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Archive for April, 2011

Emerging Market Currency Correlations Break Down

Apr. 29th 2011

A picture is truly worth a thousand words. [That probably means I should stop writing lengthy blog posts and instead stick to posting charts and other graphics, but that’s a different story…] Take a look at the chart below, which shows a handful of emerging market (“EM”) currencies, all paired against the US dollar. At this time last year, you can see that all of the pairs were basically rising and falling in tandem. One year later, the disparity between the best and worst performers is already significant. In this post, I want to offer an explanation as to why this is the case, and what we can expect going forward.

In the immediate wake of the credit crisis, I think that investors were somewhat unwilling to make concentrated bets on specific market sectors and specific assets, as part of a new framework for managing risk. To the extent that they wanted exposure to emerging markets, then, they would achieve this through buying broad-based indexes and baskets of currencies. As a result of this indiscriminate investing, prices for emerging market stocks, bonds, currencies, and other assets all rose simultaneously, which rarely happens.

Around November of last year, that started to change. The currency wars were in full swing, inflation was rising, and there were doubts over whether EM central banks would have the stomach to tighten monetary policy, lest it increase the appreciation pressures on their respective currencies. EM stock and bond markets sputtered, and EM currencies dropped across the board. Shortly thereafter, I posted Emerging Market Currencies Still Have Room to Rise, and currencies resumed their upward march. It wasn’t until recently, however, that bond and stock prices followed suit.

What changed? In a nutshell, emerging market central banks have gotten serious about tackling inflation. That’s not to say that they raised interest rates and accepted currency appreciation as an inevitable byproduct. On the contrary, they have adopted so-called macroprudential measures (quickly becoming one of the buzzwords of 2011!), with the goal of heading off inflation without influencing broader economic growth. Most EM central banks have sought to achieve this by raising their required reserve ratios (see chart above), limiting the amount of money that banks can lend out. In this way, they sought to curtail access to credit and limit growth in the money supply without inviting a flood of yield-seeking investors from abroad. Other central banks have gone ahead and hiked interest rates (namely Brazil), but have used taxes and other types of capital controls to discourage speculators.

You can see from the chart of the JP Morgan Emerging Market Bond Index (EMBI+) below that EM bond markets have rallied, which is the opposite of what you would normally expect from a tightening of monetary policy. However, since EM central banks have thus far implemented tightening without directly influencing interest rates, bond yields haven’t risen as you might expect. In addition, whereas sovereign credit ratings are falling in the G7 as a result of weak fiscal and economic outlooks, ratings are actually being raised for the developing world. As a result, EM yields are falling, and the EMBI+ spread to US Treasury securities is currently under 3 percentage points.

The primary impetus for buying emerging markets continues to come from interest rate differentials. Given that interest rates remain low (on both an historical and inflation-adjusted basis), however, it’s unclear whether support for EM currencies will remain in place, or is even justified. Furthermore, I wonder if demand isn’t being driven more by dollar weakness than by EM strength. If you re-cast the chart above relative to the euro, the performance of EM currencies is much less impressive, and in some cases, negative. This trend is likely to continue, as Ben Bernanke’s recent press conference confirmed that the Fed isn’t really close to hiking interest rates.

Ultimately, the outlook for EM currencies is tied closely to the outlook for inflation. If raising the required reserve ratios is enough to head off inflation (and other forces, such as rising commodity prices, abate), then EM central banks can probably avoid raising interest rates. In that case, you can probably expect a correction in forex markets, which will be amplified by rate hikes in the G7. On the other hand, if inflation continues to rise, broad EM interest rate hikes will become necessary, and the floodgates will have been opened to carry traders.Either way, the gap between the high-yielding currencies and the low-yielding ones will continue to widen. In answering the question that I posed above, I expect that regardless of what happens, investors will only become more discriminate. EM central banks are diverging in their conduct of monetary policy, and it no longer makes sense to treat all EM currencies as one homogeneous unit.

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

Dollar will Rally when QE2 Ends

Apr. 27th 2011

In shifting their focus to interest rates, forex traders have perhaps overlooked one very important monetary policy event: the conclusion of the Fed’s quantitative easing program. By the end of June, the Fed will have added $600 Billion (mostly in US Treasury Securities) to its reserves, and must decide how next to proceed. Naturally, everyone seems to have a different opinion, regarding both the Fed’s next move and the accompanying impact on financial markets.

The second installment of quantitative easing (QE2) was initially greeted with skepticism by everyone except for equities investors (who correctly anticipated the continuation of the stock market rally). In November, I reported that QE2 was unfairly labeled a lose-lose by the forex markets: “If QE2 is successful, then hawks will start moaning about inflation and use it as an excuse to sell the Dollar. If QE2 fails, well, then the US economy could become mired in an interminable recession, and bears will sell the Dollar in favor of emerging market currencies.”

The jury is still out on whether QE2 was a success. On the one hand, US GDP growth continues to gather force, and should come in around 3% for the year. A handful of leading indicators are also ticking up, while unemployment may have peaked. On the other hand, actual and forecast inflation are rising (though it’s not clear how much of that is due to QE2 and how much is due to other factors). Stock and commodities prices have risen, while bond prices have fallen. Other countries have been quick to lambaste QE2 (including most recently, Vladimir Putin) for its perceived role in inflating asset bubbles around the world and fomenting the currency wars.

Personally, I think that the Fed deserves some credit- or at least doesn’t deserve so much blame. If you believe that asset price inflation is being driven by the Fed, it doesn’t really make sense to blame it for consumer and producer price inflation. If you believe that price inflation is the Fed’s fault, however, then you must similarly acknowledge its impact on economic growth. In other words, if you accept the notion that QE2 funds have trickled down into the economy (rather than being used entirely for financial speculation), it’s only fair to give the Fed credit for the positive implications of this and not just the negative ones.

But I digress. The more important questions are: what will the Fed do next, and how will the markets respond. The consensus seems to be that QE2 will not be followed by QE3, but that the Fed will not yet take steps to unwind QE2. Ben Bernanke echoed this sentiment during today’s inaugural press conference: “The next step is to stop reinvesting the maturing securities, a move that ‘does constitute a policy tightening.’ ” This is ultimately a much bigger step, and one that Chairman Bernanke will not yet commit.

As for how the markets will react, opinions really start to diverge. Bill Gross, who manages the world’s biggest bond fund, has been an outspoken critic of QE2 and believes that the Treasury market will collapse when the Fed ends its involvement. His firm, PIMCO, has released a widely-read report that accuses the Fed of distracting investors with “donuts” and compares its monetary policy to a giant Ponzi scheme. However, the report is filled with red herring charts and doesn’t ultimately make any attempt to account for the fact that Treasury rates have fallen dramatically (the opposite of what would otherwise be expected) since the Fed first unveiled QE2.

