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Archive for October, 2009

Bank of Canada Still Mulling FX Intervention

Oct. 29th 2009

The Canadian Dollar fell from parity with the US Dollar in July 2008. For a minute, it looked as though it would return to that mark in October 2009. Alas, it was not to be, as the currency that had risen 20% since March wasn’t able to rise another 3% to close the elusive gap that would once again bring it face-to-face with the Greenback.

cad

The Loonie’s rise was not difficult to understand. Soaring commodity prices and the fact that the economic recession was milder in Canada than in other economies drove the perception that Canada was a good place to invest. Despite a surging budget deficit and weak domestic consumption, investors bought into this notion. The weak Dollar and rising risk aversion reinforced this perception, and as investors accepted that parity was inevitable, hot money poured in and the Loonie’s rise became self-fulfilling.

That was until Mark Carney, head of the Bank of Canada, used the strongest rhetoric to-date in discussing the possibility of intervention. For the first time in this cycle, the markets took the hint, and sent the Canadian Dollar down by the largest single-day margin in months. “Markets should take seriously our determination to set policy to achieve the inflation target. Markets sometimes lose their focus, we don’t lose our focus,” he said firmly, adding that forex intervention is “always an option.”

Intervention is supported both by economic data, and other Canadian institutions. According to one estimate, every 1 cent increase in the Loonie against the Greenback costs the county $2 Billion in export revenue and 25,000 jobs. The chief economist for CIBC, meanwhile, has warned that many companies are in the process of making long-term direct investment decisions, and could be discouraged from locating in Canada because of perceptions that its currency will remain strong for the immediate future: “If the loonie is overvalued for a few years, we may be sacrificing business plant and equipment on the altar of a strong currency.” He also compared the predicament facing the Bank of Canada to that facing the Royal Bank of Switzerland, which ultimately and successfully intervened on behalf of the Franc. Intervention on behalf of the Loonie, he argued, could be undertaken under the umbrella of fighting speculation and irrational movements in currency markets.

Prior to this outburst, investors had basically concluded that the BOC wasn’t prepared to put its money where its mouth was, so to speak. “The central bank’s shot across the bow has definitely subsided. There’s not much they can do,” summarized one analyst a few weeks ago. The term “jawboning” had become the preference of columnists and investors when discussing the resolve of the BOC. The belief was that the BOC had concluded that intervention was essentially a futile proposition (based on its failed efforts in the late 1990’s), and that it would instead resort to making idle threats.

In fact, it seems investors still are no convinced that the BOC (via Carney) means what it says. “Mark Carney has raised the prospect of intervening in currency markets, but seems reluctant to actually do so,” argued one analyst. “I don’t think they would really like to intervene at all, and they would prefer avoiding it. If they can intervene by jaw boning, they would much rather do that,” added another.

Why did the Loonie fall suddenly then, if the markets still aren’t concerned about intervention? The answer is that they have seen the concrete impact of the expensive Loonie on the Canadian economy. In the words of one analyst, it has moved from being a threat to a bona fide impediment. Especially given the stall in the commodity price rally, investors apparently are willing to acknowledge that they may have gotten ahead of themselves and that parity with the Dollar is not yet justified by fundamentals. Meanwhile, Canadian interest rates are at a comparable level with US rates, which means foreign investors can’t earn a yield spread from investing in Canada. This is likely to be the case for a while, as the valuable Loonie has kept inflation in check and given the BOC some flexibility in tightening its monetary policy.

Personally, I don’t think the BOC will ultimately intervene. Investors have shown that they aren’t afraid of the BOC, which would make any intervention both expensive and unfruitful. In addition, I think investors have accepted their own accesses, and will hesitate to push the Loonie much higher (or past parity, for that matter) until there is more evidence that such is justified. In the meantime, expect the Loonie to hover in the 90’s and perhaps even test parity, before smashing through when the time is right. And this, I do believe, is inevitable.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Canadian Dollar, Central Banks, News | 1 Comment »

Euro Optimism (And not just Dollar Pessimism)

Oct. 26th 2009

According to a recent Merril Lynch (Bank of America) survey, Europe has officially returned to favor among investors. “A net 30% of global portfolio managers see euro-zone equities as undervalued relative to other regions, the highest reading since April 2001. A net 11% are overweight Europe, the first overweight allocation in nearly two years, said Baker.”

The numbers, meanwhile, reflect this perception. Over the last month, investors have poured a net (inflows minus outflows) $2.1 Billion into EU capital markets, an impressive sum when you consider that the figures for Japan and the US were both negative. Meanwhile, stock markets in the region are up by 50%+ since bottoming last March. When you account for currency fluctuations (i.e. Euro appreciation), stock market comparisons between the US and EU start to look pretty lopsided.

According to a WSJ report, there’s no mystery behind the European stock market rally: “Even though prices have risen sharply since March, valuations aren’t stretched. Average price-to-earnings ratios in Europe, on a trailing 12-month basis, are about 16, up from seven back in March, according to Citigroup…On a price-to-book ratio, stocks are trading about 15% below their long-term average, and dividend yields compared to government bond yields are historically still very attractive.”

