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Currency Correlations, Part II: Canadian Dollar Begins its Decline

Jun. 8th 2011

In April, I wrote a post entitled, “Economic Theory Implies Canadian Dollar will Fall,” in which I argued that the currency’s impressive rise was belied by fundamentals. It seems the gods of forex read that post; since then, the Loonie has fallen 3% against the US dollar alone. Based on my reading of the tea leaves, the loonie will fall further over the coming months, and finish the year below parity.


My contention is basically that investors are falsely treating the Loonie is a high-yield growth currency, and hence, bidding up its value. There are a few reasons why I believe this viewpoint is completely erroneous. First of all, Canada’s economy is both plain and mature. While it is indeed rich in natural resources would seem to make it stand-out, commodities exports account for only a small portion of GDP. Given that the US absorbs 75% of its exports, it’s no accident that Canada’s economic fortunes are tied closely to the US. Finally, Canadian interest rates are pretty mediocre, which means there is neither a strong monetary nor an economic impetus for buying the Loonie against the dollar.

While Canadian GDP and inflation have exceeded analysts’ predictions, the consensus expectation is still for the Bank of Canada to hold off on tightening until September or so. Even the most bullish forecasts show a benchmark interest rate of only 1.75% by the end of 2011 and perhaps 3% at the end of 2012. In other words, it will be a long time before the Loonie becomes a viable target currency for the carry trade.

According to OECD models, the Canadian dollar is overvalued by 17% against the Dollar on a purchasing power parity (ppp). While it is generally dubious to apply this concept to currency markets, I think it’s reasonable to invoke it when analyzing the USD/CAD. The two economies share more than just a border. As I said, their economies are closely intertwined, and goods, services (and people!) move freely between the two. Thus, you would expect that large discrepancies in prices should disappear over the medium-term. In fact, the Canadian trade balance recently slipped into deficit for the first time in 40 years (corresponding with the Loonie’s record high level), which shows just how quickly consumers can shift their attention south of the border. That means that either Canadian prices have to decline (something which retailers are always reluctant to effect) or the Loonie must drop further against the Dollar.

Of course, there is a mitigating factor: the US dollar may fall even faster than the loonie. While it would seem impossible to tease apart the loonie’s rise from the dollar’s fall (since a rise in CADUSD inherently reflects both), we can still make an educated guess. For example, consider that the Canadian dollar is strongly correlated (i.e. greater than 80 or less than -80 in the chart above) with almost every other major currency, relative to the US dollar. If the correlation was low, than it would imply that the Canadian dollar is fluctuating (in this case falling) for endemic reasons. In this case, however, the almost perfect correlation with the majors shows that it is almost definitely a US dollar spike rather than a Canadian dollar correction.

Whether this trend continues then, depends more on the health of the US dollar and less on what investors think about the loonie.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Canadian Dollar, Commentary | 5 Comments »

Risk Still Dominates Forex. The Dollar as “Safe Haven” is Back!

May. 23rd 2011

Well over two years have passed since the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the accompanying climax of the credit crisis. Most economies have emerged from recession, stocks have recovered, credit markets are strong, and commodities prices are well on their way to new record highs. And yet, even the most cursory scanning of headlines reveals that all is not well in forex markets. Hardly a week goes by without a report of “risk averse” investors flocking to “safe haven” currencies.

As you can see from the chart below, forex volatility has risen steadily since the Japanese earthquake/tsunami in March. Ignoring the spike of the day (clearly visible in the chart), volatility is nearing a 2011 high.What’s driving this trend? Bank of America Merrill Lynch calls it the “known unknown.” In a word: uncertainty. Fiscal pressures are mounting across the G7. The Eurozone’s woes are certainly the most pressing, but that doesn’t mean the debt situation in the US, UK, and Japan are any less serious. There is also general economic uncertainty, over whether economic recovery can be sustained, or whether it will flag in the absence of government or monetary stimulus. Speaking of which, investors are struggling to get a grip on how the end of quantitative easing will impact exchange rates, and when and to what extent central banks will have to raise interest rates. Commodity prices and too much cash in the system are driving price inflation, and it’s unclear how long the Fed, ECB, etc. will continue to play chicken with monetary policy.


Every time doubt is cast into the system – whether from a natural disaster, monetary press release, surprise economic indicator, ratings downgrade – investors have been quick to flock back into so-called safe haven currencies, showing that appearances aside, they are still relatively on edge. Even the flipside of this phenomenon – risk appetite – is really just another manifestation of risk aversion. In other words, if traders weren’t still so nervous about the prospect of another crisis, they would have no reasons to constantly tweak their risk exposure and reevaluate their appetite for risk.

Over the last few weeks, the US dollar has been reborn as a preeminent safe haven currency, having previously surrendered that role to the Swiss Franc and Japanese Yen. Both of these currencies have already touched record highs against the dollar in 2011. For all of the concern over quantitative easing and runaway inflation and low interest rates and surging national debt and economic stagnation and high unemployment (and the list certainly goes on…), the dollar is still the go-to currency in times of serious risk aversion. Its capital markets are still the deepest and broadest, and the indestructible Treasury security is still the world’s most secure and liquid investment asset. When the Fed ceases its purchases of Treasuries (in June), US long-term rates should rise, further entrenching the dollar’s safe haven status. In fact, the size of US capital markets is a double-edge sword; since the US is able to absorb many times as much risk-averse capital as Japan (and especially Switzerland, sudden jumps in the dollar due to risk aversion will always be understated compared to the franc and yen.

On the other side of this equation stands virtually every other currency: commodity currencies, emerging market currencies, and the British pound and euro. When safe haven currencies go up (because of risk aversion), other currencies will typically fall, though some currencies will certainly be impacted more than others. The highest-yielding currencies, for example, are typically bought on that basis, and not necessarily for fundamental reasons. (The Australian Dollar and Brazilian Real are somewhere in between, featuring good fundamentals and high short-term interest rates). As volatility is the sworn enemy of the carry trade, these currencies are usually the first to fall when the markets are gripped by a bout of risk aversion.

Of course, it’s nearly impossible to anticipate ebbs and flows in risk appetite. Still, just being aware how these fluctuations will manifest themselves in forex markets means that you will be a step ahead when they take place.

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

Are Forex Markets Underpricing Volatility?

May. 12th 2011
This question has been raised by several market commentators, including The Wall Street Journal. Its recent analysis, entitled “Currency Investors: What, Me Worry?” wondered whether the forex markets might not have become too complacent about risk and have seriously underestimated the possibility of another shock.
First, some basics. There are two principal volatility measurements: implied
volatility and realized volatility. The former is so-called because it must be deduced indirectly. In the Black-Scholes model for pricing options, volatility is the only unknown variable and thus is implied by current market prices. It serves as a proxy for investor expectations for volatility over the period for which the option is valid. Realized volatility is of course the actual volatility that is observed in currency markets, calculated based on the size of fluctuations over a given period of time. When fluctuations are greater (whether upward or downward), volatility is said to be high.
 
For short time frames, implied volatility tends to be very close to realized volatility. For longer time-frames, however, this is not necessarily the case: “The long-dated implied volatilities are often driven to extreme values by one-sided demand or supply – the difference between implied and realised volatilities this causes is particularly large during periods of risk aversion in the market…making implied volatility a particularly poor proxy for realised volatility during periods of market unrest.” In practice, this is reflected by higher prices for long-dated put or call options (depending on the direction of the move that investors are trying to hedge against).
 
Indeed, most volatility metrics are well below their historical averages and are rapidly closing in on pre-credit crisis levels. This is true for the JP Morgan G7 3-month forex volatility index, the S&P VIX, as well as for specific currencies. Mataf.net (whose content manager I interviewed yesterday) contains replete short-term and long-term data for a few dozen currency pairs, and you can see that almost all of them feature the same downward trend. According to the WSJ, “Investors believe there is a 66% chance each day for the next month that the euro and pound will move no more than 0.6% and 0.5%, respectively—both limited moves.” In addition, “A gauge of the euro’s ‘realized’ volatility, which measures how much daily changes deviate from their recent average, is only 8.6%, lower than its 11% rolling one-year average.”
Of course, some commentators don’t see any problem here. They see it both as a positive indication that the markets have returned to normal following the financial crisis, and as a reflection of the correlation that has developed between stock prices and forex markets. (You can see from the chart below the strong inverse correlation between the S&P and the US dollar). According to Deutsche Bank, “Most news that should have shocked the market this year has not managed to do so for sufficiently long to make volatility rise sustainably. Our analytical models tell us that we are indeed moving to a low volatility environment again.”
 
On the other side of the debate is a growing consensus of investors that sees a pendulum that has swung too far. “I just don’t see how volatility will not increase quite substantially,” said one money manager. “There is significant potential for shocks to the system that currency volatility levels suggest the market is not prepared for,” added another, citing higher commodities prices and inflation, growing public debt, and the imminent end of the Fed’s QE2 monetary stimulus.
 
To be sure, volatility has started to tick up over the last month. This trend has also been reflected in options prices: “Many investors have avoided buying short-dated currency options this year, instead focusing on longer-dated protection, a phenomenon called a ‘steep volatility curve’…that trend has slowed a bit, with investors moving to hedge against near-term yen, euro and dollar swings.”
 
Currency traders should start to think about making a few adjustments. Those that think that volatility will continue to rise and/or that the markets are currently underpricing risk can employ a volatility strangle strategy, buying way out-of-the-money puts and calls. The options will pay off if there is a big move in either direction, with no downside risk. Those that think that volatility will continue declining or at least remain at current low levels can make use of the carry trade. Those pairs where interest rate differentials are highest and volatility levels are lowest represent the best candidates. BNP Paribas is also reportedly developing a product that will make it easier for traders to make volatility bets without having to rely on indirect means.
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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Commentary, Investing & Trading | No Comments »

Emerging Market Currency Correlations Break Down

Apr. 29th 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where are Exchange Rates Headed? Look at the Data

Apr. 17th 2011

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Record Commodities Prices and the Forex Markets

Apr. 15th 2011

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Report Portends Changes to Forex Reserve Currencies

Apr. 9th 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why the Dollar is Here to Stay

Mar. 28th 2011

In a recent piece published in the WSJ (“Why the Dollar’s Reign Is Near an End“), Berkley Professor Barry Eichengreen declared that the Dollar will soon cease to be the world’s reserve currency. According to Dr. Eichengreen, within 10 years and for various reasons, the Dollar will become one of many reserve currencies, competing for preference with the Euro, Chinese Yuan, Japanese Yen, and Swiss Franc. While Dr. Eichengreen makes some good points, however, I don’t think most of his arguments stand up to scrutiny.

His thesis can be boiled down into a few premises. First of all, he argues that it is fundamentally illogical that oil should be priced in Dollars, and that countries conducting bilateral trade should settle their accounts using Dollars. Dr. Eichengreen is right that this represents the main underpinning of the Dollar. He is wrong to suggest that it will change anytime soon.

That’s because oil ultimately has to be priced in currency. It’s entirely possible that oil exporting countries will band together and decide to price oil in Euros, instead. However, this would mainly be useful as a political tool (albeit a very potent one!) and would serve no economic or risk management purpose whatsoever. If oil were priced in terms of a basket of currencies (such as IMF Special Drawing Rights), it might make oil prices less volatile, but then would require oil exporters to receive 5 (or more!) currencies for their oil instead of one! Finally, the price of oil can and does adjust relative to what happens in forex markets. When the Dollar declined in 2007, oil prices skyrocketed commensurately in order to compensate exporters.

The same largely applies to bilateral trade. While it makes sense for two countries with stable currencies (such as Korea and Japan, for example) to use one of their currencies as the main unit for trade, the same cannot be said for countries with more volatile currencies. For example, if Argentina and Israel are trading, one country would be inherently dissatisfied if trade were denominated either in Shekels of Pesos. When bills are settled in Dollars, however, it is easy and economical for both countries to simply convert those Dollars into currencies which may have more utility for them. As with oil, it’s possible that some countries will decide that it makes more sense to settle trade in Euros instead of Dollars, but again, I don’t see what purpose this would serve and any such decision would probably be politically motivated.

Second, Dr. Eichengreen points out that changes in technology have made it easy to instantly calculate exchange rates and easily convert currency. While I think this point is well-taken, I think people enjoy having a common base currency, if only for psychological reasons. Ultimately, this point is irrelevant because it has very little bearing on the supply and demand for particular currencies.

Third, he argues that the Euro and Chinese Yuan both represent latent threats to the Dollar’s preeminence. Again, he’s both right and wrong. The Euro already represents a viable alternative to the Dollar. It’s economy is reasonably strong, its monetary policy is sensible, its capital markets are deep and liquid. On the other hand, it’s being held back by perennial fears about the a Euro breakup, and the fact that the sum of 20 separate parts is not the same as the whole. Since the EU doesn’t issue sovereign debt, risk-averse investors will be limited to buying German/French/etc. bonds, which are always going to be more less liquid and more risky than US Treasury Securities. Besides, you can see from the chart below that the US economy has actually been growing faster than the Eurozone for the last 30 years.


As for China, I expounded in a recent post about how unlikely it is that the Yuan will seriously rival the Dollar anytime soon. While China certainly has plenty of cachet and expanding vehicles for investment, its capital markets remain much too primitive and opaque for Central Banks and risk-averse investors. Most importantly, the structure of China’s economy is such that foreign institutions simply don’t have the opportunity to accumulate Yuan in massive quantities. Simply, the supply is too small. In fact, the Asian Development Bank forecasts that the Yuan will constitute a mere 3-12% of international reserves by 2035. That doesn’t sound very threatening.

Dr. Eichengreen’s final point is that the Dollar’s safe haven status has been compromised. First of all, this is old news. The Yen is already a – if not the – preeminent safe haven currency, thus headlines like “Safe-Haven Yen Gains As Radiation Concern Mounts” that take irony to a whole new level. The same goes for the Swiss Franc. However, any concerns that investors have about the Dollar must necessarily also be projected onto the Yen, Euro, and Pound. All of these currencies face current or looming fiscal crises and slowing economic growth. While investors might diversify into other countries, they’re not going to suddenly dump the Dollar in favor of the Euro.

In short, it makes sense that a currency that represents 80% (out of a total of 200%) of all forex transactions and more than 60% of global reserves but only accounts for 25% of GDP, should experience a decline of some sort of decline in popularity. Over the next 50 years, the Dollar will gradually cede share to other currencies. But 10 Years? Give me a break.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Commentary | 4 Comments »

In Defense of Fundamental Analysis!

Mar. 8th 2011

I was inspired to write this post by a recent article published by Counting Pips, entitled “The Problem with Forex Fundamental Analysis.” While the author, Warren Seah, delivers a stinging critique of fundamental analysis, I think most of his points are pretty hollow. For the sake of debate, I’d like to present my rebuttal.

Seah’s thesis can essentially be boiled down as follows: First, by the time traders have a chance to act on fundamental developments, it is inherently too late as such developments have already been priced into the exchange rates. Second, he argues that fundamental metrics are not automatically trustworthy, since the countries presenting them often have their own agendas. Finally, he asserts that the markets’ response to fundamental news releases is often illogical, and may only serve to confuse traders that would otherwise depend on technical signals to make trading decisions.

I think Seah’s first argument is inherently self-defeating. If one were to concede that all fundamental data has already been priced into currencies, that one would have to make the same concession with regard to price data, which is the backbone of technical analysis. In the end, all traders- regardless of analytical approach – believe that efficient markets theory is flawed, and that exchange rates (and other asset prices, for that matter) are not always correctly valued. The goal of any type of analysis is to identify and exploit such inefficiencies.

I think Seah’s second point, meanwhile, is somewhat irrelevant. Regardless of whether the official economic indicators are actually correct, the market will come to its own (implicit) consensus, and the data will still form the basis for investment decisions. In other words, given that comparative inflation rates can and do drive exchange rates, it’s important to be aware of such rates, be they explicitly provided by a government agency or implicitly priced in by investors. Whether the government agency’s figures are accurate or not doesn’t mean that currency investors shouldn’t worry about inflation.

