An Update on Emerging Market Local Debt Positioning

After a weak start to the year, emerging market (EM) fixed income recovered to finish the quarter strongly. Despite an intensification of geopolitical risks and a renewal of “hard landing” fears in China, emerging market local debt showed significant resiliency, with 13 out of 19 countries posting positive returns year-to-date.1

In aggregate, valuations have become much more attractive compared to last year, though headwinds in the form of rate pressure in the U.S., growth concerns in China, and a full slate of elections present near-term volatility. We continue to believe in the long-term story for EM debt and recognize that many governments have taken proactive steps to address some external vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, a select few governments have not confronted their issues, which could pose additional downside risks. In several cases, political risks have potentially exacerbated these pressures.

As an actively managed exchange-traded fund, the WisdomTree Emerging Markets Local Debt Fund (ELD) has the ability to provide different exposures than those provided by its performance benchmark. As opposed to a market capitalization–weighted benchmark, the Fund seeks to target exposure to debt of emerging market issuers across 3 tiers (10.71%, 7.14% and 3.57%). During the quarter, WisdomTree, as part of its structured investment process, sought to reduce portfolio exposures to certain issuers while increasing exposures to others. In this blog post, we will provide more insight into the Fund Strategy Committee’s decisions—such as the catalysts that triggered these actions and their impact thus far on each portfolio’s positioning—as well as our overall thoughts on local debt as an asset class.

Allocation Changes: Emerging Markets Local Debt Fund (ELD)

The Rationale Behind Allocation Changes

Poland: Upgraded to Top Tier

With nearly 43% of its export volume going to Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Italy, we believe Poland can directly benefit from a greater integration with Europe and a stronger Eurozone. Even though we have seen significant revisions to economic forecasts in the region, most analysts currently agree Poland will grow at the fastest rate of any emerging European economy (3.0%).2 Debt to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) continues to decline, while fiscal balances appear stable. With geopolitical risk in the region an ongoing concern, further integration into the European economy appears to be a key priority for the government and could result in additional upside surprises.

Russia: Downgraded to Middle Tier

Prolonged tensions with Ukraine and uncertainty around President Vladimir Putin’s political calculus are clear negatives for the Russian economy and foreign capital flows. However, while these political concerns may have tipped the balance, Russia’s economy was showing signs of slowing even before the current crisis developed. Russia’s once healthy current account surplus has faded from view and now represents a headwind deterring growth. Additionally, the emergency 1.5% rate hike by the Russian central bank to stem outflows will apply additional restraint on an economy already forecasted to grow at a less than 1% in 2014.3 However, as emerging market investors, we feel Russia is, in many respects, too large to ignore. With an economy of over $2 trillion—the sixth largest in the world—completely eliminating exposure to the ruble and its comparatively attractive level of carry can introduce its own element of risk.4 While a political solution remains in flux, we believe an underweight position to Russia appears prudent.

Turkey: Downgraded to Bottom Tier

While the central bank’s dramatic tightening in January provided some near-term relief, the Turkish economy continues to face significant external vulnerability from sticky inflation, a large current account deficit, dwindling foreign exchange (FX) reserves, and a sizable percentage of local debt held by foreign investors.5 This weak foundation is likely to be exacerbated by a volatile Turkish political climate. Favorable results for the ruling party in local elections on March 30 diffused some near-term tensions, but we fear that these tensions are likely to re-emerge before the presidential election in August. In fact, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could feel emboldened by the results, and double down on policies that have materially weakened Turkey’s economy in recent years and distanced it from the capital markets. Additionally, while the move by the Turkish central bank did much to bolster its credibility, the highest borrowing rates across the emerging markets should have a direct impact on economic growth for Turkey.

Thailand: Downgraded to Bottom Tier

Thailand is in a fundamentally better position than Turkey, but cracks in a once vibrant economy are showing. The current account has been negative for the past two years and the gap between GDP growth and potential now ranks among the largest in Asia, excluding Japan.6 A challenging political situation could lead to further deterioration. On March 23, 2014, Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled that the elections from February 2 were not valid. While active protests have largely subsided in Bangkok, previous protests have had a significant impact on the country’s tourism industry, which accounts for 9% – 15% of GDP.7 Even though protesters have limited their activities in the streets in the past few weeks, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is now being forced to answer corruption and abuse-of-power charges from the country’s highest court, which could further cloud its outlook.

Brazil: No Tier Change

Standard & Poor’s decision to downgrade the sovereign rating of Brazil to BBB- on March 24, 2014, represents the first S&P downgrade experienced in ELD since its inception. However, we remain comfortable with the economic risks in Brazil (such as difficult growth environment and persistent inflation pressures) when balanced against its currency and income potential (12.7% for five year government debt).8 In fact, the market actually rallied on the announcement—on account of S&P’s stable outlook. While Brazil continues to face many economic headwinds, we remain somewhat positive that a rebound in growth could have a significant impact on asset levels.