EU stocks

At this point, you’re probably wondering, “Why the long preamble on European stocks?” Because, it’s easy to forget that there are inherently two sides to every currency pair. In the case of the USD/EUR (the most frequently traded pair in the world), most of the recent commentary has focused exclusively on Dollar-negatives, portraying the dynamic as a depreciation in the Dollar. In this context, it’s easy to forget that the Dollar’s depreciation implies an appreciation in the Euro. Duh?! But seriously, for every Dollar bear, it seems there is at least one Euro bull.

To be fair, those who don’t see much to be excited about in the Euro can be forgiven. After all, the European economy is technically still mired in recession, and isn’t projected to return to growth until 2011. While some of the intangible indicators are improving, others continue to stagnate. “Industrial output in the euro zone is 20% lower than its February 2008 peak, despite some recent improvements.” In addition, the appreciation in the Euro threatens to choke off exports and stifle the recovery before it has a chance to get off the ground.

Speaking of which, the European Central Bank (ECB) will probably hold of on raising rates because of the strong currency. A more valuable Euro keeps inflation in check (via cheap imports). Besides, higher interest rates would attract carry traders hungry for yield, and would make it even more difficult to keep the Euro in check. Many EU monetary officials (including ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet) have already made their concerns about the Euro’s appreciation clear. If they are able to succed in halting its rise, that could make investing in Europe a lot less exciting…

euro

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Euro, News | 5 Comments »

Prospects for Chinese Yuan Revaluation Improve

Oct. 22nd 2009

In its semi-annual report to Congress, the Treasury Department once again failed to officially label China (or any country for that matter) a currency manipulator. No surprise there. While it’s self-evident that China manipulates the RMB (via the peg with the US Dollar), the political implications of such a label prevent it from being used except in the most extreme cases. Nonetheless, there is mounting pressure on China, both domestic and international, to “adjust” the peg and allow the Yuan to move closer to its fundamental value.

Most of the international pressure has been soft, coming in the form of roundabout pleas for China to allow the Yuan to float “for the sake of global stability.” Said one US Senator weakly, “I hope that with strong leadership from the United States, the G-20 nations and our international institutions will undertake what has been missing — a focused, sustained and meaningful multilateral engagement to address currency manipulation and current imbalances.” At the same time, some of this rhetoric has recently been translated into action. Last month, the Obama Administration enacted a 35% tariff on Chinese tire products. Other countries have also begun to raise concerns about Chinese dumping, and bringing their cases to the WTO for good measure.

Many of these countries are in fact suffering more than the US. Since the Yuan is effectively pegged to the Dollar, the decline of the latter has been mirrored by the former. Since many other currencies of developing countries are also fixed, this leaves only a handful to absorb the shock. For example, the Euro and Yen have both risen about 15% against the RMB over the last year, in line with their appreciation against the Dollar. The handful of floating currencies in the region, such as the Korean Won, Indian Rupee, Malaysian Ringhit, etc. have also faced strong upward pressure. For them, it is not so much the weak Dollar that they fear so much as the weak RMB, since China is a direct competitor to all of them.

Chinese Yuan Agaianst Euro, Yen, Dollar
More importantly, there are now voices within China’s ruling Communist party that have also begun to press for a stronger Yuan. The Nationalist camp, for example, is pressing for China to make the Yuan a more prominent currency on the international trade scene. While such doesn’t inherently require a floating currency (in fact, all of the trade/swap agreements involving Yuan are based on fixed exchange rates), a loosening of capital controls and liberalizing of financial markets would probably bring about a stronger Yuan.

The other group pushing for a stronger Yuan is doing so on more fundamental, economic grounds. Just-released 2009 Q2 GDP data showed prelimenary growth estimates of a whopping 8.9%! Not bad, especially when you consider that the rest of the world remains mired in recession. Chinese economists largely ignore the political implications of the notion that this growth probably came at the expense of the rest of the world, and focus instead on the economc implications.

First is that the economy remains hopeless dependent on exports to drive growth, which can only be remedid through a stronger Yuan. Second, it heralds the coming of inflation. Many foreigners continue to pour “hot money” into Chinese asset markets hoping to reap the upside from both asset and currency appreciation. In response, “Analysts say China could let the yuan appreciate to help restrain inflation, since a stronger yuan would reduce the cost of imports. But some caution that Beijing tried a similar strategy in early 2008, but didn’t achieve great success in containing inflation or stemming the inflows.”

While analysts don’t expect the Bank of China to allow the RMB to rise until after the Chinese New Year in January, investors are pricing in incremental appreciation every month beginning with the next. In fact, futures prices already reflect the expectation that the RMB will rise 3% over the next twelve-months. My bet is that this will be kicked off by another one-off appreciation, in the same vein as July 2005. Now as was the case then, China needs to make up for lost time.

RMB - USD

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, Chinese Yuan (RMB), News | No Comments »

Dollar at a (Technical) Crossroads

Oct. 20th 2009

I deliberately concluded my last post (US Dollar: Same Old Story) on a somewhat ambiguous note; even though though the deck is stacked against the Dollar, its 14% decline in 2009 has left it perilously close to record lows, and traders are nervous about pushing the limits further.

Euro

On the one hand, everyone believes that the Dollar is fundamentally still in a weak position. The US balance of trade remains deep in deficit. Government spending has exploded, with record-setting deficits and an expansion in the national debt. Interest rates are at rock bottom, and are by some measures, the lowest in the world. Despite signs of life, the economy remains mired in recession. The money supply has also expanding, to the extent that some long-term investors are wondering out loud about the possibility of future inflation.

