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The Diminished Case for Chinese Yuan Appreciation

May. 3rd 2011

The Chinese yuan has appreciated by more than 27.5% since 2005, when the People’s Bank of China (“PBOC”) formally acceded to international pressure and began to relax the yuan-dollar peg. For China-watchers and economists, that the Yuan will continue to appreciate is thus a given. There is no question of if, but rather of when and to what extent. But what if the prevailing wisdom is wrong? What if the yuan is now fairly valued, and economic fundamentals no longer necessitate a further rise?


Prior to the 2005 revaluation, economists had argued that the yuan (also known as the Chinese RMB) was undervalued by 15% – 40%, and American politicians had used this as a basis for proposing a 27.5% across-the-board tariff on all Chinese imports. Given that the yuan has now appreciated by this exact margin (and by even more when inflation is taken into account), shouldn’t this alone be enough to silence the critics, without even having to look at the picture on the ground? How can Senator Charles Schumer continue to press for further appreciation when the yuan’s rise exceeds his initial demands? Alas, election season is upon us, and we can’t hope to make political sense out of this issue. We can, however, attempt to analyze the economic sense of it.

China manipulates the value of the yuan in order to give a competitive advantage to Chinese exporters, goes the conventional line of thinking. Look no further than the Chinese trade surplus for evidence of this, right? As it turns out, China’s trade surplus is shrinking rapidly. In 2006, it was a whopping 11% of GDP. Last year, it had fallen to 5%, and it is projected by the World Bank to settle below 3% for each of the next two years. Thanks to a first quarter trade deficit – the first in over seven years – China’s trade surplus may account for a negligible portion (~.2%) of GDP growth in 2010.


With this in mind, why would the PBOC even think about allowing the RMB to appreciate further? According to one perspective, the narrowing trade imbalance is only temporary. When commodities prices settle and global demand fully recovers, a wider trade surplus will follow. In fact, the IMF forecasts China’s current surplus will rise to 8% by 2016. As you can see from the chart below (courtesy of The Economist), however, the IMF’s forecasts have proven to be too pessimistic for at least the last three years, and it now has very little credibility. Besides, China’s economy is gradually reorienting itself away from exports and towards domestic spending. As a resident of China, I can certainly attest to this phenomenon, and the last few years has seen an explosion in the number of cars on the road, domestic tourism, and conspicuous consumption.


A better argument for further RMB appreciation comes in the form of inflation. At 5.4%, inflation is officially nearing a 3-year high, and there is evidence that the PBOC already recognizes that allowing the RMB to keep rising represents its best tool for containing this problem. It has already raised banks’ required reserve ratio several times, but there is a limit to what this can accomplish. Meanwhile, the PBOC remains reluctant to raise interest rates because it will invite further “hot-money” inflows (estimated at more than $100 Billion per year, if not much higher) and potentially destabilize the banking sector. By raising the value of the yuan, the PBOC can blunt the impact of rising commodities prices and other inflationary forces.

In fact, some think that the PBOC will quicken the pace of appreciation, a view that as supported by last month’s .9% rise. Others think that a once-off appreciation would be more effective, and is hence more likely. This would not only remove the motivation for further hot-money inflows, but would also reduce the PBOC’s need to continue accumulating foreign exchange reserves. At $3 trillion+ ($1.15 trillion of which are held in US Treasury Securities), these reserves are already a massive headache for policymakers. Merely stating the obvious, PBOC Governor Zhou Xiaochuan has officially called the reserves “really too much.” (It’s worth pointing out that the promotion of the yuan as an international currency is backfiring in some ways, causing the reserves to balloon even faster).

For the record, I think that the Chinese yuan is pretty close to being fairly valued. That might seem like a ridiculous claim to make when Chinese wages and prices are still well below the global average. Consider, however, that the same is true for the majority of emerging market economies, including those that don’t peg their currencies to the dollar. That doesn’t mean that the yuan won’t – or that it shouldn’t – continue to rise. In fact, the PBOC needs to do more to ensure that the Yuan appreciates evenly against all currencies, since most of the yuan’s rise to-date has taken place relative to the US Dollar. It’s merely a commentary that the PBOC is close to fulfilling the promises it has made regarding the yuan, and going forward, I think that observers should expect that its forex policy will be reconfigured to promote domestic macroeconomic policy objectives.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, Chinese Yuan (RMB) | 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 »

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 »

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 »

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 »

UK Forex Reserve Plan could Harm Pound

Mar. 24th 2011

Yesterday, UK Chancellor George Osborne announced that his government was ready to begin rebuilding its foreign exchange reserves. Depending on when, how, (or even if) this program is implemented, it could have serious implications for the Pound.

Forex reserve watchers (myself included) were excited by the updated US Treasury report on foreign holdings of US Treasury securities. As the Dollar is the world’s de-facto reserve currency and the US Treasury securities are the asset of choice, the report is basically a rough sketch of both the Dollar’s global popularity and the interventions of foreign Central Banks. Personally, I thought the biggest shocker was not that China’s Treasury holdings are $300 Billion greater than previously believed (with $3 Trillion in reserves, that’s really just a rounding error), but rather that the UK’s holdings declined by 50% in 2010, to a mere $260 Billion.


Given that the Bank of England (BoE) injected more than $500 Billion into the UK money supply in 2010, I suppose that shouldn’t have been much of a revelation. After all, selling US Treasury Securities and using the proceeds to buy British Gilts (sovereign debt) and other financial instruments would enable the BoE to achieve its objective without having to resort to wholesale money printing. In addition, if not for this sleight of hand, UK inflation would probably be even higher.

Still, this is little more than a mere accounting trick, and those funds will probably still need to be withdrawn from the money supply at some point anyway. Whether the BoE burns the proceeds or reinvests them back into foreign instruments is certainly worth pondering, but insofar as it won’t impact inflation, it is a matter of economic policy, and not monetary policy.

As Chancellor Osborn indicated, the UK will probably send these funds back abroad. In addition to providing support for the Dollar (as well as another reason not to be nervous about the upcoming end of the Fed’s QE2), this would seriously weaken the Pound, at a time  that it is already near a 30-year low on a trade-weighted basis. After falling off a cliff in 2009, the Pound recovered against the Dollar in 2010, largely due to the BoE’s shuffling of its foreign exchange reserves. To undo this would certainly risk sending the Pound back towards these depths.

On the one hand, the UK is certainly conscious of this and would act accordingly, perhaps even delaying any foreign exchange reserve accumulation until the Pound strengthens. On the other hand, the BoE is under pressure to fight inflation. It is reluctant to raise interest rates because of the impact it would have on the fragile economic recovery. The same can be said for unwinding its asset purchases. However, if it offset this with purchases of US Treasury securities and other foreign currency assets, it could weaken the Pound and maintain some form of economic stimulus. Especially since the UK has run a sizable trade/current account deficit for as long as anyone can remember, the BoE has both the flexibility/justification it needs to coax the exchange rate down a little bit.

Ultimately, we’ll need more information before we can determine how this will impact the Pound. Still, this is an indication that the GBP/USD might not have much more room to appreciate.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in British Pound, Central Banks | 1 Comment »

British Pound Continues Gradual Ascent

Mar. 15th 2011

The British Pound has risen almost 15% against the Dollar over the last twelve months. It seems that the markets are ignoring the fiscal concerns that sent the Pound tumbling in 2010, and focusing more on inflation and the prospect of interest rate hikes. At this point, the Bank of England (BOE) is now racing with the European Central Bank (ECB) to be the first “G4″ Central Bank to hike rates.


You can find cause for optimism towards the Pound in technical factors alone. That’s because while dozens of currencies appreciated against the Dollar in 2010, most were starting from a stronger base. For example, the Canadian and Australian Dollars collapsed during the credit crisis. However, both currencies made speedy recoveries to the extent all losses were erased in only two years. The British Pound, in contrast, still remains 25% below its pre-credit crisis high, more depressed than perhaps any other currency.

On the one hand, this is probably justifiable. The British economy is still in abysmal shape; the latest GDP figures revealed a .6% contraction in the fourth quarter of 2010. Meanwhile, the ECB forecasts only 1.4% growth in 2011, and many analysts think that might even be too optimistic. With the exception of Japan, which suffers from a unique strain of economic malaise (not to mention the 5% hit to GDP caused by the earthquake), the UK is unequivocally the weakest economy in the industrialized world.

On the other hand, this is mostly old news. The reason that investors are starting to get excited is interest rate hikes. According to the minutes from its March meeting, the BOE voted 6-3 to hold its benchmark interest rate at .5%. That means its awfully close to acting. The market consensus is for a 25 basis point rate hike in the next three months, and 2-3 additional hikes over the rest of the year. Depending on how the other G4 Central banks act, that will put the UK rates at the top of the pack.

However, it’s unclear how extensive this tightening will be. According to one analyst, “The probability of a hike in the next three months is significant but the lingering credit crunch, fiscal tightening and bleak outlook for real incomes suggest that if this is the beginning of a tightening cycle, it will be a very shallow one.” Moreover, low bond yields suggest that long-term inflation expectations (and hence, the need for rate hikes) remain low.


At this point, it looks like the UK is looking at a few years of stagflation. That’s certainly going to be bad for UK consumers and probably negative for most UK asset prices. However, short-term currency speculators are less concerned about economic fundamentals, and more concerned about (risk-adjusted) interest rate differentials. That means that if the BOE fulfills expectations, the Pound will probably get a little short-term kick.

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

Euro Buoyed by Rate Hike Expectations, Despite Unresolved Debt Issues

Mar. 9th 2011

From trough to peak, the Euro has risen 9% over a period of only two months. You wouldn’t ordinarily expect to see this kind of appreciation from a G4 currency, especially not one whose member states are on the brink of insolvency and which itself faces threats to its very existence. In this case, the Euro is benefiting from expectations that the European Central Bank (ECB) will be among the first and most aggressive in hiking interest rates. As I warned in my previous post, however, those that focus solely on interest rate differentials and ignore the Euro’s lingering Sovereign debt crisis do so at their own peril.

Indications that the ECB will hike interest rates came out of nowhere. Jean-Claude Trichet, President of the ECB, announced last week that it would be particularly aggressive in taking steps to deal with inflation. This caught the markets by surprise, since Eurozone inflation is still below 2% and GDP growth is similarly low. Later, Governing Council members Mario Draghi and Axel Weber (both of whom are potential candidates to replace Trichet when he steps down later this year), issued similar statements, and the question of rate hikes was suddenly changed from If to When/How much.

Futures markets are currently pricing in 3 interest rate hikes, which would bring the Eurozone benchmark rate to 1.75% by year end. According to economist Nouriel Roubini’s (who gained fame by predicting the financial crisis) think tank: “Jean-Claude Trichet has been careful not to commit to a series of hikes, but we believe that is what it will be. The ECB is bluffing. We think the ECB will hike by a total of 75 basis points, probably by August.” Axel Weber, himself, coyly echoed this sentiment: “I see no reason at this stage to signal any dissent with how markets priced future policies.”

On the one hand, the recent rise in oil prices strengthens the case for rate hikes. On the other hand, the EU does not consume energy at the same intensity as the US, which means that its impact on inflation is likely to be muted. In addition, while the ECB’s mandate is indeed titled towards price stability (rather than boosting employment or spurring economic growth), to hike rates now would risk endangering the still-fragile Eurozone economic recovery. Unwinding its quantitative easing would similarly add to the risk of another financial crisis, since banks still make heavy use of its emergency lending facilities.

Speaking of which, it’s still way too early to say that the the EU sovereign debt crisis is behind us. Despite the loans and pledges and bailouts, interest rates for all four PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain) countries continue to rise, and or nearing unsustainable levels. At the moment, currency investors have chosen to ignore this, since the EU has basically guaranteed them funding until 2013. What will happen then, or as the date draw near, is anyone’s guess.


In the end, one or more defaults seems inevitable. There is only so much that financial engineering can do to conceal and restructure debt which exceeds 100% of GDP in the cases of Greece and Ireland. If that were to happen, significant losses would be incurred by EU banks, which lent heavily to at-risk countries during the boom years. In order to minimize this situation, I think the ECB will probably continue to subsidize the banks via low interest rates.

Even if the ECB does hike rates, it will be extremely gradual. Furthermore, By the time Eurozone interest rates reach attractive levels, the other G4 Central Banks (with the exception of Japan) will probably already have started to close the gap. That means that interest rate differentials probably won’t soon be wide enough to lure more than a modicum of risk-averse investors. (Besides, if you assume a 5% chance of default, risk-adjusted rates are probably still negative).

In short, I think that the ongoing Euro rally is really just a short squeeze in disguise. Basically, speculators are conceding that shorting the Euro is both risky and unprofitable. (According to one hedge fund manager, “It was a very popular trade,” the portfolio manager says. A lot of us stuck with it, and it went wrong in January.”) In anticipating of higher future interest rates, they are preemptively moving to liquidate their short positions. However, not being short is not the same thing as going long. And until the EU sorts through the fiscal issues in a convincing way, I think it would be foolish to start making long-term bets on the Euro.

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

Forex Markets Look to Interest Rates for Guidance

Feb. 11th 2011

There are a number of forces currently competing for control of forex markets: the ebb and flow of risk appetite, Central Bank currency intervention, comparative economic growth differentials, and numerous technical factors. Soon, traders will have to add one more item to their list of must-watch variables: interest rates.

Interest rates around the world remain at record lows. In many cases, they are locked at 0%, unable to drift any lower. With a couple of minor exceptions, none of the major Central Banks have yet raised their benchmark interest rates. The same applies to most emerging countries. Despite rising inflation and enviable GDP growth, they remain reluctant to hike rates for fear that they will invite further speculative capital inflows and consequent currency appreciation.

Emerging markets countries can only toy with inflation for so long. Over the medium-term, all of them will undoubtedly be forced to raise interest rates. The time horizon for G7 Central Banks is a little longer, due to high unemployment, tepid economic growth, and price stability. At a certain point, however, inflation will compel all of them to act. When they raise rates – and by much – may well dictate the major trends in forex markets over the next couple years.

Australia (4.75%), New Zealand (3%), and Canada (1%) are the only industrialized Central Banks to have lifted their benchmark interest rates. However, the former two must deal with high inflation, while the latter’s benchmark rate is hardly high enough for carry traders to take interest. In addition, the Reserve Bank of Australia has basically stopped tightening, and traders are betting on only one or two 25 basis point hikes in 2011. Besides, higher interest rates have probably already been priced into their respective currencies (which is why they rallied tremendously in 2010), and will have to rise much more before yield-seekers take notice.

China (~6%) and Brazil (11.25%) are leading the way in emerging markets in raising rates. However, their benchmark lending rates belie lower deposit rates and are probably negative when you account for soaring inflation in both countries. The Reserve Bank of India and Bank of Russia have also hiked rates several times over the last year, though again, not yet enough to offset rising prices.

Instead, the real battle will probably be fought primarily amongst the Pound, Euro, Dollar, and Franc. (The Japanese Yen is essentially moot in this debate, and its Central Bank has not even humored the markets about the possibility of higher interest rates down the road). The Bank of England (BoE) will probably be the first to move. “The present ultra-low rates are unsustainable. They would be unsustainable in a period of low inflation but they are especially unsustainable with inflation, however you measure it, approaching 5 per cent,” summarized one columnist. In fact, it is projected to hike rates 3 times over the next year. If/when it unwinds its quantitative easing program, long-term rates will probably follow suit.

The European Central Bank will probably act next. Its mandate is to limit inflation – rather than facilitate economic growth, which means that it probably won’t hesitate to hike rates if inflation remains above its 2% threshold. In addition, the front runner to replace Jean-Claude Trichet as head of the ECB is Axel Webber, who is notoriously hawkish when it comes to monetary policy. Meanwhile, the Swiss National Bank is currently too concerned about the rising Franc to even think about raising rates.


That leaves the Federal Reserve Bank. Traders were previously betting on 2010 rate hikes, but since these have failed to materialized, they have pushed back their expectations to 2012. In fact, there is reason to believe that it will be even longer than that. According to a Bloomberg News analysis, “After the past two U.S. recessions, the Fed didn’t start raising policy rates until joblessness had fallen about three- quarters of the way back to the full-employment level…To satisfy that requirement, the jobless rate would need to be 6.5 percent, compared with today’s 9 percent.” Another commentator argued that the Fed will similarly hold off raising rates in order to further stabilize (aka subsidize) banks and to help the federal government lower the real value of its debt, even if it means tolerating slightly higher inflation.


When you consider that US deposit rates are already negative (when you account for inflation) and that this will probably worsen further, it looks like the US Dollar will probably come out on the losing end of any interest rate battles in the currency markets.

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Chinese Yuan Will Not Be Reserve Currency?

Nov. 18th 2010

In a recent editorial reprinted in The Business Insider (Here’s Why The Yuan Will Never Be The World’s Reserve Currency), China expert Michael Pettis argued forcefully against the notion that the Chinese Yuan will be ever be a global reserve currency on par with the US Dollar. By his own admission, Pettis seeks to counter the claim that China’s rise is inevitable.

The core of Pettis’s argument is that it is arithmetically unlikely – if not impossible – that the Chinese Yuan will become a reserve currency in the next few decades. He explains that in order for this to happen, China would have to either run a large and continuous current account deficit, or foreign capital inflows into China would have to be matched by Chinese capital outflows.” Why is this the case? Simply, a reserve currency must necessarily offer (foreign) institutions ample opportunity to accumulate it.

China Trade Surplus 2009 - 2010
However, as Pettis points out, the structure of China’s economy is such that foreigners don’t have such an opportunity. Basically, China has run a current account/trade surplus, which has grown continuously over the last decade. During that time, its Central Bank has accumulated more than $2.5 Trillion in foreign exchange reserves in order to prevent the RMB from appreciating. Foreign Direct Investment, on the other hand, averages 2% of GDP and is declining, not to mention that “a significant share of those inflows may actually be mainland money round-tripped to take advantage of capital and tax regulations.”

For this to change, foreigners would need to have both a reason and the opportunity to hold RMB assets. The reason would come from a reversal in China’s balance of trade, and the use of RMB to pay for the excess of imports over exports, which would naturally imply a willingness of foreign entities to accept RMB. The opportunity would come in the form of deeper capital markets, a complete liberalization of the exchange rate regime (full-convertibility of the RMB), and the elimination of laws which dictate how foreigners can invest/lend in China. This would likewise an imply a Chinese government desire for greater foreign ownership.

China FDI 2009-2010

How likely is this to happen? According to Pettis, not very. China’s financial/economic policy are designed both to favor the export sector and to promote access to cheap capital. In practice, this means that interest rates must remain low, and that there is little impetus behind the expansion of domestic consumption. Given that this has been the case for almost 30 years now, this could prove almost impossible to change. For the sake of comparison, consider that despite two “lost decades,” Japan nonetheless continues to promote its export sector and maintains interest rates near 0%.

Even if the Chinese economy continues to expand and re-balances itself in the process (a dubious possibility), Pettis estimates that it would still need to increase the rate of foreign capital inflows to almost 10% of GDP. If economic growth slows to a more sustainable level and/or it continues to run a sizable trade surplus, this figure would rise to perhaps 20%. In this case, Pettis concedes, “we are also positing…a radical change in the nature of ownership and governance in China, as well as a radical redrawing of the role of the central and local governments in the local economy.”

So there you have it. The political/economic/financial structure of China is such that it would be arithmetically very difficult to increase foreign accumulation of RMB assets to the extent that the RMB would be a contender for THE global reserve currency. For this to change, China would have to embrace the kind of reforms that go way beyond allowing the RMB to fluctuate, and strike at the very core of the CCP’s stranglehold on power in China.

If that’s what it will take for the RMB to become a fully international currency, well, then it’s probably too early to be having this conversation. Perhaps that’s why the Asian Development Bank, in a recent paper, argued in favor of modest RMB growth: “sharing from about 3% to 12% of international reserves by 2035.” This is certainly a far cry from the “10 years” declared by Russia’s finance minister and tacitly supported by Chinese economic policymakers.

The implications for the US Dollar are clear. While it’s possible that a handful of emerging currencies (Brazilian Real, Indian Rupee, Russian Ruble, etc.) will join the ranks of the international currencies, none will have enough force to significantly disrupt the status quo. When you also take into account the economic stagnation in Japan and the UK, as well as the political/fiscal problems in the EU, it’s more clear than ever that the Dollar’s share of global reserves in one (or two or three) decades will probably be only slightly diminished from its current share.

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New Zealand: No Forex Intervention

Nov. 10th 2010

Despite reaching a temporary stalemate, the currency war rages on, and individual countries continue to debate whether they should enter or watch their currencies continue to appreciate. Nowhere is that debate stronger than in New Zealand, whose Kiwi currency has fallen 37% against the US Dollar since its peak in early 2009, and over 15% since June of this year.

USD NZD 5 Year Chart
With most countries, the war cries are coming from the political establishment, who feel compelled to demonstrate to their constituents that they are diligently monitoring the currency war. This is largely the case in New Zealand, as Members of Parliament have argued forcefully in favor of intervention. Prime Minister John Key is a little more pragmatic: He “says his Government is concerned about the strength of our dollar, but is not convinced intervention would work…politicians who think intervention can happen without economic consequences, are fooling themselves.” Showing an astute understanding of economics, he pointed out that trying to limit the Kiwi’s appreciation would manifest itself in the form of higher inflation, higher interest rates, and/or reduced access to capital.

This is essentially the position of Alan Bollard, Governor of the Central Bank of New Zealand. He has insisted (correctly) that the New Zealand is being driven up, so much as its currency counterparts – namely the US Dollar – are being driven downward, by forces completely disconnected from New Zealand and way beyond its control. Thus, if New Zealand tried to intervene, it would quickly be overpowered (perhaps deliberately!) by speculators. Ultimately, it would end up spending lots of money in vain, and the Kiwi would continue to appreciate.

Mr. Bollard has pointed out that a stronger currency is not without its perks: such as lower (relative) prices for certain natural resources, such as oil. In addition, since New Zealand is largely a commodity economy, its producers are being compensated for an expensive currency in the form of higher prices for milk, wool, and other staple exports. While its other manufacturing operations have been punished by the expensive Kiwi, its economy is still relatively robust. Thanks to a series of tax cuts and the lowest interest rates in New Zealand history, GDP is forecast to return to trend in 2010 and 2011.

New Zealand Current Account Balance 2000 - 2014

New Zealand’s concerns are understandable, and there is an argument to be made for preventing the Dollars that are printed from the Fed’s QE2 from being put to unproductive purposes in New Zealand. At the same time, New Zealand is not such an attractive target for speculators. Its benchmark interest rate, at 3%, is relatively low compared to developing countries. Its current account balance is projected to continue declining, perhaps down to -8%, which means that the net flow of capital is actually out of New Zealand. In addition, while the Kiwi has appreciated against the US Dollar, it has fallen mightily against the Australian Dollar en route to a multi-year low.

Going forward, there is reason to believe that the New Zealand Dollar will continue to appreciate against the US Dollar as a result of QE2 and a general sense of pessimism towards the US. The same is true with regard to currencies that actively intervene to prevent their currencies from appreciating. Still, I don’t think the New Zealand Dollar will reach parity – against any currency – anytime soon, and after the currency fracas subsides, it will probably trend towards its long-term average.

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Currency War Will End in Tears

Nov. 8th 2010

The “currency war” is heating up, and all parties are pinning their hopes on the G20 summit in South Korea. However, this is reason to believe that the meeting will fail to achieve anything in this regard, and that the cycle of “Beggar-thy-Neighbor” currency devaluations will continue.

There have been a handful of developments since the my last analysis of the currency war. First of all, more Central Banks (and hence, more currencies) are now affected. In the last week, Argentina pledged to continue its interventions into 2011, while Taiwan, and India – among other less prominent countries – have hinted towards imminent involvement.

Of greater significance was the official expansion of the Fed’s Quantitative Easing Program (QE2), which at $600 Billion, will dwarf the efforts of all other Central Banks. In fact, it’s somewhat ironic that the Fed is the only Central Bank that doesn’t see its monetary easing as a form of currency intervention when you consider its impact on the Dollar and its (inadvertent?) role in “intensifying the currency war.”  According to Chinese officials, “The continued and drastic U.S. dollar depreciation recently has led countries including Japan, South Korea and Thailand to intervene in the currency market,” while the Japanese Prime Minister recently accused the U.S. of pursuing a “weak-dollar policy.”

Currency War Dollar Depreciation

As of now, there is no indication that other industrialized countries will follow suit, though given concerns that QE2 “at the end of the day might be dampening the recovery of the euro area,” I think it’s too early to rule anything out. While the Bank of Japan similarly has stayed out of the market since its massive intervention in October, Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda recently declared that, “I think the [Yen’s] moves yesterday were a bit one-sided. I will continue to closely monitor these moves with great interest.”

As the war reaches a climax of sorts, everyone is waiting with baited breath to see what will come out of the G20 Summit. Unfortunately, the G20 failed to achieve anything substantive at last month’s Meeting of Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors, and there is little reason to believe that this month’s meeting will be any different.

In addition, the G20 is not a rule-making body like the WTO or IMF, and it has no intrinsic authority to stop participating nations from devaluing their currencies. Conference host South Korea has lamely pointed out that while ” ‘There aren’t any legal obligations‘…discussion among G20 countries would produce ‘a peer-pressure kind of effect on these countries’ that violated the deal.” Not to mention that the G20 will have no effect on the weak Dollar nor on the undervalued RMB, both of which are at the root of the currency war.

It’s really just wishful thinking that countries will come to their senses and realize that currency devaluation is self-defeating. In the end, the only thing that will stop them from intervening is to accept the futility of it: “The history of capital controls is that they don’t work in controlling foreign exchange rates.” This time around will prove to be no different, “particularly with banks already said to be offering derivatives products to get around the new taxes.” The only exception is China, which is only able to prevent the rise of the RMB because of strict controls for dealing with the inflow of capital.

In short, the “wall of money” that is pouring into emerging market economies represents a force too great to be countered by individual Central Banks. The returns offered by investing in emerging markets (even ignoring currency appreciation) are so much greater than in industrialized countries that investors will not be deterred and will only work harder to find ways around them. Ironically, to the extent that controls limit the supply of capital and boost returns, they will probably drive additional capital inflows. The more successful they are, the more they will fail. And that’s something that no new currency agreement can change.

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Fed Surprises Markets with Scope of QE2

Nov. 4th 2010

For the last few months, and especially over the last few weeks, the financial markets have been obsessed with the rumored expansion of the Fed’s Quantitative Easing program (“QE2″). With the prospect of another $1 Trillion in newly minted money hitting the markets, investors presumptively piled into stocks, commodities, and other high-risk assets, and simultaneously sold the US Dollar in favor of higher-yielding alternatives.

Fed Balance Sheet 2010 QE2

On Wednesday, rumor became reality, as the Fed announced that it would expand its balance sheet by $600 Billion through purchases of long-dated Treasury securities over the next six months. While the announcement (and the accompanying holding of the Federal Funds Rate at 0%) were certainly expected, markets were slightly taken aback by its scope.

Due to conflicting testimony by members of the Fed’s Board of Governors, investors had scaled back their expectations of QE2 to perhaps $300-500 Billion. To be sure, a handful of bulls forecast as much as $1-1.5 Trillion in new money would be printed. The majority of analysts, however, New York Fed chief William Dudley’s words at face value when he warned, “I would put very little weight on what is priced into the market.” It was also rumored that the US Treasury Department was working behind the scenes to limit the size of QE2. Thus, when the news broke, traders instantly sent the Dollar down against the Euro, back below the $1.40 mark.

EUR-USD 5 Day Chart 2010

On the one hand, the (currency) markets can take a step back and focus instead on other issues. For example, yields on Eurozone debt have been rising recently due to continued concerns about the possibility of default, but this is not at all reflected in forex markets. During the frenzy surrounding QE2, the forex markets also completely neglected comparative growth fundamentals, which if priced into currencies, would seem to favor a rally in the Dollar.

On the other hand, I have a feeling that investors will continue to dwell on QE2. While the consensus among analysts is that it will have little impact on the economy, they must nonetheless await confirmation/negation of this belief over the next 6-12 months. In addition, all of the speculation to date over the size of QE2 has been just that – speculation. Going forward, speculators must also take reality into account, depending on how that $600 Billion is invested and the consequent impact on US inflation. If a significant proportion of is simply pumped into domestic and emerging market stocks, then the markets will have been proved right, and the Dollar will probably fall further. If, instead, a large portion of the funds are lent and invested domestically, and end up buoying consumption, then some speculators will be forced to cover their bets, and the Dollar could rally.

Unfortunately, while QE2 is largely seen as a win-win for US stocks (either it stimulates the economy and stocks rally, or it fails to stimulate the economy but some of the funds are used to foment a stock market rally anyway), the same cannot be said for the US Dollar. 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.

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China Diversifies Forex Reserves

Oct. 31st 2010

China’s foreign exchange reserves continue to surge. As of September, the total stood at $2.64 Trillion, an all-time high. However, it’s becoming abundantly clear that China is no longer content for Dollar-denominated assets to represent the cornerstone of its reserves. Instead, it has embarked on a campaign to further diversify its reserves, with important implications for the currency markets.

China Forex Reserves 2010

Despite China’s allowing the Chinese Yuan to appreciate (or perhaps because of it), hot money continues to flow in – nearly $200 Billion in the the third quarter alone. Foreign investors are taking advantage of strong investment prospects, rising interest rates, and the guarantee of a more valuable currency. In order to prevent the inflows from creating inflation and putting even more upward pressure on the RMB, the Central Bank “sterilizes” the inflows by purchasing an offsetting quantity of US Dollars and other foreign currency.

Since the Central Bank does not release precise data on the breakdown of its reserves, analysts can only guess. Estimates range from the world average of 62% to as high as 75%. At least $850 Billion (this is the official tally; due to covert buying through offshore accounts, the actual total is probably higher) of its reserves are held in US Treasury securities. It also controls a $300 Billion Investment Fund, which has made very public investments in natural resource companies around the world. The allocation of the other $1.5 Trillion is a matter of speculation.

Still, China has stated transparently that it wants to diversify its reserves into emerging market currencies, following the global shift among private investors. Investment advisers praise China for its shrewdness, in this regard: “The Chinese authorities are some of the smartest in the world. If you look at the fundamentals of a lot of these emerging markets, they are considerably better than developed markets. Who wants to be holding U.S. dollars at this stage?” However, these investments serve two other very important objectives.

The first is diplomatic/political. When China recently signed an agreement with Turkey to conduct bilateral trade in Yuan and Lira (following similar deals with Brazil and Russia), it was interpreted as an intention snub to the US, since trade is currently conducted in US Dollars. In addition, by funding projects in other emerging markets through a combination of loans investments, China is able to curry favor with host countries, as well as to help its own economy at the same time. The second is financial: by buying the currencies of trade rivals, China is able to make sure that its own currency remains undervalued. This year, it has already purchased more than $5 Billion in South Korean bonds, and perhaps $20 Billion in Japanese sovereign debt, sending the Won and the Yen skywards in the process.

China’s purchases of Greek and (soon) Italian debt serve the same function. It is seen as an ally to financially troubled countries, while its efforts help to keep the Euro buoyant, relative to the RMB. According to Chinese Premier Wen JiaBao, “China firmly supports Greece’s efforts to tackle the sovereign debt crisis and won’t cut its holdings of European bonds.”

For now, China remains deeply dependent on the US Dollar, and is still very vulnerable to a sudden depreciation it its value. For as much as it wants to diversify, the supply of Dollars and the liquidity with which they can be traded means that it will continue to hold the bulk of its reserves in Dollar-denominated assets. In addition, the Central Bank has no choice but to continue buying Dollars for as long as the RMB remains pegged to it. At some point in the distant future, the Yuan will probably float freely, and China won’t have to bother accumulating foreign exchange reserves, but that day is still far away. For as long as the peg remains in place, the Dollar’s status as global reserve currency is safe.

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QE2 Weighs on Dollar

Oct. 18th 2010

In a few weeks, the US could overtake China as the world’s biggest currency manipulator. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not predicting that the US will officially enter the global currency war. However, I think that the expansion of the Federal Reserve Bank’s quantitative easing program (dubbed QE2 by investors) will exert the same negative impact on the Dollar as if the US had followed China and intervened directly in the forex markets.

For the last month or so, markets have been bracing for QE2. At this point it is seen as a near certainty, with a Reuters poll showing that all 52 analysts that were surveyed believe that is inevitable. On Friday, Ben Bernanke eliminated any remaining doubts, when he declared that, “There would appear — all else being equal — to be a case for further action.” At this point, it is only a question of scope, with markets estimates ranging from $500 Billion to $2 Trillion. That would bring the total Quantitative Easing to perhaps $3 Trillion, exceeding China’s $2.65 Trillion foreign exchange reserves, and earning the distinction of being the largest, sustained currency intervention in the world.

The Fed is faced with the quandary that its initial Quantitative Easing Program did not significantly stimulate the economy. It brought liquidity to the credit and financial markets – spurring higher asset prices – but this didn’t translate into business and consumer spending. Thus, the Fed is planning to double down on its bet, comforted by low inflation (currently at a 50 year low) and a stable balance sheet. In other words, it feels it has nothing to lose.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to find anyone who seriously believes that QE2 will have a positive impact on the economy. Most expect that it will buoy the financial markets (commodities and stocks), but will achieve little if anything else: “The actual problem with the economy is a lack of consumer demand, not the availability of bank loans, mortgage interest rates, or large amounts of cash held by corporations. Providing more liquidity for the financial system through QE2 won’t fix consumer balance sheets or unemployment.” The Fed is hoping that higher expectations for inflation (already reflected in lower bond prices) and low yields will spur consumers and corporations into action. Of course, it is also hopeful that a cheaper Dollar will drive GDP by narrowing the trade imbalance.

QE2- US Dollar Trade-Weighted Index 2008-2010
At the very least, we can almost guarantee that QE2 will continue to push the Dollar down. For comparison’s sake, consider that after the Fed announced its first Quantitative Easing plan, the Dollar fell 14% against the Euro in only a couple months. This time around, it has fallen for five weeks in a row, and the Fed hasn’t even formally unveiled QE2! It has fallen 13% on a trade-weighted basis, 14% against the Euro, to parity against the Australian and Canadian Dollars, and recently touched a 15-year low against the Yen, in spite of Japan’s equally loose monetary policy.

If the Dollar continues to fall, we could see a coordinated intervention by the rest of the world. Already, many countries’ Central Banks have entered the markets to try to achieve such an outcome. Individually, their efforts will prove fruitless, since the Fed has much deeper pockets. As one commentator summarized, It’s now becoming “awfully hypocritical for American officials to label the Chinese as currency manipulators? They are, but they’re not alone.”

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Emerging Market “Wall of Money” Spurs Currency War

Oct. 14th 2010

According to Goldman Sachs (which if nothing else, is good at characterizing financial trends. Remember “BRIC?”), there is a “Wall of Money” that is already flooding emerging markets and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

MSCI Emerging Markets Chart 2006 - 2010

“The Institute of International Finance projected 2010 capital flows of $825 billion, up from $581 billion in 2009 and from the $709 billion that the trade group for global financial-services firms had projected for 2010 in April.” In hindsight, the outflow of capital from emerging markets that took place during the financial crisis will probably look like a blip, as risk appetite has already recovered to pre-crisis levels, and then some!

“The move into emerging markets has been led by stock investors, who will pour an estimated $186 billion into these countries this year, — fully three times the annual average of $62 billion generated between 2005 and 2009.” Emerging Market Bond funds, meanwhile, now routinely receive more than $1 Billion per week. Sovereign wealth funds are also starting to shift some of their assets into emerging market assets/currencies as part of their respective diversification strategies. As you can see from the chart below (courtesy of The Economist), Asia is by far the largest recipient of investment, followed by Latin America.

Emerging Markets Net Capital Flows, Forex Reserves
The continued shift of capital from the industrialized world into emerging markets as being driven both by economic fundamentals and the desire to earn a greater return on investment. “The IMF forecast this month that developing nations will expand 6.4 percent next year, outstripping growth of 2.2 percent among advanced economies.” Meanwhile, the ratio of foreign debt to GDP among developing nations has been cut to 26 percent, compared to 41 percent in 1999. And yet, even as analysts predict that emerging markets will account for 85% of global growth going forward, “emerging markets account for $3 trillion, or only 15 percent of market capitalisation of the benchmark MSCI world index.”

While it’s understandable, then, that investors would want to rectify this imbalance as quickly as possible, they need to realize that developing countries’ capital markets simply aren’t deep enough to absorb all of the incoming capital. In other words, an limited pool of capital is chasing a limited stock of accessible investments, and the result is that asset prices and exchange rates are climbing inexorably higher.

Analysts argue, “Some appreciation is due: a rise against rich-world currencies is both a natural consequence of the faster growth of emerging economies and a way to correct global imbalances.” But a 50% rise over five years (notched by a handful of currencies) does not represent some appreciation, but rather an explosion. This is precisely the sentiment echoed by many of the emerging markets, themselves, which have taken to using guerilla tactics to hold down their currencies. Since the latest phase of the “currency war” was ignited by Japan in September, every week has led to increasingly far-flung countries – Peru, Chile, Czech Republic, Poland, South Africa – reputedly contemplating intervention.

According to an interesting economic analysis, which scaled intervention to the size of the given country’s monetary base, South Korea and Taiwan have been among the most active participants in forex markets, while Thailand and Malaysia have been among the most restrained. This is born out by the sizable appreciation of both the Thai Baht and Malaysian Ringit over the last few years. However, I wonder if some economists will take issue with their assessment that Brazil and China have been relatively modest interveners.

Of course, this doesn’t make it any easier to forecast, since how a country behaved in the past isn’t necessarily indicative of how it will behave in the future. For example, Thailand just announced that it will not intervene, but Brazil will double its forex tax from 2% to 4%. Case in Point!

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Currency War: Who are the Winners and Losers?

Oct. 6th 2010

On September 27, Brazilian Finance Minister, Guido Montega, used the term “currency war” to describe the series of recent Central Bank interventions in forex markets. While he may not have intended it, the term stuck, and financial journalists everywhere have run wild with it.

In the current cycle (dating back a couple years), more than a dozen Central Banks have entered the forex markets with the intention of holding down their respective currencies, both against each other and also against the US Dollar. What makes it a war is that the Central Banks are fighting to outspend and outdo each other. It is a War of Attrition, in that Central Banks will fight until they’ve exhausted all of their wherewithal, conceding defeat for their currencies. On the other hand, unlike in a conventional war, there aren’t any alliances, nor is there much in the way of little strategy. Central Banks simply buy large blocks of counter currencies and hope their own currencies will then depreciate on the spot market. In addition, since the counter currencies are almost always Dollars and/or Euros, the participants in this war are not even competing directly against each other, but rather against an enemy that isn’t doing much to fight back. [Chart belowcourtesy of Der Spiegel].

Unequal Competition- Global Trade and Currency Wars

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) was the first to intervene, and staged a one-year campaign over the course of 2009 to hold the Swiss Franc at 1.50 against the Euro. Ultimately, it failed when the sovereign debt crisis caused an exodus of Euro selling. The Bank of Brazil was next, although its interventions havebeen more modest; it seems to have accepted the ultimate futility of its efforts, and will seek to slow the Real’s appreciation rather than halt it. Last month, the Bank of Japan spent $20 Billion in one session in order to show the markets how serious it is about fighting the Yen’s rise. In fact, it was this intervention that sparked Montega’s comments about currency war. (The BOJ hasn’t intervened since). All along, the People’s Bank of China has continued to add to its war chest of reserves – currently $2.5 Trillion – as part of the ongoing Yuan-Dollar peg. And of course, there have been a handful of smaller interventions (South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan) and no shortage of rhetorical (Canada, South Africa) interventions, as well as indirect (US, UK) intervention.

That’s right- don’t forget that the Fed and the Bank of England, through their respective quantitative easing programs, have injected Trillions into the financial markets and caused their currencies to weaken. In a sense, all of the subsequent interventions have been effected in order to restore the equilibrium in the currency markets that was lost when these two Central Banks deflated there currencies through wholesale money printing. Since much of this cash has found its way into emerging markets (See chart below), you can’t blame their Central Banks from trying to soften some of the upward pressure on their currencies.

It’s still too early too early to say how far the currency war will go. The G7/G20 has announced that it will address the issue at its next summit, though it probably won’t lead to much in the way of action. Ultimately, politicians can’t do much more than shake their fingers at countries that try to hold down their currencies. In the case of the Yuan-Dollar peg, American politicians have tried to take this one step further by threatening to slap China with punitive trade sanctions, but this probably won’t come to pass and may disappear as an issue altogether after the November elections. As I reported on Friday, Brazil has taken matters into its own hands by taxing all foreign capital inflows, but this hasn’t had much effect on the Real.

Emerging Market Capital Inflows 2009-2010

That brings me to my final point, which is that all currency intervention is futile in the long term, because most Central Banks have limited capacity to intervene. If they print too much money to hold down their currencies, they risk stoking inflation. Of course China is the exception to this rule, but this is less because of the size of its war chest and more because of the mechanics of its exchange rate regime. For Central Banks to successfully manipulate their currencies on the spot market, they must fight against the Trillions of Dollars in daily forex turnover. Eventually, every Central Bank must reckon with this truism.

In terms of identifying the winners and losers of the currency war (as I promised to do in the title of this post, the Euro will probably lose (read: appreciate) because the ECB is not willing to participate. The same goes for the Swiss Franc, since the SNB has basically forsaken currency intervention for the time being. The Bank of Japan has deep pockets, and if the markets push the Yen back up above 85 Yen/Dollar, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it intervene again. With the Fed mulling an expansion of its quantitative easing program, meanwhile, the Dollar will probably continue to sink. And as for the countries that are doing the actual intervening, they might succeed in temporarily holding down the valuer of their respective currencies.  As capital shifts to emerging markets over the long-term, however, their currencies will soon resume rising.

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Brazilian Real at 2-Year High Despite “Currency War”

Oct. 1st 2010

Brazil is beating the drumbeat of war. The forex variety, that is. According to the Finance Minister, “We’re in the midst of an international currency war, a general weakening of currency. This threatens us because it takes away our competitiveness.” By its own admission, Brazil will not be sitting on the sidelines of this war. Rather, it will do battle on behalf of its currency, the Real.

Brazil’s concerns are perhaps justified, since the Brazilian Real has surged to a 2-year high, and is amazingly not worth more than prior to the collapse of the Lehman Brothers and the ignition of the global financial crisis. (If anything, this shows just how far we’ve come in returning to stability). According to Goldman Sachs, the Real is now the most overvalued major currency in the world. This is confirmed by The Economist’s Big Mac Index, which shows that in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms, Brazil is now the third most expensive country in the world, behind only Norway and Switzerland.

Economist Big Mac Index July 2010

It’s not hard to understand why the Real is soaring. Its benchmark Selic rate is 10.75%, with government bonds yielding an even higher 12%. Even after controlling inflation, this is the highest among major currencies. Its economy is booming; GDP is projected at 10% in 2010. As a result, capital flow inflows have returned to pre-credit crisis levels: “Net foreign-exchange inflows totaled $11.14 billion in the September 1-17 period, up from $2.11 billion in the first 10 days of the month, according to data released Tuesday by the country’s central bank.” The inflows have been driven by a $70 Billion stock offering by PetroBras, the (formerly) state-owned oil company. It is a record sum, and over 3 times bigger than the eye-popping $23 Billion the Agricultural Bank of China raised only a few months ago. “If the Petrobras deal had never happened, the real might currently be trading somewhere around 1.75 per dollar,” compared to 1.70 today. With other companies rushing to follow suit with debt and equity offerings, cash will probably continue to pour in.

As I said at the beginning of this post, the Bank of Brazil has several tools up its sleeve. It has already resumed “surprise daily auctions to buy excess dollars in the spot market” (suspended in 2006), in which investors can trade Dollars for Brazilian government debt. It is also proposing reverse currency swaps, which would serve a similar purpose. ” ‘The order is to buy, buy and buy,’ ” said a government source. It has purchased nearly $1 Billion in foreign currency in the month of September alone, and has pledged to deploy its $10 Billion Sovereign investment fund if necessary. Finally, there is talk of raising the tax rate (currently 2%) on all foreign capital inflows, though there is no real timetable for such a move.

Alas, while the government of Brazil is certainly sincere in its intentions to hold down the Real, it lacks the wherewithal. Its $1 Billion intervention in September was dwarfed by the $20+ Billion spent by the Bank of Japan in one day to hold down the Yen. Even controlling for the difference in the size of their respective economies, Brazil has still been thoroughly outspent. Its $10 Billion investment fund pales in comparison to the ~$1 Trillion forex reserves of Japan. In short, Brazil would be wise to avoid full-fledged engagement in currency war.

Real USD 5-Year Chart

Besides, the Real strength can better be seen in terms of weakness in the US Dollar and other G4 currencies. In this regard, Brazil’s measly purchases of US Dollars on the spot market probably won’t do much to counter the gradual exodus of cash from safe-havens back into growth currencies. Perhaps, it can take solace in the fact that the Real is so overvalued that it would seem to have no place to go but down.

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Bullish on the Euro?

Sep. 29th 2010

Wouldn’t life just be a little easier if the EUR/USD, the most important forex pair and bellwether of currency markets, could simply pick a direction and stick to it. It dove during the financial crisis, only to surge during the apparent recovery phase, fell during the sovereign debt crisis, and rose during the paradigm shift, then fell as risk appetite waned, only to rise again in September, en route to a 5-month high.

Euro Dollar 5 Year Chart 2006-2010
There are a handful of factors which currently underlie the Euro’s strength, which can all generally be explained by the fact that risk is “on” at the moment, and the markets are moving away from so-called safe haven currencies and back towards growth investments. Of course that could change tomorrow (or even 5 minutes from now!), but at the moment, risk appetite is high and the Euro symbolizes risk. Never mind how ironic it is, that growth in the EU is projected at 1.8% for the year while Rest of World (ROW) GDP will probably top 5%. All that matters is compared to the Dollar (and Yen, Pound, Franc to a lesser extent) the Euro is perceived as the currency of risk.

The Euro’s cause is also helped by the ongoing “currency wars,” which heated up last week with Japan’s entry into the game. Basically, Central Banks around the world are now competing with each other to devalue their currencies. In contrast, the European Central Bank (ECB) has decided to remain on the sidelines (in favor of fiscal austerity), which is forcing the Euro up (or rather all other currencies down). To make matters even worse, “The U.S. Federal Reserve indicated this summer that it may ease monetary policy further… often seen as printing money to pump up the economy.” As a result, “The euro looks set to keep on climbing in a trend that looks increasingly entrenched.”

