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Emerging markets face lasting financial setback from coronavirus crisis

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Like the coronavirus crisis itself, the response of the world’s governments has been on a scale never seen before. The IMF estimates that fiscal spending and tax cuts worldwide add up to more than $11.7tn so far, on top of a monetary policy response in which trillions of dollars have been pumped into the global financial system by the US Federal Reserve and other central banks.

Old policy prescriptions have been torn up. Once the guardian of austerity, the IMF has urged countries to spend as much as possible. Carmen Reinhart, the eminent economic historian who is now chief economist at the World Bank, recommended they should borrow heavily. “While the disease is raging, what else are you going to do?” she asked. “First you worry about fighting the war, then you figure out how to pay for it.”

But, also like the crisis, the response itself has left the finances of governments and businesses, especially in low and middle-income countries, looking extremely vulnerable. Their debts cannot be ignored and their ability to fund them through growth is uncertain.

Several factors compound their difficulties.

The initial shock was accompanied by a burst of panic selling of emerging market assets in March as investors woke up to the pandemic. About $90bn left bond and stock markets in developing countries, according to the Institute of International Finance, bringing access to finance to a sudden stop. 

The amount of emerging market assets held by foreign investors was at a low level before the crisis struck, as developing economies were already struggling to deliver the growth and returns investors expected. The only country to have seen a significant return of investor flows since March is China — the only large economy expected to grow at all this year. The others are still in a capital flows drought. Nevertheless, they have had to spend heavily, just as government revenues have collapsed. Moody’s Investors Service warned in October that the crisis would cause long-lasting revenue losses for governments in emerging markets, with an average decrease in public income this year equal to 2.1 per cent of gross domestic product, more than twice the size of the comparable loss in advanced economies.

Several countries have turned to foreign and domestic bond markets. Overall, emerging economies raised about $145bn on international bond markets between January and September and an additional $630bn on domestic markets, according to the IIF. That is about $135bn more than they raised in the same period last year. 

Those less able to borrow have been supported by the IMF, the World Bank and other multilateral lenders. The IMF has provided about $100bn of emergency funding to more than 80 countries. The multilateral development banks, led by the World Bank, have committed $75bn this year out of $230bn earmarked for their response to the pandemic. Much of that support is in grants or concessional loans. But it also comes with strings attached. Despite its exhortations to spend, the terms of IMF loans still call for budget cuts, notes Adam Wolfe of Absolute Strategy Research, a consultancy.

“We expect tighter domestic and international financing conditions to push most EMs towards austerity next year,” he said.

Some emerging economies will not be able to keep a handle on their debts without defaulting, he warned. But even those that can consolidate their debts without default or IMF support are likely to suffer permanent scarring, he added, resulting in lower potential growth rates.

Fitch Ratings had made 35 downgrades of emerging market sovereign credit ratings by mid-October, affecting 24 sovereign bond issuers. It had 30 EM sovereigns on a negative outlook, suggesting more downgrades were likely this year and next.

The risk of downgrade and default is not evenly spread. S&P Global Ratings put the potential for downgrades among sovereign and corporate borrowers in Latin America at 56 per cent in September, more than double the 10-year regional average of 27 per cent. In Asia excluding China the risk had risen from 17 per cent to 41 per cent. But in eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa it had fallen from 25 per cent to 11 per cent and in China it was stable at 18 per cent.

Analysts warn that a clear assessment of the funding risks for EM governments and businesses is not yet possible. S&P noted in October that the pace of recovery in developing countries had slowed from August to September. Bhanu Baweja, chief strategist at UBS’ investment banking arm, warns that the real test will come after the initial support from the IMF and others has been absorbed.

“Emerging markets’ own investment to GDP ratio has been coming off for an extended time, and that is a much bigger issue in terms of EM assets and growth than the potential investment in grants and loans from the rest of the world,” he said. 

With many economies set to suffer permanent damage from the pandemic, their ability to invest and grow is likely to take a lasting hit.



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‘Digital big bang’ needed if UK fintech to compete, says review

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Sweeping policy changes and reform of London’s company listing regime will spark a “digital big bang” for the City and turbocharge the UK’s fintech industry, according to a government-commissioned review.