The report also concedes that, “The cost associated with the end of QEII therefore appears to be mostly factored into forward rates.” This is exactly what Bernanke told reporters today: “It’s [the end of QE2] ‘unlikely’ to have significant effects on financial markets or the economy…because you and the markets already know about it.” In other words, financial armmagedon is less likely when the markets have advanced knowledge and the ability to adjust. If anything, some investors who were initially crowded-out of the bond markets might be tempted to return, cushioning the Fed’s exit.

If bond prices do fall and interest rates rise, that might not be so bad for the US dollar. It might lure back overseas investors, grateful both for higher yields and the end of QE2. Despite the howls, foreign central banks never shunned the dollar.  In addition, the end of QE2 only makes a short-term interest rate that much closer. In short, it’s no surprise that the dollar is projected to “appreciate to $1.35 per euro by the end of the year, according to the median estimate of 47 analysts in a Bloomberg News survey. It will gain to 88 per yen, a separate poll shows.”

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, US Dollar | 2 Comments »

Economic Theory Implies Canadian Dollar will Fall

Apr. 25th 2011

Sometimes I wonder if I’m living in the clouds. All of my recent reports on the Canadian dollar were twinged with pessimism, and I argued that it would only be a matter of time before reality caught up with theory. While the continued surge in commodities prices has confounded everyone’s expectations, other economic trends continue to work against Canada. In other words, I think that there is still a strong argument to be made for shorting the loonie.

To be sure, the rally in commodities prices has been incredible- nearly 50% in less than a year! Oil prices are surging, gold prices just touched a record high, and a string of natural disasters have driven prices for agricultural staples to stratospheric levels. Given the perception of the Canadian dollar as a commodity currency, then, it’s no wonder that rising commodity prices have translated into a stronger currency.

As I’ve argued previously, rising commodities prices are basically an irrelevant – or even distracting – factor when it comes to analyzing the loonie. That’s because, contrary to popular belief, commodities represent an almost negligible component of Canada’s economy. Canadian exports, of which commodities probably account for half, have recovered from the recession lows of 2009. On the other hand, the value of Canadian exports is basically the same as it was 10 years ago, when one US dollar could be exchanged for 1.5 Canadian dollars.

Consider also that Canada now imports more than it exports, and that the Canadian balance of trade recently dipped into deficit for the first time since records started being kept 40 years ago. Its current account has similarly plunged, as Canadians have had to finance this through loans and investment capital from abroad. Based on the expenditure approach to GDP, trade actually detracts from Canadian GDP. Any way you perform the calculations, commodities are hardly the backbone of its economy, account for about 15% at most.

As if that weren’t enough, the press is full of stories of Canadians that think their own currency is overvalued. Businesses complain that they can’t compete, and that banks won’t lend them the money they need to upgrade their facilities and become more efficient. Meanwhile consumers whine about higher prices in Canada, compared to the US. I think it’s very telling that there is now a 2-hour wait to cross the border from Vancouver, and shopping malls on the American side have reported a huge jump in business. Even the famous Big Mac Index shows that the price of a hamburger was already 12% higher in Canada back when the loonie was still hovering around parity with the US Dollar.

One area that higher commodities prices will be felt is inflation, which is nearing a two-year high and rising. At 3.3%, Canada’s CPI rate is now higher than in the EU. Given that the European Central Bank hiked rates earlier this month, it probably won’t be long before the Bank of Canada follows suit. In fact, forecasters expect the benchmark rate to rise by 50-75 basis points by the end of the year, from the current 1%.

This might excite carry traders, but probably few others. Besides, given that other central banks will probably raise rates concurrently, it can’t be assumed that carry traders will automatically gravitate towards the Canadian dollar. Not to mention that as I pointed out in my previous post, the carry trade is hardly a risk-free proposition. In this case, an interest rate differential of only 1-2% probably isn’t enough to compensate for the risk of a correction in the USD/CAD.

And that is exactly what I expect will happen. The fact that the loonie has shattered even the most optimistic forecasts is not cause for bullishness, but rather for concern. According to the most recent Commitment of Traders report, net long positions are reaching extreme levels, and it’s probably only a matter of time before the loonie returns to earth.

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

Icelandic Kronur: Lessons from a Failed Carry Trade

Apr. 23rd 2011

A little more than two years ago, the Icelandic Kronur was one of the hottest currencies in the world. Thanks to a benchmark interest rate of 18%, the Kronur had particular appeal for carry traders, who worried not about the inherent risks of such a strategy. Shortly thereafter, the Kronur (as well as Iceland’s economy and banking sector) came crashing down, and many traders were wiped out. Now that a couple of years have passed, it’s probably worth reflecting on this turn of events.


At its peak, nominal GDP was a relatively modest $20 Billion, sandwiched between Nepal and Turkmenistan in the global GDP rankings. Its population is only 300,000, its current account has been mired in persistent deficit, and its Central Bank boasts a mere $8 Billion in foreign exchange reserves. That being the case, why did investors flock to Iceland and not Turkmenistan?

The short answer to that question is interest rates. As I said, Iceland’s benchmark interest rate exceeded 18% at its peak. There are plenty of countries that offered similarly high interest rates, but Iceland was somehow perceived as being more stable. While it didn’t apply to join the European Union (its application is still pending) until last year, Iceland has always benefited from its association with Europe in general, and Scandinavia in particular. Thanks to per capita GDP of $38,000 per person, its reputation as a stable, advanced economy was not unwarranted.

On the other hand, Iceland has always struggled with high inflation, which means its interest rates were never very high in real terms. In addition, the deregulation of its financial sector opened the door for its banks to take huge risks with deposits. Basically, depositors – many from outside the country – parked their savings in Icelandic banks, which turned around and invested the money in high-yield / high-risk ventures. When the credit crisis struck, its banks were quickly wiped out, and the government chose not to follow in the footsteps of other governments and bail them out.


Moreover, it doesn’t look like Iceland will regain its luster any time soon. Its economy has shrunk by 40% over the last two years, and one prominent economist has estimated that it will take 7-10 years for it to fully recover. Unemployment and inflation remain high even though interest rates have been cut to 4.25% – a record low. The Kronur has lost 50% of its value against the Dollar and the Euro, the stock market has been decimated, and the recent decision to not remunerate Dutch and British insurance companies that lost money in Iceland’s crash will only serve to further spook foreign investors. In short, while the Kronur will probably recover some of its value over the next few years (aided by the possibility of joining the Euro), it probably won’t find itself on the radar screens of carry traders anytime soon.

