Turkey, Oman and Bahrain among ‘bondfire’ fragile five

A man feeds seagulls on the Bosphorus in Istanbul. Rising borrowing costs could hurt indebted countries such as Turkey. (Reuters)
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Updated 02 March 2021

Turkey, Oman and Bahrain among ‘bondfire’ fragile five

  • Emerging markets to ramp up debt sales this year
  • But global borrowing costs are rising too fast

DUBAI: Just when developing economies were ready to bask in the post-COVID rebound in global growth, in sweeps a bond market blaze to scorch them again.
Most major investment banks were predicting a stellar 2021 for emerging market assets as long as one crucial snag — global borrowing costs rising too fast — was avoided. Well guess what, they are on a tear.
February saw their steepest monthly gain since Donald Trump’s shock 2016 US presidential election win and, though the move comes from record low levels, for emerging markets now carrying nearly $80 trillion worth of debt it has been painful few weeks.
The widely-tracked JPMorgan Emerging Market Bond Index (EMBI) is having its worst start to a year for a quarter of a century, currencies have recoiled and MSCI’s EM stocks index has just suffered its biggest weekly drop since peak COVID panic last March.
The carnage has been described as a bond bonfire by ING analysts and prompted some of those bullish investment banks like JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley to curtail their bets.
Rising developed market bond yields sting emerging markets in two main ways.
Firstly they push up borrowing costs. BofA estimates emerging markets will sell over three quarters of a trillion dollars worth of debt this year — $210 billion by governments and over $550 billion by corporates. Higher rates mean adding to government debt ratios that soared 15.5 percentage points across the top 60 emerging markets last year and have left 13 such countries with debt-to-GDP in excess of 100 percent.
Secondly, it cuts the premium existing emerging debt offers investors compared to ultra safe and liquid US Treasuries.
If the risk-reward calculation no longer adds up, money managers can quickly sell as was seen during the 2013 ‘taper tantrum’ when the Federal Reserve’s hints at ending its easy-money policies triggered an estimated $25 billion emerging asset selloff in just two months.
The effects of that episode were particularly severe in the “Fragile Five” of Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa and Turkey that had built-up large current account deficits that were funded by short-term capital inflows.
This time, investors are worried about at least some of those.
“Brazil and South Africa are countries whose combination of persistent weak growth, rising public debt, very steep yield curves with very high long-term real interest rates has become a big source of concern,” said David Lubin, Citi’s managing director and head of emerging markets economics. “Mexico might also be on that list.”
Still, the alarm bells aren’t ringing as loud now.
For one reason, US “real” yields, adjusted for inflation, remain low by historical standards, at about negative 80 basis points which keeps emerging market assets looking attractive.
By comparison, during the original taper tantrum, “real” US 10-year yields rose steeply from negative 75 basis points at the end of 2012 to positive 50 basis points by mid-2013.
And despite the huge rise in debts, last year’s recessions have helped to mostly eliminate current account deficits, limiting many emerging markets’ reliance on capital inflows and acting as a shock absorber against rising US yields.
A punchy recovery in global growth and fast-rising commodity prices should further help developing economies and even dig some out of a hole.
Moody’s last week cranked up its pan-EM growth forecast for the year to 7 percent from 6.1 percent, led by upward revisions to China, India and Mexico, and with $1.9 trillion of US stimulus now coming most institutions are doing the same.
“We could be at the door of a big, big economic boom,” said head of Barings’ sovereign debt and currencies group Ricardo Adrogué. “Some of these countries that seem hopeless today could actually be ok.”
Others will not be so lucky though.
Ethiopia is about to become a test case for the new G20 ‘Common Framework’ debt relief plan which stipulates private creditor debt must also be restructured, meaning the government has to default.
Others are expected to follow. S&P Global warned last week Belize was “virtually certain” to default in May. Laos and Sri Lanka have key payments in June and July, while JPMorgan lists 16 at-risk countries from Cameroon to Tajikistan sitting on a combined $61.4 billion of debt.
Tellimer’s senior economist Patrick Curran has dubbed the new group of vulnerable countries the ‘Fragile Frontiers’. It includes Jamaica, Tunisia, Ecuador, Sri Lanka, Belarus, Ethiopia, Laos, Bahrain and Oman.
Adding to the risks, not all emerging markets have started rolling out COVID vaccines yet. In Africa, for example, only a minority of countries are currently vaccinating and more variants are still breaking out.
Countries like Mexico, Jamaica, Panama, Mauritius, Montenegro, Jordan and Fiji where tourism accounts for close to 10 percent of GDP will wonder whether vaccines will come quickly enough to save their busy seasons this year.
“Virus mutations are a real thing I worry about,” said Raza Agha, head of emerging markets credit strategy at Legal & General Investment Management. “There’s already been several and there’s no way of predicting how many more there will be.”

