Forex Blog: Currency Trading News & Analysis.

Archive for April, 2010

Gold Rises as “Alternative Currency”

Apr. 29th 2010

Everything in forex is relative, right? Actually, it turns out this adage is wrong, as there is now a way you can short the entire forex market! I’m not talking about some innovative new financial product that you’ve never heard of, but rather something that everyone already knows about: Gold.

Before you accuse me of sounding like an infomercial, consider that while gold has been an investable commodity for quite some time, its trading pattern has changed recently, especially in the context of forex. Before, the link between gold and forex was inverse and clear: “When the greenback strengthens…this tends to pressure gold since it reduces the need to buy as a hedge against a soft dollar. Also, a strengthening dollar makes commodities generally more expensive in other currencies.” In other words, a rising Dollar is usually accompanied by falling gold prices, and vice versa.

Over the course of 2010, this relationship has steadily grown weaker and weaker, and in the last month, it has almost completely broken down. To understand the rationale for such a change, one needs not to look any further than the sovereign debt crisis currently facing Greece and indirectly, the Eurozone. This crisis has affected the way that investors think about gold; while previously it was primarily viewed as an inflation hedge, now it is seen as a hedge against fiscal/financial crisis. In this regard, it has assumed the characteristics of a “safe haven” currency, much like the US Dollar.

“Gold is going to move higher regardless of what happens in the currency market, as long as there are fears of problems in Europe. People are starting to have more skepticism to a lot of these sovereign entities,” explained one analyst. At the moment, that means that the inverse correlation between the Dollar and Gold (Dollar Up = Gold Down) appears to have reversed itself, such that a rising Dollar is also accompanied by rising gold. In this case, there may be correlation (since investors are buying both gold AND the Dollar as safe haven vehicles) but there is no causation between the two as there was before.

At the moment, the correct interpretation is that anything is preferable to the Euro (whose sovereign debt problems are the most pressing). Thus, gold prices are rising at basically the same rate as the Euro as falling, and gold prices in local currency (EUR, CHF, GBP) terms are already at record levels.

Euro Versus Gold - 2010

As for the future, however, many are betting that gold will distance itself from the Dollar as well, if/when the fiscal “problems” of the US escalate to the level of a Greek-style crisis. At this point, Gold will start to trade as an alternative to the entire forex market! In fact, gold contracts denominated in US Dollars have also been rising, which means that investors already perceive it as more than just an alternative to the Euro. (If this was the case, one would expect gold to appreciate in terms of Euros, but to remain constant or even fall when priced in Dollars. This clearly hasn’t happened).

Admittedly, gold is outside of my expertise, so I’ll refrain from personally making any predictions. According to Deutsche Bank, “If the correlation re-establishes itself before July, either the dollar must continue to decline or investment into bullion-backed funds must pick up in order to avoid erosion in gold prices.”

Regardless of what happens, my intention here is simply to point out the emergence of this trend, for its own sake. While it doesn’t have any serious implications about the internal dynamics of forex markets, it most certainly is important insofar as it reflects what investors (forex and otherwise) are generally thinking about. In this case, it signals that concern over the ongoing sovereign debt crisis isn’t going to abate anytime soon.

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

No Credit Risk in Forex

Apr. 27th 2010

The risks in trading forex are manifold. There is interest rate risk (the possibility that interest rates could change adversely), country risk (that a political, economic, or monetary crisis could adversely affect the dynamics of a country’s currency), and obviously there is exchange rate risk (that exchange rates can and often do fluctuate adversely). However, there is zero or nil credit risk. Why is that?!

First of all, what do I mean by credit risk? Often used interchangeably with the terms settlement risk and counterparty risk (depending on the type of security/investment in question), credit risk refers to the possibility that one party (all financial transactions necessarily involve two parties) will not honor its side of the financial agreement. In the case of forex, this refers to the risk that either the buyer or the seller will not be able to fulfill its promise to deliver currency at the agreed-upon exchange rate. For example, let’s assume that I’ve signed a contract to exchange $100 Dollars for Euros at $1.35. There is a risk that after you hand over the Dollars, the counterparty will not be able to supply the Euros, and even worse, that it won’t be able to return your Dollars.

With regard to transactions involving other types of securities (especially derivatives), this risk is very real, albeit minimal. Anyone who signed a long-term financial contract with Lehman Brothers or Bear Stearns is probably fighting in bankruptcy court to collect pennies on every dollar that they are owed. As I said, however, this is essentially a non-risk in forex. While currency markets fluctuated wildly in the wake of both bankruptcies, these fluctuations were completed unrelated to the possibility that Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns would not be able to honor their trades, and in fact forex markets continued functioning with very little interruption. In fact, “In the dreadful week following Lehman Brothers’ collapse, more than $150bn of Lehman’s FX trades were settled successfully.” How was this possible?

The answer is CLS, or Continuous Linked Settlement, which is an interconnected system used exclusively for settling foreign exchange transactions, and owned by its member banks. CLS handles 55% of all forex transactions (but a much higher proportion of the volume), amounting to Trillions of dollars in activity per day, and involving 17 of the most popular currencies. Basically, all trades involving major financial institutions (7,000 at last count) pass through CLS, and are netted out at the end of each day such that each participating bank only has to make and receive payment once (for each currency) rather than 10,000 separate times.

