Tag Archive | "Foreign Investors"

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Cyprus Banks, Italy’s Politics Drain Markets

For a nation that contributes just 2 percent to euro zone growth, the proposed bailout is taking a far larger measure of the market than seems proportionate. In fact, the handling of the Cypriot bank bailout is weighing heavily across the globe.

There are many fears surrounding the bailout approved by the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank. The biggest concerns are that the restraints imposed upon international accounts and the troublesome capital controls which have yet to be revealed.

Unconfirmed reports suggest that Cypriot banks will re-open on Thursday. In anticipation of runs on the banks, withdrawal restrictions will be imposed. It will be difficult to move money out of the country and national depositors will be limited as to how much money can be withdrawn in a single day or in a single transaction.

Foreign Investors    

The fate of foreign investors is sure to test the nerves of wary depositors in Cyprus and throughout the European Union. The fear is that the Cypriot model will serve as a remedy for other troubled banks in the region.

Cypriots are expected to pull huge sums of deposits out of the country’s banks. There is a very real sense of fear throughout the land. Consumer confidence has hit the floor and retail trade is at a virtual standstill.

Finance Minister Michael Sarris has said that capital controls will be “within the realm of reason.” Un confirmed reports said these controls would only apply to international transactions but that seems unlikely.

The Chairman of the Cyprus Chamber of Commerce, Phidias Pelides, told Reuters, “We have been assured that limitations will not affect transactions within Cyprus at all. Where there will be limitations is on what we spend abroad and also on capital outflows.”

Sarris has said his goal is to limit the damage caused by withdrawals inside the country. However, CNBC reported that national withdrawals would be closely monitored and very restricted.

Under the terms of the 10-billion euro bailout, certain international investors could take 40 percent losses. All deposits over 100,000 euros will be taxed. Russian investors are especially vulnerable.

Russian Fallout

Russia, who failed to work with Cyprus to eliminate the demands of the Troicka, stands to lose the most in the current plan. The country has said that their current loan of 2bn euros to Cyprus would be under review unless their investors are treated fairly. In Russianese, that means suffer no losses.

Losses are unavoidable for Russian investors and companies that have used Cyprus to stash away tax-free funds. Russian Finance Minister, Anton Siluanov said, “If there are such measures, this will not foster trust but only provoke additional problems for participants, depositors.” It was clear that Russia will be unwilling to restructure the Cyprus loan if the capital controls hurt Russian investor liquidity.

On The Ground

Civil unrest reigns in capital. Students marched on Tuesday and bank workers lined the streets in protest on Wednesday. Laiki or the Cyprus Popular Bank, the country’s second largest bank has been closed. Loans and account under 100,000 euros have been moved to the Bank of Cyprus. Deposits at Laiki and the Bank of Cyprus over 100,000 euros are frozen.

The two-week shutdown on the banks have raised havoc across the economy. Supermarket shelves are not stocked. Retail sales are non-existent. Shop owners have no access to their funds. Bills are not being paid. The economy is paralyzed and cash rules the day.

Italy Adds Fuel to Fire      

The political chaos in Italy has added to the crisis level of the euro zone. Without a new president, the country has no direction, no public mandate and is subject to the policies of the Troicka. That means unwelcome austerity, no growth, tough banking policies.

Italian bonds struggled at Wednesday’s auction. Long-term and mid-term Italian bonds sold at multi-month highs and auctions were not fully subscribed.

The euro fell to 1.2772 USD, down 0.7 percent at one point. The Dow Jones slid off yesterday’s highs and was struggling to maintain a 38 point loss. The S&P 500 fell 5.91 points. Benchmark US 10-year Treasuries climbed 19/32 to a 1.8454 yield.

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New Zealand Dollar: Come Back to Earth!

In March, I wondered aloud about whether the New Zealand Dollar might be the most overvalued currency in the world. Since then, it has continued its unlikely ascent, rising 10% on a correlation-weighted basis and 3% against the US Dollar, hitting a 26-year high in the process. While there are signs that the New Zealand economy might be able to withstand an expensive currency, at some point, the chickens must come back to roost.

Surely the expensive kiwi must be wreaking havoc on the New Zealand dollar? “How is New Zealand supposed to rebalance its economy away from consumption, importing, borrowing and asset selling towards investment, production, exporting and asset buying when our currency is headed for record highs?” Wonders one commentator. In fact, exporters are coping just fine, and New Zealand just recorded its highest quarterly trade surplus on record. Never mind that this is due almost entirely to soaring prices for commodities and unflagging demand. In spite of two earthquakes and other related downside factors, the New Zealand economy is nonetheless forecast to grow by 2.3% in 2011.