The report, to be published on Friday, warns that the UK’s leading position in fintech is at risk from growing global competition and regulatory uncertainty caused by Brexit

The review, carried out by former Worldpay chief Ron Kalifa, is one of a series commissioned by the government to help strengthen the UK’s position in finance and technology.

Both sectors are under greater threat from rivals since the UK left the EU in January amid growing global competition to attract and retain the fastest growing tech start-ups. 

Changes to the UK’s listing regime are recommended, such as allowing dual-class share structures to let founders maintain greater control of their companies after IPO. The review also proposes a lower free-float threshold to allow companies to list less of their stock.

Kalifa said the rapid evolution of financial services, from online banking and investment to digital identity and cryptocurrencies, meant that the UK needed to move quickly.

“This is a critical moment. We have to make sure we stay at the forefront of a global industry. We should be setting the standards and the protocols for these emerging solutions.”

John Glen, economic secretary to the Treasury, said more than 70 per cent of digitally active adults in the UK use a fintech service “but we must not rest on our laurels . . . all it takes is a bit of complacency to slip from being a leader of the pack to an also ran”.

He said the government would consider the report’s recommendations in detail. 

The review was welcomed by executives at many of the UK’s largest fintechs and leading financial institutions such as Barclays. Mark Mullen, chief executive of Atom Bank, said the review was “essential to maintain momentum in this key part of our economy and to continue to drive better — and cheaper outcomes for all of us”.

The review also recommended the government create a new visa to allow access to global talent for tech businesses, a move likely to be endorsed by ministers as early as next week’s Budget, according to people familiar with the matter.

Fintechs have been lobbying for a visa scheme since shortly after the 2016 Brexit vote, but the success of remote working since the onset of the coronavirus crisis has reduced its importance for some firms.

Revolut, for example, has ramped up its hiring of fully remote workers in Europe and Asia to reduce costs and widen its potential talent pool, according to chief executive Nik Storonsky.

Charles Delingpole, chief executive of ComplyAdvantage, a regulatory specialist, agreed that fintech was becoming more decentralised. He added that the shift in tone from the government could have as big an impact as specific policy changes. “Whilst none of the policies is in itself a silver bullet . . . the fact that the government recognises the threat to the fintech sector and is publicly acting should definitely help.”

The review also proposed a £1bn privately financed “fintech growth fund” that could be co-ordinated by the government. It identified a £2bn fintech funding gap in the UK, which has meant that many entrepreneurs have in the past preferred to sell rather than continue to build promising companies. It wants to make it easier for UK private pension schemes to invest in fintech firms. 

The report also recommended the establishment of a Centre for Innovation, Finance and Technology, run by the private sector and sponsored by government, to oversee implementation of its recommendations, alongside a digital economy task force to align government efforts.

The review has identified 10 fintech “clusters” in cities around the UK that it says needs to be further developed, with a three-year strategy to support growth and foster specialist capabilities.

Dom Hallas, executive director at the Coalition for a Digital Economy (Coadec), said it was now important that people “follow through and actually implement” the ideas in the review. The sector’s direct contribution to the economy, it is estimated, will reach £13.7bn by 2030.

However, the review also raised questions over the role of the Competition and Markets Authority, saying that the CMA should better balance competition and growth. 

“There is a case for more flexibility in the assessment of mergers and investments for nascent and fast-growing markets such as fintech,” it said. 

“Success brings scale but as some businesses thrive, others inevitably will fail. Some consolidation will therefore be critical in facilitating the growth that UK fintechs need in order to become global champions.”

Charlotte Crosswell, chief executive of Innovate Finance, which helped produce the report, said: “It’s crucial we act on the recommendations in the review to deliver this ambitious strategy that will accelerate the growth of the sector.

“The UK is well positioned to lead this charge but we must act swiftly, decisively and with urgency.”



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Coinbase: digital marketing | Financial Times

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Coinbase will be a stock riding a runaway train. The US cryptocurrency platform wants investors to think long term about the prospects for a global “open financial system”. Most will be unable to tear their eyes away from wild, short-term price swings in bitcoin, the world’s largest digital asset. 

This has its benefits. Coinbase, which has filed for a US direct listing, makes most of its money from commissions on crypto trades. Sales more than doubled to $1.3bn last year. The company has swung from a loss to net income of $322m as crypto prices jumped.

But the company has given no detail on the financial impact of the 2018 bitcoin price crash. Will Coinbase’s 2.8m active retail users and 7,000 institutions hang on if there is another protracted price fall? 