With regard to the final point, I would agree that news releases can cause exchange rates to move illogically, but as Seah concedes, these inefficiencies will usually smooth themselves out over the following trading periods. A fundamental analyst with a long-term time horizon wouldn’t be swayed by such short-term fluctuations, especially if they are illogical. Thus, I would argue that news releases are more likely to interfere with short-term technical strategies than long-term fundamental strategies.

Ultimately, both fundamental factors AND technical factors drive exchange rates, with the latter primarily dictating short-term movements and the latter bearing more heavily on the medium-term and the long-term. By way of example, consider that all else being equal, a currency backed by low inflation, high economic growth, and high interest rates should outperform a currency with high inflation, low GDP growth, and low interest rates over the long-term. Since exchange rates don’t move up and down in straight lines, there will be plenty of opportunities for technical traders to earn a profit on a minute-by-minute and even week-by-week basis. The fact that very few technical traders will look at 5 year charts and very few fundamental traders will waste their time on 1-day charts largely explains the perceived value of both types of analysis.

Ideally, I would say that all traders should be aware of and make use of both types of analysis. In reality, though, I think this is akin to trying to have one’s cake and eat it too. I think it’s much more practical for traders to decide which type of analysis is better suited to their trading style and even their personality type, and analyze accordingly. For the best analogy, consider that Warren Buffet probably doesn’t know what a stochastic is, while quantitative hedge fund managers probably couldn’t care less about value. And yet it’s possible for both to earn consistent, out-sized returns.

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Oil Prices and the FX Conundrum

Mar. 5th 2011

I haven’t blogged about oil prices in quite some time. After prices collapsed in the wake of the financial crisis, there really wasn’t much to talk about. However, the price of crude oil has risen more than 50% since June, and it now seems to be at the forefront of investor consciousness. Currency market watchers, in particular, need to brace themselves for the nuanced and sometimes contradictory ways in which oil prices bear on exchange rates.


Under normal conditions, the impact of rising oil prices on the currency markets is somewhat straightforward. First of all, the currencies of oil-exporting countries will typically experience some degree of appreciation. In addition, since oil contracts are still mainly settled in US Dollars, oil prices and a weak Dollar tend to go hand-in-hand. Second, insofar as rising prices drive inflation, the same can be said for Central Banks that are proactive in tightening monetary policy. As real interest rate differentials widen, (risk-averse) capital will naturally gravitate towards the highest returns.

The same logic cannot be applied to the current situation, however. That’s because this time around, oil prices aren’t being driven by economic fundamentals and rising demand, but rather by concerns over supply. You don’t have to be an expert to understand the connection between the continuing Mid East political crisis and oil futures. In the last two weeks alone, prices have risen a whopping 15% and show no sign of abating, as long as tensions linger unresolved.

From that standpoint, you might expect the political tensions to drive safe haven flows to the US Dollar. On the other hand, you would also expect that the resulting high oil prices might crimp the US economic recovery, and cause traders to punish the Dollar. However, you also need to consider that rising oil prices might also cause the Fed to eventually raise interest rates, or at least rein in QE2, which would be Dollar-positive.

Enough with the theory; let’s look at what’s happening in reality! The Canadian Dollar and Australian Dollar are rising, even though oil accounts for only 7% of the  former’s exports, and is a nil factor in the latter’s economy. It looks like forex investors are confusing oil prices with commodity prices, which are also rising, but at a much slower pace. In addition, since higher energy prices will probably erode economic growth in energy importing countries, this could actually hurt some commodity currencies over the long run.

The US Dollar has fallen across-the-board. While Ben Bernanke has insisted that the impact of higher energy prices on the US economy will be minimal, the markets are either taking the opposite view or are punishing the Dollar for the Fed’s dovishness. In other words, if Bernanke isn’t concerned about oil, he probably won’t cap QE2, and certainly won’t steer any interest rate hikes in the near-term.

Meanwhile, the European Central Bank (ECB), whose mandate is tilted towards maintaining price stability, has begun to voice concerns about the impact of rising commodity prices on inflation. Consumer and producer price indexes are rising across the Eurozone, and members of the ECB have suggested that they will take a proactive stance in preventing them from spurring inflation.

In conclusion, while both the EU and the US are net oil importers, the Euro is poised to outperform the Dollar, all else being equal. In addition, as long as the mid east political protests don’t drive further instability and contribute to any major supply shocks (especially in Saudi Arabia and Iran), there won’t be any impetus towards safe-haven capital flows. At the same time, while I don’t pretend to be an expert on oil prices, I would expect prices to stabilize and for a handful of minor corrections to materialize in the fx market. Traders are still looking for an excuse to short the Dollar in favor of, well, everything else, but sooner or later they will have to accept the limits of this trade, high oil prices or not.

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Untangling the Puzzle of Risk Appetite

Feb. 24th 2011

When analyzing forex, nothing is more satisfying than establishing a strong correlation between a particular currency pair and another quantifiable investment vehicle. You see – we fundamental analysts love to kid ourselves that we can actually explain what’s going in the forex markets, but it’s only when you can visually observe (and statistically confirm) a correlation can you actually pretend that this self-assuredness is justified.

On that note, I found myself looking at in interesting chart today: the EUR/USD vs. CHF/USD vs. S&P 500 Index. My purpose in drawing this particular chart was to ascertain how risk appetite (represented by the S&P) is being reflected in forex markets. As you can see, two observations can immediately be made. CHF/USD very closely tracks the S&P (or vice versa), while the EUR/USD similarly mirrored the S&P for most of the last 12 months, before suddenly diverging in November 2010.


By extension, this raises two questions. First, why should a rising S&P be accompanied by the Swiss Franc? After all, the former is a proxy for risk appetite, while the latter is a symbol of risk aversion. That means that tither the S&P is a weak indicator of risk appetite, or the Swiss France is not being driven by risk aversion. In a way, I think both notions are true. Specifically, US equity prices are are primarily a sign of US economic recovery and strong corporate profits. It’s probably equally accurate to say that the S&P promotes risk appetite, as saying it reflects risk appetite.

Moreover, as US stocks and investor risk appetite have increased, interest in the US Dollar has (somewhat ironically) decreased. One would think that this would spur a depreciation in the Swiss Franc, but I guess this was superseded by the falling Dollar. [For that reason, I actually added the MSCI Emerging Markets Stock Index after I started writing this post, because I realized it was a better proxy for global investor risk appetite. Sure enough, the recent continuation in the Franc’s rise has coincided with a correction in emerging market stocks].

While this explains why the Euro should also appreciate for five consecutive months, it doesn’t offer any insight into why the EUR/USD correlation with the S&P should suddenly breakdown. [Question #2]. Recall from my earlier posts that there was a sudden flareup in the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis in November 2010. Around that time, there were a handful of debt downgrades, Ireland received an EU bailout, and there was heightened concern that the crisis would soon spread from Greece to the rest of the PIGS.

This caused a bout of intense Euro instability, against both the US Dollar and Swiss Franc. While the S&P continued rising, interest in emerging market stocks began to flag. It’s extremely tempting to posit a connection between these two trends, especially since it would seem to be implied by the chart. However, I think the correction in emerging markets is due more to Central Bank intervention and a recognition that a bubble was forming, than to the EU sovereign debt crisis. That the Euro has rallied in 2011 even as emerging market stocks have begun to decline, supports this interpretation.

Trying to draw meaningful conclusions from these correlations is frustrating at best, and dangerous at worst. Namely,  that’s because it’s impossible to completely distinguish cause from effect. The two stock market indexes are probably the least dependent of the four items. For instance, the Euro is derived in part from the Dollar, which is derived in part from the S&P. You could say that the Franc takes its cues from the S&P (as a proxy for risk appetite) and the Euro. Second of all, the strongest correlation on the chart (CHF/USD and S&P) is also the most unexpected.

In the end, I think only one solid conclusion can be drawn: uncertainty surrounding the Euro will continue to boost the Franc. While I probably could have told you that without the use of this chart, at the very least, it reinforces the interconnectedness of all financial markets and that even if poorly understood, all trends are ultimately related.

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Hedging High Forex Uncertainty

Feb. 15th 2011

In forex, everything is relative. That is no less the case for forex volatility, which is low relative to the spikes in 2008 (credit crisis) and 2010 (EU Sovereign debt crisis), but high relative to the preceding 5+ years of stability. On the one hand, volatility is approaching a two year low. On the other hand, analysts continue to warn of high volatility for the foreseeable future. Under these conditions, what are (currency) investors supposed to do?!

Despite the steady pickup in risk appetite in 2010, there remains a whole a host of forex risk factors. On the economic front, GDP growth remains anemic in western countries, unemployment is high, and consumer confidence is low. Budget deficits and national debts are rising, perhaps to the point that default by a major industrialized countries is inevitable. Emerging market countries seem to be ‘suffering’ from the opposite problem, whereby rapid growth, high commodities prices, and capital inflow has caused inflation to rise precipitously. Some Central Banks will be forced to hike interest rates, while others will try to maintain an easy monetary policy for as long as possible. Political crises flare-up without warning, the Euro risks breaking up, and inclement weather is wreaking havoc on food production.

As a result, most currency-market watchers expect 2011 to be a continuation of 2010. In other words, while we might be spared a major crisis, a generalized sense of uncertainty will continue to pervade forex. According to JP Morgan, “Implied volatility on options for major exchange rates averaged 12.34 percent this year, compared with an average of 10.6 percent since January 2000.”  The currency team of UBS predicts, “The divergence between the strength in emerging markets and the unusual levels of uncertainty in the world’s major economies will cause…super volatility,” whereby massive swings in exchange rates will become the norm.

In this environment, there are a number of things that currency traders should do. The first step is simply to be aware that volatility remains high, which means that wider-than-average fluctuations shouldn’t be a surprise. The next step is to decide whether you think that this volatility will remain at an elevated level for the near-term, or whether you expect it to continue declining. (It’s worth pointing out that volatility is not necessarily a perception of absolute risk, but investor perception of risk). The final step is deciding if/how you will tailor your trading strategy in response to changes in volatility.

In fact, you don’t necessarily need to limit your exposure to volatility. If you are a fundamental investor with a long-term approach, you may very well choose to write-off short-term fluctuations as noise. (Of course, if you are a short-term swing trader, you can’t afford to be quite so indifferent). In addition, if your primary interest is in another asset type, you may choose not to hedge any currency risk. Perhaps you believe that the base currency will continue appreciated and/or you relish the exposure to currency movements as an added benefit of asset price exposure. Along these lines, “During the planning stages of the UBS Emerging Markets Equity Income fund, UBS Global Asset Management considered offering investors a hedged share class. The team abandoned the idea when investors showed a preference for unhedged share classes.”

In addition, hedging currency risk is expensive, especially for exotic/illiquid currencies, and currencies characterized by above average volatility. Not to mention that currency hedges can still move against investors, resulting in heavy losses. Still, in 2010, “Corporations from the U.S., Japan and Europe increased the percentage of projected income protected against swings in exchange rates to a record,” which suggests that fear of adverse exchange rate movements still predominates.

Finally, there are those that want to construct second-order currency strategies based entirely on volatility. Using basic options techniques, such as spreads and straddles, it’s possible to profit from volatility (or lack thereof) regardless of which direction the underlying currencies move in. In fact, the CME Group recently introduced a new product series which seeks to perform this very function. Investors can already buy and sell futures based on short-term volatility in the EUR/USD, which will soon be replicated for all of the major currency pairs.


For those of you who like to keep it simple, it’s probably enough to monitor the JP Morgan G7 Currency Volatility Index, which is a good proxy for the risk associated with trading (major) currencies at any given time. When this index spikes, chances are the US Dollar and other safe haven currencies will follow suit.

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

Emerging Market Currencies in 2011

Jan. 5th 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Currency Wars: Will Everyone Please Stop Whining!

Nov. 2nd 2010

I read a provocative piece the other day by Michael Hudson (“Why the U.S. Has Launched a New Financial World War — and How the Rest of the World Will Fight Back“), in which he argued that the ongoing currency wars are the fault of the US. Below, I’ll explain why he’s both right and wrong, and why he (and everyone else) should shut up and stop complaining.

It has become almost cliche to argue that the US, as the world’s lone hegemonic power, is also the world’s military bully. Hudson takes this argument one step further by accusing the US of using the Dollar as a basis for conducting “financial warfare.” Basically, the US Federal Reserve Bank’s Quantitative Easing and related monetary expansion programs create massive amounts of currency, the majority of which are exported to emerging market countries in the form of loans and investments. This puts upward pressure on their currencies, and rewards foreign speculators at the expense of domestic exporters.

Hudson is right that the majority of newly printed money has indeed been shifted to emerging markets, where the best returns and greatest potential for appreciation lies. Simply, the current economic and investing climate in the US is not as strong as in emerging markets. Indeed, this is why the (first) Quantitative Easing (QE) program was not very successful, and why the Fed has proposed a second round. While there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg conundrum (does economic growth drive investing, or do investors drive economic growth?) here, current capital flow trends suggest that any additional quantitative easing will also be felt primarily in emerging markets, rather than in the US. Not to mention that the US money supply has expanded at the same pace (or even slower) as the US economy over the long-term.

M3 Money Supply 2010

While the point about QE being ineffective is well-taken, Hudson completely ignores the strong case to be made for investing in emerging markets. He dismissively refers to all such investing as “extractive, not productive,” without bothering to contemplate why investors have instinctively started to prefer emerging markets to industrialized markets. As I said, emerging market economies are individually and collectively more robust, with faster growth and lower-debt than their industrialized counterparts. Calling such investing predatory represents a lack of understanding of the forces behind it.

Hudson also overlooks the role that emerging markets play in this system. The fact that speculative capital continues to pour into emerging markets despite the 30% currency appreciation that has already taken place and the asset bubbles that may be forming in their financial markets suggests that their assets and currencies are still undervalued. That’s not to say that the markets are perfect (the financial crisis proved the contrary), but rather that speculators believe that there is still money to be made. On the other side of the table, those that exchange emerging market currency for Dollars (and Euros and Pounds and Yen) must necessarily accept the exchange rate they are offered. In other words, the exchange rate is reasonable because it is palatable to all parties.

You can argue that this system unfairly penalizes emerging market countries, whose economies are dependent on the export sector to drive growth. What this really proves, however, is that these economies actually have no comparative advantage in the production and export of whatever goods they happen to be producing and exporting. If they can offer more than low costs and loose laws, then their export sectors will thrive in spite of currency appreciation. Look at Germany and Japan: both economies have recorded near-continuous trade surpluses for many decades in spite of the rising Euro and Yen.

The problem is that everyone benefits (in the short term) from the fundamental misalignments in currency markets. Traders like to mock purchasing power parity, but over the long-term, this is what drives exchange rates. Adjusting for taxes, laws, and other peculiarities which distinguish one economy from another, prices in countries at comparable stages of development should converge over the long-term. You can see from The Economist’s Big Mac Index that this is largely the case. As emerging market economies develop, their prices will gradually rise both absolutely (due to inflation) and relatively (when measured against other currencies).

Economist-Big-Mac-Index-July-2010
Ultimately, the global economy (of which currency markets and exchange rates represent only one part) always operates in equilibrium. The US imports goods from China, which sterilizes the inflows in order to avoid RMB appreciation by building up a stash of US Dollars, and holding them in US Treasury Bonds. Of course, everything would be easier if China allowed the RMB to appreciate AND the US government stopped running budget deficits, but neither side is willing to make such a change. In reality, the two will probably happen simultaneously: China will gradually let the RMB rise, which will cause US interest rates  to rise, which will make it more expensive and less palatable to add $1 Trillion to the National Debt every year, and will simultaneously make it more attractive to produce in the US.

Until then, politicians from every country and hack economists with their napkin drawings will continue to whine about injustice and impending economic doom.

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Much Ado About Debt

Oct. 28th 2010

In addressing the financial/credit/economic crisis, governments around the world have lowered interest rates, bailed-out bankrupt financial insititutions, engaged in wholesale money printing, guaranteed debt, and pumped cash into their economies. However, while such programs may have had some mitigating impact on the crisis, they did little to address the underlying cause. Specifically, debt was merely moved from one institution – one balance sheet – to another. Most of the bad debt that was at the heart of the credit crisis is still outstanding; the only thing that has changed is who is responsible for repaying it.

