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December 18th 2009

Dollar Could Go Either Way, Depending on the Carry Trade

As I outlined in my last two posts, the Dollar could witness a rapid appreciation if/when the Fed finally raises interest rates. Given Chairman Bernanke’s frequent erring on the side of inflation, however, it could be months (at the earliest) before the Fed actually pulls the trigger. With forex markets guided by interest rate differentials, and traders’ uncertainty about the timing of interest rate hikes, its fair to say that the Dollar is at a crossroads.

Currently, the case for an interest rate hike (as the Fed confirmed this week) remains weak: “They will need to see a lot more, better numbers consistently, not just for one or two months, before they would start to genuinely be talking more hawkish…I think the markets may be disappointed if they’re looking for hints of hikes coming soon,” said one strategist. While the data continues to improve – witness last week’s miracle jobs report – it has not yet been demonstrated convincingly and unequivocally that the economy has exited the recession. There are too many contingent possibilities that could send the economy into relapse for the Fed to even consider acting. As I said in my last post, I don’t personally expect a rate hike until next summer.

Still, the markets are alert to the possibility. And where perception is reality, any sniff of rate hikes is enough to send the Dollar soaring; it has risen an impressive 5% against the Euro over the last couple weeks. That investors are acting so early to protect themselves against a possible rate hike shows the precariousness of the foundation on which the Dollar’s rise has been predicated.

euro

What I’m talking about here is the Dollar carry trade, in which investors borrowed in Dollars at record low rates, and invested the proceeds in riskier currencies and assets. It wasn’t so much the interest rate differentials they were chasing (only a few percentage points in most cases, hardly enough to compensate for the risk), but rather outsized returns from currency and asset price appreciation. In other words, while the S&P has risen by an impressive 50% from trough to peak (providing a handsome return to any investor smart enough to have foreseen it), stock markets outside of the the US have performed just as well. Factor in currency appreciation, and in some cases you are talking about gains of around 100%.

But we all know that volatility is the enemy of the carry trade, and volatility is slowly creeping up. First, there was the Dubai debt crisis, then came the downgrading of Greece’s sovereign debt. With talk of interest rate hikes, it’s no wonder that investors are becoming jittery. Bloomberg News reports that, “The so-called 25-delta risk-reversal rate, which was flat as recently as October, hasn’t shown such high relative demand for dollar calls since hitting a record 2.595 percentage points in November 2008….[and] JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s G7 Volatility Index rose to 14.43 last month from the low this year of 12.32 in September.”

JP Morgan G7 Volatility Index
The consensus remains that neither the Dubai nor Greece episodes signals broad systemic risk, and that the Fed probably won’t hike rates for a while. Still, investors must brace themselves for the possibility of surprise on one of these fronts, or from a completely unsuspected “bolt from the blue” as one analyst put it, because of what happened to the Dollar after Lehman’s collapse in 2008. As evidenced by the Dollar’s sudden turnaround in the last couple weeks, this kind of uncertainty is self-begetting. As some investors get nervous and begin to unwind their carry trade positions, other investors also begin to move towards the exists, lest they get stuck short the Dollar after the music stops (or when it starts, depending on how you look at it.)

In that sense, the best paradigm for analyzing the Dollar is the end of the carry trade on one hand, weighed against the possibility of interest rate hikes on the other hand. “The dollar will depreciate to $1.55 against the euro by March from $1.49 last week, and to $1.62 by June, according to JPMorgan,” which is betting heavily that investors will remain clear-headed about interest rate differentials. Those that are looking at the Dollar from a risk-aversion/carry trade standpoint have slightly different projections: “I wouldn’t surprised if the euro makes it to $1.40 before the end of the month without much trouble, maybe a little bit lower.”

In short, in forex, it’s never enough to be able to predict the economic future. Instead, you must be able to predict how these predictions will be syncretized into currency valuations by the markets. In this case, that means you need not necessarily be able to accurately predict when the Fed will hike rates; rather you need only be concerned with how other investors view that possibility, and whether that makes them feel more or less confident about holding certain currencies.

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3 Comments of “Dollar Could Go Either Way, Depending on the Carry Trade”

  1. The FOMC and the Dollar | The Currensee Exchange Says:

    […] whether the more positive tone would lead to higher rates and therefore continue the process of the carry trade unwinding and be Dollar positive. Whilst that is a distinct possibility it is not due to higher rate […]

  2. Forex Links for the Weekend - December 19 2009 | Forex Crunch Says:

    […] Adam Kritzer sees the direction of the dollar in the carry trade. […]

  3. Dupont Says:

    I think that the USD is getting stronger because China is buying a lot’s of it now.
    Why now? Well, during during this period of the year the volume is thin, so you need to buy less USD to make it stronger.

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