There are certainly those that argue that the Euro’s recent surge reflects renewed confidence in the Eurozone economy and prospects for resolving the EU debt crisis. After all, most Euro members will reduce their budget deficits in 2010 and auctions of new bonds are once again oversubscribed. On the other hand, interest rates for the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain) have risen to multi-year highs, as investors are finally trying to make a serious effort at pricing the possibility of default.

Eurozone sovereign debt interest rates graph 2007-2010
In addition, the credit markets in the EU are barely functioning, and large institutions remain dependent on the ECB’s credit facilities for financing. Finally, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the only reason crisis was due to the massive support (€140 Billion) extended to Greece. When this program expires in less than three years, the fiscal problems of Greece (and the other PIGS) will be exposed once again, and a new (stopgap) solution will need to be proposed.

As every analyst has pointed out, none of the EU’s fiscal problems have been solved. EU members have certainly proven adept at resolving acute crises and the ECB certainly deserves credit for keeping credit markets functioning, but none has proposed a viable solution for repairing of member countries’ fiscal and economic health. Currency devaluation is impossible. Sovereign default is being prevented. That leaves wage cuts and increased productivity as the only two paths to equilibrium. The former could be accomplished through inflation, but the ECB seems reluctant to allow this to happen.

Eurozone Budget Deficits, GDP

For better or worse, the EU seems to have pushed these problems down the road, and if all goes according to plan, they won’t need to be revisited for 2-3 years. For now, then, the Euro is probably safe, and may even thrive. Short positions in the Euro are being unwound with furious speed and data indicate that there is still plenty of scope for further unwinding. Inflation remains subdued, economic growth is stable, and the ECB so far hasn’t voiced any disapproval of the Euro’s rise. While I promote this bullishness with the caveat that “traders have shown a willingness to smack the euro lower from time to time on the slightest news or rumor of downgrades to euro-zone sovereign or bank ratings,” the general Euro trend is now unquestionably UP.

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Keep an Eye on Central Banks

Sep. 20th 2010

From monetary policy to quantitative easing to forex intervention, the world’s Central Banks are quite busy at the moment. Even though the worst of the credit crisis has past and the global economy has moved cautiously into recovery mode, there is still work to be done. Unemployment remains stubbornly high, inflation is too low, and asset prices are teetering on the edge of decline. In short, Central Banks will continue to hog the spotlight.

On the monetary policy front, Central Banks have begun to divide into two camps. One camp, consisting of the Federal Reserve Bank, European Central Bank, Bank of England, Bank of Japan, and Swiss National Bank (whose currencies, it should be noted, account for the majority of foreign exchange activity), remains frozen in place. Interest rates in all five countries/regions remain at rock bottom, near 0% in most cases. While the ECB’s benchmark interest rate is seemingly set higher than the others, its actual overnight rate is also close to 0%. Meanwhile, none of these Banks has given any indication that it will hike rates before the end of 2011.

In the other camp are the Banks of Canada, Australia, Brazil, and a handful of other emerging market Central Banks, all of which have cautiously moved to hike rates on the basis of economic recovery. Among industrialized countries, Australia (4.5%) is now at the head of the pack, with New Zealand (3%) in a distant second. Brazil’s benchmark Selic rate, at 10.75%, makes it the world leader among (widely-followed) emerging market countries. It is followed by Russia (7.75%), Turkey (7%), and India (6.1%), among others. The lone exception appears to be China, which maintains artificially low rates to influence the Yuan. [More on that below.]

None of the industrialized Central Banks have yet unwound their quantitative easing programs, unveiled at the peak of the credit crisis. The Fed’s balance sheet currently exceeds $2 Trillion; its asset-purchase program has driven Treasury rates and mortgage rates to record lows. The same goes for the Banks of England and Japan, the latter of which has actually moved to expand its program in a bid to hold down the Yen. Meanwhile, many of the credit lines that the ECB extended to beleaguered banks and other businesses remain outstanding, and have even expanded in recent months.

Central Bank Credit Crisis Intervention 2007-2008

Central Banks have been especially busy in the currency markets. The Swiss National Bank (SNB) was the first to intervene, and as a result of spending €200 Billion, it managed to hold the Franc below €1.50. As a result of the EU sovereign debt crisis, however, the Franc broke through the peg and his since risen to a record high against the Euro. Unsurprisingly, the SNB has abandoned its forex intervention program. Throughout the past year, the Central Banks of Canada, Brazil, Thailand, Korea have threatened to intervene, but only Brazil has taken action so far, in the form of a levy on all foreign capital inflows. Last week, the Bank of Japan broke its 6-year period of inaction by intervening on behalf of the Yen, which instantly rose 3% on the move. The BOJ has pledge to remain involved, but the extent and duration is not clear.

Finally, the Bank of China allowed the Yuan to appreciate for the first time in two years, but its pace has been carefully controlled, to say the least. In the last few weeks, the Yuan has actually picked up speed, but critics insist that it remains undervalued. In addition, China has contradicted the Yuan’s rise against the Dollar through its purchases of Japanese bonds, which has spurred a rise in the Yen. This is both ironic and counter-productive to global economic recovery: “Since China is growing at 10%, it can afford to undermine exports and boost domestic demand by letting the yuan appreciate more rapidly against the dollar. But China doesn’t want to do that. In fact, although China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange deregulated the currency market overnight, the measures, which allow some exporters to retain their foreign currency holdings for a year, should boost private demand for dollars, not yuan.”

The efforts listed above have undoubtedly moderated the impacts of the financial crisis and consequent economic downturn. However, the banks have found it impossible to engineer a convincing recovery, and at this point, there probably isn’t much more that they do can do. As a result, many analysts are now pinning their hopes on fiscal policy (despite its equally dubious track record). Perhaps, the title of this post should have been: Keep an Eye on Governments and their Stimulus Plans.

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Intervention Looms as Yen Closes in on Record High

Aug. 20th 2010

It was only a few weeks ago that I last wrote about the possibility of intervention on behalf of the Japanese Yen, and frankly, not a whole lot has changed since then. On the other hand, the Japanese Yen has continued to appreciate, the Japanese economy has continued to deteriorate, and the Bank of Japan has continued to ratchet up its rhetoric. In short, whereas intervention once loomed as a distant prospect, it has now become a very real possibility

1y Yen Dollar Chart

Last week, the Yen touched touched 84.73 (against the Dollar), the strongest level since July 1995. In the year-to-date, it has appreciated 10%. There are a handful of analysts, including the anointed Mr. Yen, who believe that the Yen will rise past its all-time high of 79.75, recorded in April 1995. At the same time, analysts caution that Yen strength is better interpreted as Dollar weakness, and that its overall performance is much less impressive: ” ‘Against a broader range of currencies, particularly in real terms, the yen is far less strong than it looks against the US$ in isolation.’ ”

As the global economic recovery has faded, so has investor appetite for risk. The Japanese Yen has been a big winner (or loser, depending on your point of view) from this sudden sea change. Investors are dumping risky assets and piling back into low-yielding safe havens, like the Yen and the Franc. Ironically, the US Dollar has also benefited from this trend, but to a lesser extent than the Yen. It’s not entirely clear to me why this should be the case. As one analyst observed, “The zero-yielding currency of a heavily indebted, liquidity- and deflation-trapped economy should hardly be the go-to currency of the world.” At this point, it’s probably self-fulfilling as investors flock to the Yen instinctively any time there is panic in the markets.

Some of the demand may be coming from Central Banks. The People’s Bank of China, for example, “has ramped up its stockpiling of yen this year, snapping up $5.3 billion worth of the currency in June, Japan’s Ministry of Finance reported Monday. China has already bought $20 billion worth of yen financial assets this year, almost five times as much as it did in the previous five years combined.” Given that “a one percentage point shift of China’s reserves into yen equals a month’s worth of Japan’s current account surplus,” it wouldn’t be a stretch to posit a connection between the Yen’s rise and China’s forex reserve “diversification.” Officially, China is trying to diversify its foreign exchange reserves away from the Dollar, but the Yen purchases also serve the ulterior end of making the Japanese export sector less competitive.

In this sense it is succeeding, as the economic fundamentals underlying the Yen could hardly be any worse. “Real gross domestic product rose 0.4% in annualized terms in the April-June period, the slowest pace in three quarters…GDP grew 0.1% compared with the previous quarter.” This was well below analysts’ forecasts, and due primarily to a drop in consumption. Exports increased over the same period, causing the current account surplus to widen, but it wasn’t enough to prevent GDP growth from slowing. Meanwhile, unemployment is at a multi-year high, and deflation is threatening. With such persistent weakness, it’s no wonder that China has officially surpasses Japan as the world’s second largest economy.

China Passes Japan in GDP, 2005-2010

The Yen is a convenient scapegoat for these troubles. The Japanese Finance Minister recently declared: “Excessive and disorderly moves in the currency market would negatively affect the stability of the economy and financial markets. Therefore, I am watching market moves with utmost attention.” It is rumored that the government has convened high level meetings to try to build support for intervention, such that it could apply political pressure on the Bank of Japan and cajole it into intervening. “With regard to problems such as the strong yen or deflation, we want to cooperate with the Bank of Japan more closely than ever before.”

In the end, domestic politics are a paltry concern compared to the backlash that Japan would receive from the international community if it were to intervene: “Any U.S.-endorsed intervention would be interpreted in Beijing as hypocrisy. How can the U.S. criticize China for intervening in support of a weaker currency, Chinese officials would ask, while it does so itself in support of a weaker yen?” In other words, there is no way that any country would support the Bank of Japan because such would make it less likely that China would allow the Yuan to further appreciate.

For this reason, many analysts still feel that the possibility of intervention is low. According to Morgan Stanley, however, there is now a 51% chance of intervention, based on its forex models. From where I’m sitting, it’s basically a numbers game. As the Yen rises, so does the possibility of intervention. The only question is how high it will need to appreciate before a 51% probability becomes a 100% certainty.

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US National Debt and the US Dollar

Aug. 18th 2010

Pessimists love to point to the surging US National Debt as an indication that the Dollar will one day collapse. And yet, not only has the US Dollar avoided collapse , but is actually holding steady in spite of record-setting budget deficits. That being the case, one has to wonder: As far as the forex markets are concerned, does this debt even matter?

In attempting to answer this question, it makes sense to start by asking whether investors in general care about perennial budget deficits and an-ever increasing national debt. A rudimentary examination suggests that they don’t. Treasury Bond Yields have been falling slowly over the last 30 years. In fact, this fall has accelerated over the last two years, to the point that US Treasury Yields touched an all-time low in 2009, and are currently hovering close to those levels. As of today, the 10-year Treasury rate is an astonishingly tiny 2.7%.

US 10-Year Treasury Rate 1960-2010

Of course, everyone knows that this most recent drop in Treasury rates is not connected to the creditworthiness of the federal government, but rather an increase in risk aversion engendered first by the credit crisis and second by the EU Sovereign debt crisis. The Federal Reserve Bank and other Central Banks should also receive some of the credit, thanks to their multi-billion Dollar purchases. Still, the implication is that US Treasury securities are the safest investment in the world and that a default by the US government is seen as an unlikely outcome. Thus, investors are willing to accept meager returns for lending to the US.

While demand has remained strong in spite of record issuance of new debt, the structure of that demand has undergone a profound shift. Less than 20 years ago, the overwhelming majority (~85%) of Treasury Bonds were held by domestic investors. In 2010, that proportion had fallen to about half. The largest individual holders of US debt are no longer US institutional investors, but Central Banks, namely those of China, Japan, and Oil Exporting countries. Due to the continued expansion of its quantitative easing program, The Federal Reserve Bank has also become a major buyer of US Treasuries.

US Federal Debt Held by Foreign Investors
It’s tempting to dismiss these purchases as unrepresentative of overall market sentiment, since Central Banks have objectives different from private investors. What matters, though, is that ultimately, such Central Banks would not continue lending to the US government is they thought there was a real possibility of not being repaid. To illustrate this point, consider that the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) actually jettisoned nearly $100 Billion in Treasury debt over the last year as part of a restructuring of its foreign exchange reserves. However, it still has $840 Billion in its possession.  In contrast, the Bank of Japan increased its reserves over the same time period by a similar amount.

As for the forex markets’ assessment of the US debt situation, this is difficult to isolate. There appears to be a relatively stable correlation between the Dollar (vis-a-vis the Euro) and long-term US interest rates, as exemplified by the Euro rally and simultaneous fall in US interest rates. One explanation for the fall in the Dollar, then, could be that falling interest rates made it an attractive funding currency for a carry trade strategy. On the other hand, there would also appear to be an inherent contradiction here, since a rising Euro is an indication of increased risk tolerance and, thus, should be accompanied by a sell-off in US Treasury bonds and rising yields. That in reality, rates fell as the Euro rose confounds our efforts means any correlation is probably dubious.

US Dollar and US 10-Year Rate

You don’t need me to tell you that in the short-term, the skyrocketing US debt is of zero concern to the forex markets. There is simply too many other issues on the radar screens of investors for them to make a meaningful attempt at assessing the likelihood of default. Such concerns might become more pronounced in the long-term, but it seems kind of silly to incorporate them into present forecasts. Even if the Eurozone debt crisis were to resolve itself and the global economy managed to avoid a double-dip recession, some other crisis or development – especially one more concrete and immediate than the distant possibility of a US debt default – would materialize. In short, it will be many years before the US debt problem becomes serious enough as to warrant serious consideration by the forex markets.

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SNB Leads Downward Pressure on Euro

Aug. 12th 2010

Since the beginning of this week, the Euro has retreated 3% against the US Dollar, including a 2% dip in Wednesday’s trading session, alone. Is it possible that the Euro rally was too good to be true, or is this correction only temporary?

euro USD 5 day chart
Earlier this week, Adam reported that China (via the institution that manages its foreign exchange reserves) was at least partially responsible for the Euro rally. If/when China desire to swap Dollars for Euros has been sated, the Euro rally could theoretically lose steam. At this point, it’s too early to call the end of the rally, since its steady appreciation has been marked by a handful of short-lived corrections. However, if this is indeed the start of a U-Turn, hindsight might show that it was inevitable that it would occur at this level.

As an aside, the kinds of back-and-forth swings that have become commonplace in forex markets may be attributable to large-scale investors, such as Central Banks. As currencies (or other securities, for that matter) decline, investors will often take advantage of low prices and enter the market. When prices rise, these same investors (joined by long-term investors) will often take profits and sell. As a result, it is hard for currencies to rally continuously without any kind of correction.

Back to the Euro, there are a handful of Central Banks who are making their presence known on this front. On several occasions over the last few weeks, the Central Bank of Switzerland (SNB) has unloaded massive quantities of Euros. If you recall, the SNB amassed nearly €200 Billion over the previous year, as part of a massive buying spree aimed at holding down the value of the Franc. Given that the Franc has appreciated by more than 15% against the Franc this year, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the SNB is throwing in the towel. (Oddly, it waited until Euros were cheap before it started selling).

EUR CHF 1 Year Chart

Analysts from Morgan Stanley foresees a similar trend: “Central banks are likely to let their euro holdings slide as a percentage of the total, reflecting lingering concerns about the euro zone’s fiscal outlook…’We do not expect that central banks will provide as much support for euros as in the past. They have prevented the euro from depreciating more rapidly… but they are unlikely to stop its depreciation.’ ” The implication is clear: the Euro is facing (passive) pressure on multiple fronts.

In fact, the kinds of back-and-forth swings that have become commonplace in forex markets may be attributable to large-scale investors, such as Central Banks. As currencies (or other securities, for that matter) decline, investors will often take advantage of low prices and enter the market. When prices rise, these same investors (joined by long-term investors) will often take profits and sell. As a result, it is hard for currencies to rally continuously without any kind of correction.

While it’s true that the average daily turnover of the global forex markets now exceeds $4 Trillion, the majority of this represents the rapid opening and closing of positions by the same group of traders. Only a small portion of this actually represents meaningful changes in portfolio allocation. Thus, when the SNB or the Central Bank of China buys or sells €15 Billion, it can seriously alter the course of the Euro, even though it would seem to represent an insubstantial portion of trading volume. Thus, market participants (especially amateurs) are advised to watch these market movers for signs of changes in their respective portfolios, because they will often signal the direction of the market.

For example, from 2002 to 2009, “The euro’s weighting in global reserves rose to 28% from 23%, according to International Monetary Fund data,” and over the same time period, the Euro rose 50% against the US Dollar. It’s possible that the Euro’s appreciation drove Central Bank purchases of the Euro, rather than the other way around. The truth is probably that the two trends reinforced each other. Given that Central Bank reserves are once again rising, any changes in portfolio allocation could have significant implications for the forex markets.

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Posted by Amy Cottrell | in Central Banks, Euro, News | 1 Comment »

Fed Mulls Options for Next Week’s Meeting

Aug. 5th 2010

Next week, the Open Market Committee (OMC) of the Federal Reserve Bank will hold its monthly meeting. Even without checking futures prices, it’s obvious that the probability of an interest rate hike is nil. [In fact, the odds of a rate hike in November have already converged to 0%]. Why, then, are investors keenly awaiting the outcome of the meeting?

Cleveland Fed August 2010 Meeting Outcomes
In a nutshell, they will be watching for two things. The first is any changes in the statement released at the close of the meeting. According to James Bullard, President of the St. Louis Fed, “If any new ‘negative shocks’ roiled the economy, the Fed should alter its position that interest rates would remain exceptionally low for ‘an extended period.’ ” If the OMC determines that the prospects for continued economic recovery are good, and/or the inflation hawks get their way, we could see subtle – but meaningful – changes to statement.

More importantly, the Fed must make a decision regarding the other tools in its monetary arsenal. Of immediate concern is what to do with the more than $200 Billion in mortgage bonds (representing less than 20% of the Fed’s total purchases of MBS) that mature in the next six months. The original plan was to allow the securities to mature and take no new action, as part of a gradual exit from the credit markets. As a result of changing economic conditions, however, the Fed is debating rolling the cash over into new mortgage securities or Treasury Bonds.

Assets on the Federal Reserve's Balance Sheet

Inflation hawks (at the Fed) are skeptical and have vowed to press for the start of the unwinding the Fed’s portfolio. They have the support of traders in the MBS market, who insist that, ” ‘The MBS market currently does not need added Fed support.’ ” Meanwhile, “Treasury-market participants suggest the central bank should use the money to support small businesses or commercial real estate.”

Analysts are divided as to what the Fed will do. According to Nomura Securities, “We expect the Fed to at least stop the passive contraction of its balance sheet.” According to another analyst, “The temptation to jump from a decision to maintain the balance sheet’s size at current levels to a new round of easing is understandable but probably premature.” Based on the economic data, both sides have legitimate cases. On the one hand, the economy is still in recovery mode. On the other hand, unemployment remains stubbornly high, and certain leading indicators would seem to suggests a return to recession, which means there is pressure for the Fed to act. [“Since Fed officials last met in June, data on consumer confidence and spending have softened and job data haven’t improved. But overall financial conditions have improved somewhat, with a rebounding stock market”].

Currently, it is expected that the Fed won’t hike rates until the end of 2011. In addition, while it probably isn’t ready to embark on a fresh round of quantitative easing, it is more likely than not that it will channel the cash from the expiring bonds back into the markets. As far as forex markets are concerned, the Dollar will remain unmoved if the Fed conforms to these expectations. Dovishness – such as an expansion of quantitative easing – will almost certainly hurt the Dollar, while the flip side – exiting the credit markets and/or hinting towards rate hikes – would give the Greenback a solid boost.

Dollar Index Spot 1-Year Chart 2010

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Japanese Yen: Intervention is Imminent?

Aug. 1st 2010

I last mused about the possibility of Japanese Yen intervention in June (Japanese Yen: 90 or 95?): “It seems that anything between 90 and 95 is acceptable, while a drop below 90 is cause for intervention.” Since then, the Japanese Yen has fallen below 86 Yen per Dollar (the USD/JPY pair is now down 7% on the year), and analysts are beginning to wonder aloud about when the Bank of Japan (BOJ) will step in.

The BOJ last intervened in 2004. Given both the price tag ($250 Billion) and the fact that in hindsight its efforts were futile, it appears somewhat determined to avoid that route if possible. In addition, any intervention would have to be implemented unilaterally, since the goal of a cheaper Yen is not shared by any other Central Banks. As if that were not enough, the cause of intervention would be further contradicted by improving reports on the economy and by higher-than-forecast earnings by Japanese exporters, both in spite of the strong Yen.

JPY USD 1 Year Chart 2010

Finally, the Bank of Japan would be wise to consider that it is impossible to calculate an ideal exchange rate, since prior to intervening in 2004, it declared that ” ‘a dollar at ¥115.00 is the ultimate life-and-death line for Japanese exporters.’ ” Six years later, the Yen is 25% more expensive, and Japanese exporters appear to be doing just fine. On the other hand, “If the yen keeps rising, BOJ officials may become more concerned over whether exports will really continue to grow and prop up the economy.”

Analysts remain mixed about the likelihood/desirability of intervention. Most admit that as with the last time around, it would be an exercise in futilty, since “the yen’s gain isn’t being driven by speculation,” and investors would probably be willing to buy any Yen that the Central Bank sells. Instead, the BOJ will probably continue to pursue a policy of vocal intervention, which can be equally effective and much less expensive.

Government officials – at least the ones with any jurisdiction in currency issues – have remained reticent on the topic of intervention. That’s not to say that they couldn’t be swayed by pressure from the Minister of Trade and others, which have repeatedly voiced their irritation over the Yen’s strength.

Ultimately, trying to predict whether intervention will take place is probably just as futile as any intervention, itself. Still, 85 is a level of obvious psychological importance, as is 84.83, the 14-year high set last November. If the Yen drifts below that, one would expect the Bank of Japan to at least make a token effort to depend the Yen. Even if the economy can withstand a weaker Yen, it will nonetheless benefit from a stronger Yen, and regardless of what the BOJ says, that is what it would like to see.

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How About Those Stress Tests…

Jul. 27th 2010

What’s the deal with those stress tests? It sounds like the setup for a Jerry Seinfeld joke, and given the way the tests were viewed by the markets, it might as well have been. According to the EU, the tests were a tremendous success. According to investors, the results were irrelevant at best, and patently misleading at worst.

The stress tests were first proposed last month as a way to gauge the health of the EU banking sector; it was hoped that the results would demonstrate the soundness of the banking system and mollify investors. Since then, momentum continued to build in the markets, as investors engaged in meta-speculation about the potential impact of the stress tests.

In the days leading up to the test, there was a mixture of apprehension and uncertainty. One trader warned: “No one seems to want to hold too much risk heading into the release of the European bank stress tests….A great deal of caution should be exercised…as the results of the stress tests are made public. There is definitely the potential for a huge swing in either direction…as there could be a freight train coming down the tracks.” The Euro traded sideways, capping an impressive 8% rally that began in June.

Euro Dollar 3 month chart
On Monday, the tests were finally conducted: “EU regulators scrutinized 91 of the bloc’s banks to assess whether they have enough capital to withstand a recession and sovereign-debt crisis, with a Tier 1 capital ratio of 6 percent as a floor. Regulators tested portfolios of sovereign five-year bonds, assuming a loss of 23.1 percent on Greek debt, 12.3 percent on Spanish bonds, 14 percent on Portuguese bonds and 4.7 percent on German state debt.” Officially, only 7 banks failed the tests – 5 in Spain, 1 in Germany, 1 in Greece – with a combined capital shortfall of €3.5 Billion.

When the news was initially released, the Euro sea-sawed – first rising, then falling – and analysts rushed to ascribe sometimes-contradicting sentiments. First, there was “concern,” then came “relief.” From where I was sitting, the markets’ reaction was basically somewhere between a shrug and a yawn. First of all, investors saw the tests for the charade that they essentially were. The only reason that EU regulators were willing to conduct them publicly was because they knew that the results would be positive. As I wrote above, it was intended in advance that the tests would “mollify investors.”

On a related note, the tests were not nearly strict enough: “Analysts were instantly dismissive of the tests, saying the bar was too low. ‘The prospect of an outright sovereign default, which is what has worried markets most, has not even been considered.’ ”  Instead of examining the possibility of bonds becoming worthless and irredeemable, the tests only assumed modest losses.” By this standard, argue investors, it’s no wonder that virtually every bank was able to pass.

Ultimately, gauging the success of the stress tests will require waiting few weeks. Unlike currency, stock, and bond markets – which can and did offer instant feedback on the news – it will probably take some time before the impact is fully reflected in the money markets. In other words, while an uptick in the Euro, shares of bank stocks, and sovereign bond prices should all be seen as symbols of confidence, the real test is whether investors will be willing to lend directly to banks, at reasonable rates (proxied by 3-month Euro LIBOR, on display below).

3-month EURO LIBOR 2006-2010
In fact, that test could come quite soon, as the ECB continues to recall the hundreds of Billions of Euros in loans that it made to commercial banks. If LIBOR rates remain steady and the markets remain liquid, then the stress tests can be called a success. If private investors balk and/or the ECB is forced to extend its lending program, however, the tests will be seen in hindsight as a waste of time.

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Japanese Yen and the Irony of Debt

Jul. 13th 2010

Since my last update in June, the Japanese Yen has continued to creep up. It has risen a solid 5% in the year-to-date against the Dollar, 12% against the Pound, and an earth-shattering 20% against the Euro. It is closing in on a 15-year high of 85 Yen/Dollar, and beyond that, the all-time high of 79. According to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, “Long positions in the yen stand at $5.4bn. This is the highest level since December 2009 and represents the biggest bet against the dollar versus any currency in the market.”

usd-jpy 1 year chart
As to what’s propelling the Yen higher, there is very little mystery. Two words: Safe Haven. “The yen’s attractions lie in its status as a haven from the turmoil that has engulfed financial markets as, first, the eurozone debt crisis unfolded and, then, fears about a double-dip recession have intensified.” To be sure, there are a handful of currencies that are arguably more secure and less risky than the Yen. The problem is that with the exception of the Dollar, none of them can compete with the Yen on the basis of liquidity. In addition, thanks to non-existent inflation in Japan and low interest rates in other countries, there is very little opportunity cost in simply holding Yen and simply taking a wait-and-see approach.

According to some analysts, interest rate differentials will probably remain narrow for the foreseeable future: “Global bond yields will fall, reducing the incentive of yen-based investors to place funds abroad.” In fact, thanks to low interest rate differentials, the Yen is not even the target funding currency for carry traders. Suffice it to say that investors are not bothered by the fact that Japanese monetary policy is extraordinarily accommodative and that Japanese long-term interest rates are the lowest in the world. For those who are concerned about rising interest rate differentials, consider that this probably won’t become a factor until the medium-term.

On the fundamental front, there are a couple of risks for the Yen. First of all, there is the stalled Japanese economic recovery and the possibility that the strong Yen could further erode the competitiveness of Japan’s export sector, the mainstay of its economy. Yen bulls respond to this by noting both that Japan’s economic recovery has already stalled for 25 years and that should the Yen’s rise actually crimp economic growth, the Central Bank would probably intervene. By all accounts, “The government will continue to keep a close eye on the yen.”

A greater concern, perhaps, is Japan’s massive debt. Near $10 Trillion, public debt is already 180% of GDP, and is projected to grow to 200% over the next few years. Total public and private debt, meanwhile, is by far the highest in the world, at 380% of GDP. The Japanese government is planning to implement “austerity measures,” but political stalemate and election pressures will make this difficult to achieve.  All three of the rating agencies have issued stern warnings, and downgrades could soon follow. Here, Yen bulls retort that as unsustainable as this debt might appear, the majority (90%) of it is financed domestically, through the massive pool of savings. The remaining 10% is eagerly soaked up by foreign investors, who view the debt as a more attractive alternative to cash and stocks. [This is the great irony that I alluded to in the title of this post – that more debt is viewed positively as “liquidity” and does nothing to hurt the Yen].

Japan Public Debt 1980 - 2010

Speaking of which, the Japanese stock market has risen by only 5% this year, and some analysts are predicting that a long bull market is inevitable. Adding to the fervor, Central Banks have begun to build their positions in the Yen, for the first time in 10 years. It seems everyone is excited about the Yen, even economists: “Within the developed economy space, Japan looks relatively good as an economy that’s likely to be growing faster than Europe or America, and it’s generally considered to have low risk of capital flight.” In other words, the consensus is that there is a very low chance of a “Greek-like debt crisis.”

At this point, the Yen can only be toppled by Central Banks: either foreign Central Banks will hike interest rates and make the Yen unattractive in contrast, or the Bank of Japan will intervene directly to prevent it from rising further.

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US Apathetic about Dollar

Jul. 11th 2010

Recently, it struck me: the US does not care about the Dollar. If you look at fiscal and monetary policy, there is actually a remarkable degree of consistency. Both reflect a clear disregard for the conditions that are necessary for a strong currency.

This might seem ridiculous, given the Dollar’s amazing performance of late. It has appreciated healthily against almost all of the world’s major currencies, and is also more valuable on a trade-weighted basis. Bear in mind, however, that this rise is entirely a function of the (perceived) crisis in Europe. It speaks not to any strength in the Dollar, but rather to weakness in other currencies. In fact, as I wrote earlier this week (“US Dollar Paradigm Shift“), as investors have returned their gaze to the fundamentals, the Dollar has suffered.

Without drilling into the nuts and bolts of US fiscal policy, consider that the US budget deficit will exceed an unthinkable $1 Trillion for a second year in a row. The national debt is now growing much faster than GDP, and servicing it is consuming an ever-increasing share of the budget. With concerns looming of a double-dip recession, meanwhile, tax revenues will probably stagnate, even regardless of what happens to spending. In short, US budget deficits are going to continue to be a fact of life for the immediate future.

Monetary Policy is equally disastrous. The Fed is pre-occupied with keeping interest rates low and with promoting an economic recovery. $2 Trillion of newly-minted money is still flowing through the system, and it’s unclear when it will be siphoned out. There are a few inflation hawks on the Fed’s Board of Governors, but they lack the power to effect a short-term change in monetary policy.

The Bank for International Settlements (BIS), G20, and a pair of economists, among others, have all sounded alarm bells, calling such policies foolish and unsustainable. According to the BIS, “Keeping interest rates very low comes at a cost—a cost that is growing with time. Experience teaches us that prolonged periods of unusually low rates cloud assessments of financial risks, induce a search for yield and delay balance-sheet adjustments.”

In short, there is a clear consensus that perennial budget deficits and low rates are wrongheaded at best, and disastrous at worst. From the standpoint of currency markets, what matters in the short-term are interest rates, and what matters in the long-term is inflation. The Dollar is in an unfavorable position on both fronts. Interest rates are currently near 0% – the lowest in the world – and easy monetary policy and high government debt increase the likelihood of inflation in the wrong-term.

In light of this notion, the only logical conclusion is that the Dollar simply plays no role in the formulation of government and Central Bank decision-making. Since the inception of the credit crisis, this was a luxury that could be afforded, as safe-haven capital poured into the US. If/when the crisis abates, this capital will probably depart, as investors are forced to consider the fundamentals.

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Markets Confused about Canadian Dollar

Jul. 2nd 2010

On a trade-weighted basis, the Canadian Dollar (aka Loonie) has appreciated nearly 10% in 2010. At the same time, it has fallen 8% against the Dollar since the beginning of May. This contradiction is reflected in an explosion in volatility: “CAD has been very volatile – the average intraday spread between the high and low in CAD over the last 21-years has been 83 points; over the last month it has been 182 points.” How can we make sense of this uncertainty, and which trend is ultimately more representative?

CAD USD 1yr

On the one hand, the Loonie continues to be thought of as a commodity currency whose rise and fall is closely linked to fluctuations in the prices of certain raw materials. “It’s not just about oil any more, but also natural gas – whose price has carved out a bottom – and precious metals, which command a 13-per-cent share of the TSX’s market cap versus less than 1 per cent for the S&P 500,” observed one analyst. From this standpoint, it’s perhaps not surprising that a 7.2% drop in the Raw Materials Index was matched by a proportional drop in the value of the Loonie.

On the other hand, the Loonie is being punished by the Eurozone debt crisis and the consequent flight to safe haven currencies: “The Canadian dollar is following the risk aversion tones of the market.” While the Loonie might have otherwise been “been closer to parity” then, it’s understandable that the so-called “panic trade” is holding it down.

In light of the Eurozone debt crisis, however, one might have predicted that commodity currencies would rally, since they are perceived as being backed by something more tangible than government fiat. In fact, some analysts believe that the comparatively modest decline in the Loonie implies that this is indeed the case: “It was fascinating to see the Canadian dollar only correct down to 92 cents during this most recent round of global financial turbulence and flight-to-safety. That is a far cry from the correction down to 78 cents following the Lehman aftershock, not to mention the move down to 62 cents after the tech wreck a decade ago.”

The same analyst pointed out that the notion of the Canadian Dollar as a safe-haven currency is further justified by Canada’s strong fiscal condition. It is trimming its spending, cutting taxes, and may even reduce its national debt. Meanwhile, it’s financial system remains robust, as evidenced by the fact that none of its banks have required government bailouts. Thus, Canadian sovereign debt has continued to appreciate in spite of the crisis across the Atlantic. In short, “The federal government actually deserves the triple-A credit rating that it receives on its debt.”

Going forward then, the near-term performance of the Loonie will depend both on the EU sovereign debt crisis and commodities prices, which in turn are high sensitive to (perceptions of) the global economy. In this latter aspect, there is tremendous uncertainty. The Canadian economy did grow at 6% last quarter. However, “The fear is that weaker U.S. data is posing a risk to the Canadian economy. And the G-20 is really focused on fiscal restraint as opposed to supporting growth. That probably isn’t good for the growth currencies.”

Furthermore, there are implications for the Bank of Canada, which has already embarked on a tightening of monetary policy. It raised its benchmark interest rate – becoming the first industrialized economy Central Bank to do so – to .5% in June, and there is a 45% chance that it will do so again in July. The futures markets are currently pricing in a benchmark rate of 1.25% by year end. Ultimately, “The extent and timing of any additional withdrawal of monetary stimulus would depend on how the outlook for economic activity and inflation evolves.”

For now, interest rate hikes are largely beside the point as investors remain firmly focused on the EU fiscal crisis: “People are taking risk off heading into the summer, to reassess,” summarized one trader. A resolution of the crisis, would surely send the Loonie back towards parity. In the interim, Canada’s strong fundamentals will ensure that it won’t fall much further, poised to strike when the time comes.

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China Revalues RMB….by .4%

Jun. 24th 2010

It was only last week that I mused about “Further Delays in RMB Revaluation.” Lo and behold, over the weekend, the Central Bank finally budged, by pledging to the members of the G20 that it would ” ‘proceed further with reform‘ of the exchange rate and ‘enhance’ flexibility.” Upon reading this, I suppose I should have felt stupid.

Still, I wondered whether the move was aimed as a political sop designed to appease Western countries, rather than a meaningful change in China’s forex policy. My suspicions were confirmed on Monday, when the markets opened, and the RMB jumped by a pathetic .4%. All of those who had been hoping for an expecting an instant revaluation a la the 5% jump in 2005 were sadly disappointed.

Most commentators shared my cynicism about the move. According to Goldman Sachs Group Chief Global Economist Jim O’Neill, ” ‘It’s pretty astute timing. The timing of it is clearly aimed at the G-20 meeting, which indirectly links to the whole renewed thrust in Congress with protectionist steps against China.’ ” If this was in fact China’s intention, it backfired, since it only succeeding only in bringing increased attention to the still-undervalued Yuan. Senator Sherrod Brown called the appreciation ” ‘a drop in a huge bucket….We’ve seen China take actions like this before when the spotlight is on, and then revert back to old tricks.” Thus, he and Senator Charles Schumer have announced that they will move forward with a bill to punish China, unless the RMB is allowed to significantly appreciate.

By the Central Bank of China’s own admission, this is unlikely. Instead, it will continue to “keep the renminbi exchange rate at a reasonable and balanced level of basic stability.” In other words, the RMB is still pegged squarely to the US Dollar. It is neither freely floating nor is it pegged to a basket of currencies (in which case it could conceivably appreciate faster against the Dollar, due to the weak Euro). It is technically allowed to rise and fall on a daily basis within a .5% ban, but even this is controlled tightly by the Central Bank, via the so-called Central Parity Rate. If the rate fluctuates too much, state-owned companies often intervene in the markets at the behest of the Central Bank. Legitimate market participants are heavily constrained by a rule that requires them to square all of their positions at the end of every trading session, such that making long-term bets on the RMB’s appreciation would be impossible.

RMB Revaluation Chart June 2010
Not that it matters. In the US, where it is legal to make long-term bets on the RMB (via futures contracts), investors are still only projecting a 1.8% appreciation (2.2% relative to the RMB’s pre-revaluation level) over the next year, and a 2.9% appreciation by the end of 2011. In the end, there just isn’t a lot of confidence that China will voluntarily act in a way that is contrary to its own short-term economic interests.

To be sure, there is a possibility that the RMB will be allowed to steadily appreciate, in which case there would be real implications for other financial markets. If the past is any consideration, however, the RMB will rise only modestly against the Dollar, and even more modestly on a trade-weighted basis. Its economy will remain overheated and imbalanced, and if it was headed towards collapse prior to this latest change, it certainly still is.

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SNB Abandons Intervention

Jun. 22nd 2010

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) has apparently admitted (temporary) defeat in its battle to hold down the value of the Franc. ” ‘The SNB has reached its limits and if the market wants to see a franc at 1.35 versus the euro, they won’t be able to stop it.’ ” The markets have won. The SNB has lost.

SNB Franc Intervention Chart - 2009-2010
Still, the SNB should be applauded for its efforts. As you can see from the chart above, it managed to keep the Franc from rising above €1.50 (its so-called line in the sand) for the better part of 2009. Furthermore, by most accounts, it managed to slow the Franc’s unavoidable descent against the Euro in 2010. While the Dollar has appreciated more than 15% against the Euro, the Franc has a risen by a more modest 10%. ” ‘Without that €90 billion [intervention], it’s fair to say that the euro would be closer to $1.10,’ ” argued one analyst. In fact, as recently as May 18, the SNB manifested its power in the form of 1-day, 2% decline in the Franc, its sharpest fall in more than a year.

Overall, the SNB has spent more than $200 Billion over the last 12 months, including $73 Billion in the month of May alone. ” ‘To put the figures in perspective, there have been only two months when China, the world’s largest holder of forex reserves with $2,249bn in assets, saw its reserves increase more.’ ” The SNB now claims the world’s 7th largest foreign exchange reserves, ahead of the perennial interveners of Brazil in Hong Kong, the latter of whose currency is pegged against the Dollar.

Swiss SNB Forex Reserves - Intervention
While the SNB can take some credit for halting the decline in the Franc, it was ultimately done in by factors beyond its control, namely the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis and consequent surge in risk aversion. At this point the forces that the SNB is battling against are too large to be contained: “We’re talking about a massive euro crisis, so no single central bank can prop it up on its own,” summarized one trader. As a result, the Franc is now rising to a fresh record high against the Euro nearly every trading session.

Still, the SNB remains committed to rhetorical intervention. “The central bank has a ‘clear aim‘ to maintain price stability and this is what guides its policy actions, SNB President Philipp Hildebrand said…The bank will act in a ‘decisive manner if needed.’ ” That means that if economic growth slows and/or deflation sets it, it may have to restart the printing presses. Given that its economy is slated to grow at a solid 1.5% this year, unemployment is a meager 3.8%, and the threat of inflation has largely abated. On the other hand, the prospect of a drawn-out crisis in the EU means the Franc will probably continue to appreciate – without help from the Central Bank: ” ‘The SNB may continue to intervene in the currency markets until 2020,’ ” declared the head of forex research for UBS.

The implications for currency markets are interesting. Not only has the SNB prevented the Euro from falling too fast against the Franc, but it may also have prevented it from falling too quickly against other currencies. ” ‘To suggest that the SNB has been the savior of the euro is too much. But one could imagine that if the euro starts to decline again, the market may blame the fact that the SNB isn’t buying,’ ” said a currency strategist from Standard Bank.

This episode is also a testament to the limits of intervention. It has always been clear (to this blogger, at least) that intervention is futile in the long-term. The best that a Central Bank can hope for is to stall a particular outcome long enough in order to achieve a certain short-term policy aim. When enough momentum coalesces behind a (floating) currency, there is nothing that a Central Bank can do to stop it from moving to the rate that investors collectively deem it to be worth.

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No US Rate Hike in 2010

Jun. 15th 2010
In the midst of the Eurozone debt crisis, forex investors have largely stopped paying attention to interest rate differentials and focused the brunt of their attention on risk. Soon enough, however, there will be a resurgence in the carry trade, at which point interest rates will return to the forefront of investors consciousness.
 
From the standpoint of the carry trade, the US Dollar should be one of the least favorite currencies, since it offers investors a negative real return (without taking exchange rate fluctuations into account). If not for the sudden increase and volatility and consequent ebb in risk appetite, the Dollar would probably still be falling, and would continue to fall well into the future. To understand why, one need look no further than the current Fed Funds Rate (FFR), from which most other short-term rates are (indirectly) derived.
 
The FFR currently stands at 0 -.25%. Moreover, the debt crisis could potentially hamper the US economic recovery and the appreciation in the Dollar is causing inflation to moderate, which has removed almost all of the impetus for the Fed to hike rates anytime soon. There is also the problem of high US unemployment and recent stock market declines. There is currently a tremendous amount of uncertainty, as nobody can say definitively whether the US economy has turned the corner or whether it is headed for double-dip recession.
FED 2010 Rate hike monetary policy
 
Most at the Fed think that the US recovery still remains on track. According to Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago President Charles Evans, “As the recovery progresses and businesses become more confident in the future, employment will increase on a more consistently solid basis. My forecast is that real gross domestic product will grow about 3.5%.” In fact, some of the hawks at the Fed see this as a justification for preemptive rate hikes and/or an unwinding of the Fed’s quantitative easing program. The President of the Kansas City Fed argued recently, “Even if the target was increased to 1 percent, policy would remain very accommodative,” while the Philadelphia Fed President added that the Fed should start selling some of $1 Trillion in Mortgage Backed Securities currently on its balance sheet.
 
Still, such voices represent the minority, and besides, most of the hawks don’t current have any voting power. In other words, it will probably be a while before the Fed actually hike rates. Futures contracts currently reflect an infinitesimally low probability of rate hikes at any of the Fed’s summer meetings. “The February 2011 fed-funds futures contract priced in a 48% chance for the FOMC to lift the funds rate to 0.5% at its Jan. 25-26 meeting.” Meanwhile, an internal Fed analysis has concluded that based on previous rate-setting patterns, it is unlikely that the benchmark FFR will be lifted before 2012.
 
Fed FFR Interest Rate Futures September 2010 Implied Probability
In short, US short-term rates will remain low for the indefinite future. For now, the “safe haven” mentality dictates that investors are less focused on yield and more concerned about capital preservation, which means no one is paying attention to the Fed. When risk appetite picks up, however, the Dollar will probably be dumped very quickly in favor of higher-yielding alternatives.
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Risk Aversion Hits Australian Dollar

Jun. 13th 2010
These days, I feel like you could take that title and substitute pretty much any currency for the Australian Dollar. Let’s face it- the EU sovereign debt crisis has hit a number of currencies extremely hard, as investors have fled anything and everything risky, in favor of the US Dollar, Swiss Franc, Japanese Yen, and Gold.
 
Still, the Australian Dollar merits special attention, because in the forex markets, it has come to be a symbol of risk-taking. For veritable years, every credit expansion and economic boom has been accompanied by a surge in the value of the Aussie, and 2009 was no exception. As the global economy recovered and risk aversion ebbed, the Australian Dollar rose by more than 40% against the USD. It has been helped in its upward course by Chinese demand for its natural resources and strong interest rates, especially compared to the rest of the industrialized world.
AUD USD 2 Year Chart
 
That the Australian Dollar has already fallen 14% (from peak to trough) against the US Dollar over the last month is less due to economic and monetary factors, however, and more the result of an ebb in risk-taking. “The Australian dollar is considered a barometer of global risk appetite. Its fall reflects the quick change in mood, as Europe’s debt problems and China’s monetary tightening plans cloud expectations for the global economic growth,” summarized one analyst.
 
Specifically, investors are growing increasingly nervous about the viability of the carry trade, of which the Australian Dollar has been one of the primary beneficiaries. Uncertainty surrounding the fiscal problems of the Eurozone has catalyzed a spike in volatility, and investors have responded by rapidly unwinding their carry trade positions. Ironically, this caused a temporary upswing in the Euro, at the expense of the Aussie: ” ‘The euro rally isn’t that people like the euro. Investors have decided they want out of risk.’ The way to remove that risk from portfolios is to pay back the euro loans by selling the Australian dollar.”
 
From another standpoint, the yield advantage associated with holding Australian Dollars is no longer enough to compensate investors for the added risk. After adjusting for inflation, real interest rates in Australia are only about 2.5% (the nominal benchmark rate is 4.5%). This is still 2.5% higher than the benchmark US Federal Funds Rate, but not very attractive if you consider that the Australian Dollar has fallen by more than 2.5% against the US Dollar in several individual trading sessions in May. Moreover, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) is signalling a pause in its rate hikes. If futures contracts are any indication, the Fed and the ECB will raise their respective interest rates before the RBA moves again.
 
Going forward, the consensus is that a sustainable level for the Australian Dollar based on current fundamentals is probably around .75 AUD/USD. However, the Aussie rallied 5% against the US Dollar last week, which suggests that investors still aren’t ready to give up completely: ” ‘The environment is not yet ripe to get truly bearish on the Australian dollar,’ said Commonwealth Bank Strategist Richard Grace. There are positives on the horizon, namely a better outlook for the U.S. and a calming of the Greek crisis, he said. He’s forecasting a return to $0.87.” Personally, I could see the Aussie going either way. Parity probably isn’t on the table anymore, but virtually everything else still is.
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EU Crisis Punishes Korean Won

Jun. 8th 2010

The South Korean Won has been one of the biggest losers from the EU sovereign debt crisis. After a stellar 2009, the Won is off to a shaky start in 2010, and has lost 12% of its value in the last month alone. According to analysts, The won is “most sensitive to risk aversion” of any currency in Asia – or even the world. Thus, when the President of Hungary likened his country’s fiscal situation to that of Greece and inadvertently ignited fears that the crisis was spreading, the Korean Won immediately fell by 5% – the largest decline in 17 months.

Korean Won USD 1 year
Given all of the economies/currencies from which to choose, it seems bizarre that investors would gang up on the Won. That is, until you consider that South Korea’s fiscal situation is somewhat unique and that funding crises tend to hit the country especially hard. Summarized one analyst: “We are concerned that the negative market view of events in Europe will not dissipate and that the longer the stress continues, the more concerns will arise that the peripheral funding crisis could segue into a more extended funding crisis and into lower growth expectations.”