As a result, the decline in the Dollar since last spring has suffered very few blips, with volatility declining at the same pace as the currency, itself. “There seems to be a paradigm shift underway where more and more foreign investors are becoming concerned that the long-term path of the dollar is downward,” summarized one analyst. The consensus among investors is almost eerie. “Speculators betting that the dollar index will fall outnumber those betting that it will rise by nearly 2 to 1, according to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.”

Some (mainstream) analysts have even begun to open consider the possibility of a crash in the Dollar, a view that had previously been relegated to conspiracy theorists and doomsday scenarists. “In a run on the dollar, that thinking would create a cascade — fearful global investors would shy away from dollars, expecting further steep declines, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy.” Adds a former Chief Economist of the IMF, “Every time the dollar starts depreciating there is angst and everybody starts raising the question what happens if there is a collapse.” While the majority of Dollar-watchers still believe that a Dollar crash is unlikely, the point is that they are now discussing it actively.

Despite the fact that all of these factors are already in place, the Dollar remains relatively buoyant. Personally, I think this is because investors don’t really want to acknowledge that this is a real possibility. For one thing, the alternatives aren’t any better. While forex investors in recent years have enjoyed ganging up on the Dollar, the fact remains the fundamentals for the other major currencies remain just as weak. For example, a model of purchasing power parity developed by “the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development finds the dollar is worth roughly 0.85 euro, compared with its market valuation of 0.67 euro, suggesting that the euro is 21% overvalued.” Likewise, the Yen is held to be 22% undervalued.

Dollar Valuation 2009

As a result, the market as a whole is having trouble pushing the boundaries. The Dollar has approached the psychologically important level of $1.50/Euro on several occasions, but has retreated each time. “People are wondering whether we’re going back to $1.46 in euro/dollar or heading toward $1.54. But one thing is for sure, as we head toward $1.50, we’re going to experience a lot of volatility,” summarized one analyst.

“Risk reversals, a measure of currency sentiment in the options market derived by looking at the difference in implied volatility between out of the money calls and out of the money puts, show a bias for euro puts, trading at a mid-market level of 0.2. That means investors are hedging their short dollar positions with bets for a euro downside even though no one expects the euro to fall.” Meanwhile, volatility has edged up slightly, reflecting an increased level of uncertainty surround the near-term direction of the Dollar. It could be the case that if the Euro breaks through $1.50, heartened investors will send the currency up even higher, while a failure to break through means investors just aren’t read to commit. A classic technical crossroads!

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Investing & Trading, News, US Dollar | 3 Comments »

US Dollar: Same Old Story

Oct. 18th 2009

These days, it’s hard to offer a fresh perspective on the Dollar. The factors driving its short-term momentum – namely low interest rates and its perception as a financial safe haven – have been in place for nearly a year. It’s long-term prognosis, meanwhile, also hasn’t changed much. Since the beginning of the decade, the Greenback has been in a state of perennial decline as a result of its twin deficits and the related notion that it will be soon be replaced as the world’s pre-eminent currency.

The Falling Greenback

Since the last time I posted about the Dollar (October 6: Dollar’s Role as Reserve Currency in Jeopardy), then, there haven’t been many developments. Fears that oil will one day be priced and settled in an alternative currency – such as the Euro – continue to reverberate through the markets. Several ministers from OPEC countries have already officially dismissed such claims as baseless. A parallel debate is now taking place on the sidelines as to whether or not such a shift even matters.

Dean Baker argued in a recent article for Foreign Policy magazine, that pricing oil in Dollars represents a mere “accounting convention,” adopted by most simply by default, since the US is the cornerstone of the world economy. Argues Baker, “World oil production is a bit under 90 million barrels a day. If two-thirds of this oil is sold across national borders, then it implies a daily oil trade of 60 million barrels. If all of this oil is sold in dollars, then it means that oil consumers would have to collectively hold $4.2 billion to cover their daily oil tab.”

Unfortunately, Baker’s “simple arithmetic” is both erroneous and slightly irrelevant. Assuming a price of only $100 per barrel (pretty conservative if you believe the notion of peak oil), current consumption of 85 million barrels per day implies a daily turnover of $8.5 Billion per day, or $3+ Trillion per year. If the price doubles to $200 per barrel….well, you get the point.

Taking this line of reasoning further becomes somewhat problematic, however. First of all, while OPEC members currently hold the majority (70%+) of there reserves in Dollar-denominated assets, it’s unclear how this would change in the event that oil was no longer priced in Dollars. It’s conceivable that just as many of these Central Banks currently diversify their Dollar-denominated proceeds into other currencies, that they would “diversify” Euro-denominated proceeds back into the Dollar. Of course, it’s also conceivable that a combination of inertia and investment strategy would cause them to hold a larger portion of there reserves in Euros.

If OPEC Central banks continue to prefer Dollars, than Baker is right in arguing that the currency in which oil is priced has no implications outside of accounting. If, on the other hand, he is wrong, and a change in pricing causes/coincides with changing preferences, then the implications for the Dollar would be disastrous. [Consider that $3 Trillion/per year which is at stake currently represents more than 15% of total foreign ownership of US assets.] The problem is that we just don’t know.