As far as retail forex trading is concerned, this doesn’t mean that every trade that you make passes through CLS or even that your broker is itself a member of CLS (chances are that it isn’t). Instead, your broker probably settles all of these trades internally, and then must settle with its market makers at the end of each day, who in turn, settle with each other through CLS. Even though you aren’t directly connected with CLS, its existence still makes seamless forex trading possible for you.

At the same time, CLS doesn’t do anything to limit the possibility that your broker will go bankrupt (like Lehman Brothers), and that you won’t have to line up outside of bankruptcy court to try to reclaim the balance of your account. (Still, this is unlikely if you’ve selected a reputable broker with a healthy capital position). Instead, it means that when you place 100 trades over the course of a day, you can now take for granted the fact that all of them will be settled on time at the correct exchange rate.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Investing & Trading, News | 1 Comment »

Greece Weighs on the Euro…Still

Apr. 23rd 2010

This has really become the story that simply won’t go away. Just when it seemed investors had fully digested the implications of the Greek debt crisis, they once again turned their attention to it and attacked the Euro with renewed vigor. Summarized one analyst, “Fears regarding Greece have been reignited.” As a result, the Euro is already down nearly 10% on the year, and we are barely into the second quarter!

Euro Dollar 1 year
Since I last posted on this issue, there have been a handful of key developments, the most important of which was the approval of an emergency loan packaged. Under the terms of the agreement, the EU will lend €30 Billion to Greece, and the IMF will lend an additional €15 Billion. Both loans will have 3-year terms and 5% coupons. While George Papaconstantinou, Finance Minister of Greece, “insisted that this was ‘not tantamount’ to asking for a bailout,” the markets were of the opposite mindset, which is why the Euro immediately advanced 1.5% when news of the loan package broke on April 12.

Since then, the Euro has cooled, the Greek stock market has dropped, and borrowing costs have surged: “The spread between the government’s 10-year bonds and benchmark German debt [has risen] to 549 basis points, the highest in at least 12 years. Credit- default swaps tied to Greece’s debt jumped 149 basis points to a record 635.” What happened?!

It seems that despite the assurances of Eurozone countries that “parliamentary approval would take ‘one week or two weeks at the maximum’ ” and analysts’ assertions that “Greece is as close to activating the rescue package as one can imagine,” the markets were simply not convinced. Some EU member countries have warned that “new legislation” will be required to lend money to Greece and “a group of German professors are readying a challenge to the rescue plan in Germany’s constitutional court.” In short, until Greece has the money in hand, nothing can be taken for granted. In addition, Greece must refinance €8 Billion in short-term debt that expires on May 19, and investors are skeptical that it can do so at tolerable interest rates, if at all. For example, a US Dollar-denominated bond offering that was projected to bring in $5-10 Billion attracted only $1-4 Billion in institutional interest.

Of course, there is also the concern that even if Greece can raise enough short-term cash to remain solvent, it will once again face trouble in the medium term: “An infusion of cash won’t fix Greece’s long-term problems, and the ‘only choice’ for Greece could be a ‘dramatic economic contraction,’ ” said one expert.Even if default wasn’t previously inevitable, it is quickly becoming self-fulfilling, since investors’ nervousness is leading to higher interest rates (aka borrowing costs), which is making it more difficult for Greece to reduce its budget deficit, which will cause investors to become more nervous, etc etc.

Unsurprisingly, experts have begun to look at alternative scenarios, such as leaving the Euro. The consensus is that it would be mechanically and legally feasible, but economically catastrophic. It would result in massive currency devaluation and economic recession, and wouldn’t even eliminate the sizable chunk of Greek debt that is denominated in foreign currency. In short, it remains a last resort or last resorts, and isn’t even on the table at the moment.

If investors learned anything from the credit/housing crisis, it is that things can quickly go from bad to worse, and they don’t want to have to learn that lesson a second time with Greece and the Euro. In the end, investors will stay away until there is more clarity surrounding Greece’s finances. Until then, betting on the Euro would be an “aggressive call.”

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Euro, News | No Comments »

Canadian Dollar and Parity

Apr. 21st 2010

The Canadian Dollar’s performance of late has been eerily redolent of its sudden rise in 2007, when propelled by nothing more than sheer momentum, it rose 20% against the Dollar and breached the parity mark (1:1) en route to a 30-year high. [Of course, we all remember what happened next: the credit crisis struck, and the Loonie plummeted even faster than it had risen].

CAD USD 5 year chart

Last week, the Canadian Dollar breached parity again, and after a brief retreat, it touched parity again today. On the one hand, this latest rise was simply a matter of making up for the ground lost in 2008, when risk-averse investors shifted capital en masse to the US. On the other hand, Canadian fundamentals are fairly strong, and that the Loonie is once again at parity is deservedly so.