To elaborate, South Korea’s short-term foreign currency debt is extremely high (60% of foreign exchange reserves). That’s primarily due to Korean exporters’ hedging activities, which for risk management purposes, need to be offset by short-term borrowing by banks in the money market. Since this debt needs to be rolled over frequently, South Korea is especially vulnerable to liquidity crunches. In fact, the Won has been called a “VIX currency,” since it tends to fall when volatility (proxied by the VIX index) rises. Hence, the Won lost 50% of its value during the peak of the credit crisis, and has already declined 10% this time around.

Korean Won Versus Vix Index 2009-2010
The Central Bank is doing its part to relieve the liquidity shortage and stem the Won’s decline. It has already placed modest limits on speculative derivative transactions with the goal of limiting capital flight. It is pressing to renew currency swaps with the Fed and the Bank of Japan in order to increase the supply of alternative currency. In addition, it has taken to intervening directly in currency markets by selling Billions of Dollars on the spot market. Explaining the first market intervention in more than a year, the Central Bank declared,
“The dollar’s surge against the won today was overdone. The authorities will try to prevent one-way currency moves.”

There are also a handful of market analysts who attribute the Won’s fall to the ongoing conflict with North Korea. In response to the sinking of a warship in March, South Korea has responded by imposing trade sanctions on North Korea, which in turn has responded with threats of “all-out war.” From a forex standpoint, “The largest concern is that the cutting off of economic links raises the risk of a sudden regime collapse, resulting in the South facing a huge influx of refugees. This would have a significant — and possibly prolonged — impact on the Korean won.”

How should one proceed? If indeed you believe that the Won is being harmed by the prospect of conflict with North Korea, you might be inclined to agree with the notion that, “The recent sell-off in the won has been overdone and should correct, assuming that the North-South tensions will ease in the months ahead.” In fact, if war is avoided, the current bear market could be an excellent buying opportunity, and the Won could still be on track to rise to 1,100 USD/KRW by year-end, conforming to analysts’ median expectations.

On the other hand, if you believe that the Won’s woes are largely attributable to the EU fiscal crisis, there is very little reason to hold the Won, since that crisis will probably only get worse before it gets better: “The Korean market was precariously positioned, with high multiples, above-trend earnings, heavy positioning towards risk and ominous technicals suggesting little sponsorship for strength.” In this case, the Won could easily fall to 1,300 – or worse – before the year is out.

In any event, South Korea will host a meeting of the G20 this week, which should yield more clarity into what the rest of 2010 has in store for the Won.

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EUR/USD: The Next Benchmark is Parity

Jun. 5th 2010

The Euro has now declined for six consecutive months against the Dollar. It is down 25% from its 2008 high and 15% in the year-to-date. It declined 8% in the month of May alone. En route to a four year low, the Euro also fell below the 50% retracement level ($1.21) of its rally from 2000-2008. It’s now too clear where the Euro is headed: parity.

eur usd 1 year chart
That’s right. Parity. We’re not talking about the Canadian Dollar or even the Australian Dollar. We’re talking about the Euro, which only yesterday was trading at a lofty $1.60 against the Dollar. According to CLSA Asia Pacific Markets, “The euro will sooner or later go to parity with the U.S. dollar.” Meanwhile, “The research firm Capital Economics predicts that the euro will reach par with the U.S. dollar by the end of next year.” There wasn’t even a perfunctory attempt by either firm to justify the prediction. Given the way that the Euro has been trading, it probably wasn’t necessary.

Since the last time I reported on the Euro, the bad news has continued to pour in. Spain officially lost its AAA credit rating, and concerns are mounting that the crisis is spreading to Hungary (not even on the radar screen last week) and Italy: “While Italy may not be as structurally vulnerable as Greece or Portugal, the relative underperformance of Italian credit default swaps this month suggests that investor concerns may be rotating away from Greece.” As if it wasn’t bad enough that investors had lost confidence, now banks won’t even lend to each other.

The $1 Trillion bailout, meanwhile, has done nothing to assuage the markets. “The markets are trading in real time, while the politicians are moving in bureaucratic time. We’re promised something maybe in October — that’s a hell of a long time in the financial markets’ eyes,” underscored one economist. Germany appears to be isolating itself from the rest of the EU, thanks to its ban on the short-selling of certain financial movements- a move that was not matched by other member states. “Concerns are also growing because Belgium is unlikely to have a government in place when it takes over the EU presidency on July 1 and markets are worried the EU’s institutions and leaders are ill-equipped to handle a crisis of this magnitude.”

The main issue, which critics of the bailout have been quick to point out all along, is that the fiscal problems that precipitated the crisis are still extant. Spain, for example, currently has the third largest budget deficit in the EU, and yet, it is struggling to make meaningful cuts and pass the necessary “austerity measures.” Germany has tried to unilaterally amend the EU treaty in order to force member states to balance their budgets, but to no avail. If a full-blown crisis is to be avoided, significant structural reforms will have to implemented, and soon.

For many, that the crisis will not be resolved is a foregone conclusion, and they have instead embraced the possibility of ECB intervention to stem the Euro’s decline. The last time the ECB intervened was in 2000, shortly after the Euro was introduced and when it was trading around 87 cents to the Dollar. Experts are divided over whether intervention is likely or even possible. Some have thrown out $1.10 or $1.00 has hypothetical levels at which the intervention would be likely, but the fact of the matter is, no one knows. Any intervention would necessarily involve the Fed and the other important Central Banks of the world. Don’t forget that when the Euro collapsed at the onset of the credit crisis, the Fed quickly underwrote a series of swaps to the ECB, and it could prove to be a willing participant this time around.

Recent History of Currency Intervention- Dollar, Euro, Yen

The ECB is naturally being coy, with President Jeane-Claud Trichet declaring: “Let us be clear, it is not the euro that is in danger.” Its monetary policy is still extremely accommodative, via low interest rates and a form of quantitative easing. This makes it favorable for investors to bet against the Euro, and is starting to earn the ECB the ire of EU politicians and economic policymakers. Given that the Euro’s decline has become self-fulfilling, pressure on the ECB will continue to mount, until the Euro reaches parity, and/or it has no choice but to intervene to prevent the common currency (and its raison d’etre!) from collapsing entirely.

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Chinese Yuan as Reserve Currency

May. 22nd 2010

Even before the sovereign debt crisis in Europe damped confidence in the world’s second most important reserve currency, the Chinese Yuan was on the cusp of being accepted as a global reserve currency.

We’re all familiar with the arguments attacking the Yuan in this context: its currency is pegged, its capital controls are rigid, and its capital markets are shallow and illiquid. Say what you want about the world’s major currencies (volatile, debt-ridden, etc.), but at least none of these factors applies, goes this line of thinking. With the Euro’s future up in the air, however, a potential hole has been created in Central Banks’ respective forex reserves. As replacement(s) for the Euro are sought, such long-held assumptions are being challenged.

The Chinese Yuan is attractive for a number of reasons. First, investors and Central Banks want exposure to China’s economy; its average annual growth rate of 10% over the last 30 years is far-and-away the highest in the world. “China’s economic output will be more than $5 trillion, or around 9% of the world’s economy, according to the International Monetary Fund.” Second, the fact that the RMB is fixed is in some ways a perk: the wild fluctuations that most currencies witnessed as a result of the credit crisis has made some wonder if market-determined exchange rates aren’t overrated. Finally, the widespread consensus is that the RMB will appreciate anyway, so holding it seems like a safe bet.

Therefore, “Central banks or sovereign wealth funds from Malaysia, Norway and Singapore have received special quotas from the Chinese government to allow them to gain a bit of exposure to China’s currency. The bet is that holding yuan-denominated assets is an important feature of a diversified national reserve.” In addition, China has signed Yuan-denominated swap agreements with a handful of its most important trade partners, totaling $100 Billion over the last year.

Still, these are small-scale agreements, and Central Banks are really just testing the waters. According to a recent study by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), “The Chinese yuan is ‘far from ready’ to gain reserve currency status. Rather, it said China’s yuan was likely first to become a regional currency as trade links with its neighbours expand.” The main issue is not one of stability, but rather of supply. Simply, there are not enough liquid, attractive investments, denominated in RMB. China’s stock and bond markets are filled with unreliable companies, whose primary loyalty is to the State, rather than to investors. Buying Chinese government bonds seems like a safe option, but given, that China finances most of its spending with cash, such bonds are not widely available.

For now, the Chinese Yuan will remain most attractive (from the standpoint of a reserve currency) to regional trade partners, because such countries have a genuine use for RMB. Investors seem to understand this idea, and are using the currencies of such countries to bet indirectly on the RMB. According to one analyst, “On days when trading is especially volatile, the Singapore dollar moves in tandem with the yuan bets. The Malaysian ringgit, Taiwanese dollar and Korean won are also high on the list of currencies affected by the yuan.” In short, the RBI’s assessment of the Yuan seems pretty apt. It will probably be at least a decade before holding the Yuan is as viable (not to say attractive) as the Japanese Yen. For investors who don’t want to wait that long, there are a handful of other regional currencies that they can hold in the interim.

The China Effect

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Euro Still Doomed, Despite Bailout

May. 12th 2010

In my last post, I reported that the markets were incredibly bearish on the Euro, due to concerns that the Greek debt crisis could neither be mitigated nor contained. By following up on this report with another incantation of Euro bearishness, I certainly run the risk of belaboring the point. Still, the fact that since then, a $1 Trillion bailout was announced means that at the very least, I need to offer an update!

Anyway, in case you have been living in a cave, the EU finally put its money where its mouth was by forming a €750 Billion Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to address the fiscal problems of currently-ailing and potentially-ailing economies. The brunt of financing the SPV will fall on individual Eurozone countries, though the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will also make sizable contributions. In addition, the European Central Bank (ECB) has agreed to purchase an indeterminate amount of government and corporate bonds, while other Central Banks will use currency swaps to ease pressure on the Euro.

EU IMF Euro Bailout - Two Pronged Approach

The reaction to the news was quite positive, with the Euro reversing its 6-month slump and rallying 2.7% against the Dollar. Equity shares surged on the news: “A a 50-stock mix of European stocks jumped 10.4 percent, Spain’s market soared 14.4 percent, France’s rose 9.7 percent and Germany’s gained 5.3 percent.” Sovereign debt and credit default swap prices also rose as investors moved to price in a decreased likelihood of default.

The celebration was short-lived, and by Tuesday (yesterday), the Euro had already returned to its pre-bailout level against the Dollar. In hindsight, it looks like the rally was the result of a classic short-squeeze. On Sunday, the Financial Times reported that “Positioning data from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, often used as a proxy for hedge fund activity, showed speculato,rs increased their short positions in the euro to a record 103,400 contracts, or $16.8bn in the week ending May 4.” After the most exposed short positions were covered, however, the rally quickly came to an end: “By the time markets opened in the United States, and American hedge funds entered the market, the euro’s rally began to flag.”

Euro 5 day chart
Indeed, it’s hard to find anyone that has anything positive to say about the bailout, even among the bureaucrats and politicians that contrived it. Here’s a smattering of soundbites:

  • “Angela Merkel, the Iron Chancellor, has rolled over and we are being taken to the cleaners.”
  • “We’ve just kind of kicked the can down the road. Sovereign debt, like all debt, ultimately has to be repaid.”
  • “The bailout is ‘another nail in the coffin…This means that they’ve given up on the euro.”
  • “Lending more money to already overborrowed governments does not solve their problems.”
  • “It was crucial to stop the panic, and this package has done it, but it doesn’t solve the longer-term problems which are slowly undermining the value of the euro.”
  • “It’s pretty disappointing that [the] euro only rallied a couple of cents on the back of a trillion dollars.”

There are a few specific concerns about the bailout. First of all, it’s still unclear how it will be paid for and how it will be implemented. How will specific loans be issued, and what will be the accompanying terms? Second, it does nothing to address the underlying fiscal problems that precipitated the crisis, and may in fact exacerbate them since countries have less of an incentive to rein in spending. As one analyst summarized, “Bailing out economies creates moral hazard. Other countries may continue to skirt the kinds of actions that would lower their budget deficits and debt loads…because they too can expect to be rescued.” Finally, the bailout does nothing to mitigate credit risk for private lenders; it merely transfers and expands it, since money that would have been lent to Greece (and other problem countries) anyway, will still be lent to them, after first being funneled through the SPV. In short, “Once market participants look at the actual details of this plan, they are not going to want to buy the euro either.”

As everyone has been quick to point out, the bailout probably makes a (partial) dissolution of the Euro even more likely, because it is tantamount to deflating the currency. As one economist opined, “The euro zone does not look viable in its current form. The basic premise…to unify monetary policy….while keeping fiscal policy completely separate…has completely broken down.” The only solution which will leave the Euro intact is for the weakest members to leave, and for a solid core of economically and fiscally sound economies to remain behind.

To be fair, the EU has certainly bought itself some time. Given that the amount of money pledged to fight the debt crisis well exceeds Greece’s public debt, it won’t be Greece that brings down the Euro. If/when the debt problems of Spain, Portugal, and Ireland become insoluble, however, the futility of the bailout will become abundantly clear.

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China’s Forex Reserves Surge to New Record

May. 2nd 2010
There are no words to describe the size of China’s foreign exchange reserves. Massive, Mind-Boggling, and Eye-Popping come to mind, but don’t do the $2.447 Trillion justice. What’s more, this figure represents the end of March; the current total has almost certainly surpassed $2.5 Trillion.

Interesting, the rate of reserve accumulation has slowed markedly from 2009. In the first quarter of 2010, the reserves grew by “only” $45 Billion, compared to growth of $125 Billion in the fourth quarter of 2009. There are a couple key explanations for this slowing. First, China’s trade balance has narrowed considerably over the last twelve months, to the point that it in March, it recorded its first trade deficit in six years. Second, China tallies its reserve growth on a net basis – after accounting for changes in valuation. Given that the majority of China’s reserves are still denominated in US Dollars, then, the Dollar’s appreciation over the last quarter may have shaved $40 Billion from the accumulation of new reserves. With this in fact in mind, the actual slowdown is probably much less pronounced than the numbers would suggest.

Breakdown of China's forex reserve buildup 2003 -2009
Besides, exports and foreign direct investment both continue to grow at healthy clips, which means there is nothing (barring a revaluation of the RMB) which could significantly slow reserve accumulation going forward. Even with a revaluation (that many experts believe is imminent), the need to further accumulate reserves will not be impacted, because the RMB will certainly continue to be pegged to the US Dollar. In order to prevent price inflation (which is already creeping up) from reaching dangerously high levels, then, the government will have no choice but to continue to soak up all capital inflows for as long as the RMB remains pegged.

Speaking of revaluation, the unchecked growth of China’s forex reserves would seem to strengthen the case for it. As the WSJ analysis showed, the value of China’s portfolio of reserves has fluctuated wildly over the last five years due both to gyrations on the capital markets and volatility in forex markets. In fact, China has lost a massive $70 Billion due to such volatility since 2003. In short, this program of accumulating reserves is not only a massive headache, but also a losing proposition.

Experts estimate that more than 2/3 is still denominated in USD. Since the Chinese RMB is also pegged to the Dollar, that means that as the RMB appreciates against the Dollar, the value of its reserves will fall in local currency terms. Rectifying this problem is basically impossible, as the EU sovereign debt crisis has demonstrated. It has looked into the possibility of investing in alternative assets such as Gold, Oil, and other commodities but there is simply not enough global supply to soak up more than a small fraction of China’s $2.5 Trillion. For all of the problems with the Dollar, the alternatives are just as bad, if not worse. At this point, the best China can hope for is to “cut its losses” by revaluing sooner rather than later.

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

Canadian Dollar and Parity

Apr. 21st 2010

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

CAD USD 5 year chart

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

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

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

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

CAD-USD March 2011 Futures

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

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

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

Brazilian Real Recovers on Rate Hike Hopes

Apr. 6th 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Japanese Yen: Will We See Intervention?

Apr. 3rd 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fed Rate Hike Still Distant

Mar. 31st 2010

Analysts and Fed-watchers have been speculating for almost half a year about the possibility of a Federal Funds Rate (FFR) hike. With each prognostication of a rate hike comes a flurry of market activity, followed by an invariable ebb, as investors accept that the Fed will hold the FFR at 0% until at least its next meeting.
Many traders (forex and other) look to interest rate futures for guidance as to when the Fed will ultimately hike. If you “believe” that futures prices are an accurate predictor, then there is currently a 68% chance that the FFR will rise by 25 basis points at the Fed’s December meeting. Until then, markets are pricing in a very low probability of any rate hikes. Besides, there is very little reason to put any stock in interest rate futures more than a few months away, because uncertainty is high and volume is low. Think about it: if you had looked at interest rate futures in the summer of 2008 (right before the onset of the credit crisis), you would have been anticipating a continued tightening of monetary policy, rather than the torrential loosening that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

In fact, “Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland said, in 2006, the fed funds futures market isn’t terribly good at predicting actual rate moves more than a few months into the future, even when the Fed is actively adjusting its target.” That being the case, there really isn’t any point in scrutinizing futures contracts that mature after May 2010. With regard to contracts that mature during the next two months, well, you don’t need to monitor futures prices to know that there is very little likelihood that the Fed will hike rates any time soon.

FFR August 2010 Meeting Outcomes Implied Probability Rate Hike
But don’t take my word for it. What do members of the Fed’s Board of Governors have to say about the matter? In his semi-annual testimony before the House of Representatives last week, Chairman Ben Bernanke said that ” ‘the economy continues to require the support of accommodative monetary policies.’ And in response to questions, he reaffirmed that the high level of unemployment and low rate of inflation will continue to justify very low rates ‘for an extended period.’ ”

Janet Yellen, President of the San Francisco Fed, has also insisted that “the U.S. economy still needs ‘extraordinarily low’ rates.” That “Yellen is the Fed’s extended-period language personified” is worth noting, since she is reputed to be President Obama’s pick to serve as vice-Chairman of the Fed. If it isn’t enough that Bernanke is a monetary Dove in the extreme, now he may be joined by Yellen, who will certainly echo his belief in the need for low rates.

Without a doing a further role call of the Fed’s power players, suffice it to say that low rates are in the cards for the near future. You’re probably wondering: Who cares?! With so much else to focus on in currency markets these days (namely the still-evolving EU fiscal crisis), is it really worthwhile to pay close attention to the Fed? The answer is Yes. While long-term interest rates (i.e. those that are most impacted by sovereign debt concerns) weigh heavily on all asset prices, currencies are driven largely by short-term interest rate differentials.

The related phenomena of the Carry Trade, Fisher Effect, Purchasing Power Parity, etc. are all based on short-term interest rates. If the Fed leaves rates low for an extended period as it promises, and/or other Central Banks (Australia, Canada, Brazil) nudge their respective rates higher, it probably won’t bode well for the Dollar. It helps that the Dollar is still ahead of the curve compared to the other majors (EU, UK, Japan) both monetarily and fiscally, which means that the Dollar should fare okay against their currencies. When you put the Dollar head-to-head against some of the smaller currencies, its position is much less favorable, due in no small part to the Fed.

US Dollar Index Spot Price

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, Major Currencies, News, US Dollar | 1 Comment »

Swiss Franc Surges to Record High: Where was the SNB?

Mar. 26th 2010
One of the clear victors of the Greek sovereign debt crisis has been the Swiss Franc, which has risen 5% against the Euro over the last quarter en route to a record high. 5% may not sound like much until you consider that the Franc had hovered around the €1.50 for most of 2009. Every time it budged from that mark, the Swiss National Bank (SNB) moved swiftly to return the Franc to its “resting spot.” So where was the SNB this time around?
Swiss Franc Euro chart
 
Beginning last March, the SNB was an active player in forex markets: “Quarterly figures indicate the central bank spent some 4 billion euros worth of francs in March, 12 billion in the second quarter, some 700 million euros in the third quarter, and some 4 billion in the fourth.” In fact, the SNB might still be intervening, and it won’t be until 2010 Q1 data is released that we will be able to say for sure. The Franc’s rise has certainly been steep, but who’s to stay that it couldn’t have been even steeper. For comparative purposes, consider that the US Dollar has risen more than 10% against the Euro over this same time period.
 
But the fact remains that the “line in the sand” was broken and the Swiss Franc touched an all-time high of €1.43. According to SNB Chairman Philipp Hildebrand, “We have a broad range of means to prevent an excessive appreciation and we are going to do this to ensure that the recovery can continue. The instruments are clear: We buy foreign currencies. We can do that in very large quantities.” In other words, he is sticking to the official line, that the SNB forex policy has not yet been abandoned. On the other hand, “SNB directorate member Jean-Pierre Danthine said Swiss companies and households should prepare for a market-driven exchange rate some time in the future.”
 
Actually, I don’t think these two statements are necessarily contradictory. The Franc is rising against the Euro for reasons that have less to do with the Franc and more to do with the Euro. At this point, if the SNB continued to stick to its line in the sand, it would look almost illogical, especially since by some measures, the Swiss Franc is already the world’s most manipulated currency. Besides, by all accounts, the interventionist policy has been a smashing success. The forex markets were cowed into submission for almost a year, which prevented the Swiss economy from contracting more and probably paved the way for recovery. 2009 GDP growth is estimated at -1.5% with 2010 growth projected at 1.5%.
 
By its own admission, the SNB did not target currency intervention as an end in itself. “If you want to assess the success, then you should not only look at a certain exchange rate, but look at the success of the Swiss economy.” Rather, its goal was monetary in nature. Since, it cut rates to nil very early on, the only other way it could tighten is by holding down the value of the Franc. Along these lines, the SNB will continue to use the Franc as a proxy for conducting monetary policy: “An excessive appreciation is if deflation risks were to materialise. We will not allow this to happen.”
 
Going forward then, it seems the Franc will continue to appreciate. “I think the marketwill cautiously continue to sell the euro against the Swiss franc and perhaps see whether the SNB will step in and try and stop the Swiss franc strength,” said one analyst. As long as the Swiss economy continues to expand and deflation remains at bay, there is little reason for the SNB to continue. Besides, intervention is not cheap, as the SNB’s forex reserves grew by more than 100% in 2009. On the other hand, the SNB has probably intervened in forex markets on 100 separate occasions over the last two decades, which means that it won’t be shy about stepping back in if need be.
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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, Euro, News, Swiss Franc | 2 Comments »

Chinese Yuan Still Pegged, and US Treasury Purchases Continue

Mar. 3rd 2010

It’s still anyone’s guess as to if and when China will allow the Yuan (RMB) to continue appreciating. You can see from the chart below – which shows the trading history for the RMB/USD December 2010 futures contract – that expectations of revaluation have eroded steadily since December 2009. At that time, it was projected that that Yuan would finish 2009 at 6.57 RMB/USD, 4% higher than the current level. Fast forward to the present, and investors now only expect a modest 2% appreciation rise on the year.

Picture 1
What’s behind the change in expectations? The answer is a combination of economics and politics. On the economic side, China’s trade surplus is much smaller than in recent years, as import growth outpaces export growth. “Double-digit annual growth in exports is all but assured in coming months due to a low base of comparison in early 2009, but…sequential growth momentum went into reverse in January, with exports down 16 percent from December.” Moreover, while GDP growth appears strong, it appears tenuously connected to exports and fixed-asset investment. In addition, if the Central Bank of China raises interest rates to counter property speculation, it will have even less room to maneuver in its forex policy if it wishes to maintain high GDP growth. In terms of politics, the CCP doesn’t want to lose a crucial bargaining chip in international relations, and it also doesn’t want to mitigate the threat to its political legitimacy posed by a prolonged economic slowdown.

On the other hand, China still desires to turn the Yuan into a global reserve currency, again both for economic and political reasons. In order to accomplish such a feat, one of the prerequisites would be dual convertibility. Financial institutions and foreign Central Banks are still extremely reluctant to hold RMB currency since it’s difficult to convert into other currencies. “Citing data from the Bank of International Settlements (BIS), it [Citigroup] said the renminbi’s share in the global foreign-exchange market turnovers was only 0.25 percent in 2007, ranked 20th in the world and fifth among Asian emerging-market currencies.” This is pretty incredible considering that China’s economy is the world’s third largest, and will only change when the exchange rate regime is loosened.

While some analysts predict that the Yuan will continue rising as soon as next month – and at least by a slight margin for 2010 – the modest pace of appreciation will ensure that China’s foreign exchange reserves continue to grow. They are currently estimated at $2.4 Trillion, and while their composition is largely a secret, analysts estimate that more than 2/3 is denominated in USD-denominated assets. Recently, there was a perception that China had begun to diversify its reserves out of Dollars, as US Treasury data indicated that its Treasury purchases had all but stopped. As it turned out, China had merely moved to conceal its purchases by conducting them through a UK Bank.

The biggest threat to the USD posed by China is not an end to the RMB peg – for such is unlikely – but rather a change in its structure. Currently, the RMB is pegged directly to the Dollar, which means that the Bank of China MUST stockpile its trade surplus in USD-denominated assets, namely US Treasury securities. If the peg were to shifted to a basket of currencies, however, it would have more flexibility in the denomination of its reserves. Until then, China’s forex policy will continue to favor the Dollar.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, Chinese Yuan (RMB), News, US Dollar | 3 Comments »

Fed Rate Hikes a Distant Prospect

Feb. 23rd 2010

Last week, the Fed raised the discount rate by 25 basis points, to .75%. Investors have consistently focused the brunt of their collective monetary attention on the Federal Funds Rate, and the markets (forex included) barely registered a response to the move. Regardless of whether apathy in this particular context was justified, investors who turn a blind eye to changes in Fed monetary policy do so at their own risk

DXY

The direct implications for the discount rate (the rate at which depository institutions borrow short-term funds from regional federal reserve banks) hikes are admittedly hazy. Some economists analyzed the move in and of itself as a signal that the Fed wants banks to borrow more from each other, and less from the Fed. Others saw it as a political move, designed to appease both inflation hawks and an angry public that is dismayed over the massive profits that banks have earned from this prolonged period of easy money. If the former are right and the move has an economic basis, then the discount rate will probably have to be hiked at least once or twice more in order to have any kind of measurable impact. If it was indeed political, then another rate hike in the near-term is unlikely.

As I said, investors remain focused on the Federal Funds Rate (the rate at which banks borrow directly from each other) as the crux of the Fed’s monetary power. In this context, the discount rate hike didn’t move the markets because the Fed, itself, cautioned investors from inferring a connection between the discount rate and the federal funds rate. Nonetheless, some analysts posited a connection anyway: “The Fed can talk all day about how the discount rate hike is technical and not a policy move, but the market sees it as a shot across the bow. Not tomorrow, or the next day, but soon, they will be lifting the Fed funds rate target as well as the economy is starting to regain momentum…” Whether this represents the mainstream perception, however, is debatable.

On the one hand, investors have been talking about a (ffr) rate hike for more than six months now. As the above analyst pointed out, the economy is growing (5.7% in the fourth quarter of 2009…not too shabby!), and most other indicators (with the notable exception of housing) are trending upwards. On the other hand, expectations for timing continue to be pushed back (the current consensus – via interest rate futures – is that there is a 70% chance of a 25 bps hike in September).  This is due in no small part to the Fed itself, whose “emissaries” are doing their best to dispel the possibility of a near-term hike.

Some samples: San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank President Janet Yellen said the economy “will continue to need ‘extraordinarily low interest rates.’ ” Dennis Lockhart, the president of the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank, conveyed that, “If his forecast of slow growth proves accurate, Fed monetary policy will have to hold rates low for longer.” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard Thursday said “speculation of an imminent hike in the Fed’s target interest rate was ‘overblown,’ calling an increase in the short-term federal funds rate ‘just as far away as it ever was.’ ” There’s not much ambiguity there.

Analysts also continue to look for clues as to when the Fed will begin to reverse its quantitative easing program. “Bernanke said such steps could be taken ‘when the time comes.’ Given the weakness of the economy, Bernanke signaled that that time was still a long way off.” This kind of procrastination is not being met well, and there is concern that “the Fed will misjudge the situation and wait too long to tighten monetary conditions.” In the end, this is perceived as more of an inflation issue, and it is of secondary importance to interest rate policy for the capital markets.

Excess reserves hed at the Fed 2006-2010
Forex traders, however, would be wise to focus on both aspects; inflation erodes the Dollar over the long-term, while higher interest rates make it more attractive in the short-term. For the time being, both remain low. In the not-too-distant future, either inflation and/or interest rates must rise. If/when the markets get over their sudden fixation on the debt crisis (a long-term issue) in Europe, they will return their attention to the Fed, probably just in time for the start of some big changes.

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Bernanke and the Dollar…Part Two

Feb. 7th 2010

In December, I posted about Ben Bernanke (Bernanke’s Background and Near-Term US Monetary Policy), specifically about how a basic understanding of Bernanke’s academic background and philosophical approach to monetary policy could be useful for predicting the general direction of interest rates, irrespective of prevailing economic conditions. This post, is somewhere between a follow-up and a step back.

By this, I mean that when I last wrote about Bernanke, it was already a foregone conclusion that Bernanke would be approved for a second term as Chairman of the Fed. While his confirmation is still pretty much a given (despite the requisite speechifying by a small but vocal opposition), the fact that it has been so bumpy has caused all of us talking heads to seek higher ground and look afresh at the situation. My intention here, however, is not to look at other potential candidates for Bernanke’s position, as such would be a complete waste of time at this point. Nor do I want to discuss the implications of Bernanke’s eventual confirmation, as I have already done that. Rather, I want to discuss the implications of the delay/complications in his being approved. You would think that there wouldn’t be enough meat here for a substantive analysis, but you would be wrong.

That the confirmation process has been anything but smooth tells us much about both public attitudes towards Bernanke and about the attitudes towards the Fed. With regard to Bernanke, there is now a strong amount of criticism being leveled against him – for fomenting the housing bubble via low rates, lowering rates too quickly, not injecting enough new money into the financial markets. That such criticism is often contradictory is not important. What is important, is that such criticism is increasingly being taken seriously by Bernanke et al, such that the Fed is gradually losing its position as an independent stabilizing force and is instead becoming a highly politicized organization, that may soon be subject to the same checks and balances as other branches of government.

Of course, many commentators (and not a small number of politicians, as evidenced by the progress of Ron Paul’s ‘Audit the Fed’ bill), couldn’t be happier with this turn of events. They argue that the Fed has too much power, and for too long has been able to successfully operate in a public gray area with the power of a government institution but the freedom of a private one. Bernanke – and supporters of the status quo – argue that the Fed needs to be independent so that it can continue to shape monetary policy in line with certain economic objectives, rather than the whims of political parties and competing ideologies.

Many of you are probably indifferent to this issue. But consider that the outcome of this battle (whether the Fed remains independent, or its decisions will become subject to Congressional scrutiny)  – of which Bernanke’s confirmation is part of – carries potentially serious implications for currency markets. It is arguable that the Dollar’s safe haven perception at the onset of the credit crisis stemmed in part from actions that the Fed took to stabilize currency markets, in the form of swap lines and liquidity injections. If such decisions could be vetoed by the government, suffice it to say that investors would begin to question whether the Dollar was really the king of currencies that it purports to see.

On the one hand, accountability in any organization is important. On the other hand, skepticism towards the government is currently near an all-time high, and I would venture to guess that most of you wouldn’t want to see the role of auditor filled by the government. While criticism towards the Fed is justified, turning it into a political institution probably isn’t the solution. Abolishing it all together, on the other hand, well, that’s a different story altogether…

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Forex Reserves in Transition: Is the Euro Making a Run?

Jan. 17th 2010

With so much to think about these days, I havn’t spent much time poring over foreign exchange reserve statistics. Apparently, this is to my detriment, as there have been a number of important developments on this front, some of which carry far-reaching forex implications.

I’m guessing a lot of you are probably in the same boat as me, wondering why forex reserves are worth paying any attention to. While busy looking at complex charts and GDP/inflation statistics, however, we forget that a currency’s value is fundamentally determined by supply and demand. In other words, while bullish/bearish indicators and interest rates are the proximal factors behind forex, the supply/demand dynamic is the ultimate factor. And Central Banks, collectively, comprise one of the largest contingents behind this supply/demand.

As I was saying, this equilibrium is currently undergoing a seismic shift. Specifically, “The dollar’s share in official foreign exchange reserves in 140 countries has fallen to its lowest level since euro cash was introduced in 2002, according to the IMF.” The Euro, Yen, and “other currencies” (i.e. minor currencies that are collectively important but individually unimportant), meanwhile, have seen increased interest from Central Banks. This is consistent with another report I saw recently, enunciating that,”Global reserves probably gained by about $180 billion in the third quarter with U.S. dollar-denominated reserves accounting for about $50 billion or less than 30 percent.”

This came as a shock to many market observers, who assumed that many economies lacked either the capacity or the impetus to diversify their reserves, especially since many of them peg their currencies to the Dollar. These countries are savvier than they used to be, however: “Emerging market central banks are selling their local currencies and buying U.S. dollars to prevent appreciation of their currencies. They’re avoiding having a bigger concentration of U.S. dollars in their portfolio by turning around and selling dollars against the euro and other currencies.”

Even industrialized countries, whose forex reserves are dwarfed by their emerging market counterparts, are jumping into diversification. After a nearly 10-year hiatus, Canada will jump back into the forex reserve game, by $1 Billion in foreign currency bonds, denominated in Euros. According to one analyst, “This…should be viewed in the context of the entire developed world, which is in the process of generally ramping up the size of its foreign reserves, and subtly shifting away from USD.”

The wild card is China. I use the term wild card both because China’s forex reserves are the world’s largest (recently confirmed at $2.4 Trillion) and hence whatever it decides will have major implications, and because it does not report the specific composition of its reserves to the IMF, so it’s unclear how it’s outlook is changing from month to month. Plus, it offers only vague indications of its intentions, so all we can do is speculate.

But speculate we will! While China has publicly maintained its support for the Dollar, quasi-publicly, there is an abundance of concern. This has most recently manifested itself in the form of internal calls for China to use its hoard of reserves to buy natural resources abroad. This wouldn’t necessary involve large-scale selling of its Dollar-denominated assets – since most oil contracts, for example, are still settled in Dollars – but would certainly involve shedding some of them.

As for why Central Banks are dumping Dollars (or simply choosing not to accumulate more of them), that seems pretty obvious. Even ignoring the Dollar’s problems, a well-balanced portfolio is an exercise in risk management. Especially now that many of the Dollar’s rivals are as liquid and as stable as the Greenback, itself, it makes little sense to put all one’s eggs in one basket.

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Canadian Dollar Headed for Parity

Jan. 15th 2010

Only a year ago, who could have conceived of such a possibility? At the time, the Canadian Dollar (aka Loonie) was in the doldrums, as a result of the credit crunch and concomitant collapse in commodity prices. In March, however, the Loonie began an extraordinary rally, and finished the year up 16%, almost perfectly offsetting the record decline that it suffered in 2008. As a result, the Loonie is now only pennies away from returning to parity.

The Loonie’s rise can be ascribed to a combination of fundamentals and speculation. On the fundamental side, a surge in the price of oil and other commodities has driven a recovery in the Canadian economy. Summarized one strategist, “The fundamentals in Canada are strong. Sentiment is bullish Canada, and on a relative basis, Canada should do very well with stronger commodity prices and ongoing U.S. economic recovery.” On the other hand, non-commodity exports remain sluggish, such the current account balance is currently in the red.

It’s obvious then that the gap between reality and expectation is being filled by speculation. Despite the fact that both short-term and long-term Canadian interest rates remain low, investors are pouring money into Canadian assets in the hopes that rates will soon rise. This speculation reached a fever pitch in October of 2009, when the Loonie spiked 6% in less than two weeks, following a modest Australian rate hike.

At that point, Canadian Central Bank governor Mark Carney was forced to firmly step in (previously he had effectively remained on the sidelines) by warning investors that he was in no hurry to lift rates, and that “he had ways of cooling the currency.” While analysts credit Carney’s jawboning with effecting a modest decline in the Loonie, it has since resumed its upward march, breaking through the technical barrier of 97.5 CAD/USD yesterday.

In the short-term, sheer momentum will almost surely carry the Loonie through parity with the Dollar. Analysts are divided on the timing, with some suggesting as soon as this month and others suggesting that later in the year is more likely. They should be careful, as there is an exuberance in the forex markets that I havn’t seen since right before Lehman Brothers collapsed- the event that many say signaled the beginning of the forex markets. In other words, investors are surely getting ahead of themselves, since commodities are well off of their 2008 highs, interest rates are down, Canadian economic growth is mediocre, Canada’s fiscal condition is weak, and it is operating a current account deficit.

For this reason, many analysts are already becoming bearish on the Loonie. “The loonie looks potentially more vulnerable on a number of crosses unless we see renewed upside momentum,” expressed a strategist from RBC Capital Markets. But noticed that she framed a continued rise in terms of momentum, rather than fundamentals. That’s tantamount to saying, Unless the Canadian Dollar continues to appreciate, it won’t continue to appreciate. If that’s not a tautology, I don’t know what is! But seriously, she has a point, which is that the Loonie is being driven purely by speculation at this point, in a trade that could soon come crashing down…after it hits parity.

Canadian Dollar versus commodities

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Making Sense of the Yen: Forex Intervention, Debt and Deflation

Jan. 13th 2010

Last week, Hirohisa Fujii resigned as finance minister of Japan. Since Fujii was an outspoken commentator on the Japanese Yen, the move sent a jolt through forex markets. Those who were expecting that his replacement, Deputy Prime Minister Naoto Kan, would be be more consistent than his predecessor were quickly disappointed, as Mr. Kan managed to contradict himself repeatedly within days of assuming his new post.

On January 6, he said it would be “nice” to see the Yen weaken, going so far as to designate 95 Yen/Dollar as the level he had in mind. One day later, he said that the markets should in fact determine the Yen: “If currency levels deviate sharply from the estimates, that could have various effects on the economy.” After he was rebuked by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who noted that the government should not talk to reporters about forex, he went on tell US Treasury Secretary that forex levels should be stable. In short, Japan’s official governmental position on the Yen still remains muddled, and it’s no less clear whether it will – or even should – intervene.

Japanese yen
Fortunately, they may not have to. Not only because the Yen still remains more than 5% off of the record highs of November, but also because economic and financial forces are coalescing that could send the Yen downward. Despite a recovery in exports, the Japanese economy remains beleaguered, having most recently contracted to the lowest level since 1991, as part of a “tumble [that] is unprecedented among the biggest economies.” Now that we are into 2010, it can be said officially that Japan has now suffered from the “second lost decade in a row.”

When economic growth collapsed in 1990, Japanese consumers became famously frugal, and the domestic market still hasn’t recovered. Neither has the stock market, for that matter: “The Nikkei is 44.3% below where it stood at the end of 1999. It is 72.9% below its peak near the end of 1989.” The performance of the bond market, meanwhile, has been a mirror image, rallying 78% since 1990.

Japan Nikkei stock market and bond market 1989 - 2009

The resulting decline in real interest rates has combined with economic stagnation to produce a perennial state of deflation. In fact, prices are once again falling, this time by an annualized pace of 2%.

Deflation in Japan 2009
As many economists have been quick to diagnose, the problem lies in a tremendous (perhaps the world’s largest) imbalance between savings and investment, as “Japan still has ¥1,500 trillion ($16.3 trillion) of savings.” It’s not clear how long this can last, however, as Japanese demographic changes tax the nation’s pool of savings. “More than a fifth of Japanese are over 65…The nation’s population began shrinking in 2006 from 127.8 million, and will drop by 3.2 percent in the coming decade.”

This brings me to the final component of Japan’s perfect economic storm: debt. Japan’s gross national debt is projected by the IMF to touch 225% of GDP this year, and 250% as early as 2014. As a result of the aging population, the pool of cash available for lending to the government is shrinking at the same rate as the tax base, which is exerting fiscal pressure on the government from both sides. According to one commentator, “Japan’s fiscal conditions are close to a melting point.” Another frets: “I doubt there is any yield that international capital markets can find acceptable that will not bankrupt the Japanese state.”

US and Japan budget deficit 2002 - 2009
What is the government doing about all of this? Frankly, not too much. It is spending money like crazy – exacerbating its fiscal state and pushing it closer to insolvency – in a (vain) attempt to prime the economic pump and avoid deflation from further entrenching. The Central Bank, meanwhile, just announced a new round of quantitative easing, also aimed at fighting deflation. At only 2% of GDP, however, the measures are “pretty tame” and unlikely to accomplish much. Considering that its monetary base has only expanded by 5% this year (compared to 71% in the US), it still has plenty of scope to operate. At the present time, however, it is still reluctant to do so.

Ironically, the aging population phenomenon could end up restoring Japan’s economy to equilibrium. The worse Japan’s fiscal problems become, the sooner it will be forced to simply print money, so as to deflate its debt and avoid default. This will stimulate the economy and put upward pressure on prices (solving two problems), and exert strong downward pressure on the Yen. The way I see it, that’s four birds with one stone!

As for the Yen, then, I would expect it to hover over the near-term, since price stability and a strong credit rating don’t signal immediate catastrophe. No, Japan’s economic problems are more long-term, which means it could be a while before they more clearly manifst themselves.

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Pause in Rate Hikes Threatens AUD

Dec. 29th 2009

In October, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) became the first industrialized Central Bank to raise interest rates. It followed this up with two additional hikes in November and December, bringing its benchmark rate to the current level of 3.75%, by far the highest among major currencies.

This series of rate hikes caught (forex) markets completely off guard, and investors moved quickly to price the changes into securities and exchange rates. The Australian Dollar initially spiked more than 7% following the first rate hike, bringing its total appreciation in 2009 to 32%- enough to earn it the distinction as the second-best performing currency, after the Brazilian Real. Beginning in November, however, concerns began to build that perhaps traders had gotten ahead of themselves, and the AUD has been in freefall since then.

aud

Investors now fear that the RBA may have acted too hastily in hiking rates so soon and so fast. By its own admission, the RBA raised rates only after much deliberation: “The rate adjustment ‘would not be intended to slow demand compared with the current forecast path, but aimed simply at keeping the stance of policy appropriate for improving economic conditions,’ ” according to its own minutes. Since the recession was ultimately so mild (some would say ‘non-existent’) in Australia, however, the RBA ultimately decided that (pre-emptive) rate hikes were in order.

Now, interest rates are back in the “normal range,” according to a deputy governor from the RBA. In other words, the current rate is perceived as neither promoting nor hindering aggregate demand, which means it may not need to be tweaked much more in the near-term. In addition, there is growing concern that further rate hikes could trigger a cycle of deleveraging, because of the high debt burdens that plague Australian households and businesses. Household debt already exceeds 100% of GDP, which is even higher than in the US.

Besides, financial institutions are raising their own lending rates by wider margins than the benchmark rate hikes, so there is less impetus for the RBA to act further. Investors appear to have come to terms with this, as futures markets now reflect a 45% probability of another interest rate hike at the next RBA meeting, in February. This is down from 67% only last week.

If you’re wondering whether the RBA could be influenced by the lofty Australian Dollar when conducting monetary policy, it’s conceivable but not probable. It has already acknowledged that the carry trade is generally “back in vogue” and specifically targeting its very own Aussie, but that “As on earlier occasions, the economy has proven to be resilient to these [forex] swings.” If it turns out that the markets truly overestimated the pace of recovery (and by extension, interest rate hikes) in Australia, then the RBA won’t even have to worry about whether the economy can withstand further appreciation, since the AUD would probably remain fixed at current levels.

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Dollar Could Go Either Way, Depending on the Carry Trade

Dec. 18th 2009

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

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

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

euro

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

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

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

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

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

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Bernanke’s Background and Near-Term US Monetary Policy

Dec. 16th 2009

The big story of the last month in forex markets has been the possibility that the Fed could soon hike interest rates, which would upend some of most stable (and gainful) strategies currently being employed by traders. As a result, the markets will certainly scrutinize the statement that accompanies today’s conclusion of the monthly rate-setting meeting, for any clues about the likelihood of such rate hikes. As I suggested in the title of this post, I think the best place to start in trying to forecast the near-term direction of US monetary policy is the man with the finger on the button – Ben Bernanke.

Bernanke’s academic background offers valuable insight into his approach to monetary policy- an approach that has been fairly consistent so far and probably will remain that way, barring any unforeseen developments. Specifically, Bernanke is/was a scholar of the Great Depression. He has argued that the fault for prolonging the Depression (though not for Depression itself) lies with the Fed and the US government, whose responses to the crisis he lambasted as conservative. In short, policymakers continued to worry about inflation, when they should have been concerned about deflation, since it was a deflationary spiral – falling prices beget expectations of falling prices, repeated ad nauseum – that prevented the economy from recovering in a timely manner.

Bernanke carried this notion – that falling prices are less desirable than rising prices – into the Federal Reserve Bank. [Though to be fair, it was already in vogue, thanks to the actions of his predecessor, Alan Greenspan]. Summarized James Grant (of the eponymous Grant’s Interest Rate Observer) : “Under the intellectual leadership of Mr. Bernanke, the Fed would tolerate no sagging of the price level. It would insist on a decent minimum of inflation. It staked out this position in the face of the economic opening of China and India and the spread of digital technology. To the common-sense observation that these hundreds of millions of willing new hands, and gadgets, might bring down prices at Wal-Mart, the Fed turned a deaf ear. It would save us from “deflation” by generating a sweet taste of inflation (not too much, just enough).”

Under Bernanke, the Fed’s response to the credit crisis was entirely consistent with this framework. It was the first industrialized Central Bank to cut interest rates, quickly reducing its benchmark Federal Funds Rate to 0%, a record low. The second stage involved literally printing more than $1 Trillion and injecting it directly into US credit markets. The Fed silenced its critics by insisting that the potential for inflation in the future doesn’t compare in seriousness to the possibility of deflation in the present.

Going forward, there’s reason to believe that Bernanke will remain dovish towards inflation. For one thing, Bernanke himself has declared this to be the case: “Mr. Bernanke fears deflation and the effect of tight money and rising interest rates on incipient economic growth.  The Fed Chairman has said so often that rates will stay low for an extended period that the markets have taken it as fact; the Fed will not raise rates.”

EU UK US Interest Rates 2009
The markets have given Bernanke the benefit of the doubt in the short-term, but are pricing in a 50% chance of a rate hike before June 2010. Personally, I think it could be even later. Especially if housing prices experience a “double dip” and unemployment remains high, it seems unlikely that Bernanke would move to tighten. Regardless, he is known for his transparency, which means that when the Fed actually moves to hike rates, chances are investors will know about a month in advance.

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Pound’s Demise Will not be Hard to Time

Dec. 12th 2009

I’d like to follow up on my last post (Timing is Everything in Forex, Especially in this Environment) by looking at how to time one specific currency: the Pound. As I noted tongue-in-cheek with the title of this post, timing the Pound will not be difficult, since it is likely headed downward in both the short term and long term.

