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Archive for January, 2011

Emerging Market Dilemma: Currency Appreciation or Inflation?

Jan. 31st 2011

By now, we’re all too familiar with both the so-called currency wars and its underlying cause – the inexorable appreciation of emerging market currencies. As more and more Central Banks enter the war in the form of forex intervention and capital controls, however, they are inadvertently stoking the fires of price inflation. They will all soon face a serious choice: either raise interest rates and cease trying to weaken their currencies or risk hyperinflation and concomitant economic instability.

This dilemma is fairly basic: a Central Bank cannot simultaneously control its currency and conduct an independent monetary policy. For example, if it seeks to adjust interest rates to serve domestic economic goals, it must understand that this will have unavoidable implications for demand for its currency, and vice versa. These days, that dilemma is becoming increasingly sharp. Inflation in many emerging markets is rising to dangerous levels, real interest rates or negative, and all the while, latent pressure continues to bubble under their currencies.

The problem is that investors have become so desperate for yield that they are willing to tolerate negative real interest rates in the short-term if they believe that interest rates and/or currencies will inevitably rise over the long-term. While capital controls have forced a modest decline in the carry trade, the expectation is that an inevitable tightening of monetary policy will soon make it viable once again.

Due to the ongoing (perception of) currency wars, emerging market Central Banks are trying to hold out for as long as possible, lest they make themselves into sudden targets for carry traders and currency speculators. Some have already bitten the bullet. Brazil, for example, raised its benchmark Selic rate to 11.25% recently and indicated additional rate hikes will follow. China has embarked on a similar path, but from a lower base. The majority of countries remain in firm denial, however. Last week, Turkey took the unbelievable step of lowering interest rates in a vain attempt to decrease pressure on the Lira.

Most Central Banks believe that they can enjoy the best of both worlds by cutting access to credit and raising banks’ reserve requirements (in order to combat inflation) and maintaining strict capital controls (in order to limit inflation). While they should be patted on the back for creativity, such Central Banks must understand that their efforts are probably doomed to fail over the long-term. That’s because currency investors understand that only a masochistic, short-sighted Central Bank would pursue a weak currency policy in spite of rising inflation for a sustained period of time. Unless economic growth slows (which is unlikely without certain policy measures) and/or inflation magically abates (due to steadying food/commodity prices, etc.), they will eventually have no choice to concede defeat. “Central banks view the level of exchange rates as the priority rather than using them to help slow inflation. Once you start targeting multiple objectives, the odds for policy mistakes increase,” summarized one strategist.

The only win/win solution involves a simultaneous appreciation of all emerging market currencies. This would alleviate some inflationary pressures without altering the competitive dynamics of national export sectors and negatively impacting economic growth. According to the Financial Times, “There could be a surprise agreement to rebalance currencies at the Group of 20 this spring, although the failure of its November summit does not augur well.” Besides, any agreement would probably be in the form of a reiteration of the status quo, in which emerging markets independently (rather than in concert) pursue similar economic policy objectives.

For better or worse, emerging market governments have started to refocus the blame for the currency wars away from the US and towards China. Regardless of whether the US is at fault for its quantitative easing program, emerging markets compete with China – and its allegedly undervalued currency – in matters of trade. Pressuring China to allow the Yuan to appreciate, then, would ultimately go a lot further in ending the currency war and eliminating their predicament than screaming at the Fed for flooding the world with Dollars. Due to a new President and shifting politics, Brazil is angling to force the issue.  Given that China is currently in the same boat (rising inflation with low interest rates), this might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. “China may be more sensitive to what the other major emerging market countries think about its currency. It undermines their moral high ground when it’s Brazil criticizing them instead of the U.S,” observed one analyst.

In any event, barring some unforeseen crisis and a flare-up in risk aversion, emerging markets are expected to continue attracting outside capital (more than $1 Trillion in 2011 alone), and their currencies are expected to continue their steady, upward march.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Emerging Currencies | No Comments »

British Pound Faces Contradictory 2011

Jan. 27th 2011

The last few years have been volatile for the British Pound. In 2007, it touched a 26-year high against the US Dollar, before falling to a 24-year low a little more than one year later. During the throes of the credit crisis, analysts predicted that it would drop all the way to parity. Alas, it has since managed to claw back a substantial portion of its losses, and finished 2010 close to where it started.

At the moment, however, there are two contradictory forces tugging at the Pound, which could send up upwards against the Euro but lower against the US Dollar. The first is the sovereign debt crisis in the EU, which flared up dramatically in 2010 and currently threatens to crippled the Euro. I will offer more commentary on this issue in a later post; for now, I just want to point out its role in supporting the Pound. While the Dollar is the Euro’s chief rival, many traders have turned to the Pound (and the Swiss Franc) because of their regional proximity. “As long as the euro-zone debt crisis is in the focus of the market, it will be the main driver of euro-pound,” summarized one strategist.

The second force (or set of forces) is propelling the Pound in the opposite direction. Basically, the UK economy remains depressed. Thanks to an unexpected contraction in the fourth quarter, GDP growth in 2010 was an exceptionally modest 1.7%. This was hardly enough to compensate for the average annual growth of .1%/year from 2006 to 2009, and send the Pound tumbling. Forecasts for 2011 and 2012 have since been revised downward to about 2%.

In order to spur Britain’s export sector, the Bank of England has deliberately acted to hold down the Pound, which it has managed to achieve through a combination of quantitative easing and low interest rates. “For a long time that’s what we were targeting, and we managed to get it down by about 25 percent — the exchange rate, that’s had a huge benefit to the U.K. economy,” a former member of the monetary policy committee recently admitted.


