The danger of viewing central and eastern Europe (CEE) as a homogenous market was highlighted in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, when Poland emerged as the only country in the region whose economy expanded during 2009 while its Baltic neighbours experienced significant falls in GDP. Professor Krzysztof Rybinski of Warsaw’s Vistula University refers to the degree of fiscal easing, the scope of public investment and the degree of cross-border financial leverage available to individual countries to explain this disparity. However, with EU guidelines on public debt levels limiting the scope for fiscal stimulus and investment moving away from large scale construction projects, he warns that no part of region will be immune from the effects of economic turmoil in the European Union in 2013.
Various funds are more than aware of the continuing impact of macro trends on the performance of local funds. Even so, the growing diversity of fund investment strategies is a clear indication of the deepening of the asset management industry across the sub-region.
Schroders manages the ISF Emerging Europe fund, which is mainly invested in Russia, Poland and Turkey but also in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The fund has been in existence since 2000, is in the first quartile for its peer group and is one of the five largest funds in the region at around €500m. Lydia Malakis, the firm’s director for central and Eastern Europe says there are no local restrictions around investment in liquid securities. Many CEE asset managers still tend to focus on their local market, mainly because they can generate strong performance for their clients by staying purely domestic, particularly in the larger markets of Poland, Russia and Turkey.
“They don’t see the need to look outside their own markets for capital growth because these markets are still growing and there is a pool of IPOs and corporate bond issuance yet to come to the market,” she explains.
The sophistication of the CEE institutional investor base varies significantly. For example, Poland has a well-developed pension fund system, whereas Russia pension funds are virtually non-existent. Institutional investors generally identify investment opportunities in the region by doing their own research, analysing economic and company specific data and meeting with finance ministers, central bankers and prominent local businessmen to gain an understanding of local regulations and political dynamics, says Andrey Popel, director Greylock Capital Management.
“CEE offers opportunities for index trackers, pension funds, insurance companies, corporate bonds managers and hedge funds. In the Russian bonds market, for instance, there is a wide selection of liquid investable assets in the sovereign, quasi-sovereign and corporate space, although in some jurisdictions—most notably Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Georgia and even Ukraine—corporate bond supply is quite limited.”
Despite these limitations, Popel says his firm continues to identify interesting distressed and high yielding opportunities in Kazakhstan, Hungary, Russia and Ukraine. These opportunities are often company or country specific event-driven investments (a hedge fund investment strategy that seeks to exploit pricing inefficiencies that may occur before or after a specific corporate event) and have lower correlation with the broader market.
Dainius Bloze, fund manager at Bank Finasta observes that some international investors choose to rely on publicly available company information and make investments from outside via bourses, while other are brought into the market by investment bankers. “Value investing and strategies that combine tenets of both growth investing and value investing (known as ‘growth at a reasonable price’ or GARP) are employed, but in general there is little discrepancy between strategies in this region compared to developed markets,” he observes. “CEE markets are smaller and less liquid than developed markets so strategies have to be adjusted and generally require more involvement from investment managers, since publicly available information is scarce and imperfect. Russia stands out as a market that is very much event driven and dependent on commodities.”
While having local expertise is important, it is also possible to tap into investment opportunities through global asset managers. That is the view of Stefano Pregnolato, head of portfolio management EMEA at Pioneer Investments, whose equity and fixed income products are managed in London and Vienna while its emerging markets analysts leverage portfolio managers and analysts based in the region.
“Foreign investors usually prefer internationally available funds when they invest in CEE, whereas investors from within the region tend to prefer local domiciled products,” he states. “Fixed income strategies are much more popular than equities, but that is not unique to this region. Different interest rate environments and risk levels in each country affect the structure of institutional investor mandates.”
There are fewer specialised managers focusing on Russia or CEE than on other emerging markets such as China according to Albin Rosengren, partner East Capital, who describes a broad eastern European or in some cases a Russia fund as the most common ways of accessing the market.
“There are around 100 funds that focus on Eastern Europe, very few of which are run by independent specialist asset managers and most of which are based outside the region. In addition there are perhaps 20-30 focusing purely on Russia. Many of these funds belong to banks and are run by smaller and often non-specialised teams.”
There are a few investment houses in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe, but most assets come from outside the region, he continues, “These assets come mainly from western Europe, although some US endowments have invested and pension funds in Latin America and Middle East sovereign funds are increasingly looking at opportunities in central and Eastern Europe.”
Rosengren points out that some institutional investors have opted for passive alternatives and that ETF exposure to the region has increased. He believes this can be explained at least in part by two years of ‘risk-on-risk-off’ where political decisions and macroeconomic events have almost been more important than the performance of individual companies.