In hindsight, Iceland’s economy was an accident waiting to happen, and the global financial crisis only magnified the problem. With Iceland – as well as a dozen other currencies and securities – investors believed they had found the proverbial free lunch. After all, where else could you earn an 18% by putting money in a savings account? Never mind that inflation was just as high; with the Kronur rising, carry traders felt assured that they would make a tidy profit on any funds deposited in Iceland.

The collapse of the Kronur, however, has shown us that the carry trade is anything but risk-free. In fact, 18% is more than what lenders to Greece and Ireland can expect to earn, which means that it is ultimately a very risky investment. In this case, the 18% that was being paid to depositors were generated by making very risky investments. As the negotiations with the insurance companies have revealed, depositors had nothing protecting them from bank failure, which is ultimately what happened.
Now that the carry trade is making a comeback, it’s probably a good time to take a step back and re-assess the risks of such a strategy. Even if Iceland proves to be an extreme case – since most countries won’t let their banks fail – traders must still acknowledge the possibility of massive currency depreciation. In other words, even if the deposits themselves are guaranteed, there is an ever-present risk that converting that deposit back into one’s home currency will result in losses. That’s especially true for a currency that is as illiquid as the Kronur (so illiquid that it took me a while to even find a reliable quote!), and is susceptible to liquidity crunches and short squeezes.

When you enter into a carry trade, understand that a spike in volatility could wipe out all of your profits in one session. The only way to minimize your risk is to hedge your exposure.

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Forex Markets Focus on Central Banks

Apr. 22nd 2011

Over the last year and increasingly over the last few months, Central Banks around the world have taken center stage in currency markets. First, came the ignition of the currency war and the consequent volley of forex interventions. Then came the prospect of monetary tightening and the unwinding of quantitative easing measures. As if that wasn’t enough to keep them busy, Central Banks have been forced to assume more prominent roles in regulating financial markets and drafting economic policy. With so much to do, perhaps it’s no wonder that Jean-Claude Trichet, head of the ECB, will leave his post at the end of this year!


The currency wars may have subsided, but they haven’t ended. On both a paired and trade-weighted basis, the Dollar is declining rapidly. As a result, emerging market Central Banks are still doing everything they can to protect their respective currencies from rapid appreciation. As I’ve written in earlier posts, most Latin American and Asian Central Banks have already announced targeted strategies, and many intervene in forex markets on a daily basis. If the Japanese Yen continues to appreciate, you can bet the Bank of Japan (perhaps aided by the G7) will quickly jump back in.

You can expect the currency wars to continue until the quantitative easing programs instituted by the G4 are withdrawn. The Fed’s $600 Billion Treasury bond buying program officially ends in June, at which point its balance sheet will near $3 Trillion. The European Central Bank has injected an equally large hunk of cash into the Eurozone economy. Despite inflation that may soon exceed 5%, the Bank of England voted not to sell its cache of QE assets, while the Bank of Japan is actually ratcheting up its program as a result of the earthquake-induced catastrophe. Whether or not this manifests itself in higher inflation, investors have signaled their distaste by bidding up the price of gold to a new record high.


Then there are the prospective rate hikes, cascading across the world. Last week, the European Central Bank became the first in the G4 to hike rates (though market rates have hardly budged). The Reserve Bank of Australia, however, was the first of the majors to hike rates. Since October 2009, it has raised its benchmark by 175 basis points; its 4.75% cash rate is easily the highest in the industrialized world. The Bank of Canada started hiking in June 2010, but has kept its benchmark on hold at 1% since September. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand lowered its benchmark to a record low 2.5% as a result of serious earthquakes and economic weakness.

Going forward, expectations are for all Central Banks to continue (or begin) hiking rates at a gradual pace over the next couple years. If forecasts prove to be accurate, the US Federal Funds Rate will stand around .5% at the beginning of 2012, tied with Switzerland, and ahead of only Japan. The UK Rate will stand slightly above 1%, while the Eurozone and Canadian benchmarks will be closer to 2%. The RBA cash rate should exceed 5%. Rates in emerging markets will probably be even higher, as all four BRIC countries (Russia, Brazil, China, India) should be well into the tightening cycles.


On the one hand, there is reason to believe that the pace of rate hikes will be slower than expected. Economic growth remains tepid across the industrialized world, and Central Banks are wary about spooking their economies with premature rate hikes. Besides, Fed watchers may have learned a lesson as a result of a brief bout of over-excitement in 2010 that ultimately led to nothing. The Economist has reported that, “Markets habitually assign too much weight to the hawks, however. The real power at the Fed rests with its leaders…At present they are sanguine about inflation and worried about unemployment, which means a rate rise this year is unlikely.”  Even the ECB disappointed traders by (deliberately) adopting a soft stance in the press release that accompanied its recent rate hike.

On the other hand, a recent paper published by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) showed that the markets’ track record of forecasting inflation is weak. As you can see from the chart below, they tend to reflect the general trend in inflation, but underestimate when the direction changes suddenly. (This is perhaps similar to the “fat-tail” problem, whereby extreme aberrations in asset price returns are poorly accounted for in financial models). If you apply this to the current economic environment, it suggests that inflation will probably be much higher-than-expected, and Central Banks will be forced to compensate by hiking rates a faster pace.
Finally, in their newfound roles as economic policymakers, Central Banks are increasingly engaged in macroprudential policy. The Economist reports that, “Central banks and regulators in emerging economies have already imposed a host of measures to cool property prices and capital inflows.” These measures are worth watching because their chief aim is to indirectly reduce inflation. If they are successful, it will limit the need for interest rate hikes and reduce upward pressure on their currencies.

In short, given the enhanced ability of Central Banks to dictate exchange rates, traders with long-term outlooks may need to adjust their strategies accordingly. That means not only knowing who is expected to raise interest rates – as well as when and by how much – but also monitoring the use of their other tools, such as balance sheet expansion, efforts to cool asset price bubbles, and deliberate manipulation of exchange rates.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks | No Comments »

Time to Short the Euro

Apr. 20th 2011

Over the last three months, the Euro has appreciated 10% against the Dollar and by smaller margins against a handful of other currencies. Over the last twelve months, that figure is closer to 20%. That’s in spite of anemic Eurozone GDP growth, serious fiscal issues, the increasing likelihood of one or more sovereign debt defaults, and a current account deficit to boot. In short, I think it might be time to short the Euro.