Foreign-owned assets in the US

Regardless, the status quo favors the Dollar, since creating a new reserve currency would take at least a decade, if not more. For that reason, the World’s Central Banks (we’re not just talking about OPEC anymore) continue to prefer Dollars. “In the five weeks through Oct. 7, foreign central banks bought more than $48.55 billion in Treasury securities, an average of $9.71 billion per week, according to the latest data from the Federal Reserve.” In addition, “Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii said he expects the dollar will remain the key reserve currency for some time to come.” Private foreign investors, meanwhile, are dragging their heals a bit, perhaps waiting for the Dollar to fall further before jumping in. Asks one columnist rhetorically, “Why buy now if the dollar might be even weaker in six months’ time?”

What else is new? The US budget deficit came in at $1.4 Trillion for the fiscal year, the highest level since World War II. On the bright side, the deficit was $200-400 Billion less than earlier estimates. Meanwhile, members of the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors restated the unlikelihood of higher rates in the immediate future. “Richard Fisher, president of the Dallas Fed and thought to be a rare hawk on the Fed’s Open Market Committee, chimed in that no one at the Fed thinks this is the time to raise interest rates.” Finally, the US trade deficit is once again narrowing, due in no small part to the declining Dollar.

At this point, it seems reasonable to assume that much of the bad news has already been priced into the Dollar. Sure, the Australian rate hikes came as a surprise and forced many to rethink their calculations. Investors have already begun to separate the healthy currencies from the sick (to borrow an analogy from a previous post), but that the Dollar would be grouped with the “sick” currencies has long been anticipated. Given that the currency has already fallen by double digits in 2009 and is nearing the record lows of 2008, some are wondering how long it can continue.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, News, US Dollar | 3 Comments »

Japan Flip-Flops on Forex Intervention

Oct. 16th 2009

In my report on last month’s Japanese election, I noted that the newly-appointed Japanese finance minister, Hirohisa Fujii, had spoken out against forex intervention. With that, it seemed the matter was closed.

But not so fast! Over the following few weeks, Fujii (as well other members of the new administration) moved to clarify his position, backtracking, sidestepping, contradicting, but never going forward. The following is a summary of selected remarks, beginning with the original statement against intervention and ending in what seems like a promise to intervene:

September 15: “I basically believe that, in principle, it’s not right for the government to intervene in the free-market economy using its money, either in stock or foreign-exchange markets.”
September 27: [The Yen’s rise is] “not abnormal…in terms of trends.”
September 28: “That’s not to say I approve of the yen’s rise.”
September 28: “I don’t think it is proper for the government to intervene in the markets arbitrarily.”
September 29: “If the currency market moves abnormally, we may take necessary steps in the national interest.”
October 3: “As I have said in Tokyo, we will take appropriate steps if one-sided movements become excessive.”
October 5
: “If currencies show some excessive moves in a biased direction, we will take action.”

Confused? I know I am. Is it possible to glean any semblance of meaning from these remarks? Summarized one columnist, “Hirohisa Fujii has gone through several cycles of remarks that first appeared to favor a strong yen and then seemed to backpedal after markets took him at his word and sent the Japanese currency soaring.”

I think this encapsulates the regret that Minister Fujii must have felt, after his original comments were taken a little too seriously. In hindsight, it appears that Fujii attempted to convey the new administration’s stance on forex, in a nutshell, and certainly didn’t expect that investors would run wild and send the Yen up another 4%, bringing the year-to-date appreciation against the Dollar to 15%. In the words of the same columnist cited above, “Japan’s finance minister has been rudely reminded of the cardinal rule when speaking to markets — less is more.”

So where does Fujii actually stand? I would personally hazard to guess that his original explication is still the most accurate portrayal of how he will tend to the Yen while in office. The former Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) administration intervened several times while in office (once under the direction of Fujii himself!) and most recently in 1994. Despite spending trillions of Yen, the campaign only marginally stemmed the rise of the Yen.
bank-of-japan-forex-intervention
Meanwhile, the Japanese economy has been mired in what could be termed the “world’s longest recession, dating back to the 1980’s. It’s clear that the cheap-Yen policy, designed to promote exports, hasn’t benefited the Japanese economy. The new administration, hence, has indicated a shift in strategy, away from export dependence and towards domestic consumption.

Ironically, the nascent Japanese economic turnaround is once again being driven by exports. Fujii is no doubt cognizant of this, and doesn’t want to jeopardize the recovery for the sake of ideology. For example, Toyota Corporation has indicated that a 1% appreciation in the Yen against the Dollar costs the company $400 million in operating income. In addition, while a strong Yen increases the purchasing power of Japanese consumers, an overly strong Yen can lead to deflation, as consumers forestall spending in anticipation of lower prices down the road.

In other words, Fujii is certainly not a proponent of Japan’s recent runup, but his stance is more nuanced than initially understood. “Fujii is basically saying currencies should reflect economic fundamentals and that it is wrong to manipulate their moves to lower the yen for the sake of exporters,” offered one strategist. This, the markets finally seem to understand, and the Yen has actually reversed course over the last week. After all, “A yen in the 80s is excessive,” given the context of record low interest rates and a economy that is still contracting.

In the near-term, then, it doesn’t even make sense to talk about intervention. It seems the markets were getting ahead of themselves in this regard. It doesn’t make sense to price out the possibility of intervention when interevention shouldn’t be a factor in the first place. If on the other hand, the Yen continues to appreciate, then Fujii may have consider how fixed his principles really are.