In the short-term, the Pound will be crippled by the UK’s economic woes: “Britain is the last of the big G20 countries still to be mired in recession. Its GDP has shrunk by 4.75% this year, far more than the 3.5% reckoned likely in April.” There’s no reason to pore through the economic indicators, since all signs suggest that it won’t be until 2010 that Britain returns to positive growth.

Of primary concern to forex markets, however, is not economic growth (or lack thereof, in this case), but rather how this will effect the decision-making of the Bank of England (BOE). To no surprise, the BOE announced yesterday that it would maintain its benchmark interest rate at .5%, and its liquidity program at current levels. It didn’t give any indication, meanwhile, that monetary policy on either of these fronts would change anytime soon.

Thus, Britain could conceivably replace the Dollar as one of the preferred funding currencies for the carry trade. While the Fed is also in no hurry to hike rates, the US economy has already emerged from the recession, which means that regardless of when it tightens, it will almost certainly be before the Bank of England. Unless the BOE pulls an audible then, timing the Pound will be fairly straightforward; the currency should begin to slip as soon as its peers begin to raise rates. Some analysts expect that the Pound will decline to $1.50 per Dollar within the next six months.

pound

Over the long-term, the narrative governing the Pound is naturally more uncertain, but still straightforward. To try to dig itself out of recession, the government has spent itself well into the red, to the extent that this year’s budget deficit is forecast to be a whopping 12.6%, Next year could be even worse. The government has implemented a couple of half-baked measures designed to curb the deficit, but most of these are aimed at increasing tax revenue (which is futile during a recession), rather than trimming spending. While ratings on its sovereign debt were recently affirmed at AAA, Moody’s has warned that a downgrade in the next few years is not inconceivable.

So there you have it. As far as I’m concerned, the only question of timing, vis-a-vis the British Pound, is when the decline will begin. My guess is sometime in the beginning of 2010, when investors start getting serious about projecting near-term interest rate differentials, and pricing them into exchange rates. While most forex traders aren’t thinking this far down the road, it’s also comforting (for bears, not bulls, obviously) that the long-term fundamentals point to a sustained decline in the Pound. Whereas the Dollar could jump up before heading back down – making timing a crucial skill – the Pound will probably just head down.

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Timing is Everything in Forex, Especially in this Environment

Dec. 10th 2009

I just finished reading a Wall Street Journal piece (Central Banks Rattle Markets), which laid out, in fairly broad terms, how the activities of Central Banks have become the main fodder for forex traders, and how this trend will continue as the global economy looks to move beyond the credit crisis. The piece got me thinking about the importance of timing, when it comes to forex.

Let’s face it, timing is important when trading any security. Buying a stock one month earlier and/or selling one month later (as compared to the actual trade dates) could yield drastically different results. This is especially the case in forex, for a couple reasons. The first is that the majority of forex traders have a shorter-time horizon than investors in bread-and-butter securities. We’re talking weeks or months here, compared to years and decades. The second reason is that while long-term trends certainly exist in forex, the average return for all currencies (over a long enough time period) should converge to 0%, since forex is a zero-sum game. In other words, buy $1,000 worth of stock today, and you might be a millionaire by 2050. Buy a $1,000 worth of Euros today, however, and you will probably have about the same, give or take, 40 years later.

This notion has taken on an added significance in the current environment because of its transitional character. As I said, there are certainly long-term trends in forex, but these tend to be anything but smooth. In the short-term, then, it’s conceivable that a currency will move with little correlation to its long-term “destiny.”

We have entered a period of extreme uncertainty, specifically surrounding the actions of Central Banks. Without exception, all of these Central Banks eased monetary policy to aid their respective economies through the credit crisis. This easing varied widely from bank to bank, and ranged from interest rate cuts to “liquidity injections” to wholesale money printing. Just as the performance of many currencies has been guided by the degree of easing exacted by their respective monetary authorities, so will such currencies be guided by the degree and speed of tightening, going forward.

For example, currencies such as the Australian Dollar and Norwegian Krone (as the WSJ article pointed out) have exploded since their respective Central Banks became the world’s first two to raise interest rates. Currencies such as the Dollar and Pound, meanwhile, remain in the doldrums, as it is forecast that the Fed and the Bank of England will be among the last to reverse the spigots of easy money that they unleashed last year.

And this brings me back to the issue of timing. There will be great rewards that inure to those who correctly anticipate interest rate hikes, “liquidity withdrawals,” etc. In this age of instantaneous fund transfers, predicting a move a day before it happens could mean thousands of PIPS in profits, maybe more, if you take leverage into account. Those that think the Fed will raise rates before the ECB but after the BOE can bet on currency crosses accordingly. Moreover, it is not enough to predict who/when will hike rates, but to what extent and how fast. Maybe the Fed will beat the EU out of the starting gate, but the EU will hike faster once it gets going, mirroring what happened (in reverse) when the credit crisis began. This possibility makes you wonder if slow and steady really wins the race…

In short, the next year or two could prove to be extremely choppy (gainful for some, bitter for others) as currencies spike and dive in accordance with the Fisher Effect (the empirical idea that money moves from low-yielding currencies into higher-yielding currencies, as investors chase higher interest rates). For those that think the Dollar is doomed in the long-run, then, be careful about betting all of your marbles in the short-run. That’s not to say that the carry trade will disappear; on the contrary, it could accelerate if interest rate discrepancies widen before they shrink. Instead, consider yourself warned that if the Fed beats other Central Banks to the punch of raising rates, there could be a dramatic pause in the Dollar’s downward slide.

Central Banks Exit Credit Crisis

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Central Banks of the World: Unite!

Nov. 26th 2009

Karl Marx would be pleased…well, maybe not. In any event, the world’s Central Banks are tired of the weak Dollar, and are separately taking matters into their own hands. [Before I continue, I should probably acknowledge the inherent dangers of lumping every Central Bank together under one umbrella. Still, given the current market environment, and the fact that all Central Banks are acting uni-directionally, it seems like a fair categorization].

As I was saying, Central Banks – especially in the developing world – are extremely unhappy with the Dollar’s continued decline, and with the opposing strength in their respective currencies. Over the last year, these Central Banks have waded into the forex markets, one after another, in a non-concerted effort to stem the gains in their currencies. As the Dollar’s decline has gained new momentum, so have they redoubled and intensified their efforts.

In the last couple weeks alone, at least a dozen (and these are only the ones on my radar screen) have issued threats and/or taken action aimed directly at the “speculators,” which are blamed for the across-the-board rise in emerging market currencies and asset prices. Their concerns are twofold: that currency appreciation could choke off economic recovery, and that speculative investment is driving the creation of new asset price bubbles.

While their goals are largely the same, their tactics differ. Some are testing the old approach of simply buying Dollars on the spot market. Thailand, Israel, South Korea, Philipines, and Russia, for example, are now intervening heavily on a regular basis. “Experts estimate that some of the largest emerging economies may have spent as much as $150 billion on currency intervention over the past two months, judging from the growth of their international reserves, according to data from Brown Brothers Harriman.”

Central Bank Forex Intervention

Other Central Banks have resorted to policy-making measures; Taiwan and Brazil are perhaps the best examples here. The former has essentially banned foreigners from opening new time deposits in the country, while the latter has just imposed a 1.5% tax on investment in Brazilian ADR shares to match the 2% tax on new FDI. In addition, sources claim that other measures are being considered, including “an overseas sovereign bonds issue denominated in Brazilian reals and a change in rules that would allow foreign equities investors to deposit guarantees overseas.”

South Korea and Sri Lanka have been even more creative in restraining their currencies. Sri Lanka is now making it easier for its citizens to take money out of the country, while South Korea is now placing limits on the hedging activities of exporters, who “have sold large amounts of dollars in the forward market to hedge foreign orders, putting upward pressure on the won.”

Still other Banks are still in the “rhetorical” stage of intervention, whereby they simply convey to investors that they are monitoring forex markets for “instability” and “irregularities.” Such code-words are designed to signal that rapid currency appreciation will not be accepted idly. “People see the central bank looking closely at the dollar and think maybe it’s a good time to unwind some of their positions,” explained one analyst in response to “rhetorical intervention” by the Bank of Chile.

Unfortunately for these Central Banks, their efforts are ultimately unlikely to be successful. They can probably succeed in slowing, or even temporarily halting the rise in their respective currencies, but won’t be able to achieve a permanent cessation. That’s because the forces they are fighting against are simply too large ($3 Trillion per day of forex turnover) and too determined (Russian and Brazilian interest rates are both above 8%, compared to 0% in the US) to be stopped. “It’s [intervention] not working, and it’s a good thing that it’s not working. Emerging-market currencies are appreciating and they’re going to keep on appreciating against currencies from the old world. [Central Banks] has to adapt to that,” declared one trader. Still, you can’t blame them for trying.

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Bank of Canada Still Mulling FX Intervention

Oct. 29th 2009

The Canadian Dollar fell from parity with the US Dollar in July 2008. For a minute, it looked as though it would return to that mark in October 2009. Alas, it was not to be, as the currency that had risen 20% since March wasn’t able to rise another 3% to close the elusive gap that would once again bring it face-to-face with the Greenback.

cad

The Loonie’s rise was not difficult to understand. Soaring commodity prices and the fact that the economic recession was milder in Canada than in other economies drove the perception that Canada was a good place to invest. Despite a surging budget deficit and weak domestic consumption, investors bought into this notion. The weak Dollar and rising risk aversion reinforced this perception, and as investors accepted that parity was inevitable, hot money poured in and the Loonie’s rise became self-fulfilling.

That was until Mark Carney, head of the Bank of Canada, used the strongest rhetoric to-date in discussing the possibility of intervention. For the first time in this cycle, the markets took the hint, and sent the Canadian Dollar down by the largest single-day margin in months. “Markets should take seriously our determination to set policy to achieve the inflation target. Markets sometimes lose their focus, we don’t lose our focus,” he said firmly, adding that forex intervention is “always an option.”

Intervention is supported both by economic data, and other Canadian institutions. According to one estimate, every 1 cent increase in the Loonie against the Greenback costs the county $2 Billion in export revenue and 25,000 jobs. The chief economist for CIBC, meanwhile, has warned that many companies are in the process of making long-term direct investment decisions, and could be discouraged from locating in Canada because of perceptions that its currency will remain strong for the immediate future: “If the loonie is overvalued for a few years, we may be sacrificing business plant and equipment on the altar of a strong currency.” He also compared the predicament facing the Bank of Canada to that facing the Royal Bank of Switzerland, which ultimately and successfully intervened on behalf of the Franc. Intervention on behalf of the Loonie, he argued, could be undertaken under the umbrella of fighting speculation and irrational movements in currency markets.

Prior to this outburst, investors had basically concluded that the BOC wasn’t prepared to put its money where its mouth was, so to speak. “The central bank’s shot across the bow has definitely subsided. There’s not much they can do,” summarized one analyst a few weeks ago. The term “jawboning” had become the preference of columnists and investors when discussing the resolve of the BOC. The belief was that the BOC had concluded that intervention was essentially a futile proposition (based on its failed efforts in the late 1990’s), and that it would instead resort to making idle threats.

In fact, it seems investors still are no convinced that the BOC (via Carney) means what it says. “Mark Carney has raised the prospect of intervening in currency markets, but seems reluctant to actually do so,” argued one analyst. “I don’t think they would really like to intervene at all, and they would prefer avoiding it. If they can intervene by jaw boning, they would much rather do that,” added another.

Why did the Loonie fall suddenly then, if the markets still aren’t concerned about intervention? The answer is that they have seen the concrete impact of the expensive Loonie on the Canadian economy. In the words of one analyst, it has moved from being a threat to a bona fide impediment. Especially given the stall in the commodity price rally, investors apparently are willing to acknowledge that they may have gotten ahead of themselves and that parity with the Dollar is not yet justified by fundamentals. Meanwhile, Canadian interest rates are at a comparable level with US rates, which means foreign investors can’t earn a yield spread from investing in Canada. This is likely to be the case for a while, as the valuable Loonie has kept inflation in check and given the BOC some flexibility in tightening its monetary policy.

Personally, I don’t think the BOC will ultimately intervene. Investors have shown that they aren’t afraid of the BOC, which would make any intervention both expensive and unfruitful. In addition, I think investors have accepted their own accesses, and will hesitate to push the Loonie much higher (or past parity, for that matter) until there is more evidence that such is justified. In the meantime, expect the Loonie to hover in the 90’s and perhaps even test parity, before smashing through when the time is right. And this, I do believe, is inevitable.

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Prospects for Chinese Yuan Revaluation Improve

Oct. 22nd 2009

In its semi-annual report to Congress, the Treasury Department once again failed to officially label China (or any country for that matter) a currency manipulator. No surprise there. While it’s self-evident that China manipulates the RMB (via the peg with the US Dollar), the political implications of such a label prevent it from being used except in the most extreme cases. Nonetheless, there is mounting pressure on China, both domestic and international, to “adjust” the peg and allow the Yuan to move closer to its fundamental value.

Most of the international pressure has been soft, coming in the form of roundabout pleas for China to allow the Yuan to float “for the sake of global stability.” Said one US Senator weakly, “I hope that with strong leadership from the United States, the G-20 nations and our international institutions will undertake what has been missing — a focused, sustained and meaningful multilateral engagement to address currency manipulation and current imbalances.” At the same time, some of this rhetoric has recently been translated into action. Last month, the Obama Administration enacted a 35% tariff on Chinese tire products. Other countries have also begun to raise concerns about Chinese dumping, and bringing their cases to the WTO for good measure.

Many of these countries are in fact suffering more than the US. Since the Yuan is effectively pegged to the Dollar, the decline of the latter has been mirrored by the former. Since many other currencies of developing countries are also fixed, this leaves only a handful to absorb the shock. For example, the Euro and Yen have both risen about 15% against the RMB over the last year, in line with their appreciation against the Dollar. The handful of floating currencies in the region, such as the Korean Won, Indian Rupee, Malaysian Ringhit, etc. have also faced strong upward pressure. For them, it is not so much the weak Dollar that they fear so much as the weak RMB, since China is a direct competitor to all of them.

Chinese Yuan Agaianst Euro, Yen, Dollar
More importantly, there are now voices within China’s ruling Communist party that have also begun to press for a stronger Yuan. The Nationalist camp, for example, is pressing for China to make the Yuan a more prominent currency on the international trade scene. While such doesn’t inherently require a floating currency (in fact, all of the trade/swap agreements involving Yuan are based on fixed exchange rates), a loosening of capital controls and liberalizing of financial markets would probably bring about a stronger Yuan.

The other group pushing for a stronger Yuan is doing so on more fundamental, economic grounds. Just-released 2009 Q2 GDP data showed prelimenary growth estimates of a whopping 8.9%! Not bad, especially when you consider that the rest of the world remains mired in recession. Chinese economists largely ignore the political implications of the notion that this growth probably came at the expense of the rest of the world, and focus instead on the economc implications.

First is that the economy remains hopeless dependent on exports to drive growth, which can only be remedid through a stronger Yuan. Second, it heralds the coming of inflation. Many foreigners continue to pour “hot money” into Chinese asset markets hoping to reap the upside from both asset and currency appreciation. In response, “Analysts say China could let the yuan appreciate to help restrain inflation, since a stronger yuan would reduce the cost of imports. But some caution that Beijing tried a similar strategy in early 2008, but didn’t achieve great success in containing inflation or stemming the inflows.”

While analysts don’t expect the Bank of China to allow the RMB to rise until after the Chinese New Year in January, investors are pricing in incremental appreciation every month beginning with the next. In fact, futures prices already reflect the expectation that the RMB will rise 3% over the next twelve-months. My bet is that this will be kicked off by another one-off appreciation, in the same vein as July 2005. Now as was the case then, China needs to make up for lost time.

RMB - USD

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US Dollar: Same Old Story

Oct. 18th 2009

These days, it’s hard to offer a fresh perspective on the Dollar. The factors driving its short-term momentum – namely low interest rates and its perception as a financial safe haven – have been in place for nearly a year. It’s long-term prognosis, meanwhile, also hasn’t changed much. Since the beginning of the decade, the Greenback has been in a state of perennial decline as a result of its twin deficits and the related notion that it will be soon be replaced as the world’s pre-eminent currency.

The Falling Greenback

Since the last time I posted about the Dollar (October 6: Dollar’s Role as Reserve Currency in Jeopardy), then, there haven’t been many developments. Fears that oil will one day be priced and settled in an alternative currency – such as the Euro – continue to reverberate through the markets. Several ministers from OPEC countries have already officially dismissed such claims as baseless. A parallel debate is now taking place on the sidelines as to whether or not such a shift even matters.

Dean Baker argued in a recent article for Foreign Policy magazine, that pricing oil in Dollars represents a mere “accounting convention,” adopted by most simply by default, since the US is the cornerstone of the world economy. Argues Baker, “World oil production is a bit under 90 million barrels a day. If two-thirds of this oil is sold across national borders, then it implies a daily oil trade of 60 million barrels. If all of this oil is sold in dollars, then it means that oil consumers would have to collectively hold $4.2 billion to cover their daily oil tab.”

Unfortunately, Baker’s “simple arithmetic” is both erroneous and slightly irrelevant. Assuming a price of only $100 per barrel (pretty conservative if you believe the notion of peak oil), current consumption of 85 million barrels per day implies a daily turnover of $8.5 Billion per day, or $3+ Trillion per year. If the price doubles to $200 per barrel….well, you get the point.

Taking this line of reasoning further becomes somewhat problematic, however. First of all, while OPEC members currently hold the majority (70%+) of there reserves in Dollar-denominated assets, it’s unclear how this would change in the event that oil was no longer priced in Dollars. It’s conceivable that just as many of these Central Banks currently diversify their Dollar-denominated proceeds into other currencies, that they would “diversify” Euro-denominated proceeds back into the Dollar. Of course, it’s also conceivable that a combination of inertia and investment strategy would cause them to hold a larger portion of there reserves in Euros.

If OPEC Central banks continue to prefer Dollars, than Baker is right in arguing that the currency in which oil is priced has no implications outside of accounting. If, on the other hand, he is wrong, and a change in pricing causes/coincides with changing preferences, then the implications for the Dollar would be disastrous. [Consider that $3 Trillion/per year which is at stake currently represents more than 15% of total foreign ownership of US assets.] The problem is that we just don’t know.

Foreign-owned assets in the US

Regardless, the status quo favors the Dollar, since creating a new reserve currency would take at least a decade, if not more. For that reason, the World’s Central Banks (we’re not just talking about OPEC anymore) continue to prefer Dollars. “In the five weeks through Oct. 7, foreign central banks bought more than $48.55 billion in Treasury securities, an average of $9.71 billion per week, according to the latest data from the Federal Reserve.” In addition, “Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii said he expects the dollar will remain the key reserve currency for some time to come.” Private foreign investors, meanwhile, are dragging their heals a bit, perhaps waiting for the Dollar to fall further before jumping in. Asks one columnist rhetorically, “Why buy now if the dollar might be even weaker in six months’ time?”

What else is new? The US budget deficit came in at $1.4 Trillion for the fiscal year, the highest level since World War II. On the bright side, the deficit was $200-400 Billion less than earlier estimates. Meanwhile, members of the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors restated the unlikelihood of higher rates in the immediate future. “Richard Fisher, president of the Dallas Fed and thought to be a rare hawk on the Fed’s Open Market Committee, chimed in that no one at the Fed thinks this is the time to raise interest rates.” Finally, the US trade deficit is once again narrowing, due in no small part to the declining Dollar.

At this point, it seems reasonable to assume that much of the bad news has already been priced into the Dollar. Sure, the Australian rate hikes came as a surprise and forced many to rethink their calculations. Investors have already begun to separate the healthy currencies from the sick (to borrow an analogy from a previous post), but that the Dollar would be grouped with the “sick” currencies has long been anticipated. Given that the currency has already fallen by double digits in 2009 and is nearing the record lows of 2008, some are wondering how long it can continue.

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Japan Flip-Flops on Forex Intervention

Oct. 16th 2009

In my report on last month’s Japanese election, I noted that the newly-appointed Japanese finance minister, Hirohisa Fujii, had spoken out against forex intervention. With that, it seemed the matter was closed.

But not so fast! Over the following few weeks, Fujii (as well other members of the new administration) moved to clarify his position, backtracking, sidestepping, contradicting, but never going forward. The following is a summary of selected remarks, beginning with the original statement against intervention and ending in what seems like a promise to intervene:

September 15: “I basically believe that, in principle, it’s not right for the government to intervene in the free-market economy using its money, either in stock or foreign-exchange markets.”
September 27: [The Yen’s rise is] “not abnormal…in terms of trends.”
September 28: “That’s not to say I approve of the yen’s rise.”
September 28: “I don’t think it is proper for the government to intervene in the markets arbitrarily.”
September 29: “If the currency market moves abnormally, we may take necessary steps in the national interest.”
October 3: “As I have said in Tokyo, we will take appropriate steps if one-sided movements become excessive.”
October 5
: “If currencies show some excessive moves in a biased direction, we will take action.”

Confused? I know I am. Is it possible to glean any semblance of meaning from these remarks? Summarized one columnist, “Hirohisa Fujii has gone through several cycles of remarks that first appeared to favor a strong yen and then seemed to backpedal after markets took him at his word and sent the Japanese currency soaring.”

I think this encapsulates the regret that Minister Fujii must have felt, after his original comments were taken a little too seriously. In hindsight, it appears that Fujii attempted to convey the new administration’s stance on forex, in a nutshell, and certainly didn’t expect that investors would run wild and send the Yen up another 4%, bringing the year-to-date appreciation against the Dollar to 15%. In the words of the same columnist cited above, “Japan’s finance minister has been rudely reminded of the cardinal rule when speaking to markets — less is more.”

So where does Fujii actually stand? I would personally hazard to guess that his original explication is still the most accurate portrayal of how he will tend to the Yen while in office. The former Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) administration intervened several times while in office (once under the direction of Fujii himself!) and most recently in 1994. Despite spending trillions of Yen, the campaign only marginally stemmed the rise of the Yen.
bank-of-japan-forex-intervention
Meanwhile, the Japanese economy has been mired in what could be termed the “world’s longest recession, dating back to the 1980’s. It’s clear that the cheap-Yen policy, designed to promote exports, hasn’t benefited the Japanese economy. The new administration, hence, has indicated a shift in strategy, away from export dependence and towards domestic consumption.

Ironically, the nascent Japanese economic turnaround is once again being driven by exports. Fujii is no doubt cognizant of this, and doesn’t want to jeopardize the recovery for the sake of ideology. For example, Toyota Corporation has indicated that a 1% appreciation in the Yen against the Dollar costs the company $400 million in operating income. In addition, while a strong Yen increases the purchasing power of Japanese consumers, an overly strong Yen can lead to deflation, as consumers forestall spending in anticipation of lower prices down the road.

In other words, Fujii is certainly not a proponent of Japan’s recent runup, but his stance is more nuanced than initially understood. “Fujii is basically saying currencies should reflect economic fundamentals and that it is wrong to manipulate their moves to lower the yen for the sake of exporters,” offered one strategist. This, the markets finally seem to understand, and the Yen has actually reversed course over the last week. After all, “A yen in the 80s is excessive,” given the context of record low interest rates and a economy that is still contracting.

In the near-term, then, it doesn’t even make sense to talk about intervention. It seems the markets were getting ahead of themselves in this regard. It doesn’t make sense to price out the possibility of intervention when interevention shouldn’t be a factor in the first place. If on the other hand, the Yen continues to appreciate, then Fujii may have consider how fixed his principles really are.

3m

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Pound, Dollar are ‘Sick’ Currencies

Oct. 11th 2009

A theme in forex markets (as well as on the Forex Blog) is that as the Dollar has declined, virtually every other asset/currency has risen. The rationale for this phenomenon is that the global economic recovery is boosting risk appetite, such that investors are now comfortable looking outside the US for yield. However, this market snapshot may have to be tweaked slightly, in accordance with a recent WSJ article (Sterling Looks Ready to Join the Sick List).

According to the report, “Similar to how investors sorted good banks from bad banks earlier this year, foreign-exchange buyers are starting to sort strong currencies from weaker currencies. The pound appears to be joining the dollar in the weak camp. Both countries have near-zero interest-rate targets, an aggressive policy aimed at boosting the economy, and yawning deficits.” In contrast, the article continues, the Yen and the Euro have risen, as have so-called commodity currencies.

Euros

While there’s no question that British economic and forex fundamentals are abysmal, it’s a bit hard to understand why the markets are picking on the Pound now. After all, the Euro, Swiss Franc, and Yen, for example, are plagued by some of the same fundamental problems: growing national debt, sluggish growth, low interest rates, etc. Investors can borrow in Yen nearly as cheaply as they can borrow in Dollars or Pounds, and the Bank of Japan is likely to keep rates low at least as long as the Bank of England (BOE), if not longer. Meanwhile, price inflation remains practically non-existent, which means that any capital that investors stash in the UK should be safe.

Perhaps, then, investors are zeroing in on the BOE’s Quantitative Easing program, which is the point of greatest overlap with the US Dollar. Relative to GDP, both currencies’ Central Banks have spent by far the most of any industrialized countries, in pumping newly printed money into credit markets. The BOE, in particular, is actually thinking about expanding its program. At a recent meeting, Mervyn King, Chairman of the Bank, led the opposition in voting for a 15% expansion, but was voted down by a majority of the bank’s other members. “The ‘next decision point‘ will be the Nov. 5 meeting,” said a former Deputy Governor of the Bank, at which point “Bank of England policy makers will consider expanding their bond purchase plan….on concern the economy’s recovery may be a ‘false dawn.’ ”

BOE Quantitative Easing (QE) Timeline Chart

The government meanwhile has demonstrated a certain ambivalence when it comes to the program. The head of the UK Debt Management Office indirectly encouraged the BOE to continues its purchases of bonds, for fear that stopping doing so could cause yields to skyrocket and make it difficult for the government to fund its activities. “A rapid sell-off could create a downward spiral of gilt prices which would make life harder for both it and the DMO.” On the other hand, one of the leaders of Britain’s conservative party – which is projected to take office after next year’s elections – has criticized the program on the grounds that it will lead to inflation.

From the BOE’s standpoint, it’s a no-win situation. Continue the policy, and you risk inflation and further invoking the ire of politicians. Wind it down, and you could tip the economy back into recession. For better or worse, it seems the BOE will err on the side of the former: “If we stopped supporting the economy now it would crash. Every country in the world and just about every informed commentator is saying the same thing. The job is not finished.” Given that inflation is projected to hover around 0% for the next two years, the BOE still has some breathing room.

As for the charge that the surfeit of cash flowing into markets is weakening the Pound, ‘So be it,’ seems to be the attitude of Mervn King who suggested that, “The weaker pound was ‘helpful’ to efforts to rebalance the British economy toward exports.” While he backtracked afterward, it still stands that the BOE hasn’t made any efforts to stem the decline of the Pound, and is at best indifferent towards it.

Regardless of where the BOE stands, the Pound is not being helped by the weak financial and housing sectors, which during the bubble years, comprised the biggest contribution to UK growth. Exports are weak, and domestic manufacturing activity has yet to stabilize. As a result, “The British economy will contract 4.4 percent this year before expanding 0.9 percent in 2010, the International Monetary Fund predicts.”

Objectively speaking, then, it makes sense to call the Pound sick. Still, many other currencies are just as sick. I guess the perennial lesson is that in forex, everything is relative.

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Dollar’s Role as Reserve Currency in Jeopardy

Oct. 6th 2009

I concluded my last post by promising to discuss the implications of a change in the status quo, regarding the Dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency. As it turns out, the last few days have witnessed a few developments on this front.

Global Forex Reserves 1999-2009

First of all, the G7 concluded its latest round of talks. Despite previous indications to the contrary, the organization continued its practice of releasing a communique. in which it noted that global economic balances persist and that policymakers should work together to mitigate them. While seemingly benign and desirable, the proposition couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Dollar.

The only reason why the Dollar hasn’t collapsed completely is because economies largely continue to recycle their surplus wealth and trade surpluses back into Dollar-denominated assets. One columnist connects the dots with regard to the forex implications: “Less Chinese intervention to prevent yuan strength would mean China, slowly over time, would build up fewer dollar reserves.” In other words, economies no longer concerned with pegging their currencies would have very little reason to build up large pools of reserves.

In fact, China is fully on board with this notion. Following the G7 talks, Chinese officials announced that it would support a stronger Yuan as soon as the global economic crisis resolved itself. By its own reckoning, this would facilitate a shift in its economy, from one dependent on exports for growth to one focused around domestic consumption. Still, obstacles remain, and “It is far from clear how China can engineer a shift up for the yuan against the dollar, which analysts note would almost certainly translate into a gain against other currencies as well.”

Speaking of China, it is also among the most vocal of nations laboring for alternatives to the Dollar. Towards this end, it has reportedly formed a secret coalition with the other BRIC countries (Brazil, India, and Russia), as well as Japan. The goal is to end the pricing of oil in Dollars by 2018. That the group has given itself nine years to complete this task speaks to its extraordinary ambition.

The implications for the Dollar cannot be understated. A handful of oil-producing nations in the Middle East hold a combined $2.1 Trillion in Dollars, which are solely a product of selling oil in exchange for Dollars. Already, the government of Iran has mandated that in the future, all of its reserves be held in non-Dollar-denominated assets. Thus far, no other countries have followed suit. China is aware that pushing for further developments could roil the US, which would be unlikely to sit on the sidelines and watch its currency be summarily jettisoned. “Sun Bigan, China’s former special envoy to the Middle East, has warned there is a risk of deepening divisions between China and the US over influence and oil in the Middle East.”

Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, doesn’t harbor any illusions, and announced during a recent speech that the a decline in the role of the Dollar is inevitable. “He said the United States ‘would be mistaken to take for granted the dollar’s place as the world’s predominant currency. Looking forward there will increasingly be other options to the dollar,’ ” such as the Chinese Yuan and the Euro.

Zoellick’s warnings were prescient, when you consider that the IMF just announced that the share of Dollars in global foreign exchange reserves declined significantly in the most recent quarter, perhaps to its lowest share since the Euro was introduced in 1999. [The latter, however, has yet to be confirmed].  “The dollar’s share in global reserves declined to 62.8% from 65.0%…The euro’s share increased to 27.5% from 25.9%.”

Global allocation of Forex Reserves 1999-2009
JP Morgan’s research team has discovered a similar trend- that accumulation of US assets accounts for only half of the global increase in global forex reserves. “Quantifying this trend is always imprecise. But the circumstantial evidence — official buying of U.S. assets runs at only half of the pace of global reserve accumulation — suggests that diversification has accelerated since June.”

So, there you have it. The Dollar’s demise (to borrow a characterization by one of the columnists featured in this post) is no longer theoretical. It may have already begun…

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

Dollar Carry Trade in “Eight Inning”

Oct. 1st 2009

The performance of virtually every currency against the Dollar (with the lone, major exception being the British Pound) in the last quarter has been downright impressive. Put another way, the performance of the Dollar has been downright pathetic.

MI-AY841A_AOT_NS_20090920183639
The Dollar’s under-performance is no mystery. While some critics have pointed to long-term weaknesses such as the trade and budget deficits, most of the current impetus continues to come from low US interest rates. As I have reported recently, US short-term rates (based on the 3-month LIBOR rate for Dollars) is already the lowest in the world, and is still moving lower.

As a result, investors have been able to comfortably borrow in Dollars, and invest the proceeds in (comparatively) risky assets, predominantly outside the US. “Low rates have weighed on the dollar as equities have rallied over the summer, leading risk-based traders to buy the higher-yielding euro and commodity-based currencies, such as the Australian dollar, over the safe-haven greenback,” summarized the WSJ.

For most of the last 20 years, such a carry trade strategy would have been most profitable if funded using Yen or Swiss Francs. Since the stock market rally in May, however, buying a basket of emerging market currencies using the Dollar as a funding currency would yield the highest returns, as much as 10% higher than if the same trade had been funded using Yen. Moreover, the Sharpe-ration for such a trade (which seeks to measure the invariability of returns) is the highest when shorting the Dollar, implying that not only is this strategy lucrative, but also comparatively stable.

For a few reasons, however, analysts are beginning to wonder whether the Dollar carry trade has (temporarily) run its course. Technical indicators, for example, suggest that the Dollar may have appreciated too far, too fast. “The U.S. currency rose…after the 14-day relative strength index on the euro- dollar exchange rate climbed yesterday to 74, the highest level since March. A reading of 70 may indicate a rally is approaching an extreme and a reversal is imminent.” Stochastic indicators yield similar interpretations. “Traders have placed an unusually high volume of bearish bets against the U.S. dollar in recent weeks and may want to lock in profits by reversing those trades.” Besides, anecdotal evidence implies that anti-Dollar sentiment may be reaching irrational levels, as every other investors now seems to be betting against the Dollar.

From a rates perspective, the Dollar carry trade may soon become less viable. The markets (as reflected in futures prices) largely expect the Fed to be the first major Central Bank to hike rates, perhaps as soon as 2010 Q2. The ECB, by comparison, is not expected to hike until at least two quarters later, while the Bank of Japan is nowhere even near close to tightening monetary policy. The Fed is also beginning to contemplate possible exit strategies for its quantitative easing programs, which suggests that it is becoming concerned about inflation. One analyst connects this to a decline in the carry trade: “There might be a little bit of nervousness going into the FOMC if they start signaling any potential unwind of quantitative easing. There is a bit of risk over the next couple of days of the dollar starting to recover a little bit of ground.”

Finally, there are concerns that another crisis could trigger a pickup in risk aversion, in which case investors would likely return to the Dollar en masse. Recall that in 2007, when the Japanese Yen carry trade was in vogue, the main concern was volatility. Traders weren’t ever afraid that the BOJ would hike rates. Rather, they feared that some kind of event would inject uncertainty into the markets, making their returns (via the Yen) erratic. If investors suddenly got nervous about the ongoing stock markets rally, then the Dollar could conceivably become more volatile, which would make carry traders think twice.

At the same time, emerging market currencies will continue to offer much higher interest rates than the Dollar. While the Dollar, then, could conceivably become more attractive relative to the Yen, for example, it will remain extremely unattractive compared to high-yielding currencies. The yield differentials are currently so enormous that even if the Fed raised rates tomorrow, it would still be immensely profitable to short the Dollar relative to the Brazilian Real or South African Rand. While the Dollar slump may be reaching an endpoint, a Dollar rally will not necessarily follow. Brace yourself for sideways trading.

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SNB Could Intervene…Again

Sep. 29th 2009

After a brief “hiatus,” the Swiss Franc is once again rising, and is now dangerously close to the $1.50 CHF/EUR “line in the sand” that spurred the last two rounds of Central Bank Intervention.

Both from the standpoint of the Swiss National Bank (SNB) the Franc’s appreciation is vexing, while from where ordinary investors are sitting, it’s downright perplexing. That’s because based on the standard litany of factors, the Franc should be falling.

SNB Swiss Franc Intervention
The Swiss economy remains mired in its worst recession in 17 years, and is projected to shrink by at least 2% this year. In addition, deflation has already set in, with prices falling at an annualized rate of .8%. To be fair, signs of recovery are emerging, and a plurality of economists believe that growth will return in 2010, as will inflation.

But downside economic risks remain, namely the worsening labor market. There is also the fact that the Swiss economy remains heavily weighted towards exports, the demand for which remains slack. From a comparative standpoint, though, projections of recovery are not unique to Switzerland. Financial markets have long since stabilized in most industrialized countries, which many have interpreted as a harbinger for better things to come.

On the monetary front, Swiss interest rates remain among the lowest in the world, as the SNB has gradually guided its benchmark lending rate to .25%. It is also in the process of expanding its quantitative easing program, by pumping liquidity directly into the credit markets, in order to mitigate against deflation. In this sense, the SNB is arguably behind the curve. In the US and EU, for example, speculation is already mounting that interest rate hikes will take place as soon as 2010. Economists are less concerned about a shortage of liquidity in those economies, and more nervous about how the potential excess of liquidity can be withdrawn from the financial system before it turns into a problem. Economists in Switzlerland aren’t even close to beginning to have that conversation.

According to the SNB, the problem lies in the Swiss Franc, which has remained oddly buoyant. While capital has flowed out of the US, for example, it actually seems to flowing into Switzerland. Members of the SNB have attributed this to the “safe haven,” notion, whereby investors still view the country as a safe haven from the financial turmoil. Perhaps slightly irrational, but real nonetheless.

Despite strong rhetoric and equally strong action, the Franc has slowly edge back to the 1.50 mark. Policymakers have pledged to defend the currency vigorously, and it now appears as though another intervention is looming. Given that the SNB has intervened to depress the Franc twice in the last six months, you would think that it would have some credibility with some investors. It seems the lesson is that Central Banks are no match for the markets, and investors realize that ultimately, the SNB is no exception.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, News, Swiss Franc | 3 Comments »

Bank of Canada Versus the Loonie

Sep. 18th 2009

I toyed with the title of this post for a while, and ultimately settled on the current iteration, because it reflects the battle that is being waged between the Bank of Canada and the forex markets. Simply, the Loonie is moving in one direction (up!), while the BOC would prefer that it moves in the opposite direction.

Let’s start with some context: the Canadian Dollar’s performance this year has been impressive, to say the least. 2009 is far from over, and yet the Loonie has already risen 14% against the Dollar, almost completely undoing the record 18% slide in 2008. Analysts are quick to point to the nascent Canadian economy, fading risk aversion, and the ongoing boom in commodities prices as behind the currency’s rise.

While all of these reasons are certainly valid, they hardly tell the whole story. Consider that Canadian growth remains tepid, deflation is now a reality, its currency is outpacing commodity prices, and its budget deficit will probably set a record this year. Regardless of what the future holds for the Canadian economy, the present remains nebulous. Thus, it seems the best explanation for Loonie strength is not to be found in Canada, but across the border in the US. Specifically, it is US Dollar weakness, and momentum-driven speculation based on the expectation of further weakness, that is driving the Canadian Dollar.

From the Bank of Canada’s standpoint then, the Loonie’s move back towards parity has nothing to do with fundamentals, which is why the BOC maintains that the currency represents a threat to both recovery and price stability. He has a point on the second front, since inflation is currently running at an annualized rate of -.8%, marking three consecutive months of deflation. “The [inflation information] has proved the Bank of Canada’s concerns are justified,” confirmed one analyst.

The Million Dollar Question then, is how far the BOC is willing to go to halt the Loonie’s ascent. Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carnet has already intervened vocally, by repeatedly signaling his displeasure with recent developments in forex markets, and suggesting that all options remain on the table. But rhetoric only goes so far, and after a brief pause, the Canadian Dollar has resumed its rally. “We think [rumors of intervention] it’s 100 percent untrue. I don’t think the bank has the ammunition or the desire to intervene. This is a story about U.S. dollar weakness across the board,” said one trader.

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The Bank has already exhausted most of the tools in its monetary arsenal. It recently voted to maintain its benchmark interest rate at the current record low level of .25%, and beyond extending the period of time during which it maintains low rates, there isn’t much more it can do on this front. Besides, conveying an intention to hold rates at .25% beyond June 2010 might not influence investors, who don’t seem too concerned about low yields offered by the Loonie. Moreover, it remains loath to copy the quantitative easing implemented by the Fed and Bank of England, because of the tremendous amount of work required to mop up“that increase in liquidity when the time comes.

In other words, the only thing the BOC can do at this point is to actually intervene, probably by buying US Dollars on the spot market. A couple obstacles are the fact that the BOC hasn’t intervened for over 10 years, and that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is simultaneously trumpeting the importance of “flexible exchange rates” in speeches intended to denigrate China.

In fact, the BOC may not have to get involved, since the consensus among analysts is that the Loonie will trade sideways for the next year. “According to…52 strategists polled by Reuters…In three, six and 12 months, the median estimate of those polled had the domestic currency steady at $1.100 to the U.S. dollar, or 90.91 U.S. cents.” Moreover, polled analysts based their forecasts on a mere 17.5% of intervention, which means that irrespective of the BOC, most forecasters think that the Loonie has reached its potential…for now.

Of course, if the Loonie fulfills estimates at the high end of the poll – especially in the short-term, and if inflation remains negative, the BOC could find itself with no other choice. But for now, investors aren’t holding their breath.

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Asia (China) Continues to Build Reserves, but Forex Diversification Slows

Sep. 16th 2009

After a brief pause, the world’s Central Banks (or at least those in Asia) have begun to once again accumulate foreign exchange reserves. I’m not one for hyperbole, but the figures are downright eye-popping: “Reserves held by 11 key Asian central banks totaled $2.625 trillion at the end of August, up from $2.569 trillion at the end of July, according to calculations by Dow Jones Newswires.” Most incredible is that this total doesn’t even include China. whose reserves could exceed $2.3 Trillion by now.

The credit crisis was initially marked by a collapse in trade and an exodus of capital from Asia, as western consumers tightened their wallets and investors flocked to so-called safe havens. As developing countries fought off currency depreciation, forex reserve levels plummeted. Less than a year later, trade has already picked back up, investors have returned en masse to emerging markets, and Central Banks are once again sterilizing capital inflows so as to mitigate upward pressure on their respective currencies. [Chart Below courtesy of Council of Foreign Relations.]


“Taiwan and Thailand, the most aggressive in defending the U.S. currency, have logged record-high reserves every month since December.” Japan, whose reserves are the second highest in the world (after China), is the lone holdout. As the Forex Blog reported yesterday, the newly elected Democratic Party of Japan will pursue an economic policy that depends less on exports, and has pledged to stay out of the forex markets.

The prospects for further reserve accumulation remain reasonably bright, as emerging markets lead the global economy towards recovery. “The outlook for key Asian economies is improving faster than that of developed economies. For the time being, this should accelerate flows into these markets, making it harder for central banks to keep their currencies in check.”

While China’s economy is no exception, its nascent recovery is being driven by capital investment, government spending, and (ultimately?) consumer spending. As a result, it is forecast that “China’s current-account surplus will fall to under 6% of GDP this year and 4% in 2010, down from a peak of 11% in 2007. Exports amounted to 35% of GDP in 2007; this year…that ratio will drop to 24.5%.” If such an outcome obtains, it will almost certainly lead to a slower accumulation of reserves.

China Trade Surplus

While this is all well and good, the more important question for most (forex) analysts is how these reserves are being held. The vast majority of these reserves are still denominated in US Dollar assets, and in fact, the proportion may have risen slightly since the beginning of the credit crisis. Asian Central Banks are particularly biased towards the Dollar, which accounts for 70% of their reserves, compared to the worldwide Central Bank average of 64%.

Moreover, it doesn’t look like plans are afoot to change this trend anytime soon. China has maintained its push (though less vocally) to turn the Chinese Yuan into a global reserve currency, declaring that its capital markets and currency controls will open accordingly to facilitate such. It is in preliminary talks with Thailand for yet another currency swap agreement, to supplement the $95 Billion in such deals signed since December. For its part, the Bank of Thailand has insisted that the Yuan is not even close to challenging the supremacy of the Dollar: “You have to accept that the dollar is going to be a reserve currency for quite some time. You don’t have any alternatives.”

Even China, despite its rhetoric, remains committed to the Dollar. The only talk of diversification in Chinese investment circles is in regards to what kinds of US assets they should invest in, not whether they should be invested in the US or somewhere else. Said the manager of China Investment Corp, which has a mandate to invest nearly $300 Billion of China’s FX reserves, “The risk of a decline in the dollar risks was more of a national issue for China than for CIC because its capital is in dollars.”

This last quote inadvertently confirms that the role of the Dollar as the world’s reserve currency is being treated as a political issue, when in fact it is a financial economic issue. In other words, while many countries want to limit the influence of the US by limiting the power of the Dollar, their Central Banks are stuck with it because it remains the most practical, and advantageous option. Dumping it would be akin to punishing themselves.

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Forex Markets Indifferent to Bernanke Nomination

Aug. 26th 2009

Earlier this week, President Obama officially nominated Ben Bernanke to a second four-year term as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank’s Board of Governors. The reaction was relatively muted, perhaps because most pundits had already anticipated the news. Bernanke himself probably sealed his own re-appointment with the public relations campaign he embarked on last month, ostensibly to offer a rationale for his response to the credit crisis. “In a profound departure from the central bank’s tradition as an aloof and secretive temple of economic policy, Mr. Bernanke has plunged into the public spotlight to an extent that none of his predecessors would have contemplated.”

Most of the sound-byte reactions came from politicians, and focused on whether he deserved another term, rather than the potential ramifications of his re-nomination. Heavyweights Barney Frank and Christopher Dodd both offered tepid support. Ron Paul referred to the news as irrelevant. Meanwhile, “European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet on Tuesday said he was ‘extremely pleased’ by President Barack Obama’s decision.”

The reactions from investors, likewise, ranged from ambivalent to moderately supportive. Equity markets rose to a 2009 high the day after  the story broke, while the Dollar fell slightly. The re-appointment was deliberately awarded five months ahead of schedule in order to help the president’s credibility with investors. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look it), the fact that the markets didn’t react much, shows that they don’t really care. In other words, “President Obama overstated matters when he said that Mr. Bernanke had kept us out of a Great Depression” not only because “this remains to be seen,” but also because the ebbs and flows of GDP are contingent on more than just monetary policy.

Regardless of how much credit Bernanke actually deserves, he will certainly have his work cut out for him in his second term. “Bernanke’s Next Tasks Will Be Undoing His First,” encapsulated one headline. At some point, the Fed must raise interest rates, return credit markets to normal functioning, and remove hundreds of billion of dollars from the money supply.

But this is easier said than done: “If the Fed shifts too quickly from the role of savior to that of strict disciplinarian, it risks aborting the recovery and tipping the nation back into a recession, essentially repeating mistakes made in 1937 after the economy had begun to rebound. If the Fed moves too slowly, it risks the kind of intractable inflation it experienced in the 1970s and fueling another bubble.”

The consensus is that, for better or worse, he will err on the side of price stability, perhaps at the expense of economic growth. “A Fed chaired by Ben Bernanke will follow a policy uncomfortably tight as the 2012 election looms into sight. Bernanke has espoused a commitment to low inflation over his entire career,” argued one economist. Meanwhile, the markets aren’t expecting rate hikes at least until 2010, although Bernanke, himself, has conveyed a sense of optimism – and hence hawkishness – about a quick exit from recession.

What does all of this mean for the Dollar? It’s impossible to say exactly, and depends largely on whether Bernanke can unwind the easy money policy of the last year just as deftly as he deployed it.And of course, there is the wild card of the US National debt, and the potential for a loss of confidence to induce a run on the Dollar, which even Bernanke would be powerless to solve.