There’s very little mystery as to why the Euro is appreciating. In two words: interest rates. Last week, the European Central Bank (ECB) became the first G4 Central Bank to hike its benchmark interest rate. Moreover, it’s expected to raise rates by an additional 100 basis points over the next twelve months. Given that the Bank of England, Bank of Japan, and US Federal Reserve Bank have yet to unwind their respective quantitative easing programs, it’s no wonder that futures markets have priced in a healthy interest rate advantage into the Euro well into 2012.


From where I’m sitting, the ECB rate hike was fundamentally illogical, and perhaps even counterproductive. Granted, the ECB was created to ensure price stability, and its mandate is less nuanced than its counterparts, which are charged also with facilitating employment and GDP growth. Even from this perspective, however, it looks like the ECB jumped the gun. Inflation in the EU is a moderate 2.7%, which is among the lowest in the world. Other Central Banks have taken note of rising inflation, but only the ECB feels compelled enough to preemptively address it. In addition, GDP growth is a paltry .3% across the EU, and is in fact negative in Greece, Ireland, and Portugal. As if the rate hike wasn’t bad enough, all three countries must contend with a hike in their already stratospheric borrowing costs, ironically making default more likely. Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees!

If the rumors are true, Portugal will soon become the third country to receive a bailout from the EU. (It should be noted that as recently as November, Portugal insisted that it was just fine and that a bailout wasn’t necessary). Its sovereign credit rating is now three notches above junk status. Today, Greece became the first Eurozone country to be awarded this dubious distinction, and Ireland is now only one downgrade away from suffering the same fate. Of course, Spain insists that it is just fine and denies the possibility of a bailout. At this point, though, does it have any credibility? Based on rising credit default swap rates (which serve as a gauge of the probability of default), I think that investors have become a little more cynical about taking governments at face value.

I have discussed the fiscal woes of the Eurozone in previous posts, and don’t want to dwell on them here. For now, I’d only like to add a footnote on the extent to which their problems are intertwined.  Banks in Germany and France (as well as the rest of the EU) have tremendous balance sheet exposure to PIGS’ sovereign debt, which means that any default would multiply across the Eurozone in the form of bank failures. (You can see from the chart below that the exposure of the US is small, relative to GDP).

Some analysts insist that all of this has already been priced into the Euro. Citigroup Said, “The market is treating many of these [sovereign credit rating] downgrades as rearguard actions which are already well discounted.” Personally, I don’t think that forex markets have made a sincere effort to grapple with the possibility of default, which appears increasingly inevitable. In fact, when S&P issued a warning on the US AAA rating, traders responded by handing the Euro its worst intraday decline in 2011.

Any way you cut it, I think the Euro is overvalued. Regardless of what the ECB is doing, market interest rates don’t really confer much benefit to those holding Euros. Even if the rate differential widens to 1-2% over the next year (which is certainly not guaranteed, as Jean-Claude Trichet himself has conceded!) this isn’t really enough to compensate for the possibility of default or other risk event. Regardless of whether you want to be long or short risk, there isn’t much to be gained at the moment from holding the Euro.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Euro | 6 Comments »

Is the Kiwi the Most Overvalued Currency?

Apr. 19th 2011

During recent interviews with the Forex Blog, both Mike Kulej of FX Madness and the team at Action Forex imparted their beliefs that the New Zealand Dollar is currently the world’s most undervalued currency. Since I hadn’t written about the Kiwi in a few months, I decide to some research, ad came to a slightly different conclusion. In keeping with the spirit of debate, I’d like to defend the opposite premise- that the New Zealand Dollar is now one of the world’s most overvalued currencies.

There are two principal reasons for the Kiwi’s perennial appeal with forex traders. First, New Zealand frequently boasts some of the highest interest rates in the industrialized world. Before the credit bubble burst, New Zealand’s benchmark interest rate was a whopping 8.25%. Moreover, because of its association with Australia, investors are quick to ascribe to it (dubiously) a greater sense of security than they would to emerging market economies with similarly high interest rates. For example, while Brazilian rates are usually higher, the markets less apt to lump the Real together with the Australian Dollar, even though it’s arguably a closer fit than the Kiwi.

While it’s hard to predict New Zealand trade dynamics, we can say with relative certainty real interest rate levels will remain low for the foreseeable future. Two recent earthquakes have threatened an economy that is already in trouble (projected GDP growth in 2011 is only 1.3%). Over the next 12 months, the markets have priced in only 50 basis points in rate hikes. “Nothing here will change the RBNZ’s intentions to keep monetary policy at ’emergency’ levels for the rest of this year,” summarized one analyst. Meanwhile, the CPI rate is currently at 4.5%, and is generally tracking commodities prices higher.

Thus, it is continually one of the most popular target currencies for carry trades. The extent of this phenomenon is such that turnover in the Kiwi is 100x greater than its GDP would imply. As I pointed out in an earlier post, this is the highest ratio of any currency in the world. In fact, “Dr Alan Bollard, Governor of the Reserve Bank [of New Zealand], once described it as an international standard of value that just happens to be used by a small country as its money.”

The credit crisis should have shattered the myth of the NZD as a stable currency, since the NZD lost 50% of its value in a matter of months. In addition, the benchmark rate has been lowered to 2.5%, a record low. When you take inflation into account, the rate is -2%, which as far as I know, is among the lowest in the world. When you factor in consecutive budget deficits for the first time in two decades and the (unrelated) explosion in public debt, it baffles me that yield seekers would still be interested in holding the Kiwi.

The other source of strength is the perception that the Kiwi is a commodity currency. To be fair, the production and export of agricultural products (dairy, meat, wool, etc.) makes a significant contribution to New Zealand’s economy. In addition, the prices for such agricultural staples have been rising faster than prices for imported goods, to the extent that the terms of trade have widened further in New Zealand’s favor. Unfortunately, this is ultimately irrelevant, since the aggregate balance of trade is currently in deficit, where it has stood for most of the last decade. If prices for energy and traditional commodities continues to rise, the current account deficit would at risk for eclipsing the record 6% set in 2008.