3m

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Brazilian Real Nears Record High Against Dollar

Oct. 12th 2009

The Brazilian Real has been the world’s best-performing currency against the Dollar in the year-to-date, having risen 32% through the beginning of October. At this point, a mere 8% rise would send it crashing through the high that it touched last summer, prior to the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

5y
The currency has now firmly returned to pre-credit crisis levels, suggesting that investors have once again become complacent and/or they believe the worst of the recession is over. For now at least, the data appears to support that notion. After contracting for two consecutive quarters, Brazil’s economy grew at a healthy clip of 1.9% in the second quarter, compared to the previous quarter. “Brazil is the first Latin American country to emerge from recession—and one of the earliest among the G-20 countries to have done so—following a 1.9% quarter-on-quarter expansion in economic activity in the April-to-June period,” summarized The Economist. To put things in perspective, the economy still contracted on an annualized basis, but such is to be expected considering the depth of the recession. Accordingly, the economy is projected to remain flat for the year in 2009 before returning to consistent growth in 2010.

Brazil GDP Growth (Quarter-previous quarter)
Some commentators have explained this in terms of “decoupling,” the pre-crisis theory that held the global economy (and certain emerging markets) were no longer dependent on the US to drive growth. While the simultaneous recessions in virtually every economy initially seemed to disprove that theory, the fact that some (Brazil, China, etc.) are recovering faster than others is causing analysts to once again asset its merit. However, a Google News search of “Brazilian Real” displays a preponderance of stories that connect the Real with the Dollar, so it seems the decoupling is still partial at best.

The fact that Brazil’s economy entered the recession late and emerged early can be attributed to an exceptionally well-balanced economy.  Exports account for only 13% of Brazilian economic output. In addition, commodities comprise the majority of exports, for which demand remains relatively strong. Compare this to China, which derives 40% of its GDP from exports of namely consumer and industrial goods. Domestic consumption has also remained strong, such that Brazil hasn’t had to promote fixed investment and subsidize growth with government spending.

As a result, the government’s fiscal position remains extremely strong. Its bonds remain investment-grade, which is a unique accomplishment in a region known for defaults, especially during recession. Despite the comparative lack of risk, Brazilian interest rates remain extremely high, even when adjusted for inflation. The benchmark Selic rate currently stands at 8.75%, and there is speculation that the Central Bank will follow the lead of Australia, another commodity rich country, and tighten soon. Interest rate futures currently reflect a 1.75% rise in rates by January 2011.

Investors have taken the hint and poured funds into Brazilian capital markets. Equities are surging, thanks to demand for shares in Santander, a recent IPO and one of the largest in Brazilian history. Brazilian bonds are also selling well and are often oversubscribed (when demand exceeds supply) by investors. Due to such strong fundamentals, meanwhile, the word “bubble” hasn’t featured too prominently in investor circles…yet. At the same time, currency futures are pricing in a gradual decline in the Real over the next year, implying that its run could soon come to an end.

Brazilian Real Forex Currency Futures

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Emerging Currencies, News | 1 Comment »

Pound, Dollar are ‘Sick’ Currencies

Oct. 11th 2009

A theme in forex markets (as well as on the Forex Blog) is that as the Dollar has declined, virtually every other asset/currency has risen. The rationale for this phenomenon is that the global economic recovery is boosting risk appetite, such that investors are now comfortable looking outside the US for yield. However, this market snapshot may have to be tweaked slightly, in accordance with a recent WSJ article (Sterling Looks Ready to Join the Sick List).

According to the report, “Similar to how investors sorted good banks from bad banks earlier this year, foreign-exchange buyers are starting to sort strong currencies from weaker currencies. The pound appears to be joining the dollar in the weak camp. Both countries have near-zero interest-rate targets, an aggressive policy aimed at boosting the economy, and yawning deficits.” In contrast, the article continues, the Yen and the Euro have risen, as have so-called commodity currencies.

Euros

While there’s no question that British economic and forex fundamentals are abysmal, it’s a bit hard to understand why the markets are picking on the Pound now. After all, the Euro, Swiss Franc, and Yen, for example, are plagued by some of the same fundamental problems: growing national debt, sluggish growth, low interest rates, etc. Investors can borrow in Yen nearly as cheaply as they can borrow in Dollars or Pounds, and the Bank of Japan is likely to keep rates low at least as long as the Bank of England (BOE), if not longer. Meanwhile, price inflation remains practically non-existent, which means that any capital that investors stash in the UK should be safe.

Perhaps, then, investors are zeroing in on the BOE’s Quantitative Easing program, which is the point of greatest overlap with the US Dollar. Relative to GDP, both currencies’ Central Banks have spent by far the most of any industrialized countries, in pumping newly printed money into credit markets. The BOE, in particular, is actually thinking about expanding its program. At a recent meeting, Mervyn King, Chairman of the Bank, led the opposition in voting for a 15% expansion, but was voted down by a majority of the bank’s other members. “The ‘next decision point‘ will be the Nov. 5 meeting,” said a former Deputy Governor of the Bank, at which point “Bank of England policy makers will consider expanding their bond purchase plan….on concern the economy’s recovery may be a ‘false dawn.’ ”

BOE Quantitative Easing (QE) Timeline Chart

The government meanwhile has demonstrated a certain ambivalence when it comes to the program. The head of the UK Debt Management Office indirectly encouraged the BOE to continues its purchases of bonds, for fear that stopping doing so could cause yields to skyrocket and make it difficult for the government to fund its activities. “A rapid sell-off could create a downward spiral of gilt prices which would make life harder for both it and the DMO.” On the other hand, one of the leaders of Britain’s conservative party – which is projected to take office after next year’s elections – has criticized the program on the grounds that it will lead to inflation.

