credit rating of Baa3 with Moody’s at risk. On the operational side, the power cuts have already weighed on the rand and bonds, and present a huge risk to the economy due to the effect on business.
- Saudi Aramco raised $25.6 billion from the world’s biggest initial public offering, closing a deal that became synonymous with the kingdom’s controversial crown prince and his plans to reshape the nation.
- The IPO stands in contrast to its debut dollar-bond sale in April, which attracted more than $100 billion in orders. The demand allowed Aramco to issue $12 billion of bonds at lower yields than its sovereign parent.
Brazil’s Reform Fight
- After years of political wrangling, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro managed to push a pension-reform bill through Congress in October. The bill’s passage was quickly followed by proposed legislation from Bolsonaro to exert greater presidential control over the federal budget. Pension reform has been the primary focus for Brazil’s investors for years. Bolsonaro’s rise, along with campaign promises to pass the bill, brought investors back to the country. Now, all eyes are on Brazil’s bloated tax system, the fate of which remains uncertain.
- The year was filled with attempts by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to make good on his campaign promise to rescue embattled state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos. The measures, which have ranged from tax breaks to direct capital injections, are an attempt to support the world’s most indebted oil company as it struggles to stem a decline in production.
- The president’s attempts culminated in an oversubscribed $7.5 billion bond sale in September, which went toward reassuring investors of continuing Pemex bond demand, though a cloud of uncertainty still hangs over the company and the country.
- Venezuela missed a payment in October on Petroleos de Venezuela’s 2020 notes — the country’s last bond not in default — setting it up for a legal showdown with holders over collateral that includes 50.1% shares of the company’s US refiner Citgo Holding Inc. While the US moved to temporarily block creditors from seizing the nation’s crown jewel abroad, there are signs of a legal battle ahead, as PDVSA bondholders tap a familiar aide for high-profile investors in debt disputes.
Elections in Asia
- In the world’s most expensive election, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was re-elected in May with a wider majority. Since then, the government’s biggest pro-business move has been the cut in corporate taxes, although bonds have failed to rally in the fourth quarter amid concerns for India’s fiscal health and the failure to issue the country’s first foreign-currency debt.
- Indonesian President Joko Widodo secured his second and final term in office by a larger majority in the April elections, which was initially marred by protests by opposition. Jokowi’s subsequent cabinet announcement appeared to offer an olive branch to the opponents, while including business-friendly appointments. Investors so far appear favourable to the announced reforms, although there have been some back and forth on regulation.
- Thailand’s first election since the military coup in 2014 proved to be contentious, with General Prayuth Chan-Ocha only re-elected as prime minister three months after voting closed, leading a coalition with a razor-thin majority. Despite the uncertainty, the baht remains the top performing currency in Asia in 2019 so far.
- In a bumper year for yield-hunting, emerging-market borrowers sold bonds at dirt-cheap yields, still a lot more attractive than the negative returns from developed economies. But what made 2019 special was the rise of the euro as a borrowing currency. From China to Ivory Coast, governments of all sizes and shapes couldn’t have enough of it as yields plunged.
- For the first time since the shared currency was created in 1999, annual bond issuance in euro by emerging-market sovereigns crossed the 50 billion euro ($56 billion) mark. As of Dec. 16, the total amount stood at 52.4 billion euros, far outstripping the previous record of 39.9 billion euros collected over the whole of 2016, data compiled by Bloomberg showed. While the US currency remains the top choice of emerging-market governments, euro-denominated securities now account for 28% of their borrowing abroad. That’s up from 21% in 2013.