FASTFACTS

The widely-tracked JPMorgan Emerging Market Bond Index (EMBI) is having its worst start to a year for a quarter of a century


Bitcoin tumbles 7.7% to $55,408 on Sunday

Updated 18 April 2021

Bitcoin tumbles 7.7% to $55,408 on Sunday

  • Turkey central bank banned use of crypto last week
  • Ether also retreats on Sunday

DUBAI: Bitcoin fell 7.7 percent to $55,408.08 early Sunday, wiping more than $4,600 from the value of the world's biggest cryptocurrency.
Ether, the coin linked to the ethereum blockchain network, also dropped by about 6.5 percent to $2,165.91.
Bitcoin took an earlier tumble on Friday, losing 4 percent after Turkey's central bank banned the use of cryptocurrencies citing risks.
Turkey published the new law in its official gazette in which the central bank said cryptocurrencies and other similar digital assets would not not be used, directly or indirectly, to pay for goods and services.


Saudi insurance sector eyes more mergers and acquisitions

Updated 17 April 2021

Saudi insurance sector eyes more mergers and acquisitions

  • Government assistance shielded sector from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic’s impact

RIYADH: The Kingdom’s insurance sector closed the financial year 2020 on a high note with the aggregate net profit of local insurance firms, except for the Saudi Indian Company for Cooperative Insurance, rising to SR1.443 billion ($0.38 billion) in Q4, an increase of 47 percent year-on-year, according to data compiled by the financial news service Argaam.

There were 13 insurers recording higher profits in 2020, led by the Mediterranean and Gulf Insurance and Reinsurance Co., which surged 1,081 percent, the Saudi Arabian Cooperative Insurance Co., which increased 545 percent, and the Gulf General Cooperative Insurance Co. which saw net income up 397 percent.

The sector finished out the tough year on a high note mainly thanks to government support. 

KPMG said while the pandemic triggered disruption for most industries, the Saudi government intervened and provided relief by opting to pay for the treatment of all COVID-19 patients. 

The audit, tax and advisory services firm found that the cumulative net profit after zakat and tax touched a high of SR1.32 billion in the first nine months of 2020, an increase of 96.1 percent year-on-year. Argaam’s figures also found that the total gross written premiums (GWPs) of Saudi-listed insurance companies increased by 3 percent year-on-year to SR38.28 billion in 2020. 

There were 18 insurance firms out of 29 reporting an increase in GWPs last year, led by Aljazira Takaful Taawuni Co., which was up 80 percent year-on-year. 

Saudi insurers reported SR23.5 billion in net claims last year, down from SR24.7 billion a year previously. Net incurred claims accounted for around 76 percent of GWPs in 2020, the data showed.

Analysts said the Saudi insurance market was set to witness consolidation with mergers and acquisitions (M&A) gaining pace during 2021.  The Saudi Central Bank (SAMA) in January reiterated the need for insurance companies to look at M&A deals since the sector was a key driver of the Kingdom’s economy and a pillar of the Financial Sector Development Program, one of 12 executive programs launched by the Council of Economic and Development Affairs to achieve the objectives of Saudi Vision 2030.

HIGHLIGHTS

• The Kingdom’s insurance sector closed the financial year 2020 on a high note with the aggregate net profit of local insurance firms, except for the Saudi Indian Company for Cooperative Insurance, rising to SR1.443 billion($0.38 billion) in Q4.

• The total gross written premiums (GWPs) of Saudi-listed insurance companies increased by 3 percent year-on-year to SR38.28 billion in 2020.

• Saudi insurers reported SR23.5 billion in net claims last year, down from SR24.7 billion a year previously.