On the other hand, New Zealand’s current account deficit continues to rise, as foreign investors pour in to New Zealand to make acquisitions, portfolio investment, and loans to the government. New Zealand’s largest dairy conglomerate could soon be sold to Chinese investors, while China’s sovereign wealth fund (which manages a portion of the country’s sprawling forex reserves) has announced plans to purchase a big chunk of New Zealand government debt. This is just as well, since a record 2011 budget deficit will require a significant issuance of new debt.

Meanwhile, New Zealand price inflation is currently 4.5%, which means that the country’s real interest rate is -2%, certainly among the lowest in the world. Moreover, even as two-year inflation expectations tick up, rate hike expectations remain unchanged. The consensus is that the Reserve Bank of New Zealand will avoid hiking its benchmark until the first quarter of 2012. Regardless of what happens in the interim, it seems unlikely that Bank president Alan Bollard will give in, for fear of stoking further speculative interest in a currency that is already “undesirably high.”

Let’s review: record low interest rates and record low real interest rates. Record budget deficit. Large current account deficit. Declining expectations for GDP growth. Record high New Zealand Dollar. Does anyone see a contradiction here? It’s no wonder that the IMF recently speculated that the Kiwi might be overvalued by as much as 20%, echoing the sentiments of yours truly.

At the same time, commentators concede that “The New Zealand dollar or any currency can deviate for a long period of time from academic measures of valuation.” And that is why making fundamental bets on currencies is so difficult. Even if all signs point to down (as is basically the case here), a currency can continue rising for many more months, before suffering a massive correction. For what it’s worth, this is the fate that the New Zealand Dollar is resigned to. Whether it will happen tomorrow or next year, alas, will depend more on global macroeconomic factors (such as the ebb and flow of risk aversion) than on what happens in New Zealand.

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China Diversifies Forex Reserves

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

China Forex Reserves 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Korean Won Rises Despite Currency War

The Bank of Korea is one of the major participants in the ongoing global currency war, intervening on behalf of the Won to the tune of $1 Billion per day! Meanwhile, the Korean Won has risen 5% in the last month, and 10% over the last three months, the highest in Asia. What a disconnect!

First of all, what’s behind the Korean Won’s rise? In a word, everything. At the moment, things couldn’t be going any better for the Korea Won. The economy is booming. The current account / trade surplus is on pace to surpass forecasts. The Central Bank has hiked its benchmark interest rate once already to 2.25%, and will probably hike again this month. In addition. even though Korean indebtedness is rising, “It is ranked 99th among 129 nations in terms of the ratio of public debt to the gross domestic product (GDP), which means the country’s balance sheet is healthier than most other nations in the world.” Added another analyst, “In this period where there’s a lot of concern about debtor nations, countries that are considered to have higher credit scores will benefit.”

While the Korean stock market has surged (13% this ear and 50% last year), it still remains 25% below its 2007 peak and is trading at valuations well below other Asian countries. It’s no wonder that foreign investors have been net buyers of Korean stocks: “Foreigners have bought more Korean shares than they sold every day for four weeks and net purchases for the year amount to some $13 billion.” It doesn’t hurt investors that the currency is appreciating and that interest rates are rising; at the moment, there really isn’t much downside from investing in Korea.

korea won usd 5 year chart
Meanwhile, the US (Federal Reserve Bank) is contemplating an expansion of its quantitative easing program, and other Central Banks may follow suit. Under the (now fading) paradigm of risk aversion, concerns of economic decline in the industrialized world would have been accompanied by a sell-off in emerging markets and capital flight to safe havens. As evidenced by the spike in the Korean Won and other emerging market currencies, such is no longer the case.

Enter the Bank of Korea (BOK). It is widely known that the South Korean economy is highly dependent on exports, which could be negatively impacted by a rising currency: “For every one percent gain of the won against the U.S. dollar, the nation’s export and gross domestic product decreases by 0.05 percent and 0.07 percent each.” Moreover, South Korea competes directly with Japan, which means the KRW-JPY exchange rate is of crucial importance to the Bank of Korea. Of course, both currencies had been appreciating at a similar clip. Once the Bank of Japan intervened, however, the BOK had no choice bu to double-down on its own efforts.