An unintended byproduct of this policy has been price inflation. At 3.75%, the inflation rate is among the highest in the industrialized world, and certainly the highest among G4 currencies. At the very least, the Bank of England will have to suspend any aspirations to match the Fed in printing more currency and expanding its QE program. It will probably also have no choice but to raise interest rates, which it might otherwise not have done until the economy is on more solid footing. The markets are currently projecting an initial rate hike of 25 basis points in the third quarter, and for the benchmark rate to exceed 1.5% by the end of the year, compared to .5% currently.

It’s difficult to say how the currency markets will make sense of this. Given that real interest rates will remain negative (due to inflation), it seems unlikely that any yield-seeking investors will suddenly start targeting the British Pound. In addition, given that the risk of ‘stagflation’ in the UK is now real and that the government is set to assume a record amount of new debt over the next few years, risk-averse investors will probably stay away. According to the latest Commitment of Traders report, speculators are already starting to establish bearish positions against the US Dollar.

While the Pound looks vulnerable, the big unknown is ultimately the EU fiscal crisis. If one of the peripheral members leaves the Euro, as some commentators predict will finally happen, then all bets (for the Pound, etc.) are off.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in British Pound | No Comments »

Dow Jones Ramps up Forex Coverage

Jan. 25th 2011

In a nod to the growing importance of forex ($4 Trillion per day and growing!), Dow Jones recently announced the development of a new forex news service. While many of the features may only be available at some expense to professional subscribers, retail traders should still enjoy some benefit.

According to the Financial Times
, “Financial institutions spend over $1.7bn for foreign exchange news and information… However, Dow Jones’ estimated $22m forex market data sales last year trailed far behind Thomson Reuters, at $1.28bn, and Bloomberg, at $518m.” The “news and commentary” segment (which includes The Forex Blog…) accounted for about $100 million of such spending, “with two-thirds of the market controlled by Informa, Dow Jones and IFR Markets.”

DJ FX Trader will apparently aim to solidify Dow Jones position in forex news, while enhancing its stature in the forex information space. Towards that end, its news coverage will be backed by a staff of more than 100 – which have already been instructed to “seek out interviews that could move foreign exchange markets,” while its information offerings will be supported by its investments in algorithmic trading technology, the hiring of former currency traders, and use of a comprehensive outside data feed.

Of course, most of the advanced features will be made available only to those that pay a hefty subscription fee, estimated at more than $100,000 per year. (Bloomberg Terminal, by comparison, costs about $20,000 per year.) It’s not clear exactly what that will include, although for that price, you would expect nothing less than real-time quotes for all currencies on all major exchanges at all times. Its software package would presumably be the the best available, with the ability to run multi-variable trading strategies that execute instantaneously and automatically.

You might wonder why I bother to report on a service that will be prohibitively expensive for almost all retail forex traders. As I reported last week, a recent Federal Reserve Bank study showed that the effectiveness of technical analysis has gradually declined over the last few decades. As a result, the only way to consistently profit is through the use of increasingly sophisticated trading strategies and instantaneous and comprehensive access to information and rates. Similarly, the majority of currency traders (sadly in my opinion) rely on leverage and rapid-fire trading to eke out small gains on each trader. Being even one second late and losing to other traders (or scammed by your broker, as the CFTC has alleged) could mean the difference between winning and losing over the long run.

I’m not seriously encouraging anyone to consider plunking down $100K for DJ Forex Trader. Instead, I merely want to illustrate the gap in information that is forming between the “have” traders and the “have-nots.” As trading is increasingly electronic and algorithmic, and all technical analysis is performed by computers, I remain more convinced than ever that quality, fundamental analysis is the key to making money trading currencies over the long run.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Investing & Trading | No Comments »

Latin America Enters Currency War

Jan. 23rd 2011

A few years ago, I wouldn’t deign to discuss such obscure currencies as the Chilean Peso and the Peru New Sol. But this is a new era! These currencies – and their Central Banks – are being thrust into the spotlight as they join more established Latin American countries in the fight to contain currency appreciation.


Major Latin American currencies have collectively appreciated more than 29% since March 2009. (When researching this post, I discovered the fantastically apropos JP Morgan Latin American Currency Index, which is based on the currencies of Mexico, Columbia, Brazil, Argentina, Peru, and Chile, and is displayed in the chart above). That includes a nearly 45% gain in the Brazilian Real and a 30% rise in the Mexican Peso, with more modest gains by the Peru New Sol, Chilean Peso, and Colombian Peso. The Argentinean Peso seems to be dragging the entire index down, having never recovered from the sovereign debt default in 2008.

Over this period, capital has poured into Latin America: “Net private inflows surged to $203.4 billion last year from $57.5 billion in 2003, according to the World Bank. Stock market indices in the region are closing in on all-time highs, and bond prices have risen (i.e. 32% gain in Colombian bonds in 2010) to such an extent that spreads to Treasury Securities – the most common comparison – have narrowed to record lows. Perhaps this not for naught, as the region recorded economic growth of 5.7% in 2010 on the basis of rising commodities prices, aggressive/fiscal policies, and an overall global economic recovery.

Faced now with rising inflation (6% in Brazil, 4.5% in Chile, 11%+ in Argentina, etc.) and declining export competitiveness, Latin American countries have moved to stem the appreciation of their respective currencies. Brazil, whose finance minister coined the term ‘currency war’ and has been one of the most aggressive interveners in the forex markets, has been the most active. Its Central Bank continues to buy massive quantities of Dollars, it has raised taxes on capital controls, and most recently it moved to limit the ability of banks to short Dollars as a means of betting on the Real’s appreciation.

Meanwhile, “Chile, which hadn’t bought dollars in the foreign-exchange market since 2008, announced Jan. 3 it would purchase a record $12 billion, equal to 43 percent of the country’s currency reserves. In Colombia…the central bank is buying at least $20 million a day in the spot market. Peru purchased $9 billion last year, the second-biggest amount ever. While Mexico has so far refrained from intervention, it recently negotiated an IMF credit line which it could potentially tap for the purpose of holding down the Peso. All together, the Central Bank reserves of the six currencies mentioned above rose 16.5% in 2010 and now exceed $500 Billion.