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

Carry Trade Still Popular, but Doubt is Growing

Aug. 26th 2009

It’s safe to say that the inverse correlation observed between the Dollar (and also the Yen) and global equities is largely a product of the carry trade. “The U.S. stock market bottomed and the U.S. Dollar Index peaked almost simultaneously in March. While U.S. stocks are up more than 50% in that time, the Dollar Index (which measures the greenback’s value against the euro, the yen, the British pound, the Canadian dollar, the Swedish kroner and the Swiss franc) is down nearly 12%,” observed one analyst.

On one level, this represents a return to 2008, prior to the explosion of the credit crisis, when carry trading was THE dominant theme in forex markets. However, there is one important difference. While the Dollar and Yen were the funding currencies then and now (due to their low interest rates), there has been a slight shift in the currencies selected for the opposing/long end of the trade.

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Traditionally, the most popular long currencies were those of industrialized countries, rich in commodities and backed by high interest rates and often rich in commodities. To be sure, these currencies have shined in recent months, certainly due in part to speculative (carry) trading. “Strategists at Wells Fargo Bank in New York ‘believe that the gains in the dollar-bloc currencies (Australia, New Zealand, Canada) have run ahead of the gains in commodity prices.’ ” The Bank of Canada also noticed that “At the time of its last statement, oil prices were about $75 a barrel, but now they are in the $60-to-$65 range. That suggests the currency’s appreciation has outpaced the demand for its commodity exports.”

But the run-ups in the Kiwi, Aussie, and Loonie have been overshadowed by even more rapid appreciation in emerging market currencies. This shift is largely a product of changes in interest rate differentials, which are now gapingly large between developed countries and developing countries. Compare the 2.75%+ spread between the US and Australia, with the 8.5% spread between the US and Brazil or 12.75% between the US and Russia. For investors once again becoming complacent about risk, the choice is a no-brainer.

Still, some analysts are nervous about this change in dynamic: “While the new carry trade may be less leveraged, it’s an inherently riskier bet. As such, it’s more vulnerable to the kind of swift unraveling of risk appetite observed across all nations and sectors in 2008, but which occurs with far more frequency in emerging markets.” Meanwhile, emerging market stocks have behaved volatilely over the last few weeks (with Chinese stocks even entering bear market territory), and some investors are concerned that they may be temporarily peaking. There are also signs that bubbles may be forming in carry trade currencies, with bullish sentiment at high levels. Accordingly, one strategist suggests waiting out a 5% pullback in the Australian dollar, and a 10% pullback in the New Zealand dollar before going back in.

There is also the outside possibility that the Fed will raise interest rates, which would crimp the viability of the US Dollar as a funding currency. Granted, it seems unlikely that the Fed will tighten within the next six months, but investors with a longer time horizon could begin to adjust their positions now, rather than wait until the 11th hour, at which point everyone will be rushing for the exits.

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

Record Rise in British Pound comes to an End

Aug. 20th 2009

From trough to peak (March 10 – August 5), the British Pound appreciated by a whopping 25%, its strongest performance in such a short time period since 1985. The Pound has fallen mightily since then, and most factors point to a continued decline.

pound

On almost every front, the Pound is being buried under a mound of bad news. Its economy is currently one of the weakest in the world, especially compared to other industrialized countries; on a quarterly basis, its economy is contracting at the fastest rate in over 60 years. Forecasts for UK economic growth are commensurately dismal: “Median estimates in Bloomberg economist surveys see the U.S. shrinking 2.6 percent in 2009 and expanding 2.2 percent in 2010, compared with a 4.1 percent contraction followed by 0.9 percent growth in the U.K.”

In addition, the only signs of growth appear to be a direct result of government spending, a notion that is evidenced by the latest retail sales and housing market data, both of which remain at depressed levels. “People are worried that the global recovery is based on unsustainable government spending and numbers like this from the U.K. only encourage those fears,” said one analyst in response.

While government spending, meanwhile, is arguably a valuable tool for stimulating economic growth, analysts worry that it might be reaching the limits of feasibility. “The Office for National Statistics said the budget shortfall was 8 billion pounds ($13.2 billion), the largest for July since records began in 1993.” On an annual basis, the government is planning to issue 220 Billion Pounds in new debt, to fund a budget deficit currently projected at 12.4% of GDP, easily the largest since World War II.

The Bank of England’s prescription for the country’s economic woes are also provoking a backlash. When the Bank announced at its last monetary policy meeting that it would expand its quantitative easing program by 50 Billion Pounds, the markets were aghast. Imagine investor shock, when the minutes from that meeting were released last week, revealing that 3 dissenting governors were agitating for an even bigger outlay! No less than Mervyn King, the head of the bank, “push[ed] to expand the central bank’s bond-purchase program to 200 billion pounds ($329 billion).

Given the dovishness that this implies, combined with an inflation rate that is rapidly approaching 0%, investors have rightfully concluded that the Bank is nowhere near ready to raise interest rates. “The market was expecting the BOE to be one of the first to hike rates. It’s becoming clear that’s unlikely, undermining the pound,” conceded one economist. Interest rate futures reflect an expectation that the Bank will hold rates at least until next spring. LIBOR rates, meanwhile, just touched a record low.

As a result, forecasts and bets on the Pound’s decline now seem to be the rule. “BNP Paribas…predicted another 9.3 percent decline to $1.50 in 12 months…After the Bank of England decision, pound futures and options speculators became more pessimistic as weekly bets favoring sterling fell more than 32 percent, the most since November.” In short, “Sterling is over-priced at current levels.”

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in British Pound, Central Banks, News | No Comments »

All Eyes on Central Banks

Aug. 19th 2009

While Central Banks have always featured heavily in the minds of forex traders, their actions have taken on a whole new significance of late. Financial reporters have also been generous in doling out space to stories about Central Banks, writing stories with headlines like “Central bankers add to equities’ momentum” and “Currency Traders Hold Fire, Await Central Banks.”

Traditionally, forex traders eyed Central Banks for one reason: interest rates. The theory was simple: currencies with higher interest rates tended to outperform in the short term. This trend was especially reliable in the years leading up to the housing bubble, as carry traders ensured that high-yielding currencies rose while low-yielding currencies stagnated or fell.

Even in the context of the credit crisis, traders have continued to monitor the rate setting activities of Central Banks. Interest rates in every industrialized country are currently locked at record low levels, but anticipation is already starting to build that the beginning of a tightening cycle is just around the corner. Current expectations are for the US to lead the way (first to lower, first to rise), followed by Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. The Bank of England and European Central Bank are further away on the curve, while rate hikes are a remote possibility in Japan, a perennial favorite of carry traders.

Interest rates are now only a small part of the equation, however. Most Central Banks have implemented additional strategies, known variously as quantitative easing, asset purchases, liquidity programs, etc. The goal of all of these programs is to stimulate the money supply and stabilize financial markets, by injecting newly-minted money directly into capital markets. Traders initially focused on which Central Banks were involved in quantitative easing. After nearly every bank introduced some version, it quickly became a question of scope. In this respect, the Fed and the Bank of England are in first and second place, respectively. Now, traders are waiting to see not only when these programs will end, but also when they will be unwound. If there is a perception (and even worse, a reality) that some Central Banks are waiting too long to draw funds out of the market, this could foster (concerns of) inflation, and consequently, currency depreciation.

Finally, there is the issue of direct currency intervention. The Swiss National Bank became the first western bank to intervene on behalf of its currency. Its actions are directly responsible for holding the Swiss Franc down. The Bank of England meanwhile has used its quantitative easing program to influence the Pound, while the Banks of Korea and Brazil are buying Dollars on the spot market to depress their respective currencies. Paranoia is clearly running high, and some traders are apparently concerned that the Fed could be next. Just when you thought the surprises were over.

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Brazil Real Edging Up, Despite Efforts of Central Bank

Aug. 15th 2009

The Brazilian Real has been one of the world’s best performers in 2009, having risen by a solid 25%. The currency is now close to pre-credit crisis levels, and is even closing in on an 11-year high. When you consider that only six months ago, most analysts were painting doomsday scenarios and predicting currency devaluations and bond defaults for the entire continent, this is pretty incredible!
real-dollar

The currency’s rise has been supported by a variety of factors, few of which are grounded in fundamentals. To begin with, while Brazil has staved off depression, it’s not as if the economy is firmly back on solid footing. The economy contracted by 5% in the first quarter, and forecasts for 2009 GDP growth still vary widely, from a slight contraction to modest expansion. Meanwhile, the economy is importing more than it exports, despite the rebound in commodity prices. “The central bank said the net trade result was based on $9.89 billion in receipts for exports and $12.72 billion in import payments overseas.”

“Investment inflows, meanwhile, totaled $33.88 billion, while outflows totaled $29.78 billion.” The disparity between investment and trade data goes a long way towards explaining the Real’s rise. Thanks to a recovery in risk appetite, foreigners have poured cash into Brazil at an even faster rate than they once removed it. As a result, Brazil’s “Bovespa stock index has risen 51 percent this year, the world’s 12th-best performer among 89 measures tracked by Bloomberg, as foreign investors moved 13.7 billion reais into the market through July, the most since the exchange began tracking data in 1993. Brazilian local bonds returned 37 percent in dollar terms after falling 13.8 percent in 2008.” The country’s foreign exchange reserves also just set a new record, surging past the $200 Billion mark.

Brazilian interest rates tell the rest of the story. Despite a gradual decline over the last decade (made possible by a moderation in inflation), Brazil’s benchmark SELIC rate stands at a healthy 8.65%, which is the highest in South America, after Argentina. Unlike Argentina – and the dozen or so other economies around the world that boast equally lofty interest rates – Brazil is perceived as relatively safe place to invest. Given interest rate levels in the western world, combined with the expectation that Brazil’s currency will appreciate further, investors are more than happy to accept a little bit of risk in order to earn an out-sized return.

brazil-interest-rates-1999-2009

Just like the Bank of Korea, Bank of England (both profiled by the Forex Blog in the last week), the Bank of Brazil is not happy with the resilience in its currency. “Brazil’s central bank said on Wednesday it bought $779 million on the spot foreign exchange market this month to Aug. 7 as dollar inflows to the country surged because of growing demand for local stocks and bonds.” This brings the total intervention expenditure to $9 Billion.

Unfortunately for the Bank of Brazil, the forces in the forex market are way beyond its control. “Dollar inflows to the country totaled $2.26 billion this month to Aug. 7, compared with inflows of $1.27 billion in all of July.” Analysts are also unconvinced, and are racing to revise their Real forecasts upward. One economist, caught completely off guard, just “changed his year-end real forecast to 1.8 from 2.5 at the start of the year. ‘The resilience of the Brazilian economy to weather this crisis has been spectacular,’ ” he explained.

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Korean Won Rebounds Strongly

Aug. 13th 2009

Last year the Korean Won was one of the world’s weakest currencies- and that’s saying a lot when you you consider how many currencies tanked at the onset of the credit crisis. The Won lost nearly half of its value, driven by concerns that Korean creditors would be unable to pay their foreign debts. Since March, however, the currency has rebounded by an impressive 25%, as the government took action: “To avert a crisis, South Korea forged a dollar-swap agreement with the U.S., pumped money into the banking system, boosted fiscal spending, set up funds to replenish bank capital and cut rates.”

korean-won-dollar

In the last quarter, South Korea’s economy grew 2.3%, the fastest pace in nearly six years, marking a significant turnaround from the 5% contraction recorded in the fourth quarter of 2008. Still, “South Korea’s economy will shrink 1.8 percent this year, the IMF said yesterday, revising a July prediction for a 3 percent contraction.” Exports, which account for 50% of GDP, have also recovered, and are now rising by nearly 20% on an annualized basis. Retail sales are climbing, and bank lending to households has risen for six straight months. Finally, “Stimulus measures at home and abroad are fueling South Korea’s revival. The government has pledged more than 67 trillion won ($53 billion) in extra spending, helping consumer confidence climb to the highest in almost two years in June.”

However, an inflow of speculative hot money – which has buttressed a rally in Korean stocks – threatens to undo the recovery. “With an anticipated increase in risk appetite, foreign investors may invest further in emerging-market equities, leading to more dollar supply,” said one analyst. The first half 2009 current account surplus set a record, with forecasts for the second half not far behind. Korea’s foreign exchange reserves, meanwhile, have recovered, and could touch $300 Billion within the next year.

Of course, the Central bank is not simply standing by idly. It has already lowered its benchmark rate to a record low 2%, and at yesterday’s monthly monetary policy meeting, it firmly refused to consider raising it for at least six months. Commented one analyst, “There is no urgent need to raise rates. The most likely course of action is that the Bank of Korea will wait until the economy fully recovers, and in particular, they will wait until the unemployment rate stops increasing.” Still, given both that interest rates remain above levels in the west (see chart below) and that the Korean Won is considered undervalued, funds could continue to flow in.

south-korea-interest-rates-2004-2009

The Central Bank’s other tool is direct intervention in the forex markets, in order to depress the strengthening Won. But this, it is loathe to do: ” ‘It would be better to have a larger foreign exchange reserve in order to better deal with economic crises, but attempts to buy dollars to artificially boost the reserve volume could lead to accusations of currency manipulation, while excess won in the markets could stoke inflation,’ a high-ranking ministry official said.” Still, investors are growing increasingly nervous about this possibility:”A state-run bank that usually doesn’t participate much in the market bought some dollars at the day’s low, prompting speculation about a possible intervention, a local bank trader said.” Sure enough, after hitting the psychologically important level of 1,220 at the end of July, the Won dived. It has yet to bounce back.

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Fed to Hold Rates for the Near Term

Aug. 12th 2009

Over the last week, the markets have been abuzz with chatter about how the US recession will soon come to and end, followed by a quick and healthy recovery. According to investor logic, the result would be a rise in inflation and interest rates. This optimism was partially deflated today, as the Federal Reserve bank conducted its annual monetary policy meeting.

Excluding a brief uptick in June (see chart below courtesy of the Cleveland Fed), investors had long come to expect that the Fed would leave its benchmark Federal Funds rate unchanged, at 0-.25%. At the same time, there was a strong belief that the Fed would begin to hike rates at the end of 2009, and comment accordingly in the press release that accompanied its monetary policy decision. Barron’s predicted yesterday: “The statement will acknowledge some improvement in the U.S. economy, though it will imply that this nascent growth reflected in recent gross domestic product reports is fragile and will be monitored closely. This will leave open the specter that interest rates could be increased at some point in the future.”

august-ffr-interest-rate-expectations
Sure enough, the Fed left rates unchanged, and its press release conveyed a restrained sense of hope that the worst of the recession is now behind us: “Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in June suggests that economic activity is leveling out. Conditions in financial markets have improved further in recent weeks…Although economic activity is likely to remain weak for a time, the Committee continues to anticipate…a gradual resumption of sustainable economic growth in a context of price stability.” The Fed also announced that its Treasury buying activities would soon come to an end, although it may continue to buy mortgage securities as part of its quantitative easing program.

Perhaps the tone of the press release was slightly less positive than investors would have liked, since interest rate futures dived immediately on the news. Especially compared to last week, investors are now assuming that it will be a while before the Fed actually hike rates: “At Wednesday’s settlement price of 99.655, the February fed-funds futures contract priced in about a 38% chance for a 0.5% funds rate after the late-January meeting. That’s down sharply from about a 60% chance at Tuesday’s settlement, about a 76% chance at Monday’s settlement, and about a 96% chance at last Friday’s settlement.” Analysis of options trading activity reveals that the large brokerage houses believe similarly.

As for the Dollar, it now seems possible that last week’s rally was premature. If the Fed isn’t prepared to hike rates anytime soon, then the current interest rate differentials between the US and the rest of the world will remain intact. More importantly, the Dollar will remain a viable funding currency for carry trades, and the shift of funds into higher-yielding alternatives will probably continue for the time being.

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British Pound due for Correction, Thanks to BOE

Aug. 11th 2009

The British Pound’s rise since the beginning of March has been nothing short of spectacular: “Improving economic data have helped the pound advance 14 percent against the dollar this year and 12 percent against the euro.” Due primarily to a recovery in risk appetite and the concomitant belief that the Pound had been oversold following the onset of the credit crisis, investors began pouring hot money back into the UK. As recently as two weeks ago, one analyst intoned that, “Longer term, we are in part of an uptrend for the pound. I don’t think this is over.”

gbp-euro

Since then, however, a series of negative developments have cast doubt on such optimism. The first was the release of economic data, which indicated an unexpected widening in Britain’s trade deficit. While exports rose, imports rose even faster, causing analysts to wonder whether it would be realistic to expect the British economic recovery would be led by exports: “We remain skeptical that the U.K. is about to become an export-driven economy any time soon. A return to sustained growth continues to look unlikely in the near term,” said one economist.
uk-balance-of-trade-june-2009

The second development was the decision by the Bank of England to expand its quantitative easing program: “The central bank spent 125 billion pounds since March as part of the asset-purchase program and had permission to use as much as 150 billion pounds, about 10 percent of Britain’s gross domestic product. Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling has now authorized an extra 25 billion pounds.” This came as a huge shock to investors, which had collectively assumed that the program had already been concluded.

Upon closer analysis, it appears that the rise of the Pound and the expanding trade deficit might have contributed to the BOE’s decision: “According to the Bank’s rule of thumb, this [the Pound’s rise] is equivalent to interest rate increases of 1.5 percentage points.” However, interest rates are already close to zero. The BOE has already conveyed its intention to maintain an easy monetary policy for the near-term (March 2010 interest rate futures reflect an expectation for a 75 basis point rate hike); otherwise, there is nothing else it could do on the interest rate front. “Unless the UK is ready to deflate its production costs heavily, it can only achieve required competitiveness by reducing the value of sterling…The BoE knows this and its decision to increase its quantitative easing efforts may well have to be seen in the context of summer sterling strength.”

The final factor has been the Dollar’s sudden reversal. Previously, the Pound had been helped as much by UK optimism as by Dollar pessimism. This changed last week, when positive US economic data triggered expectations of a near-term economic recovery and consequent Fed rate hikes. In short, the Pound must now rest on its own two feet, and can no longer count on Dollar pessimism for a boost: “The current gloomy sentiment, which has chipped some 3% off sterling’s value against the dollar in the past four trading days, represents a sharp turnaround.”

The prognosis for UK economic recovery should receive some clarity tomorrow, when the Bank of England releases a report on inflation and GDP. At this point, we will have a better idea as to what to expect from the Pound going forward.

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Dollar Reverses Course

Aug. 10th 2009

A recent WSJ headline reads, Good Economic News Threatens the Dollar, and summarizes the Dollar’s trading pattern as follows: “Demand for the U.S. currency continues to erode amid a tide of more encouraging economic data and corporate earnings that have fed a thirst for riskier assets such as stocks, commodities, and growth-sensitive currencies.”

Less than two weeks after that article was published, the Dollar rose by a healthy 2% against the Euro in only one trading session, as US labor market conditions improved slightly: “The U.S. unemployment rate fell in July for the first time in 15 months as employers cut far fewer jobs than expected, giving the clearest indication yet that the economy was turning around from a deep recession.” While technically another 250,000 jobs were lost and economists forecast that the employment rate will rise past 10% before peaking, investor sentiment is still at a high.

euro-dollar
Unsurprisingly, the news triggered a stock market rally. More noteworthy, though, is that the Dollar also rallied. Since the beginning of 2009 and especially since the beginning of March, there has been a clear negative correlation between stocks and the Dollar, as a result of risk appetite. “At one point this year, the correlation between the euro-dollar rate and the S&P 500 index hit 50 percent, according to BNP Paribas calculations. That is, the euro and S&P 500 rose or fell in tandem half the time.”

This latest development suggests that this relationship has broken down, at least temporarily. Argues one analyst, “The dollar’s going to turn. The U.S. economy is more able to withstand shocks than other economies, especially Europe.” Perhaps going forward, the markets will be driven less by risk appetite and more by comparative growth trajectories and economic fundamentals.

Not so fast, though. Much of the Dollar’s recent slide has been a product carry trading patterns, as investors borrow in low-yielding Dollars and invest in higher-yielding alternatives. An improvement in economic conditions could compel the Fed to hike rates, which would seriously dent the attractiveness of the carry trade. “Indeed, long-dated U.S. interest rates have been quietly moving in the dollar’s favor while U.S. interest rate futures on Friday started pricing in a federal funds rate of 1.25 percent by the mid-2010, the highest since June.” Based on this paradigm, then, it’s still risk appetite that’s driving the Dollar, whether up or down.

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Bank of Israel Steps up Intervention on Shekel

Aug. 6th 2009

Over the last year, Israel has quietly amassed one of the world’s largest repositories of foreign exchange reserves. On average, the Central Bank of Israel has purchased $100 million worth of Dollars every day since July 2008, bringing its total reserves to $52 Billion. The Bank’s goals are twofold: to sterilize the inflow of speculative money pouring into Israel in order to mitigate inflation, and to stem the appreciation of the Shekel.

Towards this latter, the Bank received a boost by the credit crisis, which caused an outbreak of risk aversion and sent investors rushing to shift funds into so-called safe haven countries/currencies. As a result, the Israeli stock market tanked, and the Shekel plummeted 30% in a matter of months.

shekel-dollar

Thanks to the recent upswing in risk appetite, however, the Shekel has bounced back, having risen 10% since April. While the Shekel still remains well off its its 2008 highs, the sudden rise still elicited the attention of the Bank of Israel, which announced that it would respond to the, “Unusual movements in the exchange rate that are inconsistent with underlying economic conditions, or when conditions in the foreign exchange market are disorderly,” by intervening heavily in the open market. It “is believed to have purchased between $1.5-1.7 billion this week so far.”

The Bank has also taken steps to inadvertently degrade its currency by lowering its benchmark interest rate to .5%, and buying bonds on the open market. “The central bank will have bought a total of 18 billion shekels ($4.7 billion) of bonds when it completes the program….The bank said in its statement that it does not intend to sell the securities it purchased and will continue buying foreign currency.” While its unclear whether the program has succeeded in stimulating the economy – which contracted by 3.7% last quarter – it has provoked inflation, which is still running in excess of 3% per year.

The forex markets have taken notice of both developments, sending the Shekel down 4% since Monday. Still, it’s not clear whether the Bank of Israel has any real credibility with traders. By its own admission, its intervention program is temporary: “It is clear that we won’t carry on buying foreign currency forever. Everybody understands that the central bank can’t beat the market, but sometimes the market does things that are not justified.”

Analysts, meanwhile, insist that the Shekel’s appreciation is not unusual, and that the intervention runs counter to fundamentals. “[The] market pressures strengthening the shekel against the dollar, are, in fact, consistent with underlying economic conditions. Fundamental economic conditions favoring the revaluation of the shekel include the accumulation of a balance of payments credit of $4.3 billion over the past thee quarters.” These analysts, then, are more concerned about rising inflation then about the competitiveness of Israeli exports.

Barclays, an investment bank, evidently subscribes to this school of though, and predicts the Shekel “will increase 2% after breaching their so-called resistance levels.” Merrill Lynch, meanwhile, sees the Shekel appreciating an additional 10% over the next year.

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Canadian Dollar Volatility could Spur Intervention

Aug. 3rd 2009

Since the Forex Blog last covered the Canadian Dollar – on July 29 – the Canadian Dollar appreciated another 2% against the US Dollar, reinforcing the perception that the currency is both too volatile and appreciating too rapidly. This concern is harbored by the Central Bank officials and policymakers, which fear that the rising currency represents the proverbial wrench in the Canadian economic recovery.

cad-chart

From a volatility standpoint, it looks like their concerns are justified. “For years it was traditional for the cost of a one-week option on the Canadian dollar to be 20 to 25 basis points…The cost is now commonly in the 50-point to 75-point range and in the last six months it has been as high as 100 points.” On a relative basis, the currency is also more volatile than the commodities with which it is commonly associated. In the last two months alone, it recorded both a 7.4% plunge and a 10% rise. To be fair, short-term volatility is lower than it was one year ago, but this isn’t going to placate those who insist that it’s still too high.

canadian-dollar-volatility
Looking at the charge that the Canadian Dollar has risen too rapidly, this too appears valid. One could argue that the thundering 20%+ rise since March was simply a retracement (in FX terminology), necessary to offset the even bigger decline that took place following the onset of the credit crisis. This argument, however, ignores the notion that the Loonie was probably overvalued before it fell. At that time, commodity prices were sky-high, and expectations were that they would remain high, if not soar even higher. Since then, they have fallen precipitously, to less than half of the record highs recorded during the peak of the bubble.

cad-effective-exchange-rate1
Speaking of commodity prices, “At the time of its [the Bank of Canada’s] last statement, oil prices were about $75 a barrel, but now they are in the $60-to-$65 range. That suggests the currency’s appreciation has outpaced the demand for its commodity exports.” In other words, the Loonie’s recent rise can be attributed more to speculation, than to a change in fundamentals. “The rise in the dollar reflects ‘hot money seeking alternatives to the greenback,’ not the underlying economic strength,” agrees one analyst.

The Bank of Canada, naturally, views this as a problem, and “Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney says he is prepared to intervene in currency markets if the Canadian dollar’s rise persists and threatens to smother the ‘nascent’ recovery. If not for the uncertainty surrounding the Loonie, in fact, BOC officials are quite confident that Canada’s economy would grow consistently in the near-term.

The Central Bank’s options are limited, since its main policy rate is already close to zero. This can still be tweaked, explains one analyst. “If you thought you were going to tighten in the first half of 2010 and the currency shoots to parity at some point, maybe that means you don’t get there until the end of 2010.” The bank’s only other monetary policy option is qualitative easing (i.e. printing money), which at this point in the cycle, seems unlikely.  “Intervening in currency markets to quell the Canadian dollar’s strength is also an unattractive option for the bank, which views intervention without accompanying monetary policy action as ineffective. That leaves commenting on the currency as the only really agreeable option for the bank.” However, given that the Loonie has continued to appreciate in spite of Carney’s warnings, it seems traders have disregarded these threats as mere idle talk. To parity we go!

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Central Banks’ Mandates Expand to Include Asset Price Stability

Aug. 1st 2009

There was never much doubt about the underlying causes of the credit crisis. Basically, combination of low interest rates and lax regulation fueled a leveraged credit expansion, which exploded spectacularly last fall. The main issue has always been how to ensure such a crisis doesn’t ever happen again- at least not on the same scale. Towards that end, policymakers around the world have been busy over the last few months conducting hearings and soliciting expert testimony, and are now close to passing sweeping overhauls of their countries’ respective financial systems.

Well, maybe sweeping is too strong of a characterization. In any event, big changes are underway. The US government is leading the way, in attempting to strip the Federal Reserve Bank of its power to regulate consumer finance, but is compensating the Fed by handing it the authority to “oversee large financial institutions…The overhaul would also give the Fed a seat on a new council charged with guarding against financial-market meltdowns like the one that hit the banking system last year.”

Another bill that is currently working its way through Congress would enable the “Government Accountability Office to ‘audit’ the Fed’s decisions on monetary policy.” It’s unclear what exactly that would entail, but at the very least, it would remove some of the Fed’s independence. Already, the Fed is making an effort to increase its transparency, by expanding its interactions with the public beyond the “brief, cryptic statements that analysts busily decode in the days that follow” monetary policy decisions.

The most significant change, especially as far as currency traders and interest rate watchers are concerned, is the potential expansion of the Fed’s mandate, which is currently to “promote ‘full’ employment…while maintaining ‘reasonable’ price stability.” Future monetary policy, however, could be conducted with broader aims: “The Federal Reserve seems to be volunteering to be top bubble burster. In a recent speech, Bill Dudley, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, overturned more than a decade of Fed orthodoxy by claiming it was the central bank’s duty to defuse asset price bombs before they detonate.” While this declaration has earned plaudits from some economists, it comes with the caveat that asset bubbles could be difficult to identify and even more difficult to defuse. One has proposed that “Regulators develop a small set of measures of irrationality that can be calculated and published at least monthly,” but it seems unlikely that this will be implemented anytime soon.

Changes are also expected across the Atlantic: “Britain’s Conservative Party, likely to form the next government, wants the Bank of England to be in charge not just of interest rates, but also the two big tasks of regulation: guarding the overall system’s stability (‘macro-prudential regulation’, as it is known) and the ‘micro’ supervision of individual firms.” As part of their proposal, the much-maligned Financial Services Authority, would be eliminated.

Of course, no one knows for sure the extent to which the system will reformed, nor whether it will be successful. Conceivably, tighter regulation could be accompanied by equally tight monetary policy. Already, the hawks have begun to grouse “that the Fed might need to raise interest rates in the ‘not-too-distant future’ to fight inflation.” Not-too-distant indeed if the Fed also needs to keep a lid on asset bubbles.

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Reserve Bank of Australia Could be the First to Hike Rates

Jul. 28th 2009

Based on the chart below, which plots the Australian Dollar against the New Zealand Dollar over the last two years, one might be tempted to conclude that the two currencies are identical for all intents and purposes. Rather than suffer the inconvenience of separately analyzing the Australian Dollar, why not just read yesterday’s post on the New Zealand Dollar, and leave it at that?

aud-nzd

But this chart belies the fact that while the two currencies, have risen and fallen (in near lockstep) in sync with the ebb and flow of risk aversion, this could soon change. While the near-term prospects for the New Zealand economy are dubious, sentiment towards the Australian economy is more consistently optimistic.  “Central bank Governor Glenn Stevens said the nation’s economic downturn may not be ‘one of the more serious’ of the post-World War II era.” In addition, “Stevens said the nation’s economy may rebound faster than the central bank had predicted six months ago on improving confidence among consumers and businesses alike.” The latest projections are for a fall in .5% contraction in GDP in 2009 followed by a 1% rise in 2010.

Meanwhile, government spending is surging: “The Australian government forecast its largest budget deficit on record of A$57.6 billion for fiscal year 2009-10, or 4.9% of GDP.” Combined with the steady recovery in commodity prices and the resumption of residential construction, this could soon trickle down through the Australian economy in the form of inflation. It’s no wonder, then, that the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) could begin tightening interest rates as early as December, in order to mitigate against the possibility of inflation in 2011 and 2012.

australia-cpi-inflation
In fact, Governor Glen Stevens has been raising eyebrows with his unequivocal comments about raising rates. “I’ve never seen written down … I’ve never heard in discussion in the institution, some rule of thumb that says we wait until unemployment’s peaked before we lift the cash rate…I think it depends what else is happening, and also depends how low you went. We eased very aggressively,” he said recently. As a result, traders are betting that rates will be 1.13% higher one year from now than they are today.

This development should be of especial interest to forex traders. Australian interest rates are already the highest in the industrialized world. When you consider “the market’s expectations that the RBA is likely to be the G-10 central bank which is likely to hike first,” it goes a long way towards explaining the 18% rise in the Aussie that has taken place in 2009 alone. Compare a hypothetical 4% RBA benchmark rate to the .1% in Japan and ~0% in the US, and carry traders will start to salivate.

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Japanese Yen: Exports Versus Carry

Jul. 24th 2009

Plot the Japanese Yen against almost any “major” currency over the last few months (or few weeks for that matter) and you get a pretty consistent picture. Moreover, when you graph most Yen currency pairs against the S&P 500 (I like the AUD/JPY), the correlation is uncanny! Sure enough, it was reported recently that “Japan’s currency also fell the most in a week against the euro as futures on the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index rose 0.5 percent.”

japanese-yen-is-correlated-with-sp

This suggests that the main driver for the Yen is proximally, the demand for US equities, and ultimately, appetite for risk. “We’re seeing high-yielding currencies still rallying along with stock markets…The market is reverting to business as usual. That’s just spurring risk currencies forward,” explains one analyst. In other words, the carry trade is back, and investors are borrowing in the world’s cheapest currency (Japanese overnight interest rates are only .1%) and investing in higher-yielding alternatives. “There’s strong momentum behind this risk taking. You cannot keep your money in cash for zero returns unless you believe in deflation,” added a trader.

Experts on both sides of the Pacific Ocean are now encouraging their clients to short the Yen. “Japanese financial institutions are encouraging investors to put money into mutual funds focused on assets denominated in currencies such as the Turkish lira, South African rand and Brazilian real…Japanese investors were net buyers of 709.4 billion yen of overseas assets in the week ended July 11…” Goldman Sachs, meanwhile, has declared that the Yen is still overvalued, and “recommended investors use three-month forward contracts to sell the yen.”

There’s certainly some second-guessing taking place, especially with earnings season upon us. “Risk aversion is likely to stay prominent, given earnings announcements by companies including CIT. The bias is for haven currencies such as the yen to be bought,” insisted one analyst. In addition, Central Bank diversification has created some demand for the Yen and the Euro, but this is more of a Dollar-negative story than a Yen-positive story.

There are also signs that the Japanese economy is recovering, thanks to a pickup in exports. The fact that its economy remains so dependent on exports to drive growth certainly exacerbated the impact of the credit crisis. On the other hand, it could also magnify any recovery. “Japan’s merchandise trade surplus widened in June…to 508 billion yen ($5.42 billion) from 104.1 billion yen a year earlier. The nation’s trade performance appears to be improving, as the surplus was bigger than May’s 299.8 billion yen figure.”

japan-export-dependence
Still, prices in Japan are falling (by 1.1% at last count), and there are strong concerns among economic officials that deflation could take hold. Accordingly, carry traders borrowing in Yen can rest easy, knowing that Japan is probably the least likely of any industrialized country to raise interest rates in the near-term.

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ECB to Hold Rates Until 2011

Jul. 23rd 2009

The next rate-setting meeting of the European Central Bank (“ECB”) is rapidly approaching (August 3), and analysts are stepping up to offer their opinions on the direction of EU monetary policy. At its last meeting, on July 2, the ECB voted to hold rates at the current record-low level of 1%, and all indications are that the August meeting will yield the same result.

Despite getting off to a late start, the ECB has since moved adroitly to strike a balance in its monetary policy between inflation and growth. For those that insist that its rates are still too high – especially compared to the US and UK – the ECB can counter by arguing that this way it still has some scope to lower rates, if need be. “If a deflationary spiral does become entrenched, unlike most of the other major global economies, at least the European Central Bank still has some of the interest rate tool left to fall back on,” agrees one analyst.

The ECB can also refer critics to its overnight lending rate, which are 75 basis points lower than its main policy rate. “Before the crisis, the ECB would aim to keep overnight interest rates close to the refi rate. Since it moved to unlimited fixed-rate funding, the central bank has been content to allow the overnight rate to drift much lower than the policy rate.” It is at this refinancing rate that it recently lent out a record €442 billion to banks and other financial institutions.

eurozone-interest-rates

While the ECB “has had one eye on the exit since the start of the crisis,” it nonetheless appears to be in no hurry to hike rates – neither its overnight nor its refi rate. Jean-Claude Trichet himself has said, “The current rates are appropriate.” He even refused to rule out the possibility that rates could even fall further before policy is tightened.

According to a Bloomberg survey of economists, this won’t happen for at least a year – the fourth quarter of 2010 to be specific. After all, inflation has touched a record low of -.1%. The Eurozone economy contracted by a record 4.5% last quarter. Private sector lending growth has fallen to a record low of 1.8%. All in all, not exactly the right environment for a rate hike. There is at least one vocal inflation hawk on the governing board of the ECB who is arguing for preemptive rate hikes, but for now at least he has been silenced. “Economists at Barclays in London have forecast that Europe’s policy makers won’t begin raising rates until late 2011.”

The forex markets, meanwhile, appear to be indifferent to this whole debate, concerned not about Eurozone growth, inflation, low interest rates, not to mention political uncertainties and trade deficits. The Euro has resumed its upward rise against the Dollar, begun in March, and may not slow down until the Fed starts to tighten monetary policy.

z1

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Brazilian Real Surges Ahead

Jul. 22nd 2009

In the last three months alone, the Brazilian Real has risen by an impressive 15% against the Dollar alone. What’s driving this impressive importance? The lead paragraph for one article offered the following encapsulation: “Brazil’s real climbed to the highest in more than nine months as stronger-than-estimated corporate earnings, rising equities and higher metal prices bolstered the outlook for Latin America’s largest economy.”

real

These factors certainly represent a good starting point for any analysis of the Real. As signs continue to emerge that the global economy – and China specifically – have turned a corner in their fight to overcome recession, commodities will likely continue to rally, which is excellent news for Brazil bulls. In addition, “May industrial production and especially retail sales came in stronger than expected, following incipient signs of improvement in labor and credit conditions, consumer and investor confidence, and inventory levels.” As a result, after a modest contraction in 2009 (the bulk of which took place in the first quarter), 2010 is expected to mark a return to solid growth, with estimates ranging from 3.5% to 4.5%, rising to 5% in 2011.

The Central Bank of Brazil, however, is not necessarily on the same page. Last week, it cut rates to a record low of 8.75%, in order to ensure that Brazilian monetary policy remains easy enough to support growth. While this is an unwelcome development for carry traders, there are a few mitigating circumstances. First, considering that Brazilian inflation is projected to average 4.5% in 2009, this still affords investors a solid 4% real return, without factoring in currency fluctuations. Second, Brazilian rates are still significantly higher than levels in industrialized countries, such that the interest rate differential which makes Brazil attractive has been carefully preserved. Finally, while precise forecasts vary, the Central Bank is expected to begin hiking rates as soon as the end of this year, with further hikes throughout 2010.

The Central Bank has also been busy on other fronts. Thanks to a healthy trade surplus, its foreign exchange reserves are burgeoning, recently touching a record $209 Billion. This figure well exceeds Brazil’s outstanding debt, which gives it great flexibility in determining how to allocate these reserves. Already, the Central Bank has begun to pare down its holdings of US Treasury securities, in search of higher-yielding alternatives. In addition, the Central Bank has taken to intervening regularly in the forex spot market, in a vain effort to stem the rise of the Real.

In the short term, analysts are now lining up around various technical levels, backed by little real fundamental analysis. “Moreover, without fundamental economic news showing better times ahead for the U.S. economy, principally, then the BRL1.90 support will remain cemented in place,” offered one analyst. “You show me some more good news and the support will be closer to 1.85,” argued another. It looks like traders are just looking for excuses to keep bidding up the Real.

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China’s Forex Reserves Cross $2 Trillion, but Still No Signs of Diversification

Jul. 20th 2009

After a brief pause, China’s foreign exchange reserves have resumed their blistering pace of growth: “The reserves rose a record $178 billion in the second quarter to $2.132 trillion, the People’s Bank of China said today on its Web site. That dwarfs a $7.7 billion gain in the previous three months.” Considering that the global economy remains embroiled in the worst recession in decades, this is frankly incredible. [Chart below courtesy of WSJ].

chinas-forex-reserves-q2-20091

As far as currency traders are concerned, this development has two important implications, the first of which concerns the Chinese Yuan (also known as RenMinBi or RMB). A quick parsing of trade and capital flows data reveals that the majority of the $178 Billion came from unconventional sources. “The trade surplus was $34.8 billion in the second quarter and foreign direct investment was $21.2 billion.” Currency fluctuations (i.e. the depreciation in the Dollar relative to other major currencies) can explain a small portion, “leaving the bulk of the increase in the reserves unaccounted for.”

In short, most of the capital now flowing into China is so-called “hot money,” chasing a piece of the action in China’s surging property and stock markets. The benchmark stock index has risen 75% this year, making it the world’s best performer. In short, China is once again “caught in a squeeze similar to the one that bedevilled policymakers earlier this century, with a flood of hot money trying to force the government’s hand on the currency.” Either it allows the RMB to resume its upward path against the Dollar, or it raises interest rates rapidly to head off inflation. With the money supply now growing at an annualized rate of 30%+, the government is running out of time on this front.

The second implication concerns the composition of China’s reserves. You can recall that in recent months, Chinese officials have become more vocal about ending the Dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency, and have even taken token steps towards achieving that goal. But the latest analysis suggests that when push comes to shove, China is still firmly behind the Dollar: “Estimates suggest around 65% of China’s official holdings are in U.S. dollar assets, and the remainder are denominated in euro, yen, sterling and other currencies. This mix has been relatively stable as the Chinese government continues to place the bulk of its reserves in U.S. Treasury securities.”

In fact, “stable” is an understatement. While other Central Banks are gradually paring their holdings of US Treasuries, China is adding to its own stockpile. Already the world’s largest holder of Treasuries, China added another $38 billion in May, for a total of $800 Billion. “On the contrary, Japan, Russia and Canada were sellers of US assets in May. Japan, the second-biggest international investor, reduced its total holdings by $8.7 billion to $677.2 billion.” Meanwhile, Zhou XiaoChuan, governor of China’s Central Bank has endorsed the current composition of reserves: “Despite the $800 billion in U.S. Treasuries, it is a diversified portfolio overall.” This certainly represents a step backwards for Mr. Zhou, who only a couple months ago was leading the charge for a global reserve currency.

Perhaps over the longer-term, it can begin to take steps to dislodge the Dollar, but for now, it appears that China has accepted the status quo. As one analyst observed, “We do expect China to increase its purchase of gold and other commodities over time, but these markets are just not big enough to make a meaningful dent in the structure of the overall FX holdings. For example, if China decided to hold 5 percent of its current $2 trillion reserves in gold, it would need to buy …the equivalent to about one year of world production. For other hard commodities, the cost of storage is high and prices fluctuate wildly.”

China did recently appoint a new official (an economist trained in the US) to manage its reserves. “The move isn’t likely to fluster foreign-exchange markets or herald any change in China’s exchange-rate policy and reform.” Still, Chinawatchers are advised to continue to monitor the situation closely for any signs of discontinuity.

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

Swiss National Bank Still Committed to FX Intervention

Jul. 17th 2009

When the Swiss National Bank (SNB) intervened three weeks ago in forex markets, the Swiss Franc instantly declined 2% against the Euro. Since then, the Franc has risen slowly, and it’s now in danger of touching the “line in the sand” of 1.5 EUR/CHF that analysts have ascribed to the SNB.

swiss-franc
That’s not to say that the Central Bank lacks credibility. Quite the opposite in fact. Every time a member of the SNB speaks about the possibility of intervention, the markets react. For example, “Swiss National Bank Governing Board member Thomas Jordan said the central bank remains willing to intervene in currency markets to prevent a further appreciation of the Swiss franc..The franc declined against the euro after the remarks.” Also, “The Swiss National Bank is sticking decidedly to its policy to prevent an appreciation of the Swiss franc, SNB Chairman Jean-Pierre Roth said in an interview published on Friday…The Swiss franc dipped after Roth’s comments.”

In addition, given that the SNB premised its intervention on deflation fighting, its credibility is now higher than ever, since the latest figures imply an inflation rate that is well into negative territory: “Swiss consumer prices dropped 1 percent year-on-year in June, the same rate as in May when prices fell at their fastest rate in 50 years, underscoring deflation dangers although most of the drop was due to oil.” Despite a fiscal stimulus, coupled with an easing of monetary policy and quantitative easing, the Swiss money supply is barely growing. At this point, the only thing the SNB can do is (threaten to) manipulate its exchange rate.

Perhaps this is why traders are willing to push back against the SNB, backed by “foreign-exchange analysts [that] argue that the SNB won’t have an appetite to continue buying foreign currencies in large amounts much longer.” The SNB is also fighting against the perception that Switzerland is one of a handful of financial safe havens. The fact that the Swiss Franc is probably undervalued is also contributing to the steady inflow of capital into Switzerland.

Still, investors are afraid to step across the line. Futures prices for the EUR/CHF are all hovering slightly above 1.50, for the next 18 months. Prior to the latest round of intervention, the expectation was for a steady rise in the Swiss Franc.

chf-futures-prices

In addition, “There are significant options in place for the euro near the CHF1.50 level on the expectation the SNB will carry through another intervention if its resolve is questioned.” While the SNB would probably prefer a slight buffer zone, it will nonetheless rest assured as long as the Franc doesn’t appreciate further: “The SNB is just trying to stop the franc from becoming a one-way bet. ‘If the euro stays in the [current] CHF1.50 to CHF1.54 band, I think the SNB would be satisfied.’ “

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, News, Swiss Franc | 1 Comment »

Chinese Yuan Poised for Appreciation

Jul. 13th 2009

I toyed with today’s headline for a while, given that an equally cogent case could be made for either “Chinese Yuan Poised for Significant Appreciation” or “Chinese Yuan Poised for Stability.” Let’s face it- when it comes to to the Chinese Yuan, it’s a complete guessing game, since you’re not only dealing with the normal factors that affect currencies, but also with the whims of China’s Central Bank. Still, I think that the Yuan will continue to appreciate slowly and steadily, because such is in the best interest of China.

For the sake of context, consider that the Central Bank has held the Yuan around $6.83 for the better part of a year now, since the advent of the credit crisis. Prior to that, it had appreciated nearly 20% over the previous three years. The reason China has been able to get away with holding the Yuan constant for such a long period of time is the collapse in its trade surplus. Meanwhile, inflation has abated, down from a high of 7% to the current level of near 0%. As a result, the Central Bank can now have its cake and eat it to, by holding the Yuan constant without worrying about the effect on prices.

china-trade-balance
The most recent forecasts, however, suggest this is about to change. According to the World Bank, “China’s current-account surplus is likely to reach $388 billion in 2009…while foreign-exchange reserves will likely rise by $218 billion to $2.168 trillion at the end of this year.” Depending on who you ask, China’s economy is on track to grow by 7.2% to 7.5% in 2009, and by 8.5% in 2010. These forecasts represent upward revisions, and “Private economists have also been upgrading their outlook for China’s economic growth this year in the past couple of months since some major indicators including fixed-asset investment and industrial output growth have shown signs of improvement.” Second-Quarter GDP is scheduled for release in the next week, at which point we will likely see another round of revisions.

If such growth materializes, this would place China in a dilemma, such that it would have to choose between higher prices or more expensive currency. According to the Royal Bank of Scotland, “Policy makers will keep benchmark interest rates on hold this year because of declining consumer prices,” which implies, “The yuan will strengthen to 6.7 by the end of 2009 and 6.5 a year later.” Chinese Premier Wen JiaoBao agrees that “China should stick to an appropriately loose monetary stance and an active fiscal policy.” This notion is also reflected in futures prices, which have priced in a modest 1-2% rise in the Yuan over the next year [compared to previous expectations of a 5% decrease].

rmb-usd
Economics aside, there is another major reason why the Yuan should continue to appreciate. China has been clamoring for several months now for a decline in the Dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency, and a commensurate rise in the Yuan. Already, the country has started to take steps to increase the use of Yuan in settling cross-border trade, and “HSBC predicts that by 2012 nearly $2 trillion of annual trade (over 40% of China’s total) could be settled in yuan, making it one of the top three currencies in global trade.”

Still, the currency is still nowhere near satisfying the requisite convertibility inherent in reserve currencies. According to one analyst, “China would need to scrap capital controls so foreigners could invest in yuan assets and then freely repatriate their capital and income, but the government is wary of moving too quickly. A reserve currency also requires a deep and liquid bond market, free from government interference.” If China is able to achieve any of these feats, capital will likely pour in at an even faster rate, making an appreciation in the Yuan once again self-fulfilling.