With all of this in mind, it’s tough to understand how the New Zealand Dollar could be closing in on a post-float (30 year) high against the Dollar, last set in 2008. The New Zealand Dollar has recovered most of its post-credit crisis losses, despite a lack of fundamental support. Its recovery has even outpaced the rise in the New Zealand stock market. In short, I’m inclined to agree with TD Securities: ” ‘If ever there was a dangerous time to enter a NZD carry trade this is it: the NZD is increasingly stretched, with the risk-reward now squarely being the NZD declining from here’…if the NZD breaches prior record highs, ‘it could be an attractive time to trim some net longs.’ ”

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in New Zealand Dollar | 1 Comment »

Where are Exchange Rates Headed? Look at the Data

Apr. 17th 2011

At this point, it’s cliche to point to the so-called data deluge. While once there was too little data, now there is clearly too much, and that is no less true when it comes to data that is relevant to the forex markets. In theory, all data should be moving in the same direction. Or perhaps another way of expressing that idea would be to say that all data should tell a similar story, only from different angles. In reality, we know that’s not the case, and besides, one can usually engage in the reverse scientific method to find some data to support any hypothesis. If we are serious about finding the truth and not about proving a point, then, the question is: Which data should we be looking at?

I think the quarterly Bank of International Settlements (BIS) report is a good place to start. The report is not only a great-read for data junkies, but also represents a great snapshot of the current financial and economic state of the world. It’s all macro-level data, so there’s no question of topicality. (If anything, one could argue that the scope is too broad, since data is broken down no further than US, UK, EU, and Rest of World). The best part is that all of the raw data has already been organized and packaged, and the output is clearly presented and ready for interpretation.

Anyway, the stock market rally that began in 2010 has showed no signs of slowing down in 2011, with the US firmly leading the rest of the world. As is usually the case, this has corresponded with an outflow of cash from bond markets and a steady rise in long-term interest rates. However, emerging market equity and bond returns have started to flag, and as a result, the flow of capital into emerging markets has reversed after a record 2010. Without delving any deeper, the implication is clear: after 2+ years of weakness, developed world economies are now roaring back, while growth in emerging markets might be slowing.

Economic growth, combined with soaring commodities prices, is already producing inflation. (See my previous post for more on this subject). However, the markets expect that the ECB, BoE, and Fed (in that order) will all raise interest rates over the next two years. As a result, while investors expect inflation to rise over the next decade, they believe it will be contained by tighter monetary policy and moderate around 2-3% in industrialized countries.


The picture for emerging market economies is slightly less optimistic, however. If you accept the BIS’s use of China, India, and Brazil as representative of emerging markets as a whole, rising interest rates will help them avoid hyperinflation, but significant price inflation is still to be expected. I wonder then if the pickup in cross-border lending over this quarter won’t slow down due to expectations of diminishing real returns.

Any sudden optimism in the Dollar and Euro (and the Pound, to a lesser extent) must be tempered, however, by their serious fiscal problems and consequent volatility. As a result of the credit crisis (and pre-existing trends), government debt has risen substantially over the last three years, topping 100% of GDP for the US and 200% of GDP for Japan. Credit default swap rates (which represent the markets’ attempt to gauge the probability of default) have risen across the board. To date, gains have been highest for “fringe” countries, but regression analysis suggests that rates for pillar economies need to rise proportionately to account for the the bigger debt burden. According to a BIS analysis, US and UK banks are very exposed to Eurozone credit risk, which means a default by one of the PIGS would reverberate around the western world.

While I worry that such a basic analysis makes me appear shallow, I stand by this “20,000 foot” approach, with the caveat that it can only be used to make extremely general conclusions. (More specific conclusions naturally demand more specific data analysis!) They are that industrialized currencies (led by the Dollar and perhaps the Euro) might stage a comeback in 2011, due to stronger economic growth and higher interest rates. While GDP growth and interest rates will undoubtedly be higher in emerging markets, investors were extremely aggressive in pricing this in. An adjustment in theoretical models naturally demands a correction in actual emerging market exchange rates!

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Commentary, Emerging Currencies | 2 Comments »

Record Commodities Prices and the Forex Markets

Apr. 15th 2011

Propelled by economic recovery and the recent Mideast political turmoil, oil prices have firmly shaken off any lingering credit crisis weakness, and are headed towards a record high. Moreover, analysts are warning that due to certain fundamental changes to the global economy, prices will almost certainly remain high for the foreseeable future. The same goes for commodities. Whether directly or indirectly, the implications for forex market will be significant.


First of all, there is a direct impact on trade, and hence on the demand for particular currencies. Norway, Russia, Saudia Arabia, and a dozen other countries are witnessing record capital inflow expanding current account surpluses. If not for the fact that many of these countries peg their currencies to the Dollar and/or seem to suffer from myriad other issues, there currencies would almost surely appreciate. In fact, the Russian Rouble and Norwegian Krona have both begun to rise in recent months. On the other hand, Canada and Australia (and to a lesser extent, New Zealand) are experiencing rising trade deficits, which shows that their is not an automatic relationship between rising commodity prices and commodity currency strength.

Those countries that are net energy importers could experience some weakness in their currencies, as trade balances move against them. In fact, China just recorded its first quarterly trade deficit in seven years. Instead of viewing this in terms of a shift in economic structure, economists need to understand that this is due in no small part to rising raw materials prices. Either way, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) will probably tighten control over the appreciation of the Chinese Yuan. Meanwhile, the nuclear crisis in Japan is almost certainly going to decrease interest in nuclear power, especially in the short-term. This will cause oil and natural gas prices to rise even further, and magnify the impact on global trade imbalances.

A bigger issue is whether rising commodities prices will spur inflation. With the notable exception of the Fed, all of the world’s Central Banks have now voiced concerns over energy prices. The European Central Bank (ECB), has gone so far as to preemptively raise its benchmark interest rate, even though Eurozone inflation is still quite low. In light of his spectacular failure to anticipate the housing crisis, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is being careful not to offer unambiguous views on the impact of high oil prices. Thus, he has warned that it could translate into decreased GDP growth and higher prices for consumers, but he has stopped short of labeling it a serious threat.

On the one hand, the US economy is undergone some significant structural changes since the last energy crisis, which could mitigate the impact of sustained high prices. “The energy intensity of the U.S. economy — that is, the energy required to produce $1 of GDP — has fallen by 50% since then as manufacturing has moved overseas or become more efficient. Also, the price of natural gas today has stayed low; in the past, oil and gas moved in tandem. And finally, ‘we’re closer to alternative sources of energy for our transportation,’ ” summarized Wharton Finance Professor Jeremy Siegal. From this standpoint, it’s understandable that every $10 increase in the price of oil causes GDP to drop by only .25%.