The recent mergers between insurance firms were positive indications that the central bank’s plans for the sector were moving in the right direction, said SAMA Gov. Fahad Al-Mubarak during the honoring of Aljazira Takaful Taawuni Co. and Solidarity Saudi Takaful Co. following their merger.

SAMA will continue to encourage insurance companies to look at potential mergers in order to achieve the goals set out as part of the Vision 2030 programs, Al-Mubarak said. 

The sector recently witnessed a number of agreements and mergers, including between Walaa Cooperative Insurance Co. and Metlife AIG ANB Cooperative Insurance Co., and between Al-Ahlia Insurance and Gulf Union National.

Talal Bahafi is chief market officer at Marsh Saudi Arabia, which is part of the global financial services group Marsh & McLennan. He said the Kingdom’s insurance sector was likely to see more consolidation in 2021, driven by insurers looking to streamline costs, boost efficiency and increase optimization.

“The last 12 months have brought about significant changes to the insurance market in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), in terms of capacity and pricing,” Bahafi told Arab News. “We expect these conditions to persist throughout 2021 and for organizations to continue to face more challenging trading conditions. It is important for organizations to adapt to these shifts by renewing their focus on building resiliency and rethinking their risk management strategies. This will, in turn, ensure they have an insurance program in place which matches the risk appetite of their business.” The Clyde & Co Insurance Growth Report 2021 said the Middle East insurance sector would see increased M&A activity this year.

According to the law firm’s report, M&A insurance deals in the Middle East and Africa rose by 166.7 percent in 2020, the biggest growth across all regions.

S&P Global Ratings, in its latest report on the GCC insurance sector, said it expected to see growth in Saudi Arabia due to regulatory initiatives. 

In the GCC it expected its ratings on insurers to remain broadly stable in 2021 owing to robust capital buffers, despite ongoing economic uncertainty relating to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the rate of Saudization in the insurance sector has reached 75 percent compared to 35 to 40 percent in the past, according to Abdullah Al-Tuwaijri, SAMA’s director general of insurance supervision.

Al-Tuwaijri, who made the remarks during a session of the Economic Growth Forum, added that the high Saudization rate indicated the sector was capable of creating more job opportunities for citizens.

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Brazilian renewable energy sector offers opportunities for Saudis

Updated 17 April 2021

Brazilian renewable energy sector offers opportunities for Saudis

  • The Kingdom imports several food products from Brazil, mostly in the form of meat and coffee

RIYADH: A new report by the Arab-Brazilian Chamber of Commerce (ABCC) revealed several opportunities for Saudi investors looking to break into the Brazilian market by investing in key sectors.

The report identified four core industries that the Kingdom had previously invested in: Rubber and plastic manufacturing, food storage and other transport activities, chemical and machinery manufacturing, and vehicle manufacturing.

Rachel Andalaft, CEO of research and consultancy firm Mangifera Analytics, told Arab News that Saudi Arabia has traditionally seen Brazil as a “possible gateway to the rest of Latin America.”

“Brazil’s increased opportunities have opened the door for Saudi Arabians to invest in diverse Brazilian markets — not only in ongoing food markets but also oil and gas,” she said.

The Kingdom imports several food products from Brazil, mostly in the form of meat and coffee. Saudi Arabia was the premier Arab importer of poultry from Brazil in January, with 35,800 tons of poultry shipped to the Kingdom.

Also, in February of this year, the Saudi Agricultural and Livestock Investment Co., a joint-stock company owned by the sovereign wealth fund the Public Investment Fund (PIF), entered into an agreement with Brazil’s Minerva Foods to acquire assets in Australia and set up a joint venture for the processing and export of beef and lamb produce.

Additionally, Andalaft stated that the PIF would be putting funds forward to be used in Ferrograo, a crucial railroad for Brazil. “This will go from Mato Grosso to Pará, spanning about 1,000 kilometers at an estimated cost of over $3 billion,” she said.

According to Andalaft, trade relations show great potential for growth given the productive complementarities between the two countries, particularly in Brazil’s emergent renewable energy market.

“Typical market opportunities are earmarked for double-digit returns, reaching beyond an 18-percent return on investment for those investors able to create smart financing structures,” she said of the opportunities in the wind and solar energy sector in Brazil.

Arab-Brazilian trade relations are expected to retain a strong growth trajectory in the future, particularly after the ABCC announced plans in February to set up an international office in the Saudi capital of Riyadh to capitalize on trade between the two countries.


