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Emerging Market Currencies Brace for Correction


“It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,” begins Charles Dickens’ The Tale of Two Cities. In 2011, the winter of despair was followed by the spring of uncertainty. Due to the earthquake/tsunami in Japan, the continued tribulations of Greece, rising commodity prices, and growing concern over the global economic recovery, volatility in the forex markets has risen, and investors are unclear as to how to proceed. For now at least, they are responding by dumping emerging market currencies.


As you can see from the chart above (which shows a cross-section of emerging market forex), most currencies peaked in the beginning of May and have since sold-off significantly. If not for the rally that started off the year, all emerging market currencies would probably be down for the year-to-date, and in fact many of them are anyway. Still, the returns for even the top performers are much less spectacular than in 2009 and 2010. Similarly, the MSCI Emerging Markets Stock Index is down 3.5% in the YTD, and the JP Morgan Emerging Market Bond Index (EMBI+) has risen 4.5% (which is reflects declining growth forecasts as much as perceptions of increasing creditworthiness).

There are a couple of factors that are driving this ebbing of sentiment. First of all, risk appetite is waning. Over the last couple months, every flareup in the eurozone debt crisis coincided with a sell-off in emerging markets. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Central and eastern European currencies that are seen as being most vulnerable to financial turmoil in the euro zone have underperformed.” Economies further afield, such as Turkey and Russia, have also experienced weakness in their respective currencies. Some analysts believe that because emerging economies are generally more fiscally sound than their fundamental counterparts, that they are inherently less risky. Unfortunately, while this proposition makes theoretical sense, you can be assured that a default by a member of the eurozone will trigger a mass exodus into safe havens – NOT into emerging markets.


While emerging market Asia and South America is somewhat insulated from eurozone fiscal problems. On the other hand, they remain vulnerable to an economic slowdown in China and to rising inflation. Emerging market central banks have avoided making significant interest rate hikes (hence, rising bond prices) – for fear of inviting further capital inflow and stoking currency appreciation – and the result has been rising price inflation. You can see from the chart above that the darkest areas (symbolizing higher inflation) are all located in emerging economic regions. While high inflation is not inherently problematic, it is not difficult to conceive of a downward spiral into hyperinflation. Again, a sudden bout of monetary instability would send investors rushing to the exits.


While most analysts (myself included) remain bullish on emerging markets over the long-term, many are laying off in the short-term. “RBC emerging market strategist Nick Chamie says his team has recommended ‘defensive posturing’ to clients since May 5 and isn’t recommending new bullish emerging currency bets right now….HSBC said Thursday that it isn’t recommending outright short positions on emerging market currencies to clients but suggested a more ‘cautious’ and selective approach in making currency bets.” This phenomenon will be exacerbated by the fact that market activity typically slows down in the summer chart above courtesy of Forex Magnates) as traders go on vacation. With less liquidity and an inability to constantly monitor one’s portfolio, traders will be loathe to take on risky positions.

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SA Rand in Bubble Territory


The story of the South African Rand (ZAR) is nearly identical to that of other leading emerging market currencies: multi-year gains were completely undone by the 2008 credit crisis, only to be restored in 2009 and 2010. From trough to peak, the Rand has now risen 64%, including 15% over the last twelve months and 10% over the last six weeks. While the reasons for its renewal are understandable, they are far from justifiable. Based on a number of metrics, the Rand now appears to be somewhat overvalued.
 
Just like its BRIC (which it was recently invited to join) peers, the Rand’s appeal lies in high growth prospects and even higher nominal interest rates. It has also been bought amidst the general pickup in risk appetite (complacency) that has spurred investors back into emerging markets. Given the relatively small size of its economy and proportionately small money supply, it’s no surprise that demand for Rand – made worse by the difficulty of betting directly on China – has overwhelmed the supply.
Despite repeated cuts, South Africa’s benchmark interest rate still stands at a lofty 5.5%. Relative price stability also means that interest rates are positive in real terms, a claim which few countries can make nowadays. Thanks to bond yields hovering around 8% and a comparatively modest government debt, lending to South Africa still carries a significant risk-adjusted return advantage over other emerging markets. The Bank of South Africa is trying to hold off on hiking rates for as long as possible, partly to avoid stimulating the Rand. Its decision to tighten will essentially be determined by the battle between unemployment and inflation. With more than 25% of South Africans out of work, the Bank is understandably reluctant to take any steps that would ameliorate that problem.
 
Perhaps above all else, the Rand’s rise has been closely correlated with the ongoing commodities boom. South Africa is the world’s largest producer of platinum and palladium, second largest of gold, and at the top of the rankings for a handful of other precious metals and minerals. Thus, you can see from the chart below that the Rand/Dollar rate has very closely tracked platinum and gold prices for the last twelve months. Aside from a modest correction (induced by a temporary ebb in risk aversion) at the end of 2010, the three assets appear to have moved in lockstep!
 