In many cases, it is governments which have assumed ownership of this debt. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac remain in a US government conservatorship. The Federal Reserve Bank owns more than $2 Trillion in US Treasuries and Mortgage Backed Securities. The European Union has agreed to collectively back more than $500 Billion in debt belonging to Greece and other unspecified “troubled” member states. The Japanese government has managed to pass off 90% of its sovereign debt onto its own citizens. The UK Treasury has printed money and lent it to the government of the UK. [The graphic below is actually interactive, and is worth a few minutes of perusing].

Global Debt by Country 2010

So what are the possibilities for dealing with this debt? In terms of government debt, the first is to hope that economies can grow faster than the debt, so that it becomes more manageable in relative terms and that one day it can be repaid. Another option is to raise taxes and/or cut spending, and use the extra funds to retire the debt. Given the current economic environment, the former possibility is unlikely. Industrialized economies continue to stall, and much of this growth is being funded with new debt. The latter option would amount to political suicide; any government that is politically naive enough to approve any austerity measures will be voted out of office at the next election. (With the election season about to begin, we won’t have to wait long for confirmation!)

The only alternative then is to reduce the real amount of debt through monetary inflation or currency depreciation. In the US, inflation is at a 50-year low. In Japan, it is non-existent. In the UK and the EU, prices are hardly growing. Monetary policymakers around the world are now actively trying to spur inflation (for reasons unrelated to the reduction of debt), but to no avail. Interest rates are already at rock bottom, and Central Banks have injected Billions of newly minted money into circulation without any impact on prices.

Currency devaluation is already taking place, but the main participants are emerging market economies (which are incidentally more concerned about export competitiveness than reducing the size of the debts). The Japanese Yen is nearing an all-time high, while the Euro has recovered from its spring lows. The British Pound is near its long-term average, while the US Dollar has declined only slightly on a trade-weighted average. In the end, since all of these countries are characterized by high levels of debt, it would be impossible for all of them to devalue their currencies. In addition, the nature of the Euro currency union precludes Eurozone countries from being able to lower their debts through currency devaluation.

The story is the same for private debt. For example, most of the real estate (commercial and residential) debt associated with the collapse of the housing market has yet to be written off. Financial institutions and investors continue to hold onto it with the hope that the real estate market will soon recover, such that the losses will never need to be recognized. While this strategy could vindicate lenders/investors over the long-term, it continues to have a devastating effect in the short-term since it forces the holders of debt to keep more cash on their balance sheets, where it won’t find its way into the global economy.

Euro Franc Dollar Yen 1990-2010 Real Exchange Rates

What are the implications for forex markets? Namely, it would seem to support the notion that emerging market currencies will continue to outperform the G4 currencies over the long-term. Over the near-term, it’s possible that G4 currencies will experience some appreciation, due both to the ebb and flow of risk appetite and the interventions of emerging market Central Banks on behalf of their currencies. Over the long-term, however, the only realistic alternative to default is currency devaluation, and at some point, the forex markets will have to come to terms with the fact that the G4 currencies need to decline. [Chart above courtesy of The Economist].

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CFTC Passes New Retail Forex Guidelines

Sep. 7th 2010

I have been covering the US Commodity Future Trading Commission’s (CFTC) efforts to revamp the regulatory structure that governs forex, since it was unveiled earlier this year. On August 30, the CFTC formally published the “final regulations concerning off-exchange retail foreign currency transactions. The rules implement provisions of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, which, together, provide the CFTC with broad authority to register and regulate entities wishing to serve as counterparties to, or to intermediate, retail foreign exchange (forex) transactions.”

Not only has the CFTC clearly established its authority to be the primary regulator of retail forex, but it has also laid out specific regulations. Chief among them is limiting leverage to 50:1 for major currency pairs, and 20:1 for “other retail forex transactions.” [It’s not presently clear which specific currency pairs will be classified as major].  Remember that the original proposal (which, along with my endorsement, generated vehement protest) called for a decline in leverage to 10:1. Due to negative feedback from traders and brokerages, which ascribed malicious political motives to the changes and argued that it would move the entire industry offshore, the CFTC backed down and implemented only a modest decline in leverage. However, it’s important to note that the National Futures Association (NFA) as well as individual brokers will have discretionary power in setting leverage limits lower than 50:1. There will undoubtedly still be some opposition from traders, but I think we can all agree that the new rule represents a fair compromise.

As for the claim that traders would/will move their accounts offshore, this will become largely moot, since all brokerages, regardless of nationality, will be required to register with the CFTC and subject to its rules/oversight. Of course, those traders that are so inclined will still find a way to circumvent the rules by shifting funds “illegally” to unregistered brokers, but they do so at their own risk and will have no recourse in the event of fraud. As Forbes noted, “It seems these new rules will put a stop to Americans trading retail forex offshore to evade CFTC rules. That trend picked up the pace in recent years and it may need to be reversed quickly.”

Brokerages must register as either futures commission merchants (FCMs) or retail foreign exchange dealers (RFEDs).  These institutions will be required to “maintain net capital of $20 million plus 5 percent of the amount, if any, by which liabilities to retail forex customers exceed $10 million.” While this rule will raise the barriers to entry for potential forex start-up brokerages, it will protect consumers against broker bankruptcy. In addition, “Persons who solicit orders, exercise discretionary trading authority or operate pools with respect to retail forex also will be required to register, either as introducing brokers, commodity trading advisors, commodity pool operators (as appropriate) or as associated persons of such entities.”

One final rule change worth noting is quite interesting: brokerages must “disclose on a quarterly basis the percentage of non-discretionary accounts that realized a profit and to keep and make available records of that calculation.” This calculation will be useful both in and of itself, and also in identifying any significant discrepancies between competing brokers. For the first time, we will be able to see whether forex trading is currently profitable (i.e. whether those that profit are in the majority or minority) and whether/how this profitability metric changes over time, in response to particular market conditions.

The new rules go into effect on October 18.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Commentary, News | 4 Comments »

US Dollar Paradigm Shift

Jul. 7th 2010

Since the inception of the financial crisis, the Dollar has been treated as a safe haven currency. Simply, when there was a surge in the level of risk-aversion, the Dollar rose proportionally. When risk aversion gave way to risk appetite, the Dollar fell. It was as simple as that.

Lately, this notion has manifested itself in the EUR/USD exchange rate, with the Euro embodying risk, and the Dollar embodying safety. In fact, a carry trading strategy has unfolded along these lines and made this phenomenon self-fulfilling: traders have taken to reflexively selling the Dollar when news is good and selling the Euro when news is bad.

EUR USD July 2010

In recent weeks, this approach appears to be changing. It started with the US stock market, which began to decline, even as the Dollar was still rising. Investors had started to worry about the housing market stalling, the exhaustion of the government stimulus effect, and worst of all, the possibility of a double-dip recession. The most recent data “showed U.S. gross domestic product in the first quarter grew more slowly than expected…The U.S. GDP numbers came after some weaker-than-expected housing numbers and a dovish Federal Reserve, all of which drove U.S. Treasury yields lower and prompted investors to reassess their dollar positions.”

From my point of view, it is not the possibility of a prolonged recession that is itself noteworthy (though this is surely cause for concern), but rather that the currency markets are paying attention it. To be sure, news of the EU sovereign debt crisis continues to dominate headlines and influence investor psychology. Barring any unforeseen developments, however, this crisis probably won’t evolve much further in the short-term, and it’s logical that investors should turn their attention back to the data.

As a result, “The popular risk-related trade on the euro ‘that was prevalent in the first half of this year appears to have derailed for the time being as market players increasingly focus on comparative fundamentals once again,” summarized one trader. In fact, the Dollar has fallen by 5% over the last month, both against the Euro and on a trade-weighted basis.

DXY 2010

Over the long-term, analysts are divided over which narrative will determine the EUR/USD rate. It would seem that until there is some resolution to the sovereign debt crisis (whether positive or negative), an air of uncertainty will continue to hang over the Euro such that it remains an apt funding currency for a carry trade strategy. US capital markets are the world’s deepest, most liquid, and most stable, and in times of crisis will probably continue to attract risk-averse capital.

On the other side are those who argue that the US will shed its safe-haven status and become a growth currency. According to this line of thinking, the US economy will outperform the EU, Japan, and Britain – its peers/competitors in the Top Tier of currencies.
“The euro zone has been stricken by crisis over the debts of its weaker members. Japan will only emerge slowly from deflation and the U.K. has to deal with its record high budget deficit over the next few years,” argued one analyst.

As a result, “The dollar will return to a pattern seen in the early 1980s and late 1990s, when it appreciated as stocks rose…The likelihood that the dollar performs strongly rather than weakly when investors are risk-seeking will signify a major change in the currency markets.” Under this paradigm, the Japanese Yen and the Swiss Franc would probably become even further entrenched as safe-haven currencies.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that such a paradigm shift wouldn’t necessarily be good for the Dollar. If the US is indeed able to put the recession behind it, then a renewed focus on growth fundamentals would send the Dollar higher. If the Double-Dip materializes, however, Dollar bulls will probably find themselves hoping that the Dollar can retain its safe haven status.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Commentary, Euro, News, US Dollar | 1 Comment »

When Will Attention Shift to the Dollar?

May. 16th 2010

The fiscal crisis ravaging the Euro and the Pound has sent the Dollar skyward. On the one hand, the prospect of continued uncertainty and dissolution of the Euro would seem to be an excellent harbinger for continued appreciation in the Dollar. On the other hand, it should only be a matter of time before investors recognize that the Dollar’s fiscal fundamentals are also quite weak.

chart

Unlike during the last few years, analysts are no longer talking about (forex reserve) diversification. It was once widely predicted that the Euro would rival the Dollar for a place in the portfolios of foreign Central Banks. As expected, preferences are now shifting back in favor of the Dollar and to a lesser extent, the Yen. The Pound and Swiss Franc may have a small role, as will the “New” Euro. Over the short-term, however, Central Banks (and investors) will continue to eschew the Euro, if only due to sheer uncertainty.

Given that everything is relative in forex, investors and Central Banks only have so many options when it comes to choosing which currencies in which to denominate their portfolios. Thus, it’s understandable that a sudden crisis in the EU would buoy the Dollar. At the same time, it’s not exactly a good bet that the US isn’t destined to suffer a similar fate.

Due to extremely low short-term interest rates, most investors have been willing to accept low returns when lending to the US (by buying Treasury Securities, and indirectly by simply holding Dollars). At some point, both short-term interest rates and the rate of inflation will rise, and investors will have to re-examine their risk/reward schemes. My suspicion is that investors will demand higher yields in exchange for lending to the US.

Just like with Greece, a US fiscal crisis would probably emerge suddenly. While the US government pays lip service to the notion of balancing its budget and reducing its sovereign debt, even the most optimistic projections show a budget deficit for the next 10 years. Beyond that, the retirement of the baby boom generation and their “entitlement” payment will make it nearly impossible for the US to operate a budget surplus.

In short, the only hope is for the US economy to grow faster than the national debt. If the US economy grows at 4% per year, for example, it will have to run a budget deficit less than 4% of GDP in order to reduce its relative level of debt. On the surface, this seems like a reasonable possibility, but given trends over the last three decades (covering periods of both recession and economic boom), it doesn’t seem likely.

This is not new information. Doomsday theorists have been predicting the bankruptcy of the US for two centuries. Don’t mistake me for doing the same. Rather, I only wish to point out how ironic it is that the Dollar’s fiscal conditions are comparable (and in some ways worse) than some of the problem countries that investors are currently focusing on.

Then again, forex is relative. Some analysts have suggested that the new reserve currency will be gold, oil, and other commodities. Unfortunately, there isn’t nearly enough (liquid) supply of these materials to occupy more than a small portion of reserves. Under the current system, then, investors are pretty much stuck with the Dollar. At this point, betting to the contrary is tantamount to betting on the complete collapse of the modern financial system. A reasonable bet, perhaps, but you can forgive investors for being hesitant to embrace it.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Commentary, Euro, News, US Dollar | 5 Comments »

Volatility, Carry, Risk, and the Forex Markets

Apr. 8th 2010

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

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

volatility

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

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

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

tock, currency and bond investors are underestimating the risk that government efforts to stabilize markets may fail,
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Chinese Yuan Controversy Heats Up

Mar. 22nd 2010

Over the last couple weeks, rising expectations of a resumed appreciation of the Chinese Yuan (RMB) have brought heightened tension. Politicians, economists, and even newspaper columnists are finding themselves involved in increasingly bitter disputes over the issue. What’s more, the debate has regressed; whereas before it was a foregone conclusion that China would soon lift the peg and the only question was when, now people are once again asking themselves whether an RMB revaluation is even necessary/desirable.

Breaking with his old strategy (on multiple fronts, it should be noted) of soft speech and appeasement, President Obama is now openly calling on China to allow the RMB to appreciate: “Countries with external deficits need to save and export more. Countries with external surpluses need to boost consumption and domestic demand. As I’ve said before, China moving to a more market-oriented exchange rate would make an essential contribution to that global rebalancing effort.” While this would seem like a fairly mundane exhortation, it marks a strong break from Obama’s previous rhetorical approach, in which he generally avoided singling out China.

Meanwhile, the US Treasury Department is busy preparing its semi-annual report on foreign currencies, which will be presented to the US Congress on April 15. As usual, the media is focused on the portion concerning China, specifically with whether it is officially labelled a currency manipulator. Almost by definition, China manipulates the Yuan, but the Treasury Department has heretofore avoided the label because it would allow Congress to impose punitive trade sanctions. Ironically, the most pressure to bestow such a label is coming from Congress, itself.

Aside from the report, Congress is not sitting by idly, as evidenced by a recent letter to the President signed by 130 Representatives calling for action. The Senate is also busy with draft legislation that would place a 25-40% tariff on all imports from China unless the RMB is revalued by a similar percentage. “The senators said the U.S. recession could boost the political prospects for the legislation, which [Charles] Schumer has proposed in various forms since 2003. Schumer said the Senate proposal will be attached ‘very soon’ as an amendment to ‘must-pass legislation. The only way we will change them is by forcing them to change.’ ” Perhaps the economic recession has put things in perspective, and the legislation finally has the impetus needed to pass.

Chinese government officials continue to send conflicting signals. No less than China’s premier (the #2 man behind only the Prime Minister) Wen JiaBao, told reporters with a straight face that China doesn’t manipulate the Yuan and that in fact, it is other countries which are guilty of such a crime. Added another high-ranking official, “We don’t agree with politicising the renminbi [yuan] exchange rate issue.” On the other hand, Zhou XiaoChuan, head of the Central Bank of China “broke new ground by stating that exiting the stimulus would sooner or later spell the end of the ‘special yuan policy’ adopted to counter the financial crisis.” Evidently, the currency peg is interfering with the ability to conduct monetary policy, specifically by raising rates to fight inflation. As if the position of the government wasn’t muddled enough, the Ministry of Commerce is now running “stress-tests” on large exporters to see how they would fare in the event of a large revaluation.

Economists are also getting into the fray, with Nobel Laureate and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman editorializing that China’s Yuan policy “seriously damages the rest of the world. Most of the world’s large economies are stuck in a liquidity trap — deeply depressed, but unable to generate a recovery by cutting interest rates because the relevant rates are already near zero. China, by engineering an unwarranted trade surplus, is in effect imposing an anti-stimulus on these economies, which they can’t offset.” Morgan Stanley’s Chief Asia economist, Stephen Roach, reacted to this accusation by suggesting inexplicably that, “We should take out the baseball bat on Paul Krugman.” This set off a heated back-and-forth (conducted indirectly through other reporters) between the two economists, ultimately accomplishing nothing other than to bring added attention to the issue of the Yuan.

rmb

At this point, everyone – except for Stephen Roach and the WSJ editorial board – seems to agree that a revaluation would benefit everyone. “I basically think that making the yuan flexible would be positive, not only for the world’s economy, but also for China’s. Many of China’s neighbors seem to have questions about the dollar peg,” summarized a vice Finance Minister of Japan. Chinese officials accept and even share that view, and from their point of view, the revaluation is only a matter of being able to do so on their own terms. As with many things in China (coming from someone who lives there), it’s important to save face.

