An Update – May 2014

Folks,

It’s been a while and I owe a lot of you an explanation on where I’ve gone. The short answer is that I’m putting the pieces in place for a new venture that I hope to be able to say more about by the end of the year. Until then, I’m on twitter with some regularity and am reachable as always by email. Hope all is well with everyone and be in touch.

Twas the Night Before Taper: A Wall Street Holiday Poem

After several months of silence, Mustafa Mond, whom we last heard from in April, has resurfaced. Today, Mr. Mond offers us this holiday poem:

TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE TAPER

By Mustafa Mond

Twas the night before Taper, when all through the Street
Not a whale was stirring, not even a veep.
The earnings were prepped by accountants with care,
In hopes that bonuses would be much more than fair.

The bankers were settled all smug in their spreads,
While Fed interventions entranced all their heads.
And Barack with his selfie, and Michelle with hers too,
Readjusted their cameras to spy just on you.

When out in the markets there arose such a cry,
Barry sprang from West Wing to see what was nigh.
To the news wires he flew like a bat of hell,
Knowing hestill had the masses to quell.

Markets were speeding, out of control,
The VIX off the charts—who spiked the punch bowl?
When, what to his wondering eyes should appear,
But a great big helicopter with pallets in the rear!

With an exhausted driver, tired of dollar-yen,
And a new co-pilot, it must be St. Ben.
Faster than a flash crash his beneficiaries came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

“Now Blankfein! Now Dimon! Wells Fargo and Citi!
On Gorman! On Moynihan! NYSE and BONY!
To the highest of highs! ‘Til market bears have fled!
After all, in the long run, we’ll all be dead!”

The yield-hungry traders scrambled for carry,
Locking in profits before the curves vary.
And up to the market-top prices arose,
While Barack’s disapproval relentlessly grows.

And then, with the microphones set to full blast,
The media watched carefully for any contrast.
Trading floors went silent, as they are apt to do,
As Fed chairman testimony makes sense to so few.

He spoke all in jargon, acronyms and indices,
Durables and deficits and payrolls and factories.
A big pile of assets he still wants to backstop:
A mortgage, a bankruptcy, a credit default swap.

His data—how thorough! Statistics—such authority!
And his protégé, this Yellen, confirmed with a majority!
His post-Fed retirement expectantly awaits,
No doubt duly hedged for much higher interest rates.

Europe and China, oil exporters like Canada,
The Saudis and Russia, and fiefdoms like Panama,
Listened closely for signs of any new shocks,
But at least they have product–unlike tech stocks!

He was measured, cogent, lacking Greenspan’s grandiloquence,
But the reaction, as always, was irrational exuberance,
As he made quite clear that ZIRP would continue,
And Wall Street rejoiced–”to the discount window!”

Thus ended St. Ben’s last public report
As chairman of the lender of last resort:
Tapering delayed, until 2014,
When St. Ben will no doubt be far from the scene.

He sprang to his chopper, having completed his duties,
Leaving risks to be rated by S&P, Fitch and Moody’s.
And on his way out, they asked, “what of safety nets?”
He cried, “Happy Holidays! And good luck with your debts!”

MustafaMond.signature

Markets irrational longer than you remain solvent, exhibit #274

2013.12.Irrational markets

Source: Russell Investments

There’s an article out on Seeking Alpha yesterday, called “Manufacturing Growth and Capital are Moving from China to Mexico“, nominally about the Mexico-China relationship to the US, but also more broadly (in my interpretation) about how we react to and measure growth in developing economies.

The key thesis here has to do with the spillover effects of China’s decelerating growth and who will pick up the slack. This may not necessarily be an exact zero-sum game, but it is to a certain extent, at least as long as Americans are still gaming, eating, drinking, driving and whatever else they demand to do, and as long as China and Mexico remain the second and third biggest trading partners of the US.