On the other hand, we’re not talking about a $10 increase in the price of oil, but rather a $50 or even $100 spike. In addition, while industry is not sensitive to high commodity prices, American consumers certainly are. From automobile gasoline to home eating oil to agricultural staples (you know things are bad when thieves are targeting produce!), commodities still represent a big portion of consumer spending. Thus, each 1 cent increase in the price of gas sucks $1 Billion from the economy. “If gas prices increased to $4.50 per gallon for more than two months, it would ‘pose a serious strain on households and could put the entire recovery in jeopardy. Once you get above $5, [there is] probably above a 50% chance that the economy could face a downturn.’ ”

Even if stagflation can be avoided, some degree of inflation seems inevitable. In fact, US CPI is now 2.7%, the highest level in 18 months and rising. It is similarly 2.7% in the Eurozone and Australia, where both Central Banks have started to become more aggressive about tightening monetary policy. In the end, no country will be spared from inflation if commodity prices remain high; the only difference will be one of extent.

Over the near-term, much depends on what happens in the Middle East, since an abatement in political tensions would cause energy prices to ease. Over the medium-term, the focus will be on Central Banks, to see if/how they deal with rising inflation. Will they raise interest rates and withdraw liquidity, or will they wait to act for fear of inhibiting economic recovery? Over the long-term, the pivotal issue is whether economies (especially China) can become less energy intensive or more diversified in their energy consumption.

At the moment, most economies are dangerously exposed, with China and the US topping the list. Russia, Norway, Brazil and a select few others will earn a net benefit from a boom in prices, while most others (notably Australia and Canada) are somewhere in the middle.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, Commentary | No Comments »

What’s Next for the Yen?

Apr. 13th 2011

After the G7 intervened in forex markets last month, the Yen fell dramatically and bearishness spiked in line with my prediction. Over the last week, however, the Yen appears to have bottomed out and is now starting to claw back some its losses. One has to wonder: is the Yen heading back towards record highs or will it peak soon and resume its decline?


Some analysts have ascribed tremendous influence to the G7, since the Yen fell by a whopping 5% following its intervention. From a mathematical standpoint, however, it would be virtually impossible or the G7 to single-handedly depress the Yen. That’s because the Yen holdings of G7 Central Banks are decidedly small. For example, the Fed holds only $14 Billion in Yen-denominated assets (compared to the Bank of Japan’s $800+ Billion in Dollar assets), of which it deployed only $600 million towards the Yen intervention effort. Even if the Bank of Japan is covertly intervened (by printing money and advancing it to other Central Banks), its efforts would still pale in comparison to overall Yen exchanges. Trading in the USD/JPY pair alone accounts for an estimated $570 Billion per day. Thus, given the minuscule amounts in question, it would be unfeasible for the Central Banks alone to move the Yen.

Instead, I think that speculators – which were responsible for the Yen’s spike to begin with – purposefully decided to stack their chips on the side of the G7. Given the unprecedented nature of the intervention, and the resolute way in which it was carried out, it would certainly seem foolish to bet against it in the short-term.  In fact, the consensus is that, “Investors are confident that the G7 won’t let the yen go below 80 versus the dollar again.” Still, this notion implies that if speculators change their minds and are determined to bet on the Yen, the G7 will be virtually powerless to block their efforts.

For now, speculators lack any reason to bet on the Yen. Aside from the persistent financial uncertainty that has buttressed the Yen since the the 2008 credit crisis, almost all other forces are Yen-negative. First, the crisis in Japan has yet to abate, with this week bringing a fresh aftershock and an upgrading of the seriousness of the nuclear situation. The hit to GDP will be significant, and a chunk of stock market equity has been permanently destroyed.


Thus, foreign institutional interest in Yen assets – which initially surged as investors swooped in following the 20% drop in the Nikkei 225 average – has probably peaked. The Bank of Japan will probably continue to flood the markets with Yen, and the government of Japan will need to issue a large amount of debt in order to pay for the rebuilding effort. Given Japan’s already weak fiscal situation, it seems unlikely that it can count on foreign sources of funding.

Even worse for the Yen is that Japanese retail traders (which account for 30% of Yen trading) seem to have shifted to betting against it. They are now driving a revival in the carry trade, prompting the Yen to fall to a one-year low against the Euro (helped by the recent ECB rate hike) and a multi-year low against the Australian Dollar. “Data from the Commodity and Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) showed speculators went net short on the yen for the first time in six weeks and by the biggest margin since May 2010 at a net 43,231 contracts in the week to April 5.”

It’s certainly possible that investors will take profits from the the Yen’s fall, and in fact, the recent correction suggests that this is already taking place. However, the markets will almost certainly remain wary of pushing things too far, lest they trigger another G7 intervention. In this way, Yen weakness should become self-fulfilling, since speculators can short with the confidence that another squeeze is unlikely, and simply sit back and collect interest.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Japanese Yen | No Comments »

Interview with Mike Kulej of FXMadness: “Trading the News is Akin to Gambling”

Apr. 11th 2011

Today, we bring you an interview with Mike Kulej of FXMadness. Mike has been trading securities since 1989. From 2001 to present, the vast majority of his activity has been concentrated on Forex markets. Currently he is a Chief Forex Strategist for Spectrum Forex LLC, a currency consulting and advisory company. He resides in Seattle, Washington. Below, Mike shares his thoughts about the effectiveness of technical analysis, volatility, leverage, and more!

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Report Portends Changes to Forex Reserve Currencies

Apr. 9th 2011

This week’s Bank of International Settlements (BIS) quarterly report came with some interesting revelations (most of which I’ll discuss in a later post). Below, I’d like to focus on one particularly interesting section entitled, “Foreign exchange trading in emerging currencies.” This section carries tremendous implications for the future of reserve currencies and is a must read for fundamental analysts.

According to the BIS, “Foreign exchange turnover evolves in a predictable fashion with increasing income. As income per capita rises, currency trading cuts loose from underlying current account transactions…moreover, currencies with either high or very low yields attract more trading, consistent with their role as target and funding currencies in carry trades.” In other words, the most liquid currencies (and hence, most suitable reserve currencies) are primarily those of advanced economies and secondarily those with abnormal interest rates.

In theory, one would expect a close correlation between forex turnover and trade. In fact, this turns out to be precisely the case for lesser-developed countries. Since the capital markets of such countries are commensurately undeveloped, offering limited opportunities for foreign investment, most of the demand for their currencies stems directly from trade. In fact, the currencies of Malaysia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and (notably) China closely fit this profile, with a 1:1 ratio between forex turnover and trade.

At the same time, the BIS discovered a strong correlation between the ratio of foreign exchange turnover to trade and GDP per capita.  That means that as a country grows economically and enters the realm of industrialized countries, its currency will experience exponential growth in turnover. For example, the British Pound and Japanese Yen are exchanged at a quantity that is 50 times greater than required for trading purposes. The ratio of forex turnover to trade for the US Dollar, meanwhile, exceeds 100!