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

Gold and the Euro? I thought it was Gold and the Dollar?!

Jan. 24th 2010

Let me preface this post, by noting that I try to avoid writing about gold, since there are some many other excellent analysts out there writing about the subject. But when there is a such a strong overlap between gold and forex markets, well, I just can’t resist!

Recently, gold prices have collapsed at virtually the same rate as the Euro, with the result being a near-record high short-term correlation between EUR/USD and gold prices. This has caused no shortage of confusion among gold-watchers, which are accustomed to seeing the strongest (inverse) correlation with the US Dollar. This change is causing everyone to rethink some classically held assumptions about gold prices.

Gold versus the EUR-USD
The foremost of which is that gold is chiefly a hedge against the Dollar, which is a symbol for inflation and erosion of value. [In fact, analysts argue that gold has little real purpose (besides a handful of trivial practical uses, such as jewelry), especially since holders of gold don’t receive interest, there is little reason to own it other than as a store of value].  Thus, as the Dollar has declined over the last five years, gold has soared. Investors who are nervous about perennial budget deficits in the US and the skyrocketing national debt, have turned to Gold because of the belief  it will continue to hold its value even (or especially) if the US government is forced to devalue its debt by devaluing the Dollar. While this tenet underlies the gold/Dollar inverse relationship, the long and short of it is that investors typically buy gold when the Dollar falls, and vice versa. Thus, when the credit crisis struck and the Dollar rallied, gold prices fell, despite the fact that the US was now more likely to default on its debt.

In the last month, however, the Euro has taken center stage in dictating the price of gold. This is most likely because of the sovereign debt problems of certain EU countries. A not insignificant number of which well exceed the budget (not to exceed 3% of GDP per year) and debt (not to exceed 60% of GDP) limitations imposed on them by their membership in the EU. Recent credit rating downgrades have underscored an increasing likelihood of default, which has been duly noted both by the forex and gold markets. As the Euro has dropped (quite dramatically in fact), so has gold.

According to the current paradigm, this is not wholly unsurprising, since the Euro’s fall has naturally been mirrored by a rise in the Dollar. Thus, if you continue to look at gold prices in terms of the Dollar, it seems naturally that a rising Dollar is being accompanied by falling gold. On the other hand, the fact that the Dollar is suddenly rising has little to do with a change in US fundamentals, and instead reflects the fact that in forex, it’s impossible to short all currencies simultaneously, even if sometimes fundamentals would justify such an approach.

In other words, that certain EU member states are more likely to default on their respective debt obligations has limited bearing on whether the US will also default. [If anything, it increases the likelihood, since a default in the EU would likely send sovereign borrowing costs higher around the world, straining the ability of the US to continue borrowing]. By extension, the current drop in the price of gold is fundamentally irrational, especially when viewed relative to currency markets.  To borrow a hackneyed expression, perhaps it’s time for a paradigm shift.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Commentary, Gold, News | 3 Comments »

New CFTC Forex Regulations Unpopular, but Worthwhile

Jan. 22nd 2010

I try not to editorialize much when writing this blog. There are too many talking heads as it is, which is why I try not to interject own opinions into the facts. Admittedly, the notion of facts in forex is obviously a bit murky, but I stand by my approach, nonetheless. Today, I would like your permission to stray from the facts (well, not entirely) and offer my opinion on the recently proposed regulatory overhaul for trading forex.

For those of you who haven’t been following this story, let me give you an overview. On January, the U.S. Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) proposed a set of sweeping changes to the rules that currently govern forex trading in the US. Among the changes are beefed-up requirements for forex dealers which would be legally required to register with the CFTC as “retail foreign exchange dealers”, and satisfy certain capital adequacy requirements, aimed at mitigating counter-party risk (i.e. dealer bankruptcy.) In addition, “introducing brokers,” (i.e. those that act as intermediaries between customers and dealers) would be required to sign exclusivity agreements with dealers, who would in turn be required to vouch for their brokers. Last, but not least, would be a bombshell change that would shrink leverage (i.e. raise margin requirements) to a maximum of 10:1.

We have are now partially through a 60-day “comment period,” during which the CFTC is soliciting feedback from stakeholders to determine if and in what form it should ratify these changes. And feedback is indeed reverberating around the blogosphere (more so than traditional media, based on my observation). Most industry insiders are predictably opposed to the regulation, on the grounds that it will make them less competitive with their (lightly regulated) foreign counterparts. Based on an online poll, it seems the majority of forex traders are as well. On forums, many have promised to shift their accounts overseas (or are gloating about already having done so) as soon as the measures pass. Meanwhile, the blogger to come out most prominently in favor of the regulation, is none other than Karl Denninger, who champions the the potential increase in transparency in decrease as leverage, but notes that it will probably bring about the “Death of Retail Forex.”

Personally, I am inclined to agree with Denninger (though not his flawed math, nor his erroneous tirade against rollover fees), on the grounds that transparency – especially with regard to commissions, which are dissimulated and ultimately buried in spreads – can only benefit customers. In addition, requiring all brokers and dealers to register, while strengthening the CFTC’s jurisdiction over forex will surely go a long way towards minimizing fraud, which remains rampant and in disguise, even among major brokers. Interestingly, industry lobbyists have come out in tepid support of this measure, but only because it will also raise the barriers of the entry.

As for the clause that aims to limit margin – and is really the only one that anyone is seriously protesting – this is also a step in the right direction. While libertarians and the 1% of traders that have turned a profit employing 100:1 leverage (the current U.S industry standard) will surely disagree, I think that sometimes, people need to be protected from themselves. I don’t want to frame this debate in political terms, however, since at the end of the day, such high leverage is both de-stabilizing to the market, and unnecessary. It’s destabilizing, because of the massive speculation it invites, and its resulting contribution to volatility and systemic risk, and unnecessary because it’s impossible to produce a viable trading strategy that’s built on borrowing 100 times as much money as you are able to commit. For the sake of comparison, consider that the average hedge fund, its reputation for excessive risk-taking not withstanding, will rarely employ leverage greater than 2:1. How about another comparison: Has 100:1 leverage (i.e. 1% down-payment) been good for the housing market, from both the standpoint of individual and society?

As for the argument that retail traders will instead send their money off-shore to gamble (cough, I mean trade), well I suppose that’s possible. But given that a related piece of  recent regulation has been very successful at preventing Americans from patronizing offshore casinos, I’m sure the government can ensure a high rate of adherence with this piece as well. But obviously, this too, is a highly charged political issue, and it’s probably not practical to examine forex from this angle.

In the end, I think the government has (rightly) identified retail forex as the casino it is, and is finally taking steps to make it legitimate. For regular readers of the Forex Blog and those that follow its implicit approach (i.e. not churning your portfolio on a daily, or even weekly basis), I am confident that this regulation, if approved, will NOT adversely affect you. As for everyone else, maybe it’s time to either re-think your strategy, or ask yourself whether trading forex is still right for you.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Commentary, Investing & Trading, News | 25 Comments »

The Dollar in 2010

Jan. 7th 2010

I thought it would be fitting to follow up my last post (Forex in 2009: A Year in Review), with one that looked forward. And what better way to do that then by squarely examining the US Dollar, which is still the undisputed heavyweight champion of forex markets, and from which most other forex trends can be ascertained and comprehended.

December (I know I said I wouldn’t look backwards, but come on, a little context is necessary here…) was the best month for the Dollar in 2009. From December 1 to December 31, it rose 4.7% against the Euro and 7% against the Yen, as part of an overall 4.8% appreciation against a basket of the world’s six other major currencies. “The dollar rally which has taken place in December is significant in that it has brought an end to the powerful downtrend which had been in place since March following the Fed’s decision to begin quantitative easing,” summarizes one analyst. As a result of the Dollar’s strong turnaround in December (and the forgotten fact that it actually appreciated in the beginning of last year), the broadly weighted Dollar Index finished 2009 down a modest 4%.

Dollar index 2009

Analysts summarized this turnaround using a few main paradigms. The first was that logic had returned to the forex markets, such that the negative correlation between equities (which serve as a broad proxy for risk sensitivity) and the Dollar had broken down [See earlier post: “Logic” Returns to the Forex Markets, Benefiting the Dollar]. As a result, good economic news was once again good for the Dollar. The second interpretation was a direct contradiction of the first, and argued that the Dubai debt bomb, coupled with credit scares in Europe, had in fact increased risk aversion, and reinforced the notion that the Dollar is still a safe haven [Edward Hugh mentioned this in my interview of him]. The third theory represents a slight twist on the first one- that concern over Fed interest rate hikes will shift interest rate differentials and cause the Dollar carry trade to break down. Technical analysts, meanwhile, argue that the Dollar had been oversold, and that the year-end rally was merely a product of the closing of short positions and profit-taking.

The key to predicting how the Dollar will perform in 2010, then, largely rests in correctly discerning which paradigm currently underlies the forex markets. Let’s begin by comparing the first possibility – that good economic news will be good for the Dollar – to its antithesis – that the Dollar remains the safe havens. I think two WSJ headlines can shed some light on which interpretation is more accurate: Dollar Rises On Lower Demand For Riskier Assets and Dollar Slumps As Investors Snap Up Risky Assets. In other words, the market logic is that the Dollar is still a safe-haven currency, to the chagrin of market fundamentalists.

While there are certainly “naysayer” analysts that think the US stocks will soon outpace their counterparts abroad (namely in emerging markets), such a view can best be ascribed to the minority. The majority, then, believes that good economic news (from the US, or anywhere else from that matter) is a sign that risk-taking is relatively less risky, and will lead to capital flight from the US. In short, “It’s too early to dismiss the negative correlation between equities markets and the dollar, i.e., when risk appetite declines, that still seems to favor the dollar even though we’ve seen a slight decoupling from that in early December.”

With regard to the notion that the Dollar is being driven by expectations that the Fed will tighten monetary policy at some point in 2010, that seems to have some traction. The markets have priced in a 60% possibility of a Fed rate hike by June, and a majority of economists (9 out of 15 surveyed) think that the Federal Funds rate will be higher at the end of the year. This optimism is a product of the last month, which saw strong improvements in non-farm payrolls, housing sales, durable goods orders, ISM supply index, and more. Some of these indicators are now at their highest levels since 2006; “That speaks better about the health of the U.S. economy and that could help move up the timetable for the Fed to boost interest rates,” goes the accompanying logic.

That investors believe the Fed will hike interest rates and that it will be good for the Dollar is not so much in dispute. Whether investors are right about rate hikes, on the other hand, is less certain. To be sure, momentum is growing in the US as the economy shifts from recession to growth. While current data is unambiguous in this regard, the future is less certain. A vocal minority of analysts argues that the apparent stabilization is largely due to government incentives. When these expire, then, the result could be a double dip in housing prices, and a second act in the economic downturn.

The result, of course, would be a delay and/or slowing in the pace of Fed rate hikes. Some economists predict that that Fed will indeed hike rates in 2010, but only incrementally. Others have argued that it won’t be until 2012 that the Fed lifts its benchmark FFR from the current level of approximately 0%. Instead, the Fed will first move to withdraw some of the liquidity that it unleashed over the last two years, of which an estimated $1.1 Trillion still remains “in play.” Such would be directed primarily at heading off inflation, and wouldn’t do much for the Dollar.

Regardless, the implication is clear: “The fate of the dollar is in the hands of Ben Bernanke. If he begins the exit process and starts to raise interest rates, the dollar will perform okay this year.” If he stalls, and investors accept that they may have gotten ahead of themselves, well, 2010 – especially the second half – could be a sorry year for the Dollar.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Commentary, News, US Dollar | 2 Comments »

Forex in 2009: A Year in Review

Jan. 4th 2010

In some ways, 2009 was a wild year in forex markets. Compared to 2008, however, it was relatively tame. And that is all I have to say about forex in 2009.

Ah, if only it were that simple…

The year began as a continuation of 2008. Global capital markets were still in the throes of the credit crisis, and risk aversion was in vogue. Investors continued to remove funds en masse from virtually every economy – with an emphasis on emerging markets – and parked the proceeds in the US. More specifically, they put the proceeds in US Treasury securities. US corporate bonds and equities declined, as did interest rates, to such an extent that short-term rates briefly dipped below zero.

As this trend gathered momentum, the Dollar continued its rally against virtually every currency, with the notable exceptions of the Swiss Franc and Japanese Yen. For reasons related both to the unwinding of the Japanese Yen carry trade and the bizarre perception that Japan was also a safe haven against the storm of the financial recession, despite the fact that its economy contracted by the largest amount of perhaps any economy due to its reliance on exports. Against other currencies, the Dollar was nothing short of brilliant, surging 30% against many emerging market currencies, and 50% against the Korean Won, from trough to peak. Some analysts predicted that it was only a matter of time before the Dollar reached parity with the Euro.

euro
But it wasn’t to be, as the Dollar never topped $1.25 against its chief rival. The markets pulled an abrupt about-face in March, and began a rally that would last 8 months (and might still be in progress, depending on who you talk to). The S&P 500 rose by more than 50%, impressive, but still paling in comparison to emerging market equity prices. As investors grew more and more comfortable with risk, they reversed the flow of funds, and bond spreads between the US and the rest of the world gradually declined. More importantly, so did volatility. For the forex markets, that meant a rapid appreciation in every single currency against the Dollar.

vol

Around the same time, the Swiss National Bank (SNB) intervened for the first time (it would intervene again in June) in forex markets, ostensibly to guard against deflation. As a result, the Swiss Franc has largely been exempted from the forex rally which sent the Euro up 15%, the Brazilian Real up 35%, and the Australian and Canadian Dollars back towards parity with the the US Dollar.

After a modest rally, the British Pound stabilized around pre-bubble levels, due to concerns about the UK’s quantitative easing program (i.e. wholesale money printing), and consequent impact on inflation and the British national debt. Similar concerns have plagued the US Dollar, but interestingly have spared the Euro and Canadian Dollar, despite the fact that their respective Central Banks’ response to the credit crisis have largely mirrored that of the Fed. As a result, the Pound was quickly segregated with the Dollar as a fellow “sick” currency.

By the summer, currencies and asset prices had risen by such an extent that investors began to fear the formation of bubbles. Governments and Central Banks, meanwhile, grew concerned about the potential impact of expensive currencies on their nascent economic recoveries. A handful of Central Banks – many in Asia – intervened successfully to thwart the appreciation of their respective currencies, while Brazil resorted to taxes to try to stem the appreciation of the Real. The Bank of Canada threatened intervention, while the Bank of Japan was more ambiguous; investors ultimately shrugged off both, and the Japanese Yen touched an all-time high against the Dollar in November.

Towards the end of the year, the rally began to lose steam as investors began to fret that they had gotten ahead of themselves. In addition, the prospect of interest rate hikes was moved to the fore, thanks to early action by the Bank of Australia. While it’s clear that the Fed won’t be moving to tighten monetary policy anytime soon, investors have been forced to re-evaluate their short-Dollar carry trade positions within this context.

Meanwhile, a handful of credit market scares, first involving Dubai, and later, a handful of EU member countries, reminded investors that the recovery was both fragile and unequal. As a result of the renewed focus on fundamentals, commodity currencies and currencies backed by strong economic growth projections, continued to appreciate. The Dollar, despite comparatively weak fundamentals, also appreciated, due to its safe-haven appeal and perceptions that the Fed would be among the earliest Central Banks in the industrialized world to hike rates. Ironically, forex markets ended the year ironically just as they began (though for different reasons), with the Dollar in the ascendancy.

nybot

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“Logic” Returns to the Forex Markets, Benefiting the Dollar

Dec. 26th 2009

Many analysts are pointing to Friday, December 4, as the day that logic returned to the forex markets. On that day, the scheduled release of US non-farm payrolls indicated a drop in the unemployment rate and shocked investors. This was noteworthy in and of itself (because it suggests that the recession is already fading), but also because of the way it was digested by investors; for the first time in perhaps over a year, positive news was accompanied by a rise in the Dollar. Perhaps the word explosion would be a more apt characterization, as the Dollar registered a 200 basis point increase against the Euro, and the best single session performance against the Yen since 1999.