That Mexico will pick up some of this slack is a foregone conclusion. But just how much it benefits is what remains to be seen, and at least among its boosters, is what drives all this excitement we’ve been seeing about Mexico ever since the current administration was elected. Specific to this article, which was written by an equity analyst out of California called Erik Gholtoghian, the currency deficit between Mexico and China is particularly telling:

“…the Mexican peso has weakened dramatically against the dollar since 1990, almost 80%, and the peso is down 2.44% against the dollar over the past year. In other words, the Chinese yuan has strengthened 34% against the dollar since the revaluation began in 2006, but over the same time, the peso has weakened 20% against the dollar. This means the yuan is 54% stronger against the peso just over the past seven years. The result will be greatly decreasing exports from China to Mexico and increased exports from Mexico to China.”

All fine and good, but there’s something missing here and after discussing this with some folks I know around Mexico City, it strikes me that this is partly about Mexico but also about how to approach investment prospects for many emerging and frontier market countries.

I’ll begin with a basic metaphor to illustrate what I’m thinking of here. When you jump up in the air, how can you remain airborne as long as you do? Gravity should theoretically pull you back to earth, and in fact it eventually does. But there is a brief moment when you can defy the theory of gravity, due to the relationship between your body’s mass, your muscle strength and the actual gravitational force of the earth.

In the case of Mexico, economic reality has been suspended in this theory-defying space for a few years now and it’s a matter of time before indicators on the ground (no pun intended) reflect a closing of this gap. Think of it as the reverse situation of the dotcom bubble or the real estate bubble. This is the basis for value investing (as opposed to speculative investing) and at a bird’s eye level is no different from the approach Warren Buffet uses in evaluating stocks. Company ABC has low costs, stable contracts with a diversified customer base, competitive quality products and whatever, they should be making X profits per year but they’re only making a fraction of that…therefore, buy.

Here’s another comparable situation: Billy Beane, he of Moneyball fame, used the same approach when he was managing the Oakland A’s baseball team in the early 2000s. He saw underpaid players who may not hit home runs and may even have crappy batting averages, but also never seem to strike out and wind up finding their way across home plate one way or another. He exploited this for as long as he could, until the rest of baseball caught on, copied it, and eliminated his advantage. By this metaphor, Mexico’s economy is slowly being recognized by the Billy Beanes of the investing world. The difference is that Billy Beane kept his mouth shut because he knew he was on to something. Meanwhile, these investing gurus can’t stop praising Mexico as the next big thing, partly because everyone else jumping on the bandwagon makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy (which is where the baseball comparison stops) and partly because the nature of today’s evolving media universe sort of demands everyone to stake his claim as an “expert” in something.

Another difference with the Mexico situation is that there are a lot more variables that could prevent the benefits of this growth from reaching ordinary Mexicans (corruption, red tape, narco, etc) and the persistent failure of commentators on Mexico to recognize the unpredictability and range of these other variables can appear very misleading. Sometimes this failure seems to be because the commentator in question is clueless/stupid/ignorant/etc. Sometimes it’s because they have a vested interest in a positive outcome and are therefore disinclined to (publicly) focus on downside risks (here’s one recent example of this).

There is also the perennial issue of timing, which is the great bugbear of economics and investing in general. Going back to the gravity metaphor, we can predict with decent accuracy how long you can stay airborne as a result of the very specific estimate of Earth’s gravitational force being 9.81 meters per second squared. One of the main reasons for this specificity is that Earth’s gravitational force is independent of human behavior. Mexico’s economy does not enjoy the same luxury for all of the previously mentioned reasons and more.

As John Keynes is supposed to have said, “Markets can remain irrational longer than you and I can remain solvent.”

Personally, I don’t believe anything – good or bad – until I see it.

An Apples-to-Apples Comparison of African Sovereign Debt

I’ve been meaning to do this for months now, and the FT’s Jonathan Wheatley has just done it for me. Herewith, a side-by-side comparison of 10-year African sovereign debt issues from the past 15 months:

Country Issue Date Tenor Size Yield at issue
Zambia Sep 2012 10 years $750 mm 5.625%
Rwanda Apr 2013 10 years $400 mm 6.875%
Nigeria July 2013 10 years $500 mm 6.625%
Ghana July 2013 10 years $750 mm 8.000%
Gabon Dec 2013 10 years $1.5 bn 6.375%

As Wheatley correctly points out, this is a Gabon story as much as it’s an Africa story. There are a lot of ways to slice this, the most immediate being yield differences. Wheatley:

Is Zambia, at 5.625 per cent (cheaper than Spain at the time), really in a different ball park from Ghana at 8 per cent? Yes and no. When Zambia came to market in September 2012, yields on US Treasuries were at their tightest and investors were scrambling for any deal that offered something better.