The Bank of Korea seems to appreciate that there is only so much it can do. Intervention is not cheap, and its foreign exchange reserves have since surged to $290 Billion. It is also not very effective, and the Korean Won has continued to rise. Finally, the currency intervention contradicts the BOK’s efforts to contain rising prices. By not raising interest rates and trying to hold its currency down, it risks stoking inflation. What’s more – South Korea is actually hosting this week’s G20 summit, at which currency intervention is expected to be a major topic of discussion. It would be awkward, to say the least, if Korea’s own currency intervention was broached.

Thus, it seems the Korean Won is destined to keep rising. It, too, is well below its 2007 peak, and there is scope for further appreciation. The BOK will continue to make token attempts at halting its rise, but at this point, the forces that is fighting against – bullish investors and other Central Banks – are too great.

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Thai Baht Rises to 13-Year High

As I pack my bags and head to Thailand for a vacation (for forex research purposes…yeah right), I thought it would be appropriate to blog about the Thai Baht’s strength. The momentum behind the Baht has been nothing short of incredible, and as often happens in the forex markets, the currency’s rise is becoming self-fulfilling. It has already appreciated 8.5% over the last year en route to a 13-year high, and some analysts predict that this is just the beginning.

THB USD Baht Dollar Chart 2006-2010

The last time I travelled to Thailand, in 2004, the Baht was trading around 40 USD/THB, compared to the current exchange rate of 30.7. That’s pretty incredible when you consider that during the intervening time, Thailand experienced a military coup and related political instability, as well as a financial crisis that dealt an especially heavy blow to the world’s emerging market currencies. And yet, if you chart the Baht’s performance against the Dollar, you would have only the faintest ideas that either of these crises took place.

To be sure, the financial crisis exacted a heavy toll on Thai financial markets and the Thai economy. Stock and bond prices lurched downward, as foreign investors moved cash into so-called safe haven currencies, such as the US Dollar and Japanese Yen. However, the Thai economy was among the first to emerge from recession, expanding in 2009, and surging in 2010. “Compared with a year earlier, GDP rose 9.1%, while the economy grew 10.6% in the first half,” according to the most recent data.  Tourism, one of the country’s pillar industries, has already recovered, along with exports and consumption. Projected export growth of 27% is expected to drive the economy forward at 7-7.5% in 2010, according to both the IMF and Thai government projections. The consensus is that growth would have been even more spectacular (perhaps 1-2% higher) if not for the politcal protests, which were finally quelled in May of this year.

Thailand GDP 2008-2010

Despite concerns about risk and volatility, foreign investors are once again pouring funds in Thailand at a record pace. Over $1.4 Billion has been pumped into the stock market alone in the year-to-date. As a result, “Thailand’s benchmark SET Index has rebounded30 percent since May…helping send the SET to its highest level since November 1996.” Capital inflows are also being spurred by Thai interest rates, which are rising (the benchmark is currently at 1.75%), even while rates in the industrialized world remain flat.  At this point, the cash coming into Thailand well exceeds the cash going out, which remains low due to steady imports and restrictions on capital outflows by Thai individuals and institutions. This imbalance is reflected in the Central Bank of Thailand’s forex reserves, which recently topped $150 Billion, more than 50% of GDP.

Anticipation is building that Thailand will use some its reserves to try to halt, or even reverse the appreciation of the Baht. After last week’s intervention by the Bank of Japan, such intervention is now seen not only as being more acceptable, but also more necessary. Due to pressure from the Prime Minister, the Central Bank has convened at least one emergency meeting to determine the best course of action. So far, members can only agree that restrictions on capital flows and lending standards to exporters should be relaxed.

For what it’s worth, Thailand’s richest man has urged the Central Bank not to act: “The effort is likely fruitless as foreign capital is expected to incessantly flood into Thailand because of the country’s healthy economic recovery and export growth. The baht as a matter of fact should become even stronger should Thailand’s politics remain in normal condition.” He is supported by the facts, which show that the Thai export sector has held up just fine in the face of the rising Baht, though perhaps only because other Asian currencies have risen at a comparable pace.

If other Central Banks were to step up their intervention – (Deutsche Bank has argued, via the chart below, that all “Asian central banks have for many years been more or less persistently in the market “stabilizing” their currencies, but with a clear bias towards preventing USD depreciation in this region”) – the Bank of Thailand would probably have no choice but to follow suit.