US Dollar Index
Previously, the markets had been dominated by the unwinding of risk-aversion, whereby investors flocked back into risky assets that they had owned prior to the inception of the credit crisis. During that period, then, all positive economic news emanating from the US was interpreted to indicate a stabilizing of the global economy, and ironically spurred a steady decline in the value of the Dollar. On December 4, however, investors abandoned this line of thinking, and used the positive news as a basis for buying the Dollar and selling risky currencies/assets.

If you look at this another way, it reinforces the notion that investors are paying closer attention to the possibility of changes in interest rate differentials. The fact that the recession seems to have ended suggests that the Fed must now start to consider tightening monetary policy. This threatens the viability of the US carry trade – which has veritably dominated forex markets – because it literally increases the cost of borrowing (carry): “If the market thinks that Fed rates are about to move higher, the dollar will cease to be a funding currency and the inverse correlation between the dollar and risky assets will break.”

To be fair, it will probably be a while before the Fed hikes rates: “It’s a prerequisite to have a continuing decline in the unemployment rate for at least three months before the Fed considers tightening,” asserted one analyst. At the same time, investors must start thinking ahead, and can no longer afford to be so complacent about shorting the Dollar. As a result, emerging market currencies probably don’t have much more room to appreciate, since the advantage of holding them will become relatively less attractive as yield spreads narrow with comparable Dollar-denominated assets.

To be more specific, investors will have to separate risky assets into those whose risk profiles justifies further speculation with those whose risk profiles do not. For example, currencies that offer higher yield but also higher risk will face depressed interest from investors, whereas high yield/low risk currencies will naturally greater demand. You’re probably thinking ‘Well Duh!’ but frankly, this was neither obvious nor evident in forex markets for the last year, as investors poured cash indiscriminately into high-yield currencies, regardless of their risk profiles.

To be more specific still, currencies such as the Euro and Pound face a difficult road ahead of them (as does the US stock market, for that matter), mainly due to concerns over sovereign solvency. (Try saying that three times fast!) On the other hand, “Commodity-linked currencies such as the New Zealand, Australian and Canadian dollars [have] rallied sharply, and will probably continue to outperform as their economies strengthen and their respective Central Banks (further) hike interest rates.

It remains to be seen whether investors will remain logical in 2010, since part of the recent rally in the US Dollar is certainly connected to year-end portfolio re-balancing and profit-taking, and not exclusively tied to a definitive change in perceived Dollar fundamentals. Especially since they remain skittish about the possibility of a double-dip recession, investors could very easily slip back into their old mindsets. For now, at least, it looks like reason is in the front seat, making my job much less complicated.

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China’s Economic Recovery and the RMB

Sep. 9th 2009

By now, the notion that the nascent global economic recovery is being and will continue to be led by China has become cliche. The NY Times summarized: “In past global slowdowns, the United States invariably led the way out, followed by Europe and the rest of the world. But for the first time, the catalyst is coming from China and the rest of Asia, where resurgent economies are helping the still-shaky West recover from the deepest recession since World War II.”

The statistics are certainly compelling. After a brief dip in the first quarter, GDP grew by an impressive 7.9% in the second quarter. In hindsight, the downturn in Chinese economic output was so slight as to hardly warrant use of the term recession to describe it; any other country would have rejoiced after achieving 6.1% (2009 Q1) growth, especially in the context of the current economic climate.

While stock market investors are evidently optimistic that the economy will continue to gather momentum, China-watchers and policymakers are more cautious. Wen Jiabao, premier of China, insisted that, “We must clearly see that the foundations of the recovery are not stable, not solidified and not balanced. We cannot be blindly optimistic.”

Wen’s downbeat prognosis should be seen in the context of China’s massive stimulus plan, which delivered an immediate jolt to the economy, but is already winding down. “The flood of bank lending in the first half of this year — equivalent to more than half of gross domestic product in the period…is ebbing. Net new lending in July was 355.9 billion yuan ($52.13 billion), the lowest figure so far this year and well below the first half’s monthly average of 1.2 trillion yuan.” Some analysts believe that this sudden decrease is due to seasonal factors, but others argue that it is a sign that the boost in lending (and spending) from the stimulus may have already exhausted itself.

In addition, the stimulus itself was not necessarily geared towards sustainable growth (in the economic, not the environmental sense). Over the last two decades, China embraced an economic model focused around exports and capital investments, at the expense of domestic consumption. While it will certainly be years before economists can determine whether the recession changed the structure of China’s economy, the earliest indications point to business as usual. “This year the bulk of the government’s stimulus is going into infrastructure, further swelling investment’s share. Chinese capital spending could exceed that in America for the first time, while its consumer spending will be only one-sixth as large.”

Composition of China's GDP
To be sure, the government has rolled out incentives and subsidies designed to reduce savings and increase consumption. However, Chinese cultural mores and the government’s lack of social services represent a formidable obstacle to any opening-up of the mentality of Chinese consumers- and their wallets. In fact, while China’s government is still nominally Communist, spending on public services is among the lowest in the developed world. Despite doubling to 6% of GDP, such spending is still well below the OECD average of 25%. The widening rich-poor gap, meanwhile, suggests that most of the windfall from China’s economic boon has been bestowed upon a relative handful of businesses and people, such that the majority of China’s 1.3 Billion populace simply doesn’t have the means to increase consumption.

For better or worse, the global economic downturn has severely crimped demand for Chinese exports, and this component of GDP could remain depressed for quite some time. After a record $400 Billion in 2008, the trade surplus plummeted in 2009, “to $35 billion in the same [second] quarter, 40% down on a year earlier…the decline is even more impressive in real terms (adjusting for changes in export and import prices), with the surplus shrinking to less than one-third of its level a year ago.” In fact, some analysts project that China could soon experience a trade deficit, if current trends continue.

All of this suggests that the Chinese RMB is not likely to return to its path of rapid appreciation (28% in real terms), observed from 2005-2008. (The currency has essentially been fixed at 6.83 RMB/USD since December 2008, leading to an 8% decline in real terms to match the decline of the Dollar.) China’s foreign exchange reserves, which have come to mirror the appreciation of its currency, are once again expanding. ($2.13 Trillion at last count). Given the decline in the trade balance and the explosion in the budget deficit, however, much of this increase must be attributed to the inflow of speculative capital, which will not necessarily translate into currency appreciation.

Some economists insist that the Yuan is still undervalued by as much as 25%, but investors don’t believe that it will bridge this gap anytime soon. While the spot exchange rate has risen to the strongest level since May, futures prices indicate a modest 1.5% appreciation against the Dollar over the next twelve months. This is an improvement from expectations of a flat exchange rate, but still a long way away from what some economists think is reasonable.

RMB September 2009 Futures

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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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Commentary: Dollar Rally- Fact or Fiction?

Aug. 24th 2008

Over the last month, the Dollar has rallied tremendously, rising over 7% against its main adversary, the Euro. The price of gold, which serves as an inverse proxy for investor confidence in the USD, has fallen dramatically. As a result, many analysts have proclaimed that the Dollar has (permanently) bottomed out, and are busying themselves preparing projections for how high the Dollar will rise. But is the Dollar rally sustainable?

In the short-term, I would argue the answer is yes. The bubbles in the various sectors of commodity markets seem to have partially deflated, with oil and certain food staples well below the record highs they touched earlier in the year. As a result, inflation may soon begin to abate, and return to a comfortable level as early as 2009. More importantly, the US economy was among the first to be affected by the credit and real estate crises. Some analysts have argued that the worst developments have already come to pass. The crisis has since spread to the global economy, with other countries sharing in some of the burden. The result is that the US economic and monetary cycle is probably ahead of most of its peers. Accordingly, by the time the full impact of the crisis is felt by the rest of the world, the US should firmly be on the path to recovery. As other Central Banks move to ease their respective monetary policies, the Fed should be in a position to hike rates, providing further support for the Dollar.

As a result of this belief, US capital markets have received a sudden inflow of capital. This trend has been further buoyed by the notion that the US is the safest place to invest in times of crisis is gaining traction among investors. If the credit crisis continues to spread, this notion will no doubt be reinforced.

The long-term picture is of course more nuanced. The US will hardly emerge from the current crisis unscathed, and the ultimate cost of the credit crisis could exceed $1 Trillion. In addition, the US is unlikely to be shamed into changing its nasty habit of spending more than it saves. Accordingly, the twin deficits, those permanent thorns in the side of the Dollar, will probably persist. In addition, recent history suggests that investors are slow to absorb the lesson that There is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. Despite the horrible collapse of the dot-com bubble, investors piled willy-nilly into the real estate market, with the result speaking for itself. Analysts are already speculating where the next bubble will occur; perhaps in alternative energy?

In conclusion, while the near-term prospects of the Dollar are surprisingly bright, the long-term prognosis is less so. There is no indication that the structural weaknesses in the US economy that led to the credit crisis and the multi-year decline in the USD that preceded it, will abate following its resolution. The future is inherently unpredictable, but I would expect the Dollar to continue declining once the global economy is back on track, perhaps in 2010.

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Commentary: Anatomy of a Currency Trader

Jul. 5th 2008

In the context of fundamental currency analysis, we usually talk about inflation, interest rates, economic growth, politics, etc. But perhaps these variables mask some deeper "truth" in forex, specifically that there is some ultimate "force" guiding the decision-making processes of forex traders. What we are really talking about here is comfort with risk. Especially in the medium-term (the short-term consisting of hours and defined by randomness and the long-term consisting of years and defined by relative changes in the money supply), investors are constantly re-evaluating the level of risk that they want to assume.

To make this idea more concrete, let’s look at how the credit crisis has impacted forex markets. In general, it has favored major currencies, such as the Dollar and the Euro, although sometimes one more than the other. This is to be expected since the capital markets of the US and the EU are the most stable and in times of uncertainty, investors seek out stability. Likewise, the Japanese Yen has fared well. Despite a continuation of its easy money policy, investors have unwound their Yen carry trade positions, ever-fearful that a spike in volatility could cost them dearly. On the other end of the equation are emerging market currencies and beneficiaries of the carry trade, which have faltered as investors pare their exposure to risk. The underlying narrative is the same; only now, investors are willing to accept lower returns in exchange for proportionately lower risk. 

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Commentary: The Dollar Conundrum

May. 7th 2008

The Dollar is currently teetering on the edge of a precipice.  Many analysts are predicting that, having recently retreated from a record low against the Euro, the Dollar’s best days are still in front of it. On the other hand, the economic data and interest rate pictures remain nuanced, and still favor the Euro on paper. In this article, we aim to sort through this morass, and produce a clear summation of the factors which bear on the Dollar in the short term.

Let’s begin with the bullish side of the equation, which is supported by the Dollar’s recent upside swing. First of all, while interest rate differentials are currently hurting the Dollar, the Fed is probably near the end of its loosening cycle, while the ECB has yet to begin. The best-case scenario would be a tightening of US monetary policy simultaneous with a loosening of EU policy. Next, there is the economic picture. The most recent GDP data indicates an economy that is still growing, albeit slowly. In addition, the unemployment rate declined in the most recent month for which data is available. The US stock market has regained half the value it lost in the first three months of 2008, and the overall P/E ratio is close to its long-term average, which suggests the markets could appreciate further. Finally, the economic stimulus package that was approved by Congress in March will go into effect this month, as tax rebates worth $150 Billion are distributed to consumers and businesses.

On the bearish side, let’s return to the interest rate story. While the future certainly bodes well for the US, the present still favors the EU. US interest rates are currently negative in real terms, and investors have already turned the Dollar into a funding currency for carry trades. Moreover, negative real interest rates implies high inflation. US CPI is hovering around 4.0%, and could continue to climb in proportion with surging food and energy prices. In fact, inflation is now viewed by economists as more problematic than the economy, itself. While US exporters have benefited from the resulting cheap Dollar, US consumers- which account for 75% of the US economy- have not. The economic downturn still has not officially been labeled a recession by the Bureau of Economic Research, but the situation remains tenuous, and the scales could easily be tipped by a few pieces of negative economic data.

The wild card in this mess is housing. In certain regional markets, real estate prices have tumbled by 30%.  In other markets, they have hardly budged. While an estimated $350 Billion in subprime debt has already been written down, analysts disagree over the eventual total.  Estimates vary from $1 Trillion to less than $350 Billion, which would imply "write-ups" on debt that was erroneously declared worthless. The difference represented here amounts to 6% of GDP, which could mean the difference between growth and contraction, a strong Dollar and a weak Dollar, respectively.

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Why a Strong Dollar is Good for the US Economy

Jan. 30th 2008

For at least the duration of the current administration, the official US stance towards its currency has been a "strong dollar" policy.  In hindsight, it appears that this policy was entirely baseless, since its was directly undermined by the simultaneous easy monetary policy, and thus it stands to reason that US policymakers did not actually believe that a strong Dollar policy was necessary to pursue.  In a recent op-ed piece published in the Wall Street Journal, one analyst outlines the case for a strong dollar, and by extension, why the depreciating Dollar is bad for the US economy. 

First, since oil contracts are settled in Dollars, a weak Dollar has directly contributed to high oil prices, which has several negative economic and geopolitical consequences. Second, a cheap Dollar is eroding the purchasing power of US consumers directly by making imports more expensive and indirectly through inflation. Third, the weak Dollar shifts the balance of economic power in favor of US competitors, which don’t need to grow as fast to keep pace with the US, in Dollar terms.  Finally, the recent weakness threatens the long term reserve status of the Dollar, which has important implications for economic growth and jobs creation.

On the other hand, argues the analyst, the conventional wisdom that a declining Dollar is necessary to correct the current account and trade deficit is bunk, since much of the trade deficit is accounted for by intra-company trade and since the current account deficit is generally overstated and not connected to currency valuations. In short, he argues, it is in the best interest of the US to align its rhetoric with its economic and monetary policies such that the long term luster of the Dollar is restored.

Read More: The Dollar and the Market Mess

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Forex Themes for 2008

Jan. 7th 2008

Last week, the Forex Blog recounted what happened across forex markets in 2007, in all of its drama. Now, we would like to offer a nice counterpoint, in the form of the major themes expected to dominate forex headlines in 2008, courtesy of Dow Jones. The list includes eight distinct themes, though there is some overlap.  Three of the themes pertain directly to the USD, which is the currency most worth watching in the upcoming year.  The fundamentals bode well for the Dollar; the economy has not suffered from the credit crunch nearly as much as economists feared; the cheaper currency has boosted exports; foreigners have proven surprisingly willing to finance the twin deficits.

Then, there is inflation, which has reared its ugly head in the US as well as abroad. Foreign Central Banks, especially in Asia, may have to tighten monetary policy in order to maintain price stability. Those countries with already-high interest rates, such as Australia and New Zealand, are expected to keep rates high.  The next theme, accordingly, is the carry trade, which should continue its run due to the aforementioned high interest rates.  Next is China, which will be watched on two fronts: its economy and its currency, both of which are expected to continue rising. 

The final two themes pertain especially to the Middle East: currency pegs and Sovereign Wealth Funds. As the Dollar declined in 2007, several nations in the Mid East mulled the possibility of de-linking their respective currencies from the Dollar, but thus far, the status quo has obtained.  Sovereign Wealth Funds also made a big splash in 2007 with several high-profile investments in the US, implicitly underscoring their their commitment to the Dollar.  They represent a growing force in global capital markets, and will be watched vigilantly in 2008.

View the Complete List Here

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2007: A Forex Review

Dec. 31st 2007

As 2007 draws to a close, the Forex Blog would like to formally deliver its second annual ‘state of the markets’ address. While the picture in most capital markets was blurry and nuanced, the story for forex markets was relatively straightforward. Simply speaking, the story was all about the US Dollar, which followed up its worst year in recent memory in 2006 with an equally abysmal performance in 2007. In fact, over the last two years, the Dollar has fallen over 20% against the Euro, and even further against most of the world’s other important currencies.