It’s difficult to discern whether this intervention is having any impact. On the one hand, the raising of reserve requirements will certainly make it difficult for domestic banks to short their own currencies. In addition, some foreign speculators are getting spooked about all of the uncertainty and have moved to limit their exposure to Latin America. “There might be every macro reason in the world to love the Brazilian currency, but the randomness of policy to try and stop appreciation makes us want to have a smaller position,” explained one fund manager.

On the other hand, there is the possibility that legitimate institutional investors will also be scared away, which is problematic because Latin America remains reliant on foreign capital to fund its lavish fiscal spending and growing trade deficits. “There’s always a danger that by having capital controls, you can force some good capital to stay out of the country,” summarized one analyst. There are also concerns that Central Banks are losing sight of the bigger picture: “Central banks view the level of exchange rates as the priority rather than using them to help slow inflation.”

The problem, ultimately, is that Latin American countries want to have their cake and eat it too. The President of Colombia spoke recently of 5% GDP growth and the country’s desire to “put itself in the coming years among the most dynamic economies in the world,” but has whined about the upward pressure on the Peso. Brazil’s newly elected president has also spoken of becoming a global economic leader while its Finance Minister continues to sound off on the currency war. Meanwhile, Chile’s economy remains heavily tilted towards copper exports (it is apparently the world’s largest producer), and then wonders why rising prices have lifted the Chilean Peso. All blame the Fed’s Quantitative Easing Program for their currency woes and use China’s currency peg as basis for intervention.


In short, the appreciation of Latin American currencies has largely mirrored fundamentals. Individually and as a group, their exchange rates are still well below the bubble levels of 2008. Most of the rise over the last two years has merely offset the precipitous declines that took place during the height of the credit crisis. In addition, given the divergence in performance between individual currencies, it’s clear that investors (whether speculative or passive) are discerning. They have flooded the commodities producers with cash, while continuing to punish Mexico and Argentina over fiscal issues.

For that reason, there is reason to believe that most of the region’s currencies will continue to appreciate. Central Banks might manage to stall that appreciation in the short-term, but once they accept the inevitability of interest rate hikes (as Brazil already has) as the cure for inflation, the long-term upward path will be restored. Summarized one economist, “In these games of cat and mouse, I think policy makers will probably lose. There is too much unregulated capital in the world, particularly in developed countries. These guys will find ways around various restrictions.”

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

Aussie May Have Peaked in 2010

Jan. 20th 2011

When offering forecasts for 2011, I feel like I can just take the stock phrase “______ is due for a correction” and apply it to one of any number of currencies. But let’s face it: 2009 – 2010 were banner years for commodity currencies and emerging market currencies, as investors shook off the credit crisis and piled back into risky assets. As a result, a widespread correction might be just what the doctor ordered, starting with the Australian Dollar.

By any measure, the Aussie was a standout in the forex markets in 2010. After getting off to a slow start, it rose a whopping 25% against the US Dollar, and breached parity (1:1) for the first time since it was launched in 1983. Just like with every currency, there is a narrative that can be used to explain the Aussie’s rise. High interest rates. Strong economic growth. In the end, though, it comes down to commodities.

If you chart the recent performance of the Australian Dollar, you will notice that it almost perfectly tracks the movement of commodities prices. (In fact, if not for the fact that commodities are more volatile than currencies, the two charts might line up perfectly!) By no coincidence, the structure of Australia’s economy is increasingly tilted towards the extraction, processing, and export of raw materials. As prices for these commodities have risen (tripling over the last decade), so, too, has demand for Australian currency.

To take this line of reasoning one step further, China represents the primary market for Australian commodities. “China, according to the Reserve Bank of Australia, accounts for around two-thirds of world iron ore demand, about one-third of aluminium ore demand and more than 45 per cent of global demand for coal.” In other words, saying that the Australian Dollar closely mirrors commodities prices is really an indirect way of saying that the Australian Dollar is simply a function of Chinese economic growth.

Going forward, there are many analysts who are trying to forecast the Aussie based on interest rates and risk appetite and the impact of this fall’s catastrophic floods. (For the record, the former will gradually rise from the current level of 4.75%, and the latter will shave .5% or so from Australian GDP, while it’s unclear to what extent the EU sovereign debt crisis will curtail risk appetite…but this is all beside the point.) What we should be focusing on is commodity prices, and more importantly, the Chinese economy.

Chinese GDP probably grew 10% in 2010, exceeding both economists’ forecasts and the goals of Chinese policymakers. The concern, however, is that the Chinese economic steamer is now powering forward at an uncontrollable speed, leaving asset bubbles and inflation in its wake. The People’s Bank of China has begun to cautiously lift interest rates, raise reserve ratios, and tighten the supply of credit. This should gradually trickle down in the form of price stability and more sustainable growth.

Some analysts don’t expect the Chinese economic juggernaut to slow down: “While there is always a chance of a slowdown in China, the authorities there have proved remarkably adept at getting that economy going again should it falter.” But remember- the issue is not whether its economy will suddenly falter, but whether those same “authorities” will deliberately engineer a slowdown, in order to prevent consumer prices and asset prices from rising inexorably.

The impact on the Aussie would be devastating. “A recent study by Fitch concluded that if China’s growth falls to 5pc this year rather than the expected 10pc, global commodity prices would plunge by as much as 20pc.” [According to that same article, the number of hedge funds that is betting on a Chinese economic slowdown is increasing dramatically]. If the Aussie maintains its close correlation with commodity prices, then we can expect it to decline proportionately if/when China’s economy finally slows down.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Australian Dollar | 5 Comments »

Chinese Yuan Continues to Tick Up

Jan. 18th 2011

At the very end of 2010, the Chinese Yuan managed to cross the important psychological level of 6.60 USD/CNY, reaching the highest level since 1993. Moreover, analysts are unanimous in their expectation that the Chinese Yuan will continue rising in 2011, disagreeing only on the extent. Since the Yuan’s value is controlled tightly  by Chinese policymakers, forecasting the Yuan requires an in-depth look at the surrounding politics.