Last week’s jobs report was pretty solid, but the Canadian unemployment rate is still high, at 8.2%, mirroring the “jobless recovery” phenomenon in the US. According to the Bank of Canada’s own estimates, GDP growth is projected at a healthy 3.7% for 2010, thanks to a strong recovery in oil and commodity prices. As a result, the Bank of Canada has finally given the indication that it is ready to hike interest rates, perhaps as soon as July.  After concluding its monthly meeting yesterday, it noted, “With recent improvements in the economic outlook, the need for such extraordinary policy is now passing, and it is appropriate to begin to lessen the degree of monetary stimulus.”

On the other hand, one has to wonder how long the momentum in the Canadian Dollar can continue. While Canada’s economic recovery has indeed been strong, it is no more impressive than the recovery in the US. (In fact, it should be noted that the two economies remain deeply intertwined). In addition, the (Canadian) economy is already expected to slow down slightly in 2011 (3.1%), and slow further in 2012 (1.7%), which makes me wonder whether the Bank of Canada will have to tighten slightly in order to achieve its inflation objectives. Moreover, while the BOC will probably hike rates slightly before the Fed, the arc of monetary policy followed by the two Central Banks will probably be pretty similar for the next few years, regardless of what happens.  This means that interest rate differentials between the two economies should remain pretty close to the current level (near 0%), and won’t expand enough to make a CAD/USD carry trading strategy viable.

It seems the futures markets concur, as the Canadian Dollar is projected to hover around parity with the USD for the bulk of the next 12 months. Granted, futures prices have pretty closely mirrored the Canadian Dollar’s performance in the spot market, but the point is that investors seem to expect the CAD/USD exchange rate to settle down for a while.

CAD-USD March 2011 Futures

Remarked one analyst, “The Canadian dollar parity party is in full swing, however further Canadian gains will be at a much slower pace as the existing long Canadian positions get trimmed on profit taking in the absence of new bullish Canadian catalysts.” Incidentally, this is exactly what the Bank of Canada wants, and spent the better part of 2009 trying to convey to forex markets. If the Loonie were to rise further, it could threaten the economic recovery, and at the very least, the BOC would proba1bly hold off on hiking rates.

In the end, 1:1 does seem like a reasonable exchange rate. I haven’t seen any economic models that argue one way or the other, but it certainly makes sense from the standpoint of convenience and market psychology. Barring any unforeseen developments, I don’t see it fluctuating very much in the short-term, one way or the other.

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

Forex Seasonality: Is it Real?

Apr. 19th 2010

I have always wanted to write a post about seasonality, but whenever push came to shove, I couldn’t see the point. Besides, I was never sure whether seasonality falls into the scope of technical analysis or whether it made sense to consider in fundamental terms, and for fear of overstretching, I stayed away. Recently, I read a column by Kathy Lien about forex seasonality. In fact, this article was merely an updated version of a nearly identical article that she contributed earlier to Investopedia, but nonetheless I found it informative, and I was finally inspired to address the topic on the Forex Blog.

Basically, Lien’s analysis consisted of examining 10 years of data for a handful of major currency pairs, and picking out the month(s) for each pair in which performance tended to be most lopsided. (Since forex is zero-sum, it should be the case that over a long enough time horizon, the average fluctuation for every pair should sink to ~0%. For other types of securities/investments, this type of analysis might be less viable). She discovered that the USD has tended to rise against in the Yen in July, but to fall in August. Meanwhile, the Dollar has tended to rise against the Euro in January, and fall against the Canadian Dollar in May. A similar study by DailyFX found that the US Dollar has also tended to rise against the Dollars of Australian, New Zealand, and Canada in the month of July.

Seasoanlity in EUR-USD from 1999-2008
These numbers are certainly interesting. But, I want to offer a clarification that the authors, themselves, didn’t bother to make. Namely, when making statistical claims about trends, it’s important to perform statistical (and not just visual) analysis. For example, the fact that the authors based all of their conclusions on only 10 years of data means that the case for statistical significance (a mathematical concept which states that a certain result cannot be a product of pure chance) is not as strong as you would think. Given that major currencies have floated since 1973, there is at least 30 years of good data which can and should have been used in the analysis.

For example, Lien observed that the US Dollar rose 80% of the time against the Yen against in the month of July. Given that the sample size (10 years) is only a fraction of the total data (let’s assume 30 years), we can say with 95% confidence (in accordance with statistical theory) that the actual fluctuation is somewhere between 60% and 100%. If you want to be 99% sure, then the interval expands to 53 to 100. To be fair, most traders would be perfectly happy with 95% confidence, and in this case, that means we can be 95% sure that the Dollar will rise against the Yen at least 60% of the time in the month of July. That’s not great, but still better than a coin-toss. If you bet on this trend every July over the next 10 years, then, you can be 95% sure that you will come out ahead. However, the average return over the last 10 years for this particular trend is only .39%, or 4.8% on an annualized basis. That’s not that impressive considering the margin of error and the amount of work that you had to do.