During the early part of the year, evidence mounted that the current US economic cycle had peaked, and analysts began to speculate that the US Federal Reserve Bank would cut interest rates. Nonetheless, the Dollar traded sideways for the next nine months, until the housing bubble burst and the ensuing credit crisis quickly metastasized to the rest of the economy.  The Fed responded by cutting interest rates by 50 basis points, and the Dollar began to unravel, losing 10% of its value in a matter of weeks.  After that point, the bad news began to pour in.

The oil-exporting countries delivered a one-two punch to the Dollar, first by announcing that the possibility of accepting payment for oil in other currencies, than hinting towards a collective dissolution of their respective Dollar pegs. The Canadian Dollar reached parity with its counterpart to the south shortly thereafter.  Countries in the developing world, including Brazil, Russia, and India, also witnessed surges in their respective currencies. The Chinese Yuan continued its slow climb, rising over 6% for the year, though this figure is probably closer to 2-3% in real terms. Even the Japanese Yen, previously held in place by the carry trade, notched an impressive performance as the credit crunch touched off a cascade of risk aversion.  Then, of course, there was the interest rate story: by the end of the year, US interest rates were only 25 basis points above EU rates, and Dollar bears were licking their lips.

The news was not all bad, however.  Foreign investors proved that they were willing to continue to finance the US twin deficits, though perhaps to a lesser extent than before.  There were even several high-profile investments in US financial institutions, led by Sovereign Investment Funds, which collectively claim hundreds of billions of dollars at their disposal.  In addition, the world’s Central Banks announced plans to pump over $500 Billion into global capital markets, which should especially benefit the Dollar since the US bore the brunt of the credit crunch.  Finally, economic data now indicate that US exports have been helped by the declining dollar. 

All things considered, it could have been worse.  Tune in later this week, as we unveil our forecast for 2008.

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Commentary: The Future of the Dollar

Dec. 24th 2007

Despite its multi-year decline, the US Dollar remains the world’s undisputed reserve currency, claiming a 65% share of total Central Bank reserves. However, the chorus of soothsayers proclaiming the apocalypse for the Greenback is growing louder by the day. Every week seems to offer a new piece of news confirming that the Dollar’s reign is coming to an end. Analysts are drawing parallels between the British Pound of 50 years ago and the Dollar today. China is threatening to diversify its reserves into Euros. Iran and Venezuela are leading calls to price oil in terms of a basket of currencies, rather than in USD. The other members of OPEC are considering de-pegging their respective currencies from the Dollar. What does all of this mean? Is the Dollar truly in danger of being replaced as the world’s reserve currency?

The short answer is ‘no.’ The US twin deficits have expanded every year for the past decade and economic theory suggests that in order for a nation’s current account to rebalance itself, a decline in the value of its currency is required. At the same time, these deficits are sustainable for as long as foreign investors, sovereign and private, are willing to sustain them. And despite the looming threat of recession, economic data and anecdotal stories suggests that such investors remain willing to lend their financial support. For example, the announcement of record-breaking losses by American financial institutions has been met with solid commitments to invest by international investors.

In addition, while foreign exchange reserve diversification is certainly justifiable from a risk management standpoint, it hardly makes sense from a financial standpoint. The case could have been made for foreign Central Banks to exchange their Dollars for Euros and/or Pounds several years ago when both currencies were trading at relative bargains to the USD. Now that these currencies are more expensive, it seems harder for to justify buying assets and securities denominated in them. Furthermore, Central Banks must recognize that diversifying now would be counter-productive, by sending a wave of panic through the markets and undermining their efforts. As one analyst pointed out, Japan and China, the two largest holders of USD, both have a vested interest in an expensive Dollar.

However, the long answer to the question posed at the beginning of this article is closer to ‘maybe’ than ‘no.’  In the long-term, Central Banks will certainly move towards a more diversified portfolio of currencies.  For countries like China and Japan, this will help minimize risk.  For countries in the Middle East that peg their currencies to the Dollar, this will enable them to conduct monetary policy independent of the US.  Ultimately, US capital markets are the most stable and liquid in the world, and regardless of the value of the USD, it will serve the interests of Central Banks to denominate a large portion of their portfolios in Dollars.  Besides, analysts can be extremely fickle. It was only five years ago that the Euro was trading below parity with the USD and analysts were predicting its collapse.  The fundamentals underlying both currencies have not changed much since then, yet commentators have reversed their positions. Who knows what such analysts will be preaching five years from now…

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Commentary: The PetroDollar Debate

Dec. 3rd 2007

Now that the furor over the US housing crisis/credit crunch has begun to subside in forex markets, investors have turned their attention to what is perhaps the second biggest threat to the Dollar’s long term health: the PetroDollar phenomenon.  In short, the price oil is denominated in Dollars and many oil-exporting nations peg their currencies to the USD. Having found themselves awash in cash, such nations are beginning to ponder greater financial independence from the declining Dollar.

The anecdotal evidence for the declining importance of the Dollar among oil-exporting countries could not be stronger. Last week, the Forex Blog reported two developments. First, OPEC is considering altering the way oil contracts are settled, by pricing oil in a basket of currencies rather than in USD.  Next, the members of the Gulf Coast Council are considering de-pegging their currencies from the Dollar, due to rising inflation and the increasing opportunity cost of owning Dollar-denominated assets.

Actual data, on the other hand, suggests that OPEC may be moving in the opposite direction, towards a greater dependence on the Dollar.  The US remains the most popular destination for petrodollar investments, attracting 55% of all such investment capital. Europe comes in at a distant second, attracting just 18%. Plus, in the last year, oil money has been used to make several widely-publicized investments in American investment groups, including a recent $7.5 Billion investment in Citigroup by the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority.

The evidence is certainly nuanced. In all likelihood, OPEC will make good on Iran’s failed attempt to sell oil denominated in Euros by linking oil to a basket of currencies.  In their own words, “oil is being sold in a currency whose value was eroding by the day.”  At the same time, the US is still the home of the world’s best capital markets, from the standpoint of stability and risk. Thus, while it’s possible that some or all of the members of the GCC will de-peg their currencies from the Dollar, any relative decrease in Dollar-denominated investments is likely to be passive, rather than active. 

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Commentary: Will the US Intervene on Behalf of the Dollar?

Oct. 22nd 2007

At last week’s G8 meeting in Washington, it was expected that currencies would be a hot topic of discussion.  With the Dollar retreating to record lows on a daily basis, the failure of China to allow the Yuan to appreciate, the Japanese Yen’s continued weakness despite its strong economy, and the recent parity of the Canadian Dollar and USD, there are certainly plenty of forex phenomena that deserve attention.  However, it is the Euro/USD relationship that probably received the most scrutiny, as the biggest contingent of the G8 uses the Euro.

European politicians and bureaucrats have spent the last few months arguing with America-as well as amongst themselves-over the declining Dollar.  The consensus is certainly that the Dollar is harming the European economies; as one German Minister phrased it, the “pain threshold” has been crossed.  At the same time, it is clear that a relatively weak Dollar is probably in the best interest of global economic stability, since the US current account and financial account imbalances can only be solved by changes in exchange rates.  Thus, there is a growing divide between European politicians, who tend to think in provincial terms, and the European Central Bank, which is more focused on the Big Picture.  The new President of France, for example, has been quite vocal in lamenting the appreciation of the Euro, even going so far as to demand the ECB step in.  Jean Claude Trichet, president of the ECB, responded by calling on European politicians to be circumspect in their comments on the Euro.

However, since Central Banks do not participate in G8 conferences, you can bet that politicians hounded Hank Paulson, US Secretary of the Treasury, on the declining Dollar.  Some analysts have even speculated that ‘intervention’ would enter into the discussions. In fact, the US has not intervened in forex markets since 1994, when Europe and American worked in tandem to prop up a then-ailing Dollar.  After a couple months, however, the plan was abandoned due to mixed results.  Is it possible that the US, confronted with the same situation, will once again attempt intervention?

The answer is “not likely.”  First, the Europeans are not even united in their position on the USD/Euro exchange rate.  Secretly, they would probably all prefer a stronger Dollar, but in public, only a handful have called for intervention.  Second, short of fixing the exchange rate (which would require the US to borrow money), it is very difficult for a government/central bank to control its currency.  Recent intervention by South Korea and Japan, as well as America’s efforts in 1994, ended in failure. Finally, there is the issue of China, which does control its currency.  The US would surely appear hypocritical if it intervened on behalf of the Dollar while simultaneously encouraging China to float the Yuan.  Thus, while certain US economic concessions may result of the G8 conference, a controlled appreciation of the Dollar will not likely be one of them.

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Commentary: How far will the Dollar Drop?

Sep. 17th 2007

When the US Dollar eclipsed its previous record low against the Euro last week, commentators immediately began painting doomsday scenarios for the beleaguered currency. On paper, the argument for a continued decline in the Dollar is quite strong, due to a sagging economy, surging current account deficit, the prospect of lower interest rates and turmoil in US capital markets. But, in practice, the Dollar remains the world’s de facto reserve currency, which begs the question: “how much-if at all-will the Dollar decline?”

Let’s begin by examining the state of the US economy.  At this point, economists have clearly identified the housing/real estate sector as a major weakness in the US economy.  Instability and an overall lack of demand have contributed to falling prices for real estate, which is eating into consumers’ disposable income, and hence threatens to bring down the rest of the economy.  In fact, the most recent employment data, which has become the most-watched piece of economic data in recent years, signaled that for the last 3 months, no new jobs were created in America, which is a tremendous cause for concern.

As a result, it is all but certain that the Federal Reserve Bank will lower its benchmark interest rate at its next meeting, perhaps by as much as 50 basis points.  While this may soften the impact of the sagging housing market on the rest of the economy, it
will also decrease the EU-US interest rate differential to only 75 basis points. In addition, the European Central Bank will likely raise rates at its next meeting, which means the differential will be further reduced.  Combined with general instability in US capital markets, brought on by weakness in mortgage-backed securities, foreigners are beginning to grow wary of investing in the US.

While a US economic recession would decrease imports and perhaps stem the growing trade imbalance, foreigners may still decide that it is too risky to continue financing the US trade deficit.

On the other hand, many Dollar bulls insist (correctly) that the Dollar remains the world’s reserve currency, and serves as a safe haven in times of global economic instability.  And in fact, the Dollar initially appreciated in value despite the turmoil in its securities markets. However, this upward trend seems to have been the result of a temporary shunning of risk, and since then, the Dollar has resumed its fall.  In short, both in theory and in practice, the evidence suggests that the Greenback can still fall much further against the world’s major currencies.

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Commentary: Interest Rate Parity catches up with USD

Jul. 3rd 2007

Most commentators assume that the only thing currently keeping the USD afloat is high interest rates. While attractive rates have certainly encouraged an inflow of (risk-averse) foreign capital in the short term, they may ultimately be harming the currency in the long-term. In fact, the economic law of interest rate parity dictates that currencies and interest rates should move away from each other in the long term. Stated differently, high interest rates should imply a less valuable currency. Since US rates are among the highest in the world, the USD should decline in the long term in order to compensate US investors in foreign securities for the lower risk-free returns they are implicitly accepting.

The reasoning is simple enough: since the advent of currency futures, traders have been able to speculate on future exchange rates. In order for futures to be priced fairly (such that arbitrage is impossible) the difference between a currency’s current value and its implied future value should perfectly equal the difference between domestic interest rate levels and international interest rate levels. In the case of the US, bets on the USD made during the recent period that US interest rates have exceeded European and British interest rates, must have been predicated on a declining USD in the future, which is now the present.

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Commentary: What to do about the Chinese Yuan?

May. 27th 2007

The Chinese Yuan refuses to die as a topic of conversation among forex speculators. In theory, the currency is among the world’s most prosaic; since its famous “revaluation” by the Chinese government nearly two years ago, the Yuan aka RMB has appreciated at a leisurely pace, roughly equivalent to 3% per year. Last week, the CCP took a step further in liberalizing its currency system by widening the band in which the Yuan is permitted to fluctuate, to .5% daily.

However, this did little to appease foreign diplomats and American politicians, who contend that the Yuan remains vastly undervalued, and that the Chinese government is guilty of currency manipulation. Two American Senators, Lindsey Graham and Charles Schumer, are still threatening to introduce a latent piece of legislation into Congress, which would slap a 27.5% tariff on all Chinese imports, unless the CCP promptly increases the value of the Yuan. (The 27.5% represents an average of the high and low estimates, 40% and 15%, respectively, of the extent of the Yuan’s undervaluation relative to the USD.) For its part, China maintains that not only is the currency fairly valued, but also that it will not be pressured into hastening the Yuan’s rate of appreciation. So, two questions need to be answered: Is the Yuan undervalued and if so, should China allow it to appreciate at a more rapid pace?

The first question is probably the trickier of the two to answer. Economists use admittedly crude techniques to value currencies. One method involves a calculation of purchasing power parity (PPP), which dictates that currencies should adjust in value relative to each other in inverse proportion to their respective price levels. In the case of the Yuan, PPP analysis suggests that the Yuan may be undervalued by as much 50%. However, this is to be expected; since income levels in China are vastly lower than in the US, one would expect prices to be lower, irrespective of exchange rates. Other methods used to estimate the fundamental value of the Yuan involve sophisticated statistical analysis, producing estimates of undervaluation ranging from 0% to 50%. In short, it appears as though the Yuan remains marginally undervalued, but the extent of which remains guesswork.

Upon concluding that the Yuan is undervalued, should China be expected to allow the currency to fluctuate more freely (i.e. appreciate)? It depends on who you ask.  American officials argue that the revaluation of the Yuan represents a crucial piece of the drive to reduce the burgeoning US trade deficit. However, upon closer examination, this notion is revealed to be false since most of China’s exports to the US are themselves repackaged products from other parts of Asia. Further, a sudden revaluation of the Yuan would likely result in the relocation of Chinese production to facilities to other low-wage countries, thus doing little to stem the US trade deficit. From China’s point of view, its economy is helped by an artificially cheap currency in that its export sector receives an indirect subsidy. However, it is constrained in its ability to conduct monetary policy as well as in its need to accumulate massive forex reserves, both of which would be relaxed in the event of a revaluation.

Not withstanding that China’s stubbornness mean it will not be bullied into appreciating its currency, it is probably in everyone’s best interest if it capitulates. My prediction, for what it’s worth, is that China will ultimately allow the RMB to appreciate at a slightly faster pace against the USD, probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 5% a year.

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Commentary: Implied Volatility Explained

May. 5th 2007

Technical analysts use a myriad of indicators and indices to
try to gauge where currencies are headed. Many seek insight in the prices of derivatives, where forwards, futures,
options, and swaps are used to make bets on the future movements of
commodities, securities, and even currencies. Let’s ignore swaps, which are more complicated and virtually
inaccessible to retail investors.  Currency
futures, forwards, and options are based on the same premise: one party agrees
to buy/sell a specific unit of a specific currency at a fixed price on or
before a fixed date in the future.  In
the case of forwards and futures, the contract represents an obligation.  In the case of options, it is a choice. 

As is probably self-evident, there are only a few variables
which determine the price of a currency option: the underlying exchange rate,
strike/purchase price, time to maturity, risk-free rate, and volatility of the
underlying currency. The first four variables are known: the fifth, volatility,
can be induced from the price of the option. You will often here of traders quoting “implied volatility” prices,
which, given the other four variables and the price of the option, can be
calculated easily enough. Based on the
price of the option, the volatility figures implicitly represent how investors
collectively view a currency’s prospects.

Volatility is worth paying especial attention to because it
can help you sort through the layers of analysis and guidance that pundits,
like myself, proffer with regard to forex markets. Implied volatility offers an instant snapshot
of how much investors believe a currency will fluctuate over the term of the
option.