“There were opportunities to lock in great transactions,” says Samara. “But you still had to have a story to tell.”

Rwanda faced perhaps an even more inviting market, with investors getting so frustrated at low yields in the US they seemed willing to take almost any risk. Even in that environment, however, Rwanda had to pay a lot more than Zambia.

Nigeria and Ghana tell a similar tale of the post-tapering world: the decidedly less risk-on environment that followed comments in May by Ben Bernanke, chairman of the US Federal Reserve, suggesting the end of ultra-loose monetary policy was on the horizon. But Samara says that even in those more difficult circumstances, the right issuers have been able to get bonds away.

I would also point out the dramatic difference between these yields, and the indicative yields of their currencies at the beginning of this year, which I previously discussed here. Pasting those local currency yields into the above table gives us the following:

 

Country Issue Date Tenor Size Yield at issue Indicative FX yield as of Jan 2013
Zambia Sep 2012 10 years $750 mm 5.625% 9.80%
Rwanda Apr 2013 10 years $400 mm 6.875% 12.30%
Nigeria July 2013 10 years $500 mm 6.625% 14.40%
Ghana July 2013 10 years $750 mm 8.000% 22.90%
Gabon Dec 2013 10 years $1.5 bn 6.375% N/A

 

The debt yields are significantly lower than the FX yields reported in January (courtesy of Silk Invest). A lot has happened in the world this year to drive this divergence, but what this screams of more than anything to me is the benefit of borrowing dollars in the Eurobond market. 

Put another way, let’s use the example of Nigeria, which is far and away the largest economy of any of these. In an ideal world, an economy like Nigeria should be able to draw a far larger issue size than $500 million, and denominated in naira, but if they did, they would be paying much more than 6.625%. And even in dollars, the $500 million ticket size indicates that appetite is still fairly limited, despite all the currency risk being shifted onto Nigeria (which, having some 90+% of its economy dependent on oil, is less burdensome than the task facing, say, Rwanda).

I’m all for developing local currency financing mechanisms, but what this all says to me is that there’s still a VERY long way to go.

Mexican congressman to colleagues: “Privatize This”

So, as you may or may not have heard, Mexican Congress has just passed some rather historic oil reforms, much to the consternation of a lot of people. Herein, one congressman’s protest at the lack of transparency surrounding this historic occasion (with thanks to @NetasMX):

2013.12.MX oil reforms

Irrational exuberance continues plaguing Bitcoin

2013.12.IgnoranceBank of America has now initiated coverage of bitcoin and puts a fair value price target at US$1,300, which depending on your view, either validates or discredits the digital currency. Personally, I have no skin in this game, I appreciate and am fascinated by the theoretical construct, but am put off by the breathlessly brainless hype surrounding it and one doesn’t have to look far to see bitcoin’s limitations.

With that said now, the BoA report link is here, and as far as I’m concerned, the most important stuff comes in at page 6, in the section entitled, “How to assess Bitcoin’s fair value?”

I admit up front I have yet to come up with a viable answer to this question, but if I may say so, I am expert at recognizing bullshit when I see it. And BoA analysts make what even they concede are very big assumptions here, but if you know the assumptions are “big” (read: unrealistic), then why bother going on about it in the first place?

Anyway, taking this piece by piece, some of the outlandish assumptions that lead to a “fair value” price of $1,300, as far as bitcoin’s value as a medium of exchange:

Given the assumption that Bitcoin will grow to account for the payment of 10% of all on-line shopping, this would suggest that US households would want to have a balance of $1bn worth of Bitcoins.

…given bitcoin’s famous finite supply cap at 21 million units, the math here isn’t quite doing it for me.