USD-JPY Price Activity in July - Forex Seasonality

As if this were not enough, Lien can’t even proffer an explanation why this is the case. (I’m certainly not blaming her; frankly I would be hard-pressed to come up with anything convincing). Being a fundamental analyst, personally, I like to have some idea (or delude myself into thinking I have some idea) as to why a certain trend exists, and I’m not content to simply take it as face value.  Thus, even if statistical theory tells me that this particular trend probably isn’t a product of pure chance, from where I’m sitting, it might as well be.

Actually, I was much more impressed with a similar piece of analysis that Lien published on FX 360, which looks at how volatility varies for USD/X currency pairs, from month-to-month. For all of the currency pairs that Lien examined, there is a clear pattern: volatility peaks in December/January and reaches a low in the summer. Not only is this trend clearly discernible, but also neatly explicable. In all of the financial markets, trading activity (and volatility, by extension) dries up in the summer as investors go on vacation. It slowly builds during the end of the year as portfolio managers churn their positions to try to meet their annual targets.

Forex Seasonality - EUR-USD Average Monthly Volatility
From a practical standpoint, there are a few takeaways. First, if you’re a carry trader, know that the risk is generally higher in the winter than in the summer. While many traders may complain about the lack of fluctuation in July and consequent difficulty of profitably day trading, you can sit back and earn a low-risk return on the interest rate spread.

With regard to the monthly trends for specific currency pairs that I referenced at the beginning of this post, I would say that they are certainly worth being aware of, especially if you’re a swing trader and tend to hold your positions for only a month. For shorter or longer-term trading, however, I don’t think most of these trends are actionable. Even in the handful of trends that seem to be bullet-proof, the fact that you must enter into the trade on the 1st of the month and exit on the last day of the month (since it’s on that basis that the trends were analyzed) would seem contrived and annoying.

I have to admit- I’m intensely curious as to whether anyone has actually tried to trade on such a strategy. Please share your experiences below!

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Investing & Trading, News | 4 Comments »

Inflation: Much Ado about Nothing?

Apr. 16th 2010

One of the cornerstones of exchange rate theory is that currencies rise and fall in accordance with inflation differentials. All else being equal, if US inflation averages 5% per annum and EU inflation averages 0% per annum, then we would expect the Euro to appreciate (or the Dollar to depreciate, depending on how you look at it) by 5% against the Dollar on an annualized basis. If only it were that simple…

You can see from the chart below that since the introduction of the Euro, inflation in the US has slightly outpaced Eurozone inflation (by about 5% on a cumulative basis). Over that same time period, the Euro first appreciated from slightly below parity with the US Dollar to $1.60, and then fell back to the current level of around $1.35. It’s clear (from the current sovereign debt crisis if nothing else) that the EUR/USD exchange rate, then, cannot be explained entirely by the theory of purchasing power parity.

Cumulative Inflation- US versus EU 1999-2009
Still, insofar as inflation bears on interest rates and can be a consequence of economic overheating or excessive government spending, it is something that must be heeded. On that note, after a dis-inflationary 2009, prices in the US are once again rising in 2010, and inflation is projected to finish the year around 2%.

Over the longer term, there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty regarding US inflation, for a couple reasons. The first is related to the Fed’s quantitative easing program, which pumped more than $1 Trillion into credit markets. While the Fed has basically stopped its asset purchases, all of this printed money is still technically in circulation, and some inflation hawks think it represents a ticking inflation time bomb. Doves respond that the Fed will withdraw these funds before they become inflationary, and that besides, most of the funds are actually being held by commercial banks in the form of excess reserves. (This notion is in fact born out by the chart below).

Excess Reserves versus Monetary Base
The second potential driver of inflation is the skyrocketing national debt. While US budget deficits have long been the norm, they have grown alarmingly high in the past few years and are projected to remain high for at least the next decade. Beyond that, the US faces up to $70 Trillion in unfunded entitlement liabilities, which means that net debt will probably grow before it can fall. Hopefully, the US economy will outpace the national debt and/or foreign Central Banks continue to buy Treasury securities in bulk. The alternative would be wholesale money printing (to deflate the debt) and hyperinflation.

Yields on both 10-year and 30-year Treasury securities remain enviably low, which means that buyers aren’t bracing for hyperinflation just yet. In addition, while gold continues to attract buyers despite record high prices, its rise has been closely tied to the performance of the stock market, which means that investors are currently using it to bet on economic recovery, rather than as a hedge against inflation.

gold vs S&P

In short, inflation in the US certainly remains a real possibility. At this point, however, it remains too hazy to be actionable, and the forex markets will probably wait for more information before pricing it into the Dollar.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Economic Indicators, News, US Dollar | No Comments »

Forex Market Inverts as Emerging Markets Soar

Apr. 14th 2010

As I pointed out in last Friday’s post (Volatility, Carry, Risk, and the Forex Markets), volatility has been declining in forex markets since peaking after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. In fact, volatility among emerging market currencies has been falling particularly fast, and recently, something amazing happened: “Three-month implied volatility for the seven biggest developing country currencies fell to 10 percent in March compared with 11.4 percent for industrialized nations.” This inversion could rank as one of this year’s most important developments in terms of its impact on forex. The only runner-up that I can think of is Japanese LIBOR falling below American LIBOR.