From the BOE’s standpoint, it’s a no-win situation. Continue the policy, and you risk inflation and further invoking the ire of politicians. Wind it down, and you could tip the economy back into recession. For better or worse, it seems the BOE will err on the side of the former: “If we stopped supporting the economy now it would crash. Every country in the world and just about every informed commentator is saying the same thing. The job is not finished.” Given that inflation is projected to hover around 0% for the next two years, the BOE still has some breathing room.

As for the charge that the surfeit of cash flowing into markets is weakening the Pound, ‘So be it,’ seems to be the attitude of Mervn King who suggested that, “The weaker pound was ‘helpful’ to efforts to rebalance the British economy toward exports.” While he backtracked afterward, it still stands that the BOE hasn’t made any efforts to stem the decline of the Pound, and is at best indifferent towards it.

Regardless of where the BOE stands, the Pound is not being helped by the weak financial and housing sectors, which during the bubble years, comprised the biggest contribution to UK growth. Exports are weak, and domestic manufacturing activity has yet to stabilize. As a result, “The British economy will contract 4.4 percent this year before expanding 0.9 percent in 2010, the International Monetary Fund predicts.”

Objectively speaking, then, it makes sense to call the Pound sick. Still, many other currencies are just as sick. I guess the perennial lesson is that in forex, everything is relative.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in British Pound, Central Banks, News | 5 Comments »

Interview with Howard Lindzon: “I am Optimistic About Forex”

Oct. 9th 2009

Today we bring you an interview with hedge fund manager Howard Lindzon, author of The WallSTRiP Edge and co-founder/CEO of StockTwits. Below, Howard discusses his interest in currency trading, as well as his general approach to investing.

Forex Blog: As a forex blogger, I am eager to hear how and why you developed a sudden interest in forex.

It is not a sudden interest in forex.  For years, I had money with trend following managers and slowly saw the way people traded currencies.  My new fascination comes from all the people on stocktwits talking currencies at odd hours 🙂

Forex Blog: Does your primary interest lie in currencies, themselves, or rather in the people that trade them? In other words, is it your intention to invest directly in currencies or instead to identify companies that successfully market services to currency traders? Perhaps a combination of both?

I own the Canadian Dollar right now and also gold so my fascination is in the way different things move different markets.  Currencies move from macro policies and they seem to trend better.  For me, It’s now a combination of both.  I am learning to get a feel for currencies as I hear individuals on stocktwits actually talk about them.

Forex Blog: While it’s true that forex remains off the radar screen of many retail investors, I must point out that it’s already by the far the largest market in the world, with an estimated $4 Trillion in daily turnover. In spite of this, it seems you’re still quite optimistic about its prospects for growth?

I am optimistic because of many trends.  The online brokers are way behind and must catch up.  The forex brokers are way behind and see the retail consumer as a growth market and there seems to be chaos so it should be interesting which new winners emerge.

The world has indeed flattened and shrunk and currencies should be a more exciting topic as governments collide more often.

Forex Blog: Are there specific currencies that you are interested in, and/or that you believe are currently undervalued?

It is really exciting to watch the action in the dollar.  I try to see the big picture.  We are printing money and our policies are not changing.  it seems the us government wants a cheaper dollar which would be fine, but they are also manufacturing it, so I don;t think it will work out well for it.  I just don’t have a timeframe.

Forex Blog: As some of your readers pointed out, the forex market is currently saturated with fraud. New regulation is expected to clamp down on unethical business practices, but could also lower the appeal of forex by cutting leverage from 200:1 to levels associated with trading stocks retail. How will changes in regulation factor into your investment approach?

The regulation on our little community comes from the community itself.  If I am learning, I think I can get others excited about learning…if not to trade, than to see how the currencies and government policies affect stock prices and other markets.  I try not to worry about regulation…my size also keeps me out of the stress of it as I am too small.

Forex Blog: Shifting gears a bit, why did you decide to found/back StockTwits, a self-described “community-powered idea and information service for investments?”

I founded stocktwits to help me better track my ideas from a trusted source of friends.  It’s about getting the info i want, when I want it, on any device, from the group I want it from.  All that has happened is that thousands of others want info the same way. With the new filters and discovery features of twitter and now stocktwits, the speed to knowledge is faster than ever and its fun.

Forex Blog: How would summarize the growing appeal of StockTwits to its users? In other words, how does StockTwits (intend to) distinguish itself from the hundreds of other popular forums and message boards dedicated to the art of investing?

Community is the real differentiator.  Every community is different.  Ours just has some pretty cool features in it and i love the context our ticker has and the breadth of knowledge.  I also believe in the ‘farm system’ of distributed talent and having an expert pop up out of nowhere and get rushed to the top.  It’s like…oh my god…we need a doctor…BOOM, thousands of people are asking around for a doctor and then you get one right away.  It’s social leverage at work.

Forex Blog: If StockTwits expanded to the point where user comments/activity influenced asset prices (as happens occasionally with RagingBull and Jim Cramer’s Mad Money), would you view this is as a positive or negative development?