Rosengren reckons that most investors are not overly concerned about falling commodity prices but still want exposure to CEE that is not driven by commodities, which is why his firm launched a Russia domestic fund last year that excludes investments in commodities or companies reliant on exports.
“Central and Eastern Europe is still mostly a general broad strategy equity play, but we are seeing the emergence of some plays on different parts of the economy (such as consumer funds) and there are also a few fixed income funds emerging. However, regionally specialised bond funds have not yet generated a large volume of transactions.”
Rosengren suggests that very narrow country funds have struggled to raise assets compared to wider regional funds. “Turkey was a major theme in 2012 on the back of its credit rating upgrade and better than expected economic development. Growth this year is again looking strong and the market is not expensive.”
Erste Asset Management managing director Paul Severin estimates foreign participation in the Polish bond market has risen above 40% compared to approximately 30% this time last year. “Assets managed by local investors (pension funds, insurance, investment funds) have also grown and local market participants have become much more sophisticated, although local fund managers usually cover only one country. There are also some large domestic players in the shape of real money accounts, banks and hedge funds.”
In general, foreign investors are comparing different countries from a fundamental perspective, analysing structural and cyclical issues and trying to find under- and over-valued markets/securities, he explains. Severin refers to increased interest in local FX bonds (both sovereign and corporate) with the Russian local fixed income market being opened to foreign investors, but adds that private equity is still a very small part of the market.
“Global emerging market funds dominated investments last year and emerging Europe accounts for 10-15% of these portfolios. ETF funds captured flow in 2012. Investors use a wide range of investment strategies, from relative country comparison to single name relative value trades, depending on the asset class and assets under management.”
Miroslav Kub˘enka, Generali PPF Asset Management head of equity research says foreign investors account for roughly half of total equities turnover on each of the CE3 (Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary) stock markets but that this includes institutional investors from other CE3 countries who view these three nations as almost a single ‘domestic’ market. “Over the last couple of years, the attractiveness of the CE3 equity market region has been decreasing for outside investors. These countries do not enjoy superior growth compared to Western Europe anymore.”
Generali PPF Asset Management considers low liquidity to be a major drag on foreign institutional investment, adds Kub˘enka. “The Prague stock market is a great example. Its equities turnover last year fell to the lowest level since 2003 and several international banks have already closed their equity trading departments in the city.”
His colleague and chief analyst Radomír Já˘c says that in contrast, participation of foreign investors in the government bond market has risen over the last three years although they still account for less than 50% of outstanding bonds in the CE3 countries with the majority held by domestic banks and pension funds.
“In Q4 2012 non-residents held just over 46% of all Hungarian government bonds, with domestic banks holding around 30% and pension funds the remainder. In Poland, foreign investors control between one third and half of government bonds, compared to 23% by domestic pension funds, 17% by banks and just over 10% by domestic insurance funds.”
According to Kub˘enka it is relatively easy to identify investment opportunities in central and eastern Europe without going through local fund managers. “Foreign institutional investors can choose from a wide range of local brokers and banks, whose support includes research conducted by local analysts. Also, many international banks cover blue chip firms in the CE3 countries and are able to arrange calls with analysts, investor visits, etc.”
He sees little variance in the investment strategies and objectives of institutional investors located outside CEE and those based within the region. The biggest difference between the two is that CE3 equities represent a significant part of the total equity exposure for domestic institutions.
CEE sovereigns have taken advantage of the liquidity window created by low government bond yields in many developed economies to raise cheap funding to finance post-crisis budget deficits and improve maturity profiles. Ukraine, Hungary and Serbia in particular have significantly increased their reliance on international bond funding and have been able to postpone fiscal and structural adjustments.
Malakis reckons there are about 60 emerging Europe equity funds and agrees that emerging market debt has received a lot of attention from fixed income funds in recent years. “One notable difference from the rest of Europe is that you have a lot of smaller companies that cannot raise finance through the capital markets, which encourages private equity structures.” Property structures are another non-listed option, although she acknowledges that real estate investment performance in CEE is a “mixed bag”.
According to Malakis, local investors in Turkey have been favouring hedge fund-type absolute return strategies investing in local fixed income, equities and money markets. Closed ended, tax optimised strategies were well received in Poland last year, whereas in Russia there is much interest in FX-type strategies and commodities.
“Local deposit rates are also a factor in terms of what you recommend to clients because they may need to hedge their currency risk,” she adds. “Many of our CEE clients are asking for hedged strategies back into their local currency.”
It is clear that CEE is not a ‘one size fits all’ market when it comes to investor preferences. However, for all the region-specific recommendations and warnings, Rosengren concludes that CEE allocation decisions are based on the same factors as for any other region—growth prospects, risk and valuations.