Despite its remarkableness, this development isn’t unsurprising, since 8 of the 10 best performers in forex this year are emerging market currencies, led by the Costa Rican Colon, Mexican Peso, and Malaysian Ringgit. Still, we usually assume that with high return, comes high risk. How could it be that what are thought of as risky currencies are now less volatile than the so-called majors. Does it really make sense, for example, that the Turkish Lira is less volatile than the British Pound.

Without exploring this particular pair in detail, in a word, the answer is yes. In 2010, emerging market growth is projected to be higher than in the industrialized world. Inflation is relatively stable, and debt levels are comparatively low. Meanwhile, all of the G4 currencies (US Dollar, Euro, Japanese Yen, and British Pound) are plagued by the possibility of Double-Dip recessions and debt crises of varying seriousness. In sum, “Developing nations reduced their foreign debt to 26 percent of GDP last year from 41 percent in 1999, while advanced nations’ debt may surge to 106.7 percent of GDP this year from 78.2 percent in 2007.” Talk about heading in opposite directions!

EMBI+ 2009-2010

Investors are taking notice. While the JP Morgan Emerging Market Bond Index (EMBI+) is now rising at annualized rate of 22% (implying a decline in emerging market bond yields), rates on comparable EU and US debt is rising. Last week, the 10-Year Treasury Rate topped 4% for the first time in 18 months (though it has since retreated). Meanwhile, credit default swaps are pricing in a .4% chance of default in the US. Granted, this is still infinitesimal, but anything above 0% would have been derided as ridiculous only a few years ago. This year, the US is projected to spend more on servicing its debt than any other country except for the UK. The projected $1.6 Trillion deficit for 2010 certainly won’t help things.

2009-2010 10-Year Treasury Rate
Thus, emerging markets are projected “to lure $722 billion in overseas investment this year, 66 percent more than in 2009…Developing-nation bond funds attracted $7 billion this year, pushing assets under management to a record $74.7 billion.” Many portfolio managers are betting that this will be a long-term trend: “The rally in emerging-markets has barely started yet.”

What are the forex implications? For the first time, we could see the G4 currencies start trading as a bloc. [Previously, it was the US Dollar versus everything else. The introduction of the Euro ten years ago only strengthened this trend, which is ironic considering the EU has also become an establishment currency. But, if you look at the charts, the Dollar/Euro pair has rarely traded sideways, and traders have used it as a basis for making broader claims about the markets]. Now, it looks like this could finally change: “The big trends will be in non-G4 currencies against G4, such as dollar/Norway or euro/Aussie, and in emerging market currencies.”

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

China Inches Toward Revaluation

Apr. 12th 2010

The hoopla surrounding the semi-annual release of the Treasury’s currency report has been awkwardly resolved. As a result of Chinese Prime Minister Hu Jintao’s last minute decision to participate in a US conference on nuclear disarmament, the Treasury has agreed to delay the release of the report for an indeterminate period.

While a handful of commentators saw this as a simple quid pro quo, the consensus among most of us is that a revaluation of the Chinese Yuan is now imminent. Technically, the RMB has been rising steadily for the last few months, and in fact, it recently touched a 9-month high against the USD. However, this appreciation has amounted to a mere .3%, certainly not enough to placate critics, many of whom insist that the RMB is undervalued by 25-40%. Probably within the next couple months (and as soon as tomorrow), the RMB peg will probably be lifted by at least 5% against the Dollar, and allowed to appreciate incrementally from there.

cnyOn the surface, it looks like President Obama deserves much of the credit for the sudden capitulation by China. From tire tariffs to a meeting with the Dalai Lama, he signaled that he was willing to play hard ball. As Senator Charles Schumer, one of the most vocal critics of China’s forex policy, said recently, “Every administration has thought it could get something done by talking to China. But years of experience have shown that the Chinese will not be moved by words; they only respond to tough action.”

While this game of high-stakes International Poker was being played, there was an internal debate taking place within China. On one side was the Central Bank, frustrated by its inability to conduct monetary policy independent of the currency peg. On the other side was the more powerful Commerce Ministry, which is responsible for representing the interests of Chinese exporters, among others. It appears that the Commerce Ministry has lost the debate, although it isn’t going down without a fight. After economic data showed the first monthly trade deficit ($7+ Billion) in 6 years, a press release argued that, “The continued improvement in our country’s balance of trade has created the conditions for the renminbi’s exchange rate to remain basically stable, case received a boost from the March $7 Billion trade deficit, the first monthly deficit in 6 years.”

China monthly balance of trade 2004 - 2010
At this point, analysts have stopped arguing about whether the revaluation is necessary (though this debate has not officially been resolved) and moved on to simply trying to predict the outcome of the internal Chinese negotiations. Some are skeptical:”Based on off-the-record briefing from officials in Beijing, one development that does not appear likely in the short term is any Chinese action to change the currency peg that ties the renminbi to the dollar.” However, this is contradicted by the prevailing view among China-watchers, which is that “Beijing will move on the currency not because they want to placate international pressure on trade flows but because domestic conditions suggest that such a move will be in their own interests.”