While rising commodities prices have certainly been a boon to South Africa’s foreign exchange reserves, it hasn’t done much for its economy. In fact, mining comprises only 3% of South Africa’s economy (down from 14% two decades ago), and analysts expect that this proportion will decline further as deposits are mined to exhaustion. Its balance of trade fluctuates between surplus and deficit, as revenues from increased commodities exports are turned around and spent on imports. (China is now South Africa’s largest trading partner). Still, given the record current account deficits of the last few years, foreign investors evidently are undeterred from bridging the South African shortfall in domestic investment, even (or especially!) at current exchange rates.
 
Going forward, there are plenty of analysts that believe the Rand will continue rising, at a healthy rate of around 10% per year. This notion is based as much on the depreciation of major currencies – which were punished for their respective Central Banks’ expansionary monetary policies – as it is in the appreciation of the Rand. In fact, the Rand’s performance against a basket of emerging market currencies has been more modest; on a trade-weighted basis, it has still risen an estimated 15% since 1995. Regardless, this suggests that any bubble underlying the Rand is no different from that which may affect any number of other currencies.
 
Still, it’s hard to argue with fundamentals. According to one back-of-the-envelope analysis based on purchasing power parity (ppp) differentials, the Rand will need to depreciate significantly if it is to return to more normalized valuation levels. “Since 2000, South African inflation has exceeded that of the US by 44 percent, while the rand has depreciated by just over 10 percent, which means that goods in South Africa are now over 30 percent more expensive for Americans than they were a decade ago… it is impossible to know when this difference will unwind, but…it is reasonable to assume that it will unwind in every five-year period, and this would entail a depreciation in the rand-US dollar exchange rate of six percent a year.” Reasonable indeed.
 
Ultimately, it is going to be tough to sell this argument to carry traders, who care more about interest rate differentials than inflation differentials, which means the Rand could continue to rise over the short-term. Over the medium-term, however, the Bank of South Africa may see to it that this trend does not continue.

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Dollar will Rally when QE2 Ends


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Forex Markets Focus on Central Banks


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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Where are Exchange Rates Headed? Look at the Data


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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G20 Pressures China, Despite Yuan Appreciation


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


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

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

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

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

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

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Forex Volatility Rises from Multi-Year Lows


In the last month, volatility in the forex markets touched both a two-year low and a one-year high. In the beginning of March, volatility essentially returned to pre-credit crisis levels. One week later, when the earthquake and inception of the nuclear crisis in Japan, volatility surged 40%. While it has since resumed its downward path, investors are still bracing themselves for continued uncertainty.


The carry trade has perhaps born the brunt of the volatility spike. The carry trade depends on interest rate differentials – as opposed to currency appreciation – to drive profits, and  thus demands stability. When the markets become choppy and exchange rates spike wildly in one direction or another, it makes the carry trade significantly more risky. Hence the paradoxical rise of the Japanese Yen to a record high following a series of crushing disasters, as highly leveraged traders moved to unwind their Yen-short carry trades.

Likewise, high volatility should spur demand for so-called safe haven currencies. If only it were clear what constitutes a safe haven currency. Traditionally, that would send the US Dollar, Swiss Franc, and Japanese Yen upwards. In this case, the Franc has benefited most, followed closely by the Yen. The Dollar spiked against emerging market and high-risk currencies, but hardly budged against its G4 counterparts. Could it be that the Dollar’s multi-year positive correlation with volatility has (temporarily?) abated.

With regard to strategy, currency traders have a handful of choices. If you believe that volatility will continue declining or remain stable, you’re probably going to go long emerging market and high-yielding currencies, and short one of the safe-haven currencies, all of which are quite cheap to borrow. The main risk of such a strategy, of course, is that volatility will once again spike, in which these safe have currencies will rally.


If you think that the ebb and volatility isn’t sustainable, then you’re probably going to bet on the Franc, Dollar, or Yen. As I wrote in an earlier post, I think the Yen could theoretically appreciate in the short-term, but actually remains quite risky over the long-term. Despite the best efforts of the Swiss National Bank, the Franc will probably continue appreciation. Economically and monetarily, it is in an excellent shape. Besides, the fact that the supply of Francs is intrinsically small means that even modest capital inflow often translates into a big jump in its its value. As for the Dollar, it is now the most popular currency to short. It remains a safe choice and a good store of value, but probably won’t deliver the returns that safe-haven strategists have come to expect.

From a practical standpoint, you may also want to consider reducing your leverage. As everyone knows, high leverage increases profits but also magnifies losses. In the current environment of heightened volatility, leverage also magnifies risk. Either way, you may also want to consider hedging your exposure, by trading a basket of currencies and/or through the use of options.

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Emerging Market Dilemma: Currency Appreciation or Inflation?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aussie May Have Peaked in 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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All Eyes on the US Dollar in 2011


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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