Foreign Exchange Reserves, Central Bank Intervention in Asia 2000-2010

Otherwise, it might not be long before the Baht clears 30 USD/THB. My next post on the Baht, in 2015, will probably be in the form of a similar lamentation…

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The More Flexible Yuan Ripples Down

Just days before the G-20 conference in Canada, China’s decision to relax its policy regarding the Yuan is causing foreign holders of U.S. debt to scrutinize the U.S. Treasury market.  And, the U.S. has plenty of debt to go around as the Treasury Department informed Congress that the government’s debt level will cross the $13.6 trillion mark this year.  By 2015, the level is expected to top $19 trillion dollars and more importantly 102 percent of the GDP, a staggering figure even in the Euro Zone.

The U.S. has been fortunate not to feel the pinch of inflation during the recent expansion of debt.  The European financial crisis has helped fuel foreign demand for U.S. bonds, but if demand decreases, yields will be pressured to move higher.

Leonard Santow, managing director of Griggs and Santow, commented, “The big buyers in the last year or two have been from the foreign private investors.  A lot of these probably are there because they feel it is safe to be in the dollar and in Treasury securities.”

Between them, China and Japan hold $1.696 trillion of $4 trillion in U.S. Treasuries held by foreign investors.  Purchases by China and Japan have slowed in the past few months.  Total U.S. Treasuries now amount to $8 trillion.

The benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury currently yields 3.14 percent.  U.S. inflation is currently running about 2 percent.  If inflation increases to 5 or higher percent a year, treasury yields could ramp up to between 6 and 10 percent per year.  Most of U.S. tax revenue would then be needed to pay for the debt.  Another crisis could loom if GDP fails to grow at a modest 3 percent per year, which would also lower the projected revenue.

Speculators Like The Yuan

One of Beijing’s goals is to become an international financial center by 2020.  The relaxed Yuan policy is a big step in that direction for the world’s third biggest economy.  The government has always maintained a strict hold on its national currency.  The recent shift to a freer Yuan is expected to deepen Shanghai’s currency market.

Raising liquidity and widening spreads are expected to benefit the country’s business environment.  The freer Yuan already has speculators strategizing about the currency’s real and future value.

Companies like UBS and Westpac are already touting the Yuan as an undervalued currency that could rise by as much as 6 percent in one year.  However, investors are now rethinking their positions in the dollar/yuan non-deliverable forwards (NDF).  Presently, investors like a stronger yuan.  On Wednesday, three-month NDF’s were priced for the yuan to increase 0.7 percent over 90 days.

China has not entirely let the horse out of the barn.  The yuan is only permitted to rise or fall 0.5 percent against the dollar and a reference rate set by the bank on any given day.

Even with this controlled exposure, the somewhat freer yuan is expected to elevate trading volumes.

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Dollar at a (Technical) Crossroads

I deliberately concluded my last post (US Dollar: Same Old Story) on a somewhat ambiguous note; even though though the deck is stacked against the Dollar, its 14% decline in 2009 has left it perilously close to record lows, and traders are nervous about pushing the limits further.


On the one hand, everyone believes that the Dollar is fundamentally still in a weak position. The US balance of trade remains deep in deficit. Government spending has exploded, with record-setting deficits and an expansion in the national debt. Interest rates are at rock bottom, and are by some measures, the lowest in the world. Despite signs of life, the economy remains mired in recession. The money supply has also expanding, to the extent that some long-term investors are wondering out loud about the possibility of future inflation.

As a result, the decline in the Dollar since last spring has suffered very few blips, with volatility declining at the same pace as the currency, itself. “There seems to be a paradigm shift underway where more and more foreign investors are becoming concerned that the long-term path of the dollar is downward,” summarized one analyst. The consensus among investors is almost eerie. “Speculators betting that the dollar index will fall outnumber those betting that it will rise by nearly 2 to 1, according to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.”

Some (mainstream) analysts have even begun to open consider the possibility of a crash in the Dollar, a view that had previously been relegated to conspiracy theorists and doomsday scenarists. “In a run on the dollar, that thinking would create a cascade — fearful global investors would shy away from dollars, expecting further steep declines, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy.” Adds a former Chief Economist of the IMF, “Every time the dollar starts depreciating there is angst and everybody starts raising the question what happens if there is a collapse.” While the majority of Dollar-watchers still believe that a Dollar crash is unlikely, the point is that they are now discussing it actively.