This is reflected in futures prices, which are now pricing in a 3% appreciation in the RMB by the end of the year, compared to expectations of a mere 1.5% appreciation in March. What’s harder to gauge (and speculate on) is how other currency pairs will be affected. Some analysts believe that an RMB appreciation will trigger a decline in the Euro, since China’s currency peg had also necessitated tangential purchases of Euros: “The euro will be more vulnerable from the perspective that the People’s Bank of China in the past diversified away from Treasuries to buy euro zone bonds.”

RMB USD December 2010 Futures Prices
Asian currencies should also benefit, since a more expensive Yuan will trigger a marginal shift of (speculative) capital to regional competitors, especially those with undervalued currencies. In fact, the Bank of Korea is already on high alert for any “unusual” (code for sudden appreciation of the Won) activity in the forex markets, and has suggested that intervention is always a possibility.

As for me, well, I’m not taking any chances. I just transferred some of my savings from Dollars into Yuan (of course this wouldn’t really make sense if I didn’t live in China). I like to think of it as a rudimentary form of hedging.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Chinese Yuan (RMB), News | 2 Comments »

Volatility, Carry, Risk, and the Forex Markets

Apr. 8th 2010

Upon reviewing my previous post on the Brazilian Real (BRL), I now realize that it lacked context. In other words, while both the interest rate outlook and economic prospects of Brazil are both incredibly bright, who’s to say that this hasn’t already been priced into the Real? At the very least, more information is needed to determine whether the Real is valued fairly on an historical and/or relative basis. [Alas, the focus of this post isn’t on the Real specifically, but on the forex markets in general. Still, the concepts that will form the backbone of this post – volatility, risk, and carry – can be seen clearly through the prism of the Real.]

This doubt was sparked by an article that I read recently, entitled “Markets ‘Not Pricing’ Potential Risks,” which explored the idea that the renewed appetite for risk and consequent run-up in asset prices and re-allocation of capital is naively optimistic: ” ‘The unique environment we’re in now revolves around unprecedented level of government involvement in markets, which creates this complacency over risk because of this belief that governments will fix everything.’ Markets are under-pricing the risk that nations such as Dubai and Greece may default, and excess borrowing by others could lead to inflation.” From a financial standpoint, the practical implications of this idea is that the markets are underpricing risk.


In forex markets, complacency towards risk has manifested itself in the form of decreasing volatility. When you look at the 435 most commonly-traded currency pairs (actually most currency pairs involving the 35 most popular currencies), volatility is increasing for only nine of them. In addition, one month-volatility is now below 15% for all (widely-traded) currency pairs, which means that based on the most recent data, the highest, annualized standard deviation percentage change for every currency pair is only 15%. [It’s difficult to translate that concept into plain-English, but the basic idea is that all currencies are (actually, only 68% of the time) currently fluctuating by less than 15% from the mean on an annualized basis. The idea of standard deviation is murky for non-mathematicians, so it’s probably more useful to look at it on a relative and historical basis, rather than in absolute terms. In other words, the 15% figure can not be explained very well in an of itself; one must see how it compares to other currency pairs and to other time periods].

The fact that volatility is currently low suggests that the carry trade, for example, is set to become increasingly viable, especially when you factor in upcoming interest rate hikes. On the other hand, real interest rate differentials are currently modest (from a historical standpoint), and the concern is that rate hikes could be accompanied by rising volatility. The Brazilian Real, for example, “has a risk-adjusted carry of 45 percent, based on Morgan Stanley estimates, which means its carry rates had been better than current levels 55 percent of the time the last five years.” When you look at conditions from a few years ago, when volatility was at record low levels and interest rate differentials were larger than historically average, it’s obvious that the hey-day for the carry trade was in the past. It may come again in the future, but it certainly isn’t now.

From a practical standpoint, if you’re thinking about getting involved in the carry trade, you’ll want to choose a currency pair where the real (after adjusting for inflation) interest rate differential is high and volatility is low. You can cross-reference interest differentials with these charts – which uses recent mean return and volatility as the basis for forecasting confidence intervals – to get an idea about which pairs offer the best value (i.e. higher rate differentials at lower volatility). Just be aware that a sudden upswing in volatility could put a big dent in your risk-adjusted returns.

tock, currency and bond investors are underestimating the risk that government efforts to stabilize markets may fail,
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Brazilian Real Recovers on Rate Hike Hopes

Apr. 6th 2010

One of the main themes (even if not always overt) of my posts recently has been the revival of the carry trade, if not the already extant revival than at least the imminent one. In this context, there is no better candidate than the Brazilian Real.

