Fickle foreign flows add to problemsComment on this story
London - Foreign investors' growing presence in sub-Saharan African financial markets has made those assets more vulnerable to contagion from losses in bigger emerging markets and problems on the home turf are not helping.
Drawn by Africa's fast economic growth, its emerging middle class and juicy returns offered by frontier markets in the region, foreign investors have raised their stakes in recent years.
Stand-outs include Nigerian T-bills, where foreign demand rose by nearly five times to more than $5 billion in the year after the country was included in a JP Morgan benchmark bond index in 2012, and Kenyan stocks, where 40 percent are now in foreign hands.
Investors who delved into frontier markets have enjoyed the lack of correlation with mainstream emerging markets, including South Africa, and with one another.
But the withdrawal of US monetary stimulus, which had helped fuel demand for riskier assets, has led to flight by foreign investors across the board. And that has been compounded by bad news on the home front.
Foreign holdings of Nigerian equities, bonds and T-bills combined have fallen by a quarter this year to $17.5 billion, according to analyst estimates.
“It's a combination of external as well as domestic factors,” said Stuart Culverhouse, chief economist at frontier markets brokerage Exotix.
“External are (US Fed) tapering and the China slowdown. When you look at problems in Ghana, policymaking in Nigeria ... domestic issues are there at the same time.”
African central banks have been slow to respond to the 'new normal' of tighter monetary policy across global markets, to make up for the cut in US monetary stimulus, analysts say.
Yields on Ghanaian bonds have spiked higher, with three-year debt hitting 4-1/2 year highs while the cedi currency has hit record lows against the dollar, tracking a pattern set by emerging market currencies such as the Indian rupee.
Like the rupee and the Turkish lira, the cedi has been a target of selling pressure due to concerns about domestic fundamentals as well as the reduction in US stimulus.
Ghana's woes centre on its overspending, based on overambitious projections for output from oil, its relatively new foreign currency earner.
“The depreciation of the cedi has very little to do with tapering,” said Samir Gadio, emerging markets strategist at Standard Bank.
“Ghana has large twin deficits, confidence is quite weak.”
Around 26 percent of Ghanaian local debt was in the hands of foreigners last year, but this has fallen to around 21 percent, according to analysts' estimates.
In Nigeria, the central bank has complained that hot money had headed to Nigerian markets and was being flushed out by the tapering of the US Federal Reserve's bond-buying programme.
But investors are also worried about fiscal profligacy in the run-up to presidential elections next year and the suspension of anti-graft central bank chief Lamido Sanusi last month.
The Nigerian naira has fallen below its 160-170 trading band , domestic bond yields have risen and the country is the worst performer on MSCI's benchmark frontier markets index , down 14 percent this year.
Zambia has also been hit, even though foreign holdings in the bond market are seen at 15 percent or less.
Analysts blame outflows, which have pushed the kwacha to record lows against the dollar, on external factors such as the slowdown in China, which is negative for Africa's top copper producer.
NOT ALL BAD
As sharp outflows from Africa have been directed at markets such as Nigeria and Zambia whose economies are vulnerable to lapses in policymaking or global risks, other parts of the region have held up well.
That suggests investors are increasingly discerning between African markets rather than viewing the continent as a whole.
While the naira and the cedi have been under pressure, the Kenyan shilling has remained relatively steady following peaceful presidential elections last year.
“The political risks are behind you in Kenya - they are in front of you in Nigeria,” said Mark Vincent, emerging equity fund manager at Standard Life.
After hefty gains in 2013, Kenya's equity market has held steady this year, as has Mauritius, another relatively stable market in sub-Saharan Africa.
Frontier markets globally have escaped the rout seen in emerging markets and have outperformed developed markets this year.
International funds allocated to sub-Saharan African and other frontier markets remain relatively small.
More than $1.3 trillion in assets are benchmarked against the MSCI emerging markets index, compared with $6 billion against the frontier and $620 million against the Africa-ex South Africa index.
African exchange-traded funds - aimed at retail investors and tracked by Boston-based EPFR - total $265 million, compared with around $300 billion in ETFs in emerging markets.
That lack of international retail interest means Africa has not suffered the level of fund redemptions by retail investors seen in emerging markets since last May when the Federal Reserve signalled that tapering of monetary stimulus was on the cards, analysts say.
And while the resurgent dollar has put pressure on local currencies, many African dollar bonds, of which there were several in recent years, have held up.
This has kept Kenya's plans for a Eurobond alive, despite the recent market volatility.
“There will be demand,” said Culverhouse.
“A lot of people are still interested in the African story.” - Reuters