Saudi Aramco part of $50 million funding for US software firm

Updated 17 April 2021

Saudi Aramco part of $50 million funding for US software firm

  • The extra $50 million brings Seeq’s total funding since its launch in 2013 to around $115 million

RIYADH: Saudi Aramco’s investment arm was among a group of investors who awarded SR187.5 million ($50 million) to a Seattle-based manufacturing and technology software company.

Seeq Corp. said it had raised the new funds as part of a Series C funding round as the group of investors backing the financing were Altira Group, Chevron Technology Ventures, Cisco Investments, Second Avenue Partners and Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures (SAEV).

The extra $50 million brings Seeq’s total funding since its launch in 2013 to around $115 million. While the breakdown of figures was not given, Seeq did say that SAEV was already an existing investor from previous funding rounds. Seeq enables engineers and scientists to rapidly analyze, predict, collaborate, and share insights to improve production and business outcomes for its products. It operates across many sectors, including oil and gas, pharmaceutical, chemical, energy and mining.

The Seattle-based company aims to use the new funds to develop its sales and marketing resources and expand its presence into international markets.

“By leveraging big data, machine learning and computer science innovations, Seeq is enabling a new generation of software-led insights,” Steve Sliwa, the CEO and co-founder of Seeq, said in a press statement.

According to its website, SAEV is described as the strategic technology venturing program of Saudi Aramco. Its mission is to invest globally into startup and high-growth companies with technologies of strategic importance to Aramco, to accelerate its development and its deployment in the company.


EU poised to unveil green investment list

Updated 17 April 2021

EU poised to unveil green investment list

  • Bloc aims to become carbon neutral by 2050 and mitigate climate change

BRUSSELS: The European Commission will next week present the first part of a “green taxonomy” list of energy sources and technology to be labeled as sustainable investments, but a question mark hangs over the inclusion of natural gas.

The classification system, to be published on Wednesday, is mandated under a 2019 agreement between member states and the European Parliament meant to define durable economic activities and green finance.

It seeks to define what the EU would deem as sustainable as it moves toward a goal of Europe becoming carbon neutral by 2050, with criteria focusing on mitigating climate change or preparing for it.

A second commission proposal is to follow later this year covering four other subjects — protection of water and marine resources, the circular economy, preventing pollution and biodiversity — all part of the EU’s “Green Deal” to reach that ambition.

For an investment to be considered “green” it has to meet one of these objectives without hurting any of the others.

The proposal is to become a “delegated act,” meaning it becomes law unless member states or the European Parliament reject it.

But a leak of the commission’s taxonomy list last month raised an outcry from NGOs, experts and MEPs, in particular over the inclusion of gas as a partially sustainable energy source.

Nine experts the commission consulted threatened to break off cooperation over the perceived “greenwashing,” according to a letter sent to the commission and seen by AFP.

The commission plan, according to the leak, is to have gas-fueled power stations labeled as “green” as transitional facilities up to 2025 where they replace ones using coal. One of the experts signing the letter, Sebastien Godinot, economist at the environmental protection NGO WWF, said that would give a “blank check” to gas operators and risk a long-term dependence on fossil fuels.

“This proposal could potentially create a direct incentive to build even more gas co-generation plants than already planned,” Godinot warned.

A Green MEP from the Netherlands, Bas Eickhout said: “A gas-fired power plant built now is there to stay for 40 years. So brings you way over the 2050 deadline.”

As a result, “we are going to object” to the commission proposal, based on the version leaked in March, Eickhout said.

Several sources said that the governments of Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg and Spain had written a joint letter to the commission to voice their objection to including gas in the taxonomy.

Godinot noted that, while natural gas releases less carbon dioxide than coal, it also emits methane, considered a worse greenhouse emission.

Other points of discord are the commission’s approach to forestries and logging, seen by some as not rigorous enough, and it automatically classifying bioenergy as durable even when the biomass it uses comes from dedicated farmland.

A French news website, Contexte, said on Thursday that the commission has been forced to revise its document and could revert to an ordinary legislative process that would be much longer.

The commission did not confirm that. An EU source said the text it is to present is “still in development” and stressed how technical it was.

“Right now, we’re talking about a general approach to gas. Further analyses are needed,” the source said.

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