What about for the whole world? US GDP is about 20% of World GDP. If we were to assume the same degrees of penetration of e-commerce for the rest of the world and that spending by households outside the US has the same velocity, we get to $5bn worth of Bitcoins for the total desired cash/noncash balance of global on-line shopping.

…sure, but both of those assumptions are not just wrong but shockingly ignorant about how the world outside the United States operates. I don’t need to spell this one out further, do I?

In addition to its role as a mean for payment for on-line commerce, Bitcoin can be used for transfer of money (e.g. immigrant worker in the US sending remittances back home).

…the average immigrant worker in the US sending remittances back home is a) Latin American, and b) traditionally very distrustful of all financial mechanisms or intermediaries that are not cash; further, this average immigrant worker would require a level of facility with the internet that various studies simply do not bear out.

Western Union, MoneyGram, and Euronet are the three top players in the money transfer industry (with about 20% of the total market share). Let’s assume that Bitcoin becomes one of the top three players in this industry.

…actually, let’s not, for all kinds of practical reasons. See previous two rebuttals to begin with.

A thought just occurred to me: maybe this is a practical joke — like the Onion!

As far as bitcoin somehow serving as a store of value, the entire discussion here appears LSD-induced, with the following statement perhaps being the biggest whopper:

If we were to assume that Bitcoin were to eventually acquire the reputation of silver (which is an extremely ambitious assumption), this suggests that Bitcoin market capitalization for its role as a store of value could reach $5bn.

WHAT?

This is the metaphorical equivalent of saying that assuming gravity were one-tenth its current force, I could leap tall buildings in a single bound…and then going on to design a workout routine that does indeed involve me leaping tall buildings in a single bound.

Someone’s living in unreality and I’m pretty sure it’s not me. 

The ongoing challenge of assessing Frontier Markets political risk

2013.12 Frontier Markets Political RiskI’m generalizing it, but frontier markets political risk is my main takeaway after reading through Clear Path Analysis’ just-released Investing in Frontier Markets 2013.

And if that doesn’t get you excited, don’t let that deter you from looking further as there’s a lot of other stuff in there that I’m totally glossing over.

Some highlights:

Asked what kind of investors are mostly interested in frontier markets and how they’re using the exposure, Yvonne Bakkum of FMO Investment Management had this to say:

“We are talking about a diversified African private equity proposition to U.S. institutional investors, and it strikes me that we hardly have to explain the Africa story to them. They seem very well aware of the fundamental attractiveness of Africa as an investment destination but, are still studying the best way to access that opportunity. What type of asset class, should they go through public markets or private equity and if so should they select funds themselves or use a fund of funds vehicle? These are the types of questions being asked but in most cases the interest still needs to translate into actual commitments. Some African institutions haven’t decided as to whether they should invest and there we see an interesting discrepancy between the investment professionals and their boards of trustees. Trustees tend to be more cautious and want to start with BRICs because they are the more advanced emerging markets or the ones closer to home, such as Latin America. This means that you don’t always get everybody aligned simultaneously.”

Oliver Bell, portfolio manager of Africa and Middle East strategy for T. Rowe Price wound up having a lot to say about East Africa, among which was this nugget on the key risks in investing in African markets:

“The key risk still remains around the politics and the economics but the two are quite strongly linked. The first risk is when you get a change of government. 50 of these countries have had elections in the last three years so we are no longer talking about despotic dictators – this has become a relatively democratic continent. The key risk is that if the opposition wins an election does power get handed over peacefully? We’ve just seen a transition of power in Kenya for example which was peaceful but five years ago the election transition was very brutal. The more times you go through the peaceful transition, the more entrenched the democracy becomes. In Ghana we’ve seen the handover of power peacefully a few times so you get the sense that democracy is now deeply rooted in their society.

Related to the politics is the economic fallout that can occur in the run up to elections, because you tend to find that the incumbents spend aggressively to ingratiate themselves with the electorate. The targets go out of the window leading to a larger fiscal deficit, which can lead to currency weakness and hence inflation. This knock-on effect usually corrects itself the year after an election but it remains one of those things that you need to be very aware of when investing in Africa. One other risk at the stock level that we assess, when considering an investment in a company, is whether there are any political connections that the company is benefitting from, as this is not sustainable in the long term, given that the politics can change quickly.”