While American politicians chide it for not doing enough, the Chinese government nonetheless deserves some credit. It has allowed the Yuan to appreciate nearly 25% in total, which should be just enough to satisfy the 25-40% that was initially demanded. Meanwhile, over the last five years, China’s trade surplus has fallen dramatically, to 3.3% of GDP in 2010, compared to a peak of 11% in 2007. In fact, if you don’t include trade with the US, its surplus was basically nil this year.

Therein lies the problem. Despite the fact that prices in Chinese exports should have risen 25% (much more if you take inflation and rising wages into account) since 2004, the China/US trade balance has remained virtually unchanged, and its current account surplus has actually widened. As a result, China’s foreign exchange reserves increased by a record amount in 2010, bringing the total to a whopping $2.9 Trillion! (Of course, these reserves should be thought of as a monetary burden rather than pure wealth, to the same extent as the US Federal Reserve Board’s Balance Sheet must one day be wound down. In the context of this discussion, however, that might be a moot point).

Meanwhile, China is trying to slowly tilt the structure of its economy towards domestic consumption, which is increasing by almost every measure. Its Central Bank is also slowly hiking interest rates and raising the reserve requirements of banks in order to put the brakes on economic growth and rein in inflation. Finally, it is trying to encourage internationalization of the Yuan. There now 70,000 Chinese trade companies that are permitted to settle trades in Chinese Yuan. In addition, Bank of China just announced that US customers will be able to open up Yuan-denominated accounts, and the World Bank became the latest foreign entity to issue an RMB-denominated “Dim-Sum Bond.”


There is also evidence that the Chinese Government’s top leadership – with whom the US government directly negotiates – is actually pushing for a faster appreciation of the RMB but that it faces internal opposition. According to the New York Times, “The debate over revaluing the renminbi… has not advanced much partly because of a fight between central bankers who want the currency to rise and ministers and party bosses who want to protect the vast industrial machine that depends on cheap exports for survival.” In fact, the Bank of China (PBOC) recently warned, “Factors such as the country’s trade surplus, foreign direct investment, China’s interest rate gap with Western countries, yuan appreciation expectations, and rising asset prices are likely to persist, drawing funds into the country,” while a senior Chinese lawmaker pushed back that a “rise in the yuan’s value won’t help the country to curb inflation.”

Some analysts expect a big move in the Yuan that corresponds with this week’s US visit by China’s Prime Minister, Hu Jintao. The average call, however, is for a continued, steady rise. “China’s currency will strengthen 4.9 percent to 6.28 by the end of 2011, according to the median estimate of 19 analysts in a Bloomberg survey. That’s over double the 2 percent gain projected by 12-month non-deliverable forwards.” As I wrote in my previous post on the Chinese Yuan, however, it ultimately depends on inflation – whether it keeps rising and if so, how the government chooses to tackle it.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Chinese Yuan (RMB), Politics & Policy | 1 Comment »

Fed Paper: Power of Technical Analysis in Forex is Declining

Jan. 16th 2011

Being a practitioner of fundamental analysis, you could say that I’m always on the lookout for hard evidence that fundamental analysis is superior to technical analysis. Thus, I was delighted to discover a working paper (“Technical Analysis in the Foreign Exchange Market“) by the St. Louis Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank, released just this month. Alas, the paper barely touched upon fundamental analysis, but its conclusions on technical analysis in the currency markets were startling. In short, the effectiveness of technical analysis in the currency markets has declined steadily since the 1970s, such that only the most sophisticated/complicated strategies are currently profitable.

Rather than conduct original research, the report’s authors – Christopher J. Neely, an assistant vice president and economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and Paul A. Weller, the John F. Murray Professor of Finance at the University of Iowa – performed a meta analysis of the existing research. They cited a litany of studies, covered a variety of topics, sometimes with contradictory conclusions. In order to ensure comprehensiveness, they looked at the profitability of numerous types of technical analysis indicators, across numerous currency pairs, over time, in different types of trading environments, and adjusted for risk.

All of the earlier studies, dating back to the 1960s, established the profitability of technical analysis, even when it was simplistic. Since then, however, most studies have shown steadily declining effectiveness: “TTRs [Technical Trading Rules] ere able to earn genuine risk-adjusted excess returns in foreign exchange markets at least from the mid-1970s until about 1990…and that rule profitability has been declining since the late 1980s.” The same trend has unfolded in the last decade, as traders have relied increasingly on computerized trading strategies: “Kozhan and Salmon (2010), using high frequency data, find that trading rules derived from a genetic algorithm were profitable in 2003 but that this was no longer true in 2008.”

Given that the two authors also concede that the financial markets are undoubtedly inefficient and that currency markets in particular are filled with observable trends, how should we understand this decline in the effectiveness of technical analysis? In one word, the answer is competition. “Profit opportunities will generally exist in financial markets but…learning and competition will gradually erode [“arbitrage away”] these opportunities as they become known.” In addition, there has been a “dramatic rise in the volume of algorithmic trading,” which has given rise to a so-called financial arms race to develop ever-more sophisticated trading strategies.

Indeed, the research shows that “more complex strategies will persist longer than simple ones. And as some strategies decline as they become less profitable, there will be a tendency for other strategies to appear in response to the changing market environment.” In addition, technical analysis that is used to trade exotic (i.e. less liquid) currencies is more likely to be profitable than major currencies, especially the US Dollar.