If we move markets, that’s good;  it’s an evolution.  I doubt we will and if we do, I am hopeful it is for the right reasons and we will do everything within our power to nudge the community in the win/win, do the right thing way.  We are going to be wrong all the time too so moving the market is not something people should be worried about.

Forex Blog: Finally, what advice to you have for investors that want to beat the market (any market, really) during the credit crisis?

I have never routinely beat the market.  I invest heavily and with a long term time frame when I feel I have an edge.  I want to beat the market not daily, weekly or yearly, but over decades.  You need to pick the asset classes that jibe with your passion, thinking, energy, risk levels, liquidity needs and then passionately chase the returns.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Interviews, News | 1 Comment »

Dollar’s Role as Reserve Currency in Jeopardy

Oct. 6th 2009

I concluded my last post by promising to discuss the implications of a change in the status quo, regarding the Dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency. As it turns out, the last few days have witnessed a few developments on this front.

Global Forex Reserves 1999-2009

First of all, the G7 concluded its latest round of talks. Despite previous indications to the contrary, the organization continued its practice of releasing a communique. in which it noted that global economic balances persist and that policymakers should work together to mitigate them. While seemingly benign and desirable, the proposition couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Dollar.

The only reason why the Dollar hasn’t collapsed completely is because economies largely continue to recycle their surplus wealth and trade surpluses back into Dollar-denominated assets. One columnist connects the dots with regard to the forex implications: “Less Chinese intervention to prevent yuan strength would mean China, slowly over time, would build up fewer dollar reserves.” In other words, economies no longer concerned with pegging their currencies would have very little reason to build up large pools of reserves.

In fact, China is fully on board with this notion. Following the G7 talks, Chinese officials announced that it would support a stronger Yuan as soon as the global economic crisis resolved itself. By its own reckoning, this would facilitate a shift in its economy, from one dependent on exports for growth to one focused around domestic consumption. Still, obstacles remain, and “It is far from clear how China can engineer a shift up for the yuan against the dollar, which analysts note would almost certainly translate into a gain against other currencies as well.”

Speaking of China, it is also among the most vocal of nations laboring for alternatives to the Dollar. Towards this end, it has reportedly formed a secret coalition with the other BRIC countries (Brazil, India, and Russia), as well as Japan. The goal is to end the pricing of oil in Dollars by 2018. That the group has given itself nine years to complete this task speaks to its extraordinary ambition.

The implications for the Dollar cannot be understated. A handful of oil-producing nations in the Middle East hold a combined $2.1 Trillion in Dollars, which are solely a product of selling oil in exchange for Dollars. Already, the government of Iran has mandated that in the future, all of its reserves be held in non-Dollar-denominated assets. Thus far, no other countries have followed suit. China is aware that pushing for further developments could roil the US, which would be unlikely to sit on the sidelines and watch its currency be summarily jettisoned. “Sun Bigan, China’s former special envoy to the Middle East, has warned there is a risk of deepening divisions between China and the US over influence and oil in the Middle East.”

Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, doesn’t harbor any illusions, and announced during a recent speech that the a decline in the role of the Dollar is inevitable. “He said the United States ‘would be mistaken to take for granted the dollar’s place as the world’s predominant currency. Looking forward there will increasingly be other options to the dollar,’ ” such as the Chinese Yuan and the Euro.

Zoellick’s warnings were prescient, when you consider that the IMF just announced that the share of Dollars in global foreign exchange reserves declined significantly in the most recent quarter, perhaps to its lowest share since the Euro was introduced in 1999. [The latter, however, has yet to be confirmed].  “The dollar’s share in global reserves declined to 62.8% from 65.0%…The euro’s share increased to 27.5% from 25.9%.”

Global allocation of Forex Reserves 1999-2009
JP Morgan’s research team has discovered a similar trend- that accumulation of US assets accounts for only half of the global increase in global forex reserves. “Quantifying this trend is always imprecise. But the circumstantial evidence — official buying of U.S. assets runs at only half of the pace of global reserve accumulation — suggests that diversification has accelerated since June.”

So, there you have it. The Dollar’s demise (to borrow a characterization by one of the columnists featured in this post) is no longer theoretical. It may have already begun…

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, Chinese Yuan (RMB), News, US Dollar | 1 Comment »

G7 Ditches Currency Communique

Oct. 3rd 2009

The semiannual meetings of the “G” countries – whether the G7, G8, G20, etc. – are always closely monitored by currency analysts. Especially close attention is paid to the official communique, which often includes an assessment of current exchange rates.

The communique is rarely so straightforward as to indicate if, when, and where the Gs will intervene. Nonetheless, it is often full of intimations, and analysts often spend days parsing its rhetoric for clues. During this period, it’s not uncommon for the forex markets to witness increased volatility, as investors try to come to consensus about what to expect in the months following the meeting. This is because unlike Central Banks, which often face difficulties in unilaterally trying to influence their currencies, the G7 is usually able to achieve its desired goal: “A study last year by ECB economist Marcel Fratzcher found the G7 was successful in moving within a year currencies on 80 per cent of the 29 occasions it tried to do so since 1975.”

However, the current meeting, which is being held in Instanbul, Turkey,may break from this tradition. It’s not clear exactly what motivated the (potential) decision not to release a communique, which has been an important policy tool for the last three decades. Perhaps, policymakers have realized that their are other, better forums to discuss currency issues, namely the G20, which met last week in Pittsburgh, USA.