And finally, Richard Fox, Fitch’s Head of Middle East and Africa Sovereigns, had this to say about MENA political risk:

“Political risk is a fact of life but it varies from country to country. And it doesn’t necessarily mean a country is off limits to investors. Going back to where we started, the World Bank Governance Indicators would put a country like Nigeria or Lebanon very low down on the political risk spectrum. Nevertheless, these countries have a track record of foreign investment receiving very good returns. Just because political risk is high doesn’t mean that people will not put their money there…

… You can have volatile political developments but this does not mean that they automatically affect financial markets. Despite the political ups and downs of Lebanon, including war, there has never been a default and people are allowed to withdraw their money freely which has worked very much in Lebanon’s favour. Environments can be very risky but if you have investors aware of and happy to take those risks then it isn’t really an issue. In most cases, risks can be priced.”

TCX Chooses Diligence on Myanmar

The folks from Netherlands-based TCX (The Currency Exchange Fund) have just passed me the following video, which encapsulates a two-day conference they hosted last month in Myanmar.

So far all I’ve only watched the introductory four-minute video and I can tell you that it’s worth noting first that this is eminently more watchable than the video attempts I’ve seen from certain other outfits in this space who shall remain nameless.

I’m all for the DIY revolution, but sometimes paid professionals are paid professionals for a reason.

Anyway, the point here being that if you understand and trust TCX’s general outlook and approach to new markets (which I do) and if you bear this in mind as you watch how TCX has chosen to chronicle its impressions of last month’s Myanmar gathering, this is worth your time.

In particular, I would like to draw attention to the emphasis on regulatory concerns voiced by some of the participants interviewed and encourage a lot of reading between the lines here. Maybe I’m reflecting my own bias, but the way I’m interpreting these answers is that nothing is happening overnight and that if your inclination is to ask a question like, “When will this begin to pay dividends?”, well…I think you may have taken a wrong turn somewhere.

Here’s the video:

The Ties That Bind Russia

2013.12.03.leninIn keeping with the just-released 2013 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, I’m always in the market for new ways to describe the obstacles one encounters when trying to get things done in developing countries.

Enter this very enlightening piece from Peter Pomerantsev in the London Review of Books. The premise is what Russians refer to as the “Sistema”:

There are any number of paths and initiations into sistema, the liquid mass of networks, corruptions and evasions – elusive yet instantly recognisable to members – which has ordered the politics and social psychology of Russian civilisation since tsarist times.

And here’s the super gut punch:

This is the genius of sistema: even if you manage to avoid the draft, you, your mother and your family have become part of the network of bribery, fear, simulation and dissimulation. You have learned to become an actor playing different roles in relation to the state, the great intruder you wish to avoid or outwit or simply buy off. You are already semi-legal, a transgressor, but that’s fine for sistema: as long as you only simulate, you will never do anything real, you will always look for compromise and you will feel just the right amount of discomfort. You are now part of the system. If a year in the army is the overt process that binds young Russians to the nation, a far more powerful induction comes with the rituals of avoiding military service.

Read the rest here.

And if you read carefully, you’ll see a discussion of rules and laws that harks back to the very first thing I wrote on this blog, here.

More evidence of a Bitcoin bubble

If this isn’t proof enough of a Bitcoin bubble, I don’t know what is:

2013 December Bitcoin

Actually you know what? I think there is better proof: THIS.

Ode to Janet Yellen: A Fed Prayer

Yellen PrayerSo Janet Yellen is officially the new Chairperson of the US Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Thanks to whatever anonymous reader just sent me this:

Dearly Beloved,

Let us pray.