After a stellar 2009, the Brazilian Real opened 2010 in much the same way that most emerging market currencies did: down. In the month of January, alone, it fell almost 10% against the Dollar, as fears of a widespread sovereign debt crisis took hold in currency markets. Its modest recovery since then, is not so much due to a decreased likelihood of such a debt crisis, but rather to a shift in the markets’ perspective away from long-term fiscal problems and back towards short-term economic and monetary conditions.

real dollar
It is here where Brazil (and the Real) shines. As one analyst summarized, “The Brazilian economy has been transformed over the past few years. The boom-and-bust and hyperinflation of previous decades has been replaced by steady growth. The country was one of the last major economies into recession, but one of the first out.” 2009 Q4 GDP came in at 4.3% on a year-over-year basis, and is projected at 6% for 2010. Moreover, its economy is very well-balanced, and consumer debt levels are relatively low. Unlike in China, for example, infrastructure investment in Brazil still has plenty of room to grow, without crowding out private investment. This is important, given that the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics are right around the corner.

After rebounding from the lows of the 1999 currency crisis, meanwhile, the Brazilian stock market has had an incredible decade, returning an average of 20% annually. For the sake of comparison, consider that emerging markets have averaged 10%, and all stock markets have averaged only .2%. It doesn’t hurt that Brazil just discovered a huge (the fifth largest in the world) coastal oil reserve.

In fact, it might just be the latter that currency traders are most excited about: “Thus far this year, BRL is 68% correlated with crude oil prices…Last year the correlation was 53% and in 2008 the correlation was just shy of 32%.” This is the highest among any currency, even those that derive a much larger portion of GDP from oil exports, such as Canada and Norway. While there are almost certainly lurking variables in this correlation, a continued rise in the price of oil can’t hurt the Real.

Where does the carry trade fit into this? Look no further then Brazil’s benchmark interest rate of 8.5%. Impossibly, this represents a record low, despite the fact that this is nearly 8.5% higher than the current Federal Funds Rate. And the Brazilian rate is only set to rise. At the last meeting of the Bank of Brazil, 3 out of 8 Board members voted to hike the Selic rate by 50 basis points. The main opposition came from the Bank’s President, Henrique Meirelles, who steered a dovish course for political reasons.

Since then, inflation has continued to creep up and Mr. Meirelles has firmly renounced his political ambitions, and the stage is now set for a 75 basis point hike at the next meeting, to be held on April 28. Most analysts are projecting an “increase of between 200 and 300 basis points through mid-2011, [and] some investors are pricing about 450 basis points of hikes in the same period.”

It’s hard to predict if/when the Fed will follow suit, but most certainly won’t be to the same extent. As long as Brazilian interest rates can keep up with inflation, then, it looks like the Real will end 2010 in much the same fashion as 2009.

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Japanese Yen: Will We See Intervention?

Apr. 3rd 2010

The Japanese yen has fallen 5% against the Dollar over the last month, and 10% since touching a record high in November. Since this certainly isn’t explainable in the context of the EU debt crisis, what’s going on?!

yen dollar
The primary factor behind the Yen’s decline appears to be seasonal, given the “end of the Japanese fiscal year on March 31, a time when Japanese corporations stop their annual repatriation of foreign profits by converting them into yen, which had kept demand for the currency high.” Analysts add that “A new fiscal year also is a chance for Japanese investors to reset strategies for sending capital abroad and for Japanese companies to set hedging bets for the coming year.” In short, this trend is short-term, and will likely abate in the coming weeks.

Beyond this, it’s difficult to explain the Yen’s decline in terms of financial and economic factors. Japans economy is still lackluster, though its stock market is performing well. I have blogged recently about Japan’s budget deficits and soaring national debt, but given that this debt is financed domestically, fluctuations in the risk of Japanese sovereign default have very little impact on the exchange rate. It’s possible that an increase in risk appetite and consequent revival in the carry trade is behind the Yen’s weakness, but given that US interest rates remain just as low, it makes little sense that the Yen should be falling so precipitously against the Dollar.

Rather, any full explanation must involve the the government of Japan, which appears to have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the persistent strength in the Japanese Yen. Previously, the government (through the Finance Minister) had vehemently denounced the possibility of, intervention on behalf of the Yen and that exchange rates should be determined by market forces, etc. After backtracking, that Minister was replaced (ostensibly for health reasons), and leaders are no longer mincing their words. Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama recently declared, “the yen’s strength is out of step with the country’s fragile economic recovery, urging the government to take ‘firm steps’ to counter the growth-limiting effects of a strong currency.”

Even though the Japanese economy grew by a healthy 3.8% in the fourth quarter of 2009, there remain concerns of contraction and deflation. Many experts agree that the Yen is overvalued, which means that exports are less than what they could be. Analysts love to point out that Japan’s economy is so sensitive to changes in exchange rates, that a fall of one “unit” (100 pips) in the Japanese Yen would be enough to cause some companies to swing from profit to loss. Simply, there is too much at stake for the Japanese economy (and the incumbent Japanese government) to simply let the Yen be.

As a result, many analysts believe that intervention is now inevitable, unless the Yen continues to rise. According to Morgan Stanley, “The probability Japan will sell the yen has climbed to 47 percent, the highest since 2004…based on a company model that uses indicators such as market positioning and changes in momentum.” Other analysts believe that the markets will instead preemptively push down the Yen, which would achieve the same result as intervention: “Brown Brothers Harriman analyst Marc Chandler figures if the dollar breaks above 94 yen, because of the way investors place currency bets, the greenback could more easily extend its run as high as 96 or 98 yen.”