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Inflation Update: US Prices Creep up in May

Jul. 8th 2009

The debate over US inflation continues to be waged- in academic circles, among economists, and in the financial markets. There is no still no clear consensus as to the likelihood that the inflation will flare up at some point, as a result of the Fed’s easy monetary policy and the government’s record budget deficits. While the unprecedented nature of this crisis means that such a debate is still a matter of theory, that hasn’t stopped both sides from weighing in, often vehemently.

Admittedly, the risk of inflation in the short-term is still low: “With so much of the world ensnared by the economic downturn, demand for goods and services is weak, which tends to push down prices. Amid high unemployment, workers are in no position to demand wage increases.” Still, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) is already creeping up. The Fed’s “core” measure, which excludes food and energy prices, rose 1.8% from a year ago. If commodity prices continue to rise, the total CPI could soon become positive. (It currently stands at -1.3%).

Among academics and economists, the discussion is being framed relative to the Fed; specifically, can it – and more importantly, will it – move to unwind its quantitative easing program when the time comes? “If it acts prematurely to reduce the money supply, the Fed could stifle the recovery. If it waits too long, it could contribute to a jump in inflation. Its timing is going to have to be perfect,” says a former Fed economist.

This question remains divisive, as evidenced by the ongoing feud between the chief economist at Morgan Stanley and his counterpart over at Goldman Sachs. MS is concerned that the Fed will leave rates too long. According to one of his supporters, “The Fed absolutely has the tools and know-how, but the question is, will they have the guts to use them? I don’t think there is a snowball’s chance in hell they will be willing to tighten to slow inflation down.” Counters the GS camp: ““The Fed will be able to contain inflation pressures through a combination of raising interest rates and unwinding its balance sheets.”

All of this talk seems premature when you consider that the money supply is barely growing, despite the Fed’s QE program: “M2, a gauge that includes savings and checking accounts, is 4.7 times the base cash supply, down from 9.3 times a year ago.”

m1-money-multiplier

“Of the $2.1 trillion that the Fed is injecting into the financial system, more than half, or 51 cents per dollar, is being posted back at the central bank by financial institutions in the form of excess reserves, a record high.” In other words, most of the Fed’s cash is not actually finding its way to consumers.

us-money-supply-and-inflation-link
Financial markets are equally ambivalent, although erring on the side of caution. Treasury yields on the long end of the curve have risen over the last few months, though this can be attributable to several causes. More specifically, “The spread been nominal 10-year Treasury yields and comparable-maturity TIPS yields has increased from approximately 0.25% at the start of the year to 1.65% currently, reflecting a 1.4% increase in expected CPI inflation over the next decade.” Based on this, it’s clear that while investors don’t share the doomsday pessimism of inflation hawks, they are nonetheless growing increasingly concerned.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, Economic Indicators, News, US Dollar | 1 Comment »

Forex Reserve Growth Could Slow

Jul. 6th 2009

Most of the recent discussion surrounding foreign exchange reserves has focused on the allocation of those reserves; specifically, whether or not these reserves will be invested in Dollar-denominated assets to the same extent as before. But what if this discussion fails to see the forest through the trees? In other words, this issue is built on the implicit premise that Central Banks will continue to build their forex reserves, and hence they need a place to invest them. With this post, I will examine whether this is indeed the case.

Since the start of the credit crisis, forex reserve growth has slowed as Central Banks (mainly in emerging markets) began to deploy some of their cash: “In the first quarter of 2009, foreign reserves were at 80% of their June 2008 levels in Korea and India, around 75% in Poland and 65% in Russia.” Most of the spending was used for direct intervention in currency markets and to finance capital outflows, as risk-averse investors moved funds out of emerging markets. Russia, alone, spent nearly $200 Billion trying to prevent a complete collapse in confidence in the Ruble.

Thanks to their prudence following the 1997 Southeast Asian economic crisis, however, reserves are still more than adequate based on most measures: “A well known rule of thumb (the so-called Guidotti-Greenspan rule) is that foreign reserves should cover 100% of external debt coming due within one year. In 2008, almost all EMEs far exceeded this threshold – coverage was more than 400% in Asia and Russia and around 300% in Latin America. Another rule of thumb, that foreign reserves should cover three to six months of imports (ie 25–50% of annual imports) was also typically exceeded at the end of 2008.” Even despite the recent declines, coverage remains strong enough to meet financing requirements for the immediate future. China, whose cache of forex is by far the world’s largest, boasts a coverage ratio of nearly 2,000%!

foreign-reserve-adequacyGiven such robustness, it’s clear that the impetus to continue accumulating reserves has eroded slightly. Central Banks have also come to realize how vulnerable they are to credit and currency risk, vis-a-vis the allocation of their reserves, which means that the best alternative going forward is probably to start investing in commodities and/or domestic economic initiatives. China has already begun to move in this direction.

There are several alternatives that are less risky/expensive than directly holding foreign exchange reserves. “First, in October 2008 four EME central banks each entered into a $30 billion reciprocal currency arrangement with the US Federal Reserve. Second, a $120 billion multilateral facility, drawing on international reserves, was recently established in East Asia…Third, recent G20 initiatives have called for large increases in resources for international financial institutions…[such as the] IMF’s recently created Flexible Credit Line.” Such programs provide countries in crisis with the cash to draw from without forcing them to build up reserves in advance.

To be fair, not all Central Banks are prepared to break from the current system. “In spite of significant interventions in the fourth quarter of 2008, many EMEs still had larger foreign reserves at the end of 2008 than they did in 2007.” Reports are coming in that Indian and Korean reserves, for example, have reached their highest levels since the collapse of Lehman Brothers last fall. This is sounding alarm bells for economic officials: “There is a hope the lesson taken away from the current experience is not that these countries need even larger foreign exchange reserves. These things are not terribly efficient. Our concern is that these things are going to be built up even further as a consequence.”

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Forex Reserve Diversification Builds Slowly

Jul. 1st 2009

With this week slow for news and other economic developments, some forex traders are taking a step back to look at the long-term picture. The US Dollar, in particular has come into focus, because of the uncertain consequences of its current economic policy and the related talk of central bank diversification away from the Dollar. “The United States’ expansionist fiscal and monetary policies, which are raising fears of inflation down the road that could erode the value of the dollar, is surely driving diversification out of dollar-denominated asset…The dollar has weakened whenever talk about an alternative reserve currency makes the headlines.”

dollar-index

This week brought a couple small developments on this front. First, China released its annual report on the economy, in which it renewed calls for a “supra-national” currency, to be administered by the IMF: “To avoid the inherent deficiencies of using sovereign currencies for reserves, there’s a need to create an international reserve currency that’s de-linked from sovereign nations.” Analysts caution however that the move is politically motivated, and it could be a while before it’s squared with economic reality: “There may be signs here of tensions mounting between the PBOC’s economic concerns over China’s holdings of dollars and the Chinese government’s diplomatic reasons for doing so.”

Still, China is walking the walk. Having already entered into swap agreements with Argentina and several other developing countries, it is moving to conduct as much of its trade in Chinese Yuan as possible. This week, it inked a deal with Brazil, “for the gradual elimination of the US dollar in bilateral trade operations which in 2009 are estimated to reach US$ 40 billion.” Previously, such trade had been settled primarily in Dollars, a bane for Brazilian companies, which collectively “have lost hundreds of millions over the last two years due to dollar weakness.”

There is also activity closer to home. “The government said on April 8 that it will allow Shanghai and four cities in the southern Guangdong province, including Shenzhen and Guangzhou, to settle international trade in yuan.” An agreement with Hong Kong, meanwhile, aims to settle at least half of bilateral trade in Yuan. “Hong Kong Financial Secretary John Tsang said the city will be a ‘testing ground’ for use of the yuan outside mainland China.” If successful, this program could quickly expand to encompass the rest of East Asia ex-Japan.

In the short-term, these baby steps won’t have much of an impact on the Dollar. Besides, most Central Banks remain committed to the Dollar, if only for lack of a viable alternative. “The Fed’s holdings of Treasuries on behalf of central banks and institutions from China to Norway rose by $257.2 billion this year, or 15 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That compares with an increase of $127.3 billion, or 10 percent, in the first half of 2008.”

Even China has stated that its reserve policy will not feature any sudden changes. In sum, “It seems safe to say that the Chinese are pursuing a rather logical path. They will continue to accumulate dollar reserves, as doing so fits their three-adjective criteria [liquidity, safety and returns], while also pushing for international acceptance of an alternative to the dollar in a new global currency.”

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British Pound “Pauses for Breath” [Part 2 of 2]

Jun. 30th 2009

By coincidence, today’s release of final GDP data confirms – rather than negates – the economic picture that I painted yesterday. “The economy slumped a downwardly revised 2.4% in the first quarter, which was narrowly the largest decline since the second quarter of 1958. The annual decline in output was 4.9%, the largest since records began in 1948.” The news didn’t affect the Pound, given that it refers to a period that ended a few months ago. At the same time, it revealed the seriousness of UK economic troubles and the depth of the hole that it must climb out of in order to achieve recovery.

Of course, the Bank of England is doing its part to try to help the economy along: The minutes from its last meeting showed that the BOE “voted unanimously to keep interest rates at a record low of 0.5 percent and maintain its 125 billion pound quantitative easing programme, minutes showed on Wednesday.” Experts reckon that the BOE will probably continue to keep rates low. Unemployment remains high and output will likely remain well below its potential well into any economic recovery. One analyst argues, “Even if the recession is now over, inflation could keep falling until mid-2011. Which means that it should be below its 2 per cent target in late 2011 and early 2012. Because Bank rate is set with regard to where inflation will be in two years time – as it takes that long for monetary policy to significantly affect prices – this points to rates staying low for at least a few more months.”

But the Bank’s rate cuts are being offset by the Pound’s recent 15% rise- its strongest quarterly performance in over 20 years. Based on some models, such a dramatic rise is equivalent in force to a 4% hike in interest rates. The quantitative easing program is also beset with problems, namely that 50% of the newly printed money has been used to purchase assets/bonds from foreign investors, which are more likely to take the money out of the British economy.

The government, meanwhile, is probably out of options, and may have to even unwind some of its fiscal stimulus due to lack of funds. In fact, the “deterioration in the U.K.’s public finances…prompted Standard & Poor’s to warn on May 21 that the country could lose its AAA debt rating. The firm estimated the cost of propping up Britain’s banks at 100 billion pounds ($166 billion) to 145 billion pounds and said government debts could double to almost 100 percent of gross domestic product by 2013.” The budget deficit in 2009 alone could surpass 15%.

uk-budget-deficitIn short, there is potentially more downside than upside to these efforts, especially as far as the Pound is concerned. The BOE’s easy money policy makes the Pound an unattractive buy in the short term, while its QE program could stoke inflation in the long-term, without much benefit to the economy. Furthermore, it will be difficult to rein in this program because of the perennial budget deficits of the government, which “must sell about 900 billion pounds of gilts over five years…The Bank of England will buy a third of these gilts.” The recent rise in government bond yields as well as the rising cost of bond insurance (i.e. credit default swap premiums) confirm that investors are growing increasingly nervous. According to a Harvard University historian, “The probability of a real sterling crisis is around one in three.”

Still, there are optimists. Says one analyst, “The U.K. economy’s heavy dependence on the finance sector, recently seen as a big flaw, has also turned into a benefit. ‘Sterling is basically a bet on global financial well-being.’ ” Also, “Foreign demand for gilts rose to an all-time high in the first quarter of this year as concern the world economy would stay mired in a recession drove investors to the relative safety of government securities.” But these notions are somewhat contradictory. When you map these ideas against the backdrop of the Pound, you can see that is benefited primarily from the perception of recovery- not from the safe-haven perception.

These optimists believe the Pound will rise as high as $1.80 against the USD and €1.40 against the Euro. Under the best-case scenario, quantitative easing and government spending will trickle down to the bedrock of the economy, and will be unwound immediately after the economy enters a recovery period so as not to spur inflation. Under the worst-case scenario, though, the government will continue to run large budget deficits and fail to find enough buyers for its debt. The resulting stagflation would cause investors to rush for the exits and for the currency to collapse. In all likelihood, the actual outcome will fall somewhere in between.

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Interest Rate Differentials Turn Against Dollar

Jun. 27th 2009

For those of you that make a living (i.e. trade forex) from interest rate differentials, consider that the US Treasury yield curve is now steeper than at any point in recent memory. Short-term rates are still close to zero, while long-term rates just passed 4% and are still rising. The theoretical implication is that one can borrow at a low short-term rate and reinvest at a higher long-term yield. The question is: would you want to?

 yield-curve-june-2009

The meeting this week of the Federal Reserve Bank yielded few surprises, as the Fed voted to hold its benchmark Federal Funds Rate at the current level of nil, and indicated that they would stay “unusually low” for the near-term. According to one analyst, “It was totally as expected. The market doesn’t seem to have reacted that much. Everybody pretty much knew that for sure they wouldn’t raise rates anytime soon and they wouldn’t do anything to withdraw liquidity.”

At the same time, the Fed voted to maintain (though not to increase) its $1.75 Trillion asset price program, in order to prevent long-term rates from rising. This was probably directed at mortgage rates, which had begun to move higher in recent weeks, leading some analysts to fear that the nascent economic recovery would be stillborn. However, “Part of the rise in rates may be caused by fears that the Fed will allow inflation to get out of control down the road and that it will print money to finance government deficits. To the degree that those fears are out there, expansion of the Fed programs could be counterproductive, sending rates up rather than down.” In other words, the Fed is naive in its assumption that it can buy rates down, since its very act of buying is actually sending rates up!

This could be very bad for the US Dollar, which loses on both ends of the curve. Low short-term rates make it cheap to use the Dollar as a funding currency, while high long-term rates imply the expectation of inflation, and thus capital erosion. Current market conditions are unique, however: “The enthusiasm of the past three months has led many to believe that the Fed has actually provided more than adequate liquidity…It is critically important to remember that the dollar is the funding currency whose availability, or lack of … will drive all the markets in the world,” said one analyst.

This, the lack of liquidity in credit markets (the very problem that the Fed is trying to counter) is actually good for the Dollar, since it implies an under-supply. On the other hand, if the Fed is “successful” in its asset purchase program, then the supply of Dollars must necessarily increase relative to the demand, in which case the Dollar will fall. It’s not as cut-and-dried as it was prior to the credit crisis, but interest rate differentials (both short and long-term) still hold represent one of the crucial determinants of exchange rates.

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SNB Intervenes on Behalf of Franc

Jun. 26th 2009

Back on March 12, the Swiss National Bank issued a stern promise that it would actively seek to hold down the value of the Swiss Franc (CHF) as a means of forestalling deflation. The currency immediately plummeted 5%, as traders made a quick determination that the SNB threats were made in earnest. Over the months that followed, however, investors became complacent and the Franc slowly crept back up.

That was until this week, when the SNB sprung into action, buying Euros on the open market. “The franc slid as much as 2.4 percent versus the euro and 3.3 percent against the dollar, the biggest declines since…March 12.” It’s not clear why the SNB suddenly intervened after months of inaction. The Central Bank didn’t hold a press conference to “celebrate” its intervention, and the only indication was a vague declaration last week that “policy makers will act to curb any ‘irrational appreciation’ of the franc.”

swiss-franc-rises-after-snb-intervention

Analysts have speculated that the SNB is (arbitrarily) targeting the exchange rate of $1.50 Francs/Euro, which is plausible given that the intervention occurred very close to that level: “They’re trying to put a line in the sand at 1.50. There’s a big debate as to whether they will continue doing this, and for how long they will remain successful.” After all, the idea of intervention is more effective than intervention itself. The SNB can only buying so many Euros; the real value is in the threat to continue buying, which keeps investors from building up speculative positions.

While the SNB has been criticized as “protectionist” for its actions, its premise for intervention is well-grounded. According to the OECD, “Switzerland should keep interest rates close to zero well into 2010 and mull more fiscal stimulus to fight a deep recession and the risk of deflation.” Modest deflation has already set in, facilitated by a collapse in aggregate demand. Varying forecasts are calling for an economic contraction in 2009 equal to -2.5%-3%, and even a modest contraction to follow in 2010. Q1 GDP growth was negative and the consensus is that Q2 will prove to have been more of the same. If this trend continues, 2009 will be the worst year economically in over 30 years. Still, economic indicators suggest the bottom is soon approaching, and the overall picture is consistent with the rest of Europe.

The real concern is that other Central Banks will imitate the Swiss approach. “In the past couple of weeks we have had five or six central banks, including the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England, talking down their currencies. Like Switzerland, they are fearful that currency appreciation could offset the stimulus to the economy,” noted one analyst. Monetary and economic conditions remain abysmal worldwide, and most banks have already exhausted the tools available to them. Interest rates are universally close to zero; fiscal “stimuli” will push the OECD debt/GDP ratio past 100% in 2009; quantitative easing has given rise to wholesale money printing. Currency devaluation may be the only option left.

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Reserve Diversification Gains Momentum, but Still a “Distraction”

Jun. 17th 2009

The Dollar’s status as global reserve currency was a subject of discussion at two multilateral meetings this week: G8/G20 and BRIC. At the first ever BRIC meeting of the four largest developing economies (Brazil, India, Russia, China) the result was a consensus decision to explore reserve diversification further, while “developments at the Group of Eight meeting of finance ministers helped reinforce the currency’s status as global reserve currency. The statement that emerged from the meeting in Lecce, Italy did not specifically mention currency markets.”

One of the motivations for convening the meeting between the BRIC companies may have been to convey the growing opposition to the Dollar. “The June 16 gathering of the BRICs is the biggest show of unity yet in their bid to win more financial influence — while they take jabs at the U.S. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on June 5 that using a mix of regional currencies as a global reserve rather than the dollar would help stabilize the world economy.”

While much of this represents posturing as part of the global power game, there is a certain amount of pragmatism reflected in this attitude. After all, the U.S. is projected to run a $1.85 trillion deficit in 2009, bringing the total debt held by the public close to $10 Trillion. Meanwhile, the Fed – through its quantitative easing plan – is both facilitating this debt and potentially stoking inflation.
budget-deficit-1969-to-2019
As a result, “The BRICs are putting the U.S. on notice that there has to be a cutback on spending and get their house in order.” The BRIC meeting yielded $70 Billion in commitments to enhanced IMF bonds- commitments that would presumable be funded/collateralized with sales of US Treasury bonds. “The debt will pay a yield similar to Treasuries and will be denominated in the fund’s basket of currencies, known as Special Drawing Rights…The IMF calculates the value of SDRs daily, with 44 percent weighted toward the dollar, 34 percent to the euro and the remainder split between the yen and the pound.”

At the G8, however, participating countries were practically competing with each other to voice their support for the Dollar. “Japanese Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano said his nation’s confidence in U.S. debt is ‘unshakable‘ and that the currency’s global status is safe.” Then, “Officials at Asia’s richest central banks said they would shrug off a U.S. sovereign credit rating downgrade — a topic of speculation recently in markets — and continue to buy Treasuries to keep markets stable.” Even Russia, which was simultaneously denigrating the Dollar to its fellow BRIC members, “said the dollar’s role as the world’s main reserve currency is unlikely to change in the near future.”

For several reasons then, many analysts view the diversification talk as a distraction, especially as it bears on the forex markets: “The raging debate about the future of the U.S. dollar’s reserve currency status may be masking the real drivers of its near-term direction.” First of all, contradictory and ambiguous statements reveal a complete lack of consensus, not only about whether the current system should be abandoned but also with regard to what form an alternative system would assume. For example, neither the Euro nor the Chinese Yuan represent viable alternatives, since the former is too new and the latter is still not fully exchangeable.

Thus, their threats to dump the Dollar have actually been accompanied by an increase in Dollar purchasing, which is required to maintain their currency pegs. “Periods of dollar weakness are therefore met with official dollar purchases…global reserve accumulation, which peaked about $7 trillion last summer, has resumed as the dollar has weakened since March.”

Second, even if Central banks and governments decided to make change, it would take years to implement. “The evolution of a reserve currency would be exactly that, an evolution, not an overnight change,” said one analyst. Another added, “The choice of a reserve currency is not made by central bankers; it chooses itself.” In other words, investors will flock towards currencies that are characterized by liquidity and openness and backed by strong capital markets, not on the basis of politics.

This leads to the third and perhaps most important point, which is that capital flows by private investors dwarf movements by Central Banks, especially in the short-term. While Central Banks are and should be taken seriously by forex markets because of their size, they still account for only one portion of global (Dollar-denominated) foreign exchange holdings. In the short term, investors will continue to move capital around in accordance with their risk/reward profiles. Barring a sudden shift by Central Banks away from the Dollar (which would be counter-productive and a losing proposition), then, it is these private capital flows which will shape the Dollar’s future in the near-term.

historygif

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Chinese Yuan Inches Towards Reserve Currency Status

Jun. 8th 2009

The last week brought a few more developments in China’s quest to turn the Yuan into a viable reserve currency. Don’t get me wrong – I used the term “inches” in the title of this post for a reason – the Yuan will not supplant the Dollar anytime soon, if ever. Still, China deserves credit for their resolve on forcing the issue, as well as for providing an alternative to the Dollar monopoly.

An important boost came from Russia’s Finance Minster, who suggested that, “This could take 10 years but after that the yuan would be in demand and it is the shortest route to the creation of a new world reserve currency,” as long as it was accompanied by economic and exchange rate liberalization. The Head of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, agreed: “Ultimately, that’s a good thing. And ultimately it’s good if you’ve got, I think, some multipolarity of reserve currencies to create, to make sure that people manage them well.”

These soft endorsements were precipitated by comments from  a top Chinese banker that companies should start to issue bonds denominated in Yuan. “Guo Shuqing, the chairman of state-controlled China Construction Bank (CCB), also said he is exploring the possibility of issuing loans to trading companies in yuan, allowing Chinese and foreign companies to settle their bills in yuan rather than in dollars.” This would serve two ends simultaneously; not only would Chinese capital markets be strengthened, but the Chinese Yuan would benefit from the increased exposure. Already, “HSBC and Standard Chartered have both said they are preparing to issue bonds denominated in yuan” and international monetary institutions might not be far behind.

Conspiracies aside, the Chinese Yuan will become a reserve currency when it is ready to become a reserve currency. I’m sure this seems self-evident, but it’s important for China (and China watchers) not to get ahead of itself. It doesn’t make sense for risk-averse investors to hold a currency that is still essentially pegged to the US Dollar and that isn’t fully convertible. If there’s no pretense that the Yuan fluctuates in accordance with market forces, and if investors aren’t guaranteed the ability to withdraw RMB if need be, what possible reason would they have to hold it in the first place?

Summarizes one columnist, “China would have to gradually make the yuan convertible on the capital account; it needed a more liquid foreign exchange market; its bond markets and banking system needed to be more developed; and there had to be proper monitoring of cross-border capital flows.” The importance of having functioning capital markets cannot be understated. Simply, investors and Central Banks buying Yuan would not want to simply invest in paper currency; instead they would want stocks and bonds that trade transparently.

Currently, foreign investors are limited to savings accounts and investing/lending to firms that record earnings opaquely and are ultimately subject to the whims of the Central government. This system has functioned well in the past, only because investors were betting generally on the Yuan’s appreciation, and not necessarily on specific opportunities within China. If China wants the Yuan to be a serious contender with the Dollar, it needs to give investors more and better options. Ironically, if China had taken these steps in the past, it wouldn’t have found itself with $2 Trillion worth of Dollar assets that it is desperately trying to dispose of.

rmb-usd-chart

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Imminent Crisis in Forex Markets?

Jun. 3rd 2009

The only thing predictable about currencies these days is that they will remain unpredictable. Forgive me for speaking in cliches, but when you consider that the last twelve months have seen both record rises and record falls, I think a cliche might be justified in this case. We’ve seen the Dollar soar, only to collapse again. On the other side, we’ve seen the bottom fall out from emerging market currencies, before rising 20-30% in a matter of weeks.

Volatility levels have certainly declined (see Chart below) from the record highs of October 2008, when Lehman Brothers collapsed. At the same time, the oft-cited VIX index remains well above its average over the last decade. This suggests that while investors may have been lulled into a relative sense of security, serious doubts remain.
vix-indexIf the current rally is to be seen as “legitimate,” then perhaps the worst of the 2008-2009 recession is truly behind us, and the global financial system has been given a reprieve from a meltdown. The concern going forward then will naturally shift past the steps that governments and Central Banks are taking to fight the crisis, towards the long-term economic impact of those measures.

Jim Rogers, a famous and perennially outspoken investor, is now sounding alarm bells over the possibility of “meltdown” in currency markets, due to inflation and currency debasement that he views as an inherent byproduct of quantitative easing and deficit spending.

Most of the attention is being focused on the US, whose stimulus and monetary programs are probably larger than all other economies in the world, combined. Offers one analyst, “We keep very low U.S. Dollar exposures because we think a further devaluation of the greenback is imminent, and we see a structural weakness for at least a number of years.” Meanwhile, there is speculation that the US could soon receive a ratings downgrade, following a similar threat by S&P directed towards Britain. But this remains highly unlikely.

The problem that Rogers (and all other investors who are worried about currency debasement) faces is how to construct a viable strategy to protect yourself and/or exploit such an outcome. Rogers himself has admitted, “At the moment I have virtually no hedges…I’m trying to figure out what to do there.” The difficulty can be found in the inherent nature of currencies, whose values are derived relative to other currencies. While you can short the entire stock market or the entire bond market (via market indexes), you can’t short all currencies simultaneously- at least not yet.

Instead, you can pick one currency or a basket of currencies, that you believed is best protected from currency collapse and buy it against threatened currencies. But how do you deal with an environment when all currencies appears equally questionable- when all governments all loosening monetary policy and risking inflation? Really, the only answer is to invest in commodities that you think represent good stores of value, such as oil or gold, or the currencies that benefit when prices of such commodities are high. Naturally, the relationship between commodities and currencies is not cut-and-dried, and if the currency system were indeed beset by meltdown, it’s not clear to me that commodities would hold their value. But that’s fodder for another post…

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British Pound Rises to Seven Month High, but Holes are Beginning to Appear

Jun. 2nd 2009

You may have noticed that the phrase “seven month high” appears quite frequently in recent Forex Blog posts, regardless of the currency being discussed. I offer this preface as context for Pound’s recent rally because it suggests that the factors driving the Pound are hardly unique from the factors driving other currencies. In other words, “It’s a mixture of a dollar-weakness story and a global-growth story.”

Of course, it would it be unfair to so glibly dismiss the Pound, so let’s look at the underlying picture. On the macro-level, the British economy is still anemic: “Gross domestic product dropped 1.9 percent in the latest quarter, the most since 1979, according to the Office for National Statistics. The International Monetary Fund now expects the British economy to shrink by 4.1 percent in 2009.” Without drilling too far into the data, suffice it to say that most of the indicators tell a similar story.

The only relative bright spots are the housing market and financial sector. Mortgage applications are rising, and there is evidence that housing prices are slowing in their descent, perhaps even nearing a bottom. Optimists, naturally, are arguing that this signals the entire economy is turning around. History and common sense, however, suggest that even if the most recent data is not a blip, it’s still unlikely that the UK will able to depend on the housing sector to drive future growth. Besides, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that foreign buying (due to favorable exchange rates) is propping up real estate prices, rather than a change in market fundamentals.

The stabilization of financial markets is also good for the UK, as 1/3 of its economy is connected to the financial sector. “Sterling is basically a bet on global financial well-being…Now that the banking sector has stepped away from the Armageddon scenario, the prospects for London and the U.K. economy look better.” But as with housing, it’s unlikely that the financial sector will return to the glory days, in which case the UK will have to turn elsewhere in its search for growth.

What about the Bank of England’s heralded attempt at Quantitative easing? While it’s still to early to draw conclusions, the initial data is not good. In fact, the most recent data indicates that half of the bonds that the BOE bought last month (with freshly minted cash) were from foreign buyers, which causes inflation without any of the economic benefits from an increase in the domestic flow of money. Given that S&P recently downgraded the outlook for UK credit ratings, it’s no surprise that foreigners are moving towards the exits. In short, “With underlying weakness in money and credit – plus large gilt sales by overseas investors – we doubt that quantitative easing is playing much direct role in the economy’s possible turnaround,” summarized one analyst.

If you ask me, the Pound rally is grounded in nothing other than naive technical analysis, which relies on indicators that are largely self-fulfilling. In other words, if the Pound seems like it should rise, than it probably will, simply as a result of investor perception. “Citigroup Inc. said in a report last week the pound is ‘among the most undervalued major currencies…’ Barclays Plc predicts it will rise as much as 18 percent against the dollar and 11 percent versus the euro in the coming year. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. sees a 23 percent gain versus the dollar and 15 percent advance against the euro.” Call me skeptical, but it’s hard to understand what kind of analysis underlies these predictions other than simple intuition. Sure the Pound was probably oversold, but is a 20% rise is two months really justified?

The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission data indicated a slight downtick, but “big speculative players continue to hold large net short positions in the pound versus the dollar,” which suggests that the savviest investors are not yet sold on the rally. Emerging markets offer growth and higher yield. Commodity currencies, such as the  Australian and New Zealand dollars, rise in line with energy and commodity prices. Someone please tell me where the Pound fits into this?

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Carry Trade Sends Brazilian Real Skyward

Jun. 1st 2009

The rally in emerging markets that has unfolded over the last couple months has been especially kind to Brazilian investments, as well as to its currency, the Real, which “has gained 26 percent since March 2, the biggest advance among the six most-traded Latin American currencies. In May, the real climbed 11.2 percent, the strongest advance since April 2003.” The currency has already touched a seven-month high, returning to a level last seen before the collapse of Lehman Brothers send a shock wave through global financial markets.
brazilian-real-surges-to-7-month-high
There is now a strong amount of circularity in the relationship between the Real and Brazilian stocks/bonds, such that both are strengthening simultaneously. Accordingly, foreign (institutional) investors are rushing back into Brazil almost as quickly as they left: “More than $7.7 billion of foreign money has entered the Brazilian stock market in the year through May 12.” The direct shift of funds from the US to Brazil as especially staggering: “Central bank data on Wednesday showed net inflows of U.S. dollars to Brazil totaled $2.06 billion this month through May 15.” [Granted this data is now two weeks old, but the trend remains intact].

Naturally, there are analysts (I would call them apologists) who point to positive economic developments and a resurgence in commodities as the underlying cause for the Real’s increase. In my opinion, this explanation is patently absurd, given that Brazil’s economy is forecast to shrink in 2009, along with every other economy.

The “real” reason for the Real’s performance is the country’s relatively high interest rates. The Central Bank has cut interest rates by 350 basis points this year, bringing the benchmark selic rate to 10.25%. To put things in perspective, this rate constitutes a record low for Brazil, whereas in most other economies it would be considered unfathomably high. Futures markets indicate that rates will fall further over the course of the year, the extent of which depends on how well the Brazilian economy performs in the second half. [It is forecast to grow by 3-4% in the fourth quarter]. Still, even a cut to 9% would still preserve a lofty differential between Brazil and the rest of the world.

The Bank of Brazil has repeatedly conveyed its dissatisfaction with its rising currency, even though it remains well below 2008 levels. It has purchased Dollars on the spot market every day for the last month, and is reputed to be considering a foreign exchange tax on foreign capital inflows, both to no avail. “We expect this flow of dollars to continue to go to Brazil, we expect the economy to grow. So, the probable scenario in terms of currency is that we are going to see the real gaining,” summarizes one analyst.

At this point, it seems the only thing that would dent the implicit optimism of foreign investors is another shock to global financial markets- one of similar magnitude to the Lehman bankruptcy.

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Foreigners Continue to Fund US Trade Deficit

May. 29th 2009

Economists generally and Dollar bears specifically both love to harp on the perennial US trade imbalance. Despite the halving of the trade deficit (reported by the Forex Blog last week), the gap between exports and imports remains sizable; it is projected at about a $350 Billion for 2009.

The more important data point, however, concerns capital flows. This is applies mainly currency traders, which are less intrinsically worried about the US trade imbalance than how the rest of the world feels about supporting such a balance. For example, if the entire trade deficit is recycled (i.e. invested) back into the US, than theoretically a trade deficit presents nothing to worry about, at least not in the short run. [Of course, such a trend may not be sustainable for the long-term, but that is outside the purview of this post].

The Dollar’s de facto role as the world’s reserve currency has historically ensured that this has been the case. This phenomena has even been strengthened by the credit crisis, as the initial spike in risk aversion generated a steady demand for Dollar-denominated assets. However, there was concern that this demand was leveling off over the last few months as risk aversion ebbed, and foreigners collectively sold a net $95 Billion worth of American assets. Over this period, the Dollar by no coincidence has declined across the board, against both emerging market currencies as well as the majors. us total net capital inflows

In March – the most recent month for which data is available – this trend reversed itself. Net capital inflows totalled $23.2 Billion, close to the $27 Billion US trade deficit. Especially surprising is that foreign demand for US Treasury securities remained strong – to the tune of $55 Billion – despite low yields. Moreover, the two most important customers both chipped in: “China, the largest holder of U.S. Treasury securities, increased its holdings of government bonds further in March to $767.9 billion. In February, it held $744.2 billion. Japan’s Treasury holdings stood at $686.7 billion in March, compared with $661.9 billion in the prior month.”

foreign-purchases-of-us-securities1

Even demand for equity securities remained strong, as foreigners purchased $12 Billion in March alone. Foreign demand and the rising stock market are probably now reinforcing each other. Meanwhile, US investors collectively continue to pull money from abroad and return it to the US; over $100 Billion has already been returned to the US in this way.

Taken at face value, this is certainly good news. Given all the bad news, the fact that capital is still flowing into the US is worth celebrating. At the same time, the fact that the Dollar continues to fall suggests that this more to the story than meets the eye…

Note: Both Charts courtesy of International Business Times.

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Russia Leads World in Declining Forex Reserves

May. 28th 2009

During the global economic boom and concomitant run-up in energy prices, Russia’s foreign exchange reserves exploded. The subsequent bursting of the bubble, however, proved the maxim, what goes up must come down. “After reaching a record high of $597.5 billion in early August, reserves have declined dramatically as the central bank spent more than $200 billion on propping up a depreciating ruble.”

Excluding the European Union, Russia’s foreign exchange reserves are still the world’s third largest, behind only China and Japan. By Russia’s own admission, this will not remain the case for long. If current economic conditions continue to prevail, its entire stock of reserves will be depleted within two to three years. Moreover, as its reserves have declined, the share of Euros have risen (perhaps due to the selling of Dollars) to 47.5%, surpassing the Dollar for the first time. Despite the insistence of Russian authorities that the change was inadvertent, the fact remains that the Euro currently predominates in Russia’s forex portfolio.

These two trends – declining reserves and shifting allocation – are becoming entrenched, and may in fact accelerate. A cursory skim of the most recent IMF Data on International Reserves reveals that the reported reserves of most countries have fallen over the last year, or at the very least, are not growing at the same pace. The WSJ reports that “Foreign-exchange reserves of about 30 low-income countries have already fallen below the critical value equivalent to three months of imports.”

Meanwhile, it has been highlighted elsewhere that China – which does not report its reserves and is hence not included on this list – has seen its reserves stagnate, and has hinted publicly that it is nervous about the preponderance of Dollars it holds. And suffice it to say that when China talks, people listen.

The clear implication is that the US Dollar may not hold sway as the world’s unchallenged reserve currency for much longer. It is certainly not as if this is a new possibility. After all, “The United States possesses around one-fifth of the world’s GDP, but its own paper provides around 75% of world’s exchangeable currency reserves. This is a worrying imbalance,” argues one economist.

The impetus can be found in changed economic circumstances, which previously reinforced the Dollar’s role as reserve currency, but now suggest the opposite. Declining world trade and lower current account imbalances result directly in lower reserves, as do government stimulus plans funded with foreign exchange. The pickup in risk appetite meanwhile, combined with inflationary US monetary and fiscal policy, will make Central Banks increasingly reluctant to hold Dollar-denominated assets. Finally, the locus of the global economy is slowly shifting to East Asia. This trend will probably gather momentum if and when the global economy recovers, as the rest of the world has now learned the hard way that their collective reliance on US consumers is not sustainable.

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Euro Rises Despite EU Economic Malaise

May. 25th 2009

Their is no way to sugarcoat it; the EU economy is in poor shape, and is steadily worsening. In the most recent quarter, it contracted by 2.5%, most in at least 13 years. [It very well could have been the worst quarter in 50 years, but Eurozone economic data was only compiled beginning in 1996].

Germany’s economy is leading the pack (downwards), having contracted by 3.8% in the most recent quarter, and by 7% since the recession officially began. Compared to similar declines in other economies, “The 1.2% fall in France, large by any normal standards, almost counts as a boom,” quipped The Economist. It turns out that many of the EU’s headline economies were especially dependent on exports and/or housing to drive growth, both of which have been annihilated by the credit crisis. “One of the ironies of this downturn is that it was caused by global housing and credit busts, and yet the economies that have suffered most, such as Germany and Japan, sat out the credit boom.”

Still, some economists continue to wear rose-tinted glasses: “Hopes rose…that the worst could be over for Germany’s economy as a closely-watched index measuring the confidence of financial market players rose to a near three-year high in May, its seventh consecutive monthly gain.” Added Axel Weber, a member of the ECB’s governing council, “‘There is definitely hope that the euro zone economy will gradually stabilise in the later part of 2009.” A more realistic analyst responds: “That points not to a revival but rather to a slower rate of GDP decline in the present quarter (it could scarcely get worse).” To prove that economists truly create their own reality, another confidence indicator that was released on the same day fell to a six-year low.

Other analysts have found solace in EU labor markets, which remain relatively buoyant due to a lack of flexibility in hiring and firing. In fact, “Unemployment in the United States has risen to European averages, and seems likely to pass them when international data for April is calculated.” While this might be good news for workers, however, it negatively impacts GDP growth by preventing the economy from returning to a stable production base.

eu unemployment rate

The Euro, meanwhile, has never been stronger. It has risen over 10% since touching a low against the Dollar on March 10, and recently broke through an important psychological barrier of $1.40. There are couple of explanations for this “contradiction.” The first is simply an application of the risk-aversion narrative. Simply put, “the euro is generally considered a risky bet on currency markets and therefore gains at times when there is greater perceived economic stability.” Recent trends suggest that financial market stability is more important than economic stability in the eyes of investors, but the idea is the same.

The other explanation concerns inflation, or rather the lack thereof. The European Central Bank’s response to the credit crisis has been much more restrained than its counterparts, most of which are pumping money into credit markets with little concern about the future implications. Sure, the ECB has authorized a program to extend low-interest loans to member banks, and plans to purchase up to $80 Billion in corporate bonds, but these measures pale in comparison to what the Fed and BOE have announced.

The ECB has also opted not to cut rates all the way to 0%, electing instead to hold its benchmark at 1%. Jean-Claude Trichet, head of the ECB, recently underscored that the role of the ECB is primarily to guard against inflation, rather than stimulate economic growth. “We are there to deliver price stability and price stability in the medium term is a crucial element in activating confidence,” he said. While there is certainly room for the debate as to whether this is economically sensible, Euro bulls can rest assured that their currency is being actively protected.

euro-rises-against-usd

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Deflation: Worst-Case Scenario or Already Here?

May. 18th 2009

In following up on last week’s post (“Inflation or Stimulus: An In-depth Look At the Fed’s Response to the Credit Crisis“) on the possibility of inflation, I want to focus today’s post on the opposite phenomenon: deflation.

As evidenced by the huge expansion of government borrowing and Fed Quantitative easing, it is deflation which is currently the paramount concern of policymakers. While falling prices would seem to represent an ideal solution to the current economic downturn, deflation is actually quite pernicious if left unchecked. To elaborate: “When prices fall across the board, businesses and consumers postpone purchases because they expect lower prices later, or worry their incomes will decline or don’t want to acquire assets that will fall in value. Shrinking demand forces sellers to cut prices further, triggering a vicious cycle.” Deflation is also detrimental to consumers with liabilities, which remain the same even as incomes are falling.

Now that we understand what deflation looks like, let’s examine its likelihood. In fact, the current economic environment represents a perfect breeding ground for deflation. For example, both consumers and businesses are using stimulus and bailout checks to pay down debt, rather to increase spending. In addition, businesses are selling out of inventory rather than ramping up production, due to uncertainty for the future. Bond yields are rising, making it more expensive – and hence less likely – for companies to borrow and invest.

And what about the data? The Retail Price Index, “RPI – which turned negative for the first time in almost 50 years in March – is expected to fall from minus 0.4% to minus 1% in April.” The Consumer Price Index, meanwhile, “declined by 0.7 percent year-over-year in April, the largest 12-month drop since 1955.” It’s hard to take this data seriously, however, given the “seasonal adjustments” and “stripping of so-called volatile energy prices, and using the dubious ” ‘owners equivalent rent,’ OER, to measure consumer housing expenses” in order to conceal the actual decline in property values. In short, the actual decline is probably much worse, especiall given the steep drop in commodities from 2008.
 
At least Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is satisfied, and was most recently quoted for his belief that “the risks of deflation were receding.” Bernanke remains committed to pumping money into the economy via its purchases of government bonds. It still has a ways to go in making good on its promise to buy more than $1 Trillion in securities.

While it’s easy to blame the Fed, it’s also hard not to begrudge it some sympathy for having to toe a very thin line between deflation and hyperinflation. In the event that its successful in forestalling a decline in prices, it will have just enough time to catch its breath before drawing all of the new money out of the economy so as to prevent inflation from taking hold and another bubble from forming in asset prices.

cpi-us-vs-euro-zone

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Carry Trade Lifts Hungarian Forint

May. 17th 2009

The rally in emerging markets and accompanying revival of the carry trade can be seen clearly in the Hungarian Forint, which can now claim the distinction of being the world’s best performing currency. You’re probably scratching your head and/or rolling your eyes, but bear with me.

Beginning last July, shortly before the peak of the credit crisis, the Forint began to fall rapidly. It quickly lost more than half of its value against the Dollar, but then again so did a bunch of other currencies. The more relevant comparison is with the Euro, against which the Hungarian currency also fared quite poorly. Despite a 13% rally over the last two months, the Forint is still down 27% from its high last summer.

forint-chart

This is understandable, since Hungarian economic fundamenals are commensurately poor. “Household consumption is shrinking due to a drop in wages and narrower borrowing opportunities, while investments are hit by a lack of funds and a global economic downturn.” Factor in an 18.7% annualized decline in exports, and the result is a 6.4% decline in GDP for the most recent quarter.

hungary-2009-gdp

Hungary’s economic woes have not gone unnoticed. “The International Monetary Fund, the EU and the World Bank have pledged 20 billion euros ($27 billion) of emergency loans to support Hungary, the biggest aid package for a European nation alongside Romania.” While financial markets have stabilized, credit default swap rates indicate investors are still concerned about the possibility of default. Meanwhile, Hungary has now been officially rejected (for the second time) by the European Monetary Union, such that its doubtful that Forint will ever be absorbed into the Euro.

Why, then, is the Forint rallying? The answer is simple: high interest rates. The benchmark Hungarian interest rate is a lofty 9.5%. While other Central Banks have been busy lowering rates to try to boost economic growth, “The Monetary Council of the central bank voted unanimously on April 20 to keep rates on hold at 9.50 percent.” Given the precarious financial situation, its economic policymakers are concerned that a drop in interest rates could precipitate capital flight and a currency crisis.

An exasperated Deputy Central Bank Governor explained to reporters, “As long as Hungary is considered such a vulnerable country, our interest rates cannot be lower than South Africa’s or Turkey’s; it’s not the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Poland you should compare us to.” She has clearly been paying monitoring the forex markets and knows that now is not the time to gamble with investors’ sudden return to Hungary.

Analysts remain divided over whether the upward trend in the Forint is sustainable. For its part, “Deutsche Bank recommends investors sell the euro against the forint on bets the rate difference will help the Hungarian currency gain 10 percent to 260 per euro in two to three months from 286.55 today.” However, it will be difficult for the economy to stage a serious economy for as long as the currency is rallying, which is why a survey of analysts revealed a median forecast of a medium-term decline in the Forint.

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Central Bank Mulls Intervention to Hold Down Singapore Dollar

May. 13th 2009

While the Singapore Dollar hasn’t been punished to the same extent as its counterparts, the currency was nonetheless dealt a strong blow by the credit crisis, falling 20% in a matter of months, after peaking in 2008. For its part, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS)- which functions as the Central Bank- couldn’t have been happier. The currency had fallen just enough to almost completely offset its rise during the leadup to the crisis.
singapore-dollar-chartNow, with a global stock market rally underway and a modest economic recovery taking shape on the horizon, the Singapore Dollar has quickly erased almost half of its slide. The Central Bank naturally, is alarmed, and is threatening to intervene. While the MAS, itself, has thus far denied such a possibility, insiders suggested that “The Monetary Authority of Singapore will buy the U.S. dollar “‘f it falls below S$1.4700, around S$1.4690…’ [which] roughly equates with the strong end of the undisclosed trade-weighted band that the MAS uses to guide the Singapore currency.” Curiously enough, the Singapore Dollar beat a retreat this week, after rising all the way to $1.45.

The Singapore Dollar is generally considered a bellweather for the currencies of neighboring countries. Singapore is seen as having a model economic policy, and the Singapore Dollar is somewhat immune from the shocks that affect other currencies because its fluctuation is controlled via a loose band by the city-state’s Monetary Authority. The exchange rate is basically used in lieu of conventional monetary policy ( i.e. adjusting interest rates), although market supply/demand plays a significant role. You can think of the MAS as performing a sort of smoothing function.

In this way, the MAS is acting similarly to the Swiss National Bank, which professes to manipulate its exchange rate in order to prevent deflation- not to increase the competitiveness of exporters. According to a top MAS official, “We keep our monetary policy [based] on the medium-term inflation outlook and taking into account growth prospects. We don’t use the currency for competitiveness because it is not sustainable to align currencies just for competitiveness.” This is somewhat plausible as the MAS intervened similarly during the last downturn, in order to forestall a systemic drop in prices.

As always, the line between maintaining price stability and increasing demand is thin, since the latter is in fact used to bring about the former. This is especially true with Singapore, whose economy is largely dependent on exports to drive growth, and hence has been hit especially hard by the downturn. “In the first quarter of 2009, calculated on an annualized basis, Singapore’s economy contracted at a record rate of 11.5 percent from a year earlier, and 19.7 percent from the previous quarter.” [See Chart] As a powerful symbol of just how bad things are, the New York Times recently reported that over 700 cargo ships are docked near and around Singapore, idling as a result of slackened trade. Maybe the MAS noticed…

singapore-gdp

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Inflation or Stimulus: An In-depth Look At the Fed’s Response to the Credit Crisis

May. 12th 2009

These days, The Federal Reserve Bank seems to have very few supporters. A recent poll showed that “Twenty-six percent of Americans said they were ‘a lot less’ confident in the Fed…now than five years ago.” Some people think the Fed is doing too much in responding to the economic downturn, others accuse it of doing too little, and everyone agrees the Fed is culpable for lax regulatory efforts under Alan Greenspan. One of the biggest criticisms being levied at the Fed is that its current policies are sure to generate massive inflation in the medium-term, as a result of the massive liquidity being pumped into the financial system now. In this post, I will attempt to provide some clarity on this aspect.