The report opens the door to further research, by indicating that “Technical trading can be consistently profitable in certain circumstances.” As if it wasn’t already clear, though, the vast majority of technical traders (perhaps all traders for that matter) are destined to be outmaneuvered and will ultimately lose money trading forex. Another way of looking at this, however, is that the the savviest traders – those that can spot complex trends and execute trading strategies quickly – still have a chance at earning consistent profits.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Investing & Trading | 2 Comments »

Japanese Yen Due for a Correction in 2011

Jan. 14th 2011

Based on every measure, the Japanese Yen was the world’s best performing major currency in 2010. It notched up gains every one of its 16 major counterparts, and was the only G4 currency to appreciate on a trade-weighted basis. Against the US Dollar, it rose 10%, and touched a 15-year high in the process. However, there is reason to believe that the Yen is now overvalued, and that 2011 will see it decline to more sustainable levels.


I am still somewhat baffled as to why the Yen has risen so inexorably. It is said that “Hindsight is 20/20,” but in this case the benefit of hindsight doesn’t really provide any additional clarity. Of course, there was the Eurozone Sovereign debt crisis and the consequent shift of funds into safe-haven currencies, but let’s not forget that the fiscal problems of Japan are even more pronounced than in the EU. Premiums on credit default swaps signal that the probability of a Japanese government default is twice as high as it is for the US, and there are rumors of a downgrade in its sovereign credit rating. As one commentator summarized, “Just how the Japanese have got away with running up a debt to GDP ratio of over 200% (higher than the PIIGS and the U.S.) is beyond me.” Of course, it helps that this debt is financed almost entirely by domestic savings and is consequently not vulnerable to the changing whims of foreigners, but even so!

Meanwhile, the opportunity cost of investing in Japan is high. While inflation is moot, equity returns are low and bond yields are even lower. “Japanese 10-year yields, the lowest among 32 bond markets tracked by Bloomberg data, will end 2011 at 1.24 percent from 1.19 percent today, according to a weighted forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg News.” Combined with low short-term rates, it would seem that the Japanese Yen would be the perfect candidate for a carry trade strategy.

Although foreigners remain net buyers of Japanese Yen, the current account/trade surplus is gradually narrowing, with the former falling 16% year-over-year and the latter dropping 46%. It seems that “consumers overseas increasingly spurn Japanese products in favor of lower-priced goods from South Korea and other nations.”


Even the Japanese seem to prefer other currencies. According to NIKKEI, “Japanese investors were net buyers of foreign mid- and long-term bonds to the tune of 21.94 trillion yen in 2010, the most since comparable data began being compiled in January 2005.” Japanese companies are also taking advantage of the expensive Yen and strong balance sheets to buy overseas assets. The Economist reports that, “Japanese companies are sitting on a hoard of cash totalling more than ¥202 trillion ($2.4 trillion)…Many companies have earmarked vast sums for acquisitions in 2011 and beyond.”

With GDP projected to fall to 1% in 2011, there would seem to be very little reason to continue buying the Yen. According to the most recent CFTC Commitment of Traders Report, speculators are building up massive short positions in the Yen. Meanwhile, the Central Bank of China is quietly paring down its Yen holdings. Even the Bank of Japan seems to have embraced this inevitability, as it is has already stopped intervening in forex markets on the Yen’s behalf.

According to a Bloomberg News Survey, “Japan’s currency will tumble almost 10 percent against the dollar this year.” Very few analysts think that the bottom will complete fall out from under the Yen, but the majority (myself included) expect a correction of some kind.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Japanese Yen | 1 Comment »

All Eyes on the US Dollar in 2011

Jan. 10th 2011

According to Standard Life Investments, the US Dollar will be one of the top currencies in 2011. (The other currency they cited was the British Pound). How can we understand this notion in the context of record high gold prices and commentary pieces with titles such as “Timing the Inevitable Decline of the U.S. Dollar?”

The Dollar finished 2010 on a high note, both on a trade-weighted basis and against its arch-nemesis, the Euro. Speculators are now net long the Dollar, and according to one analyst, it is now fully “entrenched in rally mode.” Never mind that its performance against the Yen, Franc, and a handful of emerging market currencies was less than stellar; given all that happened over the last couple years, the fact that the Dollar Index is trading near its recent historical average means that the bears have some explaining to do.

To be sure, none of the long-term risks have been addressed. US public debt continues to surge, and will not likely abate in 2011 due to recent tax cuts. Short-term interest rates remain grounded at zero, and long-term yields have only just begun to inch up, which means that risk-taking investors still have cause to shun the Dollar. Ironically, signs of economic recovery in the US have reinforced this trend: “The [positive economic] data, which one would ultimately assume is positive for the U.S., looks better for risk, which in turn puts downward pressure on the dollar.” Finally, the the Financial Balance of Terror makes the US vulnerable to a sudden decision by Central Banks to dump the Dollar.

So what’s driving the Dollar in the short-term? The main factor is of course continued uncertainty in the Eurozone over still-unfolding fiscal crisis, which is directly driving a shift of capital from the EU to the US. Next, the budget-busting tax cuts that I mentioned above are predicted to both boost economic growth and make it less likely that the Federal Reserve Bank will have to deploy the entire $600 Billion that it initially set aside for QE2. (To date, it has spent “only” $175 Billion in this follow-up campaign, compared to the $1.75 Trillion that it deployed in QE1). According to The Economist, “JPMorgan raised its growth forecast for the fourth quarter of next year to 3.5% from 3% as a result [of the tax cuts]. Macroeconomic Advisers, a consultancy, says the new package could raise growth to 4.3% next year, up from its current forecast of 3.7%.”