The BIS was able to fit a regression line to the data that seemed to explain this phenomenon quite well. The majority of economies/currencies that it surveyed fall pretty close to this line, suggesting that forex turnover is exactly where it should be relative to GDP per capita and trade. In fact, the line runs directly through the Euro, Hong Kong Dollar, Canadian Dollar, and Swedish Krona, and Norwegian Krona.

There are also plenty of outliers. Given the size of China’s economy, for instance, the model would predict that turnover in the Chinese  Yuan should be 2-3 times what it currently is. Unsurprisingly, all of the world’s major reserve currencies (except for the Euro) can be found well on the other side of the regression line. Turnover in the US Dollar, Japanese Yen, and Australian Dollar is almost twice as high as the model predicts. Perhaps the most flagrant outlier is the New Zealand Dollar, which seems to be traded at a frequency that is 8-10x higher than it should be. Of course, New Zealand is a unique case; there isn’t another economy that is as small and stable, and yet always has higher-than-average interest rates.

One interpretation of this analysis is that demand for the all of the currencies that fall above the regression line should decline over time, and should experience at least some depreciation. The opposite can be said for currencies that currently fall the regression line, especially if their economies continue to expand at a faster-than average pace.

At the same time, it puts things into perspective. Even if demand for the Chinese Yuan doubled in accordance with the BIS model (which would necessitate looser capital controls, among other things), GDP per capital would need to increase 20x and US GDP per capita would need to remain constant in order for the Yuan to rival the Dollar in importance. Also, I’m beginning to wonder if the New Zealand Dollar isn’t in fact oversubscribed and overvalued…

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

Interview with Action Forex: “The New Zealand Kiwi is the Most Undervalued Currency”

Apr. 7th 2011

Today, we bring you an interview with Ben Wong (Head of Trading Strategies) and Yan Tse (Head of Research) at Action Forex, a forex information portal. I chatted with them about upcoming Central Bank rate hikes, economic indicators, and their intriguing Trading Ideas.

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G20 Pressures China, Despite Yuan Appreciation

Apr. 6th 2011

Since the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) unfixed the Chinese Yuan in June, it has appreciated 4.5%. Moreover, for a handful of reasons, it looks like China will continue allowing the RMB to appreciate at the same steady pace for the foreseeable future. And yet, the international community continue to use China as a scapegoat for all global economic ills, and are pressuring it to stop trying to control the Yuan altogether.


At the recent G20 conference in China, US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner circumvented China’s request to avoid discussing its currency policy: “Flexible exchange rates help countries better absorb shocks and that the tension between flexible currencies and those that are ‘tightly managed’ is ‘the most important problem to solve in the international monetary system today.’ ” Naturally, Chinese officials countered that the Dollar is to blame for the recent financial crisis and the ongoing economic imbalances.

If China was the only country to attempt to control its currency, perhaps the rest of the world would be willing to overlook it and write it off to ideological differences like they do with many of its protectionist economic policies. In this case, however, China’s tight control of the Yuan has spurred many of the countries with which it competes to similarly intervene in forex markets. In the last week alone, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand are all suspected of buying Dollars to hold down their respective currencies. Meanwhile, Brazil is enhancing its capital controls and Japan stands ready to intervene should the Yen spike again.

To quote Secretary Geithner again, “This asymmetry [between nations that intervene and those that don’t] in exchange rate policies creates a lot of tension. It magnifies upward pressure on those emerging-market exchange rates that are allowed to move and where capital accounts are much more open. It intensifies inflation risk in those emerging economies with undervalued exchange rates. And, finally, it generates protectionist pressures.” In short, when one country decides not to play the rules, other countries are quick to catch on. [To be fair, while the US doesn’t intervene directly on behalf of the Dollar, it still deserves some blame for this tension because of QE2 and the like].

If any country appears to be taking these lessons to heart, however, it is China. To combat inflation, it has raised interest rates several times over the last twelve months, including yesterday’s surprise 25 basis point hike. Given that official inflation remains above 5% (and living here, I can tell you that the actual rate is probably 10-20%), the PBOC has no choice but to continue tightening monetary policy if it wishes to avoid social unrest. To counter the inevitable upward pressure on the Yuan, it has taken such measures as prodding Chinese firms to look abroad for acquisition targets. China’s forex policy is designed to serve one very important end: to buttress the competitiveness of its export sector. However, there are early indications that China’s preeminent position as the world’s sweatshop may be about to slide. Anecdotal reports show that manufacturers are unnerved by wage and raw materials inflation, and are uprooting factories. In the short-term, some of this production will move inland from the coast, but even this has its limits. According to Credit Suisse, “Salaries for China’s estimated 150 million migrant workers will rise 20 to 30 percent a year for the next three to five years…’It may take a decade for China to see its export competitiveness erode, but we have seen the beginning of this happening.’ ”

With this in mind, it’s clearly futile for China to continue to focus its economic policy around low-cost, labor-intensive exports. Likewise, it’s ridiculous to continue to artificially depress the Yuan, especially if it’s serious about turning it into a global reserve currency. I think Chinese policymakers recognize this, and I stand by my earlier prediction that the Yuan will maintain a steady pace of appreciation for the foreseeable future.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Chinese Yuan (RMB) | No Comments »

Fed Mulls End to Easy Money

Apr. 4th 2011

Forex traders have very suddenly tilted their collective focus towards interest rate differentials. Given that the Dollar is once again in a state of free fall, it seems the consensus is that the Fed will be the last among the majors to hike rates. As I’ll explain below, however, there are a number of reasons why this might not be the case.

First of all, the economic recovery is gathering momentum. According to a Bloomberg News poll, “The US economy is forecast to expand at a 3.4 percent rate this quarter and 3.3 percent rate in the second quarter.” More importantly, the unemployment rate has finally begun to tick down, and recently touched an 18-month low. While it’s not clear whether this represents a bona fide increase in employment or merely job-hunting fatigue among the unemployed, it nonetheless will directly feed into the Fed’s decision-making process.

In fact, the Fed made such an observation in its March 15 FOMC monetary policy statement, though it prefaced this with a warning about the weak housing market. Similarly, it noted that a stronger economy combined with rising commodity prices could feed into inflation, but this too, it tempered with the dovish remark that “measures of underlying inflation continue to be somewhat low.” As such, it warned of “exceptionally low levels for the federal funds rate for an extended period.”