Sure enough, the US monetary base (represented by M1) has exploded since the inception of the credit crisis, rising more than 15% to more than $1.5 Trillion. Plus, given that there is a slight lag in the release of data, these figures don’t necessarily include the effects of the Fed’s expansion in its quantitative easing program, announced on March 18. One commentator explains that, “Of all the Fed’s moves, this ‘quantitative easing’ gets money into the economy the fastest — basically by cranking the handle of the printing press and flooding the market with dollars (in reality, with additional bank credit). Since these dollars are not going into home building, coal-fired electric plants or auto factories, they end up in the stock market.” In the short-term, then, QE has probably contributed only to asset-price inflation, rather than the more serious consumer price inflation.

us-money-supply-jan-2009

What about the charge that the Fed is dangerously reaching its tentacles into every corner of the financial markets? As you can see from the chart below, there is certainly a huge degree of truth to this claim. Since January 2008, the Fed has “diversified” its portfolio away from relatively benign Treasury securities, into at least 20 different types of securities and loans. In the process, its balance sheet exploded from approximately $800 Billion to $2.2 Trillion, and could expand further as the next phase of quantitative easing is implemented.

fed balance sheet

This portfolio’s makeup is indeed becoming increasingly risky. For example, “The Federal Reserve took on more than $74 billion in subprime mortgages, depreciating commercial leases and other assets after Bear Stearns Cos. and American International Group Inc. collapsed.” Despite writing down almost $10 Billion from this portion alone, however, the Fed continues to turn consistent profits. “Last year the central bank reported a whopping $43 billion in operating income. That was more or less the same level as in 2007, but meanwhile short-term interest rates had plummeted, ending the year near zero.” The assertions of conspiracy theorists, notwithstanding, the majority of this profit was transferred to the US Treasury. [Chart courtesy of The Economist].
fed profits in 2008
Fortunately, most of the (non-esoteric) securities are highly liquid, and can theoretically be sold to investors if and when it becomes appropriate to do so. “The Fed, for example, is required by law to end some when the need is no longer urgent. It charges a penalty for some programmes so that borrowers will return to private markets once these have healed.” The Commercial Paper Funding Facility (CPFF) and Term Auction Facility (TAF) programs, which together account for over $650 Billion of the Fed’s portfolio, moreover, can be quickly undone. “The maturity of the outstanding [TAF] loans is 84 days at a maximum, ” while CPPF “deals in short-term money market instruments and can also be phased out, if desired, in a short period of time.”

The $400 Billion in swap lines, on the other hand, are slightly more problematic, both because of the longer time frame and because foreign banks “are now heavily dependent on the Fed for dollars.” Then there is the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF), which is not yet operational. While this program is also designed to be temporary, “the multi-year maturities of the loans and the potential size of the program—up to $1 trillion—make the impact on the monetary base more persistent than for some of the other liquidity programs.”

In short, inflation isn’t yet on the radar screen, as economists and bankers must first combat disinflation, and perhaps even deflation. Of course, there is always the (very serious) risk that the Fed either won’t be able to, or simply won’t be diligent enough in removing this cash from the money supply when the time comes. There is also a moral hazard component of the Fed’s QE, whereby “governments could come to rely on such purchases to finance budget deficits.” In my opinion, this kind of scenario would be much more likely to engender inflation, but it would be primarily the fault of the government (as opposed to the Fed), and hence beyond the scope of this post.

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

Pound Sterling Trends Downward as BOE Expands QE

May. 11th 2009

The Pound is holding its own against the USD, even touching a four-month high last week. But against other major currencies, the story is just the opposite. While managing to avoid parity against the Euro, for example, the Pound has nonetheless remained range-bound against the common currency. The Australian Dollar, meanwhile, has risen to $2 against the Pound for the first time in 13 years.
euro-rangebound-with-pound
How to explain the stagnation of the Pound? It depends on which currency pair you look at. Against the Dollar, the narrative remains one of risk aversion; when stocks rise, so usually does the Pound. “The U.K. pound is joining other currencies in beating up on the dollar,” announced one analyst on a day that stocks and commodities rallied broadly. The Pound has also been able to hold its own against the Dollar because both currencies’ Central banks have embarked on similar quantitative easing plans, which could prove equally inflationary in the long run. [Chart courtesy of Economist].

eu-us-uk-interest-rates In fact, the Bank of England just announced a huge expansion in its program, increasing total debt buying (i.e. money printing) by $50 Billion. One analyst summarized the impact of this announcement on forex markets as follows: “The Bank of England’s aggressive stance with regard to quantitative easing is adding to concern about the economy and that is negative for sterling.” Not much nuance there….

In fact, this is especially bad for the Pound against the Euro, where a juxtaposition of the Central Banks’ respective approaches to the credit crisis reveals stark differences: “The weakness in the pound suggests the market is drawing a contrast between the ECB, which seems to be dragging its legs on quantitative easing, and the BOE, which is still ‘full-steam ahead.’ ” Where the ECB is providing liquidity indirectly in the form of swaps and guarantees, the BOE is printing money and injecting it right into capital markets.

“Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, has said the exit strategy will be dictated by the outlook for inflation and that central banks should not support markets that cannot survive on their own,” but investors remain skeptical and for good reason. “Britain will sell a record 220 billion pounds of gilts this fiscal year, 50 percent more than last year.” Based on the fact that yields have risen for four straight weeks (against the backdrop of the first “failed” auction ever for UK government bonds), there is doubt that the government can finance its deficits.

The BOE continues to be roundly smacked with criticism, for its role in fomenting the credit crisis and in not adequately responding to it: “It happens that in the early years of inflation targeting, it did produce a stable economy. But I think it’s now clear that it can’t, by itself, produce a stable economy,” argued one commentator. Unemployment rates in the UK remain at frighteningly high levels. The government’s own economists (which are more optimistic than third-party forecasts) forecast GDP at -3.5% for 2009, with a modest recovery in 2010. Of course, these forecasts should be taken with a grain of salt, as they hinge on the crucial assumption that the BOE’s interest rate cuts and quantitative easing plan will soon trickle down through the economy, proof of which has still not been observed.

As a result, I’m personally between neutral and bearish for the UK Pound. For as long as stocks continue to rally, investors will remain Adistracted. If and when the rally loses steam (I am skeptical that the rally is sustainable), they will quickly turn their attention to comparative economic and monetary conditions; suffice it to say that Pound won’t stack up well.

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Swiss National Bank Renews Threat of Intervention

May. 7th 2009

When the Swiss National Bank (SNB) announced oln March 12 that it would intervene in forex markets for the first time since 1994, the Franc immediately plummeted up to 5% against select currencies. Since then, the currency has largely clawed back some of its losses, prompting talk of round two: “Speculation about an imminent intervention in the foreign-exchange markets was rife…after the euro fell to CHF1.5031, the lowest level seen since March 12 when the SNB began selling Swiss francs against euros.”

swiss-franc-rises-despite-snb-interventionIt was unclear whether the Central Bank had chosen a magic threshold, such that a rise by the Franc above which would trigger a sale of Francs in the open market. Earlier in the week, one analyst asserted, “With the euro/franc exchange rate almost at pre-intervention levels – the euro jumped to a level above CHF1.52 after the SNB intervention in March from CHF1.4843 before the announcement – the stage is set for the SNB to either put up or shut up.”

Sure enough, both the Chairman of the SNB as well as a board member both announced yesterday that the campaign to hold down the the Franc is still in effect, and will soon enter a new phase. Thus far, the Bank has relied on various forms of quantitative easing to deflate its currency, both through direct currency transactions and purchases of bonds. The goal of such quantitative easing is only proximately to deflate the Franc; the ultimate goal is to ward off deflation. Given that the Bank had already lowered its benchmark interest rate close to zero, manipulating its currency was/is one of its few remaining options. “As long as the environment does not improve and as long as deflation risks are visible in our monetary policy concept, we will stick to this insurance strategy resolutely,” said Chairman Jean-Pierre Roth.

As the economic recession takes hold, the Swiss economy is forecast to contract 3% in 2009, but to grow in 2010. Consumer sentiment has fallen to the lowest level since 2003. Inflation, meanwhile is projected at -0.5%; deflation, in other words. Still, Switzerland maintains that its motivation is not to boost the economy, but only to increase monetary stability. National Bank governing board member Thomas Jordan “reiterated the interventions have nothing to do with a beggar-thy-neighbor policy, a strategy to weaken a country’s currency to improve the situation for domestic exporters.”

Given that forex intervention is usually doomed to failure, the SNB must rely on a combination of luck and improved fundamentals to keep the Franc down. Thus, when the next round of intervention was announced yesterday, the Franc fell by a modest .75% against the Euro, as investors largely shrugged of the news. Fortunately, the initial pledge to intervene coincided with a pickup in investor sentiment, and decline in risk aversion. This has reduced demand for the Swiss Franc, which had previously been bid up as a so-called “safe haven” currency. As long as the stock market rally continues, investors will stick to higher-yielding currencies and the Franc should be “safe.”

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, Major Currencies, News, Swiss Franc | 2 Comments »

Despite “Reality,” Fed Optimistic about the Economy

May. 5th 2009

Last week, the Fed opted to maintain its benchmark Federal Funds Rate close to zero, and indicated in its press release that it “anticipates that economic conditions are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rate for an extended period.” [Chart courtesy of CNN].
fed_rate_moves03Nonetheless, the Fed made a point of emphasizing that the economy seems to be stabilizing: “Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in March indicates that the economy has continued to contract, though the pace of contraction appears to be somewhat slower.” I suppose everything is relative, but it’s a bit perplexing as to where the Fed is getting its data from, given that “Gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic activity, fell at an annual rate of 6.1% in the first quarter of 2009 after a 6.3% drop in the last three months of 2008.” This exceeded analysts’ expectations for a 4.7% decline, and if anything, would seem to suggest that the economy is worsening. Granted, consumer spending rose slightly and inventories declined, but the aggregate picture paints an unequivocal picture of an economy in deep recession.

Bernanke, apparently, is unconvinced. ” ‘We continue to expect economic activity to bottom out, then to turn up later this year,’ Mr. Bernanke told the congressional Joint Economic Committee.” Meanwhile, the unemployment rate is currently 8.5% and falling. Business investment is still abysmal, as companies implement hiring freezes and hold off on all non-essential capital purchases.

Bernanke is especially optimistic about the state of the US financial system, noting that “conditions in credit markets have revived slightly in recent weeks. Homeowners are refinancing mortgages at a rapid clip, and financial institutions have stepped up their sale of securities backed by of credit card loans, automobile debt and student loans.” However, mortgage refinancing is a red herring, and frees up very little cash for consumption. Meanwhile, debt securitization is well below 2007 levels, and some experts predict that credit card loans represent the next catastrophe. “Fitch’s Prime Credit Card Delinquency Index measures credit card debt more than 60 days late. Through January 2009 that index surged to a record 4.04 percent.”

cdo issuance declines in 2008

Bernanke also hinted that the results from the bank stress-tests, scheduled to be released today, are largely positive. As part of this program, “The government plans to divide banks into three categories, based on the adequacy of their capital reserves to absorb projected losses,” if the recession were to worsen. If Bernanke’s assertions are to be believed, then the tests will show that their capital reserves are sufficient, and they will not need additional capital infusions.

Bernanke’s testimony and the Fed Statement have been greeted positively by investors, “contributed to improving sentiment and boosted risk appetite, easing demand for then yen and greenback as safehavens.” Nonetheless, everything he says should be taken with a grain of salt. Even with the best rose-tinted glasses money can buy, it’s hard to draw such optimistic conclusions from an objective interpretation of the data. Either Bernanke is basing his assessment off of the stock market rally (which is circularly based on such economic optimism), or he is trying to deliberately distort reality in order to try to make a recovery self-fulfilling by disingenuously telling people that everything is okay. Personally, I don’t think he’s worth taking seriously.

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Spike in Treasury Yields is Good News for US Dollar Bulls

May. 4th 2009

By no coincidence, the Dollar’s best day in April was a mirror image of its worst day in March. Recall what happened when the Fed initially announced its quantitative easing program: “The dollar plunged a record 3.4 percent against the euro on March 18 as traders speculated the Fed’s purchase Treasuries would debase the currency.” On April 29, meanwhile, “The dollar rose the most against the yen this month after the Federal Reserve refrained from increasing purchases of Treasuries and mortgage securities.”

The implication is that as risk aversion has dropped, investors have turned their gaze towards interest rates. Previously, this phenomenon would have worked against the Dollar, as both short-term and long-term interest rates are generally lower in the the US than they are abroad. On the short end of the curve, this is a product of a low Federal Funds Rate, as guided by the Fed. On the long end, this is a function of high demand for US Treasury securities, which keeps prices high and rates proportionately low.

However, this trend is very quickly reversing itself. Aside from a few hiccups (including a big one on March 18!), Treasury yields have risen continuously since touching an all-time low in January. Since then, the yield on the 10-year note, for example, has risen from 2.2% to nearly 3.2%. The impetus for higher rates is coming both from a decline in risk aversion (which is leading investors to seek alternatives to Treasuries) as well as a concern that the Fed will not be as active in buying US bonds as it had initially intimated.

government-debt-is-rising

A decline in demand for Treasury securities is making some investors understandably nervous that the government will not be able to fund its deficits (projected at 10% of GDP in 2009). Writes one columnist, “We cannot take it for granted that the global bond markets will prove deep enough to fund the $6 trillion or so needed for the Obama fiscal package, US-European bank bailouts, and ballooning deficits almost everywhere.” The fear is that the government will turn to the Fed, which will stoke inflation by printing money, and induce a devaluation of the Dollar.

If the Fed limits its purchase of Treasuries, by extension, not only will this limit inflation, but also it will lead to higher interest rates on US government bonds, which should help prop up investor demand. One currency strategist observed that “The dollar-yen is very closely correlated with the back end of the yield spread.” In other words, as US long-term yields rise, so may the Dollar.

dollar-rises-versus-yen
Of course, the key is to strike a balance between too much demand and not enough. If investors got really spooked by the fact that “The Congressional Budget Office expects interest payments to more than quadruple in the next decade as Washington borrows and spends, to $806 billion by 2019 from $172 billion next year,” then it could lead to a skyrocketing of interest rates as investors beat a mass retreat away from Treasuries, which would certainly entail a devaluation of the Dollar. To apply Alan Greenspan’s famous analogy, has anyone coined the term “Goldilocks Treasury Yields” yet?

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South Africa Hikes Rates, but Interest Rate Differential is Preserved

May. 1st 2009

Yesterday, the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) lowered its benchmark interest rate by 100 basis points to 8.5%. Since December, the Central Bank has now cut rates by 3.5%, from a high of 12%. [As an aside, the SARB uses a repo rate to conduct policy, as opposed to a discount rate. In theory, a repo rate is slightly unique in that it reflects the rate at which the Central Bank will repurchase government securities from commercial banks. The Federal Funds Rate, in contrast, “is the interest rate at which private depository institutions (mostly banks) lend balances (federal funds) at the Federal Reserve to other depository institutions.” In practice, both rates function as modulators of liquidity in the financial system.]

“The outlook for domestic economic growth remains subdued, with no indications of a quick recovery,” offered the SARB as a rationale for the rate cuts. Activity in manufacturing and mining, two of the cornerstones of the South African economy, have plummeted since the inception of the credit crisis, along with exports and retail sales. As a result, “Central bank Governor Tito Mboweni said April 7 he would ‘not be surprised‘ if the nation’s economy shrank for a second consecutive quarter in the three months through March, following a 1.8 percent contraction in the fourth quarter.” Meanwhile, South Africa’s producer price index (PPI) has declined for seven consecutive months. Coupled with a moderation in food and energy prices, inflation is no longer perceived as a serious problem.

The South African Rand actually rose on the news of the rate cut, as part of a trend that has seen the currency rise nearly 40% since touching a low of 11.7 Rand/Dollar in October. In April alone, “South Africa’s rand, the laggard of 27 major world and emerging-market currencies last year, rallied 12 percent against the dollar.” This reversal of fortune is due largely to the recovery of risk appetite and consequent return of investors to the carry trade.

rand-reverses-trend-against-us-dollar

South Africa is especially poised to benefit from this trend for a couple reasons. Primarily, the Rand’s advantage lies in in interest rate differentials. Even if the SARB hews to economists’ predictions and cuts its repo rate by another 100 basis points, the differential will still be tremendous, as virtually every industrialized country has lowered rates close to zero. In addition, South Africa is perceived as a relatively safe place to invest, especially relative to interest rate levels. According to one trader, “We’re seeing a re-assessment of the rand’s relative value because of the fact that South Africa’s economy and financial system are relatively more sound than is the case in many other countries.”

As Bloomberg News summarized, you can’t stand in front of a freight train: “Emerging-market stocks are poised for their best month in 20 years as evidence the global recession is easing spurs investor demand for higher-yielding assets.”

In the end, you can’t fool the markets and carry traders ignore fundamentals at their peril. The recent election of Jacob Zuma as South African Prime Minister “hardly adds to confidence in the South African economy.” In addition, South Africa continues to maintain a sizable current account imbalance, “at 7.4 percent of gross domestic product last year.” Despite declines in February and March, the deficit touched a “record 17.380 billion rand deficit in January” and the markets are “expecting large deficits to persist this year as exports come under pressure.”

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China’s Gold Holdings Surge 76% over Six Years

Apr. 29th 2009

Based on the title, you’re probably groaning: ‘Wait, I thought this was supposed to be a forex blog?” Bear with me, however, as this subject is extremely pertinent to forex.

Last week, it was revealed that China has been clandestinely adding to its gold reserves since 2003, to the extent that its holdings increased by 76%, to approximately 1,050 tons. The news initially sent a ripple through forex and commodities markets, which were overwhelmed by the figures involved. After analysts had a chance to gather some perspective, however, the markets relaxed. You see, although the increase seems tremendous in size, it is quite small in relative terms.

It is relatively small compared to other countries: “This places China fifth in the world, ahead of Switzerland’s 1040 tons but behind the U.S. ranked first with 8,133 tons, followed by Germany (3,412 tons), France (2,508 tons) and Italy (2,451 tons).”

It is relatively small given the six-year duration of accumulation: “I think as soon as people realized it’s not a year-on-year increase, or a quarter-on-quarter increase, people realized it should not have that big an impact.”

It is small relative to China’s mammoth $2 Trillion forex reserves: “As a proportion of foreign exchange reserves, which have risen five-fold over the same period, gold now stands at a tiny 1.6 percent, versus 1.7 percent in 2003.”

On some level, the development has at least some symbolic importance, as it demonstrates that it cannot be taken for granted that China will simply continue to plow its (dwindling) trade surplus into Dollar-denominated securities, or even currencies in general. This is underscored by the suspicious timing of the announcement; China essentially waited six years before revealing its buildup in gold, probably in order to coincide with the uproar surrounding the Dollar’s role as global reserve currency. In other words, even though China’s gold purchases in and of themselves don’t amount to much, the Central Bank of China is trying to send a message that it will defend itself against “the depreciation risk of some foreign currencies.”

The announcement also explains the recent buoyancy of gold prices. Historically, there existed an inverse correlation between gold and the Dollar. This correlation has all but broken down as a result of the credit crisis, and for the first time a strong Dollar has been accompanied by high gold prices. Part of the reason may be increased buying activity by Central Banks, including the Bank of China: “The physical market remained well-bid by an unknown buyer despite bullion prices spiking to levels that normally cooled demand…Purchases were made in Shanghai, traders said, in an effort to absorb domestic production and lessen the impact of bullion prices on global markets.”

gold-prices

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Euro Resumes Decline After Brief Pause

Apr. 28th 2009

The one-year chart of the EUR/USD depicts a general downward trend, punctuated with steep “blips.” Every couple of months or so, it seems traders are temporarily jarred loose from their mindset of Euro bearishness, and find an excuse to bid up the common currency. Invariably, the Euro then resumes its downward course a few weeks later.
euro-declines-against-dollar-in-2009
The Euro’s recent trading activity fits this mold perfectly. The global stock market rally in March was accompanied by a spike in the Euro. While equities, commodities, and even other currencies continued to rise, however, the Euro peaked after a couple weeks and has since hovered around the $1.30 mark.  As one currency strategist summarized: “A breakdown of the correlation between the euro-dollar exchange rate and the S&P index indicates the currency pair ‘ has become a trade that is less about risk, a little more about euro rate specifics.’ ”

In other words, the decline in risk aversion has not expanded to include the Euro. This is somewhat surprising, since EU economic indicators have rebounded in the last month. The oft-cited German IFO index “rebounded from a 26-year low,” while “retail sales declined the least in 11 months in April after government stimulus packages improved consumer confidence.” On the other hand, EU lending activity, which is more correlated with economic growth, continues to decline. “The European Central Bank Wednesday released figures showing that banks in the currency area cut their lending to both companies and households in March.”

This is a huge problem for the EU, where the banking sector represents a comparatively important component of the economy.. “At the end of 2007, the stock of outstanding bank loans to the private sector amounted to around 145 percent of gross domestic product, compared to 63 percent in the United States.” This is belied by newspaper headlines that maintain the banking crisis is most severe in the US. In nominal terms, this might be true, but in relative terms, the EU is in much worse shape. Given that exchange rates are all relative, it is worth paying attention to this phenomenon.

The ECB is doing all that it can to help the situation, but many analysts and even some of the Bank’s own members remain critical. “The ambiguity of the ECB’s stance is not helping [the Euro,” offered one analyst. The ECB’s next meeting is scheduled for May 7, when economists predict the benchmark lending rate will be lowered to 1%. This will appease some investors, but not all. The head of Germany’s IFO organization, for instance, has urged the ECB to slash rates down to .25%.

As ECB President Jean Claude Trichet has pointed out, lower rates will not automatically stimulate the economy: “Owing in particular to the very low rate on our deposit facility of 0.25 percent, this difference in policy rates doesn’t translate into equivalent differences in money market rates.” In fact, money market rates have largely converged across the EU and US, despite the divergence in short-term rates, vindicating Trichet.

More important, then is the ECB’s non-monetary initiatives. To quote Trichet again, “Comparing only the levels of policy rates without consideration of the resulting market rates and other economic variables is looking at just one part of a far broader canvas.” The Economist recently published an excellent comparison of the various Central Banks’ responses to the credit crisis. While some have embraced their newfound prominence, other Central Banks have shied from the spotlight, insisting that their mandates are limited to inflation targeting. The ECB probably falls into this category, as it has thus far stood on the sidelines – for better or worse- as its counterparts have turned on the printing presses and flooded their respective credit markets with liquidity. [Chart courtesy of The Economist].
central-bank-comparison
This could soon change, and “A commission headed by Jacques de Larosière, a former head of both the Bank of France and the IMF, has recommended that the ECB chair a new European Systemic Risk Council made up of its member central banks and supervisors.” Not all investors are convinced that the ECB can successfully break with tradition. “Alan Ruskin, head of international currency strategy in North America at RBS Securities…recommends investors sell the euro on ‘upticks’ as the ECB abandons ‘monetary orthodoxy’ and uses unconventional measures to spur growth.”

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Investors Bullish on Canadian Loonie Despite Record Interest Rate Cut

Apr. 23rd 2009

Today, the Bank of Canada followed up on an earlier promise by formally clarifying its position on quantitative easing. Suffice to say that the markets breathed a huge sigh of relief when it was revealed that the BOC was not committing itself to such a program. ” ‘The market has always had great trepidation about the idea of printing money…As the Bank of Canada has pushed back at that notion, the Canadian dollar is having a little party of its own,’ ” quipped one analyst.

In other words, the BOC would like to avoid following in the footsteps of its counterparts in the US, UK, Japan, and perhaps the EU, by pumping newly-minted money directly into credit and government bind markets. At the same time, the Bank admitted that a rapid deterioration in the Canadian economy would certainly prompt it to reconsider. Governor Mark Carney et al have approached the subject of quantitative easing coyly. On the one hand, today’s report (as well as the BOC website) contain detailed explanations of what quantitative easing would hypothetically entail. On the other hand, they insist that such a scenario does not fit with their economic projections, and hence remains unlikely. “The need to do extraordinary easing is a ‘big if,’ ” in the words of Governor Carney.

This is largely consistent with analysts’ expectations, one of whom had predicted that “it’s also quite possible the bank could simply lay out a framework on Thursday and not take any action at all.” Even ignoring the inflationary implications of quantitative easing, it’s not clear whether such a policy could even be effective. “The corporate bond market is reviving, with spreads narrowing and issuance levels improving, raising the question of whether central bank involvement is necessary or appropriate in a market that seems to be healing itself.” Granted, most investors are now wearing their rose-tinted glasses, but the data speaks for itself.

The BOC’s estimation that it can avoid quantitative easing is somewhat dubious, since it is predicated on overly optimistic economic forecasts, as well as because it has already exhausted the primary tool in its monetary arsenal. Earlier this week, it lowered interested rates to a record low of .25%, capping a 16-month period of easing, during which it slashed rates by 4.25%. By the Bank’s own reckoning, interest rates will remain low until mid-2010, as inflation is now comfortably within the target range of 1-3%.

Given the abysmal economic situation, it is no surprise that inflation has moderated. Commodity prices are well below the record highs of 2008. Aggregate demand, and GDP by extension, are retreating in kind. According to one economist, ” ‘When you do that math, no matter how optimistic you are, you are talking about a time frame of years before things like the unemployment rate (are) back down to historically normal levels.’ ”

Still, traders remain bullish on the Loonie. “Since March 9, the loonie has climbed 6.2 percent…The loonie will appreciate to C$1.19 by the end of March next year, according to the median forecast of 38 economists and analysts in a Bloomberg survey.” As the Forex Blog reported in yesterday’s post, the carry trade has returned, which is good news for commodity currencies, low interest rates are not. Meanwhile, low interest rates could stimulate corporate borrowing and home buying. Given the Central Bank’s reluctance to print money, the economic recovery would even unfold without the drag of inflation. Maybe the excitement is justified…

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

Australian Dollar Rises Despite Unwinding of Carry Trade

Apr. 21st 2009

When two weeks ago the Royal Bank of Australia (RBA) cut interest rates, one would have expected the Australian Dollar to suffer proportionately. Instead, the currency continued its steady upward rise, and touched a six-month high, before falling back slightly. One surprised analyst lamented, “These types of inconsistencies can make trading forex difficult or down right frustrating at times.”

The interest rate cut marked the sixth since September, since which point the RBA has trimmed its benchmark lending rate by 425 basis points, leaving it at 3%. [See chart below courtesy of “The Fundamental Analyst.”] Traders have reacted to the successive declines in yield and simultaneous pickup in risk aversion by unwinding carry trades, many of which had been long the Australian Dollar. The massive sell-off that ensued left the Aussie a long way below the level of parity with the USD, which only last year many analysts had viewed as inevitable.

rba-cash-rate-apr09

The most recent rate cut, in contrast, was greeted positively by traders, perhaps because they were expecting a larger (50 basis point) rate cut, but more likely because their priorities had changed. A pickup in risk aversion in recent weeks has definitely reinvigorated interest in comparatively risky currencies such as the Australian Dollar. Overall, the markets remain risk-averse, and investors are increasingly making bets in accordance with economic fundamentals, rather than yield levels. ” ‘The focus will remain on the global backdrop…Risk appetite is still fragile and the market is increasingly realizing that the recent recovery was excessive.’ ”

In the case of the Australian Dollar, traders were heartened by the RBA’s decision to lower interest rates to a 49-year low since it reflected the Bank’s commitment to dealing with the economic crisis. But at this point, the Australian economy is still in poor shape. “Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said yesterday for the first time that a recession in Australia is inevitable amid a slump in global growth that is eroding demand for natural resources from the world’s biggest shipper of coal and iron ore.”

Meanwhile, “The global economic downturn has pushed Australia’s economy into its first recession since 1991, Reserve Bank of Australia Governor Glen Stevens said.” According to the minutes from the RBA’s last meeting, “Conditions in the labor market continued to soften” and “Further falls in employment and rises in unemployment were expected.” These observations should be viewed in the context of a 5.7% unemployment rate.

The near-term prognosis for the Australian economy remains quite poor, regardless of whether a recovery materializes in 2010, as forecast by economists. Accordingly, analysts expect the RBA to lower its benchmark interest rate further, probably to 2.25% or 2.5%; there is a “bias toward further modest rate cuts, although we continue to think that the RBA may well pause for a few months to assess the impact of the current round of fiscal stimulus,” offered one forecaster.

Given the lull in market activity, some commentators have turned to technical analysis. “Westpac Currency strategist Robert Rennie said their own risk measurement models are clearly flagging a bumpy period ahead for high yielding currencies. ‘Our proprietary models are…clearly telling us to watch risk sentiment and data much more closely than we have over the past six weeks.’ ” In short, traders should not become complacent as result of the Aussie’s recent rally, and should continue to monitor economic data for signs of progress and/or hiccups on the road to recovery.

australian-dollar-rises

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

China is Still Not a Currency Manipulator

Apr. 15th 2009

There was tremendous speculation surrounding today’s release of the US Treasury’s semi-annual report to Congress on exchange rates. Considering that Treasury Secretary Geithner accused China unequivocally of currency manipulation during his confirmation hearing in January, it would seem that an official condemnation was inevitable.

Alas, the report once again exonerated China: “In the current Report, Treasury did not find that any major trading partner had manipulated its exchange rate for the purposes of preventing effective balance of payments adjustment or to gain unfair competitive advantage.” The press release accompanying the report made a point of justifying the decision to exclude China: “First, China has taken steps to enhance exchange rate flexibility….Second, the Chinese currency appreciated by 16.6 percent in real effective terms between the end of June 2008 and the end of February 2009….Even so, Treasury remains of the view that the renminbi is undervalued.”

There was certainly a political calculus that went into the decision. There has been a great deal of talk recently regarding China’s growing unease over its US investments, and its consequent willingness to contribute to funding the upcoming US budget deficits. Asks one analyst rhetorically, “If the Obama administration encourages the Chinese government to keep rolling their dollars into US Treasury bonds, then how can the Chinese do this without stabilizing the exchange rates?”

There is also mounting economic evidence that China is no longer manipulating the Yuan, at least not to the same extent as before. China’s foreign exchange reserves, which it must accumulate as part of its efforts to depress its currency, are growing at the slowest pace in nearly a decade. In the first quarter of 2009, its reserves grew by only $7 Billion, compared to an increase of $150 Billion in the first quarter of 2008. This can be explained as follows: “China’s first-quarter trade surplus shrank 45 percent from the previous three months and foreign direct investment tumbled as the global recession choked off demand.” According to another economist, “Inflow through buying properties and speculation was a big part of foreign exchange increase in the past few years, and we are seeing a bit of unwinding as new money is not coming in.”

On the other hand, there are signs that China’s economic stimulus plan has begun to trickle down to the bedrock of the economy. The Chinese money supply expanded by a record 25.5% in March, as a result of a six-fold increase in lending. Today’s release of GDP figures revealed that “By March the economy was gaining more speed, with the year-on-year increase in industrial production rising to 8.3% from an average of 3.8% in the previous two months. Retail sales were 16% higher in real terms than a year ago, and fixed investment has soared by 30%.” In short,  it looks like the increase in investment and government spending will at least partially offset the projected 10% decrease in 2009 exports. [Chart below via The Economist].

china GDP forecast

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, Chinese Yuan (RMB) | 3 Comments »

Yen Continues to Drop Despite Government Stimulus Plan

Apr. 10th 2009

This week, the Yen continued its decline against the Dollar and Euro, dipping well below 100 Yen/Dollar en route to a six-month low. Most analysts attribute this trend to a pickup in risk aversion: “Some kind of optimism is returning to the market and that’s putting pressure on the yen,” explained one analyst succinctly.

An ongoing rally in stocks and commodities is reinforcing investor attitudes that the economic recession is under control, and is stimulating risk-taking. In other words, the same forces that contributed to the unwinding of the carry trade during the beginning of the credit crisis, are now working in reverse and causing investors to flee from the Yen en masse. “As long as stocks can retain their buoyancy… risk appetite and risk-based trades will be in vogue and investors will continue to add to and rebuild yen short positions.”

According to the most recent International Monetary Market report, “Short positions on the currency have been building up for three consecutive weeks, and are now at levels last seen in the late summer of 2008,” which means the Yen’s slide has basically become self-fulfilling. From a technical standpoint, “A move above 101.00 yen was technically significant as it was a 38.2 percent Fibonacci retracement of its decline from a peak in 2007 to its 13-year low in January.” Even domestic Japanese investors have signaled their bearishness by taking advantage of last week’s Yen upswing by making “aggressive purchases of foreign bonds.”

From a fundamental standpoint, the decline in the Yen makes sense, given the abysmal economic situation in Japan. In fact, the “Minutes from the Bank of Japan’s March meeting showed members of the central bank were leaning toward cutting the bank’s economic forecast in April, and that they believed the BOJ would need to continue to provide substantial liquidity to financial markets that they see as still under substantial stress.”

The government is finally responding to the economic crisis, having most recently unveiled a $150 Billion plan, to supplement the $100 Billion initiative announced earlier this year. “If implemented competently, these steps could stabilize the domestic economy and stop the bleeding in labor markets.” At the same time, the intertwined tailspin in confidence and spending suggest that the government’s efforts could be in vain.

While equity investors have reacted positively – pushing the stock market into positive territory for the year- bond and currency traders are understandably concerned. Yields on Japanese bonds are already rising in anticipation of $100 Billion in bonds that the government will have to issue in 2009 alone. Naturally, the burden to purchase these bonds will fall on the Bank of Japan, which will be forced to print money and contribute to the further devaluation of the Yen in the process.

japan-government-debt-issuance

Ultimately, the duration of the Yen’s slide depends on the duration of the global stock market rally. If you believe that the global economy has turned a corner, then the Yen is done. If, on the other hand, you are inclined to side with George Soros, who opined recently that “It’s a bear-market rally because we have not yet turned the economy around,” then there is still cause for Yen bullishness.

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IMF Currency Could Threaten Dollar’s Reserve Status

Apr. 9th 2009

Last week, SDR became the latest addition to the growing list of forex acronyms. So-called Special Drawing Rights are a unit of account used by the IMF, “defined as the value of a fixed amount of yen, dollars, pounds and euros, expressed in dollars at the current exchange rate. The composition of the basket is altered every five years to reflect changes in the importance of different currencies in the world’s trading system.”

The sudden rise to popularity of SDRs (in spite of their 40 year history) can be attributed both to developing countries’ growing unease about the status of the Dollar, as well as to their perceived usefulness as a tool in fending off economic depression. Ignoring the latter- for the purpose of this post- let’s look, at how SDRs will impact the role of the Dollar as the world’s reserve currency.

First of all, as I noted in Tuesday’s post, the success/scope of the SDR program depends on the positions of the US and EU, the largest and most important members. In the case of the US, the most recent SDR expansion (1997) was never implemented because the US blocked it. Neither can the support of the EU be taken for granted. According to one member of the European Central Bank, “There was no examination of whether there is a global need for additional liquidity at all… One used to take a lot of time to examine something like this.”

In addition, it’s not clear what benefits the synthetic currency would yield. Asks one commentator: “What is one to tie it to?…in a world of depleting resources it is difficult to fathom how to create a list of constituents which would not constrain global growth and tie us into many years of deflation.” In other words, given that the SDRs will derive their value from underlying currencies, it doesn’t seem like the end result would be anymore stable than the current system.

China, meanwhile, has showed fervent support for the expansion in the form of a $40 Billion pledge, which is not surprising since a report issued by the head of its Central Bank provided some of the impetus. This $40 Billion is tantamount to an exchange of Dollars for a basket of currencies. The benefit to China is articulated by one analyst as follows: “ ‘We could see the IMF being put in a position where it could raise in the capital markets funds in SDR-denominated debt….The debt could be used ‘by China and other central banks to be put into their currency reserves, at the expense of the U.S. dollar.’ “

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Euro Gains after ECB Rate Cuts

Apr. 4th 2009

Yesterday, the European Central Bank delivered a surprise to the forex markets; instead of cutting rates by the consensus expectation of 50 basis points, the ECB knocked down its benchmark lending rate by only .25%. The Bank also opted against certain non-standard measures that would accompany a change in monetary policy. At this point, all investors can do is wait until the next meeting to see if the ECB will finally intervene in credit markets as well as on behalf of beleaguered Eastern European currencies.

While Jean-Claude Trichet, President of the ECB, coyly refused to rule out the possibility of further rate cuts, analysts are puzzling over the relatively minuscule cut. After all, the consensus was that the ECB had already fallen well behind the curve, and was not struggling as quickly as possible to play catch up with its counterparts in the UK, US, and Switzerland. “ ‘By again buying time, the ECB risks falling further behind the curve…You cannot buy time forever.’ ”

ecb-lowers-rates-in-2009There are a few explanations. First of all, it’s possible that the ECB is selectively interpreting data as a basis for deriving a more optimistic economic forecast. Given the spate of recent bad news emanating from Europe, however, this seems unlikely. Besides, no less than Trichet himself has suggested that an economic recovery is unlikely to occur before 2010. There is also the possibility that the ECB is simply prioritizing its mandate to guard against inflation, rather than to stimulate economic growth. This theory is also unconvincing, given that price inflation has already fallen well below the ECB’s target of 2%.

Perhaps, the best explanation is technical: “A 50 basis point cut would have required the ECB to cut the interest that it pays on deposits by banks to zero, from 0.5%, in order to maintain the current spread between the two of 1 percentage point.” Along the same lines, “European interest rates are lower than those in the U.S. when making a comparison of real inter-bank lending.” Ultimately, it’s probably the Bank’s conservatism that is behind both its comparatively tight monetary policy and its failure to unveil a quantitative easing plan that would mirror those put forth by the Fed and Bank of England. In other words, the door for more drastic monetary prescriptions has been strategically left open in the EU, while all but closed in the US and UK.

Curiously, the “the smaller-than-expected rate cut ‘remains an all-round booster for the single currency.’ ” Prevailing trading patterns and market sentiment seemed to herald a decline in the Euro, as investors have recently prioritized capital preservation and vigilance against deflation. Based on the positive market response, however, we can conclude that there are still some traders for whom interest rate differentials are important. After all, the only remaining alternatives to the EU (from the standpoint of yield) are Australia and New Zealand, but both of these economies/currencies are perceived as risky.

Alas, the ECB’s role is not to make currency traders happy. Unless the ECB follows up with a big move next month, the result could be a “very prolonged slump in euro-zone activity.”

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

Chinese Yuan Vies for Reserve Status

Apr. 1st 2009

Having appealed unsuccessfully to the G20 to create a viable reserve currency, China is now taking matters into its own hands, by pushing the Chinese Yuan as a viable alternative.

Earlier this week, it signed a $10 Billion+ swap agreement with Argentina, involving an exchange of Argentine pesos for RMB. The agreement is ostensibly designed to benefit Argentina, whose economy has been hit hard from the global credit crisis: “The peso has been weakening slowly but consistently since mid-2008, when a major farm strike here spooked investors and led many Argentines to trade in their pesos for dollars.” By guaranteeing a large quantity of RMB – which is generally considered undervalued- China is effectively providing the peso with more solid backing.

In actuality, the swap was probably proposed by China in order to demonstrate its sincerity in seeing the Dollar replaced as reserve currency. Especially among developing countries and/or Asian countries, many of which represent major trading partners, China is keen to increase the supply of Yuan. One analyst wrote that ” ‘We expect more agreements with other emerging market countries will be in the pipeline,’ as the swaps will help ‘Chinese slumping exports by making access to finance easier.’ ” Accordingly, the swap agreement with Argentina represented the sixth bilateral currency agreement signed by China in recent months. The other five countries are Belarus, South Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Indonesia, with the total nominal swap value of nearly $100Billion ($650 Billion RMB).

China is also moving to make the Yuan fully convertible, such that it can be exchanged freely both inside and outside China. It is intended that Chinese banks and exporters, for example, will now be able to accept payment directly in foreign currencies, rather than first being forced to convert them into RMB. In addition, the government “will triple the amount of domestic securities that overseas funds can buy under the qualified foreign institutional investors program to $30 billion” in order to make it easier for foreigners to invest directly in China.

While the moves announced so far are too small to make any meaningful waves in the forex world, investors seem generally supportive of China’s efforts. Remember that only two years ago, hedge fund manager Jim Rogers famously announced that the RMB was due to appreciate 500% over the next couple decades and subsequently moved much of his personal savings into RMB-denominated bank accounts.

A recent note by Citigroup analysts perfectly encapsulates this sentiment: “In the longer term, we think it is China’s strategic economic and political interest to promote the broader use or internationalization of CNY. While the internationalization of CNY has a very long way to go, we see China as using the global crisis as an opportunity to take early steps.” Of course, China itself is conscious that such a process will require decades to complete, but it remains cautiously optimistic: “It’s not really up to China to determine this. It’s up to the market…The best the government can do is to permit yuan-denominated trade. And then it’s up to the market to decide whether it wants to use that.”

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, Chinese Yuan (RMB) | 7 Comments »

Is Gold a Hedge Against Inflation and Currency Weakness?

Mar. 31st 2009

Until the Fed announced an expansion of its quantitative easing program two weeks ago, gold had begun to fade into relative obscurity. Sure, gold had risen in value from a low of $710/ounce back up to $900/ounce, but prices were still off 10% from the highs reached in 2008. Meanwhile, risk aversion had begun to decline and the stock market had begun to rise, such that pundits were talking more about stocks and less about gold.

Since the Fed’s announcement, however, gold has been thrust back into the spotlight. The same trading session that saw a record fall in the Dollar and a record rise in Treasury prices, also witnessed a 7% spike in gold futures prices. ” ‘Money is being pushed into the system and that’s creating the inflationary threats that the markets are contemplating…Commodities are a decent way to hedge against that potential threat,’ ” observed one trader.

Other analysts, however, caution that rising gold prices are a sign of the fear/crisis mentality, not inflation. “There are just not a lot of alternatives for global investors. You will see more and more investors moving into gold as a safe haven, and you will see more institutions putting money into commodities indexes.” In other words, gold is being driven by the safe-haven trade, which is evidenced by an increasing correlation with Treasury bonds. One commentator calls it a hedge against uncertainty: “The demand for gold is for gold coins, a massive flurry of bullion buying by ETF’s (and investors), and the institutions and traders buying the hell out of it.  The reason is simple… pure fear.”

With the exception of the perennial gold bulls and conspiracy theorists, the short-term consensus is that due to “massive spare capacity now opening up in the global economy, soaring unemployment and a dysfunctional banking system – it would be very hard for central banks to generate a surge in inflation even if they wanted to.” This analyst further argues that the Fed is undertaking the expansionary program under the implicit assumption that it will have to siphon this money out of the financial system, if and when the economy recovers.

Of course, there is not even a consensus that gold is a good hedge against inflation. Mike Mish points out that the correlation between the US money supply and the price of gold is not very robust. When examined relative to a basket of currencies (rather than the Dollar), however, the relationship suddenly becomes much stronger. Especially when you filter out fluctuations in the value of the Dollar (which is affected by many factors unrelated to inflation), “gold is doing a reasonably good job of maintaining purchasing power parity on a worldwide basis.” This can be seen in the following chart:
gold-as-inflation-hedge
Ascertaining a relationship ultimately depends on the time period of analysis, and the currency(s) in which prices are being tracked. Given also gold’s notorious volatility, it probably makes sense to use special inflation protected securities, rather than gold, as an inflation hedge.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, Investing & Trading, US Dollar | 1 Comment »

Led by China, Central Banks Seek Alternative to Dollar

Mar. 25th 2009

China is a hostage. China is America’s bank and America basically says there’s nothing you can do to me. If I go down you don’t get paid.”

While the Obama administration has pledged the kind of fiscal responsibility that would secure its government obligations, its actions haven’t been so responsible. The Fed recently announced purchases of $1 Trillion in government debt, while the government is set to rack up Trillion-Dollar deficits over the next decade, even by the most conservative estimates.

In other words, China is in a quandary; stop lending to the US, and you might see the value of your existing reserves plummet. Continue lending, and you risk the same result. Tired of participating in this apparent no-win situation, China is finally taking action.

First, it will petition the G20 at its upcoming meeting for some level of protection on its $1 Trillion+ “investment” in the US. Meanwhile, Zhou XiaoChuan, governor of the Central Bank of China, has authored a paper calling for a decline in the role that individual currencies play in international trade and finance. According to Mr. Zhou, “Most nations concentrate their assets in those reserve currencies [Dollar, Euro, Yen], which exaggerates the size of flows and makes financial systems overall more volatile.” His point is well-taken, since of the $4.5 Trillion in global foreign exchange reserves that can be identified, perhaps 85% are accounted for by Euros and Dollars alone. When crises occur, everyone flocks to these currencies.
global-forex-reserves-favor-us-dollar
Mr. Zhou’s proposal is not without precedent. “His idea is to expand the use of ‘special drawing rights,’ or SDRs — a kind of synthetic currency created by the IMF in the 1960s. Its value is determined by a basket of major currencies. Originally, the SDR was intended to serve as a shared currency for international reserves, though that aspect never really got off the ground.” It’s not clear exactly how such a system would work, but the idea is straightforward enough; instead of holding individual currencies, which are inherently volatile, Central Banks would be able to denominate reserves in a sort of universal currency. Instead of parking money in US Treasury securities, they would hold IMF bonds, or some equivalent.

Even before China starting becoming more vocal about its concerns, analysts had begun questioning the role of the US as reserve currency. I’m not just talking about the perennial pessimists. Within the context of the current credit crisis, a bubble may be forming in the market for Treasury bonds. “Foreign buying of American financial assets by both private investors and governments averaged $141 billion from September to December, Treasury data show…Demand was so strong that, for the first time, investors accepted rates below 0 percent on three-month Treasury bills to safeguard their capital.”

There is concern that a slight recovery in risk appetite (of which there is already evidence) could ignite a massive sell-off: “People are sitting there holding massive amounts of zero- yielding dollar assets. If there is any sort of good news, demand for dollars can drop off very, very quickly.”

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

Despite Shrinking Forex Reserves, China will Continue to Hold US Treasuries

Mar. 23rd 2009

Since Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (as the ForexBlog reported here) expressed doubts about China’s US loans and investments two weeks ago, the markets have been awash in speculation. In hindsight, it seems that the announcement was a political ploy, rather than a harbinger for a policy change. With a few qualifications, therefore, it seems to safe to conclude that China’s foreign exchange reserves will not undergo any serious changes in the near-term.