Our Fed
Who art in Washington
Yellen be thy name
Thy printing come
Thy will be done by Ben as it is with Janet
And as it was before by Greenspan.
Give us this day our daily 3 billion
And increase us our debts
As we bail out our debtors
And lead us not into inflation
But deliver us from down markets
For thine is the printing, the bubble and the euphoria
Forever till taper
Amen

– Anonymous

Frontier Markets Opportunities and Risks, Bloomberg Edition

As part of last month’s Bloomberg Dealmakers Summit in London, the following roundtable took place, featuring Timur Issatayev of Verny Capital, Parag Saxena of New Silk Route LLC and Danladi Verheijen of Verod Capital Management. It’s 22 minutes and all worth it, but if you want the single most profound statement for my time, fast-forward to 15:10, when Parag Saxena has the following to say when asked about investment risks in South Asia:

“If you stay away from purely government-granted things you can probably do all right but sometimes that is where the opportunity is so it’s hard. To me the big surprise that I learned in India, having been in the investment business for 31 years and thinking that I have made already most of the mistakes that I was going to make in my investment life, the one that surprised me in India, and I know it’s true in Pakistan and Bangladesh too, is the lack of talent. So when I invest in the U.S., which I continue to do, I know that even for a pretty tough to fill job, in 120 days to 180 days I can fill almost any job. And so typically now at my age, I get resumes from my friends’ children. I used to get them from my friends at one point and now I get them from my friends’ children. And in the US I think it’s going to be hard to actually place them because there is so much talent available for a limited number of jobs. In India, I find myself grabbing every resume because I can hire baristas for somebody that wants a summer internship job, we have a restaurant company and cellular tower company and we need CEOs, so I can hire CEOs for those companies, and everything in between. So the biggest surprise to me, and the opportunity, is training for lower level jobs. And that’s a real unexpected risk, because time is the enemy of internal rate of return and if it’s going to take you more time to fill these slots and you can’t get stuff done, you have a real problem.”

Here’s the video in full:

The press as a lagging indicator, continued

Folha de Sao Paulo has made this easy for us. Here are a couple of Economist covers, four years apart:

2013.09.26 Brazil Economist cover

Honestly, when it’s not so tiresome, it’s actually amusing how blind people can be. I honestly have too many previous ramblings on this topic to list them all but if you’re interested, you can find them somewhere among these.

Also, there’s this:

Fed tapering, Emerging Markets, Banxico

Thanks to Brent Donnelly from Nomura for this chart showing USDMXN vs 10-year US Treasuries since “tapering” became a new market watchword:

2013.09.20.USDMXN 10 year UST

So what? Here’s so what: For anyone who ever thought Videgaray, Carstens or whoever else had any sway, when push comes to shove, dollar-peso moves almost in lockstep with Fed expectations. Put another way, whenever Bernanke & Co. decide easy money is over and raise interest rates, expect the peso to go back above 13.0+ and stay there (possibly even 14). And if Carstens or whoever replaces him is smart, they’ll keep their hands off. Draw your own conclusions about what that means for Mexican inflation, TIIE, etc.

Chart of the Day : Triple Threat for Emerging Markets

Apologies to everyone for the radio silence, but I’ve been occupied with an ongoing project in Peru the past few months. In the meantime, Morgan Stanley just published this chart via Barron’s:

2013.08.19.Emerging Markets Triple Threat

Chart of the Day: Remittances from the US to Mexico

From the International Money Transfer Conference, coming to Mexico shortly:

IMX13-infographic-en

Chart of the Day: The World as 100 People

From Jack Hagley:

World-as-100-People_3

 

Chart of the Day: China Mobile Users Surpass US

From Mary Meeker’s recent presentation on the state of the web (slide 67):

Chinese mobile users surpass Americans

Chart of the Day: World Population Growth vs History of Technology

This was just sent in from an unidentified reader. I do believe there is such a thing as being “too meta” but when shifts are so visibly pronounced, as they are here, it’s worth taking a moment to stop and think about.

Growth of World Pop v History of Tech

The First Rule Of Fighting Narcos: You Do Not Talk About Fighting Narcos

Regular readers know it isn’t very often that I re-publish in full something from elsewhere, but this is too important and I have no doubt that the majority of you are not in the habit of reading the Dallas Morning News with any regularity.

Alejandro Hope, who blogs here, tweets here, and works here, had the following op-ed in the Dallas Morning News at the end of last week which should not be missed and which would not be fair to simply excerpt here since every sentence matters. The long and short of it, which David Agren first touched on here, is built on the premise of not talking about drug war-related murders as part of a multi-prong public relations strategy.