To be sure, interest rate futures reflect a 0% likelihood of any rate hikes in the next 6 months. In fact, there is a 33% chance that the Fed will hike before the end of the year, and only a 75% chance of a 25 basis point rise in January of 2012. On the other hand, some of the Fed Governors are starting to take more hawkish positions in the media about the prospect of rate hikes: “Minneapolis Federal Reserve President Narayana Kocherlakota said rates should rise by up to 75 basis points by year-end if core inflation and economic growth picked up as he expected.” Given that he is a voting member of the FOMC, this should not be written off as idle talk.

Meanwhile, Saint Louis Fed President James Bullard has urged the Fed to end its QE2 program, and he isn’t alone. “Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosner and Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker have also urged a review of the purchases in light of a strengthening economy and concern over future inflation.” While the FOMC voted in March to “maintain its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its securities holdings and…purchase $600 billion of longer-term Treasury securities by the end of the second quarter of 2011,” it has yet to reiterate this position in light of these recent comments to the contrary, and investors have taken notice.

Assumptions will probably be revised further following tomorrow’s release of the minutes from the March meeting, though investors will probably have to wait until April 27 for any substantive developments. The FOMC statement from that meeting will be scrutinized closely for any subtle tweaks in wording.

Ultimately, the take-away from all of this is that this record period of easy money will soon come to an end. Whether this year or the next, the Fed is finally going to put some monetary muscle behind the Dollar.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, US Dollar | No Comments »

Retail Forex: Lower Corporate Profits = Lower Spreads for Traders?

Apr. 3rd 2011

In December 2010, both GAIN Capital and FXCM became public companies. This was thought both to signal the maturing of an industry and to herald the start of a period of explosive growth. Since then, the share prices for both companies have fallen dramatically, even while the S&P 500 has continued to rise. Trading volume has remained flat, and revenues have declined. As a result, analysts (myself included) are starting to question not only the operations of these two firms, but also of the entire industry.

Before we jump to conclusions, it’s important to understand the basis for this sudden aura of uncertainty . First of all, both firms – as well as the broader forex industry – have found themselves the subject of increased regulatory scrutiny, and consequent disciplinary action. Second, trading volume has been impacted by an uptick in volatility. Third, an increase in institutional trading volume has not translated into a proportional increase in revenues/profits. Fourth, the recent tightening of leverage rules (which may be helping traders!) has eroded a large profit center. Finally, high account turnover suggests that the brokers will eventually run out of customers.

I don’t want to dwell on the industry’s regulatory travails (since I have blogged about it before), except to say that I think it’s a good thing. It will bring greater transparency, and generally make trading safer and cheaper. For more information on the specific allegations and (potential) regulatory response, the WSJ recently published an excellent overview.


As for the temporary decline in retail trading volume, this is probably temporary. Overall forex volume has tripled over the last decade, and it is forecast to triple again over the coming decade. In addition, the mainstreaming of currency trading will spur millions of investors to at least dabble on forex. Unfortunately, this will probably be offset by a decline in trading activity by existing customers, as the majority come to terms with the difficulty of profiting through high-volume/high-leverage trading.

Furthermore, increased volume will combine with increased competition to facilitate lower spreads. According to a recent report by LeapRate, GAIN Capital now earns an average of only 1.7 pips per trade, a stunning drop for the 2.7 pips that it averaged during most of 2010. Basically, the same thing is now happening to forex that decimalization and computerization brought to bear on stocks. If hedge funds and other institutional traders continue to enter the market en masse, spreads will be arbitraged away to the point that 1-2 pips (or even smaller!) should become the norm for all major currency pairs.


In short, retail forex traders should applaud the decline in stock prices. After all, what’s good for traders is probably going to be bad for business. Liquidity is increasing, and spreads are falling. Enhanced regulation is eliminating shadowy sources of profit and will make trading more secure. The only thing left to hope for is that all forex brokers go public, and open up their books to the same level of scrutiny as GAIN Capital and FXCM.

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

Can the Australian Dollar Hold on to Record Gains?

Apr. 2nd 2011

The volatility of the last couple weeks has manifested itself in some unbelievable outcomes. In this post, I want to focus specifically on the Australian Dollar. When the Japanese disasters struck, the Aussie immediately tanked, as investors jettisoned risk and moved towards safe haven currencies. Only days later, it inexplicably rose 5%, en route to parity and a 28-year high against the US Dollar. The question is: will the Aussie hold on to these gains, or will it return to earth as soon as the markets come to terms with the misalignment with fundamentals?

The Australian Dollar remains buoyant largely because of interest rate differentials. Basically, Australia boasts the highest benchmark interest rates (4.75%) in the industrialized world, and investors are betting that it will rise further, perhaps to 5.5% by the end of 2011 and even higher in 2012. Given that the other G7 Central Banks probably won’t hike for a couple more quarters – and even then, rate hikes will be gradual and restrained – it’s only natural that yield seekers are flocking to the Aussie.

However, it seems possible that the markets have gotten ahead of themselves in presuming an airtight case for further rate hikes. While Australian inflation is somewhat high (2.7%), it has actually moderated slightly over the last six months. In addition, the rising Australian Dollar will help to mitigate inflation and hence make it less likely that the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) will hike rates. (How ironic that the markets’ bet on higher interest rates in Australia actually makes it less likely that those rate hikes will actually take place!).

Moreover, the domestic Australian economy isn’t performing as well as some people think. It is true that an investment boom in mining and a surge in commodities prices have provided an economic windfall. On the other hand, the strong Aussie has undermined strength in the manufacturing sector, the housing market is poised for correction, and the summer flooding will crimp at least .5% from 2011 GDP.

In fact, not only is it not guaranteed that the RBA will hike rates, but some analysts think it’s possible that the RBA will cut its benchmark cash rate before the end of the year. At the very least, analysts need to double check their assumptions and re-jigger their interest rates models.  Given that the Australian Dollar is primarily being supported by expectations for higher interest rates, that also means that investors to scale back their forecasts for the Australian Dollar.

Personally, I think that a bubble is beginning to form in currency markets, at least in certain corners of it. Due to commodity prices and relatively high interest rates, the Aussie is certainly one of the more attractive major currencies at the moment. At that same time, that it has risen so fast in the last few years – and especially in the last few weeks – strikes me as fundamentally illogical. At this point, its rise has become self-fulfilling; investors want it to rise, and so it does.

At this point, there are two possibilities. Either the markets will wait for fundamentals to catch up with the Aussie, and it will hover around parity or appreciate slightly, or investors will recognize that it has appreciated too much too fast, and its correction will become one of the major events in forex markets in 2011.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Australian Dollar | No Comments »

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