Coinbase was valued at $8bn in a 2018 private funding round and $100bn in a recent private share sale, according to Axois. That rise looks remarkably similar to the increase in bitcoin’s price from less than $5,000 to more than $50,000 this year.

The rally is hard to justify. Bitcoin has not become a widely used currency — nor is the US ever likely to countenance that. It offers investors no yield. Volatility remains high. Elon Musk’s tweet this weekend that bitcoin prices “seem high lol” propelled a sharp fall that hit shares in crypto-related companies. Shares in bitcoin miner Riot Blockchain have lost a quarter of their value this week. 

Prospective investors in Coinbase should keep this in mind. Its listing will take cryptocurrencies further towards the financial mainstream. But risk factors are unusually numerous, including the volatility of crypto assets and regulatory enforcement. 

Both threats are widely known. Another risk factor in the listing document deserves more attention. Vaccination campaigns and the reopening of shuttered sectors of the economy is raising yields in safe assets such as Treasuries. Risky trades may become less attractive. Coinbase might be about to go public just as the incentive to trade cryptocurrencies is undermined. 

If you are a subscriber and would like to receive alerts when Lex articles are published, just click the button “Add to myFT”, which appears at the top of this page above the headline.

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US stocks make gains on Fed message of patience over monetary policy

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Stocks on Wall Street reversed earlier losses after Jay Powell, the Federal Reserve chairman, reiterated the central bank’s desire to stick with accommodative policies during his second day of testimony to Congress.

The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite ended the day up 1 per cent, having fallen almost 1 per cent at the opening bell. The S&P 500 climbed 1.1 per cent, marking the blue-chip benchmark’s second consecutive rise after five sessions of back-to-back losses.

A morning sell-off in US Treasuries also faded, with the yield on the 10-year note having climbed as much as 0.07 percentage points to slightly less than 1.43 per cent, its highest level since February last year, before settling back to 1.37 per cent.

Treasuries have been hit by expectations that US president Joe Biden’s $1.9tn stimulus plan will stoke inflation, which erodes the cash value of the debt instruments’ interest payments. However, the more recent rise in yields has also been accompanied by a rise in real rates, which are more indicative of the return investors make after inflation and signal an improving growth outlook for the economy.

Higher yields, which move inversely to the price of the security, also knock-on to equity valuations by affecting the price-to-earnings multiples investors are willing to pay for companies’ shares. A higher yield, analysts say, makes fast-growth companies whose earnings represent a slim proportion of their stock market value less attractive in comparison.

Shares in the 100 largest companies on the Nasdaq are valued at a multiple of 37 times current earnings, against 17 times for the global FTSE All-World index of developed market equities.

“When bonds yield close to zero, you are not losing out by investing in those companies whose cash flows could be years into the future,” said Nick Nelson, head of European equity strategy at UBS. “[But] as bond yields start to rise, that cost of waiting [for companies’ earnings growth] increases.”

Earlier on Wednesday, investors’ retreat from growth stocks rippled into Asia. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index sank 3 per cent, its worst daily performance in nine months. Chinese investors using market link-ups with bourses in Shanghai and Shenzhen dumped Hong Kong-listed shares at a record pace, selling a net HK$20bn ($2.6bn) on Wednesday. China’s CSI 300 index fell 2.6 per cent. Japan’s Topix slipped 1.8 per cent, dragged down by tech stocks.

Column chart of Hang Seng index, daily % change showing worst day for Hong Kong stocks in 9 months

European equity markets closed higher, with the Stoxx 600 regional index rising 0.5 per cent and London’s FTSE 100 index up 0.5 per cent. UBS’s Nelson said European equities were less vulnerable to rising yields because European stocks generally traded at lower valuations than in Asia and the US. “We have fewer big technology companies here.”

While the bond market ructions have unsettled many equity investors, some believe this should not affect stock markets because the inflation expectations that have driven the Treasury sell-off are linked to bets of a global recovery.

“Rising bond yields and rising inflation from low levels provide a historically attractive environment for equities,” said Patrik Lang, head of equity strategy and research at Julius Baer. Traditional businesses whose fortunes are linked to economic growth, such as “industrials, materials and especially financials”, should do better in a reflationary environment than tech stocks, added Lang.



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