In fact, long-term rates on US debt have started to creep up. They recently surpassed comparable rates in Canada, and even risk-taking investors are taking notice: “U.S. bond yields are attractive and interesting again,” indicated one analyst. Of course, when analyzing the recent increase in bond yields, it’s impossible to disentangle inflation expectations from concerns over default from optimism over economic. Nevertheless, the consensus is that rates/yields can only rise from here: “The CBO [Congressional Budget Office] estimates that interest rates on 3-month bills and 10-year notes will reach 5.0% and 5.9%, respectively, by 2020.”

As if this wasn’t enough, the exodus out of the US Dollar over the last few decades has virtually ceased, with the US Dollar still accounting for a disproportionate 62.7% of global forex reserves. Furthermore, economists are now coming out of the woodwork to defend the Dollar and argue that its supposed demise is overblown. At last week’s annual meeting of the American Economic Association (and in a related research paper), Princeton University economist Peter B. Kenen “argued that neither Europe’s nor China’s currency presents a valid substitute–nor an International Monetary Fund alternative to the dollar that was created some 40 years ago.” Even if the RMB was a viable reserve currency – which it isn’t – Kenen points out that for all its bluster, China has shied away from taking a more active leadership role in solving global economic issues.

In short, as I’ve argued previously, the Dollar is safe, not just for the time being, but probably for a while.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in US Dollar | 2 Comments »

Varied Forecasts for Canadian Dollar in 2011

Jan. 8th 2011

The Canadian Dollar (“Loonie”) recorded a fairly strong 2010. It appreciated 5.5% against the US Dollar, as an encore to a 16% gain in 2009. Moreover, its rise occurred with remarkably little volatility, fluctuating within a tight range of $0.99 – $1.08 (CAD/USD. It total, it rose against “seven of its major peers,” and “gained 4.4 percent over the past year in a measure of 10 developed-nation currencies, Bloomberg Correlation-Weighted Currency Indexes showed.” As for 2011, it is expected to continue trading close to 1:1 against the USD, though analysts differ over which side of parity it will tend towards.

At the moment, there are a few key fundamental trends driving the Loonie. As the WSJ encapsulated, the first factor is investor risk tolerance: “The fortunes of the risk-sensitive Canadian dollar in 2011 will be determined in large part by the issues driving global market fluctuations.”  Due primarily to the EU sovereign debt crisis, risk appetite continues to experience dramatic ebbs and flows. Based on conventional wisdom, risk averse investors should incline towards shunning the Loonie in favor of the US Dollar and other safe haven currencies. However, if you track the Loonie’s actual performance, you can see that concerns over global financial instability have hardly impacted it. Thus, bulls see this uncertainty as a force that “pushes investors to diversify their foreign exchange holdings by picking up some Canadian dollars.”

The second set of factors are macroeconomic. While slowing slightly in the second half of the year, the Canadian economy nonetheless exhibited a solid performance, which is expected to continue into 2011. Goldman Sachs, for example, “now sees growth accelerating to 3.3 per cent in the second quarter of this year, and 3.5 per cent in both the third and fourth quarters amid improving domestic demand.” However, the strong performance by natural resources and Canadian export strength that drove growth in 2010 could also be interpreted as a wild card in 2011, as the trade surplus narrows from a moderation in commodities prices and an expensive Canadian Dollar.

Finally, there is the continuing search for “value currencies” that is driving investors towards the Loonie. According to Bill Gross, manager of the world’s biggest bond fund, “It’s a critical strategy going forward to get…into some currency that holds its value…I’d suggest Mexico, Brazil or Canada as three examples of countries with good fiscal balance sheets.” It doesn’t hurt that the Bank of Canada was the first G7 central bank to raise interest rates, and that its benchmark interest rate compares favorably with the US Dollar, Yen, etc. Moreover, it is forecast to hike rates by an additional 50 basis points in 2011, beginning in the third quarter. On the other hand, it will still be a couple years before rates are high enough to make carry trading viable. Besides, long-term interest rates are currently higher in the US, which means that investors hungry for yield will ultimately have to find other reasons for shifting funds to Canada.

Forecasts for the Canadian Dollar in 2011 are extremely varied. If there’s any consensus, it is that barring any unforeseen developments, the Loonie will spend the year close to parity with the US Dollar. A couple analysts expect a big (downside) move, but the majority expects that regardless of which way the Loonie ultimately trends, it probably won’t be far removed from current levels. “The Bloomberg composite of 32 forecasts has the loonie spending most of the year at parity, then dipping slightly by the fourth quarter.” A similar WSJ survey shows a median forecast of 1:1 throughout the entire year.

Some analysts expect more movement in the currency crosses (i.e. against currencies besides the US Dollar). Given that the Canadian Dollar accounts for such a small portion of overall forex trading volume, however, it seems more likely that CAD cross rates will take their cues entirely from the USD and the rule of triangular arbitrage. (For example, if the Dollar rises against the Loonie but falls against the Aussie in 2011, the Loonie will necessarily also fall against the Aussie, regardless of whether fundamentals dictate such a movie).

I’m personally inclined to agree with the majority. There are many good reasons to buy the Loonie, but most of these were already priced in during the Loonie’s steady climb over the last two years. Going forward, I think that the US economy represents a double-edged sword that will prevent the Loonie from rising further. In short, if the US economy falters, so will the Canadian economy. If the US economic recovery gathers momentum, however, there will be good reason to buy the US Dollar in lieu of its counterpart to the north.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Canadian Dollar | 1 Comment »

Emerging Market Currencies in 2011

Jan. 5th 2011

Emerging market assets/currencies registered some unbelievable gains in 2010 as the global economy emerged from recession and investor risk appetite picked up. In the last few months, however, emerging market currencies gave back some of their gains as the EU sovereign debt crisis flared up and the currency wars began to rage. Given that neither of these uncertainties is likely to be resolved anytime soon, 2011 could be a tumultuous year for emerging markets.

