Kenya election outcome cheers investors but worries remain

LONDON, March 12 Tue Mar 12, 2013 8:48am EDT

LONDON, March 12 (Reuters) - Kenya's peaceful election has given investors an added impetus to buy assets in East Africa's biggest economy, but a legal challenge to the result and the possible international trial of the winner could dampen enthusiasm.

Kenya, like many other frontier markets, is enjoying strong growth, with its rising consumer class and high bond yields attracting international investors.

Kenya's stock market hit 4-1/2 year highs and the shilling surged to four-month highs after the declaration last weekend of Uhuru Kenyatta as president, without the 2008 post-election violence which left 1,200 dead.

The election has given many the confidence that recent gains can be sustained.

"There is a sigh of relief, it's not the nightmare that everyone feared," said Daniel Broby, chief investment officer of frontier fund manager Silk Invest, who holds Kenyan assets.

Kenyatta won slightly over 50 percent of the more than 12.3 million votes cast, so avoiding the need for a second round.

"It was a pretty close shave, but at the end of the day, it's nothing to get too worked up about -- the fear was that there would not be a majority," Broby added.

Kenya is one of only two African countries -- along with Nigeria -- in the benchmark MSCI frontier stock market index . Kenya is the second-best performer in the index this year, outpacing most other markets and lagging only the United Arab Emirates. ()

The stock market is the largest in East Africa and is seen as an investment hub for the region. Foreign participation has been increasing and is now more than 50 percent.

STOCKS RALLY

Kenyan stocks rallied 13 percent this year even before Kenyatta's victory, and have added another 3 percent this week.

Popular stocks include East African Breweries, up 23 percent this year, telecom group Safaricom, also up 23 percent, and Kenya Commercial Bank, up 40 percent, all of which offer exposure to the country's booming consumer demand.

Kenya also has a relatively well-developed local bond market and experts say a planned Eurobond is likely to be popular with investors who have snapped up bonds from other African countries such as Zambia and Nigeria.

In terms of policy direction, investors say little differentiates Kenyatta from his defeated rival Raila Odinga. They have been further encouraged by the central bank's success in keeping the currency steady.

"The election result is not likely to lead to a major shift of economic policy," said Graham Stock, strategist at frontier fund manager Insparo. "The currency has been very stable, there is no reason to think that won't continue."

Economic activity is expected to expand, as businesses initiate projects that were on hold before the election. GDP growth is seen as much as 6 percent this year.

Investors have been reassured by a reduction in political risk since the introduction of a new constitution in 2010, which included the reform of the judiciary and plans for a devolved system of government.

Andrew Brudenell, a fund manager at HSBC GAM, is overweight Kenya in his frontier equity fund.

"We are trying to get exposure to the improving economic and political stability that we are seeing and we want to get exposure to the domestic growth story," he said.

LESS BULLISH

But bond investors are less bullish, noting that Kenyan debt has already enjoyed a strong rally.

"A year ago when 10-year yields were close to 20 percent it was attractive but now it's down to 9 percent the yield is not compelling, especially with political uncertainty hanging over," said Stuart Culverhouse, chief economist at broker Exotix.

Investors point to two sources of uncertainty -- Odinga's challenge to the election result, and the International Criminal Court's indictment of Kenyatta.

Odinga's Coalition for Reforms and Democracy plans to seek the nullification of the election result on grounds that Kenyatta's votes had been increased illegally.

The risk is of subsequent violence should Odinga lose the case, which may be heard in the Supreme Court in the next couple of weeks. That stirs memories of December 2007 when President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner, but Odinga said the vote was rigged.

Riots in early 2008 plunged Kenya into weeks of tribal bloodshed, scaring off investment. Under a power-sharing deal brokered to end the violence, Odinga became prime minister.

"It's a very fine line for Odinga to tread, the example from 2008 shows how dangerous it can be," said Stock.

Meanwhile, Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, have been charged by the ICC over their alleged role in the blood-letting five years ago. They deny the accusations and say they will cooperate with investigations. The trial is due to start in July.

The United States and other Western powers, big donors to Kenya, said before last week's election that a Kenyatta win would complicate diplomatic ties with a regional ally in the battle against militant Islam.

The election result is "a relative negative outcome for Kenya's international relations", analysts at Renaissance Capital said.

Ratings agency Fitch, which rates Kenya at sub-investment grade of B-plus with a stable outlook, also said "a political vacuum that delays reform could develop, should the president and deputy president face a lengthy trial".

Renaissance added, however, that Kenya's dependence on aid was small, so any suspension if Kenyatta were found guilty would have limited impact.

And those keen to buy Kenya's assets, such as David Mcilroy, chief investment officer of Alquity, are prepared to take the risks.

"The international community will take a pragmatic approach", he said. "I imagine the trial will take some time -- we can park that for now."

A couple walks along the rough surf during sunset at Oahu's North Shore, December 26, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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