For now, the Central Bank of Japan will attempt to use monetary policy to coax down the Yen, perhaps through a combination of liquidity programs and money-printing, but there are a handful of important meeting coming up, during which time it could conceivably decide to join the ranks of a handful of other Central Banks which have already moved to depress their currencies. Let the Beggar Thy Neighbor Currency Devaluation begin.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, Japanese Yen, News | 1 Comment »

Forget about Greece: What about the US, Japan, and the UK?

Apr. 1st 2010

Forget about Greece: What about the US, Japan, and the UK? Almost 75% of trading in the forex markets involves some combination of the US Dollar, Euro, Japanese Yen, and British Pound. This figure rises to more than 95% when you include trading in which at least one of the currencies (as opposed to both) is one of the aforementioned. In short, these four currencies are by far the most important in forex markets, and most patterns/narratives in forex markets tend to involve them.
FX Most traded currencies
It’s simple supply and demand, really. These currencies are the most heavily traded because their economies are the largest and their capital markets are the deepest and most liquid. [The absence of the Chinese Yuan from this list can be explained by the lack of flexibility in its capital controls and exchange rate regime]. When investors flee one of these major currencies, they tend towards one of the others, and vice versa.

This phenomenon has especial relevance in the realm of sovereign debt. While some investors would love no more than to move their capital from the four debt-ridden currencies above, there just isn’t enough supply of alternative currencies to absorb the outflow. The Swiss Franc, Australian Dollar, and Canadian Dollar (#5, 6, & 7 on the list of most traded currencies), for example, have all surged over the last year as investors have looked for stable and liquid alternatives to what can be dubbed the Big-4 currencies. While these currencies still have some room for appreciation, they can’t continue to rise forever. For better or worse, then, the most useful comparison when it comes to to sovereign debt is not between the Big-4 and everything else (aka the major currencies and the emerging market currencies), but rather between the Big-4 themselves.

Forgive me for this long-winded introduction, but I think it’s important to understand the usefulness of comparing Japan with the US with the EU with the UK when all of these economies have terrible fiscal problems, and why we can’t just compare them to fiscally sound economies. With that being said, let the comparison commence!

Most of the fallout from the sovereign debt crisis has affected the EU and the Euro. This is for good reason, since the focal point of the crisis is a member of the Euro (Greece), and several other Eurozone countries are on the periphery. I addressed the EU in a previous post (EU Debt Crisis: Perception is Reality), so I think it makes sense to focus on the others here.

In terms of debt sustainability, the UK is not far behind Greece. “The flood of British debt is likely to ‘lead to inflationary conditions and a depreciating currency,’ lowering the return on bonds. ‘If that view becomes consensus, then at some point the UK may fail to attain escape velocity from its debt trap,’ ” explained one analyst. With high budget deficits projected for at least the next five years,  the Bank of England no longer buying UK bonds, and the possibility that the ucoming elections could produce political stalemate, the fiscal position of the UK can only deteriorate. On the plus side, the average maturity for UK bonds is 13.7 years, twice the OECD average, which means that it could be more than a decade, before Britain really begins to feel the squeeze.

debt sustainability chart
Japan might not be so lucky. Its net debt already exceeds 100% of GDP and its gross debt is approximately 200% of GDP; both are the highest in the OECD. Meanwhile, the average maturity of its debt is only five years, so there isn’t a lot of time to act. According to analysts, the crisis would most likely assume the following form: “ ‘A surge in yields would lead to a combination of extreme fiscal contraction, through tax increases and welfare cuts’…as well as to even more monetary expansion, perhaps less central bank independence and ‘presumably a much weaker exchange rate.’ ” In the case of Japan, the mitigating factor is that 90% of government debt is held domestically. Therefore, Japan isn’t vulnerable to the whims of foreign creditors, and an outright default is unlikely.

Then, there is the US. Its Trillion Dollar budget deficits, and multi-Trillion Dollar national debt and entitlement obligations are the highest in the world in nominal terms. On the other hand, the US government has not really encountered any difficulty in financing its spending. Political opposition is fierce, but investors have lined up to buy Treasury bonds and record low yields. This will likely change as the Fed curtails its purchases, and the economic recovery gives rise to higher interest rates. Analysts expect that borrowing costs (i.e. Treasury yields) could rise more than 1.5% by the end of 2010.

From the standpoint of markets, its impossible to say which economy’s fiscal problems are the most serious, since sovereign debt yields have declined across-the-board over the last 20 years. One Professor of Finance explains this trend as follows: “Behavioral factors keep many bond traders and investors from recognizing the reality of the situation…since there is no well-defined crisis point.” In other words, the crisis in Greece is only a test run. The real one could come in a few years, and involve a much larger economy. At that point, currency traders will have to decide who to back.

Sovereign Debt Bond Yields 1990-2010 US Japan Germany UK

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Major Currencies, News, Politics & Policy | No Comments »

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