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T Rowe Price: Why We Sold Pakistan

Oliver Bell, portfolio manager of the T. Rowe Price Frontier Markets Equity Strategy says Pakistan has been punished on plunging political and economic prospects

T. Rowe Price 29 September, 2017 | 8:00AM

Morningstar's "Perspectives" series features investment insights from third-party contributors. 

Lahore in Pakistan

Pakistan has been a successful investment outpost for our Frontier Markets Equity strategy since its inception in 2014. We often ran an overweight position in this market over this period, in what was a positive transformative phase for the Pakistani economy. This culminated in the 2016 announcement from MSCI that the country would be reclassified as an emerging market – which occurred in May this year.

The overwhelming majority of our positions in Pakistan have since been offloaded, as the investment thesis on these positions played out – largely due to the strong rise for the market in the lead-up to its entrance to the MSCI Emerging Markets Index.

However, risks have been building in the country – in both the economic and political spheres. Unfortunately, our concern was warranted, with the country’s stock market sliding in recent weeks on a number of significant negative developments.

Deteriorating Economic Conditions

While GDP growth recently came in at a 10-year high – largely due to the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor – the broad economic picture in Pakistan is deteriorating. Firstly, Pakistan’s current account deficit more than doubled to $12.1 billion in the year ended 30 June, largely as a result of an overvalued rupee. Since peaking last October, foreign reserves have also fallen by a quarter to $14.3 billion. The country also faces a twin deficit, with the fiscal deficit blowing out to 6% – far higher than the government anticipated.

Thus far, the government has resisted calls to devalue its currency and economists are seriously questioning the stance taken by Finance Minister Ishaq Dar. Fears are also mounting that Dar is compromising the independence of the country’s central bank.

In addition to this, Pakistan’s largest bank Habib Bank has been fined $225 million for major anti-money laundering failings. The New York State Department of Financial Services had originally announced a higher penalty of $630 million late last month. While Pakistan’s central bank expressed it was confident the fine would not threaten the immediate health of Habib Bank or the wider Pakistani banking system, the fine still accounts for two years' worth of earnings for Habib. 

Government Ousted from Power

While the economic developments were and continue to be troubling, the main catalyst for the downward pressure on the Pakistani market in recent weeks has come from the political sphere – with the recent ousting of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The Pakistan Supreme Court ousted Sharif in late July over disclosures uncovered by the ‘Panama Papers’, with Shahid Khaqan Abbasi taking over as interim leader until next year’s election.

Sharif has led the ruling party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), since he founded it more than 30 years ago and has served three terms as prime minister. His continued influence and control over the PML-N generally provides continuity in policy. However, it has boosted the prospects of the Imran Khan-led PTI opposition.

The negative political developments raise the likelihood of heightened tensions in the lead-up to Pakistan’s 2018 elections. The narrowing gap between the PMLN and PTI could result in a more heated political process – increasing the chances of violence. A PMLN victory next year is also likely to further ignite the agitation of PTI supporters.

A Reminder to Remain Vigilant

While Pakistan is no longer in our frontier markets benchmark, events such as what we have just witnessed in Pakistan reminds us that investing in the worlds most undeveloped economies can often present unique challenges. It also shows the merits of active management and the need to regularly undertake on-the-ground visits in these countries to try and be a step ahead of potential dangers on the horizon.

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