Motivated both by politics and pragmatism, “China’s top foreign-exchange official said the nation will keep buying Treasuries and endorsed the dollar’s global role. Treasuries form ‘an important element of China’s investment strategy for its foreign-currency reserves,’ she said at a briefing in Beijing today. ‘We will continue this practice.’ ” The economic fortunes of China and the US have become increasingly intertwined over the last decade, such that China has come to depend on exports to the US to drive economic growth, while the US simultaneously depends on China to fund its fiscal and current account deficits. As a result, “about two-thirds of China’s nearly $2 trillion in reserves is parked in dollar assets, primarily U.S. government and other bonds.”

china-forex-reserve-compositionEven ignoring the potential political fallout from forex reserve diversification, such a move doesn’t really make practical sense. First of all, there isn’t a buyer sufficiently capitalized to relieve China of its US Treasury burden. “If China decided to sell off some of its U.S. Treasury holdings, it would scarcely be able to dump that in large blocks. And a partial selloff would surely lead to a slump in the Treasury market, eroding the remaining value of China’s portfolio.”

In addition, there doesn’t currently exist a viable alternative to US Treasury securities, nor to investing in the US, for that matter. China’s attempt at diversifying into corporate bonds and equities was extremely ill-timed, having been implemented just prior to the puncture of the real estate and stock market bubbles. Including the collapse in the value of its high-profile investments in the Blackstone Group and Morgan Stanley, total paper losses are estimated at a whopping $80 Billion. Investments in other currencies and markets, meanwhile, probably would have yielded similarly poor returns. The market for gold- mulled by some as a theoretical alternative- is even more volatile and “not large enough to absorb more than a small proportion of China’s reserves.”

As a result, China’s forex reserve diversification strategy is likely to proceed along two lines: change in duration of loans, and investments in natural resources. “The risk of short-term national debt is comparatively more controllable. China increased its holding of short-term US bonds by $40.4 billion, $56 billion, and $38 billion in September, October and November, respectively. At that time, China began to sell long-term government debt.” Through its affiliates meanwhile, China’s Central Bank is cautiously making stealthy forays into natural resources; see its recently-acquired a $20 Billion stake in Rio Tinto, an aluminum company, as evidence of this strategy.

Of course, China has announced tentative support for loaning money to the IMF and backing an ‘international’ reserve currency that would serve as an alternative to the Dollar. Given that this is probably many years away, however, it has little choice but to continue to hold Treasuries and the like. In the words of a high-ranking Chinese official: “We are in the middle of a crisis right now, and the priority for foreign exchange reserves is to minimize losses.”

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, Chinese Yuan (RMB), US Dollar | 4 Comments »

Fed Turns on Printing Presses, Dollar Crashes

Mar. 19th 2009

Having already lowered interest rates essentially to zero, the Fed has announced that it will now focus on ‘quantitative easing,’ a fancy way of saying that it intends to turn on the printing presses. It will purchase over $1 Trillion in credit instruments, split between Treasury securities and Mortgage-backed debt, expanding its balance sheet to $3 Trillion. This should (temporarily) put an end to speculation over whether foreign Central Banks are still willing to finance the US debt, as this question is now moot, since the Fed has demonstrated its willingness to fulfill that role. “The Fed is basically financing our deficit by buying the debt issued by the Treasury. If the Obama administration pushes through another stimulus package, the dollar is done.”

When the news was announced, the Dollar plummeted by 2.7%, the highest daily margin since 1971, as traders mulled the inflationary implications of printing over $1 Trillion and injecting it directly into the money supply, with the potential of more to come. Wrote one analyst, “Interest rates now are effectively negative across the board. The dollar is selling off because this may contribute to long-term weakness in the currency.”
dollar-collapses

Unfortunately for the Fed and the Dollar, the last few weeks have witnessed a slight pickup in risk tolerance, as investors began to focus more on fundamentals. If this development took place in the deepest chasm of the credit crisis, investors might have been willing to look the other way, but now they are very concerned that a huge expansion of the US monetary supply could trigger long-term inflation. A less pessimistic way of looking at the Dollar sell-off would be to attribute it to investor confidence that the Fed plan will help revive the global economy, decreasing the appeal of the US as a safe haven for investing.

Whether this will push the Dollar down further towards the $1.40 range depends on a couple factors. First of all, will other Central Banks follow suit? “All the major central banks may end up in the same position. The way we look to play it is to see which goes the first and which one lags, and try to explore the timing difference between the two,” explained one analyst. If this proves to be the case, investors will once again focus on the “least worst” currency, in which case the Dollar could once again come out on top.

It also depends on whether this action is intended as a quick fix, or as part of a series of purchases by the Fed. “Sell the dollar!” said…a portfolio manager. “This is huge, huge. It’s equivalent to the Plaza accord. This is the last thing theyhave in the closet, and they used it a bit early.”

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

Swiss Bank Fulfills Promise of Forex Intervention, Franc Collapses

Mar. 17th 2009

Last week, the Forex Blog concluded a post on the Swiss Franc by suggesting that the Swiss National Bank (SNB) could artificially depress the value of its currency, which had “not just posted strong gains against the euro since late August but has gained 8% on a trade weighted basis.”

The very next day, the SNB followed its widely anticipated rate cut by announcing that it would indeed intervene in forex markets, “implementing” a decision to buy foreign currencies. The Swiss Franc immediately fell into a tailspin, falling 7 units against the Euro, and more than 3 against the Dollar. According to one trader, “the way this was communicated was intended at maximizing its shock value.” By the end of the week, the Franc had posted a record decline, as investors remained alert to the possibility of further invention.

swiss-franc-falls-against-the-euro
This is the first ‘solo’ intervention since 1992 by the SNB, which has “followed a noninterventionist policy when it came to its currency, occasionally hinting at interventions but never following it up. It remained on the sidelines in September 2001 when the euro traded even lower than its present rate, at 1.44 Swiss francs.” It is also the first intervention by any Central Bank since 2003, when Japan intervened unsuccessfully to try to halt the rise of the Yen.

Evidently, the SNB felt justified in its decision not only because of a deteriorating economy, but more importantly because of monetary conditions. Inflation is now projected to dissappear by 2010, and may even “slow to the point where prices broadly fall.” Traders also speculated that the move was designed to relieve downward pressure on Eastern European economies, whose economic woes are being compounded by the fact that much of their debt is denominated in Swiss Francs.

It is doubtful that Switzerland will receive much sympathy from other countries, nearly all of whom have thus far refrained from forex intervention in spite of widespread economic contraction and the risk of deflation. In the words of one analyst, “It is troubling that a country with a current surplus larger than 10% of GDP feels compelled to depreciate its currency.”

The greater concern is that this could ignite some kind of “currency war,” where Central Banks around the world compete with each other to see who can most debase their respective currency. Traders are already speculating that the Bank of Japan could be next: “The BoJ should pay close attention to the SNB’s actions, given that both central banks have expressed a desire to see their currencies weaken.”

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Korean Won Continues to Plummet as a Result of Acute Dollar Shortage

Mar. 16th 2009

The Korean Won is among the biggest losers of the credit crisis, excluding Iceland of course. The currency has fallen 40% against the Dollar over the last year, even adjusting for a 10% rise in the last week. South Korean Finance Minister Yoon Jeung-hyun blames currency speculators, pledging that “The government will not sit idle when the foreign exchange rate is excessively tilted toward one direction or when there are speculative forces.”
korean-won-reverses-fall-against-the-dollar
Perhaps understanding that it cannot possibly hope to defend its currency against such a broad tide of determined speculators, the Central Bank of Korea has all but given up on intervening in forex markets. “South Korea was the catalyst for the shift away from defensive intervention. After spending 22 percent of foreign reserves from August to November to stem won losses, Yoon…said Feb. 25 that its weakness may be an ‘engine for export growth.’ ”

There is some plausibility to this argument, since South Korean economic fundamentals (as bleak as they are) probably don’t support such a precipitous decline in the Won. In fact some South Korean exporters have benefited from the weak currency, with companies such as Hyundai and Samsung growing revenues and increasing market share. Still, the global recession has impelled foreign consumers to cut back on spending, with the end result that “A double-digit fall in exports in the last three months of 2008 seriously undermined industrial production, [and] a 16% plunge in facility investment was an equally important factor in the 5.6% contraction in Korea’s GDP from the previous quarter.”

Ultimately, the Won’s decline is being driven by an acute shortage of Dollars. A relatively large portion of Korean public and private debt is denominated in foreign currency. The collapse in liquidity spurred by the credit crisis and consequent decline in bank lending have made it very difficult for South Korean borrowers to procure the requisite Dollars to repay their loans, causing a large imbalance in the supply and demand for the Dollar within Korea. Even more alarming is that $150 Billion of such debt will come due in the immediate future. “The government stresses that foreign debt maturing within a year amounts to 77% of its foreign exchange holdings, meaning Korea can cover its obligations. However, no other Asian nation that investors care about has such a high ratio of short-term external debt (on a remaining maturity basis) to foreign exchange reserves.”

South Korea recently extended a swap agreement with the US, which enables it to exchange up to $30 Billion in Won for Dollars. Investors are evidently hopeful that this represents a step towards easing the Dollar shortage, as the news caused the Won to appreciate by the largest margin in months. Borrowing costs for Korean firms remain high, and the odds remain tilted against them. Unless the US financial system stabilizes and/or Korea is able to run a current account surplus (as a result of increased foreign investment), liquidity will remain a problem.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, Emerging Currencies, US Dollar | 1 Comment »

Central Banks Maintain Holdings of US Treasury Securities, but For How Long?

Mar. 13th 2009

Yesterday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao aired his country’s growing concerns about continuing to lend money to the US. Within the context of the US economic stimulus plan and other related US spending initiatives, Mr. Wen is understandably anxious about China’s vast holdings of US Treasury securities:

President Obama and his new government have adopted a series of measures to deal with the financial crisis. We have expectations as to the effects of these measures. We have lent a huge amount of money to the U.S. Of course we are concerned about the safety of our assets. To be honest, I am definitely a little worried.

While the announcement represented political posturing (to an increasingly restless, domestic Chinese audience), it should nonetheless be heeded as a warning, that the US cannot expect China (and other foreign Central Banks) to fund US budget deficits indefinitely.

Let’s put aside the rhetoric for a moment, and examine the data. This week witnessed strong demand for Treasury securities, which were auctioned by the Treasury Department on consecutive days. Despite historically low yields (see chart), investors continue to snap up Treasury Bonds, mainly for the sake of risk aversion. The newly-revived issuance of 30-year bonds also went off without a hitch, and were more than 2x oversubscribed. Most relevant to this discussion is the fact the foreign Central Banks accounted for as much as 46% of demand!
10-year-treasury-yield at record low
The most recent Federal Reserve Statistical Release paints a similar picture. While foreign Central Banks and other international institutions reduced their holdings of US government securities slightly from the previous week, the decrease was essentially negligible. Overall, such entities have increased their holdings by at least $440 Billion over the previous year, bringing the total to approximately $3 Trillion (depending on the data source). China’s contribution remains substantial. Of its $2 Trillion in foreign exchange reserves, “Economists say half of that money has been invested in United States Treasury notes and other government-backed debt.”

central-bank-holdings-of-us-treasuries

However, there are a few reasons why I don’t think this trend will continue. First of all, the buildup in foreign Treasury holdings that transpired over the last decade was largely a product of unsustainable global economic imbalances, as net exporters to the US invested their perennial trade surpluses in what they perceived to be the world’s most secure investment. Temporarily putting aside whether Treasuries are actually secure, economic indicators suggest that Central Banks simply do not have the capacity to increase their holdings by much more. China’s trade surplus plummeted to $4.8 Billion last month; one economist projects a surplus of only $155 Billion in 2009, compared to nearly $300 Billion in 2008.

chinas falling exports

You can also remove from the list Japan- the second-largest holder of US Treasury securities- which is now running a trade deficit. Instead, both countries have publicly announced plans to use some of their forex reserves to fund domestic economic initiatives.

Then there is the equally unsustainable short-term buildup in US Treasuries, which is largely a product of technical factors. As I mentioned above- and which should be clear to all investors- the current theme underlying securities markets is one of risk aversion. In fact, it now appears that a bubble is forming in the bond market, and “any exodus now could spark selling across the board. Foreign debt holders would likely repatriate their funds immediately to reduce the risk of being last to convert.” As soon as markets recover- of which there are already nascent indications- investors will probably reduce their holdings of government bonds, or at least not increase their holdings.

Even the most conservative projections indicate a cumulative budget deficit for the next few years measuring in the the Trillions. Unless the risk-aversion theme obtains for the next decade, it seems unlikely that foreigners can be tapped to fund more than a small portion, leaving the Federal Reserve (with the help of its printing press) to make up the shortfall.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, US Dollar | 5 Comments »

Swiss Franc Rises on a Trade-weighted Basis, but Down against the Dollar

Mar. 11th 2009

Most of the “safe haven” talk in forex circles has focused on Japan and the US. Switzerland, meanwhile, has also attracted is fair share of risk-averse investors, who are piling into Franc-denominated assets, despite the deteriorating Swiss economic situation. In fact, February witnessed an inflow of $4 Billion, most of which was targeted towards gold and money-market funds. The Swiss Franc, as a result, has appreciated by 9% (on a trade-weighted basis), since the summer.

euro-to-swiss-franc-exchange-rate-chart
The Swiss National Bank (SNB), meanwhile, has cut interest rates by 225 basis points over the last six months. If it delivers on a unanimously-anticipated 25 basis point cut at its meeting tomorrow, its benchmark lending rate will stand at a paltry .25%. To the frustration of the SNB, the “deflation trade” is still in vogue, as traders have counter-intuitively taken to betting on the countries and currencies that offer the lowest interest rates. From an economic standpoint, this trend is eroding the effectiveness of an easy monetary policy, such that the SNB has been forced to consider less conventional approaches.

This would probably take the form of quantitative easing, in the same vein as that which the US and UK are currently pursuing. Under such a policy, the SNB would buy credit instruments on the open market, and pay for them by printing money. This would have the dual effect of devaluing the Franc and easing liquidity problems in Swiss securities markets. While normally a country in Switzerland’s position (especially one whose banks have recently come under fire for secret bank accounts would take flak for such a policy, Swiss (economic) neutrality largely eliminates this burden. Another alternative, which has been proposed by the heir-apparent for SNB chief, is to create a ceiling on the value of the Franc.

Either way, a lower Franc looks like a real possibility. Says one analyst, “Switzerland is likely to…cut interest rates and intervened [sic] verbally to weaken the Swiss franc, threatening unsterilised intervention. If this does not work, and we are sceptical that it will, actual intervention may be required and we suspect this will have some impact. The bottom line is that the franc looks vulnerable.”

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UK, EU Central Banks Follow the Federal Reserve

Mar. 6th 2009

Yesterday, both the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Bank of the UK cut their benchmark interest rates to record lows. This is especially incredible in the case of the UK, whose Central Bank over 300 years old! You can see from the following chart that both Central Banks have more than made up for their respectively slow starts in easing monetary policy by effecting several dramatic rate cuts, following the example of the Federal Reserve. The baseline UK rate now stands at .5%, only slightly higher than the Federal Funds rate, and slightly lower than the 1.5% ECB rate.

Given that they have essentially reached the terminus of their monetary policy options, all three Central Banks are exploring further options aimed at pumping money into their respective economies. The Fed has already “announced a program to buy $100 billion in the direct obligations of housing related government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) — Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Home Loan banks — and $500 billion in mortgage-based securities backed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae.” As I wrote in a related article, “this was quickly followed by repurchase programs, lending facilities, investments in money market funds, and option agreements, all of which were designed to supplement its ‘traditional open market operations and securities lending to primary dealers.’ The Fed’s efforts also worked to ease the liquidity shortage in credit markets abroad by entering into swap agreements with several foreign Central Banks suffering from acute Dollar shortages.”

In conjunction with the rate cut, the Bank of the UK, meanwhile, will pump £150bn directly into UK credit markets through liquidity support, buying public and private debt, and asset purchases. “The main purpose of quantitative easing is not to send the money supply into orbit but to stop it from crashing…the broad money held by households has risen at a worryingly slow rate over the past year, and holdings by private non-financial firms have actually been dropping.” In contrast to the monetary programs of the UK and US, the ECB has thus far refrained from the kind of liquidity support that would necessitate printing new money. Instead, “the central bank will continue offering euro-zone banks unlimited loans at the central bank’s policy rate until at least the end of this year.”

The interest rate cuts were announced simultaneously with a spate of macroeconomic data, which collectively paint a bleak picture. Eurozone growth is projected at -2.7% for 2009 and 0% for 2010. The current unemployment rate at 8.2% and climbing. The thorn in the side of the EU is represented by eastern Europe, where growth is falling at an alarming pace, dragging the EU down with it. While EU member states have pledged to intervene if one of their own falls into bankruptcy, it’s unlikely that they would intervene similarly if a non-EU member state went bust. The UK economy is similarly desperate, having contracted at an annualized rate of 5.8% in the most recent quarter. The wild cards are the real estate and financial sectors, the fortunes of which are increasingly intertwined.

So what do the forex markets have to say about all this? Economists have used the dual phenomena of risk aversion and deflation to explain the interminable weakness in the the Pound and Euro. Everyone is surely familiar with the notion of the US as “safe haven” during periods of global financial instability. The deflation hypothesis, meanwhile, suggests that the ECB (and to a lesser extent, the Bank of UK), fell behind the curve when easing liquidity. The ECB, especially has harped on inflation as a reason for cutting rates more quickly. Given that investors are now more concerned with capital preservation than price inflation, it follows that they would prefer to invest where Central Banks were more vigilant about deflation (i.e. the US).

Personally, I think that the continued declines in both currencies, in spite of steep interest rate cuts, indicates that the deflation hypothesis is bunk, and investors remain fixated on risk aversion. By no coincidence, the temporary rebound in US stocks that took place in January was also accompanied by a bump in the Euro. (See chart below).

I think this mindset is reasonable, but only in the short-term. Given the current economic environment, I don’t think investors (and currency traders) can be faulted for ignoring the possibility that quantitative easing and liquidity programs will have to be funded with the printing of new money, which would be inherently inflationary. Many comparisons are being made with Japan, whose ill-fated quantitative-easing program succeeded only in inflating a bond-market bubble and vastly increasing Japanese public debt. According to one columnist, “it’s hard to argue that quantitative easing ended deflation; high oil prices did that. Meanwhile, the economy cured on its own most of the structural problems such as excess capacity and too much debt associated with the deflationary environment.”

In short, with a medium and long-term investing horizon in mind, I think the ECB’s approach to dealing with the credit crisis is more conducive to monetary stability. Thus, when investors grow weary of the idea of US as safe haven, they will no doubt focus instead on fundamentals. At which point, the ECB will likely be rewarded for fulfilling its anti-inflation mandate, in the form of a stronger Euro.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in British Pound, Central Banks, Commentary, Euro | 7 Comments »

Will Mexican Peso Crisis of 1994 repeat itself?

Mar. 4th 2009
Having risen to a six-year high against the Dollar in late 2008, the Mexican Peso seemed to have firmly distanced itself from the devastating financial and economic crisis suffered in the early 1990’s. However, all of the factors that were blamed for the earlier crisis have since re-emerged, leading some analysts to question whether a repeat is possible. According to a report published by the Atlanta Fed shortly after the 1994 crisis:
The main fly in the ointment was Mexico’s current account deficit, which ballooned from $6 billion in 1989 to $15 billion in 1991 and to more than $20 billion in 1992 and 1993. To some extent, the current account deficit was a favorable development, reflecting the capital inflow stimulated by Mexican policy reforms. However, the large size of the deficit led some observers to worry that the peso was becoming overvalued, a circumstance that could discourage exports, stimulate imports, and lead eventually to a crisis.
Sound familiar? A future (hypothetical) report that follows the looming currency crisis will likely point to a similar inflow of speculative capital and a surging current account deficit, which has reached the highest level since 2000. Given that “the size of the deficit may more than double this year as industrial production, foreign direct investment and money transfers from abroad continue to fall,” the likelihood of peso devaluation is rising, regardless of how low the currency has already fallen.
 
On the one hand, Mexico’s response to the weakened Peso is promising. With the blessing of the US (which played a prominent role in the 1994 crisis), the Central Bank of Mexico has injected Billions of Dollars directly into the forex market, so as to keep up the facade that everything is under control. At the same time, it hasn’t lowered interest rates nearly to the extent of some of its peers, in order to guard against inflation and appeal to investors with comparatively attractive yields.
 
Unfortunately, there are a couple reasons why both prongs of this strategy will backfire. On the monetary policy side of the equation, investors would actually prefer steeper interest rate cuts. The carry trade is functionally dead, and investors are now primarily concerned with the risk of deflation, which only becomes more likely as a result of higher interest rates. In other words, the consensus is that the Central Bank should stop griping about inflation, and focus instead on stimulating aggregate demand, since the Mexican economy is especially vulnerable due its dependence on (oil) exports to the US. The Central Bank is also likely to fail in its efforts to directly prop up the Peso, because of the tide of speculators betting against it. To quote the same Atlanta Fed report:
A sudden shift of funds out of a currency is called a speculative attack in the economics literature…Rather than waiting for the central bank’s reserves to run out through a gradual process of current account deficits, speculators who realize that a devaluation is inevitable will attack the currency through massive capital outflows as soon as they command enough resources to force a devaluation.
Most analysts have since turned bearish on Mexico, which means the fall of the Peso has become self-fulfilling. Check out the Mexican Peso ETF (FXM), which represents a simple and effective way to bet against (or for, for all of the contrarians out there) the Peso.
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China Looking to Buy Oil & Diversify from US Treasuries

Mar. 3rd 2009

US Treasury yields have been held low across the short-term and long-term due in part to a lack of appealing investment opportunities in a deflationary period, while the Federal Reserve announced in January the possibility of buying long-term US government Treasury bonds to help hold down long-term interest rates (and thus mortgage rates), hoping for a slow controlled decent in housing prices.

At the other end of the spectrum, the US government has been bailing out every large financial institution willing to accept a few billion here or there, and running the printing presses in overdrive.

Chart of U.S. Money Supply Growth

Eventually this will lead to inflation, as explained by John Williams last August:

Excess supply of a commodity or product usually is reflected in downside pressure on its price, and the same is true for money. Excessive supply of money leads to its debasement, to a decline in its value that otherwise is known as inflation. Where money supply generally is an underpinning of economic activity, it also is the ultimate determinant of prices and inflation. At present, near-record high annual growth in the broadest U.S. money measure M3 is suggesting a significant inflation problem in the year ahead.

The Chinese have nearly 2 trillion Dollars in their reserves, with roughly 2/3 of them being denominated in US Dollars. Seeing their own economy slow, and the coming risk of inflation, the Chinese government is looking to shift some of their reserves away from US Dollars to hard commodities, particularly oil. Marketwatch reports:

China is considering plans to tap its foreign reserves to buy crude oil as part of a push to diversify holdings from U.S. Treasurys, according to a published report.

With the U.S. issuing massive amounts of government bonds to finance economic stimulus measures, Chinese officials are looking to hedge against the risk of Treasury prices dropping.

China, which has been building up a national oil stockpile since 2004, aims to amass 100 million barrels by next year as a first step, the Japanese business daily Nikkei reported.

This may just be jawboning to try to slow down the US printing presses, but if it is more than that, it could have a significant effect on the perceived value of the US Dollar, especially in light of the current $1.75 trillion US deficit – a full 12.3% of the projected 2009 GDP. If foreigners lose confidence in the US Dollar, inflation and interest rates will certainly move sharply off their historic lows as the risk of “risk free” US treasuries is revealed and repriced.

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Asia Forms Forex Pool

Feb. 25th 2009

After nearly six months of currency depreciation, the nations of Asia have finally been spurred to action. Japan, China, and South Korea have joined together with the 10 ASEAN economies to form a $120 Billion pool of foreign exchange reserves, which contributors can tap into to protect their currencies. The goal is to prevent capital flight and currency weakness from engendering the same kind of financial crisis that only 10 years ago ravaged Asia. Fortunately, this time around, the 13 countries possess a combined $3.6 Trillion in reserves, which can be deployed in forex and securities markets in order to restore investor confidence. Ironically, the bulk of these reserves belong to China and Japan (who are also funding a large portion of the forex pool), both of whose currencies remain strong in spite of the crisis. Bloomberg News reports:

The fund is aimed at ensuring central banks have enough to shield their currencies from speculative attacks such as those that depleted the reserves of Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea during the 1997-1998 financial crisis.

Read More: Asia Agrees on Expanded $120 Billion Currency Pool

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Yuan Revaluation is in China’s Interest

Feb. 21st 2009

While China remains committed, in rhetoric at least, to a flexible Chinese Yuan that rises and falls in accordance with market forces, its actions suggest otherwise. Beginning in the second half of 2008, China stopped allowing the Yuan to appreciate, for fear that a more expensive currency would exacerbate the domestic effects of the credit crisis by making exports less competitive. What China fails to realize however, is that a more valuable Yuan is not only conducive to global economic stability, but also to its own economic well-being. In fact, the artificially cheap Yuan may have actually worsened the economic downturn in China, because de-incentivized the creation of a domestic economic base. Now that overseas demand has dried up, it is left feeling the consequences of this neglect. The San Francisco Chronicle reports:

With China far too dependent on export-driven growth, it is now extremely vulnerable to the current steep decline in global export demand. Unless that structural imbalance is fixed, China’s long-term growth prospects are as bleak as those of the United States.

Read More: Undervalued currency helps, hurts U.S. economy

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Japanese Yen Braces for Intervention

Feb. 19th 2009

After months of speculation, it appears that forex markets have finally concluded that the Central Bank of Japan is now prepared to bring down the Yen. On the one hand, the Finance Minister of Japan very publicly denied that the overvalued Yen and the consequent need for forex intervention was discussed during either his personal conversation with US Treasury Secretary Geithner or at the most recent G7 conference. At the same time, he pledged the willingness of Japan to fight “excessive swings” in forex and capital markets. Meanwhile, the expensive Japanese Yen has already trickled down to the economy, driving a 12.7% decline in GDP (in annualized terms) for the most recent quarter. The Yen, accordingly, has begun its retreat, already erasing nearly 10% of the gains it racked up against the Dollar over the last year. Reuters reports:

Japan, like the United States, is in recession and can ill afford a rising currency, which puts an extra choke-hold on exporters that are cutting jobs and shuttering factories in the face of a global slump in demand.

Read More:  Japan to act vs FX swings

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

ECB Hints at Rate Cut

Feb. 18th 2009

At its next meeting, to be held in March, the European Central Bank is all but certain to bow to pressure and cut its benchmark interest rate to a record low. This should not come as a surprise, for the ECB’s February decision to hold rates constant was met with a large outcry, in both public and private circles. Soon-to-be-released inflation data is expected to confirm that prices are rising at a slower pace, perhaps even below the ECB’s 2% benchmark. Members of the Bank are also paying attention to the Euro, the continued weakness of which is ironically a product of the ECB’s comparatively tight monetary policy, as investors guard themselves against the risk of deflation. The Guardian reports:

As the economy falters, speculation is also increasing that the ECB may expand its monetary toolbox, possibly through asset purchases, to boost growth while keeping rates relatively high compared to other central banks.

Read More: ECB’s Liikanen, Bini Smaghi say rates could move in March

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Forex Reserves Backfire

Feb. 16th 2009

Prevailing wisdom has long held that the accumulation of foreign exchange reserves has helped stabilize emerging market economies by cushioning them against economic shocks. The economies of Asia, in particular, were praised by economists for responding to the 1997 Southeast Asian economic crisis by building up their reserves to guard against runs on their currencies in the future. In hindsight, however, the accumulation of reserves may have actually contributed to the current economic crisis, by facilitating the formation of massive global economic imbalances. High savings rates in Asia, for example, enabled western countries to run continuous current account deficits. Now, the chickens are coming home to roost, and developing economies are once again finding themselves vulnerable to recession, since their forex reserve policies came at the expense of developing domestic economic bases. The Times of India reports:

Re-balancing means that Asian countries must stop piling up ever-rising forex reserves (and trade surpluses). Such reserves represent excessive saving, excessive exports and insufficient imports.

Read More: High forex reserves can worsen recession

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Chinese Yuan: Up or Down?

Feb. 13th 2009

Speculation surrounding the Chinese Yuan has been mounting for months, beginning with a sudden halt to the currency's appreciation and continuing with the insinuation of the Obama administration that China is a currency manipulator. In the context of falling exports and a sagging economy, meanwhile, the Chinese Ministry of Finance has issued a research report encouraging the Central Bank to allow the currency to appreciate. Despite the Central Bank's insistence that it wants a "stable" currency, futures prices indicate a mean expectation that in fact, the Yuan will be nudged downward over the next twelve months. On the other side of the equation are financial analysts, who collectively forecast a slightly stronger Yuan, with one bullish analyst projecting a 3.5% appreciation in 2009, on the basis of selectively culled economic data. Bloomberg News reports:

“The consensus around China has been weak growth and falling reserves. The recent data challenges both views. Lending looks good, money supply looks good, and the PMI balanced to slightly bad from very bad levels.”

Read More: Citigroup Is Bullish on Yuan, Bets for 6.60 Year-End

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US and Japan Should Form “Forex Partnership”

Feb. 12th 2009

While continuing to deny the possibility of direct forex intervention, Japan is nonetheless desperate to halt the rise in the Yen. The primary concern of the US government, meanwhile, is not that the Dollar is becoming too valuable, but rather that it will face great difficulty in funding its economic stimulus plan. Perhaps there exists a golden opportunity to simultaneously alleviate both of these quandaries; Japan should be solicited to buy US government bonds. A large-scale purchase of US Treasury securities by the Central Bank of Japan would be tantamount to intervention, and would probably lead to a decline in the Yen, at least against the Dollar. Of course the US would benefit not only by the direct purchase of its bonds, but also by the positive signal that this would send to other institutional investors. Besides, given that China is in no position to increase its holdings of US Treasury securities, Japan represents the best candidate for partnership. The Washington Post reports:

Achieving such a currency adjustment may seem farfetched, but the yen-dollar exchange rate historically has been heavily influenced by the market's perception of the U.S. and Japanese governments' comfort level for the currency relationship.

Read More: America's New Rescuer: Japan

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ECB Holds Rates

Feb. 6th 2009

After "profound" debate, the European Central Bank voted yesterday to hold its benchmark interest rate constant at 2%. Despite the acknowledged fact that EU inflation has slid to the lowest level in a decade, the ECB remains unconvinced that it has been tamed. It is apparently concerned that further interest rate cuts could trigger a loss of confidence and hyper-inflationary spiral, from which it would be difficult to escape. The Bank's critics, meanwhile, insist that it is increasingly out of touch with economic reality and is falling further behind the curve, especially compared to the Fed and bank of England, which have already lowered rates to record lows. They further argue that this viewpoint is reflected in the Euro, which is losing the battle as safe haven currency with the Dollar. Nonetheless, it appears that investors accept the reasoning of the ECB, and the Euro reacted to the rate hold with indifference. The Financial Times reports:

The ECB president…said only that a zero interest rate policy had a “number of drawbacks” that should be avoided, without specifying what they were.

Read More: ECB halts rate cut after profound debate

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US Treasury Spurns China

Jan. 28th 2009

During his confirmation hearings, Treasury Secretary Geithner indicated that the Obama administration consensus is that China is manipulating the Yuan. China predictably refuted the charges, and indicated that it will not be bullied into submission by the US when managing its currency. Thus began a heated back-and-forth between US and Chinese economic officials, with the forex markets caught awkwardly in the middle. Geithner apparently doesn't realize that his position also carries important diplomatic responsibilities, namely helping the US government to pay its bills by ensuring a steady demand for US Treasury securities abroad. Offending the most reliable foreign lender, accordingly, is probably not the best strategy to fulfilling this role. Moreover, Geithner's testimony couldn't have occurred at a worse time, given the planned expansion of US debt and the simultaneous leveling off of China's forex reserves. The implications for the Dollar couldn't be clearer. Forbes reports:

China has been a major purchaser of America's official debt in recent years. If it were to stop…Geithner would likely find his Treasury paper having to offer higher yields to draw investors, putting new pressure on the American budget.

Read More: China Speaks, U.S. Debt Market Listens

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Japan Moves Closer to Intervention

Jan. 27th 2009

Despite backed by negative real interest rates, the Japanese Yen continues to grind upwards, threatening to break through significant psychological and technical barriers. From a monetary standpoint, the Bank of Japan is basically out of options with regard to limiting the currency's upward momentum. Its sole remaining tool is its $1 Trillion in foreign exchange reserves, which it could release directly into currency markets to depress the Yen. It has been four years since Japan last employed such a strategy, and it appears reluctant to dip into the reserves again for fear of offending the G8, which has discouraged such action. The BOJ is also reluctant to build its holdings of US Treasuries (which would be a collateral requirement of holding down the Yen), because bond prices have become inflated. However, loss of face may soon become the least of its concerns, as the economy slides deeper into recession. Unless the notoriously thrifty Japanese consumers can be impelled to action, the Bank may find it has no other choice but to spur the export sector via a cheaper Yen. The Guardian UK reports:

The economic malaise in the United States and Europe is affecting Japan and Tokyo must act to keep the economy afloat, Nakagawa said, a day after the country's central bank forecast that Japan would plunge into its deepest contraction in modern times.

Read More: Japan steps up warning on markets, BOJ gloomy

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Ruble to Continue Falling

Jan. 25th 2009

The Russian Ruble is sliding faster and faster, having most recently reached a pace and level not seen since 1998, when Russia famously defaulted on its debt, and the currency lost more than half of its value in under a week. The Central Bank is keen to avoid a similar catastrophe this time around which is why it has diligently controlled the Ruble's descent, rather than allow the currency to reach an equilibrium in the spot market; such would likely result in a precipitous drop and perhaps a loss of confidence in the nation's banking system. Unfortunately, given the current m.o. of consistent but gradual devaluation, foreign investors are hesitant to own the Ruble, conscious of its inevitable decline. In fact, futures prices indicate that it is due to fall another 11%, with experts suggesting that this could be implemented over a time period as brief as one month, in order to return the economy to "normal" functioning as quickly as possible. Bloomberg News reports:

The falling ruble is causing banks, companies and individuals to hoard foreign currency. "All the attention of the people is focused on the forex market. Companies aren’t buying supplies, they’re investing their rubles in dollars instead because the play is too attractive."

Read More: Ruble Drops to Pre-1998 Crisis Low on 6th Devaluation This Year

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ECB is Behind the Curve

Jan. 19th 2009

At the beginning of last week, analysts predicted that the Euro would continue to fall, on the basis of a deteriorating economic situation and the likely consequence of an expected ECB rate cut. Sure enough, the data indicated a decline in both inflation and economic output, paving the way for a 50 basis point cut in the ECB's benchmark lending rate and a fall in the Euro. Unfortunately, the consensus among analysts is that the common currency is poised to fall further. Investor interest in European assets and securities is waning rapidly as a result of a increased credit/economic/currency risk and decreased yield. In addition, the ECB is probably "behind the curve," having waited longer than its counterparts in the US and Britain to ease monetary policy. The Wall Street Journal reports:

"The sentiment is that the ECB is required to play catch-up in cutting interest rates," said Robert Blake, a Boston-based senior currency strategist at State Street Global Markets. "This could lead to further downward pressure on the euro for some time to come."

Read More: Euro Poised to Fall on Rate Cuts

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British Pound Oversold?

Jan. 16th 2009

Last week, the British Pound recorded its strongest performance against both the Dollar and Euro in nearly 20 years, on the basis of both technical and fundamental factors. On the surface, the Bank of England interest rate cut that prompted the rally would seem to be be negative for the Pound, since lower yield makes Britain a less attractive place to invest. On a deeper level, the relative modesty of the rate cut signalled to investors that the Bank of England is conscious of currency markets (the record decline in the Pound in 2008) when carrying out monetary policy. In addition, the BOE's proactive response to the credit crisis dwarfs the actions of the European Central Banks, which risks falling further behind the curve. In other words, investors began to question why they were pushing the Euro close to parity, when the economic fundamentals aren't much better in the EU than in the UK. Bloomberg News reports:

"The euro fundamentals are looking increasingly shaky," [said] a currency strategist. "It's clearer than ever the ECB has seriously misjudged the dire situation the region now finds itself in."

Read More: Pound Posts Record Weekly Gain Against Euro as BOE Cuts Rates

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in British Pound, Central Banks, Euro | 1 Comment »

UK, EU Rates Headed Downwards

Jan. 8th 2009

As investors gradually re-acquaint themselves with risk-taking, the interest rate story is once again dominating forex markets. For the last few weeks, this meant that investors were taking advantage of record-low US interest rates to fund carry trades in riskier currencies. Most recently, however, investors have begun to focus on the interest rate picture on the other side of the Atlantic. The Bank of UK just lowered rates to 1.5% and is "threatening" to match the Fed by dropping rates all the way to zero. The European Central Bank, meanwhile, is probably on the cusp of a similar interest rate cut. As commodity prices have relaxed and the credit crunch has slowed the expansion of the money  supply, the ECB is firmly justified in cutting rates, under the pretext of fulfilling its mandate, which is to guard against inflation. The upshot is that interest rate differentials, which have been fueling the Dollar's recent decline, may become less pronounced over the next year. Bloomberg News reports:

"There is increasingly more room for the ECB to be more aggressive on rate cuts. That will naturally put more pressure on the euro from an interest-rate differential perspective. We're seeing interest-rate differentials really come back into play in terms of a currency driver."

Read More: Euro Falls to Three-Week Low on Speculation ECB Will Cut Rates

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Consensus: Fed is Devaluing Dollar

Jan. 2nd 2009

The Fed is officially in panic mode, having lowered its benchmark federal funds rate close to zero and exhausted all of the tools in its monetary arsenal, with one notable exception: its printing press. In other words, the Fed is trying to jumpstart credit markets by acting as a market participant- investing funds to compensate for the reticence of private investors. Capital markets are naturally enthusiastic about this policy, since some of the new cash will probably be used to make leveraged bets on asset prices and erase some of the losses of the last year. Forex markets are palpably less excited that the Fed has essentially eroded much of the impetus for foreigners to hold their ash in the US, with paltry short-term yields and long-term gains that will likely be offset by inflation. Unless foreign Central Banks follow suit

and eliminate the current interest rate disparity with the US, it could be a bumpy 2009 for the Dollar. Forbes reports:

Citi Analyst Steven Wieting opined: "If you want yield, you'll have to take some risk." With borrowing rates suddenly close to zero and the Fed saying it will keep them at “exceptionally low levels … for some time, you'll get as little of it from government-issued debt as possible."

Read More: After the Fed Panic 

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

China’s FX Reserves Fall

Dec. 30th 2008

Anyone curious about whether China is intentionally allowing the RMB to depreciate, need look no further than the Central Bank's latest forex reserve figures, which registered a decline for the first time in nearly six years. At the same time, Chinese trade figures indicate that exports fell for the first time in seven years, which limits the government's ability to build up new reserves. As a result of the credit crisis, it's conceivable that the Central Bank will continue to spend down its reserves in order to provide a boost to its faltering economy. US President-elect Obama will have to deal with such forces if he wishes to successfully take on China's currency policy. Otherwise, the RMB currency could appreciate in 2009, bucking its trend over the last few years.

Read More: China's forex reserves fall

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

Ruble to Depreciate Gradually

Dec. 26th 2008

The perfect economic storm continues to brew in Russia; the financial crisis is sapping demand for Russian securities, and a decline in the price of oil (as well as other commodities) has turned the balance of trade from surplus to deficit. As a result, Russian banking officials seem resigned to a depreciation in the Ruble, but are understandably averse to a sudden devaluation, which could shock the economy into complete collapse. Nonetheless, in the last week, the currency recorded record drops as the Central Bank took advantage of Dollar weakness to adjust the band in which the Ruble is permitted to fluctuate (read: decline). Given continued weakness in the price of oil, combined with a faltering economy and surging domestic unemployment, investors should continue to expect precipitous drops in the Ruble, as it sinks to a sustainable level. Bloomberg News reports:

Troika Dialog, the nation’s oldest investment bank, and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. predict the ruble will have to weaken by at least 20 percent against the basket to reignite an economy stymied by a 62 percent drop in oil prices since July.

Read More: Ruble Falls Most Against Euro Since 1999 on Double Devaluation

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Investors Uncertain about Fed Rate Cut

Dec. 25th 2008

More than a week after America's Federal Reserve Bank slashed its benchmark interest rate to the historic (low) level of .25%, investors are still struggling to assess the implications. The immediate reaction was mostly positive, as Central Banks around the world (namely Hong Kong and Japan) quickly followed suit, and stocks rallied. In other words, investors were buoyed by the belief that Central Banks can and will employ all available financial tools to maintain acceptable liquidity in financial markets and to prevent the economic downturn from turning into a depression. On the other hand, forex traders were understandably dismayed by the growing gap between US and foreign interest rates, as well as the inflationary implications of the Fed's plan to essentially print money and inject it directly into the economy. The Associated Press reports:

"While there was applause for the (Fed) cuts…investors are now standing back and reflecting further on what that means," said…an analyst. "Some nervousness has been expressed in the currency markets. We have seen a weakened dollar, which has probably had an effect on the markets across the board."

Read More: World markets mixed after Fed's historic rate cut

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

Japan: Intervention Unlikely

Dec. 24th 2008

If ever there was a case for Japanese intervention in forex markets, it is now. The Yen has emerged as the unquestionable victor from the credit crisis, having appreciated against every major currency and notching a 13-year high against the Dollar. Japanese exports have plunged, inducing the country's first monthly trade deficit in almost three decades. Meanwhile, corporate profits are sagging as a result of forex conversion losses, and the unemployment rate could soon set a new record. Notwithstanding comments to the contrary by a high-ranking official, however, the Central bank of Japan is perhaps unlikely to intervene on behalf of the Yen, if only for political reasons. The G7 countries, namely the US, have urged Japan to allow the market to run its course, as it hopes the weaker Yen can help restore some of America's export competitiveness. The Asia Times reports:

Japan will be criticized internationally, especially by the US, the country's strongest ally, if it acts to stem the currency's gain as US automakers are still on the brink of bankruptcy. The stronger yen drives up the price of cars imported to the US.

Read More: Japan to live with yen burden

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

Fed is Debasing Dollar

Dec. 22nd 2008

Several years ago, Ben Bernanke earned the nickname "Helicopter Ben" by joking that the Fed would drop Dollars from helicopters if the American economic situation ever became desperate enough to warrant it. In hindsight, the bestowers of this nickname could not have been more prescient, as the Federal Reserve Bank has now officially pledged to do everything in its power to stimulate the flow of money, short of literally dropping currency from the sky. Capital markets naturally reacted to this policy prescription with delight, as some of the surplus dollars will certainly be used to bid up and stock and bond prices. Currency markets, on the other hand, were not so complacent, sending the Dollar back down from the depths from which it only recently emerged. In other words, zero-interest rates and a surfeit of dollars hot off the printing press has analysts and forex traders wondering aloud about who will be foolish enough to want to own Dollars in the future. The Wall Street Journal reports:

If the Fed is going to create boatloads of depreciating, non-yielding dollar bills, who will absorb them? Who will finance the Obama administration's looming titanic fiscal deficits? Who will finance America's annual surplus of consumption over production (after 25 more or less continuous years, almost a national trait)?

Read More: Is the Medicine Worse Than the Illness?

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

Central Banks Still Prefer Dollars

Dec. 18th 2008

Since its introduction only ten years ago, the Euro has ascended at an incredible pace. Perhaps the best proxy for its respectability is its growing share (currently estimated at 27%) of Central Banks' foreign exchange reserves. Still, most analysts reckon that the Dollar will remain ascendant for the near-term. For one thing, the perception remains that the US is the safest place to invest, and in fact this attitude has been reinforced by the current economic downturn. In addition, there is very limited doubt that the Dollar will be around for a very long time, whereas there are many skeptics who invariably insist that the Euro is on the verge of breaking up. In short, as the global economy rebalances itself, reserve accumulation will slow generally, and diversification into the Euro will slow specifically. Marketwatch reports:

In view of the value already tied up in holdings of U.S. government paper, it would take a decisive — and probably foolhardy — shift for the world's largest reserve holders in Asia or Latin America to transfer significant holdings of present reserves out of the dollar and into the euro.

Read More: Reserve shifts into the euro will slow

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, Euro, Politics & Policy | No Comments »

Investors Uncertain about RMB

Dec. 11th 2008

Only a few weeks ago, investors had made significant bets that China would reverse its official policy of RMB appreciation. Futures prices indicated that investors collectively expected the currency to depreciate over 7% against the Dollar over the next year, as part of a comprehensive Chinese policy to boost the faltering economy. Since then, however, the RMB recorded its biggest one-day rise since the currency peg was abandoned three years ago, and investors subsequently scaled back their bets.

While it's unclear what caused the sudden change in sentiment, there are a few factors which probably contributed. First is Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's recent visit to China, in which he encouraged China to continue to permit the the Yuan to appreciate. In addition, high-ranking Chinese economic policy-makers have indicated that market forces will increasingly determine the valuation of the Yuan. Finally, there is the recent election of Barack Obama, a long-standing critic of what he believes to be the undervalued RMB. Bloomberg News reports:

"Any attempt to devalue the currency is likely to be met with considerable opposition from China’s trading partners." The new U.S. administration under President-elect Barack Obama "will be less tolerant of the 'crawling peg' appreciation policy," said one analyst.

Read More: Yuan Forwards Advance Most Since Peg as China Seeks Stability

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Emerging Markets Shed FX Reserves

Dec. 9th 2008

According to the most recent monthly data, the foreign exchange reserves of most developing countries are disappearing faster than they can be replenished. As a result of the global credit crisis, central banks have taken to deploying vast sums of capital towards the dual ends of stimulating their economies and propping up their currencies. The latter can be especially expensive, as countries like Ukraine and South Korea can attest. Both countries have spent 20% of their respective reserves to halt the decline of their currencies, and both abandoned such a strategy after accepting its futility. Ironically, there seems to be a direct correlation between dwindling forex reserves and a depreciating currency, as investor nervousness and currency devaluation reinforce each other. There is one bright spot in this quagmirem, however. The Guardian reports:

China says its reserves are continuing to rise, with the chief economist at the National Bureau of Statistics telling Reuters they would exceed $2 trillion by the end of the year. Beijing [will] not resort to “panic selling” of reserves, instead maintaining a “prudent and responsible” stance.

Read More: Emerging reserves haemorrhage as currencies fall

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

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