The timing of the decision is somewhat odd, given that exchange rate and other economic imbalances are proliferating. In fact, in press conferences held before and after the official G7 meetings, policymakers and Central Bankers have been forthcoming about such imbalances. Jim Flaherty, Finance Minister of Canada, sounded off on the RMB, which has stalled in its appreciation for over a year: “They (China) have a position that they are relaxing their currency, relaxing the restrictions on their currency gradually over time,” he said. Meanwhile, ECB Governor Jean-Claude Trichet voiced concerns about the Dollar, which has slide 15% against the Euro so far this year.

Ironically given the G7’s refusal to act, there is actually a strong conensus that the Dollar’s slide is generally bad for the global economy, especially in the context of the nascent recovery. A cheaper Dollar not only affects the export competitiveness of countries in Asia, but is also partially responsible for surging commodity prices. There is also a general belief that volatile (perhaps unstable is a better word) exchange rates are not conducive to economic and financial stability.

At this point, it doesn’t seem likely that either the G7 or the G20 will take the extreme step of intervening on behalf of the Dollar, which remains well below the record lows of 2008. If the Buck continues to slide, however, especially to the point where its role as global reserve currency is in jeopardy…well…that is a different story, and fodder for next year’s meetings, which will be held in Canada. Then again, it may be taken up by the G4, a still-hypothetical group which would consist of the US, China, Japan, and a representative from the EU. It is alos the intended subject of my next post…stay tuned!

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Dollar Carry Trade in “Eight Inning”

Oct. 1st 2009

The performance of virtually every currency against the Dollar (with the lone, major exception being the British Pound) in the last quarter has been downright impressive. Put another way, the performance of the Dollar has been downright pathetic.

MI-AY841A_AOT_NS_20090920183639
The Dollar’s under-performance is no mystery. While some critics have pointed to long-term weaknesses such as the trade and budget deficits, most of the current impetus continues to come from low US interest rates. As I have reported recently, US short-term rates (based on the 3-month LIBOR rate for Dollars) is already the lowest in the world, and is still moving lower.

As a result, investors have been able to comfortably borrow in Dollars, and invest the proceeds in (comparatively) risky assets, predominantly outside the US. “Low rates have weighed on the dollar as equities have rallied over the summer, leading risk-based traders to buy the higher-yielding euro and commodity-based currencies, such as the Australian dollar, over the safe-haven greenback,” summarized the WSJ.

For most of the last 20 years, such a carry trade strategy would have been most profitable if funded using Yen or Swiss Francs. Since the stock market rally in May, however, buying a basket of emerging market currencies using the Dollar as a funding currency would yield the highest returns, as much as 10% higher than if the same trade had been funded using Yen. Moreover, the Sharpe-ration for such a trade (which seeks to measure the invariability of returns) is the highest when shorting the Dollar, implying that not only is this strategy lucrative, but also comparatively stable.

For a few reasons, however, analysts are beginning to wonder whether the Dollar carry trade has (temporarily) run its course. Technical indicators, for example, suggest that the Dollar may have appreciated too far, too fast. “The U.S. currency rose…after the 14-day relative strength index on the euro- dollar exchange rate climbed yesterday to 74, the highest level since March. A reading of 70 may indicate a rally is approaching an extreme and a reversal is imminent.” Stochastic indicators yield similar interpretations. “Traders have placed an unusually high volume of bearish bets against the U.S. dollar in recent weeks and may want to lock in profits by reversing those trades.” Besides, anecdotal evidence implies that anti-Dollar sentiment may be reaching irrational levels, as every other investors now seems to be betting against the Dollar.

From a rates perspective, the Dollar carry trade may soon become less viable. The markets (as reflected in futures prices) largely expect the Fed to be the first major Central Bank to hike rates, perhaps as soon as 2010 Q2. The ECB, by comparison, is not expected to hike until at least two quarters later, while the Bank of Japan is nowhere even near close to tightening monetary policy. The Fed is also beginning to contemplate possible exit strategies for its quantitative easing programs, which suggests that it is becoming concerned about inflation. One analyst connects this to a decline in the carry trade: “There might be a little bit of nervousness going into the FOMC if they start signaling any potential unwind of quantitative easing. There is a bit of risk over the next couple of days of the dollar starting to recover a little bit of ground.”

Finally, there are concerns that another crisis could trigger a pickup in risk aversion, in which case investors would likely return to the Dollar en masse. Recall that in 2007, when the Japanese Yen carry trade was in vogue, the main concern was volatility. Traders weren’t ever afraid that the BOJ would hike rates. Rather, they feared that some kind of event would inject uncertainty into the markets, making their returns (via the Yen) erratic. If investors suddenly got nervous about the ongoing stock markets rally, then the Dollar could conceivably become more volatile, which would make carry traders think twice.

At the same time, emerging market currencies will continue to offer much higher interest rates than the Dollar. While the Dollar, then, could conceivably become more attractive relative to the Yen, for example, it will remain extremely unattractive compared to high-yielding currencies. The yield differentials are currently so enormous that even if the Fed raised rates tomorrow, it would still be immensely profitable to short the Dollar relative to the Brazilian Real or South African Rand. While the Dollar slump may be reaching an endpoint, a Dollar rally will not necessarily follow. Brace yourself for sideways trading.

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