Forex Blog: Currency Trading News & Analysis.

April 1st 2010

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

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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