Despite the fact that all of these factors are already in place, the Dollar remains relatively buoyant. Personally, I think this is because investors don’t really want to acknowledge that this is a real possibility. For one thing, the alternatives aren’t any better. While forex investors in recent years have enjoyed ganging up on the Dollar, the fact remains the fundamentals for the other major currencies remain just as weak. For example, a model of purchasing power parity developed by “the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development finds the dollar is worth roughly 0.85 euro, compared with its market valuation of 0.67 euro, suggesting that the euro is 21% overvalued.” Likewise, the Yen is held to be 22% undervalued.

Dollar Valuation 2009

As a result, the market as a whole is having trouble pushing the boundaries. The Dollar has approached the psychologically important level of $1.50/Euro on several occasions, but has retreated each time. “People are wondering whether we’re going back to $1.46 in euro/dollar or heading toward $1.54. But one thing is for sure, as we head toward $1.50, we’re going to experience a lot of volatility,” summarized one analyst.

“Risk reversals, a measure of currency sentiment in the options market derived by looking at the difference in implied volatility between out of the money calls and out of the money puts, show a bias for euro puts, trading at a mid-market level of 0.2. That means investors are hedging their short dollar positions with bets for a euro downside even though no one expects the euro to fall.” Meanwhile, volatility has edged up slightly, reflecting an increased level of uncertainty surround the near-term direction of the Dollar. It could be the case that if the Euro breaks through $1.50, heartened investors will send the currency up even higher, while a failure to break through means investors just aren’t read to commit. A classic technical crossroads!

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The Force is With the Yen

Just when it looked like the carry trade was back for good and all signs pointed to a Yen depreciation, out of nowhere came a series of surprise developments, propping the Yen back up. Spanning finance, economics, and politics – a Forex Trifecta – these developments moved swiftly through the markets, creating optimism for the Yen where before there was only pessimism. Of course, it’s possible that this bump will prove temporary, and a reversal could transpire just as quickly.

The biggest news, by a large margin, was a report that the Japanese economy had returned to growth. Similar in scale and in tenor to stories coming out of other countries, the data showed that Japan grew at an annualized rate of 3.6% in the second quarter of 2009, a sharp reversal from the 11.7% contraction in the previous quarter (which was itself revised upward from -14%).

The sudden sea change was brought about by a combination of government spending and export growth. “New tax breaks and incentives to help sales of energy-efficient cars and household appliances, coupled with lower gas prices and a rebound in share prices, spurred consumer spending. Prime Minister Taro Aso has pledged 25 trillion yen (about $263 billion) in stimulus money, including a cash handout plan and more public spending on programs like quake-proofing the country’s public schools, to revive the economy.” Meanwhile exports grew by a healthy 6.3% from the previous quarter, while imports fell, causing the trade surplus to widen.

The announcement of economic recovery was accompanied by a noteworthy reversal in capital flows, such that Japan’s capital account swung into surprise weekly surplus: “Foreign investors bought 292.9 billion yen ($3.1 billion) more Japanese stocks than they sold during the week ended Aug. 8 and domestic investors were net buyers of 125 billion yen in overseas bonds and notes.” Meanwhile, speculation is mounting that Japanese investors will move to repatriate some of the coupon and redemption payments they receive on their US Treasury investments.

While seemingly unrelated to the economic turnaround (it’s important not to read too much into weekly data), this could be a sign that Japanese investors are growing more optimistic about domestic economic prospects and are moving to invest more at home. It’s worth noting that such a shift could actually be necessary if the recovery is to be sustained, in order to increase the role of (capital) investment, relative to exports and government spending. Ironically, it could instead be a sign of excessive pessimism, if Japanese believe that prospects for US/global growth have been overestimated, in which case risk appetite and the carry trade would be due for a combined correction.

Domestic consumption could also play an increasing role in Japan’s economy going forward, as a result of imminent political changes. “To stimulate consumption at home, the Democrats have pledged to put more money in the hands of consumers by providing child allowances, eliminating highway tolls and making fuel cheaper. That marks a shift away from the long-ruling LDP’s emphasis on steps to help companies.”

Along similar lines, the Democratic Party (which has a wide lead over the incumbent Liberal Democratic Party), has also conveyed its opposition to currency intervention, since such tactics inherently prioritize export growth over domestic consumption. “Japan’s export-led growth is reaching its limits and Tokyo should not intervene in markets to weaken the yen as long as currency moves match fundamentals, the No.2 executive in the main opposition party said on Monday.” Could the carry trade be in trouble?

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Brazil Real Edging Up, Despite Efforts of Central Bank

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Korean Won Rebounds Strongly

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


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

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

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


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

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