Let’s look at the numbers for emerging markets in 2010. The highlights for currencies were the Malaysian ringgit and Thai baht rose, both of which “rose around 10% against the dollar, to their strongest levels since the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. The South African rand was up 14% versus the dollar. It was a minor currency, however, that was the world’s best-performing: Mining-rich Mongolia’s togrog finished the year 15% higher against the dollar.” After being allowed to resume its appreciation, the Chinese Yuan rose by a modest 3.5%.

The J.P. Morgan Emerging Markets Bond Index Global returned a record 11.9% in 2010, to the extent that now trades at a modest 2.5% spread over US Treasury bonds. The standout was probably Argentina, whose sovereign debt returned a whopping 35% over the year. Switching to equities, the MSCI Emerging Markets Index returned 16.4%, handily beating the MSCI World Index, which itself rose by an impressive 9.6%. The individual top performing stock markets in 2010 unsurprisingly were “Frontier markets such as Sri Lanka (+96.0%), Bangladesh (+83.5%), Estonia (+72.6%), Ukraine (+70.2%), the Philippines (+56.7%) and Lithuania (+56.5%).” In total, an estimated $825 Billion in private capital flowed into emerging markets during the year, including $53 Billion into local currency bonds.

Emerging markets took advantage of the surge in investor interest to issue record amount of local currency debt and through a plethora of massive stock IPOs. Still, the intractable rise in currency and asset prices was generally seen as an undesirable trend, and emerging markets took significant steps to counter it. More than a dozen central banks have already intervened directly in currency markets in a bid to hold down their currencies. According to the IMF, “Emerging nations had accumulated $1.2 trillion in currency reserves between the financial crisis’s peak in early 2009 and the third quarter of 2010,” including ~$300 Billion in Asia ex-China. Some countries, such as Brazil – poured $1 Billion a week into forex markets during the height of their intervention campaigns.

Speaking of Brazil, it was also among the first to impose capital controls, in the form of a 6% tax on foreign bond investors. Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia have also imposed capital controls, while Mexico has tapped an IMF credit line, which it can use to “manage the stability of its external balances.” Moreover, these countries collectively won an important victory at the fall meeting of the G20, by receiving formal permission for all of these measures.

Alas, most of these inflows were probably justified by fundamentals, which means that they are more difficult to fight against than if they were merely the product of speculation. For example, “Developing countries expanded at a 7.1 per cent rate, compared with 2.7 per cent in advanced countries.” Moreover, emerging market stocks are trading at an average P/E multiple of 14.5, well below their recent historical average. This means that in spite of impressive performance in 2010, corporate profits are still rising faster than share prices. In addition, yields on emerging market sovereign debt still exceed the yields on comparable debt for western countries, despite being lower risk in some ways.

While most of these trends are expected to persist in 2011, there is one overriding wild card. How emerging markets respond to this issue could determine whether emerging market currencies outperform again in 2011 or whether they sink back to more normal levels. Thanks to stimulative economic and fiscal policies, easy credit, and relatively loose monetary policies, emerging markets recorded phenomenal GDP growth in 2010. The downside has been inflation.

Inflation in Brazil and China, for example, officially exceeds 5%. (The actual rates are almost certainly higher). These countries, and a handful of others, are now in the awkward position of trying to control inflation without stimulating further currency appreciation. If they raise interest rates, economic growth and price growth will almost certainly moderate. By the same token,speculative hot money will probably continue to flow in. If they don’t tighten policy, however, inflation could easily spiral out of control, provoking economic stability and even social unrest. The upside is that real interest rates will turn negative, and their currencies will probably be depreciated by investors.

Most analysts expect emerging market central banks to gradually hike interest rates over the next couple years. For fear of stoking further speculation, however, policy will probably remain somewhat accommodative and will be accompanied by strict capital controls. Meanwhile, economic growth should begin to pick up in the industrialized world, accompanied by a similar tightening of monetary and fiscal policy. As a result, investors will be forced to decide whether risk-adjusted real returns in emerging markets are adequate, and if not, whether to reverse the flow of funds back into the industrialized word.