Implied volatility is currently drawing the attention and scrutiny
of forex analysts because it is much lower than would be expected given the
Dollar’s recent collapse.  The USD has
fallen to a record low against the Euro and a 26-year low against the British
Pound, and many analysts, including myself, expect the Dollar to fall
further. However, implied volatility of
USD/Euro and USD/GPB options indicate that investors believe the worst of the
Dollar’s travails are behind us.  The
markets can be wrong, and in the case of currencies, which are among the most
difficult to forecast, they are frequently wrong.  But, prices do not lie: in this case, they are
telling us unequivocally that traders are not expecting further Dollar
volatility.

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Commentary: USD will decline in long-term

Apr. 18th 2007

In recent years, the performance of the USD has been dismal. The currency is near historic lows against most of the world’s major currencies (with the notable exception of the Japanese Yen), and in fact, just yesterday, the USD dropped to a 15-year low against the British Pound.  And yet, it is my belief that when all is said and done, the USD will have fallen much further in value.  You are probably wondering, ‘If the USD has already depreciated significantly, how could it still be overvalued.’

The answer is simple: the USD is currently suffering a correction relative to other currencies. Simply put, economic fundamentals and monetary benchmarks are becoming stronger in other countries, which is putting downward pressure on the USD, relative to other currencies.  The decline that I am presaging is a decline in the absolute value of the USD, which is more of a structural change in the USD than a financial or economic change. 

The primary driver of the decline of the Dollar is inflation. On the surface, inflation has been stable over the last decade, averaging about 3% per year.  There are a few things worth noting here. First, this statistics does not services for which prices are rising much faster than the general rate of inflation, such as taxes, education, and health insurance. Second, and perhaps more importantly, this statistic is net of the deflation that is wrought by inexpensive foreign-produced goods. In other words, if cheaper imports save us 3% annually, then domestic inflation is probably closer to 6%. When outsourcing the production of key goods and services no longer produces savings, then consumers can expect a rise in overall rate of inflation.

It should also be noted that since the stock market crash of 1929, the Dollar has lost 95% of its value, whereas in the previous 125 years, the purchasing power of the USD had hardly changed.  Meanwhile, the twin deficits (trade deficit and budget deficit) have ballooned, to the extent that the national debt now measures approximately $9 Trillion and the annual US trade deficit is fast approaching $1 Trillion!  The result is that the government has been forced to print tremendous amounts of new paper money.
This phenomenon is evident in US capital markets, where yields are anomalously low, credit spreads are non-existent, corporate earnings are at record levels, and there is a general excess of liquidity. 

The bright side is that this trend could be reversed if the government was able to balance its budget.  However, this is probably impossible since some estimates of the government’s future liabilities exceed $50 Billion, which would be required to plug the holes in social security and other government entitlement programs. Some sectors of the market have already sprung into motion: the price of gold, which is normally used to hedge inflation, has doubled over the last decade. Central Banks are formulating plans to diversify their foreign exchange reserves (i.e. get rid of USD assets as fast as possible before the currency depreciates further).

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Get Started Investing in Forex: 37 Tutorials, Tools & Resources

Mar. 24th 2007

Even if you’re an active trader in stocks, you may not be prepared to invest in forex, or the foreign exchange market. Forex trades 24 hours a day from 5:00 p.m. ET on Sunday until 4:00 p.m. ET Friday, so you won’t hear those opening or closing bells. And, there’s no central market like the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq. Instead, trade is conducted between participants through electronic communication networks (ECNs) and phone networks in various markets around the world. So, when you hear that the US dollar closed at a certain rate, it simply means that was the rate at market close in New York. But currency continues to be traded around the world long after New York’s close.

But, like securities, traders can go long or short and they can make a profit or lose money. As with stocks, it’s best to conduct some research into how the forex market works before you begin to trade. After you understand how the forex market works, you can begin to build a trading strategy.

The following list contains 37 tutorials, tools, and resources that will help you get started with investments in forex. If you’ve traded on any stock exchange in the past, some of these tools might feel or appear familiar, but they may have a new twist. The resources listed below were chosen for their clarity and simplicity as well as for their reputation.

Getting Started

The following information is for the forex beginner, but even intermediate-level forex traders might pick up a tip or two from these sites:

  1. Baby Pips:
    A pip is the smallest unit of price for any foreign currency, so "baby pips" is a bit redundant. But you won’t find any redunancy on this site. Skip the news on the front page for now and go straight to the School of Pipsology that holds a complete course for beginners. If you walk through all the lessons contained on this site, you’ll have a solid basic forex education under your belt.
  2. Forex Glossary: Although the previous tutorial might help you to understand some forex terms, this glossary is a great tool to have on hand for future reference. You’ll see some familiar terms here, like "selling short" and "limit order," and you’ll learn that they mean the same as they do when you use them for trading securities. But, you’ll also find new terms like "big figure" and "two-way price," terms that will set you apart as a forex trader.
  3. Investopedia: This online financial encyclopedia contains an extensive 10-part article on forex investing, from an introduction to a recap that covers everything from benefits and risks to technical analysis. If you can’t get enough of Investopedia’s information, head to their Forex index, where you can find a list of articles and an opportunity to download their free e-Book entitled, "High Probability Trading Setups for the Currency Market."
  4. National Futures Association(NFA): Now that you have a basic understanding about forex markets, visit the NFA to learn how to build a sound forex strategy. The NFA is "the premier independent provider of efficient and innovative regulatory programs that safeguard the integrity of the derivatives markets," which basically means that this organization regulates any market that depends upon future cash flows. The "investor information" section contains materials about how to find a broker and basic lessons in forex trading. Plus, they publish forex warnings, news, and they offer a place for investor disputes and complaints.
  5. Commodities Futures Trading Commission(CFTC): The CFTC operates along the same lines as the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission), except this government organization focuses on protecting market users and the public from fraud in the futures and option markets. So keep this site handy to stay on top of any forex scams through their Consumer Advisory on Forex Fraud. You can learn quickly what to avoid in your learning curve through a detailed forex advisory that offers information about other resources as well.
  6. Martket Traders Insitute (MTI): You don’t need to spend a lot of money to train in forex markets. Even MTI offers free resources such as videos and lesson plans that will help you get off the ground. If you like what you hear and see, you can invest in materials for the advanced trader down the road.

Learn about Currency

If you’re going to trade something, you better know what it is you’re trading. These currency sites will help you get up to speed on foreign currency exchange and markets.

  1. Exchange Rate: Skip the top link box, as those links will take you to FXCM (Forex Capital Markets — see #13 and #33). Instead, try out the "hot" and "currency info" links that provide information about everything you’d want to know about worldwide currencies for 170 countries. Includes calculators, fun facts, serious facts, and more.
  2. Oanda: With a free registration you can access customizable currency tools, including calculators and foreign exchange data. If you don’t register you can still access currency exchange tools that are great items for instant information, especially for travelers, let alone forex investors. The Traveler’s Cheat Sheet is indispensable for money-conscious globetrotters.
  3. GoCurrency: This site offers a powerful and accurate currency converter, but don’t stop there. Learn about currencies by country, currency forecasts, and gather insights on foreign investments.
  4. The Euro: Confused about the Euro? Over 13 European Union countries now use the Euro, and this Web site, brought to you by the European Commission, will teach you everything you want to know about this currency. But the Euro represents just one currency among hundreds. Which leads me to my next point…
  5. List of Currencies: This is an extensive list provided by Wikipedia that covers everything from ancient coinage to the current Yen. As with most Wikipedia lists, you might run across a link or two that doesn’t contain information. But, you can use that information to search elsewhere if needed.

Get the News

Once you’ve learned the basics, the next best thing you can do before you begin to trade is to read up on forex information via traditional financial news sites and blogs. Use the tutorials listed above during this process so that you can grasp the language and learn the strategies involved in any reporting. Take advantage of forums or chats offered by these resources to ask questions:

  1. Action Forex: This site offers an easy-to-read layout that includes news, insights, fundamentals reports, calculators, and tons of other forex resources.
  2. Daily FX: An easy-on-the-eyes news source that offers a calendar, charts, and a forum. Sponsored by FXCM, this site offers a free weekly trading lesson and free quarterly outlook reports. You must be an FXCM client to access the market commentary, but the other "free" news offers a great resource for learning and for staying
    on top of forex news.
  3. Forex Reader: The Forex Reader is a popular blog that offers updates on financial headlines relegated by currency. It also serves as a resource for individuals seeking a Houston trucking accident attorney along with other legal and financial information.
  4. Forex News: Like most of the sites listed here, Forex News offers more than news. Check
    out their forums, their technical news, and their educational and research materials while you’re there. Register for free to take full advantage of the site’s resources, including a chat feature.
  5. FXStreet: Global Forex Trading (GFX) sponsors this forex news site. Use the forums, chats, strategies, techniques, and trading tools to get a feel for forex. Additionally, several bloggers share their insights, including Wayne McDonell’s FX Boot Camp Training Videos (visit his FX Bootcamp
    site
    ).
  6. Profiting with Forex Blog: You might discover that this newsworthy blog is part of the network, "Profiting with Forex."
    The blog is interesting, but the backend reports, podcasts, and commentary at the "Profiting" site might appeal to you more.
  7. The Forex Project: Lessons learned first-hand from a forex trader. This site has an unbelievably long list of topics, along with news about the blogger’s personal trading experiences, calculators, charts, news, and a perspective on forex psychology.

Participate in Forums

Speaking of forums, here are a few specific resources where you can tap into information from around the world that may help to answer your questions about forex trading and markets. Be aware that individuals who want to sell their ideas visit these forums, just like any other forums. But, you’ll find a wealth of valid information here as well.

  1. MoneyTec: With over
    33,000 members, this traders’ forum offers a format to discuss trading ideas, share, learn, and build new trading techniques and strategies.
  2. Global View Forums: Another free forum that’s been around since 1996. This one focuses solely on forex. You must register to participate.
  3. Forex Factory Forum: You’ll find a Forex Beginner Q&A section as well as topics that focus on specific strategies and techniques. Free to register.

Learn Strategies

You’ll discover that some forex traders use Fibonacci (Fib) methods, and that others rely on current financial news to divine futures. There are as many strategies as personalities in the forex market, but — like the stock market — they rely either on fundamental or technical analysis. The following contains a mix of the two:

  1. Fibonacci Lesson: Don’t know much ’bout arithmetic, Fibonacci numbers, or the Golden Section? This tutorial, offered by Dr Ron Knott from the Mathematics Department of the University of Surrey, UK will provide results. Simple to use, easy to understand, and filled with illustrations to help you learn why some numbers are so important to nature. Interstingly, these numbers are also of vast interest to many forex investors.
  2. Fibonacci Forex Indicators: Forex Planet will begin to show you how to apply Fibs to forex in this easy-to-understand lesson. But, the lesson is short, so you might try the next resource as well:
  3. Mini-Lesson on Fibonnaci: This lesson also applies to forex, and it offers a short tutorial on applications along with a downloadable Fib calculator.
  4. Intro to Japanese Candlestick Charting: Altavest provides a short and succinct introduction to Japanese candlestick charting, another method that forex traders use to graph charts.
  5. Candlestick Patterns: If you like the Japanese candlestick methodology, this site will thrill you. Extensive patterns are illustrated graphically from basic to single patterns and reversal to continuation formations. This entire site offers some great information on techniques and strategies beyond the candlestick information, so take some time to look around while you’re here. Basically, this site has it all as far as technical analysis goes.
  6. Fundamentals of Forex: Forex TV brings you the lowdown on what type of news would affect forex from a fundamental standpoint. You can use the information on this list to conduct further research, but I’ll bring a few of those topics to you now…
  7. Consumer Price Index (CPI): The US Department of Labor offers a ton of information just on this page alone through their links. But, the CPI is often influenced by many other factors. If you’re a fundamentalist, you might want to tag this next link for further research as well…
  8. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA): Don’t play around with someone else’s opinions. Get the straight stuff from the US Department of Commerce like the pros. Everyone from the White House staff to US Trade Commission employees to trade policy officials who want to negotiate international trade agreements uses the measurements contained on the BEA Web site. Why should you be left out of this information resource?

Use Charts

Charts offer visual validation for technical strategies, but they also reflect fundamental behaviors in the market. Even if you’re a seasoned securities trader, you might want to learn more about the psychology behind forex trading. If you can read all sorts of charts inside and out, you’ll have the forex advantage.

  1. The Law of Charts: Joe Ross offers advice for traders across the board, but the information contained in his "Law of Charts" offer speaks to forex as well as any other trading strategy. He identifies chart patterns that result from human behaviors and points to entry and exit targets on those charts. You can take advantage of Ross’s other tools as well, including the forum.
  2. Forex
    Charting 101
    : A brief and basic overview of forex charts from Pip Trader. You’ll discover that the charts are very similar to those that you might use for securities trading. But, some of the charts may seem more complicated if you’re not a seasoned trader.
  3. Free Forex Charts: There’s no reason for me to push you into using a specific chart. Instead, I’ll point you to a short list of free forex charts that you can use for practice. When you’re ready to begin trading, take a look at their lists of premium and system trading charts for professional use. The lists contain ratings and reviews, visuals, features, and tips and tricks for individual charts.
  4. FXCM: Although I don’t advocate specific brokers in this article, when you visit brokerage sites make sure that you take advantage of any free information offered by those businesses. In this instance, Forex Capital Markets offers tons of information about forex trading, and you can sign up for a risk-free 30-day practice account to get your feet wet. Forex.com and several other brokerage sites also offer this free account service. Be aware that when you sign up for these services that you’ll be added to a mailing list. You can opt out of these lists, but read any other pertinent information to make sure that you’re not obligated to purchase anything from any brokerage that you use for services such as this one.

Other tools

The tools listed below are "sidebars" to all the information listed above. I’ll cut you loose on the last two sites, as they contain just about every site you’d might want to access for more forex information:

  1. Live Forex Rates: You might recognize the GFT logo behind the rates, but don’t let that distract you from the constantly changing figures. If you’re addicted to live feeds, you’ll be mesmerized by the constantly changing currency
    rates on this chart.
  2. A
    Free Book about Forex
    :
    This book is truly free, as you don’t need to register to access the PDF file. A forex trader offers information about all the mistakes he made as he learned how to develop his own forex strategy. Short and easy to read, this little book will bring some insights into how to avoid some pitfalls in the forex markets.
  3. Top 100 Forex Sites:
    Although these sites are rated by popularity and, therefore, subject to rating scams, you can learn much from the sites that are listed simply from the variety of information that’s offered here. Many sites are brokerage firms, but as I mentioned previously you can find free information on many of these sites such as news, calculators, techniques, and more.
  4. Earn Forex: A link exchange/directory for other forex sites. Unlike the "Top 100" site listed previously, Earn Forex doesn’t rate their links. But, you will also find much different information here than at the previous site. Additionally, the links are sorted by categories, which makes it easier to find what you need. In addition, you’ll find other tools here like calculators, articles, and a forex FAQ and glossary.

There are many other sites that I could list for your forex training, but my next suggestion is to head to your local library and read some books about forex trading. If you find an author or two who are to your liking, begin to study their techniques and strategies both through their books and on the Internet. If you share your information and questions on forums, you might find a mentor who will help you learn how to strategize and to use charts and fundamentals to your advantage as well.

Forex trading isn’t learned overnight; so don’t feel inadequate if you can’t grasp the fine points immediately. You can’t lose by learning more about how world economies work. The information that you gather in your search for forex training will make you a better trader no matter which markets you prefer to use.

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Commentary: What will it take to end the Yen carry trade?

Feb. 21st 2007

Before I attempt to answer the following question, let’s examine where the Japanese Yen is today and more importantly, how it got there. The story begins around the establishment of the second Bretton-Woods agreement, which de-linked the USD from gold, and ushered in the modern era of freely floating currencies. In the 30 years that have elapsed since this period began, the Yen has never been less valuable. In fact, in trade-weighted terms, the Japanese Yen is at an all-time low!

The decline began in 1995, touched off by a nagging recession and the accompanying easy monetary policy, in which Japanese real interest rates were effectively negative. The decline seems to have accelerated over the past five years, due to the proliferation of the carry trade. In this type of trade, investors borrow Japanese Yen at a low interest rate, and sell the Yen for a currency which is supported by higher interest rates. The profit, known as carry, is the spread between the two rates. Hedge funds have piled into the carry trade, driving the Yen to lower and lower depths.

