* Consensus "sell" on emerging markets starts to break up
* Barclays, HSBC, Citi, Societe Generale flag value
* Fund managers more cautious in spite of profit potential
* $100 bln exited EM equity funds over 12 months -Morgan
By Simon Jessop and Sujata Rao
LONDON, April 1 Investors are starting to look
afresh at emerging equities after years in which the sector has
been a consensus "sell".
Barclays, Citi, HSBC, Morgan Stanley and Societe Generale
are among banks now advising clients to buy back in - albeit
selectively - after a prolonged sell-off that has slashed
"The timing of that decision will determine people's
performance (for the year)," said Fredrik Nerbrand, global head
of asset allocation at HSBC, who has a 40 percent portfolio
exposure to EM-related assets through hard and local currency
debt, commodities and equities.
"When I talk to investors, most people agree with us on a
valuation basis, but are concerned about the headline risks that
still persist in some emerging markets."
Since June 2013, the first full month after U.S. Federal
Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke flagged plans to cut its massive
monetary stimulus efforts, fund flows out of the broad swathe of
countries collectively known as emerging markets have been huge.
Worries about the impact of U.S. monetary tightening and a
prospective economic slowdown in China have been joined recently
by political tensions over Ukraine and in Turkey.
While those with a need to invest in EM focused on picking
winners - often, countries with a current account surplus - or
upped their cash holdings for a period, those with a broader
investment brief quit the sector in droves.
Outflows from emerging equity funds have totalled $100
billion in the past 12 months, or almost a tenth of assets under
management, according to Morgan Stanley analysts, who base their
calculations on EPFR Global data.
A record 31 percent of investors are currently underweight
emerging stocks, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch's
latest monthly poll of funds with $509 billion under management.
By all accounts, most of this cash returned home to Europe
and the United States. But after 22 weeks of outflows, losses
have slowed to a trickle.
"The view in the market has been generally bearish,
particularly since Ben Bernanke spoke about tapering. A lot of
funds were badly hurt by that," said Societe Generale
cross-asset strategist Ahmed Behdenna.
His bank, bearish on emerging stocks for the past three
years, is now advising clients to buy, going from zero-weight to
underweight. So while it still recommends holding fewer emerging
equities compared to their share in the index, Societe Generale
until recently advised having no exposure at all.
The change in stance has been driven by low valuations, how
geared Asian countries are to the recovering U.S. and European
economies, and recent robust action by EM central banks to
defend their currencies, Behdenna said.
Currencies such as the Indian rupee and Brazilian real have
rallied around 10 percent off lows hit last year.
"We have seen a lot of outflows and so valuations are at
very low levels, especially compared to developed markets such
as the United States," he added.
Here's how cheap the market is: stocks in MSCI's emerging
index trade at an average 10 times predicted earnings while
developed equities trade at almost 15 times. On a book-value
basis, emerging stocks are valued at 1.3 times versus almost 2
times for their richer peers, as the following graphic shows:
Emerging equities have a lot of catching up to do. Since
end-2010 MSCI's emerging index has lost 13 percent
while the U.S. S&P 500 has gained almost 50 percent.
Even since Bernanke's May 2013 speech, Wall Street is up
around 10 percent while emerging markets have shed more than 6
That masks some serious divergences, however: China's CSI300
index is 17 percent lower and Indonesia and
Brazil down 9-12 percent, while India is up 10 percent.
Headwinds still blow in the form of slower growth, upcoming
elections and fears over China's debt mountain, says Jonathan
Bell, CIO of Stanhope Capital, which runs $8.5 billion on behalf
of wealthy families and charities.
Bell is capping emerging markets exposure to 20 percent of
his total equity position. Yet he reckons investors should now
consider reducing exposure to "overvalued" markets such as the
United States in favour of Asia.
"The market is already expecting bad news in these markets.
If the news is bad, it's probably already in the price, and if
it's good it could give a bit of a boost. Combined with the
valuations, to our mind makes them compelling," he added.
ING Investment Management, which has $238 billion under
management, last week changed its position on emerging stocks to
neutral from underweight.
"We keep our negative strategic stance but feel that given
how well the markets have digested the bad news of the past
months, there is a good chance EM currencies continue to rally,"
ING IM's investment strategist, Maarten-Jan Bakkum, said.
"That is always good for EM equities."
(Additional reporting by Vikram Subhedar; Graphic by Vincent
Flasseur; Editing by Catherine Evans)