Emerging Market Currencies in 2011
Emerging market assets/currencies registered some unbelievable gains in 2010 as the global economy emerged from recession and investor risk appetite picked up. In the last few months, however, emerging market currencies gave back some of their gains as the EU sovereign debt crisis flared up and the currency wars began to rage. Given that neither of these uncertainties is likely to be resolved in the near future, 2011 could be a tumultuous year for emerging markets.
Let’s look at the numbers for emerging markets in 2010. The highlights for currencies were the Malaysian ringgit and Thai baht rose, both of which “rose around 10% against the dollar, to their strongest levels since the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. The South African rand was up 14% versus the dollar. It was a minor currency, however, that was the world’s best-performing: Mining-rich Mongolia’s togrog finished the year 15% higher against the dollar.” After being allowed to resume its appreciation, the Chinese Yuan rose by a modest 3.5%.
The J.P. Morgan Emerging Markets Bond Index Global returned a record 11.9% in 2010, to the extent that now trades at a modest 2.5% spread over US Treasury bonds. The standout was probably Argentina, whose sovereign debt returned a whopping 35% over the year. Switching to equities, the MSCI Emerging Markets Index returned 16.4%, handily beating the MSCI World Index, which itself rose by an impressive 9.6%. The individual top performing stock markets in 2010 unsurprisingly were “Frontier markets such as Sri Lanka (+96.0%), Bangladesh (+83.5%), Estonia (+72.6%), Ukraine (+70.2%), the Philippines (+56.7%) and Lithuania (+56.5%).” In total, an estimated $825 Billion in private capital flowed into emerging markets during the year, including $53 Billion into currency bonds.
Emerging markets took advantage of the surge in investor interest to issue record amount of local currency debt and through a plethora of massive stock IPOs. Still, the intractable rise in currency and asset prices was generally seen as an undesirable trend, and emerging markets took significant steps to counter it. More than a dozen central banks have already intervened directly in currency markets in a bid to hold down their currencies. According to the IMF, “Emerging nations had accumulated $1.2 trillion in currency reserves between the financial crisis’s peak in early 2009 and the third quarter of 2010,” including ~$300 Billion in Asia ex-China. Some countries, such as Brazil – poured $1 Billion a week into forex markets during the height of their intervention campaigns.
Speaking of Brazil, it was also among the first to impose capital controls, in the form of a 6% tax on foreign bond investors. Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia have also imposed capital controls, while Mexico has tapped an IMF credit line, which it can use to “manage the stability of its external balances.” Moreover, these countries collectively won an important victory at the fall meeting of the G20, by receiving formal permission for all of these measures.
Unfortunately for emerging markets, most of these inflows were probably justified by fundamentals, which means that they are more difficult to fight against than if they were merely the product of speculation. For example, “Developing countries expanded at a 7.1 per cent rate, compared with 2.7 per cent in advanced countries.” Moreover, emerging market stocks are trading at an average P/E multiple of 14.5, well below their recent historical average. This means that in spite of impressive performance in 2010, corporate profits are still rising faster than share prices. In addition, yields on emerging market sovereign debt still exceed the yields on comparable debt for western countries, despite being lower risk in some ways.
While most of these trends are expected to persist in 2011, there is one overriding wild card. How emerging markets respond to this issue could determine whether emerging market currencies outperform again in 2011 or whether they sink back to more normal levels. Thanks stimulative economic and fiscal policies, easy credit, and relatively loose monetary policies, emerging markets recorded phenomenal GDP growth in 2010. The downside has been inflation.
Inflation in Brazil and China, for example, officially exceeds 5%. (The actual rates are almost certainly higher). These countries, and a handful of others, are now in the awkward position of trying to control inflation without stimulating further currency appreciation. In other words, if they raise interest rates, economic growth and price growth will almost certainly moderate. By the same token, speculative hot money will probably continue to flow in. If they don’t tighten policy, however, inflation could easily spiral out of control, provoking economic stability and even social unrest. The upside is that real interest rates will turn negative, and their currencies will probably be depreciated by investors.
Most analysts expect emerging market central banks to gradually hike interest rates over the next couple years. For fear of stoking further speculation, however, policy will probably remain somewhat accommodative and will be accompanied by strict capital controls. Meanwhile, economic growth should begin to pick up in the industrialized world, accompanied by a similar tightening of monetary and fiscal policy. As a result, investors will be forced to decide whether risk-adjusted real returns in emerging markets are adequate, and whether to reverse the flow of funds into emerging markets.

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

Euro: Which Investors Know Best?

Jan. 2nd 2011

As the WSJ recently pointed out, there is a bizarre disconnect between equities and currency markets regarding the Euro. On the one hand, the Euro was the world’s worst performing major currency in 2010, and some analysts insist that its breakup is inevitable. On the other hand, stock market investors are increasingly bullish about Europe: “We remain positive on the outlook for [European] stocks in 2011, with a favorable macro backdrop, solid earnings and attractive valuations.” Who’s right?

In fact, both sets of investors are justified. As you would expect, stock market investors are focusing on corporate earnings and the macroeconomic environment. In this regard, the fact that the EU economy expanded in 2010 – buoyed by a cheap currency and loose monetary policy – should certainly be reflected in a stronger stock prices. On the other hand, the sovereign debt crisis in EU has not yet abated, and accordingly, it is still being priced into EUR/ exchange rates.

In the immediate short-term, it’s possible that stock market investors will prevail and that that their collective view will be adopted by currency markets. According to Deutsche Bank, “The euro may rise to $1.45 by the end of the first quarter of next year, as concerns about the single-currency area’s indebted periphery diminish.” Meanwhile, China recently pledged its support for the Euro via a promise to purchase up to €5 Billion in Portuguese Sovereign debt. Over the short-term, then, it’s possible that (currency) investors can be persuaded to temporarily forget about the prospect of default, and focus instead on the Eurozone’s nascent economic recovery.

Over the medium-term, however, the markets will have no choice but to  return their attention to the possibility of default, which is why the same team of analysts from Deutsche Bank “forecasts the euro will fall back to $1.40 by the end of the second quarter and to $1.30 by the year-end.” For example, Eurozone members will need to issue more than €500bn in debt in 2011, including €400bn that needs to be refinanced by Spain and Italy. In this context, China’s purchases will fade to the point of becoming trivial.

Meanwhile, Moody’s has warned that it could follow up on its 5-notch downgrade of Ireland’s sovereign credit rating with further downgrades for Spain and Portugal. Fitch added that it might bump Greece’s rating to junk status, which would deal a significant blow to its solvency. Default is now rapidly on course to becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, as fleeing investors cause yields to rise and credit ratings to fall, further scaring away more investors.

The EU response has been to “set up a permanent mechanism from mid-2013,” while investors continue to push for an expansion of the European Financial Stability Facility or the joint issuance of European sovereign bonds. As a result, the Center for Economics and Business Research has issued a striking forecast that there is an 80% probability that the European Monetary Union will dissolve over the next decade: “If the euro doesn’t break up, this could be the year when it weakens substantially towards parity with the dollar.” Already, spot market traders are once again increasing their short bets for the Euro, and options trading remains “skewed toward euro puts.”

To be fair, some analysts continue to insist that it is better to think of the sovereign debt problems as a crisis of credit, rather than of currency. In that sense, there is hope that a solution can be engineered (perhaps encompassing a default) that doesn’t endanger the existence of the Euro. In addition, the Euro finished 2010 on a high note, formally welcoming Estonia into the fold. It is 10% above its June trough, including a 2% rise in the month of December. Given all of the bad news in 2010, that might just be cause for optimism.

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

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