If that sounds vaguely familiar, allow me to refresh your memory with this:

You think I’m joking? Read on:

Alejandro Hope: In Mexico, obfuscating crime numbers

Two months ago, a gunbattle erupted between rival drug gangs in Reynosa, Mexico, right across the border from McAllen. The shootout lasted several hours, killing as many as 40 people, according to a newspaper on the U.S. side of the border. Even in Mexico, scarred by seven years of relentless violence, this was big news.

But not big enough to make headlines in Mexican media. With some exceptions, coverage of the Reynosa firefight was scanty. Mostly, newspapers buried it in the police section, while TV and radio news shows virtually ignored it. Social networks were abuzz with information, but almost none was picked up by media outlets.
This was not an isolated shutdown. As a result of threats and violence from criminal gangs, many local news organizations in Mexico have long limited their reporting on the drug war. Now the practice has extended to the national media.

According to a recent report from the Observatory of Violence in the Media, an independent watchdog group, coverage of organized crime and violence in the Mexico City press took a dive during the first three months in office of President Enrique Peña Nieto: The use of the words homicide, narcotrafficking and cartel declined by half from the year before. Similar results were found for TV and radio.

The national media pullback is not the product of intimidation by criminal gangs; it is a response to government policy. Since Peña Nieto took office in December, his administration has made every effort to keep violence out of the limelight. This has not been a heavy-handed operation. Some journalists and outlets may have been pressured; most have not. Rather, the government has tried, successfully, to shroud the issue in silence and confusion.

Some of the administration’s new policies have been positive: For instance, alleged drug gang members are no longer paraded in front of the media, which had been an almost daily ritual while Felipe Calderón was president, one long condemned by human rights groups.

However, other practices are more questionable. According to official sources, 52 top or midlevel operatives of the various drug gangs have been arrested or taken down since December. No one outside government knows their names or any details about their so-called neutralization. All information flows are tightly controlled by a greatly empowered Interior Ministry. The fog of war has thickened.

Most troubling, there is a policy of deliberate obfuscation on crime data. A number of government agencies jointly produce a monthly report on the security situation. According to the latest release, homicides declined from December through April by 14 percent from the same period a year earlier, and by 18 percent compared with the final months of the previous government.

Those numbers are highly problematic. First, they do not refer to total homicides, but to so-called organized-crime-related homicides. The practice of singling out drug gang hits from run-of-the-mill murders — begun by, and later suspended for public consumption under, Calderón — is deeply flawed. Including or excluding an incident is an inferential process, not the result of sound police investigation. If a homicide meets a set of arbitrary criteria, it is counted as organized-crime-related, no further questions asked.

Nor do the data meet consistency standards. Total homicides, as reported by state law enforcement agencies, have declined at a much slower pace. If the government’s numbers are correct, then, by implication, other types of murder must be increasing. Has there been a rise in domestic violence or bar fights? Unlikely. A far better explanation is a change in the criteria for defining a homicide as organized-crime-related.

Second, homicides have indeed gone down from the 2011 peak. But the drop happened before Peña Nieto took office Dec. 1. After 18 months of decline, the curve flattened in late 2012. Last month, Mexico recorded an average of 50 homicides a day — the same number as in October and every month since, plus or minus 4 percent. The rapid decline reported by Mexican authorities is a statistical artifice.

Mexico still faces serious security challenges. The situation has improved somewhat since 2011, but the amount of violence remains staggering. With one-third the population of the U.S., Mexico has 50 percent more homicides. A meaningful reduction in crime will take many years and many reforms. But the task is made even more difficult when public debate and oversight are inhibited by the absence of reliable information.

The Peña Nieto administration wants, legitimately, to change the narrative about Mexico, both at home and abroad. But the best way to improve the country’s image is by changing its reality, not shutting down information flows, fudging numbers and pretending that violence can be willed out of existence.

Alejandro Hope is director of security policy at IMCO, a Mexico City-based think tank. His email address is alejandro.hope@imco.org.mx. Follow him on Twitter at @ahope71.