Politicians, relying on economists, have begun to clamor for reform. For a while, trade representatives and politicians insisted Japan was intervening on behalf of the Yen, which was ostensibly keeping the Yen grounded. They have since retreated from this position and embraced the carry trade theory as being responsible. Regardless of the causes, everyone agrees that the Yen’s undervaluation is not only destabilizing, but is economically inefficient. After all, Japan is home to the world’s largest trade surplus, and its economy is growing at an annualized rate of almost 5%!

So why doesn’t Japan give in and raise rates? The answer, it turns out, may not even matter. Traders have speculated that it require a rise of 200 basis points in Japanese interest rates for the carry trade to lose its appeal, an event which is extremely unlikely to occur by the end of 2007. Instead, a little bit of volatility in forex markets might go a long way in coaxing the currency upward. The Economist has drawn an analogy of the current situation to 1998, when the Russian default made hedge funds nervous, and they unwound their carry positions in the Yen. The result was a rapid 15% appreciation in the Yen.

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

Commentary: 2006, the year that was

Jan. 7th 2007

The books have been closed on 2006 for more than a week, which means it is time for the forex blogger to give his first-ever ‘state of the markets’ address. After a dull and static 2005, forex markets roared back into action in 2006, with several notable developments. On everyone’s radar screens, the world’s most important currency, the USD, declined by over 13% against the Euro and the British Pound. Analysts attributed the decline to narrowing interest rate differentials between the US and the rest of the developed world, as the US monetary cycle peaked while the rest of the world continues to raise rates.

In addition, several countries, notably China, Russia and several OPEC nations announced that they had already begun to diversify their foreign exchange holdings. This process is becoming auto-catalytic, which means that as the USD declines, it makes less financial sense for Central Banks to hold USD-denominated assets, which causes the USD to decline further, and so on. Meanwhile, the US economy is sputtering, and a majority of economists believe the Federal Reserves Bank will lower interest rates in 2007.

The Yen initially joined the ranks of the Pound and the Euro in their upward march, before retreating back to earlier levels, due to a couple reasons. First, low interest rates continue to make the carry trade a viable trading strategy, as investors borrow in Yen and invest in higher-yielding currencies, which effectively keeps the Yen grounded. Second, Japan’s Central Bank has repeatedly threatened to intervene in forex markets on behalf of the Yen, which has made investors wary about betting too much on its appreciation.

The Chinese Yuan accelerated upward, due primarily to American political pressure and the threat of trade sanctions. Meanwhile, the Thai Baht appreciated almost 20% against the USD, prompting Thailand’s Central Bank to step in and impose draconian capital controls intended to curb speculation. Emerging market currencies fared equally well on the heels of strong economic fundamentals and intelligent monetary policy that kept inflation on check. If these trends continue, expect 2007 to be a repeat of 2006.

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

Commentary: The Inevitable Decline of the USD

Dec. 13th 2006

For years, economists have been arguing that the USD was vastly overvalued, and a fundamental correction was in order. Last month, their claims were born out, as the bottom fell out beneath the USD, and the currency declined by over 10% against most of the world’s major currencies, including the British Pound and Euro. But, was this only the beginning and is there more to come?

In trade-weighted terms, the USD is hovering around its 30-year average, and is just above a 20-year low against the Japanese Yen. Meanwhile, the Yuan is appreciating at a snail’s pace. In real terms, therefore, the correction that has taken place thus far is trivial. The decline against the Euro is unlikely to fix the trans-Atlantic balance of trade. It will certainly make risk-averse investors think twice about investing in the US, especially since Europe and Great Britain now offer comparable returns, but will not cause Americans and Europeans to adjust their patterns of consumption enough to narrow the trade imbalance.

However, further USD appreciation would be inflationary in America by raising the prices of imports. This would therefore deter the Federal Reserve Bank from lowering interest rates, since according to Ben Bernanke, inflation is already “uncomfortably high.” Meanwhile, America’s economy is starting to sputter with productivity lagging and the housing market in tatters. The Fed is in the unenviable position with reconciling the looming recession with the specter of inflation, both of which are to be avoided if possible.

In the long term, the USD must decline, against the currencies of Asia at the very least. At some point, foreigners will either become unwilling to finance the American twin deficits are will run out of assets to purchase and loans to underwrite. This is already happening, as American interest rates are at disconcertingly low levels while equity prices continue to touch record highs. As if this were not enough, Asia already owns over $2 Trillion in USD-denominated assets, and is in the process of shifting its reserves out of US capital markets. In short, it is still a question of when-not if-the USD will decline drastically (by 20% or more) so that the global imbalances can be permanently ironed out.

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

China pushes reserve diversification

Nov. 13th 2006

Every month, almost like clockwork, when China announces its new total of foreign exchange reserves, a cloud of paranoia descends on currency markets, as traders weigh the likelihood of China diversifying its reserves. This month was different, however, as this paranoia seems to have been born out by Zhou XiaoChuan, chairman of China’s Central Bank. He stated explicitly that China would *continue* to diversify its reserves, but did not specify particular currencies or investments that would be targeted. However, the consensus is that any diversification by China, regardless of the scope, would surely benefit the Euro.

“Plainly, there’s a lot of sensitivity on this issue, and as an investor, one has to respect the market’s reaction.”

Read More: China’s reserve plans keep forex market on edge

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, Commentary, Euro | 1 Comment »

Commentary: USD correction continues to be postponed

Oct. 28th 2006

In 1998, the Euro and the Britsh Pound began rallying against the USD, appreciating over 30% in the following years. Then, last year, the USD staged a miraculous comeback, retracing 10% of its losses against the world’s major currencies, and costing bearish US investors (such as Warren Buffet) billions of dollars in losses. This year, the Euro and the Pound resumed their upward path against the USD, but have been stuck in a narrow range for many months. And against the major currencies of Asia, the USD has performed equally (well), prevented from depreciating by what is believed to be deliberate intervention in forex markets.

This begs the question, that if so many fundamental economic indicators seem to favor rival currencies, why has the USD remained so resilient? The answers, of course, are complicated, and not readily apparent. The key to this puzzle lies in reconciling economic theory with financial reality. In theory, the laws of purchasing power parity and interest rate parity dictate that a country’s currency should move inversely with its interest rate and price levels. However, any financial economist will tell you that these laws will only obtain in the long run, if at all. In the short term, risk-averse investors flock to the countries that offer the highest real return on investment, which ensures countries with high interest rates will rarely see their currencies depreciate, as in the current case of the US.

In addition, the laws of economics are being artificially undermined by some of the policies of Asia, namely China, South Korea, and Japan. The economies of these countries are heavily reliant on exports, rather than domestic consumption. Thus, it is in their interests to implement any measures necessary to prevent their respective currencies from appreciating. These measures include issuing forex stabilization bonds, building up massive forex reserves, threatening markets with intervention, and maintaining unnaturally low interest rates to deter speculative capital inflows.

Purchasing power parity is being undermined further by the continued willingness of foreigners to finance the American twin deficits. The globalization of capital markets enables investors, worldwide, to seek out the highest returns on invested capital. This is directly preventing the USD from appreciating and the trade deficit from narrowing, since foreigners still prefer to invest in US capital markets, which are well-established, stable, and perennially strong. Unfortunately, the Federal Reserve Bank must contend with inflation and potential asset bubbles when conducting monetary policy; lowering interest rates would push the USD downward, but it might also drive core prices and asset prices up, which the Fed seems intent on avoiding at all costs.

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Commentary, Investing & Trading, US Dollar | No Comments »

Commentary: Emerging markets drive forex reserves

Oct. 7th 2006

Last week, The Economist published a survey of the world economy, confirming what many economists have been arguing for years- that emerging markets will provide most of the world’s economic growth going forward. Led by the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), emerging markets are projected to grow by 6.8% this year. These nations already consume half of the world’s energy, produce half of all exports, and contain 2/3 of the world’s population. Now, you might be wondering: what are the implications of this phenomenon for forex markets.

A few weeks ago, I argued that emerging market currencies are currently undervalued and represent attractive alternatives to the world’s major currencies. This week, I would like to explore a different effect of the rise of emerging markets: surging forex reserves. The world’s developing countries currently hold $2.7 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, the majority of which is held in USD-denominated assets. The ultimate cause of this surge is clearly strong economic fundamentals. The proximate causes, however, are more complicated.

First, the members of OPEC and other nations rich in natural resources have found themselves inundated with cash due to soaring commodity prices. However, the capital markets in these countries provide few opportunities to invest these proceeds, so countries have turned around and reinvested their windfall into American assets, notably equities and government securities. Second, since developing countries run a combined $500 Billion current account surplus, they have found themselves awash in foreign currency. In order to prevent their currencies from appreciating, they prevent this currency from circulating by holding it in reserve.

Now that we understand why the global stock of forex reserves is expanding, let’s explore why it matters. One of the only reasons that the USD has not plummeted in value as its current account deficit has ballooned is that foreigners largely remain willing to finance the deficit. If countries suddenly decide that they either want to inject their foreign currency into their economies (which would deplete their reserves) or if they decided to diversify their reserves by holding a larger fraction of them in non-USD-denominated assets, the USD would certainly suffer.

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

Commentary: RMB’s appreciation is tied to inflation

Sep. 14th 2006

A couple weeks ago, I posted on this very subject- that the value of the Chinese Yuan is largely tied to inflation and interest rate differentials. With this week’s commentary piece, I wish to further expound upon this theory, because it appears to really carry weight. Most traders who have an opinion on the Chinese Yuan base their forecasts for the Yuan’s appreciation on political developments: how much diplomatic pressure the world will apply to China and how much China will capitulate on this most delicate of economic issues. A Stanford economist, however, has demonstrated that political guesswork might not be necessary, by connecting the Yuan’s appreciation to several important economic indicators.

Let me explain. There are two closely related theories in classical economics which attempt to account for changes in the relative value of currencies: interest-rate parity and purchasing power parity. The theories hold that the relative value of a nation’s currency should move inversely with price levels and interest rates, respectively. The reasoning is straightforward enough: the return on risk-free investments denominated in two different currencies should be equal in order for the markets to clear. However, as in many areas of economics, the gap between theory and reality in currency markets is significant, for high interest rates often attract risk-averse foreign investors instead of repelling them, which ultimately leads to the currency increasing in value.

In contrast, the Stanford economist seems to have established that the laws of parity seem to be holding in the case of the Chinese Yuan. It turns out the China-US inflation and interest rate differentials have almost perfectly mirrored the movement of the Yuan in the past year. As growth in the US began to drive inflation, the Fed raised interest rates to the extent that they currently exceed Chinese rates by over 3.5%- the precise amount by which the Chinese Yuan has appreciated against the USD this year! This phenomenon indicates that the Central Bank has allowed the Yuan to appreciate only so much as to offset the value by which the USD has been eroded by inflation. Coincidence? Probably Not. In short, we should expect the Yuan to appreciate only by the amount that American price and interest rate levels exceed those of China.

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

Commentary: Carry trade comes to an end

Aug. 24th 2006

One of the most popular trading techniques used by forex traders is known as the carry trade. The goal of the carry trade is to find two countries with vastly different interest rates, and profit by buying the currency of one and selling the currency of the other. This trade is popular precisely because it is safe and somewhat predictable. By borrowing in denominations of the lower-yielding currency and lending in denominations of the higher-yielding currency, a savvy investor can capture a spread equal to the interest rate differential, as long as the values of the currencies themselves do not change. Towards this end, most of the talk in forex markets over the last year has focused around interest rate differentials.

However, the prominence of the carry trade is coming to an end for the time being, since Japan and the EU have begun to raise interest rates and erode the profits of carry traders. If forex traders are to survive this period of narrowing interest rate differentials, they must become more creative. In short, it means they must stop focusing on interest rates, and begin focusing on currency fundamentals, such as economic indicators and the actual supply & demand relationship for particular currencies.

The currencies of many emerging markets represent strong candidates on both fronts. Brazil, Mexico, Eastern Europe, India, SE Asia, have all witnessed rapid appreciation in the values of their currencies on the heels of a global economic boom. Many of these nations have implemented important structural changes to their economies and have begun to see prolonged periods of political stability. This has resulted in an improved investment climate, and foreign companies have been quick to capitalize through portfolio and direct investment. This, in turn, has driven increases in productivity and exports, spurring economic growth, which only makes foreigners even more eager to invest. Since the respective money supplies of each of these countries are quite small, all it takes is a slight uptick in foreign capital inflows to drive significant appreciation in the value of their currencies.

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

Commentary: USD driven by rate differentials

Aug. 12th 2006

Over the past 6 months, the Euro and Pound Sterling have risen steadily in value against the USD. Labor and market reforms are forcing European companies to become more competitive. Hence, the economies of Britain and the EU are finally beginning to show signs of life. While economic fundamentals have certainly contributed to currency appreciation, they must take a back seat to interest rate differentials in any analysis of currency markets. Economists reason that interest rate differentials represent a leading indicator for foreigner’s willingness to continue financing the US current account deficit. That is, if US capital markets can continue to offer foreigners attractive returns, then they will continue to park their savings in the US.

Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank, recently announced that the Fed is approaching the peak in the current interest rate cycle. It has raised interest rates more than a dozen consecutive times over the last two years, and may finally have achieved a point of balance, whereby growth is neither restrained nor excessive. Inflation has reared its ugly ahead, driven by rising food and commodity prices, but American consumers have learned to adapt.

Meanwhile, the Central Banks of Britain and Europe have independently begun to tighten money supply in order to preempt inflation. Most economists expect them to hike rates several times over the next 6 months, which will narrow the gap between American and European interest rates. This could be bad news for the US. For many years, OPEC nations and the Asian exporting nations have ‘threatened’ to diversify their forex reserves out of USD-denominates assets. They may finally have the impetus they need, because now they can earn attractive returns in Europe, whereas before they were limited to American securities. In short, foreigners may soon become far less willing to lend to and invest in the US if they can earn comparable returns (without sacrificing stability) in Europe. In such a scenario were to be realized, the result would surely be a weaker USD.

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

Commentary: Chinese Yuan remains undervalued

Aug. 1st 2006

With my first commentary piece, I would like to address several issues concerning the Chinese Yuan. Let me begin by saying there is a tremendous amount of information and a wide array of often-conflicting opinions surrounding the Chinese Yuan. The problem with most financial analysts is that they often fail to grasp the big picture: in this case, the determinants of the Chinese Yuan’s value are multifarious, and take in financial, economic, and political factors, which most analysts fail to consider.

As most of you are probably aware, the Chinese Yuan has appreciated over 3.5% in the last year, including the 2.1% revaluation that the Chinese government effected last July. Many economists insist the Yuan is still undervalued by 35%, a figure that politicians love to quote. Analysts have also backed this estimate and incorporated it into their models that predict the Yuan will appreciate by 5% this year. You can look at RMB currency futures for proof that this is indeed the consensus forecast.

Both of these figures are ill-conceived and downright misleading. First of all, while the Yuan could clearly stand to appreciate, the extent to which it’s undervalued is probably closer to 10-15%. A true estimate of the Yuan’s fair value must make adjustments for inflation in order to account for differences in purchasing power. As China’s economy has expanded, inflation has grown at a proportional rate, eroding the value of the Yuan. At this point, China’s ability to produce cheap goods is probably more closely related to a surplus of unskilled labor and free capital, than to an undervalued currency.

Secondly, and just as important, is the fact that China will likely continue to appreciate the Yuan at its own pace. On several occasions, Chinese political leaders have invoked an ancient Chinese proverb when discussing the revaluation of the Yuan. The proverb states that one should take small steps in this type of situation. Whether China is genuinely nervous about revaluing or whether it simply wants to keep benefiting from an undervalued currency is anyone’s guess. What is not debatable is China’s stubbornness, reflected in its refusal to bow to western pressure when shaping its economic policy. In short, when an analyst tells you that the Yuan will appreciate by more than 3% this year, you should react with skepticism.

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

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